Aurum Potestas Est

We as a race and a culture have a massive love affair with gold. It is the basis of our currency, the definitive mark of wealth and status, in some ways the bedrock of our society. We hoard it, we covet it, we hide it away except for special occasions, but we never really use it.

This is perhaps the strangest thing about gold; for something around which we have based our economy on, it is remarkably useless. To be sure, gold has many advantageous properties; it is the best thermal and electrical conductor and is pretty easy to shape, leading it to be used widely in contacts for computing and on the engine cover for the McLaren F1 supercar. But other than these, relatively minor, uses, gold is something we keep safe rather than make use of; it has none of the ubiquity nor usefulness of such metals as steel or copper. So why are we on the gold standard? Why not base our economy around iron, around copper, around praseodymium (a long shot, I will admit), something a bit more functional? What makes gold so special?

In part we can blame gold’s chemical nature; as a transition metal it is hard, tough, and a solid at room temperature, making it able to be mined, extracted, transported and used with ease and without degenerating and breaking too easily. It is also very malleable, meaning it can be shaped easily to form coins and jewellery; shaping into coins is especially important in order to standardise the weight of meta worth a particular amount. However, by far its most defining chemical feature is its reactivity; gold is very chemically stable in its pure, unionised, ‘native’ form, meaning it is unreactive, particularly with such common substances as; for this reason it is often referred to as a noble metal. This means gold is usually found native, making it easier to identify and mine, but is also means that gold products take millennia to oxidise and tarnish, if they do so at all. Therefore, gold holds its purity like no other chemical (shush, helium & co.), and this means it holds its value like nothing else. Even silver, another noble and comparatively precious metal, will blacken eventually and lose its perfection, but not gold. To an economist, gold is eternal, and this makes it the most stable and safe of all potential investments. Nothing can replace it, it is always a safe bet; a fine thing to base an economy on.

However, just as important as gold’s refusal to tarnish and protect is beauty is the simple presence of a beauty to protect. This is partly put down to the uniqueness of its colour; in the world around us there are many greens, blues, blacks, browns and whites, as well as the odd purple. However, red and yellow are (fire and a few types of fish and flower excepted) comparatively rare, and only four chemical elements that we commonly come across are red or yellow in colour; phosphorus, sulphur, copper and gold. And rusty iron but… just no. Of the others, phosphorus (red) is rather dangerous given its propensity to burst into flames, is also commonly found as a boring old white element, and is rather reactive, meaning it is not often found in its reddish form. Sulphur is also reactive, also burns and also readily forms compounds; but these compounds have the added bonus of stinking to high heaven. It is partly for this reason, and partly for the fact that it turns blood-red when molten, that brimstone (aka sulphur) is heavily associated with hell, punishment and general sinfulness in the Bible and that it would be rather an unpopular choice to base an economy on. In any case, the two non-metals do not have any of the properties that the transition metals of copper and gold do; those of being malleable, hard, having a high melting point, and being shiny and pwettiful. Gold edged out over copper partly for its unreactivity as explored above (after time copper loses its reddish beauty and takes on a, but also because of its deep, beautiful, lustrous finish. That beauty made it precious to us, made it something we desired and lusted after, and (combined with gold’s relative rarity, which could be an entire section of its own) made it valuable. This value allows relatively small amounts of gold to represent large quantities of worth and value, and justifies its use as coinage, bullion and an economic standard.

However, for me the key feature of gold’s place as our defining scale of value concerns its relative uselessness. Consider the following scenario; in the years preceding the birth of Christ, the technology, warfare and overall political situation of the day was governed by one material, bronze. It was used to make swords, armour, jewellery, the lot; until one day some smartarse figured out how to smelt iron. Iron was easier to work than bronze, allowing better stuff to be made, and with some skill it could be turned into steel. Steel was stronger as well as more malleable than bronze, and could be tempered to change its properties; over time, skilled metalsmiths even learned how to make the edge of a sword blade harder than the centre, making it better at cutting whilst the core absorbed the impact. This was all several hundred years in the future, but in the end the result was the same; bronze fell from grace and its societal value slumped. It is still around today, but it will never again enjoy its place as the metal that ruled the world.

