Duck’a Duck’a Duck’a

Lately we’ve been having duck on special occasions. We had it this last Thanksgiving and Christmas. We get it from the Grand Central Market. It is a very tasty “marinated duck breast”. The missus picked up a couple for our Easter dinner.

Previously I had been grilling it, which came out nicely, but I decided to try something different. I took the duck breasts and scored the skin / fat both directions at about half in spacings. I placed the meat, fatty side down, in our cast iron skillet and turned the stove on medium low (actually quite low since we have an electric stove – like 2 or maybe 3). The goal here was to render off almost all of the fat without actually cooking the meat. I periodically spooned out the extra fat (duck has an amazing quantity of fat in that fat layer). This process was somewhat time consuming (taking 30 minutes or more). I probably could have done this more quickly, but I was being careful to not cook the meat. After the fat had suitably cooked off, I transferred the meat, again fatty side down, to a broiler pan and cooked the meat in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees (internal temperature of 165F) using the oven’s broiler element (but I don’t think that really made any difference vs just normal baking).

The duck came out very nicely and I think I will repeat the same method next time we have duck. The slow fat rendering took a fair bit of extra time, but it really was worth it. When I grilled the duck before the fat caused frequent “flame ups” and not nearly enough of the fat rendered off during cooking.

We discussed that we’ll get marinated rabbit next time.

GIT’er done

I run several websites. About a year ago I setup a backup scheme to make sure my websites were backed up to my local computer once a day. This backup includes the databases and files on the hosting provider’s server. I use rsync (SSH) to reduce the amount of data that I have to copy. I then keep two copies of this data on my local system here. I felt pretty good about this scheme and have proven that I have enough data in my backup to ensure I can recover after hosting crashes, moving to new hosting providers, etc. but what I didn’t anticipate was what I would do if a hacker defaced my site and I didn’t catch it quickly enough. The answer is the modified files would be sent to my local backup overwriting the good data. I wasn’t keeping any sort of history – what I was storing locally was always the latest. I know this isn’t a terribly good practice, but I have yet to find a backup system that does incremental backups how I would like them keeping history without consuming a ton of space and still being “quick” to backup.

Recently, a friend’s website got defaced and fortunately they had “enough” data backed up and the defacement was simple enough that recovery was not a major issue, but it easily could have been if the hacker had been more malicious. This made me start to really think about what I need to be doing for website backups.

For version control at work, we use Subversion – which is really nice. I decided to try to implement something like Subversion at home for my website files / database backups. I started to setup Subversion until I discovered Git. In its simplest form, you can create a Git repository on a single directory and it can very easily and quickly handle the version control (much to the level of Subversion) on the files and directories within that directory. For my situation, I believe Git is the best choice. With just a few commands I created the repository and added the existing files to that repository and by adding two commands to my rsync backup script all new files are now automatically added to the repository (and deleted files are removed form the depository — but they can be recovered if need be). I plan to setup daily “tags” for the data so if the worst happened I could easily obtain the site as it was on any particular day with very little effort.

Call of Duty 2

Before the next wave of new games that interest me come out, I decided to spend a few months working on my “pile of shame” — games that I purchased some time in the past but never got around to finishing (or even starting in some cases). The current game is Call of Duty 2 (COD2). I think I got this one a couple months before Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (COD4, which is a phenomenal game!!). I was initially a little turned off with COD2 because it is a World War 2 (WWII) shooter which means it lacks snazzy weapons and such, but I will admit it is a very solid, polished, fun game. While I am not adept enough to play the game on anything but the “Regular” difficulty (the game’s “hardened” and “veteran” difficulty levels are well beyond my skills), I am now about 80% through COD2 and I am really enjoying it. Honestly, this is the first WWII game I have played and I am glad I waited to play this one. Heck, I might even consider playing Call of Duty: World At War at some time in the future (another, newer WWII shooter).  While COD2 doesn’t have COD4’s fancy weapons (or graphics), it does look pretty nice, especially considering it was an Xbox 360 launch title. The one thing COD2 and COD4 both do right is they really make you feel like you are in the middle of a war. All in all, I can heartily recommend it to fans of the shooter genre.

