Status Update

November 19th, 2008 @ 19:51

By Coren

I’ve been an official Master of AI student for almost two months now and I haven’t posted about it yet. Shame on me.

At least this proves I’ve been busy. The number of classes has gone up significantly since last year (which isn’t really hard considering I only had 4 hours per week back then), and I also have to make my way to the Campus in Heverlee every time there’s a class. 20 minutes per trip, so that’s 40 or 80 minutes on the road depending on my schedule.
So, what’s it like being an AI Master? It’s certainly not as cool as it sounds, that’s for sure. At the same time, it’s also more interesting than I had expected. Since everyone I talked to seemed to be saying that the AI courses were boring, I feared the worst, but it turns out most classes are pretty okay.
There are, of course, exception. Like Neural Computing. While the principle of neural computing is real interesting (create artificial neural networks that “learn” how to solve a problem), the course itself is not. This is supposed to be a high-level course (so it should be understandable for people with totally different backgrounds), but the professor apparently assumes we know advanced mathematics. I’m pretty sure 80% of the students don’t know what he’s talking about most of the time, though. I hadn’t heard about eigenvectors for six years and he brings them up without even bothering to explain what they are or why they’re useful for neural networks. Luckily, there’s articles that explain what the professor’s saying, but shouldn’t it be the other way around? So yes, I’m a bit scared about the Neural Computing exam.

The other courses I have are Linguistic Theories and AI, which describes a grammar you can use for natural language processing, Fundamentals of AI, which is about basic search algorithms and planning techniques and stuff, Cognitive Science, Speech Synthesis and Speech Recognition. These are all okay. There’s nothing as awesome as last year’s English literature courses, but it’s interesting enough to keep me motivated. And it’s only one year, after all.

I also have to do an internship this year, and I recently received the list of possible companies/research centers I could be working in. I got four propositions, and only one of them is a company, which is pretty disappointing. And that company also happens to be located in some hard to reach place in Ghent, so it would take me 2 hours every morning to get there. The other three are research groups, the most interesting of which is probably the Center for Computational Linguistics, which is conveniently located near my old faculty. I also know quite a few people who work there.
I’m waiting for more information on each of the possible internships, (maybe) I’ll keep you posted.

In other news, I’m also taking Japanese classes at the CLT. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but I never had the opportunity. It’s fun, but it’s sometimes frustratingly simple. We learn like five signs and five words per week, and maybe one or two phrases. Slow~ The CLT apparently doesn’t believe in teaching grammar, they prefer a more “practical” approach. This has the annoying consequence that you end up knowing a few key phrases, but you don’t know how they’re constructed so you can’t actually form any new ones.
Anyway, I’m having fun. It’s like being in middle school again.

Academic Year Roundup, part V: Games

September 25th, 2008 @ 17:13

By Coren

Okay, so technically I didn’t make the deadline since classes have started since Tuesday. But it’s my blog so I’m allowed to miss deadlines.
This is the final post in this round-up series, and this time I’ll be listing my favorite (and least favorite) games of the year. All things considered, it’s been a very good year for games, especially if you also count the last months of 2007. There may not have been that many great games, but the few we got truly were exceptional. I’m actually convinced that the #1 game on my list will forever be known as a game that revolutionized PC gaming (or at least contributed to a revolution). Read on…

