What’s so bad?

We humans love a good bit of misery. We note when bad luck befalls us, chronicle our ailments and often consider ourselves to be having a harder-than-average time of it all. The news and media constantly bombard us with stories of injustice, crime, health scares and why we are basically the worst country imaginable in every conceivable respect, and one only needs to spend a few minutes on any internet forum or discussion centre to find a thousand new and innovative reasons as to why you, and everything you stand for, is totally horrible and stupid and deserves to die. And/or that any faith in humanity you have is entirely misplaced.

However, optimists across the globe have pointed out that if the human race was actually as evil, despicable or otherwise useless a barrel of skunks as it often appears, we probably wouldn’t actually be around; or, at the very least, there certainly is nice and good stuff in this world that we humans are responsible for. So why are we so fixated on the bad? Why our attraction to misfortune? Are we all secretly schadenfreude junkies?

Part of the reason is of course traceable back to the simple fact that we humans are decidedly imperfect creatures, and that there is an awful lot of bad stuff in this world; these scare stories have to come from somewhere, after all. Take the two things that I feel most strongly about; climate change and slavery. In the two centuries since the industrial revolution, we have inflicted some catastrophic damage on our planet in the frankly rather shallow pursuit of profit and material wealth that always seem so far away; not only has this left vast scars of human neglect on many parts of our earth, but the constant pumping of pollutants into our atmosphere has sorely depleted our precious, irredeemable natural resources and is currently in the process of royally screwing with our global climate; it may be centuries before the turmoil calms down, and that’s assuming we ever manage to get our act together at all. On the other front, there are currently more slaves in existence today than at any other point in history (27 million, or roughly the combined population of Australia and New Zealand), a horrifying tribute to the sheer ruthlessness and disrespect of their fellow man of some people. The going rate of a slave today is 500 times less than it was in the days before William Wilberforce ended the Atlantic slave trade, at just $90, and this website allows you to calculate approximately how many slaves worldwide work to maintain your lifestyle. I got 40. I felt kinda sick.

However, as previously said there is also a fairly large quantity of awesome stuff in this world, so why doesn’t this seem to go as well-documented and studied as what’s going wrong. We never hear, for example, that X government department was really efficiently run this year, or that our road system is, on average, one of the best and safest in the world; it’s only ever the horror stories that get out.

Maybe it’s that we actively take pleasure in such pain; that we really do crave schadenfreude, or at the very least that negative feeling has a large emotional connotation. We use such emotion constantly in other situations after all; many films exploit or explore the world of the dark and horrifying in order to get under our skin and elicit a powerful emotional response, and music is often ‘designed’ to do the same thing. The emotions of hatred, of horror,  of loss, even fear, all elicit some primal response within us, and can create reciprocating emotions of catharsis, the sense of realisation and acceptance combined with a sense of purification of the soul. This emotion was the most sought-after feature of classical Greek tragedy, and required great influxes of negative emotion for it to work (hence why most theatre displays incorporated comedic satyrs to break the sheer monotony of depression); maybe we seek this sense of destructive satisfaction in our everyday lives too, revelling in the horror of the world because it makes us, in an almost perverse way, feel better about the world. And hey; I like a good mope now and again as much as the next man.

But to me, this isn’t the real reason, if only because it overlooks the most simple explanation; that bad stuff is interesting because it stands out. Humans are, in a surprising number of ways, like magpies, and we always get drawn to everything outside the norm. If it’s new, it’s unusual, so we find it intriguing and want to hear about it. Nowadays, we live a very sheltered existence in which an awful lot of stuff goes right for us, and the majority of experiences of life and other people fall into the decidedly ‘meh, OK’ category. Rarely are you ecstatic about the friendliness of the staff in your local newsagents, as most such people tend to be not much more than a means to the end; they are efficient and not horrible about allowing you to purchase something, as it should be. This is so commonplace, purely by virtue of being good business practice, that this is considered the norm, and it’s not as if there’s much they can do to elevate the experience and make it particularly enjoyable for you- but it’s far easier for them to be surly and unhelpful, making you note not to visit that shop again. This applies in countless other ways of life; the strictness of our national driving test means that the majority of people on any given road are going to behave in a predictable, safe fashion, meaning the guy who almost kills you pulling out onto the motorway sticks in your mind as an example of how standards are falling everywhere and the roads are hideously unsafe.

To me, the real proof of this theory is that we are capable of focusing on the good things in life too; when they too are somewhat dramatic and unusual. During last summer’s Olympics, an event that is unlikely to occur in Britain again in my lifetime, the news recorded various athletes’ medal success and the general awesomeness of the event every evening and everyone seemed positively taken aback by how great the event was and how much everyone had got behind it; it was genuinely touching to see people enjoying themselves so much. But in our current society, always striving to improve itself, finding examples of things hitting well below par is far easier than finding stuff acting above and beyond the call of awesome.

