Monday, 30 December 2013

Computer Chess

Days and nights, weeks and months and seasons
rolling through me, so chronologically
computer age, computer age,
computer age

Off to the cinema to see Computer Chess, a newish film by top mumblecore auteur Andrew Bujalski. He's one of those "last name directors", like Jodorowsky or Eisenstein, so for the rest of this review I'll call him Bujalski. I often wonder if people in the future will realise that Bujalski was his last name. Chess has an intriguing premise but for the most part falls flat, although it sticks in the mind.

It's a mish-mash of Altman's Nashville and Aronofsky's Pi with Bujalski's mumblecore aesthetic, set during a computer chess tournament some time in the early 1980s. With the exception of one brief colour sequence it was shot with a black and white video camera, and the footage is left in the old-fashioned aspect ratio of vintage Hollywood and television. Bujalski shot his earlier films with celluloid, and edited them the old-fashioned way, but for Chess he had to use a computer and a big old CRT monitor (I'm guessing it was an old Apple Studio Display). The actors are drawn from the provinces, and everybody in the film wears digital watches and smokes indoors, and no-one complains about this. The attention to verisimilitude is very impressive. Like Woody Allen's Zelig and Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, the gimmick got the film's foot in the door, and it seems to have had more press coverage and a much wider release than Beeswax, Bujalski's previous film. I would not be surprised if mainstream Hollywood asks him to direct a romantic comedy starring Uma Thurman, or a remake of Klute starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Angelina Jolie. Unfortunately, just like Zelig and Plaid, it doesn't have much payload, and I suspect that the same script set in the modern day would have been no less effective.

It's fascinating to compare it with American Hustle, which is set during a similar period, but filmed in the conventional Hollywood way, with a few sequences intended to look like black and white video shot with a spy camera. You can imagine Bujalski's insignificant computer programmers coexisting with the high-powered conmen of Russell's film. In a particularly odd coincidence, Amy Adams' former stripper has the same frizzy hairstyle as the resident call-girl of the hotel in which Computer Chess takes place.

This chap physically resembles the younger Steve Jobs, although his character is much more low-key. Actor Wiley Wiggins is an actual computer programmer - they call them "software developers" nowadays - who is one of Bujalski's stock players.

And it's hard to watch Chess without imaging some of the characters going on to be multi-billionaires, but on the other hand Larry Ellison and so forth weren't artificial intelligence researchers or mathematicians, they were for the most part businessmen who knew enough about the computer market and fundamental human desires to make money out of this new field. I'm not an expert on AI, but I surmise that the characters in Computer Chess spent most of the 1980s and 1990s embarking in one frustrating failure after another, and were old men by the time their ideas started to pay off. A long time ago there was a 1:1 mapping between the population of chess enthusiasts and computer users. The people who made money from computers realised in the late 1970s that those days were numbered.

A lady programmer - there she is.

Hahaha, numbered. Because computers. The actors are unknowns and do a remarkably good job. Robin Schwarz, the lady programmer - she's in the photograph just above - is actually a film editor, but I can imagine her cornering the market for geeky lady programmers. The other standout is a chap called Myles Paige, who plays independent programmer Papageorge, a well-dressed man who seems to know his programming onions but is otherwise a fa├žade. He's alternately sinister and pathetic. The cast includes two programmers, two film editors, an author, an expert on data visualisation, and a film studies professor, and they do a remarkably good job. In its favour the film doesn't try to mock the characters, and none of them come across as typical Hollywood-style geeks*. Patrick Riester's awkward teenager could be any awkward teenager, not specifically a computer nerd. For the most part they seem like normal people who just happen to know what an iteration is and how to swing it.

* Schwarz' performance verges on the cartoonish, but I suspect this is Bujalski's fault, and I'm not just saying that because she's nice.

But sadly the film doesn't really tell us much about these people. In trying to present them as ordinary geniuses I never had a sense of their personalities or for that matter their genius. The computery aspects feel authentic, but I suspect that Bujalski wasn't particularly interested in computers, or chess - or even the 1980s - and for the most part the chess is kept in the background. None of the chess matches are really presented as gripping duels in the manner of Casino Royale or indeed Tim Rice's Chess. The characters for the most part stay the same throughout the film, which works in the case of Papageorge - his inability to change is his defining characteristic - but feels hollow with everybody else. The one sustained awkward moment could have come from any teen film or television movie.

My only real experience with the kind of people portrayed in Computer Chess is of Linux fans during the days when Linux came on several CDs with photocopied inserts and you just accepted that the sound would never work, and I think the key problem with the film is its authenticity. The film has too much of it, but it's the wrong kind, the real kind. For example, the decision to film with a black and white video camera is probably period-accurate, but it feels odd, because I associate the early 1980s with colour videotape or colour 16mm. A real-life amateur documentary on a computer chess tournament of the early 1980s might well have been videotaped, but no-one would have seen it; a more professional documentary would resemble this classic episode of Commercial Breaks from 1984, about the hilarious demise of Imagine Software:

Which seems to have directly inspired the BBC's Micro Men, which told of the rise and fall of Uncle Sir Clive Sinclair - co-starring Martin Freeman of The Hobbit as the co-founder of Acorn Electronics, no less:

Computer Chess has a melancholic quality that these documentary dramas lack, and it aims for something higher, but I'm not convinced that it's any better. Aronofsky's Pi was mostly nonsense, but it was dramatic, engaging nonsense. Computer Chess feels like a glimpse into the real world, which is unfortunate because the real world is for the most part dreary, which is why we go to the cinema.

