Sitting in the Dry Bar of the Spiritual Journey

Robinince's Blog

What is “spirituality”? Whenever I read about it, I seem none the wiser. It seems to be a catch all phrase for looking at something beautiful, or inhaling mountain air, or being immersed in looking at some butterflies, and thinking, “well, this is nice isn’t it?”

It seems to cover things that you can’t quite put your finger on. 

Sometimes, it seems to cover crystals and ineffective but multi-coloured healing.

Sometimes, I hear it used by people in confused trousers who talk of realising that we are all one with the universe, more than some corporeal entity, that our collective unconscious expands across the cosmos, but despite all this, they also seem to be the most self interested people I’ve met, though that was a long time ago in a Cornish town. They talked of the universality of humanity and then, two pints further down the bar, they talked of…

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Rob Newman Live

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“Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong.”

Richard Feynman

25 years ago I was a mediocre Zoology student at The University of Glasgow and also a fan of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Last night I returned to the campus to see Rob Newman’s new standup show which has been upsetting a few people (myself included) based on some print stuff and the car-crash interview with Richard Coles on Saturday Live on R4 last week.

I wanted to give him a fair hearing and I have to say first of all that I really enjoyed the show a lot. He did two halves of 45 minutes each and throughout this spun an absurdist historical, philosophical and political tale that was obviously heartfelt and often very, very funny. The majority of the evolutionary stuff was in the first half and he did seem a little bit nervous about it to me. Perhaps he thought the audience would be filled with a load of hard-headed determinist students but in the end the only trouble he had was with a drunk near the front who he offered £25 to “Fuck off”! As far as I could see he was starting out from an entirely justifiable point of view that a lot of people nowadays seem to think that nature is dog eat dog then they are justified having a personal morality and politics that are similarly selfish. The question is where does the blame lie for that?

He started off by creating an obviously fictional world where he was doing “research” and presenting his “findings” to various Scientific Journals and Societies and Richard Dawkins was a humourless pedant naked wrestling with his postman on a daily basis. All good stuff and very funny. Where he went off the rails a bit was when he started to blur the line between absurdity and seeming to try and make legitimate counter-arguments to the current scientific consensus and started to go into conspiracy theory territory. As Dr Adam Rutherford said:

“If you are going to base a show and an argument on an individual whose work has been meticulously scrutinised for decades, you’d better understand the work, and have something robust, and hopefully new to say.”

In his defense there’s a lot more in the show than criticism of Dawkins and I would say that the show was working perfectly well as a funny critique of a kind of nihilistic amorality that is prevalent in society now without pushing the blame for that onto some imaginary cabal of scientists which Dawkins is the ringleader. I would be more inclined to blame the popular media for distorting science like they do every other area of human endeavour. Obviously Dawkins IS the de facto ringleader of a worldwide atheist movement and is often a rather humourless pedant and lacking in human empathy (I have in the past likened him to Mr Logic from Viz comic) BUT he is an extraordinarily clear and easy writer to read if you make the effort and I am always puzzled by the misunderstandings of his writing. I wish he’d give up on the atheism stuff and get back to promoting science to the general public which is his real gift. Similarly Rob Newman’s real gift is not as a scientist but a purveyor of a strange blend of clever, surreal humour with a social conscience and a few adjustments to this show would make it an even stronger piece of work.

One of the great things about comedy is that you can illuminate a truth by exaggeration so when he talks of the Question Time panel being a “random selection of millionaires” he is not being factually correct but expressing a very real disquiet with the spectrum of opinion the media presents to us. I don’t object to that. Similarly I don’t think a lot of Palaeontologists will complain about his excellent Flintstones joke because it is obviously a joke but when you start parroting Mary Midgely and playing hard and loose with established scientific wisdom to make a spurious connection to Thatcherism you are venturing into the tinfoil hat and sandwich board territory usually occupied by creationists.

Alexei Sayle once said (I paraphrase) that Scientists are all so very clever but, as a comedian, society cares much more about what he thinks and there’s a lot of truth, and responsibility, in that.

Rob Newman

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“The trouble with Natural Selection is that everybody thinks he understands it.”

Jacques Monod

I turned on Saturday Live on Radio 4 this morning as I had heard that Rob Newman was one of the guests. I used to love The Mary Whitehouse Experience and even Newman and Baddiel to a point. I especially loved when he turned his back on huge fame and went off and did something different and interesting. I like his Politics. His History of Oil was good stuff and his TV show History of the World Backwards was one step away from pure genius so I was interested to hear what he’s up to now. Unfortunately what he’s up to now is a stumbling, badly researched and ultimately false critique of Dawkins and Neo Darwinism. It was a genuine car crash of an interview during which Richard Coles did his best to find out what his point was but he completely failed to demonstrate any real grasp of the subject at all.

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He didn’t even seem to grasp the basic point that selfish genes do not necessarily lead to selfish organisms. He totally misrepresented Dawkins. Unfortunately he has form for misunderstanding or misrepresenting such as in his Guardian article about Population where he disagrees with David Attenborough and tries to argue that overpopulation is not something to worry about because the rate of increase is going down! (Population continues to climb of course.) He can of, of course, make any claims he likes about Neo Darwinism but if the sum total of his education on the subject is a couple of books and lectures he can’t expect people to take him seriously.

