April 15, 2001
Technology: As my work on our college-wide Filemaker Pro-based student information system continues, I have been asked to explore ways to obtain information from students through a web interface. Several years ago, my colleague, Terry Kneen, and I had used a product called Lasso, published by BlueWorld (http://www.blueworld.com) to accomplish this task but found the product required literally hundreds of hours of hand coding HTML pages to implement. Since then Filemaker Pro has improved its own "instant" web publishing features but the problem remains that web input of confidential data requires disabling the "instant" feature to enable secure authentication procedures. Once "instant" publishing is disabled, the web interface is reliant on hand coding with CDML (Claris Dynamic Markup Language) or again using a product like Lasso with its formidable development requirements. Neither of these options appealed to me so I began researching other alternatives. Last week I found a Filemaker Pro addin called Dragon Web Surveys produced by Waves In Motion (http://www.wmotion.com) Dragon Web Surveys is a native Filemaker Pro Solution that enables someone without a bit of HTML experience to create surveys that include a variety of question formats (single choice, multiple choice, Likert scales, etc.) and various authentication strategies. Respondents can be identified by IP number, by username, or by password. Furthermore, the program tracks respondents so if someone that has already submitted a survey attempts to submit another, their login is rejected. If a survey is not restricted, you can still select a feature that disables submissions from the same IP address if they are submitted less than a set amount of time apart. This discourages "ballot stuffing".
The product was very easy to install. It involved only copying some plugins and a folder into the appropriate folders in your Filemaker Application directories. I was also able to install it on a Filemaker Unlimited host that was already running instant web publishing and it did not interfere with the instant web publishing process either. Within a few minutes I had already created a survey, set the security, and tested it. Since I do understand HTML, I also took the time to customize the "Thank you" response page so it included our College logo, and links back to our home page. Although the product does have built-in reporting capabilities, I tested its export capability too (in anticipation of specific ad hoc requests) and it quickly created a comma separated export file that loaded easily into Excel. I spoke with Waves In Motion sales representatives and they advised me that a new version was due out in just a few weeks. So, they suggested I familiarize myself with the current product (a limited version they provided as a free download) and then purchase the new version as soon as it is released. They also offer a 20% education discount that is always welcome, too. I think this product is well worth the more than $600 price tag due to the amount of development time that it saves. I am also optimistic that I can use this product to not only produce our exit and followup surveys but develop a system for supervising teachers to report online to our practicum coordinators.
On the entertainment front, I purchased two very engrossing games, "Mountain Man" by Oquirrh Productions (http://www.oquirrh.com/) and "Shark: Hunting the Great White" developed by SCS Software, (http://www.scssoft.com/) an innovative game designer in the Czech Republic. In Mountain Man, I particularly liked the way they combined elements of strategy and adventure. I like the freedom to make decisions and to explore, observe, and apply what I learn. Mountain Man's navigation was intuitive from the beginning (although I did have to refer to the manual a couple of times to learn the art of rock climbing and river navigation with the mouse). The voice talent was convincing, the scenery beautiful, and the variety of challenges stimulating. I enjoyed Oquirrh's "African Safari" and was glad they incorporated a number of the same game play aspects into their new offering. I think one of the things that makes their games stand out from other "hunting sims" is the resource management required. I like the added challenge of keeping track of food, health, or, in the case of "African Safari", money accumulated as a determinant to whether you can continue the game or not. I know many hard core gamers are frequently critical of games that rely on flat panoramic graphics instead of navigable 3-D graphics but I personally find the superior beauty of photorealistic graphics preferable to pixelated rendered environments. The exploration feature provides access to additional scene content so they have provided a good alternative solution to navigation without sacrificing graphic quality.
