Hypercritical.co Has Moved

The domain name hypercritical.co no longer points to this Tumblr site. I’d always planned for Tumblr to be a stopgap solution until I could get my own site up and running. Turns out that process takes me 1,079 days. Rest assured, I felt guilty each time I wrote something new for this Tumblr, knowing that this would not be the post’s final resting place.

To ease the transition, I’ve created redirects for all the old Tumblr URLs. For example, http://hypercritical.co/post/36665737157/strange-game should now redirect to http://hypercritical.co/2012/11/27/strange-game. I’ve also redirected the old Tumblr RSS feed URL. The feed at the new site uses Atom instead of RSS. I’m not sure if that will cause problems for news readers. If so, please manually subscribe to the new feed URL.

Monday, January 21 2013 at 1:31 AM — 19 notes

CES: Worse Products Through Software

Watching the CES coverage out of the corner of my Internet eye, I’m reminded of exactly how bad most hardware makers are at writing software. Mat Honan summed it up nicely last month: No One Uses Smart TV Internet Because It Sucks. Amen to that. But it’s not just TVs. Who really likes the “software” in their car, microwave, or blu-ray player?

All of this software is terrible in the same handful of ways. It’s buggy, unresponsive, and difficult to use. I actually think the second sin is the worst one, especially when it comes to appliances and consumer electronics. Dials and knobs respond to your touch right now. Anything that wants to replace them had better also do so. But just try finding and watching a YouTube video on your TV and see how far you get before your brain checks out. It’s faster to get up off the couch and walk to a computer—or, you know, whip out your iPhone.

The companies out there that know how to make decent software have been steadily eating their way into and through markets previously dominated by the hardware guys. Apple with music players, TiVo with video recording, even Microsoft with its decade-old Xbox Live service, which continues to embarrass the far weaker offerings from Sony and Nintendo. (And, yes, iOS is embarrassing all three console makers.)

Companies that make physical products that have only recently started sprouting sophisticated software features all find themselves in a similar bind. The obvious solution is to just make better software. If only. I have little faith that these companies are willing and able to transform themselves in the radical ways required to produce and support great software. Here’s what I see happening instead.

The long-term success of these companies now hinges on how difficult it is to create the hardware product that’s wrapped around their crappy software. Car makers, for example, are probably safe from software upstarts (if not from other car makers). The barrier to entry in the auto industry is immense, and the remaining successful car makers have deep expertise in their craft. If Tesla succeeds, for example, it won’t be because MyFord Touch is slow and unintuitive.

TV makers, on the other hand, should be worried. Most of the hardware they make is already a component of the industries dominated by the software guys. The proliferation of “smart” TV features is fueled by the fear of becoming a mere component supplier. Unfortunately for the companies involved, the terrible quality of these features may actually end up hastening the transitions from “TV maker” to “panel maker.”

At this point, the only thing keeping the hounds at bay is the reality that a TV with non-crappy software requires a much deeper cooperation with content providers. So while Apple can whip up a TV running iOS in its sleep, giving that software something useful to do requires talking to content owners—and possibly also cable companies and ISPs, who are even more keen to keep the content owners in their camp, and who have barriers to entry that the auto industry would die for. And this is before even considering the fragmentation of TV and Internet access in the US and around the world.

The hardware barriers that protect ISPs and car makers will probably hold up (much to our detriment, in the case of US ISPs), but I think the TV content owners will eventually come around—or be routed around. When that happens, the market for formerly “software-neutral” hardware devices like TVs will rapidly follow the same path as the mobile phone market. If it happens soon enough, it may even be the same familiar handful of companies that gobble up all the losers: Apple, Samsung, Google, maybe even Microsoft.

Until then, we’ll all just have to suffer through—or find a way to ignore—this avalanche of software that’s slowly making our a/v equipment, appliances, and vehicles more annoying to use.

Monday, January 7 2013 at 4:31 PM — 131 notes

Strange Game

This article originally appeared in issue 2 of The Magazine on October 25, 2012.

Journey for the PlayStation 3 is the best video game I’ve played in a long time. I’m going to use it to illustrate a larger point about technology, and in doing so, I’m going to spoil the game. If you have any interest in video games at all, I strongly recommend that you do not read any further until you’ve played it.

Online discourse can be harsh. Nowhere is this more true than in multiplayer video games. It’s nearly impossible to play a popular online game without being exposed to — or worse, being the target of — the most vile kinds of behaviors and insults, including sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs.

This problem is not confined to video games. Even something as seemingly benign as a comment form on a popular technology blog can trigger profoundly bad behavior. A well-known Penny Arcade comic sums up the phenomenon nicely in the form of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which states: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad.

Many remedies have been tried: moderation, the use of “real names” (whatever that means), increasingly complex privacy settings, user voting, karma scores, etc. Sometimes these things help, but often only a little — and they all require constant vigilance.

