Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The soy rotted in the trains

Logical answers to a couple of side effect non-issues of climate change denial.

First: why's this climate change thing so bad? I mean, I might like wearing shorts in November and I hear monsoons are fun! The most famous modern-day example of this I'd say is Vladimir Putin's attitude that a thawed Siberia would make him the de facto agribusiness world leader.
But forget any specific details here for one moment and let's establish one thing. Humans don't deal well with change. Fifteen hundreds years ago, the central-Asian steppe went through a little climactic hiccup. Did the Mongols get their population under control? Did they just institute new farming/ranching policies? No, they ransacked half of Eurasia. Eighty years ago, American farmers' reaction to their self-imposed overproduction crisis and the resulting ecological disaster was to amplify production. Humans do not deal well with unfamiliar situations. The little progress that's been made throughout history has been made by a few superhuman intellects dragging the unwitting masses kicking and screaming to a better lifestyle and there are severe limits to the social impact of progressive visionaries. Apes will be apes.
If we can't make the little change that would be necessary now to deal with a crisis before it spirals out of control, what would make anyone think this species could handle the necessary changes fifty, two hundred or a thousand years from now to ride the mounting wave of its own recklessness? The appropriate metaphor is not "sink or swim" but "stop splashing or you'll drown yourself."
It doesn't do to be blindly optimistic. The specific changes which will come about are terrifying precisely because they are unpredictable. How will Canada deal with Texan tornadoes? How would Japan handle a fishing industry collapse? How would the British Isles cope with a Gulf Stream shift of a few degrees of longitude, if they lost their hot-water-bottle and suddenly had to deal with the fact that they're on the same latitude as Newfoundland?

Second is the confusion about why anyone would knowingly deny something so catastrophic. I mean, if everything goes to shit, don't we all suffer?
Well... no. The rich would not. For one thing, the richer you are, the more mobility you possess. If you can buy yourself hilltop estates anywhere you want, you're less inclined to give a shit about rising sea levels. If you're rich enough to own entire countries, as many oil/banking/military "machers" are, then what's a few million or half a billion dead of starvation and social unrest? They're just disposable recruits. Capital.
Also, "rich" is an intrinsically comparative term, and the comparison only improves with spreading poverty. Human misery is the greatest resource of the rich, not only because it provides them with willing masses primed for subjugation but because it implicitly feeds the instinctive desperation to compare one's social standing favorably to others'. Shrinking the pond is, instinctively, a valid means of ensuring one's social rank as opposed to growing into a big fish. The worse off the people under you are, the less able they are to stand up to you, the better. You don't need a roaring economy if a plummeting one will ensure families are desperate enough to sell you their children. Social power is not expressed in absolute values but as power over others, and the misery of the poor is the tried-and-true route to that blissful inequality, not the well-being of the rich.
Here's a quote that tends to get ignored in the usual willful misinterpretation of Atlas Shrugged: "that so long as men struggle to stay alive, they’ll never produce so little but that the man with the club won’t be able to seize it and leave them still less, provided millions of them are willing to submit - that the feudal baron did not need electronic factories in order to drink his brains away out of jeweled goblets and neither did the rajahs of the People's State of India".
The rich of today, the barons of industry, the Fortune 500, the petty tyrants of corporate states like the U.S. are those barons and rajahs of Rand's description and not her pipe-dream of enlightened progressive social engineers, and though they fear change they also drool at the dream of change which would impoverish all others around them to the point of empowering them and their private armies to depraved excesses and sadistic pleasures even Caligula and the Marquis de Sade could never have imagined.
The rapist's dream of ineffective opposition drives humans to accept apocalyptic scenarios, so long as in that broken world they can maintain or improve their relative standing. And the difference between rich and poor is that the rich can afford to convince the poor to bring about such scenarios.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fox, Terminating

See, I don't bother with most SciFi TV series because I assume they'll be utter trash as they so often are. One of the series I passed up without a glance was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles so I've only now learned about the show being cancelled after its second season.
Now, I already knew they'd gotten Summer Glau in as a terminatrix, but I also just learned they'd apparently gotten Shirley Manson in as well. How... how do you not make that work?!

