La Science des Rêves

Giant hands

aka: The Science of Sleep. Director: Michel Gondry. Writer: Michel Gondry. Starring: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Internet Movie Database

Close your eyes. Open your heart.

I desperately wanted to like this, but simply couldn't. Told from the perspective of Stéphane, including his dreams and imagination. The consequent home-made surrealism was amusing for the first half hour, but felt overused and pointless by the end. As the movie went on, Stéphane's actions could only really be explained by filling them under the general heading of 'having trouble interfacing with reality' - any more granular or subtle motives were unclear to me. I feel mean saying this, because there were endearingly whimsical touches throughout, but if there was a point, I missed it.

Rating: 4/10. Barmy.

Music 101

Treble clef

I've been riding high on the sheer joy that is Guitar Hero II (PS2) recently. Now that Psychobilly Freakout is the only remaining song for which a five-star review performance is still eluding me, before unleashing the masochistically feverish hard difficulty setting at least, it's time for me to get my ass into gear and learn to play a real musical instrument.

Dithering between piano / keyboard and acoustic / electric guitar, I've decided to take a few week's lessons in each, to see which initially suits me best. Accordingly (Speaking of which, I also find the accordion strangely compelling), I had my first ever piano lesson this weekend.

Mr Marios Takoushis

My tutor, Marios, an amiable Greek professional musician with appropriately mad hair, seems like a brilliant choice thus far: I'm sure we'll get along famously, with only the minimum amount of absolutely necessary knuckle-rapping.

Update 14:35: Just remembered: One of the first puzzling things I discovered is that notes on the bass clef stave are offset from the notes on the treble clef stave by a non-integer number of octaves. Hence, a note which would represent 'C' on a treble clef stave is actually an 'E' when drawn on a bass clef stave. Presumably there's a reason for this, but I've yet to hear an explanation that sounds like anything other than a wart on the notation. Can any of my multitudinous readers enlighten me?

Sunshine

Director: Danny Boyle. Writer: Alex Garland. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh. 2007.

Internet Movie Database Dark days are coming.

I saw this weeks ago but never got around to a write-up, from which you might guess it was a little disappointing. Which is a tragedy, because the reason it was disappointing is that it has so much potential. It strives to do the right thing, exploring the psychological extremes felt by a crew of eight on a year-long mission to the Sun, the fate of the world on their shoulders. Aspiring to emulate Kubrick, both thematically and visually, it alludes to humankind's search for God, the character of Searle being driven over weeks to increase his exposure to the unfiltered ravages of the sun, until, when other characters are fried to a crisp outside the ship, he grabs the comm, frantically asking "Kaneda, what do you see? What do you see?"

But the allusions are too tenuous, too infrequent, and never followed up on. The inspirations drawn from 2001 and from 2002's Solaris shine brightly, but Sunshine doesn't come close to emerging from their shadow.

When things are brought to a head in the final third of the movie, it all descends into plain old slasher flick territory, utterly wasting the careful set-up of the earlier scenes. There's an interesting use of cinematographic blur and flicker, which retain the tension by never clearly showing what the remaining crew are up against, and also to my reading, serving as a palpable visible expression of the furious, searing madness that exudes from an individual who has spent far too much time in the sun.

Once all that is done, the final, final scene contains some redemption. But it's too little too late. I don't remember the last time I saw so many beautiful scenes, so terribly wasted.

Rating 5/10.

Update: I wish I could have put it as eloquently as this guy did.

Religion, at last.

Rohan and I finally understood the movie The Fountain last night. I say finally - Rohan has only ever seen the first and last 15 minutes (oh, how apt!) It's fair to say it blew our minds.

SPOILERS. Big time.

foun-tain noun.

  1. A spring or source of water; the source or head of a stream.
  2. The source or origin of anything. The beginning. Genesis.

She finally taught him that they get reborn. That's why she wasn't afraid of dying any more. That's why the two of them meet over and over through history. That's why he is so tearfully happy to realise he is about to die. Because death is their road to immortality. To be reborn. To live forever.

This is how the tree of life grants immortality - by allowing them to realise this. Nothing has changed, other than their own knowledge.

