Monthly Archives: July 2010

It Just Doesn’t Work That Way

I’ll wager that most of you who have elementary-age children have been asked the same question during these difficult economic times: “Why don’t they just print more money?” Depending on the child’s grasp of economics, you may have been able to explain the phenomenon of runaway inflation, but some of you probably resorted to some variant of “It just doesn’t work that way.” This response highlights a common problem: Often a proposed solution is simple and obvious and the reasons it doesn’t work are subtle and complex.

For instance, when I was in high school, I knew a parent who was convinced that early-morning classes would be no problem if teenagers would just go to bed earlier. Having done a bit of reading on sleep psychology, I tried to explain about REM cycles and such, only to be met with the same repeated response: “Just go to bed earlier!” It seems so simple. Sleep psychology is a subjective and poorly-understood field, so it’s hard to make absolute statements about why this strategy is flawed, but if you start school at seven, teenagers will sleep through their first couple of classes. Even the ones who went to bed earlier.

If you’ve encountered this problem with middle management, you know that the consequences can be much more serious than a child’s hampered understanding of currency. A boss schooled in business supervising a technical team schooled in science or engineering is a recipe for trouble. You can’t deliver ultimata to your boss. It’s likely that he or she will fall within the level of knowledge that spots the simple solution but not the complex problems with it; if you fail at explaining the latter, you may end up wasting a lot of time and effort in service to the former, or being labeled a poor employee for your inability to deliver on an unworkable idea.

The above are prescriptive examples–where a course of action is proposed–but the problem can also crop up descriptively, when an explanation for a phenomenon is proposed. The entire intelligent design/creationism movement is one big example. Every tenet, from start to finish, seems totally sensible and reasonable to a layperson and only reveals its critical flaws to someone with a strong understanding of the field. These theories may be egregiously stupid (dinosaurs died because they couldn’t outrun the Flood), generally implausible (carbon dating doesn’t work), or mildly compelling (scientists’ prejudices keep them from incorporating God into the scientific method), but they share the commonality that they simply don’t work, period.

I find the creation/evolution debate to be enormously uncompelling. However, I am interested–mostly out of a sense of scientific necessity–in why people hold untrue beliefs even in the face of an expert on the topic trying patiently to explain why the belief doesn’t work. Remember this discussion? Steamed ID proponents fumed, “What, are you saying I’m not smart enough to understand this stuff?” In answer to which…yes! You do not understand this stuff. If you did, you would not have put forth such an unworkable theory in the first place. As to whether you could ever be capable of understanding, I can’t speculate, because to gain understanding you’d have to allow yourself to be taught by people who know more, which you won’t allow because you aren’t willing to admit that there’s more to know.

There is more to know.  There is always more to know.  But here’s the insidious part of this problem: When you’ve struck upon a simple, elegant solution, it doesn’t appear that there’s more to know.  Your answer explains everything (everything you’re aware of, that is).  It appeals to Ockham’s Razor.  It wraps everything up so neatly that there is nothing left to figure out and explains it so simply that a child could understand it.  All this would be beautiful if not for that basic difficulty that it’s wrong.  But all you have to do is ignore the expert, convince yourself that he or she doesn’t really know more than you, and that difficulty goes away.

I think that the vast majority of the populace falls into the category that can understand a simple solution but not the complex reason it doesn’t work on most topics.  For me, one such area is computer programming, in which I’ve only dabbled.  I often figure out a seemingly-brilliant way to do what I want: “That’s it!  I just need to use a jagged array!”  As I work out the details, the idea that it might not actually work seems preposterous.  Fortunately, I am beholden to the compiler, an authority that cannot be subverted.  Thus I am forced to face the truth that my plan won’t work.

In most areas, though, it’s easy to ignore the experts.  It’s easy to write them off as pretentious fools for not accepting a perfectly simple explanation.  One may not even realize that anything is being written off, and in most cases, a strong majority will agree with you.  But a majority of foolishness is still foolishness, and makes no more sense than getting out of financial trouble by printing more money.

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Ruminations VII (Ideas)

Are any of my ideas as good as the infamous ice cream of wheat?  You decide.

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A new idea in online media: Cthulu.  TV that sucks your brain, literally.

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Write computer virus.  Patent.  Infect.  Sue for infringement.  I call this the Monsanto Strategy.

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There is a delicate art to product naming for a company that markets to both professionals and amateurs.  The higher-end product line needs a serious name; the lower-end line needs a name that emphasizes the “fun and easy!” side of things for casual users while also sounding patronizing and silly enough to be a turnoff to professionals so that, no matter how well the cheaper product works, they’ll gravitate to the more expensive line.  I’m pretty sure this was the thinking behind Wacom’s Bamboo Fun.

