Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ich stelle ein Minarett auf mein Hausdach

Nothing is worse than active ignorance.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My friend Jim moved to Switzerland a while back, to live with his girlfriend Olivia. They're getting married in February.

But today she, who is usually so proud of her country, was full of disgust. For the Swiss people have spoken, and the building of minarets is to be outlawed.

In a country with around 400,00 Muslims, where Islam is the second largest religion, there are currently four mosques sporting minarets. Four. One minaret per hundred thousand worshippers. That's one seriously complicated rota system they must have going there.

Martin Baltisser, general secretart of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) which first pushed the referendum, told the BBC: "This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power." Which is a very serious issue, I'm sure you'll all agree. But even the BBC had such difficultly finding a picture of a Swiss minaret to accompany their story that the image they eventually put on the BBC newspage has a church spire in the background. I'd like to think that this is some subtle and brilliant piece of satire on the part of the BBC's image sourcing department, but really, is there any more obvious a metaphor than that?

It's not unlike the apocryphal tale of an American woodsman, living in a cabin on the side of a mountain, utterly alone. One day he looks out, sees a faint puff of smoke rising from the next valley over. he shakes his head, mutters something about the neighbourhood getting too crowded, and starts to pack.

Of course, for all the mockery, this sort of thing is worrying when considered in the context of the French headscarf ban and other anti-Islamic legislation. Never mind that the United Nations Human Rights Committee said Switzerland would violate international law if it bans minarets, or that the Swiss justice minister has said "a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies". Legal issues aside, the damage this sort of thing does - not just to Switzerland's image but to that of the entire western world - is incalculable.

It's an act of collective stupidity about on a par with...well, I was going to say voting for Hitler but even that probably seemed like a good idea at the time... Voting Bush in for a second term, maybe. I can't think of anything more likely to alienate the Islamic world and turn moderate young muslims into potential extremists. You may as well start publishing obscene cartoons of Muhammed on state documentation and be done with it.

Tolerance breeds understanding. Understanding breeds respect. Respect breeds harmony. Don't people get that? Or are they so terrified of anything 'alien' that they'll lash blindly out and create the very enemy they fear. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy - when the first suicide bomber hits the Geneva underground, all those people who voted against 'Islamisation' will turn to their similarly ignorant friends and say 'I told you we couldn't trust them.'

There's hope, though. A referendum isn't the same as writing the ban into law, so pressure groups and human rights organisations have time to start building opposition. And Facebook already has a protest group suggesting Swiss residents start erecting minarets on their rooftops. Like with the Trafigura incident, perhaps new media can make a difference, exert some pressure and change the shape of the skyline?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Moving on

All things must change to something new, to something strange.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Last night, for the first time in a good long while, the Soton geeksquad were all back together. And although it was a staggeringly good party, I felt something this morning which cast it in a slightly more melancholy light.

While the hangover wore off by midday, something of that feeling remained. Seeing everybody together, laughing and enjoying themselves like we did at the best of times, only reminded me how rarely I see them all now. University was another time, another life, a common bond which drew us all together. But when it was over, one by one, they all drifted away. Back to the places where they came from, or to distant jobs, or to new relationships.

And now my friends, my good friends, are scattered around the country. Around the world, even - my oldest friend, whose best man I'll soonly be, lives in Switzerland with his fiancee, and has made a life for himself there. Time passes and distances stretch, and we accumulate the scars of growing old - the houses and children and responsibilities which come of adulthood. And against the bright colours and high contrast of new things, the past is a sepia-tinted picture in an unfashionable frame, fading into obscurity. It takes effort to remember, to keep the picture bright, and no matter the good intentions some things always get forgot.

So here am I, about to take a new job in a new town, and I wonder how many of the friends I've made at work will remain a part of my life. I'll meet new people, make new friends, and see them every day. Will we meet up on occasion, those old friends and I, and remember why we cared? Or will they fade, like all things must, into the shadows of memory?

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

I started playing a game called Borderlands about a couple of weeks ago. It’s a first-person shooter masquerading as an RPG, which means that the excuse for Rambo-esque levels of mindless violence is an endless proliferation of noble quests, fetch-and-carry exercises, hunting expeditions and attempts at ethnic cleansing.

