The Future is Now: Replicators

Is 3D printing the future? Or just another fad?

In the year 200 CE a new technological development was taking the textile manufacturing world (such as it was) by storm. Intricate designs of flowers, animals and even glyphs could be stamped onto fabric and cloth by relief-carving a block of wood – a process that had previously been laboriously done by hand. A little over 1000 years later Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith by trade, adapted the screw press to develop a machine that quickly printed type onto sheets of cloth or paper. The printing press quickly proved to be one of the greatest innovations of the Renaissance, to the extent that Francis Bacon, the great British philosopher, wrote in 1620 that it was changing the whole face and state of the world. A further 500 years on and another technological innovation takes place: A government-funded research group invent a machine that can print three-dimensional objects to a resounding chorus of… ‘meh’.

The simple fact is that early 3D printers were enormous, expensive, and a bit useless.Like personal computing, personal gaming, and mobile phones (in fact, rather like every technological innovation in the last forty years), printers had to get rather a lot smaller, cheaper and multi-functional before anyone got particularly excited. Skip ahead to 2012, however, and Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, leaves his job to become an entrepreneur, and it’s 3D printing that has him so excited. For him, desktop 3D printers are the next stage in an industrial revolution that started with the Spinning Jenny in 1764. Like the Jenny, printers such as the Makerbot can be used at home, refining an industrial system based on large-scale factory manufacture into a single button on a screen that says ‘make’.

Alright, so we’re still far from the Replicators envisioned in Star Trek and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Current models, particularly those designed for home use, still rely on materials which can be easily melted and which solidify quickly, like plastics. Metal and ceramic substances, for example, are much more difficult to work with. The technology essentially relies on a digital design for an object being read by a machine into thin horizontal cross sections, which are then minutely layered into a final object. This method allows for a fairly high level of complexity, but is extremely time-intensive; taking anywhere from a few hours to several days.

3d print

Nonetheless, there is a wide range of potential uses for these printers, from toys with working parts (the schematics for which can be found on the Makerbot website) to replacing those little household doohickeys that everyone is always losing – rather than ordering the spare part, simply pay to download the design to your printer. The Khatt foundation has even funded the creation of a 3D typeface, which can be personalised and ordered online. This emerging technology has an active community on such sites as Thingiverse, in which users actively create and share designs. One such user, Michael Guslick, recently had the tech world in a tizzy when he posted a homemade gun on his blog, Haveblue.org. Although only one part of the weapon had been printed (the plastic ‘lower’), the rest being the result of years of weaponsmithing and parts purchased over the counter, this could potentially maybe open the doors for an underground trade in unlicensed, untraceable weapons. Possibly. The danger is still some way away though, as current printer models aren’t able to recreate the tensile strength needed to fire projectiles.

An unusual early adopter has been the fashion industry, possibly because it’s so desperate for innovation that a dress made out of meat is considered groundbreaking instead of just ‘ew’. Haute couture designer Iris van Herpen takes advantage of the structural integrity that makes plastic a more viable choice than cloth when you’re looking to create an alien-looking body case rather than a dress. With collection names like ‘Radiation Invasion’ and ‘Refinery Smoke’, van Herpen’s bizarre constructions of tubes and shiny metallic ruffles are nonetheless intriguing, gaining favour with stars like Björk and Lady Gaga (though the latter did wear the aforementioned meat dress).

A perhaps more viable direction has been taken by several shoemaking brands like Continuum, which exploit the medium to create strappy high heels which need no buckles or stitching. The futuristic designs can incorporate wings, meshes and complex folds without leaving the kind of raw edges that rub and cause blisters, and will only set you back by an eye-stinging $900. Designers have even been using these printers to make delicate jewellery and household items.

Furniture, toys, and fashion all carry more than a hint of the faddish with them, but some of the most exciting developments in 3D printing are emerging from the field of medicine. Bioprinting has potential hardly short of the miraculous, from healing wounds where tissue has been damaged, to replicating cancerous tumours in order to test the efficacy of treatment, to one day even growing human organs from stem cells. Essentially it’s a way of printing living cells onto a structure in particular, complex pattern which mimics the conditions of a real body. Once the cells have started to grow independently the structure either dissolves or become part of the body.

Less creepily (bioengineering squicks me out), Nature published an article exploring the possibilities of printing pharmaceuticals in spring of 2012. The charismatic Professor Lee Cronin is hoping to develop a 3D printer which, rather than objects, instead prints chemicals. By developing what he calls a ‘universal chemistry set’, the printer would mix substances in the right ratios, even allowing for the necessary reactions to take place. While the obvious application for this technology is in the pharmaceutical industry, there is no reason why this technology couldn’t be used to synthesise, say, methylenedioxymethamphetamine or lysergic acid diethylamide if it fell into the wrong hands. However, like the printed weaponry, there’s still plenty of time before we need worry about that; the prototype chemical printer requires bathroom sealant as the suspension medium, rendering the final product extremely inedible.

This is all lovely and idealistic (apart from the illegal guns and drugs), but what are the downsides to this emerging medium? Well for one thing it’s still very limited. It’s hard to predict a technological trajectory, and usually the biggest technological innovations seem to come out of nowhere. Even if 3D printing does live up to its potential, that brings with it a whole host of problems. Home printers are perfectly common but the cost of ink rivals that of vintage champagne; trying to maintain a range of brand-compatible dyes, plastics and whatever other materials prove most viable for the medium (my current research suggests chocolate) can only prove to be wincingly expensive.

