Saturday, July 25, 2015

Some spoilerific thoughts on the first season of Daredevil

On my Facebook page a while ago I wrote some negative things about the first episode of Daredevil (sorry, can't find it because Facebook lacks a decent feature to search your own timeline). Nevertheless I decided to watch the whole season with Jeff. Now that I have, I realized this is a show that goes a lot of places many superhero shows don't; it addresses issues like gentrification, inequality, and, even more shocking, believable human relationships. It humanizes its villains in a way that is pretty much unprecedented for an action adventure show. Unfortunately, it also sometimes slips into negative stereotypes, especially Oriental mysticism and occasional ableism.

To go along with the show, I had to turn my suspension of disbelief engine to eleven to accept that the Hell's Kitchen of the show is a dangerous, violent, dirty slum -- in other words, what the place that is now known as Midtown West was 30 or 40 years ago. This probably is a lot easier to accept for a person who never lived in New York. Once I did that, it was much easier to watch dirty streets in Bushwick that I know very well with signs representing 52nd Street and 10th Avenue thrown up over those of Wyckoff and Irving (1). But once I accepted this, I realized the show was addressing issues that are real to New York.

Windermere Apartments
In fact, in the early 80s (which is when the show should have been set if they weren't determined to leave open the possibility of merging the story with the contemporary MCU) there was a real-life Wilson Fisk driving poorer residents out of an old HK apartment building called the Windermere using methods similar to the ones Fisk used on the building inhabited by Ms. Cardenas: "rooms were ransacked, doors were ripped out, prostitutes were moved in, and tenants received death threats in the campaign to empty the building." And needless to say, such tactics continue today in countless neighborhoods across the city being gentrified.

What's really revolutionary in this show is what they did with Wilson Fisk, who Marvel readers know as The Kingpin, though he's never called that in the show. He begins the show as a mysterious ganglord, someone so secretive and so powerful that his employees know that even saying his name where someone can overhear it is equivalent to suicide. It would be easy to make this character a stereotypical Big Bad: emotionless, psychotic and ruthlessly confident in every way.

But that's not the way they went. First of all, Fisk really believes that his campaign to tear down Hell's Kitchen and gentrify it is the moral thing to do. The fact that he must murder people, bribe everyone in power in the city and deal with drug dealers and white slavers is an unpleasant necessity to him. Fisk gets not only an engaging backstory, but also a very touching love story that normally would be reserved for a hero. Fisk's girlfriend Vanessa is fantastic. On learning that the guy she's going out with is a violent gangster, she is not only not shocked but completely down with it (she kind of already had figured it out). After she is nearly murdered by poison, Fisk tells her that "the people who did this will suffer." This is where we expect her to tearfully tell him not to resort to revenge and make things worse. Instead she says, "I expect nothing less."

Fisk isn't the only villain who's humanized this way. The Russian gangster Vladimir and his brother (whose name I can't remember) have an engaging and believable bond, and when the brother is killed you really feel for Vladimir. Wesley, Fisks' consigliere, is more of a cipher, but he shows moments of humanity in spite of his unshakeable loyalty, for example his conversation with Karen when he kidnaps her, where he admits that unlike his boss he actually hates the city.

And then there's Owlsley, the cynical accountant who knows how to weild a shock baton. Owlsley represents the psychosis of today's American financial sector, a respectable criminal who always keeps his hands clean of the vicious crimes that keep him wealthy. But he's no psychopath, and you can tell that he is often fearful and disturbed by the characters he's involved himself with. Owlsley's murder by Fisk is not only instrumental to the plot, it also shows the emotional complexity of both characters. Owlsley admits that he and Gao attempted to murder Vanessa. But believes he's safe because he's got a trump card to protect him: he held on to Detective Hoffman, who can blow the whistle on Fisk's whole operation. From his point of view, it makes sense for a person like Fisk to swallow a little betrayal rather than put his whole operation at risk. But he overestimates Fisk's rationality in responding to an attack on someone he loves. If he knew Fisk's backstory better, he might have played things differently. After all, Fisk's first murder was of his father, who was beating up his mom. Dismissing the importance of Hoffman (to his eventual regret), Fisk loses his shit and throws Owlsley down an elevator shaft, which is typical of Fisk's violence. When Fisk fights we have less a sense of a powerful supervillain and more of a sense of a superstrong toddler throwing an extremely deadly tantrum.

