Singularity

Sam Reviews: Hide Me Among The Graves

May.24, 2013, filed under books, Reviews

Hide Me Among the GravesHide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With Powers’s books I’m used to reading stories that make me feel the author knows his protagonists far better than anyone else who has ever written about them. They are mythic, mythical and full of iconography and symbolism. I read Declare and felt that the Cold War had been completely misinterpreted by historians the world over. I knew it hadn’t been, but that wasn’t the point. I felt that it had. I’m used to coming to the end of his books with a view of the world set slightly askew from the one I had when I started.

Sadly, Hide Me Among the Graves didn’t do that for me. Perhaps because there were both too many and not enough similarities to the London of The Anubis Gates, or perhaps because Christina Rosetti (familiar to more in these days of Doctor Who from the lines of “Goblin Fruit” quoted in the episode Midnight) as a character didn’t come through as the passionate, emotional, fey woman who wrote:

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago!

There’s always a danger, when using historical figures, that their depiction the work of fiction is not quite true to the reader’s idea of that person. It’s possible to wave away any differences by pointing out that this is a fictional work, and the universe of the story is not our universe. However, for me Powers’s magic as a storyteller has always been to make me believe, for the period in which I am reading, that it is our universe; and for ever after wonder if there are elements of his universe in this one and I just haven’t noticed.

I didn’t come away from this one feeling our universe might be slightly more magical than for which I’d previously given it credit. There was something missing, some spark that should have melded everything into a cohesive whole. For me it was rather like one of those dishes on Masterchef in which each component is beautifully cooked but the dish doesn’t quite work.

This is an accomplished work, but I’m used to being astonished by Powers, my perspective forever slightly changed. This was a very good story, well-written and entertaining. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s simply testament to Powers’s skill as a writer that previous exposure to his work left me disappointed with this one.

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Guest appearance on the Literature Show

May.18, 2013, filed under Writing

avatarHot on the heels of Fish coming out in print, this afternoon I will be the guest on the Literature Show on Schmu FM. I’ll be chatting about writing, synaesthesia, and music with Mark Pithie and Ian Anderson.

You can listen in on 99.8MHz if you’re in the Aberdeen area, or on the website from anywhere at all. The show starts at 18:00 BST (6pm, or 17:00 Zulu: here’s a handy converter). The facebook event page is here, and I think you can add any questions or comments there and they may end up in the show.

If you can’t make the live show, you can listen in later from the archive.

I’ve not been on radio before, so this is quite exciting. It should be fun!

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FISH in print!

May.05, 2013, filed under fiction, Writing

avatarI emerge, blinking, bleary and grumpy like a disturbed hamster, from the double insomnia fuel of deadlines and on-call, to announce that Fish is now available from Amazon.

As I’m sure you remember, Fish is the anthology from Dagan Books that contains my dark slipstream story What the Water Gave Her. This was described by SF Signal as:

…a dark, weird and lovely tale about a misunderstood girl, the fish she talks to, and the other things she sees.

Fish cover

Buying this book will not only get you my story, but will also put works by authors such as Ken Liu and Cat Rambo, Polenth Blake and Corinne Duyvis on your shelf.

Fish is a wonderful mix of new and established voices, offering a range of work from the dark to the whimsical, from science fiction to myth, and in between and none of the above. It has exquisite art by Galen Dara inside and on the cover.

I’ve been waiting to post about it because I, like many of my friends, am very much a lover of the printed form. Now you, too, can experience the thrill of new book smell coupled with the excitement of new work from authors you’ve heard of, and work from authors who may become firm favourites.

“I describe Fish as effortless, dream-like, diverse and exquisite, which certainly holds true as I consider the anthology to be a revelation, because it’s just fish. No restrictions upon genre, no neatly defined prompt to cater to specific tastes. It’s just you and the stories and the fish. Simple and yet so risky. As you read Fish, you step further into a dark and undisturbed ocean where you see reflected light dance across scales and experience ink-black beauty with sharp teeth.” – Haralambi Markov, Alternative Typewriter

Those of you across the Pond can buy Fish from Amazon.com. If you are fully committed to digital, you can still buy your DRM-free ebook directly from Dagan for $4.99. EPUB for NOOK and other readers, here, MOBI for Kindle and other readers, here.

