Monday, November 30, 2009

Plants vs Zombies

(a review for the none of you who haven't played this yet)

Popcap have managed to create quite a reputation for themselves as being the creators of the most fantastic casual games in existence. Their titles so far have proven wildly succesful, and hugely fun. Well crafted, simple to play, they really are a gem to point at. Most of them, however, have been a tiny bit simplistic. Peggle is fun, but is basically shooting balls at stuff, and then watchig and taking credit for whats happening...

Plants vs Zombies is, perhaps, their first title to have a little more of an appeal to traditional gamer. Its a tower defence game, which involve the player placing towers to prevent a horde of enemies from reaching a certain point. Traditionally, tower defence games tend to have two elements: mazing (placing towers in such a way to force the enemies to take maximum damage), and economy(efficiently buying towers that compliment each other). This game introduces a new element instead of mazing- the zombies will directly attack your towers to get to the house. This is actually unusual among tower defence games.

The game, is bright, colourful, and easy to follow. It guides you carefully through the elements of its game, introducing new zombies and the plants to combat you. It teaches you the necessity of sun flowers, and the numbers required, while introducing more and more elements. Its not particularly hard, and I didn't have to redo a single level of the campaign, but there were some enjoyable close calls= it does make you work for victory. In addition to a campaign modes there are numberous mini-games which have fun takes on the concept, and survival modes that pit you against endless waves of the undead.

Are there flaws? The upgrade system is a little frustrating- theres a lot to buy, and not enough to buy it with, so there are plants you won't get until you've completed the entire game, rather defeating the point- but this seems to happen in most games anyway. It might be seen as too easy, but, again, the survival endelss mode really does provide a LOT of challenge. Also, while collecting sun is initially important to sustain interest, its a shame there couldn't be a sun collecter plant as a reward for getting further in the game, as it can be a little hard work to do so sometimes.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009


So this article mentions a law I hoped would vanish. That is, its a criminal offence for posession of a cartoon sexual image of a child. That is, if you draw a picture with a child having sex in any context, or keep such a picture, you are breaking the law.

Urgh? Now obviously these kind of pictures are quite offensive to view. They portray images of acts that are repellent. But murder is illegal, as is rape. There exist many graphic novels which portray such things. I understand that paedophilia plays to our most basic fears, but we can't punish people purely for their thoughts. Paedophiles are attracted to children, but this isn't inherently illegal. They want to do something that is forbidden by law, but it isn't until they actually bloody do it.

In the case of photos of actual children, you are in possession of images of acts that have broken the law, and by doing so you are supporting such acts. Thats fine, although a little slippery slopey. Where does it end? If someone was to write something about a child being abused in such a way, should they be punished? Or do we need evidence that they are enjoying such a story?

Laws like this are designed to appeal to the most tabloid feelings some have, and do not deserve to be on our statute. Its a sign that democracy is broken when laws that just do not make sense manage to pass through both houses with no problems.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Away we go

This is a film that I've been processing for a while. It, at its heart, is a funny, mostly sweet film, about a couple looking for a home for their child to be. The lead performances are charming and sweet, and entertain through most of the film.

The film plays as an oddessey. As an awful review by Toby Young pointed out (I will not give it the dignity of a link), it does not follow normal film telling rules. It meanders from story to story, presenting different styles of parenting, each one some kind of caricature. For the most part, when these are comedic, this works, but the film is.. a little surprising.

There are four encounters in total. The first two involve awful, and amusing people. The very first encounter is excellent, and hilarious. The second involves a little bit of a tired encounter, with Maggie Gyllenhaal playing a ludicrous earth mother style woman. Strangely, despite her being a gigantic ludicrous caricature, when the normally placid man finally snaps and shouts at them, I ended up feeling for Gyllenhaal rather than our leads.... She is a little patronising, but is hardly utterly awful. Oh well.

Next stop they go to a family which has literally escaped from the catalogue of wonderful families. This is an utterly surreal scene after the previous two, to the point where you assume the parents are going to show themselves to be awful. Instead you discover the reason they have adopted is because of their failure to give birth naturally. In the previous scene the leads declare that they are going to live in this city, but on discovering that their friend's lives are not utterly perfect (and they are pretty absurdly good), they bugger off. Lovely...

Finally we go to see a character who's wife has walked out in him on his own, leaving him to look after this child. Tonally again, its quite the shift. Its more underplayed than the previous encounter, and as such works a bit better, but still makes the film feel a little clunky.

