Archive for February, 2009

Scare Tactic

February 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Driving East on the I-90 from the Pennsylvania border to Buffalo you drive through an Indian Reservation and pass a large group of billboards. The billboards are placed within a couple feet of the road as the law governing the barrier between road and advertisement does not apply. The billboards themselves are nothing spectacular, the usual assortment of laser eye surgeries and cash 4 gold, except for one.

It’s an advertisement for the Eternal Gospel Church, a Florida based Adventist church. The billboard states that Saturday is the Lord’s Day, that the antichrist changed it to Sunday, thus giving readers the impression that if you observe the traditional Sabbath on Sunday you are falling victim to the antichrist’s evil plot. The only other thing completely readable is the website, <a href=”” target=”_blank”>eternal</a>

Being somewhat familiar with odd Christian sects I was puzzled at the billboard’s claim that Sunday was the wrong day as I am led to believe that almost all Christian divisions, sects, etc observe the Lord’s day as being the seventh day of the week, thus Sunday. For the billboard to claim that this was a mistake I knew would have to be a careful and purposeful interpretation of out of context Biblical quotes. Just like how the post millenial dispensationalists divorce the book of Daniel from its historical context and pretend that it foretells the end of the world.

I decided to look up the website and check out this reasoning. I thought it might be dizzying with its logic. I was surprised to see that nowhere on the website does it explain why it is Saturn’s Day and not Sun’s Day that is the true Sabbath. I, being the inquisitive sort, decided to look it up.

I won’t bore you with the details of the controversy itself (it’s a bunch of Bible passages, some historical trivium regarding the early Christian Church, the practices and beliefs of Judaism, and dead cult practices), but I was curious about this lack on their website. The attempt of the billboard was to scare people into paying attention.

It’s not that people are just wrong in observing this day on Sunday, it is that they are the unwitting tools of the antichrist. The first thing they are going to look for on the website is for this proof of how they have been used. Instead they get some disaster news and links to their newsletter.

What a bunch of horseshit. Furthermore how can the antichrist change something when he/she/it has not come yet? Traditional end of the world christian theologies all agree that the antichrist’s arrival signifies the beginning of the end, so I guess it has a time machine too.

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The Histories

February 27, 2009 Leave a comment

I had a friend in Grad school who was attempting to read “War and Peace” by Tolstoy. He was attempting to read it because of the shear immensity of the novel. In short, he wanted to read it so that he could tell people he had read it. It was an intellectual pissing contest that very few people have even attempted. Think of Stephen Hawking’s, “A Brief History of the Universe,” alot of people own the book but very few of them finished it.

There are certain books in the history of the written word that are like that, books that are immense but also popular. Things that are oft quoted but rarely in context. Currently, I am in such an endeavor with Herodotus’ Histories, the first historical narrative in Western Civilization.

This is the book where we get the stories of the war between the Hellenic world and Persia. It’s also much more than that, it’s a history and description of the world in the Bronze Age as Herodotus goes from various Greek city-states, to Persia, and to Egypt describing the history of the various cultures, their customs, and their geography. It can get a little pedantic at times braking the narrative to almost a complete halt.

Herodotus must have thought that all the idiosyncrasies of the various cultures, even the ones extinct by his times, were necessary but the question I ask is, if the culture was completely annihilated by the Persian/Egyptian army is it at all necessary that we know whether or not they felt it appropriate to eat outside? It’s hard to fault him for this since he is writing a completely new concept: the history book, but taking quill to parchment is difficult.

So far I’m a hundred and fifty pages in (counting the introduction) and here are some gems them keep me reading:

“The rich man is able better to fulfill his desire, and also to endure a great calamity if it fall upon him; whereas the other has these advantages over him:–he is not indeed able equally with the rich man to endure a calamity or fulfill his desire, but these his good fortune keeps away from him, while he is sound of limb, free from disease, untouched by suffering, the father of fair children and handsome himself. If in addition to this he shall end his life well, he is worthy to be called that which you seekest, namely a happy man; but before he comes to his end it is well to hold back and not call him happy yet but only fortunate.” –Solon, 1.32

“For no one is so senseless as to choose of his own will war rather than peace, since in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons. But it was pleasing, I suppose, to the divine powers that these things happen.” –Croesus, 1.87

“Then learn this first, that for the affairs of men there is a revolving wheel, and that this in its revolution never permits the same persons to always have good fortune.”–Croesus 1.207

“I for my part know of no river existing, but I think that Homer or one of the poets before him invented the name and introduced it into his verse.” –Herodotus 2.23 Describing why a river does not seem to appear in reality but everyone swears it is there.

