Friday, 30 December 2011

2011 In Metal

My top 10
1. Aenaon - Cendres Et Sang
2. The Atlas Moth - An Ache For The Distance
3. Fen - Epoch
4. Looking Glass - III
5. 40 Watt Sun - The Inside Room
6. Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events
7. Amebix - Sonic Mass
8. Mastodon - The Hunter
9. Floating Me - Floating Me
10. The Gates Of Slumber - The Wretch

The best of the rest
Wolverine - Communication Lost
Textures - Dualism
Azarath - Blasphemer's Malediction
Infestus - E x | I s t
Sorgeldom - ...From Outer Intelligences
Machine Head - Unto The Locust
Negative Plane - Stained Glass Revelations
Rwake - Rest
Symphony X - Iconoclast
Appearance Of Nothing - All Gods Are Gone
Hammers Of Misfortune - 17th Street
Comorant - Dwellings
Yob - Atma
Wizard Smoke - The Speed Of Smoke
Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions

My favourite EPs
Cynic - Carbon Based Anatomy
Giant Squid - Cenotes
Blotted Science - The Animation Of Entomology

The only redeeming thing about Lulu

Friday, 23 December 2011

How Religion Poisons Morality

I recently came across a tweet by Harun Yahya, proclaiming "Until the morality of Islam dominates the world we will not sleep a wink." The question I had was why anyone would actually wish for that. Harun responded with the good virtues of Islamic values and kindly asked me to learn more about Islam. To which I highlighted some of the problems I saw in the application of Islamic values, and asked of values that I consider to be universal - such as equality for women and freedom of expression.

The question of what Islamic morality holds to is, for a large part, a non sequitur. If it is good because it is holy, then it shouldn't matter whether or not that's appealing to me. But if it's good because it embodies basic human dignities (to which I am very sceptical of), then why not aspire to the basic human dignities instead?

With any of the religious attempts to own morality, the same thing happens. The good of the religion, it is touted, is an appeal to the goodness of the values in themselves. One could, with enough linguistic dexterity, that inself can be directly attributed to the goodness of the divine source, but we're still left with the problem of trying to see the goodness of the values of the divine source in values that we would normally consider good anyway.

Any aspiration to the imposition of religiously-defined morality has to face up to the question of just why it is we need religion for. It's not discarding the baby with the bathwater to deny religious value, but to see religious value for what it is: an attempt to codify the good.

If a value is worth having, it's worth having irrespective of the source. There would be no need to call it Christian values, or Islamic values, they would be just good values. Religious attribution is an unfair attempt to claim ownership of something it has no right to do. And to make matters worse, by codifying the good, it also carries along that which is not good; not least an absurdly false metaphysics and an undying desire to yield authority to those who conflate their own ego with the powers of the divine.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Digital Solipsism: A Skyrim Review

There's a lot one could say about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and a lot of it good. Bottom line about the game, if you enjoyed its predecessor Oblivion, and Fallout 3 then this game should similarly peak your interest. Given I easily racked up 200 hours on both games, and the 72 hours I've so far dedicated to exploring the land of Skyrim, I can safely say that the game has more been worth the Australian retail price I paid for it.

Perhaps it's that I've effectively played this game twice before, or that I have a dread about encountering more giant spiders, that the time I've spent playing is more to do with the sheer scale of the game than anything else. There is a lot to do, though each "quest" seems to follow the same pattern. Someone gives you a quest, you run off halfway around the map to discover the new place, clear the dungeon, then return to get a reward. By the time I've done this for the 50th time (marked with a Steam achievement) the whole process was getting tiresome.

In Oblivion, the gradual progression in the storyline was marked by gates opening all over the world. In Skyrim, it's marked by dragon attacks. This gets a little tiresome for a couple of reasons. First is that it can get in the way of any actual quest being undertaken. Unlike Oblivion gates, dragons can't be ignored. Any kill of a dragon comes with very valuable and very heavy dragon bone, which meant for me needing to stop whatever it was I was doing in order to take the dragon bone back to where I could store it. Second is that the dragon souls that are absorbed accumulate at a faster rate than what they can be spent on. Much of my recent gameplay has been solely in search of shouts to spend the dragon souls on.

The leveling system has been tweaked slightly, taking away the annoying (or useful, depending on how you played Oblivion) task of managing how you progressed your character. I'm now levelling up from selling all the loot that pours out of Skyrim dungeons - speech is my 3rd or 4th highest skill without even trying, meanwhile Destruction magic is barely level 50 despite how often I use fire spells. Lockpicking is similarly a skill that goes up very fast out of pure necessity, so it does seem a little odd that more difficult enemies are generated on the basis of being better with one's tongue and fingers. Skillpoints do help with that.

It does seem odd, as well, that the shopkeepers will turn their nose up at the very idea of something being stolen, yet you're largely dealing with stolen goods anyway - it's just that you've normally killed a bunch of people first. It seemed strange in Oblivion, and still seems strange now, that shopkeepers can tell the difference between bought, stolen, looted off a dead corpse, or taken from a dungeon. The difference, it seems, is a marker in my inventory, which could be avoided by not labelling stolen goods as stolen. Can people really distinguish between which skooma I found in someone's house and in a bandit-filled cave?

