One Foot In Front Of The Other

According to many, the thing that really sets human beings apart from the rest of the natural world is our mastery of locomotion; the ability to move faster, further and with heavier loads than any other creature typically does (never mind that our historical method of doing this was strapping several other animals to a large heap of wood and nails) across every medium our planet has to throw at us; land, sky, sea, snow, whatever. Nowadays, this concept has become associated with our endeavours in powered transport (cars, aeroplanes and such), but the story of human locomotion begins with a far more humble method of getting about that I shall dedicate today’s post to; walking.

It is thought that the first walkers were creatures that roughly approximate to our modern-day crustaceans; the early arthropods. In the early days of multicellular life on earth, these creatures ruled the seas (where all life had thus far been based) and fossils of the time show a wide variety of weird and wonderful creatures. The trilobites that one can nowadays buy as tourist souvenirs in Morocco are but one example; the top predators of the time were massive things, measuring several metres in length with giant teeth and layers of armour plate. All had bony exoskeletons, like the modern insects that are their descendants, bar a few small fish-like creatures a few millimetres in length who had developed the first backbones; in time, the descendants of these creatures would come to dominate life on earth. Since it was faster and allowed a greater range of motion, most early arthropods swam to get about; but others, like the metre-long Brontoscorpio (basically a giant underwater scorpion) preferred the slightly slower, but more efficient, idea of walking about on the seabed. Here, food was relatively plentiful in the form of small ‘grazers’ and attempting to push oneself through the water was wasteful of energy compared to trundling along the bottom. However, a new advantage also presented itself before too long; these creatures were able to cross land over short distances to reach prey- by coincidence, their primitive ‘lungs’ (that collected dissolved oxygen from water in much the same fashion as modern fish gills, but with a less fragile structure) worked just as well at harvesting oxygen from air as water, enabling them to survive on land. As plant life began to venture out onto land to better gain access to the air and light needed to survive, so the vertebrates (in the form of early amphibians) and arthropods began to follow the food, until the land was well and truly colonised by walking life forms.

Underwater, walking was significantly easier than on land; water is a far more dense fluid than air (hence why we can swim in the former but not the latter), and the increased buoyancy this offered meant that early walkers’ legs did not have to support so much of their body’s weight as they would do on land. This made it easier for them to develop the basic walking mechanic; one foot (or whatever you call the end of a scorpion’s leg) is pressed against the ground, before being held stiff and solid as the rest of the body is rotated around it’s joint, moving the creature as a whole forward slightly as it pivots. In almost all invertebrates, and early vertebrates, the creature’s legs are positioned at the side of the body, meaning that as the creature walks they tend to swing from side to side. Invertebrates typically partially counter this problem by having a lot of legs and stepping them in such an order to help them travel in a constant direction, and by having multi-jointed legs that can flex and translate the lateral components of motion into more forward-directed movement, preventing them from swinging from side to side. However, this doesn’t work so well at high speed when the sole priority is speed of movement of one’s feet, which is why most reconstructions of the movement of vertebrates circa 300 million years ago (with just four single-jointed legs stuck out to the side of the body) tends to show their body swinging dramatically from side to side, spine twisting this way and that.  This all changed with the coming of the dinosaurs, whose revolutionary evolutionary advantage was a change in construction of the hip that allowed their legs to point underneath the body, rather than sticking out at the side. Now, the pivoting action of the leg produces motion in the vertical, rather than horizontal direction, so no more spine-twisting mayhem. This makes travelling quickly easier and allows the upper body to be kept in a more stable position, good for striking at fleeing prey, as well as being more energy efficient. Such an evolutionary advantage would soon prove so significant that, during the late Triassic period, it allowed dinosaurs to completely take over from the mammal-like reptiles who had previously dominated the world. It would take more than 150 million years, a hell of a lot of evolution and a frickin’ asteroid to finally let these creatures’ descendants, in the form of mammals, finally prevail over the dinosaurs (by which time they had discovered the whole ‘legs pointing down’ trick).

