Thursday, August 31, 2006

Nap Time for Aspy

This week is a busy one. I'm preparing for a two-week vacation to start next week, so work has been nutz. It's time to announce a blog break. I might throw up a bit of freenis tomorrow, but don't expect any real posts until the third week of September. I think I'm going to miss you, Aspy. Sleep well.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

You Don't Know Me

I'm busy this week. (Definitely too busy for long or thoughtful posts.) Busy and stressed. This makes me anxious, and anxiety makes me depressed. I'm glad I can count on the books I read to let me know I'm not alone, or rather, that I am alone and you are too. Together in our aloneness.

From Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession by Janet Malcolm, a writer I admire very much.

The phenomenon of transference—how we all invent each other according to early blueprints—was Freud’s most original and radical discovery. The idea of infant sexuality and of the Oedipal complex can be accepted with a good deal more equanimity than the idea that the most precious and inviolate of entities—personal relations—is actually a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems. Even (or especially) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: we cannot know each other. We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain. A horrible kind of predestination hovers over each new attachment we form. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster proposed. “Only we can’t,” the psychoanalyst knows.


Friday, August 25, 2006

New Book For Religious Ignoramuses

Jonathan Wells, a Moonie tool in the religious conservatives’ war on science, has written a new, ridiculous, and quite retarded book about evolution. Wells is a notorious creationist ideologue who used Moonie funding to attend graduate school in biology, earn a PhD, and then use those credentials to bash evolution. (Read that link above, my developmental biologist friends. Just be ready for a spike in blood pressure. And yes, the “Father” he refers to is Sun Myung Moon.)

Wells’s previous book, Icons of Evolution, is a well-refuted collection of misrepresentations and outright lies that is endlessly parroted in creationist/fundie/intelligent design arguments. Panda’s Thumb is organizing a smackdown of the new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. PZ Myers has suggested a google bombing campaign, so here’s Apsy’s volley in the war.


Friday Flash Freenis: Ikaruga!

If you checked out the last free games post, you probably discovered that many flash games are a little on the dull side. But this week at Kotaku I found a link to a great flash version of the first boss fight from Ikaruga. As a game it's short, but also very impressive for a free flash game. It's all there: lots of bullets and polarity flipping.

I don't think the controls are in English. It should be easy to figure out if you've played Ikaruga before. Z: shoot. X: switch ship polarity. C: Energy release special attack. The arrow keys move your ship. Polarity flipping lets you absorb bullets that are the same color as your ship and charge your energy attack, but being the opposite color of your enemy increases your firepower against it. You may want to reduce the screen quality, even to its lowest setting, to prevent some slow-down and play the game at something like the real speed.

I'd love to see more flash versions of levels from Ikaruga. That game is one of the best Gamecube games and a contender for best space shooter of all time. It is certainly one of the most beautiful games ever. Long live shmups!


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Brain Age: I Don't Believe The Hype

This week at the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival, the UK games magazine Edge and the gave their Edge Award to the DS game Brain Age. The award is intended to recognize innovative games that, according to the awards panel, "celebrated the willingness to aim higher and try something new."

Brain Age was going up against some tough competition, and I am surprised it won. I really don’t think Brain Age is that impressive a game. It’s a mini-games collection wrapped up in a lab coat. My biggest gripe, though, is that it claims to test and improve your mental abilities in ways other games don’t. It certainly makes these tests more obvious and explicit, but a lot of games are mentally challenging and a lot more fun to play.

Consider grown-up games, explore the dubious claims, and meet the competition, all after the jump.

All considered, I’m glad that a DS game won. My months-long love affair with the DS cooled this summer, but we’re still good friends. If you talked to me in April, I would have raved about innovative games like surgery puzzler Trauma Center: Under the Knife and the spazz-tacular dating-themed minigames collection Feel the Magic: XY/XX. I looked forward to series of quirky and fun games on the DS.

Brain Age, and its sillier cousin Big Brain Academy, seem to fit into this quirky category, yet even on first impression the hype surrounding these games made me skeptical. Overall, I applaud Nintendo for aggressively pushing what they call their Touch Generations games. I’m happy to see engaging games that don’t stress fighting and competition, and I think it’s great to see games being marketed to, and appealing to, people outside of the normal gamer demographic. But Brain Age in particular claims to do more than appeal to pacifistic gamers of all ages. It claims to make you smarter. And I claim that is BS on the DS (sorry, couldn’t resist).

