November 14, 2003

Music and Memories

Yesterday at work a certain song randomly came on and wham! — I was instantly transported back to a particular moment in time. It's pretty amazing how your mind can tie a piece of music so completely to a particular time in your life. This instance was one of the most powerful experiences of the sort I've had, probably because I listened to the song so damn much on the way to school senior year.

Posted by bkakes at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2003

Graduation Speech

I had intended to put this up a while ago, but it didn't happen. So here it is: my two-minute graduation speech from U.C. Berkeley's 2003 Computer Science graduation. Thanks again to Ben Blake for allowing me to lift one of my favorite quotes from him and put it in the speech.

All of us here have probably been asked many times, “Why computer science?” I certainly have, and depending upon the situation—and possibly the person’s gender—I might have tried to change the topic. But as we stand here poised to graduate from a rigorous and universally respected program, it might behoove us to remind ourselves just why we made this choice.

Obviously, the reasons among us are varied, but I would claim as a common thread the joy of creation. And it’s not just that “the possibilities are endless”; it’s that the possibilities are amazing. Technology is every day redefining our world, becoming ever more powerful while ever more ubiquitous. Computer Science is a field so ripe with potential and so marked by its infancy that it can be hard to imagine wanting to do anything else.

Yet that doesn’t answer the full question: “Why computer science in Letters and Science?” I like to think that it’s because we have not forsaken the ideals of a classical education. That we came to Berkeley not to become mere conduits of code, but to seek an education, which in its definition implies a multi-faceted and encompassing exposure. Whether it’s basic knowledge from physics (“Hey, bubbles can burst!”), a deeper understanding of philosophy and human nature, the guiding principles of economics and politics, or a greater appreciation of the arts, we have much to learn from the many subjects of our world.

This is especially important as we move forward as a people. Advancement doesn’t come from technology alone, but from ideas, principles, and wisdom. The technology will continue to raise questions that we will have to answer. Let us not become just monkeys building better weapons, but people of thought, of reason, of understanding, and of appreciation.

On this campus 41 years ago, John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “Every great age is marked by innovation and daring—by the ability to meet unprecedented problems with intelligent solutions.” While the problems we will face will indeed be unprecedented, so too will be our capabilities. We chose to pursue an intriguing fusion of technical rigor and classical study. And we should be proud that we will leave here not only with a piece of paper, but an education with which to meet the world.

Posted by bkakes at 03:36 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2003


Halo is incredible. Awesome. Amazing. The best game ever. Add your adjectives here.

It's been some eight months since I bought my Xbox. It's an awesome little machine, especially after you hack it. There are a surprising number of good games available, and having emulators and homebrew apps like Xbox Media Player make it quite the package. Heck, that's the reason I bought one in the first place. But it wouldn't have been the primary reason had I known then what I know now: Halo is one of the most fun games I've ever played, and it alone is reason to own an Xbox. And no, I'm not kidding.

Halo is the triumph of the little things.

That's about as well as I can describe it. Yes, it has great graphics -- they were incredible for its time and still hold up well -- great music, great positional sound, and a pretty darned good story as far as first person shooters are concerned. But none of these things is so far beyond everything else that it alone would crown Halo the king of games. Its greatness is more distributed; smaller individual things that add up to one heck of a whole. And its these little things that I'm going to talk about the most.

The rechargeable shield. Probably Halo's biggest innovation, and it's a fantastic one. Halo's developers have said that without the shield, it's just not Halo, and they're right. The shield might seem minor at first, but it provides for all sorts of benefits. For example, not sure if that fire is interactive and will hurt you? Go ahead and touch it; it won't end up hurting you because even if it damages you, it will only damage the shield, and it will recharge. Want to peek in and scope out a potentially hazardous area? Go for it. Moreover, in multiplayer, it gives near-death players an incentive to escape, and an opportunity to survive (for a little bit, at least). And if you're attacking someone, it gives you a big incentive to finish the job. It removes the penalty for taking small chances and provides incentive for more aggressive action, and that leads to more exciting gameplay.

