Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

The third level of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, which takes place on board a moving train, is simulatenously one of the most thrilling and exciting and yet entirely frustrating levels of any game I have ever played. And as such, it is a perfect macrocosm of the game as a whole.

The level starts with your character, Sam Fisher, rappelling down from a helicopter onto the roof of a speeding train. From here, he has to get on board the train and locate one passenger, a suspected double agent named "Mortified_Penguin" (yes, the dumb name is even made fun of in the game). All this without killing anyone and, above all, without being seen - if your character is spotted by anyone other than Mortified_Penguin, it's game over. Simple, right?

Since games tend to take their cues from Hollywood blockbusters, it's fair to say that a lot of people playing Splinter Cell will be familiar with many of the settings, combat techniques and high-tech fuckery-foo featured in this game from watching James Bond and Mission Impossible movies. And although the Splinter Cell series had always aped its influences to a very high standard, it really hadn't shown me anything I hadn't seen elsewhere.

And that's why this level took me completely by surprise.

Let me explain. Very few games have ever really attempted to do anything involving trains. The few that stand out in my mind are the train from GoldenEye (although that was just like being in any really long, narrow corridor and never once felt like an actual train). There was also a train level in Red Dead Revolver that attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the trainride shootouts from old Westerns. But on the whole, there are very few games that can support a 'train'.

So kudos to Ubisoft for trying to actually give us something that behaved like a real train. When you first drop down on the train roof, your character automatically crouches against the wind. Pushing the stick forward, your character visibly struggles; straight movement is difficult, and he staggers around against the force of the wind. Stand up for an instant, and he's blown back a bit. Jump and he's blown off the train entirely, although why anyone would want to do something so obviously stupid is beyond me. Ahem.

Once inside the train, things get no more simple - each compartment is well lit and populated. When your goal is to remain completely unnoticed, both of these are immediate show-stoppers.

The first trolley is the storage area, patrolled by an inspector. There are a couple of lights here, and a locked door at the far end, blocking your exit there. Fortunately, there is a trap in the floor which allows you to crawl out and under to the next compartment.

So here's where things get tricky. Shooting out the lights gives you an extra few feet of darkness to crouch in, unseen. But there is virtually no way to reach the trap in the floor without being seen by the guard. I know: I've tried. I tried again and again. I must have retried this one particular compartment roughly a dozen times before I discovered what I was supposed to do: knock out the guard.

But I didn't know that I could do this. In the previous level, your character meets up with an informant in a locked room with no obvious exits apart from an air vent, which brings you to another locked room. After 10 minutes of running around, trying a few things, I started to get frustrated. I spoke to the informant again, my character asking him if there was any way out. "Do you think I'd still be in here if there was?" I asked again. And the game started repeating this one conversation again: "Is there a way out?" "Do you think I'd still be here if there was?" "Is there a way out?"

So I hit the informer.

Just a quick punch, that's all. After I did this, I crawled around for a while and finally spotted the gas-vent I was supposed to shoot to open up the way to the extraction point. At the end of the level, my character's boss gave out to me for killing the informant. But wait a minute - I just punched him?! Obviously, my punches are lethal!

So, it was in a similiar burst of frustration that I hit the guard. This time, no boss giving out to me for killing him. How come my punches only knock this guy out? Is he made of sterner stuff than the informant?

Through the floor-trap and onto the next compartment, and there are similar issues. I wait until the guards finish their conversation and run for the door - I'm spotted. I try again, doing the exact same thing as before, and this time I'm not spotted.

From there, I climb outside the train and inch my way along the side of the compartment, trying not to be spotted by anyone and also trying to avoid being knocked off by a passing train.

And so on, and so on, until finally I meet mortified_penguin. He tells me he has to make a phone call, and I'm my orders come in to follow him and listen to his conversation using my "Laser Mic" - a telescopic microphone which the manual tells me "works by picking up microscopic vibrations, especially from glass." So I stand outside the door of the compartment where the conversation is taking place and point the laser mic through the glass, but I get nothing. I'm told I failed the mission, try again. Only when I go through the door and use the laser mic from close-range do I complete this part of the level.