The conclusion of his journey, to reach the nebula with the tree, is just in time for the end of the universe, which then immediately leaps back into being again, a new Creation, in the fires of which, the First Father is sacrificed on the tree of life, which blossoms anew. The circle is completed. The ring, which was lost, is now found.

She tries to tell him, to help him fulfil his destiny, but he has to figure it out for himself, at the proper time. He has to die in the heart of the nebula, that his ashes might seed the tree of life into blossoming anew in the fires of a new creation.

| "What do you think about that?" She asks him. | "About what?" | "About death as a creative act."

Izzy and Tom will be reborn in this new universe, too, many times down the centuries of history. They will live an infinite number of lives together. Forever. So long as he finds his way to the end of all things, to renew the cycle.

| "Finish it." She told him. | "I'm trying. I don't know how." He replies. | "You do. You will."

He is Adam, who sustained his unnaturally extended life to the year 2500 by subsisting on of the tree of life. She is his Eve, who partook of the tree of knowledge at the beginning. The trees are literally the self same plant.

This is why the same scenes happen over and over. Until, in one of the interminable infinity of cascading universes, something different happens. Tommy changes his mind. It's a bona fide miracle. He exercises his free will, does something differently this time around - He bails out of work, to go walk with Izzy in the first snow. He has learned that he can't save her. That he cannot, must not try to save her. For only in death do they find rebirth, and the immortality she has promised him.

The rational, male left-brained mind can only comprehend so much. It is limited to knowledge within the domain of individual lives' observable horizons. Each of these lives is punctuated by death, which is to lose all knowledge, all memories. Delineated by such singularities, the rational mind can never encompass the whole picture. To understand more, one needs to go beyond what can be known. One must believe in the things beyond the singularity, things that can never be known. You must have faith.

I am religious, and there is no God.

Update 30/04/2007: I suppose that the climactic event at the nebula doesn't have to represent the end / creation of whole universes. It could merely (!) represent the star at the core of the nebula collapsing beyond the Chandrasekhar limit, and undergoing spontaneous nova as a result. The corresponding storyline interpretation being that, rather than spawning new iterations of whole universes, Adam is instead seeding life in the formation of new solar systems, and so spreading life across the galaxy. My Conquistador, she calls him.

Update 05/05/2007: added the dictionary definition at the head of the page, judiciously snipped from dictionary.com and from the corresponding entry on thesaurus.com, and couldn't resist various wording improvements.

Update 2018: The director has stated unambiguously that the above is all wrong.

Children of Men

Children of Men]

Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Writer: Alfonso Cuarón, et al. Starring: Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore. 2006. Based on a novel by P.D. James.

Internet Movie Database No children. No future. No hope.

]

A dystopian near-future Britain depicted with a realism that is both heartbreaking and horrifying, and directed with a relentless yet unobtrusive kinematic intensity. The human race has been infertile for the last eighteen years. Society has lost all hope for the future, and is tearing itself apart. The island of Great Britain presents a last, desperate bastion of civilisation, turning fascist in a failing effort to retain control. Militarised police line London's grimy streets, while animated Orwellian public information displays warn that it is a criminal offence to aid the flood of illegal refugees arriving from mainland Europe.

]

The cast are incredible all round, particularly Clive Owen's tired and reluctant hero, a powerfully understated performance that captivates for every second of the movie. Michael Caine's aging hippy, which he based on John Lennon, is an absolute scene-stealing delight.

But it's the cinematography that is the real star, gripping and compelling throughout, every scene lent a terrible beauty. Several minutes-long handheld camera shots demonstrate fearsome logistical preparations behind the camera, providing some battle scenes that are as intense, immersive and terrifying as those from Saving Private Ryan, without needing the gore.

Rating: 9/10. A stunning film, compelling and emotionally harrowing, only falling short of a magic '10' by virtue of lacking a real life-changing message.

Mocks Aren't (Just) Stubs

My exposure to test-driven software development at Resolver Systems has resulted in a tremendous enthusiasm for the idea. Doubtless a significant proportion of my zeal stems from my own over-compensation for arriving late to this particular party, but nevertheless, I truly believe that it's the most significant evolution the craft of software engineering has had in decades. For thirty years we've had good reason to believe Brooks' assertion that there will be no silver bullet, and now I can't shake the feeling that this is the closest thing to it that we'll ever have any right to expect.

