Thursday, November 8, 2012

I did not like Assassin's Creed 3

Assassin's Creed 3 stinks, I'm sad to say

I have been a fan of the Assassin's Creed games since the first one. A open world platformer/stealth game? Hell, yes. By the time AC3 came out, they had four games to figure things out, too. Which it looked like they had. AC2 was a huge improvement on AC1. The post-assassination sophomoric explication was very much cut down, the personality free Altair was replaced with the extremely likable Ezio Auditore and the lengthy fight sequences were dramatically shortened by Ezio's incredible ability to kill a person. Ezio also got a laundry list of nifty gadgets, a hidden wrist gun, dual hidden blades, a crossbow, more weapons to choose from, poisoned daggers and darts, the ability to use ziplines and gadgets to climb faster, parachutes and eventually bombs and grenades, too. He was like a Renaissance Batman. Additionally, Ezio got three games and you could see him transform from a callow, but likable youth, to a serious and mature man who accepted responsibility and taught others his arts. Ezio was a great character, fun and likable  who matured believably (in a video game sense) without the tedious monologues of AC1.

In Assassin's Creed 3, they decided to fuck that up.

First, the combat regression. In short, the AC3 protagonist, Conner, is not nearly so well armed as Ezio. First, they removed throwing knives. In the four previous AC games, the protagonists could throw knives quickly and accurately. Most foes fell after one knife hit. Conner can't throw knives. Sure, he starts out with a gun, but it is in all ways inferior to Ezio's gun – when someone was targeting Ezio with a gun, Ezio could generally shoot them before getting shot. Conner draws much slower and is likely to be shot before he can do anything (well, he can grab people to use as a human shield, and it's cool when there's someone around for it to work on, but there often isn't). I have no idea why Ezio's gun is technologically superior to Conner's, or why knife throwing is out, but it is. Sure, Conner has a bow but it's no better than Ezio's crossbow and since Conner has fewer arrows it is in some ways worse.

Additionally, when on a ledge, Conner has no ranged weapons he can use. Both Altair and Ezio could knife throw from ledges, which was useful.

In the AC2 games, they made combat shorter and more interesting than in AC1. In AC3, they regress by making combat less interesting (difficult to use ranged weapons in combat, elimination of dodges) while radically increasing the number of people you have to fight. In AC2, a guard patrol was between two and four guys, generally. In AC3, a patrol is a dozen people. It also takes Conner longer to counter-kill someone than Ezio, which means combats take longer and you're less likely to get a combo kill going because you'll be taken out of it by someone stabbing you when you're engaged.

The game will also, for no good reason, fairly often put you on the highest notoriety. The British couriers will sound the alarm even if you've got no interest in them, so you'll be minding your business and suddenly you'll be surrounded by literally thirty guys. So, there are random fights that are either extremely long and tedious or chases where 2/3rds of everyone around you is a guard, making it hard to get away.

And on the guard note, apparently the colonials work with the British in chasing you. This is baffling but whatever.

So, there is more combat, it is longer and less interesting, and your weapons suck compared to Ezio's – they do less damage and take longer to use. Didn't Ubisoft learn this lesson from The Warrior Within?

Let's move on to Conner, himself. First, the simple one. He's boring. He's incredibly dull. It's like all they could think of for a Mohawk character was “noble savage”. The liveliness they introduced with Ezio vanished in AC3 and Conner's stoicism. Conner does not smile, he, nor does anyone about him has the least sense of humor.

Second, there's the racism. He is a noble savage, which is a stereotype. It's painful to watch. This is mixed up with the atrocious writing, generally, which I'll talk more about in a bit, but Conner's stereotypical noble savage motive is to save his village's land from British expansionism . . .

Which is also a complete reverse of actual history. The Indians were overwhelmingly on the British side because the Crown had started limiting intrusion into Indian lands. An English High Justice had even opined in a newspaper that he saw no reason why England's white subjects should be allowed to steal the land of England's red subjects. In the Revolutionary War, around 13,000 Indians fought for the British. Around 1200 for the colonials. The knew that the colonials were no friends of the Indians and, of course, they were not.

But Conner is just so painfully boring. Combined with that noble savage bullshit and the idiocy of proposing the colonials were better for the Indians than the English, ugh.

The writing is generally awful. One of the things I learned is that no one in colonial America is either pleasant or attractive. And the pedantry that was so awful in Assassin's Creed 1 returns in full goddamn force. Many “missions” are Conner walking around protecting some famous historical figure as they ramble on about the sad plight of rich white men.

I mean, I'm an American, but I honestly don't know what side I would have been on during the Revolutionary War. When the war started, it was not obvious that the US would become a republic and usher in a new global democratic era. But it's hard for me to have too much sympathy for the colonials. The whole “taxation without representation” business wasn't some cruel trick of the English, but a fact arising from the fact England and the Americas were two months travel time apart. The trip, in addition to being long, was dangerous. It is a bad idea to let the weather hold a government hostage.

Second, you look at the “tyranny” of the English and it's really . . . not that tyrannical. It's mostly very modest tax increases on items on paper and tea. Tea! It'd be like rebelling because the government taxed Coca-Cola!

Then there are the reasons few people talk about – particularly England's growing unease with slavery (the English would outlaw it altogether in 1820, forty-five years before America got around to it) and England's limits of colonization westward. Many immigrants came to America for land, equating Indian lands with free lands. The English court system was starting to rule in favor of the Indians. This was unacceptable.

About the worst thing the English actually did was housing troops in private dwellings without getting the consent of the owners. The English and French were doing a fair bit of fighting in the Americas and the colonies wanted protection, but barracks were in short supply. So the English quartered troops in private houses, forcing their way in.

Mind you, they paid for the soldiers being quartered. And heavy knows I'd hate it if I was told that four guys were going to move into my house and I would be responsible for feeding them, no matter how much I was paid. It would really piss me off. There are also canards of the English troops behaving badly to their landlords, but there are no specifics. I'm sure that more than one soldier seduced more than one wife or daughter, and that would also fuel my rage, but I don't think that revolution is the answer, there, more like . . . build some damn barracks.

The real reason the Revolution happened is a growing sense among Americans that they weren't English. Many of them had been there a while and the American experience was so little like the English experience that the divide between the two places grew large, particularly during the period of Salutatory Neglect. The English had unintentionally allowed the colonists to grow more attached to local government than the English government, so after the French and Indian War when the English came in and treated the Americans like subjects, when the English started to pay attention to the colonials, again, it heightened the feeling that the Americans weren't the English. But that reason is pretty hard to sum up in a game about running through trees and knifing people.

In the game, this manifests, like I said, with Conner being nattered at by various figures, pontificating in the most tasteless ways imaginable about the causes of revolution. Case in point, Conner is walking around Boston with Sam Adams, and Sam is mentioning the unjust nature of British soldiers being quartered in private homes. Conner says, basically, “Well, you keep slaves.” Then the game has the fucked up audacity to equate quartering troops with owning human beings. There is a scene with some British soldiers behaving badly to the people quartering them and Sam Adams smugly says that it proves his point about the quartering soldiers is worse than slavery.

I mean, I almost stopped playing right there that shit is so fucked up. Slaves were flogged, raped, humiliated, mutilated. They were owned. No, they did not quarter troops. They didn't have homes, after all. The idea that the struggles of a land owner being inconvenienced is the same as the savagery of chattel slavery is racist and detestable. I understand where it comes from – there has to be a justification for rebellion and the real reasons aren't, like I said, that good or defensible. But it's horrible to suggest that anything is as bad as slavery this side of genocide.

Plus there's the whole Indian thing. The idea that the colonials would be better for the Indians is farcical and obviously untrue. Sure, some Mohicans fought for the colonials, but as mercenaries. Not exactly high-minded motives, there.

For additional racism, Conner's mentor is black. So, we have an Indian and a black guy who are involved with the Revolutionary War? Like the Revolutionary War improved conditions for black people in America? It's boggling, just boggling.

The game is also not about Conner. As far as I got, the main missions were about people like Paul Revere or Sam Adams, with Conner being their ethnic sidekick as they accomplished various historical acts. While I understand how things got there, I don't know why someone didn't notice. If they wanted the game to be about Sam Adams, they should have made him a goddamn Assassin. (Which would have been wicked, come to think about it. It would have provided motivation sorely lacking in Conner.) But the supporting cast, who are actually the stars, go on at great and tedious length about everything. None of the characters are interesting or even personable.

Other gameplay issues . . . the game has a lot of tedious bits relative to other games. So in AC2, the Assassin's become capitalists. Ezio goes around buying land and businesses to get the money he needs to do what he needs to do (including buying art). But the way it's handled in that game is . . . Ezio goes up to a shop, buys it and every so often money is deposited in his account. Every so often he had to go get it. That's it.

Conner, on the other hand, has to actively take a hand in transactions. He has to manage the estate's affairs – personally selecting what is made and where it is sold, and to whom. If you don't go into their menu intensive trading interface, you don't make any money.

Well, you can by hunting. The glories of hunting. You spread bait near a snare. Animal goes into snare. You skin the animal. Exciting!

Also, something that vexes me a little bit, is the wolves. Wolves will attack you pretty much on site. That perpetrates the canard that wolves are man-eaters when, in North America, there are zero unprovoked wolf attacks. Zero, as in “none”. Gray wolves are endangered, for crying out loud!

You also go around performing a beaver holocaust. There's good money in beaver pelts and they're more or less helpless. But, c'mon! Assassin's Creed III: the Extinction!

Funniest moment for me – the man-eating black bear. I . . . laughed aloud when I heard that one. Black bears are famously cowardly.

So the game has a lot of tedious gameplay. Some of it, like the trading, is reasonably important to the game. You need to buy things to succeed in the game so you have to use their silly trading interface to make money, rather than trade being something that just arises from your estate's growth. Hunting is amusing for about ten minutes but then it's a drag.

There are some improvements over the AC2 games. Well, one improvement. The freerunning – which is the core of the game – is greatly improved. And, yet, they seem to want to use it less, there are far fewer jumping puzzles than in previous games, at least as far as I got (and since I was about halfway done when I gave up, it would be a long stretch otherwise).

Mostly what AC3 did was make me want to play AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations, again. Which is okay since those games are great.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A bit of a rant about Joss Whedon's fans vis-a-vis his Romney parody video

Okay, I admit it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is pretty cool – uneven, but some of the episodes are among the best in television (Hush, Once More, with Feeling stand out, IMO) and I liked Angel even better overall (Smile Time is among the funniest things ever put on television, and I'm counting the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati and the Futurama's Roswell That Ends Well). But sometime around Firefly, well, it was clear there was a cult of personality going on. I don't particularly like Firefly and when people ask me why, I go, “The sexism.” Then, with near 100% reliability, Firefly fans say, “There's no sexism! Kaylee! River!” And I go, “Mal publicly and frequently sexually humiliates Inari by calling her a whore . . . and this causes her to fall in love with him. That's sexism. That isn't near the line. It's so far over the line that it can't see the line from orbit.” While this (with almost 100% reliability) gets them to concede the point, it seems to do little to dent their uncritical praise for Whedon's work. And I won't even get into Dollhouse and the whole prostitute-assassin-rape thing. Or even how embarrassingly stupid The Avengers is (though it most certainly is very stupid). I'm not saying Whedon is a talentless hack, I'm just saying he doesn't walk on water and I think much of his career is currently being sustained by the goodwill generated by Buffy that has transformed into a cult of personality. I'm sure that if almost anyone else had written a movie as bad as the Avengers, someone would have noticed.

