Sunday, 1 December 2013

A Quote In An Unexpected Place

In the Contemporaneity Arts Society exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, accompanying some of the artworks, I was surprised to find a quote from John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic, referring to my home town. Taken from his 1871 Fors Clavigera - his "letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain" - it reads as follows:
"There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe; you might have seen the Gods there morning and evening. You cared neither for the Gods nor grass, but for cash. You Enterprised a Railroad through the valley - you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell in Buxton; which you think it a lucrative process of exchange - you Fools everywhere."
The Buxton to Bakewell railroad finally closed in the late 1960s, leaving behind its two viaducts at Millers and Monsal Dales. It seems it was the viaduct at Monsal Dale to which Ruskin so objected but, viewed with today's eyes, it's a magnificent and elegant structure and seems as natural as any other defining part of the local landscape. Perhaps this means Ruskin's Gods might have returned to the valley from which they were so rudely evicted. As for the fools, well, that's another matter.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

This is the world we're in, and this is what's happening.

"There is a man named Dalton. Dalton is dangerous. He is rich, he is strong and he is going to crash the stock market."

A pseudo-random Twitter spambot and a YouTube channel on a terminal countdown collapse into a common message - one of Wall Street, of a white knight, of systems and cyberspace, of you becoming everything you were meant to be; it's the message of Bear Stearns Bravo. "This is the world we're in", they say, "and this is what is happening."

It's a call to arms, a call to you. Dalton must be stopped, be regulated, or there will be disastrous consequences. As the sidewalks crack and streets go dark, bankers will shake and scream for his pyramid - but this is all about you. You're in the elevator, you're right on time. You're first class. You're ready. This is where reality and fiction merge. You've got a job to do. This is the world we're in and this is what's happening.

On the internet, nothing stays secret for long. Just as the websleuths of 4chan and The Daily Dot closed in around their provenance, the internet swirled with disappointment after it was revealed that the spambot and YouTube channel are a years long psuedo-art project, an elongated marketing ploy put together by two Manhattanite social media types, creative directors of viral content platforms. Bear Stearns Bravo is nothing but a monetised multiple-choice YouTube game, and a bad one. The viral marketeers proved right those who speculated at an inevitable mundane outcome.

Still, this is the world we're in and this is what's happening.

The Dread Pirate Roberts has been captured and the Silk Road is down. A blow has been struck to the Dark Net, its king dethroned and the curtain pulled back. The FBI and DoJ have one Ross Ulbricht in custody and what an unremarkable man he is.

The Dark Net, the unseen underbelly of the internet, inhabited by only those who need to mask their footsteps - whistleblowers, activists, drug dealers, hitmen - and then only those that can find it, for this is not a place you can simply stumble upon. In this place, the Silk Road shone - a bazaar of the world's drugs and other illict goods readily available in exchange for your bitcoin, a similarly untraceable cryptographic currency - and sat at its helm was the man who named himself after the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Ulbricht's demise was brought about through the merest of slips. A single message posted on a tech forum under a real name, with a few lines of code dragged from the Silk Road's server and an email address. One slip that just ten years ago might have gone unnoticed, but not today. Everything on today's internet is forever and the Feds have it all. This is a reality that feels like fiction.

But it isn't.

This is the world we're in, and this is what's happening, and up through the cracks, Krokodil flows into the market. Fresh from Russia, bootleg heroin, mixed up in a bathtub out of codeine, lighter fluid, gasoline and paint thinner, seeping its way into the veins of the US and the UK. This is a drug straight out of pulp sci-fi, literally eating its users alive. This is reality at fiction's worst. Dalton must be stopped, or there will be disastrous consequences.

The United States government has been shut down. Negotations are in deadlock. Neither side are willing to move. Hundreds of thousands of government workers go unpaid while a Republican congress holds a country to ransom over a healthcare bill modeled almost exactly from the policy of their own former Presidential candidate. The invincible Tea Party opinion holds a gun to the head of the middle ground and demands the head of a President they believe to be an impostor, a Muslim, a socialist, a Kenyan. Their eyes are on the prize that can bring the whole system down, the debt ceiling, up for renegotiation in just a few short week's time. This is Russian Roulette with a global consequence. Sidewalks will crack and streets will go dark.

