Pixies Play Doolittle at Eugene’s Hult Center

Pixies performing, photo by rstoker on Flickr

Fun fact: Pixies frontman Black Francis and I share a birthday. Whether this is mere coincidence or evidence of a divine orchestration responsible for my ongoing love of this band I’ll leave for believers and skeptics to debate.

I vividly remember putting the Pixies’ Doolittle on for the first time and listening to it in the car on the way to school. Predictably, “Debaser” remains my favorite song, etched into my brain as soon as I heard that predatory bass guitar. Hearing Black Francis’s scream for the first time was like getting a punch in the stomach that shakes out all your dust and cobwebs. It was exhilarating and dangerous, and it changed the way I felt about rock and roll.

IMG_0444You can imagine my excitement as Mallory and I shuffled into the Hult Center in Eugene to see them perform their seminal album in sequence, in its entirety. To the possible chagrin of my fellow concert-goers’ indie hipster pretenses, I couldn’t suppress my smile. Neither could bassist Kim Deal or drummer David Lovering for the entirety of their set.

The band played the best I’ve ever heard to one of the most enthusiastic crowds I’ve ever been a part of. Doolittle was impressively solid, accompanied by some unique and appropriately atmospheric visuals (possibly a first for the band). Hearing the collective audience’s voices swell with the lyrics of “Hey” as they echoed throughout the beautiful concert hall was one of many highlights. The set was book-ended with a selection of b-sides, both oft-heard (“Dancing the Manta Ray”) and rarely performed (“Bailey’s Walk”).

The house lights came on as the Pixies took the stage for their final encore of the night, a visual indication that the Doolittle theme had been discarded in favor of roaring through songs like “Isla De Encanta” and “Where Is My Mind?” We exited the theater completely exhilarated and in disbelief. Despite having seen a Pixies performance in some form or another four times prior, they had outdone themselves almost effortlessly. Simply a stunning display.

Pixies are offering a four-track sampler of their live set for free. While I don’t think it matches the primal splendor of their live experience, it might be just the taste you need to seek them out.

Read the rest of this entry…

Ice Cream Social Icon Pack 1.2 (Designmoo, Google Voice, Posterous & more)

Originally created for use on this site and since incorporated into several of my projects, the Ice Cream Social Icon Pack is a set of 30 social media icons you can use in your designs.

New to this release are icons for any blog (generic), Designmoo, Google Voice, Picasa and Posterous. The Twitter icon has also been redesigned. The complete list:

  • BlinkList
  • Blog (generic) Blog (generic)
  • Blogger
  • Buzz
  • Delicious
  • Designmoo Designmoo
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Feed
  • Flickr
  • Google
  • Google Voice Google Voice
  • Lala
  • Last.fm
  • LinkedIn
  • LiveJournal
  • Mail
  • MySpace
  • Newsvine
  • Picasa Picasa
  • Posterous Posterous
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • Twitter Twitter
  • Vimeo
  • Virb
  • Wave
  • WordPress
  • YouTube

Too good to be true! What’s the catch?

These icons are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. They’re free for you to use as long as you place an attribution link to tylersticka.com somewhere in proximity to them (such as a site footer or about/credits page).

How can I ever repay you?

If you wanted to be really awesome, you can tweet about the icons or send me a message. If you’re more of a gift-giving sort, you can make a PayPal donation or buy something from my Amazon wish list.

Download Ice Cream Social Icon Pack 1.2

Unchain Your Media: The Big, Geeky Home Theater PC Entry

So much goodness in so little space.

Two years ago, I decided not to invest in cable or satellite television. At the time, services like Hulu were coming into their own, DVDs were being marked down to $4.50 a disc at many retail outlets, and it seemed to me that subscribing to this content in addition to Internet access made little financial sense (at least for a casual TV viewer like myself).

I didn’t miss cable television, but a different problem presented itself. DVD content and web content were separated by a yawning chasm of technical requirements. Half my media was tethered to my PC, the other half to my television.

After eighteen months of tolerating this situation, I finally broke and invested in a Home Theater PC (HTPC for short). Doing so involved some hard work, hackery and more than a few lost Saturdays, but the result is a versatile machine that’s become the center of my media viewing. When it’s not playing HD video, my living room is happily dominated by the MIDI sounds and blocky sprites of classic arcade and console games emulated on the same machine. What’s not to like?