And that’s setting aside the issue of piracy. Let’s just quickly cast our minds back to a little over a decade ago, when suddenly free digital copies of music and films became available. Remember the messy, desperate and ongoing collapse of the music and film industries as they refused to adapt their business models? The constant legal battles over DRM and intellectual property? Now imagine that with the fashion industry. Why buy a $900 pair of shoes when you can print yourself the entire range, should the schematics be leaked online? Imagine a DRM law for those little plastic doohickeys (‘you may only print 5 doohickeys with this licence’). We’ll need some valium suspended in bathroom sealant to deal with that palaver, stat.

3D printing presents global challenges too: Chris Anderson describes the positives of refining the multi-stage process of manufacture into a single action performed at home, but in truth the loss of industry would result in massive job losses and the obsolescence of some kinds of craftsmanship. This is may not be an entirely bad thing, however, as many factory jobs are outsourced to developing countries where workers are paid a pittance to work long hours in poor conditions. Unfortunately the first world’s increasing reliance on electronics and raw materials sourced from conflicted countries would undo much of this potential good work, and would in fact be exacerbated should these printers become ubiquitous.
The ubiquitous 3D printer still remains a dream, but there’s no doubt that entrepreneurial spirit and business potential are booming. So while the future is proving its usual foggy self, it seems that 3D printers are here to stay, at least for the moment.

When Manospheres Merge: Bizarre Politicking and Petty Court Drama

I have a secret hobby. It’s not the kind that you can confess openly in public without getting a lot of odd looks, a cleared throat, and a swift change in conversation topic, but I’m going to come clean about it here.

I like to watch drama happening on the Internet.

And I don’t mean Game of Thrones, I mean the stupid arguments that keyboard warriors and trolls get into on sites like Reddit. Pointless slap-fights, political flame wars, in-fighting and bickering, I munch it all down like penny sweets. Much like bingeing on cheap candy though, it can leave behind a bad taste and some mild nausea.

grumpytrump by goose 360

Grumpy Trump by Goose360

Particularly addictive and horrible is the nonsense spewed from the ‘alt right’, the new wave of retrogression and bigotry. It’s Gamer Gate, The Red Pill, MGTOW, Return of Kings, and pretty much all the corners of the Web that use the term ‘SJW’ unironically. From publicly calling a woman a whore in the name of ‘ethics’, to ‘news’ outlets dedicated to half-truths and outright lies, to self-improvement ‘lifestyles’ focussed largely on misogyny, the trends are as bizarre as they are overwhelmingly irrelevant in the real world. Video games continue to be a mixture of great and terrible,  feminism has not yet, as far as I’m aware, taken over the world or been brought down in flames, and many men continue being able to form functional, adult relationships with women they consider to be people.

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This beautiful pastel artwork is b

And yet, and yet. I can’t help feeling that we as academics, feminists, and people who care about people should be paying attention. The Republican primary elections did happen, and everyone who was surprised by the results has been remarkably blinkered to the popular trends in fear-mongering, paranoia, and anti-intellectualism¹ that have snaked through the public consciousness in the last decade. The ‘new right’ isn’t new at all, or anti-establishment, or brave, or any of the grandiose rhetoric spouted by its proponents. It’s the same hate and ignorance but younger and somehow still more obnoxious for its self-conscious ‘modernity.’

It’s also absolutely beset and populated by trolls.

The name ‘CisWhiteMaelstrom’ will almost certainly mean very little to most people (and rightly so), but he is by all accounts a very odd human being. It’s impossible to say anything about him for sure because he’s a deeply, bizarrely dishonest person. While everyone knows that you can lie on the Internet most people simply don’t, and doing so is usually considered transgressive. CisWhiteMaelstrom (CWM), however, lies habitually and shamelessly. Whether fantasist, sociopath, or straight-up troll doing it for the ‘lulz’, he has somehow amassed a cult following on Reddit (that’s not an exaggeration. You can buy T-shirts with his username on them).

This (reportedly) 20-something-year-old, (self-proclaimed) law student, (admitted) rapist and (actual, endorsed) Red Pill hero is at the centre of an overblown and deeply megalomaniacal power struggle and drama explosion on r/The_Donald, the horrible subreddit dedicated to bringing the Republican candidate’s horrible orange face to the front page of the Internet every single day. It’s been like watching a Shakespearean court drama – if the entire court were smeared with shit and the players were smeared with shit and everything they said was shit.

polio

This is all I can picture when I hear ‘Make America Great Again’. Well, this and the Vietnam War. Via The Pigeon Gazette

R/The_Donald is an odd place in general. The wrongness and ignorance is so blatant and proud that it borders on satirical absurdism. Posters use the word ‘cuck’ like Smurfs use the word ‘smurf’ – as a conversational placeholder, generic insult, or simply as a replacement noun when their limited vocabularies fail them. Trolling and ‘shitposting’ is not only tolerated but encouraged as they increase visibility.

shitpost

This is an example of a very popular post.

Even on Reddit, home of some truly awful awful, this kind of nonsense doesn’t go unnoticed by the administrators forever. The_Donald has had to make some tough decisions about who to allow into their safe space. And by ‘tough’ I of course mean ‘ridiculous’.

For example, following the sanctioning of r/European, an openly Islamophobic and nationalistic subreddit, an enormous infight broke out over whether to allow open xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment in The_Donald. Not, of course, because they thought it was wrong, but because they didn’t want to receive sanction themselves. Their subsequent decision to completely ban the word ‘Muslim’ and remove all Islamophobic posts did not go down well. The ‘community’ was furious at this perceived restriction on their freedom of speech, leading to the resignation of then head-mod u/TrumpGal.

