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The Quixotic Engineer

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Scruffy Programmers

Scruffy Programmers

It's a well known fact that programmers are generally unkempt, hairy and scruffy-looking fellows. Some believe this is due to the fact that, without a beard to rub, we would be unable to think. Justin Etheredge, however, suggests that we are merely emulating our computer science heroes, burly men such as Dijkstra, Stallman and Knuth. His gallery of scruffiness is well worth a click and a read.

Fear not clean-shaven programmers, you can always say that your well-groomed face is a tribute to Alan Turing.

The Programmer Dress Code - CodeThinked

[Image from mike's web log]

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Exploring the Wii

Made with

Unlike the thousands of disappointed children this year, for Christmas I received a Wii (found in an HMV in late November.) It being Christmas, I was also presented with a unique opportunity to christen my new console with a real litmus test: entertaining my gaming averse aunts, uncles and cousins.

We started with the easygoing Wii bowling, but that proved to be a bit too slow to be entertaining. Furthermore, they blamed every missed strike on either controller detection error or programmed randomness. Next up was Wii boxing, which was a big hit with my father. To most, however, it was too chaotic for them to tell what was going on and therefore their successes and failures felt like pure luck.

Wii tennis, however, was loved by all. They really got into the game, jumping around much more than necessary in their attempts to return the ball. Watching my mother and aunt laughing and playing against each other just warmed the cockles of my heart. It took some serious prompting to get them to leave the system when dinner was ready.

When I had time on boxing day to finally explore the system for myself, I had fun making Miis with my sister. She in particular enjoyed the process, and insisted that I had her eyes/face/hair/etc wrong and grabbed the remote to correct them herself. I ended up with the handsome fellow you see at the top of this post, lacking only my trademark sideburns to be complete.

The rest of today was spent exploring the world of Super Mario Galaxy. I've completed the first galaxy, and what has really struck me so far is the sheer variety of gameplay. So far I have seen concave planets, convex planets, Mario 64 style areas, 2D platformer areas, and the manta races from Mario Sunshine. The boss of the first galaxy, Megaleg, was a terrific monstrosity twice as large as the planet it stood on and was lots of fun to fight (check out a video of the battle).

Beyond that, I was deeply impressed by the selection of titles available for the Wii Virtual console. While the arcade titles available on Xbox Live might make some older gamers nostalgic, it's the NES and SNES games that have made me reflect fondly on my younger days. Super Mario Bros. 3, Donkey Kong Country, Mario Kart 64 and Paper Mario all look extremely tempting.

While I'm a little new to how exactly this friend code system works, drop me a comment or an e-mail if you'd like to be Wii friends. My beast of a code is: 4831 9046 9295 2783.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Katamari Christmas

To both long-time readers and those who have stumbled upon my site by chance, I wish you all a merry Christmas. Drive safely and have a good time with friends and family!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Musical Box (Christmas Edition)

Weighted Companion Cube Christmas

As someone who worked a variety of service industry jobs in my teenage years, I can quite rightly say that most Christmas music is little more than muzak to me. While I zone out the old staples like Bing Crosby and various choirs used as background music at family events, there are a handful of Christmas albums that I can actively enjoy listening to. So for this edition of The Musical Box I'll be exploring holiday music done right.

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector - Various Artists

Say what you will about the "Wall of Sound" ruining music, A Christmas Gift to You is one of the greatest holiday albums ever made. Featuring Darlene Love, The Crystals, The Ronettes and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, the album feels like a classic 60's pop album first and a Christmas album second. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is a timeless classic, and a nice reprieve from the usual holiday fare.

The Ventures' Christmas Album - The Ventures

This album by early 60's instrumental band The Ventures, best known for songs like "Walk Don't Run" and "Hawaii Five-O", blends Christmas staples with surf-rock seamlessly. Album highlights include "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" opening with "Wooly Bully" and "Jingle Bells" starting with the "What'd I Say" riff.

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album - Jethro Tull

While it was released as recently as 2003, no modern Tull album has better recaptured the wild essence of their 70's music better than this one. Featuring a combination of traditional folk ballads and holiday interpretations of classic Jethro Tull songs, the album is festive yet distinctive.

I'm always on the lookout for new listening suggestions (holiday related or otherwise), so please comment with your favorites.


Thursday, December 20, 2007


Transmetropolitan - Spider Jerusalem

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.
H. L. Mencken

For reasons I can't quite fathom (although it might have been more than one person professing their undying love for Watchmen to me in the space of a week), I took the time this week to explore a medium that I had long neglected: comic books. This first foray took the form of the postcyberpunk comic Transmetropolitan.

