And a Bottle of Rum: Why People Become Bloodthirsty Pirates

“It’s impossible to compete with free.” says interim president of the MPAA Bob Pisano in an article on Ars Technica.

This statement, while punchy and beneficial to the cause of anti-piracy groups worldwide, implies an identical product or service is being provided. Is the experience of Netflix the same as the experience of uTorrent?

Ordering an obscure dish from overseas was an uncommon practise in the age of Michael Cera and Jack Black

Let’s start at the beginning. Tribes and early civilizations had very particular diets, depending on where they settled (or roamed). Some diets were heavier in gamey meat, others stronger in fruits and nuts, and this lack of variety marked the differences between cultures in a profound way.

As caravans gave way to wagons and people started being able to traverse the seas in search of strange and foreign wonders, the luxury of goods unseen by local folks became big business. In fact, it became political. If you think the West’s meddling in the Middle East over oil is a trivial cause for war, consider that the entire Minoan civilization was wiped out over its primary international trade good: olives.

This demand people had for the strange and new was marked as a status symbol. The wealthiest were always the first to receive the exotic and adventurous travellers and explorers of their time, with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh and Marco Polo lavishing the crown with the strangest of treasures. The quantity of cultural artifacts possessed, food consumed and phenomena observed (directly or indirectly) from foreign lands dictated one’s status. As such, the kings and queens were the first and most lavishly endowed icons upon any worthy travellers’ return.

What exactly is different today?

Brewster Kahle - digitising the world one podium at a time.

In 2008, Brewster Kahle gave a talk at TED describing the cost of his effort to create a digital library along the same lines as the Great Library of Alexandria with one key difference: its storage facility being duplicable and ephemeral prevented its being able to be physically destroyed.

“We really need to put the best we have to offer in reach of our children.” begins Kahle. “If we don’t do that, we’re gonna get the generation we deserve. They’re going to learn from whatever it is they have around them.” At first thought, this final statement that children will learn from their environment seems like it may be anachronistic in an age where the internet provides access to almost any information one seeks (and especially given the nature of Kahle’s project). What it points to, however, is a truth Kahle isn’t attempting to describe: that our age of acquisition is being enveloped by an age of taste.

From birth, it's all there.

Consider for a moment, the wealth of information readily available to each person sitting and reading this blog right now. From learning a new language to virtual tours of the most exquisite museums, from every classic film ever made (you can stream them legally here) to surprise masturbation on Chatroulette. (I’m perhaps not at my most imaginative today) The mobility of people, the transmission of information and the multicultural nature of societies all combine to prove the point that anything we are curious about, we can find a way to consume.

The ability to consume is no longer our primary driver. The ability to consume endlessly is within the grasp of almost all of the developed world. Now the ability is a given and the specifics of a person’s consumption are on trial, rather than mere proof that they have consumed. Passing someone on the street who is sporting a gold necklace to indicate their ability to generate wealth is less of a gesture than the ridiculously pompous garments worn by the aristocracy during the Elizabethan era. The reason for the mellowing out of aesthetic displays is that the assumption of general wealth can be made more easily and confidently today than it could then. The person you pass in the street needn’t wear their status on their sleeve, as survival is no longer a luxury and proof positive that you are able to survive is accordingly no longer a matter of necessity.

You can't buy taste...

Today, how one showcases their cultural appetites and tastes must be revealed in the more subtle art of conversation. Appearing wealthy (and being wealthy) does not automatically grant one taste. The battlefield of good taste we all find ourselves on has flattened somewhat, with the ‘wealth’ of variety no longer being exclusively possessed by the wealthy. (Although I concede that access to variety of culture doesn’t automatically create a drive to experience culturally rich things, hence Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son.)

The drive to consume specific items and to proudly be able to discuss your enjoyment of them renders small libraries of ‘big’ films redundant for those wanting to exercise their cultural appetites a little and seek out obscure films. The gift of duplication and transmission of culture leaves those with the desire to consume little choice other than to break whatever rules they have to in order to consume the culture they desire. Why would a person wait for Waking Life to come out in region 4 on DVD when they could download it? Why would anyone pay $8.95 for a copy of Double Indemnity on DVD when it’s free and legal to consume it online? Why would a person wait for the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire to air in their country when it becomes available immediately after airing in the US (especially when it costs money to buy TiVo so you don’t have to be at home at a specific time for the ‘privilege’ of viewing the desired programming which is littered with ads)? Why would anyone pay to stream a film when their internet has been playing up a little when piracy offers the ability to buffer the entire thing and store it on the hard drive before watching?

...but the presence of amazing culture doesn't negate shite.

The downloaded film offers the consumer complete control. The ability to duplicate it, watch it as many times as desired, pause and rewind it, edit it if they so desired, to get it almost instantly, and most importantly for ‘it’ to be almost anything they could possibly ask for (rather than a selection of Hollywood being dictated by a quagmire of copyright laws and red tape) gives the self-respecting consumer little choice. To be competitive in this world you need to be culturally savvy, and faster than ever.

Should the consumer care that there was a hold-up in getting the legal rights for a film to be uploaded to Netflix when its already out on uTorrent? Perhaps not.

Complete control

The idea that the film industry (and others) are ‘competing with free’ implies that the services offered by them and by piracy are identical. The differences between the two are many and varied. NetFlix has a poorer range, longer waiting times, costs more, is reliant on a high-speed streaming internet connection at all times to work, offers no consumer control and gives a limited number of plays (based on time). Torrenting, on the other hand, not only beats out Netflix as a service in all those departments, but also is the same service which offers music and books (and porn, which shouldn’t be discounted as a huge factor here).

Netflix and any other service providers along similar lines (iTunes etc) must realise that what is happening online isn’t a perfect mirror of their service but minus the strings of payment. It makes no difference to a culture-hungry consumer whether the reasons behind them not getting M*A*S*H on Netflix are legal or financial or whatever else – if one service offers it and another doesn’t, the legality or payment becomes moot.

The sand drawing stuff really is incredible. Check it out.

By way of illustration, I have seen hours of discussion between prominent philosophers, indulged in more 1940s film noir than I could possibly think to list, seen Kseniya Simonova’s live sand painting performances and read the most obscure of ancient poets. And I’ve done all of it via YouTube and a few minutes on Google. The barriers to experience are coming down. Netflix must find ways to offer something its billions of competitors (they being each and every one of us) don’t or can’t. Until then, the MPAA will just have to continue to post record profits year-on-year when its not too busy hypocritically blaming piracy for its demise.

Parents now need to teach their children to acquire a taste for culture, rather than merely teaching them survival, dictating their culture and showing them how to attain it. The how is less important now than the why.

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The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

I was recently introduced to Omar Khayyam in a book by Christpher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist. I have since fallen in love with it as a kind of tome to the ’empty’ yet enviable grave of the pleasure-seeking atheist. Omar Khayyam himself was apparently no saint, however I find his lust for life infectious, and his desire to cast of the shackles of a constrained life admirable. This is tangentially related to my post from last week, insofar as it pertains to pleasure being sought for its own end. Khayyam’s earnest desire to enjoy life and his good-natured mockery of those who live under the delusion that alcohol, women or song are sins is refreshing for the era.

