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The Highs and Lows of Bone Hunters

August 18, 2014 Leave a comment
For someone who's millions of years old, she's still got it...

Yes, it’s a selfie. One of the hazards of travelling solo is that you have to resort to them occasionally.

Somewhere in my parents’ house is a yellowing piece of paper, over thirty years old. It’s a newspaper clipping, of a brief article with an attached photograph. In the photo are myself and my sister, still in primary school, clutching a book about dinosaurs. We’d just won a competition about those terrible lizards, the prize of which was said book and a trip to the Ulster Museum’s then-new dinosaur exhibit.*

I wish I had a copy of that photo to use for the picture for this article. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a slightly more mature me and an even more appropriate female guest star. Lurking over my shoulder is Sue, the star exhibit of Chicago’s Field Museum, and now a movie star in her own right, with the release of the documentary Dinosaur 13.

I was a dinosaur nut as a kid, perhaps even more so than is usual. I read everything I could get my hands on, not just about the dinosaurs themselves but also about the history of their discovery. From Gideon Mantell’s reconstruction of the Iguanadon to the Bone Wars of Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, I loved it all. I even wanted to be a palaeontologist before a love of writing got in the way of scientific ambition.

So I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to watch a documentary on the subject of dinosaurs and their discovery. I didn’t even know that Sue was the star turn of the movie until shortly after it began, but as it turns out, her story is far more interesting than the Field Museum was willing to admit.

Still the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found, Sue was uncovered in South Dakota in 1990. It took years for her to find her way to the main hall of the Field Museum, only after many court cases as the government sought to convict the bone collectors who’d struck the jackpot in uncovering Sue. Without going into too much detail, it’s a story that combines pride, joy, greed, bureaucracy and naiveté.

It’s not as heavy on the scientific or historical detail as I might prefer, but that’s a personal judgement. This is the story of those who love fossils and dinosaurs and thought that in finding Sue they would finally put their small town on the map. That they ended up facing fines, prison and the combination of government obfuscation and personal greed is something that might conspire to put some people off palaeontology as a career.

Which would be a damn shame. Any career that offers the opportunity of coming into physical contact with the long-vanished past is one that every child ought to at least consider. And thanks to those who seek out fossils such as Sue, millions of children each year now have a chance to come into contact with one of the most impressive creatures ever to walk the planet. As victories go, it may not be complete, but it’s worth the celebration of sentiment that underlines all the hardships that Dinosaur 13 depicts.

*My sister, a year older than I, was nowhere near the dinosaur nut that I was, and was more than a little apprehensive about getting dragged into my interest. Luckily, no one in the museum was interested in interrogating her on the subject.

A New Beginning

August 16, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s been way too long since I wrote in this blog. My writings have rarely been regular, but recent developments workwise have suppressed the writing impulse to the point where nothing has been appearing for several months. This is clearly unacceptable. So consider this a manifesto for getting back on track.

When I first set up this blog, it was as a receptacle for stray thoughts as I made my way eastwards around the world. (You can go all the way back and check it out if you like.) I also adorned it with some earlier blogging efforts and sprinkled a few of my more favoured attempts at fiction across the top. Further down the line, I began to throw a series of reviews at it, mostly books, cinema and games. Well, I’m still enjoying all of those, but the reviews have dwindled to nothing.

Along the way, there have also been moments of whimsy, political opinions and reflections on the current course of my life. All of this should provide plenty of material to keep the blog mill spinning. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it hasn’t. I still enjoy writing, it’s just that the moments where it previously fitted into my schedule have been shuffled around, and an attempt needs to be made to nail them down again.

There’s plenty to be said for commenting on the state of the world. Politics and the media are in no less surreal a state than they have been for the past few years. The Ferguson affair in the U.S. and the ISIS rearrangement of borders and peoples in the Middle East are raising hackles and some of the weirder excesses of both participants and commentators.