It’s also available from Amazon UK for £3.28 (about the price of a pint, these days), Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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Return to Triathlon

Apr.25, 2013, filed under Race reports, Triathlon

avatarThis past weekend saw me return to triathlon competition after a nearly three year hiatus. My last race was Dalkeith, May 2010, and it was in that race I ruptured my plantar fascia—a particularly painful injury that left me hobbling for 9 months.

The turning point came during a camping holiday in Wester Ross, which I spent barefoot. Lo and behold, I was able to walk again. After getting hold of some Vibram Fivefingers, and with a suitable time for recovery, I started running. Swine flu was another set-back, but after two years of re-learning how to run, adjusting my biomechanics the hard way, and careful training, I felt able to return to racing.

Turrif triathlon, a sprint, was my first since Dalkeith 2010. It was great to see some familiar faces as well as getting to know some new ones, and absolutely super to discover my absence had been noticed on the race circuit. I had really missed racing—not just the competition, or the challenge, or even the opportunity to drool over some spectacularly nice bikes, but also the camaraderie. No matter how fast or slow you are, fellow triathletes will cheer you on and congratulate you for your effort. That mutual support is one of the biggest happy-making things I know, right up there with puppies with big feet, Maru with a new box, non-Newtonian fluids and scale invariance.

I wasn’t expecting the race to be a fast one, and it wasn’t. At 1 hour 32 minutes and change, it was the slowest sprint race I’ve completed. The swim came in at around 13’45, but I can’t be sure what the time was because my HRM broke. Transition (and the timing mat) was 150m over uneven ground from the pool and we were required to put shoes on to get down there. The conditions were abysmal, the worst I’ve experienced. Serious wind, rain and hail made the cycle leg even more difficult than the steeply undulating terrain, bad road surface and flooding would have made it anyway. When I entered T2, after my slowest cycle leg ever (50 minutes is appalling) my kit was floating. I am not joking. My toes were so cold that it was a struggle to get them into soggy Spyridons, and my transition time seriously suffered— T2 should not take 1’50.

Despite all that, I managed a PB in the run and a second in class for my first ever placing.

turrif finish line

Yay!

My utter delight and sense of achievement is tempered only slightly by my sense of annoyance that the above picture is the only one in which I think I look reasonably good. Here’s another, in which I don’t think I look good:

Under the Bridge

I look at that and think, “Oh gods, I need to lose weight. My thighs look like a pair of canoodling walruses.”

This is so wrong.

In that picture I have just swum 750m in under 14 minutes and was one of the fastest in my heat, having passed everyone else in my lane bar one. I’ve struggled into my bikilas and run across the car park, down some slippery steps, and am on my way to another car park, where I will jump on my bike, ride 20km in absolute filth, then finish off with a 5k run.

Does it really matter that I weigh 67kg and have thighs that touch? What’s more important? That I don’t conform to socially-acceptable standards of beauty (thin, unblemished skin, cheekbones you could shave with, hair as thick as a bear’s), or that I can come back from injury and severe illness and still run faster than I could 7 years ago despite not having shed the relatively small amount of weight I gained during my time off? Should I devote mental energy to bemoaning the fact I can’t even contemplate running without a decent sports bra, unlike some of the more athletic ladies; or spend it considering all the ways I could shave off the paltry 2 minutes that came between me and third lady overall?

Yeah. I don’t need to spend much time thinking about that. In the grand scheme of things, and despite what Dove would have us believe, function is far more important than appearance. I’ll keep on training, and if I should end up leaner and meaner, great, but if I don’t I’m not going to hate myself for it.

My next confirmed race is St Andrews, but I’m looking for others to enter this year. I’ll probably do Inverurie at the end of July, and maybe Knockburn would be fun. Bearing in mind that I like 3-4 weeks between races and don’t want to travel too far this year, any other suggestions?

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You don’t need to grow a pair.

Mar.24, 2013, filed under Cycling

avatarA while back, despite firm resolution not to, I got into an argument on Facebook.

I know.

