2009/11/29

Book review: Transition, Iain Banks

Transition is a hard book to categorise, apparently. In the UK, it is credited to Iain Banks, the writer's chosen title for his non-Space-Opera, more literary works. In the USA, it is credited to his SFnal sobriquet, Iain M Banks.

This confusion is perhaps expected - whilst Transition's setting lacks the "space" of most of Banksie's SF settings, it replaces it seamlessly with "choices" (in the form of the multiple, possibly infinite, parallel worlds of the conventional SF glossing of the Many Worlds Interpretation of QM).
Instead of Special Circumstances, possibly, we have the active arm of The Concern - a millennia-old organisation based in something like the setting's Amber, and staffed by the only individuals in the reality who can Transition between worlds. The Concern sees itself, the narrator tells us, as engaged in the process of spreading good across as many realities as it can - gardening the Shadows, as it were* - sending its agents to (say) distract the future Nobel prize winner so he doesn't step out in front of that speeding car, or (in the regrettable few cases where it is necessary) killing future despots before they attain their power.

Of course, the narrator also tells us that he is Unreliable, in the very first sentence of the novel.

I have also misrepresented the truth just now: there is not one narrative stand, but several: along with the mostly-dominant strand of Temudjin Oh, Transitionary of the Concern, we also flit between Patient 8287, possibly mad, possibly an ex-transitionary in hiding as a madman, the resolutely self-centred bastard Adrian Cubbish (who appears initially to have no connection to the Concern at all), the torturer (who claims to have principles) known as The Philosopher, and make brief one-off excursions to others every so often.
This multithreaded narrative is an intentional mirror of one of the concerns of the novel itself - solipsism, and how the unconscious belief in such affects our society. Indeed, Banksie seems quite concerned with trying to make his point about the significance of belief in the reality of the Other (and the importance in empathy with it) in as many ways as possible - several realities are apparently very similar to ours, except in that Religious Terrorism is associated with the sick, martyrdom-obsessed Christians, for example. Of course, one does get the feeling that Banks is preaching to the converted here somewhat - the point that the Christian Terrorists are supposed to make seems to have merely whooshed over the head of the reviewer at the Telegraph, for example.
That is not to say that Transitions works entirely. The ending (sans-epilogue, which does fix things up a little) is disappointingly close to Deus-Ex-Machina (with a touch of Herbertian "stress causes you to evolve ability"), with only just enough foreshadowing and development to veer it off that course. In general, there's just a smidgeon too much self-indulgence, ironically; another reviewer noted that Transition reads like Banks took all of his Culture novels, extracted the 10% of scenes he most enjoyed writing, and smooshed them all together into one volume with no filler. This is not precisely a negative point against Transitions, depending on how closely you agree with Banks' taste in cool scenes, however it is slightly exhausting and overseasoned in result.

Short pitch: It's Amber meets the Culture's Special Circumstances, with a side-order of Miles Teg.

Comparative ranking: Better than "Inversions", not as good as "Excession"

*One of the most powerful individuals in The Concern, Madame Theodora d'Ortolan, appears to have a deliberately significant name, for people with a little French.

2009/11/22

Golang - post 1

A "multibrot" generator in the Google Go programming language.
Should be called with [program name] [number]
where number is a mandatory value corresponding to the exponent of Z in the generalised Mandelbrot formula (and can be a float).
Outputs a file named mandel#.png, where # is the number given, which is a 1000x1000 png of the Complex plane from (-2-1.5i) to (2+1.5i).

Comments will come in an edit to this post etc.


package main
/* Fractal generator written in Go */

import "math"
import "fmt"
import "image"
import "image/png"
//import "io"
import "os"
import "strconv"

type Complex struct {
re,im float64;
}

func Mul (a, b Complex) (c Complex) {
c.re = a.re*b.re - a.im*b.im;
c.im = a.re*b.im + a.im*b.re;
return c
}

func Plus (a, b Complex) (c Complex) {
c.re = a.re + b.re;
c.im = a.im + b.im;
return c
}

func Conj (a Complex) (c Complex) {
c.re = a.re;
c.im = -a.re;
return c
}

func Mag (a Complex) (b float64) {
return math.Sqrt(a.re*a.re + a.im*a.im);
}

func Arg (a Complex) (b float64) {
if (a.im != 0) || (a.re > 0) {
return float64(2.0)*math.Atan(a.im / (Mag(a) + a.re));
}
else {
return float64(3.141592653589793);
}
return float64(0.0)
}


func Pow (a Complex, p float64) (b Complex) {
var x, y float64 = Mag(a), Arg(a);
x = math.Pow(x, p);
y = y*p;
b.re = x*math.Cos(y);
b.im = x*math.Sin(y);
return b;
}

func Mandel_mapping (z, c Complex) (zprime Complex) {
zprime = Plus(Mul(z,z), c);
return zprime
}


func Multibrot_mapping (z, c Complex, p float64) (zprime Complex) {
zprime = Plus(Pow(z, p), c);
return zprime;
}

const MAXITER int = 500;

func Mandel_membership_test (c Complex, p float64, colour bool) (t bool, its int, val float64) {
z := Complex{0.0, 0.0};
i,j := int(1), int(0);
t = true;
for i = 0; i < z =" Mandel_mapping(z," z =" Multibrot_mapping(z,"> float64(2.0) {
if colour == false { //return a simple escape count - the point at which we escape
return false, i, 0;
}
else {
t = false;
if j == 0 {
j = i;
}
else if i - j == 2 { //two iterations after escape, so Z gets biggish, use the exterior escape function for value
return false, i, Mag(z);
}
}
}
}
if t == false {
return t, i, Mag(z);
}
return true, 0, 0;

}

const XMAX int = 1000;
const YMAX int = 1000;
const REMIN float64 = -2.0;
const REMAX float64 = 2.0;
const IMMIN float64 = -1.5;
const IMMAX float64 = 1.5;
const RERNG float64 = REMAX - REMIN;
const IMRNG float64 = IMMAX - IMMIN;
//const POWER float64 = 2.0
func main () {
var x, y int;
var c Complex;
var t bool;
var its int;
var val float64;
var normal float64 = math.Log(float64(MAXITER));
var img *image.NRGBA = image.NewNRGBA(int(XMAX),int(YMAX));
var col image.NRGBAColor;
var POWER float64;
var testbit os.Error;
POWER, testbit = strconv.Atof64(os.Args[1]);
if testbit != nil {
fmt.Printf("Enter a number! %v %v", POWER, testbit);
return
}
for x = 0; x < XMAX; x++ {
c.im = IMRNG*float64(x)/float64(XMAX) + IMMIN;
for y = 0; y < YMAX; y++ {
c.re = RERNG*float64(y)/float64(YMAX) + REMIN;
//fmt.Printf("%v,%v", x, y);
t, its, val = Mandel_membership_test(c, POWER, true);
if t == true {
fmt.Printf("*");
col.R, col.G, col.B, col.A = 0,0,0,255;
img.Set(x,y,col);
}
else {
fmt.Printf(" ");
col.R, col.G, col.B, col.A = uint8(math.Sin(math.Log(val))*128+255) , uint8(math.Cos(math.Log(val*float64(its)))*128+255), uint8((normal - math.Log(float64(its)))*255), 255;
img.Set(x,y,col);
}
}
fmt.Printf("\n");
}
//Write the image out as a png
var outputfile, _ = os.Open("mandel" + strconv.Ftoa64(POWER, 'f', -1) + ".png", os.O_WRONLY | os.O_CREAT, 0666);
png.Encode(outputfile, img);
outputfile.Close();
//fmt.Printf("%v", os.Args)
//fmt.Printf("%v", arr);
}

2009/07/31

The Adventures of Sexton Blake

Fortuitously, I have just finished listening to the first episode of The Adventures of Sexton Blake on BBC Radio 2.
(Available via the Internets here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lv1rx )

Some of you may not have heard of Sexton Blake. It is perhaps easiest to describe him as the first pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, and the longest running - his stories started less than a decade after Sherlock's, and still continue to the present day. He's also had many literary giant involved in his history - Michael Moorcock both edited and wrote Sexton Blake stories (and has his own thinly-veiled Sexton Blake pastiche in Seaton Begg).

