Why UWE shouldn’t close their Philosophy department

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Yesterday, I found out that UWE Bristol were announcing the potential shutdown of their Philosophy department to new students after this year.

I found this out from a tweet, which shared a petition launched by a just-graduated student yesterday. While I’m not sure how effective the petition might be, it has recieved 2700 signatures in a day. I encourage you to sign and share this petition, in the hope that it persuades whoever made this decision to change their mind. The decision to close the UWE philosophy course is counterproductive and destructive, for reasons I’ll detail below. More importantly, this decision was made abruptly, with little consultation or communication.

Whoever made this decision has acted rashly and callously, leaving a cohort of foundation year students (and their programme leaders) unsure of whether the course they are preparing for will even exist after their preparation year. No student or staff member deserves to be placed in this position.

The petition is here: https://www.change.org/p/marc-griffiths-uwe-pro-vice-chancellor-and-executive-dean-of-health-and-applied-sciences-save-uwe-s-philosophy-programme

So, why is this decision misguided? Below the cut are three major reasons:

  1. Philosophy is one of UWEs most successful and highest-rated courses.
  2. UWEs philosophy course offers a unique module other philosophy courses cannot match.
  3. Philosophy is one of the most important subjects a university can offer, and philosophy graduates have essential skills and knowledge for today’s society.

Note: I’m not currently affiliated with UWE, aside from being an alumnus. I studied both of my degrees at UWE, and published my MSc research with supervision from UWE staff. I’m also not a philosophy student or graduate; my view of the value of philosophy comes from personal study and from how philosophy links to my degree subjects of psychology and science communication.

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I Finally Finished … skate.

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Sometimes I first play a game years, or even decades, after its release. Other times I get partway through a game, get distracted, and then revisit it years later. Calling any discussion of a long-lived or dormant game either a “review” or an “impression” feels incorrect, so the more literal title wins out. (However, I’m going to use “finished” to mean “finished by my own standards”, rather than 100% completed). 

Going from my first recorded achievement date in 2014, to completing the career mode yesterday, I took 6 years and 1 month to complete skate … somehow I doubt this is the worst offender on my backlog!

So how well did skate hold up? Was it still enjoyable in 2020?

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Technological Overthinking #2 | Sony Walkman Album Art

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One recurrent technological question I have is why MP3 players never display album artwork consistently. The issue often seems random; when I get some albums working, others are blank in their place. So I wanted to figure out what the problem was and write them down for future reference.

As I’ve used some kind of Sony Walkman MP3 player since about 2008, I initially checked posts and articles about Sony players. However, the same issue applies with multiple brands of MP3 players and various other devices like digital photo frames.

Many people with Sony Walkman players have posted about cover art issues on Sony’s support website. But the official answers just tell people to transfer songs to their Walkman using Sony’s Content Transfer software, without explaining why the issue exists. I wanted to fix the issue within the music programs I already use (MediaMonkey and Mp3tag) instead of adding another program into the mix.

After looking on multiple subreddits and software forums, I found three essential criteria for making album art and other tags show up properly on the Sony MP3 players. (All criteria may apply to other MP3 players as as well, and the “baseline” JPG criteria may resolve issues with car infotainment systems and digital photo frames).

1) Every song must be tagged using ID3 tag version 2.3.
2) Every song’s artwork must be embedded into its ID3 tag.
3) Every artwork image must be a JPG. More specifically, it must be a “baseline” JPG rather than a “progressive” JPG.

Now I’ll explain what all of those words mean, and the steps that I followed to make my song files and cover artworks fit these criteria. It’s important for me to clarify that each individual part was figured out by someone else; I’m just putting them together so that I can show the steps all in one place.

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Technological Overthinking #1 | Music Library

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I can understand why streaming services have become so popular: being able to access a large library of familiar and new music that can’t be erased by a faulty hard drive or a wrong button-press is appealing. But, like most techies, I lean towards the “control” side of the convenience-control spectrum in many situations.