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February 25, 2009 Leave a comment

I find myself interested in trend setters lately, the first of something that sets a new genre. With that in mind I took out the book Neuromancer from the library. The genre it set was a phenomenon that most people remember from the mid to late 90s known as “Cyberpunk.” Entries in this genre include, “The Matrix,” “Hackers,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” and regrettably “The Lawnmower Man 2: Job’s War.”

It’s called “Cyberpunk” for a reason. The works almost always include an international power (be it a corporation or a government) and a group of disaffected ruffians who use their technological prowess to fight the power. Many, myself included, see Neuromancer as the first entry of this genre. With good reason, this is the book where the word “cyberspace” was first coined by author William Gibson.

Cyberpunk itself has a unique relation to Philosophy. It dealt with concepts that we study mostly in Mental Philosophy classes but made an attempt to mass market the concepts. This had a double effect: on the one hand it gave us concrete pop-culture examples to use in argumentation whereas before the best we could rely on was Searle’s Chinese Box. Arguing over the status of personhood/identity could be focused on examples of AI taking them a tad out of the abstract.

On the other hand, it had a downside that I call the “instant expertise defective” or IED for short (yes I chose that on purpose). Here’s how IED works: when everyone saw the movie “Gladiator” some of those people acted like instant experts on Roman history. The cyberpunk genre had IED when the incredibly popular “Matrix” came out. At the time I was taking Philosophy of Mind at SUNY Fredonia. After the movie was released a decided shift in the tone of the class occurred. People that neglected paying attention suddenly had opinions all based on concepts from the movie. The best way to counter IED is to take the conversation away from the work until those who really have no idea can no longer follow, does this make me a snob…yes but I don’t apologize.

That all being said, it’s difficult to read something in the Cyberpunk genre and not be reminded of some aspect of Philosophy. Neuromancer tracks a good deal of this, bringing it up not directly but making you raise the questions yourself.

The plot sorrounds a man, Case, a mercenary hacker doing “runs” to aid a combat mercenary named Molly. Their jobs are all directed by a man named Armitage who is the puppet of an AI named Wintermute. The obvious question that we begin asking is whether or not Wintermute is a person.

He’s an AI, which means that he is a program in one sense but since he is capable of acting on his own does that make him an individual with a distinct identity? That’s the troubling question, something that only the reader can ask as the characters only trouble themselves with it for a brief time and then move on to more pressing matters.

The Wachowski brothers have admitted that this book was one of their primary inspirations for “The Matrix.” It is hard to deny this, and even harder to not picture the characters in the book dressed latex and trenchcoats wearing sunglasses. In the book the orbital safe haven is called “Zion” which should take the wind out of the Christian interpretation that was so in vogue in 2001.

Neuromancer’s largest detriment is in its focus on Case’s drug problem. The issue is that while it occupies a large segment of Case’s thoughts it does nothing to really impede his actions. It seems to be more of an illustration that Case works on the fringes of society rather than any useful (according to the plot) detail.

What struck me most about the book was its anticipation of the uses of the internet. You have the subversion aspect, where anyone with a computer can disseminate there thoughts even against government regulation or corporate dominance (see the recent case against the Pirate’s Bay website). That is all obvious, what isn’t is the books anticipation of internet addiction:

“This was it. This was what he was, who he was, his being. He forgot to eat. Molly left cartons of rice and foam trays of sushi on the corner of the long table. Sometimes he resented having to leave the deck (re: computer) to use the chemical toilet they’d set up in a corner of the loft…Its (the internet’s) rainbow pixel maze was the first thing he saw when he awoke. He’d go straight to the deck, not bothering to dress, and jack in.”

