Monday, July 31, 2006

Inky in Queens

I've been walking by this little mosaic for a few years, but thought I'd finally get some pics and share them. It is outside Flux Factory, an art/performance space near my apartment in Queens. Maybe you've seen some other videogame-inspired murals/mosaics around NYC, or in any of a number of cities around the world. Many are related to a project headed by a French graffiti artist called Space Invader. Pac Man ghosts seem rare in his work; Space Invaders aliens are much more common.

See a close up of Inky after the jump.

Here's a link to a pic of the same thing on Space Invader's site.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Quest for the Chuman, or Manpanzee

Earlier this year, our beloved leader decried “egregious abuses of medical research” like “human-animal hybrids” in his State of the Union speech. Haters were shocked at what sounded like science fiction nonsense and they mocked Bush for what they perceived as his loony ideas about science. But, as much as I also hate, I at least felt like I sorta knew what he was talking about, and it wasn’t that ridiculous. Fusing cells from different animals, even humans and animals, is not entirely new and wouldn’t surprise a developmental biologist.

After discussing this with an anthropologist friend of mine, I was alerted to a curious episode in science history in which researchers desperately hoped for the kind of human-animal mix haters thought George Bush was speaking against. This time, I was shocked. People actually tried to make an ape-human hybrid through breeding?! If you know me, you know I love a story that challenges traditional concepts of body integrity. And if you also can’t resist stories about chimps getting pumped full of human sperm, read on. This one’s a little long, but I think you’ll like the story.

Pretty much everything in this post, including all quotes, is based on a paper called Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes by Kirill Rossiianov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The paper was published in 2002, but was new to me this year. The whole 35-page thing is worth checking out, but since it is not online, and I don’t want it to drop out of my memory, I’m going to outline it here.

Il’ya Ivalov was a pioneer of artificial insemination in pre-Soviet Russia. Prior to the early 1900s, artificial insemination was something of a laboratory curiosity. The sex act was believed to have an important function apart from gettin’ the gametes together: “’natural’ sexual intercourse … was thought to be crucial for successful impregnation as well as for the health of offspring.”

Yet Ivanov saw in artificial insemination the possibility for “mass improvement” of animal stocks. In his modernizing view, artificial insemination could be used to control and guide breeding of horses, sheep, and other farm animals. During the period in which Ivanov was perfecting his insemination techniques, he benefited from the pre-revolutionary attempts to reform and improve Russian agriculture. Ivanov’s lab became more experimental, and even nurtured Yuriy Filipchenko and his genetics experiments, the first ever in Russia.

As Ivanov began to explore fundamental problems in biology, he began to consider using artificial insemination to cross species. “Artificial insemination … was, for Ivanov, the experimental tool for constructing new forms of life, forms that did not exist in nature.” He crossed different species of birds and made a zorse (or zebroid), a zebra-horse hybrid. And in 1910 he “mentioned for the first time the possibility of inseminating a female ape with human sperm.”

Directly after the Bolshevik revolution, Ivanov’s research program fell on hard times. The upheavals of the revolution destroyed the patronage system Ivanov had relied on for funds. Yet aspects of Ivanov’s research appealed to the Bolsheviks. As the Soviet system began to take form, Ivanov found new support. A representative of the Commissariat of Enlightenment thought the possibility of making human-ape hybrids was an “exclusively important problem for Materialism.” Someone from the Commissariat of Agriculture thought such hybrids “should become a decisive blow to the religious teachings, and may be aptly used in our propaganda and in our struggle for the liberation of working people from the power of the Church.”

In the scientific and technological idealism of the early Soviet era, Darwinism was seen as an effective tool to destroy religious superstitions. A man-ape hybrid would have been considered proof of the fundamental biological similarity of man and ape, and thus an evolutionary relationship would be strongly supported. Such a hybrid, Ivanov said, “may provide extraordinarily interesting evidence for a better understanding of the origin of man.”

