Saturday, 20 December 2008

Moon shot

Originally uploaded by Dr Yool
Got a nice view of the Moon yesterday morning around about halfway from a full to a new moon.

This shot also doubles up as an attempt to post to Blogger direct from Flickr. I think I might stick to the more conventional method for posting, although the picture above does link straight to the Flickr original.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Birthday art

We made the now-traditional pilgrimage to London for my birthday yesterday to take in some of the current art exhibitions and to catch up with friends. This year we were able to take in five ...

  • Landscape Photographer of the Year 2008 at the National Theatre

    This was probably the best exhibition that we caught. Basically a mixture of amateur and professional photographers and a range of subjects, from traditional "natural" landscapes to those dominated by human activity. The descriptions next to each image were very interesting at times: some photographers staked out a location for weeks or months until the ideal opportunity arose, while others caught a lucky break. Another thing we spotted was that quite a few of the more professional shots made use of long exposures with water to create that milky effect. I reckon that I'd need a neutral density filter for that sort of thing. Anyway, overall it was an enjoyable show.

  • Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms at The Hayward

    Moderately interesting this one. I've been to a couple of Warhol shows over the years, but this one paid more attention to his work in the 60s with film than I've seen before. Although, that said, I can't say that I'm a huge fan of this side to his work. I think it's very much of-its-time: nothing much to write home about now, but really quite unusual and interesting when it was originally done. Other than these, they had a modest selection of other works (paintings, photographs, interviews), and there was certainly an attempt to show off the breadth of his work. Useful for someone like me, but I've seen more comprehensive treatments before, and I suspect that many people might, seeing the films, just leave the show with the view that Warhol was a fraud confirmed.

  • Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery

    Another photographic competition, again with a mixture of professional and amateur photographers. Not quite as diverse a range of styles as we saw last time, but still worth a look. As I'm not a portrait-taker myself, I've not really got a good eye for this, so I'm not a good judge to say the least. Still, the range of subjects always makes this prize worth a look, even if many of the portraits appeared quite pedestrian to my badly-schooled eye.

  • Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

    I've seen individual Bacon works on and off for years in galleries, but this is the first time I've gone to an exhibition devoted solely to him. He's probably most famous for his series of "screaming pope" works, and they're certainly pretty striking. Generally, his works seem to convey a rather nightmarish vision of the world, in which his subjects are frequently "caged" within framing structures used in the paintings. The use of dark backgrounds, contorted or ambiguous facial expressions and occluded subjects all add up to convey a rather malevolent tinge to his pieces. They're sometimes physical, conveying activity with blurred or distorted bodies; particularly in one interesting piece which depicts a dog apparently wrestling with something. A few of the images, particularly those in "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion", verge on depicting truly nightmarish monsters (or biomorphs). In some respects these sorts of images reminded me of Gerald Scarfe, who may well have been inspired by Bacon. Anyway, overall, while I wouldn't go so far to say that I actually liked Bacon's paintings, I certainly admired them. Interestingly, while many artists change either their style or subjects over their careers, I didn't feel that Bacon did. I could imagine shuffling the order of his paintings and not really noticing. That's not a criticism, but it's relatively unusual in my experience of art. Most artists show gradual trends in their works that stand out in retrospectives like this one, in the case of Picasso, he seemed to undergo several reinventions.

