On Predictions, Prognosticators, and Fortune Tellers

The future is not to be trifled with.

There was a time in my life when I thought Nostradamus’s predictions were pretty cool. How many people could get so many events right, even down to names and dates? I believed in psychic powers, ghosts, and other unusual phenomenon…

But thankfully I’ve come to my senses since then… Fortune telling is like the old adage about monkeys and typewriters and Shakespeare. Given enough predictions and enough time for people to make them, one person’s predictions are bound to be close enough to correct to be interpreted as such.

The 60th anniversary just passed for Vannevar Bush’s essential contribution to information science — “As We May Think” — which described his electro-mechanical machine, the memex, which would allow people to instantly call up a microfilm projection of any information they seek. Many people today interpret the modern Web as the fulfillment of Bush’s dream.

But for every Vannevar Bush, Marshall McLuhan, or Nostradamus, there are tens of thousands of “World of Tomorrows” and Epcot centers, homes of the future, sci-fi novels, and MST3K shorts which depict a future that never happened… Psychics quoted in Weekly World News who can tell us what’s going to happen to our favorite celebrities in the coming year or who killed Jon Benet Ramsey… Someone telling me I should stop writing this drivel and carry on with my former career as a barber shop quartet singer…

And this is the same Vannevar Bush who was supposedly involved in UFO conspiracies at Roswell, who spent years working on his electro-mechanical computer, who predicted computers the size of the Empire State Building… Fitting his outlandish and wrong predictions, he leaves us with the term “vannevar” referring to incorrect predictions of future advances because of technological advances. I can only hope that the word “schlossberg” never receives such an ugly distinction.

People are rewarded for their contributions to a field, not for predictions unrealized during their lifetime. History has an amazing way of forgetting the bad parts of these people’s lives… Details like Newton’s obsession with alchemy (as in turning lead to gold) or Einstein’s insanity late in his life, that Copernicus believed the sun was God, that Turing was convicted of taking part in homosexual acts and then killed himself with cyanide, Freud and the Anna O. mess, Bill Clinton getting head in the Oval Office…

But there’s a reason history forgets those details. Most likely, its because those people had other accomplishments that outweighed those faults. Maybe it’s just that we don’t want to remember the bad parts so we don’t blemish their images. Does that mean Bush’s only real accomplishment was his one article in the Atlantic Monthly and all the other parts of his life are irrelevant to how we remember him? No, because he was also important in establishing the National Science Foundation and ARPA, which became DARPA, which eventually spawned that thing called the Internet, which brings us back to that thing called the memex. Or that Newton, Freud, Einstein, Copernicus, and Turing all transformed their respective sciences in ways that we take for granted today. People who make great contributions leave appropriate legacies.

There’s plenty of other good rewards that come from predictors, prognosticators, and the like. They spawn our imagination, making us think of futures that we might have, inventions that we could build, life on other planets, and eventually someone will fulfill those visions and spawn someone else’s creations. Or at the very least they give us a laugh, like guessing how much weight Oprah is going to gain next year.

Predicting the future is a luck filled task, and I guess Vannevar read the tea leaves correctly. However, predictions alone don’t make the man; people are not remembered for lucky guesses and predictions. What else can you tell me about Nostradamus’ life other than he made those crazy guesses? And how many of you read your horoscope every day? Can you even tell me the name of the person who writes your hororscopes? You’ll be remembered longer if you make your own path, not if you guess the future.

Games, Sex, and Violence

The doggie style that broke the game industry’s back

Easter eggs in games and software are fun. The supposed first one was in the Atari game Adventure where if you do certain things, you would see the name of one of the game designers. A version of Excel had a built in flight simulator. There’s a neat one in Macromedia Central where you can see Strong Bad and Homestar in a cartoon.

And then there are mods. Mods, short for modification, are a trend in newer video games where users can add content to an existing game. It could be as simple as a new weapon or tweaked environment all the way to a completely new game that runs on the underlying game engine. The most famous one by far is Counterstrike, a mod for the game Half-Life which pits terrorists against counter-terrorists in first-person realistic gun, grenade, and bomb combat. Counterstrike now has hundreds of thousands of players around the world.

And then there was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. For those of you who don’t keep up with the video game industry, the Grand Theft Auto series is perhaps the most violent ever created. The objective is to beat up and kill people, steal cars, and have sex among other socially unacceptable point-ratcheting objectives. If there ever was a reason to be angry at video game violence, these games certainly provide good material.

The latest revelation was no big surprise to me — a minigame where you control the sex with hookers was released on the ‘net. It’s still unclear whether it’s a mod (user created) or a well hidden easter egg (made by Rockstar, the game developers), though the “mod” creator claims it was already part of the game and he simply unlocked it.

I’m not going to comment on whether or not video game violence is affecting kids because I don’t think you can separate out violent games from, say, violent TV shows and movies, music portraying violent acts, sibling rivalry, overhearing mom and dad having sex, or Jerry Falwell. Even if you made these games for ages 18 and up, younger kids would find a way to get them. Maybe violent games are a just a zeitgeist…

But it was on ABC World News Tonight this evening where I think something snapped in me. David Walsh, who works at the National Institute on Media and the Family, was interviewed about the GTA:SA sex minigame. Here’s the quote from the news report:

“Dr. Walsh says it would be perhaps more disturbing if it was outside programmers who produced this sexual content. He says that would mean any game could be changed so the game your children buy isn’t necessarily the one they’re playing.”

Oh my fucking god…. People can change a game into a different game? Hooooly shit. Before you know it, they’re gonna take a game with violence and no sex then add sex to it, which means that they’ll have to know what sex is like to make it, which means they’re either having sex, will have sex, or watch porn. Or they’re going to make a violent game even more violent. Or they’ll take a sex game and add guns to it. Or they’ll take a happy cheery game and turn it into a bloody, gory, gun toting one. Or they’ll throw Barney into a super violent game (try your favorite search engine for Barneystein 3D).

So what’s the complaining about? Does the sex game suddenly push the ultra-violent game from acceptable to unacceptable for kids? Yes, this is yet another bullshit witch hunt. Let’s find a way to blame the video game makers and the people who made the mods, because any good parents would never buy this game for their kids, right? Whatever… If they want the game, these kids will find a way to get it.

Who cares about the sex in the game. Maybe the interactive sex thing will make these kids better in the sack, which will benefit them as they get older. Hell, maybe Rockstar should take the cue and make a totally interactive sex video game, complete with foreplay, oral, anal, toys, handcuffs, midgets, STDs, and a glass eye. You can combo from cunnilingus to 69 for extra points.

But the big mystery, which I don’t think anyone can solve, is what took them so long to catch this. This “mod” was released over a month ago (June 15 is the date I found), and the game itself was released in October 2004, so why has it taken so long to get this attention? GTA:SA is just the unfortunate target of some groups’ political agenda, and I imagine it took them a little while to figure out the best way to spin this story to maximum effect. But don’t worry — I don’t think anything is going to change because of this. As long as copies of the game are flying off the shelves, I’m sure the industry will keep churning out violent games, appeasing both video game fans and video game company execs alike.