Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Redundancy blues

As of about two weeks ago, our institute has been staring down the barrel of some mandatory staff cuts. We've been expecting these for the better part of three years - most, in fact, of the time that I've been formally employed on the "government" side of things. But the scale of the cuts are larger than I think most of us expected (and all of those who I've spoken with). Of approximately 150 staff, around 35 are expected to be lost, around about one quarter.

The actual staff lost will be determined through a ranking exercise that will see about 60 staff (40% of the total) offered redundancy, with a view to reaching the desired target of 35 without resorting to compulsory redundancy. Which seems a reasonably sensible strategy except for certain provisions in the terms of voluntary/compulsory redundancy that differ between staff hired at different times. After about 1998, staff have been hired on terms that significantly favour the acceptance of voluntary redundancy over sitting it out and being made compulsorily redundant. So those staff, myself included, that were recruited "more recently" have something of an incentive to jump before being pushed.

Whether I'm one of those caught up in the downsizing (a euphemism I've actually yet to hear used in this specific context) is yet to be clear. The ranking criteria emphasise quantitative metrics such as papers, grants and the h-index, which, on the face of it, are important aspects of the modern scientist's life. But there are subjective elements to the weighting, and there may be further fudge factors yet to reveal themselves. While my publication record is far from stellar, I think that I do OK, more so in recent years than when I was slogging it out as a post-doc programmer. My grant record, however, is bad - though in part this stems from me being pointed in other directions.

Overall, with about 40% of staff getting an invitation to consider an alternative career, and with a strong impetus to accept said invitation should it be presented to me, I'm very far from feeling safe. Either way, life in my institute is going to look and feel very different in a few months time. Those who survive seem liable to be "gifted" new tasks whose previous "owners" are no longer around. So I'll either be busy looking for a new career (and it will be a career - niches for oceanographers are too thin on the ground), or busy picking up the pieces of tasks left incomplete by the purge.

Hence the blues.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Twin Peaks twenty years on

Alarmingly, it's more than 20 years since David Lynch's acclaimed foray from the big screen onto television, Twin Peaks. Until then, the latter was easily the more conventional of the two media, down, in part, to its generally broader audiences and its significantly greater content restrictions. But Lynch clearly failed to read the memo that explained all of this when he created his Pacific Northwest-set surrealist-horror-comedy-drama.

Instead, he blended conventional elements - such as murder mystery and folksy Americana - with those less familiar to television audiences - such as dream interpretation and supernatural horror. And all, unpredictably, to great success, both critically and commercially. While it didn't attain quite the hold on popular imagination of, say, Who shot J.R.?, the murder of Laura Palmer became a massive mainstream phenomenon. And even after Twin Peaks ignominiously left television screens in 1991 (only to further disappoint cinema screens in 1992), its themes and style cast a long shadow over subsequent television series. For example, Northern Exposure amped up its quirky folksy elements, while The X-Files both played on its horrific aspects and even borrowed its central motif of a heroic, if unconventional, FBI agent.

After watching the more recent - and certainly more limp - series Carnivàle, which both plays on similar supernatural aspects and even borrows the Man from Another Place, we reflected on how, even now, Twin Peaks is still leaving its mark. Which led, seamlessly, to a glaringly obvious birthday present purchase when C's birthday rolled around last year. So, though it has remained emblematic in our memories over the past 20 years, does Twin Peaks stand up to a second viewing?

The short answer is "yes". Though I've praised it above, going in I was concerned that its then-originality might since have translated to now-overfamiliarity, and that its unusual blend of genres would now seem positively stale given that a whole slew of subsequent shows have followed in its wake. But - with a few caveats - I think we both really enjoyed our second visit [*] to Twin Peaks, and I reckon that it still holds up despite the years.

In part, this is simply because there's never been anything quite like it since. As already mentioned, lots of subsequent series have adopted elements from it, but none - at least, none I've seen - have tried to be quite so ambitiously off-the-wall. Another aspect that still stands out for me is how expansive the cast is and how well-drawn the characters are. Sure, quirkiness is definitely valued above realism, but the principal characters - of which there really is no shortage - are pretty well fleshed out, and all are given time in the limelight. Even sporadic characters like Gordon and, especially, Albert are given enough screen-time to be discernibly more than scenery.

And one shouldn't underplay the central mystery. Though this apparently wasn't quite resolved in quite the way that Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost originally intended - which is to say not resolved - it's still a satisfying tale. Which is a surprising thing for me to say given that it hinges on the show's strongly supernatural elements - not usually my favoured way to resolve, well, anything. The series does slip a bit coupling this storyline to that of Windom Earle, but I think it gets there by the end - well, what passes for "the end".

