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The Quixotic Engineer

Monday, July 30, 2007

New Image Header & Favicon

A Selection of Great Books, Movies & Games

New header/favicon today, and a renewed appreciation for the hard work of graphic artists. While the Blogger template I had before did look a little more professional, I think I did pretty well for an amateur (go go MS Paint!). I figured out how to make these modifications using a combination of guides and trial & error. I've compiled the information I found into the small guide below, I hope you find it useful.

Using an Image as a Header

I found most of the information on how to make this modification here. The first step is to remove the old header. Blogger doesn't allow you to remove it as a page element normally, so we'll have to change the template html first. From the Blogger dashboard go to Template > Edit HTML. Back up your template and then look for the following code:

Replace the word true with false and save your template. You can now remove your old header as you would any other page element. We will now replace it with the image header, which I recommend you use Photobucket to host. Go to Template > Page Elements, and create a new Javascript/html page element, then insert the following code:

Move this new Page Element over to where your old header used to be and hit the "Save" button. However, depending on your template, you may notice that you still have a small piece of your old header above your image. To remove this, delete the following line of code from your template's html:

Using a Favicon with Blogger

See that little picture next to the "http" in the address bar? That's called a Favicon, and by default Blogger gives you an orange one with a letter B. If you'd like to change this to your own icon, first head on over to FavIcon Generator and save the .ico file it generates. Usually, a webamaster would host this on their own site, but since you can't do this on Blogger we'll have to host it externally. Since Photobucket doesn't let you upload .ico files, so I recommend you use ImageDip. Next we're going to edit the html template, so once again remember to back up your template before modifying it. Look for the following line:

Once you've found this line, add the following code one line above it:

Save your template and you're done. Thanks to Tips for New Bloggers and My Tech Life for information on how to do this.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Dune Messiah

Dune Messiah

I was on vacation earlier this summer at a friend's cottage near Parry Sound, Ontario. While in town one day, we walked over to Bearly Used Books, a terrific used book store where, along with about eight other books, I picked up a copy of Frank Herbert's Dune. I was vaguely familiar with the general plot, having seen parts of the televised miniseries years ago, and knowing that it was considered a classic among sci-fi fans I was eager to read it.

Needless to say I read it ravenously. Frank Herbert crafted the world of Dune with loving detail and a passion akin to Tolkien, with appendices, maps and a glossary at the end of the book. It was not a typical sci-fi world either; I found the idea of mentats, human supercomputers necessary since the ban of thinking machines, especially interesting.

I quickly went out to a used book store back home in Montreal and picked up the first two sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I just finished the former and, while it was still very good, it didn't feel nearly as polished or as cohesive as the first book. I'd like to address what I felt were weaknesses in the plot, so be warned that there are spoilers ahead, although nothing that would really ruin the book for you.

Dune gave me the impression that Frank Herbert had every aspect of the universe figured out beforehand, and was gradually revealing them to the reader. However, in this book, we are suddenly presented with the Bene Tleilaxu, who are apparently a very important group of gene manipulators and have as much clout as one of the Great Houses. They can revive the dead, give people new eyes, and even apparently made their own Kwisatz Haderach! Yet, they go from unmentioned in the first book to common knowledge among the populace in the second. I can appreciate that the author wanted to introduce a new faction, but it really hurt the feeling of cohesiveness of the Dune universe.

In the first book we were told about how very secretive the Spacing Guild is. Their methods are only hinted at, and they send only low-ranking navigators to meet even Emperor Corrino. In Dune Messiah, however, Edric the Guild Navigator appears in front of the entire royal court and seemed to have no problem discussing prescience and spice. Is it completely unreasonable? Of course not, Paul is the Emperor and it makes sense that the Guild would send a high-ranking Navigator as an ambassador. It is, however, a complete turnaround from how they were presented in the first book.

Finally, I don't know why the Fremen Jihad was allowed to happen. I could be wrong, but wasn't avoiding a Jihad the whole point of the first book? Everything Paul did in Dune was in an effort to stop the bloody rampage that his prescience predicted; that was his greatest motivation. Whether or not he had succeeded was left ambiguous at the end of the first book, but within the first chapter of Dune Messiah we learn that the Jihad had been raging for twelve years.

I don't mean to give the impression that Dune Messiah was a bad book; it was a great read, and it set up the next book very well. The fact that I even care about these nerdy little details is proof of what a great writer Frank Herbert is. Dune presented an entirely cohesive sci-fi universe, but unfortunately that universe is starting to show some seams.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Final Fantasy Retrospective

Final Fantasy

I was recently directed to new video series over at, a retrospective of the Final Fantasy series. While I'm all for nostalgia, I'm becoming a little jaded by it. I'm happy to see gamers acknowledge their roots, but frankly I'm tired of game companies looking to cash in by exploiting my childhood memories.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised at the quality of this retrospective. I expected a cheesy montage of gameplay footage, but instead found that the videos explored some interesting questions: How was Final Fantasy radically different to other games at the time? What innovations did it each sequel bring to the RPG genre? How were the early games unbalanced?

I've embedded Part 1 of the series below. They seem to be doing a new video every week, so I'll update my links when new videos come out. You may also want to check out their Metroid and Zelda series retrospectives, which are also good.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Endearing Story From Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade's comics are great, but their news posts are often surprisingly fresh and funny too. The first part of yesterday's post told a particularly great story about Gabe's adventure signing up for a Gamestop Pokemon competition. The story made me nostalgic for Grade 5, when Pokemon Red & Blue were the hottest thing on the block. However, the second part, a reply from a 12-year old Pokemon fan, was quite possibly the cutest thing I have ever read. The little girl's enthusiasm really helped remind me of what video games are all about: having fun.

