31/12/2004

The Endless Mutability of the Digital

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:38 am

So I’m still playing Thief 2, and enjoying it very much, but there’s one thing bugging me. It’s only a little thing: whenever Garrett (the character you play in the game) climbs up onto something, he makes a little gasping sound. That’s fine, but that sound is just a smidgeon too loud in comparison to all the other sounds in the game.

Now, in Real LifeTM I’d just ignore something like that. But in the digital world it bugs me, because (a) it would have been so simple for the game designers to get right in the first place and (b) I know that, with an hour or so of work, I could probably open up the game’s sound file, pull out that sound, apply some compression or just reduce the volume, put it back in the sound file, close it up and play on, without the irritation. In other words, the fact that it can be fixed makes it more irritating!

What does this mutability (ability to change) of the digital world do to our relationships with the real world? Does it make us prefer the digital world, where we can tweak things to be the way we like them, over the sometimes immutable real? Or – and this is a more hopeful result – does it make us start thinking about what aspects of RealityTM are susceptible to a cunning hack?

30/12/2004

Risk Aversion

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:17 am

I linked this story, Can governments save us from disasters?, as a comment to Fragile, below, but thought it was an interesting enough discussion to get into on its own. This issue was kind of a subtext in what I wrote there, but I was concerned more with honoring the dead and their families in that post than with trying to understand the issues.

…in the open global society now emerging, people are demanding more economic and individual freedom but are willing to live with less personal risk. In Australia this can be loosely measured by the inverse relationship between the rate of economic deregulation over recent decades and the rate of social regulation.

In the 1970s, Australians had to go cap in hand to the bank manager to beg for a housing loan but could smoke while doing so. They would pay up to 125 per cent duty on an imported car but not be overly concerned if the children’s seatbelts were undone.

Gregory Hywood’s article wavers around the point a bit, and ends with a whimper rather than a bang, but the point is an important one: for perhaps the past decade and a half, and accelerating since the end of 2001, the global political climate has essentially been about who is seen as being able to shield us from risk. The risks associated with terrorism have been cited as the justification for almost everything in politics, in one way or another.

What this earthquake and the resulting tsunamis reminds us of is that life is dangerous, and all the preparation in the world can’t make you perfectly safe. The best you can do is prepare to react, and prepare to rebuild. Of course we want to make ourselves and our families as safe as possible, but letting go of the assumption that perfect safety (zero risk) is even possible can help us make much better choices about how much risk we’re willing to tolerate, and the cost/benefit analysis of the things we’re willing to give up to reduce risk.

29/12/2004

Please Help Cassie Out With Her Science Fair Project

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:13 pm

My older daughter, Cassie, is doing a science fair project for school. She has set up a short and simple web-based questionnaire to check out the general public’s knowledge of some basic ideas in science. While I know you guys aren’t exactly a representative sample of the general public — you’re the highly select group of people who have the excellent taste to read ‘Bravus’ 😉 — she and I would be very grateful if you’d be willing to complete the quiz, and encourage others to do likewise. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. Thanks very much, on Cassie’s behalf.

Sequelitis

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:13 am

I’m just re-playing Thief 2: The Metal Age at the moment – and I think that’s one case where the sequel does live up to the original game. But that’s basically because it’s virtually the same game, with a new story, prettier textures and a few new toys, but the same great writing, story and openness of approach that characterised Thief: The Dark Project. I enjoyed Thief 3: Deadly Shadows, but it really wasn’t the same – it was a fun game, but in some sense it didn’t feel like a Thief game. And let us never speak of Deus Ex 2: Invisible War again…

Can anyone name a game where the sequel really surpassed the original game? Games like Baldur’s Gate 2 and Icewind Dale 21 have succeeded by sticking close to the formula of the original great games.

I dunno – maybe there’s a game out there where the first one was pretty ordinary and the second was great? I hear good things about Diablo 2, but I’ve never played that series. There’s almost always some improvement in graphics and the overall visual experience in the sequel, but almost without exception there seems to be a decrease in the quality of the gameplay. Unreal 2, Quake 2…? Disappointments. And don’t get me started on the Quake 3/Unreal Tournament trend of just ditching the first person adventure entirely and going for hours of mindless deathmatch (but OK, humans really do provide the best AI!)

System Shock 2 bucks the trend. It was made long enough after System Shock that there’s not much comparison between the game engines, and by a different studio, but it was made with love and care and good writing and respect for the original.

Is this just the nostalgia of the old coot muttering about how everything was better in the old days? Or is this sophomore slump a reality? If so, what are the factors that cause game developers to tear up classics and make crappy, pretty games that are no fun to play?

