Thursday, January 31, 2013

The uprising of the young atheists

This is Hemant Mehta at FreeOK2012, the 2012 Oklahoma Freethought Convention.

Frankly, I'm still a little blown away by the fact that there is an Oklahoma Freethought Convention. Indeed, just the fact that many atheists are 'out,' all across the nation, is pretty encouraging. Certainly, my own experience, up through high school, at least, was very different.

And yes, this is about young atheists. After all, there's nothing worse as a kid than being different - than being seen as different by your classmates, certainly. We're social animals, and we generally want to fit in. If you don't, you're likely to be the perpetual target of bullies.

But you don't have to fit in with everyone in your school or your town. As long as you have some social support, some community, some niche, it's OK. So, for atheist students, who're almost certainly going to be a minority, these groups are very important.

It's encouraging to see such progress, don't you think?

The Nuevo Deal

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I thought this was very funny, but I don't think I agree with it. Oh, sure, this supposed change of heart by the GOP is definitely a "craven political calculation." Even Republican politicians admit that.

And there's a real question whether they can pull it off, too. But that's just because their own base might not be willing to go along with it.

Immigration is a hot-button issue on the right, at least in part because Republican politicians have been creating and encouraging that environment of hysteria and fear for their own political advantage. To switch arguments, suddenly, when the opposite tack becomes more favorable politically,... well, I'm not sure how they'll pull that off.

After all, if the Republican base were reasonable, we wouldn't have these problems. Or we'd have far fewer of them, at least. And the Republican base is unreasonable precisely because Republican leaders deliberately wooed such people (most notably, in their notorious 'Southern strategy').

However, if they can do it, if they can keep the party faithful in line - and Republicans are a lot better at obeying authority and marching in lockstep than Democrats - it will work, at least to some extent. Let's not be so naive as to think otherwise.

The right-wing has a lot of experience in divide-and-conquer politics, encouraging various minority groups to fight among themselves. They've encouraged African Americans to fight gay marriage in California. They've encouraged union workers to oppose immigration reform (and to oppose civil rights before that). They're very good at driving wedges between different Democratic constituencies.

And these minority groups, just like everyone else, are composed of individual people with diverse interests and concerns. It's kind of funny, but liberals seem prone to seeing such groups as monolithic almost as much as conservatives do. Forget that. It's just not true.

Hispanics may not, overall, like the bigotry they see in the Republican Party, but some of them do hold 'conservative' economic views. Many are Catholic and hold 'conservative' positions on social issues, too. (I use quotes, because I have a hard time understanding how these things are 'conservative' at all.) It's not for nothing that Karl Rove dreamed of creating a permanent Republican majority with Hispanic Americans.

And that dream isn't necessarily dead, either. He failed because that crazy GOP base, useful in so many ways, turned out to have a political downside. But there's a lot of money available to fix such problems - or pretend to, at least.

Let's remember our history. African Americans used to favor the Republican Party, back when the segregationist Dixiecrats controlled the South. The Republican's 'Southern strategy' of deliberately wooing white racists gained them those Dixiecrats, but lost them the (much smaller) African American vote.

But despite the political dominance that gave the GOP, they never even attempted to bring back segregation. Indeed, Republicans leaders and Republican platforms never fail to support civil rights for racial minorities.

Polls show that many southern Republicans still think that interracial marriage should be illegal (yup, they don't just think that it's wrong, but that it shouldn't even be legal in America), but you won't find a Republican leader saying that. Conservatives recognize that they lost that battle, just like they lost the battles over slavery and women's suffrage.

And they're quickly - surprisingly quickly - losing the battle over gay rights, too. When they're reduced to fighting against gay marriage on the basis that only heterosexuals can get drunk and accidentally produce a baby from a one-night stand, you know they've got nothing left. And the trend of public sentiment is very clear.

This is going to end up like segregation. A lot of Republicans will still be bitterly opposed to gay rights, but party leaders and party platforms will change. It's almost inevitable. And then you'll start to see more gay Republicans.

You may think that hasn't worked with African Americans, but give it time. 93% of any group voting for one particular political party is not sustainable. That 'Southern strategy' made a huge difference in black voting patterns, and rightly so. But as old white men die off - even in the South - those old opinions are dying, too.

Republicans don't, after all, have to win a majority of African American and Hispanic votes, but just chip away at the Democrats' advantage. As I say, 93% is not sustainable, so it's almost guaranteed they can pick up black votes, once Barack Obama has left office. (His presidency has really exposed the racism in the GOP, which is why they've lost ground recently.)

The Democratic advantage with Hispanics isn't nearly as pronounced, but the reason for it isn't so dramatic, either. Karl Rove wasn't so very wrong in hoping to appeal to conservative Hispanics, and some movement on immigration reform - even if it's still opposed by rank-and-file Republicans - might pay real dividends.

Republicans are losing women, too, but not hugely. Most American women, like most American men, don't pay much attention to politics, and low-information voters are ideal for Republican advantages in the news media and with big-money - and often anonymous - political donations.

I mean, how hard is it to just stop talking about rape? These people don't have to change their views, they just have to stop admitting them. Really, if you plan a career in politics at all, you should learn how to talk without saying anything, don't you think?

Keep in mind that these are the same people who thought that deliberately wooing racists for political advantage was a good idea. These are also the same people who've been working to suppress voting by making it harder to register and harder to vote.

These are the same people who are currently working to change the electoral college system - in just a handful of blue states, not everywhere - in order to ensure a permanent Republican presidency even when they lose an election. Indeed, these are the same people who've already manipulated district lines to keep control of the House of Representatives, despite losing the election by more than a million votes.

So what won't they do to maintain power? Do you really think they'll draw the line at pretending to change? And if not, do you really think that all Americans - even Americans in Democratic-leaning constituencies - are smart enough and informed enough to see through it?

To me, that seems like wishful thinking. But I hope I'm wrong.

The last, feeble case against marriage equality

I stole my title from Andrew Sullivan because that really seems to describe it, don't you think? How badly are you grasping at straws when you're reduced to arguing that gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married because they're too responsible?

Yeah, straight people can get drunk and knock out a baby from a one-night stand,... so only they deserve marriage? That's your argument?

Here's Jonathan Chait:
But if you’re a lawyer defending a gay-marriage ban in court, you need an actual legal reason for your position. This was the unenviable spot in which Paul Clement found himself recently, defending the House Republican opposition to gay marriage before the Supreme Court. Clement developed a reputation as a right-wing superlawyer for his work in transforming the legal challenge against Obamacare from a no-hope libertarian crusade into very, very nearly the law of the land. It’s a measure of the hopeless illogic of the case against gay marriage rather than Clement’s lack of skill that the best legal case he could come up with was … well, it wasn’t good:
Marriage should be limited to unions of a man and a woman because they alone can "produce unplanned and unintended offspring," opponents of gay marriage have told the Supreme Court.

By contrast, when same-sex couples decide to have children, "substantial advance planning is required," said Paul D. Clement, a lawyer for House Republicans.

