2008-02-24

Review: GelaSkins 15" MacBook Pro skin

My house may be full of junk, but the stuff that's actually mine is mostly just books and bits of computer. I'll admit that I often choose one product over another for aesthetic reasons (blinkenlights!), but I can't think of anything I own that has fundamentally decorative purpose.

Until, that is, the GelaSkin I bought to cover my work MacBook Pro. This really is a product that doesn't do anything but change the appearance of your laptop. I'm a fan, though.

I'd read about these things ages ago in ars.technica, though at the time they were for iPods. They sounded pretty hard to put on, and they were super-ugly. Not just a little ugly, but really deliberately in-your-face ugly. Expensive mall ugly. Versace furniture ugly. So we kind of got off on the wrong foot. Being labeled "ugly expensive tat" is not a way to find yourself on my shopping list. The ars.technica article was sufficiently effusive in their praise that I visited the web site anyway, and even found that there was one design I actually liked. Even so, I didn't really see the point. Why would one bother? Part of the beauty of the iPods is that they're small and inoffensive. And it looked pretty tricky to line the wrap-around sticker up.

In their coverage of MacWorld 2008 ars.technica again mentioned GelaSkins, and specifically noted that they were showing off their laptop equivalents. Unlike the iPod skins, which wrap around and cover the whole iPod, the laptop "skins" are basically just big stickers that cover the lid of the laptop.

I've never really liked the look of the MacBook Pro. I accept that aluminum is a better laptop material than titanium was; no peeling paint here, and it feels pretty nice and rigid. I just happen not to like the way it looks. When it's open and I'm using it, it's fine, but when it's sat on my desk next to me, I'm not a fan. And being a big fast computer kind of person, laptops spend most of their time with their lids closed, sat on my desk next to me.

I've also never really liked the big glowing Apple logo on the lid. I don't wear t-shirts with logos on them unless they're free, and even then I'm somewhat choosy about what I'll advertise. I feel like I should at least get a discount for carting a big glowing Apple logo around.

So, for USD30, GelaSkins will sell you a big thick sticker to cover the lid of your laptop. It's thick enough that you can't see the Apple light through it, though if you look closely and the light's just right, you can make out the indentation around the edge of the logo.

The sticker also lets you choose how you think your laptop should look. Sexy robots? Check. Over-used pieces of popular fine art? Check. Sexy cartoons? Check. Fractals? Check. (When is this? The 1980s?)

And if, like me, you've always wanted wooden computers, you're in luck. That perversion is catered for too.

It's hard to tell from the web site how the things will actually look in real life. And since I've only tried one, I can only offer anecdote, but the one I have looks pretty good. If the light's right, it actually looks like highly-polished veneer. If the light's wrong, it looks like one of those textured stickers you see on the back of buses in some countries. I was also curious about how it would look given that it doesn't actually extend to the edges or wrap around, but it looks fine to me, and better than I personally imagine it would look if it did extend further.

It was easy to apply, though I'm not sure that wasn't just good luck.

Theoretically it's a "protective skin", but I'm not sure you'd really notice. If you have a habit of keeping metalworking tools on top of your laptop you might find yourself saved a few scratches, but it's hard to see it making much difference in the pocket of a laptop bag. What the sticker does do is make fingerprints and salty sweat marks less obvious. I no longer find myself rubbing the damn laptop clean every time I use it, though the areas to the left and right of the trackpad on the inside remain problematic.

There are wrap-around MacBook Pro skins available from other companies, but I've yet to see one that didn't look about as good as something you did yourself in 2 minutes with a roll of duct tape. The corners in particular are deeply unsatisfactory. I never see the bottom of my laptop, though, so it can look out for itself. The wrap-around skins don't address the inside of the laptop either, so unless you carry your laptop round in a bag of gravel, I don't really get the point.

In summary, although this product doesn't really do anything, I still like it. I can recognize my laptop at a glance, it makes it look better in my opinion than it did out of the box, and I no longer have to see (or show) the big glowing Apple logo. I also don't have to rub sweat marks off the lid on a daily basis. Would I feel silly walking around with my decorated laptop under my arm? Possibly, but I'd feel silly walking around with any kind of laptop anyway (just add bluetooth headset for the complete knob-end experience). Would I feel silly if everyone with a MacBook Pro read this and rushed out to buy one? Only one way to find out...

2008-02-18

Review: "A Theory of Fun for Game Design"

I'm not much of a gamer. As a kid, I'd play a game until I felt like I knew how you'd go about writing it, and then I'd lose interest. I didn't even care to apply that knowledge, either in using it to "beat" the game (many games in those days just kept getting harder until you failed, and thus only really offered you failure), or in using it to write a clone. I knew I wouldn't play the clone, so I had no motivation to write it.