#1 Portal
Portal(Click the image on the right for a cute Portal wallpaper) Portal was originally supposed to be just one minor part of The Orange Box, a compilation by Valve containing Half Life Episode 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal. The big selling point was Episode 2, but surprisingly it was Portal that stole the limelight. And rightly so.
Portal is a deceptively simple first person puzzle platformer, but there’s layers of depth hidden below the surface. The gameplay concept, as you probably already know, is that you get a “portal gun” which can shoot portals at walls, floors or ceilings. You can then use one portal to transport yourself to the matching exit portal, allowing you to bypass obstacles and access unreachable areas. Portals also allow for neat physics tricks, since your speed when you enter the portal on one side is the speed you’ll be leaving it on the other. This means that you can for instance fall into a portal from a certain height and launch yourself across the room from the exit portal. And so on.
The gameplay aspect of Portal is perfectly executed, but that’s not what makes this game stand out. What makes the game exceptional is the storyline. The story starts off deceptively simple, in sterile test chambers where a disembodied voice tells you what you need to do to complete the experiment. (Best. Disembodied. Voice. Ever by the way.) But gradually, you realize something about these experiments isn’t quite right, and eventually you’ll be compelled to try and break out.
The amazing thing is that this story is told using only inanimate objects and said disembodies voice, yet Valve managed to elicit an emotional response that goes far beyond what most games manage to do. Who would have thought you could get attached to a simple metal cube?
The attachment to the “companion cube” is also an example of Portal delicious humor, which when coupled with the more dramatic aspects of the game leaves you all tingly with a sense of bittersweet melancholy when it’s all over. And it’s over pretty quickly. Six hours tops, if I recall correctly. But those were some of the most enjoyable hours in my entire gaming career.
I’m not sure if I can really proclaim Portal is the best game I ever played. Probably not, it’s too short and too simple, and it’d be hard to make me forget my nostalgic attachment to games like Riven or Little Big Adventure 2. However, Portal is without the shadow of a doubt the best game of the year.
I also believe that this minimalistic game design that favors originality over flashiness is the way of the future. Sure, there’ll still be plenty of people to buy the next rehash of Quake, Doom or Halo, but the success of Portal proves that gamers are ready for more than mindless shooters.
If you haven’t played Portal yet, shame on you. Its system requirements are pretty low and you can easily download it off Steam. Not so long ago it was available for the amazing price of 10$, but it seems that promotion’s over by now. Still, this game is very much worth the price. I personally would go for the full Orange Box, though, as the included Team Fortress 2 and Episode 2 are also awesome. Portal is also available as your regular tangible box if that’s your thing.

#2 Call of Duty 4
Call of Duty 4I don’t usually like these war games. All the old Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games pretty much bored me out of my skull. I didn’t even like Operation Flashpoint, despite the raving reviews. The only passable game set in WWII I ever played was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, but even that one was quickly forgotten once I had played through it once. War games are not my thing.
Call of Duty 4 won me over, though. It’s still a war game (though it has Arabs instead of Germans), but this time they actually managed to write a story that leaves an impact on the player. In other war shooters the story’s pretty much limited to “you’re a soldier and you need to carry out this objective to help your country win the war”, as if they figured being in the war is enough of a story in and of itself so they didn’t bother to write anything more. There’s no real tension other than the obvious stress created by the bullets flying over your head. Call of Duty 4 has some brilliant dramatic moments, though. I won’t spoil things, but let’s just say there’s quite a few events in the single player campaign that make you go OHSHI-.
The single player portion of the game may be awesome, but it sadly isn’t very long. Luckily, Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer mode is absolutely brilliant too and will add many hours of enjoyment. Like in any multiplayer game, you’ll need to persevere for some time if you want to get good, but it’s definitely worth it. I think I even prefer CoD4’s multiplayer to Team Fortress 2…

#3 The Orange Box
I know this is cheating since Portal’s already on #1, but I thought Team Fortress 2 and Half Life Episode 2 deserved their own entry on this list. TF2 is an excellent multiplayer shooter. It’s fun, exciting, well balanced, allows for interesting tactics and is continually being improved. Episode 2 is more Half Life 2 goodness, with more of the same tightly controlled gameplay and storytelling. I think I like it even better than Episode 1, and that’s saying a lot since Ep1 made it to my top 3 list last year. The competition was tough this year, though, so even TF2 and Ep2 combined only get third place.

