06/20/12

The Oldest Art: 40,800 Years Ago


Paleolithic paintings in El Castillo cave in Northern Spain date back at least 40,800 years — making them Europe’s oldest known cave art, according to new research published June 14 in Science.

Science Daily photoThat’s the lead to a fascinating story about the origins of art. Cave art seems to have been practiced 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. That age could make the artists either the first modern humans or even Neanderthals. That latter possibility is pretty exciting.

We know from burials found in the Middle East that Neanderthal people practiced ritual burial and made musical instruments. This find suggests that may have been artists, too. An earlier story in Science Daily from 2010 noted that Neanderthals have been found to be much more advanced than previously thought.

When I was growing up, Neanderthals were imagined as heavy, stupid, slow and brutish. Now we know they had art, music and burial rituals that suggest religion, and were a lot more sophisticated than we first imagined. A cave full of bear skulls found in Europe dated from that time, suggests they had animistic worship. Which raises the question: is religion, like language, hardwired in humans?

Dr Pike said: “Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals — or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art.”

Art is part of what defines us as human. Knowing the Neanderthals made art helps us identify them as human, not just some type of hairless ape, or brutally primitive human as they were seen when I was young. While it’s often debated, I side with the scientists who believe that Neanderthals interacted with early humans, and probably mated with them. Many of us carry some Neanderthal DNA in our genes. Maybe that’s the part of us that creates art and music. Maybe that’s the legacy they left us. It would be interesting to research whether that DNA is present in artists and musicians, .

06/19/12

The Decline of Information Quality


Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.

06/16/12

Verify Source Before You Post


I recently joined a small but dedicated group on Facebook. It’s called “Verify Source Before You Post.” Every reader of this blog and my older Mumpsimus Blog will recognize this as a favorite topic of mine. I’ve written perhaps a dozen posts over the last five years trying to correct numerous bad quotes or mis-attributions. It’s a losing battle, it seems.

When I say small, it is, by FB standards, tiny: 17 members right now. But that will, I hope, grow as time progresses. Surely there must be more people out there concerned with fact, with accuracy, and with the quality of information.

Of course, these groups are a lot less interesting to the masses than the usual “I-Love-Snookie” or “Lady-Gaga-Is-A-Godess” fan groups where members can endlessly prattle on about absolutely nothing of merit or importance. In VSBYP, you need to be engaged and contribute something meaningful.

Yes, there are groups on FB that are similarly intellectual, and I don’t want to downplay their importance to creating dialogue and debate in many spheres, from science to grammar. FB plays an important role – as does all social media – in engaging people in all fields, all disciplines, all sciences, all studies and all philosophies.

But as everyone on FB knows, the vast amount of chatter is more of the what-I-had-for-breakfast sort than comments on, say, the relevance of the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle to current cosmological theories.

While some might see it as an obsessive and pointless task to try to verify and confirm all of the many quotes posted on FB and other sites, to me it’s as important and relevant as trying to confirm scientific data. But it’s also cultural.

And judging by the number of times a mis-quote gets shared, it seems I am in the minority of people who actually pay attention to what they pass along to others.

If someone attributes “She Loves You” to the Monkees or the Beegees in a post, you would get rightfully upset, and question the intelligence of the poster. You would feel compelled to correct the poster and point out that the song was written by Lennon and McCartney, and performed by the Beatles. If someone posted that Plato wrote the Illiad, or Tolstoy wrote The Brothers Karamazov, or Edward de Vere wrote Hamlet, you would likely feel equally compelled to correct them and state the actual author’s name.

I feel the same when someone attributes a saying to Albert Einstein, Shakespeare or Machiavelli that I know is incorrect.

Anyway, if you are both interested in this sort of intellectual activity, and have a Facebook account, I recommend you join the group and help build it into something stronger.

06/12/12

More Facebook Mis-quotes


Facebook imageSaw three images (“posters”) on Facebook today with “quotes” I’m pretty sure are mis-attributions. As usual, I feel compelled to check out their validity.

First is one allegedly by “St. Francis of Assisi.” This would be simply “Francis of Assisi” if you’re not Catholic or don’t believe in saints or canonization. One day I’ll post a blog piece about canonization and its politics, but not now.