This lack of consistency is apparent in virtually all areas of this game - from the videogame tradition of only having some doors that can open, there are also some lights that you can shoot out while others can take a grenade and still shine. And it's this lack of consistency that ruins the game's ultimate objective of completely free-form gameplay.

Anyway, back to the train.

The level ends with a brief firefight on the train followed by your character climbing onto the roof again and running down the full length of the train to climb onto a rope hanging from a helicopter, all this while an enemy helicopter is shooting at you. Thrilling stuff - arguably better and more innovative than anything Hollywood has given us.

But I reckon, in all, I must have restarted this level 20 times, because each time I was forced to use trial-and-error rather than a consistent set of rules to complete each section. When restarting a level becomes second-nature, it's time to start asking questions.

Retrospective: Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi has no plot. Nor does it have any characters or dialogue. Apart from the credits and a translation of the Hopi prophecies from which the film takes its name, it includes no text nor attempts at explanation. By all accounts, it's not a movie at all.

But it's the most extraordinary movie I've ever seen.

My first experience with Koyaanisqatsi came when I was about 14. My art teacher in school -- a lovely guy whose heart was in the right place, but just could not control a bunch of teenagers -- spent an entire class raving about this movie, and eventually brought in a book of stills to 'inspire' us, but these didn't do any justice to the movie so my imagination remained unsparked. But when I began to see its name used as an adjective, I knew it was something I had to check out.

I never did. In days before DVD, it was just too hard to get a hold of. I could have imported it with no small amount of trouble, but it was so costly and the quality of my VCR was so awful from years of abuse, it never seemed worth it. So when I got my first DVD player (first generation, baby!), this was the first thing I imported. When it arrived, I called up a friend of mine who was also interested in seeing it and we made an evening of it.

We giggled at the beginning. Uncomfortable giggles: Is this it? Pictures and music? What's the big deal? But the film just starts off slow; fifteen minutes in, it started building up to an acceptable pace, and our jaws started inching towards the floor.

I've since noticed how much of Koyaanisqatsi's images and visual techniques have been repeated by other movie makers, but none have managed to achieve such amazing results. The visuals are, at worst, stunning. At best, they are absolutely breathtaking. Filmed by some of the best cinematographers in the world, everything is in such a way to add extra gravitas or a new layer of meaning to the subject matter. For example, a long panning shot of a waterfall gives you an extremely effective sense of the scale involved - likewise, a time-lapse shot of people getting on and off an escalator demands that you view this everyday activity in a completely new way.

Likewise, Philip Glass' score is equally incredible. It is easily the best and most accessible of all his works, and stands apart from the visuals as a beautiful piece of music in its own right. The story goes that director Godfrey Reggio presented the movie to Glass for scoring. Glass composed a score to fit the movie, and sent it back to Reggio. Then Reggio re-cut the movie to fit the score a little better. Then Glass changed his score slightly to fit this new cut of the movie. And so on. I can't think of another movie where this has happened on such a grand scale

By the time the film finished, myself and my buddy looked at each other and realised our jaws were still on the floor. We'd experienced something completely new to us: a movie as art. Art as a movie, beyond the casual lip-service thrown thrown about for 'experimental' movies like Warhol's 8-hour film about the outside of the Empire State Building.

I fell in love with Koyaanisqatsi that day. I think I watched it three times that week, never once getting bored and each time discovering something new. I still come back to it every few months, especially when I'm drunk - there's something especially fascinating about this movie when my brain isn't going at full speed. I remember saying that I don't take hard drugs, but Koyaanisqatsi made me want to start, just so I could take advantage of a fucked-up view of the world to see this movie in a whole new light. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey's "Stargate" sequence on a whole bunch of new drugs, and you're in the right ballpark.

The comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey is useful because besides both movies presenting a really strong case for recreational drug use, there is a message at the core of both movies. Both are, essentially, social allegories. Koyaanisqatsi has a very deep message telling us about our past, our present and our future. On one of the DVD extras, Reggio explains that he didn't want to hit people over the head with his message - he dislikes movies that attempt to force a particular message or opinion on its viewers, so he doesn't mind that, sometimes, people miss Koyaanisqatsi's central message completely.