Halo3, Scoooooooba

On Saturday I played most of Halo3’s (H3) single player campaign. I’ve been putting off playing it because I had so many other great games to play, but decided I just couldn’t put it off any longer. I actually started it a few months ago, but my old save game didn’t work properly so I decided to just restart the game. I made it about 75% through the game in one day (it is a short game). Having just finished Gears of War 2 (GOW2) my opinion is that H3 is nice, but GOW2 is a better game in every respect that matters to me. I think the GOW2 cover system is now essential to shooters (and missing in H3), I think GOW2 controls better, and I think GOW2 has better graphics. H3 has an interesting story, but I think GOW2 even did that better. GOW2 multi player is also very well done (I really enjoy Horde mode) but I imagine there is a rabid crowd who would say H3 is the pinnacle of console multiplayer – H3’s single player campaign is, in reality, just a tack on and the real H3 game is multiplayer – I am jut not into most multiplayer games. If you can get it for cheap or love multiplayer, get H3. If you can only afford one shooter, get GOW2 (even GOW1). If you are getting a second shooter, honestly, I would recommend Dead Space over H3.

Saturday night we went to a wine bar with a neighbor who is moving out of our apartment complex soon. We hadn’t seen a lot of him in a few months, so it was nice to catch up.

On Sunday, we got up pretty early to attend the Beneath the Sea 2009 scuba show (trade show kind of thing). 70% of the show is tourism to entice you to travel to little tropical islands and live-aboard ships for diving, but the other 30% are vendors who make scuba gear (always nice to see what is new in the scuba market) and non-profits who are trying to do things like ocean conservancy, enabled people with disabilities to dive, etc. We’ve been to the show a few times before and it is always interesting. It was fun to go this year as it is the first year after the missus got certified. The most interesting possibilities are diving the St. Lawrence river (up on the NY / Canada border), Puerto Rico, and Florida. Our normal vacation is probably off this year as we are doing four weddings, but we hope to get in some diving during those trips and maybe some weekend trips for diving. We will definitely take a few trips to Dutch Springs to get the missus back in the water, work in skills, etc. I hope by the end of the summer she can take the Advanced Underwater course. In May, I get to take the missus to Blue Hole (Santa Rosa, NM) so we can dive were I got certified.

Weekend stuff

The lease on our apartment comes due in about three months. If we plan to move we’ll have to notify our current complex 60 days before the end of the lease. While we like our apartment and location, there is always the possibility that we could find a less expensive and larger place (which would be really, really nice). I started feeling out other locations by making a list of apartment complexes and making preliminary calls. Unfortunately, the weekend is not the ideal time to contact leasing agents because most leasing offices are closed on Saturday (which makes no sense to me), but I called about 85 places and weeded out a few places that aren’t actually apartment complexes and I’ve left lots of messages. I was able to talk to four or five candidates, but I suspect it will be during the week that we will have a better picture of the possibilities. We’ll see. Changing leases is a chicken and egg problem because your current place wants 60 days notice, but so does everybody else – so if you call a place 90 days ahead of time they generally don’t know what they will have available and are often hesitant to discuss the future possibilities. Most places understand that I am making a list of “possibilities” and getting details such as ballpark prices and sizes, but some just don’t get it.

A couple weeks ago we started watching (via Netflix streaming) 30 Rock (season one). I’m not quite sure how we missed this show before now, but we are really enjoying it. We’ve finished season one and are looking forward to starting season two.

Last Thursday we went to see Watchmen and wow! It was really amazing! They did a great job of translating the graphic novel to the big screen. The movie is long at about 2 hours 40 minutes, but I’ve heard that the DVD is going to be four hours (which is easy to believe). Even at that length, it didn’t feel “long”. There isn’t anything I would have cut from the movie and it kept my attention for the entire span. I’d recommend this movie to everyone, but, it is not for kids – it is very violent, bloody, and contains mature themes. I would strongly recommend reading the graphic novel or watching the “motion comic” before or after – but go see the movie on the big screen. It is such an amazing story and I love that doesn’t take the “easy way out” of situations.

I’ve been playing a lot of Burnout Paradise on the 360 and am having a lot of fun with it. I am five events from having my “Burnout” license. I’ve found all the billboards, all the super-jumps, and I’m only missing 10 smashes. I have over two thirds of the cars. The races are now getting a fair bit more difficult. I’ve tried racing “online” but I don’t like that -a- I don’t have control of the day/night cycle (I don’t really like racing at night) and -b- even when I play a “ranked match” the other races are generally far better than I am so I have almost no chance of winning. Oh well. I still highly recommend the game, I just don’t enjoy the online races.

