Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Night Music

Last night before going to sleep, I put my iPod on shuffle and lay on my bed in the dark. The thing has an uncanny ability to pick stuff that's invariably fitting to the situation and last night was no disappointment.

Here's what it played last night, soothing stuff I'd almost forgotten I had. You can click the middle mouse wheel to open these up in the background:

The Hardest Walk - The Jesus and Mary Chain
Scenic World - Beirut
Green Gloves - The National
Weird Divide - The Shins
Messiah Ward - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Let's Go Away For Awhile - The Beach Boys
Holland, 1945 - Neutral Milk Hotel
Lawn Boy - Phish (Sorry for the live version)
Mr. Ambulance Driver - The Flaming Lips
As You Are Now - Suzanne Vega
7/4 (Shoreline) - Broken Social Scene
Moth - Burial & Four Tet (9 minutes long and I could listen to it every day)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One Man Band

I can't get over how good this guy is at what he does. I'm posting the link because you really should watch it in higher-definition: link.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Telling information about "indefinite detention"

This comment from Constitutional lawyer Wells Dixon sheds a little light on the process of "indefinite preventative detention," or lifelong imprisonment without charges or proof of people the government deems may be a danger to the U.S.:
“When the government does something to [an individual] that they say is classified, they have disclosed to him classified information. But since he doesn’t have a security clearance, there is nothing that prevents him, unlike me, from saying to the outside world: ‘This is what they did to me.’ Nothing prevents that — except for the fact that he is physically in custody.”’

The “logical conclusion,” Dixon says, is that [this person] “must be detained for the rest of his life — regardless of whether he is ever charged with a crime — because if he was ever released, nothing would prevent him from disclosing this information.
Government using incarceration as a political tool rather than a way of dealing with criminals? Why, what a novel idea for a democracy!


Friday, September 25, 2009

Al Franken reads the Fourth Amendment to Assistant Attorney General

Holding federal officials accountable to Constitutional language is apparently a strange thing to do, as Al Franken seems to have indicated earlier this week by reading from his senatorial copy of the Constitution:

he proceeded to read it to Kris, emphasizing this part: “no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“That’s pretty explicit language,” noted Franken, asking Kris how the “roving wiretap” provision of the Patriot Act can meet that requirement if it doesn’t require the government to name its target.

Kris looked flustered and mumbled that “this is surreal,” apparently referring to having to respond to Franken’s question. “I would defer to the other branch of government,” he said, referring to the courts, prompting Franken to interject: “I know what that is.”

It's kind of sad that a commitment to civil liberties is so rare in elected officials - this is one of the single greatest instances of representation I've seen in months. Right-wingers who've been pretending to care so much lately about the Constitution will hate him regardless, though he's doing a remarkable job so far of being open and respectful to his constituents.

Locked Door

Going quite well with my "scripted events" article from earlier this week, a short, personal cry of anguish from Alec Meer: "Locked Door":


Locked door, I hate you.

I hate the way you are resistant to knives, to guns, to sledgehammers, to rocket-propelled grenades, to weapons that rewrite the very laws of physics, to dark unearthly magic, to punches that can knock a man’s head clean off.

I hate the way I could kick or smash you down in real life, with this puny human body of mine. But I cannot in the grand, escapist fantasy of a videogame.

I hate the way you are so often an easy shortcut for developers unable or unwilling to devise more satisfying obstacles and challenges.

I hate the way you so often lead to nowhere, how you are nothing more than decoration for a wall.

I hate the way I’m expected to give up trying to open you when I see the words “this door has been locked from the other side” or “this door opens elsewhere”, as though they’re a command from God himself.



Thursday, September 24, 2009

Patriot Act Abuses: Then and now (and tomorrow, and. . .)

More indication that, if a law can be abused, it will - the Assistant Attorney General reports that, out of the 763 unwarranted investigations undergone under the new governmental powers awarded by the Patriot Act, only three involved terrorism cases.

