Mass Effect

I was so impressed with the first two minutes of Mass Effect, the new sci-fi RPG for the Xbox 360, that I had to play through it twice and then show everyone at work. While it’s essentially nothing but an extended cutscene, it’s a beautiful, well-directed, well-paced and astonishingly atmospheric introduction to the game. If you have a friend who owns Mass Effect, make an effort to have them show you it. You get more out of it if you customise your avatar’s appearance, as well.

I finished Mass Effect a couple of hours ago – it took me a little over fifteen hours to complete, playing about an hour per day for two weeks, and while those fifteen hours obviously weren’t as good as the intro, I’m very pleased I bought the game. It’s not without its substantial flaw, but I respect the efforts the designers put into creating a wholly original fictional world, and populating it with interesting characters and technology. Writing a science fiction game is tricky – the players will be very familiar with the genre, so you have to avoid stereotypical SF tropes while also not completely confusing those who aren’t so familiar.

(As an aside, I read somewhere that the space opera brand of science fiction has become very unfashionable, hence the reason why it’s vanished from TV and films. I would disagree – it’s as popular as it ever was, it’s just migrated to videogames, where it rules the roost. Halo and Mass Effect serve to demonstrate its enduring popularity.)

Mass Effect’s gameplay is split up into quests. There’s the main quest, which I spent around half my time on, and unsurprisingly it had the more unique and fun gameplay compared to the dozens of side quests which are more or less independent of the main story. I did around a third of the side quests, maybe more, but I gave up after I realised that I simply wasn’t enjoying them. There was one quest in particular which put me off; it had an exciting backstory, and you had to clear up three bases full of robot soldiers. Sounded lots of fun.

I travelled over to the first base and killed the soldiers. It was fairly diverting, but nothing special. When I entered the second base, I thought, ‘How helpful that everyone’s standing in the same place as before’. In fact, the base was identical to the first one, except there were some more soldiers. I felt a bit disgusted by this, and of course the third base was exactly the same, but with some random barriers thrown in. Instead of making the quest more interesting, however, the barriers just made it more tedious. At this point I gave up on doing side quests because they were clearly designed just to consume time rather than actually be entertaining.

Compared to the rest of the game though, this is a minor complaint that can be easily fixed in the sequel. It’s far outweighed by the marvellous story, dialogue and pacing that make me very glad I bought an Xbox 360.

English Literature

At my school, all students were entered into the English Literature GCSE. What this meant was that a couple of times a week, we would take out copies of ‘English Literature’ – things like The Crucible, A Passage To India, various Shakespeare plays, poems – and take turns reading them out.

There is nothing that kills a good story more than having a bunch of bored schoolboys reading out books like these, not to mention Shakespeare. For one thing, reading ‘blind’ means that the speaker has absolutely no idea what emphasis to put on the words; for another, it usually took a few weeks to get through a single work. Most of the time I’d already read the whole thing at home right after receiving the book, and so sitting in class took on a special kind of boredom.

As if this wasn’t enough, we would then have to write essays about the ‘significance’ of various parts of the books or plays. What did the red brick colonial house in A Passage to India signify? What is the meaning of this passage in Macbeth? And so on.

Despite all of this, I quite enjoyed some of the books – I still remember The Crucible quite fondly. However, it wasn’t until I saw The Merchant of Venice being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company on a school trip that I realised his stuff was not only good, but actually really funny. See, until then, my experience of Shakespeare had been these readings in class, and a video of Richard II, where Richard was played by a woman.

Presumably some people liked this production, otherwise I can’t see why our teacher chose to show it. But I can’t think of a worse thing to show a bunch of schoolboys – it just seemed totally ridiculous. It was hard enough trying to follow the play on a TV, but the lead character swapping sex was just too much. I suspect a lot of students from my school still dislike Shakespeare due to these experiences. I don’t entirely blame my teacher, because she was just trying to prepare us for our exams (it was that kind of school), but it seems a shame nonetheless.

A comment on Metafilter reflects my feelings on this perfectly:

As far as I’m concerned, “Hamlet” doesn’t have a “point.” There’s nothing to “get.” It’s not something to see so you can check it off the “things I guess I should see” list.* Please! If that’s your reason for seeing it, don’t see it in the first place…

…I blame school. In school, we’re forced to read Shakespeare when we’re don’t want to. Most of the people I know who love Shakespeare, love him in spite of that, not because of it. Luckily, they already liked Shakespeare before encountering him in school, so the forcing didn’t seem like forcing. Or, if they were like me, they hated it. I hated “Romeo ad Juliet” when I was forced to read it in High School. I hated anything I was forced to read, just because it was forced on me.

