Friday, August 29, 2014

The Chick Dick

Probably NSFW, but this is still pretty funny.

Note that some people on YouTube are apparently offended by this video - not all for the same reasons - so if you're easily offended, you may want to give it a pass. Of course, if you're that easily offended, what are you doing here? :)

Thank God for Ebola

Rebecca Watson can really turn a phrase, which is probably why the comments on her videos tend to be filled with bitter, angry trolls having hysterics (usually, over nothing at all to do with the content of said video).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Jon Stewart has been on vacation throughout this whole Ferguson, Missouri, mess. So I've been waiting to see what he had to say about it.

I wasn't disappointed. This is great, isn't it?

Those guys on Fox 'News' - who frequently remind me of the Pillsbury Doughboy - pontificating on race and the African American experience,... doesn't that just seem bizarre to everyone? (Apparently not, huh?)

We've come a long, long way in America, but your race still matters. As a white man in Nebraska, I rarely even think about race. Certainly, I've never even imagined that my race would have anything to do with how people treated me. That just never been an issue.

Of course, it's had a great deal to do with how people treated me, and if I weren't white, that would quickly become obvious. But being white in Nebraska is the default. (My gender mattered, too. But as a man, that's not always evident, either.)

Still, I can use my brain. I can listen to the experiences of other people. I can empathize, and I can understand how their experiences might be very different - infuriatingly different, sometimes - from mine.

As Jon Stewart says, "Race is there, and it is a constant. You're tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Greece does a bait & switch

You knew this was going to happen, didn't you?
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court gave its blessing to local governments that want to open their public meetings with religious prayer.

It was a victory for the town board of Greece, N.Y., which stressed that it was fighting not just for Christian prayer but for the right of all people [to] express their views regardless of their faith. In a 5-4 ruling along ideological lines, the Court ruled against the Jewish and atheist plaintiffs, who argued that the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Less than four months later, the town of Greece has adopted an invocation policy that excludes non-religious citizens and potentially shuts out faiths that aren't well-established in the town, according to a top secular group.

That's not quite what the five Republicans on the Supreme Court claimed, is it?
In [his decision], Justice Anthony Kennedy described public prayer as a "larger exercise in civic recognition" designed to "represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers." ...

Justice Elena Kagan warned that the decision in Greece v. Galloway could lead to discrimination against minority faiths. In her dissent for the minority, she accused the conservative justices of "blindness" to the "essential meaning of the religious worship in Greece's town hall, along with its capacity to exclude and divide."

No, no, it's inclusive. All Christian sects approved by the town board are welcome to pray to Jesus in their own way. LOL

Note that this was another terrible Supreme Court decision in which the five Republicans on the Supreme Court overruled the four Democrats. However, as the LA Times put it when the decision was announced, the court isn't just divided along political lines:
The Supreme Court's decision Monday to allow Christian prayers at city council and other public meetings divided justices not only ideologically, but along religious lines as well.

The five justices in majority are Catholics, and they agreed that an opening prayer at a public government meeting, delivered by a Christian pastor, brings the town together. ...

Three of the four dissenters are Jewish: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. The fourth, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was raised as a Catholic, but she is said to be not a regular church goer.

Justice Elena Kagan faulted the majority for approving an official policy of "religious favoritism." In her dissent, she said the majority might view the matter differently had a "mostly Muslim town" opened its session with Muslim prayers or if a Jewish community invited a rabbi every month.

The Catholic Church is the biggest Christian sect in America and the world. Is it really surprising that five right-wing Catholic men see no problem here? No one is going to discriminate against the Catholic Church in America.

On the other hand, three of the four dissenters are Jewish. (Three of the four are women, too.) I don't know whether Justice Sotomayor still considers herself to be Catholic or not ("not a regular church goer" could mean anything), but it's not just politics that's separating our Supreme Court justices.

We saw this exact same thing in the court's terrible Hobby Lobby decision, too, where the five Catholic men on the court tried desperately to limit the decision to birth control, which (a) mostly affects women, and (b) is a longtime Catholic Church issue (though Catholics in America still use birth control just as much as everyone else, despite the wishes of the church hierarchy).

You don't care about freedom of religion if you're in the majority, right? After all, the majority doesn't need defending from the minority (the right-wing's ridiculous hysterics about "Sharia Law" notwithstanding).

Maybe I can understand that - not agree with it, just understand it - when it comes to ordinary people. But these are justices in the highest court in the land. They're supposed to be defending our Constitution. Why are they acting like political/religious activists who are determined to undermine it?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Atheist Debates: an interview with Jamila Bey

This is the first video in the Atheist Debates Patreon project, and it's excellent, it really is. It's laugh-out-loud funny, in parts, and always entertaining.

After this, I really wanted to watch Jamila Bey in a debate, but I couldn't find anything on YouTube. There are excerpts from her talks, but no debates, not that I could find. Too bad.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The rest of the story

Dwarf Fortress, Ironhand graphics pack.
Here, the snow has melted, though the river remains frozen.

Note: This is the sequel, and conclusion, to Just a flesh wound, my first play of the new Dwarf Fortress 2014, version 0.40.08, in adventure mode. Make sure you read the beginning of the story first. (And please see my other posts about DF for information on how to install and play the game.)

In a tavern in Ecrueagle, we met an unusual figure - a marksdwarf (dwarf crossbowman) necromancer. Kib Mastersabres looked as old as the hills, with white hair, sunken eyes, and wrinkled skin.

In fact, I actually accused him of being a night-creature! But he just laughed. Well, if you'd seen him, you'd have understood the mistake (particularly since he was wearing jewelry made from elf bones).

Quickly, I made a decision. I fired Nique, my swordsman follower who'd been so completely useless, and asked Kib to take his place. I wasn't sure if he'd accept - or if I could completely trust a necromancer follower - but he agreed, if I would promise to lead him to glory and death.

This was probably the worst decision of my life.

Anyway, my plan was to head south "about a day's travel" to Jreekus, a camp in the Drab Winter, and clear out a bunch of thieves. "Skulking villains" didn't sound too tough for our small group, right?

But halfway there, we were ambushed by a pack of wolves. Kib was closest to them and took the brunt of the assault, but as I moved up to help, Atal, our maceman,... ran away. In his panic, he ran right through the five wolves, but they ignored him completely. Cursing, I turned my anger on the wolves.

(It used to be that followers in adventure mode would charge right in towards an enemy. Now, they don't even make good meat-shields, because they just run away from every fight. This is part of a new morale character setting, apparently, but I'd say it needs work!)

Kib was nearly surrounded by wolves, and getting chewed up badly. But I figured I could lower the odds quickly enough. After I killed the first wolf, I was shocked to see the corpse stand back up and rip the throat out of a former pack-mate. Maybe having a necromancer on my side wasn't such a bad thing!

Or maybe it was. It turned out that the zombie wolves didn't much care who they attacked. They didn't appear to attack Kib, but they did snap at me if I got too close. Luckily, two of them were just re-animated heads - since I'd decapitated both wolves - so it wasn't hard to stay away from them.

(Actually, the other one was just a re-animated wolf neck - at least, according to Dwarf Fortress. It was actually the wolf neck which ripped the throat out of that other wolf. Nice trick, huh? But when I hit it with my axe, the record indicated that I'd killed a zombie wolf.)

When the pack was finally put down, I was a little worried about the remaining zombie wolves. Specifically, I was worried about what Kib would do if I attacked one of them. They weren't friendly, but they were his.

And my dwarf follower had become enraged, which also made me hesitate. But after he shot one of the zombies with his crossbow, I figured it was OK to step in and help, so I quickly... re-killed each zombie wolf or part thereof.

Kib was really a mess! One wolf had completely ripped off his lower lip, and he was chewed up pretty badly elsewhere on the face and hands, too. None of his wounds looked fatal, but he was even uglier now than when I'd first met him. The best you could say was that he... looked like a necromancer.

