Thursday, 9 September 2010

Team Orders in F1, and Sebastian Vettel

Earlier today the FIA published their judgement on Ferrari, regarding the team orders scandal.

While Felipe Massa was leading the race, he was told to allow his team mate, Fernando Alonso past. Ferrari argue, truthfully, that Alonso is their best shot at winning a title this season, and so the move makes sense in one respect. The only problem is that team orders are explicitly banned, and Ferrari were fined $100,000 after the race for breach of the rules.

The move causes mass outrage - rightly, I think. Team orders are against the spirit of individual competition, but the rules say each team must run two drivers and compete for the championships.

In this respect, the FIA decision was probably the correct one. Any rule against team orders is totally unenforcible. The teams just have to agree a code like "Fuel saving setting Delta" or something will mean "Slow down and let your team mate past." When asked, the team says that it's a heavy setting that slows the car down drastically for a little bit, and the other driver took advantage. It may end up being totally transparent to the public, but it's defensible to the FIA.

The fact of the matter is that team orders happen. Ferrari just happened to get caught. The incident simply highlighted the fact that the team orders rule is basically unenforcible, in part because of how badly Ferrari handled it. It was clear to all that if Ferrari handled the situation slightly better they would have got away with it.

In the end, a move to scrap team orders is probably correct. Teams will recognise that blatant use of team orders will warn off talented drivers, and annoy their fans, so they will use them in moderation.

I'm getting increasingly concerned with Sebastian Vettel. Having taken a close look at his collision with Mark Webber in Turkey, I'm convinced the accident was Vettel's fault. If you watch where his left wheel is compared to the white line at the edge of the track, you see that Vettel moves over before completing the overtaking move. A glance in his mirror - or even just listening for the engine sounds - would have told him not to move over. Webber for his part was careful to leave Vettel space, and you can see he's moving right, away from Vettel just before the collision.

In Spa Vettel had a really weird collision with Jenson Button. Having watched the video over and over again, it appears that what happened was that Vettel looked up the right, and saw there was no space, so he flicked over to the left. But he did so, as he reached the braking point. The combination of steering and braking caused him to lose grip, and he lost control, hitting Button.

I hope I don't have to say, this is an extremely basic error. Steering and braking simultaneously like that is something that amateur racing drivers learn very quickly. It should never have happened. Not even to crash prone Sato.

This combined with other, rather hot headed incidents in Vettel's career, and some frankly alarming overtaking moves in Germany, I have to wander whether Vettel would be keeping his seat if he hadn't won any races.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Adverts shooting their own foot. (Game)

Game is a UK computer game shop. They sell new and pre-owned games.

Yesterday I saw one of their adverts, raising awareness of their pre-owned range. It was aimed at the FPS market. (FPS = First Person opposed to RPG (Role Play Game) or RTS (Real Time Strategy) - gaming is full of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms)). The advert had the words "I'm hit!!!" on the top, with the message below it "Pre-owned bullets fly just as fast as new ones."

The message is clear. An FPS game is just as good whether you buy it new or pre-owned, but the choice of slogan there is baffling. In real life a pre-owned bullet doesn't fly faster than a new one, because it's gunpowder charge has already been used, and the bullet has likely been deformed.

Furthermore, fans of FPS gaming are likely to know this.

So who is the advert aimed at, exactly?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Richard Dawkins' Books: A Holistic* Review

* "Holistic" is used as a sort of in-joke with myself.

I have a love/hate with Richard Dawkins' books. The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker are beautiful, wonderful fantastic books. While they don't make for easy reading, this because they don't contain easy ideas. Most importantly, they play to Dawkins' strength: evolutionary biology.

In The Selfish Gene Dawkins, bit by bit, builds up an argument that - given an imperfect and competitive reproducer - evolution by natural selection is not something likely to happen, but an inevitable consequence. Anyone presented with the case that not every member of a species reproduces (obvious) and that offspring are not clones of their parents (similarly obvious) is led to the inescapable conclusion that evolution is a fact. The book is well written enough to sustain interest, and in depth enough to flatter the reader. Anyone who can read should read this book.

