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The Quixotic Engineer

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Musical Box (Vol. 2)

Has it really been a month already since Vol. 1? November just flew by. For the unfamiliar, this is my monthly attempt to conglomerate a number of disconnected recent discoveries into some kind of coherent musical suggestion selection. A musical buffet, if you will.

First up is Robots in Disguise, an "Electro Punk" DJ Duo from the UK. I've been enjoying their 2005 album Get RID! this week, it's got the quirky kind of sound that I've come to expect from UK electronica. Strangely enough, I was originally linked to them by Destructoid of all places. The clip below is their latest single "The Sex Has Made Stupid", which gets bonus points for featuring some mildly unsettling robot pornography.

Next is Battles, a band my friend Nick introduced me to, whose debut album Mirrored came out last year. Each member of the band earned their chops with their previous work (Ian Williams with Don Caballero, John Stanier with Helmet, etc.), so you could reasonably call Battles a math rock supergroup. The music is largely experimental, with strange vocal samples and unusual rhythms that might not suit all tastes. Still, you've got to respect people who are pushing the boundaries of music, since they're the ones who determine what we'll be listening to in 2020.

At the suggestion of Scrawled In Wax, I've been checking out Kate Nash's 2007 debut "Made of Bricks". She's achieved tremendous success in Britain despite having picked up the guitar as little as two years ago. As a vocalist, however, she's fab, and her lyrics are down to earth and stunningly honest.

Montreal is already covered in snow (that will likely melt by next week) and there's 30 days 'til Christmas, so expect a Holiday-themed Musical Box come December.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ghillies In The Mist

Ghillie Suit

Call of Duty 4's storyline has all the insight and depth of a James Bond film; Russian and Middle Eastern terrorists are the modern day stock villains. That being said, there's a reason that the Call of Duty series has stood out in a sea of military shooters: Infinity Ward creates campaigns that are masterfully orchestrated and filled with stunningly cinematic moments.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently profiled one such scene, in which you are put in the shoes of the kidnapped President of an anonymous war-torn Middle Eastern country. Men brandishing AK-47s push you violently into the back of a car without explanation and drive you through streets where firing squads murder civilians. The shift from being an armed soldier to a scared politician makes the sense of helplessness all the more palpable. This is a terrific scene, but today I would like to expand upon another sequence, one that I would easily rank as one of the most memorable video game experiences I've had in years.

First, a little context: the game so far has mostly had you controlling rookie Sgt. "Soap" McTavish of the SAS, under the command of the gruff mustachioed Cpt. Price. This particular scene, however, is set during a flashback to a mission 15 years prior. Opportunists, including one Imran Zakhaev, have been scrounging the ruins of Chernobyl, looking to sell spent fuel rods on the black market. The British Government orders a hit on Zakhaev, and sends in a young Lt. Price along with veteran sniper Cpt. MacMillan to do the deed.

The mission begins in a small field outside the ghost town of Prypiat, Ukraine. At first you appear to be alone, but you hear a confident Scottish voice instructing you to follow him closely. Suddenly, a virtually invisible man in a ghillie suit (see picture above) rises from the weeds beside you and begins to move ahead. You sense immediately that your survival depends on following this man's instructions to the letter.

You methodically advance through the village with Cpt. MacMillan. Travelling involves slow tactical sniping punctuated with mad dashes to avoid enemy patrols and helicopters. You are greatly outnumbered at every turn, but the Captain's years of experience tell him when to hide, when to run and when to shoot, and all you need to do is listen and obey.

About halfway through the level, you're following MacMillan through an open field when he suddenly shouts to "Get down!" and assumes a prone position. As you crawl through the weeds, you suddenly hear a low rumble ahead of you. You can't see clearly through the grass, but you make out the outlines of a few dozen soldiers escorting a group of tanks through the field, and they're heading straight towards you. There's nowhere to run and fighting would be suicide. The captain lies still in the grass, and orders you to "keep low and hold your fire." All you can do is try to anticipate their paths, then pray that they don't spot you through the ghillie suit. Time slows to a crawl as boots and treads miss you by inches. After what seems like an eternity they finally move on, never aware that the enemy was right at their feet.

