Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hobbit Brains: !La Lucha Continua!

Carl Zimmer discusses yet more research on the hobbit, the possibly-new species of Homo (H. floresiensis) revealed in bones found a few years ago in Indonesia. Last time I touched on the subject, the research was suggesting that the bones were a microcephalic human.

But new research (PNAS paper not yet online) on a collection of microcephalic human brains indicates that they all share traits that are absent in normal human brains. Features on the H. floresiensis skull suggest that the traits were also absent on H. floresiensis brains. Does this mean the hobbits might actually be a new species? The back-and-forth of the research is really quite exciting, although I wish it could happen in intervals shorter than six months.

Zimmer also mentions research that answers a critical question I had. Sadly, researchers have so far been unable to extract DNA from the bones. But there is still reason to hope. As Zimmer points out, new information about H. floresiensis could be just around the corner, involving new analyses and the hunt for new fossils. New analyses of known bones will probably just draw out the back and forth of the microcephalic/not-microcephalic debate. But new fossils could possibly offer a decisive answer. I’m re-crossing my fingers and hoping for some DNA results, which seem to me to be the surest way to settle the issue.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Japanese Copyright Infringement That I Love

I saw this at the Little Boy show at the Japan Society a couple of years ago. Nothing to say, really, except that it is super cool.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Web Writing That I Hate

This is my 100th post. I’m going to celebrate by using my blog to—wait for it—bitch about shit I don’t like. And one thing I don’t like is smug, flashy internet writing. There’s a fine line between fun, clever writing and excruciating, faux-clever cliché, and blogs often sink into the later category while attempting to sound snappy. Here’s my advice: if you’ve read a silly turn of phrase or typographical trick elsewhere, don’t ape it on your blog. Just. don’t. do. it. The best blog writing captivates because it seems genuine and casual, not because it shows how the writer is on the inside of the geek-speak club. Blog clichés make you look like teh lamer.

To be clear, here are three common tricks of blog writing that I find obnoxious. I’m sure I could think of more, but I encountered these examples over just the last day. (I’m also sure that I’ve been guilty of at least one of these, but I’m working on getting better.)
1) The “…wait for it…” phrasing. The self-satisfied gatekeeper voice is not an attractive one.
2) Anyone. who. writes. like. this. drives. me. crazy. I much prefer this or THIS or even *this* to emphasize a point.
3) 13375p34k. Unless you are some greasy, basement-troll hacker, I don’t want to see Leetspeak. On second thought, everyone should give this up. When the establishment is hip to your jive, it’s time to move on. (I realize that the example I gave in the above paragraph is poking fun at Leet, but I just saw it yesterday and it reminded me that I hate such writing.)


Thursday, January 25, 2007

McDonald's Ad References... RoboCop!?

Flipping through channels this evening, I saw a new ad for the McDonald's dollar menu. The ad ends with the announcer saying, "I'd buy that for a dollar." That phrase comes from the dystopian sci-fi movie RoboCop, in which it is a catch phrase for a crass, Benny Hill-esque TV show that entertains the degenerate citizens of future Detroit.

What could McDonald's possibly be trying to say with this ad? Has the phrase filtered out into pop culture so far that it is free of its roots? I could be wrong about its roots, I suppose. This forum links it to a sci-fi short story with the phrase "Would you buy it for a quarter?" But a little google research suggests the "dollar" version is indeed from RoboCop.


Is Guitar Hero Endangering Real-Life Shredding?

I say no way. But in Newsweek, Steven Levy considers it a real possibility.

