NCAA finally picks a tournament right

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Mar 312008
Well, my bracket is officially toast, even though the two teams I picked for the final are still in it. The reason? For the first time in forever all four #1 seeds made it to the Final Four. Obviously, I have mixed feelings on this. I’m happy UNC and UCLA made it, though I would have preferred to see Davidson in the semifinal. Playing Kansas will be hard on coach Williams, though I expect Ray and his family will be hoping Williams gets a karma dosage. And as far as I’m concerned, Memphis can go right to hell.

I genuinely felt bad for Davidson, and I really respect what they did this year. They scheduled some tough teams during the season (including UNC), played hard throughout the tournament, and made it a long way. This wasn’t a fluke—they are legitimately a great team, and they didn’t make it all this way just because of Stephen Curry (as Barr’s performance today showed). They made it to the tournament the right way, playing tough all year, and they deserved their Elite Eight berth. For beating them, the way they’re playing right now, Kansas deserves a lot of respect. The close score in today’s game is a mark of Davidson’s quality, not Kansas’ weakness.

UNC-Kansas will be a great game, perhaps the game of the year. I’m not sure that either team can take the championship after winning, though. The game will definitely be emotionally taxing, no matter what the outcome. I think Kansas can bounce back from it more easily than UNC, but either way it will be really draining. As for the other semifinal, I hope UCLA mops the floor with Memphis. Did I mention that I don’t like Memphis?

Conference-wise, I think the tournament played out about right. The SEC and Big Ten had down years, so the absence of their teams is reasonable. Obviously, C-USA has no right fielding a Final Four team; most of the conference is trash. The glaring omission here is the Big East, which had a pretty strong slate of teams this year. I really thought Georgetown would make the semifinals (I had Texas representing the Big XII in my bracket), and that Pitt and UConn both had a chance. But we know how that turned out.

On a related note, I really like Grant Wahl:

We’ve been asked to discuss the NCAA tournament on Lou Dobbs’ national radio show on Monday. Part of me wants to see how Lou responds when I tell him about the impressive play of Brook and Robin Lopez, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Edgar Sosa, Juan Palacios and Orlando Mendez-Valdez. Then I think I’ll invite him to join me at a U.S.-Mexico soccer match.

Mar 272008
In one of the very first posts on this blog I related the story of how television ruined our 500 MHz spectrometer, at least when it came to pesky things like low-sensitivity spectra of biomolecules. That’s right, folks. Television not only rots your brain, it bricks your enormously expensive magnetic resonance spectrometer, at least if your proton Larmor frequency overlaps the broadcast band of the home shopping network. It turns out that this problem is actually rather difficult to fix: blocking out the television signal well enough to actually get reasonable spectra would have required lining the room with a considerable quantity of copper, an expensive proposition and one unlikely to be supported given that there are plans to tear that building down anyway. Instead it was proposed that we move the spectrometer to a room lined with a significant quantity of rock, i.e. the basement.

Unfortunately, the particular basement in question already had a spectrometer and rather a lot of other equipment and was anyway in need of some serious remodeling. The school managed to gather up the money for this, and just a few days ago the 500 was brought down from field and moved. Here (courtesy of Sara) is a picture of the old 500 in its new digs. This week was spent getting it down there and getting it back on its legs (obviously, they were removed for the trip). Tomorrow and Friday will be spent bringing it up to field. This will probably entail a quench.

For those of you who are not familiar with NMR spectrometers, these instruments have a superconducting coil to produce the magnetic field, and like most superconductors this must be kept extremely cold by some cryogen, in this case liquid helium. The liquid helium, in turn, is kept cold by being surrounded by liquid nitrogen. And the liquid nitrogen is insulated by a vacuum, just as in a thermos. When something goes wrong and the superconductivity is lost, an enormous amount of heat gets dumped into these cryogens and all that liquid gas turns into normal gaseous gas and emerges from the magnet with a sound resembling a freight train running over your ear. This video of a much smaller magnet quenching under controlled conditions should give you an idea of what’s to come.

A quench is dangerous, especially in a small space, because all this extra nitrogen and helium can lower the percentage of oxygen in the local area to below what can be tolerated by human beings. Because the particular basement room in question is so enormous this will likely not be a serious problem. Anyway, our 500 apparently has a history of quenching when it is brought to field, so it will likely be several more days before we are actually back to using it again. Or at least, we will once we get through with the referencing, calibrations, etc. that are necessary to actually get anything to work.

UPDATE: The magnet quenched on the afternoon of 3/31. Regrettably there wasn’t time to get the lab downstairs for a “Wizard of Oz” re-enactment.

Mar 192008
It’s a sad day for lovers of science fiction, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. Clarke has always been one of my favorite authors, mostly on the strength of Rendezvous with Rama. Of course, I’m also a huge fan of his more famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. More than Asimov’s misbehaving robots, Clarke and Kubrick’s HAL with its baleful red eye fixed in the public imagination the dangers of creating machines that can think for themselves. Clarke is also credited with popularizing the idea of placing telecommunications satellites in geosynchronous orbit (often called “Clarke orbits”) in order to allow rapid global communication worldwide. Clarke was a man full of visions of the future. Some of them, like the satellites and a visit to the moon, have come to fruition already. Others, like the space elevator, functioning colony ships, or Pan-Am jets in space are somewhat further from reality.

