Friday, January 13, 2012

January 18th: Stop SOPA Day

Minecraft has become the latest site pledging to go dark for 24 hours on January 18th in protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) & Protect IP Act (PIPA) currently making their way through the US legislature. Notch tweeted the following message a few hours ago:
Decided. We'll silently take down and on the 18th in protest of SOPA.
A number of sites are planning to shut down in order to protest the new law, which is supposedly designed to thwart copyright violations and pirating. Similar hairbrained schemes crop up now and then and need to be smacked back down with great force, Whack-a-Mole-style.

I have little confidence in our government's ability to do almost anything right that doesn't involve really cool weapons, and the idea of opening the technological infrastructure of the entire internet to their meddling is sheer madness. Standford Law Review has a good summary of the problems with the law, and the Wiki entry also fills in some details. SOPA/PIPA is yet another bone thrown to the toxic mix of trial lawyers, lobbyists, and media conglomerates, and will only serve to cripple the continued growth of the internet and stifle free speech. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Xbox Workers Threaten Suicide in China

It doesn't seem like the most effective way to keep your job, but the subtleties of Chinese labor negotiations are lost on my Western Imperialist mind.
Dozens of workers assembling Xbox video game consoles climbed to a factory dormitory roof, and some threatened to jump to their deaths, in a dispute over job transfers that was defused but highlights growing labor unrest as China's economy slows.
The dispute was set off after contract manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group announced it would close the assembly line for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 models at its plant in the central city of Wuhan and transfer the workers to other jobs, workers and Foxconn said Thursday.
Also of note: the writing at Associated Press (and, frankly, all mainstream journalism) just keeps getting worse and worse. I wrote better than this for my high-school newspaper: "The site previously had a couple of suicides or attempted ones a couple years back, prompting the government to take over the operations of the dormitories, said Wang, the equipment engineer."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ToneMatrix: Your Amazing Time-Waster of the Day

The developer describes ToneMatrix as a "simple sinewave synthesizer triggered by an ordinary 16step sequencer. Each triggered step causes a force on the underlaying wave-map, which makes it more cute." It's the work of Andre Michelle, and it's flat-out amazing in its addictive simplicity. If he converts this to a mobile app, he'll make a pot of money.

I found this one courtesy of my National Catholic Register colleague Simcha Fisher, the irritant who helps little grains of sand become wondrous pearls, whether we want to or not.

Strange Stories of an Accused Spy

Amir Hekmati
On Monday, January 9th, Iran's Revolutionary Court found 29-year-old Amir Hekmati "Corrupt on Earth and Mohareb,” and sentenced him to death as a US spy. (“Mohareb” is legal term identifying a defendant as someone who is waging war against God, or God and the State.) The verdict against Hekmati, a US citizen, is creating an international incident, but the story Hekmati tells in his “confession” is a strange tale of the CIA using games to influence popular opinion.

Amir Hekmati was born in Arizona to Iranian parents, and graduated from high school in Michigan. In his confession, he claims to have entered the US military in 2001, where he was trained and deployed as an interpreter because of his familiarity with the Farsi language. The US military regularly uses Iranian-Americans as translators in Afghanistan because Farsi is spoken in both countries.

After serving in Iraq for several months (the confession claims), Hekmati went to work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is a super-secret group that is described, on their publicly-available website, as being established in 1958 “to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.” DARPA is, essentially, a high-tech R&D contractor for the US Department of Defense.

Now, here’s where things get weird. In the interest of just reporting the facts as stated, this is what Hekmati said in a confession broadcast on Iranian state television and obtained, we are certain, without any coercion, threats, or use physical force:

“After DARPA, I was recruited by Kuma Games Company, a computer games company which received money from CIA to design and make special films and computer games to change the public opinion’s mindset in the Middle East and distribute them among Middle East residents free of charge. The goal of Kuma Games was to convince the people of the world and Iraq that what the US does in Iraq and other countries is good and acceptable. The head of Kuma called me and said I have received your resume from DARPA, and we have a program in which you can help us. It [Kuma] was also a cover for the CIA and only the chief of company knows that you're working with the agency.”

Hekmati’s father, Ali, a professor of microbiology at Mitt College in Flint, Michigan, contradicts this version of events. He told the UK Telegraph that his son was in Iran visiting his grandparents. "He is not a spy. It's a whole bunch of lies on my good son. They have lied about any American ... captured in Iran for visiting or tourism, or for any other reason. The first two weeks went without incident. The third week in Tehran, some people visited him and took him away. Nobody heard from him in the next three months."

Kuma Reality Games was founded in 2004, and is based in New York. They are best known for a series of poorly-regarded downloadable military first-person shooters, often with a “ripped from the headlines” premise. Users can download new episodes containing missions such as the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. They’re also responsible for Dinohunters, a game of almost sublime awfulness. One of their few innovations is the use of sponsored advertising in free games.

Some of Kuma’s shooters may well be intended for the military, which often uses software for recruitment and training purposes. In 2006, Keith Halper, the head of Kuma, admitted to that Kuma created training simulations for the US Army.
Dionohunters (Kuma Games) was created by the CIA
to convince Iranians that the US has an elite force of
dinosaurs on flying scooters equipped with machine guns.

Kuma also releases a steady stream of machinima, which are short films created using game engines. Some of these are just silly or promotional, while others depict military operations. The tone of the military shooters is sober and undeniably pro-American, with coalition soldiers shown taking down terrorist targets or conducting important military operations. It’s not particularly hard to see it as a coordinated propaganda effort, but it’s also not hard to see it as yet another military shooter with a Western/American point of view. Aside from its use of contemporary missions, nothing about Kuma’s work stands out one way or another.

The uniquely peculiar part about the “trial” of Hekmati is that the main charge against him was not for his work—real or not—with Kuma, but for working in Iran as a CIA spy. He was allegedly ordered to give Iranian Intelligence good information in order to get their trust, and then to start providing them with misinformation. He was allegedly captured before he could begin this alleged mission.

Of course, this version of events would ask us to believe that Hekmati’s employment at a company producing widely-available pro-American propaganda was merely cover for his role as a CIA agent, which would be a rather curious way of approaching a covert operation.

Although Iranian death sentences are usually carried out quickly and brutally, it’s more likely than Hekmati will be kept alive and used as a pawn in the ongoing geopolitical struggle between Iran and the West. 

Written for Games Magazine

Monday, January 9, 2012

Wizards of the Coast to Revamp D&D Yet Again

An interesting email just popped into my box, and I was thinking about headlining it "Wizards of the Coast Prepairing to Break D&D and Blame You."  All I have to say to WotC is this: D&D 4.0 is just fine, Encounters is a great initiative, the boardgames are good, and Pathfinder is out there for anyone who still wants the 3.5 experience. For the love of God, please STOP!

I mean, how many people would really prefer to go back to 3.5 via Pathfinder? Let's just toddle over to Amazon and take a look at the sales charts to see what people are buying  ...

... well ...

... that was awkward.

The release Wizards sent to the press today is after this-here jump:

Yeaaaah! Skyrim Gets a Little Macho Magic

I was going to title this one, "Snap Into a Skyrim," but Kotaku beat me to it. A Skyrim mod in which dragons are replaced with the late, great pro wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage? Yeah, that's awesome.