Holy crap, you had two female supporting roles, one of which still has a cult following from a decade-old-series, and the other the singer whose voice is the symbol of sex-appeal plastered from ear canal to limbic system of every depressed teenager of the late 90s. I don't care if the show was utter shit in every other way, Fox, you could sell that!
Seriously, I'm afraid to watch it in reruns because I might not stop drooling. Hell, while you're at it, maybe you should've waited until you got Angelina Jolie or Kate Beckinsale in the cast too, then cancelled the series.

This "Fox cancellation" routine has gotten old. They have to decide at some point whether their reactionary ideology or their greed is more important. I know nothing about the quality of the show but just from those two supporting actresses alone, it was probably a marketable one.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fevre Dream

So, here's Halloween again. I'd like to take this occasion to offer a counterpoint to one of the great scourges of Samhain, the cute/sexy vampire. First off, let's establish that glitter is not an appropriate costume accessory for a ghoulish bloodsucker, no matter what that idiotic farce, Twilight, has taught you. Second, I am in no way maintaining that we can never diverge from the oldest representations of storybook monsters or their first accepted literary interpretations. Bram Stoker's Dracula was by no means a great novel and we need not limit ourselves to it as inspiration. However, it falls on the correct side of the dividing line between staying true to its fairytale inspiration in spirit and simply exploiting a word like "vampire" in a nonsensical but crowd-pleasing fashion.
There have been many reinterpretations of vampirism in the past century or so, based first on Dracula and later on Anne Rice's rapidly-deteriorating book series. Twilight is guilty of picking up where Rice's fame-flustered derangement left off, with its supercharged, sexy vamps and pup-men prancing around like they own the place. Not everything has followed that linear decline however, and in the spirit of Gustave Le Rouge's semi-coherent yet oddly captivating vampires on Mars (sure, why not) I'd like to encourage everyone to read George R. R. Martin's little head-trip about vampires on steamboats. I mean, sure, why not?

Come on. I know "steampunk" is a popular albeit ill-defined trend these past few years and as a long-time George Martin fan I'm constantly annoyed at his newfound fanbase which only knows the sexed-up seven kingdoms and not his older, more thoughtful works. If you can't dredge up much interest in a nearly emotionless albino ecoengineering-warship captain, a dying planet adrift through transience or short stories about people getting swallowed by blobs and shooting a rat, only a rat, then at least give his take on de-mystified vampires a look.

Fevre Dream is an attempt to create a rational, non-magical vampire race, based loosely on the biological explanation of porphyria as the root of the vampire myth itself. And yes, just as the main theme is the meeting point between myth and reason, the setting is the short-lived, transitional world of steam-power and institutionalized slavery along an 1850s Mississippi. It is, amusingly enough, not fantasy but science fiction set in the past, and much like other good but relatively short works of science fiction it suggests a lot more than it states explicitly. One of the trends running through Martin's work over the decades has been a fascination with the mentality and ethics of power or leadership and Fevre Dream does an excellent job of exploring the biological roots of power-mongering, juxtaposing  the racial slavery of the American south with the willing slavishness of pack-hierarchies.

Mostly though, it's about vampires. How they eat, how they think, how they burn, how they bleed. If you want a case-study in recreating an old myth through the lens of science and reason, in rationalizing superstition and the cultural capital it's created, Fevre Dream is as good as any. And the Halloweenish beauty of the whole thing is that it does not abandon vampires' proper role as shadow-dwelling boogeymen. In fact, Martin's vamps are all the more terrifying for being merely dangerous beasts, eliciting a visceral fear of the predator in our monkey brains akin to the timeless image of Dracula, limbs splayed lizard-like, crawling face-down along a sheer stone wall. This primal terror of the hungry beast is so deeply rooted in our primate brains that's it's a pity to dilute it in the more detached, magic-ridden interpretations of the myth.

Give the glitter a rest and read something about real vampires. Let Mr. "Game of Thrones" teach you how to rethink fairytales.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A "retried" page never loads

Ignoring all the other Obamacare shenanigans, something's been bothering me.
You keep seeing reporters and commentators describing just how difficult it is to get through the online services and actually sign up. "System unavailable" and that sort of thing. Overload. Too much interest, too little silicon. Or something.
Okay, so I'm no tech guru, but one thing I've learned through years of online games makes me think all these media leeches constantly reloading web pages to prove they're down are part of the problem. When a system gets overloaded, slows down, etc., one of the things it needs is a little breathing room. The end users need to, as the kids say, "chill out", relax, take their finger off the "reload" button
Stop Humping The Server!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Natural Selection 2

A sequel should be more than just a port of an outdated game to a new platform or even less, a new game engine. When various Half-Life 2 mods did this, they had the decency not to pretend they were true sequels. They labelled themselves Day of Defeat: Source or Counterstrike: Source because really, the Source engine was all that was new about them.