We had to track down Atal. I was really disgusted with him, but I still didn't want to leave him out in the wilderness all alone. Then we butchered the wolves and ate our fill of wolf meat. I took the skins, too. I figured they might be worth something (but I never found out).

A quick stop at The Luxurious Risk

We continued on, and Kib's wounds scabbed up pretty quickly. (In fact, they were just scars by the time we fast traveled a bit.) Then, we got to Jreekus, which turned out to be a kobold camp.

But there was already a battle going on. Several reindeer corpses were rampaging through the camp, killing the kobolds. We watched as a bull reindeer zombie smashed a kobold to bits, then quickly turned to charge towards us.

Atal, of course, immediately turned to run. Kib just stood there. Our necromancer didn't seem to be worried about the undead reindeer charging towards us - he never even fired a bolt at it, nor at the two undead reindeer cows which followed.

I tried to fight. That zombie reindeer was fast, so I hoped to slow it down, to cripple it, so we could get away. But it was quite agile, too. It kept jumping out of the way of my attack. And soon, the other two reindeer corpses joined him. I couldn't win this fight - certainly not all by myself!

So I started running. As the saying goes, you don't need to be faster than reindeer corpses, you just have to be faster than your companions. And I was.

Kib was still just standing there, doing nothing. As I ran on past him, so did the zombie reindeer. Maybe he didn't have anything to worry about.

To his credit, Atal had stopped running. He even seemed to be debating coming back to help. But it was far too late for that, now. "Run, you fool!" I yelled, as I swept past him. And he tried, but the dead reindeer were on him almost immediately. He didn't even get a chance to swing his mace before he was dead.

I thought I was dead, too, because I didn't have much of a headstart, and those reindeer corpses could really move! And there was just no cover at all - no trees, just windswept, snow-covered plains. I kept running, because that was all I could do. But I didn't expect it to be enough.

It worked, though. I don't know if those zombie reindeer turned back towards Kib, or if they were just distracted by poor Atal's dead body. But I soon realized they hadn't followed me.

I was on my own, now. I didn't know what had happened to Kib, but it would have been suicide to try to find out. Still, all this had happened to the north of the kobold camp, and I didn't expect there were many kobolds left. So I thought it might be safe enough to loop around to the south and approach it from that direction. If it looked too dangerous, I could just run away again.

Unfortunately, it didn't look very dangerous at all. There was only one kobold left alive, and he didn't look to be armed. He was east of the camp a ways. It looked like he'd run when the reindeer corpses had attacked his buddies.

Right now, there just seemed to be a lot of loot, completely unguarded. Oh, there was a corpse of a peregrine falcon - an animated corpse, which made me pause - but like those wolf heads I'd fought previously, it didn't seem to be able to move.

So I quickly picked through the bags and chests at the camp, collecting whatever was both light in weight and valuable. I checked the kobold bodies, too - they were wearing giant cave spider silk clothing!

But just as I turned to leave, Kib showed up - running towards me from the north like a bat out of hell. Only it wasn't Kib. It was Kib's corpse!

I suppose those reindeer zombies had killed him, after all. Something had, at least. And something had then raised him as a zombie. Unless, maybe, that's automatic when necromancers die? At this point, the question was academic. I just needed to get the hell out of there!

I ran to the south, but Kib's corpse was far faster than Kib had been. Like the reindeer corpses, he was faster than I was, even when I was sprinting as fast as I could (and I could move pretty fast, myself).

I did get a little ways south of the kobold camp before I turned to fight. I was just hoping that was far enough away that I wouldn't have reindeer zombies joining the battle, too!

It was a long battle. Kib no longer had the intelligence to use a weapon, but he seemed to be immensely strong, as well as supernaturally quick and agile. But I could still hit him with my axe. He dodged pretty well, but he couldn't dodge all of my attacks.

Unfortunately, it didn't seem to make any difference how many times I hit him. With a powerful blow to the stomach, I gutted him completely, but it didn't even slow him down. I chopped at his neck, over and over again - powerful blows, doing real damage - but I couldn't cut his head off. I couldn't even cut off his leg, though I tried, oh, I tried!

I could, and did, chop zombie Kib into hamburger, but it didn't even slow him down, let alone seem to bother him in any way. He was already dead, so he didn't feel pain, and bleeding wasn't an issue. He wasn't actually healing his injuries, but no amount of damage seemed to cause him any problem.

If I could have chopped his leg off - or his head - I could have run away, at least. But I couldn't. Heck, I even tried to start a fire, hoping to burn him up. But I couldn't do that, either - not in combat.

(This is a different kind of invulnerability from what I've encountered before. I've noted how, in Dwarf Fortress, I'll do just fine until I encounter an enemy I can't harm at all. But normally, that's because I just can't hit them. Like that goblin bowman who deflected every attack, if you can't hit them, you can't harm them.

(But I could hit Kib's corpse, and I could damage it. Badly! But it made absolutely no difference. I got damage reports that indicated I was inflicting horrendous wounds, but they didn't even slow him down.)

So I died.

As the battle went on, and on, and on, as I chopped at the zombie with increasing desperation, I'd been dodging every attack, or blocking it with my shield. Every single attack. That was the only way I could survive, and I was doing it.

Until I missed one. I failed to dodge fast enough. I missed the block. So Kib's corpse grabbed me and smashed my hip into splinters. Then he battered my head in.

RIP, Wom Mythwards.

Note: My other posts on a variety of computer games, not just Dwarf Fortress, are here.

Ferguson, Missouri, and police militarization

John Oliver just keeps getting better and better, doesn't he? One thing he doesn't mention, though, is why military gear is being distributed to police departments across America (including Ferguson's).

This almost certainly has a lot to do with the political power of military contractors and their lobbyists, don't you think?

Sure, America has far and away the biggest military in the world. And sure, we give away even more equipment, worldwide. (Thus, the terrorists in ISIS are using American armored personnel carriers and weapons, which they captured from Iraqi soldiers who just turned and ran away.)

But when it comes to making money, the military-industrial complex never thinks that enough is enough. So what better way to make more money from our tax dollars than to militarize our police forces nationwide?

The military gives away equipment, so they need to buy more of it from contractors. It's win/win for the contractors and their lobbyists. (Only America loses.)

Of course, it's different when you don't look on a whole group of people as the enemy. Here's the police at a demonstration in St. Louis:

(from Pharyngula)

But the protestors looked like this:

See a little difference from the scene in Ferguson?

The police don't have an easy job. I certainly wouldn't want to do it. And yes, it's a dangerous job, too. There are violent criminals out there. But if you're this afraid of our own people, you shouldn't be a policeman in America.

And keep in mind that you can always join the military, if you want to play with military gear. (Of course, the military won't let you behave like this towards peaceful protestors.)

Just be honest in your job interview

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Just a flesh wound...

The Ecrueagle market (Ironhand graphics set). Yeah, we finally made it there.

After two years of development, Tarn Adams has finally released a major new revision of Dwarf Fortress. (See my previous posts about this incredible - yet free - game here.)

Actually, it's been out for a few weeks, but there are always a lot of bugs with a new release, so I didn't want to jump right in. Even now, after seven or eight bug-fix updates, I figured I'd just start with adventure mode, which tends to be a much shorter game than fortress mode, the real meat of Dwarf Fortress.

(Note that the Lazy Newb Pack is no longer being updated, so I'm using Peridexis Errant's Starter Pack, which is basically the same thing (thus, my "Getting Started" post is still useful). I'm not using any of the utilities in the starter pack - I've never even tried most of them - and for this playthrough, I just picked Ironhand's graphics set at random, pretty much.

(I don't have many screenshots here, though, because the land is still covered with snow, thus it's not very colorful. Not that the graphics are much, anyway, by today's standards - but the game is developed in ASCII, so be thankful there's even this much! Still, I should have taken more screenshots. My apologies for this wall of text.)