Although admittedly being happy the whole time would be kinda tiring. And impractical

Goodwill to all men

NOTE: This post was meant to go up on Christmas Eve, but WordPress clearly broke on me so apparently you get it now instead- sorry. Ah well, might as well put it up anyway…

 

Ah, Christmas; such an interesting time of year. The season of plenty, the season of spending too much, the season of eating too much, the season of decisions we later regret and those moments we always remember. The season where some families will go without food to keep the magic alive for their children, the season where some new feuds are born but old ones are set aside, and the season where goodwill to all men (and women) becomes a key focus of our attention.

When I was young, I always had a problem with this. I had similar issues with Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day even more so (I don’t know how I came to know that it was an entirely commercial invention, but there you go), and whilst Christmas was awesome enough that I wasn’t going to ruin it by seasonal complaints, one thing always bugged me about ‘the season of goodwill’. Namely, why can’t we just be nice to each other all the time, rather than just for a few weeks of the year?

A cynic might say we get all the goodwill out of our systems over Christmas in preparation for being miserable bastards for the rest of the year, but cynicism is unhealthy and in any case, I try to keep it out of my bloggy adventures. Plus, we are capable of doing nice stuff for the rest of the year, even if we don’t do so much as some might think we should, and humans never cease to be awesome beings when they put their mind to it. No, it’s not that we give up being nice for the rest of the year, but more that we are quite clearly eminently able of being more nice but not, seemingly, all the time.

Goodwill to our fellow man is not the only seasonal occurrence that seems more prevalent over the festive period for no obvious reason; many of our Christmas traditions, both old and modern, follow a similar thread. Turkey, for instance; whilst it’s never been Christmas fare in my household for various reasons, I know enough people for whom a turkey dinner plus trimmings is the festive standard to know that these same people never have the bird at any other time of the year (I know you Americans have it on Thanksgiving, but I don’t know enough about how all that works to comment). I saw a comment online a couple of weeks ago about eggnog (another seemingly American-specific thing), and mentioning how this apparently awesome stuff (never tried it myself, so again can’t comment) is never available at any other time of the year. A response soon followed courtesy of a shop worker, who said there’s always a supply of it tucked away somewhere throughout the year in the shop where he worked, but that nobody ever bought it outside of December.

We should remember that there is something of a fine line to tread when we discuss these ideas; there are a lot of things that only occur at Christmas time (the giving of gifts, decorations, the tree and so on) that don’t need any such explanation because they are solely associated with the season. If one were to put tinsel up in June, then you might be thought a bit odd for your apparent celebration of Christmas in midsummer; tinsel is not associated with anything other than festive celebration, so in any other context it’s just weird.  This is particularly true given that tinsel and other such decorations are just that; decorations, with no purpose outside of festive celebration. Similarly, whilst gift-giving is appreciated throughout the rest of year (although it’s best to do so in moderation), going to all the trouble of thinking, deliberating, wrapping secretively and making a big fanfare over it is only associated with special occasions (Christmases or birthdays). Stuff like turkey and eggnog can probably be classified as somewhere in the middle; very much associated with the Christmas period, but still separate from it and capable for being consumed at other times of the year.

The concept of goodwill and being nice to people is a little different; not just something that is possible throughout the rest of the year, but something actively encouraged as being a commendable trait, so the excuse of ‘it’s just a feature of the season’ doesn’t really cut it in this context. Some might say that quite a lot of the happiness exuded at Christmastime is somewhat forced, or at the very least tiring, as anyone who’s looked at the gaunt face between the smiling facade of a Christmas day Mum can tell. Therefore, it could be argued that Christmas good cheer is simply too much work to keep up for the rest of the year, and that if we were forced to keep our smiley faces on we would either snap or collapse in exhaustion before long. Others might say that keeping good cheer confined to one portion of the year makes it that much more fun and special when it comes round each year, but to me the reason is slightly more… mathematical.

Human beings are competitive, ambitious creatures, perpetually seeking to succeed and triumph over the odds. Invariably, this frequently means triumphing over other people too, and this is not a situation that lends itself to being dedicated to being nice to one another; competition and the strive to succeed may be key features behind human and personal success, but they do not lend themselves to being nice to one another. Not infrequently, such competition requires us to deliberately take the not-nice option, as dicking on our competition often provides the best way to compete with them; or at the very least, we sometimes need to be harsh bastards to make sure stuff gets done at all. This concept is known in philosophy as the prisoner’s dilemma, which I should get round to doing a post on one of these days.

