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  • Archive for December, 2010

    Games I Like: Angry Birds

    2010 - 12.31

    I think this one’s been done to death in the game world already, so I’ll  give it just a brief shout out: Angry Birds.  It’s got the 4 basics of a good mobile game: tolerable controls, simplicity, a clean/distinct art style, and bite size levels.  Good sound design too.  I enjoy the silly ca-caawing of the birds and the oinking of the pigs.

    the pursuit of doing something relevant

    2010 - 12.30

    In several posts on here I’ve discussed how much I enjoy the series Cosmos. As much wild enthusiasm as I feel for it right now, in a sense it’s also kind of daunting to watch Cosmos. The same way it’s daunting to listen to the Beatles: after you’ve basked in the splendor of it, and you return to your own pursuits, there is a sudden sense that no matter how hard you concentrate, or how long you remain focused, the sum of your lifetime’s accomplishments shall never amount to a total half as impressive as the works these iconic masters have authored.

    I have to remind myself that Cosmos itself IS the sum total of many, many years of writing and refining from Carl, one of the brightest minds of his time. Like an aspiring painter, standing in the Museum of Van Gogh, or Dali, it can feel humbling down to the point of utter futility in even trying. It is here that you’ve got to remind yourself of the words of Van Gogh:

    Even the masters themselves felt moments of crushing impossibility in the pursuit of doing something relevant. I saw that quote written on the wall in gigantic letters at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I remember climbing up a staircase to see it revealed at the top. At the time I had not read Vincent’s biography or known about his long battle with chronic depression, and the words deeply shocked me. I stood there for a moment, stunned. How could someone who now seems like an untouchable pillar, far ahead of everyone, have such profound self-doubt?

    I suppose that says something about the nature of creating things. It is really only in retrospect that we can analyze the value of a contribution. This idea gives me ambition to continue writing, taking pictures, making music, and all else that I do, in the hope that the sum total, someday, will amount to more than the pieces.

    I wish I had taken a photo of that quote, emblazoned across a long, empty wall inside his own museum. If nothing else, to serve as a reminder to myself that in the heat of the moment, even a masterpiece can seem like a mere drop in the bucket.

    Album Review: Mushroom Jazz 7 by DJ Mark Farina

    2010 - 12.29

    As many of you know, I am a big fan of the ongoing Mushroom Jazz series by San Francisco-based DJ mister Mark Farina. We’re currently up to number seven and I have to say, it may be the best yet!

    For the uninitiated, “Mushroom Jazz” is a term that Farina coined as an alternative to “Acid Jazz”. By contrast, Mushroom Jazz is strictly electronic in production, and falls somewhere between triphop, lounge, and downtempo. Farina incorporates a certain amount of hip hop into his compilations as well. The result is a continuous-mix, steady-grooving sound that rarely peaks into what I’d call energetic, but never really dips into mellow territory either. It fits into that narrow range of music that could be appropriate for either a party atmosphere, or just chilling at home by yourself on a Tuesday night. It’s a persistent energy level that rides straight through, great for putting on while you’re getting stuff done, or working on something.

    Rewind to several years ago: I discovered the series shortly after the release of installment #4. Upon learning of it, I went back and listened to all the previous ones, which are all great albums by their own merits. My favorite may have been 3, that is until the release of MJ5, which, in my eyes, dominated the rest of the collection. Five was also the most energetic though, and incorporated slightly harder beats with more hip hop, so you may argue that it was a departure from the formula somewhat.

    Another commonality amoung the series is the use of repeated and/or related samples sprinkled throughout the whole album, tying it all together. These can be hit or miss. I was talking to Tyrell Williams, a house DJ in Chicago whose opinion I respect, and he said he thought MJ2 was the best, because of the subtlety in the sample work. Having listened to all of them many times, I admit, I find the samples in MJ2 to be overly repetitive, and not that great of a sample selection in the first place. We had to agree to disagree.

    The release of six saw me sorely disappointed in Farina. The track selection was just not up to the level he had set in the rest of the entire series. There were maybe two tracks on the whole album that I would say belonged on a MJ record. Disappointing. As my buddy Luke said, “(it) kinda faded into the music collection pretty quick.”

    Mushroom Jazz Seven represents a return to form for Farina, with the interspersion of many samples (awesome ones, about mushrooms!) and a bevy of fresh new tracks that fit neatly into his previous canon, while maintaining an excellent groove. I tend to be overly critical when it comes to vocals, and I’m happy to report that only one track on this CD (“Live Forever”) qualifies as “kind of annoying.” On the flip side of that preference, I actually dig the vocals on “Colorblind” and “Stressin.” “Introduce” brings in a nice helping of that MJ5-esque hip hop flavor, and “Living for the Rush” is a nice diversion into a more atypical beat for the MJ series.