This latest resignation (The_Donald apparently eats moderators’ souls at a rate of knots) instigated CWM as head moderator on a team with his RedPill cronies u/JP_Whoregan, u/GayLubeOil and a host of other awful people who believe that Jews and Muslims have infiltrated the media. CWM bravely bowed to community pressure with an announcement shrieking with bigotry, misogyny, and of course a healthy dose of rage-baiting

racist

The_Donald has since made famous trash-person and GamerGate demi-god Milo Yiannopoulos an honorary mod (allegedly in order to ‘placate the masses’), CWM has deleted and re-made his account following an alleged doxx, and The_Donald has undergone a schism amid tinfoil-hatted fears of shilling, conspiracy, and some kind of long term socialist-feminist-pro-Sanders master plan.³

This mad nonsense has been documented extensively all over Reddit, and I have no desire to reconstruct a timeline. What I want to do is highlight the crossover between the so-called manosphere, which routinely claims that it definitely doesn’t hate women or people who aren’t wealthy and white, and the Trumposphere, which repeatedly makes it clear that it definitely, absolutely, and proudly does. How do the people who stood firmly on pro-GamerGate side, who believe that political correctness is a cancer, and that feminism is the enemy (but they totally don’t hate women), reconcile this ‘revelation’ that the men simply ‘telling it like it is’ are in fact ‘enormous assholes’?

ubermensch

Via Existential Comics

 

 

¹Except for STEM. STEM fields are self-evidently the only real forms of science and therefore idiot claims to ‘biological imperatives’ and ‘evolutionary psychology’ are made freely and proudly.

²Incidentally, I’m always vaguely annoyed by claims that people calling out things they see as uncool are described as OUTRAGED or OFFENDED. 90% of the time it’s more ‘mildly perturbed’ or ‘peripherally irritated’.

³ Latest in the list of things mildly irritating me is how much I know about US politics, when plenty of Americans couldn’t tell you who the PM is, or that he once put his penis in a pig’s mouth.

A message to any and all struggling PhD friends

Dear friends,

It’s that time of year again. The semi-calm before the storm that is the end of the academic year. For my PhD-doing friends this means 9 month reports, upgrades, MPhil theses and even doctoral thesis-writing time.

It is not really much fun.

And for some of us, it brings about what is known as shit valley. Most of us face a shit valley during our PhD. It can be burnout from overwork, or anxiety paralysis in the face of what feels like a monumental task. It can feel like drowning, or panic, or depression. But if you’ve ever sat at your desk and thought about the stack of journal articles you’ve yet to read, or transcripts you’ve yet to write up, or draft paper you’ve yet to finish, and felt incapable of doing any of it, then you have been in shit valley.

Some of shit valley seems to be a product of PhD isolation. No matter how active (or not) you are in post-grad life, there is no one doing your work with you. There is no system in place which effectively evaluates how well you’re doing, and how far along you are, because your work is unique. When you’re really only holding yourself to the standards set by you or your supervisor, it’s easy to feel like you could or should be doing better.

So I wanted to send out a message to all of you questioning yourselves and your abilities, on behalf of all of us who have been where you are, and might find ourselves there again. Ready?

You are not alone.

I feel you. We feel you. We’ve been where you are and it sucks, but you will come out the other side. Keep breathing. It’s fine. You’re OK.

Last summer I passed my upgrade without too much trouble. I had done so comparatively early, and had organised a workshop at a conference, and was in some ways well on track. But in others I was falling behind – not engaging in wider research or publishing, and feeling like my work was spinning out of control with no way to bind it together.

Rudderless and overwhelmed I went more or less immobile. I barely looked at my PhD for months (literally, months). I definitely started thinking about throwing in the towel but even turning it into an MPhil sounded impossible.

I don’t know what turned it around. There’s a lot of advice around for those of us struggling; some good, some… less good. My sister helped, telling me to remember squirrels, who carry one little nut at a time. My supervisor said something similar – that crafting a thesis is like building a house, and while the task may be huge, it’s undertaken by laying one brick at a time. It’s good advice, even though the PhD seems so gargantuan that even the little pieces seem enormous.

I had all these ideas of what a PhD should be, and what I should be trying to do, and frankly it was too much and it was all just too hideous. It all made a lot more sense when I gave up on that and focused more on what my data was telling me to do. I settled for something much less ambitious than I was trying for before. And despite feeling like a failure for not being able to keep pushing through the bad times, the distance helped me to see what I’d learned as less of a huge amalgam of ideas, and more as a narrative informed by concepts and literature which, while interesting, did not need to be directly addressed in my thesis.

What I’m saying is don’t give up, but don’t make yourself miserable either. Give yourself some time and space. Be kind to yourself, and don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family. It’s surprising how much everyone cares and wants to help. You are intelligent and hard working enough to get through this. We believe in you.

phd030110s

Baited: Why clickbait science is just the worst

Anyone browsing the Web without the protective shield that is Adblock will know what clickbait is. There might even be some examples lurking around the borders of this blog. GYNAECOLOGISTS HATE HER! CLICK HERE FOR THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK TO SCARY AMERICAN TEETH! and the like. I especially enjoy the accompanying image choices (what’s with that one with the lady peeling off her own skin?) which are inevitably uncredited content rip-offs or still have the iStockPhoto logo stamped across the middle.

The reason for these abominations is pretty straightforward – these tasty nuggets whet your appetite for the secrets that lie within. Hell, tabloids and celebrity magazines have been working this angle for years by splashing pixelated vaginas across their front pages, alongside photographs of bikini-clad bodies with the dimpled thighs hyper-inflated. For just a dew pence you can find out exactly which overpaid footballer was caught in flagrante this week. Hyperlinks that promise secrets just a click away work on the same principle. The HuffPo, Cracked.com and Buzzfeed have built whole media empires (in the loosest possible term) around this strategy, but its influence has spread much further.

It’s no secret that print media is dying. While the optimistic The New Day paper might have opened this week, in the last few years whole publication houses have folded. This has coincided with an explosion of junk journalism desperately hoping to catch the public’s attention for just long enough to keep them reading the expected two-thirds of an article.

