Monday, 8 September 2014

Cuttings: August 2014

Why “Gone Home” is a game – article on Adventure Gamers website, summarizing talk by Steve Gaynor, the writer / designer, at GDC 2014. "How is Gone Home not a game and also game of the year? ... When people argue that Gone Home isn’t a game, Gaynor explained, they tend to point to its lack of combat/puzzles, the lack of story branching or player customization, players’ inability to fail, and its short runtime.,,, But these are not properties of all games in general, and Gaynor pointed out that Gone Home does rely deeply on properties that are characteristic of games and lacking from passive media like TV or books, such as: variability of player experience (no two playthroughs are exactly the same), a central focus on player agency driving what happens, a spirit of playfulness within the game’s theme and rules.... Playing a video game is 'a mediated discussion where the designer who established the rules of how this thing works is expressing the possibilities of what you can do, and your inputs are changing that conversation at runtime, every session that you play.'"

An intimate portrait of China – review of Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, by Tash Aw in The Guardian. "Osnos's focus is the collision between aspiration and authoritarianism, a conundrum caused by the Communist party's dedication to the twin pillars of freewheeling capitalism and minute control over every aspect of society.... It is a dichotomy that belies an underlying tension – that of the individual v the collective in a culture where notions of individuality still contain negative connotations."

War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives – article by James Wood in The Guardian on rereading War and Peace. "Tolstoy's characters often have to learn the same lesson that Tolstoy himself learned in the course of his reading and writing. Repeatedly, the men and women in this book are forced to break out of their own often infectious solipsism, in order to acknowledge that other people's lives, or other great truths, are as important as the truth of their own existence. Nikolai Rostov imagines that war will be an exciting business of cutting people down. But it isn't much like that, and when he has the chance to kill a Frenchman, he can't do it, because the enemy has 'a most simple, homelike face'. Returning home from battle, Andrei discovers two girls stealing plums from the trees on his family estate and is obscurely comforted, feeling 'the existence of other human interests, totally foreign to him and as legitimate as those that concerned him'. Pierre Bezukhov is forced out of his massive self-involvement by his shattering experiences in Moscow, during which he witnesses the execution of five captives, narrowly escaping the same fate himself. He begins to understand his life in its connectedness to everyone else's, and to a larger metaphysical body: 'the ever-changing, ever-great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him'."

How Minecraft has bewitched 40 million of us - John Naughton column in The Observer, referenced in his Memex 1.1 blog. “Minecraft is the most absorbing and intriguing gaming idea since David Braben and Ian Bell created Elite in 1984….It has none of the CGI faux-realism of the blockbuster computer games marketed by Electronic Arts et al. Players are not compelled to act out the crazed, violent, misogynistic scripts dreamed up for them by programmers working for multimedia conglomerates. In Minecraft, there's no realism and no script….The Minecraft phenomenon runs counter to almost every trend in the contemporary computing industry, which is towards the kind of consumer lock-in and corporate control that we see in the 'normal' games industry, in which teenagers frenziedly play a new game for a few weeks and then drop it. And perhaps therein lies the secret of Minecraft's attraction: it'sopen-ended. Players' possibilities are bounded only by the limits of their imaginations."

eLearning Tips from the Pros - eBook from the eLearning Network. “For the past four years, we've asked members of the eLearning Network to submit their tips in the run up to Christmas. These appear on our Insights blog. We have reviewed the last four year's worth of material, and pulled together the most useful of them into a freely-downloadable ebook…”

Watching kids trying to figure out an old Apple II is totally hilarious – John Brownlee blog Cult of Mac. "YouTubers the Fine Brothers have an entire series of videos in which they sit children down in front of vintage devices like Walkmen and CD players and make them use them blind. They’re usually pretty amusing, but this one, in which the kids take an old Apple II for a spin, is particularly enjoyable. I think it’s easy to forget, even for those of us who were there at the time, just how inexplicable early computers are. For example, while the kids in this video are as mystified as you’d expect by the lack of Internet, mouse or even apps on an early Apple II, they’re completely mystified by the fact that they can’t even figure out how to get it to compute simple math problems without entering the 'PRINT' command first. Or the fact that upon turning on a vintage Apple II, nothing happens until you hit the ‘Reset’ button.”

