Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The Unfinished Swan - Tech Demo 9/2008 from Ian Dallas on Vimeo.

I saw this on 'Why, That's Delightful' a few days ago and was rather impressed. I'm really happy whenever I see games like this (the only other example I can think of is Portal, but there are plenty of others). When I saw how close games were getting to photorealism I really hoped that we'd get some sort of gaming equivalent of impressionism and abstraction. Because, as any 19th century artist will tell you, photorealism is boring. I am pretty sure that in about five years Twilight Princess will look really badly dated, whilst The Wind Waker will still look stylistically amazing. The fact that developers are doing things like this provides a satisfying counterbalance to the ongoing efforts to render team sports, cars, and brutal violence in ever more colorful detail.

Not that I have anything against violent games, or games where I crash cars, it's just that sometimes I like to feel like games should at least try and punch their weight in a cultural or aesthetic sense.


I was going to link a load of other things I've read and seen recently, but most of them are in some way political and really, I think that anyone reading this doesn't need to be told that Sarah Palin is a moron again.

Oh, but I should link this fine example of what must, surely, be genius trolling. That, or an idiot of truly magnificent proportions.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"That's just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe has that"

I’m watching a BBC documentary about the collapse (and alleged demolition) of World Trade Center tower 7. Conspiracy theories like these are always fascinating examples of the many different biases which people bring to the analysis of evidence.

[I was going to write more on this stuff, and I might at some point, but I’m tired now.]

Firstly there is always the way that most people are far more willing to take didactic statements of truth from figures of authority than they are willing to assess evidence on their own. This creates big problems for people trying to debunk conspiracy theories, because they are often started, or prominently backed up, by people with seemingly solid credentials. What is most effective is when a person with an apparently informed background (in the case of the WTC7 conspiracies he’s an architect*) states—without giving any evidence to support his claim—that the scenario he suggests is ‘obvious’ and that ‘anyone can see it’. I’m sure there’s a name for this effect in the study of rhetoric, but I don’t know what it is, either way it is very effective -- it makes people who go along with his arguments feel superior; everyone else, the subconscious logic goes, are idiotic and easily led. The statement that I thought was particularly interesting in this documentary is when the 911 truthman says ‘even a child can see that that isn’t a natural collapse’

Which is just dumb. It’s like saying ‘any child can tell that lightning is caused by fighting sky monsters’ because you think that meteorologists are a sinister cabal who don’t want anyone to learn how they ‘really’ predict the weather. Hypotheses are not given credibility on a first-come-first-serve basis, they have to make sense, and be possible. Generally underpinning all of these things is the anti-intellectualism that seems to be becoming increasingly common in American society in particular. The fact that those who support the official line are world leading authorities on the subject of demolition and structural collapse is seen as irrelevant. Just as the fact that Sarah Palin doesn't seem to know the first thing about the job she's running for, or the sort of issues she'd be expected to deal with, is seen as irrelevant by many.

Even if you disregard the fact that rigging a building for demolition involves tearing out internal walls, drilling holes in columns, and laying miles and miles of cables everywhere (which is hard to do in a busy office building without anyone noticing), this conspiracy theory is no more possible than any of the other unorthodox theories that have surfaced over the years. The reason for this is fairly simple: with each successive counter to their arguments conspiracy theorists add more people to the list of people who would have to be in on the conspiracy. What this amounts to, in effect, is that these people are accusing thousands of people of being accessories to mass murder. A list that includes all of the structural engineers that testified at the enquiry, the FDNY and NYPD witnesses who testified that they heard no demolition explosions, as well as thousands of ordinary men and women in the area at the time.

When people come up with these theories they generally envisage them as being masterminded by some devilish incarnation of ‘the man’ and don’t seem to realise what it is that they are, in reality, suggesting. Even if you accept the idea that thousands of people who pledged to help their fellow citizens, who have risked their lives in the course of that vocation, lied and conspired to kill thousands of innocent people, there is an insoluble problem with all this: people are shit at keeping secrets.

Just think, Nixon couldn’t keep a break-in at an office in the Watergate building secret – and that only involved a handful of people. Do they really think that of the thousands who would have to be involved in a scheme like this, none of them would sell their stories, or have a crisis of conscience?

I've always felt that Hanlon's Razor is one of the best principles to live by, or, in the words of Sir Bernard Ingham, "cock-up before conspiracy".


