Why I Should Be In Advertising

Smoking: You’d have to be brain damaged not to!

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Wizard vs. Cat II: The Embarassment

Here’s what’s great about the Internet(s). You can be reading an evolutionary biologist’s blog and come across a link to a discussion about who would win in a fight in D&D: a level 1 wizard, or a cat. A discussion answered by a computer simulation. (The answer: the wizard wins 42.3% of the time.)

Needless to say, my first reaction was: sure, that’s great for D&D, but what about NetHack?

There’s only one way to find out.

  -----      ------
  |...|   #  |....|
  |...|     #......#
  |....     #--.---#
  |...|     ########
  -----      ###  ####
             #    ## # #############
             #       ###--------  #    ------
            -.----     #.......|###    .....|
            |.....######|......-#####  |[...|#     -.-+--- --
            |....|      |+...$>|##%####|..(.-#     |....(...|
            |....|      --------    ###|....|######.$.......+
            |....|                    #....$|      |........|
            +.>..|                     ------      ----------

Paul the Evoker           St:11 Dx:15 Co:13 In:18 Wi:10 Ch:8  Chaotic
Dlvl:2  $:0  HP:12(12) Pw:4(7) AC:8  Exp:1 T:274

That is to say, I went into debug mode of NetHack, made myself a chaotic male human wizard, found a dead-end passageway (the wizard is the @ in that screenshot), and used the debug mode’s wand of wishing to wish me up a stethoscope (for checking a monster’s health and stats) and a cursed scroll of genocide (to reverse-genocide housecats). All other items and stats were what the game randomly gave me at the beginning:

a - a blessed +1 quarterstaff (weapon in hands)
b - an uncursed +0 cloak of magic resistance (being worn)
i - an uncursed scroll of identify
j - an uncursed scroll of earth
q - a cursed scroll of genocide
k - a blessed spellbook of force bolt
l - an uncursed spellbook of healing
f - an uncursed potion of levitation  
g - an uncursed potion of extra healing
h - an uncursed potion of sickness
d - an uncursed ring of shock resistance
e - an uncursed +1 ring of protection (on right hand)
c - a wand of teleportation (0:4)
n - a wand of wishing (0:1)
m - a magic marker (0:69)
p - a stethoscope

That ring of protection gives a -1 boost to AC (NetHack is so old school, lower AC means better protection). The strength stat is also pretty good for a level 1 wizard. I ignored the potion of extra healing and the healing spell in the experiment, since I forgot about them figured the ring of protection and starting strength were good enough starting advantages.

So, how nasty is a housecat in NetHack? Let’s use the stethoscope:

What do you want to use or apply? [cmnp or ?*] p
In what direction? l
Status of the housecat (neutral):  Level 3  HP 17(17)  AC 5.

So, the housecat has two more experience levels, 5 more hit points, and its AC is 3 lower than the wizard’s. Not looking good. I suppose taking on a kitten would’ve been easier, but I believe the question was about a cat, not a kitten.

But hey, the wizard’s got a quarterstaff, so let’s see what happens in physical combat:

You miss the housecat.  The housecat bites!
You miss the housecat.  The housecat bites!
You hit the housecat!  The housecat bites!  The housecat bites!
You miss the housecat.  The housecat bites!--More--
You die...--More--

It’s not even close. Wizards are not made for physical combat, and cats are vicious. I’m not going to bother setting up any exhaustive tests of the scenario; I’m pretty sure the odds of wizard survival are just about 0%.

And in case you’re thinking “you’re a wizard, moron; why don’t you cast force bolt at it?”: level 1 wizards only have enough power to cast force bolt once before needing to rest. One force bolt isn’t going to take down a housecat, so then you’re back to staff-to-teeth combat. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll have a chance of surviving.

The moral is: don’t let your level 1 wizard get cornered by a housecat in NetHack.

