I just finished playing Mass Effect, a Bioware science fiction role-playing game for Xbox 360 (what I played) and now PC. When I bought my Xbox back at Christmas, I knew that Mass Effect was on my short list of Games I Wanted. It had received high praise and excellent reviews; the commercials made it look like the sort of game I would enjoy—I like science fiction, and I like combat as long as the game isn’t all combat. So a couple of weeks ago, I bought Mass Effect at about half price on eBay and began playing.
Many reviewers hailed Mass Effect as the best game of the year. I wouldn’t go that far, but then again, I‘m not a gamer, and my experience in games this year hasn’t been all that much. It is definitely one of the best games I have ever played; however, it does have several weak points that prevent me from enjoying it as much as I would like. I’ll cover those later.
Mass Effect may have the best story of any game this year. As a RPG, you get to play a character and make decisions that affect the story and the character’s development. In Mass Effect, you get to customize your character’s sex, appearance, first name, and military training. My character, Lance Shepard, was a vanguard. I felt this would give me a nice balance—I‘m not good enough at combat to be a soldier, but I didn’t want to fully devote myself to something like a technical or biotic role. Vanguard seemed to be a good “best of both worlds” choice. Of course, I can always play the game again, with a different character class, make different decisions, and see how the outcome goes from there. This is definitely one of Mass Effect’s strengths.
The story is classic science fiction space opera. It does use the old “ancient enemy returns after millennia” plot, and the enemy does happen to be a species of sentient machines (that seems rather popular these days—that isn’t our immersion in technology talking at all…). So it isn’t too original in that respect. However, you have to give Bioware points from the sheer depth of the Mass Effect universe. There are several distinct species, each with a clearly-defined culture, history, strengths, weaknesses … I don’t know how many people worked on the writing and arts for the game, but they went all out. Each of the planets visible has a little description of it, and sometimes a little relevant history. They’ve thought out how the eponymous technology works, what other technologies we have; they named the various weapons and ammunition upgrades … the amount of information packed into that game boggles my mind.
So it comes as no surprise that there will be spin-off novels and sequels—the universe of Mass Effect is too rich to not do that. It would be such a waste. Apparently Bioware’s got Mass Effect 2 in the works, with more planned after that. And I will buy them, as long as they continue to be this good. Because it’s enjoyable. And hopefully, each one will improve on the parts that hindered my enjoyment.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of a tutorial. Not being a very experienced gamer, tutorials are helpful to me. Some people may not need or want them, which is why having optional tutorials is a fair compromise. Mass Effect just throws you into its combat interface, and it took me some time to get used to it. Oh well.
Some portions of the game got very repetitive. Now, I went all out and did almost every possible side assignment. Had I not done that, maybe it wouldn’t have felt so repetitive. I am, of course, talking about the Mako vehicle used to get around the terrain of alien planets. That was boring, and in some cases, rather difficult. There were also some combat situations in which I repeatedly died, causing me to get frustrated, but that isn’t so much bad game design as my own ineptitude.
But please, please, please, Bioware … please release the next game with a way to skip cutscenes. I can stomach the corny dialogue, but the fact of the matter is simple: I do not need to watch the same cutscene several dozen times over when I die and my last save point is before the cutscene. Since you don’t let me save during combat, I cannot save after the cutscene, so I’m forced to watch it over … and over … and over. It also harms the replay value of the game, since I don’t necessarily want to watch a cutscene now that I know what it says.
Apparently the PC version corrects some of the game’s flaws, and hopefully Mass Effect 2 will have smoothed out any other bugs (parts of the physics engine kind of seem weird; I occasionally got stuck in spots I shouldn’t have). Mass Effect is, overall, a great game with a couple of serious flaws (did I mention I’d like to be able to skip cutscenes?). It’s not for everyone. If you dislike RPGs in general, this game isn’t going to change your mind about them—your ears may start to bleed from the almost endless expository dialogue. But if you like RPGs, and if you especially like science fiction, Mass Effect promises you adventure.
…but if I did, I‘d make it as entertaining as possible.
I do not believe that any human being is justified in taking the life of another human being. The death penalty does not make sense if you’re an atheist, and it doesn’t make sense if you’re a theist. If you are an atheist, then you probably don’t believe in an afterlife. In that case, you are depriving the murderer of existence without inflicting any form of punishment. Since all humans do eventually die, the murderer will die of natural causes eventually. Why not inflict as much punishment before then? Execution robs you of that. If you are a theist, then you probably do believe in an afterlife, which means a “hell” in which the wicked experience divine retribution. However, once again, if you execute a murderer, then he or she will go straight to Hell. And if you do happen to be wrong about the whole “God” thing, you‘ve let that murderer off the hook. Now, since there is a zero per cent chance of the murderer living forever, then it makes sense to inflict as much temporal punishment as possible, then let the murderer experience eternal damnation upon his or her death.