And that's okay, because they'll still have experienced one of the most beautiful films ever made.

Jesus, that's a hell of an act

The Arisocrats is a movie about one joke, breaking the record for "Least amount of jokes in a movie", previously held by Team America.

Wikipedia explains the joke well, but here's the basics: it's a non-joke. An in-joke among comedians. The start is always the same, the punchline is always the same, so the joke is all about the creativity put into the depraved, obscene stuff in the middle (I'm no expert, but I'd say that the South Park guys currently hold the record for obscenity).

And so to the movie - a documentary featuring 100 comedians explaining their own personal version of the joke, as well as the history of the joke, and the relevance in a society at odds with the "limits of free speech". The movie was co-produced by Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) and features, among other things the amazingly obscene George Carlin, the amazingly funny Eddie Izzard and uh... Carrot Top.

In other documentary news: I know my birthday is months away, but there's an Errol Morris DVD Collection coming out that would look fabulous in my house, don't you think?

Potato Salad with Salsa Verde

We had a vegetarian friend coming over for dinner, so I had to quickly throw some stuff together. This is a variation of a Salsa Verde. If I was making it again (and not catering for a vegetarian), I would probably include the more traditional ingredient of a few anchovies.

  • Bag of new/baby potatoes (6 potatoes per person)
  • Jar of Pickled Gherkins (3 gherkins or so)
  • Handful of Parsley
  • Jar of capers (a small handful of capers)
  • Zest & Juice of 1 Lemon
  • Salt & Pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Red wine vinegar

Preparation:

  1. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil.
  2. Cut the new potatoes into reasonably small chunks, about the thickness of your thumb, put them into the water.
  3. Chop the parsley really fine
  4. Chop the gherkins really fine
  5. Put the parsley, gherkins and lemon into a bowl and mash them (use a pestle and mortar or even food processor if you want)
  6. Pour in a good dash of red wine vinegar
  7. Pour in enough olive oil to make the paste runny but still thick
  8. When the potatoes are cooked, drain most of the water (leaving a little bit in there to be soaked up). Keep the potatoes in the pot with the leftover water.
  9. Pour in the paste and shake the pot, making the potatoes slightly fluffy at the edges. This helps the potatoes collect and absorb the sauce.

Worst smelling street in Dublin?

Since moving apartment, I've had to change my route to work. Now, I walk down the road beside the Guinness Brewery - Watling Street, which takes me onto Thomas Street.

In a city full of foul-smelling streets, I would like to nominate Watling Street as the foulest. Imagine the smell of a pub at closing time. That smell of spilled beer starting to congeal and sour. Now imagine that condensed to the point where it causes you to gag. And throw in some sewage gas for good measure. That's what Watling Street smells like.

It's so bad that I'm considering changing my route to work - going five minutes out of the way just to avoid going down this street. I just can't put up with the flash headaches and nausea caused by that awful smell.

Or am I wrong? Could there possibly be a worse-smelling street?

I wonder what Freud would say

Over the weekend, I dreamt I met Steve Jobs.

I crossed a humped bridge and came into an abandoned carnival which was being dismantled. As I wandered around checking everything out, I came across a second-hand book stall and sitting there, selling books by some guy called Eugene Stanford1 (who looked remarkably like Jerry Garcia) was Steve Jobs.

I was overwhelmed, and shook his hand enthusiastically. He was polite and chatted for a bit. I decided to press a little further, beyond the normal smalltalk of a starstruck fan.

'"How did you do it, Steve? You were 20 when you started Apple. You were in the prime of your life, and you were devoting 18 hours a day to your dream. How did you maintain that focus? How did you maintain relationships with those around you?2 I mean... I'm spending my time worrying about shelves and varnishing and things like that. I'm not pursuing any of my dreams. I haven't accomplished anything. How did you do it?"

He replied simply and calmly.

"I took a lot of drugs."