"Shark" really made me feel like I was scuba diving. The graphics were excellent and I enjoyed swimming around looking at the environment and the sea life as much as the encounters with the sharks. I wrote to SCS and asked if they would consider integrating underwater archaeology quests into their product to add more strategy elements and improve game play even further. I pointed out that I have always enjoyed hunting titles released by Oquirrh because of the added challenge of managing funding and resources in addition to the straightforward "thrill of the chase". I think they could incorporate these elements by providing different archaeological sites with varying value of artifacts and varying the "dangers of the deep" present at the site. For example, they could have one site be Cleopatra's palace off the coast of Alexandria and have the threat of earthquakes, landslides, and other underwater catastrophes added to the threat of sharks, moray eels, or sea snakes. (Forgive me if my marine biology is a little rusty - I'm not sure eels or sea snakes roam the Mediterranean but I was just trying to make a point). A player would need to be earnestly searching for enough artifacts to be able to continue their work while trying to stay alive in the process. Another site could be a Spanish galleon in the Carribean with different dangerous species, etc. As an educator, I also suggested the inclusion of a mini-library with "historical documents" to provide clues to a site's location and potential types of artifacts to be found there, a navigable map that could improve basic map reading skills as well as provide freedom of movement in the user interface, guidebooks on the types of artifacts, value, culture, etc. as well as the types of marine life a player may encounter.
Movies: The Ken Burns AMC special "Backstory: Cleopatra - The film that changed Hollywood" (http://www.amctv.com/about/cleopatra_doc.html ) about the making of the '63 epic was very interesting. I found Peter Finch, the original actor cast as Julius Caesar, to be very dynamic (more so than Rex Harrison) and the British actor, Keith Baxter, originally cast as Octavian to be more to my liking as well. I didn't like the finally cast Roddy McDowell's brassy looking dyed hair or his boyish demeanor although the real Octavian was only a young man so McDowell's portrayal may have been more on target than Baxter's more mature portrayal. I guess the Academy of Motion Pictures thought so too because McDowell was nominated for an Oscar and probably would have won if the studio had not messed up and nominated him for the wrong category (best actor instead of best supporting actor). It's too bad their finely crafted props were destroyed. I think Cleopatra's barge would have made a spectacular addition to a theme park too.
I noticed that they still say they are trying to find all the original footage so they can release Mankiewicz's originally envisioned six hour masterpiece. For now I'll have to be satisfied with the 4 hour edition released as the collector's edition DVD.
I also watched a TNT presentation about the making of Ben Hur that was included on the new collector's edition DVD of that title. The brief history of author Lew Wallace, a heroic Civil War general, was fascinating and pondering the intricacies of producing the chariot scene on a New York stage was mind boggling. The program mentioned that the theater company actually installed huge treadmills for the horses and chariots then rolled huge painted screens behind them to give the effect of motion. The naval battle was constructed by using billowing blue fabric flapped frantically by stage hands to simulate the rise and fall of the ocean. Later it mentioned that in the 1925 production, the full size galleys constructed for the naval battle sequence accidentally caught fire and the scene of people leaping overboard, used in the final release, was the camera's view of people actually leaping for their lives.
The DVD also included an early screen test with Leslie Nielsen playing the part of Messala. Nielsen couldn't hold a candle to Stephen Boyd. Nielsen's speech was too colloquial and he lacked the arrogant swagger and regal bearing so necessary to the character.
I took a chance and purchased Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest film "The Sixth Day". I have always enjoyed both books and movies about the ethical issues surrounding organ transplants and cloning like "Coma", "Chromosome 6", and "The Boys From Brazil" so I figured it had to be at least somewhat interesting. It did not disappoint me. Of course, although we presently have the ability to clone a being, we have not yet developed the ability to transfer the genetic material into mature "blanks" or an individual's entire store of memories onto a CD or into another brain. However, it's premise was plausible and I liked the added twist that the "Arnold" the audience is led to believe to be the "original" turns out to be the clone. I also thought the concept of copy degradation was a valid point although clones derived each time from the original source material should not suffer from this problem.
