Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Political Musings from a Coffee Shop

What if the tea party, the republican party, Fox News - the staunchest defenders of America with a capital Fuck Yeah - were all part of a conspiracy to destabilise it?

The right wing makes no sense to me, I'll freely admit that. It seems to be selfish and underhanded in the same way that they probably view liberalism as overthinking and naive.

But I can at least see where the part of the right nearest the centre is coming from. They believe that making the rich richer is fair because it's better to reward hard work. From a strictly eugenic point of view, it makes sense, I just disagree with the brute simplicity of it. I'll never really understand racism, but there again the right is usually (with the exception of the EDL and such) pretty quick to try and disassociate themselves from it. And limiting the rights of people is a temptingly simple solution because I do believe that people are all idiots, including me. See, I'm typing in green now. Why am I typing in green. Now Blue. Clearly, I'm an idiot.

But what I don't understand are the Sarah Palins and the Sean Hannitys - the crazy right. The ones who think the female body can magically repel rapist semen, who think that 47% of the country they're trying to win over don't pay taxes. The ones who are currently shutting down the US government to stop free healthcare, despite two thirds of Americans being for it.

I mean, these people have to be funded from somewhere, but the majority are against them. If they're just taking advantage of the revelation that (in the UK at least) an obscenely rich minority have the majority of the money, then clearly we need to take a very close look at the word 'democracy, because the government is being run by a minority acting against the interests of the public.

Put it this way. We mock Americans for their attitudes towards war, their unfair healthcare systems and their megacorporations that make Ebeneezer Scrooge look like Oprah on amphetamines. But when have you actually met an American person who agreed with any of it? I mean I've met four Americans off the top of my head, and one of them was a fan of guns; but she was from Alaska where they do kind of need them. I have found all the individual Americans I've met to be reasonable, rational people.

But the news we hear from America is completely different, and it's promoted and funded and reinforced by the same network of attention grabbers, all acting like idiots. It's hard to believe they're not mentally ill, that nobody's sat them down and explained to them that we don't share or support these opinions. It's hard to see where the impetus comes from to keep putting them on our screens.

But... what if that's the point? What if they're elevated to these positions not to defend the US, but to give it a bad name? To tar it with a label reflecting the worst bigotry of the right wing? After all, we can agree that direct attacks of violence have failed. America does not negotiate with Terrorists. But it does love money. Mmm, delicious money. That's it America, dry roasted money in a delicate oil jus. It's their kryptonite. It's even green.

And given that attacks both direct and indirect have failed (modern espionage becomes pointless in an age where the NSA can tap into everything) the remaining option is to take a leaf out of the USA's own playbook: destabilise the government and turn the people against them. Just like in South America, just like in Vietnam. The Republican party is being led astray by the interests of healthcare organisations, most of whom pay their taxes overseas. Foreign interests paying for the US government. And the whole cycle of destruction is protected from repercussions because it's shielded by the money it accumulates.

We have capitalism actively destroying a democracy, and nobody's doing a damn thing.

I think what worries me most about the politics of this era is that governments are no longer listening to protest, and acting without mandate. Something has changed, and that has let them unleash their worst excesses - even in our country, we have the sale of the NHS, grants to energy companies for fracking and the destruction of the welfare state. And we are powerless to stop any of it.

I don't know. I said in an earlier post that that it's very easy to spot conspiracies emerging where there are none, but I think it comes from an in-built desire in the human mind to find patterns in the chaos. Somehow, it's more reassuring to imagine the secret terrorist bloc from Team America: World Police funding Bill O'Reilly's rants about the mentally ill than to imagine instead that someone genuinely feels those kinds of opinions are acceptable.

We're in one hell of a state when it's easier to believe we're being manipulated than it is to believe that we're choosing to act this way.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Through the Looking Glass

I meant to write about this last year when it was first on, but... well...

We have to talk.

I mean I've left TV to it's own devices recently. The break-up was fairly amicable. I've been spending more time with the Xbox anyway, and every time I tried to catch up with TV, it started screaming at me about people I'd never heard of, playing terrible music at all hours and asking if I wanted to borrow any money. And to be honest, the sex was better elsewhere (*ahem*). It hadn't been the same since I was a teenager, and on the few occasions I could bring myself to turn it on, there was nothing there. The magic had gone.

Wanking metaphors aside, there is something genuinely disconcerting about Gogglebox. It's like someone sat a TV executive in front of news reports about privacy concerns surrounding the new Kinect and unease in the public mind towards the rise of so-called reality TV, and then followed it up with a viewing of Orwell's 1984; then lobotomised them and gave them a piece of paper and a crayon.

The resulting scrawl would doubtlessly have spelled out the show's central premise: Watching people while they're watching TV. That's it Britain, that's your cultural lot. You've gone from Elgar and Richard Curtis to staring slack jawed at someone staring slack jawed back at you. It's like chatroulette without the random stranger nudity, although I'm sure Channel 5 are already working out how to (A) get around that and (B) involve Keith Chegwin.

I mean it's just... It's fucking stupid, alright? TV is an inherently non-interactive medium, and nothing brings it home like this. Staring at people staring at a TV. Does it fulfil some voyeuristic longing to see into the lives of other, so called 'normal' people? Is it because most people sort of suspect that they're not normal, and want a yardstick to measure themselves and their opinions against? Are we just nosey sods?

Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to tune in to this week's episode, but I suspect I've been able to replicate the experience by sticking a mirror in the corner of the room, facing me. Oh look, he's typing on his laptop. Now he's picking his nose. Now he's wailing in abject despair at man's desperate, clawing need to consume inane drivel to fill the void modern life has torn from them. Hilarious!

Friday, 20 September 2013

5 Shocking Ways this Insane Website Doesn't Know what a Rip-Off is

I love Cracked.com, even if sometimes it feels like every one of their titles came from a mad-libs drinking game revolving around the words 'shocking,' 'insane' or 'you didn't know.' At least if that were true, it would explain the liver failure and / or brain damage that went into their recent piece, 17 Insane Movies That Ripped Off From Lesser-Known Films You Didn't Know (I may be paraphrasing a little).

I mean, I get that it's nice to be into pop-culture, and I get that it's interesting when you notice things recurring across the vast swathes of things you've watched. Pointing it out to other people validates the amount of time you've invested into watching movies. And to give the article it's due, there are some great examples of actual theft - the author of Voyage of the Space Beagle settling out of court with 20th Century Fox over Alien, and the similarities between A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo.

Beyond that though... I'm sorry, but as insane and shocking as this might sound, the majority of the article doesn't really deal with theft. For instance, #10's revelation about an irresistable force meeting an immovable object fails to take into account it's earlier use as a wrestling meme in the 1980s. #5 just compares some fairly commonly recurring (if a little schmaltzy) lines from a male protagonist to a female one, and #12 is at best an interesting piece of prop spotting.

