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I mentioned recently that it's hard to hang tough with the Peak Oil narrative when the mainstream media narrative is that oil has never been more plentiful and that the real problem is low prices. Add to that the techno-utopian narratives of electric cars and power walls and super batteries, and the idea that industrial civilization is crucially dependent on petroleum seems, if not far fetched, at least an example of seeing the glass as being half-empty.

The main proponents of the Peak Oil narrative whom I followed the latter half of the previous decade (have we decided on a name for that decade yet? The oughts?) have either shifted their focus to other topics or dropped from public view. Or, to be fair, they may still be doing their Peak Oil think, but I stopped following their on-going analysis.

I recently recorded an interview with Liam Scheff, the author of Official Stories: Counter-Arguments for a Culture in Need, and Liam is definitely hanging tough with the Peak Oil narrative, but like most everyone else who ever hitched their wagon to the Peak Oil horse, he is now talking about the net energy we receive from oil rather than raw supply. The more energy we have to expend to extract oil from the ground, the less net benefit we get from it. We may be bringing up as much as ever, or nearly so, but at ever-greater cost.

Even so, given that the fast collapse continues to defy the prophets of doom, I've shifted my focus to other matters. Even though I realize that agriculture runs on fossil fuel inputs and that no amount of crash course gardening can realistically be expected to make up the shortfall should the industrial model falter, it takes a certain sort of personality to stay focused on this critical dependence and the fact that this planet simply will not support 8 billion human beings in the absence of our current ability to turn oil into food and move it great distances so that people can live in places where rain doesn't fall from the sky and fertile soil is nowhere to be found.

Liam Scheff told me that given our evolutionary heritage, there is simply no reason for us to think critically about the future when our bellies are full. So long as we are comfortable, we have no reason that makes sense to our monkey minds to do anything differently than we're doing now. The environment in which our species is adapted to live simply didn't throw exponential curve-balls at us. Or if it did, we survived by luck rather than by an ability to think in exponential terms. The techno-utopians love to talk about exponential phenomena like Moore's Law, and they agree that most humans just don't grok the implications of a doubling of computing power every 18 months, but their bellies are full, and so they use their understanding of exponential increase as a framework upon which to hang wish-fulfilment fantasies.

I understand that I am a humonkey and that my psychology is prone to focus on my status in the group when I'm not in immediate danger or suffering the pangs of hunger. That's why it's easier to stay focused on politics and culture war issues. The antics of our new POTUS and the wall to wall media coverage he garners provides a constant backdrop of chatter which confirms at a subliminal level that there is nothing more important to worry about than which faction is in power. Granted, a lot of the people who hate Donald Trump claim to take the specter of climate change seriously, but their behavior doesn't bear out their rhetoric. Nobody who REALLY believed that industrial activity is changing the climate in unprecedented ways would replace a 10-year-old car that still runs or upgrade their computer or their smartphone every couple of years.

I'm not throwing stones. My own house is clearly made of glass. I drive a 24-year-old pick-up truck, but that's only because I don't have the money to step up to something shinier. I've been eyeing a nifty new Lenovo tablet for several weeks, and one of these days, in a moment of weakness, I'm going to make that final mouse click and set in motion a series of transactions that will culminate in the brown truck of happiness pulling up out front and the nice man who drives it walking up the garden path with yet another box from Amazon.com for me.

Since the Internet ate television, it has issued a seemingly never-ending bounty of innovative, high quality, and occasionally challenging original programming. There are so many shows with committed fanbases to attest to their worthiness that I couldn't possibly follow all of the ones that I have reason to believe would be worth my time. I still haven't seen Transparent or the third season of House of Cards. I have a long list of shows bookmarked on Netflix, but as often as not, when my day is done and I climb into bed, fire up my non-work laptop, and look around on Netflix, I decide to watch an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, a show from the 1990's which I watched sporadically and haphazardly when it was originally broadcast. Later, I watched it from beginning to end on VHS tapes rented from a local video store when I lived in Australia in 2002-2003.