By the mid 1920s, Ivanov had received a government grant to travel to Africa and conduct hybridization experiments. An initial trip in March 1926 was a failure; the only chimps Ivanov was able to get access to at a primate research station in French Guinea (Guinea today) were all prepubescent. Ivanov made a second trip in November. Over the next few months, he was able to capture adult chimpanzees. In February 1927, he and his 22-year-old son undertook their first insemination, injecting human sperm into the vaginas of two female chimps. In June, another insemination was performed.

All three inseminations failed. Ivanov used two sperm samples from local men, and he examined the sperm to make sure there were motile cells. The failure, he knew, was to be expected: to have a real chance at success he would need a greater sample size than three. However, the troubles he had inseminating just three chimps—some animals got sick and died in captivity—convinced Ivanov to flip the experiment on its head. It was much easier, he thought, to gather sperm from a few apes and use it to inseminate many human females. Ivanov worked his contacts in Africa in attempts to find doctors willing to secretly subject their female patients to such experiments. Despite some initial agreements, the whimsies of colonial government eventually sided against Ivanov, and, as far as scholars can tell, he never conducted inseminations with human females in Africa.

Back in the Soviet Union, the Academy of Sciences, an organization that had originally supported Ivanov’s work, “expressed abhorrence and indignation once the academicians realized that Ivanov had been trying to inseminate women in Africa without [the women’s] consent.” The Academy withdrew support, so Ivanov hooked up with the more radical Communist Academy and an associated group called the Society of Materialist Biologists. The Materialist Biologists forged a “Marxist approach in biology” that included “a predisposition towards scientific control of life and active human interference into biological evolution.” Ideas of radical family restructuring were also swirling, with ideologues hyping artificial insemination as a way of controlling human reproduction (“Inculcation of the idea that not simply the sperm of a ‘beloved person’ should be used for the conception of a baby, but that this sperm should be obtained from a certain recommended source…”)

In this atmosphere, and with the support of these groups, Ivanov began planning new insemination experiments. He had brought apes back with him from Africa and established the first primate research center in the Soviet Union, so he had the sperm. All he needed were the women, those “whose interest would be of idealistic … and not of monetary nature.”

By 1928, Ivanov was planning on using sperm from an orangutan that had been imported to the research center and he found at least one volunteer, a woman called G., from Leningrad, who wrote, “Dear Professor, … With my private life in ruins, I don’t see any sense in my further existence … But when I think that I could do a service for science, I feel enough courage to contact you. I beg you, don’t refuse me … I ask you to accept me for the experiment.” But the experiment was postponed after the orang died.

Meanwhile, as the effects of the same cultural revolution that spawned the Materialist Biologists grew out of control, Ivanov became isolated as a member of the “’old’ specialists then in danger of being subjected to political criticism and repression.” Ivanov began to be criticized in public by men angling for influence in the organizations in which Ivanov was a member. And by the end of 1930, Ivanov was arrested, “convicted of having created a counterrevolutionary organization among agricultural specialists,” and exiled to the Kazakh Republic. He had his civil status restored in 1932, but two years in exile had taken a toll on his health. He died on March 20, 1932, one day before he was to return to Moscow.

As far as scholars can tell, Ivanov was never able to impregnate a woman using ape sperm. Personally, I have always assumed a human-ape hybrid was impossible due to the fact that, despite great general similarities between human and chimp DNA, humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes while apes have 24. Yet the dream has lingered into the modern genetic age. In the 1970s, a chimpanzee called Oliver was suspected of being a hybrid due to his odd appearance and habit of walking upright, although genetic tests in the 1990s determined he was a full-blood chimpanzee. And in 1971, Geoffrey Bourne, director of the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, wrote, “There seems to be very little physiological reason why artificial insemination could not be used between man and the apes with a possibility that a viable child might be reproduced … And it is surprising that this type of hybridization has in not, in fact, already taken place.”

Finally, research from earlier this year suggests that as human and chimpanzee ancestors were diverging around six million years ago, hybridization continued, altering the genome in ways that are detectable today. Maybe it is still possible? Bush wouldn’t like it. I might, but what an ethical/moral/philosophical mess it would create. Man or animal? Or … MANIMAL?!!!!


