In the Loop and out of the Bubble

•May 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In the Loop and out of the Bubble is a series I’ll bring out whenever I feel like I’m overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I don’t know about the world. I’ll pick a few big news stories, try to summarize them as best I can, and provide links to a few useful resources. I’ll be the shorthand-delivery Wikipedia. Enjoy!


The BP Oil spill

Image source

What happened:

On April 20th an oil-rig off the Gulf Coast of the United States suffered a massive failure and subsequent crippling explosions. The failure was caused by a damaged gasket that couldn’t hold down the pressure of the gas and oil allowing back flow that caused the explosions in the main generators of the rig. 11 people were killed, and the disaster caused and is causing thousands of barrels of oil a day to jet into the Gulf.

The players:

British Petroleum (BP) – They own the drilling rights and are the company at the top of the profit and authority ladder. They contracted a company called Transocean to drill the well. BP is the 3rd largest energy company and 4th largest company in the world.

TransOcean (TO) – The contractor working for BP while the disaster happened.

The Federal Government of the United States: The Obama administration has been attempting to compile teams of scientists to try to figure out how to stop the dangerous flow of oil. Also they were involved in the law enforcement since the disaster due to the possibility of terrorism being the cause of the disaster.

The Problems:

There have been several reports of widespread negligence, corner-cutting and miscommunication throughout BP.

Image source

Apparently hundreds of engineering documents required to be screened and approved before underwater operations could commence went unchecked. This is true of the Gulf spill, and at least one other rig owned by BP. The faulty gasket seems to be the crux of the debacle as both BP and TO are skirting blame. The most compelling information comes from a man who survived the blast and did an interview for 60 minutes. He had an inside view of what happened and how.

60 minutes interview

Recent news:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126886059 – modest improvement

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/05/first-underwater-images-of-bp-oil-spill-wont-show-video.php – first images

(Keep up with the Daily Show and the Colbert Report to also get the latest)

What’s happening in Thailand

Image source

What’s happening:

(Via CNN.com) Thaksin Shinawatra was the Prime Minister of Thailand from 2001-2006. In 2006 he was removed in a “bloodless” coup. The Red Shirt protestors that you may have heard of by now, support Shinawatra. Shinawatra stayed active in Thai politics which is why he is afforded the support he feels now. the current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva  has been embroiled in scandal and accused of taking an illegal donation of $8m dollars from a private company (this accusation is still under investigation). This of course did not go over well with those in support of Shinawatra or a democratic government in general. On April 10th the red Shirts stormed parliament after the current Prime Minister declared a state of emergency in lieu of the increased tension with opposition protesters.   Since then the protests and violence has escalated costing several dozen lives.

The players:

The Yellow Shirts – They were among the first to protest the current political climate with the large-scale protest that closed Thai airports. The Yellow shirts were in support of the original ruling of Thailand and the Yellow was in honour of the colour of Monday, the day on which the king was born.

The Red Shirts – They chose red to differentiate themselves from the Yellow shirts. These protesters are in opposition to the current elected government. They stormed the parliament on April 10th and have been the major force in the clashes raging through out Bangkok.

The Multi-coloured shirts – These protesters dawning different colour shirts are in opposition to all the clashes and unrest. They have clashed with Red Shirts recently and are calling for the government to quell the civil unrest.

The Problems:

Where to begin? The incumbent government is attempting to stave off an investigation related to illegal election contributions, there is civil unrest that some say is bringing the country to a possible civil war (this claim needs to be taken with a grain of salt however), and the more attention the country gets the more things seem to escalate.To add to the tension the Red Shirt leader was recently shot critically wounded. The military denies shooting the protest leader, but this hasn’t convinced the opposition.

Useful links:

http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/thailand – General info about the protests

http://edition.cnn.com/2010/BUSINESS/05/14/battle.bangkok.economy/index.html – the protest and the Thai economy

http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/04/25/thailand.protests/index.html

http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/05/13/thailand.anti-government.protests/index.html?hpt=T1

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/7724262/In-pictures-Thailand-protests-turn-deadly-as-troops-clash-with-Red-Shirts-in-Bangkok.html – Pics from the protests

Image source

Without being there and knowing more about the situation, we can only see things through the lens of the media at hand. People have died and things are serious, but maybe it’s not as bad as we think. Or perhaps it’s worse. One thing to appreciate is that it’s worth following. Keep an eye on this one.

Please comment with any more info or corrections!

GRG

One Shot! A quick dose of science.

•May 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

One shot is a series that’ll pop up from time to time. It’s basically just a quick sampling of what I’ve found surfin’ the webs lookin’ for science. Remember, I found these after only surfing for a few minutes. Keep digging and you’re bound to find tons of stuff you’ll enjoy!

1) Scientists have found a hole in space, via Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog.

(insert hole in underwear joke here)

While observing a star-forming region of space, scientists found a region that should have been emitting some radiation, but was not. Sounds simple, but that means that there is really NOTHING there. Take a gander to have your understanding of the universe that much more confused.

2) How bad is the oil-spill? via Scientific American’s podcast, “60-second” science

60-second science is a really easy way to get caught up on the latest science news around the world. It’s 60-seconds, concise and informative. There is also a written transcript to accompany the audio. This time around they discuss the scale of the oil spill in the Gulf and relate it to other large spills around the world. It’s pretty frightening stuff.