One thing I'd sort-of forgotten about, but which seemed much more noticeable on this repeat viewing, is how prevalent and effective the music is. For a TV series, especially one from two decades ago, it's got a great soundtrack, one that wouldn't be out of place in a film. Which, given Lynch's background, isn't too much of a surprise I suppose, but its presence does make the corresponding absence in successor series quite noticeable. It'll definitely be getting rotated back into my iPod listening.

All that said, there are a few places where I think Twin Peaks sags a bit. These were issues even back when the series was originally aired, but - being less "culturally experienced" - I just didn't register them then. For instance, it does, at times, run some fairly incompatible material back-to-back. So we have serious scenes concerning murder juxtaposed with broad (and sometimes flat) comedy scenes with the likes of Andy and Lucy. This comes across as tone-deaf and it tends to weaken the series' darker themes. A lesser flaw is a related juggling of "serious" characters with comic relief ones - which tends to work up to the point where they intersect in scenes. A case in point are the husband-and-wife characters of Pete and Catherine Martell, where the former uncomfortably straddles comic scenes with most characters but serious ones with his wife.

A more serious problem is the obvious one that the series was axed with a stack of plotlines left dangling on cliffhangers. There's no getting passed this, but it's still infuriating - even 20 years on - that we never get to find out the fates of any number of characters imperilled at the close of Season 2. Obviously, the plan was that the series would be picked up for a third season, but Lynch et al. put so many eggs in that basket that one can't help but be let down by the slew of incomplete storylines. More recent series, perhaps cognisant of Twin Peaks' fate (and what it might mean for DVD sales), tend not to leave quite so much at stake when a season ends. Of course, Lynch didn't do himself any favours by singularly failing to make the most of his cinematic follow-up, Fire Walk With Me, pick up the slack. But I'm going to overlook that - though we've got that to watch down the line if we can face it.

Anyhow, once again, it seems possible to "go back" to a classic, and have it still hold up. I am now left slightly deflated by the fact that, 20 years on, Twin Peaks is clearly never going to have a proper ending, but it's still a ride I'd definitely recommend.

Dscf0757[*] As it happens, we had something of an earlier second visit, technically to the setting rather than the series, back in 2002. After attending a conference in Victoria, we spent three weeks driving around Washington and Oregon, arriving in Snoqualmie for what we thought would be a quick tour of the pop cultural sights. But the area was so nice that we wound up spending three or four days in the vicinity. Among other sights, we visited the Salish Lodge - pictured left - which stands in for the Great Northern Hotel in Twin Peaks, and the town of Roslyn which stands in for Northern Exposure's setting, Cicely. Needless to say, there are a considerable number of photographs over at Flickr.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Silence is golden

In the lead up to the Oscars, films sometimes inexplicably float to the fore of public consciousness, get into the running and build up a head of steam towards the finish line. There are many deserving examples - and then there is a more select group of wholly undeserving ones (of which, the strangest recent example for me is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a truly terrible film). Of late, the black-and-white, silent picture, The Artist, has been making some impressive running - and lots of friends among critics. But is it among the deserving?

This is an unqualified no-brainer - it totally is. It's simply excellent, both as a loving homage to early Hollywood (or "Hollywoodland", as the film correctly notes), and as an exceptionally enjoyable and well-realised comedy. The homage is brilliantly done, making choice nods to Hollywood clichés - and not just the positive ones - with so many clever "lifts" from early cinema. The details are spot on, with caption cards, framing, the aspect ratio, and even the fonts studiously reproduced. And the makers use all these aspects to perfection in service of a story that's in turns extremely funny and pitch-perfectly melodramatic. And, on top of all this, it has a scene-stealing dog - though it's not the only film this year to have this.

Overall, I'll be delighted if it wins at the Oscars (though, to be fair, we've yet to see what competition it faces). Focusing, as it does, on the cinematic past, it perhaps isn't the most resonant of films, but a film that so completely satisfies on so many other levels would make for a fine winner.

Grade: A (high +3 on the Leeper Scale)

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Return to Liberty City

After a recent interlude with one of its many imitators, it's time to return to, and drink deeply from, the wellspring of video game criminality, Grand Theft Auto. And no less than a double bill this time: The Lost and Damned (TLAD) and The Ballad of Gay Tony (TBOGT).