What makes this revival on BBC Radio 2 special, though, is people involved. Not only is Simon "Arthur Dent" Jones playing Sexton himself, but the script was written by none other than Messirs Jonathan Nash and Mil Millington.

(At this point, many of you are wondering who these people are. J Nash was one of the great games journalists (and still is, in other publications) of the early 1990s, mainly through his astonishing talent at (slightly surreal) writing. Mil Millington's connection to him is originally via that games journalism, being a letter writer to Amiga Power when it was still going, before he wrote a best selling novel ("Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About") and collaborated with Mr Nash on, amongst other things, a parody of late Victorian newspapers called "The Weekly". Both of them are amongst the most talented writers in their spheres.)

In less than 10 minutes, you will be able to listen toNow, you can listen to the first episode of Sexton Blake via the above link, for about the next week.
I urge you not to miss your chance.
(Due to apparent incompetence by the BBC, the first 3 and a half minutes of the iPlayer version is, in fact, the previous program. You may want to skip ahead appropriately.)

2009/07/26

The Stress of Their Regard: The other side of the social element in multiplayer games.

Multiplayer team games are all the rage nowadays. From a cynic's point of view, they're the natural solution to the AI problem (just use other real people instead), the content generation problem (let people create their own stories by interacting with, yes, real people) and, tangentially, the DRM problem (enforce a requirement for online play, then either host a lot of the content on remote servers, or just ban clients which you don't think are authentic).
For players, multiplayer team games also enhance the experience of the game by adding some vestige of a social element. Even "dumb" team shooters - like Unreal Tournament 3 - allow some aspect of this, through both public (and team) chat, the addition of voice comms, and the simple nonverbal forms of interaction (even griefing is a social interaction, albeit an essentially disruptive one).

The problem is: all those guys who got picked last for teams at school.
The point of a game, arguably, should be to have fun. The point of a team game is to have fun with your friends. And, some of fun of any game is from achieving the victory conditions formalised by the game itself.
So, that allied medic who's so bad that the enemy keep killing him before he can heal the rest of you can be really annoying. As is the sniper who can't hit anyone for toffee, the spy whose actions scream "enemy" to anyone who watches him, the player who insists on using the explosive weapons at point-blank range. And so on.

Now, imagine how they feel. If they have half a brain, they know they're the weak point in their team, the ball around the collective leg, hauling everyone else back from the brink of victory. Maybe they've picked a support class because they know their aim is terrible - but so's their evasion, unfortunately. Maybe they're actually trying to practise, but in the process are sabotaging their team's chance for success. Maybe they're just never going to be that good. Whatever the reason, they're trying to fit in, to help, to have fun with the rest of you, but it just isn't quite working.
It's hard to have fun when you're leeching away (perhaps ever so slightly) at everyone else's.

So, why don't they just go and play on the talentless servers? (You think, in frustration at the useless guy being one-shotted for the nth time.) Maybe they do. Maybe there aren't really any talentless servers left - almost everyone who plays the game has reached their comfortable level of competence, and most of them are better than this guy. (Maybe he's trying to stretch himself.) (Maybe, as with MMORPGs generally, there's no such thing as a talentless server.)

For the these losers - the guys who would be metaphorically picked last for the team - the rise of the multiplayer team game is the worst possible result. Social interactions thrive on in-group and out-group classification, and someone always has to be in the out-group - which is also the least fun place to be. Human nature breaks the team game, makes it something judgmental (if only implicitly), and confidence-sapping in the worst instance.
If we play games to indulge in power fantasies, the worst nightmare is the one in which everyone else gets better powers than yours.

Is there a solution to this? Probably not, without reworking human nature itself. Perhaps, though, a resurgent focus on single-player games, and sole-player paths for MMO-style games, would be an adequate solution - if you can't mix it with the cool kids, you can at least have fun the way games used to be played - comfortable by yourself.

2009/07/20

The Dresden Files (books 1 & 2) - Jim Butcher

I know quite a few people who seem to have enjoyed Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" books, chronicling the eventful life of wizard for hire, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden in a fairly deliberate conflating of noir and urban fantasy tropes.


So, perhaps my expectations were unfairly inflated by the time I finally got around to reading them.
Let's be fair: I've only read the first two books (Storm Front and Fool Moon), and it's reasonably clear that Butcher has an arc plot or two in mind from the hints dropped by various characters so far.


However, books should be good in and of themselves as well as in their place as components of a larger story, and neither book really manages to rise above "vaguely entertaining". Part of the problem is Harry Dresden himself—he's a little messed up by the vague hints of his past we've been told about, and he has a habit of not telling people vitally important facts and almost getting them killed. (Plus, he rubbed me up the wrong way from the start by wittering about "Science being not enough for people", when his magic clearly exhibits repeatable effects with a well-understood set of laws governing them. Like, erm, the kind of things science investigates? It is unclear to me as to if this is Harry being a moron or actually his writer.)
The main problem, though, is the prose. It's workmanlike; sometimes aspiring to genuinely evocative descriptions, but generally just managing to get the job done. To an extent, this is probably a side-effect of the noir influence on the setting, but I found The Maltese Falcon a great deal more engaging than these.


And, of course, there's the supernatural. Which tends to the predictable meets the all-you-can-eat buffet—not just one kind of vampire but three! (apparently, according to wikipedia), not just one werewolf like creature but four! (or was it five? I forget already...); but all of them basically fairly standard examples of their kind. At least when Warhammer, for example, does this, they turn everything up to eleven. For Harry Dresden, it seems like he just needs to go down the library and check out a book on myths and legends of Western Europe.


(I may be being unfair, a little, in the last criticism. I've also just finished reading the first In The Night Garden collected novel, which manages, in its multiply-nested stories within stories, to also perfectly reinvent a lot of fairy tale/ fantasy paraphernalia whilst simultaneously bringing back the old, forgotten aspects of those tales. (And it doesn't have a werewolf or a vampire in sight, preferring more interesting, more obscure creatures of myth, whose nature hasn't been rehashed repeatedly in popular culture.)


Anyway. I do feel like perhaps I'm missing something in the appeal of these novels. So, if anyone wants to explain to me why they're excellent examples of anything in particular, or how the arc plot really is worth reading the next n books, I'm happy to be convinced.


Anyone?

2009/07/12

The gentle pleasure of gentlemen doing science.

One of the reasons I've been enjoying the BBC's "Casualty 1909", a strange program based on actual medical records from the "London" Hospital, is the quiet, studious gentlemanly concern with Science exhibited by some of the doctors.

It does make one pine somewhat for the lost age of noble self-experimentation, despite the obvious pitfalls. (It also makes one pine, as is the tendency of reminiscence, for the simpler past, which is a error we should avoid.)

