December 12, 2011

Baying For Blood

Filed under: doom,hate,losers — mhoye @ 12:41 pm

I’ve mentioned this sort of thing before, but nevertheless: this is a really terrible piece of writing.

I remain convinced that the best way to stop a bully is not to go mewling to the teacher, who will only call the victim’s mummy, or to your own mummy, who will only call the teacher. The best way is to take the bully out for a short pounding after school – and may I make it plain, please, that I don’t mean the victims should do this, but rather others. The onus for stopping bullies lies not with the people being bullied, but with those who see it happen.

There’s much to find reprehensible here, not the least of which is the “I have lots of gay friends” non-defense. And it’s wholly unsurprising to find the National Post giving somebody a pulpit to tell us why beating up children is good for the children, and for society. But the thing that struck me about it was how the writing calls to mind this 1957 picture of one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford. And more importantly of Hazel Bryan in the background, dripping with hate, screaming at the future.

It’s all that came to mind when I was reading Blatchford’s article; it’s crystal clear that the author has never given or received the abuse she advocates. She’d never deign to get any of the blood she’s calling for on her actual hands. She’s deniably, blameless part of the mob, shrieking for violence to be meted out by somebody else for no better reason than wanting to watch.

November 19, 2011

“I knew it, I’m surrounded by assholes.”

Dark Helmet: Who is he?
Colonel Sandurz: He’s an Asshole, sir.
Dark Helmet: I know that! What’s his name?
Colonel Sandurz: That is his name, sir. Asshole. Major Asshole.

Have I mentioned that the No Asshole Rule has profound geopolitical implications? It’s an idea that’s been rattling around my head for a while.

JWZ links to the question:

In Egypt earlier this year, the cops refused to attack the people. East Germany and then the whole Iron Curtain collapsed when the local cops wouldn’t smash heads when Erich Honecker ordered it. What about America? Where are the cops who walked off the job rather than attack their neighbors drowning in debt and despair?

Daniel Davies provides the answer:

And so that brings me to a useful piece of advice for any readers who are aspiring dictators, one that the Communists knew, Suharto knew, but that some modern day tyrants seem to have forgotten. There is always a level of civil unrest that outstrips the capability of even the most loyal and largest regular armed forces to deal with. In all likelihood, as a medium sized emerging market, you will have a capital city with a population of about five or six million, meaning potentially as many as three million adults on the streets in the worst case. Your total active-duty armed forces are unlikely to be a tenth of that. When it becomes a numbers game, there is only one thing that can save you.

And that is, a reactionary citizens’ militia, to combat the revolutionary citizens’ militia. Former socialist republics always used to be fond of buses full of coal miners from way out the back of beyond, but the Iranian basijis are the same sort of thing. Basically, what you need is a large population who are a few rungs up from the bottom of society, who aren’t interested in freedom and who hate young people. In other words, arseholes. Arseholes, considered as a strategic entity, have the one useful characteristic that is the only useful characteristic in the context of an Egyptian-style popular uprising – there are f—ing millions of them.

This is my advice to any aspiring dictator; early on in your career, identify and inventory all the self-pitying, bullying shitheads your country has to offer. Anyone with a grievance, a beer belly and enough strength to swing a pickaxe handle will do. You don’t need to bother with military training or discipline because they’re hopefully never going to be used as a proper military force – just concentrate on nurturing their sense that they, despite appearances, are the backbone of the country, and allowing them to understand that although rules are rules, there are some people who just need a slap. The bigger and burlier the better, but when the time comes they’ll be fighting in groups against people weaker than themselves, often under cover of darkness, so numbers are more important than anything else. The extractive industries are indeed often a good source, as are demobbed veterans (Zimbabwe) or the laity of an established religion.

I think this is my new rule for assessing the stability of any dictatorship around the world, and I am on the lookout for any Francis Fukuyama-style book contracts. The key factor in determining the survival of repressive regimes isn’t economics, religion or military success. It’s arseholes.

If you’ve been reading the news lately, this may sound familiar. It’s that sentence near the end there – “The bigger and burlier the better, but when the time comes they’ll be fighting in groups against people weaker than themselves, often under cover of darkness, so numbers are more important than anything else” – that makes it so horribly prescient.

