Archive for the ‘Games’ category

Summer 2016: Ugly Haircuts, Adult Coloring Books, Pokémon & Trump

August 13, 2016

Once in a while I put my head up just to see what’s going on in the world, and it never fails to bemuse and alarm me.  I did something similar back in 2008, and traumatized as I became at that time, I have only now attempted to take another peek.

First off, I have to say as a developing curmudgeon that men’s haircuts, the trendy ones, have become incredibly ugly.  I am of the generation that enjoyed flowing locks, although in certain cases I admit that style might have had a few scraggly, greasy, over-the-face messes.  (If you would like to relive those fabled days of yesteryear, you can listen to the song Hair….)

However this new crop often looks like a small dead furry animal draped front to back over an otherwise shaved head.

Blonde shaved sidetopknot

 

 

 

 

 

Mens-Shaved-Hairstyles

It’s just the young trying to be different, I know.  But I would like to see long hair and bell bottom jeans come back some day… although I’m glad the one fellow above has maintained the tradition of the tie-dyed shirt.

Adult Coloring Books

They were probably out there before now, but as I hang out in bookstores, those that remain, I’ve come across adult coloring books a lot this year.

As an adult, by appearances anyway, I wouldn’t be caught dead breaking out my crayons and trying, tip of my tongue peeking out in concentration, to put colors in the little spaces.  But I guess people are buying them and doing just that, probably in the privacy of their own homes.

There are an amazing variety of them: The Great Canadian Cottage Colouring Book, a Vogue Fashion Coloring Book, Paris Street Style: A Coloring Book, Chill The F*ck Out: A Swear Word Coloring Book, The Aviary: Bird Portraits to Color, and the Meditation Coloring Book.

All seem to be predicated on the idea of relieving stress, which is a good thing.  And it is good to get some color in our lives in the midst of the drabness of city streets and monochrome workplaces.

An article in Medical Daily, The Therapeutic Science of Adult Coloring Books declares that adult coloring verges on “art therapy” and the activity helps people to focus and relax.

Pokémon Go

As a semi-luddite, as indicated by my lack of a smart phone, I know only a little about Pokémon Go, all of it hearsay.  (I’m proud to state that I own a wise phone – a flip cell phone – that gives me as much interactivity as I can stand.)

But this game has taken over much of the social media world it seems, and it is a fascinating combination of the virtual and the real.

It basically is a GPS game that takes off on the similar pursuit of geocaching and that activity’s variations on orienteering.

But Pokémon Go has figured out how to monetize geocaching in a way that captures, among others, an entire generation of adults who once played Pokémon on the old Game Boy video game system.

The intriguing thing about the game is its real world activity, and how players will engage in adventures, even dangerous ones, in pursuit of the wild Pokémon.

There are the players who broke into a zoo in Toledo, Ohio to catch a (virtual) Pokémon near a (live) tiger.

Australian players invaded a police station to catch a Sandshrew (whatever that is…).

Some entrepreneurial folks are taking to Craigslist to advertise their services as professional Pokémon hunters.

And then there are the criminally inclined who use Pokémon lures to gather players to isolated areas to mug them, as happened recently in Missouri.

On a more upbeat note, as a welcome diversion for hospital patients, some are even catching Pokémons in their beds.

Trump

This is certainly the summer of Trump in the US presidential election campaign.

What can really be said about Trump that hasn’t been said?  Senator Elizabeth Warren has him nailed: “Donald Trump is a loud, nasty, thin-skinned fraud who has never risked anything for anyone and who serves no one but himself.”

I am leaning towards the view, though, after all I’ve read and seen that the man is actually mentally ill.  He may be sick in his brain.  His father died of dementia, and we may be seeing the playing out of the very early stages of such a syndrome.

Beyond the cagey  goading of the media with outrageous statements which are retracted, sort of, as jokes, there are times when he is incoherent and quite muddled.  I’m thinking especially of his response in an interview to questions about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s Crimea.  But there are many other examples.

