The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

"How not to design a game UI" by Darien feat. Bioshock

Admit it. You can’t get enough of me bitching about video games, and, specifically, about Bioshock. Amirite? Amirite?? Of course Iamrite. We’re going to go a bit in-depth about Bioshock’s UI here, and why it’s not very good and what should be done differently. Before we get going, let’s get one thing clear: Bioshock is a fun game. I’m not some sort of crazy Bioshock-hater or on the payroll of competing companies or any other weird internet conspiracist. I like the game, I think everybody should have bought it this weekend when it was on sale for $15, and it does a lot of things that other companies could learn from.

And it does a lot of things that other companies should be very careful not to emulate.

Let’s start with the game’s options windows:

Bioshock audio options

This is actually pretty much fine. The buttons are well-designed controls for the functions they perform, the sliders do what you think they’ll so, everything pretty much works. There’s a lot of whitespace, but there isn’t really anything it could be filled with, so no big deal. Notice the "Apply" and "Discard" buttons at the bottom ("Cancel" would be better than "Discard," but no big deal) — they do exactly what you think they’d do.

The Control Options screen, though, is a little odd:

Bioshock control options

The first thing to observe is that the "Customise Keys" button has been added to the bottom along with Apply and Discard, even though it doesn’t perform a related function. This isn’t very good design; users should be able to expect consistency in the OK and Cancel buttons (or equivalent).

The next thing to observe is that pressing the Customise Keys button pops up the nag box shown — the way the interface is structured, the Customise Keys menu is a submenu of Control Options. There is no other way to get there. When was the last time you saw a submenu that couldn’t be opened without resetting the options on the menu it’s nested under? That notwithstanding, why on earth can’t the Control Options menu just save its state before opening the Customise Keys menu? Also worth noting is that the nag box always displays when you press Customise Keys — even if you haven’t made any changes to the Control Options.

Also, the two visible options in that screenshot are badly arranged. They’re both disabled in this instance because I don’t have an Xbox 360 controller plugged into the PC — the "Vibration" setting can’t be enabled if you’re not using a 360 controller, but it doesn’t give any indication of this; it should be shown as subordinate to the 360 controller option, but it seems like it’s totally seperate.

Then let’s look at the key bindings:

Bioshock customise keys menu

The first thing you’ll notice on this screen is the giant yellow arrow pointing at the "Default Bindings" button. I cannot tell a lie: I added the arrow; it’s not actually part of the Bioshock UI. The reason I added the arrow is to call your attention to a little detail the UI designers didn’t think was important: they replaced the "cancel" button you would reasonably expect to be in that location with a button that has an amazingly destructive effect on anything you might have done on this menu. What they’ve done here, therefore, is replace a button that means "close this menu without changing anything" with a button that means "undo all the changes I’ve ever made on this menu — not just on this visit, but on any visit." Unlike the big nag prompt for opening this menu, there’s no confirmation required to destroy your custom settings. This also means there’s no way to cancel out of this menu — you need to save the changes you’ve made or reset it to factory defaults.

Now check out this clip from the video settings:

Bioshock video options

Quick — what does the "Distortion" setting do? Don’t bother hovering your mouse over it and waiting for a tooltip, because my screenshots don’t have them. Which makes them exactly like actual Bioshock interface. To increase the confusion, the manual doesn’t tell you either, which means your only recourse if you want to know what the options do is to Google it.

Also noteworthy is that "Force Global Lighting" is a bit of an ugly duckling — every other setting can be basically thought of as "turn on for more fancier, turn off for better performance." Force Global Lighting, however, works the other way around — Off is the high-quality setting.

It’s not just the options menu, though:

Bioshock map controls

If you open the subscreen during play, you’re greeted with that control. I’ll give you that it’s fairly obvious which button opens the map, but the other options — Goals, Help, and Messages — are a bit less clear. I usually end up just buttoning through them until I find the one I want rather that trying to remember them. The Help screen is the one with the question mark, which would make sense, except that they thoughtfully enclosed the question mark in a speech balloon, making me think it’s Messages. The other two symbols don’t particularly mean anything to me — unless they’re going for a World of Warcraft quest parallel with that exclamation point — and I have a hard time even figuring out what the reel-to-reel tape actually is. Again, tooltips would be useful here, kids.

