Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Why can't coalitions be democratic ?

EDIT : Apparently, I'm a few months too late writing this. I don't see how. This is as much a response to the Lib Dem's failure to honour election promises as it is to the election itself. As for not being taken seriously - eh ? No me comprehende. This isn't Question Time. It's just a random blog with a silly banner, what on earth would suggest a serious political discussion would lie within ?

Yes, it's another post about politics - but this time with no analogies to film franchises, I promise. No, this one actually has a point besides mockery to it, but will likely contain more lolcats and cleavage than most political articles.

No-one voted for our current government. It is true that Labour lost, but it is equally true that the Tories didn't win, and the Liberal Democrats... well, they turned up. And it's also true that Labour couldn't have formed any kind of government without a bizarre and wholly unworkable "rainbow coalition", a term that conjours images of Zippy, George and Bungle fighting for Greenpeace.

Yet this does not change the simple fact that we have a government we didn't vote for. It's possible that's exactly what the people of Britain wanted, but since there was no option for it on the ballot paper, we'll never know, will we ? Now if you have no control over who's in government, I submit this is not democracy at all. It is laughable. It's even more absurd than the time Jordan decided to run for MP, with the single policy of "free cosmetic surgery for all" (err, yeah, because that one worked out so well).

"I'm sure I left my manifesto down here somewhere..."

However, my point is that at least in this case voters (read as "morons") knew what they were getting. Boobs. Really, really big boobs. Completely ineffective at politics, but the point remains. This government has taken a far more creative approach - you can vote for parties with time-honoured, cherished principles, and they won't implement them at all (or even do the exact opposite, presumably just to confuse us all for the next election* - like voting for Jordan but getting Keira Knightley).  Thus, a rational observer must conclude that a vote for Jordan would have been a more democratic and honest vote than a vote for many of the members of our current government. This is a fact so preposterous that it demands rectification at any cost. Even to the point of blogging about it.

* Very recently Clegg accused voters of  re-writing history on the subject of his pledge not to raise tuition fees. A witty retort to this is too easy, so I'll settle for telling him to shut his stupid fat ugly pie-hole before his brain escapes.

This is exactly the same situation as the increase in tuition fees

To their credit the Lib Dems have championed voting reformed since ages past and are trying to implement this as best they can. But everyone appears to be missing a fundamental point : no-one votes for coalitions. My question is simply : why the hell not ? If no party can form a majority government, should not the electorate have the right to choose who sides with whom to win power ?

Of course, politics is a very complicated thing and replacing our voting system with the alternative vote or single transferable vote isn't going to make things any simpler. Nor will it change the basic problem of what to do if no party wins outright, and indeed most analysts think that AV or STV would make such an outcome more likely. Given that not only are current government policies as hugely retarded as Russel Grant, and even less popular, but also that we as a country just can't cope with the concept of coalitions, how this possibly improve matters in the future ?

Cavalry charging the electorate... this does not bode well...

It can't. But there is one very simple way that we can at least give a coalition government a mandate to govern : have an option to choose which coalition we want in power. Bugger the debate about proportional representation - all I really want is to decide which government we get. The results of the last election really only allowed one possible coalition, but it's perfectly possible to have a situation where this is not so.

In this case, politicians should be compelled to join forces according to whichever coalition received the most votes (they might not like it, but there's nothing wrong with making politicians suffer). This need only entail a single extra box on the ballot paper for the voter to choose which party should be the partner with their main choice in the event of a hung parliament. It does however open up a whole new can of worms : what if people really want, say, a Labour-Lib Dem coalition but only a Tory-Lib Dem coalition is feasible ? This could happen if the Labour was everyone's coalition choice but not their main vote.

In this case it's tough on us. You can't have your cake and eat it : if you want a coalition between 2 parties, then by jingo you'd better vote for those parties. Furthermore, we've seen the ridiculous prospect of a rainbow coalition against the largest party in the Welsh Assembly, something which is just confusing and weird, like that bit in Jurassic Park 2 where everyone on the boat has been eaten but the only dinosaurs on board are safely locked away.

T Rex does not approve of rainbow coalitions

No, the larger parties must get priority. Coalitions should only be allowed between two parties, otherwise things get daft and we might as well go back to voting for tits again (or Zippy, George and Bungle if you prefer, I'm not judging). And this will only work at all provided politicians agree to answer perfectly valid questions about what they'd do in a coalition, unlike last time. I envisage the results of an election being something like this :

Tories : 35% of seats
Labour : 30%
Lib Dems : 20% :
Monster Raving Loony Party : 15%

Britain does not have philosopher kings but it did once have a political cat. Suck it, Plato.