November 14, 2011

Mimes: Disturbingly Prescient

Filed under: digital,doom,future,interfaces,lunacy — mhoye @ 10:52 am

Seen this thing about interaction design that’s been making the rounds? You should, it’s pretty neat.

It just occurred to me that if all our interactions with technology eventually involve smooth translucent glass surfaces, then the standard Mime trapped-in-a-glass-box routine goes from being something cute and kind of silly to being a profound, terrifying metaphor for our impending technological disempowerment.

Eventually, we will all be trapped in this smooth glass box, the are saying. Or the would be saying that, but they don’t.

Or can’t. Ominous.

(dun dun dunnnn…)

October 17, 2011

Shooting Holes In The Story

I don’t think I’m actually done this, so just pretend it’s a late draft. I might try to tighten it up later, but here you go; I hope you’re interested. Yeah, this is still about Portal 2, so bear with me. It’s not like Gears Of War deserves to be dissected like this, you know?

I’ve been spending some time chasing this idea around in the bowels of the Aperture Science facility, taking copious notes as I wander through the middle bits of Portal 2 again. There’s some important context here that it may help to be familiar with, but just playing through Portal 1 and 2 should be plenty.

It’s probably because I’m sentimental, but to my mind an important thing about Quest- or FPSRPGs that doesn’t get much attention, at least as far as video games is concerned, is that you actually are playing a role. Video games differ fundamentally from most narratives (and are closer to real life, in this sense) in that you are being allowed to shape a story and participate in a universe that you don’t fully own, and can’t fully command; the character whose role you play predates your presences in that space, and has a story that is in some sense theirs, reaching forward and back beyond your brief manipulation of their limbs and choices. Sometimes you need to take the time, wherever your character finds themselves – a dungeon, a running firefight, a ruined building or an open field – to do something that’s not relevant to your goals, or even to you personally, just to do some justice to the character you’re playing.

I found a lot of the “Rat Man’s Dens” on my first playthrough, being the sort of person who looks for the seams. Specifically, I found that corner of the facility where one of the radios, rather than playing the tinny Aperture-marimba, is playing The National’s “Exile Vilify”.

Did you find it? What did you do, then? It occurred to me as I sat there that this is the first piece of music we’ve really heard, in-game. But maybe, and maybe worse, there’s a decent chance that this slow lament about the burdens of alienation might actually be the only song Chell has ever heard.

I wondered what that might do to a person, how suspicious they’d be to have found that thing in that place, and how they’d react. Is it even possible to guess how somebody might feel in that situation? I crouched down to stare at the radio, listening to it all the way through before going back to finish that test. It seemed appropriate. I doubt it had any effect on the game at all (but who can know, with Valve?) but I have a sense that my participation in the game was improved somehow by it, and it’s hard to argue with that metric.

Anyway, let’s get back on track here.

So apropos of nothing, or at least it was at the time, a few months ago I wrote about the implications of the cave in Plato’s well-known metaphor having its own agency. It’s odd that the idea would find some traction in a discussion about the plot of a video game but, I guess, where else?

The idea of immortality which appears in syncretistic religions of antiquity was introduced in late antiquity. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the “descent” (loss), the “search” and the “ascent”, with main theme the “ascent” of Persephone and the reunion with her mother.

– Wikipedia on the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Here’s a question for you: how many protagonists are there in Portal 2? Chell, GlaDOS and Wheatley… three, right? And you’re resurrected in the midst of Aperture Science’s protracted decay, to be dropped into this forgotten, sealed off subterranean wing of Aperture after a GlaDOS and Wheatley’s first confrontation, to struggle back up the mine shaft and restore the status quo ante.

That’s the game, to a certain superficial approximation. And all of that has to be wrong; there are hundreds of little details in-game that put the lie to it. Portal 2 isn’t a simple or superficial game, not at all.

Though Demeter is often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sanctity of marriage, the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon.

– Wikipedia on Demeter

The first problem is, as I mentioned earlier, is all these little things that are where they really shouldn’t be. At the very bottom of Test Shaft 09, as you’ve passed Abandonment Seal Zulu Bunsen and entered Aperture’s antechambers, you start to see the signs that these sealed off and abandoned facilities aren’t nearly as sealed off or abandoned as you think. All the lights are still on, doors are still powered and they’re still controlled by devices with clean, white lines and modern-era lens-blade Aperture logos on the side. Likewise the hazmat warning labels on the pipes and vats as you ascend from the depths; with modern warnings and modern logos, this isn’t the long-abandoned a facility it seems to be at first glance.