One more thing:

Bioshock help screen

Text from Bioshock’s help system. No points for guessing whether or not those functions are actually unbound — you can’t tell from this screenshot, of course, since the game doesn’t appear to be able to tell and reports them as unbound no matter what.

July 31st, 2008 Posted by | Games | no comments

Bioshock in-depth 1

Suspension of disbelief is an odd thing. It’s so easy to believe the stuff that’s really out there; it’s the things that are just slightly off that I get stuck on. For example, I have no trouble believing that the scientific establishment in Rapture developed an injection that gives people the power to shoot lightning bolts out of their hands. Similarly, I can believe that a plane can go down somewhere in the mid-Atlantic and just happen to land right next to this maybe-100-square-foot island where the game takes place. I can believe that the technology existed in the fifties to build a giant metropolis on the bottom of the ocean. What I have a hard time believing, though, is that Andrew Ryan could possibly be rich enough to finance this ridiculously expensive engineering project all by himself.

I’ve thrown a few hours into Bioshock at this point; as I say in the comments on this other post, I’ve cleared through the Medical district and dealt with that freaky surgeon dude. To date, there’s been quite a bit of stuff I’m impressed with, and also no small amount of things that just piss me off. So, hey, one thing I can say about Bioshock is that it’s noteworthy.

Let’s talk about the good parts first. The immediate first thing I have to compliment the game on is its visual and audial style — the art deco look and big band sound is fantastic, and the game uses a fair few authentic period songs to get the mood just right. The voice acting is also good; Andrew Ryan sounds as much like Howard Hughes as to make no difference, and all of the "audio diaries" you’ll pick up throughout the game are also well-acted. Granted, the game doesn’t skimp on the senseless accents, but at least when they’re performed well they’re not as annoying as they are at other times. The art deco metaphor is extended to the interface as well — the weapon selection tabs, the submenus, the map screen.

There’s a lot of interesting customisation available. The weapons, as far as I’ve seen them, are basically describable as "bog-standard" — pistol, machine gun, shotgun (though the close-combat weapon — the wrench — is introduced with a "find a crowbar or something" instruction that can’t help but raise a smile). The Plasmids, however, are quite interesting; to date, I can shoot the aforementioned lightning bolts, I can set people on fire with my mind, I can grab and throw objects with my gravity gun Telekinesis, and I have this "Enrage" power that, well, totally pisses dudes off. I haven’t tried that one yet, but the game assures me it’s cool.

Customisation doesn’t stop at weapons, though — there are three different types of "gene tonics" you can get that make you faster, stronger, and better. You can carry all the weapons under the sun simultaneously, but you get only so many plasmids and tonics at a time, thereby obeying the classic video game cliché that says you can carry unlimited large things but only a few small things at once. Many of the weapons also have certain "special" ammuintion types, which brings the total number of ways you can perform a mischief on some other dude up probably about to the six jillion they tell you in the ads.

Atmospherically, the game is less Half-Life and more Resident Evil; everything’s dark corners and heavy fog and scary sounds and monsters that jump out and go "boo." There’s a great moment when something temporarily blinds you, and then, when you can see again, if you turn around, there’s a mob right behind you just standing there and waiting. That doesn’t make very much sense, but it’ll make you jump — it’s way scarier than if the mob just attacked you while you were blind, like you know the Combine would do. Definitely a bit on the survival horror side.

So enough with the good. Now let’s get our hate on. First and foremost, it pisses me off that the game continues to hijack the action periodically to show me movies. And I don’t mean the benign way, like I go through a door and there’s a fade-out and then a cutscene plays. I mean the really awful way where I go through a door and all of a sudden the computer takes control of what is theoretically my fucking character and auto-pilots certain actions. I was willing to give that a pass during the introduction, because, hey, the game hasn’t really started yet anyhow, but it’s not confined to the introduction, and that’s completely inexcusable.

You remember Doom? You remember how Doom would give you a big empty room with a good pickup — usually the damn Plasma Cannon — sitting on a raised, lighted plinth in the centre of the room, and as soon as you pick it up the lights go out and a zillion mobs attack you? Yeah, Bioshock does that. But it takes it a step farther than Doom did, and has several waves of mobs spawn and attack you. Trust me, that trick was old halfway through Doom 2; that designers are still using it here in the future where we have underwater cities and lightning bolt injectors is just not good.