  • Turner Prize 2008 also at Tate Britain

    As usual for the Turner, a bit hit and miss. In part, I go to see the Turner as an instinctive reaction against the dismissive recoil from modern art that's popular with conservative cultural commentators. The prize is pretty much an annual blood sport for them, but the arguments are always the same, and I don't buy them. More or less, their standard critical questions boil down to: (1) is it pretty?; and (2) could my 5 year old do it?; to which the "correct" answers are, respectively, "yes" and "no". And while I do have similarly reactionary responses to some artists (Rothko anyone?), I always like to be challenged with something new or unusual. I don't always respond positively, but I do like the challenge. The winner this year was, to me anyway, easily the best of the bunch, at least in terms of the material on show. He had a mixture of rather interestingly projected films and photographs, of which the latter was a nice rip-off of the "photograph exploration" scene from Blade Runner. I don't think that the winner was quite as impressive as some of those from other years, but the work was at least a bit interesting. The others consisted of: (1) rubbish geometrical sculpture and weak photo-montages; (2) a literal pile of rubbish - well, found objects arranged inexplicably; and (3) a series of three incomprehensible films, of which only one (of some Heath Robinson device) was even vaguely interesting.

    In passing, post-art, we caught up with Ann, Andrew and Sarah, and wound up dining in a somewhat bizarre Polish-Mexican restaurant. Not fusion food, although that could have been interesting, but an apparent confluence of two separate restaurants or something.
  • Robbed in the Christmas Quiz

    Today was NOCS's annual Christmas Quiz. We came in second place last year, and had high hopes of winning this time around. Unfortunately, an ignominious upper quartile placing resulted. However, the real insult to injury is that I was accidentally responsible for our crashing and burning. As team captain, I had to pre-select an unidentified round as our joker round. Reasoning that the first round was likely to be for warm-up purposes, that's the one I picked. Instead, it was non-general general knowledge one, in which the highest score recorded by any team was only 4/10. We scored 1/10. The subsequent rounds on which we could have played our joker instead netted us 9/10 and 10/10 (we did particularly well on the opening sentences of novels). Had we placed our joker on either of these, we would have won the quiz by a point or two. Gutted doesn't begin to describe it.

    Wednesday, 17 December 2008

    Biomodelling Christmas Lunch 2008

    Yesterday was the annual "Biomodellers and friends" Christmas Lunch over at the Royal Southampton Yacht Club.

    While they're not the cheapest Christmas lunch option, we've gone there for the previous two lunches on account of the location and quality, and yesterday didn't disappoint. For once we were just one of several parties, but that didn't affect the experience at all. If anything, it created a nice background Christmas bustle.

    Post-meal saw us (briefly) in what used to be the Cork and Bottle pub, before we finally ensconced ourselves in our traditional bolt-hole, The Platform. Packed as usual, but a good venue. Even if they did, latterly, have some live jazz.

    A photographic record of the event can be found over at Flickr.

    Wednesday, 3 December 2008


    A different kind of review this time: a computer game rather than a book or a film. I mostly make do with old favourites like Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, but I get through a couple of new titles each year. However, though I pick carefully, they're rarely as interesting as BioShock. At first glance a first-person shooter (FPS) with role-playing (RPG) elements, there's a bit more going on in this title.

    BioShock begins with a spectacular plane crash into the Atlantic ocean which deposits the player amidst burning wreckage but close to a mysterious mid-ocean lighthouse. Investigation of this reveals a bathysphere that takes the player to the underwater city of Rapture. However, Rapture is in trouble and is now far from the utopia that its founder, businessman Andrew Ryan, envisaged when he secretly began its construction in the aftermath of the Second World War. Framed as a refuge for scientists, artists and entrepreneurs from the evils of government and God, it initially attracted the great and the good, including Bridgette Tenenbaum, who pioneered massive advances in genetic engineering. However, its isolation from the outside world also attracted less desirable elements, such as the gangster Frank Fontaine, who created a black market that risked Ryan's control of the city. The resulting war between these men devastated the city, killed Fontaine and left behind a violent mixture of genetically damaged Splicers to control Rapture's ruined structures. The war also led to escalations on both sides that saw desperate depredations on the inhabitants of Rapture, including the enslavement of female children.

