Sunday, December 28, 2008

Year End Catch-Up

I've been sitting on some news stories for a while, but one thing that a long vacation guarantees is that I don't want to be bothered with serious stuff until I absolutely have to be. Since I'm going back into the office tomorrow, I wanted to post a couple of frivolities that were at one point going to get their own entries, but that I never got around to.

The new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still was horrible. They completely missed the point. I strongly urge anyone who has interest in seeing it, or anyone who needs a good sci-fi movie, to check out the original 1951 version instead. I'm still thinking about seeing the new Star Trek movie, which I fully expect to be equally bad. I'll try to be a bit more prompt about posting a warning should I see it and should it live down to my expectations.

My favorite game of the year was probably Dead Space. Chrono Trigger for the DS is simply outstanding, and my favorite console RPG of all time, but I haven't finished the new version yet and it's not exactly a new game. Team Fortress 2 still takes up most of my online playing time. Left 4 Dead is brilliant on several levels, and so tense that I can't play it very often. Galactic Civilizations 2 remains a game that I avoid playing because I find it so engrossing that it eats my time in three to four hour chunks. PC games are still more my style than console games, but Rock Band 2 makes a good case for a console in every home

I still spend too much time with TV, but I enjoy a good story too much to give it up. Lost, House, Chuck, and Doctor Who are my choices for cream of the crop. My greatest dissappointment was watching Battlestar Galactica collapse in a fit of bad writing that even managed to undermine the very good first season and a half. Space ships and what happens after the end of the world are two of my own personal obsessions, and it still managed to turn me off. The new year will bring a new Joss Whedon show, but Fox placed it in the Friday night death slot. We'll see if it fares better than the late lamented Firefly. Doctor Who continues to be a pleasure resurrected (or perhaps I should say regenerated) from my childhood with adventures just as entertaining now as they were then. It's going to be a quiet year for the Doctor, with only four specials, but I'll be looking forward to seeing all of them.

The Internet continues to change things. This year has seen the rise to prominance of Twitter. Text messaging is pervasive (shudder). Phones and music players are becoming increasingly useful as networked devices, at least to other people. I'm still fine with mine just making calls and playing music. And of course it's a Google world now more than ever.

I am looking forward to seeing what the new year will bring. Hopefully it will be a better one for all the friends I have seen facing hardship in the past year. Hopefully the economy will turn around by summer as some are predicting. But there are still three more days before the end of the year, so I won't write off 2008 just yet.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Traditions

One of my online behavior policies is to never forward chain e-mails. Even if they are generally harmless or even good. This year I got one from a friend asking about Christmas traditions. So, to be a good sport without forwarding e-mails to everyone, I present the questions from the chain e-mail and my answers. All without clogging your inbox.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?
It depends on the gift. I've used both. Gift bags have the benefit of not making it quite as obvious that I'm completely inept with ribbon. Wrapped boxes are more fun.

2. Giving or receiving?
Both. Isn't that the idea?

3. Real tree or artificial?
Artificial. Allergies are fun, kids!

4. When do you put up the tree?
The weekend after Thanksgiving. It corresponds to a long weekend. Since I live alone and still celebrate Christmas at my parents' house, I only put up my tree every other year or so. I have a wreath on the front door, another inside, and holly on the mantelpiece, so there is always some sort of decoration.

5. When do you take down the tree?
Either the weekend after Christmas or New Years weekend. Whichever is the first to correspond to a long weekend.

6. Do you like eggnog? Spiked or not?
Yes. I've never actually had it spiked that I remember.

7. Favorite gift as a child?
Judging by longevity, it would probably have to be Lego brand building bricks.

8. Hardest person to buy for?
Pretty much everyone but me.

9. Easiest person to buy for?
See the previous answer.

10. Do you have a nativity scene?
Yes. It's a pottery scene that was made in Bolivia and given to me by friends who went there on a mission team from my church. It's got llamas instead of sheep.

11. Mail or e-mail Christmas cards?
Generally, mail. I try to follow the lead of whomever I am mailing. I've noticed that married guys are more likely to send Christmas cards than unmarried ones. And they tend to be signed in their wives' handwriting...

12. What's the worst Christmas gift you ever received?
Honestly, I have never gotten anything so bad that I actually remember it for being bad.

13. What's your favorite Christmas movie?
Ghostbusters. No, wait, Casablanca. OK, it's "A Christmas Carol."

14. When do you start shopping for Christmas?
October, usually. I made the mistake of waiting until after Thanksgiving last year, and I really, really don't ever want to get into that level of retail madness again.

15. Have you ever recycled a Christmas gift?
Not that I remember.

16. What's your favorite thing to eat at Christmas?
Often I make fudge. It's a dead heat between raspberry chocolate and mint chocolate.