I don’t like the mob design. The gibbering voice clips are pretty cool, I’ll grant you, but the rest of it’s a bit bizarre. They move somewhat unnaturally, and I’m not sure it’s 100% intentional — I get that these dues are crazy, but they seem to run around in odd patterns and stop randomly. I preferred Half-Life’s more tactical mobs to the plain crazy here. Another issue is that there are a few different types of "splicers," but hell if I can tell them apart until after they’re dead and the loot mouseover tells me what type they were; a bit more in the way of visual differences would be nice. It’s also not cool with me that sometimes mobs will just plain old cheat; if a given mob is part of an "event" — for example, the Medical boss appears two times before you actually fight him — then you can’t actually do anything to him, even though you’ll probably waste some EVE trying to lightning-bolt-root him so you can bash the hell out of him with a wrench. Instead, what happens is you blast him, and then he does his event thing and leaves, costing you a bit of EVE and not rooting for one rotten second.

There’s a pretty stupid minigame that you have to play nearly constantly — HAKCING TEH PLANAT! There are bunches of turrets and security cameras and drones and so-on that you can hack to take control of, in addition to which almost all vendors can be hacked go get lower prices. The concept is pretty damn cool, I have to grant, but the execution is sort of… stupid. You connect a bunch of little pipe tiles to make a complete path from the start pipe to the end pipe. As minigames go, this one’s not terrible, but you have to do it an awful lot, and it stops being interesting pretty early on.

All of this probably seems like nitpicking — and, to be fair, it basically is — but there are three complaints I have that are actually pretty serious. First off is the configuration; the game has four option screens, and provides a lot of configurability, but has some… oddities. For one, it doesn’t know how to restart its sound engine, and any changes to sound settings require a restart of the whole game (and another time spent sitting through the minute or so of unskippable titles and disclaimers). Worse even than that, though, is that accessing the key bindings requires you to go through the "customise controls" screen first — not normally a problem, but Bioshock automatically throws away any changes you made on the controls options before you switch to key bindings. And it pops up a confirmation box every single time you try, even if you haven’t changed anything on the control options. Would it be that hard just to make it save the fucking changes instead of throwing up a nag screen? But the worst thing — a problem so amateurish I can’t believe it shipped in a commercial product — is that the key binding screen doesn’t work like every other options screen. The buttons on the bottom, instead of being the customary "save changes" and "cancel" buttons, are "save changes" and "reset to defaults." And once you press that goddamn reset button there is no going back — apparently the dangers of opening the key bindings screen warrant an annoying nag box, but hitting the fucking irrevocable "reset" button that they randomly put where cancel should be does not.

The game also, at least on my system, has a tolerable chance of crashing during saves. It’s not every time, or even every tenth time, but it’s frequent enough that I don’t think it’s a fluke. And, clearly, while saving is the worst possible time for the game to crash. If you were wondering, no, it doesn’t successfully save the game if this happens, but it doesn’t appear to mung its old save either, so you can pick up from the last save you made. However (and somewhat hysterically) it resets all options when this happens, including your bizarro custom key bindings.

My third serious gripe is that the game’s positional audio is, for lack of a better word, garbage. Wait, no, I do have a better word: shit. I won’t speak for everybody out there, but I for one rely very heavily on the audio cues to tell me what’s going on around me, and I can’t trust them in Bioshock. They consistently tell me that mobs are places where they are not, and fail to tell me where the mobs actually are. In all fairness, I don’t have a sound card capable of EAX2, but I shouldn’t need one; basic positional audio doesn’t require any fancy-dan proprietary effects formats, and no other games that I’ve played have this trouble. The whole Half-Life series can tell me just fine where the damn Manhacks are coming from, and, oddly enough, I use the exact same soundcard and the exact same headphones to play Bioshock.

Oh, one other fiddly complaint, while I’m thinking about it: I love the game’s atmosphere and period-ness, but I do feel the need to point out that it doesn’t seem to be totally aware of which period it’s set in. The big-band-art-deco theme belongs to the 20s, and Rapture is a city of the 50s. Not a big deal, but worth noting.

So that, long as it is, is the story of my first four hours or so in Rapture. There’s enough good in the game to keep me playing, but, man, it has a lot of rough spots. More to come, no doubt, as something new starts to piss me off.