I hope the gents at PA won't mind me reproducing the story here, since on their site the two parts are separated by a much larger post about PAX. Thanks for the great read.

Part 1:

So I ended up attending one of the Gamestop Pokemon tournaments on Saturday. When I told Kara that I wanted to go she told me it would just be a bunch of little kids. I explained to her that Pokemon was no longer just a kids game. That a large number of men my age played Pokemon now. I told her I'd probably be surrounded by guys my age who took it way more seriously than I did. I'm really glad she decided not to go with me. As it turns out I was the oldest person in the tournament by roughly twenty years and the only one not wearing a shirt with Pikachu on it.

I showed up at the Alderwood mall Gamestop and entered my name. As the little kids poured in I became less and less convinced I should participate. The little boys with their Pokemon backpacks and the girls with tiny Pokeballs in their hair seemed to assume I was just someones Dad rather than their competition. It was actually really cool to see how much these kids love Pokemon. I've been so into it recently that I think I'd forgotten I should be having fun. With my pages of hand written math and charts of carefully plotted out EV training regiments I actually felt sort of dirty. These little kids were showing me teams comprised not of statistically optimal Pokemon but of their favorites. A little girl talked to me for five minutes about why she loved Kyogre so much. When she asked why I used Rotom I couldn't bring myself to tell her that his ghost/electric type meant he had a lot of immunities while giving him some surprising moves that should allow me to cripple sweepers with status effects but still fight off any Dark types I encounter. "I think he's cute." I explained. She smiled and nodded as though this was the reason she had expected to hear.

I noticed one of the kids there was actually quite a bit older than the rest of the group. Still probably half my age, but he towered over his opponents. I watched as he struck up conversations with the other children, inspecting their Pokemon and always finding them lacking. "I've EV trained my entire party." he said to a few of the kids who obviously had no idea what that meant. He showed of his multiple "shinies" to a couple of very impressed young men before explaining that he wasn't going to use them in the tournament because it just wouldn't be fair to everyone else. No, he would dominate them with a mixed bag of EV trained legendaries and obscure all stars culled from every single incarnation of the series. He was essentially being a little Douche.

I had just decided to pull myself out of the tournament in order to let the kids have their fun when Cory, who was running the show told me he'd matched me up against the little loudmouth in the first round. I figured I might have a chance to take him out and then none of the other kids would have to face him. So I stayed in and when it came time to play I synced up my DS and loaded my fairly mundane crew. It worked out that we were standing on the wrong sides of the television so his team showed up on my side and mine on his. The crowd of kids around me cheered and congratulated me on such an impressive roster. I explained that those were his and that mine were on the other side. "You really need to play more." one of the younger boys instructed. I agreed and selected my three Pokemon to take into battle. A few of the kids behind me would shake their heads in disgust as my finger hovered over each possible selection. My opponent, in what I can only assume was an attempt to show off grossly underestimated this old man's skillz. He tried to pull off an extremely risky strategy involving the near sacrifice of his first Pokemon for a "baton pass" maneuver and a quick stat boost to his second in line. This failed miserably as the aforementioned Rotom I pulled in did not give two shits about anything he hit me with. Once I'd taken him out I moved to the next round but really had no desire to continue. I played my opponent but then bowed out and gave him a free pass onto the next round. The young man I played earlier kept approaching me and telling me he could have beat me easy, he just used the wrong Pokemon. I nodded, yes well that's sort of the whole game.

I watched a bit more of the tournament and I was really impressed with the sportsmanship of the kids. I've been watching the cartoon with Gabe and it really stresses the importance of winning and losing graciously. Each of these kids when they lost shook the others hand and thanked them for the match. The winners complimented the losers Pokemon and strategies while impressing on them that it really was a very close game. I know they weren't my kids but as a thirty year old gamer with a kid of my own I could not help but be extremely proud of all of them. Their passion for the game was totally infectious and I've decided to throw away my spreadsheets. I'm no longer hatching five eggs at a time in order to find babies with the optimal natures and stats. I've also brought Beautifly back into my team. She's not very tough, but I like her, she's pretty.

-Gabe out

Part 2:

I just got this email and I had to share it with you all.

Dear Mister Gabe,

Hi! My name is Nausica (gnaw-sik-ca), I am twelve years old and I love pokemon. My mom got me the Pokemon Pearl for my DS and I love love love it, it is probably my favorite game. I heard about the pokemon tournament at Gamestop and really wanted to go, but I am really shy so I wasn't going to, but my parents talked me into it and said it would be a good for me and I would have fun.

Pokemon - Eevee

So I went and it seemed at first like it would be fun, there were alot of really nice kids there who all loved pokemon like me, it was really fun showing off my team of Evee's and seeing what other people liked too.

Then the older guys came, I dunno how old they were but they were much older then most of the other kids there, they pretty much ruined the fun of it for everyone else there. I guess they weren't really mean, but how they acted sounded alot like the boy you described, that you had a chance to beat. But unfortunately for the kids at the tournament I went too, there wasn't a nice guy like you to set an example for them. Needless to say most of us there didn't have a good chance against them, (I never knew what the special point things were even), and they never really told us nice job or anything. The guy that got me laughed when he saw my line up of Evees.

So afterwards I really didn't wanna play pokemon very much, and I thought I was gonna stop playing, cause I only really play to have fun, not to beat everyone else. Then today my mom (who is a big fan) showed me what you wrote, and it made me feel a million times better!!! :D

I couldn't believe I almost let some jerks take away my love of pokemon!