Backtrack a bit. It's 2002. Yours truly, a craven man-wolf caged in a backwater "university" dormitory, has a few popular online games as his principal occupation. One of these is a little FPS game called Counterstrike. Oh sure, I used to play DoD or TFC as well, and I'd started to hear about this new HL mod which had space marines fighting aliens. And one day, the admin of my favorite CS stomping ground dropped the fateful words on us like a bomb: "goodbye CS server, hello NS server." The server switched and I along with it, and even though Natural Selection ran so poorly on my old computer that I was forced to play in 400x300 resolution, I loved it.

NS is an FPS/RTS hybrid game. What I remembered I loved was the visceral thrill of FPS combined with the added relevance of true teamwork and strategy: taking resource nodes, defending bases, climbing a tech tree. There had been good offline games like this in the past, like Battlezone or Uprising, but not truly multiplayer-oriented ones. Internet gaming was just coming into its own with the likes of Half-Life and Starcraft.

NS did not have a very long period of popularity, for various reasons. It did not receive needed updates fast enough, which made many of its balance issues grate. It was using what was at that point a slightly aging game engine (Half-Life was a 1998 game) and the improvements made to it were too much for older video cards like mine while not allowing players with brand-new machines to show off their capabilities. Worst of all, the creative team decided at one point to fragment its customer base for no reason, creating an "action" version of the mod which removed the RTS portion. It became nearly impossible to get players to play the more complex, original concept.

So now we have NS2, and I did not bother playing it until now because, well, Planetside 2 was coming out and there are only so many hours in the day. Since 2002 there have been other attempts at RTS/FPS hybrids. I previously mentioned the Insects Infestation mod for Half-Life 2, and HL2 also spawned the equally short-lived Empires mod. The most interesting attempts however were the two Savage games. Actually when Savage first went into beta there was a hilarious display of hysterics from a NS fan who accused Savage of stealing the concepts of NS and that "be assured the NS community will hear of this!" Savage's dev team basically just chuckled and said "ok kid, thanks for the free publicity."
Given Battlezone and Uprising and the like, it's hard to condemn Savage of "stealing" NS. The whole hybrid thing is just a logical progression of either more team-oriented FPS or a first-person RTS. Even Dungeon Keeper allowed you to take control of a single minion and run around your own strategy-game map. It is true that Savage basically copied the marine team from NS but what can I say? "You're just a copy of an imitation." Savage was an improved version of NS and Savage 2, while a downgrade from Savage in terms of complexity, brought many needed improvements especially to the FPS side of things, creating a set of intuitive combat mechanics which should be given a thorough look by anyone wanting to develop a mixed melee/ranged FPS system. In short, S2Games, while they are overall a shameless bunch of copycats and bandwagonners, moved forward in their own way.

Natural Selection did not. NS2 is basically NS:Source. Oh, sure there are some new weapons, but this is 2002 all over again. Everyone still bunny-hops and there's still too little feedback on landing melee attacks, etc. The few "improvements" were actually steps back, like giving the alien team a commander instead of keeping the old dichotomy or the more cluttered maps of undifferentiated rooms which, like the clutter of Planetside 2, serves only to reward twitch-gaming instead of planning and teamwork. Not to mention that just as the first NS did, NS2 pushes the capabilities of its graphics engine unnecessarily, straining older cards without really competing for showing off newer ones. No matter how much you dress up the Source engine, Planetside 2 still has nicer explosions.

It's sad to see this happening. After Savage 2 committed hara-kiri and with the other HL2 mods dying young, not to mention MMOs like Rift refusing to see they could be the ones to fill this first-person RTS niche, I'm not sure there's much out there. A true sequel to NS would have gone a long way toward keeping one of the best genres alive. Unfortunately, just like DotA 2, NS2 is just a nostalgic throwback, fixing little or nothing of what was wrong with the original, sitting back while the rest of the industry either moves on or gives up on the idea.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I feel like imagining some stuff

I want to create a world.
Because it's not there... yet.

