Jun 27 2007

The Ghost Of Art Tatum

Jun 25 2007

Headline Of The Day

New Scientist:

Moon-based lasers could uncover exotic physics


Jun 22 2007

The Invasion

I wrote this piece two years ago but it was never printed, thanks to lamentable publishing failures that were well out my control. I was reminded of it by this post over on GameSetWatch, which charts ‘Oh my God’ moments in gaming. As I wrote the article there was, ongoing, one of the largest actions I’d seen in Eve at the time. Thousands of players were involved in taking territory from a player alliance called ‘The Five’. It was a surprise attack co-ordinating huge fleets over a 48-hour period, an action which resulted in months of conflict for my home alliance. It was incredibly exciting, and even though I’d seen some huge fleet battles by that time, it was that weekend that cemented my ‘Oh my God’ feeling about events in that game. It was a truly epic experience, and one of the multitude of events that finally brewed the vast “red versus blue” war that Eve now finds itself embroiled in.

Those of you familiar with these kinds of games will have read much of this material before, but I wanted to post it up here as a kind of record of why the game kept me hooked for the following two years. I would probably write quite a different piece today.

In space, no one can hear you scheme.

Good thing too, because intrigue permeates the space-war obscurity Eve Online to the core. By this I mean genuine gunpowder plots, players versus player, where betrayal and revenge are habitual. Just recently a group of assassins (real players, playing characters in the game) executed a plot some ten months in the making. They ‘killed’ another successful player, claimed a bounty, and looted the equivalent of around US$16,000 of game resources. Equivalent, that is, to what you might get if you auctioned off such virtual resources on Ebay.

Eve is a massively multiplayer game, utilising similar technology to Ultima Online or Everquest to put thousands of people in a game together. It’s a shared experience in which millions of man hours are ploughed into developing the careers of imaginary starship pilots. Compared to the rich worlds of your out-of-the-box fantasy role-play, Eve is sparse, although tactically complex. Instead of handing out quests and stories, it simply gives you a spaceship and kicks you out into the universe. “Get on with it!” says the game. And so we did. We went after the most interesting thing in the game: other people. Continue reading

Jun 22 2007

Frank Discussion

Comrade Meer points out Bill O’Reilly getting embarrassed by a sixteen year-old on live TV. Ah, sweetness.

Jun 20 2007

Ghosts Of The Future

I had planned for the first new piece of philosophy-related writing to appear on here to be about my personal interest in the work of the recently deceased American academic Richard Rorty, but instead I’m going to talk about Steven Shaviro’s book Connected (Or, What It Means To Live In The Network Society), because it is fresh in my mind and causing me take notes, purchase obscure movies, and think about reading more science fiction. I’ve been meaning to read Connected for a long time, and Amazon took four months to deliver when I finally got around to ordering it.

I should point out that although Shaviro’s cultural critiquing in Connected takes much of its source material from comics, film, and science fiction, it is not exactly pop or altogether approachable. This is a book that intersects with many aspects of culture, including the work of difficult writers such as Deleuze and Guattari, and potent philosophers such as Spinoza, Kant and Marx. You don’t need to be familiar with all these bearded types to take something from this book, but Shaviro is a critic whose work is probably going to appeal to readers with a wide culture vocabulary. Shaviro’s own vocabulary is seemingly boundless – observations about experimental hip-hop and postmodernism all come tumbling out, to be analysed, developed, and interwoven with other conceptual nuggets. All these topics are, of course, somehow (speculatively) connected.

Like JG Ballard’s experimental novella The Atrocity Exhibition, Connected is written as a series of headlined paragraphs, each containing a thought or analysis of its own. Although there are large themes moving across the book there are no chapters: it simply steps from Ballard to Baudrillard, from Transmetropolitan to The Critiques, all delivered as casually as if these were a route anyone might take through the jungle of Western culture. The theme is connection, the network, capitalist control, and the ideas that cause our world to ‘flow’. For Shaviro, the network is simply all of modern society, with its conversation and gossip, images and jingles, television shows and games, automobiles and carrier pigeons. We’re all caught up in it, and not just by virtue of telephones and the internet.

Science fiction is key to illuminating these themes and Shaviro’s master text is KW Jeter’s fierce cyberpunk opus, Noir, to which he returns again and again as he attempts to illustrate what it is to be connected. This is a fascinating study of a neglected work of science fiction, which itself is filled with political prophesying and darkly futuristic philosophizing. Noir is evidently a rich and troubled work, and one that has some striking things to say about creativity, copyright and reality itself. Shaviro’s capacity to identify and analyse great lost works, such as Misha’s Red Spider White Web, makes Connected an intriguing and (thanks to some out-of-print texts) infuriating read. (Why didn’t I know about this stuff before!?) But it also makes it a striking work of science fiction criticism, which draws out elements from those works that are useful or innovative.