After hearing suggestions from Andrzej on improving our use of mock objects in our unit tests, I did a little reading around the ideas he mentioned. One of the best essays I found was Martin Fowler's piece, entitled mock objects aren't stubs.

Mock classes used in unit tests as stubs.Class UnderTest, shown on the left in use by release software, and on the right in a test environment, using stubbed out mock helper classes.

Clearly, the idea of a generic mock object class isn't a brand-new one, and Martin's essay describes several such utilities that have been around for various lengths of time, but it is something I hadn't really thought about until this week. We do use mock objects in our tests at Resolver, in the sense of stub classes. When our class-under-test calls methods on other 'adjacent' classes, then the test will first substitute some mock object, often defined on the spot, to replace the adjacent class. This decoupling of the class-under-test from other adjacent classes keeps the tests simple and orthogonal.

If these mock objects had no methods on them, then the class under test would barf when it tried to call methods on the mock. So we add empty stub methods on the mock, to mimic the method names present on the adjacent class it replaces.

This conventional kind of test works well. State changes within the object-under-test can easily be asserted. Also, state changes to other, mocked objects cannot be directly tested, since the simple stub mocks described above maintain no internal state. In a way, this is fortunate, since such state changes to adjacent objects should not be tested, or at least not by the test under discussion. Those state changes should be implemented by method calls on the adjacent objects, and tested in the adjacent object's own unit test instead.

However, this only emphasises how important it is that, as well as our own state changes, we should also be testing the behaviour of our object-under-test by asserting that it makes the correct method calls to adjacent objects. Not all method calls should be tested though - they can be split into two categories:

  1. Method calls made to calculate state changes in the current object-under-test.
  2. Method calls made to inform other objects that they need to update their own internal state.

Method calls belonging to the second category need to be explicitly tested for. At Resolver we often implement such tests using a 'Listener' test pattern, which can be used to assert that a given method on an adjacent object was called with the correct arguments. Martin's essay describes a generic mock object class that can be instructed to assert that particular methods on it were called with particular parameters, and this seems like a convenient pattern, particularly the methods which create appropriately named stub methods on the mock object based upon a given class. We could, I think, use this idea at Resolver in places, if only to cut down on the manual creation of stubbed-out mock classes throughout our test code.

However, the method of testing-by-behaviour that Martin describes does not seem to always be applicable. The first of the two categories of method calls above can and should be tested for by looking soley at the resultant state changes in the object-under-test. It is these state changes which are important, not the methods used to effect them. Asserting that various helper classes were used to make an internal state change only makes the test needlessly brittle to alternative implementations that achieve the same result.

Minerva: Metastasis

Title screen]

by Adam Foster, 2006.

PC, Mod of Half-Life 2

So the digital ink is barely dry on my assertions that videogames have problems telling a story, when what should fall into my lap but one of those rare and immaculate counter-examples to shut me right up. Minerva: Metastatis is a bedroom-coded Half-Life 2 (HL2) mod that develops a storyline set within the HL2 universe, a new thread in the tale of the alien Combine's invasion of Earth. It has been three years in the making, and it's bloody brilliant.

The baseline HL2 gameplay is not changed one iota. Metastasis eschews the normal stock-in-trade of the mod scene, introducing no new enemies, no new weapons, no new assets such as bitmaps or sound effects. Instead, it envelops the player in an enthralling atmospheric experience, with a compelling backstory and superb player motivation, using a sublime combination of architecture, geometric composition, intensely creative injected textual fragments and well-considered use of music. This is backed up by the superbly crafted accompanying website, that does its best to misinform and manipulate, drawing upon the best of various alternate reality game influences.