3) New wound-healing technique using green laser light promises less scarring and better wound recovery (photochemical healing). via Scientific American

This new technique uses a combination of laser light and a pink substance applied to the wound to stimulate natural chemical bonds in tissues and nerves. The future is now!

4) N. Korea announces nuclear fusion success amidst skepticism. via BBC

Couldn't resist using one of these pics.

Just in time for the supreme leader’s bday, North Korea announces successful nuclear fusion! The world snickers.

5) Scientists to test ultrasound as male contraceptive. via BBC

Scientists tested this method first. Results pending.

Isn’t it about time more research went into male contraception? There’s no pill for us really, or a decent shot (I don’t think) and this technique sounds like the wave of the future. Imagine going in once every few months for a nice ultrasound blast to the boys? What a world we live in…

GRG

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

10-foot pole: Lars Vilks and extremism

•May 12, 2010 • 11 Comments

“10-Foot Pole” articles are pieces that deal with issues I consider controversial or too sensitive to bring up in day-to-day discourse. Issues I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-pole. They will be full of opinion, but I will always attempt to open a dialogue. Let’s talk about the issues that are important instead of pretending they don’t affect us.

If anyone knows me they know I can run my mouth about many a topic. Some of those topics I might understand and some I really don’t know anything about but I run my mouth none the less. What drives me is the passion of the discussion, the weight of the words and the amount you can grow in a boisterous exchange. There is, however, one thing I rarely touch on even when on the topic of religion (which happens quite a bit). That thing is Islamic extremism.

A video posted to YouTube May 11th, 2010 shows Lars Vilks being attacked by Muslim protestors. Lars Vilks is a Swedish artist who in 2007 drew a series of pieces depicting the prophet Muhammed as a “roundabout” dog. Islam strictly forbids visual depictions of the prophet Muhammed so for Vilks to not only depict Muhammed, but to do it in this way, enraged the Islamic community. He received death threats, national condemnations and a group in Iraq set a $150,000 bounty on his head. The attack on him during a lecture on May 11th was the first time any attempts at physical violence succeeded. Fortunately Lars was escorted away with no serious injuries.

He was giving a lecture on free expression for f*** sakes!

The big story isn’t the assault itself, however. The big issue is the state of free speech in the Western world. While I don’t think that Vilks was tasteful or compassionate in his depiction of the prophet Muhammed, the fact remains that in a free democratic nation like Sweden he has the right to draw what he drew. Is there anything objectively wrong with drawing the prophet outside of Islam? I will never be the person to say to Muslims or anyone for that matter, “You are not allowed to be offended by “X.” I have no right to tell people how to feel (although I fully understand I have before), but I have the right to say what I want without fear of physical reprisal. As long as what I want to say doesn’t wander into hate speech (which I have a problem condemning, but that is a topic for another day) or threats of violence/death, my rights are protected.  Not having a sense of safety just because you offended someone’s belief system doesn’t just not make sense, it angers me. Sorry to sound nationalist or right-wing but we have to be adamant about protecting our free speech, and we can’t take it for granted.

The reason that this straw broke my back is because as I’m sure you’ve heard, the creators of South Park were threatened with death recently because of a NON-depiction of Muhammed. The episode centred around Tom Cruise wanting to get revenge on the city of South Park and never be made fun of again. Tom Cruise realizes that the ONLY public figure (fictional or real) that can’t be made fun of or even visually depicted is Muhammed. The episode doesn’t even show Muhammed. Muhammed is never even heard from, aside from a few muffled mumbles that could be attributed to any character. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were attempting to comment on the fact that they couldn’t show Muhammed because of the climate, that we have all allowed to form, restricts our freedom of speech. They were not simply using Muhammed to say, “F*** you Islam!”  It had a more subtle point to make. The point being that freedom of speech is something that is protected in the west and the fact that they depicted “Muhammed” the way they did was simply because they were showing how absurd it is that every other character, figure or person can be depicted and satirized except one. How is it sane to react with threats of death over a cartoon that DIDN’T depict the prophet? If Muhammed was depicted and as a Muslim you didn’t see it, would it effect you? Do these Muslim extremists watch South Park, but only choose to take issue with the Muhammed episodes? Where is the common sense, civility or peace that is such a part of Islam? Again, I don’t think Muslims shouldn’t be offended, quite the opposite. If I were a Muslim I would be offended I’m sure, as depicting Muhammed is a serious transgression. However, I do think and will say that radicals have no right what-so-ever to threaten or physically assault someone for depicting such things. It’s a really big deal that the actions of the vocal few are encroaching on our free speech. In a country where the law states that depicting the prophet is punishible by death, so be it, be scared. But to live in fear in a free society because you are afraid of violent retribution for doing NOTHING WRONG according to that society’s laws, is heinous.

I will fight for your right to say these things, but it's a two-way street my ignorant friend.