If a teenager can easily become a make-believe guitar hero, does that mean he won't ever bother to master the real thing?
Levy goes on to quote the CEO of Gibson guitars, who notes that learning guitar takes a lot of work, but also that guitar manufacturers are hoping to incorporate (unspecified) technology in their guitars that reduces some of the tedium.
"Building calluses and painstakingly learning all the musical fingering is not creative, but is the discipline to get the creative rewards ... In the future we want to reduce the crap you have to deal with to allow people access to that creativity." It sounds great—just as the Devil's offer must have struck Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
Really? Using technology like Guitar Hero to have fun is like making a bargain with the devil? I suggest that the game actually makes non-musicians more sophisticated listeners. I play guitar, and I have been impressed with how Guitar Hero helps my non-guitaring friends learn to distinguish guitar and bass parts in songs that probably sounded like a confusing mix before. I can imagine that enjoying the game might also lead people to pick up a real guitar and try rocking for real. Maybe this Newsweek story is meant to be sillier than it seems, but it kinda comes across like someone being afraid that all the car driving in games will stop people from becoming Nascar drivers. No one has even determined that real kick-ass guitar abilities are dying out--Guitar Hero has only been out for a little more than a year, afterall. But doesn't the popularity of hip hop seem much more likely to endanger shredding than a game that actually encourages fondness for guitar rock?

[via Kotaku]


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More Amazing Sea Life From Japan

More news of weird sea creatures from Japan (another beast here). This time, it’s a frilled shark, an animal normally found in the deep sea. Frilled sharks have very rarely been seen doing their thing in the wild. They have been pulled up in bottom trawls, but this NOAA report on a 2004 deep-sea submersible dive to around 3,000 feet claims video from the dive shows the “first time anyone had ever seen the rare species in its natural habitat.” So this is truly a rare sight. Here’s the brand new footage from Japan.

Reuters reports that the animal was spotted by a fisherman and then captured by workers at a marine park, and that the video was taken in a shallow sea-water pool. The shark doesn’t seem to be doing so well. It looks bent out of shape, swollen around the gills, and cloudy in the eyes. Maybe that is why it was so near the surface? The Reuters story says that the animal died a few hours later.

Nevertheless, it is nice video of an awesome creature. As I noted in the squid post, though, I wonder about the music in the background. Is this normal Japanese news procedure? Not knowing any Japanese myself, I have no idea where this video comes from.

[Aside: To follow up on an idea from another previous post, it has been suggested that the long, eel-like frilled shark could be responsible for old reports of sea serpents.]


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Smoke THIS, You Arrogant Dog

Once, I almost smoked marijuana. I'm glad I didn't, because users are losers and Mary Jane is lame. But then I saw this anti-pot ad in the latest Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine.

If anything, this ad makes me kinda want to smoke pot. First, because good point, it would be cooler if dogs could walk themselves, especially when they bother you when you just want to chill. And second, I've seen many a dog eat poo (their own and other dogs'), so who the hell are they to get all judgmental?

Some online research led me to this video version, which dilutes the pro-marijuana effect a bit, if only because it seems a little more self-righteous. But still, the ineptness of the whole thing shines through when you click the very helpful "read transcript" link. I'll post the transcript here for your edification, and to save you from a life of pot-headery.

Walk Yourself
(Scene opens with a guy lying down smoking weed)
GUY: Can’t you just walk yourself.
DOG: You disappoint me.
(Dog walks away and then raises his flag of independence)

Seriously, do these ads work?. Do you think they're hiring writers?


Friday, January 19, 2007

The Pol Pot Of Global Warming

I accept the idea that human-mediated changes in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are partly responsible for the fact of global warming. Like all scientific theories, this is provisional. But I trust the data I’ve seen and the collective wisdom of the mainstream climatologists who argue that some causes of climate change are anthropogenic. I see very little to be gained from belligerent skepticism in this case. But not everyone is like me. Check out the reactions to the calmly-worded Weather Channel blog about global warming. Their blogger, Dr. Heidi Cullen, defends the Weather Channel’s acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and attempts to distinguish the scientific data from the political argument. The angry-as-hell anti-warmers ain’t having it! [via SciAm Observations]

Continue reading to catch some rhetorical highlights and examples of reasoned debate that would shame Socrates.

Anonymous says: We have very good evidence of cooling and warming of the enviroment over the past without human involvement. Why many people are so intent to "Blame the human race for Armagedon" always surprises me.