Now, consider if that metal had, instead of bronze, been gold. Something that had been ultra-precious, the king of all metals, reduced to something that was merely valuable. It had been trumped by iron, and iron would have this connotation of being better than it; gold’s value would have dropped. In any economic system, even a primitive one, having the value of the substance around which your economy is based change in value would be catastrophic; when Mansa Musa travelled from Mali on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he stopped off in Cairo, then the home of the world’s foremost gold trade, and spent so much gold that the non-Malian world had never known about that the price of gold collapsed and it took more than a decade for the Egyptian economy to recover. If gold were to have a purpose, it could be usurped; we might find something better, we might decide we don’t need that any more, and thus gold’s value, once supported by those wishing to buy it for this purpose, would drop. Gold is used so little that this simply doesn’t happen, making it the most economically stable substance; it is valuable precisely and solely because we want it to be and, strange though it may seem, gold is always in fashion. Economically as well as chemically, gold is uniquely stable- the perfect choice around which to base a global economy.

The Price of Freedom

First of all, apologies for missing my post on Wednesday, and apologies in advance for missing one on Wednesday; I’ve had a lot of stuff to do over the past week and will be away during the next one. Ah well, on with the post…

We in the west set a lot of store by democracy; in America especially you will hardly be hard-pressed to find someone willing to defend their ‘rights’ and freedom to the hilt, regardless of how dumb you think that particular right is. Every time a government attempts to ban or restrict some substance or activity, vast waves of protesters will take to the streets/TV/internet that their right or ability to do X or Y is being restricted in direct contradiction to every document from the Magna Carta to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

However, if we were permitted to be totally free (the ‘Altair’ end of the Order of Assassins/Knights Templar spectrum), with no laws restricting our activity, then we would quickly descend into an anarchic society. Murder, rape and theft would go unpunished as the minority of the evil-minded quickly became the majority by simple need. Various models of a system of anarchy, including mine predict an eventual return to an ordered society of laws and structure, and we can all agree that serious crimes are Bad Things that probably are worth restricting, even if it requires us to restrict our ‘freedom’ to a certain degree. Clearly, freedom is not worth such crimes, and thus we have laws.

In fact, most of our legal system can be counted as a direct result of the law-setter in question asking ‘what is freedom worth?’. If the law is in place to restrict an activity, then freedom is counted as not being worth this activity for either moral, financial or practical reasons (or a combination of the three), whilst other, more unrestricted, activities, freedom is considered worth allowing. And, perhaps more interestingly, a vast majority of political debate can be essentially boiled down to two people’s different opinions concerning what price we are prepared to pay for freedom.

Take, as a simple example, the British government’s recent ‘pastie tax’, levied on hot baked goods. This was partly an attempt to bring in some much-needed cash for the government in their efforts to cut the deficit, but also has some  degree of a health motivation. Such food is frequently sold cheaply from fast food retailers and the like, meaning it is an easy source of hot, tasty food for the poorer or lazier sections of society; but their fat content is not kind to the waistline and an overconsumption of such foods has been linked to ‘the national obesity epidemic’ that everyone gets so worked up about. This obesity problem is a major source of concern to the NHS, and thus the government who pay for it, since in the long term it causes a dramatic upsurge in the number of diabetes cases. This is an expensive problem to combat and presents a major health hazard for the country as a whole, and the government (or at least George Osborne, whose annual statement the tax first appeared in) decided that this dual cost is not worth the freedom to enjoy such a snack so cheaply. This, as with all vaguely new and interesting decisions in a rather dull report concerning how poor the country is, was debated aggressively in the media, with the healthy eating people and economists broadly speaking backing the idea (or complaining that there was not enough done/government is stifling growth/insert predictable complaint about economy here) whilst others criticised the plan as just another example of the Tories targeting the lower rungs of society who most frequently enjoy a cheap meal from these sources. To these people, today’s world is an expensive and difficult one to live in, and the ability to have a hot, greasy, tasty meal for a price that they could easily budget for in the long run is a freedom well worth whatever obesity problems it is causing. Such fundamental differences of opinion, particularly concerning taxation policy, are the irreconcilable forces that mean two political opponents will frequently find it impossible to back down.

