Fox and Talen's Journal
20 most recent posts

Date:2013-01-14 22:16
Subject:Officially Shutting It Down (Talen Head)
Security:Public

This hardly needs to be said at this point, but I'm done with this profile. My work is going to be collected on my own, tidier site: Press.

post a comment



Date:2012-01-05 23:38
Subject:Chip Tunes (Talen Head)
Security:Public

It's funny, isn't it, the way that things trip your memory up? The rustle of leaves, the sound of a car's horn, the rattle of a doorhandle, or the smell of smoke. Some things just bubble up, even amidst the black patches of memory.

It's come to my attention at thirty-five years of age, I simply am not going to be able to remember everything I've done in my life. There are stretches of lazy summers that are gone, now, all blurred together, unsure if I caught that grasshopper when I was nine, or eight, or was it six?

It's the scent of smoke this time, the rising fumes that jog my memory. In this case, it's a strange memory - and as I remember E, it jogs me to remember D, then C, then A, then back to B, then re-remember A, as if I had forgotten something of it. And A, in this case, was being yelled at by an editor.

The job of investigative journalist is a strange one. During my time in university learning the art of learning, one point that kept coming up is how many of the investigators responsible for famous and important exposures worked fifteen-hour days and went home to a rat-infested hole in the wall, and then when I graduated, I learned that the majority of my peers were going to be upper-middle class, if not outright wealthy. Journalism had become big business, and the dreadful yawning mouth of The Paper had gone from consuming news to consuming noise.

It had never really worked for me. I'd bought myself a battered raincoat the day I started my journalism course and it had, throughout the years, just gotten more battered over the years. Maybe it's ego, but I can't help but imagine I look quite classically cool as I emerge from the places where I ply my trade. battered raincoat, classic hat to hide classic bald spot, and it's that self image that has kept me from pushing up the ladder.

I'm an odd guy, I guess. I get into stories and I want to follow them through. It started a long time ago, and to tell you would take all the time we've got, I fancy - more time than column inches there are. It's not helped by my memory, though. I started taking notes of everything as a child because I did, in fact, spend most of my life forgetting things. When I hit high school, the paper just seemed a natural connection, and from there...

That's not what I wanted to talk about.

*


It's challenging to pin down when the stories start. Historically, the oldest incident that was part of the chain that put me here was in 1973 - before I was even born. In a sleepy town in Bullock County, Alabama. Two fourteen year old boys were reported at their school to have interrupted a teacher on the way to his car, before knocking him to the ground and cooperatively choking him to death. A dark story, particularly for those days, but rendered darker by the mystery that unfolded around it. Neither boy - Sydney or Craston - had anything I could find in common beyond the school. Craston was black, Sydney was white, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Craston was from a poor family, while Sydney's family owned property on the outskirts of town. Good grades, bad grades. One was taught by the teacher, the other wasn't. They had no mutual interest in sports, no common clubs, and in general, the murder was chalked up by the moral panickers of the day as a sign of the evils of desegregation.

Anyway, a pair of boys born in 1959 weren't going to face a normal prison environment. Both were found guilty - Craston being put into the general prison environment, and died within five years, while Sydney's, shall we put it, different family situation meant he went to a mental hospital where he remained until some time during the Reagan era.

The reports from the time were sketchy, in no small part because we're talking about Alabama in the 70s and it brought up a boiling-point topic that the population still weren't happy about when I went to talk to them. The one thing that I could find, throughout it all was that question, constantly asked by every newspaper reporter, before editorials had overtaken the print, of why?

The incident that got my attention involved, however, was of all things, a Black Friday story in a local mall, where a grandfather got into a fight over a CD for his grandson. Not that big a deal - there's always some story about a Black Friday shopper going overboard, whether it's the seventeen year old girl ram-raiding a store to get first access to Michael Jackson compilation CDs, or a mother macing other women over clothing. The thing that set this story apart is that most of the time, you don't have a senior citizen kill seven people and maim four more well after everyone has cleared out and started to run.

I'd been told to pull the information down off AP and just let them take care of the copy work because it wasn't a great story to bring up. The spectacle was one thing, but the last thing we wanted to do was send people away from malls for fear of crazed killers, and none of our story templates fit this one. We couldn't even take a tsk-tsk-tsk stance towards the Black Friday event itself, even though I had a bit of a reputation for that perogative in my writing. We mainly couldn't because at this point, the mall was leaning on us pretty hard. So why did I go?

Well, wouldn't you want to know?

The guy's name was Ryan Orrs. Sitting across from him in the police interview room, he looked almost like he'd stepped out of a Norman Rockwell. Red and blue check shirt. Hard beaten hands and cut-back fingernails like you'd expect from a man who worked in manufacturing. Whispy silver hair that gave his head the impression of always being in motion. Most of his hair, still, and round, gold-rimmed glasses. He wasn't a small man - understandably, considering what he'd done. I never remembered seeing a set of handcuffs binding such a man's wrists to the desk, and ankles to the ground, in any painting before. Sitting with my pencil twirling in my hand, I looked him over, and remembered the way the whole conversation just... meandered.

See, Ryan Orrs was not an idiot. He wasn't an angry man, either. And the conversation kept us coming around to finding out what the police had kept telling him had happened, rather than what he remembered. Because that was the really curious part of this mystery.

"Mr Orrs..."

"Ryan, please."

"I know we've spoken a lot about a lot of things, about your history, about your family, about your grandson... I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I do conversations like this as part of my job, and I keep coming back to wondering if you really are aware of what's going on."

The chair gave an awkward squeak as Mr Orrs shifted his shoulders forwards. "No." He finally said, voice getting lower.

"No, no, I haven't. The police have yelled at me, and a few of them have shown me photos, but really... I haven't got the faintest idea."

Adjusting my glasses, I turned through the pages of my notebook to the information I'd reduced from the police report. "According to this, and the witnesses and the coroners' report, you were struggling with-" I remember pausing at that point. I remember pausing because my notes were a ridiculous mess, and so were the police reports.

None of the witnsesses agreed on who got what. The CD - recovered from the first victim - was nice and clear, and Ryan had been loudly declaring that it was for his grandson before the fight broke out. Fight. It wasn't really a fight, either. Nobody was sure who hit first, but what they were sure of was the aftermath. One body which had to be identified from dental records. Six people dead from surprisingly surgical injuries, including a crushed larynx, an aorta that appeared to have been opened with a pen that was then jammed in to ensure a bleedout, a nose-break that drove bones up into the brain, and so on. The acts of maim were just as strange, with one victim having had all five of the fingers on her right hand torn off and the pointer finger on her left missing too.

Closing the notebook, I leaned forwards and drew a deep breath. "Honest to god, Mr Orr, it looks like you went crazy and killed a lot of people. Now, I understand that if you were in the military or the navy, you might have... skills that you don't want the police to know about," He gave me a quizzical look, but didn't go to interrupt me, "and you wouldn't tell a reporter, either. But... I don't think you're... I mean," I tilted my head and looked him over once more. "Mr Orr, according to the file on you, you weren't drafted and never served. You have no history of violence, nor of arson, which is often seen as an indicator. You worked as a welder for thirty-five years and retired recently to help with your daughter's home life, and I just cannot imagine how in the hell you of all people were involved in this. So... I mean, I don't know what you're going to tell me, but can you tell me anything?"