Right here is a convenient place to show both Whedon's strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I'm not considering his acting, which is wooden, because that's not my point (and isn't the problem with the piece, anyway). The problem is that this joke is about a minute too long. Whedon spends about a minute belaboring the ways in which Romney's policies will bring about a zombie apocalypse. Except for Romney's unrestrained embrace of corporations, it was unnecessary and didn't build comedic tension but drained it due to the transparency of the humor. He essentially repeated things that are known about Romney, that are repeated by Obama's campaign ad nauseum. 

The basic premise is good. The zombie apocalypse bit is quite funny. But at two and a quarter minutes? Man, a joke has to be as good as The Aristocrats to be that long.  (I'm sure there are many versions of it on YouTube, if I recall, Bob Saget's is particularly good, but his, Gottfried's and Silverman's are all worth listening watching – or just watch all of Penn and Teller's The Aristocrats, great flick).

Because of it's unnecessary length, furthermore, it fails as political satire. For political satire to work, it's gotta hurt. With a premise as absurd as a zombie apocalypse, you've got to strike fast or you'll lose the audience you're trying to satirize. A Romney supporter, watching this video, will be taken aback by the zombie apocalypse thing and right then, right there, in that moment of shock, is when you've got to hurt them. Whedon should have employed his best weapon, the corporate line, immediately. Otherwise, you're allowing them to recover and go, “This is just a guy repeating the same ol' Democratic line.”  Which he is.  By the time he gets to Romney's worship of corporations, they've fully recovered. He went for a grind instead of a finish and lost on points.

This is the basic pattern of much of Whedon's work – it has moments of sharp wit but it's in between all this other stuff which is not so good. Which isn't a problem for Whedon, in the sense that no writer lands the knock-out punch every swing. Even brilliant writers, like Mark Twain, have good and bad days. Whedon did give us Buffy, he did give us Angel, he certainly owes no one anything, artistically speaking. I'm just annoyed that people praise his works while seeming to willfully ignore his flaws.

Friday, October 19, 2012

How Awful is the Battleship Movie?

Battleship was worse than I thought it would be.

First, the protagonist is a fuck up aged 26 who is bullied by his brother to go into the Navy (as he is in the Navy). I thought that meant “enlisted” but at the movie's beginning he is an officer. Now . . . there are three ways to become an officer. The first is to go to the Naval Academy, the second is the Naval ROTC program and the third is to serve as an enlisted sailor for years with distinction and go to Officer's Candidate School.

The Naval Academy is a hard to get into school. Not only do you need the kind of grades and SAT scores of top Ivy League schools, you need things like a letter from your congresscritter. The NROTC program is basically a scholarship program, merit based, meaning that you need, again, a great high school career. Fuck ups do not get into either.

Then the fuck up officer fucks up and is told he's going to be kicked out of the Navy. His response is, “Oh, golly, I'm so ashamed” and not “Yay! I hated this job, it was a bad fit and I was bullied into it in the first place!” I mean, SHOCKER, a job a dude was bullied into doesn't work out.

Then they call the battleship Missouri the “greatest warship in US naval history”. That's . . . almost offensive. The greatest warship in US history is either the USS Constitution or the USS Monitor. I'd tend to say the Constitution, myself, a Revolutionary War ship that repeatedly won engagements with better armed and more numerous British warships. Considering the time, that was pretty epic. The Monitor was the victor against the CSS Merrimac in the Civil War. The battle was a technological turning point, the death of sail powered, wood hulled warships for steam powered, steel hulled ships.

The Missouri, on the other hand, was obsolete when constructed. It was just a leftover from the early 20th century's focus on big ships. Everyone knew, militarily, real sea power was with aircraft carriers and submarines and everything else was just support for aircraft carriers and submarines. Battleships were always kind of pointless, an egotistical race for side. Easy to target, slow to maneuver, with guns that could not track small, fast ships, they were always utterly pointless. Even for the wars in which the Missouri served, it was militarily insignificant.

But then, cut to the female romantic lead, who is a physical therapist (they probably found “nurse” too cliched, but clearly did not stray far afield) talking to this dude who had his legs blown off in Afghanistan. He's got a bad attitude because, y'know, he has lost his legs and IS SURROUNDED BY CONDESCENDING IDIOTS. He is introduced in physical therapy being told by a dull eyed therapist to correct his form on his artificial legs and to focus. I know different people respond differently to motivation, but a whole hell of a lot of us, when we're tired and in pain, really, really object to people telling us what we already goddamn know.

Then the new pretty white lady therapist shows up and says he's still the same man who won the Golden Gloves and was an elite soldier. That's . . . an awful thing to say to a guy who's lost his legs. Because those are precisely the kinds of things he can't do, anymore. Your stick and move really suffers when you've got not fucking legs. And, of course, the Army puts you on 100% disability when your legs get blown off. He will never be a boxer nor soldier, again. Saying he's the same man is just wrong. And cruel. He has suffered a terrible, permanent injury that is preventing him from doing many of the things he loves.

Of course, in the end, he'll get an attitude adjustment and be okey-dokey. Because a positive attitude solves all wrongs! (I have now watched it all and I was of course right. Stupidest moment in the movie – the legless boxer submitting an alien with a reverse triangle with artificial legs.)

Then they gave us, about the aliens, “No material on the periodic table!” Except for . . . lawrencium! My soul, it aches. I mean, it's quite possible that alien materials would be hard to analyze because any really foreign compound is liable to be hard to analyze, and it could well be produced with technologies we don't know. But atoms are the same everywhere in the universe and some form of stabilized lawrencium, sure, maybe there's a stable allotrope, would be just as hard to analyze. I mean, how do you even figure out something is a stable allotrope of lawrencium? The stuff barely exists on this planet.

OHEMGEE! The Navy fired first! They sent out a warning horn, got a much more powerful one in return and then OPENED FIRE. The aliens might have been peaceful but some idiot yahoo OPENED FIRE on an ALIEN SHIP.

What the aliens were trying to say: “We come in peace. Our planet's environment has been destroyed and we're looking for a new home. We're a primarily aquatic people so you'll barely notice we're there, except for all the incredible technologies we're willing to give you in payment for part of your ocean.”

Afterward: “Fuck you guys.”

Then the cowardly academic! Of course, no academics are intelligent, well-adjusted people with lots of social skills. It's all Big Bang Theory, yep, where academics are awkward, socially inept yobs. (By the end, the Cowardly Lion finds his courage.)

A big part of the “plot” is the aliens need to coopt human communications equipment to phone home because theirs was destroyed in reentry. The idea is that a land based system fired off a command to a satellite that “boosts the signal”, apparently with sufficient intensity to break the light barrier, I dunno. I kept asking myself, “They have space ships. Why don't they just go up to the satellite, directly, and send the signal from there.” I, of course, do know the reason. The script writers are either fools or (and I think this is more likely), well, unmotivated. Some guy comes up to me and says, “So, we're making a movie based on the game Battleship.” “You mean, that double blind target finding game based on WWII sea duels?” Yeah, except instead of that, we're going to have aliens.” “Aliens?” “Aliens. We'll pay.” Not exactly the best material to work with so I'll give them a pass. Indeed, I'll give everyone in the movie a pass except the producers who pushed this through to completion. I understand that everyone else, the director, actors, CG guys, best boys, I understand all of these people need to put food on the table, they need to work. But the producers? Fuck those guys.

And let's talk length. The movie is over two hours long. Which is admittedly over two hours too long, but there's a reason action movies used to be around ninety minutes.

Then they use the Missouri. With WWII and Korean era vets that conveniently happen to be on hand. Now, Korea ended in 1952. By my reckoning, that's sixty years ago. Since enlistment age is 18, the MINIMUM age of any vet of the Missouri is SEVENTY-EIGHT.

Then they fire up the boilers of the Missouri, which is physically demanding labor in extremely hot conditions. Remember, minimum age, seventy-eight. And some of them are from WWII, meaning they're no younger than EIGHTY-FIVE. Of course, some of them will be older.

And then they do that thing that they did in the one horrible Pirates of the Caribbean movie – not that one, the OTHER one – where they drop anchor to swing a ship around by ninety degrees. Well, it would not have worked in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, that kind of sudden deceleration would either snap the chain (if you're lucky) or rip the chain through the hull of the ship or some combination of the two. When you do it with a BATTLESHIP . . . the ship would either snap in two or the capstan would be ripped out or the chain would shear through the hull, or some combination of the three.

In the denouement, of course the fuck up saves the day and he's awarded a Silver Star – which is the third highest honor a military person can get.

HELLLLLLO, the person who is responsible for saving the SPECIES would get a Congressional Medal of Honor – and then spend the next six months touring the planet while every nation on earth hands him the highest honor they can give to foreigners.

His brother, who DIED, and started the conflict by opening fire on an alien ship, got the Navy Cross, a higher honor than the guy who SAVED THE SPECIES.

They get nothing right. No thing.

I will also say that the screenwriter, at least, realized that these aliens were not military. Their weapons could not instantly destroy our ships. They had no weapons of mass destruction, no armed aircraft much less spacecraft. Our weapons could hurt their ships. Their people on the ground, while wearing powered armor, had no guns. (Lots of reasons, too, why they had powered armor, the Earth has higher gravity, maybe, and they did do a lot of heavy lifting). It's like . . .

Imagine a Spanish galleon from the 16th century fighting a modern destroyer. The galleon would vanish under the power of the destroyer's weapons – the least powerful of the destroyer's weapons could easily sink a galleon before the galleon was in range of hitting the destroyer. Which it would never get into because it is a wind driven craft and the destroyer has diesel engine.

Now imagine that galleon up against a cargo ship with a top speed of around six miles an hour. Sure, the crew have some weapons, guns and such, but they have no armor, no training, and the galleon's guns would be able to blow holes in the cargo ship's hull – it isn't designed for war. It wouldn't necessarily be an easy fight, but it would be a winnable one for the galleon.

That's what happened in Battleship. We destroyed essentially unarmed recon ships full of civilian crew.

And so what if they don't contact their world? Will that necessarily stop additional exploration of earth? Would it stop humans? And they more less said that the aliens' world is fucked – they might not need to move but they definitely want to. Somehow, I doubt one failed recon mission will put the matter to rest. And next time, they will send a warship. It's what we'd do.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Where are their holidays? Other people also protect our freedoms, right?