    The ending track is not as solidly chosen as “Bath Music” from MJ4 or “Nic’s Groove” from MJ5, but Farina does deliver a great sample to close it out: “When this program began the question was, were the claims of the mushroom true, or false? Well for those of us who made the journey, the answer is true.” Nice!

    MJ veterans will ask, “but how are the beats?” They are knockin. Probably nothing as hard as MJ5’s “Modern Women’s Short Stories” (the pinnacle of an ‘up’ Mushroom groove, to these ears), but the overall groove on this album is relentless and solid. Those are good adjectives in the context of this series, and although it’s too soon to say for sure, I think this may be the best installment of them all. It’s got great samples, it’s true to the Mushroom Jazz pedigree, there’s a ton of replay value, and the mixing is solid. Track selection is nearly perfect, and the overall atmosphere is right where it should be.

    Shortly after the release of 5, I had the good fortune to catch Farina playing a live Mushroom Jazz set at club Zentra in Chicago. I remember him playing the track “Listen” from MJ4 and I could have sworn at the time that there were added drums to kick it up a notch for the live version. It seemed a lot more energetic and dancable. Upon checking out a bootleg of the show afterward, I compared it to the album and there was nothing added! I would love to hear some of the jams from MJ7 in a live venue. I bet it’d be happenin.

    Score… hmmm, maybe 8.5/10 (ie. it’s awesome, definitely check it out)

    Games I like: Doodle Jump

    2010 - 12.27

    The first mobile phone game I’ll be giving a nod to in the “Games I Like” series: Doodle Jump.

    First off I’d like to comment about mobile games: They say that the iPod Touch and the iPhone have surpassed Nintendo’s handhelds in the size of the userbase. And for a long time people have been heralding them as the new portable gaming machines. Having a 1st gen iPhone I was excited to get in on the action, then very disappointed when I saw the games. Katamari Damacy, a game I loved dearly on the PS3, fell completely flat on the iPhone. Jerky. Slow. Hard to control. Tedious to play. And you’d think this would be a perfect game for tilt controls. In order to get the ball rolling enough, it was necessary to tilt the screen so far that it’s hard to see what you’re even doing. You end up hunched over the phone and leaning your torso way to the side whenever it’s time to make a big turn. I imagine you’d look like an idiot doing this at the bus stop. Super Monkey Ball (and others) suffered the same flaws.

    Other games were far worse. Especially irksome to me were the games that had an on-screen d-pad, mimicking old Nintendo controls. FAIL! Not only have we wasted precious screen real estate, but touchscreens are NOT even CLOSE in responsiveness to buttons. It’s like a cruel joke. I really wish Apple would have came out with some gaming accessory that added a d-pad and a few buttons. They would have completely blew up the market, but their form-over-function ideology prevented this. (Apple has never understood gaming anyway.) Well, this is really a whole massive rant unto itself.

    So I’ll sidestep that soapbox and segue into what I think makes a good mobile game:
    1. Tolerable controls (no fake buttons, no extreme tilt)
    2. Simplicity. Above all else.
    3. Clean, distinctive art style
    4. Playable in bite size installments

    Doodle Jump has all of these things, and at it’s core is really an old arcade-style high-score slugfest with a cutesy veneer of hand-drawn art. The objective is simple: go up. Fall off the bottom, you die, just like old 2 player Contra! The Doodler finds powerups to give him a boost (springs, trampolines, propeller hats, and a jetpack) and there’s obstacles to avoid (monsters of various shapes/colors, black holes, UFOs, etc). There’s also a dash of trickery thrown in with the platforms themselves, like moving ones, breakable ones, and ones that explode a few seconds after appearing.

    The formula doesn’t change as the game goes on, however as the score gets higher the pressure definitely builds. Getting a very high score demands a high amount of concentration, as the platforms begin moving faster and there are fewer stationary green ones. A big part of it too is the pressure you begin to put on yourself as you watch the score get higher… Don’t F it up!!

    The best part is the competitive element. You don’t need to be a veteran analog-stick jockey to pull off a high score on this game–anyone can play it, and with enough desire, beat you. I’m both sheepish about/proud of my long career as a “hardcore” gamer, and I’ve been getting in a score war with my girlfriend, someone who never owned a console.