Torchwood: Children of Earth, review, commentary (spoilers)

So, having not been in a position to watch the appearance of Torchwood on BBCOne last week, I sat down and watched it all in one go on BBC iPlayer.



The Good
It's possibly this difference in my viewing approach that leads my opinion of it to be decidedly more mixed than that of the general population.

Certainly, Torchwood suits the longer episodes, shorter season episodic plot approach much better than the self-contained 45 minute stories that it was dealing with in Seasons One and Two. (The contraint to 45 minutes is also, arguably, a restrictive effect on Doctor Who as well.)
And, indeed, the benefit of the BBCOne slot is very obvious - the quality of the "non-Torchwood" actors was significant, with the kind of names you simply can't get to appear in things on BBC Two or Three. But this was also a negative, in a way, since actors like Peter Capaldi made the "regulars", especially John Barrowman (who has always been an actor more suited to Broadway than Television), look stilted and amateur by comparison. Indeed, one has to approach the unwelcome argument that the only way to improve the series would have been to ditch Torchwood itself.



This also extends to the plot construction. The most compelling sections of the plot were the directly political ones, Capaldi's civil servant making increasingly damning decisions for the ministers who wished to avoid their own culpability, the (standard RTD) cynical view of the machinations of governments themselves; and the "pure SF" ones, with the fairly impressive alienness of the 456, and the "anti-Q", Mr Decker, who appears to have been the Government's man on aliens since the 1960s.

In comparison, the Torchwood plot was hamstrung by having to, perversely, avoid the more fantastical elements of the organisation in order to spent all of their credits in "suspension of disbelief" on Captain Jack's immortality. In response, Torchwood, and Jack's, effectiveness is progressively compromised narratively, in a manner which almost looks like RTD is trying to destroy the show so that no-one else can use it (although, placing Jack in a position where he can potentially guest in Doctor Who if Moffat wants to use him).



Indeed, I was starting to be generally fairly impressed with things, (despite the above issues, and niggling problems with the handgun fetishism* that RTD seems to have, and the composition of the 456 breathing mix (which is so chemically unstable that I suspect you'd need big circulating pumps constantly renewing it to keep it in the right composition)), until the "revelation" of the 456's true needs.



The (spoilery) Bad
Which is where it all falls apart for me. RTD has a perverse liking for twisting plot and logic around in the service of some kind of political or moral point, and I was disappointed to find a great example of such here.



SPOILERS
It turns out, you see, that the 456 want human children so that they can surgically attach them to themselves (don't ask how the child survives in 11% fluorine atmosphere with only a gas mask), for the hit, and that, in the words of the Token Black American General** "Britain started this trade in the 1960s" and complains at the results.
Nothing like the situation in Afghanistan, then, Russell. Or China, or South America. No, nothing like that at all.

The problem is that this rationale for the 456's actions makes no real sense. They say that human children produce "chemicals" that they enjoy, but demonstrate repeatedly that they are a culture of vast biochemical sophistication. If they can make a virus capable of killing humans in minutes (and that's probably almost impossible, given viral replication rates - you'd be better off with a simpler poison, like, oo, hydrogen cyanide), then it seems odd that they can't engineer something to give them a more effective hit than a whole child, especially when it would be easier than going and getting humanity to round them up for them.

(In fact, this is what happens to drugs in the Real World - few people still chew coca leaves for the high when they can use the more concentrated (and less frangible) pure product, cocaine. And LSD, MDMA and many other modern drugs are purely artificial and easily produced from chemical precursors (in fact, even cocaine can be synthesised, but it is cheaper to harvest the crop in bulk.).)

Even if, for some reason, the 456 are culturally opposed to synthetic drugs, one wonders why they want to take a limited number of children when it would be much more effective to demand a breeding population of adults to create their own self-sustaining source of children. Humans are very good at reproducing, so this wouldn't be a significant problem for them, if they'd started in 1965 with a seed population of 100 or so.

None of these things were a problem before the analogy was made - and indeed, none of these are objections to the Season One episode "Small Worlds" which contains a similarish plotline (children taken by unbeatably superior beings (fairies, in this case)), even to the extent of a B-plot about an aged relative of Jack's, torn by his continued youth. (Of course, in "Small Worlds", Torchwood loses, so...)



(A lesser point about RTD's disappointing tendencies to the obvious in this regard; the self-serving PM is called "Mr Green". I am looking away from you in shame, Mr Davies, in shame.)



The Series of Which We Shall Not Name

Speaking of looking away from people in shame, I notice that The Doctor has now completed his transformation in Messiah to the extent that people are encountering the Problem of Evil when discussing him. The Doctor, and Doctor Who in general, has always been a problem for Torchwood - RTD has admitted that he finds it difficult to write Torchwood and Doctor Who in the same consistent universe (and copped-out with the season ender for New Who, "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End", locking all but Jack in plot-induced time freeze for the storyline), and seems to have resolved this by elevating The Doctor to a position of god-like goodness, a man (admittedly, in a description presumably due to Jack) or being who exists purely to save the Earth from its problems, and forgive our sins (he even died for them, just like Jack did in Season One - they both got better). Considering RTD's tendency to deconstruct his heroes - Jack comes off badly in Torchwood, but The Doctor comes of as badly by the end of New Who in his own eyes - one does feel that he's taking the chance to indulge himself here with the one character he can never use in Torchwood at all.




And, the other character he couldn't use because her actress decided to be in The Bill, Martha Jones, is both written out in a single line (on her honeymoon), and replaced with... a plucky young black woman, who even wears the same Torchwood issue contact-lenses that Martha did in her first Torchwood appearance.

Anyone can be replaced, eh, Russell?




(Of course, remember that All Of This is The Doctor's fault - he destroyed Harriet Jones in a fit of pique, removing the Glorious Period of British Government from history, and letting "Mr Green" in in her place (after a certain John Saxon was dealt with). The Doctor, who "looks away in shame at what humanity does", is actually indirectly responsible for all of this.

Remember that.)



The Ugly SPOILERS
But, of course, it isn't "what humanity does" at all. The only people who perform morally dubious acts are individuals in positions of (elected or unelected) power - the Cabinet, the PM, highly placed civil servants, and Torchwood themselves. "The people" are kind, if simple and a little bigoted in a humorous way, folk, who could never be told the truth about the 456's need for 10% of the children of the Earth because they'd riot.

Jack tells us this, and we are shown this in all the Cardiff scenes, with the cuddly thuggish estate kids in surprisingly nice clothes, and the cuddly thuggish lads who romantically (and surprisingly successfully) mob the Evil Forces of AuthorityBritish Army working under compulsion.



It's just a pity that it isn't true. Note that Africa is never really mentioned in the serial at all, and Asia barely so. One feels that the Chinese government (for example) would have little problems disposing of 10% of its children - indeed, one wonders if they'd feel like gaining extra credit for giving the 456 an additional bonus. And there are many countries with cultural positions that would make it quite easy to find children that the majority wouldn't really care about. Even the "civilised West" has felt this way about many sections of society relatively recently (and still does - the nod at the "Failed Asylum Seekers" list is sadly underplayed), and one feels that it would be quite easy to get the population of the world to pick people to discriminate against to save their own skins.