I’ve known people addicted to MMPORGs who acted in much the same way. I also adore the fact that he presented a net addict with Japanese food, something that is a Jules Verne like prediction. Anyone wishing to see the origins of the cyberpunk sub category of Sci-Fi does themselves a disservice in ignoring this book.

MIrror’s Edge

February 23, 2009 1 comment

Somewhere in my parent’s basement sits the tower of our old PC. On it’s ancient 1gb hard drive is Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight with a saved game on a forgotten level where a jumping puzzle exists. This would be the point of the game that I never could get past, the game is ancient now and the stumper was something that still plagues me now.

So I was a bit reticent when a new demo arrived on XBOX Live for a first person jumping game called Mirror’s Edge. The local news station did a quick review of it, which compelled me to download the demo. Then I received the game for my birthday.

The problem with any first person perspective game is the complete lack of peripheral vision, this is what makes jumping puzzles in first person games so frustrating. You pretty much have to guess when the ground ends. Why else do you think that none of the Tomb Raider games are done in that perspective?

Mirror’s Edge was a gamble for me. I knew that my opinion of the game was going to go in one of two extremes: I would either completely hate it or I would completely love it. Thankfully it was the latter, I would hate squandering my birthday on something I detested.

You play Faith, a woman who is a runner. Runners, are like the mnemonic couriers in Johnny Mnemonic, they transmit information that cannot be broadcast due to the strict government monitors. They work on the rooftops running across them like fictional ninja in some cliche anime movie. The game boils down to a “get from here to there without getting killed” as most games are.

What separates Mirror’s Edge is in how one gets there. You have to run, jump, and slide through realistic obstacles while being pursued by a police force not looking for an arrest. The game is innovative in that it relies solely on travel and not on combat which means that play control is going to be the utmost important.

Thankfully they succeeded. While one button does most of the work, you get an intuitive feel for the jumping, sliding, wall running; thus sending Faith through the streets and rooftops of the unnamed city as though it was completely flat ground. The game aids you by highlighting terrain features in bright red which tells you that the object in question can be climbed, vaulted, or balanced. This is what makes a game that could have been quite impossible, difficult but possible.

While the programmers knew that movement was key they also added a combat feature that obviously took second seat. The game’s largest fault lies in this. Faith is a runner not a fighter and this is very apparent when you come across enemies that you can’t evade. She has no gun, only her fists, which require you to get quite close as the hit detection must be within a foot for you to do anything. There are some moves: like wall run flip kicks that can do some damage but for the most part your combat involves disarming someone and then shooting.

The game looks great. It has a unique appearance that allows a clear perspective on the entire cityscape and really showcases the distances that you must cover. I have climbed on top of tall ledges and looked back thinking of the enormity of the game. Although it can be a bit linear in some places, the path you take is mostly up to you as long as you are travelling in the right direction.

Overall I recommend the game, it’s fun, has replay value, and despite it’s sometimes frustrating boards is a well done achievement for first person jumping puzzles. Maybe I will have to dig up that old hardrive one of these days.

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Categories: video game review

Old Wrinkly White Guys

February 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve been watching alot of USA lately. Since this is the channel that has the reruns of House I’ve been seeing commercials for a great deal of their original programming. While the shows are a bit derivative (Monk=a more neurotic Sherlock Holmes, Burn Notice=a three person A-Team) they all have one thing in common: they focus primarily on character shows rather than plot shows. Every one has a unique character(s) with some odd quirk.

In keeping with their slogan, “Characters welcome,” they have an award for unique people called “Character Approved.” One of these people is Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia. My disdain for Wikipedia is well known to anyone having taken a class of mine. Using Wikipedia as a source resulted in a guaranteed full letter grade drop, I never made an exception to this rule though I suppose I could forsee the possibility. My issue with Wikipedia is in its open source for submissions, there is no editting barrier between author and publication, which can lead to opinions being attributed as facts at the best while sometimes information can be quite erroneous. In one class I demonstrated how unreliable it is by inserting the phrase “and was quite the douchebag” into the middle of the entry on Rene Descartes [to their credit I have to mention that it only lasted a couple of days before it was removed].