Shoreline

The game opens with your character dumped unceremoniously out of a helicopter by forces unknown, onto a beach under hostile fire. Running for cover is the only option. Once out of immediate danger, your plight is revealed in stages by a series of messages squirted onto your protective suit's HUD by some agency identifying themselves as Minerva, as in the Roman Goddess of crafts and wisdom, a.k.a, as Stephenson would have it, the Goddess of technology. Minerva's communications are enigmatic and aloof. You are being used as her sentient reconnaissance tool, your experiences relayed back to her remote location, that she might investigate a small island, and its role in the Combine's occupation.

Down the rabbit hole

The island plays host to the usual menagerie of HL2 critters, and visible at its centre is a mysterious plasma discharge, which Minerva prompts you to investigate. Clambering down, underground, you discover the crumbling remains of old WWII fortifications, now housing the twisted, unearthly technology of the Combine's invading forces. From there on, things only get stranger and larger by degrees, until the moment when even Minerva's cool begins to break, and you are left feeling very much like an ant in a nuclear power station, with little option but to continue exploring until the exterminators show up.

It's short and sweet - I played through the first and second parts in a single night. But it's managed with such finesse, extending the backstory of HL2 in bold new directions, building upon what was indubitably the greatest PC game of 2005, possibly of all time, with such verve and imagination that I have to agree with a Metastasis forum posting: It might just be (whisper it) better than the source.

Rating: 10/10. Bring on the third and final instalment, due later this month...

Onegin vs New Super Mario Bros

|---------------------------------------------------------------------:| |:--------------------------------------------------------------------: | | | | Onegin | |New Super Mario Brothers | Company: The Royal Ballet.| |Developer: Nintendo | Music: Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky. | |Format: Nintendo DS | Choreography & libretto: John Cranko | |Released: 2006

Introduction

Last week was full of great artistic experiences, but none so sublime as these two masterpieces, which I was lucky enough to witness and complete, respectively, in the last few days. For reasons that I'm sure need no explanation, I've opted to review them side-by-side in a single post.\

History

Pushkin's original novel, seen here in the English translation.

The story of Onegin derives from a Russian novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin written by Aleksandr Pushkin over the period from 1823 to 1837. It was considered a classic of Russian literature, well-loved enough to be quoted from memory by most Russians. Forty years later, Tchaikovsky and Konstantin Shilovsky created the music and libretto respectively for an operatic version of the same tale. This opera was then choreographed as a ballet by Cranko in 1965, and it is Stolze's 2007 arrangement of this that is now playing at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden.

Super Mario Bros. on the NES

New Super Mario Bros, similarly, represents the culmination of a venerated franchise. The character of Mario first appeared as a nameless 16x16 pixel carpenter in the vintage arcade hit Donkey Kong (1981), and was then retooled as a plumber and christened for Mario Bros. (1983). The core gameplay mechanics of the Mushroom Kingdom were not formulated until Super Mario Bros. (1985), but have formed backbone to the series ever since. Mario has adapted nimbly to several new generations of home consoles and handhelds, but the most significant technical evolution came with Super Mario 64 (1996), which made a superlative triumph out of the difficult transition to 3D, one that continues to stymie many of his contemporaries even to this day. Meanwhile, Mario continues to form the iconic mainstay character in what is generally recognised as the most successful, and certainly the most influential, videogame series of all time.

Form

Flawlessly timed triple jumps result in extra height.

Like so many other DS outings, New Super Mario Bros. is very much a return to form for the champion platformer. It makes solid, competent use of the DS's dual screens and touch-sensitive technology, and brings together the highlights of its distinguished lineage: peerless standards of level design; an endearing levity; crisp, unambiguous graphics; a roster of nostalgically well-known characters with their various abilities and affiliations, and of course the pixel-perfect precision of control that is the very embodiment of Mario. On top of the traditional 2D Mario mechanics, Nintendo have applied their usual expertise, seamlessly incorporating moves from Super Mario 64 et al, enriching and polishing the control scheme, while never complicating it. Wall-jumps, a ground-pound, and a triple-jump, complete with a couple of cheerily superficial somersaults. Never has a controller been so unintimidatingly overloaded with kinetic potential - latent at at first, but blossoming by the third act, when Tatiana, now grown into a charming and sophisticated woman, introduces her husband, Prince Gremin.

Narrative

Both works have in common the attempt to convey a narrative without the aid of verbiage, with significant difficulties encountered in each case.

