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:


In a modern programming language like Python things often start out pretty much the same. At the "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.