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September 29, 2008 under computing history, Unisys ICON

Since school started earlier this month, students are having their heads filled with useful (and useless) knowledge. For classrooms in Ontario, iMacs are what the Ontario Ministry of Education have (apparently, in Waterloo Region as far as I can tell) standardized on. Kids today, they don’t know lucky they are, what with their fancy user interfaces and sleek hardware design and whatnot. If it sounds like I’m bitter enough to evoke Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man character from SNL, then it’s purely coincidental…but not really.

Back in my day at St. Paul’s elementary, we had computers in our classroom that I almost completely forgot about until just now; the Unisys ICON. Little did I know, until Wikipedia told me so, that the ICON ran a really early version of QNX and were based on a standard set forth by the Ontario Ministry of Education. At St. Paul’s, for whatever reason, we’d get two or three of those trackball-equipped wonder machines for only a month or so at a time. Perhaps Northern Ontario kids weren’t expected to use them much? At any rate, the only thing I recall about those machines is while they did support an acceptable colour palette, a certain shade of cyan and magenta are forever burned into my brain. And the software…ummm, some sort of MS Paint-like application and Math Maze. By the time I was in junior high, the ICON was ditched for PCs and it was DOS/Windows from that point on.

It turns out I can’t keep that Grumpy Old Man shtick up, since the ICON is indeed what we had back in those days, but I don’t think we liked it.

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last night i dreamt that somebody made a list of fifteen under-exposed tunes

September 22, 2008 under Music

Jen Byck has posted 15 songs that she feels are under-exposed; deserving far more recognition than they get and has requested that I do the same. I must respond in kind with a Smiths-referencing title and 15 songs that I deem under appreciated.

  1. A Place To Bury Strangers – Don’t Think Lover
    APTBS take the best things about the Jesus and Mary Chain, Joy Division and Cocteu Twins, mix it all together, play it really loudly.
  2. Aqueduct – Hardcore Days and Softcore Nights
    This song is gangsta! But not really.
  3. Boards of Canada – Music Is Math
    Even though this was a single, I don’t think any of BoC’s singles will ever tear up the charts. This one should’ve, if the masses didn’t have such sucky musical tastes.
  4. Catherine Wheel – Broken Nose
    Adam and Eve was one of Catherine Wheel’s best albums. If I had to pick one track, and I do, it’s this one.
  5. The Flaming Lips – Talkin’ ‘Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants To Live Forever)
    The Flamings Lips have come a long way. You can find their recent music on movie soundtracks, TV shows, and commercials. But once upon a time, they dropped a lot of acid and wrote weird and catchy guitar pop.
  6. Mew – The Zookeeper’s Boy
    My fave from their very under-appreciated …And the Glass Handed Kites album.
  7. Mogwai – 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong
    I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a Mogwai song in this list…love the ‘gwai – love them! If I had to pick a song from their catalogue that I feel is under-valued it’s “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”.
  8. My Bloody Valentine – You Made Me Realise
    One year before releasing Isn’t Anything and three years before releasing like simply the most wicked sounding album EVER – Loveless – MBV tossed out the You Made Me Realise EP. The title track is a blistering little ditty that apparently becomes absolutely gargantuan when they perform it live and stretch it into a lengthy endurance test for your ear drums.
  9. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – Grey Cell Green
    I’m not sure why the Neds weren’t bigger on this side of the pond.
  10. The Notwist – One With the Freaks
    12, Shrink and the recently released The Devil, You + Me are amazing albums, but The Notwist’s 2002 album, Neon Golden, is their pinnacle.
  11. Spacemen 3 – Revolution
    Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to. No kiddin’.
  12. The Twilight Sad – Cold Days From the Birdhouse
    Great way to kick off an amazing album from a band that I expect big things from.
  13. Ween – Mutilated Lips
    Ween’s entire discography is completely underrated – they have amazing musical chops. The Mollusk is a masterpiece, I would say, and “Mutilated Lips” is my choice cut (“Waving My Dick In The Wind” would be a close second).
  14. XTC – Making Plans for Nigel
    I was a big XTC fan when I was only on this planet for a mere fours years. When kids were doodling on their notebooks and humming songs from the Minipops or Sesame Street, I was scrawling the XTC logo and that cat-lookin’ thing from the cover of the English Settlement album – I was a weird kid thanks to my cousins, I suppose. XTC would go on to release some up-tempo jangle pop radio hits like “Dear God” and “The Battle of Peter Pumpkinhead”, but “Making Plans for Nigel” is probably the one song I’ve liked since I could remember…well, anything.
  15. Yo La Tengo – Sugarcube
    Everything YLT is golden in my books; ‘twee rock, noise freakouts, fuzz pop and even their free-jazz sojourns. How “Sugarcube” didn’t find more success when it was released in the post-grunge era is beyond me. Even the video for it was pretty cool; way ahead of Jack Black’s School of Rock movie.