In frustration, many users and content creators choose to take out the big hammer and end discourse entirely. Eliminate blog comments. Mute all voice chat. Disable communication between players on opposing teams. The only winning move is not to play.

So goes the conventional wisdom. But then there’s Journey, a $15 video game for the PlayStation 3. When you start playing Journey, it’s not even obvious that it’s a multiplayer game. When other players appear, they are not announced in any way, nor are you directed to interact with them. Some players choose to ignore them and complete the game on their own. Others dismiss them as computer-controlled NPCs. This is the first part of Journey’s solution: interaction with others is optional.

Those who choose to engage with others have only a few choices. Players can move, jump, and “sing” by pressing a single button, causing a musical note to play and a unique glyph to appear on screen. The glyph is not selected or drawn by the player; it’s automatically chosen by the game (so penis-themed griefing is out of the question). There is no text or voice chat. Singing is the only way to communicate, and the only control the player has over the note that’s played is the volume and duration.

Most critically, none of these actions can harm other players. Even movement can’t be used as a weapon; players simply pass through each other, making it impossible to bump other players off a high ledge or otherwise perturb their progress. Movement can’t even be used to race ahead and steal a desirable in-game item before another player can get to it, because power-ups are not consumed when acquired: they remain in place for future players to receive.

All of this may sound like it stops just short of banning communication entirely. Will players even bother to interact with each other? Surely, such a limited palette of options will render the multiplayer aspects of Journey trite and inconsequential.

But that’s not what happens at all. Instead, Journey players find themselves having some of the most meaningful and emotionally engaging multiplayer experiences of their lives. How is this possible?

Though players can’t harm each other, they can help each other. Touching another player recharges the power used to leap and (eventually) fly. In cold weather, touching warms both players, fighting back the encroaching frost. More experienced players can guide new players to secret areas and help them through difficult parts of the game.

Journey players are not better people than Call of Duty players or Halo players. In fact, they’re often the same people. The difference is in the design of the game itself. By so thoroughly eliminating all forms of negative interaction, all that remains is the positive.

Players do want to interact; real people are much more interesting than computerized entities. In Journey, players inevitably find themselves having positive interactions with others. And, as it turns out, many people find these positive, cooperative interactions even more rewarding than their usual adversarial gaming experiences.

Does this mean that playing Journey turns players into relaxed, peace-loving, spiritually enlightened beings? Certainly not — but the limited communication system works in more ways than one.

In the same way that you can imagine the actors in a subtitled film (speaking in a language you don’t understand) are all giving Oscar-worthy performances, it’s natural to assume that every other Journey player has only the best intentions. After all, while we may judge ourselves by our motivations, we tend to judge others by their actions. The actions in Journey are all either neutral or positive, so that’s how players perceive each other.

Journey players are also anonymous during the game. The unique player glyphs are only shown next to PlayStation Network account names when the game is over, and they change on each play-through. Again, this plays into that subtitled-movie optimism. It’s much easier to believe that the anonymous player with the winged glyph is the most caring, thoughtful person in the world when you don’t know his PSN account name is K1LLSh0t99.

If you want some evidence of the deep feelings triggered by this game, look no further than the Journey Apologies thread in the official forum for the game. Here, players apologize to the anonymous others they feel they have disappointed in the game. It’s like missed connections for gamers. Here’s an example post:

To my friend in the fifth area: I never wanted to leave you. I just whiffed really badly on a jump. I miss you. And I’m sorry.

Journey may be just a game, but the lessons it teaches about ourselves and the things we’re capable of creating can be applied to all of human endeavor.

Throughout history, we humans have invented many different sets of rules for ourselves. Some have worked better than others, but all of them have been exploited. As anyone with children knows, if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s finding loopholes.

When a system of rules is applied to many people, thoroughly codified, and consistently enforced, you have something approaching a government. But for governments, even the most successful change slowly and often painfully. This can lead even the most optimistic person to despair.

Human history is long, but how many different sets of rules have really been tried? In meatspace, it’s so difficult to establish a new set of rules or change the existing ones that the rate of design iteration is severely limited.

This is not so in the relatively consequence-free worlds of video games and the Internet. In the digital realm, wild experimentation and rapid iteration are the norm. It’s also much easier to establish and enforce an iron-clad set of rules in a virtual world than in the real one. This is the environment that created Journey, and its rarity is why it’s such a joy.

The lesson of Journey is that success is possible, even in an area like online multiplayer interaction which has seemed so hopeless for so long over so many thousands of iterations. Success is possible.