Now that it's after Memorial Day and the worst of the chatter is over, I'm going to say, as I do every year, that I find it a little silly that people praise soldiers more than any other group for keeping us free.

Here are some other people, right off the top of my head, that I can think of who are at least as responsible for keeping us free as soldiers.

Police.  This should be evident.  Hard to be free without good social order.

Teachers.  Again, evident.  Teachers are one of the groups of people who are responsible for teaching our children the blessings and responsibilities of liberty.  Soldiers are not in our classrooms, day in and day out, for the inglorious and poorly paid primary education positions that are vital for the continuation of a free society.

Protesters.  Every expansion of liberty in the United States came about because someone decided to make an issue of it.  The struggle against slavery, universal emancipation, worker's rights, racial and gender equality.  You name it, it's protestors who did it.  Fredrick Douglass, Susan Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., these people faced tremendous difficulties to create and expand the reach of freedom.

Lawyers.  Many of the liberties we hold dear were not won on the battlefield, but in the courtroom.  This goes back to the writing of the Constitution, itself, largely the world of James Madison, who was a lawyer.

Writers.  I'm going to throw a bone to myself, I guess.  But writers have inspired people all over the world to seek freedom and whenever you look at a group of people fighting oppression, there are a bunch of writers who are all up in it, creating the moral and intellectual arguments for defiance of tyranny.  This goes from Thomas Paine, through guys like Alexander Solzhenitsyn right up to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Others could be added to this list, all of whom are at least as important as soldiers for creating and maintaining freedom, many of whom have and continue to face tremendous persecution, violence and death in their struggles for freedom, all over the world - but many others who toil in difficult circumstances in ignomy, without any glory at all.

Where are their holidays?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My bike vs. my trike

Now that I've had the recumbent bicycle a couple of days, I can run down the benefits of each!

Benefits of the recumbent bicycle relative to my recumbent trike:

1.  It's lighter.  But about ten pounds - 32 pounds for the bike, 42 for the trike, before throwing the other garbage on it.

2.  It's easier to manhandle.  It's around the dimensions of an upright bicycle.

3.  You can use normal bike racks for transportation.  Which is nice.

4.  It can easily be brought inside the house for security and protection from the weather.

Advantages of the recumbent trike over the bicycle:

1.  I can ride it.

Like, whoa, riding a recumbent bicycle is more than a little weird.  After three days, I have finally gotten to the point where I can ride a little bit in a straight line.  Leaning back and keeping your balance is . . . well, I'm not used to it.  But to go at all, you've got to lean back, as far back as you'd be in a recliner, and pedal outward, not down.  So, my balance is weird and I don't know where to put my feet.  I thought my experiences with trike would help me - I'm used to leaning down and pedalling out! - but that turns out not to be the case.  So I suppose I should put down the rest of the advantages the trike has over the bike, hehe.

2. More comfortable - only by a little, the trike is more comfortable.

3. More cargo space.  Important since I want to use the bike/trike to pop down to the store.

4. More stable.  No balance required.  Get on and go, every time.  Which also means there is basically no hill you can't go up so long as you can go up it even a little.

I've heard that some of the problems with my particular recumbent can be fixed by getting wider, softer tires.  It is currently running a 26" x 1.25" in back and a 20" x 1.25" in the front at 80 psi.  If I go wider tires - 1.75", used in mountain bikes and BMX bikes for back and front - and go down to 60 psi, I hear the stability goes up considerably.

But right now, there is no way I can use the recumbent bicycle to ride.  But I came up with a solution to keep the trike - after getting the recumbent!  Bad timing, I know.  Some of it is things some people have suggested, too, so I'm sorry for not having listened more!  Ego is a sonofabitch.

For security, I'm going to use this nearly indestructible chain to attack it to a tree in back of our house, and attach the chain to the bike with a u-lock that has an alarm - so if it's disturbed, it sets out a wail.  To protect it from the weather, well, I'll get a cover.  Duh, right?  Then right by the tree, I'll get some gravel and bricks and shovel some stakes and 1 x 4s and make a little porch for it.  If we get really lousy weather, tropical storms or what have you, we can go through the effort of bringing the bike indoors.

While in general, I'm still very much pro-bents, this experience has moved me more towards being pro-bent trikes as being stupid easy to use relative to bent bikes, that have a fairly steep learning curve.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Melendez v tThompson III and bad judging in MMA with added eye pokes

I'm not really happy with the way Melendez v Thompson III went down.  Not necessarily that Melenedez won - I expected that, indeed, I expected Melendez to dominate Thompson but that is far from what happened because I thought Thompson won that fight (so did one judge).  But because Thompson got eye poked three times

In Melendez's corner was Jake Shields, who in his fight with Georges St-Pierre, poked GSP at least five times.  After the third round, you can clearly hear GSP in the corner saying, "I can't see out of my left eye."  By the end of the fight, he couldn't see much out of his right eye, either.

So, here's the frustrating part: how often does a guy have to get poked in the eye before a ref takes a point off?  And why are people who train with Jake Shields such eye gouging bastards?  (I can't really blame Cesar Gracie, as much as I might want to.  The Diaz brothers don't do eye pokes.)

This is a serious issue, way worse than nearly any other foul in MMA, because of the fragility of eyes.  But for lesser fouls, points would be deducted.  The third time you kick a dude in the nuts?  They're taking a point.  Same for cage holding, or holding the other guy's shorts or whatever.  With any other foul, three times is almost always when they take away a point.  But in Melendez v Thompson III, Gil poked Thompson three times and the ref gave Gil a warning after the third poke.

To add insult to injury, after none of these eye pokes did the ring doctor come out and make sure, y'know, that Thompson's eyes were okay.  It's hard not to regard ring-side doctors as being somewhere below junkie whores in terms of trustworthiness.  Still, this is their fucking job.  It's an important job, because no fighter admits to being unable to fight.  (So, for instance, in the very next fight, Josh Barnett broke his hand in the first round and kept fighting for four more rounds.  GSP did not even alert anyone but his corner to the fact he was blind in one eye.  Toughness is a prized trait among fighters, they are usually unwilling to admit to any weakness.  Which is why we have these doctors, right?)

That's disgraceful.  Just disgraceful.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bad Science Journalism over at io9

This article on io9 basically sums up, to me, both everything that is wrong with science journalism as well as experimental psychology.  The reason?  The subject matter of the article is just . . . well, I have no idea how it could have possibly met a peer review's standards, albeit my experience with the process is both secondhand and having to do with real science.

But the thrust of the article is that religion helps self-control and virtue.  The problem comes with the specific tests they use that they believe tests self-control and virtue.

One of them is a person's ability to drink shots of orange juice and vinegar for a nickle a shot.  The second is testing their delayed gratification by giving them five dollars today but six dollars if they wait a week.  The third had to do with how long a person was willing to spend solving an insolvable puzzle.

I can't imagine how any of these have anything to do with virtue.  Virtue is a moral stance - there is no morality in any of these actions.  No one is either helped or harmed by their performance or lack of performance.

I am also having any trouble seeing how they have much to do with self-control because . . . they are all so trivial.  Is self-control the ability to down undrinkable drinks for a pittance?  Or sticking with a problem that can't be solved but also has no bearing to a person's life?  Not drinking a horrible drink, even though you might pick up as much as twenty cents, does not define self-control, but . . . intelligence.  There is no gain in drinking it and it's uncomfortable, even nauseating.  Performing a pointless task for no gain is no self-control - stopping a pointless task for no gain is, again, just the smart thing to do.

The only thing that speaks to self-control, and very weakly at that, is the delayed gratification test.  But it's hamstrung by the small rewards offered for delaying that gratification.  "Give me five bucks now or . . . I wait a week, have to schlep myself over to the psych building so I can get another buck?"  That's weak because none of the people involved need that extra dollar today (because it is such a superficial sum of money that it's possession would not particularly help even a starving person - that starving person would be better off taking the fiver and getting something to eat *now*.)  So, if there is no gratification, there can be no delayed gratification.

(The subject with this whole business is these cats are evolutionary psychology guys, which is, itself, an embarrassment to science because of how normative it is.)

That's the bad science.  Now the bad journalism.  The journalist mentions none of this, that should be obvious, I feel, to a science journalist.

Worse, neither mention some very uncomfortable facts about the correlation between godlessness and self-control that would, I think, bear discussion.  Such as the fact that atheist or agnostics tend to be richer, better educated, have fewer unwanted pregnancies, divorces and bankruptcies than religious people.  And as speaks to virtue, they are far less likely to be in prison, which suggests that they don't commit as many crimes.  This is a nonsuperficial point that is not discussed, not at all.

Like I said, the problem with both research psychology (broadly, that they continue to allow crap like evo psych to be part of their field) and science journalism (total lack of criticism).

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some notes on The Hunger Games

Since the movie is coming out, I am going to jot down some of my thoughts on the series.  I didn't actually finish it.  I got partially through the last book and realized that it wasn't going to be worth my time to finish it.  If you're a fan of the series, you might want to skip the rest of what I'm going to say.  It's not real pretty.

Why?  Well, uh, because it the books are basically stupid.  There, I said it.  It's not the violence.  Please.  Compared to Darren Shan's Demonata, where bloody dismemberments happen nigh constantly, or the average run of many, many comic books, the violence of the Hunger Games books is pretty low key.  On the other hand, the books are really stupid.

They also represent the continued transformation of the publishing industry to the blockbuster model - where book publishers decide what series of books they're going to promote and then do so.  So, first you had Harry Potter, then you had Twilight and now you've got the Hunger Games.  It's all manufactured.  There are better young adult fiction out there, ranging from the aforementioned Darren Shan to Pam Munoz Ryan.  And while all this interest and attention is being focused on these series, a lot of very, very good writers are being left behind  - even moreso than in the music and film industry.  There is functionally zero local fiction press in the US.  We read what a small group of largely white, Ivy League educated rich New Yorkers decide we'll read.  If we have disgust with the publishing industry, there isn't really an alternative.  (Don't say the Internet; the Internet has made this problem worse, not better.  While theoretically allowing all fiction to be distributed easily, it also allows more focused and comprehensive advertising; while more choices are theoretically available, in practice we're all reading the same things.  Even during my youth, the way people found books to read was largely word of mouth and experimentation.  Now, we're told what to read and that's what we do and the Internet has been instrumental in this.)  I don't think this transformation of the industry into the blockbuster model is good for writers or audiences - like with Hollywood's blockbuster system, it panders to the lowest common denominator.

But the real problem is that they're stupid.  When I first started reading the first novel, Hunger Games, for a while I kept looking for the point the writer was trying to make.  There had to be one, right?  Some sort of critique of reality show television and how it leads to tyranny, maybe?

However, the books get it wrong.  The stunning thing about reality TV is that it's entirely voluntary.  You make a show that humiliates the participants and people will fight to be publicly humiliated.  So it can't really be a critique of reality TV, because voluntary participation is essential.  The people in the show want to be there.  Even in the most violent reality TV shows (and I watch both The Ultimate Fighter and Full Metal Jousting), the participants are fully involved.  They know the risks and they want to be there.  One of the most compelling arguments I use to justify my taste for violent entertainment is that it's pretty clear that fighters love their jobs.  They really want to be in that cage beating the hell out of each other.  It's all voluntary.

