Monday, December 25, 2006

Playing the old games

In the last few days I've been playing an old Gamecube game I bought about three years ago. It's called F-Zero and it's an absolute blast, one of the fastese games I've ever seen, but very very difficult to play right. Over the years it's been a game I've played hard for a few weeks then hit a wall where I just couldn't get any further and set it aside, but somehow each time I've come back to it, I've improved. What a great design this game has, that it actually teaches you to get better over time, while still keeping some parts of itself just out of reach, enough to keep you trying to accomplish all the goals you can.

I think it is rare to find a game that does this. I own, or have seen, many games that "feature" hidden items/levels/characters and turn into a "collect them all" splurge that is usually boring. Wiser game designers than me have spent a lot of time and money trying to find what keeps people playing certain games over and over again (F-Zero, Advance Wars, Mario Kart DS) and getting bored with others, but there's no formula that guarantees an interesting experience.

I think what I most enjoy is games where you are NOT forced to replay long sections of the game (where long means > 1 minute of content) if you've made some mistake, or lost a life. If I make a mistake in any of the games I've mentioned above, I have a feeling that if I try really hard on the next few turns, I might be able to make up the time I lost. It's a small point, but clearly it has worked on me. Actually F-Zero is a bit of a counter-point to that, because when you are racing unfamiliar tracks, or racing on higher difficulty levels, it can really kick you in the teeth.

So, after three years of playing it on and off, I've finally beaten all four grand-prixs on "master" difficulty, and unlocked the final set of hidden tracks. I also raced several of the tracks in "time attack" mode where you just try and go round faster than your previous best time, and set a whole lot of new record times, including some tracks I've been trying to improve on for over a year - suddenly tonight it all seemed quite easy. It's twitch-racing at its finest.

All that is left is the absolutely terrifying "story" mode, where you have to accomplish several seemingly impossible tasks in a pre-built ship (in the rest of the game you can build your own). I'm playing these on the easiest difficulty level and they are still kicking the crap out of me! The real kicker is you just know there's raftloads of 14 year olds out there that can do these missions blindfolded!

I hope everyone had a good Xmas day. Patch and I went over to a friend's house for lunch and to let his daughter's see what it is like to have a real dog in the house. Apparently this was a test for them to see if they'd handle it well, and I think they were very good to him. He got a lot of attention from all the guests, some nice leftovers and a couple of "doggie icecreams".

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Stupid Galactica
I was mostly enjoying the new TV show Battlestar Galactica, but the last episode was full of really lame writing. You can throw the money you want at a show but if the story is bad, if the characters and their actions are not believable then it's just a kids show with better effects (and that's probably an insult to kids).

Spoilers ahead, so bug out if you want to remain pure.

Two incidents jumped out at me, the first was minor, the second major. Firstly when the troops boarded the crippled Cylon base-star and began finding dead Cylons lying around they asked each other "what happened here!?" a BUNCH of times. When some of the Cylons began waking up, coughing and spluttering, staggering around, they asked a lot of "what's going on!?" AGAIN. Not one of them said "maybe they're sick" and when the word "disease" was spoken by one of the Cylons, they all seemed really, really surprised. These are not rocket scientists and I'm going to remember their inability to spot the damned obvious later on. It surprise me that they didn't go aboard with breathing gear and biosuits etc, given that SOMETHING had crippled a base-star and disease was a possibility. If Galactica doesn't carry any, which is certainly possible, or bio-gear isn't part of standard procedure when heading into an unknown area (hello Trek!) then I expect our dumb heros to stumble into more situations like this in future.

The real stinker, though, was the lame-ass death of the Cylon prisoners at the end. If you were in charge of a plan that could end the war with one action, wouldn't you protect every part of that plan? But no....lets leave 5 Cylon prisoners that we NEED to be alive, alone in a room that any morally confused crewman can access. This was a Rumsfeld-level of dumbness and I think Adama should hire a 5-year old child to provide Planning Oversight. Also, why did the prisoners not have guns to their heads at the second the fleet jumped into range of the Resurrection ship? Why the minute-long walk by the soldiers TO the unsupervised prisoners? In that minute, a lot could have gone wrong with the fleet being attacked by Cylons.

Dumb, dumb, dumb. This crap would never have happened on Babylon 5, which is back in production, thank goodness.