As the tension mounts and things begin to fray, up on Capitol Hill, the police gun an unarmed woman to death in her car. Two miles away a man sets fire to himself on the Nation Mall. If this was fiction, it would be going too far.

But this is all about you. You're in the elevator, you're right on time. You're first class. You're ready. This is where reality and fiction merge. You've got a job to do. This is the world we're in and this is what's happening.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Pay To Win (But Also Lose)

Following on from my somewhat less-than-favourable thoughts on EA's Katy Perry and Diesel-themed expansion packs for The Sims 3, it's interesting to see what the GTA V Collector's Edition contains, according to Amazon.

Aside from the GTA V-themed snapback cap, money bag, "SteelBook" (a book with a metal cover, presumably) and fancy packaging, the £150 Collector's Edition also contains an abundance of additional in-game content. Just to run through it:

  • Custom characters for GTA Online,
  • Unique vechicles and garage property - a free garage to store vehicles at the start of the game, stocked with a sports bike and 30's-style hot rod,
  • Another unique high-end car for use in GTA Online,
  • A blueprint map of the game's world containing hints for things of interest, such as making fast cash,
  • Boosted special abilities for the characters - each character's special ability will regenerate 25% faster than in "standard" GTA V,
  • Stunt plane trials - additional aerial challenges to complete,
  • In-game store discounts - items throughout the game now cost 20% less than "standard" GTA V,
  • Bonus outfits and tattoos, and finally
  • Additional weapons, available for free within the game.

It seems to me that the above list basically separates into two main categories: extra things to do in the game and things that make the game easier.

While I could argue that the content that fits into the first category (the custom vehicles, bonus outfits etc.) could really just have been included in the standard edition, much like the expansion packs for The Sims, I guess it's a fairly easy way for Rockstar to bit of extra profit with relatively little effort. Having this extra content will probably squeeze a little bit more fun out of the game for those willing to part with the money for the privilege, so I guess in some ways, it's worth it.

It's the second category of extra content that bugs me though - by paying to make the game easier for yourself, it feels to me like you're shooting yourself in the foot somewhat. Games are supposed to be a bit challenging - that's what makes them fun - so by making it that bit easier, you're reducing the core playing experience ("this is a challenge") in exchange for a quick-fix sense of satisfaction ("I won").

When I bought Deus-Ex: Human Revolution a year or so ago, I bought the "Augmented Edition", which contained all the previously released DLC and special edition content in one pack (the Augmented Edition was actually cheaper than buying the standard game by this point). This consisted of a pointless "art book" and some extra in-game weapons, as well as a bonus 10,000 in-game credits and a new device that made it easier to unlock doors in the game. Fortunately, in order to unlock the extra content, you had to enter a special code into the game's menu screen, so I actually just ignored the whole lot and went with the standard version.

For me, paying to make a game easier for yourself is a bit like loading it up and playing with all the cheats enabled on your first go - it's probably still fun, but makes it kind of pointless. I'd rather not be given the extra advantages, the free guns or the map telling me where the fun's at - I'd rather play the game myself, struggle where you're supposed to struggle and enjoy those serendipitous moments as and when I discover them.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

"The Consultants"

Good news time, team! I'm pleased to say that the recent piece I wrote for my good friends at mat.zine - a collaborative architectural zine with lashings of art, poetry and the like - is now available online in their latest edition, Jargon. Best of all, it's completely free!

All contributors were only given the edition's title, Jargon, as a brief and so each response is as markedly different as the backgrounds of the contributors, with poems, essays and short stories clashing together with technical diagrams, photos and artistic works. Despite the differences, the whole thing still fits nicely together and provides a loose narrative on the use of jargon in our lives.