The Blind Watchmaker pulls a similar trick. The focus of the argument is more on emergent complexity out of apparent simplicity, and is where Dawkins starts to lose the plot in his writing - fortunately after this book. It is in this book that he starts showing interest in theology, and the introduction suggests that the book was motivated by theological arguments. In this book he does a remarkable job of he unenviable task of making the arguments clear. He comes out with some beautiful demonstrations of complexity arising from simple rules. This book is another must read.

Sadly, Dawkins is a poor theologian, and I find his more religion-focussed books poor.

In the first instance, I'll look at Unweaving The Rainbow. This book is an attempt to demonstrate the natural beauty in the world around us from a purely secular viewpoint. Sadly he has a poor crack at it. Maybe his impression is different from mine, but I'll give you an example. Chapter 3 is "Barcodes in the Stars", where he points to the heavens to look at the beauty in rainbows, and at spectra - the spectra of stars are where we discover pretty much everything about them. When you look at the spectum of a star, it looks like a rainbow with lines cut out of it. I find the process by which we analyse these lines, and deduce or induce colossal amounts of information from this to be wonderful, fantastic and brilliant. The resemblance of a stellar spectrum with a barcode is entirely secondary. And yet Dawkins uses this analogy, referring to the stars barcode.

In a book about beauty in nature this feels wrong. Forgive the laconic attitude here, but when was the last time you looked at a barcode and thought it should be on the wall in the Tate Modern? (Actually, scrap that, the Tate Modern will take pretty much anything.) Dawkins here disappoints. He has missed the point in trying to explain that things in nature aren't the most beautiful thing about it - although there are some beautiful things in nature - but processes.

Finally, and you knew it was coming, The God Delusion. As an atheist, I find this book to be a horrible parody of everything I'm supposed to stand for. I don't hate religion or the religious, I don't find religion offensive, moralising or dangerous. Dawkins veers between plain wrong, to callously offensive. He tells us, for instance, that the trouble in Northern Ireland, Isreal, and terrorism are all caused by religion in one way or another. Rubbish. While the media may have deceptively labelled the two sides in Northern Ireland "Catholics" and "Protestants", the conflicts have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with owns that piece of land. The troubles in Isreal have nothing to do with Jews and Muslims and everything to do with the native people being turfed from their land so some Western countries can artificially meddle with them, and terrorism is more related to American oil interests then religion. While some involved in these cases may use religion as an excuse, in a secular world these things would still be happening, but with different reasons cited.

While Dawkins is right that religious extremists are worrying, all extremists - religious or not - are worrying.

That isn't even the worst part of the book.

The worst part is the way Dawkins argues his case.

He says the book is for everyone. It is not. Only those who believe in his ideas will see the book through to the end. He doesn't argue against certain points sometimes, so much as just ridicule them and I fail to see how Dawkins could have thought anyone would be convinced.

Take the ontological argument, for example. The argument runs, approximately, as follows:
1. If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I can think of no being greater
1a. If it is false that I can think of no being greater, it is false I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
2. Being is greater than not being
3. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I can think of no being greater.
4. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
Conclusion: If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I am thinking of a being that exists

(From Wikipedia)

Now, you may be looking at that thinking "that doesn't quite work..." (and you'd be right) even if you can't put your finger on it. Those who use this argument like to challenge you to point out where the logical flaw is, and it isn't simple to put your finger on it. So, how does Dawkins refute this argument that, while clearly flawed, isn't obviously disprovable?

He suggests the proof is self evident, and mocks it by presenting it as an argument between a pair of children. I did not make that up.

Of course, if you know the ontological argument is rubbish, you may find this wildly hilarious (though I doubt it) but if you know God exists because of this argument you will just close the book and give it away thinking "what an idiot!"

How should Dawkins have argued the case? By breaking it down into logical steps, as follows:
1. DEFINE: A perfect being HAS THE PROPERTY OF existance.
2. DEFINE: God IS a perfect being.

This is a tautology. The ontological argument defines God to exist, and cannot be used to argue that God does exist. THIS is what Dawkins should have written. This how he should of argued. This is how I know he can argue.

I recently bought a copy of "The Greatest Show On Earth", but haven't read it yet. I pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that it is a step backwards.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

On Westminister Skeptic, and the problem with skeptics

Today I went to see Frank Swain talk at Westminister Skeptic. There were a few other faces I know from the blogosphere too, which was cool.