Oh, and Helo's moral dilemma with wiping out the Cylons with biological warfare? STFU Donny, you're out of your league. You don't compromise with wiping out an enemy that IS all military and has no "civilian" population. You don't relent against an enemy that has killed 99.99% of humanity and shows no signs of wanting to spare the remaining 50 000 people left alive. They're not human, they're your enemy. And by the way any comparison to terrorism and meatspace politics are null and void: terrorists may be psycho, but they live in and among civilian populations. You can't "kill 'em all and let God sort them out" - it's morally wrong when you can't tell them apart from non-combatants. But Cylons are all fair game and so far I've not seen anything from the writers of this show to change my mind.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Reality Pushes Back
The 2006 elections are over and the Democrats won, thank goodness. I've lived in the USA since 2000 and it was kind of depressing to see how the whole country, especially the media, had been hoodwinked by the Republican party. The distortions and half-truths were instantly and uncritically parroted by most of the news shows, and Republican "framing" was the status quo on all discussions. This is well documented at a site called Media Matters and I'd urge you to read it; I also hope they continue their work even if the target is a Democrat, because in government (not politics, but GOVERNMENT), nothing matters more than a full accounting of all the facts and evaluating them with a mind to bringing the most happiness to the most people.

"Reality pushes back" is a favourite phrase of mine. It means that you can only lie about the facts in a given situation for so long, before reality pops your bubble. Any example you can think of where someone lies, or tells half the story on any subject, is prone to having the truth revealed, because facts never stay hidden for long. The Republicans used this tactic on a wide range of subjects: fear, gay marriage, terrorism, the intentions of the Democrats and I was surprised that they were able to use it for so long. "Gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage!" they cried, hoping nobody would notice that many other countries around the world allow it and are doing just fine. The state of Massachussetts has allowed it since 2004 and the hyperbolic claims of looming disaster have obviously failed to materialize. Remember, if you make a ridiculously overblown claim that fails to come true, *someone* is going to notice and remember that you are not to be listened to. Slowly but surely this is becoming a non-issue for many people, especially the young. In 50 years time it'll be as un-remarked as interracial marriage is today.

Reality has pushed back on a grand scale, with the Republicans attempts to scare the populace into trusting ONLY them fell on deaf ears. Their loud and repeated claims of impending disaster should the Democrats take power USED to work, but enough people looked at their track record and came to the conclusion that the Republicans have had 5 years of screwing up everything they touched, putting party before country, making decisions based on ideology instead of facts and REAL expert advice, and therefore their attempts to put words in other people's mouths should be ignored. And they were.

I hope this horrible flirtation with ideologically-led policy making will be seen as a historical anomaly, and taught in civics classes as a warning to future generations about what happens when critical thinking is under-utilized, when a party appeals to fear and abuses power and leads the country astray. Even if someone else dares to try it, I hope they get smacked down a lot quicker than the current adminstration was, which is STILL trying to get around the U.S Constitution (see their warrantless domestic surveillance program).

Whew, ok, I feel a lot better :) I didn't really used to be interested in politics but when I see a government so disdainful of reality it makes my blood boil. And if you only have time to read one blog about American government, make it Glenn Greenwald's work. His clarity and passion are a sight to behold. And if you really like it, kick him a few bucks to help him keep going - the ideas he examines and discusses are the kind of thing that fortify your political mind and help you spot bad ideas when you see them.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I took Patch for a walk around the lake yesterday and this hawk landed near us just as I left the house. I only had the shorter of my zoom lenses mounted so it was lucky that it was quite a confident bird, letting me walk pretty close to it to take these pictures.

Yes, that's a snake it is holding in its claws! Is this an omen, or what?!
Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 27, 2006

Contemporary Music

I've been watching "Leaving Home", history of 20th century orchestral music, hosted by Sir Simon Rattle. It's a very interesting tour through the forces that have shaped contemporary music, but even though I've got quite a well-trained ear, this stuff is quite hard to listen to, and very difficult to enjoy in the traditional sense that we "enjoy" music. I'm not going to be whistling the tunes anytime soon, so is it any good?

