big cats, backhanded insults, and the real world

I’m sure people must wonder what I have against Apple sometimes, so it’s great when a perfect example lands in your lap. Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard, hits the streets tomorrow, and by all indications it’s going to be a very nice upgrade, eschewing major upgrades in favour of a laundry list of smaller changes. One of those changes is a read-only HFS+ driver for Windows, so that dual-booters can access files from their Mac OS X partition during Windows sessions, and that’s a great little feature, but the description of it is so full of spin that it made me dizzy:

Boot Camp now includes HFS+ read support that enables you to access the files on your Mac OS X partition from Windows. It’s read-only to prevent PC viruses from affecting Mac OS X, but you can easily save your work to your Windows partition and access it later from Mac OS X.

I don’t have a problem with the functionality — even read-only support will be handy — but instead of just listing the limitation and moving on, Apple calls it a “feature”, while simultaneously sending a backhanded insult Microsoft’s way. It’s also insulted the intelligence of anyone that’s able to see through the spin.

Two months ago, when I traded my MacBook Pro for a Dell laptop running Linux, a part of me wondered if I was going to regret that move. I’ve always used Linux at home and work, but taking it on the road presents its own set of challenges, and while I knew a lot had changed since my Linux laptop six years ago, I wasn’t 100% sure that it would be up to the job. After two months in the real world, I don’t regret it at all: sleeping and waking is just as reliable and almost as fast as on my Mac, hooking up projectors and hopping between access points is just as easy, and setting up wireless broadband is actually far easier. My only issue has been the OpenGL bugs, but with the latest Intel driver fixes those will be addressed by the time Ubuntu 9.10 rolls out in October.

platformer ‘splosion

When Super Mario 64 showed the world exactly how 3D platformers were meant to work, it was seemingly a death knell for the classic 2D platformer. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that it was New Super Mario Bros. in 2006 — ten years after Mario 64 — that seemed to kick-start a minor revival in the genre. Two of 2008’s most innovative and impressive titles, Braid and LittleBigPlanet, were also 2D platformers, and now, in 2009, 2D platformers seem to be back with a vengeance.

‘Splosion Man hit Xbox Live Arcade two weeks ago, and I’ve been playing the hell out of it over the last few days. Gameplay-wise it’s a essentially old-school 2D platforming, with levels that are really quite punishing at times, but the feeling you get when you pull off a quick succession of crazy jumps is just awesome. It’s really the presentation that puts it over the top, though — from the ridiculous and varied animations of the protagonist (running along making aircraft noises, arms outstretched, has to be my favourite), to the fact that scientists get turned in to neatly processed cuts of meat when you blow them up, the entire game is hilarious. It also has a co-op mode with up to four players, through a set of 50 levels that are entirely separate to the single-player game’s own 50 levels.

This week’s XBLA release was another 2D platformer, Shadow Complex, which is a very modern take on a Metroid/Castlevania-style game. I’ve only played the demo, but it’s very promising so far — the gameplay is solid with a few modern touches, such as being able to aim with the right stick, and it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful to look at, seamlessly moving between full 3D cutscenes and the 2D gameplay.

Perhaps the biggest news, though, is the new video of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Nintendo gets exactly zero points for naming skill, or for pushing the Wii’s graphical capabilities, but it sure looks like a hell of a lot of fun, with lots of new Mario abilities and co-op gameplay to be had. There’s no official date on it yet, but it’s due some time this year.

ubuntu karmic and intel video

Intel has put a lot of money and effort behind its open-source video drivers for Linux, which is the main reason I went with the Intel X4500MHD video option on my new laptop, instead of the faster NVIDIA option. Going with a 100% open source solution gives two main benefits: everything works perfectly out-of-the-box, and you get features like monitor hotplugging that have set to be implemented in the closed drivers from NVIDIA or AMD.

There’s just one drawback — the Intel drivers, and the Linux video stack in general, are going through some major updates right now, which results in some odd bugs. OpenGL-accelerated desktop effects seem to work perfectly, but some windowed OpenGL apps glitch parts of the display outside of their windows, and there are also some GLSL and depth-buffer bugs that cause visual issues with some apps, like the Penny Arcade Episodes.