It was nice to meet a friendly bunch of people, it was nice to meet someone who shared my view on Richard Dawkins (Hi, Irene!) - which I'll save for another post - and it was an excellent talk on "The Problem With Skeptics".

In essence, Frank argued that the skeptic community were often perceived to be aggressive and arrogant and he finished by asking "How can we challenge these people?" (These people being those who believe that homoeopathy works, and such).

In the question and answer session I proposed that the best way of talking to believers was through Socratic Questioning. This is to challenge beliefs through asking questions, rather than stating facts. There are several reasons why this works well which I didn't really have time to go into in detail, so this is my soapbox.

The first benefit of this is that it is far less confrontational than the bare display of facts. Nobody likes to be told their wrong, and this way no one tells them outright they are wrong.

It is also more engaging. Everybody loves to talk about themselves and by asking questions you invite people to talk about themselves.

Some people will never be won around. Some people fundamentally believe, for example, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead. They will never be convinced otherwise. Instead of confronting them, the questioning will instead find this given straight away ("I have total faith in this belief" or something). At this point, change the subject to wiffleball, or something. You'll never convince them.

Where people can be won over, this method is far more effective than bare presentation of facts. For a start, bare presentation is, in some ways, just another argument from authority. By leading someone through the lines of reasoning by which we skeptics form our beliefs we not only lead them to what we consider to be the truth, but we also demonstrate the way of thinking that we employ which is - in my opinion - far more important.

Furthermore, it isn't patronising when done correctly. It shows confidence in the other person that are bright enough to understand our ideas. (A common criticism of skeptics is that we are arrogant by seeing to assume that non-believers won't understand it. A criticism that is not wholly unjustified.) Furthermore, by making them find the idea themselves they are more likely to understand and accept it.

A final point is that it is good for you as well. You may receive answers you were not expecting, which throws a different light on the subject you were discussing. It may challenge your views! If you are a true skeptic, you will welcome this. Furthermore, in order to convince anyone with this method you will have to be familiar with the subject matter. How many of you could convince me that the Earth orbits the Sun with nothing but a telescope and as much time as you wished?

But what is the best way to do this? It isn't particularly easy. Be careful not to simply veil criticism by phrasing as a question. Don't you think that would be most unwise? People will see straight through it.

The best way to go about this is to show an interest in someone's beliefs before asking any leading questions. This will help you establish a rapport and understand some of the nuances. Asking where a particular belief comes from, for example. You can quite often spot those who can't be won around here.

An example might go:

PERSON: I believe that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead.
YOU: That's interesting. Why do you believe that?
PERSON: Because the Bible tells me so, and is the divine word of God himself.

You'd be best here not to argue the point. However, if the same person argued that evolution was a myth, you could more easily lead them to the conclusion that evolution is an inevitable result from imperfect reproduction and natural selection, by asking the right questions.

This can be done with blog posts too, even though there isn't actually a dialogue happening. All it takes is a little more work. If you want to argue a case, present the opposing viewpoint. Present it fairly and without sarcasm - if you are actually right there is no need to distort or strawman the opposition (and if you are wrong then you'll learn something). Phrase headings as questions. Not "Homoeopathy is wrong" but "Is homoeopathy correct?" to be less confrontational. When making the opposition case link to their own sources, if possible. Doing this will allow those who disagree with you to agree up to a point. Even if they don't like your conclusions they are far more likely to actually read what you've written.

I hope this is helpful.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The UK badly needs electoral reform

As I write, 612 out of 650 constituancies have been declared, and it looks like the Tories are going to just fall short of a majority.

The results also show a deep inequality in votes cast for each seat.

Nationally, there are about 2.2 seats per 100,000 votes (or each seat is 45,000 votes on average, if you prefer), but some parties were able to gain considerably more than this. The Democratic Unionist Party won 4.76 seats per 100,000 votes. Labour and the Tories came in at 3.02 and 2.86 respectively.

As a result of this proportional representation would cost the Tories 68 seats and Labour 67.

At the other end of the scale some parties did quite badly out of First Past The Post. Four parties gained more than 45,000 votes but no seats. While I disagree with the politics of these parties (half a million people voted BNP. Really?) the principle that votes = representation must override the knee jerk reaction saying that any system keeping the BNP and UKIP out of parliament is worth the price.

It isn't worth it. Democratic principles are more important than political ones.