However at Christmas time achievement becomes of secondary importance to enjoyment; to spending time with friends and family, and to just enjoying the company of your nearest and dearest. Therefore, comparatively little actually gets done over the Christmas period (at least from an economist’s point of view), and so the advantage presented by mild dickishness to some others for the rest of the year disappears. Everything in life becomes reduced down to a state where being nice to everyone around us best serves our purpose of making our environment a fun, comfortable place to be. At Christmas time, we have no reason to be nasty, and every reason to be nice; and for that reason alone, Christmas is a wonderful thing. Merry Christmas, everybody.

NMEvolution

Music has been called by some the greatest thing the human race has ever done, and at its best it is undoubtedly a profound expression of emotion more poetic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. True, done badly it can sound like a trapped cat in a box of staplers falling down a staircase, but let’s not get hung up on details here- music is awesome.

However, music as we know it has only really existed for around a century or so, and many of the developments in music’s  history that have shaped it into the tour de force that it is in modern culture are in direct parallel to human history. As such, the history of our development as a race and the development of music run closely alongside one another, so I thought I might attempt a set of edited highlights of the former (well, western history at least) by way of an exploration of the latter.

Exactly how and when the various instruments as we know them were invented and developed into what they currently are is largely irrelevant (mostly since I don’t actually know and don’t have the time to research all of them), but historically they fell into one of two classes. The first could be loosely dubbed ‘noble’ instruments- stuff like the piano, clarinet or cello, which were (and are) hugely expensive to make, required a significant level of skill to do so, and were generally played for and by the rich upper classes in vast orchestras, playing centuries-old music written by the very few men with the both the riches, social status and talent to compose them. On the other hand, we have the less historically significant, but just as important, ‘common’ instruments, such as the recorder and the ancestors of the acoustic guitar. These were a lot cheaper to make and thus more available to (although certainly far from widespread among) the poorer echelons of society, and it was on these instruments that tunes were passed down from generation to generation, accompanying traditional folk dances and the like; the kind of people who played such instruments very rarely had the time to spare to really write anything new for them, and certainly stood no chance of making a living out of them. And, for many centuries, that was it- what you played and what you listened to, if you did so at all, depended on who you were born as.

However, during the great socioeconomic upheaval and levelling that accompanied the 19th century industrial revolution, music began to penetrate society in new ways. The growing middle and upper-middle classes quickly adopted the piano as a respectable ‘front room’ instrument for their daughters to learn, and sheet music was rapidly becoming both available and cheap for the masses. As such, music began to become an accessible activity for far larger swathes of the population and concert attendances swelled. This was the Romantic era of music composition, with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms rising to prominence, and the size of an orchestra grew considerably to its modern size of four thousand violinists, two oboes and a bored drummer (I may be a little out in my numbers here) as they sought to add some new experimentation to their music. This experimentation with classical orchestral forms was continued through the turn of the century by a succession of orchestral composers, but this period also saw music head in a new and violently different direction; jazz.

Jazz was the quintessential product of the United States’ famous motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One), being as it was the result of a mixing of immigrant US cultures. Jazz originated amongst America’s black community, many of whom were descendants of imported slaves or even former slaves themselves, and was the result of traditional African music blending with that of their forcibly-adopted land. Whilst many black people were heavily discriminated against when it came to finding work, they found they could forge a living in the entertainment industry, in seedier venues like bars and brothels. First finding its feet in the irregular, flowing rhythms of ragtime music, the music of the deep south moved onto the more discordant patterns of blues in the early 20th century before finally incorporating a swinging, syncopated rhythm and an innovative sentiment of improvisation to invent jazz proper.

Jazz quickly spread like wildfire across the underground performing circuit, but it wouldn’t force its way into popular culture until the introduction of prohibition in the USA. From 1920 all the way up until the Presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt (whose dropping of the bill is a story in and of itself) the US government banned the consumption of alcohol, which (as was to be expected, in all honesty) simply forced the practice underground. Dozens of illegal speakeasies (venues of drinking, entertainment and prostitution usually run by the mob) sprung up in every district of every major American city, and they were frequented by everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the police officers who were supposed to be closing them down. And in these venues, jazz flourished. Suddenly, everyone knew about jazz- it was a fresh, new sound to everyone’s ears, something that stuck in the head and, because of its ‘common’, underground connotations, quickly became the music of the people. Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (a true pioneer of the genre) became the first celebrity musicians, and the way the music’s feel resonated with the happy, prosperous feeling surrounding the economic good times of the 1920s lead that decade to be dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’.

Countless things allowed jazz and other, successive generations to spread around the world- the invention of the gramophone further enhanced the public access to music, as did the new cultural phenomenon of the cinema and even the Second World War, which allowed for truly international spread. By the end of the war, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and all other derivatives had spread from their mainly deep south origins across the globe, blazing a trail for all other forms of popular music to follow in its wake. And, come the 50s, they did so in truly spectacular style… but I think that’ll have to wait until next time.

