Paul the Psychic Octopus: HE’S STILL ALIVE!

I do not mean to alarm you, but we are all in great danger. A few days ago, the planet lost its only proven psychic being, known to us as as Paul the Psychic Octopus. Or at least that’s what the critics may say…

While there is already talk of the world-wide World Cup conspiracy to murder the psychic being, the general public has yet to realise that Paul is still very much with us. I’ll let you in on a little secret. By that, I mean I present you with INCONTROVERTIBLE PROOF that the two year-old cephalopod is none other than the very star-spawn of the destroyer Cthulhu!

Just in case you can't tell the difference, that's Cthulhu on the left, and Paul on the right.

Firstly, a little background. Paul, the ‘psychic octopus’ successfully predicted the outcome of all seven of Germany’s World Cup games, and also the outcome of the world World Cup final. Like many others, I was unwavering in my belief that there was always more to this magical sea creature than meets the eye.

Who is Cthulhu? I am aware that many of you may not know of the works of divine prophet and ‘science-fiction author’ H.P. Lovecraft. Essentially, Cthulhu is a land-faring, giant octopus type creature, who has the power to raze the earth of human life if and when he sees fit. Lovecraft knew the truth, and saw this coming. For more proof, look no further than the Cult of Cthulhu, which dedicates itself to prophesising Cthulhu’s return to this world, and its inevitable destruction.

Cthulhu currently lies dormant in the underwater city of R’lyeh, waiting for the correct time to strike. The trigger for this reawakening is unknown, whether it be World War Three, or simply an over-abundance of Boris Bikes. Suffice to say, we should all be very careful about everything from not relieving yourself in the sea, to doing everything we can to fight global warming, lest we disturb this mighty beast from his slumber. Still, I’m straying from the point, and this is all (pretty much) common knowledge anyway.

Anyone with even the slightest bit of knowledge of Lovecraft’s prophecies could easily see that ‘Paul’ was star-spawn; a child of Cthulhu, who simply got caught in the act. Appearing on earth from the farthest gulfs of space, star-spawn like Paul helped Cthulhu construct R’lyeh, before leaving their underwater sanctuary to exist amongst humans. Sure, Paul was somewhat foolish to remain in his original form, as it is widely documented that star-spawn possess transformative powers, but it is very unlikely that Paul met his end as a result of old age. By my reasoning, in an attempt to escape the limelight and prevent anyone from discovering his true identity, PAUL STAGED HIS OWN DEATH. I have no doubt that he is very much alive, either having transformed himself into something less conspicuous, or travelling to R’lyeh to await Cthulhu’s awakening with his star-spawn brethren.

DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE ‘PAUL’. Star-spawn may be only a fraction of the size of Cthulhu, but possess equivalent powers. They are highly dangerous, and can shape-shift at will. It is of the utmost importance that you remain vigilant, for Paul could be anywhere, or anything right now.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however! Spread the word about Paul, so the truth can be known. If we band together, we can surely find him, and stop him from reaching R’lyeh, which may cause unmentionable destruction if he manages to wake Cthulhu. WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN. Alert your friends and family to the situation, and get the word out there. It is only with your cooperation that we can save humanity.

Go well, and be strong, for the end may well be near.


Market Research Surveys can learn a lot from RPGs

I’m sure at some point throughout our lives, we’ve all completed a market research survey. Surveys, generally, are a tool utilised by organisations or research agencies to find things out the public’s perception of something, whether it’s Wayne Rooney or wasabi peas. They’re handy because they’re relatively cheap to administer, compared to other forms of market research, and can easily provide some comforting numbers which say something about whatever product is being analysed.

Now, I’ve never been a fan of contemporary market research; surveys in particular. I do not profess to be a marketing expert, or a research buff, but there’s a growing trend of insurgency against the status quo of market research. Indeed, there are already a number of eloquent expositions of why market research doesn’t work, that are already out there. While (in my opinion), surveys don’t work, and are inaccurate, realistically, it’s sad to say that they’re not going anywhere fast. There are actions that can be taken, however, within the existing frameworks of market research surveys, that can serve to make such surveys more accurate. This is where RPGs (Role Playing Games, not Rocket Propelled Grenades, in case you were wondering) come in.