And, indeed, I may be alone in this, but it appears that the position that 10% of the world's children for us not being wiped out is a pretty good deal is considered untenable. Jack is morally compromised for us by even his willingness to sacrifice one child to save the world, and Gwen is unambiguously (except for a brief, token, dark(ish) evening of the soul) happy about being pregnant (although she was taking the Pill, and presumably is aware that she's in quite a dangerous line of work - and was traumatised by a parasitic alien baby pregnancy recently).

Apparently, children are so important, that their moral value is infinite. It's a curiously Daily Mailish philosophical position for Torchwood to adopt, not even really a humanist position, but a knee-jerk reaction to a modern perspective on children born of the conditions of the West in the last 100 years.



The Summing Up SPOILERS
Overall, Torchwood: CoE was above average up until the final two episodes. Its still clear that RTD wanted to kill off "his" show - poor Ianto dying due to the Jack's apparent total lack of any consideration of the consequences of basically telling sufficiently advanced aliens to fuck off (even though Mr Decker managed to survive the same circumstances, dodging an ironic death because the plot needed him as a tempting serpent in the final act), Jack fleeing his conscience only to become a giant head in a jar in the future, and Gwen presumably off active duty heavily pregnant.



The plus side, of course, being that if they bring Torchwood back, they'll have to make it about Torchwood Two, the barely mentioned Glasgow unit run by a "very strange man" (although, it is mentioned in CoE that Torchwood Two has been disbanded, presumably to avoid people like me nitpicking about the lack of said man in the serial...).



To crassly summarize in numbers: 7/10, (8/10 until the bloody allegory).





*Every time someone is shot, once, in the body with a semiautomatic pistol, they fall over dead, instantly. Big soldier guys with machine guns and automatic rifles fail to even hit anyone, even at relatively close range, or with sights. In TV Tropes terms, this is a combination of the Instant Death Bullet and Improbable Aiming Skills tropes, although all the automatic weapons, and some of the handguns, also feature Hollywood Silencers.



**Who shares his militariness with the Token British/UNIT Black General, the only other significant black male in the series. One wonders if RTD thinks that all important military men look like Colin Powell...

2009/06/20

Review: Slumdog Millionaire vs Q&A

Review: Q&A (novel, Vikas Swarup) vs Slumdog Millionaire (film)

It is inevitable, perhaps, that in adapting a novel to the screen, the complexities of the original must be somewhat reduced. In the case of Q&A's transition to Slumdog Millionaire, this is certainly the case.
To be sure, both have the same "hook" - poor, uneducated lad from the slums wins the top prize on Indian gameshow, and is then arrested because, after all, he must have been cheating - how would a lad like him possibly know the answers to the questions?
And, in both, the actual plot unfolds mainly in the protagonist's recounting of significant events in his life, each linked to his surprising knowledge of an answer he gave.

However, to a significant extent, this is really where the similarities end. Indeed, the fundamental differences between Q&A and Slumdog Millionaire are even evident in the name of the protagonist. Q&A's Ram Mohammad Thomas has a name intimately connected to one of his first anecdotes, a nominative determinant, perhaps, of the varied life he will lead (being, as we are told, one name for each of the three powerful religions in India - Hinduism, Islam and Christianity). The protagonist of Slumdog Millionaire is merely named "Jamal", a simple name for a boy with less outlandish origins, to go with the simpler plot.
If Ram loves, or thinks he does, and loses, perhaps, kills (or perhaps not), cheats and is cheated, then Jamal has a more straightforward life - yes, he loves, but the same girl throughout his life; but he never kills, or thinks he does, or really desires to. Indeed, the darkness that Ram experiences in his life is thrust onto the persona of his friend/brother, Salim, in the film (and the film punishes its new surrogate for dark choices, now unprotected by the protagonist's mantle).
The mark of corporate patronage is also evident upon the film adaptation. Q&A's quiz show is entirely fictitious, a new show created by an unscrupulous company in deliberate imitation of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Its prize is huge, 1 billion rupees (or about 12 million pounds). Its host, and its backers are untrustworthy, and their reasons for having Ram arrested are not pure.
Slumdog Millionaire is a product of Celador Films, stablemates to the producers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire itself. It is no surprise, then, that this is also the quiz that Jamal finds himself on, that the producers and host of the show are generally morally upright, and that their suspicions of Jamal's dishonesty are precisely that.
(There is also the Hollywoodisation of the quiz show format involved here to some extent - unlike in the novel (and real life), the film version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is apparently shown live, purely to allow a moment of dramatic plotting to occur. Some may wince at this, depending on their devotion to reality over romanticism.)
All this is not to say, of course, that Slumdog Millionaire is a bad film, or even a bad work of fiction. It is simply a more direct, more "HBollywood polished" affair than the novel, and its narrative universe must be treated from that perspective. One suspects that the creators are aware of this, and that the Bollywood dance sequence over the end credits is as much a nod and a wink to viewers as it is an expression of the protagonist's final joyous success.
Q&A, on the other hand, is a more gloriously cynical affair, a view of the true struggle of existence at the bottom of the heap, and a recipe for overcoming (and enduring) them.
Just don't read it before you see the film, for risk of blunting the latter's purer simplicity with your moral complexities.

2009/06/09

Book Reviews

Review: The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

Rather like Pratchett, Gaiman seems to be spending increasing amounts of his time on writing books marketed for children, rather than adults. The Graveyard Book is his most recent foray into children's fiction, and, as the title implies, it owes a conscious debt to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book in its form.
The protagonist is orphaned by a killer in black - the man, Jack - in the opening sequence, escaping death himself by choosing to toddle off and explore outside. Reaching the graveyard at the top of the hill, he is adopted by the ghostly denizens, and the solitary, corporeal (but dislikes the sun, has hypnotic powers, needs his native earth nearby to sleep) Silas. Named "Nobody" (there's a good reason, thematically, why "John Doe" wouldn't have been appropriate), by his adoptive family, each chapter (separated by two years each time) concerns one or more important events in 'Bod's life. The astute reader will have already suspected that each event is pivotal in the climactic confrontation with the agent of his family's death.
If you've read any other Gaiman, the setting will be unsurprising - a general inversion of the horror-tropes of the past (there are night-gaunts, but they're surprisingly helpful, as are the werewolves, vampires and witches we encounter), with even the dangerous things being temptingly drawn (the ghouls, despite their horrific aims, are at least entertainingly spoken). There is nothing evil that shows itself such by horrific appearance, and some things of horrific appearance are actually fairly friendly.
In this, in fact, the Graveyard Book is somewhat more progressive than The Jungle Book was towards animals. The villains of Kipling's work are precisely those animals which one might imagine to be dangerous or "evil" (apart from humanity itself). The villains of Gaiman's book... less so (although the man, Jack's "employers" might be said to stand in for a certain aspect of humanity themselves).
Many people seem to have decided that The Graveyard Book is Gaiman's "best book yet". I'm not sure that it is quite that good, but then I still don't think he's quite surpassed the better parts of Sandman...