On a more personal level, my reading habit is finally getting back in gear after a few months (hell, call it a year and a bit) where it was hard to find time to fit reading into the rest of my life. Right now I’m rereading Julian May’s “Galactic Milieu” trilogy, having already raced through her “Saga of the Exiles.” May’s one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read, and the Saga of the Exiles would make a great TV miniseries in the mode of Game of Thrones. So add that to biweekly cinema excursions courtesy of a Meetup.com group and some PC and iOS game experiments (both good and bad), and there should be plenty of reviews emerging in the near future too.

Lastly, and most excitingly (for me at least), I’m finally planning to head off on a holiday lasting longer than a week. It’s been over two years at this stage, and it’s more than long overdue. The destination is Greece, as longstanding a travel goal as I have, and the itinerary is intended to take in as much beautiful scenery and sites of historical interest as the cradle of western civilisation has to offer.

So look for some brand new travel diaries coming towards the end of September. In the interim, I’ll try and keep the home fires burning by dropping the odd opinion, review and unusual fact into the hopper for general distribution. Possibly not tomorrow’s cinematic outing though. I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about The Expendables 3.

Shiny Happy Knightly People

June 14, 2014 Leave a comment

20140614-145234-53554609.jpg

What does it take to make a game? Not all that much, it seems. Take a rhythm action section, consisting of eight taps on a screen, then add a few seconds of drag-to-target and voila! You have new free-to-play offering Rival Knights (Gameloft, iOS and Android).

Oh, all right, there’s a bit more to it than that. This game of jousting knights is deepened by an item (mail, helm, lance and steed) collecting element that improves your abilities, and it’s polished by some fine design, graphics, audio and physics. The latter element is particularly satisfying, as a successful strike sends your opponent ragdolling through the air.

Still, the core of the gameplay comes down to the joust itself, and given that each joust lasts around ten seconds or so and will be repeated many, many times by a player seeking to advance through the single- or multiplayer modes, it has to be refined to a high degree. Luckily, it is. While the mechanics can be made more difficult by the wrong equipment, they provide satisfying rewards for increasing expertise.

That equipment affects the three measures that decide who wins a joust. Armour is largely decided by mail and helm, though it, along with the other measures, can be boosted by a critical hit. Speed is based on your horse and modified through the rhythm-action segment. Attack Strength is based on your horse and modified by your accuracy in the targeting segment. Win two out of three and you win the lot.

Being a free-to-play game, players can spend some money to purchase in-game cash or the game’s premium currency: gems. Gems allow you to buy special equipment to get a head start in both game modes, though you can play with the standard items without feeling short-changed. You can also use gems to reset the timers that control how often you can play, though they fill quickly enough on their own. If you’re trying to hit the top of the daily leaderboards in the multiplayer mode, though, spending gems gained either in-game or through purchases might sound appealing.

So we have some simple, yet rewarding, game mechanics at play and a relatively nonintrusive payment system. What really sets Rival Knights apart is the amount of detail and polish Gameloft has lavished on it. The graphics are top-notch, and though there’s only one jousting field, differing times of day and weather conditions (none of which have any effect on the gameplay) boost variety.

Even more variety comes through the equally attractive equipment you can collect, which extends to designing your knight’s coat of arms. I’m getting into the third of five tiers of the single-player game and there are still plenty of opportunities to mix and match equipment to find a successful blend of armour, speed and attack strength. Even lower-tier equipment remains useful in the multiplayer mode.

Still, it’s not a terribly deep game, just a fun one. The multiplayer mode relies mostly on daily leaderboard challenges, with an asynchronous knock-out competition offering some secondary fun. It’s a bit loose and while it offers rewards to dedicated players, it’s not as big a draw as the single-player mode yet. Worse, the networking behind the multiplayer is pretty flaky at the moment. While this will probably be smoothed out soon, it’s annoying right now.

The only real worry I have with regard to the game is the impact of all that shiny graphical wonder on my iPhone’s battery. Sure, it looks beautiful on an iPhone 5S, but the way the phone heats up proves just how hard its graphics chip is being pushed. As a result, playing regularly through the day is going to burn through your charge. So while you might enjoy the life of a knight on the tourney circuit, it’s best not to stray too far from a plug socket while you do so.