There is no modern parallel that I can think of for the forced participation in the actual Hunger Games.  So I initially concluded that the Games were a paper thin justification for adventure.  There was no point to the novels.  I could accept that.  A fun little romp.  Oh, terribly predictable, but whatever.

But then I was reading the first novel and I was, like, "This is a poorly produced TV show."  The author did not research into combat-based reality TV shows.  The structure of violent competition reality TV shows is one of escalating competition.  There's a tournament structure where the winning fighters fight each other with the stakes rising with every fight.  Ideally, the last fight is the best fight with the most investment.  It has paid off for the UFC.  The finale of the Ultimate Fighter seasons fairly routinely produces some of the best fights in the UFC, and the first season set the theme: the fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar is considered one of the top three MMA fights period by pretty much everyone.

In the novel's reality show, however, well, most of it is pretty boring.  The contestants largely keep away from each other because there are no structured teams - they could turn on each other at any time, so most spend their time hiding.  And as the games wear on, the contestants grow weaker, not stronger.  So, at the beginning of the Games, there's a big melee over a cache of equipment.  But at the end, and this is straight out of the first novel, the heroes win largely by hiding until the stronger contestant is torn apart by genetically modified animals.  Seriously. 

As TV, that sucks.  That is not going to hold the audience's attention.

I do not believe this is a superficial criticism, either.  The first two novels are centered around participation in the Games.  That the structure of the games is designed to plod at the end is fairly important.

The setting is also just incomprehensible.  I suppose I understand the reason why the districts exist - to make rebellion more difficult.  Every district needs something that some other district makes in order to survive.  Okay.  I get that.  But the Capitol is pretty high tech, fairly futuristic.  Why are their coal miners using 19th century technology?  And, really, there are easier ways to do hydraulic dictatorship, such as, uh, controlling the water.  Nothing bolsters a tyrant quite so much as being able to turn off the water.  Thirst takes the fight right out of people.

The use of technology is just awful, generally.  The heroine of series becomes the inadvertent symbol of resistance and the second book's first part is largely about the Capitol using her to stop rebellion.  Well, with the kind of technology the Capitol had at their disposal, and their control of communications, this would be superficially easy to do.  Kill the heroes and replace them with duplicates that undermine the resistance.  Done! 

This isn't even really science-fiction.  False broadcasts to undermine morale date to the early 20th century and are still popular.  The US military and intelligence communities put considerable effort into psywar efforts, part of which are always transmissions designed to make their target's leaders look ridiculous and ineffective.  But the futuristic tyranny of Panem doesn't use this effective technique, made even more effective because they control all communications channels and means of transportation.  If they display a show where the heroes of the series have descended into drug addition and infidelity, how will anyone be able to tell it's not real?  It's even plausible.  It is made very clear that many of the survivors of the Games are alcoholics and drug addicts.  The Games are incredibly traumatic, after all.

For me, where it really started coming off the rails in a big way was during the second novel and the introduction of President Snow, the dictator of the whole shebang.  Now, here was a chance to really make an interesting villain.  Why did he support this horrible tyranny that sacrifices children to demonstrate the Capitol's power over the districts?  But the author chose to have him literally reek of blood.  While he mouthed the most obvious platitudes - that the tyranny was necessary because of the precarious existence of the whole human species - he did them in an incredibly uninspired way and because he reeked of blood the signs were clear: he's just evil.

IMO, this is the biggest problem with these blockbuster YA novel series.  Their villains suck.  You see it in Voldemort and the various villains in Twilight, too.  They're just rotten.  That's lazy writing, if you ask me.  The best bad guys have a good reason for doing what they do - not a superficially good reason, an actual good reason.  Sure, the author hampered herself by having part of the tyranny be something so ridiculously evil that there is no real justification for it.  (Having kids kill each other for entertainment is pretty fucked up.  It's a moral black hole, an act so indefensible there can be no defense.  Even Rome had the justification that the gladiators were all infames - people condemned of crimes so severe they were not allowed to be buried on hallowed ground.  There is a huge moral difference between Iron Age Romans forcing condemned criminals to fight and a sci-fi society making innocent children fight.)  But she should have thought of something.  Instead, she just has the guy reek of blood and offer idiotic, and unnecessary, threats.  He's stupid and evil.  Not precisely a gripping bad guy.

(Which is the heart of the stupidity, really.  The Games, themselves, are so odious, so toxic, it is difficult to imagine any justification for them to exist.  As a mechanism of control, they're downright idiotic.  It would be evident from the onset that forcing a population watch their children murder each other would provoke rebellion.  Sure, history has tyrants doing a whole lot of profoundly stupid things, but in the whole brutal history of tyranny no tyrant ever did this.  It would be over the line for Caligula and Stalin's love child and both of them were literally insane.)

The third book tied it all up.  As rebellion predictably grows, the only district to successfully break away from Panem creates our heroine into a symbol of resistance.  What pushed it over the line is when they give her a Green Arrow bow.  No, seriously, gadget arrows and everything. 

It was the last straw.  I mean, not just the gadget bow and turning her into a superhero.  But the way the rebellion was going to go down.  Because the books are predictable, I'm sure things end hopefully.  That's a particularly American view of violent revolution.  Because our own Revolutionary War ended with the most progressive government that the earth had yet seen, at that time, we like the idea of violent revolution to overthrow tyranny.  This ignores the basic facts about revolution: they almost never work.  If a person did research into revolution, that's what they'd find.  The almost inevitable end of revolution is tyranny.  Americans got really, really lucky that George Washington honestly didn't want power - he could have easily been a monarch.  Indeed, many people wanted him to take a crown.  Fortunately for us, he mostly wanted to go home.  Most places subject to revolution aren't so lucky.  They end up with dictators.  Even if the revolutionary leaders don't survive, the revolution, itself, is organized in a particular way - a very authoritarian way.  The second in command, who inevitably shares the values of the revolutionary leader, steps up . . . or there is a civil war as the revolution's leaders fight among themselves.  Either way, it's not pretty.

But by the time I stopped reading, I had trouble imagining that the author had done any research at all.  She didn't understand reality TV or despotism, why would she understand the consequences of revolution?  I could see no way to tie up the story in a neat little knot, and I knew a neat little knot was coming, and I couldn't bear to face it.  (I checked the Internet.  Yep, there was a neat little knot.)

I just think there isn't a reason for young adult novels to be so stupid.  And, indeed, there are plenty out there that are really good, from The Jungle Book to Watership Down to the Demonata.  But the blockbuster system doesn't require quality.  It just requires advertising.  With enough advertising, mediocre books can be transformed into lucrative franchises and that's what happened, here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Problems with Irving Kirsch's Critique of Antidepressants as Placebos

Recently, a FB pal posted an article run on 60 Minutes based on the work of Irving Kirsch. He's a psychologist who has been making the rounds saying antidepressants don't work - and, indeed, depression is not caused by a chemical inbalance at all. It's a pretty radical claim. The overwhelming medical belief is that antidepressants do more good than harm by a considerable margin. Kirsch believes otherwise. To quote him, "Depression is not a brain disease, and chemicals don’t cure it.”

(I'm not going to provide links, here, because linking is largely meaningless. You can find someone on the Internet to take virtually any position at all, so links that "prove" a given point do nothing of the sort - they merely show the person can search around for data that agrees with their conclusions. I encourage people to do independent and substantial research on any field that interests them and advise they read books to do it. The Internet has certainly broadened our knowledge, but it has also made much of it shallow and muddy.)

I've been following Kirsch's work for about a year, now. This is shortly after I started taking antidepressants and feeling considerably better - so I had some vested interest in the research. Was the effect I feeling a placebo effect?

For the record, I am extremely critical of psychological research for both historical and theoretical grounds. I think this bias is justified - psychology has not done a very good job of policing itself. The case of Cyril Burt is particularly significant. But was a psychologist who did twin studies. After his death, it was found he had massively falsified his information, lying about the sample size of the twins studies he did, inventing collaborators and their credentials - this has not prevented his work from continuing to be taught. This is unprecedented. I can't think of a single case where a person, caught committing fraud over the span of decades, would still be taught. The articles "known" to be fraudulent have been removed, but if there was no direct "proof" that a given paper was fraudulent it has remained in the academic canon. (Such proof is hard to get, because Burt burned all his notes before he died!) Furthermore, due to the vagaries of attribution inheritance, articles whose substance is based on Burt's findings are still part of the psychological data record - no effort was made to purge the effects of his fraudulent work from the data pool.

I wish I could say this was something that died with Burt. But you can find the continuation of such fraud in psychology in books like The Bell Curve, issues like gender studies and evolutionary psychology - not to mention, like I said, Burt's work has not been purged from the psychological canon; while those papers known to be fraudulent have been removed, the papers that source Burt's work were not and are themselves sourced by modern research.

(An interesting comparison between corrupt scientific fields and how they clean themselves up, or in psychology's case, fail to, is anthropology. Anthropology was, sadly, very much part of the early twentieth century's eugenics movement. After World War II, though, anthropologists, horrified at what they had helped to do, given intellectual weight to atrocity, purged eugenics from its discipline almost entirely. Psychology, whose IQ tests were also used to justify eugenics, who were equally guilty of giving intellectual force for the eugenics massacres of the early twentieth century, well . . . the Bell Curve is still influential. The eugenicists are still there in psychology, they were never purged or repudiated. In short, there is no psychology equivalent to Jane Goodall because the field never cleaned it's house after World War II.)

Theoretically, psychology is a mess. (And by theory, I'm talking about theory in the scientific jargon sense, which is an explanation for diverse phenomenon inside the field of study, demonstrated by considerable proof without substantial internal contradiction.) It is the only science that has no generally accepted theory regarding the field's object of study. This is a very simple statement, but the consequences are enormous. In short, psychologists are not in agreement, at all, as to what the mind actually is. When compared to chemistry's atomic model, astronomy's relativity, biology's natural selection, physics' mechanics and quantum mechanics, so forth and so on, this lacuna is enormous. If you don't agree about what it is you're studying, how on earth can you study it? What, precisely, are you studying? They literally cannot agree.

(This is in contradistinction to psychiatry, which has a very strong, stable theory of mind. Your mind is your brain, they are one in the same. It is a theory for which there is tremendous evidence, of course.)

So, when I read psychological research, I do so with a grain of salt. They have a lousy track record of policing themselves, the worst in science, and no unifying theory!

Well, when you look into Kirsch's work, it's actually pretty atrocious. Not the hypothesis, so much as his methodology and, indeed, his theoretical understanding of human consciousness.

I'm going to tack the methodological failures of his work. In particular, he cherry picked data. For instance, in the APA journal Prevention and Treatment, where much of his early work was published, the editor of that journal called Kirsch's statistical models "clearly arguable" and warned that his paper's subject-selection criteria were heterogenous. In particular, Kirsch only looked at short term studies.