Now, 13 years later (I started late last year), I've been watching the series in order starting with the last episode of season 3. Last night, I watched the 20th episode of season 6, "Good Shepard." It's a strange compulsion that has me watching Voyager because, as much as I love the show, I have to admit that it's really not all that good. The writing and acting are both stiff, the plots formulaic, and the multitudinous alien races who all are human-sized and human-shaped except for some novel arrangement of latex on their heads ridiculous. But something about it still works for me.

The best part of any episode usually comes in the set-up. The resolutions are typically formulaic, chock-a-block with technobabble, and absurdly tidy. Last night's episode was a paradigmatic example.

Cybernetic sex kitten, 7 of 9, has conducted a ruthless efficiency evaluation of every department and traced all of the crew's shortcomings to three individuals.

Billy Telfer is competent at whatever his job is, but he is a cartoonish hypochondriac who is always pestering the ship's doctor about some imaginary illness and thereby decreasing the sickbay's efficiency rating. He's a throw-away character who's just there to make the misfits a trio rather than a mere pair. The other two misfit crew members are what make the episode worth watching.
Crewman (the lowest rank for any Star Fleet personnel on a starship) Tal Celes is Bajoran and comes from the same war-torn culture as Major Kira on Deep Space Nine and Ensign Ro on The Next Generation.  Unlike those other two characters, who were effortlessly competent at their jobs but hamstrung by anger issues and conflicted loyalties, Tal is ruled by frustration. She works under 7 of 9 in astrometrics where she makes so many mistakes that she is a liability to her department. We see her staying up late doing work that is unnecessary but which should have been completed hours ago. She hides under the covers of her bunk and makes secret calls to her friend, Billy, for help. Later, in  a heart to heart talk with Captain Janeway, Tal admits that if she hadn't been Bajoran, a favored ethnic minority in Starfleet, she never would have graduated from Starfleet Academy, where she had to work three times as hard as everyone else and rely on the charity she received because of her race in order to barely squeak by. She says that if Voyager weren't decades away from Earth that she would have been transferred off the ship years ago, a claim Captain Janeway can't dispute.

The third misfit is a genius cosmologist named Mortimer Harren. He needed one year's experience in space in order to get into a prestigious institution of higher learning, and he was serving out that token year onboard Voyager when it got flung to the far side of the galaxy. Now that his promising career is on ice indefinitely, he is surly and embittered, and he uses his condescending attitude to rebuff all potential friends and allies. He works alone in the bowels of the ship doing a task that seems like it could easily be automated and which requires only the tiniest fraction of his attention. He spends his days immersed in the abstractions of theoretical cosmology.

Captain Janeway reviews the service records for all three square pegs and notices that none of them has ever been on an away mission. She decides that she's going to take them on a mission in the Delta Flyer (a tricked-out, delux shuttle craft) to explore some novel astrological phenomenon. Of course, they experience unanticipated peril, and all three misfits overcome their personal shortcomings in order to meet the challenge. By the end of the episode, everything is all better. Yawn.

For me, the high point of the episode came near the beginning when Commander Chakotay made what I thought was a very sensible and humane suggestion. He reminded the captain that a certain percentage of starship crew members reliably don't last a year onboard before they are re-assigned. It's not a life for everyone, and if the ship weren't stranded on the ass-end of nowhere, none of these three misfits would still be onboard. He argued that they were of no practical use and that forcing them to go through the motions of pretending to contribute to the functioning of the ship was pointless and cruel. It would be better to release them from service and let them pursue their own interests.

Janeway will have none of it. She likens freeing them from their busy work to the Borg deactivating a defective drone. No, she's going to bring them into the fold with a weekend of Outward Bound adventure. I was reminded of Colonial Jessup, Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men, who told his colleague, "Maybe, and I'm just spit balling here, maybe, we have a responsibility as officers to train Santiago. Maybe we as officers have a responsibility to this country to see that the men and women charged with its security are trained professionals. Yes, I'm certain that I read that somewhere once. And now I'm thinking, Col. Markinson, that your suggestion of transferring Santiago, while expeditious and certainly painless, might not be, in a matter of speaking, the American way. Santiago stays where he is. We're gonna train the lad!"