This idea and concern about Trump’s mental and brain health is not new.  From psychologist Dan McAdams’ piece in the Atlantic, to neuroscientist Howard Gardner’s analysis quoted in RawStory, to Kathleen Parker’s column, “Could Trump Be Suffering from Dementia?” , to an article by Steve King, “Does Donald Trump Have Dementia?” the suspicion is certainly out that the man may not be all there.  Perhaps he will end up a figure of pity rather than scorn.

The current Time magazine article on Trump, “Inside Donald Trump’s Meltdown” gives rise to the same impression.  Reportedly a Clinton campaign aide said of the billionaire’s recent antics, “On other campaigns, we would have to scrounge for crumbs. Here, it’s a fire hose. He can set himself on fire at breakfast, kill a nun at lunch and waterboard a puppy in the afternoon. And that doesn’t even get us to prime time.”

At least the Olympics are on now (with their own set of problems in the midst of athletic excellence) to display a better side of humanity.

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Sources for images:

http://mulpix.com/instagram/shaved_bald_hair.html
http://www.menshairstylestoday.com/shaved-sides-hairstyles-for-men/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/426786502166444248

The Escape Game

February 22, 2014

This is something I hadn’t heard of before:  The Real Escape Room Game.  Apparently the first Real Escape Room Game has opened in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, Canada, where I live, and must be one of the first in Canada.

Teams pay money to be locked in variously themed rooms and must find a way out within a time limit.  It’s a craze popular in Asian countries at the moment and now is beginning to appear more prominently in North America.  The game apparently began in Japan several years ago, and the wave of its popularity has worked its way to China, Malaysia, Singapore and much more recently to a few places on this side of the Pacific.

It used to be that cultural innovation and trendiness might come from the eastern United States, especially New York, or from Europe, say Paris or London.  These days, and what will increasingly be the case, the Asian countries are exerting their own brand of cultural sway over the young and hip.

TimeTravelLab_640It makes sense that the game would appear in Richmond, which has Asians from many different countries but especially China making up about half its population.

The version of the game that just started here has four themed rooms: the Lost Ship, Ancient Egypt, Prison Escape and Laboratory Escape.  Four to six people pay $23 each to enter one of these rooms to work together to find their way out within 45 minutes.

The proprietor claims that it’s perfect for speed dating.  Put three pairs of guys and girls in a locked room with a few clues and they will learn about each other’s personalities in short order.

Apparently only about one percent of the teams are successful.  They are photographed and put up on the Wall of Fame, while the other 99 percent are also photographed and clipped to a Tree of Shame, which is apparently the way it’s played in Asia.

Of course, there can be frustration.  The owner charges $50 for broken props.  He showed off to a local newspaper a table top strewn with broken locks. “Use intelligence, not violence,” he says.

It can be a combination of role-playing, depending on the theme, and those Solve A Murder Mystery parlor games, with considerably more intensity involved.

There’s a few YouTube examples: Escape from the Werewolf Village and Trapped in a Cathedral are just two.

I discovered online at least one other Canadian outfit running the game in Ontario called “Adventure Rooms Canada.”  They describe their way of doing it:

Your group has 60 minutes to find its way out of a mysterious room.  This is accomplished by using logic, searching for clues and using unique items in the room to help you get through obstacles like locks and doors, etc. Once your team makes it through all the of the puzzles contained within the room you will find the final key; and unlock yourself to freedom. Only 30% of teams have escaped so far. Will you?

The adventure is very thrilling, but not dangerous at all.  It contains no horror elements, requires no physical exertion and is suitable for ages 11-77.   Our game is unique in the genre because it focuses on the puzzles and experiments with real objects, rather than being based on a specific theme or story.

We may feel we lack adventure and community in our daily lives, often especially the young, as we put widgets, systems of widgets, or instructions to systems of widgets together, and perhaps commute long distances together in isolation to do so.

This remedy seems a little artificial and perhaps too theatrical for me though.  I think I prefer to go on a good hike in beautiful scenery with my wife or with a friend.  But it might be fun to try it out, as another form of escape.

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Note:

The image comes from an American company called SCRAP in San Francisco, California which runs their version of the Escape Room game.

Saying Goodbye to Chess

March 31, 2012

Chess is the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside of an advertising agency.
— Raymond Chandler

Time is limited.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I must say goodbye to chess so that I can more reliably work on the writing of a novel.