#2 is probably the low point however, claiming that both Dredd and The Raid ripped off Die Hard because they were both set in a tower block. Do we extend that logic to accusing everything from District 13 to Rec of ripping off Towering Inferno just because they're also set in a tower block?

How far back do you go when accusing films of ripping each other off? Granted, there are shot-for-shot 'homages' going on all the time in movies, but when you stray into the territory of accusing one thing of ripping off another because of thematic similarities, you're straying dangerously close to scratching off the veneer of mass-storytelling completely.

I mean, I'm sure most readers are savvy enough to realise that films have tended to adhere to a fairly standardised three act structure since the late 70s. But beyond that, there is also the discovery that unfortunately, there are only seven basic plots:

  • Overcoming the Monster,
  • Rags to Riches,
  • The Quest,
  • Voyage and Return,
  • Comedy,
  • Tragedy and Rebirth.

'Comedy' being an overall catch-all for those stories which have no other narrative but to make you laugh. So if there are only seven basic plots, how many variants of those plots can there logically be?

I mean, if we're pointing the finger to this extent, surely Cracked needs to be aware of Total Film's list of 50 Great Movies Accused of Being Rip-Offs from July 30th last year, or What Culture's '13 Famous Movies You Didn’t Realise Were Shameless Rip-offs' from August of the same year, or even their own article '7 Classic Movies That Are Shameless Ripoffs' from May this year, by a different author.

The truth is, there is a big difference between repetition and inspiration. History repeats itself, and so the events that inspire the minds of writers will similarly repeat themselves - we just have worldwide cultural access to those events. More people seeing those events means more people being inspired by them in their writing, and eventually, cultural output seems to have all these eerie underlying synchronicities.

It's OK to take an overarching theme and set it in a new light. It's fine to look at a previously used setting and try and do something new with it. It's obviously not OK to take the events, universe or movie poster and just change the names then sell it on, but then there's a fine line of ambiguity in exactly how close is 'too close.'

It just seems to me that this article is really reaching in trying to find similarities. Oh, and a lot of their 'lesser well-known' films aren't really that lesser well known. But apart from that, it was almost as interesting as this concluding paragraph is bad.


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Ornstein and Smuff?

Here's a thought.

Dark Souls is a Japanese game, as I've already pointed out.

What I want to know is this: One of the bosses is named 'Smough.' In Japanese TKatakana, it's a similar pronounciation, coming out as 'Sumou,' which makes sense because he's a huge guy with a habit of flattening you.

However, someone sat down and decided to translate his name using one of the most ambiguous spellings in the English language, namely the 'ough' suffix. This is problematic, because it creates numerous possibilities as to it's pronounciation. For instance, it could be Smough as in 'dough', making it closer to the original Japanese Katakana. But if you were just looking at the word without taking into account its Japanese origins, you could equally pronounce it as in 'plough', making it more like 'Smow.' Or, you could go for the guttural hard 'h' sound in Germanic and Hebrew languages, or even pronounce it like the dragon in the Hobbit, and call him Smaug.

Personally I prefer to pronounce it as in 'rough,' because the idea of a hammer-wielding giant calling himself Smuff tickles me in a way few prostitutes can these days.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Accidental Conspiracies

I don't think that our world is ruled by a dark cabal moving behind the scenes of every major decision that rules the world. As it happens, I think the truth is far scarier - I think we are rudderless and drifting along based solely on the frantic splashing of whichever group in our proverbial lifeboat is flailing the hardest.

Conspiracies are a tricky business. It's very easy to see them in the world around us; to see greedy corporations working to keep the little man down, to see liberal bias in the media, and to suspect some draconian conclave of trying to shut down the internet and limit our freedom of expression.

But what if that illusion of a co-ordinated effort is nothing more than the accumulation of many small acts of self interest? Corporations do not talk to each other. But they do talk to congress in the form of lobbyists, and those lobbyists will push whatever is in the interest of corporate bodies to push. And when those lobbyists all push congress or parliament in the same direction, we see a change in the law that serves the corporations. Not through a co-ordinated effort, but through multiple acts of self interest by people with the same goals.

Journalists tend now to be university educated (or at least clown school, in the case of Fox News), and the bias of universities has always fallen towards liberalism. Institutes which don't have a liberal leaning don't tend to teach the most challenging and controversial materials, which means the journalists don't learn by example from well written, challenging prose. In turn, they tend not to be the ones winning awards for writing touching, heartfelt and moving pieces, because that shit is all touchy-feely crap. And so the top journalists all seem (suspiciously) to be of a liberal bias.

As far as things like ACTA, SOPA and PIPA are concerned, I think that it's pressure as mentioned in the first example - Congress and parliament are only moved to create harmful and misinformed laws because the only information they're receiving is biased. There are now many companies who's focus is the resale of information, and having that information openly accessible to the public is harmful to them. Numerous interests campaign for the limitation of information - to protect the children, to protect against terrorism, to stamp out unseemly websites.

But the appearance of a conspiracy is an accident, and diverts from the real cause of the harm to the freedom of the internet - ignorance. Information is twisted to suit the needs of each individual, but when viewed overall it gives a cumulatively skewed worldview that parliamentarians then act upon. And unfortunately, a lot of the sites attempting to fight back are seen as having an 'agenda,' and are devalued or ignored completely because of it.

I personally find it a more frightening idea that there is no overall guiding hand. With nobody in charge, there is no accountability, only a sea of shrugs and people saying they're 'not the only one doing it,' as though that somehow absolves them of guilt. With no guiding hand, the cumulative effect of tiny shifts in information bias can be that the resulting push could head in any direction. And as the movement builds momentum, if it strays into dangerous territory there is no figurehead to rein it in.

In short, saying that a movement is not a conspiracy doesn't make it any better.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Dark Souls and the Problem with Japanese Gaming

The kids aren't alright, at least not the Japanese ones involved in game design. Or are they? Political correctness would seem to nudge us gently but insistently away from the idea of an entire nation being somehow 'less able' than others in any respect, even game design. And in terms of sales at least the numbers do not lie; Japanese games have been the highest sellers for the last ten years. Even in the midst of their supposed 'downturn' of recent years, Japanese games still occupy 4 of the top ten slots for 2011. However, reviews are a different story: Not a single Japanese game makes the first page of Metacritic's game results when ordered by score, and of the best games of 2011, only one is Japanese.