Getting Into Computers in the 1980s

I started with computers back in the early 80s with a Timex/Sinclair 1000. My brother owned this (tiny) computer – he bought it used from a friend. While I don’t know why his friend sold it to him or why my brother bought it, I do remember the first time I laid my eyes on it. I was probably about 12 or 13 years old, but I could instantly see the possibilities the tiny piece of plastic held. I think my brother probably showed me a game or two and I am sure we were already playing games on the Atari 2600 at the time. I realized I had, in close proximity, a machine that >I< could bend to my will, I could learn how to make it do anything I could imagine. This little black box was the genesis of what I have spent a great deal of the last 25+ years doing. I would sneak into my brother’s room to play with the little box. I don’t think my brother used it more than a few hours total, but my memory is that he guarded it from me like it was the crown jewels. If he caught me using it or even suspected I had used it he would throw a fit. The little machine had 16KB of RAM and stored programs on cassette tapes. I remember the first days of using the machine – studying programs written in BASIC that came with the machine. I remember sitting in church (in the choir) trying to write programs (on paper) that would re-create a Space Invaders-like program. I knew almost nothing about programming at the time, but I was eager to figure it out. As I recall, the only friend of the family who knew anything about computers, the Church’s choir director Charles Stanley (I believe was his name) wasn’t terribly interested in helping me learn computer programming. Honestly, I imagine he wasn’t actually a computer programmer – he just had some basic computer skills (which was unusual for the time).

I remained very eager to learn how to program computers, but my brother was very insistent that I not use his computer. I quickly talked my parents into getting me a Commodore VIC-20. I don’t recall why we chose the VIC-20 over the Atari 400 or the other machines of the day, possibly price were a motivating factor? In a few minor ways the VIC-20 was a step forward – it had a real keyboard, joystick port, etc., but whiles the Timex/Sinclair 1000 had 16kb of memory, the VIC-20 only had 3.5k of memory available for user programs. Sure, people did some amazing things with this amount of memory (heck, the Atari 2600 only had 128 bytes of RAM and most games were written within 4KB of ROM), it wasn’t much room for a budding BASIC programmer. I used a cassette drive to store programs I wrote. I had few books about computer programming; most of the programming I learned on the VIC-20, and later the Commodore 64 (C64), was from typing in other people’s programs from Compute and Computes Gazette magazines.

In very little time I exhausted the capabilities of the VIC-20 and convinced my parents that I needed a C64 and shortly thereafter a floppy disc drive for it (a coveted birthday gift, one of the best gifts ever) – which stored a whopping 170KB. The C64’s 64KB of RAM (38KB available to BASIC programs) seemed enormous at the beginning, but by the end of my time with it I was hitting the 38KB barrier frequently. I would often try to get the other neighborhood kids to “come over and write a game with me”. This would generally last about 10 minutes – they were up for playing games, but none ever showed my interest in trying to write new software. Even in those days I was far more interested writing code and learning new things about the machine than I was into playing baseball or football. Sure, I loved to play video games (I still do) but I wanted to learn more about how to make this machine do the things I imagined.

At 15, I took my first job working at a computer store that sold and repaired Commodore computers (and software). This job was a lot of fun and I met a lot of crazy people with my same interests. I met a guy, Brian, who was my best friend for several years (until I left for college after which we drifted apart). Toward the end of high school with Brian’s help I “built” my first PC (an 8086 machine which ran DOS and had a whopping 640k of memory). I used this machine, upgrading one component at a time, for several years (sometimes upgrading the video card, sometimes the motherboard + processor, etc.).

By the time I got to college I had taught myself BASIC programming and had taken (and excelled at) a Pascal programming class in high school. To no one’s surprise, I studied Computer Science in college. My first college Christmas I convinced my dad to get me a 30MB RLL hard drive (my first hard drive) – he got himself one at the same time. I vividly remember opening the box and being so thrilled. I imagined I would never be able to fill a 30MB hard drive (which I probably did before New Years).

It is amazing for me to think back to the store and capabilities of the first machines I used. My C64 ran at 1MHz, it is now common for home computers to have quad-core processors (four processors on a single chip), each running at 3GHz. That C64 has 64KB of RAM. Home computers how commonly come with 4GB of RAM. My first floppy drive could store 170KB and my first hard drive could store 30MB. I own a phone that can store 16GB. I have a thumb drive that can store 32GB. For $100 you can now buy a hard drive that can store 1TB. To help further put this into perspective, the MP3s from a single CD couldn’t fit onto the first hard drive I owned.

Another Older but AMAZING Game

I tend to get caught up in the hype of new games (and books and movies). I’m trying to break myself of the habit and get behind the “new” curve, but it can be difficult. A new 360 game is usually $60 but if you wait a month or two, especially if you are willing to buy used, you can often pick them up for $40 or less. If you can wait longer (six months or a year) most games go to $20 or less (even when purchased new).