Ok, ok, so my reasons are a bit more extensive than that. I've always been intrigued by imaginary worlds which grow around literary creations, such as middle-earth, but they are most often tied to the needs of a particular narrative. Judging by the sequels to Neuromancer, Dune or The Foundation just to give some examples, the authors found it very difficult to expand the universe past the original gimmick or raison d'etre of the core characters. Middle-earth itself is unique because Tolkien was so keen a student of mythology and understood the need for cultural background so well that he created an entire coherent world as a matter of course, largely unrelated to hobbit necessities. He fit the story into the mythology, not the other way around.

However, my attempt is rather meant to imitate, not the background of a novel or series of novels, but the endless fantasy worlds created as backgrounds for games such as D&D or Shadowrun, the interactive bastard children of LotR or Neuromancer, or of online games like MMOs. Which is not to say that it shouldn't be equally suited to simple works of fiction, as other such frameworks have proven.
This is also meant to get me out of a little slump I'm going through. At the moment, even the little casual, derivative short stories I'd meant to write and post on this blog, like Ephemeron or For an Echo, are refusing to write themselves. If I can't create anything specific then maybe some aimless rambling, some clutter of grandiose flights of fancy, will jog my muse out of slumber. Perhaps if I start with nothing and simply indulge in creative process without purpose, I will become better able to give shape to my more purposeful projects.
Yes, that made more sense in my head and used less alliteration as well.

Anyhoo, given that this will be a work in progress, it'll be housed in its own tab.

And yes, it always feels weird putting so much work into things nobody will ever give two shits about. Bite me, Internet, you uncaring beast.
I gotta be me.

Monday, October 21, 2013


Quick, can you tell me what this symbol represents?
Now just as quick, can you tell me what this symbol represents?
Or maybe this one? Does it have anything to do with ents, to you?
Oh, LotRO, is there no end of screw-ups to cite about you?

Back right before Planetside 2's launch, I criticized a few of their visual design elements. Overall, the game just looks unnecessarily "busy." There's a difference between "decor" and "random junkpile"and it only compounded the usual graphics card issues of first-person-shooters. However, my greatest complaint was about the needless ambiguity of HUD symbols. I believe I said something to the effect of "I should never hear words like fuchsia or magenta and I shouldn't have to decipher something that looks like the bastard child of Sanskrit and Hebrew - stick with primary colors and universal symbols."

And really, that's my main message here: don't get fancy with symbols!

Back over a decade ago with graphics cards getting more powerful, resolutions rising and 3D becoming standard fare, graphic designers also started to embellish the means of conveying information. I don't know if this was a means of maintaining job security by inventing more things to design or just childish glee at the newfound flexibility of colorful 32x32-pixel images but it led to a trend of utterly unintelligible skill/weapon/vehicle/ability/effect/map icons.

LotRO is a perfect example. The two skills I linked at the start of this post are only a taste, and that needless confusion stands as a sad counterpoint to the game LotRO copied for its gameplay mechanics. While I rail against WoW for various reasons, Blizzard's expertise as game designers showed in many ways, one of the more minor of which was an intuitive array of skill icons.
For instance, look at the druid travel form image. For clarification, druids' travel form was a cheetah. And yet, the icon shows a hoof. Why? Because you're hoofing it! You don't need a 16-color representation of a cheetah face and in fact it would only get in the way. When you're making an escape, you need to quickly scan your skill bar for the idea of fast travel, not marvel at the artistic triumph that is the travel form icon.

Now, I don't mean we have to limit ourselves to black-and-white math symbols and arrows. Universal symbols are all that would be needed in PS2 because it has relatively little information to relay and it uses a modern, vaguely sci-fi setting. In fact Planetside 1 used many universal symbols for stairwells and the like. Third-person RPGs with target-lock mechanics, which as a rule use a much wider variety of abilities, would logically need a more flexible system to distinguish those abilities in a taskbar. But a button icon does not need to tell a story. It should be intuitive. A hoof is good enough, thank you.

We could probably think of endless ways to re-use one icon for different purposes. If a hoof conveys the basic idea of travel, use it on a blue background for an escape ability, red background for a charge ability. Use a hoof in a stylized house icon as a horse-stable map icon.

And if you're designing the icon for a skill called "march of the ents" which does damage, put a little green ent in an angry red background. No further detail is necessary.

There are plenty of areas in which graphic designers should get creative. Character models, flora, terrain, spaceship designs... but not symbolism. Symbols serve a different purpose than entertainment. They must convey information quickly and clearly.