So I really just wanted to tell you thank you Mister Gabe! What you said ment alot to me and my evees!! You are a great person and I wish I could have been at your tournament to meet you!

Have a great day!!


ps! I'm naming my next boy evee after you ^_^

I think I'll probably be smiling for the next week thanks to this.

-Gabe out

Thank you Gabe & Nausica for reminding this jaded gamer what it's really all about.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Snake vs Zombie

Snake vs Zombie

Interviews with game developers don't usually interest me, generally because the interviewees always come off as salesmen and rarely just want to talk openly and honestly. Even if you're similarly jaded, I urge you not to overlook the recent Snake vs Zombie event interviews, which featured a trio of important designers: Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, Viewtiful Joe, Devil May Cry) and Suda 51 (Killer 7).

Unlike typical gaming industry interviews, none of the designers were pushing any game in particular. While Suda 51 chaired the event, there was no interviewer as such; it was more akin to a conversation than a question and answer session. In the video (embedded below), they discuss various topics, remaining only vaguely topical at times. Highlights include Kojima's semi-serious pitch for a Resident Evil Online game, discussions about Season 2 of Lost, Mikami's rental of "Dino Kung-fu", good-natured teasing about Killer 7's development, and thoughts regarding console platform politics.

If you're interested in hearing some of the most respected names in the video game industry talk in a very relaxed and casual setting, I highly recommend you invest 26 minutes in the video below.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Children of Men

TV Reporter: The world was stunned today by the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet. [...] He was 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes old.

Children of Men

I've always had a fascination with narratives set in a dystopian future (see 1984, Brazil, Brave New World, Blade Runner, even Half-Life 2). The good ones evoke a convincing world that could conceivably represent our own future. The great ones use this world to explore philosophical and moral issues. What struck me as unique about the film Children of Men, however, was how it presented a world rocked by an extension of our own contemporary Western issues: divisive immigration policies, xenophobia, terrorism, and overzealous homeland security. This picture of the world looks and feels real; it is by far the most convincing vision of the future I have ever seen.

The world of 2027 is on the brink of ruin; two decade of inexplicable human infertility have led to widespread societal collapse. The film is set in Britain, where the anti-immigrant sentiment has been pushed to the extreme. The oppressive government ships thousands of illegal immigrants to sprawling refugee camps, with imagery and brutality that echo the Holocaust.

Children of Men

The plot follows Theo Faron (Clive Owen), an activist turned bureaucrat, who, due to a string of complex events, becomes the guardian of what may be mankind's only hope for survival: a miraculously pregnant woman named Kee. While the plot is excellent, it's the imagery, setting and cinematography that are the real stars of this film. Very little is explicitly stated; it's the visuals, such as a country field filled with the burning corpses of livestock, that tell the story of society's collapse. Many scenes are done with a single unbroken wide shot, which allows the viewer to take in the richness of the landscape.

Children of Men is quite simply a remarkably good movie, and I would recommend it without reserve to anyone. Whether it's the bleak landscape, the tremendous visuals or the touching characters and dialogue, everyone will be able to find a part of this film that affects them in a very profound and meaningful way.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007 Logo

Fellow blogger Nectarine gave me a tip recently to check out a site called I'll admit that I had heard of it before, but I had never bothered to browse my way other there until today. The site essentially creates a custom radio station tailored to your tastes. That in itself is not especially unique; there are many sites that provide similar custom radio channels. There are three things, however, that in my mind really set apart.

First is the sheer variety of artists. appears to have collaboration from not only all of the major labels, but also a great variety of indie labels. You don't only get the hit songs either, because has full albums. Furthermore, since musicians can upload their own music to the site, there are opportunities to get to hear some great up and coming unsigned bands.

Secondly, gathers data not only from what you listen to on their site, but also from what you listen to on your computer. Downloading the lightweight software allows them to track what you're playing from a wide variety of media players. I was initially a little wary about a company tracking information about how I listen to music, but the program is open-source and only extracts the song's name, artist and album from the ID3 tags. This information is used to suggest new artists that you might enjoy.

Finally, the system by which recommends new music is very well done. If you hear a song that you really enjoy, you can add it to your Love list to hear similar songs more often. If you really dislike one of the suggested songs, you can simply click the Ban button to ensure that you never hear that song again. It's a simple, intuitive interface that works really well (unless you click the wrong button like I did, because there seems to be no way to undo a ban) [Edit: turns out you go to View Profile > Recently Banned in the software, right click and "Undo Ban"].

Here are some of the great artists/albums/songs I've discovered through today:

  • Brainfreeze Breaks, album by DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist.
    I'm can't say I'm big on turntable music on the whole, but I love soul music. These two mix wizards apparently took some of the rarest old soul vinyl records (some virtually impossible to find today) and ripped them to shreds making this remarkable album. I've been listening to it all day; it's astoundingly good.
  • Call Me Up In Dreamland, song by Van Morrison
    Heard this track while listening to "Sounds Like: Paul Simon". Great track from his early days that I hadn't heard before.
  • Time to Kill, song by The Band
    Another fantastic song I hadn't heard before by an artist I love, apparently off the Stage Fright album (which I'm now going to have to check out in its entirety).

