Sunday, November 15, 2009

Alison Rowat and the Licensed Imagination

This post is possibly ever so slightly out of date, being a letter to the Glasgow Herald which I posted on the Intrepid forum three years ago but never quite polished to the extent that I was happy sending it to the herald itself.  Prompting this, and other rejoinders by Intrepid members, was an article by Alison Rowat about the then [Glasgow Science Fiction convention] which some of us considered tantamount to bigotry, had it been said against one of the traditional minority groups.  I've rewritten my rebuttal so that it flows better.  At the time of writing the original, I was very, very angry.  Perhaps it could function as an open letter to other media types – and there are many – who see us poor SF types as an easy and not altogether human target.

Dear Sir,
    It's long been a truism that to gauge the accuracy of a newspaper, you should simply read a column about a subject with with you are closely familiar. So it is rather disappointing to be presented with Alison Rowat's article 'You wouldn't believe the warp factor' which contains nary a shred of anything approaching a keen observation, let alone a solid fact.
A little research surely couldn't have gone amiss?

Such as this odd obsession with tin-foil. It's a nice little hook to hang the rest of the article from, so it's a shame that tin-foil hats are synonymous with 1950s paranoia about communist 'mind-control'. Not exactly Star Trek or Star Wars, which are precisely two entries in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction out of some four and a half thousand. Perhaps it's a surprise that there can be such a thing as an Encyclopaedia, but sure enough it turns out that SF is even a literary genre stretching back hundreds of years. Surely the people described in her article couldn't be... atypical?

Of course, says Alison, why would anyone wish to dress up as their favourite character at all? It's not like anyone dresses as characters from soaps, after all, although the remarkable upsurge in little girls named 'Kylie' at the height of Neighbours should give pause for thought as to exactly who is 'sad'.   I'm sure that a few of us have waved a lightsabre, imagined or otherwise, in anger. But so far as I know, no SF fan has ever sent a real cheque for 5000 pounds to help free a fictional character from a fictional prison, as happened with Coronation Street.
    I'll save myself time by blithely assuming that all non-SF fans have a blurred line with reality.

Of course I myself cannot 'fathom the insanity' that makes grown men dress in football tops. After all, on the basis of the last few years, you're seemingly more likely to be killed or seriously injured by a footballer than a terrorist. What kind of aspiration is that?

But I'm not a football fan, I'm an SF fan and as such I'm generally fair game to be mocked in the press and on television.  Somehow I'm now a stereotype, not an individual, but of now part of a group whom you can malign with impunity.

How well do I measure up to this image that you have in your head?  Spandex?  Don't own any.  Social skills?  Got some.  Women? Some close friends.  Relationships?  Had them too.  In one now.  Beer belly?  I'm a man in my mid-thirties, what do you expect I'm going to look like?  Would you like to call me a fat bastard, or is that not politically correct?  I wear glasses too, so I expect you'd like to call me four eyes or speccy or something.  You know, make fun of my appearance in the absence of anything with any thought behind it.

Or don't we do things like that in the 21st Century?  Such niceties don't apply to SF fans it would seem.  I like SF and so I'm some kind of freak and to hell with how it makes me feel when I hear you say that.

How appropriately ironic, then,  that one of the central themes of Star Trek, which you deride, is that in the future we all have respect for one another.  Imagine that.

I did, however, manage to retain my imagination.

Not, admittedly, a valuable commodity in these cynical days, cynicism being a theme often reflected in... oh... modern SF. Just as the subtext of some of those old novels about aliens was about what's it's like for a society to look upon anyone, anything, point and laugh for being something different that we don't understand.
Hmm, now where have I heard that before...

But soft SF is OK apparently – I can imagine Alison campaigning for tolerance zones where one may have an imagination with an appropriate license – but anything more that is implicitly 'hard' and to be discouraged.

Well this is where research comes in handy (you were once columnist of the year weren't you, Alison? Do you remember what “research” is?) since there really is a term called 'hard SF' which deals stories more closely coupled to real, solid, actually existing science and logic. About as far away from dressing up as your favourite character as it's possible to get.
Enjoying a story where you have to think? Preposterous and dangerous!

At this point I do have to apologise for attempting to use a 'philosophical' and 'intellectual' defence of my 'art' without exploring believers in flying saucers, on the grounds that the two groups are not the same.  Is this a surprise to you?
Oh sure there are UFOs in Science Fiction, but only in the same way that Eastenders is a police drama.

Without getting deep about it, I simply like Science Fiction. I'm in a minority, and don't I know it when there are so many pejorative terms for me. To deny that there really are people – people, not just men – with a more than everyday interest would be plain wrong. But to say that all of them are like the colourful minority is equally wrong. I was at a convention just recently and almost an entire half of the attendees were woman. One of them was dressed as Lara Croft and nobody there or in the press, oddly, felt the need to complain about that...

I'll anticipate the defence that the article was humour. Not a gentle humour by any means, not well observed humour, definitely not original and with an obvious lack of contact with, or understanding of, anyone being talked about. Just mean-spirited barbs thrown at crudely sketched caricatures.

Alison, it's obvious that you don't even know who your target is and would it be churlish of me to point out the logical flaw of writing 'they want to stay in their safe little worlds, not connect with others' in an article about SF fans gathering together in the world's largest convention?

Seriously, did you really write that?  I must have just imagined it.

But the final word must surely go to one of my SF loving friends who saw the article, read the part about sad single men and exclaimed: “That's hilarious, I'll have to show my wife.”

     Steve Hammond

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Grand Theft Auto (via Gameswipe)

Yes, this was me in 1997Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe, being a BBC overview of computer games history, inevitably got to the point where it mentioned GTA. The programme was a fun once-over by the jaded eye of Brooker and I enjoyed catching all the old games I recognised, with a spark of memory, the ones I was familiar with and being amazed by the new ones since I departed the industry. Although I'd known of the controversy at the time, I hadn't really paid much attention, and seeing it in context was quite enlightening. Just how much passion had flared over this game was put into persective, with archive BBC news clips and talking heads decrying it. All the controversy, all the hype, but not much that I didn't know or was surprised by except for this little nugget: GTA was “directly inspired by” Turbo Esprit, a game for the Spectrum.