*This is a irrelevant anecdotal slur, but I’ve heard my share of ‘dumb architect’ stories: structural engineers like to tell stories of the many architects they have dealt with who displayed ignorance of construction methods, structural tolerances, and even really basic physics.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

It’s been said many times, by people much more intelligent and articulate than myself, but the internet has really changed the way that people access and interact with information. My job requires me to do a fair amount of research and calls on me to have at least a passing knowledge of pretty much everything, ever.

Now, if you want a fairly shallow understanding of pretty much everything, ever, then the internet is your man – or, more specifically, Wikipedia. When I need to know something for a specific reason then I get my information from somewhere authoritative, but for just a quick orientation on a subject wiki is king.

The problem with it, and its great strength, is the amazing way that information is endlessly interlinked and cross-referenced. It brings out a little known principle of information gathering, sort of like thermodynamics of thought – when reading about something important, your mind will always tend to drift towards information that is less important, but more interesting. This is best demonstrated by this XKCD comic:

Today, for example, I started by reading about a John Wayne film called ‘The Cowboys’ – this was for work, I needed to get a vague idea of the story before I wrote something. Through various strange diversions -- which included articles on Bruce Dern, Yakima Canutt, and Non-Fiction Novels -- I ended up on a website devoted to a little known sideshow freak/magician called Johnny Eck.

All you can see in that picture is all there was to him – he was developmentally normal, except for the fact that his body stopped just below his ribcage, giving him the appearance of a half person. He nonetheless lived a long and varied life, managing to use his bizarre deformity to his advantage. I especially like the anecdote I read about the time when he performed in a travelling magic show with a magician and a dwarf: The dwarf would wear a specially designed pair of giant trousers that came up over his head, and would hold Johnny Eck over the waist so that – in a dark theatre at least – they looked like one person. The magician would pick them out of the audience for the obligatory sawing-in-half trick, and when the boxes were separated the ‘legs’ would get up and run around the stage, with Johnny Eck chasing them around on his hands, angrily demanding that they come back. The cast and crew always found the show hilarious, and once the people who had fainted, or thrown up, had recovered they were pretty impressed too.


Monday, October 20, 2008

At 2am last night I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I'd managed to put down the book I was reading about 20 minutes previously, having grown too distracted by my own thoughts to for it to hold my attention. After a few minutes spent watching a confused moth (the only kind, as far as I can tell) I found myself, once again, considering the worth of my weekend's activities on the basis of how much laundry I'd managed to get done. At this point it became apparent that something had gone badly wrong. I don't want to be misunderstood here, I'm not saying that I was once some great centre-of-attention party animal -- a quick look through the archives of this blog would quickly rubbish that thought -- but you know, I used to have a slightly more interesting life than I do now. I sat around thinking on this subject, and many others, for a few hours before I finally conked out at about half past four in the morning.

The result of this night's intense self-evaluation wasn't any sense of purpose, mental clarity, or some hardened resolve. No. Instead the result was me waking up late, having to run for a late train, and spending the day in a state somewhere south of sensible. I managed to get a reasonable amount of work done -- with the help of rancid-goat's-arse instant coffee -- but towards the end of the day my head was getting a little swimmy.

In the afternoon I was reading through a book on Ancient Mesopotamia, noting down material that could be reused and checking maps and suchlike. At about five in the afternoon the caffeine, sleeplessness and boredom all conspired to turn me into a uncontrollably giggling wreck. I was staring at a map of the Kingdom of Hammurabi which had the ancient cities marked on it, and which ritual and cultural landmarks they contained. The names and labels were starting to drift in and out of focus as I tried to keep my eyes open, and I found myself reading them out loud (very quietly) to myself. After a few minutes the following sequence of words came out of my mouth:


I said it again, with a funny sort of metric rhythm to it. It made me smile. I liked the way it sounded. I ended up sitting at my desk sort of reciting 'Akshak...Ziggurat...Babylon...Kish' every few minutes and giggling to myself like a man possessed. Even now it makes me smile.

I think I've either come across an extremely pleasing set of words, or I'm starting to go completely bonkers.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mr Ben Digs

Like many middle class white boys, I have a furtive love for old school hip hop (Oh yes, I don't even spell it with a K, that's how uncool I am). Take a peek through a gap in the curtains on an average evening and you'll quite likely see me dancing around my house to Brand Nubian, Jurassic 5, A tribe Called Quest, or Del tha Funky Homosapien like Henry Kissinger on cocaine. Bearing that in mind imagine my glee when I heard DJ Format+Abdominal on the Adam and Joe show.

That video and the one below this little bit of text are good examples, and feature excellent nerdy computer games references, but essentially everything I've found by DJ Format and Abdominal is face meltingly good.