In some other cases, the two participants of an argument will agree that freedom isn’t worth cost X, but will disagree on the mechanism for restricting said cost. The debate concerning the legalisation of drugs is one such example, for whilst part of the debate centres around a difference of opinion as to whether the freedom to get stoned is worth the cost of a country full of stoners and the consequences thereof (don’t believe anyone who tells you marijuana is a harmless drug; it isn’t, although the degree of harm it causes is generally the cause behind such debate), another cause of disagreement concerns the problems of the drugs war. Opium is the biggest source of income for the Taliban (and a very large one for Afghanistan as a whole), whilst the gangs and cartels who operate the Latin American drugs trade have been directly linked to human trafficking, prostitution and other atrocities during the ongoing drugs wars with their local government. This is a particular problem in Mexico, where since the government’s announcement of the ‘war on drugs’ there have been over 47,000 drugs-related murders. Everyone agrees that this is a Bad Thing, but a difference of opinion arises when considering which course of action would prove the most successful at combating the problem; the ‘legalise’ faction say that to legalise drugs would be to force the small-time criminals out of business as the well-policed official channels of trade took over, where sourcing and supply is performed by businessmen held accountable for their actions. At the very least, they suggest, it could do us good to lessen the sentencing of drug offenders and try to encourage quitters rather than just clamp people in jail, as this allows us to discourage people more easily and get to know more about the problem. This approach is implemented to an extent in Europe (especially the Netherlands), whilst the more stringent laws of the United States (states such as Colorado excepted) take the opposite line; they say that to relax drug restrictions simply encourages use, gives more trade to the cartels and only increases their power. Whether they are right or not is very much up for debate since the alternative hasn’t really been tried on a large scale, particularly in America; but the growing movement to look for an alternative solution to the problem, combined with the statement from former presidents of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia that ‘the war on drugs has failed’ means that we may soon see how the other approach ends up. For the record, I remain undecided on the issue- the stats from the Netherlands tell me that drug use will increase with decriminalisation, which I don’t especially like the prospect of (that stuff’s not for me, and I’m not entirely sure why it should be for anyone else either), but it strikes me that this approach may reap dividends when it comes to combating the secondary problems caused by the drug wars. A friend who is kind of into this business (and, incidentally, comes firmly down on the ‘legalise’ side) recommends the YouTube film ‘Breaking The Taboo’, which you may want to watch if this kind of thing interests you.

…OK, that one slightly got away from me, but the discussion got kind of interesting. The key message here, really, is one of self-examination. Take a look at your political views, your outlook on life in general, and then ask yourself: to me, what is freedom worth?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It’s a classic thought experiment, mathematical problem and a cause of much philosophical debate. Over the years it has found its way into every sphere of existence from serious lecturing to game shows to, on numerous occasions, real life. It has been argued as being the basis for all religion, and its place in our society. And to think that it, in its purest form, is nothing more than a story about two men in a jail- the prisoner’s dilemma.

The classic example of the dilemma goes roughly as follows; two convicts suspected of a crime are kept in single custody, separated from one another and unable to converse. Both are in fact guilty of the crime, but the police only have evidence to convict them for a small charge, worth a few months in jail if neither of them confess (the ‘cooperation’ option). However, if they ‘rat out’ on their partner, they should be able to get themselves charged with only a minor offence for complicity, worth a small fine, whilst their partner will get a couple of years behind bars. But, if both tell on one another, revealing their partnership in the crime, both can expect a sentence of around a year.

The puzzle comes under the title (in mathematics) of game theory, and was first formally quantified in the 1950s, although the vague principle was understood for years before that. The real interest of the puzzle comes in the strange self-conflicting logic of the situation; in all cases, the prisoner gets a reduced punishment if they rat out on their partner (a fine versus a prison sentence if their partner doesn’t tell on them, and one year rather than two if they do), but the consequence for both following the ‘logical’ path is a worse punishment if neither of them did. Basically, if one of them is a dick then they win, but if both of them are dicks then they both lose.

The basic principle of this can be applied to hundreds of situations; the current debate concerning climate change is one example. Climate change is a Bad Thing that looks set to cause untold trillions of dollars in damage over the coming years, and nobody actively wants to screw over the environment; however, solving the problem now is very expensive for any country, and everyone wants it to be somebody else’s problem. Therefore, the ‘cooperate’ situation is for everyone to introduce expensive measures to combat climate change, but the ‘being a dick’ situation is to let everyone else do that whilst you don’t bother and reap the benefits of both the mostly being fixed environment, and the relative economic boom you are experiencing whilst all the business rushes to invest in a country with less taxes being demanded. However, what we are stuck with now is the ‘everyone being a dick’ scenario where nobody wants to make a massive investment in sustainable energy and such for fear of nobody else doing it, and look what it’s doing to the planet.