Now, I do not doubt that antidepressants are overprescribed - but prescribing drugs is what doctors do. Most physicians take the attitude that it's better to ere on the side of caution. Because of the difficulties in communicating psychological conditions, when a patient comes in and says they've been depressed for a long time and nothing seems to pull them out of it - what is the psychiatrist to do? Ignore the suffering of their patient? No. They prescribe medication and usually suggest therapy. After all, antidepressants are generally safe.

In many of these cases, however, the depression wasn't clinical. It's not even that the medication acted as a placebo - it's that there was no illness in the first place. So when Kirsch argues, on the grounds of short term studies, that there is substantial placebo effect - he's wrong. It wasn't the medication or the placebo effect that halted the depression; it was just the normal passage of time in an unknown number of cases. How can this be construed as data at all?

For instance, you take a group of people with headaches. Half you give ibuprofin, half you give sugar pills. An hour later, you ask them how they feel and find that almost all of them, in both groups, now feel fine, most of them attributing their improvement to their medication. Out of these groups, how do you find the people whose headaches just stopped naturally, as most headaches do? It's the same with short term depression studies. It is impossible to determine how many of the people felt better not because of the medication or of the placebo.

In psychiatric and psychological studies, there is tremendous self-selection of subjects. People who feel bad tend to join. While in most medical science, they can perform an actual test to determine who has the condition for which they are testing (say, a virus), this is not generally possible in psychological and psychiatric cases in the short term. So it is known that many of the people who join psychological and psychiatric studies aren't sick in the first place, but it's impossible to know how many! How can you determine the efficacy of the placebo effect if you don't even know if they're clinically ill in the first place? The only good method of determining a person's psychological state is long term observation - something impossible to do with short term studies. By avoiding long-term studies, Kirsch is avoiding the very data that would counter his hypothesis. Ouch. That's a huge scientific no-no.

Additionally, the placebo effect is, itself, short term. The longest known placebo effect is two and a half years. Any study that goes over that is just assumed to be free of placebo effects. So, not only does Kirsch avoid the studies that select out the mentally ill from the temporarily distressed, he also avoids studies where the placebo effect is eliminated or minimized due to the long term nature of the studies. Double whammy.

Indeed, the very idea of the placebo effect is itself under fire - using methods similar to Kirsch's, but with larger data sets over longer periods of time, Asbjørn Hróbjartsson and Peter Gøtzsche have basically demonstrated that there is no clinically significant placebo effect. So, who's right? Kirsch who says that antidepressants are placebos or Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche who say that the placebo effect is clinicially insignificant?

This is awful methodology. It's simply scientifically unethical to ignore the data that contradicts your conclusions, to study only those things that allow you to be right. To have scientific legitimacy, Kirsch must address long term studies that are free of the placebo effect and the growing body of evidence that the placebo effect is not clinically significant. He does not do this.

One might ask, then, why he can get these high falutin' jobs, like the University of Leeds and now, well, he works at Harvard. Remember what I said about Cyril Burt, The Bell Curve and evolutionary psychology - psychology is a field full of quacks, even at the highest levels of education and research.

Not to mention this is a highly politicized area. There are a lot of people who simply reject the idea that mental illness has a physical component. I'll talk more on that in a bit, but my point here is that there are a lot of people who actively reject the idea of mental illness, who believe that mentally ill people should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", or seek solace in religion, or "just get over it". (Thomas Szasz published, in 1961, The Myth of Mental Illness - a book that was just reprinted last year and still has considerable influence; see also The Manufacture of Madness and more recently The Manufacture of Depression, which came out last year - and it goes back as far as the written language goes - there are always people who say mental illnesses don't really exist, you can read about it in medieval sources, in classical antiquity; Pythagoras said that depression was merely lack of self control, akin to laziness; Hippocrates believed that melancholia - what we call depression, nowadays - was an imbalance of the four humors, which is to say a medical problem. This argument is ongoing, but nowadays is largely farcical. The medical basis of mental illness is well understood.) They are emboldened by a researcher like Kirsch, who gives the air of legitimacy to their beliefs.

Science is not some purely intellectual field - it takes money to do it, and the people in charge of that money are not, by and large, scientists. They are corporations and political bodies, pursuing their own agendas. But no one brings it up that there are non-scientific social forces that reject mental illness for no good reason - but then use their status in order to support research in that area. As an example, the University of Oklahoma's geology department is the ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics. Guess what their position on global climate change is? This is as true in psychology as geology - people with social and political agenda control research funding and publication. And there have always been people who are swift to side with people who say that mental illness isn't physical, that it's a defect in will or character. It goes back at least as far as Pythagoras and Hippocrates!

Additionally, there's just the prima facie stupidity of asserting that you can effect mood with drugs. I mean, prima facie. There are a huge number of studies about the effects of drugs on mood, not to mention nearly every adult reading this has personal experience with alcohol lifting their spirits and lowering their social anxiety. Even more powerful are the opiates - it is impossible to be depressed when you're on Percocet. Unfortunately, these drugs have such dangerous side effects that it is unethical to administer them or they must be administered very carefully. But it's absurd to say that drugs can't effect mood and feelings. It's silly and juvenile! The only question is to what extent does a given drug effect our feeling of depression. That drugs can alter our feeling of depression is simply prima facie true.

The aquisition of funding and possession of high titles does not make a person right. It only means that someone in a position of power agrees with what you say and is willing to give you money to prove it. While it shapes all scientific endeavors to some degree, it is particular pernicious in a field where there is no theory. In psychology's theoretical void, their lack of agreement about what the mind is, anything goes. So you come up with racist crap justifying eugenics and people doubting the physiological origins of mental illness.

Which brings me to the theoretical problems I have with Kirsch's work and all work that supposes a mind/body dualism. Kirsch believes that depression isn't a brain disease. Well, for crying out loud, man, what kind of disease can it be, then? Because all the actual evidence suggests that the mind and the brain are the same thing. All mental activity - thought, reason, emotion, perception - they're all brain activity. If depression exists at all, it must exist as a brain disease because that's where the mind is located. To say that you believe that depression exists but isn't a brain disease makes as much sense as saying you believe in heart attacks but it's not a heart disease.

But we live in a world that is steeped in dualism - the belief that there is some sort of perfected, non-physical sense that exists independent of our flesh. Sometimes it's called the soul, but just as often it's called the mind and the two are mixed up in religion and culture all the time. Dualism is present in all the world's largest religions.

However, that's not science. Science has never been able to find a soul. It has never been able to find a mind separate from the brain. Meaning, Kirsch is proposing something preposterous, again: that you can have a mental illness that isn't in the brain.

I can't say it's short, but those are my main reasons for thinking Kirsch is a quack.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on the Second Amendment and Gun Control

A meme is making the rounds at Facebook, today, saying if you support the 2nd Amendment repost this. I almost never repost memes unless I have a snarky comment to make - I generally prefer my communications to be more substantial than memes generally are - and while I certainly could make a snarky comment about the 2nd Amendment meme I figured, hey, what the heck, post more substantially on your feelings about the subject.

For me, it isn't a legal matter. I feel the 2nd Amendment is clear in both wording, precedent and tradition. Americans have the right to own firearms. People who go into the historical origins of 18th century militias to discredit modern interpretations of the law engage, I feel, in distorting history. While it is true that when the 2nd Amendment was written, militias were not armed from a state armory but personal arms, and it is true that, today, militias are armed by the state armory, that ignores the 200 years of precedent and tradition between the writing of the Bill of Rights and today - a history of precedent and tradition that has uniformly supported the right of individuals to own guns. This is clear and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant, lying or so ideologically confused that facts have receded into small points in the distance.

The more complex matter is - should we change the 2nd Amendment? For me, the answer is "yes" and I'll chart out the reasons below after I say this: yeah, guns don't kill people, people kill people . . . with guns. They also rob with them, assault people with them and generally do terrible things with them - and it's my opinion that in a risk analysis sense, applied to the subject of liberty, we'd generally be better off without them.

The two main modern justifications to keeping the 2nd Amendment around are:

1. In such a case as the government of the United States turns tyrannical, an armed population will be able to overthrow such tyranny and;

2. Guns are useful in self-defense and to disarm the population would be to have them fall prey to criminals who would loot and pillage at will, sans an armed population to keep them (or, rather, us) in check.

Both cases are made to sound simple by the pro-gun lobby, but neither is. But, first, let's look at some relevant facts. In the US, 25,000 to 30,000 or so people, every year, who are killed by guns (most are suicide deaths, about 11,000 to 13,000 are murders). Heroin, on the other hand, kills around 2,000 or so Americans every year. So, y'know, guns are about fifteen times as dangerous as heroin. Indeed, the is only one product you can buy that's more dangerous than a firearm - tobacco. Guns are literally the second most dangerous thing you can buy for yourself, even above cars and alcohol.

In a study in 1999, by the Violence Policy Center, every bullet sold in America costs the country around $23 in associated costs - medical care and reduced standard of living because of enduring injury - to the tune of costing the country around $4 billion a year to pay for the right of people to own guns, no doubt more considering the rapidly increasing costs of medical care. So, there is a public cost to firearms ownership beyond simply the violence they accelerate.

The murder rate in the US is just . . . massively higher than in other developed countries. Even those who have crime rates similiar to the US in other areas, such as England, have murder rates that are tiny fractions of those we see in the US. Which makes sense. In England, you get pissed off that your wife is cheating on you, maybe you punch her and/or her boyfriend. In the US, that situation can quickly escalate into murder because it's so easy to kill someone with guns. So while it's true that "people kill people", the ease with which guns allow people to kill other people can't be dismissed with platitudes. Sure, people kill people, but guns make it easy for some angry, humiliated, distraught person to murder someone while in a bad emotional state - which is about where 80% of gun deaths happen, because of a personal quarrel that escalates out of control, almost always having to do with sex or money.

In short, guns are dangerous. They kill a lot of people and do a lot of harm to the public wealth. These facts also cannot be ignored or downplayed. People who do so are guilty of the same kind of twisting of facts used by those who say that the 2nd Amendment doesn't give people the right to bear firearms. The ownership of guns causes a lot of misery and we pay a steep economic price. Those are simply facts.

In the first case, that of protecting ourselves from tyranny, an armed population is as capable of perpetrating tyranny as preventing it - and perhaps moreso. You find any shitty hellhole, anywhere in the world, and you'll find everyone has guns - Columbia, Mexico, Sudan, Afghanistan you name it, in every festering hellhole, guns are readily available. In peaceful, stable nations, you'll generally find gun ownership to be very stricted.