Voyager has replicators to supply all of the food, clothing and manufactured items the crew needs to survive. It has practically limitless clean energy from the magic crystals at the heart of the ship's warp core. The dangers they encounter often stem from Janeway's choices, as is the case in this episode. Given this wealth of technology, the competent members of the crew could easily afford to let Billy, Tal and Mortimer pass the decades immersed in engaging hobbies. There is no reason, except for some unspecified moral principle which I assume boils down to the Christian work ethic, to force them to do work which is stressful to them and of no practical benefit to anyone.

As is so often the case on Star Trek, the writers use stories of high technology in the far future to validate our cultural assumptions of the moment. In this case, the assumption is that everyone has to work;  not because their labor is necessary, but because sloth and indolence are sins that imperil the soul. I see that as a maladaptive mindset and one that will bedevil our civilization as we try to come to grips with the reality that automation and artificial intelligence continue to render an ever-growing portion of the population economically redundant.

The Inevitable Scolding

It's a challenge to hang tough with the Peak Oil narrative these days. The general (and false) conception of Peak Oil theory was that it predicted that industrial society would run out of oil and that everything would grind to a halt. The perception today is that we are awash in oil from hydro-fracking and horizontal drilling and that this will be the case forever. I would argue that this is also false, but that's a discussion for another time.

Today I was poking around on a Facebook group called Anarcho-communism. Yes, I know. That's just looking for trouble, but I did it anyway. The post at the top of the group, just below a pinned post from an admin, was what looked like a screenshot of someone's Tweet:

Tweet about white people.jpg
Text of Tweet: Why are white people scared about becoming a minority in the 2040's? [sic] Are minorities treated badly in America or something?

I replied asking what this Tweet says about anarcho-communism, and someone replied that it tells us that anarcho-communism ("ancom") needs to be more inclusive. The problem is that ancom POC (people of color) are vastly outnumbered by cis white men in online discussions.

Rather than react to that directly, I decided to relate a story. I described how I used to attend a fair number of Peak Oil-themed events and that most of the people in attendance were white Baby Boomers. At least once at each of these events, and sometimes more than once because breakout sessions gave the illusion of new audiences to harangue, some white person would castigate the assembly for being so white. I think someone may have chastised one assembly for not having enough young people in it, but these scoldings usually focused on race.

Have you ever had someone tell you something completely banal and inane but do it with a theatrical air that suggested they thought they were imparting some monumental but hitherto unguessed truth? Cross that delivery with an unself-conscious sense of moral superiority and you've got the flavor of these scoldings. They were so de rigueur they might as well have been printed on the schedule of presentations.

At one such event, someone chastised John Michael Greer for being a white man talking to a room full of white men and women, and why didn't he speak in a way that was accessible to black people? His response was, I thought, needlessly self-effacing. He said something to the effect that a clueless white guy like him had nothing of interest to offer to people of color, or words to that effect.

Peak Oil, like anarcho-communism, may appeal primarily to white men, but I am personally acquainted with some people of color who are tuned into the narrative. Sometimes they would attend these Peak Oil gatherings, and my heart went out to them at these moments as, inevitably, a good portion of the eyes in the room would turn to them. It was always a white person scolding the crowd for being white, but in the moment just after the scolding, as the eyes of the white folks sought out the people of color, it was as if those rare representatives of the non-white world were expected to either take up the sword and breath fire on the quivering sinners or else grant absolution to the assembled white folk and bless their conference. I imagine they just wanted to be out of that room and away from all those expectant, pleading eyes.

