Saturday, November 20, 2010

Just saw Skyline

I don't think I've ever seen a movie that benefited less from being a "talkie."


I could just leave it there, but why?

You can't fault the special effects guys. The monsters were cool as hell, and the movie was just as visually interesting as the previews promised.

Skyline is kind of a cross between Cloverfield and War of the Worlds, with none of the intensity of the former and none of the brains of the latter.

Aliens suck all the people in L.A. up into their spaceships with tractor beans. Then, they drop giant monsters and flying octopuses with blue laser eyes all over the place to mop up the survivors. I know, cool, right?  Despite this, nothing really happens. When stuff is happening, Skyline is not a bad flick. But this is the plot: a handful of survivors hole up in a rich dude's Penthouse watching the invasion through a telescope, and then that scene from War of the Worlds where the protagonist and his comrade hide from an alien tentacle in a collapsed building is enacted. Several times. The first ten minutes of dudes getting ready for a party, and their party hijinks could have been removed entirely.

Spoilers come next.

There is some crap drama thrown in that has to do with infidelity (no shit, aliens are here to steal your brains, but take the time to get pissed at your boyfriend for shagging his secretary), but to make sure the drama does not impact the script in any way, two of the three characters involved are killed almost immediately (which is actually a great scene, and all too short).

Oh, and if aliens that can instantly reconstruct their spaceship after it is hit by a nuclear bomb come from a bajillion miles away to take your brains (Really. That is a spoiler.), grab a steak knife or a fire ax. Cause that shit will just slice the fuck out of them.

So, towards the end, I was thinking: The theme of this movie is "sometimes you just have to let go." But then, big surprise, in the most phantasmagorically gruesome way the theme gets translated back to "LOVE CONQUERS ALL" when the alien that has taken the bohunk's brain to power itself retains enough Love Power to protect its still human girl friend from the other, zombie aliens.

I love love. I love being in love (song lyrics, anybody? anybody? Bueller?). But is this really all we can write a movie about in America? Isn't that a little juvenile?

PS - They really came all this way to take our brains?

PPS - Also, after you kill the flying laser octopus that was blocking the stairwell down from the roof... you can use that to get back down, instead of the window cleaning scaffolding.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Great Party Week

So I spent most of the last week at World Fantasy in Columbus, hanging with old and new friends, and had a great time. My impressions:

1) The Columbus convention center is a little dingy.

2) That said, the Hyatt was great, and Columbus is a cute town with lots of great restaurants. I would go back in a second.

3) Writers are hugely fun, if oddly conservative. Writers and their wild ways? A myth. Librarians are totally wilder.

4) Small press publishers are the stone coolest. I want to be them when I grow up. The Chizine staff was all about the savior faire. Another dude was rocking an orange zoot suit.

5) I love my new crit group, but I miss my old one.

6) I hope my writing vacation next year is Viable Paradise.

7) I'm not good at talking like a writer, but I love listening to other people do it.

8) Although I believe stone honest critique is the only way to benefit from a crit group, I don't believe critique should be an endurance test. Really, what's with all the completely macho noise about crit?

9) I must submit more.

10) I need to renegotiate my relationship to Warcraft.

11) I love having an ipod jack in the car.

12) Podcasts are THE BOMB. Capital the, capital bomb.

13) Coming home, I took back roads to Fort Wayne and then caught I-69 up. It was a beautiful drive, good weather early on a Sunday morning, plenty of cows and ramshackle farms. Good background for thinking. Totally meditative.

14) Merrie, Dave, Christian, Kelly, Mike, Sharon, and Kate are all my writing BFF's. Really.

Got home a little after noon, carved pumpkins (FOR THE HORDE!), ate pumpkin seeds, waiting to take Poppy around for Tricks or Treats. Between our party and the con, it's been a really nice month, largely due to the company of old and new friends. I feel very energized, which is not usual this far from the summer solstice... it's either the Vitamin D or an October party/writing vacation. Or a nifty combination. Worth retrying next year.

Merrie from my last writing group, and Dave whom I met through Merrie coupla years ago. They ROCK.

Christian is in the foreground. New friend, another Michigan writer. He also ROCKS.

Mike and Gene Wolf.

Mike and Kate and Sharon, members of his online Crit Group. They all ROCK.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Andrew Shirvell, an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan, has created a website for the purposes of  harassing the student body president at University of Michigan because he is gay.

I first heard of this here. Be careful. It is an atheist website. If you are uncomfortable with atheists and their baby gobbling, death sentencing, pushing their godless agenda in your face ways, you may find their defense of homosexuality to be disquieting.