Honorable mentions:

  • Mass Effect was a pretty enjoyable sci-fi RPG by Bioware. It had some major flaws, though: it was very obviously made for consoles; the ethical choices that should have made this game more “human” were forced down your throat in a not so subtle manner; the combat system felt like an extremely dumbed-down version of an FPS; the stats/leveling system was pretty pointless and not at all satisfying; the different locations all looked and felt alike; the lesbian sex scene wasn’t nearly as hot as the media made it out to be. Other than that Mass Effect was pretty okay. Decent story, interesting characters, interesting world, but still far from the top three.
  • Devil May Cry 4 was surprisingly fun for a button-masher console port. It has kickass graphics and a decent storyline. And jiggly boobs. VERY jiggly boobs. Not in the top 3, but it was a fun game even though it had too much testosterone for its own good.

Disappointments of the year:

  • Crysis. I loved Far Cry with its clichéd B-movie story. I loved the openness of the jungle world, sneaking around the bushes sniping enemies from miles away. I loved how pretty the game looked, too. Needless to say I was impatient to get my hands on (a system that could run) Crysis.
    Sadly, the only thing Crysis kept from Far Cry was the graphics. Sure, things look nice (though things looked nice in Call of Duty 4, too, and that game played way more smoothly), and there’s still lots of jungle to hide in, but somehow the excitement you felt in Far Cry is gone in Crysis. It’s become just another FPS, more of a benchmark than a game. It’s not a bad game per se, but it’s certainly a big step down from Far Cry.
  • Multiwinia is the multiplayer version of Darwinia, which I though was a quirky and fun strategy game. I’ve only played a few online matches so far, but I can already tell you that most of the magic of the original has vanished, and what’s left is a pretty generic game you might enjoy for a few minutes on a slow day, but nothing more.

Most shamefully atrocious game of the year:

Predictions for the next year:

  • I’m currently playing The Witcher Enhanced Edition, an RPG by a Polish company, and so far I’m liking it a lot. I’m guessing it has a chance of being on my list next year. It also comes in a really cool package containing like 5 different discs and three booklets. Play sells it for 35€ which is a nice price considering. If you’re looking for a decent RPG, this one is definitely worth a shot. So far I like it better than NWN2 and expansion, which isn’t all that difficult, but still…
  • I’m hoping Fallout 3 will be good, but I’m no longer expecting a game that has the same depth and mood as the original two. I’ll just play this one as if it had nothing to do with the original Fallout and I’m pretty sure it’ll be enjoyable.
  • Will Far Cry 2 capture what Crysis didn’t? Maybe not, but it sure looks cool.
  • Left 4 Dead will be zombie madness
  • I’m still desperately hoping Heavy Rain won’t be a PS3 exclusive. I’m also hoping for news on Alan Wake. Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, Rage and Dead Space might also be interesting.

Oh. And FUCK SPORE. Seriously.

Academic Year Roundup, part IV: Movies – Addendum

September 10th, 2008 @ 9:21

By Coren

I intended to write about this in the previous roundup post, but then I forgot.

I said it has been a good year for movies, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any bad ones. As a matter of fact, I have seen a few films that could very well make it to my worst of all time list, along with Reign of Fire, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Scary Movie 2. (Mind you, I tend to avoid seeing bad movies as much as possible, so there are probably much worse movies out there still.) So, for this year:

The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
The Mummy 3I didn’t want to see this one. I mean, I didn’t even like the first two (three?) movies much, and the critics were absolutely vicious about this sequel, and I saw no reason to pay 6€ to see a piece of shit. The thing is, for some strange reason Jennifer did want to see it, and so we eventually did.
She didn’t like it either, though. The film sucked major balls. It wasn’t even entertaining in a brain-dead way. All of the characters deserved to be punched in the face, the story didn’t make much sense, the action was lame (why pay a martial arts hero when he’s not going to do anything?)… Bottom line: total crap. I’m disgusted that it made so much money, and I’m disgusted that I contributed to that. Oh, and don’t you dare to compare The Mummy 3 to Indiana Jones 4. The latter was flawed, but at least it was enjoyable and Indy is still awesome.