A fellow cycling enthusiast, one who prefers the Dutch model of segregated facilities (I KNOW) posted about numbers of people cycling. In what I considered to be a counter-productive generalisation, he made an observation that only a small sub-set of risk-taking males choose to cycle on the roads.

Statistically speaking, he might be right, for given values of “statistically speaking”, “sub-set” and “choose”. But it rubbed me up the wrong way, because it’s not a small sub-set of risk-taking males who choose to cycle on the road. I cycle on the road, even when there’s a path available (I find paths inherently more hazardous). I’ve got quite a track record of persuading other women to cycle on the road, too. Frood cycles on the road, and while he’s male (in the strict, biological sense), he’s no risk taker.

Merkin Farm
I promise these are not risk-taking males. Plus, that’s my Pompino in the middle of the shot.

In fact, the majority of people I know who cycle on the road don’t do so because they’re risk takers, male or female: they do so because their assessment of the risk is much, much less than that of those who insist it’s too dangerous.

People are not going to be encouraged to cycle by the assertion that the only people willing to cycle on the road are risk-taking males. My experience of encouraging others to start cycling suggests that it’s much more effective to explain risk assessment and mitigation in detail. Ride so people can see you; behave in a way that’s predictable (i.e. like traffic); understand that the vast majority of drivers really don’t want to hit you; and pay attention because not everyone else on the road does, but understand that’s mostly because they’re Clarkson-wannabes or desperate to get home because their children are being menaced by a hungry, angry, peedo lion and the house is on fire, which is pretty rare, and here’s how to deal with them.

Of course, that doesn’t support the argument that cyclists absolutely must have fully segregated facilities before even contemplating putting a leg over a top tube. Still, no argument looks all that great when it’s demonstrably false from the get-go.

Cyclists who choose to cycle on the road are not a small sub-set of risk-taking males, although they may include a small sub-set of risk-taking males. They’re mostly people who have looked at the hazards, availed themselves of relevant mitigation strategies (lights, positioning, behaviour, vigilance, route choice) and decided that it’s a relatively safe activity.

Including me.

Dumb Run 2008 - RB at Linlithgow

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Sam reviews: Minister of Chance Episode 4 – The Tiger

Mar.22, 2013, filed under Reviews

avatarAs a MoC supporter, I’ve had my talons on a copy of episode 4 for a while now (by which I mean a couple of weeks) but other projects have kept me from listening.

Sorry, Dan. Hope this makes up for it.

It has been a while since we last visited Tanto, and those of you who have already been swept up by the series might want to go back and listen again to previous episodes. Those of you who haven’t — this isn’t the best place to start. They’re all free, so there’s no excuse for not downloading all of them and catching up. I’ve tried to keep this review spoiler-free, but comments on the story will make more sense if you have some idea of the context. You can also check out my reviews of previous episodes using the MoC tag.

MoC banner

Episode 3 left us in the middle of diverging story arcs and with a number of questions. Episode 4 set about weaving those story arcs back together and answering some of those questions.

It started with a scene of high action, in which a major character (spoilers!) hijacked a vehicle that shall forever in my head be called War Rocket Ajax. We were then given a nice portrayal of Professor Cantha in her new role as Science Advocate for the Resistance — no Ben Goldacre, the Professor; Jenny Agutter did a good job of showing the hesitancy and discomfort of a science hermit pressurised into the role of rationalist preacher. There were shades of Monty Python — when Cantha spoke of a man finding an apple tree, a heckler called, “And he made cider!”

She’s not the Messiah…

We finally discovered the Horseman’s goal, and a little more about him. Maybe a little more is enough, given that the role he performs is somewhere between Judge Dredd and the Predator, measured into a blender with a dose of Time Lord and pulsed until smooth. From his conversations with Kitty, stilted as they were, we are left with the question of whether every Time Lord considers himself and his fellows to be walking weapons of mass destruction, and, again, what was it that brought them here — not to Tanto, specifically, but this particular set of worlds.

There was also the big reveal, of course, although I’ve been bound not to give away any major plot details, so you’ll have to listen to find out that one for yourself.