Of course, I am not a Muslim. I don’t believe in Allah and do not follow the Qur’an. But that doesn’t exclude me from understanding the feeling of being offended. It seems to me that the most radical protestors out there feel as if their offense and belief structure supersedes all else. The blatant hypocrisy and vile nature of the rhetoric coming from the extremes of the Muslim community is very unsettling. It is not okay that people must live in fear if they choose to express themselves in a certain way. It is not okay that Theo Van Gogh was stabbed and had his throat cut because he drew a cartoon. It is not okay that Lars Vilks was physically assaulted while lecturing by protestors, nay, attackers. It is not okay that extremists, who are protected by free speech laws in the west, use that freedom to threaten death and condemn the very place they live for allowing free speech. Can you begin to imagine the reverse of the situation? Going into a Muslim nation and slandering the government, its people and religion? The problem is that we all see the hypocrisy in this. We all understand the problem. But we don’t talk about it. I unfortunately don’t hear from the moderates too often. The radicals are too loud, and obnoxious. Moreover it seems that the moderate Muslim community has been rather quiet regarding the current climate of anti-freespeech fervour. Why is it so hard to talk about these things? Why are the only voices being heard in a debate that rages on about the value of free speech in a free society, the radical and hate-filled voices of totally ignorant people?

I don't agree with you, but I promise I won't try to kill you.

While this article was spurred on by my disgust over what happened to Lars Vilks, the problem is not just in the realm of Islamic extremists. Extremism runs far, wide and deep in this world. The extreme right in the states, the nationalists in Japan and throughout Europe, the ignorance still prevalent in certain parts of South Africa and countless other places throughout the world carry the same weight of ignorance. We need to talk about these things that happen. It doesn’t matter that it’s not on our front doorstep, or down the block. What matters is that these events (the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, the South Park backlash, the assault of Lars Vilks or Tea Partiers hurling racial epithets and invoking the holocaust) set precedents. The more that extremists, whatever group they are from, find validation and a lack of social consequences from such behaviour, the more of it we will see. The way the public acts is the exact way that the non-protestors/attackers in the audience with Lars Vilks acted as the extremists were attempting to assault Vilks. We sit back, take pictures and talk about it over coffee when we come across an article in the paper. I’m so sick of the issue being skirted and people shying away because it’s gauche to talk about these kinds of things. I’m sick of feeling like I’m the bad guy if I make my opinion heard on issues like this. I’m most sick of having this conversation and people sweeping away the whole dialogue with, “well, what can you do?” Let’s lift that taboo and protect free speech the only true way we know how, really talking.

Addition: I am truly sorry if I come across as anti-Muslim, because I am not. I am disgusted by the extremes in Islam as much as I am disgusted with the extremes anywhere. I hate to pick on Islam, it’s just in light of recent events I can’t keep my mouth shut any longer. Please comment, and discuss. I want to hear from all sides. Even the extremists! That’s what free speech is all about.

GRG

We’re all star stuff you know…

•May 7, 2010 • 4 Comments

I get looks of confusion and disbelief when I say I want to be an astrophysicist. It doesn’t upset or offend me at all, but it reminds me of how I used to feel about the word “astrophysics.” The term seems so far removed from our daily vernacular that it’s pretty jarring to hear unexpectedly. The follow-up question I get the most is, “What made you decide that?”  I immediately go into the speech about how 8 months ago or so, I had a mini-epiphany and found my passion and being in Korea gave me the time to think about it blah blah blah. Unfortunately I can’t truly convey why I love the Universe and astronomy on the spot.  It’s almost like the people I talk to have to take it on faith that it’s something worth the time, and that I am truly passionate about it even though there is very little to grasp in the conversation. I feel that to do myself and my passion some justice I have to attempt to really explain the allure of the Universe, and why I care about something so vast and intangible.

The memories of laying under the stars on a clear night are something that we almost all share. The quiet of the night, and the vastness of the sky are a comforting combination. No matter your age, where you come from, or your understanding of the stars themselves, there is something so humbling and haunting about basking in the majesty of the cosmos. However, for every ten incredible serene moments there is a moment in which we feel so small, so inconsequential and so helpless. There is nothing wrong with this feeling except for the fact that as a human being, it can be a frightening experience. Without an understanding of the universe, this feeling persists. The more time that passes and the more experiences you have without attempting to grasp the cosmos, the more of a mystery it becomes. It becomes an insurmountable question, that in most people’s lives doesn’t require an answer. This is exactly why the confused faces greet my answer of “…astrophysics.” It is a realm of study and human endeavour that for most of us fails to spark our interest past the point of knowing where the big dipper, or Orion’s belt are. Sometimes though, that haunting feeling compels us to dig deeper, and work towards that insurmountable answer. That compulsion is what came to find me 8 months ago.

The seeds of my love for the Universe were planted years ago when I got a telescope for Christmas one year. I always thought space was cool (who didn’t watch Star Trek as a kid?) but the realities of what was out there didn’t hit close to home. It wasn’t until I looked through that telescope at the Moon. For the first time I saw the ridges, craters and cracks in the surface. It was almost as if I could touch it if I reached out my hand far enough. The most exhilarating thing about that moment was when I could see the Moon moving through the lens of my scope. I could watch it creep, in real-time, across the lens and that blew me away.  For the first time, something outside of Earth was truly what they said it was. It was a giant rock orbiting at about 300,000km away. I was humbled to say the least.