There may be a decline, but is it the descent into madness IGN has been heralding, or a minor slump? As hamslayer and professional games reviewer Jim Sterling put it:
I don't think we can isolate any one market as especially worst. Japan definitely needs to shake itself up and get over its stagnant period, but the same can be said of Western development these days. Maybe people pick on Japan more because it's so much more invested in the console business, which is where a lot of the industry problems are found. http://www.destructoid.com/inafune-japanese-game-industry-is-not-fine-250765.phtml
Overall positive, but even Sterling admits a problem, unless the word 'stagnant' has changed meaning recently. If I was to look at it as a trend though, I'd say the best example of what's 'wrong' with the Japanese gaming industry is encapsulated in the game Dark Souls. Now let me stop the train right here and preface what follows by saying I love Dark Souls. I love the style, I love the design, and I am slowly getting to like the challenge as I learn a new and unfamiliar spec system. I will argue in defence of this game until my death, and even then I'll probably just keep come back and pick up where I left off (in-joke!). However, I will admit it's not for everyone. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's barely for anyone. The difficulty is insane, even taking into account the fact that death forms a part of the game's ongoing challenge rather than being viewed as an 'end' to the narrative in the traditional sense. There are numerous glitches and quirks you have to get over, and the level design is pretty antiquated - I can't really see many of the environments in Souls that couldn't be achieved on a PS2 (or even a PS1) with a reduced poly count. But the single biggest feature about the game that I feel reflects something inherent to Japanese gaming as compared to Western gaming is this: The programmers are not on your side, and they are not forgiving.
It's something I realised a few years ago playing through Beautiful Katamari. For those who've never played it, it's an abstract game where you roll a giant ball around which picks things up. The more things you pick up, the bigger the ball gets, and you can pick up bigger objects. Most levels have a theme, so you get extra points for picking up 'sweet' objects and lose points for picking up 'savoury' items for example. At the end of each level, you are judged by your father. And when I say judged, this is not a cuddly western father sitting by the fire with a jumper on telling you to try harder next time. No, the King will routinely belittle you when you fail, and even when getting a near perfect score will still describe the resulting Katamari as fine or adequate at best. The king (and by extension, the feedback of the developers) is not there to make you feel better, or reward you for a job well done, or give you a little pat on the head and a cake. They begrudgingly acknowledge that you have passed their test, and may move onto the next. Japanese games seem to have an extra degree of harshness to them, and it's this extra challenge that can be offputting. On buying Dark Souls, I was warned by the helpful chap on the cash register that apparently only something like 1% of people have ever completed it. In reality, taking the people who achieved at least one of the end-game achievements (and counting only one per person) then cross-referencing it with stats for PSN trophies and Steam / Xbox achievements, the figure looks closer to something like 10%, and that's not factoring in people who bought the game and immediately traded it in without logging any achievements. But it's not just that it's hard. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's 'Favela' level was hard on the higher difficulties, but it had very forgiving checkpoints. With enough perseverance and a little patience, anyone can make it through (or at least rush the next checkpoint). Fallout 3's Broken Steel DLC has some armoured albino radscorpions that seemed to take forever to kill, and I've been flipped into the air by more than my fair share of Skyrim's giants. Dark Souls feels different though. From the tutorial level where you get smashed in the face by a giant rock with no warning, to a giant halberd wielding demon that attacks you after your first save point, it makes absolutely no concessions to a failing player. Or a player making normal teething mistakes. The roll function is absolutely vital to your success in avoiding enemy attacks, but there are none of Fable's invisible barriers to stop you rolling off a cliff - if you are on an exposed walkway and you mis-step or panic and roll, you die.

I mentioned earlier that I died a lot on COD:MW2's Favela a lot. The developers knew people would die a lot - it's war, it's part of the progression. So they somehow managed to get their game engine to memorise the exact state of the character as they passed the last checkpoint, and then restore them to that point when they die without having to reload everything (after a screen fade and a brief bout of tinnitus). It's fantastic, it's quick and convenient... and it takes all of the fear out of dying. Like I said before, anyone could complete it given enough time and patience.
One Japanese game I played years ago was called Eve of Extinction, a PS2 game about a guy who's girlfriend's soul gets trapped in a sword. I'm sure Freud and Anita Sarkeesian would have a field day with it, but the point is that this game featured a lot of levels where it was possible to fall off things, like bridges or the edges of walkways. And when you fell off, you inevitably ended up about ten minutes away from where you were, having to slowly make a tortuous progression of jumps again. I don't think I ever completed it because I started looking at a room full of jumping puzzles, the stack of other games in front of me, and gave up. Immediately after, I played Prince of Persia: Warrior Within with it's instant rewind feature for when you fall to your death. No loading screen. No climbing back up. No waiting, no inconvenience, no fear of death. OK, POP is an odd example because it worked and was part of the game mechanic, but in general, I'd go with what Robert Boyd of Gamasutra said: "When failure has no penalty, tension is lost and victory becomes a matter of inevitability and loses its feeling of triumph." But western developers have spent years slowly trying to work out ways of removing the inconvenience to players that have died. My experience of Japanese games is that concessions made for players who have died or failed in some way tend to be absent, and nowhere is this more apparent with Dark Souls. There is no 'easy' difficulty. There are very few shortcuts, and they are usually just as difficult as the main path in their own way. And if you fall, you pick yourself up. Even the widely observed problem of getting 'locked' into an animation when attacking makes sense. If the attack succeeds, you did well. If it fails, well; you failed, that's not the developer's problem. It is something Bruce Lee also observed about the country's martial arts - Japanese arts tend to be rigid, inflexible and rely on a strict arrays of which countermove is an 'appropriate' response to each move. If you choose the wrong move, the other person wins by exploiting the resulting opening. Martial arts contests between higher level grand-masters often end up more like a mental game of chess than a physical bout. The trope of the harsh and disapproving Japanese father pops into my head here, along with my own worries about political correctness. But saying that Japan is a country psychologically different from western countries like the USA and the UK is a simple statement of fact. Japanese people are often expected to work 13 hour days, and live in a culture built heavily around the opposing ideas of shame and honour. It makes perfect sense that a nation that thinks differently designs games that reflect this difference in psychology. To the Japanese designers success is all that matters; admitting defeat is shameful, so shameful they won't acknowledge it. To westerners, it's more about being fair and giving the loser a leg up. This might seem like I'm cherry picking examples, and maybe I am - I've played a lot of games over the years, and these are examples of something that's seemed to be more of a growing, nagging unease every time I pick up a Japanese developed game. People are looking right now for an explanation of why Japanese games tend to be so badly reviewed worldwide, and this is one difference I see between the two markets. Ultimately I'm not saying that one is better than the other - in some ways I feel the western approach panders too much to the gamer in the same way that pop music and action films pander to instant satisfaction and cheap thrills. But if you only consume pop culture, you end up missing out on some older classics which - like Dark Souls - require a little patience to unearth an amazing and long-forgotten sense of reward. Also I was pretty much completely unable to seamlessly work this into the rant, so here's a great piece from Destructoid about Dark Souls which I love but am frustrated with but also love so be nice in the comments.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Academic Writing vs. Blog Writing