So that’s my position on the death penalty. I wonder though, why is the modern form of execution (i.e., lethal injection) so humane? If the person being executed is truly terrible enough to warrant death, why be nice and quick about it? Moreover, he or she has inflicted so much psychological damage to society, and he or she won’t be paying taxes anymore, so we might as well milk him or her for as much as he or she is worth before executing this person.
To that end, if I were in favour of the death penalty, I’d like it to be as fun to watch as possible. Maybe we should do it the way the Romans did, and feed people to lions. Think about it. In our capitalist society, there‘d be a new niche market for lion tamers to train lions to eat people on command. There’s the entertainment value of watching someone being eaten by a lion—hey, the government could even charge admission and recoup some of the losses from killing one of its citizens. The families of the victims could receive complimentary videos of the execution—fun for the entire family!
A humane death penalty is hypocritical.
And yes, if I were a lion tamer, I would like a nice big hat that says “Lion tamer” in bright neon flashing letters. And now for something completely different.
Pretentious title, no? This is actually just something that occurred to me while having a bath (baths are great that way).
I don’t know which particular set of neurons collided to produce this aspect of my personality, but I’ve never been one to concern myself with body image—mine or anyone else‘s. Physically I’m rather lucky in that I lead a sedentary lifestyle but have a high metabolism and a slim build. So I‘m very tall and rather thin. If I were more physically active, I might actually be fit and perhaps develop some muscles, but those same neurons decided that I would prefer to sit in front of a glowing screen and push electrons about while writing blog entries discussing the pushing of those same electrons.
Where was I? Oh yes, body image. I’ve never been particularly concerned with my body image. However, since I bike to work during the summer—an increased level of physical activity—I started thinking about how this would affect my body. In the bath tub I looked at my thighs and thought, “Wow, are my thighs really that big?” That thought made me think about body image, and I realized that I don’t know if my thighs are that big, because I don’t know what “normal” thighs look like—mostly because there’s no such thing as “normal” thighs. I expect that everyone’s thighs are slightly different.1
Society rams body image propaganda down the throats of self-conscious adolescents, adults, and Jack Russell terriers. But the “ideal” body image changes with the times, shifts and drifts enough that the idea of a “normal” body is completely fallacious. Unfortunately, there is no blueprint to the human body—we have our genome, yes, but there is no instruction manual that says, “The ideal male thigh will consist of the following measurements….” No doubt some cheeky scientist has done a study to determine the ideal proportions of body parts in order to construct a race of physically-flawless, mentally-superior supermen. The experiment has clearly gone horribly wrong, however, because it appears that they have produced the opposite result: increasingly obese, intellectually-deficient individuals.
This is where the epiphany would be if there were one. There’s not, however. Firstly, what I’m saying is not earthshaking (the number of earthshaking revelations remaining is quite low, and I possess none of them). Secondly, I‘ve completely wandered off on a tangent and have no idea what I’m going to say next.
- [ 1 ] Except for you clones out there, but don’t feel bad. You’re all unique on the inside.
I’ve been saying it for years: Cookie monster’s new platform of cookies as a “sometimes food” is a travesty. Finally it gets some mainstream media coverage from Stephen Colbert!
If there were one thing I would change about myself, it is the fact that I lack the ability to inhabit the moment. I am constantly and consistently thinking only of the future—not necessarily the distant future, more usually the immediate, next-couple-of-hours-or-days future. And I find that this drains me more than is necessary.
Summer is supposed to be time off from school to relax, but present-day economics throws a wrench in that model. Students instead usually must arm themselves with resumes and hunt out at least one (if not more) summer jobs in order to pay for schooling, residence, food, gas, and whatever expensive habits they have acquired since they had enough money to buy expensive habit-forming items.