But let’s go further. Our digital lives increasingly affect our real lives. Consider Twitter, another system for online interaction that has succeeded in large part thanks to its novel set of rules and limitations. There’s a whole world of bad behavior that doesn’t fit into 140 characters and doesn’t work when producer/consumer relationships are asymmetrical. Twitter isn’t just a game; its influence extends into the real world, in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

As another US presidential election season grinds on and I become freshly disillusioned with the seemingly intractable problems in our system of government, Journey and Twitter give me hope. They make me believe that maybe, just maybe, the digital world can be both a laboratory for new ideas and, eventually, a giant lever with which to change the formerly unchangeable.

Tuesday, November 27 2012 at 9:42 AM — 47 notes

About My Mountain Lion Review

As I have for the past 13 years (yikes!), I wrote a review of the latest major release of the Mac operating system, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, for Ars Technica. There are several ways to read it.

The Web Version

I consider the web version to be the canonical version. It has the best formatting and the most features. I believe that good writing for the web includes a lot of links. A web browser is the best place to inspect and follow those links.

The free web version has ads, and it’s split up into multiple “pages” (which are actually much longer than a single printed page). This kind of pagination annoys some people. I actually like it for very long articles because it helps me keep my place across multiple reading sessions. I can remember I was on page 8 instead of remembering my exact position in a very long scrolling web page.

That said, I also really like how an Ars Premier subscription eliminates all ads from the Ars Technica web site and gives me the option to view any article on a single page. I use single-page view on very long articles when I’m searching for some text using the web browser’s “Find…” feature. I use it all the time on short articles.

Some people think Ars Technica forces me to break my article up into many tiny pages. That’s not the case. I choose how to paginate the article. I like to break it up by topic, if possible, which means that the “pages” vary widely in length. This year, Ars Technica actually asked me to merge several pages together to reduce the total number of pages (and I did).

The screenshot of TextEdit in the HiDPI section will actually display at Retina resolution on an iPad, both on the web and in the ebook versions. I briefly considered doing every image in the review at Retina resolution, but the Ars Technica CMS currently has no officially supported way to display Retina images to capable browsers. Some screenshots would also require more pixels than any one of my (non-Retina) displays have. Maybe next year.

The eBooks

This year, I created the Kindle and ePub versions of the article myself. They’re both generated from the canonical HTML version. Both ebook formats have severe limitations, most of which are imposed by the reader software.

For the best ebook reading experience, use a device or application that supports Kindle Format 8. KF8-capable readers support amazing new technologies like text that flows around images and the ability to tie a caption to an image. Yes, that was sarcasm.

Unfortunately, many Kindle reading devices and applications don’t support Kindle Format 8—most notably, the iOS Kindle app. The Mac version does support KF8, however, as does the Kindle Fire.

The Kindle ebook is a single file that contains two versions of the content: one in Kindle Format 8 and one in the older Kindle format. Open the same ebook file in both the Mac and iOS Kindle reader applications and you’ll see two very different appearances.

Apple’s iBooks app displays the ePub version of the book almost as well as the KF8 readers show the Kindle version, but it has an annoying habit of stretching the content to fit the vertical space of the page when a large image causes a mid-page break. This can cause the image captions to be separated from their associated images by big swaths of whitespace.

[Update 7/26/12: Thanks to some help from iBooks guru Serenity Caldwell, the whitespace issue has been resolved. The ePub version now looks pretty nice in iBooks on an iPad.]

Lesser reader applications and devices display the Kindle and ePub files in progressively more depressing ways. Most (all?) ebook reader applications also don’t provide a nice way to have a text link briefly display an image on top of the content, or a way to show a larger, un-cropped version of an inline image. I really wish ebook readers had the same capabilities and behaviors as modern web browsers. Alas, we are far from that goal.

(I was not involved in the creation of the PDF version, but I imagine I’d find the limitations of the PDF format similarly frustrating.)

The Pricing

The Mountain Lion Kindle ebook is $4.99, which is the same price as last year’s Lion ebook. I considered a lower price, but Amazon’s ebook royalty system is geared towards higher-priced (or maybe just smaller) ebooks. Even at $4.99, more than half the purchase price goes to Amazon. You can read Amazon’s pricing page and do the math for yourself for a 7.5 MB Kindle ebook.

At various times, people have asked me if I have a flattr account or something similar through which they can send me money. It’s always felt weird to me for anyone to send me money “just because.” I’m much more comfortable creating something and then selling it to people who want it. My Mountain Lion review provides just such an opportunity.

Last year was the first year that Ars Technica tried selling ebook versions of my writing. The results certainly exceeded my expectations, but I didn’t get any part of the ebook profits. This year, I will.

So if you’re one of those people who has asked about sending money to thank me for my writing, my podcast, or whatever, only to be rebuffed by my discomfort with receiving “money for nothing,” now’s your chance to pay money for something: buy the Kindle ebook or subscribe to Ars Premier for a month or a year.

