Friday, December 15, 2017

ST:TNG - The Human Conviction

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.
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Seriesdate: 3.13
Deja Q

That episode where Q orders ten chocolate sundaes and Guinan stabs him with a fork.
As I've said, I've never much liked Q. If the holodeck was eventually integrated somewhat coherently into Star Trek's universe (or as coherent as anything's on Star Trek) I doubt Q ever was, even in the series after TNG. A science fiction story has little room for a Rumpelstiltskin monopolizing the action with non-sequitur nose-twitching and finger wiggling. Everything Q does stretches so far out of bounds as to make his antics utterly irrelevant. He's a walking deus ex machina, and sure enough everything he does is either superfluous or has to be put back exactly the way it was to end the story. Q strewed gaping black holes in TNG's already loose continuity, and even the episodes featuring him couldn't be reconciled.

Here, Q gets mortalized by the other Q as punishment for being an asshole to less advanced sentients. Except this was the same Q continuum which approved the deification of Riker for no apparent reason in the season 1 episode "Hide and Q" so there goes that hope for consistency. Of course nobody even mentions Riker's little flirtation with Q-dom for these entire 45 minutes. Nor does anyone think to take advantage of having Q as a prisoner to ask him to trade some Q-level information about the universe in exchange for sanctuary while he's vulnerable. Start with "hey, remember that all-devouring cyBorg swarm you fed us to and which you hinted is about to annihilate us? Please elaborate."

Strangely, while the overall plot is crap, the minute-by-minute interactions in Deja Q definitely entertain, thanks largely to some very tight, snappily penned one-liners, usually with Worf as straight man.
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Q: "What must I do to convince you people?" [of being mortal]
Worf: "Die."
Q: "Oh, very clever, Worf. Eat any good books lately?"
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Worf: "Be quiet! Or disappear back where you came from."
Q: "I can't disappear. Any more than you could win a beauty contest."
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Worf: "You have fooled us too often, Q."
Q: "Oh, perspicacity incarnate. Please, don't feel compelled now to tell me the story of the boy who cried 'Worf'."
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Q: "Jean-Luc, wait!" Tries to run after the captain only to be zapped back by his cell's force-field. "This is getting on my nerves - now that I have them."
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Crusher: "- he has classic back trauma. Muscle spasms."
Q: "I've been under a lot of pressure lately. Family problems."
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Q: "What're you looking at?"
Data: "I was considering the possibility that you are telling the truth. That you really are human."
Q: "It's the ghastly truth, Mr. Data. I can now stub my toe with the best of them."
Data: "An irony. It means that you have achieved in disgrace what I have always aspired to be."

That last one's crucial, addressing one of the core flaws not only of Star Trek but of SF as a genre: unduly flattering the audience via anthropocentrism. Humanity is a hive of mindless vermin. We know it. Look around you. The mere words "president Trump" should prove that most humans are incapable of handling any thought more advanced than pointed sticks and loincloths. In order to advance, humans must transcend humanity, must become inhuman. Such beings capable of functioning amidst a world of teleporters, matter replication and weapons which can kill without leaving a trace would necessarily seem as inhuman to us as we awkwardly tall, poetic, polite, flabby nebbish sitting in front of glowy buzzing square rocks all day would have seemed to our meter-tall nomadic mammoth-hunting ancestors.

Yet every SciFi hero's always an all-too-human plains-ape wanting nothing more than to enslave itself to its codependent reproductive and social instincts. Even among the great SF writers, few attempt to create posthuman heroes. Frank Herbert toyed with the idea in the form of Leto II, god-emperor-worm of the universe, but his mentality remains human overall. The Pandora novels edge a bit farther. Martin's Haviland Tuf drifts pleasantly farther from the human norm, as do many of Clarke's short stories like The Wire Continuum or A Meeting With Medusa.

Overall though, pulp SF reinforces the status quo, and here Star Trek's vaunted utopianism falls hopelessly into the mainstream. Even the godlike super-beings on Star Trek spend all their time masquerading as monkeys. Though this is largely explained by cheaply inserting actors where expensive special effects might be warranted (especially in eras when special effects meant cardboard and flashlights) it doesn't explain these superior beings' abysmally low aspirations, on par with a human wanting to live in an anthill.

