Monday, November 30, 2015

A Jaded View

While catching up on the latest clusterfuck in Syria (you know, the one time military murder wasn't perpetrated on civilians, the destroyed jet that has everyone asking "hey, aren't we about due for World War III?")  my attention was drawn away by another, slightly less hum-drum bit of news.

"A landslide near a jade mine in northern Myanmar on Saturday evening killed about 100 people"

Wait, jade? Who the hell still mines jade? We're in the third millennium, not the third millennium in the other direction. The Chinese emperor, whoever he is, hides behind the smokescreens of corporate entities and makes his mountain-ranges of money off overpriced aspirin, petroleum and i-phones like every other fat-cat. I mean, with our other shiny pebble caveman status symbols, at least the likes of gold and diamonds retain some minor, flimsy, half-baked pretext of industrial use to mock-justify (mockify?) their value, but there's gotta be an easier way to get silica than outta freakin' jade! Sand jumps to mind.

Eh, I suppose it's still better than most of the poverty and grief caused by our world's various imperialist funnels of wealth. When South-American peasants get tortured to death by CIA-trained fascist regimes to raise my bananas I just end up shitting out the product of their suffering half a day later. On the other hand, my jade bling can impress da laidieezzz for years to come.

I know what I want for Christmas!
Fuck gold. It's jade, frankincense and myrrh all the way, baby!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate

Viii-ves ... fortes. (dun-dun-dun-dun)
Viii-ves ... fortes. (dun-dun-dun-dun)
Viii-ves ... fortes. (dun-dun-dun-dun)

- for a full hour of mission time until you go insane, dump a bucket of blue paint into your dresser and glue a chainsaw to your forearm.

Fun fact: there is apparently no such color as blue or green or light purple in Games Workshop's color palette. Everything's either "blood-clot burgundy" or "infinity blue" or "bile-smoke purple" or "skullflame orange" or some other such nonsense. Normally I bristle whenever anything gets described as "for kids" but in the case of Warhammer... come on. Every corner of this game universe was expertly decorated to the tastes of twelve-year-olds, from the blood'n'guts basics to the chest-thumping machismo of every line of dialogue to the giant spaulders and boob-plates. Duuuuude! Totally bad-ass!

Now, if you can stomach that, the game mechanics turn out to be quite intriguing, at least from my point of view as a complete outsider to tabletop games, and the honesty with which the setting seems to have been developed, the lack of pretense of being anything more, has yielded a noticeable dent in entertainment, if not through Riddick then Blizzard's Warcraft setting, a pretty straightforward rip-off. The "Warhammer 40,000" variation especially, with its fascinatingly ludicrous "orcs in space" routine has had so many pop-culture elements crammed into it, from space marines to terminators to aliens to ... ida know, ninja turtles probably by this point, that it comes across as a more marketable version of The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny.

There's little way to adapt such material except by playing it to the hilt, loudly and shamelessly, and if for nothing else than that 1998's Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate deserves to be called a classic. Not really a masterpiece, but probably worth experiencing for five bucks, as long as you know what you're getting into. Like so many computer games churned out during the decade surrounding the turn of the millennium, Chaos Gate was a hopelessly buggy mess which crashed as soon as you touched it. It was made borderline playable by subsequent patches, but as lasting testimony to the shoddy coding that went into it even the much more stable GoG version has crashed on me once by the third mission.

The gameplay itself is quite good. From what I've heard of the tabletop mechanics, it doesn't copy them wholesale but it adapted enough to make for a complex system of stats and probabilities governing a challenging turn-based squad management game with friendly fire, line of sight and other tactical options / caveats. Even little details like turning your characters in place received attention. There are some flaws, for instance some of the teleporting enemies and scripted events which often fall into the category of Branniganesque "surprises" against which I railed last week. A lot of work also seems to have gone into the scenario builder, which means very little for anyone playing the game as an "oldie" but the campaign itself was enjoyable enough thanks to your marines leveling up from mission to mission and your depletable pool of equipment. You grow to love your eagle-eyed gunner Maximus Badassicus in squad two and the heavy bolter you reserve for his use every single mission.
Here you go, buddy. I know I can count on you. All polished and ready to vaporize cultists for the glory of the emperor.

The graphics for their part are low-res but have held up relatively well. However, pretty much everyone who liked this game will inevitably mention the soundtrack. It's not just the hollow-voiced cultists moaning "joooiiinnn uuusssss" and "cooommme to chaaaaaossss" or the action movie one-liners like "the emperor orders you to DIE" but the music itself, which dates from the time when game companies still invested in good composers to create memorable, personality-laden soundtracks. Chaos Gate thunders into every single mission to the tune of faux-latin choral marches that just... will... not... let... up. It's an endless fanfare from start to finish. Not necessarily something you'd objectively want to listen to by itself (though I for one moved it to my playlist even as I deleted the game from my hard drive a decade ago) but within its context the music more or less raised Chaos Gate from a well-designed, poorly-programmed, untested flop to the status of a memorable if not exactly top-tier classic.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Leela vs. Lisa on the Subject of Meat

"Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on -
This is necessary!
This is necessary!
This is necessary!"

Tool - Disgustipated

Compare two scenes from The Simpsons and Futurama:

1) Lisa: "You don't have to eat meat! I've made enough gazpacho for everyone!"
2) Leela: "Animals eat other animals. It's nature."

Futurama aired soon after The Simpsons began its rapid decline into endless celebrity guest spots, so maybe its higher quality represents a transfer of head creator oversight. Maybe it was better simply because it started with better material. The Simpsons, as a parody of the all-American family, had to make do with the very limited Norman Rockwell mindset - there's a reason why Halloween Specials became instantly memorable, the much wider array of source material letting the writers spread their wings a bit. Futurama on the other hand parodied Science Fiction, a genre which defines itself by imagination and pushing social boundaries.