July 28th, 2008 Posted by | Games | 2 comments

That figures

Hey, remember my big Steam demo update that was wicked boring and you probably didn’t read? Well, Bioshock is on sale this weekend — like, half-price on sale — so it’s a decent time to pick it up if you can spare the fifteen bucks.

I, of course, already have a copy, because I bought it the goddamn day before it went on sale. Life is stupid sometimes.

July 26th, 2008 Posted by | Games | 2 comments

New Edition

The fifth edition of Warhammer 40k came out last week, and I’ve finally read through the new rulebook sufficiently to comment on it. I have the fancy expensive Collector’s Edition, which contains the exact same material as the regular version, but is fancy and expensive. You can’t get one anymore (well, not straight from Games Workshop, anyway — you can try eBay, but there aren’t a lot there as of this writing, and you shouldn’t expect to pay a reasonable price there anyhow), but don’t worry about it — you’re not missing out on any content if you get the regular edition, just a bit of style.

The rules haven’t really changed very much since fourth edition; if this were a computer game, it would be version 4.1 (if not 3.6; fourth edition wasn’t massively different from third either). On the bright side, that means there’s no compatibility break — fourth-edition-compatible codices and supplements will work fine with the new rules with only minor tweaks; you can get the errata here, and it’s something on the order of two pages of errata per codex (and that’s cumulative errata going back to the first printing of the current version of each codex), which should give you an indication of how few major changes there really are. Why would Games Workshop cut a whole new rulebook for such minor changes? I’m sure I have no idea.

That said, what is changed is mostly good. Fourth edition’s peculiar mixed-armour-types resolution rules were downright bizarre, and that’s been cleaned up dramatically. We’ve gone back to a second-edition-style model’s-eye-view for LOS, instead of the weird "height classification" system. Vehicle rules are slightly more detailed without going back to the 2E/3E super-complicated style. The biggest rules change, though, is that there’s no longer any penalty for not shooting at the nearest enemy target — you’re free to shoot at whatever you can see and reach (noting that enemy models block LOS, so you can’t just ignore that big pile of Termagants standing between you and that irritating Zoanthrope). In addition to this, it’s now possible to "go to ground," sacrificing any chance to act in favour of improving survivability, and all units can now run and gain extra move if they don’t wish to attack.

There are no new factions added yet — those right-minded folks who play Imperium still have their choice of Space Marines, Imperial Guard, Witch Hunters, and Daemonhunters, and all those misguided xenophiles out there still have the choice of Space Elfs, Scary Space Elfs, Orks, Tyranids, Chaos Marines, Chaos Daemons, Necrons, and Tau. One of the nice new additions to the 5E rulebook is a set of reference charts in the back listing stats for all units and weapons in all armies, which makes it much easier to use the allies rules, and helps those of us, say, who run a Chimera with a multilaser, whose Witch Hunters codex is oddly missing the data for multilasers, and who lost our 3E Imperial Guard codex.

The book itself is organised the same was as the 4E book, with the first third consisting of the rules, the middle third the lore, and the back third the modeling and hobby material. The lore section ("Dark Millennium") goes into more practical detail and less theoretical detail than the 4E section of the same name, and the hobby section is less focused on the details of modeling and talks more about the hobby as a whole (tournaments and such have their own chapter, and it even includes a few White Dwarf-style battle reports). Everything except the rules section is in full colour, too, and there are lots of pictures of models and armies along with lots of artwork. There’s no photocopyable army roster this time around, but that’s fine, since it’s a pain in the balls to copy it out of a hardcover book anyhow, and a 40k army roster hardly has the complexity of a D&D character sheet. Regular lined paper works fine.

The 5E starter set isn’t available yet (or if it is I can’t find it; Games Workshop’s web site is kind of ass), but I’m told the armies involved will be Space Marines and Orks (just like the old days!), and it will come with a rather tremendous number of models. If it follows the 4E model, it will come with a paperback rulebook that has the entire "rules" section from the main book but none of the rest. If you’re not a 40k player, the 5E starter set is probably a great way to get into the game; the new rules are quite accessible and very well-laid-out, and it’ll provide you with a great core for a Marines or Orks army. Or, you know, both, if you’re in to that sort of thing. I’ve been playing since the ancient days before the invention of time (back then, there were no Necrons, no Tau, no Witch Hunters, no Daemonhunters, and no Spoooooky Elfs, the Tyranids were the hot new thing, and the next army to be released was supposedly going to be Squats — whatever happened to them?), and I have to say, while I wasn’t a big fan of 3E when it came out, 4E really fixed a lot of its issues (close-combat and vehicles), and 5E is a bit more polish. I do like where they’re going with the game.