If all the Tory and Labour voters chose Lib Dems as coalition partners, then we'd have a Tory-Lib Dem government because the Tories are larger, no matter what the Labour voters want. But, if the Tory voters were divided on a choice of ally, then a Labour-Lib Dem coalition could form a majority government.

It might seem that the results of the last election couldn't have been prevented : even if no-one wanted the coalition, it's the only combination that produces a viable majority. However, if people had voted
a) knowing there could be a coalition and that
b) they could choose which one and
c) having been told what each possible coalition would do*
then perhaps they wouldn't have voted in quite the same way. And though no voting system is perfect, surely we at least have the right to decide who's in charge of running the country.

* Sure, politicians often say they'll do one thing and then do another. But at the last election then went several steps further. They refused to even answer questions about what they'd do in "hypothetical situations", then subsequently used this to justify u-turns so laughable it's not even funny.

Of course, one can imagine more elaborate voting procedures where we could somehow vote for a coalition directly. Personally I wanted a Labour-Lib Dem coalition rather than a majority Labour government. This would be lovely, but I fear a voting procedure so convoluted that the only people who'd have the time to work it all out would be old people. And they'd all vote Tory anyway, the rotters. For as the old saying goes :

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

What is it I actually do all day ?

Many people have asked me this. Not very many, but a few. OK, about 5. After all, I'm still stuck here, devoid of license and income, and I can't spent every minute learning to drive, or even viewing pornography. Letting either activity consumes one's entire day tends to cause unpleasant consequences for all concerned. Still, you might think that now would be the ideal time to complete all those things I never have time for : a host of CGI projects, learning Spanish, writing papers, playing computer games until blue in the face, etc.

Not so. Well, not quite anyway. For this house contains not one but two terrors of apocalyptic proportions, which each day must be tamed lest they should escape to bring about Ragnarok : the End of Days. The first such monster is familiar to many - a 1 year old baby. This malevolent creature is best thought of as a hybrid basilisk-banshee, capable of turning its enemies to stone by screaming at them. Or, in fairness, more often by laughing at them : so now we have a hybrid basilisk-banshee-hyena.

And that's where babies come from
It is also known as a creature of great destructive potential, a reputation well earned. Each day it wreaks its path of tornado-like destruction, and no-one on Earth is capable of stopping it because the damn thing is laughing and looking adorable. Perhaps if Stalin had done that, communism would have lasted longer. We'll never know.

And thus each day requires me to re-adjust the entropy of the living room to manageable levels, because there are injured parents hobbling around the place who might step on things. This has at least taught me the Ultimate Fate of the Universe : the heat death will be caused by babies. Infants truly are the living embodiment of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Logically this means that if we combine a basilisk, a banshee and a hyena we will also get a dramatic increase in entropy. This is self-evidently true. I rest my case.

However, the second little Horseman of the Apocalypse is a far more sinister and bewildering character familiar to far fewer people, except perhaps readers of the excellent Sheldon webcomic. I speak of pugs. PUGS ! An animal whose very name should inspire terror in the hearts of millions, but doesn't. To non pug-owners, a pug is just a small, very ugly lapdog, the kind you wouldn't like to see first thing in the morning with a hangover. The reality is not as pleasant.

Like Tamerlane, they are best described as the Scourge of God and the Terror of the World, leaving a bloody trail of enemies in their wake and towers of skulls atop fields of barely planted over the ruined cities of their enemies. You think I'm exaggerating, but if Tamerlane had had a squad of attack pugs he'd have conquered the planet. Fortunately, training even a single pug is by definition impossible.

Now I am become Pug, destroyer of worlds
Therein lies their greatest strength as an adversary : their truly heroic level of stupidity. The pug is a denizen of this mortal coil with zero memory and less intelligence, and as such exists in a constant state of mad surprise. They are the only known creature in the Universe to have developed a limited - but powerful - form of mind control by virtue their sheer lack of brain power.

Here's how it works. A normal dog understands basic concepts like its own existence, size, and the fact that it is an independent entity acting under its own volition. A pug's brain is made of cheese so cannot comprehend any of this. So whereas a normal dog will run around happily avoiding obstacles like fallen logs, other dogs and large buildings, a pug won't. If faced with the choice to go under or over a log, a pug's brain literally melts with effort and the wretched creature attempts to employ quantum mechanics by running at high speed to try and phase through the log instead. This invariably fails.