Unfortunately information nuggets might be tasty but they are nutritionally void and can leave you bloated and sick. Rapid regurgitation of half-cooked factoids has largely replaced any kind of responsible or investigative journalism.* Why, after all, would a media company hire a roving reporter (and pay the corresponding expenses) when a desk-jockey can pump out four times as many ‘articles’ in half the time? Never mind that what they report is a half-true spin on a press release.

This is especially a problem in science journalism. (Un)surprisingly, to be a science or tech journalist you don’t have to have any particular knowledge of science or technology. If you can string a sentence together and read a journal paper abstract (or even an academic blog) you, too, can tell the world about the magic of science. Not the actual practice, of course, that’s just looking at things happening and sometimes counting them. Who wants to hear about that?

Proper investigative journalists have highlighted this problem, but it continues and spreads deep into ‘proper’ print media which for a long time held out against the rising tide of trash. I was prompted to write this blog post by a particularly egregious example printed by The Independent and posted to Facebook by a friend:

gah3

The red flags have never waved quite as frantically as they did here. ‘Scientists’ is a classic junk journalism trick, as it cunningly avoids having to say which scientists or what their field is. ‘Scientists’ are just a highly-trained homogenous mass who are always right and always in agreement ‘Scientists’ include statisticians, graduate researchers, and professors in utterly unrelated fields weighing in with their opinions.

The next red flag is ‘have found evidence.’ This phrase is meaningless as it doesn’t say how much evidence. I could say that there’s evidence that vaccines cause autism because at least one autistic child has been vaccinated but no one would be stupid enough to believe that, would they?**

Finally, the lower case ‘god.’ The sentence reads as ‘believe in God’ because that’s how sentence syntax works, but the lower case effectively adds an ‘a’. This omission is reasonable in a print headline because there’s a danger of running out of space online this danger is utterly removed. It’s just our old friend laziness and clickbait coming out to play.

Either way, the headline implies something spectacular. A god? Like, a monkey god? What would it look like!? Have we been committing blasphemy all these milennia by eating its bananas? I simply must find out!  If you click through (bait achieved) the headline becomes Mysterious chimpanzee behaviour could be ‘sacred rituals’ and show that chimps believe in god.’

Well, that’s not really the same thing but it’s still definitely still pretty bizarre. Have chimps been observed building idols of their monkey god? Praying? Building bonfires and dancing around them by the light of the moon? Nope. According to this article they’ve been observed making piles of rocks.

Now making piles of rocks is still a pretty big deal for chimps. Chimps use rocks as foraging tools and sometimes to show off their strength and manliness chimpliness but they don’t normally build things with them. They don’t even use them as weapons, choosing instead to kill other chimps and animals with their own dextrous monkey-hands. Piles of rocks are pretty strange and exciting.

They are not, however, evidence of chimp religion. If you dig deeper and find the source articles (which are, of course, mentioned nowhere in the article) you find a piece in The Conversation written by a researcher called Laura Kehoe, which is quoted (but unattributed) in our terrible Independent article. Ms Kehoe is the eighth author on the actual research report published in the prestigious journal Nature. The report details chimpanzees habitually a) making piles of rocks and b) banging rocks against trees. This is strange and exciting but most importantly the report does not definitively say why the chimps are doing this. It’s a Nature report, so all it conclusively says is that chimps are doing something with rocks.

It certainly could be ritual behaviour. But it could also be a threat display, a marking of territory, a marker for a food site. All of these explanations are cool and interesting if you actually care about either ape behaviour or human archeo-anthropology. They are less interesting if you’re a journalist trying to come up with a catchy headline.

Enter Andrew Griffin. Andrew Griffin is a tech writer for the Independent. Andrew Griffin wrote the article that spawned this increasingly vitriolic blog post by willingly ignoring facts in favour of spewing up a half-digested truth nugget. Andrew Griffin isn’t a bad man (he’s not even a bad tech writer), he just knows sod all about science. I contacted him on Twitter to find out what was going on.

gah gah2

Andrew, I’m sorry, but no. Putting ‘chimps believe in god’ is not ‘a nice way’ to understand some research, because it does not fulfil that function even slightly. It is a leap in logic parallel to the following examples provided by pissed-off friends and colleagues.

All animals have distinct mating rituals. I have therefore concluded from this information that animals have nightclubs, pickup artists, and Tinder.
Birds of paradise look fancy and do dances in order to mate. I thus conclude that there are  bird exotic dancers who dance at bird strip clubs. Hence the term 'birds' for women.
Humans drink fermented grapes in the form of wine as part of religious ceremonies. Elephants sometimes drink fermented fruit. Therefore some elephants believe in Jesus.
Cheese looks sweaty in hot. Humans looks sweaty in hot. Therefore, cheese is humans.

Perhaps I’m being naive in thinking that journalistic integrity should even exist. Does a newspaper have any obligation to print the truth, or a journalist to write what’s real instead of what’s fantasy? Our world is chaotic capitalism, so if nonsense click-bait is what keeps the Indy in circulation and Andrew Griffin in a job then maybe it’s inevitable, but I retain my right to complain about it.


 

*Not entirely of course. Excellent journalism is a rare and beautiful bird but well-worth hunting. Try this piece by the NYT on homelessness in New York, or this fantastic Mother Jones article on working conditions in meat-packing factories.

**Oh.

Lonely Book Club: Winter 2016

Since starting university (many years ago) I’ve noticed a dramatic drop-off in how much I read for pleasure. I still read a lot, but it’s mostly study-related. Not that digging into a fresh issue of Games & Culture or a musty copy of Practical Reason isn’t fun, it’s just not a great idea before bed. And if I take Donna Haraway to the pub with me, she tends to sadly fall by the wayside in favour of staring off into space or doing the Sun’s crossword (no hate; their crossword comes with both cryptic and general knowledge clues. It’s pretty amazing).

