Efectos Especiales

Ramblings, rants, musings, ideas and observations. Topics include (but are not limited to): programming (especially Python), books, games (especially CCGs and board games), astrology, design, writing, painting, etc.

icon:gc #869 (old comments) Ultra-short game reviews

All games for Gamecube.

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance: Not bad, but I like the GBA version better. Missions take too long (often over an hour, and you can't save until afterward) and are too hard (without losing crucial characters). Random levelups are dubious too.

Hunter: The Reckoning: Hack-and-slash fest not unlike Diablo. Harder than it seems. Gets quite monotonous after a while. Unorthodox controls ("R" button to attack?). Daughter doesn't like it, although she hearts zombies (or so she tells random waiters in restaurants :-). (Don't ask...)

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance: Good, but too short. The Gamecube version gets bad reviews because of the graphics engine (which is allegedly inferior to the PS2 version of this game), but I very rarely noticed any lagging or choppy framerates. Leveling up doesn't happen an awful lot, but you can make up for it with very powerful weapons (and spells, in some cases). Last part (the Onyx Tower) and the final boss fight are a bit of an anti-climax.

Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat: Quite good, although (like the previous game) a bit too short. (Not counting the levels you can unlock by exceptional performance in the main course.) The bongos are quite innovative and add to the gameplay. Their use is not required, but helps. Nice colorful graphics too; maybe a bit too small here and there. Boss fights could have been more varied.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Not like the regular FF games. Supposedly multiplayer, but only one person gets to play at a time. Interface between levels is somewhat confusing; it's often unclear what you're doing or who you are controlling. Fighting within levels is pretty much standard fare; fight monsters and collect loot; however, when you beat a level, you have to choose one item that you can keep, and lose the rest. Too much information, as well; I don't like to sit through a whole tutorial just to figure out what I'm supposed to do.

Tales of Symphonia: Got good reviews, possibly because it was one of the few RPGs for the Gamecube, but I never really liked it. Maybe because of the random monsters that keep popping up. Or maybe because the fighting is quite chaotic, and using weapons or skills is not intuitive. Whatever it was, I lost interest fairly quickly. :-/

Beyond Good & Evil: Very good. As one review pointed out, in some ways it's much like Zelda/Wind Waker, but better. The game is designed to keep you challenged but not (too) frustrated. Great puzzles, great graphics, great voice acting, and a bunch of collecting (pictures of animals, pearls, money) and subquests to keep you busy, even after you have beaten it. The gameplay is varied too: besides running around talking, solving and collecting, you will also glide over the waters in your hovercraft, fight monsters, participate in races, sneak past guards, get around mines and torpedoes, etc. Highly recommended.


/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-13 21:12 */

icon:narnia #868 (old comments) Philip Pullman on Narnia

British author Philip Pullman has repeatedly criticized the Narnia books. For example, in this interview:

You're not alone in attacking Lewis but you are really vehement in your criticism. You've called his books 'detestable'. Why do you feel so strongly about them?

Because the things he's being cruel to are things I value very highly. The crux of it all comes, as many people have found, with the point near the end of the Last Battle (in the Narnia books) when Susan is excluded from the stable. The stable obviously represents salvation. They're going to heaven, they're going to be saved. But Susan isn't allowed into the stable, and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.'

This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.

I don't know... I never saw it that way. Not as a child, and not now either. Let's see what this passage looks like:

"Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"

"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "is no longer a friend of Narnia."

"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'"

"Oh Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."

"Grown-up, indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."

I think it's quite simple, really... to get to Narnia, you have to believe in it. Children are much more ready to believe things than adults. At least they were in my day. emoticon:old

Unfortunately there are those who try to leave childhood as soon as possible. This is not something Lewis made up; you can see it all around you in the real world. The actual problem is not growing up, but the notion that you're now "too old" for certain things. In this case, Susan feels too old for (what she considers) the childish games she used to play, and has replaced it with things (she considers to be) more appropriate for her age. To the other children, this is baffling. It makes perfect sense if you look at it from the point of view of a child of about 10-11. I don't think it has anything to do with misogyny or "a hatred of the physical world".

Of course you can read more into it, like Pullman does -- "those who want to grow up don't go to heaven!" I really don't think that's the point Lewis was trying to make, though.