Pugs exist in 3 states : 1) Static 2) Running at 900 mph 3) Running in circles (clockwise only)

Real dogs have some level of trial-and-error intelligence. Not so the diminutive pug; the animal will insist on trying the same thing over and over again, be it barking at a light breeze, running into logs,  sporadically attacking people's feet, or humping everything in sight*. This is a level of stupidity so high that every other animal is soon baffled into confused submission, including other dogs like dobermans (I wish that was an exaggeration for comic effect, but it really isn't). The brains of higher animals like humans are similarly unable to accept the level of sheer idiocy displayed by pugs, and usually quickly give up and wish they'd got a cat instead.

* It's worse than it sounds. Female pugs will often hump their own mothers, so it would not be far wrong to describe a pug as an incestuous lesbian serial rapist. Just don't tell the Daily Mail, they'd have a field day.

The pug is also blessed with two further weapons which make life with four of them at best interesting. Firstly, they are the only known animal able to extract energy directly from the quantum vacuum. This makes them nearly unstoppable, which wouldn't be so bad if they actually had any clue what they wanted, where they were or the fact that walls are solid. Their second, messier weapon, which has a greater impact on my day, is their excessive poop. To the point where "excessive" means "violating the conservation of mass principle".

Having saved the world from the baby/pug apocalypse every day, this leaves some time for various other mundane chores which injured parents cannot cope with. Once these are done there may or may not be some driving involved. That gives me about 2 hours wherein nothing much happens. And then it's time to walk the other, more normal dog, and then the 1-year old returns from nursery and re-embarks on his endless quest to cause the Heat Death of the living room and the whole sorry cycle resumes again.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Star Wars Episode VII : A New Politics

I recently described how contemporary British politics is quite a lot like the Batman movies. It's also strikingly similar to, if not quite identical, the Star Wars Saga. Behold...

A young, talented, but very annoying politician (Nick "Anakin" Clegg) is languishing on the political desert planet of Sheffield. He has few ambitions until his wise old mentor Menzies "Qui Gon" Campbell is struck down by the forces of Darth Resignation. Vowing to make politics more interesting, he embarks on an epic quest to become a politician in a land far, far away : Westminster.

Ask yourself this : who is more annoying ? Can you really tell ?

There he proceeds to rapidly annoy the ruling Labour Council, the well-meaning but corrupt and misguided guardians of peace... no... justice... not so much..., ok, well-meaning guardians of the Constitutional Monarchy for half a generation. Slowly he is corrupted by the evil forces of Darth Cameron, a Sith Lord who has deceived everyone into thinking he's not all that bad. But grandmaster Charles Yoda, lurking quietly in the background, isn't fooled, and soon conflict is inevitable.

If their physical resemblance isn't quite accurate, their policies are

Soon Anakin is completely under the thrall of Darth Cameron and proceeds to the Liberal Democrat Temple (Sheffield University) where he massively increases all the Youngling's tuition fees. The slaughter is terrible. Not even Yoda can stop the Emperor, which makes a lot of sense considering his insurmountable drinking problem.

But soon the rest of his party become rapidly disillusioned and form the Labour-Democrat Rebel Alliance. The battle is hard-fought. The Coalition Empire grows rapidly, and eventually constructs a policy of such awesome oppresive power than it could obliterate the entire deficit (powered by a set of massive nuclear reactors). "That's no moon," says general Alan Wan Johnson Kenobi, "it's a tax hike."

(Its first target is the peaceful yet poverty stricken Film Council, leaving the much richer Banking Clan strangely untouched.)

Unfortunately for our plucky underdogs, Kenobi is killed soon after investigating this monstrous weapon. For reasons that are entirely unclear, he chooses an apparently needless self-sacrifce, saying only that, "You can't win Darth. If you strike me down you shall become less powerful than I can possibly imagine."

The Rebel Alliance make significant gains against the Empire, ridiculing their massive tax station with small, highly adjustable attack policies. But they are unable to break the power of Emperor Cameron. Eventually they unexpectedly marshall their entire forces under the leadership of hideous Admiral Ed Milliband Ackbar. Alas the Emperor has regrouped his remaining minions and constructed a new and even deadlier tax hike ("It's a trap ! We can't repel policies of this magnitude !" says Ackbar).

Well they are both pretty weird-looking...