This is a strange little film, that feels like it might have worked much better as a play. Its certainly funny in places, but doesn't always succeed when it attempts to be more dramatic.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

No Russian

I feel like posting about this, despite having read articles that express what I'm about to say far more eloquently. Rock paper shotgun had the best so far, I think.

So, a brief recap of what I'm talking about for those who are unaware of it. Call of Duty modern warfare 2 has a level in which you play a secret agent who has penetrated a terrorist organisation. To gain their trust you must participate in an attack on civillians at an airport. You can watch it here.

You know what I felt, watching this level? Very little. I've seen this before. In Grand theft auto you can maim, cause havoc and destruction, and frequently do. Usually you will mow down innocents simply so you can inspire the police to chase you. Of course, the point is, you, as the player, know these aren't human beings. You realise they are sprites, little moving targets with no connection to reality whatsoever. Its a game. Call of Duty is trying something more.

It sort of always has. There is a mission in the first game in which you play out the assault on stalingrad (or was it leningrad. Name fail). You are issued ammo, and no gun. The beginning is blisteringly hard, and it helps underline to you the true costs of that war, as you fight and others fight beside you. You are playing out a real event, and as such, during the many death scences you will encounter, you realise that not everyone gets to respawn.

This, however, is trying to evoke... what exactly? That the murder of innocents is bad? We already knew that, and you could just show us the murder of innocents, not make us a participant in it. So us being a participant must matter, but I can't really see how. It could be talking about agency and choice, but the choices you make in this scence really make very little difference. The other terrorists ignore you no matter what you choose to do, leaving the choice to join in to mow down civillians one based on how real you feel the scene is (it isn't, by the way... almost all airports have guards with submachine guns. Walking very slowly shooting through an airport will get you killed in short order).

There is no chance to empathise with the terrorists here. They are murderers, with no real agenda on display, nothing to humanise them there. With that possibility drained, this is just a pointless exercise. You don't even know who exactly you are meant to be getting close to- what atrocity you are trying to prevent that is worse than the one you are partaking in. As the rps article says, this could possibly be a statement about the foolishness of blindly following orders, but its simply not smart enough for that.

I guess its just a failed experiment then. Expecting more out of such a popcorn game may have been asking a bit too much...


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Birds

Film critics love Alfred Hitchcock. Which is understandable- the fellow was a master of film after all. Yet this sometimes allows them to ignore its flaws. Every time I head The Birds mentioned in the same level of reverence as Psycho, I sigh. Yes, there is some lovely direction in terms of the camera, but when you have

-a hokey plot
-incredibly dated special effects
-awful acting

what you get is a BAD film, no matter who is behind the camera....

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Star Wars updates

Funny stuff


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A bit of radicalism

I'm not sure what the government thinks it has to lose. Throughout its time in power, new Labour has been timid about social redistribution. It has done it, certainly, but has hidden its moves, and been afraid, always afraid, of raising taxes. Labour has made friends with those in power, has become complicit in their structures. This has worked well for them.

Until now. They are heading towards a loss in the next election, and their former allies are disconnected them. Whats more, public anger at bankers and the rich has never been larger. So now would be a brilliant time, to, you know, be radical. Lets put the tax burden on the top 10%. Lets raise taxes, lets redistribute wealth. Lets destroy those harmful havens. Lets recognise that these people aren't creating wealth, they're leeching it. Lets make society a little bit more fair. What would be brilliant about this is that it would completely throw the conservative party. The conservative party, for all their big words, are about as ready to shake the status quo as, well, a conservative. The conservatives are truly as reactionary as they ever have been, but they don't really need to provide alternatives, because the answers that this government give are insipid and anemic.

Lets put fire in the bellies of those who want to vote for Labour, and actually make a change. Please?

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Railroading in rpgs

So my players recently acquired the macguffin they needed, only to have it snatched from their hands. Stepping outside they were confronted with a force they could not defeat, and were tied up and their object stolen. Now the question is, was this railroading?

I suspect some of my players might argue that it was, but I disagree. First of all, there were very good reasons for the people to be there (that my players are currently unaware of)- they didn't magically appear, although it did seem like they did. Second of all, the players weren't actually forced to do something. There were several ways they could react. I admit, I wanted them to react by giving up the macguffin, as it leads to a fun little arc that'll tie us up for christmas, but if they hadn't, they might have escaped. They didn't try in the end, and it would have taken some ingenuity, but I probably would have allowed it. (if they had done so I probably would end the session to plot out how that might go instead, as we were near the end anywhere). They also had the option of charging into a fight. I had made it very clear that the odds were unbeatable, but one of the advantages of WFRP is that if the players do do something quite so stupid, you can just deduct a fate point each and keep on playing, while in other systems the mechanic isn't quite there.