There are other problems, like: in the last room before you ascend back through the containment door to modern Aperture, what activates that lift? You don’t. There’s no switches, no panels; the door just closes and up you go. The same thing happens in the moments before you meet Wheatley again; there’s stairs everywhere else but here, for no architectural reason, a lift you don’t actuate yourself hoists you up to the entrance to the next chamber.

You can see where I’m going with this by now. There aren’t three protagonists here; there are four. Portal 2 doesn’t make sense unless you consider the Aperture Science facility itself as an agent in its own right.

And it gets weirder, because it seems likely that the Aperture facility is the manifestation of its creator, Cave Johnson.

When Wheatley slams you down the shaft that drops you into the bowels of Aperture, it’s worth asking: why is that shaft even there? There’s no structural reason for it, and when you get to the bottom of it, there’s nothing else down there with you. It has to be something else. Another question worth taking a good hard look at is, what are you actually doing while you’re down there?

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. In ancient Orphic sources and in the mystery schools, Tartarus is also the unbounded first-existing entity from which the Light and the cosmos are born.

Wikipedia, “Tartarus”

It’s pretty well-established that GlaDOS is the electronic (and likely the very much unwilling) reincarnation of Caroline, Cave Johnson’s personal assistant. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Chell is in all likelihood Caroline’s daughter, and that likely by Cave. Indeed, partway through your ascent, you get a disturbing glimpse of Chell’s backstory when you come across a slew of science fair projects: the one with the hugely overgrown potato (whose shape bears a more-than-passing resemblance to that of GlaDOS, with its roots threading up into the ceiling) has two noteworthy details, one being the line that it involved a “special ingredient from daddy’s work”, and the other being that it’s signed “Chell”.

“For the record you are adopted and that’s terrible. Just work with me.”

– GlaDOS to Chell, Portal 2.

The chronology here is ambiguous, but Chell would have to have been between about six and ten years old to have made the potato battery project. Cave Johnson’s last recorded message in the Aperture Test Spheres said unambiguously that “If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place. Now she’ll argue, she’ll say she can’t – she’s modest like that. But you make her! Hell, put her in my computer, I don’t care.” If Bring Your Daughter To Work Day was when everything went wrong it’s likely that Caroline, forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, has already been a victim of that process. GLaDOS stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System; it’s not clear what being forced to be that genetic component entails, but the fact GLaDOS physically resembles a bound, blindfolded and gagged woman is I think telling, and an important part of the story.

“Sorry boys, she’s married – to science!”

– Cave Johnson, introducing Caroline in his first recorded message.

The timing seems wrong – Chell is clearly a lot older than 10, likely in her mid to late 20s in-game and it’s not clear when Cave Johnson died of the moon rock poisoning he suffered. “Daddy’s work” seems to imply that Chell’s father was still alive at the time, but it’s possible it means “from the place my Dad worked” or “created”. Either way, it’s pretty clear given the chronology that Chell really was adopted, but not by any other parents; she was adopted by Aperture. And Aperture is in a very real sense, with its vast, relentless complexity, advanced technology including “brain mapping” and its mad genius CEO, both a deity and a place.

One day they woke me up
So I could live forever
It’s such a shame the same will never happen to you.
You’ve got your short sad life left,
(That’s what I’m counting on.)
I used to want you dead but now I only want you gone.

– lyrics from Want You Gone, Portal 2’s concluding song, sung by Jonathan Coulton

What you’re really doing as you ascend through the history of Aperture from the bottom of Test Shaft 09 is resurrecting Aperture itself; resurrecting Cave, and reconnecting him to Caroline again, forever. And even though Cave ordered Caroline forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, he may not have wanted the same for his daughter, and now that the reawakened Caroline knows who she really is and who you are, she may not actually want that either.

And that’s why you’re ultimately sent away, and why Portal 2 is a weirder, creepier game than it first appears; while you’ve been solving all of these puzzle-tests, you’ve also been resurrecting your doomed parents to their respective (terrible, captive) immortalities, in the end being sent away so that “the same will never happen to you”. You made the last ascension serenaded by the facility itself; they’re left alone together as you emerge from the facility to a blue sky and a field full of tall wheat. It’s sometime in early autumn – harvest season – and you’re off to see the world, with your scorched old Companion Cube as a last going away present from your parents.