We all know as we grow older our bodies change and it becomes important to regularly exercise to maintain health and fitness. Our brain is no different. "Use it or lose it," as the adage goes. New research indicates mental acuity may be strengthened, like muscles, with brain exercises.

That's where Brain Age comes in.

Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski, dean and executive director of University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, says games like Brain Age can help keep older generations of Americans’ minds active. “Americans can do a great deal to maintain and even improve their mental abilities,” Zelinski explains. “Aging is about taking on new challenges for our minds. Nintendo’s Brain Age is a great way to do that.”

So says one Brain Age website. I’ll issue a disclaimer here: I don’t know the research that well in this area. I’ve heard many times that staying mentally active helps older people fight age-related declines in cognition. I’m prepared generally to accept Brain Age’s claim. However, I don’t think Brain Age is very special in this regard. I think a lot of games could help people “flex their mental muscles.”

As Nintendo claims in the Brain Age promotional text: “Solving simple math and logic problems quickly, and reading aloud, have been proven to be effective methods of [stimulating your brain].” Fine. But apart from reading aloud, most good games ask players to solve simple math and logic problems. It happens every time they run through a corridor in a Halo 2 team deathmatch, guns blazing, while they quickly count up how many players the see from their team, their opponents’ team, and they calculate a strategy based on those numbers. And fragging doodz is a lot more fun than, say, doing a math problem on a game console.

One day I’ll get around to reading Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You (read a positive review here). I’ve had some personal issues holding me back (including envy), but I think I’ll probably agree with most of his arguments. In his own words (I think) from
In general, my argument is that over the past thirty years, the popular culture has grown increasingly demanding in terms of the mental labor you have to do to make sense of it: the number of puzzles you have to solve to complete a video game, the number of separate plots you have to keep track of to follow your average television show, and so on.

Agreed. But Johnson is talking about a game like The Sims, not some specially designed mental gymnasium.

Overall, I think Brain Age rests on a puffed-up gimmick. As games, both Brain Age and Big Brain Academy are just okay. I think they’re good for folks who like minigames, but Nintendo makes some much better minigame collections. They are probably also good if they appeal to people who didn’t think they liked videogames.

But if you accept that the mental exercise is a gimmick, Brain Age is just not that innovative. I personally find it a touch dull as a game. I can’t help but wonder if giving the award to Brain Age was an attempt to stand up for games in a way, to show they are not all about beating up prostitutes or decapitating foes with point-blank shotgun blasts. Brain Age is positively opposed to this image of games. It is clean and nice and already has swirls of media hype around it claiming it makes you smarter. Might the award be an appeal to the non-gaming population (including politicians) to say, see, we value games that are much different than those that support your prejudices?

Why else overlook some of the seriously awesome games that were in the running for the Edge Award? Of the eight nominees, I’ve played six: Brain Age, Dragon Quest VIII, Electroplankton, Indigo Prophecy, Guitar Hero, and Killer 7. Most of these are innovative, but they might not stand out to someone who thinks games are just antisocial boys’ toys. And none of them come pre-packaged with positive press hype about making you healthier.

Five of those six I think are awesome games. I’ll grant that Dragon Quest was not particularly innovative, just very well made. And if you wanted to get technical, we can point to Guitar Freaks and say Guitar Hero, while ginormously sweet, wasn’t exactly trying something new.

Personally, my pick of those I’ve played is Electroplankton. Unprecedented gameplay that many gamers even refused to recognize as gameplay. Perfectly fit to the DS platform with excellent use of the touchscreen. And a simply beautiful graphical style. I wouldn’t call Electroplanton the best game of the last year—I love you SotC!—but for me the game was refreshing and totally original. I’d love to see an Electroplankton sequel (with a save feature!) before I see the third brain training game. Based on the hype, though, I doubt that will happen.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Now The Hobbit's A Deformed Human Again

A story from The Sunday Times in Britain covers new research on the Hobbit, the hominin discovered a couple years ago in Indonesia that was orginally claimed to be a new species of Homo. The research, to be published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, claims the bones, previously categorized as a new species related to Homo erectus (called Homo floresiensis), are really a Homo sapiens that suffered some form of microcephallic disorder.