If the symbol you just came up with is nothing but a confused mass of colors or a random image that you think looks more artistic, you are not worth your salt as a designer.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Dr. Who is Good, Clean Fun

Aluminum pie pan on a string? That's "flying saucer" to you.

I'd always heard of Dr. Who as a nerd and geek staple, along with Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Star Wars/Trek. I generally dismissed any praise of the show as the predictably rosy (read: star-struck) sort of review which always comes from a vociferous fanatical following. If moderately successful for a decade or more, such a series' customer base becomes so entrenched as to remove any possibility of objective judgment.

So I always shrugged off any mention of Dr. Who until I caught an episode of the new series by accident while channel-surfing this past spring. Which episode? Oh, some nonsense about lizardmen swimming around in the earth's mantle, doesn't matter really. I was delighted, not so much by anything which might be called high quality as by the fact that anyone would still make something in this particular style: relatively low-budget, recklessly speculative and a wee bit preachy.

Lacking any current science fiction series to hold my interest, I immediately resolved to watch Dr. Who... from the beginning. Sorry, did I cause a spit-take? Yes, I had in fact assumed that this had been some old series from the 60s or 70s, a few seasons long, which got revived during the late 90s or more recent years. I thought that, hey, I can sit through a couple dozen old episodes, it's not as though there's anything good on TV I'll miss anyway.

Over three freakin' decades' worth of Whos, I was not expecting.

But, hey, I'm just uptight enough to feel like I have to see it from the beginning anyway so off I go! From cavemen to "aliens" in rubber scuba suits to upturned trashcans talking like a speak'n'spell. Much of the show's charm from what I can see so far comes from how shamelessly ludicrous its plot gimmicks are. In one early episode, the TARDIS shrinks along with its crew because its doors opened by accident and some - space - escaped. Groaning and laughing at the same time hurts.
I mean, this sort of thing would be inexcusable under most circumstances, and I have yet to figure out why it just "works" in Dr. Who. There's a sort of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy pastiche appeal to it, despite the more serious tone. It's so bad it's good. Let's keep in mind that a single-seater open-air time machine or getting shot out of a cannon to the moon are ludicrous gimmicks in their own right.

Of course it's not just the writing. Watching the early years, even ignoring the bargain-basement props and costumes and special effects, it seems they were also short on production time. It looks half-improvised, unrehearsed, with the actors constantly prompting each other and filling time with "hmmm?" and "isn't that right, so-and-so?" and many times outright stumbling and stuttering without the scene being re-shot. It's not entirely amateurish but it looks more like a rehearsal than anything you'd buy a theater ticket for.

At some point I think I might want to read up on the show's history. It seems like there'd be a lot of interesting tidbits about shooting on a shoestring budget. So far though, I'm enjoying it. Oh, it's not exactly great cinema, but it's ... classic. Yes, that's the word. It's reminiscent of the great classic science fiction stories, of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It doesn't specifically attempt to create an entire coherent universe but only fantastic adventures, and it maintains a twinge of that progressive spirit one associates with forward-looking social commentary. There are no very advanced or complex concepts but it seems pretty much any basic notion in science fiction, hard or soft, could fit into the show. It would have made an excellent introduction to science fiction especially for viewers in their early teens... which probably explains a few things about the show's relative popularity.

Yes, I think an episode of Dr. Who now and then will really hit the spot.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sins of a Dark Age - anticipation

... and what I'm anticipating is that the next two posts referencing this game will be tagged " - letdown" and "- disgust".

Anyhoo, here's wikipedia's list of AoS games. I am still refusing to call them any acronym which includes "arena" since the focus on idiotic dick-measuring over 1v1 fights and kill/death ratios is what ruined the concept. It should be a warzone, not an arena.
Looking at that list, there's really no hope in sight. Half of the existing attempts are even deader than Demigod. Of the three major ones (DotA2, HoN and LoL) only League of Legends made at least the minor improvements to gameplay over DotA to make it somewhat worthwhile. Aside from that, there are some upcoming games but I have no faith in the likes of Turbine or S2 to churn out anything but leet-kiddie-friendly DotA copycat drivel.
I love the basic game concept, but there's just no worthwhile representation of it on the market.