The poem is circa 11th century Iran. Needless to say such a poem was heretical at the time, and indeed my having to post extolling the virtues of simple pleasure clearly indicates that I still consider that society warns us against indulgence. But what is so wrong with indulgence? People have overindulged in their desire to curtail overindulgence. Of course alcoholism is a problem, as is excess of any kind.

Excess in moderation is a mantra I try to live my life by. The enjoyment of life should never be considered a guilty pleasure. For that matter, why is the term ‘guilty pleasure’ in such common use? Why feel guilty about pleasure? Especially considering that the term is usually referring to a square of chocolate or a glass of wine before sundown.

Enjoy yourselves, people! It’s why we’re here! (It seems appropriate that this is a Friday afternoon post, then.)

And with that, I give you The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, as it is reproduced in The Portable Atheist

The bird of life is singing on the bough
His two eternal notes of “I and Thou”
O! hearken well, for soon the song sings through
And, would we hear it, we must hear it now

The bird of life is singing in the sun
Short is his song, nor just begun
A call, a trill, a rapture, then-so soon!
A silence, and the song is done-is done

Yea! What is man that deems himself divine?
Man is flagon, and his soul the wine;
Man is read, his soul the sound therein;
Man is the lantern, and his soul the shine

Would you be happy, hearken, then the way
Heeed not TO-MORROW, heed not YESTERDAY
The magic words of life are HERE and NOW
O fools, that after tomorrow stray

Were I a Sultan, say what greater bliss
Were I to summon to my side than this
Dear gleaming face, far brighter than the moon
O love! and this immortalizing kiss

To all of us the thought of heaven is dear
Why not be sure of it and make it here?
No doubt there is a heaven younder too
But ’tis so far away- and you are near

Men talk of heaven- there is no heaven but here
Men talk of hell- there is no hell but here
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives
O love, there is no other life-but here

Gay little moon, that hath not understood!
She claps her hands, and calls the red wine good
O careless and beloved , if she knew
This wine she fancies is my true heart’s blood

Girl, have you any thought what your eyes mean?
You must have stolen them from some dead queen
O little empty laughing soul that sings
And dances tell me- what do your eyes meam?

And all this body of ivory and myrrh
O gard it with some love and care
Know your own wonder, worship it with me
See how I fall before it deep in prayer

Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane
This playful wisdom growing out of pain
How many midnights whitened into morn
before the seeker knew he sought in vain

You want to know the secret-so did I
Low in the dust I sought it, and on high
Sought it in aweful flights from star to star
The Sultan’s watchman of the starry sky

Up up, where Parween hooves stamped heaven’s floor
My soul went knocking at each starry door
Till on the silly top of heaven’s stair
Clear eyed I looked-and laughed- and climbed no more

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:
No agony of any mortal brain
Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;
The search had taught me that the search is vain

Yet sometimes on a sudden all seems clear-
Hush! hush! my soul, the secret draweth near;
Make silence ready for the speech divine-
If heaven should speak, and there be none to hear!

Yea, sometimes on the instance all seems plain,
The simple sun could tell us, or the rain
The world, caught dreaming with a look of heaven
Seems on a sudden tip-toe to explain

Like to a maid who exquisitely turns
A promising face to him who, waiting, burns
In hell to hear her answer-so the world
Tricks all, and hints what no man learns

Look not above, there is no answer there
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer
NEAR is as near to God as any FAR
And HERE is just the same deceit as THERE

But here are wine and beautiful young girls
Be wise and hide your sorrows in the curls
Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea
You shall not bring us any better pearls

Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell
If Allah be, He keeps his secret well
What have he hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a moggot tell?

So since with all my passion and my skill
The world’s mysteries meaning mocks me still
Shall I not piously believe that I
Am kept in darkness by heavenly will?

How sad to be a woman-not to know
Aught of the glory of this breast of snow
All unconcerned to comb this mighty hair
To be a woman and never know

Where I a woman. I would all day long
Sing my own beauty in some holy song
Bend low before it, hushed and half afraid
And say “I am a woman” all day long

The Koran! well , come put me to the test-
a lovely old book in hideous errors drest-
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too
The unbeliever knows his Kuran best

And do you think that unto such as you
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
God gave the secret, and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it! believe that too

Old Khayam, say you, is a debauchee;
If only you were half so good as he!
He sins no sins but gentle drunkenness
Great-hearted mirth, and kind adultery

But yours the cold hearted, and the murderous tongues,
The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,
The close-shut fist, mean and measuring eyes,
And all the little poisoned of wrong

So I be written in the book of love,
I have no care about that book above,
Erase my name, or write it, as you please-
So I be written in the book of love.

What care I, love, for what the sufis say?
The sufis are but drunk another way;
So you be druk, it matters not the means,
So you be druk-and glorify your clay

Drunken myself, and with a merry mind,
An old man passed me, all in vine-leaves twined;
I said, “old man, hast thou forgotten God?”
“Go, drink yourself, ” he said, “for God is kind.”

“Did God set the grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus-
Surely He loves to hear the glasses clink!

From God’s own hands this earthly vessel came,
He, shaped it thus, be it for fame or shame;
If it be fair- to God be all the praise,
If it be foul-to God alone the blame

To me there is much comfort in the thought
That all our agonies can alter nought,
Our lives are written to their latest word,
We but repeat a lesson He hath taught

Our wildest wrong is part of His great Right
Our weakness is the shadow of His might,
Our sins are His, forgiven long ago
To make His mercy more exceeding bright

When first the stars were made and planets seven,
Already was it told of me in Heaven
That God had chosen me to sing His vine,
And in my dust had thrown the vinous leaven

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Fallacies of Pleasure and Good

Hercules' choice embodied by two women: duty and pleasure. Ah, women... existing only for temptation yet again. Go antiquity!

A C Grayling, in his 2007 philosophical signpost, The Choice of Hercules, writes that John Stuart Mill was greatly (and perhaps rightly) criticised for defining a difference between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. The ‘good life’, Grayling posits, is a delicate balance between the pleasures of life we all know only too well, and the dutiful ‘greater’ good tendered by the Judeo-Christian tradition for the betterment of the long-term gain: one’s soul. The pleasures of life, the wine, the drugs, the smoking, the massages, the brisk walks in the sun, the appreciation of a good book under a tree, the rush of exercise (unbeknownst to some) or even urination are all historically frowned upon as hollow. The ‘better’ life is the life of humble servitude in favour of the preservation of one’s immortal soul.

John Stuart Mill: quite a serious facial for someone wrapped in a bow like a present.

In the case of Mill, his attempt to define the difference between (as Grayling puts it) the appreciation of Aeschylus’ plays and the enjoyment of a beer at the pub are certain, classifiable and important. His many critics shout him down as being pompous, elitist and stubborn. As Grayling himself asks, why does some obscure objective view of the act of enjoyment come into play? Surely when discussing pleasure, the person enjoying the act is the object of inquiry?