I’d like to start with a story. A couple of days ago, I filled out a market research survey. It was a cold, miserable day, and I was sad that I couldn’t go running. This all could have affected my mood, which could have understandably heightened, or had an effect on my responses to the survey I completed. There was one thing this survey was guilty of, though, which essentially forced me into giving inaccurate answers. This was poor research design.

Let’s break this down for a minute. A survey, generally, is a mass of questions that you answer about a certain product, or a certain product range, or market sector. Let’s say, for example, you were filling in a survey about chewing gum. Usually, at the beginning of every survey, there are a few verification questions that check that the survey you’re about to complete is relevant to you. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to assume that one of these verification questions would ask if you chew chewing gum. Personally, I have bought and chewed gum in the past, but don’t make a habit of it. However, in most cases, my answer would probably serve as an adequate response for the purposes of this survey. Getting past the verification questions would then trigger an onslaught of questions about every colour, shape, and flavour of chewing gum under the sun. In essence, I would be made to answer about chewing gum I had never used before, or had no prior experience with. If I am asked about how I would bring a certain brand of gum up in a friendly conversation, if I’m blatantly honest, I wouldn’t.

My own experience with surveys (I’m signed up to a service that e-mails me the things daily) has led me to believe that the common survey is all too linear for anything of worth to be derived from its results. Let’s return to my own survey I completed a couple of days ago, which coincidentally, was about chewing gum. If I state that I don’t chew a certain brand of gum, and have never purchased it, I don’t expect follow-up questions about how I think that certain brand of gum tastes, and what I think of that company’s transmedia communications, such as their Facebook or Twitter page. Really, I think that in order to yield more accurate results, the vast majority of surveys should alter the later questions in a survey, depending on the answers given to the initial, post-verification questions.

To me, this realisation stirred musings of a certain familiarity, about things that are a bit closer to home, at least for me. What I’m describing sounds like a recent (but not new) effort in RPG design, to construct varied, non-linear narratives, that change depending on the choices the player makes throughout the game.

I should explain myself. When I say that the movement is recent, developers like Eidos Montreal, who are working on the much-anticipated Deus Ex: Human Revolution, are waking up to the fact that the player, depending on the choices they make, need not see every single level built into a game on a single playthough. What we’re talking about is a branching level structure, which in itself is something has been around for decades, such is evident in the level structure of arcade classic After Burner, which shifts you to various levels depending on whether or not you achieve certain objectives as you’re playing. Games with multiple endings have also been around for a considerable amount of time, with the most apparent example to me being Silent Hill 2, some versions of which had 6 individual endings.

This isn’t about multiple endings, however. This is about a branching narrative structure embedded into surveys that alters what questions are asked depending on the answers given. For instance, returning to chewing gum, if I explain early on that I’ve never tried Wrigley’s Big Chew (TM) gum, I don’t expect any more questions on it for the rest of the survey. What would I know about this particular chewing gum that I’ve never even tried? Sure, you’re going to end up with less numbers at the end of the day, but at least these numbers are more reliable, than, say, quizzing a collection of old people on who their favourite Teletubbies are.

This isn’t to say for a minute that I’m agreeing that market research is either good or useful; I just can’t see things changing any time soon. I’m only trying to do my bit to make it less terrible.


I Gave Blood

Today was my second visit to donate. I arose bright and early, filled out the questionnaire I’d been sent a few weeks ago, then toddled along to Chiswick Town Hall, which is to be my new donating site since moving back home.

What met me, other than a long wait (entirely my fault for accidentally turning up an hour early) was the standard procedure where you sign in, drink a big cup of water, and wait alongside all the other prospective donors. I would suggest, especially to anyone as foolish as me, to take a book. You’re then called to a short ‘interview’, where you’re asked if you’ve licked any mosquitoes as of late, or have been in contact with anyone who has been in contact with anyone who has contracted the West Nile virus. They also take a drop of blood from your finger to check your blood’s iron levels. Mine is great, apparently.

