Browsing the blog archives for July, 2007

Mind Control with Derren Brown

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Culture, Visual

To round out its summer lineup, the Sci Fi channel has been pushing a new show called Mind Control with Derren Brown. According to the advertisements, he’s “not a psychic” and “has no supernatural powers” but can still perform amazing feats by manipulating his own, or his audience’s minds. All the while we see a montage of strange and unusual events, such as Derren throwing a punch at a man and having his fist stop several inches away, yet the man still doubles up in pain.

I’m a bit skeptical of this sort of thing, so I went ahead and browsed YouTube for a couple of videos of Derren’s show in Britain. Presumably, he is very popular over there and is only now making his American debut. I watched a couple of videos, which had me somewhat impressed. The first involved Derren debunking psychic readings by investigating his audience’s backgrounds and using an earpiece to receive messages as he tossed out words and impressions to solicit his audience to give him something to work with. The second involved a pair of advertisers who, presumably, had been unconsciously primed with words and images before being instructed to draw up some sample ads for a fictitious company. The resulting ads were almost identical, in many aspects, to the images and words which they had been primed with — This example was a stretch, but stranger things have happened.

So, after investigating a little bit I was intrigued. I figured I’d give the show a shot, and I did last Thursday. Big mistake.

After about ten or fifteen minutes I was so incredulous that I could barely stand to sit through the remainder of the program. I did watch it through to the end, in the hopes that we might get some sort of “This is how it was done” segment that explained the principles behind how the tricks worked. There wasn’t any.* The Sci Fi channel has been pushing this program as scientific and the result of Derren Brown’s psychological insights, but all we got was Derren Brown on a microphone, presumably influencing people to raise their hands in a shopping mall, Derren Brown presumably paying for items in stores with blank paper, Derren Brown presumably tricking people out of their wallets on the street, Derren Brown presumably guessing songs and numbers and dollar bills with no clues.

If this is all scientific then we should be able to have a segment for each trick going step-by-step through the motions needed to get reproducible results. But we don’t, and we won’t. Not only are these tricks not scientific, but whether they’re really taking place or staged with actors is in serious doubt. The only feasible way I can see some of the tricks he pulls off as being performed with real, random, off-the-street strangers is if he tried each trick thousands of times and only selected the miniscule few with whom it worked — And even then, if your trick only works once in a hundred, once in a thousand times, could it be said to even work at all?

I’m pretty disappointed in the Sci Fi Channel for carrying this dreck, but more importantly I’m disappointed that they present it in a factual manner. I may not like some of the ridiculous crap they show, like Ghost Hunters, but at least the advertisements for it don’t try to trick me into believing the premise that Ghost Hunters is some sort of respectable, factual documentary show. I won’t be tuning in again.

This Post Is Not About…

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Miscellaneous

This post is not about the cat who can predict peoples’ deaths. That would just be redundant. Stories about that cat have already been topping social news sites like Fark, Digg, and Reddit for the past couple of days, so there’s no need for this post to be about that cat. Many blogs I read have also made a point to draw attention to this cat, so I don’t feel compelled to write about him in this post. Since my local newspapers and the television news have picked up my slack in reporting on the Cat who was Death, I can focus my attentions in this post, without guilt, on silly human-interest stories like global warming, terrorism, and the dramatic and catastrophic upswing of entropy in the universe, rather than cats who live in nursing homes and curl up next to dying patients.

My priorities must be really screwed up.

Screenshots from Guild Wars: Eye of the North

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Games, Guild Wars

I’ve been feeling a little bit burnt out since I finished my last project for work, so I’ve been spending more time than usual sitting around and watching TV. It’s kind of sad when you’re too burnt out to want to play any games. Guild Wars, in particular, is a mixed bag for me, because I want to earn titles in the game — But I also think that the imperative to earn titles is making me less inclined to play. Needing to completely explore each area as I come to it is a big impediment to casual questing unless I’ve already explored the areas I might need to visit.

