May 31 2005

Galactic Pollination

“From bacterium to galactic God.” Will Wright might be hard pressed to come up with a marketing line beyond this summary of his project, but if people get to see it moving then I don’t think any amount of marketing hyperbole is going to matter. You might have read some descriptions of Spore already, but that’s not enough. You need see it moving too. Go and watch this hour long presentation and no skipping: watch the whole thing. I guarantee you will be breathless and amazed.

“One of the rules is to not mix genres. But I’ve always want to break that rule. Really badly.” The delicious hour is packed with Wright’s perceptive intelligence and clear mandate to create something that finally consolidates the ideas that were mapped (if not fulfilled) by Populous, Civilisation and The Sim games. As Gillen points out, it is Spore, and not Doom 3, that really fulfils our youthful imaginings of what games should be like post-2005. Tactical, creative, playful and powered by pollination of ideas, through the web, from the imaginations of other players. Wright’s presentation shows how simple concepts generate incredible complexity. Spore is fluid, modular, to the point of “procedural mating.” It ramps up geometrically, to cuteness and immensity.

Of course it’s easy to say that we could have arrived here sooner, if there were more people who had been lucky enough to gain the financial successes of Wright. He’s had SimCity and The Sims, and now is going on to create something truly impressive only because he is a dead-cert gamble for the suits. It’s easy for him to urge others to do likewise, but when companies like Introversion are only just breaking even after something as neatly inspired as Darwinia, what hope do the lesser creatives really have?

Cynicism aside, Spore is genuinely, breathtakingly wondrous. Wright’s epic vision, coupled with a startlingly pragmatic understanding of how players want and need to make their own content (their creatures, buildings, cities, and vehicles allowed to emerge through modular editing systems and smart procedural mathematics) results in dramatic decompression. Finally, something that exhibits, on all levels, the evolving, terraforming, world-destroying, mad brilliance that all games hint at but few genuinely fulfill. At the current time, no one else can match this. Go and watch it happen.

May 31 2005

Rocket Scavengers

Via Slashdot/science: a remarkable photo-essay recording the scrap-metal dealers of Kazakhstan, who trade the material from abandoned rocket booster stages that have fallen to Earth across their farmland.

May 31 2005

Frances Farmer’s Brain

From an article by Raj Persaud in The British Medical Journal:

Yet the popular media view of psychosurgery, reinforced by its portrayal in Ken Kesey’s film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Frances, the 1982 biopic about the life of the rebellious movie and stage actress Frances Farmer, is that doctors chose particular patients to operate on precisely because they wanted to crush their spirit. A disturbing scene in Frances shows a balding and goateed psychiatrist, who closely resembled Walter Freeman, performing an “ice pick” lobotomy at Western State Hospital on the supine heroine. The film turned Frances Farmer into a well known symbol of the excesses of the procedure—a patient supposedly selected for her nonconformist political opinions and who was operated on only with the consent of her vindictive mother, who colluded with doctors in using the procedure to vanquish her soul and spirit.

But as Jack El-Hai points out in this meticulously researched account, it’s extremely unlikely that Frances was an accurate portrayal of the psychiatric treatment Farmer actually received. The author can find no reliable record in the hospital’s accounts of its operations that anyone fitting Farmer’s description ever received the procedure. Also, given Farmer’s personal accomplishments after her release from the institution—marrying, regularly hosting a TV programme in Indianapolis, and appearing on This is Your Life—combined with Freeman’s compulsive pursuit of his patients to accumulate evidence of the benefits of his controversial procedure, it seems odd that the neurosurgeon would neglect to record or mention what would have been his most celebrated success story.

EDIT: J.M. Kauffman points out his own extensive research, here.

May 28 2005

Blues Beef

Last night was an evening that reconfirmed what I love about Bath. Few places are so beautifully transformed by a good summer. The essence of the place is such that a disused parking lot outside a Gala Bingo hall is somehow revealed (denatured by sunlight) as one of the most comfortable places on Earth. I was satisfied enough that the bar which supplies this place in the sun serves Corona with a slice of lime, but the realisation that it now also sells fine pizzas for under a fiver added last night to the great list-in-the-sky of perfect, warm, heartening evenings that I’ve spent getting slowly drunk with friends.

We’d had one of those all-day meetings about games that makes PC GAMER such a pleasure to work for. We all shout at Kieron, he shouts at us, and then we all shout at each other. Someone says something rude about Ross’ taste in beardiness and everyone is happy. Games are enjoyed and Deus Ex is exulted and insulted. I didn’t leave a pubside outside-seating arrangement for nearly twelve hours. I’m not saying that this is the only reason to be a freelance writer. But it is a reason.

Yeah, summer in the valley is going to be sweet. I have a sun-trap of a garden and a fridge full of beers. I’ve also just managed to cook up a near-perfect rump steak, served with some fresh tomatos and basil and a mustard mash. The cats are going crazy with jealousy. The sound track of the summer, I think, is going to be Robert ‘King of the Delta Blues’ Johnson, the voodoo-powered guitar man. Sold his soul for musical skills, apparently. I’d sell mine for some more of that excellent grilled beef.