So the problem here is that you can’t discriminate against people without good cause. You need some distinction to justify it. The traditional distinction that straight people raise kids doesn’t work, since gay couples can do that too. So Clement fell back on arguing that only straight couples have unplanned children. Gay couples don’t get drunk and wake up pregnant. It is, to say the least, ironic that after years of using alleged gay social irresponsibility as a rationale for discrimination against gays, heterosexual irresponsibility is now a rationale for discrimination against gays.

Note that this isn't a slam-dunk in the Supreme Court, since the court is packed with far-right Republicans. This will almost certainly be another 5-4 decision, and we've seen some terrible decisions out of this court already.

I can't imagine that any of the Democrats on the court will accept arguments as bad as this. And, indeed, there don't seem to be any better arguments which can be made. But I'd be very surprised if at least four of the Republicans on the court didn't support House Republicans on this, no matter what. And it wouldn't surprise me at all if all five went along with it.

However, when your arguments get this bad, it's pretty clear that you've got nothing, don't you think? This really is the last, feeble case against marriage equality. No matter what the Supreme Court decides, I don't expect the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to last too much longer, or California's Prop 8, either.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Closing Gitmo's... office on closing Gitmo

Stephen Colbert was really on a roll last night, wasn't he?

As an American, I'm horribly embarrassed by Gitmo (obviously, I mean our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay), and I'm disappointed that Barack Obama didn't work harder to close it.

But I suppose that, between obstructionist Republicans in Congress and cowardly Democrats pretty much everywhere, there wasn't much chance. There certainly seems to be no chance now.

Early in his first term, though, what would have happened if Obama had led on this issue (and on many others)? What if he'd told Congress specifically what he wanted - again, on this issue and many others - and then used the bully pulpit of the presidency to push for it?

He might have failed, true. But so what? He failed anyway. Unfortunately, instead of leading, he left it up to Congress. He left all too much up to Congress. He failed to see that Republicans would oppose him no matter what - even when he adopted a Republican health care plan, for chrissake - not because of what he proposed, but of who he was.

And he failed to see that Democratic politicians have no spine whatsoever, especially if you give the big money interests time to organize to fight something. A few anonymous political ads and most Democrats will quickly cry uncle. It's no guarantee even if you get them all on board immediately, with a clear goal and a specific roadmap to get there,... but at least that gives you a chance.

At this point, it's simply impossible. It's hard to get any bills through Congress, let alone bills which free us from the idiotic requirements they've already passed. (Should Barack Obama have vetoed those bills? Unfortunately, there are bad things in every bill, so that's always a judgment call - a very difficult judgment call.)

But Gitmo was and is a symbol of the worst excesses of the George W. Bush administration, the worst excesses of our "war on terror" - excesses caused by America's hysterical, irrational fear (ironically, exactly what terrorism is aimed at creating). This is where we lost our way. This is where we lost our honor. This is where we lost any special standing in the world.

Not just there, obviously. But there's no better symbol of our failures as a nation than Gitmo. And it's a clear symbol to the rest of the world - especially the Muslim world - too.

As an American, I'd rather we be symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, not the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. But I guess we're stuck with both of them now, huh? How does that make you feel?


The Confederacy just keeps trying, doesn't it? First, the issue was keeping black people as slaves. Then, it was keeping black people segregated from "real" Americans - keeping them from water coolers, schoolrooms, and voting booths alike.

And now, it's that black man in the White House. What's a racist to do?

But it's not just Mississippi trying to "nullify" federal laws. To my embarrassment, I see that Nebraska is included on Stephen Colbert's map. Well, we seem more like the Deep South here all the time.

In the late 20th Century, with the old-time Dixiecrats taking over the Republican Party, joining with the John Birchers after the GOP's 'Southern strategy' put all of our crazies into one basket, the entire party became an offshoot of the same kind of thinking America has struggled to rise above since our founding.

The South had been solidly Democratic for more than a century - since before the Civil War, in fact. But the Dixiecrats were increasingly unhappy with northern Democrats who tended to favor civil rights for racial minorities. (In fact, they ran Strom Thurmond, on a segregationist platform, as a third party candidate for president in 1948 and nearly cost Harry Truman the election.)

After Texas Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, outlawing state-sponsored racial segregation, Republican leaders saw their chance. In their notorious 'Southern strategy,' they deliberately worked to attract white racists, to resounding success. They quickly took the entire South and have used that political power ever since to drag America to the right.

But the Confederacy is now the Republican base. Today, there's no part of our country as solidly Republican as the Deep South, and that gives white southerners a lot of power. Unfortunately, their kind of thinking isn't restricted to the South (nor are all southerners alike, of course).

In many ways, this is the same kind of thinking which fought to retain slavery, which opposed letting women vote, which kept even freed African Americans from opportunity for more than a hundred years. They push states rights only because they don't have a majority in America.

They're also busy trying to find other ways to keep political power as a minority in our country. Note that, thanks to gerrymandering, Republicans are still solidly in control of the House of Representatives (by more than 30 votes), despite losing the popular vote by more than a million in the last election.

The Senate stays closely divided because rural states, far lower in population than urban states, get the same two senate seats. That gives a lot more political power, per capita, to rural Americans than to urban Americans (one reason why the farm lobby is so powerful - and the NRA, too).

And Republicans are now working to suppress voting - to make it harder even to register to vote - and working on schemes to change the electoral college, in blue states only, to guarantee a permanent Republican presidency, despite losing the popular vote. Well, if they can't convince you, they'll take power any way they can.

So far, secession talk has only been talk, this time. But there's certainly been a lot of violent rhetoric from the right, hasn't there? I wonder if they really are willing to take power any way they can.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I'm back

Yesterday morning, I suddenly discovered I had no internet access. Then I discovered I had no telephone service. (Yes, I'm one of those few remaining Luddites who doesn't have a cell phone and doesn't want one.)

It turned out that contractors working in the alley had cut my underground phone line. And yes, they knew ahead of time that they were going to cut it. This wasn't an accident. The line was clearly flagged, though that was hardly necessary. When the telephone junction box is on one side of your trench and a house is on the other, you are going to cut the service cable.

I know how it is (I used to work for the electric utility here), and I completely understand it. Avoiding the cable would add a lot of work - hard manual labor with a shovel - to something which would be a lot easier and quicker without it. So why not just make a "mistake" and cut the cable, then let the phone company fix it later?

And this wouldn't have bothered me in the least if they'd warned me first - especially since they weren't planning to have it repaired that same day. But OK, it wasn't such a big deal. They were apparently working on my neighbor's sewer line, and it didn't look like it would affect me much, other than that.

But I went back to check on them in the afternoon and discovered another surprise. They'd dug a trench completely across my driveway, blocking my pickup from leaving the garage. And at 3 PM, they were nowhere around. They'd already left for the day, leaving me without communication and transportation.

I had no idea when they'd be back, or who they were, or anything. They finally showed up again, sometime after 10 AM this morning (bankers' hours, or just a long commute?), but I still don't know who they work for. After asking several times and getting a deliberately mumbled response, I gave up.

Why didn't they tell me what they were planning to do? Why didn't they warn me? Well, it wasn't their problem, was it? And they're private contractors. (You can't get away with something like this when you work for the government.) It hadn't been obvious that they were going to block my driveway. In fact, they'd looked like they were finished digging when I'd seen them that morning.