Maximize the Content-to-Chrome Ratio, Not the Amount of Content on Screen – article from Nielsen Norman group. “One of our readers recently sent us a message complaining about the recent trend of 'horrible menuless windows', which he compared with cars where all dashboard functions were hidden in the glove-box compartment. His annoyance had been triggered by the new desktop version of Firefox that 'copies the Chrome browser' and hides the menu options under a hamburger icon. The hamburger menu is just one incarnation of the current trend to downplay the chrome (UI elements such as buttons, menus, and other widgets) on the desktop. Our recent analysis of homepages noted that chrome and navigation tend to get a smaller share of the homepage nowadays compared with 12 years ago. Behind this antichrome movement stands the mobile-inspired assumption that we should prioritize content over chrome. Of course, users go to a website to engage with the content and not to admire the clever UI, so content is ultimately the king. So, if that’s the case, is hiding the chrome bad?... Summary: On a large screen, hiding the chrome significantly affects discoverability and interaction cost, with virtually no improvement to the content-to-chrome ratio."

Why computer science graduates can't talk themselves into jobs - article by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. "Graduates in computer science are so inarticulate as to be unemployable. So says a consortium of prospective employers. The Higher Education Statistics Agency agrees. This week it put computing top for unemployability, along with maths, engineering and media studies. Students should switch from geek to chic....Having sat on innumerable interview panels, I groan as applicants with sound paper qualifications are painfully unable to present themselves in a group, speak well, write clearly, or show simple manners and charm....Two-thirds of new jobs are in services, notably the much-derided 'hospitality sector'. They are about dealing with people. What help is a lonely exam paper or coding on a tablet in that? Indeed, what could be more important to young people than learning to live at peace with themselves and others? We have it all wrong. But try telling a British school that etiquette is more use than algebra."

The concept of stress, sponsored by Big Tobacco – MindHacks blog. "NPR has an excellent piece on how the scientific concept of stress was massively promoted by tobacco companies who wanted an angle to market ‘relaxing’ cigarettes and a way for them to argue that it was stress, not cigarettes, that was to blame for heart disease and cancer. They did this by funding, guiding and editing the work of renowned physiologist Hans Selye who essentially founded the modern concept of stress and whose links with Big Tobacco have been largely unknown.... It’s still little known that psychologist Hans Eysenck took significant sums of cash from tobacco companies....A study by Petticrew uncovered documents showing that both Seyle and Eysenck appeared in a 1977 tobacco industry promotional film together where 'the film’s message is quite clear without being obvious about it — a controversy exists concerning the etiologic role of cigarette smoking in cancer.' The ‘false controversy’ PR tactic has now became solidified as a science-denier standard."

Imagined pieces of art that have the quality of a wish [print edition title] – review of Works by Edouard Levé in The Guardian. “ 533 ideas for artworks, in numbered paragraphs. Some of them are a few pages long, others only a line or two. An example of one of the shorter ones, no 529: 'A Philip K Dick story is written in reverse. The last sentence is the first, the second to last is the second, and so on, right up to the first sentence, which is the last.' Or, better, no 471: 'Schopenhauer's The Art of Being Right is read in the tone of a televised soccer commentary.'… If this seems like a lazy excuse for a book, be disabused: many of these ideas bespeak a creative imagination of impressive fecundity. The sketches for film plots that make up paragraph 101 are giddy with manic energy and satiric intent (for example: 'The manager of a famous Berlin brothel brings the son of a murdered diplomat whose inheritance he covets home from the Belgian Congo with the help of a devoted but amnesiac doctor,' and that's just the beginning)… It is both deadpan and preposterous. And some of them you'd quite like to see: '291. Dropped from the thirtieth floor, a camera films its own fall.'" [This last one has actually been done.]

Nobody got rich on his own – campaign speech by Senator Elizabeth Warren, quoted by John Naughton in his Observer column, linking to YouTube video. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look, you built the factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Moocs, and the man leading the UK's charge - interview with Simon Nelson, head of FutureLearn, in The Guardian. "So how is FutureLearn different from its American competitors? ... 'We started from the belief that learning has to be social,' [Nelson] explains. 'If you go on many online learning platforms, you see a succession of videos while message and discussion groups are add-ons. Here, on every page, every video, every article' – he switches on his laptop to demonstrate – 'we integrate the discussion right alongside the content. You can click a button, even in the middle of a video, and make a comment, ask a question or answer one. OU facilitators can come in. Learners can choose to follow particular facilitators or fellow students. We have peer review. Learners can write short pieces and then discuss each other's work. We put discussion steps into the course materials. We believe that much of the learning comes from the discussion. Nearly 40% of our learners are actively commenting. At the BBC, I ran message boards for Radios 3 and 4. They could be horrible places, with terrible trolling. We have nothing like that. We are already getting superb results, even though the tools are still rudimentary – we shall develop them much further.'"