I'm in two minds about it, but in the end I fall on the side of "No, it isn't." For the sake of efficiency you simply have to establish some kind of criteria, if only for your own sanity, as to what music is good and what is bad, otherwise you'll end up supporting every useless collection of notes somebody writes and claims is An Important Musical Statement. The obvious next question is "so who decides what is good and what is bad?" And then you're going to be lost in a sea of answers from every corner of the room.

I, for example, especially like Tchaikovsky and Debussy, and after that it mostly goes a bit too strange and angular for my tastes. I could live without most of what Mozart wrote, and the less Handel I hear, the better. I like ambient electronic music such as Brian Eno and Peter Namlook and I *know* other people can't understand why I'd listen to such droning rubbish. But Eno and Namlook sell a lot of records and, I think, keep themselves in business, whereas a lot of modern music has to be subsidised to keep it alive. The phrase "arts funding" raises a lot of heated arguments about the purity of modern art vs. using the public purse for music that doesn't stand on its own while the hospitals need kidney machines.

There's no easy answer, and I'm certainly not going to solve it, but I wanted to note that some art dies. Yes, it's sad, but while every form of human artistic expression has the right to exist, not all of it has to be displayed or played more than once. It's important, I think, that as much of it be preserved as is possible especially since it's so easy now to record and store music and pictures.

I suppose, in the end, history will be the judge. While every artistic thought and deed can be recorded more cheaply than ever in history, our descendants will be the judges over what gets played in their concert halls, displayed in their galleries, or left in the archives, no matter if it was popular or even noticed when it was first created.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Ferrari In My Dreams
Why would I dream about a sleek, red Ferrari ? Is there such a thing as a "Ferrari 16E", and does it really only cost $16K? It was all through my dreams last night, zipping around tightly forested mountain curves, parking in well-guarded lots and taking me to a concert by The Church in Malta (now I *know* it's a dream!) where the band dressed all in black and engaged in strange choreography and sang songs more random than usual.

I'm not a car person; I drive a Saturn SL2 that is cheap, reliable and I'm told is quite dull as cars go. "But a car is just an air conditioner on wheels!" I reply, while my subconscious dreams of a better ride with the top down. I note that the dream did touch upon one real aspect of my waking's cheap :) I've been on a money kick lately, saving money where I can, cooking for myself at home, watching the stock market and my 401K and investing at just to see if it works.

Prosper is a person-to-person lending site, where a borrower explains how much they need and tries to find people willing to loan to them. Lots of lenders each kick in at least $50 and the interest rate (measured as simple, not compound) is slowly bid down and down until a comfort level is reached that both sides are happy with. People with great credit scores usually get around 9-10%, high risk people around 29% *if* they get funded at all. My 10 loans should average around 17% compounded ROI, including the risk that some will default on the loan. I started a month ago and the two loans who's first payment was due today have both done so. It's all about finding people who's credit is bad because of past mistakes but who's life is now in an upswing. Good job, paying their bills and debts and they're using prosper to cut the size of those bills down. My brother is trying it too.

I'm resurrecting Mercury MailRoom, my shareware program, by dropping the price to $20 - maybe some interest will arise this time. And I've added advertising to my Church site - its on track to making about $5/mth at the moment.

BTW The image is a fractal I created with Ultrafractal - image source available on request. Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 13, 2006

Google Buys YouTube

Opportunity to share ad revenue?

I find it very interesting that the immediate reaction in a lot of the blogs/news sites I read is to comment that copyright issues are going to kill YouTube. I wonder, though, might not the large media corporations see this as an opportunity to collect some money instead of just whacking another mole?

Why doesn't Google just pay the copyright owner a portion (presumably a BIG portion) of the advertising money garnered from each page that shows content owned by that corporation? I know there'd be some "edge" cases where this is unclear, such a remixes/mashups etc, but there's a lot of videos on YouTube that are straight video and audio captures of a TV show or movie. That seems a clear cut case.

I'd like Fair Use to be remember, of course. A short excerpt from a film or tv show should be seen as PROMOTION of that show. If the poster links to some official site for that show, shouldn't that be good enough to make everyone happy?

