Tuesday, September 23, 2008

a quiet death

Our blogging compatriot RL recently posted a fascinating commentary on our (collective) obsession with apocalypta. It has led me to wonder why humans as a whole, and I personally, find the concept of Armageddon so interesting and perhaps even appealing. Since my childhood, our societal visions of apocalypse have evolved from ones filled with mushroom clouds and Australian biker gangs, to diseased corpses, and now Atlantian tombs. Every now and then, an ironic cynic or cynical ironist provides us with a humorous psychological outlet: zombie apocalypse scores high on our cultural preference (e.g., Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead), but I also find old-fashioned monster Armageddon satisfying as well (e.g. Godzilla, Crush Crumble & Chomp!).

But in the end, our greatest tragedy may be that we don't actually go out with a bang, and with nary a whimper. More likely than death by meteor or hadron, there lies the possibility of our dissolution through inauthenticity. This has become increasingly fertile ground for bioethicists and philosophers concerned with how scientific and cultural "progress" has fundamentally eroded our very nature. It's not like we're going to wake up tomorrow and half our town is dead with some virulent flu (although I suppose it's a possibility) - but rather, our grandchildren will wake up in a town/nation/world full of metaphysical zombies (reference: first 15 minutes of Shaun of the Dead). Some examples...

Fukuyama is infamous for declaring the "end of history," but I found his treatise on the philosophical implications of biotechnology to be a tour de force. In Our Posthuman Future, he explores how genetic engineering, pharmacotherapy, and other revolutionary breakthroughts of the modern age have the potential to destroy defining aspects of our being. For example, the use of Prozac (and other anti-depressants) to treat painful mood disorders seems a great step forward in psychiatry. Certainly, these drugs have provided profound psychological relief to millions of patients, and helped prevent thousands of suicides from occurring.

However, we must consider the possibility that depression itself is periodically functional. If we eradicate the possibility of psychic pain, we lose a critical facet of our humanity. Fukuyama suggests that depression (on a societal scale) may be a reflection of a vast undercurrent of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo - and that in our historical past, such disenfranchisement led to revolution. What effect might pharmacotherapy be having on our cultural evolution? Are we feeding ourselves a version of state-sanctioned Soma that placates us proles as the elite few rape and pillage our world to stark oblivion?

When I first opened The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben, I expected something more speculative and hyperbolic. And, at times, I'll admit that it reads a little too "fruity" and unscientific for my taste. But his primary argument rang deeply true with me, as I'm sure it has with anyone even moderately concerned with how humans have affected their environment over the past several hundred years. A quote:

"...Our comforting sense of the permanence of our natural world, our confidence that it will change gradually and imperceptibly if at all, is the result of a subtly warped perspective. Changes that can affect us can happen in our lifetime in our world--not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. I believe that without recognizing it we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change; that we are at the end of nature. By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall and the sun shine, though differently than before. When I say 'nature,' I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it."

One of McKibben's primary arguments is that by altering our atmosphere, humans have eradicated the line between man-made and natural. Nothing in our environment, at this point, is untouched by man since we have affected the very sky we live under. This corruption of nature's "purity," if you will, can have a profound impact on our own sense of well-being and pride. In addition to being concerned with the physical damage that global warming and other environmental hazards threaten, we might also worry about the psychological toll of living in a concrete empire.

As an aside, Tolkien was well-aware of this as he wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I am convinced that Sauron (and perhaps to a more obvious degree Saruman) represent the threat of burgeoning industrialization in the post-War era. The "temptation" of the rings of power that Man falls prey to is this very notion that one can exert control over one's environment. Elves (and hobbits, and other fairie-folk) have always represented a more balanced and respectful relationship with nature. I hope that my nieces at least absorbed some of this, at a subconscious level, as they consumed the absurd Peter Jackson extravaganzas.

Perhaps my favorite piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is a fascinating examination of our philosophical dissolution. I'll choose just one of the many incredible examples from the book: ChickieNobs. Atwood suggests that in our near future, we will genetically engineer animals to provide meat more efficiently. We are already doing this, by breeding chickens with a greater percentage of breast meat, for example - but taken to its extreme, one can imagine something quite horrifying.