As for stable, tyrannical states? Yes, gun ownership is generally quite restricted, as well, to prevent uprisings. It's pretty hard to get a gun in both France and China - but the US is a lot more like France than China, culturally speaking. Like the French, we have a long and proud history of democratic traditions, a history that China does not have. Sun Yat-Sen is a great man, but Chinese democracy was smothered in the cradle by the warlords and finished off by Mao Zedong. The US, on the other hand, is the oldest democratic state in the world. We have never had any other form of government than republican democracy and over time the conditions of our Republic have improved, bringing ever more people into the franchise. That is the American way - of expanding liberties. We should be proud of that as a national treasure, our longstanding commitment to liberty - imperfect, but improving, always improving. So the situation we find ourselves in is hardly comparable to that of a tyrannical state. It's just not really in us. Never has been.

Additionally, I feel one of the greatest impediments to just, consensual government - no matter the shape - is lack of trust. IMO, that's the biggest problem with government in the US, right now, and almost all other problems either stem from this or their magnitude is increased by it: the people don't trust the government, nor the government the people. I think throwing guns into this mix is a greater threat to our liberty than defense of liberty; I think guns in this mix have a much greater chance of being coopted by a tyrant than used to defend ourselves from one.

Additionally, it's farcical to believe that an armed uprising in the US couldn't be put down by the US military. The only question would be would US troops do that to US citizens - and the answer to that is very complex, depending on the situation we're trying to imagine. I think it would be foolish to imagine that there are no situations where the military would not oppress the people (the actions of the Union Army after the Civil War were so bad that the posse comitatus laws were necessary and just), just as I think it would be foolish to imagine there are no situations where the military, itself, would not side with the people (though if it were to do that, the US could quickly become a military dictatorship, the line between the military supporting the people and the military taking over is a very thin line, so there's that to consider, too).

That's without taking into account the possibility that gun ownership becomes the mechanism of tyranny - I know of no metrics for that, but it's a real threat. Charismatic leaders have been getting the armed population on their side for purposes of tyranny since the beginning of gun ownership; for recent and local examples, just examine any South American military dictatorship, or the current situation in Mexico (whose violence is spilling over into the US, so this isn't merely hypothetical). Miami is also familiar with the violence of guns during the 1980s, which was pretty crazy, and whose violence was not in any measure lessened by widespread gun ownership - that just made it easier for the drug lords and their killers to get their hands on guns.

While admitting there are margins where gun ownership might prevent tyranny, I think we have to admit that possiblity is marginal. Personal possession of firearms is insignificant compared to the power of the military or even the police. Given this, give that personal firearms ownership will only help us overthrow tyranny in a very narrow range of situations, and given the large amount of damage guns do to our society every year (30,000 people dead and 4 billion in damage), it is hard for me to justify gun ownership on the grounds that it prevents tyranny.

In the second case, that of personal protection, there's simply no reliable information that guns stop crime. The number of interventions where armed people chased prevented crime range from around 60,000 a year to 2,500,000 every year - and there is no good methodology for actually examining these numbers. How do you tell when a crime hasn't been committed because someone had a gun? Sometimes, sure, it's easy. Some burglars break into a person's house and get shot - simple and clean cut. But how about those situations where someone hears a noise, goes out to their porch with their shotgun, hears people fleeing and then imagines they've stopped a great crime when all they've done is chase off neighborhood kids using their property as a shortcut? Or who imagine the entire episode because they are committed beyond the bounds of reason to the idea that guns stop crime. Because, in my experience, people who have claimed to stop crime with guns all fall into the second category. I have never known anyone who could verifiably say they stopped a crime because of firearm possession but I've known a lot of people who claim they have - but the incidence of serious crime among my friends seems to be the same regardless of how many people they've chased off with guns; in both cases it's zero (er, if we exclude the violence my friends have committed, hehe; I have a former friend who did kill his girlfriend another who has a conviction for strong arm robbery - but I'll point out neither of them were stopped with guns, either). The lower number is generally believed to be true, as it has better methodology, requiring people to demonstrate there was a crime that was present to be stopped by firearms possession, the higher number basically credits every person who says they stopped a crime as both truthful and accurate.

This has to be weighed against the number of crimes committed with guns. These numbers are much easier to measure - in 2005, 477,000 people were victims of gun-related crime. There were probably a few more than that. That's just the numbers we know about. So, y'know, when gangsters kill someone and no one finds the body, or a crook is shot and doesn't go the hospital, those numbers aren't counted - though they are almost certainly fairly substantial.

So, at best, it's 60,000 cases of crime stopped compared to 477,000 crimes committed with guns. Again, I am lead to conclude, fairly inescapably, that guns are bad for society - that the good guns do in terms of chasing off crooks or whatever is repaid, may times over, by the crimes committed with guns. All those murders, assaults, robberies and the like.

I can also imagine a number of solutions between total criminalization of firearms possession and the current state of affairs. The NRA and other organizations have called for increased need for weapons training (while at the same time lobbying against laws that would make gun safety classes a prerequisite for gun ownership). But the idea has merit - if Americans knew how to handle their guns, the danger of guns would be dramatically minimized.

As would the requirements that guns have trigger locks and gun owners keep their guns in safes (something else also suggested by the NRA who actively combat laws to require it - as you can imagine, I'm fairly ambivalent about the NRA). Yes, it would increase the costs of gun ownership, but it would also save a lot of people's lives and save society a bunch of money in the process.

Hell, it wouldn't even break my heart if gun safety was taught in public schools - it'd be more useful than most of the other things that are taught, and a person's chance of being in a household with firearms, at some point in their life, is very high (around half of all households have guns in them, right now) - so knowing how to handle these very dangerous items is a matter of public good on the same scale as, say, sex education. And would be equally controversial, but it would be a good idea in an armed society and would probably reduce gun violence considerably.

As would the case of restricting the ownership of pistols. Eighty percent of gun crime is done with pistols, mostly because they're easy to conceal. The focus on things like assault rifles is ridiculous. Almost no one commits a crime with an assault rifle (and I would argue the people who own assault rifles are definitely better trained than the average gun owner). You can't really walk around with an AR-15 without being noticed, whereas you can put a 9mm pistol in your pocket.

My point being is that I don't necessarily see a need to outlaw gun ownership. There might be other solutions. But as it stands, it is impossible for me to support gun ownership, regardless of what the 2nd Amendment means.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Afterword on UFC 143

I finally caught up on UFC 143 and I gotta say it was deeply satisfying to see Carlos Condit beat, and beat up, Nick Diaz. And while the fight was close - I scored it 49-46 though I admit the first round was close, and since two of the judges agreed with my scoring, and one gave the first to Diaz, I figure I was pretty spot on - it was definitely Condit's fight. Condit's striking was just too diverse, he was able to move and avoid Diaz's volume punching while connecting with his own strikes. At the end of the fifth round, Diaz was able to get him down and came quite close to submitting Condit with a rear naked choke - so Diaz stole that round, but even so at the very end Condit reversed it and was on top of Diaz. So, good fight, and a profound thank you to Carlos Condit for exposing the weaknesses in Diaz's game: that he fights every fight the same way and if you just plan for that, he can be beaten and, indeed, he can be caused to wilt (which definitely happened in the third and fourth rounds).

Bad news? Diaz won't get crushed by Georges St-Pierre. Instead, Condit will be crushed . . . though probably not as hard because Condit didn't call GSP a chicken. I almost wanted Diaz to win so GSP could beat him, but narrowly decided I'd rather see the Diaz hype train derailed sooner rather than later - and if Diaz lost to GSP, well, who in welterweight hasn't? But losing to Condit means that Diaz is just one of many contenders at welterweight, he isn't some dominant fighter.

The ridiculous news? Diaz is an ass. The first thing out of his mouth in the post-fight interview is how he didn't "accept" that Condit won. Diaz specifically said that he pushed forward the whole fight and landed the harder strikes. Diaz also disparaged Condit's brutal leg kicks that really slowed Diaz down in the later rounds. The first is true - Diaz did push forward. Into Condit's kicks again and again. But it a lie that Diaz landed the harder strikes. The hardest blows were definitely landed by Condit - a roundhouse kick to the face (well, he landed several, but one in particular) and a spinning forearm. And those leg kicks? Some of them were just savage. So, pathetic. Diaz lost, but he whined like a spoiled brat about it.

Then Diaz said he's going to leave MMA because . . . oh, Diaz mumbling BS. There's not enough in it for him or something. He has some fantasy that he can be a top level boxer which will earn him more money.

Which is sad. While Freddie Roach has said that Diaz is the best boxer in MMA - and who am I to disagree with Freddie Roach when it comes to judging a boxer's skill? - that's a far, far cry from saying that Diaz can be a successful professional boxer. Diaz's boxing is very good for MMA, that's undoubtedly true. But many of his fights in MMA he's won by submission. He's got top notch Brazilian jiu jitsu. You can't do that in boxing.

Not to mention the same weaknesses that Condit too advantage of - Diaz's basically lousy footwork - can also be taken advantage of in boxing. The same way Condit beat Diaz will work for any boxer. Diaz will come forward, so long as you disengage so he doesn't corner you and volume punch you into oblivion you'll do okay. And pro boxers, as a rule, have really great footwork. MMA guys? Not so much, because they've got to be canny about takedowns so they have a more square stance and don't move around as much. And Diaz has bad footwork for an MMA dude (which is why Condit landed so many leg kicks; Diaz is flat-footed and plodding).

My prediction if Diaz actually goes into boxing is that he'll get a couple of novelty fights. Oooooh, it's an MMA champion in a boxing ring! See the dog talk! Well, if they're low tier fighters, he'll win. If they're middle-tier fighters, he will lose. Diaz will never be a top level boxer getting the big paychecks he imagines he'll win - and in short order, he'll be getting smaller paychecks than he would be getting in MMA where he is a legitimate title contender. He'll never be that in boxing.

So, not only pathetic that he's leaving MMA with his tail between his legs because he got whipped by Condit (c'mon, man, learn to lose, it's part of all sports!), but it's stupid. And sad.

(It also makes me wonder what his manager, Cesar Gracie, is doing with his money. Diaz lives a very modest lifestyle. Last year, he earned at least $1.1 million in just paychecks for his fights. With promotions and such, it was probably at least twice as much. So, you've got this guy who lives with two other dudes in an apartment in Stockton - he doesn't even live there alone, he shares a place - he drives a crappy car, while I'm sure he spend a fair bit on weed it's not that expensive given his wealth. But he's always whining about how he doesn't have money. Diaz would hardly be the first fighter to be taken advantage of by his manager. But if that's the case, even if he could be a top flight boxer, he'll still be ripped off by Cesar Gracie.)

Next, someone will have to come in and stop the Nate Diaz hype train. Sure, he had a goon win over Cowboy Cerrone, but that's because Cerrone came out and fought an angry and stupid fight. I'm sure a disciplined Cerrone would have won that fight . . . and I think that everyone, from now on, will train not to fall for the Diaz brothers' cage tricks like the "Stockton slap" and the trash talk. Not to mention that from now on, Nate is deep in the shark pool of lightweight. It doesn't get easier from here, so, go Dan Miller, who is a legit contender.

