Category: Tech

The Water Here Tastes Funny

As I near the close of my first week living in north Phoenix, I have made a few observations. The first is that the water here tastes funny.

Now, I must first note that I suspect Phoenix tap water is probably among the worst in the nation. Big, polluted city in the middle of the desert with water being piped in from Colorado and California with questionable clean water regulations. I'd probably be more comfortable drinking tap water in NYC (and I think I did at the drinking fountain in the Times Square Toys R Us), or pretty much any other major American city except LA.

As you might guess from the above presumably silly and useless "rant", I filter my water. But it still tastes funny. I expect I'll get used to it soon.

The other thing I've realized is that I hate going to Fry's. I hate driving there, I hate driving back, and I especially hate shopping there. In fact I think the only satisfying part of the whole experience is walking out the front door with my bag of purchases and taking it to my car.

What was particularly unpleasant about last night's trip to Fry's -- aside from the atrocious drivers I had to fight to get there and back -- was simply trying to find things. I recently got me an HDTV, and I'm trying to set it up with HD connections for my cable and my Mac Mini. My cable box has a DVI port rather than HDMI, so I picked up a DVI-to-HDMI adapter. Of course this only transfers video and not audio, so I needed to hook audio up separately. And apparently the HDMI connections on my TV only have digital coax inputs for separate audio.

There's a Radio Shack nextdoor to my apartment complex, so of course I poked my head in there on the off chance that they'd have a digital coax audio cable for under $30. No such luck, of course. Fucking Monster.

So I went to Fry's. Where they also primarily stock Monster, but at least seem to have a better selection than their Tempe counterpart. Not that I could tell at first, because I couldn't find the audio cable aisle, which is inexplicably in the section with a giant sign that says "VIDEO" above it, rather than the section with the "AUDIO" sign. It took me probably 10 or 15 minutes to determine this, as there were no available employees anywhere to be found and I wouldn't talk to them if there were. (I learned at the Tempe location only to speak with employees as an absolute last resort; it's possible that this location actually hires competent people but I'm not going to bet on it.)

Once I finally found the aisle with the audio cables, I was faced with the even greater difficulty of actually locating the cables I wanted. This was hard enough to do by sight, as composite video, composite audio, component video, and digital audio are only distinguished by the number of connectors, and sometimes not even that. (Color doesn't immediately help anymore, as apparently coloring the entire connector has gone out of style in favor of coloring each and every connector exactly the same but with a thin band of red, white, or whatever for color-coding. And if I'm looking closely enough to see what color the thin band is, I'm looking closely enough just to read the damn label on the packaging.) It took me a close inventory of the entire first wall to find a digital coax audio cable, and it was labeled as a subwoofer cable. I didn't know what the difference is between regular digital audio and subwoofer audio, if there even is one, and that upset me -- I'm not used to being in over my head when it comes to tech, and when I am, I can usually just punch up Google to find an answer. I was not thrilled at the prospect of buying the wrong cable and having to return it later -- Fry's is awesome for returning things, but I still don't like driving there and back.

Fortunately, I finally discovered some that were just labeled "digital audio coaxial cable" at the opposite corner of the aisle. The Monster ones were, obviously, too expensive, but there were some adequate-looking GE cables that were priced very reasonably (6' for $8, 15' for $15). The trouble was that all but one of them had been knocked off their hooks and were lying on the bottom shelf below the hooks at ground level. I almost didn't see them. I'm chalking this up to incompetence rather than malice, but it sure seems convenient that the inexpensive cables were so hard to find compared to the Monsters.

I picked up a copy of Sonic Gems while I was there because it was only $20 for a bunch of games that were released 10-15 years ago and should've been included on Sonic Mega Collection in the first place. It made me feel better about the whole nasty shopping experience, but the way I described it in the previous sentence makes it sound like it shouldn't. Oh well. I never actually had a Sega CD, so the only copy of Sonic CD I ever had was the awful Win95 port (featuring intro and ending movies that look like crap in 256 color but the game refuses to run at any higher color depth, and won't run on XP!), so it's nice to finally have a good working copy. And Sonic the Fighters won't run on MAME so it's nice to finally be able to play it. (I don't know if the game's actually any good, as again, I've never played it, but at least I finally get to check it out.)