My character is a human axeman named Wom Mythwards (the random name-generator came up with that), hearthperson of Nac Councilflax of the hamlet of Trancebolted. It's a cold land, and still very, very early spring.

My lady had a number of guards in The Accidental Lull, so I recruited two followers. Both Doñas Smithhill, who was also an axeman, and Nique Thriftystrings, a swordsman, were eager to be led to "glory and death."

I also searched through weapon and armor supplies at the fort and equipped myself almost entirely with iron armor. Unfortunately, I could find no chest armor of any kind, but both Doñas and Nique wore iron chainmail shirts and were almost exactly my size. (As you can see, I was thinking ahead.)

Then we were off in search of adventure. Now, I'd talked to my lady and her consort, so I had some idea of the troubles plaguing our land - bandits, criminals, and beasts, as well as an army marching on Hideunite. (Note that, from the conversation options I've seen so far, I still don't know if that army is friend or foe - or anything else about it, for that matter.)

However, I really felt that food was my first priority. I started with only five servings of chopped spiny dogfish liver - not my favorite food, and not nearly enough of it. :)  As an axeman with no sneaking or throwing skill, I figured that I wouldn't be too successful hunting for more, either.

So I thought we'd look around the nearby hamlets to find a shop or a market. Unfortunately, we didn't find a store of any kind, piddling away nearly the whole day before I thought to ask someone. It turned out that Ecrueagle, a "short walk" to the northwest, was the market town for the whole area.

Coincidentally - or not - that was also the town we'd heard was infested with criminals. So maybe we'd have a chance to do a little fighting, too.

By then, it was too late to get there before nightfall, when the bogeymen come out, so we stopped at a village along the way and asked permission to spend the night. The next morning, we got up early to fix breakfast, then headed on our way.

Perhaps I should mention breakfast? I built a campfire to warm up our chopped spiny dogfish liver, but I'm wondering if it might have tasted better frozen. (Either way, I was already down to just two servings left.) Our water was frozen, even in my waterskin - even after spending the night indoors! So I had to warm that up at the fire, too.

But as I say, we got an early start, and we made good time. At one point, we were slowed down at a cliff, where I had to go south to find a way down, then travel north at the bottom before finding a way up the other side.

It wasn't until we were up the other side that I realized we'd crossed a river. The ice, like everything else, had been covered in snow. (Even with a graphics pack, it wasn't very scenic.)

Then, as we were traveling through a small town, we suddenly dropped out of the fast travel map. I had a bad feeling about this! (This is how you get ambushed when using fast travel.)

There were five goblins nearby, including a bowman to the north and a crossbowman to the south. Since there was no cover at all in this windswept town, I moved towards the nearest house - and the goblins came closer.

According to the humans in the town, these goblins had been harassing people. ("A bandit gang led by Taviti Hilllaw has been harassing people on the street.") But they weren't overtly hostile to us, and we didn't see any signs of combat.

The goblins told me they were on a mission, but I couldn't figure out exactly what mission. (There are a ton of conversation options in this new version of Dwarf Fortress, but few of them tell me anything I really want to know.)

As we talked, though, they got closer and closer, getting right up in our faces. (The two ranged goblins stayed at a distance, which was also a concern.) I didn't like the situation at all, so I headed off to the east, then north around a house, leading my followers out of there.

Three of the goblins stayed right with us, though. So I tried to talk to them again. I demanded that one of them yield. He called me a coward and demanded that I yield, instead.

At this point, I discovered that my bronze great axe was still in my backpack. Heh, heh. Yeah, I'd put it away in the previous town, because the townspeople weren't eager to talk with a man who looked ready to chop their head off. And I'd simply forgotten to equip it again. (I'd also forgotten the 'q' command, which toggles drawing/sheathing your weapon. I didn't actually have to put it in my pack.)

So I took my axe in hand and things went to hell immediately. In fact, a lot of things happened before I was able to make another move, myself.

(Note: I don't know if that's because it takes a long time to remove a weapon from a backpack, or if I just hit the wrong key while trying to wade through pages of combat announcements. Either way, I wasn't entirely sure what had happened until I went back and read the announcements afterwards.)

I suppose it was my fault, because the goblin crossbowman yelled, "What is happening? Is this an attack?" when I drew my axe. Then he started yelling at my followers to yield. The goblins hadn't drawn their own weapons, but they started punching and kicking my men.

Nique, my swordsman, immediately yelled, "I yield! I yield!" Doñas was made of sterner stuff, though. "Has the tide turned?" he asked. "I laugh at the face of death."

That was the last thing he ever said, because the goblin crossbowman shot him, and when he fell to the ground, the goblin lasher smashed his head in. (Lashers wield whips, which are incredibly dangerous weapons in Dwarf Fortress.)

In explanation, the goblin crossbowman said, "Wom Mythwards demanded submission of me." And so I had. But the shit hadn't actually hit the fan until I drew my weapon. For that, I'm sorry, Doñas.

Nique was still standing frozen in place. He kept saying, "This is truly horrifying." And so it was. But I wasn't going to let the goblins get away with murder.

The goblin crossbowman was to my southwest, right next to me, but just around the corner of a building. The lasher and a sword-wielding goblin were to my north (both lying on the ground, as it turned out, because that was the only way they'd could fit in the same location). So I thought I'd try sprinting and jumping over them, so I could possibly take them from behind.

This is something new to this version of Dwarf Fortress, but it turns out that a man wearing iron armor, with a full pack on his back and carrying a great axe, can't actually jump that high. Go figure, huh? :)

As I made the attempt, the lasher rolled out of my way to the east. The goblin swordsman tried to roll away, too, but unsuccessfully. So I struck him, knocking him to the north and temporarily stunning him.

Quickly, I swung my axe at the lasher and took his head off. Then I did the same to the goblin swordsman lying stunned on the ground. Things were looking up! I was expecting a crossbow bolt in my back, but the goblin crossbowman and my remaining swordsman both seemed stunned by the violence.

So I took a quick step back to the south and knocked the goblin to the ground, then removed his head. The other two goblins - a pikeman and that bowman - were nowhere to be seen.

So I looted their corpses. :)  Ah, poor Doñas. I didn't lead him to glory, but I did lead him to death. He probably didn't expect it to be in his very first fight, though, or that he wouldn't even get a chance to bloody his axe.

Luckily, as I say, he was almost exactly my size, so I had my iron chainmail shirt now. It was rather bloody, of course, but then, everything was bloody at this point. Doñas had a gold coin on him, too, which I figured he wasn't going to need anymore. I thought about taking his iron great axe, but my bronze weapon seemed to be working just fine, so far.

Then I looted the goblins. They didn't have much, especially since I couldn't carry anything too heavy (and I wasn't willing to take their soiled underwear), but at least I had a little something to sell, if we ever found a merchant.

A food store in Ecrueagle. Note the clothing stores to the north and west. And that's a tavern - where all the noise is coming from - to the south.

With only two of us left, I figured it was time to get out of town, so I headed north. But Nique didn't follow me, so I went back for him. He was still standing in the same spot, still staring at the carnage, still muttering about how terrifying death was.

I checked him over and discovered that he had a bruised foot. A bruised foot! That was all. And he hadn't even swung his weapon! Hey, buck up, Nique. Walk it off! I didn't have the conversation option to chew him out as I wanted, or even to demand that he get moving, but when I headed off again, this time he followed me.

And this time I went south, back where we first entered the town. Maybe I was feeling cocky, but I thought the two of us could take out those two remaining goblins - assuming that's all there were, of course. (As it turned out, I came across a human maceman - Atal Wrungfortresses - who also wanted me to lead him to glory and death. So I was back to having two followers before I even spotted the remaining goblins again.)

