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The Quixotic Engineer

Friday, August 31, 2007

Dr. Who


I've been rather enjoying the modern interpretation of Dr. Who lately. The show fluctuates between brilliant (The Empty Child) and cheesy (The Lazarus Experiment) as it has done for over 40 years, but always manages to be entertaining. David Tennant and Freema Agyeman are well cast as the quixotic Doctor and his stalwart companion, and the supporting cast is often surprisingly strong. Furthermore, as a fan of science fiction, the modular stories are a nice change of pace from the long drawn-out story arcs featured on other shows. In that sense, Dr. Who could draw favorable comparisons with The Twilight Zone.

You may ask what provoked me to write about this now? Well, the episode that the CBC aired this week, Blink (we're way behind you Brits), was especially excellent. It featured a chilling antagonist, a cohesive plot and only revealed the bigger mysteries towards the end; the majority of Dr. Who episodes pull off two out of three of those at best. What truly sealed the deal was the story-told-backwards narrative, a plot device employed surprisingly rarely considering the time-travelling nature of the show.

The CBC is kindly offering streaming video of the latest episodes on their website, so you now have no excuse for not checking it out. Get to it!

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They Call Me The Working Man

123 Certification

As of last Monday, I have officially begun my career in programming... as an intern (or stagiaire as we say in La Belle Province). As part of Concordia's co-op program, I'll be spending my fall semester working full time as a programmer at a Montreal company called 123 Certification. The job involves working with a small team on their largest product, the Arc Simulator, which is designed to teach welding in a way that is safe and cost-effective. It is quite literally virtual reality; the student wears a sort of VR helmet and uses motion-sensing tools.

Needless to say, it's been a dramatic learning experience so far. I've spent a good part of the last week reading code and documentation, and have just recently had a chance to get my hands metaphorically dirty with some code debugging. I'm hoping to learn a great deal about handling 3D objects, working on a large scale project and coding professionally!


Monday, August 27, 2007

To Mend & Defend

Cast of ReBoot

Growing up in Canada in the early nineties, one of my favorite television shows was called ReBoot. The show was groundbreaking for its time, both for its use of computer animation and its unique computer-world setting. The characters, plot, concepts and voice acting were all top notch, and the show was littered with jokes and references that only an adult would get (not entirely unlike recent animated films such as Shrek). I still get a kick out of the rare occasions when I catch a rerun while flipping channels.

Browsing Wikipedia the other day, I found an interesting Wired article from 1997 profiling the creators of ReBoot and how the show came to be. Page four of said article, however, was especially interesting as Gavin Blair discussed some of the difficulties the show faced under the BSP's oppressive and often ridiculous rulings with respect to acceptable content. For instance, they objected to Dot's figure, and insisted she be re-fitted with a much more acceptable monoboob. They considered a kiss on the cheek from sister to brother to be incestuous, and imposed a moratorium on the words hockey and wuss due to their apparently filthy slang meanings.

Fortunately, by the third season ReBoot had parted with ABC's thought police and was able to explore more complex storylines and darker themes. As creator Ian Pearson put it: "I think the third season is blowing the first two out of the water. We haven't gone hideously violent or anything like that - it's just more action-filled and fun-filled." This might be part of why the show had such a lasting impression on me; the characters grew up with me, in a way.

I'm not sure if ReBoot achieved any kind of popularity outside of Canada, but if you've never seen it I urge you to check it out. The second season is when the longer story arcs begin, so it's a great place to start. The fourth season's quasi-movie Daemon Rising is also terrific.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Little Sister, Big Heart

Little Sister

In my anticipation for the game, I had made myself a little plan for Bioshock. I was going to harvest the little buggers the first time around and go buckwild with ADAM. I would then know which plasmids were worth picking up to use the second time around, when I would rescue them all. It was a good idea, in theory...

...but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Rapture is a city filled with people who have compromised their morality in order to survive. If I did the same, would I be any better than they are? I decided that being kind of guy who clings to his values under pressure better fit the narrative I was building up in my head. I've saved five of them so far, and exploring the alternate reward scheme is turning out to be quite interesting.