Sadly, media corporations haven't been paragons of lateral thinking thus far. They still think DRM is a good idea (it isn't) and seem hell-bent on controlling every machine that might play their content, even if it kills demand for it. I don't see Blu-Ray and HD-DVD flying off the shelves, do you?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Waiting for the Storm
It's a quiet day today, sitting in the house waiting for Tropical Storm Ernesto to come and visit. The airconditioner's dull perpetual roar, and the first Jack Frost album are the only sounds I've heard for the last hour; the storm is slower than expected and leaves me sitting on the couch wondering if I'll make a dash to a restaurant or get started in thick rain that's too dangerous to drive in.

Truth be told, this storm is a damp squib. Deanne and I have sat through hurricanes that meant business, category 3/4 monsters that whipped our 40-foot tall palm trees around like rag dolls. Ernesto doesn't look like it'll reach cat 1 (73 mph), so our day off work tomorrow might be cancelled and we'll be back at our desks. Contrast that the to the stomping our office got two years ago when power was down for days. So I've left the storm shutters off the windows and the large plant pots sit unsheltered in the back yard. I'm daring the storm to try picking one of them up. It's easy to be cocky when you've got several billion dollars of weather prediction satellites on your side. Without it I'd be standing at attention with mop and bucket in hand, ready to take on the rising or falling waters.

I watched a movie, began typing up a photocopied Jack Frost interview for Shadow Cabinet and did a little work this morning. I think I'll walk Patch before the storm gets here; the house will shrug off a 60 mph storm, but it'd be hard to have his nightly walk in it!

Update Next Day: The storm didnt strengthen between Cuba and Florida, so it arrived quite weak. The furniture in the backyard didn't even move :)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

My Problems With Planet Earth

There are two senses in which the above title applies, and both came to the fore yesterday when all my appliances revolted and I watched two episodes of the BBC documentary series "Planet Earth".

First the documentary: I have always enjoyed a good documentary film, especially when it teaches the viewer something new. I used to love astronomy/cosmology documentaries until they started to fill them with flashy graphics instead of good information. They seemed to think you'd learn more by watching long segments of flashy computer-rendered "exciting" scenes, rather than perhaps a still image with someone explaining it. There are exceptions, of course: I really liked the four-part "Origins" program hosted by Neil Tyson on Nova, but the new Planet Earth series has really let me down so far.

I've watched the first three episodes and it seems to be a series of random "watch the predator eat its pitiful prey" and "here's some majestic footage of mountains and Big Impressive Things with an orchestra to remind you how moving it all is." I can go along with a few shots like that, but the whole program was a series of these, one straight after the other, with no connective tissue, no discussion of evolution/history/ecology to tie it all together. Perhaps they'll talk more about it later, but it really got obvious after a while that they were more concerned with showing off their flashy helicopter-based aerial shots, their expensive orchestra with overworked French Horns, and how well they can write ominous sounding music for the numerous scenes where the Bad Ol' Predator sneaks up on its doe-eyed Bambi-like lunch. Carnivores have to eat too, dammit, and film-makers should have more creativity than playing "Jaws" sound-alikes over every scene where something eats something else.

A missed opportunity, to my mind, in a world where evolution still needs all the good explanations it can get, to help people understand why the world is the way it is. Nature is not just a series of photo ops and "cool" spectacles, there's a lot to learn about life in there, if they'd care to discuss it.

As for the appliances, well, it's just the usual modern litany of a day when everything went wrong. As of last night I was combatting problems with my laptop, my computer, the garbage disposal, one of our cars, Bellsouth and their misleading sales reps, insurance agents (two of them) and landscaping contractors.

Just another day on Earth, as Brian Eno says.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Back From Baton Rouge
I spent most of this week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a business trip. As I do for most of these I didn't get out much, except down the road for dinner at Applebee's and two very nice lunches with the people I was there to see. Some people I know make it point to go out and see the city at night whereever they are, but I prefer to stay in, watch a little TV and get to sleep early.

I hate being bored so when I travel I always have my MP3 player and Nintendo DS with me so that I'll always have something to keep me busy or distracted, and of course I make sure I have a book for the twenty minutes or so during which you can't use electronics on a plane. The book of the moment is Garrison Keilor's Lake Wobegon Days, which you'll be pleased to hear has not a single spaceship in it. The favoured game is Advance Wars DS, a military strategy game in which I always win because I'm using a character that I've built up so strongly that I can't lose...and I like it that way :)

During the flight on the way home I was on a plane that had a screen built into the back of every seat, and besides having television shows there were several games you could play. I went straight for the trivia game, which you play against other passengers. It was great :) I played 5 games of 20 questions each. I won two of them and came second in the other three. I've always been a "general knowledge" buff - some facts just seem to stick to my memory. When I was a boy I loved getting books with titles like "Big Book of Facts", and in later life I'd sit with box of Trivial Pursuit cards and just read them for fun.