I recently had Keith Preston on the C-Realm Radio show where he made the point that Milo Yiannopoulis promotes a pretty mainstream Republican agenda. According to Keith, Milo's views are not particularly extreme and don't push the rightward boundary or mainstream political opinion on the contemporary American scene at all. His main distinguishing gimmick is that he is flamboyantly gay and makes a big todo of his sexual exploits. He is also deliberately provocative with the language he uses to provoke feminists in his public appearances. But in terms of his actual political opinions, he is pretty vanilla. And yet I hear (and read), time and again, hysterical leftists assert that Milo is a Nazi and that no tactic is off limits when it comes to stopping Nazis.

I am no Trump supporter, and I do take the danger of his authoritarian brinksmanship seriously, but I maintain that talk of fascism is premature and that talk of Nazism is just plain stupid. In a recent post, I described how I am likely to smile and nod and then change the subject when someone refers to Trump supporters as fascists or Nazis around me, but that, in my mind, I judge them harshly. One reader, who is a regular listener to the C-Realm Podcast, scolded me, writing, "...to think negative thoughts towards people who have these fears... is just wrong. Very wrong."

I responded that his focus on my thinking being wrong is symptomatic of the problem with a considerable fraction of the so-called left in this country. My sin, in his view, is thinking "negative thoughts" about people who use irresponsible, hyperbolic, and alarmist language. I don't assault them or attempt to limit where they go, who they meet with or what they do. I don't even say rude things to them. I make silent, private judgments about them. And that, according to my critic, is just wrong.

I cannot violate someone else's rights with my thoughts. Or, going the other way, nobody has any right to dictate what I think. The legitimate limitations that my government, my culture, and my community can place on me only apply to my actions and, in rare and extreme circumstances, to my speech. To demand that I conform my thoughts to some ideal standard is to endorse totalitarianism. That's the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. An authoritarian leader won't hesitate to use deadly force should you do or say something to threaten his power, but otherwise, your thoughts remain your own affair. A totalitarian regime is not content with controlling the actions and speech of its subjects. It demands total subservience in action, word AND thought.

I know that I will have to repeat this idea ad nauseum, and, hopefully, I will find a better way to convey it. The language I've used here makes sense to me, but I am under no illusion that what I've written will satisfy my critic or people who think as he does. I could call them Maoists, but I don't know that the example would communicate very clearly. The Cultural Revolution is ancient history to someone born in the 1990s or later. What's worse, calling a keyboard crusader for social justice a Maoist is the same sort of nuance-flattening hyperbole as calling Milo Yiannopoulis a Nazi. I'll have to do better than that, if only for the sake of my self-respect.

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What Worries Me?

"Is that still a thing?"

I love that expression. I was wondering if the idea that California might secede from the United States was still a popular topic or if its day had come and gone. I opened a new browser tab and started to type my query. I had typed "Cali" when Google offered a list of potential completions. At the top of the list was "California secede."

Okay, so it's still a thing. Or is it? Maybe Google just knows me and my interests so well that it can effectively predict my searches before I make them. As a long-time libertarian, maybe I should be worried about that possibility.

Forgive me, Libertarians, for I have sinned, and continue to sin. Here is my confession:

I'm not all that worried about the government, or Google, or Facebook, or Microsoft, or Netflix, or Amazon.com knowing me better than I know myself. I'm not worried about the Internet of Things which might have my toaster talking to my microwave oven. That's a bad example, as neither of those devices can be found in my kitchen (which is really Olga's kitchen). I'm not worried that diabolical data analysts or their AI minions will ferret out my psychological weaknesses and use them to get me to vote for some odious troll in the next election.

I'm definitely not worried about the fact that my phone knows where I am and is relaying that information to Google or the NSA. I'm probably at home. If not there, I'm at the gym, or the TV station, or the radio station, or at a public meeting in Bellows Falls or a nearby village. Or I might be sitting at Subway reading a book.