Of course we all return to our great loves from time to time. You don’t get rid of the 11-year old who used to sit as close as possible to the classroom door during breaktime just to glean an extra few seconds of reading-time just by giving them 7 years’ worth of academic jargon. From time to time I’ve come across a novel which has taken me back to the all-consuming immersion of childhood. Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs by Victoria Clayton (the lead character of which shares my nickname, birthday, and love of gardening).

Still, these instances were becoming too isolated for comfort.This year I’ve decided to give myself some reading love while still fighting the feminist cause. Hence my (so far only successful) new year’s resolution: to read more for leisure, and for those books to only be ones written by women.

It’s been a strong start. Despite women authors being historically (and currently) sidelined, they still continue to do beautiful, powerful things. The kindle app on my recently-revived tablet is overflowing, and I find myself re-learning a habit I thought I’d forgotten in favour of the instant gratification of Facebook and Reddit: reading before bed as a way to wind down. Aside from the obvious benefit of lulling you gently into another world, it’s also a good idea to separate yourself from a glaring screen for an hour or so before trying to sleep.

In any case, it’s been great. I’m devouring everything in front of me so if you have any recommendations (which aren’t too expensive or hard to find) please leave a comment!

The list so far:

1The Paper Magician
Charlie N. Holmberg: Young Adult Fantasy

A bad start. Bought because it was 99p on Kindle, I was drawn by its original interpretation of elemental magic in a Victoriana setting. Sadly it was a display-case of terrible writing. There were anachronisms (telegrams but no telephones, yet we have pasta and refrigerators?) and despite being set in London there were all kinds of misplaced flora (crabgrass does not grow in the UK) and slang (Fin-de-siècle ladies and gentlemen do not say things like ‘yeah’ and ‘uhh….’). Worse, the female characters fell into sad tropes of helpful, devoted virgin and wicked, calculating femme fatale. It was basically fantasy Rebecca. Nonsense.

2A Spy in the House: A Mary Quinn Adventure
Y. S. Lee: Young Adult Fiction/Mystery

More Victoriana, but much better. It was far better researched and as such more evocative. While some of the characters were poorly fleshed-out it was a fun and quick jaunt. The lead character is likeable and the various strands of intrigue do a good job of drawing you in. Additionally there’s a strong ‘girl power!’ vibe which I can always get behind.

4Ship of Magic
Robin Hobb: Swashbuckling fantasy

Some books are like fine dark chocolate; others are like Haribo. The fine ones you can take a little bit of at a time but they leave you feeling better for the experience. The Haribo ones you swallow in one sitting but leave you feeling slightly ashamed and nauseated. Twilight is a Haribo book. 50 Shades of Grey is a Haribo book. Robin Hobb is the queen of Haribo: the gold bears to 50 Shades’ flavourless gummy rings. She can make an 800-page book fly by in two days. But fool me once, Ms Hobbs, and it’s shame on you. Fool me twice… well. Hobb sucks you in with intrigue, stories half-told, glorious details and complex, flawed characters so close to success that you feel sure that if you just hang on for one more chapter then surely there must be a resolution.

There is only pain. And for someone who, like me, gets so immersed that they ignore the outside world for days at a time, it’s not worth the investment. You may disagree.

3The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
Irish Chang: International History

NOT A FUN READ. It’s a proper, well-researched insight into one of the greatest atrocities of WWII. It’s gruesome and painful and pulls no punches. It’s very good though. Chang knows how to include enough human details that the reader doesn’t become de-sensitised, but doesn’t linger over the gory details until it becomes a horror-porn penny dreadful. She illustrates the horror of a mass atrocity with individual moments of human strength: the pregnant mother who survived being bayonetted a dozen times. The Nazi who saved thousands of Chinese civilians and who was, later, saved by them. The intellectual leader of a women’s college who protected thousands of women but never recovered from what she saw and experienced. Good book, but not uplifting.

5The Invisible Library
Genevieve Cogman: Young Adult/Steampunk Fantasy

More Victoriana. Something something magical library, alternate universes, chaos and magic. It was fun. It was very like a more fantastical A Spy in the House, or a light-hearted cross between The Ruby in the Smoke and Sabriel. Enjoyable YA silliness.

 

Talking about women in League of Legends

Warning: I talk about flaming a bit in this, so there will be swears.

 

League of Legends is a Massive Online Battle Arena (MOBA) made by Riot games. And ‘massive’ is indeed a good way to describe it. Originally derived from a mod for Defence of the Ancients (DOTA), League now has 12 million active daily users, who play for more than a billion hours a month across five servers, as well a fast-growing competitive scene (people get paid big bucks to play professionally, and people pay big bucks to watch the pros at work). It is free to play, at least at the early stages, though success becomes more difficult at higher levels without spending at least some money – an oft-heard joke in the community is that it’s the most expensive free game. Its gameplay is deceptively simple; a team of five battles to capture an opposing team of five’s base. To undertake this battle, a player chooses one of more than a hundred champions, each with a unique background and skillset. Champions can be chosen from a free weekly rotation of ten, or bought with experience points or riot points (which cost real money). A game can last anywhere from 15-75 minutes (though 20-40 is most common), during which a champion will gain skills and become more powerful, levelling from 1-18. After this it gets complicated, as champions can compliment each others’ skillsets, prove more or less difficult to play, and have distinct advantages against other champions. An understanding of this and in-game strategies is what’s known as the metagame. It is, without doubt, an extremely difficult game with a steep learning curve.