Before games even progressed to 3D, I had too much other stuff to do, so I kind of missed out on all that. I came back to gaming a couple of years ago, just after the Xbox 360 launch, when I bought an original Xbox. (That sounds perverse, but the 360 launch didn't actually mean there was anything worth playing on the 360 at that time, or that 360s were readily available, or that a handful of specific Xbox games I was interested in were on the 360's compatibility list, or that a sane human with an alternative would want to play an Xbox game on a 360.)

I'd never owned a console before. A computer that isn't end-user programmable? Not really a notion I want to support. It still bothers me, but other than "don't play games", I don't see an alternative. (Running Windows is not an alternative.)

The Xbox was ostensibly for my girlfriend, but through bad choices of games, she lost interest. I was the main user of the Xbox, and I was mainly using it to watch DVDs. Then one weekend I didn't really want to watch a DVD, or read a book, and I didn't want to write code or a blog post either. I wanted something in between, and so I bought a game.

Since then, I've played a bunch of games, found a bunch more that my girlfriend has enjoyed, bought a 360, and bought her a PSP. Gaming fits nicely into a gap on the recreation spectrum, and I've found myself thinking about games quite a lot.

What makes a game good or bad? What aspects of the implementation make/break a game? What trade-offs are visible to the user, how much do they hurt, and could they have been ameliorated? Would games be easier if there were no free amateur game guides on the net, or would they be the same and we'd still be getting "stuck" like in the bad old days? How could difficulty be managed better? Which old ideas still make sense, and which don't? How do you balance realism and fun? Why don't all games encourage playing for speed, or to kill no-one/everyone? If 360 Achievements are so fundamentally pointless and worthless and yet strangely gratifying, is there an analog for serious software ("15 G - Low Ammo: no slide in your presentation used more than 3 bullet points")? What's wrong with the Japanese and why can't they write a game I can enjoy?

Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun" doesn't touch on the cross-over to "serious" software that interests me (the "achievements" question above), and he's not interested in implementation details either (which aren't very interesting academically, even if implementors can always learn from comparing good and bad implementations). But if you're interested in the more abstract questions, this is a great book. It might not answer many questions, but it does point out aspects and complications you might have overlooked in your own cogitations.

The style of the book is odd. Every facing page is a picture, drawn by the author. Sometimes the picture direct illustrates the accompanying text, sometimes it's more abstract. It's off-putting when you pick the book up, because it's already a small book, and it's not obvious that the pictures really add much. Half-way though, though, I was reminded of Umberto Eco's comment about the start of I promessi sposi, that sometimes text is deliberately there to slow us down. His point was that even skipping or skimming through such text helps us feel the time that's passing in the fictional world. In this book, I realized that the pictures' purpose was, as much as anything, to slow me down. The text was arranged so that no paragraph was ever split across pages, and the "blank" pages were time to think about what you'd just read. (Blank pages wouldn't have worked as well because they have no way to arrest you before you've already turned the page and started on the next.) So, ignore the style; it's a feature, not a bug.

If you're interested in games in the abstract (not even strictly just video games), I'd recommend this as an interesting read.

2008-02-15

Mac OS 10.5.2

Anyone who cares probably already knows, but Mac OS 10.5.2 is out, and it adds an option (in "Desktop & Screen Saver", rather than "Appearance") to make the menu bar non-translucent, but it doesn't make it look like the 10.4 menu bar; it's a metallic color like the 10.5 title bars, which an ugly hard black bottom edge to it. Honestly, you're better off leaving it translucent. There doesn't seem to be an option to do anything about the transparency of menus themselves, though Apple has somewhat arbitrarily decided to make them non-transparent. I'd have preferred them left alone. (The Help menu still has the ugly shrunken text.)

Time Machine, even if disabled, now adds an icon to the menu bar. Thankfully, unlike the Spotlight icon, you can turn this one off in System Preferences.

Still no Java 6.

For the past month, I've been using 10.4 on a MacBook Pro by day, and 10.5 on a PowerMac G5 by night, and I have to say I honestly have no reason to "upgrade" the MacBook Pro, even though I could if I wanted to. I spent a couple of months with nothing but 10.5, and now I've gone back to a mostly-10.4 situation, and I don't care. There's absolutely nothing compelling in 10.5 to push me over the activation threshold for an update. Sure, if I had to actively click "Cancel" to stop it upgrading itself while I sleep, I'd probably let it go ahead and update. But as long as it's going to take non-zero effort on my part, screw it.