The difference between the two is one of immediacy versus a prolonged happiness, in more ways than one.

Firstly, the immediate pleasure one gains is the primary notion under scrutiny. Those first few bubbles reaching your lips, the satisfaction of the cool liquid of a finely-brewed beer (although perhaps I should strike finely-brewed and use Victoria Bitter as an example since we’re contrasting the high-brow with the low here) and the sense of reward many associate with this magnificent feeling of joy to come at the end of a long, hard day is not to be scoffed at. What business has an enthusiast for Greek antiquities’ plays admonishing such pleasure in the name of snobbery?

Victoria Bitter: pleasure at its most raw and virile expression. Be a man: drink VB. Do it!

Does the pleasure being mental rather than physical (or as Grayling notes, mental and physical rather than just physical) mitigate its usefulness to the individual receiving it? Simply put, it doesn’t. Enjoyment and pleasure should be sought for its own end (not excusing, of course, those who seek pleasure at the expense of others, who should all suffer their own indignities as recompense), and the pleasure which comes with the drinking of Victoria Bitter should be held in no higher regard for the person doing the enjoying than a chortle at a witticism from The Persians.

The second type of pleasure is more long-sighted than mere enjoyment (in a sense), the Judeo-Christian belief in duty as a form of good springing from the same principle. ‘Pleasure’ is a societal mode involving the ongoing happiness index of the entire peoples. Granted, the majority of people still commit the flawed ‘us and them’ mentality to such philanthropy, and continue to seek pleasure for their kind at the expense of pleasure for some ill-defined ‘other’, yet this doesn’t mitigate the underlying principle at play: that what is good derives from what is ‘best’ for the happiness of the masses. This utilitarian principle of happiness drives the notion that ‘duty’ (to one’s family, country, god or gods, gender, sexuality etc) will bring about more happiness in the long run, and it is right to subserve one’s own immediate pleasure in the pursuit of such measured and egalitarian ends.

At a previous time in history, as Desmond Morris has stated in his many zoological examinations of our humble species, such postponed pleasure or ‘shared’ pleasure originated in the coupling of animals. The biological imperative to evolve a kind of ‘love’ in order to bring about lasting partnerships saw us able to form family units and progress into a nomadic dissidence from our ancestors; the first tribes were born.

Flashing forward several hundreds of thousands of years, a societal need for a similar prerogative became necessary. The care for one’s own family had to extend beyond the grasp of known kin and into a group mentality capable of grand gestures (wars) and cultural subtleties (language, currency, celebratory tradition etc). As such, religious traditions spawned a mythical afterlife which would serve as an ultimate goal for those willing to lead the dutiful life. The prolonged pleasure principle, long understood by our forebears, had become so difficult to perceive (as our numbers swelled) as ever returning in kind to our immediate kin that a greater purpose was needed. The end result of an entire life of servitude, duty and care would lead to an eternal salvation of the soul.

Forsaking immediate pleasure for the call of duty.

This principle served to form what we now understand as ‘society’. The tension between the good life of simple pleasures and the ‘good’ life of philanthropy, selflessness and care served to cause guilt for those who enjoyed too much of the former, and pride in those who obeyed the latter. Long term happiness for the many, being a chief concern of religion, erupted into a culpable doctrine of proliferation (literally).

This long-term notion of good being ‘better’ than the short term can be seen on any level and in any scale.

Why drink Victoria Bitter when you could drink Pure Blonde for marginally less immediate pleasure, safe in the knowledge that you’ll feel less bloated later on? Why listen to pop music devoid of depth (to borrow Grayling’s example) when there is a subtle depth to Bach and Vivaldi untouched by modern media? Why indulge in the pleasures of casual sex when it runs the risk of destroying your marriage? Why refuse a backhander from a businessman when the results of an action (or inaction) may not be felt for generations, if at all? Why give birth when overpopulation threatens to destroy us all as tensions approach a breaking point and technology reaches doomsday levels?

The desire to push the species onwards can falsify any potential pleasure-giving activity on some level, and the grey areas are becoming harder and harder to define.

The black and white notion of pleasure now versus pleasure in the future has become so muddled as to be misleading. There will always be someone to criticise that our thinking isn’t prescient enough; that our idea of doing good for our country, family, descendants or even species isn’t showing enough foresight to be truly ‘good’.

Aeschylus. Strange that he's from further back in history than John Stuart Mill. After all, Aeschylus is an early adopter of 3D.

Putting aside these long-winded concepts of forever, though, dealing with pleasure on a more manageable level yields a problematic result: pleasure and good are always defined by lack. To illustrate, the most measured of people will know that to be ‘good’ at something is to do it. To be a good doctor, one must attempt, fail and learn. To be someone who is so learned as to know the works of Aeschylus inside-and-out, one must first read Aeschylus.

As such, we can interpret any act perceived as giving pleasure as an admission of an unhappy itch yearning to be scratched. The distillation of intellectual whims into concise blog entries is merely designed to render the author a person capable of such elegance in person. The use of words in such a blog one is still struggling to remember correctly and use in everyday speech is designed to do just that. Each instance of doing is an act of being (or attempting to be). One exercises in order to become fit, one enjoys beer in order to be a person who is satisfied.

Consequently, the person reading Aeschylus considers himself a philistine, the person drinking beer considers themselves thirsty. Mill would be positing that the former, worrying about one’s intellectual inferiority, is a far deeper concern than the latter example of thirst. Yet if you ask whether the intellectual elite who study Aeschylus have ‘contributed’ more to society than the beer drinker, you must note that the two are co-dependent.

Beer built the pyramids!

The beer drinkers of this world have built the pyramids, fought our wars (if you consider that a positive thing) and in a more modern world, are also our doctors, our philosophers and our presidents. The Aeschylus-readers of modernity would not be in a position to enjoy such luxurious (and self-indulgent) philosophical pursuits without the support of plumbers, gardeners, physicians or those who work humbly away in printing presses, mastering the copies of the manuscripts they so desire.

“Philosophy only occurs in a society that can produce philosophers.” says Peter Adamsons, British philosopher. And he is quite correct. Once we became a society large enough for specialisation to thrive, each depends on the other for their practise. The elitist snob re-reading Aeschylus owes his pastime to the aid of thousands. Those labouring to permit such a lifestyle owe the Aeschylus-readers of this world for their pursuit of emancipation, their declaration of human rights and other purely theoretical and ‘meaningless’ pursuits. And yet, before such ideas, important as they are, to bear fruit, it is these same labourers which must fight the despots and monarchs with their very lives to see such change brought about. As such, the revolutionaries of France saw themselves destroyed in the fight with more vitriol and volume than they did during their oppression. They fought and died, and their fighting caused the deaths of countless more, for an ideal created by those Aeschylus-readers who would eventually survive such plebeian conflicts.

So regarding some kind of ‘higher good’, the productive member of society always deserves their pleasure, be it Aeschylus or Victoria Bitter (ironically named after a queen), and each is ‘good’ for society in equal measure to their inputs.

