07 December 2008


Going to wander into obscure territory here. (taking longer than I thought to locate it)
There already exists a good summary and 'researched' description here. I generally agree with it, but wish to add some material.

Half-life is the standard method of describing the rate of radioactive decay of a specific isotope. It is also the name of the very popular first-person "shooter" game that effectively put Valve Software on the map. Two other software developers made "Equels" - my own word for a "sequel" - that occur in the same place and time as the first one. Half-Life featured a nuclear physicyst named Gordon Freeman. Opposing Force featured Corporal Adrian Sheppard. Blue Shift featured Black Mesa Security Officer Calhoun. When playing the "Equels", you do not actually meet Gordon Freeman, but the developers allow you very brief glimpses of him - if you are paying attention.

Most recently, Half-Life has been succeeded by a proper sequel in Half-Life 2, and the subsequent "Episode 1" and "Episode 2". Valve has stated that offering the follow-on adventures in a more modular installment allows for more regular updates to the saga. I expect that it also allows them to put more cutting-edge technology into the latest installment, rather than delaying a big project by re-writing the underlying code. As far as I am concerned, whatever they want to do is fine by me.

Half-Life features Gordon Freeman grappling with the aftermath of a bizarre laboratory mishap. Apparently a portal to an alien world was opened releasing dangerous creatures into the Black Mesa complex. But was it an accident? What really happened at Black Mesa, and who is the mysterious "G-Man" that keeps surfacing in the background, always seeming to have more control over the situation than Gordon does? We get the idea that a powerful being called "Nihilanth" became aware of this world and used the energy released inside the test chamber to open a portal to Black Mesa. Yet that fails to explain the identity of the G-Man.

At the end of Half-Life, Freeman comes face to face with the G-Man, who offers praise, but no explanations. He does, however, offer Gordon Freeman (you) a job. If you accept, you are left in a bizarre place, and apparently you perish if you refuse. At the begining of HL2, the G-Man appears and speaks to you before you find yourself on a train, about to arive in City 17. Has the G-Man kept Gordon in stasis all this time? And odder still is that the Vortigonts who we remember as nasty enemies in HL, are now co-conspirators, and actually treat you with a reverence approaching adoration. What the hell has happened?

The Vorts are grateful for their liberation from bondage to the Nihilanth. But there is more, much more. In HL2, talk to a Vort after key dialogue has finished and its time for you to move on. I recommend enabling subtitles for this, and talking to the Vort that just installed the gun on your airboat. There are other opportunities, but theres just too much background noise at New Little Odessa, and the Vort there has to wait for breaks in Colonel Cubbage's endless stream of radio hails to speak. The Vort will speak in prose and allegory, and make the clearest references to the Vortessence before Episode One. The first thing that the Vort will say is: "We remember the Freeman: we are coterminus."

Coterminous: sharing the same boundaries, having the same span or scope. What an odd thing to say.

Gordon Freeman (you), of course says nothing, the other characters talk to, or near him, usually presenting expostion to explain your situation, or its background. The enigmatic part is that you are put in a number of places with no clear objective save what the minor character tell you. [Might as well call them 'meatlings' as most of them die anyway.] Since you do not speak, and in many cases you (as the player) have no forenowledge of what to do in some situations, there is a vaguary of identity. Is this really Gordon Freeman, or someone else? Someone that might truly not know what they are doing?

This is never more clear than in the very begining, at Black Mesa. You are apparently late for the test procedure, but you have no clear idea where you should be going. Fortunately, people that you meet tell you brusquely where you should be, and there are color-coded lines on the wall that you can follow to your destination. When you arrive, the scientists speak to you in a slightly formal manner, not exactly as if he has done this hundreds of times before. Then at the crucial moment, you can see what needs to happen, and where the crucial object needs to go. I remember thinking - "Can this be right? I just do it this way?"

Of course, when I do perform the task, everything goes to hell. Did I do it wrong? Did I cause this catastrophe? There turns out to be other reasons why it happened. Yet that does not mean that what I was doing, as Gordon Freeman, was correct.