The blog that Andrew Shirvell uses to harass Chris Armstrong is here. It is, in the manner of blogs written by the truly knowledgeable or very disturbed, long and windy and dull. Skimming it for even a short time, however, reveals it to be full of over the top hyperbole, bigoted and unconfirmable generalization, and invasive comments. There are also multiple violations of Godwin's Law and a weird tone-deafness to humor. If there are any virtues to his blog, they are so well hidden amongst angry hyberbole and raw bullshit that it is someone else's job to find them. Andrew Shirvell's blog is very unpleasant to read.

Andrew Shirvell's interview with Anderson Cooper is a less unpleasant and garbled formulation of Mr. Shirvell's views. It is less unpleasant because it takes less time to get through, and less garbled because Anderson Cooper asks him to clarify his views, which boil down to an objection to gender neutral housing couched in a lot of bile and loathing.

I'm for freedom of speech (Yay, Andy). I'm against Frat Boys (Boo, Chris), though not in any legalistic fashion. Just, you know, personally. I'm for gay sex, rarely in any personal fashion any more, but in a generalized legalistic sense. Debauchery is also fine if it's all consensual.  I believe that 20 is old enough to know how to conduct yourself in public, and if you don't know how to set your Facebook profile settings... well, you get what you ask for. It would be nice if everybody could just let it all hang out like they did on the commune... but really, grow up.

That said, from Shirvell's report, Chris Armstrong isn't doing anything more damaging than any other asshole Frat Boy. In fact, Shirvell's blog histrionics quickly become laughable and cartoonish. A prime example is his howling about the Ann Arbor police having to shut down a noisy gay frat party. In my day, U of M students rioted in the streets over basketball games. My last class in library school was held in a pub because the tear gas from the night before hadn't dispersed from the Library School building yet.

Shirvell interpretation of Facebook exchanges are also laughably simplistic. My favorite is the one where a couple of the kids are ironically ragging on how pushy religion can be.

Student 1: "Ugh, looks like someone was eavesdropping on my phonecall with God last week."
Student 2: "What!? He was gchatting me at the same time, Kaitlin. I feel two-timed."
Student 3: "Hahah, he never talked to me. I feel left out : ("

Shirvell says that this exchange is "indicative of his LONG-HELD viciously anti-Christian and pro-Culture of Death worldview." Yikes. That's severe.

So it's pretty clear, from the context and the dashes of far right radical Christian agenda he throws in (Isn't it fun the demonize your opponents? Those fucking RADICAL CHRISTIANS!), that Andrew Shirvell has a religiously based hatred of gay people.

Christians don't hate, however. Our culture is conflict adverse, and having some trouble, still, traversing the path from a monoculture to a pluralistic society. We don't like to admit our petty prejudices, and if they influence public policy, or if we go off the handle about them in public, we tend to defend them with fucked up rationalizations. Like the Bell Curve. If you are an Evangelical Christian, your rational is to "hate the sinner, not the sin" and fall back on "god's standards." According to Mr. Shirvell, god's standard is apparently ad hominem, hyperbolic bigotry.

There are calls for Shirvelle to be fired. Which is hard for me. Free speech is an important part of how our society works. I agree that people are allowed to have personal opinions.

But if you are in charge of persecuting crimes for the state, can you be trusted to do so in a rational fashion if your sensibilities are dominated by such a narrow view of what is culturally appropriate?

What is your legal competence if you tread so merrily on the line between free speech or libel and slander? Isn't accusing someone of trying to "seduce your children" pretty much an accusation of rape? Is the conflation of gay rights with Nazism and the Klan at the least paranoid? It would be nice, if for once in history, right wing nutjobs were held to some standard of proof. By an authority, like the State or Federal Government, rather than the blogosphere. Even fortune tellers need a license.

Regardless of Armstrong's ability to take care of himself, what kind of judgment does it show on Shirvelle's part to start a major, very public campaign harassing a student body president? There is no evidence that Armstrong  is a  danger. There have got to be more efficacious methods for Shirvelle to address the gender-neutral housing issue. Maybe a polite letter to the President of the University? Sue me if I don't know how U of M's policy making infrastructure works.

Mike Cox, the Michigan Attorney General and Shirvelle's boss, says he won't fire him. “The reality is, I’m out of office in three months. I have a duty to defend the Michigan Constitution. I have a duty to defend the Michigan civil service rules, even at those times when I don’t like it.”

