Synek Draft System Review


Synek Draft System Review

The premise fairly simple premise of the Synek draft system is that growlers basically suck; glass ones are fragile, metal ones are expensive, and drinking a half-gallon of high gravity beer in two days isn’t always reasonable. The standard solution is to buy or build a kegerator but hauling ponies and even sixtels around can literally be a pain, and what if you want more variety?

The solution Synek has come up with is to replace the growler with a recyclable single-use bag (bladder may be more appropriate) that they call a cartridge. Joining the cartridge is the functional cap which is a screw-on cap with two ports and a pressure-relief valve. The larger of the ports is attached to a tube that goes into the cartridge.

When the cartridge is filled with a tap adapter (more on this later) the bartender clicks the line from the tap onto the large port using a short piece of tubing with a quick release fitment. A slightly longer tube connects similarly to the other port, allowing foam and any air to escape the container. This allows for longer storage, Synek boasts of 3+ months of shelf life but I haven’t been patient enough to let beer sit around that long.

When you bring your bag of beer home be careful as it’s somewhat durable but not indestructible (Synek advises to treat it like a baby and not shake, drop, or leave it in a hot car.) Once you do get it in the door that’s when similarities to a growler experience really end. Instead of putting the beer in a standard fridge the Synek draft system provides a refrigerated compartment that is tailored to fit a full cartridge. Controls and display to the right of the tap allow you to adjust the serving temperature of the beer depending on the style.

Once the cartridge is nestled in the compartment you open the door behind the temperature readout and set the CO2 pressure on the regulator before clicking the CO2 and draft lines to the ports on the functional cap. From there you close all the doors and wait for things to get cold before pouring a beer. Pouring is simple and the draft system comes with a flow control tap that allows you to adjust the pour to your liking.

At least that’s how it would work in a perfect world.

When I got my unit home and unboxed, everything seemed to be in order but I quickly ran into a couple of snags. Firstly, the Synek requires a small bit of assembly; the tap needs to be screwed onto the body, which is simple enough, and the CO2 regulator has to be connected to the supply tubing. This was my first stumbling block as the tubing is just inflexible enough to make pushing it past the ferrule on regulator nipple a difficult task. The manual proved to be unhelpful as it glossed over this step with what amounted to “connect this thing to the other thing,” but some quick Googling, a glass of hot water, and a grippy pair of pliers later I was back on track. Just in time to run into my second problem.

After all that trouble the regulator I was shipped didn’t work. After some emailing and delays due to understaffing and production rates, I was finally shipped a working regulator. Now the only problem was finding beer.

            The same understaffing that resulted in delays in getting a replacement regulator also resulted in breweries getting tap adapters later than expected. Luckily after some tweeting and patience I was able to help Scott, the brewmaster at East End Brewing, christen his newly arrived adapter.

            For this review I filled five cartridges at different times. With the exception of my third bag where I misthreaded the functional cap, everything went smoothly at the brewery. Even the misthreaded bag got home with minimal spillage and a couple good pours before finally resulting in an empty CO2 tank.

            Attaching the cartridge to the Synek is easier said than done. In the interest of efficiency and footprint, the refrigerated compartment is very snug and allows for very little room to maneuver tubing. This can often make it difficult to close the door and also leads to kinking. There’s an art to making the connections work with minimal hassle.

            The CO2 regulator requires some fiddling with as well. It’s supposed to be a set it and forget it kind of affair but minor adjustments are almost always required. Filling the tank is at once simple and complicated. It’s a 20oz tank similar to those used for paintball which should be fillable at any sporting goods store with some caveats. The first is that not all sporting goods stores are willing to fill tanks used for beverages (the Synek beer glass logo is printed on the tank) because of the second caveat which is that CO2 that isn’t sold as food grade can theoretically have some nasty impurities. That being said, the chances of impurities depend largely on your local industry and the “if it tastes funky, pour it out” rule of thumb should apply. If you’re still uncomfortable, food grade CO2 may be available at a premium or you can find out where your local sporting goods shop sources their CO2 as odds are they fill tanks for commercial draft systems from the same bulk tank.

Finding a brewery that will fill Synek cartridges can isn’t always easy. Synek maintains a map of partners on its website but there have been reports of inaccuracies either due to a server’s ignorance or the fill kit going missing. The solution is to bring your own kit but that can have mixed results.

All things considered, maintenance is fairly minimal. To clean the lines between cartridges you simply rinse and fill the spent bag with warm water and then run it through the system. A home brewing sanitizer can also be used if things seem unusually dirty. You should keep an eye on your lines though, specifically on the supply tube attached to the functional cap. In my testing a particularly sticky stout discolored the tubing and ultimately ended up contaminating it, resulting in a funky taste to everything served with it.  A more thorough cleaning immediately after finishing the beer would probably have saved me some time and money. It's also nice to have a filling kit available during cleaning since the various fitments can be used to open valves for drainage.