The really big winners of proportional representation would be the Lib Dems, who got 22% of the vote to win 8% of the seats. Out of parties who got seats, the Lib Dems were made to work second hardest with 0.8 seats per 100,000 votes. Green Party are next with 1 seat for their 264,000 votes (0.38 seats per 100,000 votes).

Clearly there are massive inequalities. 1.8 million people cast votes for parties which didn't win a seat, yet those votes should be worth around 41 seats. Why is a vote for Labour 8 times more valuable than a vote for Green.

To whoever gets in power, we need electoral reform, and we need it soon.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The upcoming UK election: why I'm voting Lib Dem

For the first time since I was born, it seems the Lib Dems are actually in with a shot of getting hold of some proper power.

Here's why I'm voting for them: it's between Labour and Lib Dems in my constituency and I really don't want to see labour get in for a fourth term. Governments are like nappies: they need to be changed regularly and for the same reason.

I'm sick of broken promises and a total attitude of don't-give-a-fuck-what-the-electorate-thinks regarding war in Iraq, ID Cards, 40 day detention, etc... I also believe Labour's policies regarding crime are totally counter-productive.

By making more and more things an imprisonable offence in an effort to appear tough on crime, they're actually filling up jails with people who don't need to be there, meaning people guilty of violent crimes are given a slap on the wrist.

Lib dems want to increase the use of community service terms, which are shown to reduce re-offending rates (unlike prison, which increases them). They have also expressed a commitment to support science funding, which I like. They also say they'll reduce to the curriculum and afford teachers more decision making in what they actually teach.

Their commitment to electoral reform also rings well with me, as I believe first past the post to be inherently unfair. Lib Dems are the only party to acknowledge that immigration can be a good thing.

The Lib Dems also came out pretty well from the expenses scandal; the most anyone could pin on them, it seems, is an egregious packet of Hobnobs. Finally, regarding the economy, it is common opinion (although I don't have the expertise to judge) that Vince Cable is the most competent treasurer.

I realise I have pretty much ignored the Tories here. This is for two reasons: 1. as I said nera the start, they're way behind on votes in my area, and 2. a hard cap on immigration, are you fucking mad, Mr. Cameron? 3. The most egregious piss takers in the expenses scandal. 4. I just don't trust them.

So there you are: get out there on May 6th, and vote yellow.

Sunday, 28 March 2010


It's lap 10 as I write this, and Button's just pulled off a beautiful tactical decision. Too bad he went off on turn one (yeah, mimicking commentators here, but hey).

Also, this race has already been more exciting then Bahrain. The no refueling (as I guessed) is actually helping here. Drivers are pitting purely on the basis of their tyres instead of wasting laps on bad tyres because it's not time to refuel yet.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Student politics: science under-represented. Why?

My friend Grace wrote a piece about the lack of science sab. officers at Uni on her blog.

She makes a few stereotypical comments regarding science degrees - some accurate, some not. Here I expand on the reasons science students seem so under-represented in student politics.

There definitely is a two-part problem here. The first is that most science students do spend a lot of time in labs/lectures/whatever (not to suggest other degrees are less work, but there's less formal structure to arts degrees, and you do more work in your own time, allowing you to structure your work around whatever-Uni-stuff you want to in a way science students can't).

This tends to mean that science students spend less time around the Union, and see it more as a place to get lunch (but only when the queue at John's Van is too long) then a real entity.

This in turn also means they're less likely to see the campaigns, or be able to go to hustings (which always clash with my lectures) or get to know the candidates leading to apathy regarding the campaigns.

As for representation amongst the Sab officers: I would have loved to run for a position (Welfare, probably) but just didn't have the time to do it. When I needed to be out canvassing I was in lectures/supervisor meetings/etc... All things I can't put off until the evening.

In short, science students would care about student politics, but the difficulty is in making sure we can actively participate.

Monday, 15 March 2010

F1 Bahrain 2010 - race review and rule changes

Sadly, a boring race.

The new rules are, frankly, a bit rubbish. It's still just as difficult to overtake (F1's overtaking is not for lack of incentive - only a fundamental rewrite of aero rules will fix this).

In any case - after the first round of pitstops the race was - barring technical failures - done and dusted.