The immersive quality of the production hasn’t diminished, although I found the mix levels a bit off in places in this particular episode. It was especially noticeable during the first scene with the Minister and the Horseman — the sound effects and music combined to make speech a little hard to hear and you might find it useful to fiddle with the sound settings on whatever device you’re using to give priority to vocals. I also wonder if a brief guide page would be useful, and perhaps one of the Minister Moguls with more time on his or her hands than I have might oblige with a page listing the major characters and locations. Jura and Durian, for instance, look very different on paper, but don’t sound that different. Personal preference, perhaps, but a crib page would help with things like that and also assist with the inevitable fade from memory that happens in the gaps between episodes — not a problem if you listen to them back to back, of course.

The characterisation, as always, is superb. There were some great one-liners and exchanges, particularly where Kitty is involved:

“Give us some food.”
“It don’t grow on trees, you know.”
“Yes it does!”

Then there was the Witch Prime’s (Sylvester McCoy) comment to Durian (Paul McGann):

“Charm only carries you forward. It won’t let you stand still.”

Given Professor Cantha’s apparent faith in the idea of linear cause and effect, the notion that the soon-to-be Witch Prime Emeritus was referring to the quark rather than the personal attribute amused me.

Dan Freeman should be proud of what he’s accomplished with this series. The writing balances satisfying complexity with an awareness of the limitations of the medium. He’s not afraid to expect the listener to pay attention and use his or her grey matter, and it’s a relief to be trusted to work it out for myself. At the same time, he has given us enough information, whether in dialogue or soundscape, to be able to work it out for ourselves, thus avoiding frustration. Hindsight is, after all 20:20. He also devotes effort to character interaction, something of which we don’t get to see (or hear) enough these days. MoC is an oasis in a desert of writing aimed at short attention spans requiring high drama and plot-driven storytelling. Freeman shows it is possible to have excitement and pace without foregoing sophistication.

Episode 5 is in production at the moment and I have high expectations. I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

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Sam reviews: Vibram Fivefingers Lontra

Jan.08, 2013, filed under gear

avatarAnyone who has spent enough time in my presence to notice my shoes will know that I’m a committed user of Vibram Fivefingers (VFFs), and have been for the last three years. I am rarely found in anything else when travelling on foot. Initially I started wearing them because they allowed me to walk properly and run again after a serious foot injury. Now I wear them because normal shoes feel weird and wrong, not to mention resurrecting the problems that made me turn to barefoot living in the first place. I have KSOs for work and Bikilas for running.

The problem is, of course, that I live in a maritime climate at a similar latitude to Gothenburg, Yekaterinburg and Fort McMurray. That means that most of the year it is wet, and in the winter it is wet and cold. Outdoor pursuits that involve walking or running in VFFs are out for a large chunk of the year. My damaged foot does not tolerate being cold and wet and VFFs are neither warm nor waterproof.

Or rather, they weren’t.

December 2012 saw the long-awaited release of Vibram’s new insulated and/or waterproof models, the Lontra (and its LS variant) and the Speed XC. To say that I’d been champing at the bit to get hold of a pair is something of an understatement. I’d heard about their coming release back in September and my race season generally starts in March. Losing an entire winter’s training could have scuppered my comeback so I went as far as emailing the UK distributors of Vibram, as well as Vibram Europe and Vibram US.

I think I must have been one of the first UK residents to order a pair, direct from Italy just before Christmas. As I’ve got on so well with the Bikila and the KSO I went for the Lontra as the strap fastening and the neoprene cuff appealed. The shoes arrived on Hogmanay, and our trip down to Fife to see my parents was delayed as I refused to go without them.

They had their first outing on New Year’s Day, on a walk that took us across muddy farmland, along the beach, and back up a muddy path.

On the beach

First off, this should not be your first pair of VFFs. If you do not already own a pair, this review is of no use to you. Go and try a pair of Classics or KSOs or Treks first. Then you can come back. The reason I say this is because the laminated, water-resistant fabric is very stiff and the fit is snug. I spent 15 minutes getting these on the first time and if my toes didn’t already know what to do I think I might have failed.