Review: Let the Right One In (Movie vs Book, John Ajvide Lindqvist )

The novel of Let The Right One In is both more fantastical and more mundane than the acclaimed film.
In both, the core plot is the growing, uncertain, and complex friendship between the boy, Oskar, and the child, Eli, recently moved into Oskar's area. In both, the man, Håkan, who appears to live with Eli, is killing young people and taking their blood, and has an ambiguous relationship with Eli. In both, Oskar's connection with Eli helps him, ultimately, to fight off his bullies at school, with escalating consequences.
However, the film is a considerable streamlining and simplification of the book. Indeed, at least some of the simplification appears to be an attempt to bowdlerise the original work so that it can be filmed. The film doesn't really make Håkan's relationship with Eli clear - he could be a Renfield, he might be what Oskar would become grown old, he might be a pederast who picked the wrong child to molest. In the book, it is clear that the latter is truly the case, as Håkan is one of our viewpoint characters from the start, consumed with sleazy desires that he'd rather not have, but is too weak to resist. Indeed, part of the book's thesis is the weakness of humans themselves - subplots that are barely touched on in the film fleshs this out, with their litany of flawed, struggling men and women who are let down by their fears or their flaws.
If the film avoids telling us what kind of person Håkan really is, though, it also avoids punishing him in the way the book does - he gets a relatively clean death, in the end, almost romanticised in its replaying of horror tropes. In the book... in the book, he's reduced to, symbolically, merely a shell around the desires he's always hated in himself, and it is possible that his final punishment is neverending "life" in broken body that cannot move or think.
Which brings us to the other major simplification the film makes over the book - the nature of Eli. Oh, Eli is a vampire in both works, although denying the actual term (for good reason, in the novel). What we speak of is Eli's gender. When Eli says to Oskar, in the film, "Would you still like me if I wasn't a girl?", we can interpret this as a warning of hur supernatural nature. The novel isn't so straightforward, making Eli's nature a more problematic, and trauma-laden, question.
Indeed, whilst the film can be read as a sort of ersatz love story between Oskar and Eli, the novel is harder to pin down. That Oskar and Eli escape at the end is perhaps less important than that Oskar learns to strive, and grasp his striving with both hands. Indeed, with the counterpointing of all the other characters, each with their crippling flaw (and the mirroring subplot of the drunkard Lacke's signal failure to do what Oskar succeeds in), the key point of the novel is almost certainly that to live successfully, one must strike out and take the risk of failure, despite everything.


Review: The Prince of Nothing Trilogy (R. Scott Bakker)

In the acknowledgements page at the front of The Darkness That Comes Before, the first book in this trilogy, R. Scott Bakker mentions his debt to both J R R Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) and Frank Herbert (author of Dune). It is, therefore, no surprise that this trilogy (the first, itself, of a trilogy of trilogies currently barely half complete) reads very much like a merging of the two settings, thematically and character-wise.
From Tolkien, we have the sweeping worldbuilding, the past apocalypse returning, the meat and grounding of the setting , from Herbert, the political machination, the concern with the dangerous effect of a messiah-figure on a populace, and, most of all, the influences that form the insular warrior monks called "Dunyain". The Dunyain (and, I assume that the name is deliberately reminiscent of both "Dunedain" and "Dune") have devoted the last two thousand years to perfecting their mental and physical acuity, breeding and training themselves towards the (perhaps unattainable) goal of the "Self-moving soul" - a state of being in which their thoughts are purely their own, with no unconscious influences from outside. In so doing, they have become something like Mentat-Bene Gesserit, combining awesomely honed bodily awareness and perception with acute mental ability and recall. And no-one else in the world remembers that they exist.
Perhaps 20 years before the start of the first novel proper, they sent out one of their number into the world. Being tainted by the outside, he was not allowed to return to spread his taint to the others... but now, somehow, members of the Dunyain are experiencing dreams of him, dreams that their purely mechanistic view of the world cannot explain. So, they send his son, Kellhus, out into the world to deal with this problem (and kill the rest of the dreamers to retain isolation).
The rest of the books follows what happens when a Dunyain enters the world of Earwe, and warps it around himself in order to accomplish his goal. For normal men, not Conditioned by Dunyain training, are in thrall to their emotions, to subconscious reactions to a thousand external influences, to their unexamined beliefs and cultural mores. For a Conditioned Dunyain, they are easy to read, and just as easy to manipulate.
Which leads us to the "problem" which seems to have excited the most debate amongst fans of the books: Is Kellhus a sympathetic character? He is, by breeding and training, something of a cold fish. He never reveals his true thoughts externally, and sees nothing wrong with manipulating everyone around him to do his bidding (as, from his perspective, they were hardly in control of their own actions even without his influence). Some readers see him as an irredeemable sociopath, others as a means whose end (hinted to be pivotal in the larger conflict against the Lurking Nihilist Evil) does precisely that, I suspect that some even see him as a hero - the One Sane Man. Certainly, the comparisons to Paul Atreides are apt, although perhaps Leto II would be a better match (if Kellhus' father, Moengus, is Paul), with the revelations of the later books in mind. (Not that Kellhus has become a giant sandworm, yet.)
Regardless, Kellhus is a problematic protagonist. Presumably, this is why we are treated to at least three other potential protagonists throughout the trilogy - the "barbarian" Cnaiur, who has deep-seated reasons to hate Dunyain after his encounter with Kellhus' father twenty years previously (and yet ends up uneasily reliant on Kellhus, too); the sorcerer and spy Achamian, whose self-doubt belies his actual mettle; and the novel-described 'harlot' Esmenet, whose problem is simply that her culture gives very few options to a woman once she's been rendered 'impure'. (The latter also has the disturbing problem that, as this setting is one in which mass belief is ontologically significant, it is possible that women really are worth less, because enough people hold it to be true.)
Of these, Achamian is the easiest to empathise with, although none of the protagonists (except Kellhus) really reveal their inner motivations to the reader (or to themselves) at first. Achamian's conflicts, however, stem from either external sources - the apocalyptic dreams that all sorcerers of his order suffer - or from his self-doubt, re-enforced by the perceived unholy nature of his profession. This makes him, in many ways, a more human protagonist than the others, and the only one who it is not a spoiler to confirm his survival unto the end (excepts from a history of the period attributed to him garnish the start of many chapters).
These are a complex work - as complex as either of their antecedents, at the least - and knowing in their examination of the myriad consequences of their setting. In this, they already surpass the vast majority of modern fantasy works, and thus despite, and because, of the uncomfortable moments and the "problems", I cannot recommend them to any potential reader more.

Review: The City and The City (China Mieville)

Every review I've seen of China Mieville's current novel describes it as Kafkaesque. Considering that the inside dustjacket mentions "shades of Kafka and Philip K Dick", one might be forgiven for suggesting that this doesn't necessarily reveal a terrifying erudition in the reviewer. Similarly, when I mention the (stronger, for me) resonances of 1984, you will be unsurprised to see this also referenced on that same dustjacket...
The difference between the Kafkaesque interpretation and the Orwellian is one of ontology. To read the separation of the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma as in some sense physical, despite the obvious cues in the earliest descriptions, is to apply the more extreme aspects of Kafka's surrealism where it is not needed. And yet, some, many, reviews seem to take this course.
So, the plot: Inspector Tyador Borlu of the apparently Eastern European city-state of Beszel has a murder case on his hands. The problem, it emerges, is that the murder took place not in Beszel, but in the sister-city of Ul Qoma, interpenetrating and interwoven with Beszel itself, and separated only by the assiduous conditioning of their citizens to ignore the other. And, worse, as he continues to investigate, it appears that the murder is just the tip of some kind of conspiracy, perhaps one that strikes at the heart of the separation itself.
Of course, the central conceit - of a parallel setting that people simply edit from their perception - appears in many works of fiction, notably Gaiman's Neverwhere, where, as here, it is a metaphor for all those aspects of society that we all blank from our perceptions as we wander the world. Or, rather, the city; one cannot imagine the same metaphor working in the country, where the opposite applies - the half-glimpsed vision of a world one never noticed is the metaphor there, not the consciously suppressed awareness of those you'd rather not be forced to share proximity with.
Unlike other novels making use of this conceit, though, The City & The City actually investigates it, makes the conceit the star, and the villain, perhaps, of the piece. In Neverwhere, the mystical equivalent of "unseeing" people is just... there. In The City & The City, it is an almost active force, an enforced taboo with terrible consequences.
But, as with any cultural absurdity, it is simultaneously meaningless.

