Back to the Future

I recently bought the Back To The Future trilogy DVD set from eBay – it arrived in a slightly bizarre piece of packaging which made me suspect it was pirated, but it turns out that it’s the official Australian version of the DVD set (Region 2 and 4 compatible). Managed to save a few pounds off the Play.com price, so I was happy.

The DVD set itself is unremarkable; it has some reasonably good special features and funny outtakes, but nothing exceptional. The image quality is a bit disappointing but then again, the films aren’t particularly new. Not that this really matters, because once again my belief that Back To The Future (part 1) is one of the very best science fiction movies out there.

And SF it is! It might not seem like SF – after all, it’s funny, charming and very entertaining, and it doesn’t involve spaceships or aliens. But it has got time travelling. It reminds me of some of the older ‘golden age’ SF, from the 50s and 60s, written by people like Clarke; good humoured SF that was rooted in reality and didn’t involve reams of technobabble or depressing visions of the future. I like hard SF just as much as anyone else, but sometimes it’s nice to read a light and funny SF story – of which there are still a fair number, but most of them are short stories.

I want my MP3

Unlike many people at Cambridge, I don’t really visit the libraries except to pick up the odd paper that I can’t find off the web. I certainly don’t work in libraries; the atmosphere feels intolerably stifling, as if you’re being forced to work by the mere presence of dozens of your peers’ eyes upon you. I need my own space. Plus, I don’t like the fact that I can’t listen to music in the library.

I’m not ‘into’ music in the traditional sense – I don’t watch MTV, listen to the radio or know pretty much any of the songs in the Top 40. My mp3 collection grows slowly yet steadily based solely on the recommendations of friends and music that I hear from films. Still, I do have 1400 songs and the fact that I have an iPod speaks volumes about how seriously I take my listening experience.

So when Winamp 3 died on me after a Windows Update, I was understandably upset; how was I supposed to do anything at the computer without any music on now? But, I reflected, this presented an opportunity for me to get away from the tyranny of Winamp.

I’ve been a long time Winamp user – Winamp 2 served me well, and it did pretty much everything I wanted except for multiple playlists and a media library. Winamp 3 handily added those features, but the thing was (and still is) a huge, bloated and slow thing that just doesn’t work properly; the Media Library does help organise music, but it’s full of bugs. The player itself has actually had functionality removed from Winamp 2 for some unfathomable reason, and ever since I’ve been using Winamp 3 I’ve been a bit dissatisfied.

So instead of reinstalling Winamp 3, I deleted the offending piece of garbage from my computer and installed the latest version of Winamp 2. As I expected, it was extremely zippy and nice, but Winamp 3 had gotten me hooked on my Media Library and playlists, and Winamp 2, while good, just couldn’t cut it. I’d have to look further afield.

I considered RealOne, Musicmatch and Windows Media Player 9.

RealOne isn’t too bad; I have a friend in America who uses it religiously, and it seems to work well. However, it’s a resource hog, it pops-up irritating adverts and windows occasionally and it just doesn’t feel right. I’ve gone right off Real ever since they started using spyware and running unwanted programs in the background. So this wasn’t an option.

I’ve never used Musicmatch before, and I haven’t seen it in action either. I gather it’s pretty good, although also a resource hog. It appears to have all the features I want, including a nice autoplaylist function. However, the full version costs $20, and of course I rather wouldn’t pay for something that I could get for free.

(Question: Why isn’t there a really decent open source MP3 player for Windows? This could really be a killer app).

Finally, there’s Windows Media Player 9. This is most likely not the version of WMP you have on your computer right now – you have to manually upgrade. I have a mild conditioned aversion to using proprietary Windows software unless it can be avoided, since they are usually lacking in power and options; I expected the same from WMP 9.

To my utmost and pleasant surprise, WMP 9 is actually a really decent piece of work. It has all the features that I want and more (the autoplaylist function is the most advanced I’ve seen) and visually, it doesn’t look bad. It takes up moderate resources, and the only problem that I can see with it is that it can’t minimize to the system tray (thus eating up valuable screen real estate). Clearly WMP 9 was developed in response to Apple’s iTunes 3, and I’d say that it’s probably on par with it overall.