If you already own a pair and the fit is on the tolerable side of small, get a size up from your usual. These are tight. The thicker material and overall stiffer shoe affects how your foot sits inside. I have quite small toes — my big toe is indeed my biggest, my little toe is tiny — and the fit is bearably small rather than comfortable. My other VFFs have a tiny gap at the end of the toes and using socks is not a problem. If you live in a very cold climate and want to wear socks then you may find the recommended size too snug for comfort.

The Lontra

You’ll notice from that image that there is a neoprene cuff and an extra loop at the front. If you try putting these on the way you put on KSOs you’ll be there for a while. The instructions are no different, but I would suggest pulling the neoprene up over the heel far enough that the rear loop is accessible and the heel is up against the main body of the shoe, then working the toes into place with the aid of the front loop, and only then pulling the heel up and settling into the heel cup. These are not shoes to use in an offroad triathlon if you want a fast T2.

On the foot

This may also not be the model for you if you have moderate to high arches. I don’t consider myself to have a particularly high instep, but as you can see from the picture the fastening strap only just reaches the fluff for the velcro. It pops off repeatedly, to the point of irritation. I don’t understand why the shoe has been designed like this, as all it would take is another inch or two of strap and it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not as if they are worried about putting velcro on the strap — there is plenty of it, but the strap itself is too short. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how compressed the shoe got if I attached the strap near the start of the velcro. Below you can see the shoe done up this way and done up without any compression.

Compressed

Normal

Done up to give a proper foot shape, any flex pops the strap. If I do it up tightly enough for the strap to remain attached, I get painful compression over the top of the foot and my right big toe goes numb. All for the want of an inch or so of strap. It’s mind-boggling.

20130108_7

Performance-wise, these more than live up to expectations. They are warm and cosy, and, although billed as water-resistant rather than water-proof, kept my feet dry through mud, shallow rockpools and even a brief foray into the sea to retrieve a ball a toddler had lost. They let in a spot of wet when I used a jet of water from a hose to wash off the mud, and I can’t complain about that.

Some feedback is lost as the footbed is well constructed to protect against rocks and give traction on slippy surfaces. I had no problems walking over pebbles and rocks, and felt sure-footed over mud. The fleecy liner is comfortable against bare skin — I have not worn them often enough to judge what the infamous funk is like.

All in all these shoes do what I hoped they would do in terms of letting me get out and about in the cold and wet. I am mystified by the strap design, and wish I’d known about the tight fit before I bought them. I would probably have gone for the next size up. I would also have given serious consideration to getting the LS variant, which offers more room for high arches, although I suspect I would still have chosen this model because it has the neoprene cuff. In an ideal world Vibram would offer an LS model with elastic laces and a neoprene cuff, or add a couple of inches to the strap on the Lontra.

For summer walking in the wet these will most likely be too warm and the Speed XC might be the better option.

If you feel the same way about ‘normal’ shoes as I do, then Vibram’s new water-resistant range perform brilliantly in terms of keeping out the wet and the cold. Assuming they are all like the Lontras, they are sized ever-so slightly on the small side; and the Lontras have a serious issue when it comes to the strap design. They aren’t cheap, but there’s not much to choose from when it comes to waterproof, insulated, barefoot shoes.

They are definitely a shoe for the enthusiast, and I hope Vibram will improve on the design to make them a more comfortable, forgiving winter option.

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Sam reviews: WOTW 2012

Jan.04, 2013, filed under music, Reviews

avatarNo one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.

The Original and Best

Thus speaks Richard Burton’s inimitable, mellifluous voice at the start of the 1978 Musical War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne’s most famous creation. My mother has eclectic musical traits (a trait I am endlessly grateful to have either inherited or had inculcated) and a copy of this has been in her music collection for as long as I can remember. It may be a dreadful thing to confess, but this was my introduction to H G Wells and was one of my formative speculative fiction experiences. As a girl of primary school age, my initial reaction was one of awe: never would I consider bacteria the in the same way as I had. My mum has been known to tell family friends that my first comment was, “I’ll never put bleach down the toilet again.”

That’s what good speculative fiction should do. Change the way you think.