But I digress; the point is that it is the logical ‘best’ thing to take the ‘cooperate’ option, but that it seems to make logical sense not to do so, and 90% of the moral and religious arguments made over the past couple of millennia can be reduced down to trying to make people pick the ‘cooperate’ option in all situations. That they don’t can be clearly evidenced by the fact that we still need armies for defensive purposes (it would be cheaper for us not to, but we can’t risk the consequences of someone raising an army to royally screw everyone over) and the ‘mutually assured destruction’ situation that developed between the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

Part of the problem with the prisoner’s dilemma situation concerns what is also called the ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’- aka, when the situation gets repeated over and over again. The reason this becomes a problem is because people can quickly learn what kind of behaviour you are likely to adopt, meaning that if you constantly take the ‘nice’ option people will learn that you can be easily be beaten by repeatedly taking the ‘arsehole’ option, meaning that the ‘cooperate’ option becomes the less attractive, logical one (even if it is the nice option). All this changes, however, if you then find yourself able to retaliate, making the whole business turn back into the giant pissing contest of ‘dick on the other guy’ we were trying to avoid. A huge amount of research and experimentation has been done into the ‘best’ strategy for an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, and they have found that a broadly ‘nice’, non-envious strategy, able to retaliate against an aggressive opponent but quick to forgive, is most usually the best; but since, in the real world, each successive policy change takes a large amount of resources, this is frequently difficult to implement. It is also a lot harder to model ‘successful’ strategies in continuous, rather than discrete, iterative prisoner’s dilemmas (is it dilemmas, or dilemmae?), such as feature most regularly in the real world.

To many, the prisoner’s dilemma is a somewhat depressing prospect. Present in almost all walks of life, there are countless examples of people picking the options that seem logical but work out negatively in the long run, simply because they haven’t realised the game theory of the situation. It is a puzzle that appears to show the logical benefit of selfishness, whilst simultaneously demonstrating its destructiveness and thus human nature’s natural predisposition to pursuing the ‘destructive’ option. But to me, it’s quite a comforting idea; not only does it show that ‘logic’ is not always as straightforward as it seems, justifying the fact that one viewpoint that seems blatantly, logically obvious to one person may not be the definitive correct one, but it also reveals to us the mathematics of kindness, and that the best way to play a game is the nice way.

Oh, and for a possibly unique, eminently successful and undoubtedly hilarious solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, I refer you here. It’s not a general solution, but it’s still a pretty cool one 🙂

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.

Desert Bus

Charity is, as has been well documented, the most competitive industry on the planet. The trouble is that there are many, many things wrong with this world, and lots of people who believe that all should get the same thing- but nearly all of them are going after the same target demographic (the rich middle classes who can afford to give to them), and there are simply so many of them competing for people’s time, energy and, most importantly, financial support that many get drowned under the weight of competition. This has lead to many charity events in recent years attempting to break out from the mainstream collection ideas, focusing on charitable enterprise or other such concepts in order to be different and identifiable. However, when preparing for one such event that is happening in the very near future (hence why I’m publishing this post a day early) I saw an opportunity to combine the topic of charity with blogging and an old favourite fall-back topic, gaming- but to start with, I’m going to talk about magic, so sit in for a story folks.

In 1975 a pair of American magicians delivered a show in Minnesota that would quickly become the first of many. With another co-host, the duo built their reputation with a regular show that lasted until 1981, before moving to New York to start their own off Broadway shows. By 1985 these were garnering them some top reviews, so as the 90s approached they turned their act to Broadway proper. During the 1990s they were appearing regularly on chat shows, doing US national tours and making TV cameos, firmly establishing themselves as possibly the most famous magicians on earth at that time (and possibly the present day too). Their names were (and are) Penn & Teller.

By 1995 their career was reaching a zenith; famous both nationally and around the world, they were the closest the magical world had to global superstars. And with stardom came all the trappings of fame, including incessant requests from various publishers and agents asking to be allowed to use their name to plug something, and presumably in late 1994 one such offer from Absolute Entertainment was accepted; to allow Penn & Teller to be the subject material for a videogame.