The quote is: “What we are looking for… is what is looking.”

That seems one of those gooey, touchy-feely New Age thoughts, and Francis never said anything even remotely close to that. The late 12th-early 13th century Francis said some very profound things, almost all of which are very specifically Christian and very Medieval in tone. One properly attributed quote is:

Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation. Where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice. Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt.

A very little amount of digging showed that the quote in the image is actually from a book on consciousness by Stanley Sobottka, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia. Here’s the whole piece:

When we are identified with the thinking mind, there is emptiness, frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and boredom. Our security cannot be found in what is ever-changing. It can only be found in what is never-changing.
What we are looking for is what is looking. We are the home of peace and fulfillment and everything We really want. When we rest in Awareness, We see directly that there is no doer. We are not a concept or object because We are What is aware of them. The activities of the body-mind and of the rest of the world continue but they do not affect Us. The more time We spend resting in Awareness, the more peace We feel. If we were suffering before, we might even forget why we were.

It’s less saccharine and much more empirical when you read it in context. That’s one of the problems of taking comments out of context.

Facebook imageThe next one is a “prayer” attributed to “Queio Apaches.” (That should be “Quero” Apache, but the poster’s creator mistakenly wrote “Queio”). It reads: Looking behind I am filled with gratitude. Looking forward I am filled with vision. Looking upward I am filled with strength. Looking within I discover peace.”

In the sense that a prayer is a supplication to a supernatural entity, this isn’t one. It’s more a meditation. But it isn’t Apache either way.

That’s another one of those feel-good New Agey-style pieces that you expect to read in a poster in a homeopath’s or “psychic’s” dwelling. I have a lot of respect for Aboriginal wisdom, but I’m pretty sure they would not have penned such soppy sentiments. Like the other “prayer” I wrote about last April, it sounds like something a Hollywood writer would have written to mimic stereotypes of native speech.

A little digging and the source is a book by Maria Yraceburu, called “Prayers and Meditations of the Quero Apache.” Yraceburu is described on Amazon as, “…an Apache idealist Tlish Diyan philosopher, educationist, painter and community council.” In a quote from that book, the author writes:
“In Tlish Diyan philosophy, humanity is understood as living in a shared cosmos that is mysterious and expresses profound spiritual evidence of the divine power behind all natural phenomena. While all nature is considered sacred and its mystery and beauty appreciated as a bridge between human consciousness and the Sacred, the purpose or mission of human life is to be that of acting on behalf of ihi’dah (life force), and the understanding of this concept is found through life affirming ritual.”

My New Age Warning antenna crackle when I read something like that. Nothing I read identifies whether this is a traditional meditation or something Yraceburu either wrote herself or paraphrased. I suspect the former.

There is no “Quero” Apache tribe and it seems to be solely the product of her imagination. I found this piece about the author:

The White Mountain Apache Say She’s a Fraud, July 15, 2008
The White Mountain Apache nation says Maria Naylin (her real name) is a fraud. Yraceburu is not even an Apache name, it’s Yaqui. The White Mountain nations say that nothing she claims is anything close to Apache tradition, and they have no record of her enrolled and no one had ever heard of her until they received many complaints about her. The tribal offices also tried to get her to quit using the White Mountain tribal seal without their permission.
Her main concern is to make money over in California, far away from the people she falsely claims are her own. She also has her partner, a Gypsy woman, falsely claiming to be an Apache healer.
One of the people Naylin says trained her, “Rolling Thunder”, was a white man claiming to be “Chickamauga Cherokee” who sold ceremonies in Europe and set up a commune for white hippies in a Nevada brothel. She claims training by another fraud, Twyla Nitsch, who is a woman with a small amount of Seneca blood kicked off the reservation for being a ceremony seller. Naylin also claims to have been trained in Kahuna. Kahuna is a white exploiter’s false version of Hawaiian traditions.
She falsely claims to be “Quero Apache,” a tribe that does not exist. The Quero are a tribe in South America with many false claims made by them by New Age charlatans, no relation to the Apache.
Think of this book as pure fantasy, not anything to do with actual Apache tradition.

