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. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Bronycon 2014: What I saw

I was walking back to the convention center with my son. Coming the other way, a girl of about ten or eleven walking with her family threw her arms open for us as if we were long lost friends. We were complete strangers, but she hugged us both.

"Fees Brony hugs!" she said, then walked on.

This scene (far from the only unsolicited hug I got at Bronycon)  illustrates the My Little Pony community as well as anything else.

I'm not a Brony, but my son is. He begged us half a year ago to take him to Bronycon. I ignored him for awhile; at his age passions come and go. But he was persistent, so eventually I bought tickets. It was in Baltimore this year,  or "Baltimare" as it says on the badge.

I'm not going to tell you what a Brony is like as if you don't know. But it's important to emphasize that Bronies are first and foremost fans of the currently running "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" series, run by Lauren Faust; the rest is supplemental. In preparation for the con, I watched a few episodes with my son, the ones he said were significant (the two Nightmare Moon episodes that began the series and the first two episodes with Discord) along with a few others.

It's a very good show. There is no doubt it's made for little girls, but the quality of the art, the music, the writing and the voice acting are all top notch. That doesn't make it a rarity today, necessarily. We are living in a golden age of kids' TV. Shows like "Phineas and Ferb," "Adventure Time," "Legend of Korra" and many others stand head and shoulders over the crap they were making for kids in my generation. The difference was made clear in "Riffing is Magic," an event we attended Friday night in which the wretched old 80s My Little Pony show was played, accompanied by MST3K quips from the panel. So there are a lot of good kids shows today, but they don't have a fan base that will put together a con and attend it in the thousands. Why does MLP:FIM?

After seeing thousands of Bronies together this weekend, I'm beginning to understand.

The first thing we went to was the vendor's area, which I'll talk about later. We looked around, and Jeff was fairly restrained about wanting to buy things. I told him he could buy some stuff, but to look around and make sure he knew what he wanted because we couldn't spend a lot.

The next thing we went to was a woodcarving panel, because Jeff has become interested in carving. It was mostly a demonstration; the man who led the panel was carving a figure of Luna's "cutie mark," the brand that each pony has to distinguish her personality or special quality. He gave some guidance (bass wood is the best wood to start with, apparently). But much of the time he was just carving into a camera and talking about his favorite ponies. "Is this boring?" he asked at one point, and the crowd responded urgently to the contrary.  "What else are we here for?" someone said.

We took a break after that and spent some time in the hotel, since for a kid Jeff's age that's a thrill in itself. When we came back, it was time for the first night of Bronypalooza, the Brony concert of the year.


As with a number of events, Bronypalooza began with a long line through switchback barriers. As with all of them, the line was practically unnecessary: once the event was opened you could just walk straight in without waiting at all. But for the bronies the line was its own pleasure. Because of the barriers, you kept walking back and forth past the same people, and every time was an opportunity for a "bro-hoof," the MLP fist-bump that was the universal greeting here.

Bronypalooza itself is a lot like any other rock concert. It was pro-level in every way: there were huge colored track lights, enormous thumping speakers and really good bands in every genre. There was a boy-band pair whose name I can't remember, followed by an acoustic singer-songwriter named (I think) MondoPony. On Saturday night there was a metal band playing a Metallica-like song about Discord and a number of dubstep DJs (especially the amazing Alex S.) who would be right at home in the best dance clubs I've ever been in. You might forget where you are for a moment until someone started singing "Everypony Smile" and all the young men earnestly start in. And you noticed they were all holding Pinkie Pie plushies.

Consider the degree of rebellion in what they are holding in their hands. At that age, there is an enormous pressure to prove one's masculinity. This is why young men do so much of the stupid shit they do, sex and violence and rock and roll. Becoming a Brony is, among other things, a big FU to the expectations of what a young man in America ought to be. But is it so surprising? What kind of rebellion is left for this generation? Everything has been done: grow your hair long, get high, fight and march and stick baby pins through your cheek. It seems there's nothing left, and then a bunch of young men embrace a TV show made for 6 year old girls.

When I say embrace, I mean it. This is not ironic; that's been done. To wear a faded t-shirt with faded My Little Pony characters and a rainbow to a punk rock show is the kind of thing my generation specialized in back in the 90s. We might have even watched the show and argued over which pony was the best, if we'd been high enough.

What we never would have done, while standing in line for 30 minutes waiting to get into a show, is enthusiastiacally chant, "fun, fun, fun," and mean it. I know I keep coming back to this, but the most foreign thing about this to me, as an irony-numbed Gen-X veteran of the 90s, is the utter sincerity of the whole thing.


That might make the whole thing sound cult-y. But the individualism of everypony at the convention is visible in the outpouring of artistic creativity in the vendor's area. The room would be familiar to anyone who's been to any major fandom con. There is now a whole culture of people who make a living pushing the boundaries of copyright and making fan-related art and selling it on Etsy and at cons. What's extraordinary here is the manic remixing of MLP with nearly every other touchstone of fandom and pop culture: Firefly, Bioshock, Portal, Minecraft, the Avengers, kaiju, Adventure Time, Game of Thrones, and countless others I no doubt didn't recognize. And Doctor Who; MLP and Doctor Who have an especially large overlap in fanbase. One of the most popular "background characters," (after Vinyl Scratch) is Doctor Hooves, a pony that looks like the Tenth Doctor.