Ryan leaned forwards, running one hand nervously over the other. He finally found his voice with a stammer and a shudder. "I've seen the photos. I've seen the camera footage, too, they wanted me to see it, I think... I think, to see my reaction. I felt sick, you know..." Looking down at his hands, he shuddered. "I remember once, years ago... years ago, a young woman came up to me and handed me a white feather - we used to use those to see who was too cowardly to enlist, you know?" He tilted his head. "Shame boys into working. But I couldn't help it. Whenever I went to the offices, I just imagined what it'd be like to kill someone and felt sick to my stomach."

The results of the police demonstrations, or showing him pictures, had been almost universal - he'd fainted the first time, vomited when he saw the grainy black-and-white silent film, and he'd never improved in his reactions beyond being able to hold a conversation while they were around. It was as if he had no connection to the incident, and was a normal grandfather being exposed to images of shocking violence.

"They tell me I did it, and they showed me... but... but I just can't imagine it. I don't remember it... and..." he put his hand on his face. He drew a breath. A shudder of his shoulders and his croaking words faded away into nothing but the silent sound of tears. Pencil in my hand, I kept my distance still, and bit my lower lip. Every murderer lied about it. Every liar tried to be a good liar.

So why did I believe this man?

*


It was an easy thing to remember, the interview with Ryan Orr. Because that was the interview that started what in hindsight, was an obssession. You could only hear 'and nobody has any idea why' so many times before you start to see a pattern. Ryan Orr's story - which never got the national attention it should have, or really, any, - was the first stone in a long declining chain of memories.

The problem was not finding stories about inexplicable murders. The problem was finding inexplicable murders that were actually inexplicable. Journalists vary in their ability and their intentions, too. Sometimes ending a story with 'And we still are uncertain' is just a way to try and feel a bit less limp about the inverted writing style for which news calls. Most stories are about getting the most important detail at the end, rather than the start, but trust me - a headline world has that formula completely reversed.

Enough sifting though, and I found my second data point. I found the story of Craston and Sydney, and most importantly, I found the age the two were. The same year that Mr Orr was born, within six months. That made it easier to search the databases, and a point from which to work.

The stories had to then be filtered, finding those where the inexplicable elements were explic'd. Surprisingly, across the whole country, there were more than a few that were easily solved and, in hindsight, when I take my notebook back in to the police station and have them sift through it, they might be able to put a few discarded murders to rest. That I was helping people had fallen by the wayside in my mind, at least, though - because somehow, something about these cases just kept urging me onwards.

As piece by piece of the puzzle started to fall together, the erratic nature of the murders seemed to coalesce. The Bullock County case was a separate incident, with a long desert of time before another incident like it had cropped up. What I was looking at, eventually, was murders where the murderer claimed no memory of the incident, the murderer was born in 1959, and the murderer demonstrated no previous or later behaviour appropriate to a murderer.

Sydney had died, in his fifties, protesting to his dying day that he was innocent, that he couldn't remember anything of the incident, and that he had never even met Craston. The medical records were clear on that - every year, another review, another test, and another demonstration of no remorse. Strangely, as I researched, I was coming to suspect that there was some truth to this - and that by a principled stance of honesty, Sydney had doomed himself. If he'd lied, perhaps in his advancing years and helplessness, he might have been released. Of course, if that had happened, he'd be a fifty year old man with no skils and no life experience outside of electroshock therapy.

Yet...

Reykjavik, a mobile phone executive broke through the glass of his limousine and stabbed his driver in the neck once, in that same oddly surgical method, then duck-and-rolled out of the vehicle before it careened into a storefront, before standing around dumbly waiting for the police, claiming he had no idea what had happened. Born in the United States, and in 1959.

Twin brothers in Albany working as cleaners arrived on a site as the business was closing for the night, and went through a whole floor murdering seventeen different employees, breaking each body's legs after they were dead. They then walked to the next floor, cleaned it and the subsequent floors, went back downstairs, found the bodies and called the police. Security footage shows what they did. Born in 1959.

August Terrin, a mechanic working for a maritine museum repairing exhibits interrupted the repair of a submarine engine to kill three of his co-workers with a wrench, and was half-way through repairing the engine before he noticed them and fled the scene in terror. When questioned, he reported he was afraid that whoever had killed his coworkers would kill him, too.

The pattern got denser in the recent days. In fact, it almost seemed that they'd stepped up in the past year - with almost thirty incidents in this year alone, scattered all across the United States. That was the worrying thing. What had happened, and what had changed, to cause these incidents?

*


It was a ridiculous detail that got me looking. I noticed our own cleaner - and yes, let me tell you, you'll never see a person in the same way after this kind of research - vacuuming the floor after everyone else had left. He was dancing as he pushed the vacuum along, and I realised he was listening to earbuds. Even an older gent like him was listening to his earbuds, and that got me thinking.

Ryan Orrs' incident occurred over a CD in a music store. The cleaners might have had music devices to drown out the sound of the vacuums. Mechanics often use sound-dampening earplugs, and underneath them...? Earbuds. What if they'd all been listening to some music with a subliminal message...?

It didn't quite work, though. For a start, it was some whacky science fiction nonsense, and following that quickly was that Orrs was in the middle of a public area. The police report didn't show any music player in his personal effects. And of course, Craston and Sydney - they weren't exactly going to have an 8-track on hand. Still, a link was a link.

It was another month of study to find the common link between the playlists, too. Setting aside my two controls - Bullock County and Ryan Orrs - there was a clear musical connection between all the other incidents, a list that was quietly growing as I became more adept to recognize them. That led to playlists. Playlists led to applications that were designed to deduce the musical core of things, of searching crossreferenced artists. There weren't really any common artists across the whole list, but I didn't let that deter me.

When I had chased this rock all the way down the hill, I had learned a great deal about the music industry. I learned that, just as how the minced beef you got in a hamburger probably came from a hundred different cows, so to did the song that got onto the airwaves came from a thousand different sources. That there were 'artists' who were busting their butts to churn out thousands of song components every day for someone higher up the chain to construct into songs that would get on the airwaves. And then I learned that of all of these, one song on each playlist had a common creator.

Many came from large studios - but these songs were all simplistic, with an 8-bit tune underlying them, to give the song a 'retro' feel. Each one composed by a one-man company supposedly named NCR.

*


As we sat, I remember distinctly pulling at my tie, glancing around the tiny apartment. He wasn't exactly a picture of dignity and respect, of course - the man was a conspiracy theorist, wearing sweat pants that owned their title, a big thick wooly sweater over a long-sleeved shirt, both of which I suspect he'd been given the year he moved out of home, and a beard that had all the hallmarks of resulting from a lost war of ambivalence. Like abandoned rail networks, his face was crisscrossed with the telltale lines of different shaving techniques, knitting together an expression that said he fancied there was always something better to do than deal with the mess.

"Alright, then, Mr..."

"I prefer not to use my birth name."

I sigh, striking through the prescribed symbol for 'mr' on my pad. "Alright, then...?"

A pause as he realised he realised I was talking to him, and he gathered up his girth slightly in his chair and raised his coffee to his lips. "I go by NCR."

"Does that stand for something?"

He glared at me over the coffee.

"Tell you what, I'll stop with the questions - you understand why I'm here, you want your story told, so..." twirling the pencil in my hand, I brought one knee up under the other, forming a makeshift writing surface, and let my silence speak for me. To his credit, NCR, sensing an audience, started to tell me... things.

It seems that my investigations had not been incorrect, if fanciful. I had expected that there was some sort of unpleasant side effect of the musical undertone he'd used in his chipset music. A byproduct, known as a brown note, or even as madness note, such as was connected to incidents of mass hysteria. Of course, I had said it myself while doubting my words - not even sure at this point why I was sweltering in this would-be digital musician's home.