Anyway. I'm almost done building furniture and unpacking stuff, so I should be able to turn my attention to getting all my various media devices hooked up any time now, and hopefully figure out how to get my wireless network card working under Gentoo so I don't have to stretch a network cable across the whole apartment.

That and getting used to the funny-tasting water will mean I'm finally home here.

But I still don't know if there's a difference between a digital coax woofer cable and a regular digital coax audio cable, and a quick Google search hasn't helped yet. If you know please feel free to enlighten me.

Looking for some good wireless, Mac-compatible controllers.

I've managed to get a good range of emulators up and running, most notably MAME.

(Tangent: the wonderful thing about Bittorrent is that it's made so many things so much easier to find and download online. The bad thing is that they're now much harder to find individually; I was looking for a copy of Altered Beast and wound up downloading an entire 13GB torrent of every single MAME ROM. Fortunately, the download went screamin' fast and only took about a day; unfortunately, 2/3 of it is redundant -- generally speaking, every game comes in US, Japanese, and World versions, and many have multiple revisions -- and quite a few won't run at all. I guess there are tools which will only download specified files from a torrent rather than the whole thing; if anyone can recommend a good one for Mac, please drop me a line.)

And now we come to controllers. I've been using my good ol' PS2/USB adapter for years and it has served me well; however, I now have an abundance of 4-player games I can play through Sixtyforce and MAME. So that means I need more controllers.

I've already picked up a Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2, and it's proven thus far to be a fantastic damn controller. I'm currently scanning eBay for one of the original Cordless Rumblepads with the six face buttons, which I'd like for Genesis emulation and Street Fighter. (I'd also like someone besides Richard Bannister to release a Genesis emulator for Mac, as I hate him. But that's a Stream for another day.)

So that leaves one more controller I need to get. (Two, if I decide to go completely wireless, which I would like to do eventually -- a TV, a DVR, 4 game consoles -- I've got my GameCube, Dreamcast, NES, and PS2 currently connected --, and 3 computers make for a godawful jungle of wires that I would really, really like to thin out. Four if I go completely nuts and want to do a full 6-player game of the original X-Men arcade game -- vastly overkill in the vast majority of situations, but there were definitely times in college when there were four people playing a game and at least two waiting to play winner.) And I'm looking for suggestions. For all this MAME stuff, I think it'd be cool to get an arcade-style joystick: something wireless and in the $30 range; those $100 X-Arcade affairs are gorgeous but just a little bit too much for me, plus, jungle of wires.

It would appear that Pelican has a wireless arcade-style joystick out for around $30, but I can't find any reviews anywhere for it and I'm not about to buy one until I do. Pelican seems like a decent enough company, though; I spent today playing Dragon Quest 8 with one of their wireless controllers and it seems pretty solid, though a bit mushy in places -- I frequently find myself hitting Up or Down on the D-pad when I mean to hit Right. (Aside: I did not buy this controller and have no idea where it came from; it just showed up at my grandparents' house one day. My pet theory is that, like all the dishes, pots and pans, and silverware I owned in college, somebody left it at one of their rental houses when moving out.)

Anyhow, if you know of a good wireless arcade controller, or any kind of good wireless controller, have some general thoughts on Mac emulation, or just want to talk about how much you hate Richard Bannister, E-Mail me.

Mactel

To: David Lazarus, The San Francisco Chronicle

I am curious as to the motivation behind your "Intel inside -- so what?" article: are you really as ignorant and intellectually lazy as you come across in it, or did you just want the attention of being the only guy in the press with a headline saying it's not a big deal?