I have realised I have been trained into bad habits by University. Now don't get me wrong - obviously you do need to prepare for writing an article, even if it's just dashing off a vague idea you had the other day while cleaning out the guinea pig cage. But I realised this morning that I had been obsessing over my writing in a way that was actually harming it in terms of it being created for a blog. Instead of just writing the damn things, I've been very carefully researching sources, trying to find images that compliment the content and working out how to make sure I cover every point about the subject that can possibly be covered. And that right there is the problem. In writing a piece for academia, the most important thing is to close off avenues of debate in the reader. Leaving points open or unexplored encourages your audience (i.e. your marking tutor) to wonder why you haven't covered that angle, and that means you lose marks. Writing academically, you have to cover all the bases and close off the possibility of valid criticism cropping up. Whereas with a blog, it's more important to open up debate, leave questions raised but unexplored. One of my first year assignments, I was marked down heavily for asking a question and then proposing an answer. When blogging, asking questions (especially in the title) is a great way of psychologically engaging a reader. In other words, university encourages a style of writing that runs contrary to the way we converse and hold dialogue in everyday life. Right now I'm speaking and you're forming a counter-opinion. And that's a good thing. It makes you more likely to leave a comment, and also to share it on social media to get your friends to comment as well. The other thing is that a blog tends to be an idea presented in an exploratory sense rather than a finished one - blogging encourages a dialogue of "This is what I think, what do you think?" So, what do you think?

Monday, 19 August 2013

Is Metagaming really that bad?

For those that don't know, Metagaming is when you take an action in a video game that kind of breaks the fourth wall, and lets your character in on info that the player knows, but their character doesn't. The best example of this is when you're stuck on a bit of dialogue (or you're not sure what choice to make) in a game, so you look it up on something like Wikia. Example: You're wandering round the beautiful wilderness in Skyrim, and come across a man who has two bunnies; one white, one brown. The man can only afford to feed one and intends to cook the other, but asks you to chose because he hasn't the strength. He turns his back, sobbing. At this point, you have three choices:
  1. Kill the white bunny,
  2. Kill the brown bunny,
  3. Backstab the man and steal his stuff (including the bunnies),
  4. Surprise Nicholas Cage appearance: PUT THE BUNNEH IN THE BAWX.
Now the problem with this is that if you let the white rabbit live, it appears later outside your house; and if you feed it a grand soul gem, it turns into the Great Rabbit of Prophecy and spawns an incredibly rare sword called Gutfücker, which... OK, I'll stop that now because it's rapidly becoming silly. None of that paragraph was true. But there are better examples that have actually made it into RPG games. In Skyrim (for realzies this time) there is an annoying jester you meet on the road. If you kill him, it prevents an entire questline from kicking off (The dark brotherhood). As mentioned two posts ago, there are several very minor and seemingly unrelated bugs that can stop you from acquiring the Windhelm house, Hjerim. Most of the thieves quest storyline gives you the option of killing people or letting them live, with loot and sidequests made available or unavailable based on these decisions. The most common criticism is that in real life, you wouldn't be able to look ahead and see the consequences of your actions. But then in real life, there are an unlimited number of outcomes, and you have full control of how the outcomes play out. If you let someone live but they go on to later betray you, it's largely because there was no option on the dialogue tree to incapacitate them instead of killing them, or alerting the authorities, or getting someone to keep an eye on them. And that's assuming the options are written clearly - in Mass Effect, one of the first sequences involves Shepard telling a researcher that they can 'sort out' the researcher's gibbering co-worker. The speech option doesn't say "I can sort him out (smack him in the head with a gun butt)," it just says "I can sort him out" or something similar and then you hit him in the head. And because of the arrangement of the dialogue wheel, it's almost impossible to play as a female and not flirt with the male crew members without berating them for their unprofessionalism. The speech option to advance the romance is always in the 'paragon' spot, and the option to shoot them down is always a renegade one, so whatever happened to letting them down gently? In the end, the problem with metagaming is that it's not a case of 'spoiling' the story, it's more a case of making sure that the story isn't going to spoil itself if you choose the wrong option. Maybe it does sound like cheating, but the fact is, we're not really making an open choice and experiencing the consequences, we're choosing one of a set number of options and experiencing what the programmers think is the consequence. And that isn't real life either.

Friday, 16 August 2013

You are a Beautiful and Unique Snowflake

As much as I like Chuck Palahniuk, I'm a little sick of this oft repeated quote of his from Fight Club, namely: "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake." It's used a lot on forums to justify the smashing down of people getting too insistent about their rights, or some percieved societal mistreatment. It's akin to the 'world's tiniest violin' in terms of responses, a demand for the recipient to suck it up and wade through the same shit as the rest of us. Well the problem with that is that - genetically speaking - you are unique. Compare your DNA sequence to that of any other organism on the planet, and you find remarkable variances throughout. You are one species in billions. One ethnic grouping within that species. One family within that grouping. One person in that family. Socially too. You could have a genetic lookalike on the other side of the planet, raised in a different society with different expectations. Even within the same city - a young artist born in Manhattan is going to have a very different life to one born in Washington Heights. And look at twins. The most similar at a genetic level that two organisms can get, put in the same social situation; but again, different reactions to different situations. True, you are not a snowflake. You are something better. You are the end result of a monumental accumulation of variables reacting and interacting over a span of time we can't even measure. All the material in your body was formed in the explosive birth of a star. You are more than a billion-to-one chance. And some people are happy to take that miracle made flesh and sit it at an office desk ticking 'no' on a form. Chuckling and nodding at every social inequality, shrugging their country away. What is it that makes some people so desperately crave the mundane, even to the extent that they would willingly force it on others?

Saturday, 10 August 2013

'Fool' Said my Muse to me

Over the last few days, I've been working on getting the site's layout back into shape. But standing in the kitchen earlier, just listening to the background noise of thoughts running through my head - thoughts for a new comic idea, thoughts about how best to spec my character in Dark Souls - listening to all of these thoughts, I remembered something I wrote two years ago. It was for Splendid Fred back when it was a magazine rather than a theatre company, about the importance of writing down these random ideas. I also remembered another post I wrote way back about the importance of keeping myself writing, and now I look at the empty posting calendar over there and feel a bit guilty. So here I am to flesh out one of the ideas at the sink: I have gotten myself a little lost. I have a project I started, you see; a fantasy novel with a big idea and a grand, sweeping scale. And unfortunately, it's such a big idea that it's crushing all the fledgling little ideas that could have been with it's weight. Everything about the book is hard to write - the third person style, the world building, the plot weaving... And it gets me to thinking that right now, the biggest obstacle in the way of me right now is me. I mean, I can write. This is readable, and you're reading it right now, so I'm writing. Blogging is easier because it's just me being me. And yet the last few times I've sat down to do so, I've mentally thought myself out of it because I feel I should be doing some 'proper' writing, or I don't have any ideas or subjects to write about. I do, it's just that right now I'm letting them escape while I'm at the kitchen sink, or in the shower or on the xbox. Or, I look at minor inconsistencies in the layout, like the impossibility of convincing the site that there's a margin (or there's supposed to be) between the next page button and the list of pages. Which really doesn't matter at all if there's no actual content on the page to look at. Hence the long gaps in the posting history. But I'm going to start trying again. Again. End on a poem:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show, That She, dear She, might take some pleasure of my pain, —Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know, Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain— I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe, Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain, Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain. But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay; Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows; And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way. Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes, Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite— “Fool!” said my Muse to me "look in thy heart, and write!" - Sir Philip Sydney http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/7274/
So yeah, it turns out that history has already covered the subject of getting so stuck trying to write that you forget to write.