In short, if you tried 40k back in 2E or 3E (there was technically a first edition, but it was sort of a completely different game) and the slowness and the complexity put you off, you should consider giving it another look. It’s a lot more playable now.

July 25th, 2008 Posted by | Warhammer 40k | no comments

Steam Demo Roundup

When I get bored, I download demos from Steam. Why do I do this? Bored. Also, hey, every once in a while I run into something fun. Mostly it’s crap, but every once in a while something good. So here’s the rundown on the demos I played this week:

The Longest Journey — So Steam’s classification system isn’t all it could be; I found this in the "action" listings, and it’s one of the most inactive and listless titles of all time. This is because it’s really an adventure game — and it’s not just any adventure game, it’s an adventure game with full voice acting and a heroine who walks extremely slowly. The voice acting is bad, which probably goes without saying, and it’s more annoying here than it is usually because adventure games don’t have enough gameplay to carry them across the room, so they really lean on the bullshit to keep you interested. And when the bullshit’s as annoying as the gameplay, you get a little bit pissed at what you thought was an action game with a Metacritic score of 91.

Gish — I really wanted to like this game. It’s a sort of zany 2D platformer where you play as this ball of tar and ooze your way through tunnels. You can stick to things and flow down drains and such, which is pretty cool. The problem is that you can jump. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not one of those realism fags who get really annoyed when their sentient ball of tar with eyes can jump even though it doesn’t have legs. I get more annoyed when the jumping controls are really really twitchy and hard to use. That’s sort of a deal-breaker in a platformer.

The Wonderful End of the World — I have had a vision of the end of days, and, lo, it is strangely similar to Katamari Damacy. The game has a really cute aesthetic and a catchy theme song (though the in-level music isn’t as good), and the levels are clever, but it’s really really easy. I think I got five minutes of playtime out of the demo, and I got an A+ on both of its levels, so I wasn’t just scraping by. The retail version has only fifteen levels, so I reckon it’ll come in around an hour if it gets harder and you have to play some of the levels multiple times to beat them.

Audiosurf — The whole internet went queer for this game a few months ago, but I wasn’t very impressed. My main problem with it is that I thought it was surprisingly non-interactive — to wit, the title screen draws, and there are some buttons on it, but they sure don’t do anything when I click on them. So I never actually managed to play the game. The little X on the frame works fine, though, so that’s a selling point. For all I know, all those dudes who thought it was badass played the retail version, which maybe actually does start. But for all I know it doesn’t, and everybody was riveted by the installation process.

Chaos Theory — This is a promising little game about bouncing particles toward a particle catcher, but the level design doesn’t live up to the concept. Too many of the levels are just "grinding" until you find the right sequence of portals to shoot the particles through to get the the end, or the exact right angle to fire your particle at. I believe only one of the levels in the demo actually involved any proper figure-it-out puzzle solving, whereas there were a few that just required you to click on things rapidly and in the right sequence. All this emphasis on speed-mousing makes it that much more annoying that you’re forced to use a very slow mouse speed, since the game both ignores your Windows settings and doesn’t have its own.

Eets — Eets is a cute little puzzler; sort of a cross between Lemmings and The Incredible Machine. Eets himself is this little white monster dude who drops into the level and then walks and jumps on his own. You can’t control Eets directly, but there are several elements of the world that you can alter by clicking on them, and levels may start you with some elements that you can put in place while the game is stopped. If Eets dies or you press the "stop" button, the flow of the level is reset, but any pieces you placed stay where you put them, so you can see what effect you’ve had on the world and make changes. But you can’t add, move, or remove pieces while the system is running, which makes it a lot less intimidating than it may otherwise be, since you’ll never be wondering if you need to wait for some things to happen and then quickly stick in a new bit or move something around. The gameplay also appears to be entirely deterministic, so you can expect the exact same thing to happen every time you start the action (as long as you haven’t changed something yourself, of course). I like it.