After a short wait in a different area of the Town Hall, I was ushered towards a bed, and told to lie down. My arm was prodded by a trainee who called in for backup to deal with my ‘pesky’ veins. A little sting later, and I was half man, half machine; or something. I was told to rub my thumb and forefingers together, as if I was trying to start a fire with them. I was also informed that I should flex my thighs and buttocks to help stimulate blood flow. As a long-distance runner, I took this as a personal challenge, and started flexing and rubbing with immense vigour, desperate to complete my donation quicker than those around me. I won, thankfully, but unfortunately didn’t time myself. When the donation was completed, I sat up and applied pressure to my arm, while a kind nurse stuck a plaster on it. A quick cup of water and a packet of crisps later, and I was off on my merry way, not before scheduling another appointment for February.

In all seriousness, if you’re in a good state of health, it’s immensely important that you give blood. The whole process which I’ve illustrated to you is very hassle-free. Subtracting the hour I sat around for being early, the whole donation process took thirty minutes. As I’ve said before, the Blood.co.uk site is also remarkably easy to use, and allows you to find and register for an appointment in your area in a matter of minutes, without having to sign up or register for anything.

You could really save someone’s life in half an hour, every four months. That’s an hour and a half of your time each year, leaving 8764.3 hours to do whatever else you desire. If you’ve signed up to the National Blood Service, please, make an appointment if you haven’t already. If you’re not signed up, then make an appointment at blood.co.uk. You’ll be making the best decision you’ll make all day.


The Social Network: What I Thought

The Social Network is renowned for being, quite deservedly, one of the highest rated films on RottenTomatoes, the only problem being that I can’t ascertain why this is. The film documents Mark Zuckerberg’s journey to stardom, from launching Facebook from his dorm room at Harvard, to enjoying the title of youngest ever billionaire. Unlike many, I have tried to keep on top of Facebook’s clashes with litigation over the years, what with people claiming IP rights over the site, and so on. Luckily, most people aren’t like me, and don’t obsess over the things such as this. It would seem, then, that the film’s appeal isn’t in its story. That isn’t to say it isn’t a well-strung narrative. It truly is. Zuckerberg’s story is relayed to us through a series of committee meetings, and legal depositions, where slowly, we see Zuckerberg’s story unravel, one piece at a time. It’s a story that is told very well, and will have you engrossed. What is the film’s appeal, then? It’s acted well, the music fits just right, and for some, it may even move you.

I think the magic of this film is that we can all relate to it. The premise is far less boring than it sounds, and what is revealed to the audience is a tale of friendship, betrayal, honour, and above all, unrequited love. Like most films in this vein, it both starts, and ends with a girl. The film opens with Zuckerberg’s then girlfriend, Erica Albright (played by Rooney Mara) breaking up with Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). What then unfolds is a fabulous story led by Zuckerberg’s insecurities, and his quest for not only recognition with women, but recognition from his Ivy League peers, and their fraternity network. Along the way, you’ll see how Zuckerberg’s relationship with his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook, evolves. You’ll see Zuckerberg clash with well-backed socialites Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, owners of social network ConnectU, who claim Zuckerberg ‘stole their idea’ for Facebook from a joint project they all worked on. You’ll also see how entrepreneur Sean Parker, creator of Napster, had a profound effect on Facebook’s evolution. The story definitely has some weight to it, to its credit, with every turn causing the audience to question what exactly is going on in Zuckerberg’s head.

Zuckerberg is portrayed as a ‘typical’ geek; lacking in social skills, but academically brilliant. However, there’s always an idea lying on the table that Zuckerberg isn’t comfortable in being how he is. It’s almost like he is driven in his endeavours to become something better, whether a ‘jock’ on the rowing team, a hit with the ladies, or simply someone who is popular, and well liked. With so many competing themes at play, it’s sometimes hard to decipher why not only Zuckerberg, but the supporting characters act as they do. For instance, Cameron Winklevoss’ initial refusal to sue Zuckerberg, who advocates to deal with his disagreement with Zuckerberg like a ‘Harvard man’, is one notable example. Another is a move made by Saverin towards the end of the film, which could likely have jeopardised their entire operation. While there is a lot of confusion as to the motivations of the film’s characters, that’s part of its beauty, and humanises the characters it portrays to a great degree. These characters feel, more or less, just like you or I. Of course, it’s not every day that we sue our best friends for 600 million dollars, but the feeling is there that this is real life, only escalated to gargantuan proportions. That, I think is what makes this film really special.