Friday, 9 August 2013

How to get Hjerim in Skyrim

Considering the amount of time Skyrim has been out, and the amount of bugs involved in this quest; I am genuinely surprised that googling 'How to get Hjerim in Skyrim' returns a list of confusing Gamefaqs forum posts from three patches ago, or wiki recommendations on which console commands let you fix it on the PC version, or reassurances that the PC only 'unofficial patch' has fixed the problem.

There are also plenty of guides that assume you know about the many bugs that can stop the quest dead, either by halting progress in a required sub-quest (Blood on the Ice) or by cutting NPCS off from the speech options offering you the house (Jorleif). Well, they're great and all but there don't seem to be any that say 'This - from the start of the game - is how to 100% guaranteed get Hjerim if you can't mod your game.' Which is why, after a few days of research and playtesting, I'm writing one titled precisely that.

This - from the start of the game - is how to 100% guaranteed get Hjerim if you can't mod your game.

Why Hjerim?

Hjerim is, without a doubt, the best house in Skyrim in terms of eventual storage space and convenience. It has both an alchemy room and an enchanting room, neither of which you need to get rid of if you want the child's bedroom for Hearthfire. It has a good amount of space for storage, an armory and display dummies.

It's only one transition away from a marketplace that has a fence and a blacksmith with a smelter, and on the off chance that they don't have enough gold to buy your loot, there's another merchant and an alchemist nearby.

No other city has all of these features - Riften is a good second choice, but there's no smelter and an extra transition to get to the general merchant. Breezehome is probably the next most convenient, but even then there's no enchanting table, no dummies, the layout is tiny and you lose the alchemy table if you want the child's bedroom. Even the Solitude house has no smelter, and the merchants are all behind transitions. Markarth's layout is a nightmare to quickly navigate when selling and the Hearthfire houses have nothing useful nearby anyway.

For those of you who are familiar with Skyrim's main and side quests, I'll keep it simple:
    Avoid the following:
  • Any 'fetch/deliver [item] from/to [place] for [npc]' type quests,
  • Talking to Jorleif / Ulfric before starting Blood on the Ice,
  • Entering Hjerim before talking to the witnesses or inspecting the crime scene,
  • Installing any mods / DLC before getting Hjerim,

    Do the following in order without deviating:
  1. Escape Helgen,
  2. Follow Ralof (Stormcloaks) or Hadvar (Imperial) to Riverwood,
  3. Get sent to Whiterun by Gerdur (Stormcloak) or Alvor (Imperial),
  4. Follow Jarl Balgruuf's quests until he makes you Thane at the end of Dragon Rising,
  5. Go to Windhelm*, enter, leave and travel to another location (Brandy-Mug Farm to the southeast should do). Repeat 4 times.
  6. Go to the graveyard between 7pm and 7am, repeating step 5 until you find a dead body surrounded by four people,
  7. Initiate the Blood on the Ice quest by talking to the guard, and follow the instructions HERE in order, as they appear. Ignore the 'Get assistance from Jorleif' objective, as it never updates.
  8. Start the civil war questline by talking to either:
    • Ulfric Stormcloak in Windhelm (Stormcloaks), Complete the Civil War up to the end of Rescue from Fort Neugrad. Speak to Jorleif.
    • General Tullius in Solitude (Imperials). Complete the entire Civil War questline, and speak to the new Jarl, Brunwulf Free-Winter. If his steward (Captain Lonely-Gale) cannot be found, use Unrelenting Force on the exiled Jarls sat at the table in Windhelm's Palace of Kings to get a bounty. Escape, return, pay off the bounty / serve jail time, and then speak to the Jarl and Steward to continue.
  9. If the Steward does not have the dialog option to buy property, complete any sidequests that require you to pick up / deliver an item for someone and keep trying.

* Via the cart outside the Windhelm stables. Basically, if you want to be able to buy Hjerim, you need to have done the main quest up to Dragon Rising, and the Civil War quest up to Rescue from Fort Neugrad as the Stormcloaks (or the entire Civil War questline as the Imperials).
Below is an explanation of why you need to follow all of the above steps along with a little more detail, but for most people, the above is a collection of all you need to know in order to purchase Hjerim. If i've missed anything important hit me up in the comments, but I can confirm that this solution works as of patch 1.5 (Xbox 360).

Detailed runthrough:

So here's why you should avoid doing the following:

Any 'fetch/deliver [item] from/to [place] for [npc]' type quests.

Skyrim uses a quest system called Radiant, and one of the things it does to keep things interesting is make up randomised fetch quests for the player to do. In theory, it means you will never run out of things to do. In practice, it sometimes has the unfortunate side-effect that if you have an incomplete Radiant quest, it can prevent Stewards that you haven't spoken to yet from getting the dialog options that allow you to buy property. It happens a lot to Falkreath, but it can occasionally happen in Windhelm. The most common of these to crop up is collecting an amulet of Arkay for Torbjorn Shatter-Shield.

Talking to Jorleif / Ulfric before starting Blood on the Ice.

Some wikis are reporting that if you talk to Jorleif before starting Blood on the Ice, he will never have any more than the two basic speech options, and therefore not only will Blood on the Ice be impossible to complete, but the speech options for Hjerim will never appear. If you talk to Ulfric before starting Blood on the Ice, some users have reported it bugging Hjerim out later. Plus, if you start the Civil War questline by talking to him and decide to side with the Imperials, Ulfric become hostile and you cannot buy the property anyway until Brunwulf Free-Winter becomes Jarl. Also if you side with the Imperials, it replaces all the Windhelm guards with Imperial Soldiers, none of whom have the correct dialog to initiate Blood on the Ice. Jorleif will then be stuck telling you that Hjerim is unavailable due to some 'unpleasantness.'

Entering Hjerim before talking to the witnesses or inspecting the crime scene.

If you pick the lock and enter Hjerim before starting Blood on the Ice, the investigation markers will bug out and the internal logic of the quest jumps ahead to a point that makes it impossible to complete without console commands. So don't. If you enter after picking up the quest but before interviewing the witnesses and talking to Helgird, the quest markers bug out and the game will no longer point you to your next objective, which can make finding Calixto damn near impossible.

Installing any mods / DLC before getting Hjerim.

Dawnguard starts sending out vampires to attack cities at level 10. Dragonborn sends random cultists out to attack you. Either one can accidentally kill Arivanya in the crossfire, who needs to be alive in order for the quest to start properly.