Q should have broken out of that pattern with his misanthropic rhetoric, a superbeing cursed with filthy humanity as a cruel and unusual punishment. Instead the last third of Deja Q stumbles into a trite little snoozefest tale of redemption. The Enterprise resolves the B-plot about a planet about to get mooned to death by... getting nothing much done until Q nose-twitches everything right. With Zeus having descended, invalidated the entire preceding 45 minutes and departed, we return to business as usual.

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Seriesdate: 3.16
The Offspring

That episode where Data births a 1950s department store mannequin.
He kicks off its education by calling that lazy, uninspired abstraction on the wall "artistry" which should immediately disqualify him as a parent. Then again, his attempt to qualify as a parent and classify the new droid as a child is basically everything wrong with this episode.

Humans are vermin. We are at best a bridge and not an end, as Nietzsche put it, and to reiterate one of my past rants, our only value lies in creating some sort of intellect free of the slavery of biological imperatives, of limbic, endocrine and other such systems of oppression. Data is a superior being and his quest for humanity makes absolutely no sense, even less so for centering on attempting to inflict himself with the disgusting mammalian manipulative apparatus termed "emotion."

Worse yet that two superior beings should waste their time aping our inane congenital prison, the family unit. Again, on a line-by-line basis, the episode progresses quite well from intrigue through humor, conflict and finally tragedy. The common trope of an innocent unveiling the human condition serves Star Trek's writers almost as well as it did Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land (read it!) and I dare you not to chuckle at lines like "he is biting that female!" or:

Wesley: "Data, she can learn a lot by being with children her own age."
Data: "She is only two weeks old."

- or not to sigh a bit at the corny, overextended yet still touching scene of Lal's demise, successfully exploiting the audience's protective instincts:

"Thank you for my life. Flirting... laughter... painting... family... female... human..."

But there's that "female human" bullshit again, and I must now amusingly argue from the opposite political angle in which I found myself not even a month ago, railing against the self-aggrandizing snowflakes trying to impose personalized pronouns on the rest of the culture. The current political trend of solipsism has gravely damaged Western society, no less so when it comes in the form of denying biological reality by facetiously demanding that others address you as whatever sex you imagine yourself. Most of the moronic, whiny scum setting themselves up as moral guardians are either insane, or more likely just attention whores playing the martyr for fun and profit.

I said "most" because I cannot exclude the possibility of cases in which the designation of male or female truly would not apply, so I can't help but condemn Lal's first task: gender assignment.

Lal: "And I am gender: neuter. Inadequate."
Data: "That is why you must choose a gender, Lal. To complete your appearance."

Yeeeesh. The snowflakes must be steaming over that line, and for once I agree. Unlike our contemporaries claiming to be precious, unique categories unto themselves just because they's feelin' it, Lal is objectively, verifiably non-binary. Well... ok, technically it's entirely binary, but you get my drift. Robots don't do Xes and Ys. Forcing a being which is above such things to choose an inferior biological designation is outright criminal. "Gender: neuter" is not inadequate. If would likely constitute a state superior to the pattern of enslavement and betrayal which defines gender relations for the human ape.

You just don't get to pretend you've reached nirvana simply because you say so when you're obviously still just rotting meat. When you get reincarnated as an immortal, unemotional, superintelligent mechanoid like Data, then we'll talk.

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Humans are vermin, and anti-intellectualism is their detritus.
When superior beings come up in science fiction, it should be as rightful successors, improvements on our bestial stupidity. Star Trek failed in this as almost all SF does by pandering to its audience's undeserved conceit, painting our simian status quo as a desirable state. For all the show's been held up as a main reference point of Utopianism, a truly advanced society would either be rid or be dedicated to ridding itself of its shameful plains-ape sequelae.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fitted hat day

"- whose custom it was
To take a daily stroll dressed
In silk gowns like a fashionable lady.
In this he failed. Miserably."

