Friday, October 30, 2009

Tools of Manipulation

We live in what we like to refer to as a modern world, but certainly the experience of being human never seems to change. Despite our evolving informational, technological and material environments, our interactions with each other (and ourselves) remain as they have since the dawn of recorded history.

One of the most obvious aspects of being human that has withstood the process of time is our intellect. Call it intelligence, smarts, sentience, sapience, whatever you wish... our mental inclination toward abstraction and conceptualization far exceeds any other observable living creatures on this planet.

For perhaps this reason alone, the idea arose at some point in our history that we must be the final result of a mindless and inexorable process of development; a process of development that Charles Darwin is typically credited for discovering. We call this process Evolution, and although evolution as an algorithm can be successfully applied to much more than the development of life on this planet, it is most frequently associated with Darwin's "world shattering" idea.

But is there really such a process in regard to the origin of all biological life, and if so, are we truly the final result?

I've done my share of Internet surfing, seeking out both sides of this stalemated argument. It can't be expressed effectively enough that the arduous fervor of both sides is ultimately not a proof of either concept: God or Random Chance as the originator of life as we know it.

The simplistic view of this debate is that only the Science side has all the documented and researched facts, and the Creationist side merely has conjecture, wishful thinking and "bad science." Proponents of the Scientific view never seem to run out of examples of facts that refute the "deceptive, ungrounded objections" of the Creationist view.

I have looked over reams of bulleted, detailed counter-arguments designed to drive home the "truth" of the matter: that Creationists never know what they're talking about. Science insists that if these Creationists have the ignorant audacity to refute the BodhiDarwin, they're only begging to be exposed as populist charlatans with a hidden agenda to send us all back to the dark ages.

We're informed that Jonathan Wells has cherry-picked the examples in his book Icons of Evolution, and that his arguments are "intellectually dishonest." But while the arbiters of truth are busy trying to drown Wells's assertions with a flood of facts, they're not spending very much time explaining why these inaccuracies are still present as seminal examples of evolution in modern textbooks. The best explanation Wells's critics can muster is that these textbooks are mostly used at the high school level. Apparently, high school students don't deserve the same access to scientific accuracy as college students.

We're expected to accept the proclamation that Michael Behe's argument regarding irreducible complexity in his book Darwin's Black Box is just plain silly, because we're told that gradual evolution can do more than just add parts.

To sum up for those reading this who aren't as familiar with this particular debate, Behe points out (correctly) that certain structures vital to life (biological cells), contain such intricate and complex interdependence between their constituent parts that the entire cell can't function with any one of those myriad parts removed. Thus, Behe asserts that gradual evolution could not have produced those structures, since the cell can't perform its principle functions with only part of its contents.

The Scientific detractors of this argument claim that Behe's observation is invalid: the simple version of their counter-assertion is that it only seems like a cell couldn't survive and function without its myriad interacting parts.

What the Scientific fact spewers are actually doing here is vending faith, not science. They maintain the presupposition that because the origin and development of all life on this planet had to be congruous with Darwin's theory, that of course the cells must have found some way to develop myriad, intricately cohesive functions one unique interdependent part at a time, never missing a step.

These same statistically miraculous and ingeniously evolving cells never failed to continue existing and replicating during this multi-million year process. And furthermore, these aimless yet resilient microscopic entities never failed the larger organisms they eventually became a part of, despite their non-existent ability to engineer their own future structures.

Regardless of what you or I choose to believe, and no matter how strong the urge to call the other side wrong, try to remember this:

Facts are never truly self-evident when it comes to matters of theoretical controversy; they are merely subjective tools of the persons manipulating them, as any litigator or marketing analyst can attest.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Obtain A Clue

For all those starry-eyed, lemming-like consumers out there with an iPod in one hand, an iPhone in the other, and the mistaken idea that Apple computers are better because Steve Jobs says they are, I will now provide you with a simple seven-step program to free yourself of your expensive delusion.