There is a difference here too. In the Bob's Burgers "Equestranaut" episode,  a creepy middle-aged fan scams Tina out of her rare pony figure, because he greedily wants to own all the best figures. One with any experience of other fandoms can see why one would expect at least some MLP fans to be this way. I couldn't help be reminded of the moment when my son and another man went for the last Pinkie Pie plushie at a vendor's table. But when the man saw that Jeff wanted it, he said, "Oh, you have it," and Jeff responded with, "No, you," and they went back and forth that way like Chip and Dale. Finally they agreed on a game of rock, paper, scissors, which Jeff won.


But the wide range of hand-made plushies and hand-drawn art is only a beginning of the creativity on display at Bronycon. In addition to the bands playing at Bronypalooza there was a second stage for less well-known bands that was occupied all day, every day. MLP has a huge amount of fan-made animation, much of which was being shown on various screens. As a break from the first day of Bronypalooza we saw films where entire episodes of Disney shows (including the commercials) were overlaid with clips from MLP. But there are also entire hand-drawn episodes of nearly equal quality to the original show. There is an entire stable of fan-created ponies with their own fanbase. There are spectacular hand-drawn music videos, some of popular songs, some of dubstep like that of Alex S., and some of the enormous number of songs written by Brony musicians. There are video games, including an entire remake of Super Smash Bros. Brawl featuring the MLP characters.

Then of course there's the cosplay. That leads me to the cosplay contest, which was later on Saturday. I'm jumping around in time a bit now, but I noticed something at the cosplay contest that connected to something I saw at Bronypalooza as well.

The costumes were impressive, no doubt. I'm sure it's better at Comic-Con (though some of the costumes had probably been worn there recently enough as well). They got big cheers, of course. But just after a spectacular hand-made Twilight Sparkle costume would go up, someone would go on with a few things they'd obviously just bought at the vendor. And people cheered them nearly as much. It was the same during the concert. A dance pit would open up and someone would throw down some spectacular hip-hop dancing. But then right after a regular schmoe would go in and flop around no better than I would be capable of. And everyone would be just as happy for them.

And that illustrates what makes  MLP:FIM different, I think. That's what gives it a fan base that will throw a con that 20,000 people will attend. Because unlike most of the other high-quality kids' shows on Nickelodeon or Disney, it is not drenched in irony. It can be funny, but it does not throw in clever pop-culture references that only adults will get. For a long time it's been an open secret kids' cartoons have two audiences: little kids and stoned adults, and the makers of most shows take that into account. But MLP:FIM is not really made for stoners. Instead it drew a different kind of adult audience: people who really believe in friendship and caring and loyalty.

And that's what leads to the open-arms inclusion of everybody that comes. In the Equestria con in Bob's Burgers the attendees are almost all creepy middle-aged men. In fact, the majority of the Bronies at the convention were guys between fifteen and thirty or so. There were plenty of guys my age and older, and boys Jeff's age (11) and younger.

There were a significiant number of women and girls as well, by my eyes maybe thirty or forty percent. The brony community is sometimes described as "young men who like MLP and their admirers," but these weren't all or even mostly Bronies' girlfriends. Some of them were teen girls and young women, and a significant portion were what is known in the MLP community as the "original fan base," i.e. little girls -- and why not? Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference, and it's possible that given the size of the MLP community now it's easy to imagine going straight from being a little girl who braids an MLP's mane straight to being a full-on Pegasister.

The point was, contrary to Tina's Equestria experience, everyone is just as welcome here. That's why a 10 year old girl feels comfortable hugging a strange man and his son in the street.

I'm not going to say I know nothing creepy happened to anyone. I know cons and I know young men, and anything wrong that went down wouldn't have happened to someone like me. Hopefully the con has a good harassment policy and it was enforced when necessary.

But this really was different from other cons I've been to, from the people offering random bro-hooves to anyone they saw to the young women and men walking around saying "free hugs!" -- and really giving them.

There was another night of Bronycon, and Jeff cleaned up like Texas Slim at the Appaloosa Hold 'Em game. He got an autograph of one of his favorite animators, Animated James, at the quiz panel "You Don't Know Applejack." We saw more animation and music and the cosplay show.

The last event we attended on Sunday was a Brony census; in addition to all the other arts practiced by Bronies, some of them are hard-working statisticians. I don't know how good the data is, since much of it is from online surveys. But I think the answers people gave were probably useful enough to say something.

Some of it wasn't surprising. Bronies tend to come from the upper middle class, and the majority are from families whose parents aren't divorced. The majority are white, and most are men. I saw a larger percentage of nonwhite Bronies than the statistics here suggested, but then again the con was in Baltimore, which is more than 60% Black. Their mean age is 21, and most are between 10 and 30. 72% live with their parents, but that's not so surprising since a lot of them are teenagers or college students.

One might expect that a large percentage of people who participate in something that challenges gender expectations so much are gay or trans, but by the survey answers these populations are no more highly represented than in the general population: 81% of Bronies identify as heterosexual, and almost all are cisgender. 25% are in relationships of 12 months or more, but again I don't think that's atypical for middle class males in that age range.

 There is always that bittersweet moment at the end of a con where you check to make sure you have your badge on only to realize you won't be needing it anymore. I saw it in Jeff's eyes once, and was surprised to be feeling the same way myself. One of the first thing Jeff said as we were leaving was "where is the next one?"