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Now the AP is Playing with Power!

I saw this at Kotaku last night: The new Associated Press Stylebook is out and for the first time it acknowledges videogames. The AP Stylebook is the go-to document if you work in media, especially newspapers, and want to know how to properly capitalize something like the Democratic and Republican parties, or how to write 6 p.m.

The 2006 Stylebook includes "Game Boy" and "video game," both rather quaint formulations, in my opinion, that illustrate just how behind the times newspapers are when it comes to videogames. (Don’t they know it is all about the DS? And Comstock, for one, prefers "videogames.")

I’m happy, I suppose, that editors have realized that they need to clarify terms surrounding videogames. This development certainly reflects a greater change in society in which videogames are becoming less marginalized and moving into more technology or even—gasp!—arts sections of newspapers.

Yet these terms also display a sort of fuddy-duddyness (a word not in the Stylebook for any year, as far as I can tell). It’s like a parent telling a child that hip-hop is "fly." So you can get an idea of the timeliness of the AP Stylebook: I have the 2002 edition. I seem to recall that videogames were pretty popular then, and the Game Boy was already in its third generation, a full 13 years since I first bought one. Yet the video technology I find in my Stylebook includes "videotape" and "videocassette recorder." If the AP is going to be so lame, maybe they shouldn’t even bother trying.

And what about PlayStation and Xbox? Here you see my preferred formulations, but shouldn’t the AP bring some clarity to all the dorks writing "Play Station" or "X-Box" out there?

I’ll allow that there is room for argument on "video game" vs. "videogame." I just think the later is smoother than the former, and reflects the fact that videogames have come into their own. They are more than a game that happens to be in video form. They are a special genre of games that deserve recognition. Just like "foot ball" became “football” and "base ball" became "baseball" over the years, I believe "video games" are now "videogames."


Viva La France. My 100th Visitor.

Okay, I'll admit it: probably something like half of my site visits are me checking things, but I was happy to note that yesterday visitor 100 joined the Aspidistra Nation! I started tracking with Site Meter on July 14th.

My newest bon amie only visited for 0 seconds, but I still love him or her nonetheless [UPDATE: or it. More after the jump].

Hit the link for the Site Meter data.
Domain Name: (Unknown)
IP Address: 193.47.80.# (Exalead S.A.)
ISP: Exalead S.A.

Continent: Europe
Country: France
State/Region: Ile-de-France
City: Paris
Lat/Long: 48.8667, 2.3333 (Map)
Language: English (United States)
Operating System: Linux Unknown
Browser: Konqueror 3.4

Time of Visit: Jul 24 2006 9:00:06 pm
Last Page View: Jul 24 2006 9:00:06 pm
Visit Length: 0 seconds
Page Views: 1
Visit Entry Page:
Visit Exit Page:
Time Zone: UTC+1:00
Visitor's Time: Jul 25 2006 3:00:06 am
Visit Number: 100

[UDPATE: I'm now fairly certain that this visit was from a web spider sent out by Exalead, France's challenger to Google. I'm still learning this internet stuff!]


Friday, July 21, 2006

Forget Calvin. This is Rousseau and Hobbes.

From the Daily Telegraph in the UK (via BoingBoing) comes this tale of Oxana Malaya, a Ukranian woman who “was brought up by a pack of dogs.” Super interesting. Super weird. And super sad. But I put the scare quotes up there because I also think these situations are super complicated and often get discussed with a distorting simplicity.

I think stories of feral children, kids raised by wolves or, like Tarzan, by apes, are fascinating because they lay bare a basic human need, the need to be nurtured and loved, and juxtapose it with a perveted form of society in which animals distort our humanity. And although the temptation to draw a lot of meaning from these stories is strong, I don’t think the reality reveals anything too deep about our human character. It certainly doesn’t, as the Telegraph story puts it, “resolve the nature-nurture debate.”