I was very impressed; Transmetropolitan follows the Hunter S. Thompson-esqe gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem on his mad quest for truth in the politically corrupt world of the future. It deals with themes of dissent, censorship, propaganda and journalistic integrity, and is a profoundly human drama (absent of solipsistic robots and intergalactic space battles.) Furthermore, it's nice to see a hero armed with nothing but a typewriter, a lot of drugs and the truth.

I could say more, but to be honest I'm still letting what I've read swirl around in my head a little. I will however say that if, like myself, you haven't opened up a comic book in over a decade, Transmetropolitan seems like a decent place to start (Follow the link at the bottom of the page for a free PDF download of issue #1.)

Since I enjoyed Transmetropolitan so much, I went ahead and ordered a few graphic novels off, namely Watchmen, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Those should be arriving towards the end of January, and I'll be perusing Y: The Last Man until then.

Free Download of Transmetropolitan issue #1 (PDF)

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

How the Valve Stole Christmas

Weighted Companion Cube Plush

From the moment it was announced way back in November, I knew I had to get my hands on a Weighted Companion Cube Plush. Portal is one of the best games I've ever played, so I was eager to have a version of the WCC that I didn't have to euthanize.

However, it appears that Valve has decided to cancel Christmas in Canada this year. While proceeding to the checkout with my Weighted Companion Cube and Aperture Laboratories Coffee Mug in hand, I was blindsided by five cruel words: Shipment to U.S. Addresses Only. Heartbroken, I put the items back on the virtual shelf.

Valve: even though you broke my heart (and killed me), you're still one of my favorite game developers. Your support for the mod community is commendable, as is the fact that you've remained independent and keep making terrific games. That being said, not shipping outside of the U.S. is massively uncool, especially considering that your games are enjoyed worldwide.

So, fellow non-Americans, it's time to get proactive. I'm going to urge you to e-mail the Valve store and let them know that you're interested in purchasing from them but do not live in the U.S.A. If they see that there's enough international interest in their products, they may consider revising their exclusionist shipping policies

That concludes what may have been my nerdiest blog post yet.

UPDATE: After some additional investigation, it turns out that the shipment page is lying. They *do* ship internationally, but it costs a whopping $27.


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sunday Reading

December is a busy time of year. Busy cramming for the exams next week? Caught up in the holiday rush? Either way, you're probably online looking for an excuse to procrastinate for another hour or so. Here's some recommended reading to help you do just that.

First up is an article over at CGSociety about the visual design of Team Fortress 2. I've geeked out more than once about how much I love this particular aspect of the game, but reading this article has given me a new found respect for the team of animators at Valve. Among the piles of great concept art (including an early build of the Heavy with a mullet), the article explores how well-designed characters and maps can enhance the gameplay experience. Consider the following excerpt:

TF2 Heavy with Mullet

Due to the importance of the nine character classes to the gameplay, the team focused on them first. They established a "read hierarchy", a prioritized list of the information that players needed to extract from the character model. From most to least important, this was: the player's team, the player's class, and the player's current weapon, which usually implies the player's intent in our game.

They used the model color palette to represent the team, a somewhat suboptimal solution for varying lighting conditions, but a good tradeoff given the technology constraints. “We found that silhouette and animation were better long-range identification characteristics than texture detail or color,” says Jamaal Bradley, “so we used those for class identification. Finally, we tackled the weapon by using contrast and color gradients to draw the player's eye to the chest area, where the weapons are held.

What a powerfully simple idea: using colour, shading and silhouettes to draw the player's eye towards important information. It's this level of attention to detail that has garnered Valve so much critical acclaim and fan loyalty. For more TF2 reading, consider the recently released Steam statistics, which include heatmaps and other interesting tidbits (such as the fact that the Medic class is criminally underplayed.)

Secondly is a fascinating look at the Morris worm, a 99 line program that ended up infecting 10% of the Internet back in 1988. The creator, Robert T. Morris, was a grad student working at Cornell University who simply wanted to prove that it was possible to propagate a program by exploiting vulnerabilities in sendmail and Finger. However, due to a flaw in the reproduction algorithm, the benign worm ended up reproducing itself many times on the same computer, eventually tying up the CPU. While the Morris Worm has been overshadowed by some of the modern malignant worms, I highly recommend this article to anyone involved in software security as a case study from a time when the web was much more homogeneous.

EVE Online Heist

Finally, a short article about one of the most famous and successful heists in MMORPG history, one that left the victim's character frozen dead in space and relieved of virtual goods worth an estimated $16,500 USD. It's a fascinating look into the world of EVE Online, a game that seems to be as much about political intrigue and skulduggery as it is about spaceships and mining. The story reads like a virtual Ocean's Eleven, and is an interesting commentary on the consequences of meeting people semi-anonymously in online worlds.