Oh, well, they're still working out there (working much later today - I hope that's a good sign), but at least they got the phone company to hook me up again. I still don't have a vehicle, but that's just a good excuse to stay home and play computer games, right?

It's supposed to turn colder here, with a 100% chance of snow tonight, so I was going to buy groceries while it was still nice. (One of the many good things about being retired is that you don't have to go anywhere when the weather is bad.) But what can you do? I'm OK, anyway. Given all the food I've got in the house, I certainly won't starve.

But I have to admit that it is good to be connected to the world again. I still don't want a cell phone, though. After all, it's not as though I live in the middle of the wilderness. From what I hear, some people even walk places! But that's just hearsay, and I'm not sure I believe it, myself. :)

Monday, January 28, 2013

The price of Palin

From TPM:
Over the course of three years as a Fox News paid contributor -- earning a reported $1 million a year -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made $15.85 per word, according to a study from the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics published Monday:
A Smart Politics review of the more than 150 FOX broadcasts in which Sarah Palin appeared as a paid commentator from 2010 through 2012 finds that she spoke 189,221 words on air during this span, for an average pay rate of $15.85 per word.

According to the study, Palin appeared on the network in some form an average of once every 7.2 days. Most of her appearances were on "Hannity" or "On the Record w/ Greta Van Susteren."

Nice gig if you can get it, huh? For money like that, it's no surprise that Sarah Palin quit as Alaska's governor after serving only one-half of one term. Well, John McCain made her a right-wing celebrity, and she's been milking that for all it's worth. (Her whole family has been milking it, in fact.)

Fox 'News' hired her for the same reason they hire so many other Republican politicians. Of course, as Republican as they are at Fox, money still trumps politics. Palin was very popular with their intended audience, but now she's fading from the limelight.

But I don't know. Real Clear Politics reports that Fox 'News' offered Palin a new contract, but that she declined. Of course, we don't know how much money they were offering with that one. Or it might be that once a week just isn't enough exposure to keep a celebrity a celebrity.

On the other hand, if you want to be a right-wing celebrity, you need to be on Fox, one way or another, don't you think? Look at Glenn Beck. (Note that Rush Limbaugh predated Fox. He had an established audience before Fox even existed, which is probably why he's an exception.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Secret donors fight the Hagel nomination

From the New York Times:
A brand new conservative group calling itself Americans for a Strong Defense and financed by anonymous donors is running advertisements urging Democratic senators in five states to vote against Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, saying he would make the United States “a weaker country.”

Another freshly minted and anonymously backed organization, Use Your Mandate, which presents itself as a liberal gay rights group but purchases its television time through a prominent Republican firm, is attacking Mr. Hagel as “anti-Gay,” “anti-woman” and “anti-Israel” in ads and mailers.

Those groups are joining at least five others that are organizing to stop Mr. Hagel’s confirmation, a goal even they acknowledge appears to be increasingly challenging. But the effort comes with a built-in consolation prize should it fail: depleting some of Mr. Obama’s political capital as he embarks on a new term with fresh momentum.

Note that these groups are trying to persuade Democratic senators, not Republicans. And they're doing that, at least in part, by pretending to be Democrats, by pretending to be liberals.

They can do this because it's all anonymous. Their funding comes from secret donors. Their backers are all unknown to anyone outside the organization. Even the IRS is kept in the dark when it comes to these groups.

And if they fail, which they probably will, it's OK, because the effort will still weaken Barack Obama - which is the whole point. After all, these are almost certainly the same people who spent big to defeat Obama in November, too.
The media campaign to scuttle Mr. Hagel’s appointment, unmatched in the annals of modern presidential cabinet appointments, reflects the continuing effects of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which loosened campaign finance restrictions and was a major reason for the record spending by outside groups in the 2012 election. All told, these independent and largely secretly financed groups spent well over $500 million in an attempt to defeat Mr. Obama and the Democrats, a failure that seemed all the greater given the huge amounts spent.

While the campaign against Mr. Hagel, a Republican, is not expected to cost more than a few million dollars, it suggests that the operatives running the independent groups and the donors that finance them — many of whom are millionaires and billionaires with ideological drive and business agendas that did not go away after the election — are ready to fight again.

This is all thanks to that terrible Citizens United decision by the five Republicans on our Supreme Court (note that all four Democrats on the Court opposed it): huge sums of cash from secretive groups, funded by anonymous millionaires and billionaires, who pretend to be someone else in order to push their own secretive political goals.

As the article points out, this effort is "unmatched in the annals of modern presidential cabinet appointments." But we're on uncertain ground here anyway. All of this is unmatched, because we've never allowed such an open-season for political corruption, especially not from anonymous sources.

And it's not just individuals, either. Well, it is, because individuals make the decisions. But these people don't even have to use their own money, not if they control corporate coffers, because Citizens United opened the door to that, too. CEOs can donate corporate money while keeping it a secret from the corporation's shareholders (who supposedly own that money) and customers alike.

If you own any stock or mutual funds - say, in an IRA or other retirement plan? - that could be your money they're using to buy or attack politicians, for their own secretive purposes, and they don't even have to tell you about it.

And to add insult to injury, since it's all anonymous, they can pretend to be anyone they like. They can pretend to be you - or people like you - while they're using your money to oppose everything you favor.

This is what the Republicans did to us - or, rather, what we did to ourselves by electing Republicans. Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, so two of the five are still from Ronald Reagan's presidency. (And George W. Bush's two appointments are still young men, likely to be making similar terrible decisions for a long, long time.)

We haven't seen the worst of this, not yet. Right-wing groups are still coming to grips with the possibilities (such as pretending to be someone else while they attack from the left, as well as from the right). And the hundreds of millions of dollars they spent in 2012 is likely only the start.

And sometimes I love it

This is a follow-up to my previous post, Sometimes I hate my hobby - but, despite the title, it's not exactly going to express a contrary opinion.

I frequently blog about computer games, and I hope it's clear why I enjoy them. Of course, I always point out what I don't like, even when I love a particular game, overall. And there are plenty of games which simply aren't for me.

Generally speaking, video games tend to be incredibly dumb. I can't deny that. Often, they're misogynistic, and they're nearly always violent. Sometimes, they glorify in both misogyny and violence, and they can be so über-macho as to be positively homoerotic.

All this is true. But what saves the game industry - for me, at least - is not just the great games, not just the games which rise above such things, but the commentary by my fellow gamers which points out such absurdity.

I showed an example of that in my last post, and here's another. Note that I haven't played Far Cry 3. I tried the original Far Cry (because I got it free when I bought a new video card one time), but it wasn't for me, mostly because I was so very, very bad at it.

I mean, I can't comment on the game itself, because I was so inept at the combat that I barely started it before giving up. (That was before I started playing such games on Easy mode, which might have helped.)

But if you're curious about Far Cry 3, you might check out this video clip. Lumin is always entertaining, and he makes most games look appealing. (Note his exclamation at 03:15: "Oh, oh! What did I hit? Please tell me it was a person." Lumin doesn't mind killing people in games, but he's very squeamish about killing animals. Funny, huh?)

Certainly, the graphics in Far Cry 3 are incredible. The game was one of the top titles in 2012, a mainstream game from one of the biggest game developers in the world, almost certainly costing hundreds of millions of dollars to create.