There is a very brief and perfunctory nod to something extraordinary. It seems that one of the computers has come alive! But no sooner is this plot thread introduced than it's dropped, and it feels arbitrary. The only overtly supernatural element is relayed second-hand by a character who is probably drunk, and I have a sense that Bujalski simply wasn't interested in telling a sci-fi tale. It has to be said that most of the science fiction in Aronofsky's Pi was similarly explicable, and I suspect that Aronofsky was no more interested in sci-fi than Bujalski, but Aronofsky wanted to tell a gripping, ripping yarn, whereas Bujalski... I'm not entirely sure what he was going for. Indie immortality.

Myles Paige as Papageorge

A brief excursion into altered reality

Overall Computer Chess put me in mind of those films from the 1970s where nothing much happens but it feels sad at the end, except that in Chess nothing much happens and I didn't feel anything. The symbolism and some of the situations are very simple - one of the characters is stuck in a personal rut, so the editing has him repeat his actions several times, and another character's plight is illustrated by framing him against a square - but these tricks come across as facile rather than revelatory. Nonetheless I felt enough about Computer Chess to write his post six weeks after seeing the film, so there's that.

I saw it at the Curzon Soho in London, England. An art cinema with art films and the audience laughs politely at the gags. The bartender is suave and people go there to be seen. Specifically to be seen walking out of the cinema whilst tossing a scarf over their shoulder in the style of Benedict Cumberbatch. One of the trailers was for a documentary about trawler fishing called Leviathan. The end.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

DayZ: And ConfuZ

This land is your land, this land is my land
from Zelenogorsk to Skalitsy Island
from the searing mind-controlling emanations of Green Mountain, to the Black Lake waters
this land was made for you and me

Zed. Zed zed zed. A stripy horse is a zed-bra. A patch of land is a zzzuhone. The undead aren't zeembies, are they?

Today we're going to look at DayZ, a new-ish game from the mind of Dean "Rocket" Hall and top Czech developers Bohemia "Peach Girl" Interactive. I say new-ish, because it has had an unusual development cycle stretching over a year and a half. It originally began as a fan-made modification for Bohemia's Armed Assault II, a serious military simulation, and has only recently been released as a standalone game, in a process not dissimilar to that which produced the standalone versions of Team Fortress and Counter-Strike, fourteen years ago.

This is, coincidentally, how I dress in real life. No doubt there will one day be a market for downloadable outfits at £14.99 a pop - official North Face tops, genuine Brasher boots, Colt-licensed AR-15 uppers, Black Talon ammo, etc. That's what I would do.

Fourteen years ago Dean Hall was embarking on a career as a Commissioned Officer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. After a near-disastrous jungle warfare course whilst on secondment to the Singaporean Army - his nails turned a funny colour and a biscuit made him cry - he decided to release his frustrations by creating DayZ, a mod which took the tactical military aspect of ArmAII and replaced the enemy soldiers with zombies. The heavily-armed soldiers were replaced with ordinary people, and they entered the game equipped with nothing more than a bandage and some flares (of the illuminating variety, not the trousers (e.g. they had trousers, but not flared trousers)). And by gum it was hard. The game was unforgivingly difficult and unsentimental. Almost everything was lethal, albeit that some of those things - doors, rocks, ladders - were lethal because the mod was full'o'bugs. But then again so was ArmAII, so it fit right in.

DayZ, the mod, was unlike anything else before or since. The ArmAII engine was distantly related to Bohemia's early-2000s army game Operation Flashpoint, which I remember fondly. At a time when most 3D games obscured the terrain beyond a few dozen feet with fog, OpFlash operated on a much larger scale. The game took place on a series of islands and you generally weren't constrained in your movements. The earlier voxel-based game Delta Force had expansive terrain, but it felt like an arcade game and was very blocky; for the first time I felt that I was almost out in the open air. Even then the engine felt more interesting than the game, and I remember playing it more for the user-created missions and equipment than the stock levels.

The mod was released in late May 2012, and quickly developed a passionate fan following. Its popularity was totally unexpected. In order to run DayZ players needed to have ArmAII, which was three years old at that point and not particularly popular even when it was new, and the installation process was initially irritating. Although DayZ was free, ArmAII was still £20 or so. But enough people persisted with it to push ArmAII to the top of Steam's sales charts on the strength of DayZ alone, an occasion that even prompted mention by the BBC. "Within weeks of it being released, it had 4,000 players on 90 servers. Numbers have continued to climb since then and now the game has almost 150,000 regular players who control 1.8 million characters." Most of whom were dead within a week, because the game was a meat grinder. I can't think of a similar example of a mod so many driving sales of a not-particularly-popular game (Team Fortress and Counter-Strike were built on two of the most popular games of their era).

Some crucial items were surprisingly hard to find in the mod - the matchbox and compass, for example. The standalone has this can opener, which is probably no more rare than anything else, but difficult to spot because it's so small. The objects are now consistently rendered as actual, life-sized objects in the game world, rather than the odd mixture of real-life objects and icons in the mod.

So popular was DayZ that it inspired a Roger Corman-esque knock-off, The WarZ. This was rushed into development and released on Steam a year ago - and then almost immediately pulled, because it was unfinished. It was subsequently re-released under a different name. I haven't played it. The game has a tonne of pay-for-play DLC. Of course, this new standalone version of DayZ is unfinished as well, but there is a prominent disclaimer at the outset, and Dean Hall and his merry band of brothers seem above-board chaps. If you can't trust an Officer in the Royal New Zealand armed forces, who can you trust?