And that, perhaps, is where the story begins.

2009/05/22

...the recursive madness continues.

The second artifact created by my dwarves:

Sîboshkekath, "The Deteriorated Tundra", a green glass toy hammer

This is a green glass toy hammer. All craftsdwarfship is of the highest quality. It is encircled with bands of green glass. This object menaces with spikes of Melanite. On the item is an image of a green glass toy hammer in green glass.

This is starting to get a little odd...

...recursive artifact tunics in Dwarf Fortress

Not quite what I wanted my first legendary artifact to be:

Nônubothôs ïteb Asob: "Punchwilt the Post of Boards", a Rope reed tunic.

This is a Rope reed tunic. All craftsdwarfship is of the highest quality. It is made from Rope reed cloth. On the item is an image of a Rope reed tunic in Rope reed. On the item is an image of a Rope reed tunic in Rope reed.

Woohoo?

2009/05/04

Hostile Waters: A Confession

I've stopped playing Hostile Waters.

Part of me wants to keep playing it, to get to the later missions, to experience the unfolding plotlines.
However, part of me doesn't care anymore. Because I spoiled myself.

That is:
Mission 9 (I think it's 9) requires you to deliver some explosives to an enemy underground silo, via a trainline. Obviously, the enemy will attack the explosives enroute, so you have to do some destruction of the existing enemy defences first. There is no explicit requirement for you to wipe out all of the enemy forces.

Now, this map contains three enemy bases. The central one is clearly intended by the designers to be attacked - it is right next to the train line, the explosives, and the control station you need to send the train in the right direction. One of the two sets of derricks feeding energy to it (and thus enabling it to produce new forces) is handily pointed out to you in the briefing.
The north-western one is hidden right up in the corner of the map, and exists purely to generate aircraft to harass your carrier once you start progressing in the main objective. It isn't actually hard to destroy, but I suspect that you're not supposed to bother, as it's so out of the way.
The third base, however, is directly to the east. It's slightly out of the way, but it has no less than three sets of derricks, heavy protection from both land and air attacks, and sometimes generates land forces to sweep across the island to harass your attacks. I suspect that the developers never intended anyone to actually focus on wiping it off the map - it is supposed, I guess, to ensure that there is always a looming enemy presence to potentially assault your train once you set it off across the island.
I became somewhat... fixated... on destroying Base 3.
Now, this isn't the developers' fault. When playing Strategy games, my main flaw is my tendency to be overcautious and overcompletist in completing objectives - so, if the mission is an escort, I wipe out all the enemy forces first. Even if they're hugely defended bases with three sources of energy, and even if I have an (apparently deliberate) lack of starting energy to build my own forces.
I also became a little fixated, due to the aforementioned caution, with the Shiny New Weapon you get given in this mission. "Warhammer" is a long-ranged indirect fire weapon - a mortar that is supposed to be used to wipe out enemy forces from afar with the aid of a spotter. However, Base 3 is arranged nestled in the midst of mountains that block most of the potential indirect firing solutions from positions of safety... and when you do start attacking, it sends out fast moving air units to drive you off.
So, my assaults on Base 3 moved from long-duration "guerilla artillery" tactics, to doomed fast-assaults with defensive units around the artillery... and nothing worked.

At this point, a sensible person would have said "Oh, well, clearly I'm not supposed to destroy them, I'll just concentrated on Base 1 like I'm supposed to".

I didn't.

I'm not about to let Base 3 stand like that, posing a permanent threat. So I cheated.

There are only really two important cheats for Hostile Waters. One of them gives you effectively unlimited energy to build units. The other gives you access to the entire selection of units in the game, even ones that aren't unlocked yet. I used both of them.

I assaulted Base 3 with units that I shouldn't have had until Mission 20, in numbers I shouldn't have been capable of fielding without copious resource gathering. It gave way, eventually, doomed by technologies beyond its position in the narrative of its world.
And it didn't feel good.

So, after wiping out all the enemy on the entire map, I saved the game. And quit.
And I haven't played since. The joy has gone from it - I don't care anymore what plot elements give me the cool units in future missions, since I've already crushed Base 3 with them, anachronistically. And every time I see a challenge in the game, I know I'll be tempted to cheat again.

But at least I destroyed Base 3, eh, readers?


(Edit: There's probably another article in the fact that I actually cared here, about cheating, where cheating in something like Quake 10: Another Shooter doesn't matter to me at all.)

Cell-based games and graphs. (i)

I promised myself that I'd not write about this until it was in a useful state, but there are several issues connected to it that I actually want to talk about so...

A couple of weeks ago, I started playing with the roguelike game engine that I've been meaning to write for some time. (Partly as something to do with Xcode, and partly because I realised that I could leverage existing Python libraries to handle some of the boring stuff.)

The key to this game engine being different to other Roguelike engines is in how it treats the discrete array of cells that is the gameworld. Most roguelikes use a square grid where either nsew motion, or 8-way motion is possible, purely because this is the obvious approach to the limitation imposed by a terminal style display. (Indeed, presumably this is essentially why Rogue did so, as much as the reference to RPG graph-paper maps.) However, squares are not the only regular shapes that can tile a plane, and hence hexagon-based roguelikes are possible (only two examples exist that I am aware of, one of which is a simple translation of Rogue itself), along with triangle-based games (of which I am aware of none).
More than this, however, one realises that the roguelike map is just a particularly simple lattice, and that we can thus consider other extensions of the representation than those implied by regular tilings.
For example, inspired by the fact that the hex and tri tilings are dual to each other (replace the mutual corners in each with a tile, and you get the other), we might note that "nsew" square lattices are selfdual (but contain two interleaved square lattices if we rotate our directions of movement by 45 degrees), but the 8-way lattice (which is really an "octagonal lattice", implying a hyperbolic space) is dual to a curious lattice best represented by an array of right-triangles grouped four-to-a-square, and which has even less "connectivity" than the tri lattice dual to hexagons (we will call this lattice "dual octagonal").

The dual octagonal lattice appears to be as "unconnected"* as we can easily produce for a dual tiling within the constraints of a flat representational medium; we can't represent a tiling with more than 8 neighbours in a square-tiled array, and hence we can't produce a more connected tiling than the octagonal one to be made dual to.
However, considering the representation as a lattice, which is just a special case of an undirected graph, there is one other thing we can do; we can make the graph directed. This leads us to a "loop" lattice, where each node has two "outgoing" and two "inward" edges, arranged so that adjacent nodes alternate two of their edge directions relative to the origin node. The only consistent way of arranging this produces "cycles" of four nodes, in which a path exist starting at any element of such a cycle, passing through each of the other nodes before arriving at the origin again. It can be noted that considering such "cycles" as "units", each unit is connected to four adjacent units by both "in" and "out" connections, and so the units form a lattice equivalent to the starting square lattice.
The internal loop then looks a lot like a compactified "third dimension" embedded in the 2d lattice structure. There are amusing comparisons to string theory possible here.

