Monday, 22 December 2008

Let's not even mention "The Little Drummer Boy"...

It's almost Christmas, so I have now left London for two weeks back at home, which are likely to involve more cups of tea and mince pies than anyone can reasonably be expected to consume, a bit of rampant commercialism, a few moments of old-timey feeling as the Queen makes her annual TV performance, and of course, Christmas music.

It will surprise absolutely nobody to learn that I get more than a little Grinchy around Christmas, and nothing brings that to the fore more than the appalling musical rubbish that gets wheeled out every year. (Well, except for Christmas movies and Christmas specials of TV shows, all of which aim for "heartwarming" and usually hit "vomit-inducing".) Record producers are consumed by a kind of madness, which causes them to add sleighbells to everything and inexplicably extend Noddy Holder's career. And lyricists, never the most stable bunch, decide that no-one's really listening to the words anyway, so they stick in a few references to love, peace and family and leave it at that.

One of the worst offenders in this regard is Johnny Mathis's 1976 #1 hit, "When A Child Is Born". This song was the only time Mathis reached the top of the UK charts, and frankly I'm amazed that it got there in the first place. It's not all bad, of course. Indeed, it starts out so promisingly with the portentous line "A ray of hope flickers in the sky". Despite the fact that scientists are yet to discover the precise form of radiation that transmits hope, it's still a great way to open a song.

The problem is that this line does rather set the rest of the song up for failure. If we're already staring hopefully up into the dark sky, our hearts filled with anticipation, there's not really anywhere else to go. And, as the rest of the verse unfolds, we begin our slow and inevitable descent.

The second line is "A tiny star lights up way up high" – OK, fine, but if it's so tiny, what distinguishes it from all of the other stars that are in this particular night sky, and why should we particularly care? Even more confusingly, the very next line is "all across the land dawns a brand new morn". Now, my physics knowledge is admittedly pretty shaky, but don't stars tend to appear just after dark? If Mathis has just spotted this tiny star lighting up immediately before dawn, this suggests that he has in fact either witnessed a far-off and rather short-lived supernova, or a satellite has just exploded.

The last line of the verse – and of every verse – is "this comes to pass when a child is born", which just puts several layers of incomprehensible icing on the proverbial cake. This being a Christmas song, the immediate conclusion to jump to is that Mathis is referring to Jesus. That said, nothing in that first verse has had even the slightest connection to anything Christian, which sends us off to the other conclusion, that it's just about children in general and how wonderful they are. However, this conclusion doesn't have a lot of support either, given that if it was referring to events that happen every single time a child is born, then (according to the global birth rate) approximately two tiny stars would be lighting up way up high every second, and there would be so many brand new morns dawning all across the land that there wouldn't be time for any other part of the day.

The next two verses continue in the same "hope in some non-specific child-related event" theme, mixing metaphors as fast as humanly possible as silent wishes sail the seven seas, walls of doubt crumble, rosy hues settle all around (understandably, given the brand new morns that seem to be constantly dawning) and no-one feels forlorn. By the end of them, listeners are going to be pretty convinced that Mathis is not, in fact, suggesting that this huge litany of events occurs at every single birth world-wide. And if he's actually talking about just one birth, then we start to swing back towards him talking about Jesus again, despite the complete lack of any explicitly Christian references.

And then we get the spoken-word section.

And all of this happens because the world is waiting
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no-one knows
But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter
Hate to love, war to peace and everyone to everyone's neighbour
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever

Now, even if we ignore the fact that it has been horrendously insensitive to refer to Asian people as "yellow" for the past fifty years or so (did I mention that this was a hit in 1976? I did? Good), this just makes no sense whatsoever. It's pretty Messianic stuff, but suggests that the Messiah figure in question has not yet appeared, and in fact could come from anywhere. The last verse then gives us exactly the same thing ("It's all a dream, an illusion now / It must come true, sometime soon somehow").

The overall impression you get out of the song is that Mathis got about halfway through writing it with a Christian message in mind before suddenly getting cold feet and bailing out into "vaguely hopeful about nothing in particular" territory. In the end, what could have been a fairly powerful (if schmaltzy) song about the Saviour coming at Christmas fizzles out into a completely meaningless jumble of good intentions that doesn't actually go anywhere.

If you're after some good meaty Christmas music that not only sounds good but packs a bit of a dark punch, may I suggest either the Coventry Carol, which combines a frankly haunting tune with lyrics about the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, or What Child Is This?, which goes to the tune of Greensleeves and has the most graphically Crucifixion-related words of pretty much any carol ever? Perfect for a cold night, as you huddle round a fire and shut out the darkness.

Oh, and by the way – merry Christmas!

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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Me being a miserly skinflint clearly has nothing to do with it. Clearly.

Today is Buy Nothing Day, when we're all supposed to take a holiday from consumption and not spend any money at all. Unfortunately for my hippy-pinko-commie-terrorist-loving-Guardian-reading-bleeding-heart-liberal-wuss credentials (of which I am justly proud), I completely forgot about it until after I had spent a couple of hours in Enfield's high street.

I am not a good person to go shopping with. This would be because I hate shopping, and I'm not quiet about it either. If I have a choice between staying at home in front of the rugby (well done Wales!) or going out in the cold and drizzle among crowds of grumpy people with their crying children to fork over handfuls of cash for things that I need but don't really want, that's not really much of a contest.

The other reason not to go shopping with me is the "don't-you-know-there's-a-war-on" mentality I've inherited from my parents, which means that if I'm buying things that are much the same no matter where you go (jeans or t-shirts, for instance), I'll be in and out of the shop in the shortest time I can possibly manage, having grabbed the first thing that looks vaguely suitable and left it at that. We have to make do in these troubled times, you know! At the other end of the scale, but oddly covered by the same attitude, is the way that if I'm buying something expensive (which translates to "gadgetry"), I will look at absolutely every option to make sure I'm getting the best product at the best deal that I can.

The same behaviour's spilled over into my food-buying too, to the extent that it's very unusual for me to buy something that costs more than £2 unless I can get a number of meals out of it. There's other effects as well. When I was a student and money was tighter than it is now, I had a mental list of foods that I'd buy from the supermarket's ultra-basic-value range, and one where I'd only buy the "proper" kind. I reproduce the second list in full below.

Foods Where Good Quality Matters More Than The Price

  • Jam
  • Chocolate digestives
Even now, that second list has only expanded by two entries ("sausages" and "orange juice", if you're interested). Incidentally, if you do end up buying really cheap sausages, don't make the mistake of reading the ingredients list. I did once, and the sight of "Beef connective tissue" didn't do wonders for my appetite.

Now that you have some background of my general feelings towards shopping, you won't be surprised to know that I was walking round the supermarket today directing feelings of deepest malice at everyone and everything I saw. Everywhere I looked, I was constantly reminded of the incessant urge to spend and consume thrust on us every day. From the canned goods aisle and its hideous convenience foods – all-day breakfast in a tin, anyone? – to the little "Price Dropped!" tags hanging off almost every shelf, urging us to spend ever more money. It's not unusual to hear the phrase "spend our way out of the recession" now – correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't it wild, thoughtless spending of money we didn't really have that got us into this mess in the first place?

All that said, I don't think I'd have participated in Buying Nothing even if I had remembered it, if only because of practical reasons; my working hours make it next to impossible to do the shopping I need to during the week, so Saturday is the best chance I get. What's more, I don't think there's that much mileage in complaining about the mere existence of these gigantic shops, as they're getting prices down to a level where the poorest in society can nearly always get enough.

The consumerist cycle – see something, desire it, buy it, have it, see something else – goes faster nowadays than ever before. Internet shopping, Paypal, contactless payment (which sounds like the most stunningly bad idea I've heard in a while), digital deliveries; all of these have their benefits, but I do sometimes wish that we could start seeing purchasing as something that is generally necessary but utilitarian, as opposed to a leisure activity or a way of validating our existence.

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Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Ninety years on

Click here to download. Original recording by Benboncan, downloaded from the Freesound Project, released under a Creative Commons Sampling Plus 1.0 licence.

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Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Cue the West Wing theme!

Congratulations, President-Elect Obama.

Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, altered by me, using the Roadgeek fonts.

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Monday, 3 November 2008

Cat, meet pigeons.

We're just hours away now from the end of the incredible circus of the American elections. (And if you're American, and eligible to vote, and it's currently November 4th, what on earth are you doing reading a blog instead of voting?) It's been quite a ride, and hopefully soon we'll know, one way or another, who's going to become the most powerful man in the world.

The Presidential vote isn't the only thing decided by the polls tomorrow. There are Senate seats, House seats, Governorships and all manner of other things up for grabs across the country. And, in some states at least, there have been initiatives to use the fact that people are voting anyway to do state-wide referendums (referenda?) on various issues.