Me, too! People also die sometimes without human involvement. Why many people are so intent to suggest that some people are murdered always surprises me.

Faxis says: Man Made Global Warming is the new religion. It's exactly the same situation as the when Ugg the Caveman watched his buddy Kronk get hit with lightning and tried to understand what Kronk had done to deserve it. Ugg created religion in order to feel like he had a hand in things he couldn't understand and thus, could avoid getting fried by lightning. Same thing today with Global Warming only now we've got grant money funding the priests

Good point, but I think you made a small error. Last May, scientific priests demonstrated that Kronk wasn’t killed by lightning; he was eaten by a tyrannosaur.

Larry Giraradi says: You must be aware that every erupting volcanoe spews more greenhouse gasses and poions into the air that all of the cars and factories ever built or operated in the history of the world. Maybe we should have a volcanoe tax to study this problem and find a way for the U.S to be blamed, thus pay the rest of the world for volcanoe pollution.

Hmmm, interesting proposal. But you must be aware that volcanoes are notorious anti-tax conservatives who think public monies should only be used for invading Muslim countries and helping corporations pay their taxes.

Dave z. says: I hope everybody listens to the weather channel and reverts back to the day when we didn't cause all this climate change - have you seem my horse?

Ah, I remember that day fondly. And maybe you should take a look at those freedom-hating socialist Frenchies. They might have eaten your horse.

Randy says: Heidi Cullen, The Weather Nazi.....believe what I tell you or lose your certification and then we'll ship you off to the gulag. You're an embarrassment to use what is simply supposed to be an informational forum and turn it into Air America.

C’mon, Randy. You’re being a little extreme here. Everyone knows Al Gore is the Weather Nazi. Dr. Cullen is more like the Weather Mussolini.

Hoo-boy. This is fun. I could go on all day. And there’s plenty of material. In the time it took me to type these, the comment total on this Weather Channel post climbed from 152 to 200. Some wingnut sites must be linking to it.

One last comment quote before I stop, though. I like this one because it illustrates how hard it is to tell the difference between actual right-wing ignorant fury and a parody of it.

Anonymous says: Heidi's the POL POT of Global Warming!!!!

I'm sure that everyone noticed that the Learned Dr. Heidi did not respond factually to the logical and scientific rejoinders to her STALINOID, FASCISTIC suggestion that people who disagree with HER lose their jobs??

And I'm sure that EVERYONE noticed that the Learned Dr. Heidi did not ONCE respond "on the merits" to those who challenged her facts and reasoning with facts and reasoning of their own.
Apparently this give-and-take is foreign to her.

Let's face it: this person is to Science what O.J. Simspon is to Truth.

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is the science version of Seinfeld's "Kramer's" racist tirade. Heidi can explain away, seek wriggle room, try to convince us that our position is " spin" but everyone knows the truth.



Friday Freenis: Point And Click Puzzling

Continuing last week's reflection upon free games from a few years ago, I bring you Mystery of Time and Space, an adventure/puzzle game with a very old-school point-and-click puzzle solving dynamic. And as with last week's freenis, I think I have MG to thank for pointing this one out to me.

I've been trying to include some adventure-ish games for Mrs. Comstock, who routinely complains about "too much fighting" in videogames.

Although the game is a few years old, two new rooms were added about a month ago.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Space Marines Can't Jump

Yesterday in Slate, Chris Suellentrop analyzed the popularity of Gears of War for the Xbox 360. He offers some interesting ideas (mainly by looking at the comments of Cliff Bleszinski, the game’s lead designer) about how gamers appreciate pacing and how this can substitute for plot in a narrative game.

But Suellentrop oddly singles out one aspect of Gears gameplay, the inability to jump, for special consideration. Now, I find it just as frustrating as the next gamer that in Gears a player cannot leap over a low obstacle without first ducking behind it to seek cover and then mantling over it. But no-jumping doesn’t strike me as a noteworthy mechanic. Maybe you could discuss it at length if it was 1988 and you were talking about Bionic Commando. But, while I acknowledge that it is not a path that many action games take, no-jumping has an established history in gaming.