Where the show falls down in regard to humanizing its villains is with Madame Gao. For the first part of the season, MG insists on speaking Chinese through a translator, even though she makes it obvious that she knows English, because she doesn't need people's answers to be translated for her. She often falls back on "Confucius say"-type Oriental aphorisms, and rarely shows any of the emotional complexity you see in other characters. The show doesn't go too far with this, however, until the heroin-factory scene in the penultimate episode, which I'll address later.

A moment should be devoted to the importance that Karen, Foggy and Ben play as well. Not only are they humanized in many ways, they both significantly advance the plot, unlike most non-superpowered characters in superhero stories. Without Foggy getting his girlfriend to get important documents from Landman & Zach, and Karen and Ben's dogged pursuit of the Consolidated story (to say nothing of Karen killing Wesley), Matt would never have defeated Fisk no matter who he beat up. Karen and Foggy also react far more believably to the violence they are experiencing than most "sidekick" characters. After throwing the gun she killed Wesley with in the river, Karen immediately goes home and drinks an entire bottle of whiskey and falls on the ground shaking in terror. Then she goes back to the fight. Her trauma is believable, but it never makes her helpless or weak.

And Foggy reacts in the most realistic way I've ever seen to learning that your best friend is a masked vigilante. He is furious at the betrayal, fearful for Matt, and rightfully points out the hypocrisy of Matt telling Foggy and Karen to follow the law while Matt secretly pursues his idea of justice entirely outside of it. Foggy struggles with the conflict between being honest with Karen and keeping his word to Matt that he won't tell her about Matt's actions - though by the end of the show I think they're kind of being assholes by still not telling her what's actually going on.

Ben Urich was also a rich and believable character, a crusading journalist fallen on hard times. Which was all the more disappointing when the show let Fisk kill him. Really, Daredevil, you have to kill the Black guy? And he knowingly sacrifices himself for Karen, not telling Fisk that she was with him when they talked to Fisk's mother. It might be that Urich's death is a central part of the comic, which I haven't read enough of. But the trope of the Black person giving their life to save a White hero is a trope this show didn't need to fall back on.

I have one more significant criticism of this show, and it's not a small one. In the episode "The Ones We Leave Behind," the second to last of the first season, the show unfortunately slips into unnecessary Orientalism and ableism with Gao's opium warehouse. Begin with fact that Chinese Gao is the heroin dealer. The story of evil Chinese seducing white people with opiates is an old one in America, and goes back to the sensationalistic stories about opium dens of the 19th century (in spite of the fact that history shows that it was Europeans who enforced opium on China, literally at gunpoint in the Opium War). We had already learned earlier that Gao's workers at the opium factory were all blind. My son and I debated whether Gao blinded them or they were people who just happened to be blind. The show's explanation was actually worse than either of those explanations, as Gao explains: "They blinded themselves. Because they had faith in me."

Oh, those mystical Orientals! Poking their own eyes out because of misplaced loyalty to the Dragon Lady! And the show's treatment of these blind people ruins a lot of the pro-blind aspects of this show. When a person loses their eyesight, it means they can't see anymore, and nothing else. It does not make them voiceless heroin-shuffling zombies as they are in Gao's factory.

To call Matt blind is really only true in the most literal of senses. While there may be a few things he literally can't sense, such as colors, printed text and two-dimensional images, his superpowered senses in other areas leaves him with little of the physical disadvantages blind people really face. He can sense when people nod or make other nonverbal gestures, and he faces none of the concrete danger a sightless person normally faces in walking around in a city. On the other hand, the disadvantages a person with a disability deal with go far beyond physical. Matt identifies as a blind person and therefore faces all of the prejudices that a person with a disability faces, and the show is fairly believable in this way. Which is why it's a disappointment when the show takes the only other blind people (besides Stick, who has basically the same superpowers Matt has) and dehumanizes and others them through their Orientalism and circumstance.

Hopefully the show will improve in this area in the second season. Because we need superhero shows that address in a somewhat believable way the real-life consequences of people taking the law into their own hands, dressing up in costumes and beating up bad guys.

