Archive for July, 2011

Wi-fi doesn’t cause cancer, thinking about it does

July 29, 2011 2 comments

And so the beast that will not die rears its ugly head again. It’s summertime, which is often synonymous with slow news time, so in tech circles that means it’s another inevitable round of “wi-fi is deadly.”

Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party, kicked up the latest kerfuffle on Twitter the other day when she tweeted, “It is very disturbing how quickly WiFi has moved into schools as it is children who are the most vulnerable.” After the media proclaimed her to be waging war against wi-fi, she posted a long defense of her position and how it is supposedly backed by the large amount of science she has studied on the matter.

Her conclusion is that the current knowledge on wi-fi’s health effects is not decisive one way or the other, so caution should be exercised when using it. Some of the advice she offers is to not put wi-fi routers near sleeping children and to turn such devices off when they’re not in use, such as when you go to bed.

Where to start? How about with those suggestions? I don’t know of too many conversations that went like this: “Hey honey, I just bought a new wi-fi router. Where should we put it? How about on junior’s nightstand, right next to his head?” Honestly, I’m not a parent, but I wouldn’t even think of putting a router anywhere near a child - not for health reasons, but more likely because I’d worry about the kid breaking it.

As for turning routers off when they’re not in use… uh, how about the fact that they’re probably always in use? Computers and other devices, such as the Tivo for example, automatically download updates even when they’re not on. Some people also depend on wi-fi for their phones - the last thing they want to do in the middle of night if an emergency is taking place is wait for their router to boot up.

All of that is besides the point. Erik Davis, a technology professional in Toronto who runs a site called Skeptic North, wrote a post back in November that gave a thorough smackdown to concerns over wi-fi and other electromagnetic frequency radiation. He listed a whole host of agencies, regulatory bodies and health organizations that have found wi-fi and the like to be safe. That ought to be enough for all but the most conspiracy-minded, who will believe no matter what that all of the above groups are bought and paid for by the evil, monolithic wi-fi lobby.

Is the science decisive? That question is best summed up by this cartoon, which posits that the absence of fact does not confirm suspicion. If I could add to it, here’s an idea: You know what else, besides wi-fi, can give you brain cancer? Thinking about brain cancer!

I’m only joking, of course, but that statement has about as much basis in fact (if not more) as claims of wi-fi’s harmfulness.

Caution is always good, but spreading unfounded fear is not. If politicians were to put a chill on all new technologies until their long-term effects were fully known, which is what May has suggested with wi-fi, then we’d still be living in caves.

What’s most disappointing about her position is that it fails to account for all the positive effects of wi-fi. Wireless internet technology has had dramatic effects on improving productivity, lowering costs and even helping the environment, which is the Green Party’s central tenet. With better wi-fi and internet access in general, people can travel and commute less, thereby limiting their emissions.

When it comes to students, wi-fi is also a much cheaper and practical way to bring internet into the classroom. It’s way more preferable for already cash-strapped schools than the alternative, which is to either go through the costly process of wiring themselves with ethernet cables or going without the internet completely.

In the absence of actual facts proving that wi-fi is harmful to our health, the Green Party should be embracing it rather than condemning it.

(Image courtesy Alex Grey)

Categories: internet

Canada’s burgers are tasty, but expensive

July 28, 2011 1 comment

As a self-styled burger maven, I took last week’s Now Magazine cover story as a call to arms. Toronto’s alt weekly newspaper had a feature on the city’s best burgers, complete with photography by my friend Mike Watier (who took what is perhaps the only good photo of yours truly, both for my book and blog - his site is here). I’ve already eaten at most of the burger joints covered in the magazine, but the articles gave me the impetus to try out a few newer places that I hadn’t got to yet.

Five Guys' cheeseburger.

This is my report. To readers who may not live in Toronto, never fear - I’m willing to bet the two places discussed here will be expanding dramatically soon.

First up is The Burger’s Priest, which claims to be “redeeming the burger one at a time.” The tiny hole in the wall opened up in the Beaches neighbourhood, ironically right across the street from a Harvey’s, just over a year ago and has been crammed ever since.

The signature burger, which I tried earlier this week, is the Double Double, not to be confused with the way we Canadians order our coffee. Simply put, the double cheeseburger was one of the best I’ve ever had, right up there with In-N-Out Burger in the Western U.S. and Port of Call in New Orleans (a big reason why I’m getting married in that city next year!).