But. I remember Armed Assault. After five years of work it resembled Operation Flashpoint but with lots of bugs and wonky controls, and bear in mind that this was the company's core product. Armed Assault II felt much the same, and my worry is that the standalone DayZ will flop onto the beach with a minimum of acceptable functionality before development slows to a crawl. But then again Bohemia didn't have Dean Hall and his merry etc on their side when they wrote the first Arma, and perhaps he will infuse them with youthful vigour. And of course they can simply port over features from the mod, which is still fun to play.

Time will tell. £19.99, that's $32. The problem is that although Bohemia now has a tonne of cash from strong sales of the standalone, all the hardcore fans have now bought the game; the company has milked those udders dry already, what will happen a year from now when they need more funds? Perhaps they could have charged a token sum for the Alpha and a discount for long-term players when version one is launched. But I'm digressing here.

The standalone inventory screen is much less cartoony than the mod's, and now you can store equipment in your trousers.
For this an other screenshots I'm running the game with modest graphical settings - the game has steep system requirements but, more than that, if you turn the graphics down there are fewer visual distractions, and you can see the enemy better.

The new light effects are rather nice.

The compass is now a physical object rather than an icon. I'm headed north, to check out the large unfinished chunk of map in the north-west. You can drag items from your inventory into the soft-key selection boxes, and press the corresponding key to whip them out. The two bottles should be separate objects, but the game's handling of this is iffy at the moment.

Unlike OpFlash, DayZ doesn't take place on an island. Instead, it occupies a chunk of an Eastern European country called Chernarus, encompassing 140 square miles of terrain. Dotted with numerous villages and small towns, plus some reservoirs (oddly no rivers), a couple of offshore islands, some mountains, lots of forest. There is an ocean to the east and south, trackless wasteland to the north and west. And it's all one single map. You can run from one end to the other without passing through a loading screen or hitting an invisible barrier.

The north-west of the map has a lot of concrete blocks set into the ground, and a dried-up lake. Not much else. Perhaps there will be buildings here in the future.

You might however die of thirst before you cross the map, or hunger, because your character has to eat and drink. Later in the game you can hunt and cook animals and sterilise pond water, but at the outset your only option is to raid the towns and villages, looking for cans of beans and fizzy pop (real-life brands in the mod, generic ones in the standalone).

Therein lies a problem. The towns are infested with zombies who are upset with the living. Technically they're ordinarily people who have been infected with a virus, World War Z-style, but let's call them zombies. If they see you, they'll run after you; if they catch you, they'll assault you; if they draw blood, you'll bleed to death unless you can bandage yourself. And there's a chance that the zombies might infect you with the plague, in which case you have to wash your wounds, or swallow some antibiotics. In practice, you might as well jump off a tall building - antibiotics are very rare. The zombies can hear you, too, so if you start shooting off your rifle you'll only attract more zombies.

Rah, I'm a monstah! The zombies in the standalone can hurt, but they're not much of a challenge. One whack with an axe kills them. Unlike the mod, their bodies evaporate immediately, so you can't loot them.

I had killed a man. A man who looked just like me.

Worst of all, there are other players. The mod can support several dozen players per server - the standalone is currently restricted to 40 - and they tend to congregate around certain key locations. Amongst the loot are some of the rifles from ArmAII, and as a consequence the game often feels like a less forgiving Call of Duty, with zombies as a minor background threat. One shot to the head or a couple to the chest and your character dies, and there are no save states; you are sent back to the coast and have to start all over again. On the one hand your body remains on the server, so you can in theory re-equip yourself if you can remember where you died, but on the other hand the person that killed you is probably expecting that. Spawn camping can be a problem, but the lack of save states mean that the putative spawn camping sniper has to put himself at risk of being shot by a new player with a Lee Enfield.

This only scratches the surface of the mod. In addition to the above players can mend and drive cars and trucks, and even helicopters. They can plant tents, create fortifications. There's a day-night cycle, although in practice most servers play in daylight only, or a kind of pseudo-night where everything is desaturated but still visible. The infantry weapons are modelled just as realistically as they are in ArmA, to the extent that players can use the mil-dot markings in the rifle scope to aim effectively at distant targets. In a concession to playability the game doesn't model wind. Most of this is temporarily absent from the mod - the cars and vehicles are absent, there are no fortifications, and only a handful of weapons.

After the initial success of the mod, Dean Hall and his small team were given jobs at Bohemia in order to work on the mod and develop a standalone version as well. It's to the credit of Bohemia that they decided to jump on this new development and nurture it rather than ignore it into oblivion. Ironically, DayZ went on to overshadow the launch of Armed Assault III, which would otherwise have been Bohemia's next big thing. It's also a credit to Dean and his merry band of etc that so much game could be produced by so few people.

The standalone introduces breathing, which can be a tactical hindrance

The mod has a vast array of infantry weapons. The standalone slims this right down, in favour of a bolt-action rifle, an assault rifle, a pistol, and a shotgun. You can add components to these weapons - implausibly I've managed to find a modern rifle scope and bipod that attach to a 19th century Mosin-Nagant. The mod had a Lee-Enfield in its place, an odd choice for Eastern Europe.

The scope. I'm not complaining, although it seems to have no more magnification than the in-game "peering" command (you can zoom your vision in a little bit - your player can also lean, crawl, and crouch, but not jump).

Sniping in the mod was great fun, but tricky because the graphics engine had trouble rendering distant foliage, so you were never truly undercover.
In the words of Sun-Tzu, "the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined for defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory."
Follow his advice and your victories will seem easy, and boring, because you won the battle long before you pulled the trigger. But you won.

History will always record that Erwin Rommel was a daring military genius who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat time and again, but who was doomed by a lack of resources, and that Bernard Montgomery was a stodgy old racist who won only because he waited until he had overwhelming force on its side. Montgomery's victories seemed easy, and boring. But he won. Sniping in the mod is going to be a major issue.