The Stats

  • 25,935 words
  • 167 images (31.6 MB)
  • 206 links to other web sites
  • 66 links to other parts of the article
  • 143 links to other articles at Ars Technica
  • 371 original screenshots (252 MB)
  • 10,339 words of research notes
  • 1,253 lines of Perl code across 10 scripts to generate three different formats from the canonical HTML source: Ars CMS, ePub, and Kindle
  • All three formats were generated 251 times (so far)
  • Total size of all files associated with the writing process: 877 MB.
  • I saved the document 2,195 times while writing it in BBEdit
  • The article content was constantly backed up onto 9 different hard drives on four Macs in two different locations (thanks to Dropbox, Time Machine, and SuperDuper), and pushed up to two different online backup services (Backblaze and CrashPlan)
  • Applications used: BBEdit, Dragon Dictate, TextEdit, Simplenote, Photoshop CS6, VMware Fusion, xScope, Xcode, Yojimbo.

Highlights from the Future

In an earlier post, Highlights from 2011, I worried that the audience for my brand of tech writing was an ever-shrinking portion of a much larger, broader market. I often feel the same way about my podcast, Hypercritical—the third thing to share this name. (In order: 2009, 2010, 2011.)

But the web traffic and ebook sales from last year’s Lion review showed me that, at the very least, my audience is still growing in absolute numbers even as it may be shrinking as a percentage of the whole. For that, I continue to be very grateful, and I hope this year turns out just as well. Thanks to all of my fellow nerds for allowing me to continue to do this.

Wednesday, July 25 2012 at 8:40 AM — 150 notes

Better Pasta

I like pasta. I’d like to help people make better pasta. It pains me to think about all the poorly prepared pasta being served and eaten in America. My advice will focus on plain old store-bought dried pasta. Nothing fancy. You’ve probably made some yourself.

I’m specifically not talking about preparing or cooking fresh pasta, how to execute any particular pasta recipe, or why you should never, ever buy pasta sauce in a jar. (You really shouldn’t, though.) This is just about the basics: how to cook and serve dried pasta as part of some larger recipe, the details of which are out of scope, for now.

Here’s my advice, in no particular order.

Do not overcook your pasta.

Please, I beg you, do not overcook your pasta. Every time you serve a pile of starchy, gelatinous mush, an Italian grandmother sheds a single, silent tear. Overcooking is by far the most common pasta sin in America. (As evidence, consider that Olive Garden, the gold standard for incorrectly prepared Italian food, intentionally overcooks its pasta.)

These days, the cooking times on most boxes of dried pasta are in the ballpark, but there are exceptions. Boxed macaroni and cheese and other “children’s” pasta products routinely have cooking times that should be cut in half. But even in the best case, cooking times are just estimates. The actual cooking time will depend on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen, the mass and thermal conductivity of your cookware, the power of your cooktop, and on and on.

As you gain experience, you’ll be able to tell when pasta is ready by “feel” (with a pair of tongs or a stirring spoon). But the old fashioned way is still the most reliable: taste a piece. Drop the pasta in the boiling water (see the next section for more on that), set a timer for 1-2 minutes less than the time on the box of your trusted dried pasta brand, and start tasting when it goes off.

There’s an old saying about cooking eggs: done in the pan, overdone on the plate. The same goes for pasta. It will continue to cook after you remove it from the pot, and even more so when you put it directly into another hot pan or combine it with other hot, moist ingredients.

Dried pasta in hot water cooks from the outside in. The very last part to be cooked is the part that’s the least accessible to the hot water (e.g., the “knot” in the middle of a farfalle bow tie). Once the pasta is “cooked through,” meaning there’s no longer any trace of hard, dried pasta at the center, you’ve probably already waited too long to take it out of the water.

Here’s a good heuristic for string-shaped pasta like spaghetti. Fold the pasta back on itself and pinch it near the end, forming a small loop where it makes a u-turn. If that loops closes easily and completely collapses on itself, leaving no hole at all, you’ve waited too long to remove it from the water.

One last tip on cooking times. Pasta with a lot of surface area (e.g., rotini) cooks faster, and it also overcooks faster. It can take only a few seconds to go from “just right” to “too late.” Be aware of your pasta shape. The more surface area, the smaller the margin for error.

I’m going to continue to my next point, but cooking time will come up again. If you learn only one thing from reading this, it should be that doneness is the most complicated, difficult, and important aspect of cooking pasta.

Cook your pasta in a sufficient amount of boiling, salted water.

How much is a “sufficient” amount? A good rule of thumb is 4-6 quarts of water for each pound of dried pasta. (Most boxes of dried pasta are 1 pound.) You can probably get away with using less, but I think that leads to a pot that feels too crowded.

Fill your pot with cold water from the tap. Hot water is more likely to pick up unpleasant stuff from the pipes. Salt the water until it tastes like the ocean. (If you don’t know what ocean water tastes like, please take a break now and find out. This blog post will be here when you return.) Nothing other than salt needs to be in the water. Do not add oil.