Pullman also has beef with another part of The Last Battle:

That's what I find particularly objectionable in Lewis -- and also the fact that he kills the children at the end. Now here are these children who have gone through great adventures and learned wonderful things and would therefore be in a position to do great things to help other people. But they're taken away. He doesn't let them. For the sake of taking them off to a perpetual school holiday or something, he kills them all in a train crash. I think that's ghastly. It's a horrible message.

Taken at face value, I would tend to agree with that. But let's see what the book says:

Then Aslan turned to them and said:
"You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be."

Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often."

"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you not guessed?"

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

If you consider death the end of everything, then "killing off the children" is of course not a very nice thing to do. But if you consider our existence on earth "just a dream", a temporary stage fraught with suffering, then dying isn't so bad, if it means staying in Narnia (which is what the children want). While Pullman's argument that Lewis "hated the physical world" seems to make sense here, I don't think it's a hatred, but rather a belief that our physical existence is only a prelude to a better world. You can agree or disagree with that, but I don't think Lewis's intentions were cruel when he wrote this passage... they only become cruel if you look at it in a certain way.

In the end, it's simple -- Lewis looks at certain things from a christian point of view (or his flavor of christianity, anyway), while Pullman looks at it from a humanist POV. The two viewpoints aren't exactly compatible in some areas. The next part of the interview reveals more of Pullman's views:

The book ends with Lyra, the trilogy's heroine, having a vision of a Republic of Heaven. What are the key values in the Republic, rather than the Kingdom, of Heaven?

Firstly, a sense that this world where we live is our home. Our home is not somewhere else. There is no elsewhere. This is a physical universe and we are physical beings made of material stuff. This is where we live.

Of course, these aren't the only controversies about the Narnia books... there's the depiction of Calormen and their god Tash, for example. But that is for another time, when I feel like having a religious flamewar. ;-)

Maybe I'll still be around in 50 years and will get to see people pick Pullman's books apart because they are highly politically incorrect by the standards of that time... emoticon:smile

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-11 11:29 */

icon:narnia #867 (old comments) Narnia

Yesterday I saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe...

I read some of the Narnia books in elementary school. The school had a little "library" where you could pick books to read in designated hours, and some of them were (Dutch translations of) The Chronicles of Narnia. When I grew up, I somehow forgot about it, until I saw a reference in an old MS-DOS graphical adventure (was it Hugo's House of Horrors?) that mentioned it. Somehow that stirred something buried deep inside my memory, and I started gathering scraps of info about these books that I had liked so much. (This was before I got internet access, and C.S. Lewis isn't that well-known in the Netherlands, so it took me a while to figure out what these books were called, who wrote them, and where to get them.) Eventually I bought some of them, discovering along the way that the new Dutch translations are rather sucky. (If you can help it, avoid the orange books. :-)

Anyway. I liked the movie. It wasn't exceptionally great, but it was enjoyable, had nice special effects, and didn't stray from the book too much (as far as I can remember).

Very minor nitpicks: I had expected Aslan to be a bit more "stately" and wise... that didn't come out too much in the movie. Also, I'm not sure if the White Witch is the same as Jadis (appearing in The Magician's Nephew)...

The worst thing is, though, that they're planning to make 6 more movies. I very much fear these will suffer from the "Harry Potter movie effect"... the first one is surprisingly good, then it starts going downhill, and different directors are assigned, each of which will try to make his movie stand out and give it an edge, butchering the story along the way. Possibly by focusing on action or themes that aren't in the book at all, like teenage angst (gah, I hate that word). At least with Narnia, we hopefully won't have to see 14-year-olds played by 18-year-olds who look like linebackers. emoticon:smile

The books are really christian parables, but this didn't bother me all that much (these days nor when I was little), and I don't think much of it shows in the movie.

I just noticed that the last five movies I saw are all based on children's books. Hmm... what does that tell me... emoticon:smile

[Update #1] It turns out that Jadis and the White Witch are the same after all. Here's the relevant passage in LWW:

"What is this?" said Peter, stooping down. He had just noticed a piece of paper which had been nailed through the carpet to the floor.