Like all videogames, this one comes with its own community, bringing in-jokes, parlances, and jargon. Within the world of gaming, however, the League community is known to be particularly toxic. The necessity for teamwork built in to the game, combined with its complexity, creates a blend that is guaranteed to cause frustration. Worse, the player ranking system is based on how well a player’s team does in a game (win/lose), rather than how well a player does within the game. This combination leads to far more flaming (verbal abuse), harassment, and trolling than is common in other online games. There is no feeling quite like being told to uninstall a game and stick it up your bitch ass by a squeaky-voiced pre-teen, not to mention the impotent rage when a team-mate disconnects from the game (due to poor connectivity or as an intentional ‘rage-quit’), or seems determined to lose (by ‘feeding’).

Nonetheless, the numbers speak for themselves. League is highly addictive.*

While a discussion of the argots and distinction practices within the community is forthcoming, today I’m going to instead delve a little further into the gender language and gender representation in League. First: the demographics. Over 90% of players are male, and 85% of players are aged between 16 and 30 . Watch a championship match and a panning camera shot will reveal a rather white, very male, somewhat acne-spotted audience.

The championship pool reflects this. Much has been written about the self-perpetuating cycle of male games designers creating games for a male audience, who then grow up to become game designers (see Yee and Fox). A by-product of this cycle is the fetishisation and objectification of femininity, and League is no exception to this, at least in its design and conceptualisation. The topic of female characters and the problem of their ‘sexiness’ comes up fairly regularly in community discussions (see here, here, and even here, for example). The responses vary, and include the dismissive (“sex sells, end of thread”) and the derogatory (“Most internet chicks are fat. Non-fat chicks make them have ‘Hurt Feelings'”**). Nonetheless, the demographics don’t lie. Female champions are not only under-represented (making up approximately 30% of the pool) but are far more often sexualised, under-dressed, young-looking humanoids than their male counterparts. Male characters occupy  a range of ages, weights, and musculatures, as well as regularly appearing as anthropomorphic animals or monsters. There are no black female champions.***

This probably comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with video games and gaming communities. However, I would like to point out an interesting quirk in the speech habits of league-players. The interface of League has an awkward aspect, in that champions in-game are shown with the player (or ‘summoner’) name above them, rather than their own. A new player, unused to the large selection of champions and unfamiliar with their names, might therefore read the name hanging over a champion’s head and try to communicate to their team-mates that an opposing player was nearby, rather than an opposing champion (e.g. ‘Guys I just saw Summoner123 go into the triple-bush by the river’). While this might be more effective initially, players quickly pick up the champion names, and it becomes much more efficient to refer to them in that way (e.g ‘guys morg inc tri’). This is not to imply that there is usually any role-play aspect involved in the game, nor particular any level of fantasy immersion or embodiment. A League player might refer to an opposing player by the champion they are using, but they are constantly aware of the opponent’s humanness.

As in World of Warcraft, due to the demographic spread in League of Legends, a female champion is more likely to be played by a male player than a female. Despite this, and because of the accepted habit of calling other players by their champion rather than summoner name, League players almost always refer to other players by the gender of their champion. The exception to this is when team-members are friends or acquaintances and their real names and genders are known, and especially when voice chat is being used rather than text chat. While there does not appear to be any stigma attached to playing a female champion, the aforementioned flaming and smack-talk almost automatically become gendered. For example, uses of ‘rape’ and ‘bitch’ are not uncommon, nor are phrases such as ‘Fuck her right in the pussy’.

A way to study this further would be a good solid dose of discourse analysis, though sampling would be an issue. YouTube and Twitch.tv are rich sources of community-created game streaming and commentating, but a sample of media gathered from here represents only the kind of people who make these videos, not necessarily the community or League players as a whole. It would also need to be English-speaking, which considering the growing popularity of League in South Korea and China would be something of a shame!

* In the interest of full disclosure, no I do not currently play League myself. This is due to a slow internet connection and an unwillingness to devote the time needed to hone the game-skills required to play without having abuse thrown at me. A boyfriend got me to start playing it some years ago, one whom I eventually broke up with for playing too much League. I do, however, watch a lot of League fan-videos, play-throughs, and streams, as well as the Europeans championship matches.
**Full comment, and possibly one of the most fantastically phallocentric I’ve ever read: “Most internet chicks are fat. Non-fat chicks make them have ‘Hurt Feelings’. Unlike men that become motivated to be like characters they admire (Indiana Jones in films, Batman in comics, (shiver) Marcus Phoenix in video games, etc.), women just get insecure because their girl-peen is too small.”
*** Apparently there is debate on this. Although Lucian is widely regarded as the first black champion, Karma has since been re-worked, and has dark skin and is voiced by a woman of colour. Nonetheless her features are caucasoid and her background places her in the ‘Oriental’ land of Ionia.

MMORPGs in brief: A short history of nearly nothing

The roots of the Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game extend both broadly and deeply through the histories of computer sciences and ludology, drinking too of sources from history, mythology, and science fiction. The genre continues to grow, seeding new forms such as the MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) and even browser-based casual games which rely on collaboration for success. It is, however, perhaps the MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) that stands as the most recognisable progenitor of the MMORPG.

Characteristics of MUDs can be recognised, too, in forums, chat-rooms and point-and-click games. Essentially these games/chat-room hybrids, invented in the late seventies, hosted simple adventure or fantasy games  so that multiple people could use and ‘explore’ them. In gameplay and inspiration they reinterpreted classic role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and other dice-rolling fantasy games. The dungeons were entirely text-based, both in descriptions of environments and characters, and in actions which were undertaken with commands, e.g. [GO FORWARDS], [FIGHT], [FIGHT WITH SWORD], etc. They also allowed users to chat to each other, with some MUDs focussing almost exclusively on this aspect. Eventually communities began to form around these nascent chatrooms, with regular users logging in daily and for hours at a time.