I'd like to believe that's a principled stand, but it sounds like lame duck lethargy or passing the buck. Cox points out Shirvel's lack of judgement and calls him a bully elsewhere. Is bullying a good skill set for law enforcement? I'd like to think not.

"Here in America, we have this thing called the First Amendment, which allows people to express what they think and engage in political and social speech," says Cox. I don't know that the first amendment guarantees protection from all consequences. An atheist couldn't get into the White House. Why should a homophobe be guaranteed a position as a prosecutor of public morals?

New York magazine brings it home best, I think. "Shirvell might be within his legal rights to hate-blog and peaceful protest. But shouldn't a legal representative for the state of Michigan, especially one associated with public prosecutions, have a vested interest in fairness and justice even for people unlike himself? Or did Shirvell bring his legal training to bear to make sure his actions appear impeachable?"

I would have added the word "just" to the last sentence. "Just to make sure his actions appear impeachable." Because there's the abuse of power.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Done with high fantasy

I'm done with high fantasy.

I've never been much of a reader of high fantasy. All the big guys, Tolkein, Eddings, kind of put me to sleep. I read stuff that has elements of modernity in it... largely because I feel I can relate to the ethical choices better. But I like myth and magic, which I look at as recombinant whimsy, taking pieces of biology and physics and fantasy and smooshing them all together into something cool. So, I'm always reading fantasy of some kind.

On the other hand, I've always run and played high fantasy games, via Dugeons and Dragons. Oh, yeah, I dabbled in Vampire and Superhero games. I ran some Gamma World and played some Boot Hill. But they were always hard for me to get ahold of for some reason. Went back to DND. A couple of years ago, though, I picked up DND 4e and tried to run a couple of sessions, and it just left me cold. So I left the running to the very capable hands of one of the players at my table. And I played. Just, done with it.

There's a lot of other things mixed in to that "event". DND 3.0 was a very high maintenance game. Between career and trying to write and family andandandandand, it's just become hard to sit down for the blocks of time I need to make a story out some numbers and strategy. The story is never a problem. That practically comes vomiting out of my head in a fuge state... but the numbers and strategies to make it feel a little real, make the other players at the table feel like there was a little resistance in the world, that was harder.

Sometimes, I think part of my disconnect with high fantasy novels is how narrowly they view the genre. It's all dwarves and orcs and Mary Sue humans with no compunction about killing at all. Then again, add some guns and cool pets to that recipie, as per WOW, and I'm all over it. How shallow am I?

But games, man... it didn't matter how limited the sourcebooks were, there was another one around the corner. And a good GM was willing to let you make that sorcerer chick in a chainmail bikini YOURs. "Yeah, my wizard rides around in a giant metal dragon...'cause I'm that kind of badass." You could add a colorful skin to the goofy mechanics. My first DND character ever was a centaur wizard, badassery incarnate.

And it's not that I don't like the 4.0 game, it's just that I feel alienated from it. Part of the disconnect there is training. Monster stats don't look like a stat block to me. I've never really read game books. The prose is atrocious, and I'd rather play in my own mental gardens anyway. But now, I scan the rulebooks and don't really see the tools that I habitually looked at all my life. The exciting parts of the game. The bits of rules that made the fantastic graspable for me.

4.0 just doesn't feel skinnable.

I like the whimsy of fantasy. The speculative ecosystems and cultures. But I like to tell stories that are personal and consequential. Unepic fantasy. Fairy tales about personal choice.

I'd like to say I'm not done with gaming. Certainly not playing, but not running, either. But I only have so much more apetite for DND. I'd like to pursue the 4.0 Gamma World. I'm thinking of reskinning GW as a Singularity Apocalypse game, with nanotechnology mutations and shit. I've even thought about picking up...gasp... World of Darkness.

But probably not high fantasy again, unless Pathfinder really impresses me at Gen Con. Even then, I might rather wait for Pathfinder Modern.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Chaositech - a review