Burnout Paradise (for the 360, PC, PS3) came out just over a year ago. A friend picked it up then and spoke very highly of it, but right about the time I was ready to get it he had stopped playing it. I have never forgotten about it, but just never bit the bullet. For the past year I have watched it drop in price from $60 to $40 to $20. A couple weeks ago the developers released a new “patch” for the game which introduced some nice features (including “event restart” – I am glad I waited for this). Due in part to this patch it has been discussed a lot more on several of the videogame podcasts I listen to. I finally decided to bite the bullet and pick it up. I tried to get a “new” copy but it wasn’t available new (at BestBuy, Target, etc.). I ended up getting it used at Gamestop for $18 – they had several in stock.

Normally I am not a fan of racing games. Games like Forza and Project Gotham Racing are too “racing simulation” for my taste. I don’t really enjoy trying to find the perfect lines, hitting the brakes just right, etc. It is too technical for me to “enjoy the game” – I don’t like constantly running into walls but I’m not patient enough to learn. I don’t really enjoy flight simulator games either, possibly for the same reasons. Burnout, though, isn’t a racing game in the vein of Forza, it is far more like SSX. SSX (a snowboarding / racing game) has long been one of my favorite videogame series, but sadly they seem to have abandoned it in the current generation of consoles. I had never tried previous Burnout games because I (mistakenly) assumed they were more like Forza and less like SSX. I played the Burnout Paradise demo (a year ago) and enjoyed it, but I think the demo was too short to really give me a taste for the game – it was fun but didn’t really demonstrate the scope of the full game. It didn’t make me fall in love with it.

From the moment started up Burnout Paradise I could tell it was special. The game is set in a completely open city. You can spend hours just driving around finding shortcuts, locating billboards to smash, doing jumps and stunts, but the “game” takes place when you come to any intersection in the city – from the intersections you can start a race (or other event, there are several types). Once you start a race (or event) you are told where to go, but not how to get there – the city is still wide open. Take what appears to be the most direct route or find shortcuts – you choose (or make a wrong turn and come in last). This encourages you to look for the shortcuts and  learn the map. The game provides a tremendous sense of speed, you really feel like you are barreling down the road at 120+ mph, but the controls are very easy to learn. The goal is to have fun, finish the races and events, wreck stuff (including the other racers), but to have fun – a bit of braking and e-brake helps, but you there is no need to get hung up on racing the perfect lines of the track etc. – finding the best route, taking out competitors, and not wrecking is far more important. Honestly, it is very easy to forget you should be doing races and events and just spend time driving at breakneck speed around the city (and in the mountains and on the train tracks). The graphics, sound, control, and soundtrack in this game are all absolutely top notch and at least given the current (1.7) patch, I would say this is one of the most polished games I have ever played. Anybody who enjoys “arcade” style racing games owes it to themselves to get this game, especially at $20. Burnout Paradise is a 10/10, in my book.

See for yourself:


Cable lineup, sad about AMC

My cable provider is Cablevision (Optimum). In general, I am relatively happy with them. Sure, they are way overpriced – but cable always is, especially after the introductory first year. The quality of the SD channels isn’t great, but it isn’t “terrible”. The HD channels generally come in very nicely and the TiVo HD does a good job.

Over the past year, most of the big name channels have added HD versions, which is absolutely great (except I will soon need to get the external hard drive to supplement my TiVo’s storage space). TiVo has the ability to record the “AFI 100 Years… 100 Movies.” I’ve seen a lot of these but there are still a lot I haven’t seen and many I would like to see again. I enabled this a while back but the TiVo was often recording the SD version instead of the HD version. This week I actually took out every SD channel when there was an HD available – I should have done this a long time ago.

Now, for a quick rant. The TiVo finds lots of the AFI movies on the American Movie Classics (AMC) channel. At first glance, this seems like it would be great – AMC shows lots of great movies and all in something resembling HD. It’s great until you start actually watching the movies. First, they are choc full of commercials. Commercials I can live with, but! The major problem with AMC  movies are “edited for nudity, sexuality, language and other objectionable content. Whenever possible, the network television version of a movie is aired”. Oh come on! The channel is there to show movies, and when you edit and chop the movie, it is no longer the “classic movie”. It is no longer even worth watching, in my opinion. I will not watch The Godfather all chopped up and with bad voice overs. I do not watch edited movies, they are a waste of time. I find the edits far more offensive than the content they are editing. Show commercials if you must, but don’t edit or chop the movies. I have completely removed AMC from my TiVo guide. AMC makes me sad. I just realized the show Breaking Bad (season 2) is about to start, but it is on AMC. Now I will have to wait for it to come out on DVD to watch it (I’ve already “saved” on Netflix).