When everything is working right the Synek draft system is great. A full gallon of beer isn’t going to fuel any all-night ragers but with a backup it’s nice for casual gatherings. Right now it’s the very definition of an enthusiast product; if you’re passionate about fresh, local craft beer, like variety, and don’t want to feel forced into drinking a growler in one go, then the Synek is well worth looking into. If, on the other hand, you’re happy drinking canned and bottled beer or the prospect of drinking a half gallon of beer in one or two sittings is a welcome idea (all the time) then you can probably wait for the next iteration in the next year or so.



Thoughts on Assassin's Creed Unity

Despite having run into a couple of bugs, Assassin's Creed: Unity is far from unplayable, much less a bad game. I'm very much enjoying my time with it. Would it have benefited from a couple more months of dev time a la Watchdogs? Probably. But the biggest issue people seem to have with the game is that Ubisoft made unexpected (and probably good) changes to the gameplay but not the ones people wanted.

The microtransactions are really no big deal. They look terrible out of context, but they are just shortcuts for people who don't have the patience to amass in-game currency. Think of them as lazy cheat codes; some people will use them but they are in no way necessary.

The Initiates and companion app chests are a little more annoying but only because they pull you out of the game. Conceptually Initiates is cool because it rewards you for having played other games in the series (regardless of platform) but it's executed poorly since it uses the web browser. The companion app is largely like the fleet stuff in Black Flag except that you can only do it on an external device as there's no way to access it in game.

Overall the game is definitely worth it if you're into the franchise.


A New (Old) Cabient


A New (Old) Cabient

When I began my first arcade cabinet project I spent a long time scouring the internet looking for a beat-up cabinet that would be suitable for conversion. At the time I figured that by using a pre-existing structure I'd be able to save myself some money and time. What I discovered was that waiting for a suitable cabinet took too much time, and getting one to me would probably take too much money. Long story short, I ended up building my own cabinet. This time around things are a little different. When a friend of a friend offered up a beat up but workable trivia cocktail cabinet I jumped on it.

The cabinet in Friend of Friend's garage

Based on the picture I saw and the dimensions I was given I figured the cabinet could be disassembled and put into our relatively small car. This ended up being a mistake; the volume of the cabinet would indeed fit in the space of the car, but the size of the thing wouldn't fit through the trunk or doors (it's times like these that make me wish we had a lift back).  After several attempts to reduce the bulk to manageable pieces I called it a day and put the top in the trunk. The top was the most important part anyway.



A New Cabinet Project

The closest thing to an in-progress shot of my first cabinet

The closest thing to an in-progress shot of my first cabinet

About two years ago I built myself an arcade cabinet. It's a process I would have documented here if I hadn't been so excited to move on from one step to the next. It's kind of like writing that way - when I get done with one tricky task I want to keep that momentum going.

But my previous lack documentation is neither here nor there as I have taken on a new project and I plan on recording it here. As I go through the process of building the new cabinet I'll be adding new posts to this blog. When I'm done I'll try to gather these posts up into something usable.




Ten years ago today I woke up early in the morning and rode a bus downtown before taking a light rail train to, what was at the time the closest Best Buy. I walked out with a white box emblazoned with an orange swirl.

Yes, if you bought one then you already know that today is the tenth anniversary of Sega’s US launch of their greatest achievement and biggest failure. The Dreamcast was the little machine that could do everything except compete against the PlayStation 2 launch hype.

Bundled with a 56k modem for online gaming the Dreamcast was ahead of it’s time. The Dreamcast was also the first console to support progressive scan (albeit through an optional adapter). In addition it supported mouse, keyboard and microphone peripherals.

In a way the Dreamcast was too much of a good thing. Sega’s much touted GD-ROM anti-piracy method was cracked within a year of the US launch. Rampant piracy combined with an already low price point resulted in a product line that was impossible to sustain. With the PlayStation 2 already on shelves and the Xbox and GameCube on the horizon Sega threw in the towel and walked out on the hardware business.

It’s a shame that the Dreamcast had such a short lifespan, but we should be happy it existed. Without the Dreamcast Microsoft may never have entered the console market. Microsoft would then never have developed Xbox Live and online gaming on consoles would be very different and probably not as good.

So dust off that copy of Shenmue and rejoice. Today is Dreamcast Day!



District 9; a Little Bit Kafka, a Little Bit Black Hawk Down

If I said more than that I might spoil it.

