Angry Robot

Multipresence Blues

To an absent-minded gentleman the feeling is familiar.

So I purchase an expansion pack for Oblivion. It’s 150 of Microsoft’s virtual currency, which works out as $2 or so. Once you load it up, you realize you have to spend in-game money on getting the tower working. To the tune of 2,000 septims per add-on… holy shit! I couldn’t care less about the real-life money, but the in-game money bothered the hell out of me.

The logical answer is that the amounts are in wild disparity, and that no matter how you slice it, earning 2,000 septims in Oblivion takes time, which is something of value no matter what world you find yourself in.

But the escapade inspired some contemplation of the concept of “multipresence” which is to say, being in more than one place at once. Which sounds exciting and exotic when considered as a condition of being in the metaverse, and given the growth in virtual worlds lately, could lead to a rash of articles in the near-future about its side effects: kids with alluring new ailments like multiple-avatar anxiety disorder, multipresence dissociative syndrome, acquired attention deficit disorder.

However, we’re already rather consistently multipresent. My working hours are spent almost entirely within a computer interface, to say nothing of what I do for fun. Hell, just being on the phone puts you in two different places at once. If you are watching a film, you are to some extent within the space constructed by the film.

As I mentioned off the top, when you’re thinking of one thing while doing something else, with “absent mind,” you are multipresent. So the experience is so much a part of daily life already that it is in fact banal. It’s quite the opposite than what you might at first think: the condition of being in only one place at once is the rare part.

Which, I suppose, explains how one can spend many hours in a simulated game world and have it feel natural. But it leads to some questions: outside of practical considerations (say, being able to communicate long-distance over the phone), what makes one virtual space more appealing than another? If there were criteria with which to judge that, would they apply to all virtual worlds? Computer UI, film, storytelling in general, games? Sports?

And where does this drive to inhabit new worlds come from? Is it the desire to dream, or to communicate? Are we reaching out, or reaching in? And why is it so hard to actually be here, right now?

2 Years of Halo 2

For the uninitiated: there are basically two ways of playing a game like Halo online. One is “matchmaking”, joining a game with a bunch of strangers, typically fag- and bitch-hating teens and children from the southern US. The other, as I discovered, is to assemble a group of friends and play private games only with them. So: first option bad, second option extremely good.

Most of my friends don’t play videogames, so I found fellow players in the workplace. Since we all have day jobs and families and various other commitments – my passion for “breakfast wrestling” keeps me busy most nights – we made a set weekly time that we would all play. Turnout has varied from three to maybe 12 on a good night. And it has been a rotating cast, not always the same people. Friends of friends are welcome.

What is most important, if never actually discussed, is that we established a culture. Maybe that’s not the right term. What I mean is that we had a good sense of how we wanted to play: friendly, not super-competitive, no need for trash talk. Bragging is frowned upon. We’ve had people play with us who couldn’t fit in, and it got awkward sometimes. Yeah, but more importantly, we kept finding new people who did fit in.

Online Halo can be a very pleasant way to hang out with friends. You all have headsets and can communicate freely. You feel a sense of presence, albeit a strange one where you see your coworkers firing rockets at you or jumping off the ledge in Lockout to their temporary deaths. It can actually feel nice playing on the big, outdoor sunny maps like Coagulation. And all this from your couch, with your favourite beverage, Guinness, in front of you. It’s like playing sports, without all that exercise!

It’s a great way to keep up with old friends. It’s also a pretty good way to get to know people you don’t know that well in real life. It’s odd: you can work alongside someone for years, saying hi, talking about the weather, but it’s not until you both defend your flag from the onslaught of the Red Team that you learn about their girlfriend, their hobbies, their life outside, what makes ‘em get up in the morning.

So it has become something more than the game, I suppose, and could in fact be any game. But I need to stress that Halo is well-made, and that many of the good decisions its designers made make it more pleasant to spend time in than many other games. It is versatile, allowing for many different styles of player, and many different kinds of game – we’ve tried a number of weird custom gametypes. The maps are excellent and well-balanced. Halo gets knocked as a “jock game” but – let me get into my old man slacks and quilted vest – I’ve been playing Bungie games since you were in short pants, n00b! I played through Marathon 1 & 2 and both Myths. And these are all, quite simply, excellent games, no matter what their genre. That I can find such depth and complexity in simply the online component of the game, that such effort and artistry went into something so utilitarian, speaks to just how complicated the ‘video games as art’ discussion can get, and how foreign it can be from the criticism of older, more established forms. Gaming is the bastard child of sports and architecture…

OK I’m waaay off-topic.

