Archive for the Uncategorized Category

Why you should never read comments, new year’s edition

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on 03/01/2014 by sangomasmith

I find the ongoing issue of representation in video games very interesting. Firstly, because both I and my wife love video games – although we have very different play styles and our tastes don’t always overlap. Secondly, because its one of those cases where the entire industry seems to have been set up on a premise that just seems unfounded.

 

And yet, here we are in 2014, busy debating the vile treatment that gets handed out to female video game developers, fans and critics. Look at the comments (although seriously, don’t) and you see the same crap come up year in and year out. You can almost set your watch by how quickly any article covering these topics will be plastered in screeds by dudebros explaining how, like, we should all just chill and be less sensitive. Or how having dudes with big pecs totally makes having every single female character look like they were designed by Rob Liefeld okay.

It all blurs together eventually. Games, movies, media, workplaces, society and the world all just seem to have this sickness when it comes to discussing the idea of gender. So, in the interests of maybe advancing the cure (even if only by a tiny, tiny fraction), here is an argument that maybe you haven’t seen before yet:

 

Forget about arguments concerning morality, or equality, or diversity, or undoing the wrongs of the past. I want you to think about society and production. Let’s assume, shall we, that talent is equally scattered amongst everyone. Every kid – black, white, boy, girl, gay or straight – has an equal chance of being talented at something (writing, just to be non-controversial). Only once that talent has been nurtured, has been given an opportunity to grow, can it truly be used to it’s full potential.

I want you to imagine the best piece of writing, the best book you can think of from this last year. How many talented folks, all writing away, had to be doing their thing for one of them to produce this? And didn’t the same group of people also produce five other great books, and 50 decent ones? Now I want you to imagine that, over night, we could double the amount of people. Doesn’t it follow that there will suddenly be two amazing books for you to read, ten great books and a hundred decent ones for when you get bored? It’s simple maths, after all.

 

Now I want you to imagine the same scenario, but with everything. Maths, science, art, music, comedy, sports, movies – everything. This is what equality is. This is why you want as many people as possible doing things they’re talented at – because to do anything less is to deny everyone – including yourself – the best that we could possibly be producing. It would be worth it, in fact, to give even undeveloped talents a shot at the prime time just to widen the future pool of geniuses that could come in and produce amazing things for us in the future.

 

But what if, instead, we halved that number? When you argue against equality in video games; when you say that sexism is okay because it’s always been okay, or that we shouldn’t be pushing to include more women because we’ve already got what we want – what you are doing is denying yourself the opportunity to double the amount of great games you could play.

When you argue that women (or people of colour, or gay people) shouldn’t be in a particular profession – and make no mistake, that’s exactly what you are arguing for when you fight against things like gender equality in the workplace –  what you are arguing is that they cannot exhibit and achieve the same levels of talent as other folks. I would want to be damn sure that I had solid, irrefutable, biological evidence of that before making such a huge claim.

 

So when you argue the right to continue to have your endless seas of brown macho-shooters and tit-centric female characters, be advised you’re actually doing is fighting against your own self interest. You could just be the reason why you missed out on the best game of your life.

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The problem with meme sites

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on 23/12/2013 by sangomasmith

First up: I have absolutely no problems with Jennifer Lawrence. I think its wonderful and awesome how she comes off in interviews as this quirky, quotable, genuine person. Neither do I have problem with kittens doing random things. Or stories about rescue dogs. Or even stories about your dog.

I don’t have a problem with memes either. Over-exposed though they are, I am perfectly content to browse through pages of advice ducks, doge images, fail gifs and the like.

 

What I absolutely do have a problem with is the realisation that these things are the good stuff, the gems buried beneath mounds and mounds of aweful racist, sexist, nationalist, dumb tripe. The realisation that the (presumably literate and computer-literate) folks who post on these public bulletin boards genuinely believe that, for example, afirmative action is some sort of reverse racial aggression comparable to segregation and apartheid. Or that when a man does something stupid it’s because he’s stupid. When a woman does it, it’s because she’s a woman. Or that men somehow need championing and protecting from the dangerous feminists ruling society.

Seriously, I’d post examples but there’s no point. Just go to 9gag, scroll down the front page a bit and an there it is.

 

I really don’t need to know this about my fellow man. And I really, really don’t need to see this stuff sandwiched between the cute and harmless stuff that I came there for in the first place.