I'm not a great writer, but I hope I've evoked for you a little bit of what I felt during this heart-pounding sequence, one that I won't soon forget. This kind of brilliant level design is a testament to the talent of the Infinity Ward team. If you're not much into military shooters but are curious how the scene played out in game, you can catch snippets of it from E3 2007 in this video.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sorry I Shot You, I Was Trying to Sprint

Video game enthusiasts have had a deluge of great titles to choose from this fall. What started building momentum back in August with the release of Bioshock is coming to a head in November, with hotly anticipated titles such as Assassin's Creed, Super Mario Galaxy, Mass Effect and Rock Band arriving within scant weeks of each other.

While I'm by no means a sucker for all shooter games, it so happens that I've picked up a few excellent ones in the last few months: Halo 3, Call of Duty 4 and The Orange Box (which includes Half Life 2, Team Fortress 2 and the brilliant Portal.) These games earned scores of 94, 95 and 96 respectively on Metacritic, and are each thoroughly enjoyable in their own way.

However, playing all of these games in such a short period of time has made me realize how little consensus there is among FPS games with regard to controls. The A button is commonly used to jump, and the left and right sticks control movement and aiming respectively, but from there things become muddled. Consider the following:

Half Life 2 Team Fortress 2 Halo 3 Call of Duty 4
B Reload Reload Melee Crouch
X Pick Up Taunt Use Equipment Reload
Y Flashlight Show Scoreboard Swap Weapon Swap Weapon
L Bumper Sprint Previous Weapon Select Grenade Type Throw Secondary Grenade
R Bumper Toggle Weapon Next Weapon Reload Throw Frag Grenade
L Trigger Secondary Fire Secondary Fire Throw Grenade Aim Down Sights
Click L Crouch Crouch Crouch Sprint
Click R Zoom Call for Medic Zoom Melee

To summarize:

  • Reload: A, X or Right Bumper.
  • Change Weapons: Y or Left/Right Bumper.
  • Throw Grenade: Left Trigger or Left/Right Bumper.
  • Sprint: Left Bumper or Click Left.
  • Melee: B or Click R.

Should there be one standard control scheme for shooter games? I don't think so. There's a reason I don't manually edit the default controls for most games: programmers design games with the control scheme in mind. For instance, the three types of grenades in Halo 3 all do the same thing: blow up and cause damage. Therefore, it's not important to map them individually. In Call of Duty, however, being able to choose between a flashbang and a frag in an instant is critical, so each warrants a unique button.

That being said, there are some key functions that could benefit from a little consistency:

  • Reloading is important in every FPS title, so it deserves a standardized button. I think X would work well, but using Right Bumper seems to be the new trend.
  • If meleeing is a game option, it should be available without changing weapons (I'm looking at you Team Fortress 2.)
  • Map infrequently used functions, such as Taunt or View Scoreboard, to the D-pad (again, Team Fortress 2 got this wrong.)

As the interface between manual and digital, it is absolutely crucial to get game controls right for a game to feel fluid and natural. Here's hoping that future designers keep this in mind, or I might be cursed to accidentally frag my teammates for the next decade.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gmail - Mark Spam Messages as Read

I had mentioned in an earlier post that I was mildly frustrated by the "new spam messages" counter in Gmail, mostly because I mistook it for the "new inbox messages" counter in my peripheral vision. Before my hard drive crash, I used a Firefox plug-in called Greasemonkey to hide the counter. This solution turned out to be inelegant when I realized that at work, at school, and on any computer other than my own I would still be visually assaulted by that silly counter. I decided then and there that there must be a better way.