Chaositech by Monte Cook (d20 Supplement)
Disclaimer A: If you aren't a role playing gamer or biiiig geek, the following review will probably mean nothing to you.
Disclaimer B: This is for an old, old product. It was on my old website, it probably still has applicability to them what still plays 3e, and I thought it was a nice piece of writing. But it is so totally marginal to your understanding of anything.
After reading various pieces of Monte Cooks's game writing and prose (Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, The Book of Vile Darkness, Ghostwalk, Of Aged Angels, Requiem for a God, and Book of Eldritch Might II), I've decided that what I like most about his writing are his set pieces: Like Gary Gygax's classic adventures or a Stephen King novel, he leaves interesting facts and details for you to discover and use or chew over.
I also like to use elements of randomness in my games, especially things like mutation, mostly because the story value of maiming a protagonist can never be underestimated. It adds a sense of risk to the proceedings without actually killing a valued PC. One game that I ran had characters running around using demon ichor to create random mutations in themselves and others. We had a giant blue elf, a six foot jackelope, and a headless angel by the end of it. It was grandly phantasmagorical, and gave interesting back story for the characters to chew on as they tried to reverse their transformations or learn to use them to the fullest.
I figured Chaositech would address both of those interests nicely, and wasn't disappointed.
Chaositech is rewarding to anyone who wants to add a layer of the outrageous to their campaign.
What is Chaositech? It's the title of a 112 page sourcebook describing an eponymous suite of FX. According to Malhavoc's web site, Chaositech "Introduces chaos-powered items that resemble both technology and magic, but are truly neither."
In a flavor sense, what this translates into is a sort of Cthulhu-Punk. This impression is reinforced by the octopoidal, mi-go and tsotheguish illustrations of the Galchutt, ancient outsiders who wish to destroy the universe. They encourage human cultists to do vile things to their bodies and souls in exchange for chaositech.
In a game sense, what this translates into is an a-magical suite of FX rules. The Galchutt can give you ray guns, or cybernetics, or mutation powers so that you can serve them better. Much like psionics, chaositech is doesn't interact with magic. Dispel magic and anti-magic fields don't work against it.
Although not labeled as such, Chaositech is essentially an event book: it adds a set of rules for gaming in a specific context, that of opposing the technologically enhanced servants of chaos. It's a little different from Malhavoc's other event books in that, unlike Dogs of War or Requiem for a God, it adds a brand new genre element to heroic fantasy: techno-fantasy or Cthulhu-punk.
What this means at it's most shallow level is that you have to decide if your game needs another flavor of FX or another timeless evil. However, I think Chaositech can used in lots of ways: out of the box to add a specific set of elements to your game, by mining it for rules subsets, or by converting what's there to more standard DND fare.
The first chapter gives a framework to fully integrate chaositech and the Galchutt into an ongoing game. I think the product works best in parts as opposed to as a suite. For all of its flavor, I wouldn't dump chaositech whole hog into my DND game.
Why? Well, the law-chaos axis is going to be extremely important in my next campaign. Chaositech is consistently represented as evil of the vile stripe. I prefer chaos to be represented more in its freewheeling aspect of complexity than it's destructive guise. However, the templates for mutants may come in handy.
And I don't want to tie the pseudo-science in my game to chaos. I want it to have a less disposable, more steampunk feel. As if it is a permanent, evolving part of the world. But some of the individual chaositech devices are very inspirational.
I also wouldn't include chaositech in any campaign that already uses psionics, with one caveat which I will mention later. Two non-magic FX sets in a heroic fantasy game seems like kitchen sinking to me, but that's a matter of taste.
Chaositech's greatest strength is in introducing new rules subsets. There are rules for items that have a short lifespan (non-intrinsic chaositech devices, which blow up on a critical miss) damage the user (intrinsic devices, which plug into the user and do ability damage on a critical miss), and items that damage or change the owner or their surroundings (all chaositech items can cause mutations, change alignment, and rot other items through long exposure). What use are these kinds of rules? Who wants a magic weapon that decays after it's been used, or that damages them?
Well, nobody wants them. But they make for good story elements. Taken together, they add a flavor that compliments a very specific type of foe: The Galchutt, fickle abominations who maim or discard their servants on a whim. Taken separately, they emulate concepts common in the fantasy and science fiction genre: unstable devices that fall apart after awhile, magic items that eat a little bit of your soul every time you use them, or change you through long exposure to evil forces. These rules would also be a tidy way to handle the failure of old technology in a gamma world style campaign. Although they are very intertwined with chaositech, it would be easy to untangle them. There's no reason non-intrinsic (extrinsic?) devices have to be unstable. There's no reason a cursed weapon shouldn't eat it's bearer's charisma on a critical miss.
There are also rules sets that could mimic cybernetics fairly well. Called the betrayal of flesh, Chaositech presents organic or non-organic devices that become a part of you. Mutations are represented as a monster template, making it useful for characters by giving them an experience point cost (much like monster classes). And mutation implicitly, if not explicitly, change the character's ECL.
Each of these rulesets seem balanced for play. Mr. Cook's guidelines for pricing chaositech objects uses a formula very similar to magic items: level and caster level of the FX effect (a similar spell) multiplied by 1500, which is midway between the multiplier for command word and use operated devices. Using the devices without chaotic backlash or symbiotic damage essentially means that you need to add 25% to the value of them.
"The final price takes into account the fact that most chaositech items are effectively use activated, that they have 20 charges or uses before they need refueling, and that they are not subject to things like spell resistance or antimagic." Mr. Cook says in a sidebar about pricing chaositech on pg 21.
The twenty charges before refueling is overshadowed by the fact that they have about the same chance (1 in 20 chance) of self-destructing. That's really twenty charges, but luck could be with a character. I'm guessing pricing also takes into account things like the damage caused by, and the in game time eaten by, surgery.
A shallow comparison of the items's cost looks fairly balanced. Disease mucor, for example, costs 600 gp as opposed 750 GP for a potion of remove disease. It also wipes you out, bestowing a -4 penalty to attack rolls and saving throws. Hence the discount.