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A short note

This one goes out to certain D&D optmisers out there.

-No its not roleplaying
-No theres not a great deal of difference betwen you and munchkins
-So help me, if you call it "kung fu" again, I will end you.

... I may have spent too much time on the order of the stick forums of late.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

I did have a rather good selection of films on my journey back and to America. This is another film reviewed on a plane that I would have prefered to have seen on the ground. Directed by Ryan Johnson, the director of Brick, this is a con movie that is less about the con than the people (although isn't that always the way?). There was a lot of talk about similarities to Wes Anderson, and while some reviewers have distanced themselves from this notion, I can sort of see it. However, where Johnson succeeds and Anderson does not is in making his characters relatable.

This film can be very funny, with the strong female cast of Rachel Weisz as Penelope, who I don't think I've ever failed to enjoy watching on screen, and Rinko Kikuchi as the consistently hilarious Bang Bang. The tale follows our characters living out a fantasy. While the film is set in the modern world, its easy to forget it at some points, as the characters find themselves in trains that have escaped from the 30s.

There are flaws though. The cons that happen are a little too twisty for me: the ending is meant to have an emotional twist, and yet thanks to all thats come before you end up wondering if the assumptions the characters make are correct. The main flaw for me, though, is that I found Adrien Brody's character rather unrelatable. Brody plays a con man who has become disaffected, but I get the feeling he always was. I never got the feeling that he was a great con man, who was crying on the inside, because he spent most of the film listless and complaining. He always seemed utterly reluctant, which made it unclear as to why he kept going along with his brother's schemes.

Still, an enjoyable fantasy, with some great performances. I would happily see this one again. I suspect that without a weight of expectation I might find the experience more agreeable (and I probably won't be on a plane at the time!)

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Experimental design

I enjoy making long blog posts about subjects which no-one will understand. So for your(lack of) entertainment, heres a mini-post on experimental design, the field of my research:

Most scientists, at some point, will need to perform experiments. Typically the process they are looking at will not be devoid of error. That is, when you measure someones height, you are unlikely to a-get the same answer each time and b-get the correct answer (most people would round up to 1cm at least, which imposes inaccuracies in your measurements). Such errors mean that even if you are certain as to what causes the process, your predictions would be out by some amount.

Such errors can usually be given a probability distribution, and we want to do our best to minimise these, so our predictions can be as accurate as possible. If we have a model to describe a process, we might know the form, but not the parameters of said model. Lets suppose we have a model for the temperature of a meal. We say that

temperature=a+b*time cooked for. We know age, and we can measure height, but for us to make predictions we need the values of a and b. Well we can run experiments, cooking our items for certain amounts of time, and then measuring the temperature. If there was no error, there would be no need to run more than two experiments, as we could perfectly estimate these parameters. However, we exist in the real world, and experimental error is a fact of existence. So lets suppose our food can be baked for between 10 and 200 minutes. If we had 10 cakes to test this with, a naeive approach might be to take these evenly spaced across time. In fact if you use statistical theory you can do much better, and take 5 observations at 10 minutes, and 5 at 200. Why? Well we only have two things to estimate, a and b, so we only need to take a minimum of two observations as we know. The thing we need to estimate here is the amount of error in our estimations, so repeating our observations at these point helps to minimise it.

This result is counter-intuitive, and important, because it extends. If we had two things we could vary (time cooked and weight of cake), an instinct for many experimenters would be to vary only one thing at a time- so look at changing time, while holding weight fixed, then holding time and varying weight. The best thing to do is to vary both at once, because this allows you to see if weight and time are interacting in any way.

Now this is an extremely simplistic look at the subject, with lots of the subtlties glazed over, but some important things to note are:

Experimental design has been demonstrated to be effective in multiple situations. Given a set of goals the experimenter wants to acheieve, statisticans can almost always find a design that will do better than the experimenter currently use.
Huge amounts of scientists are completely ignorant of this field.