"Is there anything written on it?" asked Susan.
"Yes, I think there is," answered Peter, "but I can't read it in this light. Let's get out into the open air."
They all went out in the daylight and crowded round Peter as he read out the following words:

The former occupant of these premises, the Faun Tumnus, is under arrest and awaiting his trial on a charge of High Treason against her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc., also of comforting her said Majesty's enemies, harbouring spies and fraternizing with Humans.

signed MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police, LONG LIVE THE QUEEN

(I don't have the books handy, except for TMN, but fortunately searchable PDFs are not hard to find these days. emoticon:smile)

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-11 00:54 */

icon:usa #865 (old comments) Health care... or caring about health

To my Dutch readers: for the record, the $300,000 bill I mentioned in the previous post was not an exaggeration.

Last September, my mother-in-law was committed to the hospital. For a few months, she had had strange involuntary muscle movements, much like Huntington's disease. When she got to the point that she could hardly swallow anymore, and could no longer sit in a chair or lay in bed without falling out, she was taken to the hospital by ambulance. (Why didn't we do this sooner? Well, because a doctor claimed there was no physical problem and she should maybe see a psychiatrist...)

She stayed there for a month. We didn't get to see many doctors, and if we did they would always say that they didn't know what the disease was. It wasn't Huntington's. They did some more tests, but could not find anything. All the while she was being kept alive, because she couldn't swallow due to the muscle disorder. Since she had indicated beforehand that she didn't want that, they took her off the "machinery" in October. She passed away later that day.

A week ago her husband got the hospital bill. I overheard people mention "$372,000", and, thinking they were talking about a house, I inquired what was going on. Turns out that was the amount of the bill.

Now, I fully appreciate that doctors aren't omnipotent, and regularly have cases where they cannot save their patients. I also know that medicines, medical equipment, and trained personnel's time are expensive. However... we hardly saw any doctors, and if we did they were vague about what was going on, giving us little information beyond "we don't know what it is" and "it's really bad". They also seemed in quite a rush to take her off the machines. Being realistic about a patient's situation is one thing, giving family the feeling that they are left out in the cold is something else. As far as we are concerned, their behavior doesn't warrant *any* payment at all.

Because the local doctors were no help, I contacted a Dutch friend of mine, who is also a doctor. Based on the (admittedly limited) information I could give him, his guess was that my mother-in-law might have Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. This might also explain the behavior of the doctors; apparently in the US there's a great stigma associated with CJD. The "official" cause of death does not rule it out either: idiopathic encephalopathy. Encephalopathy is "a nonspecific term describing a syndrome affecting the brain", while idiopathic "is a medical adjective that indicates that a recognized cause has not yet been established.". As far as I'm concerned, CJD is still the most likely explanation.

[In contrast, my grandmother recently passed away as well, due to cancer. The Dutch doctors made sure that she and her family knew exactly what was going on and what her options were. They even tried chemo therapy (something they apparently don't usually do at her age... she was 85). When it became clear that the cancer would not go away, they did all they could so she wouldn't suffer. Eventually she passed away peacefully (this was in October as well).] [1]

Just for the record, I am not worried about the money, even though none of us will be able to collect that much in a lifetime... but (giving people the impression that you're) doing nothing, and then sending a ridiculous bill like that?! They deserve to get sued for medical malpractice, not to get tons of money. And what a difference with the Dutch hospital [2]. I know where I'm going if I ever become seriously ill.

[1] To be fair, my grandmother's regular doctor expressed an attitude similar to the one my mother-in-law went to, before she went to the hospital... this doctor refused to come look at her, even though she had a swelling in her neck the size of an egg, and she had had cancer before.

[2] By some people's reasoning, the Dutch hospital should actually be *less* motivated to care for their patients, since there is no direct link between results and payment. Think again. It's more likely that it's the other way around, with some unscrupulous doctors thinking "there's no money to be made here... why bother putting much effort in it". [3]

[3] The hospital shall remain nameless to protect the guilty. No, it's not Shands.

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-04 14:08 */

icon:default #864 (old comments) Sport maakt meer kapot dan je lief is

When reading the comments to my previous post about calories and obesity, something else occurred to me. Recently the Dutch government has started promoting (what they consider) a healthier lifestyle for people. One minister even claimed that people "don't have a right to an unhealthy lifestyle". The plan is that people who smoke, eat unhealthy food, and don't exercise enough, cannot make unlimited use of health care. [1]

I'm of two minds about this. While I understand this point of view (especially for smoking which is bad for other people as well as the smoker), I also think it's patronizing. Does the government have the right to meddle in people's way of living?