So here's a bit more detail about why you have to follow certain quests:

Escape Helgen. Follow Ralof (Stormcloaks) or Hadvar (Imperial) to Riverwood. Get sent to Whiterun by Gerdur (Stormcloak) or Alvor (Imperial). Follow Jarl Balgruuf’s quests until he makes you Thane at the end of Dragon Rising.

This is all to make sure Balgruuf is ready for the Civil War questline - You won't be able to speak to the Jarl freely in order to hand him the axe until you've got the quest up to this point, so you might as well do it now.

Go to Windhelm, enter, leave and travel to another location (Brandy-Mug Farm to the southeast should do). Repeat 4 times.

This is probably the weirdest requirement, but Blood on the Ice has an internal counter that logs the amount of times your character has entered Windhelm, exited, travelled to another map marker, and travelled back. Once it hits four, the quest will initiate. Travelling to Brandy-Mug Farm and back is enough.

Go to the graveyard between 7pm and 7am.

The murder 'happens' (i.e. Skyrim moves the NPCs into place) between 7am and 7pm after the counter hits 4.

Initiate the Blood on the Ice quest by talking to the guard. 

Blood on the Ice is one of the three main reasons people aren't getting Hjerim (the other two being the Civil War and the radiant quests bug), and is one of the most glitchy quests in the entire game. It's mostly because of this quest that I've made sure I did things in this precise order. Because of this, follow the instructions in your quest log exactly. There are walkthroughs on most Skyrim Wikis, but I'd do it this way:
  1. Talk to the guard at the graveside,
  2. Talk to the witnesses,
  3. Talk to the guard, and then Jorleif,
  4. Talk to Helgird in the Hall of the Dead,
  5. Follow the blood trails to Hjerim but do not go in,
  6. Talk to Jorleif,
  7. Wait 'til 9-10am, then go to the House of Clan Shatter-Shield,
  8. Talk to Tova, say you want to help catch the killer,
  9. Do not talk to Torbjorn - he offers you a radiant quest that will (temporarily) stop Jorleif from gaining the speech option to sell Hjerim until you get Torbjorn the amulet (and it's not an easy amulet to find).
  10. Go into Hjerim and click on all the investigation targets, (some of them CAN make the house glitchy once purchased if not investigated).
  11. Talk to Jorleif again,
  12. Talk to Calixto, offer to sell him the medallion,
  13. Talk to Viola Giordano,
  14. Talk to Wunferth and accuse him of necromancy (then follow his suggestion to wait for the murderer),
  15. Go to the market at midnight and kill Calixto as soon as he draws his weapon,
  16. Talk to Jorleif.

Again, this is such a glitchy quest it's best to do it in this order just to be sure.

Start the civil war questline by talking to either Ulfric or General Tullius

Once you start the civil war, you have two options:

Stormcloaks: You only have to get up to the end of the Rescue from Fort Neugrad quest, at the end of which Jarl Ulfric will make you Thane and give you the right to purchase property. Assuming you have no radiant quests outstanding, you can now go over to Jorleif and purchase Hjerim. Buy the clean-up first. If you don't buy the cleanup option first, the bloodstains and cobwebs will remain there and you'll never be able to get rid of them.

Imperials: You get the longer route, I'm afraid. In order to be able to buy property in Windhelm, you need to follow the quest-line the whole way through in order to replace Jarl Ulfric once he turns hostile to you as an Imperial. Once you have done this, speak to the steward. If his steward cannot be found, it's most likely because the game has not yet updated Captain Lonely-Gale with his new role, and he's wandering round Windhelm. If this happens, use Unrelenting Force on the exiled Jarls sat at the table in Windhelm’s Palace of Kings to get a bounty. Escape, return, pay off the bounty / serve jail time, and then speak to the Jarl and Steward to continue. For some reason, getting a bounty and then paying it off places the steward correctly into his 'routine' of being at the palace. If the Steward does not have the dialog option to buy property, complete any sidequests that require you to pick up / deliver an item for someone and keep trying.

And that's it! That's how to get Hjerim. Hopefully. As I said on the first page, if there's anything I left out or that wasn't clear, hit me up in the comments and I'll see what I can do.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Sarkeesian Dualism