"No... it's project Cadmus." He said, as if that explained something.

Cadmus, the Greek myth of a man who sowed dragon's teeth, leapt to my mind, but he quickly brushed it aside, as he spun me a tale of fanciful black operative government powers, of secret societies, societies he assured me existed, and who have existed for much of humanity's civilized existence. He spoke to me of conspiracies and the ridiculous and as he talked, all I could feel is my perception of where I was sure the borders of the world were slip away.

"But Cadmus?"

In 1959, a government project was begun by one of these groups, the name of which I... I can't remember. I'll have to check my notebook later. Experiments in programming minds, of using triggered keywords to get projected results. The plan was to create a number of sleeper agents in randomly seeded locations who could be inspired to 'clean' an area if they heard the right sequence of notes. When I explained to him the story of Craston and Sydney, he'd considered it a test run - to see if they could be triggered to kill a complete stranger. Or maybe they'd both been triggered by the teacher accidentally. Or maybe the teacher was their handler.

The lack of good reporting and evidence for these incidents, it seems, was part of NCR's hypothesis. After all, if nobody was providing good information on this work that was, as a reasonable man might notice, completely off the wall strange, maybe there was some sign of a manipulating force taking a hand in things. It was still an unfalsifiable hypothesis, though, something I felt I could reject. Strange to think about, in hindsight. I after all, did not train in the sciences, but there I am using 'hypothesis,' when what I think I mean is 'theory.'

"They have been doing this now for many years. They've gotten better at it. You have to think of it as ... as a virus. They're spreading a virus across humanity. And what I've been doing... what I've been putting into the music is meant to make them show up. It's meant to defuse their agents before they can get out of hand."

Blink blink.

"I'm sorry, Mr- I mean, I'm sorry, NCR, before they get out of hand? You do know we're talking about adult men killing strangers and innocent people, right...?" I asked, tugging off my tie and giving him what was, I'm sure, an annoyed look.

"You have to consider it in terms of the greater... of the greater good," he said, as if that thought had only just now been spoken aloud. That he had only just now considered just what was going on as anything other than him opposing the man. I put one hand to my forehead, and shook it.

"And this is all from 1959, you say?"

"Yeah. That's when the project started."

"What have they done since then, then...?" I asked, tilting my head and looking at him inquisitively.

"... You know, I hadn't thought of it." he said, tapping his chin, as he turned around, reaching to his computer. "I mean, if it was me, I'd probably have set up some sort of defensive mechanism for the project. Some way to protect it without actually engaging it, so it could be denied later and just covered up like all the other-"

*


The strangest thing about it is, for all that the conversation was pretty important, I can't remember how it ended. I remember having my tie in my hands, I remember the smell of fire, and now... here I am. Just a journalist watching an apartment burn down. Strange, really. I wonder why I'd found it so compelling a case, now, because for all of my focus on it - heck, I got fired! - I can't quite work out why I bothered. Just another conspiracy theory nut, it seems - and no sooner did I leave his house than a fire breaks out. Probably one of his fancy electronic devices breaking down, too.

Hey, where's my notebook?

3 comments | post a comment



Date:2010-11-04 08:20
Subject:
Security:Public

So, the American midterm elections are over. This is, for those not aware, an election that's mostly about changing seats in Congress and the Senate.

The party I agree with less was able to establish itself in one of the three houses of government as the majority over the party I agree with more, and both dislike each other so much it's likely nothing of substance will get done in the US for the next two years as they gear up to the new election cycle.

Yet, I'm personally hopeful. Because there were a few big name tickets this year that were outright crazy. I mean, completely off-the-wall bonkers. Crazy in the way that legitimizes every silly urban myth Australians whisper then justify with 'in America...'

And none of those people got in. That's a good thing.

So America, at large, may not be doing everything I agree with (the big wedge issue this year was supposedly global warming), and it may have some very loud, very loony public figures who I am interested in because they are amazing at hubristic excess, but... it's just people disagreeing, you know? There's (hopefully) nobody seriously talking about armed revolution because the Other Guy Won.

Neat, huh?

1 comment | post a comment



Date:2010-10-14 09:46
Subject:My Thoughts on Mirror's Edge (Talen Head)
Security:Public
Mood: calm

Mirror's Edge is a first-person platform style game that synthesises together the French art of Parkour with a first-person perspective. That perspective, a long-standing utility of the action/shooter genre, has become so fundamentally tied to the idea of run-and-gun combat that very few game designers have attempted to use it for anything else. There've been a few first-person adventure games (and indeed, in the early days of first-person engines, it was one of the best ways for adventure games to use limited graphical resources), but for the most part, there's a native 'S' that follows 'FP.' When you take First-Person games into the action genre, there are things that are just expected.

This expectation - and defying it - makes Mirror's Edge a breathtaking, refreshing take on its genre, even if that genre is perhaps small by definition. If one were to consider Mirror's Edge to be a first-person game that involves a lot of action, reaction-time based stuff and, by necessity, guns, and therefore in the same genre as Halo and Quake (which, by the way, aren't the same type of game), then it's a very new take on the genre.

If you consider it to be a platform game, pursuing various death courses in one's escape from a variety of threats, then it's a unique way of looking at those - no longer are you somehow distant from these events, prescient of the guards behind you, giving you an opportunity to duck conspicuously large bullets and all that. Nope, you're in the muck, and you have to work to make yourself aware of your environment. You have to pay attention. This is a skill that most platform games eschew, even those that have made the transition to 3D.

So no matter how you slice it, Mirror's Edge is something new. That is, in my opinion, a good thing, a very good thing, something worth celebrating. Yet, while the principle is worth noting, the newness is well-worn off a game two years old. When one sets aside the novelty of what it tries to do, we are left with an unfortunate example of a decent game which had all the potential to be great. It is a game which is crafted of equal parts of glorious splendour and colosally frustrating failure.

Given that it's a game of ups and downs, I figure it's best to try and split the discussion in half, with two simple directions. What's good about it?

By what I understand of the principles that underscore parkour, Mirror's Edge is the more pure parkour game that exists. While it's part of a rising trend right now to include parkour's realistic-but-seemingly-not physical acrobatics in video games, the other games that share this trend - Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia being highlight examples - Mirror's Edge is the first one to not glorify it. That might seem momentarily counterproductive, but one of Parkour's principles is to be as efficient as possible, not to do anything for display. So you know, insofar as specific principles that matter to a French martial art go, neat!

Playing Medge, the visuals are going to just pop out at you. It's bright, there are primary colours, they contrast distinctly with white, and a bright blue sky. Even the inner workings of places like sewers and ship engine rooms are brightly painted with distinctive tones of green (which really, is a bit weird, but hey). After being told by the Playstation game catalogue for the past ten years that 'good' graphics come in the three-tone catalogue of mud, blood, and muzzle-flare, Mirror's Edge defies this and dives, full-bodied into bright and bold colours. Red light becomes a beacon to you, and the game was good about emphasising those factors that you care about in the architecture rather than leaving you to fumble around, jumping and hopping as you get near a wall to try and find the little ledge you have to climb up.

The characters also look good! Faith in particular is a wonderful example of a character design that defies a lot of common wisdom. She looks good - not my flavour, but she looks good, she's dressed sensible as a traceusse, and she's shown that she distinguishes herself from her fairly staid, boring environment with forms of individual expression like her tattoos. She hasn't got the same sense of overdesigned unnecessaryness that you see in characters like War and their ilk; she's got a very practical, sensible design that further emphasises the 'realness' of the setting.