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War — I’m fond of Warhammer 40k, but don’t tend to love the RTS genre, so I wasn’t sure what to think of this one. In general, though, I like it; the squad-based combat helps to reduce the micromanagement issues I tend to have, since you don’t have to move and handle every single unit individually. I liked the skirmishes more than I liked the campaign, but the campaign in the demo is only one scenario cut out of the middle, so there were some bits I didn’t really understand. The demo also includes a tutorial mission, which is nice, but it does require you to complete every step it tells you before it moves on, which is ordinarily sensible but causes trouble here. The game doesn’t have any key binding options, so if you can’t perform the default command for a given action — for example, if, like me, you don’t have a wheel mouse — you’ll get stuck with the game telling you over and over again to zoom the damn camera in. There’s also no option to invert the camera tilt axis and make it work the sensible way, but this is fixed in the expansions, so it’s not a huge deal.

Bioshock — Yeah, surprisingly, I’ve never played Bioshock, even though it came out almost a year ago. I don’t have an Xbox 360, and until recently didn’t have a PC that would run it. Everybody raved about this game last year, and it seems decent though not as exciting as it was made out to be. For one thing, it’s really talky, and is constantly interrupting the flow of the action while it locks you in a box to play a cutscene. The Half-life-rip-off bathysphere ride at the beginning is a great example of the game’s bad instincts when it comes to cutscenes. You come into Rapture trapped in a bathysphere, unarmed and defenseless, and all you know if you’re being attacked by a "splicer" (no, you don’t know what that is yet). The designers, for no really good reason, chose to root you during this whole process, so you know you’re just watching a cutscene and there’s no real danger; you’re trapped in the sphere anyhow, so it wouldn’t have hurt anything to let you move around so you could at least struggle and maybe panic a little. But it just wants to show you a movie and make sure you’re not distracted from watching it by trying to play the game at the same time.

Hey kids, games are interactive entertainment. Stop forcing us to watch the story and start letting us play the damn story.

July 25th, 2008 Posted by | Games | no comments


I was out last night at a restaurant owned by a friend of mine (also I used to work there); they were having a big party until forever in the morning because it was their last day in business. I’ll have more to say about that later, but for right now I’d just like to point out that it’s a pretty entertaining way to spend an hour, sitting there arguing with drunks at the bar about whether or not you really are the Mayor of the Internet after all.

Which, of course, I am.

July 20th, 2008 Posted by | Bullshit | no comments

Dariencast Episode Five: Pirates of the Burning Podcast

I’m not going to beat around the bush; the new podcast’s out. And it kicks ass. Yours, specifically. You can dig it right here, and you can sign up your off-brand Taiwanese mp3 player to the syndication feed here to get the things automagically because this isn’t the goddamn seventeenth century and we don’t have to download our freakin’ files by hand anymore and don’t you forget it!

Comments may be posted in the comments. As you do. That’s right: you have my permission. How magnanimous can I be?

July 18th, 2008 Posted by | Games, Meta-meta | 5 comments

You know what would be great?

If the All-Star Game had been a few innings longer. I don’t think fifteen was enough.

As I was saying to Dave earlier, I think it would be best if they limited the ASG to nine innings; if it’s drawn after nine, it ends in a tie and they decide home-field advantage for the World Series some other, more sensible way. Though I will say I wanted it to go one more inning to see if Terry Francona actually would have put J.D. Drew in to pitch like he said he would.

Meanwhile, as Mayor of the Internet, it’s my prerogative and civic duty to present the 2008 All-Star Game Least Valuable Player award to Dan Uggla of the Florida Marlins. Zero hits in four at-bats and a new All-Star Game record of three errors — two of them on consecutive plays, which forced poor Aaron Cook into a position where he had to pitch his way out of a bases-loaded, no-outs situation — all adds up to a spectacular showing. Congratulations, Dan Uggla!

July 16th, 2008 Posted by | Baseball | no comments

Guest reviewer total: 4

Teh wief has now joined the elite ranks of people who’ve written reviews for the ol’ GameFAGs. She’s done Nintendogs, and you should all go read it because I say so.

