Monday, 26 November 2018

Why moving to digital only is a Bad Thing: part 2 – Money

In part 1, I outlined my fears about a potential drive to abandon physical videogames and looked at the ways in which this will be bad for gamers (essentially, loss of control, higher prices, and the destruction of the second hand market).

But the intoxication with New Things and technological possibilities also means that some people want to abolish physical money altogether. And that’s far more concerning.

Why does that matter? Why does it worry me? Is it just because I’m so old-fashioned I have a mechanical calculator that computes using cogs?

Well, I am an old-fashioned man. And that helps provide context for why money came about in the form it did, and why shifting entirely (I don’t oppose electronic money, I oppose it being the only form) into so-called digital is drunken madness.

First off, why did physical money evolve? In the earliest days, wealth was essentially cattle. But imagine going to the shops with fifty oxen because you wanted some dresses. It’s not exactly convenient. Gold, however, is pretty, lasts effectively forever, and scarce enough small quantities are very valuable. Gold, silver, and electrum (a silver-gold alloy) coins soon came into being in Lydia, home of the fabled Croesus. They were easy to move, and if you’re selling wedding dresses it’s a lot easier to slip some coins into a pouch than to store fifty oxen in your pants.

The Chinese first brought about paper money, and a few centuries ago cheques (akin to paper money) came into being.

It was about the convenience of carrying, storing and transferring wealth, and shifted the concept of wealth from sheer physical property (oxen etc) to a more nebulous concept. However, the move to online only is a step away from control as far as wealth goes.

There was a report in the UK a year or two ago from some chap who had an interesting idea of a third employment category between employed and self-employed to cover the gig economy, and an idiotic idea about abandoning real money altogether and shifting purely to electronic.

If you get hacked or your bank goes down, it’s a pain in the arse. If you get that problem when physical money doesn’t exist, how are you going to pay for little luxuries, like catching a bus/train to work, paying for petrol or food? You can’t spend twenty pound notes when paper money isn’t legal tender any more.

Then there’s the control aspect again. Every time you spend, it’ll be logged. The time and location will be known. Perhaps more importantly, tax can be automatically deducted at source (this would be VAT [sales tax] in the UK). But the individual and the state aren’t the only players. Spending money this way requires a third party, perhaps a bank or an online cash-handling firm. They’ll take a slice. Maybe 0.5%. Maybe 2%. After all, they need to make enough to keep in business. If all their prices go up, what’s your option? You can’t go to cash because it doesn’t exist any more.

As mentioned to me on Chrons by Vladd67, this article is well worth a look. It’s about what’s happening in Sweden right now:
Digital currency is far more profitable for banks, as they get to profit from the fees attached to debit cards, credit cards and Sweden’s bank-developed payment app, Swish.”

Sweden is also at the forefront of exciting new digital payment technologies, including microchips that have been implanted into 4000 peoples’ hands, enabling them to pay via high-five.”

Maybe you consider that ‘exciting’. I think it’s a dystopian nightmare.

Abolishing cash is a demented idea. People are sometimes so focused on what’s technologically possible they fail to consider the negative implications. Just because you could do something doesn’t mean you should do something, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum.

Digital ‘goods’ and money are sold on convenience, but the cost is higher prices and loss of control. Don’t fall for the glib promises of a brave new world. It’s all about sucking the money out of your wallet, then burning your wallet so in the future you don’t even know how much they’ve gouged.


Saturday, 24 November 2018

Why moving to digital only is a Bad Thing: part 1 - Games

I’ve heard rumours on the interweb that Microsoft are thinking of having the next Xbox Random Number return to something that was slammed on the XBone: digital only media. As asserted by LoadingReadyRun’s Checkpoint, which reports such matters with a delightful mixture of competence, fairness, and humour and is well worth checking out, the world has moved on quite a bit. It’s entirely possible this approach will get little censure next time.

Got to say, I’m 100% against a shift to all-digital media. It’s part of changing games from being products to services, and in line with the madness of some who want to abolish physical money and only have it electronically.

Why Abandoning Physical Games is Bad for Gamers

I hang onto my old consoles. Planning on dusting off the PS2 and returning to some old favourites fairly soon, actually. With a physical copy, you can install or remove the increasingly large game download as much as you like, without worrying about it becoming defunct. You can give it to a friend, swap it with someone, or sell it second hand [NB I may be doing this with some books/games in the New Year so keep an eye out]. You cannot do this with a digital only copy.

But maybe that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of digital gaming. Assuming you don’t use your credit card only to have the details stolen, of course. Then it’s a large price to pay.