I‘m one of the lucky ones. I don’t have to pay for schooling, residence, or food. All I need to take care of are my expensive habits,1 and sometimes gas, although my dad is pretty generous in that area. Otherwise, I‘m just saving my money for when I will need to pay for school, when I’ll need to start renting an apartment or put a down payment on a house or anyone of those expenses that seem to crop up in the adult world.2 So compared to others, I have it easy. Either I just have a weaker constitution, or going through school and then working all summer is draining.3
My wondrous vacation to Ohio is over, and now I am starting full time at work. This means more money (yay) but longer shifts. The true downside is also the upside of my work (isn’t that just irony for you). At the gallery, the days are often slow—especially in the summer, when the weather is warm and people engage in outdoor activities. So when there is nothing for us to do, we front desk attendants get some downtime. I like to read. Working during the summer means that the first four hours of our weekday shifts are spent with the full-time staff, which means we at least have to look like we’re working. Anyone who lives in Cubeville knows how this feels.4
I get Sundays and Mondays off, but otherwise I’m biking to work every day that the weather is nice. That takes time and effort—especially on the way back, because that way is mostly uphill. When I arrive home, I’m tired and sweaty and all I want to do is collapse. Combined with working, this gives me the distinct feeling that I lack free time. And as a somewhat lazy, sedentary sort of person, free time is a very valuable commodity to me. I function best in an idle state of careful rumination.
Hence my lack of ability to focus on the present and “live in the moment.” Were I able to do that, I think I’d be better at coping with this sort of lifestyle. Instead, I constantly focus on what comes next, leaving me somewhat disorganized, discontent, and dissatisfied.
So every so often I say to myself, “Ben, you need to shape up and start living in the moment,” and every time I reply, “You’re right, Ben—and might I add, devilishly charming and handsome—I do need to alter my pattern of behaviour.” Yet nothing comes of it. The closest I‘ve managed to come is sort of use a to-do list, and even that hasn’t become a habit. I have flirted with the GTD philosophy, tried downloading ThinkingRock and using that, but it has gotten me nowhere.
I need to accept that I am not a very organized person. Those who know me may balk at this statement, but what you think of as “organization” is in fact just a deep-seated need for tidiness. It’s true that I enjoy cleaning. I need a clean, tidy environment in order to have a clean, tidy state of mind in which to work. If my room is messy, then I feel stifled, crowded, and I can’t work very productively. Don’t mistake this for organization, however. That is another beast altogether. I am usually very disorganized.
The question remains, however: if I cannot become an organized person—and I‘m pretty sure I can’t—then how do I improve my time management even though I’m disorganized? How do I avoid feeling so drained, grumpy, and … grown up?
The answer may be to “stop and smell the roses” as often as I can, and I do. Really. I spend a lot of time just vegetating—that’s the whole point of acquiring free time, so I don’t have to do anything except just soak up the wonderful ambiance of life in our little corner of the universe. What else? I’m going to try and read as much as possible in order to further expand my personal life goal of “know as much as possible, read as many books as possible before you die.” Lastly, I am going to remember to breathe. To try to separate the tough and grimy (work, travelling to work, cleaning, lack of free time) from the light and fluffy (movies, books, gardens, walks, friends).
After all, rain comes from clouds.
You often hear someone invoke the phrase, “As a __,” in which he or she then goes on to name some sort of position or title that gives him or her the ability to voice an opinion on the subject at hand. “As a world leader…,” “As a scientist…,” “As a schoolteacher…,” “As an evil overlord….” Here’s something on which we should all have an opinion.
As a person, I value access to information. Many people, especially those my age, do not realize how saturated we are with information (or if you do, you may not understand what that means in a historical context). Go back in time about 550 years. There was a new invention on the scene in Europe: the printing press. The printing press allowed people to do something that, until then, was a very laborious task: it enabled the mass transmission of information in a written form. Prior to then, books were copied out by hand—usually by monks—and few people knew how to read. Most knowledge was passed on orally. And most people had access to very little information compared to what an individual knows today.
Fast forward 550 years back to present day. We have the Internet, a new revolutionary tool in communication. Information transmission is now instantaneous around the world. The average individual is exposed to too much information, to so much information that we have to start learning how to filter it out, both technically and socially. We are exposed to so much information that we take this access for granted. We assume we‘re entitled to it, just because we have it right now.
Well along with the development of information transmission came another neat idea: intellectual property. That is, the ownership of information and ideas. From this sprung several forms of laws that enshrine the rights of intellectual property owners: copyright and trademarks. But with the proliferation of the Internet, copyright is a whole new ball game. And Canada’s copyright legislation is pretty much obsolete. To give you an idea of how outdated our legislation is, here is a fact: recording a TV show on your VCR is illegal. See, that’s called time-shifting, and there is nothing explicitly in the Copyright Act that allows you do to that. Likewise, there’s nothing that lets you copy a CD to your computer or MP3 player, or record a program using PVR (DVR to those of you in the States).