In theory DayZ was a survival game. Never mind that the realistically-modelled M16A4 with its ACOG scope and the M40 sniper rifle and the Mk48 Mod 0 machine gun were almost utterly useless against zombies*; the official line was that DayZ wasn't an infantry combat game (with zombies). In practice everybody played it as a combat game, and sales were driven by this. With the standalone the developers seem to have scaled the arsenal back. Time will tell whether they scale it forwards again. On the other hand it's refreshing to run through the countryside without being in constant danger of instant death from a sniper's bullet - the in-game scope has very modest magnification - but on the other, other hand, there is only so much scenery a man can look at before he succumbs to an insatiable bloodlust.

* The game had silenced ammo, which was theoretically much more practical - but what was the point? The zombies spawned endlessly, in the long run you were going to end up with the axe.

DayZ (the mod) was notorious for its oddities, quirks, and bugs, some of which are almost game-breaking. OpFlash was never designed to model indoors combat - most of the buildings were just solid blocks, and only a few had interior spaces - and DayZ feels like that sometimes. The zombies walk through doors as if they weren't there, and they are unable to run indoors, so you can just nip into a house and axe them to death at your leisure. Speaking of axes, the infantry weapons in the game are almost entirely superfluous against the zombies, and so the most useful weapon of all is the axe, which makes for dull gameplay. DayZ has no real goal beyond surviving, there's no scoreboard, and almost no way to "save" your game. You can plant tents, but they're visible for miles around and are quickly looted.

The biggest problem is that the ArmA engine is wide open to scripting hacks, to an unusual extent. Players quickly found they could magic up huge quantities of munitions, or they could teleport across the map, or teleport other players into the air, make things blow up, etc, view the location of other players on the map, the end result being a game that was often very frustrating. After spending half an hour amassing a matchbox and some survival gear, you could die without warning because a hacker had decided to teleport everybody into the air. At the very least, it meant that most players on any given server were kitted out with ghillie camouflage suits, night vision gear, .50 calibre sniper rifles, and enough food and drink to cater for a wedding.

Most of the map appears to have been ported straight across - this floating tree just south-west of Gorka is shown here in the mod (top) and the standalone (bottom, where it seems to be knighting my character).

In theory the standalone should eliminate most cheating, at least of the object spawning / person teleporting variety. Aimbots will presumably still exist, although the game's realistic ballistics will require at least a little bit of maths in order to guarantee a hit at longer range. It remains to be seen how effective the anti-cheating system is. In a game with instant permanent death and realistic bullet damage, aimbots are pretty much game-breaking.

Still, though, the thing I enjoyed most about the mod was the flexibility. With a full server you could play it as a nerdy CoD with zombies. With an almost-empty server it became a tense collect-em-up in which you were free to scout for components of a helicopter, with the constant risk that one of the few other players might spot you. On a totally empty server it became a decent but dull zombie dodge-a-thon. I like to think that a well-finished standalone would be entirely playable solo, with the zombies as a decent challenge as you try to build a base with running water and perhaps fortify a mountaintop. The lack of true role-playing elements (your character has no stats, really) and the large-but-still-learnable map would limit its Second Life / sandboxy-ness in the long run though.

The Standalone
After much speculation the standalone version of DayZ was released on December 16, and sadly no amount of dividing and multiplying the numbers 16 and 12 and and 2013 and 350 (it was the 350th day of the year) can justify a "Half-Life III Confirmed" gag at this point. I spawned in Kamenka, ordinarily a waste of time, but the new map has added a lot of buildings, including a supermarket in Kamenka in which I picked up an axe and a backpack and something to drink. Whereas most of the buildings in the mod were solid blocks, the standalone has lots of explorable houses. On the other hand, there's much less loot, and it's harder to find.

"A particle of FILL IN LATER"

I'll reiterate that the standalone isn't actually finished. It's an "early access alpha", for which you pay £19.99. This includes all future updates of (presumably) what will become DayZ V1. Is it worth paying £19.99 for the game, as it stands? Sales have been brisk but after playing it for a while I'm unconvinced; I assume that once it has been patched a few times, whatever equipment you amass early on will be thrown away and you'll have to start again. If you're new to DayZ I would suggest getting used to the mod first. You'll be absolutely baffled by the standalone otherwise.

Standalone servers are restricted to forty players during the testing phase. As far as I can tell the map is the same size as before, and forty players was plenty beforehand, but with all the new hiding places I suspect that it will seem a deserted place until there are a hundred or so people running around. I'm writing this whilst listening to Pop-Shopping on a loop, by the way.

By default the game runs on a day/night cycle tied to the server's timezone, which had the odd effect of making most of the early players start the game in pitch darkness, because it's dark in the evenings in Europe in winter. You can either increase the brightness and gamma (as per the first screenshot above, a trick often used to play the mod) or use a torch (as below), or switch servers. In its alpha state the game has no real mechanism to prevent you from switching servers, and so if you're about to be gunned down you can simply leave. In theory this is wrong - server hopping is a sin - but this is an alpha, and apparently loot doesn't respawn until the server is restarted, so what are you going to eat, hmm? I have to say that using any light source outdoors is a bad idea, and even indoors you're risking death from a sniper's bullet.

After spawning at Kamenka I headed north, to Zelenogorsk. In the mod I usually try to head north, either up the east coast or in big loop that goes up the west edge of the map and then east along the top. By coincidence this is where long-time players stash their loot. Zelenogorsk is a dull place in the mod, with a supermarket and not much else. In the standalone it has a barracks, where I found an M4 assault carbine and some ammo. And a magazine. The game has a pedantic approach to your inventory. You can't load a magazine-fed weapon until you have a magazine; you can't load a bolt-action rifle until you remove the cartridges from their packaging. If you want to check your bearing you have to put the compass in your hand and hold your hand up in front of your face. What on Earth was Minikillers? Are there any German readers who can answer that?