I know Jeff had the time of his life; he told me as much. I had more fun than I ever expected, as well. A lot of it was just the pleasure of spending a whole weekend with my favorite person in the world, my son. But a lot of it was meeting a group of people that have challenged my idea of what it is to be a young man.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Master: Most Pathetic Big Bad Ever?

So I've been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1 with Jeff, and enjoying it quite a lot. I think he is too, but he's not enjoying it quite as much as I hoped. There are some parts that are genuinely scary, usually the Monster of the Week, like the jackal-possessed children and the smokin-hot teacher that's actually a praying mantis, but honestly the first season is pretty ridiculous, and the vampires are the least scary part. At the pinnacle of unscariness is The Master, of whom I must ask: is he the most pathetic big-bad ever?

Here's a typical plotline involving The Master: he gets some supposedly super-strong and scary vampire to go and kill Buffy, or to facilitate some plan to escape the hand-wavy (literally) stuff that keeps him locked inside his lair for some reason. Buffy kills or defeats them, occasionally with the help of Angel, and TM has a screaming temper tantrum like a 3 year old. He's supposed to be like 1000 years old, but he has less maturity than the Chosen One, or whatever he's calling the 9-year-old vamp who is somehow supposed to help him escape. Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coltrane posed more danger to the Dukes of Hazzard than this guy poses to Buff. Cordelia is like 1000 times scarier than this guy.

While I'm on the subject, it is also more ridiculous than ever at my age that a 240-year-old Angel would fall madly in love with a 16 year old Buffy. Although this led to a pretty funny conversation with Jeff, in which he said that Angel looked like a teenager. I said that he looked almost thirty, at which he pointed out that so did all the other "teenagers" in the show.

I wonder if I should just skip straight to the season with Spike and Drusilla?

Friday, May 9, 2014

An imagined conversation with an iOS program:


 "Hello, iTunes, I was told I have to talk to you to get some files from my iPad..."

"Welcome to iTunes! I have lots of music that's really easy to download! What do you want to hear? How about Shakira? She has a new album!"

"Yeah, actually I don't want any music. It's just that I was told that you were the only one that could give me access to my iPad files."

"Hmm...files, files...do you want to watch X-Files? That's a TV show. I also have TV shows. Movies, too!"

"No. No, I don't want music, movies or a TV show. It's just that talking to you is the only way to copy..."

[iOS program assumes a stern but loving expression.]

"We don't use that word 'copy' around here. Some people copy things they are not supposed to. We call them 'pirates.' Hey, I know! Why don't you watch Pirates of the Carribean?"

"I'm not copying anything illegal. I want to copy my files, things I made. My documents, my photos..."

"Photos? Oh, I don't deal with photos. You will want to talk to iPhoto for that. This is iTunes. Tunes is another word for music. But we also have movies and TV shows so I see how that could be very confusing for you. Hey, do you want to watch Looney Tunes?"

"Right, but they're all just files. I just want to put my documents on this backup drive."

"Did you say backup? Why didn't you say so before? I can make a backup for you."

"I can do it myself if I can just see my..."

"Do you want me to make a backup? I can make a backup!"

"Umm, okay. Make a backup."

"Okay! That will be thirty minutes!"

[IOS program  goes in a room and closes the door.]

"Wait! Can't you just..."

[IOS program looks out the door.]

"I'm backing up your files. Do you want me to stop backing up your files? Because then you might lose them all."

"Um, okay, no."

[IOS program closes the door.]

THIRTY MINUTES LATER:

"Did you finish backing up my files?"

"Yes! Backup complete!"

"Great! Can I see the files please?"

"You don't need to see them. They're backed up. Nothing to worry about."

"I know. I mean I need to get at them. Where are my files?"

"They're all backed up, don't you worry."

"I believe you. But I want to work with them."

"You want me to put them back on the iPad?"

"No! I can already see them on the iPad. I want to work with them on another computer. I want to put them on another drive."

"Drive, drive, here we go! Do you want to watch Drive, starring Ryan Gosling?"


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Westeritis: A dangerous new epidemic in fantasy fiction?

So I was incredibly excited to read Elizabeth Bear's new book The Steles of the Sky, the third book in the Eternal Sky trilogy. Since I've begun it, however, I have found that I just can't get into it at all. I'm sticking with it and hoping I'll get over it, but it's a real slog and I keep putting it down for more engaging things, like Clash of Clans. The problem is, there are just too many storylines and each one is too complicated, so I can't keep track of who's who. It may not be fair, but I am tempted to blame George RR Martin.

Anyone who's either read the Game of Thrones books or watched the TV series knows that you practically need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the characters. If you've read the books and you watch the show with someone who hasn't, you'll find they keep asking you, "wait, who is that again?" I haven't watched all the shows, just part of the first season, and when I read recaps of them I don't remember half the people they're talking about.

Is it fair to say that Bear is imitating Martin in trying to balance all these storylines? Does the Eternal Sky trilogy have a case of Westeritis? Certainly it's not that simple. Martin was far from the first person to make fantasy series that sprawl all over the place. But perhaps if the world of Westeros hadn't set the example her editors might have told her to trim things back a bit.