Other noteworthy things? Hell, yeah, Dustin Poirier's mounted triangle armbar was wicked. And Stephen Thompson's karate KO was pretty nifty, too - and the announcing was great. It was Thompson's first UFC fight, and it didn't look like he was hitting with a lot of power, and Joe Rogan was walking about how Thompson was definitely hitting Stittgen and styming Stittgen's offense but it didn't look like he'd hurt Stittgen and as Joe was saying that Thompson laid out Stittgen. Hell, yeah, karate! So, that was cool.

I also think welterweight has turned over. Josh Koscheck won his fight by a razor's margin split decision and I agreed with the minority judge. But with Jon Fitch having been KO'd in his last fight, with Josh Koscheck's uninspired victory over a very modest fighter, Jake Shield's getting clobbered by Ellenburger and Thiago Alves having already self-destructed, I think that there's going to be a whole new cast at the top of welterweight - Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenburger, Diego Sanchez and before too long Rory MacDonald. I also think that Thiago Alves can go back up to the top if he overcomes his fear of wrestling. But a lot of the old guard the UFC wants to put aside because and they're largely at the end of their careers, anyway.

I was sad Ed Herman won because he's a jerk, but he's finally become the fighter everyone thought he was when he was on The Ultimate Fighter. He might be a force to deal since middleweight is going to turn over very soon - Anderson Silva only has a couple more fights in him, and he's got a really tough test against Chael Sonnen, who came within a hair's breadth of beating Silva last time they fought. And regardless if Silva wins (and I hope he does), he won't be fighting too much longer. He's thirty-six and he's got injuries. He's got maybe two more fights in him.

I think Renan Barão is going to be fighting Dominick Cruz very soon. I think it will be a good fight, judging how Barão fought against Scotty Jorgensen (who Cruz also fought, so there is some grounds for comparison). And I like Scotty Jorgensen, but I don't think he's going to be a top guy at 145 for much longer - he doesn't seem to be developing. Oh, well.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Notes on Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

Edit: I wrote this a couple years ago. The differences between the Occupy San Francisco movement and the Occupy Oakland movement - which saw 400+ people arrested in Oakland this weekend, and demonstrate the willingness of minorities to resist authority relative to their well-heeled white counterparts in San Fran, has encouraged me to post it, again, with minor edits. So, here we go:

On recommendation - and with the caveat I might not like it - I read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. I initially walked down the library to get it, but thanks to budget cuts the library is now closed on Fridays. Then I got to walk home in the rain. But, hey, it's California rain, right? I can't bitch too much.

Spoilers follow.

I'd never read fiction by Doctorow before this. At some point, several years back, I read something he wrote, or was written about him, about alternate distribution channels. I think the upshot was that online self-publishing was going to level the playing field and allow works to be selected primarily by talent. I didn't buy it, then, and I don't buy it now. While talent will be one component of success (such as it is now) there'll be a lot more important things . . . like having invented Boing Boing and having an existing audience of fans. I bet that helps. So, what he saw (or how I interpreted it) was that somehow online would make things fair. I just saw it as further externalization of labor to unpublished writers; now, instead of writing a good book and having to go through the various hoops to get it published you'd have to become an Internet marketeer or something. Maybe I got it wrong - this was several years ago and I didn't do anything like research on the article - but it was enough to incline me away from reading his books. I can be pretty ruthless about the subject. There are plenty of good writers in the world. If I have any reason at all to move on to another writer, I do. It's not like the world is going to run out of good books before I die, right?

Well, I won't be reading anything else by him absent a miracle (or, y'know, at least a strongly worded recommendation from someone I trust). Because I found this book abysmal.

The book is written in the first person and while I briefly found the narrator interesting, he swiftly got on my nerves as a deeply shallow middle class white boy of excessive privilege, a spoiled rotten consumerist brat whom I swiftly came to loathe. Worse, the book pretends to be deep but is actually an inflatable kiddie pool.

I read somewhere when Alan Moore was complaining about the movie V for Vendetta that one of the things he didn't like about the movie is that it created a false conundrum, the choice between democracy and fascism. And that was silly because there's no real comparison. Whereas the comic was about anarchy and fascism, an altogether difference choice.

Little Brother is about a white middle class young man who, after a 911-style bombing in San Francisco, is accidentally picked up by Homeland Security. For five days he's interrogated, somewhat roughly, because he's a crypto kid and tosses some attitude their way when they order him to give up his passwords. After some abusive treatment - like denying him food for a day and letting him soil himself - he breaks, gives them the passwords. After he's released, he decided to overthrow the system.

The future he sets up is a surveillance state after the second terrorist attack. This is the system that the hero of the story fights against, except he's not really fighting against it, just the narrow parts of it that directly effect him and other affluent people. The social impact beyond affluent white people are simply never brought up.

It reminds me of that interview with Moore about how he didn't like the movie because it created this weird false conundrum. Between democracy and fascism, there is no choice. Between a deeply intrusive security state and lack of the same deeply intrusive security state, there is also no choice. That is not, however, what we've got. Perhaps Doctorow really thinks that's where we're going, or maybe it's just a fear of his. However, while the kid, before his incarceration, rebelled against the "security" around him and thwarted it as much as he could reasonably do, he and his friends weren't too concerned about the broader social implications of the already present security state. Y'know. Gitmo and extraordinary rendition, illegal combatants, waterboarding and the like. The book was released in 2008, meaning it was written most likely in 2007 or 2006. It isn't about current security practices and their abuses, but about some fictionalized version of them where the paranoia has grown so great that even middle class Frisco kids are caught up in it. THEN it becomes a problem.

Which, as a kid raised in a trailer park, raised all kinds of alarms. First, I don't believe that white middle class Frisco kids and their rich parents would factually be inconvenienced for very long. Think security lines at airports. How long did fast track passes take to be invented so if you had enough loot you could breeze through security?

But it's the second one that really put me on a slow burn. Across the bay from San Francisco is Oakland. You don't have to imagine a world where there's another 911 to see a place where a crazy security state is in place. There are neighborhoods in Oakland where 1 in 3 adult men have been in prison, and at any given time 1 in 10 of them are in the hands of law enforcement. Black people spend eight times as much time in prison compared to white people. It's actually worse for Indians, but I'm talking Oakland because Oakland is right across the bay from San Francisco and about the same population. Oakland is definitely the elephant in the room because this book takes place in San Francisco.

So, worse conditions than described in the book actually exist, just across the bay. And the book's complete failure to mention the persistent social conditions in Oakland, much less have it dawn on the hero of the novel that maybe those oppressed Oakland people might have something to tell him about the nature of the revolution he's planning or at least the nature of the system he's fighting. I mean, it isn't like there have been any revolutionaries in Oakland ever before, right? That could never happen in Oakland!

Of course, at the end of the book it's safe to be a white male middle class kid in San Francisco, again. Since at no point did anyone get down to Oakland, or the social conditions that previously existed in Oakland were mentioned, I'm gonna guess they're still fucked. (It was very briefly mentioned that non-white people might see things differently. A non-white person gives up on the quest because of fear. Which, fuck, is goddamn racist. While white kids like the protagonist were living safe in their affluent Frisco housing, Hispanic Californians have been, year after year, decade after decade, putting their asses on the line to make the world a better place. But it's the Mexican who gives up because it's dangerous! HOLY SHIT. Again, y'know, it's the brave white affluent kids that change the world. Ugh.) (The woman of the initial group also is too gutless to take a stand. She has family in North Korea so she knows how bad tyranny can get - and rather than this being a driving force encouraging her to fight to stop it from happening in America, y'know, I guess she's a girl, an Asian girl at that, she chickens out. Ugh. So toss some sexism into the pile – girls can't be revolutionaries, I guess.)

The message I took away from the book: When the revolution comes, it's going to be run by rich male white kids from affluent backgrounds to free themselves from tyranny. If that sentence makes no sense to you, well, it doesn't many sense to me, either. I think that it might make sense to rich male white people from affluent communities that have absolutely no fucking clue whatsoever what's going on outside their comfortable affluent environments and have tricked themselves into believing that they're somehow a persecuted class, or even a class that could be persecuted. That happens all time, y'know, how up becomes down and rich white men believe they're really the persecuted ones, but it's stupid.

Which is really offensive. The US has real problems. We imprison more people than communist China. Not more per capita but more period. You don't have to create another terrorist attack to imagine an America that engages in massive surveillance of its citizens and arrests them on arbitrary and idiotic charges and imprisons them for irrational, illogical periods of time in a mockery of justice. You just have to go to Oakland. But rather than do that, Doctorow creates a scenario which is substantially better than the actual situation for many Americans and has a rich male white middle class kid take this fake ass stand to return to a fucked up status quo that the character, and author, seem ignorant about. It comes off as coopting revolutionary consciousness to support the status quo to me.

Something else I found offensive, too, y'know, going along with how the book is about saving affluent white kids to throw raves and equally deep things is the idea that the worst thing that will happen is increased surveillance in the case of escalation of terrorism in the US (there is a brief period at the beginning and very end of the book about real issues like illegal detention and torture – but most of the book is entirely free of this consciousness; even the narrator admits it). I mean, OK, that's what the book is about and it's a real problem, I dig that. But if there was another 911 style attack by al Qaida (as is in the case in this book), one of the real effects would be a dramatic increase in military activity in the Middle East. As in "carpet bombing". But also in the sense that it is almost certain a draft would be instituted. We're already stretched thin. The draft is already be bruited about. Any serious expansion of militarism would demand it. But the book's analysis of a terrorist inspired future stops at the inconvenience to well off kids in Frisco. So while I understand that the book is reasonably limited in scope, that all writers have got to choose what they're writing about, the analysis as presented in the book is so deeply limited I'm finding it downright narcissistic. Things outside the extremely limited initial perceptions are simply left unexplored, unmentioned.

(A friend of mine also mentioned that if the Oakland Bay Bridge was destroyed that San Francisco would be a ghost town. There would be vast and immediate consequences to the city beyond the feds throwing up roadblocks and checkpoints. But he lives in Oakland so what would he know, right?)

Also, in the online version of the book, each chapter has an advertisement. It really, really, really undermines your "stick it to the Man" gig when you shill Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders in your book. It'd be like Rage Against the Machine ending a set with "drink Diet Pepsi!" A serious part of the problems with America - as opposed to the weak ass "problems" that afflict the middle class kids in this book - are these huge corporations and the undue influence they have over people and the government. They're part of the security state that Doctorow fears! Right now, many of the people he shills for are actively working to bring about the security state that the book ostensibly rails against! Argh! Every actual violation of a person's online privacy rights has been totally engineered by big corporations, sometimes the exactly corporations he shills for, such as Amazon! AAAARGH. It makes my brain hurt.