There's exactly one thing I've missed, and I've missed it about once every couple of days. The way they fixed the long-standing bug whereby you weren't able to scroll a window other than the one with the focus? That, it turns out, is the only appreciable difference between 10.4 and 10.5 for me.

Snooze on, my hold-out friends. Snooze on.

I'll wake you when Java 6 arrives, because that will be some solace. Other than that, it's just 10.6. Assuming, that is, Apple's not too busy with the iPhone next time round too.

2008-02-04

Rhythmbox

I've been in process of "switching" to Linux for roughly forever. Well, since 1998, anyway. I'd been a happy user of Plan 9, IRIX, and Solaris before then (in decreasing order of happiness), as well as being a rather unhappy AIX and SunOS user. I'd seen Linux, but hadn't seen the point. And then in 1998, I found myself with a Sun Ultra 10 on my desk. For reasons that escape me now but which doubtless involved some Solaris decrepitude, I experimented with Linux/SPARC. I remember being shocked at how much faster Linux was than Solaris on the same hardware, but I also remember that I soon gave up and went back to Solaris because the X11 server was unstable.

Still, a seed was planted, and my next desktop box deliberately had all its parts chosen for their known compatibility with Linux (still a necessity then) and I've hardly looked back. RedHat almost put me off, with its insistence that I deal with package dependencies manually, but Debian offered a solution to that, and Ubuntu offered a solution to the sadly typical Debian choice between a repository of broken packages and a repository of packages so stale they could almost ship with Solaris; Ubuntu's six-month cycle offers a good compromise between these two positions, and Ubuntu does a mostly good job of reducing the number of choices Debian expects me to make by offering me reasonable enough default choices. Ten half-working solutions are not better than one mostly-working solution, or, to be honest, one half-working solution.

The only problem is that I live a dual life: developer by day and, well, developer by night. But a different kind of developer. One who has to maintain his own machine and let real people have accounts on it. Because of this, I've been using Macs since 2001. Initially because I wanted a Unix with a nice UI for myself. And although nothing comes close to Mac OS for "nice UI", Linux is still my preferred Unix because I'm a developer. And as a developer, I don't think you can beat Linux. (The obvious exception being if you plan to make money by selling commercial software.) So I've been slowly moving away from Mac OS, and using Linux for more and more things.

RSS was a big sticking point, but I finally gave in to a friend's recommendation of Google Reader. I don't love it (I find its behavior when I scroll or click in an article annoying at times), but it's good enough, and its killer feature is the usual web app advantage of being able to use it from any of my computers, regardless of where I happen to be. Plus it doesn't have ridiculous delusions of being a sovereign app like some of its desktop competition.

RSS, then, is sorted. What's left? At the moment, I use the Mac for Mail and iTunes. I want to keep my mail on my own IMAP server, but I can't stand Evolution or Thunderbird, so I'm sort-of writing a mailer in my copious free time. That's a bit dormant right now. Linux mailers are uniformly awful, and appear to be suffering from an "editor wars" kind of mentality where they're too beholden to their audience of diehards to worry about real people, but it's not hard to imagine that the desktop mailer just isn't going to be very relevant in the future. More than most things, mail lends itself to being a web app because almost everyone's mail is on a machine other than the one right in front of them anyway.

None of this is what I wanted to talk about, though. I wanted to say that I'm divorcing iTunes. I didn't realize how easy it would be, and I haven't seen this spelled out anywhere, so I'm spelling it out here in the hope that it will be useful to someone else.

My situation was that I already had all my music on my Linux box, in exactly the structure that iTunes uses, courtesy of rsync(1). What I thought I wanted was something to convert my iTunes ~/Music directory (and the iTunes database within) into something that a Linux music player would understand. It turns out that there's no need for any such thing. Rhythmbox is perfectly capable of doing the right thing, using the metadata from ~/Music and not duplicating the .mp3 files, and is even capable of checking for changes. So (if you configure it to check for changes, which it doesn't by default) you don't even need to tell it if you add new .mp3 files.

Rhythmbox itself is perfectly adequate. It has the usual GTK+ habit of seeming to take up a lot more screen space than it actually seems to need, and the slider for jumping about within a track doesn't work very well, but the interface is obvious enough and the filtering is fast enough, so it'll do just fine.

Maybe the fact that Rhythmbox can use your iTunes library is so blindingly obvious it doesn't need mentioning, but I didn't know, and I was actively trying to switch to Linux, and had been actively looking for a way to do this. Sometimes you need to explicitly say that something "just works", even if you think your users should feel able to take it for granted.

Someone should write some kind of HOWTO for switching to Linux from the Mac. Maybe I could, presupposing I ever manage to complete the transition!