Thursday, December 30, 2004


I just saw this article in the New York Times and am unbelievably happy. It's not that I think the Pentagon's budget is too big, and that we should be working to reduce it...not at all. In fact, I'm perfectly happy for the Pentagon to get as much money as it thinks it needs to make sure that we have the most unfair military advantage on the planet.

I'm also not happy because I think this is going to make a difference in the budget deficit. Federal outlays this year are at $2.312 trillion dollars. These cuts would take $10 billion dollars off a year for the next six years, a mere rounding error. In fact, I've pointed out before that looking to defense and discretionary spending as the source of the budget deficit is nonsense given what a small percentage of that $2.3 trillion dollars they are.

Still, just because I think high levels of defense spending are worthwhile doesn't mean I think we should be throwing away that money. I was very happy when the Comanche was cancelled earlier this year, and now I am very happy that they are "sharply reducing" the F-22 program. While these two weapons might be fun toys, I'm not sure how useful stealth helicopters and stealth fighter jets are going to be against most of the enemies we are likely to face for the next generation or two.

What I'm Reading 

We All Know That TV Is Bad For Us: Or do we?
God, I just love articles like this, which point out the obvious things that people don't seem to know they already know.

Cory responds to Wired Editor on DRM

Another short piece by Cory Doctorow on DRM. He touches on what I brought up before, about having to buy media multiple times.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Notes on various movies 

For a variety of reasons, I've been watching many more movies than I've been able to write about. Rather than let this backlog become an excuse to not write any more, I'm going to just do away with all of the ones that come to mind with quick little blurbs so I catch up before my memory fades entirely.

One of Claire's friends pointed out that this movie is basically "Swingers for aging blue-staters." I think that's right on. It was funny, and it had a lot of good things to recommend it. I especially liked Paul Giamatti's performance. The downside is that it was a bit too long, and wasn't always entertaining me. Overall, good but not a must-see.

Ocean's 12
Another casual movie from an artist. It's good fun, and has a very different pacing than the first movie, with a twistier plot. The main heist is about as nonsensical as the first movie's was, and that makes it another cop-out in my book. This movie is so light that immediately afterwards, while leaving the theater, I attempted to explain a segment of the plot that Claire slept through, and found I just couldn't remember it.

This movie is uneven. That's the best word to describe it, I think. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have...Spanglish.

A Very Long Engagement
The brilliant Jean-Pierre Jeunet rounds up the usual gang and makes great film-making look easy once again. I didn't realize that the plot is basically structured as a mystery, and it's very interesting. I had a bit of a hard time keeping up with all the characters, probably due to the fact that it's subtitled (and all those dirty French World War I soldiers look basically the same in the trenches). Probably needs more viewings for me to fully pick up all of the character connections.

Meet the Fockers
Surprise: It's nowhere near as good as the original. The jokes are all telegraphed way ahead of time and involve contrived situations. It manages to squeeze out a few laughs, with some effort, but they're not great laughs. Ben Stiller's character no longer seems to smoke, and there's some convoluted reason that Robert DeNiro's character is basically raising his other daughter's baby son so that the movie can have some baby humor. He feeds the baby with a synthetic breast with working nipple that he has fashioned, if that gives you any idea how coherent the movie is.

Powerful, well-written, and well-acted. I thought Mike Nichols did a good job, but not a movie I'm eager to see again soon. Obviously, it's depressing.

Before Sunset
This movie is similar to Closer, it has just two characters, and the entire movie is talking about feelings and stuff. I liked this one a lot better, though (and I thought I'd hate it going in). I hadn't seen the predecessor, Before Sunrise, but I don't feel that that hurt the experience much, if at all. Ethan Hawke looks like a dork.

My Fear 

I saw mentioned today on Marginal Revolution that Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) has a new book coming out soon called Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed. The most interesting thing to me was Malcolm Gladwell's article on the book in the New Yorker, since Gladwell provides a preview of some of Diamond's arguments.