But I'm here to point out this commentary:
I don't know what's become of you. This thing you've been doing, it's gotten out of control. I don't even know you anymore.

I was with you in the beginning: You were a callow youth who quailed at the sight of blood, rich tropical vistas blurring to the rhythm of your panicked breath. Your security blanket — the militaristic elder brother who was going to make everything OK — died with a sanguine gurgle under your hands. You ran with the terror of a hunted animal through jewel-green foliage, the whip-sting of gunfire chasing your heels, and I sat on the edge of my seat. When you stumbled, I cried out. The merciless branches, the horrific, alien tropical landscape buffeted you carelessly, and I felt your pain. When you fell, my stomach turned.

And now, not even 10 minutes later:

You accepted a generic tribal tattoo — oh, sorry, tatau — without complaint. You have a radio, a fully-functioning tablet and generous access to vehicles, so you could try to contact your family; you could try to get a ride to the mainland, get to an embassy, call for help and let your family know your brother has died, that everyone you love is being held hostage by pirates. You could spare a tear, even.

Instead you are agreeably slaughtering tapirs for backpacks.

Role-playing games are fantasies. They're all fantasies. But do they have to be dumb fantasies? Do they have to be violent fantasies. Frankly, 'dumb' bothers me more than 'violent' - in most cases, at least.

Now, according to the lead writer of the game, Far Cry 3 is supposed to be a critique of other computer games. The over-the-top violence is supposed to be a commentary on over-the-top violence in other games. The idiotic plot line is supposed to be a commentary on dumb computer games.

These guys (that Polygon article is back-and-forth commentary between two gamers) seem to be a bit skeptical of that:
I don't think you're unsettled because Far Cry 3 was effective. I think you're unsettled — I think we both are — by this yawning gap between what a game says it wants to do and what it then goes and does. It's as troubling as the cheerful gawping tourists you met in that war zone. The game mines superficial rituals of meaning and then it puts a gun in your hand.

Of course, I can't intelligently comment about that one way or another, since I haven't played the game. But I really like the fact that gamers are asking these questions:
I always liked Kieron Gillen's take on BioShock. As gamers across the world took offence that sacrificing one Little Sister gets you the bad ending, Kieron says, "Well, how many dead children did you think were necessary for you to be evil?" How many furtive knifings until Brody is beyond reproach?


I hear the cry of a million bros: That doesn't sound like a lot of fun. No. But why do game developers build mansions and buy Ferraris off the back of efforts to neuter grotesque modern horrors, to make them fun? Kirk Hamilton's articulation of Medal of Honor's promo campaign as "mortifying" really resonated with me. I've heard my own gin-laced hiss — "war profiteers" — threading into the dark of some promo party, as regards certain kinds of industry people.

That's just a brief sample. But if you're interested in computer games, if you're interested in violence in computer games, I recommend that you read the whole thing.

These two guys are gamers, and they're writing for a gaming audience. But even if you're not a gamer, you might find it interesting. (Still, you might want to check out at least a bit of Lumin's video clip, if you don't have a clue what Far Cry 3 is.)

They don't come to any real answers, but I like the fact that game- players are asking these questions. I like the comments, too - most of them. These are gamers commenting (obviously).

Yes, computer games are entertainment. But what we find entertaining is still important, don't you think? Books and movies are entertainment, too, but that doesn't keep us from thinking about them - or thinking while we're enjoying them.

Now, there's a lot more to a game than the story. Many games don't even have a story, and a story is never a game by itself. But this is one of the things I love about computer games, that gamers can - and do - debate these things. If a video game has a story, what does it imply? And what does that say about us?

Computer games are just in their infancy. We didn't have them at all when I was a kid, and they still have a lot of growing up to do. But there's real potential here, even if we haven't gotten to it yet. And it's not just the potential for better entertainment, though that's certainly there, too.

Of course, I'm a gamer, so what do you expect? :)

Sometimes, I hate my hobby

I'm a gamer. I love computer games, and I readily defend them from ridiculous insinuations. But then, sometimes, there's this:
You know, some people just don’t get art. Yesterday, a number of websites reported on a special collector’s edition of the upcoming zombie-game sequel Dead Island: Riptide. Available now for preorder in the United Kingdom and Australia, the “Zombie Bait Edition” comes with a few extras commissioned by the studio, Deep Silver. The package includes special artwork and a steel case to protect your copy of Dead Island from the elements. Oh, and there’s also a scale model of a nubile, bikini-clad woman’s dismembered corpse. ...

In this “grotesque take on an iconic Roman marble torso sculpture”—an actual thing said by an actual human being who works for Deep Silver—the limbs aren’t just gone. No, their gory absence suggests a struggle. This anonymous woman’s limbs and head were ripped from her, presumably amid spurts of blood and a few prerecorded voiceover-booth moans rendered in sparkling 7.1-channel surround sound. ...

You’ll notice, too, that every part of the figure’s body is mangled except the breasts. A couple of the gashes on Oh God, You Just Know Someone Is Masturbating To This Right Now come close to the boobs, but they stop short, out of solemn reverence. This is in keeping with the long game-industry tradition of honoring huge bazongas above all (and honoring the ass, too, if there’s any development time left over after programming the huge bazongas). ...

The gore serves as a complement to the misogyny, because without that face and those limbs to distract the viewer, a clear point of focus—boobs—can emerge. It’s so elegant how it all fits together. You know in A Beautiful Mind when all those numbers and equations are connecting together around Russell Crowe’s head, like a dazzling crystal? This is like that, except with hating women instead of math.

The final touch of grace is the nationalism element. The statue comes in two versions, one with the Union Jack for U.K. buyers and one with the Australian flag for those Down Under. Thus Deep Silver quells any lingering queasiness with the soothing balm of patriotism. We can all rest easy knowing that while this woman tits may have met her tits end, she died tits for tits queen and country tits tits.

This guy - and it is a guy writing this, and a gamer - hits the nail right on the head. And that's the thing which saves the game industry. There's all too much of this kind of thing - and all too many misogynistic adolescents (of any age) who see nothing wrong with it - but there are also people who object.

There are also people who write brilliant pieces of criticism, and there are plenty of people who agree, and... sometimes they have an effect. Deep Silver has apologized and is, at least, rethinking the whole thing (whether this means canceling the gory promotional statuette, though, isn't clear).

That's what I like about my hobby - one of the things. I'll give another example of that in my next post.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why I'm no longer a Christian

That title doesn't refer to me, of course, since I was never really a Christian, as far as I can remember. But it's the title of this fascinating video series on YouTube.

This guy really did believe. In fact, his "personal relationship with God" was the most important thing in his life. He was so sure that God existed, that God guided his every step, that he had no problem with pursuing knowledge. That knowledge would only strengthen his faith, right?

Of course, it didn't work like that,... but he didn't stop. Just imagine the courage that must have taken, to pursue the truth no matter where it led, even when it led somewhere he really, really didn't want it to go.

I admire that, I really do. And I find his story incredibly fascinating, probably because my own experience was so different. I never could understand how people could believe this stuff. I still can't, in fact. I recognize that many people do, but I just can't understand how. And I know that makes me less sympathetic than I should be.