Guild Wars: Eye of the North is coming up on a release soon (I’ve heard as early as next month, or the month after), and so I need to decide whether I’m going to reconsider my playstyle decisions or not. I can see how my decisions in pursuing titles have caused me to lose out on some casual play, but at the same time, I feel like the lack of social interaction since the introduction of Heroes is a much more significant factor. Hard Mode, for example, was introduced a few months ago and I really enjoy the extra challenge it provides. However, I haven’t been able to complete it thus far because there simply aren’t enough humans in some of the obscure missions, or enough good players in some of the hardest missions, for me to complete it.

Either way, I’m looking forward to GW:EN. It’s a true expansion pack, meaning you need to own one of the previous Guild Wars campaigns. But it’s also not going to have any new classes, something which I am very happy for — Instead of trying to carve out a new niche for two new classes, it means the existing classes will get more and more varied skills. It’s also going to have a full campaign, new heroes, new titles, new games, items, armor, appearances, and all of the things that I care about as a PvE player. I found a couple of screenshots, shown below, which show off some of the new heroes, monsters, and armors. I’m really in love with the Mesmer fur-trimmed outfit and hairstyle in the third picture.

GWENPreview1

GWENPreview2

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Update: Added the Guild Wars: Eye of the North trailer below. High-resolution downloadable version here (wmv format).

Guild Wars Game Modding

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Games, Guild Wars, Tabletop

Apparently, some clever people managed to figure out how to mod their own Guild Wars datafiles. Although this is somewhat old news, as things like the hoax Terror Shield item demonstrated it could be done in 2005, there seems to be a newfound popularity for editing your own game data files of late. There’s a 30-some-odd page thread on GuildWarsGuru about it, and in roughly half a month several interesting User Interface mods have become available, not to mention innumerable other minor changes (like changing the textures on existing items).

A couple of minor examples:

GWMod1

This image above shows a user modification to the “Critical Hit” effect. A bit cartoonish and over the top, but you’ll always know when you critical.

Below we have a series of images showing alterations to the “wings” effect caused by certain Paragon skills. Normally these wings are gold, but people have modified the texture to display new colorations.

GWMod2

GWMod3

And then there’s the full User Interface reskins, like the one below.

GWMod4

Although it’s just texture replacement, some people have done some interesting things, such as add area-of-effect spell range indicators to the compass (seen above) or add indicators on the health bar for when you drop below major intervals (75%, 50%, 25%, etc).

Of course, for me, the major feature that makes me interested is the ability to reskin the “fog” on unexplored areas of the world map. I haven’t been playing Guild Wars all that much recently, but I would like to get the Cartographer titles eventually, and if I could reskin the fog with a red color (this has already been done) then it should be fairly simple to find unexplored areas of the map to attain 100% map completion.

Then the question becomes, do I want to mess with my Guild Wars files? And do I trust the people doing this sort of thing?

Another thing to mull over.

The Fountain

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Culture, Visual

I finally got around to watching The Fountain recently — I’ve been waiting for this movie to come out on DVD ever since it was released in theaters last fall. Apparently, it was only running in the local movieplexes for about a week before they decided to push it out for your standard mindless Hollywood comedies and seasonal films.

Spoilers below, you have been warned.

Fountain1

After waiting a couple of months for the film, it’s kind of inevitable that I was a bit disappointed in it. Still, I’m glad I got around to watching it, and I’m still bitter about the ridiculousness that pushes an ambitious (if flawed) film out of the theaters for your run of the mill tripe.

Fountain3

One of the problems with this movie is that it’s premise is at once immediately obvious, and yet frustratingly obtuse. Philosophically, the theme of the movie is that death is not something to be feared, it is a natural part of life and continues the cycle of creation in the universe. But, to me, there’s no obvious connection between this philosophical idea and the way the story in the movie is told, via three different timelines, all three of which are tied together by the presence of Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz’s characters.

Fountain6

Why is this done? Why do we skip from Inquisition era Spain, modern day New York, and some unspecified future? One of the big failings of the movie is that the narrative device here seems largely superfluous. The past timeline, for example, is tied into the story loosely by having it be a story that Rachel Weisz’s character writes — But I believe we’re intended to think that the events in that timeline are real. Are they or aren’t they? It’s never explained.