  1. can’t link it because the studio — Black Isle — has gone under, as has the wonderful Looking Glass, which made the first two Thief games as well as the superb System Shock 2

27/12/2004

Fragile

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:21 am

No man is an island entire of itself.
Every man is a part of the
continent, a piece of the whole…
Any man’s death diminishes me
because I’m involved in mankind.
Therefore, never send to know for
whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
-John Donne

The news of the earthquake and ensuing tidal waves in South-east Asia has been rolling in today, and it just keeps getting worse and worse: the first death toll I read was around 3000, then 5000, 7000, 12000. Right now they’re saying 14,500, but that’s no doubt still not the final toll.

It’s abhorent to compare tragedies – as Donne so elegantly says in the poem I quoted above, every death is a tragedy, every death diminishes each of us. But in pure numbers, this tragedy dwarfs September 11, 2001. It’s different in kind, though, because this one wasn’t caused by humans, but that’s kind of the point: this illustrates that the quest for perfect safety and security is an illusion. Kill every terrorist on earth, and there’ll still be floods, fires and earthquakes. It’s crucial that we do everything we can to save lives, but this is a sobering reminder, as Sting sang years ago, of ‘how fragile we are’.

26/12/2004

Sanitarium

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:00 pm

Just an odd personal snippet of juxtaposition – I thought it, now you have to! My Mum and Dad both worked for many years at the Cooranbong Factory (background right of the photo) of Sanitarium Health Foods. Their willingness to work hard there, in what were not always the most fascinating or enjoyable jobs, was what put my siblings and me through good Christian schools. I worked there myself on summer vacations — including one hellish month of 35 degree (Celsius) days inside a boiler scraping off the scale with a razor blade, that left me snorting out black boogers at the end of each day — and for most of a year to earn money between my first and second years of college.

I worked as a cleaner, blowing cornflake dust out from behind the mills that flattened the grains, getting it up my nose and in my hair, or sitting on top of the long Weetbix ovens mopping at the dust with a rag and a bucket of water, and singing Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ album in my head entire, including guitar solos. Or packing cornflakes packets into cartons, trying to keep up as they slammed down a chute from above, and developing forearms like Popeye because you had to stack 4 slippery cornflake packets into a row then hold them together by pure force on the outside two packets and throw them into the carton. Or I’d spend a shift sitting at the end of a machine as it filled 200 litre drums with cereal, writing bad teenage poetry on scraps of cereal boxes…

Working at the factory was one of the things that convinced me that I really wanted to go back to school and finish my degree. A few of my friends kept working there, and are still working there, and I always seemed to feel the factory looming behind me if I got tempted to get slack in my studies. So when I heard Metallica’s song ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ (which is about something completely different) years later, these two lines kind of resonated with me: ‘Sanitarium – leave me be/Sanitarium – just leave me alone‘ (mp3, 300k).

25/12/2004

Merry Christmas

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:33 am

… to everyone: or Happy Hanukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Blessed Solstice, Festive Festivus, etc. The December 24 rant from the wonderful Trenchant Lemmings blog (written by RobW from the William Gibson Board) on the topic of ‘saving Christmas’ doesn’t quite manage to keep a coherent focus, but it’s more rant-like and fun because of that. I’ll be doing Christmas stuff all day today, and not blogging: whether you believe in Christ or Christmas or not, just hug someone you love today.

24/12/2004

House of Dead Memes

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:48 am

Richard Dawkins proposed the neat idea of ‘memes‘ in 1976. By analogy with ‘genes‘ in biology, memes are self-replicating ideas that pass from one mind to another. The analogy with genes is strong – memes arise by mutation of existing ideas (since there is nothing new under the sun), and are naturally selected by how well they are adapted to their environment. Memes can become extinct: or at least, die out in minds, and be recorded only in media like books and films.

One meme that was huge, but seems to be nearing the end of its life cycle is the low-carb craze. Whether it was Atkins or the South Beach Diet, for a while there you could hear almost nothing about food that wasn’t obsessed with getting rid of carbs – or at least with eating them in different meals from proteins. Even beer came out in low-carb forms… But it was never a real diet, it was always a meme, and not a particularly well adapted one. It made a few people very rich, and probably not as many people slimmer, and let people think they were doing something for their health that was simpler than the real remedy – a balanced diet with smaller portions of a good range of food types, and some regular exercise.