Um. What?

That was... different. Quick summary: I worked for DMA Design from 1991 to 1997, and hung around Dave Jones doing freelance graphics work for him before that and attending the same computer club and college as him; all going back to around 1984. Turbo Esprit is a new one on me. And naturally this is just an excuse for me to talk about GTA again and by extension, me. My involvement with GTA was tangential, as at the time my main concern was writing the story and background material for Body Harvest, but it did mean that I was present for a handful of meetings and acted as a kind of low-level disruptive influence. Other than dialogue writing, I play-tested it at my desk within the design department, so I had a fantastic view of the process of creating the most controversial game ever to come out of Scotland. Which is not to say that I necessarily remember all of it!

I've read a number of the “histories” of GTA which are dotted around the web and they all cover pretty much the same ground in not very much detail. GTA IV gets the bulk of the commentary unsurprisingly enough, being the acme of the supposed “murder simulator” genre. Not any of them that I've seen were written by anyone connected with the project. Dave is interviewed, but the origin of GTA isn't given much, if any, space. Indeed it's mentioned in places that if you are familiar with GTA IV, GTA the original will come as a surprise.

Everyone knows, it seems, that the original name was Race 'n' Chase, but no-one knows that one of the suggested names was Freeway, a name that I pointed out was also the name of the dog in Hart to Hart, at which point it got dropped. Mike Dailly coded up the graphics engine that was the basis of GTA. This system was informally called Legovision and I think the engine predated the concept of the game itself, which makes the Turbo Esprit influence nonsensical. No-one had ever mentioned it.

I have a better candidate for the influence of GTA and it dates back to 1990 when Dave had the very first office (I was freelance at the time), and we were taking part in the ITV Telethon. Our goal was writing an entire game in 24 hours, and it was a car racing game with a top down view. Being an amalgam of all the racing games we could think of, we called it Super Off-Road Hot Turbo Buggy Simulator. And at the same time a game we had been playing in the office was a Commodore 64 game where you drove a car around a city, called Siren City... How Dave got the idea for GTA, I can't say for sure, but there were more potent influences than Turbo Esprit.

One of the curious things within the histories is the occasional reference to the low production values of the graphics, especially since this was 1997/98. It's possible I was insulated from the outside world when GTA was being put together, but at the time – and as far as I can see it hasn't changed – all the big name games had the same colour palette. Doom set the template, and for years after it was murky greys, browns and dark greens. Most first person shooters looked the same. Indeed in one of the design documents I wrote at the time – unconnected with GTA – I pasted screenshots from Quake, Unreal and a few others to illustrate at a glance how difficult it was to tell the games apart. One of the other guys in the Design Department, Stewart Graham, was especially keen on not having dowdy visuals. Bright, cartoony graphics were specifically intended to make GTA look unlike other games. As a secondary concern, it fitted the nature of the gameplay which wasn't deadly serious; it was fun. What many people fail to remember is that GTA was in large part a pisstake. You only have to look at the faux adverts around the printed map to see that.

This I the point that I have to introduce Brian Baglow. Brian has, so far in my life, been the only person ever to land me in shit with the management on a charge of blasphemy. As architect-in-chief of our freshly minted intranet, I apparently bore the responsibility for everyone's profile Q&A. Brian's answers were slightly spicy, and not at all respectful of the, say, devout believer in a higher power. I passed them without comment because they were fantastically funny. But a single individual disagreed and I had to carry the can for it. Brian's response was to rewrite them to be as fluffy and cute as you could imagine... and equally funny. Brian's sense of humour drove much of GTA.

At the same time as I was writing never-to-be-used dialogue for the original, I was also throwing around never-to-be-used ideas and occasionally acting as a sounding board for Brian. Which is why for a brief moment, controversial though GTA was, it could have contained a rather different message. At the time, a number of arcade games had a prominent FBI logo stating “Winners Don't Use Drugs”, though quite how FBI jurisdiction extended to the high street of Dundee was never clear. Nevertheless, we both thought it was pretty amusing.

GTA, even before it was released, was obviously a pretty subversive game. In one of those meetings of just myself and Brian, more to get away from the hustle and bustle than a proper meeting, I came up with the idea of subverting our own subversion. When the main character opened the suitcase at the end of the game, the thing would explode and the game would end with a parody of the logo saying “Crime Doesn't Pay”.

We thought it was a funny thing to do, to be able to say “Hey, we're responsible and are conveying a responsible message!” Needless to say it never ended up that way, because it was around that time that the carrot of becoming freelance was once more dangled in front of me and I ended up taking it. It was only ever intended that I'd spend two months on GTA, and I'd like to think that my most lasting effect was inspiring Brian to ever-greater heights of lunacy. And as for Gameswipe, surely there is a case for digging out all those old industry mainstays and the BBC making a full in-depth series about computer games history. I for one would be delighted to contribute.
Images in this post taken from Mike Dailly's Flickr stream, who got much of them from my DMA Design Macintosh (which I had from them as a leaving gift) where I stored them all, packrat style, in the first place!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Circle is Complete!

A while back I wrote about the veracity of the Hired Guns background story as it appears in Wikipedia. Short version: you can't trust the article. Longer version: I can't add my own history because my recollections are not a proper reference, even though I wrote the damn story in the first place.

So now I'm delighted to see that the HG entry now links to a proper reference, in this case to Gamasutra – to a page discussing the history of computer games. The amusing part about this is the description it gives on the Hired Guns backstory; that the supposed hostages are merely a ruse to draw in some mercenaries for a live field test of their new weapons systems.