When humankind were first trying to develop walking robots in the mid-twentieth century, the mechanics of the process were poorly understood, and there are a great many funny videos of prototype sets of legs completely failing. These designers had been operating under the idea that the role of the legs when walking was not just to keep a body standing up, but also to propel them forward, each leg pulling on the rest of the body when placed in front. However, after a careful study of new slow-motion footage of bipedal motion, it was realised that this was not the case at all, and we instead have gravity to thank for pushing us forward. When we walk, we actually lean over our frontmost foot, in effect falling over it before sticking our other leg out to catch ourselves, hence why we tend to go face to floor if the other leg gets caught or stuck. Our legs only really serve to keep us off the ground, pushing us upwards so we don’t actually fall over, and our leg muscles’ function here is to simply put each foot in front of the other (OK, so your calves might give you a bit of an extra flick but it’s not the key thing). When we run or climb, our motion changes; our legs bend, before our quadriceps extend them quickly, throwing us forward. Here we lean forward still further, but this is so that the motion of our quads is directed in the forward, rather than upward direction. This form of motion is less energy efficient, but covers more ground. This is the method by which we run, but does not define running itself; running is simply defined as the speed at which every step incorporates a bit of time where both feet are off the ground. Things get a little more complicated when we introduce more legs to the equation; so for four legged animals, such as horses, there are four footspeeds. When walking there are always three feet on the ground at any one time, when trotting there are always two, when cantering at least one, and when galloping a horse spends the majority of its time with both feet off the ground.

There is one downside to walking as a method of locomotion, however. When blogging about it, there isn’t much of a natural way to end a post.

Call of Duty: Modern Moneymaking

The first person shooter (FPS, or shoot-em-up) genre is the biggest and most profitable in the gaming industry, which is itself now (globally) the biggest entertainment industry on earth. Every year Activision pay off their expenditure for the next decade by releasing another Call of Duty game, and every so often Battlefield, Medal of Honour and Halo like to join the party to similar financial response. Given that many critics have built their name on slagging off such games, and that even the most ardent fans will admit that perhaps only four of the nine CoD games have actually improved on the previous one, this fact seems a trifle odd to my eye (which may have something to do with me being awful at them), and since I cannot apply science to this problem I thought I might retreat to my other old friend; history.

The FPS genre took a while to get going; partly due to the graphical fidelity and processing power required to replicate a decent first-person perspective, it wasn’t until 1992 that Wolfenstein 3D, the game often credited with ‘inventing’ the genre, was released, long after the first four home console generations had passed. However, the genre had existed after a fashion before then; a simple game called Maze War, akin to Pac Man from a rudimentary 3D perspective and with guns, is considered an early example and was released as far back as 1974. Other, similar games, including the space simulator Spasim (the same thing but in space) and tank simulator Battlezone (very slightly different and with tanks) were released over the next decade. All, as well as most subsequent efforts pre-Wolfenstein, used a tile-based movement system, whereby one’s movement was restricted to moving from one square to the next, since this was pretty much all that was possible with contemporary technology.

Further advances dabbled in elements of multiplayer, and introduced such features as texture mapping to enhance graphical fidelity, but Wolfenstein’s great success lay in its gameplay format. Gone was any tile-based or otherwise restrictive movement, and in its place were maps that one was free to move around in all directions and orientations in two dimensions. It also incorporated a health meter (and healing pickups), depleting ammo and interchangeable weapons, all of which would become mainstays of the genre over the next few years. Despite its controversial use of Nazi iconography (because the bad guys were Nazis, rather than the developers fascists), the game was wildly successful; at least for the short time before the same company, id software, released Doom. Doom used a similar interface as Wolfenstein, had better graphics and a more detailed 3D environment, but its real success lay in its release format; the first third of the game was distributed for free, encouraging gamers to experience all that the game had to offer before gladly paying for the remainder. With it’s consolidation and enhancement of Wolfenstein’s format and its adoption of a now-ubiquitous multiplayer mode, Doom is often considered the most influential FPS of all time, and one of the most important games full stop; its fame is such that versions of the game have been available on almost every major console for the last 20 years.

Over the next few years, many other features that would later become staples of the FPS genre were developed. The Apple Mac, not usually a traditional stronghold for gaming, was the platform for Marathon, which introduced a number of new game modes (including cooperative multiplayer), more complex weapons and placed a heavy emphasis on story as well as gameplay. Star Wars: Dark Forces introduced the ability to crouch for the first time, thus setting the template for today’s FPS pattern of repeatedly hiding behind chest-high walls, and 1995’s Descent changed the graphical playing field by changing from using sprites to represent objects and NPC’s in the gameworld to a 3D system based around polygonal graphics. This technology was one of the many technologies used in Doom’s 1996 sequel, Quake, which also increased the series’ emphasis on online multiplayer. Unfortunately, this market would soon be totally conquered by 1997’s GoldenEye, a tie-in to the James Bond film of the same name; the game itself experimented with new, claustrophobic game environments and required you to manually reload your weapon, but it was the multiplayer that proved its success. It has now been revealed that the multiplayer was actually nothing more than a hasty add-on knocked up in matter of weeks, but the circituous maps and multiple weapons & characters on offer made it endlessly compelling, and right up until 2004 GoldenEye was the best selling game for the Nintendo 64.