A meme that seems to be alive and well at the moment — witness the massive worldwide success of Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code‘ and now Nicolas Cage’s ‘National Treasure‘ — is the ‘ancient religious/secret society conspiracy’. I still think Umberto Eco did it best in ‘Foucault’s Pendulum‘ (scroll down past ‘The Name of the Rose’), but that takes a bit more effort to read. No doubt the trend is helped along by the times we’re living in, when to believe in conspiracies would be somehow strangely comforting – believing that the world is getting screwed up this badly by accident is scarier.

So what will be the next big memes? (Hint: Think about the hopes, fears and dreams that give a meme its energy source to replicate.) And, key question, is the Christianity meme — one of the longest-lived and most successful ever — one that is actually in a declining phase? (Although it appears to be on the ascendant in the US at the moment, it could be argued that it’s in a degenerate form that contains the seeds of its own destruction…) Not that this is something I hope for, I hasten to add, but memes seem to have a life cycle, and to adapt to their environment, and the conceptual inertia that is the great strength of religions is also their great weakness in rapidly changing environments.

23/12/2004

G3 Live in Denver

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:03 am

I watched this DVD last night – a concert that happened in Denver last year with three of my favourite guitarists, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen. I probably have 8 or so albums by the three of them combined, and they’re all amazing shredmonsters. I even confess to my Yngwie-worship on my home page. You can catch a little bit of the magic here. Consider this a sort-of-review, just because it was fun.

Satch looks like the uncoolest grandpa around, with his orange-lenses glasses, jeans and t-shirt and the dorkiest quasi-bucket hat I’ve ever seen, but plays like the legend he is. His songs have a huge range and are very melodic, and his technical prowess is amazing. He also has the restraint not to just shred all over everything.

Steve Vai used to look like a really evil/cool young rock god – especially in the suspect but fun Ralph Macchio (!) movie Crossroads. Now he looks like that cool and rather handsome longhaired university professor with the tiny glasses, and wears rather flamboyant silky shirts in stylish prints. He was a student of Satriani’s at one stage.

Suzie always teases me when I play guitar for my ‘guitar face’ – the tendency to purse the lips and raise the eyebrows in perfect harmony with every string-bend. Mine has nothing on Steve’s! His face is all over the map from pursed lips to a wide open snarl, and looks like it does more work than his fingers.

He starts out on a triple-necked guitar (12-string, 6-string and fretless 6-string) and, with the help of a delay pedal, credibly plays all three necks at once. The cynic in me knows it’s gimmicky, but the geek in me enjoys it anyway. Steve also does a lot more (enjoyable) messing about, doing dueling guitars type stuff with some of his backing guitarists and with bassist Billy Sheehan and guitar/keyboard player Tony MacAlpine (also legends). At one point these three and one other guitarist are all playing side by side, each doing the left hand playing on the neck of another guitar, if you can imagine that. His songs are great too, with a real range from the beautiful and ethereal to the all out boogie stompers.

Then Yngwie comes out, and he’s just too rawk for words: black leather pants, cowboy boots, black velvet shirt open down the front, lots of big, long hair – and a chubby face and serious beergut! He does high kicks over the audience, spins his guitar around his neck, plays it with his teeth, switches it for a disposable one which he smashes to pieces… He comes out to the mic and yells “Do you know what time it is? It’s time to rock!” It could be a joke or a cliche, but his playing just transforms it into a definite moment for raising the horns and yelling. His ‘neo-classical’ riffs are just astonishing, and his whole playing style just blows me away. It’s not all about speed, but his speed is blistering, and the playing is incredibly melodic and well articulated at that speed. His longtime keyboardist Jens Johannson plays as fast and as well as him, and their duels are just amazing. I have to say, Yngwie’s was the set I enjoyed the most by far.

Which made it triply frustrating that some truly craptastic mixing on the final 3-song jam with all 3 guitarists completely buried Yngwie’s guitar so that you could barely hear him at all. Arrgghh.

All in all, definitely an evening well spent for the guitar freak – but that last little fault made me glad I rented the DVD rather than bought it.

22/12/2004

The Presidator?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:11 pm

Well, I know I’d prefer that there’s a Democrat president in the US in 20121 (given that it’s unlikely that there’ll be a Green Party one), and ideally a liberal Democrat, not a ‘let’s try to look just like the Republicans to get elected’ Democrat. But say that doesn’t happen: I gotta say, I think an America with President Schwarzenegger would be a heck of a lot more fun to live in than one ruled by a Dubya-clone.

OK, so he recently vetoed a bill that would have raised minimum wages in CA to something remotely livable, and he’s pretty rightwing financially, but I think he’d be much more liberal on gay rights, women’s rights (except possibly the right to freedom from groping) and a whole raft of other issues.