Perform all seven of these steps, and you will be able to jettison the hive-minded fantasy that if something is:
a) the latest technology,
b) expensive, and
c) cool-looking,
it will automatically serve you better in every way.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, you will finally be able to break the transparent marketing spell that Jobs has cast over two generations of gadget gobblers.

The Seven Steps of Computer Freedom


1) Go back in time and convince Jobs not to be such a control freak, so third-party manufacturers back then could have contributed to the robustness of Steve Wozniak's brilliant engineering. This would have allowed Apple to more effectively compete with the Japanese computer companies of the early 1980's... the same Japanese computer companies that almost completely buried Apple underneath Microsoft's IBM-compatible onslaught.

2) Stop pretending that the "insanely great" marketing hype that Jobs endlessly empties out of his pie-hole is any sort of substitute for utilitarian value combined with lower prices.

3) Let go of the outdated notion that the Apple OS (operating system) is easier to use than the Microsoft OS, when one has been effectively mimicking the other now for over 20 years. These days they both steal ideas from each other.

4) Abandon the myth that intelligent, informed, evolved computer users must own Macs instead of PCs. If the car owner who only knows how to turn the key and step on the gas is superior to the owner who also knows how to do a ring job or install a new transmission, then we must be living in Bizarro World.

5) Take a second look at the Apple/Jobs mantra of "Think Differently." Ever since the 21st century arrived, and the distributions became more user-friendly, Linux users have become the computer users that truly deserve the distinction of thinking differently, not Apple's devoted minions.

6) Stop perpetuating the nonsense that Apple retains autonomous superiority in a sea of OS mediocrity. Since Jobs came back to Apple to "save" the company, he:
a) sold a significant portion to Microsoft, then
b) made the Apple hardware more friendly to third person peripherals, and then later
c) changed the allegedly "more powerful" proprietary circuitry to one that uses x86 architecture.

Thus, all the most significant variables that were originally listed to insist that Apples were better than PCs have, through time, proven that IBM-compatible hardware is a wiser choice. Now a Mac is nothing more than a PC with a more expensive OS and a "sexier" outer shell.

7) Start thinking more like a computer user, and less like a department store mannequin.

Here's an awesome little video I found on YouTube that pretty much spells it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42YGj20qO8U

Friday, October 16, 2009

DRM continues despite growing objections

I am (and you should be also) greatly disturbed by more and more invasive DRM (Digital Rights Management) software, which literally walks all over my rights as a legitimate consumer of PC games. I still possess not only the original disks of my games, but the manuals and boxes as well. Yet companies producing software like SecuROM are not allowing me to take measures to protect my investment. Not only are my efforts being thwarted to preserve my legally purchased property, but the very idea that I must format my hard drive to remove software I didn't want in the first place is beyond offensive. If any of this sounds new to you, go here to find out how bad the situation is becoming:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SecuROM

SecuROM is a software, and software is created by developers. In this case, the developers are Sony DADC. The game publishers have an interest in protecting their investments in game developers' work, so they turn to whomever promises the best possible copy protection.

Starforce is another insidious form of DRM. Observe the depths to which copy protection developers sink, in order to defeat software pirates...this blurb was a part of a forum post by someone who also included a total list of games that use Starforce:

"Under Windows XP, if packets are lost during the reading or writing of a disk, XP interprets this as an error and steps the IDE speed down. Eventually it will revert to 16bit compatibility mode rendering a CD/DVD writer virtually unusable. In some circumstances certain drives cannot cope with this mode and it results in physical hardware failure (Most commonly in multiformat CD/DVD writer drives). A sure sign of this step down occurring is that the burn speeds will get slower and slower (no matter what speed you select to burn at). Starforce, on a regular basis, triggers this silent step down. Until it reaches the latter stages most people do not even realise it is happening.