At the very begining, before anything happens, we are told that the identity of Gordon Freeman's Administrative Sponsor is classified, and that his disaster response priority is discretionary. Discretionary? Isnt he just a theoretical physicist? Surely we were informed of these vaguaries for a reason?

I think Gordon Freeman may not be a physisict at all, but an agent of some kind. His (late!) insertion in Black Mesa was a trial run of some sort, which worked well. At least the G-Man was pleased enough to preserve him for later use. The G-Man, as we see in Episode Two, seems to have ideas that diverge from those of the Vortigonts, and I think this is why the beginning of HL2 played out the way it did. Had Barney not interfered, Freeman would have gotten onto the express train to Nova Prospekt. This is not an accident, it was the only train there, and the player has no real option but to go that way. Then, when finally in Dr. Kleiner's laborotory, its true that "Hedy Lamarr" the headcrab interferes with the procedure. One of the scientists however also says "Something is drawing him away!" and Gordon Freeman appears in Dr. Breen's office not just one time, but twice, before ultimately ending up back at Dr. Kliener's laboratory. In retrospect, being teleported twice to Dr. Breen's office hardly sounds like a random failure.

When Freeman is fighting [your] way through Nova Prospekt, (he got there anyway, but by way of the Resistance) Dr. Breen can be heard over the public address system. He discusses the state of affairs regarding Overwatch's capture of Dr. Vance, but their failure to get Dr. Freeman. [Its a Utopian Dystopia where the world seems to be in decay, but the most prominent figures are physicists.] Dr. Breen says that Dr. Freeman's condition; between the episode at Black Mesa and his current efforts against the Combine, precluded the development of any combat abilities. In short, Dr. Breen knows that the G-Man has been keeping Freeman in stasis. Give
n the train schedule, the teleport 'fiasco', and Dr. Breen's unexplained knowledge of Freeman's situation, I believe that the G-Man was intentionally sending Freeman to Dr. Breen. Possibly at the request of the Combine Advisors.

What precisely is the meaning of "Half-Life"? Does it infer that time is of the essence? That things are decaying and falling to ruin all around him? That Freeman has a short life expactancy? Or perhaps it means that Gordon Freeman is only half human. Half living, half not living, possibly a prototype Combine soldier. Now a soldier without orders, who can only react to his situation.


Or no life at all.

27 November 2008

A new WPA? Over my dead Union!

I read an interesting Newsweek article about the "new affluence" in America. With the current situation, and forseeable future adjustments, any bright spots are about 10 years away, with belt tightening rampant at all social strata until then.

America still has foreign debt, and seems to be maintaining current spending levels only by printing and selling T-bills (maybe the wrong term, but we're printing and selling something). The U.S. Government is currently disbursing a $700 million piss-in-the-wind fund, with some expectations of a second economic stimulus package.The American economy is very resilient, but real economic activity will be slowing to about half because all the "liquidity" has just evaporated in a meltdown of leveraged credit. Comming regulations are badly needed, but will have no impact on economic activity.

Retailers.... are just screwed. Consumers have negative net worth these days and almost zero savings. With a bleak economic forecast, the smart consumers will be shunning luxury items and even 'perks.' Those franchises that just opened new branches and dont have appreciable market share in their new areas - closing and writing off those same branches their best option.

TARP is a very apt name; hide financial weakness by whitewashing it. Throwing big wads of cash at fundamentally unsound problems. I think the Federal Government is making an enormous mistake by propping up AIG and CitiBank. The way I understand it, the only way of recouping government money is if those firms start to profit again. Unless this Republican administration required them to abandon using unregulated financial instruments (I'd be suprised, Paulson has been mum on the topic of further regulation, I read that as quiet resistance), they will continue to do so. These firms will feel even more pressure to profit now, so that they can stop Uncle Sam from looking over their shoulder. I have to expect that their past methods of 'risk management' will continue, especially since they have just been 'fixed'. A continuum of repeat failures on the parts of these firms is not acceptable to me.