Commit to the Insanity

June 12, 2014 Leave a comment
No sign of Varney ... yet.

Back when something dreadful genuinely cost only a penny…

It’s been a surprisingly good year for mainstream cinema so far. We’ve had the best Disney animated movie in years (Frozen), a monster movie that knew it was a monster movie and played to its strengths while referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey and getting away with it (Godzilla), a superhero movie that managed to be way smarter than it had any right to be (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and another two that were way more fun than they were intelligent (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Edge of Tomorrow), and even an arthouse biblical movie that was one of the weirdest mainstream releases in years (Noah).

Sure, there have been clunkers (Transcendence), overrated local offerings (Calvary) and blitheringly stupid drivel (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), but largely, things have been good. The film that I’m looking forward to the most, though, is Guardians of the Galaxy, not due until August. Why? Well, there’s a great sense of fun about the trailers, but beyond anything else, it looks completely bonkers.

Marvel’s movies have eased cinema audiences into the superhero mindset: from the vaguely realistic Iron Man to the space gods of Thor, the weird science and period setting of Captain America, and the alien invasion of Avengers. GotG, though, has a talking racoon with a really big gun and an ambulatory tree with violent tendencies. It’s Narnia and Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars, and if it’s a success it’ll be the biggest vindication of Marvel’s strategy to date.

My anticipation of the sheer insanity of all of this is something I’ve noted cropping up all over the place lately. While I enjoy straight drama as much as anyone, there’s something invigorating about entertainment that recognises its limits and takes a big hairy step beyond them. The kind of TV or film that can genuinely take you by surprise with its refusal to hew to well-worn plots and character archetypes.

It can be a tough approach to take though. The slightest hint that the writers or cast are winking at the audience and the whole thing can become uncomfortably camp. Take as an example the movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Based on an Alan Moore comic series that was itself a perfect example of storytelling beyond the bounds of reason (Victorian fiction’s finest team up to take on Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu and Martians), it was turned into a movie that missed the mark all over the place. Most notably Sean Connery’s starring role as a character who clearly knew he was the star.

All the stranger, then, that where the LoEG movie failed so badly, there’s currently a TV series treading the same ground (filmed in Dublin no less) that gets a whole lot right. In Penny Dreadful, there are vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein (both doctor and monster), Jack the Ripper, big-game hunters, Egyptian deities and consumptive prostitutes, all thrown together in an over-the-top stew. It succeeds for a few different reasons: a consistent tone of darkness (slathered with gore), characters who are buried neck-deep in their own failings and committed anchoring performances from Timothy Dalton (who seems to be enjoying the latter part of his career far more than the early part) and especially Eva Green.

I had previously watched and enjoyed Dracula, a similarly bonkers TV series that mixed the Prince of Darkness with Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla and threw in Freemasons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet never quite managed to make it all gel. Penny Dreadful is working a lot better so far, despite its tendency to have every one of its characters get emotionally or physically involved with as many of the others as possible.

It’s not the greatest TV show ever made, and it’s not going to threaten Game of Thrones or Person of Interest atop my to-view pile, but there are plenty of reasons to catch an episode. In fact, I can only think of one real reason not to, and it isn’t the buckets of gore thrown all over the place. It’s poor old Billie Piper, as the aforementioned consumptive prostitute (a role she really doesn’t want to get typecast in), who is saddled with one of the worst Belfast accents I’ve ever heard. One can only hope it’s less painful to those of you who didn’t grow up in Northern Ireland…

Transcendent Troubles

Nothing to do with the Matrix, of course...

You can trust digi-Depp. Give him your Internets…

The theme of artificial intelligence has haunted humanity for centuries, from the mechanical turks of medieval trickery to Alan Turing’s dreams of conversing with machines. That theme has likewise haunted cinema from its earliest days: Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the direct ancestor of a horde of artificial lifeforms, whether human shaped, like C3PO in Star Wars, or more abstract, like SkyNet in The Terminator.