My piece takes the form of a short story about my own experiences with those notorious purveyors of jargon, management consultants. While there's obviously something that sets the consultants in my story apart from those I knew in real life, hopefully there's enough of a twinkle of reality in there to raise a wry smile on the face of anyone who's been in the same boat.

Mat.zine issue #13 'Jargon' is available for free via the following link and my contribution can be found on page 16 of the PDF (or page 30 if you print it out). I highly recommend giving the whole thing a read:

ps. Along with the Jargon edition, mat.zine also ran a debate discussing the use of jargon, for better and worse, in the communication of architectural design to the public. You can listen to a complete audio recording of the debate here, while feasting your eyes on a selection of photos from the event. While this is obviously a lot more directly architecturally focused, I still found the whole thing pretty interesting, although I'll confess to not knowing what either "praxis" or "liminal" meant beforehand.

pps. It's probably also worth mentioning that I also wrote a piece for mat.zine #11, 'Resilience', which can be found here, if you want to give that a read too.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gaming: Continuing To Scrape The Barrel

In a world where ad-funded mobile gaming, purchasable downloadable content and the fact that people seem perfectly happy to pump millions of pounds into Candy Crush in exchange for extra lives compete for the last pennies in gamer's wallets, perhaps it was naïve of me to think that we'd hit the bottom. However, a rare trip into an actual physical shop that still sells PC games introduced me to a range of expansion packs for EA's The Sims 3 that actually managed to horrify me.

Expansion packs are nothing new to gaming and their quality often walks a debatable line between legitimately worthwhile extra content for a favourite game, or more likely, a combination of things that should have been included first time round and a ragbag selection of bonus features and in-game items. It's not unusual for new games to be released one month, along with some "limited edition" downloadable content for an additional cost, only to be followed up six months later with an add-on pack or two. In most instances, after the initial sales have started to die down the whole lot is then repackaged into a single "Game of the Year" edition and re-sold at premium prices.

In it ability to sell additional content, The Sims stands head and shoulders above its fellows. In the game, the player must control the day-to-day life of their avatar, or sim, and steer them to success or failure in their career, society and love life, while buying them products and furnishing their homes with an array of furniture. While it doesn't float my particular boat, the formula is incredibly successful, with The Sims 3 selling over 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful of all time. Even after the first game in the series, it didn't take EA long to work out that they could continue to profit for the game's success by creating a steady stream of purchasable expansion packs adding new sim models, career options, clothes, furniture or new ways and places for the sims it interact. To date, nineteen add-on packs have been released for The Sims 3 alone, with a twentieth scheduled for later this year.

It was three of those expansion packs that I chanced upon earlier. The first two, Showtime - Katy Perry Collector's Edition and Katy Perry's Sweet Treats are bad enough:

It's not that the idea of a computer game involving Katy Perry in itself is a bad thing - there are plenty of games that have involved musicians in the past, ranging from the various Moonwalker games (all pretty good) to the slightly less appealing KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child - but that after reading through the actual content of the expansion packs themselves, there seems to be very little content actually involving Katy Perry. While Showtime does at least involve some musical content, such as a karaoke bar and stage-based career paths, Sweet Treats only lists Katy Perry-inspired items, like a cupcake-shaped guitar. As far as I could see, apart from the fact that Sweet Treats contains a "simlish" version of Perry's Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), it looks like they've just slapped a (somewhat bizzare looking) picture of Katy Perry on the box to bump up the sales.

If you think I'm being overly cynical with the Katy Perry expansions - after all they are clearly aimed at kids and I suppose if it make them happy, then what the hell - it was the last expansion pack that really horrified me, the Diesel Stuff Pack:

In this pack, you're adding a range of Diesel-themed clothing and furniture items "showcasing the trends that are all the rage this season", which to me sounds like a translation for slapping the Diesel brand name all over your in-game world - for successful virtual living, perhaps. While I confess to be criticising without having actually played it, if you have any doubts, just read the product description on Amazon.

