Category Archives: Special

Things December 2015: Star Wars Special

As you may recall from Things 43, I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan.

So in terms of Things I found interesting in December, there was really only one. If you hate Star Wars I’ve got one other Thing for you below, a bit more music, and then it’s wall-to-wall Space Opera. I’ll save spoilery stuff until the very end and give fair warning.

Meine Schmusedecke / Patchwork Pals

At the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2010 (which I wrote about in this Things special), one of my favourite short animations was Lebensader by Angela Steffen. Last year at the DOK Leipzig film festival I was pleased to recognise her hand in a series of very short children’s animations about the adventures of some animals on a patchwork quilt.

There is an English dub, but I most enjoy the original German – I don’t know the language, but that’s what I like about it: the context and certain similar-sounding words make it a lot of fun to guess what’s going on. It’s about 3 minutes, and you should at least stick with it until the fox shows up:

Things Updates: Music and Dialogue

In Things November 2015 I quoted Dennett’s recommended method of dialogue, which involved carefully identifying areas of agreement, disagreement, and accurately re-stating your opponents position before attempting to debate it. Tarim wonders if this is inspired by “Buberian Dialogue” (pdf link):

The emergence technique proposed herein is sometimes called “Buberian dialogue.” The technique calls for two discussants, a moderator and an audience. The discussants each say their initial piece. It is the role of the audience to listen for what the two discussants have said or implied which might be in common. The audience is called upon to inform the discussants of these commonalities (which the moderator captures on a white board) and then for the discussion to turn to the revealed items. This occurs through three or more rounds. The aim is for a transformational experience. There is no effort to reach consensus or conclusion. Rather, the goal is for a transformation to take place in how the discussants view each other in the context of the debate. If a more human based respect emerges, the technique is successful.

Just imagine a political debate taking place through this form!

Tarim also adds his nominations for notable musical reworks (which began in Things with covers, reworking in general, and other examples from Things readers), while noting that unfortunately most of his favourite covers are those he heard live:

(also)

Frank Zappa’s takes on Bolero and Stairway to Heaven:

And finally Far-Cue, a “3 piece punk band who do notable versions of: Mike Batt’s Remember You’re a Womble, Motorhead’s Ace of Spaces and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.” Youtube videos exist, but “they just don’t capture the essence of Far-Cue” – which I can well imagine!

So what is this ‘Star Wars’ thing anyway

I grew up with Star Wars, and it’s now so much part of the cultural furniture that it’s quite hard to see what it really is.

Strip away what you already know, and think about how odd it is to launch a franchise with ‘Episode IV’. So odd that Fox didn’t allow it, and it was just ‘Star Wars’ until George was allowed to change it for the 1981 re-release (and of course he’s continued to change the films whenever he has the chance). This is just the most telling sign of what Lucas was trying to do: recreate the adventure-serial movies he enjoyed in his youth, in which you would usually be encountering a random episode and hearing talk about back-story you knew nothing about – “You fought in the Clone Wars?!” The other biggest clue is that he had first tried to get the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, and being unable to get them, decided to just make his own thrilling space adventure instead. (As if annoyed how many people don’t realise this, Lucas mentions it repeatedly in all of the commentaries on the most recent DVD/Blu-ray release!)

The best modern analogue for what Lucas was doing is probably Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, in which Rodriguez tries to make an exploitation B-movie as good as he always wished they were.

This is all very reasonable; the really weird part is how ridiculously successful it was. Here’s the US box office of the top 10 grossing movies in the 5 years running to 1977:

In 1975 Jaws was an outlier, a freakish break-out hit… and then Star Wars almost doubled Jaws’ US domestic takings. Worldwide, across all re-releases and adjusted for inflation, ‘Star Wars’ (aka Episode IV or A New Hope) is second only to Gone With the Wind, which came out in 1939, when 45% of the US population went to the cinema weekly, as opposed to 1977 when that figure was down to 10% (pdf source). Incredible.

I personally think three main factors helped Star Wars achieve this excessive success.