Arnie would normalise relations with Cuba, purely to ensure the cigar supply. Gyms and protein supplements would be subsidised – and you have to know, a 60 year old pres that’s hella buff has to appeal to the Boomer demographic.

President Arnie would be much less likely to ban action movies (duh!) and generally would be more what P.J. O’Rourke describes as a Republican Party Reptile: the kind of Republican that actually believes in having a good time and having the government stay out of your way. He’d rein in the Nanny State, and slap the state on the nose if it tried to get into your bedroom.

Well, the America of the Presidator would be pretty fun for guys. For women maybe not so much. They might need to wear army-surplus flak jackets (oh, that’s right, there aren’t enough of those to go around) to fend off the hands… But Arnie does know how to spot, and hold, a smart, talented left-wing woman.

Arnie knows the rest of the world exists. Hey, he’s from there. And he gets lots and lots and lots of royalties from there too…

And of course, in case of international crisis, there’d be no need to send an army – you could just send an Arnie instead.

  1. And of course I feel comfortable pontificating on this issue as an Aussie living in Canada – it’s the Yanks themselves who keep telling us they’re the world’s super-power and what they do effects us all

Woohoo, we’re back…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:55 am

Can’t guarantee we’ll survive the rest of the month, but let’s see how this goes…

Let’s try this…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:54 am

Still chasing alternatives. Interestingly my home page at http://bravus.port5.com was defaced by this new ‘NeverEverNoSanity’ worm, although I thought that only attacked php pages and mine was vanilla html… Oh well, I’m sure I have a current backup somewhere, so it’s just a matter of finding which machine it’s on and getting that site back up and running. This site didn’t get hit by it (yet), but I imagine the worm is tying up the resources of the hosting provider, which is why it’s taking a while to get answers.

When I checked the detailed stats, it looked as though 80% of the total bandwidth was consumed by the Stat Traq stats package I’m using. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but I think I might try disabling it temporarily and seeing if that allows me to get the blog back up for the rest of the month.

21/12/2004

Lo-tek

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:53 am

I guess, apart from anything else, I can do this low-tech, low-bandwidth version of blogging on a single html page with no images to get us by for the next couple of days. I’m exploring solutions with my hosting provider, Portland in the UK, as well as looking at possible other hosting solutions elsewhere. I hope to be up and running again in a couple of days, but absolute worst case is that we bring it all back up on January 1, and then have a couple of weeks to get the bandwidth problem sorted.

Actually, I can use images, they just need to be hosted elsewhere. I’m using www.flickr.com, which is an awesome service, and this image might explain a few things:

{this message was copied across from the placeholder page I used while the blog was down}

20/12/2004

Bandwidth Challenge

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:53 am

My apologies to all my readers. I have a total bandwidth allocation of 1000 MB per month, and as of this morning, December 20, the site is up to 930 MB. It’s going to cost me a not insignificant amount of money if I go over the limit for the month. I’m looking at alternatives right now, and hope to have the blog back up and running very soon. Please keep dropping by to check, and my apologies for the hassle. {this message was copied across from the placeholder page I used while the blog was down}

19/12/2004

The Truth

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:21 pm

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? [optional: so help you God]” I kinda hope I’m never called on as a witness in a trial, because I’d probably hold up the proceedings for half an hour with philosophical qualifications on that one! It’s tough enough to tell the truth, let alone the whole truth! Ask ten witnesses to a robbery for their eyewitness accounts, and you’ll get ten different accounts – maybe only the details vary, but which witness is telling the whole truth?

I actually prefer Andre Gide’s perspective: “Believe those who are seeking the truth, doubt those who find it”. It seems to me as though much of the pain in the world (apart from that caused by accidents and disease) results, directly or indirectly, from those who (claim to) have found the truth. If we realise that we’re still seekers, still learning, still not in posession of the whole truth, we’re willing to listen to another’s perspective, but once we know that we have found the truth, we’ll want you to know it too – and be willing to enforce that with a law or a gun.

18/12/2004

The Castle

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:06 pm

While we’re digging up the poetical relics… Cassie (she’ll be 14 on Monday) had to create a themed poetry portfolio, including some published poems and some from friends and family. She chose the theme ‘princesses’. Here’s what I came up with:

Someone once said
“A castle is like a swan – on the
Surface it looks as though it’s
Floating serenely through time
But underneath it’s paddling like
Hell”

It’s all very well for them upstairs
It’s all balls (pardon my French)
Glass slippers and kissing frogs
For that lot

Meanwhile, who washes the ball dresses?
Makes ‘em too, for that matter
Bakes the bread and stuffs the swans
With larks’ tongues?