Their only hope is a strike force led by a cool token black dude from the distant planet of America : President Barrack Kalrisian. But then they stumble upon an unexpected ally : not all of the Younglings are dead after all. Bereft of tuition fees they have degenerated into small, unintelligent furry creatures, who are happy to fight the Coalition with anything to hand, but mostly fire extinguishers.

Crazed little eco-warrior that can't afford to shave and hates the government. Sounds like a student to me.

The strike team and the student Ewoks buy the Alliance a little time to formulate a coherent set of policies with which to fight the machinations of the Empire, but all the while Liberal Democrats are dropping like flies as their cherished policies are destroyed. Finally, at the bitter end, Darth Clegg cannot stand to see the evil Emperor destroying his beloved party. He turns on his mentor, throwing him into a hated nuclear reactor, ending the madness forever. And then their are wild parties in the form of the Olympic Games, and Ewok students everywhere dance around madly until the credits roll.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Fallout : New Vegas

So beautiful... they should have sent a poet...
Let's be clear on this : Fallout 3 was amazing. I completely completed it and its 5 expansions, or near as damn it as makes no difference. So with a spring in my step and a song in my heart (but not anywhere near my vocal chords because that would cause the old and vulnerable to drop dead from fright) I happily plunged right back in to the weird, wild and wonderful world of the wasteland. Wooo !

For those who have spent the last few years as a hermit, entombed in ice deep underground in a cave on Mars, congratulations ! Not only have you finally escaped your cruel and very unusual prison, but you've emerged into a world where you can play a really addictive RPG. Lucky you. Anywho, the Fallout sequence is basically this : you play a lone wasteland wanderer, ~250 years in an alternative future where the culture of the 1950's continued, culminating in a massive nuclear war. Consequently the world is now not only quite untidy, but also chock full of radioactive monsters. None of which are at all interested in cleaning up the place.

Though it may voraciously consume ~100 hours of gameplay, FNV can be summarised in a single breath : like F3, but slightly better. Last time there were fire ants in one town, this time there are fire geckos all over the place. Previously we had the smartly dressed Enclave to contend with, this time it's a legion of really angry Roman re-enactment enthusiasts. That's right people : this is Fallout with radioactive cowboys and Roman soldiers. Someone somewhere has obviously sat down and thought, "Let's make a game for Rhysy today. And let's add some Mongols too, just to make sure. Not enough ? Two words : SPACE ZOMBIES." Sold.

How many other games let you bazuka giant scorpions while dressed like a Roman solider from the 23rd Century ?

First impressions are that it is in fact F3 but in a slightly different location. Be ye not deceived - this IS a different game, though most of the differences are subtle and it's certainly not a massive leap forward (nor did it ever claim to be). It is true that large parts of the game are visually strikingly similar to F3 - far too similar, in fact this smacks a little of laziness. How long does it take to download a different rock texture from the internet, Bethesda ?

But there are differences, some of them subtle, some of them striking. The sky is blue and there is some level of weather, although still no rain for some reason. Without the contaminated water that afflicted Washington D.C., there is as much wild vegetation as there ever was in the Mojave, along with farms and even - in places - snowy forests and the best botanical garden ever. Oooh, preetty.

A 23rd century Roman, a cyber-dog and a wise-cracking doctor visit Kew Gardens

Much as I love F3, some similarities do irk. The Pip-Boy is identical to that in F3, which is a shame because it lacks a proper journal to keep track of your many adventures. Oblivion did this far better and someone should tell Bethesda this, possibly in a loud obnoxious voice with the aid of a megaphone. For some quests are, as in F3, extremely elaborate, and certain side-quests aren't even recorded at all. And while the latest iPad may not yet be able to tell you the status of your limbs, it can access Google Street View, which is infinitely superior to the Pip Boy's mapping technology. Why can't we have a Pip-Boy Tom Tom ?

"At the Lucy 38 casino, kill the Securitron, then proceed - immediately - left."

Gameplay is very repetitive, extremely similar if not identical to F3 - and as addictive as crack, probably. All missions boil down to same few varieties :

1) Go and kill things
2) Go and find things
3) Go and talk to things

Sound dull ? It isn't. For you see :

1) Killing things is always fun, especially given the wide selection of weapons, with new ones to discover at a very suitable rate. And proper weapon choice depends on enemies, so there's lots of variety here. Though for some of the longer missions, this can begin to be a chore. I don't want to kill 500 zombies in a dungeon, I've done this before in F3. And Oblivion too, come to that... hmm, Bethesda, how's about something other than zombies, eh ? Let me get that megaphone again...