Browsing the Playstation store (I’ve got a PS4), it’s clear that the price of games there is higher than buying actual physical copies, possibly excepting pre-order periods and the first few weeks of a game’s release. There’s no gradual, natural decline as initial hype fades and shops want to get rid of their stock and reduce prices accordingly. The digital shop has zero physical space requirements and infinite stock. So the price stays high forever. Why would it decline?

And if everything goes digital, that will become industry-wide. Sure, you’ll be able to pirate games, as now, but those of us who don’t want to become criminals will be faced with the prospect of selling our kidneys to fund our increasingly expensive habit or going without Battle Royale: Money Gouger 3.

A related but different note is the move to microtransactions. I thought Fallout 4 was ok. It did make missteps. One of them was making settlement building so frequent. I liked the system itself but I didn’t need dozens of places. I also didn’t need basic items like a weapon rack hidden behind a paywall. If I’ve spent £40 on a videogame I don’t expect something basic like that to be ‘extra’ DLC.

Dead or Alive, the frisky fighting franchise, makes rather a lot from DLC of fruity outfits for characters, perhaps even more than from actual game sales. Similarly, there’s a push for microtransactions with lots of other videogames, whether that’s cosmetic silliness or pay-to-win Satanism. Sometimes this comes from games that seem to have no business having them at all (yes, Shadow of War, I’m looking at you, you greedy little grease princess).

There are great aspects to electronic cash and products. Delivery is faster than waiting for post. You don’t need shelf-space for countless games. But there are major downsides too. The price of games won’t ever fall. Spending physical money and electronic money feels different. It’s easier to get someone to spend numbers on a screen than it is to hand over pound coins (even the dreadful new pound coins that look atrocious). I’m not opposing digital versions of games, but I’m absolutely opposing the wholesale abandonment of physical games. Digital means you get convenience at a cost in money and control. If you’re happy to make that choice, cool. 

But if that’s your only option, it’s not a choice at all, just a mandatory move to line the pockets of companies at the expense of consumers.

In part 2, up in a few days, I’ll take a wider look at money and the desire of some to abolish physical currency in favour of a purely electronic system.


Thursday, 22 November 2018

Review: Sword of Destiny, by Andrzej Sapkowski

This is the second Witcher book I read (The Last Wish is reviewed here).

As with the first, it’s a collection of short stories revolving around Geralt of Rivia, whose job is hunting monsters and whose pastimes include boning sorceresses and being subjected to prejudice on account of the fact Witchers are mutants (which both makes them fearsome warriors and loathed by a large portion of society).

Major characters from the preceding book and The Witcher 3 make appearances, and there’s also a story involving a chap with a Witcher 3 cameo that fits nicely. The quality of the writing is high, and Geralt’s mixed character (he’s not evil but definitely not a knight in shining armour) coupled with the in-depth world-building helps to make the fictional setting feel like a real, immersive place.

This wasn’t a problem for me, but it’s worth noting the short stories shift in time and there’s no firm indicator of what happens when (you can work out some obvious sequencing but there are no dates/years). Unlike The Last Wish, there’s no underlying, unifying story that gets dipped into repeatedly. Every short story is complete, although some have links to others.

I enjoyed it rather a lot. If you liked The Last Wish, I think you’ll like this too.


Sunday, 18 November 2018

Seven Bohemian Rhapsodies

And now for something completely different.


Strings and Piano



42 styles


Fairground Organ - 


Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Snapshots Review 4: A New Review

Small aside, there are only five rather than six sample reviews this time. For reasons that perplex me, I wasn’t able to download a sample for Ken Warner’s Katana Shodan.

Free the Darkness (King’s Dark Tidings book 1), by Kel Kade

The sample follows Rezkin’s childhood and young adulthood as he’s trained in a sort of medieval/Renaissance type second world. The progression is similar to the way Fallout 3 handled the protagonist’s childhood. Stealth, combat, lockpicking, all that sort of stuff is covered. To be honest, I found the writing somewhat detached. On the plus side, the premise is interesting (I shan’t spoil the end of the sample because, though reasonably predictable, it’s still intriguing and well done). Rezkin’s odd view of the world, due to his martial education, is quite entertaining too.

Storm Glass (Harbinger book 1), by Jeff Wheeler

This was a bit of an odd duck. I’m not fond of child protagonists. Ghost stories aren’t an especial interest. And orphan stories are something I can take or leave. The sample (which is shorter than most, though the book appears full-sized) contains all of those, and I found it very engaging. It follows Cettie, a twelve year old girl, and an orphan. She’s passed from pillar to post, and ends up with Joses, a boy of similar age, looking after younger children in the ‘care’ of a penny-pinching harridan who doesn’t feed them enough. Soldiers arrive to consider whether or not to take the orphans away, the result being unknown by the end of the sample. I thought it was extremely well-written and well worth checking out.