I could say that I'm worried that Google maps will never figure out that I always want to avoid the George Washington Bridge when I'm coming back from visiting my kids. It's free westbound, but the eastbound toll is fifteen freakin' dollars! I could say I'm worried about that, but what I'd really mean is that I'm pissed off that Google always tries to take me through that pick-pocket station and that I suspect some sort of payola is at work behind the scenes. Either that or the programmers at Google think it's obvious that a driver would pay $10 to shave an expected 4 minutes off their trip. (I still have to cross the Tapenzee bridge, which costs $5.)

I do kind of worry about identity theft, or, more accurately, I recognize that I am vulnerable to identity theft and that it should be a matter of genuine concern for me. In terms of that topic actually hooking up with a state of emotionally-charged anxiety in me, I don't really worry about identity theft either.

What do I worry about? I worry that I will get into a wreck while driving (because I'm fighting with my phone trying to get it to avoid the heinous GW Bridge toll). I worry that I will slip on ice and break something when I have no health insurance. I worry that my kids will be saddled with debt and will struggle to earn a living in tough economic times. I worry that a cop will piss me off and provoke me into doing something incredibly stupid. I worry that a time will come when I am not able to do the thing for which I receive my modest income and that I will have nothing to fall back on. I worry that my best days are behind me.

In short, my worries are all very self-centered, prosaic, and don't flow from my ideological commitments.

In fact, I'm really pretty impatient with worriers, and I've about had it with people who claim to worry over ideological bullshit. And if you tell me that you are afraid when you are not in any apparent danger, and if the source of your supposed fear has something to do with fascists, or Nazis, or white nationalists, I will likely give you a tight-lipped pseudo-smile and an "mmm hmmm" to acknowledge that you have spoken. Then I will disengage or change the topic of conversation, but in my mind, I will have said something rather rude.

I kinda worry that someday I will lose the capacity to think something without saying it out loud.

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I remember reading about the I Ching in the alternate-history SF novel, The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. In that novel, the character who consulted the oracle used the yarrow stalk method to determine which entry in the book to apply to the matter at hand. One can also use coins or even dice to speak on behalf of fate and guide the questioner to the answers they seek.

That was before the internet. I don't own a copy of the I Ching. I just Google it and click on the graphical representation of a button. With the click of the mouse, I engage in simulated button pushing which replaces the handling of physical objects. So long as the internet is working and available to me, it is likely to remain my I Ching of choice. I could order a paper version, but that would put another book in orbit around me, increase the clutter in my sight and in my mind, and give me one more thing to keep track of (or, more likely, fail to keep track of).

I consulted the Oracle the day before yesterday, asking it about how I should focus my efforts. The Oracle directed me to hexagram  41, Decreasing, changing to hexagram 19, Nearing (or Approach). I took this to mean that while it appears that my consistent work has lead to stagnating rewards, behind the scenes, developments proceed apace and will soon give way to the Approach, when I find new power and accomplishment as I rise to new challenges, possibly in an effort to help someone else. That's all good news, but I wanted guidance, not divination, and I don't know how to turn this forecast into a prescription for action.

Given that I meet regular deadlines for creative activity that I set for myself, I continue working even when I'm feeling fallow. With the podcast and radio show, I judge myself to be slacking when I seek mainly return guests for the program. I don't have to introduce myself to repeat guests or craft an email that simultaneously communicates my intentions and establishes credibility. Repeat guests are a known quantity. These are people with whom I have an established connection and who I know can provide entertaining or informative conversation. With a new guest, even if they've written something that I enjoyed reading, there's no telling how it will go. In some instances, it's gone so badly that I chose not to use the interview and had to find someone else to interview or fill the hour with just my own thoughts and voice. That latter option is a lot of work, but it's the kind of work that comes from failing to complete some previous task at the right time. Paradoxically, in the phases where I don't think I'm getting much done, I often have to work harder than I do when I'm really killing it.