Well, this guy understands it, and he's nothing if not sympathetic. For me, his journey to atheism is fascinating... (Although the details are completely different, his experience reminds me of LovingDoubt, who disappeared from YouTube halfway through an equally fascinating account of her own de-conversion.*)

...But, for you, his experience might be enlightening. I find it, um,... exotic, really, but it might seem familiar to you, maybe even comforting. At any rate, he's gentle, respectful, and very interesting.

And the individual videos are short, too - ten minutes or less. I like that. It's just easier to get this in brief doses, even when I'm enjoying the whole thing. The first video is only two minutes long, since it's just the introduction. I tried to embed the second clip here, instead, but that doesn't seem to be working right.

Well, whether it is or isn't, it's just a sample, anyway. His journey is described in the whole series of videos. I just wanted to give you an example of what they were like.

*PS. Hmm,... I just discovered that someone else has mirrored LovingDoubt's Journey to Atheism videos. That's great! I'm really glad that series is back on YouTube. I don't know if the series is complete, and I still wonder what happened to LovingDoubt, but I'm glad to see that her videos still exist.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A dereliction of duty

Democrats could have changed the filibuster rules for this Congress with a simple majority vote. But they didn't. Again, they missed an opportunity to reform - really reform - the filibuster rules which Republicans have been abusing.

I don't want the majority to run roughshod over the minority - any minority - but Republicans have completely broken the U.S. Senate. Well, these days, they don't have to do anything but say they're going to filibuster. That's it.

It's not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not at all, not these days. They don't have to make speeches or anything else. There's no effort to it whatsoever. It's completely cost-free.

And if Democrats are really worried about what will happen when Republicans regain a majority in the Senate, what makes them think that Republicans won't do this, when the filibuster no longer suits them?

Of course, Republicans may not need to do anything, because Democrats couldn't stand united if their lives depended on it.

When can you compare political opponents to Hitler?

This is Fox 'News,' so you know how they decide this question:
If you have been watching Fox News in recent weeks, you will have heard a lot of discussion about Hitler. Guests have been lining up to equate the gun legislation proposed by President Obama with Hitler, Nazis and 1930s Germany in general.

Since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, Fox guests have been among the loudest voices saying that any new restrictions will decimate the Second Amendment and lead to government oppression not seen since Hitler, Mao or Stalin. ...

Then stepped up Bob Schieffer.

Speaking on a special Jan. 16 edition of CBS News, the host said this of the obstacles to passing legislation: “Surely passing civil rights legislation, as Lyndon Johnson was able to do, and before that, surely defeating the Nazis was a much more formidable task than taking on the gun lobby.”

Heads on Fox started to fizz. When Hannity played the clip on his show, he followed it up with a clip from Rush Limbaugh, who asked: “Is there room for that in our discourse today?” Limbaugh called it “over-the-top defamation.”

Heh, heh. Get that? Rush Limbaugh called a comment by someone else "over-the-top defamation." Sometimes, I have to wonder if he's not just deliberately trying to be funny. If it were anyone but Rush Limbaugh, I'd think he was slyly poking fun at himself.

And if Schieffer's comment compared the gun lobby to Hitler, it was just indirectly. Read that again: "Surely passing civil rights legislation, as Lyndon Johnson was able to do, and before that, surely defeating the Nazis was a much more formidable task than taking on the gun lobby." That's what's got their knickers in a twist?

But the right-wing's capacity for oblivious, one-way outrage never ceases to amaze me. Don't any Fox 'News' viewers recognize this? What would it take to embarrass them, if things like this don't do it?

Still the same political parties

Well, it's 2013, but if you think our two political parties have learned anything during the past year, think again.

Republicans are still Republicans:
Should a recently introduced bill in New Mexico become law, rape victims will be required to carry their pregnancies to term during their sexual assault trials or face charges of “tampering with evidence.

Under HB 206, if a woman ended her pregnancy after being raped, both she and her doctor would be charged with a felony punishable by up to 3 years in state prison:
Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.

Sexual assault trials are infamously grueling for survivors, who are often subjected to character assassination and other attempts to discredit their accounts. State Rep. Cathrynn Brown’s (R) bill would add the forced choice between prison or an unwanted pregnancy to these proceedings.

And Democrats are still Democrats:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have come to a deal on filibuster reform. The deal is this: The filibuster will not be reformed. ...

What will be reformed is how the Senate moves to consider new legislation, the process by which all nominees - except Cabinet-level appointments and Supreme Court nominations - are considered, and the number of times the filibuster can be used against a conference report.

But even those reforms don't go as far as they might. ...

A pro-reform aide I spoke to was agog. "Right now, you have to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill," he said. "Tomorrow, if this passes, you still need to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill. It changes nothing on how we move forward."

Wow! Surprise, surprise, huh? Democrats caved. Who could ever have expected that? But there are only 53 Democrats in the U.S. Senate (plus two Independents who caucus with the Dems), and apparently we can't get all Democrats even facing in the same direction. (It requires 51 votes to change the Senate rules at the start of a new session of Congress.)

And Republicans are still batshit crazy. Well, that's no big surprise, either, is it? But I don't expect progress from them.

I guess I shouldn't expect it from Democrats, either - or not very much progress, at least.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Non-Belief, Pt. 10 - Reasonable Christianity

My other posts in this series (here) are mostly about religion in general, but this one is specifically about Christianity. Well, as I noted in my first post, I didn't know anyone who wasn't a Christian, as far as I knew, throughout my childhood.

And I guess, except for a handful of atheists who were raised Christian, I still don't. Well, I probably do without knowing it, since religion doesn't often come up in casual conversation. And I do 'know' a couple of Jews online (both of whom live in Israel), if that counts. But here in America, Christians are the overwhelming majority.

Now, I must admit that I'm dumbfounded at fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally. It's the 21st Century, but they still accept bronze age mythology as literally true? They might have smart-phones and computers, but they still believe in Adam and Eve in a literal Garden of Eden, talking snakes, Noah's floating zoo, Jonah living in a big fish, Moses parting the Red Sea,... all of it?

In one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth, these people reject most of science - indeed, pretty much everything we've learned in the past 2,000 years or so. It wouldn't be any crazier to believe in a flat Earth resting on the back of a giant turtle. (Indeed, the Bible clearly indicates not just that the Earth is flat, but that it's fixed in place, with the Sun and the stars doing the moving.)

And I swear they're actually growing in number. These people would have been considered batshit crazy when I was a kid - certainly, I never even heard of Christians who believed such crazy things back then. The people I knew were modern Christians, reasonable Christians. They would have been the first to reject such idiocy, and been embarrassed that it made their whole religion look bad.

I mean, yes, Christian fundamentalists existed back then, I'm sure. But I never encountered any, and I would have been astonished if I had. Maybe they were common in the Deep South back then, I don't know. But here in Nebraska, it wasn't mainstream. They'd have been ridiculed by more "sophisticated" Christians, and today's fundamentalist politicians would have been laughed out of office. Or that's how it seemed to me, at least. (Admittedly, kids probably don't get the whole picture, huh?)

These days, they're just everywhere, or so it seems. And I am astonished by it. I wouldn't be any less astonished if you told me you thought that Mother Goose was real or that leprechauns lived in your garden. It's the 21st Century, after hundreds of years of scientific advancement, and you still believe in an actual talking snake?