So it's a bit odd that Lisa Simpson at first glance comes across as so much more "progressive" than any character on Futurama, even her logical counterpart: the civic-minded Leela. Yet, though every nerd identified with Lisa, she gradually became just a little bit too perfect as the show went along, too ingratiating, too unassailable on her high horse. The more idealized the character grew, the more she resembled only a cheap, self-serving pastiche of self-described liberalism - "Springfield's answer to a question no-one asked" as Ned Flanders lambastes her during his nervous breakdown.

Lisa the Vegetarian dates from Season 7, before the show really went sour, but it already exemplifies that nuance-blind, cliquish leftism. Though it makes some show of fair-mindedness in criticizing Lisa for ruining Homer's picnic, this criticism makes no allowance for the mere possibility that vegetarianism maybe might kinda sorta be fundamentally flawed in ethical terms, but that she can get her way more effectively by more insidious, less honest means; which "criticism" itself comes from the rock star endorsing her side to begin with.

The Problem with Popplers on the other hand starts the ethical portion of its program by taking a swipe at P.E.T.A.-style extremism. Then, just as the hippie-bashing is getting good, Leela (who's been peddling meat with a clear conscience) takes a break from ridiculing the protesters to find more bricks to throw at them... and discovers that the meat she's been selling is sentient! In two seconds (give or take a commercial break) she flips a one-eighty and becomes Popplers' champion. That's how intelligence works, actually. You work with the information at hand. Near the end of the episode, Leela learns of the Popplers' own killer instincts, and divests herself of them instantly.

Leela is not fundamentally less of a left-winger than Lisa but merely a better-written character, more self-conscious, capable of making mistakes, and more importantly not banking on little-girl cuteness and helplessness for pre-emptive audience approval. Though Futurama always had its own agenda, it achieved the more flexible, razor-tongued comedy promised by the first few seasons of The Simpsons, before the characters all became hopelessly locked into their simplistic, crowd-pleasing flatness. It struck right and left to keep moving forward. It acknowledged the inherent problem of applying idealism to human nature, which will turn any idea into a fad and any fad into tyrannical dogmatism, the discrepancy between holier-than-thou grandstanding and observable human impulses.

Tell it, Reverend Maynard:
"Let the rabbits wear glasses! Save our brothers!
Now red was your color and, of course, those little people out there were yours too"


P.S.: Happy turkey day!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Second Variety

Well, I was going to do a TNG episode review tonight but as it turns out there's very little to say about The Arsenal of Freedom. It's a character development episode meant to flesh out various crew members' interactions but unlike the previous such attempt, 001...0...something, the bynar episode, you know the one with the bulb-heads, the interactions in this one come across as contrived and overextended. Aside from a well-played pseudovillain who embodies every sleazy, line-spewing "pusher" and the thankfully toned-down Data scenes, it's kind of a wash. Not terrible by the abysmal standards of television but not worth mentioning.
Eeeeeexcept that it did remind me of something, as most things do. See, the episode concerns a planet of weapons manufacturers who were wiped out by their own automated creations. The cold war yielded scads of such cautionary tales which we are now forgetting, to our detriment. However, the topic of humans fabricating their own death by machines comes up more famously in robot-themed stories, and the robot uprising in fiction predates Terminator (the first movie of that series having come out three or four years before TNG started) or even Isaac Asimov's robot novels. It's been a central feature of robot stories since the word "robot" was coined by Karel Capek in 1920 in Rossum's Universal Robots, and arguably before robots were even robots. To stand out when addressing such a crowded thematic milieu you have to come up with something extra, and for the like we must turn to that peerless master of paranoia, Philip K. Dick. Now, as a general rule you should read a story before discussing it so I would encourage a perusal of Second Variety so I don't have to worry about spoilers.

As I watched The Arsenal of Freedom's ending I kept thinking "they could've done more with this" and that the half of the episode dedicated to soulful tete-a-tetes between Troi and LaForge or LaForge and the redshirts or Picard and Crusher (the good Crusher, not the good-Crusher) or Riker and Yar would've have been better spent fleshing out the planet's fate and the nature of the (non-sentient) robots' programming. There's even a very PKD-ish vibe to the initial scene in which the crew is greeted by a hologram masquerading as Riker's long-lost Starfleet Academy friend - and even that goes nowhere, abandoned by Act 2. But back to the main topic.

Ah, yes, the good Mr. Dick loved his impostors, impersonators and other doppelgangers. Second Variety exemplifies his trademark late-game character reveal plot twists which have made his stories so ripe for adaptation (usually with predictably disastrous Hollywood-style results) but more so than most it piles three reveals upon each other, the crucial one snuck in so masterfully under the reader's radar that by the last paragraph we're hit with the same revelation as the protagonist himself.
1) Robots are wiping out humanity, partly by infiltrating our last strongholds (revealed relatively early on)
2) Humanity is doomed because Hendricks was fooled all along (the sort of twist ending we might get from a good Twilight Zone episode)
3) The robots are also wiping each other out. The extra stroke of genius which made that admirable nutjob one of the best SF writers in history.

Now, Second Variety was adapted into an action flick called Screamers which flopped largely based on its own lack of merit. As with most adaptations, it threw out the story's best features in favor of the screenwriter and director's own ramblings and some generalized action-movie tropes. Aside from minor details, two central issues kill the story's effect.
1) It's no longer set on Earth.
2) Twue wuv. Robot falls in love with the human she's supposed to kill. Hilarity ensues. Well, actually nothing ensues.

Both changes were blatantly made to soften the blow of Second Variety's original nihilism for a public presumed too weak-minded to take it as-is, to dumb it down for middle America.

Setting the story on Earth with the moon-base as humanity's last desperate retreat is diametrically opposed, intuitively, from setting the plot on some mining colony with Earth looming grandiosely in the background. The tone of desperation in the story depended on our growing realization that Earth, the cradle of humanity and our only hospitable environment, has already been lost, that the moon-base represents a species already in retreat with slim chances of long-term survival anyway, killer robots or not. We're not supposed to be left with some vague hope that mighty Terra will rally and repulse the android threat. There is a sequel to Screamers (which I haven't seen and refuse to) but the whole point of Second Variety is that there can be no sequel. Humanity is finished and the sequel to humanity has already started making bombs to destroy itself.

