Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Writers' Block

As I said back when I started this blog, part of the idea is get practice writing regularly. So you could be forgiven for wondering where I have been this last little while.

The answer is that I have been suffering writers block. Now, a common misconception is that when I say that it means I have been sitting here staring at my screen. Actually, at least for me, writers block has more to do with writing a ton of drek than it does with writing nothing. I have several posts that will not be seeing the light of day, because they are horrible. None of you want to hear me harp on the discontinuation of my favorite trackball (The Trackball Explorer) or have a 3 page rant about CISPA that ends up supporting the position I am against.

Dry spells happen in writing so sorry, and I'll try to do better.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Learning An Instrument As An Adult Beginner

In August of last year, I began learning to play the violin. This is the first instrument I have ever played, and I did not even know how to read music (and to be honest I am still working on getting past counting from the G clef every time). I am 30 years old.

Many people consider this too late to get started. I will probably never be as good as someone who started as a child. I will not be attending a conservatory, nor in all likelihood will I ever make money off this. I am doing this because I want to. I have wanted to for a long time. While I was growing up, we had an upright piano in our living room. I would peck at it randomly, sometimes even getting something remotely rhythmical going, but I was never able to learn to play. We didn't have the money or the time for me to have lessons, and most time I went to the piano I was pulled away from it anyway, due to it disturbing the neighbors in our thin-walled apartment. Eventually, my parents decided to sell the piano to open up space, and so it could go to someone who would actually use it.

The other question I get is why I picked the violin. It is, after all, one of the hardest instruments to play, held in an awkward position, requiring vastly different motions with each hand and lacking any visual or touch indicators for notes. The instrument also does not hold tune very well from session to session due to temperature and humidity based expansion/contraction, meaning you can't even get started till you can tune well. A piano needs to be tuned once or twice a year. A violin needs it once or twice a week, at minimum, more preferably every time you play (I admit that I cheat and use an electric tuner). My simple answer is this: If I am going to spend hours upon hours playing an instrument (especially the basic 'learner' songs I will be playing for a while, which are not that interesting), I am going to do it on the instrument I am most interested in listening to. It was violin or piano, and violins are more portable.

The challenges as an adult beginner are myriad. I have no one but myself to encourage me to play. I have to self critique my own practices; there is no one to sit there and listen to me playing all the time. I have to find time around my job and everything else in my life. I have to scrounge up the money for a violin, lessons, repairs, etc. Shopping for a violin when you have no idea what you are doing is also nerve racking; I personally lucked out in that a family friend had a violin they were willing to give me, for which I am very grateful.

One thing that turns out to be an unexpected benefit is that I am hard of hearing. You would think this would be a problem, but when the sound source is 10cm from your ear, you can actually distinguish tones more easily with decreased volume. This is, of course, dependent on the level of hearing loss; I am fortunate that I have not lost the ability to hear any of the relevant frequencies.

The hardest part is finding a teacher. Most music teachers fit into two classes: people who teach children the basics, and people who teach adults the hard stuff. Just as kindergarten and college teachers cannot switch places, music teachers do not like to step out of their specialty, and many will refuse to teach a beginning adult. You also sometimes find a teacher who is willing to teach, but cannot stop treating every student as a young child; this obviously creates and awkward situation for an adult learning. Finding a teacher who is comfortable and able to teach an adult beginner is not trivial; it took me months after I obtained my violin to find a good instructor.

So here I am, working away at Suzuki 1, with weekly lessons. And I have no intention of stopping any time soon if I can help it.

Should you, however old you are, go out and learn music? The answer to this is of course personal, and depends on your personal definition of 'worth it'. You will have to be willing to put time and effort and money into it. You definitely have to understand that you will not learning quickly; you will be doing simple things for quite some time. You could find that you have no talent, or that you picked the wrong instrument. All of these are risks. So the question is, for all this, is it worth it? For me, I will say, it most certainly is.

If you want some good violin tunes, check out these artists on Youtube:

Lindsay Stirling
Taylor Davis
The Piano Guys (not strictly speaking violin music, but I don't discriminate in the family)
Jason Yang
Ben Chan
Josh Chiu
Lara DeWit
2 Cellos

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Physicist Recommends: Bioshock Infinite

I just finished playing Bioshock Infinite. I know my post is a bit late in the grand scheme of reviews, but I was taking my time with it. Bioshock games don't come out that often, so I saw no need to burn through the experience quickly.

And what an experience it was. The world is fascinating, the characters interesting. There is a little bit of an info dump right at the end, but all of it is built up to and it's really just about making sure everyone got it, rather than coming out of nowhere. Pacing is excellent, except for some issues caused by the combat, detailed below. Bioshock games are known for story over gameplay, and this one does not disappoint. This is a game with a set story that you are playing through, though; there is no free choice at all, but you will not find yourself minding very much.

Combat is more or less standard for an FPS, but it is almost an afterthought to the experience; you are here for the story. The game uses Halo conventions for weapons (can only carry two, must switch between them or drop one to get a new weapon) and a Halo shield (recharges by hiding behind cover for a bit), neither of which I am a big fan of. I prefer to carry a huge arsenal, no matter how unrealistic it is. Ammo scarcity is a minor annoyance, since you often find plenty of ammo for weapons you are not carrying. Some of the vigor special abilities are too good (Possession, Murder of Crows, Shock Jockey) while others are nearly useless (Bucking Bronco, Charge, Devil's Kiss) except in specific situations or before you get the more useful ones. The upgrade system for weapons can be limiting too, since you cannot upgrade everything, nor can you always carry weapons you have upgraded to to ammo limitations. The skyline system adds some variety, but is underutilized and a bit awkward.