One might say that this kind of thing works for someone like Martin, but not as well for other authors. But honestly is it true that it even works for him? The main storyline is incredibly engaging but it's hard to care about every single one of his characters. This was revealed starkly in A Dance With Dragons, his most recent of the series, which disappointed a lot of readers by focusing entirely on what most people would consider secondary characters and giving us little time with the people we want to know the most about. Part of Bear's TSoTS's book's problem is that it's been a long time since I read the previous book and I don't remember who everyone is. I anticipate a similar problem when Martin finally stops giving us dribs and drabs of The Winds of Winter and finally puts the book out.

For other fantasy authors overcome by the urge to fantastic sprawl with countless pov characters, I prescribe a two aspirin and a dose of Patrick Rothfuss, whose Name of the Wind is as sophisticated and complex a fantasy book as there is out there with only one pov character. The third book of the trilogy is not coming for a while, but I will have no trouble remembering who Kvothe is.

Monsters, anonymous: Helene Wecker's The Golemn and the Jinni

Must we be who we are?

We like to think we make choices all through our lives, but mostly we make the same choice over and over again. So many of our inclinations are baked into us from before we can remember, and we either surrender to our nature or struggle against it our whole lives. In Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni this dilemma faces not only the eponymous monster protagonists, but the Jewish and Syrian immigrants of turn-of-the-century New York they find themselves among. 

Chava, a golem, was made to be the obedient and faithful wife of a European Jewish man named Rotfeld. But Rotfeld died less than a day after bringing her to life on a boat to America, so she soon finds herself alone in the Jewish community on the Lower East Side. Her nature is to serve and obey, and without a master she is assaulted by the needs and wants of everyone around her. She is only saved when the kindly rabbi Avram Meyer recognizes what she is and brings her home.

Ahmad, a Jinni, springs from a lamp when it is repaired by the tinsmith Boutros Arbeely in the now-vanished Little Syria in the West Village. After more than a millennium of imprisonment under circumstances he can't recall he finds himself in a weakened state, bound by an iron band around his wrist to an unknown master. This goes against his nature, which is to drift in freedom above the desert, with no allegiance to anyone. 

Every monster in a book is at least partially a metaphor for something else. Godzilla was partially the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Lestat was partially a gay man in the time of AIDS. Chava and Ahmad are partially newcomers to America, dropped in a bustling city that is only a little bit stranger to them than to the thousands of other immigrants around them. Among other things, this book is a well-researched portrait of its time and place, reason enough to enjoy it. 

But every monster should also be a monster, something other than human, and Chava and Ahmad are. Even their names are simply conventions to allow them to relate to the humans around them; neither being feels especially attached to this central identifying aspect of the human experience. It is a challenge particular to the author of speculative fiction to create a being that is not human but nevertheless possessed of will and desire and needs that engage the reader and drive the plot. And this is Wecker's real strength.

The golem and the jinni have desires and needs, but they are not people's desires. Neither, however, are they stereotypical straightjackets, for each questions and struggles against their urges, just as all the other characters struggle with their own. They each have superhuman strengths and weaknesses, and they fight not to be confined by them. Most of all they live in danger of their inhuman natures being revealed.

Ahmad, a being of fire, can melt metal at a touch, quite a useful skill to the the tinsmith Arbeely. But he has an artistic temperament and struggles against the boredom of day-to-day craftsmanship. His free spirit constantly leads him to put himself in danger of being discovered as an inhuman being, for example when he seduces an uptown socialite.

Chava, a being of clay, has no such urges. She has a boundless work ethic and endurance and puts it to work as a baker and a seamstress. She has to resist the urge to work all night, which would reveal her own superhuman nature. Her drive is to serve and obey anyone, and she instinctively knows what everyone wants. Worse, she has the potential to go into a killing golem rage which would be catastrophic given her superhuman strength.

As the book progresses Ahmad and Chava find their stories intertwined with each others and many other people, among them a demon-possessed doctor, a passionate social worker who has rejected the faith of his rabbi father, a mysterious rabbi-magician and a mute orphan. In addition to being a portrait of its time and place the book engages us in the life of each of its characters, while also plotting them tightly into a fast-moving adventure which unfolds with mysterious secrets about the past of each monster.

The balance that keeps the book alive is that neither of the monsters is entirely bound by their nature, but nor do they entirely escape it. And in that way they are human after all.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

One, two, three... WOW! Those are Fibonacci numbers! (Nymphomaniac)

So I waded through the misanthropy of both parts of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, and I now hate humanity almost one tenth as much as von Trier does. But I didn't want to talk about the whole movie, I just wanted to comment on one element that annoyed me spectacularly: the shallow fake intellectualism of the character Seligman.

The movie is basically a sex addict named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounting her penis-filled life story to an asexual bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard - no, I'm not looking up the HTML code for that 'a' with the circle on top character) after he finds her beat up in the alley. A central theme of the movie is Seligman saying something supposedly smart and intellectual after Joe recounts some sexual encounter. The problem is, most of the 'intellectual' things he says are in fact really stupid.

An example is when Joe says that the first time she had sex, her boyfriend Jerome humped her three times in her vagina and five times in her ass. "Those are Fibonacci numbers!" says Seligman, and goes on to say some hand-wavy stuff about how they're connected to other mathematical things, like the Golden Ratio and such.

While it's true that they are Fibonacci numbers, this is an incredibly trivial and stupid observation to make when confronted with the numbers '3' and '5,' considering there are only two numbers, too little to imply much of a series, especially when these two numbers are part of countless other significant sets and series (the odd numbers, the prime numbers, the smallest Pythagorean triplet, and so on).