2) This is made fun by the graphical beauty of the game. Exploring is cool. Much more variety than F3, although the core is the same. There are certainly more epic locations, like Helios 1 and the Hoover Dam.

3) Curiously absorbing just listening to people, especially the sarcastic ones. And you can't really argue with the likes of Neil the Super Mutant. More importantly, here there are genuinely new features. If you've done right by a faction previously, you'll be able to persuade them far more easily and can even skip quite a lot of minor quests if you choose. Equally, if you've ticked off a faction, they'll not be wanting help from the lowly likes of you.

Wearing a cheap suit and a sheep skull helmet makes people trust you, apparently. I suppose this makes sense in a world where bottle caps have become legal tender.

While it possible to become hated by certain communities, quite what it takes to get them to become automatically hostile I'm not sure. Massacring a dozen or so will make them angry enough that they might feel the need to write you quite an irate letter. To become properly hated, it seems that you must commit genocide by cannibalism against that faction's babies.

For the most part missions are well-designed, and generally better than F3 - shorter, tighter, and with more of a point. Though there is the occasional doozy. For example, the mission to recover a special gun from Vault 34 is so excessively long-winded I wanted to write an irate letter to the game designer, or possibly kill his entire ethnic group by eating their children.

It's horrendous. There's no hint of what you're supposed to do, the map - lacking Tom Tom technology - is utterly useless. The vault is radioactive, requiring a good supply of RadAway and/or frequent trips back to a doctor. This makes the zombie-killing mission proceed at a pace a glacier would be ashamed of. It is, in fact, boring. But - and it's a but so large it's practically obscene - the payoff is worth it (a gun that can kill any robot instantly). And not to give too many spoilers, but some of the other payoffs (SPACE ZOMBIES !!! WAGNER !!!) are equally rewarding.

The general feel of the game is, as you'd expect, somewhat more civilised than F3. There are still plenty of dangerous inhabitants in the wasteland - in parts, huge numbers of them - but generally less than F3, which makes exploring more about exploring and less about running for your life like a startled badger. Gone is the need to travel anywhere by zombie-infested subway, which I found irksome. Whereas F3 featured the Brotherhood of Steel waging war against the Enclave, this power struggle was only a sideshow of life in a deadly, oppressively bleak radioactive wasteland. And this was reflected in the main story itself, which revolved around a quest for clean water to keep everyone alive.

Not so in NV. Here a veritable maelstrom is brewing between many different organised factions all vying for control for the shiny, shiny lights of Vegas. Not sure why, exactly. One can only assume that in the future, all organisations are composed entirely of alcoholic, sex crazed compulsive gamblers. Hmm. Anyway, chief among these groups are the bureaucratic New California Republic and the much less formal Caesar's Legion. First big choice : whom to side with ?

Caesar's Legion might have cool armour, but they also crucify people which I found a tad rude. But what really doomed them for me was their insistence of pronouncing Caesar as "Kaisar". NO. That's not even a word ! Just for that, mighty Caesar, I'm gonna rape your pets, kill your women, break your house and burn your legs down. And probably I'll do all of that using my heavy incinerator, which is as awesome as ever.

Firery death for all

Weapons and combat in general are pretty much the same as F3, although there are some nice new additions and a nifty new mod system to upgrade them. One thing I missed was the ability to craft new weapons out of junk. Workbenches are still there, so maybe you can - but if so, there are far less quests-for-blueprints than F3. The damage system has been changed, so rifles and certain energy weapons are now the killers of choice. Alas, the Gatling laser is now useless, But the cinematic replays when you snipe an enemy from halfway across the map remain as satisfying as before.

Which leaves only the story. As I mentioned, this boils down to a conflict between the NCR, Caesar's Legion, and in some permutations it can also involve an army of robots, a horde of Mongols and a bunch of people who are nigh-on horny about explosions. All well and good, but it's not quite as well executed as F3. The main story also doesn't lead you towards the side-quests quite as well as F3 did, and sometimes the lack of a journal makes it difficult to figure out how you're supposed to advance the main plot. But the main problem is not the middle, but mostly the beginning and end.

I found the start a little odd. Unlike F3, your character starts fully grown, so has already lived at least 20 years in the wasteland without your expert guidance. They may or may not have amnesia, it's never really revealed. Yet absolutely no-one recognizes you (well, one old dude does, vaguely, but he doesn't really know you so isn't any help).