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Oddity of the Week

I think Twitter memes should be called “flash memes” (or “hash memes?”) because of how quickly they rise and fall, even in internet terms*.  Far from the regular meme’s lifespan of a couple of years, hashtags can appear and disappear in a week.  For instance, #funnierthanleno, from May, has been coming up empty for at least a month.  An interesting implication is that the mainstream media, always lagging in their coverage of Internet culture, will never catch on to Twitter memes, because they’ll have vanished into the unsearchable portion of the database before anyone in the media ever discovers them.

The upshot is that, soon, the #ShakesPalin hashtag will be moribund and people reading this post won’t be able to see it in action.  Which is too bad, because it’s very entertaining.  It has all the elements of a good joke (incongruous elements unexpectedly combined), a good meme (small, simple individual contributions adding up to a large overall canon), and a good Twitter topic (epigrammatic-style short witticisms).  Some favorites:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?  It is the East, and I can see Russia from my front porch.

Neither a thinker nor a reader be / for thought oft loses both itself and friend / and reading dulls the edge of Fox TV.

To hope-y and change-y, or not to hope-y and change-y, that’s the gotcha question.

If we drillers have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while BP oiled your gulf so dear.

To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous liberals, or to quit halfterm, and by opposing, rake in speaking fees.

If you missed the story behind this meme, it arose after Palin used the nonexistent word “refudiate” on Twitter, a gaffe hardly worth mentioning, let alone mocking.  But instead of letting it vanish into the aether, Palin tweeted again, defending her mistake by…comparing herself to Shakespeare.  The internet knows a good opener when it sees one.  What could have been a quickly-forgotten mistake will now probably haunt her for a long time.

Honey, the difference between the two of you is that Shakespeare made words up on purpose.

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*Happily, “twemes” doesn’t seem to have caught on.

Picture found here.

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Our New Neighbor

We heard it for weeks before we spotted it.

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Oddity of the Week

Presenting Tiktaalik the fishapod!  Discovered in 2006, this strange-looking Devonian lobe-finned fish had rayed fins with the internal bone structure of a leg, and could use them to support itself.  It lived in shallow streams, but it could probably pull itself onto land and scoot around, like a seal.  Check out its website.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Insights on Unemployment

One wonders if Tom Corbett, Dean Heller, Rand Paul, Jon Kyl, Sharon Angle, Tom DeLay, Judd Gregg, Steve King, Orrin Hatch and the abominable Andre Bauer have ever been unemployed.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, graph by The Atlantic

If they had, they might be a bit more hesitant to refer to them as hobos and stray animals*, but that’s not what I want to focus on. I’m interested in the constant drumbeat that unemployment benefits make people lazy. By now, scarcely a conservative in or running for office remains who hasn’t repeated the line that unemployment benefits are preventing the economy from recovering because people who receive benefits won’t look for jobs. I could insert a bunch of charts and graphs here showing how the unemployed aren’t getting jobs because there, in fact, aren’t any jobs, but I’m also not going to do that (well, okay, maybe just one graph). Instead, I am going to share a special insight I’ve gleaned from the insider knowledge that supposedly populist politicians lack.

BEING UNEMPLOYED SUCKS. It’s terrible. No one in his or her right mind would stay unemployed if he or she could find a job, even if they didn’t need the money.

“People are too lazy to get jobs” is the mentality of an employed person. You’re having a long day at work. There are boring meetings, irritating bosses, and unreasonable expectations. You can’t wait to get home. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to work? You could sleep in, relax, spend time with your family, read magazines or watch sports or play games or whatever your most useless guilty pleasure happens to be, secure in the knowledge that you have nothing better to do.

Of course, if you’ve ever done an extended stint of unemployment (while not attending school or raising small children, thank you), you know that this feeling remains for about a week. After all, I’m lazy, but the kind of person who is happy to hang out at home doing nothing for months at a time probably buys peanut butter and jelly in the same jar. Turns out that, even if you have spending money and a car and the other amenities that expand one’s range of recreational activities, being unemployed will still not be fun. Especially if none of your friends is unemployed. Doing nothing turns out to be predictably dull and surprisingly taxing.

Even more of a problem than the boredom is the impotence. While many people would like to choose not to work, it’s a whole different matter to be forced not to work, as is the case for everyone who receives unemployment benefits. No one wants to feel that their talents are not needed. Even if you are receiving enough money to live on from other sources, be they savings, government benefits, or employed family members, knowing that you are not supporting yourself is an incredibly helpless feeling. I hear that it’s even worse for men, parents, and older people (older than me, that is), who are traditionally expected to support themselves and their families. And then there’s the inevitable skill loss. And the knowledge that, the longer you remain unemployed, the less employable you become. The problems go on and on.

In summary, Corbett et al can die in a fire. That is all.

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Other thoughts on unemployment by bona fide unemployed people are here.