1

which gives me a clue as to why was dreaming of Steve Jobs - I'd just read his Commencement Address to Stanford University

2

of course, having read The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, I know that he didn't really manage to maintain relationships with those around him during the start of Apple

The Cult of the Hipster PDA

There's an old saying in software development that says that "Every application expands to the point where it can read mail" - even if the software started as a way to get away from reading mail.

When it was first introduced by Merlin Mann, the Hipster PDA was a bit of an anomoly. Its analog, low-tech approach to task management and organisation was something unexpected and interesting. It ditched all of the fancy padding we put around our personal productivity and stripped it right down to the bare minimum. Perhaps that's why it caught on so well.

For the uninitiated, the Hipster PDA is simply a stack of 3"x5" index cards held together with a binder clip which functions as a notebook, to-do list, calendar, shopping list, whatever you need. Breathtakingly simple.

Over at a million monkeys typing, Douglas Johnson has released a "Hipster PDA edition" of his popular "DIY Planner" pages. In this, he includes

  • GTD quick reference card
  • Covey Planning quick reference card
  • calendar of the next two years
  • few month planner cards
  • weekly planner card
  • a few "day keeper" card
  • "GTD all-in-one" card
  • next actions/agendas/waiting for
  • a shopping list
  • a "finances" list

and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Now, maybe I'm completely missing the point (and let's be honest, it wouldn't be the first time), but this is looking more like my packed, hardback diary/planner than the Hipster PDA as Merlin originally described it. It has, in effect, returned a lot of the padding that the Hipster PDA took away. It has, in effect, expanded to be able to read mail.

I'm not trying to say that the DIY Planner isn't a good idea, because it most certainly is. All of its blank lines and empty tickboxes made me shiver with excitement at being able to fill them in. But it lacks the beautiful simplicity of the Hipster PDA -- the very thing that, for me, made the Hipster PDA unique.

Even though it is just a stack of plain paper.

Retrospective: Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads were the first band I was can remember being 'aware' of.

I mean, I understood music in a general sense. I understood "songs". I understood that there were songs that scared the crap out of me (I used to challenge myself to listen to Ray Parker Jnr's theme from "Ghostbusters" in the dark, alone. I don't think I've managed to do it yet) and I understood that there songs whose videos made me laugh (Dire Straits' "Walk of Life"). But I really didn't understand the concept of "bands" until quite late.

When I was about four or five, my sister - ten years older than me and a die-hard Prince/Adam Ant fan - challenged me to name the bands I liked. So I named "Talking Heads", the only band I was aware of.

"Arty wanker."

(I was five)

It wasn't until much, much later that I understood what she meant. Talking Heads did their best to skirt the line between art and commercialism, occasionally pushing one more than the other. Sometimes this produced something difficult and awkward (like the deliberate nonsense-language of "I Zimbra" on "Fear of Music"). But sometimes, it produced something beautiful. Like "Stop Making Sense".

The few concert videos that stand out as something special do so because the artist and the director have a clear definition of what they want to achieve (and both have the talent to support it). Other examples, such as Prince's Sign O' The Times and Scorsese's The Last Waltz are both as entertaining to watch as movies as they are to listen to. Stop Making Sense represents a band at the peak of their abilities with enough of a vision to, if nothing else, produce something completely unique.

I've always been just a casual fan of Talking Heads. I'd never seen Stop Making Sense, but I thought I'd gotten everything I could out of their music. Until a few weeks ago. I was at a Skinny Wolves night in Bodkins. At these things, they usually accompany the music with movies projected on a big screen without the sound - things like the Clash's Rude Boy and Devo Live. This particular week, they were showing Stop Making Sense.

Now, it may have been the copious amounts of booze sloshing around my system, but I was completely mesmerized. I must have come across as a rude sumbitch because I think I spent most of the night ignoring all attempts at conversation. I was completely transfixed by these bunch of complete... well, there's no other way to put this... geeks doing the coolest things I'd ever seen on stage.

Throughout the entire thing, David Byrne moves his gangly body in strange, hypnotic ways. And the entire band puts out enough energy to power the show themselves. For example, the entire band jogs its way through Life During Wartime. During the guitar solo, David Byrne jogs around the entire stage, again and again and at the end, goes back to singing without being even slightly out of breath.