The game in question was to be called Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors; the console, the Sega-CD (an add-on for the Sega Mega Drive that was at the time fighting a furious console war with Nintendo’s Super NES). The game itself consisted of a series of mini-games, in a similar way to how a magic show is comprised of individual tricks- or at least, that was the idea. Each game was a trick you had to master, a little bit of slight-of-hand/controller that you had to learn before inviting your friends over and thrashing them since you knew how the trick worked, as a form of payback against those friends “who come over to your house, eat your food, drink your soda, play your games and always beat you” (Penn’s words, not mine). Many have since voiced the opinion that videogaming was a rather odd choice of platform for this idea, but whether this would have impacted sales was never discovered, as Absolute Entertainment went bust after (conveniently) they had completed the game’s development, but before they got a chance to ship it and pay Penn & Teller back the licensing money they were owed. Under the terms of the contract, this rendered all deals regarding use of Penn & Teller’s likenesses and intellectual property null and void, meaning Absolute Entertainment’s owners (Skyworks Interactive Inc.) couldn’t sell the game, and all the copies they produced presumably sat in a corner gathering dust somewhere. However, before the studio went under another player entered our story, by the name of Janet Reno.

At the time, Janet Reno was Attorney General of the United States under Bill Clinton’s leadership, and at the time in question she chose a particularly opportune moment to join the chorus of voices against the violence in videogames. Reno’s argument partially centred on the idea that these games were unrealistic, and should try to depict life as it really was rather than clouding the mind’s of the nation’s children (or something), so as a rather sly joke Penn & Teller slipped one more minigame in, the only one that wasn’t a magic trick. A little minigame going by the name of Desert Bus.

Desert Bus was described as being designed to be an example of ‘stupefyingly realistic gameplay’, and in it you played as a bus driver. Your job was to drive between two US cities, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at no more than 45 miles per hour (presumably the bus was electronically limited), in real-time, right across the Great American desert. The scenery was fairly unchanging (the odd tree or bus stop goes by), there is no traffic coming the other way, the graphics are about as good as could be expected from that generation console, there are no people to pick up, and the journey takes 8 hours to complete in each direction. After 5 hours, a bug hits the windscreen. This is considered a highlight.

However, there were three things that turned this from a rather interesting statement by the game developers to a simultaneously evil and absolutely hilarious game, depending on whether you were playing or just hearing about it. Firstly, there is no ability to pause; pressing the pause button merely activates the horn, so you’re in for the long haul. Secondly, the bus lists to the right, meaning one cannot simply tape down the accelerator and leave it for eight hours- it requires one’s constant attention (and repeated turning left) to avoid crashing. If you do crash, and stay still for 15 seconds, a tow truck comes to take you back to Tucson- again, in real time, and at 45 miles an hour. Thirdly, if you reach Vegas, you get one point- and 15 seconds to decide if you want to try for another one by heading back to Tucson. The game has a limit of 99 points, never achieved without the use of an emulator. This is the world’s greatest endurance test- Penn & Teller even had plans, had the game been released, to set up a competition for who could get the most points, the prize being a luxury trip in ‘the real Desert Bus’, a few nights in a luxury Vegas hotel and tickets to their show, but of course the game never exactly received widespread coverage.

That is, however, not until 2007, when two more players enter our story- Penny Arcade and LoadingReadyRun. Penny Arcade is probably the most famous webcomic in the world, written by a couple of games nerds for games nerds (I should probably say at this point that I’ve never actually read it, but ho hum), and very much acting as a voice for the gaming community. It’s founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have become successful enough to start their own gaming convention (PAX), and in 2003 they embarked on another project- Child’s Play. Designed with the view in mind of a gaming charity, a chance for gaming culture to give something back to society and to improve its negative image as being violent and uncouth, it aims to deliver toys and videogames to sick children in hospitals worldwide, in order to make their lives a little more bearable. Some have said that it’s message is perhaps not as righteous as that of, say, Oxfam, but these people are kind of missing the point of charity and it is nonetheless charmingly sweet in concept. Penny Arcade’s prominence among the gaming community is such that many key industry figures have got behind it and the charity has so far raised over $12 million, nearly one million of which has come thanks to the work of a group of Canadians behind an 8-year old internet sketch comedy series called LoadingReadyRun.