The small shipwreck from the original has been replaced by a much larger vessel. Which raises the possibility that the players started off as the ship's crew, and were washed ashore after it lost control.

Surprisingly, you can explore the interior without falling through the floor, although it feels buggy.

It has a small quantity of loot - I found a plastic case that holds six objects but only takes up four slots in my inventory. Presumably, if I found several of these cases and stacked them inside each other, I could carry the entire game in my backpack.

After a while I noticed a torch beam in the other barracks (there are two). Another player had warped in and was also gearing up. At the moment there's not much to do in the standalone - no vehicles, no tents, even less of a long-term goal than before - so collecting ammo seems to be the main pursuit. I hid behind some nearby shipping crates and waited until the other chap left the barracks, at which point I fired off eighteen rounds of my thirty-round magazine at him. There was a grunt and he... vanished. Did I kill him? I have no idea. Perhaps he quit; perhaps the bodies of slain players don't stay around.

My subjective impression is that the shooting side of things has been simplified. You seem to hold your gun more steadily than in the mod, and the overall impression is of something closer to CoD than an infantry simulation. You have to hit the space bar to bring your weapon to bear - the same applies to the torch and the compass - and once you do so, you enter "stealth mode", and walk with a more measured pace.

It seemed that my new bovver boots were quieter than my old pair of worn trainers, but I wasn't prepared to test this out objectively in case this pair vanished when I took them out.

The most north-westerly water source is in the middle of a big patch of open ground, potentially a death trap.

No sense hanging about, so I explored the Green Mountain numbers station - nothing doing - and then headed north-west, to check out the curious installation on the map. But there's nothing there, just empty space:

Empty space. I need to find some better place. And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.

The mod desaturates the colour palette if you're hurt, and I remember being hit by a couple of zombies earlier on, so after necking down some food I decided to head back to the well, and then east, skirting north past the north-west airfield. The north-west airfield is one of the major locations of the original game; a collection of military barracks and hangars filled with guns. Some players spend most of their time either running towards or trying to assault the north-west airfield, I generally avoid it. The man I shot earlier had no idea I was there until the bullets started hitting him. And then it was too late. That could so easily have been me.

After refilling my water I decided to head south for a bit, and explore a train yard:

Those garages (the low building to the right) are a great source of loot. The wrecked cars and buses now have open-able doors and bonnets.

A reverse angle - the crane in this shot is the crane in the shot above, and here the garages are just in front of me. When you spawn in the game you spawn standing up, with your weapons holstered, which really needs to be fixed.

Eventually I stumbled on a Mosin-Nagant, which seemed a better deal than my M4. Twenty shots of 7.62mm versus twelve of 5.56. Oddly, despite the general air of verisimilitude, the Mosin takes the wrong calibre (7.62mm NATO) and the packet has the wrong label:

Still, crack on. Head east. My impression is that the lootable buildings from the original game are either empty this time around, or they have already been stripped bare; most of the loot I have found has been in the new building interiors. The engine still doesn't feel solid enough for proper indoors shooting but it's a lot more solid than ArmA.

The shadows can occasionally make you start - you see a figure! And it's you.

Trousers, they're trousers. Available in a range of colours. The game has handcuffs, and in theory you can tie up other players before you kill them. Perhaps you want them standing still so you can off them silently with the axe. The mod only lets you butcher and cook animals - but people are animals too, right? Hint, developers.

Still, proceeding east I found another train yard. Alas, it was mostly empty, except for some rotten fruit. You can eat rotten fruit, but it's no good for you, just like in real life. The original game treated all food as more or less the same, but in the sequel certain foods (cereal, powdered milk) make you thirsty, and there are vitamin pills, so perhaps the game will pay more attention to a balanced diet in the future. Also, despite eating a dozen cans of tuna, two whole boxes of cereal, numerous apples, and having drunk more than ten litres of water, I have yet to go to the toilet.* The game has toilets, but they don't seem functional.

* In the game, I mean.

"There was one girl who had a beautiful voice
and they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans
and when she stopped singing they said 'More, More', and they applauded"

You can now actually get in, or at least make a show of getting in, awkward comma cars. Instead of just teleporting inside them.

And that is where I've got so far. £19.99 is steep for a "game" that isn't finished yet, and so far there's not much to do. The few zombies I have met were no threat, the enemy players few and far between, and it's generally easier to ignore them. Lots of running in darkness, and I can confirm that the experience of running in rainy darkness in DayZ is surprisingly close to reality except faster, because you never fall over. But no more entertaining. So far I haven't broken my leg or died, but that's because I'm very cautious. And lucky, but luck doesn't last. If you're a non-fan of DayZ... but the problem is that if you pay for ArmAII in order to get the mod, you're going to have to pay again to get the standalone. Argh. If you're a non-fan of DayZ I suggest you hold off. You'll be very disappointed unless you don't mind exploring a mostly empty but varied wilderness for several weeks or months until Dean Hall sorts out some gameplay.

If you're a fan, however, and provided Dean and his merry etc can get on top of hackers, DayZ has the makings of a fantastic game. The fact of having so many more buildings to explore, and smarter inventory system, a more back-to-basics approach to the weapons, and all the OCD customisation you can do to your outfit feel like a great foundation. Perhaps you could treat yourself to the game if you have a birthday coming up, or if there was some kind of anniversary or special occasion or something.

