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Sid Meier's Pirates

By Niloy

In the age where mediocre games with movie-sized blistering budgets and high profile voice acting have become standard, Sid Meier's Pirates goes in the other direction, focusing on the basics of what makes games great.

Sid Meier's Pirates! is not 'a game'; it's a combination of many games from different genres, intertwined to create one of the most pleasurable gaming experiences of 2004. Firaxis has combined action and strategy with a bit of RPG elements to develop a charming naval world inhabited by pirates, Incas, Europeans, Jesuits, and one young man who's searching for his lost family.

You begin the game as this young man, the son of wealthy merchants who borrowed from an aristocrat to support their trade. Unfortunately, your family's ships were lost at sea, and like Shylock, the evil aristocrat wants your family's personal pain to be his repayment. He doesn't take a pound of flesh; instead, he kidnaps the entire family, leaving you determined to spend your life searching for them. You travel from place to place, trying to exceed in pirating deeds such as collecting as much gold you can, being given ranks in the various nation's forces, the lady-kissing, finding lost kingdoms and having questionable liaisons with the cabin boy.

(One of those may be a lie.)
The first thing that strikes you when loading up the game is there's no voiced narration. No one to offer crisp Shakespearean expression about the perils of the sea? Instead, the characters in the game talk in ordinary Simlish (and maybe a mix of German), which although initially seems lacking gives the game a sense of earthly warmth and charm.

Refusing to be pigeon-holed into one genre, the game combines various elements that are entertaining enough to not be dreadfully labeled as "mini-games." Travelling around the world map, players need to be mindful of wind, shallows and food. Getting close up, the ship battles become more action-oriented as you try to manoeuvre your customized (likely stolen) ship to fire broadsides. Pirates wouldn't be pirates without plundering, and it turns into a simple but effective turn-based strategy game when attacking towns. Woo and win the heart of a Governor's daughter by dancing to her moves--mildly resembling to "dance games"--but less shameful.

So, to choose a hypothetical five-minute section of play, once you set sail you're viewing your ship from above, which obeys your control. Around you, other ships of all sizes and makes go about their business - delivering cargo, protecting each other, transporting troops, pirating, whatever. You spot a Trade vessel, approaching and selecting the attack button, at which point the game changes to a more action-styled sub-game about your battles. You win, get to choose which of its cargo to take, and then return to the main map, with - since you decided not to scuttle it - the captured ship following you. You decide to head to port, since this lesser ship is slowing you right down, and do so.

But it starts firing at you. Damn: you've been preying on Spanish vessels too much, and they've taken offence. You approach the port anyway, to discover it's barred to you. You're given the option of turning away, sneaking into the port or mounting a raid. The latter two lead to completely separate sub-games, but you decide to teach these uppity Mediterranean colonists a lesson. Winning this game, you gain access to the port and can sell to merchants, repair your ship and similar. Popping into the Governor's, you may find yourself introduced to his daughter, who then asks you to the grand ball, which leads to another sub-game...

You get the idea. Sub-games used as a device to decide whether you succeed or fail in the various pirating actions, with those results feeding back into an ongoing simulation, taking you from strapping young boy to an aged retiring sea-dog.

It's especially admirable in that it's a game that's brilliant with things to do that it never confuses complexity with depth. But while pleasurable, it never crosses over into ecstasy or the deep game morphine-like mind-meld people experience with something like Civ. This is simply because the sub-games really aren't that interesting, which is - as flaws go - a fairly fundamental one.

The downside to living the life of a pirate is there's no higher calling, no goal to achieve other than to horde as much money as you can. The quests to rescue your family and get revenge are a nice diversion, but don't offer enough to carry the game. And having to periodically split your plunder (meaning disbanding crew, splitting money and selling off other ships) detracts from the pacing of the game. Also, the lack of retaliation for plundering is disappointing.

The graphics of Pirates! are quaint and charming in their simplicity, though the cut scenes are intricately animated, as you slide down banisters and pick ne'er-do-wells up by their collars, flinging them across taverns floors. There isn't much variety in them, however. The most intriguing aspect of Pirates!' audio and visual aesthetic is its insistent reminder that this is fantasy, even to the point that the characters speak in syllables and grunts, refusing to make identifiable words that might even be caricatures of reality.