The PNAS research paper doesn't seem to be available yet, so there hasn't be too much online commentary. But I wonder: can anything short of a genetic analysis settle this question definitively? If there are morphological characteristics that are distinctly sapiens or erectus, why haven't they resolved this issue yet?

[UPDATE 8/21: News reports are starting to appear. Check out NYT.]
[UPDATE 8/23: The paper is finally available. Get the pdf here.]

After the break, read the PNAS announcement that followed the Times story.

Homo floresiensis Remains Appear to Be Homo sapiens

A skeleton uncovered in Indonesia in 2004 does not represent a separate hominin species but is a Homo sapiens individual who had developmental deformities, researchers report. In 2004, skeletal material was discovered in Liang Bua Cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. One nearly complete specimen’s odd shape and small skull led some researchers to believe that these remains were from a distinct hominin species. An early interpretation was that Homo erectus reached Flores 840,000 years ago and, living in isolation, evolved to a species distinct from Homo sapiens, termed Homo floresiensis. A joint Indonesian, Australian, and U.S. research team questioned this interpretation and showed that the remains are of a H. sapiens and not a distinct species. Geographically, Flores had at least two migrations of ancient elephants from nearby islands, making it highly unlikely that hominids arrived only once and evolved in isolation. Also, the island was not large enough to have supported isolated hunter-gatherers with a population adequate enough to maintain genetic diversity for long-term survival, the team says. The Liang Bua skeletons’ structures appear to fall within the range of H. sapiens variation. The only known skull simply had signs of a developmental abnormality, including microcephaly, according to the researchers.

Article: “Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities” by T. Jacob, E. Indriati, R. P. Soejono, K. Hsü, D. W. Frayer, R. B. Eckhardt, A. J. Kuperavage, A. Thorne, and M. Henneberg


Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Little More Freenis

You know I like free games. Here are some links to free games that have been floating through those internet tubes this week. I've caught them (mainly at Kotaku) and brought them to you, not necessarily because they're great, though they're pretty alright, but because they are free, and free makes okay turn good and crap turn fine.

Wolfenstein in 5K!

Ropin' monsters, cowboy style!

Pitfall meets me in 8th grade!

The middle one can also be found as one of many freetastic flash games at Jay is Games, a super awesome time waster of a site that I recommend to all my non-traditionally employed amigos (you know who you are). You might also want to check out a list of 101 free games from from earlier this year. I hate my exposed cubicle!


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I ♥ Werner Herzog

No one I know who has seen Grizzly Man has found it less than interesting. Part of the appeal is surely the character of Timothy Treadwell: his spacey, mystical outlook on life, the glimmers of an everyday American that peek out from beneath his bizarre personality and lifestyle, and the tragic irony of his death.

Yet what sticks with me even more than Treadwell is the character of filmmaker Werner Herzog, in particular his comments about his disagreements with Treadwell’s view of nature. As Herzog says in the only lines in the movie to stay with me:

What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me there’s not such a thing as the secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.
This weekend, I watched a documentary about one of Herzog’s films and found him speaking again and at length about merciless nature. I can’t but love a man who speaks of nature’s “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” Please do read on.

The documentary I saw is called Burden of Dreams, and it follows Herzog as he made his movie Fitzcarraldo in the early 1980s. Fitzcarraldo tells the story of a man at the beginning of the 20th century who is obsessed with opera and who dreams of building an opera house in Iquitos, a city in the jungles of Peru. To fund the construction, he attempts to harvest rubber from trees in a remote part of the jungle. To get to the trees, he drags an enormous steamship over a hill between two rivers.

Herzog insisted on enacting the scene for real in order to film it. No models. It is no surprise that dragging an enormous boat over a muddy hill in the jungle is not easy, no matter if it is 1901 or 1981. Burden of Dreams documents Herzog’s frustration as he deals with the elements, labor, and engineering challenges in steamy, remote jungle locations.

Speaking of the jungle, Herzog at one point in the documentary launches into a rambling monologue that makes the views he expressed in Grizzly Man seem reserved. Yet when I heard Herzog speak it was like hearing a reflection of my own thoughts and feelings. Me an’ Herzog are on the same page re: animals and nature, I think. Here is my transcription of Herzog’s speech:
(It is 10 times better to see his tired, sad eyes and hear his Teutonic accent and flat delivery as he speaks)
Of course, we are challenging nature itself and it hits back. It just hits back, that’s all. That’s grandiose about it and we have to accept it.