UPDATE: For some more real stories about the problems that real, hardworking, unemployed people face, see Miss Displaced Worker. Be sure to read the comments.

*It’s a mark of the sad state of politics today that that statement wasn’t a career ender. I’m not a fan of crucifying politicians over a single faux pas, but the attitude that statement reveals about poor people (including constituents, not that it should matter in this case) brings to mind words like “inhuman,” “sociopathic,” and “evil.” And no, he doesn’t get brownie points for sort of apologizing later. Everyone regrets a statement that gets a backlash, and Bauer clearly still believes what he said.

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Media Nostalgia Part I: Wasteland and the Written Word

Nostalgia for times before you were alive are silly, because it’s inevitably based on a romanticization of the period that overlooks its flaws.  Nostalgia for a bygone medium, on the other hand, is perfectly justifiable.  Since you experience and enjoy them more or less the same way the original audience did, you can fairly regret their demise.  I was not alive during the time of silent movies.  I was not playing video games during the time of early RPGs.  Yet I miss something something common to them and virtually unknown afterwards:  The incorporation of meaningful text into a visual medium.  An example of a game that I think works well because of, not in spite of, the large amounts of text is the classic postapocalyptic RPG, Wasteland.

Being a chimaera, I’m a fan of combinations and syntheses.  I like multimedia artwork.  One would think that, aside from text adventures, video games would be a naturally multimedia experience, combining graphics, words, and sound, but most game designers don’t seem to agree, since modern games seem intent on providing the most uniform, monotonous experience possible.  Some want to be movies and only grudgingly allow the player to have a turn; others abandon the vestiges of story for a simple game of “There are mutants.  Shoot them.”  Granted, the latter is a time-honored game plot.

But early RPGs, with barely any graphics, could rely neither on flashy effects to make a game fun nor on easily-identifiable images to communicate what’s going on.  If you’re getting attacked by a giant lizard, the game had better tell you it’s a giant lizard, because it looks like you’re getting attacked by a pink blob.  Also, absent any sound except the system beep (of which Wasteland makes constant and irritating use), written dialog must replace voice acting.  Thus, games like Wasteland must make copious use of writing, and that is precisely why I like them so much.

There are many other things to like about Wasteland: its groundbreaking skill system; a plot free from meaningless fetch-quests and kill-quests; its sandbox-style map that guides you naturally from location to location without railroading or locking off earlier areas; the bizarre cybernetic journey into the mind of a madman; the slyly named NPC Faran Brygo; the sheer number of hidden jokes, details, and Easter eggs.  But I like the writing.  Writer Alan Pavlish doesn’t just blandly describe what the player would be seeing: he takes the descriptions and runs with them.  And it’s fun.  For instance:

Fat Freddy is a genetic nightmare — a squamous mass of slimy flesh shuddering and twitching before you like some animated blob of flesh-colored Jell-O.  He smells like a swamp, a foul, choking miasma of rotting mastodonian flesh left to putrefy.

These descriptions are not limited to important plot points either; even abandoned houses, which are nothing more than map filler, are stuffed with loving descriptions like “You are walking on the door to this room” and “Don’t put anything on this table. I don’t think it could take the weight of a feather.”  Other messages are in-jokes (Bard’s Tale was Brian Fargo’s previous game).  There’s a richness to the game and the world to be gained from passages like these, which set the mood and give the player a chance to exercise his or her imagination.  Best of all, the game synthesizes all this text with with maps and graphical interfaces that remove the “You can’t get ye flask” frustrations of text-based games.  Yet writing has fallen by the wayside in games since 1988.  Wasteland‘s spiritual successor, Fallout, made good use of item and scenery descriptions, but contemporary games have lost this element, and with it, a little bit of a game’s richness.

Movies, I think, have also suffered from the loss of written text.  Since the silent-movie era it’s been rare to see a single written word that isn’t in the opening or closing credits, but as with games, writing has a different feel than images or spoken words and, thus, there are situations where written words convey the connotations better than spoken ones.  Consider the words in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis*, such as this still from the Babel scene.  Lang isn’t using print as a stopgap measure to fix the lack of sound; he’s synthesizing print and video into something more expressive than either could be on its own.

I should clarify that video games and movies that don’t make use of text are not bad.  Purely visual movies and games can be masterworks just as often, or more often, than combined text/visual ones; many wouldn’t benefit at all from the inclusion of written words.  But words are a tool in the creator’s arsenal.  There are situations where they are the correct tool for the job, but too often they are treated as nothing but an outdated measure that has no place in modern media of sound and animation.

