Sunday, October 29, 2006

Halloween Movies: Enough With The Torture Porn

At a Halloween party this past weekend, the conversation turned to horror movies. Our host had set up a video projector and was showing Halloween-appropriate movies in the background. I brought my copy of Dead Alive on dvd, and one friend had to cover her eyes on occasion because of that film's crazy gore. "I like scary movies, but I don't like gory movies," she said. I happen to love both, but if I had to pick one, I might chose gore.

Yet it was with some frustration that I read a story on the state of horror cinema in last week's Time magazine. Actually, I'm quite happy that in the past few years, horror has been in one of its periodic renaissances. I just wish the genre would get over its torture jones. I get it. It is kinda weird to get your kicks by watching people get chopped up. But I'm sick of movies like Saw and Hostel that revel in their ability to make audiences uncomfortable. It is much too self-conscious, and it is just one part of what gore is about.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Saturday Freenis: Winter Games

Let this help you get ready for winter: Line Rider, a flash game at It's not a traditional game, actually, more like a virtual physics toy. Maybe it invents the genre of sledding simulator? In any case, I find it terribly addictive. I never get tired of getting my little sledder up to speed and then launching him up a ramp into a ceiling directly above the jump. Take that!

I'd recommend looking around at some of the other games at ThorGaming. Lots of fun stuff there.


Tigers, You Break My Heart

What happened? They defeated the Yankees, destroyed Oakland. We were riding high. Everyone back home was proud of Detroit. Then they look like a bunch of amateurs when it really matters. So many errors. I know it's just a game, but it feels like getting dumped.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ghosts In The Machine

The November, 2006, issue of the Atlantic has a feature about videogames called Sex, Lies, And Videogames, written by Jonathan Rauch. (What’s with the thoughtful magazines coming out with videogame pieces? Where are you, New Yorker?)

The article is an interesting take on the attempt to broaden the appeal of games, mainly by improving characters. Most of the article is taken up with a discussion of Façade, a conversation-based game, or what the article calls “interactive drama.” As a version of the “are games art?” discussion, this one has a lot more reporting and details than most, which is nice.

However, the big problem of games like Façade is the AI, which, right now, promises much more than it delivers. And I’m skeptical it will reach the levels necessary to make a good game anytime soon. The article is not available to non-subscribers, so I’ll pull some choice bits for examination after the jump.

Here’s the main thrust of the article:

In certain rarefied circles of AI academia and video-game design, people sometimes theorize about a computer program that would combine the graphical realism of a modern video game with the emotional impact of great art. “Interactive drama,” the concept is called. It might contain artificial people you could converse with, get to know, and love or hate. It might engineer dramatic situations, complete with revelations and reversals. Entering this world, you would feel as if you had been thrust into the midst of a soap opera or a reality-TV show.

Apart from a minor quibble—I think a number of games have already achieved the emotional impact of great art—I think this is a fine goal.

As Andrew Stern, one of the Façade designers, says in the story, “There’s no drama genre, there’s no comedy genre … What exists right now are action movies, basically.” More comedy, more drama, nothing necessarily wrong with that. Rauch continues:
If videogames seem inhuman, that is because they lack humans. Their esoteric syntax is an artifact of a stunted environment in which blasting someone’s head off is easy but talking to him is impossible.

I have to admit: I’m immediately struck by a defensive impulse. Why do we need deep drama from games? The background assumption seems to be that games are limited. Why can’t we let them be as they are and do what they do best? People don’t bemoan the lack of comedy in sculpture. Are we trying to shoehorn things into a medium in which they don’t fit? I’m inclined to side with people like Steven Johnson, who have argued that games can’t and shouldn’t be judged with the same criteria that we judge, say, novels.

But I recognize games often have humans undertaking actions in a world filled with other humans, and in that case we can link it with drama. And I want to see games evolve to be as broad, popular, and varied as possible, so let’s explore all possible game designs at this early stage in game history. If some games had realistic characters that responded to players, that would be swell. I’m all for “redefining the meaning of video-game ‘play,’” as the story puts it. (Although I still want to be able to race cars and blow heads off.)