How would I rate it, then? I would definitely see the film again, given the chance. I’m also most certainly purchasing it when it’s released. The Social Network is a wonderful film, which is certainly most worthy of your attention.


Digital Narcissism and Physical Life

Watch this. It’s funny.

Did you enjoy that? I sure hope so! It’s a funny angle for Microsoft to be pitching their Windows Phone 7 handsets from, but it does sort of make sense, at least to me.

I was just reading a speech by funny-man and self-confessed Twitter addict Greg Stekelman, on the narcissistic implications of Twitter, which was ironically thrown my way, via Twitter. It’s a wonderful read, which makes you think about how social media, Twitter in particular, is affecting our behaviour. Stekelman himself admits to tweeting on buses about being on buses, and being very much detached from the physical world. This, I think, is where the above advertisement’s message comes in.

We all love attention, and we all crave it. It may be the main pull of social media, which is why we do things like Twitter, and tweet about how we’re, say, sipping tea at the foot of the Taj Mahal, or why we insist on putting up inordinate amounts of photos on Facebook of our holidays to Greece. We get it. Once you’ve seen one donkey, you’ve seen ’em all. Still, somewhere in this mad frenzy of social media production, we’ve forgotten about things like our families, our Tamagochis, and our dinner that’s burning to a crisp in the oven. That’s fine, though, because you can tweet about your dinner, and create a newfangled Facebook group in memory of how Skippy the Tamagochi filled up his digital cage with poop, and asphyxiated himself with his own faeces. Still, all that’s boring. Well, I’m sure it’s fine, really, but you can’t stop yourself from living your life because of it.

Stekelman, in his speech, talks about pre-tweeting. The act of tweeting in one’s own head, when you’re unable to actually tweet. It’s something we’re all guilty of, myself included. Still, it’s this media pre-production that can make us do stupid things, and stop us enjoying what’s literally in front of us, though some odd desire to document an event you’re experiencing so your following can experience whatever it is vicariously, through you, whether or not they want to.

Case in point. Last year, I went to see one of my favourite bands, Nine Inch Nails, on their farewell tour. Nine Inch Nails are great. I love them and their music a lot. Still, it seems to be that whenever I go to gigs these days, I always take a camera and snap away like a rabid tourist (when it’s allowed, of course) so I can upload these photos to Facebook, and prove to my friends that I attended a monumental show. In a way, this is good, because everyone who wasn’t able to attend the gig gets to experience it through my photographs, and they all think I’m very cool for sharing, and I get cool points, or whatever. The downside is that I have to experience the gig through the LCD screen on my camera, while I fiddle furiously with the manual settings to try and get a good shot of Trent Reznor’s beautiful face. All in all, documenting the gig in such a way had dampened my enjoyment somewhat. With this particular gig, it was weird. It was almost like I wasn’t experiencing it first-hand at all, but instead was experiencing a reproduction of the experience. It was a meta-experience. The result? Nine Inch Nails have now gone on hiatus, and I’m quite sad that I passed up the opportunity to go nuts in front of them, because of the prospect of digital props.

Learn from my mistakes people. Don’t let social media rule your life. As I’ve said many times in this blog, social media is a fantastic, wonderful thing, and I’m not knocking it. However, when it starts impacting on your physical life to the degree where you stop enjoying physical things, you have to do something about it.


Banksy does ‘The Simpsons’

If you haven’t heard, seminal artist and public anarchist, Banksy, has somehow been drafted in to direct the intro sequence to an episode of ‘The Simpsons’, which you can view below.