Indeed, the In-N-Out comparison is apt, if not downright intellectual property theft, because the two restaurants’ burgers are amazingly similar. In-N-Out’s signature burger is also called the Double Double, with both packing two patties and cheese slices. Both are also about the same size and come in small paper envelope. Both restaurants also have very small menus with only a few items for sale, although In-N-Out also has a “secret menu” (see the comment on this post). I have no idea as of yet if Burger’s Priest has followed suit. Needless to say, the rabidly popular U.S. chain came first - it was founded in the 1940s - and I’m willing to bet it served as the inspiration for the new Toronto joint.

There is one big difference between the two - price - but more on that in a second.

Next up was Five Guys, which started in Virginia in the mid-1980s. The restaurant proved to be a hit and has been expanding across the U.S. to hundreds of outlets ever since, even claiming Barack Obama as a fan. The first Canadian Five Guys opened in Alberta last year and the chain has been growing quickly since, with 13 locations in the Great White North now.

I checked out the newest store on Wednesday, in Scarborough, and had the cheeseburger. Alas, I had no warning that it was actually a double cheeseburger, but I suppose when it comes to an American chain, that shouldn’t be a surprise. The burger came in a brown paper bag, wrapped in nondescript tin foil, both of which gave it that sort of 1950s, pre-commercialization retro feel. So too did the restaurant itself, a roomy cafeteria-like environment decorated with a simple red-and-white checker pattern.

Just as with Burger’s Priest, Five Guys’ burger was delicious, although it proved to be considerably messier. The patties were thicker, which meant the burger itself was taller and thereby harder to eat, requiring copious napkins. I’d put Burger’s Priest slightly ahead in taste, but Five Guys definitely lives up to they hype. If you like burgers, I highly recommend checking either or both places out.

The two restaurants did get me thinking about price, or how much a burger costs in different places. Both charge around $7 for just a burger, which seems a little high for a simple fast-food joint. All of the In-N-Out restaurants I’ve eaten at have, by comparison, charged about half that.

Further to that anecdote, The Economist has its own Big Mac index, which roughly compares purchasing power in different countries by the local price of a McDonald’s Big Mac. Based on that measure, Canada is indeed a pricey place, especially when Scandinavian countries aren’t counted.

For kicks, I made a few phone calls to Five Guys’ outlets around North America. The first two I called, in Medicine Hat, Alberta and downtown Manhattan, charged about the same for a cheeseburger as in Toronto: $7. A number of other places around the United States, however, charged only $5.

The price discrepancies between Canada and the U.S., outside of expensive New York, can be explained by a number of factors, including volumes and good old “what the market will bear.” Yet, with veritable parity in currencies, there’s no getting around it: Canada has costly burgers.

On the bright side, at least those expensive burgers - derived as they are from the U.S. - are tasty.

Categories: burgers

Deciphering social media shorthand

July 27, 2011 3 comments

If you’re a regular user of Twitter or Facebook, you probably have your own peculiar annoyances with each. I have at least two:

Dear sandwich, please be tastier next time.

Addressing inanimate objects, entities or nameless individuals. You know you’ve seen them. I know I have. I’m sure I’ve even done it once or twice. But they’re now so overused, it’s perhaps time to suggest a ban on them. I’m talking about the tweets and status updates that go something like, “Dear bus: thank you for making me late for my appointment,” or, “Dear air conditioner, how about you work for a change?” or even, “Dear outside, you are the hottest.” (That last one is actually real.)

I probably have too much time on my hands, but I have considered what such addresses to inanimate objects or entities actually mean. They’re essentially complaints, expressed in a way that makes the person writing them appear endearing, funny or clever, as opposed to the crank that they might really be. Social media, of course, is all about appearances.

Social media is also a repository of bitching and moaning - heck, that’s practically why it was invented. I know I complain about a lot of stuff on Twitter, so does everyone else. It is nice to not be considered a whiner, so dressing complaints up with cleverness is a good idea. This particular method, though, has passed its best-before date. Dear fellow complainers, let’s move on.