Generational Nostalgia

It seems for various reasons that people have their greatest ability to create influential cultural works between the ages of 30-40. That age group also commands a large amount of the money going to entertainment: those without children are at a peak ratio of earnings to needs, those with children will spend to entertain the whole family. This means entertainment that resonates with the 30-40 year-old generation can prove disproportionately popular, and nostalgia for their youth is a good approach. (When you enter this age group yourself, the first sign is that shops start playing the pop music of your youth).

Back to the Future  went back from 1985 to 1955; Hairspray, The Wonder Years, Grease, Happy Days, and perhaps most nakedly That ‘70s Show all did a similar nostalgic leap. So in 1977 an audience existed that, like George Lucas, was nostalgic for the adventure serials.

This is also why we see favourite movies of the 80’s coming back 25-35 years later with sequels or remakes: Alien, Terminator, Robocop, Total Recall, Ghostbusters, Rocky, and Indiana Jones to name a few of the biggest.

Hairspray actually benefitted from the effect twice (set in 1962, made in 1988, remade in 2002). Star Wars has arguably benefitted three times: the initial adventure-serial throwback, and then the prequel trilogy and (just about) sequel trilogy each resonating with the generation that grew up with the previous Star Wars movies.

The Hero’s Journey

Aka the Monomyth, this is a story structure George Lucas studied and then consciously followed with Star Wars, and is one of the most popular story types that exist. Whatever else is going on, with this at the core you have a very strong narrative hook.

Execution

Episode IV’s script is weak: “This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade”, “Boy, it’s a good thing you have these compartments!” The pacing is also weird – at age 7 a friend and I were playing with our Star Wars toys when we realised we could watch the movie on VHS; after about 20 minutes we got bored and went back to the toys.

But apart from that (!), much of the execution is really incredible for the time. For one thing, Lucas founded a special effects company and a sound company that were each so successful they remain leaders in their fields even today. Relatedly, I suspect Ben Burtt’s sound design in particular elevated the film dramatically above other genre fare of the day (lightsabers, Vader’s breathing, blaster bolts, alien languages, background hum on ships… hundreds of convincing, world-building sounds in a single film).

How do you follow the most successful film in a generation?

Lucas found directing Star Wars incredibly stressful. With so much success, the world’s expectations would make directing a sequel even worse. I also suspect he knew a sequel would be held to a higher standard, and this adventure-serial schtick was going to wear thin. The one thing he had going for him was that the arc of the Hero’s Journey had plenty of life left. So he brought in a different director, got some pretty good script-writers, and took a back seat.

After seeing Star Wars films frequently throughout my life, it was only after a 5-year hiatus that I could re-watch them somewhat afresh as an adult, and realised that The Empire Strikes Back really is a step up in quality. Return of the Jedi then concluded the Hero’s Journey beautifully and assured Star Wars a long-lasting place in the minds of a generation.

In light of all the above, the seemingly weird prequels make a lot more sense. With financial security behind him, Lucas was able to get back to doing what he really wanted: adventure serial movies, complete with cheesy lines, melodrama and slightly wooden acting. I think the prequel trilogy is just the kind of movie Lucas wanted to make all along, and he actually got better at achieving that rather than worse.

I suspect the greatest problem for the prequels was that they’re not doing the ever-popular Hero’s Journey, but rather some sort of rise-and-fall tragedy, which the nuance-free adventure serial form is terrible at supporting.

The Force Awakens (no spoilers yet)

Which brings us to The Force Awakens. Back in 2005, after queuing for 16 hours, I got a ticket for the first 6-film Star Wars marathon and world premiere of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at Leicester Square (showing the Original Trilogy and then the Prequel Trilogy, in order to save the newest addition until last).

At the end, George Lucas came over from the more star-studded premiere that had taken place in the nearby Odeon, and addressed the crowd. He was quickly drowned out by a chant that spontaneously arose from the fans: “We want nine! We want nine!”

Lucas calmed the crowd, and answered the request with these words I can still hear now:

“Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker. It begins when he’s 9… it ends when he’s dead… there is no more story.”

(The BBC reporter recorded slightly different wording).