Dumb, as in mime.

Ballet suffers from an inexpressiveness in this regard, insomuch as the tools at the dancer's disposal are not capable of depicting much in the way of nuanced or fine-grained detail outside of particular, well-trodden areas. Characters may meet, part, or die, and express all manner of elation or sorrow as they go about it, but there are only a limited number of stories that can be told from such components. It is difficult to imagine, say, a political thriller, or even something as familiar and staid as a murder mystery being told without resorting to Spandau ballet. Because of this, the medium as a whole seems to have become something of a creative cul-de-sac, preoccupied with retelling the same formulaic stories over and over again - and even these are considered to be in need of supplementing with a written synopsis in the program.

Disrupting the narrative direction.

Similarly, videogames revolve around the participation of the player, who thus has the means to disrupt any narrative direction or pacing anticipated by the game designer. Whatever story can be told, must perforce be introduced either by the forced insertion of jarringly ungamelike exposition, during which the player is frustratingly robbed of any real input, or else must be told using the limited demonstrative repertoire of in-game action. New Super Mario Bros. sidesteps these difficulties by eschewing all but the most perfunctory storyline, aside from a grown-up nod to the sordid realities behind Bowser's recurrent princess kidnapping, hinted at by Bowser Jr. labouring under the impression than Princess Peach may be his mother.

Overall Impressions

Despite their weaknesses, each of these works represents a good, solid entry in representing the best that the mainstream of their respective fields have to offer. Two marvellous, vigorous and thoroughly enjoyable outings.

Onegin Rating 8/10. An education.

New Super Mario Bros. Rating: 9/10. A triumph.

The Deluded Ramblings of a Rather Odd Person

Hello everybody - I think you are all lovely. Would you like to come for tea? Great. See you tonight. I have some gorgeous videos of dog-on-dog hot action, we could watch them together whilst wearing fluffy jumpers. I have the worlds finest collection of stripy fluffy jumpers. They are as hot-as-a-hot-pink-thing-would-be-if-it-was really-hot-and-pink.

Hmmm... all this talk of hot and pink things reminds me of a dream I had last night. Don't you love talking about dreams. The only corollary is how much I loathe listening to other people talk about their dreams. Anyhoo, back to the subject. Anyhoo is an odd word. I'm sure I was watching some obscure TV pre-processed-almost-pre-digested program of yester-year the other day when I heard people using it. What degradations we force upon our faithful mistress the English language. (And the subject of degradation neatly reminds me of the dream which I am now too distracted to talk about.)

Language is a great thing. That of course is obvious, but mere hyperbole and superlatives are insufficient to express the magnitude of the underlying awesomeness. That of course is midly ironic, which is utterly lost on me, but there we go. Written language is almost more stupefying. Scratchings and scribblings that convey meaning, which propels unbidden into the mind upon the merest glance, and transcends mundane experience to transport the imagination. How did this state of affairs ever come into being ?

To explore this extraordinary situation we need to devolve, literally of course - but also literarily, to component components. Tangentially I would say this is a bad idea, but parenthetically I would *love* to watch you try.

Anyway (is this a sentence?). To those of you who have endured to the ends, I am deeply sorry.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the yada yada

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, 2005. On Amazon.co.uk.

It was a bit of a phenomenon when it first came out, and I'm well known for my curmudgeonly resistance to popular phenomena, so forgive me for being so late to the party. I reached a point, sitting on a train carriage surrounded by no less than twenty-six commuters all obliviously reading the same book, where my resistance snapped and I simply had to buy a copy and join them.

Bit of a let-down, though. Not so much the wisdom of crowds, more like the lowest common denominator. There are cool ideas, here and there, which had me chuckling with glee, but these are few and far between, padded out monstrously, repeated almost verbatim in the introduction and then in the main text and then a third time in the 'bonus' sections tacked on to this revised edition. By the end I was sick of hearing about them. Roll it all up in the sort of rhetoric that feels the need to patiently explain that 'correlation is not causation!', and then illustrate it with pages of examples, and you'll see why I quickly lost patience.

Rating: 4/10. Would have been great had it been 1/4 the length.