Worse still is the utterly moronic "love" angle, the cheesy romantic sub-plot which Hollywood hacks insist on cramming into every single movie regardless of its topic. The absolute sense of doom at the end of Second Variety encompasses not only humanity but sentient life as a whole. Not only will we not survive but nothing will because the robots are headed down the same path as us, only with assembly-line speed and efficiency. This effect hinges on their being utterly, implacably, single-mindedly merciless killers. The gynoid's cold-blooded (no-blooded?) manipulation of Hendricks is crucial to achieving this effect. It can admit no digressions or exceptions.

There's one last twist to consider:
"He felt a little better, thinking about it. The bomb."
This is Hendricks' last thought. This is the note on which the story ends, the hero's parting shot. After erasing every last shred of hope, Dick insisted on nullifying even our moral justification for hope. Hendricks realizes that the robots will destroy each other, and he's glad. We find no magnanimity in him, no high-mindedness, no noble last-second beatific forgiveness of his executioners, no hope for sentient life beyond humanity. He is witnessing the end of all things, the end of thought, and he's glad.

Because of course the first and second varieties, human and robot, were never all that different - wind-up toys acting out their pre-programmed destructive patterns. The means by which the second variety manipulates the first entail no objective ethical principles but basic programming, or in other words human instinct: tribal loyalties, protection of the young or a potential mate. Beyond that, the first variety proves just as ruthless and ethically incompetent a killer as the second.

-and if this is all sentience amounts to, then by all means we should embrace nihilism just as Hendricks did. Learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Writing one of these posts is more work than it might look like. It often entails five to ten or more browser tabs' worth of references, especially if I'm looking for a song tie-in. So for the first time I ran across Second Variety's publication date: May 1953.
1953. Fucking hell. The Cold War had barely started. Stalin had only just died two months earlier. Forget moon-bases or even moon-landings. Even Sputnik wouldn't be launched for four more years. Yet everything in the story flows so naturally that it may as well have been written in the '80s. Philip K. Dick, you freaking genius bastard, I both hate and salute you

My music playlist for once contains nothing with truly apt lyrics for this story. You just don't run across much good music about killer robots. I do however find Apocalyptica's Delusion thematically appropriate.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Waterworld and critic culture

"I see your disguise along with your lies
You need to evolve, you need to resolve
Oceans slowly rise... time to fly"

Syntax - Time to Fly

I've been noticing a recurring phrase in Wikipedia articles about good movies maligned and/or ignored by the American public: "The film did better overseas." Take for instance Waterworld, which we were all instructed to despise because, you see, it went over-budget and we all know the true measure of artistic expression is how thickly and quickly it lines the pockets of the profiteering gatekeepers constricting our zeitgeist. The industry apparently grew to hate the project and film critics toed the line and panned the project's result.

Not that it was a great movie, either in 1995 or now. It's a popcorn flick, a ludicrously expensive one but then there are so many of those. It manages to rise above most action movies with which it might be compared by virtue of its setting, tone and other gimmickry, and as is so often the case its strongest points, its departures from accepted norms, draw the most caustic rivers of bile from critics. Rifling through a few of the choicer comments on Rotten Tomatoes reveals a critic culture which far from analyzing the movie itself simply would not tolerate anything of its like.

It's SciFi, and Science Fiction is not "literature" in the glossary of English Lit. majors scribbling reviews for a living while spewing book after e-book of mundane overemotional navel-gazing hoping one of them will be recognized as the great American novel. To those who make a lifestyle of over-analyzing the human condition, SF with its frequent emphasis on the post-human is an unfathomable anathema. If we divide fiction between character-centered and plot-centered, most of the best SciFi falls so deep into the "plot" end of the spectrum that it merits its own category. Critics seem unable to abandon their expectation of empathy from a story to glory in its world-building. The only good and also successfully hyped big-budget world-building movie adaptation in recent years, Cloud Atlas, had to be made palatable by the otherwise needless plot thread of "twue wuv" conquering all.

Waterworld lacked such friendly dilution, and Costner got repeatedly slammed in reviews for the cold portrayal of his character. As over-fed as the public is on macho bad-boy protagonists whose only motivation nevertheless is serving as protector / provider for their family unit, the mariner's relative independence, his internal locus of control to borrow a headshrinker catchphrase, must indeed seem utterly alien and inexcusably self-centered for a culture in which the only permissible self- is self-serving. In other respects the critic consensus contradicts itself as always. The plot is criticized at once as too simple and too hard to follow, the decor both as too bleak and too cluttered, the moralizing both as too heavy-handed but not politically correct enough. More than one reviewer cited the characters drinking re-filtered urine... not to prove any particular point but just because... eeewwww, can you believe they put that in a movie?

Quite a few reviewers seems would rather have been watching something by Disney and didn't quite get that post-apocalyptic flicks were a genre all their own and had been for decades even in the mid-'90s. They critiqued it as "ugly" and the only reference anyone seemed able to dredge up was the constant comparison with Mad Max - and that was fed to them by the writer's own admission as inspiration. In their desperation to find cause for consternation, they latch on to anything, including one overpaid dimwit who couldn't understand how the map-tattoo worked: "Enola has a tattoo on her back that for some reason everyone seems to believe is a map indicating the route to dry land. (A left at the second dolphin, then straight for six coral reefs . . . )"
For the love of fuck, lady, they're called coordinates!

Yet strangely not one review so far seems to bring up the one major valid critique of Waterworld's plot, its very premise. To actually reach such water levels as in the movie would require not just melting the ice-caps but several Earths' worth of water. Pie are cubed, people! Drinking pee and the little girl's tattoo were major flaws but what, that little detail slipped past everyone's junior-high scientific knowledge?

