Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I Belive Prompted Google's Actions Regarding China

I wanted to post this, because it's not something I read from someone smarter than me, it's not something I got from an insider or anything like that... it's my own connection of the dots and while I don't know if it's really as significant as I think it is, I'm proud that my own deductive skills came up with it. So now that you've put up with my Amateurish self congratulation, I'll tell you what I'm talking about.

Earlier a friend on Facebook posted this:

"I'm not seeing the connection between a couple (hundred thousand). Human rights activists in china having their gmails hacked and google deciding to take it's all or nothing stance on censorship. What's going unreported? I just can't seam to connect the dots."

My response was this:
"Okay, this is speculation, but it's based on some fairly solid analysis. It's to do with the question of the security of cloud computing in general.

See, recently I read an article about an Australian university refusing to use Gmail due to the concern that with the new FISA amendments brought out last year along with the PATRIOT act of 2001 that the united states could compel Google to release e-mails of international accounts as the data passes through wires on US soil. This is a serious concern regarding cloud computing that Google will have to address to ensure the security of that sector.

Now, Google KNOWS that some part of the Chinese government is hacking their servers targeting human rights activists. They know that an organization that they do business with is attacking them in a way that could very well lead to crimes against humanity. If they continue to censor information through their search engines that raises questions about loyalties since they are doing this favor that arguably violates human rights for China and no one else. Now apply the United States Intelligence issue to that. How can Google credibly promise other countries that their cloud computing servers are secure from being rifled through by the US when they're actively doing business with an organization that's hacking their information with the intent of humanitarian crimes and arguably complicit in those acts......

Legally it would be impossible to charge them, but this is about customer trust, profit and growth. They need to set precedents to keep that trust, or the future of cloud computing is at risk."

Now, happy supporters of Google who actually believe their "Don't Be Evil" mantra are applauding this savvy move to gain traction in China before exerting influence, but I'm a bit more cynical than that. Google isn't in the happy bunny, feel good business. They're in a business that requires their customers to feel secure letting them hold onto their dirty laundry without letting their landlord sniff the panties. If they cannot do that then they will not maintain their seat as the largest search engine on the internet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics

This week I was watching a BBC documentary series called The Incredible Human Journey, it details the advance of Homo Sapiens out of Africa and all about the world, tracking what routes were taken and the corresponding dates through archeological and biological evidence. It's quite fascinating.

One thing that I found quite compelling from a Role-Player and Game Design perspective was the competition for dominance between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal Man in Europe. The first thing I noticed from the depictions of Neanderthals were how much they were like Ogres from fantasy literature. This is likely no accident as the first fantasy writers were quite learned and likely modeled Ogres off of Neanderthals.

We know that Neanderthal was bigger, stronger, and better adapted to the environment of Europe than Humans were, so in that sense they definitely have the advantage. So common wisdom lead to the belief that we had better tools and weapons that allowed us to overcome the larger size and strength... however the archeological evidence shows that when comparing Neanderthal tools with Human tools the Neanderthal ones were superior in nearly every measurable way.

Neanderthal Man had a larger head and created superior tools so therefore it should be reasonable to assume that by several criteria Neanderthal should have been on equal footing intellectually as Homo Sapiens, they were stronger, and tougher and DNA evidence leads us to believe that there was no racial mixing between the two species so it's not like they were simply assimilated into the dominant race either.

So why are there no more Neanderthals around anymore?

One of the noticeable differences the archeology uncovered was that Homo Sapiens had artifacts with artistic designs that remained consistent across various different archeological sites. Art even back in the stone ages was following trends and there was obvious communication of these trends unlike Neanderthal sites where little art was produced and none of these trends in artistic culture were seen at all.

So from this we can derive that shared art denotes a shared culture which denotes friendly communication over distance. Art was allowing people to find common ground with each other even though they shared no family or immediate ties. This seemingly insignificant fact allowed us to ultimately triumph over a greater competing race.

The thing I find most interesting about all this is that the evidence points to the conclusion that as a race, our appreciation of aesthetic contributed directly to our SURVIVAL. This isn't exactly common wisdom and art is something that in the great scheme of things is often taken for granted. What's more, it is a very human thing to appreciate art and though the appreciation of aesthetic is universal throughout our species, it isn't something many animals carry.