Fifteen songs are not enough. There’s so much more that I could add to a list like this. Where’s the Sonic Youth, Ride, Archers of Loaf, Swervedriver, Constantines, Butthole Surfers, Isis, Aphex Twin? I could go on…really, I could.

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are we still here? i think we are

September 10, 2008 under CERN, Large Hadron Collider, physics, science

CERN fired up their Large Hadron Collider earlier today after weeks of panic on the part of many of those less-informed. It is, to put it bluntly, a huge-ass particle accelerator deep underground near Geneva, Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider will zip protons around a tunnel at velocities nearing the speed of light, allowing those protons smash into each other and then recording the observations. It’s almost guaranteed that trillions of volts of electron volts will result from these collisions, and hopefully the emergence of the Higgs boson.

The LHC will be used in the hopes of finding the Higgs boson; a particle (or set of particles) responsible for giving mass other particles their mass. A successful find will help to strengthen the Standard Model of Particle Physics, String Theory and the widely-known Big Bang theory; the start of our universe and life as we know it.

It’s been mistakenly reported that the LHC has the potential to destroy our planet. CERN may be attempting to recreate the beginning of the universe, but it’s at a much smaller scale; Earth will be fine. For obvious (to those who know me) reasons, these doomsday warnings from the misinformed annoy me. I don’t want to get in a science vs religion rant right now, but I’m really cheering for science today.

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point at what you want to die and make it dead

September 3, 2008 under Gaming, Nintendo, Wii

For whatever reason, I decided to fire up Half-Life 2 and play through it again this past weekend. I’m not sure why I did, since it’s been a long time since I’ve played an FPS on a PC. Sure enough, all of the things that make Valve a premiere game studio were there exactly as how I remembered them in HL2; smooth graphics, captivating story, top-notch gameplay, and so on. Yet something felt odd and out of place. For the first hour or so, it felt like I was playing with oven mitts on. The keyboard+mouse combo was foreign to me; I was spoiled by the Wii.

The fact that I own a Wii probably contributes to my lack of enthusiasm for PC gaming. Say what you will about its modest hardware specs when compared to the Xbox 360 or PS3, the Wii’s control scheme stands alone. No where else is this more evident than in FPS games. The goal behind FPSs is to make the gamer feel like they are the protagonist – not by viewing the action from above, the side, or over-the-shoulder – by viewing the game from the character’s perspective. An enemy’s attacking you? Shoot him by aiming your Wii remote at the enemy, much like a weapon in the real world, and pull the trigger. It’s natural (not the homicide part), intuitive and exhibits the behavior of our three-dimensional existence.

Let’s contrast this with the keyboard and mouse. While this control scheme – employed by countless FPSs on the PC – provides plenty of accuracy, it still feels like a game. You have to map three-dimensional ideas to a two-dimensional implementation. On a flat surface, you first move your hand along the x-axis to the position of the enemy and then along y-axis to the desired height (or in the reverse order). That seems more like Battleship to me. I shouldn’t knock the keyboard+mouse combo too much, it’s still better than using two analog sticks for aiming like the Xbox 360 and PS3 employ; they’re similar to those stuffed toy crane games that used to be found in arcades.

Jeff Atwood, who I regularly read on his Coding Horror blog and anticipate the launch of his StackOverflow project with Joel Spolsky, is a developer and writer that I respect. But I had to disagree with him couple of months ago when he said, via Twitter, that the Wii couldn’t be a serious gaming console. I replied to him and mentioned that Metroid Prime 3 was the best FPS experience I ever had, thanks to the control scheme and I was able to enjoy it from the comfort of my living room couch. Here’s the conversation: 1, 2, 3, and 4).

The only thing that irks me is that the Wii’s excellent control is not exploited in the way that it should be. There’s far too much shovelware and awful software available for the Wii at the moment, with the odd gem or two. But I think that will change with some promising new disc releases like The Conduit, Fatal Frame 4, Dead Rising : Chop Till You Drop and Mad World.

The Conduit

Fatal Frame 4

Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop

Mad World

Even though some upcoming WiiWare games like Alien Crush Returns and Mega Man 9 won’t highlight the Wii’s innovative control scheme, I’m still looking forward to them too 🙂

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