The reward for all this effort? Experience, of course. The slow accumulation of those arbitrary little points, mounting towards the blessed number at which the counter resets and I achieve the unlimited powers of a level two Hunter. Which will let me go out and kill and kill again, with more effectiveness than ever before, and face greater challenges and fiercer foes, that I might accumulate more experience and rise to the pinnacle of human achievement that is level three, that I might become yet more powerful and render yet greater species of wildlife extinct, that I might accumulate more experience and reach the demigodhood of level four, at which point I can depopulate whole continents with the mere twitch of an eyebrow, gaining unprecedented piles of experience in order to reach level five, at which point…

You get the idea. In less entertaining games, this is called grinding – the endless, tedious repetition of the same actions in order to access content not yet available. I remember with gritted teeth my month in World of Warcraft’s torturous, mindless xp-mills; I see my better half’s inexplicable addiction to Facebook’s FarmVille, the very definition of pointless grind.

When you play a regular shooter, it’s for the exhilaration of combat and to progress the storyline. Borderlands, and any other RPG, you play for the levelling up. Everything else, including any pleasure taken from the front-end gameplay itself, becomes secondary. The very existence of experience levels changes the dynamic, defining the game not in terms of storyline or other abstracts but with reference to a series of short-term goals. But even though it’s a series of diminishing returns, as the reward is separated by increasingly longer periods of time and effort, we still do it anyway. And not just do it, but become addicted, obsessed with ‘just one more’. Why?

Probably because there’s something very comforting about the straightforward relationship between work and reward. Humanity has a tendency to reduce the irreducibly complex to something simple, straightforward, easy to understand. Look at Fox News, if you’re struggling for an example. Life isn’t simple, it isn’t easy to understand cause and effect. Things happen for reasons nobody really understands, and there’s no guaranteed correlation between the work that you do and your reward. That handsome chap at work spends most of his time surfing the internet rather than working, while you do all the little jobs nobody wants to do – who do you think’s going to get promoted?

But a level-based game quantifies that relationship, allows you to reduce something indefinable to something manageable, and rewards you just for showing up. It’s a guarantee that if you spend enough time, you will succeed. It’s replacing the uncertainty and challenge of skill-based gaming with the promise that enough time spent grinding through easily beaten enemies will eventually give you the tools you need to win. And since knowing your level and the level of your enemies lets you predict the victor of any given combat with reasonable accuracy, it’s simple good sense to play cautiously. When the reward for facing significant opposition is far outweighed by the penalty should you fail, the very game itself is rewarding you for avoiding risk. It’s a situation guaranteed to promote boring, grind-heavy play.

And those aren’t skill-based tools, like the sort of hand-eye coordination you develop from playing too much Pac-Man, but statistics-based ones. Abilities within the computer, not within yourself. Abilities anyone with enough time and patience could receive.

It’s this certainty of success, combined with humans’ tendency to break long-term goals into a series of smaller ones, which makes the level-based approach so successful, and so attractive. When carrying out a long, boring job, or at the gym, on the treadmill, who hasn’t started calculating halfway, one-third, one-quarter checkpoints? The sense of achievement you receive from hitting those goals, and the promise of a similar feeling when you reach the next one, provides the emotional drive necessary to continue at an unpleasant task. And keeps people coming back for one more hit, keeps them paying money into the coffers of MMORPG designers.

And these factors make grinding inevitable, even in a game which is quite a lot of fun. In something like FarmVile (no, that’s not a mis-spelling), it’s the whole of the game. And the addictive qualities of levelling are prompting quite sophisticated monetization of browser-based games. By allowing players to pay actual money for virtual cash and bypass some of that tedious grind, the developers are creating a built-in gold farming system and guaranteeing themselves a steady revenue stream, while those developers who eschew grind-based mechanics in favour of less exploitative (and more enjoyable) innovations are being left behind.

When I was a teenager there was a Playstation game called FutureCop, which had a side-salad game called Precinct Assault. The objective was to capture turrets and outposts, gaining points with which you could generate mini-tanks, which would then sluggishly trawl the length of the arena and eventually, hopefully, breach the walls of your enemy’s base. Naturally, he was trying to do the same to you. Your opponent was a computer-controlled flying machine called ‘Sky Captain’, who was tougher, faster and more manoeuvrable than you were. While you trudged around the arena on foot, he flitted over walls and away, claiming turrets you couldn’t reach and conducting hit-and-run attacks on your columns of tanks. All the odds were stacked against you.

But when you beat him on the hardest difficulty setting, after three hours of focused, controller-gripping tension as the balance of power wavered your way and his… when that little tank crossed the threshold of his base, and Sky Captain produced such a howl of frustrated rage that you shivered a little, in front of the screen… that feeling’s something I’ve never experienced since. I was lifted into the sky, tapdancing on clouds. And the reason I felt such elevation was the knowledge that I’d done something remarkable, something which had required genuine effort, genuine skill.

I didn’t just turn up.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Viva la Twitter!