Rasputina - Utopian Society


Once upon a time I sold a funny hat to another player in Team Fortress 2 for fifty dollars. Not that I'd recommend it as an income opportunity (and I dumped the money back into Steam soon enough... think it's what paid for my copy of Skyrim) but when I saw the prices people were paying for such status symbols I was compelled to verify their marketability. And we are talking about pure status symbols, make no mistake. It's not like it was Oddjob's bowler hat from Goldfinger or shot laser-beams or summoned chupacabras or anything. It was a purely cosmetic item. Inasmuch as TF2 lacks environmental hazards, it didn't even keep your head warm.

And someone paid fifty bucks for that piece of shit. Piece of  -imaginary- shit! Skyrim goes for what, about $40? How many pieces of headgear does Skyrim include? How many hours of entertainment can $50 buy you during a GoG sale? Entire series of classic games go for less. Sir, You Are Being Hunted rates $20 and look! Funny hats!

Nor am I immune to such stupidity by any means. My LotRO character owns a cloak of the mountain wolves, plus a dwarf property guard and I forget what other cosmetic doodad bought in a moment of weakness. About ten dollars all told for a stumpy axeholder and a... a... ok, I can't say anything bad about the cloak, I love the cloak

Look, it's got wolves!

... but if you asked me now, I wouldn't pay $3 for it or however much it cost in amusement park money. Heap big buyer's remorse. In other games it's alternate character skins or a novelty horn sounding the "ride of the valkyries" for my airship in Planetside 2. I don't even have a peer group over which to lord this pixelated junk, and I'm still falling for it. Our idiotic species is so dependent on social domination that even sour old misanthropes like me will, in fits of madness, pay through the nose for sumptuary lawfulness.

So I won't waste any more time trying to demonstrate that microtransactions have completely taken over online games. Assume the scam works.

Developers (and their ass-kissing clientele) will often self-justify by claiming to restrict themselves to cosmetics, and not selling competitive edges. Most of the time you'll find they're still selling "quality of life" automation for in-game chores, which still amounts to a paid advantage. Nonetheless, that talk must be talked. Legitimized cheating has got to go. However, regardless of whether it's filled with weapons or funny hats, the cash store still hurts games.

Last year I voiced some reticence vis-a-vis Shroud of the Avatar and its on/off-line gameplay compromise. A couple of days ago I tried giving it a second look and was immediately put off instead by faceplanting right in its cash shop. Hundreds upon hundreds of items ranging up in price to hundreds upon hundreds of dollars attempt to tempt intemperate empty heads. And this, mind you, is for a game that's not even officially "out" yet but in "early access" whatever that means in the age of years-long open beta tests. What exactly am I supposed to be buying here? The right to buy more in-game items? When you don't even have a game yet?

The Secret World was revamped this summer in hopes of dragging players back into the endless mindless grindfest... by resetting the dials on the treadmill and making them run the grind all over again. In fact, the new version has even less content than the old. Plus, TSW Legends was hilariously bugged and managed somehow to dumb down an already broken skill system.
About the only thing that increased was the number of cosmetic items in TSW's cash shop.
Sure there's nothing to do but farm the same precisely scripted mission hundreds of times over, but at least you'll be doing that nothing while wearing a fitted hat in the color of your choice. About 30 U.S. cents a piece by my estimate. Oh, there's one for every occasion, collect them all!

TSW has more (gameplay) issues than it has (storyline) issues, from half-assed PvP and raid systems to a tortured skill system uninteresting for either PvP or PvE, to balance and la-a-ag and more bugs than an ant farm - some of which have gone unaddressed since its 2011 launch. Yet instead of improving or even fixing their product, Funcom has sunk year after year of their customers' subscription money into lengthening timesinks and adding more items to the cash shop. And of course the more you're invested in that racket, the less and less of actual product you create or have to offer. When you give any money to an online game developer these days, this is what you're funding: funny hats. And at a hundred dollars per toy house on the internets prairie, them's some freakin' macro microtransactions.

I mean, Shroud of the Avatar's system might be even funnier if I'm reading it correctly, as it seems cash shop purchases are only necessary for the online half of the game. So you're not even paying to see that item on your character. You're paying for the explicit privilege of showing off that item in public? How much of a diva can you possibly be?

Either way, the financial incentive for companies to continue churning out meaningless status symbols as "content" completely undermines the necessary focus on the game underneath that fluff. Not that it's entirely surprising. As I remarked a couple of years ago, most developers are not in the business of creating products but of engineering sinecures for themselves. Those Joneses won't keep up with themselves. You always need new status symbols to one-up the old ones, new stages on which to buy a center spot.