Once upon a time (well, yesterday actually), fellow blogger and freshly minted author Rewan over at The Hyperteller made a bit of a point about feminism in his post The Women are Taking Over. Read it. Assuming of course that the women haven't already taken over, in which case ask your nearest woman for permission, and then read it. Now far be it from me to write a blog post that could easily have been a simple reply, but there is another debate going on at the moment about Anita Sarkeesian, she of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games fame. It's an ongoing video series, and the second part was recently taken down via abuse of YouTube's flag system. Which is a shame, because leaving it up does more harm to her argument than good. The problem with her piece is not what it says, but the way it goes about saying it. If you were to ask the YouTube flag spammers "Do you think Anita Sarkeesian has a point, and women are misrepresented in video games," I think the reply would be a resounding yes, and we are aware of the problem. If however, you were to ask "Do you agree with the examples used, the way she worded it, and the misrepresentation of a beloved hobby," then I think it's easier to understand why the pitchforks came out. It didn't help that the whole thing started with a $6,000 Kickstarter campaign that ended up raking in over $150,000, and the best she could do with the money was a new mac and a copy of CS6 so she can slap flashy popups all over what amounts to a series of twenty minute vlogs. It's also surprising that with so much of the money earmarked for production costs, she presents the videos herself rather than hiring someone who can enunciate correctly. See, she's very up-front about the fact that the Kickstarter money was going to be used to buy games and equipment, but what that shows is that she's not going to have played them like a normal gamer would. We spend a few evenings a week, weekends, entire summer holidays soaking in these worlds, learning their quirks and their charm. We play them to win, sure, but we also play them to experience them. But Sarkeesian does not strike me as the gamer she claims to be; more someone who has noticed gaming is getting popular, and has decided that's going to be what she does now that she's graduated. With the timescale she's giving herself between updates, she's probably only got time to rush through the basics of each game before moving on, all the time looking for more points for her next video. And given that she's now closed avenues of dialogue with non feminist gaming channels, the list of recommendations she recieves are obviously going to give a biased view.
I think this guy sums it up best - he also acts like a complete dick in making some of his points, but a lot of them are good points nonetheless. He notes that Sarkeesian interprets the desire to rescue a damsel as a "male power fantasy" - a direct quote from her second video - which is an interesting reinterpretation of a primal instinct in human beings to rescue people they care about. I say interesting. I mean interesting in the way that a therapist would write down and underline in red pen. This is the frustrating thing about the videos. Her reasoning is built on a chain of conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere, or at least have no impartial and objective truth to them. In the first video, Sarkeesian put a lot of people's backs up when she tried to quash the video game trope that stock male characters tend to be stronger, while female characters are faster. "This simply isn't true," she states, before moving on without providing any evidence to a statement that runs contrary to evidence that can be seen all around us. What she means is that she doesn't want it to be true, or that there are reasons it is true that she feels we should be fighting against. The axiom that the sexes are equal does not mean that there aren't differences between them. And whether through nature or nurture, the fact is - as many morphologists, physiotherapists and statisticians will tell you - male bodies tend to have more upper body strength, which can have an impact on dexterity. There's a reason men and women's weightlifting contests are divided by gender and tend to have different scores. Your average woman can train to be as strong as most men, it's true. But for whatever reason, they don't. As a statistical trend, men tend to be stronger. Another leap in reasoning comes when she examines the motivations of The Darkness II's Jackie in rescuing his girlfriend's soul:
"The implication being that she belongs to him, that she was his posession."
Maybe that's what she got from it - I got from it that the mob guy is a dick, and now I hate him. I'll agree absolutely that the scene in question is about feelings of loss of power, of helplessness. He killed someone my character cared deeply for, and so by the transitive property of human emotion, she's someone I also cared for. And I couldn't do anything to stop it. But she then goes on to state factually that it's all about loss of masculinity. Maybe it's more about loss of girlfriend, Anita. Or loss of another human being. Sometimes a cigar is just a fucking cigar.
She goes on though, claiming that "Depictions of female vulnerability are used as an easy way for writers to trigger an emotional reaction in male gamers." I don't know how easy it can be to emotionally attach yourself to one of your creations and then put it through that kind of abuse. As George RR Martin put it when talking about the now infamous Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones:
"That was the hardest scene I’ve ever had to write. It’s two-thirds of the way through the book, but I skipped over it when I came to it. So the entire book was done and there was still that one chapter left. Then I wrote it. It was like murdering two of your children. I try to make the readers feel they’ve lived the events of the book. Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed. You should care. If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?" - George R. R. Martin
So why doesn't Anita Sarkeesian seem to understand this fear of the death of a beloved character? This is one of the key problems I have with her analysis - it reflects a superficial experience. She is not on the gamer's side speaking out, she is on the outside looking in, telling us what the experience looks like without engaging enough to give a true reflection. She doesn't engage with the characters in any meaningful way, and it shows in her detached analysis. Where she sees game developers manipulating players by doing horrible things to women, I see the antagonist doing it. There's a well established distance between the intentions of the author and the intentions of their characters, and thank god, or George RR Martin would be licking the inside of a cell in Broadmoor. It shows a basic lack of understanding of the way art works - it'd be like saying how antisemitic Spielberg is for portraying the atrocities in Schindler's list, or how much of a fascist Orwell was for writing 1984. A good writer has to be inventive and know how to push his audience's buttons, and the drive for compassion can be an effective form of that drive. I wonder though if it says more about our society that we now have to spell out to people that they should feel compassion for other people, even if they're fictional. Viewed that way, instead of Prey being the hateful attack on women Sarkeesian claims it to be, the experience with finding your mutated girlfriend is there to make you feel conflicted and horrible. Yes, it involves the mutilation of a woman, but that's to show how evil the antagonist is, not the developer and not the victim. Sarkeesian claims that women in this role are written to beg the players to perform violence on them. I really hope she realises that at no point did anyone think this was supposed to be a good thing. And again, when it forces you to fight your girlfriend, it's the antagonist being evil, forcing you to fight what you were trying to protect. You're supposed to think 'Isn't this horrible,' not 'Let's raise $150,000 that feminists could have donated to domestic violence causes so I can complain about this on the internet.' After all, as she points out in the second video, "Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States; and on average more than 3 women are murdered by their boyfriends, husbands or ex-partners every single day." While that's shocking enough, more shocking is the idea that the $150,000 raised for these videos came from feminist-leaning donors with disposable cash, the kind who might have otherwise used it to support domestic violence charities. Hey, if she can level her personal impressions as factual conclusions, then so can I.
Look, gamers - like any audience - need to feel good and bad to be motivated to invest in a story. They need to feel that the antagonist is a bad guy, and the protagonist is a good guy; so we get them to do good and bad things. Maybe there is a problem with it usually being women in that role. But most of the games quoted as examples in both videos are from Japan, a culture with it's own fairly major issues against women - tarring the western gaming industry with the same brush just isn't fair. Sarkeesian names five examples of a specific scenario, namely 'Your wife is murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter,' to imply a medium-wide trend. And some of the 'modern' examples she quotes date back to the early 2000s, and the mid nineties in one case. It adds further fuel to the idea that she is just 'skim playing' these games in the same way that bad college students get the cliff notes instead of reading the set texts. She claims that violence is the only option presented in games. Really? I just finished the Mass Effect trilogy, in which a female commander unites the entire galaxy primarily through diplomacy and moral choices. My wife is playing Minecraft, in which she tends to set up a shelter on the first day that will enable her to avoid enemies once night falls. My favourite tactic on Civilisation: Revolution is to go for a cultural victory by turtling down and amassing trade and research. I even knew someone who completed the original Deus Ex using only a small crate. She even admits herself that these games do not exist in a vacuum and have a responsibility to a broader social context. They do - it's just that she is missing as much of the game's context by skimming it as she accuses the game of missing in terms of social context. Look at it this way: I spent half of GTA: Vice City trying to rescue Lance fucking Vance. Does that disempower black people? No, I was trying to rescue a friend. By allying a decent notion with a spurious and high profile, self-serving campaign, Sarkeesian is doing her supposed cause more harm than good. I watched both videos, and ended up trying to counter her arguments not because I disagree with them in principle, but because of the arguable way they are presented and the tarnishing effect her conclusions have on a hobby I enjoy. And I think ultimately, that comes back to the original point in Rewan's blog. Women are not equal in status to men, and that needs to change. But damseling? In video games? Given a budget of $150,000 and an eagerly waiting audience that's the best you can do? Damseling is one of the least problematic aspects women face playing video games nowadays; from openly acknowledged abuse by the community, objectification, patronisation and under-representation. And that's aside from all the other social issues which conspire against them from the outside. There are so many other things this money could have gone toward rather than a self indulgent rant about the gaming industry. At least mine are free.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The More you Know...