    This is the world the player is thrown into, but with the help of Atlas, a survivor trapped in another part of Rapture who communicates via radio, the player is led through what remains of Rapture and gradually introduced to the story of its rise and fall. The player is introduced to Adam and Eve, the factors that allow genetically-based powers to be acquired and fuelled, and also to a range of weapons that can be used for defence against the dangerous Splicers. Most significantly, the player quickly encounters the Little Sisters and their guardians, the Big Daddies (see picture), who come to play key roles both practically and morally in the game. Furthermore, as the player advances through Rapture, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems, and that the player character is more connected to Rapture than even he himself understands.

    Judging the game in conventional terms, it's a very playable FPS with a large and complex environment to explore, and with an impressive range of weapons/powers to assault enemies with. Visually, Rapture is an extremely well-realised city, with brilliant Steam/Diesel/Biopunk flourishes spread across a series of diverse habitats (gardens, hydrothermal power stations, medical facilities and even a museum). Being damaged, and located on the ocean floor, it's also running through with water, and displays some really nice tricks to convince the player of this. Water's not often modelled well in games, but it's done very well here (though obviously not as impressively as ICOM). Attention to detail is extremely good, with Rapture heavily art deco styled (I was reminded most of works by the artist Tamara de Lempicka), and with a lot of period detail (the game is set at the very end of the 1950s). These features alone make it a more interesting title than those that occupy more conventional futuristic or dystopian environments.

    In terms of its gameplay, BioShock has quite a good mix of exploration and combat. There are a lot of interesting things to see, and frequently-found tape recorders play out the story of Rapture in an atmospheric way. Just as well really, since as a FPS fan, I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the scenery (unless it's hostile), so specific verbal cues about the backstory suit me. On the whole, combat works pretty well, although I did take a while to get used to routinely using my genetic powers. My first port of call was typically projectile weaponry until I realised that if I immobilised (with electricity) or terrorised (with fire) my enemies, I could finish them off more easily. That some of the enemies have similar powers mixes it up nicely, although I was only rarely subjected to the same treatment that I routinely doled out to my Splicer foes.

    There were a couple of problems with combat, however. First of all, with both weapons and powers, sometimes a fight got messy as I struggled to select exactly the one I wanted (refusing, as I do, to use the keyboard to select things properly). Frequently I wound up photographing my enemies as they were bludgeoning me. This is compounded by weapons which have multiple ammunition types that require panic-inducing periods of time to switch. Secondly, death isn't actually all that big a deal in BioShock. Most games will throw you back to your last save-point and cost you all of the progress you've made since then, but BioShock resurrects you in a "Vita-chamber" and allows you to continue where you left off (much as with the Grand Theft Auto series). This has a number of problems:
    • it means you can then track down and finish off more easily the now-damaged foe who killed you
    • as dying has no major consequences, letting it happen saves you from having to use up valuable health kits to save yourself (i.e. encourages you do go down guns blazing rather than carefully extricating yourself from fatal situations)
    • only you can do this - no-one else you meet and kill seems to know about these handy Vita-chambers, which seems at least a little unfair
    Generally, the Vita-chambers make gameplay a little too easy, although I'd certainly accept that the more standard alternative, Quicksave, carries its own limitations. Finally, while it sometimes took me a while to work the best way to kill an enemy, once I'd done it, combat became a little bit of a chore, especially where I was only confronted by a single foe at a time. For Splicers, electroshocking them or icing them, followed by a shotgun blast to the head, typically sorted them out (and it became child's play once I had the crossbow). Initially difficult, Big Daddies became very easy to take down once electric gel and RPGs came into my possession. And the final boss battle I finished first time by applying my Big Daddy tricks.

    However, notwithstanding the above, BioShock holds up as an atmospheric and entertaining game. It does take a bit of getting into, and there's a lot to learn about its world, but these are often good things as far as I'm concerned. Fantastical books like Northern Lights and The Lord of the Rings don't lay everything out on a plate for you right at the start - you've got to work through them gradually to understand the worlds they're creating (except the former's film, which does exactly this to the film's detriment). So BioShock's something of a winner, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading its reviews for the past year (... while I was awaiting the purchase of a computer fancy enough to play it on).