In the end, it's a charming game, full of detail, with an old fashioned deep design. Sid Meier's Pirates! may not have all the frills, but it's got plenty of thrills.

Finding Neverland

Review by Gokhra

Finding Neverland tells the story of James Matthew Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan and is just as magical as the story that inspired it. It takes into account the vivid imaginations of this amazing playwright.

In this movie which is somewhat inspired by true events as the producers like to say, Barrie reconnects with his inner child to draw inspiration for his most famous work.

Barrie (Johnny Depp) finds himself in the middle of an artistic crisis. His latest play didn't do very well at the theatres but despite that his money minded producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) is being supportive and asking for more of his work.

Unfortunately Barrie suffers from lack of inspiration that not even his devoted wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) can help with. He withdraws from her preferring the companionship of their Newfoundland dog instead.

Things begin to change one day during a visit to the neighborhood park where he encounters four spirited young boys, Jack (Joe Prospero), George (Nick Roud), Michael (Luke Spell) and particularly the youngest and most emotionally fragile brother, Peter (Freddie Highmore). With them was their recently widowed mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet). Barrie is instantly drawn to the impressionable children, and performs an impromptu play for the abiding family. An instant bond is formed, and Barrie and the Davies family quickly become inseparable. The boys even begin to call him Uncle Jim. Of course, London at that time found it a little weird that a grown man would prefer the company of young boys. Such matters are masterfully handled by the director leaving the movie well attuned as a family show.

Mary and Lady du Maurier, Sylvias protective mother, become more and more pointedly disapproving when Barrie begins spending all of his free time playing father to the boys. And this is one of the movies highlights. The scenes are beautifully stylized scenes of pirate games and cowboys and Indians for which Foster (the director) sparingly uses special effects to blur the line between reality and fantasy.

The children and to some point their mother become Barries muses. None of these distractions deter Barrie as he begins writing once again, and cannot stop. Each new adventure with the Davies clan leads to pages and pages of inspirational whimsy for his new play about a young boy and a visionary place called Neverland.

Mary comes full circle in one of the film's most gripping scenes. After secretly reading Barrie's sensational tale, an emotionally defeated Mary discloses her long desire to have been part of his fantasy world. The movie happens to be a bit of a tearjerker as well.

Finding Neverland is very entertaining with images of fantasy and reality mixed in a way that makes Barrie's life imitate his art. The film claims that it is based on true events but the movie is kept light because the true events ended a lot more tragically. We have enough misery to face everyday so it's a good idea to keep it out of the movie for a while.

In real life, the Davies boys' father was still alive when they met Barrie. He later died of cancer. As for brothers there were actually five, not four.

Two died as young adults while Peter, hounded by unwelcome celebrity because of his connection to the play, threw himself under a train at age 60.

This enchanting film with its brilliant cast is destined to become a classic.

Study Paints
Our Sun as a
Planet Thief

A close encounter between our sun and a passing star some four billion years ago may have played a role in shaping our solar system, a new report suggests. Computer simulations published today in the journal Nature describe how a rendezvous between two young solar systems could have occurred. And one potential scenario shows our sun kidnapping a planet or smaller object from the other star's solar system.

The Kuiper belt, a region of icy objects orbiting beyond Neptune, has an abrupt outer edge. Last year, astronomers discovered an icy world far beyond the Kuiper belt called Sedna, which orbits the sun in a different plane than the major planets. Scott J. Kenyon of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Benjamin C. Bromley of the University of Utah devised computer simulations using a NASA supercomputer to analyze scenarios that could explain Sedna's presence.

The interaction of two young solar systems still in the planetary-disk phase would act like two circular saw blades crossing paths, they report. "Any objects way out in the planetary disk would be stirred up greatly," Bromley explains. Indeed, their calculations show that the flyby could have changed the orbit of planetoids already circling the sun, sheared off objects on the outer edge of the disk or allowed our solar system to capture a planet from the nearby solar system.