Now the only place that this version of the story has ever appeared on the internet is when I wrote it into the Wikipedia article, for reasons discussed in that other post. Which means that Gamasutra is obtaining its information from Wikipedia, which is now obtaining that very same information from Gamasutra!

The circle is, as they say, complete!

And for value-added lols, I now have an insight into the kind of time-travel story where a time-traveller accidentally kills Shakespeare as a young man and is forced to take his place and write all of Shakespeare's works to restore history (because he just happens to have them all memorised). Where, then, does the information come from in the first place?

The answer, of course, is a Wikipedian editor who lives outside of time.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Carl Sagan Sings!

A strange and compelling and downright geeky thing, that nevertheless I've been playing solidly for the last twenty minutes. I was given the book Cosmos as a kid and it's shaped everything since. Never since Sagan has science meshed so seemlessly with poetry.

Here's where you can find the original with some downloadables

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Update from the Maemo

The 'maemo' being the Nokia N810 I bought a few weeks ago because my Samsung Omnia was being such a pain in the arse. So I'm attempting to blog from somewhere other than an actual computer. This may be less considered than some of my other posts. In any case, the miscellaneous requirements of being both a Sunday morning and in the back room compell me to write trivia. The N810 makes an excellent eBook reader and in conjunction with free eBooks and a small pile of real books I've borrowed and bought, I have much more pending being read than at any other time in my life! Time to prioritise.

All of which is making me slightly angsty that I'm not pursueing the writing as much as I think I ought to be. I've made decent progress rewriting Bit Patterns to be an original screenplay and my serious novel is sitting at 15000 words of background notes (which would be novella sized all by itself.) Oh, and I've now got a paid writing gig which kicks off in Jan. But I can't talk about that yet. ;)

All of which says nothing about Intrepid. I'm a quarter of the way through fine-tuning the edit of The Stone Unturned. Any more commitments and I'm going to sag in the middle!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I ordered a keyboard adaptor - the tiny purple thing in the corner - and had to collect it from a neighbour, because it wouldn't fit through my letterbox.  So, Amazon.... what were you thinking?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bit Patterns Redux

Recently I completed the first draft of a screenplay for Intrepid, that old Star Trek fan film for which I've directed a number of episodes.  The story takes place shortly after the events of the pilot episode.  It was quite a journey getting it to the point where it made sense to me, let alone to the stage where it made sense to anyone who read it.  Events in the Intrepid universe overtook some of the plot points and I had to rewrite it, an actor who played a key role wasn't available so that meant another rewrite.  A lot of headscratching and aha moments occurred before the stage where it was actually, genuinely complete.

The night that happened, I had a short list of items I needed to change, points I needed to make and dialogue I had to invent.  One by one I got through them.  Completing the script came as a surprise – adding the last item meant adding some extra lines just to bring that scene to a natural end.  And... oh.... it's done.

This was in stark contrast to the first major story (in terms of mere wordcount) I'd written when I was younger and didn't really understand the concept of polishing the work.  Even though there was a huge gap between writing the first half and coming back to write the second half, I'd know since the very first paragraph what the very last line was going to be.  In those days I started at the beginning and wrote linearly until the end.  Writing those last words was an incredible experience and I was bouncing off the wall for days.
So the unexpected completion of Bit Patterns may have been a hint that I wasn't done with it yet.  Oh sure, it was finished but that didn't mean it was done.

So.  A couple of weeks ago myself and Nick had an extended discussion about the future of Intrepid and part of that was the other possible projects that were always there but never seemed to get to item one on the agenda.  We'd always wanted to do an original piece of work once Intrepid was at an end (if indeed it ever was – I once said to him that if Intrepid was a success we'd never be allowed to stop making it.).

I'd been thinking about the timescales, which made me squeak uncontrollably.  The next Intrepid script, Nick's Conviction of Demons, is a monster.  After the readthrough, I estimated that it'd have a running time of at least two and a quarter hours.  And that means a couple of years making it, though that depends on how efficient we can get.  Bit Patterns was almost as large.  So that meant a couple of years plus whatever additional time before we could have something full-sized and original finished.  That's a while to wait, since we've been doing Intrepid since 2003.

So I made a suggestion that I'd been thinking about all the previous week and after much soul-searching, we're going ahead with it.

And that means I'm re-writing Bit Patterns to be an original script.  Not Star Trek.  Original.  And once I've finished  - really finished – I'll be directing a Science Fiction film.  It feels great to be able to type that!  Even if it means that I've just given myself a lot more work for the same total of completed screenplays: 1.

What this means is that I have to do the obvious things such as changing character names.  What's possibly less obvious is that I also have to change the character motivations and backgrounds and relationships.  I have to change the technology.  I have to change the backstory of the whole universe it's set in.  And that's the say nothing of all the additional scenes that will be necessary to do establishing in a way that simply isn't required for Star Trek.

This will be an interesting experience.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Adventurous Scots

That would be me.

Seems that there's been a recent study showing that we'd all rather stay in and watch TV or waste time on the Internet.  Well, that's pretty much true as far as I'm concerned, but nothing beats actual data.  So on this morning's adventurous trip to the shops with the express purpose of obtaining caramel cheesecake, to undo the cycling I did the other day, I was stopped by someone from the Evening Telegraph.

She was looking to speak to ten people and ask then what adventurous thing they'd done recently.  It's a regular feature in the paper where the public is asked a question.  What had I done?  Aside from visiting the crash site of the light aircraft in the park earlier on (the pilot was OK and more of which later), I thought the perfect answer was a plug for Intrepid.  After all, as I said, we'd been filming at Glen Doll which gave us the opportunity to go camping and do some hillwalking; an excellent antidote to sedentary habits.

I've no idea whether it's ten people or it's more and whittled down to ten.  Hopefully I'll make the cut!

