Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Separating Spiritual and Supernatural

A long time ago, someone created religion. I doubt that they sat down with their friends and said, "alright guys, we're starting a religion." That would require them to know what religion was--there would have to have been one for them to have a name for it. Instead, I'm sure their newfangled hominid brains meandered a bit--pondering questions about life with this newfangled language thing--finally concluding with, "I bet all these questions I can't stop asking have a common answer."

Among these questions were things like:
"How did we get to be this way?"
"What's it mean to be?"
"What happens when people die, and why am I sad when they do?"
"What will happen to the world?"
"Why is there weather, day, and night?"
"What is right?"
To explain these, they personified and discussed through metaphor. These metaphors were incorporated into supernatural beings, and those were--in most cases, after thousands of years--incorporated into one being.

In due time, though, when people looked really close, the questions weren't answered completely. "Ok, so the all-gerunding being makes the planets go around the earth, but why do they go backwards?" People started looking deeper at questions, abandoning the simple explanations found in religious and classical texts, and reaching for deeper ones.

This process resulted--along with high standards in rigor and definition--in what we now call science. This is also the origin between the conflict between science and religion. Religion presents protoscience--hypotheses to explain the world without the scientific method--incorporated into its texts. Science demonstrates that protoscience is false, but because one is an organ of religion, the two butt heads.

One way to abate the conflict temporarily was "to leave room for the creator." Newton did this--the mathematics backing his theory of gravity couldn't explain why the planets didn't throw each other out of orbit over long periods of time. Newton answered this question with the Hand of God.

Neil Degrasse Tyson discusses this "Hand of God" gap-filler in his essay The Perimeter of Ignorance, and he concludes that the belief in the supernatural acts as a crutch, stunting continued exploration in science. Sometime after Newton, Laplace discovered the mathematics to replace Newton's Hand of God. According to Tyson,
Laplace gave a copy of Mécanique Céleste to his physics-literate friend Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon asked him what role God played in the construction and regulation of the heavens. "Sire," Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

It's an elegant statement, and I wonder if it's one that can be applied not only in science, but to the realm of the spiritual--the essence of being. From the birth of religion, humanity used religion to satisfy its spiritual needs--ones that, even in an atheistic context, do not recede. There's no reason to bind the spiritual to the supernatural. They remain inseparable because the entire discussion of spirituality for the whole of history has taken place in a supernatural context, but there's no reason this has to continue.

What makes this difficult--and why I haven't heard of anyone who's done it yet--is that I don't know where to restart the discussion. I don't think anyone does. Just as gods were necessary for humans to discuss the cosmos, people utilized gods to discuss the core of our being and purpose. We're surrounded by a metaphor gone mad.

There's no reason but tradition for which this has to continue. It's true that science can't answer all questions, but it's false to say that questions outside of science require supernatural explanations. Using them may be simple or satisfying--providing an answer to many of these questions--but that doesn't mean that they're right. They are merely pleasing--like a cigarette to the smoker. They provide temporary relief, but the addiction continues. A long struggle--quitting--offers the most viable long-term solution. In the short-term, it is difficult, but in the long-term, it will bear greater fruit than any ever-lasting life the smoker is pleased to contemplate.

This "short-term" may be a thousand years. The spiritual struggle remains unanswered from ancient times, and I'm sure a solution won't come quickly. The path beckons us, though; imaginary satisfaction dulls our hearts to the call, but on occasion, the question asks itself loud enough to feel again. When they hear it, people pander from the horror of ignorance to the supernatural explanations into which they were raised--the easy road.

Yet the cravings never leave.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Simcity's A Ghetto Now

I haven't played Simcity 4 in a long time. I used to enjoy the game; I've spent quite a few hours in the mayor's chair. Somehow, despite all the extra features and graphics that have been added since Simcity 2000, something is wrong with the game--something I can't put my finger on that's forced the joy of creation to devolve into frustration.

I'll start with the big picture--the region.

One of the new features was the idea of a region; you build cities, and every region has multiple cities of different sizes. The cities connect to one another, exchanging demands for different zone types. In this way, you can isolate your nasty industries from your pretty, high-tech cities. People can commute between cities, allowing suburbia to develop around denser ones, eventually flowing into small, farming communities, just like real life.