The Happening
The HappeningI’ve had long, long discussions about this with my girlfriend but I still haven’t changed my mind: The Happening is really no good. I agree that since Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s movies have often not been given a chance. But that doesn’t mean that his newer movies are actually any good. The Village was pretty okay, I guess, but Signs was ridiculous and Lady in the Water was total bullshit. But the trailer for The Happening was at least somewhat promising, so I thought I’d give the poor guy another chance. After all, he managed to get it right with The Sixth Sense, so there’s no reason why he couldn’t come up with another good movie.
Unfortunately he didn’t. The Happening can be summed up with the horrible, horrible line from the trailer “an event appears to be happening”. The movie is full of this kind of ridiculous dialogue. And the actors… Oh god the actors. They all carry the same facial expression through the entire film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the plot, even if we’ve all seen it before, but it just doesn’t work.
(Spoilers, but you shouldn’t really care.) Here’s where it gets interesting. Jennifer argues that this lame acting and dialogue is actually intentional. And to be fair, thematically, it fits. There’s this whole thing about humans being disconnected. They use cellphones throughout the movie, but these only allow them to communicate with each other, not with “nature”. The only way to escape the lethal toxin propagated by the plants is to pay attention to “nature” (OUTRUN THE WIND!), shouting warnings over the phone isn’t helping. There’s also this scene where the main characters get split up, one’s inside a house, the other’s in a shack outside. The house and the shack are connected by a tube of some kind, and they use that tube to communicate through the wall. The trees, however, as it is so subtly said in the film, communicate directly (without the need for artificial tools) with the bushes, which communicate with the grass, etc. So there again you have humans being “disconnected” from the planet.
All this is certainly very interesting though infuriatingly clichéd and patronizing, but in my opinion it doesn’t justify the horrible acting and storyline in the movie. Saying lame actors fit the themes doesn’t make them any less lame. The Happening is still one of those movies that is occasionally so bad you cringe. Shyalamalelaman is trying so hard to be deep, but he just doesn’t have enough talent to pull it off.
If you want a movie that has this same depth but gets the B-movie feel right, I’d recommend you see The Mist. It also has its cringeworthy moments, but it’s actually mostly enjoyable, whereas The Happening never was.

Honorable mention: Transformers. El oh el. I didn’t even feel like writing about that one.

Experiment

September 9th, 2008 @ 16:42

By Coren

I’m currently at the hairdresser’s, waiting for my turn to come up. I got tired of playing Day of the Tentacle in ScummVM on my mobile phone, so I needed to find something else to do, so I thought: why not see if writing a blog post on this thing is as annoying as I think it must be?
So here I am. First impression: my blog doesn’t fit on the screen by default, though it still looks okay. Sites like Google, though, automatically detect I’m using a mobile phone and the page is adjusted accordingly. I wonder if I could do that easily for my blog too?
Oh, and writing with this stylus is a pain.

Academic Year Roundup, part IV: Movies

September 9th, 2008 @ 14:45

By Coren

The next academic year is drawing closer so I guess I better hurry up and finish this series of posts. So here’s the next one: the best movies of the year.

#1 Juno
JunoThis one’s a surprise in more ways than one. It was a surprise when I first noticed the internet buzzing with passionate talk about this movie. I hadn’t heard anything about it before, it seemed to come out of nowhere. The second surprise was when I first saw the trailer. Why the hell is a typical teenage flick about a pregnant kid getting this kind of attention? Juno kind of disappeared from my radar after that, but when it finally got released in theaters over here (over five months later if you count the first showings at the film festivals) I remembered all the buzz and we decided to go see it. I didn’t expect all that much since I’m not usually a fan of teenage movies, and that’s where the third surprise comes in: Juno turned out to be genuinely funny and touching without being preachy or cheesy. The writer, Diablo Cody (in case you were wondering, that’s not her real name), deserves special mention here because the dialogue and script are nearly perfect. I’ve seen Juno three times now and every time I discover new details that make me chuckle. The actors are great, and Ellen Page’s portrayal of Juno McGuff is spot on. It also struck me how many of the actors on Juno also played in Arrested Development. I wonder if that’s a coincidence.
Anyway, Juno is (unexpectedly) the best movie of the year. Most people appear to either love it to bits or hate its guts, so you mileage may vary. See it and make up your mind.