Fortunately I don’t have to agree with everything someone says to like them. I like Richard Coles although I am not Religious. I even agreed with the most recent article Rowan Williams wrote in the Guardian about the marketisation of Marriage. I don’t disagree with someone because part of their Worldview differed from mine or they are unqualified but being unqualified in Biology makes it much more likely that your views will be utter rubbish. This doesn’t change my view that Rob Newman is a thoroughly decent man who cares about both people and the planet but hopefully he comes to realise what a foolish, misguided quest this is and gets back to bashing the powerful, amoral elites on our fragile planet.

Thoughts on the PS4 after a month

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It’s a lovely, elegant little machine. No bigger than my PS3 Slim. Very quiet but it does chuck a fair amount of heat out of the back. Much, much neater than an equivalent powered PC.

The Dualshock 4 is truly fantastic. Using a Dualshock 3 after it feels like a cheaply made Chinese 3rd party knockoff. They have finally caught up with the Xbox controller and with the touchpad, motion control etc they have more features if games come along to use them.

The new PS Eye is nice.

The OS is slick and simple to use. Everything works much faster than the PS3.

Both Netflix and iPlayer work so much faster than the PS3 version.

The new Vidzone is nice too.

DVD playback upscales to 1080p like the PS3 and looks as good if not better so there are no worries in that front.

Bluray playback also looks great although it would be nice if it displayed the Disc info when you insert it like the PS3 did.

All Disc video playback settings have an automatic setting now to match your TV which is good.

Games are the real problem at the moment. After 7 years PS3 games have reached their zenith and so far I have seen nothing on the PS4 to really compare with Uncharted 3, GT6 or Tiger Woods 14. Yes everything is now running in 1080p which looks very nice on a 1080p TV but – Resogun apart – nothing really looks optimised yet. 1080p does make a big difference with double the resolution of 720p but the machine has 10x the power of the PS3 which games are not really using yet. FIFA 14 is not super smooth, Killzone is ok but doesn’t blow my socks off, NFS: The Rivals looks very nice but isn’t exactly super smooth. Marvel Super Heroes, to be fair, is a big graphical step up from the PS3 version. Sharper, smoother and a lot more detailed if you like that kind of game. What we are really lacking at the moment is a game where you can say there is no way you could do that on a PS3. Maybe Driveclub will be that game and it’s coming in February I believe.

There are also the issue of certain basic PS3 features being missing in the PS4 which is an issue if you only have space for one machine under your TV. It’s ridiculous that you can’t play a CD in it never mind a SACD. You can’t network it to your PC to use it as a Media Player either. It won’t even play audio or video files off a USB stick. These are unnecessary annoyances. Sony has to achieve feature parity with PS3 to get more people to upgrade. If they could implement SACD and HD Audio file playback that would be even better.

My conclusion at the moment would have to be: Great machine but save your money until they fix the missing OS features or a great game comes along that you really must have.

PC vs PS4

I’ve been wondering about this for a while. How much do you have to spend to get a PC better than a PS4? Even then how will the two experiences compare? A quick look at Digital Foundry shows that their 2012 £300 PC is hopelessly outgunned by a PS4 but a couple of tweaks to it would bring it up to scratch in hardware terms…..

Digital Foundry £300 PC spec:

CPU: Intel Pentium G840 at 2.8GHz – £54.83
Graphics Core: MSI Radeon HD 6770 – £69.90
Motherboard: ASRock H61M-VS – £34.03
RAM: Crucial Ballistix 2x 4GB RAM – £32.99
Hard Drive: 500GB Seagate Spinpoint F3 – £55.00
Optical Drive: Samsung SH-222BB DVD Rewriter – £12.98
Power Supply: Corsair 430W V2 CX Series – £36.40
Case: Casecom MA-1199 mATX – £16.64

These prices are about a year out of date but they are still in the ballpark. The Intel Pentium Chip may seem weak but it’s actually about the same, or better, performing than the PS4s octo-core CPU. In any case you can now swap that for a newer IvyBridge or Haswell one for about the same price for a performance boost. The real problem with this spec is the GPU which is hopelessly outgunned by the PS4. To get above the 1152 GCN shaders and access to 8GB of GDDR5 in the PS4 we are going to have to splurge on a 4GB Sapphire R9 270X card at around £170 and a better PSU to feed it. That, along with 8GB of ram on the motherboard should cope with most everything but we are now looking at a tower that’s costing around £450 and it doesn’t have an OS or a Controller or even a mouse and keyboard which are still necessary on the PC. Until Steam OS comes to fruition in maybe 2 or 3 years we are still looking at a 64-bit Windows OS and along with a mouse and keyboard and a wireless Xbox 360 controller that’ll take our total price up to around £550 or £650 if you really want to upgrade that Pentium to an i5 just to be safe.