The game also shows and flows alongside a narrative - it's a story-driven game that for the most part does a very good job of convincing you to listen. You're rarely pulled out of the action and put into cut scenes - though those cut scenes, in a different style, tend to be jarring - and then you get this kind of immersion that a narrative can really use as a device to get you paying attention. The story makes sense, and includes behaviour that you don't normally get to muck around with - every 'mission' is distinct in how it serves the story.

Now, as a corollary to the parkour notes above - that the game is pure parkour, that philosophical point is less interesting than just plain letting us watch the awesome parkour. Platforming from a first-person perspective is tricky, and Mirror's Edge isn't so fun because of its first-person perspective that it makes up for that. You know you're doing fantastic things and can imagine the structure of your passage, but you don't get to see it. You don't get to relish the image of Faith doing an amazingly neat bounce-hop-step whip-around wall-leap and grab! which diminishes the joy of the game.

While the game offers you a narrative direction, a story that actually creates characterisation and tells you to care about things, it isn't adequate; the characters that it creates for you to meet and deal with aren't very interesting. You're told you should care about Faith's situation, that you should really feel for her perspective on life, or that her sister's plight is very important, or that her friends matter, but none of them ever do anything to make you like them, or even just feel one way or another! I mean, when Three Dog in Fallout 3 crowed on the radio with his goofy name, it made me care - at first, I thought him to be a dickhead, but over the course of my time, hearing him talk, I became quite affectionate towards the ridiculous method he chose to express himself. There isn't any of that for Faith and her crew. They're just there. Bald, fairly basic ciphers that commit a pretty predictable plot into action, like mechanisms rather than people.

Meanwhile, the gun combat is interesting, but ultimately frustrating. You can steal guns from opponents - and that's very cool and fun. I tried to play the game like Elliot from Leverage for a good while there, taking guns away from people, beating them senseless, and tossing the gun over my shoulder. Unfortunately, this method becomes incredibly hard, and the gun combat you have to deal with is even harder. Guns aren't very accurate, your enemies are all heavily armoured, and while your opponents have large ammo clips, you can maybe milk two or three drops out of your own gun - worse if you're trying to play as if your gunplay is nonlethal!

The game does a lot with its architecture - you're always moving around, and as a platforming game, there's a large amount of 'space' spent by the level design. You're always interacting with things much bigger than yourself - climbing a skyscraper from the inside, running around inside a mall's inners, and even a massive storm drain. The finest work of the game, however, is when it puts you out under a wide-open sky, and lets you feel the wind in your hair, as it were. The rooftop climbing, teetering-falling-oh-shit-here-comes-the-ground feel of the early game is stifled, however, as the last part of the game focuses on enclosed spaces. Spaces that aren't claustrophobic, but after the wide open spaces with many different paths that the first half of the game showed you, those small, confined spaces feel positively cruel.

Remember that brilliant aesthetic I advocated earlier? The way the whole city looks different to the normal, trudging city crud that we're a little too used to, thanks to a thousand other FPS games? It's still true, but after taking that wonderful step away from the norm, it then creates a new norm. The inside of a ship's engine room looks almost the same as a rooftop air conditioning system, which looks more or less the same as the inside of an office building or a mall. That's not to say all the rooms are the same, but given how different the locations are, these locations are not different enough from one another.

We're at the frayed end of the rope at this point, so let me conclude the complaints with a discussion of something that should be better, an actual suggestion. Years ago, I heard from, of all things, the Robocop TV series, the line Don't Ever Forget What You Already Know. So guys? All of you making first-person platformers? When a person jumps, their eyes naturally move to look where they're going to land. They look DOWNWARD. There were video games that did this - that did a first-person jump where your point-of-view dipped downwards - in the nineteen eighties. And you can't even take the excuse that nobody's done it lately, because the Metroid Prime and Metroid Hunter games did it! Graarrgh, such a simple thing, done so badly.

Now, really, this is all retreading old news. But Mirror's Edge, like many of the games I play, is old; it's old enough that it's going into the cheap bins for twenty dollars or so. And there, I'd argue, it's well worth it. Twenty dollars could get you a good, but static, movie, or maybe a really nice meal.

Mirror's Edge is worth more to the kind of person who will get into the experience of taking a level, then trying to take it better again. If you want a game where you have to really gnash at it for a good long time to get your money out of it, Mirror's Edge is great.

On the other hand, if you're one of the disenfranchised children of the 1990s looking for an adventure-platformer, with a great plot and a lot of enjoyable cast of characters, you're going to be sadly disappointed.

1 comment | post a comment



Date:2010-04-01 08:58
Subject:On Sons. (Talen Head)
Security:Public

I wrote this last night, speaking to a friend about her son. I was so proud of it I felt it merited public attention.

Your son is going to live in a world where we will be reaching out to places in the world that but my father's lifetime ago, did not exist in our understanding.

When my father was born, the world was standing tenatively in the dawn of a nuclear age; in the shadows cast from Nagasaki. Atoms were dangerous, capricious things that loomed ominously over the landscape, that made men fear, that brought the world under a blanket of snow so cold that at least twice, the whole world stood on the precipice of making that winter eternal. Twice over, hands hovered over the buttons.

When I was born, we didn't know what we were. Didn't know why we were. And I was ten when the USSR collapsed and the bombs stopped being important. And we could stop defining ourselves by who we were against and had to start stumbling towards telling people who we are.

Your son is going to grow up in this world. A world shaped by people who have, through the power of thought, looked at the sun and realised that there is nothing in this world that we cannot understand if we but try; that this is our world, and that we owe it a responsibility of care, and that if we but care enough to show an interest, it will never fail to surprise and to delight us.

You have given the world a beautiful gift, that is your son, and you have given your son the beautiful gift that is the whole world.

No angels, no dragons, no elves or imps or pixies or fairies; you have brought him into a world that's there: It's really, really there. You don't need to give him ephemeral things like faith and miracles. You can give him the things that are there; it is enough for him, and it has to be enough for him, because it is everything that there is.

Justice. Love. Duty. Beauty.

These things are things that we make. And they are things that mean nothing unless we share them. There is always something beautiful waiting to be known.

And that's not a quote. That's just what I think.

3 comments | post a comment



Date:2010-03-25 10:25
Subject:The Sign Of Three Game Brief
Security:Public

The Sign Of Three

A Cobrin'Seil Campaign

Game Brief

Our hero stands, wealth in hand,
The prize for his endeavors.
The masses cheer, to hide their fears
That no man lives forever.


Arnea! Spread wide as Bidestra from tip to tip, an ancient land with its legacy of a thousand warring kings. There's not a grain of sand across the shimmering deserts that hasn't tasted blood at some point. Wood, stone, sand, steel - if it's there, someone's used it as a weapon. Right now, that continent is a dozen countries strong - whatever you can consider Nbyana or Jarrath - and not a one of them likes the other.

Funny thing, though? They're all slaves. From the Savalyne in their ivory pyramid to the brass spires of Horandi, there's not a man on that land who probably isn't descended from slaves. It's a strange, strange day, when the princes of slaves shape the world.

Stranger still, these days, those people who fight so hard not to be remembered, but to be forgotten...

... but if a man wishes to be forgotten forever...

... there's not a better place than the pitiless wilds of Arnea.


Mechanical Information: The game is a D&D 3.5 campaign, set in Cobrin`Seil, with world information available here. I know most of my players are very familiar with Cobrin`Seil's pulp-magepunk-fantasy setting, and I figure that our newcomer will have plenty of chances to ask questions about what's going on.