But the defining FPS of this era was undoubtedly Half Life; released in 1998, the game combined Quake’s graphical technology with a bulletproof gameplay format and one of the strongest narratives and plots of any game ever made. The single player experience alone was enough to raise Valve, the game’s makers, to iconic status almost overnight (a label they retain to this day due to their penchant for innovation and not being dicks about their business tactics), and when a multiplayer mod for it was developed (Counterstrike), it and its successor (Counterstrike: Source) became the most popular multiplayer FPS experience ever.

After Half Life, some felt that the FPS genre had been taken about as far as it could in its current iteration, and that the genre’s immediate future was to be based around increasing graphical quality, fiddling with storylines and making money. However, in 2000 Microsoft acquired Bungie studios (who had made Marathon back in 1994) and released their real-time-strategy-turned-third-person-shooter-turned-first-person-shooter as a startup title for their newly released Xbox console. The game incorporated a heavy focus on characterisation (helped by it occasionally leaving first person perspective for cutscenes, which Half Life never did) with a new style of enemies (well-rendered and varied alien opponents), a wide variety of weapons and the perhaps unusual feature of having an auto-healing system rather than health pickups. The game was called Halo, and it revolutionised the FPS genre.

Since then, advancements have been less revolutionary and more gradual, as the FPS genre has diversified. Halo has now gone through several incarnations whilst keeping the basic format the same, but the gameplay principle has been applied in almost every conceivable way. Battlefield and Call of Duty applied the concept to military-style gameplay with a strong multiplayer emphasis, whilst the likes of Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead added a horror theme (or at least used zombies as bad guys). The games based on the Crytek engine (Crysis and Far Cry) turned the focus away from linear mission design and on to beautifully rendered open-world levels (some would argue in direct contrast to CoD’s increasingly linear single player mode), and recently Spec Ops: The Line has followed in Half Life’s plot-centric footsteps with a nonlinear storyline based around the mental impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some argue that the current FPS genre is stagnating; indeed super-critical game reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw has recently created a new genre called ‘spunkgargleweewee’ to cover generic linear modern military shooters (ie Call of Duty and her extended family) and indicate his contempt at their current form of existence. But to many they are the pinnacle of current-generation gaming, or at least the most fun way yet devised to spend an afternoon. By way of an example as to how much people… enjoy these things, the most recent Call of Duty game was released with a feature for the PS3 to allow the map packs used for multiplayer to be downloaded to the console’s hard disk. This was a feature requested of Activision by their hardcore fan base, who were somewhat perplexed at the request; the feature was, they pointed out, not going to make the game run any faster. But the fan base said they realised this, and it wasn’t a performance issue; it was just that they were playing the game so much that the process of continually reading the map data from the game disc was beginning to wear out the laser used to read the disc information. Thank you, Call of Duty fans, for making me feel especially productive after spending an afternoon writing an article for nobody on the internet to read.

The Hairy Ones

My last post on the subject of music history covered the relatively short timespan between around 1950 and 1965, leaving off at about the time The Beatles began leading the ‘British Invasion’ of American music culture. This invasion was a confluence of a whole host of factors; a fresh generation of youths wishing to identify with something new as ‘theirs’ and different to their parents, a British music scene that had been influenced by the American one without being so ingratiated into it as to snub their ability to innovate and make a good sound, and the fact that said generation of youngsters were the first to grow up around guitar music and thus the first to learn to play them and other genre-defining instruments en masse. Plus, some seriously good musicians in there. However, the British invasion was only the first of a multi-part wave of insane musical experimentation and innovation, flooding the market with new ideas and spawning, in the space of less than a decade, almost every genre to exist today. And for the cause of much of part two, we must backtrack a little to 1955.

