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Raptr

03 November 2008 » In Games, Reviews » 2 Comments

Recently I signed up for Raptr, partly because my friend Kevin works there and partly because I was getting back into gaming. In a basic sense, Raptr is a social service for people to keep track of what games their friends are playing. Of course, you can do it via Xbox Live already, but you have to be logged in to see who’s online and it covers only one platform. Raptr fixes it by providing a unified view over your multiple gaming identities: Wii, Xbox Live, Steam, PS3, WoW, and others. On PC and Mac, you can install Raptr client, and it will discover what games you have installed and add them to your game library (2000+ games, including Flash ones, are supported now and more are being added all the time). The client also handles patching your games.

A couple of things that I like specifically:

  • News feed – this serves as the frontend to your profile (here’s mine). The status messages are cute: “Nothing like a short game of Rock Band (360) to calm andreiz‘s frayed nerves.“, or “andreiz spent a chunk of time playing Braid (XBLA).
  • Twitter (and other social services) integration – I can have Raptr post to Twitter on my behalf when I start playing a game or unlock an achievement.

I’m far from what you would call a “hardcore” gamer, but I find it useful to see at one glance what games I have played on various platforms, and what my friends have been up to, and which games are popular in my circle or overall.

Give Raptr a try and tell me what you think.

The Design of Everyday Things

27 January 2007 » In Books, Reviews » Comments Off on The Design of Everyday Things

Mental DNA

I have just finished reading the first book from the pile that I bought at Powell’s. Despite the title, the book’s main focus is not about the industrial design of the things around us. Rather, Norman takes a close look at badly conceived and designed everyday objects (like doors that give no overt clue as to how they should be opened) and strikes back at those who are responsible for such dysfunctional artifacts. My favorite example is a refrigerator control panel that provides two controls for fresh-food and freezer compartments, yet works in such a way that changing either control affects the temperature in both compartments.

Norman spends a fair amount of time on the psychology of actions; namely, what people go through in order to bring about changes in the world according to their intentions. His main premise is that good design “reduces the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation”: in other words, the user should easily be able to figure out what to do and the user can tell what is going on as a result of their actions. Unfortunately, at times the book veers off into areas with only a tenuous connection to the main theme. Chapter 5 could be cut out completely and the book as a whole could be trimmed down to about half its size without sacrificing the major points. The discussion of computer interface design in chapter 7 is dated and I hope Norman concentrates on higher-level human-computer interaction rather than lauding the Macintosh as the pinnacle of good interface design.

Nevertheless, it is a good read and I recommend it for everyone who has often wondered why shower controls seem to be designed by sadists, but especially for those who are involved in designing things that are intended to be used by normal humans.

Book Update

12 January 2006 » In Books, Reviews » Comments Off on Book Update

Thought it would be good to mention some memorable books that I have read in the last couple of months. I had Dark Star Safari on hiatus for a long time, but finally finished it a couple of weeks ago. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, which gives a detailed and profound account of the Africa of modern times from the point of view of a westerner who is also intimately familiar with it. Paul Theroux spent many years of his youth teaching in Africa and his knowledge of the local people, languages, and customs allows for a much closer conversation with everyone he meets on his epic journey from Cairo to Capetown, be it on a ferry, canoe, or an armed convoy truck. Some might find him a bit crotchety, but I found the book to be a good eye opener on the problems facing Africa — especially sub-Saharan countries — today.

Redemption Ark is a sequel to Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space hard-SF space opera. Reynolds is at the top of his game once again, revealing a complex, gripping, and surprisingly insightful story full of awesome imagery and technothriller-like excitement. Looking forward to the conclusion of the series.

I’ve been meaning to read something by Tom Robbins, so I picked up Jitterbug Perfume. I honestly can say this is one of the best books I have ever come across: amazing and amazingly unique characters, a plot that is firmly rooted in the magic realism space, great dialogue, and to top it off, there are genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout. Robbins is a master of the language; on almost every other page I found sentences and passages that I wanted to highlight and maybe I will do just that on the second reading. Give this one a try: you’ll never think of the beets in quite the same way again.

Started on: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (another book that’s been on my list for a while), and Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine by Mark Oldman.

Book Update

18 June 2005 » In Books, Reviews » 1 Comment

Finished: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. A fascinating, if sometimes shocking, look at what goes on behind the scenes in the restaurant business, specifically the kitchen. Bourdain does not pull any punches as he describes the rough and tumble kitchen crew, atmosphere, jargon, machinations, relentless pressure, and grisly details of every day of his profession in an eloquent and almost gleefully confessional way. His account is somewhat uneven and undoubtedly colored by his own history, but you will never forget why you should not order the fish on Monday.

Started: Blondie 24

Kill Bill

07 November 2003 » In Movies, Reviews » 12 Comments

Last night I was in the mood to see an action flick. So it was between the latest Matrix installment and Kill Bill Volume 1. I am so glad I picked the latter.

“Kill Bill”, announced in the opening titles as “The 4th Film by Quentin Tarantino”, is a quintessential “revenge through martial arts” film that is all style and no substance. And that is what makes it good, along with a few other things. Tarantino manages to make us forget that the storyline is basically heroine going through the laundry list of her enemies and killing them one by one (or 88 at once in an extended scene). The movie can be easily dismissed by some as a gory, violent, purposeless imitation of the kung-fu flicks, but seen from another angle it is a beautiful homage to, and at the same time a parody of, the same genre. Tarantino has always been adept at blending black humour, action, unique characters, non-linear progression, and memorable dialogue, all spiced up by perfectly fitting soundtrack, and this effort is no exception. I was thrilled that “Lonely Shepherd” by James Last and Zamfir was picked as the movie’s theme and the melody works wonders there.