I suppose I could keep AMC in my guide and just delete / avoid any movie after made after about 1970. The older movies probably have a lot less edited content. I don’t know. It is just very frustrating.

The final bit of sadness is that Turner Classic Movies, another popular provider of AFI movies (and good movies in general) doesn’t provide an HD channel and given the quality of SD programming provided by Cablevision, I would be much better off getting the DVD from Netflix. Oh well.

Honestly, given the price and programming issues like these, I am not all that far from dropping cable television all together and just doing Netflix. Their DVD service is fantastic and affordable and Netflix Instant Watch is getting better every day (and plays directly from the TiVo and Xbox 360). One of these days I will spend some time playing with HD antennas and if that works out, my cable bill could get a lot smaller.

Good games that could have been great

Not long ago I borrowed and played The Darkness. The Darkness was a a solid game. It was fun. It was good, but through the entire play I felt if they had spent another six months on it, it could have been great. The primary issues with the game that could have been improved were the graphics and control. It also felt like, to me, it had a pretty limited number of locations.

I also recently borrowed and finished Condemned: Criminal Origins. Condemned is in the horror / action genre. It came out in 2005 for the 360 (and PC and ?) and has some flashes of genius. The graphics are pretty nice, the controls are pretty good. While there is some shooting in the game, firearms are few and far between and come with very little ammo. There are a reasonable number of health packs, but there are few enough that you are often on the edge – you have to play carefully. The game’s combat is mostly melee (kicking and hitting with weapons found in the environment). The melee combat and blocks must be carefully timed. This leads to my first complaint of the game: blocking is almost required to play, but the blocking timing is kind of strange and difficult. Even after completing the game, I never really got the hang of blocking. That said, I was able to complete the game even with my almost complete inability to block.

My biggest complaint of Condemned, though, is the fact that it closes almost every door behind you. If you see a health pack you “kind of” need, you better take it – you probably won’t be able to go back to get it. The game is heavy with “hunting for special items” (birds and metal) but it is really easy to miss one. A few paces latter you realize your mistake and want to go back and get it but no dice – the door is now closed. ARGH! This makes achievement hunting in the game a huge hassle. I really enjoying achievement hunting in 360 games but in Condemned it is just far too big a drag. Even if you use a guide to find birds and metal, it is very easy to miss the item and then you are SOL unless you want to play the entire level again which could easily take 30 to 60 minutes. And if you miss something again… ARGH. I started to play Condemned a second time to clean up my missing achievements but decided it really wasn’t worth it.

Even in spite of those things, if you aren’t hung up on achievements Condemned does show lots of moments of genius and is genuinely scary at times. The graphics are pretty nice, the sound is very good, and the gameplay is a lot of fun. It is a refreshingly different action game. It has enough “checkpoints” that even when you die you aren’t generally set back very far. I can easily recommend Condemned.

Let it sync, let it sync, let it sync!

I love my iPhone 3G. It is such a great device. It does everything, well, almost everything.

I maintain my calendars using Google Calendar (which is an amazing calendar!) and my contact list and emails in Google Mail. The iPhone handles Google Mail perfectly, but will only sync Google Mail contacts to/from the iPhone when you sync with iTunes. Sadly, syncing Google Calendar with the iPhone is (was) non-existent. There are some 3rd party products to do this syncing, but they all seem to require syncing with the PC which is a drag and honestly didn’t seem to work well or easily. It is far more preferable to do Calendar and Contact syncing “over the air” so it happens any time the iPhone is turned on and connected to the network. The problem is 3rd party applications are not allowed to make changes to calendar / contacts / etc. so this is easier said than done.

Finally, after about 2/3 of a year of owning my iPhone, Google provides an easy way to sync Contacts and Calendars over the air. The one caveat is that you your calendar and contacts must be associated with a single Google Calendar / Google Mail sign-in. My main Google Calendar was associated with a different Google Calendar account, so I had to move that calendar. With my secondary calendars I just had to “share” then with my main Google Mail sign-in, but with my “main” calendar I actually needed to export the data, import, then remove the data from the original calendar. Happily, this was pretty easy to do using iCal export and import.

My iPhone now really feels complete. Yay!