July 11th, 2008 Posted by | Games, Meta-meta | no comments

The Shocking Secret They Don’t Want You To Know!

So I’m talking to somebody today about this scare poster we have on the wall warning people that only 5% of Neutrogena products have sufficient sunscreen-ness. Sufficient for what it didn’t say, but that’s neither here nor there. The woman I was talking to was clearly taking the poster at face value and assuming it was revealing the awful truth about Neutrogena, whereas I took the angle that, hey, probably it’s been paid for by the makers of the product it’s recommending, and most likely gets its scare figure by including hand lotion and zit cream and all the other things Neutrogena makes that aren’t, you know, supposed to be a sunscreen.

That’s not the point anyhow. The point is that someplace in this I mentioned Oil of Olay, which drew me a shocked look. "Don’t you know," I was informed, "they test their products on animals?" I didn’t actually know that offhand, but it doesn’t surprise me. Frankly, they bleeding well should. I politely pointed out that I’d rather they tested their products on animals than on, say, children kidnapped from school playgrounds or whatnot, and it was politely pointed out back at me that we should all just use "natural products" that "don’t contain any chemicals" and are obviously safe and effective because "people have been using them for thousands of years."

For fuck’s sake, people, use your heads. First up, the quick one: everything contains chemicals. Everything. You, me, air, water, Earth, Wind and Fire, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and the J. Geils Band.

Secondly, and, to my mind, more interestingly, is this amazing wealth of safe and effective natural remedies that have been in use for thousands of years the reason why everyone was so healthy and lived to such advanced ages five hundred years ago? You know, when the average life expectency was around 30 years? And since they’re natural, they’re totally safe, right? Lord knows nobody’s ever died from taking Ephedra. Couldn’t have; it doesn’t contain any chemicals!

Fact is, kids, we all owe a lot to modern medicine. It’s great that spoiled first-world hippies with nothing better to do can myopically declare that we shouldn’t conduct any medical research because it’s wrong to test products on animals — I guess people who have everything still need to find something to get outraged about — but, fact is, I’m willing to bet that ain’t one of you hippies hates animal testing as much as the pharmaceutical industry does. Animal testing is a pain in the ass. It’s an unpleasant, dirty job that gives only somewhat-reliable results and gets idiot hippies standing outside your office holding strong opinions in your general direction about things they don’t really understand. But you know what? It’s all we have.

Computers are grand. No, I really mean that — in fact, I’m writing this on a computer right now. And computers are amazing and staggering and unbelievable and all those things too, but they’re not perfect. And one of the things they can’t do is tell you anything you don’t already know. Or, well, they can’t tell you anything nobody already knows, anyhow. They can do all the really hard math for you, but they can’t actually gather data. We still need work-experience grunts in lab coats doing startlingly nineteenth-century-seeming things to get that data in the first place. Maybe in the future that won’t be necessary — genomic mapping is a great step in the right direction — but we’re a long, long way away from that yet.

Which means that when you create a new wonder drug, you run the computer models, and you check for any obvious problems, such as, whoops! It catches on fire when it gets wet. Probably not the best pill ever. But once you’ve done all that, you don’t have any comprehensive information about whether or not it’s a) going to kill anybody, or b) going to do what it’s meant to. And you have exactly two ways you can gather this data:

1) Test it out on humans and see what happens.
2) Test it out on human-like creatures and see what happens first, and then test it on humans if nothing untoward results.

Option 2 is the one to bet on. It’s the best from both a financial standpoint and an ethical standpoint. I’m sorry, but I’d sooner a believed-to-be-safe drug spontaneously combusts a rat than a volunteer from the local Community College. And quite frankly, your priorities are dramatically far out of whack if you think otherwise on this one.

There is, of course, that whole issue about the "natural products are safe and effective" bullshit being a giant blob of marketing deposited directly into the hungry mouths of gullible leftists by the gigantically corrupt and cynical supplements industry, but we can get into that another time. The main point here is, hey, if you don’t understand an issue, maybe shut the fuck up for a while. Yes, I really am saying that the facts are more important than your feelings.

Yes, you can blow your Jean-Jacques Rousseau directly out your ear. You know that bit about how I’d totally kill Hitler on my trip back in time? Don’t think for a minute I’d skip motherfucking Rousseau.

July 6th, 2008 Posted by | Bullshit | one comment