Thus, online games have degenerated from contests of wits and wills and been paved over with sickly, garish fashion runways on which preening and prancing imbeciles attempt to shame each other with their latest designer blue slaad jeans.


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P.S.:
In case you didn't get the title, it's from Seinfeld.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

No End

Oh, look, it's "Glee" with zombies.

Let me set the scene for you: it's the year whateverumpteen C.E., and some worldwide catastrophe has inexplicably turned most of the world's population into zombies... and even more inexplicably has turned the remaining humans all homosexual. Much as I hate the notion of Sharknado, "gay plague" seems a solid contender for the lamest idea for a disaster movie. Or webcomic.

*Siiiiigh* okay, okay, let's give it its due. It's decent enough. Nice, clean, polished, unpretentious visual style, distinctive characters, dialogue that sounds neither stilted nor overly-slung, plus I'm diggin' the ancient Greek mythology nomenclature for towns - given my bases in a strategy game are currently named Nyctimus, Lerna, Nereus, Arachne and Cornucopia. Also, I'm only joking about the zombie plague turning survivors gay. In fact No End does a great job of not trying to justify itself or explain the joke, lightly implying explanation and exposition, head and shoulders above the hamfisted approach of Eth's Skin and its like. There are people lusting after each others' hot asses in a frozen wasteland and said posteriors just happen to be of the same sex. Cheers. Now let's shoot some zombies. Actually, No End's biggest flaw has little to do with its cast's sexual orientation and more with the weak balance between relevant action/intrigue and tedious, codependent, interpersonal claptrap. That much shoujo-quality gut-spilling really gets in the way of... y'know, literal gut-spilling.

That, and its big, stunning, shocking, flabbergasting, thunderous dramatic reveal foreshadowed chapter after chapter for most of the story was just painfully obvious from the very moment the character in question was introduced.

Still, as one road warrior after another turns out to be like, totes gayballs, it starts wearing thin. You set out cheering for it the first time, "shipping" the cute shy boys, then nodding along approvingly the second time, then rolling your eyes a little the third time, then skimming impatiently when the pattern keeps repeating. There's suspension of disbelief and then there's bullshit. Necessary concessions to storytelling don't extend to simply ignoring logic and the laws of nature. As with the nonsensical overabundance of warrior women in newer computer games, a valid need to acknowledge exceptions to the rule overshoots its mark into insulting political propaganda which only harms the setting's verisimilitude.

The vast majority of  a sexually reproducing species will logically be attracted primarily to the opposite sex, regardless of occasional bouts of grab-ass in the showers. That attraction makes reproduction more likely, makes that genetic predisposition more prevalent in the next generation, and the next, and the next, etc. It's not a moral stance, nor a point of pride. It just is. It's reality, and reality is not optional!

If you want to cancel out that natural principle for the purposes of your story, then you really will have to come up with a homoplague or gayfluenza to explain why your humans are not acting human. It'll have to be a heapin' big pile of pretextium crystals too, to explain:
- how your population didn't retrench in conservative primal values when threatened, as human societies are wont to do
- how your authoritarian regimes are not restricting their subjects to procreative sex to out-breed each other, as such regimes do
- how the population hasn't dwindled to nothing generation after generation
- how musical theatre can survive a stiff-limbed, groaning, shuffling zombie apocalypse
and other such paradoxes.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Once upon a time, I saw a C-series monster movie box on a video store shelf and declared it a stunning new cultural low.
Now there are five Sharknado movies!
WHY?
Why are there five Sharknado movies? The material resting in that concept would barely fuel a single drunken anecdote, much less a movie... much less a second one... much less a WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU MORONS?!?

Gah! Whyyyyyyyy?

I hate this retarded species!