The part I don't understand is the promotion of sports. Some politicians think that there should be more sports in school, for example (aka PE, called gymnastiek in the Netherlands). I disagree, of course... partially because back in the day I hated it (and I suspect some of my more nerdy readers would agree). I wouldn't have minded so much if the system had been less humiliating to those who were bad at sports. As far as I'm concerned, those who already do some sport or another can go home, or go elsewhere and play their stupid basketball or whatever. Focus on the rest, and let them actually learn something, in such a way that they don't feel stupid or clumsy, and maybe actually start to like sports. But I digress...

I have known many people who actively did some sport or another... maybe football (known as soccer in the US), athletics, or the Dutch pride known as korfbal. emoticon:smile Strange thing is, these people regularly had injuries... broken bones, sprains, bruises, chafe wounds, etc. Why is that, if doing a sport is supposedly so good for you? Of course it has benefits, but I believe this shouldn't be presented as a black-and-white issue (sport is good, not doing any sport is bad). (And then there are those people who collapse while running because they were taxing themselves too much...)

<plants tongue firmly in cheek> Yes, I think there's an important role for the government here. Clearly, sports are a serious health hazard. I believe the government should inform people about this, and actively discourage them from pursuing strenuous physical activity. Sports teams, clubs, gyms and schools have a social responsibility here as well. And naturally, people who persist in doing these hazardous activities, should pay more for their health insurance, since they are willingly and knowingly subjecting themselves to unnecessary risks. I, as a taxpayer, am not willing to pay extra for patching up irresponsible people. emoticon:loveit

[1] Note that in the Netherlands most health care is, or at least was, largely free. That means that if you get a heart attack or whatever kind of serious disease, you can go the hospital and won't be rejected, or presented with a $300,000 bill. At least, that's how it was in my time, but it's possible that things have changed... I keep hearing that people have to pay more and more for things that used to be cheap or free.

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-04 13:37 */

icon:food #863 (old comments) Ice cream! You can lose weight when you're dead!

Douglas Rushkoff: "But when push comes to shove, we have to acknowledge that Ben and Jerry's makes ice cream in a nation where 64.5 percent of the population 20 or older is overweight, 30.5 percent are obese, and type II diabetes is at an all-time high. According to the World Health Organization, obesity-related illnesses claim more than 500,000 lives each year. Ben and Jerry's chocolate-dipped waffle cones each pack 320 calories and 10 grams of fat before any ice cream is added. Its homespun ads showing cows on clean pastures make ice cream look positively healthy. Does encouraging charitable giving, environmental responsibility, and fair labor standards compensate for the obesity encouraged by its products and marketing campaigns?"

That goes a little too far. A lot of food contains calories and fat. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. It only becomes a problem if your calorie intake is higher than the amount you burn, and even then only if this happens on a regular basis. But if your calorie intake is too high, it's your own responsibility to burn it off (e.g. by exercising), and/or change your diet... or deal with the consequences. I really don't think that ice cream companies, or any company that sells food, "encourages obesity". Nobody forces you to buy the stuff, or eat it... it's your own choice, and your own choice to compensate with healthier and/or low-calorie food, and possibly exercise.

(Of course, I probably shouldn't be talking about healthy diets... and especially not about exercise. *pats his potbelly* But I think this argument is a little ridiculous. Plus, ice cream isn't all that unhealthy... it contains milk and calcium, for example. It's only bad if you eat it in heavy doses. But that is true for most foods...)

[In other news: Overheid overdrijft de gevaren van overgewicht. Unfortunately the article is in Dutch, but the gist is that the Dutch government greatly exaggerates the dangers of being overweight. This claim is made by two scientists and a doctor.]

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-03 13:49 */

icon:java #862 (old comments) Beyond Java

I don't really understand what the big deal is about the Beyond Java book... but that is probably because I have always been "beyond Java". In fact, I have a hard time imagining not being beyond Java. Now, beyond Python, or beyond Ruby, that would be more interesting... emoticon:coool

(Of course, I secretly do know what the big deal is... there have always been languages superior to more productive or flexible than Java, that is not something new. But this notion is finally going mainstream now, and a company known for popular computer books (including many Java ones) is publishing it. Hearing obscure "scripting language" geeks extoll the virtues of dynamic languages is one thing, but reading the same thing in a book by a former Java aficianado (and author) is something else entirely.)