    On my Droid X I initially held the record at 59k, until she took it one day with a dramatic 76! I was like, okay, you’re ON! After failing early on for a few tries, I broke into the high range and almost beat her. At 74k I dropped out on purpose, a dare to her; I knew she could get a much higher score (and I also knew she’d be mad at me for beating her so soon!). She was a bit upset that I lost on purpose, but I said well, I wanted to give you a chance to beat your own record. Aaaand I was right. The next day she put down a whopping 102,140. I’m so proud. I knew she could do it!

    The 102 still reigns… for now. I will have to work hard if I want to reach over 100k. There are plenty of random ways to die.

    On a final note, I’ll comment that I like the Android version better than the iPhone version. It lacks the dark blue platforms you have to move with your finger, the sections where handwriting tells you to stomp the monsters and the wide number of themes (I never use them anyway), but I think it handles better (though that may be the accelerometers in the Droid X versus a 1st-gen iPhone), I like the Android sounds better (they’re slightly different) and best of all, you don’t have to aim when you shoot! Technically, I know aiming adds another dimension to the game and makes it more of a challenge, but in practice, it just gets tedious. It’s more fun to blast away indiscriminately. After all, this is a mobile game, not Team Fortress.

    What’s cooler than cool? Ice Cold, I mean Cube!

    2010 - 12.27

    Last week I read about a wholly impressive undertaking which I was previously oblivious to, and now very interested in hearing more about: the Icecube Neutrino Observatory, at the South Pole. Yes, that South Pole. Basically they drilled a bunch of loooooooong holes, filled em up with detectors, and now they’re going to “listen” for neutrinos, of which they can measure power and direction, thanks to the size of the array of detectors. One cool detail is that the detector will be better at seeing neutrinos that come from the northern hemisphere. As in, neutrinos that have passed THROUGH the ENTIRE Earth before reaching the array. It’s better at seeing those.

    Wait, wait, did you just say “passed through the entire Earth”?

    Yep. Neutrinos can do that because neutrinos don’t ordinarily interact with matter. In fact, when they detect them, what they’re detecting is not even the neutrino directly! Here, this amazing video will enlighten us all. Dim the lights and get some popcorn:

    Oh man, how cool is that. Studying cosmic rays… In my most jealous voice I cry “Lucky!” This is a powerful new tool to study one of the influencing factors in our evolution. Take it away, Carl:

    “Think of it: A star blows up, thousands of light years away in space and produces cosmic rays which spiral through the Milky Way galaxy for millions of years until quite by accident some of them strike the Earth… and us. The evolution of life on Earth is driven in part through mutations, by the deaths of distant stars. We are, in a very deep sense, tied to the cosmos.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

    Meet the Sweet Sixteen Apple

    2010 - 12.26

    Third apple in the ongoing series, today we look at the Pepin Heights Sweet Sixteen apple. With a name like that, you KNOW it’s gonna be good.

    And tasty it was! It was not as sweet as you might guess from the name, although there was not even a hint of tartness in this apple, so when you take a bite, all you taste is the sweetness. The texture on the inside is quite soft, in an excellent way. Typically I prefer my apples to be more like 7.5ish on the “crunchy inside” scale, but this type is well-worthy of an exception to that preference. The texture of it sort of makes it candy-like. You’d have no trouble getting kids to eat these.

    The skin on the apple was not crunchy at all. It seemed to want to remain in strips, like you could almost peel this apple just by peeling back the skin. I tried it, and you could actually peel it, just like an orange once you tried for a little bit. Unusual skin for an apple, but it was cool in it’s own odd way.

    These apples, peeled, would make an absolutely incredible pie or crisp. If there are still some left at the grocery store next week, I think I might try that. Irregardless of how I plan to eat them, I definitely want to get more of these. They are a most delicious apple!

    sweetness: 6
    tartness: 0
    juicyness: 6
    crunchy inside: 2
    crunchy skin: 1

    And as usual, picture taken with the canon 50 f/1.8.  Settings: f/11, 1/2 sec @ ISO 100 tripod mounted

    Meet the Pacific Rose Apple

    2010 - 12.25

    The first apple I decided to try was the pacific rose apple. It’s slightly pinkish in color, like a red apple with a hint of a pink lady apple in there somewhere. It’s definitely sweet, not very much tartness to it at all. One lovely thing about this apple is that it is thoroughly crunchy. It’s about as crunchy of an apple as I’d enjoy, I believe. Anything moreso would get fatiguing. This property alone sets it as a desirable specimen.