Kinski always says it’s full of erotic elements. I don’t see it so much as erotic. I see it more as obscenity. It’s just—nature here is violent, base. I wouldn’t see it as anything erotical. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.

Of course, there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.

It’s an unfinished country. It’s prehistorical. The only thing that’s lacking is the dinosaurs here. It’s like a curse hanging on the entire landscape and whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here.

It is a land that God—if he existed—has created in anger. It is the only land where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at what is around us, there is a sort of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.

And we, in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we, in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. And we have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it.

But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It’s not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Getting Serious About Games

All games are supposed to be fun. But some games are also designed to teach something, whether it's how to kill and be killed for Uncle Sam in America's Army, or how to be a good capitalist and get paid in Lemonade Stand. These so-called serious games get a good overview in the form of a roundtable discussion in the September 2006 issue of Harper's. In an article called "Grand Theft Education: Literacy in the Age of Video Games," some teachers, writers, and game-world luminaries like Raph Koster and Steven Johnson discuss how games might teach reading and writing. It's got it's crazy bits, but over all it is a good introduction to a more intellectual side of gaming.

Take your medicine after the jump.

The article is not online yet, so I'll just pull out a few of the more interesting bits. The panelists start talking about the easy stuff: how games can teach grammar, spelling, and the like. As Harper's editor and discussion moderator Bill Wasik notes, "Rote learning is where video games would naturally excell." I was glad to see Koster, game designer and author of A Theory of Fun, give a nod to Typing of the Dead, the most ill typing tutor ever.

Koster says one thing games can bring to pedagogy is the concept of a "magic circle," a space in which play and experiment is encouraged and the pressure to succeed is reduced. The goal would be to make it clear that failure was okay, because learners would be working in a game world, not the real world.

Yet all participants acknowledge that games have a harder time teaching things like argument and plot. Koster and Johnson suggest that writing game FAQs and guides is one way games can teach logical, sequential thinking, but obviously this is somewhat outside of games proper.

Games also suffer compared to literature in teaching things like plot construction. Yet I was suprised and happy to see a very keyed-in teacher named Jane Avrich from St. Ann's School in Brooklyn bring up Indigo Prophecy as a game that might teach narrative structures in terms of a writer's (and story character's) choices.

But, as Koster points out, many "games aren't trying to teach you to assemble stories; they're trying to give you the story experience." He adds that games have trouble with complex story elements. "All nuance is lost in games," he says, because games depend so much on plot over something like rich characterization. Fair enough point. But Johnson throws out the baby when he states, "I doubt that video games are capable of dealing with psychological depth at all." What? Check out my recent post on stories in games for my feelings about this.

The discussion wraps up with the age-old are-games-art? discussion. If you've followed this debate elsewhere, you'll know it will probably go nowhere and get really frustrating along the way. Moderator Wasik drops some weird statements that no one follows up on ("insofar as video games might soon rise to a kind of art, they will do so by changing the nature of art itself"; "It seems then, as if video games might serve ideas better than they will serve art").

But although the article ends on a very positive note by writer and teacher Thomas De Zengotita, he mixes it with a silly dig at games.

Everyone in the overdeveloped world will have the tools they need to create this amazing stuff, whether it be blogs or films or games. None of it will rise to the peaks that we associate with names like Joyce or Proust, but a great deal of it will be fantastic ... Everyone will be an artist, but the price is that no one will be a great artist.
Wait, this has been a really interesting discussion about games that takes them seriously and gets deep without getting too obnoxious, so why is it ending with this obnoxious statement? Does Joyce need defending against games? Give me Koster again.


Friday, August 11, 2006

America Is Full Of Religious Idiots

Positive Posting Week is ending a couple of days early. Here’s why: some just-released research from the journal Science about the acceptance of evolution in a number of countries. You may need to scroll down a bit to find our enlightened nation.

Witness the crumbling of Positive Posting after the break.

Here's a bit more detail on some of the countries involved, showing degrees of certainty. Allowing that some religious fundies consider evolution only "probably false" rather than "definitiely false" does little to change my mind: they are wrong either way.

Shit. Where do I start? I’m not going to get in to anything elaborate. I just don't have the energy. Read full coverage at Pharyngula or Panda's Thumb. At Pharyngula, PZ Myers points out some interesting discussion in the research about the politicization of science in the U.S.