My fascination from then on unfortunately played a back-seat role. I didn’t actively pursue education in physics, or astronomy because there were other things I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I had the time to really sit back and consider what I wanted to do with my life that the answer (for now) became clear. It wasn’t a transient vision of the stars in the shape of Carl Sagan’s face, or some voice on the wind saying, “doooo it. Study the starsssss. Build it and they will come.” The answer was simply, “Why not?”  When I asked myself, “Why don’t you pursue a career in astronomy?”, all I could say was “why not?”

The simple act of giving into an idea and considering it, as opposed to doing what is comfortable, or what is expected is beyond empowering. Once I let go of the idea, “I have wanted to be a teacher for 6 years, so that’s what I’ll do.” and just hopped into bed with the broader idea of possibilities, my life changed. It’s like I just discovered sugar for the first time. Learning who Carl Sagan was, was a welcome treat for my brain:

Listening to Feynman for the first time was incredible as well:

And if you’ve never heard this man speak, you are missing out:

(It’s kind of embarrassing how much I feel in common with this guy)

From the point I accepted a new (and completely unexpected) direction in life, everything changed. Who I was/am didn’t change, but who I wanted to become suddenly and drastically did. As abrupt as the change was, the rewards were just as sweet. I opened myself up to a world that deep-down I really wanted to know, and I started to understand and feel things I never did before. Understanding that every bit of us, and this world was once inside a massive nuclear reactor in the vast expanse of space made me feel so connected to the Universe that studying it felt like the least I could do. I would smile every time I read an article talking about Quasars or the latest information coming out of the discussion surrounding the Big Bang and String theories.  Each time I had a discussion about space and the Universe I felt as if I was speaking about something I understood, and felt comfortable with.  It was as if the stars were aligning things were starting to make sense.

I realized I loved the Universe because it is an entity that is so minimally understood, but monumentally important. It is something so vast, yet so close. It is something so intangible yet we reside within it. The Universe is a massive and beautiful mystery that we are all a part of, and that is what draws me to it. The human race will not come close to full understanding of the cosmos in my lifetime, but being a part of the solution and having the opportunity to push a piece into the massive puzzle that is the Universe is a big part of what I want to live for.

It may seem naive or simplistic, but I believe my happiness and comfort in the time since I changed my life direction has come from that simple answer, “Why not?”  It took a little while to stick, but once I embraced possibility instead of avoiding it the world opened up. I feel better than I ever have in my life, and without trying to sound like a self-help book, if you ask “why not?” every once in a while, you will too.

GRG

HALO: Reach Multiplayer Beta – impressions

•May 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Halo: Reach multiplayer beta has dropped and for the next 13 days (the Beta is 17 days in total, from May 3rd-19th) Bungie is allowing its rabid fan base tackle their newest title before it releases this fall. The Beta is strictly multiplayer and showcases what Bungie has to offer with their newest and apparently final installment in the Halo series, Halo: Reach.

"It's called the 'SPNKr'" - Industry maturity at its best.

How it looks:

Halo: Reach so far looks really nice. How nice it looks is in comparison to the previous Halo installments, and not other recent FPSs however. Halo still seems to suffer from environments that lack the amount of detail being pushed in other titles (MW2, Battlefield etc). The environments are nice to look at, but when really looking at them for the aesthetic detail, they simply feel empty. There is very little in the way of debris, map accessories or extraneous objects. While this might sound like a nit-pick, it is nice to see those things in the environment that aren’t essential to what’s going on. It makes the place feel that much more real and immersive. I do understand however, that Halo has never really done this too well to begin with, so it would seem unfair to hold it to external standards at this point.

"You said this apartment was fully furnished...I am a disappoint."

As for the character models, they look marginally better than Halo 3. Still the biggest leap in graphical goodness was the leap between Halo 1 and 2 in my opinion. It was a graphical eye-popper, and since then has somewhat stagnated for me. I am not saying that the level of detail and textures hasn’t improved, or the models haven’t gotten better, but the graphical leap isn’t as apparent as it has been in the past. The models do move a lot better in this game, and Bungie finally using motion capturing for some of the animations has made that apparent. The spartans do look a little more bulky than they previously have, but the ever-present customization options allow you to change-up your look as you earn more dollars and increase your level.

The weapon skins look a lot more detailed and refined in this title. The reflections, serial numbers, and wear marks indicate a level of attention the weapons never really got before.

Assault rifle goodness

It's back baby!

This thing is more than a beast...

Overall, the look of the game is tight. It is the best of the series to date, and it does justice to the Halo name. The only hang up is that it isn’t the best looking shooter out there. Modern Warfare 2 still takes the cake with the most detailed sprites, environments and weapons. However, in the realm of sci-fi and playing in a non-reality, it doesn’t have to truly seem real to be immersive. I think this is how Halo has gotten a graphical pass (and sometimes a blowjob) from reviewers in the past. It’s really nothing special, but it’s solid, consistent and it’s Halo.