For music specifically, I prefer ownership over streaming. I like being able to buy albums from multiple places, store them and back them up wherever I wish, and play them on software I already use, rather than being restricted to specific marketplaces or software clients. (I would also rather rely on my storage and backups than on the unbelievably complex licensing arrangements between streaming services and publishers). For me, staying on team “offline library” was the obvious choice.

Investigating an issue with my MP3 player last year led me to an interesting program called Bliss, which I’ll give its own post in future. In short, Bliss manages your music library based on rules that you define. You set rules about how you want files to be labelled, named, and organised, and Bliss either highlights files which don’t fit the rules so that you can edit them, or adjusts them to meet the rules automatically.

Although Bliss is overkill for my relatively small and wholly-offline library, I really liked its rule-based approach. So I’ve taken the rules I decided on within Bliss and recreated them inside my desktop software of choice, MediaMonkey.

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Technological Overthinking #0

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One of the ways my anxiety disorder sinks its teeth in is by spinning simple questions up until they seem like burning matters of either unreachable perfection or moral urgency.

A question like “how can I know if a clothing company is ethical?” led to a multi-hour internet rabbit hole on how that standard is regulated and whether those regulations are regulated etc. A passing curiosity about how tree-planting programs work led to me researching not just tree-planting but the entire concept of carbon offsets and the ways in which they can be corrupted or misused.

If I’m obsessing about something in this way, putting that thought down is near-impossible. The rational realisation that time spent thinking in this way about these questions is a matter of diminishing returns – that the hours spent locked in worry-led link-following are worth less than 20 minutes of calm, engaged research – doesn’t sink in until something wrenches me away from my thoughts. Usually, the best way to stop a runaway thought-train is just to wait until another one arrives.

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Review | Letter Quest : Grimm’s Journey Remastered

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Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey Remastered (often referred to as Letter Quest Remastered) is a word-assembling RPG where you defeat monsters with your vocabulary, your scythe, and bacon.  

I was introduced to LQR by two of my friends, who assumed that I would enjoy its celebration of verbal geekery. I’m happy to say that they were correct. 

In LQR, titular young reaper Grimm must battle though the foes who are blocking him from his desired treasure … pizza. Battling is carried out by finding words in a board of Scrabble-style letter tiles; your score for each valid word becomes damage to the current enemy, who will then retaliate with attacks of their own. Each defeated enemy and completed quest awards Gems, which you use to strengthen Grimm’s selection of scythes and to buy skill upgrades and equipable books that offer bonuses. 

This is my best word so far. 11-letter words are uncommon, but they output tons of damage.
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Review | Aəero : Complete Edition

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Imagine flying a Wipeout-style ship along the musical ribbon from Vib-Ribbon, while dodging lasers, while playing a twin-stick shooter at the same time, and that almost sums up Aəero.

Aəero is part of a new generation of indie rhythm-action games that has sprung up since the over-saturated -Hero games met their demise and Beat Saber took VR gaming by surprise. It shares two foundations with other experimental rhythm games; a blend of various gameplay styles, and an aim of creating flow-inducing multi-sensory experiences. However, my first few minutes with Aəero felt more like a sensory assault. After reducing my TV volume, lowering the in-game volume to 40%, and lowering the vibration strength to minimal, I could then dive into its challenging and immersive gameplay.

The core gameplay of Aəero is balancing the duelling roles of the left and right analogue sticks. With the left analogue stick, players follow the ribbon of white light that traces out each song’s most salient melody. The ribbon can soar and fall with the singer’s pitch, or swoop and spiral to follow synthesizers and bass. For me, the most challenging songs are the ones which quickly swap between delicate adjustments and larger jumps or spirals. When the ribbon isn’t on-screen, players instead use the left stick to avoid obstacles and fly through narrow gaps in routes interrupted by burning lasers or crushing platforms. The right stick controls the aiming reticle, which players use to target enemies and projectiles, while the right trigger fires the ship’s laser beams. 