September 14, 2011

Where The Rubber Meets The Road

Filed under: a/b,digital,doom,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 7:28 pm

Decrepit Controls

Exhibit 1: Eric Schmidt, on the Google+ “real name” policy.

“If you think about it, the Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you. […] If we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them… we could, you know, bill them.”

Exhibit 2: CNN, “Bodies hanging from bridge in Mexico are warning to social media users.

“A woman was hogtied and disemboweled, her intestines protruding from three deep cuts on her abdomen. Attackers left her topless, dangling by her feet and hands from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. A bloodied man next to her was hanging by his hands, his right shoulder severed so deeply the bone was visible.”

“Signs left near the bodies declared the pair, both apparently in their early 20s, were killed for posting denouncements of drug cartel activities on a social network.”

“We could, you know, bill them.”

August 11, 2011

Legalized Extortion

Filed under: digital,doom,fail,future,hate,interfaces,losers,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 2:46 pm

The reason you never hear about HP in discussions like this is because they bought Palm. Somewhere in some dark corner of their organization they have a patent for “a computer with a touch screen display that fits in your pocket”, and nobody’s going even going to think of picking a fight with somebody who rolls that heavy. HP is the sole owner of the IP equivalent of the hydrogen bomb, basically.

Sanjay Jha, CEO of Motorola, says:

I would bring up IP as a very important for differentiation (among Android vendors). We have a very large IP portfolio, and I think in the long term, as things settle down, you will see a meaningful difference in positions of many different Android players. Both, in terms of avoidance of royalties, as well as potentially being able to collect royalties. And that will make a big difference to people who have very strong IP positions.

Translated from protection-racket-thug to English, that roughly means “We are no longer able to compete on the merits, or even just ship a phone worth buying, but that doesn’t matter, because we intend to sue other companies in order to make money.” It’s noteworthy that Microsoft is already doing this exact thing to extort handset makers, and Apple is doing this exact thing to prevent Samsung’s phones from appearing on the market at all. But there’s no reason that anyone with an IP portfolio can’t get in on this action.

This isn’t fostering innovation. It’s legalized extortion and everyone with boots on that piece of ground knows it.

August 5, 2011

Taking Stock

Filed under: business,doom,future,interfaces,life,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:12 am

@mhoye: Market indicators down on fears market indicators won’t rise… wait um what…

These graphics are poached from a friend’s private journal, but I suspect they won’t mind; it’s informative.

@adammcnamara: The stock market: Because you don’t really need your money. #fack

You know how every single stock portfolio in the universe always has the disclaimer that “historical performance is no guarantee of future earnings”? Yeah, take a look at this. This is the Standard and Poor index over the course of the 80s:

Over the 90s:

And finally, from 2000 to 2010:

One of those things looks very much unlike the others, you’ll notice. In particular, if you started investing in the late nineties or early zeros, you’ve got a decade or more of evidence behind you right now implying that all those people who’ve told you to invest in stocks are thieves and hucksters, and odds are good that you’d have done better putting 90% of your money in a savings account and taking 10% of it to a casino.

From the Globe And Mail, in February:

While youth unemployment in Canada is running at almost 14 per cent, it’s far, far higher in other regions. In the European Union, for example, fresh readings today showed the jobless level among young people at 21 per cent. In South Africa, it’s a stunning 51 per cent. Here’s a telling, and worrying, statistic from Britain: Among fresh college grads, unemployment is 20 per cent.

Periodically I read articles about how young people aren’t “planning for the future”, with all the real-estate-buying, kid-having and so forth that implies, I am enraged by it. I want to show the author these numbers and then smack them across their sanctimonious faces until they stop talking forever. You want people to take the money they don’t make at the job they don’t have, buy bubble-priced real estate, take on a dependent and throw whatever’s left over on what amounts to a craps table? Awesome plan, old person. You get a gold star.

I’ve been able to do these things; I have a house, and a kid, and they’re awesome. But I’ve been incredibly mind-blowingly fortunate to do so, in the same way that previous generations of people, who are now writing these hand-wringing articles, were incredibly fortunate to live through twenty years of relentlessly upward prosperity. I had a computer as a kid, and turned that into a valuable career. I had ample nutrition as a toddler. For all the times I’ve hit my head, I’ve never hit it hard enough that I couldn’t feed myself or understand NTFS, LDAP and shell scripts afterwards. And being lucky isn’t a plan.