The vast majority were drug cases. What were the rest? Does it really matter? The freedoms granted by the Bill of Rights are still granted by suspected criminals, who are after all guilty until proven innocent. Given the abuses this "terrorism"-spurred act was immediately turned toward, do we really want the government following our ATM transactions, library book checkouts and travel paths, looking for patterns?

The practices of the Bush Administration consistently amounted to a bait-and-switch; get us nervous about one thing, and then do quite another. Under the manufactured urgency of the war on terror, Bush expanded the powers of government, invaded two nations (one of which had nothing to do with any terrorist attacks on U.S. soil), opened secret prisons, enlisted private corporations to spy on U.S. citizens and aided and abetted political criminals up to the highest levels of government.

Obama has proven less than satisfactory on ending these abuses, so the fact that he's proven far less self-righteous than Bush and hasn't yet caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands seems almost immaterial. Where is the attitude of respect for the American people that our representatives ought to have? The Republicans protest Obama's actions, but only for the support of the corrupt and avaricious in business. Unless our representatives turn off their desire to do anything - anything to look good and feel productive, enacting laws that threaten the liberty of American citizens in the name of some elusive physical protection, I can't imagine that anything is going to change.

NOTE: This is explicit analysis, based on what I feel to be the core of our nation's principles and unmotivated by any political leanings unless subconscious. The type of vague, unexplained "fear" and unapplied responsibility-free values people like Glenn Beck attempt to force on us don't lead to any concerted action or improvement, just people lashing out. If you can't quantify your statements, they aren't real opinions, and they're purely selfish, which is worse than merely being misguided.

A Proposal

For the same reason that companies whose product names fall into general usage often lose their trademarks (for example, Xerox or frisbee), if a historical event occurs in a copyrighted performance (such as an SNL stage), the company should no longer have any exclusive claim over the clip. Preserving personal copyright and restricting the legitimate flow of information should never be at odds.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yellow journalism and FNC

Fox has ridden the coattails of the Tea Party protests since their inception - anchors promoted the events on their shows, attended the events, and the network discussed them with an ideological singularity that could only have come from higher edict. In short, the Tea Parties became an ideological bulwark for Fox - both a justification of and a continuation of the newfound protest spirit of the conservative wing of the Republican party. The network even put out a full-page ad falsely accusing its competitors of not covering the events, hardly a desperate move when the network's diehard viewers wouldn't be caught dead watching CNN long enough to watch them refute the claim:

News networks attempting to influence the news for their own benefit is nothing new, though it's something we like to imagine has ended in modern journalism. Fox finds itself in a unique situation - its cavalcade of cartoon commentators allows it to indirectly (and directly) promote events while maintaining the illusion that these protests are entirely the spontaneous actions of Americans. The network is able to attend the events and attempt to influence public perception of them further through coaching and slanted reporting, and finally actively insinuate bias against networks who don't report the story they way they do. All of our networks are run by megacorporations, indicating that certain stories will not be told and certain angles not covered, though Fox's explicit promotion and direction of the corporate agenda (in this and other stories) is more directly alarming and transparent.

Scripted events are killing gaming

Somebody needed to say it. A decade ago, looking forward to the future of gaming, we could see it - dynamic, highly-interactive adventures, ambitious as Hollywood blockbusters or as moving and subtle as art flicks to be played out on our TV screens, never the same way twice. We anticipated, expected a fusion of story and player choice that would become possible with the new technology we saw on the horizon. What we got in all too many cases was something else entirely.

In retrospect, it's easier to understand the proliferation of scripted events, or moments planned by a title's developers to be triggered at a particular point in a story or upon certain character actions. When used sparingly, some of these moments can be thrilling - for example, triggering the lights to dim at a particularly tense point in a horror game or scripting an ambush of Axis tanks and soldiers as your squad attempts to cross a river. Certainly some of the most memorable moments in all of gaming were written in by the developers, and nothing's going to change that.

But all too often these events become the easy way out, a way of limiting interactivity and diverting attention (and all-important budget) from the difficult parts of game design and toward sheer polish. Too much scripting turns a game into a Universal Studios ride - it makes the experience inherently artificial and kills immersion, the mental bond a user feels with a title when it creates a dynamic, fulfilling experience.