Aging

OK, I know it was a while ago, but who watched Felix Baumgartner’s jump? If you haven’t seen it, then you seriously missed out; the sheer spectacle of the occasion was truly amazing, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We’re fairly used to seeing skydives from aeroplanes, but usually we only see either a long distance shot, jumper’s-eye-view, or a view from the plane showing them being whisked away half a second after jumping. Baumgartner’s feat was… something else, the two images available for the actual jump being direct, static views of a totally vertical fall. Plus, they were so angled to give a sense of the awesome scope of the occasion; one showed directly down to earth below, showing the swirling clouds and the shape of the land, whilst the other shot gave a beautiful demonstration of the earth’s curvature. The height he was at made the whole thing particularly striking; shots from the International Space Station and the moon have showed the earth from further away, but Baumgartner’s unique height made everything seem big enough to be real, yet small enough to be terrifying. And then there was the drop itself; a gentle lean forward from the Austrian, followed by what can only be described as a plummet. You could visibly see the lack of air resistance, so fast was he accelerating compared to our other images of skydivers. The whole business was awe-inspiring. Felix Baumgartner, you sir have some serious balls.

However, I bring this story up not because of the event itself, nor the insane amount of media coverage it received, nor even the internet’s typically entertaining reaction to the whole business (this was probably my favourite). No, the thing that really caught my eye was a little something about Baumgartner himself; namely, that the man who holds the world records for highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight, fastest unassisted speed and second longest freefall ever will be forty-four years old in April.

At his age, he would be ineligible for entry into the British Armed Forces, is closer to collecting his pension than university, and has already experienced more than half his total expected time on this earth. Most men his age are in the process of settling down, finding their place in some management company and getting slightly less annoyed at being passed over for promotion by some youngster with a degree and four boatloads of hopelessly naive enthusiasm. They’re in the line for learning how to relax, taking up golf, being put onto diet plans by their wives and going to improving exhibitions of obscure artists. They are generally not throwing themselves out of balloons 39 kilometres above the surface of the earth, even if they were fit and mobile enough to get inside the capsule with half a gigatonne of sensors and pressure suit (I may be exaggerating slightly).

Baumgartner’s feats for a man of his age (he was also the first man to skydive across the English channel, and holds a hotly disputed record for lowest BASE jump ever) are not rare ones without reason. Human beings are, by their very nature, lazy (more on that another time) and tend to favour the simple, homely life rather one that demands such a high-octane, highly stressful thrill ride of a life experience. This tendency towards laziness also makes us grow naturally more and more unfit as time goes by, our bodies slowly using the ability our boundlessly enthusiastic childish bodies had for scampering up trees and chasing one another, making such seriously impressive physical achievements rare.

And then there’s the activity itself; skydiving, and even more so BASE jumping, is also a dangerous, injury-prone sport, and as such it is rare to find regular practitioners of Baumgartner’s age and experience who have not suffered some kind of reality-checking accident leaving them either injured, scared or, in some cases, dead. Finally, we must consider the fact that there are very few people rich enough and brave enough to give such an expensive, exhilarating hobby as skydiving a serious go, and even less with both the clout, nous, ambition and ability to get a project such as Red Bull Stratos off the ground. And we must also remember that one has to overcome the claustrophobic, restrictive experience of doing the jump in a heavy pressure suit; even Baumgartner had to get help from a sports psychologist to get over his claustrophobia caused by being in the suit.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Red Bull Stratos was a culmination of years of effort in a single minded pursuit of a goal, and that required a level of experience in both skydiving and life in general that simply couldn’t be achieved by anyone younger than middle age- the majority of younger, perhaps even more ambitious, skydivers simply could not have got the whole thing done. And we might think that the majority of middle-aged people don’t achieve great things, but then again in the grand scheme of things the majority of everyone don’t end up getting most of the developed world watching them of an evening. Admittedly, the majority of those who do end up doing the most extraordinary physical things are under 35, but there’s always room for an exceptional human to change that archetype. And anyway; look at the list of Nobel Prize winners and certified geniuses on our earth, our leaders and heroes. Many of them have turned their middle age into something truly amazing, and if their field happens to be quantum entanglement rather than BASE jumping then so be it; they can still be extraordinary people.

I don’t really know what the point of this post was, or exactly what conclusion I was trying to draw from it; it basically started off because I thought Felix Baumgartner was a pretty awesome guy, and I happened to notice he was older than I thought he would be. So I suppose it would be best to leave you with a fact and a quote from his jump. Fact: When he jumped, his heart rate was measured as being lower than the average resting (ie lying down doing nothing and not wetting yourself in pants-shitting terror) heart rate of a normal human, so clearly the guy is cool and relaxed to a degree beyond human imagining. Quote: “Sometimes you have to be really high to see how small you really are”.

Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.