Notes from the Library

Jul 2011

Sun, 31 Jul 2011

I’ve spent some time today cleaning out my website content. It felt pretty silly to be rewriting the about page about how the site gets published when there is now so very little on it. But the point is that I still want the site because there are still things I want to be publicly available (e.g. my CRUX notes) so it’s good to have it slimmed down to just that stuff.

I will consider it finished (though still to be kept up to date) when I finish writing up my workstation setup notes and my LaTeX notes.

I’ve also spent a little time reviewing my task list for this blog (certainly not the list of “things to write about”, which is overflowing). I’ve improved on some CSS and given up on improving some other CSS, and don’t care too much about the aesthetics beyond that, but one thing that is sorely lacking is pagination and search, which make finding older posts hard even for me and I flippin’ wrote them so know them best. I am waiting until a stable version of PyBlosxom 1.5 is out before I try to set those up due to various annoying technical problems.

Sat, 30 Jul 2011

Today we had our (what has become) annual TGW LAN party and despite initial worries from some parties not taking the time to install games and find out where Ben lives, it turned out to be our best yet. As usual the key to LAN success, aside from preparation, is game choice but we seem to have learnt from past mistakes and do a better job, so I thought I’d note down what works and what doesn’t.

1 Good games

1.1 Quake III Arena

Why did it take us about two years to start playing this at LANs? Very impressed to have got IOQuake working flawlessly on CRUX in about ten minutes even if to do so I had to make it my window manager. Made brilliantly fun with so many players running around. This is something we want to start playing over our VPN more often, why don’t we already?

1.2 Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance

Our group game if you will. Each year Ben and I come up with a killer strategy which usually succeeds but this year we were overwhelmed by experimental and strategic bomber spam. Works great because of the epic scale but doesn’t scale so well technologically, with the game dropping in speed as you play and units ignoring you more and more.

SupCom has all the ingredients for a fantastic game but they don’t quite come together as you want. For example there is a feature that lets you set up ferrying routes, and you can have factories assist each other so by ordering one factory to construct tanks, bots etc. you can have them automatically airlifted to the front lines, but the power levels are imbalanced in such a way that this is rarely actually useful, despite being really cool. You can have massive navies with aircraft carriers and then begin a ground assault etc. but you can just mass air superiority fighters and drop a few nukes on the navy and it spoils it, which is a shame.

Still we enjoy building loads of nukes in secret submarines positioned around the map and seeing who gets the upper hand.

1.3 Left4Dead 2

What a fantastically intense game, as I’ve said on this blog recently. The big difference from Quake 3 is having objectives and not re-spawning immediately: we played versus mode, and with a proper campaign to work through it’s got interesting continuity. Playing as the Infected is lots of fun aside from having to sit around and wait to respawn a lot. Good fun for being reasonably accessible and doesn’t take much practice to be useful to a team.

1.4 Warcraft III custom maps

My best LAN party experience was playing Video Game RPG, a Warcraft III custom map, which was very easy and we stomped through and enjoyed all the references. Designed to be played in teams where no-one really knows what they’re doing, so a lot of fun.

1.5 CnC generals

A fun alternative RTS.

2 Bad games (that are good not at LANs)

2.1 DotA

Starcraft II? Please. DotA is the true e-sport, but the learning curve (until DotA 2, maybe) is too high to work at LANs, because of the cumulative success from being fed by the worst player.

2.2 Sins of a Solar Empire

SupCom is just about okay but the scale of Sins is just a bit too big, we found.

2.3 HalfLife 2 Deathmatch

Might as well play one of the above instead; too much of an advantage to those who play lots of shooters.

I think that’s all we’ve ever tried.

Today’s results:

Game \ Team Ben, Sean, Joe, Matt Jonathan, Pete, James
L4D2 versus Victory Defeat
SupCom Utterly crushed Barely touched
Quake III team deathmatch Victory (close) Defeat
Quake III capture the flag Victory Crushing defeat

The J/P/J team had such success they inspired Jonathan to suggest playing SupCom tonight (we declined after such a intense day), which is surprising since he doesn’t seem to play that much.

Don’t know why I wrote this post really. I think I wanted to practice my touch typing but I’ve given up because it’s just so slow. Right now I’m not looking at the keyboard or thinking about it and am typing super-fast as I always do, but hopefully I can improve on my 25wpm when doing it properly.