Not bad for one day's work. Go check it out for yourself.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Blogger, Feedburner and Sitemaps

Feedburner Logo

I had announced last Friday that I was being an eager beaver and taking advantage of the improved Feedburner integration for Blogger. However, like all early adapters, I've had been unfortunately burdened with the unresolved issues of the new technology. Specifically:

  • Once enabled, Google will redirect your Atom feed subscribers to Feedburner. However, Blogger also publishes a second feed (in RSS format) which for some reason it does not redirect. Feedburner won't be able to collect statistics about people who subscribe to the non-redirected feed, making your efforts fairly moot.
  • Bloggers who use their Atom feed as a sitemap for Google will receive errors due to their Feedburner feed being in a different domain than the rest of their blog.

Using a bit of creativity, however, I do believe I've found a suitable workaround that should allow motivated Blogger users to integrate Feedburner and Google sitemap without these problems.

UPDATE: Easier Method
Commenter Lamer came up with an even simpler way to integrate both feedburner and Google sitemaps. Turn on the Feedburner redirection (Dashboard > Settings > Site Feed) and then use as a sitemap (for whatever reason Blogger does not redirect this XML file). Simple and efficient, thanks Lamer! The rest of this post goes on to describe the old, more complicated method, which may be useful if you want to modify your autodiscovery tags.

Note: I do not recommend the trick explained below if you already have a sizeable number of subscribers to your Atom feed that you want to redirect to your Feedburner feed, since they will no longer be redirected afterwards. Use the updated trick above instead.

Set up a Feedburner account. When it asks you for your Feed URL, type in "".

Next, under the Blogger dashboard, go to Settings > Site Feed and clear the "Post Feed Redirect URL" field. This will stop Blogger from redirecting people who try to access your Atom feed.

Step One: Modify Your Autodiscovery Tags:
To credit my sources properly, I learned how to do this from a post by matt in the Feedburner forums that has since had its contents removed.

With your blog open, view the html source of your page. Look for a block of code similar to the following:

Copy the similar looking block from your blog's html source code and paste it in a temporary .txt document. You may now close your Blog's html source.

We're now going to modify what you just pasted into the .txt document. Replace these two lines:

with the following:

This next step will involve modifying your Blogger template. I strongly urge you to backup your Blogger template beforehand in case you make a mistake. From the Blogger dashboard, go to Template > Edit html. Look for the following line in your template's html:

Delete this line and replace it with the contents of the .txt file you saved earlier, then click "Save Template". You have now successfully modified the autodiscovery tags, and browsers that auto-detect RSS feeds will now be directed to your Feedburner feed only.

Step Two: Use Your Atom Feed as a Sitemap
If you have Google'd your own site, you may have noticed that not all of your individual Blog posts have been indexed. One way to help this along is to provide the Google webcrawler with a sitemap. A sitemap is an XML document that tells the crawler how to properly index all the pages on your site. As Blogger users, we cannot write our own sitemap file, but we can use our Atom Feed as a sitemap.

To begin, sign into Google Webmaster Tools using the same Google account that you use for Blogger. Follow the on screen instructions to verify your Blog. Once you've finished that, click on the "Sitemaps" tab, then the "Add Sitemap" button. Select "Add General Web Sitemap" from the pulldown menu, type in "atom.xml" for Step 3 and click "Add Sitemap". Google will now be able to use this information to index your site properly.

Current Issues
I so far have not been able to figure out is how to redirect the "Subscribe to Posts" link at the bottom of the page to Feedburner.
UPDATE: Fellow blogger Juls came up with this excellent way to redirect your main page Feed footer while preserving your comment feed! Locate this block of code:

And replace it with:

This is by no means a perfect trick, but I think it's a decent way to work around the current Feedburner integration problems and still make use of Feedburner and a Google Sitemap. If you have suggestions, problems or ideas, please feel free to leave a comment.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

iTunes Album List in Perl

Perl 6 for Wankers by Jakov Grafki

This winter I took a course called System Software. In it, we learned a neat programming language called Perl. Perl was handy for that class because it happens to be very good at parsing text, and we used it to write a simple compiler. Being the pragmatic kind of person that I am, I immediately began to think of ways to use this new found skill, and the opportunity arose in a rather roundabout way.

You see, I have what I'd describe as a fairly large collection of music (roughly 18.6 days worth according to iTunes). This sometimes causes problems when I'm out shopping for CDs and I can't quite recall which ones I already own. iTunes is able to export a list of your music as an XML document, but you end up with a large unwieldy file with roughly 15 lines per song.

The solution: create a small Perl script to go through every line of this gigantic XML document and create a list of albums matched with artists. The result of my code monkeying is in the box below. Is the script terribly well written? Not especially. Did my album problem really need solving that badly? Not particularly. Was this a good excuse to play around with Perl a bit? Damn right. Enjoy.

The result should look something like this. If you'd like to try this program out, but don't have the experience to run it in the command prompt, here's a summarized guide with some helpful links:

  • If you're running Windows, you'll need to download a Perl interpreter such as ActivePerl. If you're running Linux, it's built in.
  • Open up a simple text editor (NodePad, WordPad, TextPad), then save the code from the above box as "". Open iTunes, go to File > Export Library and save it as "library.xml" in the same directory as the Perl code.
  • Open up the command prompt and switch over to the directory where you saved the Perl code (helpful guide here).
  • Type in the following to run the program: "perl library.xml". Your album list will be stored in a file called "Album List.txt" in the same directory.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Webcomics - Part II

And now, the thrilling conclusion of our two-part look at the world of webcomics (part one can be found here).