[Update #1] I changed "superior to Java" to "more productive or flexible than Java", because that is what I really meant. I just realized how annoying and condescending it is when fans of language X call another language "inferior" or "lesser". I don't want to be guilty of the same thing. I have criticized languages like Java and C# more than once, but they're not inferior. I'm sure there are quite a few situations where these languages beat the pants off, say, Ruby, Python, or Lisp... for example, when it comes to performance, or having a nice IDE, or availability of libraries. The fact that I usually prefer more dynamic languages doesn't make them lesser.

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-02 15:36 */

icon:default #861 (old comments) Random thoughts #1

[Mostly rambling... feel free to ignore. :-]

By selectively breeding animals, you can tweak a lot of their traits. Dogs have been around for a long time; these days, there are also domesticated foxes, cat-leopard hybrids, and much more.

I wonder what would happen if, rather than taking the animal that is prettiest/friendliest/looks like X, you would take the most intelligent ones and work from there. In theory, by cross-breeding the most intelligent animals, the offspring would (on average) become more and more intelligent as well.

If you would try that with, say, dogs, how intelligent would they eventually become? Would they reach near-human intelligence? Or even surpass humans? If that isn't possible, why not? Is there some kind of "maximum intelligence" beyond which they cannot reach? If so, what causes it, and why didn't humans have that same problem? And does this "maximum" apply to other species, like monkeys, or dolphins?

Presuming that humans evolved "naturally" (that is, excluding religious explanations or alien interference), it's not unreasonable to assume that it should be possible for other species as well to reach the same kind of intelligence level, or maybe even surpass it. If certain additional traits are necessary, well, those can be acquired as well (although it might take a while -- I don't see dogs grow an opposable thumb anytime soon, for example).

*If* species X could attain such intelligence, would they necessarily have the same rights as humans? Or maybe even more? Or would it be acceptable to consider them "animals" still? At which point would it be unethical to continue experimenting with them?

[Note #1: No, I don't really expect answers to all these questions, but it's fun to think about...]

[Note #2: Many of the same questions would apply to artificial intelligence, if it ever got to a near-human level...]

[Note #3: If a species or machine attains super-human intelligence, how will humans -- who are at that point less intelligent than the species in question -- be able to recognize or determine this? After all, humans might no longer be able to understand what is going on.]

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-12-02 14:27 */

icon:harrypotter #860 (old comments) Sectumsempra

OK, this time I got to watch the movie.

/* spoilers ahoy... */

As I mentioned before, I am one of those naive people who expect a movie that is made after a book, to be like that book. While GoF did follow the book reasonable well, it cut out a whole bunch of stuff. I largely agree with this review, although I wouldn't give the movie 2 stars out of 5... more like 3 or 3½.

Goblet of Fire is a thick book with a complex story, and it's understandable that not all of it could be crammed into a 2½-hour movie. However, by cutting out so many important parts, the movie has less substance than it should. Like the previous one, it feels like you get to see a number of loosely-related clips in rapid succession. And again, the director makes puberty (and whatever goes with that in his opinion) a major plot line. In the book, this is nicely interweaved with the other (sub)plots; in the movie, it seems to stand by itself.

All in all, a complex story has been reduced to a superficial one. It's glaringly obvious in the movie that Mad-Eye Moody's behavior is suspicious; in the book, this is more subtle, and his role is less shallow. For example, we get to know that he has reasons of his own to hate the Death Eaters (like Snape, Karkaroff, and the Malfoy family). In the movie, this is presented like it was just part of his plan to win Harry's confidence and to keep him safe until he gets near the Goblet.

Other (minor) conceits:

Anyway, this was not a bad movie, and it has nice special effects... but it was another case of a complex storyline that was trimmed too much to fit into a given timeframe. Maybe this was inevitable, given the size of the book. It makes me wonder what we can expect for book 5, which is even longer.

[1] Of course, my view might be biased. The name "Krum" always reminds me of my old physics teacher, Krumm, who had a bald forehead protruding from wild curls, a piercing glare, and an almost perpetual sneer. Not a nice man, his behavior was somewhat comparable to that of Viktor Krum in the book. (Although probably more like Snape's...)

/* Posted by Hans Nowak at 2005-11-27 23:43 */