17. Are there lights on your tree?
All year 'round. The best part about artificial trees is not having to restring the lights every year.

18. What's your favorite Christmas song.
Oh Holy Night. Still, Still, Still is right up there too, and I listen to it on Christmas Eve every year after the Christmas Eve service before going to bed.

19. Do you travel at Christmas or stay home?
We usually travel just before or just after Christmas to see family. Christmas day itself is usually held at my parents' house.

20. Can you name all of Santa's reindeer?
Sure. There's a catchy song to help you remember 'em.

21. Is there an angel on top of your tree or a star?
An angel usually. There's a descending dove on the top of the family Christmon tree.

22. Do you open Christmas gifts on Christmas eve or morning?
Morning. In days past, if there was a bunch of stuff, we could open one gift from someone not family on Christmas eve.

23. What's the most annoying thing about this time of year?
Figuring out what to get people, definitely.

24. What's your favorite ornament theme or color?
I'm not sure. They must be like art: I can't tell what's good, but I can tell what I like.

25. What's your favorite food for Christmas dinner?
Mom's cranberry apple bake.

26. What do you want for Christmas this year?
I want to see you smile.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rambling About Prince of Persia

The wind is free, but the sand goes where it is blown. ...
What is one grain of sand in the desert? One grain amongst the storm?
--from the intro of Prince of Persia
A few years ago, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time reinvented an old PC platformer, bringing the complex environmental puzzles of the old title into the modern world of 3D gaming. It was a sterling game in spite of some repetitive and difficult combat sequences. The acrobatic puzzles were very well executed, and the wrapper story was very well done indeed. The game also included the limited ability to rewind time, which encouraged experimentation with complex puzzles that would have otherwise been brutally unforgiving. The next two Prince of Persia games, which completed a trilogy, were not as well received, but neither were they failures. So, it's no surprise that a Prince of Persia game was slated for the newer hardware of the current console generation. What was surprising was that it would be using a totally different art style and be unrelated to the Sands of Time games.

The mechanics set out by The Sands of Time influenced many games that have come out since, not only the Prince series itself, but titles such as Assassin's Creed, Mirror's Edge, and the more recent Tomb Raider games. So how does the originator fair in its fourth outing? In my opinion, it's well worth playing, but for somewhat different reasons than The Sands of Time.

The new game has taken some flack for being too easy, which I find somewhat comical. Instead of the limited rewinds offered in Sands of Time, the new Prince has the aid of a companion, Elika, with the magical ability to rescue him any time he gets into trouble. And I do mean any time, whether you miss a jump, or are getting pounded in a fight, Elika is always there to provide a bailout. The end result basically immitates an automatic quick save that occurs every time you are standing on solid ground. It makes the game far more forgiving than Sands of Time, and I for one am fine with t. While it does reduce the tension of the game, I have always believed that tension born of forcing lengthy or repeated retrying was not a good thing in games. Along those lines, the acrobatic maneuvers performed by the prince are also easier this time around. They are simple button presses with fairly loose accuracy and ample visual and timing clues. This is a far more valid criticism if that sort of thing bothers you, because it really does make the game a simple one to learn. I found that I had enough fun making the Prince flow through the levels that the simplicity didn't bother me unless I played for more than an hour at a time. Which brings me to the biggest criticism of the game.

Prince of Persia is a simple game with heavily repeated mechanics. The combination of simple controls and a semi-open world design means that the game is best experienced in smaller doses so it doesn't all sort of run together. The repetative nature is actually worse in the combat sequences. For starters there are maybe twenty enemies in the game. Not twenty types, twenty total. You will fight the four main bosses six times each. And the combat mechanics, always a weakness in the Prince games, are arguably the worst yet. The developers were going for a cinematic presentation and attempting to preserve the simple button press chaining mechanics of the rest of the game. I can completely see what they were trying to do, but where they ended up was an awkward fighting game presentation constantly interrupted by the dreaded quicktime event rather than something that preserved the smoothly flowing nature of the platforming elements. The primary criticism of quicktime events is they pull the player out of the game by having them focus on the hit-this-button prompts rather than flowing organically from the game world. It's an even bigger shame here, because oh what a world they have created.