So I’m currently using WMP 9 for all of my music, and I would recommend it to anyone else who takes their music listening experience seriously and has a large library of mp3s.

Stepping out

So for a couple of hours this evening I tried to replicate the Dance Dance Revolution experience using my PC. Waiting for me at Cambridge today were two nice new Playstation gamepad USB adaptors that I bought off Ebay; I was intending to hook my two dance mats up to the computer via USB, download Stepmania (an open source DDR clone), get a bunch of songs and step files, and play away.

Getting Stepmania was easy enough and installing it was a breeze; it’s a very professionally done product and the creators can be proud of themselves. Downloading songs was relatively easy; sites such as DDR UK and DDRManiax had a wide selection. I didn’t feel too bad downloading all the songs, since after all, I already own most of them anyway – they’re just not on my PC. I also downloaded some additional voiceover, movie and graphics packs from Stepmania – the finished product actually looks better than any other DDR game I’ve seen.

The last thing to do was to plug my dance mats and adaptors into the PC. This went fine – Windows XP automatically recognised them, and after I’d configured the buttons in Stepmania, away I went. Or so I thought.

On my second game, after I’d gotten over the shock of playing high quality DDR on my PC, I noticed that I was failing the songs alarmingly quickly – and it wasn’t my fault, either. At first I put this down to the crappiness of the dance mats that we have (they are awesomely cheap Hong Kong knockoffs) which have been known to act strangely in the past. But not even that could explain it all.

As it turned out, the adaptor wouldn’t allow two opposite direction arrow buttons to be pressed at the same time. I was suitably annoyed about this, but it makes sense – you never have to press opposite arrow directions in games, and besides, until recently even DirectX wouldn’t allow you (it does now though, ever since 8.1). There must be some solution, I thought.

There is; there are adaptors out there that will allow opposite arrows to be pressed together (through some assumption of analog jiggerypokery). Only a few adaptors work – the rest don’t. I happened across a handy list of those that do and I am now considering getting either the BOOM adaptor or the EMS one. Both are sold by Lik-Sang, who have an excellent reputation for these sorts of things.

So, was it a complete bust? I wouldn’t say so. The experience finally motivated me to go and have a look at Stepmania, which I’d been wondering about for a while, and it’s convinced me that it is possible – and indeed favourable – to play decent DDR on a PC. The current adaptors I had didn’t cost me much at all (thus are the wonders of Ebay) and the ones I’m considering are not too expensive either – although I am still mulling it over.

In the meantime, it is not actually impossible to play Stepmania using the adaptors that I have; you have to modify your play style somewhat, but it is still fun and worthwhile. Plus, it’s still perfectly good practice for the arcade. And of course, if I ever want to use my real Playstation controllers on the PC, I’ll have two adaptors ready and waiting.

Back

Well, I’m finally back from Utah. I actually got back about five days ago, but I think I can be excused from writing entries here what with jetlag and all the Christmas festivities going on – plus, if you’re bored, you should be reading my Two Weeks on Mars weblog.

Things have been fairly quiet back at home; I’ve been stunned by the mildness of the weather here, it feels like spring. In my turn, I’ve stunned everyone by ordering Bedazzled (yes, the one with Liz Hurley) on DVD. Believe it or not, it’s actually a good and funny film. I’ll confess that I was just as vehemently hostile to the proposal of watching the film in Utah as anyone else would be (if not more) but it really is worth a watch, just for the dolphin singing bit…

Other notes; while out to Manchester yesterday for the sales, I went DVD shopping in anticipation of the new CD-R/DVD-ROM combo drive that should be arriving in a few days. My verdict – if you are at all serious about getting cheap DVDs, go to WH Smith. Forget HMV and Virgin, these guys are really the cheapest when it comes to good old movies (in the literal sense). Even cheaper than Play.com (probably not for the newest movies though).