On that note I fully plan to read Aeschylus and drink a beer tonight (although not Victoria Bitter as it contains animal products). Shameful epitome of middle-class that I am. But before that I’ll need to dream up a suitably elite-sounding title for this blog post. Hmm….

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The Ancient Roman Businessman and the modern literate masses

Printing press, guillotine or pizza oven? You decide.

The printing press with movable type was first established as a new technology by one Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century. With a few notable exceptions (including its having been banned and initially punishable by death throughout the Ottoman empire until as late as the mid-18th century), its proliferation was swift, and its use vital as a stepping stone towards what we now consider modernity. Along the way it changed the face of society. What was once considered literate (the ability to sign one’s own name) became illiterate in the face of changing standards. Literacy evolved with the spread of language, and its privileged status as being strictly for the educated classes rendered it a matter of extreme control by the upper classes. As such, dialects deemed barbaric did not count towards one’s literacy. Rather, one’s ability to read and write the official language of their era and place was the key determinant.

So, what’s changed? The standards of literacy have evolved, so where are they now? Before we examine this, it is worth investigating what the purpose of literacy is.

Literacy: not quite as necessary in some eras. Stay in school, kids.

In ancient Rome, Acta Diurna were public messages engraved on stone tablets and ‘posted’ in public places to act as official government communiqués (interesting side note: the act of ‘posting’ news in such a way became the reason newspapers adopt the term ‘Post’ in their titles with such frequency). Literacy levels in what was then (Julius Caesar era) the most modern empire in the world were hardly at an exemplary level by today’s standards, and the exhaustingly inefficient method of carving such messages into tablets meant that the vast majority of citizens wouldn’t ever end up seeing the Acta Diurna themselves, so messengers were vital. The people would scramble to relay the news of the day to one another. As such, literacy was a valued trait as the trusted and learned few who possessed it were relied upon almost exclusively to begin the trail of words.

Flashing forward to medieval Europe, town criers acted in an official capacity to achieve the same ends. Marching up and down the street and beckoning silence and attention, these uniformed officers conveyed to the public the news of the day. Again, a method lacking efficiency.

Hiring bombastic nightmares to yell at people: bureaucracy at work.

The network of official men of the crown seeding information subsided as the printing press brought the miracle of moving type into mass production, in favour of independent newspapers owned by entrepreneurs popping up. Scrutiny was uncommon in such early forms of newspaper, as the only newspaper in town had little motivation to go beyond mere information dissemination. Analysis of the news was both out of reach for the level of education most printing press operators possessed (not to mention a lack of access to substantive information concerning all of the reasons why governments acted in the ways they did), but also ethically dubious. Moreover, the owners had no motive to offer such analytical services. The only game in town needn’t cater to a niche. (The later eruption of far less ethically constrained libelles filled that void nicely.)

Regardless of how much access to real world facts the owners of printing presses actually achieved, it remained that the dissemination of facts about current events relied largely upon them. A publisher misleading (intentionally or otherwise) their public might take some time before being caught out by factors from the outside world, communication being what it was.

Successful people in rome hadn't the need for literacy beyond comprehension.

In both cases, ancient Rome and medieval Europe, a common factor is the privileged literate were the few actually able to read the posts and heralds for themselves. ‘Literacy’, then, varied between meaning the ability to literally read the news, and the ability to comprehend the content therein – achievable by far greater a number of the population than the former. The people, satisfied with their own status as ‘literate’, would rest contented. The businessman able to fling about ‘facts’ with all the pomposity and grandeur of a coliseum announcer would no doubt have been chuffed with his performance, his ability to draw a crowd and his ability to participate in public life, and would therefore not suffer a wink to the notion that he lacked education sufficient to fully comprehend the news he espoused or debated. After all, in ancient Rome, education was a pursuit of fancy: admirable for those who indulged in it, but unnecessary beyond functionality to those of more practical means.

We can all agree, however, that such a hypothetical businessman engaging with his fellows about the state of the empire as per the messenger who recited it. Similarly, the literate fellow reading aloud the tablet would be in dubious possession of the facts necessary to comment on (what I hesitate to refer to as) the real world.

How then, can we justify our contentment as citizens of the modern real world when we’re subject to a similar confusion of information? Leaving the era of one newspaper per town behind us, our being privy to the multitude of information sources at hand has created a new kind of delusion.

Maddow: a modern libelle.

Rachel Maddow illustrated the confusion surrounding an overabundance of media outlets (albeit referring specifically to ring-wing outlets) well in November on her aptly named MSNBC television show, The Rachel Maddow Show. She demonstrated the poor capacity of assorted right-wing media pundits to source their facts correctly concerning President Obama’s planned November trip to India, alleged to be costing US$2 billion, ending her jab by comparing the unanimous shrug most commentators reached when pressed for their sources to the legitimacy of the furore over ThinkGeek.com selling canned unicorn meat.

This abomination of nature must be stopped at once! Unicorns are almost extinct, dammit!

Quibbling over precise figures (in the chaotic funfair that is the American mass media) is hardly pivotal to a functioning, politically-minded member of society. So for a more practical example of why such uncertainty can be detrimental, consider the case of Dr Andrew Wakefield. The British researcher posited a link between a measles vaccine and autism, and suggested an increased gap in between the necessary inoculations.

The result? A sharp decline in parents letting their children be vaccinated as instructed. The result of the result? A sharp increase in cases of measles breaking out. The particularly scary part is that this medical journal

Wakefield's supporters gathering and forming their anti-vaccine group which would survive Andrew's disgrace with no evidence to sustain it.

(The Lancet) is the one source which opponents of vaccination (read: conspiracy theorists) rely upon heavily to justify their stance. Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the Sunday Times hadn’t found conflict of interest in Wakefield’s dealings, and if ten of the thirteen authors of the paper hadn’t stepped down their support for the section where the analysis made its conclusions, and if The Lancet hadn’t retracted the paper entirely, and if Wakefield hadn’t been struck from the medical register in the UK in May this year.

Are we really rollicking about in an echo chamber (as Maddow would put it) so large that we’re confounded by information to the extent that we lose sight of it all?

A fake representative of Dow Chemical takes full responsibility for Bhopal on their behalf, pledging US$12 billion live on BBC news.

Consider the implications of such a scenario for literacy. What good is it being able to read and write when the words you read are false? You require the literacy of criticism to achieve an adequate picture of truth. The scale of media tends towards the simplest in tone for the largest audiences. This is not the fault of the people absorbing it, it is too heavy a constraint on their time to even consider fully researching everything they hear. A story, even by a reputable news source, can often be completely false. Placing the burden of research on each and every recipient of slanted, falsified or incongruous news is perhaps a touch farfetched.

The most reputable ‘news’ sources on the planet are likely the academic journals. They are peer-reviewed, subject to immense scrutiny prior to publication, and are constantly being falsified by a continuing push to outdate the last riveting discoveries. Yet, as we’ve seen, even these often produce interesting results. And moreover, the majority of academic papers (the lifeblood of inquiry) are still paid journals. Not only do the barriers to their consumption lie in literacy and education, but in spite of our immense so-called progress throughout modernity, the socio-economic factor remains prevalent. (As I’m attending university I have access to a treasure trove of studies and experiments from a number of fields. Without attending university, I’d have to pay for such academic luxuries. Who would do that for the sake of verifying their local news anchors’ claims?)