—Spoilers for Transcendence Below—

Read more…

Calvary, Spider-Man and the Problem of Tone

April 19, 2014 3 comments
As a fight, it wouldn't last long. As a drinking contest, not much longer.

No, they don’t go together. That’s kind of the point.

Too much cinema-going leads the brain to make strange connections. You wouldn’t think that Calvary, a small-budget Irish film about a rural priest facing a death threat, would have much in common with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, one of the biggest-budget blockbusters of the year. And yet here we are. They’re the most recent two films I’ve seen, and one thing leaped out at me from both of them: the problem that they have in establishing a tone.

(Spoilers for both movies below, though as few of them as I can get away with.)

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Oculus

March 26, 2014 Leave a comment
Though who knows, maybe not for long...

An old-style oculus, letting in light unaltered. Not owned by Facebook either.

Up until now, crowdfunding schemes have had one main pitfall: that even though you prepaid for something, you might not get it. Now, with Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR, a pitfall has emerged on the other end of the success spectrum: that the thing you bought might evolve into something that maybe you wouldn’t have prepaid for in the first place.

The Oculus Rift headset was one of the biggest early success stories on Kickstarter. Virtual Reality is one of those never-was technology dreams, but Oculus’s promise was enough for backers to go for it in droves. It wasn’t just promise either: there was plenty of intelligence behind the Rift headset, and it seemed to keep improving as the months went by, with new versions of the development kit and some highly impressive game demos.

And then yesterday Facebook went and bought Oculus VR for $2 billion. This has not gone down particularly well in the technology press, either because the deal is a betrayal of Oculus’s indie roots, or simply because it makes no sense. Facebook, a company with a major games presence, albeit one that’s hardly on the cutting edge, seems to be buying into Oculus because it sees VR as a new field opening up, and with the recent announcement of Sony’s Project Morpheus, it might be right.

Still, the argument that the purchase doesn’t make much sense is a strong one. Unless Mark Zuckerberg has bought into the notion of The Matrix and sees it as the logical end point of Facebook’s parallel world of social connections, it’s not easy to guess where he’s heading with this. VR headsets may be providing increasingly realistic experiences, but they’re still bulky and obvious—only suited for home use, when you’re alone with a net connection. Vain hope it may be, but I don’t really want things to go that way.

Where VR headsets might be heading can be seen in the convergence of technologies. VR headsets replace reality with something new, which is perfect for games but isolates the user from the world around them. Augmented Reality headsets like Google Glass take the world the user is already in and layers extra information over it. Right now they’re limited in their application, but as they become more sophisticated, the tweaks they make to reality will become increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing. At some point, AR and VR are going to merge, and the choice of just how much of the real world to occlude is going to be left to the user.

With high-definition displays, motion tracking and fast response times, VR headsets are approaching the point where they can deliver a genuinely immersive experience. AR headsets are already extremely lightweight, and you don’t have to look too far in the future to see them being implanted in contact lenses. So maybe this is where Facebook is looking with its purchase of Oculus VR—not the immediate future of immersive gaming but rather the long-term play of a future in which your social world is always with you.

This could yet turn out well for everyone: Facebook certainly (?) isn’t stupid enough to kill off Oculus’s promise as something new in the world of gaming. The goodwill that the company gained over the course of its Kickstarter campaign and subsequently is gone already, but some of it could be clawed back if the hardware and its software ecosystem meet early hopes. Longer term, and more scarily, we might yet be facing a future where Facebook is always in the corner of your eye. That may not be a “Like” button that many are willing to click.

Hooked on Science

March 25, 2014 2 comments
Even if what you believe in is a cranky dead white guy.

Sometimes you just gotta stand up for what you believe in.

I’m an inveterate fan of the underdog, but sometimes the underdog gets squished. As an example, take Robert Hooke—something of a scientific underdog, despite being an inventor and polymath described as “England’s Leonardo”. It was Hooke’s misfortune that he picked a fight with one of the smartest men in history: master mathematician Isaac Newton, Mister Gravity himself.