The protagonist, Jimmy, is touring a biotech facility run by his former high-school friend, Crake:

"Next they went to NeoAgriculturals. AgriCouture was its nickname among the students. They had to put on biosuits before they entered the facility, and scrub their hands and wear nose-cone filters, because what they were about to see hadn't been bioform-proofed, or not completely. A woman with a laugh like Woody Woodpecker led them through the corridors.
'This is the latest,' said Crake. What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
'What the hell is it?' said Jimmy.
'Those are chickens,' said Crake. 'Chicken parts. Just the breasts on this one. They've got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve on a growth unit.'
'But there aren't any heads,' said Jimmy...
'That's the head in the middle,' said the woman. 'There's a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don't need those.'
'This is horrible,' said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.
'Picture the sea-anemone body plan,' said Crake. 'That helps.'

Of course, after a couple years pass, Jimmy (and the rest of the populace) find themselves happily easting cheap, tasty fast-food chicken provided by ChickieNobs. Wouldn't our society behave in a similar manner? Aren't we already?

And finally, my favorite song by Outkast. If you ignore the forgettable gangsta opening stanzas by Big Boi, Andre 3000's astute analysis of our growing inauthenticity may give you pause.

Synthesize, microwave me
Give me a drug so I can make seven babies
Pump my breasts up, can you suck the fat up
Please make my life appear
like ain't no such thing as bad luck
My nose ain't right
Like I need a new one
Just take your pick, a yellow, red
A black or a blue on
Virtual reality, virtual BULLSHIT
Synthesizer preachers can reach you
up in the pulpit
Who a bitch?
Give me my gat so that I can smoke this nigga
Tell his momma not to cry
because they can clone him quicker
than it took his daddy to make him
Niggaz bitin verbatim
Thought provokin records radio never played dem
Instant, quick grits, new, improved
Hurry hurry, rush rush, world on the move
Marijuana illegal but cigarettes cool
I might LOOK kinda funny but I ain't no fool
Now if you wanna synthesize, I empa-thize
Now if you wanna synthesize, I empa-thize
But if you synthasize, I will understand
Your synthasizer MAN.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

LHC is Cthulhu

First paragraph from Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu (1928)...

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Of course, he may be referring to the Great Old Ones, dreaming in R'lyeh until they wake and destroy us all (see Cloverfield).

Cthulhu fhtagn!

But might not the "terrifying vistas of reality" also be these trauma-inducing images from the Hubble?

Oh mighty crab nebula, I worship thee

Or the tentacled limbs of the Large Hadron Collider, and the dark mysteries it will reveal?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

freedom in meaningless

There's a sublime freedom that comes from adopting an atheist metaphysics. In the Ivory Tower, one often hears intellectual explanations for human belief in God or gods, such as:

  • A belief in God provides people with a sense of security and control. A universe without a Puppetmaster, or at the very least, benevolent Observer, is frightening and disturbing to the fragile human psyche.
  • Theism not only provides us with a divine (and therefore, unassailable) source to a moral code but also a means of reward and punishment via the afterlife (or karma, if you're into that kind of thing). Without God, there is no objective basis to good and evil and man may as well do as he wishes.
  • Religious belief is comforting in times of despair - when one's life seems to be collapsing, and perhaps meaningless, one can turn to God or some manifestation thereof for guidance, comfort, and friendship.
  • Belief in the otherworldly soothes the anxiety we feel over our own mortality (see TMT).
  • etc.

While I suspect there's at least some truth behind these reasons for people's belief in God/gods, I'm not so naive as to think they're a complete explanation. More to the point, I've found that my belief in a "universe wild" provides just as much comfort.

Anytime I begin to worry about...
  • the number of publications I have out/should have out
  • how I made a mistake in lecture yesterday
  • the health of myself or family members
  • the economic situation of our country
  • the prospect of putting an HPU-communications major one fragile heartbeat away from our nation's highest office
  • the environmental state of our world
  • etc.
... I remind myself that one day, we're all gonna be just dirt in the ground. When I was growing up, it was commonplace at the dinner-table for my father to talk about how the dinosaurs dominated the earth for millions of years - and now, don't exist. Given his particular existential position, he interpreted this in a fairly pessimistic light: that life is fundamentally meaningless and that we should beware of hubris. I took his thoughts to heart, but as I have grown to adulthood I find the existential emptiness of the universe to be comforting not depressing. It lends itself to a way of being where each moment and event is taken individually and unto itself, rather than as a mark in some penultimate tally. I don't feel the chains or burdens of sentience as much as I think I would if I thought anything I did actually mattered, in the end.

dirt in the ground

I really don't need to worry about the number of publications I have, or am ever going to have, because one day, we'll all be just dirt in the ground. One day, the sun will burn out. One day, this galaxy won't exist. That level of perspective - of SCALE - really helps me deal with, on a day to day basis, the minor (and sometimes major) annoyances of being human. Everytime I remind myself of that, I find the anxiety and stress begin to lift away - much as I suspect it lifts away in theists who have faith in God's will and protection.

the Sombreo galaxy - and you're trying to tell me that Wall St. matters?