Moreover, the Starforce drivers, installed on your system, grant ring 0 (system level) privileges to any code under the ring 3 (user level) privileges. Thus, any virus or trojan can get OS privileges and totally control your system. Since Windows 2000, the Windows line security and stability got enhanced by separating those privileges, but with the Starforce drivers, the old system holes and instabilities are back and any program (or virus) can reach the core of your system by using the Starforce drivers as a backdoor."

Starforce apparently doesn't like to be criticized publicly for its questionable software, as witnessed by these two articles describing threats from a Starforce rep to sue individuals for exposing the problems created by installing Starforce protected games:

http://www.boingboing.net/2006/01/31/starforce_threatens_.html

http://techdirt.com/articles/20060131/1031237_F.shtml

Starforce supposedly posted a rebuttal on their web site to accusations regarding negative aspects of their software, but somehow that rebuttal seems to have magically disappeared from the site.

Never mind that many, many commercially successful games are protected by only a CD key, or in some cases (such as "Sins of a Solar Empire" and "Galactic Civilizations 2") have no copy protection at all. Never mind that in all cases, the pirates who are supposedly being thwarted, eventually produce "cracks" that can allow people to download and play protected games without even buying them.

The morals of the previous paragraph are painfully obvious, but somehow still escape the game publishers' attentions. First, that game pirating is never prevented by copy protection, only delayed. Second, that games can be wildly successful commercially with very little or no protection at all. Are the offensive, invasive, and ultimately useless copy protections, which pose problems only for paying customers, really worth the ill will generated toward PC gaming?

After Melissa Thomas (a citizen of Maryland), and her class action suit filed from California against EA (Electronic Arts) for using SecuROM, I keep wondering: why hasn't some high-profile legal firm taken Sony DADC on for creating this kind of invasive, rights-violating software? While I realize Sony is a big fish, is that any reason for everyone to throw their hands up and take whatever they're given, just because they really, really want to play the latest SecuROM-tainted game? Have we all truly become that complacent and spineless?

In the following PDF file, you may view the original court documents in the suit filed against EA on behalf of Melissa Thomas... take a look at all the complaints listed by the law firm from people who bought the game Spore (EA publishers) and found themselves dealing with things they hadn't planned on:

spore.pdf

Or how about Starforce? Why doesn't an opportunistic lawyer bring suit against them for creating software that installs "hidden" drivers and prevents the user to use legally purchased software that they deem inappropriate?

This is not about allowing thievery. I am a PC game collector. Since all 600+ games I own were purchased at brick-and-mortar retail outlets, I'm sickened by the legions of morally flexible people who cheapen game developer's efforts by downloading games for free.

This is about stopping companies from installing unwanted, invasive, restrictive and potentially harmful software onto our computers, regardless of what the sacred EULA says.

I thought this was the country that was all about the individual's rights? A powerful legal firm needs to stand up to Sony DADC, Starforce, and any other companies producing software that makes our computers do things we don't want them to do.

Sufferance is equal to consent. If you're interested in knowing more and perhaps adding your voice to the outcry against invasive copy protections, go to Reclaim Your Game, and read up:

http://reclaimyourgame.com

A quote from the Reclaim Your Game site:

"We are not pirates- we are customers who pay game companies to put out a good product without invasive or destructive programs. We are fed up with being perceived as being "cash cows" ready for milking without any say in what we buy. That is what this website is about, ultimately - how to reclaim our rights as consumers and customers."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Prayer for Blood

I would like to ask everyone to say a prayer tonight for Blood. No, I'm not talking about jihads, vengeance or vendettas.

There are all sorts of gamers out there... casual to hardcore, with lots of variations in between. There is a subset of hardcore gamers who keep a special place in their hearts for old games. Games made for DOS. There is a collection of classic games that stretches from about 1992, when Wolfenstein 3D was released by id, to about 1998 or so. A handful of games were created in this span of time that somehow became ageless, in the sense that they are still fun to play today, regardless of their relatively poor graphics (as compared to a typical 2009 3D game).