How it plays:

This being a multiplayer beta you are relegated to matchmaking and playing online. If you could ever say one thing about Bungie it’s that they have the best matchmaking around. Reach offers customization in your matchmaking preferences. You can change your preference to find games with mouthy or kind players, competitive or for-fun gamers, and connection speed. It’s very very useful. The time it takes to find a match is no longer than any other title out there, especially Modern Warfare 2. You also have the ability to queue up on a friend, and wait until they are done their game to join in automatically when they are free. It has all the frills, and none of the fat of other less well designed matchmaking services.

Another thing Bungie has done well is connection matching. It must have to do with having dedicated servers (I’m not even sure if they do) or something to that effect, because everyone is usually on an equal playing field. All the connections are at the same quality which allows all the players to feel completely involved, and it also decreases on how many people will lag out of a match. Another great thing about this is that if someone quits out the game doesn’t have to scramble to find a new host (*cough MW2 cough*). It’s smooth, it’s fast to load and it’s fun. Bungie has done well so far on the connections being made in Reach.

The major addition to the in-game experience has to be the pseudo-class system Bungie has introduced. There are 4 “classes” to choose from at each respawn. The differences between them are not as drastic as you would think when you hear class system, but they are quite advantageous none the less. Each class has the same loadout (for now) but a different “power.” The powers are activated by tapping the left bumper, and have a limited use and recharge time.

The Scout class has the ability to sprint for a short time. I thought it would be a useless ability, but since not many people use scouts, and sometimes you need to get out of a sticky situation, the sprint ended up being really useful. It’s great for objective games when you want to get to a tactical point right away off the spawn, and it’s useful for chasing, and or being chased.

The Stalker class’ power is stealth. The stealth is pretty useful. It’s the active camo we all know and love, and it scrambles the radar of the other team. An added touch is that you can’t really hear when you are in stealth, which adds to the mystique if not the usefulness of it. It is a good ability and has killed me many times already.

"oh shit oh shit oh shit....I hope he can't see me"

The Guard has the ability to become invulnerable for a short period of time. This is a good way to avoid grenades, explosions, and damage when you are under fire. In my experience though, it’s kind of limped by the fact that you are immobile while you are guarding. This means people will just back up and wait for you to come out of it and kill you…like I did many times last night.

"What an idiot, I'm totally safe! It's not like he's gonna wait for me to get up or anything...oh...shit."

Finally the Airborne class has a jet pack which allows for airborne attacks, escapes and much higher jumps. Using man-cannons, and gravity lifts in addition to the jetpack you can have a true bird’s-eye view of the whole map. The downside is that you are a sitting [flying?] duck while up in the air. If someone tracks you as you lift off get to cover or else it’ll be a long way down with a hole in your head.

Non-Combat stuff:

Bungie has tweaked and refined their out-of-combat progression system to make it more immersive and rewarding. In Halo 3 it was all about achievements and goals when trying to unlock gear. Now it works on a credit system. After every fight you are given money based on your performance. This money is then used to unlock new gear, like helmet add-ons, and shoulder and chest plates. I enjoy this system better, because there was nothing worse than seeing a cool piece of gear on someone else that I couldn’t attain because the achievement needed was so boring or difficult it wasn’t worth trying.

The ranking system is improved as well. The military ranks are all still there in the progression, but now there is “league play.” This entails being graded on your performance as you play. Once you are graded 3 times that day’s grading is complete. Do 5 days of competition and you are assigned to a division. The season lasts a certain number of days and the system will keep track of how you fare along with the other players in your division. This might be my favourite addition to the multiplayer. It’s a great way of dividing the skill levels up, and giving you a very clear competitive picture.

Gripes:

The control scheme in Reach has been tweaked a bit. The old main stays (right-click zoom, RT fire, LT grenade, A jump) are there, but the changes they made make things a little tricky. Melee is no longer the B button. This makes meleeing during a fire fight kind of annoying, as one has to fully release the trigger button to execute the move. Maybe that is the point of putting the melee on the R-bumper, and maybe I’m just not used to it, but it still sucks. Moreover, after playing so much MW2, not having my Aim-down-sight as the left trigger, and something that I fully control, not toggle, is a bitch. I can’t stand the static nature of having to click-zoom, then click-zoom out. I want the analog control of the LT button. It is something I will get used to, as I used to play this way for years before MW2, it just sucks to take a step back.

1. Grenades 2. Shoot 3. Laundry 4. Call in sick 5. Order-in 6. Repress shame of spending hours indoors 7. Jump 8....

The difficulty is a little frustrating. This of course is totally how good the opponents are, but it seems that there are some people in the Halo-verse that are just ridiculous at the game. Last night I played, and won the majority of the matches (I played all team games) and 3 or 4 times came out on top, with the most kills. However, that isn’t indicative of how up and down the game can be. I went 10-3 one round of capture the flag, the next 3-15. I was either the tits, or getting merked. The up and down is a little frustrating, but I think that has a lot more to do with me than the game. It’s a bullshit gripe, but a gripe none the less.

me...when i lose...in Halo, and my pigment.

The weapon imbalance is a major issue I have with this game. It seems that some of the power weapons are just too overpowered. The Gravity hammer for instance, has such a huge radius of effect, and doesn’t slow its wielder. You can sit in an area and just slam all the losers trying to come get you, because the long range weapons take so damned long to kill that you can find cover easily. There is also this big plasma beam weapon that is ridiculous. It just roasts you, and if you see it, the only thing to do is ‘nade and run. I’m sure the weapons will be tweaked by falls release…I hope.