Fortunately for me, there was. I had previously tried to go about using the remarkably versatile Gmail filters to mark all spam messages as read, but lacked an adequate description of what messages to mark. A closer look into Gmail search semantics revealed that I could use the keywords "in:spam" to refer to the all messages in my spam folder. Knowing this, I set up the following filters:

  • Has the words: in:spam
  • Doesn't have: my name, my school, my work, etc.
  • Do this: Mark as read

This filter simple and efficiently hides all new spam messages, while still alerting me when potential non-spam messages have been blocked. If you're as fussy as I am when it comes to Gmail, I hope that this little trick comes in handy.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Memento and External Memory


It had been in my movie backlog for ages, but I finally got around to seeing Memento this weekend (and absolutely loved it.) It's nearly a decade old, but here's a brief spoiler-free synopsis for the uninitiated: it's a story told chronologically backwards about Leonard Shelby, a man with short-term memory loss trying to avenge his murdered wife. To remember who people are, where he lives and what he's doing, he consults relevant notes and pictures in his pockets at all times, keeping the most vital information tattooed on his body.

While the character's handicap was extreme, I felt a strong empathy with his condition. I'm a forgetful person by nature and, like Leonard, am constantly relying on external memory to function. Text files, post-it notes, e-mails and address books have become my substitute for real memory. I hardly take the time to remember anything nowadays; birthdays, telephone numbers, assignment due dates and addresses are taking up less and less of my cerebral real estate.

It doesn't stop there; I am now reliant on the internet for information. I've hit ten Google searches and half a dozen Wikipedia articles in my twenty minutes of writing so far. My daily hits on both sites likely number in the hundreds, and twice as many when I'm programming. Having a wealth of information at your fingertips is a major boon, but my work is now dependant on it (as referenced by a recent xkcd strip.) When the internet goes down, I cringe at the idea of stooping to consulting the phone book, a real map, or my 40 year old Encyclopedia set.

While it's true that our grandparents' generation could dial a friend, get directions and long divide using brain power alone, is the relegation of our long term information storage and computation power to machines necessarily a bad thing? NY Times columnist David Brooks argues "no" in a recent article entitled "The Outsourced Brain."

Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.

What do you think? How do you use computers and the internet as a brain-extension in your daily lives? Is "outsourcing" our brain power helpful, harmful, or inevitable?

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada and the commonwealth, and Veteran's day in the U.S.A. In that spirit, I thought I'd take a moment to thank my cousin Adam. As an American / Canadian dual citizen, Adam was eligeable to sign up with the U.S. Marines. He has since served two tours as a sniper in Iraq, and is currently training to become an officer and military pilot. It takes a certain kind of man to volunteer to leave a peaceful and plentiful country like Canada for a country where bombings and gunfire are everyday occurances. Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan face terrible asymmetric warfare (IEDs, ambushes, suicide bombers and worse) from desperate guerrillas not bound by the Geneva Convention or international laws. Thank you for your incredible courage and sacrifice, Adam.

Soldiers and veterans deserve all of our support, since the government does not do nearly enough for returning soldiers (ex: one in four homeless people is a military veteran). Political speeches and flag waving don't do our courageous men and women any good. Here are a few organizations that are really making a difference:

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Three Days With a Mac


Earlier this week my laptop suffered a rather frustrating hard drive crash. I can't say that I didn't see it coming; I had a near-crash 2 months ago and my computer had been running exceptionally slowly lately. Fortunately for me I had backed everything up to my terrific 320GB external hard drive about a month ago, but I still lost a few dozen important files (including my copy of In Rainbows) that will require re-downloading.

While waiting for my new hard drive to arrive, I spent most of this week borrowing my dad's MacBook. My father is the kind of person that Apple has been aggressively marketing to these last few years: someone who is interested in what computers can do but doesn't have the inclination or the patience to learn the details of using them (the "I just want it to work" type). As such, this MacBook fits him like a glove; he hasn't even downloaded any new software for it, content to use first party applications such as iTunes, iPhoto, and Safari.

