May 21 2007


I went to the holiday camp music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties this weekend. It was held at Butlins in the beautiful and frighteningly remote Minehead in Somerset. It was the first time I’ve been to an ATP event, and I can now appreciate what people meant about the incongruity of a moody rock drawl going on between a Burger King and Butlins’ brightly-coloured hot chocolate boutique.

Musically the line-up was pretty interesting, but I think I missed a good deal of the best acts. I saw The Books, who seemed a little hesitant and overwhelmed compared to their stunning live show in Bristol last year, and Mogwai who did the Big Noise the same as they ever do. I was charmed and then bored by Cornelius, and was a little disappointed by Battles, who seemed to have some kind of malfunction with their maths, ending the set early.

I particularly enjoyed Alexander Tucker, who I’d not heard before, as well as Isis, who fused post-rock and roared metal vocals to entertaining body-nodding effect. Best of all were Grizzly Bear (rapturous and intensely melodic) and Slint, who were an effortlessly cool stage presence with tremendous orchestration of guitar noise. Their track ‘Washer’ seemed to be a musical fulcrum to the entire weekend.

Oh yes – Shellac were fucking awesome.

I want to make some kind of clever comment about the whole event and its congress of alternative styles, but the truth is that I’m just too tired, and need to go for a walk in the park.

Hello to people I briefly met up with – I hope you all had fun too!

May 21 2007

Spy Drone

BBC News:

The UK’s first police remote control helicopter has taken off.

Merseyside police are using the “spy drone”, fitted with CCTV cameras, mainly for tackling anti-social behaviour and public disorder.

May 16 2007

The Exploration Game

Clint Hocking was interviewed by Gamasutra, and he talked about exploration as an activity-in-itself within games:

Spatial exploration isn’t mandatory. It’s not required in any game. It’s a certain play style and a certain type of player who’s interested in playing in that way. There are ways to design to support that well and ways to do it badly. I think it’s pretty clear which games do it well. Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, they make players who might not even be that kind of player become interested in the act of self-motivated exploration.

I sometimes wish it was mandatory. Exploring has has long been one of the most important things for me in gaming. Elite, Midwinter, Armourgeddon, Outcast – there’s been a history of games I’ve wanted to play just to wander around in their landscapes. I often play games just to see the architecture. I was a tourist in Everquest 2, and couldn’t play Dark Age Of Camelot because the buildings were too dull. The main reason I log into Second Life is to fly around looking at peculiar structures and half-finished castles in the sky. I would quite happily have played World Of Warcraft if it had been an empty landscape with nothing to do but wander around exploring. In fact, I would probably have enjoyed that even more. (It would be interesting to take WoW’s landscape and create a ‘living world’ mod, where it is simply a place populated with AI and basic ecosystems, rather than being the backdrop for sets of linear quests. It could be an alternative MMO world based on the same space. Blizzard themselves could do that – WoW as a pure trade sim, complete with cartography, trade routes, travel plans, etc.)

I think the reason I liked Oblivion was that I could just poke about in the woods and discover little shacks in the middle of nowhere. So few games offer that – Stalker does, to some extent, yet still I wish Stalker had been larger, emptier, and spookier. The number of baddies was still too high, and the ‘battle’ post-brain scorcher just didn’t interest me at all. I wanted to explore that enormous terrain at my leisure, not be hustled through under constant barrage.

One of the major disappointments of Eve Online, recently, was that “exploration” as an activity didn’t really love up to its name. There was much more genuine exploration when the galaxy was littered with random asteroids and dust clouds. I’d like more detail like that to have been burned into the world, whereas a semi-instanced system was created that lingered for a few days and then disappeared. If you did manage to find anything, then it was never really there, and therefore never really explored. One of the joys of Eve was finding interesting systems, or obscure things left over by the dev team – an unusual space station built into an asteroid, or two space stations around the same moon, for example. (Eve players will know what I’m blabbing about here, sorry…)

Anyway, I think Hocking is right, that exploration of many different kinds is an important concept for understanding games. But purely spatial exploration, the idea of just exploring for the hell of it, doesn’t seem to be well catered for. Perhaps we explorers are in a minority. But I know we’re out there (so to speak), and I recall vividly flying out to a pointless remote island during the early beta of Planetside, only to find another person stood there on the rock. He’d gone out there because he could, because it was there. There was no gaming reason to be out there, we had both just happened to want to see it, perhaps because we might have been the only people to do so.

Would anyone pay for a game that was created in the name of aimless wandering tourism? Could anything in a game world be interesting enough just to go and look at? I wonder what the minimum threshold of activity, the minimum amount of danger and challenge a virtual landscape has to offer to be considered a game?

May 16 2007

Mystery Music

The search for information about an unknown record:

In 1970, ’71, and ’72, back when the terms “underground FM” and “free-form radio” were first putting dollar signs in the eyes of the major label executives, comedy group Firesign Theatre were on the air on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles doing live radio improv.

It was wild, Dadaist stuff. While the group did their improv, their engineer The Live Earl Jive could throw just about anything he wanted into the mix, from random sound effects records to The Lone Ranger theme to ragas.

They never back-announced anything, and the boys in Firesign barely remember the series at all, so when fans listen to those 35-year-old airchecks today they’re confronted with some amazingly anonymous pop nuggets, tantalizing enough even in snippet form to keep the hip record collectors crate-diving their local thrift stores for months.

One especially intriguing record, which I’m going to find if it kills me, was used as underscore at least four times.

Via BoingBoing.

May 16 2007


BBC News:

The government is being called on to stop a rail operator from putting up fares by up to 20%.