Both of the hexagrams my most recent consultation brought to my attention focus on the ebb and flow, the rhythmic pulse of advancement and setback, that is the normal condition of living things making their way through life. This makes sense to me. It's not anything I have to coerce myself into entertaining for the sake of the exercise. Even so, it is at odds with the voice of authority which tells me that the universe is a perfect meritocracy and that if I'm not getting anywhere, it's either because I'm not working hard or smart enough. It is in times like these that I take comfort in the words of Thomas Ligotti, who reminds us that there is "nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know."

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A Conversation with the I Ching

I asked the oracle, "How should I focus my efforts?"

The answer I got was hexagram 41, Decreasing, changing to hexagram 19, Nearing. I didn't specify a career focus when I started, but that's my primary concern.

The second hexagram is encouraging, but I wasn't asking to have my fortune told. I asked how I should focus my attention. If the Oracle were a person that I was talking to, she might ask me what I'm trying to achieve. If my desire to make more money were paramount, then my best focus would be different than if what I really wanted to do was build a following.  I want to do both of those things, but neither one is primary.

Money would be good so that I can pay off debts, see my sons more often and provide better opportunities to them. It would help in my domestic situation as well, though I'll say no more about the particulars here. If I thought that money alone would satisfy me and give me the sense of a life well lived, I might look into lobbying for industries that have a hard time getting established here in Vermont due to environmental regulations and the general progressive attitudes of the people who live here.

Fortunately for me, and possibly unfortunately as well, I had a fat stack of money dropped on me in my early 30s, and I know, from firsthand experience, that it didn't make me happy or satisfied. Having too little has also been a source of heartache, humiliation, and resentment, so I do not intend to fetishize poverty or hold it up as an emblem of virtue.

That said, I know that the ill-will I sometimes feel for people who are doing well when more and more people are losing the security they once enjoyed presents a mental and spiritual stumbling block. If I too find a way to make a comfortable living in tough economic times, then I will have joined a tribe that I hold accountable for at least some of the injustices of the moment. That's a conundrum I don't expect to resolve today, but it needs to be acknowledged.

What about building a following. I enjoy podcasting and broadcasting, and if I were to triple the number of people who subscribe to the C-Realm Vault podcast, I'd be in a respectable position financially. That's not shooting for the moon, and a few simple steps to run my business more like a business could probably get me there with no compromise in my style or the content of the show. I haven't made those changes, even though I know I need to. See previous paragraph.

After 10 years of audio-only podcasts, I'm now spending my time and effort making YouTube videos. I can spend 5 hours making a podcast that 3,000 people will access, and I can spend 10 or more hours making a short video that only a hundred or so people will access. Why bother with video?

I could come up with sensible-sounding reasons, but they would be rationalizations. My bedrock reason is simple intuition. It seems like the thing to do at this point.
Also, I have a cast of fictional characters that I developed when was in grad school, primarily the Lion and the Chick, whom I can't bear to consign to oblivion. Creating the artistic career I've desired for decades is, at least visually, tied to them in my imagination.

I tried doing webcomics a couple of years ago, but it was too time-consuming to sustain. I'm now working to incorporate the characters into my videos. I know I won't be satisfied with what I'm doing until I put my drawing skills, such as they are, to regular use in my creative projects.

I'm conscious of framing my ambitions in terms of my desires. I'm told that desire leads to suffering and that eliminating desire is the path to overcoming self-imposed limitations. That leads me back to hexagram 41. Perhaps decreasing desire leads to my coming nearer to the fulfillment of my career ambitions. I know that some people in my life would disagree, that they see me as suffering from too little ambition, that stoking my desires would be just the thing if it prompted me to strive more.

The Oracle says:

'Nearing.
Creating success from the source, constancy bears fruit.
Reaching an end in the eighth month means a pitfall.'

I'm down with consistency. It' actually something I'm pretty good at, so there's a morsel of encouragement that I'm willing to accept.

I don't know what to make of the eighth month pitfall.