May 26 2005

Space Camp

We’re already living in a post-space culture. But some people will not let it lie:

“The promise that space travel will one day become as cheap, as safe, and as mind-numbingly tedious as air travel will inspire millions of youngsters to dedicate their lives to science and engineering, SpaceShipOne Master and Commander Burt Rutan apparently believes. Today’s young lack the inspiration of heroic figures like Yuri Gagarin, Alan Sheppard, Chuck Yeager, and others who flew rickety junkers to the outer edge of acceptable risk and came back to talk about it, Rutan suggested during a Washington press conference last week. After ridiculing NASA’s appalling cowardice in creating “an environment in which we right now don’t have the courage to go back to [repair] the Hubble telescope,” and noting that NASA’s profound risk-aversion has actually made leaving the atmosphere more dangerous than it used to be, Rutan suggested that gutsy entrepreneurs like himself can revive a dormant sense of hero worship among children and so lead them to productive careers in aerospace engineering.”

May 26 2005

It’s A Miracle!

Even as America’s scientists make advances in palaeontology, astronomy and physics that appear to disprove creationism, Gallup surveys have shown that about 45 per cent of Americans believe the Earth was created by God within the past 10,000 years. It is not just creationism either. Last week NBC’s Dateline current affairs programme, equivalent to the BBC’s Newsnight, investigated miracles. It concluded some could be real. It is hard to imagine Jeremy Paxman taking this stance.

Religious faith: that special kind of stupidity. The Guardian visits Arkansas’ Creationist Museum.

(Cheers, Pete.)

May 25 2005

ID Cards

You are going to have to pay for an ID card that has no proven benefits out of your own pocket. This is the Labour government’s most inane and autocratic project. It is legislation made not for greater utility in your life, but instead to justify the egos of politicians. Sign the petition. Write to your MP. Do whatever you can.

I, for one, am digging the escape tunnel.

May 25 2005

Brevity Is Not Its Own Reward

Somehow, despite repeatedly wanting to cast A.C. Grayling’s essaying miscellany The Mystery of Things back into the pile of books I shouldn’t have bothered with, I’ve ended up talking about it to anyone who will listen. Perhaps that was inevitable, given its scope. Grayling covers so much ground and remarks on so many things that you can’t help but be exposed to something that glimmers in your imagination. It doesn’t quite cover the mystery of all things, or even mystery – much of the historical and scientific material contained in Grayling’s book is inherently unmysterious – but nevertheless it appeals to the compulsive generalist in me.

Writers are, a clever man once observed, most often interested in only interest itself. They are the compulsive omnivores of culture, habitual generalists. Grayling is one such fellow and even goes out of his way to point out that, despite being an academic philosopher during the day, he still has plenty of tendrils creeping into the many orifices of cultural relevance when he’s off-duty. What he has to say, it seems, should be of interest to everyone. He’s a jack-of-all-trades and, usefully, a master of philosophy too.

But after grazing, cow-like, on Grayling’s multifarious musings for a while, I began to wonder just who he thought he talking to. The Mystery of Things covers much that must seem mysterious to a middle-aged Englishman with a short attention span. Hitler and World War II pop up a few times, as does quantum physics, aspects of the brain, Left Wing social philosophy, alien abductions, and the Rosetta Stone. Each one is given a cursory dusting down, wrapped up in some quasi-factual verbiage, before being set upon the mantelpiece of brief consideration. Little of what Grayling has written seems to really get to meat of things and few of his remarks demonstrate the kind of acuity of thought so vital to a strongman of philosophy. The mysteries are, it seems, of the kind that it is unnecessary to properly investigate. They are, instead, pointed out from afar before we are hurried on to the next exhibit.

This is a cursory tome and Grayling is right in arguing that this can sometimes be a useful approach, although perhaps for another writer, on other subjects, in another book entirely. Grayling’s essays are often downbeat and regularly awkward. Although apparently interested in Bill Burroughs as a perceptive old man, Grayling delivers a lacklustre analysis of the beats, and supposes that Burroughs might have been more useful if it hadn’t been for that nasty drug business. I’m revealing my own bias of course, but it’s safe to say that I don’t agree with this ill-considered mumble. In fact, I’m rather annoyed that Grayling said anything it all about the Old Junksman. There’s nothing much mysterious about Bill, and there’s certainly little reason to believe that he’d have been of any interest to anyone if he hadn’t been a drug addict, a homosexual and a manslaughterer.

Many (although not all) of Grayling’s essays gently burble with this lack of insight. Other writers might not have tried to sum up life’s mysteries in 600-word bundles, but their betrayal of brevity often means that they actually get at what makes their subjects interesting. Perhaps the lesson here is: have patience, good things will come of it. Because of his ambition to keep it all short and sharp, Grayling often fails to convey what is really interesting (or mysterious) about ‘things’.

May 24 2005

Land of The Dead

Police media stunt of a ‘holy shit the future is insane’ variety:

A 60ft high picture of a murdered prostitute has been projected onto a derelict block of flats in Glasgow.

Detectives hope it will help to turn up clues about the death of Emma Caldwell, whose body was found in woods in South Lanarkshire on 8 May.

The image was displayed for four hours on the multi-storey flats in Cumberland Street, Hutchesontown on Monday night.

Police said the site had been chosen as it was visible across areas frequented by Emma and other prostitutes.

The picture, which shows Ms Caldwell half smiling but looking gaunt on a family day out in the countryside, was released by police last week.

BBC News

May 23 2005

Land of The Brave

Holiday, my first in many years, was taken on the Isle of Shuna. The holiday blogging is to be illustrated by the photography of master stubble-farmer, Alec Meer. (Urban decay photos by Amanda Ricaud.)

Twelve travellers stayed in this house:

We enjoyed this view:

And this one:

We explored these ruins:

And the grounds of this wrecked 1920s mansion:

It’s not really a castle.

And it needs a bit of work on the interior:

Then we had a rest.

In conclusion: chopping down trees is good, manly work. I recommend it.