It features an extended ending sequence that depicts Fox’s animation studios as a sweatshop, which is something of a overt reference to claims that Fox outsource most of their animation to South Korea. Among other things, you’ll see a child playing with toxic waste, kittens being ground down to provide stuffing for Bart Simpson dolls, and a shackled unicorn being used to pierce holes in ‘The Simpsons’ DVDs. It’s quite a moving experience, really, and it’ll be nice to see how this sequence links to the rest of the episode.

While I was certainly moved when I first saw this video, it was an experience that my Facebook friends didn’t quite share. On the contrary, some were outraged, and accused Banksy of ‘selling out’; a horrible term that has been bandied around to the extent where it’s lost all meaning. Did Banksy sell out, in allowing Fox, the all-singing, all-dancing conglomeration of Capitalism to use his work, and possibly (quite likely) hire him for his services? Not really. Well, sort of, but in my honest opinion, not really.

Sure, Banksy is the voice of difference in a world overpopulated with stale media messages. He stands for everything some people are absolutely against, like homosexual police officers, kids saluting a Tesco bag on a pole, and groups of geriatric gangsters. Banksy is very much a social commentator, and pushes people to think hard about the country we live in, as well as to challenge our own preconceptions about society. I’d go as far as calling it ‘thought vandalism’.

What on earth, then, is the work of a man trying to liberate our minds from ‘our Capitalist overlords’, ‘Big Brother’, or whatever you want to call it, doing on ‘The Simpsons’? Simple. It’s all about context, and it’s all about reach.

According to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, an average of 1.7 million viewers watched each episode of ‘The Simpsons’ on Channel 4, in the week ending October 3rd. Bear in mind that’s an average based on a working week of viewing figures, and that’s just for Channel 4. Sky 1’s viewing figures are nowhere to be found, but I’d say it’s safe to wager that ‘The Simpsons’ is pretty popular. The ‘Banksy’ episode of ‘The Simpsons’, titled MoneyBart, will debut in the UK on October 21st on Sky 1. This will eventually make its way to Channel 4, and will eventually be re-run on both networks. In short, a lot of people are going to see Banksy’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Fox. I’m guessing, as an artist (albeit a popular one), Banksy doesn’t usually have that kind of reach with his work. Sure, people crowd around his works, and dedicate websites to them, but I’d say he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to grab the attention of millions of people simultaneously.

Banksy’s works appear most prominently in London, although they have been discovered over the world. That would also restrict his reach, as well as the fact that local councils have been known to instantly brand anything Banksy as vandalism, and instantly destroy it. Sure, his works can still live on in picture form, on the internet, but as a graffiti artist and known vandal, it’s pretty difficult to discover any of Banksy’s work of your own accord. I live in London, and I’ve never seen a Banksy in the flesh, so to speak. If I do want to look at his work, I need to look for it, which instantly limits his audience.

In Banksy’s ‘Wall and Piece’, he writes, “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles.” Still, this may be Banksy’s biggest prank ever, using ‘the system’ to reach more people in under two minutes than he ever could have dreamed about. America have already had a taste of Banksy’s unique brand of humour. Our helping is yet to come, but in a way, it’s shocking to think how many people are going to be exposed to Banksy; people who have never heard of Banksy before. These people are going to go online, look for, and discover Banksy’s work, and then hopefully spread the word.

So, did Banksy ‘sell out’? It depends entirely on your definition of the term. If you mean he’s stooped to the level of his arch-nemesis, Capitalism, in using traditional broadcast media, and products of the Capitalist system to send out a message, then yes. If you consider, though, that in pandering to the needs of the audience of ‘The Simpsons’, he’s forced Fox into allowing this frankly horrific (from a corporate perspective) condemnation of Fox’s business practices to air, then it’s viable to see this as possibly the biggest practical joke ever.

I’m a fan, anyway. Rock on, Banksy. What do you all think? Is Banksy a sell-out, or is he just very smart? Let me know.


Eurogamer Expo: Yuji Naka Developer Conference

This is the one about that one time I met Yuji Naka. Well, when I say ‘met’, I really mean I shouted, “You’re amazing!” as I backed out of the room at the Eurogamer Expo conference he was speaking at. I was still a little in over my head, and a little nervous of approaching him and trying to complement him on how fantastic he truly is.

