Friday, July 31, 2009

Ooo-E, Ooo-ah-ah

If the water from your drains stopped suddenly, you wouldn't stand for it.

If the power in your house stayed on most of the time, but blinked off for a couple of minutes every half hour or so, you'd be on the phone to the power company in seconds.

If your cable tv sent images to you at a slow, jittery pace, you'd probably skip the phone, drive over to the local office, and simply bang on the door until someone made all the cooking shows come back.

And this is just one of many things that doesn't make sense about the internet. For some reason, we put up with way more from our home internet connections than we do from anything else that we pay for.

Has there ever been a utility where so much was tolerated by the customer? The only one I can think of is witch doctoring, a service where one claims to provide a conduit into the etheral netherworlds.

And that analogy holds up. We tolerate so much out of our cable and dsl because, like the shaman's cup of future-telling bones, the fact that it could work at all is pretty amazing.

All told, I think I'd prefer a witch doctor over Bell South or Charter. Regardless of how questionable his practices are or what strange rashes might develop from his remedies, at least I wouldn't have to stay on hold so a recording could take me through a long checklist of things that I already know aren't the problem. That process makes a little bloodletting look pretty good in terms of customer service.*

*"Hello, sir. Thank you for your patience as we diagnose this issue for you today. Our technician believes that your connection blinks are the result of tiny devils working in the phone line. We'll be sending someone out to purify the line, but in the mean time please disconnect your wireless router and wash it's aura with incense. Thank you for choosing SpiritNet."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Authoral Gaming, Part 1

So, I beat Fallout 3 the other day:

But then saying that I "beat" Fallout 3 is a bit like saying that, upon winning the World Series, I "beat" the game of baseball. While I certainly conqured the "main event" of Fallout 3, it is by no means over.

Fallout 3 is an "open world" game, a "go anywhere, do anything" approach to the medium. And as with other games of this type (the Grand Theft Auto series and Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, for example), the main quest of the game is just one of dozens that can be found and completed. Finding all this content across Fallout 3's vast nuclear wasteland is left entirely to the player.

You can get one side quest by talking to a shop owner. Another can be found by exploring an old jail and finding two kidnapped humans who need an escort home. Still another can be picked up by wandering through a certain section of the map, where a snall boy runs up and asks for help.

And all of these were things I didn't HAVE to do in "finishing" the game. They were optional goals that I could take or turn down.

Now what's interesting about this structure is that a number of people I know, even serious gamers, are completely befuddled by it. They experience a paralysis of options. When given the freedom to do anything, they don't know what to do, where to start.*

With open-world games, I think this phenomenon is an issue of character. More linear games do all sorts of subtle things to tell you who you're taking the role of:

Solid Snake is highly disciplined, but detached, and I know that because of the no-nonsense fighting style he employs. I do not have the option to dual-weild uzi's while playing as Snake because that's not who he is.

Chrono's father is not present, and he's not even referenced. Combined with Chrono's almost constant silence, I have to think that he's been deeply affected by whatever led to his family situation.

But in a game where full authorship of the character is turned over to the player, from personality characteristics to moral choices and right down to facial features, there's no place to start from. The paralysis comes not from having too many things to choose, but no way to know who this character is and, thus, what he would do.

It's a lot like picking a career.

*We have this in dancing too, it's called "West Coast Swing."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Putting my foot down

Some people claim to be "into nature."

Another way of putting that is "some people like to believe that nature is something besides what it really is, a teeming mass of bugs and gooey stuff and things that wish you'd die so they could eat you."

And I'm ok with that.

But I'm always a little surprised when someone tries to stop me from killing a bug inside my house. When did so many people adopt this "catch and release" program? We're not talking about some endangered species here. I'm not cutting down trees in my yard because I'm annoyed by a spotted owl living in it. This is just killing a spider or a cockroach, of which there are approximately 1.26 bajillion in the world. These are species that have been existing virtually as-is for millions of years. And you can bet they'll be crawling around when humanity has long been lost to nuclear war (which will be fought with weapons that those "nature" people should have been protesting, but they were too busy saving roach #129,385,203.939, 992.)

