Tuesday 18 June 2013

EPOC: Brain Computer Interface Technology

There has been previous mention of the planned goings on that were to go on once I had completed my last exam, and they have now that I have. I am of course talking about sending messages from my brain to my computer without utilising those avenues upon which my brain is traditionally reliant. This was managed through the use of an EPOC neuroheadset, produced by Emotiv. It would be completely fair to say that the EPOC is not state of the art. This is an opinion about which I am pretty confident, and one that is supported by the other one produced by Emotiv. It isn't always strictly important to be state of the art. I couldn't tell you what is always strictly important, because if I could, I wouldn't tell you. Not here. I'd tell you in a book for $49.95, or $22.40 for the e-version.

What I can tell you about the EPOC is that it has some limitations. The specific limitations aren't important. Not here they aren't. Not for my words that I'm saying at your eyes. They're important in regards to development, but the story works out the same, which more or less breaks down to (1) what blood we can wring from this stone, and (2) what the next stone should be like. I'm talking about stones because stones have a multitude of applications, and have been involved in a variety of important technologies. What turns out to be really interesting is what we suspect it can't do, but we later find that it can.

I should also mention that it isn't just limitations in a pretty box. It works, and it does so in much the same way as it promises to work.

That is about all I can really tell you about this technology at this juncture. I'm new in town, which means I have some catching up to do. That there though is the game, and it is afoot. A friend (I like to think we're friends) recently said, "If you get involved in tech, and you're happy to keep thinking and learning forever, then there's so much to be done!" I'm onboard with this, and I'll probably info-dump the things that I'm learning somewhere in this general e-vicinity.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Hello, future

I was having a discussion with a lecturer of mine about my own futures. The ones that might happen, and the ones that I would like to happen. In this discussion, he brought up a number of projects that I might like to be involved in during my time at university, and he mentioned using neuroheadsets as user-interfaces.

The idea of a neuroheadset is a real thing, but once upon a time it was wild. It used to be a denizen confined to our fantastic imagined futures, but now they are manufactured and put into boxes. This thing is deeply ingrained in the previous mythologies of tomorrow. At one stage it was impossible nonsense. Impossible nonsense that now comes in a box.

Everything happened really quickly after that. I was talking about the things that interested me, while trying to remain cool about the fact that I seemed to have walked right into a William Gibson novel, and I ended up signing for this impossible nonsense in a box.

The way they arrive in your life totally defies the mythology. There are no nondescript black cases. The box is the very essence of consumer electronics, al the way down to the topless, Hong Kong neo-pop princess on the front. It is a product that is brain computer interface technology. It says so right there on the box. Nothing appears to be hand crafted, which makes sense, because apparently we are living in the future now. You want it to be made with the loving consistency that only a machine can repeat. There was no secret transport ritual. I took it home on the train.

I am studying for an exam for another subject, so for the time being it stays in the box. Well, it has gone back into the box.

I kid you not, this is literally the kind of thing I have been fantasising about for at least twenty years.

Sunday 9 June 2013

X-bone, phone home

There are a few articles that have covered Microsoft's double back-peddling 'compromises' on both second hand games and the whole always connected things, but this one is my favourite. The best part of which was when they said, 'Some players had been concerned that the console was going to require a constant internet connection.' This is ambiguous, and implies that players were concerned that it might require a constant internet connection, when in reality players were concerned when Microsoft announced that it definitely would require a constant internet connection.

This whole thing feels like Microsoft is stress testing consumer relationships again. Either that or they have absolutely no concept of how far is too far, and are fully reliant on customers to draw the lines. Maliciousness or incompetence. I remember asking the same questions when Windows Vista oozed onto the shelves.

Friday 7 June 2013

Cry, little sister: a brief geneaology of vampire fiction

Some time ago I was talking about the evolution of our popular concepts of vampires. Since then, no one is yet to stop me and say, "Hey, you there! What about The Lost Boys?" This is a valid point, even though I had to make it myself. In response I could just go back and add a section to the original post about the film and it's impact on the contemporary pop-c blood-sucker, or I could knock out fifteen hundred words on the subject, and seeing as you're here now anyway.

I freely admit that there are a great many gaps in the previous brief history I gave, but it wasn't so much about vampires as it was about being brief, and illustrating a point about the nature of mythology and storytelling. In reality Dracula was far less groundbreaking in the popular idea of the vampire as I made it out to be. I'm not trying to suggest that Bram Stoker's book isn't important or original, but only that there is a whole preamble leading up to it that I didn't really go into. For my money, Stoker's book is more interesting in terms of structure and the importance of suggestion over blunt illustration.

When talking about the popular ideas of vampires it is easy to go back to Poe (Ligeia), or Polidori (The Vampyre) or even Coleridge (Christabel), which are all influential works. You could even go all the way back to the folklore and it's roots in mental illness, illegitimate births, disease and class wars. There is a whole other discussion lurking in those murky waters, which for for the most part amounts to disputing the "accepted authorities on the subject". Anyway, we're looking for the first real off shoots that would lead to creatures (and characters) like the ones with which we are familiar.

In 1847 two books were published which are hands down the most relevant books to what I am talking about. Two books that are the common ancestors of the modern vampire. The first is Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood by Malcolm Rymer, which had been serialised over the three years previous, and the second is Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

Varney is the first literary work to really introduce the sympathetic vampire. You know the one. Tragic romantic who bemoans his existence while being slave to his needs. I know it sounds familiar. Wuthering Heights isn't quite so clear cut, but it runs a little something like this: Varney was the first sympathetic vampire, but Heathcliff is the true template for the character type. He wasn't the first, but he is the archetype of the alluring yet obsessive tragic romantic who is ultimately the major destructive force in both his own life, and the lives of those around him. Between these two characters you are presented with the clear and specific origin of modern vampires, and the the archetype that they would be molded to for the next one hundred and sixty-five years.