Ear and eye serum are the two halves of cure blindness/deafness, and do ability damage (I especially like the description given for ear serum: "For a brief moment during the repair process the creature hears the cacophonous sounds of the music of true chaos, which jars her sanity."). They cost 200 GP, 1/3 the cost of a third level potion for splitting up the effect.
The shock sheath, a new flesh graft, is priced at 18,000 GP Considering 18,000 GP for electricity resistance 10, 2000 GP for adding 1d6 electrical damage to unarmed attacks (probably doubled for being a multiple effect), and then 25% off for being chaositech brings it back to about 18,000 GP all right.
Some items look idiosyncratically priced. The steam ax, for instance, deals an extra 1d6 heat damage. It is otherwise mundane, so it's fair to think of this as a +1 bonus, which would cost 2000 GP and the cost of a masterwork item. Priced at 3000, the steam ax seems like a bad buy, and the fact that it would work against anti-magic doesn't seem to outweigh it's inevitable self destruction.
Muscle lacing seems hella overpriced. This process gives you +4 to strenght and +2 to constitution for 165,000. At a cost of 16,000 for the strength, 4000 for the constitution, even doubled for taking up no slots, this seems too expensive, much less for a benefit that has the drawbacks (and advantages) of chaositech.
The telepathic receiver is spot on for a use operated detect thoughts spell, not higher or lower.
And I have no idea why an infestation bomb, which gives minor negatives to attack and skill rolls, costs more than a nausea bomb, which prohibits most actions.
I know, pricing magic items is an art, not a science. I'm not sure what other assumptions went into pricing those. But most items seem like they're in the ballpark, anyways. Tinkering could be left up to individual GM's.
It seems pretty obvious that if you wanted to add instability or soul eating to a regular magic item: say, for instance, a wand that blows up if the user rolls a 1 on a d20, or scrolls that curse the reader if they roll a critical failure on their attempt to understand it, you could comfortably lower it's value by 25%.
As for the chaositech devices themselves, there are some that are quite interesting and some that are sort of ho-hum. Perhaps there was nothing really original that could be done to make weapon FX original. A flaming axe is a flaming axe whether or not you put a battery in it and call it steaming. A chainsword is a chainsaw is a Texas butter knife. I found the intrinsic devices, where biology and FX meet, uninspiring as well. Most of them are analogs of DND spells exported over to Chaositech.
I thought the malefic haunt devices were interesting. Chaositech items with ghosts attached to them, they essentially imbue items with properties because the ghosts are forced to contemplate these properties. This is not just an interesting idea to me, it's an interesting rules-wise because they have a limited lifespan and increase in value over time.
I thought the disk blades were a fun weapon, a single use random damage buzz saw. I liked thought armor. I like the simple fact that much of this equipment can be used to equip mass numbers of NPCs and still not throw the party's treasure values off, because the PCs can't or won't use it.
There are only a few other gaps in the neatness of the rules: the preservation tank is inspired, keeping a character at -10 alive indefinitely, but it significantly weakens a creature because if the relatively fragile tank is broken, its immobilized occupant dies. The head crawler replaces a perfectly good body with a mediocre construct. Though both a very cool set-pieces, I'm betting they lower the CR of their hosts. And the familiar graft is also rules light, with no physical stats.
A great deal of Chaositech can be exported directly over to DND in various ways (besides just stripping out the chaositech elements of the devices and changing their prices).
The whole feel of the ruleset, with its reference to ability damage and its incompatibility with magical effects, reminds me of psionics. Especially some of the devices, like the new flesh grafts, which are essentially heavy-duty psychoactive skins. I think a great number of the items could be given a psionic origin, maybe powering them with psi points instead of raw chaos, and they would meld very well. Not to mention biocrystal.
Also, this book would work perfectly with a campaign that uses the Book of Vile Darkness. The FX are all very chaosy and evil in flavor, and could be attributed to demons instead of the Galchutt. In fact, Mr. Cook almost seems to be emulating some of his set pieces from the Book of Vile Darkness here, with devices like the arachnid covey implant (a mechanical substitution for a Vermin Lord prestige class), and the deadly carrier (ditto the Cancer Mage).
The spells are negligible. They mostly solidify the chaositech framework by supplying detection, identification, and resistance mechanisms. Chaos knife and bell tolls for thee could easily transfer to a non-chaositech game, and are interesting to boot. Chaositech enslavement and chaotic possession actually give an interesting spell based mechanic for possession that would be just as handy for demons and devils and ghosts. It would be simple to use chaos possession and a lawful alternate as spell-like abilities for any outsider over, say, ten hit dice. As spells, they are much less nebulous than the possession rules provided in the Book of Vile Darkness.
The chaos technician prestige class requires chaositech to work in any campaign, but the machine mage could be ported over to any DND campaign if you wanted a biomechanical or bioarcanical flavor in your game. And the Galchutt are fun monsters that would make wonderful demons on their own, with no alteration. I especially like the direct damage aura that most of them carry around with them. However, very few of them are suitable foes for low or even mid level campaigns.
What else could I see Chaositech being useful for? Well, add some guns and you could use it for a steampunk campaign if you strip out the damaging side-effects. Retool the prestige classes, and I think chaositech has tons of uses in d20 gaming, especially with a pulp flavor. Like maybe an Iron Lords of Jupiter game.
Lets be honest: every ruleset can be used as any kind of genre item. A wand of fireballs, as long as the price is right, can be a bazooka in an SF game. A d20 Modern pistol could serve just as well as a flintlock, all things being equal. A shocking longsword can be an electrified longsword. Rules wise, exposure to raw chaos is pretty identical to exposure to hot lava (except for the chance of a mutation). The Craft: Chaositech skill is simply a variation of craft applied to FX items.
So chaositech could be fantasy technology, or space opera technology, or pulp technology, or psionic devices, or genetic engineering... or whatever the GM wishes. Most of the devices in here are simply analogues for magic items in the DMG.
And it looks good. The cover art by rk post is beautiful enough to put on your wall. The interiors are all very good, my favorites being the prestige class illustrations.
So, if I quibble, I still see a lot of great stuff in here. Though a product for very specific tastes, I found it very inspiring and I think anyone who likes to play a range of genres should pick this up and mine it for everything it's worth.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Versus Cops