I hate you.

"Why won't you DIE!?!?"

The last thing I will complain about is the damned health and shields in this game. It takes so many damn bullets (save headshots) to take down an enemy. Time after time people are stealing my kills or I am stealing theirs’ because you will unload almost a full assault rifle clip into someone and they will be NEAR death, then some asshole comes in with a pistol and BANG, they got the kill. It happens WAY too much in this game to be comfortable. It pisses me off to no end. So many times I will hit someone with the Distanced rifle maybe 5 times, and they will be so damned close to death, run around a far corner and one of my team mates finishes them off. It’s very annoying. My hopes are for a “hardcore”-like mode where it’s about timing and skill and not constantly back-jumping and lobbing grenades.

BOOM, BIFF, ZING

So far as I can tell, Halo: Reach will be the best installment in the Halo series overall. I doubt it will come close to touching the nostalgia I hold for the first Halo, but nothing really will, Halo or otherwise. The game is graphically tight, the online networking is fantastic (and this is just the Beta!), the off-the-field tweaks in gameplay are a welcome change, and save a couple mechanical changes the gameplay is as Halo as it has ever been. I am excited to experience the campaign in Reach’s full release, but until then (for the next 13 days at least) I’ll be enjoying the beta and all it has to offer. Halo’s back, jump in.

GRG

(All images sourced here)

Agree to disagree Mr. Ebert

•May 4, 2010 • 3 Comments

I came across an article through digg the other day that agitated me a little bit. Roger Ebert posted an article on his blog in defense of his unwavering opinion that video games will NEVER be art. His article takes aim at a TED talk in which a woman named Kellee Santiago posits and defends her position that games are art. Ebert attempts in his article to dismantle Santiago by claiming she has certain problems with the way she frames her argument. However, Ebert doesn’t really deliver on his points at all, and leaves me scratching my head with confusion. The confusion stems from the flatness and subtle hypocrisy of his statements.

Arrogance is bliss

Ebert opens with the most logically flawed argument he makes in the whole piece.

“She begins by saying video games “already ARE art.” Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.”

I agree that a game has to yet to be good enough to be in the same league as the artistic greats. However, Ebert draws a false dichotomy with the language he uses and the point he makes. When it is boiled down the argument comes across as, “If something is not worthy to be compared to the greats, it is not art.” Perhaps Ebert didn’t mean to truly convey that sentiment, but that’s how it reads and the statement applies to much more than just video games as art. Ebert disincludes many pieces and forms of art from his own definition. I doubt Ebert would say that interpretive dance is on-par with the greats in history, but I also doubt he wouldn’t call it “art.”

The term “art” casts a wide net. Perchance my net is wider than others, but never the less art is a very inclusive playground. I have had the “is it art?” argument many times, with many people, over many mediums. We butt heads throughout the argument and nothing is solved. It usually devolves into a dick measuring competition where the parties are simply trying to debase, or invalidate the other’s definition of art, as opposed to positively proving their own. “Is shit in the middle of the room art? NO you say!? AH ha! Therefore you are prude and crass, and by your own definition games are not art.” The bottom line with this reductio ad absurdum is that it serves to devalue the deliverer’s argument completely. That is why Ebert’s argument falls flat. He makes big claims as to what can be called art in small statements, leaves very little room for rebuttal, and leaves lots of room for interpretation.

Art...

Further into his piece Ebert takes issue with Kellee’s statements regarding cave painting, and her point that it’s basically “Chicken scratch on walls.” He makes the valid point that the expression of cave painting was so ahead of its time and beautiful that to not call it art is absurd. I completely agree. Back in that time, it was quite possibly one of the only, if not the only, form of artistic expression. It holds more weight than simple shapes and representations of animals, weather and other hominids. However, I understand her point that art is something that evolved, and got better. It wasn’t always considered art. Do you think that the cave painters were concerned with it’s artistic value, as opposed to it conveying a message, or telling a story? Art (visual, specifically painting) didn’t even come into it’s own until it was finally seen as a form of expression, and not a form of record. Many amazing works of art were requisitioned simply to record in glory the events of the times, and not truly express the artist’s vision or point of view. Should we not call those classics, which were not explicitly created for the sake of expression, art? Considering this it seems totally backward to say that games will NEVER be art. Do disavow the possibility that they can someday transcend is laughable. The argument could be drawn to it’s tangential infinitum at this juncture, but my point is that the definition of art is a nebulous and rather subjective one. However, Ebert speaks as if it is an easy line to draw which deflates his point of view entirely in my opinion.

Another major point in Ebert’s piece I took issue with was his disclusion of games based on the fact they inherently carry with them certain parameters that [some] “art” doesn’t.