You still believe that God created the entire universe several thousand years after the Babylonians learned to brew beer? You still believe that Noah filled a boat with every species on Earth, from kangaroos to Komodo dragons, llamas to polar bears, elephants to pocket gophers? You still think that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating an apple?

Well, not you, of course. You're a modern Christian, a reasonable Christian, a sophisticated Christian. You're not one of those home-schooled hillbillies, right? You accept science (some of it, at least). You know what a metaphor is. You understand that some of the Bible is literally true, but some is only... figuratively true - 'just so' stories from more primitive times.

And how do you tell which is which? Well, that's just common sense, right? (Of course, every Christian sect has different opinions on that, on what they select from the Bible as true and what's just metaphor or poetry, but we'll let that go, for now.)

The point is that, for all the focus on fundamentalist crazies in Christianity, they're not the majority. Most Christians accept that the universe is billions of years old. Most realize that the Garden of Eden wasn't a real place, that there wasn't a worldwide flood which killed off every human being and every animal on Earth, except for a handful on Noah's boat, that the story of Jonah was just a tall tale.

You people are reasonable Christians. You're rational Christians. You understand that your faith can co-exist with science and the modern world. What you don't seem to understand, though, is that this destroys the basic argument of Christianity, the whole idea that Jesus "died for our sins." If the Garden of Eden story is just a metaphor, then Jesus makes no sense. (Admittedly, Jesus doesn't make much sense in any case.)

Sometimes, I really wonder how much Christians know about their own religion. After all, the traditional narrative goes like this: God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, where everything was wonderful. And it would still be wonderful to this day, if they hadn't disobeyed him and eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This was the "original sin." This was the "fall of man." This didn't just get Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden, it made all of us guilty, too - guilty from birth. We inherited that guilt from Adam and Eve. Yeah, it was a really big thing. And God was really pissed.

Now, back then, gods - including 'God' - enjoyed blood sacrifices. The sweet smell of burnt offerings soothed him, and for lesser transgressions, that might have worked to get his forgiveness. But original sin was just too big for that. Animal sacrifices, even human sacrifices, didn't have enough magical power to overcome his anger. (After all, he killed off pretty much the entire world during the Flood, and that didn't slake his thirst for revenge.) No, it would take a much bigger sacrifice for that.

It would, in fact, take a god's blood. Sacrificing a god, well, that would be big. That would be big enough to counter such a huge sin. Back then, for ordinary sins, you could just magically transfer them to an animal, then sacrifice the animal. Scapegoats were literal in those days. But for original sin, you needed a god as a scapegoat.

Thus, Jesus. Jesus was God's son, and thus a god himself (or even 'God,' himself). So Jesus could be sent as a sacrifice, as a literal scapegoat, thus appeasing God and letting human beings enter Heaven, despite original sin. It was magic, but big magic - the biggest, in fact.

Of course, to modern sensibilities, there's a great deal about this which seems... bizarre, don't you think? Primitive, in fact? Even if you accept the literal account in Genesis, even if you believe in Adam and Eve and the talking snake and all the rest of it,... we just don't think like that these days.

We don't think that people inherit guilt from their ancestors. What your distant ancestor might have done - heck, what your father might have done - is not your fault. It's not moral to think like that. And we don't consider it fair to punish a person who didn't do anything wrong, who might not even have been born when the crime took place.

Furthermore, we don't think of scapegoats as being a good thing. Actually, we don't think of literal scapegoats at all, since that would be just unbelievably primitive. If you commit a crime, you can't magically transfer your guilt to a goat, then slaughter the goat. You might as well argue for deciding guilt or innocence by peering at a goat's intestines, it's that primitive.

Of course, the whole thing makes no sense. 'God' made the rules, so if he wanted to forgive people, he could. Who would stop him, after all? And they're his own rules! Why would he have to sacrifice himself to himself in order to convince himself to create a loophole in rules he himself created and he himself has decided to enforce?

Jesus supposedly said "turn the other cheek," and God could have done that at any time. If God wanted to forgive us, he could forgive us, even assuming that there was something to forgive (do you really inherit guilt from your ancestors?). There was no need for any kind of blood sacrifice. Heck, if God likes blood, he could whip some up at any time, right? Even god blood? Isn't he supposed to be omniscient and omnipotent? (And omnibenevolent, too, though that's really hard to buy, don't you think?)

So believing that the Bible is literally true doesn't help at all. It's still batshit crazy. But believing that the Garden of Eden is just a story... well, that completely destroys the whole point of Jesus. As crazy as the idea was, that was the idea. If there wasn't an "original sin," there was no point to the crucifixion of Jesus, none at all. So how "reasonable" is your Christian faith, even if you're a "modern" Christian?

As I said earlier, I have to wonder how much Christians know about their own religion. How can any of this make sense? I know it's crazy to believe that the most primitive fairy tales of the Bible actually happened, but when you pull on one thread, the whole fabric unravels. So is your belief any less crazy?

Now, I know that believers can rationalize away almost anything. When you really want to believe, you'll find a way to justify it to yourself. Many Christians have no problem abandoning pretty much the entire Bible, except for a few phrases here and there. Some have abandoned the whole idea of Hell, for example, because that doesn't sound like something a loving god would do (which is true, of course, but kind of misses the point).

Faith is just believing what you want to believe. Almost always, that's based on what you were taught as a child, but with freedom of religion, you can easily adjust those beliefs, as needed (as wanted). You can stay a "Christian," but believe almost anything you want, since Christian sects disagree on pretty much everything. And if you don't find one you like, you can create your own.

But how does that make any sense? It doesn't, does it? Furthermore, it might be a pleasant fantasy, but you have no reason to believe that it's actually true, do you? None of this sounds "reasonable" to me, and it never has. I just don't get it.

Note: The rest of this series is here.

Five stupid things about Mormonism

This is part of Steve Shives' Five Stupid Things series, which includes Five Stupid Things about Joseph Smith, Five Stupid Things about Moses, and even Five Stupid Things about Atheists, among many, many others.

As he says, the hardest part is only picking five (which is probably why he has two of these devoted to Fox 'News' - here and here).

PS. I thought his point about the Mormon elders changing church beliefs, as necessary, was interesting, because it sounded pretty good, at first. Wouldn't it be nice if other religions would do the same, instead of holding us back as a species?

Then I realized that the Mormon church isn't even slightly better at that than other religions. It's just that they started out so backwards, so their changes - while beneficial - hardly made them progressive.

If they made it a habit to change with the times, then, yes, that might be valuable. But as it is, they have to be dragged forward, kicking and screaming, just like other religions.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fallout: New Vegas conclusion

Unusual artwork in Red Rock Canyon

Speaking of violent computer games, I just finished the main quest in Fallout: New Vegas (see my earlier posts on the game here) and, you know, I'm wondering if this might be my all-time favorite role-playing game.

And that's despite the fact that this is the buggiest game I've played in many years. (Make sure you always have at least two recent saves, especially when you quit the game, because I had a problem with saved games becoming corrupted. That was my biggest problem, although the game crashed a few times, and there were other bugs, too.)

