28 July 2014

Why Obsolete Technology Can Save Your Life

So, there's been a lot of ballyhooing about the obsolete technologies our government uses in what are generally thought of as "State of the Art" facilities. As a closet luddite who genuinely misses his old Sears electric typewriter, I have a fondness for old tech, and can even appreciate its myriad advantages over newfangled gadgetry. If you're laughing, ask yourself how many times your PC has crashed while using a word processor e-mail client, think about why those errors occur, and now think about how a typewriter works. 

Okay, yeah, the door being held open by a crowbar is kind of a big screw-up, but using the antiquated computronics is actually rather a stroke of genius and lateral thinking. There's some joke in hacker/computer geek circles that the US Army has the most secure computer network in the country entirely by virtue of the fact they haven't upgraded it since 1992, so not only is most of it offline, but hardly anyone works in it primary programming language, and there's so little RAM to go around that running a virus would likely crash the system before it did any real damage. 

Also, bear in mind the US Army had its ass handed to it in Vietnam by farmers with sharpened bamboo sticks instead of sensible footwear. 

Anyway, going back to the silos...  

Because the floppies are so prone to erasure from interference, they have to be stored very carefully. Removing them or tampering with them would likely corrupt them, making them useless. Considering the way Mutually Assured Destruction is supposed to work, I feel very comfortable knowing our nuclear missiles are most likely to do absolutely nothing. Optical media may not be indestructible, but their relative longevity compared to those disks makes them a liability. In other words, "this message will self-destruct in five seconds." 

As for the computers themselves:

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Those computers aren't exactly versatile, but the one thing they're literally built to do, they do fine and dandy with a cherry on top. There's a reason why people marvel over their old Atari consoles still working while XBox360s get made the butt of jokes for their Red Rings of Death. 

Richard Garriott, the creator of the Ultima PC games, said in a recent interview that while aboard the ISS, a daily ritual was to reboot the PCs running Windows to reduce their chances of crashing. Similarly, the computers aboard the Space Shuttles had about as much processing power combined as a Blackberry from 2002, but the R&D and Quality Assurance behind their construction is without question because they are made to work. Your average desktop PC has to be a kind of Jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none, but these are purpose-built machines that don't waste time, space, or energy they don't need for their primary function. 

So, frankly, I think all this uproar about old tech in the private sector is unbearably naive and you should all be ashamed of yourselves. As penance, dig out your old GameBoys (or get one if you don't have it anymore) give it a warm, loving kiss, place it on a pillow, and tell it how grateful you are its processing power would have been overkill for the Apollo missions. 

You're welcome. 

16 July 2014

Seven Quick Notes on Thor Being A Woman

For the record, I take no issue with Thor being a woman. I am, however, puzzled by the decision, and worried about its implications.

1. The last time Marvel did this was with Ghost Rider, when sales dropped and the book was in danger of being canceled. It did not help. In business, this is called the glass cliff. It's a kind of "last resort, pandering while thinking outside the box" sort of synergistic effort in which a business that's not doing well will promote someone they wouldn't normally give the job to, the hope being either 1) They turn the company around, and they get to look progressive in the process, or 2) The company fails, and they get the protection of being able to say, "We tried the woman, and the woman didn't work out. Oh, well... Que Sera Sera." Speaking of intentions...

2. This is where matters get really touchy, so let the record show this a very broad generalization with a lot of assumptions which are most likely wrong. When a fictional character typically portrayed as white and male gets a race or gender swap, there's an issue of "why/why not?" that inevitably comes up.If the decision to make Thor a woman is "Because we can, so there!" Then it's arbitrary and therefore token, a stunt (see point 1). If, however, there's meant to be a greater significance to Thor being a woman, a comment on gender roles or a criticism of women in western mythology, then the risk is that the message overshadows the medium, Thor the character being traded in for Thor the statement. Granted, there's nothing wrong with that, Wonder Woman is a similar kind of statement, but she's also an interesting and compelling character in spite of the socio-political connotations attached to her. Similarly, when it came to Loki...

3. When Loki became a woman, it was in Lady Sif's likeness (she'd been killed in a recent story arc) to taunt Thor and play on his feelings of guilt. In other words, there was an in-narrative reason for the change that was in line with the original character, not merely a swap for swap's sake. Speaking of Lady Sif...

4. The comic Thor actually has a surprisingly good batting average when it comes to gender representation. There's Lady Sif, Amora the enchantress, Hela of the underworld (Loki's daughter), Brunnhilde and her Valkyrior troops, to name a few. Really, it's not like Thor was hurting for female characters, apart from a touch more variety outside of a love interest for The God of Thunder.

5. The idea of someone else being able to wield Mjolnir (by essentially the law of averages) was already explored with Beta Ray Bill, which makes the passing of the hammer seem all the more token. Thor doesn't work nearly as well as a legacy hero compared to, say, Green Lantern or The Phantom or even Batman (Knightfall, Beyond, Incorporated...).