 

This has been your pointless and whiny rant for the day. You may now carry on with your life.

 

The new Hobbit movie

Posted in Uncategorized on 19/12/2013 by sangomasmith

So, back into posting. And first up, something which has absolutely no relevance to the usual subjects for this blog.

I actually don’t have too much to add to the existing debate here, except that I am a big fan of the book and loved the LoTR movies (and a giant pedant). ‘An unexpected journey’ was, for me at least, a perfectly serviceable film. But ‘the desolation of Smaug’ seemed, well, shoddy.

 

The reasons, it seems to me, have to do mainly with pacing and production. The pacing, I think, got ruined by the switch to a three-movie format for the release. Which would have been fine, if that is what had been planned all along. As it is, my ‘ideal’ approach would have been to split the movie along the same lines as the book (which had a noticeable shift in tone): the more light-hearted, travel adventure-oriented stuff going in part one and the desolation of Smaug/battle of five armies in part two.  Once you throw that away, the best compromise is to make the films about the journey, the dragon and the battle respectively.

 

The first film ended exactly right for that sequence, but the second seems to have missed the logical progression by shoving in an imagined climax (the fights in Erebor and Lake Town) at the expense of the book climax (the death of Smaug). I honestly can’t see why they had to do it this way, unless the third film was going to end up short. Even then, you’d start the last film with a climax (big no-no) and move into a boring second act before having a completely separate one at the end. It just seems like a mess all around.

 

The second problem is production. The switch to digital effects over the more prop-oriented stuff used in LoTR seems to have resulted in strange, unfocused visuals. This is very obvious in the extensive use of digital actors for action sequences, where the eye has time to pick out the unnatural way that even the best-animated figures move (as an aside, it says something that the first comment by both my wife and I upon exiting the film was about how terribly that damn horse moved).

 

Another problem is that the practical props and makeup seemed to have lost quality somewhat. Perhaps it is the way it was filmed – 48fps, with its higher clarity, is supposedly very good at making traditional movie props and effects look shoddy – but a lot of stuff just looked off. The biggest offenders (for me, at least): Dwalin’s bald-head wig and the prop weapons from Lake Town. The latter, especially, just looked terrible and prop-like compared to the amazing work used in LoTR.

A lot of this, of course, is just pointless nit-picking. It just seems indicative, to me at least, of rushed production when compared to the minute, obsessive detail lavished on the previous movies. This, and it’s stand-out nature compared to the phenomenal values seen in the rest of the production, ties in with the first problem by implying that the end product we saw just wasn’t what had been intended from the start. The long hand of executive meddling, seen in the decision to split the movie into three, had far-reaching consequences for the films.

 

Do go and see it though: the sequence with Smaug alone is worth the price of admission.

 

P.S. – my last post (bemoaning my complete uselessness in regards to actually posting stuff) was my hundredth. Go figure.

The longest Hiatus

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on 19/12/2013 by sangomasmith

Oy vey.

First up, an explanation: I just reached the point with work and my personal life where posting had to stop. Even my limited posts were taking up time that was needed with other things. And once you stop, the temptation is to forget about things in the expectation that they’ll fade away. The internet, however, sees all and stores all. So here this blog lay, for nigh on three years, abandoned and forgotten. Until now (?)

I can’t promise that I’ll post frequently, I’m sad to say. From here on out this blog will be strictly a hobby, with posts when and if I feel like writing about something. So now, having reached this point, I will gently pick up the reigns and try again…

Plant Genetic engineering: Current gene insertion technologies

Posted in Crop science, History, musings, pedantry, Science, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on 03/01/2011 by sangomasmith

The long-awaited part duex:

 

The technology of gene insertion in plants is around 30 years old now, the product of a wave of research in the 1980s. Eventually, two main technologies came to dominate the field: Biolistic and agrobacterium-based insertion. They are, with a few tweaks and upgrades, the same technologies we use today.

Biolistics, as the name implies, use ballistic particles (usually microscopic grains of tungsten or gold) to punch through the tough cell walls of plants and deposit DNA (which is carried as an outer coating) into the nucleus. This process is fairly inefficient, with only a small fraction of cells being hit in the right manner to transfer a functional copy of the construct into the genome. Even in these few cases, the insertion is often fragmented, or else contains multiple copies of the construct. This inefficiency, in addition to the rather limited types of plant matter that can be used (almost always embryogenic cultures of cells rather than intact plants or whole tissues) means that biolistic insertion has slowly lost ground to its long-time rival: agrobacterium. Its great advantage, however: the fact that the process is not limited in terms of what species it can transform, will keep it on the front lines as a niche system for the foreseeable future.