    I busted out the apple slicer to cut it into 8ths and toss the core. Ignoring the advice of that sign in the store, I do think that sliced is really is the most enjoyable way to eat an apple. I’ll probably use it for the rest of the others to come.

    I’d most definitely get this type again, although it remains to be seen how long they’ll be around for. Is it something I’d eat everyday? Yeah, it may be. I doubt I’d be able to find them in Organic.

    sweetness: 8
    tartness: 2
    juiciness: 6
    crunchy inside: 8
    crisp shell: 9

    As before, photo with the new fifty!  Lovin this thing.  Framed the apple with some delicious looking bok-choy.

    Games I like: Super Mario Brothers X

    2010 - 12.25

    In one sentence: It’s every NES mario and Super Mario World, all combined.

    Yes.  That’s right.  There are plenty of things missing from it, but man, there is a lot here.  Every color Yoshi, the Tanooki Suit, Raccoon Tail,  every flavor of Goomba and Koopa, Birdo, Hammer Brothers, vegetables, and level art from all of the above.  It’s like playing some weird mashed-up version from a dream where they all just blurred together.  The overall experience is addictive, incredibly nostalgic, and well, maddeningly difficult.  There are different episodes that various level builders have made (did I mention it has a level editor!) but the one that comes with the game by default is incredibly punishing…  yet somehow I cannot resist the urge to keep playing.  Eventually, you figure out what they want you to do and you win.

    It’s like rewinding childhood memories in fast forward.  All the different kinds of brick, the music, the strange enemies, the rare power ups like 3-up moons–all these have some association for me, of who I was hanging out with at the different ages I played these various Mario games, and the general feeling  just how life felt at the time.  It’s a bit like hearing a song you haven’t heard in ages.

    If I had some things to pick on with it, my chief complaint would be that there is still a ton of stuff that didn’t make it into the game.  The slot machines from M2, the frog suit from M3, the cape from SMW, a ton of assorted music, etc.  And there is a bunch of stuff in here that isn’t Mario as well.  You can play as Link, for instance.  There is a bunch of art from Metroid as well.  It’s cool that the people behind it want to pay tribute to those other games , but personally I prefer it when it’s Mario art only.  And there are also strange permutations of Mario establishment.  Such as the billy gun, a bullet bill cannon that you can pick up and unleash insanity with.  And pink, purple, grey, and black yoshis.  The pink one spits vegetables.  And Ice Mario (pictured above on the green Yoshi) who shoots balls of frozen ice that turn enemies into blocks which can be grabbed or stood upon.  Kinda neat!

    All in all, if you love mario 1-3, you gotta go play this.  It’s free for the pc, so there’s no reason not to.

    Meet the Piñata Apple

    2010 - 12.24

    The Piñata apple was one I’d never tried until now and I’m not sure if I’d get it again. From the exterior, things looked good: large size but not overly giant, nice red color, and a sturdy stem up top. Taking a bite, the inside is a light yellow(not white), and the texture is crunchy as can be. It’s a bit too crunchy on the inside for my taste. The flavor is certainly more on the tart side than the sweet side, although it is not completely devoid of sweetness. It was available as an organic, and based on the looks, I got 5 of them, for my weekday lunch. I think my standby of Gala might have been a better choice, but I’ll keep eating these and give them a chance.

    Update: as the week went on, I did get one that was sweeter.  It did redeem the Piñata slightly, although I think the majority of these are probably more on the tart side.  All in all, I’d say they are a decent apple, but there are much better ones for my taste.

    tartness: 8
    sweetness: 4
    juicyness: 4
    crunchy inside: 9.5
    crisp shell: 8

    I took this picture with my new 50mm Canon f/1.8, with a setting of 1/4th sec. f/11 @ ISO 100.  Tripod mounted in the kitchen.  Tweaked white balance with Curves in Photoshop.  Only minor selective color.  Didn’t need much adjustment.

    Cicadas in the forest of the universe

    2010 - 12.23

    I remember as a child someone once telling me about a type of cicada that sleeps underground for years.  There are a great number of them hibernating in the dirt, and somehow, on a special day, all of them emerge at once. They climb out of the soil and up the trees, where they shed their exoskeleton and take flight to find their mate.  Once they’ve reproduced, the eggs are laid and the cicadas die.  These eggs hatch on tree branches and the larva fall to the ground, where they dig into the dirt and the cycle begins anew.  They too will spend years asleep underground, and emerge for a few frantic hours to proliferate themselves.  Depending on how quick it all goes down, they may live as a flying insect for a few days at most, and just a single night at the least.