The point of this is basically to celebrate the milestone. And to reflect that my first experience of the metaverse is a surprisingly pleasant one.

So here’s to you, Halo 2, and to my clan, Nerds Unite. As the ninja says, “I look forward to killing you soon.”

Site Administrivia

So the sidebar thing is fixed. Also, because I’m so sick of spam comment issues on other sites in the past, I’ve turned off comments on this baby. This is far from a final decision, and if you have something you want to say about anything here, please send it in via the contact form, and I’ll add it. Cheerz.

Isolation and Commuting

This excellent post from Buzz who just left Apple (and describes it as a failed romance) contains an interesting tidbit about commuting, from this article:

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections.”

While I doubt the accuracy of that formula there, it’s an interesting downside to car/suburb society that isn’t often brought up. Now I really do have every reason in the world for hating cars. (That last sentence for Speed Racer fans only)

Xbox Live Originals: Sweatshop Edition

Microsoft and the New York Television Festival’s Xbox Live Originals contest asks you to make a pilot, between 5-15 minutes long, that will air on Xbox Live. The winner will get $100,000 to make six episodes.

That sounds like a great idea, and a great way to start a whole new market for independent producers. Except for this part:

NYTVF and the Designated Entities [read: Microsoft] shall have the perpetual and exclusive right to exhibit, disseminate, or broadcast each entry (and any portion(s) or element(s) thereof) in any manner, media or format now known or hereafter devised, throughout the universe. Each entrant agrees not to exhibit, disseminate, or broadcast, or authorize any third party to exhibit, disseminate, or broadcast, in any manner, media, or format, his or her entry (or portions thereof) and, by entering the Competition, each entrant irrevocably and perpetually waives any copyright and intellectual property rights in and to the entry, including, without limitation, rights of droit moral or similar rights which entrant may now have or may hereinafter become entitled to.

Perhaps this is just boilerplate festival legalese1, but does this not grant Microsoft your copyright? And prevent you from taking the project anywhere else? And allow them to sell your show, on Xbox live or wherever, without ever paying you a dime?

So we should all run out and spend thousands making a pilot, and then donate it to one of the world’s largest corporations?

This is the spectre hanging over TV’s future: that “TV 2.0” will be nothing other than different corporations gatekeeping the content, with even more brutal terms than the old regime.

1 Note that this particular passage of legalese does not appear in the regular NYTVF application form, which merely dictates you not exhibit the film during a six month period, but contains nothing about waiving copyright.

HV20 and Brevis

Via merlinmann comes a link to this impressive footage taken with a little HDV handicam, the Canon HV20 and an adapter called the Brevis which allows the mounting of 35mm lenses. Thing is, the camera is $1000 US, the adapter another grand. Which is to say CRAZY CHEAP for a full-on 24p bastard that makes images like that. In five years will we all be shooting Imax on our cellphones or what?

Too Human

too human image

I try not to get too into previews, but this game looks good.


I’m sorry to hear it’s not doing well, but I’m not surprised. It is fundamentally at odds with the current theatrical experience. You have people leaving after the first film, thinking the show is over. You have people complaining that the film is scratched and there are reels missing. So clearly the marketing didn’t communicate the whole point of this thing. And frankly the film shouldn’t be playing in multiplexes. It should have an intermission; apparently that’s not possible in modern theatres. Plus they need to run their 20 minutes of ads and trailers in front of something with a three hour running time.

My friends and I saw Cannibal Holocaust at the Bloor Cinema maybe a year ago. Now that’s a true grindhouse film, and the experience at the Bloor was perfect: lots of laughing, yelling, pot smoke. That audience would get Grindhouse, that’s where it should be playing. Oh but wait, they spent between $50- and $100-million on it, can’t do that, they wouldn’t recoup. WTF? Spend big-audience money on nostalgia for a type of cinema that only a fraction of the audience is familiar with? Spend $100-million to recreate films made for garbage money?

Ultimately my opinion of the mainstream theatrical experience is so low that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to experience it, let alone make films for it. Tarantino and Rodriguez are to blame for the enormous budget, the Weinsteins for the failed marketing, and the exhibitors for just generally being assholes who view their audience with contempt.

They are both great films. Planet Terror is relentlessly entertaining, whereas Death Proof has a lot more going on than is initially apparent when your ass is numb and your bladder about to detonate. Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike seems a stand-in for not only 70s junk cinema, but also Tarantino in the mid-90s. But I’ll wait until I see it again on video – where this film belongs nowadays – before I get further into that.