The Good: Overcompensating features the offbeat humour and social commentary of Jeffrey Rowland, a man some describe, with a glint of fear in their eyes, as a "billionaire cowboy poet hacker". He is also the creator of Wigu, another very popular webcomic.
The Bad: Sometimes more strange than funny.
Worth reading: Diggin

Penny Arcade
The Good: Penny Arcade was the first webcomic I ever stumbled upon. To many, it is the standard by which all other webcomics about video games are judged. Even after all these years, it's still my favorite gaming webcomic; it's extremely well written, and has been consistently funny for as long as I've read it.
The Bad: Occasional "strip only funny if you read the news post and follow three links" syndrome.
Worth reading: Dark Truths

The Perry Bible Fellowship
The Good: It's hard to describe exactly why Perry Bible Fellowship is funny in such a unique way. Artist Nicholas Gurewitch seems to have a knack for humour that comes at you in ways that you didn't see coming. The comic is quirky, offbeat and fantastic, a must-read.
The Bad: Can't think of anything, it's just a great strip.
Worth reading: Food Fight

Questionable Content
The Good: Questionable Content is a comic about indie rock, hipster romance and a maniacal robot named Pintsize. While getting into the story will involve reading through the substantial comic archive from the beginning, the plot is really engaging once you do.
The Bad: Dark rumours surrounding the author (not really). While QC features some interesting female characters, the male characters are generally either really boring or completely embody male stereotypes. That's just my perspective though, feel free to argue the contrary if you disagree.
Worth reading: Lady Classes

Sam and Fuzzy
The Good: Sam and Fuzzy is quite possibly my favorite non-gaming comic. The dialogue is terrific and the artwork is top-notch, but most importantly the comic features a terrific cast of characters (psychopathic Fuzzy is particularly excellent). Recent story arcs have been really interesting and imaginative.
The Bad: No RSS feed!
Worth reading: Paycheque

Scary Go Round
The Good: Unlike some webcomics, Scary Go Round does not grab you rudely by the collar and shove a joke down your throat. The humour is subtle, sarcastic and served with a cup of tea, a style that is distinctively British. The cast of characters is fantastic, including the bright-eyed and troublesome Shelley Winters and the decidedly pragmatic ex-boozehound Ryan Beckwith. Furthermore, the strip has featured some incredibly creative settings and story arcs.
The Bad: Individual strips are generally not that funny unless you're familiar with the characters and plot (but if you are, they're terrific).
Worth reading: March 16, 2004

The Good: Regular characters in Sinfest include God, the devil, Buddha, and a wanna-be player named Slick. Weird? Pretty much. Social and religious commentary abound, and the art style is really unique.
The Bad: Individual comics tend to be hit or miss.
Worth reading: Craving

Three Panel Soul
The Good: Three Panel Soul is a new project from the creators of the now completed Mac Hall. The humour is fresh and strange, with intermittent political commentary. It also has a rather unique art style, mostly black & white with occasional splashes of colour.
The Bad: Too soon to tell, seems excellent so far.
Worth reading: On Literary Criticism

VG Cats
The Good: VG cats is one of the most popular webcomics out there, well-known for it's excellent parodies.
The Bad: At least Scott Ramsoomair isn't teasing us with "Updated Mondays" anymore; new comics are fairly sporadic.
Worth reading: How I Learned To Love The Bomb

The Good: xkcd is the kind of comic that appeals to tech geeks, math nerds and science dorks. Clearly I'm a huge fan. Randall Munroe's offbeat humour is truly first class, even if his characters are essentially stick figures.
The Bad: To quote the author: "Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)". Consider yourself warned.
Worth reading: The Difference

In conclusion, I'd like to thank the authors of all the webcomics that I've profiled this week. While I did write some minor complaints about each of your comics, I remain a huge fan of your work, which you generously offer to be enjoyed for free. Thank you for all your hard work, and please continue making great art.


Minor Update: Feedburner

Feedburner Logo

I just thought I'd mention that since Blogger has recently improved Feedburner integration, I've moved the Quixotic Engineer feed over to there. Why, you ask? Feedburner gives me a bit more control as an author, provides feedback and statistics, and has some other useful features as well.

What does mean for you? Probably not much. If you're already subscribed to this site's feed, you may or may not need to re-subscribe to the new Feedburner feed (I'm not sure). If this post has meant nothing to you, never fear, it's a minor technical matter and you can safely ignore it!

UPDATE: It turns out that redirecting my Atom feed to Feedburner was messing up my Google sitemap, which in turn was causing my pages to be indexed poorly. New subscribers to the feed will now be directed directly to Feedburner, but anyone who subsribed to the old feed will no longer be redirected. This won't actually affect what you get very much, but I just thought I'd let you know.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's Only Teenage Wasteland

The Who's Pete Townshend

Technically I'm already breaking my own rule, but I'll make an exception for awesome news like this:

SANTA MONICA, CA - July 11, 2007- Harmonix, the leading developer of music-based games, and MTV Games, a division of MTV Networks which is a division of Viacom (NYSE: VIA, VIA.B), announced today that one of the most influential records in rock history, The Who's iconic Who's Next, will become the first full length album available as a digitally-distributed game level for the upcoming videogame Rock Band™ - a first ever offering for a videogame. In addition to announcing full-length album availability, MTV Games and Harmonix also announced the first 16 Rock Band songs, spanning every genre of rock from alternative to classic to heavy metal. As previously announced Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: ERTS) will serve as the exclusive distribution and marketing partner for Rock Band, managing distribution for the game in US, Europe and Australia

Holy crapcakes! Who's Next is one of my all time favorite albums and there's not a bad track on it. I was already really excited about Harmonix's Rock Band, but this seals the deal for me.