    A recollection returned to me of digging in the sandbox and finding the empty shell of a cicada.  It was kind of gross, but I couldn’t help but study it, scooped up in my orange plastic shovel.  Suddenly that empty shell had taken on a new meaning.  It was the spectre of a creature who had lived, maybe only a few short hours.  Even to the perspective of a human child, probably six or seven years old, only having a few hours to live your whole life seemed like something of a sad story.  One night only.  Just a single sunset in the breadth of your whole being.

    Our existences are brief.  There is an expression, “we are not long for this world.”  How true it is.

    If you could live a thousand years, would life get boring?  What if you could live a hundred thousand years?  What would the meaning of life be, to someone who lived for so long?  Would it be different than a human who lived a normal 80 years?  What would the highlight be?

    Given a different set of parameters, ambitions change.  If a doctor told you tomorrow that you had one day left to live, you’d probably do something relaxing and introspective.  If he told you three months, you’d probably book some flights, see the MVPs of your life, and maybe check out the Mediterranean like you always wished you had.  If the doctor said you had 50 years left, well, you’d probably say, “thank you captain obvious,” and keep going in to work every Monday.  But what if you had 500 years?  You might start making some different plans.

    “What is the meaning of life?” is a question somewhat like “what is your favorite color?” in that everyone will have their own answer, and there are certainly popular replies.  “Blue” for instance, would be a lot more common than, say, “chartreuse”.  Of course there’s no wrong answer, but I wonder what it says about our priorities when we compare what our objectives might look like, given a much longer time span to execute.  I’ve been wondering to myself what my own ambitions would look like if I thought I had an extra century to get there.  What does it say about the merits of my current goals?

    At half-price books a few weekends ago I picked up a ten dollar hardcover entitled “Superstructures in Space” which contains boatloads of pictures illustrating the various craft we’ve sent out into the sky.  Everything from the Hubble Telescope to Voyager to the Deep Impact spacecraft.  A full-page image, taken by the Hubble, caught my attention.  This photo shows a nebulous stellar nursery, where stars are born.  A stunning sight, which explodes the boundaries of the mind.

    What amazements could possibly await those who will someday voyage there?  We think of our own planet as endless, and our lives as eternities, but compared to merely this one section of the cosmos, as captured by Hubble, they pale in size.  More than tiny.  Beyond minuscule.  Like cicadas in the vast forest of space, our minds cannot grasp the richness, complexity, and subtle beauty of our surroundings.  We are filled up with preoccupations of digging out of the dirt, and finding a partner, just in the nick of time before we all expire.  We may be lucky enough to soar over the treetops for our own brief instant, but a towering pine in the distance, a mountain upon the horizon, and that great unknown beyond it remains hidden to us.  Our time is too short to visit there.  Our time is too short to even figure out what may lie there.  Nevermind the world beyond that, and the world beyond that.

    “What is a drop of rain, compared to the storm?
    What is a thought, compared to the mind?
    Our unity is full of wonder which your tiny individualism cannot even conceive.”
    -System Shock, 1994

    In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan discusses the composition of Neptune’s moon Triton, which is covered in layers of frozen nitrogen snow.  He says, “In some places the surface is as bright and white as freshly fallen Antarctic snows (and may offer a skiing experience unrivaled in all the Solar System).”  Skiing on a moon of Neptune.  Think about that one for a minute.

    Then consider the fact that as wildly fantastical as skiing on Triton may sound, winter sports in our outer solar system is only one adventure, out of the innumerable adventures offered by our universe, on innumerable worlds, most of which are, in all likelihood, unimaginably different than Earth.  By the time we get to Triton, the sport of skiing may be as ancient as games once played by the Mayan tribes, or the Incas.  Humans will have since moved on to other snow sports, probably using technology not even conceived of yet.  Something even more outlandish than Marty McFly’s hoverboard.  By the time we make it to the stars captured in the Hubble image, homo sapiens will have long ago have evolved into creatures different than we now know ourselves.  Maybe some elegant, drastically improved humanoid who evolved through cosmic radiation and scientific enhancement, devoid of the flaws of tissue degeneration, memory loss, and tendencies toward aggression, thoughtlessness.

    These intrepid adventurers will set foot upon worlds we visited only in the ships of our imaginations, confined to the ground as we were.  We may smile, thinking of our own yearning to travel to such exotic places fulfilled vicariously by our descendants, a way of reaching past the limits of our own single evening as a cicada in the forest of our universe, and fulfilling a goal too vast for the blips of our lifetimes; to see, to know the universe.  To permeate it, populate it, celebrate it, to play a long, graceful part in it.