Just look at Resident Evil 4, a game that Cliffy B acknowledges as the prime gaming influence on Gears of War. Just like the earthbound space marine bad-asses of Gears, Leon in RE4 only jumps with the A button—the Park Place of gamepad real estate, as Cliffy B calls it—in some very specific contexts.

While I really like Gears of War, what I would love to see discussed more is its almost monotonous linearity. A lot of the game environments are sprawling, but the paths available might as well be the spaceship hallways of space marine adventures past. Is this what we want from a next-gen shooter? How much linearity is necessary to achieve the pacing Cliffy B wants? If there is a trade-off between freedom and pacing, as it seems there must be, what kinds of balances between the two work well, and in what kinds of games?


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Death Metal And Islam

This week's New Yorker (cover date Jan. 22) has an interesting article by Raffi Khatchadourian about Adam Gadahn, a lost-soul sort of American kid from California who ended up finding meaning in militant Islam, and now lives as Azzam al-Amriki, an Al Qaeda propaganda tool believed to be in hiding in Pakistan.

I'm very much interested in how relatively normal people can become radicalized, particularly when the radicalization involves the levels of mystical nonsense one sees in religious radicals. On this point the article is interesting but not supremely enlightening.

Before Gadahn became a militant Islamist, he was a geeky kid interested in death metal. In covering this phase of his life, the article makes some intriguing observations but tries too hard to reconcile death metal and Gadahn's version of Islam.

As for the interesting bits, the article quotes a former metal d.j. who notes that "Death metal is an extremist movement." But Khatchadourian wants to make a deeper point about the kinds of people extremist movements might attract. The d.j. continues, "Where heavy metal gets a lot of the guys who lift weights and punch out beer cans, death metal is a really interesting combination of people, but a lot of it is just nerds." True dat.

Khatchadourian also locks on to another interesting facet of metal culture: "Members of the genre generally profess to reject Christianity, but they do so in a religious framework, using the language and imagery of paganism or Satanism, rather than atheism." As an atheist metal fan, I can definitely have fun with Satanist imagery, but I do get sick of seeing one form of nonsense used to counter another.

But then Khatchadorian goes a bit off track. "Fans who outgrow the music, as most do," he writes, "often enough become religious." Whoa. First off, I feel like I've grown into metal as I ditched a lot of silly self-conscious hangups I embraced when I was more into punk or indie (although I don't know a ton about death metal; it's a deep sub-genre populated by a lot of small bands). Second, I would be amazed if there are any data available on the religious feelings of former death metal fans. That bit seems like an obvious attempt to create some sense of order in telling the messy story of Adam Gadahn's change from metal head to turbaned head (oh, I coulda written that much nastier).

I doubt the connection between death metal and militant Islam is any deeper than that they both tend to appeal to people who feel isolated in some way, people who like communities in which they feel they've found a niche. But there's no need to hypothesize deeper connections about religion. And sub-cultures that shelter lonely nerds are hardly rare.

I can't finish without saying that I was impressed that Khatchadourian picked up on an unfortunate tendency among the death metallers: "Onstage, artists often wore sweatpants to demonstrate their athleticism and lack of pretense." I'm not so sure about the athleticism; I heard it was to show how above image they were. Still, if your band is called Cannibal Corpse, I think you have already opened the door to pretense. That's why I tend to prefer the more pretense-friendly sub-genre of black metal. It's totally different from death metal. Well, not really.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Aspy Goes Old Media

Make your own here.

[via Pharyngula]


Friday Freenis: So Beautiful

Many moons ago, my man MG sent me a link to a beautiful online flash game called Samorost. In this adventure/puzzle game, players point-and-click to help a little gnome through a bizarre mechano-organic world.