What annoys me about this, is that adding the Diesel brand name into the game, while presumably a profitable act for both EA and Diesel, is that you're adding very little to the actual game itself. Fine, releasing more items may improve the game for players and it's up to them if they want to pay for it, but is living in a Diesel monoculture actually any more fun? In buying this expansion pack, you're essentially paying to advertise Diesel to yourself. We've long seen product placement in other media and know how little value it adds - do the lingering shots of James Bond's Omega watch improve Casino Royale? Is it important which fast food retailer Tony Stark visited for his "American cheeseburger"? Will we really benefit from knowing Lara Croft wears a Wonderbra or that in Gears of War, real heroes drink Budweiser? I doubt it, but if we keep buying it, they're going to keep making it.

On a related note, a friend of mine used to work for Microsoft and told me that the day they introduced a purchasable Darth Vader mask for your X-Box Live avatar, they made about £10million in 24 hours.

I guess I'll look forward to Pokémon Apple and Pokémon Android, then.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Rentokil Pestaurant

Or, a tale of how I ended up eating a scorpion in the Science Museum.

One of the things you tend to hear about the future is that due to the world getting busier, hotter and generally less poor, we're going to struggle to produce enough meat to satisfy everyone's demand.

Feeding meat-eaters is a costly affair compared to vegetarians, as meat takes considerably more resources to produce than most other foods. Think about it like this, in order to feed me bread, you have to grow, say, an acre of wheat, whereas in order to feed me steak, you have to grow enough grass to keep one cow alive for at least two years. Not only are you using more land, water and farming resource to produce the steak, but there's also other knock-on consequences, like an increased carbon footprint. Sadly for those of us who are meat-eaters, on this the vegetarians really do hold their annoying moral high ground.

In the West, we eat a lot of meat and therefore a lot of worldwide food resources go to feeding those animals rather than people. As developing countries get richer and lift their people out of poverty, in general their demand for meat will also increase and so we're looking at a world where there's more people, wanting more meat that we have already. Coupled with the fact that climate change will potentially have big impacts on our ability to produce all the crops we need, it looks like needing all this meat will become a problem.

There are lots of potential solutions to this though, from producing more climate-resistant crops to actually doing something about climate change (just throwing that one out there), but there's two other interesting alternatives:

The first is that we start producing meat without using animals to do it. The idea of lab grown, or in vitro meat has long been the stuff of science fiction but recently hit the headlines after the first in vitro beefburger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London. Unfortunately for me, as the burger cost around $250,000 to produce, it's a little out of my price range to sample and so we come to the second alternative: insects.

Insects, bugs and other such creatures are a common protein source for all kind of people around the world. While the idea of chowing down on a daddy longlegs is somewhat off-putting for us in the West, people in other cultures enjoy a whole range of edible treats we are potentially missing out on. Some people think that if Westerners could be persuaded that eating at least some insect-based foods is ok, then we may not need to produce quite so much conventional meat in future.

For these reasons, and the fact that I'll generally eat anything, I've been wanting to eat some insects for a while. Feeding the world though has to be cheap, and looking online at where I could buy edible bugs produced what I would consider unreasonably expensive results. This is where the Science Museum comes in.

At this month's The Science of Food and Drink-themed Science Museum Lates event, one of the exhibitors was the Rentokil Pestaurant, Rentokil's very own world's first pop-up insect restaurant, inviting you to come and try the future of food. After a tip-off from a friend, I needed no further persuasion.

Now, before anyone gets too horrified, it's worth pointing out that Rentokil were not serving up insects that they had caught / killed themselves but instead served a range of more exotic imported bugs, farmed and fit for human consumption (well, so they said). But just because you can eat them, doesn't mean you'd want to - so how were they? Let's find out.

First on the list, while queuing up for the main courses, we tried some barbecue-flavour Bamboo Worms, deep-fried and covered completely in barbecue powder. While they were quite passable, they had very little texture and mainly just tasted of the barbecue flavouring, so it was difficult to start judging. If you're squeamish, you might want to skip to the end now, as it doesn't get much better from here.