Last week, the government tabled Bill C-61: An Act to amend the Copyright Act, the long-awaited copyright reform bill—or as some pundits prefer to call it, “the Canadian DMCA.” And those pundits have good reason.
Bill C-61 is supposed to update the Copyright Act for the new millennium, spruce it up, and clarify exactly what we can and can’t do with content in an era where copying someone else’s information is as easy as point-and-click. And to be fair, Bill C-61 does some of this. Let’s take a look at the fact sheets. Time shifting and format shifting … good. Oh look, private copying of music. Good. Wait … “digital locks”? What’s that. What? Oh my.
In what is largely regarded as a massive concession to the music, movie, and telecom industries, the amended Act would make it illegal to circumvent a digital lock with a fine up to $20 000. In other words, if you bought a CD with a digital lock on it and then copied it to your computer using a program to circumvent the lock, you could be fined $20 000 in damages. What I really don’t like, however, is the fact that this lends legitimacy to digital locks—it practically encourages corporate content distributors to lock up everything. Broadcasters could place locks on their television content so that you couldn’t record it on your PVR unit—and I don’t know about you, but I enjoy my PVR unit. And this kind of defeats the purpose of having time-shifting and format-shifting in the first place, if everything will just be under lock and key.
It’s depressing, that’s what it is. We are supposed to be moving forward with copyright legislation. We have to embrace the new technology, not fear it. We have come to praise Caesar! Instead, the Conservative government has folded to pressure from the industry and pressure from the U.S. government to create a bill that will turn common Canadians into criminals. You may think I’m overreacting, but I‘m not. It isn’t just the fines. Look at the highly restrictive educational provisions. How are teachers supposed to educate students—future leaders of the country—if they can’t access the content they need to do so?
It is entirely possible to create legislation that protects the rights of content creators—be they individuals, groups, corporations, or sentient potato salads—and protects the rights of consumers and content users. The overwhelming majority of content creators want their content to be used—that’s why it’s out there. Most just want to be compensated for it in some way, whether it is just recognition, or money, or a fancy theme song. And most Canadians, I think, would be happy to give them that theme song. If Bill C-61 passes, people are still going to download music and movies. People may even download more music and movies than ever before, because rather than giving Canadians a legal way to access this content, the amendment leaves us with no other choice but to pursue less legitimate ways of acquiring the content.
Our obsession with intellectual property and ownership of ideas and information is bordering on the precipice of absurdity here. So we need to do something about it.
I don’t know how many Canadians read this blog (probably about 15 people in total, so maybe … 3 Canadians?), but most of my Facebook friends are Canadian, and they might read this in my Facebook notes, so this is me doing my part. I am spreading the word and encouraging my friends to get involved. Write a letter to your Member of Parliament, to Josée Verner, Minister of Heritage, to Jim Prentice, Minister of Industry, and to the Prime Minister. You can send an email, but a regular physical letter is harder to ignore—remember, it’s free to send mail to your MP.
Copyright for Canadians has some excellent resources, including a template for the letter that you can automatically send to your MP, Jim Prentice, and Josée Verner. It will take less than 5 minutes, so at the very least, you could do that.
If you‘re interested in learning more about Canadian copyright, read FairCopyright.ca. Michael Geist is keeping track of various developments in the bill, such as reactions from the press and public, and government responses.
We have to send a message to the government that they can’t just ignore the public and table legislation without consulting us, the people who elected this so-called representative democracy. The Conservatives ran on the platform of accountability after the number of Liberal scandals, but now they have broken that core campaign promise and chosen to instead side with the big guys with money instead of the ordinary Canadian citizen. So take ten minutes out of your day, send your MP a letter, and know that even if the bill passes, you at least tried. Those who watch an injustice being perpetrated and do nothing to stop it are just as culpable as those who perpetrate the injustice itself.
Lately I‘ve been listening to CBC Radio’s new show Spark.
Some of you may recall that I‘m not always fond of the CBC, but they’ve got something good going with Spark. It’s the sort of show that would appeal to demographics that might otherwise view the CBC as stodgy and uninteresting. Spark’s host, Nora Young, discusses the latest technology and technological phenomena with guests. Specifically, the show focuses on how technology integrates into and impacts our daily life. So even if you aren’t a technowizard, you could still find the show interesting (and perhaps even informative).
Take a look at the Spark blog to get an idea of what sort of topics the show’s covered in the past. Even if you don’t get CBC radio where you live, you can listen to Spark via podcast—that’s how I listen, because then I can just put it on when it’s convenient.