Our common appreciation of aesthetics allows us to relate to others even though we might have nothing immediately in-common. This cannot be overestimated, we are immediately more trusting of attractive people, but we also see god's hand in beauty. All sites of religious significance have artwork... why is this so?

In primitive societies as well as Role-Playing it is easy to get preoccupied in the more tangiable pursuits, war, survival, obtaining wealth... Yet we as a race still appreciate and desire to be surrounded by beauty, but this desire seems so trivial in comparison to the time we should be spending obtaining food, shelter and safety. I believe the solution to this in primitive society was to tie this desire to something that in an ethereal way does contribute to those things. God can provide food, shelter and safety if He (she, it...) so chooses, but we can't see God so it helps if there's something to focus on and that might as well be art.

Honestly this could be a Chicken/Egg argument, did God instill in us an appreciation of Art so that through it we could be closer to him, or did we correlate God to these depictions out of our desire to appreciate art? I've just pointed out that our appreciation of art played a factor in primitive man's survival, was that God's way of giving us the ability to overcome?

Aesthetics is a deciding factor in so much, yet we discount it's importance so often. Beauty is the cornerstone of our interactions and a major aspect of what drives us, yet typically in Role Playing games it is considered to have no mechanical significance. I think this is a mistake and perhaps game designers should look at the application of beauty and maybe it's significance in religion and spirituality.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Trendy Homelessness

Those who know me well have heard me ramble on about freedom and such'n'such from time to time. It's probably sounding like a broken record, but at one point - before I'd been totally mind-vamped into a constructive member of modern society by the woman I live with - I was far more extreme about it.

I was actually fascinated by the idea of having no ties to one place. The idea of being homeless and just drifting where ever I wanted had a great deal of appeal to me. I'm not talking about being a stinky bum wearing urine soaked rags and being in a perpetual state of pickled to stay warm... More of a techno drifter, having everything I needed in my truck and on my person where ever I was.

The idea was that I was my own mobile office. I would write from where ever I was at the time and that would sustain me and pay for gas. Sleep in hotels, or my truck or where ever I was invited to crash... carry all my tools for making money and interacting with the world on my person, laptop, bank cards, smartphone, pocket knife...

All this is obviously rooted in the RPG "adventurer" concept, the wandering person exploring the land while sustaining himself through his adventures. I'd have my truck steed, my iphone "bag of holding" a trusty pocket knife sword... then some gear to survive the wilderness or the cities as the case arises in the back of my truck.

The TV show Supernatural obviously carries a lot of these concepts in it's format, and I've contemplated the appeal of driving a muscle car all around the US, the fighting monsters would be just a bonus.

The idea though is hard to sustain. Traveling is expensive, traveling with all the amenities is even more expensive, I'd imagine it would ballpark around 3 to 4 times as much as living a normal life in a fixed location would cost. Adventuring in games sustains the characters by-way of monsters dropping "loot" or what-have-you, but in modern days cash isn't tangible. Supernatural's ubiquitous "credit-card scams" are a nice modern take on the looting one's fallen foes concept though there are differences. I know that for my part I would need an extensive readership to be able to sustain myself going where ever I want all the time... I do think it's possible, but I'm not there yet.

I still have hope for the trendy homelessness concept, though it's getting more challenging with rising gas prices and international security. A lot of those difficulties are a result of society and government working to hem the people into a set way of life that makes us easier to monitor and control, I used to hate that stuff, now I've come to accept it with an eye for ways to get around it... ultimately the answer is money, but I do lament that without regulations and the endless rules governing us (no loitering etc...) it makes it a lot harder to just go somewhere...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Vibrations

Most writers have thoughts kind-of assemble in their heads which they write down and this is some rambling along those lines, so bear with me.