Looks simple enough, but read the article comparing measurement scales and tell me it's within the grasp of the common person.

Legitimate academic papers can yield bizarre interpretations by wider society when they’re being misread or misappropriated by the middle-men: the mass media. The interpretation of scientific data is largely left up to these outlets as go-betweens for the rest of us. Very few of us would actually read the raw data behind even the most topical and imperative of subjects (such as global warming – thanks, Cam). Again, this is not a criticism of people – we’re all time-poor and unable to fully research everything, but using that global warming link as an example, even the most fundamental question about the nature of climate change (whether or not the Earth is, in fact, getting warmer) has become such an elitist pursuit as to automatically cast out the majority of the population. If a qualified statistician and geographer were to inform us of one thing, either in person or via a news outlet, we’re hardly in a position to cross-check his information with other people in their field.

These specific instances aside, we’re staring at a wider trait here which mimics a familiar milieu. The so-called ‘literate’ amongst us, even the educated, are functioning on a political level wherein we can merely engage with one another on certain topics. The more educated we become, the more exclusive and elitist the topics on discussion. Yet still, we’ve discovered a new kind of hyperliteracy, wherein even a university or college graduate will likely be unable to ascertain truth on the majority of topics they desire, nor engage in the debates dur to their relative illiteracy.

Is literacy the ability to function in society? If it once meant simply the ability to sign your own name, which would’ve been the only function needed to operate successfully within societal parameters, what are the criteria today? The ability to read or write on the most basic of levels and comprehend broadcasters’ messages (and become enraged when necessary) seems to power an incredible portion of the population. It’s simple enough for anyone to write off more educated discussions than their level of learning permits as hoity-toity.

Are we different than the ancient Roman businessman, going about his day content that his being able to converse about the supposed nature of things renders him privileged? As the range of topics available for discussion becomes so interminably deep that only the most learned amongst us can participate, ‘literacy’ loses all meaning. The ‘literate’ amongst us range from the dispossessed homeless to those analysing the images from the Hubble telescope.

So it becomes a matter of contentment. You are ‘literate’ only if you are content with your space in the great fish pond of life. You are ‘illiterate’ if you’re not. Literacy has been reduced to mean merely a personal goal. Literacy is relative and dependent for definition upon its specific discourse, and as such, only the third dictionary definition below seems to continue to apply…

Literacy

–noun

1.

the quality or state of being literate, esp. the ability to read and write.

2.

possession of education

3.

a person’s knowledge of a particular subject or field

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Objection! Videogame Genres and why they Matter

Hi all,

A quick informal post to let you all know that a second ‘Objection!’ article has gone live on Kotaku, wherein myself and editor Mark Serrels discuss the validity and importance of genre definition in videogames.

Are you an occasional gamer who struggles with the rampant initialisms of FPS, RPG, RTS and whatnot? Or are you bothered by the fact that people only list aesthetic genres in place of terms which describe the gameplay? Check the article out above.

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Top-hats, Pig Fat and Big Macs: Appreciating the Finer Things in Life

A burger too far... not in OUR Italy!

In 1986, an opening of a McDonald’s franchise in Italy prompted a group of enthusiasts for local food culture and tradition preservation to take action; they resisted it mightily and subsequently, in 1989, formed a movement called ‘Slow Food‘. The movement was aimed at teaching and preaching the importance of developing an understanding of why food is prepared the way it is, what the meanings behind certain methods of food preparation and consumption are, and why the rush towards fast food (as one example) and fast life were evils which would eradicate culture; a homogenophobia argument from a slightly different perspective.

Ah, the hapless snail. Never quite fast enough to escape that pouncing lion!

This movement has its Epicurean merits, and describes maintenance of a love of pleasure which many philosophers throughout the ages would deem an acceptable goal. Development of the tastebuds to enjoy different foods through nurture rather than nature has been demonstrated before. We grow to like and love certain tastes and dislike and hate others based on a number of cultural factors.

Case in point: Australians prefer stronger tasting wines. Why might this be? I would posit that our brief time on this island has yielded a lack of culture. The majority of our earliest settlers were convicts (generally a class of people not known for their appreciation for the ‘finer’ things), and we’ve had merely 200 years to grow and foster a new set of traditions and customs. As usual, food is amongst them. When one thinks of what it means to be an Australian, shrimp and vegemite are prominent recurring suggestions.

Old Country wines have yet another layer of wine-lovers' jargon we need to contend with to comprehend them.

So when it comes to wine, Australia is ‘new country’, meaning we, along with many other non-European (generally) nations have forgone traditional viticultural methods, abandon things as needed to create more wine faster. Australians haven’t regulated a stringent methodology to our wine production, and have consumed our wine from metal vats which are full of preservatives without a care in the world.

Do not be fooled by our top hats! Our convict first citizens were a tasteless and uncouth bunch of rapscallions and ne'erdowells!

As a country borne of a ‘lower’ class of people, we were a society of people who were not indoctrinated into the wine snobbery the ‘upper’ classes so appreciated. The person lacking ‘culture’ and ‘breeding’ always seeks the most garish and flamboyant examples of their newfound wealth. Ed Byrne describes this phenomenon in his latest stand-up comedy routine ‘Different Class’, where he boasts about his new, utterly gargantuan flat-screen television to his rich upper-class friends, only to be rebuked as tacky by people who truly know the meaning of elegance.

Conspicuously absent: one top hat.

‘Taste’, it would seem, must be developed over time. The nouveau riche have never understood notions of understated grace, and why should they? Without longstanding examples from their grandparents and parents of how to act the part, they stick out like a sore thumb amongst the old-school wealthy elites. Does Mark Zuckerberg suddenly have an appreciation for Cuban cigars as a result of making his first billion? These things do not come with the territory of wealth, indeed they are seldom developed by one person. They require time, generations of time and passed-down notions of the ‘fine’ and the desirable elements.

So to return to our lovely little wine-making country, it makes sense that our tastes are for the sweetest Chardonnays and most gut-wrenchingly bitter (in this humble blogger’s opinion) Sauvignon Blancs. After all, if our country hasn’t been raised on a palette of being able to detect the subtler difference between capsicum and cinnamon aromas (which apparently there is), why should we take pleasure in such distinctions? Few Australian wine enthusiasts really know their own palettes well enough to be able to make such distinctions at all, much less stake a preferred nose. As such, we fail to recognise the subtlety of finely produced wines from old country regions and continue to produce wine which doesn’t uphold the important traditions necessary to produce those deliciously unobtainable differences. However, as an Australian, I certainly can’t taste the difference and neither can most of the world (as the middle classes earn more and more and are able to indulge in such fanciful delicacies); as such old country wine continues to compete with more efficient production methods production supposedly inferior wines my humble palette fails to recognise.