Chess has in the course of my life been a refuge, a welcome distraction, an intellectual pleasure and training tool, a means of job entry, a way to relate to others of similar bent, and a major presence on my book shelves.

In the last decade or so, I have come to play competitively what is known as correspondence chess: chess by mail and with the rise of the internet, chess online.  I only play over-the-board occasionally with friends.

Correspondence chess online retains roughly the same format as the postal version. You receive a move, give it your consideration as you move the pieces around the board, and return your move within a few days. Tournament games can take a year or more. It may seem longwinded to the non-enthusiast but part of the pleasure of chess, it seems, is to take a lot of time thinking about it.

Chess as a refuge

I was an odd youngster and youth. At one time, just before and after puberty, whenever I was along on one of my mother’s visits to family or friends, I would always pack a board and men. I never seemed to come across kids my own age who shared my enthusiasms, including chess.

I would find someplace to sit by myself and set up the game. Sometimes I would have a book, like the Dover edition of the James Mason’s The Art of Chess, written in 1895. The Dover edition had a more recent appendix by prolific chess author Fred Reinfeld that covered many of the openings. I pored over that section particularly, trying to memorize and understand the moves. I found to my disappointment in eventual play with others that nobody ever followed the book moves!

In addition to the book study, as I sat in some corner, I would attempt to play chess games against myself. This was a peculiar kind of exercise to even attempt. As white I unfortunately knew exactly what black was trying to do, and vice versa. It was most unsatisfactory as an enjoyable way to play, and yet I persisted.

I was kind of nuts about games. Sometimes when I got tired of chess, I would haul out an old edition of Hoyle’s Rules of Games, an antique hardback with a facsimile of Edmund Hoyle’s autograph, and a deck of cards.  I would read through descriptions of the rules and deal out the hands, even for five player games, and try to work out how Bezique, Euchre, Écarté, Loo, Whist and many other games played.  The book also had articles on billiards and tennis, but I never got around to playing those against myself.

There was also a fascinating section on betting systems, including something called Martingale.  So to add to all that “fun” of playing against myself, I could also place bets!

There’s a hint of Asperger’s Syndrome in this, a kind of mild autism, perhaps… but I don’t know.  Maybe I just had the kind of brain that wanted to exercise itself this way.  If the word “nerd” had been invented yet, I might have fit into that description: bookish, introverted, glasses, keen about science fiction.  (But on the other hand, outside our cabin in northern British Columbia, I also set up a high-jump pit, an archery target area, and a boxing ring where I could put on gloves with neighbourhood tough guys.)

Chess can allow for a kind of masculine social life, going to chess clubs, playing over the board in tournaments, and that’s what it was to me from time to time through university and beyond.  Chess can also become addictive, and many eminent scholars and intellectuals have had to put aside its siren call to pursue their studies.  I read, for instance, that the philosopher Bertrand Russell was one of these.

Fortunately, I guess, in my case I was never quite good enough to pursue chess as other than a persistent hobby.  I have slow sight of the board and play speed or blitz chess poorly.  In the Canadian correspondence chess arena I did arrive at the Correspondence Chess Master title, but I’ve played inconsistently at that level.

Chess and the unruly world

I do believe that, despite its potential lure as a time-sink and undue distraction for some, chess also has much to teach us.  It should be in the mandatory curriculum of elementary and high schools. It has within it valuable lessons for kids facing an unruly world.

It teaches the following about life:

There is winning and losing.

Losing does not have to be final.  Pick yourself up, learn from what happened, and try again.

Thinking has to be independent and critical to be effective. 

Rote memory cannot cope with the unexpected.

Having deluded ideas about what the position is will always defeat you.  Clear mindedness is key.

Hating somebody who beats you is another kind of defeat which clouds your mind.

The education system could use many of these lessons that chess teaches. In fact, that’s been recognized in such places as Idaho and Quebec, and of course, Russia.

Chess over the years helped get me better jobs — once, my employer saw me playing, and when they had a position that required more responsibility and analysis, they hired me because of the intellectual image that chess maintains.