Yuji Naka is a great man, and a designer extraordinaire, who is credited with inventing Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog; fastest thing alive, with great amounts of attitude, to boot. Mr Naka now runs his own development studio, Prope (pronounced Propé), which is behind the great Wii tap-a-thon, ‘Let’s Tap’. Naka-san came to the Eurogamer Expo to promote Prope’s latest game, ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’, and also to answer all our questions about who’d win in a fight between Sonic, Mario, and Chuck Norris (clearly Norris).

First off, ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ looks absolutely stunning. Being in charge of a little bird named Ivy, who’s been separated from her mummy, it’s the player’s responsibility to guide Ivy through the game’s 2D levels by drawing vines on the screen using either the Wiimote, or DS stylus, to guide Ivy to safety. You’ve got to avoid various traps and spikes by creating ramps, platforms, and catapults to help slingshot the AI-controlled Ivy through each level. It’s a novel concept, presented with beautiful hand-drawn graphics, to resemble a children’s storybook, in Naka-san’s own words. This makes sense, seeing as he was inspired to make the game by his protective instincts over his newborn son. In a way, in ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’, the player assumes the role of a guardian, and is responsible for essentially shepherding Ivy through the game, just like any good parent shepherds their own children through life.

From ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’, Mr Naka moved on to his own history. He got into the industry through a graduate placement with Sega, which is good news to all of my fellow unemployed graduate brethren. From there on, he went to work on such titles as ‘Phantasy Star I’, ‘Phantasy Star II’, ‘Space Harrier’, and ‘Outrun’, before discovering Sonic from the result of a test program he distributed. Naka-san wanted to capture a real feeling of speed with Sonic, creating a platform game where the player moves as quickly as possible, and is able to plough through enemies without any obstruction. Indeed, Mr Naka confessed that Sonic 1 is actually his favourite, out of all of the games he’s created. It’s easy to see why. Even though Naka admits he was influenced by Super Mario when he created Sonic, the game was completely unique when it was released, allowing the player a sense of speed, and freedom, which was unrivalled by anything else on sale at the time.

Since leaving Sega in 2006, Naka admits he hasn’t really kept up to date with the Sonic franchise (probably better for his health), but that he trusts Sega and Sonic Team with what is essentially his baby, and looks forward to how they will develop Sonic in the future. When asked about his opinions on Sonic 4, released on the App Store today, Naka said it looked exciting, and would like to get his hands on it. He actually confessed that he does prefer 2D to 3D in some ways. Just as well, then, that Sonic 4 is a return to the franchise’s 2D roots. Apparently, ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ is also a message to the gaming industry that 2D can work, which is certainly telling.

Yuji Naka is an inspiring man. While he admits that it was very hard leaving Sega, he did feel distanced from game making in his later years spent working for them, prompting him to found Prope. He said that Prope gives him complete creative freedom to make the kind of games that he wants, and allows him to work on original properties, something which has already prompted an admittedly innovative portfolio of titles.

The session concluded with an immense tournament of rock-paper-scissors, in which the entire room stood up and played against Mr Naka, with the eventual winners scoring some very pretty ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ memorabilia. Supposedly this kind of thing is all the rage in Japan.

Oh, but what does Yuji Naka think of recent Sonic/Mario partnerships, which has seen them kicking each other’s butts in ‘Super Smash Bros. Brawl’, as well as other, less violent titles? Apparently the whole thing was his idea, which he pitched to Nintendo himself. Sneaky.

Even though several days have elapsed since ‘meeting’ Mr Naka, I’m still a little giddy writing about him now. Whatever type of games you’re into, no one can deny the phenomenal effect that Yuji Naka has had on the computer gaming industry. My childhood certainly would not have been the same without him, and without Sonic. Yuji Naka, I salute you.

‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ will be released on Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS in the UK on October 29th, while both games are currently on general release in the US. Lucky them. Apparently you’ll have to complete the game to find out what warrants the question-mark.