22 December 2005

Review: Avalon (2001)

Simon wondered what I thought of Avalon, and I sent him a quick reply. Here's a longer review with possible spoilers. Caveat: I watched Avalon on late night telly, so it might have been a less than engrossing experience compared to watching it in the cinema.

In a dreary and depressed city, people play a virtual combat game called Avalon to earn a living. One of the aces is Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), a loner who lives with her Bassett hound (a recurring mark in director Oshii's films) in an small flat full of books. She finds out about an extra level in Avalon that can only be entered by defeating the Ghost. Initially reluctant, she joins an old team mate, Stunner (Bartlomiej Swiderski) and a mysterious Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski), in finding this Ghost.

Avalon is fairly dull and plodding. Director Mamuro Oshii overuses repetition in the first half of the film to suggest that Ash's world may be just a simulation. The central plot element of the film, the Avalon combat game, is devoid of tension and linear (defeat the grunts, then beat the boss). In the game, none of the actors look or move like players in fear of their (virtual) lives. The only standouts are the production design of the bleak city and cinematography.

0.5 out of 5 stars.

16 December 2005

Maths: Linear Programming using lpsolve IDE

Quick background: a Mathematical Program (MP) is a mathematical formulation of an optimization problem. Solving an MP means finding the minimum or maximum of an objective function subject to a set of constraints (or limits). A Linear Program (LP) is a subset of MPs where the objective function and the constraints are expressed using linear coefficients (i.e. only + and -). Here is the FAQ and a more thorough definition.

I decided to relearn Linear Programming (LP) so that I could better understand one of my company's products. I've used the solver in Microsoft Excel but it can be inconvenient to translate LP problems into the spreadsheet format. Also, the standard Excel solver is limited to a small number of variables and constraints. Luckily, there's other solvers on the 'Net. First I tried a Python solver, pysimplex, but I couldn't install it on Python 2.4. Then I tried the Windows version of GNU Linear Programming Kit (GLPK) but it doesn't seem to have a user front-end. Finally, I found lpsolve IDE in the Progdigy site, which as a bonus, has both an IDE and the lpsolve solver. Note: lpsolve is also available separately from the lp_solve Yahoo group.

I found the Lpsolve IDE is pretty good for doing exercise problems. It can check the syntax of your problem and display the solution's objective and constraint variables. So far, so good.

12 December 2005

Software: Foxit PDF Reader

Adobe's PDF Reader, acroread 7.0, started scanning PDF documents for the reading order before displaying the document's content. I couldn't figure out how to turn off that feature, so I ditched it and installed FoxIt Software's PDF Reader. It's small compared to acroread (the installer is only 1.1 Mbytes vs 20.8 Mbytes) and starts in a flash. Way to go!

10 December 2005

Review: HarperCollins Concise Handbook for Writers

I was never terribly happy with my writing, so I sought to improve it. One of the books I recently read was the HarperCollins Concise Handbook for Writers:

Title: HarperCollins Concise Handbook for Writers
Authors: Peter Dow Adams and Amy Tickle
Year: 1994
ISBN: 0-06-501994-6

Stars: 4/5

This is a textbook on writing papers for American college students. It provides advice on: how to research, plan and structure one's work, the appropriate style for papers, constructing paragraphs and sentences, the use and misuse of common words, and grammar, spelling and punctuation.

The lessons are written in a direct and authoritative style, and worked examples are provided. The explanations are enhanced by the use of proofreading marks and diagrams.

In addition to the usual table of contents, glossaries and index, every entry in the table of contents shows both the topic and an example, each page has a tab at the edge with an abbreviation of the page's topic, each tab is aligned with the abbreviated table of contents and there are many tables that summarize different categories of words. These devices make the book easy to use as a reference.

I have only used this book for a short time but it has already helped me write more confidently and smoothly.

05 December 2005

Misc: ABC's My Favourite Film

The Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) ran a survey called "My Favourite Film" (MFF) and did a (rather cheesy) special last night. The most amusing part is the faux review of the programme by David Stratton after the end credits, where he mentions his Movie Show co-host Margaret Pomeranz's award-winning bit part in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and the dreadful bearded guy in the special.

If the results of MFF are to be believed, then either Australians are closet SF fans or geeks have manipulated the survey because the top ten films are:

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
2. Amelie
3. Blade Runner
4. The Shawshank Redemption
5. Donnie Darko
6. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
7. Pulp Fiction
8. The Princess Bride
9. Gone With The Wind
10. Fight Club

You can find the top 100 on the web site.

04 December 2005

Nethack Death by Carelessness

My female human barbarian was in level 17 when she got jumped by six fire giants in an unlit room. They shouldn't have been a problem normally, except she was burdened, so she used one turn to drop her bag of holding then used another turn to put on her ring of regeneration. These two moves cost her half her hit points. She finished off one giant and caused another one to flee, but caught up in the heat of the moment (I forgot to monitor her HP), she proceeded to fight the remaining giants instead of withdrawing. Death by carelessness, I'm afraid.

She was a promising character, having finished the Gnomish Mines and Sokoban levels, and was about to go on her mission. She had acquired all the usual intrinsics, was invisible, was stealthy (had Elven boots), had extra luck which did not time-out (luckstone from the Mines), wielded Firebrand (no enhancements yet because she only found one uncursed scroll of enchant weapon), amulet of reflection (from Sokoban levels), +2 gauntlets of dexterity, banded armour and cloak of protection. She had also identified most of the gems, armour, scrolls and potions. She even found three magic markers and an uncursed magic lamp.

Despite all her armour, her AC was a poor -6. Her pet dog, Fido, was polymorphed into a vampire lord in the Mines so it made short work of all the guards and shop keepers in Gnometown. Unfortunately, she let Fido kill the co-aligned priest of Crom, so she lost the opportunity to improve her natural AC by donating to the temple. That's a good reason to keep pets on a short leash!

01 December 2005

Software: Microsoft Word 2000 Search-Replace Capitalization

When using Microsoft Word 2000, if you try to replace an all uppercase string (e.g. XXXX) in a document with a mixed case string (e.g. FileName), then Word helpfully makes all letters in the replacement string uppercase (e.g. FILENAME). On the other hand, if the original string had mixed case (e.g. XxXx or xXxX) or was all lowercase (e.g. xxxx), then the case in the replacement string is preserved.

If the original text is all uppercase, then the workaround is to select the Match Case checkbox in the Find and Replace dialog.

This is just a plain annoying feature. I can't think of a reason why anyone would want their replacement text to be changed based on the case of the search text.