“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a[sic] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”

Ebert’s point here is that once these things are removed it would cease to be a game, and become a manifestation of something else. The removal of rules hasn’t changed games in the least. The shining example of this is the Grand Theft Auto series. It is a piece that has rules, points, objectives and an outcome in place, but the game can be played and enjoyed without all four of those parameters. The game becomes something completely different. It becomes a trip to a fantasy world of very little personal consequence, and a gives us dose of primal catharsis whereby we act out and internalize barbaric acts. It ceases to be its original self, but it is still a video game, and it is still art. It doesn’t stray into any murky realms of undefined media. Moreover, by nature of his argument he says that art cannot be won. Would it be a terrible comparison to draw a parallel between winning in games, and attempting to win film festivals with your pieces? There are logical hurdles to overcome to come to where I’m standing on this, but it seems like the aspect of competition, of winning, or completing exists in the art world, and is simply on a different scale in the video game world. Take installation artwork for example. This art form consists of many pieces designed to be “played with” or interacted with in some forms of guided manipulation. Many times this interaction has a defined path, or set of goals in place. Are installations with these characteristics truly that different from a video game at a fundemental level? I concede that more thought is needed to flesh out this little point of mine, but I feel it valid none the less.

Another way to look at this would be by comparing a story driven RPG to a novel. As you read a hardcopy novel, you turn the pages, you read and internalize. As you play an extensive RPG you progress from place to place, and battle to battle (turn the pages) to propel the story and continue the narrative. Is it not the same thing to read the final paragraph of a novel, and read the final words in an epic RPG story as it concludes? My argument is not based on contextual value, or quality of content, but I do believe the mechanics of the two to be ideologically linked. There is a contract between the artist and the observer in both video games and novels, that as you absorb you will physically continue to imbibe the story. Is this too pragmatic and semantic? I do not believe so. The comparison can be made, as I see they share some fundamental components related to story telling. They are entangled in the aforementioned nebulous definition of art, and not for lack of trying, can not be cleaved apart.

...art? You'd better believe it...

Ebert continues his defense by saying:

“She quotes Robert McKee’s definition of good writing as “being motivated by a desire to touch the audience.” This is not a useful definition, because a great deal of bad writing is also motivated by the same desire. I might argue that the novels of Cormac McCarthy are so motivated, and Nicholas Sparks would argue that his novels are so motivated. But when I say McCarthy is “better” than Sparks and that his novels are artworks, that is a subjective judgment, made on the basis of my taste (which I would argue is better than the taste of anyone who prefers Sparks.”

This argument is simply too subjective to really make a broad objective point. What Ebert basically says is, “being motivated by a desire to touch the audience is not a definition of art because things I don’t like have the same ambition. If I don’t like it or consider it art, it’s not art.” I would have no issue with this line of reasoning as long as he didn’t snidely infer that his opinion of art is also the arbiter of its definition. He overtly says he thinks that his opinion is better, or more valuable than those of Nicholas Sparks’ fans. Do I disagree? No. I think Sparks is formulaic and campy, but that in no right allows me to objectively categorize his works as non-art, and his fans as people of lesser intellectual integrity. I am guilty of arrogantly defending my opinions whilst mocking others’ all the time (“You like Twilight? Loser.”) but that doesn’t give me the right to judge anything, let alone DEFINE what art is. I don’t understand how Ebert in his right mind can say that the intention to touch and inspire an audience isn’t enough to define art, but his opinion is. It borders on the absurd.

The critic’s most offensive words come as he writes:

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?…Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?…Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, “I’m studying a great form of art?” Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.

“Offensive?”, you may ask. “Absolutely”, I would reply. This is a simple matter of condescension. To make a broad and bold statement that video games are not art, when clearly many people regard them as such will upset certain people. It doesn’t matter what medium it is, or venue, it is frustrating and offensive when people make judgemental statements about something you enjoy and is a part of your life. Do I think gamers around the world should be up in arms? No. Some of us will do the caring for all gamers, but it is so arrogant to attempt to debase something someone enjoys, and then tell them they shouldn’t care because it’s not worth it. Moreover the hypocrisy in this discourse is palpable. If it is gamers that care too much, and are making such a fuss, why are you the one attempting on more than one occasion to ensure people know and agree that games are not art? I understand this point is a little childish, but it is simply true. It reminds me of a school yard bully who would punch you, and if you cry or wince they say, “come on, it doesn’t hurt you wuss. Davie didn’t cry.” (I just made gamers all over look like wimps didn’t I?).

Ebert sums up his argument in the following way:

“Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art. But is Plato’s any better? Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an[sic] passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there[sic] paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.”

In saying this, Ebert reduces the argument surrounding the definition of art to a matter of pure subjectivity. While it is apparent that art could possibly be the most subjective aspect of human culture, it is ridiculous to posit that it can be defined completely subjectively. How can anything be purely one way or the other? He says that art comes down completely to taste, yet in his previous argument rails against Sparks’ fans and implies that HIS opinion of art is what defines it. He totally neglects to consider that others’ tastes are truly valid. What is his point? In paraphrase Ebert says, “My opinion is better than Sparks fans. Cormac is art, my opinion says so, but Sparks fans opinions and taste don’t count. Why? Because it’s all a matter of taste…my taste.” The reasoning is illogical. Perhaps, however, it is simply the fact that Ebert thinks that art should be defined completely subjectively, and work by work that makes me completely disagree with him. But I doubt many people would dare say objectivity be absent from the discourse. It seems inherently wrong to leave any definition up to the individual. Consensus would be impossible in that circumstance.