The actual storyline is engrossing enough, but lacks heart. In F3 you were searching for dear old runaway Dad and his miracle scheme to provide clean water for all. FNV lacks any personal focus. You're helping decide the fate of a city, but ultimately only by deciding who's in charge and it probably won't be anyone you know. And you make that critical choice before the final mission even begins, rather than right at the end in F3. Which makes the ending rather lack punch, somewhat - even if you do have an explosive ballistic fist. The mission itself is OK, but nowhere near the truly epic finale of that in F3. I wanted something bloody spectacular - instead, there's just lots and lots of fighting. Meh, maybe I'm just missing Liam Neeson (but can you blame me ?).

The very final ending is certainly rewarding - Ron Perlman with a very long, thorough narrative explaining what happens to everyone else in the long term. Great. Can I get back to exploring the wasteland now ? No. For no apparent reason, it won't let me. At least in F3, there was a very good reason for ending it there. In FNV, there certainly isn't. So save your game often.

Now of course I've only played one ending. Maybe the final mission is more rewarding if you're a bit more evil, but I don't want to be evil. The sad thing is I can think of numerous ways to make the ending vastly more spectacular without altering the story in the slightest.

Hoover Dam may be impressive, but the final mission there is less so.

Incidentally,  the fact that there are multiple endings is more than a little worrying for sequels,  both for FNV and Washington D.C. Neither of these can ever be used again in a subsequent game. I guess there are plenty more cities in the U.S. (but for the next Fallout I vote for Australia - I want to see radioactive kangaroos, crocodiles and koala bears with lasers for eyes...).

Summary : 9.0 / 10.0. Overall, awesome. Not perfect, but more than good enough to overcome its paltry deficiencies. But don't expect anything startlingly new here.

Monday, 17 January 2011

A Blast From The Past : 2001 A Short Odyssey

The far distant past, this being my first major, hopelessly over-ambitious project I started back in 2002 and abandoned sometime in 2003. With 2010 over, I've decided to finally call it quits. Meh, everyone should experience the fun of a massive, failed project at least once. So quit whining about all the people starting things they're never going to finish and let them get it out of their systems (yes, I'm talking to you, forummers).

Anywho, the video :

The goal was to try and show all the scenes in the book "2001 : A Space Odyssey" that weren't featured in the film. This was done in Blender 2.23-2.3, when raytracing was a gleam in the programmer's eyes (and some Terragen also). So don't expect anything revolutionary, this was a learning project (although it does show some nice faked volumetrics). Editing is poor (because some scenes are outright missing), some renders are pretty hideous, and the psychedelic sequence at the end relies too heavily on a kaleidoscopic effect (because back then, rendering times were insanely slow).

I should also point out that my system at the time had 128 MB RAM and probably no more than a 500 Mhz processor. Only spotlights could cast shadows back then. Volumetrics were the work of the devil. Reflection and refraction - I think not. And vectorial motion blur ? Don't make me laugh. Many scenes were rendering at 5 minutes per frame even at this poxy resolution (the very idea of HD being at least as fanicifull as interstellar spaceflight). And another thing, get those damn kids off my lawn...

A more complete description is probably warranted for people who want to understand what the hell is going on :

00:00 - 01:38 Title sequence, following the film
01:38 - 04:08 2,000,000 B.C, an alien spaceship exits hyperspace and explores the solar system. Detecting primitive humans on Earth, it destroys a moon of Saturn, creating its rings and a large black monolith...
04:08 - 05:42 The alien ships flies in complete silence (because I never got round to adding any music) over some cheesy Terragen/Blender landscapes and creates a second, smaller crystalline monolith

MISSING SCENES : The monkey stares into the monolith and sees some swirly patterns. And then does the famous bone-smashing scene, followed by the whole Space Station V sequence, and possibly something on the Moon for completeness' sake. I even started some of this - you can see the proof on my website. Some of the spaceships were pretty detailed, albeit badly textured.

05:42 - 07:52 Discovery explores the Saturnian system where it finds the monolith on the moon Japetus.
07:52 - 08:50 Discovery enters the monolith which is revealed as a wormhole entrance. This is connected to a "grand central station" of other wormholes and it flies through one of them. I suppose it should really be one of the pods, not Discovery itself, but I didn't want to model one.
08:50 - 09:15 The ship now explores a giant ancient space net. Unfortunately, this is crap. It really can't be depicted on a system with 128 MB RAM, it just can't. But I tried anyway...
09:15 - 09:52 Strange blue non-corporeal entities are encountered on the surface of a red giant star, which fly toward an orbiting white dwarf.
09:52 - 14:27 This was my take on the psychedelic surrealism of the film. I'm afraid it does go on a bit. Watch out for the nebula at ~10:32, it was done in Terragen. The sequence from 11:49 - 11:54 is quite good. From 13:18 - 13:59 we explore the Mandelbrot set using some other program, then explore it in 3D with Blender until the end (which I think looks pretty neat).