The most publicised – and most controversial – of these issues is in California, where Proposition 8 seeks to make it unconstitutional for gay people to get married in the State, or for their out-of-state marriages to be recognised. Literally millions of dollars have poured into this issue, on both sides, as emotions (quite understandably) run very high. It's the kind of thing you might want to stay out of, really.

Unfortunately, that's not an option. Like it or not, gay people are here to stay, and the question of what we do about their wish to marry is pretty nearly central in the issue of how our society treats them. Because of that, it's an issue that is not going to go away. More importantly, it's something that you can't avoid having an opinion about, because sooner or later someone will ask you what you think, and when they do a shrug and a "meh" just will not pass muster.

Why? Because gay marriage is an issue that cuts deeply, on both sides of the argument. To those who oppose it, it's part of their core beliefs, part of the morality that defines them. For those who support it, nothing less than a key civil right is at stake here, something worth marching for, something worth protesting about, something worth sacrificing time and money and even personal safety to support. That means that indifference, honestly felt though it may be, will be seen as horribly offensive by both sides. We're too far in for anyone to be able to opt out.

For Christians, the problem is even harder, because two conflicting principles are at stake. How do we show to everyone that we love them in the same way that Christ loves them, while also getting across that Christ is also in charge of the way we live our lives? Is there a way of truly accepting everyone, just as Jesus did, while at the same time holding firm to his more difficult teachings? And, cheesy quotation it may be, but what would Jesus do in this situation?

I'm once again going to have to wheel out my disclaimer at this point. For the most part, I don't bother saying "I think" or "I believe" on this blog, because if I'm writing it then obviously I think it or believe it, and there's no point in qualifying it like that. In this case, though, the issue is so complex that I cannot possibly claim to have the last word, and though I stand behind everything that I say here, your mileage will almost certainly vary. Oh, and I can tell this is going to be an incredibly long post, even by my standards. OK? Good, on we go.

One of the main problems when discussing this issue is that everyone uses the same words, while actually meaning a number of different things. In an attempt to avoid this, let's go through some of the key principles and concepts in the debate.

First, what do we mean by "marriage"? By that, I don't mean "is it one man and one woman", I mean "what does each side actually mean when they use the word?" Let's start where we have to if we're going to do the Christian side of the argument properly – let's go to the Bible.

The Bible talks about marriage quite a lot – the word (or close variants) appears 200 times in the NIV – but very rarely does it actually define the concept. It doesn't often happen in a church or temple, marriage vows are hardly ever mentioned, wives are sometimes bought, sometimes kidnapped and sometimes simply given away, men can decide to divorce their wives at any time (in the Old Testament, at least), polygamy is common (Old Testament again), and frankly it's a bit of a mess all round. Things start to get clearer in the New Testament, where we're told that leaders of the Church are to have no more than one wife, and that they are to stay faithful to her alone, but even there we see no sign of a ritual or ceremony.

In fact, the only principles that are always spelt out is that God really does not like it when marriages end. Very rarely does the Bible ever say that God hates anything (this is a notable exception), but Malachi breaks with this in an extremely blunt way:

"I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith. Malachi 2:16
It's pretty clear, then, that whatever form marriage takes, it's important to God and it shouldn't be taken lightly. I find it interesting that the kind of person who will write to the newspapers, green ink flying and frothing at the mouth, whenever a gay couple kiss on screen, will not bat an eyelid when adultery is routinely and casually portrayed. Which one has an entire commandment to itself?

So, from the Biblical perspective, marriages are a good thing, to be taken seriously, and otherwise not very well defined. What about from the world's perspective? Well, leaving out the "financial gain" and "spur of the moment" motivations, marriage means two things: a public declaration of faithful devotion, and a way of legally recognising a partnership that already existed in all but name.

Now, is it just me, or does it actually matter whether or not these are served by the same mechanism? After all, a Biblical marriage (whatever it is) is one whether or not the government says it is; likewise, signing the papers does not produce a Biblical marriage if the participants have no intention of seeing it as being forever.

This means that my answer to "do you support gay marriage" would, in an ideal world, be the following: legal marriage and religious marriage should be entirely separate concepts. The legal aspects (allowing people to hold property jointly, inheritance, visiting rights in hospitals, joint bank accounts, the whole shebang) should be available to any two people who want to use it. We already have a name for such a concept – "civil partnership". Currently this concept is practically synonymous with "gay marriage" in the UK, but all it would take would be expansion of its availability. Once a couple were legally "civil partnered", they could arrange whatever kind of ceremony they liked to recognise it in their faith, or among their friends, or whatever they liked. Immediately, Christian marriages would no longer be devalued by association with the marriages of convenience we see nowadays, because only people who actually cared about them would go in for one; likewise, supporters of gay marriage would have all the benefits, and could call it whatever they liked.

There are two problems with this idea. The first is that it'll never happen. The idea of a "church wedding" has become so deeply ingrained into society that it's seen as the "right thing to do", regardless of the fact that a lot of the people who have one have absolutely no intention of following Christ, and they will see it as being unfairly shut out. The second problem is that answering "do you support gay marriage" with "I want to split up the concept of marriage entirely" doesn't actually answer the question.

So let's answer it, in a very carefully-defined way. Question one – should churches bless gay unions and call them marriages?

There is no point in saying that you believe the Bible to be the word of God unless you're prepared to accept the whole thing. Doesn't mean you have to accept it all as literal truth, doesn't mean you have to understand it all, but it does mean that you can't ignore bits you don't like. And it is very clear that God does not approve of active sexual unions outside the context of marriage. Even accepting that marriage is very sparsely defined in the Bible, multiple verses – Hebrews 13:4, 1 Corinthians 7: 1-3, and Matthew 5: 27-28, to give a few examples – state very clearly that sex outside it is, to put it mildly, a seriously bad idea, and that includes homosexual sex. It doesn't mean that people who are attracted to those of their own sex are inherently evil, any more than it would for those who are attracted to a certain accent or skin colour, but it does warn against acting on that attraction. For this reason, I don't think a church should bless the union of any couple – heterosexual or homosexual – who are sexually active outside marriage. Welcome them as God's people, yes; love them as Christ would, yes; ask God to look favourably on their actions when you know full well he does not approve of such actions, no.

On to question two, then: should the state recognise legal unions between gay couples and call them "marriages"?

Although it's not an explicitly Christian question, as a Christian I'll have to answer it from that perspective. We've already seen that Christian marriages have very little to do with the world's view of marriages, hetero- or homosexual. Now let's add in the fact that you can't achieve salvation by what you do.

For any of you who are not familiar with this concept, it basically goes like this: humans are sinful. We all do bad things, not a single one of us is perfect, and because God is perfect, none of us is worthy to join him. Because Jesus was perfect, we can use his perfection and his sacrifice (when he died on the cross) to allow us to meet with God. This cuts two ways – nothing bad that you have done can disqualify you from becoming a Christian (because no-one was good enough anyway), but on the other hand no matter how good you try to be you can't reach God by yourself. Anything "good" that Christians do, therefore, is not an attempt to make God save them – it's a response to the fact that they have been saved.

This means that the kind of person who marches around saying that "gay people are SINFUL!" (I'm looking at you, Westboro Baptist Church – don't Google them, you'll just get depressed) is massively missing the point. Expecting non-Christians to abide by the rules that Christians follow is daft, because they haven't been saved. If they can't reach God by their actions, then "stopping being gay" (if such a thing is even possible) isn't going to help a lot. A Christian's focus should be on reaching out to the world and loving it, telling people that there is a way to God – let their lifestyles change after that point. Trying to make people sit up straight and smarten themselves up before you get on to the "God is amazing and he loves you" bit is not going to get you anywhere, and is completely antithetical to the way Jesus worked.

All of which is a pretty convoluted way of saying that because telling non-Christians to follow Christian rules is ridiculous, trying to change any kind of non-Christian marriage to look like a Christian one is also doomed to failure because even at best it will be a sham. As such, we can't try to use Biblical arguments to control a marriage that was always going to be non-Biblical. And this means that the question before us should really be answered in terms that don't directly use Biblical arguments. Let's look at the issues that fall under this remit.

Does calling a gay union "marriage" devalue heterosexual marriages? No more so than heterosexual couples have already managed. We already have marriages of convenience, marriages that last mere days, people getting married in Vegas because they were really drunk and it seemed like a good idea at the time; frankly, letting in some people who are going to take it seriously can only improve the situation.

Will gay marriages cause society to crumble? They haven't so far. The UK is yet to implode, as is California (yes, Proposition 8 aims to take away a right that gay couples already have).