Add that the American automakers are going to fail. If they've gone begging to the government, like they have done, then they are on the verge of going under. Again. They were losing money during times of prosperity, and they are going to do much worse now. Its way past time to pull the plug. And that means we're heading for an umemployment rate in the U.S. of something like 10%.

Almost out of the blue, someone mentioned to me that they had heard rumors of a WPA program coming. That was a suprise, and probably not grounded in fact, but it did get me to think about the overall state of affairs. If a Federal Public Works program were created, it would create a lot of jobs for skilled and unskilled labor, largely building infrastructure which is badly needed in many areas despite recent American prosperity. Surely that would be much more cost effective than an economic stimulus package. Prima Facie, it sounds good to me.

Unions won't stand for another WPA. Maybe that is a good thing, in the way that a terrorist attack is a serious wake up call to a situation of lax security (or poor socio-economic foriegn policy, but I digress). I feel that labor unions no longer serve a useful purpose, and are now actually anathema to free enterprise. Unions artificially increase wages while acting to reduce productivity. [Feel free to disagree here, but don't forget to factor in lost productivity time for picketing, contract negotiations, and union-determined productivity] I'm not saying that worker protections are uneccesary, I'm saying that unions have become powerful entities that are hindering economic progress. Certainly the U.S. automakers would agree. [Automakers almost don't count though, theres a forest of dead wood there that seems uninterested in making radical changes necessary to seriously compete in the auto market. Their cash cow until recently was pickup and SUV sales. That is not innovation, thats a gimmic which exploits a CAFE loophole. A loophole I want to see closed.]

I mentioned to my friend that the unions would never stand for a new WPA. He replied that their voice will count little when there are no jobs. That sounds good, but its an over-simplification. Here is what I see happening in the next 3 years. The big three fail, declare bankrupcy, merger, restructure or a combination of these. My money is on bankrupcy - the dead wood executives will want to restructure their status quo. There will be many union job losses but not 100%. So UAW will continue only slightly diminished.

Pilots, mechanics, and other airline workers have been getting progressively shittier deals through continual airline failures. They are union, but its not doing them a fat lot of good. There are many other union groups but I'll lump them with the most powerful - road construction and railroad workers. Construction companies do private work as well, but their main meal ticked is Federal and State infrastructure. The railroad industry has the most powerful lobby of the U.S. Government. Somehow they figuratively hold channel lock pliers around congress' balls. Amtrak collision? It was the respective railroad company's rails or signals that failed, but who picks up the tab? Uncle Sam. We never hear of Union disputes with the Railroad. Ever.

There is clearly a spectrum of union organizations in terms of union strength, which appears to be tied to the economic stability of their industry. So, how would they respond to a new WPA? They would all oppose out of solidarity, but by worker population they would be a minority. Unions serving economically weakened industries would rubberstamp this opposition, but a growing percentage of their former membership will want a WPA, and somewhat undercut their position. The stronger unions would be the most adamant, Railroad being the anchor, butconstruction workers causing the biggest problem. They will claim that a proposed WPA would be taking their jobs. Thats not necessarily true; it would be entirely possible for WPA jobs to work alongside union construction by performing lesser jobs. Also, WPA would not necessarily be limited to construction jobs. The reality would be that no construction company could compete with a cost effective WPA. They wll use the claim of unfair competition to try to litigate any WPA out of existance and try to get injunctions postponing any work and making a WPA ineffective.

That brings me to another WPA roadblock; Congress. A few lines above I used the phrase "cost-effective WPA." I don't see that happening as a result of actions from a contemporary congress. Given the abject failures or reconstruction in Iraq [which I blame on congress' failure to provide adequate oversight to planning and structuring the reconstruction program - since it clearly turned into a free for all of inept firms winning contracts to provide shoddy workmanship] I am extremely skeptical that congress could create a successful public works program.

These are my thoughts at the moment, I'll revisit and edit this some later.

