Thursday, June 28, 2007

There's a party in my browser and everyone's invited

For me, tracing and debugging HTTP traffic has always been a fun-packed group activity, like playing SingStar or having a barbeque. As soon as I fire off a web request, my work colleagues immediately rush over to marvel at the heady stream of status codes, headers, cookies, caching directives, compression, encryption and performance metrics. They just can't get enough.

The HttpWatch website captures the scene perfectly.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Play! A Video Game Symphony

Went to this amazing concert, PLAY! A Video Game Symphony at Sydney Opera House last Saturday — massive screens displayed scenes from video games, accompanied by a live orchestra soundtrack. Although every score was great, the highlight for me was probably a theme from Shenmue, closely followed by Mario. Can't wait for the CD.

This video is Mario from the show performed in Stockholm.


Once again, it's with a tinge of sadness that we bring out the cardboard box, fill it with soft straw, and lay down our favourite TV shows to hibernate through the cold months — Desperate Housewives, 24, Lost and Heroes, all snuggled together for a well deserved rest. Some, though, deserve it more than others.

Desperate Housewives was relentlessly sarcastic, original and funny, with a brilliantly shocking season finale. 24 was, well, a bit average this year. After six seasons it seems to be struggling to meet its own very high standards, but is still enjoyable. Next season, please: no more kidnapping.

It's Lost and Heroes, however, that I'd like look at in a bit more depth. The contrast between them was striking, especially in the final few episodes. As Lost picked up momentum and sprinted to an explosive finale, so Heroes ran out of breath and collapsed with an asthmatic whimper.

Heroes was especially disappointing given how well it all began, compulsory viewing with a great concept, some interesting characters and solid storyline. But somehow it never quite managed to develop any of these beyond my lowest expectations, and as time went on it became more obvious that it was destined to disappoint. Quality declined steadily, then finally slumped as it struggled to conclude the main story, and reconcile the sub-plots into something resembling sense.

What should've been a gripping climax was instead predictable and a bit confused. The anticipated showdown between Peter Petrelli and Sylar was a huge let down, ending up — shock-horror! — with Hiro impaling the amalgamated anti-hero, just as predicted in the comic. Wouldn't it have been better for a berserk zombie Isaac Mendez to burst from the shadows in a VW camper van, and unexpectedly mow Sylar down? Clearly yes, likewise anything else remotely entertaining.

Both Lost and Heroes gave us a teasing glimpse of next season. Lost's staple narrative, the character flashback, finally cashes-in the long con by exploiting our familiarity to disguise a gripping flash-forward. We're left with the revelation that Jack and Kate somehow escape The Island, eagerly opening up a whole new chapter of intrigue.

Heroes, on the other hand, ended like a bad episode of Quantum Leap, randomly dropping Hiro into 17th century feudal Japan, vulnerable before charging ranks of angry samurai and saved from certain death by a convenient solar eclipse. For once I could empathise, I just as disoriented. As Sam Beckett would've said, "Oh, boy..."

Heroes seems outclassed in so many ways. Lost's rich ensemble of characters have carefully crafted backstories and complex ongoing relationships, whereas the Heroes are comparatively hollow, cartoonish and connected through convenient contrivances. When Lost writers bump off a major character I'm genuinely shocked, but after Heroes' only significant dispatch, Isaac Mendez, I was neither surprised nor particularly bothered — it was difficult to care about a character so two dimensional. Compare that with Charlie's ultimate act of selflessness and calm acceptance of inescapable destiny in The Looking Glass, while Claire and Aaron waited hopelessly for their hero to return.

Both Lost and Heroes explore themes of precognition and determinism versus free will. "Save the cheerleader, save the world", is the seemingly profound proclamation that underlies the collective destinies of the Heroes. Can they escape a fate of thermonuclear annihilation, or are they free to avert disaster? Coupled with some confused examination of time-travel and grandfather paradox, that's about as deep as it gets.

It's weak compared to Lost's treatment of the same. Charlie, Desmond and Locke each tackle issues of individual fate, meanwhile all humanity is seemingly condemned to extinction, subject to the predictions of an intractable doomsday equation. How do the destinies of individuals, inevitable or otherwise, affect the fate of humanity? Are they correlated? Lost doesn't give us the answers, and perhaps never will, but it provokes irresistible curiosity and debate.

The Lost storyline is a maze of cause and effect, character connections, recurring themes, allegory and symbolism; yet somehow they manage to keep it all fairly coherent. Heroes overreaches by having characters with abilities to turn invisible, fly, heal, mind read, predict future, time-travel and walk through walls — there are too many gaping plot holes for any given situation: why didn't he just away? ...or teleport? ...or predict that? ...or heal himself?

Let's hope next year Heroes gets itself back on track, maybe by introducing a strong new character from the Heroes: Origins mini-series, or by pushing some of the better minor characters, like Christopher Eccleston's brilliant Claude Rains — the crazy invisible pigeon fancier.

Let's also hope that Lost hasn't "jumped the shark", or "escaped from Fox River", as I now like to say.

Known unknowns

Only another 266 days of hollow meaningless existence before Lost returns with season 4. In the meantime, there seem to be a few good books worth a read: Finding Lost: The Unofficial Guide and, in particular Living Lost: Why We're All Stuck on the Island by The Always Interesting J. Wood. (Yes, that is his full name.)

Not unlike in the show itself, we're hearing plenty of mysterious whispering from fans, producers and crackpot theorists; none of which gives much away but are interesting nevertheless. To take the Rumsfeldian view,

"...we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know."
So how about some of those known unknowns that we're hoping will become known knowns by the end of next season? From reliable sources, like interviews and podcasts with the producers, it seems likely that (not before time) we'll discover much more about: tetchy spectre Jacob, who's been compared in significance with the wrinkly Emperor from Star Wars; Michael and Walt, although who really cares about the former; Libby, the mentalist boat-lender; Danielle Rousseau, deranged pyromaniac for hire; Penny, who we're told is an important character in the overarching story; and finally, four-toed colossus, who might help unravel some history and mythology behind the The Island.

Which mystery would you most like to see explained in season 4?