Firewalker (the Saga of Java Mountainstand book 1), by Loren J. Kones

This one wasn’t for me. I suspect I’m not the target audience (I’d guess YA female readers would be) and, whilst it’s not badly written, it didn’t grab me. Java is a servant girl who ends up betrothed to someone she doesn’t like. So she runs off to join an all-female mercenary company. It’s fantasyesque (no magic that I saw) but the mercenary group and dialogue is very modern (there’s a Hell Week). There’s nothing broken about the plot but also no hook that made me want to read more.

Sister Sable (volume 1, The Mad Queen), by T. Mountebank

This is really intriguing. It’s set in a second world but with a seemingly identical tech level to the modern day. A long missing, and long sought, woman is suddenly rediscovered, and the hunt is on to rescue, capture, or kill her, depending on which group is doing the hunting. She plays a vital role in a sinister prophecy. There are magical elements, but it’s of a more psychic, manipulative nature (it seems) than hurling fireballs. The story dances back and forward in time, sometimes back a few hours from the woman’s rediscovery, sometimes years back to show what the wider importance of her is, and sometimes forwards as the net closes. Time jumps can be iffy, but I thought these worked very well. If somebody outlined the book to me I’d perhaps be wary (between the time shifts and modern tech level) but I really enjoyed the sample.

Note: this is translated to English, so I was somewhat worried it’d be clunky, but if I hadn’t flicked back (I always do that to check on any world-building notes, maps etc) I would never have guessed.

Uncommon World: The Complete Epic Quartet, by Alisha Klapheke

The sample for this is pretty large, and follows Kinneret, a low caste sailor in a highly hierarchical society. Trying to provide for herself and her young sister Avi, whilst having mutual teen lusty thoughts about high caste friend (soon to be forbidden when they formally become adults) Calev, she ends up sailing into dangerous waters and a terrible thing occurs. The world is quite interesting and the premise (struggling low class sailor) more original than most. That said, it wasn’t for me. The writing isn’t bad or anything like that. It’s akin to perfectly fried egg. I can appreciate the competence of the creator, but the creation just isn’t to my taste. However, if it is your cup of tea the e-book has a price tag of just 99p, which is rather good value.

And so endeth this Snapshots post. There’s one more planned for the near future, after which I’ll probably pick a few to read. If I have time/money/remember.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Review: Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this, as I knew the very basic outline of Stalin’s life but few details. Initially (the book has a loose opening focus centring on a key event some time before WWII) I found it a little difficult to get into. Stalin’s obviously the overarching figure but many others (Molotov, Beria etc) feature prominently.

After this opening, the biography falls into a more traditional, chronological, account of Stalin, from difficult childhood through early adulthood, eventually ending with his death some time after the conclusion of the Second World War. The author has clearly drawn on existing histories, testimonies (which he frequently acknowledges may be somewhat biased by those seeking to protect the reputation of themselves or their relatives), and diaries and other papers.

The result is a 600 page or so account of one of the critical men of the 20th century, which sheds new light in many areas due to the opening up of archives that were inaccessible previously, and personal interviews with the individuals (and relatives of those) who were present at the time.

The monstrous capriciousness of Stalin, toying with victims sadistically whilst feigning ignorance, and his bizarrely double-faced nature, ordering executions by quota yet helping a colleague’s daughter with her maths homework when she rang up and her father was absent, paints a picture of a chaotic, lethal maelstrom. The only constant was the rise and then supremacy of Stalin.

Those of you who have read 1984 or, perhaps even better, Animal Farm will recognise much of the horror: the religious, zealous devotion to the ideal of the Party, the blind, trusting devotion of many (reminiscent of Boxer the horse), and dissolving individuality in the acid of socialism.

The title itself is a signpost, with Stalin every bit the monarch a tsar, or king, or emperor, might be.

Although post-war there was a Terror against the Jews, before it the Soviet approach to massacre was completely different to the Nazi way. The Third Reich, of course, aimed for the extermination of the Jews. Stalin wanted to get rid of the inconvenient, cared little for human life, and created quotas for genocide. His underlings executed tens of thousands quite literally to make up the numbers. One might say he was, at that stage, an equal opportunities genocidal maniac.

The intelligence of Stalin, particularly as a master manipulator of those who were his colleagues and became his subordinates, is compelling, as is the wilful blindness he displayed towards Hitler’s betrayal and invasion of the USSR.