This site calls her a “culture vulture” and reprints a letter from real Apaches:

The White Mountain Apache Tribe then conducted research into the historical and cultural foundations of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu assertions and publications, including consultations with Apache elders and cultural specialists who are
members of the White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache tribes.
The inquiry failed to discover any reliable evidence suggesting the historical or cultural legitimacy or accuracy of the work of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu. All indications available to the Tribe are that she and her works are among the latest in a long line of misguided efforts to make unauthorized and inappropriate use of Native American culture and history — cobbled-together half-truths and fabrications intended to deceive and derive profit from the hopes and fears of those seeking to understand themselves and American Indians.

More on this controversy can be found here and on other sites.

All of these I sourced with perhaps no more than 10 minutes of searching each. Yet they are repeated tens of thousands of times on other sites without anyone bothering to check their validity or confirm a source. Too many people have too little critical thinking.

Facebook imageFinally we come to something attributed to Samuel Clemens, one of my favourite authors (writing under the pseudonym of Mark Twain): “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Wikiquote – one of the best sources online for valid quotes – doesn’t list it.

I’ve found several properly attributed Twain quotes, including this one from an 1873 speech titled License of the Press: “The trouble is that the stupid people–who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations–do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper.” Great quote. Today we’d replace the words ‘a newspaper’ with ‘the internet.’

But I have not found anything with the exact wording of the quote with anything more than a generic attribution. That told me it isn’t a valid quote (valid quotes include the source). Certainly it doesn’t read like anything I’ve read by Twain. So I kept looking. This site attributes to author Greg King, as do several quotation sites (some which which also attribute it to Twain). I’d bet on the King attribution.

All of these quotes are repeated ad nauseum on many, many other sites, including those allegedly reference sites for quotations. Which proves (as do all of these mis-attributed quotes) that these sites are NOT authoritative, merely collectors of anecdotal errors.

06/9/12

Diablo III: Hype or Gaming Excellence?


Diablo III gameplayThe hype was huge and long. Diablo III was rumored, hinted at, promised, delayed, and even denied for years. Then it was embraced when it finally arrived after more than a decade’s hibernation since the success of Diablo II, released in 2000 (and 16 years since the original, released in 1996). Good technique for raking in the money: the anticipation meant huge sales initially.

The spammers love it, of course, because it provides a wonderful, accessible platform for scams through its live in-game chat system that allows them to post text ads promising in-game gold and experience points in exchange for real money. This sort of scam has plagued World of Warcraft for years. Electronic Arts has not learned much from a that lesson, it seems.

There are reports (see this article from Forbes magazine) that D3 has been hacked and scammers have stripped accounts of gold and items.It may be that EA’s battle.net is being hacked instead, which means all your accounts with it including WOW are vulnerable. If you read some of the game forums you can find these stories in abundance. Even if you use one of their authenticator dongles, you may still be hacked, as this story notes. The threat is not merely losing virtual items in a game account – but that it will let the hackers into your other services, like email accounts, or other online places where you may use the same name, email or password. Like PayPal, online banking or eBay.

EA has denied widespread hacking. Having had my WOW account hacked, I can testify to the stomach-wrenching sensation of logging on and finding all your gold gone, your stash empty and your character naked (except for some politically correct but underwear). There are unconfirmed reports of players being hacked even through they use EA’s authenticator.

I figure I report at least a dozen spammers every time I play the game. Which is, because of their ubiquitous presence, increasingly seldom. It doesn’t appear reporting abuses makes any difference. It’s hard to tell because spammers change their identity almost daily and their usernames are never the same, although the scam sites they tell you about remain the same.

This is Electronic Arts’ fault. You need a constant Internet connection to play the game, even when you’re playing solo. That means the spammers and scammers are there with you, sending message after message after message – often five or six of the same multi-line crap – through the general chat network. No, it doesn’t affect your game, just your perception, as your attention is continually drawn to the part of the screen where their messages appear.

Had EA set up the system so that solo play was local, not linked to the Net, spammers would not be such a huge problem. As it stands, you are deluged with their annoying ads during gameplay. These may not be harmful per se (until you fall for one and go to their phishing site), but they break the immersion, and draw your attention from the game to the bright blue letters of their message on your screen.