Wed, 27 Jul 2011

I think I first tried to read Republic in Y12, and since I’m now about to go into “Y16” it’s taken me rather a long time to actually read it properly. I even wrote a four thousand word essay which formed a third of my Philosophy A2 qualification without reading the whole thing, just reading particular bits.

My reaction has not been quite as favorable as I would have desired. Compared, at least, to how I reacted to /Phaedo/, the dialogue I read prior to the Republic: I am far less overwhelmed with this one. Of course this is hard stuff and only patient study and lots of secondary reading and conversations with tutors lets you really get at it, so perhaps it’s just a case of building it up a bit much as something far more interesting than revision.

So hopefully I haven’t actually put myself off writing eight essays on it come Hilary 2012. The tempting thing to do is shrug off Plato as just being mystical and being out-of-date but I’m convinced from past experience that this initial reaction is almost always wrong, so I’m looking forward to exploring the ramifications for the rest of Philosophy.

My next book is Williams’ seminal Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy which is much harder going because it’s got the density that twentieth century works of analytic philosophy always have, which makes it feel like very hard work but this is seriously good stuff even if you have to work around Williams’ tendency to ramble and rather arrogant All Souls-induced desire to slag off everyone else.

Started a couple of new things a few days ago, firstly I’m playing The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time again, but this time in its Master Quest incarnation, though I’m not finding it very hard to my disappointment. OoT is a legendary game, considered by many to be the greatest game ever, and it’s reasonably high on my list after coming back to it and comparing it to others. I always used to prefer Wind Waker, but OoT seems to have more originality in it. Looking over at Twilight Princess (via some gameplay videos on YouTube) is sad because it’s a gorgeous game, with graphics and music that outstrip OoT technically speaking—OoT is all MIDI because the N64 cartridge couldn’t fit anything better on, what with the size of the game—but it’s not really memorably better. Those traditional Nintendo melodies are shown at their best in OoT.

The hack-and-slash-and-puzzle of the gameplay in WW and TP far outshines OoT. Sword combat is a lot more interesting and things like fire, ice and light arrows look so much better. My favourite parts of TP are the dragon fight high in the clouds and the requisite tennis boss, with the possessed Zelda, which looks, feels and sounds so good.

I am reminded of Oblivion here: TP’s graphics remind me of Oblivion’s in the extra fluidity you get compared to the previous generation, but the game has far less substance in both cases.

This is sad because TP could have been Ocarina++. Watching the final boss battles of each, and of WW too, WW and TP stand out for their gorgeous presentation, which to my mind comes together much better than any PC game I’ve seen—Nintendo’s Zelda team seem to have the edge—but the Zelda magic isn’t there in quite the same way as it is in OoT. Maybe it is because TP just feels like a rehash of OoT, and WW is great but too different to be really comparable, but they never have managed to improve on OoT and the upcoming Skyward Sword appears to be taking a different direction anyway (and it’s for the Wii, and I mean come on, what a ridiculous platform for an action RPG).

Majora’s Mask is always recommended to me by others and I would like to play it; some day I would like to get hold of/borrow the GameCube game with it on, the Collector’s Edition.

All this has been reminding me of other classic games and I’m wondering if I am past the stage where I can have a game take over my life, where Ganon really scares me when he appears and where boss battles are edge-of-seat-help-must-not-die situations. A lot of this has to do with how easy I tend to find these sorts of games now. I remember spending hours slogging through the Wind and Earth temples with a friend visiting from far away, taking it in turns, solving puzzles (he solved most of them iirc) and slashing up bosses (my job). Being stuck for hours on particular puzzles. It is true that games are getting easier but I’m getting better at them too.

Of course I’ve played great games more recently as well. The Half Life series—all of them—is probably the one I’ve enjoyed the most. And I played Final Fantasy VI only a few years ago and became totally absorbed in that. It’s interesting to compare these things to fantasy books. The relative inaccessibility of classics like OoT to current younger teenagers is because they’re not drawn in because they’re used to games being better at that. Looking at the dialogue between, say, Link and Saria, I can see just how much of my nostalgia I am pasting on to make the characters at all interesting: it’s really not very good dialogue, it’s simple and most of all there isn’t very much of it. So why do we love these things as we love legendary books and films? Immersion—one thing that’s got better with time and technology—and while lots of words can give you a vested interest in a character’s survival/achievement, so can actually playing them.