One thing the story of Malaya does well is explode the fairy-tale romanticism that can surround children-raised-by-animal stories. Feral kids are really the victims of horrific neglect and abuse. Malaya’s parents were alcoholics incapable of caring for her and apparently unconcerned when their toddler began living with a pack of dogs on their property. This doesn’t make sense to me, and I suspect it is a story massaged by Malaya or her father (the mother is gone). The child hadn’t disappeared, afterall; she was living in the backyard! Not too hard to come get her in one of your sober moments. I think it is more likely that the family kept the child with the dogs as an insane form of punishment.

Malaya was later rescued from this treatment, and here’s where the nature vs. nurture hypothesizing begins.

A shameful five years later, a neighbor reported a child living with animals. When she was found, at the age of eight in 1991, Oxana could hardly speak and ran around on all fours barking, mimicking her carers.

Though she must have seen humans at a distance, and seems occasionally to have entered the family house like a stray, they were no longer her species: all meaningful life was contained in a kennel.
Today, Malaya is 23 and lives in a home for the mentally disabled. Although she can speak, her language has “no cadence or rhythm or music.” She “looks uncoordinated and tomboyish.” When she walks, “you notice her strange stomping gait.”

Lurking behind these characterizations is the nurture side of the debate. Malaya is like an animal because she wasn’t nurtured properly. She wasn’t taught how to be a human. She is a Hobbesian savage who only cares about comfort and the whereabouts of her next meal. The things that we consider human must be learned.

Yet, as I hope is clear from reading about what actually happened to Malaya, feral kids are not examples of mankind in a state of nature. They are not just children minus nurture, they are children minus nurture plus torture. They are examples of people hurt by those who should be protecting them. Just for argument’s sake: who knows what sorts of innate humanity might be positively squashed in such horrendous circumstances?

Furthermore—and to elaborate on my guess that Malaya was forced to live with dogs as punishment—what if a feral kid only becomes feral because they start out “damaged”? What if the only kids abandoned by parents and society like this are the ones who have developmental abnormalities? How then can you even begin to suggest nature vs. nurture? Everything is all mixed up together: some nature + lack of nurture + serious abuse = one seriously fucked-up human being.

This brings to mind a book by the late, great Roger Shattuck called The Forbidden Experiment, about the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral child discovered in France in 1800. As Shattuck delves into the “psychology, biology, history, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, philosophy” of such cases, he addresses similar concerns. Although Shattuck harbors “an unprovable belief that the Wild Boy was not organically damaged but functionally retarded by years of deprivation,” he acknowledges that a doctor at the time “attributed the boy’s wild or idiotic behavior to one of three possible causes of organic damage, none of which could be proved then or now.”

All considered, I’m not sure feral kids can tell us much about “human nature,” other than the obvious point that living like an animal messes up human development. Nature vs. nurture actually seems obsolete as a question to me, like the Cartesian dualism problem. Simplifying things can be an effective way to isolate important features of complex systems, but dichotomies like nature/nurture or mind/body don’t seem to help us understand the world very much anymore.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Who Am I To Talk?

Although every thinking person should be wary of essays that include the words "perhaps Weird Al said it best," a new essay about the difficulties of science journalism from the Columbia Journalism Review is worth a read for those who care about science and science writing. Since Comstock does indeed have some experience in this realm, he couldn't resist gettin' his gloss on.

The essay approaches the problems in science journalism from two angles: 1) science is a hard subject to communicate, and 2) therefore editors shy away from tackling beefy science stories. I actually agree with both points, but I think the author, K.C. Cole, made a bit of a muddle of point one and stopped short on a full explanation on point two.

That science can be tough to communicate is obviously true. Part of this difficulty undoubtedly stems from the fact that the world wasn't made for human understanding. As Cole says:

Humans evolved to procreate, eat, and avoid getting eaten. The fact that we have learned to understand what atoms are all about or what the universe was back to a nanosecond after its birth is literally unbelievable. But the universe doesn’t care what we can or cannot believe. It doesn’t speak our language, so there’s no reason it should “make sense.”
Although I would quibble with the choice of words--atoms aren't about anything, they simply are--I almost wish writers had room to make this point in every science story. We didn't make the world, so why should we expect to understand it perfectly.