Although I’ve never been able to appear to be an intellectual, with good reason, chess has also allowed me to know and play the philosopher Gregory Bateson and the inventor and scientist Lewis Balamuth.

But for me, at this stage of my life, at my ripe age of 60, I can only look up at my cherished chess books on their shelves.  I’ve always loved the opening phase of the game, ever since that James Mason book, even though still today nobody plays exactly like the books say they’re supposed to.  The majority of my books are about the openings.

I feel a little sorry about not having a reason to crack them open any more.  I will finish the online games I have and that will be done.  It’s become more important to me now to reduce distraction and arrange my time better for writing.

I don’t do high jump or archery any more either, and I haven’t suffered too much from those “leaving behinds”.  But there is something majestic and crazed about chess.  I reflect on what people said about the great grandmaster and brief world champion Mikhail Tal, whose entire life was focused on chess at the highest level.  One person wrote that when they looked into his eyes, his gaze was as alien as a cat’s, its attention entirely channelized by the abstractions and complexities of the interactions of 32 pieces on 64 squares….

So I sacrifice chess as my move, and by this gambit, I hope to come to better writing.

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Note on images:

1) The chess diagram is from the fabled “shower of gold” game played by Frank Marshall in 1912, when his opponent resigned after the described move by Black, placing his queen right beside the Black rook or castle.  Black’s queen can be taken three different ways, but still White loses.  Supposedly onlookers were so impressed, they threw gold coins at Marshall in appreciation.

2) The Hoyle’s cover is from a 1796 version.  The one I had as a kid was considerably more recent than that, but had the same typeface and general old-fashioned appearance.

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The Olympics Came to Town

March 1, 2010

We’ve lived through the final weekend of the Winter Olympics now.

It became quite a party.

I’m not a fan of the Olympics. The “Olympic Movement” has become a con, a scam, and an avenue for corporations and friends of the government to access public dollars for projects that benefit their interests. It’s the kind of elaborate kick-back scheme that major contributors to political parties expect.

And don’t get me started on the “Olympic Family,” the portable police state, and corporate infringement of free speech and public assembly that might interfere with this oh so important sporting event.

But when the party does come to town, it would be too churlish to deny its attractions. We live in Richmond, a suburb of Greater Vancouver, which includes Vancouver International Airport, and so were in the thick of it.

Oval Main Activity Area

Richmond had one of the Olympic venues, the huge speed skating oval built from the province’s pine-beetle damaged wood specifically for the Olympics, and acclaimed as an architectural wonder even exceeding the  Olympic Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing. Its life as a skating rink will be short, I understand, and it will be turned into a community centre for a variety of activities.

P1020264I had a day off during the week, and walked over to the O-Zone, which is where the free events associated with Olympic events occurred in Richmond, on a large playing field and track with nearby ice rink and arts centre.

On that day, my camera bag was perfunctorily examined by a volunteer. Happily nothing led to a strip search. I wandered around the artificial turf of the playing field, while a school brass band played shrilly on the nearby stage.

A large flat screen showed a skiing event at Whistler. A couple stood with burnt-out Olympic torches, scorch marks still evident on their curved shells, and encouraged passers by to have photos taken with these authentic pieces of Olympic kitsch. It seemed to be a free service, and many took the opportunity.

Richmond has a very high proportion of Asian immigrants. It is the first choice of abode for many Hong Kong and mainland Chinese, and has a high proportion of East Indians as well. So it was not surprising that the majority of the faces with waving flags and maple leaf mittens were Chinese or Korean or Punjabi.

The food concessions around the edge of things were Korean, Japanese and Chinese as well, with some burgers and hotdogs thrown in. All overpriced of course. The $5 latte was a reality.

I had a small Korean pancake which was actually quite tasty, served by an attractive overdressed young woman at a ramshackle booth who spoke perfect colloquial Canadian; perhaps a college student helping out her parents.

P1020268Different countries had their pavilions at various spots in the Lower Mainland. The Dutch had theirs at the Richmond O-Zone: a building with orange and green paint and a long line up for Heinekens. Right nearby was a big Coke trailer extolling the spiritual and athletic benefits of fizzy brown sugar water.