1. The hand-wavy excuse used by the show is that HK is a slum now because the "Battle of New York," AKA the Avengers vs. the Chitauri, tore the place down. But that is not a very good explanation, because, due to recent events, we know exactly what happens to a neighborhood when a catastrophic attack tears part of it down. And Battery Park city did not become a violent slum in the early 2000s. Also, Fisk's backstory suggests that HK has been as it is now for a long time; this is not a recent event.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Poverty Culture" is a symptom of poverty, not a cause

Let's talk about a ghetto. I won't name it, but you'll recognize the symptoms. Drug abuse and alcoholism were rampant, and most mothers were young and unwed. Brutal gangs controlled the neighborhood and on average one person was murdered a day. No one was punished for these crimes because the police were to terrified to even enter the neighborhood. 

Writers agonized about the place, and charitable groups tried to help. But most people agreed that it was probably incurable because of the culture of the people who lived there. They simply didn't know how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some thought it was endemic to their race, while the more enlightened simply thought they were too enmeshed in the culture of despair to ever escape. The ghetto had persisted for more than 70 years, and no one expected it to change. 


David Brooks might have been talking about just such a place in a recent column in the Times this weekend about how the real problem with places like Sandtown-Winchester in Baltimore is the culture of the place. In a complete misreading of the an interview of David Simon of "The Wire", he explains that the problem is the "informal guardrails" of life came off (the "guardrails" that Simon described being a knowledge of when cops would beat the crap out of you). Brooks complains that "half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school" and that the attitudes of people in Sandtown "discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition." 


Brooks is far from alone of course. Whenever people talk about urban poverty, especially among black people, someone will ask whether anything we do will change without a change in the culture of poverty that's filled up the place. 


Let's go back to the ghetto I was speaking about at the beginning of the article. It was called Five Points, and it made Sandtown-Winchester look like Mayfield, USA by comparison. The level of brutality and desperation of Five Points in the 19th century simply have no comparison in America today. The horror of this place is well documented in the book "Gangs of New York." When we think of "gang wars" today we generally think of gangs doing drive-by killings or individual "hits", a series of spread out murders. Gang wars in Five Points, on the other hand, were more like actual urban warfare we would expect to see today in the Middle East: bands of armed people filling the streets and battling to the death with guns, knives and clubs. The life of a Five Points resident was as cheap as a penny dropped in the streets. 


And most people thought that the brutality and desperation was an inevitable symptom of the cultures of the ethnicities that filled it - Catholics (mostly Irish and Italians), Jews and Chinese*. These kinds of people simply didn't have the moral principles and work ethic that Protestant Americans did.


Obviously, Catholics Americans, Jewish Americans and Asian Americans are viewed very differently today. Some people might argue that, contrary to what thinkers of the time believed, there is some quality of these cultures that led them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Mysteriously, however, the cultural magic didn't show itself for the 70 years that Five Points persisted.

What happened? I think it's very simple: they got good jobs. A combination of New York industry and union-protected public sector jobs (often created by the Irish-dominated Tammany Hall) allowed people of disadvantaged ethnicities to make families, own homes and feel secure. These people went on to send their children to college, and became part of America's middle class. Their descendants often moved to the more prosperous suburbs, and now Bill O'Reilly defends White America on TV and Antonin Scalia stands up for traditional morals on the Supreme court.

Why didn't Black America take advantage of the same opportunity? First of all, many of them did. There is a strong Black middle class in New York. But as Irish and Italian Americans went from being "ethnic" to being "White," they found it advantageous to preserve their position by adopting some of the same prejudices that White Americans already had. No more evidence is needed of this than the brutal murders of Black Americans during the Draft Riots during the Civil War, murders every bit as brutal as the lynchings that took place later in the South. 


As a result, jobs that were available to Irish and Italian Americans weren't available to Black Americans, and the middle class suburbs that grew in the middle of the 20th century explicitly excluded Black people. 


If you look at any community with ongoing poverty and little hope, you'll find most of the same symptoms that fill Sandtown-Winchester: unwed mothers, drug abuse, gang warfare and persistent crime. 