A couple guys I know are big conspiracy theory nuts, and they talk a lot of nonsense, but occasionally they say the occasional rational thing so I listen with one ear if only because there might be some good fiction out of it. One thing they often preach is that emotions vibrate at a certain frequency. They say there are two opposing emotions in the vibrational spectrum, Love and Fear and that all emotions are somewhere between those two on that spectrum... then they go on about how transcendence and enlightenment are simply shifting to a different vibrational frequency... like I said, nonsense.

But I do think there is more to vibrations than meets the eye (or the ear as the case may be). A small vibration at the right resonance can create massive catastrophes in civil structures. This is such a concern that engineers are required to account for this in their designs.

All humans are extremely sensitive to vibrations and intuitively recognize dissonant tones in music. If I play a scale on a piano for anyone they'll instantly know if I'm using the correct flats and sharps for that key scale based on the sound, even on a minor scale the dissonant notes are offset so they sound right to our ears. This is intuitive, not a learned ability. Another point I will make is that ALL people gather some enjoyment from music. No one I know has ever said "I don't like music." They might not like a particular TYPE of music, but the very idea of disdaining all music would probably prompt many of us to evaluate the mental stability of the person making the claim. Why is this? Humans are nothing if not varied, so why do all people derive pleasure from music of some sort?

This leads me to wonder if my crazy friends might be on-to something...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alpha Omega Stub

Things have been in-flux in my world. My latest cushy work assignment has made it all but impossible to Role-Play Online for the past year, which is frustrating because I spent the last 4 years cultivating the contacts to do online play because I was unable to game at home. Now I've got the ability to play at home but it took me a while to understand this and develop a player base that was interested. It looks like I have that now so I'm going to attempt a real-world game very soon.

And it's going to be a new one. Alpha Omega.

Alpha Omega excites me. That's the highest praise I can probably give any RPG. Every time I look through the books I get ideas, and I want to unleash them. Not game them out - but blast them forth like gushing pornstar.

Yes. Dwell on that mental image for a second. My gift to you. You're welcome.

Early on I was quite critical of Alpha Omega's dice mechanic (to put it mildly), and I've yet to test it in play but my opinion has lightened somewhat. It's got good probability curves, a nice even scale of capability and the only point it really slows things down is in Character Creation where you're having to reference the dice to the trait rating and write it on the character sheet.

That's just the start of what I like. It's also got a lot of little rules that I wrote myself for Hardkore (rolling multiple skills stands out) that I considered rather innovative when I did them. The fact that they're doing the same things means were on the same page in a lot of ways. I've made several characters as well and I'm really pleased with how each of the different species has a distinct feel but also a lot of diverse options and isn't shoehorned into any single approach. Not even Exalted has this degree of diversity available. For all of Exalted's infinite options most of the classes or castes or aspects have only one or 2 viable builds.

The difference between Exalted and Alpha Omega's diversity comes from it's power and capability structure. Exalted has effectively 4 traits that offer variance to the character. Attributes, Abilities, Backgrounds and Charms. In most cases Abilities (or Attributes) derive charms, and pretty much everyone gets those 4 things in roughly similar amounts across the board.

Alpha Omega on the other hand has Core Qualities, Abilities, Genetic Deviations (2 kinds), Skills, State Shifting, Weilding (3 kinds), and Augmentations (3 kinds). Not every species is able to take all the different options. In fact no species is able to take all of everything. It's these availabilities and inavailabilities that give each species class a unique feel while allowing tons and tons of customization. This allows me and my players to really go nuts on building a concept that we want to make with a lot of leeway to do so, but still enough guidelines that we're not feeling overwhelmed. Character Creation is still pretty daunting at first, and one issue I have is that there isn't much in the way of guidelines regarding what an amateur, professional and master would have for a rating in a given skill. However after playing under a few GM's who forced me to justify every faucet of my character's education regarding his knowledge base to my intense frustration; I think I'm just gonna go with this and simply not care. It's a game after-all.

As for the 2nd book, The Encountered, I find I'm having to stifle tittering like a schoolgirl every time I open it up. The Encountered does a fantastic job of taking existing Tropes from other sources, (Zombies that Shamble, Mutagenic Diseased folks from I AM LEGEND, Imps...) that immediately resonate but have a unique twist. Then there are the truly unique creatures that make me wonder if I can get some of the shit the developers were smoking at the time. They're often bizarre but not implausible and that's the holy grail of game monsters to me.