This coming week I will mostly be working on my Kindle collection, so posts may be thin on the ground. In the meantime, here's something to think about. Derren Brown recently tweeted about something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. I'd heard of it before, but not with quite as succinct a wording. Put simply, the Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates that the less you know about something, the less you realise that you know very little about it; and so you can often approach the subject with inflated and unrealistic confidence. Conversely; the more you know the more you realise you don't know that much, and so you approach the subject with diminished confidence. Or maybe that's not putting it simply at all. Examples then. Most people will be familiar with someone from another department coming down and asking you to do something by the end of the week that you know couldn't realistically be done by the end of the month. Like the graphic designer who's client wants 'all the butterflies replaced with faeries, by 3pm' when they've only got two stock images of faeries, neither are silhouettes and the client didn't send the email 'til 2pm. It could be a requested spreadsheet that the other department generates with the click of a button, but yours couldn't afford the software and so has to assemble the data by hand, and everyone's busy frantically trying to find images of faeries anyway. There's this website as well. To those who don't write it must seem like half an hour or so's work to just type a few hundred words and stick it on the internet. What isn't taken into account is the hour or so trawling through news feeds to find something interesting and thought provoking (you can skip this step if you write for Heat magazine or you're Jan Moir), then the basic write-up, then the spell check, then the redraft, then (because I'm not very good at PHP yet) finding, sourcing and formatting images to embed in the post. Then putting it up and linking it on various social media making sure it's appropriate for the site in question (featured image and leading text on Facebook, attention grabbing blurb for Twitter, porn / hipster inspirationals for Tumblr and so on). And then the time that evening and the next day scouring everything for reactions and replying. So all in all, even a quick post usually takes two to three hours. The best example I can think of is photography - it probably seems like the easiest thing in the world for a lot of people to 'just pick up a camera,' especially with the price of bridge and SLR cameras falling every day. And yet what distinguishes the professional from the amateur is that they will take the original image in RAW (which takes longer to process but captures more information), they will obsessively edit the colour levels, crop the image to better frame the composition and generally faff monstrously over every single shot to the point that would drive any mere mortal screaming for the hills (without even a polaroid to capture the panoramic views). And in all these cases, people are underestimating things because they don't understand the intricacies of them. They have little or no experience in that field, so the large gap between 'beginning' and 'end' is filled with an amorphous green jelly in which they assume you're picking your toenails or staring into space. The client has never sat down with a design program and tried to wrestle with it over a vague and ill-defined list of requirements, so it seems simple to them. Because it looks simple, they think it's easy.
And so goes part one of the Dunning-Kruger effect: The less you know about something, the less you realise that there is a vast amount of information about it that you don't know. Being blissfully aware of that, it allows people to confidently make sweeping generalisations on topics like immigration, welfare reform and climate change. In the last page's examples, all the client knows is that the graphic designer is being difficult over a couple of pictures of faeries. Websites seem to take forever to update (I know, I'm sorry). Complex and inter-related ethical debates get reduced to "hang 'em all" and "send 'em all back." I realised I had been jealous of an old friend who had been putting up amazing photographs on Facebook recently only to find out he had been 'cheating' by going to photography workshops. He hasn't been cheating. He's been learning. Whereas the people who do know the full range of a subject are not only aware of it's complexity, they're also aware that there are more avenues of inquiry to explore. There are conflicting ethical considerations, where alien cultures can seem to be 'taking over' when it's more likely that a minority is no longer small enough to remain ignored. It can appear as though people are flooding to our country because they have it good here, whereas it might also be important to look at what's so bad in other countries that it's making them flee like amateur photographers. And while a blanket policy of sending everyone back out the way they came in might reduce the number of immigrants, it also raises the number of helpless internationals who are being abused, starved and exploited in their own countries. The end result is that the people who actually know the most about a subject are often the least likely to speak authoritatively on it for fear of oversimplifying the subject. In contrast, the people most eager to speak or act on a subject's definitive answer are usually the people who understand and appreciate the subject the least. Unfortunately, Dunning-Kruger is more than just a hilarious oddity of human psychology that explains the classic "I'm no expert but..." mentality, it's a glowing warning sign pointing towards idiocracy. Politics is often as bipolar as it is bipartisan, both sides pouring out unworkable policies backed by righteous belief. Bosses are employed straight out of management degrees who have no experience of the job they're overseeing, running businesses into the ground and destroying the NHS trying to apply business techniques to a public service. People destroy and vilify each other over incompatible 'truths.' Piers Morgan is still on the air. It's horrible. Of course it's entirely possible that I've only been able to write this because I don't understand how it all works. If so, maybe I'm better sticking to fiction, in which case I'll see you on the other side.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Apples and Shares

I swear, I got in from shopping today intending to rant about Apple's hypocrisy concerning intellectual property. Actually no, that's a lie - I got into an argument on Facebook this morning, and was intending on spending my weekly Jeff Day playing Assassin's Creed when I got a call from the missus asking me to retrieve some D&D books from the loft, and now I realise I'm probably not going to get a Jeff Day this week, so I'm writing instead. Which in a roundabout way sets up the meat to the two-veg that has been this post so far. The content of the Apple rant was not important. What was important was how quickly it descended into talk of market forces, and how I'll never sway the market against them - people buy iPhones and iPads now because a lot of people have already bought iPhones and iPads. They're easy enough to use. Me, I prefer Android - specifically HTC's Sense implementation of it - and always will, especially now they've let us use the task switch button as a menu button. But I digress. When I rant about things, I'm not trying to change the world. I'm not even trying to change anyone's mind, because it would be pretty arrogant of me to think I know better than other people. But I feel a desire boiling up inside me to speak up and say when something is wrong. Apple did not invent the tablet. Not by a long shot. Neither did Microsoft, as seemed to be the implication by Facebook's truncated thumbnail of the image I posted. But everyone thinks they did, and it does annoy me.
Why, is what I want to know. Why am I writing? Why are YOU writing, if you regularly do? Why, at the heart of it, do any of us sit down and start pecking away at set of plastic buttons on a daily basis? I mean the discussion was held on Facebook, so it wasn't motivated by money. It wasn't for the sake of friendly discussion, because it got fairly unpleasant between me and an old friend, as well as mildly unpleasant with my own brother. And it wasn't for the sake of correction, because I don't expect for one second for them to walk away from the experience changed by it. But still I wrote, and still I am writing now, because of that burning desire to be heard, to communicate with other people. An idea forms in my head and nags at me, picking away at my attention, demanding to be released. Scientifically it's possibly something to do with dopamine, endorphins and rewarding a good idea to share with my tribe and thus bolster our chances of survival. But the upshot of it is that in attempting to share the way I see the world, in refusing to let a common misconception slide, I annoyed two people this morning. And put in the same situation again, I don't know if I would have done any differently. I wonder what it is about the mind of a writer, that our thoughts can be so annoying that the first thing we want to do is inflict them on other people?

Friday, 8 February 2013

Back in the Loop

So, here we are, and here you are. Communicating telepathically across the internet once more. For those of you that are not aware, the current financial situation and a lack of success at finding a 'real' job have landed me in the awkward position of actually seeing writing as the most realistic career path ahead of me. I know, right? DAVID CAMERON *shakes fist.* So, initial redrafting of the pieces intended for Kindle is done - I now need to type up the changes, cross-check it against lecturer feedback and get it correctly formatted. If successful, I will have a collection of short stories based on my creative assignments from the three years at university. Anyway, I'm not very good at talking about myself, because my parents raised me to believe that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Otherwise, the site is finally falling into shape a little. Ads aren't too obtrusive, margins line up on the main W3C compliant browsers correctly, and it's stopped doing that annoying thing where the sidebar keeps popping up in the middle of the header. Hated that.