Want evidence? During the end of the 20th century, the industrial jobs that elevated many groups into the American middle class were exported to developing nations. Many communities that had supported themselves on manufacturing jobs suddenly had no well-paying jobs. Many mostly-White suburbs have become desperately poor. And what do you see in these communities? Oxycontin abuse, unwed motherhood, and increasing violence. Somehow their Protestant work ethic did nothing to protect them from the culture of poverty. 


What does Sandtown-Winchester need? Simple. They need good jobs that are available to people without a college education that can support a family. Some people, of course, will not take advantage of the opportunity. But most people will. 


*There were some Black Americans in Five Points as well, but they were a minority. 


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Conservatives Say Always Protest Peacefully, Unless You're White

Fox News is filled with people deploring the violence that's happened in Baltimore. More than a few were eager to remind Baltimore protestors about Martin Luther King's nonviolent methods. The way that conservatives praise MLK today would have shocked conservatives of his time, such as William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, who considered him at best a dangerous subversive and ad worst a terrifying communist.  But then Martin Luther King would barely recognize the stout conservative that is known as Martin Luther King on Fox News today.

The important part, they emphasize, is that all protests should be peaceful and the police should be respected. Ted Cruz said, "The vilification of law enforcement has been fundamentally wrong and it has hurt the minority community." Needless to say, Obama is to blame for this. Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, is furious because it sounds like the Democratic Mayor of Baltimore said she gave the protestors "space to destroy." These politicians are encouraging people to commit violence, and vilifying the police! It's really inexcusable. 


In completely unrelated news, Ted Cruz recently told Brietbart News that the Second Amendment is 'A Fundamental Check on Government Tyranny.' What does that mean? It means that if the government gets too far in the business of an upstanding American citizen, they can get out their AK-47s and tell them to back the f**k off. That's what Cliven Bundy did, which Ted Cruz called an “unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government upon.” 

Bundy didn't want to pay to graze on some land, which the law said he should. He has all kinds of baroque theories about why he shouldn't have to, but a federal judge said he did. He didn't pay but grazed there anyway for more than 20 years. When BLM officials and law enforcement rangers -- ie police officers -- showed up to round the cattle up, a bunch of "Sovereign Citizens," "Oath Keepers" and militias with guns showed up to prevent them. During the protests, Bundy said, "We're about ready to take the country over with force!" The conservative media swooned, until Bundy shockingly revealed himself to be a disgusting racist, upon which the conservative media responded, "Cliven who?"

Clearly you can see what the Baltimore protestors did wrong here -- they didn't have any guns. Instead, they (actually, a very tiny minority of them) smashed police car windows with trash cans and threw rocks at cops. If, instead, they'd faced down the Baltimore Police Department with assault weapons like Cliven Bundy, Ted Cruz would be praising them as heroes!

Hah hah, just kidding. When the conservative media says that the Second Amendment is a "check on government tyranny," they mean it's a check on government tyranny against people who don't have too much melanin. Did a single person encourage Cliven Bundy and his followers to consider Martin Luther King's example? Of course not.

So there you go. Black people, consider the example of Martin Luther King and march peacefully. White people, grab your weapons!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vulnerability in client-side YouTube requests?

UPDATE: I can see that this is not an issue unless someone is logging in with an OAUTH2 ID, which you can keep secret, which in my case I'm not doing. But if you are using it in your JavaScript code, it is a concern. I think I just realized there is a fairly significant vulnerability for anyone using only client-side requests (js, jquery, ajax, etc.) for YouTube content. To get the videos, you have to pass an "API key" or "OAuth key -- basically kinds of passwords -- in your requests. But if you're just using client-side code, then the key is right there if someone knows how to view source. They can then create their own requests, and if they can trick YT to think the request came from your URL (which doesn't seem too hard) then they could delete your videos, or add a hardcore porn video or whatever to your channel or playlist. It seems like I wouldn't be the first to think of this, but if you look at the "sample code" on the Google API page, they have the key right in code, like this:
GET https://www.googleapis.com/youtube/v3/playlistItems?part=snippet&maxResults=50&playlistId=PLPmaD9xD-rAXRXDBDtULmPUqyDeDhKt-k&key={YOUR_API_KEY} *
Am I missing something, or is this extremely dangerous? *updated for a better example

Friday, October 10, 2014

What do "liberal" Islam-haters actually want from us?