Yet Cole presents a slightly conflicting message:
Relativity and quantum mechanics have been around for nearly a century, yet they remain confusing in some sense even to those who understand these theories well. We know they’re correct because they’ve been tested so thoroughly in so many ways.
Relativity and quantum mechanics aren't correct in the way that a fact statement like the moon orbits Earth is correct. Rather these theories are elaborate models. They fit the data really well, but we should always remember that they are provisional. Cole seems to acknowledge something like this later when she writes, "Science is also innately uncertain." But how can it be uncertain yet correct?

Cole's second point is that the difficulty of science causes editors, who like to feel like know-it-alls, to shy away from covering science stories.
If they don’t understand something, they often think it can’t be right — or that it’s not worth writing about. Either the writers aren’t being clear (which, of course, may be the case), or the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about (in some cases, a given).
That seems acceptable to me in a pretty basic way. I just don't think it goes far enough.

I honestly think that if editors or anybody else doesn't understand a story, then the writer is not doing a good job explaining. For me, a reader comment like the kind Cole cites here would not be a compliment:
Every science writer I know has had the experience of readers coming up to them and saying: “Gee, that was fascinating; I didn’t understand it, but I’ve been thinking about it all day.”

Certainly editors do understand some intensely complex stories. The news business tolerates the byzantine twists and partial explanations of stories all the time. Think of how much ink was spilled on the Valerie Plame affair as that story unwound over months. I still don't get exactly what happened there.

But editors love stories like that because they think the stories are important (Could Dick Cheney be involved?) and they love the human intrigue (Was Plame outed to punish her husband?). Science stories do, of course, have import and intrigue. So why don't editors always care?

To give my answer, allow me to dredge up an encounter I once had with an editor. "People don't like to be told about science," she told me. I think that editors, like many people in our society, suffer from a simple anti-science bias. Sure, fear of looking like you don't understand what is going on is part of it. But a lot of people don't even get that far. Science is boring, they think, before even listening to the story. Certainly a society that views scientists as nerds and distant dorks is part of the problem. But I think I have to lay blame partially at the feet of science writers yet again. Please, show us why this stereotype is wrong.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Life During Sporetime

Will Wright, a rockstar of game design, creator of SimCity and the Sims (among others), talks science and his new game, Spore, in the August issue of Discover magazine. I haven’t found an online version of the interview yet, but it is worth at least a newsstand read if 1) you are interested in evolutionary biology and how it filters out into popular culture, or 2) you are a huge fanboy drooling in anticipation of Spore’s release.

Since I’m 1 and 2 it was an interesting read for me. In Spore, which has been known in gaming circles as SimEverything, players will shape the evolution of life from microbe to star-faring intelligent being. Based on the interview, Wright seems to know his stuff when it comes to evolutionary biology; he discusses things like fitness landscapes and punctuated equilibrium. I was really happy to see him mention one of the critical elements of evolution that is simple but that people seem to have a hard time dealing with: the incredible amount of time involved.

As Wright says in the interview:

[People] think, oh, you’ve got this one mutation and then the creature is a little bit better at seeing, therefore it survives. But, in fact, it is much more of a numbers game: You have thousands of creatures that have a slightly better chance of seeing, and statistically they survive 1 percent better. People aren’t used to dealing with the numbers and the timescales involved.
I think that Wright is right on here. Even mutations that have a very small effect on fitness in some situations can go on to become widespread in populations. All it takes is time, and Earth has been around for a long time. But people are used to thinking about things very locally and very individually. It is tough to really get your mind around how long 100,000 years is, or how mutations can spread in large populations breeding over thousands of generations.