Except maybe Ironclad's upcoming attempt...
Sins of a Dark Age looks good... not great, not Demigod great, but good. It's a sad compromise, mere baby steps beyond League of Legends as LoL was only baby steps beyond DotA. Instead of throwing out the despicable pitfalls I enumerated here it only dampens them somewhat, for example by giving some (presumably almost none) of the gold from minion lasthits to surrounding teammates.
This is sort of Ironclad's style, if I can judge them from Sins of a Solar Empire, a 4x RTS. They're not willing to take chances, but they do take some steps toward the most blatantly obvious fixes to how the most popular games on the market do things. There are a lot of companies like this, and it's not to be discounted. After all, this middle of the road approach (patching without innovation) is what in other genres has brought us Civ 4 or Dragon Age.

The biggest problem with Sins of a Dark Age is the lack of teamwide resource investment. No way of improving or affecting your team's AI units, no talk of resource nodes to control, etc. They're sticking with DotA's three-lane (and presumably five-player) duel-oriented setup.

The best info comes from this quite extensive Gamespot video. It looks like a more sedate, more mature... DotA clone, sadly. Of course developers like to hint at future game modes, etc. but let's face it, once you give players something familiar you're going to wind up just feeding that familiarity. It reminds me that LoL's additional game modes, instead of adding to the complexity of the game, were even more simplistic more-instant-than-instant gratification.

So yeah. I'll be playing this, and I expect to be disappointed. Being the best AoS game on the market will still only amount to being the best of the worst.

There's still no Demigod 2.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Bottom of the Trope Barrel

Is there a point to TVTropes these days?
I mean, yes, the site gave me a few chuckles years ago when it was attacking the endless strings of Buffys and Homers on television and their repetitive on-screen interactions, but in its desperation for more material it's now pretty much a list of anything and everything someone anywhere at any time might have said in some way. When it ends up listing things as generic as swearing and nudity or as obscure as the way a comic book character's speech bubbles are drawn, it's about time to admit there's no real reason for the discussion. It's only a social activity, smalltalk perpetuated solely by the participants' desire to participate and not by any specific topic.

The degradation is really sort of obvious from the front page disclaimer: "We are also not a wiki for bashing things. Once again, we're about celebrating fiction, not showing off how snide and sarcastic we can be."

See, that's the problem. Bashing things that deserve to be bashed is the logical purpose of such a site. Popular tropes are examples of bad writing, of lazy, uncreative, patronizingly simplistic writing. Delineating the dip from representations of the human experience or of specific ideas to "that's what she said" laugh-track-tripe is the logical reason to point out tropes. You're supposed to be pointing out things about which we should be snide and sarcastic, which we should condemn as cheap, repetitive and dull.

Of course, somewhere along the way, the satirical gadfly core concept disintegrated into a gigantic mass of fanboys terrified of offending each other, attempting only to link anything from elsewhere on the internet to the TVTropes site with no particular rhyme or reason, just to take part in that communal babbling.
Is "desperate for attention" a trope?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Moonrise Kingdom and a moment of transcendence

"Black then white are all I see in my infancy
Red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me, lets me see there is so much more
And beckons me to look through to these infinite possibilities"

- Tool, Lateralus

So, did anyone notice the brilliant couple of seconds at the end of Moonrise Kingdom?
Well, I wish I could link a screenshot of the scene, but we'll have to do with memory. And if you have no memories of this flick, you probably should. It's especially poignant for those of us who were serious children.

Wes Anderson does "awkward" very well. Social dysfunction, frustrated intellect, uncertain ambition - he films stories about persons of worth with all their ridiculous failings, and allows characters to grow past those failings. There's a constant self-conscious analysis throughout his movies. They are stilted and stumbling, just like our decision process as fallible sentients is. Confidence and quick reaction are the the luxury of the self-limited or the naturally thoughtless and these are not the subject of a tale like Moonrise Kingdom.

Generally speaking, I utterly despise "coming of age" stories and in general the condescending attitude we encourage each other to have toward our youth. The few childhood stories which stand out are the ones which see the worth of a trenchant, proactive youthful attitude instead of simply encouraging us to set up our past selves as straw men and wallow in our dignified adult inertia. They are those which do not belittle the concerns of youth, which do not make a mockery and a curse of the word "childish."