You know, I'm sick of going over these sorts of things again and again. I'll just put up a quote from Richard Dawkins that gets a lot of religious people mad. Dawkins can say some things that seem designed simply to provoke religious people, but this quote is 100 percent true. If fundies get hurt feelings, that's their problem. They should stop being such ignorant fools.

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).


For Tappie, In Praise of Mysterious Beasts

On Monday, I saw TV news reports claiming that a manatee was swimming up the Hudson River. The New York Times also covered the story on Monday (probably where the TV news got their info), although a little research turned up smaller, local papers that were covering the story last week.

Manatees are wonderful creatures, not so much because they seem all blissed-out and gentle, but because I find them exotic and a bit mysterious. A big part of this is that manatees have been considered a possible cause of mermaid sightings among early colonial-period sailors.

Fortunately for grown-up monster nuts like me, our NY manatee, which is being called "Tappie" for the Tappan Zee Bridge that spans the river, is even a bit mysterious because no one has taken a picture of it yet. A follow-up “color” story in the Times certainly included a lot of hand-waving in its coverage as to what Tappie actually is, although I can’t tell if this was to inflate the mystery or to cover journalistic behind.

More on the wonderful world of monster-hunting after the jump.

Creatures like manatees still excite the 11-year-old in me precisely because they connect the familiar world of zoology with the more exciting world of cryptozoology (the study of creatures whose existence is uncertain). Please, if you have anything like that monster-loving kid in you, check out the super-excellent cryptozoology blog Cryptomundo.

Mermaids were never exciting monsters for me, but I did like the angle that we might have an explanation for what caused sightings: Mermaid sightings weren't total fantasy, they were a combination of human imagination and this exotic creature. Manatees are like lenticular clouds that way.

Yet I still wish all those monsters that fascinated me in my youth were real: aliens (of course), Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, the Jersey Devil, the Dover Demon, Champ, Ogopogo. That’s just off the top of my head. The list could go on if I just refreshed the memory some with Google.

Yes, I also like vampires, ghosts, wolfmen, and the like, but even as a kid they seemed too supernatural to me. I think it was because they are all very people-like. I knew people and didn’t see any way they could become vampires or ghosts. I preferred monsters that hovered just at the edges of biological understanding. Maybe if we just explored the world a bit more we could find these beasts, I hoped.

So manatees still excite me because they are emblems of a time when the world was full of monsters, when the Americas seemed to hold beasts to terrify the European imagination. And they keep me in touch with that boy who just wanted life to be a little more exciting and mysterious than it seemed to be shaping up to be.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

It's Yours To Do With What You Like!

This past weekend I spent more than an hour paralyzed in a book store. I had a $50 gift certificate to spend. I had in hand just one book that I knew I wanted. Otherwise, I spent time holding and replacing three others that I just kinda wanted. I ended up leaving with nothing.

I’ll be back, of course. This time with a plan, knowing what I’ll get. And I’ll definitely get that one book I knew I wanted: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders.

I discovered Saunders a few years ago after one of his stories, “Jon,” was published in the New Yorker. It is the best story I have ever read in the New Yorker, and one of the most exciting short stories that I have read in years. I’ll paste an introductory section after the jump, and link to a full version.

The New Yorker used to have a link to the story up, but it no longer works. Unfortunately, the only online version I could find is in a terrible format for reading. If you’re interested, I’d recommend copying the text and pasting it into a word processor for easier reading. Here’s the teaser:

By George Saunders

Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coördinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of "It's Yours to Do With What You Like!" in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame!

And then nightfall would fall and our facility would fill with the sounds of quiet fast breathing from inside our Privacy Tarps as we all experimented per the techniques taught us in "It's Yours to Do With What You Like!" and what do you suspect, you had better make sure that that little gap between the main wall and the sliding wall that slides out to make your Gender Areas is like really really small. Which guess what, it wasn't.

That is all what I am saying.

Also all what I am saying is, who could blame Josh for noting that gap and squeezing through it snakelike in just his Old Navy boxers that Old Navy gave us to wear for gratis, plus who could blame Ruthie for leaving her Velcro knowingly un-Velcroed? Which soon all the rest of us heard them doing what the rest of us so badly wanted to be doing, only we, being more mindful of the rules than them, just laid there doing the self-stuff from the video, listening to Ruth and Josh really doing it for real, which believe me, even that was pretty fun.