We saw them both, and I thought I could sneak up on the bowman and get a jump on him (literally). I never saw the goblin pikeman again after that, but I did get close enough to sprint forward and jump at our ranged enemy. Unfortunately, he saw me, too, and stepped backwards, so I didn't hit him. But he was now standing at the edge of a drop-off - not a tall cliff, but not something he'd want to fall down, either.

So I swung my axe at him. He parried with his bow. I swung my axe again, and again he parried. But he also yelled out, "I yield! I yield!"

Now, that was great, but... what was I supposed to do now? He didn't drop his weapon, and I didn't seem to have any conversation options to take his surrender. So, not knowing what else to do, I demanded that he yield.

And he shot an arrow at me! Yeah, I'm standing in his face, swinging a great axe at his neck. But he's not only parrying every attack with his bow, he's actually able to shoot that bow! I dodged the arrow, but it was still quite surprising.

So I swung at him again, and again he deflected the attack with his bow. So I reached out with my left hand (my "lower left arm," technically) and grabbed the bow. I didn't have any wrestling skill, but I thought maybe I could at least prevent him from using the bow, if not pull it out of his hands completely.

But no, I didn't seem to have that combat option. I could release the bow or I could change my grip, but that was all. (I don't remember exactly how that second option was worded, just that it wasn't clear to me what it would do. But when I tried it, the result was, "You adjust the grip of your lower left arm on the Goblin Bowman's bow." Whoopee.)

[Edit: Apparently (my thanks to Migue5356), this was all because I had a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, thus I didn't have the option to use my hands when wrestling. (I'd assumed that "lower left arm" was just the weird Dwarf Fortress way of saying "left hand." I should have known better.)

[If I'd grabbed the bow with my hand, instead of my lower arm, I would have been able to Interact with it, just like when you get a weapon stuck in an enemy. And if I'd grabbed the goblin with my hand, I would have had more wrestling options, including throwing (though not the option to throw him in a particular direction, I guess). All good to know, huh?]

And when I tried swinging my weapon at him again, he still deflected the attack with that bow, even though I was hanging onto it with my left hand. [Edit: I just noticed a bug-fix today where Toady - Tarn Adams - "Stopped shared/wrestled items from being used for block/parry." Apparently, this should have worked to keep the bowman from deflecting my axe attack.]

So I also grabbed his left arm with my right hand (my "lower right arm"). There was still no option to disarm the goblin or throw him off the cliff, or anything like that. But I had one hand on his bow and the other on his arm.

So he shot me in the left lung.

Yeah, he could still use the bow, even with me hanging onto him. Apparently, the only result was that I could no longer dodge his arrows.

The arrow went through my leather coat (my leather "dress," actually, although that's another thing that doesn't make much sense, since my character is male) and through the iron chainmail shirt that I'd just taken from Doñas. (It hadn't done either of us much good, huh?)

Looking back at the combat report, I see it just "bruised" the lung (and my chest muscle). But "mortal wound" kept flashing on the screen. Apparently, I was dead and just hadn't realized it yet.

So I kept fighting. I mean, why not? If I was dying anyway, maybe I could at least take the bowman with me. But he still parried every attack I made.

Nique was finally moving close enough to maybe think about helping - throughout all this, he hadn't even swung his sword yet, but he was at least braver than our new maceman, who was nowhere in sight at this point - when the bowman wrenched free of my grip and ran off (not down the cliff, but to one side).

I tried to catch him, but with an arrow in the lung, I'd gotten winded, and I was a lot slower than I had been. I don't know what good it would have done, anyway, since I couldn't hit him. (This has been my typical experience with Dwarf Fortress adventure mode. I kill enemies right and left, until I encounter one I can't hit at all. There seems to be no middle ground. Either they're easy to kill or completely impossible - at which point they kill me.)

I still had my mortal wound, and there didn't seem to be anything I could do about that. There are doctors and hospitals in fortress mode, but there aren't even bandages in adventure mode. Technically, there are civilians with medical skills, but they don't actually use those skills for anything, as far as I know. And "mortal" seems rather final, anyway, doesn't it?

But this is Dwarf Fortress. :)  I went to fast travel again - mostly because I wanted to get my death over with - and headed north, just to the other side of town. It hadn't even been an hour, I'm sure, but when I dropped back out of the fast travel screen, I was completely healed - not even a scar to indicate I'd ever been hurt.

I don't know where the arrow went, because I hadn't thought to pull it out of my chest. But maybe, since my chest muscle and my lung were just "bruised," it hadn't actually pierced anything? Still, a flashing "mortal wound" on the screen does seem rather critical, doesn't it? Heh, heh.

OK, my character has "high toughness," which no doubt helped. But I think there's a bit of luck involved here, too. Sometimes, fast travel will cure whatever ails you. But sometimes, you're healed, but permanently impaired (like my crippled peasant here). Of course, if you lose any bits and pieces, amputation is permanent. But I was surprised to recover at all, let alone so completely, from my "mortal wound."

After that, we traveled on to Ecrueagle with no further delays, and there were lots of shops in the town. (No criminals yet, not that I've seen anyway, though we encountered a friendly - apparently - "dwarf marksdwarf necromancer" in the tavern. I tried to recruit him, but I can only have two followers until my fame goes up a bit.)

At the first clothing store, I sold the bloody clothing I'd looted from those goblins (probably too cheaply, but I didn't realize how expensive food would be). Then we bought some good food, so I'm not stuck with that chopped spiny dogfish liver.

In fact, I bought a variety: prepared giant toad brain, prepared elk bird gizzard, and prepared swan intestines. Yum, yum!

PS. Here's the sequel and conclusion to this story.

Note: My other posts about Dwarf Fortress - and other games - can be found here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

God made squirrels

Well, I announced that I was back, after my computer had been in the shop, and then I didn't post anything else for several days? I guess maybe my post was premature, huh? :)

No, my computer is working just fine. I've simply been lazy. I am, however, working on a post. Till then, maybe this will tide you over.

Any country music fans out there? :)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I'm back

I'm back!

Yeah, you didn't realize I was gone, huh? Well, my computer has been in the shop all week, and it's seemed like months to me!

Of course, it's not unusual that I skip a few days blogging, especially in the summer. And I posted a lot last weekend - mostly because I couldn't play games (video card problem).

Meanwhile, with my computer being down, you would have thought I'd be caught up on everything non-computer related, huh? If you didn't know me, I mean... :)

Well, it's certainly not going to get done now!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The war on whites

Hey, maybe I'm getting caught up? This only happened last week:
Since Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) claimed on Monday that Democrats have launched a "war on whites," he has continued to explain how he thinks Democrats inject race into political issues.

Brooks initially made the remarks on Laura Ingraham's radio show.

"This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else," he told Ingraham, referring specifically to the crisis at the border.

Brooks stood by his characterization and told Monday that Democrats have been "attacking whites based on skin color." ...

On Tuesday, Brooks told USA Today that "if you look at current federal law, there is only one skin color that you can lawfully discriminate against. That’s Caucasians — whites."

OK, this is an Alabama Republican complaining that the Democratic Party, currently led by our first black president, is waging a "war on whites." How racist can you get? (And how stupid?)

But I'm seeing this more and more in the Republican Party, and I wonder if they're not just trying to tap into that crazy "white discrimination" sentiment I blogged about in January. As I said then, it's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. But given the GOP these days, it's likely to seem like a winner within the party.

Today's Republican Party was built by deliberately wooing white racists after the Democrats made the principled and courageous decision to support civil rights in the mid-20th Century. That infuriated the southern wing of their party, the so-called Dixiecrats who'd controlled the entire South for more than a century.

This "Southern strategy" was wildly successful. All those racist Dixiecrats became Republicans, giving the GOP the political power to cut taxes on the rich and otherwise turn America to the right, economically.

But it changed the party, not just because of all the new members flooding into the GOP, but also because of the people they lost. African Americans fled the party, and so did others who were uncomfortable with the deliberate attempt to woo racists for political advantage.