Before I go on too long, I should probably mention the quests. Like any sandbox game, there's more than enough to keep you busy beyond the main storyline. My list of unfinished miscellaneous quests is quite high, as is the various quests from the various factions. In the 72 hours I haven't decided which side to take in the war (given that the main quest has the potential of the world ending, what importance is it over who controls Skyrim?), but as Dragonborn I suppose the events of the civil war can't happen without me. Likewise, I'm sure the end of the world is going to wait until I do enough of the main questline. If a tree falls in Skyrim and you're not around to play an integral role in that event, does it even occur?

It is probably a bit much to ask for; a world where events unfold over time isn't in the spirit of sandbox gaming nor in the economic interests of the developers. While it would be cool if the thieve's guild didn't just sit there waiting for me to restore it to their glory, I'm not sure whether or not they'd really put up with the amount of time I've spent at the mage's college. Would they be so understanding that I'm fighting a dragon in Riverwood while they're sitting in the sewers pining for the good ol' days?

That's the problem with the sandbox experience. As much as it's trying to create an immersive world, it can't create a world that's alive - only one that's alive so far as you interact with it - a sort of digital solipsism. Yet how to progress? With so many things to do and possible means of exploration, at times the question of what to do next is a vexing one. Have I neglected the main quest for too long? Is it finally time to go visit a Daedric shrine? What's actually in this blank part of my map?

In this, as much as anything else, Steam achievements play a role. They're meaningless rewards, but they are a good indicator of what to do. And when I only need to read 2 more skill books to get an achievement, it seems as good a reason as any to dive into more dungeons in search of what I've mostly done anyway. Need 4 more places to get the explorer achievement? Time to go exploring. It's probably a lot of stuff that I'd do anyway, only giving a reason to go through with it. As I race towards level 50 I'm trying to make sure at least one skill gets to level 100.

With so much to do, but limited gameplay mechanics in which to do it, a large part of the sandbox experience is quite tedious. I found this same problem with GTA IV, where by the end I was just doing the story so I could have a sense of completion. I'm not quite there yet with Skyrim, even after 72 hours, because the world is still exciting and interesting - even if at times it gets bogged down by repetitious gameplay.

Friday, 16 December 2011


"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." - Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, 1 December 2011


It's Australian summer, once again, meaning a new season of cricket. And a new season of cricket means once again it's time for us to analyse, praise, and criticise, the players and events of our beloved sport.

When we talk of a bowler bowling too many bad balls, or a batsmen playing a good shot, just what does that mean? It seems a fairly odd question to ask. A bad ball is one that allows the batsman an easy scoring shot or is unlikely to take a wicket, or a good shot is a deliberate stroke that is able to beat the field as it is set. A bad ball can still take a wicket (a long hop that gets lofted to the fielder) or a bad stroke can still get runs (a french cut), but it's clear the words actually mean something.

When it comes to cricket, or any other sport, we can have this conversation about the IS and OUGHT of the game without so much as an eyebrow raised. People can and do disagree about the quality of players, balls, strokes, tactics, etc. Yet there's no real problem with this conversation turning into one about prescriptive nihilism, or that the objective description of cricket is proof of God's existence.

Perhaps if we examined cricket closely enough, any sense to talk about it would be futile. That there are no good or bad balls, or that good and bad are merely human contructs imposed onto the game. Or that there's only one's subjective opinion about what constitutes a good or bad ball, a ball dispatched to the boundary and one that traps the batsman are merely expressions of our preference. Or that objectivity of cricket would have to be imposed onto our material universe, and thus would qualify as a miracle.

Or we could go further and ask what it means to be good. Can a ball really be a bad one if it leads to a wicket? Perhaps we should be consequentialist about cricket. A run is a run, a dot ball is a dot ball, a wicket is a wicket. A long hop dispatched to a fielder would be a good ball, while an inside edge for four is a good shot. Would cricket fans go for such a view?

Perhaps consequentialism is not for them, and instead they are virtue cricketers. A spell of bowling that fails to yield a wicket can be good if the ball is put in a place that would more likely yield a wicket than a spell that yields a wicket but was there to be punished. An inside edge for four would be a bad shot while a defensive stroke would not be, even though one puts runs on the board.

It would seem absurd to see an argument like:
  1. If God doesn't exist, then objective cricket values do not exist.
  2. Objective cricket values exist.

  3. Therefore, God exists
while giving a justification along the lines of knowing that playing a hook shot to a yorker on the stumps is really the wrong shot to play. And it would seem absurd to say that two people disagreeing about whether an inside edge to the boundary is a good shot would mean both are right because it's true for one person and not true for the other person. Or that there's no such thing as a good or bad field setting, there's just field settings.

There may be reason, at times, to take a step back and reflect on how it is we describe cricket. To try to see the game from different perspectives and look to concepts as a means of resolving disagreements. But at the end of the day, it's still cricket we are talking about. Abstract it too much, bury it in idealism, or try to dissolve any grounds for disagreement, and, well, it's just not cricket anymore.