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Impressions | Dear Esther : Landmark Edition

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As Dear Esther begins, the protagonist stands at the entrance to a deserted island quickly revealed as being in the Outer Hebrides. Behind the protagonist is a short concrete path leading into the ocean. I promptly walk them into the ocean (for science, of course). As a result I discover some of the island’s mystery within seconds of playtime. My screen fills with indistinct images and pulses like a heartbeat, while the narrator’s own voice whispers “come back…”, before the protagonist reappears at the starting point. After walking into the ocean again to see if any of the environment changed as a result, and only unlocking an incongruous-seeming achievement for drowning, I start to actually play Dear Esther.

While I’ve played other Environmental Narrative Games before, I’ve somehow never played Dear Esther nor had its story spoiled. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the game that brought ENGs into mainstream discussions.

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Review | Spyro Reignited Trilogy – Spyro 2

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Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer was the first game I recieved with my PS1, and also my first 3D game, so this is a nostalgic revisit for me. (As it’s named Ripto’s Rage in the Reignited Trilogy, I’ll just refer to it as Spyro 2 here). It was also one of my favourite games – I remember enjoying Idol Springs and Crystal Glacier, and finding the summer and autumn home worlds incredibly peaceful. I don’t think my 7-year-old self ever reached the final third of the original game, as it was mostly unfamiliar. This time, however, I beat Ripto at 98% completion after about 13 hours of in-game time, then reached 100% at about 14 hours (blame the Fracture Hills level for that delay!).

The major difference between Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2 is revealed in the first cutscene, which shows off a more detailed story taking place across a larger set of worlds and also introduces you to allied characters who need Spyro’s help to take their homes back from antagonist Ripto.

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Review | Hello World – Hannah Fry

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I received Hello World for Christmas along with a few other books, and it was my favourite of the set … I actually abandoned one of the other books part-way through as this one was so much more appealing.

Hello World opens with the famous chess battle between grandmaster Kasparov and Deep Blue. Fry shows how Kasparov’s shock defeat wasn’t caused by Deep Blue’s mechanical power, but by how Kasparov interpreted and reacted to the computer’s actions. The engineers who programmed Deep Blue’s algorithm tactically let it appear hesitant. Deep Blue couldn’t play mind games, but the programmers understood human reactions well enough to make Deep Blue seem like it could, which threw Kasparov off his game.

This example lays out one of the three principles which run through the book – that we often blindly trust algorithms because we see them as infallible machines rather than instructions written by other humans. The other two principles are first that all systems, whether human-led or machine-led, are flawed, and second that algorithms and humans working together creates a better future than either rejecting algorithms or replacing humans with algorithms.

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Review | Spyro Reignited Trilogy – Spyro the Dragon

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I’ve been taking my time with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, as I wanted to enjoy each game fully without rushing them and without worrying about getting a specific completion % or making review notes along the way. I didn’t want to ruin my own experience in any way.

After completing most of Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2, taking a break, then returning a few months later, I reached 120% completion in just over 12.5 hours of playtime. So here are my thoughts on Spyro’s renewed debut.

I didn’t remember much about the original version of Spyro the Dragon, as I played it after the second and third games, and found it less interesting in comparison. I remembered some early world themes, and the general plot of Gnasty Gnorc turning the other dragons into crystal statues, but much of the game was new to me.

The gameplay in Spyro the Dragon focuses on rescuing the crystallised dragons while collecting gems and dragon eggs. 5 dragon homeworlds are hubs that each contain portals to 5 levels: 3 standard levels based on the homeworld aesthetic, a timed flight level where you fly Spyro through obstacles, plus a boss level. The sixth homeworld, inhabited by antagonist Gnasty Gnorc, contains the remaining levels and final boss fight.