Platform and Hardware

Dell Studio HybridThe most common suggestion I received from those who’d undergone this project before me was the Mac Mini, and logically so. It’s compact, quiet, relatively affordable and has Apple Remote support with Front Row baked right in. Pretty neat, but I opted for a non-Apple solution for a few reasons:
  • Blu-ray support. Though I would later discover some caveats with playback, Apple hasn’t even attempted to support this as an option.
  • Breadth of software. There are simply more front-end solutions available for Windows, especially for gaming.
  • The possibility of Linux. I know you can do it on a Mac, but a Windows box is more predictably Ubuntu-friendly should software solutions become sophisticated enough for me to make the switch.
  • HDMI. The Mini doesn’t have it. It’s 2009; why should I have to mess with audio and video cables? Sheesh.
  • Price. The Mac Mini is an affordable Apple product, but the “Apple tax” is still very much in effect.
Instead I chose what was (at the time) the equivalent PC solution: a refurbished Dell Studio Hybrid. It’s small, attractive, quiet, and succeeds where the Mac fails in the above requirements. It’s certainly not perfect (Dell’s new Inspiron Zino HD might be closer to the mark), but it’s proven itself to be versatile and reliable.

The biggest flaw of the Studio Hybrid is that it comes with Vista pre-installed. Like any self-respecting geek, I quickly wiped that out in favor of Windows 7 Home Premium. For the most part, Microsoft’s and Dell’s drivers have worked flawlessly, with the exception of the proximity sensor driver and on-screen hotkey notifications (which, for no apparent reason, are bundled together). Since I rarely use the functions these drivers support, the performance boost and increased usability of Windows 7 have more than compensated for their absence.

One of many movie-themed desktop wallpapers, this one from Pan's Labyrinth

The redesigned taskbar (and it’s built-in Window key launch functionality) makes for a surprisingly nifty ad-hoc app-launching solution, even from a distance. I point the desktop background to a folder chock-full of movie images set to shuffle every 30 minutes. The result is some spontaneous eye candy that compliments the living room (already adorned with Star Wars, Evil Dead 2 and Blade Runner movie posters).

Logitech Dinovo MiniThe Studio Hybrid comes with a really nice wireless keyboard and mouse, but their large footprint makes them ill-suited for casual use. Windows Media remotes, while nice in theory, are really only reliable when paired with Windows Media Center software (more on why I avoid that later). I tried a few remote configuration apps to circumnavigate this problem, but found them frustrating and unintuitive.

After returning a couple disappointing products, I finally settled on Logitech’s Dinovo Mini, a full keyboard and trackpad in a tiny form factor perfect for HTPCs. Is it overpriced? Definitely! But there’s simply no other alternative that will replace your keyboard and mouse for every app.

Finally, this machine wouldn’t be complete without a video game controller. I really dig the comfort and compatibility of the Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2. The d-pad is a little clicky for my tastes, but otherwise it plays and handles almost identically to a PlayStation controller, and having dual analog sticks comes in handy for playing Smash TV.


The XBMC home screen, with Wall-E fanart shown.

Put simply, the open source XBMC media center app rocks. It’s a little industrial-looking out of the box, but enabling the Aeon skin (with support for beautiful HD artwork) makes every menu a joy to look at.

A typical XBMC TV show episode listingThe Library feature is where XBMC really shines. Once you’ve pointed it to where your Movie and TV Show files reside, XBMC will “scrape” information for each and every file and present them in loving detail, organized by series and season with title, synopsis and artwork. It’s a perfect vessel for your ripped DVD collection or any other videos you’ve obtained digitally.

Hulu Desktop
The Daily Show in Hulu Desktop

Hulu’s relationship with the small but passionate HTPC community has been a tricky one. They’ve done everything they can to gimp support (and oddly, ad revenue) for their service in Boxee, and plugin writers for XBMC have long abandoned the hope of avoiding arbitrary rewrites to overcome the paranoia of the service’s content creators.

Still, it’s hard to passionately fault a company that gives us such a capable and remote-friendly piece of software as Hulu Desktop. It’s faster and easier to use than Boxee ever was and, despite numerous performance complaints in the blogosphere, has always run without a hitch on the Studio Hybrid. An essential piece of software.