                      /          \
                     /    REST    \
                    /      IN      \
                   /     PEACE      \
                  /                  \
                  |       paul       |
                  |       0 Au       |
                  |   killed by a    |
                  |     housecat     |
                  |                  |
                  |                  |
                  |       2007       |
                 *|     *  *  *      | *

What Gay Sheep Teach Us About News Reporting

Here’s a textbook example of why you should be skeptical of science stories reported in the mass media. A scientist studies the physiological factors in sexual orientation of sheep. Then PETA learns about it and complains about how (a very small number of) rams are being killed to study their brains. A blog notices the press release and further distorts the story into scientists working on a way to eliminate homosexuality from the human population. The distortion spreads among blogs, gets picked up by a newspaper too lazy to check the facts, and then that spreads to other newspapers.

Of course, some magician‘s radio show gets to the bottom of it long before corrections start appearing in newspapers.

Not that technology reporting is any better. It’s painfully obvious to anyone with even a bit of knowledge in the area that technology stories tend to be written by people who know absolutely nothing about the topic and are largely cribbing some company’s press release. You’re best off avoiding these and instead reading sites that actually have a clue and are happy to do a little digging.

Even worse is mass media reporting on anything to do with court cases. These stories are invariably framed as the court ruling in favor of one side over the other (typically “big business” versus “the little guy”), whereas the court is actually ruling on a particular issue in dispute between the two parties. Sure, “court sides with big business” makes a sexier headline than “court rules statute of limitations under XYZ act is measured from beginning, not end, of appeals process”, but the latter has the advantage of being accurate. This is intuitively obvious to anyone who spends even a little time following the Supreme Court, for example.

The obvious trend is that the more you know about a topic, the more obviously wrong stories that appear in the mass media about it are. The inescapable conclusion is that you should be skeptical of anything you read in the newspaper or see on a TV news report.

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Music Applet 2.0.0 Released

The latest version of Music Applet, the GNOME panel applet that makes it easy to control your favorite music player, is out!

Why the big jump in version number? While at first glance not much has changed, plenty’s different under the hood.

Music Applet 2.0.0

OK, a little has changed at first glance. Music Applet now supports album art; the song information tooltip will also show you any artwork associated with the current song. (Well, usually it will. It doesn’t work with Rhythmbox yet.)

Preferences Dialog

Music Applet also now gives you more control over the applet’s appearance than just showing or hiding the rating display. This should be helpful for people short on panel space.

But that’s all small potatoes compared to this:

Plugins Dialog

No longer are you stuck with whatever player support was available at compile time; Music Applet now has a plugin system that will make it much easier to add support for new music players without having to worry about recompiling things.

Or compiling anything for that matter, as Music Applet has been reimplemented in Python. Those plugins are just little Python scripts you can drop into a search directory that the applet checks at startup.

If you don’t care about plugins, that’s fine. Music Applet ships with plugins for all the players that older versions supported, so you shouldn’t run into any problems upgrading. In fact, this should make it easier for third-party distributors, since they can ship all the plugins together without forcing you to install a bunch of support libraries for music players you don’t want to use. If the dependencies for a plugin aren’t available, the plugin will quietly disable itself.

In other words, the applet should just do the right thing, without you having to worry about anything.

Download Music Applet 2.0.0 now!

College Saga

I think this video pretty much nails it:

The film also has a website.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

Until recently, the only Metroid game I had played to any non-negligible degree was the original Metroid, which while a decent enough game, wasn’t particularly one of my favorites. After a while all the corridors start to look the same, and when you couple that with no built-in mapping function, it’s pretty easy to get completely lost. The need to randomly bomb everywhere in the dead ends to look for crucial secret passages that have no visual cues whatsoever didn’t help a lot either. While I could certainly appreciate the significance of the game, I never became much of a fan of it.

My history with first-person shooters is even less illustrious. The last one of those I ever played to any significant degree was, I believe, the shareware version of Rise of the Triad, back in the days when not only was Pluto a planet, but it was the eighth planet as far as distance from the sun goes. Of course, I’ve played Halo deathmatches, but considering my paucity of FPS skills, would usually get schooled in short order.

Furthermore, heretofore, I hate coming in to the middle of something, be it watching the sequel to a movie I haven’t seen, or starting to watch a TV show midseason, or even missing the first few minutes of a movie.

So, considering that Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is a first-person shooter Metroid game which is the sequel to another first-person shooter Metroid game, I didn’t have particularly high expectations going in. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before I got addicted.