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Review | Because Internet – Gretchen McCulloch

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The blurb for Because Internet calls it “essential reading for anyone who has ever puzzled over how to punctuate a text message or wondered where memes come from”. But this book is not a fussy “how-to” guide for internet etiquette. Instead, it’s a broader look at how the weird world of the internet has changed how we use English.

McCulloch’s primary point is that writing produced on the internet – from Twitter and Tumblr to reactions and memes – is important because it lets linguists explore the missing piece of a linguistic puzzle.

We use different versions of speech – formal and informal speech – at specific times and contexts. While the same is true for writing, informal writing has historically been nearly impossible to study. McCulloch argues that our current era of internet communication marks the first time that linguists have been able to see people’s spontaneous informal writing in real-time. Positioning internet writing as the key to a previously-inaccessible aspect of studying language is a powerful approach, and this chapter conveys its importance well.

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Review | Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled [Updated]

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I rarely pay attention to upcoming games, because I dislike the media hype-to-disappointment cycle that comes with every new game. But a new version of Crash Team Racing, a game that my childhood self absolutely loved, was guaranteed to hold my interest. However, I worried that it wouldn’t be remade fairly – that CTRNF would be forced to take on the often-harmful baggage of modern gaming.

The original CTR was techically short but absurdly replayable. You could simply win each race once to reach the final boss and so nominally finish the campaign mode in 3 hours. But mastering CTR required learning the tracks inside and out to complete the challenging token races and devilish Relic races.

To me, any attempt to force attention-manipulation mechanics like season passes and time-gates into CTRNF risked ruining this tight design and its quality-over-quantity nature. So I’m disappointed that Activision and Beenox have followed the convention of including seasonal “content roadmaps”, time-locked shops and item rarity tiers. I’m happy about the prospect of continued interest and additional racers, but Activision’s attempt to shove the lifecycle mechanics of a looter-shooter or an RPG into a kart racer is shortsighted and unnecessary.

So from here I’m going to pretend those extras don’t exist, and focus on the game itself. Thankfully, the game is everything I hoped it would be.

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Review | Team Sonic Racing [Updated]

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While I generally find kart racers fun, I wouldn’t call myself a serious fan of them. Two exceptions to this are the original Crash Team Racing, which was one of my favourite games as a child, and the thoroughly enjoyable Sonic and All-Stars: Racing Transformed.

Although Team Sonic Racing (TSR) was made by the same development team as Racing Transformed, Sumo Digital, I was pessimistic about it before release. When I briefly played TSR at EGX 2018, I felt like it might be unable to differentiate itself from other kart racers. At the time, my opinion was: “Sumo Digital promise that unlockable parts will let you change your car’s looks and performance, but that’s just not the same as turning your car into an aeroplane.”

I wanted to be proved wrong, but unfortunately I can’t say that the game has done enough to change my mind. Before I follow that train of thought, I’ll explain what TSR actually is, and what it does well. 

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Review | Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole – Dr Allan Ropper and Dr Brian Burrell

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Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole is a collection of medical stories from patients at the renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Jointly written by neurologist Allan Ropper and neuroscience researcher Brian Burrell, the book melds Ropper’s perspective and experiences with Burrell’s extensive notes and related information.

“If (an aneurysm) reaches a critical size and form, it can burst open with the entire force of the body’s blood pressure. Blood then fills the spaces around the brain in a split second and causes a thunderbolt of a headache that no one forgets and many don’t survive.”

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Review | Tyler: Model 005

Screenshot from Tyler Model 005
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This is another tag-team review from me and Adoboros; he handled the controls of Tyler: Model 005, while I helped to solve the puzzles. This review has gameplay spoilers and minor story spoilers.

During its opening sequence Tyler: Model 005 (which I’ll shorten to TM5) presents itself as a charming puzzle-platformer with a sympathetic main character — dormant robot Tyler, who wakes up confused and amnesiac after an electrical surge.