26 November 2008

Call of Duty - World at War

I've been bored completely out of my tree. I'm now unemployed - which is a story I may or may not divulge in a separate installment - for two months now and nothin much is expected to happen for a third month, for reasons also not appearing in this installment.

It is true that there are plenty of things that I should be doing. Many such tasks require disposable income. I could go all out in an ambitious campaign to clean my apartment, but I'm not insane, merely bored.

I purchased the above title to give myself a mindless passtime. I had been playing Bioshock, and finished that. I really ought to talk about that first, but I really need to get this out of the way first, or my head may explode. I need to begin with some context, though, to try to make sense to you (and to me as well) of what I'm feeling.

In the beginning - for my purposes - was Battlefield 1942. [The beginning really was a game called Codename: Eagle that came out maybe 2 years earlier, but I don't pick up every title that is out there, and certainly not without knowing something of it] BF1942 presented conflict on approximately 12 maps which covered the major theatres of war; Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. You select your role as a soldier (assault, sniper, medic, engineer, anti-tank) which determines what gear you will carry, pick a map and join about 60 computer-controlled friendly and enemy soldiers in solo play, or a blend of human and 'bot' in multiplayer mode. By far the most popular featured all human soldiers. In addition, you can operate vehicles from jeeps and tanks to P/T Boats, Stukas, Heinkels and B-17s - depending on the map.

Multiplayer had an interesting quirk. In a nod to realism, the less you move around, the better your aim is. Towards that end, lying prone is better than crouching, is better than standing. What ended up happening in application was players learned to dive prone when they sighted the enemy, fire their weapon, jump back to their feet, and keep going. The process could happen alarmingly quickly. This disturbed me for a number of reasons. Most of which was that diving onto your battle rifle should primarily give you a concussion. The battle rifle of that era was particularly heavy as it was also intended to be used as a melee weapon.

I came to terms with this glitch, eventually. BF 1942 made for enormously amusing games of Capture-the-Flag, since the flag carrier could jump in a jeep (or a tank), speed off and get picked up by a swooping Messerschmidt. [Ah the realism.....] BF1942 was followed by Battlefield Vietnam, or BFV, which I did not purchase, I expect I had a job at the time. The next iteration was Battlefield 2, and the glitch had developed a life of its own, grown tentacles, and eaten the game developer.

I was able to fly the planes in BF 1942, but I wasn't able to get as much agility from them as the majority of people whome I played with. So I lost dogfights, but had a good time. BF2 is in a contemporary setting, with jets and helicopters the order of the day. I have yet to be able to fly them successfully, but they seem to be heavily overpowered. Airstrikes can be delivered with great accuracy - and I have felt their effectiveness many, many times - yet anti-aircraft missile stations are few, far between, and nearly ineffective. And someone called me a cheater when I finally managed to shoot one down. This I could accept, air power is the mainstay of the modern world.

Not only are player still able to kill nearly instantly by diving on their rifles, now there is also some bizzarre ninja roll that can be executed while shooting. This manoever not only seems to gaurantee killing the opponent, but the player executing it can seldom be shot while he is doing it. I'd say the concept was staggering, but I don't stagger so much as fall stone dead. The ability to "bunny hop" has also been increased. Soldiers in full anti-tank gear can not only perform ninja rolls, they can effortlessly spring high into the air, and even change direction in mid-air. Perhaps I jave joined arms against Scotland Yard's Special Flying Squad. Those that regularly play this game learn to take advantage of these things to be more effective, and make the game more frustrating for me.

Enter CoD-WaW. Solo play, quite frankly, is painful. At the beginning of the single-player scenarios they run TV-quality graphics that set up the situation and explain how the future of the entire free world is hanging in the balance. And then show a cutscene featuring you.