Both new "episodes" take the player back to the mean streets of Liberty City, and back to some of the familiar characters and events from the superlative GTA IV. But in both the action shifts sideways to new player characters (PCs) that come from different backgrounds and have different motivations to GTA IV's memorable Niko Bellic. He brought a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant's perspective to the byzantine metropolis, and a hope that "maybe here things will be different", but this time the PCs are a lot more familiar with Liberty City's heights ... and its depths.

In TLAD, the player takes the role of Johnny Klebitz, acting president of the Lost MC, a motorcycle gang with a sideline in drug dealing. Having brokered a truce with a rival motorcycle gang, and gotten the Lost MC onto a solid and safe criminal footing, Johnny finds himself having to deal with the fallout brought about by the release from prison of Billy, president of the club. Not content with the peaceful criminality that Johnny has carefully built up for the Lost MC, Billy quickly sets about re-establishing enmity between the gangs, threatening the livelihoods, and the lives, of Johnny's Lost MC brothers.

Meanwhile, in TBOGT, the player inhabits the designer shoes of Luis Lopez, right-hand man to Anthony "Gay Tony" Prince, owner of Liberty City's hottest straight and gay nightclubs. But the entertainment business isn't booming, and a series of bad decisions by a drug-addled Tony puts the clubs in hock to some less than pleasant gangsters keen to muscle Tony, and Luis, out of the picture. Further brushes with brutal Russian mobsters ups the ante, leaving Luis with a sizeable mess to clear up if he and Tony aren't to wind up whacked.

After quite a run of lesser GTA wannabe titles (Just Cause, Saints Row 2, The Saboteur; and also the FPS-fusion Far Cry 2), it's great to be back in Liberty City. And both TLAD and TBOGT are basically very enjoyable returns to it.

Bar an extended introduction to LC's motorcycle gang subculture, which previously just existed to serve up occasional, generic goons, TLAD doesn't introduce a whole lot of new material to the GTA universe. But it still tells an enjoyable story of conflict between (MC gang) brothers, one whose outcome has a predictable tragic arc, and it does so well - not that this comes as a huge surprise given GTA IV's storytelling. By giving Johnny a better grip on his handlebars than Niko seemed capable of managing, it does also - finally - make motorcycles a viable form of transport to travel across LC - in GTA IV they were basically deathtraps.

However, TBOGT is definitely the pick of the two episodes. While it benefits immediately from a somewhat longer campaign, it introduces a lot more new content - characters, storylines and weapons - and has much more variety in Luis' various missions. And it definitely captures some of the outlandish criminal fun that was present in (the epic) GTA San Andreas but which was strangely absent in GTA IV. So as well as having an assassination mission that includes base-jumping, an in-the-air theft of an armoured car, and an explosive final mission that culminates in jumping from a motorcycle onto a (soon-to-explode) plane, Luis even steals a moving subway train straight off the tracks. Ridiculous, but brilliant fun.

In passing, I just have to note that TBOGT, for all of the homophobic abuse that is hurled at its eponymous NPC, Gay Tony, is a strangely progressive title. It presents a gay man in a major role as a successful, albeit currently drug-addled, nightclub owner and mover-and-shaker, one that inspires a lot of loyalty from his right-hand man, Luis. He is, to be sure, still a stereotype, but the game's writers bend over backwards to present him and, by extension, his lifestyle, as acceptable and normal. Well, at least relative to other titles. I was actually very pleasantly surprised at how sensitively the friendship between Tony and Luis is played out in what's usually a brash medium that's more comfortable confirming negative stereotypes. We're not talking a treatment here that's comparable to what occurs in novels, or even films, but TBOGT does a commendable job of realistically presenting both the homophobia of everyday life alongside a complete acceptance of so-called "alternative" lifestyles.

Changing tack completely, one jarring feature of both titles is how the storylines paint both player characters as essentially "good guys", but then insist on them committing acts that completely erode this perception. For instance, Johnny is shown as having actively reached out to rival gangs to calm things down and remove the violence from his drug dealing, an equilibrium that is upset by the reappearance of Billy. Similarly, Luis has had a spell in prison in his past which he regularly talks about as a formative experience and a significant turning point in his life. But both PCs seem to completely forget all about this when gameplay sets in, and both wind up doing things that are seriously at odds with the stories that Johnny and Luis tell about themselves in cutscenes and dialogue. I was actually disappointed that there wasn't any way of acting on either Johnny's or Luis' better impulses during play. That said, this is a failing that repeats from earlier GTA titles where characters who ostensibly appear principled still seem to wind up engaged in no end of sociopathic violence.