This sounds great on paper. In SC4, it breaks down completely.

When starting a new region, SC4 provides two options--water or land. Land gives you a single, flat, empty plain. There are no terrain features, at all.

To solve this, Simcity 4 provides terrain editing tools. The tools are neat, but they fail to take advantage of the regional nature of the game. You can only edit one map at a time. Trying to create a mountain range that looks good on a regional scale and is built off of the nubs of nearby mountains is... difficult, to say the least. The region pictured above is one of the few built in regions--a map of San Francisco. Unless you want to leave the game and use an external program to generate a map, you're left with a handful of regions to play on.

So, you've accepted the site of an already well-developed city in real life. You start building the city. You drop a power plant--wind, coal, oil, or gas--and go on your merry way building roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes.

This repeats until the city is big enough for a school, or a police station, or a fire station, or whatever. The game will tell you when that is. You build it; then roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones and pipes.

Then the game keeps going. Sure, there's small problems that come up here or there, like needing more schools or hospitals, but the problems are the same really: Issue X requires solution Y. Place solution Y on the map. They work the same, too. Each of them affects structures within a particular radius.

That's it. Even though they solve different problems on the surface, the problem is the same: area X needs coverage for solution Y. Couldn't more thought have gone into each problem? Say, for education, the game would require that the player to zone what neighborhoods go to which schools; for police, the game would make their optimal location a matter of ability to patrol areas or response time; firefighters would rely entirely on response time; for hospitals, the opposite would occur--it would be based on how fast sims can get to the hospital.

For every case, it should be about different problems being solved, not producing the correct numbers in the correct places over-and-over again. Each problem is parallel to the others, not orthogonal. They are different skins for the same problem. Perhaps some realism may be sacrificed to achieve a game with more unique combinations of solution sets, but radial projections of city services aren't very realistic either.

Terrain too does little to actually enrich gameplay--it's something that looks kinda pretty, gets in the way, but is always solved the same way--level it or build on top of it. Of terrain "challenges," the champion frustration is placing things on coastlines. Leveling coastlines so they're just perfect for a marina, seaport, or bridge--usually with my fingers crossed--can only be done through repetitive leveling efforts. There's no real formula for getting it right, so the only way to get it to work is guess and check. That's not fun; that's algebra.

The mother of all problems with Simcity 4 is guess and check as well, and it doesn't have a solution--at least, not out of the box. SC4's blight is traffic.

On the surface--and early in the development of a city--traffic looks like a fun problem to solve. At that point, it is. It's just a matter of upgrading roads to thicker ones. On top of that, SC4 provides you with a powerful tool for solving traffic problems--the traffic query tool. It does two things very intuitively: when you select roads, it shows you traffic going in and out of that tile so you can see where and why you have a bottleneck in one click; when you select buildings, it shows you the traffic that building produces and where it goes.

This tool is also quite a tease--a telescope to galaxies you'll never visit. Using it, you can build all the bus routes, subways, and superhighways available without turning your city into infrastructure, and most people still drive on the same damn route. They still contribute to the problem they loathe--the one that prevents a city from growing further. Perhaps this is Will Wright's own cute commentary on the human nature, but it's not any fun or realistic. As a result, the fully patched, Maxis version of the game cannot produce cities with the highest density buildings. The game is designed to have super-skyscrapers, but your cities will never have them without third-party corrections.

It reflects a lot about the game's designers when they fail to notice something that inhibits gameplay so dramatically. Will Wright made the original Simcity because he wanted to write a game he would enjoy playing.

When he wrote Simcity 2000, he had more resources available and added the things he wish he'd included in the original. Looking at SC4, it's as if they added pretty graphics, made sure it was stable, played a full map or two, and went on their merry way without really following through with the most important part of game development: enjoying it.

It shows, too. They hadn't designed a game that they wanted to play anymore, but a game they thought someone else would want to play. Making more Simcity games didn't appeal to a "broad demographic," so this dispassionate abortion was the final burn out.