This is an old stub of an opinion about the Henry Gates arrest. I don't think anybody really came right out and said this at the time. Skip it if you don't like my politics. I shouldn't really have strong opinions on this issue, but I do. And I'm a writer, and I'm vain, so I think I get to say them out loud, even when I know I'm going to piss someone off.

In my "hometown" paper's comments on this column about the Henry Gates arrest, a couple of commenters suggested that President Obama helped make the Gates arrest a racial issue.

I have yet to see footage anywhere of President Obama suggesting this. I think the fact that people view him as a source of the racial tension is a real measure of how fraught and polarized people are about race in the U.S. There was a lot of discussion about race around the Henry Gates arrest.

And, I felt, it was a smoke screen for the real issue. Racial issue or not, I have yet to see anything to suggest that the cop who arrested Gates was right. He arrested somebody who was "causing a disturbance" in their home by  mouthing off to a cop.

I'm not sure that should be an arrestable offense, ever. Even if you aren't in your own home.

Benjamin Franklin's maxim "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty" gets brought out all the time in political discussion, mostly around gun rights.

However, in the Gates situation, and in similar situations, like the Winkfein arrest, the Peter Watts beating, or the UCLA tasering, there seems to be a vocal minority who supports the rights of the police to use force. "It's what they deserve," seems to be the refrain.

I don't know why I conflate the two issues, gun control and out of control cops. Maybe I chalk both kinds of statements up to the law and order crowd because the NRA is so adamant that private citizens need their semi-automatics to ward off criminals. Because I am uncomfortable with how ready people are to give up their rights to police, I feel that those issues make a good compare and contrast exercise, however.

In the case of guns, the essential liberty we give up is unfettered gun use. The temporary security we gain is protection from some crazy ass bastards having guns. Sure, it's a temporary security. Prohibition doesn't work. It just doesn't. But disincentives to gun ownership allow some crazy bastards to get right in the head before they have access to a lethal weapon.