Just finished reading Engine City by Ken MacLeod. Very entertaining, and one of those few books that actually improve upon the previous books in its series. Still, for some reason I feel a strange urge to zoom through all of MacLeod’s books when I read them – I must have read each of his Engines of Light trilogy in less than a day.

Milestones

A few days ago, the world (for me) passed another technological milestone – I now had full and unmetered Internet access for 99% of the time*. I’d just bought the Orange SPV Smartphone.

This phone is quite a nice piece of kit; it has a decent sized colour screen with a reasonably fast processor. Importantly, it synchronised quite beautifully with Microsoft Office (which it should do, since it runs Microsoft Smartphone 2002), and it has GPRS access to the web and my email.

Let me repeat that – it has full web and email access. This has been nothing short of a dream of mine for years; I can’t count the times that I’ve thought, “I wish I had Google right now,” or “I wish I didn’t have to wait until I get home to check my email.” Plus, it has instant messaging support via MSN messenger.

On the whole, it’s a good phone, and lightyears ahead of my previous comparable devices (Sony J70 and Visor Deluxe). Being among the first generation of the new wave of smartphones (the Nokia 7650 being another example), it has its niggles. These include:

1) A short battery life
2) Small and difficult to use buttons
3) Lag time on menu transitions

which are all irritating but nowhere near enough to offset the loveliness that is mobile Internet access. I’ve heard a lot of whining about ‘Oh, it’s a Microsoft phone so you’ll have to reboot it every day.’ I haven’t had to reboot the phone yet, and in any case, all phones need the occasional rebooting. I have no especial love for Microsoft, but there’s no use in making false claims.

The phone was relatively cheap, and it also came with a camera that takes pictures at 640×480. I don’t intend to use the camera that much, but it’s nice to have the option. I wouldn’t recommend this phone to most people, since most people don’t care about mobile Internet and email access, but for avowed techies like myself, I believe there isn’t a more cost-efficient smartphone available now or in the near future (the SE P800 included).

*I hesitate to say 100% of the time because there will inevitably be signal dropouts.

Lagaan

Last night I saw Lagaan with a couple of friends. In short, Lagaan is about a group of Indian villagers who have to beat the local British soldiers at a game of cricket to rid themselves from an extortionate tax.

At the same time, it’s a romantic comedy/musical/sports film; a little like a toned-down Moulin Rouge with a one hour climax that consists of the world’s most exciting and dramatic cricket match (okay, this isn’t a particularly difficult achievement but I thought it was great, and I’m definitely not a cricket fan). In other words, it’s classic Bollywood.

I found that its resemblance to comparable western movies really highlighted exactly how different it was; the core of the movie is easily recognisable – you have a group of bedraggled malcontents with hearts of gold who are struggling against the odds to beat an undeniably nasty power. Said malcontents of course come from all walks of life with hilarious results, and the hero has his romantic interest, but not without complications. There – I could’ve been talking about The Full Monty or Lucky Break.

But it’s not all the same – the romantic aspect was a disquieting at one part (watch the movie and you’ll see it) and the hero has a very peculiar haircut. And of course, being set in India, you have more focus on the caste system and religion.

All in all, it was a good evening, especially considering the fact that it only cost £1 and I had four (free) bottles of beer while I was there. Why, I made a profit on the night!

Retroactive destruction

There are some novels that are truly magnificent, that remain with you for years and at times influence who you are. Most authors, having written such novels, are wise enough to leave their works alone and move on to something else. A few authors will embark on writing a sequel.

A few sequels match or even excel their first book (Vernor Vinge’s novels are the classic example). Most sequels are merely good, or merely bad. However, there is a special breed of sequels that are so awfully, soul-destroying terrible that not only do they waste your time and money, but they manage to retroactively poison your appreciation of the first novel.