Ah, well. The American public is woefully incapable of grasping subtlety or understatement, but this tendency is only exacerbated by critics who will pan anything which doesn't present the human, all too human emotional cues reinforcing the tribal loyalty status quo. Waterworld is anything but subtle or understated, but simply by asking the audience to get into the water-world itself instead of trying to identify with the protagonists it transgressed one of the most dire taboos of pop-culture, and the industry dutifully lashed back, fabricating a demonizing consensus which for two decades has ensured that Waterworld gets referenced only as a "flop" (which thanks to the international market it arguably was not) and not a decent action movie set in a captivating imaginary landscape. It was no masterpiece but with cowboy-ish antiheroics, gimmicks like a boat that's almost cooler than the Batmobile and deliciously hammy lines like "a single tear rolls down my cheek" it's certainly better than the vast majority of action movies which have come out in the two decades since... the vast majority of which I would guess were heartily recommended by the same critics who panned this one.
Fast & Furious 7 has an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics are fucking morons.

Consider also that Waterworld was for its time the most expensive movie ever made. This fueled much of its denigration. The latest Star Wars movie coming out in December, The Force Awakens, will be twice as expensive. Its marketing budget alone, just what Disney & co. have invested in hype, nearly matches Waterworld's reviled 235 mil. or so total budget, hype included. Ask yourself which of the two movies, both action-packed popcorn flicks, both nominally SciFi movies, both with budgets which could feed a small country, which of these two... masterpieces... actually gives you something you haven't seen a hundred times before, which of them ads something to your experience as movie viewer. Which of them actually feeds your imagination?

Then ask yourself how critic reviews will look for The Force Awakens, anticipate all the spineless ass-kissing from every corner of the industry for Disney's latest big-budget by-the-numbers cash-grab. The movie business was a dirty business two decades ago too but as Waterworld teaches us, dirt can be valuable. There are degrees to corporate waste.

Friday, November 20, 2015


"As you all know, the key to victory is the element of surprise. Surprise!"
 - Rear Brigadier 25-star General Major Webelo Zap Brannigan

It's been over a decade and that's still one of the funniest one-liners I've ever heard. Must be why so many game designers try to emulate old Zap. Anyway:

That's a vampire about to ice me in Skyrim. Context: the Elder Scrolls games are great worlds for exploring, but combat has always been rather dull. To spice things up and force the game to force me to actually drink some of the thousands of potions I've been alchemizing, I've been steadily ramping up the difficulty. At the start of the game I'd actually had to lower it since I kept running into mobs with two-handers which would lop me noggin off with a single blow. Then gradually as I got stronger it got boring so now at "Master" difficulty it's... still boring, and also frustrating. Half the things in the game are so weak I one-shot them. The other half are so strong they one-shot me. How do you tell them apart? You can't! Random mob #417 turns out to be the biggest badass in Tamriel, and you won't know it until you see your health bar disappear.

I complained about this when talking about Icewind Dale some time ago. You'd walk past a random empty area and have monsters teleport on top of you and insta-gib your casters.
More recently, I've been having the same experience in Warhammer 40k: Armageddon. There is no way to scout. The game's mechanics are solid as a whole but mission structure proves a sad grind of re-loading your last save because you have no way of knowing where to direct your forces.
This was one crucial difference between Half-Life and the likes of Doom, HL's careful introduction of various enemies by showing you those enemies butchering hapless NPCs. It wasn't just window dressing, but offering the player a chance to see how those enemies move and shoot and plan accordingly. Doom 3 simply dropped monsters on top of you. Even that became painfully trite, as it was so overused that you absolutely knew that after picking up an ammo pack you had to immediately turn around to shoot the monster which inevitably teleported in behind you.
Examples of such idiocy abound.

Quicksave/quickload. Replay value. That's called replay value, right?

Look, it's hard to keep single-player games exciting. AI opponents' behavior almost always resolves down toward the pathetically repetitive. Surprises are useful but truly good games foreshadow new elements or changes in pacing or difficulty to allow the player to anticipate and prepare for, y'know, the good stuff coming up ahead. It's good that every once in a while some opponent's power rating is over 9000, but there's no excitement in just randomly getting hit by a 9000-power nuke. Preparation, planning and foresight are not dirty words. You don't have to design games only for fast-fingered, slow-brained mouthbreathers with backwards baseball caps. Scout units, sound cues, cutscenes, aura perception, divination spells, satellite imaging, visual cues as to your opponent's weapons and armor, maps, mission briefings or maybe just a scouter, call it what you will but players need to be allowed to invest resources and effort into at least gathering some hint of their enemies' position, strengths and weaknesses.

Otherwise, you may as well just be dropping anvils on them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Robyn Hode's Hit-List, Part 2

"Oh, I'm a goooood person
Don't wanna fight with no-one
But you piss me off
You keep pushing, pushing
You best step of the gas" [girl]
"All bets are off, fuck you
You taste like toxic poison
I wash my hands of you."

Garbage - Why Don't You Come Over?

A recurring centerpiece of feminist propaganda is the timelessness and pervasiveness of male oppression, the preconception that misogyny is men's default setting and the world was a hell-hole for women until modern feminists rode in on their white unicorns to save the day, that men always kept all the good stuff for themselves while depriving their be-boobered better halves and every man in history has been a rapist and wife-beater. Y-tey's keepin you down, yo!

Well, certainly the world was a hell-hole. Certainly, also, women were derided as weaker and inept compared to men in many cultures, especially once Judaic religiously-prescribed patriarchy was imported to Europe and through the Middle-East through its offshoots of Christianity and Islam. Certainly, also, the one-sided view of this situation as purposeful oppression of women by men as distinct social classes is so adorably simplistic that one should expect it to be heard only in school-yard chants.