[See Kotaku for the full story.]

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Webcomics - Part I

It all began about six years ago with an issue of PlayStation magazine. Featured inside was the comic Penny Arcade, which detailed the mad escapades of gamers Tycho Brahe and Jonathan Gabriel. It was my first gaming comic, and it piqued my interest enough to venture onto their website. My exploration soon lead to other gaming webcomics, and then to non-gaming webcomics. I've been a fan of the medium ever since.

What makes webcomics so great? I'm sure there's more than one right answer, but I think it has something to do with niche marketing. A syndicated comic published in thirty different newspapers has to be funny in a very general way. An obscure reference would pass over the heads of most readers. Webcomics usually target a specific audience; if Ctrl+Alt+Del makes a joke about Samus Aran, they can safely assume that their audience will understand the reference. Web-syndicated comics also benefit from fewer controls. Without editors and censors, the artist has the final word as to the content of their strip.

To show my appreciation for this fantastic medium, here are a few short profiles of some of my favorite webcomics (in glorious alphabetical order). For each I've included a short description and a link to at least one strip that is definitely worth reading. Without further ado:

2P Start
The Good: While it only began this February, 2P Start is already showing promise as a really fantastic gaming comic. The jokes are great and the art keeps improving.
The Bad: It has yet to strongly distinguish itself from all the other video game themed webcomics.
Worth reading: Over The Top

A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible
The Good: A Lesson Is Learned is quite possibly the most surreal and oddly philosophical webcomic I have ever read. The artwork is incredible, and has won several awards.
The Bad: The comic has been on hiatus since September 2006. We can only hope that Dale Beran and David Hellman choose to pick it up again soon.
Worth reading: Morning, Sleepy Head!

The Good: Butternutsquash is irreverent, sarcastic and never politically correct. Features a great cast of characters and very distinctive dialogue.
The Bad: Updated rarely (every ~2 weeks) and occasionally relies on clichés.
Worth reading: Lost Time

Ctrl Alt Del
The Good: Ctrl+Alt+Del is one of the most popular gaming comics out there, and is probably best known for its wacky characters. Zeke the sarcastic Xbox robot is particularly funny.
The Bad: A hit-or-miss affair, the story arcs are usually better than the individual comics.
Worth reading: Sweet Nothings

Dresden Codak
The Good: Dresden Codak explores themes such as quantum physics and postmodern philosophy, yet manages to retain a great tongue in cheek sense of humour. Tiny Carl Jung is a recurring character; need I say more?
The Bad: Some scientific references may be hard to understand, but hit up Wikipedia and use this as a chance to learn something new.
Worth reading: Lil' Werner

The Good: Set loosely in the prohibition era, Lackadaisy is essentially about rum-running cats. Why cats? To quote the artist, Tracy Butler: "It's mostly just a device I like to use for characterization. The mobile ears, tails, and big eyes help me emphasize gesture and expression more than I could with human characters, they allow me to be as ridiculous as I like, and, well, they're just plain fun to draw." This is no exaggeration; her character's facial features are quite simply the best I've ever seen. Combine that with incredible artwork, great characters and fantastic dialogue and you've got one of the most underrated webcomics ever. Check it out!
The Bad: Updates are infrequent, but considering the quality of the artwork, this is entirely forgivable.
Worth reading: Brouhaha

Little amers
The Good: Little Gamers is a really well written webcomic (for proof, check the worth reading link). Yet another great thing to come out of Sweden.
The Bad: Like most gaming webcomics, the jokes are usually hit or miss.
Worth reading: Dec 25

The Good: Two bohemian robots explore the solar system and find philosophical and moral predicaments at every turn. NPWIL is well-written and imaginative.
The Bad: Of all the webcomics I've profiled in this post, this one is updated the least frequently. A few months between comics is standard.
Worth reading: Explanation

Nobody Scores
The Good: I just discovered Nobody Scores recently, but it seems really quirky and funny.
The Bad: I haven't been reading it long enough to judge.
Worth reading: Frozen Fresh Bonus Pack

The Good: Orneryboy chronicles the supernatural adventures of the titular main character, his messy animal-loving girlfriend Dirtygirl, and zombie friend/pet Brian. The contrast between the bright, optimistic Dirtygirl and grumpy Orneryboy is written in a way that's cute and endearing, never cheesy.
The Bad: Updates are unfortunately sporadic.
Worth reading: Thankless Toil

Stay tuned Friday for 10 more webcomic recommendations in Webcomics - Part II!


Monday, July 9, 2007

The Importance of Pacing

I have a friend named Sven in Software Engineering with me at Concordia. While we've often collaborated well together on projects, our styles of programming couldn't be more different.

Sven likes to research and prepare. He reads the class textbook religiously and writes out his algorithms extensively beforehand. When he gets down to the nitty gritty of writing code, he's already almost done.

Gonzo Logo

I, on the other hand, throw myself into programming projects headfirst. I implement new concepts on the fly and learn by doing. I've described it as "gonzo coding" to some people, though if I really wanted to be true to Mr. Thompson's legacy I'd avoid editing too. In practice the opposite is true, with large segments of code needing to be tweaked to fit my mercurial plans and abstract visions.

When planning this blog, however, I took a page from the book of Sven and read lots of advice for new bloggers. Some of it was technical and mostly involved toying with the html of the Blogger template. Some suggestions dealt with the page's aesthetics, while others referred to accessibility and writing style.

What really struck me was the advice to avoid new blogger burnout. I recognized immediately what they were talking about: I may have a dozen good ideas for new posts right now, but if I update too frequently I may find myself at a loss for fresh ideas in a matter of weeks.