The pitstop window wasn't even that interesting. Drivers no longer have a few laps where they can put in their race winning laps to jump someone in the pits. They react straight off the bat. Trying to compete with their nearest rival when the rival is new tyres and they are on old (in exchange for a couple extra laps of freshness in their tyres after the stop) isn't going to work. The only overtaking in the pits will be straight races between pit crews. As much as this is a vital skill it's not the one I want to see races decided on.

Friday, 12 March 2010

F1 2010 underway!

Looks like McLaren and Mercedes got the best of the Friday running.

Rosberg running almost half a second faster than Schuey is rather surprising. The Williams is apparently fairly quick too.

Having said all this, there are still lots of different programmes running (the Ferraris were focussing more on long runs, so don't rule them out - they had excellent winter testing pace).

Qualifying tomorrow is going to be great. In the UK it's on at 10:10am on the BBC.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Car colours in F1

So HST revealed their gray car yesterday.

I thought, "come on guys, get an imagination." McLaren, Mercedes and Virgin are all already using gray as their main colours - a full third of the cars on the grid will be gray.

I think each team must choose a unique colour scheme with up to two colours. Oldest teams get priority. Each team would then have to stick to that colour scheme, with minor changes allowed for sponsorship.

That way, each car is uniquely coloured, and the grid looks prettier.

Simple, right?

Formula One 2010: Pre-season review (post testing)

Testing seems to have confirmed my guesses for the most part. Massa has performed excellently and has picked up where he left off before his injury.

Schumacher also performed well in his Mercedes car.

The pecking order will be somewhat different from the pecking order I guessed.

McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull will be the teams to beat, with Mercedes somewhat behind.

Williams appeared to be the strongest of the next group, followed by Renault and Sauber.

This leaves Torro Rosso and Force India, with nothing to choose between them, and Virgin Racing and Lotus and HRT (formally Campos) (probably in that order) pulling round the rear.

It is saddening to hear that USF1 have pulled out. I was looking forward to seeing more non-European teams take part (currently, only Lotus aren't based in Europe, and the majority of teams are based in the UK).

All hail the season opener in a week.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Sudoku solver in Python (part one)

I enjoy playing around with programming. Python is a good language for ease of use and built in features and readability. I'd like to see more type safety, though - Python won't complain if you try sending a list to something expecting a number. It will just crash, instead. (In contrast, C and C++ will give compiler errors before trying to run).

In any case, solving a sudoku is a fairly interesting task to tackle. Partly because there are many ways to try. I could, for example, use strictly logical methods as I would with a pen and paper. While it would easily be possible to to this, listing every method and working out exactly how to do this is a daunting task.

The other method is brute-force. Try every number in every square and see which one fits.

In this case, the solution lies somewhere between the two. The brute force solution, for a 3 x 3 grid has 60 empty squares, with a possible total of 9 values in each. This gives a total of around 1,797,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possibilities. A computer able to check a trillion possibilities every second wouldn't even scratch the surface on trying all of them if it ran from the start of the Universe to now!

So we use logical rules to narrow these down.

Let us start by creating an object that represents a Sudoku grid.

class Sudokugrid:
  def __init__(self,major_boxes):
    self.order = major_boxes
    self.size = self.order*self.order
    self.magnitude = self.order*self.order*self.order
    self.grid = []
    for column in range(self.size):
      row = []
      for box in range(self.size):
    self.conversion = " 1234567890ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrtuvwxyz@#"
    self.errorbox = "!"
    self.boxhighlight = "*"
    self.stepthrough = None

There are variants on Sudoku. Normally we see 9 x 9, but 16 x 16 and 4 x 4 variants are also occasionally seen. I tend to refer to this as the "order" of the puzzle. A 16 x 16 puzzle has 4 groups of 4 boxes each, and so is order 4. The standard puzzle is of order 3. This __init__ function creates a grid by making a list of lists. This allows any box to be accessed via self.grid[column][row].

The "conversion" variable is used for displaying on screen. 16 x 16 puzzles use letters to avoid having to use multidigit numbers. As it happens, I want to write using numbers throughout (it's safer that way, I believe, and I can use the number 0 to indicate an empty box), but display using letters and numbers. The conversion has enough characters for an eighth order grid.