Yep.  I've just been in the Mon 17th edition along with nine others.  Intrepid itself wasn't mentioned, although it did say about Star Trek fan films and the wilds and cliffs.  The actual quote from me contains about 60% of my own words!

Light Aircraft Crash

You'll probably have seen the news about the light aircraft which crashed in Dundee yesterday.  Luckily the pilot was OK.  I heard about this last night and this morning I took the opportunity to bike up to the golf course where it happened and take a few snaps before the plane gets removed.

And here's a link to what the aircraft was like in better times.  One of my hobbies is looking at newspaper archives in the local library.  I am absolutely sure that this isn't the first time an aircraft has crashed in Caird Park, the other time being in the 1940s.  However despite trawling through my notes, I can't find any reference to it.  Does anyone know for sure?

I was right.  The Evening Telegraph website now reports that a Hurricane had crashed in Caird Park on July 28th, 1943.  Damn, now if only I'd found my note I could have been the first on the web with this snippet of info.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Wikipedia Upgrade

Something I learnt in school was that what we were taught in primary school was merely an approximation of the “truth”.  What we were taught in secondary was a closer approximation and university was a closer approximation yet!I  And so I've had an idea for a updating of Wikipedia.  It would be fairly major thing to do, but I think it would be not only cool but useful too.  This isn't in the category of “fixing” Wikipedia, which seems to be a theme these days, but of improving it's capability.  This is of course assuming that someone hasn't already thought of it or is currently salivating of the prospect of getting venture capital for a rival startup.  I'd do it myself, but y'know, I'm too busy working out how to save the world and all that!

Anyway, I've noticed – it wasn't difficult – that the various entries for Wikipedia are pitched at vastly different degrees of understanding.  If you need convincing of this, just check out some of the finer details of statistics.  Some of those articles go into considerable depth about very technical concepts, others are stubs.  Even when an article is complete, it can contain nothing that would tax you.  On the other hand it can contain complex equations.

But this isn't to say that an outline or overview of a topic can't be written which combines those approaches.  A book might start with beginner's material and slowly build towards advanced learning.  In other words, the same topic can be written about for a different audience at different times and places.  It can be a definitive reference work, or a light sketch merely the gist of it.  So why not build this capability into Wikipedia in a Web 2.0 fashion?  OK, so I'm completely ignoring how it would be implemented in practice, but how might it look?

Each section of the page, in addition to the “edit” control has a “info depth” control, say 1 to 5 or some other scale such as “easy” to “hard”.  Clicking on the appropriate control changes the section, or the entire page, to the new informational depth.  So on depth 1 you might get an explanation of geopolitics or quantum chromodynamics in language suitable for the layman, whereas on depth 5 you might get the same but with equations and technicalities suitable for degree students studying the subject.

That's it.  That's all it would take.

It would even be possible to write Wikipedia pages to take this into account right now.  A page at the moment is titled Quantum (  How much harder would it be to have a few extra pages titled Quantum_Easy and Quantum_Hard.  It could apply everywhere and doesn't even require any changes behind the scenes.

And that's my Big Wikipedia Thought!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

So what happens if I say yes?

I had this interesting situation develop on my "beloved" Omnia recently.  Unavailable is available!  Black is white and up is down!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Too Tasty for Geeks

For the last few years I've totalled up a conclusion that there must be some kind of undeclared cultural war going on. Whilst we've progressed as a civilisation to the point where denigration of all the obvious minorities is rightly condemned, you can always rely on marketers to find new and exciting demographics to be horrible to. I think myself and others like me have been identified as enemy combatants, or at least collateral damage in waiting, because we're now demonised as disgusting statistical outliers who can't be sold a lifestyle.

A handful of years ago, I decided that I wanted to get myself a new mobile phone. After a short while being wowed by failing my saving throw, as Charles Stross puts it, against “The Shiny” and I went for a Sony Ericsson. It looked good and came with all sorts of features I was partial to, including a camera which was still quite rare. Money spent, I was quite pleased with it, up until the advertising campaign began.

Inadvertently, I'd become an early adopter, and now it had hit the mainstream. For several weeks, whenever I watched anything on a commercial channel for longer than seven minutes, there was my phone; the same model being the centrepiece of an upmarket party. It was passed from trendy person to trendy person, free from constraints of gravity and any other physics you'd care to name as it floated, spun, bounced and was caressed by a light stoke of the hand. One might have assumed that its case was fashioned from a fragment of the True Cross(tm) with an operating system coded up by Jesus.

What a cool object this was!

All of which was the advert's opinion of course, which had on me the opposite effect of now being embarrassed to own phone because I looked like a pretentious tosser. In my daily attire of tattered jeans (wear and tear, not designer) and plain t-shirt, I worried that others would see me as though I had designs on being part of some nebulous happening scene.
I'm not sure who those 'others' were, exactly, because the sort of people I hang about with are more likely to say cool at the 'cool' at the number of colours, or size of memory or miscellaneous feature (such as having a built-in camera – yes it was that long ago) that the phone possessed, and not the brute fact of it existing at all. Geek cool, in others words and not some slick marketing bollocks. I caught myself yelling at the TV “But what does it do???” They had explained nothing. The entirety of the concrete information the advert had actually passed on to the viewer was: this is a phone. Wow.

Which was when it sunk in that had I seen the advert first I wouldn't have bought it. In fact I would have avoided it with festering prejudice. Because at no point in the ad campaign was any kind of feature mentioned. See this? It's cool. And that was it. I would have bought one based on what it could do, how it did it, and whether or not it would keep me occupied playing with it and figuring out what neat things I could do with it. (One of which turned out to be getting a photo of Saturn when I pressed the lens against the eyepiece of the large telescope at Mills Observatory).

Shorter version: I'm a Geek.

Or to state it another way, I am not concerned about style but about function. At least that's what I tell myself. A lecturer at my old college once told us that he'd analysed all the various features of cars and had plumped for a Skoda, at a time when Skoda was the single most derided brand in the country. We all laughed him down and I wasn't apart from it either. Brands are potent things.