I’m not prepared to say that District 9 is the most amazing movie of the summer; I haven’t seen them all and I have had a torrid public love affair with Star Trek. What I am prepared to say is that District 9 is an incredibly well told story.

Director Neill Blomkamp is a master of the cinema verite style faux documentary. Much like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project the shaky cam this-really-happened footage adds a visceral sense of truth to the film. But unlike the aforementioned movies which use a lack of apparent editorial influence to build credit with the audience, the documentary framing allows District 9 to present the truth while implying that there is an even bigger truth beyond that.

Because the framing documentary is “filmed” after the main narrative the interviewed subjects are able to drop hints about further events in the film. While not always obvious at the time these hints create nice “aha” moments when the connections are made, and it is these connections that make for a tightly knit story.

While there is one nagging bit of unexplained phenomena (a “liquid” that is apparently both a fuel and a toxin), ultimately there are few loose ends at the end of the movie. This isn’t to say that everything is cut and dry; there are plenty of ways to interpret what has and will happen, but that everything has happened for a reason.

This is the kind of story telling that writers, directors, and editors of all media and genres could learn something from. It’s Chekhov’s gun in action, where the details are meaningful. Just for that it’s a great film.



Would you like to not have a beer? – A Poorly Worded Dialog

Do you want to view only the webpage content that was delivered securely? <Yes> <No>

This is the dialog that greets me in Internet Explorer 8 when I attempt to view images in Gmail or look at Google Reader items. It happens because I often check my email in coffee shops and other public networks and have told Google to sign me in securely. The issue is that the text content of an email is secure since it is hosted on Google’s servers while the images are hotlinked from another site. In principle it’s good practice to warn users when the supposedly secure site they are visiting has mixed content, but the wording is particularly awful.

Take a look at it again. It’s not asking you if you would like to view the insecure content, it’s asking you if you would like to not view it. That’s like a bartender asking me if I would like to not have a beer; it makes no sense, of course I would like to have a beer, but to get one I have to answer in the negative. In previous versions the choice that would do what you wanted and display the content was “no” and now the opposite is true. And there is the other sticking point: the default answer is “yes”.

I understand what Microsoft is trying to do here. They trying to stop users from blindly clicking yes and opening themselves up to a world of credit card fraud and identity theft. It’s an admirable goal but awkwardly worded (or cleverly worded, as someone at Microsoft must think) questions are not the best way of doing this. I’d much rather have multiple affirmations required to proceed (are you really sure you want to do this?) followed by an option to not warn me for the particular site again.

There is a way to remove the mixed content warnings altogether, but that just brings us back to a world where the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the internet is free to trick you into believing that a site is wholly secure when it isn’t. There is a chance the Trusted Sites options may approximate the desired behavior but I’ve been met with only limited success. Until I get it worked out I’m left telling the bartender “no, I don’t want to not have a beer,” and that’s just wrong. 

(Edit: It turns out that I would need to place both Gmail and the site supplying the images on my Trusted Sites list. This is more work than I am currently willing to go through.)



Star Trek

I saw the new Star Trek film over the weekend. Aside from a slightly missed beat in the big reveal I enjoyed every minute of it. JJ Abrams and crew truly paid the series more respect than most fans were willing to believe.

As I often do I went back and checked out reviews to see where my opinion fell. Most of the major critic’s opinions were in line with my own but Roger Ebert was not among them. Now, two and a half stars is not necessarily a poor review of a film but the fact that it’s half a star removed from Matthew McConaughey vehicle Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is more than a little troubling. Scores are only numbers and it was the text that truly bothered me, particularly the lede:

“Star Trek” as a concept has voyaged far beyond science fiction and into the safe waters of space opera, but that doesn’t amaze me. The Gene Roddenberry years, when stories might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action. Like so many franchises, it’s more concerned with repeating a successful formula than going boldly where no “Star Trek” has gone before.

I think he’s got it all wrong. Firstly space opera is a subgenre of science fiction. Genre gaffes aside, The Star Trek series has always been a space opera. The warbling aria of the original series’ theme is practically a winking nod to this. Ebert’s argument may still be that the film is content to play within the safe waters of a subgenre, but I think he misses the point here too.

The idea that the new Star Trek doesn’t play with questions of philosophy is completely baffling. Star Trek is very much a film about destiny and identity. It’s difficult to go into any depth without spoiling the film, something I do not wish to do here, but suffice to say the theme is somewhat subtle compared to the main plotline.