In the issue of police and rowdy citizens, the essential liberty being given up is freedom of speech. The temporary security being gained is that the gun carrying officer will simply humiliate or harass you. He won't  cause you pain instead. Or kill you. Or incarcerate you.

The inequity in that formula is stunning. Although yelling can trigger one's fight or flight response, an armed man really has nothing to fear from a loud citizen who does not also have a gun.

Another maxim attributed to Franklin, probably falsely, is "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." The problem is in the arms race of liberty, a private citizen will never beat the government when it comes to guns. Against the government, you are essentially unarmed, regardless of what you stockpile in you gun cabinet. But in the US, we've beaten the Feds time and time again when we use our voices. Our voices are our protection. And to give that up to the cops, and especially security guards, seems especially frivolous to me.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Free will as a gilded cage 2

In her blog, The Brazen Careerist, Penelope Trunk wrote a very revealing post about abortions, and her reasons for having them. In conclusion, she says:

"You never know, not really. There is little certainty. But there are some certain truths: It’s very hard to have an abortion. And, there is not a perfect time to have kids."

In Freakanomics, Stephen J. Dubner talks about Steven D. Levitt's research about abortion and the famous correlation between the legalization of abortion and the downturn in crime statistics. Levitt's conclusions were not that abortion is an unambiguous social good, but that the effect of abortion was that mothers who weren't ready to raise children responsibly would make the decision to delay parenthood through abortion, and not raise stressed children.

What really interests me about those pieces of reading is not what they say about abortion, but what they say about choice. How fraught it is to make any choice. School. Career. Family. To be, or not to be.

"Do I have a kid now, and divide my resources between child rearing and career advancement, or later, when the my career advancement has momentum. How sad do I feel about it afterwards?"

"Do I go to school when I have energy, and it's hard to concentrate, or later, when I'm tired and desperate for health care, and how much do I regret either choice later?"

Choices that everybody makes when the opportunity arises, like it or not. As Rush points out over and over again on oldies rock stations.

I believe strongly that adult human beings make choices. I guess some of the research on the human brain suggests that we don't, that we are merely the sum of our influences. And indeed, I think the human body pushes hard on our choices. Emotions, feelings, talents, all combine to make some choices easier for an individual. These are chemicals in the body that, in abundance or scarcity, make up huge tracts of who we are. It's scary to think we are simply the sum of our chemicals.

Practically, though, it seems impossible that human beings are only the sum of their influences. If there were no choice, human males would never settle down. Human societies would look more like a domestic cats, with dominant males visiting loose confederations of females to have children and weaker males looking for holes to fill in the natural order. Women would never do anything but have babies, because that's the best way to pass on their genes and those of their mates. To "be fruitful and multiply." There would be no kindness, just acquisition. We would always give in to our bodies needs.

People have written about things like altruism and culture, and what the biological reasons for them might be. This doesn't reinforce an absence of free will, however. It actually does quite the opposite. It says volumes about our capabilities. It more than suggests that the ability to choose against our bodies is hardwired in. That making those choices is a beneficial behavior in the long run. It suggests that people have different natural appetites and abilities with which to choose because the universe is an uncertain environment, rife with resource disparities, and having the ability to calculate successes and failures based on multiple strategies is a very useful ability for a species to have.

People are a melange of influences and discontents. If we weren't, we would never make any choices at all.

We don't understand this as a species.

We look for the one silver bullet, fact or feeling, that will address all the situations we are unhappy with. Self help books, happiness research, religion, political beliefs, all that stuff is important because it offers strategies to deal with everyday life. But really, none of them work all the time. It's important to give yourself and the people around you the benefit of the doubt. To make peace with uncertainty, so that you can enjoy your life as is.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Free will as a gilded cage 1

A friend linked this article on Facebook with regards to free will. I had several highly conflicting thoughts on this.

The first is that I think maybe only certain kinds of amateurs, hacks and dilettantes, like me, or people whose professional ethics are constrained by an actual set of ethics, like a neurologist, should be allowed to comment on free will in public. People who get paid for their opinions should be out of the discussion. It's too important a topic to have any economic bias at all inserted into the conversation because it dictates how some people feel about themselves.

The second is that there is a margin of stupidity in the discussion of free will. Free will is self evident. It doesn't matter how or why a decision is made. It's just important that a decision is made. I think the topic of free will should be up for consideration, I just that I think the conversation should be about what it is, not if it is. "If" makes the entire question into a bong conversation.