I downloaded CoDWaW from Steam, and the only manual that I have is a 9-page PDF which doesnt explain nearly as much as I would like. I have found solo play baffling. The developers provided you with a squad leader to bark orders at you and tell you what to do. The reality is that what you are precisely supposed to do, and where you are supposed to do it arent nearly as obvious as the buffoon who is shouting at you. Sarge ordered me to go "use my knife on that barrel." Um.... but I dont have a knife? See? I got this Garand, and I picked up a Japanese SMG, but no knife that I can switch to...... Well, after trying a lot of different things I found that I was supposed to go up the the barrel and press the "use" key. Viola! I suddenly reach for the barrel with a hand that is holding a knife. Amazing. And not even slightly intuitive.

The majority of my solo play experience was spent in negative reinforcement training. Learning to run far away from grenades, which killed me about a hundred times in the first two hours. By the time I had re-played every scene multiple times until I had dodged all the grenades, nasty gunfire and banzai attackers, and actually achieved the mission objectives, I realised that I was in a cutscene. Not literally. What I mean is that if I have to do all these little moves (dont get killed by this grenade, shoot that guy or he will killl you) in such a very specific way in such a short span of time, they might as well past my face on the cutscene, because in the end, there wont be any difference. That bothers me a lot. Mostly because the game looks great; I'd really enjoy having some free will in such a beautifully hostile environment. There aren't vehicles that you can fly (the closest you get is being a PBY gunner) but the aiming mechanics are right on. CoDWaW avoids all the problems that I have with the BF series, and even one that I had not thought of; you cannot aim your weapon while moving forward in the prone position.

Multiplayer in CoDWaW is great. Perhaps I'm overstating my case. I should qualify that by saying it is the multiplayer experience which I had been wanting during the whole time I had been suffering at the hands of BF2. A limited arsenal is available at first, with more weapons and 'optional extras' (like suppressors, flash hiders and bipods) unlockable through scoring in online play.

Here endeth the lesson. I'm about to run off for a Bird Day weekend, and want to get my frag on before I go.

Hello again

Yes, time has passed. Yes, I have neglected you.
Did you deserve such a lull? Perhaps.

I've previously posted some writings here as well as the thoughts and reflections that ostensibly belong here. I've always been of the mind that this media should have a discrete purpose which I should avoid blurring by diverging into other subjects which you don't care about.

On the other hand, its already far too late for that now.

While I was talking to others in a virtual chatroom - yet another venue whose ostensibly discreet purpose blurs in every direction imagineable - the subject of elderly parents came up, and means by which to engage in quality time with them. I was shocked that someone suggested a Wii. Not the Wii that is normaly discussed in that forum either, the Nintendo Wii. It has been used - successfully I hear - in physical therapy for elderly patients. That notion merits some investigation. It does promise an interesting opening conversation, at the least.

On the other hand, it may go unnoticed altogether. At my family's Thanksgiving dinners it is typical for us to discuss the other Wii.

03 January 2008

Did you hear the one about the nudist at the Republican National Convention?

I've taken to saying that I was born a Stoic, but the World (or Society) made me a Cynic. Meaning Stoic in the classical sense, and Cynic in the modern sense.

Lately, I've realised that cannot be true. No-one is born anything. We're not preprogrammed with thoughts, goals, sexual orientation, or language. So what in my upbringing made me a Stoic?

I am able to relate the several instances at a very young age that caused my introversion. Suffice it to say that there were several occasions that caused me physical pain. The existence of those events make a clear case for that part of my persona. Where in the World did Stoicism come from?

I began reading at an early age, but I didn't really have anything much to read. Anything much that I can recall, anyway. Eventually, during grade school, I took to reading science fiction. Was it science fiction literature, with horrific problems being resolved in future Utopias? I watched far too much Television. Was it Television, where Justice is done in less than an hour, and there are no un-attractive people? Was it my grandfather's farm, where daily hard work didn't have a palpable reward, it was a necessary means to a far, far distant end.

In retrospect, I probably did not develop into a Stoic until sometime during college. Somewhere in my philosophy classes I heard about Stoicism and said "Hey! That's me!"

Perhaps I wasn't a Stoic until that very moment.