Anyhow, I'm still ongoing and haven't played anything yet. I'm sure there will be issues I'll have, but so far the impressions are quite positive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Modern Pop Culture Myths

As the 2000's is coming to a close I'm starting to think of what trends and myths were prevelant this decade. I spent my high school years in the 90's, and graduated in 2000 and the thought of 90's music being like the 60's and 70's music I'd hear in my childhood fills me with the kind of dread that you get when the hot-new coworker assesses your musical taste with the words; "I think my dad listens to that stuff.

So I'm starting to reflect on what popular modern myths were in the 90's and this decade (still not sure if it should be called the "00's"), and potentially what's coming up post-2010. In the 90's the big upcoming game publisher was White Wolf and they succeeded by having an almost-uncanny grasp of what crazy myths gamers wanted to explore. They got in with the Anne Rice crowd with Vampire the Masquerade and built a great line of games off of it. Werewolf succeeded because they made the focus on environmentalism and stemming corporate exploitation of the planet when that was big news (before "carbon" became evil, and climate change became the catch-word for environmental sensationalism).

But Mage was a truly special case. The 90's was home to the rise of new-age paganism and people began wondering if there really was something to all that. It had mystique and offered interesting alternatives to the comparatively stale religions the previous generations. Alongside that there was some speculation that "virtual reality" would be the next big thing. These two concepts combined with a bit of "Men in Black" conspiracy theory gave rise to the Mage mythos and then was amplified into a brilliant corona when The Matrix came out.

I think we all have certain Movies, shows or pop culture offerings that we identify with to the point that in a small way they define our preferences for years to come. The Matrix was one of those for me. But more than that it was proof that back then White Wolf had an almost uncanny understanding of what was the new thing was going to be culturally. I don't think they have that understanding to the same extent today, and it makes me wonder who does?

Certain games capture the undertones of what a culture is interested in. In the 80's I'd say it was Cyberpunk, in the 90's Vampire and Mage were in there, now what is it? War in the Middle East? In many ways I think that Call of Duty Modern Warfare is so successful right now because it offers a bit of narrative closure to the events of the last decade. After 9/11 a lot of us honestly expected another attack to occur at some point... but none really came, the world did not fall apart and the Iraq war seemed like directionless flailing in response to the 2001 attacks. CoD Modern Warfare and MW2 offered a look at the concept of terrorism and war in a scenario that felt more justified than it did in reality, at least it seems that way in retrospect.

Lately I think there is once again a surge of interest in ergonomics, competition between mobile computing platforms like the iphone have all but replaced the CPU processor wars of yesteryear. More and more people want new and innovative ways to interface with technology which I believe will renew interest in cybernetics. Where virtual reality was the interest of the last decade, the prevalence of MMO's have made that notion common and it's lost the mystique. Now the mythical question is as we improve interfacing with our mobile gadgets and enhance our ability to network and assimilate information what will happen?

A friend of mine once gave his take on the whole 2012 furor. He speculated that we're becoming so interconnected and gathering information so much faster than before that at some point there may be a shift in our collective consciousness. I know that we definitely live in exponential times. Networks that previously took over a decade to develop are now exploding to a billion users within only one or two years.

I'm sure the results of these changes will end up being far more mundane-seeming than the speculation is right now, but that's the point isn't it? Because the myth is always more compelling than the reality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Morality, Piracy and Sticking it to the Man

DISCLAIMER - This isn't a legal debate but a moral one. The laws are defined by people more powerful than me. When I'm in a position to do something about the laws I'll start making those debates.

Admittedly I have been known to pirate certain things, some of them I feel a small twinge of guilt in doing so, some I feel no guilt whatsoever, and in a few cases I feel my actions are not only warranted but I feel an obligation to encourage others to do the same. I wanted to touch on a bit of this to help work out my feelings on supply, demand and creation.

Music - Since the advent of itunes I have almost stopped pirating music altogether. I can buy songs I like on an individual basis, it's quick and easy for me to support artists I like, and I can download a song at work to listen to on my ipod on my way home. I've heard (but not verified) that artists get a bit better percentage for their works from apple which makes me more inclined to want to use that as well.