About a year ago, the Czech developers released Samorost 2. Somehow, I never came across it until this week. The new game has the same captivating style, simple gameplay, and engrossing sound/music as the original. Help the gnome rescue his kidnapped dog in this compelling, oddly comforting game.

This first chapter is free. A second chapter can be downloaded for a fee.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In Praise Of Will Arnett

I hate to admit it, but I'm a really late convert to the genius that is Arrested Development. I never watched it when it was on the air, but over Christmas I got sucked into a rerun marathon and gulped down the first 10 or so episodes of Season One in one sitting. Since then, the wife and I have rented and watched the remainder of Season One and Season Two on dvd.

The writing, the acting, the directing--they're all great. But I wanted to single out Will Arnett, the actor who plays Gob, for particular praise. He is so funny on this show that I almost can't believe that he didn't make a big splash before. Looking at IMDB, it seem he made a living from a string of small TV parts, but now is involved in a heap of movies (one promisingly titled Get 'Em Wet). He is gifted with a wonderful voice, and his timing is amazing. If his future work is half as funny as Gob, it will still be hilarious.

Here are a couple clips demonstrating his abilities. The first speaks for itself.

The second is more subtle (and blurry) and might not work so well out of context, but I laughed for minutes at this scene in the show, replaying his outbursts in my mind until they seemed like absurdist masterpieces. I can't think of any other actors who can make me laugh like this with one word.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Online Gaming With Wii

Nintendo may still be a ways away from maximizing the online potential of the Wii (imagine Excite Truck with online races!), but at least the online browser is supplying new gaming opportunities. Weeks before the Opera browser even launched, Wiicade was up and running. The site carries flash games designed with the Wii controls in mind. The games are simple, but they are more fun to play on the Wii with the Wii remote than they were on my laptop. Tactical Assassin and Curve Ball are a couple of standouts.

One thing about new game systems that I love but that I wouldn’t have predicted 10 years ago is how they create a niche for simple games. I’d like to see more designers create online games with the Wii in mind. And I still have high hopes that the Wii’s Virtual Console will eventually host some new games with retro flair.

An aside: I wondered when the porn possibilities of Wii webbing was going to make some ripples.

[Thanks, Jon]


Friday, January 05, 2007

My Winter Wonderland

When I woke up this morning, it was 56 degrees F outside. In New York. On January 5th. Tomorrow, temps are expected to rise to the mid 60s. It has not snowed once in New York City this season, which will make this year's snow the latest snow ever recorded (if it does ever snow, that is). As a northerner, I miss the cold and the snow. Fortunately, I can retreat to Huaraz, my town in Animal Crossing, to hear the snow crunch under my feet. At least virtual nature adheres to expectations.

[UPDATE: 1/6/07 This morning it was 67 degrees at 6:00 AM. WTF?!]


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Meteorite in tha hizzouse!

True story: when I was little, I used to keep myself up at night worrying about meteorites crashing into my house. Then I would panic and call out to my parents, who would come to my room and assure me that we were safe from such a catastrophe. Well, what do you say about THIS, Mom and Dad?

Better true story: A woman living with her adult son in Freehold Township, NJ, heard a thud on Tuesday afternoon. That evening, the son found a hunk of metal, about 3-and-a-half inches long and weighing three-quarters of a pound, lodged in a bathroom wall. They discovered that the object had crashed through the roof of the two-story house, through the ceiling of a first-floor bathroom, bounced off the tiles, and then got stuck in the wall.

Experts say it could be a meteorite. The object apparently has a smoother appearance than other meteorites, but what else could it be? A piece of a satellite? I'll update when the results of analyses are announced over the next couple days.

My adult fears are much more prosaic than my childhood worries, and recently involve money and a bun in the oven. But I can't argue with a woman quoted in this Newark Star-Ledger story, "I don't like things falling from the sky."

[UPDATE: 1/6/07 Sure enough, it's a meteorite, straight outta the asteroid belt.]