Monthly Archives: February 2003

rant/miniature

I spent last evening playing Xenosaga, of course; today I really need to get my homework done. So of course I’m going to talk about it again, but I’ll leave out the spoilers this time. I won’t say anything that can’t be found in the manual, anyway.

I didn’t see anything quite as kickass as some of Wednesday night’s scenes, but there was definitely some good stuff. A nice boss battle too. On account of that battle I’ve seen the game over screen already, but it was a lot more effective than the tutorial in imparting understanding of the battle system.

At this point I’ve met the remaining two party members, and I must say they don’t measure up to the previous four. Quite literally, in fact, because MOMO and Jr. are both children. This seems to be something peculiar to Xenogears; in other RPGs you get your occasional Eiko or Relm, but between Maria, Emeralda, and Chu-chu the Yggdrasil looked like a goddamn day care center. I think this can detract from the epic sense of the story. I mean, imagine if Lord of the Rings had a bunch of short people with no fighting skills running around doing stupid stuff? Ok, bad example.

Of the three aforementioned Xenogears munchkins, Emeralda should get a pass since (a) she’s not a human child, but an artificial machine that takes the form of a child; (b) she’s technically the oldest party member by several millennia; (c) she can be changed to an adult form later in the game. Unfortunately, while MOMO is also artificial, the deadly warrior machine role is already filled by KOS-MOS. I suspect as far as fighting goes MOMO will be more in the mode of Maria. Meanwhile Jr.’s fighting style is clearly mini-Billy, but his character’s very different. Actually I find his entourage more annoying than Jr. himself.

My preferred party at this point: Shion (or Ziggy if I need more offense), KOS-MOS, chaos.

impressions/replay

Before you die, you see the pendant.

I’m going to write about my Xenosaga impressions today, because I’ve been walking around in a daze all morning replaying the cutscenes in my mind. The Federal Office of Spoiler Protection mandates that I issue the following spoiler warning: I’m going to write about the first few hours of the game; if you’ve seen Ziggy make his first appearance, you’re safe.

Like Xenogears, the game starts out with a long and fairly boring introductory sequence. Walking around the Woglinde talking to people is not very different from walking around the Garden in Final Fantasy 8. (Except that Squall’s not around, which is always a bonus.) However, the game is also like Xenogears in that it lulls you into the introductory mode only to shatter it with an action sequence that grabs you by the collar and pulls you into the game like a hapless Gnosis victim. From this point on I was completely enthralled.

Speaking of the Gnosis, the first thought I had on their first real appearance is that they are very reminiscent of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Instead of mindless incorporeal beasts that inflict instantaneous mystical death, the Gnosis are mindless incorporeal beasts that inflict gruesome and unpleasant death. (Actually the Gnosis are fairly obviously not completely mindless.) Personally I don’t mind this similarity; the problem with FF:TSW was not really the monsters but the lack of coherent plot, compelling characters, or interesting dialogue. Xenosaga Episode 1 has none of these problems so far.

As for the characters, it’s obvious that I’d prefer a game that stars a research scientist to one that puts a professional sports player in the role of the hero. The fact that said research scientist is female and wears a cleavage-exposing uniform only helps matters. However, the real show-stealer in the opening is not Shion but the awe-inspiring KOS-MOS, who should be an example for Square of what a badass character is like (they seem to have forgotten recently). At the beginning Shion displays a maternal affection towards her creation, and the player naturally thinks of the android as a child, so we share Shion’s dismay when she enters the real world as a deadly and heartless machine.

The use of subtlety in this game is greatly appreciated, again in contrast with Final Fantasy X where the hero’s every thought and emotion was explicated in a tiresome voice-over. Xenosaga has no voice overs. Instead, we take cues from the characters’ dialogue or body language. In perhaps my favorite moment from my session last night, we see the bridge of the Elsa just for a moment through the android’s eyes after chaos enters. She seems to be taking in the scene calmly, but in the corner of her perception she is replaying, over and over, her memory of chaos walking through the door. (For those trying to decipher this paragraph without having played the game, “chaos” is a character’s name, spelled deliberately in-game with a lowercase c. This is either gratuitous quirkyness, or representative of his being a manifestation of chaotic forces in a human form.)

One thing I’m undecided about is that this game is even more plot-heavy than Xenogears; I had my controller sitting on the floor unused for 20 or 30 minutes at a time while pre-scripted scenes played out. The great thing about Xenogears, though, was the story, and if this installment continues to be so good I probably won’t mind if it’s light on gameplay.