Take for instance The Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin's enumeration of acceptable targets for his band's highway robberies, which I described in greater detail in my last post. Peasants and homesteaders are strictly hands-off, common warriors assessed on a case by case basis to determine if they're "good fellows" while the parasitic upper echelons of law enforcement and religious oversight are always in Robin's crosshairs. Yes, you can put crosshairs on a bow.* Shut up.

The feminist reaction to such passages will tend toward the painfully predictable. There, you see, you see!?! None of those groups include women, it's all about men and their dick-measuring and putting women down as worthless, in fact the whole poem must've been written for the express purpose of excluding women from it!
Well, yes, women are excluded from that list, not implicitly but quite explicitly, several lines before the breakdown into beat-down categories even begins.

"Robyn loued Oure der  Lady;
For dout of dydly synne,
Wolde he neuer do compani harme
That any woman was in."

For fear of sinning against the Virgin Mary, Robin would... not rob women? Not attack women? Never hit a girl? Up the ante. Never attack any group that contained at least one woman, any woman! Done. Period. Don't just leave women alone, but don't you go anywhere near women with the rough stuff! Note by the way that he's not particularly worried about dydly-synning against Geebus by attacking men.
Now, it's highly doubtful that whatever historical cut-throat inspired the Robin Hood myth would have stuck to such a rule, just as given human nature it's doubtful that he actually gave to the poor (though taking from the rich remains a safe bet) but the point is the figure of Robin as an idealized hero of the people, a paragon of virtue. Good men in the culture which spawned this myth protect women, unequivocally, before other men are even considered. This is the standard by which men measured themselves.

There is of course a valid argument to be made that such imagery, in repetition, can become a means of underscoring women's weakness and dependence on men, and of course if you fixate on this conclusion alone the world certainly looks very oppressive to the double-exxers. However, you have to dedicate yourself to some pretty fancy mental gymnastics to avoid the much more obvious explicit issues which should be considered before attempting to divine implicit meanings. Reading between the lines is wonderful, but reading the lines themselves should probably also remain a priority. Let's remember the topic of conversation here is robbery. Highway robbery, what with the pokin' people with pointy things and leaving them to bleed to death in a ditch, that sort of thing.

From the vantage point of a central-heated 21st century Women's Studies lecture hall it's quite easy to single out the male/female dynamic and conveniently ignore greater context. That oppressive male protectiveness hemming women into the homestead stemmed from very real causes. The world really was a hellhole. Working outside the home didn't mean "Office Space" paper-pushing but chopping your foot off with a hoe after digging from dawn to dusk. Conflict resolution came in club, axe and knife form. Walking any road meant running into various robbin' hoods who, let's be realistic here, weren't picky about who they took from, and never gave. To say the world was a much more dangerous place is a monstrous understatement. "Hic sunt leones" proved more often than not quite literally true - and sharks and snakes and plagues to boot. If you survive all that, have fun getting conscripted. Unless you're female.

One of the more comical feminist topics in the '90s was the attempt to change the word "women" to "womyn" because so often when referring to the feminine in the English language (and others) the word used is merely derived from the masculine form. So here's one that's not: widower comes from widow. We all know who outlived whom, and still does.

Before we assume that Robin Hood's protectiveness, along with the rest of the chivalry of courtly romances and the damsels in distress of folk tales, is merely a sinister cover for implicit derogation, denigration and devaluation of women, let's admit what it more obviously reveals: the unending, all-pervasive and crippling paranoia of every human society in history that its women might be in danger. Inter-tribal conflicts are won, as a rule, by sheer numbers, and it's the availability of womb space which determines how much cannon fodder the ruling classes can throw at each other, how many workers they can work to death or have tortured to death as examples. We are all descended from tribal units which, among other things, out-bred their competition, which protected and coddled women and used men as disposable active representatives of their family units, as ablative armor for the tribe's women and children. It's been our core evolutionary stable strategy as a pre-sentient species. Keep women producing offspring. Sacrifice men.

It is this paranoia which feminists exploit, our predisposition to panic when being accused of somehow harming or endangering women so that we simply genuflect to beg penance instead of critically analyzing the claim. Feminists will gladly decry the plight of such-and-such noblewoman who didn't get to be queen because she was usurped by her younger male brother or cousin while ignoring the thousands upon thousands of men she sacrificed in her war of succession. We live in constant fear of finding that we did some compani harme which contained a woman, that we have dydly synned against Oure der Lady. Before we can even reach the verses distinguishing social class, this primal fear rules our preconceptions.

Yet this is not 12th-century England. Though we arguably find ourselves in a survival situation as a species, it is not one which our protective instincts can recognize and with seven and a half billion naked apes cluttering the planet certainly not one which has to be addressed by privileging our breeding stock of females. Our chivalry, just like our machismo, is outdated and misplaced. Feminism, like any dogmatic, propagandistic system of unanalyzed belief, will always cherry-pick and fabricate whatever arguments support the orthodoxy of its self-justifying core tenets. It will always promote women and attack men, no matter the relevant standing of the two.

If it's equality you want, though, then we'd have to admit that though our culture has historically put women down, this wrong occupied a sphere of much greater wrongs in which men as a rule had it at least as bad. We have to admit that with equal rights should come equal dangers and burdens, that violence against women is not intrinsically worse than violence against men and deserves no special standing, that men should not be pushed into hazardous professions and every warfront should contain as many women as men in the front line. Type "college gender ratio" into a search engine and within the first five hits you'll already start running into articles decrying the poor dating market for educated women. As men get pushed out of higher education our first concern, our first thought of ramifications, is how this might inconvenience women's instinct to marry money. Because, you see, that social ill did some compani harme that a woman was in.
That's just the tip of the iceberg.


* You can also put a bow on crosshairs.