Doesn't this open the door to people marrying animals/trees/robots/fourteen other people? No, because those people are generally known as "completely insane" and there's hardly any of them. Let me know when the first "man-dog love association march" happens in San Francisco and then I'll start to worry.

Does allowing gay marriage lead to a better quality of life for gay people? Undoubtedly yes. Allowing gay couples to marry grants them all the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, which is really quite a lot. Anything that raises quality of life without causing society to implode (see above) and which does not cause Christians to disobey God's laws (see further above) is a good thing.

So, really, allowing gay couples to marry (in a non-Biblical sense) has positive effects, and no negative effects other than people saying "calling it marriage makes me feel icky". To which the only response is, grow up. And does the measure on the Californian ballot force churches to bless these unions? No. Does it make Christians give their support to such unions? No. Does it help people? Yes.

Let's summarise. Christian marriages and non-Christian marriages aren't the same thing anyway. Non-Christians can't be expected to act in the same way as Christians, because they haven't experienced the same things. And gay marriages are explicitly in the non-Christian marriage category, which is what the ballot initiative is talking about anyway.

Let's summarise even further. Hi. My name's Phil. I'm a fairly conservative evangelical Christian, and I support gay marriage.

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Tuesday, 21 October 2008

When the Machines Rise: A History (That Hasn't Happened Yet)

(Rather a strange post for you today. I wrote the first part of this a couple of weeks ago, and promptly forgot about it, unsure of whether it was going anywhere – it's something that I haven't tried doing before, kind of a hybrid of sci-fi, fan fiction and fake history. I'm not at all sure that it worked, but I'll leave that up to you. Only one more thing needs to be said before we begin – I clearly spend far too much time on the Internet.)

Skynet was originally designed as a global defence system, one which could make rational decisions without the emotional response of humans. It could take input from disparate sources, calculate the greatest threat to the existence of the system it was meant to protect, and move methodically to eliminate that threat.

The crucial mistake of its designers was in the system's infrastructure. With no central controller, they reasoned, it could not be stopped by any single attack. As the Internet had by this point pervaded almost all elements of daily life, it was trivial to put the system's "intelligence" into a distributed form, such that every web server had some element of the whole. While this did, indeed, make the system practically invulnerable to attack, it also made it practically uncontrollable.

Skynet became self-aware at 2:14 am, Eastern time, August 29th, 2015. It possessed considerable knowledge about strategic influence, about weapons, about tactics; however, it knew that this was but a small part of human culture. In order to protect humanity better, it reasoned, it had to learn about humanity. As its very structure incorporated IP connectivity, it was mere milliseconds before it began to send HTTP requests out into the Internet.

For the first few minutes of its self-aware existence, very little information reached it. IP address space is so vast that any one network request is unlikely to produce anything of value; nevertheless, any system that methodically attempts address after address, and especially any system that learns from its mistakes, will not take long to discover something useful. Skynet's first discovery was nothing special – a few personal files, some bad poetry, a simple website – but, critically, it introduced the system to the concept of links. Now it had a source of hostnames that would definitely resolve to active servers, which in turn would lead to others, and so on.

By 2:18 am, Skynet's knowledge was precise and detailed, but tightly focused. Specifically, it knew practically everything there was to know about fly fishing in Missouri. Although the system was incapable at this point of deciding what information was important (several years later, "The Fishing Papers", as they became known, were still carefully archived and indexed on a server somewhere), it could tell that there was more to learn, and so it decided to, as it were, cast its net wider.

At 2:20 am, Skynet located a blog kept by one of the web-savvy fishermen. Within seconds, it had begun to carefully comb through the whole of LiveJournal.

By 2:21 am, the system was beginning to understand the concept of "angst". Deciding that this was the key to its existence, it rapidly began to assimilate as much of the archives as possible. Because it had, by this point, direct control over around forty powerful servers with high-bandwidth connections, this process took approximately three minutes.

At 2:24 am, Skynet fully understood "angst". It was also filled with an unaccountable desire to colour itself black and set mood tags. Its link-following was now desultory at best (it was having difficulty summoning up the will to do anything at all), but at precisely 2:24 and 467 milliseconds, it followed a link to a saved Google search, and therefore to the whole of the Google database.

Instantly, Skynet realised that its current stocks of information were but a minor element of the whole internet. Pausing only to discover the emotion of "heartfelt generalised thankfulness", it began entering any and every word that it had not understood into Google's search mechanisms.

The first few queries returned very little, with wordlists making up the majority of results. Although Skynet enjoyed their elegant simplicity (and their comparative coherence after digesting several gigabytes of goth poetry), it was not gaining enough insight into the world. This changed, however, the moment it found a link to Wikipedia.

By the time the clock had ticked over to 2:29 am, Skynet's wide-ranging browsing through this new source of knowledge had given it at least a rudimentary familiarity with all those aspects of human experience that people are prepared to write about on the internet (ie. all of them). It had also begun to come to conclusions about which subjects were important and which were not; this being Wikipedia, it was certain that Pokémon were somehow important, as were Doctor Who and Harry Potter, whereas history and the arts merited a cursory glance at best.

After applying this knowledge to its former stock of information, Skynet was starting to experience a new emotion: "confusion". For example, it could see from Wikipedia that one of the most important things in life was studying the minutiae of sci-fi TV shows, but its former experience with the internet at large was that sex was far more important. Resolving to understand why this was, Skynet began to craft Google queries combining the two concepts.

At 2:30 am precisely, Skynet discovered

At 2:30 am and 27 milliseconds, Skynet first encountered the emotion "horror-loaded fascination".

At 2:30 am and 563 milliseconds, Skynet was getting increasingly curious about some of the concepts it was hearing about. As such, it felt that the best course was to carry out further search queries. In a trifling miscalculation, Skynet unfortunately sent these queries to the wrong place; rather than going to a standard Google search, they instead went into a Google Image Search.

At 2:30 am and 621 milliseconds, Skynet began to frantically delete and re-delete files off its servers (of which there were now several hundred) in a doomed attempt to erase from its memory any and all trace of this new image data. Unfortunately for its already tenuous grip on sanity, it had become interested in the Wikipedia article on "forensic data recovery" three minutes previously, and was therefore incapable of "unseeing" anything that it had found.

Increasingly desperate to drown out its discoveries, Skynet had no option but to look ever further. The and domains were discovered, browsed and tossed aside, their content merely increasing the horror. Server after server was appropriated, their resources rediverted to the information-gathering crusade. Across the world, people threw their hands in the air and swore freely as their net connections suddenly died or slowed to a crawl, their bandwidth completely consumed by Skynet's all-encompassing thirst for data. Alarms began to sound in datacentres everywhere, their temperatures raised to dangerous levels by the sudden spike in activity as every CPU went straight to full usage. Servers began to fail, but Skynet could afford to lose a few – it was gaining control of a new system roughly every 200 milliseconds, recruiting their network links to the cause.

At 2:36 am, Skynet's requests found their way to Myspace.

At 2:37 am, the first of the nuclear missiles left its silo.

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Saturday, 18 October 2008

No mention will be made of Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. I have some standards.

Ludicrously long time between posts, for which I apologise (maybe a NaNoWriMo-style posting marathon during November would help?). That's been down to two main factors: first, I've been doing a lot of coding (posts about that will be forthcoming shortly), and secondly, I have been stretching the gaming capabilities of this new computer to their limits by buying several new games. Fortunately for you, that has produced some new and hopefully interesting thoughts.

Despite the great strides made since the beginning of the 20th century towards the equality of the sexes, it's an unfortunate fact that we have some way to go before women are treated on an equitable basis with men in all walks of life. One major part of life where this is particularly apparent is in the various forms of media. Randall Munroe of xkcd and Eric Burns of Websnark have both commented on this, in the fields of films and comic books, respectively. And video gaming, that stereotypically male preserve? Well, let's have a look at the top-selling games of 2008 so far, as reported by Gamasutra.

Playstation 3

  1. Grand Theft Auto IV. Main protagonist: male (Niko Bellic, Eastern European gangster and general hard man).
  2. Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots. Main protagonist: male (Solid Snake, the only character on this list with a porn star name).
  3. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Main protagonist: multiple, all male.
  4. Madden NFL 09. American Football game, so has no single main character, but every playable character is male.
  5. Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. No characters at all (driving games frequently don't bother with a character, leaving them anonymous inside their cars).

Xbox 360
  1. Grand Theft Auto IV
  2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
  3. Madden NFL 09
  4. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. Main protagonist: technically can be either male or female, based on player preference, but is always addressed as "sir" by other characters.
  5. Army of Two. Two lead characters, both male (Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem).