It's not exactly a deep insight to observe that most products are selling a lifestyle not the product itself, but I worry when we've got to the point where the sort of critical thought needed to analyse the claims of the advertisers is actively derided. A current Tesco advert tells me that its typical shoppers' baskets are cheaper than Asda. The fine print at the bottom of the screen says 'based on 10% of clubcard transactions'. What happened to the other 90%? How is a typical basket defined? Is the 10% taken from all times of the day and all times of the week? Did they do this many times and cherry picked the favourable results? Does the typical basket for midweek vary from the typical basket On Saturday when we're restocking bread and milk? And is the typical basket different again on Friday when we're after cheep beer? Cheaper than Asda? They way they stated it is meaningless. But we take it all in.

Clearly this is not aimed at me, in the same way that the Sony advert appealed to a different group. Few of us take notice of these things, but us geeky folk care about the technicalities, about the numbers, about what's real. And aside from specialist websites, the geek demographic hasn't been targeted. Perhaps it's too small to market to, or more likely the ad bods just don't understand us. Most likely of all, they just can't conceive of a group of people for whom selling a lifestyle doesn't work. All they know is that we're different and different is bad.

Which is where the atomic artillery in the cultural war was unleashed. Can't market to them? Demonise them instead. I wish I could remember the brand – I think it was Shreddies - so that I could shame it, but in any case this was a cereal advert, aimed at children, simply, gaudily proclaiming that it was “too tasty for geeks”. Hey you! You at the back getting bullied? You getting picked last for the sports teams? You who actually enjoys learning? We'll we think you're worthless. Eat something else. We don't want you.

It's not cool to think.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Epistemology pt 3: How I founded a Star Trek club

Years ago I thought of a neat thing to do, which I titled (in my head anyway) the Newspaper Calibration Project. The idea was that a press release or other definitive document would be set free, anything that subsequently appeared in a newspaper could be checked for accuracy. Hence, the newspapers would them be calibrated against a known standard. (You can tell I've got a technical background...) The mere details of how to actually do such a thing didn't emerge from the walk in a conservation area I was on at the time; it was just too idyllic to keep my mind on computers. And so the idea lapsed, along with the evolving document project, where downloaders of said document would modify it and then upload it back. One genetic algorithm later and the “meaning of existence” would then slowly emerge from selection pressure.

Download it, modify it and then upload it back? Obviously well before Web 2.0 came along. But I digress.

We've all wondered just how accurate the newspapers we read really are, and what biases are present and just how good the quality of reporting is. (At least I hope we all do that...) The Newspaper Calibration Project was never anything more than a bit of whimsy, but since 2007 I've had a chance to perform a calibration of a sort for real, something most of us never have the opportunity for. It all started with an unlikely bout of publicity for Intrepid, where our little fan film was mentioned in passing on the front page of the New York Times, complete with the web address. A huge spike of traffic on the web site alerted us to the impending attention, followed by a flood of inquiries from local and national news. I think by the time we were done, I'd been in at least five papers – and asked “how did you come to be making a movie” a million or so times.

This lasted for a good few weeks.

Looking back, here was a chance to compare what we knew about ourselves with what was reported in a newspaper, with the added benefit that it was a nice little “and finally” kind of story with no obvious reason for any overt biases. Needless to say some papers were more rigorous ensuring info-fidelity than others, but at the poorer end of the scale it got really poor. At it's best, we had two newspapers – The Guardian and the Scotsman – doing what appeared to be a properly serious endeavour. Both of them asked questions, took notes and appeared genuinely interested in how we came to be making what they termed a “tribute film”. The Scotsman in particular, in the form of Jim Gilchrist, impressed me by not only taking notes and recording the conversation, but by repeatedly asking confirmation of details. This is journalism as we should all wish it, and the resulting article was excellent.

Both took at least an hour to wrap up. Then the Guardian, after the main interview was over, had an informal chat with us and lightly cautioned us to be careful of what we said to the tabloids – even if they liked us. And in the event the tabloids did like us. The stories they wrote didn't make fun of us – much – and aside from the usual puns for headlines, they took the tone: hey, isn't this weird and interesting, instead of: hey, check out these sad gits.

All of which has nothing to do with the accuracy of what they wrote. I'm told by Nick that one interview took a whole two minutes on the phone while he was in the middle of something at work. The result from that was that he got muddled with me, my quotes were attributed to him, his quotes were attributed to me, all without any discernible pattern. But wait a moment, didn't I just say that the “interview” was only with Nick? How come I could be quoted if I wasn't even there? Because a huge chunk of it appeared to be lifted from the Guardian wholesale. Oh well, just a small screw up and quite an obvious mistake once it's pointed out. But it gets odder.

I was quoted as saying “It's a rocky road, but we'll get there” in response to a question about finishing the movie. Well yes, I did indeed say those words to the Guardian in response to an entirely different question: “What's the appeal of the future in Star Trek?”, an altogether higher-minded question. This is what it means to be quoted out of context, and when I now hear of some celebrity or public figure complaining about being misquoted, I am much more sympathetic.

There was worse for Nick, however. One of his quotes was pure invention. He has never referred to his wife, Lucy, as “The Missus”; he just doesn't talk like that. I've never heard him deliver a line like that and I've known him almost twenty years. Supposedly she demanded a part and he caved in. Er, I tell you three times no. And such factual errors were almost as an aside; a major plot point disguised as a throwaway line. In passing, that's how it came to be me who founded a Star Trek club.

But what can you do, eh?

