A Game: Mass Effect (PC)

By all reasonable metrics, Mass Effect should be a thoroughly average game. Its FPS mechanics are mediocre at best, the vehicle portion of the game features a tank with laughably bouncy and unrealistic handling, many aspects of its interface are an exercise in frustration and its idea of a massive space station holding millions of inhabitants is a handful of sparsely populated rooms connected by elevators and corridors. Yet for all that it is still easily the best 2008 game that I’ve played so far this year and that’s because it’s a game that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Bioware’s latest and greatest RPG that was released for the PC only this year is a mishmash of game types. Superficially it bears a striking resemblance to its celebrated predecessor, Knights of the Old Republic, and indeed you can think of it as Bioware’s attempt to make another Star Wars RPG without actually having the rights to the license. However, instead of KOTOR’s turn-based combat mechanics that looked and felt real-time but were really determined by behind-the-scenes hit ratings and die rolls, Mass Effect is a fully-fledged, hit-box based FPS. In addition, certain segments of the game put you in control of the Mako, a sort of all-terrain wheeled tank armed with a cannon and a machinegun. At the same time, it’s also an RPG with a well developed story, nearly enough sidequests to rival Oblivion and a large amount of dialogue, all of which is wonderfully voice acted. Finally, you are given control of a starship with which to explore the galaxy and one of the many ways to earn money is to survey uncharted planets for resources. To long-time computer gamers, all of this is reminiscent of the classic game Starflight which is already sufficient reason to forgive many of the game’s flaws.

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Recent Interesting Science Articles (August 2008)

Four articles this month, though I have to admit that they’re more about technology than general science. The first and potentially most exciting of these is the news of Intel’s demonstration of technology to transmit power wirelessly. Personally I’ve always wondered when we would get around to accomplishing this. After all, in science-fiction shows like Star Trek, you never see long trails of wiring all over the place. Now that wireless transmission of data is easy, power cords are number one source of ugliness and mess with tech gadgets.

Anyone who’s watched Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige would also know that Nikola Tesla achieved this late in the 19th century. However, as the article explains, the trick isn’t in simply transmitting it, it’s in doing it safely and efficiently. The article talks about installing the system in airports and offices, but if it becomes cheap enough I can’t imagine why ordinary home users won’t want to be able to do away with pesky electrical wires as well. Still, our current troubles with neighbors stealing bandwidth from wireless networks are bad enough, just think about how troublesome it would be if your neighbors could steal your electricity supply as well!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The unexamined life is a life not worth living