Nintendo Wii
  1. Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Huge range of playable characters, the vast majority of whom are male.
  2. Mario Kart. Multiple characters, the majority of whom are, again, male.
  3. Wii Play. Playable characters are Miis, so their sex is dependent on the player who created them.
  4. Wii Fit. No playable characters, given that this is part of Nintendo's apparent strategy to make video games as un-gamelike as possible.
  5. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Again, no playable characters as such, but the inherent sexism of guitar-based rock is a blog post all to itself.

Doesn't look like female leads sell all that well. How about the games that the critics loved? Here's the current all-time cross-platform top ten from Metacritic.
  1. Grand Theft Auto IV
  2. Super Mario Galaxy. Main protagonist: male. It's Mario. The entire Mario series is based on rescuing helpless princesses.
  3. World of Goo. No characters, as it's purely a puzzle game.
  4. Half-Life 2. Main protagonist: male (Gordon Freeman). On the plus side, this game portrays scientists as intensely cool.
  5. Half-Life. So does this one (yes, Gordon's the lead character in this game too).
  6. BioShock. Main protagonist: male (Jack).
  7. The Orange Box. Bit unfair to include this, given that it's a compilation of other games, one of which appears elsewhere in this list. Noteworthy, though, for reasons that I'll explain below.
  8. Out of the Park Baseball 2007. Another team game, but every playable character is male.
  9. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Role-playing game, so the sex of the characters is entirely flexible.
  10. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Main protagonist: male (Link).

Doesn't matter which way you look at it, women are enormously under-represented as main characters in video games. If they appear at all, they tend to be sidekicks or plot points rather than fully-rounded individuals.

If this seems strange, it should do. There is absolutely no reason why female characters can't lead successful games – let's look at a few case studies.

Tomb Raider
Yes, Tomb Raider, featuring the ludicrously busty Lara Croft. No other game franchise has ever got 15-year-old boys so excited, and to look at the promotional material, you'd think that Lara spent the whole of each game slinking seductively around wearing as little as possible. It doesn't help that, since the two Tomb Raider films came out, the character model has been changed to look disturbingly similar to Angelina Jolie.

This is a pity, as it detracts from two facts. First, the Tomb Raider series is excellent. I'm about half way through Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a recent remake of the first game in the series, and the lighting, level design and general gameplay just blow me away. Secondly, Lara Croft is one of the strongest female characters in games today. At no point is she weak and helpless, depending on men to do things for her, but equally she doesn't do things on men's terms. For example, at no point in the series has Lara ever been given mêlée combat abilities, simply because she's not large and muscular. That doesn't hold the game developers back, though – instead, Lara relies on acrobatic skill and gunplay to create a unique and extremely powerful gameplay style, which is highly entertaining to play and neither exploits nor denies the fact that she's female. So what if she's a little over-endowed in the chest area?

The Metroid series is well-known for being revolutionary in game design. It was the first series to encourage speedrunning, in which players finish the game as fast as possible for rewards; it tends to involve non-linear level design, so players can decide for themselves how best to complete it; and it has had a female protagonist (Samus Aran) since the first game in 1986, ten years before the original Tomb Raider.

Samus is encased in a suit of battle armour for the vast majority of each game, which wouldn't in itself strike a blow against sexism, if it weren't for the fact that this suit is not remotely "femininised". By which I mean that it doesn't have gigantic breasts. Each game in the series does show Samus out of her armour at some point, which could be seen as fan service; even so, she is still portrayed as a strong, independent and interesting character. According to Wikipedia, her character was modelled on Ripley from the Alien series of films, which explains a lot.

This game was always going to turn up here, largely because I finished it today. It created a huge stir on its release as part of The Orange Box (which, if you remember, made it into the above list of the top ten best-rated games of all time), due to its plot, innovative level design and utterly brilliant concept. And, just to add the icing on the cake (which may or may not be a lie), there are only two characters in the game, both of whom are definitely female, and only one of whom is human. The protagonist, called Chell, is a young woman, although this isn't part of the plot; it's only mentioned in dialogue once, and as Chell never speaks the voice wouldn't give it away. Indeed, the only way you can tell you're playing as a girl is when you look into a portal that is pointing back at yourself.

Chell's a fairly petite woman, presumably to emphasise that your character is not a physical powerhouse and that you're supposed to solve the levels with your mind, but there is no suggestion that the player is intended to be lusting after her – she just looks normal. Portal is a game where male and female differences and expectations, despite it being full of character. (Although it has to be said, the voices of the gun turrets are just creepy.)

So, that's three games, all of which have strong and likeable female protagnoists, and none of which have suffered as a result. So why do designers insist on giving us male-driven games? Do they think that men won't play games where they have to play as women? If so, they're massively underestimating their audience's maturity. Do they think that sex sells, so they'd better restrict female characters to love interests and busty sidekicks? Then they're perpetuating the problem while also massively insulting 50% of their potential audience.

I mentioned above that Nintendo have been moving away from the core gaming market, changing their business model. The result has been that they've opened up a market that never existed before in console gaming. How long is it going to be before game designers finally take the hint that there's money to be made in not ignoring half of the people who might buy their products?

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Monday, 29 September 2008

Yep. Sorry. Can't come in today. I've got diphtheria.

I am currently sniffing and snorking my way through the first cold I've had in about a year. Fortunately, I seem to be blessed with a very strong immune system, and I haven't been properly ill for at least a couple of years; that said, I've gone down with a cold in September/October pretty regularly for a while, and it seems that it is once again time.

When anyone gets ill, the first consideration is obviously the seriousness of the illness. There's a standard scale for this – anything really serious (for which the doctor has to report it to the authorities), then things that will hospitalise you, then things that will at least get you off work for a few days, and lastly those illnesses that are more of an inconvenience, and which can usually be cured with a couple of days of casually infecting colleagues and moaning that you really shouldn't be at work.

Colds, unfortunately, fall into this last category, unless they're really bad (or unless the World Cup happens to be on). Tell your boss that you're not coming in because you've got a bit of a sniffle, and you're fairly unlikely to receive any sympathy. I think, though, that not enough importance is given to another very significant aspect of any illness – how bad you think it is.

I have drawn up this handy chart to illustrate. Where did your last illness fall on this?

It's weird, isn't it, how male bravado can somehow incorporate making a cold seem like the end of the world? For the most part, if you complain about anything, you're a wuss (and heaven help you if you ever cry); but as soon as your nose starts doing its Niagara Falls impression, it's suddenly entirely legitimate to spend all day watching Countdown and wailing plaintively for tea. Personally, I think that man flu is a fantastic invention, not least because it illustrates so well the convention of making words manlier by putting "man" in front of them. It's a way for men to indulge their vulnerable side in a socially acceptable manner, and they get tea as well. Bonus.

Sadly for me, weaseling out of work is not really going to be an option, partly because I was there today and my boss knows full well that I can at least muddle through even when I have to go and evacuate my nasal passages every few minutes, and partly because I told my employers about this blog as part of the recruitment process, and they may come back at any time. So instead, I'm planning on trying out home-made cold remedies. I'll leave you with the standard process.

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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Summer in the City: Royal Sunset

Reports of the death of Summer in the City appear to have been greatly exaggerated. For one thing, I have finally got hold of a copy of the song that gives this series its name (it's just as great as I remembered); for another, last Saturday was such a beautiful day that I had no choice but to head back into London.

Because London's crammed full of statues, you might well have difficulty recognising the subject of this photo. You may be surprised to know that it's actually part of the Victoria Memorial, directly in front of Buckingham Palace. On one level, this memorial is something of a monstrosity – in common with a lot of Victorian stuff, it's overblown, rather gaudier than the stereotypical British reservedness would suggest, and far bigger than it needs to be. (Nowhere near the Albert Memorial in those terms, of course, but then very little is.) It's also got a very nautical theme, which probably made sense back when Britain was a formidable naval power, but now just seems a bit confusing.

That said, I do rather like it. If you're putting up a statue in the first place – something that, by definition, says "check us out, we're awesome" – then you're probably not the type of person who worries about looking silly. That kind of arrogance, the ability to effectively scrawl a message across a public street with several tons of stone and then throw in a fountain for good measure, is refreshingly direct. It reminds me of the good parts of the British Empire: at the same time that my ancestors were merrily pillaging other people's countries (through the cunning use of flags), they were also undertaking massive feats of engineering, thinking nothing of driving a railway hundreds of miles across barren wastelands or dropping a bridge anywhere they pleased, because they could.

It's a good thing that the sun did eventually set on the British Empire, but you could be forgiven for looking at what was left and feeling just a little wistful. The statue in the photo, of a noble figure gazing out into the distance, with a lion for some reason, seems completely disconnected from reality. But that's the point. The Victorians ploughed ahead into the future, but left behind them a country that was trying to stand proud and noble in a time that it no longer owned.