Furthermore, in times of greatest despair, I needn't worry about the philosophical quagmire raised by evil and pain existing in a universe created by an omnipotent & benevolent God. Pain simply happens, because we are alive, and should serve as a reminder that we are equally capable of experiencing joy and ecstasy. I don't derive my morality from a religious system, and so can feel an honest guilt when I behave poorly and an honest pride when I do good by my fellow man. For me, there is a greater sense of Reality and Meaning (to my actions) in a world without heaven and hell.

Sing it, Tom.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

my first spore creature

Fenrir apocalyptus

Nocturnal herbivore, aggro-defensive, blind, likes to dance, hates anything that flies.

If you've got the game and want to buddy-up, my username is "Frankenchrist".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

neil marshall

If you're looking to add some tripe to your film diet, let me suggest a couple Neil Marshall movies. Aili and I have extracted some serious enjoyment out of his latest projects: The Descent (2005) and Doomsday (2008).

The Descent is a genuinely frightening horror movie that received critical acclaim upon its initial release in Great Britain and later release in the States. A group of 5 outdoorsy women go spelunking in an uncharted cave in the Appalachians. The first half hour of the movie builds the suspense quite effectively, and Marshall even takes some time to develop his main characters before throwing them into hell. At first, The Descent seems like it's going to be a psychological horror story, as the women go deeper into the cave, get cut off from the outside world, and begin to fight and suspect one another. That all the characters are female, and not treated like idiots or cheesecake, is both refreshing and effective. There are some absolutely horrific claustrophobia-inducing scenes, and all it takes is the right camera angle and appropriate lighting.

Of course, the story doesn't end there. The women begin to discover signs of predatory life and come to realize that they aren't alone in the dark. The nature of this mysterious troglodyte is a little disappointing; think, Gollum, without the paralyzing insecurity. The climax is very dark, thankfully, although for American audiences it was toned down a bit and made a little more vague. The "director's cut" DVD includes the original ending that Marshall feels is most appropriate for his story. Recommended.

You may have seen ads for Doomsday, as they seem to be ubiquitous on Redboxes, etc. I was particularly looking forward to this one, as it received satisfyingly terrible reviews and concerns a dismal, post- apocayptic future. The setting is Great Britain, and a lethal virus (the "Reaper" virus - pretty clever, huh?) has wiped out a significant chunk of the Scottish population. The British government sets up a perimeter defense to quarantine the entire country - they build a modernized Hadrian's wall and patrol the coasts.

Time passes. The government is corrupt. A naked blonde chick in a bathtub shoots a shotgun. The Reaper virus eventually infiltrates London and all hell breaks loose. A hero is chosen, Eden Sinclair (played by Rhona Mitra), to go beyond the wall, enter the hot zone, and see if there's a cure. Rumor has it, some people survived.

If you're thinking this is a mish-mash of a lot of films you've already seen, you're right. The wall and chaos within the quarantine zone is straight out of Escape from New York. Hell, Sinclair even has an eye-patch just like Plissken (although this time, she uses a cybernetic, removable eye to her advantage). The crazed behavior of Reaper virus victims recalls zombie movies galore, but especially 28 Days Later. Once Sinclair gets to the hotzone, she and her team discover an entire "civilization" of tatooed punk-rock cannibals, that may as well have timewarped from the set of Mad Max. Up to this point, it's all pretty ho-hum and not-interesting silly - but then there's this crazy scene with a warlord, Sol, dancing to the Fine Young Cannibals song, Good Thing. It's seriously bizarre and definitely gives Doomsday some potential for future, B-movie cult status.