Much modern science fiction is pessimistic, suffused with the idea that technology will always be misused, will always turn on its creators. Clarke certainly was not free of this idea: HAL is a cultural icon of advancement gone awry. Yet Clarke was always fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities that science opened for human beings. His worlds were ones in which imperfect people using imperfect technologies nonetheless managed to do great, amazing things. That’s a possibility we ought to keep in mind for ourselves, too.
Mar 132008
My post rate, never among the most prodigious on the intertubes, will drop off a bit for the next month or so as a significant portion of my post-writing time will be consumed by one of my favorite sports—college basketball. The ACC tournament starts tomorrow, and the Big Dance soon after, which means that I will be watching the television and trying to ignore Dick Vitale, Billy Packer, and Bill Raftery, or at least hate them to death.

Since my beloved, hapless ‘Hoos have essentially zero chance of playing their way into the tournament at this point, I’ll have to settle for keeping an eye on these three teams:

UNC—Having defeated the hated Dookies at Cameron once again, I’m hoping that my ‘Heels can turn their momentum and improving health into a national championship. This guy to the left will have a lot to do with that, I’m sure.

Mississippi State—It’s that family loyalty thing. I hope the Bulldogs don’t end up in a region with UNC; that way I can still root for them to make the Final Four. The SEC West champions haven’t picked up much buzz in what seems to be widely perceived as a down year for the conference, but they might be able to put together a good tournament run.

UAB—It’s not looking so good after that terrible loss in the rematch with Memphis. Still, if the Blazers play their way into the C-USA Championship Game and don’t get blown out by Memphis then they have a pretty good chance of making it in. As long as Vaden is hot, they have a chance to make some noise, though I doubt they’ll go farther than the Sweet Sixteen.

Mar 022008
That last post was actually extremely difficult to write. I had the ideas for it quite a long time ago, and I think I did a pretty good job of explaining how the various aspects of the presentation and gameplay produced a gestalt related to the Prince’s maturation process. But when I wrote a draft of that post yesterday morning, it sucked. It may have been the worst thing I ever wrote. For one thing, it had a completely awful structure. Also, it was about three times as long as what I eventually published. I ended up excising a lot of points that I really liked because they didn’t add to the critique. I’m not going to print any of those here, but I want to make a few points about game critiques in general, and about games themselves. Your responses are of course welcome; indeed I eagerly request them.

1. “Critique” versus “Review” posts

This was really the hardest thing to nail down. I had all sorts of points about the crispness of controls, character and enemy design, navigability, sound balance, and so on, and I ultimately excised almost all of them. Essentially technical items like these would have been really great to discuss in a review, but they didn’t belong in the piece I was writing, which I wanted to be something different. A review is just a piece of writing that tells you what it’s like to play the game, and that’s important. But what I was after was not technical aspects but rather an exploration of theme and meaning, and an analysis of how the various features of the game—from writing to presentation to mechanics—served that meaning. I felt this tension when writing the FFXII post too, and because I didn’t resolve it, that one didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked. It would be nifty to do both at the same time, but especially when handling a trilogy like the Prince of Persia games that produces a piece that’s simply too long, and it interferes with structure.

So I probably will never write anything that’s both a review and an artistic critique. My Persona 3, Phantom Hourglass, Revenant Wings, and Professor Layton posts fall in the former category, while the posts on Silent Hill 2, Final Fantasy XII, and Prince of Persia better fit the latter. And, I think, since there are a ton of game sites writing reviews, I’m probably not going to put any more straight reviews up here, though I will probably write a few on accessible games for Love Camel. What I put up here, though, I want to be focused on artistic criticism. So expect more posts like that last one and less that are like the Revenant Wings one.

2. “Stuff” versus “People” stories

One thought that occurred to me as I was writing the Prince of Persia post was that there are two main ways to think about stories, both of which showed up in that trilogy. The most common way to encounter a story in a video game is as a recounting of stuff that happens (this is the approach of Warrior Within). There are characters in the story, but very little about them matters to it, and seemingly little about it matters to them. The characters are just part of the stuff that’s happening. Alternately, the story can be viewed as people that happen. Stuff happens as well, but what the story is really about is not the stuff, but the way the characters interpret and respond to the stuff. Moreover, the people “happen” not just in that they are, but in that they become. The strength of Sands of Time and The Two Thrones is not just that the characters are fully realized and interact charmingly, but that the Prince changes and grows. I think that this sort of transition is a critical part of successful stories, especially in games where the player can be brought along for the change.

3. Expressive versus Narrative games

Thinking about games strictly as narratives is obviously too constricting. The approach I used in the critiques I’ve already written clearly relies on this mode of understanding, which may be an intrinsic limitation. One thing I think I need to try is to do one of these critiques for a purely (or nearly so) expressive game, that is, one that tries to induce an emotion rather than convey a story. I’m leaning towards trying a critique of Katamari Damacy, just to see if I can do it.

4. Art versus Entertainment

I made this point in my previous rant, too. There are games that really aren’t intended to mean anything, that exist purely to be entertainment. They are the potato chips of gaming: tasty, filling, and fun to consume, but without lasting nutrition for body or mind. And there are also games that have nutritional value, but aren’t expressive or narrative (i.e. Brain Age). I don’t think this is a problem for games as art: nobody denies that Citizen Kane is art on the basis that Predator and classroom film reels aren’t. I am, however, not certain of the value of trying, as film critics do, to interpret the pure entertainments in the same way as I do the meatier fare. I’m just one guy, after all, and the internet has plenty of sites that can tell you that dual-wielding is awesome.