Another significant failing in both episodes, and, again, in GTA more generally, is that, no matter how sophisticated the overarching storyline or characters, the player is not allowed to resolve things in any way other than violently. GTA IV allowed the player a few binary decision points where a choice had to be made, but these only had minor consequences in terms of gameplay, even where they had quite significant consequences for in the wider storyline. Furthermore, there's just nothing like the openness of the storyline that's available in the likes of Fallout 3. While, yes, there are still some fundamental limitations there too, the developers have clearly gone out of their way to leave things as open as possible. For any given mission, there are usually numerous possible routes towards one of several outcomes - and violence is not the only solution. This widening gap between GTA's quite sophisticated storylines, which aspire to be realistic and open, and the actual lack of realism and openness, is something that the series needs to invest in to stay relevant.

To be fair, rival GTA titles (as well as the likes of the hallowed Half-Life) are similarly lacklustre in these departments. Their worlds are increasingly sophisticated and detailed, but the options available for players to navigate them are disappointingly thin on the ground. So for players that are familiar with more open worlds, such as that of Fallout (and, as I understand it, there are plenty of others), GTA is looking increasingly creaky - even if it is still a lot of fun. And I mean a lot of fun.

So, overall, I still love GTA. But I just wish it would spread its wings a bit more and give me more control in its worlds. Roll on Grand Theft Auto V ...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Different Capitalism

I just about had it with politicians of all stripes (and I mean all stripes) wittering on about how all we need is some new kind of capitalism: "caring", "moral", "responsible". And how, on those occasions when blame is actually being doled out to neo-liberal capitalism, all of the problems are somehow down to the "casino" or "crony" varieties.

The implication, usually unstated but sometimes overt, is that with the right degree of moral fibre, capitalism can right itself and sail us all into a bright future. Even now after all that's happened in the world, the suggestion that it might perhaps need regulation, or some other form of oversight, is quickly dismissed, even by those politicians ostensibly in favour of "big government" (or painted as such).

Which, isn't perhaps entirely unrealistic given that it wasn't just a failure of the markets that got us to where we are today, but a wider failure of mechanisms that were in place - or were believed to be in place - to protect us. So it doesn't seem unreasonable to baulk before installing new control mechanisms, since the last set comprehensively failed to do what they were supposed to.

Arguably - and, boy, has it been argued by those at the lunatic end of the neo-liberal spectrum - the very intervention of government regulation in the markets makes them unstable by disrupting "natural" checks and balances that should otherwise allow plain sailing with nary a hand on the economic tiller. Wide-eyed, they baldly harangue that if only the markets had been left alone, none of this would have happened.

This line is superficially seductive, since it appeals to the idea of corporations being prudent - and therefore self-correcting - when there's no-one waiting to bail them out. But the necessary drive for constant (cancerous) growth constantly shoals vision to immediate, short-term gain at the expense of longer-term wisdom. And the propensity for businesses to conglomerate towards monopolies acts to destroy competition. Leaving businesses entirely to their own devices is simply not plausible.

More importantly - "caring", "moral", "responsible" - these are terms that don't even faintly match either the reality of business, or traits that are likely to prove successful in business. Businesses that adopt these will simply lose out to those businesses that don't. People can high-mindedly argue that the moral consumer will choose better behaved businesses, but the importance of the bottom line, especially in our currently stretched times, is difficult to overstate. How much more would you pay for the same service from a (more) moral corporation?

All of which is a round-about way of getting back to where I originally intended to come in here. Namely, businesses need regulation, if not to keep them in line then to keep their less scrupulous rivals in check. Obviously, such regulation needs careful tuning to avoid becoming needlessly onerous, and it should perpetually be open to revision, but its absence, or its trimming back, doesn't come cost-free.

The idea that it can be any other way, that we can rely on business having a moral sense that is aligned with our personal moral compasses, is flatly ridiculous. But this is the vision currently being articulated by the leaderships of our three main parties. Sure, they have their differences, but they're just subtle variants of the same message: business knows best. And while business does know best in many aspects of its operation, we should not be lulled into thinking that, if we really do wish morality and justice to be the outcome of its actions, that business can provide us with the solution.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Pallant House and Chichester Cathedral


Travelled over to Chichester today to catch an exhibition by the UK artist Edward Burra (1905-1976) at the Pallant House Gallery (which we became members of last year for a Frieda Kahlo / Diego Rivera double-bill).