As the nineteenth century rolled on, vampires grew in popularity and began to appear more often in fiction. While stories like Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla in 1872 contributied to this in fits and starts, the biggest impact didn't come until Dracula was published in 1897.

I'm going to skip some other stuff here, most of which can be summed up by suggesting that you watch a lot of vampire movies starting from Nosferatu, moving through the Universal Studios vampire movies in the thirties and forties, Hammer Studio films with Christoper Lee in the late fifties and sixties and finally ending with the increasingly sexualised films of the sixties and seventies.

The late sixties and early seventies were also important for the vampires of the poppy-c, because two major audiences who wouldn't necessarily be going to see the increasingly violent and sexualised vampire films were exposed to the creatures. During the late sixties, the (up until that point) fairly straight forward soap opera, Dark Shadows introduced a vampire to its cast of characters in an attempt to boost ratings. Then only a couple of years later the Comics Code Authority, who had established a number of bizarre and inconsistent rules and guidelines around the content of comics in the US, eased up on those regarding horror comics making room for Blade and The Tomb of Dracula. 

Vampires were growing in popularity, and they were changing to accommodate their diverse audience. Enter Interview with the Vampire. Anne Rice took a single aspect of Stoker's Dracula, namely that of the 'lonely immortal', and made it the main focus of her book. Most of the characters are cribbed pretty heavily from a great many sources starting with recent depictions and going back past Varney. This acts as a method to reference the changing concepts of vampires, and allows her to explore this from the point of view of the vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac who she uses to explore not only the feelings he has about himself, but also other vampires who represent a wide variety of the other archetypes established over the centuries. I'm not sure that this was the first really in depth look a the vampire's point of view, but it is definitely the most prominent exploration of the different tropes of vampire stories in a single work.

Moving into the eighties vampires were still monsters, but distinctly human monsters. Monsters that were capable of sympathy and humanity. Monsters who could be heroes. They were increasingly varied in the way they were depicted, and vampirism was depicted much more as something that came with both strengths and weaknesses. Increasingly it was becoming something that people could relate to as stories began to illustrate more and more the parallels between vampirism and the ills of society, which is how we get to the inspiration for this post.

The Lost Boys came out in 1987 and went straight for the jugular on all of these topics as they related to youth and youth culture. It uses vampires to talk about drugs, popularity, peer pressure, teenage delusions of invulnerability, dissociation from family and 'mainstream society' and concepts of constructed families and gang mentalities. I often recommend this film, but will freely admit that I still see it through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. I still think it is important to imbibe, because you can see bits and pieces of it in nearly every vampire film, book, comic or TV series that has come out since. 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer film is so consistent in tone and theme that it bares a closer resemblance to The Lost Boys than it does to the series that followed.

It could be argued that after The Lost Boys vampires went through a strange metamorphosis where they became less important to the actual plot and were employed more as seasoning. Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't really about vampires, and they weren't even really necessary to the plot. Something that Joss Whedon illustrated himself by more or less removing them as a substantial element of the series after season three. The Blade films are superhero movies in false fangs. The Twilight Saga is teen romance/drama fiction with vampires subbing in for the cool kids. Even in The Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) which seemed to set out to explore the concept of racism and religion through vampires ends up getting sidetracked repeatedly from its mission statement. As much as I belly ache from time to time about this stuff I'm not really opposed to this treatment of the subject matter as long as it isn't blatant trend whoring. Vampires may attract people to these stories, but they make their own fans for different reasons.

This trend is also coupled with another trend to defang vampires by removing a great many of their more supernatural powers. These days you don't see a whole lot of the animal transformation, turning into mist, flying or the handful of other powers traditionally associated with vampires. In a similar trend many of their weaknesses have also been removed over the years. A lot this started in the films I mentioned earlier. Some have argued that this has balanced them out over all, but they have ended up much less psychologically frightening. I assume that wrapped up in all of this there is something about making them easier to write, and therefore relate to, when they are less supernatural. They seem a lot more like superheroes now. Edward and Angel would probably have a much harder time relating to human teenage girls if they could change forms at will on top of everything else.

This is the most defining aspect of the modern vampire. Where classically vampires were viewed fully as something else that could take a human form while existing on the fringe of society, and the romantic vampires that followed were tragic creatures of obsession clinging desperately to elements of their human lives ultimately acting as a destructive force, the most recent of modern vampires are far less exotic monstrous whose yardstick for tragedy seems in desperate need of adjustment.

There is a load of stuff I haven't covered here, a lot of which I probably don't know about. There is also a load of stuff that went a long way to establishing "The Rules", especially in comics and film, that I just rushed through. Really-really, I think that if you like some of the modern vampire stories there is a lot to get from some of the books and films that brought us to this point. I also think that some of y'all should read a couple of the earlier works I mentioned regardless of your interest in vampires, especially Wuthering HeightsCarmilla and Dracula.

The title? Well, I got that from here.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Coverbot: Issue 02

This is a photo from an early production of R.U.R., the play that first introduced the term robot to the world. The play is by Czech playwright, Karel Čapek, but he attributes the invention of the word to his brother, Josef. The word 'robot' is derived from the Czech word for forced slave labour, robota.