So Jimmy Wales is one of the characters that USA has deemed fit for their award. During commercial breaks the channel does a short inventory with him at a row of computers in what looks to be a public library. He gives a self-aggrandizing view of Wikipedia, telling us how the site removes control of history from “let’s say it, wrinkly old white guys…” As if it was a big secret that no one wanted to say but everyone knew.

This obviouse attempt to ignoble the site by getting ultra leftist street cred is bullshit. First off, who are these old wrinkly white guys in control of the world’s information? The internet killed them (if they ever existed) off, in fact the printing press pretty much eliminated a purposeful lack of information. If there really were some cabal of people out there trying to suppress information that was subversive would A People’s History of the United States have ever been published, or Catcher in the Rye? If I want to know something, then the only thing really hampering that ability is myself, not some secrect sect with their hand on the button.

And that’s about where i tuned him out. I have a magazine cut out from Time in which he is asked to convince a child’s teacher to allow him to use Wikipedia as a source. His answer, “I would agree with your teachers that that isn’t the right way to use Wikipedia. The site is a wonderful starting point for research. But it’s only a starting point because there’s always a chance that there’s something wrong, and you should check your sources if you are writing a paper.”

Which contradicts his “old white guy” theory. Even in his words you can’t thumb your nose at the system, because you still have to check with what those white guys approved. Why, because his shit is admittedly unreliable.

This is, of course, if you want articles of interest on studies like philosophy, literature, psychology, or history. Those articles that are not plagiarized straight out of a text book are usually opinionated. None of those articles should be trusted. The only reliable entries that I would trust without questions would be entries on “Jedi,” “Dragon Ball Z,” any random 80s show (the entry for Magnum PI is impressive), “GI Joe,” or “He-Man”. These entries, and their related links, dwarf almost any other entries of non-pop culture phenomenon. Way to go Jimmy Wales, you took knowledge out of the hands of people that made it their life’s work to study and instead handed it to the nerds.

Random Topic Tuesday

February 18, 2009 Leave a comment

This isn’t a regular thing, I just had no title and that’s the best thing that I could come up with. So here it goes, in what is going to be a pretty weak post.

At 6pm PBS airs the BBC World News, of which Gwendolyn and I have become regular viewers. I like it because it is just news, no commercials and no bullshit. Nothing like the constant Fox News Alerts, the self-righteous douchebags on CNN, or the “we’re still gonna bitch about Bush even though he’s no longer President” MSNBC reporting. It’s a guy and a desk with a crawl detailing the Cricket scores which I’m pretty sure I have to figure out since that Texan was just indicted (he sponsored the Cricket league in England). What I liked the most about the nightly reports is the anchor, i can’t seem to remember his name, or find it on their website but I think he’s the best reporter I’ve ever seen. After each news story ends and the camera cuts back to him, it’s like the camera always catches him doing something else to which he looks up and gives us a look. The look is almost sarcastic, as if to say, “and if you’ll believe that…I have another…” I think they replaced him, but my fiancee says he might be on vacation.

Today at the coffee shop I was reading a book, and exchanging ultra short conversation with another regular. This regular is training a service dog (the ones with the red vests) and a person walked in, sat down in close proximity, and began to ask questions. The questions started normal, well as normal as they get for a cafe crazy person: what’s the dog’s name, how old is he/she, why do they let the dog inside, etc. Then the person asked, “how long can the dog last if you don’t feed her?” The regular responded, “until she gets hungry, and then I feed her.” How else does one answer that?

Also today, a woman knocked at the apartment door. Immediately I thought it was someone that wanted to see the upstairs apartment which had just recently become available. However this was not the case, she was recruiting names to sign a petition to influence Governor Paterson to not cut the funding to the EPF (Environmental Protection Fund). I had been aware of the EPF’s existence, and figured that it too would suffer underneath the wide swath of cuts that our governor is performing in order to save New York from bankruptcy. The funding from the EPF comes largely from a tax on all real estate transactions in the state.

In short, it’s a closed system. In order to cut the funding the State would have to either repurpose the tax, or stop it altogether. Since the governor is hell bent on cutting everything, and don’t get me wrong–he has a good reason i.e. not preventing New fucking York from going bankrupt, I offer a counter solution. Instead of taxing Real Estate, they should add a tax to all bottled water sold in the state. Not a deposit, but a tax. This would fit in well with their theory on the “fat tax.” If they raise the tax less people will buy bottled water, which would lessen damage to the environment from the manufacture of the plastic bottles and would thus lessen the need for the EPF. Problem solved, I should be fucking governor.