Apologetic pleas for traffic. As someone who runs a blog, I know the heartbreak that can result when you don’t get as much traffic to a post or article as you were hoping, especially when it’s something you spent hours on. One way to deal with this is to try and draw readers in with more promotion on social media. On Twitter, such a plea almost always unfortunately starts with five words: “In case you missed it…”

Don’t get me wrong - there’s nothing wrong with linking to a post a few times in a day. Obviously, people aren’t on Twitter or Facebook all the time, so they may in fact have missed your original pointer. However, it’s those five words - “in case you missed it” - that are annoying because they almost suggest that the writer knows they’re bugging people. They seem like an apology to the people who in fact didn’t miss it the first time; a rationalization to them about why it’s being posted again.

My advice: just be honest and ditch the preamble. Just about everyone knows that Twitter users can’t be expected to be on all the time, so there’s no need to apologize. Go ahead and post your link multiple times, you’ll save 21 characters. If that annoys people, you’ll know it soon enough, either through lost followers or somebody complaining, perhaps even with an nameless address directed at your account.

Categories: Facebook, Twitter

Apple’s Lion: a step toward a unified operating system

July 26, 2011 8 comments

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I stopped caring about computer operating systems, but it was definitely at some point over the past two and a half years. I bought my first Mac back in March 2009, which is when I started delving into the heavy-duty writing of Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and since then I honestly haven’t thought much about the software powering my computer because it simply just worked.

That’s opposed to my previous experiences with other operating systems, where I generally spent more time worrying about getting the computer to run properly than on what I was actually supposed to be doing with it.

So when Apple released the updated Snow Leopard OS later in 2009, I really didn’t care. I was quite pleased with what was already on my computer, its predecessor Leopard, so I didn’t even bother upgrading. Similarly, I wasn’t too excited about the newest Lion operating system, released last week. I did download Lion onto a Macbook Air laptop, however, just to check it out.

Thorough reviews are all over the web, so I won’t delve too deeply into what’s new. Essentially, there are a couple nifty improvements among the 250 new features touted by Apple, most of which are likely to be familiar to anyone using the iOS found on Apple’s iPads, iPhones and iPods.

Chief among the new features is gesture control, which is available on compatible computers with trackpads - either on laptops or as side accessories. Besides just controlling the cursor on screen with one finger as we’re used to doing, now swiping up or down with two fingers will scroll the screen correspondingly. Swiping up with three fingers, meanwhile, will bring up Mission Control, which we’ll get to in a second. The feature also brings the pinch-to-zoom capability, made famous by the iPhone, to computers. Pinching in and out on websites zooms in on them the same way as it does on an iOS device.

Although it’s a neat feature, I’m not too crazy about gesture control on computers. As other reviewers have noted, tablets and phones are mostly media consumption devices while computers are largely devoted to creation. While whooshing around with your fingers is great if you’re watching movies and reading websites, that sort of interface isn’t the best for when you’re editing videos or, ahem, writing blog posts. Whether or not this particular feature proves practical is up for debate.

Mission Control is a sort of home screen where you can look at everything you’ve got open, then switch to what you want quickly. It’s handy if you often have tons of stuff running at once. I’m not exactly a power user in that I only have a few things going at any given time, so I can’t see myself using this feature much, the same way I barely touched its predecessor, Exposé.

Lion’s other main feature is the Launchpad, which is instantly recognizable to anyone who has used an iOS device. Launchpad calls up essentially the same grid of applications found on an iPad or iPhone. And, just as on those devices, the app pages can be navigated by swiping sideways on the touchpad.

Lion also installs the Mac app store right on the computer’s dock. While the store was available to users of Snow Leopard after they downloaded it, with Lion it’s a little more front and centre. Launching it brings up the same sort of one-stop software house found on iOS devices - free apps such as Twitter are available, as are paid ones (the Lego Star Wars Saga video game is only $29.99!).

The app store is a nice-if-not-entirely-necessary concept in that it brings a lot of software together into one place. However, anyone who wants to buy an Adobe product probably already knows they can simply get it from the company’s own website.

When all of the above is put together, it’s very clear Apple is trying to nudge its computers closer to working like its mobile devices. Gesture control and a focus on apps are basically what made the iPhone such a phenomenon. It’s no surprise then, that the company wants all of its products to be more like the iPhone. The Lion operating system therefore seems to be the first real step in that direction.

The complete OS can be downloaded for $30, a measly price for anyone who wants to stay up to date on the latest features. But, like I said at the top of the post, there’s still no real urgent reason to upgrade. Mac users really can’t go wrong either way.