MISSING SCENES : I then intended to do a zoom in from the large-scale structure of the Universe to the famous space baby, which would destroy an orbiting weapons satellite. Started, but did not finish. And of course there are many others I didn't even start. Still, I got about halfway through my projected 30 minutes total, which isn't bad going I think.

Moral of the story : Bad workman blames his tools... well, maybe, but if you only have 10 bricks you can't expect to build Notre Dame. Except maybe in minature.

EDIT : Within a few minutes of upload YouTube had correctly identified the original copyright owner of the music (no, I don't have access to my own orchestra, so yes, I used an existing recording) and determined that no action need be taken except, possibly, to display some adverts in the side banner. This is technically very impressive and more than a little scary, but kudos to Demon Music for not adopting draconian copyright principles.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

On Driving Tests

With the need for yet another driving test, I thought I should probably explain a little more about driving tests, and in doing so vent my rage and wrath upon the cruel world that hath such madness in it. For after 4 failures and £412 send into a fiery abyss*, I have to question whether this is due to my own monstrous ineptitude, the bitter idiocy of the examiners, the terrible insanity of the test itself, or an irresistible combination of all of these most melodramatic factors.

* With 4 failures I hold the dubious honour of the record number of failures from my instructor.

On the surface the test is a most simple thing. First, the examiner asks you to read a number plate about 20m distant. Next they ask you a very few hideously trivial questions about the workings and maintenance of the automobile (e.g., how do you test your breaks, how do you turn on your lights, how do you check your oil). Neither of these procedures makes any real sense. What happens if you fail the eyesight check ? Have you just lost your entire fee ? Surely this would be better done beforehand. At least there is a clear and obvious purpose to it - the selected questions asked could be included in the theory test.

Then commences a period of 30-40 minutes of driving, including the 10 minutes of "independent" driving and a single maneuver (it used to be 3 maneuvers, now it's just 1). It may also include an emergency stop. The vast majority of the time, however, is spent driving under instruction from the examiner - e.g., turn left at the end of the road, at the roundabout take the 2nd exit, that sort of thing. All of which will happen on a route you've already done with your instructor because the number of test routes is very limited.

The "independent driving" section is a new and quite pointless thing.  The very name is a bona fide lie. If it was really independent the examiner would get out of the car and watch you drive off into the sunset, or, possibly, a tree*. Instead, what happens is that the examiner tells you where to go and draws a little diagram to show you. Since this consists of no more than 3-5 steps to remember, the point of this escapes me (map reading, maybe ?). But then you're also asked to follow road signs, which is more independent and at least seems vaguely relevant (also, it does not matter if you take a wrong turning or miss a turning provided your driving remains safe and legal).

* Not so unlikely. My instructor told me one student who started at the same time as me was back in the test center within 5 minutes, with their examiner mumbling something about "we'll have to leave the car up on the embankment."

The maneuvers are any of the 3 classics : reversing around a corner, turn in the road (you can call it a 3 point turn but this is inaccurate because it doesn't matter if you make it a 5 point turn or even more) or parallel park. And of course there might be an emergency stop, but the ability to slam on the brakes is hardly challenging.

Thus the test is not inherently difficult and contains many areas that are as trivial as the first round of questions on The Weakest Link. So then, why the repeated failures ? Let's review :

1) Mounting the kerb while reversing around a corner

Failing to properly reverse around a corner is not the most dangerous thing in the world to do, assuming you don't flatten any passing cats/hedgehogs/pedestrians. And under normal driving circumstances this is hardly a common procedure at all. Alas there are a few situations where not being able to reverse correctly could be dangerous, so I'm forced to strike this one up to my own monstrous ineptitude. Can't really prepare for unexpected mind farts.

2) Blocking a side road

Well, this one is bloody daft. Lots of people with licenses block side roads every single day. Absolutely no other driver's I've spoken to can understand why this constitutes a failure, particularly given gridlocked traffic on my side of the road and heavy traffic on the other. So I'm quite happy to chalk this one as the terrible insanity of the test itself. I'm afraid delays at junctions in heavy traffic are just a part of life.