I read Guns, Germs, and Steel about a year and a half ago, and I thought it was really great, and I think Diamond made a very strong argument that I largely was convinced by. In fact, Collapse sounds like it has an argument that would convince me too. But there's something about the Gladwell article that is bothering me. I am afraid that the lesson people will take from this book is that societies fail or succeed based on how well they take care of the environment. In fact, the examples Gladwell passes on from Diamond are great examples of exactly that: the Norse on Greenland, the Easter Islanders, and the Rwandan genocide.

Here's what bothers me: These are all non-industrial societies. The fact that Rwanda is cited as a "modern example" is particularly troubling. According to the CIA World Factbook entry on Rwanda, "Rwanda is a poor rural country with about 90% of the population engaged in (mainly subsistence) agriculture." Of course the environment matters greatly to a nation like that, and to the other examples. That is a very different set of resource needs from a modern industrial society, however. No such countries have such a scarcity of food or water or other natural resources that they sit on the edge of a catastrophic environmental imbalance in the same way as these examples. In fact, one of the key points of Guns, Germs, and Steel was the way societies have evolved to have complex mechanisms like trade and markets that make the relative importance of such things for survival much smaller. Still, this is all related second hand, and since I believe the ridiculous example of Oregon was entirely Gladwell's, I am hoping that this is just getting filtered through a particular viewpoint on its way from Diamond to me. I do believe in the phenomenon Diamond describes, where societies can collectively commit suicide.

I am often, when I think about such things, terrified for the United States in this regard. I am not scared about our resource usage or the environment at all. Nor am I concerned about competition from foreign nations, who collectively don't seem to have as great an idea of how to run things as we do. What concerns me is that over time, we will, as we have been, lose touch with our understanding of what puts our own ecosystem in balance. This ecosystem includes our natural resources, but those are overshadowed by our man-made resources: our collective human capital, our personal freedoms and our drive to explore, be entrepreneurial, and risk failure.

Now, I hate to be a doomsday prophet, and liken the US to Rome at its height or anything like that. I don't think that's what's going to happen. Still, we do seem to be turning away from the path that brought us here. We don't have a great education system, and we don't seem likely to get one soon; not due to any necessary state of affairs, but apparently because we just can't bring ourselves to deal with the current problems. We seem more than ever to be uninterested in civil liberties, and willing to chip away at them or trade them in for increased government powers (totally neglecting the safety that we get from freedom from interference by the government). And standing before what could be the dawn of many promising, and yes, risky, fields, like aerospace engineering, biological engineering and nanotechnology, we are finding that we no longer have the taste for exploration and the risks that go along with it, and would rather fight such things.

This is our ecosystem, this is how we feed ourselves. I want to believe I'm wrong here. That I don't have to worry, because entrepreneurialism and the human urge to be free will always find a way. I'm just not sure that's true, given how successfully it has been beaten down in most of the world for most of time. What I actually believe is that the United States was a very difficult, lucky thing for the world to have, and it does not at all represent the natural state of affairs for societies. Like I said, I don't think our society is on the verge of collapse, or anything like that. I think the danger is that we'll gradually surrender freedoms, and underinvest in the long-term fundamentals of our economy, and turn away the best and brightest foreigners who want to work here because we are afraid of the competition/terrorism, and give in to vested interests that represent the past and not the future, and continue to work with a gigantic regulatory monstrosity until we look just like any other mediocre, mismanaged European country.

That's my fear, anyways.

Friday, December 10, 2004

What I'm Reading 

I totally loved this article on Tim Hunkin's webpage, which I found via Bruce Schneier's blog. Not only is it filled with a lot of cool information on how safe's are made and how they work, it also mentions how cool Richard Feynman was, and provides many other interesting bits of trivia.