To avoid this predicament, the general consensus was that it is essential to create an update schedule and be consistent. In theory, not only will this set a manageable pace for blogging but also let readers know when they can expect new content.

Therefore, I'm letting you, my handful of readers, know that I plan to publish a new post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Coming this Wednesday: a much more substantial post about webcomics.

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Friday, July 6, 2007

A Salute to Daring Covers

Radiohead Graffiti

Cover versions. Most bands try them. The results are usually bland, pedestrian and completely unoriginal. Every once in a while, though, you come across a cover that completely changes the way you look at a song; something daring that makes major changes to the instrumentation, pacing and tone.

I recently stumbled upon one such cover, and it inspired me to write this post. The song "Just", originally by Radiohead, is a great alternative rock track that features terrific wailing electric guitars and plaintive vocals. That is until British artist/producer Mark Ronson decided to inject it with a syringe full of groove.

Ronson's cover, embedded below, is a completely different experience. The wailing guitar has become a horn section and the new drum work is not unlike what you'd hear on a George Clinton record. The whole tone of the song, previously mournful and bitter, is now funky and fresh. Making an alternative rock song danceable is already a noticeable feat, but a quality cover like this is a truly praiseworthy accomplishment.

It is in this spirit that I present to you three of my personal favorite covers by artists who dared to do things differently. If there's a distinctive cover that you love, show it some appreciation by leaving a comment.

  • All Along the Watchtower
    The Jimi Hendrix Experience

    (Original by Bob Dylan)
    Rumour has it that Dylan himself prefers Hendrix's legendary cover. Released just one year after the original, Hendrix turned this classic folk track into an incredibly powerful and soulful rock song.
  • Hurt
    Johnny Cash

    (Original by Nine Inch Nails)
    What other country/folk legend would cover a NIN song? Cash's tragic passing soon after the song's release made his version especially poignant. If you enjoyed this song, I urge you to check out the albums American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around, they're fantastic.
  • Hallelujah
    Jeff Buckley

    (Original by Leonard Cohen)
    Leonard Cohen is a musical genius, and the original version of Hallelujah is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The fact that Jeff Buckley could take that song and perform it differently but with equal majesty is a testament to his talent.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Beginner's Guide to RSS Feeds

RSS Logo

I have a confession: I hate change. I get so comfortable doing things a certain way that I sometimes resist changes that I know will be good for me in the long run. This gives you a bit of context as to why I'm usually about a year or two behind in upgrading my internet browser and other software. I fight tooth and nail to keep my old version, and only grudgingly submit to an upgrade.

When I finally did upgrade to IE7 (if you're wondering why I haven't switched to Firefox, consult the above paragraph), I found a host of features that I actually really enjoyed. As someone who really enjoys blogs and webcomics, I especially enjoyed the RSS Feeds function. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I thought I'd write a quick guide to help my fellow luddites embrace this technological wonder.

What is an RSS Feed?

Websites such as blogs and webcomics syndicate new content at certain intervals. The old fashioned way to check if a website had new content was simply to visit it and check. However, if a website adds new content infrequently or irregularly (I'm lookin' at you, VG Cats) this can become time-consuming and frustrating. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way for website owners to tell interested users that new content was available?

The solution is an RSS Feed (an acronym for Really Simple Syndication, believe it or not). Website owners create a feed site for their page on which they publish new syndicated content. Using a compatible internet browser (or an aggregator), a user can subscribe to these feeds (more on that later). Once subscribed, the browser will check for new content from that feed according to a time schedule and notify the user when new content is found.

How do I subscribe to a feed?

Here is a step-by-step guide to using feeds in Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2.0.0:

1. Surf over to a site that you'd like to subscribe to. For this example, we'll use my site, The Quixotic Engineer. If a website has an RSS Feed available (not all sites do), the RSS Button on your browser will turn orange. If so, click the RSS button (picture below). Alternately, there might be a button on the page labeled "Feed Site" or "RSS Feed" that should link you to their site feed.

RSS Button - Internet ExplorerRSS Button - Firefox

2. The site you will find yourself on is the site's feed. There should be box at the top of the page similar to the one in the picture below (click to enlarge). Click on the "Subscribe to this feed" button to do exactly that.

Subscribe to this Feed - Internet ExplorerSubscribe to this Feed - Firefox

OK, I've subscribed to a feed, what now?

Here's where IE7 and Firefox divert a little.

  • In Internet Explorer, feeds are saved under the "Feeds" portion of the favorites menu. To get there, first click the yellow star in the top left corner of the screen, then click on "Feeds". All the feeds that you've added will be here, sorted in alphabetical order. Feeds with unread content are bolded. If you right click on the feed, you can specify how often you would like the computer to check for new content.
  • Feed Library - Internet Explorer
  • In Firefox, using what is called "Live Bookmarking", feeds are treated like a favorites subfolder which can be moved anywhere in your favorites folder. Click on a feed and it will open like a folder, showing the latest posts from that site. This is only one option for handling RSS feeds in Firefox, however. There seem to be add-ons that let you handle feeds differently according to your preference. If you're reading this post and have experience with Firefox RSS, please leave a comment and I will alter this post accordingly (and credit you, of course). Feed Library - Firefox

My limited experience with Firefox notwithstanding, I hope that you, my fellow slow adapter, are convinced and have the tools necessary to start creating your own RSS library. Godspeed.