You will find my body somewhere between here and the eastern sea. EDIT: In the end it was a bug that killed me. I simply logged in one day and found myself right back at the coast. Now that's the DayZ I remember.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Asus Transformer TF101: 'til All Are One

Flantier! Carlotta! Shown here with an external drive plugged into one of the USB sockets, just visible in the bottom left - try doing *that* with an iPad. In the background, an original Asus Eee looks on.

Today we're going to have a look at the original Asus Transformer, which was launched back in 2011. I remember being tempted by the Transformer when it was new, and now that they're available cheaply on eBay I decided to try one out. Depreciation has taken a heavy toll on the TF101's used value, but although it has some quirks it is still surprisingly capable.

That photo has nothing to do with the Asus Transformer, it's just that I can only photograph a tablet so many times before it gets boring. Purely as a tablet the TF101 is a generic landfill Android device; what sets it apart is the keyboard dock, which turns it - transforms it, like one of the Transformer toys - into a tiny quasi-laptop. Lots of tablets have keyboard docks, but the Transformer's dock is surprisingly functional. It has a second battery, an SD card slot and, unusually, USB ports.

Autechre's Gantz Graf was the point where casual Autechre fans gave up on the band, but I think it's fab - a bold, powerful evolving sonic sculpture that should have been number one across the world. I wrote this article whilst listening to it on a loop.

Astronauts of the ISS go on a spacewalk to fix the station's cooling system

The keyboard dock was an optional extra. You could buy the TF101 on its own, but nobody bothered because the keyboard was the main event. Technically the TF101 was called the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101, linking it to the older Eee netbook line, although at the time everybody just called it the Asus Transformer. 2011 isn't very long ago, but the modern tablet market was still fairly new and the TF101 was something of an experiment. Tablets themselves were experiments.

After all, in the words of Donovan Colbert, who had "over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry", writing in an article entitled Why the iPad will fail to win significant market share:
    "I think that the iPad will eventually be regarded much like Apple TV – a product that Jobs should have left on the drawing boards."
I have to wonder why "over 16 years", and not "two decades". Bear in mind that Donovan Colbert was paid money for that article. You're getting this one that you're reading now for free. And it's better-written, wittier, generally more perceptive. Perceptor was a G1 Autobot that transformed into a giant microscope with caterpillar tracks. Confusingly, Tracks - another Autobot - had wheels, not tracks.

Of course, the iPad and tablets in general went on to become very popular. Asus broadened the Transformer range by adding rubsigns and then a bunch of models that didn't even transform and as I write these words the company is on its fifth generation of tablets, with the TF101 being followed by the TF201, the TF300, the TF701, and the TF103C in that order. There's also a Windows-based "transformer book" called the T100, which would have been sold as an Ultrabook a couple of years ago but is now a budget model. The Transformers were originally aimed at the higher end of the market but the price has come down over time.

Android 4.2.2

OSMAnd, which uses OpenStreetMap data. I wonder how many people have slid through St Giles' Passage.

The TF101's immediate successor, the TF201, was also called the Transformer Prime, but this aroused the ire of Hasbro, who argued that it was too close to Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots. The eventual lawsuit was unsuccessful but Asus decided to abandon the Prime name nonetheless. And thus the next Transformer tablet was called the Transformer Ultra Magnus instead. No, I'm joking. Optimus Prime was actually replaced by Hot Rod, not Ultra Magnus.

Seriously, what was the deal with Ultra Magnus? The toy was originally designed for the pre-Transformers Diaclone range. It was simply a variation of Optimus Prime with some plastic bits added on to make him look bigger and more imposing. Hasbro decided to import this creation into the Transformers "universe" as a separate character, which was problematic, because Optimus was supposed to be the leader of the Autobots. It would make no sense for him to command a chap who was bigger than him.

And so Ultra Magnus was given a crippling inferiority complex, and as a consequence his character was a kind of Emo version of Prime, plagued by self-doubt. Thus he became a non-entity in the comics and cartoon continuity. He was too special to be used as a generic character, but not special enough to do anything significant. In the original movie he was given a shot at leadership, with disastrous consequences, and was immediately replaced by a brand-new character called Hot Rod, one of the few Transformers who already had a porn name.

I've always been fascinated with the process whereby the generic, unloved Diaclone toys of 1982 became one of the most popular toy ranges of 1984, and eventually one of the most lucrative toy franchises of all time. The toys were much the same, with slightly different colour schemes and decals. The thing that separates them is that the Transformers had meaning, because there was an invented backstory about an ancient war in space for the planet Cybertron, with a group of Autobots and Decepticons trapped on Earth, awoken in the present day to renew their conflict.

People often criticise highbrow art for being meaningless unless the audience absorbs reams of theory beforehand. "Works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence", in the words of Adolf Hitler. The Transformers toy franchise is a good example of a work of popular art that is inherently meaningless. Without the backstory - without the theory - the Transformers toys are just anonymous plastic robots. The same goes for Star Wars figures and vehicles. If the Star Wars toys had been invented by Mattel in 1977 (as Super Space Warriors or something), they would probably have bombed, just as Diaclone bombed. They would have been fundamentally unsatisfying unless you knew that your spaceship was called the Millenium Falcon, and it had been flown by a character called Han Solo.

Conversely some things are so impressive that it doesn't matter what they were made for. "Gantz Graf", the Autechre song in the link above, is pure spectacle, and I suspect any attempt at explanation would lessen it. The paintings of H R Giger are all surface, but they are overwhelmingly atmospheric surface. The odd thing is that the Diaclone toys were very impressive designs (the jets were better toy jets than actual toy jets, Megatron was a better toy pistol than actual toy pistols), and yet they had so little impact on the market that they were utterly forgotten just a couple of years later. And e.g. the successful Cabbage Patch Dolls had almost no backstory either. What can we learn from this about marketing a toy franchise? Not a great deal.