I’ve heard people say they add oil to the water to prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. This is misguided on multiple levels. First, the pasta will spend most of its time below the surface of the water, far from the oil which will all stay on the surface of the water. Second, you want pasta’s natural, starchy surface to be exposed upon exiting the water so the pasta can absorb the flavorful ingredients you’re about to combine it with. An oil coating would impair that.

As with most kitchen myths, there is a kernel of truth behind the notion of oil in the pasta water: pasta that sticks together is bad. You do not want pasta to stick to other pieces of pasta, or to any part of the pot you’re boiling it in. But the solution to this problem is simple: stir the pasta at a few key points during the cooking process.

Stir right after you dump the pasta into the water. Adding the pasta will decrease the temperature of the water, and may even take it off the boil. This is fine, but it does mean that the bubbling action won’t be there to keep the pasta from settling to the bottom and sticking to itself or the hot surface of the pot.

Stir again as the boil comes back, to confirm that the pieces really are all separate and not sticking to each other. With any luck, the bubbles will keep everything moving and all the pieces of pasta separated for the rest of the cooking time.

Long, stringy pasta shapes require the most stirring later in the cooking process because you can’t agitate them well until they become pliable, and at that point they may have been pressing up against their neighbor strands in hot water for a while. Be vigilant. If a few get away from you, tongs can help separate strands once the boil is rolling along again.

(And please, do not break long, stringy pasta. Cook and eat it at its natural length. You’ll figure out the fork-twirling thing with a little practice.)

Finish cooking your pasta in the sauce.

Pasta should go directly from the hot water where it (mostly) cooked into a vessel where it will be combined with the rest of the ingredients in the finished dish. It could be a traditional tomato sauce, olive oil with garlic, or a complicated multi-ingredient mixture. Whatever it is, the pasta must immediately meet it.

You should use a colander if it will take more than 15 seconds to fish out the pasta with tongs or other utensils. Remember, it’s still cooking! If you do use a colander, do not rinse your pasta. Just think of the colander as a really large utensil for separating the pasta from the water and bringing it to its next vessel.

When combining the pasta with the other ingredients, try to coat each and every piece of pasta. If possible, undercook the pasta slightly (i.e., leave a tiny bit of uncooked dry pasta at the center) and really finish cooking it in the sauce. This is most practical when combining a small amount of pasta with a sauce prepared in a very wide pan, preferable one that contains some liquid. If liquid is lacking, a bit of the water that the pasta cooked in can be added. (A splash of starchy pasta water is a common liquid thickener in many simple pasta recipes.)

Sauce your pasta, but don’t over-sauce it.

In case this doesn’t go without saying, if there’s a large volume of sauce, like a giant simmering pot of tomato sauce, don’t dump the pasta into it. You will need some other pot or pan in which to mix the pasta and just the right amount of sauce.

Once the hot water has been removed from it, the pot the pasta cooked in makes the perfect mixing vessel (and you won’t have to dirty another pot). You may want to put a ladle full of sauce in the bottom of the pot before you dump the freshly drained pasta into it, lest a few pieces stick to the hot bottom. Ladle in more sauce a bit at a time and mix until every piece of pasta is coated.

It seems to be the inclination of Americans to put on too much sauce, so when in doubt, under-do it. Sauce should touch every piece of pasta, but that doesn’t mean every piece should be covered with an opaque red coating.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the bowl of pale, virgin pasta with a giant mound of tomato sauce on top of it—a tasteless starch ball with a red hat. This is almost as big a sin as overcooking (and is usually combined with it, naturally).

Remember, sauce (or oil or whatever) must touch every piece. You have to mix it in before serving. Yes, even if you plan to provide more sauce on the side for people to add. If you learn only two things from reading this, let the second be that you must never, ever serve a single piece of pasta that looks like it just came out of hot water and never touched another ingredient.

Pasta should be served in warm bowls.

If you plan to put the pasta in a large serving bowl, warm that bowl, and also warm all the individual bowls for each place setting. The easiest way to warm bowls is to pour the hot pasta water into them. If using a colander, line the bottom of your sink with bowls (stacking if necessary) and put the colander into one of them. Then pour the pasta water into the bowls, ending by pouring the last of the water and the pasta itself into the colander. If you have a fancy “warming drawer,” that works too. But you’re going to have a bunch of hot water on hand anyway, so you might as well use it.

This may all sound crazy—warm bowls? really?—but trust me, it makes a difference. Putting hot, freshly sauced pasta into a massive, cold, ceramic dish will instantly suck the life out of it. Warm bowls. Seriously.

Serve and eat immediately.

Baked pasta dishes are an exception; they almost always need to rest a while before serving. But hot pasta mixed with sauce or other ingredients and not put into an oven must be served and eaten as soon as it’s ready. This usually means that the pasta shouldn’t even be dropped into the hot water until everyone is in the process of coming to the table. Some dishes can stand up to a few minutes on the table in a (warm) serving bowl, but the clock is ticking.