Burra isn't someone whose work I've hitherto been particularly familiar with. I did recognise one or two of the pieces on display at Pallant House, but it would be fair to say that I was mostly drawing a blank up until today. Which made it quite a pleasant surprise to discover how accomplished Burra was. The most obvious way to describe his work is "colourful", but that would seriously underplay the range of subjects from urban scenes to landscapes, and from heavily-stylised representational art through to surrealist musings on war and death. He apparently didn't favour the surrealist label, but it's hard not to see some of his work in this light. That said, much of the work on display dealt more directly with experiences of working life in Britain, France and Harlem, New York. Overall, he's easily the most interesting painter that I've come across in quite a while. No Picasso - but then, who is? - but well worth checking out.

Post-Pallant House, we sought out lunch in a converted church, before seeking out (needless to say) photo-opportunities in Chichester's (unconverted) cathedral. Another great, and cultural, day out.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

A history lesson

DSC03785 by Dr Yool
Netley Hospital Chapel, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
Something of an education on the history of Southampton, specifically Netley, this afternoon courtesy of Royal Victoria Country Park and local author, Philip Hoare. The location is important since it was once the site of the world's largest hospital, Netley Hospital, in fact the world's largest building when it was completed back in 1863. All that remains now is the hospital's chapel, pictured above - and in many other photographs I've taken over years of visiting the park.

Anyway, Hoare's lecture took in the history of the hospital, and that of its site, from when it was originally commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1856, through its part in two World Wars, to its eventual demolition after more than a century of use (and, potentially, misuse) in 1966. It being somewhere that I've visited many times over the years, not least because it has a great war cemetery, I've picked up some basic history but, as Hoare uncovered, only the slimmest of slim fractions.

Some of the most interesting parts of Hoare's account were how familiar certain tales about the hospital are to the modern audience. So, we started with the NIMBYs who protested its construction, and who, apparently, even claimed the risk of malaria to patients as a reason for building elsewhere. Then there were were the complaints that the resulting hospital wouldn't be fit for purpose from, of all people, Florence Nightingale. And on top of all that, the massive cost overruns that construction incurred, with the hospital ultimately costing more than twice its original budget. The lecture certainly made the 19th century seem strangely resonant to ostensibly 21st century concerns about big government projects.

It was particularly striking to hear how ill-planned and poorly executed quite important aspects of the hospital and its rationale were. Few, if any, of the painfully-gained lessons that Nightingale learned during the Crimean War were adopted into its design, and poor decisions often came back to haunt the hospital. For instance, Nightingale noted that, should the hospital need expanding, its linear design (an impressive 1/4 mile in length) would mean that expansion would be very difficult. Which was subsequently borne out during WWI, when injured troops were housed, albeit with improved treatment, in a "shanty town" of tents behind in the main building. Victorian Britain certainly felt more a part of the continuum of history rather than the exceptional Golden Age that it's sometimes presented as.

Also alarming, though more from the standpoint of 21st century medicine, were some of the practices employed at the hospital. Hoare recounted one tale involving leeches, spoke of the level of training afforded to nurses (let's just say it wasn't degree-level), and showed contemporary video footage of some rather unconvincing physical therapies. He also spoke about Netley Hospital's military asylum which served, effectively, as a holding facility for victims of "shell shock", as well as a source of dark, if unconfirmed, tales of drug experiments (interestingly, it's now used by the Hampshire Constabulary for training). Much of this is understandable in terms of the evolution of medicine as a discipline, but at the same time it was clear that patients were also viewed as, and treated as, guinea pigs by the doctors.

Overall, it was excellent. Talking without notes, and using only 30 or so vintage photographs for illustration, Hoare did a great job tracing out the biography of the hospital, from construction to destruction. He's clearly done a lot of formal research on the subject, but has also spoken to quite a number of people who either worked at the hospital while it was still open, or who somehow have a family connection - including the grand-daughter of the builder, who revealed some details about the costings. And he also presented quite a few of the loose ends of his digging, hints of stories that he'd come across but been unable to finally resolve. Being a "local boy", one who actually used to break into the hospital's derelict asylum, he was well aware of the familiarity of the location to his listeners, and the resonance the old hospital still has for some of the more senior ones. As a way of dramatising this, he spoke of how, during dry summers, the foundations of the hospital can appear as a ghostly shadow on the lawns that now overlie them.