Yet I don’t think Spore will embody these lessons, exactly. As the Discover interviewer, Alan Burdick, points out, the game is being called a “teleological evolution” game. From the beginning, evolution in Spore has a direction. As Wright says in the interview:
What’s ironic, really, is it’s intelligent design. As a player you go through an arc of being this lowly little cell, being attacked by pond scum, to eventually becoming a god. At the godlike level, you can almost do the whole creationist thing if you want: “I will create a planet; I will create species; I will put them on the planet.”
Still, I can’t see a game that so fully embraces the evolution of life on many planets over enormous amounts of time as being consonant with a creationist worldview. If this game is half as popular as the Sims, it seems it could do some good in putting a very simple idea about organic evolution in homes across the country.


Friday, July 14, 2006

I Need A Little More Cheepnis, Please

Make sure your boss isn’t looking. I know mine is, so I wrote this in Word and popped it over to the blog when the coast was clear.

When you get a chance, check out this online game called Gamma Bros. I found a link to it on Joystiq this morning. I definitely couldn’t play it at work, but I did at home. Addicting shooter action, with Robotron-ish (or Geometry Wars-ish, depending on your age) shooting/movement controls. Dual joysticks would rock it, but the keyboard suffices.

I love free games. Bring ‘em on. Gamma Bros. is one of the more fun online games I’ve played in a while. Two of the best free games I’ve ever found are N and Cave Story. You have to download them to play, but what do a few extra steps matter? Freeness!

Speaking of freeness, let me give you a teaser related to un-freeness: I expect The Wanting to be updated soon. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bangs of Games

A little squall swept through the internet videogame community a few weeks ago. It was caused by an essay Chuck Klosterman wrote for Esquire called The Lester Bangs of Video Games, which lamented the lack of a Bangsian critic of videogaming who could capture the importance and meaning of games.

I wanted to comment on the essay, but I kept putting it off and time kept passing, and then the topic felt cold (plenty of others weighed in). So I was happy to see Gamespot publish a Q&A with Klosterman on the subject this week. Perfect opportunity for a more timely blog post.

My initial reaction to Klosterman’s essay, like a lot of the game community's reactions, was essentially defensive.

“Why are there no video-game critics?” he asked. There are plenty, I thought. Maybe they are writing for blogs or posting to online forums, but they are there.

Klosterman voiced a not-totally-original lament: videogame writers are mostly product reviewers first, not critics of the medium and translators of the experience. “There is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a game feels like,” he continued. What? I wondered. Maybe these sentiments are buried online, but plenty of writers describe what playing games feels like.

“Nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean,” quoth the K-man. And me, one more time: Does Klosterman read video game journalism and reviews? The field does tend to carry a lot of product description, and is plagued by things like glowing, hype-laden game previews that are followed a few months later by mediocre or even bad reviews. But plenty of reviews touch on what Klosterman wants. The writing is not always sublime, but the sentiments are there.

“I’m starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice in the world of video games,” he wrote. And I thought, good. Klosterman seems to want a super-important, centralizing voice we can all agree with or disagree with. Yet I don’t want authoritative voices telling me what video games mean. And I suspect most gamers don’t either. I want a huge variety of games to explore. I look to reviews to tell me if a game is fun, why the play is good enough to justify a purchase. Then I play it and, love it or not, I decide what that experience meant to me.

Klosterman’s not talking about game stories. He realizes that narratives are often secondary to the gameplay, and that asking for a Pauline Kael of playing is easier than becoming one. What would this meaningful criticism look like? Klosterman called for “potentiality critics,” a concept that is hard for me to understand. “Video games provide an opportunity to write about the cultural consequence of free will,” he explained. Umm, sure. But it sounds like a painfully pretentious read.

Klosterman closed with a lament that, without supercritics, videogames would become simple commodities. “They’ll only be games. […] This generation’s single most meaningful artistic medium will be—ultimately—meaningless.”

I just don’t think this last point is true. Games are already commodities and yet not meaningless. As are rock and roll recordings and movies. And recordings were commodities when Lester Bangs was writing. As were movies when Pauline Kael was writing. Criticism doesn’t turn a mass market into an art show. Within a market are lots of niches, some filled with consumers who want meaningful (however they define it) videogames. I’m confident that there will always be some thoughtful developers eager to make such games.