Lion’s biggest accomplishment, however, is in proving that the race for the unified operating system is most definitely on. Microsoft last month issued a video that gave a first glimpse at its upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which will evidently work on computers, tablets and phones. Google also has some work to do in unifying its computer-based Chrome operating system with the various flavours of Android that run on phones and tablets.

A unified operating system that works across all devices is something of a holy grail in that it can tie customers to one specific company. If you have an iPhone, for example, you’re likely to want your computer and tablet to work nice and smoothly with it, which might motivate you to also buy a Mac and an iPad.

A unified operating system is therefore not unlike the telecom service provider’s bundle, where getting multiple products from the same company provides a benefit to the customer. In the telecom world, that’s usually a discount on each service, whereas in the computing world it’s ease of interoperability.

Ironically though, the real success of these eventual unified operating systems may not lie in how well they succeed in tying their own devices together, but rather in how well they work with the other guys’ OSes. While there are benefits to using only one company’s products, nobody likes to be forced to do so. The smart ones will do well to remember that and not get too myopic.

Categories: apple, ipad, iphone

The Queasy life of independent games

July 25, 2011 Comments off

While down at Sony’s PlayStation holiday preview event in New York last week, I came across a pleasant surprise. One of the launch titles for the upcoming PlayStation Vita, the portable game system that will succeed the PlayStation Portable by the end of this year, is being developed by a Queasy Games, a tiny Toronto startup.

Queasy is the brainchild of Jonathan Mak, a 28-year-old game designer who studied computer science at the University of Toronto. Mak saw his first success a few years ago with Everyday Shooter, which was picked up and offered by Sony as a downloadable game over the PlayStation Network. That led to the upcoming Vita release Sound Shapes, an intriguing idea that marries gaming with music creation.

I wrote about some of the better Vita games last week and also had a chat with Mak about the world of independent games. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:

A screen grab from Everyday Shooter

How did you get into games?

My parents started a computer business in the eighties so we always had a computer lying around and my older brothers would be playing video games. Somewhere around grade 7 or 8 I met a friend who taught me how to make programs, how to code. That’s when I started making video games. Back then it was a lot harder to make games because you had to do all this weird computer hackery just to draw a pixel.

I was trying to think of how to break in [to the business], but there was no indie scene or at least I wasn’t aware of it. All I knew about was whatever was in PC Gamer. Someone in the industry told me to go to university, so I did. I don’t know how helpful that was but I did meet a fellow game developer there, they’re now Metanet [creators of the popular game N+]. They were a year or two ahead of me and they showed me what was the indie scene back then. They started working on N and I thought, hey, maybe I could make a game on my own instead of working for some gigantic company.

When I graduated I took a year off to try to make a game that I could sell and break in [with], but that [Gate 88] didn’t do very well at all. From there, I got a job. [Gate 88] had a chat program built in and someone offered me a job in that chat program. I turned it down but then I ran out of money, so I took the job. I did that for a couple of years and during that time I worked on Everyday Shooter, which was my first commercial game and the first that actually came out and made money. After that, I hooked up with Shaw-Han Liem, a musician from Toronto, and we started collaborating on a project. It was very simple, we were working on a visualizer and started dabbling with some game prototypes. We did like nine prototypes and then we hit upon an idea that would become Sound Shapes. Since then we’ve hired some people to help us out.

When did you form Queasy?

Queasy was the name I would release games under when I was a kid, in grade 7 and 8. When I put out Everyday Shooter I just called the company Queasy Games. You have to be incorporated to receive the money. We have seven or eight core people and then some people helping us out contract-wise.

Are you still in a basement or do you have an office?

We have an actual office, but we were in a basement until we had our first hire, which was a year and a half or two years ago.

How did you get hooked up with Sony for the Vita?

[Everyday Shooter] happened because I was showing that game at the [Independent Games Festival] and got nominated as a finalist. A bunch of Sony guys were there and I guess they liked it and offered to publish it. So with [Sound Shapes], since we’d already done business with Sony it made sense to go back to them to see what they thought. When we showed them, they flew us down [in 2009] and showed us the early prototype Vita hardware. They were like, “It’s a good fit, what do you think?” and we were like, “Okay.”

How has working on Sound Shapes been?

The design of it is so difficult to comes to terms with because of the tight integration with musical gameplay. If you change one little thing, like you make one thing move faster so that it’s more fun, that breaks the music. You do one thing to the music and that breaks the game. That’s been the hardest part, is figuring that out. It’s not a resource-intensive thing, it’s just that someone has to sit down and go through it.