Now, some predictions:

  • The master villain of this episode will also be the master villain of Episode 6. If I recall correctly 6 episodes of the saga are planned, but Episode 5 (Xenogears) resolved all running conflicts on the Xenogears planet itself. The only thing left to do for a sixth chapter is for the inhabitants of the planet, perhaps the descendants of Fei and company, to go out into space and resolve any unfinished business from this episode.
  • Allen will die before the ten hour mark. Allen is too bland and shallow a character to have a major role. I’m actually surprised he’s survived this far. The alternative is that he is relegated to some kind of support role – he might be the person to talk to when switching party members, for example.
  • chaos knows more about what’s really going on than anyone else. A stereotypical character is the young boy with amazing innate powers who doesn’t understand his abilities or his role. chaos is just pretending to be this character, and he’s not trying very hard to keep up the ruse, either. He’s too confident in his actions. I suspect he’s a major behind-the-scenes player. That or the Lord of Nightmares.
  • Hammer is the most loyal and reliable character in the game. Just because we’re all thinking of his Xenogears predecessor.

briefly/duality

A game I’ve been eagerly awaiting for years has arrived at my apartment. Meanwhile, I’m in my office grappling with a factor of two error. The thing to do in cases like this is simply to declare at the end that I have obviously dropped a two somewhere by accident, and multiply it back in. This works unless it’s actually something subtle like the radially symmetric simple harmonic oscillator only having odd (or is it even) solutions. Hey! That’s it, I don’t have the correct momentum operator in cylindrical coordinates. Soon I can go home, and play my awesome, cool game… my precious.

(Sorry about the jargon, but I really did come up with the answer while writing this entry.)

fantasy/quiet

This morning I have been contemplating the question of what America would be like if there were no children here.

Of course, some drastic measures would be necessary to acheive this state. All persons under the age of 18 would have to be expelled: sent to Canada, Mexico, the Pacific Ocean – doesn’t really matter. Perhaps we can drop them on Iraq. Then sterilization would have to become mandatory for all U.S. citizens. These proposals may seem extreme, but they are a price I am willing to pay.

The benefits are immediate and obvious. The quality of life rises immediately, as adults have both more disposable income and more leisure time. Productivity improves as well; no employees are taking maternity leave anymore. We reduce our dependence on foreign oil as former soccer moms trade in their SUV’s for lower capacity cars.

Government bureaucracy can be trimmed since many services are now unnecessary. New funds would become available for underfunded programs, or perhaps for a tax cut. America retains its world-class university system while jettisoning the K-12 public schools. Are you listening, President Bush? Here’s a tax plan and an education plan I can really support. It puts the “No Child” in “No Child Left Behind”.

Many social ills are eliminated in a childfree America. Horrible crimes like child molestation simply never occur. Teen pregnancy and welfare moms are no longer a problem. Crimes frequently committed by children, such as vandalism, are sharply reduced. Tobacco companies no longer target their advertisments to minors. The MPAA movie ratings system becomes obselete, and Hollywood directors and screenwriters express themselves freely without worrying about the box office consequences of an R rating.

No politician enacts censorious legislation “for the sake of the children”. Abortion is no longer a political issue. The religious right, forbidden by their faith to undergo the sterilization treatment, simply leave the country.

Most importantly, it’s very quiet now. No screaming kids in the grocery store, on the airplane, on the floor above your apartment. No parents yelling at their misbehaving brats at the mall or a restaurant. America would become internationally renowned as the most peaceful and serene country on Earth.

“But,” I hear you say, “as the population gets older there will be no labor force to support them!” Ah, but many young people in other countries will see the shining beacon of childfree America, and will immigrate here to join our happy and prosperous ranks. In this way the United States will maintain its proud tradition as a melting pot, a nation of immigrants looking for a better life.

It’s a beautiful dream, but I fear too few of my countrymen will realize the benefits of this plan. Someday, though, I will conquer a tiny island nation and create my childfree paradise.

review/blindness

There’s a fine line between exciting and silly, between badass and overdone, between serious and merely dull. Daredevil, like its blind protagonist, has no idea where these lines are. Tapping its cane, it wanders back and forth across them, the audience cringing each time.

Also: The line between sharp, witty writing and boring stock dialogue is not so fine. More of a vast gulf, really, and Daredevil is standing squarely on the wrong side.

Also: The slow motion Matrix jump kick is officially no longer cool when they have twelve year old kids doing it.

Also: Cowboy Bebop seems to have started a trend; I honestly can’t think of a better use for an ornate stained glass window than throwing people through it anyway.

rant/snatch

As regular readers will recall, tonight’s SPS film was Snatch. It’s a nice violent film with no major female characters, which makes it an excellent choice for future Valentine’s Days. It’s also a good film to watch after you discover that your check card number has been stolen and used to purchase $800 of car parts online.