A humanities equivalent would be see the letters 'e' and 'a' and then to say 'Amazing! Did you know those are two letters in the name of the name of Ezra Pound, a writer of poetry, an art form also practiced by the great thinkers Rumi and Samuel Taylor Coleridge?'

It might be a little less idiotic if Jerome had humped her 13 and then 21 times, but I'm not sure that Joe could count that high; stupid as Seligman is he's still an intellectual titan compared to her.

In the second movie, when Joe tells  Seligman she lost her ability to orgasm, he tells her something like "you were just like Xeno, who could never reach his goal!" Even Joe gets annoyed here, though not because she recognizes that this is even stupider than the Fibonacci thing. For her situation to resemble Xeno's Paradox she'd have had to tell him that she got asymptotically closer and closer to an orgasm but never quite reached it (a not unheard of situation). Instead, she lost all sexual sensation whatsoever; she never even crossed the starting line. She's more like the Tortoise in Godel, Escher, Bach and the Charles Dodgson dialogue on which the dialogues on that book are based. But I doubt Seligman could get past the second page of that book.

It has occurred to me that von Trier might be doing this on purpose. Maybe Seligman is supposed to be a fool who is convinced that he is a genius. But I don't think so; the stuff he says about fly-fishing are clearly meant to sound really brilliant. No doubt if I knew more about fishing those would look just as dumb to me.

But did you realize that the first word in 'fly fishing' has three letters, and that three is the first digit in pi?
FASCINATING.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Boots on the WHAT? Am I the only person who remembers what Russia IS?

I have watched with my jaw agape as people have discussed our options regarding Ukraine over the last few weeks. Republicans, predictably, are saying that this is only happening because Obama is not "tough" enough. From the other side of the aisle, we get this amusing but naive article from The Onion, mocking us for meekly watching Putin's actions.

The readers of the Onion are at least probably young enough to have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But everyone else lived through the same Cold War that I did. So for those too young to remember or those who somehow blocked out the last 50 years of the 20th Century, let me remind you of some simple realities.

When people start saying they don't want "boots on the ground," they are implying that there are some other military options besides all-out war. Drones, cruise missiles, whatever. This is the delusion of an empire that's gone too far. For some reason no one has been explicit about this simple fact: there are no military options regarding Russia. Period.

Russia is not Iraq or Syria. They're not even Iran or North Korea, countries we could at least theoretically invade and conquer, if only at the expense of a bloody invasion that would kill tens of thousands of Americans and devastate our economy, to say nothing of the innocents that would be slaughtered in those countries.

Russia is one of the few countries, if not the only one, that could quite literally wipe America off the map.

At the time of the end of the Soviet Union, Russia had tens of thousands of nuclear "devices" (i.e. missiles and bombs) pointed at our country on a hair-trigger. It's safe to say there are a lot fewer now, and they're not pointing at us (yet). According to Wikipedia they had "only" 2,700 in 2009. This is enough to turn every community in America larger than Moscow, Idaho into a smoking nuclear crater.

Of course we'd destroy them right back. If that makes you feel any better, you'd get along great with this guy:

 

So, you respond, what are you saying? Just lay back and do nothing?

For practical purposes, yes.

Of course we'll do something. When you can't use military force, the other option is sanctions. We have tried this with Russia before, when they invaded Afghanistan. They didn't work then and they won't work now because we can't get Europe on board.

We can't currently get Europe on board because they are utterly dependent on Russia for Energy. People have pushed Obama to speed up American natural gas exports to Europe. But even if we ramped up this effort enormously, we couldn't come close to matching the 40% of natural gas that Europe currently gets from Russia. And it wouldn't happen for a few years, which would be cold comfort to European leaders watching their citizens riot at their energy bills doubling or tripling.

It's easy to publish funny articles. But unless you have a serious suggestion about what we should do about this, (and vague suggestions about "getting tough" aren't serious), then maybe you should just shut the hell up.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Sheep Among the Wolves: Pierce Brown's Red Rising

If I'd known the plot of Red Rising  I never would have bought it. I'd have called it a knockoff of countless YA post-apocalyptic novels flooding the market and screens right now. The protagonist is 16 years old, and the core of the story is sexy teenagers running around killing each other. Even the marketing of the book compares the protagonist, Darrow, to both Katniss and Ender. (1)

But I don't think anyone would call this book YA. To begin with, though the hero is no older than many YA protagonists, he is no kid. At the beginning of the book he is married and has a job, a real one. He's a Helldiver, basically a badass miner who scrambles around next to a burning hot drill digging helium 3 out of the crust of Mars. He's one of a group of pioneers who are preparing the planet for the coming settlers from Earth, or so he's told. But they aren't treated like heroes, but more like dirt on the bottom of a hypercapitalist caste-driven oligarchy's shoes. Basically, Darrow is a science-fiction version of the narrator of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons."

Also, the book is exceptionally brutal, even compared to the new string of YA/PA novels out now. The core of the plot is an intramural game of capture the flag with a body count that makes the Hunger Games look like a rounding error, but it's not just a numbers game. It's that the kids playing (and aside from Darrow, they're most certainly kids) act exactly as badly as you'd expect from a bunch of teenagers given weapons, a single-minded objective and absolutely no restraint from adults. There is plenty of torture and mutilation, and though it's always "offscreen" and never glorified or titillating, there is rape. I read my son the whole Hunger Games trilogy, only skipping the most horrible parts at the end of Mockingjay. But though he's several years older than when I read him those books, I wouldn't think of reading (or letting him read) this book at the age he is now.