Web Video
Google Chrome IconDespite the best efforts of services like Boxee and ZeeVee’s Zinc browser to wrap up Internet video in a cozy HTPC package, a wealth of streaming video content is still most accessible through an old-fashioned web browser. After informally testing several options for performance (with an emphasis on Flash video playback), I found Chrome to be the smoothest experience. I make liberal use of Chrome’s “Create Application Shortcut” feature, which allows you to run any web page as if it were an app, pinnable to the Windows 7 taskbar for easy access.

One exception to this is Netflix, which relies on Silverlight for its excellent video streaming service and is unsupported in Chrome. In this special instance, we use Mozilla Firefox with the Prism plugin to mimic Chrome’s shortcut creation.

What about Windows Media Center?
A humorous illustration of a turtle branded with the Windows Media Center logo. Because it's really slow.I know, I know… Windows Media Center is supposed to be really great, especially in Windows 7. And Netflix released a couch-friendly plugin for the service that is way easier to use than its browser-based sibling. Believe me, I’m aware of that. Which is why it hurts my soul that performance in Windows Media Center is so completely and utterly abysmal.

While XBMC plays back 1080p video flawlessly and Hulu Desktop jovially hops from menu to menu, everything in Windows Media Center is choppy, slow and unresponsive. I’ve dug far into the underbelly of Google search results and Media Center’s settings to attempt some sort of fix, but it alludes me still. Incredibly frustrating.

To Blu or not to Blu?
If you’re looking into a Dell Studio Hybrid and find yourself succumbing to the promise of its optional Blu-ray drive, you should stop. Relax. Breath deeply. And don’t bother.

Blu-ray playback is terrible on this thing. Dell’s pre-installed Blu-ray software is as unsupported as it is nonfunctional. After trying demos of nearly all software solutions, Cyberlink PowerDVD came closest to the mark (imagine my surprise), yet still failed to overcome the stuttering playback I experienced with every disc. A quick search for the problem on Dell’s forums proves that I’m not alone, and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable workaround.

Dell, don't sell Blu-ray devices that can't play back Blu-ray. Shiny?

It’s not just bothersome that Blu-ray playback stinks, it’s unethical given the fact that Dell is marketing HD playback on the Studio Hybrid so heavily. If you care about Blu-ray, skip the Hybrid and go for a machine with a dedicated video card instead of  Dell’s worthless “graphics acceleration.” Or buy a PlayStation 3.


I love video games, sometimes to the detriment of what little interior decorating sense is baked into my brain. Having multiple consoles lying around in the living room is an eyesore, and just plain inconvenient.

2009-11-19_arcade_01While the Studio Hybrid is by no means a graphics powerhouse, it’s more than adequate enough to handle my favorite classic arcade and console games. NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, arcade and even PlayStation emulators setup with ease, but aren’t very accessible from the couch. That’s where Maximus Arcade comes in.

There are a couple different emulator front-ends to choose from, but I wouldn’t bother with anything else. Maximus Arcade is better supported, better looking, stunningly full-featured and, while not recommended for emulation novices, is a breeze to set up compared to any alternative.

The game selection screen in Maximus Arcade

Games are organized by console and presented in a convenient (and skinnable) menu system, made more so once configured for the Rumblepad controller. Expect to surrender the better part of a Saturday making all the necessary tweaks and modifications, but the end product is immensely fun and shockingly simple.

Beyond the Living Room

Apple TVWindows 7 makes it really easy to share media on a home network, which opens up the possibility of installing satellite devices in other rooms of the house. Patching a refurbished Apple TV has allowed me to run XBMC on an older CRT television in my office, streaming content wirelessly from the Hybrid.

Although Apple’s oft-ignored device chokes on streaming HD content and my favorite Aeon skin for XBMC, standard-resolution video plays great even over wi-fi. If you’re not into playing chicken with Apple’s paranoid anti-hacking practices, you might give Lifehacker’s standalone XBMC HTPC tutorial a whirl.


The Home Theater PC has been the centerpiece of my media watching for about six months now, and it’s been amazing. Sure, I’m still firmly in “early adopter” territory; to overuse a design cliché, my Mom couldn’t use the setup I have now. But there’s something extremely liberating about enjoying content on your own terms, however and whenever it’s convenient. I’ve engaged myself in dozens of geeky projects in the past, but none that I enjoy as regularly.