The point of the article seems to be "Most people don't care how something works, just that it works." Well stop the presses, what a scoop!

But David, SOMEBODY has to worry about the "how" or nothing's going to get done.

So what "what" does this "how" lead to?

There is an ABUNDANCE of information online that can tell you exactly why the Intel switch is important, and what its long-term effects may be, and a competent reporter would probably have done some research rather than consult computer industry experts like the administrator of a San Francisco law firm, a flight attendant from England, or Officer Gary Constantine of the San Francisco Police Department.

But, failing that, I will do my best to explain why the Intel switch is relevant.

I'm going to start out with some extraordinarily basic background on the computer industry here, as your article makes you seem blissfully unaware of it.

Apple makes computers. Macintosh computers.

But most people don't use Macs.

Most people use Microsoft Windows, which runs on Intel (and compatible) hardware.

(Now, you may have already made a connection here: "Oh hey, Apple's going to be running on the same hardware as Windows!")

The MacOS is almost universally regarded as superior to Windows in terms of ease-of-use and security.

So why do people still use Windows?

Well, in-between talking to flight attendants, you might consider walking into a computer store where someone is buying a Windows machine and ask that person why he isn't buying a Mac. I can guarantee you that at some point in the conversation, he will tell you he is worried his programs won't run on a Mac.

This stereotype has dogged Apple for twenty years, and is largely unfair: anything the average user needs, be it Web, E-Mail, or Microsoft Office, will run on a Mac.

However, there ARE some power users whose programs DON'T have Mac versions: engineers who need AutoCAD, for example, or gamers. (And before you pooh-pooh gamers as a niche market, consider that they're the people who buy the most expensive computers -- with the possible exception of movie editors, who are already firmly in the Apple court.)

Now, why isn't there a Mac version of AutoCAD? Why aren't there Mac versions of many popular games? Well, it's largely because of the hassle of porting them to a new architecture.

You get that?

The hassle of porting them to a new architecture.

But with Macs switching to Intel, the MacOS is now running on the SAME architecture as Windows does.

Making it much, much easier for these developers to release their software on the Mac.

And even if they don't release their software for Mac, this makes it far easier for third-party developers to make software which will allow Windows programs to run on a Mac. Take Microsoft's VirtualPC, for example, which has heretofore run programs very slowly and lacked advanced hardware support because it's had to emulate Intel hardware -- that hurdle is now gone. Or take Cedega, a program for making Windows games run under Linux -- a Mac version was impossible on the PowerPC architecture, but many cite it as inevitable now that the MacOS runs on Intel architecture.

And then there are people who may want to dual-boot: to use the MacOS primarily but reboot to Windows when they need to use a program which is not available for Mac. While there are some technical hurdles to jump, it seems obvious that someone will find a way to run Windows and the MacOS on the same computer within a matter of months, if not weeks.

It is even probable that people will figure out how to run the MacOS on non-Apple computers, and, while Apple has said it will not provide support for such an installation, this is still a significant draw to many users.

So, given all this "how", David, we can answer your question of the "what": the Intel chips will almost certainly mean better compatibility between the MacOS and Windows. Which, if you recall, is the primary concern keeping people from buying Macs. Programs which previously ran only on Windows will run on Macs.

But what does this mean for the Apple faithful, the people who have been buying Apples for years and would buy them no matter whose chip was in the box?

You dismiss the idea that end-users won't be able to tell the difference between a PowerPC Mac and an Intel Mac as if it means the difference isn't important -- as if being able to transfer an entire platform to a completely different architecture with such a seamless transition that the average user can't tell the difference is something that doesn't even bear thinking about. That's simply absurd. That Apple has made this dramatic change but managed to make it in such a way that the average end-user won't even notice any change at all is nothing short of amazing.

So, in a way, your vapid, superficial article answers its own question: that Apple has made a fundamental change and you can't, for the life of you, tell that anything has changed at all IS the story here.