As the Republican Party lost their better people, the remainder just got crazier and crazier. (Racists aren't exactly rational when it comes to other issues, either.) The party has also become older and whiter. Right now, that's leading to increasing hysteria about Hispanic immigration, among other things.

But meanwhile, demographic changes in America seem to show this as a losing strategy over the long-term. But there's not much the GOP can do about it, given their frightened and fanatic base. Even when the crazies lose a primary battle, they continue to push the party further to the right.

This "war on whites" bullshit is a perfect example. It plays well to the Republican base, but it seems crazy as hell to everyone with any sense. And non-whites in particular recognize how crazy - and how racist - it is.

But who knows? We don't have a government of the majority in America. We have a government of the minority who vote (and the even smaller minority who contribute large sums of money to candidates - Republicans continue to have a huge fund-raising advantage).

If this "war on whites" stuff can get the Republican base to the polls, they'll win elections, just because fear and anger will increase participation. It won't matter what the majority thinks, as long as the majority is too apathetic, too ignorant, or too lazy to bother.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: smarter than the National Review

Actually, I wanted to post this video, or one like it, of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Maher discussing the recent cover story about Tyson in the National Review, "Smarter than Thou."

Unfortunately, HBO seems to be pretty aggressive at keeping their material off YouTube, so the video clips don't last very long there.

It's a great clip, though, if it's still available. I'm not a huge fan of Bill Maher (only in some ways), and I think it's rather ironic that he's the one supporting science here, but he still gets things right, often enough. (Of course, he's made a career out of being provocative, and I'm wary of that business model in general.)

Anyway, the National Review cover story attacked Tyson for being "the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up “nerd” culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States."

What they mean, of course, is anyone who understands and supports science.

Now, the whole "nerd" thing pisses me off anyway. Even Tyson seems to equate understanding science to dressing up in costume at a comics convention. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's very definitely a niche interest. And science should be mainstream.

The label, "nerd," has been lavishly embraced and promoted by the entertainment industry in order to sell stupid movies and TV shows to teenagers. Although National Review calls nerds "the cool kids," that's almost as dumb as most of their beliefs.

Smart people have indeed embraced the term, but the connotation was never "cool" or "popular." To my mind, it's as stupid - and as harmful - as the media portrayal of scientists as laughable, socially awkward misfits with zero common sense.

OK, I don't really have a problem with people who embrace the term and attempt to reinvent it. But as I say, science has nothing to do with comic books, although for some reason even Tyson immediately leaps to create an impression otherwise. (He also says "Democrat," rather than "Democratic" - just like the right-wing - which is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.)

I guess I'm getting off the subject aren't I? As usual.  :)

So what is the right-wing's problem with Neil deGrasse Tyson? Bill Maher says it's because he's not just a scientist, but a black scientist - and one who's demonstrably smarter than they are. Well, I can't help but think that's a factor. Forget voting for Barack Obama; these people can't even accept our president as a "real" American.

As Washington Monthly says:
Considering National Review’s sordid race history, one can’t gainsay that point. Nor can one deny that the political right’s embrace of ignorance—what conservative writer Patrick Ruffini once called the “Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP”—is also a motivating factor in this attack; as Peter Sinclair notes, Cooke’s demonization of Tyson is reminiscent “of recent remarks by Jeb Bush that scientists and those that believe in what science says, are ‘sanctimonious.’”

It's also a simple fact that "nerds" - i.e. scientifically literate people, not necessarily comics convention fans - tend to vote Democratic. Well, today's Republican Party is faith-based, not evidence-based.

The GOP is not just scientifically ignorant, it's proudly scientifically ignorant. It's actually become anti-science, because science tends to tell them things they don't want to hear. That's why only 6% of scientists these days (as of 2009, at least) self-identify as Republican, when it used to be a pretty even split between the political parties in America.

And then there's a more specific reason for attacking anyone prominent who accepts science. From Washington Monthly, again:
Of course, there’s another pretty influential motivating factor.

For years, National Review has been heavily dependent on advertising from the fossil fuel industry; I can still recall reading the publication in the 1990s and 2000s and being stunned by the number of coal, oil and natural-gas industry ads throughout the magazine. “Doesn’t McDonald’s advertise in National Review? Or VO5 shampoo?” I’d think to myself. Flip through recent editions of National Review and you’ll be graced by Chevron’s obnoxious “We Agree” ads. ...

Tyson is saying things that the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want to hear, like climate scientist Michael E. Mann before him. So naturally, those dependent on the fossil fuel industry have to butcher him.


Now, as I said, I don't like the "nerd" stuff. I don't think it does us any good, and understanding and appreciating science should not be restricted to a minority of any kind.

Hell, we've built modern civilization on science! We should all embrace it. At the very least, it should be mainstream!

Science is not just the present, it's the future. Faith is the past. The right-wing crazies who've taken control of the Republican Party want to drag us all back into the Dark Ages. I'll take reality over fantasy any day, even if the fantasy is more pleasant, because if we start with reality, we can get better.

I have some problems with Neil deGrasse Tyson (as I do with everyone, I suppose), but they pale into insignificance next to his inspiring videos, like the one above. And I have some issues with this article in Salon, too, but it sums things up for me:
Nerds love science fiction, in part because we love the promise of the future, a promise of Star Trek abundance and material prosperity for everyone. We look at the past, at centuries that included slavery and child labor and infant mortality and Inquisitions and the lack of female suffrage, and we think, we can do better than that. We can progress.

That’s why we like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Because we believe that civilization is going somewhere, and that if the future isn’t better than the past, then we’re just wasting our time on this planet.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Helping the Yazidis

Here's the article in the New York Times:
In addition to protecting Americans in Erbil and Baghdad, the president said he had authorized airstrikes, if necessary, to break the siege on Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority group closely allied with the Kurds, have sought refuge. ...

Administration officials said on Thursday that the crisis on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq had forced their hand. Some 40 children have already died from the heat and dehydration, according to Unicef, while as many as 40,000 people have been sheltering in the bare mountains without food, water or access to supplies. ...

For Mr. Obama, the suffering of the refugees on the mountainside appeared to be a tipping point. He spoke in harrowing terms about their dire circumstances, saying thousands of people were “hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs.”

“They’re without food, they’re without water,” he said. “People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. These innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.”

As Cenk Uygur points out, the religious nuts in ISIS are a danger to all religious minorities, but especially to the Yazidis, whom they call devil-worshipers.

Guess who agrees with ISIS?

Yeah, religious nuts are everywhere, huh? (This is Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, one of our home-grown hate groups.)

Satanists cite Hobby Lobby decision


You've probably seen this, since it's more than a month old now, but just in case:
In a statement, the Satanic Temple said that it will use the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision to exempt its believers from state-mandated informed consent laws that require women considering abortions to read pro-life material. ...

Because the Satanic Temple bases its belief “regarding personal health…on the best scientific understanding of the world, regardless of the religious or political beliefs of others,” it claims that state-mandated information with no basis in scientific fact violates its “religious” beliefs.

Spokesperson Lucien Greaves said that the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision bolsters their case. “While we feel we have a strong case for an exemption regardless of the Hobby Lobby ruling,” he said, “the Supreme Court has decided that religious beliefs are so sacrosanct that they can even trump scientific fact. This was made clear when they allowed Hobby Lobby to claim certain contraceptives were abortifacients, which in fact they are not.”

The Satanic Temple set up a website where women seeking an abortion can print out a letter for her healthcare provider explaining why she is exempt from informed consent mandates.

Funny, isn't it? I've never been wild about the Satanic Temple, which is basically a religious parody created by nonbelievers. But they're starting to turn me around.

First, it was the goat-headed statue they designed for the Oklahoma state capitol. Now, it's using the terrible decision of the five right-wing Catholic men on the Supreme Court in a way that makes perfect sense, but in complete opposition to their political goal.