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Then we have the future timeline, which is actually a continuation of the present timeline, but forwarded at least several hundred, and more likely a thousand or more, years into the future. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time believing that a character who has lived several hundred, or possibly thousand years would not get over the death of his wife.

I feel that, philosophically, the idea that death should be embraced, if actually internalized by Hugh Jackman’s character, would have led him to bury the memory of his dead wife in his mind. His grief would fade, his emotions would fade, and, in time, the very recollection of her existence would fade. He would not be haunted by her death, but would instead be free to continue to live his life. Despite that, I’m willing to handwave that away, as we could say that the character’s insistence on holding on to his life beyond all natural limits has given him a similarly unnatural persistence of memory and emotional attachment.

Fountain5

Even ignoring the plausibility issues of having a future timeline so far removed from the present one, but so dependent on fickle emotion, one could argue that it’s the character’s very stubbornness in resisting death that makes the whole narrative of the movie possible — I find it really hard to take away the intended meaning of the film when so much of it hinges on resisting the movie’s message.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the movie is self-undermining. Aronofsky is an atheist, so we can assume that in the movie here he is not suggesting that death leads to an afterlife, but rather that the death and dissolution of one creature, one object, will allow something new to be created with its physical remains. Although trivially true, this really doesn’t address the issue of why any particular extant being should sacrifice itself for the creation of something new. The issue is sidestepped in the movie by presenting Jackman’s character in the future as gaunt and hollow, like a man who has spread his vitality thin across too long a life. But I don’t see that as any kind of necessary condition.

Furthermore, the issue of presenting two distinct stories, that of the Conquistador and Isabel, and of the modern characters (and their story as it progresses a thousand years in the future), confuses the issue. Is Aronofsky positing some kind of reincarnation? The past storyline is one that I find particularly problematic because of the presence of a genuine villain character, in this case, the Inquisitor who we discover is threatening to kill Isabel for her heresy. The issue I have with this subplot is that it is the Inquisitor character which both the Conquistador and Isabel are attempting to fight, and yet in terms of philosophy, a pseudo-Gnostic Christianity focused on spiritual matters in opposition to the body, strikes me as not particularly different from the message promoted by the movie. Sure, you can split hairs about doctrinal matters, but it seems to me that in a day-to-day situation you’d have a similar end behavior.

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All in all, I enjoyed the movie, but it wasn’t nearly what I was expecting, nor as good as I was hoping. As I was watching I could definitely enjoy the visuals, which were frequently spectacular (though I wasn’t too thrilled with the aesthetics of the modern storyline, particularly how the actors were made to look). Although I think it’s confused in its message, I found it at least engaging enough to think about it myself and look at where I think its message falls apart. At times I really felt like there were scenes missing, things that I imagine would make this a stronger movie but were cut for time constraints. I’m betting we will see a director’s cut of this movie, and I’m tentatively looking forward to it. No matter how beautiful a movie Aronofsky makes, I don’t think that he’s going to convince me that we should all just accept death and not resist it, but I can still enjoy the movie.

Unreal Tournament 3 at E3 2007

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Games, Unreal Tournament

A new trailer from this year’s E3, and also a target release date of November 2007. Excellent news!

If you’ve been looking forward to this game at all, do yourself a favor and download the high resolution trailer (Quicktime .mov format).

Mercedes Lackey

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Literature

I was listening to Fear the Boot (Episode 13 if you care) and the show’s hosts were talking about novels written in a game universe. Dawn, a guest co-host, mentioned she had some Mercedes Lackey books…

I’d forgotten entirely about Mercedes Lackey, but once I heard that name I immediately, no exaggeration, paused the podcast and opened up a new browser window just to write this rant in.

I picked up three Mercedes Lackey books about five or so years ago. Two of my good friends had gotten into Mercedes Lackey and had been raving about some of her novels — I don’t know if I’m remembering correctly, but I believe the novels that were getting ravers were Brightly Burning and the Magic’s Pawn/Promise/Price series. I went to a local bookstore with the intention of picking up some of these books, but they didn’t have any of the specific ones I was looking for. I bought the bullet and picked up another series of her books that was there, the Vows and Honor series.

