Saturday 31 August 2013

The History of Video Games

While I was away from blogging, I found that occasionally I had spaces of time to fill. Thanks to our near-infinite supply of books, more than a few hours were so spent. But when the media of cadaverous trees was not enough I got into retro video games. Hence why readers have to put up with occasional posts about them.

I am far from the only one who has this peccadillo. The vast expansion of content on YouTube these last few years is fuelling interest in what the games systems of yesteryear have to offer. And it's not just folk of a certain vintage reliving digital nostalgia for a youth long gone. YouTube is stuffed with vids from teenagers and early-20-somethings going back to the roots of modern gaming - a bit like how dance aficionados might prowl charity shops and backstreet record dealers for Northern Soul rarities. As you might expect, growing interest has started to push the prices and scarcity of games that were once ten-a-penny up. Between five and eight quid are more or less standard for MegaDrive and Master System titles. Because they came in cardboard boxes as opposed to proper game packaging, kids just used to chuck the boxes away, finding Nintendo titles (for the NES, SNES and N64) with the box and instructions is a tricky business and the prices reflect that. Of course, notable rare games or in-demand titles command additional premiums.

One of the stand out contributors - in my opinion - to the YouTube retro gaming community is a mysterious American chap who goes under the name Dr Sparkle. His channel and blog has the unbelievably ambitious, nay, foolhardy objective of playing and reviewing in chronological order every single game released for Nintendo's Famicom/NES. Every Japanese, North American and PAL region release weighs in at about 1,300 titles. If that wasn't crazy enough, he has taken on the added burden of doing so for Sega's Mark III/Master System, the MegaDrive/Genesis and NEC's PC Engine/TurboGrafx. Presumably the SNES will follow and, far into the future, he might get round to the Saturn, Sony's Playstation and the Nintendo 64. It's truly a mammoth task and surely one that can never be finished. The original Playstation, for example, saw just shy of 8,000 games come out for the machine. Either Dr Sparkle recruits a collaborator(s) or passes the baton onto the next generation when he shuffles off this mortal coil, his mighty task incomplete.

Take a look. This is episode one of Chrontendo:

Dr Sparkle doesn't skimp on detail. Since 2007, he has produced 46 episodes of Chrontendo, eight instalments of Chronsega and four Chronturbos. Each of them are exceptionally well-researched and placed in the context of what was going on in the wider video game and computer entertainment industry. Time-wise, he is presently up to summer 1989. 

Should he give it all up now (please, no!) his productions already are a valuable and very watchable resource for sad folk who like this sort of thing, and those that might hide their geekery behind disinterested scholarship of the digital archive. His work, therefore, comes highly recommended.

Friday 30 August 2013

By-Election Results August 2013

No. of Candidates
+/- July
Average/ contest
+/- July


Plaid Cymru**


* There were no by-elections in Scotland.
** There was only one by-election in Wales, which was defended and held by Plaid Cymru.
*** There were no Independent clashes in any of this month's contests.
**** 'Other' this month consisted of Independent Community and Health Concern (321 votes), English Democrats (twice - 72 and 98 votes), United People's Party (28 votes), and Putting Hartlepool First (194 votes).

Overall, 27,576 votes were cast over 18 individual local (tier one and tier two) authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see July's results here.

I have altered the table's attributes slightly so it now measures the percentage change in total vote since the previous month and got rid of the confusing holds/win categories. Seat change can capture the overall state of play better in just a single column.

As noted previously, there are considerable variations month-on-month in by-elections. One month a disproportionate chunk of contests can mushroom in a Labour area and the next find themselves clustered in leafy Tory shires. Therefore huge swings in total and average votes, as seen in pretty much all the parties except for Labour this month, are more likely to reflect geographical peculiarities than real shifts in opinion among the electorate. However, where there is comparatively little swing in a party's vote over a period of time then there is a good chance it is indicative of a mood in the wider population.

Over the period of a quarter the accidents of geography stand a good chance of evening themselves out and representing an accurate - and statistically significant - snapshot of the voting behaviour of the hardest of hardcore voters. This observation however is only limited to quarters three, four, and one in a single year. As elections generally tend to take place in quarter two parties have the tendency to roll up their by-elections to coincide with them. Look at the huge numbers of by-elections that took place at the same time as May's County Council elections. As the counties generally favour the Conservatives this fed through to a large preponderance of elections in Tory-held seats and therefore a "skewing" of the entire quarter's results. I expect the quarter two skew will be tilted toward Labour in 2014 as a number of City Councils are due up.