A decade or so later saw the emergence of the 3D shooter, which would evolve into the FPS (First-Person Shooter) genre. These games introduced the first-person perspective often adopted in MMORPGs, as well as utilising immersive graphical environments and allowing for collaboratiive play with real-world cohorts using LANs (Local Area Networks). These games relied on a fast network response in order to ensure accurate shots – any delay in server response (a high ‘ping’) could mean that a perfectly-aimed shot sadly only hit the place where an opponent had stood seconds before. Comparatively, MMORPGs ameliorated this effect by commonly using ‘targeted’ attack styles, which only required the player to click on an opponent or monster in order to engage in combat. They would still be in trouble if their ping was high enough to cause a serious delay in their response to an attack, however it removed or at least lessened the need for sharp aim. The outcome of an engagement would be generated using random number outcomes within certain parameters based on level, enemy health, armour, weapon, etc.

The first recognisable MMORPG, Meridian 59, was released in 1996. While it incorporated technologies that had existed for some time along with the fantasy setting common to MUDs, it also required a flat monthly subscription rate, which allowed users more flexibility in exploration and immersion, rather than forcing a focus on value-for-money combat instances. The first to achieve monthly subscribers numbering in the millions were the South Korean Lineage and Lineage II, though they were far surpassed by World of Warcraft (WoW).

MMORPGs are characteristically multi-modal in that they aim to attract users with a wide range of play styles and preferences beyond simply combat by creating a fully-realised virtual world. Role-players, for example, have very different play styles than that of ‘power gamers’. The former, interested in the lore and particular characteristics of the game world, will create fully-fleshed characters out of their avatars – citizens who might have been naturally born and shaped by their game environment. They engage in storylines in ways which correspond to their avatar’s backstory and character, collaborating with other players in a shared fiction. For power-gamers, on the other hand, their avatars are merely instrumental to in-game goals such as reaching elite levels, collecting high-level rewards, and mastering game mechanics.

Sources:
Mayra, Frans, An Introduction To Game StudiesGames in Culture (London: Sage), 2008
Kendall, Lori, Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online (London: University of California Press), 2002

Can I get a map for this methodology?

Sometimes when I think about actually doing my research i get so stressed and panicky that my brain wants to shut down and run away. This is usually why i end up dicking around on the internet instead of working – i catch sight of the mammoth task ahead and panic instead of continuing to chip away.

Recently I read that ethnography isn’t really appropriate as a testing method, though it has been used that way. This is fine, though it should change the shape of my research aims. It re-routes the roadmap of thinking if you like. The start and end stay the same, hopefully, though the end isn’t known. 

In my masters I looked at people’s habits in MMORPGs, namely gender-switching. From just two cases and two interviews I got enough data for a masters’ thesis. While I had all this theory behind me, I knew that it would get exploratory really quickly, which it did. I got comparatively quite novel data. This is what i’m going for in this thesis, but on a much larger scale. I want to see how people behave with and relate to their avatars (not only in a gender-swapped context). Now there are all these disciplines that say how people will do this, so I have a body of theory to teach me roughly what to expect. BUT it will be exploratory – I will (hopefully) find new things – how dynamic the relationship is, how distanced. Whether it’s me-and-it or ‘I’. What social rules get practised through it – linguistic, behavioural. 

I guess this means that my Bourdieu stuff – or social agent/cipher stuff – is kind of separate, but I knew that already. I’d feel comfortable bringing it back in if there’s a dearth of data but frankly I doubt that’ll be the case, ethnographic data being exceedingly rich. 

As to how novel this is, I’ve been looking at virtual ethnographies for more than a year now and I’ve not found one that uses the kind of method that I’m hoping to implement – a combination of virtual ethnography, classic ethnography, and media analysis.

“I love your costume, can I have sex with you!?” An Update and Clean-Up

The introduction to the first issue of Games and Culture (2006) was intended to call for an increase in the application of cultural theory and ethnography in games studies. While the field had always been intrinsically interdisciplinary, there remained (an d remains) a need to address issues of inequalities such as access, race, class, and gender “given the importance of profit, consumerism, and capitalism more generally in gaming” (Boellstorff, 2006). The author defined three potential arenas for the anthropological study of games and culture which both emphasise the discreteness of game-world and real-world culture, and highlight their reflexivity: ‘Game cultures’ (game-specific cultural practices), ‘cultures of gaming’ (gaming as a cultural practice), and ‘gaming of cultures’ (the effect of gaming on broader non-virtual culture). Of these, it is the potential ‘gaming of cultures’ which interests me in particular, as it implies reflexivity between game- and material-worlds, with the potential for cultural ‘gamification’.

While Boellstorff (2006) emphasised Goodenough as an authority on cultural theory in this field, I feel that it’s Bourdieu’s theories of practice and habitus that have the potential to be prove illuminating by creating a theoretical framework in which original research can be undertaken.

This research presumes the existence of an online gamer micro-society which shares a collective cultural unconscious expressed through environments such as virtual game-worlds and online blogs and communities (Boellstorff’s ‘culture of gaming’). Given a Bourdieusian reading, this culture can be loosely called a Field, but it is the habits, shared mindset, and subconscious rules practised by its participants which are of particular interest, as I posit that they represent a habitus.

Strictly speaking, the learned rules of meaning described in ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’ refer to classical works of art rather than modern cultural objects, however the theory remains applicable. In particular, Bourdieu’s claim that “the repeated perception of works of a certain style encourages the unconscious internalization of the rules that govern the production of these works” (Bourdieu, 1977) makes clear the way in which a repeated style can be unconsciously learned, even when the rules of this style remain unknown, and contribute to the structured way of mind which can be understood as habitus.