    On top from the above, there are two other quite special aspects to BioShock not yet touched on. First, the game heavily co-opts the 20th century "philosophy" of Objectivism formulated by the Russian-born writer Ayn Rand. To the extent that several characters have names derived from Rand or her works, including Andrew Ryan (= Ayn Rand), Frank Fontaine (= The Fountainhead) and Atlas (= Atlas Shrugged), and the backstory of Rapture's origins is lifted her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. During the game, Ryan is frequently heard extolling an essentially Objectivist worldview, and the unregulated (= "free" for Objectivists) technological innovation in Rapture is in keeping with its tenets. I mention this as special, since I don't think I've ever played a game which wears its intellectual origins upfront to this degree, nor integrates them into the plot and setting so well. All that said, BioShock could easily be read as a scathing critique of Objectivism. Instead of the planned utopia, Rapture is quickly reduced to a nightmarish dystopia, both physically and ideologically. Ryan starts by creating somewhere that scientists and entrepreneurs can run free and unbridled by government, but winds up a tyrant presiding over a state in which science is twisted to malevolent ends, and where murderous anarchy is the prevailing civic order.

    The other notable aspect is its handling of the morality of the player's actions in the game. It doesn't take this very far (and it has very few practical consequences), but set against the majority of other titles where morally ambiguous (or even actively immoral) behaviour is common, this still marks it up as noteworthy. Basically, as already alluded to above, key actors in Rapture are the Little Sisters, who act as agents for collecting Adam from the city's dead. Their protection by the Big Daddies means that they can represent quite a danger to the player should they be antagonised in some way. When the first Little Sister is encountered in the game, Atlas strongly advises the player to "harvest" (= kill) her to secure her supply of Adam and to gain enhanced genetic powers. However, the player can also "rescue" the Little Sister from the modifications made to her by Ryan's scientists, but this provides only a small Adam reward to the player. At this early point in the game, the player has very little information on the Little Sisters, and the decision is largely left to the player's innate judgement. When I reached this part of the game, the fact that the Little Sister wasn't hostile towards me, plus that she was clearly a child, made me choose to save her. And I continued to do this throughout the game, coming to see it as my duty to rescue them as I heard more and more about the wrongs inflicted upon them (in that special sense of "duty towards virtual characters in a fiction"). My "reward" for being nice was only, as far as I can tell, a different end sequence upon completing the game ...

    However, it still makes a change to have a game that's at least keeping tabs on how I'm treating NPCs.

    The handling of morality in the game could also be read as a further critique of one particular (narrow?) reading of Objectivism. While it would serve the player best to treat the Little Sisters as a harvestable resource (c.f. "his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life"), the game rewards, albeit with just a pat on the back, sacrifice on the part of the player for them. This is in conflict with certain core Objectivist ethics - so, needless to say, appeals to me. Although my own views occasionally overlap those of Objectivism, I don't believe that its extremism would actually work successfully in the real world (much as with the related political movement of Libertarianism). Among other things, I think there are good biological reasons to believe that (self-interested) altruism plays a significant role in many organisms including humans, and that it's possible that facts of human evolution (evolving in small, tight-knit communities) mean that we're more indiscriminately altruistic than one might otherwise expect.

    Anyway, enough pontificating already. This was just supposed to be a computer game review!

    Tuesday, 2 December 2008

    One moon and two planets

    Yesterday evening saw an occultation of the planet Venus by our Moon. While I had heard about this, I completely forgot on the day. However, while cycling home, I did spot something interesting around the Moon ...

    Although the occultation was passed, Venus was still visible just to the lower right of the bright limb of the Moon. On top of that, Jupiter (top right) was also in close proximity to the Moon, making for a nice triple. The above is my attempt to capture this from the front garden (full size version).

    Thanks to Simon (former professional, now amateur astronomer) for identifying Jupiter for me.