More problematic is the consideration of what the appropriate dual to this "loop lattice" is. Considering the "dual nodes", we swap a notion of oriented edges with a notion of "oriented nodes" themselves - the boundaries of the dual nodes are either the "loops" we previously noticed, or the "non-loops" formed by the connections between those loops.
If we examine the loop structure more carefully, we see that the chirality of the loops alternates in a checkerboard fashion - alternating clockwise and anticlockwise across the lattice.
This gives rise to the idea that the chirality of the nodes perhaps encodes a different kind of separation - is this a different encoding of some kind of three-dimensional structure, with clockwise = +1, counterclockwise = -1, and the other nodes in between?



*Or, equivalently, "positively curved" - the "circumference" of a "circle", defined in terms of the distance from a central point within the lattice constraints, is smaller for a dual octagonal lattice (being roughly 2.5*r) than it is for the tri lattice (at 3r). What I mean by connectivity is implied to be proportional to this, as the number of paths out from a given point is proportional to the length of the edge (or the area of the surface in 3d).

Review: Twelve by Jasper Kent

It is 1812, Napoleon is advancing imperturbably toward Moscow in his Russian campaign, and four Russian officers have made a deal with Wallachian mercenaries with a brutal reputation to disrupt his supplies. Only one of the officers knows the true source of the mercenaries' abilities - although even the most marginally intelligent reader will have already picked up on the mention of Wallachia (and the master of the mercenaries' choice of name - Zmyeevich (translated for us by the narrator as "son of the serpent, or dragon")) and added all the other clues together to make V. V for Vampire, or (in Russian) Voordalak.
But our knowledge of what these brutal killers - nicknamed the Oprichniki by their employers, after the more human, but equally brutal historical bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible - really are isn't the point. What we are really exploring is the state of the narrator, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, in his connections with his three comrades, with his lover (and his physically distant wife), and with Russia and humanity itself.
Afterall, the main difference between the undead and the living (for the most part) is that the undead are entirely lacking in empathy, even with one another. They are not even animal - for pack and herd animals care for their group members - in some sense, they are the antithesis of this.
And so, Aleksei learns about what it is to have trust, and faith, in his fellow humans - to accept that is the most important thing about being human, in fact - and incidentally kills off 12 brutal predators out of myth, although not without the usual and expected assaults on both his spiritual and physical state (and a good couple of twists, most of which it is possible to spot before the narrator does, I believe intentionally).
Wisely, Kent keeps Dracula out of it, only allowing him onto the stage as the pseudonymous master of the Oprichniki before he departs homeward (only to reappear safely in a single flashback later in the book). I almost wish that he'd not even allowed that much of the Count to appear - so much of the mythos of the modern Vampire story is built around the adaptations and extensions of Stoker's novel (and the Hammer Horror films) that even a brief appearance risks overshadowing the rest of the characters. Luckily, his appearance is, indeed, brief, and his apparent protege (himself delighting in the pseudonym of Iuda - Slavic "Judas") manages to amply animate the final third of the story at least.
It also helps, of course, that the Russian campaign itself presents a solid historical backdrop - the occupation of Moscow, especially, also admitting of various metaphorical comparisons with the state of undeath - pulling "Twelve" safely away from being Just Another Vampire Story.
All in all, "Twelve" is more than a cut above the majority of "supernatural" fiction, and definitely deserves a look.

2009/04/13

Grr OSX and Python.

So, I have a new MacBook. (For work, but, it's at home now).

I thought to myself - I'll have a little mess around with directed graphs in python.

So, I installed the igraph python package into the default python in OSX 1.5.3 - which is python 2.5.1

And discovered that cairo - the vectorised rendering package that igraph wants to use to display plots of your graphs - isn't installed.

So:

easy_install pycairo

(chug chug chug - error, you need python >= 2.6)

Great, I think, that's easy.

Go to www.python.org, grab latest OSX installer for python 2.6.1, run, install.

> python
"Hi, I'm still version 2.5.1, since the installer installs to a totally different location than the defaults for preinstalled python."

> export $PATH=/usr/local/bin:$PATH

> python
"Ok, you got me, I'm 2.6"

Right.

> easy_install pycairo
(chug chug chug - nope, you've still not got anything greater than 2.5 installed)

*sound of MacBook flying through open window*

(Oh, and installing from the pycairo package on the Cairo website results in an apparently successful install ... but python2.6 can't see the module. Nor can it see anything I've installed in python2.5 - and I can't work out where the python2.5 stuff has been put.)

EDITed to add: So, adding the location of the Framework build of python2.6 makes cairo importable in 2.6... but even Finder doesn't seem to know where the 2.5 packages I installed with MacPorts are...

EDITED again, to add: Hm. MacPorts seems unable to realise that I have python2.6 installed, and I'm not sure how to tell it. So far, my potential fun morning of playing with python has turned into something considerably more frustrating than OSX is supposed to be - I'd have done this in minutes in Ubuntu!
As soon as Jaunty comes out, I'm repartitioning this thing to have a decent, working, OS on it.

THIRD EDIT:
More hm. Something seems to be broken about python package install with setup.py now, too.
Downloading igraph and (with python2.6 as the default python in my path) in the root of the unpacked directory:
sam-skipseys-macbook:python-igraph-0.5.1 samskipsey$ python setup.py config
setup.py:25: DeprecationWarning: os.popen3 is deprecated. Use the subprocess module.
to_child, from_child, err_child = popen3(command)
Include path: /usr/include/igraph /usr/local/include/igraph
Library path:
running config
sam-skipseys-macbook:python-igraph-0.5.1 samskipsey$ python setup.py build
setup.py:25: DeprecationWarning: os.popen3 is deprecated. Use the subprocess module.
to_child, from_child, err_child = popen3(command)
Include path: /usr/include/igraph /usr/local/include/igraph
Library path:
running build
running build_py
running build_ext
running build_scripts
creating build/scripts-2.6
copying and adjusting scripts/igraph -> build/scripts-2.6
changing mode of build/scripts-2.6/igraph from 644 to 755
sam-skipseys-macbook:python-igraph-0.5.1 samskipsey$ sudo python setup.py install
setup.py:25: DeprecationWarning: os.popen3 is deprecated. Use the subprocess module.
to_child, from_child, err_child = popen3(command)
Include path: /usr/include/igraph /usr/local/include/igraph
Library path:
running install
running bdist_egg
running egg_info
writing python_igraph.egg-info/PKG-INFO
writing top-level names to python_igraph.egg-info/top_level.txt
writing dependency_links to python_igraph.egg-info/dependency_links.txt
reading manifest file 'python_igraph.egg-info/SOURCES.txt'
reading manifest template 'MANIFEST.in'
warning: no files found matching 'debian/changelog'
warning: no files found matching 'debian/control'
warning: no files found matching 'debian/prepare'
writing manifest file 'python_igraph.egg-info/SOURCES.txt'
installing library code to build/bdist.macosx-10.3-i386/egg
running install_lib
running build_py
running build_ext
creating stub loader for igraph/core.so
byte-compiling build/bdist.macosx-10.3-i386/egg/igraph/core.py to core.pyc
installing package data to build/bdist.macosx-10.3-i386/egg
running install_data
error: can't copy '/usr/local/lib/libigraph.dylib': doesn't exist or not a regular file

Which is just a bit shit, really.

FINAL EDIT:
Finally, it works, after hand-editing the setup.py that igraph uses. Tch.