I know more non-gamers would get into videogames if they could talk to the characters. I’ve been playing Façade over the last few days, and my wife snatched the computer away from me. Talking with characters is just what she wants in a game, and the simple interactions of Animal Crossing and Knights of the Old Republic only go so far with her.

The problem is, the conversations in Façade are very poor. When players aren’t being led by the nose by the characters of Façade asking yes or no questions, at best it seems like the characters in the game pick up on mood words like “angry” or exciting terms like “sex” to steer the conversation. Often, the meaning of conversations feels like a result of pattern seeking on the player’s part.

It seems to boil down to a problem of AI. If you’ve ever talked to a chat bot online, you’ll know what I mean. The most successful ones seem to be those that give ambiguous answers that you can imagine were related to your statement. And talks I have had with people who work in AI tend to be pessimistic, almost suggesting that even seeking a virtual intelligence that you can talk to is a silly task, and the goal of passing the Turing test an out-dated fantasy.

But I’m out of my depth here. Maybe I’ve just heard from the pessimists. Maybe there are revolutions just around the corner. Michael Mateas, another designer of Façade, predicts it will be “totally doable within twenty years.”

Ultimately, I’m a wishful pessimist when it comes to believable AI in videogames. As someone from Electronic Arts tells Rauch in the article:
A lot of people have worked on it. Every year we’re like, “We’re going to design incredibly intelligent, fluid humans who act realistically.” We try to take this huge step—and we fall all the way back down. At least [Mateas and Stern] ended up somewhere new. It doesn’t all work, but at least it is a step.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Who Needs the Xbox 360?

If you've followed this blog, you may have noted that I've lusted after an Xbox 360. Well, no more. No, I haven't convinced the Mrs. that we should spend $400 on a new system. Instead, I got an even newer Xbox. A portable one even.

Well, honestly, this thing is a piece of junk. It makes Game and Watch look like a next-gen miracle. I found it in a box of Cocoa Krispies. It plays only one game, called Robo Blast. Robo Blast is a bad game. These odd little smudges move across the screen, and the d-pad controls a cursor. Place the cursor over a robot and push the button to pull the trigger. Beep! The robot disappears. Here's a closer look at one of the robots.

The game has four levels. The goal is to prevent the robots from making it across the screen. They speed up a higher levels. Let too many get across the screen, and it's game over. I'll be frank: this game is not fun. It is part of a series. Looks like there are four more "Xboxes" to get from Cocoa Krispies. They are 1) Motorcycle Madness, 2) Mystic Castle, 3) Disco Mania, 4) Space Blaster. Not one seems promising. At least they're portable.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday Freenis, Chess Edition

I'm no good at chess. Too impatient. It is fun enough to play, so long as I'm challenging a fellow bumbler.

One thing I do like about chess, though, is the way the knights move about the squares with their L-shaped hopping. It must light up regions of my brain that enjoy seeking patterns in the world.

Troyis, an addictive puzzle game you can play for free online--although for only 15 minutes a day without ponying up some duckets for a full version--taps into this pattern-loving part of my brain. How about you? MG?

[Via Evolutionblog]


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Why Is It Raining Rain Men?

What causes autism? TV? Havin’ smart parents ‘n’ stuff? A couple of crazy new theories dropped this month to explain the spike in autism diagnoses we’ve been seeing over the past couple decades.

On his relatively new Discover-based blog, John Horgan covers the hypothesis that the qualities that make successful science-y types can lead to autistic children. In Slate, Gregg Easterbrook says TV might turn kids autistic.

As for the first idea, first reported in IEEE Spectrum, a British researcher hypothesizes that autism is an extreme version of a normal human trait called systematizing, the tendency to focus on grouped things and patterns in the world. Scientists and engineers have this trait, and they are meeting and mating more than ever, suggests Simon Baron-Cohen.

In the Slate piece, Gregg Easterbrook—who can always be counted on for a blood-pressure-raising crazy piece of science journalism—trumpets new research suggesting that watching TV before age three is linked autism. However, a quick glance at the new research reveals that it is a non-peer-reviewed work by some economists. This is not immediately damning, but raises those red flags. I’m no fan of Easterbrook, so I did appreciate the wild take-downs in the Slate comments. Actually, many of the comments rip into what seems like pretty shoddy research. I’m not surprised Easterbrook is giving high-profile attention to such problematic stuff. He’s a quite poor science writer.