In a few cases, the creators of these older games decided at some point to make the source code open to everyone to use for non-commercial purposes. This unselfish and highly intelligent decision paved the way for all kinds of ports of these older games to newer, more graphically impressive engines. The list grows a little more each year, but the current list of porting and retexturing projects is inspiring. A few of the more high profile projects are:

The Doomsday Engine, which specializes in Doom engine ports, such as Doom, Doom II, Heretic and Hexen:

http://dengine.net/

Risen 3D, which is an advanced version of the Doomsday port:

http://risen3d.drdteam.org/

EDuke32, which allows play of the original Duke Nukem 3D, with many advanced features, including support for TCP/IP multiplayer, which the original game did not have:

http://www.eduke32.com/

The Duke Nukem High Resolution Pack, which can be used in conjunction with EDuke32, to play with more updated graphics:

http://hrp.duke4.net/

There are other projects, but what I'm trying to get across here is that there are many talented fans of these old games out there who would love nothing more than to get their hands on the original source code and create updated versions. These fans don't collect any money for their efforts. The wonderful results of their hard work are all freely downloadable to anyone who wants to enjoy these awesome old games with updated graphics.

Back to the title of this blog entry.

Ken Silverman created the Build Engine, which was used to create the famous Duke Nukem 3D, as well as a few other memorable games, such as Redneck Rampage, Witchhaven, Shadow Warrior, Powerslave and even William Shatner's Tek War. Silverman followed in John Carmack's (of id software) footsteps, and released the source code to the Build Engine, which made all the updated Duke Nukem 3D ports possible.

But the game that sprang from the Build Engine and has become legendary in its status, is a game called Blood. Duke Nukem 3D was more well known, and sold more copies, but Blood has lived on tenaciously in many gamer's hearts, producing nostalgia and melancholy. Why so sad?

Because for reasons entirely unknown, Atari will not release the source code.

Despite the facts that Blood 2's (Blood's sequel) source code was already released, and the age of Blood's source code insures that there are no "secrets" to be lost if it was released, Atari refuses to allow this source code to be shared by the fans. Blood was never reprinted, so Atari makes zero dollars on it. The source code simply gathers dust in Atari's archives.

I recently discovered a website that sprang up with a public petition to Atari to release the Blood source code. It can be found at:

http://www.petitiononline.com/bloodsrc/petition.html

You can sign the petition, and view the current signatures as well. To date there are 1,569 signatures. Mine is the 1,569th, as I signed it right before I wrote this blog entry.

That's 1,569 people who have found and actually signed a public petition. Who knows how many more people would truly love to play an updated version of Blood, but just aren't aware of the petition?

Blood cannot be played natively on any operating system past Windows ME, which very few people use anymore, as Microsoft has so mercenarily decided to end support for it. XP, still the most popular version of Windows (despite the craptastic Vista and fledgling "7"), is not able to play Blood without a lot of tinkering, or the use of DOSBox, an excellent DOS emulator that still doesn't quite play the game as seamlessly as it originally played.

There is an attempt being made to remake Blood for the open source Quake 1 engine, called Transfusion:

http://www.transfusion-game.com/

Transfusion has the blessing of those who own the copyright to the original Blood game (Atari only possesses the source code). However, after a long period of time, only multiplayer is available, with the single player game nowhere in sight. You can't blame the Transfusion people; it's just too much work to recreate an entire game from the ground up, down to every detail, instead of just porting source code.

There are people who have suggested to Atari that they release Blood on the Steam network, as other game companies have done with their old DOS titles. They could even garner some revenue in that fashion. One has to wonder how Atari, a venerated game company, could possibly ignore the obvious popularity of this game. I mean, they're not even bothering to license it to Steam and make a few bucks. This makes zero sense. If the game is not on Atari's radar at all, then what's stopping the release of the code?