There's banned stuff; there are altered rules and game-wide nerfs. To squash a few big bugs before you ask me, the spells Divine Power, Polymorph, Baleful Polymorph, Shapechange and Tenser's Transformation are all gone.

Every 'wizard' prestige class that gives full spellcasting advancement and does not either require multiclassing or a very large feat payload (such as the Sacred Fist or Jade Phoenix Mage) loses its first level of spellcasting advancement. Any prestige class of that same type that gives up one spellcasting level at any level but first now loses that spellcasting level at first level. I want such classes to involve an actual sacrifice.

The druid is completely out, because I cannot be arsed adjudicating Wild Shape nerfs. If you want to make a nature-themed character who isn't overpowered, we have a number of alternative options (the Feral Animist or the Spirit Shaman, for example).

These are principles around which the rules are crafted; approach me to discuss what's going on, and we can talk it out. A lot of things are permissable - I view my role as the GM to keep players reasonably close to one another in power level and to keep anything from running too wild out of control.

Some contentious creatures that are allowed? Divine Metamagic, the Mystic Theurge, the Warlock, Tome Of Battle, and the Vow Of Poverty.

Stats are obtained through the 42-point point-buy method. I'm available via my email address, and welcome any questions or feedback people have or want.

2 comments | post a comment



Date:2010-03-20 10:08
Subject:Stunning biological thought (Talen Head)
Security:Public

Smurfette is the only male smurf.

Speaking as a population, details like long hair and hips and a high voice are not necessarily gender indicators. Let us not forget the peacock, after all, or many other birds, where the 'pretty' bird is the male (so he can better attract mates, and, after having done that, distract predators from his progeny). To look at the smurfs as a population, Smurfette is a member of one gender (we assume), and the others are members of another.

Smurfette's gender is indicated by pronoun usage - the smurfs do indicate her as different for some reason. However, as a population, any long-term community with newcomers is not going to survive with only one breeding-feasible creature. There's nothing to indicate that smurf gestation period and mating habits are wildly out of whack with what we're used to. If a smurf were to be born 'fully grown' very quickly, it would ask for a lot of resources and take a lot of toll on its 'mother.' They're complex organisms, things that work for ants won't work for them.

So, assuming that Smurfette is a different gender, and assuming as complex organisms the smurfs have a reasonable gestation periods, the conclusion that makes the most sense to me is that Smurfette is, in fact, male - and every other smurf is female, responsible for the gestation and development of young. This explains how the population can grow and why the smurfs themselves have such homogenity - there are always new smurfs being born, off-screen, because Smurfette's always spreading his gamtes.

5 comments | post a comment



Date:2010-02-25 15:28
Subject:On Style (Talen Head)
Security:Public

Right now my gaming group stands in a transitional zone between systems we like (4th Edition D&D, D20 Modern) and systems we've mastered (3.5th Edition D&D). The ability to sustain a narrative is, for the most part, independent of the mechanisms used to maintain that narrative, as a good enough narrative will make almost any mechanisms palatable, and can also do a lot to pull players away from bad mechanisms. There are many players who can recognise how bad mechanics pull away at the narrative, and avoid those mechanics 'because of the hassle.' I have been using this time as a player, not as a gamemaster, to really consider the systems from the perspective I normally don't have. Due to our unfamiliarity with the systems, I have a lot of time to consider what's going on, as there are routine breaks in the flow while rules are double-checked, details are consulted and gamemaster rulings challenged.

That problem has become fundamental to many of the gaming experiences in these new systems, a problem I recognised in another system, Big Eyes, Small Mouth. The common link between them is that there's an absence of a setting, an absence of a style. The more I dwell on this topic in observation, the more I have come to consider this thesis. Style is a mechanical necessity. Due to these settings being as undefined as they can get away with, mechanical concerns are brought up that, if the style was best understood, would be easily set aside.

To draw on the potential whipping-boy D20 Modern, if Die Hard - the original - was run as a D20 Modern game, in style and mechanisms, there would be almost no concerns whatsoever about a character making the DC 30 check required to break a plate glass window. Why? Because people break through windows in that kind of movie all the time. You don't see the ten minute sequence of Bruce Willis swinging his gun into plate-glass windows with a resounding bonk accompanying every blow. Leaping through the window is a given! But that's not the same case for a claustrophobic movie like REC - where that plate glass is supposed to represent the ultimate border of the game world. Flailing against a window you can't break and feeling helpless is something that adds to that story, not detracts from it.

This is not to say these are bad systems because they try to be modular. If I have a complaint in this regard, it is that neither game presses importantly enough on the Gamesmaster that the style of the game, the setting and its tone are part of a mechanical ramp that the players are going to use to get used to the mechanics of the game. This is part of what makes the Eberron campaign setting for D&D so potent a tool for players to experience. It has a clear style, a clear feel - Eberron is a game that is about fighting the villain atop constrcuted bridges, of riding the collapsing, ruined statue down the hillside and fighting the hill giant that is desperately clinging to it at the same time.

If a player has a good feel for how things should work, they'll be more likely to try to do the things you want them to do. If a player hasn't, and they don't, the game becomes much more about the mechanisms that lay there, and they can be quite ugly. This can lend players to start thinking of problems in a way that is all about solving them as efficiently or disruptively as possible - they attempt to 'act out.'

Consider our routine ripping on Mournglash for his desire to find a third path through every binary option. That is because in his mind, these challenges were presented in such a way as to be a battle of cleverness, and in the kind of stories he wanted them to be, it was the cleverness of the hero that led to them rejecting the precepts of the game. He had an idea of how things should be, and he tried to force that onto the game. That's not to say that this was a good or bad habit, by the way; it was a purely neutral behaviour that a Gamesmaster can direct to useful ends, or can be used to exasperate the Gamesmaster's ends.

Another example is from Lucasarts' game collection. To provide an outline of their newer, upcoming game Full Throttle, a developer proposed the distinction between the protaganist of Full Throttle, Ben, with previous Lucasarts protaganists, such as Day Of The Tentacle's Bernard Bernoulli. Bernard is a nerd who needs a crowbar's help to pick up gum from the floor, and carries around a book so boring that it can put horses to sleep. Ben is a six and a half foot tall biker whose main hobby is vehicular homicide.

The scenario was as follows; Both protaganists are presented with a locked door, and have nothing but a sandwich in their inventory. Bernard would open the sandwich; take the mayonnaise from it, and use that to grease the lock, before sliding a piece of lettuce under the door, pushing the key out of the lock with the toothpick, catching it on the lettuce, and pulling it back under, before using the key to unlock the door. Ben kicks the door in while eating the sandwich. This is what style can get you. You can have a group stymied by a door which you just want them to kick down, or you can have a group kicking all the rich, story-dispensing NPCs in the head (and making them explode) if you send the wrong messages about the style of the game and its setting.

Now, I know I have a powerful objection to the word, but it's the best I can manage here. To simplify this piece so far:

These systems do not clearly convey to either the players or the Gamesmaster what they, in play, should be like.

Without this pull, players are going to be left aimless. It's not all about group cohesion. Your party of treasure hunters aren't going to necessarily be plunging further into the dungeon in pursuit of treasure if they don't know that that's what they're supposed to be doing. Sure, if they don't like one another, that makes it worse, but often the utility of a setting can compensate. If everyone knows they're there to profit, and that they should want to profit, inter-character conflict becomes more interesting because it has to contrast with and work against the common goal. If there's none of that common goal - that reason to be cohesive - the players stay in contact 'just because,' which isn't good and often breaks mood.