Is it silly to personalize a video game in this manner? Yeah, it is. It's also, in my mind, the mark of a great work of fiction.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Databases Final Project

...and that concludes a very busy four day programming marathon. The final project for my Databases class involved creating a database and web interface for a hospital. We were a five person group, and I was responsible for designing the interface for the doctors, nurses and residents. Elaine wrote the interface for Administrators and Directors, Sven and Fadhl were in charge of the MySQL database and Alex used Dreamweaver to make a great looking site.

All in all this was a great learning experience. Fortunately for me, Elaine was quite familiar with PHP/Javascript and sent me over lots of code that I could use as a template for my own work. I was already familiar with Perl and Html, so PHP wasn't especially foreign. I managed to write ~18 interactive pages that allowed doctors to view their patient list, add/modify/delete patients, view their schedules and paystubs, etc.

Unfortunately, our project demo today didn't go as well as planned. Databases was a rather involved four credit class, and taking it in ~5 weeks really didn't allow us to invest as much time into our final project as we would have liked. Due to inadequate testing, our demo was full of errors and bugs. I'm not expecting a very high mark, which is ashame because we put lots of work into it.

At the very least, this project has taught me a great deal about group programming dynamics and the importance of code testing. It's very likely I'll work with the same group of people again in the future.

I was going to write a big post Monday about the Bioshock demo, but I was unfortunately too busy programming. I've now decided to wait and and just write a review of the whole game in the near future.


Friday, August 17, 2007

The Xbox 360 Adventure

I've finally taken the plunge into next-gen! I had been considering picking up one of the three new consoles for some time, but I figured it was only sensible to finish my 6-hour exam marathon on Wednesday first (or I'd never get any studying done). With that behind me, I had a choice between the "lots of power, no games" PS3, the "cool idea, how about some decent games?" Wii and the "breaks after 2 months" Xbox 360. It was a tough call, and I'll curse myself if I get the dreaded red ring, but I went with an Xbox 360 Elite in the end.

The difference that really struck me between this machine and my last-gen consoles is how well it has integrated online capabilities. I don't know if Xbox Live on the first Xbox was as good as this, but I'm very impressed at how it's all available up front. From the moment you turn it on (which you now do from your couch with a wireless controller), you're immediately logged on to your Xbox profile, and that one profile handles your whole account both online and offline. You can press the guide button at any time, even in game, and it will pull up the Xbox dashboard.

Since I'm being a bit abstract about why this is so great, here's a concrete example: the first game I played today was Crackdown. The moment the game began, it immediately prompted me to download updates to the game, which took less than 30 seconds. Getting to the menu screen for the first time, there was an option at the bottom to download additional content from Xbox Live (which included a Harpoon gun with some great physics, I'm told). Starting a new campaign, I had the option of playing alone, with an invited friend or with a randomly paired stranger from Xbox Live. I chose to play alone, but if I wanted to invite someone else mid-game it would be as simple as pressing the guide button, scrolling through my friend's list and clicking "invite to game".

Lets contrast that with my last-gen experience with an online console game: FFXI on the Playstation 2. An update to the Playonline Viewer would turn off your PS2 once it finished updating, since for whatever reason it couldn't prompt a software reset. Friends list and messages were all used by FFXI alone (i.e. completely separate from my SOCOM buddy list), and the system didn't even work that well once you were actually in-game. Simply put, everything was very poorly integrated.

This has been a little more of a rant than I usually care to indulge in, so I'll wrap it up here for now. Feel free to throw me an Xbox friend invite, I'd love to put this 1 month of free Gold membership to good use. Now if you excuse me, my Bioshock demo has finished downloading (impressions to follow shortly).


Monday, August 13, 2007

A Gentleman's Duel

I saw a great video over at Dailymotion today called A Gentleman's Duel. If you like clever animation and steampunk mecha, then you'll enjoy this epic duel between Sir Dingleberry and the Marquis de Manstrumpet.

I'm swamped with work right now, I have both my Database and Engineering Statistics finals on Wednesday. A more substantial post that isn't just 30 words and an embedded video to follow after that (hopefully).