The overall impression was that of a fall or county fair. There was a small skating rink filled with kids and their parents. There were a couple of tents of Olympic related exhibits.

It didn’t quite feel like a major international sporting event, other than for the presence of the Dutch.

But my wife and I did travel eventually to downtown Vancouver and to nearby Granville Island to take in some of the Olympic atmosphere before the closing ceremony on Sunday (although we avoided the crushing crowds of the late afternoon and evening).

I commend to you this posting from mrbeernhockey for his description of a more… intense Olympic experience in the boisterous night time.

We watched a lot of exciting and dramatic Olympic TV coverage. But now, except for the much lower key Paralympics, the party’s over.

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Detracting From the Narrative

November 19, 2009

My personal feeling is that citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course in intellectual self-defence to protect themselves from manipulation and control. — Noam Chomsky

As I grow older, it’s curious how some of the catchphrases bequeathed by my parents, and no doubt handed down by their parents, take on a halo of wisdom.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right”: that was my noisy mother shouting at three boys bent on poking and prodding each other, who would each then complain and give the excuse that the other guy started it. I’m convinced now that on the rock of that simple statement an entire ethical edifice could be constructed, for individuals, communities and nations.

“Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers”: both my father and mother this time, when as lads we might describe some political or unusual event reported fervently in the newspapers or other media.

Subversive knowledge

This subversive statement could only be a bequest from earlier generations of working class, farming and business people in both family lines. They are all unknown to me, those ancestors, although I recall a book of old photos of extremely plain and homely women in Victorian finery on my mother’s side, unknown even to her. Yet there seemed to be a strain of undisciplined, critical intelligence, usually unfocussed on the trappings of success, that descended to us, the unruly lads of my parents.

I’m struck by the mock-academic tone of some current affairs commentators — say on CNN — when they talk about the construction of narratives by politicians and their cronies, although it does encapsulate an interesting way of looking at competing factions and viewpoints. It’s all about who gets to tell the story, and who is convinced of it. It’s about manipulation of information to move people politically and ideologically, or medically.

Pandemic?

I’m thinking of the H1N1 “pandemic.” I think the World Health Organization has shot themselves in the foot this time. They’ve cried wolf about a disease that on balance is roughly comparable, or less, to the flu we all deal with every year. The northern hemisphere even had the benefit of observing the less than fearsome aspect of the “second-wave” in Australia and other southern jurisdictions.

In Canada, at least, though, we heard panicky statements about the second wave, the need for millions of doses, the spending of billions of dollars, and the lack of need for thorough testing for a “completely safe” substance (although so-called unadjuvanted vaccines would be provided for pregnant woman — to me this is strong medical doubt about the safety of the adjuvanted variety).

The newspapers and other media were full of trumpeted calls to get vaccinated right now… no time to lose, or the sky would fall.

Of course, there wasn’t enough vaccine for everybody who should have it right away. And the demand created by the media resulted in long line-ups at clinics and increasing restrictions to select groups (except for some teams of hockey players who jumped the queue — the fans might catch it from them, you know…).

Now health officials are complaining that people are starting to lose interest in getting vaccinated as the “crisis” winds down. As of today, 250 people have died of swine flu in Canada. During regular flu season, as many as 4,000 will die. Permit me to add the voice of a health official, the former chief medical officer of the province of Ontario, critical of the entire vaccine situation as it was perpetrated by the authorities and mainstream media:

“I’m not letting the media off the hook totally, but I think the real villains of the piece here have been those public health officials who have consistently overplayed and overstated the importance of what is happening.”

So the near hysteria has begun to dissipate as the fearmongering largely came to nought. This will require a new object of fearmongering.

The power of the media

This is a lovely case study of a social narrative manipulating people, and the power of the media.

I become more and more skeptical of the mass purveyors of the news — they are primarily, it seems to me, agents of social manipulation. Oh there is news, when it can be distinguished from entertainment, and occasionally useful information is brought forward, but that does not seem to be the primary purpose. I think of sportscasts on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio twice as long as the short news blurbs given without context or critical thought. I think of CNN’s relentless focus on the death of Michael Jackson for what seemed weeks. Surely there is a wide world out there, with significant events that need informed attention. No?