In both cases, being a "religion" has its advantages. Sure, freedom of religion means freedom from religion, too, if that's your choice. Nonbelievers shouldn't have to give up any rights.

But whether you can grasp that or not, it's absolutely undeniable that all religions should have equal rights in America. So these efforts by the Satanic Temple should certainly make it clear to the dullest, dumbest American that the separation of church and state is the best policy, don't you think?

Distant Worlds: Universe on hard

My empire (the green circles) in Distant Worlds: Universe

In my last post about Distant Worlds: Universe, I mentioned that I found the game a bit too easy, so I'd just started over on higher difficulty settings.

Specifically, I'd set the difficulty to "hard" and the aggression to "restless" - in both cases the next step up from "normal." I'd also set pirates to "many," though I started with an "agreeable" home system, which is slightly better than normal.

Hoo boy! That's certainly made a difference! This has been a real challenge. (Lots of fun, though.)

On the screenshot above (click to embiggen), the green circles indicate my territory. The other colors belong to other empires, except for the smaller, light-gray circles, which indicate the range of my long-range scanners.

I started in the large green circle at the top left. My people were humans living on Akthul 7, the descendants of a space-faring people from long ago. As it turned out, the very next solar system contained a human colony on Sol 2 (which I renamed "Earth"), which joined our young empire just as soon as I could get a colony ship there.

Soon afterwards, I sent a colony ship to Drumond Cass 3, which was close to both planets, and also settled another planet in our original solar system, Akthul 2. So I had human colonies on four planets of three neighboring solar systems - a very nice, compact beginning, I thought.

Of course, I'd been paying off the pirates. Pirates start the game with ships and advanced technology, and there's absolutely no way out but to pay extortion money for awhile. And there are a lot of pirates.

But I was careful not to tax my people too heavily - pirates have their sources, so they can tell when an empire has lots of cash - so this didn't cost more than I could afford. And without enemies, I could save money on defense.

That was never going to last. If nothing else, new pirate factions would keep discovering us, and I couldn't pay them all off. So I started to build a few escorts armed with rail guns. The idea was not necessarily to destroy pirate ships, since every single pirate faction had a larger military than I could afford, but at least to drive them off by damaging their ships (so they'd return to their base for repair).

About this time, one of my exploration ships stumbled upon a capital ship - a much larger ship than I could build, with more advanced technology. It was rather slow, and far from invulnerable, especially alone against a fleet, but I was very glad to have it (and even more glad that the pirates hadn't found it first!).

So when Hidden Star Ventures canceled their protection agreement, I wasn't completely helpless. They sent 12 ships to attack our mining station at Drumond Cass, but I had three escorts defending the system.

My escorts were wiped out, and so was the mining station, but the fleet was badly damaged. Better yet, the battle took long enough for me to get my capital ship and other reinforcements to the system, where we destroyed almost the entire pirate fleet. (A couple of ships limped home for repairs.)

This was the pattern for awhile. My empire was so compact that I could successfully send reinforcements whenever and wherever I was attacked, provided I had a few military ships in place to prolong the battle a bit. (At our low level of technology, my ships weren't very fast.)

My damaged ships could be repaired fairly quickly, too, while the pirates had to travel some distance to get repairs. So I played for time. My empire was getting stronger all the time. So were the pirates, true, but not as quickly - I hoped.

I was still paying off three or four pirate factions, but I'd canceled another protection agreement with the most expensive of them. Fearsome Security was very powerful, but I hadn't seen them around much. I figured it was worth the risk.

Hidden Star Ventures kept attacking my mining stations - successfully, often enough. But each time, my suicidally brave escorts would do enough damage to the fleet to drive it off. I'd still lose the mining station, and all of my escorts (they were ordered to fight to the death), but a fleet three or four times the size of my escort fleet would still have to return for repairs - what was left of it.

Again, I had a real advantage with my compact empire. I could station a few ships at each critical location and get more ships to reinforce them whenever necessary.

I couldn't match any of the pirate factions militarily, not even close. But I could quickly get ships to where they were needed, so my much smaller military could keep the pirates at bay. (My ships, which I design myself, tend to be better than the pirate ships individually, too.)

Then one of my exploration ships, investigating a rumor clear on the other side of the galaxy, stumbled upon an abandoned cruiser and a planet full of Haakonish and Naxxilian settlers (two different reptilian species) which eagerly joined our empire.

Our colony at Sukurru - completely surrounded by Haakonish Industries

Note that I didn't ask them to join us, and I had no option to refuse this honor. There were very few resources on the planet (no fuel, of course), and that lone cruiser wasn't going to be much of a defense by itself. Plus, I soon discovered that the Haakonish Industries empire was right next door!

We weren't at war, but we weren't best friends, either. I would have sold or traded the colony to them, if I'd had that option - I might even have given it to them, as a way to make friends. There was just no way I could defend a planet so far away from the rest of my holdings.

(Indeed, a pirate faction I hadn't encountered previously was very active in the area. Almost immediately, they sent a fleet to raid our new planet. So I started paying them off, too. Luckily, that didn't cost me much.)

Very soon afterwards, the same thing happened. Another explorer found a planet of humans and Naxxilians some distance to our south - not nearly as far away as Sukkuru, but not at all close, either. They, too, eagerly joined our empire.

That whole system was infested with pirates, but luckily, our two biggest enemies were fighting each other there. Thus, they left our new colony alone long enough for me to get a fleet to it - not as strong a fleet as I needed, but better than nothing.

And there were actually two inhabited planets in that system. Calipsa 2 joined us immediately, while Calipsa 1 - a volcanic planet inhabited by Shandar (a third reptilian species) - joined us after I sent a colony ship to the planet. (If I was going to have to defend one planet in the system, I might as well defend two.)

To the west - far southwest of our home system - a third explorer discovered a planet with Korabbian Spice, an extremely rare - and extremely valuable - substance which we needed to mine (and defend, naturally). Nearby was an abandoned fleet of derelicts, including a massive planet-destroyer.

Unfortunately, pirates had already discovered that enormously powerful derelict ship, and the Kennegar Mercenaries had sent a construction ship to repair it.

This faction was friendly, since we'd been paying them off from the beginning, but we certainly couldn't let them get a ship like that. On the other hand, we couldn't really afford to take them on, either - not clear out there.

Two of my construction ships repairing a fleet - but a pirate vessel is repairing the planet-buster

Suddenly, we were spread out all over the place. My nice compact empire was now scattered from one side of the galaxy to the other. We were overextended badly, but I was still managing to keep things under control. I'd increased taxes on my homeworld far more than I wanted, and I was still short of ships, but it looked doable - if barely.

Then disaster struck. A colossal quake struck my homeworld, killing billions of people, destroying the infrastructure, and opening rifts in the surface of the planet which badly damaged the environment. Tax receipts plummeted.

Keep in mind that this was the only planet I'd been taxing at all! Most of my other colonies were much too small to bother taxing. Even Earth was far, far smaller than our home planet of Akthul 7. I cranked up the taxes there, even so, but it couldn't even come close to making up the shortfall. (It did, however, stop the colony from growing as fast as it had been.)

I'd been overextended. Now, I was massively overextended. I hadn't had enough ships to defend myself against pirates. Now, I couldn't afford the ships I had. Fun, huh?

I'd been doing OK when this happened. I'd been overextended, thanks to an empire which had suddenly - and mostly without me having anything to say about it - spread out across the galaxy. But I'd had some money in the treasury.

Now, though, I was hemorrhaging red ink. I raised taxes as much as I could everywhere - pretty well putting a stop to the growth of my colonies - and I tried to cut expenses. But there wasn't much I could do, since I'd been watching my expenses very closely, anyway. (Mostly, I started disbanding army regiments.)