You know, I almost never finish role-playing games. I think the last one I finished was Wasteland, the 1988 post-apocalyptic game, inspiration for the whole Fallout series. In fact, I think I completed that game twice - or the main quest, anyway, since I know I missed some of the game (back then, games didn't lead you by the hand as much as they do now).

After awhile, no matter how much I enjoy a game, I just get bored and want to move on. I've been playing RPGs since the earlier Ultima games (I don't remember if it was Ultima IV or V, since that's one of the few boxed games I bought that's not still packed up in the basement), and I loved them from the very beginning. I just rarely finish them.

Truth be told, I haven't completed every quest in Fallout: New Vegas, but pretty close, I think. Of course, some quests are mutually exclusive. And I never did anything at all with the Powder Gangers, mainly because I was such a bad shot at the beginning of the game that I didn't kill any of them when they attacked Goodsprings (and therefore, they didn't hate my character, afterwards).

And I haven't played any of the DLC except for Old World Blues. That was so enormous that I just never worked up the ambition to try any of the others. But I might load an earlier save and try one of them, sometime. Or else try this mod, perhaps?

Cottonwood Cove is beautiful,... before you get to the crucifixions, at least

Still, according to Steam, I've played Fallout: New Vegas for 190 hours! That's absolutely incredible, don't you think? And I never got tired of it. At the end, my character was Level 49 (50 is the max, with all the add-ons). I loved the setting, and I loved the story.

In fact, I loved all of the little stories in the game, too, the ones you just stumble across. The story of Vault 11 still sticks with me, even though it had nothing to do with the rest of the game. And the letters from NCR soldiers, implying a story behind each of them...  Heck, just talking to some of them, then coming back later to find them dead, that affected me, too.

It's not just a 'gritty' world - that hackneyed phrase which seems to be used to describe most RPGs these days - but a world with serious problems, where the answers aren't easy. There's torture, there's rape, there's slavery - and consequences from all of them. And no matter what, you can't make things right for everyone.

This game is so good that it actually changed my previously-expressed opinions, in some respects. But first, let me note that I started playing the game on Easy difficulty, then switched to Normal much later in the game (I didn't notice much difference). Well, at high character level, I found that I'd stopped paying much attention to tactics, since I could just walk right in and blast away.

That didn't bother me too much, since I was enjoying the setting and the story, so I'd probably do the same thing again. And, as I say, I didn't notice much difference - any difference, really. But the neat thing is that you can change the difficulty at any time. (I wanted to see as much of the game as possible, before I got bored with it, and I guess that worked, huh?)

Now, I'm terrible at 'real-time' combat. I preferred the turn-based combat of the early Fallout games, and I used the V.A.T.S. quasi-turn-based system regularly in Fallout 3. But I rarely used it in this game. I just didn't seem to need it.

Of course, I mainly played a sniper, so I'd sneak around and take out enemies from a distance, usually before they even knew I was there. You get a varmint rifle at the very start, and by adding a silencer and a night-vision scope, it stays useful for almost the entire game. (If you find the Ratslayer, it does stay useful for the entire game.)

For more powerful enemies, I used a sniper rifle - Christine's COS silencer rifle, once I played the Old World Blues DLC - or a Gauss rifle, after I'd developed my energy weapons skill, which could kill enemies from as far as I could see them. At such a distance, my chance of hitting in V.A.T.S. would be way too low, if I could even get into V.A.T.S. at all.

And close up, especially when there were a bunch of creatures attacking at once, it was still easier to use a submachine gun or an energy weapon (I loved Elijah's advanced LAER, also from Old World Blues) in 'real-time.' The only time I used V.A.T.S. was for fast-moving creatures, when they got close, attacking one at a time.

Hoover Dam is in better shape than the roads nearby!

Note that there are a lot of different weapons in the game, especially with all of the DLC, but most seemed to have real disadvantages, compared to the better weapons in the game - too little ammo, low damage, too heavy, etc. And as I say, I started with a varmint rifle, then picked up a sniper rifle soon afterwards, so I didn't use most of the available weapons at all.

I would have preferred otherwise, but I guess I wasn't willing to use a lesser weapon when I had a better one available. Note that I was forced to improve my energy weapons skill in Old World Blues, since I was short of rifle ammunition. And after that, I used both kinds of weapons, so that was kind of nice. Of course, by the end, most of my skills were maxed out, anyway.

Finally, I must admit that I changed my mind about the 'kill-cam.' In Fallout: New Vegas, when you kill an enemy, the game will often switch to a slow-motion closeup of the kill (head or limbs blown off, blood spurting, etc.). This will happen even in the midst of an ongoing firefight, which can be a bit disconcerting. In fact, I killed a soldier on my own side after one of these, because I got confused by the rapid changes in perspective.

I had some problems with this at first, since it seems so remarkably ghoulish. (And, indeed, I do not recommend getting the "Bloody Mess" perk, despite the 5% increase in damage.) However, I changed my mind. The neat thing about this is that you get to see a close-up.

You really can't enjoy the weird clothing on Fiends or the bizarre animals in the nuclear wasteland when they're actively trying to kill you. You're just too busy trying to shoot them first. And since I was a sniper, I'd take most of my shots from far, far away, anyway. So the 'kill-cam' let me get a good, close-up look at them in slow-motion (admittedly, without their heads, often enough), and I decided I liked it after all.

This game just worked for me. I liked the setting, as I've liked the setting of all of these Fallout games, and I liked the story. I liked the main story, which starts out as a puzzle which has almost killed you, and I liked all of the lesser stories in the game. (I say "story," rather than "quest," because it really was the stories which interested me.)

I liked the other characters - and their stories, of course. And I hated the villains with a passion from the very beginning. (I say "villains," and that's what they are, but you can play the game from their side, if you want. I can't imagine doing that, myself, but there are other endings I've considered trying.) Finally, the game was easy enough even for me - especially on Easy difficulty - but there are options you can adjust to change that, if you want.

All in all, I think this is the best RPG I've ever played, and I've played a bunch of them. The only real problems I had with the game - besides the bugs, which are really inexcusable - are problems common to all games. It's frustrating when I can't say what I want to say to a character, because that option hasn't been written into the game.

And even in the main quest, you can make choices, but you can't do what I would have wanted to do. Of course, that might be more realistic than it seems. Even in real-life, we often have limited options. Our only choices might be both good and bad, and you just do the best you can.

Well, my choice to buy this game was definitely a good one. :)  This is not just the best in the whole Fallout series (and they have all been good), but the best role-playing game I've ever played. And I say that even when I prefer turn-based games and prefer sandbox-type exploration so much that I seldom even bother with a main quest.

Teen loved 'violent' video games, police say

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
(screenshot from MobyGames)

I was struck by this headline, "New Mexico teen accused of family slaughter loved 'violent' video games, police say."

Apparently, this 15-year-old 'video-game fanatic' killed his parents and three younger siblings. Not only that, he "contemplated shooting up a local Walmart and killing his 12-year-old girlfriend's parents," too, and the sheriff solemnly explains how this young killer loved violent video games.

I don't know anything about this kid, or about the crimes he's accused of committing, but this is certainly a tragedy. Don't get me wrong about that. However, I have to wonder how many 15-year-old boys don't like 'violent' video games. What does this really tell us, that he's just like every other kid in that respect?