It's almost funny that this particular “fact” about me has now been repeated last month in the latest round of publicity for Intrepid, the same paper looking at what they've written before and using it uncorrected. I am content to say that it arises from basic miscommunication, and while perhaps bad enough in a tiny way, it's not the most worrying development. Overall, and I don't just include the tabloids in this, I have seen how the story of the rise of our – and other - Trek fan films has been altered at what is probably a subconscious level by most of the newspaper and television coverage. No matter how often we called it a “fan film” the media in the UK at any rate, lacking the appropriate cultural references and insight, called them “tribute films”. I can understand this, as it needed to be presented to a mainstream audience. Incorrect, but deliberately so. Though STV bizarrely referred to the latest episode as a spoof, which unlike the other errors I've seen actually hurt. But the worst part of the departure from truth was why they thought we were doing it.

Almost universally, they have assumed – or been told bluntly otherwise and ignored it, and I know this because myself and Nick have said so to reporters faces – that ourselves and others had started making Star Trek fan films because Enterprise had been cancelled and there was no longer any official Trek on the small screen. No more Star Trek, so we decided to do it ourselves. This is as wrong as it gets. We were making Intrepid several years before Enterprise was cancelled. Exeter and Hidden Frontier, for just two examples, have been going for much longer yet. So why did they say that?

Simply, because it makes for a more satisfying narrative. Plucky amateurs carrying on when the professionals dropped the ball. We're the underdogs, which the British public likes. And we're just a little bit pathetic, which the British public likes too. Gallant no-hopers taking on Goliath, go-getting losers. Especially because we're harmless. It's no co-incidence that news items are called news stories. We like a story, especially given the sort of characters involved, and stories generally have to make sense, unlike actual news events. It fulfils an expectation of neatness. There should be a beginning, middle and end. And then the media fills in the perceived plot holes...

Making Trek because real Trek stopped is such a potent image that it was taken for granted even though, and I can't emphasis this enough, we repeatedly told them otherwise. And here's where we get into decidedly unreal territory because the drive for a news narrative is enough that, in one of the tabloids, they invented quotes. The Guardian told us why: because the tabloids, in addition to picking up out-of-context quotes from online forums and other newspapers, write up stories with fake quotations that are nevertheless something they think he or she might have said. Think about that for a second. It's literally treating real people as characters, and writing them as a journalist's idea of dialogue.

My experience with newspapers has changed my opinion of them forever. Even though it's been a largely fun and positive experience, I now consider myself wiser and warier. And when I see anything in the news, on TV or in newspapers I now always, always consider that what I'm seeing may not be 100% real.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Epistemology pt 2: The Story of Hired Guns

I don't think I ever truly liked the name Hired Guns, this being one of DMA Design's Amiga games and one of the key things that I usually get hung up on whenever the subject arises.  The history of the project was somewhat troubled from my own perspective, even though I am still stupidly proud of my contribution and occasionally get misty-eyed over it.  Troubled, because of what happened after I spent over a year writing the background, story and characters.  It was going to be my first published story, really published, really genuinely making me a proper author.  This was going to be great!  I iz a writer!

    I sent the final copy to Psygnosis, who were demanding it at as soon as possible.  They then sat on it for a whole eleven months, before rushing to get the booklet printed by an outside company with only three weeks to go before the release date.  At no point did they offer any comment or criticism during that time.  And then the game was released and the first chance I had to see myself in print was tearing the cellophane wrapping from the complimentary copy I'd been sent, lifting the lid and leafing through the booklet.
    Where all the punctuation was missing.
    All of it.

    Worse than that, if possible were the instructions for actually playing the game.  Scott Johnston, the designer and programmer, had written pages of notes and given them to Psygnosis who were to write the instruction booklet with the purpose of saving time while I fretted away at the background material.  Only they'd taken his notes and pasted them in wholesale, entirely unedited.
    My first published story...

    I tend to get protective of Hired Guns these days, to the extent that I imagine that anything I have to say on the subject of the story is definitive by definition.  And where this impacts on Wikipedia, the results have been interesting.  I never created the Hired Guns entry but I have edited it to incorporate the description of the story, the description of which is simultaneously factually accurate, completely wrong and occupies that strange blurry interface between fact and fiction.  So ask what the Hired Guns story is about and the truth gets slightly odd.

    Let's start from the outside, and work our way in.

    On the packaging, the box which contains the disks and the booklets, it describes the characters as fighting “mutants” and since the outside packaging is the one that's most familiar to anyone – and easiest to research -  that ought to be definitive.  It's there in plain sight after all, and the packaging is not hard to find on the net as a scanned image.  For Wikipedian purposes, it's as easy and uncontroversial a citation as you could wish to find.

    But it's flat out wrong.

    Inside the box however there's the manuals (which I wrote – this is my background story after all) and the creatures described therein, which the main characters encounter, are not mutants.  They are genetically engineered weapons.  It's not just a piffling quibble over semantics either; why this is important is why the characters are there.

    So far it's just a mismatch of info, someone at Psygnosis got it into their heads that it was all about mutants, or perhaps it was even deliberate because “mutants” made for a better soundbite.  I'll likely never know.  But where it now gets interesting is with Wikipedia's description of the story itself.  Within the game itself, the  mission centres around the task of locating four nuclear warheads “backpack nukes” and blowing the crap out of the place to kill all the beasties.  But this is not what Wikipedia says.   There it tells us that the story is about a hostage rescue which proves to be illusory and is only planted to lure the mercenaries to the planet for a live test of illegal bioengineered weapons.  The whole thing is a trap: the planet is a weapons proving ground.
    But none of that appears in the game.

    So how did such an obviously incorrect description get into the Wikipedia entry in the first place?  Where is the source for such an outrageous assertion?  How did something entirely out of left field  come to be parading itself as “fact”?  This one is rather easier to track down, because it was me who put it there.  So does that mean I'm just proving a well-trodden point about the accuracy of Wikipedia and that the story description is plain invention?  An “aha, gotcha” motive made possible by stunt-editing?  Well it gets a bit blurrier here too.  It really is a genuine description, but of Hired Guns' original plot, before it got hacked to shreds.