Most people in my shoes feel a distaste for whatever was forced on them for the rest of their lives. At 42, I’m only JUST getting over my distaste for math. I can see math is a beautiful subject, but because it was forced on me before I was ready for it, it’s hard for me to shake the desire to rebel against it. And because of gym class, I wonder if I’ll EVER learn to like sports. Luckily, I had other formative experiences that stopped me from associating Shakespeare with school. So I like Shakespeare.

Also, in school, one is pretty much told that we watch/read plays to “get the point.” It’s all about Theme, Message, Social Import, blah, blah, blah. It’s not about crying when Cordelia dies or laughing when Bottom turns into an ass. School ignores or — worse — scorns the best part of fiction: the laughter, the tears, the emotional spice!

Finally, school teaches us that smart people are supposed to like Shakespeare — or at least read/see his plays. If you don’t like it, you’re dumb. So we wind up with a bunch of people who don’t really want to read or see Shakespeare but feel like they should. Of COURSE these people — once they’ve finished with the pain of sitting through “Hamlet” — don’t want to do it again

He’s right. In my class, we never talked about the emotions of the play. We never thought we were supposed to laugh at this stuff, or treat it like anything but a chore.

Brief thoughts on futile presents

There exists a class of products – DVD boardgames, TV tie-in books, themed calendars – that I believe no-one actually buys for themselves. Instead, they are only bought as Christmas presents for other people who ‘like cars’ or ‘watch 24’. There are obviously other products that are only bought as gifts, the most obvious being giftcards, vouchers, trips on hot air balloons, etc., but the difference is that these are quite obviously gifts, whereas the former class are, at least to the naked eye, potential products you might buy for yourself.

The reason why I think no-one actually buys these things for themselves is because they appear to be uniformly shoddy and awful. Perhaps I have too high an opinion of humanity, but I just can’t see even the most die-hard Top Gear fan go out and buy the DVD boardgame for himself; a book, yes, but not a DVD boardgame. But someone who’s frantically searching the shelves of Borders at Christmas and then spots this boardgame and thinks, ‘Oh, I know he likes cars’ will definitely give it some thought.

Say the boardgame is awful (it might be good, I don’t know, but usually these things aren’t). The person who receives it will obviously not be inclined to buy it in the future – not that they were ever likely to. Unless they’re particularly forthright or rude, they probably won’t tell the person who gave it to them that it was awful. So you simply end up in the situation of all these terrible products being made every Christmas, only being bought as presents, and their actual quality never being evaluated; instead, they’re bought because of the box art or the commercial tie-in or the trendiness.

Which I suppose is how most things are bought, but at least you’re doing it for yourself…

(I should point out that this is thankfully not a comment on any presents I received this year)

Getting old younger

Imagine a device, similar in appearance to the iPhone, that you could point at a street sign in a foreign language, and it would display that sign on the screen – translated. I described this dream device to some friends a few weeks ago, explaining that there was nothing technically insurmountable about it – optical character recognition has been around for decades, and machine translation has been around for years. Yes, you would have to improve both to make it work in the field, and you’d have to speed it up and close the loop to make it work in real time, but there’s nothing stopping it from happening.

Maybe we’ll have it in a few years, I told them.

Yesterday, Intel demoed this exact device (scroll to 4:43), translating signs in Mandarin. A separate PC, wirelessly linked to the phone, did the heavy lifting of the OCR and translation, but the principle was there and it worked. Not only that, but the phone (with the PC) also managed near-real time audio translation. To be sure, the device is not ready for consumer use, and Intel expect it’ll be 3-5 years before the software and hardware is really ready.

Real-time translation of anything you can see will transform the world, and it’ll only be 3-5 years away. That’s it. This was my first real sensation of future shock.

The GiveWell Fraud

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times article about a new charity organisation called GiveWell, founded by two young ex-hedge fund managers. The story described how these two mavericks were about to shake up the charity world by using their financial skills to demand and interpret data from charities, and thus discover how efficiently they used their money. These findings would then be used to help donors choose a charity that would give them the best bang for their buck. Some people, however, criticised GiveWell for simply rewarding charities that had the time and resources to provide the extensive data they demanded.

I remember thinking that GiveWell seemed to have an interesting idea in theory, but I was sympathetic to the complaints. In any case, I don’t know much about the charity world (other than what I’m doing with Let’s Change the Game, but that’s another story) so I didn’t feel like passing any judgement.

A little later, on December 30th, a user called ‘geremiah’ posted a question to Ask Metafilter. Geremiah wanted recommendations of websites that evaluated the effectiveness of charities. The fourth comment on that post came from ‘Holden0’ who recommended GiveWell. Geremiah selected Holden0’s comment as the ‘best answer’ and went on to criticise a user, Miko, who’d recommended another site.