Furthermore, all the free and downloadable ports I mentioned earlier still require the original game files; to play them, you need to already own the original games. In this fashion, if Atari wanted to make even more money, the release of the source code would guarantee the creation of new ports, requiring those who didn't already own Blood to purchase a copy, thus generating even more revenue for Atari. So come on, let's start making some sense here.

Atari, stop being jerks and do the right thing.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

First effects of the mighty BFP

For any who have wondered what became of the previously mentioned Box o' Fragadelic Power, it's alive and well and providing me the means to type this very message. Not to mention many hours already logged, playing several of the Half-Price-Books-purchased games (and gift games from others) that were waiting patiently in the wings for me to upgrade my hardware.

I had waited so long to upgrade (build a new computer) that I had lost touch with several "newer" technologies that could have made my computing experience far superior than its been for the last few years. The much brighter, crisper LCD display is just one of the current hardware joys I'm basking in. The move from EIDE to SATA, DDR to DDR2, single to quad core, and the skipping of several generations of GPU in one fell swoop are a few more overdue changes I'm enjoying at the moment.

AMD and NVIDIA, you rock my face off, and have done so for a long time. It's a pity AMD purchased ATI instead. Gigabyte, I never knew your motherboards could be so amazingly all-encompassing. Copper, baby! Western Digital, you're the best. Cooler Master and Corsair, thanks for a great case and power supply.

Some of you might actually ask, "Why build?" For those of you out there who know the joy of scouting parts and assembling your own box, the answer to that question is an easy one. The last time I bought a pre-manufactured computer was the Dell Inspiron 8000 laptop I purchased back at the very beginning of the millennium.

I had left Seattle to undertake a previously feared odyssey of travel and rootlessness, which lasted about five years. During that time, I learned valuable lessons regarding life and my perception of the universe. A bit of a vague summation, I realize, but nonetheless accurate. The laptop was my way of staying mobile while I pursued what I then thought was my destiny as a "published" writer.

I will never buy a computer put together by a commercial computer manufacturer ever again. I had built my own rigs before the laptop, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. The advantages of assembling your own computer are many, and you'll never beat the price. The one advantage of buying from a manufacturer is the included tech support; but for those paying attention, depending on others for help with computer-related issues is completely unnecessary.

That Dell laptop was fraught with all kinds of problems. I was philosophical about it, as I had wisely purchased an extended three-year warranty. The keyboard needed replacing twice. The native resolution of the screen was vastly inferior to the LCD I now use, due to many advances in the technology since then. The power brick was subject to a massive recall, due to a potentially flammable constitution. The touch pad and pointing stick were so unreliable, I completely abandoned them for a PS2 mouse instead. The hard drive went toes up, literally within a month of the warranty expiration!

So, the advantage I sought with the laptop was not worth the overall low quality of the unit. The laptop was very expensive at the time, and I mistakenly justified the cost by looking only at the convenience of mobility. Personally Assembled Desktops forever, my friends! They are a key to happiness in the universe of computation.

Back to present day. I have now experienced the interactive immersion that is Half Life 2, the adrenaline that is F.E.A.R., and the artistic beauty that is Bioshock.

Is my life better because I'm playing these games?

You bet!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nostalgia with a slice of humble pie

Twenty-eight years ago today, on October 1, 1981, I appeared on a stage in a high school auditorium with four other musicians. The name of our band was Leadfoot. We played one song only; our performance was positioned at the end of the talent show. The song was a cover called Victim of Changes by Judas Priest.

The auditorium was in Highline High School, in south Seattle. I had graduated the previous year from a different school, and met one of the members of the band where he and I worked, the now defunct Lewis & Clark Theaters. Coincidentally, my graduating class of 1980 at Glacier High School was the last one; they closed the school down afterward. I may be mistaken, but with the exception of the bass player, I think the rest of the band were senior class members of Highline High School.