I'm no kid, but I certainly love computer games. I own hundreds of games, myself, since I've been playing them for decades. And all but two or three could probably be described as "violent." Sure, you can play card games on the computer, I suppose. Even I play Free Cell.

But I like role-playing and strategy games, and they're almost always violent. Of course, it's not always graphical violence,... but often, it is. And I guess I can't see 15-year-old boys being big fans of solitaire on the computer. So how is the fact that this kid loves violent video games even relevant? Wouldn't it be far more unusual if he didn't?

This article mentions two specific titles as examples: "Modern Warfare" and "Grand Theft Auto."  The first, I'm sure, refers to the popular Call of Duty series of games, of which, according to Wikipedia, 100 million copies have been sold, so far. (Actually, that's as of November, 2011, so it's probably a lot more than that now.)

Grand Theft Auto is another admittedly-violent game series - one which professional worriers love to hate - and it has even higher sales figures. Again from Wikipedia, it has sold 114 million copies, as of September, 2011 (and, again, it's likely to be far higher than that now, in 2013).

Now, I've never played either of these particular games, but I know they're violent. Still, when you've got more than a hundred million people playing these games, and one of them commits a violent crime, why would you even bring it up? Why would you imagine that this kid's enjoyment of video games is even relevant?

Now, true, I would imagine that nearly every 15-year-old boy who commits a crime - a crime of any kind - probably likes 'violent' video games. The odds are certainly good, I'll give you that. But the odds are equally good that 15-year-old boys who are perfectly law-abiding also like these games. I pointed out the sales totals for two specific game series, but there are far more games out there than just those two - and there's violence in nearly all of them.

So what does that tell us? It doesn't tell us that 15-year-old killers tend to like violent video games, but that 15-year-old boys tend to like violent video games (just like some of us who aren't 15).

Suppose the headline had read, "New Mexico teen accused of family slaughter was a Christian, police say." It's true. In fact, his father was a former pastor (and a former "jailhouse chaplain"). Actually, if you look at these mass killings in America, they're almost all perpetrated by Christians. Shouldn't we be looking into that?

Is there something about being raised Christian which makes you more likely to go on a killing spree? Or should we expect that most of these young killers are Christian just because most Americans are Christian? You might have thought that headline was reasonable, but would you have thought that my version of it was reasonable, too? If not, what's the difference?

I should point out that this kid had ready access to four guns, including an AR-15 assault rifle, a weapon whose only purpose is to kill large numbers of people quickly. I don't know which gun he used in these killings (I know which gun he would have used, if he'd gone through with his plans to "shoot up" a local Walmart), because that's not even mentioned in the article.

Apparently, that's not important. Indeed, they don't mention the guns at all until two-thirds of the way down the page. And even then, it's just one line.

Well, guns don't kill people, right? No, Christianity video games kill people, I guess (or pixels, at least).

Sophie Schmidt in North Korea

Earlier this month, Bill Richardson ("former Governor, US Ambassador to the UN and backchannel freelance diplomat extraordinaire") took his eighth trip to North Korea and invited Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt to come along.

Schmidt invited his daughter, 19-year-old Sophie, who has, as Betabeat put it, "become our new favorite North Korean delegate" by posting an account of her trip, with pictures, here.

It's been getting a lot of attention, for good reason. It's very impressive, not to mention quite entertaining, so if you haven't seen it, check out "It might not get weirder than this." I'll post just a couple of excerpts, such as:
I can't express how cold it was. Maybe 10-15 degrees F in the sunshine, not including wind chill. The cold was compounded by the fact that none of the buildings we visited were heated, which meant hour-long tours in cavernous, 30-degree indoor environments. It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they're proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.

Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference. I can't think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They're hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it. And the opacity of the country's inner workings--down to the basics of its economy--further serves to reinforce the state's control.

The best description we could come up with: it's like The Truman Show, at country scale.

It does look cold, in that photo above, doesn't it? Actually, it looks almost sterile. That's the capital city, Pyongyang. (Nice road for one vehicle, huh?) But a nationwide Truman Show? Now that's chilling!

Here's another excerpt, with accompanying photo:
Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in--a noisy bunch, with media in tow--not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village [her term for the Kim Il Sung University e-Library] was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.

Her whole post is like that - great pictures of a very secretive country, combined with snarky, but spot-on, commentary. Some media conglomerate really missed a bet by not snapping this up. It's that good.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy Martin Luther King Day

I thought this was great - and quite appropriate for Martin Luther King Day. :)
Actress Nichelle Nichols tells the lovely story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to remain on Star Trek after she had decided to leave the series for Broadway:
I was going to leave “Star Trek,” and [creator] Gene Roddenberry says, “You can’t do that. Don’t you understand what I’m trying to achieve? Take the weekend and think about it.” He took the resignation and stuck it in his desk drawer….

As fate would have it, I was to be a celebrity guest at, I believe, it was an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills. I had just been taken to the dais, when the organizer came over and said, “Ms. Nichols, there’s someone here who said he is your biggest fan and he really wants to meet you.”

I stand up and turn and I’m looking for a young “Star Trek” fan. Instead, is this face the world knows. I remember thinking, “Whoever that fan is, is going to have to wait because Dr. Martin Luther King, my leader, is walking toward me, with a beautiful smile on his face.” Then this man says “Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am that fan. I am your best fan, your greatest fan, and my family are your greatest fans…. We admire you greatly ….And the manner in which you’ve created this role has dignity….”

I said “Dr. King, thank you so much. I really am going to miss my co-stars.” He said, dead serious, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I’m leaving Star Trek,” He said, “You cannot. You cannot!”

I was taken aback. He said, “Don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day – as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors, and yet you don’t see it on television – until now….”

I could say nothing, I just stood there realizing every word that he was saying was the truth. He said, “Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed because, you see, your role is not a Black role, and it’s not a female role, he can fill it with anything, including an alien.”

At that moment, the world tilted for me. I knew then that I was something else and that the world was not the same. That’s all I could think of, everything that Dr. King had said: The world sees us for the first time as we should be seen.

Come Monday morning, I went to Gene. He’s sitting behind that same dang desk. I told him what happened, and I said, “If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.” He looked at me, and said, “God bless Dr. Martin Luther King, somebody knows where I am coming from.” I said, “That’s what he said.” And my life’s never been the same since, and I’ve never looked back. I never regretted it, because I understood the universe, that universal mind, had somehow put me there, and we have choices. Are we going to walk down this road or the other? It was the right road for me.

TV’s first interracial kiss—between Nichols and William Shatner—also occurred on Star Trek.

America has really changed since then, hasn't it? That didn't just happen. It took brave people like Martin Luther King, Jr. - and many, many others - to make it happen.

I have to wonder about that "God bless" comment from Gene Roddenberry (who was one of us), but it's a great story. There's a video there, too, if you want to hear Nichelle Nichols tell it in a little more detail.

PS. I think I was in love with Nichelle Nichols when I was a kid. I used to think that Captain Kirk was crazy to overlook the beautiful lieutenant who worked right alongside him on the bridge. But then, I suppose there were strict Starfleet regulations about that, huh? :)