Without style, encounters become broken down into point-and-click puzzles without any of the comedy of the games that made us love those puzzles. They become a chain of 'Use Gun On Man.'

3 comments | post a comment



Date:2010-02-19 11:57
Subject:Today's Weirdness! (Talen Head)
Security:Public

In local news, I have instituted a new rule; Any time I enter the kitchen, for any reason, I can't leave until I've washed something up if there's anything that can be washed up. Two positive effects; first, I'm getting more washing up done, and second, I'm not going to the kitchen as much.

But in international news, with an eye to the Olympics, we learned today that an infatuated, mentally challenged man successfully evaded security in the Olympics stadium sufficient enough to get within twelve steps of Vice President Joe Biden. He was intercepted by two plainclothes female mounties who picked him out of the crowd as seeming 'a bit odd,' spoke to him him, and captured him when he attempted to run.

Good Thing: Layered security did its job. Guy got apprehended and nothing bad came of it.
Bad Thing: He got past MOST of the security with a picture of a security pass he printed off the internet and laminated at Kinko's.
Weird Thing: INFATUATED WITH JOE BIDEN?

Bonus Weird Thing: In three days time all I'm going to remember is my own elaborate fantasy of what plainclothes female mounties look like. And it's hot.

post a comment



Date:2010-02-04 00:46
Subject:One Avatar I Will Complain About
Security:Public

Disclaimer: The following is written entirely as an emotional exercise in expressing an opinion that will most likely be both unpopular in social environments. As with many things under pressure, this makes the contents more volatile. Cases will be overstated. Fairness will probably be diminished. Consider that this opinion will by necessity be suppressed in public, and consider the venom more retaliatory than mandatory.

I'm going to hear the word 'just' used a lot in discussions of James Cameron's Avatar, I think. Any failing the narrative had can be neatly swept away under the heading of it being Just this or Just that, or I'm Just overthinking, or I don't like it because I Just want to.

Avatar is to me some kind of blessed ambergris awash on the shore, a fiasco so large and grandoise I could clamber inside and start hollowing away at its awfulness and not be done, months later, my grisly work having taken on a thoroughly rancid smell in the wake of the untouched parts now bwing old, fetid, and no longer interesting.

This movie is simply too big to criticze. I could spend as much time as the movie itself takes to play out, merely nit-picking details, talking about how the naming scheme for things is bad, the science is bad, the engineering is stupid, the world not as interesting as it says it is, and so on. To tackle the big issues, such as those of characterisation, of depth, of the story as we are told it, of storytelling technique, overused and underused elements, would be essays unto themselves and require a lot of re-watching that would mandate a viewer or reader be utterly obssesed about both this film, and, for some reason, my negative opinion of it.

Without delving too deep into the matter, I feel that District 9 handled the inhumanity of humanity theme much better and is in my opinion, a significantly better film, and integrates its Action Movie shenanigans much more satisfyingly. If you're wavering on whether to watch the movie, consider that it has a simple story, with every possible thing telegraphed ahead of time. This is actually kinda satisfying, since if you're looking for those moments, you can feel kinda satisfied as the story progresses ahead of you.

Still, the concepts the story handled were all handled in a Fischer-Price fashion, simplified to the point of being, well, childish. Pandora was stated by a man not given to lying as a massively dangerous jungle, yet by observation it seems to be far less dangerous than real-world jungles. The biology doesn't work, but James Cameron admits this, so it's somehow okay. Whatever of its many messages it tries to deliver are all mangled by one another, and it's internally inconsistant.

To give it its due, the film is visually splendid and, bearing that in mind, it is, I feel, a good film to show children. I feel that by broaching topics of death, and of inhuman behaviour, with its simplified story elements, it can serve as a good stepping stone for children still entering into the adult range. That this is The Biggest Movie Ever (and, it really does seem it is), that this is the New Titanic that King Kong was supposed to be, and that the best I can say of it is that it's a good stepping stone for children to better work, should indicate how awful I felt the film was on its own merits.

Blech.

The funny thing is, despite wanting to spend hours talking about how terrible the movie is, I had a lot of fun tonight and really enjoyed myself going out to watch the film in question.

3 comments | post a comment



Date:2010-01-24 17:03
Subject:A review! (Talen Head)
Security:Public

Being at one point in my life a ten year old boy, I had a full chance to get really acquainted with the varieties of and forms of ways to make milk interesting. Milo and Quik are the two big brands and they had a variety of other, probably older variants that were less brand-recognised, including No Name Chocolate Milk Powder. Mostly, these milk additives are decent, but unremarkable ways to spice up a bit of milk.

The concern I have with them is that as I grew older I started to consume the whole glass of milk, not just the foamy stuff on top, and that led to a realisation that most of the time when you make a cold milo, you are making a cold trench of milo crumbs soaked in milk to rest on the top, and a vaguely-milo flavoured tumbler of milk beneath it. This is not, to my surprise, a bad thing. I've heard from some that they actually prefer the milo to do that, and consider sculling a tall glass of tinted milk to be a small chore to complete in the name of scooping up these drifting milobergs. For me, this arrangement lacks a certain wholeness to it.

Perhaps as the result of a childhood that imprinted on me the idea of saving the best till last, I find the idea of a pleasant experience followed by a chore to be made worse because of the lack of anticipation. I want it to taste like chocolate all the way down. Understanding that of my tastes is hopefully a useful guide for knowing whether or not you will appreciate Dick Smith's OzeChoc as much as I do.

OzeChoc just blends into the milk, straight away. The powder's a little clumpy, meaning you can if you're not vigorous enough with your stirring, wind up with the occasional dry taste of sugary dust in your drink. If you've the patience, you can crush it in the tub with a spoon and make sure it's finer before you stir it into the milk, and avoid that problem, or you can just stir like a mofo. Either way, there's no boiling water to muck around with, and no need for pan to boil milk. Glass of milk, spook, and OzeChoc. That it tastes good is really quite perfuctionary at this stage in the process. We're so advanced as a culture that you'd need to be proactively trying to produce 'chocolate milk flavouring' that somehow failed to taste of pleasantly sweet chocolate flavours.

It's something of a pleasant surprise to find a way in which I can support Dick Smith. The guy's a nice man, and a skeptic as well, so I'm glad I can purchase his products without having to resort to consuming Dickbutter and Dicktams.

5 comments | post a comment



Date:2010-01-23 04:26
Subject:Monthly post?
Security:Public

Presented without comment.

post a comment



Date:2009-12-06 04:43
Subject:Rolling Rocks
Security:Public
Mood: hopeful

"I say I'm a guy
But really I'm just a speck
Compared to a planet
And compared to a star
The planet's just another speck;
To think about all of this
To think about the vast, emptiness of space
With billions of billions of stars
Billions and billions of specks."
- Bill Nye, The Eyes Of Nye
This is my first sermon, so you're going to have to bear with me. I understand all preachers, on their first few tries, get to use that excuse. Once upon a time, my father, a preacher too, related to me that you can reuse any sermon within a year if your congregation is more than a hundred people. The smaller your congregation, the longer their memories, and the less they want to kick up a stink at hearing the same thing again. With an audience of... yes, yes, you in the back... seven people, I'll be able to repeat this whole thing sometime in 2013, after the conclusion of the Mayan calendar and, of course, all our lives.

The proceeding quote by Bill Nye is a fascinating one to me, brought to my attention by the Symphony of Science piece, 'We Are All Connected.' It's spoken by a man who has a career primarily as a children's science presenter, an educator who meets so few of his students, in a piece he made to express his views, unshackled by the needs to be 'whacky' or 'funny.' The net result is this above paeon, where he gives the audience a moment to appreciate the scale of the universe - and it is an awesome scale, if you stop to let your mind creep around the edges of it.