The AI. It may not be the best you've ever seen (I think Half-Life still takes the cake for me), but in the single player missions, the enemy AI is pretty decent, and more impressively, the AI of your fellow soldiers is rather good. Driving the Warthog? These guys will jump in shotgun and the gun in the back to help. Attacking an area? They'll actually help. In most games of this type I've played, the friendly AI has a tendency to be as much an annoyance as a help, and that's simply not the case with Halo. Again, it's not amazing enough to make the game great on its merits alone, but it's solid.

The vehicles. Both single player and multiplayer are a whole lot more fun because of the vehicles. The Warthog just handles so well. It's fun just to drive the darned thing around, even, or smack it into the other team's Warthog. The physics are that good, and the inclusion of them completely changes the nature of capture the flag, to boot. And the things are balanced so well, too! Sure, the Warthog might be fast, but it's loud, so you can't sneak in or away in it. Also, it's pretty succeptible to the rocket launcher and grenades, and even the sniper rifle and the pistol. Similar things can be said of the tank and the Ghosts. Sure the tank can take five of your guys in for an assault, but it's slow as hell and really succeptible to having the driver picked off. The vehicles are all well-designed, with fun controls and physics and great balancing.

The weapons. None of the weapons in Halo is particularly different or innovative; it's just how well they all work together. The pistol is surprisingly deadly. The rocket launcher can instantly kill, but is dangerous for you, too (especially on the run) and the rockets move very slowly. Or there's my favorite, the sniper rifle. I don't think any gun in any video game has been quite as satisfying as the sniper rifle in Halo. It just feels so right. What's even better, it leaves a smoke trail when you shoot, so people know where you are. It's such a seemingly minor thing that has such a major impact on the gameplay. Yes, you can effectively snipe, but unless you're discreet about it, people will find you pretty fast. And the one "weapon" that Halo really innovated was being able to smack people with your gun. Not only is it immensely satisfying, but it gives you options when you're low on ammo or simply fighting an enemy with a better weapon.

The maps. Ok, so not every map in Halo is an instant classic. But there are a few treaures in there that you'll want to play time and time again. Battle Creek and Blood Gulch are almost certainly the best, but there are many other great ones like Prisoner. Blood Gulch alone will consume hours and hours of your time, and is amazingly fun both for Capture the Flag and for single player. Yes, it would be nice to have more incredible maps, but I'd rather have a few that are good enough to play time and time again than a lot of lesser maps. Blood Gulch in particular has probably gone down in multiplayer game history.

Split screen. For playing co-op or multiplayer, Halo supports split-screen play. Now, I realize that a lot of people scoff at the notion and think that LAN parties are the only way to go. Well, I see their points, but not once in my life thus far have I been able to get people together for a LAN party. By contrast, we routinely have four to six people playing Halo, and we've gone up to ten. A game that is already awesome with a few friends in the room is even more fun with a bigger group, and being able to throw up to four people on one TV/Xbox makes it actually possible to get a big group together to play. Maybe at some point with laptops LAN parties will get easier, but for now, I'll happily take my quarter-screen and be able to yell at my buddies sitting a few mere feet away.

The controls. Again, some people scoff and think that first person shooters can only really be played on your PC with a mouse and keyboard. Certainly, you get better control that way, but Halo has the best FPS controls I've ever seen. All the buttons are in the right places, and it just feels natural. Every button is used, but nothing is confusing; it only takes a few minutes to learn. And the added difficulty of mastering the controller makes it a bit more rewarding of a learning curve. With a mouse, anyone can pick it up and be sniping in no time. With Halo on the Xbox, anyone can pick up the game and have fun in no time, but certain things like sniping require a bit more skill. It's a better learning curve than the PC side which tends to emphasize crazy jumping and other tricks to differentiate between players who can all use a mouse quite effectively.

So there you have it. A bunch of "little things" that add up to one of the best games ever made -- in my eyes, Tetris is the only possible competition. A great single player (even more fun with co-op!) and an amazing multiplayer mean that you'll play it over and over again, and have you'll have a ton of fun doing it.

Posted by bkakes at 06:47 PM | Comments (1)