Crackdown Part III

Item 1, let me present: the car-kicking game. Hie thee to the highway; wait on the shoulder for cars to blast past, and try to kick them into the sea.

See, doesn’t that sound like fun? Trick is, if you come at them from the front, they will run you over. You have to come in from the side, and if they’re going at a reasonable highway speed you don’t have much of a window to successfully kick them into the sea. (Sea-kicking not required, but recommended.)

Item 2, the jumping truck. AKA the agency SUV with your driving skill maxed. On all of the vehicles, when you max your driving skill, the button that previously sounded the horn now triggers a new ability. The supercar fires machine guns, the truck cab nitro-boosts ahead, and the SUV fucking jumps. (It will also drive on walls and up buildings, something I haven’t played with enough yet).

Item 3, theme and setting. Once you have gotten to the end of the main storyline, it becomes evident that the game’s slightly offputting fascist-superman undercurrent is understood by the creators. And, well, it’s not really an under current at all. Like the GTA games, there is social criticism here behind the outrageous parody through exaggeration. This is not to say it has a classic story. Even if they are parodic, many of the lines in the boss intros & outros are clumsy and repetitive. But the developers clearly intended to do interesting things with the setting and story. They fell short, but at least they aimed high.

So even given the weak missions (which do get stronger on the third island BTW), there is a lot more depth in this game than was previously apparent. I’ve played it quite a bit now, and can imagining continuing to play it off and on for a while more.

And the jumping truck is quite literally my dream car.

Footnote: It must be hard to be a game reviewer. Look how long it took for me to make up my mind about this game. Sometimes it’s hard enough to firm up one’s ideas about a film after seeing it once, which takes only two hours. Some games can be played for hundreds. How do game critics do it? Is this part of the reason why there that problem about the lack of game journalism for adults?

Feed Me

(see this post for the first part)

So I changed shit around. The feed importing / splicing wasn’t really working well. It’s a new feature on tumblr, so no love lost. More to the point, though, it led me down a different train of thought, about the manifold feeds one generates if one has even a mildly active online life. It is something I have been thinking about for a while, as someone with various websites (not to mention accounts on other websites) and just as many interests, not all of which would necessarily appeal to everyone. So with the modern state of RSS feeds, each granularized interest can create its own feed. For example, since flickr, delicious and presumably any blog can spit out a feed just for a specific tag, you could configure something like tumblr to take only photos tagged ‘grafitti’ and links tagged ‘singularity’. Or you simply tag items you want to show up on blog ‘x’ with ‘x’.

Then that got me thinking again about generalism vs. specificity, something I will write more about in the context of newsfeeds, blogs and the overall death of generalism in the world of microniche adwords… OK fast forward. Avoid half-baked thoughts.

Splicing two specific-topic feeds together creates something interesting. Depending on how it’s done, it becomes like cross-cutting, or more interestingly, Eisensteinian montage, a dialectic collision of opposing forces.

Plus, Smooth Music is too good a title to waste on an ego-feed.

So, it will be – for a week or as long as its scatterbrained editor maintains interest in it, whichever is shorter – devoted to old school rap vs. eastern philosophy.


I set up a tumblelog on tumblr, smooth music. Yeah, yeah, how many sites does one dude need? I basically wanted to see how it works, and the answer is: gracefully. I set it up as an ego-feed-herder, it just scarfs down and barfs up various feeds of mine from various sites (this one, and the usual suspects: flickr, delicious, youtube). So it’s not going to win a Pulitzer or anything. Here’s a more elaborate explanation of why someone may want to use tumblr.

Damn that Column

So I should just say hi and welcome to the new readers. Also, those of you using Firefox on windows may notice that the right side column sometimes gets shunted down below the main column. It’s a problem with the design I adapted for the site, and I’m finding out more and trying to figure out how to fix it. In the meantime, a reload will usually fix it. So bear with me here, and although I’ll be pretty busy over the next week with other stuff, I’ve got lots to post here whenever I get the chance.

Halo 3 Saved Films and Gaming Spectatorship

This is nothing new. Years ago I got a great kick out of watching saved films of Myth, an earlier Bungie game. Driver was a series with quite an elaborate saved film component; I’m sure there are many more examples. It’s rumoured that Bungie wanted it in Halo 2, but it was one of many dropped features in the rush to actually ship the game. But I like to keep an eye on developments in this area because I believe spectatorship in gaming is a key issue, and when good solutions for it are developed, gaming’s role in the larger culture will expand massively.