The world to which Carl Sagan's Billions And Billions spoke is a world, I can say, that is so different to the world in which I found myself growing up and living as to make the sounding of it be alien in my ear. To Nye, and to me, there's a certain helpless awe at the beauty. It can be depressing, if you choose to focus on the darkness; certainly, if you were to briefly compose things in their darkest possible tone, there is the meddlesome reality of physics as we understand it which says, in a cosmic sense, we came from nothing important and we're going nowhere interesting, if you take a long enough view. Even through that lens of deliberate cynicism, however, we have to squint pretty hard to not see the exceptional things. Because the dawn of the universe was not, as I understood it in my youth, a single colossal block that represented all matter, but was rather everything that was, is and ever will be, compressed into a single unit of volume. It was intensely hot in a place where there was no time to be hot. And of course, in that state there's potential; there's the hope, there's the idea that this thing represents everything. In that one point, there was the possibility for New York City, for hommus, for Meat Loaf tickets, for my nephew, for baseball caps and rear spoiler fins. Everything. It takes a lot of mental effort to make everything boring.

When you flick the dial to the other end of the reel and look at the universe when it's done, the picture is a lot more grim. It's a vast soup, beige in colour - if you could view it from the outside - and it spans the limits of our universe, spread out as evenly as possible. The Heat Death sounds like a terrifying thing, because it does represent, to the mind of a science-borne person who is willing to embrace the realities of the life we live, an end point. It doesn't, really - well before that point, we'll have to be tapping black holes for energy if we want enough heat to warm a broom closet, but the Heat Death represents a cut-off point at which point current understanding says 'Seriously, this is it.' It is sad to consider, a fleeting whisper in the mind that speaks to us of the impermanence of everything, and it is that shadow that looms ahead of us when we think of space in saddening terms.

First, the Heat Death is not on the horizon. It's not even on the horizon's horizon. Nor that horizon, nor that horizon, nor that horizon. We have more lifetimes time to conquer these challenges and perhaps even encounter some fascinating tool, some useful way to achieve beyond the limits of what we understand to be even feasible, or to come to terms with what we see, or to travel to another universe or whatever than we have people alive. And even then, all this provides us with not a sad denoument to the story of our universe - it is in fact, but a setting fixture, a backdrop for the real drama of our cosmos, the story of our galaxy, the speck made of billions and billions of specks, some of which were orbited by other specks, upon which live, in this case, roughly seven billion specks.

This is an expression of wonder. It is an expression of awe. It is an expression of something that, in the oldest meaning of the world, something that is holy. It speaks to me of scale. It speaks to me of preciousness. Of rarity.

The universe is a vast wasteland, and contrary to popular thought, it is not a cold and pitiless place. Indifferent indeed, but it is a desert, hot in ways that it's hard to understand and boiling in ways that we can barely feel. And across this vast desert, there are strung bright lights, campfires we call planets. Right now, we are all huddled around this particular campfire, a bright light in the darkness. It feels almost shameful to quote Sagan here, but his message deserves to be echoed: everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was... This is our campfire. We are travellers across this desert, and we are looking for water. But not all these travellers are like us - some are very small, some are very large, and they are all here with us.

How much more important is it, then, to treat them well?

If you flatten this universe, roll it up like a rug, grind it into powder and winnow through that powder with the finest of seives and you will never find another human being just like your lover. You do not love someone who is one in a million. They are not one in a trillion. There are not words for the beauty and rarity of our lone little star-travellers, knots in the cosmos that stare out upon the world that brought us to be, the cosmos that we are ourselves.

There are no words.

We stand before a vast desert in which there is such a scope of beauty and wonder, and things to be learned and discovered and understood all over anew. Yes, we should feel small before such things, because though we know, in the end, it must be a finite quantity, its scope is so great that we haven't the tools to grapple with the scale. It is so close as to infinite as to make no difference. In our own history on this planet, that of the clever storytelling monkeys, humanity has found laying behind us, a billion ancestors, and a billion more, more creatures that have died than have been alive at any one point in time. We have looked back into our own history, we have looked into the stars, and we have even looked into the very building blocks of the world, and what we have seen is that our world is both larger, and finer, and longer and more interesting than we would have ever been able to invent on our own. The world we are in looks back at us, and says Look at your works, ye currently mighty, and be humble.

Our world is one that tells us that we are a limited creature. We are finite and we are rare and we last for a heartbeat of a sun.

So, noble scientist - And I mean real scientists. I mean actual scientists, because I know you're reading this because I sent it to you - what am I trying to tell you with this? For the most part, you're all completely aware of these facts, and you've probably heard it said better by educators who were trying to inspire and grow in you that passion, beauty and joy that you can receive from science. Yet now you slog through what can only be called a job, in which searching for open anglebrackets, navigating CAD4, 'resolving biomass' (a euphemism up there with 'abbattoir') and of course, paperwork. And then you go home and come to bed and you sit up and watch as some wanker stands up and says something like 'The science is still out on science.'

It can grind you down. And the world shrinks, the vast cosmos outside and the inner universe that teems beneath the limit of our eyes, and somewhere, those muddy, grey lenses and you start to squint and it can feel so very tiring. The facts that science carved out of the world and that spend even to this day refining are scorned and spurned. Even the most iconic understood scientific realities in our world have people who rail against them. There is a serious, sincere flat earth society. Homeopathy and Chiropractic both throw Germ Theory under the bus. Evolution is being hammered at by Creationists. There are Zero Denialists!

This, sadly, is true. I have stood in the presence of sincere, well-meaning and completely wrong people who will routinely and aggressively argue for things they don't understand where their stance is completely wrong.

With the knowledge that spans from whence we started, afraid of fire, afraid of earthquakes, standing beneath trees and hoping they ward us from the lightning, dying to our teeth and brutalising one another as our options for interacting with the world it can feel at times much as you, scientists, are following a sisyphean path. No sooner do you roll the stone up the hill, than it tumbles back down.

Hope shines, yet, though, and in the parlance of gamers, here it is: Knowledge is the most powerful buff there is - and it stacks. That's why it's important to roll the stones up the hill. Some will roll back down, yes. And when we do that, we go back down the hill, and we roll them back up again. And when that stone rolls down the hill again?

We brace the shoulder and we roll that motherfucker up the hill once more.

When we find a stone atop the hill, we can shore it up a little. We can show our children and our friends, See this Stone? See this thing that seems so obvious and safe up here? Once upon a time, it was down in the valley, and people feared its shadow. Look at it now, look at it here, up on the hilltop, in the light of the sun, we see it as a monument for what we have done.

The hill is not the scientific method, the stones are not the hard-worn facts carved out and worn smooth, freed from ignorance by the weathering of days. The hill is public understanding, the stones our ideas, the ways we as people handle them.

Spoken aloud, here is where I would shuffle my paperwork, clear my throat, and let the conversation lull. This is where the little kids in the audience would be quietly adjusting in their seats, wondering if it's almost over. Sorry, kids, suck it down.

Liquid Oxygen is a substance that in 1845, Michael Faraday pronounced impossible to make. It was one of the 'permanent gasses,' elements that science at the time understood to be different to the other gasses in that they didn't liquefy the way that Faraday was expecting. Faraday reduced all the gasses he could find into liquids because, while doing something else, he noticed that he had developed a method that let him do it - so he went on to try it on everything he could. Not that this was the first time Faraday did something like that; he and Humphrey Davy set a diamond on fire and found it was made of carbon, not so much so because they wanted to see what would happen, but because they devised a method and thought it should work, wanting to see what would happen if they did it.