From top to bottom, an original Asus Eee (2007), a TF101 with its dock (2011), and an Asus 1005HA netbook (2010). The TF101 doesn't have ethernet or VGA. With the dock, the TF101 is surprisingly heavy - 1.2kg, which is almost the same as my ThinkPad X61.

At launch the TF101 came with Android three point something, and Asus was gracious enough to use a fairly stock installation without the masses of cruft that Windows laptops tend to have. The most recent official update took it to Android 4.0.3, and I've since upgraded mine to version 4.2.2 with an unofficial upgrade by a chap called Katkiss. Whose logo is quite obviously a dog. Is it a Hunger Games reference? Is that what the kids like nowadays? Android version numbers and names are alien to me. Suffice it to say that 4.2.2 feels a bit faster than 4.0.3 and it works, so why not? EDIT: I eventually installed Android 4.4.2, which is faster still, impressive given that the Transformer is three years old, and only has 1gb of memory and a dual-core CPU.

Dumb Ways to Die - so many dumb ways to die

Hardware-wise the TF101 runs on an a NVidia Tegra 2, which is essentially a dual-core ARM Cortex A9. This is the same processor used in the iPad 2, although performance-wise the iPad had a superior graphics chip. It's interesting to compare the TF101 with an old-school X86 tablet PC. Android tablets are designed to run forever on batteries without chucking out a lot of heat, and so they tend to have very weak CPUs by PC standards. In contrast PC laptops have fans and are only expected to run for five-six hours or so, and some of them are meant to be powerful enough to replace desktops. But tablets make up for the performance gap by pushing a lot of work onto the graphics hardware, and of course they all have SSDs, and the OS and applications are optimised for the limited resources of the tablet platform.

It's hard to compare directly, but Super Pi calculates Pi to two million digits in 1m 35s on my 2.1ghz Pentium M-powered HP TC4200 (2005), versus 1m 15s on the 1.0ghz TF101 (2011). Curiously the other Android version of SuperPi (without a space in the name) takes over eight minutes. The 2ghz Core II Duo in my ThinkPad X61 takes 53 seconds, so my hunch is that, CPU-wise, the TF101's dual-core Tegra 2 is on a par with one of the lesser early Core Duo CPUs from 2006, perhaps one of the 1.2ghz models. A rooted TF101 overclocks easily to 1.4ghz, which brings the score down to 1m 11s. Four whole seconds faster.

But there are far too many qualifications and caveats to draw a firm conclusion from this. Suffice it to say that Adobe won't be porting Premiere to the Android platform any time soon. But in an age of cloud computing, is there still a need for a high-powered client? Why not upload the video footage straight from the camera to a cloud service, and perform all the editing using the cloud's hardware? YouTube already has limited editing facilities, why not expand that model into a complete, cloud-orientated version of Premiere? You could use the tablet as a dumb terminal. You subscribe to the software, and if you want the exclusive use of a Cray XK7 you pay extra.

Against a 2ghz Core II Duo HP TC4400 (2007) the TF101 is outclassed in terms of performance, and the 4:3 aspect ratio of the TC4400 makes up for the 1024x768 resolution. But the TC4400 is larger, more awkward, weighs 1.5kg more than the TF101, pumps out heat, and doesn't run as long, so as a mobile device the TF101 beats it.

In practice I find the TF101 more sluggish than my old ThinkPad X61, and Android's oddities irritate me - simple stuff like cutting and pasting blocks of text, copying data between multiple applications, right-clicking etc aren't really Android's forte. Back in 2011 the keyboard dock raised the possibility that it could be used as a mobile productivity device - cue lots of articles about the impending death of the PC as a business platform - but my experience with Google Docs has been frustrating and the keyboard and touchpad feel laggy, albeit less so with 4.4.2. Besides, as a writer I need a huge screen with dozens of tabs open plus Photoshop, and in that respect the TF101 doesn't work as a creative platform.

The TF101 has a 10", 1280x800 screen, almost exactly the same size as the 1024x600 unit in an 1005HA netbook, glossy instead of matte:

In practice the resolution is fine in a 10" tablet, although in my opinion Apple's decision to go with a 4:3 aspect ratio is a better idea - the TF101 is too thin in portrait orientation. Build quality is decent. The bezel around the edge creaks a little but seems solid enough, and it gives your fingers something to grip. The hinge that connects the tablet to the dock is robust - it tilts back and forth, and the machine is smart enough to go into standby when you close it.

The TF101 was available with 16gb or 32gb of internal storage, with the 16gb option less of a limitation than it seems on account of the built-in MicroSD card slot and general emphasis on cloud storage. Battery life is roughly six hours with the wifi on. The screen tends to accumulate fingerprints and is very reflective, which is awkward for toilet surfing or porn; if the screen goes dark you suddenly find yourself staring at a clear reflection of your own face mid-poop/orgasm (it's hard to tell the difference). I have since applied a matte cover.

The dock is the thing, though. On the negative side, it makes the TF101 weigh almost as much as a small laptop, and it's surprisingly bulky. The touchpad doesn't add very much to the experience, as neither the OS nor most Android applications make use of it. You can't click-and-drag to select text, for example, and right-click generally does nothing. The keyboard is a decent chicklet-style affair that also feels a bit laggy, and has a lot of special keys that I will never use. Plus one point for including a caps lock light.