The results indicate that there is up to a 10 percent chance that Sedna formed in our solar system and had its orbit perturbed by an encounter with another star, and about a 1 percent chance that Sedna is a captured alien world. The predictions are hindered, because Sedna is the sole known object of its type out beyond the Kuiper belt. But "there may be thousands of objects like Sedna near the edge of our solar system," Bromley says. "So there is an even greater chance that some may be alien worlds captured from another solar system."

Sarah Graham, Scientific American

Sites Unseen

By Niloy

Signs of life: photographs of signs that transcend their objectivity to reveal our humanity.
We created signage to tell us about our complex world and help us navigate through it. But what do signs tell us about ourselves? This site presents signs that call to mind familiar human traits, such a fondness for stating the obvious. Whether it's a monolith up ahead or directions on where to find parking, sometimes you just can't be too explicit. Other times, brutal honesty can backfire, scaring away valuable customers with our dirty laundry. Drastic warnings are needed for those with hard heads: Be on the look-out for high surf, falling coconuts, and wayward beach logs. Some people need things spelled out, while others need a picture to get the message. Viewing this international collection, you'll find some signs lost in translation, while others will have you wondering whether you're coming or going.

guidebook, a website dedicated to preserving and showcasing Graphical User Interfaces.
On the way to the information superhighway, few things have changed as dramatically as the computer interface -- those pointers, file folders, and hourglasses that appear on your monitor whenever you start your computer. Whether you're a diehard geek or casual computer user, this history of the GUI (affectionately pronounced gooey) is impressive in its scope. But mostly, it's a hoot to look back on the ancestral lineage of today's Microsoft Word, including some rather undeveloped Windows 1.01 office applications. Early interfaces for Amigas and Apples-- groundbreaking for their time -- have a certain quaint charm now. The gallery of magazine ads shows just how far manufacturers have come in designing and flogging their wares. So, take this exit ramp off the information superhighway onto the GUI back-country lane.

People, landscapes, animals, flowers, and other photography by this hobbyist photographer with no aspirations to become a professional.
When you have a hobby you thoroughly enjoy, you don't worry if you're good at it -- the point is to have fun (and hopefully learn something along the way). Sensitive Light, a collection of photographs by a recent retiree, applies the pleasure principle with panache. While this amateur shutterbug doesn't aspire to go pro, you'll quickly see that's not due to a lack of talent. Indeed, after a look around the various galleries of friendly faces, stunning landscapes, and electric nightlife, you may feel inspired to pick up a new hobby or revisit an old favourite from years past.

Whether fact, fiction, or a little bit of both, the quirky narrative that accompanies this beautiful bug book draws you into the site's clever premise. The mysterious guide takes you on a macro tour of his tiny urban garden. His backyard plot is not very big and is rather unkempt -- but it is home to all manner of strange inhabitants that await discovery. His lens zeroes in on creatures that buzz, creep, crawl, and leave slimy trails all over the ignored vegetation. The spare interface and easy navigation allow you to swing from limb-to-limb for a close-up view of various multi-legged creatures. Amazingly crisp shots of delicate wings flapping, fruit flies swarming, shield bugs chilling, and spiders preying command your attention. In fact, this site might inspire you to look at your own backyard (if you have one) in a whole new light.

Fake trees hiding cell phone towers
This website pays homage to the fake trees that disguise our cell phone towers. Have you seen these things??! Every time I see the photo of a Bogus Botanical or a Counterfeit Conifer, I can't help giggling at the absurdity of it all. These Sham Shrubs have been manufactured so that people communicate with each other, while protecting our delicate aesthetic sensibilities. Many people don't know about these things. They're hidden pretty well. But if you look for 'em, they're easy to spot. It's a skill; a shift in the brain. It's sad that the Phone Companies in Bangladesh do not bother about aesthetics. On the second thought, who cares about something like aesthetics here?

In the end, an honest advice for the Guys, do not use laptops on your lap. The consequences are despicable!


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