Next up, a mixed bowl of assorted salt-and-pepper grubs (as you can see in the second picture above). I ate two of these but only because I didn't believe myself first time round. You know when you get that bit in a bag of crisps that's like a small bit of the potato has somehow avoided the whole crisp-making process but still made it into the bag, a kind of dark brown, lumpy, mud-flavoured blob? Well, that's what these tasted like, at best. (Or you can refer to my friend's slightly less measured opinion).

The next few samples, like the roasted, salted Queen Weaver Ants, were all somewhere in a middle ground between the first two tasters, but that soon changed when presented with the grasshoppers.

Going into this, I'd been fairly optimistic that being someone who's historically not squeamish in the slightest about eating any kind of food - and I've eaten some reasonably unusual things - that eating insects just wouldn't phase me. Turns out, I was wrong.

Each of the larger grasshoppers on the plate was about the size of my little finger. Picking one up and inspecting it, it looked exactly like a grasshopper. It wasn't coated in barbecue crumbs or an unintelligible shape, it was a two and a half inches long and definitely a grasshopper. Getting my brain to accept that I was going to eat this just did not want to happen. You never get anywhere without taking a few risks though, so after holding it stupidly for fifteen seconds or so, I took the plunge.

It would seem that for what grasshoppers lack in flavour, they more than make up for in texture. The grasshopper has virtually no flavour at all, but was like eating, well I don't know really, maybe very thin glass. The sensation of its crispy exoskeleton shattering as I chewed is not something I particularly want to repeat. Overall, I would rank the experience as horrid but worse was yet to come.

Being a sucker for punishment, and the vague notion that I "had" to do this "for science", or something equally silly, meant that I continued through the bug buffet and put the grasshopper to the back of my mind with a few chocolate-covered somethings. I can't remember what they were, but they weren't grasshoppers, which was good. However, upon reaching the end of the table something else caught my eye and it was with a grim realisation that I decided I was about to eat a scorpion.

There weren't many Chinese Armour Tail Scorpions from which to choose and, from the picture above, I picked the middle one. Holding it tentatively between my fingers, I looked at my friend, who had given up even before the grasshopper. He shook his head slightly in almost resigned understanding of what was about to happen. I looked at the girl next to me who was staring at me like I was out of my mind. It was decided, and in it went.

I say "in it went", but a scorpion is quite big, so I actually had to chew half of it off and eat that, which is easier said than done. It was a bit like eating a crabshell, but without the crab. Once I'd separated a mouthful, chewing it was near impossible and probably not advisable to anyone who doesn't drink enough milk. It crunched. It stabbed my gums. It tasted like bark, or mud, or something else distinctly inedible. It was awful. Why am I doing this to myself?, I thought. But I still ate it. It took a while before it was even possible to swallow and when I could, it was only as a way to get rid of it. I returned the uneaten half to the table and stepped away from this dreaded feast.

And so this brings us to the end of the tale of how I ended up eating a scorpion at the Science Museum. The scorpion was immediately followed by an emergency pint of cider and packet of crisps but the memory of it, and the grasshopper, still lingers.

So what did I learn? Is eating insects going to be our future? Well, based on my experience, I would say there's a lot of work to be done before that's likely to happen. I went into this about as open-minded as it's possible to be and have come out of it about as put-off as possible. Perhaps I shouldn't dismiss insects as food based only on my Pestaurant experience - it's not like Rentokil are generally known for their gourmet cuisine and maybe it's a bit like refusing to eat steak because you ate a bad hot dog once. Plenty of other people seemed much happier with their dinner than I did, so perhaps it's just me. Maybe I should wait until I'm somewhere that serves insects as part of their day-to-day life and see what the difference is.

In the meantime, I think I'll start saving for that in vitro burger.

Friday, 23 August 2013

I Get Pi (With A Little Help From My Friends)

One of the advantages of being (hopefully temporarily) unemployed is that you get a bit of time on your hands. Rather than spend my spare moments finding out what all the Breaking Bad-related fuss was about or recreating nostalgic childhood memories in Minecraft, I thought I'd try and do something a bit more productive.