That work is still ongoing, but with the latest alpha of Ubuntu 9.10, the results are starting to show. I installed it on to a spare partition on my laptop today and did some testing, and I’m glad to say that the above-mentioned bugs seem to have all-but-disappeared. Windowed OpenGL apps ran just fine, and the graphical corruption in Penny Arcaide Ep 1 has disappeared. The problem now is stability — X crashed a few times when launching OpenGL apps during my testing — but with any luck those bugs will be ironed out before the 9.10 release in October.

sketchbook: crazy spacey goodness

Today’s sketch is another impromptu bit of improvisation, this time with a very strange spacey sound. The Blofeld’s manual mentions that you can use the LFOs as FM sources, but warned that it may cause some strange aliasing effects, and when I saw that, I just knew I had to give it a go. What we have here, then, is an already kinda-crunchy-strange sound, running through both filters (a comb filter and a sweeping low-pass filter), and a stereo delay effect for good measure.

20090812: 2 minutes 6 seconds

huzzah for linux hardware support

Linux has a reputation for being more trouble to get working with add-on hardware than Windows, and that’s not entirely undeserved, but there are some times when Linux and open-source really wins out. One case in point from today: the old HP 4200C scanner we have kicking around the office. It’s an old USB scanner from the days of Windows 98, and while it still works perfectly well, it’s been long retired at the office due to being a total pain to get running — HP’s latest drivers barely work on XP, let alone Vista or Windows 7.

Under Linux, though, it was the colloquial piece of piss to get running. In fact, it was literally plug-and-play — I plugged it in, fired up The GIMP, went to the scanner option (under the File/Create/XSane menu), and it Just Worked. Ubuntu installs the SANE suite of scanner drivers and tools by default, and despite its age, the 4200C driver still works perfectly. That means that I now have my own scanner at the office, which will be perfect for all the times that I need to print, sign, scan, and email forms.

games, games, games

I’ve actually played a few games lately, so rather than going in to depth I’ll just give some quick impressions:

  • Penny Arcade Adventures, Episode 1 — otherwise known by its appropriately convoluted subtitle, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, the PA game what you’d get if a Lucasarts point-and-click adventure and a Japanese RPG made love and had babies. You click the mouse to navigate the world, and you do a lot of talking through dialogue trees, but when you come across enemies, you drop in to a hybrid turn-based/realtime RPG-style battle system. The combat is fun, and while the basic gameplay is straighforward — most tasks involve simple puzzle solving or fetch quests — the story is well written, and the dialogue is fantastic, especially if (like me) you appreciate dick jokes. Ep 1 is out on PC, Mac OS X, Linux, 360, and PS3 for about US$20; Ep 2 is out now as well for all but the PS3, for US$15
  • Plants vs Zombies — this is the latest nicotine-laced crack from PopCap, and it’s great. It’s a very simple tower defence-style game, where you grow offensive and defensive plants to protect against zombie hordes that lurch in from the right of screen. In classic PopCap style, the early levels are simple, but the complexity and difficulty ramps up beautifully, keeping you challenged and interested right to the end. It’s also very, very funny, particularly when the zombies leave you helpful notes. It’s available on PC and Mac OS X for AU$30, which is a bit much I think, though you can also get it on Steam (PC-only, though I ran it under Wine) for US$10. It’s coming to the 360 soon, too.
  • Dead Space — EA’s other big new IP for 2008 (the first being Mirror’s Edge), Dead Space is ostensibly a survival horror game, but it’s really more of a third-person action game. It’s an exercise in execution: the graphics, sound, and general presentation are phenomenal, the controls are smooth, and it does a fantastic job of creating a creepy vibe. The gameplay is solid, too, though it’s fairly by-the-numbers; enter room, kill everything, pick up everything you can find, and then enter the next room. Still, it’s good fun — I’m nearing the half-way point, and I’m pretty sure it’ll hold my interest until the end. It’s out on PC, 360, and PS3.