In short, I think the bugs will be just fine, no matter what I do.*

But then sometimes these people will come back at you with more ethical arguments. The most common ones are:

1. "Because he (the bug) didn't do anything to deserve being killed" - You can only kill animals that deserve it? So, like, if I see the cockroach cut another cockroach off, does that make it ok?

2. "Because bugs feel pain the same way as we do." - . . .

Only that's not true at all. Well, to be fair there's no way to tell for sure how animals feel. But the fact is that human beings have both highly evolved nervous systems and highly developed brains, much more advanced than any insect. I would submit that those evolutionary advancements allow us an incredible understanding of hurt.

Pull the leg off of a cockroach and it'll go scurrying off, probably capable of living the rest of it's life normally. Crack a person in the shin with a stick and he'll likely take several minutes before he can walk nomally again.

Of course there are plenty of animals that probably interpret injury on a near-human level. But it's just strange to think about . . . by developing a deeper sensory dialog with the world around us, we've also gotten an excuisite understanding of pain.

*And you know what? Really I'm helping them out. I'm encouraging the survival of bugs who DON'T like the indoors. It's like a cheetah going after the weakest deer in the herd. I'm just like that cheetah, fast and awesome.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The fifteen most common statements that precede the phrase "uh oh".

(Not that *immediately* precede it, mind you.)

"Yeah, that ought to hold it."

"Relax, I know what I'm doing."


"Well it doesn't LOOK poisonous."

"Ok, just one more, and then I'm done."

"You can let go, I've got it."

"Well we should at least try it once."

"Alright, I'm pretty sure that's how it's supposed to go."

"Hey guys, come look at this!."

"You're just gonna have to force it."

"I'll bet I can eat thise whole thing by myself."

"Hang on, I can probably get it out of there."

"What's that sound?"

"Um . . . yeah, I think . . . I think I'm ok now."

"No way that will happen twice."*

*To be fair, many of these are said in conjunction with one another.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rev. Tobias Fünke

Dragon*con is certainly a unique experience.

The only thing I can compare it to is the "Elvis burger" served at The Vortex restaurant in Atlanta:

-Both are far off the average person's beaten path.
-Both are pretty weird, by any standard.
-Both seem to have a little bit of everything: while the Elvis burger is made up of peanut butter, bacon, and fried bananas all on a think beef patty, Dragon*con is concocted of fantasy role playing, scifi television shows, and Japanese anime, all on a huge room of people playing board games.
-Both are things that I don't want on any regular basis, but I'm glad that I tried once.
- . . . also, Mickey Rooney is always at Dragon*con, which I've never quite understood. The Elvis burger doesn't have a good analog for Mickey Rooney, I guess, but it bears mentioning, simply to express what a bizarre universe the event creates.

When I did attend Dragon*con, I spent a lot of time on the science track, which is how I realized that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is really, really homoerotic.

I jumped ahead there a little, let's go back.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) is a deity invented, originally, as a way to criticize the idea of teaching intelligent design in schools. Since its inception, the FSM been picked up as a symbol for atheists and agnostics to mock theistic ideas.

Now let me be clear. I'm fully against teaching any sort of religion or "intelligent design" in public schools. And I'm not some militant anti-atheist, despite being a believer myself. And I'm certainly not against mocking the ideas of others . . . it's one of my very favorite things to do.

That's not what this is about.

This is about the moment when I was sitting in a little room, waiting for a skeptics panel to begin, and the picture below*, by far the most popular image of the FSM, was flashed up on the screen.

At the time, I wasn't familiar with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any of its religious connotations. So going into it tabula raza, here's how I interpreted this image:

-it's most prominent feature is two great big balls, hanging there right next to each other
-it is reaching out toward a naked man
-the caption reads "Touched by His Noodly Appendage." Not "touched by his pasta hand" or "touched by his noodle finger." But "touched by his noodly appendage." That's the phrasing they came up with. Seriously.

I was sitting in that room, full of people who like this image and think it's super-clever, and I was the only one laughing.

*The copyright holder of this file allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that a link to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster website remains with it. Having just demonstrated that they accidentally made something super-duper homoerotic, I gladly comply: