Friday, 1 November 2002

Black and White

Listening to:

Chopin, Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52.

I’ve been playing quite a bit of the PC game Black and White of late. It’s a fascinating game. At an abstract level, it’s Yet Another God Game, where you have to lead the villages that worship you and come to dominate the Land. It’s rather hands-off, distinguishing it from the Real-Time Strategy genre. In fact, there’s no inter-village combat at all; instead you have to take over enemy and unaligned villages by impressing them with your divine powers. Enemy villages are those that already worship an enemy god, and of course that enemy god is trying to subvert your own villages. The game is also hands-off in that you don’t get much fine control over what the villagers do.

So far, rather dull. The big innovation is the presence of Creatures. Each god gets their own Creature, an embodied animal that grows to monstrous size and can stalk across the Land. Here’s where the hands-off philosophy really wins because the Creature is quite autonomous and develops its own personality in response to what it sees around it. It’s clear that a lot of work has been done on the Creature AI, and it really is satisfying to have one’s Creature do something unexpected yet appropriate. Creatures can learn from your example, and can cast the same miracles to affect the world as you can.

And now there is to be a sequel. This looks as if it could well be a big improvement. Having battles appeals to the armchair general in me, even if I don’t get to control much of the action directly, and what’s really appealing is being able to build walls... Ahhh. Peter Molyneux is clearly a man after my own heart; in this interview about the sequel he says I love [building walls] in RTSs.

Tuesday, 5 November 2002

The tax inspecter & Granta 78

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano sonata no. 2, op. 61.

Just read:

Peter Carey, The tax inspector.

This novel is a compelling, but uncomfortable read. I finished it in a single sitting, and definitely felt relieved to have done so. The story generates a lot of tension, and doesn't let the reader relax until the very end. The story is about the tax inspector of the title, a sympathetic woman of Greek descent, and the family who are involved with the business that she is sent to investigate. The family is dysfunctional (that child abuse is its dark secret is where the novel seems most unoriginal; this meme is one that really has been done to death), and full of vividly drawn characters.

The novel is mainly set in the town of Franklin, once a country town, but now practically within the Sydney sprawl. (It seems as if Franklin is fictional.) Sydney features a little as well, but there's not much that really ties the novel to Australia. Instead, its geographical stereotypes are those of small town failure and decline. While most of the characters are disturbed and/or disturbing, most are also pretty sympathetic. The plot is full of viciousness of one form or another, though there's very little explicit gore. All in all, it's a tight, brutal, well-written drama with a bitter view of the world. And there's even a positive ending (the good guys come through mainly unscathed).

Granta 78: bad company (contents)

This issue of the literary magazine is an appealing mix of fiction and non-fiction. The fiction I enjoyed most read almost as if it was non-fiction, in an easy confessional and journalistic style. I particularly liked Jon McGregor's story about a man with a secret, vividly set in East Anglia (now quite a familiar landscape to me). Edmund White's story about a older gay man having a holiday in Florida kept my attention, and Gary Shteyngart's story is larger-than-life and a good read. I also liked Jonathan Tel's elegantly written Zaghrouda, set in Palestine, but only glancingly about the Israeli occupation. Milan Kundera's story featured a character who bordered on the "too angst-filled" to be sympathetic. The story by Todd McEwen (whose Arithmetic I mainly liked) was too disjointed to appeal to me, and Marek Marek by Olga Tokarczuk also seemed pointless.

I liked all of the non-fiction. The first piece, by Adrian Leftwich, who, when push came to shove, betrayed his friends in apartheid-era South Africa to escape a jail sentence himself was particularly interesting. Rory Stewart, walking through Pakistan and talking to people there about dervishes was good, and Arthur Miller's reminiscing about the Chelsea Hotel was amusing in a dry, off-hand way.

To read next:

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5.

Thursday, 7 November 2002


Listening to:

Vivaldi, concerto for two flutes, and strings in C major, RV553. Up to ‘V’: the CD traversal is close to done. The big question is: will I finish before we leave the UK?

Since my entry on Friday, and my talk of games with wall-building, I have succumbed, and bought the next Stronghold game, Stronghold: Crusader. It features new Arabian units and, more importantly, a skirmish mode that should definitely increase longevity. (Reviews at Games Domain and IGN.)

I'm enjoying it anyway, and what with Thief II and Europa Universalis II waiting in the background, I think I probably do have more computer games than I know what to do with.

Monday, 11 November 2002

Slaughterhouse 5

Listening to:

Corelli, Concerti grossi, Op. 6.

Just read:

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5.

This is a short, rather strange novel, which tells the story of Billy Pilgrim and his experience of the bombing of Dresden in World War 2. The novel also describes Pilgrim's life after the war, but in rather a detached, unreal way. This post-war life includes being abducted by aliens and time travel, adding to the sense of unreality. The novel is often blackly humorous, in a way that reminded me of Catch-22. Inasmuch as both novels can be seen as anti-war stories, told by American Everymen, they are similar. On the other hand, Catch-22 is much longer, which means that the many characters there have an opportunity to establish themselves as (larger-than-life) individuals, and for their histories to develop. The plot in Catch-22 also confines itself to war years, but the story in Slaughterhouse 5 covers more chronological ground. This lessens the impact of Slaughterhouse 5 in comparison.

Slaughterhouse 5 tells an effective story in its narration of internment as a PoW in Germany, and being in Dresden when the bombing happened (this happened to Vonnegut himself). I enjoyed these passages, but don't feel that I understood the import of Pilgrim's post-war life. My working hypothesis is that the detachment, the fatalistic philosophy learned from the aliens, the time travel and the aliens themselves are all meant to be symptoms of how the war has messed with Pilgrim's mind, and detached him from the real world around him. For all its strangenesses, Slaughterhouse 5 is a thought-provoking read, and enjoyable.

Now reading:

Granta 79: celebrity.

Wednesday, 13 November 2002

Memorising classic poetry

Listening to:

Schoenberg, Variations for orchestra, op. 31.

I’m not going to try to write a novel this month (but if you fancy the idea, see the National Novel Writing Month site). Instead, I’m going to sublimate my literary urges by memorising poetry. It’s quite restful to recite poems while cycling, though I am not brave enough to do much more than whisper them when there are lots of people about. My repertoire is four poems at the moment: Ode to a nightingale; Kubla Khan; London, by Blake; and Shakespeare’s sonnet #138. Next up: Wordsworth’s Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey.

Friday, 15 November 2002

Science in the dock

Listening to:

Haydn, symphony no. 86 in D major.

Stories about science controversies (physics specifically in these cases):

  • About a researcher at Bell Labs who was faking his results. This story is not so bad because the scientific method caught up with him in the end.

  • Physics papers that people think might be hoaxes, but where the community can’t seem to decide on the issue. The Register describes it, and links to this page by Arkadiusz Jadczyk. The Register reckons that the latter provides useful debunking of the article, but it also contains a lot of rather bizarre conspiracy theory rantings. Another summary is at John Baez’s page.

I’m off to see the new Harry Potter film tonight.