Miko proceeded to look at GiveWell’s website, and discovered that Holden0 appeared to be none other than Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell.

(I have to say, this has got to be the most stupid part of this entire story. If you’re going to set up a fake account, why base it on your real name? Sheer insanity.)

A new thread was started on Metatalk to discuss this apparent fraud. Self-promotion is strictly prohibited in Ask Metafilter posts, and it’s even worse if you don’t disclose it. Setting up a second ‘sockpuppet’ account to support your own opinions is also prohibited. Besides these rules though, it would’ve been distasteful to promote your own charity site in such a deceptive manner, while also rubbishing other websites.

Unfortunately, the owner of Metafilter confirmed that both Geremiah and Holden0 were registered by the same person – this was self-promotion, and it was a fraud. Holden0 eventually appeared in the thread to apologise, and claim that lack of sleep was responsible for his lapse in judgement. Members of Metafilter then proceeded to find numerous other cases of Holden promoting GiveWill on other websites without disclosing his involvement – and invariably criticising other sites at the same time.

The board of directors of GiveWell initially didn’t believe what was going on, and then admitted that Holden’s actions were wrong. However, they – and every single other defender of Holden – said pretty much the same things:

  • It was wrong – but it’s forgivable
  • We know Holden, and he’s a good guy
  • Metafilter members are a bunch of vigilantes, dispensing mob justice
  • Worse things go on in the world, why focus on this?

It’s nice that people are so willing to forgive Holden repeatedly promoting his own charity in a reprehensible and deceptive manner. And perhaps Holden is a good guy. But he’s an adult, and he’s supposed to be responsible for influencing the flow of millions of dollars to charities; you would expect him to have some basic sense of judgement.

As for Metafilter members, as far as I can say, they’ve done everyone a favour by uncovering this fraud. No doubt other frauds go on, but they happened to discover this one because Holden was especially foolish in his choice of username, and it’s natural that they would be irritated with someone scamming the website they belong to. They have done nothing except try and get word of this episode to as many people as possible. Not everyone there is an angel – far from it, judging from the assorted ad-hominems and insults that have been flung at Holden. But as far as I can tell, they have not lied or threatened anyone.

Why am I posting about this?

I think what Holden did was wrong. I think his friends are wrong to defend, or dismiss, the indefensible, and then go on to criticise the very people who uncovered the fraud, as if that were a worse sin. But the main reason I’m posting this is because an awful lot of people think that this type of fraud is not only acceptable, but commendable. It’s the way you do business – sure, some people might disagree, but if you want to get ahead, then you do what you have to.

It’s true that far worse things go on in the world, but this sort of fraud goes on every day by people who convince themselves that it’s OK, especially if no-one finds out. It truly is a slippery slope, and it’s not OK. It shows a profound lack of judgement and morals. If people want to continue trusting GiveWell, that’s fine, but they deserve to know what Holden did, and that’s why I’m writing this post – to link to the Metatalk thread, so that when you search for ‘GiveWell’, that’s the very first thing you see.

Metafilter members are currently assembling a page on the Mefi wiki (which I set up, but otherwise have little to do with) detailing all the events of this fraud. If you’re interested in hearing more about GiveWell, here’s an insightful critique from someone within the charity world pointing out the inexperience of the founders, and the fact that they are not actually doing anything that hasn’t been done before.

A Suit’s Story

I’d heard about Todd McEwen’s famous essay about Cary’s Grant’s suit in North by Northwest (‘North By Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit’) but I’d never gotten around to reading it. It turns out it’s online, and it’s a brilliant, hilarious read, getting more and more frantic as the film goes on:

Now the suit is in the woods for the reconciliation scene with Eva Marie. This suit doesn’t look too bad in the woods, and you reflect that Mount Rushmore seems a very formal national park, there were a lot of people dressed up in the cafeteria, paying their respects. Cary gets punched out for trying to interfere between the Professor and Eva Marie, AND WHEN HE WAKES UP THE SUIT HAS BEEN CONFISCATED! The Professor has locked him in a hospital room with only a TOWEL to wear! He’s not going anywhere! (Although you feel a lot of relief that he’s had his second shower of the picture.) But then comes the real act of betrayal: the Professor brings CARY GRANT a set of hideous clothes from some awful ‘menswear shop’ in Rapid City (you can just imagine the smell of it, Ban-Lon shirts and cheap belts). He gives him an off-white white shirt, a pair of black slacks, white socks and icky black slip-on shoes.