This week has been quite a learning experience; I know my way pretty well around Windows, but I have very little experience with OSX. While the two operating systems are almost identical in general terms, the little details often threw me off. For instance, it felt unusual to use the command key for shortcuts in lieu of Ctrl or Alt. The way in which OSX minimizes tasks took some getting used to as well. The biggest change by far was the single button mouse. A bit of Googling told me that OSX would recognize the two button mouse off my laptop, which was welcome relief. I understand Apple's logic; anyone who has tried to teach a loved one how to use a computer knows that they struggle with "which button do I press again?" troubles. A single button interface is much more accessible for beginners. However, it's ashame that Apple doesn't sell a first-party two button mouse, since their products are painstakingly colour-schemed and an ugly third party mouse destroys that.

I'll admit that I've toyed with the idea of switching to Mac. I've met enough OSX power users to know that Apple products aren't just for technophobes. I owe no particular loyalty to Windows, especially considering all the problems Vista is having. Furthermore, I could potentially use Bootcamp to dual boot XP should the need arise. Yet, all things considered, I just can't find any particularly compelling reasons to justify a change. Nothing on Apple's list of advantages, which should be enourmously biased in their favour, is that great. For instance:

  • "Awesome out of the box." That's sort of nice, but setting up a PC is a one-time hassle. Installing everything from scratch on my new hard drive has let me customize everything to my liking. In fact, the only program that had trouble with the hard drive jump was iTunes, which lost half of my album artwork.
  • "114,000 viruses? Not on a Mac." Using a combination of AVG Anti-virus, Spybot: Search & Destroy and Sygate Personal Firewall, which are all free and light on system resources, I'm essentially immune to spyware and viruses as long as I use common sense while downloading.
  • "Everything-ready." As I mentioned earlier, I could always dual boot XP for the programs that OSX can't run, but that seems like a hassle. I can count the number of times I've found software that doesn't work with XP on one hand. Many open-source and freeware applications are never ported over to Mac, not to mention most games.

For the moment, Apple has left me unconvinced. I think they make great products, and I'm glad that they've offered a gateway for people like my dad to get into computers, but it's just not for me. I'm quite content to milk Windows XP dry, then consider making the jump into Linux.

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Superstitions in MMOs

B. F. Skinner

Normally I try to resist the urge to make a post devoted entirely to linking to another article; adding the Google Reader widget was supposed help me develop discipline in that regard. However, this post about superstitions in MMORPGs from The Daedalus Project was just too excellent and funny to pass up.

Embarassing confession #1: I played Final Fantasy XI for over 2 years. As such, I can attest to the fact that the superstitions profiled in this article are held as articles of faith for most players. For instance:

One of the most persistent superstitions (and for all I know, it might be true) was that facing in certain cardinal directions would affect how your crafting came out. It was the perfect superstition, because it took so little effort to follow that even if it wasn't true, you didn't lose anything by acting as if it was true.

Whenever trying to make an item with a particular kind of Crystal, there were rumors that if your character was standing and facing, for example, Southeast with a Wind Crystal, they would be less likely to fail the synthesis and lose the crystal and items. I even once saw an entire investigative guide that said the directions to face were linked to the time of day in-game, and that each crystal had its own favored 'direction' depending on the time of day.

Embarrassing confession #2: Not only do I remember reading that guide, I timed my crafting to it more than once. One of the most prolific and succesful crafters on the Odin server (Mikesjustice) absolutely swore by it, claiming that's how he made so many HQ Haubergeons. I also remember eating a Lucky Egg in Dynamis on the off-chance that it might improve the odds of a Sorcerer's Petasos dropping, another silly superstition.

However, after laughing at the superstitions from other MMOs, I realized that the beliefs I held in FFXI were equally stupid. I believe I was aware at the time that they were dumb, but since most of them were easy to follow I did so "just in case". As the author put it:

Other people’s superstitions always seem crazier. When reading through the superstitions, I felt more sympathetic towards ones in games I’ve played and more likely to laugh at superstitions in games I haven’t played. But, of course, most of the superstitions are incredibly similar across games and I think reading superstitions from other games will help us think more seriously about the ones in the games we do play.

If you've ever played an MMORPG, I strongly urge you check out the whole thing, and even if you haven't the stories will give you a good laugh. Enjoy!

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