Lardo: the endangered meat threatened by Ray Croc's empire! Appetising, no?

And so we return to Slow Food and their relentless pursuit of similar appreciations in regional foodstuffs. In Italy, it began with the threat of lardo di colonnata (an animal fat integral to a regional delicacy which had been passed down from generation to generation) being removed from the Italian diet. The industry’s sustainability was being threatened from a number of sources (both real and imagined), including genetically modified (GM) foods, fast-food franchises, cultural homogenisation from the United States and European Union and a lack of appreciation for the education of today’s youth in a society fuelled by instant gratification and internet-based relationships.

The world was doomed.

It's aliiiiive! In the name of God!!!! Aaaaaaargh!!!!!!

This issue is divisive along similar lines to one of Slow Food’s core tenets: their anti-GM stance. The battlegrounds for this war are being fought in public minds, with the manic anti-GM campaign of the late nineties now being observed with more scrutiny. Frankenfood headlines tore across the West, and products which were produced with a higher yield in more efficient methods were yanked from store shelves, starting with Flavr Savr tomatoes. No one wanted their tomato to have a fish brain inside it, nor their

Terror Campaigns reigned supreme! Feel the menace in those cold, cold eyes!

pineapples to grow underground alongside their potatoes. Of course, most of this was nonsensical rubbish borne largely of a technophobia common of most new entries from science, especially when borders of ‘playing God’ were being danced upon.

The argument against GM foods has slowly started to become less reactionary, and more rational and level-headed approaches are currently being undertaken. Some initial proponents of the anti-GM movement are now reconsidering their stance. An article in The Independent makes mention of Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, admitting they acted in haste regarding the issue, and also goes on to note that the GM ‘scare’ came about during an era of uproar surrounding doubt of our foods, particularly in Europe…

Antifreeze was pollution your wine! Mad cow disease lay dormant in your every slice of beef! Hazardous dioxins were inert, waiting to strike from within your nearest chicken wing!

So of course it was an apposite time to strike. The anti-GM campaigns were overly successful, yet now even the pope has agreed to a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the matter.

The issue confuses ethics and morals, as most issues concerning our propensity to ‘play God’ tend to do. Nascent laws, a fledgling understanding of the process of genetic modification (at best) by the general public and opportunistic corporations led to several examples of organic farmers being able to play the victim card. As nature tends to do, crops blended and spread, and examples of alfalfa sprouts in the United States and rice crops in India were flowing into one another. This caused far larger and graver concerns for both parties than would be imagined by the humble blowing of a seed through the breeze. The GM farm’s seeds ‘infecting’ the seeds of the organic farm meant that their entire harvest was ruined (indeed their entire farm was ruined until they could purge the genetic menace) as they could no longer claim their foods were ‘organic’. To add insult to injury, even though the organic farmers had no involvement in the GM crops spreading into their fields (and why would they), they were now illegally harvesting crops which had been patented by their neighbours. Genetically modified organism can be trademarked, and as such these farmers were producing crops which were either less resistant to certain natural elements or had lower yields than their GM counterparts, while still not being able to claim organic status, AND they were being sued for the privilege.

Adorable.

But does this amount to GM food being evil? Hardly. Evil is a matter of morality, and the concerns here are legal, political and ethical. This, however, doesn’t stop organisations from dragging such examples of clear organic victimisation into the realms of the morally wrong. Anything which furthers their cause is employed, as is typical when people become fanatics about a particular thing.

Slow Food Founder Carlo Petrini. It was either this or a starving African child. Point made.

Finally, we come back to the class system. While some people claim overpopulation is the real concern, the fact of the matter is that enough food isn’t reaching enough people to feed the planet’s hungry at this point. Preventing new methods of harvesting crops in a more efficient manner is a first-world luxury which patently ignores the needs of the many. Some may argue that we have ‘enough’ food already and we’re simply unable to distribute it effectively, but these are usually the same people who poo-poo this solution without actively engaging with their preferred other.

Meanwhile, organic purists claim to be able to taste the difference. Penn and Teller’s Bullshit ran a little candid camera stunt once where they had such people taste organic and GM tomatoes next to one another and had to guess as to which one was organic. The results: people favoured the tomato on the left, regardless of whether it was the organic one or not.

Absolutely yes we should appreciate food! It has been revered as a pleasure since time immemorial. Taste it, love it, smell it, embrace it, paint it! It is morally right to enjoy pleasure. That's why it's pleasure.

The Slow Food movement has a lot to say which I agree with. It’s call for an appreciation of culture and an earnest desire to see people really know true enjoyment of food is one I can get behind. But let’s demand that anti-GM activists not actively hamper our ability to increase food production for the sake of such a pursuit. I heartily recommend we all eat our next meal more slowly. Savour each and every flavour and sensation the morsels press upon your eager tongues.After all, if we in the privileged West aren’t thoroughly enjoying the lifestyle we’re blessed with, what’s it all for? I’ll end with a link to an anti-GM speech by an eleven-year-old. Children this young spouting one side of an ongoing debate frighten me. Enjoy.

Posted in Moral Philosophy, Social Curiosity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Temporal Worlds (or lack thereof) in Videogames

The strength of videogames is their primary point of difference: their interactivity. So I was struck curious recently by a couple of small flash games which utilised a pseudo-interactive gimmick which demonstrated a flaw in videogame open-worlds in general. Each had its own strengths, but both relied upon repetition of the same ‘level’ (for want of a better term), each time adding subtle changes to make the player feel as though they were progressing. Far from making the games themselves feel cheap (a redundant notion anyway considering they’re both free flash-based games which can be played online), they invoked a feeling of urgency, of a malleable world, and of a sense of importance for the player which can be missing from larger game-worlds.

(I strongly suggest you play both games in question. Each one is 5 minutes long, both can be played in a browser and both are highly recommended. They are Every Day The Same Dream and One Chance.)

Every morning, the same breakfast.

Paolo Pedercini created Every Day The Same Dream in 2009. In it, players assume the role of an unnamed man created out of simple 2D polygons. He is faceless, lacks any definition, and exists in a world just as bleak and despondent as he is. The player only has a few simple buttons to control him – the arrow keys move him (left and right only) and space bar interacts. You awaken in your bedroom and must make your way out of the apartment, down the escalator, into your car, to work, to your desk, and must press space bar to begin your working day.

Always moving right - in the grammar of videogame design being mutilated to make a point.

The game is structured towards the most logical movement always leading you towards the expected and traditional goal: a day’s work. Players have been accustomed to having to progress by moving to the right of the screen in two dimensional games since the 70s, and a typical player wouldn’t think twice about setting about this goal with gusto. Additionally, when they finally reach their cubicle, they’ve been walking monotonously for up to 3-4 minutes with very little happening, so they’re just aching to reach their goal and won’t think to walk past their desk and see what else is available.

Until, that is, they find that sitting at their desk and commencing work cuts straight back to the bedroom, alarm clock blaring and the routine beginning anew.

Disregarding logical gameplay movements yields other 'options'.