Now we have a grid, and we assign values to it. We can start building our solver.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Valencia testing

It's far too early to draw any conclusions on which teams are fastest. Ferrari look strong, with 1 and 2 on the timing sheets, but there are many reasons apart from raw pace that could do this.

Most interesting to me, was in the run up to the test, Fernando Alonso made some very guarded comments regarding testing. I initially figured that he was expecting a learning curve with the car to some extent, or something like that and was covering himself for a poor performance in testing. Topping the timing sheets, however, Alonso's comments may instead have been indicating something else: that Ferrari aren't confident.

There is little to be told about which teams are fastest. It is quite interesting to see how closely matched teammates are, though.

It appears Sauber have very well matched drivers, which is good for them. Torro Rosso on the other hand, may have problems, as their drivers were over a second apart.

Best matched driver pairs
Sauber: 0.038
Ferrari: 0.252
Williams: 0.292
Mercedes: 0.461
Renault: 0.671
McLaren: 0.695
Torro Rosso: 1.245
Worst matched.

It's worth mentioning that all those splits are pretty large. I still stand by my predictions from before testing.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Three golden rules for good games to follow

Or: How to turn Assassin's Creed from an awesome game to Game of the Century.

One: Don't force the story on the player. I don't care how intricately crafted the characters are, how deep and thrilling the plot is, or how much you paid for voice actors. Sometimes I just want to play the game. (Typically, I'll want to play a second time and already know the story.)

I won't accept that the storyline is a necessary part of gameplay either (except for the RPG genre). If a game is not good enough to stand up purely on the game mechanics, it's not a good game. If you have put so much effort into the story, you can't bear the thought of players missing the storyline, then write a book/make a TV series/film.

Unskippable cutscenes are the most obvious and most common version of this, but it is also possible to achieve by not allowing the player to move on until they discover some plot point. RPG's are allowed to do this.

Everything else: if you're insistent on a player knowing a certain piece of story, mark the place to find it on the map, thank you. Cutscenes in and of themselves are not too bad, but keep them concise. It's much better from the players point of view if we find out the information by playing ourselves, but not always possible.

Notable offenders: Assassin's Creed
Surprisingly good: Knights of the Old Republic (as long as you get the bit about the Star Maps, you can play this virtually ignoring the storyline.)

Two: Don't be repetitive. Management sims are exempt from this. This is about not forcing the player to do the same thing over and over. There are many ways this can come about.

The simplest is save-points. Everyone has played a game where it saves, then has a cutscene, then a hard boss battle. Every failed attempt at the boss battle replays the cutscene.

Assassin's Creed is odd here, in that it does this well for pickpocketing (retrying after a failure skips the dialogue) but badly for informants. Every time you fail, you have to hear the same dialogue telling you why he needs you to do whatever-he's-asking-you-to-do, while I stand thinking "I know, I know, let me get on with it!"

A more subtle variant is found on the "save citizen" challenges. After every one the game makes you stand around and listen to the saved citizen thanking you, all the while you should be running from the scene. Then, the reward (scholars, or vigilantes) are focussed on before you can start fleeing. The whole process takes almost a minute. Particularly annoying here is making a big point of showing you the scholars/vigilantes you won, since they appear on the map.

This is also an excellent reason to include fast-travel between important points on the map.

Notable offender: Assassin's Creed
Surprisingly good: Half-Life 2

Three: Let the player dictate the pace. Some players like blasting through levels as fast as possible, others like to go slowly and take it all in. The latter do badly at racing games. Assassin's Creed actually gets this very right. While exploring, you have four speeds available to you, depending on whether you're sneaking up on a guard or running like hell from one. However, as Desmond you are limited to walking slowly around the office, mostly unable to interact with things.

Notable offender: Assassin's Creed (as Desmond)
Suprisingly good: Assassin's Creed (as Altiar)

Zero: Keep the player in control. In essence, all the other rules on the list come down to this. We play games because we like to play. Points where the game wrests control from the player are frustrating and totally break immersion (since we're suddenly aware of the limitations of the medium).

This is a really broad rule applying to all sorts of things. For example: in Assassin's Creed there are drunk who will, given the opportunity, wallop the player one and beggars who will just harass you.