There are set changes, costume changes, instrument changes, but none of it seems forced. It seems progressive. It gradually, sensibly builds up. Rather than blowing its load right at the very start (like U2's technically impressive Zooropa and Popmart tours), Stop Making Sense has a structure. It starts off with David Byrne coming out to a bare stage in a suit, with an acoustic guitar and boombox, and announcing to the crowd that he'd like to play a song. He launches into a version of Psycho Killer that is so different from the album version as to be almost unrecognisable.

For the next song, part of the band comes out. For the next, the backing singers come out. And so on. By the end of the show, there's a small country on the stage.

And, like Psycho Killer, each song on Stop Making Sense is radically different from the album versions which makes them instantly compelling. And more significantly, they're arguably better than the album version. When it came to producing a "Best of", Talking Heads chose to present two songs from Stop Making Sense instead of their album versions, that's the kind of quality we're talking here.

It's easy to understate just how amazing this movie is. Even if you're only a casual fan of Talking Heads, I'd encourage you to hunt down this movie and be won over for yourself.

Resources:

The state of Irish Open Source

Reading an article about how Europe is falling behind on open-source, I can't help but think of the recent ICT Expo, which took it on itself to dish out "Industry Excellence" awards. Except it got so much wrong, it wasn't even funny. It looked more like a bunch of old boys meeting together to congratulate each other than an actual representation of the Irish IT industry.

Ignoring all of the other categories and just focusing on the "Open Source Project of the Year", we can instantly see that there's something very wrong here. The two nominations were

  1. Soft Telecom
  2. Enovation

Soft Telecom

I have no idea what these guys do. Or did, since currently their website redirects to their Ensim administrator page. So, regardless of exactly what kind of open-source project they're undertaking, this hardly reflects any kind of "Industry Excellence" so far.

Enovation

When the winners were first announced, I looked very hard, but couldn't see what exactly Enovation actually did. If they provided open-source software, their site certainly didn't mention it. Now they've got a large banner which explains exactly what they did to win the award - they set up Moodle for a college.

That's it.

I mean, Jesus. This is frightening.

But thinking about it, what else is there? ILUG is a useful resource, but not particularly pro-active. Likewise, BUGI has been spluttering its way into actual usefulness for the past few years. OpenEir has potential, but is still in its infancy.

Are there any significant Irish Open Source projects?

Minor update

I'm still waiting for Irish Broadband to contact me about an installation date, so I've had four days away from a computer. And so much has happened.

Apple to use Intel Microprocessors beginning in 2006 Christ. This had been rumoured for a couple of weeks now (and a couple of years before then), but still... wow. John Gruber suggests that Apple may not transition to x86 chips. But then again, he also discounted the possibility of Apple releasing the iPod Shuffle and last week attempted to debunk the rumours of Apple switching to Intel. But this is so completely huge that it's easy to understand why he was a litle skeptical. Apple say they're looking at completing the transition to the Intel chips by the end of 2007.

Nintendo Revolution’s classic Nintendo games will be free Nintendo, who have been keeping quiet in this round of "Our console will have hi-def" "Ours will massage your feet while you play!" have dropped a bombshell in the form of massive amount of backward-compatibility for free! They will be releasing almost every game they published for their previous consoles as a free download, available from the launch of their new console, the Revolution. This includes things like Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Zelda II and one of my favourite games, Uniracers (Unirally over here). Miyamoto (the creator of Mario and Zelda) has said that he's tired of sprawling epic games and is appealing to developers to create something unique and fun (but not neccessarily huge or big-budget) for the Revolution. I guess this is Nintendo paying attention. Update: Full list of games available for download

My copy of Difficult Questions about Videogames was waiting for me when I arrived in work today. This should give me plenty to chew through for the next couple of days, at least until GTA:SA and God of War arrive and start soaking up all my free time. Update: A few pages in, and I'm convinced of something that I'd always suspected - Kieron Gillen needs to find himself an editor.