Friday, August 10, 2007

Beautiful Katamari Intro

Katamari do your best! just put up an exclusive look at the intro movie for the upcoming game Beautiful Katamari for the Xbox 360. In keeping with series tradition, there are mushrooms, rainbows and dancing red pandas as far as the eye can see. More of the same? Sounds nice, thank you!


Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Be A Rational Agent

Living next to [America] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.
-Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau on Canada/US relations

With four major political parties to choose from (not to mention the rising Green party), Canadians are afforded some protection from the strongly polarized politics found down south. However, you can't live in America's hat without forming some kind of opinion about what's happening. After being linked to this extreme-left video and this extreme-right one in the space of a week, my internal BS sensor was overworked and I felt the need to throw in my 2 cents on the issue.

In both of the aforementioned videos, these amateur interviewers head down to the opposite camp's rally and start doing Michael Moore style interviews (i.e. lots of talking heads and very little substance). In a textbook example of the Straw man fallacy, they single out the dumbest/loudest people in the room and start asking them directed questions about various controversial topics. These people make incredibly ignorant claims and hyperbolic statements (comparing Bush to Hitler? see Godwin's Law), which the filmmakers love because they can use these to discredit the entire party.

While these videos are really nothing more than amateur footage on YouTube, they're symptomatic of a larger social issue; namely, the kind of groupthinking that's emerging from these political parties. It's easy and fun to belong to a group. You all believe in the same things, so you can get together and act smug about how you've got it all figured out. You can insult the other party's viewpoint without fear of a counter-argument. If a moral problem is too complicated to think about, you can follow the party line with zeal. By subscribing to the beliefs of a group, you're immediately undermining yourself as a rational agent. You're substituting your own reason with the reasoning of the group, and groups are notoriously unreasonable. As Dilbert author Scott Adams put it:

As soon as you tell me "Carl joined a group," I can tell you Carl is no longer as rational as he used to be. His judgment will start to conform to the group’s judgment, and the group’s judgment will be based on some ever-drifting sense of values that lost its rational connecting tissue long ago.

It's in this spirit that I invite you to assert yourself as a rational agent by challenging your assumptions. Engage in meaningful dialogue with people who do not share your beliefs, and play Devil's Advocate sometimes. As author Stephen Covey described it: seek first to understand, then to be understood. If someone is able to argue persuasively against an idea you hold, either research a counter-argument or consider changing your beliefs.

As Chris Rock so eloquently put it (video embedded below, NSFW): in the end you'll find that you're liberal about some things and conservative about others, and that's the way it should be.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Montreal Tam-Tams

Montreal Tam-Tams

Every Sunday in the summer, hundreds of people gather around the statue of Sir George-Étienne Cartier on Mount Royal. The assembly doesn't have an official name, but it's called the Tam-Tams by most. The focus of the event is the drum circle, a free-style jam where anyone can bring a hand-drum and start playing along; it's not unusual to see over a hundred drummers at one time. The rest come to listen to the music, dance, play some hacky sack or frisbee and just enjoy the great outdoors.

Along with the Jazz Fest (which I wrote about earlier), the Tam-Tams are part of a complete summer experience in Montreal. The event has a great vibe, Mount Royal park is beautiful, and overall it's quite possibly my favorite use of a Sunday. If you're ever in the city, do yourself a favour and check it out.

Links: [Tam-Tams in Montreal site] [Google Map of the park]

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Friday, August 3, 2007

Short Stories

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream - Harlan Ellison

For as long as I can remember, I've had a problem writing essays with an assigned word length. I like to say as much as I can with as few words as possible, because to me good writing is concise and to the point. When I'm required to artificially lengthen my work, the result is always weak and diluted.

I think that this paradigm can be applied to all media. For instance, the film Strange Days had some interesting ideas, but as a two hour long feature film they were lost in a sea of pointless action and terrible drawn-out dialogue. Done right, it could have made a great 20 minute short film. Consider the last 80 hour RPG you played: could it have been an even better 50 hour RPG by removing a tedious dungeon crawl or two?