For my part, I’m still not convinced that autism is one thing, biologically speaking. As I say in the comments section of Horgan’s blog:

Autism seems to be a bit of a trash-can diagnosis. I've often thought that so-called high-functioning autistic people were just extreme types of normal human ways of being. This would be consistent with the systematizer theory. However, some people classified as autistic seem to be so disabled, unable to talk, unable to live independently, that I wonder if their "disease" has different underlying causes than the higher functioning individuals. It is harder for me to see the more severely disabled folks as just being outliers in a normal distribution. This is a problem I have when trying to understand possible causes for all sorts of spectrum disorders.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Modern-Day Book Burners Ban Blankets

The modern-day equivalent of book burners have struck again in the heart of conservative and ignorant America (a previous attack here). As reported at the Comics Reporter, and then picked up in local and blogospheric media, a library in Missouri has pulled from its shelves two graphic novels, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Blankets by Craig Thompson. I haven't read Fun Home, but Blankets is probably the most emotionally resonant graphic novel I have ever read. Of course readers will find drawings of boobies, a couple penises, teenage sexuality, sexual abuse, and a community of closed-minded religious conservatives in the book. They will also find a very moving and honest portrait of a young man growing up, and a thoughtful analysis of the way we make meaning in our lives through art.

Defenders of comic books and free expression generally have written to the library board in Marshall, Missouri, asking them to protect First Amendment rights. The letter also points out what seems like a no-brainer in this case: Blankets, at least, is not pornographic as the one complaining moron in Marshall claimed. Why closed-minded and conservative types will forever seek to deny aspects of the world around them is beyond me. To deal with difficult things that young adults face in their lives is noble, and literature that does this should be embraced by honest people everywhere.

The library has only temporarily removed the books from its shelves. I'm hoping they wisely decide to replace them. Stay tuned, as more meetings are expected this week.

[Thanks Marc!]


Monday, October 09, 2006

Aspidistra Update

I'm swtiching The Aspidistra to Blogger Beta. This means my whole template got scrapped and I have to beautify the new one.

On top of that, real life demands my full attention this week, so expect the changes to roll out slowly. I hope to be back to normal by next weekend.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Big $$$ Ads Targeting Gamers?

Last night I was watching TV, and I see this ad for Travelers Insurance. I know the snowball rolling out of control is an old staple in cartoons and such, but to a gamer like me images of a ball rolling around the city picking up chairs, people, lamposts, and cars calls to mind one thing: Katamari Damacy. Is it possible that this commercial is NOT based directly on that game?

Then on the train to work this morning I'm daydreaming and looking out the window, and a billboard at the Pelham station catches my eye: "Make Rupees" it says. The ad is for Bloomberg. Now, I know rupees are the name for currencies in some south Asian countries--and this is clearly a play on "Make Whopee"--but rupees are also the currency in the Legend of Zelda games.

So I make a connection. And I begin to think. Can these ads be targeted at gamers? Both Travelers and Bloomberg serve people with lots of money. Like, you know, grownups and such. Not gamers. If these ads are at all related to games, I think it is because the creative types who make the ads are in fact gamers.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Two Kinds of Art has an interesting essay up about the evolution of videogame box art that manages to stay clear of the nostalgia-drenched tone that normally permeates such features. Judging a Game By Its Cover traces some interesting trends over the years, including the de-Japanification of box art that used to be routine when a Japanese game was released in the US. In the case of Ico, the US changes completely erased the lonely atmosphere of the Japanese and European versions. This example doesn't seem as much de-Japanification as dumbing-down to me.