Not every day can be awesome—if it were, our standards would inevitably just rise to redefine the level of “awesome” required to indeed be awesome. It reminds me of that scene Gattaca, in which the corporate head honcho discusses how they can “measure” human potential. The innocent hero asks, “And what if they exceed their potential?” And head honcho replies, in the coldest and most calculating tone, “No one exceeds their potential. If they do, it simply means we did not measure it accurately in the first place.” For me, that was the most chilling moment of the movie.
Yet I digress. Not every day can be awesome. And not every day can be terrible. Some days are mediocre. Some days are gloomy. Some days are better than average. Today (or rather yesterday, I guess) was better than average—with a cherry on top.
It was nice outside, so I took this reprieve from the rain as a chance to walk down to Hillcrest Park and read for a little. The wind picked up, however, and the bugs were especially bad, so I didn’t stay as long as I could have. When I got home, I did some housework and worked a bit on my latest project. Then at five I went out to the Keg to meet a couple of my coworkers. After some of them left, my coworker Danielle invited myself and the other two remaining people back to her house, since we weren’t really ready to go home yet. So we spent a couple of hours hanging out and talking. It was pleasant. And as someone who doesn’t socialize as much as he perhaps should, I had a good time and enjoyed myself—I really like those three particular coworkers, of course. So that may have something to do with it.
But what about the cherry on top? On my way to Danielle’s house, I turned on the radio, and there was the song! The song whose name I had been trying to find for about a year and a half now—not trying very hard, mind you, but it’s been in the back of my mind. The trouble is, I only new one line of the lyrics: “Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.” Helpful, huh? :P
So I was pretty pleased with the Serendipity Department of the universe tonight for giving me that song—“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind. I have another Third Eye Blind song, “Never Let You Go,” and it occurs to me that I enjoy their music. So instead of buying “Semi-Charmed Life” on iTunes, I‘m going to buy the entire album.
Actually, I just went to HMV.ca to see if I could buy it online there, and they aren’t selling products online anymore. Don’t they know I love to shop online?! Don’t they know that I don’t want to go to their puny store in our puny mall and try to find what I want from their puny collection? You know what this means, right? It means I’m going to …
*lowers voice* Amazon
Actually, it means I‘m going to Chapters, because they are Canadian and they have the album I want for a cheaper price than Amazon. I like buying from Canadian companies (although if Amazon had it cheaper I would buy from them). Chapters in particular has always been very good to me. Once their sale starts next week, I am going to go and buy several books I’ve been meaning to buy. They sent me a very nice coupon in the last book I ordered online (The Gum Thief trade paperback, by Douglas Coupland), and then today in the mail I got a catalogue/newsletter thingy with another coupon or two.
Yeah, I have an addiction to books. I have a problem. So what?
Those of you not reading this through a feed (that is, if anyone actually subscribes to my feed…) will notice things looking a little … different.
This is the long-awaited, long promised redesign! The previous design has been in use since before my site moved to A Small Orange in October 2005. It was time for a change, time for a fresh look, time to update the site to better reflect me. That was a challenge on its own.
As I began toying with designs, I had to confront the question What reflects my personality? What could I put in my personal site design? After all, that’s the only purpose this site has—it’s a vanity site. I could incorporate pictures of me, except I don’t have many. Maybe some scenes of Thunder Bay. I toyed with various concepts and positioning. Eventually I struck on the idea of using a vertical banner image of my socks-and-sandals photo. It looked nifty and different, plus it is most definitely me. I like socks with sandals.
I chipped away at the rest of the design piece by piece. I found a good stock photo of a tea cup to include in the background. I added some content to my about section. And it all came together. It’s been a lot of work, but I’m fairly pleased with the final result.
I‘ve aggregated more content by including widgets that show what I’m reading, what I‘m doing, future plans, and even sites I think are cool. These will automatically update as I update my information on those various websites, which means less maintenance for me.
The photo gallery has also been redone to use a framework that accesses my Flickr photos. Unfortunately, I’ve run into some configuration problems with it—I‘m very much aware of the unfortunate error message you’ll receive if you try to view it right now. I hope to have that fixed soon. Also, I will eventually get around to styling the scripts wiki to match the rest of the site layout. I decided not to wait to launch the design.
Now that I‘ve given my website an overhaul, I will try to overhaul the documentation for VSNS Lemon and then release VSNS Lemon 4.0 (which is what this blog now uses). After that, I have a new coding project I’m really excited about. It’s kind of massive, however, so I’m not sure how well it will go … we shall see.