Diablo 3Back up a bit. For those of you not familiar with the Diablo franchise, it’s a role playing fantasy game (RPG) with an overhead, third-person orthogonal view. Everything you do – move, fight, trade, repair, talk – you do with the mouse. It’s a clickfest. A typical session is one mouse click after another after another: click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click and then a whole lot more and faster in combat.

Suggestion: buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break. Spend the $100-plus on a good mouse if you like this game.

Like the title suggests, Diablo is about demons, evil, devils, angels and their ilk, although not taken wholesale from Christian mythology. It’s more Hollywood than Biblical in its inspiration. The story line is thin, even simplistic, but sufficient to explain most of the action.

The bad guys are caricatures of evil, but it’s a game, not a novel or even a movie. The differences between D2 and D3 are more in the polish, but nothing that can justify a decade’s effort. The scenery is pretty, gritty and gloomy in turn – all good eye candy, if a bit stereotypical and cliched. Particle physics are good; monsters lose limbs in gory splats, and explode satisfyingly.

Diablo was an original concept in the 90s, and, although cloned by many other games, it was still great fun in 2000. In 2012, D3 doesn’t offer much more or newer than its competitors (like Dragon Age). In fact, following a move seen in WOW, D3 is simplified (dumbed down if you’re a hardcore gamer) from its previous versions: skimpier skill trees, fewer character classes (no more paladins…), fewer combat options. However, this allows players to concentrate more on gameplay and less on micromanaging their characters.

Buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break.

It’s not a very deep or challenging game, but rather an entertaining time waster. It’s more beautiful than solitaire and it’s more fulfilling to kill monsters than drop a jack on a queen. But it’s not in the intellectual foreground like chess, go, or even the solitaire mah jong. It’s pretty heavily scripted and the paths you can take and means to fulfill a quest are limited and very linear. Some areas are large open zones you can explore; others are fixed paths you are forced to stay within. Each quest has to be done in order and completed the way the game dictates; it’s not an open-ended system with multiple quest-trees like Skyrim.

Replaying it with different characters, even different classes (wizard, barbarian, witch doctor, etc.) doesn’t change the game. Rather it simply changes some of the tactics and weapons available to the character class. It also changes a few, but not all, lines of dialogue you’ll hear. Along the way, you’ll get a companion to fight beside you. There will eventually be three you can choose from: templar, enchantress and scoundrel. The main difference between them is the tone of their repeated comments during play. You’ll want to play in silence after you’ve heard the same lines a few dozen times in an afternoon.

D3 gameplayStill, wiping out a whole platoon of Orc-like creatures, zombies, or demons does give some satisfaction. More than, say, clearing a screen full of cards. D3 is like Cheezies: addictive in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. You want something more cerebral, play Civ 5. Or Fritz chess.

Diablo III has other issues, not all of them EA’s fault. The scammers apparently broke part of the in-game auction system and forced EA to close down the part that used real money to buy virtual goods (why anyone would do this baffles me, but it’s done in other games like Second Life). The real money auction is offline right now, while EA works on a fix. My suggestion: drop the idea entirely and stick to the virtual gold system. That way no one gets hurt.

Auction prices are another thing that bother me. The auction house system works well in WOW but in D3, it seems like insane gremlins have taken over. Items that can be sold for 200 gold at any in-game merchant are being offered for 10,000, 20,000, even 100,000 and more! I’ve seen some in the millions of gold range. Obviously the sellers suffer from some sort of Midas ailment because these prices are not merely unreasonable, they are stupidly, egregiously high. No thinking adult would put these prices that high. Children must be muddying the auction system. Why isn’t there some sort of cap that limits players to auction prices a mere 100 times the in-game sell price, rather than allow it to be posted at thousands?

Diablo 3Non-player characters are generally as stupid as auctioneers when they fight with you. They can be inept or ineffectual during a battle (why do they have such a hard time killing a single monster that I can dispatch with one hit?). Sometimes they get stuck in rooms or at other points outside the action (poor path-finding programming I suppose). They say inappropriate things (like shouting wildly about a battle success when only one enemy was slain).