Its an interesting field, with many problems left to solve, and one that most people, including many mathematicians, are entirely ignorant of.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A puzzle wrapped in an enigma

Ah, my usual dilemma, statistical programming. It seems a large portion of what I do is not to actually consider the theory, but to actually utilise it. The problems I look at tend to be rather complex and spikey, and to apply the theory to them can be a difficult thing to do. As the day continues my attempts become more and more desperate. Inevitably, as always happens, the solution will come when I look away from the problem, let it stew, and come up with a new direction with which to attack it. Sadly it seems this epiphany must be underlined by frustration in the mean time.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Monsters versus Aliens

I made a terrible mistake the other day. I foolishly suggested watching a non-pixar animated film. Now admittedly it was one that had come well recommended by certain critics, leading me to believe that it would be an enjoyable romp. Sigh....

Lets start with the animation. Apparently dreamworks haven't managed to work out how to animate humans yet, which is a pity as this film is full of them. Failing to hit any kind of style which might make looking at the humans tolerable, instead we are punched in the face with the uncanny valley, as we stare at the character's cold dead eyes.

The film itself is.. odd. I'm not entirely sure who the humour is meant to be pitched at. There is an extremely childish quality to most of the jokes, but often it is given in terms that would go over the head of anyone too young. There are rather blatant film references here, and while occasionally the jokes are clever, they usually go for the easiest gag, draining most situations of humour.

A disappointing film for a promising set up, I'm sure this will appeal to children, but I don't see how theres much for adults here at all.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Sigh ISS, just sigh...

So I have a laptop provided to me by the university, on which I do work, and... well, blogs, which is all well and good. Of course, thanks to ISS, our tech support, all is not well. I have all ready documented several failings of this laptop before, but the most recent one was quite impressive.

I disconnected from the university connection to work at home, at which point the laptop bleated at me that I had over used my profile space. I found this unlikely, as at the time I was connected to the internet, and my hard drive certainly was not full. This warning means you cannot log off, or even turn off your laptop. So I searched in vain for the offending files.

I finally solved the problem today. While I had tried to use windows search to find the directory I was looking for, the internet told me that apparently it was in my user profile space. Looking there, I still couldn't find the directory... so I made the hidden files visible, and was finally able to delete enough of the sodding things.

Ideally, if you are going to make someone have to watch how much data accrues in a folder, it might be a good idea not to make those files INVISIBLE.....

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Apparently I'm a drug dealer?

I received this text from an unspecified number

"Hello, I used to pick up off kieran, is there any chance of getting an eigth this evening?

So, three options present themselves

1-This is a practical joke by someone I know
2-Someone has inexplicably taken my number of a friends phone, and assumed I am the same drug dealer they went to in the past
3-I live a double life, and am unaware of my drug dealing alter ego.

The third seems the most likely...

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worst video game acting

rather amusing video

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Bonus for MOD officials

So civil servants at the MOD got bonuses this year (of an average of around 1000 pounds... which is hardly crazy), while we fight in Afghanistan and there are stories of shortfalls in equipment over there. This will no doubt infuriate people who have lost someone there, and that is fair, but civil servants are not politicians.

The role of a civil servant is to support the serving government to the best of their abilities to enact policy. It is not their role to decide what policy might be, and they certainly do not decide budget expenditure. It is clear that a system in which the pay of civil servants is tied to the success of the government is an extraordinarily poor one is not a good idea. This is effectively what we propose when civil servants are denied bonuses because of government decisions they could not affect (well, I'm sure they actually could, but if the system works, then they shouldn't be able to).

This is the difference between bonuses for bankers and for civil servants (other than the scale of pay). Bankers clearly failed in multiple ways, and are directly responsible (along with permissive government) for the finanical state we find ourselves in. The civil servents did their job to the best of their ability. It is NOT their fault that we are in Afganisatan or that soliders do not have the best equipment. That isn't their job. I have no idea how well they have been performing in their given roles- presumably well enough to be given bonuses.

Its a contentous issue, and one to tread carefully around, but civil servants shouldn't really be dragged into politics in this way.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Stephen Fry for prime minister

Are you kidding me? People of Britain, are you really kidding me? Do you really think government is that easy? That making those tough choices, and having the guts to enforce them, comes naturally? That the politicans we have are really all souless? Ruling the country is a tough job, one of the toughest, and requires more than being generally witty and rather smart. Stephen Fry is an excellent man, perhaps even a national treasure if you want to use those embarrasing words, but he is not fit for ruling this country. Do most of you even know his politics? I imagine you wouldn't agree with them- I imagine I wouldn't.

Do you know his history? Because I think if we knew Gordon Brown spent his youth stealing, got into Cambridge basically on the word of his priveleged mother, and was shown to be a manic depressive, I'm guessing some people would suggest he was not fit for rule. I am by no means suggesting these things make Stephen Fry terrible. Clearly not, but they make him a flawed man, as we all are. He is not a paragon of justice, simply because he's funny and hosts QI, he is a decent human being, certainly, but that is not all you need to rule the country.