Definitely recommended should he talk on the subject again.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

A small Microsoft victory

Since Windows ditched any kind of visual representation in its disk fragmentation tool (at least on Vista and Windows 7), I've moved to a great freeware tool called Defraggler by the (generous) Piriform. As the pictures below show, this gives a handy pictorial overview of how well organised disk space on my various computers is.

However, in trying to defragment a persistent block island of discord on my laptop (Windows XP), I tested Defraggler against Microsoft's Disk Defragmenter. After a few rounds of Defraggler, there were a little more than 3000 files offering resistance, and Defraggler was unable to do anything about them. To see if it could do any better, I then let Disk Defragmenter have a go ...

... And, much to my surprise, it was able to lay waste to the rebelling files and decrease their number to a mere 58. So a small and rare victory to Microsoft. Of course, Windows possibly allows Disk Defragmenter access to fragments that are precluded by the default settings in Defraggler, but I can't see anything that immediately supports this hypothesis.

Still, given that I like pretty pictures of my hard disk, I think I'm going to keep using Defraggler, but with the hope that Microsoft wise up and reinstate a pictorial map.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Grand Theft Nazi

Though an incipient sociopath, one of the things that's always perturbed me about the Grand Theft Auto series is that, away from missions involving (fellow) criminals, the only fun to be had involves mischief against innocents (including, obviously, murder). How much slower my transformation to suburban psychopath would be if there were targets that could condition more wholesome Pavlovian responses. Well, Pandemic Studios (RIP) clearly share my concerns, and have adapted the GTA formula to include enemies against whom mischief is not only condoned, but is practically encouraged: Nazis!

Set in occupied France during World War 2, The Saboteur pits Irish racing mechanic (and stereotype), Sean Devlin, against a blonde, Master Race archetype, Kurt Dierker. After the pair initially clash in a (flashback) race that takes place near the French border shortly before the invasion of France, the action picks up months later in a digital version of Paris crowded with entitled Nazis bullying the local populace. While Dierker now crushes Paris beneath his jackboot, Devlin now lives out of a cramped hidden room at the back of the Moulin Rouge (complete with windmill!), darkly bemoaning the turn of events that have ended his career, oh, and led to the oppression of the proud nation of France.

After a chance meeting with a philosopher-turned-resistance member, Luc, Devlin's career prospects take a turn for the better. Before long he's sent on a series of missions that aim to disrupt Nazi operations in Paris and, as the game progresses, the neighbouring countryside (including an unexpectedly nearby Le Harve). These begin with simple mischief, such as destroying hardware and fuel depots, but they ramp up to more daring escapades, such as assassination missions and prison breaks. They also bring Devlin to the attention of the UK's Special Operations Executive who know of more nefarious Nazi activities that need a stop putting to them. Once the SOE have gotten over Devlin's Irish indifference to British activities, they have him interfering in Nazi plans to build an atomic bomb. Disrupting these further weakens the Nazi hold on Paris, and the resistance spots an ideal opportunity to exact a crushing blow during a showcase racing event through the streets of Paris. Who, I wonder, could the resistance get to take part in that?

While I left The Saboteur with a generally good feeling, and certainly enjoyed large parts of it, I can't deny that it may strike others as something of a curate's egg. Overall, I think that its good points outweigh its flaws but, boy, does it have some flaws.

First, though, the good points. Most immediately, Pandemic have done a great job on the setting, both the streets of Paris and the idyllic rural hamlets. It's nowhere near as detailed as the likes of Liberty City, which is fully-realised from skyscrapers and parks to seedy flyovers and side alleys, but it does an excellent job on many of Paris' famous attractions (and rewards players with viewpoint achievements for scaling them). Another great point is that, in casting Devlin as an athletic Celt with a head for heights, The Saboteur opens up the play area by allowing climbing up and over buildings. This is fun in of itself, but it makes the arena a proper 3D environment, allowing the player a hiding place (Nazis never look up) from which sneak attacks can be mounted. Devlin's athleticism is a little unrealistic at times, but it's still a lot more convincing than the ineffectual relationship to vertical space that GTA protagonists usually have.

As already mentioned, it's certainly an enjoyable change to have an abundance of wholesome targets (= Nazis) at all times that one can imaginatively dispatch. There's a lot of entirely-defensible fun to be had taking out Hitler's goons, whether through "careless" pavement-driving, a silenced pistol shot to the back of the head or, more bluntly, by sneakily blowing up their sentry towers. And on the subject of enjoyment, there's a load to be had from the game's humour. It's broad, and not always politically correct, but there are a lot of quality lines from Devlin, often as he taunts a Nazi that he's just "taken care of". A particularly choice piece occurs in the settings menu where, when switching off the game's (limited) nudity, Devlin remarks that the player "can always go to confession later". Finally, and in keeping with other titles like GTA and, especially, Fallout, The Saboteur has a great period soundtrack (alongside an already good game soundtrack). Most of the tracks aren't immediately familiar, but they add greatly to the ambience (and there's an excellent, haunting rendition of "Feeling Good" played by a dying Nazi in the closing mission).