This isn't too bad, except there's nothing you can do about it. You lose health (or synch) for retaliating. Even worse is that the drunks have a horrible tendency to totally blow your cover. Simple things that could be done about this are: let us give a few coins to the beggars; if a soldier spots a drunk taking a swing, have him come over and arrest the drunk. It would be really satisfying to see the soldiers on your side for once.

Notable offender: Assassin's Creed

So come on, designers. When are we going to see an end to needlessly poor games?

Monday, 1 February 2010

My favourite things: Order of the Stick

Medium: Webcomic
Author: Richard Burlew
Updates: Irregular
Style: Stickmen, plot heavy.

Order of the Stick a stickman comic about a party of six adventurers in the D&D Universe. It starts out as a basic gag-a-day, mostly parodying Dungeons and Dragons. However, beneath the humour there is a very finely woven plot backed up
by excellent writing. The main characters all get developed adding to the depth of the jokes. The plot gains more urgency around strips 10
0-200 and drives the comic compellingly along.

Order of the Stick doesn't just to funny very well. The comedy is an excellent foil to the occasional tragedy, and named character deaths are always beautifully played. Near the end of the "Don't Split The Party" arc, an superb look at the nature of good and evil gets thrown in. These breaks aren't jarring, though, since they are worked so well into the plot.

Order of the Stick:
Roy Greenhilt: Leader. A master fighter but stereotypically intelligent. He has taken on his father's oath to avenge himself on Xykon, the evil sorcerer. He is brave and pragmatic. Although he doesn't always make the best choices initially, he usually gets it right in the end.

Haley Starshine: Second in command. A feisty rogue who's very very
introvert. Expert at stealth and marksmanship, but tends to get overpowered in a straight fight.

Elan: A bard who mostly plays the incompetent buffoon for comic relief. He is very genre aware and able to use storytelling conventions to his advantage. He is extremely child-like, and it takes some time before the whole party accepts him.

Durkon Thundershield: Dwarf and cleric to Thor. While playing on many Dwarf stereotypes, Durkon is also the most morally upstanding and aware. He is pious, but not in an annoying, preachy way (to the reader anyway). He shows very great wisdom, and often opts for the diplomatic solution. Durkon has been exiled from his homelands.

Vaarsuvius: An androgynous elven wizard. The lack of known gender for V is a running joke (I tend to use the feminine pronouns, but masculine seems more common). V is powerful and skilled, but somewhat arrogant about it. She tries to view the world as an inherently ordered place and can be very frustrated. She is very close to Haley in the backstory. V and Belkar sniping each other is also the source of many many many moments of brilliance.

Belkar Bitterleaf: Omnicidal maniac. Oh, and a hobbit. Crazily powerful with his twin daggers, Belkar is happiest eating something, or killing something, although the party keep him in check. Thus far, Belkar is the least developed character.

Xykon: A sorcerer who, in death, bound his soul to a phylactery and lives on as a lich. He seeks to dominate the world by taking control of one of five mystical gates (his attempts have so far mostly resulted in the destruction of said gate...if too many gates get destroyed, the Universe ends, though. So that's quite bad). Xykon thinks nothing of the lives of others, gets bored easily and is viciously powerful in combat. He is so stylish about being evil, though.

Redcloak: Guardian of Xykon's phylactery. Redcloak is a goblic cleric who seeks to destroy all humans. He is subervient to Xykon, but uses his better organised nature and longer attention span to maintain some control over him.

Monster in the Dark: Unknown monster enshrouded at all times in a magical darkness. We only ever see his yellow eyes. Very child-like, really powerful, easily distracted. I'm not totally convinced of the evilness of this beast though. We wait and see.

Check OotS out. You won't regret it!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Formula One 2010: Pre-season review

After a wonderful season last year, I can't wait to see this season kick off.

Pre-testing it's very difficult to say anything solid about next season. The refuelling ban and new front tyres mean car design is quite different from last years cars.

So season prognosis:


Driver line up: Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button are both proven WDC material. I believe the refuelling ban will equalise the gap between the two somewhat (previously I would not expect Button to be able to compete with Hamilton). Summary: Probably best line-up on the grid.

Car: Looks very pretty. The team had lots of momentum at the end of last year. Hopefully the new car follows that momentum. The team, after coming up with some upgrades, did switch to developing this car quite early in the season. Summary: WCC contender


Driver line up: Michael Schumacher is back. It will be very difficult to tell whether he's still got it until after testing (though he most likely still has). Rosberg made waves when he joined the scene, but since then has been driving a rather underperforming Williams and (I believe) never really been able to shine. Hopefully in the new team he'll be able to cut out some basic errors and really put in some strong challenges. Summary: Looking very good.