P.S. I am amused that Robin's chivalry is couched in piety vis-a-vis the Virgin Mary, as whenever you run into actual identifiable misogyny it's usually the result of religious control of mating rituals. Ah, but that's a topic for another day.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Robyn Hode's Hit-List, Part 1

"I saw a cop beat a priest on the TV
And I know they killed our heroes too

I saw a priest kill a cop on the TV
And I know now they're our heroes too"

Marilyn Manson - The Death Song

At some point while perusing the yore of days (as I remember it I was looking up the etymology of "yeoman" and the interesting history behind it) I ran across the Gest of Robyn Hode. I can't say I've read more than a fifth of it or so. Albeit usually depressed to near-suicide, even I don't hate myself enough to try to decipher that much Middel-Englishe without a Masters in linguistics or literature. However, I struggled and pieced together enough of it to run across what's become one of my new favorite literary passages. Now, for those of you uncultured slobs (like myself about last-year-ish) who don't precisely know what we're talking about here, the chansons de geste were one variation of that sort of long-winded late medieval poetry which we often lump together as "epic" for the purposes of casual discussion. Mostly when referencing them you'd allude to the Chanson de Roland or El Poema de mio Cid, French and Spanish cultural touchstones roughly equivalent to Beowulf for the anglophone public, but I was surprised to find that not all were written for court audiences to glorify members of the power elite.

When the topic is Robin Hood, especially, we can expect at least a bit of antiestablishment rhetoric. Picture a flea-infested fifteenth-century busker sidestepping a pool of piss in some smoky single-room wattle-and-daub small-town tavern (or glorify the image, I really don't care; it's your imagination) to regale an audience of common craftsmen and traders barely above the hopelessness of serfdom with tales of one who stood against the injustices of da gummint. The passage which intrigued me comes right at the start, and I'll do my best to paraphrase here without making you grind through all the thees and thous.

Lytil Johnn comes up to Robyn Hode and basically asks "yo, boss, we got like this really bad-ass posse all gathered up, ain't nobody beefin wit us, so who do ya want we should rough up?" In other words "Where we shal bete and bynde" which I think is a wonderfully illustrative line even if I can't figure out if bete means beat or abate (stop/halt maybe?)

So by way of reply Robin goes through this little litany of five examples of acceptable or unacceptable targets for their robberies. I'm citing them slightly out of order because the most interesting one is next-to-last originally.

"The hy  sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde"
Well, duh, no surprise there, that's the one detail you get out of every version of the story, even the Disney cartoon. If this guy sets foot anywhere near Sherwood, he's toast.

"But loke ye do no husbonde harme,
That tilleth with his ploughe"
Don't hurt any farmer/peasant (husbandman) - also unsurprising, given Robin's central character trait as popular hero. Though, really, medieval serfs had nothing to steal anyway so Robin's magnanimity's a bit facetious.

"No more ye shall no gode yeman"
Look, we're not just any common vandals here. If some honest schmuck scrapes by enough to own his own house, we ain't gonna ruin him. Regular Joes are alright in Robin's book.

"Ne no knyght ne no squyer
That wol be a gode felawe"
Now this one's slightly more interesting. Knights and squires may be part of the military autocracy but if they're "good fellows" they get a pass. I mean, let's be fair here, not all cops are pigs. Their whip-cracking boss uptown in Nottingham, though, he's the real embodiment of the military-industrial complex that's oppressing the people.

"These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde"
Hell-low! Now we're cookin', let's "bete and bynde" us some clergy, y'all! Well, not just any clergy. True to form, Robin wants to hit the higher-ups. Now, I'm sure there's some interesting historical context behind this, as the Robin Hood story comes out the centuries immediately following the Norman conquest, when continental monastic orders and other church powers began asserting themselves over the mish-mash of Christianity and pre-Christian culture which the locals had tolerated thus far. However, I find it more rewarding to think of this line in general terms and contrast it with the brainwashing cultural norms of today.

I mean, you just don't really get this part of the story out of any modern reinterpretations do you? No film studio would dare tell it so, yet in both pre-modern versions I've read so far, Robin Hood's death is the same: bled to death by a treacherous nun/prioress. Try reminding your preacher/pastor/priest that of Robin Hood's two undeniable villains, one was the embodiment of military oppression and the other religious oppression. They go hand in hand, at least once religion gets to the point of a hierarchical institution. This may not chime with my own insistence that the very notion of faith, being an assault on reason, is evil, but remember the context of the poem. It was likely told to commoners. No matter how powerful the tools of oppression throughout history, the common people most often had a pretty good idea who their real enemies were, and folklore across Europe teems with lying, cheating, avaricious robbers in robes. Robin Hood is by no means anti-religious (quite faithful in fact, which I'll touch upon in my next post) but he stands against superlative authority and this includes religious authority.

So how is it that nowadays, in the least oppressed society in history, the social control apparatus has grown so pervasive and unchallenged that we can no longer voice this most basic fact? To wit, that religious authority figures are not husbandmen or yeomen or even good squires but equal allies in parasitic ironfisted overlordship, whether it cares to don its velvet glove or not.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Old News

There are no gods - any more than there are unicorns or satyrs or compassionate conservatives. The hundred and thirty people who died yesterday in Paris will not go to heaven. There is no heaven. They're gone. There is no afterlife. Death is the cessation of existence. No, I am not being unnecessarily cruel by removing the comfort of delusion from the equation. Realism is a necessary cruelty. The spectre of a Jihadist walking up behind you in a restaurant, putting a gun against your head and blowing your brains all over your friends' faces before murdering them as well is engendered in the smug superiority of every kindly little old granny who believes herself "saved" because she chants meaningless religious phrases before bed every night.

Every time, every single fucking time, with every religious murder, every bombing, every poor fool trampled to death in Mecca, every pogrom and every war, every Gaza strip and every Golgotha, every stem-cell research project blocked, every self-hating night of sexual repression, every child beaten because he didn't say his prayers, every taboo and auto da fe, every fifty-year-old arranging himself a marriage to a twelve-year-old girl under religious law, every Hindu self-mutilating for spiritual purity, every nun murdered in exorcism and every pedophile priest, every witch-burning and suicide cult, every stoning, every mother telling her children they'll burn in Hell if they don't respect her, every individual whose personal being is ground down by the self-effacing servility of religious ritual, every single fucking time you idiotic apes just dig yourselves deeper into the apologist's trap.