Static characters like merchants have a limited, series of lines they repeat every time you visit them (which gets stale within minutes of your first game). The repetition of lines makes players like me avoid all but the essential NPCs after the first hour of play. You must, however, visit merchants often, because your main source of income is selling the weapons and armour you pick up along the way. Since you can’t expand your packsack as in WOW, you can only carry a small number of items. That means frequent trips back to town to sell the crap you’ve collected. You get between 2 and 150 gold for a find, but mostly between 2 and 10. It takes dozens of hours of play to get 100,000 gold this way. So why would you waste it all on on weapon that you might as easily find falling from some chest or dropped by a monster?

Going back and forth between battlefield and town every 10 or so minutes to unload your pack gets old fast.

When you quit and start again, the monsters are back in the areas you just cleared out, respawned so you can kill them again. This is good for dungeon crawlers and grinders who play the same field, ruin or cave over and over to build up experience points and collect loot, although returns diminish as you gain levels. However, the ‘big bosses’ don’t respawn, so you can’t rake in massive loot and XP by killing them again. Too bad. However, on the plus side, most of the dungeons and fields change when you restart, so the geography is somewhat different, if not the result.

Diablo 3 wizardOnce you’ve taken your character through the basic (normal) level of play, you can replay it in harder modes. That means you deal less damage, and monsters are tougher, and loot may even be better, but the game doesn’t change otherwise. It’s just more of the same.

There is a multiplayer mode where up to four people can play in a public game online in co-op mode. Not sure how loot and XP work, but I always like co-op games. Not sure if public games give hackers and scammers any advantages, though, since they can discover your username in co-op mode.

Is it worth $60 (plus taxes and monthly Internet charges)? Without the spammers, I’d say yes, if you want a fast-paced, mindless, time wasting game. No if you’re looking for depth, high replayability, serious challenges or intellectual stimulation. But for basic fun and a month or two of entertainment, it’s not bad, assuming you are willing to risk being hacked and don’t mind taking frequent breaks from the action to report spam. I’d give it five stars if it didn’t require a constant Net connection for solo play, but with it, I’d give it 3.5 out of five.

It took me about 30 hours to finish one character on the basic level, so at $2 an hour, it’s not a great per-hour expense. Figure spending at least twice that time on the game, solo, if you want to try all the character classes. If you’re a fan of online MP games, you will probably play that much in coop mode. Value for the cost is good when weighed solely in playable hours. Throw in the spammers and the threat of hackers, and it’s worth somewhat less.

So to answer the question posed in the headline: it’s a more hype than excellence, but that hasn’t slowed sales. D3 doesn’t set any new standards or break any old ones, but it manages to be sufficiently entertaining nonetheless.

06/6/12

Patronage: Canada’s Shame


Political patronagePatronage is the dirty secret behind most nations and governments. It’s a shameful, embarrassing, corrupt and very undemocratic practice in which friends, supporters and benefactors get plum contracts, jobs, appointments, cash, perks and bonuses.

These are usually parcelled out not on the basis of achievement, ability, or talent, but rather simply because of political cronyism.

Canada is no better, and probably somewhat worse than most Western nations in how its governments practice this loathsome act of onanistic rewards. But unlike many more democratic nations, Canada maintains an official, government-sponsored body for patronage: the Senate. Our patronage Senate is something you’d expect from some developing Middle Eastern nation where friends of princes get fat rewards for their support, not a so-called Western democracy.

Well, because of our unelected Senate, we’re really an oligarchy. Given the salaries, unrestrained perks and benefits and expense accounts of our MPs, we might as easily be described as a plutocracy. Just look at the sense of grandiose entitlement of some of the foremost snouts in the trough – like Minister Bev Oda and tell me it’s not a government of plutocrats. (Oda is ostensibly the Minister of International Cooperation, but that appears to be a pseudonym for the Minister of the Most Entitlements).

The unelected and unaccountable Senate has authority to change or even reject legislation that elected officials craft. This, of course, means Canada is not a democracy, but rather an oligarchy where the ‘good old boys and girls’ in the Senate who have benefited from the patronage scheme can run the country without having to face the rigours of democracy or have their worth challenged in an election. When governments change, it gets stacked with party faithful whose sole qualification seems to be obsequious affection for the current prime minister.