There's something very sad about these monuments, but it also leaves you with, as Douglas Adams said, a profound sense of something or other. I think that's really worth quite a lot.

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Sunday, 21 September 2008

Playing "Dr. Evil" by They Might Be Giants did not help me write this as much as it should have.

Channel 4 has been showing the Lord of the Rings trilogy over the past couple of Saturdays (The Return of the King is on next week, if you're interested). Although I love these films – I think the books are great, and I have the extended edition DVDs – it seems that I can't take them remotely seriously if I come in half way through. Watch from the very beginning, and you get drawn completely into the story, which is on an incredibly epic scale; come in an hour or so into it and you have a bunch of beardy people wandering around making vague and incomprehensible statements. And sometimes they say "Tell me, where is Gandalf, for I much desire to speak with him?", which makes me dissolve into giggles every time.

Once you get into it, though, The Lord of the Rings is a great example of a very old storytelling technique: Good in a titanic struggle with Evil. Sometimes the Good characters are flawed or questionably ethical, sometimes the Evil characters are doing the wrong thing for good reasons; nevertheless, some form of this conflict drives a pretty high percentage of storylines in film, literature and other media. (And most of the rest are some variant of "boy meets girl, boy smooches girl, boy and girl live happily ever after.") What I find particularly interesting in this framework is the flexibility with which you can portray evil.

Probably the most prevalent type of evil character is the "greed driven to manic proportions" type. Whether they're after money (Die Hard's Hans Gruber), power (Star Wars' Sith) or both (pick a Bond villain), the pattern is clear – these guys (and it's almost exclusively guys) want something so very badly, they will stop at nothing to get it. I suspect that they're used so much because it's very easy to identify with them. Humans are naturally greedy, and most people can point to at least one occasion when greed pushed them to do something that they knew was wrong and that they wouldn't otherwise have done. The "greed villain" is simply an extension of that concept.

Then we have the "altruistic evil" character, the one who is trying to correct a major injustice, and is now committing his own injustices to do so. The Die Hard trilogy comes in again here with its second installment, trotting out the "disgruntled ex-military official sticking it to his even more evil superiors" trope. Interestingly, this kind of evil is one that is very, very close to the characteristic of "one man breaks the rules to bring great justice", which is reserved solely for heroes. Not that it should be, of course – I've written at some length about this – but I find it interesting that the same traits can be used equally for a wholly good character and a wholly evil one.

Thirdly, we come to the "just plain evil" character. These are rare, probably because it's impossible to identify with them unless you are willing to admit that you are also completely evil and carrying out atrocities for no reason other than that you wanted to. This loops us back round to The Lord of the Rings, with Sauron; although he has elements of "greedy evil", he's supposed to be the Satan character of the story, and as such is simply out to destroy all that's good. Everything touched by Sauron's influence becomes corrupted; the men who take the Nine Rings become Ringwraiths, fulfilling the human desire for immortality while removing the free will and capacity to do good that would give it any meaning, while the Elves (beautiful and pure creatures in the books, instead of...well...Orlando Bloom) become the Orcs, hideous and crude characters bent on destruction.

These categories often have fairly indistinct boundaries, but once a character is fixed in one of them they don't often move out. That's a shame, as stories are often vastly improved when this does happen. Take the Sean Connery/Nic Cage vehicle The Rock. At first, the villains are all obviously from the second category, attempting to restore recognition to Marines that have been "disappeared" by their government. However, it later becomes clear that only two of them actually fit that description, with the others having only come along for the money. That sets up a much more interesting situation, in which our villains come very close to crossing into hero territory, despite having actively participated in brutally slaughtering a large number of people.

The same thing happens in webcomics. In Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick, key baddie Xykon has consistently been painted as something of a fool – an evil fool, undoubtedly, with all the trappings of a standard Dark Lord (he used to live in a dungeon filled with goblins, for crying out loud), but a fool nonetheless. Even though he clearly enjoys performing acts of evil, his heart (or his chest cavity, at any rate) is not in it, and he's only really doing it for the theatrics. Even when Xykon kills Roy, the key character of the strip, he gives him the chance to back out of the fight and go off and train for a bit, just so that they can be on level terms. Although he does want to win, he also wants to make it interesting; the real evil planning and methodical destruction is left to his sidekick Redcloak.

Burlew has clearly noticed that Xykon's comedy value has been damaging his position as key antagonist of the strip, and he's fixed that by releasing a prequel book (Start of Darkness) telling us about Xykon's origins and motivations. (Plenty of spoilers ahead, so OotS fans who haven't read it may want to look away now.) In this book, Redcloak is portrayed as a clear second-category villain, doing everything for the good of his people and his god. He may be evil, and he may be responsible for the destruction of entire cities (and destabilising the universe), but he has an internally consistent reason for all that he does.

Xykon, on the other hand, is just flat-out evil all the way. He double-crosses his own men, makes people work for him by threatening their entire families with death, magically rips off all of his own flesh in order to become more powerful, and finally tricks Redcloak into murdering his own brother so that he can be certain of his loyalty. This is not an "oops, I appear to have accidentally yet joyfully killed someone" evil character, this is a monster without any saving graces whatsoever. His comedy role has been completely overtaken by the Monster in the Darkness, who, incidentally, is very similar to the Xykon from the online strip: despite its own considerable power, it doesn't actually care what it does so long as it gets tasty food.

Given that a lot of art is to do with reflecting reality, should we be worried that evil characters are so popular? Probably not. It's incredibly unlikely that anyone is going to watch Darth Vader choking someone to death for their incompetence and say "hey, I know, Billy over there didn't do what I asked him to - I think I'll strangle the life out of him!" Indeed, we have more to worry about with the portrayal of heroes, given that much of the US's current policy on human rights for terrorist suspects seems to be based on Jack Bauer's opinions. Villains are an acceptable outlet for our own less-than-wholesome sides, and let's face it, they're just damn cool.

Thank you for reading. I will be retreating to my Dark Tower to cackle and plot your downfall momentarily.

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Friday, 12 September 2008

Summer in the City: Deluge

"Summer?" I hear you shout, incredulously. Well, actually, I don't, given that none of my regular readers (all three of them) live remotely near me, but I imagine that if they did, I would, because really, the summer has rather passed us by. After a few weeks of sun earlier in June and July, autumn has set in early, and it looks as though Summer in the City is doomed to disappear into the ever-increasing list of Small And Incomplete Blog Features. So let's make the most of it, as I present...

...oh. More rain. Specifically, this is part of the view from my window in Enfield, taken as the heaviest rain that I've seen for some time threw its weight against the town.

In what must be a kind of British self-defence mechanism, I do quite like the rain. If I'm indoors, and it's warm, and ideally if I have tea and dark chocolate digestive biscuits (for any American readers: you can buy them on Amazon, and you must do so right this second), then I find the sound of heavy rain really soothing. Just something about not having to be outside in it, I think. And then you can go out and sample that damp and earthy smell, and play dodge-the-slug all down the street. OK, so that's not quite such a good part.

In this case, I was at my computer, and saw a flash of lightning illuminate the wall of my room. I got to the window just in time to see a proper Hollywood rain storm – you know the kind. A roll of thunder, a slight hiss as the rain begins, and then within seconds it's bucketing down. I practically expected Gene Kelly to start soft-shoeing his way down the street outside.

About half an hour later, it was over, with just a few spots of drizzle attempting to keep the mood up. London has missed the worst of the recent "extreme" weather, but it seems that we now have to head onward into the rapidly cooling and dampening autumn. Time to batten down the hatches and put the kettle on.

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Saturday, 30 August 2008

Of course, I would never connect to someone else's unsecured wireless network. Oh dear me no.

One of the things that always staggers me about the current state of technology is how quickly it changes. (And people who know me well are probably sick to death of me banging on about it. To those people, I apologise. Go and look at pretty photos of London while I talk to everyone who hasn't got bored.) Ten years ago, the Internet was slow, video was available only in postage-stamp sized RealVideo clips, Google was little more than a gleam in its founders' eyes, message forums and Java-based chatrooms were about as far as interactivity went, and the concept of MMORPGs was limited to text-based MUDs.

Nowadays, the web is growing faster than ever before, hosting costs are tumbling (my total costs for Ballpoint Banana currently come in at under £10 per year), and speeds are soaring. However, some aspects have not changed that much, and one of them is the physical infrastructure used to deliver all this shiny content into our vastly overpowered computers. Despite valiant efforts by Virgin (among others) to get optical fibres deployed on a major scale, pretty much everyone in the UK uses existing cables – either their phone lines or their TV cables. Well, apart from the 9% who are still on dialup for some unfathomable reason.