Imagine a moment that, as a liberal, I'm trying to say something that will make Sam Harris and Bill Maher really happy (assuming they cared what I thought about anything). So let me make the following argument, all of which I believe:

  • I believe that all the gods that people worship, including Allah, are fictional beings that don't exist. (1)
  • This implies that no one, including Mohammed, has ever been spoken to by a god or given a divine revelation. 
  • Therefore, every holy book, including the Koran, that claims to be divine revelation is entirely the invention of human beings.
  • Therefore, anything that those books have to say about what women wear, who has sex with who, or what god people choose to believe in have no authority. (2) No one has a right to punish anyone for not covering their face or body, believing in the wrong god, being gay, or anything else that doesn't hurt other people. 
  • Also, I'm going to take a stand and say I'm against cutting people's heads off in all circumstances.
Is that good? I've "spoken out" against the "bad ideas" being espoused by certain sects of Muslim in the Middle East. Wait, let me try this again:

I'M AGAINST CUTTING PEOPLE'S HEADS OFF IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES.

(Weird, my <blink> tag isn't working. Must be decremented.)

Would Harris and Maher be happy? No, of course not. I'm an atheist too, and I also believe that all the religions, whatever good ideas they might have, are at their core, wrong, in the sense that their gods don't exist and they don't have any magic powers. But that's not what Harris and Maher want, is it? 

No, they want me to say that, but also that Islam is worse than all the other religions. That it, in particular, is a "mother lode of bad ideas." 

But rather than continuing to uselessly point out the intellectual inconsistencies of their position, it's worth asking why this is so important to them that we "speak out."

If you read my bullet points, you learned exactly nothing about my beliefs you didn't know if you've met me more than once. That I would believe these things is ridiculously obvious, not just about me but about pretty much any much any other liberal atheist. Nevertheless, Maher and Harris want liberals to "speak out" against Islam in particular. 

But what for? Who would we be speaking to? Who would we be persuading? The people who we might hope to actually persuade don't, to say the least, give a rat's ass what we think. In fact, our disapproval would be a balm to them if anything. 

But, Harris might say, you liberals always bitching about how bad we treat the people in Guantanamo or how bad the Israelis are treating the Palestinians and how White policemen shoot Black men and so on. But what ISIS is doing is worse! Why don't you complain more about them?

Skip over that this is literally middle-school reasoning (3): "They're torturing and killing people too! Why don't they get a Time Out?"

The thing is, when liberals complain about the actions of the governments of America, Britain or Israel it's not because we think less of those governments but because we think more. Because we actually believe that for all the horrible things they do there are actually civilized people there that just might listen and make a change. ISIS will never stop being horrible, no matter what we say. The American government, every now and then, actually does. 

There's a bit more to it. As a Western person, I'm part of a culture that I feel in a place to actually influence, in whatever tiny a way. There is a history of Western people going to other cultures and telling they're wrong and how they should live instead; it's called Imperialism, and in general it hasn't ended well. 

Maher and Harris think they're being brave and taking a stand, when in fact they're giving a sermon to the choir that will influence nobody. There is a reason they are becoming Fox News' favorite atheists. 

In a sense, the "defense" I'm giving of Islam here is the most pathetic defense anyone could have hoped for, and certainly not one they'd want. I'm saying it's no better or worse than any other religion. Like every religion (and a lot of secular or atheist cults that aren't religions, like communism), it has some good ideas and some really horrible ones, and the quality of the ideas that are applied depends on the quality of the person applying them. 

But that's boring, isn't it? No wonder I don't have a talk show.

1 This sounds harsh, but really it's what pretty much anyone believes about any god they don't personally worship. So in this sense I share this opinion of Allah with Harris, but also Pat Robertson, the Dalai Lama, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist party and everyone else in the world who isn't a Muslim.

2 I also believe that if God did exist, They wouldn't give a rats ass about all that stuff anyway, but it's not directly part of my argument.