We need look no further than the venerated gods of the medium. 1998's Half-Life used scripted events early and often - for example, a headcrab would burst out of a ventilation shaft with a loud shriek or an impromptu alarm would send a squad of government soldiers running into a room with guns and explosives. Such scripting pushed the player into new and unexpected situations and often forced them to react quickly to avoid a restart.

But some of the moments were a little. . . off. Hours into the adventure, a soldier is attacked behind bulletproof glass, the player unable to save them. A scientist is snatched from a dock and dragged into the water by an enormous sea creature. Wait - they survived this long only to die at a moment calculated for maximum impact? Why aren't there bodies everywhere? How much influence can a player carry by their mere presence before it feels inescapably artificial?

Six years later, in Half-Life 2, we were still doing the same thing: Waves and waves of troops would throw themselves at you as you attempted to escort survivors across a battlefield, only to stop the moment you crossed through a door. Enemies would attack you at regular intervals as you struggled to set up security turrets to save yourself, only to stop attacking you when an ally finally managed to open a nearby door.

Did you just flip a switch? Get ready for a half-dozen wailing zombies to pop out of the murky water around you. Did you just learn something important over the radio? Here comes a tank and some soldiers! Did you just pick up the key you needed? Get ready for the ground to collapse around you and drop you into an electrified lake you have moments to escape from!

In short, it's difficult to place the logical link between picking up a new gun and summoning a missile-bearing helicopter.

When pulled to the extreme, these types of games make the hero an absurd catalyst for trouble. If every action of the hero, no matter how minor, results in attacks, story events from out of nowhere and doom to random nearby characters whose sole reason for existence is apparently to demonstrate the method of attack of a new monster, gaming isn't happening. Story isn't happening. It's an "experience" only in the clinical sense: A bunch of things happen and then you go home. Roll credits.

A little game called Deus Ex came out in 2000. While it wasn't as flashy or as popular as Half-Life, it did something a little different - it gave you choice. From the beginning you had a choice of taking out enemy troops discreetly or flamboyantly, and it would matter. You could run into a facility guns blazing, or hack the building's security from afar, and it would matter. Sometimes these decisions had no direct effect on the gameplay, but they still mattered because they allowed you to be creative or barbaric, play around or take things seriously. In short, and at the risk of sounding sarcastic, you were playing a game.

Characters lived or died based on your decisions, not just while you were there. Unlike Half-Life's roller coaster of arbitrary and inexplicable events, Deus Ex gave you some control over your character's role in the story. Though the game's plot proceeded more or less the same regardless of your actions, the game's best story elements weren't scripted, but were emergent from the player's personality. Whether you were a pacifist who preferred to lurk in the shadows and secret passageways and resorted to guns only when necessary (like me) or a soldier who devastated entire installations, you felt like more than a bystander. You felt like a participant. When you broke into your old facility for information and had to make the choice of either killing the security guard you'd known for the whole game or trying to outrun his weapons, the decision felt real and genuine though it wouldn't matter to the overall story. Choices like that made the game more than just a series of events and explosions.

Playing through Dead Space last week, I was surprised by how transparent and lazy the scripted elements were. The thirtieth time an enemy ran around a corner, out of sight, as you opened a door, or a character interaction with the environment caused something "unexpected" to happen, the impact just wasn't there. Despite Dead Space's virtues (and there were many), I felt as if the game couldn't have cared less about my participation in the story, and was perfectly happy to go on without me. The only thing that really mattered was whether I had enough health and ammo to get to Deck 19 and recalibrate the main whatchamajigger until the next crisis came up and I had to do something else. While fun, this unfortunate tendency to disrespect the player's ability to do anything other than accumulate items and shoot baddies left the experience oddly bland and unmoving.