And then things get even weirder. Sinclair escapes from Sol into the mountains and is eventually captured by another warlord, Kane (played by Malcolm McDowell). His minions dress up like medieval knights. It's deliberately anachronistic and doesn't make any sense at all (although there is a nice shot of a biohazard stained-glass window). Apparently, one of Marshall's guiding visions for this film was a standoff between a futuristic soldier and medieval warrior. Marshall was heavily influenced by Excalibur (a damn good film, I'll admit), and wanted to incorporate some of its elements into his whimsical potpourri.

The final 30 minutes of the film devolve into a tedious series of improbable events, including a Road Warrior-wannabe car chase, and culminating in successful acquisition of "the cure." The ending of the movie seems to set up not a sequel, but rather some sort of half-baked television series on the sci-fi channel (e.g., Stargate SG-1). Throughout most of this film, I kept wanting to hit "R" to reload Sinclair's automatic, which also makes me think they might try for some crappy video game spin-off as well. If you want to watch a blatant homage to every awesome 80's action sci-fi thriller made, Doomsday is your bag.

(= crazy delicious?)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

karma + schadenfreude = crazy delicious

This is what you get, this is what you get
This is what you get, when you mess with us...

Friday, September 5, 2008

spore is coming...

Holy crap! Spore will be released this Sunday and thank god I'm on sabbatical. I haven't had good timing like this since picking up Justin Fargas off the waivers in FF last year. Already, the reviews are rolling in and they're surprisingly critical. Here's what IGN has to say:

And there are many others saying very similar things: "Spore is a brilliant toy, but a mediocre game." Blah blah blah. Listening to these spoiled adult gamers makes me want to puke. It's like when Peter Molyneux's Black & White came out and everyone bitched about how annoying it was to get your people to collect wood, or how you couldn't build warriors, etc., etc. - ignoring entirely that the frickin' game was the coolest operant conditioning chamber EVER. I can spank my creature when he poops in the forest but pet him when he throws his feces at the villagers? And that'll actually change his behavior? That's awesome.

But I digress. Spore is not just a series of mini-games (arcade -> action -> RTS -> Civ -> 4X); it is a work of art and a technological breakthrough. Hell, it's a cultural benchmark. To judge it using the same criteria that you would use for, say, Mass Effect strikes me as desperately short-sighted. It's like saying that you don't "get" The Sims or even Second Life. Life simulation in a digital dollhouse? What's not to get? The future is here, man. Pretty soon we'll be surgically installing cybernetic brain implants in our babies so we can "playtest" our parenting techniques on shiny ubiquitous Macs.

Furthermore, you can't underestimate the value and power of an accessible, quality "cross-over." Gamers can whine all they want about how Spore's components don't compare well to dedicated strategy games, but they forget that Spore isn't merely aimed at the 30-something, male technogeek audience that clogs cyberspace with flaming rants on irrelevant minutiae, but also at 1) non-gamers who wonder what the fuss is all about, 2) children, and 3) women. If you doubt the clarity of Will Wright's vision, just go ahead and check out the annual sales records for anything called "The Sims."

Spore looks to be a galactic dollhouse. And that's fine by me. Now, let's all go out and buy it and give Mr. Wright our money.

(Oh, and here's a review by my favorite Brits who seem to "get" Spore in all its imperfect glory)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


One of the more unique and innovative boardgames to enter the market this year was Pandemic, by designer Matt Leacock. It's created a healthy buzz for a couple reasons: 1) it features cooperative (instead of competitive) play, which is relatively rare in boardgames, and 2) the theme has to do with eradicating disease outbreaks. Since I'm a full-fledged misophobe, I knew that I had would have to try Pandemic out.

The gameboard in Pandemic displays an attractive, full-color map of the world. Major cities are highlighted in one of four colors, and are connected by red lines that represents the paths diseases may take as they spread from one metropolitan center to another.

There are four diseases to combat: yellow (typhoid), blue (avian influenza), black (ebola), and red (smallpox). At the beginning of the game, you draw nine Infection cards, which show different cities in the world, to "seed" the diseases. The level of infection in a particular city is represented by a different number of colored cubes: from 1-3. Over the course of the game, you will attempt to reduce the number of disease cubes in cites, and eventually find a cure. Every turn, you'll also be adding more disease cubes to the board. If a city already has 3 disease cubes and you need to add another one, an Outbreak occurs.