You see, in 2007 the guys behind LoadingReadyRun decided that they would try to use their small but devoted hardcore fan base to raise some cash for such a good cause, and so decided to organise a charity gaming marathon in aid of Child’s Play. Casting around for a suitable game to play, they decided that ‘the most boring game in the world’ would form a good backdrop whilst they danced, pissed around and generally humiliated themselves on camera to get donations, and so they plumped for Desert Bus. As they slotted a copy of the game (don’t ask me where they got it from) into a borrowed Sega CD, they hoped to try and raise $5,000 dollars, the plan being that their strategy of ‘the more we get the longer we play’ would last them about a weekend. They made four times their target, and the following year did the same thing again and hit $70,000, forcing them to play for nearly 4 days. By the next year their comedy had reached a wider audience after being picked up and hosted by The Escapist online ‘magazine’, and they broke $100,000 for the first time; last year they made $383,125.10, and hope to bring their sum total to over a million this year. Desert Bus For Hope 6 starts tomorrow, at 5am GMT (or 9pm PST), it’s for a great cause, and it should be entertaining to watch the kind of challenges they get up to- they are professional sketch comedians after all. The website’s here, and the list of people ringing in is here (spoiler- the list includes Notch), and a far more entertaining history of the game is here. If you’ve got the time free, give them a watch. It’s for the children.

Drunken Science

In my last post, I talked about the societal impact of alcohol and its place in our everyday culture; today, however, my inner nerd has taken it upon himself to get stuck into the real meat of the question of alcohol, the chemistry and biology of it all, and how all the science fits together.

To a scientist, the word ‘alcohol’ does not refer to a specific substance at all, but rather to a family of chemical compounds containing an oxygen and hydrogen atom bonded to one another (known as an OH group) on the end of a chain of carbon atoms. Different members of the family (or ‘homologous series’, to give it its proper name) have different numbers of carbon atoms and have slightly different physical properties (such as melting point), and they also react chemically to form slightly different compounds. The stuff we drink is that with two carbon atoms in its chain, and is technically known as ethanol.

There are a few things about ethanol that make it special stuff to us humans, and all of them refer to chemical reactions and biological interactions. The first is the formation of it; there are many different types of sugar found in nature (fructose & sucrose are two common examples; the ‘-ose’ ending is what denotes them as sugars), but one of the most common is glucose, with six carbon atoms. This is the substance our body converts starch and other sugars into in order to use for energy or store as glycogen. As such, many biological systems are so primed to convert other sugars into glucose, and it just so happens that when glucose breaks down in the presence of the right enzymes, it forms carbon dioxide and an alcohol; ethanol, to be precise, in a process known as either glycolosis (to a scientist) or fermentation (to everyone else).

Yeast performs this process in order to respire (ie produce energy) anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen), so leading to the two most common cases where this reaction occurs. The first we know as brewing, in which an anaerobic atmosphere is deliberately produced to make alcohol; the other occurs when baking bread. The yeast we put in the bread causes the sugar (ie glucose) in it to produce carbon dioxide, which is what causes the bread to rise since it has been filled with gas, whilst the ethanol tends to boil off in the heat of the baking process. For industrial purposes, ethanol is made by hydrating (reacting with water) an oil by-product called ethene, but the product isn’t generally something you’d want to drink.

But anyway, back to the booze itself, and this time what happens upon its entry into the body. Exactly why alcohol acts as a depressant and intoxicant (if that’s a proper word) is down to a very complex interaction with various parts and receptors of the brain that I am not nearly intelligent enough to understand, let alone explain. However, what I can explain is what happens when the body gets round to breaking the alcohol down and getting rid of the stuff. This takes place in the liver, an amazing organ that performs hundreds of jobs within the body and contains a vast repetoir of enzymes. One of these is known as alcohol dehydrogenase, which has the task of oxidising the alcohol (not a simple task, and one impossible without enzymes) into something the body can get rid of. However, most ethanol we drink is what is known as a primary alcohol (meaning the OH group is on the end of the carbon chain), and this causes it to oxidise in two stages, only the first of which can be done using alcohol dehydrogenase. This process converts the alcohol into an aldehyde (with an oxygen chemically double-bonded to the carbon where the OH group was), which in the case of ethanol is called acetaldehyde (or ethanal). This molecule cannot be broken down straight away, and instead gets itself lodged in the body’s tissues in such a way (thanks to its shape) to produce mild toxins, activate our immune system and make us feel generally lousy. This is also known as having a hangover, and only ends when the body is able to complete the second stage of the oxidation process and convert the acetaldehyde into acetic acid, which the body can get rid of relatively easily. Acetic acid is commonly known as the active ingredient in vinegar, which is why alcoholics smell so bad and are often said to be ‘pickled’.