6. What exactly will this mean for the films? It wouldn't be surprising if Tom Hiddleston passed on the role to Jaimie Alexander since there's a precedent for it in the comic. However, while we don't know the context for this change in the comics as of the time of this writing, Chris Hemsworth's commitment to his role plus the task of finding someone to take up the role in his place (given what a hard time it's been to bring Wonder Woman to modern audiences), it would make more sense for Marvel/Disney to leave the comic to its own devices and maybe consider following suit if the movies were to show a drop in box office returns. Given how the films have fared thus far, that sort of change would be years away even in the worst case scenario.

7. Does all this have anyone else thinking of the Silicon Knights' game Too Human, or is that just me?

As I've said, it doesn't bother me in the least that Marvel wants to make Thor a woman. It's piqued my curiosity, and I think it could be pretty cool. I simply wonder piquing interest and looking cool is all that's gone into the mission statement behind this venture. If so, that will be sad, so here's hoping I'm wrong.

13 July 2014

Crowded Potato Salad Bowl

If crowdfunding was truly a socialist concept, people wouldn't get to choose which projects get funded. It would all be one, gigantic co-op with funds being evenly distributed to everyone involved regardless of a project's merits. 

Recently, a comedian I follow on YouTube named Adam Buckley made a video criticizing the recent "Potato Salad" Kickstarter campaign and its tens of thousands of dollars. For those of you who don't know, a man started a crowdfunding page asking for ten dollars to fund his first attempt at making potato salad. A cynic would say this was a joke, a sort of litmus test to see how low standards can get on the site. An optimist would say it's a social experiment in empathy. Either way, I don't think anyone would dispute that at least 90% of that money could be put to better use elsewhere, like helping a little girl get plastic surgery for her facials scars resulting from a pitbull attack. Of course, that brings us to the seedy underbelly of crowdfunding: scams. 
Like any other great tool, it can be misused. As a hammer can bash in a skull as easily it can drive a nail into wood, so can a crowdfunding campaign provide a smokescreen for a cut-and-run operation as easily as it can help an indie film get distributed to theaters. In between these lay the gray area of e-begging, projects that aren't scams by any real definition of the word, but aren't exactly a commercial venture or a pre-order system. For example, the potato salad guy isn't making this salad to hold some huge block party to feed the homeless (Kickstarter wouldn't allow that, anyway) or teach some at-risk youths to cook so they can become productive members of society. Sure, a party is listed as one of his stretch goals, but there's still nowhere for this project to go. Indeed, it makes me sad people would rather give their money to this than something else, but I completely disagree with Buckley that it's an example of socialism. 
Frankly, his writing off of crowdfunding as a socialist concept because the system can be abused is not merely throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It's drowning the baby in the bathwater and then suing the water company for damages, claiming they made a hazardous product... and it's not even his baby. 
In the interest of full disclosure, I identify as an Objectivist. If you don't know what that means, it is, in broadest terms, a liberal capitalist. We believe in certain conservative values such as the free market and smaller/limited government, but we also believe in more liberal causes such as civil liberties and secularism. It has nothing to do with socialism; practically a polar opposite. To wax philosophical on the distinction, I'm all for equality, but find it works better as a starting point than an end goal (Equal opportunity is not equal achievement). Furthermore, I have supported the Kickstarter campaign for Wayforward's upcoming Shantae game, and the brush/stylus I use for my digital paintings is the result of a Kickstarter campaign. 
Yes, a business should be left to succeed or fail based on its own merits, but in terms of covering startup costs, donations from supporters (with or without incentives) is no more or less valid a means of fundraising than an investment bank, a loan, or self-financing. People having as many options as possible to decide for themselves where their money goes, how much they can give, all the while having a full and informed understanding of what, if anything, they will receive in return for their contribution (in my case, a copy of the aforementioned game upon its release), is not an example of socialism. 
I have played Wayforward titles before and have been very impressed by their work. If they want to bypass normal funding means and appeal directly to their fans rather than unreliable marketing that's been proven to be ill-suited to the games market, then why is it wrong for me to support their effort in return for a copy of the game? How is it e-begging to offer a product or service for a fee simply because there's a little more trust required and less red tape to cut through? It's not putting the cart before the horse to let your paying, consuming audience decide via dollar votes whether or not a product or service is viable. It's practically the very definition of laissez-faire capitalism. Calling it socialism because it doesn't always work out or gets abused by greed isn't simply a conflation, it's shortsighted, reactionary, alarmist bullshit, and shaming people for supporting it in spite of its flaws isn't simply petty, it's hypocritical. I've lost a lot of respect for Buckley on this one. Normally, even when I disagree, I still respect his opinion because it's rational and informed. This time, though, he's done himself and his fans a great disservice, which is ironic because he recently shamed a contemporary for more or less doing the same, only with an accolade instead of the offer of willing financial support.