Enemies are a bit stupid, and there is low variety, a chronic issue in Bioshock games. The mechanic where the same enemies get tougher and tougher to kill as the game progresses for no apparent reason also makes an unfortunate return. While they do not blindly charge you, in many cases it is hard to get them to move. You will often find yourself hiding behind ludicrous cover, spending far too long playing peekaboo with your recharging shield as you slowly whittle down enemy forces that never close on you or move to better firing positions, or alternatively you will find yourself pinned down because you cannot get a shot for the same reason. There is too much use of large numbers to offset AI issues. Several sections require flawless execution to survive, due to enemies being too numerous or too well positioned, which is frustrating, especially since the game uses set autosave points, rather than free save. If you want to finish without ever reviving, it can require extensive retreading.

Much of the threat from enemies comes from a combination of their preset positioning being good, your own lack of ammo/correct weapon, a lack of appropriate cover, and shear numbers. Miniboss enemies are either very threatening due to overpowered abilities (Handymen), or not particularly threatening due to the cover system issues (Iron Patriots). Fewer, more intelligent and more difficult enemies deployed in smaller groups would have been more interesting. There is also no sneaking around; the instant one enemy in an area is alerted, all of them are. Combat can be fun, but sometimes you will find yourself wishing you could skip to the next bit of story, and abusing your infinite resurrections in response (be aware, resurrecting does cost money, which you need for upgrades, and you can run out of continues in 1999 mode).

By far the best game yet in the series, which is already among the best game series period, it gets my highest recommendation. Play this game for the story, even if you need to play it on easy.

Final Scores:
Story: 10/10One of the best stories in any game I have ever played. Anything I say could spoil it, which you absolutely do not want.
Voice Acting and Cinematics: 10/10Perfect pitch on all the characters with major speaking parts. Cinemas are well placed and not obtrusive. Almost everything is rendered in game, so there are no jarring changes in character appearances.
Gameplay: 5/10A passable FPS, it is rather generic, and innovative ideas like the skylines are wasted. Not particularly difficult except due to enemy numbers.
Music: 7/10Game original music is quite good. A large number of songs are recovers of various songs from across the 1900s; there is a nice variety of these and they fit in well.
Replay Value: 3/10The set nature of the story and lack of player choice mean that there is not much point in repeated playthroughs other than to try to beat it at a higher difficulty or to try to spot information you missed the first time
Final Verdict: 9/10
A brilliant story, only slightly hampered by mediocre gameplay. Well worth your time and effort.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

First Sale In The Digital Age

Do you think you just bought an e-book from amazon or an MP3 from iTunes? Only if you redefine your definition of "bought".

In a decision concerning Capitol Records v. ReDigi, a judge has again confirmed what tech savvy people have been trying to get across for years: what you get when you purchase something digitally is not what you get if you purchase the same thing physically.

Richard J. Sullivan declared that reselling digital goods is illegal without the permission of the copyright holder. His argument hinges around the act of copying, focusing on how a physical object with a song on it can be transferred unaltered, while a digital file must be copied to be moved. He ignores the fact that you can rip the song before giving away the physical medium, or that even playing a song on a computer requires copying it into RAM, which by his standard would also be illegal. The argument is strictly about physical permanence vs. digital ephemeralness. The case is particularly about MP3s, but the reasoning makes it broadly applicable to anything digital.

This will of course be appealed (this was only a district court ruling, so it will be a while before the appeals process ends) but in the meantime, it sets a very dangerous precedent for electronic goods. Many people 'buying' things in digital form assume that the word 'buy' means the same thing it always has with physical goods, including permanent possession and first sale rights, but that is not the way it is shaping up in the legal system. Most never notice the difference, because businesses are extremely careful to hide the distinction, lest people start objecting. Ask a customer of Apple about their music and they will assume that it works the same as buying a CD, but ask former customers of MSN music and they will warn you about how everything they had payed for disappeared one day, with no recourse.

We must not allow this to become the new norm. What you have bought should be yours to do with as you please, with only the minor and logical restrictions we have come to expect. "Don't buy a CD and use it to make hundreds of copies and sell them at a personal profit" is a fair restriction. "Don't give away the song to anyone else, allow them to listen to the song with or without you present, or play the song in such a way that a person might listen to the song by accident" is not. "If we ever turn off our servers for confirming who you are, you lose everything you have every bought from us with no compensation or recourse" is not. We should own what we pay for. That what we bought is made of bits instead of paper or plastic should not change that.

Correction: It has been pointed out that Apple now uses a watermarking scheme, rather than server-based DRM, for its music. You won't lose access to your purchases if Apple goes out of business. The songs have your identity encoded in the metadata, so if you give the songs away, Apple or the music label can still say that they sold it to you and not X, so you are in trouble. While this is slightly more acceptable in that you don't lose your paid content if they stop paying for servers, the lack of transfer rights is still worrying, and the main point of this post.

Posted a few days late to avoid April Fools.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Fools

It's Internet Fake-out Day. Since absolutely anything I could post would be considered a joke, I'm not going to post at all.