This process occurs in the same way when other alcohols enter the body, but ethanol is unique in how harmless (relatively speaking) its aldehyde is. Methanol, for example, can also be oxidised by alcohol dehydrogenase, but the aldehyde it produces (officially called methanal) is commonly known as formaldehyde; a highly toxic substance used in preservation work and as a disinfectant that will quickly poison the body. It is for this reason that methanol is present in the fuel commonly known as ‘meths’- ethanol actually produces more energy per gram and makes up 90% of the fuel by volume, but since it is cheaper than most alcoholic drinks the toxic methanol is put in to prevent it being drunk by severely desperate alcoholics. Not that it stops many of them; methanol poisoning is a leading cause of death among many homeless people.

Homeless people were also responsible for a major discovery in the field of alcohol research, concerning the causes of alcoholism. For many years it was thought that alcoholics were purely addicts mentally rather than biologically, and had just ‘let it get to them’, but some years ago a young student (I believe she was Canadian, but certainty of that fact and her name both escape me) was looking for some fresh cadavers for her PhD research. She went to the police and asked if she could use the bodies of the various dead homeless people who they found on their morning beats, and when she started dissecting them she noticed signs of a compound in them that was known to be linked to heroin addiction. She mentioned to a friend that all these people appeared to be on heroin, but her friend said that these people barely had enough to buy drink, let alone something as expensive as heroin. This young doctor-to-be realised she might be onto something here, and changed the focus of her research onto studying how alcohol was broken down by different bodies, and discovered something quite astonishing. Inside serious alcoholics, ethanol was being broken down into this substance previously only linked to heroin addiction, leading her to believe that for some unlucky people, the behaviour of their bodies made alcohol as addictive to them as heroin was to others. Whilst this research has by no means settled the issue, it did demonstrate two important facts; firstly, that whilst alcoholism certainly has some links to mental issues, it is also fundamentally biological and genetic by nature and cannot be solely put down as the fault of the victim’s brain. Secondly, it ‘sciencified’ (my apologies to grammar nazis everywhere for making that word up) a fact already known by many reformed drinkers; that when a former alcoholic stops drinking, they can never go back. Not even one drink. There can be no ‘just having one’, or drinking socially with friends, because if one more drink hits their body, deprived for so long, there’s a very good chance it could kill them.

Still, that’s not a reason to get totally down about alcohol, for two very good reasons. The first of these comes from some (admittely rather spurious) research suggesting that ‘addictive personalities’, including alcoholics, are far more likely to do well in life, have good jobs and overall succeed; alcoholics are, by nature, present at the top as well as the bottom of our society. The other concerns the one bit of science I haven’t tried to explain here- your body is remarkably good at dealing with alcohol, and we all know it can make us feel better, so if only for your mental health a little drink now and then isn’t an all bad thing after all. And anyway, it makes for some killer YouTube videos…

Socially Acceptable Druggies

Alcohol is, without a shadow of a doubt, our society’s commonly acceptable drug of choice; no matter that one third of people admit to smoking cannabis at some point in their lives, or that smoking kills tens of thousands more people every year, neither can touch alcohol for its prevalence and importance within western civilisation. It’s everywhere; for most polite social gatherings it is fundamentally necessary as an icebreaker, every settlement from the biggest city to the tiniest hamlet will have a bar, pub or other drinking venue and many people will collect veritable hoards of the stuff, sometimes even in purpose-built rooms.

Which, on the face of it, might seem odd given how much it screws around with you. Even before the damage it causes to one’s liver and internal organs was discovered, it had been known for centuries that alcohol was dangerously habit-forming stuff, and it was generally acknowledged that prolonged use ‘pickled’ the brain. It also leaves those who imbibe it severely confused and lacking in coordination, which has proved hideously dangerous in countless scenarios over the years (even contributing to several assassinations), and can be almost guaranteed to result in personal embarrassment and other decisions you’re really going to regret when sober. If it wasn’t for booze’s noted enhancing of promiscuity, it might be surprising that drinking hadn’t been bred out of us simply thanks to natural selection, so much does it generally screw around with our ability to function as proper human beings

Like many drugs, alcohol has its roots in the dim and distant past when it felt quite nice and we didn’t know any better; a natural product when sugar (usually in the form of fruit) comes into contact with yeast (a common, naturally occurring fungus), it was quickly discovered how to make this process happen efficiently and controlledly by putting both sugar and yeast under water (or in some other anaerobic atmosphere). All raw materials were easy to come by and the process didn’t require any special skill, so it was only natural that it should catch on. Especially when we consider that alcohol is generally considered to be the single best way of making the world feel like a less crappy place than it often appears.