Maintain perspective.

If this all sounds pedantic and overwrought, well, it is. But like anything else in cooking, it all becomes second nature if repeated enough times. Just note your mistakes each time and try to do the opposite next time.

I’m sure there are people reading this who have literally never undercooked pasta in their lives. Try that next time. See if you can intentionally undercook some pasta. You may find it harder than you think. Once you’ve done that, go back in the other direction. Eventually, you’ll home in on “just right.”

It’s often the case that the simpler the food, the more important the ingredients and the preparation techniques become. This is true for eggs, and it’s definitely true for pasta.

And speaking of ingredients, please do buy the best you can afford when making pasta dishes. Dried pasta itself is incredibly inexpensive, and you shouldn’t be smothering it in sauce. Spend your money on a little bit of good olive oil, fresh garlic, and real cheese. Yes, parmigiano reggiano is over $20 per pound these days, but a little goes a long way. And when that freshly grated cheese hits the hot surface of that perfectly cooked pasta sitting in its warmed bowl, you’ll know it’s all been worth it.

Bonus tip: pasta in soups.

Many soup recipes include pasta: elbow macaroni, tiny stars, wide noodles, etc. Pasta will overcook in soup just as easily as it will overcook in water. To prevent this, cook the pasta ahead of time, undercooking it slightly. After removing the pasta from the water, do something I just told you never to do: rinse the pasta in cold water to stop the cooking process, coat it in olive oil to prevent it from sticking to itself, then set it aside.

When the time comes to serve the soup, add just the right amount of pasta to each individual bowl. The (relatively) cool pasta will warm up quickly in the hot soup, and finish cooking through by the time the first bite is taken. It will also help lower the temperature of the soup sightly, making it easier to eat with less blowing and potential tongue burning.

Wednesday, February 15 2012 at 12:30 AM — 116 notes

Highlights from 2011

This past year was an eventful one for someone like me who has already passed most of the common milestones of adulthood (college, marriage, home ownership, children). The highlights:

  • I started a weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin, named after this blog (which, in turn, was named after something I wrote for Ars Technica in 2009). I’ve been amazed by the popularity of the show and the quality of the listener feedback and participation. Special thanks to Jeremy Mack, creator of showbot.me, and Justin Michael, creator of 5by5illustrated.com.

    I’ve also become a devoted fan of several other podcasts on the 5by5 network, co-hosted by Dan Benjamin: Back to Work with Merlin Mann, Build and Analyze with Marco Arment, The Ihnatko Almanac with Andy Ihnatko, and The Talk Show with John Gruber. And for dessert, Roderick on the Line with John Roderick and Merlin Mann.

  • Though it started in 2010, The Incomparable, a geek ensemble podcast on which I’m proud to be a semi-regular guest, really hit its stride in 2011, with some great episodes about Star Wars (ANH part 1 and part 2; ESB part 1 and part 2), Pixar (part 1 and part 2), giant fantasy novels (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear), plus a bushel of episodes about Dr. Who and other TV shows and movies.

    I enjoy being on this podcast all out of proportion to the number of listeners it’s managed to gather. If you have even a fraction of the fun listening as I do recording this show, you should definitely give it a try. (And if you’re already a listener, why not rate it or write a review in iTunes?)

  • In June, I made my first trip to WWDC in San Francisco, which was also my first trip farther west than Colorado. Ostensibly, I made the trip because I was afraid that Mac OS X 10.7 Lion would be released after WWDC but before Apple published videos of the sessions for non-attendees. (I rely on the information presented at WWDC when writing my Mac OS X reviews for Ars Technica.) But really, going to WWDC is something I’d always wanted to do.

    The trip was expensive, and I had to take time off work to do it, but it was so worth it. I saw what turned out to be Steve Jobs’s final keynote presentation. I met tons of people in person that I’d known for years online, and made several new friends. I also got to talk to a handful of famous (well, “nerd famous”) people in the Apple community that I’d never imagined I’d ever have any contact with. I refuse to name-drop them, lest it cheapen the experience (and no, sadly, Steve Jobs was not one of them), but the suffice it to say that it exceeded all my expectations. I’m not sure when or if I’ll make it to WWDC again, but it’ll be extremely hard to top my first time.

  • Apple’s release of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion in July meant that my trip to WWDC was indeed a wise choice. In the two years since my last Mac OS X review at Ars Technica, the site has grown tremendously. Amazing feature stories on all sorts of subjects were pulling in huge traffic numbers, well beyond what my past Mac OS X reviews had drawn. I worried that the audience for my brand of tech writing was no longer significant enough to matter.