Most interestingly this series toys with being political in a way that other YA/PA novels don't. Specifically, it is a challenge to the sort of implied classist meritocracy that's the basis of today's neoliberal economy, and the idea that everyone who's sitting on top is sitting there because they are the toughest, smartest, hardest-working people who've been shifted to the place they deserve by our educational and economic filters.

Because the kids that are fighting to the death in the bloody play-war Darrow is engaged in are not the Reds, the bottom rung of the color-coded caste system to which Darrow is born. They are all from the top-ranking Gold class, and they are the top one percent of that class, those aspiring to be the Peerless Scarred, the creme de la creme that rule everyone.

The fact that Darrow is a "sheep in wolf's clothing among the wolves," a Red mole in the Gold camp with the intention of destroying them, is not a spoiler; it's revealed in the prologue. There Darrow hears a Gold warn about the dangers of "Demokracy" and the lie that everyone is equal. The Golds rule everyone else because they're the most powerful and most ruthless. And the Golds themselves will be ruled by the best of the Golds, which will include some of the students he's speaking to -- those that survive.

"But I am no Gold," says Darrow. "I am a Red...He is wrong. None of them will survive."

Darrow is, in some ways, the weakest element of the book. He is very nearly a Mary Sue; at the beginning of the book he's already the toughest, smartest and bravest of the Reds, and in the process of being turned into a Gold he's made even tougher and smarter. His "flaws" are exactly the sort of flaws that make a hero seem more heroic: he's too brave, to righteous, too defiant of false authority.

The complication that allows him to be interesting are based on the dangers of sleeping with the enemy, literally in some cases. Because in penetrating the Gold society Darrow learns that as badly as the Golds treat the Reds, in some ways they treat their own children worse. And though the Golds as a class are horrific, as individual people they are as good and bad as any other people are. He can't help but form bonds and romances with the Golds he was sent to overthrow, and his relationships with them are strained by his memory of where he came from.

This is especially true as he confronts the unfairness of the system that the aspiring Gold children are faced with. The purpose of the play war the kids are put into is to sort out the weakest of their children and turn those that survive into bloody-minded opportunistic killers just like their parents are. There is a psychotic evil logic to this, an antidote to the dangers of falling into decadence that constantly threatens the Golds; indeed, most Golds do fall into decadence and are known as "pixies."

But part of the point of the book is that even such a deadly efficient meritocracy will never overcome the fact that the people in power just can't help but put a finger on the scale. Sometimes it's to favor their own family or political faction, and sometimes it's just to show that they can.

This is demonstrated before Darrow makes his color transition. Early in the book an award of food and luxuries his mining family won fair and square for their work is blatantly taken from them just to prove that the Reds can't really change anything, only the beginning of the cruel injustices we see inflicted on the Reds. The first few chapters, where the vicious inequalities the Reds live under are made explicit, are by far the most engaging part of the book. They also make a promise that the book hasn't yet fulfilled, but might yet in the sequel: the potential to be a truly revolutionary piece of speculative fiction.

By a "revolutionary" piece of spec-fic I don't mean something that revolutionizes speculative fiction. This is an admirable goal but not a rare one; someone wins this prize every five or ten years and then things slip back to how they were. I mean something much rarer and more frightening: a piece of speculative fiction that makes people want to have a revolution.

The closest books I've seen to achieving that goal are China Mieville's "Iron Council" and Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother." Both are in their own way dangerous, but neither quite had the audience to make the difference that they could have, though "Little Brother" still might if it's ever turned into a movie. Both are better books than Red Rising, but a revolutionary book might not be the best written.

Part of the reason that goal is never achieved is that the revolution promised in the beginning of the book doesn't come by the end; this is, after all, the beginning of a trilogy. The next book will be a good sign of where Pierce Brown wants to take this. He could make it into an entertaining thrill ride for Hunger Games fans to graduate into when they're a little too old for the limits on YA, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Or he could make it into something really dangerous.

1. Of course, Ender's Game was never marketed as YA either, but it probably would have been if it had come out now.





Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Hipster Halal" or the millenia-old quest to identify the foods of good and evil

I was reading a popular website -- doesn't matter which -- with yet another article about how wheat-based foods are toxic and how everyone should stop eating them. It had a lot of links, of course, but when I clicked through each link it went to a page about people with celiac disease in particular. Celiac disease is real, and some people have very good reasons for not eating wheat at all. Furthermore, most of us eat too much carbs in general and maybe too much wheat specifically, and would benefit from a more diverse diet.

The other link I see is to the book Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, which is full of claims that wheat causes heart attacks, ADHD, Alzheimers, and probably spontaneous human combustion as well. Perlmutter's book has lots of citations from peer-reviewed papers, but as was noted in an article in The Atlantic, the studies in these papers are very small with the most tenuous of correlations.

I do find it a bit odd that a food that has been a central staple of hundreds of cultures over the last several thousands of years has suddenly been classified as a poison. If wheat is as bad as people are saying it is, it's amazing that Renaissance Europe was even able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone conquer half the world. Now if someone wanted to argue that wheat turns you into a genocidal imperialist psychopath, that would be supported by history at least.