Like the "question" of existence. If we didn't exist, would we be having a conversation about existence? There is always an appeal to higher reality involved in the question of existence, a la the Matrix. If there was a higher reality, it would be full of gun fights and harrowing escapes and dastardly villains. Of course. Or a sublime understanding of the entirety of the universe. Or maybe not. Maybe that's wish fulfillment, and whatever scale of reality you live in has economics to hold you back. But that makes for lousy pop culture.

The question of free will is really a discussion of consciousness. And not if, but what. Because if this relationship that I have with the universe isn't "consciousness," if I can really only be reduced to some really baroque lichen on the face of the earth, the question becomes "who cares?" What we know about the universe seems to indicate that the only thing consistent is change. Stabilizing your little corner of the universe so that it is more fun is a useful goal. It's probably necessary to existing, because without some sensation of fun now or delayed, there wouldn't be much reason to exist.

The question of whether will is free or not seems Manichean in nature. We want to make decisions totally free from economics or conditioning, as opposed to marginally free. But being as we exist in a universe that consists of inconsistently distributed matter and energy, that is of course, impossible. There will always be a tariff on will, whether it be perspective error or resource needs. The question of "free" will is impractically, mystically Utopian.

So determining the "what" of consciousness is a very useful goal, because at the very least it will allow us to game this corner of eternity to enhance the fun quotient.

The question of free will then becomes effectively irrelevant. And, at the end of the day, any random phenomenon that results in Kim Stanly Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy, or the artwork of Jack Kirby, or the counterculture, has to be appreciated for the... sheer fecundity of it. Consciousness, free or not, is a base condition of humanity that deserves to be admired and cultivated the way color is in flowers.


An armchair speculation, inspired by Freakanomics and The Tipping Point, and all the research they stood on first.

I think that there are probably three parts to a personality: Your genetic predispositions, your learned or conditioned behavior, and the part of your personality that does it's best to respond to the world.

None of these parts are subconscious: We use all of them to make conscious decisions. We even use them to rationalize our behavior to ourselves. But humans are monumentally bad at recognizing cause and effect, so it will come as no surprise that we often mistake correlation with causation when we think about ourselves. This means we often attribute decisions made due to the long-standing behavior patterns to spurious emotions.

Depression and Anxiety disorders, I think, are especially relevant to this conversation because they mimic natural emotions but make choice less effective. You can effectively fail to solve a problem because anxiety or depression results in you focusing on a temporary conflict while ignoring another source of stress that is causing ongoing distress.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Crap of Choice

Why are TV watchers so defensive? It feels like the same reaction you often get as an atheist. Both TV watchers and people of faith are firmly in the cultural majority right now. There's no perceived threat, let alone actual threat, to the hegemony of god or mass produced Hollywood entertainment on cultural consciousness. Fine, naysayers can be hella snotty about your moos. I suppose they should be paid back for their snottyness... if you're an insecure loser who really cares that other people take the effort to dig at your foolishness.

But as per the Techland "vengeance" like above: Is it less snobbish of me to say: I don't watch much TV? How about if I admit that I read a TON of crappy books (though I still think that's a better habit than any TV watching)?

Or is it just more priggish fun to punish someone for their disagreement with your crap of choice? Frankly, Opie's vengeance wouldn't have worked on someone with half a brain. I have exactly half a brain, and I would love hearing about someone's contact with Pynchon, Vonnegut, Gaiman, or Pratt, whatever the venue and however passing. And I love the Simpson's, too. But I still don't watch it. I've got WOW to play, and obtuse fiction to write and not get published.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Five baseless opinions, or I can haz opinion?

1. Authenticity is bullshit.

2. The New Atheists are harsh but fair. The New Church is fair but harsh.

3. Barbie dolls are the Venus of the twentieth century.

4.Truth shouldn't be "handled". It should be avoided or faced, but not spun.

5. Nickleback is not alt rock. The Beatles still are.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Feed warning:

I have opinions. Anybody who has been subjected to my Facebook feed for awhile is probably aware of that.

This is by way of saying that a couple of opinion pieces that I wrote a while back and finally decided were good enough to see the light of day have been scheduled to be published on my blog over the next couple of weeks. It's a sort of... philosophical house cleaning?

This exercise could be akin to Noah getting wasted and showing off his junk at the apocalypse. So, you know, look the other way if you don't want to see. I don't think you'll end up as poorly off as the caananites if you look, but you never know. It might be toxic bullshit that I spew. I can never tell.