[Update – I rediscovered the recording I made of that intro! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC reporter’s wording was closer than my memory – T.M. 16th April 2017]

As we now know, Disney thought there was at least $4bn more story, and they’re set on proving it, with new Star Wars episodes and spin-off films planned for every year from 2015 – 2020.

With all that history and no more Hero’s Journey story arc, how could Disney possibly satisfy the expectations of three generations of fans?

Well, that looks quite plausible. I particularly enjoyed the way a seemingly new and haunting piano progression evolves into a familiar theme – Han and Leia’s love theme in fact, which is a particularly apt choice following the end of Return of the Jedi.

At the time of writing, The Force Awakens has set the record for (unadjusted) US Domestic box office, and more impressively is at number 15 in the worldwide inflation-adjusted box office, putting it ahead of The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi, and just about on track to overtake The Empire Strikes Back, which would make it the most successful Star Wars film since 1977.

So that seems to be working.

I would say The Force Awakens has three major elements which could be ‘spoiled’, so is well worth trying to see with as little knowledge as possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should really do so before reading the rest.

Here’s a video to make it less tempting to read on:

The Force Awakens: True Successor or big-budget Fan Fiction? (SPOILERS!)

Over the first half an hour of the film I alternated between feeling that scenes, characters and designs were either not Star Wars enough, or just too much like old Star Wars. I finally realised I was holding the movie to an impossible standard, and substantially enjoyed the rest of it.

But by the end, it was undeniable: The Force Awakens looks a lot like a remake of 1977’s A New Hope. To try to make that assessment more fairly, I picked the most important 10 story elements from each and put them side-by-side:

Episode IV: A New Hope Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey
Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military
Destroy planet-scale superweapon Destroy planet-scale superweapon
Death of the mentor Death of the mentor
Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith
Males free female from captivity Males free female from captivity (subverted)
MacGuffin in a droid: superweapon plans MacGuffin in a droid: location of old hero
Escape from a death trap Male frees male from captivity
Triumphant return of a protagonist Bad guy turns good
Conclude with award ceremony Conclude with ambiguous meeting with old hero

So that’s 50% alike, 20% related, 30% new.

I can’t help wondering if this was actually the master plan: take the structure of the most successful of the series, add a scriptwriter of the most well-regarded, have the original cast pass the baton to the new, and laugh all the way to the bank. It seems to have worked.

In terms of style, I was very pleased to find it kept my favourite things from all of the Star Wars films: the adventure-serial (more mysterious back-story), family melodrama, and a script much more like Empire than any of the others (which makes sense, given Lawrence Kasdan’s involvement).

Let’s Get Nerdy (MORE SPOILERS)

Finally, as a Star Wars fan I can’t leave off without addressing some of the questions people tend to ask immediately after seeing the film.

How did Kylo Ren get beaten by amateurs?

The movie goes to extraordinary lengths to show Chewbacca’s bowcaster as some kind of devastating superweapon. Kylo Ren then gets shot with it, and the movie emphases his heavy bleeding and difficulty with the wound. Meanwhile it’s fair to assume Finn has some training in melee combat, and so is able to slightly injure Kylo’s sword-arm before being beaten. This means when Rey enters the fight, she’s fresh, and has been demonstrated capable in melee combat, while Kylo has two serious injuries!

How can Rey be so good with the Force so quickly?

I wondered this while watching the film, but it’s worth benchmarking. Anakin could drive pod-racers at inhuman speed at age 9, and demonstrated some sort of telepathy / far-seeing (in Yoda’s simple test) with no training. Luke deflects three blaster bolts while blindfold on his second try, uses the force to make a missile shot that was ‘impossible, even for a computer’, and later extracts a lightsaber from ice, again with no formal training.

By contrast, Rey does a Jedi mind trick on her third go, and beats Kylo Ren in a lightsaber summoning contest; in the latter case we again have his injuries to consider, and she was also pulling in the same direction as him.

Why did R2 take so long to wake up?

This requires some mumbo jumbo about R2 taking a while to process the information of BB-8 returning with the map piece and to come out of hibernation. The real reason is if he woke up immediately, it would create a difficult story-fork between fighting Starkiller Base and seeking out Luke.