Syria: After the Commons Defeat

I really detest the phrase, but last night's Commons vote that ensured the path to war with Syria is one that won't be taken is definitely a "game-changer". Here are my quick thoughts on the fall out - some domestic, some not.

1. It is regrettably true, Ed led his Parliamentary troops into voting against the government on technical rather than principled grounds. Whether he's a copper-bottomed shit or not, his opposition was based on tests involving standards of proof and legal justifications. It was neither principled nor based on an understanding of the specifics of the situation. Yet, the PLP was instructed to vote the right way for the wrong reasons. I'll take that.

2. Last night was less a victory for Ed Miliband than a catastrophic loss for the Prime Minister. In true Flashman style Dave was determined to bulldoze through on the flimsiest of pretexts. And a pretext last week's chemical attack was, because an intervention is something he and William Hague have been wanting for some time. Some have accused the Labour leader of playing politics. Of course, what is war but politics with cruise missiles? Things could have been very different. It was incredibly short-sighted of him not to back Labour's motion, especially when it wasn't a million miles away from his own. Had he done so the consensus he wanted would have been his, the road to military action cleared, and today the commentariat would be talking about divisions in the opposition. Not his own party.

3. Speaking of internal divisions, the Tory rebels have inflicted the most embarrassing and damaging defeat on him possible. No doubt in future they will be emboldened. Waverers who've gone with the whip in the past might be find themselves more inclined to being awkward.

4. I think it is a bit much to claim last night's vote as a victory for the anti-war movement, Lindsey German has done. But certainly the ghost of Iraq was busy on the green benches, rattling its chains in members' ears - even though, I accept, there are significant differences between what happened 10 years ago and now. Nevertheless as last night will embolden Dave's critics in the Tory party, I think it will have extra-parliamentary ripples too. For the first time in a long time the number one government priority has been derailed. Much show has been made of MPs "listening to their constituents" and polls have consistently shown big majorities opposed to military action. Coming after the brushing aside of mass mobilisations of the last decade - the anti-war movement, anti-fees, and the numerous anti-austerity campaigns - the defeat of the government while the world was watching could well give the politics of protest a needed shot in the arm.

5. What of the "Special Relationship"? Dave's inability to carry his own party in support of foreign policy aims can only diminish him in the eyes of the White House. The once-dependable Britain can no longer be taken for granted by Obama and his successors. A Rubicon has been crossed. No British Prime Minister can offer a carte blanche again.

6. "Britain has all the foreign policy credibility of Luxembourg!" moans Dan Hodges in his whiny resignation note. Presumably, so does Germany, Brazil and India for not contemplating intervention in Syria either. "Credibility" in geopolitics is not about one's willingness to bomb "rogue states" or even the size of the military, though of course that is important. Politics in the international arena is, as well as at home, concentrated economics. Britain is, as it was yesterday, one of the world's richest and largest economies. It would be difficult to name a country where capital from these shores hasn't been invested, or to find somewhere a British multinational isn't active. The days of the British Empire are thankfully long gone but it remains a key lynchpin in the international order. Silly hysteria from right-wingers and paid-for commentators does not render this fact of life null and void.

7. The situation in Syria remains grim. The Americans and France could still go ahead and administer their pointless punishment beating. In so doing they risk getting drawn in further. Either way matters will not be helped. Not one life will be saved, though attacking and weakening Assad's military capability could well prolong the conflict. If Dave was sensible, he could still play the respected statesman by turning away from war war to jaw jaw. Yes, if Dave is sincere and really wants to help the Syrian people he could throw his efforts into establishing and pushing a peace plan. Sure, it's not as glamorous as phoning up submarine commanders and telling them to launch. But it's infinitely more constructive.

Thursday 29 August 2013

The Evidence Against Syria

There are the five tests Ed Miliband has published this evening as conditions to be met for Labour's backing in the Commons. I reproduce them here for information:
1) We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Security Council;

2) There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;

3) The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors' findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world's most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;

4) There should be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;

5) Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Syria: The Path to Hell

The path to hell is paved with good intentions. And to take most people at face value who favour military intervention in Syria, they appear to sincerely favour "doing something" - anything - for the best of reasons. The chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus is utterly reprehensible, no doubt about that. After repeated massacres of civilians by all sides and the infamous flesh-eating episode that went viral, this signals a new, barbarous low. Not even the Nazis used biological or chemical weapons on the battlefield - that was something reserved solely for helpless inmates in the death camps. But put in historical and geographic context, Assad's regime, if it does turn out to be responsible for the atrocity, is in the august company of the late and very much unlamented Saddam Hussein. More surprisingly, it's a stable shared with Israel and NATO too, who, in Gaza and Afghanistan respectively, have used white phosphorous. But as it just sits on the legal side of international law, that chemical weapon "doesn't count".