Moving on, it’s time for a game of Confuse Roger Ebert!  As we know, Ebert has a strange set of criteria for determining what counts as art.  For instance, art must have a single dominant creator; a creative team doesn’t count (if you’re not sure how one could possibly define such a criterion so that it includes movies but excludes video games, you’re not alone).  Anyway, both Wasteland and Fallout pass that requirement thanks to the mad genius of producer Brian Fargo; the latter even has a big “Brian Fargo Presents” splash screen.  I wouldn’t put forth Wasteland as an example of art, but that’s the problem with strange criteria: they let things in as well as keeping things out.

You will recall that Ebert was on thin ice when discussing game text and graphics.  Braid exhibited “prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie;” Flower had “decorative interest on the level of a greeting card” (Ebert doesn’t have too many creative phrases).  But the condemnation of poor prose and graphics is a concession to the possibility of good prose and graphics that would qualify as artistic**.  Still, I suspect that Ebert would disqualify any text or picture that appears in a game; the atmospheric, brush-textured backgrounds of Braid wouldn’t count as art because of the video game elements in front of them.

Wasteland, however, was released in a time when computers had so little memory that even text had to be conserved.  Thus, the status box (itself too small to hold more than about 100 characters) only displays short messages.  Longer excerpts–of which the non-graphical nature of the game necessitates many–were included in a packet of paragraphs that came with the manual.  The game would simply tell you which paragraph to read.  Aside from saving memory, this acted as a simple form of copy protection:  An illegal copy of the game would not come with the packet, leaving the player unable to proceed.

Of course the difficulty of putting all the passwords and vital clues into one physical book that the player can look at whenever he or she wants is that the player could simply look up answers instead of finding them properly.  Thus, the packet begins with a warning:

We know that as a Desert Ranger who enjoys the best of challenges, wouldn’t
randomly read these paragraphs in search of clues. But intense radiation, coupled
with the blazing sun, can impair your good judgement, rendering you
totally unable to resist. Fight your best fi ght here: try not to read a paragraph
you’re instructed to.

Additionally, the packet is seeded with fake paragraphs that are not actually part of the game.  Some are dire warnings against the reader for reading a paragraph not included in the game; some are incorrect passwords that will lead to dire in-game consequences.  But there’s also a third type: some of the paragraphs string together into a wonderful parody of B-grade sci-fi films, weaving in characters from the game for the maximum confusion of the casual reader.

Finster sits down on a Phobosian tree. “At birth the Serpioids captured me and educated me to be a spy against my fellow humans. I rebelled, but I cannot strike them directly.” His hands shake. “You have to understand. Their queen is my sister!”

A sci-fi parody, even one this fun, could hardly qualify as art, but what if it was something else?  What if the writers had woven together a beautifully crafted short story, split up and hidden amongst the paragraphs?  Would that qualify as art?  We’ll never know.

But I know;  the question “What is art?” is utterly tangential.  Wasteland is old and, at times, pretty silly.  And so, without further ado, ten things I learned from Wasteland:

  • Matches are sold individually, and they’re useless.
  • All good guys are pallid, stubbly men who don’t comb their hair or button their shirts.
  • Antitoxin is made of fruit.
  • You can punch something 14 feet away.
  • Clones not only spring forth full-grown and ready for combat; they also know everything the originals knew.
  • A sledgehammer, lockpicking skills, and a stick of TNT will get you many places. However, no force in the universe will get a man into the ladies’ room.
  • Android heads are interchangeable.
  • More things are magenta than you might expect.
  • Radiation will only harm you if you stand directly on top of the source.
  • Dan Citrine is not only a game-breaker, he’s a cold-blooded murderer***.

If you have the patience for an 8-bit game that clocks in around 100 hours and is, at times, overcome by its own hypermasculinity, you should try Wasteland.  It’s a nostalgia trip, all right, but it’s also a reminder of a way that games were once made that has now been forgotten.

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*I’m floored.  Nearly all of the missing half-hour of the film, not seen since 1928, was found a couple of years ago in Argentina (brought there by fleeing Nazis, perhaps?) and is now being re-released in a gorgeous, acclaimed restoration.  The old rivalry between Fredersen and Rotwang is fully expanded upon!  Georgy/11811 has an actual part…and a name!  The rescue of the children is even more dramatic!  The DVD will be available in November.

**This reminds me of nothing so much as the anti-rock-music faction.  They often protest rock by citing the lyrics.  But by equating bad lyrics with evil music, they concede to good lyrics making for good music.  Thus, a single rock song with unquestionably positive lyrics topples their house of cards.

***Dan Citrine is an NPC famous for the bugs that appear when he leads the party.  Most of these are actually good bugs: dangers like land mines won’t go off if he’s in the lead.  However, this being an extremely early game, his AI doesn’t include the concept of “shoot the hostage taker, not the hostage.”

Screen captures were taken from their respective works by me, except for the Wasteland screenshots, found here.  If anyone has any idea why screen printing Wasteland doesn’t work, by all means, tell me.

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