    When my Lion review was published, I was grateful to be proven wrong. Thanks to everyone who continues to read what I write. Thanks for indulging my idiosyncrasies and continuing to hold me to the same high standards that I demand of the things I write about. And thanks to everyone at Ars for so many years of loyalty and for building an amazing publication that I’m proud to be even a small part of.

  • Steve Jobs died in October, and it affected me more than I’d expected it to. I wrote about it on Ars, talked about it on my podcast, and still think about it pretty regularly.

Some smaller 2011 milestones:

Sunday, January 1 2012 at 3:32 PM — 40 notes

Summer Movies: 1982

The following movies were released in the summer of 1982.

Is it just nostalgia, or does that lineup positively trounce any summer in recent memory? What a perfect blend of popcorn summer blockbusters, kid-friendly films, and just plain great movies. Can anyone find a summer that beats this one?

Sunday, January 2 2011 at 1:37 PM — 29 notes


Here’s my brief entry in the speculation derby surrounding the departure of Mark Papermaster from Apple. Assuming Papermaster is out at least partially due to the iPhone 4 antenna and not some completely unrelated matter, and assuming Apple really did know about the iPhone 4’s antenna problems even before Papermaster was hired, it may seem strange or even unfair that he’s ended up as the fall guy. I won’t comment on the fairness of the decision, but I can certainly imagine a scenario where his ouster is well within the expectations of a job as a high-level executive in a big corporation.

Imagine the following events. Papermaster is hired by Apple and put in charge of the iPhone 4 hardware. He’s brought up to speed on the project, including the unique characteristics of the external antenna. At some point later, a final decision has to be made on the design: go or no go?

While it’s clear that the buck stops with Steve Jobs on all decisions at Apple, that doesn’t mean he makes all the decisions. This is why Apple hires people like Mark Papermaster in the first place. It’s reasonable to expect that Jobs would defer to the guy he fought to hire when it came to this question. And so Jobs would ask Papermaster, is the design ready to go or not? And what about that antenna touching issue? Is that a big deal, or will most people not even notice?

Now imagine that Papermaster tells Jobs that, yes, it’s a real limitation in the antenna design, but that the advantages—increased range and room for a bigger battery—more than make up for it. Now imagine Jobs pushes further: “While you may feel that way, Mark, will the public agree? Will this end up being an issue?” And now suppose Papermaster says no, it won’t be an issue.

Either implicitly or explicitly, Papermaster would be putting his reputation on the line. This is what his job is all about: making decisions. This particular decision is not about technology or manufacturing; it’s a judgement call about how the public (and press) will react to something. But that’s part of his job too. And the harder he fought for this particular decision, the more he’d have on the line when he turned out to be wrong.

Anyway, like I said, this is all just speculation. I really have no idea why Mark Papermaster left Apple. But I find the scenario described above eminently plausible. Furthermore, if it were true, I don’t think it would speak ill of Papermaster. Executive management at this level is a high-stakes endeavor. The rewards are big, but so are the risks—and no one can be right all the time. If you’re the new guy and this is your first big call on the biggest project in the company, well, you can end up back in the job market much sooner than you expected. C’est la vie.

Sunday, August 8 2010 at 4:01 PM — 13 notes

Black Hole Sun

Many years ago, I recall talking with some of my Mac-nerd friends about how strange it was, after Apple’s near-death experiences of the late 1990s, to be living in a world where it’s just assumed that any tech luminary will mostly likely use a Mac. A year or two later, Tim O’Reilly gave a name to this prognostication technique: watching the “alpha geeks.”

This trend of Mac adoption among alpha geeks was a sign of good things to come for Apple, and generally a bad sign for its competitors. Today, James Gosling's departure from the remains of Sun brought to mind a similar trend—one that’s not so good for Apple.

These days, when a high-profile technical professional leaves his position at the company where he’s done his most important work, everyone’s first guess as to where he’ll end up is…well, do I really have to name the place? The point is, it’s not Apple.

(This mostly applies to programmers and other engineers. People on the more creative side of the technology world are much harder to predict. But then, who can truly fathom the mind of an artist?)

There are many trend lines that contribute to a company’s overall trajectory, and nearly all of Apple’s are still pointing in the right direction. But the emergence of Google as a huge gravitational sink for engineering talent in the past five years has definitely put a kink in at least one those graphs.

Sunday, April 11 2010 at 11:20 AM — 35 notes

No Movie for Old Men

2012 is an awful movie. I knew this when I added it to my Netflix queue, but I wanted to stay up to date on the latest in computer-generated apocalyptic destruction. I’m a fan of special effects in general and stories about the end of the world in particular.

All the boxes were ticked: absurd “science,” impossible escapes, a nonsensical plan to save humanity, familial and romantic problems resolved during the crisis, unintentionally slapstick character deaths, etc. What I didn’t expect was how upsetting it would be—which is to say, that it was upsetting at all.