And when Josh came back next morning so happy he was crying, that was a further blow to our morality, because why did our Coördinators not catch him on their supposedly nighttime monitors? In all of our hearts was the thought of, O.K., we thought you said no boy-and-girl stuff, and yet here is Josh, with his Old Navy boxers and a hickey on his waist, and none of you guys is even saying boo?

Because I for one wanted to do right, I did not want to sneak through that gap, I wanted to wed someone when old enough (I will soon tell who) and relocate to the appropriate facility in terms of demographics, namely Young Marrieds, such as Scranton, PA, or Mobile, AL, and then along comes Josh doing Ruthie with imperity, and no one is punished, and soon the miracle of birth results and all our Coördinators, even Mr. Delacourt, are bringing Baby Amber stuffed animals? At which point every cell or chromosome or whatever it was in my gonads that had been holding their breaths was suddenly like, Dude, slide through that gap no matter how bad it hurts, squat outside Carolyn's Privacy Tarp whispering, Carolyn, it's me, please un-Velcro your Privacy opening!

Then came the final straw that broke the back of my saying no to my gonads, which was I dreamed I was that black dude on MTV's "Hot and Spicy Christmas" (around like Location Indicator 34412, if you want to check it out) and Carolyn was the oiled-up white chick, and we were trying to earn the Island Vacation by miming through the ten Hot 'n' Nasty Positions before the end of "We Three Kings," only then, sadly, during Her on Top, Thumb in Mouth, her Elf Cap fell off, and as the Loser Buzzer sounded she bent low to me, saying, Oh, Jon, I wish we did not have to do this for fake in front of hundreds of kids on Spring Break doing the wave but instead could do it for real with just each other in private.

And then she kissed me with a kiss I can only describe as melting.

So imagine that is you, you are a healthy young dude who has been self-practicing all those months, and you wake from that dream of a hot chick giving you a melting kiss, and that same hot chick is laying or lying just on the other side of the sliding wall, and meanwhile in the very next Privacy Tarp is that sleeping dude Josh, who a few weeks before a baby was born to the girl he had recently did it with, and nothing bad happened to them, except now Mr. Slippen sometimes let them sleep in.

What would you do?

Seriously. Read more here.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Tell Me A Story

After last week’s grumpathon, I’ve decided that this week will be Positive Posting Week. I will not put up snark. I will not belittle. I will not bitch, whine, or tease. Blogs are already way too full of that… oops. I’m just not going to do it.

I’m going to kick off PPW with a post celebrating what on other days and in other moods I might disdain: story and plot in videogames. My thumbs have been known to grow twitchy during many a cutscene; it is so easy to skip ahead with “start” or “A.” I’ve played and enjoyed four Castlevania games in the last five years without knowing what the hell was going on (20th anniversary, BTW).

Yet some blog comments from David Jaffe, director of the excellent God of War, from a couple weeks back are really what’ve focused my thinking on this. Jaffe is sick of making games with stories. (His blog seems to be gone; here’s a link to coverage of his blog post.)

I’m sympathetic to many of his arguments, but in accordance with my decree of positiveness, I’ll skip right to the glories of game stories: Stories enrich many game experiences and they are the only way games can connect to our most complex and human emotions.

Clearly not all games need stories. Many board games don’t have stories. Most puzzle games don’t. But even games that are strong on simple, self-explanatory gameplay can benefit from including some story. Take Katamari Damacy, for example. This game certainly could have existed without context. You coulda been just a big ball rollin’ up littler things. But adding the story about the King of All Cosmos, who breaks the stars in a drunken accident, and having players’ missions be to collect enough stuff to make new stars ratchets the craziness up to more giddy levels.

I would even argue that simply giving games context, like putting the katamari on Earth, creates story. Human brains crave narrative and stories to contextualize experience. If a game doesn’t spoon feed it to us, we’ll fill it in if only hazily. Only very abstract puzzle games might be said to be without story, in my opinion.

But I also want to lavish praise on Shadow of the Colossus, a game that provided the single most profound experience I’ve had with a videogame. I’ve played games that were more exciting. I’ve played games that were more challenging. But I don’t think I’ve played a game that was more thought provoking. And I know I’ve never played a game that moved me, as Shadow did, before.