Recently on CBC TV I saw the host of a news show seriously question the necessity for the usual overheated rhetoric of a reporter who provided a typically fearful segment on the swine flu. This reporter readily and even pridefully gloried in the power of her report to rouse people to action and anxiety. She seemed indifferent to whether or not it might be totally accurate. It was a telling moment for me.

By the way, there’s an intriguing article by J.M. Balkin on how the media simulate political transparency — the nature of the mass media such as TV is to subvert the information they may attempt to impart. And for a more readable take on the media and propaganda check out Methods of Media Manipulation by Michael Parenti.

The struggle for the narrative

We see this struggle for the control of the mass “narrative” on every hand. Take global warming, for instance, which is considered of real concern by just about every scientific body on the planet. Yet, the real problems that are in progress right now are obfuscated by undeclared lobby groups with ostensibly respectable names and professionals specializing in denial funded by big power. The tobacco industry went through the same process when the link to cancer became obvious, but apparently the money behind the current crop of global warming skeptics is even more stupendous.

Sometimes there’s not even a struggle: the “narrative” is taken as given and it becomes a subtext of the culture at large… I think of the constant and subtle glorifications of war that go on continuously in the media and in our hearts.

When I was a kid, living in a log cabin lined with books in the wilds of British Columbia, my mother at some point ordered for us the logic game Wff ‘N’ Proof. She aspired for us more than we were capable of or interested in: I don’t think my brothers and I ever seriously played it, preferring the excitement of Risk and Pit to the arid climes of logic.

Lorne Greene

But as part of that same game package, there was The Propaganda Game, co-written by Lorne Greene, of Bonanza fame and old-time CBC radio announcer. (Interestingly, he acted in the HBO mockumentary The Canadian Conspiracy, about the supposed subversion of the United States by Canadian-born media personalities.)

I remember in the game documents that he expressed concern about the need for independent thinking from the citizenry, and this was his way of contributing.   I spent some time with The Propaganda Game, although again my younger brothers weren’t very keen on playing. They always claim I cheat…

In the game, players learn to identify prejudice, causal oversimplification, faulty analogy, tabloid and wishful thinking, hasty generalization, attacking a straw man, appeals to ignorance, emotion, flattery, pity, prestige, etc. (For a short course on the mechanisms of propaganda covered in the game see these excerpts…. )

The “Expert Game”

In the “expert game,” one seeks examples from the real world.

Why is this, or something very similar, not taught seriously in every school at every level? Who controls the narrative on these kinds of enquiries as a staple of education?

In his article on the manipulation of images as a means of controlling the social narrative about the Iraq war, David Hiles cites Noam Chomsky’s plea above.

In a heartening related article, teacher educators Mark Hofer and Kathleen Swan examine how educating students about the technology of photo manipulation can give insight into how to best “read” images.

The power of technology, its speed and versimilitude in controlling narratives, is substantially more than in Lorne Greene’s day.

I found this journal article excerpt by Anthony Kubiak on the narrative of terror and terrorism to have a useful discussion on what “narrative” actually means. He states narrative and the structures it builds are prior to language. I’m not sure…

And whatever the basis of terrorism, that one man’s terrorist can be, sorrowfully, another man’s role-model, brings home to me that my parents’ compressed truths above would do well to hold sway.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right. Don’t believe what you read in the papers.”  Thanks, all my relatives.

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BananaSlug – Internet Toy

March 8, 2009

I use search engines a lot and unavoidably, of course, Google. Despite all its strengths, I have previously mentioned a favored alternate, Shmoogle, which randomly mixes up the results of a typical Google search. Sometimes you find just the right reference that otherwise might have been buried on page 10 of a normal search.

Google must hate it, because it messes up their finely calibrated mix of utility and commerce. In fact, Shmoogle has started to become popular enough that Google has now taken to occasionally blocking it when the traffic gets heavy.

Banana SlugBut just the other day I came across a new Internet toy, BananaSlug. New to me, since this unusual search engine has been around since 2005 or so.