It's been two or three years now, and I'm still hanging in there. I've been saved mostly because of massive ship purchases by my civilian sector. I've got lots of planets now - more than any other empire - and although most of them are very small colonies, that's apparently been good for business.

So I've been making enough money at my construction yards to get by,.. so far. I'm still losing money, but not as much as I was. My homeworld is starting to recover, but very slowly. And none of my colonies are growing very fast, since taxes are so high. But I'm surviving.

I'm still hugely overextended and desperately short of money,* and every single pirate faction has been growing in power. Despite constant fighting among themselves, they've been increasing in military power faster than I have. All of them. Yeah, this game hasn't been so easy. :)

It's been lots of fun, though. Unfortunately, the game slows down when you're past the very early years. I mean, I'm still very much in the early game, but there's already so much going on that I've got the game paused most of the time. Every few seconds, something happens that I need to deal with.

Of course, I could automate more of the game, and that would help. But I'm just barely getting by as it is. In most cases, the AI simply isn't as good as a human player, so I don't like to automate very much. At lower difficulty settings, I can let the AI handle more things, but not in this game.

As I say, it's been fun. That colossal quake on my homeworld was just one of the random things that happen sometimes, but it came at a bad time for my empire. Then again, there probably wouldn't have been a good time, huh?

I'm still in the lead when it comes to other empires. It's just the pirates which are the big danger, still. (Empires start off very weak, while pirate factions start off strong. That usually changes during the game, since empires can research new technologies faster than pirates.)

If I can survive in the short-term, the long-term looks bright for the Terran Federation. But we'll just have to see...

*PS. Note that I've got technology trading turned off in this game, since it's way too easy to take advantage of the AI that way. Normally, if I got this short of money, I'd just sell some relatively- useless technology to another empire. But that option isn't available to me, now.

Note: You can find more posts about the games I play here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Benghazi? Benghazi? ... Anyone?

Fox News? What happened? All of a sudden, you've gone silent about Benghazi. Gee, I wonder why?

The good news of Ebola

Great news, huh? "Ebola could solve America's problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion."

Oh, for the good old days of plagues, huh? Don't you wish for the Black Death to come again? That killed 30-60% of Europe's entire population - men, women, and children - not to mention millions more elsewhere in the world.

Of course, good Christians wouldn't have been affected by that, right? Apparently, Europe just had lots and lots of gay pornographers back then.

Maybe this is why these religious nuts are anti-science? Modern medicine finds ways to fight disease, while these crazy Christian fanatics positively yearn for a global pandemic.

The Unholy Trinity Tour: Matt Dillahunty, Seth Andrews, and AronRa

Matt Dillahunty, Seth Andrews, and AronRa - all former believers, now atheist activists - have recently come together to speak on the "Unholy Trinity Tour." I've watched them all on YouTube videos, but it would still be neat to hear them in person, wouldn't it?

This is Matt Dillahunty, speaking at Amarillo, Texas, in March. As you probably know, he's a host of the Atheist Experience TV showPart 2 features Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist, and Part 3 AronRa. (I haven't had time to watch the third video yet, but I'm sure it's just as good as the first two.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Two by Kate Griffin

(cover image from

These are two books by Kate Griffin I read a few weeks ago. Yes, I'm that far behind in posts here. So I'll make this quick.*

The Neon Court (2011) is the third in her Matthew Swift series of the sorcerer who returned from death, thanks to the blue electric angels of the telephone wires who now inhabit his body. (See my reviews of her earlier books - and books by other authors - here.)

As of the previous book in the series, he's also the Midnight Mayor of London. Now he gets summoned - literally - to a blood-drenched, burning office tower, which leads to a war between two magical factions and a night that might never end.

Like the previous books, this is very entertaining,... and also quite dark. Indeed, it's even darker than the previous two books. Oddly enough - because that's not my style - I still enjoyed it.

OK, time for an extended digression:

There's a big difference between science fiction and fantasy which is abundantly clear in this book - and it's one big reason why I prefer the former.

Science fiction doesn't have to be optimistic, but there's usually a sense that progress is at least possible. After all, technology is democratic. You don't have to be anyone special, because nearly everyone has the capability to use, create, and even invent technology.

Science and technology are connected to the past by a long line of discoveries and advances. All you have to do is look back to see how far we've come, and it's pretty easy to expect that trend to continue in the future, as we continue to educate human beings and learn more about our universe.

Of course, there may be setbacks. Dystopias frequently demonstrate what can go wrong. But we readers, at the very least, can certainly see that progress is possible. Indeed, dystopias are usually just cautionary tales from people who do expect progress, or at least hope for it.

Fantasy tends to be very different. For one thing, it's usually aristocratic, rather than democratic. Magic is normally something you're born with. You're either a Muggle or you're not. If you don't have any magical power, there's nothing you can do about it.

You can be trained if you've got the innate ability, and training does help a great deal. But only if you're already magical to begin with. And even then, different people have different degrees of magical power,... innately. This, too, tends to run in families, but even when it doesn't, you're still stuck with what you're born with.

Furthermore - and I'm talking about this fantasy series in particular now, though it might apply more generally than that - there's no sense of progress. Good people can fight evil, but evil will always exist. Whether you're talking about evil people being born with powerful magical abilities or about evil existing as an inherent part of life, as in The Neon Court, the best you can do is just fight it when you can.

After you're gone, things will be no better. Of course, if evil wins, things will be a lot worse. It's commonly a given in fantasy that losing will be absolutely catastrophic. But winning just means that you and your society live to fight the next battle. In this book, and others, there's no sense that progress is even possible.

I don't know if these are two separate things - democratic vs aristocratic and the whole idea of progress - or not. Technology has had a democratic influence in human societies, especially after peasants could be handed a musket and be trained as soldiers in a matter of months (instead of the born warriors who dominated previously).

And social progress tends to follow technological progress. Maybe it's not inevitable, but I doubt if you can have one without the other.

Well, I've gotten completely off the subject, haven't I? Let me just say that The Neon Court is dark, not just because of what happens in the book, but also because it's clear than progress isn't possible in that world. The dangers are always going to be there, and there's really nothing anyone can do about it.

(cover image from

Since the Matthew Swift series is so dark, it seems rather surprising to me that Griffin has created a humorous offshoot of it, her Magicals Anonymous series which starts with the book, Stray Souls (2012).

Don't get me wrong, Stray Souls is fairly dark, too. But it also tries very hard to be funny (too hard, really).

Sharon Li is an untrained shaman with a messed-up life who creates a Facebook page for magical misfits and then gets involved in fighting a deadly danger to all of London. (Matthew Swift is a minor character in this book.) Of course, her diverse group of weird characters are the key to saving the city.

OK, the book was fun enough, but Griffin really seemed to be trying too hard. Whether it's the failed druid with psychosomatic asthma attacks or the vampire germaphobe or the troll gourmet, it's as if she made a list of the weirdest characters she could think of.

Many of them are more pathetic than funny, really, and that includes Sharon, herself. Plus, with people being killed in disgusting ways, this series is also surprisingly dark. It's a weird combination.

Maybe this was meant to be a young adult book. That wouldn't surprise me. And it's not that I didn't find it entertaining,... but I doubt if I'll continue with the series. It just didn't work for me. I love humorous fiction, and even humor in serious fiction, but the author just seemed to be trying too hard in this one.

I might continue with the Matthew Swift series, but I'm not sure. My big problem is that it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Swift doesn't seem to have a personal life - not with anyone who isn't quickly killed. OK, his apprentice is a possible exception to that, but...

My big problem is still the lack of progress. In this case, it's that Swift's life doesn't seem to progress, but the overall situation doesn't progress, either. Nothing changes, so every book is much like the others. Is the overall story going somewhere? Not that I can see. And that's a problem for me in a series like this.

Matthew Swift doesn't have enough of a personal life for me to remain interested in his own story. And nothing else seems likely to change much, either. For the first two books, I was OK with that. But by the time we get to the third, I guess I expect to see progress of some kind.