This has got to be one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read. My strongest memory of the books has been thinking that this is the kind of book someone might take to the beach because you wouldn’t care if you ruined the pages with lotion. Considering how much of a perfectionist I am about all of my books, trying to keep them all in pristine condition, I consider that extremely damning. Probably the highest praise I’d be willing to give to Mercedes Lackey is to say that she can put enough words down on a page to fill up a book.

The series I read, Vows and Honor, is about two female characters Tarma and Kethry. [I’m refreshing my memory from the back of the books right now, as the only thing that wasn’t forgettable about them was how horrible they were.] One of them is some Native American style swordswoman, the other is an ex-noblewoman turned Mage. Both are servants of “the Goddess,” which should be a pretty big indicator of where this series begins and ends. Another indicator comes in browsing the preface of one of these books, Mercedes Lackey begins talking about the state of the genre of fantasy fiction and talks about Conan by saying “C*n*n.” Who does that?

The big question in my mind is how someone like Mercedes Lackey, who’s, from all the signs I’ve seen, a no-talent hack, able to become a name of sorts in the fantasy genre. It really boggles my mind, I didn’t think the genre was that barren. Guess I was wrong

Giving up the d20

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Games, RPGs, Tabletop

I’ve been pondering starting up a campaign for D&D again, and last week I ran the idea of a Guild Wars based campaign past my group and they gave the thumbs up to the idea — Now I just need to decide if I actually want to run a Guild Wars campaign, and what that would mean for the setting.

That’s not exactly what I wanted to talk about though. I’ve been mulling over running D&D with different dice systems — I’m kind of disillusioned with the d20, most notably because my dice have used up all their 20s long ago and nothing short of dipping them in the sacrificial blood of Polyhedro, the God of Dice, would be able to fix their consistently poor rolling.

I’ve been considering a couple of replacement systems:

  • 3d6. This is outlined in Unearthed Arcana (or is it Arcana Unearthed?), or available through the d20 SRD as a variant rolling method. This system’s got a couple of benefits. (1.) Everyone has plenty of d6s. (2.) A nice bell curve to decrease the chance that any one homicidal die will end up having your character fail at an easy task. (3.) All of the work behind figuring out this system has been worked out already.
  • 4d6. My main reasons for considering a 4d6 system are pretty superficial: 4d6 preserves the 20 point spread range of a traditional d20. You’ve also got an even larger bell curve, but I think at the point of 4d6 that might become as much of a liability as it would be a benefit: The dice are a constant source of amusement and twists and turns in RPGs … Too much averageness might reduce the importance of that. Not to mention I’d need to sit down and figure out the probabilities involved in 4d6 and figure out how that would affect weapons.
  • 2d10. This is a pretty obvious one, and though it’s not a full 20 point spread, it’s close. 2d10 was the first system I thought of when considering whether or not to run with an alternative rolling system. It has a curve, but it’s not as steep as either 3d6 or 4d6, and the probabilities are pretty intuitive as well, which is always a benefit to on-the-fly risk assessment.

I decided to go with a 2d10 system. It’s always a toss up to see how these things are going to work out, but a system that’s pretty quick to figure out on the fly, which has a bell curve but not a particularly steep one seems pretty ideal. On a purely visceral level, rolling 2d10 feels better to me than rolling 1d20, but it’s not like playing a game of Yahtzee with 4d6.

The major issue that needs to be resolved with 2d10 is weapon threat ranges. Although there’s room for improvement with d20’s weapons, for the most part I just to keep things simple. Things will look like so:

  • 20-20 -> 19-20, 18.H (Coin toss on 18s, heads threatens).
  • 19-20 -> 17-20
  • 18-20 -> 16-20
  • 17-20 -> 15-20

And so on. At some point I’d probably be compelled to cut the progression for large threat ranges down, but in terms of mechanical power a lot of the high threat range weapons are substandard anyway, so it doesn’t bother me all that much to give them a bit of a boost.

I think I might start outlining the sort of house rules I’m looking to go with…

Update: Redhammer the Old over at the Fear the Boot forums has this neat graphic illustrating 2d10 vs. 1d20…

Redhammer2d10vs1d20