The other new thing I’ve been doing is learning how to touch type properly, that is, using all ten fingers with minimal movement rather than the weird self-developed touch typing I use now, which most modern young people seem to have a variant of, being able to type very fast without ever having sat down and learnt. The advantages are clear: better speed through improved accuracy—though my accuracy is actually very good nowadays, as I’m now seeing in typing this post, to my dismay—and better treatment for your hands. gtypist is a great little program for teaching; I’m going through the ‘T’ series of lessons, but I don’t really know if that’s the best as the main menu is a bit confusing. Though I’m not so sure that this is worth it. I’m taking a massive hit to my typing speed for the next three or four months; after spending about four hours learning over the last few days, ignoring the fact that I don’t know all the letters yet, I’m on something like 25wpm when I usually get about 90wpm, if not more. Websites talking about touch typing tell you how great it’ll be when you are comfortably typing 60wpm, well that’s not actually so great, and I only hope this new scheme can actually improve on things for me or I’ll be pretty annoyed if I’ve forgotten how I used to do it.

Some of the finger decisions in the standard way of typing on a qwerty keyboard annoy me but I’m loathe to change them, since they were probably picked for the best reasons in the longterm (unlike the qwerty layout itself). For example using my little finger for anything other than hitting control feels strenuous, but to be fair it is lessening as I progress. And the bottom row of the keyboard is proving to be a great challenge, as I struggle to hit c with the right finger and to type commas and full stops, which I keep getting wrong. I think I’m not moving my hands enough to change row, but this is confusing as the whole point is not to move your hands very much. Maybe I should try to find some YouTube videos. I’ve also got to work out how best to use caps lock and meta for all my Emacsing. Meta is not a problem—just use the unused left thumb—but control means that you then have to bring another finger in when you want to use the (important) C-a. I could train myself to use M-m instead which in most cases does what you want (it’s first non-blank char of line rather than start of line, like vi’s 0 vs. ^). Speaking of this, what I also have here is a new opportunity to relearn Emacs in the sense that I can be less wasteful with key presses because I’ve got a temporary chunk of thinking time before each action that I am having to slowly work back to the unconscious level. So I can actually use C-v and M-v and C-s/r for movement rather than just lazily holding down C-n and C-p which is so much slower. Speaking of which (again), C-p is a bit of a worry right now in terms of stretching.

One small improvement I can make is using C-m for enter, C-h for backspace and C-w to delete a word backwards because these are a lot easier then stretching up to backspace and return.

I think though that it’ll probably be worth it. I mean I switched from Vim to Emacs (ha, how amusing, I just tried to capitalise ‘Vim’ using the Vim keybinding rather than the Emacs one, how rare) without too much difficulty and I can see the advantages with things like actually using both shift keys, and keeping your fingers moving but your hands still which is a lot better for scary things like RSI. I’ll just have to keep at it and watch the steady improvement; this is what the vac is for I suppose.

Fri, 22 Jul 2011

Having reached the end of The Wire, my step-father and I have moved on to watching The Sopranos, which we’re both really enjoying. In one episode (no long-term series spoilers here don’t worry), the main character’s son steals wine from his school’s chapel and him and a few friends show up to their P.E. lesson drunk, and so his parents are called in for the teachers to impress the severity of their son’s crimes upon them. At this point the school psychologist/psychiatrist (don’t recall) comes in, and says that their son might have ADHD, and he goes through a series of tests, but his parents then say it’s all nonsense and walk out.

I am also reminded of a TV show I saw a while ago where a family of two parents and I believe five children were all on some kind of medication aside from one girl—even the dog, who was taking something for anxiety.

Here are a few indepth articles on this trend:

The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why? by Marcia Angell | The New York Review of Books

The Illusions of Psychiatry by Marcia Angell | The New York Review of Books

I highly recommend Brain Study for more.

I am informed by my doctor-aunt that this is coming over this side of the Atlantic as well. The encroachment of capitalism upon the medical profession described in this second article doesn’t surprise me that much, however distressing this encroachment sounds, but it is the attitude of psychiatrists on the ground treating only with drugs rather than what she calls ‘talk therapy’ because they make more out of it or because they can’t be bothered or whatever is really bad to hear. I suppose living with two nurses who have fairly old-fashioned attitude to healthcare gives me a very warm picture of medical professionals on the ground and my political leanings give me an automatic dim view of business people and scientists creating drugs, but still, it is a little surprising.

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