Bungie’s goal in this case (at least as far as I can tell from the video) is a mode of spectatorship for players: an easy way to review and share a recently-played game, as well as a way of developing one’s game, just as pro athletes review video of their games – and those of their opponents. So this is not something that attempts to make games watchable to non-gamers, which is the final frontier.

That being said, Bungie are masters of UI. The scope of their mastery is another potential article, but suffice it to say that if this feature is as well-implemented as is reasonable to expect, no other tool may be necessary to make the transition to mass-market spectatorship. If it performs as advertised, and any angle can be captured, then all the necessary footage to make a pretty kickass ‘film’ of a given match could be piped into an external editing app. I suppose the games could not be viewed live. But a case could be made that this is something people will want to watch, and ‘live’ technologies would follow from there.

And just imagine the machinima possibilities.


How great was this show? Was just discussing it with a friend.

“Voltron was originally released in Japan under the name GoLion. The figure line is based on the U.S. version of the Japanese cartoon series, where five pilots combine their lion vehicles to form a super robot.”

Anything involving “lion vehicles” alone would make a great series.

Of course, the same is true for “form a super robot.”

Needless to say, these twin, winning TV premises form like Voltron as one unbeatable super-premise.

Voltron will be a sacrament in some super-religion of the future.

Google Desktop for Mac

Released yesterday. I gave it a shot. It’s a spotlight-alike, for instant searches of your local files, invoked by default via the clever command-command doubletap.

I installed it yesterday and gave it a shot. (Warning: suspicious installer.) I de-installed it later that day. Basically, there were a bunch of runaway crazy processes eating up all my CPU and RAM, and Google Desktop was the only thing I’ve installed lately. It couldn’t have just been the indexing, it was in effect hours later. Also, for the avid quicksilver user, it has little to offer.

I will say, though, that despite using it very little, there were a couple neat things. 1. It must be live-indexing Safari’s history, since sites I had browsed minutes ago were showing up in the search results. 2. It indexes mail messages, which spotlight does but quicksilver does not (or at least I can’t figure out how to get it to do that). Which is nice.

Not 20% of CPU nice, however.

Hypertext Cinema

Jason brings this up while mentioning this Denby piece, in which Denby uses Babel as a springboard into films with “disordered narratives”, a much broader grouping that includes surrealist film, Resnais, Goddard, Pulp Fiction and Memento. But that category is too broad – let’s return again to multiple intersecting storylines.

I highlight Altman since the recent trend in these films seems to have started with Short Cuts. ( Magnolia in particular is painfully indebted to it.) So you could trace everything back to him, even further to Nashville, or via Short Cuts’ Carver to the short story collection, or go back to Tolstoy or Dickens or other novels that share the multiple storyline feature. Alternately, you could see the trend’s growth as an example of the growing artistic influence of TV. Any ongoing storyline show like 24, Sopranos, The Wire, Lost etc. etc. traces that feature back to Hill Street Blues, which really borrowed the form from soap operas. Take this description of soap opera narrative from wikipedia:

Plots run concurrently, intersect, and lead into further developments. … will generally switch between several different concurrent story threads that may at times interconnect and affect one another, or may run entirely independent of each other.

Hey, sounds like Babel!

In a roundabout way I’m trying to point out that “hypertext cinema” is misleading, since the influence does not come from the web, but from television. “Soap cinema” does not have the same allure. (I’m not saying my term “ensemble drama” is any better though, because it doesn’t seem specific enough.) That said, there do seem to be different formal elements of cinema and TV that emulate the hyperlink, in that a tangent that runs away from the “central” narrative feels a lot like following a line of links outward from a given starting point. Things that have this: I’d say Pulp Fiction, The Simpsons and Family Guy, although I’m sure there are many more examples. If anything, the web correlative to intersecting storylines is tabbed browsing.

I had more about this but for the moment it escapes me.

The Brainwashing Parasite

I did a quicklink of this article about the parasite that brainwashes rats into not being afraid of cats but I want to bring it up here because it’s thought-provoking and creepy as fuck.

Rats and mice normally flee if they smell cat urine, but not if they’re infected by the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite can only complete its life cycle if its rodent host is eaten by a cat, so it “brainwashes” the creature into apparently liking the scent.

This little bastard does this because it only reaches the sexual stage when inside a cat. Apparently the brain alteration is precise; no other parts or rats’ brains are affected.

“Language is a virus” is supposed to just be a theory, a colourful metaphor. But here we have an actual protozoan parasite that goes around changing one’s ideas of the world. The wikipedia article says, “several independent pieces of evidence point towards a role of Toxoplasma infection in cases of schizophrenia and paranoia.” Imagine a parasite that makes you believe the war in Iraq is a great idea?