I generally hate the RIAA and how it was exploiting recording artists and generally diminishing music as an art form by favoring engineered beats that are designed to get stuck in your head. This arguement has it's flaws I realize but it's an opinion, not a fact. I also didn't care to pay $20.00 for a CD which I only liked 2 songs on. itunes has fixed that, so I no longer have the inclination or feel morally obligated to pirate music.

PDFs - The only PDF's I actively use are RPG PDF's, and admittedly when I pirate these I do feel a bit guilty for doing so. I do a few things to assuage this guilt though. Games that I actually want to play or end up playing will enevitably be bought in dead-tree form by me, and games that I'm enthusiastically involved in I'll usually buy the PDF on the day it's released and then order the dead tree from the bookstore when it becomes available. I don't complain about this, however companies that offer some way for me to get a PDF as a bonus for purchasing a book have my gratitude.
Most PDF's I do actually pirate are games that I just want to peruse, like leafing through one on a bookshelf. Not justification I know, but I feel that perhaps it's a bit better that the book got out there a bit because otherwise I'd have never taken that look.

Warhammer - This is a subset of RPG's that deserves special mention because I feel morally obligated to pirate the shit out of their miniatures. I have a friend who casts silicone molds and though some of the finer warhammer miniatures aren't castable, there's a lot of stuff that is. If he actually had the capability to mold an entire army-line of miniatures I would probably start playing Warhammer again just for the satisfaction of knowing that I was screwing them in my own small way. They over-priced their product long ago, and frankly I find their business model offensive. Given the lack of a viable way to pirate their stuff, I'm more than happy to boycott them, even while living within a block of probably one of the best venues for playing Warhammer in the northern hemisphere.

Movies - I go to the theatre, I buy movies on Blu Ray when they're available, and DVD if they're truly exceptional, and would support them more if more blu ray titles were available where I live, regrettably they're not. TV shows I feel should be legitimized on the torrents complete with advertising. They're easily trackable so ad revenue is simple to get. It's not my fault that the studios aren't capitalizing on this opportunity.

Programs - I don't pirate computer games anymore. Steam makes them quite accessible. Certain microsoft products like older versions of Office seem justified for piracy (older versions of lots of things really). There is still a small black pit of hatred in my heart for antivirus software that I would pirate if I could... but that's an excercise in futility. If you own a PC you have to pay for antivirus, anything less and you're asking to be screwed.
Adobe is another one of those special exceptions. While their creative suite software is extremely expensive, I can't say if it's overpriced or not, I know that I can't afford it, but I like to use it. A slight moral justification is that the pirated versions are teaching me how to use their products which may eventually lead to me buying a legitimate copy. Acrobat however I feel very strongly that EVERYONE should pirate! I really like interactive PDF's for character sheets, but without Acrobat Pro, interactive sheets can't be saved with their changes which is a deliberate withold of functionality that I just cannot forgive. If Adobe included the ability to save interactive PDFs in their reader, my stance would change.

Most of my opinions are independent of quality of product or my opinion of the business ethics of the company. They're strictly based on if I think the product is available easily and for a fair price. Apple I know has some very harsh mandates on it's employees and it's ipod app approval process is bordering on despicable but I will continue to give them my money because they offer a product that meets my expectations for a reasonable price and make it accessible easily.

Lastly, from a moral standpoint copyright infringement is not theft. Theft is taking something from someone so that they don't have it anymore. Copyright infringement takes nothing from anyone and in 90% of the scenarios where the product was pirated, I would have never have payed for that product anyways and of that remaining 10% probably 5% was simply me demoing the product before buying, so it is a very rare case where I've actually deprived any creator of cash they would have otherwise gotten.

I'm interested in hearing what other people's personal stances are on the whole issue. Some of my friends are content creators out there and are trying to make a living doing so, they're people I wouldn't want to hurt by depriving them of cash or creating holes in their business model. There are also questions of availability. If pirated content is easier to obtain than legitimate, isn't that a case of poor market availability?