It’s as if they reach back in time to when your read the first novel and infect all the happy memories that you associated it with. Previously, I’d only heard of one such set of sequels that were so bad that I’d be told never to read them (the Endymion books, in case you were wondering). Today, I was unfortunate enough to read the sequel to ‘Against The Fall Of Night’ (aka ‘The City And The Stars’) by Arthur C Clarke, called ‘Beyond The Fall Of Night‘.

Clarke didn’t actually write ‘Beyond…’; instead, he farmed out the job to Greg Benford, who is otherwise a very competent author. For some inexplicable reason, Benford managed to botch it up so badly that the sequel is entirely pointless, and as an added bonus, it practically defecates on the the beautiful universe and characters that Clarke built up in his first novel. It’s that bad. And I wish that I’d never read it.

Donnie Darko

I saw Donnie Darko on Saturday; it’s a teen/SF/thriller/dark comedy movie, and not necessarily in that order. I thought it was very entertaining – there were some great lines in the school scenes, the music and direction was well done and overall the acting was good.

It’s interesting how Donnie Darko turned out. Usually there’s a fairly good delination between films that make sense, and films that don’t make sense. I have no problem with films that don’t make sense, as long as they at least implicitly admit it (e.g. XXX); and of course I can’t complain about films that do make sense, even if you have to think about them for a while (e.g. Memento).

Donnie Darko falls in the middle; it doesn’t have any huge, gaping plot holes which leave you cursing the writers, but it has more than its fair share of ambiguities and problems which defy giving the film’s plot any less than (say) two or three rock solid interpretations. As it turns out, the creators of Donnie Darko didn’t have a single interpretation of the plot either, which they admitted, so that isn’t so bad.

But anyway – it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s just been released in the UK, mostly to arts cinemas, and you can get it on the DVD in the US.

Spiritng Neal Stephenson Away

Yesterday was a busy day for me; it began with meeting a friend from London, and then a talk by the ever-elusive Neal Stephenson. We progressed on to a spot of Laserquest, had dinner, and finished with watching ‘Spirited Away’. Since there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I’m making this a ‘massive’ entry.

Meeting up with Lal (the aforementioned London friend) went quite well until we were ensnared by the siren call of Waterstones. Lal, bedazzled by their 3 for 2 offers, proceeded to buy Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, both by Neal Stephenson, in addition to the copy of Cryptonomicon that he’d brought with him. I volunteered to buy the books for him in case there was a student discount, but apparently Waterstones have stopped doing that sort of thing (probably because of people like me).

A hundred metres further down the road, we ducked into Galloway and Porter, my favourite seconds bookstore. Galloway and Porter has an almost universal effect on heavy readers of any genre; they’ll walk in, and exclaim that this didn’t look like a second-hand bookstore, because everything was in good condition. Then they’ll find several books that they’ve bought within the last year being sold significantly cheaper than what they paid. Once that stage has passed, they’ll proceed to a Terminator-like state, they methodically scan the titles of every single book present to see if they are worth buying for �1 or �2 – this usually requires quite a bit of mental rejigging, since you’re used to paying at least �6 for a book. In book calculus, does this mean that a book one-third the quality of a book you would buy for �6 be worth paying �2 for, or is book quality perhaps a logarithmic scale? Such questions keep the best thinkers of Cambridge awake at nights…

After we left Galloway and Porter, Lal dropped his bags off in my room, and we went out to meet Rich, who’d be joining us for the Neal Stephenson lecture. We found Rich on the Trinity backs (the ‘back’ of Trinity College, next to the river, also confusingly called the ‘backs’) and went to the lecture.

Now, Stephenson’s lecture was the second of a weekly six-part lecture series, and the first lecture was by George Dyson, which I wrote about earlier. I think only about ten students turned up to that talk, meaning that we were outnumbered by the dozen or so fellows present. I assumed that this would be the same for Stephenson’s lecture – granted, Stephenson is a world-famous bestselling science fiction author, but Trinity had done (perhaps deliberately) such a poor job of publicising the talks that I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.

I was wrong – someone on the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society (of which I am not a member) had posted a note about Stephenson’s talk to their mailing list. As a result, the place was full by the time we got there. Not wanting to sit at the back of the room, we grabbed a few chairs and proceeded right to the front, along with a few glasses of wine for good measure.