Where are these planets relative to one another in the galaxy?

It’s unclear how Starkiller Base can really be “aimed” at another solar system, but apparently it can. We’re told it can somehow shoot through hyperspace, hence the ability to hit something light-years away. Dramatically less justifiable is that in a completely separate solar system, it’s possible to look in the sky and see the beam traverse and hit several planets in real time.

The only ‘explanation’ is that Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction: planets are simply locations that are ‘far apart’, hence their uniform environment and the fact that everything that takes place on a planet seems to happen in one very small part of it. The worst offender in the original trilogy was arguably Empire, in which the Millennium Falcon apparently travels between two solar systems without a hyperdrive in a matter of weeks.

Who is Rey?

Child of Solo and Leia? Seems very weird they did not mention her when discussing their past troubles in The Force Awakens.

Grandchild of Kenobi? Seems very weird given that in Empire it is Kenobi’s ghost who says “That boy is our last hope” and Yoda who says “No… there is another”. Unless Yoda followed up with “Oh, and didn’t you also have a kid at some point, how are they getting on?”

Child of Skywalker? It seems insane he would abandon her with no training, and the whole bit with Kylo turning to the dark side and disrupting things comes much later.

In terms of trying to second-guess the series, I think it’s worth remembering that A New Hope set up Empire’s surprise-parentage twist by explicitly lying about it! As reliable old Ben told Luke, “A young Jedi named Darth Vader […] betrayed and murdered your father.”

So, and as usual: trust no one.

- Transmission finally ends

Things 132: Mobile games I recommend

I’m fascinated by the developments we’re seeing in mobile gaming, and am particularly interested in what sort of games we’ll see emerging as tablets become more mainstream and people figure out cool ways to use a touch interface.

I’ve spent the past few months trying out anything that sounded promising, particularly things that seem more suited to tablets than mobiles. Here are my favourite mobile games I’ve tried so far, split by business model, as that’s the first thing people want to know these days.

 

Games that you just buy

Star Command

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Android; PC and Mac forthcoming apparently
Best experienced: On a tablet
Theme: Star Trek / Pixel art
Genre: Strategy
Original release date: May 2013

Shields are down. The enemy have teleported aboard and are making their way towards the engine room. The medical bay is on fire. But the enemy ship is weak. Do you keep your tactical officers on ship weapons, or peel some off to defend against the intruders? Do you send the engineers to repair the med-bay, or have them try to set up a sentry droid before the enemy gets to them?

If you think making those kind of decisions in a pixellated Star-Trek-like environment sounds like fun, then this game is for you. The dialogue is lightly amusing too, for example, here are three dialogue options to choose from after being hailed by some unintelligible penguins:

A playthrough took about 4-5 hours, which felt about right. There’s some extra things to do which add replayability but I haven’t touched them yet.

 

Super Hexagon

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Windows, Mac, Android, Blackberry, Linux
Best experienced: On any mobile device
Theme: Geometry / Trippy
Genre: Twitch
Original release date: August 2012

You rotate a small triangle to avoid the ever-encroaching hexagonal walls. The walls move so fast that if you pause to make a conscious decision about which way to go, you die. The only way to last more than a few seconds is to train yourself to move instinctively, which is difficult, but gives a tremendous feeling of flow when you achieve it.

Difficulty modes are ‘Hard’, ‘Harder’ and ‘Hardest’, but progress will unlock harder modes. You get the idea.

 

Year Walk

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Windows and Mac forthcoming apparently
Best experienced: On an iPad, with a friend
***Companion app***
(essential) (iOS)
Companion app best experienced: On a small iOS device, while you play the main game on an iPad
Theme: Swedish folklore
Genre: Spooky puzzle
Original release date: February 2013

Year Walking is a Swedish folkloric version of a Vision Quest: someone wishing to see the future isolates themselves and fasts for a day (commonly on December 31st), then walks to the church at midnight. The dream-like things they see as a result are interpreted as signs of the future.