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
- L. P. Hartley

Many moons ago, on LiveJournal, I emptied a bucket of bile (and possibly vitriol) over Twitter. I attacked it as a meaningless string of inanity, which had replaced the often insightful and interesting blog posts my friends used to produce. All this was rather undermined by the fact that I had never actually used Twitter, or dared step within 140 characters of it. In the tradition of techno-luddites and Republicans everywhere, I feared that which I did not understand.

Well now I'm a twitterer, for reasons far too complicated to explain (i.e. I've forgotten), and I thought it might be interesting to talk about one way in particular that my opinions have changed. Because while I remain convinced that Twitter comes in a poor second to longer forms as a medium for profundity and discussion of complex topics, there are indeed areas in which it excels.

Recent events rather prove the point - a quick look at the Trafigura super-injunction scandal shows that Twitter can do great things. In a way, this isn't new; with sufficient time and organisation, the populace have always had the ability to bring about change through sheer weight of public opinion. The Velvet Revolution, the Orange Revolution, The French Revolution... the tradition of public outcry in the face of injustice or oppression stretches back throughout the whole of human history, no doubt as far as the skins-clad cavemen who grew tired of the taste of half-cooked mammoth and dared to stand together to cry 'Ug!*

*"We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it any more!"

The key phrase in that paragraph, though, is 'with sufficient time and organisation'. The most effective revolutions arise spontaneously, without pre-meditation, in response to some defining incident of such magnitude or horror that otherwise quiet, unassuming people have no choice but to take action. Through word-of-mouth the news passes, swelling the ranks of the disaffected.

Before Twitter, before mobile phones and the internet, pamphlets and independently-minded newspapers were the revolutionary's weapons of choice. The spread of information was limited, slow, and organisation took time to build to a critical peak - time the object of public disapproval could use to scatter the embers, to crush opposition or discredit it. The sort of entities which tend to provoke outrage - governments, corporations, law firms - have the resources in place to defeat all but the most determined revolution, given the time to marshal them.

But the faster the news travels, the less time the establishment has to get organised. And in this age of immediate communication, Twitter is the ultimate means of collective action.

Watching news travel is like watching the spread of a particularly virulent disease; one person is infected, then their friends, then carriers from that group spread out to other cells of friends, carrying the message. The spread is exponential. And what Twitter does is take that one step further - there's no need for the news to be carried, or actively promoted in any way which requires actual effort. It's automatically thrust into the faces of everyone you know, not to mention a whole bunch of people you don't. And the minimal effort required on the part of the tweeter just makes it more likely that people will jump on the bandwagon; it doesn't cost them anything, in time or money or intellectual engagement. So why not?

There's another name for this: flash mob. In 1973 Larry Niven wrote a short story called 'Flash Crowd' where instantaneous, practically free teleportation technology results in a sort of large-scale version of the motorway jams and secondary accidents caused by ghouls slowing down to gawp at the scene of a crash. A minor riot is reported, and people from all across the world jump in to see in-person, then as the flash mob grows it gets further air time, and more people come in - not just to gawp, now, but to take advantage: to loot, to cause mayhem, to sell a cause.

The internet has its fair share of this, too. The Slashdot effect, where a website collapses under the weight of interest generated by a casual mention on a larger site. Hackers using denial-of-service attacks to cripple their target websites. And now, through the sheer size of his audience (close to a million followers and counting), Stephen Fry is a one-man DDOS attack.

He may try and deny it, but any time that many people listen to you, that's power. You have the ability to influence the way in which people perceive events, to create the first impression you want people to have. Maybe it's unintentional, but the effect is undeniable. You think the Trafigura affair would have been quite the same if Carter-Ruck had twittered first to nigh on a million followers?

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to take a closer look at the difference in reporting between Fox News and CNN, or the Guardian and the Daily Mail. At its extreme, you get William Randolph Hearst's infamous quote regarding the Spanish-American War: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."

So what happens when someone not so well-intentioned as Stephen Fry, or even someone simply more politically minded, begins to wield that sort of power? Will we get that 'Fifth Estate' Fry speaks about in his blog? Or a new form of media, born from the ashes of the old?

Or will we get a revolution?

Sunday, November 01, 2009


It is not a bad idea to get in the habit of writing down one's thoughts. It saves one having to bother anyone else with them.
- Isabel Colegate

Sothere's this thing called National Blog Writing Month, where you have to post an entry every day of the month. Ali pointed it out first, then Nick wowed LiveJournal by decloaking (and thus proving the cat to be alive) to say he'd be doing the same.

And in the long tradition of bandwagon-jumping, I'll be joining them. But I reserve the right to refuse use of the acronym NaBloWriMo, on moral grounds.