(continued tomorrow)
A few weeks ago, the topic of virtual reality came up in conversation on my weekly radio show. I explained that I have been anticipating the advent of virtual reality since the early 90s and that in my early 20s I would have given nearly anything to strap on the VR goggles (the vision was GLOVES and goggles back then) and step into a 3D computer simulation in which anything was possible. Now, nearly 40 years later, I just don't care. I have no interest in virtual reality. Or at least I HAD no interest before I played a few minutes of Star Wars Battlefront VR.

The experience made me sweat, turned my stomach and had me gasping for air as I took off the headset. Why would I want to do it again?

Well, I DON'T want to play VR fighter pilot again. But I would love to explore the moons of Jupiter in VR or stand atop a Mayan pyramid at the height of that civilization or see Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps. I've traveled more than most people ever get the opportunity to do, and I hope my travels are not over, but I know there are more places I want to see than I will ever get the opportunity to visit in the flesh, and what's more, famous places can be truly unpleasant to visit in person because of all the other people who have the same idea.

I remember taking my kids to Washington DC to see the famous cherry blossoms one spring. The crowds were so dense that just keeping track of my kids took all of my attention. There was no sense of leisure or quiescence, just the anxiety of staying together in that pulsing throng of human bodies. Never again. Not in the flesh anyway. But if a VR simulation was sufficiently nuanced, it might be worthwhile to see what it's like to have Potomac Park to myself and to sip sake while sitting on a picnic blanket and looking up at the sunlight filtering down through the pink sakura blossoms.

Also, I can well imagine clever people using 3D spaces to organize information. This actually doesn't require technology. People have been using imaginary spaces to help them remember large quantities of information since classical antiquity, but I'm hoping that VR could be put to a use that is more like an abacus than like a digital calculator. Using a digital calculator for multiplication or division does not make us better at those tasks. In fact, our ability to perform those mathematical operations in our heads can degrade from lack of use if we always use a calculator. Not so with an abacus. People who use an abacus to perform calculations can get to the point where they can just imagine having an abacus at hand and perform the same sorts of calculations with the imaginary abacus.


I don't know how to use VR to improve memory rather than replace it, but I'm hopeful. I think of GPS navigation and driving. I got my first GPS device at Wal*Mart in December of 2009. I was amazed by it, but what I noticed is that on long road trips I had trouble remembering what roads and highways I had traveled. I had offloaded that to the device and didn't keep it in my head. I noticed that I learned the local geography of new places more slowly than I had in the past. When I had to rely on maps, written directions, and trial and error to navigate by car, I committed the geography to memory much more quickly than I do now that I take my robotic navigator with me everywhere I go.

Again, I don't know how to use the technology to enhance my ability to remember, imagine, and get around in the word rather than replacing and thereby degrading my native capacities, but I'm hopeful that it can be done, and I'd like to propagate that vision and the desire to make it a reality.
The guys in the studio with me talked me through the opening screens of the new Star Wars Battlefront game. I had to direct my gaze at objects and then push the X button on the game controller to select the thing I was looking at. But since I was wearing a VR headset, I couldn't look down at the controller, so I didn't know which button was marked with an X. Presumably most people who would buy Sony's virtual reality kit and kaboodle have enough experience with the game controller that they don't need someone to tell them that the X button is bottom center button on the right-hand side of the controller. Fortunately, I had three knowledgeable guides in the room with me.

After the screen with the AT-AT but before the beginning of actual gameplay came my favorite part of the experience. Again, I was in an empty white void, but there was an X-Wing fighter on the ground surrounded by crates and equipment and a red astromech droid doing busy loops under the ship making preparations for flight.




There were a number of stations around the X-Wing to which I could teleport by looking at a target and pressing the X button. Some of those positions were farther from the ship and some closer. One viewing position was on a lift, so I could see the top of the fighter. Eventually, I was at the base of the ladder and then I was seated in the cockpit.

Then I was on my first mission. Like most games, the first level was dead easy and basically just gave me the opportunity to get some practice piloting my fighter without anyone shooting at me. Then I formed up behind my squadron leader and we jumped into hyperspace and emerged into a scene that slotted neatly into the Rogue One movie. We were to provide a fighter escort for Cassian Andor and his reprogrammed imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk in both movie and game.