(Indeed, the book is a catalog of product placement. Innumerably the snooty goods the characters bought or used were named, complete consumerist crap, so it's mentioned that the jeans are from the Gap, and the whiskey is Bushmill's single blend and that the Oreo clones were from Whole Foods. It made me think of American Psycho, except that was a parody of consumerism and a fine book. It makes me think of the insanity after 911 when Bush told Americans to go shop or the terrorists would have won. I mean, shit, I know this book is vapid, that it's basically about the rights of middle class white kids to do whatever they want without responsibility. But the extent that includes shopping is ugly to me. I find the book's obsession with crass materialism an indictment against it, especially as it coopts revolutionary concepts. Fightin' for the right to shop. Ugh. I normally hesitate to call a writer a whore, but the shoe fits and it's a six inch stiletto pump.)

The terrible things in the novel are stopped by appeals to a journalist, which is as tired a cliche as I can currently imagine. I didn't realize that were people who still thought that the press mattered. C'mon, guys, face it: Watergate was a fluke and thirty years ago. It's past time to move on from the fiction that Watergate was anything other than a fluke, even in a fiction. I have some trouble believing that there are people who still believe in the power of the press after so many years of lies and omissions. They didn't go after Bush who was a bigger crook than Nixon. They did go after Clinton . . . for all the wrong reasons. The press is impotent except where it is a tool. When a small press tells the truth about something, no matter how real, no matter how demonstrable, no matter how true, the press crushes them and it's been decades since the straight press has even tried to say something difficult and controversial. But, y'know, in this universe a single story is enough to literally cause Homeland Security to be dismantled in California by order of the governor (which is also deeply stupid – the US government would not allow that to happen even if the governor ordered it, which also would not happen). The stupid, it burns!

This might be the worst book I've actually finished (I finished it only because it was actual research, if it had been for pleasure I would have stopped about a quarter of the way through but I decided to tough it out to the end because it was, y'know, research). I found it deeply classist and somewhat racist and sexist, and also intensely shallow while pretending to be deep. I was constantly aware of the contradiction between supposedly fighting the system while shilling for it at the same time. So, I actually found this a much more difficult book to read than Twilight because at every turn I was offended. The writing isn't even any better. The narrator is a shallow spoiled little punk who oozed privilege out of every pore of his body. Twilight was offensive in just a couple of ways. Little Brother is offensive down the line (and, frankly, about things more personal to me; while I recognize the sexism in Twilight I am not a woman so I don't feel it as acutely as many women do).

I will end with this. The revolution will not be televised. It will also not be webcast. It will also be a revolution. The ghost of Emma Goldman is lined up to smack Doctorow in the mouth. George Orwell's ghost is next in line.

Except this isn't the end, hehe. I read the book online, so I was able to jot down many of my thoughts as I was having them. I present them below. If you just wanted a review of the book, you can stop here. There was no elegant way to put them into the review above - or at least not an elegant way I could be bothered to do - but they might illustrate addition things I didn't like about the book. In case I wasn't clear above, I didn't like it at all.

There were other . . . flaws in the book. It comes off, to me, as a lot of wishful thinking. There are places where Doctorow literally believes that people met at raves and LARPs are worth trusting with the revolution. I think only a person who exists in a context where they have never been legitimately oppressed can think this, because both organized crime and revolutionary cells work differently. The whole "ring of trust" noise works well for rich white kids who think that they need to be protected from the law enforcement but the truth is that law enforcement doesn't much care about the doings of most rich white kids (compare the drug arrests for, say, possession to get an example of the disparity). They're not spending a lot of resources in that direction. They're far more interested in busting the clocker in Oakland than keeping tabs on rich kids in San Francisco . . . because they the youthful indiscretions of those kids are just youthful indiscretions. All of them - not even, really, almost all of them, but approaching 100% - will become, after their youthful wild oats period, the sturdiest defenders of the status quo.

Perhaps this is a revelation! Orwell was wrong. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he posited that Big Brother would watch the top 15% or so of the population, the people with some status and wealth. What we see is actually the inversion of that. The wealthy can be trusted to indoctrinate themselves. They're the winners in the class wars, right? How common is it for a person born into affluence to say to themselves, "Well, it's just chance that I was born here, and I don't deserve it, and I'll give it all away as soon as possible." What they tend to say is quite a bit closer to, "My parents worked hard for this, and it's far that we live in a society where wealth is heritable, and in the end I deserve the wealth and privileges I have because it's fair for them to be heritable. Indeed, the fairest society is one where wealth is infinitely transferable, without any pesky taxes or other considerations at all." Or, in other words, give someone a million bucks and they WILL find a way to justify why they deserve it, in large. So, you don't need to pay too much attention to what the affluent do. They train themselves. The people you've got to watch out for are the bottom dwellers, the proletariat, the workers, working poor, whatever you want to call them. These are the guys you've got to watch constantly, drag into court and imprison as often as possible (and when that doesn't work, murdering their leaders is a pretty good option).

So, in my thinking, when you get all your middle class affluent raver friends together to create a "ring of trust" what you're doing is false applying the logic of a pre-oppressed group to an oppressed group. The FBI will get up inside that shit in about twenty minutes, break someone down who'll give them everything, and the only reason that it doesn't happen now is because not a lot of law enforcement is wasted with ravers. They're all down in Oakland arresting black people.


The pedantry really grated. The hero would make these, y'know, pronouncements. Some were clever, most were not and a few I found deeply stupid. It eventually just became an opportunity for Doctorow to try to sound intelligent. And, of course, he is intelligent, but when you have one character spouting platitudes to himself and no one actually even knowing what these platitudes were to say, "Dude, those are just fucking platitudes that have scant bearing to life as it is lived" it becomes tedious to me. It stops being a novel and becomes a poorly written essay because it's impossible to separate the author's intent from the voice of the characters.

So there's all this stuff I kinna want to say about privacy, secrecy and the the rest - but how do I know what Doctorow thinks and what the narrator of the novel falsely believes? I have no way of knowing. That frustrates me because the narrator of the novel is often a dithering idiot who clearly has no idea what the hell he's talking about and tosses out diswitticisms like they have meaning. But is that because the narrator is a dithering idiot or is Doctorow expressing beliefs through the agency of the narrator (perhaps poorly, being forced to speak in the in character voice)? I dunno. And because I don't know, I don't know how to treat the ideas in the book that I think are poorly stated and, I believe, false.


It also reminded me of the dot com boom. Y'know, when you had these economists saying that the "Internet changed things forever". So, you have all these hacker kids goin' after the government like . . . the Internet changed things forever. Like traditional tools of law enforcement simply don't exist much like there was this bizarre belief that the traditional tools of the economy were irrelevant.


A good part of the novel is also a virtual tour of San Francisco, which the narrator repeatedly tells us is awesome. It is reasonably so, yes. But I sometimes get a clenched feeling in San Francisco because it's so affluent. So it's nice but also like sandpaper on my skin if I stay there too long. I actually feel better walkin' 'round Oakland because its both more diverse and more lived in.

But my point here is that this terrible government oppression that the white male affluent protagonist is fighting against is nevertheless not so bad as to stop San Francisco from being awesome. Oh, sure, he can't play his ARG because of security, but, I mean, that's the level of the stand he's taking, here. One of his real gripes against the security state is . . . he can't play a computer game anymore. So sad.

Oh, sure, there are other reasons. Like one of his friends has vanished (and is irrelevant through most of the novel), and there are real curtailments to civil liberties - but these curtailments are things a whole bunch of other Americans have lived with for a long time. Worse things, too. But, again, to figure that out might require crossing the bay and there's no way that's going to happen. Unless Berkeley is involved. That'd be OK. The rest of the East Bay? Well, who cares what people in Oakland do.


Most offensive moment: the narrator decides he has to escape. He's contacted by another person who's been a fed snitch and also wants to get out, and she says that she has a safe house down in SoCal. He agrees to go with her but, okay, this is what he does to cover their escape - he gets around a 1000 people, on false pretenses, to act in such a way that insures that the government will crack down on them, leading to police assaults, gassings, hundreds of arrests and at least some of those people to prolonged incarceration and interrogation at a secret prison camp.

Furthermore, the safe house isn't guaranteed safe. He suspects the person who contacted him is a fed - indeed, admits to having been a fed. So, he has no confidence in this person and on those grounds, he still gets a 1000 people beaten, gassed, some arrested and a few no doubt for lengthy incarceration and interrogation.

How can one parse this as anything other than cowardly and stupid? Cowardly because he considers his own personal safety - no, not even his own personal safety, a fairly shaky chance at personal safety - more important than the wellbeing of the people he duped into screening his escape. And stupid because, y'know, if he wanted to leave town he could have just gathered his things, including his girlfriend, and just left the old fashioned way. Y'know. Hitchhiking or on a bus or whatever. Which would have been safer and more honest.

It's offensive because it's so deeply stupid and deeply immoral. Which is never, in itself, a problem. People do stupid, immoral things all the time. But no one in novel catches on its stupidity and immorality. It's presented as if it was a good, reasonable plan instead of a stupid, immoral one.


Hippies. The book talks about hippies in a good way, about how the hippies changed the US for the better. While there's some truth to that, some other related and relevant things never get mentioned. Like how when hippies - middle class white kids - got involved in the civil rights movement it had already been going on since 1954 (or, if you prefer, been going on since a Spanish bishop came over in the 16th century to try to stop slavery from taking hold in the New World in the first place). After Rosa Parks and Montgomery and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a decade of civil rights demonstrations . . . in Little Brother, the hippies get the credit.

The book never uses the words "Martin Luther King, Jr." or "Malcolm X" or "Southern Christian Leadership Conference". But, y'know, we get hippies. They're the ones who did it. Really. So, again, color me insulted and color the book white. Black people need not apply.


Perhaps the thing I hate the most is the cooption of revolutionary consciousness. I mean, I know I'm not a revolutionary, not in the sense that I'm going to be going out and trying to fight to change the system. I've got a lot of social anxiety so I'd rather work at what I'm doing, y'know? Maybe that's cowardly of me, I dunno, I sometimes wonder about if a person's not out there on the lines, so to say, if they're not chicken. Maybe I've just convinced myself that I'm some sort of intellectual resister, like Sartre was in France (tho' with a much smaller following and impact, of course). But I feel like I'm a pretty radical guy. Even to most radicals I feel pretty radical.

What I see here, tho', what happens with some urban ad campaigns where something edgy is subverted to support the system. Y'know, like a hybrid SUV talking about how good for the environment it is, stuff like that. He uses all these edgy subculture stuff - like Emma Goldberg and Howl and On the Road - and subverts it to support whiny affluent white kids fighting the man so they can shop at the Gap.

Yeah, Emma wouldn't be part of any revolution where she couldn't dance. But this ain't a revolution. He's using Emma Goldberg to shill for Borders. He's using Ginsberg to help his product placement. I would say that you've got to admire the chutzpah, but I think I'm quite a bit past admiring shamelessness.


As a sort of the final slap in the face about the classism angle, near the climax of the book the narrator finds some kids that are part of the secret hacked network he'd set up. He needs to get online and they take him up to this multimillion dollar condo with a doorman and such. The kid he hooked up with was a trust fund baby.

Yeah. This is the resistance. Trust fund babies. It's the millionaire resistance.

OK, now I'm done. It's out, off my chest.