Outbreaks tend to be pretty devastating, since they can elicit a chain reaction. When a city outbreaks, you add a disease cube to every adjacent city (connected by the red lines). If one of those cities also had 3 cubes already, then it will Outbreak as well. And so on. If you're not careful, in a single turn you can have a chain reaction of 4 or 5 Outbreaks. Once you get to 8 Outbreaks, you lose the game.

Here's an Infection card, which would have you add a black disease cube to Algiers. I mentioned that only 9 cities in the world are initially infected with disease. As the game progresses, however, new cities get added to this list. At the end of every game turn, there's an "Infection" phase, when you draw 2-4 more infection cards. You add a disease cube to each of these cities. If this intiates an Outbreak, you're in trouble. New infections can also occur through the "Epidemic" card.

Herein lies a very clever game mechanic. When you draw the Epidemic card, you add 3 disease cubes to a new city. You then shuffle all the Infection cards that have already been drawn, and place them back on top of the draw pile. What this means is that you'll now start going through Infection cards that have been played previously - and those cities may very well be on the edge of Outbreaks. Thus, in a typical game of Pandemic, diseases are limited to a certain number of "hot-spots" which you have to keep under control; every game will be different, because the initial disease seeding is determined randomly. When I first saw this mechanic in action, I was thoroughly impressed. It manages to capture the essence of disease transmission and creates a profound tension, due to the uncertainly of when another Epidemic will occur.

So how are you supposed to combat these diseases? Fundamentally, Pandemic uses a "set-collection" mechanic, whereby you need to collect 5 cards of a single color in order to cure a disease. Each turn, a player takes 2 cards from the Player Draw pile. These cards represent the cities of the world and their respective colors. For example, here's the card for Buenos Aires:

I really appreciate the amount of detail that went into these cards. Informative and attractive. Once you have 5 yellows cards, you can visit a Research Station to cure the yellow disease. Once you cure all four diseases, you win the game.

Here's someone who's got enough cards to cure red:

On the board, each player is represented by a giant Pawn. You can move your Pawn to the various hot-spots on the board through a limited set of actions:

These "flights" usually involve discarding a card from your hand, so you often face the tough decision of whether to hold onto a card because you're trying to collect a full set of that color, or to use that card as your ticket to halfway around the world.

Note that there are also several special actions that you can take each turn, including building research stations and treating a disease (reducing the cube count in your city by 1).

Each turn you only get 4 actions total, so you need to choose and plan carefully. For example, you could move from Atlanta, GA to Washington, DC (1st action, no card discard necessary), treat a disease and remove a cube (2nd action), discard the "Moscow" card from your hand and fly to Russia (3rd action), and treat a disease there as well (4th action). After you complete your actions, you draw 2 more cards into your hand and infect more cities.

To make your task a little easier, each player also gets a certain "role" in the beginning of the game. For example, here's the Medic card, which lets you remove all cubes of a single color from a city, instead of just 1. This guy can really cut through hot-spots, reducing the threat of Outbreaks while the remaining players concentrate on collecting cards and generating cures.

It's this cooperative element of Pandemic that really sets it apart from its peers. You aren't trying to beat the person sitting next to you - you're trying to work with them to save the world from complete annihilation. To this end, you are encouraged to talk through your decisions with the other players, generate a common strategy, and divide-&-conquer. Betty the Medic might fly to east Asia, for example, to get rid of all those red cubes threatening Outbreaks, while Barney the Operations Expert heads to South America to deal with yellow and build a remote Research Station.

Because it's cooperative, Pandemic is perfectly suited for solitaire play: you just end up playing multiple roles yourself. Interestingly, the game becomes significantly harder the more players that you add. A 2 player game is relatively easy to win, but 4 can be downright insane. Furthermore, it's easy to increase/decrease the difficulty level by adding/subtracting Epidemic cards from the Player Draw pile.

Overall, I find Pandemic to be a really satisfying and tense gaming experience. You can finish a session in 30-45 minutes, and it doesn't take more than 10 to understand the rules, making it a great casual play. Every game will be different due to the initial infection draw and the variety of roles to play. When I first got Pandemic, I played it regularly and was just thrilled with how "different" it felt. After a while, I started to lose some interest - probably because a lot of the time I actually want to play against other people, not against a game. But I can heartily recommend this one to those of you who want a relatively quick game to play with your mate(s), and wish they'd do a better remake of the moderately compelling, but ultimately disappointing, Outbreak. It's more fun than tuberculosis.