These were the days before the "grunge" sound was pushed by upstart Seattle-based recording label Sub Pop Records, bought by L.A.-based recording labels and then sold back to the world as the official Seattle music scene. Having grown up in Seattle, and having actually been a part of the 80's and 90's Seattle music scene, I can tell you without qualification that at the time the grunge format erupted on the world, the vast majority of bands in Seattle were not playing grunge music, but instead some form of hard or progressive rock. The entire hype was a deliberate alteration of the truth for the sake of selling a sound that only a tiny part of the Seattle music underground cared about at that point. Amazing what smart advertising and slick production can accomplish.

Be that as it may, some interesting music did come out of the recording industry's grunge hype, so my intent here is not to deny the popularity of the pre-fab flannel-shirt rock stars of Seattle. It's to provide a personal insight to the pitfalls of seeking celebrity.

I'll never forget that auspicious day in 1981. There I was, a singer with no previous live experience, performing a song that I knew few other people could correctly sing note-for-note, to a "sold out" standing-room-only auditorium with 600+ seats, including a balcony. As the first arpeggios came from the guitars, I waited backstage, having no clue what I was going to do. Then, when the entire band was playing the last part of the intro, I walked out from my hiding place. To my amazement, the crowd roared... I surmised it was simply because "the singer" was walking to the front of the stage. The adrenaline was so strong at that moment that my mouth had gone completely dry and I was operating on instinct only, since the experience at this point was simultaneously frightening and exhilarating.

I walked to the edge of the stage, turned around so that my back was to the crowd, and waited until my first line arrived. When the time came, I abruptly turned around and sang the line, "Whisky woman don't you know that you are drivin' me insane!"

What happened next is what stays with me to this day. Right after I sang the line, the crowd exploded with a roar so intense that I could feel the pressure on my face. At that moment, my stage fright subsided, and our band went on to perform a song that people who attended Highline at that time still remembered years later. To say the experience was like a highly addictive drug is no exaggeration, if everything I've read about drug addiction is accurate.

Based on that initial experience of performing in public, I went on for eighteen more years, with various bands, trying to regain that feeling. Through all those years, all of the musicians I worked with, all of the shows I played, and all the fun I had, I never did recapture the thrill of that moment.

The reason why I officially "quit music" back in 1998 had nothing to do with the excellent project I was working on at the time. I had finally realized that for some reason, I was given a tiny taste of rock stardom on my very first attempt, and that there were no signs of it ever coming back again. I finally came to grips with the difference between destiny and desire, and between reality and delusion.

The unattractive fact I had refused to face for those eighteen years was that certain key factors that caused a person to attain rock stardom were not under my control. I bought the lie that people are sold daily: that merely a strong desire for something is enough to acquire it. I'm a very positive person, but teaching 6,000 children that all of them can be rock stars if they really want it bad enough is inaccurate and cruel, especially when the odds are only one in that 6,000 will achieve such "success." That 6000 number is from 1990, by the way.

Time has provided me with the opportunity to look closer at my life, motivations and necessities for happiness. In my case, it turns out I am more content to remain relatively anonymous, as the former desire to be famous has been overpowered by a stronger desire to maintain a simple life, free from complication and stress. Does this mean I no longer wish my thoughts to be heard? No. But the selfish ambition I was once saddled with has been tossed aside for a pursuit of truth, whatever that truth may be. Now, the most gratifying experience for me would not be iconic apotheosis, but instead a simple respect for ideas and accomplishments that somehow lend meaning to whatever this life turns out to be for all of us.

I now remember the day in 1981 with fondness, as opposed to longing. Earlier this year, I was reconnected with musicians I played with back in 1992, and we're taking our time working on a CD that went unfinished due to our breakup. It's been an enlightening reminder that for all those years, had I pursued music out of a love for music only, and not as a stepping stone to fame, I probably would have been more satisfied with the results, instead of being constantly frustrated that I wasn't "making it."

I don't care about fame and fortune anymore. What I care about now is enjoying whatever time I have left on this earth, without the shackles of media-fed fantasies that contribute more to individual vanity and the bank accounts of media magnates than the uplifting of the human spirit.