As if almost by magic*, the kind folks at my old work saw fit to furnish me with one of these as a parting gift:

(*I may have given some hints.)

So, for the uninitiated, that's a Raspberry Pi, a kind of bare-bones, supercheap computer with which you can do all kinds of cool things.

As you can see though, it doesn't look much like your conventional laptop but all the basics in terms of the hardware are there, you're just missing the peripherals - screen, keyboard, hard drive etc. These can all be plugged in to the various slots around the unit: there's two USBs for mouse/keyboard/WiFi, an HDMI connector so you can plug it in to your TV and a slot underneath for SD cards (like you have in your camera), which serve as mini-hard drives. Once you've got all those plugged in, you're good to go.

While the use of the Raspberry Pi was originally intended as a cheap, risk free computer on which kids could learn to code, already in its relatively short lifespan it's been turned into all sorts of awesome things: a mini-Street Fighter 2 arcade machine, a quadcopter drone, cool music synths and even sent into space.

I think perhaps my ambitions for the Raspberry Pi lie a little closer to home though, so I'm going to start off trying to work out how to turn it into a home media centre, plugged into the TV, streaming music in from the internet and my other computers over the WiFi. Well, that's the plan anyway.

And if I get bored, who knows what geeky delights this might offer up:

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Fire and Fortune

The product of a rainy Friday afternoon - my cover of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker's song, Fire and Fortune.

If you haven't heard the original, it comes highly recommended. Josie and Ben are good friends of mine, winners of last year's Isambard Folk Award and recently graced Dermot O'Leary's show while at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

Fire and Fortune is the lead track from their new album of the same name, out now on Navigator Records. Hopefully, they are equally impressed and horrified by what I've done with their music. Just my way of saying "well done", guys!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Printing Me, Printing Guns

In preparation for their October exhibition "3D: Printing the Future", this week the Science Museum were offering the opportunity to come and get yourself 3D scanned by the guys from Digital Native Academy, so they could use your printed figurine in their upcoming displays.

Being a man of some leisure at the moment, it sounded pretty cool, so I paid them a visit. Hopefully, I should be getting a copy of my very own CAD file (or whatever format) of me too, so I'll be able to get a copy of myself printed!

It's amazing what you can do with an X-Box Kinect, lights, a big beast of a computer and custom made turntable.

Here's the results:

They wanted us to strike a pose, so I went for "Why, God, Why?!". Kind of like that bit from the end of Platoon.

Also at the Science Museum, they've got a copy of the "Liberator" 3D printed gun, famously created by Defense Distributed. If you haven't seen the ridiculous promo video for the Liberator on their website, you should definitely check it out. The only non-printed part is the metal firing pin.

Anyway, this particular model was apparently downloaded and printed by a Finnish journalist, was fired under supervision and, as you can see, didn't survive the first shot.   

3D printed guns sounds scary but at present actually creating your own copy of the Liberator isn't as easy as the media tends to make out - today's home printers just aren't up to the task yet so you'd either have to convince a company with industrial printers to make one for you, or buy your own industrial printer, which of course is far more expensive that just buying an actual gun.

That said, technology isn't a stationary thing, so 3D printed guns may soon become a everyday possibility, but they're not the only potential bad thing technologies like this may enable. There's a good article here by Cory Doctorow talking about some of the issues in regulation.

For me though, it's also worth remembering that Defense Distributed chose to release the Liberator at the height of the recent US debate on gun controls, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. My view is that in doing so, they wanted to influence the debate to say "you want to take away our guns, but look, we can make our own anyway" and hence support the continuation of America's current rather lax gun controls. As their website says, their sole aim is to "defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and affirmed by the United States Supreme Court".

Lastly, I was amused to see that one of the objects someone at the Science Museum had scanned was one of Games Workshops' Space Marine figures. I'm not sure Games Workshop would have approved...