*PS. You didn't actually believe that, did you?
Note: My other book reviews are here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Native advertising

This guy is great, isn't he?

John Oliver did a superb job taking over for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show last year, and he seems to be even better on his own show.

I don't get HBO, so I'm very glad these clips are on YouTube. (Here's the link to his channel.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

CEO pay - a massive scam?

There might be several reasons for this. We've long known, for example, that people tasked with interviewing and hiring applicants for a job - any job, not just a CEO position - generally have a greatly inflated sense of their ability to choose good people.

Research shows that they don't add much, if anything, to a company's chances of getting a good employee, but they think they do. I suppose this applies as much to the CEO as any other position. (And if the CEO is expensive, he must be good, huh?)

But mostly, it's because everyone involved has an incentive to keep CEO pay as high as possible. The directors of corporations are often paid very, very well for doing almost nothing at all. (Indeed, they frequently just rubber-stamp what the CEO is doing.)

They have no incentive to rock the boat and risk their lucrative position. Many are CEOs themselves, or at least want to be, someday. But they're all in that class of people who think that executives are important and lesser employees just interchangeable parts.

I suppose it's prestigious, too, when you have the most expensive CEO. You must be doing something right if you've paid that much for someone to lead the company, right? And that expectation of high pay tends to translate into higher pay for other top executives and for the board of directors, too (but certainly not for the rank-and-file employee).

So the people making these decisions are the people who benefit themselves, in one way or another, from the culture of exorbitantly high CEO pay. Is it any wonder that CEO compensation has skyrocketed (for no benefit to the company, as that devastating graph shows so clearly)?

But CEO pay is even a bigger scam than that. Often, there are "golden parachutes" - or other severance packages - in a CEO contract, which mean that the CEO makes out like a bandit even if he does so poorly he gets fired by the corporation.

Obviously, a CEO would prefer to do well, if only for the prestige. And no one wants to lose his job. But that's the whole point. This makes it less likely that the CEO will be fired, just because the corporation will have to pay him millions of dollars anyway. (Not that the directors necessarily care about that, but this would make them look bad, too.)

Frequently, these are set up to protect a CEO from losing his job in the event of a merger. (Of course, no one would even think of such protections for other employees. In fact, part of the expected benefit of mergers is that they'll be able to fire so many employees afterward.)

But then, kickbacks - excuse me, "retention bonuses" - are also common in mergers. You either bribe a CEO so he doesn't kick up a fuss, or you promise him a position in the merged company (basically, another form of bribery).

Again, only the people in charge of a corporation have anything to say about this, and that's certainly not the rank-and-file employees. Thus, the effect of a merger on rank-and-file employees is ignored (if it's not, as I noted, a positive benefit that many of them will lose their jobs).

But the reason why this is a scam is because none of this tends to benefit the shareholders - you know, the people who are actually supposed to own the company. In corporate America, there's a huge difference between ownership and control. It's the people who control the company who call the shots, and they may or may not own very much of it at all.

These days, with so many of us owning shares of mutual funds in our retirement plans, our "ownership" ends up filtered through multiple organizations. You probably don't even know what companies you, technically, "own" shares of, nor do you have any idea how your mutual fund is voting "your" shares.

It's bad enough for a small shareholder who owns stock directly, but it's even worse if you own stock mutual funds. You have zero control over what you, technically, "own." And the people who do control it tend to have very different interests. Their priority is to keep their own high-paying jobs - and to get as much out of them as possible.

Naturally, it's usually beneficial if the corporation's stock does well, too. But that's seldom the most important thing to the people running it. And even when it is, it's invariably the short-term results that matter. What happens in the long-term, as a result of your actions, makes no difference at all if your pay is based on short-term results (or if you won't be at the company long enough for the long-term results to matter).

Yeah, this is sort of like politicians not looking past the next election, huh? But I won't get into that right now.

This is the article Cenk Uygur is talking about:
Indeed, even when companies boast that they tie executive compensation to company performance, the country’s largest companies routinely game those systems to ensure they get their bonuses and payouts, such as setting targets so low as to be meaningless or fluffing up their reported profits. In one example, Walmart US CEO William Simon was only supposed to get a $1.5 million bonus last year if net sales grew by 2 percent, but he got it anyway when sales only grew by 1.8 percent because the company calculated “adjusted” sales at the necessary rate. Worse, out of the highest-paid CEOs over the past 20 years, nearly four in ten were fired, caught committing fraud, or oversaw a company bailout. Incompetence doesn’t stand in the way of a big payday.

There’s even evidence that paying chief executives lavishly can backfire. Shareholders at the companies that pay their CEOs the most get the worst results, with an average shareholder loss of $1.4 billion. That’s because exorbitant pay breeds overconfidence, leading to bad decisions about weak performance.

None of these findings have kept CEO pay in check. Median chief executive pay jumped above eight figures for the first time last year, hitting $10.5 million. The average pay package was $15.2 million, a 21.7 percent increase since 2010. Workers’ compensation, on the other hand, actually fell during that period, and the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 295.9-to-1 last year. Over the last 30 years, chief executive pay has risen 127 times faster than worker pay despite the fact that workers’ productivity has kept increasing.

Uygur was wrong about one thing, though. At the very end of this video, he talks about taxpayers "bailing out" the shareholders. Sorry, but that's a common misconception. Our government "bailed out" corporations, keeping them afloat so our overall economy wouldn't crash and burn, but the shareholders didn't benefit any more than the rest of us.

Again, this is the difference between control and ownership, although all - or almost all - of the employees of these companies benefited, because they kept their jobs. Other companies which did business with those corporations also benefited. And local governments certainly benefited by keeping those people employed and tax money coming in.

But the shareholders lost bigtime. Of course, they were going to lose in any case. If the company had dissolved into bankruptcy, their shares wouldn't have been worth anything then, either. But that "bail out" term is misleading - even to many shareholders.

I have a distant relative - a Republican, of course - who remains angry that his General Motors stock was worthless after the government "bail out." Um, no. Sorry. The executives of General Motors - most of them - got to keep their jobs, as did the other employees, and the company remains in operation. But you don't own the company anymore.

Frankly, if you don't understand that, you shouldn't be investing in stocks in the first place. In a bankruptcy - which was inevitable here - the owners of common stock almost always lose everything. (Creditors can't come after you for anything else, though, which is why the corporate structure is so attractive to investors.)

Bond holders lose, too, to a greater or lesser extent. Of course, in a bankruptcy, all this would be settled by the court,... eventually. But with our economy crashing down around us, we simply couldn't afford to let our banking industry and our automobile industry stop functioning entirely. You think the Great Depression was bad?

The so-called "bail out" kept these corporations running. It kept the employees from losing their jobs - even the executives, in most cases. So, yes, many of the people who caused the problem benefited from government action. That's a shame. But I've never been a big fan of cutting off my nose to spite my face.

Stock market investors in general benefited greatly, too. Shortly after Barack Obama took office (in early March, 2009, to be precise), Wall Street stopped panicking and stock prices turned around. We've been in a booming market ever since.

The people who owned shares of the "bailed out" corporations lost money, but that money was lost, anyway. And as long as they owned other stock, too, they benefited hugely by the rebound. Well, as long as they hadn't sold their shares in a panic (perhaps because they listened to wrong-headed right-wing pundits?).

The other thing to remember is that the people who owned shares of these banks when they were committing fraud on the America people are not necessarily those who owned shares during the crash.

Shares are bought and sold all the time, and if share prices collapse, you'll often see a big swing in ownership, as some people sell at a loss - worried about losing even more if they don't - while vulture investors, or other people making a bet that things will turn around, buy at what they think is a cheap price.

After all, for every buyer, there's a seller, and vice versa. Half of those people are going to be wrong. If we only knew which half, huh? :)