    Limitations of memory in the Amiga meant that not everything we'd intended for the game was able to fit in.   As you can guess, it was the story which had to be substantially changed so that it could be described in less memory, with less demands on custom code and graphics; with appropriate amounts of complaining on my part.  I'd even written a large diary entry on that day that was decided (it was 12th Feb 1993) and it was fittingly enough pouring with rain, moulding itself snugly around my black mood.  Even so, there are still fossilised clues to the original story contained within the games dialogue and within the manual.  Hell, some of the dialogue I'd written was there purely to foreshadow the next four games which I'd been sure were in the bag.

    (In fact, as part of the plot I'd even managed to come up with an invention that wasn't realised in the real world until 2007, but that's for another post.)

    I'd written that in Wikipedia with a mixture of devilment and self-righteousness because, at heart, that's what I believe Hired Guns is really about.  That was the plot, that was the story I cared about.  Indeed in those dark nights alone in my flat at 2am, this wasn't a story I was creating but a true story that I was discovering by being an explorer in some vague space of probability, not a writer.  But here's the description from when the entry was created by a user called Imran in 2002 right up to my first edit in 2004:

“The plot is that your band of mercenaries have been picked from intergalactic 'non persons' and wanted criminals, and have been hired to shut down a mutation producing plant on an artificial planet called Graveyard.”

Intergalactic non-persons?  Mutation producing plant?  Artificial planet???  All that came out of nowhere and is completely wrong.  But where it gets interesting for me is that after my correction, no-one has contested it: it is assumed to be the self-correcting mechanism in action.  Perhaps it's just a minor game out of the many thousands out there and no-one cares, or perhaps piracy was so rampant that very few possess the physical manuals to fact-check with.  Maybe no-one really cares, and if that's the case then what does the truth matter?

    In the end, a fact may be more fluid and nebulous than we'd like. Yet the original story as I described it survived intact for the planning of Hired Guns 2, even to the last-moment addition of an extra planet in the manual.  Whatever the finer points of semantics or philosophy, I consider the original story to be the real one.  After five games (yes, I was optimistic) the background elements of the story arc would have come to the fore with a huge payoff. 
    That resolution, so far, has existed only in my mind.  Not on paper.
    And how on Earth could Wikipedia have a citation to that?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Epistemology Pt 1: How I co-founded DMA Design

If anyone from DMA is reading this over breakfast, there's probably coffee on the screen by now.  But yes, I did co-found DMA, at least according to Wikipedia.  I've known about this for a while now and assumed that the fabled self-correcting mechanisms would kick in any moment.  After all, anything I've personally contributed seems to have been edited to a crisp within what feels like milliseconds.  This is the DMA Design who brought us the classic Lemmings and who were unable to prevent the escape into the wild of Grand Theft Auto.  This co-founder isn't merely someone who shares my name either, it's definitely me.  And whilst it's true that I was part of DMA from the beginning, I would describe myself more as a hanger-on who eventually got employed than an actual prime-moving founder.

    It also means that I've now got my own opinion on the accuracy issue which hangs around the world's best known wiki like the summer smell from a landfill.

    The entire truth is more nuanced than I can write down here of course.  I haven't got any scenes in my own history where myself and Dave Jones – the actual founder – sat around in darkened rooms; plotting and scheming with charts and evil laughter as the plan to bring the world's youth to ruination slowly gelled.  (Though I'm sure my memoirs will eventually have a few.)  I knew Dave since the computer club days and was doing freelance graphics for him.  My entry into DMA was literally:
    “Hey Steve, fancy a job?”
    “Yeah, sure.”

Wikipedia's article on DMA, since morphed into Rockstar North (though not seemingly in spirit) has a reference to MobyGames where my co-foundery was seemingly initiated.  They are themselves busy crowdsourcing a catalogue of everyone who's ever worked in the computer games industry, apparently based on the credits in the games themselves.  For a while I was even split into two people under Steve and Steven.  In my entry there's a small but incomplete list of games with which I had some hand in, but also mysteriously a title which I had nothing to do with, dated 2000 or three years after I left the industry.  So far just a mistake, I presume, and normally that's not a big deal.  The tax office once mistakenly thought I had two jobs simultaneously and nonsense like that, if they'd known about it, couldn't have helped my case.

    So my developer entry in MobyGames has got it mostly wrong, even though they make no mention of co-founding anything, let alone the one time largest independent developer in Europe.  However, the mini-trail at MobyGames ends with the Rockstar North history, not DMA Design, as contributed by a one B.L Stryker and Sciere, of whom I know absolutely nothing although one of them thinks he knew me well enough to call me a  co-founder.  How he came to believe that about me I cannot say.

    I could update Wikipedia directly, if I felt like it, but I have a possibly old-fashioned bar against writing anything about myself.  After all, how do I know I've arrived unless someone else validates it by creating an entry for me?  (Dave Jones is possibly the most famous man I know and he warrants a paragraph.)  In any case, what could I point to as the source of this fact if someone labels it with the famous [citation needed]?  Hey man, I was there, wouldn't appear to cut it since there's nothing for me to point to and say “see?”  That is, unless I have my own web page, in which writing it elsewhere provides a valid reference and I'm free to write whatever I like about it.  Maybe even this blog entry.

    If I have a consultation with myself about it and then edit Wikipedia, does that fall foul of their tut-tutting against original research?  Or could I in fact update the MobyGames entry instead and eventually someone would incorporate that knowledge into Wikipedia.  Knowledge which gets copied elsewhere and then cited as true, with the original source as unknown as the source of the Amazon in Victorian times.  In either case whatever I happen to say about myself is likely to end up in Wikipedia unchallenged because after a few removes it apparently sheds off the layers of personal bias and becomes definitive.

    Such as, perhaps, the little-known one that I really am a co-founder of DMA Design*.

*In my head.   