The rise on South West Trains (SWT) from Sunday affects services coming into London after the rush-hour “peak”.

The Liberal Democrats have tabled a Commons motion condemning the increase as “excessive” and calling for a review of the regulation of rail fares.

Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander has said he is limited in what he can do as only peak fares are regulated.

The SWT rise means passengers will not get off-peak discounts until much later in the morning.

Can someone explain to me why it makes sense for train journeys to be so expensive? Also, why do foreign travellers from EVERY NATION ON EARTH snort and laugh in disbelief when they learn how much our train fares are?

May 14 2007

Memory Prosthesis

Extensive transcript of a talk by Charles Stross on the future and the unintended side-effects of technology:

Today, I can pick up about 1Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card for that much money. fast-forward a decade and that’ll be 100Gb. Two decades and we’ll be up to 10Tb.

10Tb is an interesting number. That’s a megabit for every second in a year — there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That’s enough to store a live DivX video stream — compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution — of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry — a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send — onto that chip, while I’m awake. All the time. It’s a life log; replay it and you’ve got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017. (Cheaper if we use those pesky rotating hard disks — it’s actually about five thousand euros if we want to do this right now.)

Why would anyone want to do this?

I can think of several reasons. Initially, it’ll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it’d be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it’s a memory prosthesis.

Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it’s all indexed and searchable. “What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?”

Think of it as google for real life.

Thanks to Dan for the link.

May 14 2007

Their Profession

A not-so-old JG Ballard observation:

But now politics has lost its will, and may even have reached its close, absorbed into consumerism and public relations. Perhaps elections and the ballot box are little more than a folkloric ritual, along with parliament itself. Like university lecturers and psychiatrists, politicians may incidentally do some good, but their real loyalty is to themselves and their profession. The chief function of election campaigns is to convince us that politics and politicians are still important.

May 13 2007

Crackpot Whim

BBC News:

This is the context Scientology will not tell you about. I have met too many good people who say Scientology was founded by a liar, L Ron Hubbard; that it attacks its critics without mercy; and the celebrities who endorse it have not the foggiest idea what it is really like.

Take “Rosemary”, who is an ordinary mum and lives in England. She had two children and one died. Her surviving daughter was also her best friend. Then her daughter joined Scientology and her mother saw less and less of her.

Almost two years ago she received a “disconnect” – a letter cutting her mother out of her life totally.

Rosemary received no Christmas cards, no birthday cards, no Mother’s Day cards.

Rosemary said Scientology was a cult. It was one of the most moving and shocking interviews I have ever done.

Out of the blue, three hours after we left, her daughter came round for the first time in almost two years seeking a reconciliation. The next day she begged her mum not to use the interview. So we won’t.

Reminded me of Charlie Brooker:

Scientology is a spoof religion followed by several high-profile Hollywood stars, every single one of whom is doing it for a bet just to see how long they can fool Tom Cruise.

Advanced followers of Scientology believe an alien ruler called Xenu brought his people to Earth 75m years ago, gathered them round a volcano and obliterated them with a series of nuclear blasts; their displaced souls are responsible for many of mankind’s ills.

This is hilariously implausible and richly deserving of open derision, unlike, say, the belief that a man who got nailed to a couple of planks more than 2,000 years ago is your best friend and saviour.

When not being laughed at, Scientology is viewed with suspicion; many members of the public consider it a sinister cult hell-bent on gathering as much money, power, and influence as possible, unlike all other religious movements, every single one of which deserves forelock-tugging respect and unquestioning indulgence of its every crackpot whim.

May 11 2007

Tiger! Tiger!

Warren Ellis’ latest column regarding Second Life is worth reading. Ellis is capturing the true essence of this semi-gestated beast:

I start jumping to clubs. The Velvet, in Iron Fist, is empty. I find three miserable naked men in a sex club looking for a mistress to savage their little avatars. A vast vampire-themed club with not even the undead laying around. A space station that feels like it’s re-enacting the final days of Mir, all the service modules undocked and waiting to be deorbited. A massive replica of a STAR TREK Starfleet vessel with all hands missing, shipwrecked seven hundred meters up. A Zen temple chill-out zone with not a devotee to be seen. Again and again I teleport, like Gully Foyle in the last pages of THE STARS MY DESTINATION, and, for a while there I wish that I, like he, had bombs to scatter. But there’s no one here to receive them.

May 11 2007

Options Magic

So there I was cursing Windows Vista for demolishing the frame rate on Stalker. What had run adequately on this very same system was now unplayable – the only variable being the shiny new operating system. And so I began crude tactic I decided to play around with Stalker’s ‘advanced’ tab. ‘Advanced’ comes complete with many intriguing sliders like ‘grass density’ and ‘dog width’ (not really), and so changing lighting modes and texture qualities might, I imagined, earn me a few frames per second, and a playable experience.

The yard in which my Stalker stood travelled back and forth through years of videogame graphics, from the fastest, smoothest, crudest flatness of lightsource-free environments, to a ludicrously lavish no-frames per-second static image rendered at some frighteningly high resolution. Then, as if by magic, I set it back to what I assumed was close to the original settings, and Lo, it was running at a steady 40fps. I upped the resolution and some of the detail sliders: and there was no discernable drop in quality. It was as if had fixed a broken motor simply by shifting it back and forth into various inappropriate gears. It had resemble a clapped out Trabant, and now it was a purringly smooth sports sedan.

I used to pretend that I understood how PCs worked, but it’s clear that with each passing year they become more like some kind of complex biological system. Not a machine that you can peer into and understand, but a mass of ultra-sophisticated material that might as well be magic for all I can discern about the inner logic of its workings. PC games graphics options: I love you, you scare me.