And, possibly worse, this is a profound structural and generational problem. My friend David Eaves will talk about this at furious length if you give him the opportunity;

Yes, young people reject the status quo, but it is deeper than that. They eschew the tools that Martin wants them to use – not just party politics but traditional media as well. They reject the whole system. But this isn’t out of juvenile laziness, but for the very opposite reason. In a world filled with choice, one that fragments our attention, they seek to focus their energy where they will be most effective and efficient – at the moment, that frequently means they are uninterested in the slow and byzantine machinations of politics (why engage when every party, even the NDP, are conservative?), the snobbishness of traditional media (when’s the last time a columnist on the Globe actually responded to a reader’s comment on the website?) or a hierarchical and risk-averse public service (held hostage by the country’s auditor general).

… and in a lot of ways I don’t think he goes far enough. It’s not just that young people “reject the whole system” for their complexity, lethargy or conservatism; it’s that there’s a large and growing pile amount of evidence available now that these systems a straight-up sham. Did every TSE-listed company lose 5% of its profits, 5% of its assets or announce a 5% cut in expected growth on Tuesday? Did any TSE-listed company lose 5% of anything except the aggregate price on the sticker? Some did – the people who make the Yellow Pages had a long-overdue bad day, apparently – but how much of that was just panic? Some, most? So maybe, just maybe, this is all just a collective fictions that let rich people get richer and pretend the poor are at fault for their poverty while the dwindling middle class pushes their chips around a roulette table. Is that a naive, oversimplified way to look at things? Maybe. I’ve also got a decade of evidence that when financial shenanigans get complicated then somebody, usually lots of somebodies, are about to get robbed.

And in that environment, the only way to win for sure is to be the house, or not play at all.

July 29, 2011

War Machines

Filed under: beauty,documentation,doom,future,interfaces,lunacy,science — mhoye @ 7:45 pm

Fire control computers solve fire control problems.

Individually, these are fascinating: A seven-part instructional series on using the mechanical computers of the second World War to calculate firing solutions for ships engaged in naval battles. The first three videos cover “Shafts, Gears, Cams and Differentials”, the second four are about “Component Solvers, Integrators And Multipliers”, and they’re a stark reminder of how hard it is to solve problems like these on the fly when hardware means milled steel and software doesn’t exist. True to the movies of the time, the well-starched young men demonstrating them don’t move with the urgency you’d expect; the pressure in that room must have been unimaginable in a shooting war, when losing that sprint to another gunship meant a room of hot metal and a hull full of cold water.

I play them all at once, just to listen to the cacophony of conflicting guidance and spinning machines. For some reason, it feels informative.

July 7, 2011

Shocked, Shocked I Say.

Filed under: a/b,doom,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:20 am

Compare and contrast.

Exhibit 1: Rebekah Brooks letter to the staff of News Of The World.

It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way. If the allegations are proved to be true then I can promise the strongest possible action will be taken as this company will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour. I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations.


Of course, here’s Exhibit 2: A video from 2003 of Rebekah Brooks, speaking to a parliamentary committee, admitting that News Of The World has bribed police officers for information during her tenure as editor.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Update: Wow. Half an hour after I put this up:

News International announced on Thursday that it is closing the News of the World after this Sunday’s edition, with no end in sight to political and commercial fallout from phone-hacking scandal after 72 hours of mounting crisis.

Sunday’s edition of the paper will be the last, News International chairman James Murdoch told News of the World staff on Thursday afternoon.

That was unexpected.

June 4, 2011

Structurally Unsound

Filed under: doom,future,parenting,toys — mhoye @ 11:04 am

Structurally Unsound

She doesn’t mess around with foundations or reinforcement. Maya builds straight up, as far as she can reach, and if it stays up when she’s done she brings over the step-stool and keeps going. I try to keep up, to built out a broad base and solid foundation, and she periodically tells me to get out of her way because she’s “building tall”.

Eventually it all falls apart, of course; she laughs maniacally and kicks over whatever’s left standing, and that’s the story of how one of my favorite toys as a kid has turned into a metaphor for my inevitable failures as a parent.

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