Have a great weekend, and best of luck in all your procrastinating.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Golden Compass

There have been very few mainstream film releases this year that I've had any interest in. I think that the last movie I actually saw in the theatres was the brilliant Hot Fuzz. There is, however, one film coming out before the end of the year that I've been eagerly anticipating for quite some time now.

The Golden Compass

In my last year of high school, I read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I was instantly fascinated by Lyra's world; its strange combination of steampunk, science, magic and religion was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Her parallel universe had its own language derived in part from archaic words: Oil became Naphtha, Greenlanders became Skraelings and electricity became anbaric power. I have read the series many times since then, and Pullman's imagination never ceases to astound me.

When I first heard about the film adaption of The Golden Compass, which is arriving in theatres this weekend, I was cautiously optimistic. The thought of Jordan College being filled with Hollywood actors tempered my excitement. If the movie version of my favorite book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has taught me anything, it's that sometimes an adaptation ends up being nothing like the vision of the story that you had built up in your head.

That being said, after watching the first five minutes of the film courtesy of the Internet, it seems like they did a great job with the visuals. The little girl playing Lyra seemed appropriately spunky as well. However, the rapid-fire explanation of Dust, Daemons, and Panserbjørne was extremely disappointing. The best part of The Golden Compass was being gradually introduced to the strange things in Lyra's world, and listing them off right from the start spoils the mystery. It's also evident from the trailer that the religious tone of the books has been severely diluted. Instead of the bad guys being the alternate universe Catholic Church, they've created a quasi-fascist organization to pit against Lyra and her friends. I question how they're going to deal with intercision and puberty without the religious slant.

I'm sad to say that even if the movie is junk, they'll be taking my money anyways. Even if they do ruin it, at least I'll always have the books!

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Monday, December 3, 2007

By Popular Request

Don Quixote

Since it's a common question, I thought I'd address it with a quick guide to pronouncing the word quixotic. The confusion is well warranted; while it's derived from the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote (roughly KEE-HOE-TAY), the word quixotic has an anglicized pronunciation (KWIK-SO-TIC).

I found a few definitions of the word on the net, but I most preferred this one from Wikipedia: "Quixotism is the description of a person or an act that is caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals. It also serves to describe an idealism without regard to practicality." Engineers are practical by definition, but as a nerd who believes in open-source software, video games as art and harnessing nuclear fusion (someday!), I can't help but feel like a dreamer at times.

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Features Every Game Should Have

Shigeru Miyamoto

I read a fascinating article last week over at Gamasutra entitled Game Feel: The Secret Ingredient, and it really got me thinking about game design. Game feel, as it is explained in the article, is an intangible quality that could be described by a game just feeling right. It's a fleeting elusive quality, something author Steve Swink believes may be tied to tight, responsive controls coupled with environments that respond to player actions with audio and visual cues. Game feel is important on a fundamental and subconscious level, where ideally the lines between man and machine begin to blur and thoughts translate naturally into on-screen actions

Today, however, I would like to take the time to consider aspects of game design that are much more concrete. While the feel may define a game's artistic merit and timelessness, there are very different aspects in play when we consider games as hobbies and entertainment. These qualities make a game fun to play with friends, playable for short periods of time, and challenging without being frustrating. Zack Hiwiller beat me to the punch with his excellent discussion of underused game mechanics, but I would like to consider the same question in a different way: what features should every game have, regardless of genre? Here's what I came up with, in no particular order:

  • Local Multiplayer: This one is a no-brainer. When I think back to the games that I logged hundreds of hours on, games like Super Smash Bros, Goldeneye and Mario Kart, their one common element was the ability to play them with friends over. Adding a solid co-op or cooperative mode can instantly add dozens of play hours to a game. The modern extension of this is the ability connect more than one person online from the same box (such as Halo 3), a feature that hopefully more games will adopt.
  • Unlimited Saves: Forcing players to reach some arbitrary save point is just a frustrating way to artificially inject challenge into a game. Allowing saves anytime not only makes it easier to pick up a game for 20 minutes, but also prevents the annoyance of having to repeat the same area many times over. This is an absolutely necessity in portable games; the otherwise terrific New Super Mario Bros. really flubbed it by enforcing the Super Mario World style "only save after castles" rule.
  • Good Voice Acting or None: Nothing shatters the illusion of a game world more than bad voice acting, second only to the bad writing that we've become so accustomed to. Considering the amount of time and money it takes to produce, publish and advertise a game, you would think that studios would cough up a little more to hire some real voice talent. If they aren't going to go that extra mile, then old-fashioned on-screen text might be the lesser of two evils.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head and by no means represent an exhaustive list, so I throw the challenge out to you now: what features would you recommend for any game, regardless of genre?