Being a Metroid game, Echoes emphasizes exploration rather than running around shooting things. The game will mercilessly tease you with doors and items lying just out of reach, starting with the very first room, that are inaccessible until you get the right power-up. (And if you’re like me, you’ll be cursing all those yellow doors and Denzium-saturated rocks long before you finally get the Power Bombs necessary to blast them apart.) Of course, this makes each upgrade exciting, because now all sorts of areas suddenly open up to explore to find still more upgrades and missile expansions and energy tanks and whatnot.

In that respect, it’s a lot like the original Metroid, but this time around you have a map, all the rooms are visually distinctive, and your Scan Visor will highlight anything of interest in your field of view. In other words, it’s Metroid without the annoyances of the original.

As far as the plot goes, you start off by crash-landing on the planet Aether, on a mission to find out what happened to a ship full of space marines who were chasing a ship full of space pirates. It doesn’t take long to find out they’re all dead, but you’re soon recruited by the last surviving not-cryo-frozen Luminoth to save his species and the planet itself (literally) from being destroyed by the Ing, who live in a Dark World-ish parallel universe.

You’re probably supposed to assume Samus takes on the job because that’s what the good guy girl’s supposed to do, but since she never actually says anything in the game, I’ve decided the real reason is that she needs to get her good equipment back from the Ing who mugged her (how exactly do you mug a walking tank?) early in the game, and besides, her ship’s busted and its auto-repair just so happens to require exactly the same amount of time as it will take to save the world.

Now I know what you’re saying: “This game is called Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, yet you haven’t mentioned any Metroid Prime or any Echoes! What’s the deal?” Have no fear. One of the recurring enemies you face is Dark Samus, the eponymous villain from the original Metroid Prime mutated into a doppelgänger of Samus. Also, one of the upgrades you get in the game is the Echo Visor, which uses echolocation to display the room and lets you visualize any sonic emitters that might be around. Happy now?

Anyway, from what I’ve gathered of Luminoth war strategy, it’s no wonder they got so resoundingly beaten by the Ing:

  • They spent too little time developing effective weapons and way too much time developing locks for their doors. Missile doors, Super Missile doors, Power Bomb doors, Seeker Missile doors, Seeker Missile doors with the targets hidden in interdimensional space, Light Beam doors, Dark Beam doors, Annihilator Beam doors, doors with sonic locking systems…. How exactly are you going to move troops from one area to another when the enemy can slip between dimensions at will but you need an entire arsenal for a keychain?
  • They then hid all their good equipment. By all means, establish armories and lock the door, but stashing each individual item separately and hiding them behind elaborate obstacle courses is a bit much. I mean, you need to spend hours scouring half of the planet’s surface just to properly equip a small platoon.
  • Yes, yes, I know, your three Energy Controllers on the surface of the planet fell to the Ing and were drained of all their energy. But don’t you think that after someone goes out of their way to go to a parallel universe, fight off hordes of nasty monsters, and use their very suit as a giant battery to bring that energy back, maybe you should put a guard in front of the Energy Controller so they don’t come back and swipe it again? I mean, they got to it when you were throwing everything you had into the defense; I don’t think a few wasps that nested in the room next door are going to cut it as a security system. The Luminoth were lucky the Ing never bothered to reverse engineer the Energy Transfer Module before Samus stole it back from them.
  • OK, so you’ve been beaten back to your Great Temple floating in the sky with your Master Energy Controller and its last bit of energy being the only thing keeping your planet from being destroyed. How exactly is it a good idea to cryo-freeze all but one of the survivors, and have him just stand next to the Controller twiddling his thumbs? Did you not notice the Ing with the Energy Transfer Module in the room below you? What kind of strategy is this? I mean, say what you want about U.S. operations in Iraq, but at least we’re not planning to relocate all our troops to the middle of the Green Zone and have them nap until someone crash-lands her spaceship in the middle of Al Anbar province and decides to wipe out the insurgency and al-Qaeda while waiting for the galactic equivalent of AAA to tow her ship to a repair shop. … OK, I guess it did end up working for the Luminoth, but still.

So, in conclusion, 95% scans and 88% items in 28 hours 41 minutes, without a strategy guide. Longer if you count the times I died repeatedly trying to fight some of the bosses.

Happy New Year…

… to those of you who let Pope Gregory XIII tell you what day it is.