Beneath Stalin is a cast of characters that occasionally match his wickedness, and others who seem a little less brutal (it’s a difficult thing to try and assess people who would’ve destroyed themselves and their families if their words or actions had sought to save the persecuted innocent). Voroshilov, the personally brave and politically wimpish soldier; Budyonny, the likeable cavalryman with no appreciation of how tanks might be better than horses; Beria, the sadist, the rapist, the schemer.

This isn’t my period of history, but I still felt displeased by my own ignorance about someone so significant to recent events. Similar to the first time I learnt something about the Eastern Roman Empire, albeit with less ignorance and more recency.

However, having recently finished it, I’ve got to say I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s grim in many places, but engaging and enlightening. As I posted elsewhere, it’s baffling that a man who died within living memory and was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people (and the enslavement of a similar number) isn’t better understood. Even today, some idiots in the UK happily march under banners of a man every bit as evil as Hitler.

I strongly recommend this book.


Thursday, 1 November 2018

Through the Looking Glass

A while ago, there was some ‘controversy’ when Warhorse Studios, the chaps behind the game Kingdom Come Deliverance (set in Bohemia [roughly the Czech Republic] in 1403), were criticised because everyone in it was white. The game’s set in a small geographical area, and everyone being white then is realistic, which is the angle that’s strongly pushed at every level in KCD. Larger cities were more cosmopolitan, but there’s no equivalent of Prague or Vienna in the game. In my view, those wanting diversity were simply trying to impose modern standards on historical reality (which isn’t necessarily unreasonable if you have a fast and loose approach to history, but the whole KCD game was focused on being realistic).

But it did get me thinking. Sometimes, people want to impose modern social, moral norms on historical works of media, whether videogames, film, TV etc. But what if it happened in reverse? What if we had a roughly medieval mindset, and assessed modern works by that standard?

In Stargate: Atlantis, female cast members often have bare arms. That would be frowned upon. (Plunging cleavage, not a problem, but biceps? Titillating beyond acceptability). There’s also a lot of loose hair. Again, at some periods in history this was rather indicative of, er, prostitution (as were the bare arms). A medieval person, once having gotten over the witchcraft of television, would be bemused to see this.

In the West, there’s generally been a decrease in formality between higher and lower status people (thinking primarily of working relationships, but also in those wonderful countries that still benefit from the splendidness of monarchy). This lack of formality would seem quite odd to those of a medieval mindset, where one’s social superior (local lord, say) could be the man sitting in judgement on you one day, and it paid to show due deference.

Medieval attitudes to vegans would be interesting to observe. Animal cruelty was pretty widespread, yet meat wasn’t eaten on around half the days of the year (it was permanently banned on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as being forbidden on certain holy days). Voluntarily not eating meat might be seen as indicative of religious devotion.

Sticking with food, being fat was seen as a sign of prosperity. In a world where one bad harvest can kill the frail and two bad harvests can destroy peasant villages, having sufficient food to not merely meet but exceed needs was proof of wealth. Paler skin was also indicative of high status, as more time was spent indoors rather than working the fields. Thinner people (generally but not always considered more attractive these days) were seen as less attractive because it was down to lack of food, rather than an aesthetic choice.

Despite certain glass-ceiling smashing memes, women have had leading roles in sci-fi for quite some time (Ripley, Janeway, Samantha Carter, etc). In a world where petty treason makes it a criminal offence for a wife to disobey her husband, and which could be successfully used by a woman ordered to commit a crime to escape legal punishment, this would probably be seen as really rather odd. That said, there were exceptions in medieval times (Black Agnes commanded a Scottish castle when her husband was away, defying English attempts to capture it, for example) but it’d still seem rather peculiar in medieval eyes.

The absence of references to God would be utterly perplexing. Excepting the odd expression (“Thank God for that” etc), most people hardly ever refer to God in day to day conversation. Obviously religious people do more often, but even that would be dramatically less than was usual for medieval England, which was steeped in Christianity.

Which brings us to an ugly aspect of medieval thinking: widespread dislike of the Jews. Jews came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, and suffered particularly during the reigns of John and Edward I. They were generally concentrated in a small number of urban centres, mostly London, and were pretty well-off due to usury (the forerunner of modern banking). However, this was against Christian teaching at the time, so, whilst economically beneficial for the Jews, and also more widely, the wealth was achieved through acts against Christian doctrine, by a minority. Sadly, the average medieval fellow watching TV showing anti-Jewish behaviour might be more likely to side with the bigot than the victim.

It’s almost as if imposing the moral and social attitudes of one time period on another, far removed, is a daft thing to do…