Props are given to the US version of the Legend of Zelda art, while the universally derided Mega Man box is held up to ridicule yet again. This obviously got me thinking of my favorite art. When I was little I was quite captivated by box art from Imagic. Faxanadu for the NES was classy. You may have noticed that I am a fan of Golgo 13; this includes the box art for the first game (check out the sequel for a study in contrasts). Recently, I've enjoyed the art for Katamari Damacy and Pikmin 2 (although I think I like an alternate version more). Feel free to get nostalgic and list some favorites in the comments section.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Connecting Principle Linked To The Invisible

The end of last week found me investigating the large extra dimensions model of the universe for work. Then in my internet ramblings I stumbled as a Sally-come-lately into the cryptozoological phenomenon of rods. Next, I was paging through Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, again for work. Finally, yesterday morning on the train I read H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond.” Clearly, I am in the midst of a full-blown synchronicitous event, directing my attention to considerations of the reality of things we can’t see. Join me in ruminations on unobservables after the jump.

  • The large extra dimensions model, or ADD model, is an attempt to understand the relative weakness of gravity compared to the other four fundamental forces. It posits extra dimensions, folded up very small, which are filled with gravity. We can’t see or feel these dimensions because they are so small, but the high-energy Large Hadron Collider may test the model when it starts up next year.
  • Rods, also known as skyfish, are cryptozoological entities that can only be seen with video cameras. Enthusiasts suggest that rods move too fast to be seen without these tools. The pictures are real, believe it or not. But critics make an utterly convincing argument, suggesting the rods are motion-blurred insects captured mid-flight with long exposure times.
  • The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is Sagan’s defense of scientific rationality against all forms of superstition, religious and otherwise. He charts the fine line good scientists must trace between skepticism and acceptance of new ideas.
    We humans have a talent for deceiving ourselves. Skepticism must be a component of the explorer’s toolkit, or we will lose our way. There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.
  • Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond” involves a mad-scientist-type who invents a machine that stimulates dormant senses in human beings, allowing people to see normally-invisible entities in the world. Quoth the mad scientist:
    You see them? You see them? You see the things that float and flop about you and through you every moment of your life? You see the creatures that form what men call the pure air and blue sky? Have I not succeeded in breaking down the barrier; have I not shown you worlds that no other living men have seen?

Interesting, no? But I’ll admit right away that I’m enough of a skeptic to doubt the reality of synchronicity. I would subscribe to a soft version of the idea, one in which we give synchronicitous events meaning, one in which our behavior patterns create a pattern in events in our lives. But a harder version of the theory, in which we tap into a dynamic that is bigger than ourselves and directs history, seems impossible to me.

Skepticism, as Sagan points out, is a necessary tool for people trying to understand the world. Too little, and people will end up thinking that blurry insects on video are a life form that is all around us but has never been detected in the thousands of years of recorded human history. Simple logical exercises fail these people in their desperate wish to believe (Where are the dead skyfish?).

Maybe they were sucked into extra dimensions?

Seriously, though, some very smart scientists do suggest the world is queerer than we had previously imagined, and may include invisible dimensions. I’m less comfortable saying these ideas are BS, but I’m still inclined to doubt. Sure, I accept other things no one has seen, like electrons, but those entities are based on innumerable experimental observations. Extra dimensions seem to pop up as predictions of equations nestled in often-untestable models. But maybe the LHC will test at least the large extra dimensions model. I just expect this model to fail.

So, considering this flood of skepticism and my doubt of deep synchronicity, I’m content to simply wonder why these events struck me now. Obviously, science deals with a lot of unobservable phenomena, so the fact that I work in a science-related field means I’m going to encounter a lot of this. As a committed materialist, I’m convinced my experience is just coincidence. But I think that, as is the case with Lovecraft, my materialism spawns a fascination with supernaturalism. Part of me wishes the world was a bit more magical than it seems to be, and yet another part of me delights in putting the smack down on magical thinking.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Free Rock!!!

The Hold Steady, a rockin NYC band that is releasing a new album tomorrow, has made the songs from the album available for streaming here, for free! I thought their previous album was pretty good, but I am still really impressed by and loving these new songs. I detect something decidedly Springsteen-esque in the way these guys can make music that has so much energy and real emotion, and still have it be so accessible. Hey, I'm still in the midst of a months-long metal phase, and even I'm taking a break to get goosebumps to this album. The site was up on Saturday, down on Sunday, but seems to be working again today.

[UPDATE: By now (11/18/06) it looks like this streaming business is over. So sorry to see it go. If anyone comes by, they can at least see the Hold Steady rock out live on "Stuck Between Stations" on YouTube.]