At this point, players must think logically about what else they can do. They have to test the boundaries of the game world to see what else is available. They *know* there must be something more to this game than simply travelling to work repeatedly; why else would someone make it? Thus begins the comment Pedercini is trying to make about life itself. You must do the unexpected things, search the corners which are entirely searchable yet in which most don’t think to look, in order to find out what more there is to life than routine work.

The game employs a world which is stark, black and white, and so static it makes the single brown leaf on a tree outside your office, slowly flapping in the breeze the greatest friend your player has. The game specifically uses familiarity to cause anxiety.

If the bedroom looks similar, it is. My keen senses can see through the addition of colour.

The second game, arguably somewhat derivative of Every Day The Same Dream, is another flash game from 2010 called One Chance, by Awkward Silence Games. It attempts to use the exact opposite strategy of having its game-world change on each of the five passes. Much like Every Day The Same Dream, the player operates a simple left and right 2D game mechanic and is only able to interact using the space bar, and the player must also navigate the same rather plain game-world with no sense of challenge five full times before the game ends.

On each pass, the world in One Chance is one day closer to its end. The protagonist is a scientist (straight white male scientist) who has created a cancer cure which has been unleashed onto the public and unexpectedly eradicates all living cells, rather than just cancerous ones. As such, this incredible wonder drug is killing the entire planet slowly.

The player choice makes the difference in One Choice. Work at the lab or a day in the park with your daughter?

Using this typical technophobic plotline, the game can change its landscape each day to represent a slowly more decaying world. Fruit falls off trees, grass turns brown, the wife and child of our hero seem less and less caring about life, and the journey to work is progressively more riddled with evidence of rioting. Where the game differs is in its explicit ability to choose. Rather than the cunning use of railroading the player in a certain direction as with Every Day The Same Dream, One Chance instead makes the player choices obvious, and asks them to exercise their own judgment. Do they go to work, knowing that they only have a few days left with their family, or do they go to work anyhow on the off chance that maybe their co-workers are wrong and there is indeed a cure? Do they indulge in the pleasures of the crush at work or remain faithful to their wife? These decisions each result in the end of the ‘day’ being played, and the game resets and the bed, ready for the player to see what the world looks like today and be given another choice.

In spite of the achievements of One Chance being slightly less artistically masterful than Every Day The Same Dream (although both have spectacular music), we can learn more from it about a problem with modern game design which seems to be plaguing most open-worlds in particular: change.

Sunsets in Red Dead Redemption: a majestic and gorgeous example of temporal illusion.

The space race of size, graphical prowess and weapon-counts in videogames has not come to an end. We still see 2009’s Borderlands from Gearbox Software boasting it’s 16 million weapons (no I’m not kidding), 2010’s Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar San Diego creating a dumbfoundingly large play environment with every nook and cranny hand-crafted, and of course these large worlds are getting more and more beautiful with each new blockbuster to hit the market.

What these massive games could learn from One Chance and its ilk is the power of change. It takes little more than a simple alteration of the location of a family member, an apple having dropped from a tree, a co-worker in a different place or even a slightly longer beard on a character to imbue One Chance’s world with the sense that it is changing, growing and evolving, and little more than a few yes-or-no decisions to make the player feel like that chance is at their behest. As such, there is an excitement to it which larger open-worlds do not match.

The most convincingly 'alive' social worlds in videogames to date. Red Dead Redemption's short-term action/reaction dynamics are not to be beat.

It’s a matter of scale. Red Dead Redemption’s game world was the most interactive yet in an action open-world game. Boxes could be smashed, dynamite exploded, citizens would run and scream in panic, the time of day changes with the weather beautifully, and posses would take the law into their own hands well after a player commits a crime, giving the illusion of a self-interacting and changing world the player cannot see. It is, however, merely illusion.

Bully dramatically changes as the seasons go on. It only uses a few small cues, however.

Rockstar Vancouver’s 2006 title Bully (named Canis Canem Edit in Australia) created change on a larger scale. The game took place over the course of one year, and the seasons changed to match in between chapters. During these seasonal changes, characters the player had come to know would be seen wearing different clothing, and would all have unique things to say about the weather, their attitudes towards the protagonist Jimmy Hopkins would alter, and Jimmy would be spoken to in increasingly familiar tones as the year went on. These minute changes made the player feel that their existence in a predominantly static world was active, vibrant and changing, even within the realm of a fixed narrative.

The town in Deadwood: perhaps the only television program to demonstrate true change.

Red Dead Redemption was a Western game, and as such it fit squarely into a genre which was specifically about an era of rapid change. The characters in the game, the themes it tackled and the ending in particular, all spoke very plainly about the trajectory of American modernity; about the death of the frontier and the birth of bureaucracy. Such a period of change warrants a game capable of clearly demonstrating it.

A medium which has interactivity as its greatest strength should not be satisfied with a static world, especially when attempting to represent a period of change.

As such, open-world games have something in common with the two above flash games. In both cases, the player has to traverse the same environment often and repeatedly. But, what good is it to familiarise a player with a section of an open-world only to have them move on to the next section and render the original area redundant? If a player doesn’t return (or worse, returns and sees nothing new or different) to a certain area every again, the game is wasting valuable familiarity. When you have familiarity and acquaintance, you have an emotional attachment. A player seeing struggling towns they’d fallen in love with several years (in the game’s narrative timeline) later existing exactly as it was destroys suspension of disbelief and reminds people that true change in an open-world is such a monumental task that it still hasn’t been attempted, even by the largest and most competent of open-world designers.

This is by no means a fault in the game design, simply a limitation of the number of hours of labour which would be required to create the subtle changes I yearn for to make an open world feel alive.

So the constructive part of this article is this: larger open-world game developers should consider the power of a temporal world, one which changes with the player and around them. The change could come from the player’s doing (eg. the demolition of one of the downtown cranes in 2009’s The Ballad of Gay Tony from Rockstar North), or could happen without their involvement to reduce their perceived power and create a feeling of tension.

A world which changes around a player is a daunting experience, and one which hasn’t had its potential even remotely tapped yet.

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Bits and pieces of my work

An informal Wednesday evening blog post to let you all know of a few bits and pieces of my work which has gone up recently.

We have, in no particular order:

GameSpot AU’s ‘OzSpot’ podcast, featuring myself and Paul Hunt (former deputy director of the Classification Board) discussing the classification process and the R18+ rating (or lack thereof) for Australian videogames.

Super Crate Box! A feature I’ve written for Game Arena on just what this interesting little arcade game is and why you should joing me in the arcade game hand-cramp revolution now!!!

And finally myself and Kotaku AU editor Mark Serrels wax intellectual on violence in videogames. Why is it vilified? Why do we need it? What does the violence mean for the person playing the game and why is it so frequently attacked?

That’s probably the last you’ll hear from me for the next couple of weeks as I’m just about to jet off to India to soak up the incredible heat and oh so spicy dishes. Stay tuned for more videogaming and other (possibly Indian) goodness upon my return…

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Islamic Outrage and Mark Zuckerberg

In a talk given in October, Patrick Chappatte spoke emphatically about the emergent power of political cartooning. To highlight his point, he drew our attention to an image called ‘Pandora’s Pen’, where a cartoonist’s sketch leaps from the page to become a riotous mob. The image referred to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s infamous political cartoons depicting Muslim prophet Mohammed, which stirred ghastly repercussions.