In fact, when I trace my lifetime of gameplaying, I find that the availability of important, meaningful games, games that function as art, has only grown. A lot of early arcade and console games may have been aesthetically beautiful in their simplicity, but they didn’t have much to say about the medium or the larger world. I think that today games like Shadow of the Colossus are not only fun to play, they are also emotionally and intellectually engaging, with critic-pleasing dollops of meta thrown in. (Can it be true that all great videogames are really about videogames? Well, no.) The medium is clearly evolving. I think game journalism will evolve with it.

So then Klosterman comes back in the new Q&A, saying that on one hand he is pleased his essay has generated a lot of response, but on the other hand he feels gamers and game writers—hey, like me!—have misunderstood his point. He knows that there are spirited, thoughtful communities of game critics (mostly online), but they are writing for gamers, not for “people who aren’t actively playing [videogames].” That’s what he wanted: Someone to explain games to non-gamers.

And then I realized, who cares? Not me. Not other gamers, I’d wager. We want games. Fun games. Smart games and sometimes dumb games. Simple games, complex games, meta games, emotional games. We don’t need the New Yorker to tell us which games are meaningful and which aren’t, and we certainly don’t care if important magazines tell such things to non-gamers. It seems to me that, up to this point, games haven’t needed such a translator-critic. If games haven’t become meaningless yet, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.


Friday, July 07, 2006

Absurdist Poetry, Web Zen Style

This is the best poem I've ever read about bees:

The Bee Larva is a bee growth
growth to arrive
some at that time period (the period of Larva),
be placed in the period of Larva,
the bee nourishment in material is very abundant.
Merchandise Bee Larva is male bee
each nourishment of larva vegetable
that male Bee Larva,
very plentifulness in nourishment,
from its at 10 day hour contain the deal
Under the normal feeding condition,
each bee inside male Bee Larva is not much,
the agriculture of bee also does not
let excessive male bee larva,
such as excessive male bee larva, etc.
goes to heaven as a fairy
the building changes into the adulthood drone empress,
in addition to having minority and virgin king hands over the tail,
the superfluous drone light eat to do not fuck live,
consumed the bee the animal feed in the cluster unnecessarily.

If you're wondering who just used a verbal machete to flay and eviscerate your whole concept of bees, check out the copy in its original form. I didn't change anything but the linebreaks.

Okay, the "poem" is obviously a poorly translated bit of copy from a Chinese company that is trying to sell bee larvae, presumably for some alternative medicine-y reason (wanna love your wife bigger?). The text was probably sensible in the original language, but rendered surreal by running it through a computer translator.

Still, as I found it, it is poetry. My brain seeks meaning.

Behind the logomania, I detect some things I know about the life of honey bees.
Under the normal feeding condition,
each bee inside male Bee Larva is not much,
the agriculture of bee also does not
let excessive male bee larva,

I know that! I think... Male bees, called drones, are a distinct minority in the hive. They are vastly outnumbered by their sisters, the worker bees. And drones will get the boot if food supplies run short.

But the text has some turns of phrase which only make partial sense.
in addition to having minority and virgin king hands over the tail,
the superfluous drone light eat to do not fuck live,

Um, I know that when drones mate with a queen it is a life-and-death affair. As the drone gives up the sperm, his reproductive organs are ripped out (king hands over tail?) and he dies soon after.

But I love the dreamy quality behind it all, the pieces that only seem intelligible on the edges of reason and that blur into a haze when I really stop to think about it.
goes to heaven as a fairy
the building changes into the adulthood drone empress,

Something about the metamorphosis from larvae to adult? The necessity of moving out of one hive so that a new queen can create a new hive?

And the pathos of the last line!
consumed the bee the animal feed in the cluster unnecessarily.
which I choose to read like a sort-of haiku:
the bee,
the animal,
feed in the cluster unnecessarily.

The passions that drive biological cycles are so strong, but in the end, so pointless.

Or am I reading too much into it?