If you care about games as an artform, you definitely need to play Rez sometime. That pleasure is now easier; Rez was just remastered and released for $10 on Xbox Live Arcade. Well worth the expense.

The conversion is good. The HD graphics look beautiful and the widescreen aspect works nicely. There's surround sound. A bit of online play in the form of leaderboards and downloadable replays. And yes, there's even trance vibrator (NSFW) support. And if you want to see how poorly we lived six years ago, you can play the original game too. Really, a perfect conversion.

To be honest Rez doesn't have the best gameplay. It's a basic rail shooter with occasional frustrating dodging and the boss fights are tedious. What makes this game so important is the pure æsthetic joy of it, the fusion of music and trippy graphics and sensory overload.

Video games have mostly become like movies, complex animations and sets and stories and intricate gameplay. Which is good when done well. Rez stripped all that cinematographic stuff away and focussed on a music and visual experience. And is deservedly well loved for that.

At the time Rez felt unique and retro, but happily now we have lots of other good options for hypnagogic gameplay: Space Giraffe, Geometry Wars, Lumines. The look of these games is unique to gamer culture, not an emulation of movies. I cherish that.

  2008-01-30 18:21 Z
I recently switched my IM client from Trillian Pro to Pidgin, née GAIM. Trillian hasn't had an update in years, the Jabber support is bad, and it was acting wonky. Time to switch to an open source alternative.

Be careful what you wish for. Pidgin is amazing in a lot of ways; it supports a lot of protocols, has simple plugins, a solid communications library, etc. But it also has the breathtaking hostility to usability of so many open source apps. A lot of the GUI details aren't quite right and the docs are downright arrogant.

To be fair, Pidgin mostly works fine out of the box. Except the font is too small. No big deal, every app lets you configure the font, right? Ha! Just try the documented solution. Apparently I'm supposed to learn about GTK, and themes, and figure out where GTK places config files in Windows, then edit them with a text editor and insert 500 bytes of configuration directives for "imhtml-fix".

There's a proposal to add font controls in Pidgin, but the answer from the developer is "I think more people should know how to modify their system configuration settings". Because you know, chatting with your friends without squinting should require you spend hours researching some GUI toolkit no other app on your system uses.

Update: I stumbled across the Pidgin Extended Preferences Plugin. The page is incredibly coy; no download link (it's here) and no description of what the plugin actually does other than a grudging "additional preferences that have been commonly called for in the past from Pidgin". Which is why it doesn't show up on a search for pidgin font size. But if you click through the tiny screenshot you'll see there's a configuration option for font sizes! It even works! Well, once you figure out how to make a directory and copy a DLL over manually.

PS: the default font size is 8 point. Damn kids.

  2008-01-27 21:07 Z
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I'm a big fan of post-apocalyptic novels so it was a nice surprise that America's favourite postmodern western novelist would tackle the genre. Or that it'd be an Oprah Book Club pick. It's a fantastic novel, grim and depressing and horribly compelling.

King Corn by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis
A documentary from the Michael Moore school of social justice, only without the smug obnoxious presence of Michael Moore. Really quite sweet and understated, two filmmakers spend a year growing and sell an acre of corn and document the process and the people. Lots of insight into the economics and consequences of modern agribusiness, well told without being preachy.

Burnout: Paradise by Criterion Games
The Burnout games have been light racing / crashing fun for a long time. Paradise is a real improvement, though, with a free roaming design. It's like Grand Theft Auto only the driving is actually fun and you can't sleep with hookers. The fans had a minor revolution when the demo was released because it was different and honestly not very good. The full game is much better than the demo. Best innovation is the elimination of long event load times.

  2008-01-27 01:18 Z
Today I thought I'd update my iPhone to 1.1.3 firmware. Here's the hell I encountered.
  1. Run iTunes, try to update firmware and am told I need to update iTunes.
  2. Update iTunes. Wait 15 minutes for downloads, accept the Klingon license agreement. Ignore the demand to reboot.
  3. iTunes works, but decides to "update my library" which for some reason involves uploading many megabytes of data to something on the Internet.
  4. Try to update iPhone. Get "error 1602".
  5. Research online, get no conclusive results. Try rebooting to see if it fixes it.
  6. Start iTunes after reboot. Get error "iTunes cannot run because it has detected a problem with your audio configuration".
  7. Research online, uninstall Quicktime and iTunes entirely and reinstall.
  8. Wait 20 minutes for downloads and installs. Miraculously, no reboot required! Also no way to prevent Quicktime from stealing the .mov file association.
  9. iTunes works! iPhone update starts! Hooray!
  10. 5 minutes later, iPhone update continues. Realize the progress bar has no measured finish time; just a little blue light scanning endlessly.
  11. Update finally finishes, iPhone reboots, iTunes recognizes it again.
  12. Unplug phone in a hurry because I'm 10 minutes late. Phone seems to work.
  13. Phone crashes when I'm in my car. Reboot the phone and find it's no longer activated with the cell provider and is now useless.
I spent 90 minutes downloading updates, rebooting, reinstalling. And in the end what did I get? A broken iPhone. Wasn't Apple the computer for the rest of us?