The main point of the article was this: safes are pretty much impossible to break into these days. What jumped out at me, however, was why this is so. It's because for hundreds of years, people built safes, and the makers of safes would try to break into their competitors' safes to show how insecure they were. After a few hundred years of this, we wind up with safes that are filled with all sorts of unbelievable countermeasures, and can apparently protect their contents from an atomic blast.

So imagine that instead of allowing this to happen, governments had outlawed safecracking early on in the process. Robbers would continue to crack safes, since they were already doing something illegal. But now manufacturers would be unable to crack each other's safes, and presumably they are interested in obeying the law.

Now imagine that instead of safes we're talking about computer security products. I don't think I even need to finish this, or link to EFF.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Unclear on the Concept 

Gabe and Tycho at Penny Arcade are talking about Prince of Persia 2: Warrior Within, and it sounds like it's suffering from the most heart-breaking sort of sequel problem. Here's Gabe:

I guess people complained about the combat in the first game not being deep enough. They even said the final boss was too easy. These people didn't understand the game. Your enemy in the first game was the environment. You were battling against puzzles not monsters. The actual combat was there as a breather to give you a rest between puzzles. The final boss wasn't even the vizier it was navigating the last level without your sword. The level was the boss, not the guy at the end. So now they've beefed up the combat and they make you fight all the time. So they listened to the people who didn't like their game and totally fucked those of us who loved it. Thanks Ubi, you know a lot of people really hate all the sneaking around in Splinter Cell. Why don't you give Sam a dual Uzis and a rocket launcher?

I always hate it when this happens, in games or in movies. One of my favorite games ever, Marathon, suffered a horrible sequel. Instead of the empty, echoing rusted walls and cathedral-like chambers of the Marathon, Bungie set the sequel on some bright, gaudy, pastel alien planet. Someone I knew who met Jason Jones at a trade show told me that he was boasting that "now that they had better art, they didn't have to set the game in the dark to prevent you from seeing the awful textures anymore." I've always told myself that Jason Jones, if he really said that, was just being a good salesman for Marathon 2 at the time.

Also gone from Marathon 2 were all of the puzzles. Like a rat in a maze, sometimes a level's main difficulty was figuring out how the level was supposed to work while you were still stuck in it. Levels that required a little more thought than people were used to in a first-person shooter, like Smells Like Napalm, Tastes Like Chicken, Cool Fusion, G4 Sunbathing, Colony Ship for Sale, Cheap!, and Habe Quiddam, were missing (most of those maps, by the way, were designed by Jason Jones himself). The game added a shotgun and became what Marathoners used to hate: Doom. I'm complaining, but this was practically Bungie's sales pitch at the time.

Fortunately, the third Marathon, Marathon: Infinity was a bit better. Marathon 2's plotline was so horribly muddled, that they really didn't have anywhere to go. Marathon: Infinity's plot is really impossible to comprehend (which doesn't stop the alarming but harmless fans from trying to insert meaning into it). The game jumps around in time and space, and even makes liberal use of "dream sequence" levels. Still, by outsourcing the production of the game entirely to Double Aught software (which had some former Bungie employees and other Marathon fans on staff), the feel of the game was restored. The levels that take place on the alien planet had their textures toned down quite a bit; in a marvelous feat of artistry, Randy Reddig repainted all of the textures in the game at the last second in a way that left them completely compatible with the previous textures (ie, all of the switches and patterns on the textures remained perfectly aligned). The game also moved itself back into a cavernous, abandoned spaceship, and some of those levels were truly superb.

This isn't the only time this has happened in Bungie's past either. They followed up on the somber, majestic Myth by redesigning all of the sprites so that they looked more like some bargain bin generic medieval strategy game in Myth 2. The game lost its look and its mood entirely, as they added gimmickry like indoor levels, zombies, wolves, and a level with a pirate ship. A freaking pirate ship. They went ahead and lowered the resolution on all sprites as well, "so that they could put more frames of animation in," making Myth 2 one of the few sequels to look worse than its predecessor. Myth 2 was a complete disaster, and I'm probably going easy on it, since I couldn't even stand to finish the first level (I did play a few other levels as a beta tester, but I dropped out of the test because I just couldn't stand it).