Now the thing about committing credit card fraud over the Internet is that you don’t get your ugly-ass spoiler or comically enormous exhaust pipe if you don’t provide a shipping address. So I can hold out hope that the cops will walk up this fuckwit’s driveway past his newly tricked-out Acura Integra and haul his ass off to federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison. This would require a Tyrone-esque level of stupidity on the part of said fuckwit, though, so it’s probably an unlikely fantasy. Still, if he’s dragged away in handcuffs perhaps it will give him time to contemplate why he thought I wouldn’t notice $800 missing when it’s more than half my monthly paycheck (after taxes).

Probably not coincidentally, I read today that a hacker has stolen eight million credit card numbers. Check your statements carefully!

On a completely unrelated note, I ran into one of my former students at tea today. She said she had a (physics) question for me, but I guess it wasn’t very urgent, because she never got around to asking it.

response/ratios

I discovered yesterday that The New Republic posted a Valentine’s Day rant on their website. Now, I’m all in favor of ranting about Valentine’s Day, and this one started out well enough, but then the author proceeds to say some bizarre things. Note that the site requires free registration; I’m sure the conservatives in the audience will be reluctant to give their e-mail address to a left-wing hive of scum and villainy like TNR so I’ll quote liberally (heh) from the article.

The author, one Michelle Cottle, is railing against what she calls “super-efficient methods of mate-location, such as Internet dating, speed dating, or dating coaches”. (Note the admission that these methods are super-efficient – I’ll get to that.) She’s not overtly objecting to these methods themselves (though I think there is some implicit disdain); what she discusses are the attitudes people have about them. Most of the article, in fact, is devoted to a complaint about the most common reason given for using such services:

While sociologist types offer a number of reasons for the change in dating patterns and attitudes–people are marrying later, women have more life choices, dating has fallen out of vogue in college–the individuals who use these new services overwhelmingly give the same reasons: They’re far too busy for regular dating.

On the surface this seems like a very hip, modern explanation for employing services that might once have been (unfairly) regarded as the last bastion of losers. After all, nothing makes you seem more important today than being an overworked career guy/gal with two cell phones pressed to your head and a Blackberry strapped to your belt at all hours of the night. But, really. Too busy to date? Or even meet people? Please. How long can it take to introduce yourself to some hot young thing at the office, the gym (somehow time-strapped singles are able to make that Tuesday cycling class), or the corner deli for God’s sake? And, let’s face it, if you don’t have time to pause for the occasional getting-to-know-you frappucino, maybe you shouldn’t be in a relationship at this stage of your life. In fact, a little more alone time might be just the thing to help you decide what really matters in life.

So far this makes a lot of sense to me. This excuse about being too busy to meet people really is bogus, which is why I avoid using it. If I spend all my time in lab that’s a choice I’m making, and if I’m willing to devote some of that time to a relationship instead I should be willing to devote it to meeting people in the first place. So I don’t think this is a real excuse, but I think people give it (as Cottle says) because there’s a stigma attached to using these services, and they feel a need to justify it. Anyway, the article continues like this for another paragraph, but then she says something very strange.

All of which would be okay if people went into these things with realistic expectations, meaning that they approached the search for a mate much like they would the search for a good personal assistant.

What? I certainly agree that realistic expectations are important, but how do they validate the “I’m too busy” line? Don’t relationships take time and effort regardless of how you approach the search? She makes a very strong point earlier and then weakens it with this line. And it gets worse.

If what you seek is the most efficient way to locate someone who shares your basic values and has the same practical aims for a relationship (financial security, kids, occasional S&M, whatever), then these time-saving services could work like modern day marriage brokers. But listening to people talk about finding their dream girl online or experiencing that intangible spark during their third speed-date encounter, you gotta assume most of them fall into that huge pool of Americans hell-bent on finding their One True Love. Time crunches aside, we remain a hopelessly romantic people: USA Today reports that 87 percent of young folk expect to find their “soul mate” when the time is right. That they’re only prepared to spend 30 minutes a week cruising the web for that special someone doesn’t strike them as problematic.

Yes, the “soul mate” attitude is an unrealistic one to have when using Internet dating services. But it’s equally unrealistic for traditional approaches! I could just as easily say, “That they’re expecting to encounter that special someone by chance at the gym or the deli doesn’t strike them as problematic.” This point is totally unrelated to modern vs. traditional approaches to dating.