Stephenson was looking particularly (and some might say, unusually) respectable, what with the nice suit and the neatly tied ponytail. When the room had become sufficiently packed, the lecture series organiser introduced Stephenson’s talk, on ‘Newton/Leibniz’ and Stephenson warned us about the length and esoteric nature of his lecture. If we wanted to leave, we were told, he wouldn’t be offended.

Neal Stephenson looking respectable after the lecture

I didn’t take notes for the lecture, so I won’t be able to go into detail about its content.

Stephenson started off by giving us a quick overview of the Newton/Leibniz controversy; these two people developed calculus seemingly independently in the 17th century, and sparked off a huge argument about who developed it first. The short answer is that Newton was first, and the long answer would include how Leibniz also contributed much to our use of calculus today, including the integral and differential notation.

But that’s not what Stephenson wanted to talk about – that story has been dealt with by many scientific historians. Instead, he took us on a typically Stephenson-like meandering of thoughts and facts relating to why this argument developed in the first place, what the historical context was, and the personalities of Newton and Leibniz.

As I said, I’m not prepared to go into detail because I’d inevitably make a dreadful hash of it. Suffice to say that Stephenson had done his homework, plus that of many others, and that if I could find any fault with his lecture, it was that he spent perhaps a little too much time reading directly from 17th century texts.

If you’re familiar with Stephenson’s writing, you’d expect his lecture to have some wonderful and bizarre tangents in them that defied all imagination. You wouldn’t be disappointed. For several minutes he talked about how some scholar (John Wilkins) tried to create a new language using only a few thousand words that he deemed essential; he placed these words into a matrix, and people would refer to them by their co-ordinates within the matrix. In the course of creating this language (and the book about it) he had to compose the world’s most comprehensive list of organisms at that time.

This posed a problem; he was implicitly casting doubt on the veracity of Noah’s Ark by saying that there were so many animals in the world, and this was not a good idea at all in the religious climate of the time. So Wilkins decided to go and explain exactly how, with the use of diagrams, all of these animals would fit into Noah’s Ark. Wilkins listed a number of tricks he could have used to do this, namely the ‘six cubits equals one cubit’ trick, and the ‘all animals were vegetarians before the Ark’ trick, and then delcared that he didn’t want to use any of them.

It appeared that Wilkins succeeded, although he did have to fit about 1800 sheep into the Ark as food for all the carnivores.

Naturally, I completely forget why Stephenson got onto this, although there’s a strong possibility that a good explanation simply does not exist – you just can’t be sure with Stephenson. Another of his short tangents involved comparing the Jedi Knights to the Knights Templar, which I think you’ll agree is much more straightforward.

Anyway, the rest of the lecture swirled around alchemy, myths of secret societies, universal libraries, theories of the nature of the universe, monads, and other such things. Thus it is not surprising that Stephenson overran his alloted time by an impressive 30 minutes. Due to this, there were only two questions asked. The first was whether Stephenson considered himself a dualist or a materialist; Stephenson replied saying that much of the materialist argument is based on the brain being a Turing machine, which he is not so sure about, and so he’s a skeptic.

The second question, asked by myself, addressed what I believed to be the burning issue of the night:

“Can you tell us about your next book?” I said. After the room burst into laughter, I added, in an effort to appear on-topic, “Is it related to what you’ve been talking about this evening?”

I already knew a little about his next book, but it’s always fun asking. Stephenson told us that it would be set in the 17th century, which was a great time because it had all these mathematical and cryptographical shenanigans going on (which was the subject of his lecture), plus it also had real life pirates, plenty of swashbuckling, and swordfights galore. What more could you ask for? The book will also visit people such as Newton, Leibniz, the Royal Society in London, and I imagine the royal intrigue going on at the time.

The lecture organiser helpfully added that the book would be called ‘Quicksilver’. Stephenson then added that his publicist would have killed him for not mentioning the name of the book, and that it was coming out in August.