There is a small smattering of alternate arguments Ebert makes about some games that Santiago uses as examples of games as art, but he fails to convince me of his point of view beyond simple opinion. The article concludes with more of the same vein of argument. Ebert reads as a curmudgeon; an old man slightly out of touch, but proud of it. I didn’t really feel as though Ebert was an old man, as he has always just been Ebert to me, but then the other day I was online and facebook chatted my friend Chris about this article, and in the course of a small conversation about it, he said “…he’s an old man.” It was finally put in perspective. However, for someone who loves film and certainly appreciates art, he is very crass about how he views games. It seems very illogical and counterintuitive to be so black and white about a subject steeped in subjectivity. And here in-lies the problem with Ebert’s whole diatribe: he himself leaves the definition of art as something completely subjective, as a matter of taste, but makes a broad objective statement about games as art, or non-art actually. It’s hard to take him seriously with such a rigid stance on the issue. Perhaps he could have turned my chin slightly and grabbed my attention with some grace, but he certainly lacks that in this context.

...I dare you...say it isn't.

It is obvious at this point that I fundamentally disagree with Ebert, but I take more issue with his delivery and attitude. I was compelled to respond because I truly was offended by the tone of what he said. I love video games, and I consider them art, as many people do. Ebert seems to think we’re wrong, but doesn’t defend his point of view too well at all. He comes across as out of touch, old fashioned, stubborn and arrogant.  So the next time you have the opportunity to name a narrow-minded, arrogant, throw away character in an RPG, or shooter, or create-a-character in a sports game, you know what to do.

GRG

Marvel vs. Capcom 3 – teaser trailer impressions

•April 21, 2010 • 1 Comment

Since the raging hit that is Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was released in 2000, fans of the series have been clawing at Capcom’s door begging for a sequel. It  took the company 9 years to give into some sort of demand and re-release MvC2 for digital download on the PSN and XBL.This was clearly Capcom attempting to squeeze a few extra pennies out of the IP before the next installment arrives (*cough* selling Street Fighter 4 for digital download for dirt cheap, just before Super Street Fighter 4 comes out *cough*).  From Cap’s perspective however, why wouldn’t they? The frothing masses were there, and there are enough Capcom fanboys out there to keep the company afloat for another 7 Resident Evil sequels. All that being said, Capcom has finally released a teaser trailer for the upcoming, and sure-to-be-the-tits, Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

The trailer has all the cheesy flare that is a hallmark of Capcom. It opens with the most narcissistic of statements regarding how hard and wet we all must be with anticipation. They stop just short of saying “You fuckers are so horny right now aren’t you? We have been watching you for a decade, now the best thing you have ever heard of is coming back to blow the back out of your shit.” The cheesy, canned pop-rock ballad begins and we see who else, Ryu and Wolverine fighting on a rooftop.

Right off the bat we see the Street Fighter 4 engine in action. The character renderings are nice to look at, although it is dark and unfinished. Nothing too special transpires between the two main characters, except for some testosterone fueled, bloodless rucking. That has always puzzled me by the way. Wouldn’t wolverine destroy the fuck out of Ryu? Ryu’s fireballs would be no match for Wolv’s regeneration powers, and one slice from the Addy claws, and Ryu’s ramen is spilled all over the dirt.

AAAAAnnnnyways. The scene changes to a pretty nice looking chase between Iron Man and Morrigan from Darkstalkers. Some eye candy, but again, no real taste of anything that seems like it would be in the main game. As Morrigan goes in for the pseudo-kiss with Tony Stark, it cuts to the Incredible Hulk doing his thing. He is hulk smashing, and causing all sorts of chaos in a tussle with an unknown shadowy figure. Then it is revealed! The shadowy figure, and the big reveal for a new character being introduced into the series is *drumroll* Chris Redfield!…yayyyy…Chris…Redfield…

It only took 10 years, but the first look at Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has hit the internets.

Cut to a photo of me in a party hat, alone, with a half-erect party blower in my mouth, and a sparkler 2 seconds from extinguishing in my hand. Chris Redfield? I loved Jill Valentine in the previous game, and this being a mash-up of a ton of characters, it was only a matter of time before he showed up, but the latest Chris Redfield (a la RE5) is the worst thing to happen to the RE series. He’s so bulky and canned and boring. When it was revealed it was Chris Redfield, I felt like I woke up from one of those dreams where you are heading to do something exciting, it never happens, then you wake up and realise your real life is there waiting for you, and the threesome with Cate Blanchett, Hayden Penettiere and Ellen Page was never going to happen in the first place. Yeah…that’s how I felt.

The biggest thing I am excited for is the fact that it looks as if MvC3 will be running on the same engine as Street Fighter 4. Maybe that it’s old news that the engine is being used, but it’s news to me, and it makes me supremely excited for the game. Street Fighter 4 is the only 2D to 3D title I know of that maintained the feel of the game perfectly while successfully making the transition to 3D.  If MvC3 can pull off the feel of MvC2, and Marvel vs. Street Fighter with a nice graphical bump, then this title is going to do very well for itself.

Capcom threw us all a little taste, and even though the trailer is lacking in content, it’s brimming with promise. Can’t wait to see what comes down the pipe next.

GRG