Saturday, November 28, 2015

No, The Expanse is not Game of Thrones in space. (And that's a good thing.)

[Alert: Minor spoilers for James S.A. Corey's "Expanse" book series, and presumably the show as well.]
When you're trying to get someone interested in a new series of books or TV shows, it's natural to try to compare it to something they already know. When Breaking Bad was new, it was often compared with Weeds, though the two shows have nothing in common besides a regular person who starts dealing drugs. When I tried to get people to watch Sons of Anarchy, I often called it "The Sopranos with motorcycle gangs," though again the connection was tenuous except for the fact that they're both based on organized crime.

So it is natural that even before SyFy began adapting James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series, beginning with Leviathan Wakes, people trying to convey the scope and power of the series compared it to the best-known non-YA speculative fiction series out there, The Song of Ice and Fire series, known on TV as Game of Thrones. From a distance, they seem very similar. You have a long series of doorstopper books. You have brutal and underhanded struggles between competing powers in a sprawling world, or in the case of TE, solar system. You have violent battles, different points of view, and even a kind of zombies in a particular scene on Ceres. But though these are both engaging and powerful series of books (and TE is now a TV series as well), TE is at its core nothing like SOIAF. And that, I argue, is a good thing.

So how are the different? Here are a few ways:

1) Real heroes and happy(ish) endings

The main reason that the SOIAF series was such a significant was that it has no real heroes and no happy endings. The two characters that are closest to being heroes in SOIAF are Tyrion and Daenerys. They are both engaging and wonderful characters, and morally they are better people than most of the other characters we encounter on Westeros. But that's a pretty low bar, and they're both pretty morally flawed. Most of the other characters SOIAF set up as heroes, especially when it looks like they are winning, have a Red Wedding-level event to look forward to.

Though the heroes of TE can also be pretty morally flawed, (especially Detective Miller, who is even more corrupt in the first episode of the TV show than he was in the book), in the big picture the central characters usually are pretty consistently fighting for the right thing. This is especially true of the four characters that become the crew of the Rocinante, James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal and Amos Burton. Holden, especially, is pretty much a traditional old-fashioned speculative fiction hero, who continuously goes out of his way to do the right thing, even when it's completely inconvenient for himself and everyone else. And while things don't work out well for everyone, each book pretty clearly ends with a sense that the good guys won. That doesn't mean there's no moral complexity or poor choices on the part of the heroes, but it's much closer to a traditional adventure story than the SOIAF series.

This is a good thing, I would argue, because unlike SOIAF, TE is showing us a vision of something that could actually happen (up to the point they start encountering alien artifacts, at least). This is distinct from most science fiction we've ever seen before as well, which usually feature teleporters or warp drives or other technology we're unlikely to develop in the next few hundred years. This means this series has the potential to inspire space exploration in a way sci-fi has not in a very long time. But to do that, it needs to make us believe that the future we're working towards isn't just a Machiavellian hell.

2) Far fewer and more traditional point of view characters

Another way that SOIAF was distinct was the enormous number of POV characters. GRRM is a master storyteller and was mostly able to make this work (though it gets a little out of hand later in the series, if you ask me). I have encountered too many authors lately that have tried to emulate GRRM in this way, too often resulting in too many interchangeable people I have no connection to or interest in. Because GRRM was able to succeed at this, we found ourselves having interest in the stories of otherwise pretty unsympathetic people, like Jamie Lannister, who tries to murder a child in an early part of the first book.

Though TE has multiple POVs, they are mostly pretty focused on the heroes of the book. The main POVs of Leviathan Wakes are the Rocinante's crew and Detective Miller, all of whom are soon revealed to be tracking down the same mystery. The TV show introduces Chrisjen Avasarala in the first episode, though in the book series that character doesn't even appear until Caliban's War, the second book in the series. I suspect the showrunners introduced the somewhat Machiavellian Avasarala at least partially to add a little more Game of Thrones-y morality to the show, as can be seen by the way she's engaging in the torture of an OPA spy in the first episode. But the direction of the book series is going to make it necessary to focus more and more on the adventures of the Rocinante's crew as the books do, especially starting from Caliban's War.

This is good because, first of all, SOIAF's sprawling cast of POVs is almost impossible to do well, and second, now that it has been, really doesn't particularly need to be again.

3) Way less creepy sex stuff

The GOT series on HBO often gets called out on its "sexposition," excessive nudity, and unnecessary rapiness. But let's be clear, this level of creepy sex is not a departure from the books. Yes, there were a few rapes in GOT that weren't in SOIAF, but believe me, there were a lot more that were in SOIAF that GOT left out. Mostly SOIAF and GOT both portray a world full of sexual exploitation and unhealthy sexual relationships. It says something when one of the healthier sexual relationships in your books is between a brother and sister (though it's not so healthy in the show).

Though it's clear that there is prostitution and probably exploitation happening in some of TE's space stations like Ceres, this is never really central to the plot. The main sexual relationship that occurs in TE is the one that develops between Holden and Naomi, which, though it has its bumps, is pretty normal.

Do I need to explain why this is good? Hopefully not.

The main difference between The Expanse series, both in the books and hopefully on TV, is that unlike SOIAF and GOT, they are guardedly optimistic. And since these are portraying a future that is at least partially available for us, we really need that.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Some spoilerific thoughts on the first season of Daredevil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Conservatives Say Always Protest Peacefully, Unless You're White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vulnerability in client-side YouTube requests?

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