However, the real secret to alcohol’s success in worming its way into our society is less linked to booze itself, and has more to do with water. From our earliest infancy as a species, water has been readily available in the world around us, whether it be from lakes, rivers, wells or wherever. Unfortunately, this means it is also available for lots of other things to use and make their homes in, including a vast array of nasty bacteria. As can be seen with the situation across swathes of Africa and the Third World (although this problem has been reduced quite significantly over the last decade or so), access to water that is not fetid, disgusting and dangerous can be nigh-on impossible for many, forcing them to settle for water containing diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery. And that’s where alcohol came in.

The great advantage of alcohol is that its production can be very carefully controlled; even if the majority of an alcoholic drink is water, this is generally a product of the fruit or other sugary substance used in the brewing process. This means it is a lot purer than most ‘fresh’ water, and in any case the alcohol present in the fluid kills off a lot of bacteria. Even for those that can survive that, alcoholic beverages are far more likely to be bottled (or at least they were, before someone discovered the sheer quantity of suckers willing to buy what you can get out of the tap) than water, keeping any more invading bacteria, parasites, insects and other crap out. All of this was, of course, not known before Louis Pasteur first came along with his Germ Theory, but the facts stayed the same; historically, you were far less likely to die from drinking alcohol than drinking water.

Still, come the 20th century most of our sanitation problems in the developed world were sorted, so we didn’t need to worry about all that any more did we? Surely, we would have been fine to get rid of booze from our culture, throw out a feature of our lives that ruins many a night out, body or family? Surely, we’d all be far better off without alcohol in our culture? Wouldn’t we?

In many cases, this kind of question would prove a purely theoretical one, to be discussed by leading thinkers; however, much to the delight of all champions of evidence over opinion, the USA were kind enough to give banning alcohol a go way back in the early days of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, campaigns from the likes of the church and the Anti Saloon Bar League painted alcohol as a decidedly destructive influence, so successfully that from 1920 to 1933 the sale, production and consumption of alcohol within the United States became illegal.

At the time, many people thought this was a brilliant idea that would yield great social change. They were right; society as a collective decided that the law was more like a guideline anyway, and through their lot in with the mob. This was the golden age of organised crime, the era of Al Capone and others making fortunes in dealing bootleg alcohol, either dangerous home-brewed ‘moonshine’ liquor or stuff smuggled across the Canadian border. Hundreds of illegal speakeasies, clubs whose drab outsides hid their gaudy interiors, and in which were housed illegal gambling nests, dancers, prostitutes and a hell of a lot of booze, sprung up in every major American city, and while the data is inconsistent some figures suggest alcohol consumption actually rose during the Prohibition era (as it was known). Next to nobody was ever imprisoned or even charged with their crimes however, because the now-wealthy mob could afford to bribe almost anyone, and in any case most police officers and legal officials were illicit drinkers themselves; even Al Capone wasn’t taken down until after he was suspected of ordering some rival gangsters gunned down in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually a group of supremely dedicated policement known unofficially as ‘The Untouchables’ managed to pin tax evasion charges on him, and even had to switch a bribed jury to ensure he went down (a film, The Untouchables, was made about the story- give it a watch if you ever get the charge). By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed prohibition upon coming to power in 1933, the message was clear: America loved alcohol too much, and it wasn’t about to let it go.

Alcohol is, in its effect at least, not a special drug; many others can be used to forget the bad times, enjoy the good times and make the world feel like a better place. But there’s something about, something about its cultural imagery, that makes it timeless, and makes it an immovable feature of our world. It could be that it’s probably the cheapest recreational drug, or maybe that it’s the oldest, but to me the real secret to its success is its weakness, combined with the way it is almost always served very dilute. Most illegal drugs give an instant hit, a huge rush followed by crashing downer, and this makes any use of it a brief, wild experience. Alcohol is more mellow; something you can spend an entire night slowly drowning your sorrows in, or casually imbibe whilst chatting and generally functioning like a normal human being. It’s slow, it’s casual, a feature of an evening that does not necessarily have to define it- that is the cultural secret to alcohol’s success.