What does it do? The website explains it this way:

With normal Google searching, there are many web pages that you may never have a chance to see. So BananaSlug throws in a random word from a category of your choice. This results in pages you probably overlooked. They all have your search term in them, but the added twist gives you something new every time!

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a primitive instinct at play on the Internet, with a fascination that holds sway over many of us, especially men. It’s a 21st Century, electronic version of hunting and gathering. Since first hanging out around smoky campfires in our bison (or muskox or wolf) robes, men have been obsessed with the hunting and the searching and the finding and taking of those necessary resources that the wilderness held for them. For our ancient forebears, it must have felt during good times like a universe of generous gods holding out intoxicating varieties of sustenance. The ageless hunt has just gone more cerebral and abstractly gratifying in this age of Blackberries, and Leopard operating systems, camped out as we are in the wilds of the information age.

(Of course this has occurred to others as well… )

BananaSlug calls itself a “long-tail” search engine, which means it tries to get at all those references that aren’t necessarily the most popular.

It does this by adding an extra word that it will assign randomly or that you may choose from a variety of categories such as Animals, Archetypes, Emotions, Great Ideas or Themes from Shakespeare. It will only give you 10 results each time, but it is easy to repeat (although with a different random word being assigned).

(Adding an extra word from Shakespeare for a search is quite topical for me, since last week my wife and I went to a Shakespeare play for the first time ever here in Vancouver. It was the rarely performed Coriolanus, which is not considered one of his major works but was still an interesting look at Shakespeare’s take on politics.  “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends” and “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourself scabs?”)

So let’s do a variety of searches for the heck of it using BananaSlug and see if items of interest rear up. Choosing the Themes from Shakespeare category for my first attempt, let’s try “watercolor technique OR tip.” The randomly assigned seed word was “guidance.”

One useful reference that didn’t come up on the first page of a regular Google search was that of an article on the watercolor technique of American George Grosz. I learned: “In his small book on watercolor technique, Adolf Dehn wrote that Grosz’s “favorite five-color palette is Prussian blue, alizarin deep red, cadmium yellow light, English red, [and] yellow ochre light. Emerald green can be added as a sixth color, which he sometimes employed.” Grosz also experimented with adding egg white to his watercolors.

Let’s try something else: “obscure OR forgotten rock music song“. Taking our random word from the category Archetypes, we get “god” as the random word. That’s a good one. The winner from that search which didn’t come up at Google on the top was 50 (Mostly) Obscure Songs You Should Listen To (With Links) . There’s a lot of bands there I’ve never heard of, with more hip hop and rap among the list than I’d normally tolerate. But there’s some intriguing mentions like the band Dogs Die in Hot Cars with their song, “Godhopping,” and Insane Clown Posse with “Nothing’s Left.”

Moving on, let’s try “board game” with a random throw in from Great Ideas of “religion.” Here’s an interesting link from USA Today of all places, “‘Playing God’ satirizes religious violence.”

playinggodsx-largePlaying Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination bills itself as “the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare.”

The player can choose from Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed or make an all-powerful being themselves such as Oprah, Elvis, a stein of Beer, Satan, or the Almighty Dollar. The game entails a lot of death and destruction aimed at followers of gods other than yours.

A professor of religion opined that the big chain stores would likely not be carrying the game .

As a last effort let’s try “write fiction OR novel OR creative” with the random word “callous” thrown in from the Emotion category. This turned up one interesting link to letters to Salon.com about the article there, “Why Can’t A Woman Write the Great American Novel.” Several letter writers noted that there’ve been a number of writers of that calibre, such as Willa Cather and Harper Lee. An interesting article and discussion around that provocative, indeed callous, query.

So there you have it: BananaSlug, a toy, a plaything for idly rowing about the information ocean, so that you may occasionally pause, set down the oars, and trail your hand.