But, as I said above, it's not all good. The most immediately glaring problem lies with some buggy draw distance issues when driving. Frequently the road ahead of me would disappear, both allowing me to see objects below me, and causing cars in front of me to fall into empty space. Worse, the "fix" the game's authors appear to have instigated to resolve this boils down to the game freezing momentarily then restarting with the road in place. Talk about breaking the fourth wall! Another frequently annoying issue, which is in part a consequence of allowing 3D movement, lies with the controls when in fiddly, confined spaces. On more than a few occasions, after planting a bomb onto a target, I'd find Devlin jumping back onto said target, just in time to get wasted by the blast. One other disconcerting feature lies with the game's vehicles, which can absorb a truly ridiculous amount of damage before failing, at which point they do so suddenly and unpredictably.

Leaving aside the game's mechanics, there are also serious issues to do with its pacing, which is really rather haphazard. In the most glaring example, I actually completed the game by accident - I literally had no idea that I was on the last mission until I found myself face to face, and packing a pistol, with an insane Dierker. In retrospect, I should have worked it out - I was at the top of the Eiffel Tower after all! But the last mission (as it turned out) came at a point where there was still a big chunk of Paris that I'd not properly explored, and was so ridiculously easy and straightforward (and/or buggy), that the penny just didn't drop. These flaws probably have a lot to do with the developer, Pandemic, going belly-up shortly after "finishing" The Saboteur - I'm sure that they just ran out of time and money. But it's a crying shame that the publisher, Electronic Arts, didn't take the time to finish things up and make the most of the 85% or so of the game that Pandemic put in place.

By way of summary, for me The Saboteur is still a good diversion despite its numerous flaws. It's nowhere near as immersive or well-plotted as the GTA titles are, but equally it's much more impressive than the likes of that GTA-wannabe, Saints Row 2. It's certainly something of a pleasing change to play GTA-style against proper enemies, and to do so through against the novel backdrop of WW2 (clichés and all). It's just a shame that, largely because of Pandemic's collapse, The Saboteur is unable to live up to the promise that its setting (and art design) offers. Still, there are plenty worse games out there.

Finally, I note from the Wikipedia article on The Saboteur that it's inspired, albeit loosely, by a real-life figure, William Grover-Williams, an Irish racing driver who worked for the SOE and the French resistance. I can't see anything in his biography to suggest a shoot-out at the top of the Eiffel Tower, but I do notice that he didn't survive the war.

Sixty Thousand

Another 3 months, another 10K hits. Slowing down a bit unless I'm mistaken. Still, it's not like this is a professional sport.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Hawking dodging

Just heard Stephen Hawking answering questions for Radio 4's Today programme. In one he was asked whether there was a time (presumably pre-big bang) when there was nothing. Annoyingly, he answered in that traditional and unhelpful way, namely that since time as we experience it started with the big bang, it makes no sense to talk of "before" then. Thanks Stephen. He went on to illustrate his answer with the (also traditional) example of what's south of the South Pole, that is, nothing. How about he actually try to address the spirit of the question, namely discuss wider physical theories concerning pre-big bang "time" and extra-universe "space"? As it happens, he went on to answer another question with reference to multiple universes, but he was happy to answer this initial question with a trite put-down about the obvious limits of time.

It reminds me of when biologists, often eminent ones, respond dismissively to the suggestion that we are descended from chimpanzees by pointing out that both chimpanzees and humans are descended from an extinct precursor species. While, yes, this is obviously true, it obscures what the questioner was asking, namely were our ancestors hairy tree-dwellers, to which the answer is clearly yes. And they probably didn't look wildly different to chimpanzees to the untrained eye either.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Wrapping paper ...

WP_000111 by Dr Yool
WP_000111, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

... burns with a green flame. That is all.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Just another America

Another quick stab to decrease the size of "the pile": Cowboy Angels, by the UK author Paul McAuley.