If the subtlety of the deeper themes is the source of Ebert’s complaint then I need only point to the first series of films to make my argument. When the Star Trek films have tried to tackle weighty issues with  less subtlety we got The Final Frontier at worst and The Voyage Home at best. With Star Trek, as with anything else, symbolism is best when it doesn’t reach out and smack you in the face. The interesting musings should be the theme not the plot.

Ebert goes on to complain about some of the science, which he may not know is surprisingly plausible, and appears to have missed some of the plot in doing so (the away team must parachute onto a platform because the transporters are being jammed).  But none of this really matters, what matters is what I think, and what you think. As far as I’m concerned Star Trek is every bit as good as The Undiscovered Country and light years ahead of the abysmal Nemesis.



When to review

Recently several news outlets have delayed reviews of Killzone 2 because they were given review code and not final code and because the multiplayer features are difficult to test. Reportedly the code submitted to outlets for review was older and had bugs which were removed from the retail version. This raises some interesting issues.

If a publisher submits pre-release code for review then they must have a certain amount of faith in the product. Still it’s somewhat unreasonable to review admittedly un-finalized code as a finished product. It’s also unreasonable to presume that all of the admitted bugs have actually been fixed. The question here is one of editorial policy: Do you take the publisher/developer’s word at face value? Do you preface your review with a note about pre-release code and review the code as is? Do you just wait and review the retail version?

There are legitimate arguments to be made for every option. The ultimate issue is that whatever policy a publication decides to use, they have to use it across the board. If you wait for a retail copy of Killzone 2 then you have to wait for a retail copy of Halo: ODST or any other game. At the same time if you notify your readers of pre-release code in one review, you must do it in all reviews.



Gravity Bone


Gravity Bone is a stylish independent game. It's hard to say a whole lot more about it because in the time it takes me to write it, nay the time it take you to read it, you could have played it.

There's the problem. The game is too short. It's like reading the epilogue to a novel and nothing else, at once engrossing and disappointing. Gravity Bone grips you and then throws you off a cliff without so much as a hello.

The upsetting thing is that while what little there is of Gravity Bone is very good, it's so short it's almost bad. The way the game is designed (there are at least four item slots, but only three are used) makes it feel like an aborted attempt at worst and a demo at best. The whole middle of the game is just missing.

The thing is I still love it.

Gravity Bone via Offworld
screen shot blatantly stolen from Offworld



Asshole Mario

There's a legend to this one. I haven't bothered to look it up, but the story goes that there's this Super Mario World champion in Japan who's friend challenged him to complete his hacked levels. These are fiendishly hard levels that require just as much luck as skill. A more reasonable name is Kaizo Mario but I find the YouTube poster's choice to be more accurate in describing the pain:

That's just the first level. There are close to a dozen more of these. And if that's not enough there's a sequel that begins with this masterwork:

What I love about this one is how it totally subverts the Mario conventions. Hidden blocks are a punishment instead of a reward and the mechanics of stage completion are used against the player. It's all at once an example of what to do and what not to do in the area of game design.



Rock and a Hard Place

I was listening to a podcast the other day where some writers and editors for prominent game publications talked about how many gamers put too much stock in game previews. The argument was that for the most part previews have to be optimistic given that they are looks at incomplete products and nothing is written in stone.

For the most part this is a good position to take; previews can't look into the future and tell you what the final game will be like. Features my be added or dropped, bugs may crop up at the last moment or problems with framerates may be solved. A game that gets a glowing preview may end up being a total turd while one that leaves middling impression could turn out to be the second coming of Donkey Kong. It's not an exact science, anyone who has done extensive beta testing can tell you that. Developers get the benefit of the doubt because they're people too and a product isn't done until it is sitting on store shelves.

Still there is a problem. Previews come too early, but reviews come too late. By the time you find out that a game like Katamari Damacy is totally amazing you are already relegated to the retail store crap shoot. GameStop won't have a copy for you because you didn't pre-order and the big box stores probably didn't order any because it's too weird. In a business where profit margins per unit are razor thin pre-orders are going to be the law of the land. Previews need to reflect that.

For a game that is reasonably popular there's no need to put money down; they'll have enough copies even if they swear to be selling you "the last one." But for games like Okami and Zack and Wiki chances are that your store will only get enough to fill pre-orders. These are the games where previews need to function as pre-release reviews, where writers with review copies need to give estimated scores before the final review is published. People need to know about innovative and unique games before they hit the shelves so they can put their five dollars down. A preview can't always be a preview, sometimes it has to be a pre-review judgement.



Important? Yes. Most Important? Not Really.