This may or may not be real (quite pleasingly, the English page for it on Wikipedia has been deleted as an ‘obvious hoax’, while the Swedish version is present), but in any case it’s a lovely idea for a short, spooky little puzzle game, best played under the duvet at midnight.

The art style is very Jon ‘I want my hat back ‘ Klassen (but isn’t actually by him). This impressionistic trailer gives a good idea of the kind of atmosphere you can expect:

The experience is quite short (I would guess between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how quickly you figure things out), but is extremely atmospheric and polished, and felt well worth the money to me.

 

First bit free, buy the rest

Cytus

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: Android, Playstation MobileiOS (not free!)
Theme: Anime Sci-Fi / Mostly circles
Genre: Rhythm Action
Original release date: January 2012
Best experienced: On a tablet

Circles appear. A line moves back and forth across the screen. You tap the circles when the line crosses them. If done correctly, you find you are tapping in time to the music, and this is very pleasing. Later on things get really crazy.

Well, that’s rhythm action for you. You get to try quite a lot for free (at least on Android), so if that remotely appeals then you should try it. Once you have the hang of it, you can then attempt to impress other people with your circle tapping skills. In my experience, they are actually quite impressed. They might have just been saying that, though.

 

Badland

Official site
Platforms: AndroidiOS (not free!)
Best experienced: On a tablet
Theme: Cute but dark / silhouette
Genre: Tap to flap
Original release date: March 2013

The one-button tap-to-flap genre seemed pretty simple to me until I played this. Powerups change your size (which alters your handling), coefficient of friction, speed, or the speed at which time passes. That’s fun, but it really gets going when you suddenly clone up to a swarm of 20 flappy things, all responding to your taps in sync (as per the screenshot above).

Essentially half of the game is free (on Android), so you should really just try it.

 

Free but you can buy things

Nimble Quest

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Android, Ouya, PC/Mac/Linux (paid)
Theme: RPG / Pixel art
Genre: Snake
Original release date: March 2013
Best experienced: On a mobile

It’s really all there in theme, genre and screenshots: you control a conga-line ‘snake’ of RPG characters, attacking enemies and collecting power-ups. New characters are unlocked as you achieve higher levels, and each character can be upgraded with the coins you collect… it’s quite surprisingly compelling.

It’s the brave new world of free-to-play, so there’s a bunch of currency and in-app-purchase (IAP) going on. I recommend this approach:

  • Buy the red gems IAP. This gets you about 4x the amount of soft currency earned per game, and is a fair way to pay for the fun you get out of the game
  • Play the ‘arena’ mode. This updates once a day (I think), and if you do well enough you get a decent amount of the hard currency the following day
  • Once you get deeper into the game, spend hard currency (as you earn it) on the ‘speed’ powerup, because that makes early progress quicker, makes your attacks more concentrated, and the whole game becomes much more thrillingly twitchy.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and previously raved about Smash Cops Heat for Android/iOS.

Things 117: Dubstep special

Our story begins with this video, in which a rather sharp-looking old dude performs some kind of strange traditional dance, and some wag replaces the soundtrack:

I originally saw this posted on BoingBoing, where Cory Doctorow described it as “fast-footed country dancing with a dubstep soundtrack”. Within minutes, commenters disagreed with the dubstep diagnosis, with hardwarejunkie9 observing:

I think we all need to shake this “everything’s dubstep” problem we have.

This begs the question: what is dubstep?

A good place to start is this animated visualisation, which charts the evolution of different musical genres from one to another over time, and also by location (which is quite a feat of research and design).

What struck me most about this data was a comparatively trivial point: dubstep is apparently the only new genre to emerge in the first decade of the 21st century.

We might wonder how long it takes for a genre to be recognised, and how we should define what constitutes a genre anyway. These are very tough questions, and I’m going to sidestep them entirely by instead waving my hands generally in the direction of this trended search volume data from Google.

So it seems that dubstep looks like a duck and sounds like a duck and so probably is a duck, if by ‘duck’ we mean musical genre.

We come now to the critical question: how can we successfully identify if something could fairly be described as dubstep?