Monday, December 4, 2017

What the Game Engine Gave Me

"Time it took us
To where the water was

'Cause she's a cruel mistress
And a bargain must be made"

Florence and the Machine - What the Water Gave Me


Gradually over the past year or so I've gone back and finished my old Infinity Engine game playthroughs by diving into their expansion packs: Baldur's Gate 2's Throne of Bhaal and Heart of Winter for Icewind Dale, along with their respective dungeons Watcher's Keep and Trials of the Luremaster. Logically I should be blasting the remaining past via Icewind Dale 2 but by this point I've had it up to here with the Infinity Engine's awkward, primitive, inconsistent pathfinding, distance measurements, AI and so forth. (You can't tell, but I'm holding my hand waaaay up.)

I'm also prompted to re-iterate my annoyance at old gamers' misplaced nostalgia and young hipsters' facetious adulation of older games, given the many quality-of-life improvements in RPGs which the IE games themselves largely prompted. Any slog through Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale is doubled in length by sheer tedium.
Forcing the player to sit through the same loading screens or dialogues twenty times over every time he reloads gets old fast, gets old fast, gets old fast, gets old fast.
Having to pick up a character's inventory bit by bit every time he dies. Or she. Given my predilection for jock-free parties, I put Jaheira on the front line and thus punctuated every other fight by having her pick her teeth and internal organs back up out of the dirt.
Dropping players straight into ambushes every time they walk through a doorway is quite possibly the stupidest mechanic to overuse. Especially when summoned creatures can't walk through doors. And it was over-used. Over, over, over-overused.
Then there are mechanics which sound nifty on paper but were turned into grating abject nuisances by the aforementioned engine limitations, like dragons' wing buffet or level draining (and the requisite re-stocking of your characters' spell slots one by one.)
Don't get me started on every single monster later in the Baldur's Gate series being given nigh-complete immunity to magic.

Still, the old IE games deserve their reputation as a critical milestone and still have much to teach. For one thing, story-driven RPGs more or less mandate large-scale expansion packs and not piecemeal DLCs. Even skimping on storyline, writing, voice acting is noticeable in these old expansions, as it was in Dragon Age's cheaply made Awakening expansion. The branching webs of player choice must have material and room to unfold, whether in terms of role-playing choices or building up one's character or party composition. It's not like level design in FPS or strategy games, where you can just throw some new challenges at the player. Watcher's Keep and Trials of the Luremaster are large enough to make good adventures in themselves (and contain rather more interesting fights than the main campaigns) but they strike a dissonant chord within the larger story. TotL especially breaks up Icewind Dale's otherwise remarkable thematic coherence.

Snowy landscapes, cold-themed monsters, a Burial Isle... I'm starting to see how much the makers of Pillars of Eternity built on (their own?) nostalgia for Icewind Dale specifically out of the old IE titles. Too rarely do themes remain consistent in computer games as a whole, more glaringly in RPGs. Developers strive too hard to give each player something to love. Not every game needs lava flows and icy mountaintops, and druid circles defending nature and inner-city gang warfare, and "1001 Nights" themed desert adventures with riddling djinni and medieval olde Englishe nobility ranks and court (and/or courtroom) intrigue and vampires and werewolves and demons and zombies and goblins and pirates and ninjas all at the same time. Some diversity's necessary but not every game needs to be the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. It's one point where both Neverwinter Nights games went quite wrong and Skyrim went quite right, and where PoE's White March expansion recovered the more focused approach of Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment.

Pillars of Eternity was fairly dilute overall and understandably so. It needed to establish the intellectual property and acquaint fans with it, benefiting from no preceding decades of tabletop dungeon-delving like the Forgotten Realms did in the '90s. The White March, on the other hand, could more freely launch itself into a story about two specific deities introduced in PoE's pantheon, and it was only in replaying the game that I realized just how well most of the details tied into the Abydon / Ondra aesthetic. Even one of your new companions is a forge-born monstrosity, and another a disciple of The Great Below. Side-quests in the ambitious little mining town of Stalwart subtly reflect the celestial power struggle behind the scenes.
I'm only now realizing how poignantly the Abydon / Ondra dichotomy must affect the game's own developers. PoE itself represents a conflict between continued building up of classic cRPG architecture and the necessary forgetting of past achievements to make room for the new. See my "Ubergamer Attrition" post from last week.