They're wrong though--especially with the production of games that are "simplistic in nature and... geared toward a younger demographic." I played Simcity 2000 as a kid. It was hard, so initially, I used the cheats and used it as a sophisticated paint tool. Eventually, though I sat down and figured out how the game worked. I had to learn a few things, like the concepts of profit and loss, but it never inhibited the fun. SC2K turned economics into a puzzle, and that's a work of brilliance. Because the creator wrote a game he wanted to play, the result amazed everyone. Now, the creator's following up on something he's grown tired of, and his only new ideas involve prettier pictures--a gilded surface on a rusting core.

That's all Simcity 4 boils down to in the end--a sequence of pretty pictures. Even the buildings themselves just represent numerical values in a grand matrix at equilibrium; any change disrupts the system, which balances itself--maybe--and moves on. This was still ok in Simcity 2000; it was still novel. The designers could have used the amazing processing power of modern computers to explore further the development of cities' character--somehow diving into what makes cities unique economically and anthropologically. Instead, Simcity 4 gives us pretty pictures--a facade on top of a recycled concept. I played a lot of Simcity 4 looking for super-skyscrapers, but it was the heart of the city I never found.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Bragging Rights: Facebook Won, MySpace Lost

Recently, an event made me get back on MySpace again. Well, it didn't force me--I went on voluntarily. I was trying to get in touch with a friend--my last friend who used MySpace exclusively. His page was gone. I was a little down-trodden, but so it goes.

I realized this morning, though, that he was the last reason I ever got on MySpace. I'd never have to go back. I remembered that four-years-ago, I made a step into the unknown based on what I could observe. MySpace was ugly; Facebook was not, so I decided to get a facebook.

As it turns out, I gambled right. MySpace lost, and they lost hard. But why? One of my reservations in gambling in their favor was their strong user base. How did Facebook overcome MySpace's biggest obstacle--a massive user-base? Why did they leave? And what did MySpace turn into?

Soon after getting on Facebook, I read an article--maybe it was in Wired--about how MySpace had been bought. This douche in a suit was quoted talking about how he was gonna make MySpace into this-and-that, probably something or other about media distribution. That was their first problem; they got bought and let a suit run it. Suits can't run websites. Their MBAs taught them about revenue, not users.

I'm sure the users didn't leave because a suit showed up. They probably cared less, or if they knew, thought it sounded good. The best image I got of why MySpace failed was on Facebook when they released their API. The entire website performed the internet equivalent of a riot. People did not want to see Facebook turn into "another mySpace." They knew that MySpace was tacky and couldn't be navigated without hearing hundreds of different songs, seeing tacky color combinations, and feeling irritated. Facebook users feared this would be the fate of Facebook.

So far, Facebook's been kinder than MySpace was. Initially, the applications were in "profile boxes." They looked cluttered, so most users avoided installing but a particular few that were popular or useful. These are being fazed out. We still have to put up with Farmville, but Facebook retains usability.

I haven't looked around MySpace in years. The site looks slightly cleaner, but still cluttered. There's a giant ad for Machete on top, and movies and other crap all over the front page. At first glance, I can't tell you what the hell the website is even for or why it's worth joining.

The main page still looks like a mess. Big gif ads, and I can't find anything. Oh, right, everything's located on a thin bar on the top of the page.

Ooh, I have messages, let's see what they say:

Mark your calendar to
go dorm shopping at

Tuesday, Aug. 10 - Thursday, Aug. 12


Shop early for the best savings and personalize your new college home.

Wow, Wal-Mart. That's cool.

I also have a message from Step Up 3D. Apparently, there is "Live Stream Tonight – Flo Rida, Ne." This is just exactly what I wanted, really. I didn't even sign up for this crap, and it's being deposited directly into my inbox. Thanks for the unsolicited junk mail, MySpace, this is just what I needed.

Ooh, I have a friend request. From a rapper I've never heard of. Named Atrophy. Good luck there, Atrophy, but a pro-tip--you should be concerned with your flow, not your friend count, and especially not your friend count on MySpace. MySpace is Babylon declining. Get out before it drags you under the sand.