Set across parallel "sheaves" of a Many-worlds universe, the eponymous Cowboy Angels are elite Company operatives from The Real, a sheaf in which America is unquestioningly the predominant power, and in which it controls the Turing Gates that allow travel between sheaves. Formerly tasked with restoring, by any means necessary, the status of ruined Americas across parallel sheaves, the Cowboy Angels have now been emasculated by the election of Jimmy Carter by a public tired of the endless wars in the sheaves and distrustful of the Company's methods. But some within its ranks view this change as a betrayal, and are ready to act to preserve their idea of America's Manifest Destiny. Adam Stone, a former operative "disgraced" by his whistle-blowing on Company activities, is brought back in from the cold in order to track down an old friend on a killing spree across the sheaves. As his mission proceeds, Stone gradually unfurls a far-reaching conspiracy that aims to tear up Carter's peacenik doctrine and to change all of the histories of all of the Americas across the sheaves.

While bemoaning my last visit to McAuley's bibliography, I remarked that I was reluctant to give up on him because of his past form, especially the fantastic Red Dust. I'm glad that I kept to this as I'm pleased to be able to report that Cowboy Angels finds him in more traditional good form. It's far from having no flaws, but it makes up for these by presenting a rather novel, political take on Everett's audacious solution to the measurement problem. McAuley has a lot of fun inventing plausible alternative "present-days" (actually, the 1980s) that differ because of some 20th century change, including an America ruled by the fascist Bund, many atomically-ruined Americas, and a curious (to the novel's protagonists) sheaf in which Richard Nixon was brought down by an incident in a Washington hotel. By making The Real so clearly not our universe and then presenting a number of alternatives, McAuley also makes the novel something of a spot-our-universe puzzle for the reader. All of which contributes to this being a definite step along the road to recovery for my opinion of McAuley - though, to be sure, both The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun are more recent novels.

But it's not all good news. While starting strong with an enjoyable first half that frames the multiverse setting, the novel does tend to devolve into a lot of confusing running around and double-crossing in the second half. To the point where this reader lost the plot a bit, and just let it wash over him instead. It's also rather slender on science fiction later on, instead becoming more like a generic thriller. It does keep introducing science fiction elements, including an inexplicably underdeveloped time travelling subplot, but these definitely take a backseat to a series of increasingly tortuous noir-ish switchbacks. As well as the time-travelling subplot, McAuley leaves a number of very obvious points, often directly alluded to, more-or-less completely unexplored. So while there are sheaves in which humans are completely absent and sheaves that are populated by ape-like semi-humans, there's very little about more plausible alternative worlds beloved of writers (e.g. Nazi victory in WW2; Europe destroyed by the Black Death).

And McAuley is also vague about how his multiverse actually works - taking Everett's Many-worlds seriously would imply that any "corrections" to the path a particular universe has taken would merely split that universe into "with" and "without" branches, and that the Cowboy Angels are effectively largely wasting their time. And that's even before one factors in what a human's decision to intervene in a particular way in a particular universe actually means - a conundrum that's probably best avoided by novelists (though Egan makes an excellently full-throated stab at a competing QM interpretation in his novel Quarantine). But, as illustrated by Iain (M.) Banks' recent foray into multiverses, McAuley is not alone in this sort of fudging.

Overall, for all of its flaws, Cowboy Angels is a much more edifying and enjoyable read from McAuley. It's no return to form (and even if it was, he's written worse afterwards!), but it'll more than enough to ensure my continuing loyalty. For now anyway. Writing something with more of the imagination on show in his early novels would be very much appreciated.

In passing, in reading so much about 20th century US politics in Cowboy Angels, I realise that, at times, I know a lot more about what's gone on west of the Atlantic than I do for corresponding periods in my own country. The pre-Thatcher UK political landscape is largely a mystery to me, but I know quite a lot about Roosevelt, LBJ and a certain Milhous. I guess that's fallout from the American Century.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Jolly Sailor

WP_000100 by Dr Yool
WP_000100, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
Out to lunch at the Jolly Sailor with BR. Accidentally arrived early, but as well as ensuring we got a good table, that just made for an opportunity to take some photographs on my Windows Phone, and to catch some early-2012 rays. And, contrary to my previous experience of the JS, lunch was pretty good too.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Years Eve

DSC02580 by Dr Yool
DSC02580, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
Mad dash to London this New Years Eve (pre-midnight). But we did get to catch up with Dr. M, Helen and Martin (+ family) in one fell swoop. Excellent as ever.

And then a mad dash back to Southampton for midnight. The train back was amazing: practically empty. So we got to experience the fireworks and ships' horns as per usual.