(Yes, the phone is working again; plugging it into iTunes and waiting a few minutes seems to have now fixed it.)

  2008-01-25 00:59 Z
Readers of my blog know I dislike everything about iTunes. But I'm kind of charmed by the license agreement on my most recent update.
Yes, the iTunes license in Klingon. Properly speaking it's just in a Klingon font; I don't read Klingon but I'm guessing the glyphs are just transliterated from English.

Apple should get a third party to build their Windows apps.

  2008-01-24 19:21 Z
I used to be an academic, a grad student 1996-1999 doing the workshop and conference tours. Write a small paper, propose it, take a trip to present it. It was kind of fun because the MIT Media Lab was stupidly overfunded, letting me do interesting if not productive things like wangle a trip to Budapest.

The downside is that now, eight years later, I'm still getting spam about once a week inviting me to go to third-rate workshops. Like the "Conference on Knowledge Generation, Communication, and Management". Sounds hideous. I'm not in the business anymore, but a conference you've never heard of whose papers are published in a journal you've never heard of isn't a good sign. Neither is filling your conference up with papers from people you spam because ten years ago they were doing something vaguely related. And the program has the stench of the Semantic Web, which as everyone knows is a total academic rathole.

This conference is at least in the US, albeit organized by someone in Venezuela. A lot of the spam I get is for conferences in small countries with no academic influence. Dear US grad students: a paper published in a workshop in Macedonia is not going to help you get a job at a top American university.

I understand that my email address is on giant lists for Viagra spam. But what list am I on that I keep getting academic conference spam? At least the Viagra spam has amusing pictures.

  2008-01-19 16:54 Z
Once a year I'm reminded of the good people of Quitman, Mineola, and all the folks in God's East Texas. Because once I year I write property tax checks for them on my vast oil empire.

"Vast" is a bit of an overstatement. I have no idea how much property I actually own since it's so split up. The taxes on a 0.0006741 royalty interest in 95 acres comes to about $0.05 a year. The taxes on 1/2 of 1/3 of 2/3 of 2/3 mineral interest in 473.8 acres would be more, but no one's drilling oil on that land right now. All told the yearly tax bill is about the cost of a steak in San Francisco. The royalties I earn would pay for a couple of steak dinners a year though, particularly with oil at $100 a barrel.

The US is unusual in that the minerals under a piece of land can be owned separately from the surface rights to farm or develop that land. Texans took good advantage of that option in the early 1900s after oil was discovered and it's common for mineral rights to be owned and divided separately from the surface rights. My great-grandfather apparently took mineral interests in lieu of cash payments for some lawyering he did. And now we have an odd little family legacy.

The administration of that legacy is a huge pain. It took me several years to transfer the mineral rights to my mother's heirs upon her death and the cost of filing all the papers outweighed a year's royalties. People offer to buy the royalties from time to time, but we keep them in the family because they're sort of fun and the offers are never very good. That, and I cherish the yearly ritual of getting a handwritten tax receipt from Mount Pleasant, TX (elevation 404 feet) for my payment of $3.66. They have good handwriting in east Texas.

  2008-01-11 18:34 Z
I love services that passively record things I do. So I was excited to find Audioscrobbler from last.fm. It silently watches my Winamp and Squeezebox traffic and tells a server what I'm listening to. Simple, well executed.

What last.fm is missing is doing anything useful with that data. The site has some complex dashboard social network thing that is impenetrable to me. And it has a music recommendation function which is pretty good, but too junked up by crappy quality free music to be enjoyable.

So hooray for third party graphs! lastgraph is a simple web site that plots your music listening history from last.fm. The tool is a bit awkward, but the resulting graphs are beautiful and readable.

I hope last.fm has already made the appropriate overture to provide these graphs themselves. Simplify the creation tool a bit, publish a PNG, and fix poor Édith's name and you've got a fine product feature.

  2008-01-07 18:39 Z