Habitus is rather broad and malleable as a concept, however, and a large body of literature surrounding it does not seem to have narrowed the definition. Swartz (1997) nonetheless refines it in terms of both a social meta-theory:

“Habitus is a structured structure that derives from the class-specific experiences of socialization in family and peer groups” (Swartz, 1997: 101). It “results from early socialization experiences in which external structures are internalized [and] generates perceptions, aspirations, and practices that correspond to the structuring properties of earlier socialization” (Swartz, 1997: 103).

 

And as a practice experienced by the individual:

Habitus takes into account both “the observed regularities of social action … and the experiential reality of free, purposeful, reasoning human actors who carry out their everyday actions practically, without full awareness of or conscious reflection on structures” (Swartz, 1997: 95).

 

The term has progressively been broadened to “stress the bodily as well as cognitive basis of action and to emphasize inventive as well as habituated forms of action” (Swartz, 1997: 101). This defines what Bourdieu called a “cultural unconscious”, in which the subjective individual and objective society engage reflexively (Swartz, 1997: 96-97): “the  socialized body (which one calls the individual or person) does not stand in opposition to society, it is one of its forms of existence” (Bourdieu, quoted in Swartz, 1997: 96)

My proposed argument is that the collective mindset within this ‘gamer’ subcultural Field is one which, through content and communication, I expressed as predominantly phallogocentric and, to some extent, misogynistic.  Participants  distance themselves from femininity by, for example, presenting women as sexual objects or engaging in harassment and abuse of women in these spaces (Fox et al., 2013, Fox and Tang, 2013, Kendall, 2000, Kendall, 2002, Martey, 2010, etc). This contributes to what Bourdieu might call the ‘formative conditions’ of a habitus, affecting what its social agents “judge as ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’ (Swartz, 1997: 103). I posit that this habitus is not isolated to virtual spaces, but may ‘leak’, and be practiced in some socially-sanctioned material spaces, as an instance of what Boellstorff (2006) called ‘the gaming of culture’.

 

Measuring a subculture of this kind in quantitative terms is difficult in theory and next to impossible in practice, for a variety of reasons ranging from sheer scale to privacy concerns to the relative anonymity afforded by self-chosen monikers and ‘handles’. Instead, I propose a method to be undertaken in the offline world, in a setting which is nonetheless inspired and informed by gaming culture, and less bound by normative rules of social behaviour: the games convention.

I am not proposing that attendees are naive enough to cognitively confuse the game-world with the real world upon entering a convention centre, but that a games con represents a space inhabited by the same people who make up the presumed virtual community. This is not a perfect measure – ‘casual’ gamers make up an a large percentage of game-players but are perhaps not invested enough to attend a con, while even the most hard-core gamer might be unable to afford a ticket and travel to a con if it takes place in another state or country. Nonetheless it is reasonable to assume that attendees of gaming conventions will be made up of dedicated gamers who are more or less active and prominent within the community.

One of the most interesting practices in this context is the fact that bodies in the games-con space may be attired and shown off in a similar way to those in the game-world through cos-play (costume play). This practice, in which convention attendees make or buy and then wear costumes similar to those of a video game (or comic book) character, usually requires a large amount of time and dedication. From a theoretical perspective it presents a fascinating reflexivity between the game world and the material world, and indicates that this is a marked and affecting phenomenon. It has been explored to some extent by authors such as Lamerichs (2011), who attempted to argue a similar line, stating that cosplay acts as a performance of both the self and a hyper-narrative.

Part of the intrinsic game-world misogyny described by Fox and Tang (2013), Consalvo (2012), etc. is produced by highly sexualised and exploitative costuming and portrayal of female characters. These costumes are then often reproduced and worn by female cosplayers. For the cosplayer, this (usually hand-made) costume is a representation of their enjoyment of and dedication to the game-world. However to a male gamer who has potentially internalised a misogynistic habitus the lines of acceptable behaviour may be blurred, and the costume might instead represent objectification and availability. A study of attitudes and behaviour through questionnaire and even interview at a games convention could provide preliminary results suggesting support, or lack of it, for these ideas.

The Web is important here it separates this research from earlier debates concerning the potential for violent video games to affect behaviour in the offline world. The presumed community foundation is based on a belief in shared communication through blogging and discussion as well as in-game chat. Violent practices in video games are (or were, this is changing) individually navigated, while a misogynistic habitus must be built and re-built through communal negotiation (whether conscious or subconscious).

Supporting literature and Bibliography:

Theresa Winge. “Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay.” Mechademia 1.1 (2006): 65-76. Project MUSE.

Lamerichs, Nicolle. “Stranger than fiction: Fan identity in cosplay.”Transformative Works and Cultures 7 (2010).

Mari Kotani. and Thomas LaMarre. “Doll Beauties and Cosplay.” Mechademia 2.1 (2007): 49-62. Project MUSE. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/&gt;.

 

BOELLSTORFF, T. 2006. A Ludicrous Discipline? Ethnography and Game Studies. Games and Culture, 1, 29-35.

BOURDIEU, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press.

CONSALVO, M. 2012. Confronting toxic gamer culture: A challenge for feminist game studies scholars. http://adanewmedia.org.

FOX, J., BAILENSON, J. N. & TRICASE, L. 2013. The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatars. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 930-938.

FOX, J. & TANG, W. Y. 2013. Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behavior, 1-7.

KENDALL, L. 2000. ” OH NO ! I ‘ MA NERD !” Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum. Gender and Society, 14, 256-274.

KENDALL, L. 2002. Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online.

LAMERICHS, N. 2011. Stranger than fiction: Fan identity in cosplay. Transformative Works and Cultures.

MARTEY, R. M. 2010. Find More, Do More, Reveal Less. Information, Communication & Society, 13, 1207-1229.

SWARTZ, D. 1997. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, London, University of Chicago Press.