#2 Cloverfield
CloverfieldThe #2 spot is also suprising in that it’s one of those mainstream-big-budget-brainless Hollywood movies where a Godzilla-like creature goes on a rampage through a heavily populated city. The people I recommend this movie to usually ask me what it’s about, and when I give them the description I just gave you, they lose interest really quickly. It’s their loss really, because within its genre, Cloverfield is pretty much perfectly executed. The whole thing is shown as if filmed through some guy’s videocamera, and while it may be a bit nauseating and off-putting at first, you get used to it pretty quickly and it actually works extremely well. The first-person thing draws you into the action and makes sure you’re sitting on the edge of your seat all the way through the movie. Granted, it’s only about 1h15 long, IIRC, but there’s not one wasted second, it’s an awesome rollercoaster ride from beginning to end.
Some people have complained about plot holes, but I really didn’t notice any. Other people complained about the ending not giving you any answers, those people can just shut up and go back to Resident Evil, as they obviously missed the point. Cloverfield may not have much “depth”, but it’s a perfectly executed dose of pure entertainment.

#3 The Dark Knight
The Dark KnightYou propably expected (feared) this one was coming, right? The Dark Knight has been getting a ridiculous amount of attention these last few months. The vast majority of critics have been heaping praise on this one and virtually everyone I know who’s seen the film says it was awesome. It even topped IMDb’s “top 250 of all time” list for a while. Obviously IMDb isn’t quite the best place to go for movie reviews, but it’s a pretty telling example of how much hysteria this movie generated.
So I couldn’t not see The Dark Knight, even though I was sure I’d be disappointed after this much hype. Turns out I wasn’t. This is one of the few times where the product actually lived up to the hype. It’s not the best movie ever, far from it, but it is one of these extremely rare cases where a movie that is so very obviously marketed towards “the masses” actually gets it right. The Dark Knight is as badass and cool as you’d expect a Batman movie to be, but at the same time it offers levels of depth which no superhero movie (or mainstream movie in general) has ever dared to offer. Without going into too much detail, the whole chaos vs. order duality seems to be the blueprint for the whole movie, and every character somehow fits into this thematic, either as an avatar of one of these forces, or as a pawn being tossed between the two poles. Ultimately, The Dark Knight is both exciting in an action-movie kind of way and interesting in an intellectual way, and this in itself is a huge achievement.
So if it’s so well-done, why does it only get third place?
The part where it screwed up was in the editing: the whole movie felt like a series of short scenes roughly stitched together. Threads of storyline sometimes get unexpectedly interrupted, leaving you to figure out what the hell just happened. Some secondary characters don’t even seem to be of any use. Without spoiling anything, one character dies at some point, but you couldn’t care less because you didn’t even get the time to get attached in the first place. The movie was just too short to really do all the thematic and narrative elements justice. A total of 30 minutes in the right places would have fixed these flaws, and this movie would have been my #1.
To be fair, Juno and Cloverfield had it easy, both movies belong to a very specific subgenre, and they only needed to get the elements of that genre right to get a perfect score. The Dark Knight, however, tries to be everything at the same time, so it’s much harder not to screw up. The Dark Knight is certainly very good, but still far from perfect.

This year’s been a pretty good year for movies, and choosing three out of all the films I saw this year wasn’t easy. I feel bad for leaving out gems like There Will Be Blood or Wall-E, but I had to choose. (Incidentally, There Will Be Blood is tons and tons deeper than The Dark Knight is, it’s just far from being as entertaining. I don’t see why those intellectual films always try to bore you out of your skull. Not that TWBB was as boring as all that, it’s just an observation I’m making.)

Next up, games of the year.