Shadow of the Colossus is an atmospheric game, suffused with mystery and dread, about a young man killing massive beasts in an attempt to bring a dead woman back to life. His mission is desperate. As players, we’re not even sure if the woman can be saved. The beasts we kill are magnificent. The first time I brought one crashing to the ground I felt that familiar sense of triumph. Besting enemies in games does that reliably. But I felt something new: a sense of regret, of real sadness. Maybe this quest isn’t all for good, I thought. What if my character is being tricked? What if I’m making a devil’s bargain?

Such feelings are rare in games, and they came about because of story. It helped that the land in Shadow of the Colossus was beautiful and living yet empty, making the player feel isolated. But I think all of these touches that create atmosphere are part of the story.

The story was also nestled in the rich history of game narratives. I was saving the princess—I hoped—but feeling less heroic about it than ever before.

This essay is really a plea in favor of moderation. As much as I love hearing game makers dedicate themselves to thinking about gameplay first and foremost, I also think we should remember the power of story. Let’s not cut off Mario’s big bulbous nose to spite his face. He may still platform just as well without a story, but where would we be without Peach, one of the archetypal princesses in need of rescue?

Well, this was a good, positive start. Maybe I’ll declare next week Short Post/No Jumps Week, to honor one of Mrs. Comstock’s requests.


Saturday, August 05, 2006

But How Do You Feel? Part 2: The Kookiness of Qualitative Calculations

Think the 102ºF temperature in Queens on Wednesday was hot? Well, that may have been the actual temperature but my weatherman told me it really “felt like” it was 115ºF.

I hate TV weather forecasts. Like most people, I watch them almost every day so I know what to wear, but a few things about them enrage me all out of proportion. 1) Endless talk about “what the temperature should be today” when they mean average. 2) Hyping weather extremes; how predicted snowfalls, for example, become less and less as a storm nears. 3) Eyewitness weather. If we’re getting lots of rain or snow, I can see it from my window. You don’t need to hustle your reporters to seven local communities to show me the weather there.

And, the subject of this post, 4) Wind chills and heat indices. That is, “what it feels like,” according to the weather folks. These distortions of the temperature just drive me fucking crazy. I suppose they are just a special case of point 2, but they are so common and so aggravating, that I am giving them their own special category.

Smack the link for the smackdown. GRRRRR!

I understand the point of these hand-waving distortions of the outside temperature. Both are designed to capture some of the effects related to the dynamism of the weather system, particularly as it relates to moisture. When the cold wind blows, it strips away the insulating layer of air that surrounds us, bringing new, cold air into contact with our skin; the wind also speeds up evaporative cooling. When the heat that surrounds us is extra-steamy, the humidity slows down that evaporative cooling.

But the fact remains that they don’t change the objective temperature. The wind can whip up as high as it wants, but that air is the same temperature as it would be if it was still. Really, wind chill is an indicator of rate of heat loss; windy days just reduce the temperatures of things faster. But those things can never go below the ambient temp. Likewise, humidity doesn’t change the air temperature when it is hot, it just slows down how your body cools itself.

My biggest gripe is that these measures are so subjective. Let’s say it is 15ºF outside. Like anyone, I cringe when the teeth of a cold blast of air bite into my cheeks and they feel like they are in 0ºF weather. But maybe then the gust dies down, and my cheeks feel—still cold, mind you—a bit better. Then maybe the clouds part, and the sun warms my face, and I find it “feels like” it is warmer than the actual air temperature. Yet the only measure of subjectivity we gravitate to is the scary extreme one.

My second complaint is that these measures are unnecessary. When the temperature is either really hot or really cold, a reading of the air temperature contains enough information. Pulling down the low or pushing up the high doesn’t really matter. In the above example, 15ºF is still damn cold. No one should go into that weather without some attention to protecting themselves against it. Dramatizing the cold by making it seem colder helps no one.

Finally, I simply hate that drama, the self-importance of the weatherman who tells you that, although it is 95ºF, [now looking into the camera with concern in his eyes and authority in his tone] it really feels like it is 100ºF. So be careful out there, in that complicated world that has just been simplified into a hype-tastic extreme.