Note that Faraday's creation of the dynamo and the electric motor were in a similar vein; he was trying to find a way to overcome the problem of having something with a current being run through it spin without restraint, and was the guy who nutted out that he could use mercury. That he had, at first without noticing, created an item that could convert mechanical energy into electricity and back again took a moment to settle in.

Now, despite what Lord Kelvin's proponents, most of whom are about as historically informed as the fact-checker for Wild Wild West, Liquid Oxygen wasn't finally distilled from the the air itself until Raoul Pictet, a mad Swiss physicist in 1877. He was able to liquefy oxygen by taking a totally different path to Faraday. Yet he wasn't the only man doing it, and while he probably did it first, the alternative venue makes for a better narrative, so follow along: Alongside Pictet was Louis Paul Cailletet, whose liquified oxygen was not the result of aggressive competition, but was instead because he was finding accidents in forges weird.

Following gaseous impurities through the refinement of steel, Cailletet found that exploding steel was the result of escaping gas, and saw that pressure and heat connected. Taking this method and stepping backwards, flipping it in reverse, by applying pressure, he could increase the temperature at which the substance boils. And through that method, by removing heat and adding pressure, Cailletet stepped from the heat of the forge and into the shivering cold of liquid sky.

Three steps. A technique discovered by incident. An exploration of the technique. And an alternative technique developed exploring trying to do what that other technique couldn't. Why is this interesting? Why is it important? Sure, these liquid compounds are made useful - Liquid methane has applications, sure, but nobody you know uses it, do they?

The engines that propelled Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, into the skies were powered in part by dumping vast quantities of liquified oxygen as an oxidant.

When Pictet and Cailletet and Faraday took the steps along that path that they did, they did not do so planning to send us from the cradle of our birth into the vast open wilds of space. They did it for curiosity. They did it because Oh hello, that's interesting, because What happens if I try this?, because Faraday couldn't. These problems were solved for their own sakes. They were small steps that were nonetheless essential in developing the hardware that sends men to the moon.

What are you, my scientist friends? What are you? Are you a computer scientist, a person who makes lightning dance across pathways of thinking sand? Do you speak the language that makes the works of men into the echoing, resounding mind of sand - which is simple and yet intricate in that it can do almost anything we tell it to if we can but conceive of how to tell it. Are you a biologist, a person who, last I heard of it, was finding a way to bridge between plastics, made from oils that are themselves made from the blood and bone and skin and nerves and hairs of our forefathers, an inheritance from the prior kings and queens of this world, and the nerves and blood and bones we ourselves currently have, also our inheritance of our forefathers, handed down recklessly, thrown from generation to generation as a kind of genetic game of hot potato, a trillion trillion temporary solutions that coalesce in the shape of us? Are you an engineer, a man who stands before a mountain and can mutter to himself in all honesty, "Well, I can do better than that?"

You are all, collectively, toweringly more intelligent than I am, than I ever fear I will be, and even if you haven't more raw talent, you have all shown the dedication and the strength of mind to bend your natural inclination to learn to swim in the vast ocean of knowledge which is so far beyond most people that you have to invent a language to speak to one another, a language designed to be precise.

You may feel you're not doing much. But you're making ripples. And those ripples in the ocean will connect with other ripples, and other ripples, and eventually they will be a roaring tide.

I cannot tell you, you, my friends, you, my peers, you, the people I love and the people who have helped my in even the most implicit ways to step away from superstition and nonsense and lies told to goatherds, just how much respect I have for you.

The men of the enlightenment believed in one unfortunately beautiful but naive principle; They believed in the idea of the momentum of progress, the notion that it was simply inevitable that knowledge would expound and flow. They didn't fight for science because why would you fight for that? It would be like assisting a tidal wave, trying to speed the sunlight.

It is precious and people like you are part of the momentum, people who fight for it and fight within it, but always part of it. It is our shield and our cause; it informs and uplifts our lives, it enriches our understanding of the world around us and lets us move ourselves towards the things that we truly deem to be important.

We know better. We know that science is not a sun, it is not a tidal wave. It is a candle. A light that flickers, that people don't see the light, but instead see the shadows it casts across the valley. They fear what we don't understand and flee from the light, staying in the shadow and holding their breath for fear of the monsters that the candle shows to be just rocks.

With determination and vigor then, we step out and see a shadow in the valley, and we go and get our sticks and our shovels and we start shoving the rock up the hill, all over again. It is a labour of love, enlightening our fellow man, and is such a fight worth fighting.

4 comments | post a comment



Date:2009-12-03 11:58
Subject:Sometimes
Security:Public

I think I just play with the ferrets so I have an excuse to hit someone in the face with my old socks.

post a comment



Date:2009-11-24 19:25
Subject:You ask yourself, why do we design?
Security:Public

Why do I pursue the aims I do, in the names of game balance?

It's because of the people who support the underdog. It's because of those people who admire and respect the fighter. It's for people like her.

4 comments | post a comment



Date:2009-11-23 17:39
Subject:Sometimes
Security:Public

you just find something that reminds you unfailingly and unrelentingly of a friend you love.

From Glendon Mellow who seems to be a nice proper chap and all.

1 comment | post a comment



Date:2009-11-22 23:51
Subject:Out of context quote.
Security:Public

Jack: There's nothing wrong with being elite.
Or another example.
This one isn't about collectibles but it's the same kind of thing. I'm in a book store ... for new books. I've gone a little bit crazy and I'm about to spend a couple of hundred bucks. I murmur under my breath "money's too tight to mention".
Now the guy behind the register, he hears this. He looks at me, nodding his head knowingly like we're in some "club of cool" together. He says, "Yeah, Simply Red" like it's a password, and now we do the secret handshake.
And I'm thinking "Simply Red"? Lame English band. More soul at a polka convention. And the book store guy thinks he's on some kind of inside loop with that.
Sadie: Jack, that's the smuggest thing I ever heard. A guy tries to be nice and you stand there hating him just because he hasn't heard of the Valentine Brothers.
You're like my ex-boyfriend. He was that way about authors. He'd deliberately drop obscure quotes and references. He'd take over conversations at parties. But none of what he read was for the love of it. His knowledge was like a weapon.
Don't tell me you're like that. I don't want another jerk. I've had...
Hey, why are you smiling?
Jack: Because you've heard of the Valentine Brothers.
Fuck.

1 comment | post a comment



Date:2009-11-19 21:16
Subject:Oh good christ
Security:Public

From wsfa:

"I'm not willing to give my true self up. It's a testament to my real personality that I would go so far as to make up another personality to give to the world," [Megan] Fox tells The New York Times Magazine. "The reality is, I'm hidden amongst all the insanity. Nobody can find me."
No, it's really not, Megan. You're an actor. We expect you to lie to people. You're also a pretty girl. We expect you to pretend to be deep. You're also an American. We expect you to think that you're doing something amazing and clever when you're just doing the equivalent of tying your shoelaces.

4 comments | post a comment



Date:2009-11-18 17:24
Subject:Plucked From Amazon.Com
Security:Public

From this review of Roing Gogue, Sarah Palin's autobiomographicality:

Obviously a liberal. It seems they enjoy this type of ad hominem humor. What can you say? The French think Jerry Lewis is funny.
The irony burns.

2 comments | post a comment



Date:2009-11-18 04:40
Subject:From tonight's copy writing:
Security:Public

'Solve for gnome.'

post a comment


archives
my journal