Just to hammer home the point of how generally unrealistic this soul mate idea is, let’s look at the numbers. A soul mate is supposed to be a rare and special thing, so let’s assume that the colloquial phrase “one in a million” accurately describes the probability that any given soul is a mate. Then I have about 6,000 soul mates in the world, and 6 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course this is just counting souls; we haven’t taken into account the physical body they inhabit. I have a few reasonable criteria there: the soul should be female, and roughly my age: let’s say an age bracket that spans 10% of the female population. Suddenly there’s only a 30% chance that I find a soul mate if I check every female in the SF Bay Area. And then what are the odds she’s available? And a non-smoker, and physically fit? Once I start throwing in the requirements for a girlfriend in addition to being a soul mate, it’s clear I’m not going to meet her by talking to girls at the gym.

Fortunately I’m the cooly rational type and not the hopeless romantic type, so I’m just looking for compatible women. And those seem to be a dime a dozen; there were at least one or two in my small high school, and at least one or two in my small, mostly male college. The odds of meeting one are actually pretty good; the tricky part is figuring out whether a given woman is compatible. Presumably this sort of attitude is what Cottle means by “realistic expectations”, but it’s orthogonal to any argument about online dating; it applies equally to meeting people in meatspace.

Ok, so I’ve got my realistic expectations, and I’ve got my free time dedicated to meeting women. Do I buy a gym membership or a DSL line? Cottle doesn’t actually say explicitly. But here’s a hint:

My hope is that the folks using these time-saving services to find Mr. Right aren’t really “too busy.” Maybe they’re too shy or too nerdy or too fat/bald/loud/afraid of rejection to feel comfortable meeting people all the usual ways and assume that “too busy” sounds less pathetic.

Basically, she hopes that people using online dating et al. are losers rather than just too busy! That’s not a very nice sentiment. It also implicitly assumes that there’s no sensible reason to use these services unless there’s something wrong with you. She admits that they’re more efficient, but then in the final paragraph tries to cast this efficiency as a bad thing, since being too busy is bad. But the “too busy” excuse is an aspect of the users of these services, while efficiency is an aspect of the services themselves – they’re totally separate. Maybe I’m not too busy, but I still value efficiency. Maybe my time does have some value, and if I can spend less time meeting women without sacrificing effectiveness, I can spend that time doing something else I enjoy.

With that in mind, let’s consider one of Cottle’s underlying assumptions: that online dating, speed dating, etc. are highly efficient. I’m not entirely sure this is the case. In physics terms, we want to consider signal strength and signal-to-noise ratio. How many compatible women with reciprocal interest do I meet, and how many other women do I meet in the process? There are obvious problems with each. In the case of online da
ting, one can skim through a lot of profiles quickly, or set up search criteria that pick out the profiles that match those minimum criteria. This vastly improves signal-to-noise. But falsifying one’s appearance online is trivially easy, if not in one’s long-term interest. (Anything else can also be a lie, but this is true in meatspace as well.) Additionally people give a different impression writing online than they do in person, and ultimately the in-person interaction is what’s important. Finally, the fact that one’s selection has increased goes along with one’s competition increasing – and for males, this occurs in an unfavorable proportion. The attractive women who post a profile online are going to get messages from men who are more attractive than you. You’d better learn to market yourself well, or the whole exercise is a waste of time and money.

On the other hand, suppose I use Cottle’s apparently preferred method and hang out in Cafe Strada. Certainly I’ll be able to evaluate physical attractiveness right away. (We all like to say we’re not shallow, but of course this is important.) On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the women I see will be unavailable. Even some of the single ones just want to drink their coffee and not be bothered. If I’m lucky enough to get one to talk to me, now I have to be clever and witty and engaging, all on the fly and without knowing anything about the person. This method really is more difficult and has a lower signal-to-noise ratio, so Cottle should at least make some effort to convince us that this is preferred.

Maybe the solution is to take ballroom dancing lessons. An old fashioned form of speed dating, I guess, assuming one changes partners with relative frequency.

briefly/replica

I got email today from “luv2dnce” with a subject line that had “SNATCH” in all caps. I came so close to deleting it unread as it was obviously spam.

Turns out Snatch is the Society of Physics Students movie this week. Do they realize what their messages look like?

rant/detection

I saw this story this morning about how the current terror alert was partly based on information from a prisoner that has turned out to be false. Initially, I was just surprised that the alert was based on any information at all, except for perhaps a vision John Ashcroft received while ritually flagellating himself in the head with a ball-peen hammer. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring that this latest plot turned out to be a figment of a prisoner’s imagination. At least, it was reassuring until I read how the FBI determined it was false: the informant failed a polygraph test.

Look, with all the budget cuts maybe we can save the DHS some money by replacing their polygraphs with Ouija boards. Cheaper, and equally effective! Or maybe they could hire an astrologer. (I guess Reagan already tried that.)

We’re doomed.