Other sounds that I've been listening to recently include the sadly no longer active Nic Jones, the strange jazz guitar-tuba-tapdancers combo that are the Born Again Floozies, and Chatham County Line who make some good hillbilly music.


Thursday, October 16, 2008


I went to the gym today, an event which happens rather more often than even I'm sure I believe. When I was there I was thinking about something that my cousin (who is super ultra fit) said about a good bit of exercise. She mentioned how it made her feel better afterwards, and how she found it invigorating - and she said it in a way that suggested that this was a universal reaction to running, cycling, running, etc. This is a line that I've heard many times from various different people, and it's a line which I think may well be the reason why a lot of people like me give up on this particular aspect of a healthy lifestyle.

Allow me to explain. I hate exercise. I don't feel invigorated, I feel pain and misery. I've learned to expect this, but I worry that a lot of people give up when they realise that the promised moment when it stops being torture isn't ever going to arrive for them; I worry that they feel awkward and out-of-place when others talk about how good it makes them feel and start lying to fit in with the others. I know I did for a while. It took me a long while before I realised the actual reason why I feel good when I get home from the gym. It isn't endorphins or whatever, but simply because that point marks the furthest I can get from the time when I'll feel obliged to go to the gym again.

I just want to make this clear. I go to the gym because I eat a lot, I'm quite vain, and I have a vague sense of concern for my long-term health. Not because I enjoy inflicting that stuff on myself. I think if more people said that they exercise because they think it's a good idea, rather than because it makes them love life, then more people would be willing to keep up.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I came across this caption when looking through a book at work. I feel it is necessary to point out that this book isn't one of ours, and I don't think it's in print any more. I was reading the chapter on the chinese economy when I saw this:

Below: An industrial complex at Anshan in Manchuria. Like most industrial installations in this part of china it was begun in the late 1930s by the japanese and symbolises china's continuing debt to the period of occupation.

Now I'm no expert on the Japanese occupation of China, but I've never heard any Chinese officials talking about how grateful they are for what the Japanese did there. Generally historians just focus on the horrifying war crimes and ignore the, er, valuable industrial development I suppose. That or this writer really liked Japan.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

I came across this poster at work -- it's for a John Wayne B-movie from the mid-thirties. I think it may well be the strangest poster I've ever seen.

The IMDB summary gives the plot of the film as this:
Sheriff John Higgins quits his job and goes into prospecting after he thinks he has killed his best friend whilst shooting it out with robbers. He encounters his dead buddy's sister and helps her run her ranch. Then she finds out about his past.

I can't figure out what the poster has to do with the film, nor can I discern what on earth the strange waxlike figures are supposed to be doing. Whether this makes more sense if you've seen the film, I don't know, but none of those people look like John Wayne, and I think they're wearing rather more rouge and lipstick than the average cowboy.

Oh, and I think the guy on the far left has just shit his pants.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008


This is interesting. I have always found it odd the way that some animal rights organisations express their desire for humanitarian treatment of animals through campaigns that show a sickening disregard for the humanity of anyone other than themselves. The campaign linked there is a good example, they disapprove of the well being and feelings of animals being compromised in the name of some grand cause (medical research) but have no compunction with heaping even more stigma and distress on autistic children and their families to further their own cause.

Incidentally, since reading Bad Science, I've not been able to take statements like this on face value. Whilst I don't doubt this is a good thing, it took me ages to read through all the meta analysis abstracts to check the blogger's assertions that PETA's claims were wrong, which is a pain. There has been almost no credible research on this subject, and the results of that were inconclusive at best (the most scientifically rigorous of the studies only had 4 participants, which renders it pretty meaningless).

As a thoroughly uninteresting little side note, it's the association with that sort of crap that stopped me from ever describing myself as a 'liberal' on facebook.


Monday, October 06, 2008


Some serious political analysis here. A valuble work I think.

Oh, and this adage is brilliant. (it's not what you think from a quick glance at the URL)


Saturday, October 04, 2008


I've always had a problem containing my book population. They tend to multiply when I'm not looking--before I know it, I have heaps of books piled haphazardly around my bed and shelves sagging under still more volumes. Between my degree in English Literature and my morning rail commute, I've felt the need to buy a lot of books over the last few years. This is only one of my bookshelves, my anthologies are buckling the shelves in the other room.

Underneath that picture, and just out of shot, is my other population control problem--my guitars and basses.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Ah, I love the Ship of Fools. The other day they had a look at the state of religious political debate in the US and found it, er, rather odd.

I think this might explain why there's such a high chance of rapture right now (although, to be honest, I've never seen the rapture-o-meter drop below 70%)