Monday, July 2, 2007

Bioshock Preview

Bioshock Big Daddy

If you're at all tuned in to gaming news, you've heard of it and possibly salivated a little. I'm not going to say anything new here that you haven't heard before.

To everyone else, the word of the day is Bioshock. A spiritual successor to the innovative System Shock series and scheduled to be released in late August, the game is attracting a lot of seemingly well-deserved hype. I can say from personal experience that every person who I've shown the game to has expressed an interest in purchasing it.

From what information has been released thus far, we know that the setting is the underwater city of Rapture. Built by a man named Andrew Ryan in the late 40's, the city was to be an objectivist utopia where "the artist would not fear the censor, the great will not be constrained by the small and the scientist would not be bound by petty morality..."

It is in this city that an underwater source of raw stem cells, dubbed ADAM, was discovered. Citizens of rapture quickly began using these cells to modify their bodies and minds, but for some the price was their humanity. A civil war soon broke out between Ryan and a young entrepreneur named Tenebaum who had a monopoly on ADAM. In the conflict, all natural sources of the cells were irreparably destroyed. This was bad news for a city now entirely dependant on ADAM, which functioned as both lifeblood and currency for the population, and society quickly degenerated into chaos.

Bioshock Little Sister

As a means of preserving the ADAM that remained, Dr. Tenebaum conceived a way of harvesting it off dead. He created the Little Sisters, genetically modified creatures in the form of little girls who wander Rapture with gigantic syringes. When they find a dead body, they suck out the ADAM and drink it, their bodies converting it into a stable form. As a player, these creatures present an interesting dilemma, as they possess the genetic material that you need to upgrade your character. However, harvesting this material off the Little Sisters, we are told, will result in their death.

Bioshock Big Daddy & Little Sister

It is for that reason that Dr. Tenebaum also designed the Big Daddy. While little is known about what exactly the Big Daddies are, we know that they resemble men in giant diving suits, and are often armed with shotguns and drills. Their goal is to escort the Little Sisters around Rapture and protect them from harm. They will not attack you unless you attempt to harm the Little Sisters. The AI interactions between the two are amazing to watch, as the Little Sisters skip and jump ahead of their protectors, whom they refer to as "Mr. Bubbles" (yes, that's where I stole this name from). Big Daddies are generally too strong to be killed by the player alone, but can be felled by cunning use of the environment (as demonstrated in the Hunting the Big Daddy video.) As such, they represent a sort of optional roaming boss battle, with the rewards being ADAM that the little sisters possess.

Personally, this concept alone is enough to sell me the game. It's this kind of innovation that the FPS genre has been sorely lacking in recent years. To see the game in action, check out the following video demo, and follow the links for more at the bottom of the page.


Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Night in Montreal

Montreal at Night

Montreal is a fantastic city in the summer; it has four universities downtown, a great selection of bars, clubs and venues, and a fairly unique mix of English, French, and a thousand other languages. With the F1, Just For Laughs, Francofolies and (most importantly) The Montreal Jazz Festival in town, there is no shortage of fun things to do.

I got to sample three of my personal favorites iconic Montreal institutions yesterday, so I figured I'd write about them:

Carlos & Pepe's is considered by many to be the best Mexican restaurant in Montreal. It has great food, large portions, cheap drinks and it's easy on the wallet. I had a great chicken quesadilla with rice and a salad, and that put me back only a little over 10$.

The word "jazz" is used loosely here, considering invited artists this year include Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. Personally, I think that the variety helps make the festival even better. There is jazz, blues, world, and soul music on a half-dozen stages, and all of the outdoor concerts are free! I only had time to wander for about an hour or two, but I managed to check out four interesting bands:
  • Montreal International Jazz FestivalJodi Proznick Quartet: I'm not a huge jazz fan, but these guys played the kind of jumpy jazz that's really fun to listen to. The bass player, Jodi Proznick, was fantastic.
  • Ragleela: "Indian ragas" music, apparently. Wasn't really my kind of thing, but it was interesting to listen to, with the sitar and tabla.
  • Shakura S'Aida: This band was really fantastic. The singer had a terrific set of pipes, and the perfect voice for the kind of blues and soul they were playing. They had a great organ/piano man who did some really fun improvisation, and they mixed in some really great guitar solos. I'll definitely look for them again next year.
  • Jah Cutta & Determination: I only had a chance to watch these guys for a little while. They were playing on the "tropical" stage, so it was highly Caribbean influenced music. While I can't say I'm a big fan of the genre, the audience was really responding to them.
I love a good beer. Two of my favorite Montreal bars, Brutopia and Les Trois Brasseurs, both brew fresh beer on site. I'm not a beer connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, but if you like beer and haven't tried microbrewed beer, I can't emphasize how badly you need to go out and try one. They're roughly a billion times better.

That night I tried two fantastic beers. The first was a Scotch ale, which was a dark red beer. I lack adequate vocabulary to properly describe a beer, but it combined everything I love about a red with the qualities of a darker beer. The second, which they called Great Plains, was an unfiltered wheat beer. I had never tried a wheat beer before, but I really enjoyed the distinctive taste.

Stephen Barry Band BluesvilleNot only was the beer fantastic, but they had a great live blues quartet playing. They were called the Stephen Barry Band, and they all looked old enough to be grandparents. Apparently that night was their 32nd(!) anniversary playing together. They played a terrific set, lots of classic covers, and with four instruments (guitar / bass / drums / sax) they made a great simple-yet-full sound. I thought so much of them I went to see them during a break and bought their latest album off them, Bluesville.

There you have it, one fun night in Montreal. Happy Canada day!

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