Most people left after that and maybe a dozen people hovered around the front of the room evidently wanting to talk to Stephenson, probably for book signings – but none of them wanting to be first. I didn’t really want to go first, because I thought I might talk to him for a while and it wasn’t fair to keep other people waiting. However, this didn’t seem to work so after Stephenson told the President of the Science Fiction Society that he, alas, could not present a talk to them because he was leaving tomorrow, Lal and I had a brief chat with him about his website, which screams ‘Don’t talk to me’ to all visitors, and his time in Europe visiting Versailles.

“Was that for research?” asked Lal.

“Yeah, for ‘research’,” replied Stephenson, with audible quotation marks, and then went on to talk about how authors get to have lots of fun researching things.

There was a bit of a chat about doing publicity for new books, and I executed a shameful segue by saying, “Well, if you want to get back into practice for signing books, why not start now?” as I whipped out my copy of Cryptonomicon. He agreed, in good grace, and wrote a little message at the front:

“To Adrian. Thank you for staying awake through my talk, Neal S.”

Lal also had his three books signed, although he didn’t get a message. We later theorised that this was probably because he didn’t manage to stay awake through the talk.

I did ask Stephenson whether he was doing anything that night, in an unlikely effort to get him to come out with us, but unfortunately he suspected that plans had already been made for him by Trinity College; undoubtedly true, although we berated ourselves afterwards for not having pretended to be the ‘Trinity College Welcoming Committee’ and kidnapping him.

I’m going to skip over Laserquest now, since this account has already gotten too long and you probably don’t want to hear about it anyway. Neither will I talk about dinner, which we had at a nice Italian restaurant with another of my friends, Zizhen; instead I’m going to talk about the film ‘Spirited Away’ that we saw afterwards.

Spirited Away‘ is Japan’s most successful film ever, and could be superficially described as a children’s anime fantasy. Its producer, Hayao Miyazaki, commands such respect among the Japanese that they look forward to his new films with the same kind of expectation (if not more) that we have for the next Harry Potter book.

You might think, as a friend of mine confessed, that you don’t want to watch a cartoon movie. Maybe you really don’t. But if you miss ‘Spirited Away’, which should be released in the UK next year, you’ll be missing one of the most magnificent and wonderful films ever made. It has meticulously crafted and beautiful artwork along with a sensitive score; and of course, the story is enchanting; it’s about a young girl who has to save her parents and make her way in a strange and fantastic world.

What I loved about Spirited Away was the way in which they really utilised the power of animation. Several scenes were literally breathtaking, and unlike the identical Disney movies we’ve had in recent years, Miyazaki didn’t simply use animals – he created all sorts of strange creatures that morphed and shapeshifted.

When I left the cinema (actually, it was a college film society, but anyway) I saw that everyone was smiling. It was one of those movies that really delighted you; it wasn’t what I’d simply call a feel-good movie, and it was darker than most Disney movies, although certainly not as dark as Miyazaki’s other great work, ‘Princess Mononoke‘. The story and setting was much more adventurous than most movies these days as well, with a rich universe that had some excellent concepts that progress far further than the ‘dwarfs and elves’ that seem to characterise most other fantasy movies.

I intend to buy the score of the movie, and also the DVD when it is released – it’s just one of those movies that I really have to own.

And that’s about it for me, I’m not going to write any more now since I have to leave for the lab and do some programming. I might add some stuff later though.

Dead Air

I just finished reading Iain Banks’ new (non-SF) novel Dead Air. I finished it in less than 24 hours; it’s one of those books that reads very easily, unlike most of his other novels.

Dead Air was certainly entertaining enough and I never became bored, but as many others have noted, it doesn’t have much of a plot and nothing really starts happening until the very end. I’m feeling insufficiently moved by the book to say that if you haven’t bought it already, you might as well wait until the paperback is released. Compared to his other more powerful novels such as The Player of Games or Use of Weapons, Dead Air feels much lighter and inconsequential – entertaining, but nothing beyond that.