My wife and I have been in Kota Kinabalu for three months now, so I thought that it’s time for a quick update. Notably, the inclusion of Spidey, our dog, into our lives. We bought her at the Gaya Street Sunday market about two months ago. At that time, the seller told her that she was two months old and lied to us that she was actually a male puppy, presumably because most buyers would be more hesitant to buy a female puppy. Yeah, that means both my wife and I did a terrible job of checking up on the puppy’s actual gender. So much for being dog lovers huh?

After we got her home and got to know her a little, we couldn’t bear to give her back so we decided to keep her anyway. We’d actually picked the name “Spidey” for her when we thought she was a male puppy, but we decided to keep that name as well. As you can see from the above photograph taken just a day after we first bought her, she looked so tiny, with her body only slightly longer than the length of a hand. She was also very timid and somewhat lethargic on the first day. My wife said that she’d heard that some sellers keep their puppies tranquillized while selling them so they wouldn’t look too naughty or difficult to handle to potential buyers.

Continue reading Spidey

A Game: Assassin’s Creed (PC)

For a game that got into the news so often for all the wrong reasons, beginning with the torrid Jade Raymond affair, to complaints about the unfamiliar controls to the early leak of the PC version and Ubisoft’s subsequent decision to sue the source of the leak for a ridiculous sum of damages, Assassin’s Creed turned out for me to a surprisingly good game. After all, the basic premise of the game sounds fantastic: play as a member of the Hashahin, the original brotherhood of assassins from which the English word “assassin” is itself derived, in the sand-box environment of the Holy Land while the Crusades are raging. There is plenty to be impressed with by this game, so it’s all the more disappointing that it gets so many basic elements so wrong.

First the good stuff. Most of the player’s time is spent controlling Altair, who starts out as an accomplished but somewhat cocky member of the brotherhood. The brotherhood’s aim, as stated by its leader Al Mualim,  is to achieve peace in the Holy Land, and as such Altair is sent to assassinate critical targets from both sides of the war, Saracen and Crusader, in order to put an end to the fighting. And I’m not joking when I say that Altair is an accomplished assassin. He can navigate the environment so well, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, clambering up walls and barrelling through crowds that he’d put Lara Croft to shame. He can walk up to a target and effortlessly kill someone so quietly with a hidden blade that someone standing ten paces away won’t even notice. All of these feats are easy to accomplish with the controls, even if they are a bit esoteric and take some effort to learn. Some critics have complained that the near-automatic execution of the parkour-style moves, since Altair will always perform the move most appropriate to the context and the environment, sacrifices actual gameplay for cool visuals. I heartily applaud it however. If I’m supposed to be controlling a skilled assassin, I don’t want to fight the controls to do the cool moves, I want to just be able to tell Altair what I want to do, and he’ll do it.

Continue reading A Game: Assassin’s Creed (PC)

Prince Charles as anti-GM luddite

I was amused to read Prince Charles’ rather hot-blooded diatribe against genetically modified crops earlier. Given how stupid his entire argument is, it isn’t very surprising how much criticism he has been getting over it. I don’t really feel like going into detail over it, so I’ll content myself with these two points:

  1. The entire history of agriculture consists of genetically modifying crops and even livestock so that they are more suited for human purposes. Wild plants needed to be domesticated so that they could become the familiar crops that we know of today. The gigantic aurochs had to be domesticated into the docile cows we now have. Farmers regularly performed cross breeding experiments in order to try to get more desirable crops. Without these developments, there would be no civilization as we know it. Of course, I realize that what Prince Charles really means is that by manipulating the genetic structures of organisms directly rather than through selective breeding and cross breeding, there may be additional, unforeseen dangers. Even so, the correct thing to do is to monitor and control for those dangers, because in principle there is no difference. Both methods end up altering the genome.
  2. As the article notes, this attack on GM crops comes during a global food crisis, when human populations all across the world need the higher and more reliable yields of the most advanced, genetically modified crops more than ever. Remember that the United States has been consuming these so-called GM crops for decades with no measurable ill effects, which helps to explain their lower food prices compared to Luddite Europe. So do you think poor Asians and Africans should follow the American or the European example?

Finally, I giggled at Prince Charles’ attack on intensive agriculture by large corporations. Maybe he thinks that everyone should grow their own food in their own backyard or something? It’s one thing for a rich royal to boast about his own organic farm, try selling that idea to densely populated and still relatively poor Asia.