[/grumpy old man mode]


Friday, August 04, 2006

But How Do You Feel? Part 1: the Limitations of Looking at the Local

Yesterday, it was reported that Pat Robertson has accepted global warming. Why he and so many Christian fundies were opposed to global warming research results in the first place is a bit of a head-scratcher, but it gets crazier. Apparently, he was not convinced by any of the science, you know, the data showing anomalous rising temperatures for years. No, it’s been hot for a couple weeks where Robertson lives so he now has the proof he needs to say that the globe is warming.

This got me thinking: where is the critical faculty? Just consider what we hear every day on the TV weather report. Hottest day records are falling. It has been hot as hell in NYC this week. Could it be global warming? Here’s a little test: when were the previous records set? If it is so hot where you live because of global warming, then all the records of that heat that bothers you so much should be within the last few years. Maybe you’d hear the weatherman say something like, “this tops last year’s record of XYZ degrees!”

But that’s not what we hear. It was 102ºF at LaGuardia airport (close to Comstockville) on Wednesday. Record heat indeed, smashing the previous record of 100ºF set in… 1955! If the heat wave convinces someone of global warming, why weren’t they complaining about a hotter planet in the fifties?

What the scientifically illiterate folks like Robertson don’t realize is that global warming is detectable as an average of the whole globe. That’s where scientists can find a signal. All the heat waves and cold snaps and rainy weeks you experience at a local level are just noise. The real, long-term differences are only apparent when looking at lots of local data points together.

And what scientists see when they look at averages is what should have been convincing people last year, and the year before, and the year before, regardless of how it felt outside. The hottest six years ever recorded by humans were in the last eight years, with last year as the single hottest. But why let that convince people like Robertson when it feels cozy enough near the 700 Club studios?

I hate to say it, because really advocates of science should be happy that another voice of irrationality on the GW topic has been quieted, but the totally nonscientific basis of Robertson’s embrace of a scientific fact gets my blood boiling. It’s not too different than: I’ll never believe in evolution because I’ve never seen an ape give birth to a human (actual fundie logic).

Stay tuned for Part 2. It’s hot outside and Comstock is venting. I got a real pet-peeve post about the heat coming up.
go to main page


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

This Is Your Heart on Videogame Violence

A group of scientists report that videogames desensitize people to violence, and an economist, Edward Castronova, issues a critical beatdown to their statistical methods. I was led to the discussion from an anthropology blog post that my human-ape sex lovin’ friend sent me, and I can’t resist adding my take. The new research does indeed seem sloppy and, I think, quite biased.

At this point, I don’t know tons about the research into the effects of media on violent behavior, but I do know that I love plenty of violent games and I haven’t been in a fight since 1986. Of course the anecdotes about something like the Columbine killers’ love for Doom don’t say squat about a game-violence link, and neither does my passivity.

But academic studies like this new one link things like physiological arousal to violent games pretty clearly. The question then becomes, do these links tell us anything about violent behavior? And it seems to me that they do not.

In the new report, The effect of video game violence on physiology desensitization to real life violence, subjects play either a violent game like Duke Nukem or a non-violent game like 3D Munch Man (wha?!) After playing the games, they watch videos of violent events like jailhouse stabbings.

Over the course of the activities, researchers monitored signs of physiological arousal like heart rate and galvanic skin response. They find that both violent and non-violent games aroused the subjects, as did watching the violent videos. However, the violent game players were less aroused by the videos and, therefore, the researchers surmise, desensitized.

To me, this is not surprising. Although it can be a slippery concept, in general desensitization should be a simple physiological fact. Expose an organism to a certain kind of stimulus and it’ll show a decreasing response. It’s called habituation. It shouldn’t matter much whether we are talking about rubbing the siphon of the sea slug aplysia or making people view representations of violence.

But the really poorly explored assumption in this paper is that desensitization to violence is inherently bad or dangerous. The researchers write, “desensitization of children and other civilians to violent stimuli may be detrimental for both the individual and society.” Maybe. But this has to be proven. It is fine to say desensitization might cause people to ignore victims of violence in real life. But even in their discussion the authors write, “the link between desensitization and helping behavior has not been as carefully examined [as other factors that might decrease helping].”

Devil's advocate time: what if desensitization is good? Just as an example, maybe people who are desensitized to violence are better able to help because they don’t panic. Or what if desensitization is short lived, just as habituation can be in sea slugs? But really, I suspect it is just neutral. After all, slightly slower heart beats don’t allow people to be violent or ignore those in need. Such violent and calloused people have much bigger, deeper problems, problems not caused by videogames.