Your job as the player is to explore the house which Tyler awakens inside and to figure out what’s going on, solving environmental puzzles to access more of the house and turn on more light sources. Tyler is tiny enough to hide inside a coffee cup, making even small rooms seem vast to him, so the game’s setting isn’t as cramped as you might expect from its description.

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Impressions | Borderlands : Game Of The Year Edition (2019)

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Even though I’ve previously enjoyed playing Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (via co-op), I could never say the same about the original. In solo attempts, I would get stuck at about 10% campaign completion because I couldn’t navigate through the open world. Playing with friends often failed due to lag and frame rate issues. However, after two friends who adore the series both gave me rave reviews of Borderlands: Game Of The Year Edition, I joined them to try a co-op campaign again.

As there was already a Borderlands: Game Of The Year Edition in 2010, I found the name re-use illogical, especially as the 2010 release is still on sale. To avoid confusion, I’ll use Borderlands to mean the series/games in general, “the original Borderlands” to mean the 2009 release, and GOTY to mean the 2019 release. But that’s a minor issue, so I’ll get on to the actual game.

Because GOTY is a remaster rather than a remake, the core gameplay, mechanics and plot are left untouched. The story retains its sparse exposition, as well as its odd pace – it still idles for most of the game then jumps to its full intensity during the last half hour. But the impactful gunplay, chaotic elemental effects, irreverent dialogue and deranged enemies are just as entertaining as in the original Borderlands. Customising your character’s build in co-op to get full-team boosts and combine each player’s abilities allows lots of opportunities to experiment with setups and weapons (and plenty of comedy from Brick’s melee adventures).

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Review | The Swapper

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Full disclosure: due to my ineptness at puzzle platformers, the helpful Adoboros handled puzzle-solving, while I watched and occasionally gave him useful ideas.

When launching The Swapper, the first thing I noticed was its atmosphere (pun not intended). It’s not horror-game-tense or oppressive. Instead it’s somber and melancholy, a tone I’m unused to seeing in games. The next thing I noticed was its uncommon style. Every location and character model was hand-made in clay then digitized through photographs to create a unique world. It’s diffcult to understand just how much work went in to crafting the game, especially as it runs at 60 frames per second.

The Swapper opens as a lone astronaut is ejected into space inside an escape pod. When the pod lands, you take control of the silent astronaut, and start to explore the doomed spaceship Theseus. The remaining crew are hiding in a sealed chamber, so your path is isolated and your exploration uninterrupted … until the scenery starts asking philosophical questions.

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Research Update | Publication

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Today, I found a nice surprise in my email inbox – a notice that my journal article based on my MSc dissertation has finally been published. It’s now available here for anyone with an internet connection to read (no paywalls here!)

I also had some interesting notifications on my usually-dormant Twitter account as a result. Seeing a couple of “likes” from people who had attended my OER17 presentation was nice, especially as that was close to two years ago.

Completing my article is also helpful for me for another reason. I’ve wanted to talk about the process of research, and about academic publishing, on this site, but I didn’t want to do so until after I’d had at least some first-hand experience.

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Review | Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything – Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen

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10 years ago, I took a GCSE history course on Medicine through Time, which was so engaging for me that I now credit it as part of why I ended up studying science communication. Since then, medical history has stayed as one of my cyclic background interests.

Quackery aims for a tone somewhere between a medical history textbook and a standard popular-science narrative, then strikes that note precisely throughout. It focuses on information about historical treatments, figures and ideas, rather than any autobiographical elements or personal narratives. Because Quackery is so consistent, it skirted the edge of monotony when I read much of the book in one sitting. However, the authors’ quick pace, and their frequent dry-humoured side notes and reactions, liven up the text.

“Edinburgh phyisician James Young Simpson was another nineteeth-century pioneer in anasthesia. That is, if pioneering meant inhaling random substances with your colleagues, just to see what would happen.”

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