Not that picking a fight was something that Hooke was shy about in his later years. In addition to his multifarious talents, he gained a reputation for being cantankerous, vindictive and petty. Once again, Hooke’s problem was that the man he picked a fight with was a spectacular example of cantankerousness, vindictiveness and pettiness.

The third episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spactime Odyssey retells the story of Hooke and Newton as part of Tyson’s celebration of Edmond Halley of Halley’s Comet fame, a contemporary of both men and a notable polymath in his own right. However, as the story is told from Halley and Newton’s point of view, Hooke is shown as Newton saw him: a hunchbacked, dwarfish figure, with lank, greasy hair and a face always in shadow (the lack of a contemporary portrait of Hooke is often blamed on either neglect or deliberate destruction on Newton’s part).

It’s a fascinating story*, to be sure, replete with accusations of plagiarism, a vendetta lasting beyond the grave and some of the most important scientific discoveries of this or any era. Nor does Tyson shy away from Newton’s own strangeness: not only was he far more of a recluse than Hooke, but he also focused much of his time and intellectual energy on alchemy and the search for hidden messages from God in the bible. It’s hard not to feel that Hooke is a bit hard done by in Tyson’s portrayal—his many achievements are mentioned, albeit more briefly than accusations of plagiarism and credit claimed for other scientists’ work that could just as easily be levelled at Newton.

The feud with Newton was to sink Hooke’s place in scientific history for centuries. Although the two men had very different areas of expertise—Newton was the master mathematician and theoretician, whereas Hooke was an experimenter and thinker in almost every field available—they ended up quarrelling wherever their interests intersected. Famously, his “standing on the shoulders of giants” comments is often thought not to refer to his illustrious predecessor but to be a pointed jibe at Hooke, who was shorter even than Newton.

When Newton became president of the Royal Society shortly after Hooke’s death, he did much to conceal his predecessor’s achievements. In more recent years, scholars have rescued Hooke’s reputation somewhat, but only those with an interest in the history of science or the Regency era in England are likely to know much about him. Newton, by contrast, is generally reckoned one of the finest minds in history and gets his face plastered across banknotes.

It’s a pity that Cosmos doesn’t even the scales a little more, because otherwise it’s a great show, striking a fine balance between entertainment and education. Tyson conveys the march of our understanding of the universe around us in unapologetically positive tones, and if he doesn’t always match the quasi-mystical sense of wonder of Carl Sagan (to whose Cosmos: A Personal Journey series Tyson’s namesake show is a sequel/remake), he may yet be delivering something that could inspire a new generation of scientists.

*Told in much more detail, and to my mind more even-handedly, in Neil Stephenson’s massive-yet-fascinating Baroque Cycle of novels.

Two Films About the Meaning of Life

March 19, 2014 Leave a comment
Learning image manipulation, one filter at a time.

When you stare into the abyss … you’ll notice that it’s kinda fuzzy around the edges.

Terry Gilliam scarred my childhood. Not through a too-young exposure to his surreal and occasionally lewd animations on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (my sense of humour is mostly the result of my dad exposing me to recordings of The Goon Show, again, too young) but rather through his film Time Bandits, one of the greatest and darkest children’s movies ever made. I’m quiet sure that the ending, which I’m not going to spoil, resulted in a few disrupted nights for my parents.

Now he’s back with The Zero Theorem, a new movie following the familiar Gilliam theme of a discontented everyman trying to survive in an at-times sadistically unfriendly dystopia. It’s equal parts Kafka and comic book, and the result is a visual feast that barely conceals the symbolism Gilliam shovels into the mix.

(Spoilers for two recent movies below the cut…)

Read more…

Her: An AI Story

March 13, 2014 1 comment
The navel of the world. All right, I did spell it out.

Yes, there’s a connection. No, I’m not spelling it out.

Bungie Software, creators of Halo and the upcoming Destiny, have toyed with the notion of artificial intelligence throughout their games. In particular, they’ve developed the idea of “rampancy”, whereby an AI becomes increasingly self-aware, intelligent and uncontrolled. It wasn’t a concept I was expecting to come across in Spike Jonze’s Her, though it turns out to be central.

(Spoilers all the way below…)

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