Moonrise Kingdom is childish. It is seen through the eyes of an intelligent twelve-year-old, under the absolutist rule of reason bombarded by the world's endless conflicting information. It is shot so as to display the endless struggle to make sense of that data, to form patterns, to create concepts. There is little room for nuance. Speeches are delivered in a monotone, everything is telegraphed, every visual element in every shot is perfectly balanced. Characters pose standing bolt upright or if they bend they do so at right angles. They walk with the surety and poise of toy soldiers. This is how we tell stories to ourselves, and we told ourselves many more stories while we still tried to make sense of the world. We play at living, no matter the age, but we only admit to doing so when we're young.

Yet there is growth in the accumulation of experience. And somewhere there's a tipping point. Somewhere in the growth of every concept, discernment begins to color our experiences, slowly, insidiously infiltrating nuance in speech, imbalance in our image of the world.... slants between the right angles.
And after ninety minutes of characters delivering lines at each other from statue-like perfection of viewpoint, we find the female lead safe and sound, continuing her life, continuing to grow, her awareness expanding. And she stops to look at the camera, and leans ever-so-slightly to one side as she makes her exit.

Now you know this truly was the end of the story, because this was a memory of childhood, of absolute good and evil, of perfect intent and decisive action. Whatever follows next would have to be told differently, from slants not perpendiculars.

But, I would add, it would in no way invalidate what came before. We are always children, always have more to learn.

"I embrace my desire to feel the rhythm, to feel connected
To swing on a spiral of our divinity and still be a human
Spiral out, keep going."

Monday, October 7, 2013

Drone Strikes and Dinner Theatre

There's something I think a bit off about how the new-wave Republican strategy is being discussed, but it hinges on discerning exactly how that wave is shifting from older mentalities and the best way to illustrate that is with a reminder that the Democratic wing of the one single American conservative party is in every way save by comparison to Republicans also a puppet of corporate imperialism.

A year and two and three ago, there were various scandals about covert U.S. agencies conducting assassinations via unmanned drones. "Scandals" is probably too strong a word, because the public outcry was more of a "meh" than the Abu Ghraib sex scandal (and admit it, if only pain-stimulus torture were involved and not nudity, those pictures would not have made such a splash.)
One of the core features of Imperial versus other types of warfare is a removal of causality and consequence from the eyes of the public. Dainty heartland ladies don't have to care how many slaves were whipped to death to make their ball gowns because those slaves are far removed. The baker in the capital's square grins in delight at the abundance and low cost of grain, regardless of all the families starving in the provinces. The manufacturer basks in his growing profit margin as the imperial brigades destabilize and dismantle the industry of far-off lands to open new markets and create economic dependency. It all works because the greater mass of the people is allowed to ignore the consequences of prosperity and just how intrinsically untenable a system of constant plunder is. Politics turns into a shell game. Keep the voters' eyes trained on anything but what you're actually doing.
Drone strikes are a perfect example of this. It was never going to be Obama's Abu Ghraib, because the truth is that the public likes drone strikes. It's something that can be ignored, something faceless and impersonal, not a hometown girl caught pointing at naked men. Just a bunch of people (and since when do foreigners count as people) getting killed. Plus it means uncle Bob gets to keep his cushy job shining medals for the defense industry.

That's just business as usual in the U.S. So-called "news" programs are filled more with fluff pieces and the opinion of the man on the street than information. Keep your eye on the ... hey, look over there! This is how the Democratic party would prefer to do business, a slow, gradual sell-out, metaphorically boiling the frog alive because it cannot feel the heat rising. This is the spirit of Affordable Care, which (in my admittedly meager understanding) far from being a step toward socialized heath care seems to cement the dependence on megacorporations in medicine.

Now. The MSNBC/NPR commentary on the current U.S. federal services shutdown by Cruz, Boehner et al. centers on the idea that these are Republicans from deeply Republican (reactionary) districts scoring points by posing themselves in opposition to a Democratic government and its programs. Commentators posit that corporations, the iron fist within modern-day public policy, are not in favor of such tactics, and it's true that corporations have always preferred the shell game over public scrutiny. The very concept of a corporation is in fact itself a shell game. Individual profit without individual responsibility, as wise old Bitter Bierce put it.

However, I see what the new reactionaries are doing as an attempted proof of concept. They represent not only a polarization between ultraconservative and mainstream, but between covert and overt crowd control. They are trying to prove that this is the new way of doing business, that they can wrangle public opinion in an open fight whenever they want to pick a fight, just by being brazen enough. This is a show put on for big business, and here we have to remember what big business means. It's not just Wall Street. The financial sector can work in secret because it is the most fluid and diffuse, the most globalized. It deals in abstracts. Big business is however best exemplified by oil companies and by labor laws.