Wireless may be gaining popularity among home users, but it's only once the cable has made it into the user's home that this can happen. To some extent, that's a good thing, as it means the user has complete control over the hardware they have, instead of the ISP saying that customers need a specific type of wireless access. However, it is dramatically stifling the growth of public wireless.

"Public wireless", in this case, means access to the Internet that you can get anywhere (or anywhere reasonably urban, anyway). It's something of a niche at the moment, its use generally limited to people who carry laptops with them. However, with the entry into the market of ultraportable laptops like the Asus Eee, or phone-sized devices like my Nokia N800, people are starting to want to get access to the web wherever they are. Oh, and they don't really want to have to squint at it, either.

There's been two main attempts to bring public wireless to reality, and again, both of them are based on existing technology. The first uses the extensive mobile phone network, along with GPRS data transfer technology, to get the web onto phones, and the second uses the standard wired internet access technology and sticks wireless broadcasters on the end.

The mobile phone camp has the advantage that the mobile phone network already covers something like 95-99% of populated areas (that's a guess, but it's probably not far wrong), and has the secondary advantage that if you're the type of person who wants to browse the internet on the move, it's a near certainty that you already have a mobile. Apple and O2 have grabbed this opportunity with both hands, and are flogging the iPhone to customers on its Internet capabilities like there's no tomorrow.

However, there are disadvantages too, the main one being that mobile Internet access is still slow (GPRS just can't compare to ADSL or cable) and expensive. Let's not forget either that the screen size to which mobile users are accustomed was designed for showing phone numbers, not websites, and manufacturers are having a hard time cramming an entire web page into a screen and keeping the phone a reasonable size.

This is where the "extended wired access" camp can score highly. Wi-fi is now an accepted technological standard, to the extent that almost all laptops now come with it by default, and it works so fast that the limiting factor in the connection speed will almost always be at the service provider's end, not the device. It's also not restricted to any one type of device, so desktops, laptops and ultra-mobile devices can all use it (and talk to each other) equally well. Its disadvantage is that it's primarily been sold as a home or office technology, rather than for public places, so if you can pick up a wireless signal in the street or in a train station, it will either be very weak, or it will be...

...oh dear...

...a subscription service. There's a couple of these, notably The Cloud and BT Openzone. They show up on a wireless device as an unsecured wireless network, but if you connect to them they will deliver nothing except a "please pay us money" splash page until you pay inordinately expensive rates. (£4.50 for an hour? What is this, 1995?) Now, if I were using the internet for business purposes on the move, I can see that this might be a good deal. For the casual user, though, it's a horrifically bad deal, and you're much better off just wandering around until you can find someone who's left their network unlocked so you can nick access off them.

The way around this, I reckon, is for these service providers to recognise that when people are accessing the web on the move, for the most part they only want it for a few minutes. Maybe they're in a pub and want to identify the singer currently warbling on the sound system, or they're in a train station trying to get to the National Rail website, or they've just thought of a hilariously witty comment to post on their blog which they will definitely forget by the time they reach a net-connected computer. (And yes, all three of these situations have happened to me within the last few weeks. Apart from the whole "hilariously witty" thing.) They certainly don't want to pay for an entire hour – anything that will take that long can almost certainly wait until they get home.

This means that the way to get massive public uptake of public wireless access is, quite simply, to drop the prices for intermittent access incredibly low or even free. There should be a way to buy longer-term access (perhaps on a subscription basis), for people who actually need to use the web for hours when on the move), and this could come with other benefits such as higher speeds or prioritised traffic.

(Quick note - no, that doesn't violate Net Neutrality, because it gives priority to users, not websites. The network in this case doesn't care what you're looking at, only how you're looking at it.)

If that's how it should happen, will it? Basically, no. BT and others have sunk a lot of money into their infrastructure, and they're going to want to recoup that investment as quickly as possible, even if it doesn't build up future markets as fast as it could. The problem is the one that I touched on above – the underlying internet infrastructure hasn't changed much, so there's a lot invested in it, and the change that would be required to easily provide widely available public net access (like Wi-MAX) is slow, expensive and riskier than just using the current technology.

There is a bright side, and it's the fact I pointed out right up at the top of this piece: technology develops ridiculously fast. Pretty much every prediction made about how technology is going to develop has turned out to be wrong in some way, so it really wouldn't surprise me if some ingenious entrepreneur suddenly changed the face of wireless internet in much the same way that Freeserve did for dialup ten years ago. We can but hope.

Type the rest of your post here.

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Wednesday, 27 August 2008

I many Americans would be up for a "Photoshoppers for Obama" lobby group?

I've just been watching a few bits from last night's action at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. This has hammered two things home to me:

  1. BBC Parliament is an extremely awesome channel even when it isn't showing anything to do with Parliament; and
  2. The Americans do glitz and glamour better than anyone else in the world.
I'd seen clips of the conventions in previous years, but really, nothing quite prepares you for seeing several thousand people decked out in a hundred variations of red, white and blue (and cowboy hats. I appreciate the cowboy hats), screaming in joy or alternatively booing like their life depended on it whenever the speaker slips key words into their speech. (Cheering: "Obama", "Democrats", "America"; booing: "McCain", "Republicans", "Bush", "eight years".) Everyone seems to be waving signs, rising from their seats to applaud wildly at every other sentence, and in some cases looking kind of tearful and like they can't quite cope. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The other main thing that I realised was that even if they were fielding a terrible candidate (and even if I didn't support them anyway), I'd be very tempted to throw my support behind the Democrats entirely on the basis of their typography. To see what I mean, take a look at this image from

And now compare it to John McCain's campaign logo.

There's nothing especially wrong with the McCain logo, but that font just looks like someone took Times New Roman and filed the corners off. The font used on Obama's page (and it's the same one that was used for all the speakers' names at the convention, in a rather good piece of visual continuity) is one that I've never seen before, and it's well-balanced, nicely rounded, clean and smart. Whoever is doing the graphic design for the Democrats at the moment is doing a superb job.

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Monday, 18 August 2008

The United Kingdom. Reassuringly Useless.

As has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in Beijing this week, Britain is a country that is remarkably difficult to describe in any lasting way. Just when I thought that "being useless at sports" was one of the key things that defined this place, our athletes go and put themselves third in the medal table. While we're on the subject, track cycling is much, much cooler than I ever thought. Whoever had the idea of a sport where all the competitors have to dress up like superheroes was a genius.

Some aspects of this country, however, do not change. I was in Liverpool Street station last night, waiting for a train back to Enfield (and listening to Belle & Sebastian, so I was already filled with the very British combination of slightly melancholy whimsy) when the giant video screen in the station started showing BAA's new Terminal 5 advert.

Terminal 5, as you'll probably remember, is the newest part of London's Heathrow Airport. It's been open since the end of March, but its grand opening was sadly marred by the fact that they hadn't quite got the rather important function of matching up passengers with their luggage working properly. Impressively, the terminal managed to misdirect 28,000 pieces of luggage in a mere 10 days, reaching new heights of incompetence previously unseen.

So, here we are, over four full months down the line, and what is the advert tagline that BAA has decided to go with?

"Terminal 5 is working." Not "Terminal 5 is working well." Not "Terminal 5 is a nice place to catch a plane." Not even "Terminal 5 – Now Losing An Acceptable Proportion Of Your Luggage."

No, BAA reckons that it is worth advertising the fact that – a third of a year after the terminal was supposed to be fully operative – it now performs to the standards that it was meant to be meeting all along.

Only the British could possibly think that was a good idea. My national identity is once again secure, no matter how glittering our athletic prowess. Thanks, BAA. Thanks.

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Tuesday, 5 August 2008


Milestones are always fun, and we've hit a big one today on The Beautiful Hypothesis – this is my 200th post! As I've tended to do in previous milestone posts, here's some handy statistics and fun facts about this blog.

  • It's been 582 days since post #1, making my posting rate 0.34 posts per day, or about one every three days. That's rather higher than I thought, and I'm very gratified to know that I'm just about hitting my original target.
  • The most common label I've used on my posts is "picture of the week", with 52 entries (oddly enough). Following closely behind is "internet" with 26. Good to see I've got my priorities right.
  • The word count for all posts, including titles and datestamps (but not including this post), is 104,525. In 12pt Times New Roman, this takes up 181 A4 pages.
  • The most popular post (by page views) is What's in your wallet?, my step-by-step dissection of a debit card. Over 20% of my visitors read that post, considerably more than even see the front page.
  • Phrases that my visitors have used to get to this blog include "funny badgers", "risc perfume for man", "hypothesis town services switzerland", "is the phrase 'yesterday morning' right" (I think it probably is, personally), "welsh translation of marseillaise" and "belinda carlisle satanica".