3) Not turning enough

To summarise I wasn't turning enough on an empty country road and if I hadn't turned I'd have ended up in a field. The examiner reached for, but did not actually touch, the wheel. We'll never know if I'd have turned at the last moment so this too has to be ascribed to my own monstrous ineptitude. Having driven this route many times before, deliberately driving slower than strictly necessary, and there being no other cars visible, this one's a particularly sucky failure.

4) Pulling out in front of a bus...

... very, very slowy. I should emphasise that the bus too was moving very, very slowly. I mean, my grandmother could walk faster than that, and she's dead. The examiner didn't have to slam on the brakes or grab the wheel, the bus didn't have to slow down, beep or react in any visible way whatsoever. It may in fact be the least spectacular driving accident in history, one so boring that even the likes of Road Wars wouldn't take it. But, pulling out in front of buses isn't to be advised, so I'll generously put this one down to a combination of my own monstrous ineptitude and the bitter idiocy of the examiners. A nice examiner could have let this one go. And c'mon, it was Christmas, damnit !

What have we learned ? Well, nothing much, other than it is entirely possible to fail a very simple thing. By my count that gives a ratio of justified to unjustified rails of  60%. Real driving may be as far removed from GTA IV as Fox News is from intelligent left-wing reporting, but they do have two things in common : (1) they'd be much improved with a decent checkpoint system* and (2) if you fail something 4 times it's very hard to work up enough enthusiasm to try a 5th time... watch this space.

* Yes, I know this is impossible. I'm just sayin' is all.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Why Arnie is a Giant Baby

I was watching a certain young relative of mine scurrying around the floor making a whole plethora of weird noises, when I realised why this should be. It's commonly assumed that they're unable to fully control their vocal chords and don't really know what they want to say anyway. This is in fact the case, but the fundamental reason behind it is not their lack of world experience, oh no. It's because they're trying to impersonate Arnold Schwarzenneger. I don't know why this collective hysteria takes hold of everyone under 3, but it does. And I can offer further evidence of this, so I will :

1) Both make similar noises

The above also illustrates point 2), which is their similar responses to being restrained

3) Both are prone to random acts of violence

4) Both are famous gropers, albeit for entirely different motivations

5) Both are seemingly unstoppable

Oh sure, he's got a rocket launcher, but have you ever tried to change a baby's nappy ?

6) Both demand that you PWT THAT COOOKIE DAOWHN ! immediately

7) Arnie is rich. Few babies are rich, but most get exactly what they want when they want it, which is basically the same thing.

8) Babies often have a strange interest in your clothes, your boots... and your tricycle.

9) Both have undeniably similar mental capacities.

10) Both are utterly useless but without them the world would quickly become a much worse place.

OK, it was a good film, but it wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, was it ?
Without Arnie, we'd probably have "Get to the helicopter !" or even, "I'll be back soon". I don't want to live in that world.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A blog about this blog

As I was routinely checking the statistics of this blog I noticed something so horrifically disturbing it's worth its own short post. Not the fact that virtually all visitors come from reddit, nor do I particularly care what browser said visitors use. No, much more interesting is the fact that you can see what search terms visitors use to access the site from a direct Google search. Apparently one such non-reddit viewer stumbled upon this site through the search words "naked duras sisters from star trek".

Whoever you are, mysterious visitor, you're wrong. No-one wants to see that. NO ONE. Not even people on the internet who don't actually exist in real life*. No, not even because it's funny. It's not as if there was a shortfall of - to quote Zapp Brannigan - "hot alien babes" on Star Trek. Good Lord, man, did you not even see Voyager ? Or Enterprise ? My only hope is that this apparently crazed individual is in fact a medical student seeking to write a book about Klingon anatomy. Yes, that must be it...

* This is probably underestimating the weirdness of people on the internet but I don't care.

In other news, I keep getting "priority offers" to buy the domain name, which it seems will soon be for sale. Now I own the website, so this isn't so surprising. What's more confusing is that different corporations are trying to sell me the same domain, which seems impossible*.  One company requires my phone number, so the hell with that. The other won't consider offers below $99. Gosh. I didn't know my name carried such value ! I'm sure glad I bought, which is a way cooler name and cost... well I can't actually remember, but it wasn't $99. No doubt its value must have increased a hundredfold by now. I is gonna be rich.

UPDATE : Another site has emailed me to tell me they accept offers as low as $97 ! Ooooh, that's sneaky. Not quite the reduction I had in mind though. Try $9.70, then we'll talk.