The U.S. is approaching its collapse. With the rise of China as the new world empire in the following decades, U.S. bakers, manufacturers and dainty ladies of the voting class will be faced more and more with actual issues and not simply a facetious game of voting for identical smiling clean-cut boys spewing platitudes. As crises begin to reach the heartland, as Alaric draws up his fist to beat on the gates of Rome, it begins to be more and more necessary to engage the public instead of blinding it. Someone has to convince the public to keep drilling for oil and keep backing oil-dependent businesses. Someone has to convince the labor market it's better off without labor unions and that waiting tables is a "career." In order to keep increasing their profiteering within the U.S. as the empire dwindles along with the loot from sacking foreign lands, corporations need more and more draconian domestic measures.
The new-wave Republicans are filling a demand, the corporate demand for active rabblerousing. To some extent, the Tea Party itself provided the initial proof of the growing place for empty demagoguery. That the mentality is now becoming institutionalized should be no surprise. Americans have a very strong tendency toward institutionalization, from schoolhouse oaths to patriotic invasions.

The real damage is not done this year. The current clique of representatives has pushed too fast, too eagerly. But their corporate overlords are no doubt taking note. They are seeing the use of getting the public to vote against its own interest not just through willful ignorance but through complicit vandalism. If impressing Pfizer and the American Medical Association resulted in a government shutdown, what'll happen when the oil companies buy into this new program of open intra-government warfare? What if this is the new way the government does business with the corporations? No more drone strikes, no more comfortable distance.

Good or bad?
I guess that depends on whether you think of human nature as good or bad, of the public as capable of making rational decisions or as a drooling mass of idiots waiting to swallow whatever lie they're given.
Ouch. We're fucked.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Strong women and other Alien creatures

Don't you hate getting upstaged?

For some time I've had a recurring notion to mention the oddity that is The Peasant's Clever Daughter and I only get around to it after running across some stinkin' webcartoonist who's illustrated the damn thing.

Now, a story about a female outwitting males is relatively rare in folklore and remarkable for that in itself. Generally, positive female characters were only rewarded for socially correct behavior, not personal aptitudes. However, what truly makes this tale stand out is its outlook, its focus. Progressive? Humanistic? Hard to tell. Though at home in the grim (pun intended) realities of monarchic societies - extracting information by torture and an assumption of the mental inferiority of peasants* - it treats its main subject, gender relations in a charmingly straightforward manner. The prince is not fulfilling a prophecy or deliberately marrying beneath his station but only seeking a mate whose company he would personally enjoy, and for, of all qualities, intellect! Also, the girl is not proving the superiority of women, not engaging in the usual gender war. Cleverness is her nature, not necesssarily because or despite this nature being female.

It reminds me of something I realized a few years ago. Some cable channel or another was showing a rerun of the Alien movies and billed Ripley (Sigourney Weaver's character) as the first female action hero. Amusing avoidance of the word "heroin(e)" aside, it made me realize they were wrong. Ripley is the only major action-movie heroine I can think of.
Yes, I'm serious. How many female protagonists are there whose sexuality is never played up? The few female action-flick leads are almost always prancing around in leotards with full immaculate make-up in every scene. Those who aren't are mothers trying to protect their children, or angry ex-girlfriends getting revenge on past lovers, abusive daddies, etc. There are plenty of movies written specifically to exploit the novelty of a female lead. Ripley is unique precisely because the role is so knife-edge gender-neutral. She is a person in a bad situation, winning against the odds. Neither the character nor most scenes featuring her would have changed in any major way if rewritten as male.

As long as gender is an issue, there is no equality, no equal treatment. When equality becomes a non-issue, an irrelevant question, an unspoken assumption, only then will it have been reached. We cannot be said to live a truth until we no longer feel the need to proclaim it, until we can take it for granted.

* I am painfully aware of the irony. It's still good to be the king, or any of his courtiers.

P.S. Would Salt also qualify? And isn't it hilarious that it came from the same guy who vomited Ultraviolet? I'm trying to stick to popular figures, Hollywood products or equivalents. I didn't pay much attention to the chicks in the various "Crouching Marketing, Hidden Budget" imports popular last decade, but one or two of them might come close, ironically given China's perpetual stance of "what human rights?" by dint of lack of plot if nothing else.