A Book: Hyperion

It was vaguely man-shaped but in no way human. It stood at least three meters tall. Even when it was at rest, the silvered surface of the thing seemed to shift and flow like mercury suspended in midair. The reddish glow from the crosses etched into the tunnel walls reflected from sharp surfaces and glinted on the curved metal blades protruding from the thing’s forehead, four wrists, oddly jointed elbows, knees, armored back, and thorax. It flowed between the kneeling Bikura, and when it extended four long arms, hands extended but fingers clicking into place like chrome scalpels, I was absurdly reminded of His Holiness on Pacem offering a benediction to the faithful.

I had no doubt that I was looking at the legendary Shrike.

– Dan Simmons in Hyperion

As an avid fan of science-fiction, I’ve read just about all of the classics of the genre. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is one of the exceptions, so it was with some pleasure that I came across a copy of it while browsing at a bookstore at Warisan Square here in Kota Kinabalu. I’ve already had some familiarity with the plot, having read one or two of Simmons’ short stories based on the same setting in various anthologies, but this was the first time that I’ve actually read the book, and I have to say that it deserves every bit of the many accolades it has been given.

Continue reading A Book: Hyperion

Consumer’s Association of Penang calls for ban of GTA

I recently learned that the President of the Consumer’s Association of Penang wrote a letter that was published in The Star calling for Malaysia to follow Thailand and ban the Grand Theft Auto games. Anyway, I sent off an e-mail in reply. Here’s the full text, though I doubt that the CAP will care much about what I write.

Consumers Association of Penang.

I have writing in response to your letter published in The Star on the 8th August 2008 calling for a ban on a video game you call “Grand Theft Auto”. I disagree with your letter in its entirety and take issue especially with the implicit stance that it is necessary, even desirable, for a government to restrict the freedoms of its adult citizens for their own purpoted good. However, I realize that I am not going to win any arguments against you on this matter, and so I shall concentrate on the factual errors in your letter.

  1. You write that the said game has been banned in Thailand. To the best of my knowledge, the game has not in fact been banned by the government of Thailand, instead its distributor has voluntarily withdrawn it from being sold.
  2. You refer to the incident in Thailand as a copycat crime. After reading a report of the incident published in Thailand (http://www.bangkokpost.net/040808_News/04Aug2008_news002.php), it is evident that it is not a copycat crime. That article contains errors as well, referring to the game in question as an online game when it is not, but it is nevertheless clear that the game is merely being used by the criminal as an excuse to rob taxis for money. Apparently he mentioned needing the money to play GTA every day, which makes no sense because GTA is not an online game which requires an ongoing subscription to play.
  3. You write that violent video games have previously been linked to expressions of violence and aggression in young people. You have not cited specific research papers in support of this point but I concede that it is true that many research papers have noted correlation between real-world aggression and video game playing. However, correlation does not equal causation and the correlation may exist simply because people who are already aggressive naturally gravitate towards violent video games. Read this Wikipedia article for an overview (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_controversy).
  4. You write as if officially banning the game in Malaysia would have any effect at all. It would not, since the vast majority of games in Malaysia are pirated. Ironically, by writing about this in a local newspaper you have just raised the game’s profile and ensured that many more people will be inclined to check out a pirated copy of it.
  5. By citing by the game’s undue  influence on young people, you imply that young people are the target audience. The game carries a Mature rating by the ESRB in the United States. If no equivalent ratings system exists in Malaysia, then that is a failing that should be rectified, but this is does not amount to justification for banning the game entirely. In fact, like many other non-gamers, you seem to labour under the misconception that games are for the young and hence must be regulated in that manner. This is not true. For example, in the U.S., the average gamer is aged 35 (http://www.theesa.com/facts/index.asp). As an adult gamer, and being proud of it, I resent your suggestion that you have the right to determine what is or is not good for me.


Wan Kong Yew

Anime Contacts

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with my wife about how infuriating I find young girls posing for photos by opening their eyes wide, pouting their lips, tilting their heads at an angle and flashing the V-sign with their fingers. I find them so repulsive and ridiculous that I assiduously avoid sites like Myspace and Facebook which seem to be infected by them.

Well, guess what, now they’ll get to be even more infuriating thanks to the ever-inventive Japanese. Someone had the bright idea of making extra-wide contact lenses, so that girls can now have the huge, insect-like eyes of anime characters. Can someone please tell these girls already that no, all this does not make them look cute and attractive?

Recent Interesting Science Articles (July 2008)

I haven’t been as up to date as I should this month, but nonetheless I have three articles. The first and the most exciting one is the announcement by NASA confirming the presence of water on Mars. Now, we’ve had indirect evidence of water for a while now, but this is the first time that a robot, in this case the Phoenix, has actually tasted it by melting a piece of ice. The next step will be to bring it to even higher temperatures to try to find any traces of carbon-based compounds.

Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (July 2008)

The unexamined life is a life not worth living