Nevertheless, I'm in no way qualified to evaluate these claims. Maybe Perlmutter has finally stumbled across the one nutritional golden bullet after so many others have only claimed to. So why am I doubtful? I'm not equipped with anything but a healthy sense of skepticism and several thousand years of evidence of superseded attempts to divide the entire dietary world into Good Foods and Bad Foods.

The first recorded attempt to do this, as far as I know, is in the Jewish holy book of the Torah. In addition to all the other impacts this book has had on the world, it was also one of the first diet books. The Torah was very specific about what food should and should not be eaten, and how it should be eaten. (Muslim Halal dietary rules are very similar, less restrictive in some areas and more in others.)

From what I've read there's a lot of dispute about how much of Kosher rules are for health reasons and how many of them are cultural. For example, the story of Noah specifically lists the rule "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk," apparently the origin of the meat/dairy separation in Kosher, and I've read that this was a delicacy of an enemy tribe. But there is no doubt that many of the foods forbidden in Kosher, such as shellfish and pork, would have been common origins of food poisoning in those days. Probably Isrealite tribesmen weren't so concerned about keeping their abs tight as we are, and more concerned about inexplicable death from tainted meat.

Kosher might be the first written instance of what I'd call a "binary diet," or a "Good Food/Bad Food" diet. The nice thing about a binary diet is that you don't have to think about what you're eating overall. You just look at a particular food and say, "Is this good or bad? If it's good, I'll eat it, if not I won't."

The new wheat taboo is really a subset of the Paleo Diet, which began as the idea that we'd eat what our paleolithic ancestors ate. If you don't think Paleo is a binary diet, consider this popular flowchart about what aspiring culinary cavemen should and shouldn't eat:


Paleo people will leap to the diet's defense, and say it's not that simple. When people point out that no one really has any idea what Paleolithic people ate, that they didn't probably all eat the same thing anyway, that only a small subset of them were hunting mammoths, and that people have evolved since paleo times anyway, they will say that it's not really about what people ate in paleolithic time, just that some foods are bad for you and some are good.

But if you look at the list it's pretty arbitrary. Why are peanuts terrible but cashews are fine? Sweet potatoes are great but potatoes will make you fat? "Corn is a grain, knucklehead," the chart tells us, but neolithic people have been eating maize in Central America for 10,000 years; meanwhile the Etruscans only engineered broccoli from cabbage a couple thousand years ago. What do all these forbidden foods have in common? At least the Atkins people or the vegans have a common basis to describe foods you shouldn't eat.

So again, what do grains, potatoes, peanuts and vegetable oil all have in common? Here's a suggestion: they are all really cheap and available to any schmuck that goes to a regular grocery store that doesn't sell buckwheat out of bins or have a large selection of hemp oils. What a coincidence that so many of the foods that regular people happen to eat happen to be terrible poisons.

This isn't even meant to be an attack on the Paleo Diet in particular. A lot of Paleo's suggestions, like a higher protein content, are probably a good idea ,and people who eat Paleo eat better than people who don't really think about their diet at all. In truth, most people that eat any diet probably eat better than people that don't think about their diet at all.

But the arbitrariness of the Paleo binary and its inclination away from common and popular foods makes me feel that Paleo is the new "Hipster Halal," or Kosher for Cool Kids, a shibboleth for those in the know to set themselves apart from ordinary schmoes. It's not just hippy-dippy people either; Paleo is super popular with tech types, as can be seen by the number of Boing Boing posts about Paleo. This goes with a certain set of libertarians, as a perfect complement to their beloved Crossfit workouts.

Because a diet, to feel exciting, has to be dramatic. If you release a diet book that just says, "keep your calories down, don't eat so much sugar, and exercise more," it's going to have an Amazon rank of 10,000. But if you say "Everything you eat is totally wrong! Eat completely different stuff instead!" then people will buy your book and follow it for three weeks before they give up.

I'm not telling you what to eat. It doesn't hurt anyone if you stop eating wheat, certainly not me. And if you can afford it, Paleo is at least as good a way to eat as any other. But I'd suggest that before you turn your diet upside down based on a book you just read, do a little more research. Are there extensive studies showing that people who eat this way live longer and are healthier? Also, can you realistically maintain this diet for the rest of your life? Could a smaller change make just as much difference? It's not as sexy, but it might actually work.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

No one else is going to say it, so I will: f*@k House of Cards.

I'm not saying it's a bad show; quite to the contrary, and that's part of the problem. It's well-written and well-acted, mostly, though it could do without the fourth-wall breaking monologues. But we enjoy it when we watch it. And it's that enjoyment that leads us to buy into the working and middle-class' irrelevance in politics today. 

It's not entirely realistic, since Frank Underwood does things that no one could actually do, such as somehow counting on the entire opposing Republican minority of the House plus the Congressional Black Caucus to support a Speaker of the House coup just so he can get an educational bill on the floor. But I've never placed a huge emphasis on "realism" in storytelling, and it's plenty believable enough to allow me to suspend my disbelief. 

So why does the show make me sick when I watch it?

Frank Underwood is a classic contemporary cable anti-hero; he's certainly no worse a person than Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White, all of whose shows I enjoy. I was happy to watch the SAMCRO gang in Sons of Anarchy use a California community as their shooting gallery. So what's the difference?