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Google Hacking Exposes China’s Bold Olympic Cheating

August 23, 2008

It’s been fascinating to read the last few days about the blatant cheating by the Chinese government with its “women’s” gymnastics team. Many of the Chinese little girls were obviously under the age of 16, and yet their passports all surprisingly made them at least 16 years old, the minimum age to compete. (Apparently in women’s gymnastics, being as young and slight as possible is an advantage, and so that age limit was instituted to level the playing field and reduce the impact of excessive training on very young female bodies and minds.)

gymnastIt’s not only the boldness of the cheating, but the arrogance, and investment, of the Chinese government in maintaining the lie that these girls were old enough that makes one take notice. They issued passports with the purported age… how dare anyone question that? This is how they operate in their country. The massive propaganda show of the Olympics Games, calculated especially for internal consumption, is in support of this ultimate control of the state.

And then one has the spectacle of the craven International Olympic Committee, a bunch of old prostitutes who are in the business of selling themselves to the highest bidder and calling it the Olympic spirit. They may, or may not, bring themselves to take a look at how the Chinese government rigged the deck and went on to insist on a shit-eating grin from the rest of the world.

How do we know about the cheating? Associated Press previously found documents on Chinese websites that showed several of the girls as aged 14. Chinese officials dismissed these as mistakes.

But most recently, in the last couple of days, a lone blogger named Mike Walker, an Internet security expert of some kind who has his own blog called Stryde Hax, has delved into the guts of search engines, both Google in its Chinese and English forms and the Chinese search engine Baidu. The search engines commonly save page content in caches for some time, and even after the Chinese government suspiciously made several pages referring to the girls’ true ages disappear suddenly, Walker was able to retrieve the original documents from these caches. And it is the Chinese government’s official documents themselves that put the lie to the charade.

Others as well have begun delving into the depths of what the search engines’ contain and have found other confirming documentation. And it is this most recent Google hacking that has pushed the IOC into mumbling about asking for more documentation from the Chinese, while apologizing for even bringing the subject up.

I do a lot of searching on the Internet, pursuing various interests and in aid of writing this blog, but I’ve never really paid much attention to this activity of using Google and other search engines to look for under-the-radar documents, even confidential and secret in some cases. This sort of activity could venture into the illegal, I suppose, if information such as credit card numbers and identity numbers are misappropriated and used for fraudulent purposes.

But a lot of the search engine hackers are like computer hackers in general… they want to know, they want to find skillful ways of knowing, and they like to go around barriers just because they can.

google hackAnd some of those hackers get jobs doing what they do best, like Johnny Long, a so-called “white hat” hacker who has been often hired to try to break the security of various applications and networks.

He started to play with Google hacking as a lark just before the turn of the millenium, and thought the term itself a bit of a joke, compared to real hacking. Then he found that you can look up credit card numbers, passwords and lots of material marked “secret” on these search engines. And since then, many more have joined in to explore what can be found, while Long has set up an intriguing website called http://johnny.ihackstuff.com/ around which a Google hacking community has formed.

Google hacking is about using the right search terms and syntax. For instance, from the Google Hacking Data Base (GHDB) on Long’s site, one subcategory is called “Files containing juicy information.” Let’s take a look there.

Here’s one: “not for distribution” confidential, as a search string. It brings up a lot of not very stimulating confidential draft PDFs, not for distribution, but I suppose if you wanted to you could find something embarrassing about somebody somewhere.

Under another subcategory from the database called “Files containing passwords” we find such searches as intitle:”Index of” passwd passwd.bak. In the database comments, there are also derisive notes about “Google dorks” who offer up their passwords and other confidential information unknowingly. This is a cautionary tale.

Another site offers selected Google hacks in a program that can be downloaded. People sometimes use these strategies to detect problems with their own network or website, as well.

I wonder how this kind of activity goes over with those who regard Google as a god. Yes, over at the Church of Google, they say “Google is the closest thing to an Omniscient (all-knowing) entity in existence, which can be scientifically verified.” I like the idea of hacking God.

shmoogleBut my favorite Google hack, if we can call it that, is the search engine Shmoogle. It takes your basic Google search and then just randomizes it in terms of relevance. I often get annoyed by the same old top of the list entries for a search, especially if they’re commercial, and Shmoogle mixes all that up. Sometimes you can find a useful gem buried at what would be the Google location of No. 475, say, many pages in, rising to the surface on the first page of Shmoogle.

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Additional note:  See the post Olympic Gymnastic Cheating Revisited for more on the Chinese Olympic aspect….