Archive for the 'Living' Category

The Esquire gamer never shoots for the face.

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

(or: The dire state of video game criticism.)

Stephen Marche in this post and this month’s Esquire claims that Modern Warfare 2 “may be the first protest game.” Even if I amend his sentiment to be “the first wildly successful protest game” (MW2 has set a number of video game sales records) I still can’t get this to parse.

(MW2 screenshot — click to enlarge.)

Marche sees MW2 as a protest for two reasons.  First, the game comments on your character’s death by displaying jarring anti-war quotes (“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” –Confucious).

Second, Stephen Marche is personally confused while playing it (he writes: “I keep asking myself: Why am I here? Whom am I killing?”). I think he believes this is a feeling the game intends to evoke in order to demonstrate the pointlessness of war.

This is the kind of commentary that you get when you put an old-media critic on the spot and ask him something about video games.  Given the importance of video games for… well… masculinity, I can see that Esquire magazine (Marche’s employer) would like someone in those pages to write something smart about them.  Yet the rest of Marche’s writing on culture is mostly about movies and TV, and it shows.  He writes about video games as someone who doesn’t seem to know a thing about them.  (The first protest game? Come on!)  And he writes a commentary on a particular game (MW2) without spending enough time with it to know that he sounds foolish.  Would a television critic write about a TV show without watching it?  Yet that’s the state of the art in high-culture game commentary.

Marche seems to have connected MW2 and the Iraq war based on the box art and the introduction.  That’s quite a gaffe for a critic– like reviewing a movie based only on the trailer. The game’s storyline is about a war with Russia, and the most jarring and memorable moments are a scene when the player is asked to kill civilians as an undercover operative storming a Russian airport, and several scenes where the player must repel Russian paratroopers from strip malls and mega-mansions in the suburbs of northern Virginia.  See a big link to Iraq there, Marche?  I didn’t think so.

Red Dawn: The ‘ Burbs (actually MW2; click to enlarge.)

As any player will know, MW2 also quotes Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and the jarring anti-war quotes include “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose” (Dick Cheney).  Earlier games in the Call of Duty series quote Oscar Wilde  and that masterful anti-war commentator Lois McMaster Bujold.  And as you can already tell, I don’t think the pointlessness and confusion is particularly evoked by MW2.  I think Marche would be hard-pressed to find MW2 gamers to agree with him.

There is a lot in MW2 that deserves critique.  I’m sure the MW2 plot of a more straightforward war with Russia and an evil Putin-like figure is a lot more appealing to audiences than the war we are actually fighting.

That’s not Marche’s premise but some of his points have promise.  He argues that The Hurt Locker is almost more of a video game than it is a movie, and that the Iraq War is a video game war.  (The first Iraq war was supposed to be the video game war due to the smart weapons, but whatever.)  But how can you develop these comparisons when you only know about one half of them?

I’ve always liked the kind of manliness that Esquire tries to evoke.  The Esquire man wants to read advice about cufflinks, politeness, and how to order fancy drinks.  Yet video games are now well established as a common domain of men–not boys–and it still isn’t clear how an Esquire man would play them, or comment on them.

Perhaps the Esquire man always uses a silenced weapon and never shoots for the face?  He always uses a bespoke controller and never does any nuke boosting?  To know the answers and to get a meaningful commentary on MW2 we’ll have to wait for some mass audience video game critics who know what they are doing.

On Systems Thinking, Part 2 (The Revenge)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

In a previous post “On Systems Thinking” I foolishly said that I loved my steam heating system and that I had fixed it.  This was too much hubris for the universe to stand, and so it broke.  The funny thing is, it broke in a way that is very puzzling to me — so puzzling that no one can figure out what is wrong.

Everything used to work, then I suddenly started having trouble with four out of my twenty radiators.  They are all grouped in one area of my house.  I made a sketch of the problem area here:

my kmc-vacuum system problem area (PDF scan of a drawing that I made)

Everything to the left of the drawing works.
Everything to the right of the drawing works.
Everything in the drawing used to work.

Because I have an unusual heating system (the K-M-C Vacuum System: state of the art in 1906) there are no vents on my radiators.  There is only one vent in the basement.  This is what makes it a real puzzler to me.  If the vent line were blocked, everything to the left should not work.  But the fact that the stuff on the left works and the stuff on the right works means the vent line must be working OK, at least in the basement.

Two of the radiators warm up a little at the middle of the heating cycle (I labeled them #2 and #3), right when I would expect them to.  Then they cool down.  They cool down while the boiler continues to fire and well before the system shuts off.  So the boiler is steaming but the steam is not going here for some reason.  But the fact that they DID get warm at all means that the steam CAN get there and the venting does work briefly.