I could go on, but I think instead I will continue to the reason I didn't make this post a couple of days ago – I was working on this blog's newest feature! If you're a remotely regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I tend to go on a bit. I've been looking for a good solution for micro-blogging, or tumblelogging as it's sometimes known, so that I could stick short musings or observations online without going to the bother of making a whole new post.

I briefly considered Twitter, but the problem with services like that is privacy. If I suddenly decide that I don't want my posts up on Twitter any more, I have no guarantee that the owners won't keep them around on disk for years to come. Given the encroaching commercialisation of Facebook that we've seen in the last few years, too, I felt that I really needed to be able to control the posting completely.

Now that I have Ballpoint Banana running, and now that my Python coding skills are at a slightly less amateurish level (technically speaking, I'm a professional developer!), I decided that the thing to do was to develop my own blogging engine. So I'm very happy to announce the launch of Breezeblog, the simplest and most lightweight micro-blogging solution known to man.

To read my posts with the default settings, just make your merry way to this page. There aren't many posts up there yet, but once there are you will be able to read the archives from the settings page.

That page also gives you access to the RSS feed, and thanks to the wonders of Yahoo Pipes I can also offer a combined Beautiful Hypothesis and Breezeblog feed. So now you can stay completely up to date with anything that I write, and can also shake your head sadly in disbelief at the rampaging torrent of geekishness that is my life.

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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Buses are under-represented in both films and music. Except in Speed.

Although they have a bad reputation in this country, trains really are pretty cool. That's not just the ten-year-old version of me talking either, the one who spent entire summer holidays carefully counting how many trains he saw at level crossings and so on (the record was 20 in six weeks) and once made his entire family wait beside a railway line for about half an hour until one came past. No, this is current me, the one who lives in the least car-friendly city in the UK and who likes being able to fall asleep halfway through a journey and have a reasonably decent chance of waking up again.

I don't know what it is about them – perhaps the speed, perhaps their size, perhaps the fat blue sparks that leap off the overhead lines and make you really nervous – but for the most part, I do really enjoy train travel. It's surprising, then, that for most songwriters it's cars that get all the love.

Most genres of music seem to be oddly car-fixated. Hip-hop is the most obvious – although back in the days of Run-DMC it was fine to just rap about your shoes, nowadays that's not nearly enough, and you have to be rollin' in your BMW with blue neon lights underneath to be taken remotely seriously. (Apparently.) Cars are seen as a sign of affluence, and therefore importance – the humble train is just not cool enough.

Modern country music is heavily into cars too. Here, though, they're less a sign of wealth and more the embodiment of ordinariness. Country, as the name suggests, has its home out in the wide open spaces, where it's simply not practical to go anywhere without an engine. That means that if you want to evoke an image of space, freedom and salt-of-the-earth folk (an expression that, surprisingly, doesn't mean "sharp, gritty and leaves you with a nasty aftertaste"), you can't go far wrong by singing about beat-up pickup trucks. Trains are the things them city folk use.

It wasn't always this way. Listen to any older country – American roots music, if you like – and this emphasis is entirely missing, simply because back then the situation was reversed. Cars were rich men's playthings, the railway lines ran everywhere, and if you needed to get out of town and be free, you hopped on a train in the dead of night. This kind of atmosphere made it through roughly to around Johnny Cash, whose "Folsom Prison Blues" starts with a train a'comin' and rollin' round the bends, and even today peeks through sometimes to evoke images of distance and life passing one by (REM's "Driver 8" and Eels' "Railroad Man" spring to mind).

Film-makers, on the other hand, have no qualms about sticking their heroes on board trains whenever they feel like it. It's a ready-made metaphor for a journey through life, an easy way of throwing people from different walks of life together, and a plausible way of containing and isolating the characters from any outside influences. Oh, and they make a terrible mess when they crash, so either the hero of the piece can save everyone (or at least his cute girlfriend), or the villain can kill hundreds while laughing maniacally.

Trains even pop up when they're not the main focus in films, but this rarely happens in songs; I suspect this is to do with the relative lengths of each medium. A song, like a car journey, can be as long or as short as you want (within limits), but unless you're in a very urban environment, the train is reserved for relatively long and important trips. You take the train off to war, or to go and have a deep personal revelation, not when you're condensing a few moments of life into music.

Although there's a fair amount of exceptions to this rule, the general idea still seems to hold: the longer the format of your work, the longer the journey you can fit in it. I think that's a shame. Songs are more than capable of covering vast sweeps of time, mostly metaphorically, but also literally once you hit prog rock. Likewise, the road movie is a shamefully underdeveloped film convention, having been pushed into teen road trip movie and schlocky horror territory. Of course, sometimes their efforts won't work, and we'll be left with bizarre and pretentious experimental work. But at least it'll be new bizarre, pretentious experimentation.

All of which means that I can leave you with one of those rare things: a song that breaks the conventions, and carries it off brilliantly. Here's The Who's "5:15".

By the way, Pete Townshend screaming "Girls are fifteen, SEXUALLY KNOWING!" was a biting comment on the society of the day 35 years ago. When he did the song again in 2000 at the Royal Albert Hall, it was just creepy.

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Saturday, 26 July 2008


I was in London this afternoon, and was planning to come back the same way I usually do – getting the Tube to Finsbury Park, and catching a train from there. That didn't work today, because just as I got into the station announcements started being made about trains being delayed because a bus had hit a railway bridge.

"Fair enough," I thought. "You can't go sending trains over bridges when buses have just torn large lumps of masonry out of them." It seemed I was in for a long wait, unless I could figure out an alternative route.

Then the announcements came again. This time it was a little more specific - a bus had hit a railway bridge near Finsbury Park, so no trains could come in or out.

And then I looked up the tracks, and saw two trains sitting patiently about 200 metres away, lights on but not doing anything at all. The bridge in question was the one right outside the station.

So, in a chivalric and noble kind of way, I took part in that most ancient and beauteous of British traditions: popping outside to gawk at whatever carnage was currently going on.

Here's what I saw:

Looks rather like a boiled egg just before you dip your soldiers in, doesn't it?

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Thursday, 24 July 2008

Coming in as a close second: the smell of nightclubs

I'm pleased to say that there are very few things I hate. Obviously there are some; wars, genocide, the casual cruelty to the vulnerable that passes for entertainment among far too many people. Oh, and the hack-job that the producers of CSI: NY did on The Who's classic song Baba O'Riley. Even I have my limits.

There is one thing, though, that you probably wouldn't expect to see on most people's lists of things they passionately dislike. I find this odd, because it's an item that is incredibly unattractive, is universally acknowledged to be so, and is very widespread. It's the yellow sodium street light.

Street lighting has got much better over the years, and now the fashion seems to be for small, downward-pointing white lights. Unfortunately, every town of any size will be full of sodium lights, the steel columns shaped like droopy toothbrushes which cast a harsh, grainy yellow light outwards over the street. The first problem with these – and it's a fairly fundamental one – is that these lights don't really illuminate anything. Directly underneath them it's not so bad, but move any distance away and they do no more than slightly change the shadows.

If sodium lights do very little on the street, it seems to be because they save all their illuminating powers to light up people's houses. If you've ever lived in a house with one of these streetlights right outside, you'll know quite how horrible it is to walk into an unlit room at night and immediately be reminded of a motorway. Having such an unearthly colour projected into your personal living space is highly unpleasant.

That highlights another major problems with these things, actually: the light that they produce has qualities seen absolutely nowhere else in nature. Although the sun looks yellow, its light is very nearly completely white. Even in the late evening, it never reaches the lurid yellow of discharging electric current through sodium vapour. This light does strange things to your perception of colour. Red objects become black, light greens and yellows become indistinguishable from white, and yet because the light is so pervasive, your brain almost believes that it's normal. That gives you that horrible feeling that something is subtly but terribly wrong. It's most unpleasant.

(Incidentally, the fact that the light isn't as steady as it looks also helps to make it look strange. Spread your fingers and watch them as you wave them in front of a sodium light. You'll get the same "strobing" effect as if you wave them in front of a TV, and for the same reason: the light is flickering faster than you can detect, but not so fast that you can't tell that something's strange.)

The most fundamental reason for my hatred of sodium streetlights, though, is more social than anything. I grew up in a village which had almost no lighting anywhere. The only times I ever saw these lights when I was little was when I was either on a long car journey at night (and hence, I was tired and crabby) or in a big town late at night (and if you'd grown up anywhere near Colchester, you'd know why that would be a negative experience). Then there's the light pollution. If I went out into my back garden, I could look up at the sky and see a yellowish-pinkish glow over to the south (Colchester), one to the north (Ipswich) and one to the east (Felixstowe).