The most heartless, lizard-brained humans are pre-teen boys. Teens and young adult men have usually built up a tough emotional core, but are generally too distracted by puberty to ever match the hardness of their unenlightened, toad-exploding youths. As men age, they become progressively more sensitive. The biggest spike (or dip?) in the graph occurs when a man becomes a father.

In my experience, this manifests itself most noticeably in a reduced ability to enjoy any story where children are in peril. And so it was for me with 2012. As bad as the movie was, I was still bothered by the repeated use of children in danger as a dramatic device. This, despite the fact that there is never any mystery about who will live and who will die in any given scene. My brain understood, but my body still twinged.

So let this be a lesson to you, young men. You may feel tough now, and you may remain rational and intelligent your entire lives. But you will age, and someday you may even become a father. When you do, watch out. You too—yes, even you, you, and you—will someday become an unintentional victim of your own emotions. (A “mush,” as I’ve heard it called.)

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I always ponder this situation when I see a movie or read a book. It seems to me that our ability to enjoy a story depends on our personal experiences to a degree that people don’t want to consider. For example, a common occurrence on this Internet of ours to encounter an impassioned screed condemning some work of fiction as offensive. Like clockwork, this is followed by a retaliatory condemnation of the offended party as “too sensitive” or “crazy.” The phrase “give me a break” is featured.

The overall point that the inherent worth of a work of art is not determined by the bad reactions of a few people is pretty solid. But the glib denigration of the offended party is definitely on shaky ground. The unfortunate truth is that, through no fault of the artist or the viewer, entire avenues of entertainment can be closed off by life experiences.

If your wife died in a car accident, you may find yourself unable to enjoy movies that feature car crashes. If you had an abusive parent, you may be upset by any scene where a parent yells at a child. And yes, if you simply have one or more happy, healthy children, you may not even be able to smirk your way through a comically bad disaster movie which happens to feature children.

None of this has to reach the level of trauma (e.g., a veteran being unable to watch war movies). In fact, it’s most insidious when it’s much less dramatic, just a mild pin-prick of discomfort happening entirely outside—and often in opposition to—your conscious mind.

And is this the fault of the artist? Is the comedy actually less funny because there’s a gag involving turbulence on an airplane? And on the other side, can you really blame the viewer? I say no on all counts, as long as everyone involved has a clear head about the situation. For the viewer, that means no blanket denunciation of a work of art based solely on your own unexamined emotional reaction. For the artist, that means understanding that some people will be legitimately upset by your creation for reasons beyond your ability to predict or control.

So yeah, thumbs down on 2012, but not because I’m a father of two and a giant mush. It’s bad for all the usual reasons a movie is bad: script, story, characters, etc. Maybe if you don’t have kids, you can appreciate it as a "good ‘bad movie.’" Maybe.

Finally, lest you young men get depressed about your inevitable futures as wussy old(er) men, there is actually an upside. A good movie that happens to intersect with your newly altered emotional landscape can be made all the more better by the interaction. For example, I enjoyed reading The Road, which is a much more intense story of the apocalypse and a child in danger than 2012. Here’s hoping the movie adaptation doesn’t suck.

Monday, March 15 2010 at 12:35 PM — 35 notes

Obama’s Teleprompter

I’ve never considered Obama a very good speaker. It may be because he speaks slowly and pauses a lot, all of which drives my fast-talking-Italian-New-York-native-self up a wall. Whatever the reason, my low opinion of his speaking ability meant that I was willing to believe that the Obama teleprompter gibes could very well be indicative of a real problem. Those jokes fed my fear that Obama lacked substance, that he was just a pretty voice able to dazzle people (though not me, apparently) with speeches he didn’t write or fully understand.

That fear was put to rest by Obama’s recent performance in front of a gathering of Republicans. No teleprompter, no questions received ahead of time, no softballs. I was amazed at how well he did when I read the transcript. When I watched the video, I still didn’t like his delivery (maybe I should have watched it at 1.5x) but it’s good to know that our president has a brain in his head.

That’s what was important to me regarding the teleprompter issue, and that’s why I care little about what Sarah Palin does unless it changes my existing opinion of her. Learning that she wrote notes on her hand before a speech doesn’t do that, and it sure as hell has no effect on what I think Obama’s use of the teleprompter does or doesn’t signify, regardless of which situation is more likely to resonate with the American people.

Sunday, February 7 2010 at 2:04 PM — 7 notes


I have a blog where I write about technology stuff, and I have a Twitter account where I write about whatever strikes my fancy. When I want to write something non-tech-related that’s longer than 140 characters, I have a problem. Maybe Tumblr (or something like it) is the solution? We’ll see.

Update: Of course, now I just spent 20 minutes futzing with Tumblr themes (before giving up when I realized that I won’t be happy with the results without investing many, many more hours) instead of writing the the post that motivated this little excursion in the first place.

Sunday, February 7 2010 at 12:38 PM — 4 notes