Car: Brawn lost momentum towards the end of the season, but still had some excellent finishes - largely due to Button's skill rather than an inherently fastest car, though. Still, Ross Brawn is an excellent designer, and the Brawn car will likely be one of the fastest on the grid. Summary: WCC contender

Red Bull:

Fun fact: Red Bull is not a soft-drinks company that sponsor an F1 team. They are a motorsports company who dabble in making soft-drinks. This is why the drink sucks.

Driver line up: Vettel is excellent, and I look forward to seeing him battle it out with Schuey. This boy will win a WDC at some point. Maybe this year. Mark Webber is a fine driver but not quite in the same league as Vettel, Hamilton or Schumacher. Summary: Hot shot, and not so hot.

Car: Adrian Newey is a superb designer. However, Red Bull pushed very hard for the WDC last season and this may have cost them if it meant less focus on the 2010 car. They had lots of momentum at the end of last season but I've an instinct which says their car won't be as impressive this year as last. Summary: Regular podiums, and outside WCC chance.


Driver line up: I'm very glad to see Massa back on the grid after his injury last season. Hopefully it won't have affected his driving, which is highly underrated due to him being paired against amazing team-mates all the time (Schuey and Raikkonen). Remember that he often out-competed his team-mates and is not to be underestimated. This man is too good not to win a WDC at some point in his career. Having said this, he's not kind to his fuel consumption or tyres and may find the new rules make this season quite a struggle. Alonso is another driver with a very special talent. Summary: Probably the best line up on the grid (along with McLaren, there).

Car: Last season was disappointing, but they cut off development early to focus on this car. It's going to be fast, have no doubt about that, and it's got the drivers to do it justice. Expect to see it hit podiums regularly. Summary: WCC contender.


Drivers: Barrichello is hugely experienced, but not WDC material (he's had the cars to do it and last season he had a team-mate considered "beatable", yet failed to do so.) Huelkenberg is an unknown. Summary: Fair.

Car: Somewhat uninspiring last season. Likely more of the same. Will be competing for 5th at best.


Drivers: Kubica is, in Fernando Alonso's opinion, the most talented driver on the grid. He made his BMW perform far better then expected. Expect Kubica to trouble the front runners now and then. Reserve driver is unknown. Summary: Will make the car look better then it is.

Car: After scandal last season, and an uncompetitive car, expect to see Renault competing for 5th, but wouldn't be surprised to see them get into the top 4.

Force India:

Drivers: Neither driver is top draw by F1 standards. I'm not expecting much from the team.

Car: Again, not expecting much. 8th or 9th is probably about right.

Torro Rosso:

Drivers: Neither driver is proven as really fast, both have been prone to rookie errors in the past. Buemi shows flashes of inspiration, but isn't going to win races on his merits alone any time soon. Summary: Poor.

Car: Will probably use a car similar to the Red Bull car. Don't expect it to compete with them, though. Expect to see them around 8th or 9th, possible pushing into the higher midfield group occasionally.

BMW-Sauber: (name subject to change)

Drivers: De La Rosa has an excellent reputation, but has been off-track for a while, so I don't expect him to work wonders. Kobayashi has yet to prove himself in F1. Summary: Could (and should) be better.

Car: Midfield standard, and I don't expect that to change.

New teams:

Drivers: Only Lotus and Virgin have completed their driver line ups, and few of them will be taking part in initial testing. Campos may not reveal their car until the first race! Speculation is that they may not be ready in time. US F1 are likely to be the strongest team here, with Virgin up there too.

Cars: Completely unknown. Probably somewhat behind the established teams, but don't be too surprised if one of them is up there in the midfield.

My guess for the season:
(Guessed positions, with movement with in each group likely)

1st McLaren
2nd Mercedes
3rd Ferrari
4th Red Bull

5th Williams
6th Renault
7th BMW-Sauber

8th Force India
9th Torro Rosso (on account that Force India have better drivers)
10th US F1

11th Virgin
12th Lotus
13th Manor

I promise to review this once the season is done, and check how I did.