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February 16, 2009 Leave a comment

When I was teaching, I was often told of many many books that I should read from my students. Most of the recommendations were drivel, usually some kind of self-help new age-y book that would be found in the “philosophy” section of bookstores that didn’t know better. I didn’t actually have the time to read these books, and when I did have the time I read the books that I thought of reading. Being unemployed I have had plenty of time to read the books that I can think of, and since my daily walk to the cafe takes me by the local library branch I’ve been catching up. Then I ran out of ideas, so I consulted my blackberry (re: little noteboook) and have started crashing through the list.

The first on the list is Neil Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon.” A mammoth sized work of fiction that chronicles the stories of a dozen characters through two time zones. Sometimes the book is placed in Sci-Fi, but more accurately it should be placed in historical fiction or just plain fiction. The title is a play on a FICTIONAL* book called “the Necronomicon” from the works of HP Lovecraft, only instead of dealing with the sleeping ancient gods this “Cryptonomicon deals with the history of cryptography (cipher and decipher). It deals in two time periods, the late 1930s and early 1940s (WWII) and the present.

The story alternated chapters between the two periods but the story centers around the present characters searching for a large cache of gold buried by the Imperial Japanese Army in the closing days of WWII. What the story actually is, is an excuse to talk about cryptography. I’ve read a great deal of books where it is obvious that the author has a central issue that may have something to do with the story but is wedged in there anyway. I do this in my many unread stories/novels. It’s fun to write about stuff you actually like.

The main character in the present, is Randall Waterhouse, who is a systems analyst and technician for a company called Epiphyte. His partner is Avi Halaby and they journey to the Phillipines to build something to called “the Crypt” which would be an offshore data haven, a Camen Islands where information and data could be stored independent of the country of origin. While setting this haven up, they run across rumors of gold buried in the Phillipines and discover a Nazi Submarine at the bottom of the ocean with gold.

Waterhouse is the grandson of Lawrence Waterhouse, a Naval Intelligence officer assigned to Bletchley Park to help the breaking of the Nazi code systems. Along the way we are introduced to Alan Turing, Karl Donitz, and future president Ronald Regan.

The story gets convulted sometimes but quick skimming of the chapter before the previous can catch a person up. What interested me more was the WWII story line dealing with detachment 2702. Despite the Nazi’s mar on history, they were pretty clever and employed some of the brightest minds in the world. Our efforts to crack their codes, especially their naval codes, were monolithic. Enigma, was a unique coding system that couldn’t just be solved mathematically as earlier coding systems could and the Allies employed brain power on a scale eclipsed only by the Manhattan project to break it.

The problem was that Enigma was a machine that could be adjusted. If the Nazis knew that we broke it, they could add another rotor to the system or change the coding system entirely. Detachment 2702 was the Allied forces’ answer to that problem. If the Nazis were sending a submarine group, or “wolf pack,” to ambush a cargo convoy and those subs were sunk–no big deal. But if every time they attacked the subs sank, even the average Herrman would figure out that the codes were broken. 2702’s job was to give a legitimate reason for the subs to fail. They set up false radar stations, floated corpses with doctored intelligence documents to Nazi countries, and even sank their own vessels to give the Nazis the illusion that their codes were still secure.

These areas of the book interested me the most as the Cryptographers had already won the war, but all that remained was the tediousness of actually fighting it. The pen, or the bombe in this case was mightier than the sword. The book touches on aspects of identity theory, linguistic philosophy, and mathematical theory all of which would have lost me had it not been told in this fashion. Waterhouse relates a formula of why he can’t concentrate factoring in proximity to a certain woman, length of time between orgasm (with a subset concerning manual release and external), I laughed understanding also how such things get put into formulas in the first place.

Highly recommended. The title of this post uses the Cipher: Solitaire, or Pontifex, a coding system described in the book.

*Meaning that it does not actually exist. Despite what you may want to believe.

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