A very informative definition was given by Bassnectar in an interview in 2007, with remarkable aplomb and cogency for an off-the-cuff response, which you would ideally watch with the visual aids in this video if there wasn’t some kind of dispute over the use of the audio, so instead you need to listen to the first 4 minutes of the full audio interview here:

Without the build-up it doesn’t mean much, but if you don’t have the time or audio capability to listen to that right now, his conclusion is:

Dubstep is […] this ultra-slow ultra-dirty spawn of hip-hop […] at a half-time breakbeat speed, so it feels abnormally slow, and just gives this really heavy feel.

Actually, that doesn’t sound very cogent at all in isolation, so I guess you really do have to listen to the whole thing. Sorry.

Anyway, there are some who say this definition is outdated, but at this late point in the cycle it seems likely that splinter subgenres are blurring the definition, and we may need a few more years of hindsight to accurately identify where dubstep ends and something new begins.

Meanwhile, this post has gone on for far too long without actually giving any examples of real live dubstep in the wild. I like to use this video as an illustrative example, since it also shows it’s possible to retain a performance element (including a self-indulgent “solo” interlude) and demonstration of skill in creating live electronic music, which some people feel are necessary for a genre to attain some sense of legitimacy:

Finally, some people will discount a musical genre if you can’t dance to it. While hardly something accessible to the typical club goer, I think this video demonstrates a closer link between movement and sound than many more conventionally danceable genres achieve:

As you might have noticed, there’s a notable difference in the music between those last two videos, and I think this represents one of the ways in which dubstep is beginning to diverge towards new genres after over a decade of development.

So, there you have it. Now you too can argue about what is and is not dubstep in the comments under any modern electronic music video on youtube.

Further listening:
Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s “Dubstep Christmas”
One hour of looped dubstep cat
Dubstep radio on last.fm

-@metatim

Things 115: Long-form Special – 5 Great Reads

I’ve built up quite a backlog of links to great long-form content to go in Things, so it’s time for a long-form special!

You’re unlikely to have time to read all these things now, so if you haven’t done so already I recommend getting Read It Later (or some prefer Instapaper) so that you can time-shift some of these links to somewhen more convenient.

Alternatively you may prefer to read these articles in printed form, in which case you might like to download this 27-page pdf I made, which contains each article in full.

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1) Charlie Stross: Invaders from Mars

(1oth December 2010)

This is the shortest (at just over 500 words, so not really long-form) and probably the most important of the articles I’ll link to here, so you should really just read it right now.

If you can’t or won’t do that, here’s the key parts:

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance.

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Corporations … live only in the present … and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

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We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of [these] non-human entities with non-human goals.

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In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

Put another way: it’s easy and instinctive to direct ire at individual humans that we see as being to blame for our woes – maybe bankers, politicians, lobbyists, or the 1%. But more importantly, the actions of those individuals are just emergent properties of the system we have created. Which is pretty terrifying.

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2) Paul Ford: Nanolaw with Daughter

(16th May 2011)

With the above in mind, this makes for a particularly interesting slice of sci-fi about a potential emergent behaviour of the systems we’re building now. The most succinct part I can find (quoted below) also happens to be the driest, so if you think this sounds remotely interesting, do go ahead and read the story in full (~2,000 words).

My daughter was first sued in the womb … I’d posted ultrasound scans online for friends and family … A giant electronics company that made ultrasound machines acquired a speculative law firm for many tens of millions of dollars. The new legal division cut a deal with all five Big Socials to dig out contact information for anyone who’d posted pictures of their babies in-utero … The first backsuits named millions of people, and the Big Socials just caved, ripped up their privacy policies in exchange for a cut. So five months after I posted the ultrasounds, one month before my daughter was born, we received a letter … We faced, I learned, unspecified penalties for copyright violation and theft of trade secrets, and risked, it was implied, that my daughter would be born bankrupt.

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Read the full version here

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3) Johann Hari: How Goldman Sachs gambled on starving the world’s poor – and won

(2nd July 2010)

Once again, keep in mind the idea of emergent properties of the system while reading the story behind this (~1,600 words):

At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 percent, maize by 90 percent, and rice by 320 percent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn’t afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in over 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called it “a silent mass murder”, entirely due to “man-made actions.”