The game world in Prince of Persia is simply stunning. I really can't say enough about how good the game looks. The main characters are beautiful and detailed, and their B-movie banter (think Brendan Fraser in The Mummy) works to provide a context for all the running around. However, the environment, rendered in a style that resembles paintings more than reality, is the real star of the game. I often found myself stopping to just look around. The wrapper story for the game relies heavily on exploration of the milieu they are presenting: the decaying and corrupted city of Elika's people. The visuals add greatly to the mythological feel of the story. A decayed civilization, a lone princess, warring gods, and a rogueish hero all add to the feel of a fireside tale told for entertainment. I can't help but compare the setup to the Zelda games, especially as the Prince games drop the necessity of continuity. Each Prince, like each Link, has their own tale. Similar but different. It's impossible to explain why the story worked so well for me without spoiling elements of it, but it seems I am in the minority in finding the ending of the game quite appropriate to the overall tone.

So, yes, I really enjoyed the game in spite of it's flaws. There are good elements I haven't even mentioned, such as a spectacular camera that simply always works (a major accomplishment in any third person 3D game). It isn't a "hardcore" game. It doesn't have the ground breaking originality of The Sands of Time. It's repetitive. But it's also beautiful, funny, and simply fun to run around in. It shares one critical quality with its previous generation progenitor: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Headline Hunting

Once again, credit to the BBC writers for "Chinese girl gets 'kiss of deaf.'" Apparently, a young man managed to pop his girlfriend's eardrum with an over-passionate kiss. Extra points to the China Daily for this line, "While kissing is normally very safe, doctors advise people to proceed with caution..." which very nearly qualifies this post to reside in the quotations department too.

Watching the Watchers: Mission Impossible

I think no matter what side of the political isle you fall on, you can agree President Elect Obama has an enormous struggle ahead of him. He has promised to take a line-by-line look at the federal budget to try and reign in spending and cut back the deficit, but large chunks of the budget are on autopilot and/or politically out of bounds. Not to mention that all that spending got started for a reason, and every item has its own backers ready to fight for it. The eclectic mix of supporters Obama put together for the election also virtually guarantees that someone will be dissappointed with virtually every decision he makes. Balancing the need to maintain his support and make real changes to the operation of government is going to be a tightrope walk. And if all that isn't enough stress for one person, people really want to make sure he doesn't light up a smoke while President. It's no wonder the job ages people.

Prepare to Be Inspired

Sometimes, when times are hard, we have to dig down, grit out teeth, and put our noses to the grindstones while pulling ourselves up by the boot straps. At these crucial times, we seek inspiration. Given what is going on in the world today, one person pouring their heart out may not be enough to fire our flagging passions. Luckily, someone found forty. Feeling down? Overwhelmed? Well, prepare yourself for a jolt of adrenaline fueled awesome. Ladies and gentlemen, the world is about to be saved!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Effeciency, Infrastructure, and a Surprising Use

In the green technology news, everything isn't always optimistic. Changing dreams into reality requires an eye for the practical implications too. Einstein didn't win his Nobel prize for the theory of relativity, he won it for explaining the photovoltaic effect, the principle behind the operation of solar cells. Given the increasing interest in solar cells, scientists continue to examine the problem, and some believe the potential efficiency has been overstated. Understanding why the limits exist is the first step toward overcoming it.

The much vaunted hydrogen economy has severe problems of its own to overcome. Enough so that it may never actually materialize, especially if competing technologies can reach the goals faster.

Of course, not everything is bad news, and there are all sorts of inventive new ideas popping up, such as this novel approach to car ownership that is part of Hawaii's burgeoning attempt to remove its dependence on fossil fuels. And a town in Spain that was short on space for solar cells found some in a graveyard. Enough space to produce power for sixty homes.

The Continuting March of Technology

Sometimes it's the little advances that matter. Scientists at the University of Geneva have cooked up the first superconducting transistor. Transistors, tiny electronic components that work as switches, are the cornerstone of modern solid state computers. And superconducting transistors would allow computers to operate much faster than current computers can, though the article lacks why exactly that is. Certainly they would generate far less heat, which is a good thing since the prototype version needs to be supercooled before it will operate.

As future technology goes, fuel cells are one that always seem like they are on the way, but never get here. That may be about to change since the government has relaxed the regulations that limited the transport of flammable and corrosive agents which small fuel cells can use as their power source. While you might not be using a butane powered iPod in the immediate future, such a thing isn't completely out of the realm of possibility.

And finally, some news about my favorite freaky trick of nature: piezoelectric materials. These oddball solids can expand and contract in response to electrical fields, and just as importantly, they can do the opposite: change mechanical stress into electrical fields. Normally, the efficiency of the material is quite small, making them less than useful for harvesting mechanical energy. However, scientists in Texas have discovered that at a certain, very small scale, the efficiency of the material increases dramatically. The increases could allow cell phones to be powered by the vibration of a users voice.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Quote of the Moment

"That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives day by day, and we explore the galaxy trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here: not to conquer you with weapons or ideas, but to coexist and learn."

--Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Emissary"