3 I teach middle schoolers, so I know. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

"Hey, We Kill People Too!" or How Our Narrative Privileges Violence

The Nonfiction Hugo Award recently went to an essay by Kameron Hurley, "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative." I heard it on PodCastle the week it won the Hugo. It's a good essay, and an important one. Central to the essay is that in every war, women have played a combat role. This is contrary to the way it is portrayed in much fiction, where women are portrayed as only side characters or victims. If the importance of this wasn't clear before, the disgusting treatment of Anita Sarkeesian when she challenged the role of women in video games shows how this victim narrative needs to be challenged. I am saying all this because I don't disagree with Hurley's essay or doubt its importance when I ask a question that has been bothering me since I heard it. Why do we have to show women can kill too for them to matter in our narrative?

No one I know personally has ever killed anyone (that I know of). Even if you know people who are military veterans, and even if they've seen combat, it is statistically likely they've never killed anyone themselves (most soldiers in combat don't). If they did, it was likely a traumatic and damaging experience.

The warrior, in the literal sense, is central to our narrative, and not just in science fiction and fantasy. To demonstrate this wastes my words; look at the bestseller list and top grossing films. And yet almost none of us have ever met an actual warrior. A warrior is not just a soldier. A warrior isn't even just someone who's fought  and killed. It's a person who does it regularly as a vocation. A non-figurative warrior is a person whose central identity is that he or she kills people.   I'm going to speculate that even most soldiers that have seen combat, that have had to kill, would likely resist this identity (perhaps especially so, given their painful experience).  

In "old-fashioned" narratives of the warrior, women are pushed into secondary roles. At best they're wives and daughters kissing brave warrior men off to battle. More often they're pawns and targets to be protected and rescued from the bad guys. At worst they are sexual playthings or helpless victims of physical and sexual violence. Clearly something needed to change.

The implicit solution that one could draw from Hurley's essay is the path that has been pursued by more and more authors today: make the women do some fighting too. From science fiction to fantasy to video games, more and more authors find a way to add in female warriors. Some are realistic and believable, like Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. Others are ridiculous male fantasies, like the tramp-stamped vampire killers on the cover of so many urban fantasy novels.

I like a good female warrior as much as anyone. And particularly in speculative fiction, even if Hurley's main point was wrong, there is no reason not to have female warriors. We're imagining other worlds, not our own, we can imagine them however we want. Showing women can fight is one good response to the victimization narrative.

But, forgetting the issue of victimization for a second, what about women who really are "just" wives and mothers and daughters? How easily do we allow ourselves to assume that that is naturally, obviously, a secondary role. And yet we (hopefully) don't see actual women we know whose central identity is caring for a family as unimportant. And yet in most narratives that aren't primarily targeted at women, it's assumed that such a person plays a minor role.

I think of my own mother when I write this. My mother is a talented artist in many different media, a deep and wise thinker, an exceptional gardener, and a valuable friend to a large number of people. And yet from society's view, the most impactful role of her life is being an emotional core to our family. My brother and I wouldn't be the people we are without her love and guidance. And my father, who is a successful businessman who built a business worth millions of dollars, would quickly volunteer he'd be helpless without her. And yet in much of the narrative on which our country is based there is no "important" role for her.

Of course, action adventure narratives wouldn't have a role for most of us. We're not warriors, and we don't do dangerous or exciting things. And there are plenty of narratives of people living relatively non-violent lives, such as Mad Men. And yet I don't see those stories shaping our society in the same way, especially with a younger audience. For this audience, especially for young men, the narrative privilege is with the people who commit violence.

Does it matter? Again, it's just one strain of our narrative. Does the privilege of the killer matter so much? I say that it does.

Liberia is currently experiencing a terrifying Ebola epidemic, one that could theoretically spread to threaten us and the whole world. Now, suppose I were to say that we need to send a huge force of doctors and construction workers over to Liberia and create a hospital of the quality of a major New York Hospital like NYU in order to treat the victims of ebola and get the epidemic under control.

Many people would point out the logistical difficulties: it would cost billions, the people who travel would be putting their lives at risk from Ebola, and it might not work. Imagine me saying, "Very well, what would you do? If you don't have a better idea, then we have to do it."