A good movie will have its scenes invading your mind for a long time after you see it. “Kill Bill” certainly does that for me. Now, I just need to wait for Volume 2.

JCS

16 October 2003 » In Bay Area, Reviews » 1 Comment

Last night I went to see the production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the San Francisco Orpheum theatre. Somehow I missed the movie, and have not seen the show performed live before – I just own the soundtrack. The set and lighting were very nice and imaginative. The cast performed admirably, but their singing seemed better than the acting ability. Lawrence Clayton and Natalie Toro were strong as Judas and Mary Magdalene, respectively. However, two of my favorite pieces – “Last Supper” and “Gethsemane” – were not quite up to my expectations. Maybe it was due to sound equipment or acoustics that felt muffled at certain points, but it might just as well be the evidence of the lack of raw emotion invested into the performance. A couple of years ago I attended a special that showcased some pieces from Webber’s career, including “Gethsemane” and I thought that one was particularly sublime, even better than the one on the soundtrack. Still, always good to see a live show infused with enthusiasm and this one definitely had that in abundance.

Sweet and Lowdown / Y Tu Mamá También

25 August 2003 » In Movies, Reviews » 1 Comment

I found my unwatched Netflix movies while cleaning up after the move and watched them over the weekend. The first one is Sweet and Lowdown by Woody Allen, a fictionary biopic about the world’s “second-best guitar player”. Sean Penn, very good as usual, portrays Emmet Ray, a conflicted, arrogant, self-possessed, alcoholic man who nevertheless has an incredible talent. His strange hobbies of watching trains and shooting rats at the dump resonate throughout the film, as well as his obsession with Django Reinhardt, “that gypsy in France”, the only man he considers above himself in the art of guitar. The film has a sense of humor – it’s Allen, after all – and is punctuated by vignettes of present day jazz pundits delivering some “facts” on Emmet Ray. The film does not have much of a story arc, but the combination of Penn’s performance and the beautiful music heard throughout the film makes it memorable.

The second movie was Y Tu Mamá También, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It is a tale of two teenagers who go on a road trip to an imaginary, non-existent beach they cooked up in order to lure their object of desire, Luisa – an older, married woman – along with them. The film shows incredible scenes of rural Mexico, contrasted against the opulence of the house where Tenoch, one of the teenagers, lives. One of the underlying themes, it seemed to me, was that of freedom: of actions, of openness, of living your life the way you want. Granted, there are a lot of sexual scenes in this movie, but they serve to enhance the interaction between Luisa, Tenoch, and Julio and bring out each one’s character into focus. The short, voiceover commentaries are perhaps my favorite feature of the film. Similar technique was used in Amelie to a good result.

Matrix, Shmatrix..

20 May 2003 » In Movies, Reviews » 10 Comments

I saw Matrix: Reloaded last Friday. In a nutshell: fun comic book infused with armchair philosophy, but overall fails to live up to the unrealistically high expectations the first installment created. A lot of the aspects of the original are amplified to the point of contrivance: we had one Agent Smith, now there are a hundred Agent Smiths; we saw a few sentinels, let’s throw thousands of them on the screen; we felt enthralled by a couple of great kung-fu scenes, why not have them occur every 15 minutes or so. Bigger is better, louder is better, more skin is better, more unanswered questions are better. But they still could not stop Keanu from looking like he is being manipulated by a particularly inept puppeteer.

Particular pet peeves:

  • The Wired article practically gushed over how the cinematography and visual effects in this movie would push the filmmaking 10 years ahead. You know what? I could still tell, without any real effort, the transition between live and CG portions, especially in the courtyard fight scene. Virtual actors still do not look like real actors, so hey, don’t throw away your SAG card if you got it.
  • Was it a simple case of we-are-smarter-than-you or a particularly egregious desire to make your audience wish they had Merriam-Webster handy during the most crucial scene of the entire movie? In any case, Brothers Wachowski, you blew it. Half of the people I talked to said that the Architect’s speech went over their heads. You weren’t making movie for academics, after all. Vis-a-vis the current point, what was it about “having 23 people, 16 man and 7 women, repopulate Zion”? Why would Zion be saved if Neo chose the other door?
  • Gratuitous sex scene: hey, Keanu looked stiff even there.
  • Who or what was the French guy?
  • One of the Twins fires, oh, about 7,000 bullets into the car that Morpheus, Trinity, and the Keymaker are in. No one is hit. A cross-eyed drunk anti-gun pacifist would have a better kill ratio than that.
  • So, let me get this right. Neo exhibits supernatural powers in The Matrix, and somehow they “leak through” to the real life? If that’s true, it’s so unbelievable that the series should end right there. The only plausible explanation is that everything, including Zion, is inside The Matrix, but that’s a depressing thought.
  • Apparently, virtual extraction of virtual bullet can heal your real self. How convenient.
  • Did they hire Neal Stephenson specifically to write the ending?
  • From now on I will remember that the solution to the problem of choice and destiny is to get naked and do the tribal dance until the wee hours of the morning.
  • As Howard Stern put it, “the whole thing was just ill-conceived”. At this point, I think X-Men 2 was a better sequel. More consistent, if anything. For now, I’m looking forward to The Animatrix.