It is the least credible, least transparent government agency, but it runs the country. The Senate stinks like an overripe corpse, but so does every patronage appointment.

A recent story in the National Post asked if patronage was “the oil that keeps our democracy turning.” Nice metaphor: patronage is as slick and slimy as oil. The article opens:

OTTAWA — Pork-barrel politics. Nepotism. Feeding at the public trough. Cronyism.
Call it what you will: Every government participates in patronage.
Jean Chretien appointed his controversial public works minister, Alfonso Gagliano, as ambassador to Denmark just as the sponsorship scandal was unfolding.
Brian Mulroney appointed his deputy chief of staff, Marjory LeBreton, to the Senate.
Stephen Harper appointed his former foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, ambassador to France.
And a recent Postmedia news analysis showed about 25% of failed Tory candidates from the 2011 election landed government appointments or jobs of some type.
But while Mulroney may have scandalized purists when he famously said, as opposition leader: “There’s no whore like an old whore” in reference to patronage plums, not everyone believes patronage perverts democracy.

Sadly, the self-described reformers of this toxic practice have succumbed to its lure. Stephen Harper promised to clean it up and create an elected Senate. Instead he has perpetuated the abuses by keeping it as a trough in which Conservative snouts can feed. His credibility as Prime Minister is tied to Senate reforms, which he has refused to institute.

The lack of transparency has fuelled a belief that it’s not what you know that lands you a patronage post, but who you know in the government.

But where is the will in Ottawa to end this system of buddy rewards and Senate appointments? Certainly not this government. As this story pointed out last December, Harper’s patronage appointments have become a holiday tradition in which the party faithful get their rich plums from the PM:

As reported by the Canadian Press Wednesday, Harper slipped through a rash of Conservative patronage appointments just after the pre-Christmas exodus from Parliament Hill. The recipients included failed candidates, ex-caucus members, members of Conservative riding executives and long-time party faithful.
Looking back, it seems that Harper’s Christmas appointments have become somewhat of an annual tradition.
On December 20, 2010, Harper appointed two new Senators – Larry Smith and Don Meredith.
On December 22, 2008, Harper made a record number 18 senate appointments…

What’s ironic is Harper’s history of denouncing the slimy practice of which he has become the undisputed king:

In opposition, Harper denounced the practice.
“(Canadians) are ashamed the Prime Minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation,” he said in the House of Commons in 1996.
Then, in 2006, after opposition MPs rejected his choice of a patronage watchdog, he vowed to one day stop the appointments of friends and insiders…
Harper now has his majority, yet the patronage appointments continue.

Funny how that evangelical zeal to reform a bad system has been lost since he has been in power. When will Canada get a government or a leader bold enough to break free of the patronage system and finally make Canada a democracy?

06/2/12

The Tin-Foil Hat Brigade in the Lab


Tin Foil hatsYou have to admire science. Nothing is beneath its inquiring eye. When I read that students at Berkley U had seriously investigated the nature of the ubiquitous-in-the-wingnut-community tin foil hats, I had to smile. Once again, science saves the day.

Bad news for the wingnuts. While research didn’t prove tin foil hats will stop the aliens from eating your brain, it did suggest that the hats may amplify certain frequencies that may be in the control of either governments or corporate interests.

According to the researchers at berkeley.intel-research.net/arahimi/helmet/,

The helmets amplify frequency bands that coincide with those allocated to the US government between 1.2 Ghz and 1.4 Ghz. According to the FCC, These bands are supposedly reserved for ”radio location” (ie, GPS), and other communications with satellites (see, for example, [3]). The 2.6 Ghz band coincides with mobile phone technology. Though not affiliated by government, these bands are at the hands of multinational corporations.

Then with what can only be tongue-in-cheek seriousness, the authors of the study conclude,

It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the Government, possibly with the involvement of the FCC. We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings.

Gawds, I love this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the video of the research and results has been taken off YouTube. I can only hope someone restores it.

In the mean time, any creationists or self-described psychics among my readers should be concerned that your tin foil hats are actually allowing the evil government spy agencies access to your thought waves… better turn on the microwave to scramble their signals…

Thanks to Haggle for posting the link!