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Microsoft Surface

A small handful of Fridays ago, myself and my other half (she's taken to calling me 'other half' on her blog) took a trip through to Edinbrugh for part of this years Science Festival at the University of Edinburgh.  Of the two talks which were booked to take place at the intiguingly named department/building Informatics, the first was intended to be the future of computing, but a change in the programme meant the talk was about how the web works.

Most of the subject covered was familiar to me, though the presentation was brightly coloured, fun and definitely for the kids: most lectures on public key cryptography dont, I think, blow up a balloon full of hydrogen to demonstate a one-way function!  But I enjoyed myself and got to be a smartarse a number of times by guessing what was going to happen next.

Possibly the highlight, though not until much later when I'd mulled it over, was a practical demonstration of the weirdness of quantum phenomenon.  A laser was shone through a set of polarising filters.  The weird part is that the light which gets to the other end is brighter going through three filters than it is with two!  (An admittedly crude summary.)

As a sort of apology for not being the talk we expected, though not stated that way, the presenter - Chris Bishop of Microsoft Research - had one of the new Surfaces.  It's essentially a real world version of the computer display used by Ripley and the rest of the Marines in Aliens, where you can move objects and generally interact with it by touch.  (And as seen in countless movies since.)

I managed to get a quick play with it after the talk, jabbing it and making the demonstation picture ripple like water wherever I touched it.  Not quite the thrill of pressing down on a schematic of an atmosphere processing facility and declaring that the aliens are getting through the access ducts here, here and here, but pretty cool regardless.

Not that I'll be after one anytime soon, at apparently £7,000.  I wonder if they'd loan me one for use as a prop...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Enchanted Picture

I haven't posted anything for a while, so here's a photo I took last year on a visit to the Enchanted Forest.
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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Intrepid Release Day

Release day 2007, that is.

Courtesy of Jo, here's a photo taken on the evening on the release of Heavy Lies the Crown.  The afternoon was a rather fraught one, spent with Nick grappling with rendering a recalcitrant movie that didn't want to be rendered.  A month or so earlier I'd converted all the sequences to Quicktime because my laptop didn't play nice with the MJPEG avis that I'd been using all this time.  Rendering took an hour and we were running short of time to make the midnight deadline, inlcuding uploading for Micheal to place them on the servers.  David's final theme hadn't arrived, so we agreed to use one of the trailer tracks in its place.

The IM was silent.  Ten minutes.  Fifteen minutes.  And just as I was about to hit the button for the final output, David popped up with a message saying that the theme was ready to download.  Hastily placed in the edit and then an hours rendering, then an hours uploading and four and a half years of effort was at at end.

I felt decidedly odd at that point.

What would everyone think?  Would they like it?  Would they hate it?  So Nick went home and I went for a few drinks with Jo, who took the picture.  As far as I know it's the only photo we have from release Day.  The hat and TV were added by the camera phone she used.

I'm still not sure what my expression means!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Intrepid Update

This is mostly an Intrepid status update.  The Stone Unturned only needs a few pickup shots to be filmed for the shooting to be complete.  In the meantime, I'm now officially doing the editing.  To that end, I've been piecing it together scene by scene and have now got a rough for the first third of it.  It's been going together a lot better than Wheres There's a Sea did, something helped by the fact that there's fewer effects to worry about.  And also probably, possibly, because I'm improving as a director.  (At least that's what I'd like to think!)

To begin with, way back at the start of this moviemaking thing, I'd only be thinking about whatever scene we'd be filming on the day, with all kinds of practical issues to think about such as the noise the fridge was making and how much of the ironing board would be in shot: filming is easier when it's not in a kitchen.

Paradoxically, it also seems to help when there's less coverage to choose from: one bridge scene in Heavy Lies the Crown saw me ending the day with over thirty takes from ten angles.  Now there's fewer (much fewer!) takes but those are chosen better up front.  And by up front I mean five minutes in advance.

I'll have to work on that.

We also rehearse a lot more, which reduces the fluffed lines, though not to the extent that the blooper reel can be consigned to history just yet.

The other Intrepid items marked as 'current' in my brain are the Sisters Audio drama and Bit Patterns, which has been on the go for quite some time.  Sisters hasn't begun production yet, there being a character issue to sort out.  One of them has a lot of backstory and the timeline doesn't quite work out.  In any case I promised at the start that I'd write it and then be hands-off, which so far I'm managing to do with an attendand reduction in stress.

My script for Bit Patterns is weighing in at 56 pages and now I've got to figure out how to wrap up the various threads, in addition to completely replacing one character with another.  Why I'm doing that is the unexpected unavailability of the actor who was playing him.  A character who was right at the heart of the A and the B plot and tying the two halves together.

Well, I guess it's a challenge.

The name Bit Patterns is actually one that I recycled from a novel idea I had back in the nineties, but which never really got further than a couple of pages of notes.  The original title for that was The MoirĂ© Effect, and was to have been a story about an AI researcher who dies in an accident.  The computer system he was working on is then apparently haunted. Genuine AI?  An actual haunting, or is the whole thing some kind of psychological experiment?  This was in the day of PCs maxing out at 100 MHz and were still pretty mysterious to the public at large.  Not sure how I'd approach it today, since any mysterious message coming through the computer is either email spam, Twitter spam, IM spam, miscellaneous spam or a phishing scam.

Bit Patterns for Intrepid is an entirely different story.  All that's made it online so far is that it involves two long range probes which vanished in mysterious circumstances and that - again - it proves that the Merchant Service and Starfleet are best when they work together.  I think I've also managed to get in some proper scientific terminology and methodology, something I feel strongly about given that I list astronomy amongst my nerdish passions.  (There was a TV mini-series a few years ago called Supernova which kicked off with some of the most stupid nonsensical "scientific" dialogue I'd ever heard in something intended to be serious.)

Also there's characters and a story.  Important to include that stuff.

Further updates as events warrant!