2009/02/28

Why the ontological "proof" of the existence of God is false:

The Ontological proof (Anselm's version):

  1. God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality and in the understanding than just in understanding.
  3. Therefore, God exists in reality

The problem being that 2. is clearly false. Many things exist in potentia or in theory, that would be less perfect if actualised - the Platonic Form of a carpenter's conception of a chair is perfect, the actualisation in wood is not, necessarily. The plan for a novel is always a greater thing than the imperfect realisation of it, actualised by the author's hand. 

Thus, "something which is greater than all things" cannot but be a Platonic Form, rather than an actualisation, and hence cannot exist - for in existing, it must become less than it was in potential.

This is all sounding very gnostic, isn't it?

2009/01/04

Kingdom of Loathing

If there was ever a more exciting time to join up with possibly the most... odd.. massively singleplayer browser rpg, I'm not sure of it.
The Penguin Mafia has just taken over Crimbo, and there's a giant mutant hybrid Crimbo elf monster raging in Crimbo Town.

You can just see the movie adaptation now, can't you?

2009/01/01

Quake 4 vs Doom 3 (vs HL2, Doom and Quake 2)

Making use of the Steam Winter Sale, and other sales around this time, I've finally managed to acquire copies of Doom 3 and Quake 4 at prices I'm prepared to pay for them (less than a fiver each).

Some impressions of them:

doom 3:

The first thing that struck me about Doom 3 was the ugliness of their human models. There's something uncomfortably unrefined about the generally blocky, spherical faces and odd body shapes that unsettles one - consider that this game came out at around the same time as Half-Life 2 and Vampire: Bloodlines, both of which managed much more "normal" looking character designs.
On the other hand, the lighting model is still genuinely impressive, even now. The shadowcasting, in particular, is rather effective, and used for some of the more effective atmosphere building tactics, although it does lead to the game being, in general, a bit too dark to really show off the graphical engine.
The rest of the atmosphere and scare tactics are just as hackneyed as the reviews said - lots of monsters hiding in cupboards, or just behind you or behind doors you're about to open. And the Villain, Dr Bertruger, of course, taunts you melodramatically and non-scarily throughout the later sections (Half-Life 2's Dr Breen did this much more effectively, with his more "reasonable" suggestions that you were on the wrong side). On the other hand, these taunts are also used to some better effect in the second Doom music remix "album", Delta-Q-Delta - I'd been wondering where those samples came from originally.

The level design is hit-and-miss for the most part - the base levels are a wee bit confusing, especially in the dark, but the external Mars environment is visually striking the first time (and adds another element of useful tension with the lack of air). The Hell level is the best thing about the entire game - the styling is most visually impressive (although a little cod-medieval - just for once, I'd like to see a proper frozen-over Hell, or something more like Tartarus), and reminded me quite strongly of American McGee's Alice, as did the final form of the Villain in the ending cut-scene. It's also the only thing that Doom 3 does better than the Half-Life series - it's also a bit like Xen, but done better.

As far as reinvention and homage to the original goes, the demons are obviously a lot more effective in proper high-polycount 3d, and this is helped by their new agility. However, the "new" demons added to the game aren't as good for the most part - the Cherubs, in particular, are a bit silly, really - and the spidery Trites just made me miss Arachnotrons from the original games (okay, so I thought they were sort of cute...)
Obviously, id were trying to make a more "grown-up" game, adding more grotesque monster design, and attempting to do the System Shock thing with the PDAs with voice logs from the recently dead. Unfortunately, there's something very "studio-recorded" about the voice logs, which detracts somewhat from their effectiveness. The cut-scenes don't help much either, serving to emphasise the nameless marine's intentional lack of personality in the worst possible way (while Half-Life 2 intentionally lampshades Gordon Freeman's "silent type" persona).
I'm also not totally sure about the Soul Cube - it could have been worse, and at least it manages to add some background to the tissue-thin plot - but I'd have preferred my Doom without a semi-Total Recall recycled super extinct Martian race.

(Just having started the expansion, it is clear that the few modifications to gameplay are sops to the criticisms of Doom 3 vs HL2 and possibly the Max Payne games. The expansion's 'grabber' is just as hard to use properly as the Gravity Gun, but with the additional disadvantage that you can't hold stuff for more than 5 seconds. So, not a massive plus, except against the annoying small enemies that swarm you. And the "Helltime" slomo mode is... well, a slomo mode.)


Quake 4 -
For some reason, I enjoyed playing this more than Doom 3. I think a lot of this is due to the generally more "social" gameplay - you're part of a large-scale military operation and as such you're almost always working in co-operation with your teammates. In addition, the level design seems a lot better, and I think I only got lost once in the game.
The vehicle sections probably also helped - the change in tone was good to stave off any potential boredom, and also allowed the game to introduce more more powerful enemies early on (as the vehicles are both considerably tougher than, and more heavily armed than, the lone marine).
Talking about armaments, there's clearly an attempt been made to both consolidate the Quake series and distinguish it from the Doom games. The BFG 10k has been whipped out and replaced by the visually distinct, yet game-play nigh-identical "Dark Matter Gun", thus removing the only direct connection to Doom. Conversely, the nailgun and lightning gun (again, with visual makeovers - the lightning gun now looking like something from Return to Castle Wolfenstein) have appeared from the original Quake, which otherwise has nothing to do with the setting of Quake 2.
Oh, and the fluff now claims that Strogg have no freewill, which is strangely at odds with the fluff for Quake 2 (where they have internal power struggles to decide their leaders) as well as their actual behaviour in Quake 4 itself. Very odd.

Because this is much more like a Jerry Bruickheimer movie than Doom 3 is, the level designs don't build tension so much as "excitement". That said, the first level featuring Iron Maidens (also the best redesign of the Quake 2 monsters - the originals being considerably more sexist and misogynistic) manages to very effectively develop atmosphere, with the activation of critical systems leading to previously quiescent wall-mounted pods disgorging Maidens one by one, accompanied by a warning hiss of pressurised gas. (The visual pun of the Iron Maidens being stored in, well, high-tech Iron Maidens, is a minor plus.)

The only other strong emotional response Quake 4 managed to evoke in me was self-disgust (and disgust with the game) at the way in which I was made to kill the Strogg stroylent processing creature (a massive, malformed, sessile beastie used to produce processed food for the Strogg military machine, which you are made to destroy in the course of the military assault, essentially by force-feeding it to the point of explosion). The pitiful attempt it makes at fending off its feeding tube is horrifying, and I did have to pause for several moments before I could continue. I know dehumanising your enemies and everything associated with them is part for the course for military-themed games, but... (it's also why one of the works of genius in Half-Life 2 was bringing back the enemy Vortigaunts from the original Half-Life, sans the slave-collars forcing them to work for the enemy, and showing that they were generally nice guys, in the "wise inscrutable alien" mould).

As a final comment, both games have the same odd glitch in their internal logic. Presumably to keep in-game poly-counts down, killed enemies "vanish" once killed - burning to nothing in the case of demons, and being teleported back to reclamation facilities in the case of the Strogg. However, both games have allied units engaging in research on apparently dead samples of their enemies. One does wonder how they ever managed to acquire these...

World of Goo is still my game of the (last) year though. And, perhaps its a sign of growing up that I found both Quake 4 and Doom 3 somewhat lacking and overly callous in tone... and that I'm very apprehensive about Doom 4. Shall we hope they've learned something from Valve in the meantime?