Y’see, after the Second World War Japan, the dominant East Asian power, had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies and there was no dominant force in the region. This created something of a power vacuum in the area, with a host of new governments trying to rise from the post-war chaos and establish themselves as such a power. Many of these new nations, including those of China, Cambodia, North Korea and North Vietnam, were Communist states, and therefore were a serious concern to the western world. The US in particular, as a fiercely capitalist power, were deeply worried by the prospect of the whole of South East Asia, according to communist theory, just amalgamating into another great communist superpower and landing them with next to zero chance of triumphing in their ‘battle against communism’ against the already hugely powerful Soviet Union. As such, they were hell-bent on preserving every ounce of capitalist democracy they could in the area, and were prepared to defend such governments with as much force as necessary. In 1950 they had already started a war in Korea to prevent the communist north’s invasion of the democratic south, with the practical upshot (after China joined in) of re establishing the border pretty much exactly where it had been to start with and creating a state of war that, officially, has yet to end. In 1955, a similar situation was developing in Vietnam, and President Dwight D Eisenhower once again sent in the army.

Cut to ten years later, and the war was still going on. Once a crusade against the onward-marching forces of communism, the war had just dragged on and on with its only tangible result being a steady stream of dead and injured servicemen fighting a war many, especially the young who had not grown up with the degree of Commie-hating their parents had, now considered futile and stupid. Also related to ‘the Red Scare’ was the government’s allowing of capitalist corporations to run haywire, vamping up their marketing and the consumer-saturation of America. This might have lead to a 15 year long economic boom, but again many of the younger generation were getting sick of it all. All of this, combined with a natural teenage predisposition to do exactly what their parents don’t want them to, lead to a new, reactionary counter-culture that provided an impetus for a whole wave of musical experimentation; hippies.

The hippie movement (the word is, strangely, derived from ‘hipster’) was centred around pacifism, freedom of love and sex (hence ‘make love not war’), an appreciation of the home made and the natural rather than the plastic and capitalist, and drug use. The movement exists to this day, but it was most prevalent in the late 60s when a craze took the American youth by storm. They protested on a huge variety of issues, ranging from booing returning soldiers and more general anti-war stuff (hippies were also dubbed ‘flower children’ for their practice of giving flowers to police officers at such demonstrations) to demonstrations on the banning of LSD or ‘acid’, one of their more commonly used drugs. This movement of wired, eco-centric vegetarians didn’t connect well with the relatively fresh, clean tones of rock & roll and The Beatles, and inspired new music based around their psychedelic and their ‘appreciation’ of drug use. It was in this vein that The Beatles recorded Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and why Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rose to fame in a new genre known as ‘acid rock’ (named after the drug from which most of the lyrics were ‘inspired’). Characterised by long, confusing and hideously difficult solos (I’m looking at you Hendrix), this was the prominent genre on show at the infamous Woodstock festival of 1969, featuring Hendrix, Joplin, The Who, The Grateful Dead & Carlos Santana among other things. Woodstock was the high point of the hippie movement, with over half a million fans attending to smoke, listen to the music, skinny dip and make love in and around the lake and generally by as hippie as possible.

Hippie culture went downhill post-Woodstock; public outcry following the Altamont Free Concert close to San Francisco (where Hell’s Angels provided security and shot a concert-goer during The Rolling Stones’ set for brandishing a gun) coincided with ‘the hippie generation’ mostly growing up. The movement still exists today, and it legacy in terms of public attitudes to sexual freedom, pacifism and general tolerance (hippies were big on civil rights and respect for the LGBT community) is certainly considerable. But their contribution to the musical world is almost as massive; acid rock was a key driving force behind the development of the genres of folk rock (think Noah and the Whale) and heavy metal (who borrowed from Hendrix’s style of heavy guitar playing). Most importantly, music being as big a part as it was of hippie culture definitively established that the practice of everyone, even the lowliest, ‘commonest’ people, buying, listening to, sharing and most importantly making music themselves was here to stay.

The story of hippies covers just one of the music families spawned out of the late 60s. The wave of kids growing up with guitars and the idea that they can make their own music, can be the next big thing, with no preconceived ideas, resulted in a myriad of different styles and genres that form the roots of every style of modern rock music. This period was known as ‘the golden age of rock’ for a reason; before pop was big, before hip-hop, before rap, decades before dubstep, before even punk rock (born in the early seventies and disliked by many serious music nerds for being unimaginative and stupid), rock music ruled and rock music blossomed.

You could argue that this, then, marks the story of rock, and that the rest of the tale is just one long spiral downwards- that once the golden age ended, everything is just a nice depressing story. Well, I certainly don’t like to think of that as true (if only because I would rather not have a mindset to make me stop listening to music),  but even if it was, there is a hell of a lot of stuff left in this story. Over? Not for another post or two…