I certainly was thrilled with "Gladiator" and Russell Crowe's victory at the Academy Awards although I think Joaquin Phoenix deserved an Oscar as well. I guess Benecio Del Toro was supposed to be good in "Traffic" but I'm so tired of "drug lord" stories I don't even bother to go see them anymore. I do think the clip they showed of Commodus confronting Maximus should have been replaced with the (in my opinion) more emotional scene of Commodus discussing his virtues with his father, Marcus Aurelius, while choking back tears. I think that scene or even the "Am I not merciful" scene was actually more powerful from a character depth perspective. I was also disappointed that Hans Zimmer's score did not win. Of all clips to include in the best score montage, I couldn't believe they selected only the rather minor transition music played when scenes shifted from Zucchabar to Rome rather than the beautiful theme music. At least the movie clip they showed for the Best Picture montage used the exhilarating "battle" music. Of course, I couldn't understand their choice of that horrible Bob Dylan song over the beautiful love song from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon either but go figure. Perhaps, I'm just not blinded by nostalgia for the 60s. I didn't go to Woodstock, didn't try LSD, and didn't sit around stoned listening to Bob Dylan. (I know - I sound like a real bore) If Dylan's "performance" Sunday night is any indication of his ability, I apparently didn't miss much. I was very excited that Russell Crowe received his well deserved Oscar. I couldn't see how critics could prefer a guy that talks to volleyballs (even if it is Tom Hanks) to the powerful portrayal of individual courage embodied in Crowe's Maximus. I hope it bodes well for the production of future historical epics.
Some history buffs mentioned Lucilla's anachronous costume with the corset style bodice. I noticed, however, that in the television movie "Attila", Valentinian's sister was shown wearing a similar style of dress (in the "Attila in the hot bath" scene). Although Gladiator's costume designer, Janty Yates, has a career going back to only 1993, Attila's costume designer, Jane Robinson, has a career spanning almost three decades. I find it hard to believe that two different costume designers that obviously conducted extensive historical research would have made the same error.
As for Ebert blasting Gladiator's special effects, I think he simply disliked the movie and wasn't going to mention anything he liked about it. Sometimes, reviewers seem to have an agenda to purposefully discourage others from viewing certain films. I found the same attitude with Kevin Costner's "The Postman". A lot of people I have encouraged to see The Postman have come back and told me how much they enjoyed it and how surprised they were that they did, after all the bad press. It, like Gladiator, tells a simple story of individual courage. Detractors call these types of films that appeal to our sense of humanity "sappy" or "sentimental" but I've never found anything wrong with being sentimental.
Historical purists have also been making derisive remarks about the new "Attila" remake but last week I saw a documentary on Attila - "Attila: Scourge of God" - on History Channel International and it looks to me like the miniseries followed historical events quite closely. (with perhaps the exception about Aetius' selection of a look alike slave girl to seduce and poison Attila although who knows? It was at least plausible). I never know if such critics are justified or attempting to boost their own egos by a display of "inferred" superior knowledge. These types of critics seldom quote specifics and when they do and I investigate further I often discover they haven't done their own homework.
Readings: I continue to listen to Robert Graves' "Claudius, The God" . Claudius' victory over Caractacus in Britain was certainly unique. His scare tactics of creating a "Heron King" to terrify the British outposts was hilarious and effective. The description of his triumph was fascinating as well. Of course, now I am nearing the end of his period of naivete where he has learned of Messalina's treachery. This betrayal, unfortunately, clouded his character throughout the remainder of his reign.
My next novel will be Michael Crichton's "Timeline", a story based on time travel back to the Middle Ages. Although I am less a fan of the medieval period than the ancient period, I always find time travel stories fascinating. I also found a PC game based on this book. The game is a first release of Crichton's own interactive product developer, Timeline Computer Entertainment. (http://www.timelineentertainment.com/index.shtml) Hopefully, it will be much more engrossing than a title I recently purchased from Dreamcatcher (http://www.dreamcatchergames.com/) called "Timescape: Journey to Pompeii". I found Timescape to be too linear, it's navigation archaic and disorienting, the character animation almost nonexistent, and the puzzles ridiculous. I prefer games based on logical decision trees with multiple approaches and multiple solutions. I also prefer to move about freely and randomly, not held hostage to some maze where your escape depends on encountering certain individuals and listening to absolutely everything they want to tell you before your path is magically made available.