 

Agrobacterium-based methods make use of an engineered version of the gall-forming bacterium: Agrobacterium tumafaciens. This clever little bug is able to use a special DNA carrier (the T-plasmid) to introduce DNA into its host. Normally, this DNA would contain genes to make the plant cells form galls and produce food for the bugs, but engineered versions have had this cut out and replaced with cloning sites to insert other genes. The result is a simple system that produces transformed plants with high efficiency. Unfortunately, the little guys are sort of finicky when it comes to what species of plants they will play with. This has been especially problematic for the cereals (wheat, rice, barley and the like), which are all grasses that Agrobacterium is normally not interested in. Recent advances have thankfully overcome this somewhat, so the future of this little bug is bright.

 

Of course, the field of gene insertion is not static. Both systems, good though they may be, have significant limitations in terms of their ability to target genes to specific places on the genome and also have trouble when being used to insert multiple genes. As these abilities are both going to be very important for the next wave of plant genetic engineering, a lot of research has been done to find something better. I’ll cover these future gene insertion techs in the next segment.

Love from the Escapist

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on 15/12/2010 by sangomasmith

Moviebob gives us some love.

Note: It took 26 posts before some moron wandered in and pulled out the old ‘monsanto’s making farmers buy terminator crops’ lie, which is probably a new best time for rational responses.

Biotech basics 1: Introduction

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on 22/11/2010 by sangomasmith

The first genetic engineers were neolithic hunter-gatherers, who began selecting useful mutations in wild plants (by the simple expedient of saving and replanting their seed) to improve them for human use. This resulted, starting from around 10 000 years ago, in the invention of agriculture in the fertile crescent. This invention, independently made in a number of places since then, revolutionised the lifestyles of the people in the region, transforming them into the citizens of the first great civilisations.

There is a good case to be made, in fact, for farming being the driving force behind civilization itself: growing crops forced people to stay at a single place and led to the construction of towns and cities. The surplus of food produced be farming allowed the development of non-productive castes: kings, priests, soldiers, scribes and taxmen. Farmers, in essence, became the lowest rung of an entire chain of services (including extortion) that make up the basic elements of what we recognise as civilization.

For the longest time the slow, careful method of storing and replanting favoured individuals was the only means of improving crops. The discovery of the principles we now know as population genetics, however, allowed this process to be refined: Breeders could, by taking careful note of individual and population traits (along with their heritability, or ability to be passed on to descendents), determine the most useful crosses to use when selecting individuals. This, along with techniques to allow breeding even between distantly-related plants, made up the bulk of crop development in this century.

More recently still (starting in latter half of the 20th century), the application of emerging technologies allowed the creation of high-yielding crop lines. This was done using a number of approaches: dwarf phenotypes in wheat (caused by a defective gene for a specific plant hormone) and hybrid lines in maize (made by crossing two distantly-related maize varieties to take advantage of so-called hybrid vigour) for instance. The result, however, was phenomenal.

These advances (specifically those in wheat breeding, along with a number of new approaches in farm practices, pesticides and fertilizers) later became known as the green revolution. This revolution singlehandedly raised the farming productivity of the planet, almost doubling the amount of food that the world produced. Ironically, the new crops were not very popular with the nascent green movement. This is, it seems, a cyclical problem with new crop technologies: bitter resistance followed by placid acceptance a generation or so later. Which, of course, happens at the same time as bitter resistance against the new technology.

Most recently of all (from the mid 80s onwards), crop scientists began using new technologies developed to identify, isolate and characterise DNA to alter crops at a molecular level. These technologies, lumped together under the banner of ‘genetic modification’ are seen by crop scientists as the starting point for a new green revolution: one which could potentially have even more widespread and positive effects than the last one. As for the opponents of this new wave of biotechnology: see above.

For the really keen: a wikipedia run-down of the green revolution and an interview with one of my personal heroes (and a leading figure in the green revolution): Norman Borlaug

The technology of plant genetic engineering will be explained in part two.