It's perhaps my inclination towards succinctness that makes me a fan of short stories. A novel based on an idea will usually explore every facet of this idea and all of its implications. While this works well for some concepts, there are certainly others that are perhaps too experimental and strange. These quirky ideas would likely fall apart or become lost in a novel, but they can easily become the central theme of a short story.

I've listed a few of my favorite short stories below. Where applicable, I've linked to sites I've found that host them; otherwise, a little Googling will usually do the trick.

  • Eight O'Clock in the Morning - Ray Nelson [link]
    An alien race controls humanity through subliminal messages in television, advertisements and billboards.
  • A Sound of Thunder - Ray Bradbudy
    Published in 1952, it was one of the first short stories to deal with what would later be called The Butterfly Effect; the idea that one small change in the past could completely rewrite the present.
  • The Lottery - Shirley Jackson [link]
    One of the most chilling short stories I've ever read, it deals with the evils that are permitted in the name of tradition and crowd mentality.
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream - Harlan Ellison
    An insane omnipotent computer tortures the last five humans on Earth.
  • We Can Remember It For You Wholesale - Philip K. Dick [link]
    The story that inspired the film Total Recall, it deals with the implications of memory replacement.
  • Little Lost Robot - Isaac Asimov
    This is my favorite short story from I, Robot. Dr. Susan Calvin must use logic to expose the one robot among an identical hundred that has had its programming altered and is now a threat to humans.
  • Harrison Bergeron - Kurt Vonnegut
    To finally achieve societal equality, the government forcefully handicaps those whose beauty, intelligence or athletic abilities give them an "unfair advantage" over everyone else.
  • How To Talk To Girls At Parties - Neil Gaiman [link]
    This story is a nominee for the 2007 Hugo Award. An awkward young man is dragged along to a party, but all is not as it seems.

I'm always on the lookout for more great short stories, so please comment with your favorites.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Shadow of Destiny

Shadow of Destiny

When I first read about Shadow of Destiny, it immediately struck me as a very peculiar game. It has elements in common with Indigo Prophecy, in that it involves a murder mystery and is somewhat like an interactive film. What interested me enough to skulk out eBay for it, however, was definitely its unique premise; you play as Eike Kusch, a recently deceased man who is given the chance to go back in time and prevent his own mysterious murder.

After being stabbed in the street, Eike finds himself in a timeless void where a creature named Homonculus offers him another chance at life. Dodging fate, however, is a daunting task; it seems that the young man has found himself caught up in a sequence of events that has spanned centuries. At the start of each of the game's eight chapters, fate catches up to Eike in a number of creative ways (which include being run over by a car, having his food poisoned and being pushed off a tall tower). Each murder that he manages to prevent gets him a little closer to the root of the problem.

The time travel mechanics, which occasionally reminded me of Chrono Trigger, play an interesting part in the puzzle solving. Some of the earlier puzzles are unfortunately very simple; you stop a building from burning down by going back in time and stomping out the flame that started it. The later puzzles were thankfully a bit more complex; one of my favorites involved finding a book about antidotes by convincing the ancestor of the art museum curator to make a library instead. The time travel is divided into four eras: 1580, 1902, 1980 and the "present day" of 2001.

Shadow of Destiny screenshot

Being a six year old game, it does have some serious flaws. For one, the voice acting is terrible. While the character models are surprisingly decent for a first generation PS2 game, the city is full of bland textures and feels devoid of life. Furthermore, the developers made some glaringly lazy choices at times. For instance, in the first chapter, the game blocks off certain alleyways to prevent you from exploring too far. The choice of obstacle? An angry dog... at every single intersection. Finally, the game is incredibly short; be prepared to see the credits roll in under seven hours.

Despite these glaring flaws, I don't regret my purchase. Unlike Indigo Prophecy, the plot doesn't fall apart towards the end. Quite the opposite in fact, the story was excellent and came at me with twists that I genuinely did not see coming. Furthermore, while the game is short, there are more than five endings to unlock depending on your choices in the game.

All in all, if you're interested in an interactive movie game with an excellent plot and are willing to overlook some major flaws, I recommend looking into Shadow of Destiny.