The sound effects, chilling in isolation and fed through the score until the guitars became gibbering Martian voices while the synthesisers spat blistering heat rays and spread shivering fronds of red weed across the soundscape, remain as effective now as they ever were. The actors and musicians, used to working live in front of theatre audiences and minus the visual extravaganzas now employed, conveyed their roles with conviction and feeling. The depiction of the Thunderchild crew sacrificing themselves and their ship to save the passenger liner is something I can clearly visualise to this day, despite never having physically seen more than an artist’s impression in the album’s accompanying booklet.

I can see an Ironclad warship going down under the irresistible assault of a Martian heatray, because Jeff Wayne’s composition utterly nails it.

Many years later I picked up an album called Ulludubulla Volume 2, which I reviewed at the time. There I said I didn’t see any reason not to update a musical, but overall the album didn’t really work for me. It was not, however, a remake of the original, but a series of tracks inspired by it.

The 2012 reboot

2012 saw a brand new version of this iconic album hit musical theatres and CD/MP3. Richard Burton’s part is now played by Liam Neeson and David Essex’s artilleryman has been given to Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. Justin Hayward’s part is sung by Gary Barlow, who manages to sound like he’s mostly asleep and only doing it for the paycheque. Phil Lynott’s throaty, gargly Parson Nathaniel is now Maverick Sabre with some weird mishmash accent and the beautiful, emotive voice of Julie Covington has been replaced by that of Joss Stone, which is more operatic JCB than concerned but fatally optimistic angel.

The original score has been “updated” with some odd little riffs of electronica and bass, which serve no purpose other than to indicate that this is New! Improved! Hip! and On Trend!

“Hey kids! We know you like dubstep and psytrance these days, so we put in some tweaks just for you!”

Then there’s the script, which has also been altered. There’s an entire additional passage of exposition-heavy dialogue, in which the Journalist explains how the Martians gave up sex and got rid of bacteria. This is, obviously, based on the original work, but part of the joy of the original is that it stands on its own — there is no need to have read the book. When I heard this, I stopped what I was doing and stared at my player. “How in the hell did he find that out? He’s been trudging round a red-weed infested London trying to survive, not conducting scientific research into the mating habits and pathology of the alien invaders!”

I haven’t seen this in the theatre, where they have introduced whizzy special effects. I don’t especially want to now that I’ve heard it. The original didn’t need them, as it was carefully crafted to do without. The 2012 version has suffered from revision and, possibly, part of that is because there are whizzy special effects in the show.

Only one thing stood out as remarkable. Remember I was talking about Ulludubulla Vol. 2? That album starts with an interesting spoken word piece by Papa Ootzie, looking at the Eve of the War from the point of view of the Martians.

“The problem is, of course, the humans,” are the last words spoken in the epilogue, and they sounds suspiciously like a straight lift from the above track.

Unless you are the sort of person who buys things just to have them in the collection, I wouldn’t recommend this version. The original is by far superior in every way, from score to script to performance. Get a copy of that, instead.

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Winter sun

Dec.27, 2012, filed under Photography, rambling

avatarWe’ve had a quiet Christmas at home, the first one we’ve ever not spent with other people. We’ve avoided the traditional festive excess, although I did buy a tree, which is currently festooned with various plush animals, scented pine cones, tinsel and blue lights that resemble tiny aliens or deep sea bioluminescence more than they do fairies. As we’ve both been suffering from the plague that suddenly descended upon Aberdeen, it was quite nice to have the time to recover.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s triathlon season, and contemplating camping destinations for the summer. My new, water-resistant Vibrams should arrive in time for New Year so maybe we’ll be able to resurrect our Hogmanay Chain Walk tradition — winter adventuring has been out of the question for the last couple of years because of my dodgy foot, as the existing Vibram Fivefinger models are neither waterproof nor especially warm. Not ideal for Scottish weather in the cold months.

I have been restricted to short walks in big boots, but there are still beautiful things to be seen even then. One of the joys of this time of year is the low sun in crisp, clear skies.

Balmedie Sunset

I have a particular love for the interactions of sun, sea, sand and sky, and in winter they can be especially glorious. My skill with the camera not being sufficient to do them justice doesn’t stop me trying.

Winter reflections

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Experiment 626

Nov.29, 2012, filed under gaming, Geekery

avatarA couple of Christmases ago, my beloved brother bought us a Mindflex, knowing that I like that sort of thing.