(or: This One Goes to Eleven)

Some smart and important people in the field of gaming have created a list of the ten most important video games of all time. Some of the list is in fact important, but others are kind of odd. Here's the list in no particular order;

  • Spacewar!
  • Star Raiders
  • Zork
  • Tetris
  • SimCity
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Civilization I/II
  • Doom
  • Warcraft Series
  • Sensible World of Soccer

There is no real contention with the first two titles on the list; Spacewar! is without a doubt the most important video game of all time. Forget Pong, forget Asteroids, Spacewar! was the first video game ever and everything else followed. Star Raiders isn't a game I have personally played, but I think it has its place as the progenitor of just about every 3D space combat game.

It's the third spot where I start to have problems with the list. I have no problem with Zork as an important game, but not as one of the most important games. Zork does represent the origins of modern adventure games, but it doesn't hold this distinction on its own. Roberta Williams' Mystery House was developed at about the same time and included graphics, an adventure game first. Zork and Mystery House both were inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure, the first adventure game.

Tetris. I can't argue with Tetris. I don't even want to argue with Tetris.

SimCity is another one of those games I don't have a problem with. There's a logical progression from SimCity to other "god" games and even further genres.

Christopher Grant cites Super Mario Bros. 3 as being important for its nonlinear play and ability to move backwards. That's all well and good, but Metroid allows players to move backwards and is equally nonlinear, as is Zelda. The question is whether or not the non-linearity of a game is sufficent to warrant an addition to the list. Mario 3 was hardly a masterpiece of nonlinear gaming as it only really allowed the player to decide which levels to skip, either via a warp whistsle (much like the warp zones in the origional Super Mario Bros.) or through different paths that often only eschewed optional levels. Non-linearity is not as important as Grant would have us believe. With that I submit that as a system seller and innovative game, the original Super Mario Bros. fits the list better.

I'll allow a Civilization game on the list, but only one Civ game. That game is Civilization II. The original Civ was a great game, but Civ II solidified the genre and paved the way for Alpha Centauri and Europa Universalis.

I'm almost sick of seeing Doom on these kinds of lists. Doom is important because of the inclusion of deathmatch, but that didn't really play out until both Quake and increased Internet connectivity. The honor here should instead go to Wolfenstein 3D as first great first person shooter.

I'm not sure why Warcraft gets to enter the list as a series. Is it to include World of Warcraft? WoW is an important game as far as MMOs go, but in gaming as a whole it is too early to tell if it is one of the most important games. The first Warcraft is, however, an important game since it strengthened the real-time strategy genre and began the series that has carried Blizzard to this day.

I haven't played Sensible World of Soccer but I get the sense that the game was somewhat buggy and required a patch a year later. In the same year as the patch Sensible World of Soccer 95-96 was released and is described as the game the developers wanted to release. The Sensible Soccer series followed a formula that is similar to the Madden series where successive versions included minor tweaks and roster updates. The American in me wants to throw out soccer in favor of a "real" football game; Tecmo Super Bowl the first game to license all of the NFL teams, and a game that in terms of game play still stands the test of time. The hardcore gamer in me wants to eschew sports games all together and include an RPG instead; Rogue the granddaddy of them all. Ah hell, we'll just expand the list to eleven.

After all of that here is my new and improved list;

  • Spacewar!
  • Star Raiders
  • Colossal Cave Adventure
  • Tetris
  • SimCity
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Civilization II
  • Wolfenstein 3D
  • Warcraft: Orcs & Humans
  • Tecmo Super Bowl
  • Rogue

If anything it is clear that ten is not enough. Ten a year maybe, but ten most important period? Fat chance.



Zelda Wall Hanging

This is the wall hanging I commissioned from my mother. It's based on this Wind Waker promotional desktop wallpaper with some modifications for material and sanity (Link's shield is obviously more detailed in the drawn version.) I was inspired both by the "best gaming tattoo ever" and previous quilts that my mom made.

The quilt took several months to finish and uses several different techniques. On my end the hardest part of the process was creating a black and white image with simplified design elements. After that I created several different colour schemes (some with the intention of making the quilt "easier" to make) and eventually settled on one that was similar to the original design. The black and white outline was then transferred to an overhead transparency and enlarged. From there the pieces were made while I played the waiting game and received tantalizing email updates somewhat akin to a reverse ransom demand as I saw bits and pieces of Link come together rather than fall apart. I'd love to go into more detail about the construction of the piece, but I was only present for the final bits so I'm not entirely certain on the process.

There are five more "stained glass" desktop images on the Wind Waker website (most of them are dead links, pardon the pun, but the images can be found elsewhere on the web) but I have no plans of asking my mom to finish up the set. I think I might find myself having to pay, one way or the other, if I did that. For now I am content to have the one quilt hanging in my livingroom.

Click the right-hand image for a detail shot of Link.