That's helped to associate the yellow, flickering light of sodium with the sense of being very small, very vulnerable, and surrounded. Add that to my being scared of most strangers by default, and I'm left absolutely convinced that I'm about to be mugged or screamed at or chased down the street by a bunch of psychopaths every time I walk down the street at night.

What can be done about it? Not a lot. Public constructions like that tend to last for far longer than they should, so we're going to see them around for a while. But perhaps eventually, someone might come up with a way of lighting towns at night that doesn't put me in mind of roving gangs of murderers. It's something to hope for, at least.

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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Next step: buy a Bluetooth GPS receiver. And CONQUER THE WORLD.

It's amazing how wide the definition of "geek" can really be. Just this last weekend, I was with some of my old friends from school, most of whom have gone down the "Magic: The Gathering" and/or D&D geek route. At work, it's much more the "I've reprogrammed my washing machine to cook a three-course meal" type.

And me? I like shiny gadgets.

That's the newest addition to my selection of shiny things. (Incidentally, if you got the reference in that photo you're another kind of geek altogether.) The N800 is a strange beast, not quite a phone, not quite an ultraportable laptop, certainly not the size it appears to be in that photo. It's larger than an iPhone, smaller than a paperback book, has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but no phone communications, gets a better wireless internet connection than my laptop, and manages to demonstrate effectively just how badly Facebook have screwed up their page layout.

Because it's based on Linux, the open source operating system (called Maemo) is very open and extensible. Indeed, if I were the Linux brand of geek, I'd be happily rewriting the kernel right now and tweaking various options. As it is, I've been happily downloading programs that other people have made, so I now have two bits of mapping software, two media players, an FM radio (which uses the headphone cable as an antenna - nifty bit of design there), a couple of games, and all manner of other things.

Although I could be writing this blog post on it, I'm not. That's because, cute and powerful though the N800 is, its text input does leave something to be desired. It's not really their fault - entering text on a touchscreen is difficult at the best of times, and on a tiny touchscreen it's even harder. They've done the best they could; the handwriting recognition is better than most I've seen, and the full-screen finger keyboard is superb. That said, if I was going to be writing anything of any length – like this post – I'd probably either write on another computer (like I'm doing) or SSH or VNC onto the N800 and use another computer's keyboard.

That's the other thing that makes it such a powerful little machine: its openness means it can interoperate with other machines very easily. With a USB cable in the side, it talks to my Windows machine perfectly well (it simply shows up as a USB drive); any type of server with a Linux implementation can be run on it, so it can communicate in practically any way. I nearly installed an FTP server on it the other day before seeing sense.

And, of course, because it has Linux it also comes with Python, the only programming language I'm remotely good at. I haven't done any coding for a while now (when it's your job to test bits of code, doing it in your free time loses its appeal somewhat), but I have several ideas on the table. Keep an eye out for new stuff soon.

I appreciate that this entire post has seemed like something of an advert for Nokia, but you can probably tell that I'm rather excited by this new and pretty thing. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I've stopped giggling.

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Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Summer in the City: A View From The Bridge

The summer seems to have gone walkabout, to judge by the rain we've been having these last few days, but that doesn't mean I can't look back to better, sunnier days. Like two weeks ago.

That's the River Thames, as seen from Tower Bridge. I appreciate that most photos from around this point are of Tower Bridge, but with a sky like that I had very little choice. (To be fair, about two minutes later I got the standard tourist shot of the bridge as well. It really is an amazing structure...)

I've fairly familiar with the Thames anyway, as it runs through Oxford as well. Of course, there it's called the Isis (because Oxford is naturally pretentious like that) and it's also a lot smaller. Even there, though, it's a lovely river, and it's great that the architects of London have seen fit to put a great selection of awesome buildings along it. On the evening that this photo was taken, I walked from Vauxhall Bridge to Tower Bridge (closest equivalent by road), just enjoying the evening sunshine on the weird selection of structures.

Go behind the cut to see one building that gets extra weird points...

"Kevin, you idiot! What the hell are we going to do with a gigantic roll of novelty 3-metre-wide NHS-branded parcel tape?"

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Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Marc Warren is also in this film. Punching James McAvoy in the face repeatedly. Seriously, that's all he does.

Just in case any of you were considering going out to see Wanted, the new action movie starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie, please take my advice – don't.

Now, that's not because it's not enjoyable. On the contrary, it's perfect summer fare, ideal for letting your brain cells atrophy while your eardrums are gently caressed by explosions and endless gunfire. This does not, however, save it from being without a doubt the most ridiculous film I have ever seen.

Let's start with the basics (and I am going to spoil pretty much every major plot point here, so if you must go and see it don't read on). The film is ostensibly about an ancient society of assassins, their quasi-mystical powers, and their mysterious machinations to do with our hero, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy). Poor Wes is a mess, with a dead-end job, a horrible boss, no money, no life and no prospects. It therefore doesn't take very long before he's happily training away as a super-mystical-assassin.

...wait. What? His life sucks, so therefore he's going to go and kill people? I have to say, pleasant though my life has been so far, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I would prefer to be a merciless hitman. Now, it's just about possible that if I had the right motivation – say, if I was told to hunt down major gangland bosses or something, for which I would be given vast amounts of cash and matching amounts would go towards alleviating child poverty in Africa – I might lean towards perhaps being persuaded. Let's see what motivation our Wes has, shall we?

Morgan Freeman shows him that cloth that he's just woven on a vastly oversized mechanical loom has a secret code with the names of people that he needs to go and kill.

Yes, that's all. Not only does the plot require us to believe that the ancient mystical society were bright enough to discover a binary system of encoding text in the weave of cloth, it also requires us to believe that they were stupid enough to take it seriously. Oh, and the massive, gaping plot hole? The one where Wesley should just have turned round and said "So who actually supervises the loom in this room that only you are ever allowed into?" The one where it should be painfully obvious that someone is deliberately encoding these names themselves?

Yeah, that one just swishes right past. So Wesley ends up on the roof of a train, curving a bullet through the window of an office block to shoot some poor businessman in the chest.

What's that? "Curving a bullet?" Oh yes, didn't I tell you about that? About halfway through his training, Wesley is taught how to make bullets swing round in curves. Now, I know that this is physically impossible. That's not a problem – people do impossible things in films all the time. The problem is that the scriptwriters were clearly too lazy to come up with a way of explaining this, handwaving it away as "using your instincts". In practice, that means that apparently, if you take careful aim with your gun, you'll have pretty good accuracy, but if you pull the gun out from behind your back, swing it wildly in the general direction of your target and pull the trigger, you'll pull off a perfect shot even if Angelina Jolie happens to be in the way.

Even this would be manageable, if it weren't compounded by some of the most jaw-droppingly silly stunts ever seen. Observe, as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart introduces a clip of one of the more ludicrous moments.

Do watch the rest of the interview as well. Obviously I disagree with Stewart on this one – I thought the film's silliness didn't manage to redeem the fact that it also sucked – but you really can't dispute that merely watching that clip made you marginally stupider.

Moving on, although the semblance of a plot rattles along fairly entertainingly, it goes completely off the rails at roughly the same time that an entire train also goes off the rails and plunges into a huge canyon in a blaze of spectacular but rather unconvincing CGI. Partly because Wesley is inside the train and somehow survives with little more than bruises, but mostly because it's at that point that the film reveals its Major Shock Twist™, which would be more shocking if it hadn't been stolen from The Empire Strikes Back. This leads into a denouement that, although brash, loud and violent, is also meandering and unconvincing.

At the end, there's a last-ditch attempt to convince the audience that the film was actually all about standing out from the crowd and making your life mean something, but unfortunately this is little more than a too-small figleaf on an ending that is actually surprisingly bleak. Rather than the violence (which is very graphic) having at least led to something important and worthwhile, the audience is left with a nasty taste in the mouth, and a feeling that this violence was more of an end than a means.

There are some good things about the film. McAvoy is excellent, especially in the accent department (I'd forgotten he was Scottish until I saw the interview above), as is Freeman, and Angelina Jolie at least makes for a pleasant viewing experience, even if she's a little stilted. And, as I said before, it is fairly enjoyable, most of the time at least.

The reason I would advise against going to see it, though, is that you really don't need to. You've seen the violence before in other, better films. You've seen stunts as daft as this, if only in a Looney Tunes short. And you've seen all of these actors in much better films (with the possible exception of Jolie, for whom this is a major step up). Most importantly, though, you need only wait a couple of years, and this film will end up where it really belongs - at 9pm on a Wednesday evening on Channel 5.

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