I'm not a pacifist. I am a socialist. There are just and unjust wars, and even the most morally right of wars are, at best, brutal and regrettable necessities. An Anglo-French-American attack on Syria would definitely be brutal and regrettable, but necessary? No.

In James Bloodsworth's argument on Left Foot Forward, suggesting a cruise missile putsch would hand all or large swathes of the country to Islamists is essentially a "conservative position with a leftwing twist". After all, that's the argument put about by the Syrian government and the Kremlin. And the portrayal of dictatorships as bastions against the rising tide of Islamist extremism suits the interests of certain Middle Eastern gentlemen. However, James's is a position that does not survive first contact with the balance of forces on the ground. The choice immediately facing is not Assad or a liberal democracy, it is Assad or a country fractured into warring Islamist fiefdoms.

Of course, there is a third choice. While regime change isn't on the table, we saw mission creep in Libya. It hard to see how the situation in Syria, where the conflict is more complex, messy, and intractable, won't suck the Western powers in once the sorties are launched and the targets attacked. This third option sees the replacement of Assad by some nice, liberal-sounding chap who promises new elections. But the price for this liberty would be less eternal vigilance and more perpetual counter insurgency. Think Iraq at its worst. Think Afghanistan, its endless conflict, and the indifferent, unthinking consequences of Obama's drone war. This is what a "humanitarian" military adventure will mean. This is the language of good intentions in bombs and bullets.

Sunny says we shouldn't talk about full intervention of the sort described above, because no one of consequence is arguing for it. Okay then, what does limited intervention mean? If, as Sunny's piece admits, Assad has a huge military advantage over his Islamist enemies (I'm not convinced, it seems stalemated to me) and that airstrikes or what have you will have little effect, then what is the point? What appears to be on the cards and what Sunny is prepared to back is the geopolitical equivalent of a punishment beating. The thinking goes dictators in the future won't unleash their stores of chemical weaponry because they fear of retaliatory strikes. It sounds naive if you ask me. The fates of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and the sticky ends other dictatorships have met have hardly acted as warnings from history to those who would follow them. Put plainly, despite being well meant, this is bombing for bombing's sake.

There are good reasons. And there are real reasons. Britain, France and the USA are, how shall we say, "inconsistent" when it comes to applying humanitarian principles to their statecraft. So why now? As appalling as last week's chemical attacks were, Syria has been a charnel house for going on two years. It has only been eclipsed once, and that was for a single day during Egypt's day of terror a fortnight ago. Since then the grisly daily toll continues to climb. No, what guides the Western powers - as always - are their projected geopolitical interests for the region.

For the Middle East, the US is only interested in regional stability under its hegemony. Britain and France are happy to go along with this as long as crumbs continue to fall into their oil companies' coffers. Ba'athist Syria under the Assads has long been "unhelpful". The derailed Syrian revolution and now the civil war presents the State Department an opportunity to remove a geopolitical obstacle once and for all and with it, possibly, Hezbollah in Lebanon too. The second objective is containing Russia. The Cold War is done, but international rivalry remains. The "Saudi Arabia with trees", as Russia was once summarily dismissed as, is using the vast funds from oil and mineral exploration to assert itself in its near-abroad. If Assad can be knocked out, it's one less ally Putin can call upon in a region where they're very thin on the ground. A foreign policy reversal for Russia now may mean a Russia less likely to play diplomatic hardball in future crises, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. The question the international relations wonks are now wrestling with is whether the price of mission creep and permanent war is one worth paying to achieve two immediate geopolitical objectives.

This is no justification for us to wage war on Syria. In the mouths of Hague and Kerry, B52 humanitarianism is but a pretext. The well-meaning people who want "intervention" are different. Principled, different, and wrong. History does tell us things so we don't have to rinse and repeat every single time.

We meant them well, but we gave them hell. That, I'm afraid, is the outcome any attack will most likely bring.