It's not just a few bad apples. This is the point of religion. Christopher Hitchens earned himself such hatred for the subtitle of one of his books (How Religion Poisons Everything) that any interviews after 2007 seem to have obligatorily subjected him to the nonsense question: "surely you can't mean everything" forcing him to steel himself and for the thousandth time pre-empt such questions and re-state that yes, everything. Everything.

Blind belief poisons everything. The glorification of gullibility poisons everything. If I walked up to you on the street and told you to go buy a gun, walk into a restaurant and start shooting people, I should hope you'd at least give it a second thought. Religion is designed to make such courses of action seem favorable or even mandatory. It is brainwashing. Blind belief in the supernatural is designed to instill absolute obedience in its victims, to remove their capacity for thought by removing their consciousness from the world around them. It is a tool of social control, whether embodied in a few pennies in the collection box or a bomb strapped to your chest. Every football player raising his hands up to the sky in prayer or thanks is only reinforcing the mass delusion.

You think I'm cruel for wanting to tear people's comforting delusions away from them, cruel for demanding that you spend lonely nights feeling the weight of the universe's emptiness on your chest? Poor you. Poor baby. So sad.

At least there's another hundred or so people who'll never have to worry about it, thanks to your insistence on equal air time for idiocy.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Have you remembered to hate yourself today?

Hate yourself. Ate yourself. Date yourself. Rate yourself. How do you measure? What do you measure? Too little too late, too much you, too much of yourself by measure by volume by my word, by my word. Measure yourself by my word. Too much you in that shoe. Fill big. Feel big. Clothes make the man but who made the clothes that you can never quite fill out, feel out, suss out, cuss out, dress up for your dressing down, raining down laying down, lay me down to sleep. Bags of eyelids at my feet. It's late. It's later than you think. Think fast! Live fast, die faster. Live slow in the know in the mo, in the show, flappers and dappers, gassers and prodigious sassers all to the tune of the masters, fasters for whom life is but a show. They grade down, they review, they tell you what to do. Line! Stage whispers, death's sisters, hissing 'til your ears sing. Dears, sing, arrears ring, the orchestra swings by the rafters all in tatters. Music sheets to the wind, anyway it blows, the whole damn show, who wrote this crap, step back, back in line just in time as the pendulum swings, as the headsman's axe rings, they cut off your line but there's no room to soliloquize anywise, every poor player tries but ad-libbing must be demonized. The director wrote the show, staged it, lit it, sounded it low, never rise above what you show, what's for show, the director's a CEO.
Look, tomorrow's just another today. Play it, lay it, day-by-day it, autograph it, monograph it, stereo-cast it, but how will you know if you never quit the show, step outside the three rings, that your acting stinks? Hand out tips and quips, drips of wits, for a life worth pursuing, for a death worth accruing. It's your dime but it's their dollar, it's a joke, it's your yoke but it's their collar, pressed and shined, Armani-ized, never quite sized up, measured up, rated high enough, dated high enough to eat your way up the food chain.
Hate yourself yet?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

ST: TNG - Home Soil

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.

Seriesdate: 1.18
Home Soil

The one with the... you know what, you probably don't remember this one. I didn't. It never really made the re-run circuit for some reason, most likely its relatively impersonal plot centered on a curiosity instead of crew drama. The Enterprise checks up on a terraforming project, prompting unnecessarily lengthy explanations of the term's meaning. Then again, the script being written half a decade before Kim Stanley Robinson published Red Mars, the topic may not have been foremost in SciFi fans' minds. Turns out the terraformers delved too greedily and too deep and now a crystalline entity (crystalline entities are a dime a dozen in Star Trek) is after them in retaliation, by means of sabotaging their equipment's programming. Which is cool because in the process we get to see Data dodging laserbeams.

Seriously, what is with Star Trek and exploding consoles?

Wow, look at that.
Watching a series in order you stumble across some strange realizations. Late in the first season, across several episodes surrounding this one, it becomes obvious that TNG's special effects budget finally caught up to its ambitions. Backgrounds grow more detailed than monochrome planets in space, the sets look less cardboard-y, the aliens start looking less like Muppets... but even when it's because of a mining laser, explosions in Star Trek still favor control panels for some reason. I swear, you're safer next to an overloading reactor core than a keyboard on this show. Who even needs phasers?

Aside from that, the science in this episode ranks an order of magnitude higher on the scale of plausibility than the usual TNG fare, and though somewhat tediously exposited, the concept of a phototrophic crystalline intelligence living in porous surface clay deposits... well, come on, that's as many (non made up) big words as you'd fit into four or five other episodes combined. I think they even say "hydrostatic" at some point, which is a sure marker of hard science.

All in all, this is what Trekkin' was about. New life? Check. New civilizations? Check. Conveying that adventurous spirit, the feeling that if only you boldly go, something new and unique waits around every corner (or down every gravity well) is the root of the show's concept and what made it such a success. We remember the more dramatic episodes in which various crew members are more personally involved, but what really kept us watching from week to week were the crystalline entities.

Best of all is probably the ending with its reverent tones at life's wondrous variety. Our apologies and respects, indeed. Not every ending needs to be a triumph. Finishing the episode in a grave, respectful self-imposed moratorium on human expansion was just icing on the cake.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Shifting Demographic: Trivia and Triviality

"Give yourself to me!
Let me be your overdose!"

Snack - Overdose

The original run of Fans! dates back to 2000 and like many webcomics of the time has become an interesting relic of a much younger Internet's twilight hours. More so, in dealing with geekdom before it went pop it displays some interesting contrast between the youth subculture of the '90s and the utter absence of a subculture within the woefully homogenized and oversocialized Generation Facebook. Take the main gimmick of its very first storyline, for instance. Does it still hold true? Are today's fans still enraptured by trivia? Maybe only in the demand that everything be trivialized. For the purposes of this post, what does it mean to be a computer game fan these days?