Look at Gordon Brown. The man did well as our chancellor (yes, technically he led us into a recession, but considering our political system seems to be set up to do that, its not greatly surprising), and seemed to be a masterful politician. Yet being the prime minister has destroyed him. He has been unable to govern, unable to think clearly, unable to spin stories. He has made policy mistake after policy mistake which has allowed the press to tear him to pieces. Do you believe Stephen Fry is different? That when he makes a choice that is controversial, he will not be attacked? That he will be able to spin the press, keep his back benches in line, hold his cabinet stead fast against the baying media wolves?

No. Please don't indulge in ludicrous fantasy, its damaging to democracy and your credibility. And don't even get me started on people who want Jeremy bloody Clarkson...

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Monday, November 09, 2009


Moon was one of two films I watched in full on a plane to America. Plane films are always interesting experiences. You are uncomfortable, distracted, and the screen tends to be rather tiny. All in all, it doesn't make for a cinematic experience. Like Adaption, another film I saw on a plane (and utterly failed to follow), Moon is not really the perfect film for this experience. It is a wholly depressing film, a pondering on existence and the meaning of self, that has no easy answers.

Following a character on a lonely mission mining the moon, certain... strange events happen. The film is deliberately baffling initially, but soon makes sense. The explanation is mundane for science fiction, but is central to the story, and is vitally important. As such I shan't be giving it away- the film really is something to experience yourself. It is a high recommendation that despite the unfilmic experience I had watching this film, it is clearly great. It is a film about ideas, and completely unafraid of that. It doesn't feel the need to throw in larger than life scenes, and is happy to just tell a story. As such it feels like something a little rarer these days, and reminds me of film making from the 70s.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Human Rights Act

Signing up to the human rights act was one of the best things that this government ever did. It sometimes tires me out to hear people decry such a bill. It only gives rights to criminals, they proclaim.

Well... no, it gives rights to those accused of a crime. These are typically the people who need their rights protected. The police, and the government, are not typically greatly interested in due process (I know, I'm obsessed), and need the law to protect them. Its all too easy to get convinced of a suspect's guilt because of a certain way they acted, or way others have acted in the past. The impartial process of law is important, and the human rights act helps protect it against the tyranny of government. Consider the number of illiberal laws the government passed as a consequence of 9/11, which were intended to circumvent our legal system. It is clear that, given the chance, government would like to ignore due process.

People talk a lot about "victims rights", a curious thing to focus on. Victims of crimes are, of course, deeply unfortunate people who the government should support, through councilling and compensation. But there is no need for them to have a measure as to whether they have as many rights as the accused. They have the same amount of rights, and were they to be implicated in a crime, they could take advantage of them as well.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

A rant on due process

Gordon Brown was never elected prime minister. That's ok, because nobody really is- the president would be an elected position, the prime minister never has been. Of course, its a shame that our prime minister has an absurd amount of power. In the US the legislature, excecutive and judiciary are split into seperate bodies of government, to allow for a set of checks and balances. Over here, at least until recently, they were all in one house. In addition, thanks to the prime minister effectively inheriting the powers of our sovereign, the prime minister can go to war without consulting parliament.

All in all, its a funny system, and leads to Gordon Brown having absolute power despite never having won an election. It means he can do things like make people who save him from having to resign into incredibly powerful people. I am talking, of course, about Peter Mandelson. Mandelson has had to resign from government not once, but twice, thanks to scandals on finance. He was and is one of the sleaziest individuals tied up with new labour. Thanks to Labours reform of the house of lords, in which they managed to make it even less democratic than it was before, he now will sit in the house for the rest of his life, and sits on almost all of the Labour committees.

So, a little bit of back story there. Now in latest news, Mandelson wants companies to cut internet access to those illegally downloading files. Hmm. Now, I could be wrong, but I thought we lived in a country which had some pretense at due process and law. Typically, if we have evidence that someone has broken the law, we either prosecute them, and if they are found guilty a judge will sentence them. For example, if we have video footage of someone shoplifting, we might take them to court, or might let them off with a warning. What we wouldn't do is ban them from going into shops.

This government have been in power too long. They have always had a slight arrogance of belief that they are incorruptable, and in more than one instance in the past, have seeked to free themselves from petty things like respect for the law. I simply cannot vote for a party that has lost its way as much as Labour has over the past 12 years.

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