From that moment on I was in combat with imperial tie fighters. I've played such games before, but never in VR, and after several minutes I realized that I was playing as if I were looking at a monitor. I kept my gaze out over the nose of the ship and dealt with anything that came into my view. It came as a sort of revelation that I could turn my head and track a fighter that zoomed out of that narrow zone out front.

I don't know if moving my head and looking around me improved my combat piloting, but it did make me dizzy. As I continued the space combat I started to sweat. The controller grew wet in my hands, and I could feel the armpits in my shirt growing hot and moist. Then, gradually, my initial dizziness turned into unwavering nausea. By the end of the mission, I was done with the game and had no desire to play it anymore.

The headgear pressed down on my nose a little bit so that I was breathing through my mouth, but the equipment did not inhibit my breathing or direct my exhalations back at me like a fighter pilot's mask would, but when I removed the VR headgear I gulped in as if I had been denied access to fresh air. It felt liberating to get that thing off my head, and when I was free of it, Colin asked me how I felt.

What I realized in that moment was that I was more grounded in my body than I am most of the time. Even when doing something physically demanding like yoga or weight lifting, my mind is often elsewhere. In those first few seconds after I got free of the VR gear, I was nowhere but in my own body and happy to be there.

Tomorrow: How this experience changed my views on VR

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My First Taste of VR Since the 90s

Today I got my first taste of virtual reality since I first experienced it back in 1996. My first VR experience took place at the SIGGRAPH conference in New Orleans in the summer of 1996.
I took part in three VR demonstrations. One was touted as a therapeutic aid for people who are afraid of heights. I stood on a small wooden platform that had a length of rope suspended between to posts. When I put on the VR headset, I found myself standing on a narrow foot bridge over a canyon. The person supervising the demo had me reach out and take hold of the length of rope, which complemented the illusion of standing on a small bridge with rope handholds. I couldn't move in the simulation. I could only look around and, most importantly for this exercise, look down into the simulated canyon.


One of the other SIGGRAPH virtual reality experiences put a lightsaber in my hand, and I blocked shots from the practice drone that Luke Skywalker sparred with on the Millenium Falcon in the original Star Wars movie. I couldn't move much, and the scene was probably simpler than I remember it being. I just remember being on the Millenium Falcon.


Today, I stopped by the local community access TV station. I do freelance videography for them, so I stop in most days to pick up or drop off equipment. Sometimes I use their facilities to shoot my YouTube videos. Today, I was just stopping in to pick up a coat that I had left there rather than stuffing it into a locker at the gym, which is just down the hall from the station.


I heard noises which indicated that there was some video game action about to commence in the actual studio (as opposed to the office of the TV station). As soon as I stepped into the studio, which was mostly dark except for some deep purple/red lighting and the glow of an absurdly large flatscreen TV, Colin, who works there, asked me if I wanted to play a Star Wars VR game.


"Fuck yeah, I do," I answered before I realized that I was in a room full of cameras and that one or more of them were likely turned on and recording the encounter.


As I walked into the middle of the studio I saw that there was an AT-AT (AKA an imperial walker) walking back and forth across a blank white void with a mouse droid rolling around at the walker's feet managing not to get squashed by those enormous metal feet. I could only see the walker's feet and legs, not it's body or head.


I sat in a swiveling chair in front of the giant monitor and Colin instructed me in putting on and adjusting the Sony Playstation VR headset and headphones. Once I had them on, Brian, who was operating a camera behind me, said, "KMO, look up."



I looked up with my eyes first, but in doing so, I moved my head a little bit in the same direction, and as it did, my view changed in a way that doesn't happen when playing a game that is confined to what you can see through the window of a TV or computer monitor. I moved my head more and found myself looking up into the underside of the walker. I was in a virtual world, as if I had stepped through the screen or been digitized by the Master Control Program and reassembled in software on the game grid.

(More tomorrow)

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