Pillars of Eternity's very name hints at hoping to become a foundation for something lasting, and that may stand as the most important lesson of the Infinity Engine. Around that basic, generic D&D medievalism introduced in Baldur's Gate grew adventure after adventure, each with its own personality, each a roleplaying campaign in itself with its own strategic, artistic and narrative themes... for better or worse. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel with a new game engine every year, keep something functional and pleasing enough to last through the next decade and begin churning out themed roleplaying campaigns set in the same cosmology like The White March or Icewind Dale before it. Maybe Pillars of Eternity 2 will take its cue from that and deliver a swashbuckling high seas adventure without worrying too much about what the Glanfathans are doing or Magran's machinations.

Maybe after that they'll do a desert. Maybe a high-flying Hylea-centered adventure flitting from peak to peak among colorful Alpine villages in the Vailian Republics? Maybe a seedy, low-key "mean streets" Skaenite adventure in the slums of a great empire reminiscent of Torment's trash warrens? Why the hell not? Take it one campaign, one theme at a time. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but PoE's flavor-texted companion side quests suggest the developers themselves have plenty of ideas they'd like to get a chance to develop... to be played, and built upon, and forgotten in due time.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

shklee can go shkluck shklimshklelf

"Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
(People just liked it better that way)"

The Four Lads - Istanbul (not Constantinople)


Well, I guess it's time to admit the webcomic Questionable Content's gone the way of Sinfest, give it a rest for a year or so then see if the author's come to his senses. Don't bet on it. Too much money to be made by pandering to snowflake idiocy.

Sure, QC was always susceptible to various politically correct yuppie posturing but it used to at least manage to dress it up a bit, give its characters a more varied inner life than trying to paint themselves rainbow. Gradually, however, straight characters were either dropped from the storyline rotation or given homosexual / transexual / robosexual love interests. New characters are dropping in by the barrel-full, each a two-dimensional piece of click-bait for anyone seeking validation through shallow group identity. Jacques' formerly diverse roster of tricks has diminished to constantly playing the identity politics card, churning out character after character to pander to some incarnation of the eternal snowflake cry for attention. Sorry, when you start busting out that personalized pronouns crap, we're done.

You don't get to redefine reality, you megalomaniacal insects. Dictating changes in existing language is not "liberal" politics by any sane definition of the word, and the left wing has been utterly subverted over the past few decades by these pompous little scheisters preaching O'Brien's lines from 1984 with the most unselfconscious innocence. Newspeak, thought crimes and hate campaigns against imaginary oppressors have all become core elements of "Left"-wing propaganda to almost as large an extent as they've always been tools of the Right.

Personalized pronouns will be particularly annoying to anyone who used to hope for true freedom from gender roles. I'm a man. I'm not manly. Never have been, never will be, never intend to be. I rarely drink alcohol, own no guns, scoff at sports and drive a cheap little Honda Civic as rarely as I can. Women despise me. I couldn't grow chest hair if you replaced my sternum with a Chia Pet. Despite being sexually attracted to women, I especially resent the assumption that I should play the expected male role, that I should want to don a wedding shackle and spend the rest of my days slaving away to bring home the bacon for some bitch and her litter. Yet I am still male, and born into a sexually dimorphic species. A casual verbal division between male and female grows naturally out of objective reality. It's not an imposition by any sort of imaginary authority.

I fail at being male, at being a "he" and that should mean nothing. True freedom should mean that nobody tries to find my exact position on the continuum between "I'm a lumberjack" and "I'm okay" - that calling me "he" tells you nothing much about my particular deviations from the norm, not that I get to act like a delicate little flower who'll get bruised by a pronoun. Excluding the less than 1% combined incidence of sex chromosome aneuploidy and other relevant genetic or developmental oddities, the words "he" and "she" simply represent the human condition. It is a basic truth inscribed on every replicated genome in your body, tens of trillions of times over, continually re-affirmed every time your cells divide, from conception to death. You were male/female before you were even arguably human.
It is an acknowledgement of the very real evolutionary history of the human ape, and reality is not fucking optional you pathetic, self-important, preening Victorian fops!

To pretend otherwise (and especially to attempt to enforce such arbitrary fabrications) is sheer grandiloquent superstition. It's not progress, it's not liberty, it's nothing but petty, self-serving authoritarianism and any rational mind should denounce it as such.

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.