Heavy scripting is easy, but it's a thematic dead end which creates unfulfilling experiences. Gaming's greatest strengths involve the ability of an individual to influence and interact. Let's not forget that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Scott Adams on the healthcare debate

Scott Adams offers a refreshing perspective on the healthcare debate:

A confusopoly - a term I concocted several years ago - is any industry that intentionally makes its products and services too complicated for comparison shopping. The best examples of confusopolies are cell phone carriers and insurance companies. And health insurance companies might be the most confusing confusopoly of all. I suspect that no individual has the knowledge, time, and information necessary to effectively compare two health insurance plans. And in that environment the free market doesn't operate efficiently.

Some people support the so-called Public Option for healthcare, where the government would offer health care in competition with the free market. The idea is that private companies would eventually lower prices to compete with the government's low cost option. That sounds good on paper, but the reality is that the private industry folks would use the uncertainty of the confusopoly to convince people that the government option would somehow end up killing its subscribers, e.g. "Sure, it looks inexpensive until your kidney starts hurting."

I think a better role for government would be shining a light on the existing private healthcare plans in a way that would help consumers choose the most economical option. The government did this successfully with the bank loan industry when it required all loans to have an APR, which is a single number that allows consumers to compare one loan to another. Healthcare can't be boiled down to a single number, but I suspect you could come up with a report card and some sort of average cost per subscriber. That way, consumers could shop wisely, and the free market might work the way it is meant to work.

Adams has proven himself at times remarkably analytical and unconstrained by ideology, and this argument post seems to respect both viewpoints while remaining charmingly aloof.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Apple Lied, People Died (Well, maybe not)

To confirm my editorial spin on a story from a few weeks back, Google has released documents essentially confirming that Apple's weasel words are just that - they're lying about not rejecting Google Voice.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"The Metalocalypse Has Begun. . ."

As a huge fan of Cartoon Network's Metalocalypse (and an even bigger fan of the show's fictional band Dethklok and their output), 2007's The Dethalbum was a breath of fresh air. In a world of ├╝berserious metal and bland, selfish introspection, Dethklok's pounding, soaring and goofy anthems touched a nerve most groups don't even try for. Once again, a novelty band beat the big names at their own act - The Dethalbum was hilarious, well-written and heavier than it had any right to be.

The songs could be appreciated without any knowledge of the source material, but in context served as a perfect companion piece to the show. Was it necessary to know that "Go Into the Water" was written for fish, or that the band was attacked by missile-bearing jets and a trained assassin during their first ever performance of the song for humans? Or that the lyrics for "Awaken" were taken from a Finnish book of necronamic spells and unintentionally summoned an enormous lake troll when performed (and all during an apology for destroying half of Finland on their previous tour to boot)? No, but knowledge of the episodes lend the songs much of their context and humor. And associating the sarcastic graduation theme "Go Forth and Die" with the accompanying: "Didn't you have anything to fall back on after your band was killed by blackbirds?" seems to make it doubly rewarding.

From a band whose morbid image and unintentional barbarity comes less from personal unpleasantness than a slavish devotion to metal culture, song titles like "Bloodrocuted", "Hatredcopter" and "Murmaider" (also written for fish) are doubly hilarious. Though it seems unlikely that the second Dethalbum (due to be released in less than two weeks) will live up to the first (from the cuts I've heard so far the songs seem far too homogeneous and unmelodic), it's nice to see the show's creators continuing to take the band seriously as real musicians, albeit cartoon ones.

Gotta love that cover art though.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Top Ten Worst Excuses For Journalism Ever

10) Top ten lists
9) Top ten lists
8) Top ten lists
7) Top ten lists
6) Top ten lists
5) Top ten lists
4) Top ten lists
3) Top ten lists
2) Top ten lists
1) Top ten lists

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why we have some of the problems that we do

Think of the people that we idolize, and then think that almost nobody knows this man's name.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Give-and-take on health care reform

This is more of what we need. Ignore the specific points being made here and notice the evenhanded discussion taking place here when cooler heads prevail. This could be a libertarian arguing against the public option with a mob of frustrated left-leaning college students and I like to think I'd feel the same way about it.

EDIT: And he can draw the United States from memory, apparently.