I think the scene that pushed me to where I couldn't watch the show anymore was when Underwood threw a party for his wife (sorry, it's too late at night for me to look up the names of everyone I can't remember) in front of a hotel that had canceled his reservation because of union trouble. 

The teacher's unions are furious because Underwood blatantly lied to them in negotiations about the education bill then turned around and tried to take away their right to collectively bargain (1), as well as increase support for charter schools and performance evaluations based on tests. Frank's wife was having a charity ball at a hotel and the union there supported the teachers and made the hotel cancel the reservation. Frank illegally hosts the ball in the hotel's front courtyard, and gets away with it since the police commissioner's invited.

Desperate, the teacher union guy throws together a protest. For some reason he can't get real teachers to protest, but he is able to get a bunch of teamsters (2).  

The sexy rich and powerful people at the charity ball ignore the protesters for awhile. Zoe, the smokin'-hot blogger that Frank is banging, asks them a few pointless questions for a moment before she decides to go inside the party where all the interesting people are. 

And then Underwood and his wife come outside with ribs from his favorite inner-city barbecue place and a keg of beer and hands it out to the teamsters, all of whom immediately cheer him and disperse. The teacher's union is defeated and looks like idiots, and Frank has his victory. 

I know that the show is just a portrait of Washington's corruption. I know Frank is not supposed to represent the way things ought to be, but the way they are. But it's also asking us to buy into it a certain degree, and laugh at the way that people like Frank Underwood are pulling the strings of everyone around him.

Watching the show I'm reminded a bit of the West Wing; like that show it shares the attitude that the people in the halls of power are the only ones that really know how to do anything and everyone else is just deluded and dupes, none more than the downtrodden who try to fight for their rights. But at least TWW had some ideals the characters aspired to, even if they were Aaron Sorkin's twisted centrist bullshit. 

So yeah, Tony Soprano twisted and screwed people over, Walter White twisted and screwed people over, and Frank Underwood twists and screws people over. The difference is that I follow politics a lot, and I know that the kind of person Underwood represents is not too different in reality. And the people he is screwing over is us. 

The middle and working class, who can be bought off with a keg of beer and some tasty ribs, that is you and me. And I know damn well that the people who work in Washington mostly do see us that way. But I fear that by laughing along with it, we're accepting that. Over the last thirty years the middle and working class has entirely given up that we can make any difference in the way our country is run. And the only people that are mad enough to even try to do anything (like the Tea Party) tend to be mad at entirely the wrong people. 

Am I saying you should stop watching it? I don't know. All I know is that I can't watch it anymore. There was a time when people made shows where working and middle-class people fought against those in power and won. Maybe we're too cynical to accept that anymore. Maybe that's entirely the problem. 

1 I'm not even sure how the US Department of Education could do that, but it's beside the point.

2 Honestly I wish modern unions had a fraction of the unity they display here

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A song in the style of 90s-era Tom Waits

A conversation with Traci Paris reminded me I wrote this and totally forgotten about it. Since otherwise it will just collect digital dust on my hard drive, I'll present it here. No title yet.

Hetta Rose doesn’t like this water in her hair
and we’ve been in Sausalito half a week
we need to find the kerchief with the green and yellow squares
to tie the two by seven hose that has a leak
to tie the two by seven hose that has a leak

so let me have those Madeilenes  that turned a little white
and I promise that I won’t come back no more
they used to give a box of rolls to me and Jack the Turk
for cleaning all the feathers off the floor.
for cleaning all the feathers off the floor.

but Independence isn’t the kind of place it used to be
the trains don’t even leave behind the steam
the comics store gets closed up when the chickens go to bed
and a brewer leads the lineup on our team
and a brewer leads the lineup on our team

Seamus built a chapel up on Cemetery Road
and took the people in on Tuesday nights,
he prayed the angels take the bottle hid behind the seventh pew
but Saturday the house was locked up tight
but Saturday the house was locked up tight

they’d said the Waters gas machine would put us on the map
we’d bring in folks from  Memphis and Tuskegee
but if you have an open Pearl Street lot you bought in ’17
you couldn’t get eleven bucks from me
you couldn’t get eleven bucks from me


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A minor complaint about Sherlock on Sunday night.

A minor complaint about Sherlock on Sunday night. There was a scene near the beginning where Sherlock says to Mycroft "I didn't know you knew Serbian," and Mycroft says "I didn't." Which is fine, they should have left it there. Got it. Mycroft is even more brilliant than Sherlock; he can learn to speak a whole language at the drop of a hat.

Instead Mycroft goes on to say that it "took him a few hours" to learn it. And that was what Scalzi would call a "flying snowman" to me; it just stretched my suspension of disbelief beyond its breaking point. If I remember, a full language has 100,000 words or so with maybe 20,000 in common use. Mycroft says it's a Slavic language, and he probably knew another Slavic language, like Russian.

But Mycroft needed to learn to speak the language as well as a native in order to fool the other guards. So he'd have to know every single difference about how any word is used. A few hours -- say four -- is 14,400 seconds. So he'd have to learn more than one word a second, not counting grammar and pronunciation, which again would have to be perfect if he's going to convince the other guard he's actually Serbian.

This crosses the line to me from utter brilliance to supernatural. And it's foundational to the universe that Sherlock's (and by extension Mycroft's) abilities must be nearly unbelievable but in the end natural. Why couldn't he have just said, "It took me a whole week?"