Sale of the century: the privatisation scam - article by James Meek in The Guardian, extract from his forthcoming book Private Island: Why Britan Now Belongs to Someone Else. "The reality is that the faceless state bureaucrats of the old electricity boards have been replaced by the faceless (and better paid) private bureaucrats of the electricity companies. Not only are the privatised utilities big, remote corporations; most of them are no longer British, and no longer owned by small shareholders.... By packaging British citizens up and selling them, sector by sector, to investors, the government makes it possible to keep traditional taxes low or even cut them. By moving from a system where public services are supported by progressive general taxation to a system where they are supported exclusively by the flat fees people pay to use them, they move from a system where the rich are obliged to help the poor to a system where the less well-off enable services that the rich get for what is, to them, a trifling sum. The commodity that makes water and power cables and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them. We have no choice but to pay the price the toll-keepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here."

We wanted the web for free – but the price is deep surveillance - John Naughton article in The Observer. "As the security guru Bruce Schneier puts it: 'The business model of the internet is surveillance. We build systems that spy on people in exchange for services. Corporations call it marketing.' When you put it like that, it sounds as though our emerging dystopia is the product of some sinister plot. But it isn't. It happened through the slow aggregation of lots of short-term decisions. ... [For example, a recent article by Ethan Zuckerman describes] the unwitting role he had played in committing what he calls 'the internet's original sin'. From 1994 to 1999, Zuckerman worked for, helping to plan, design and implement a website that sold content and services to recent college graduates. When that business failed to catch on (it wasn't 'free', remember), became a web-hosting provider and then an early type of social network. 'Over the course of five years,' Zuckerman writes, 'we tried dozens of revenue models, printing out shiny new business plans to sell each one. We'd run as a subscription service! Take a share of revenue when our users bought mutual funds after reading our investment advice! Get paid to bundle a magazine with textbook publishers! Sell T-shirts and other branded merch!' In the end, Tripod did find a route to financial viability. 'The model that got us acquired,' Zuckerman explains, 'was analysing users' personal homepages so we could better target ads to them....I'm sorry. Our intentions were good.'"

Why I love my LeicaObserver article by John Naughton. "100 years ago this year in Wetzlar, a small town in Germany, ...a 35-year-old technician invented a camera that would shape the way we perceived the world for the rest of the 20th century. His name was Oskar Barnack, and he worked for a company called Leitz which made microscopes for scientific research. ... His abiding passion, however, was not microscopy but photography, an art form that at that time required not just technical skill but a physique strong enough to lug around a large plate camera and its load of 16.5cm x 21.6cm glass plates....One of his colleagues, Emil Mechau, was working on a project to improve the performance of movie projectors, particularly the infuriating fluttering of the images when projected on to a screen. He was working with 35mm celluloid roll film – a format invented by Thomas Edison in the 1890s which eventually had become standard for the emerging motion-picture industry. Barnack had found the lightweight recording medium he sought. All that was needed was a camera that could handle it. Barnack set about designing and building one. The prototype he came up with was made of metal (hitherto cameras were hand-built, often exquisitely, with hardwood). The camera took one picture at a time, the film being wound on manually by means of a sprocket wheel that engaged with the holes on the sides of the film strip. Because the film moved horizontally – rather than vertically as in a movie camera – he decided that the dimensions of each image should be 36 x 24mm, and that a roll of 36 images would fit in the camera body.”

Why bad news dominates the headlines - Tom Stafford article in Mind Hacks blog. "When you read the news, sometimes it can feel like the only things reported are terrible, depressing events. Why does the media concentrate on the bad things in life, rather than the good? And what might this depressing slant say about us, the audience?... Trussler and Soroka invited participants from their university to come to the lab for 'a study of eye tracking'. The volunteers were first asked to select some stories about politics to read from a news website so that a camera could make some baseline eye-tracking measures. It was important, they were told, that they actually read the articles, so the right measurements could be prepared, but it didn’t matter what they read.... The results of the experiment, as well as the stories that were read most, were somewhat depressing. Participants often chose stories with a negative tone – corruption, set-backs, hypocrisy and so on – rather than neutral or positive stories. People who were more interested in current affairs and politics were particularly likely to choose the bad news. And yet when asked, these people said they preferred good news. On average, they said that the media was too focussed on negative stories."

Hallucinating in the deep waters of consciousness - Tom Stafford post in Mind Hacks blog. "Narcose is a French documentary about a dive by world champion free diver Guillaume Néry. It documents, in real time, a five minute dive from a single breath and the hallucinations he experiences due to carbon dioxide narcosis. Firstly, the film is visually stunning. A masterpiece of composition, light and framing. Secondly, it’s technically brilliant. The director presumably thought ‘what can we do when we have access to a community of free divers, who can hold their breath under water for minutes at a time?’ It turns out, you can create stunning underwater scenes with a cast of apparently water-dwelling humans. But most importantly it is a sublime depiction of Néry’s enchanted world where the boundaries between inner and outer perception become entirely porous. It is perhaps the greatest depiction of hallucinations I’ve seen on film. Darken the room, watch it on as big a screen as possible and immerse yourself."

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