And they might think their
Poop don’t stink, but someone
Still has to empty the privies
And rinse out the garderobe

Still – to be caught up in a
Fairytale romance, with some
Fairytale prince, of royal blood
Carried off to his castle…

Ah, but then what? Maybe not
Baking the bread and shovelling
The shi… llings worth of horsepucky
But maybe…

Popping out half a dozen kids, quicktime
While he’s off reducing some other
Poor woman’s castle somewhere

And supervising the supervisors of
The supervisors of
Us downstairs, paddling like
Hell

© David Geelan, 2004

17/12/2004

Butter Battle Book

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:48 am

Alex (she’ll be 11 in a couple of weeks) had an assignment from school to write what she thought would happen after the ending of Dr Seuss’ ‘Butter Battle Book’. The book is about the Zooks, who butter their bread on the bottom, and the Yooks, who butter their bread on the top (shades of Swift’s ‘big-endians’). The book recounts the escalating war and the devices the Yooks and Zooks build to battle the heretics on the other side. It ends with a young Yook watching as his grandpa holds a small but powerful bomb near the wall separating the two lands, and a Zook also holds a bomb, and ends with the line: “we’ll see, we’ll see…”

Alex kind of misunderstood the assignment, and thought she had to write the ending of the book. So the two of us sat down and wrote this together:

So they stood and they stood, on the wall in the day
Each holding his bomb, in a carefulsome way
Neither wanting to drop, neither wanting to give
Neither wanting to kill and both wanting to live

Then I thought a big thought, and it near knocked me over
Will it work? If it does, we’ll all be in clover
So I went to my grandpa and I whispered a whisper
And he smiled, so I whispered to my mama and sister

And they whispered to more people, more and still more
And my super big thought went from window to door
And from Yooktown to Zookland it flew in a hurry
People started to smile and forgot how to worry

“We can butter our bread on the side, on the crust!
That’s much better than blowing each other to dust!”
So the Zooks and the Yooks, and all of their friends
Quite closely avoided their dangerous ends

© Alex Geelan and David Geelan, 2004

16/12/2004

Blogging and Happy Marriage

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:47 pm

Much as I like Jon Husband and his Wirearchy concept, I tend to only catch up on his blog about once a week. That’s because it’s essentially a blog about blogging, and the self-referentiality makes me dizzy. I think this is one failure of the ‘blogosphere’ in general – its tendency to be self-congraulatory, and it’s obsession with its own existence and processes.

That and its tendency to see blogging as a metaphor for everything. So it’s with some misgivings that I offer this little metaphor.

I’m not even sure where I read it now, but someone said that, when married people complain “S/He isn’t interested in me, and doesn’t want to hear about my day and what I’ve been doing”, sometimes part of the reason for that is that when they come home they tend to just do an ‘information dump’: “First I drove to work, and there was all this traffic, and then I got to work and there was no coffee and the office was really cold, and then Jim came in and wanted me to do something really urgently but I was already super busy, and then I went and got coffee at Starbucks but they’ve stopped making my favourite and…” Even if it’s positive and optimistic – and often it’s just the opposite – (a) who wants to listen to all that every day and (b) what does it really tell you about what went on today for your partner, in real, meaningful terms?

So, instead of the ‘information dump’ model of talking about your day, may I propose the ‘blog model’ instead? First, let your partner get in the door, doff shoes and jacket, maybe sit down in a comfortable chair with a glass or mug of whatever they fancy. Then tell them, concisely but with enough detail, about the one or two things that happened today that really meant something. Set up the context, tell the story well, talk about how you felt about it, answer questions. And, of course, take turns and listen to his/her day too…

It’s not that hard to hear and be heard in a marriage or friendship, but some judicious self-editing can make all the difference.

Nanny Danger!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:07 am

Nannies are dangerous! Just in the past couple of days, one has undone George Bush’s chosen head of Homeland Security, Bernie Kerik, and another has taken down the British Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Stop the Nanny Menace before it spreads! Care for your own kids!

Plutocracy Watch

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:04 am

The Theocracy Watch website might look a bit like just another conspiracy theory site – but they’re basically just collating quotes from the Religious Right. I was pretty much soundly ridiculed by some participants in the William Gibson Board before the election for suggesting that theocracy is what the ideologues who have hijacked the Republican Party are aiming for, but that prediction looks more scarily plausible all the time.

Except that ‘theocratic’ is actually a misnomer for this agenda, because a theocracy is technically a country ruled by God Himself (and whether you believe that has ever existed in the history of the world depends on your perspective on a number of other things). This would essentially be a plutocracy calling on the name of God to legitimise itself.