It's a hard conversation to imagine, especially on television. Most people would say it would be nice, but we just can't go everywhere and solve every problem.

But if I propose spending a similar amount of money and put an equal number of people at risk to deal with the situation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, I might be taken seriously enough to be put on a Sunday morning talk show. And if I said that unless people had a better idea we have to bomb, George Stephanopolous might acknowledge I have a good point.  

Both situations involve alleviating great suffering. Both situations involve trying to stop a problem that potentially puts us at risk. Both would be quite expensive. But one is priveleged over the other because it involves killing people.

So should we stop watching action adventure stories? No, the truth is I love them. So what would I like to change?

Here is a challenge I'd offer to people who are writing any genre of adventure stories. Absolutely, acknowledge that women fight too, as do gay people, transgender people and people with disabilities. But...make a role for some men and women that don't fight. A real role, a role where they make a difference.

This can be done. The show Sons of Anarchy, though not always perfect, does this well. It is a show with a lot of violence. The Sons usually kill several people per episode. But it also features as major characters Gemma, the "old lady" of SOA President Clay, and Tara, the girlfiend of VP Jackson.

Though Gemma and Tara occasionally are forced into situations where they have to defend themselves with violence, mostly they are "just" wives and mothers, and certainly not "warriors" like Jax and Clay. But their roles are not secondary. Their actions have as big an impact on the events in the show as that of the men. Unser, though originally a policeman, remains important to the plot even when he is retired and dying of cancer.

Even "heroes" don't need to be warriors. Some of my favorite stories feature fairly regular people forced into dangerous adventures and having to survive using just the skills and knowledge they have. Bilbo Baggins is the most famous example, but there are many others.

So Hurley is right. Women have always fought, and our narratives should acknowledge this. But most women, like most people, haven't fought, and even the men and women that have fought have usually done it because they had to.


But when you're writing an adventure story, try to find a way to make someone that is "just" a wife or mother, or janitor or barista or retired security guard or hairstylist, matter as much as the people with swords, laser guns and automatic weapons. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Time to say goodbye to "Hello World"


If you have taken any programming class in your life, you've probably written a "Hello World" program. When I first learned BASIC, it looked like:

10 PRINT "HELLO WORLD!"

In a modern programming language like Python things often start out pretty much the same. At the code.org "Eliza" lesson, the first program is a "Hello World" program. Most intro programming books still start out with a HW program.

The point of a "Hello World" program is to show the student that they can give the computer a command and make it do something. Then you might write a simple program that asks for your name and says "Hello " + name + ", how are you today?" Then you might write a "for" loop that counts to 10.

And it could be exciting at first.  Sure, you could just tell the computer to say your name now, but pretty soon you'd be writing Ultima IV! It's the same kind of optimism that makes a kid slogging through Heian Shodan in Karate for the first time imagine that if they just keep it up they'll be like Jackie Chan.

But then again, when we were kids it was a lot easier to believe. When I was a kid we played computer games on the Apple II++, almost all of them illegally pirated off pre-Internet bulletin boards we dialed into with modems like Matthew Broderick used in Wargames. Though we couldn't write games like that ourselves, they used simple blocky graphics not too different from the blocks and circles we could draw after a few weeks of learning BASIC.

Some of the games were even written in BASIC, with code that we could see and modify. Most of them were compiled into machine language, of course, but even those could be tinkered with by getting a hex editor program and screwing around with the code. We were mostly trying to break the copy protection, which was usually found in the place were there were lots of FF's. Of course back then we didn't know that FF represented
the maximum value of a byte, or what language these compiled programs were originally written in. But there seemed an accessible bridge between the simple code we were writing and the code we were using day to day.

But imagine a student today trying to see the the bridge that goes from "Hello World" to games like Halo or Skyrim. When I was young, many video games were written by a single person, or at most a small team of three or four people. Kids today may not realize that a few people with a laptop couldn't program Call of Duty any more than few people with a video camera could make Guardians of the Galaxy; both call for multi-million dollar budgets, enormous teams and expensive equipment.