Suddenly the PS4 is looking like a svelt, power-efficient bargain. Even more of a bargain if you take the view that a hardware equivalent PC can’t actually match an integrated box with the abstraction penalties of programming for Windows and Direct X. I have never seen any good solid information on this but it seems likely to me that it is maybe possible to get double or more the performance from a console compared to an equivalent PC because of these issues. A few games of GT5 or Uncharted 3 on the PS3 or Forza 4 on the 360 might convince you of this although, in reality, most games are cross platform and don’t extract that level of performance out of the systems. Certainly I don’t expect to see that kind of expertise show up on PS4 for a few years. Maybe when AMDs Mantle patch for Battlefield 4 shows up we’ll get an idea of what penalty DirectX really puts on a system.

So my conclusion after this little thought experiment is that if you think you could build a PC better than a PS4 then you absolutely can but you can’t do it for anything like the same price. Not this year. Probably not next year either. Maybe in two years it would be possible but by then the PS4 will be cheaper with a bigger HD too. There are other considerations too. The Playstation Plus program is awesome value (Especially if you have a PS3 or Vita too) and there’s nothing like that available on the PC and just the seamless, integrated, pick up and play experience of console play has not yet been matched on the PC.

All of these points can and will change over time but for the moment I will keep my PS3 and get a PS4 and keep an eye on developments in the PC world. It is possible that if Steam OS works then this could be my last console. Time will tell.

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Return to PC Gaming

The last time I really played current games on a PC there were no GPUs and they ran on DOS which required a degree of patience and often a degree in Computer Science to get working. The year was 1996 and the game was Geoff Crammond’s GP2 which ate a large chunk of my life. The Pentium was quite new still and a half decent 8mb ram PC with 14″ monitor would cost about a Grand. To be honest that was one of the few games I ever played much on a PC. i have always preferred consoles and arcade games (and still do) but fast forward 17 years and computer graphics have come so far and gotten so cheap now that I have just aquired the latest £90 Sapphire Radeon 7790 last night to go with my Pentium G840 system. This is basically an upgrade on the Digital Foundry £300 Gaming PC spec. I just wanted something capable of playing Elite: Dangerous better than my Intel Graphics and let the kids play Minecraft and Superhero Squad Online. According to Digital Foundry this is basically a faster version of the graphics chip in the new Xbox One so I figured that has to be worth £90? I shall update this post over the next couple if weeks as I try out different things but I did install it last night and here are my original thoughts…..

I don’t have a lot of PC games so I ran Passmark on it and got 3256 which is above the average on the Passmark site for this GPU. I also ran 3D Mark 06 and got 16174. 3D Mark Vantage gave me 12871 and the 3D Mark 11 result was 4367. (I presume these scores are not directly comparable.) My overall impression watching all these benchmarks was that it is indeed at least 10 times faster than the integrated graphics were and somewhere between PS3 and PS4 performance wise. Running an old favourite like Burnout Paradise is now identical to the PS3 version and probably better but not so much so because I think it’s DX9. Running the DX11 benchmarks show the potential of vastly improved graphical quality with similar performance over DX9 which bodes well for Elite and other newer games. I bought the EA Humble Bundle so I shall try out Dead Space 3 and Battlefield 3 tonight to get a better idea of what it is truly capable of but I think Elite will look great on it based on all the space scenes in the Futuremark Benchmarks.

My initial impression is that for £90 if you have an integrated graphics PC this is definitely recommended as a budget buy. It is currently topping the price/performance lists at Passmark and rightly so. I still prefer the simplicity of the console experience and I am still getting a PS4 but this will be good for games like Elite that might not make it to that platform.

Update (21/8/13)

So I spent a second night playing around with various benchmarks and Steam games, Google Earth and the WesterosCraft server and came to the conclusion that I am very happy with this card for what I paid for it. I will play some stuff on it, it’s an excellent general upgrade and the kids will have great fun with it. The biggest thrill I got from it was the realisation that the leap from PS3 to PS4 will not be so much about resolution or frames/second but the vast difference in image quality between the DX9 hardware and DX11. I was not expecting that so given roughly 10 times more performance over the RSX chip I think I am going to be spending most of my gaming time on the PS4. It’ll be interesting to see how much the PS4 outperforms the 7790 without the overhead of Windows.

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Dr Who

Well either I am following entirely the wrong sort of people on Twitter or the world and his wife seem rather positive about the casting of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. (He is not called Dr Who!) I am over the moon for all sorts of reasons but chiefly because he is 55. In one stroke this does away with idea that you couldn’t cast older nowadays. To be fair he does not look as decrepit as William Hartnell did at 55 or even Patrick Troughton at 46 when he started. He actually looks capable of running – which is a staple of New Who – and he has some serious acting chops so what’s to worry about? My 11 year-old thinks he looks nice and my 9 year-old is more worried about the fact that he had played 2 parts in the Whoniverse already than his age so that bodes well. They just seem excited to see a new guy and another Scotsman to boot. My reasoning for being so happy is that I have felt for a while that the whole young Dr and companion romantic interest angle was played out. If Clara falls for 12 then that’s a whole new dynamic but hopefully we’ll move away from that and, in time, away from the young female companion too. I did love Amy & Rory but I also loved Donna & Wilf. There are lots more possibilities out there and THAT is what Dr Who should be all about.

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