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Read the full version here

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4) Alan Bellow, Damn interesting: Who Wants to be a Thousandaire

(12th September 2011)

All this is somewhat heavy going, so here’s some good news: after a prolonged period of silence, Damn Interesting is now back up and running, and kicked things off with a characteristically interesting story about something that happened back in 1984:

The scoreboard on Larson’s podium read “$90,351,” an amount unheard of in the history of Press Your Luck. In fact, this total was far greater than any person had ever earned in one sitting on any television game show. With each spin on the randomized “Big Board” Larson took a one-in-six chance of hitting a “Whammy” space that would strip him of all his spoils, yet for 36 consecutive spins he had somehow missed the whammies, stretched the show beyond it’s 30-minute format, and accumulated extraordinary winnings. Such a streak was astronomically unlikely, but Larson was not yet ready to stop. He was convinced that he knew exactly what he was doing.

You’ll have to read the full story to find out quite what was going on.

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5) Eben Moglen: Freedom in the Cloud

(transcript from talk given on 5th February 2010)

This final link is the most extraordinary thing I’ve read in at least the last five years. Extraordinary because Eben Moglen discerns the big picture around where the internet came from and where it is headed. Extraordinary because he has put his finger on the defining emergent property of our age. And most of all, extraordinary because  he also has a strong and compelling recommendation on what to do about it.

In a nutshell: client-server architecture encourages centralised services, which create irresistable temptation for surveillance. So we should decentralise the architecture.

That doesn’t remotely do it justice though, so you should really read the whole idiosynratic, fascinating piece here (all 7,000 words of it!).

I can understand that might be quite intimidating, and this is important stuff. So if you can’t see yourself ever reading that, I’ve edited it down (brutally) to fewer than 500 words that take you through the main points here:

It begins with the Internet, designed as a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control. It was the great idea of Windows to create a political archetype in the Net which reduced the human being to the client and produced a big, centralized computer, which we might have called a server. [So] now the Net was made of servers in the center and clients at the edge.

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Now, one more thing happened about that time … Namely, servers kept logs. That’s a good thing to do … But if you have a system which centralizes servers and the servers centralize their logs, then you are creating vast repositories of hierarchically organized data about people at the edges of the network that they do not control and, unless they are experienced in the operation of servers, will not understand the comprehensiveness of, the meaningfulness of, will not understand the aggregatability of.

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All of those decisions architecturally were made without any discussion of the social consequences long-term. So we got an architecture which was very subject to misuse.

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In fact, what we have are things we call platforms, [which] mean places you can’t leave. And the Net becomes the zone of platforms and platform making becomes the order of the day.

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Now, where we went on is really towards the discovery that all of this would be even better if you had all the logs of everything because once you have the logs of everything then every simple service is suddenly a goldmine waiting to happen, and we blew it because the architecture of the Net put the logs in the wrong place. They put the logs where innocence would be tempted.

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Stallman was right. It’s the freedom that matters. The rest of it is just source code.

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What do we need? We need a really good webserver you can put in your pocket and plug in any place. In other words, it shouldn’t be any larger than the charger for your cell phone and you should be able to plug it in to any power jack in the world and any wire near it or sync it up to any wifi router that happens to be in its neighborhood. It should know how to bring itself up. It should know how to start its web server, how to collect all your stuff out of the social networking places where you’ve got it. In other words, it should know how to be your avatar in a free net that works for you and keeps the logs. You can always tell what’s happening in your server and if anybody wants to know what’s happening in your server they can get a search warrant.

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What we need is to make a thing that’s so greasy there will never be a social network platform again.

This speech gave rise to Diaspora, and Eben Moglen went on to create The Freedom Box Foundation to bring about exactly what he’s describing here. I’m continuing to monitor both projects, so if you’re happy to delegate your attention on this then stay tuned to find out when I think they’re ready for the mainstream to jump in.

@metatim
(Twitter is part of the same problem, of course, so I just set myself up on Identi.ca)