But that's not the biggest difference. Because today, even programmers working alone rarely write a whole program from scratch, any more than a mechanic builds a car from scratch. Nearly every programmer out there is hacking away at enormous existing legacy programs, most of which they don't understand, usually by cannibalizing interfaces and classes from other working programs that themselves were codged together out of older, working code. There is just too much useful code out there for programmers to waste their time rewriting Wheel.class when there are countless different versions of it that can be downloaded and plugged into your program.

But starting from "Hello World," students don't realize this. They look at these sprawling pieces of code, like the programs that make Netflix or YouTube work, and despair of ever writing anything like that. No wonder they want to quit. A Little League baseball player can look at what Derek Jeter does and see that he is doing pretty much the same thing they are, just way, way better. A beginning programming student looking at modern code is more like a kid making a lego car looking at a Formula 1 machine.

Sure, you can try to tell them that the programs they use everyday were made by thousands of people standing on the shoulders of thousands more, all putting together little blocks of code made of other people's code and putting it on top of even more existing code. But if all you're doing is teaching them syntax, such as the command for taking input or drawing circles or counting from 0 to 10, they are missing a big part of what programmers do today.

Most programming languages that are used commercially today, such as C++, Java and C#, are "object oriented." This means that programs are written as modular chunks, known as classes or interfaces, that do things and store data and can be reused in many different contexts without having to change the code inside. If there is a class that already does what you need, you figure out how it works and plug it in. And there are thousands of useful classes in most modern languages that do everything from transferring data over a network to drawing sophisticated 3d images to encrypting your information.  This kind of modular programming is so useful that even languages like Perl or Python that weren't originally object oriented now have OO features.

On top of that, programmers today use sophisticated development environments like Eclipse or Visual Studio that automatically highlight compile errors as you write your code, organize your different classes and files, autocomplete your commands, and take care of a lot of the boring details like importing packages.

None of this is to say that programming is easy. Professional programmers will routinely spend 12 or more hours slaving over an algorithm trying to get it to work they way they want. Any longtime coder can tell you stories about looking up at 11pm and realizing they haven't eaten since breakfast. But it's hard in a different way than beginning programming students think.

So how can we teach students to program in a way that prepares them for today's world? I am still figuring this out myself, but here is my manifesto:

1) Instead of starting from scratch with simple programs that do almost nothing, have students start working on existing programs that do interesting things, and show them how to make simple changes to them.

2) Instead of starting with simple commands like "print()" and "drawrect()" show them how to put together larger classes that do complex things into a more sophisticated program.

3) Object oriented programming should no longer be seen as an advanced topic to be gotten to after learning all of the simpler syntax, but rather the basic element of all programming. Creating objects, using their methods and passing them arguments should happen almost immediately.

4) Focus less on the syntax of a particular language and more on the big ideas of how programs and computers work. The first languages I learned were BASIC and PASCAL, neither of which anyone I know uses anymore. (I don't even remember a single command for PASCAL). Since then at various times I've written programs or scripts in many languages, including PERL, Python, Flash Action Script, JavaScript, PHP, Visual Basic and Java. I can learn these languages because most of the same kinds of structures occur in every language, such as conditionals, collections and loops. When you know how to write a for/next loop in Python, writing one in C++ is as simple as Googling the syntax. Of course each language has its own unique features that other languages don't have, but when you have a foundation it's not so hard to learn. When you know how a computer accesses memory it's a lot easier to understand how a pointer in C works.

5) Most of all, don't teach beginning students to write programs that do abstract, boring things. There was a time when getting a computer to do anything was an accomplishment, but those days are a long time ago. Sorting an array is a valuable skill for a Computer Science student, but pretty boring for a young kid learning to program for the first time. Teach them to do things like make video games, put their messages into secret code that only their friends can read, or make interactive Web pages.  Have them put together existing methods and methods you've created to make something exciting. Sure, they still won't be as good as professional-quality programs, but they will see the connection believe that they can get there if they stick with it.

I think we're just beginning to understand how to really teach programming. It's not like teaching math, where you need all the basics of arithmetic before you can do anything interesting, and it's not like teaching language, where you're building off skills that are instinctive. It's a completely different kind of thinking, and its application goes way beyond computers. I fantasize about a day when school is for reading, writing, 'rithmatic, and...some synonym for coding that starts with 'r.' 

But it's never going to happen until we learn to teach it right.