Connected is also a portrait of the tools science fiction offers us in understanding the predicament that we find ourselves in today. They are, Shaviro reveals, equal to the ideas provided by writers and artists of all kinds, including philosophers past and present. Shaviro links and analyses Abel Ferrera, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Octavia Butler, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Philip K. Dick, George Romero, William Gibson, Ken MacLeod, China Mieville, Thomas Pynchon, Bruce Sterling, David Cronenberg, Terrence McKenna, and Ridley Scott. The effect is slightly dizzying. Hurtling through the rustic French countryside last weekend, reading this book and then looking out of the coach window to see the silvery, ribbed form of a SmartCar disappearing through the hedgerows, gave me existential shivers. The future seems relentless and right here, all the time, especially when you’re reading Shaviro’s poetical paragraphs. His observations and speculations are often pessimistic and routinely unsettling, but compelling and insistent – making Connected a simultaneously thrilling and worrying book to read.

But Shaviro still does more than simply outline science fiction’s “ghosts of the future” created in literature to “haunt” the uncanny world we now live in. His writing provides more interesting ways to think about modern culture than I can possible detail here. As you can see from the list in the last paragraph, much of what Shaviro has to talk about comes from a swathe of writers whose outlook is bleak and foreboding, but it also speaks of the complexity of contemporary life. From migrating birds to psychedelic drugs, the source materials for understanding the network are various, intriguing, and often unexpected. Shaviro explains how the term “virtua”, as we currently use it, should probably be equated or replaced with the term “prosthetic”. He correlates the effects of DNA, LSD, money, and electronic data, and of the themes and meanings of cyberpunk and Film Noir. But most importantly, he identifies how the network, and the fundamental architecture of capitalism that dominates it, destroys our creativity and limits our freedom. He examines the power of the network on our lives, on the ways that surveillance contains and controls us, and the way that science fiction has tried to rescue us by way of allegories and warnings.

I think Shaviro does get a little carried away with the idea that technology encompasses us, ending up with near scare-tactic statements such as “today, the technosphere, or the mediascape, is the only nature we know”, but nevertheless he writes in the kind of informed yet fragmentary and non-linear manner that seems appropriate for the kind of reader he is trying reach (and at the same time portray). He also seems to illuminate the nature of the true subject matter of the network: information.

It is the nature of information, its transformative capacity and immateriality that really seem to lie at the heart of what it means to live in the network society. Shaviro has many warnings for us (usually from the science fiction writers and the philosophers) about what this nature might entail. The warning that I took from this book, rightly or wrongly, is that information and the control of information will ultimately define many of our life’s experiences. What it means to live in the network society, or modern society generally, is that the qualitative aspects of being human are going to be controlled largely by the flow of information. Just how being human seems and feels is going to be less and less up to us and our animal natures, if the network has its way. If there is any optimistic glow on the horizon then it is in human imagination, and in the satisfaction we can take from subverting, remixing and loving through the network.

Anyway, my girlfriend grows angry with my late-night information laundering and I must conclude. Connected is a rich, dense book that provides plenty to worry about and even more to be interested in. It’s one of those books that seems off-putting thanks some of its pretensions, but it is nevertheless sublimely clued-in and almost impossibly well informed. The Marxist bent and general theoretical juggling make it tricky terrain, but satisfying to traverse. And like the science fiction technologies that it invokes Shaviro’s book provides some new ways to see the world, and some new ways to investigate its abyssal, fractal depth.

Jun 20 2007

So, so tired

Yesterday we woke at 4:30AM to travel home from a lakeside camp (weirdly like an Animal Crossing village) somewhere in the south west of France, and finally stumbled home into our house in Bath around 11pm. Waking up today it’s all I can do to try make tea and feebly browse. Having done little more than sit on various forms of transport, I feel very tired indeed.

Moment of the weekend was probably standing by the lake, on a beach, under the stars, with people building a fire, Boards Of Canada playing, and bumping into someone who had a glow-worm on a leaf.

That and seeing my best friend very happy indeed. Aww.

Jun 13 2007

10,430 km/h

A rocket sled hitting a wall at 10,430 km/h.

Jun 12 2007

So Long, American Pragmatist

Stanford News:

Richard Rorty, a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Stanford and public intellectual who is perhaps best known for revitalizing the philosophical school of American pragmatism, died Friday, June 8, at his home on the university campus. He was 75.

Rorty was the philosopher who enabled me to complete my degree in philosophy. Like many contemporary students of the subject I found his work approachable and humane. He was a philosopher who articulated the subject for me and captured my interest and imagination. I immersed myself in his ideas for a very long time, and reading his work provided me with access to a subject that I had previously found oblique and unhelpful. I’m now comfortable with reading philosophy for pleasure and self-edification, and I have this American pragmatist to thank for that. (I can’t say that I actually adhere to the same pragmatist ideals as him, but that’s beside the point.)

I’ve been wanting to blog about philosophy for a long time now, but haven’t made the effort. I shall do so soon. And I shall start off by writing about Richard Rorty.

Jun 12 2007

Much Of His Time

BBC News on a tragic event:

He said the defendant was a “loner and fantasist” who spent much of his time playing computer games and surfing the internet to fuel his interest in serial killers, knives, racism and pornography.

These things, of course, go hand in hand.

Jun 10 2007

Nerd Favour + Awe

Can you lot download the Bandits: Phoenix Rising demo and tell me whether that’s the best vehicular combat control method for mouse and keyboard, or not.

Also, from the same developer, Grin, was the ludicrously fast Ballistics. Which I hadn’t realised came in an arcade cabinet version:

Grin make the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter games now. Those franchise shooters very beautiful and proficient, but decidedly sterile when compared to Grin’s first two, original, games.