Log into The Lord of the Rings Online and try to strike up a conversation on the topic of, oh, say the crossing of the Helcaraxe, or ask if anyone can recite a couple of lines of A Elbereth Gilthoniel from memory. Hell, try and see how many players think Tauriel was an actual Tolkien character.
EVE-Online expected players to be able to grasp the basic concept of transversal velocity and be able to read market trends. City of Heroes revolved around creative costume design and writing backstories for one's characters. In any scifi game you used to trip at every pace over someone helpfully explaining the inverse square law or redshifting or that lasers don't really look that way! Morrowind expected players to know terms like yurts, laity or canton - and if you didn't, then look it up. Much later on, Skyrim contained almost no specific terminology aside from jarls and thanes.

In more practical terms character classes, though a terrible idea in computer games to begin with, nevertheless helped players create a personal identity within various virtual worlds. Removing classes should have yielded game systems in which personal choice is everything, in which the player chooses a small combination of skills from a wide array of possibilities and sticks with them for a reasonable period of time. Instead the rabble misinterpreted removing developer-enforced identities with removing player identity altogether, and the newer skill systems like The Secret World's have the players switching from healer to DPS at a moment's notice. No foresight or planning required, just grinding. Then again, this simply fed into the older problem of letting players create endless numbers of alts. When's the last time anyone in a multiplayer RPG actually cared about their character? Or are we all content to condemn ourselves to be faceless, disposable, interchangeable redshirts?

Note, what's changed over the past fifteen years was not the amount of player time investment in games. Skyrim was if anything even larger than Morrowind / Oblivion and players are spending more time than ever mindlessly grinding, farming and milling endless numbers of identical monsters for achievement unlocks. Obedience / obsessiveness is our sole remaining virtue. We lost everything else. What do you expect from a gamer culture whose favorite insults, increasingly, are "neckbeard", "tryhard" or "lulz u mad bro." Investing thought into your activity, knowing too much, caring too much, being overly-creative, having some standard of quality for the product or those with whom you associate, these amount to the deadly sins of the new internet and of video games by extension. Nothing is worse than being better.

While computer games were still a nerdy pursuit, information was the name of the game. From overdosing on all the juicy, juicy data on screen, we've gone to gorging ourselves on sameness, endlessly consuming the same instantly recognizable routine. Hit troll with axe. Look at all the unit stats in some old TBS like M.A.X., read through all the background info fleshing out a fantasy world in Planescape: Torment or compare SimEarth's pages upon pages of slider bars to Spore's puerile three-button simplicity of gameplay. What you're seeing is the difference between trivia and triviality, overdose and gluttony, the cooptation of a major segment of nerdy pursuit by the greater anti-intellectualism of society at large.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

For Us, The Living

I keep expecting For Us, The Living to be exposed as some sort of hoax. It seems too good to be true, not because it's particularly good writing but because it's relatively rare to get a glimpse of a creator's early thought processes leading up to memorable works, and even rarer for these to qualify as even tangentially readable. Indulgent, pedantic and quite flat in terms of plot, this book nonetheless captivates Heinlein fans via half-molded versions of later character types and ideals.

The biggest revelation remains the socialist precept of a Utopian welfare state in which the subsistence of each individual citizen is assured. Only after reading it did I realize that this shows up repeatedly throughout Heinlein's later works, usually under the guise of an obscenely wealthy benefactor assuring the finances of whatever idealized society he's describing. In For Us, The Living, it's much more clearly, inescapably stated. Despite his fascination with the self-reliant frontiersman archetype, Heinlein never glorified privation in itself. He viewed the freeing of humans from the restrictions of necessities as an inherent good, every bit as much as he touted the moral obligation to work toward greater goals. Much of the book is taken up by lengthy, tedious postulations of economic theory by which his imagined future state assures each individual the freedom to pursue whatever life seems worth pursuing.

The libertarian movement in the United States has been collared and re-branded by the rich, but as much as the right wing may try to claim Heinlein the libertarian as their own, his writing stands as a constant reminder that liberty is individual and individuality can never be defined by a political movement. I cannot imagine the Heinlein who wrote this book promoting the ideals of self-declared libertarians today, of deliberately impoverishing the working class, of keeping them under constant threat of starvation, violence and disease to force them into the yoke of wage-slavery.

The mind who wrote For Us, The Living would not have supported the freedom of the rich to restrict the freedom of the poor.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Stag Night

To extend the spirit of Halloween by a few more days, I shall now relate to you a spine-chilling, stomach-turning account of that vilest of dark deeds: necrophilia! Let the weak-hearted beware and avert their eyes, for the images on the following page depict this gruesome unnatural act in its starkest, uncensored, lurid details.

Behold if you dare!

Lovely pictures. I didn't ask for permission before linking (more Halloweenish villainy) but I hope it's alright.

Anyway. We need more morbidity in online computer games. I don't mean necrophilia per se, but doing horrible things to each others' corpses is just a logical extension of the continual violence in which our virtual selves indulge. Making a rug out of your opponent's pelt or hanging his corpse from the castle walls, for starters, could also translate into butchering each other for alchemical ingredients or making arrows out of each others' bones. Good, clean fun. Imagine rumbling around in your tank in an FPS game with your enemy's head as a hood ornament. In a post-apocalyptic setting, cadavers would of course make a lovely seven-course meal.

Giving corpses more permanence would lead to some interesting combat options in fantasy games. Resurrection spells could have different outcomes depending on whether your original body is still available or has been burned to a crisp. Killed players could try to possess others' corpses. Then there's zombification - make a graveyard run only to find yourself fighting your own revenant.

I know it must sound like a lot of extra coding, but if it's between adding seventeen new funny hats to the game's cash shop or implementing decaying flesh as a gameplay mechanic, I know what gets my vote.