So it'll be no surprise that I got onto a couple of quiz shows when I lived in Australia: Crossfire and Sale of the Century. I won Crossfire, taking home about ten thousand dollars of stuff, and won one night of Sale of the Century, only to lose right away on the following night. I hope my memory keeps working this way - it just feels good to have a raftload of useless facts at my disposal...I think it'd feel weird not to know that the WW II surrender was signed aboard the U.S battleship Missouri. That little factoid was worth five thousand bucks :) Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 01, 2006

There's a 40% chance of the Space Shuttle being launched today so I'm going to drive up there and take a look-see. I found directions to Spaceview Park in Titusville and if my luck holds out I'll see a shuttle launch! I've always been a spaceflight fanboy, though the plan announced by President Bush to return to the moon and then proceed to Mars left me strangely cold. This man shows no interest in science during most of his waking hours and this really looked like a stunt. Plus NASA has had to cancel a lot of science missions to the outer planets. Still, I've been in Florida for nearly four years and still haven't even visited Cape Caneveral; very remiss of me! I'll come back with pictures if there's a launch.

Update: It launched three days later, on July 4th, while I was in Lousiana, but while trolling around the net I found these amazing pictures of a shuttle photographed from a U-2 spy plane flying high overhead.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

newspaper article about me

I was fortunate enough to have a very nice article written about me in our newspaper! You can read the whole thing here if you'd like. Update A couple of weeks later a local frame shop (The Great Frame Up) that had framed a lot of art for me wrote me a note and said they'd like to frame this article for me, for free! What a nice surprise! Posted by Picasa

Saturday, May 20, 2006

For the past month or so I've been taking pictures at our local dog park, then cleaning them up with the excellent (and free!) Picasa program, then printing the best pictures and giving them to the dog's owners. It's been a great way to meet new people at the park and everyone has been very happy with the pictures, which in turn makes me feel talented, so everybody wins :)

If you've got a good digital camera and some skills and time on your hands I'd urge you to do this for your friends at the park. You can see more of my pictures at my flickr photo streamPosted by Picasa

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I took these pictures during rehearsal last night, partly because I wanted to test out a new lens I'd bought. It's a Canon fixed 50mm, f1.8 and I'm very glad I bought it. I was able to take these shots at 1/50th to 1/90th of a second in available light, and when I tried switching back to my 28-105mm zoom lens I got readings of between 1/5th and 1/20th of second, which is unsuitable for handheld shooting. The only trouble came when I needed to take flash pictures of a group larger than three or four people; I had to stand so far back with the fixed 50mm view that the flash didn't reach them properly and the shot was quite dark. But for available light, the "nifty fifty" is a winner. And it's only around $70-$80.

 Posted by Picasa

And I'm back! It's been a hectic few months when I didn't really feel like writing much, but I've had so many interesting experiences lately that I couldn't stay away.

I'll start with the snappy picture on the right. You can see I'm playing the trumpet again; I joined a community band in the area called the Symphonic Band of the Palm Beaches, a very nice and talented group of musicians. I'm standing next to Maestro Loras Schissel, a guest conductor who visited us for our Memorial Day concert, and in just two rehearsals really fine-tuned our playing.

He told me that because he has such a short time to rehearse a band he'll try and keep the band playing, while calling out his instructions over the top of the sound, like a record producer making adjustments in a studio. He's a world-renowned expert on the music of John Phillip Sousa, the"March King", and corrected a lot of common mistakes we made with the music.

The best part, though, was the two concerts we played, where all the pieces were preceded with a story about the music, or the composer, or getting the audience to sing along, or getting audience members who had served in the armed forces to stand up and be recgonized when the tune of their branch was played during our "Armed Forces Salute". I don't think there was a dull moment in the whole program, and we got 3 standing ovations before we'd even reached the finale and encores! It was a very rousing and emotional night, so thank you Loras, George and Jim for putting together such a fine program. Posted by Picasa