The dock adds a number of features that are still quite rare in mainstream Android tablets today. There's a full-sized SD card slot, so if you're on the move you can easily upload your photos to your favourite cloud storage service (assuming your camera uses SD cards) without having to bring a separate card reader. There are also two full-sized USB ports, which work fine with the USB sticks and external drives I have plugged into them, not so well with the card reader I tried, not at all with my Canon 5D MkII, but on the other hand I haven't tried very hard to get this working. In the photo at the top of the page I'm using a 1tb Western Digital Elements drive. If you're going abroad, you could in theory take this setup in your luggage for when you're in the hotel and you want to watch masses of hi-def porn. You could keep the drive and keyboard in the hotel, and detach the tablet for long train journeys.

It's a sign of how rapidly the technological world is evolving that I struggle to come up with reasons to store lots of content locally. I mean, yes, some parts of the world don't have wifi. But why go there? How can you Twitter your location if there's no internet? If you can't Twitter your location, what's the point of going there? The TF101 has a GPS chip but in my experience it was rubbish at getting a lock, so as a moving map it's not ideal.

The dock has a second battery. This extends the total battery life to twelve hours or so. It acts as a charging unit for the tablet, so that the tablet is always fully charged. The tablet can also be charged from your PC using a USB 3 cable, but it's apparently a very slow trickle charge that only works when the tablet is off. The batteries are fixed in place and you're not supposed to swap them yourself. Replacements are available on eBay, and both the tablet and the dock can be dismantled, although the tablet requires a heat knife and probably won't look very pretty once you put it back together again. The dock looks relatively simple to take apart but such is the way of things I suspect that the TF101 will quickly become an uneconomical repair.

So, the Asus Transformer. I haven't yet had a chance to take it on holiday. The experience of using an Android tablet is initially jarring - where are my files stored? why does nothing have a "quit" button? where's the taskbar? etc - but I'm still young enough to adapt to new things. The built-in GPS is more or less useless unless you're standing still outdoors. As a mobile productivity unit it's slower and more awkward than a proper laptop.

I bought one because I was curious to see what tablets were like, but unwilling to spend a huge amount of money on an iPad, because I'm still a PC person at heart. I almost opted for a Barnes and Noble Nook HD+ - which has a 1920x1080 screen - but it's not apparent whether Barnes and Noble will continue to make and support them. The Amazon Kindle Fire is currently being replaced with a newer and more expensive model. Most of the other large tablets have a very simple keyboard dock that adds keys but not much else; the Transformer's USB ports, SD slot, and second battery were the killer features that tipped my hand.

Tablets in General
The tablet market is in a state of rapid evolution, and 2011 was a long time ago. When the TF101 was new, manufacturers seemed to believe that they could sell their tablets at the same price level as the iPad without adding any extra features because, as far as they knew/wished, tablets were going to be expensive.

HP demonstrated this to be incorrect in spectacular fashion with the TouchPad. It was launched in July 2011 at an iPad-matching $599 for the 32gb model and discontinued only six weeks later, because nobody bought it. To be fair, it also used a proprietary OS, WebOS, which had very few applications. The company slashed the price to $149 in order to clear out their inventory, and as a result of this the TouchPad became the best-selling non-Apple tablet of 2011. Microsoft aimed for the high price bracket a year later with the Surface RT, which was also $599 (with a keyboard thrown in). The Gen One RT was a notorious disaster that eventually lost Microsoft almost a billion dollars. Microsoft is currently trying to sell the Surface 2, which is much the same but slightly cheaper. Time will tell if it is any more successful.

As I write these words the market has stratified into Apple at the high end, with a few other players in the +£300 market, not many more in the +£200 market, and a kind of bloodstained feeding frenzy in the sub-£200 sector. The budget end resembles the pre-Video Game Crash of 1983 period, when every company even tangentially involved in selling video games or televisions tried to crack the video games market. This culminated in games such as Chase the Chuck Wagon, a promotional tie-in for the Atari 2600 devised by a pet food company, and hardware such as the Mattel Aquarius (with its library of 21(!) games). This Christmas Aldi has a tablet. Argos has a tablet, and so does Tesco. Tesco! And there are scads of generic tablets from the Far East, which like Diaclone toys are probably perfectly fine, but they don't mean anything and some buyers are put off by this. I was put off by it. I want my tablet to mean something. The iPad is the most meaningful tablet of all - shops sell iPad covers, there are iPad screen wipes and screen protectors, iPad stands, leather iPad cases, just as there had once been a market for replacement ZX81 keyboards or mobile phone covers - but the Transformer has a certain amount of meaning as well. It won't impress people at a party and like every non-iPad tablet it's a sign that you can't afford an iPad, but dammit I just want to surf the internet with something that I can carry in one hand.

How long before a major newspaper releases its own tablet, eh? Amazon's Kindle Fire is essentially a shopping portal for Amazon's website, and should really be given away for free; imagine a Times-branded tablet that comes with a subscription to the newspaper. The Guardian would in theory be a natural fit, but they're wedded to Apple, and it would be awkward if The Guardian was to launch an Android tablet. Perhaps The Sun could release a tablet optimised for breasts, I dunno. The end.

EDIT: A year later, and I finally took my TF101 on holiday. It's fascinating how rapidly tablets have become a pervasive part of our lives. I used an App to download my boarding pass, so I didn't have to print anything out; I booked the hotel with another App, I used a third App to read books, a fourth to listen to music (whilst reading books). Essentially, the dreams of wild-eyed technological visionaries from thirty years ago have come true, like a dam bursting after thirty years of rain. Except that instead of sweeping everything before it in a torrent of futurism, the water just flows around us, because there is a time for everything and this is a time for tablets.