I’m really not sure what to do.  This is a major problem as 4/20 radiators not heating means a big part of my house is suddenly not livable! Any ideas?

I’ve also posted this on  In case it helps, here is a flickr photoset of my radiators that I put on the previous post.  I keep re-reading Dan Holohan’s books hoping for a flash of insight that will let me understand what is going on inside these pipes but nothing is coming to me.  Aaarrrgh.

Five things I like about Cambridge, Massachusetts

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

(Potentially a continuing series…)

  1. Clover Food Lab
  2. This giant snake (click to enlarge slightly):

    Cambridge House Snake

  3. Petsi Pies
  4. The MIT Press Bookstore
  5. The smell.  (Maybe it’s the sea air?  It smells fresh.)

I’ll post more if I like more things.

Institutional Dynamics of Internet Studies as Revealed by Coffee Mugs

Friday, October 16th, 2009

The University of Illinois [InfoStructure] (left):  Proletarian.  The standard shape — one size fits all.  Midwestern earnestness.  Plain fonts.  “I (heart) INFO” = funny, but in an over-eager sort of way.  Obvious.  Hardworking.

Oxford Internet Institute (center):  Effete. European. But stylish handle.  “We are near France but not French.” Our coffee is smaller but stronger.  So what if you have to squint to read the writing — it’s worth it.

Harvard’s Berkman Center (right):  Stylish, rounded, large.  Says: “We in the Ivy League can afford more coffee.”  Real intellectuals wear black.  (But… trying too hard?)

On Systems Thinking

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

When we bought our 1904 house we inherited a monster of a heating system.  Steam radiators in every room, and when we moved in it didn’t work well — lots of banging, some radiators didn’t heat up at all, and the energy bill was EXPENSIVE.  Worse, the temperature set on the thermostat didn’t seem connected to what happened in the house.  On top of it all, this was some kind of system that none of our contractors were familiar with.  They would arrive and stare at the fittings and you could see a kind of doubting look come into their faces even though they tried to conceal it.  For a while we paid them to adjust things that didn’t need adjusting and add things that didn’t need to be added.  The system didn’t work any better.

Finally I got down to business.  By examining this antique gauge (which appears to measure a vacuum in bars of mercury) I figured out that I had a Kellogg-Mackay-Cameron Co. Vacuum System installed in 1906, based on Morgan’s patent.

(See also the flickr photoset for my heating system.)

I managed to find the original product literature [PDF] on a steam heating enthusiast web site.  I found the original patent on Google Patents. Heady with this success, I thought — why not look for the original repair instructions that would be written for the steamfitters of the day?  I found the book 500 Plain Answers to Direct Questions on Steam, Hot Water, Vapor, and Vacuum Heating (1915) on Google Books.

I don’t know anything about do-it-yourself projects in the home.  I am not good with my hands.  But no one seemed able to solve this one for me, so I dove in.  After a lot of reading I ended up performing three adjustments.  Two involved a screwdriver and one a wrench.  That’s it.  It took me two weeks to understand the system and 15 minutes to fix it.   Just after I finished the last adjustment there was a terrific whooshing noise and the heat started to work — and work beautifully.  It gives me a new perspective on cybernetics.  The solution is never near where you see the problem.  As Dan Holohan, the leading chronicler of steam heating enthusiasm, writes:

A steam system is like a child’s mobile. When you touch one part, everything else starts swaying. If you’re not sure what will happen when you touch something, don’t touch it.

My system now produces a cozy, dry heat that my allergist says is far superior to forced air.  It’s much quieter.  My heating bill dropped substantially (it is lower than an equivalent forced air system would be in my house, but the maintenance cost is higher for the steam system).

Like many others, I ended up with an enduring appreciation for steam.  These systems were so well-made and also so clever and complex.  The thought that went into a normal household heating system in 1906 boggles my mind.  Dan Holohan calls his classes on these systems the Dead Men’s Steam School.  (Everyone who designed these systems is dead.)

While steam radiators have a reputation for being trouble-prone heating systems, in fact the main problem is that nearly everyone that knows how to build, operate, and maintain one is dead.  And what craft! My system is 100 years old and works very well. As I learned from Holohan’s writing, it is quite common to encounter parts of these systems that no one alive understands and (until recently) weren’t documented anywhere.  If that knowledge were more widespread and steamfitters (and spare parts) were as common as they once were I think steam would rule the world.  I guess this is another case study in path-dependence.

Pick up The Lost Art of Steam Heating and you won’t be disappointed.  This book is worth buying for Dan’s chronicles of famous boiler explosions alone.

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