Notice that Chappatte depicts the cartoonist himself as hapless and unaware of what he is doing.

“There were demonstrations, fatwa, they broke out in violence. People died in the violence. This was so sickening… people died because of cartoons.”

Indeed this was a horrific response to the humble cartoon. But what I’d like to protest here is Chappatte’s notion that the cartoon was the cause of the violence in question. To determine the cause of an event or action, we must first ask what a ‘cause’ is. For the purposes of this post, I’d like to assert that we’re searching for the cause as being the largest instance of wrongdoing which led to the event or act in question.

The reason I’d like to search for the greatest instance of wrongdoing (rather than the first) is that I don’t wish to drag this into the concept of God. Or, for the atheists out there, I don’t want the chain of events to be dragged further back into the ‘natural’ world such that the actors in a scenario are animal and therefore incapable of committing acts which are either ‘right or ‘wrong’. For the best ’cause’ of a scenario, we need to examine the various smaller causes available to us and determine which (if any) are at the root of the event being observed.

Witness the birth of Facebook!

So let’s go to another one before commenting on Chappatte further. In the recent film depicting Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder and CEO) and his tumultuous rise to wealth and fame, The Social Network, an instance where Mark’s friend Eduardo writes an equation for the Elo Rating System on a window is marked as the pivotal moment where ‘Facemash’ comes to life as a bona fide competitive ranking site for images of girls on campus.

Shortly after having seen this film, I heard someone comment on the mind-boggling nature of how one simple equation was the tipping point where an idea became what we now know as Facebook.

This, too, I’d like to refute. Look at the different elements in play here. There is Zuckerberg himself, a man described by his early computer teachers as a ‘child prodigy’ (in a recent article in The New Yorker which serves as a counterpoint to the film in attempting to convey an image of the ‘real’ Mark Zuckerberg), then there’s the formula he needs from Eduardo to make his ranking system work for a site which will see Mark realise the power of social comparisons online, then there’s the final product itself: Facebook.

If we were to remove this moment where the formula was given to Mark, what would’ve happened? Would Facebook never have happened? Or what if the idea for the Harvard Connection web site hadn’t been floated to mark by the Winklevoss twins (a hypothetical which formed the basis for an entire court case)?

On some levels you can examine cause and effect with single sources and a single direction easily.

In any scenario, there are bound to be a series of elements and factors combining to create an outcome. There are forces and agents at play, and each must be weighed before calls regarding the nature of the ‘cause’ can be established.

Some single events are genuinely once-in-a-lifetime moments which change the flow of things, to be sure, but this is the stuff of myth and legend for the most part. These instances are capitalised on by Hollywood for the sake of drama, or by the cartoonist because it flatters his ego to think of his medium as being able to carry that much weight.

Chappatte's work, especially his stuff on the middle-East, is definitely worth checking out.

In the case of the Jyllands-Posten cartoon, a multitude of ‘causes’ may be floated for the ensuing death and misery. The cartoon itself is simply the most obvious cause. As people probe deeper, they have come to blame the newspaper (which sought to publish images of Mohammed specifically and contracted cartoonists to do so), or the religion of Islam itself for having rules which contradict freedom of speech to begin with (as though Christianity is perfectly in tune with modern law).

And yet in this case, the forces at work which brought about the riots were people. Typically set upon as representative moderates of their faith by the Western media, those who chose to abhor the sleight against their beliefs with violence were not the majority. The images caused an outrage amongst Muslims, and the European newspapers fuelled the flames by syndicating the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, ostensibly seeking to share the burden, but multiplying the angst felt by those who were offended.

Add humans into the mix and cause and effect instantly starts to become a much trickier subject.

In a situation as complex as this, ‘cause’ and therefore blame (if necessary) is difficult to assign. Sociologists would be quick to blame the cultural divide bringing about insensitivity, anthropologists would be quick to blame the curious religious practises at play, philosophers would blame the fundamental nature of otherness, human rights activists would blame the notion of a religion attempting to police outside its borders, police would blame the specific people who inflicted the violence and pundits from all corners are quick to blame the cartoonists.

The point is that while the direct consequences of publishing the images in question in such a hostile climate are apparent (and therefore carry with them a certain amount of blame), the foundation and continuation of an environment where the line between freedom of speech and righteous indignation is so thin is a cause in itself worthy of a good deal more scrutiny than a single cartoon.

Let’s return to the less politically charged example of Mr Zuckerberg and his formula.

BFFs!!! Or are they... (<< The entire plot of The Social Network)

The agents at play in this example are Eduardo who possesses the formula, Mark who possesses the drive and the idea for moving social networking into a new era, and Facebook: the event itself. If Eduardo had refused to give Mark the formula for his site, what would have been the result? Mark was a dogged and determined individual who sought to create his site against any odds.

If the Winklevoss twins had never sent Mark a cease-and-desist order (which he callously disregarded), we’d likely have a trove of people positing the ‘what if’ scenario that they had.

“Can you imagine if those twins that sued Facebook had actually put a stop to it early on? Seriously, if they had just got a cease-and-desist back before Mark had any money or power, the whole Facebook phenomenon would’ve never happened!”

ONE SINGLE INSTANT COULD MAKE YOU A BRUNETTE!

Seriously, resting the entirety of Facebook on one or two moments of penultimate importance is a way of creating tension and drama for Hollywood (think Changing Lanes or Sliding Doors), but has little bearing on reality. If Zuckerberg had never been given the formula by Eduardo, he’d have taken a few extra days to find a manual workaround which mightn’t have been as robust, but he’d have found a way. The notion of these life-changing moments happening is a pleasant one, because it allows us to think that such a moment may come for our lowly selves and change our lives tomorrow. We could be famous, rich, heroic, virtuous or influential, if but for one lottery-winning moment of grace.

So the blog post for this gorgeous Monday morning is simply a plea for reduced sensationalism of thought. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was hatred, nor Facebook.

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Skyfighter review on Game Arena

Hi all.

For those of you interested in checking out the first review (hopefully of many) to come out of this keyboard for a videogame, head on over to Game Arena to check out my review of Skyfighter.

First snippet…

Brilliant colours and an epic score to match. Skyfighter revels in its arcade glory and the result is pure chaos.

I have fond memories of playing old Dogfight-esque games on dodgy hand-me-down consoles from the pre-NES era. One thing which always stuck with me was the raw challenge of getting my little bi-plane to stay airborne while my neighbour (who owned the console, damn him) ripped my wings to shreds repeatedly.

The 3D games just never nailed that single-screen, competitive arcade fun in the same way (although I’ll concede that Crimson Skies was a damn good attempt to shove some joy back into the flight ‘sim’ genre). Seeing Sky Fighter for the first time almost makes you think it needs an ‘HD’ on the end of the title, as it owes much to the Amiga games of old. Read more.

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