What’s the biggest challenge you find as an indie game developer?

It may not be the answer you’re expecting, but it’s just about making a good game. Once you’ve made a good game, people want good games, publishers want good games, your audience wants good games. From a business point of view, it’s easy to market a good game. People will pay money for that. The hardest part is coming up with a good concept and executing on it. There’s a balance between the amount of time it takes to do that and the amount of money you have in the bank. I’ve gone through the process twice now of having no money to making a game. It’s about not giving in to tangential jobs just to pay for your project.

Sometimes you might make something that you think is really awesome but that the public just doesn’t get or isn’t ready for and then you have to make a decision of, “Oh I can take this path and dumb it down or be true to myself and figure out why nobody is getting it. Can I change it in a way that it’s accessible but doesn’t destroy the original vision of the game?” That’s something I hope as a game creator that I learn to do better and better because that would help to make the game better.

A screengrab from Sound Shapes

Why did you decide to stay independent rather than working for a big company?

It wasn’t like I was sitting there and thinking, “Okay, I could work for a triple-A game company or I can start my own business and make a game.” It was more like I have this idea for a game, so how do I make it? I guess by definition at the time, that was independent. I also thought that it’d be hard to get a job. After that first year where I made the game that didn’t do very well, I actually tried to get a job in a triple-A game company and they didn’t hire me, which I think was a good decision on everyone’s part. I don’t think I would have done well there. It’s so specialized and I have no desire to specialize.

You might get stuck doing some minor job as opposed to bringing your ideas to life?

Yes, exactly.

It seems like many good independent game companies eventually get bought up. Can they survive on their own or do they inevitably get acquired?

There are people who are in it just to make video games and there are people in it to start a business making video games. For me it’s never been about making money. The only reason Queasy Games is incorporated is because there’s a technical issue where if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t get money. From a business point of view I know tons of people who don’t get bought out, who stay small. It’s kind of surprising when you say that most small companies get bought up because I don’t know anyone who would want to get bought. The business entity exists for negotiating their next game and that’s it, it’s not to grow or for turning a profit. They’re secondary to making a great game. For me, if one day I burn all the cash and the capital is gone, I’m perfectly okay with finding a job and making my games on the side until the next game I make makes money. I wouldn’t go and work on a game that I have no interest in because life is too short to do something you don’t want to do.

In Canada, we do have a lot of grant programs and that really helps keep companies alive to make their games. It’s a very good buffer. There’s a couple granting agencies and there’s also arts grants, which I haven’t had much luck with because I don’t think games are generally recognized as art in the arts-granting community in Toronto and Canada.

Some people, like film critic Roger Ebert, have said video games aren’t art. How do you weigh in on that debate?

When I was a kid coming out of university I totally got into that debate, but it was very academic. Now, I don’t really care. Whether people think it’s art or not doesn’t concern me. For many years now, I’ve thought that you decide whether it’s art, it’s not for Ebert to decide. You look at a painting and that can mean nothing to you or something to you, or you walk down the street and you hear that wind rustling through the trees. That can have meaning for you. For some people, it’s just, “Oh, it’s breezy today.” People should just think for themselves. I’ve been able to read meanings into games and also not, depending on the game. Same for movies, novels. For me, it’s beyond that question now. When I think of that debate, it’s like looking at a photograph where I’m like 19 or 20 thinking about those things. It’s as absurd as asking a musician, “Why are you doing this? Is it art that you’re doing?” Maybe what I’m doing isn’t art to you, but who cares, it’s just what I do.

That said, what’s your favourite game?

My favourite game is probably Tetris. It’s a game I’ve been playing since I was like 8, and I’ve never stopped playing. When I started playing it, I actually didn’t like it, but then I saw my brother’s friend playing it and he was speed running it. I was like, “There’s this whole other side to this simple game that I didn’t see.” I started reading into it. I was going through some stuff when I was kid and I thought, “Oh, this game is like life. Sometimes you get really bad pieces and you just have to deal with it.” Then I started to think of it in terms of probability, which is when that poker craze happened - at least in Canada - where poker became a thing and people were talking about odds and stuff. I was like, “Oh yeah, sometimes you have to rearrange the play field so that odds are you’ll have a piece that you can use somewhere.” It’s something that has always grown with me and once in a while I’ll think of a new meme for it.

Categories: sony, video games