If you’re already a gadget tinkerer and a lover of online media, and if you’re in a household that isn’t queasy about seeing a Windows, Linux or Mac desktop in their living room every once in a while, I highly recommend buying or building one yourself. It’s an immensely satisfying endeavor.

Experience Begets Relevance at Video Games Live

Photo 3When Erik Jung, Peter Wooley and I worked at US Digital as the company’s first internal design team, our office established a small but fun tradition. Every day, control of the room’s sound system would rotate between us. From 2-4pm, the DJ for the day would subject his co-workers to the music of his choosing. It started discussions, inspired creativity and was just plain cool.

All three of us had overlap in our musical tastes (we all dig Daft Punk, for example) but with very broad deviations. I dug a lot of punk and art rock. Erik had a passion for film soundtracks and rare, vinyl-only recordings. And Peter enjoyed video game soundtracks.

I hated video game soundtracks. They seemed to lack any context whatsoever, naked without the gameplay they were composed to support. Experiencing them on their own felt pretentious, incomplete, a mere novelty. Put simply, I just didn’t get it.

Peter and I attended Video Games Live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this past Saturday, and I think it changed my mind.

Photograph by Peter of VGL (pre-show)

Any reader of this blog knows how big a fan I am of live shows. Many of the bands I love today didn’t come alive for me until I saw them perform. You can’t know how textural Will Sergeant’s guitar playing really is until you’ve seen Echo and the Bunnymen live. Ray Davies’ pure craftsmanship, certainly audible in Kinks recordings, somehow ignites when performed to an enthusiastic and energized crowd. There’s something about the experience of music that is inherently visceral, perhaps even vital.

In Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne suggests that we’re hard-wired to feel this way:

David ByrneIn the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that’s not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.


We’ll always want to use music as part of our social fabric: to congregate at concerts and in bars, even if the sound sucks; to pass music from hand to hand (or via the Internet) as a form of social currency; to build temples where only “our kind of people” can hear music (opera houses and symphony halls); to want to know more about our favorite bards — their love lives, their clothes, their political beliefs. This betrays an eternal urge to have a larger context beyond a piece of plastic. One might say this urge is part of our genetic makeup.

At Video Games Live, I experienced the history of gaming in sight and sound with the aid of the Oregon Symphony and Pacific Youth Choir, conducted by Jack Wall (Myst, Mass Effect) and hosted by Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim, Metroid Prime). As I sat among my fellow geeks, cheering at the site of Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka, the opening title of the NES Metroid, footage of Ralph Baer testing an early version of Pong in 1968 and Martin Leung playing the Super Mario Bros. theme blind-folded, I realized what we all were really responding to.

It was the experience of these games, the fun and adventure they provided, and the soundtrack that is intrinsically linked to our memories. This music, thoughtfully composed and lovingly executed, is no more shallow than any other genre strengthened by the energy of a live performance.

Needless to say, the show was a wonderfully geeky good time. Read the rest of this entry…

Introducing Brizzly Favicon Alerts

Brizzly Twitter mascotI love the Internet as a collaboration tool. Earlier today I nabbed an invitation to Brizzly, a promising young Twitter and Facebook client with a clean, intuitive interface and a modest set of neat features. I dug the simplicity of the interface, with one exception; the favicon’s abrasive, jagged edges.

I invited my frequent co-conspirator Peter Wooley to the service. After a few messages between us, we went to work designing and implementing an alternate icon treatment with a special notification state to let you know when new messages are available, collaborating via Dropbox.

In short order, we completed the latest addition to the favicon alerts family of user scripts, Brizzly Favicon Alerts!

Brizzly Favicon Alerts (Before, After and Notification)

Used in combination with the Faviconize Tab extension, you can easily keeps tabs on new messages in Brizzly with less screen real estate than usual.

This feature is hard to enjoy if you aren’t a Brizzly user just yet. While invites aren’t as scarce as Google Wave, I’d be happy to provide one to the first five readers who comment on this post and sound off on how much you like (or dislike) the visual refresh.

Install Brizzly Favicon Alerts 1.0