For those who find clicking on links and watching videos too much tl;dr, the basic premise is that you wear a headband sensor that registers brain activity. If there’s a lot, power is increased to a fan, causing a foam ball to rise in the air (like balancing a ping pong ball on an air dryer — what do you mean you’ve never tried that?) and the player twiddles a knob to send the fan around the course. There are a variety of obstacles one can place around the course, with varying levels of ‘control’ needed to make it through them.

You’ll notice I put ‘control’ in scare quotes. The thing is, there is a reasonable amount of argument as to whether this thing genuinely reads brain activity or whether it offers the illusion of control. I’ve been playing with it for a couple of years, off and on, and I honestly couldn’t say. I know how powerful that illusion can be, and I don’t fall for the “lots of people think it’s real so it must be real” argument. If I did, I’d be scared of the giant sky pixie.

So we decided to do an experiment.

This is Stitch. Some of you will have met him.

Is sad

This is not the Stitch who ate all the pies, or travelling Stitch, or Warpig Stitch (don’t ask). This Stitch is relatively well behaved and not known for having high levels of brain activity. This is Emo Stitch (Sad Stitch Is Sad).

One of the games available on Original Mindflex is a time trial arrangement called, melodramatically, Danger Zone. This involves setting up an obstacle course and taking it in turns to try to get past all four lights within the time limit.

On this occasion, the players were:

Me (incidentally, MoC is seeking funding for Episode 5, so go and look at the cool stuff you could get for supporting them and lob a few quid their way): Minister of Chance is currently in need of funding. Go and donate.
Frood: Frood
Munky: Munky's game face
Emo Stitch: Stitch in a tinfoil hat

You will notice that Stitch is wearing a tinfoil hat. The Mindflex requires the player to have a crocodile clip attached to each earlobe and a small metal disc pressed against the forehead.

No, we’re not sure how that’s supposed to work, either. Hence the experiment.

Stitch needed the tinfoil hat for the various alleged electrodes to form a circuit and the game to accept him as a biological entity. Note that the game didn’t need any verifiable brainwave activity, merely a circuit. Plush gets in the way of circuit forming.

Our null hypothesis was that the Mindflex system was not designed to read genuine brainwave activity as the hardware supplied does not seem capable of measuring genuine brainwave activity; and that the apparent relationship between ball height and concentration was entirely a result of the illusion of control. Thus, to disprove the null hypothesis, our control Stitch would have to perform significantly worse than our human players, on the basis that he doesn’t have any brain activity.

Because he’s plush.

This was our experimental method.

We chose the Danger Zone game, as this would give us a quantitative measure of each player’s performance. A number of obstacles were used, including a maze cage with trap level and several hoop obstacles, to ensure a requirement for the player to vary the ball’s height (which, as explained earlier, is a measure of brainwave activity, APPARENTLY). I went first, then Frood, then Munky, then Stitch.

Experiment 626

The obvious flaw with this is that Stitch is plush and could not operate the twiddle knob by himself. Therefore I did it for him. Please also see notes below for future experimental proposals.

I completed 4 zones in 1 minute 49 seconds. Frood completed 4 zones in 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Munky completed 3 zones in 2 minutes and 48 seconds while Stitch completed 3 zones in 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Yes. That is correct. Stitch beat Munky.

Sad Sackmunky Are Sad

There are some obvious problems with the experimental protocol. Ideally, an experiment would involve at least three repetitions (it was late, we’d been drinking, it was time to go to bed). Also, another round needs to be added, in which a neutral observer operates the twiddle knob for all of the players, to remove that factor from the timing. It would also be worthwhile checking some of the other games, to see if Stitch is better or worse at any particular type of game compared to a human, to at least identify the possibility of an inherent bias in the system.

And maybe give Pooh a go, and see if he’s as good as Stitch.

I think what we can definitely say, however, is that how well you do at Danger Zone isn’t necessarily related to how much control you have over your brainwave activity. As a biofeedback training tool, it’s not much use.

I’m obviously not the only one to want to test this, either:

What I like best about that are the people getting really upset in the comments because they believe it REALLY DOES WORK UR JUST DOIN IT RONG.

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