Apparently Halo 2 is something of a disappointment as well, being way too short and ending abruptly with a cliffhanger ending, though I have not played it yet myself. I'm one of Bungie's biggest and oldest fans, and I think the reason is that they will tackle a tired game setup and bring some creativity to it, or they'll do something completely new. They show that any type of game can be fun if you have a good grasp of what fun is. I hated real-time strategy games until I saw Myth, the first game to be presented in 3D, and with an emphasis on battle tactics instead of resource harvesting. Hell, I even though Oni was fun, the first attempt at combining a fighting game with an adventure game, and using professional architects to design the settings. It was fatally flawed, yes, but it was still a very creative product that someone should revisit or rip off. As far as I can tell, the game was limited by its poorly designed engine.

Unfortunately, their sequels frequently drop the ball entirely, by failing to understand why their original game was so amazing in the first place. It also happens, as I have pointed out in the past, that there is a very high correlation between the amount of work Jason Jones does on a game and that game's quality (Jason Jones was deeply involved in Marathon, Myth, and Halo, but not Marathon 2 or Marathon: Infinity, Myth 2 or Myth 3, or Oni; I'm not sure how much of a role he had in Halo 2).

So, I'm very sorry to see this happen to Prince of Persia, since that game was truly fantastic. Ubisoft has probably been the best thing to happen to the Xbox, as they have faithfully provided their own version of any game that made me want a PS2, only they've made it better than the PS2 version. That is, I wanted ICO for PS2, but Prince of Persia was better; I wanted Metal Gear Solid 2, but Splinter Cell took the same idea and did it way better. It makes me wonder if Splinter Cell 2 was as messed up as Prince of Persia 2.

In any case, one game where that has not happened at all is Half-Life 2. It's hard to write a review of Half-Life 2, because by talking about the good stuff in it you're depriving the reader of the experience. Unbelievable things happen around you, and you truly feel like an action hero sorting it out.

Unfortunately, I've been very disappointed by Half-Life 2's deathmatch mode. It's not far from being fun, but it's definitely not as good as in the original Half-Life. Deathmatch mode was obviously done at the last second and as an afterthought. There are no deathmatch maps, just adapted singleplayer maps, and only two of those at that. Throwing things around in a deathmatch game isn't as fun as you might think it is. Often, something really fun does happen with the zero-point energy gun. A guy threw a barrel at me once at close range, and I caught it in mid-air and threw it back at him. It was immensely satisfying. More often, though, it's a frenzied free-for-all, with lethal objects flying about. There is very little strategy available in this setup, it just encourages you to fling stuff everywhere because you will hit someone easily. But you can't aim or move very well, since the large objects you are holding will block your view. The bookshelves and desks and barrels also tend to accumulate in doorways where someone couldn't get through with them, and it makes movement about the levels very annoying as you struggle to push things out of the way. The zero-point energy gun should unquestionably be a component of Half-Life 2 deathmatch, but the levels don't have to be so filled to the brim with debris to throw around.

Seeing how good recent games are looking, and the incredible growth of the game industry, I wonder if maybe this will eventually lead to an increase in the demand for architects. Certainly, architects have way more freedom in a purely virtual environment, and a good-looking game tends to sell better than a sloppy one. It might even be appealing to an artistic architect, as many architectural designs I've seen in an architecture school were simply not realistic structures to build. Plus, it might "bring architecture to the people," instead of requiring the people to go to the architecture. Surely letting people experience more art in their daily lives is a good thing. Unfortunately, I think that this would be seen as "cheap" compared to architects who build actual buildings, though I cannot understand why. In either case, the architect designs a computer model as his main task; it's in the hands of contractors or programmers after that.

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