Monday, December 30, 2013

Post-mortem on UFC 168

Here's my longer analysis of UFC 168 other than, "Whoa, Chris Weidman is a badass."

Dustin Poirier looked great when he clobbered Diego Brandao.  I like Poirier quite a bit as a fighter, he's the kind of quirky guy that I visualize I'd be if, y'know, I was a savage killing machine.

Dan Miller pulled off a great submission against Fabricio Camoes but I can't help think that he's past his prime.  Despite Joe Rogan saying that Miller gets better after every loss, I don't think that's true.  Miller has got a good skill set, he's a tough fighter and I like watching him fight . . . but I don't see him getting to the top of the heap.  Whenever he's had that big fight that might put him into title contention, he's lost it.  Unlike Martin Kampmann, I don't think this is because he chokes, but because he fights at lightweight and it's the toughest division in the UFC.  You've got to be razor sharp to make it . . . and a little luck doesn't hurt, either.  Miller keeps coming up short against top five fighters and this performance doesn't change my opinion.

Uriah Hall played a very good counterstriking game against Chris Leben.  Hall didn't throw very much, but when he did, ouch.  I'm still not sure if Hall has the kind of toughness it takes to be a mixed martial artist.  He's clearly got the skills and oodles of physical ability, but you've got to be a really tough guy to succeed in the sport and I'm still not sure he has it.

As for Chris Leben . . . man, we love you, Chris, but you've lost four straight.  You're slow and you aren't hitting with the power you once had.  Your chin is going, too.  Your take a shot to deliver a bigger shot style only lasts as long as your chin does and it's going, if not gone.   Please, Chris, retire.  Go to your gym in Hawaii and train dudes and hang out on the beach.  It's that time.

I wasn't sure if Travis Browne was the real deal.  He is.  He's murdered Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem and now Josh Barnett.  He's going to get a shot against Fabricio Werdum for a title shot against Cain Velasquez - if he beats Werdum, he richly deserves it.  Good luck, Travis.

Miesha Tate . . . you should have stuck to the gameplan.  But time and again you dove head first at Ronda Rousey.  Unsurprisingly, Rousey then dumped you on your head and tried to break your arm while punching you in the face.  Surprisingly, it took more than two rounds for Rousey to sink in that armbar.  Had you not been so intent on grappling and tried to strike from the outside, not giving Rousey nearly so many changes to break your arm . . . well, you didn't do that and you lost.  You're probably not going to get another title shot as long as Rousey is champ.

But, damn, Ronda, I've said in the past how you're a creep, but you still are.  You have no concept at all of how human beings act.  Here's a brief lesson, again.

People you train with for six weeks on a reality TV show aren't your family.  Even if they were, Tate didn't say anything bad about them.  If you were referring to her pranking you and your coach, that's humor, not a personal, hateful insult.  You're a creep and I really, really hope that Holly Holm comes into the UFC or that Sara McMann with her Olympic caliber wrestling can beat you just to wipe the smug smile off your face.

I mean, here's the thing with Rousey's dominance - she's currently a big fish in a small pond.  Rousey is the first really world class athlete to get into women's mixed martial arts (with the exception of Cris Cyborg, who is in another weight class and promotion).  You look at the credentials of a fighter like Miesha Tate, and almost all of the women in that generation of women's MMA fighters, none of them have world class athletic achievements.  So, Rousey came in from judo with world class physical prowess and is steam rolling the older school of fighters who don't have her athleticism.  

We saw the same thing with MMA, too, when guys like Mark Kerr got into MMA - he was this world class athlete and he just messed up dudes until other world class athletes came into the field.  Ronda Rousey is the Mark Kerr of women's MMA.  Kerr won his first eleven fights, dominated the UFC 14 and 15 tournaments and the early Pride FC fights.  There's a lesson here, I think.  Unless Rousey gets out of the game, soon, she could well be remembered with all the fondness of Mark Kerr, if Kerr was a giant asshole.

It's changing fast, too.  Holly Holm is in MMA, now, and before she was in MMA, she proved herself as a boxer with multiple world championships to her credit.  You can see the same thing with Sara McMann - a silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics, so clearly a top notch athlete.

It is quite possible that Rousey's dominance will be contexutalized in the ongoing professionalization of women's mixed martial arts.  Or, at least, I'll provide that contextualization, with some snark because I don't like Rousey.

The best is last!  Weidman and Silva.

Weidman is a monster.  There's a growing narrative out there that Weidman got lucky, again, against Silva.  This is bullshit.  Weidman checked Silva's kicks hard enough to break Silva's leg.  This is a technique people can learn and use - it doesn't often result in a break, but it can.  Ernesto Hoost was very good at it during his stint as the greatest kickboxer in the cosmos.  It was a technique that Weidman studied because Silva's leg kicks hurt him in their first fight.  Not luck.

I mean, seriously.  Weidman has fought Silva twice, now.  Both fights went to the second round, but in both first rounds, Weidman dominated Silva.  In both fights, in the second round, Weidman conclusively finished the fight.  There was no point in either fight when Weidman was in any trouble!  Neither victory was luck.  In both cases, Weidman was the dominant fighter and in both cases he finished the fight.  He didn't "get lucky".  He won.  In both cases, he beat Silva on the ground and standing.  Face it, Chris Weidman is a beastly fighter.  He's got great timing, a lot of power, and an excellent all-around game - he's got great takedowns, submissions, ground and pound along with excellent striking.

Anderson . . . you might want to retire.  You didn't look bad against Weidman.  The guy's an animal, right?  But he shattered your leg.  You're 38 years old and now you've got a pin in your leg.  Sure, in six or nine months you'll be able to start training, again, but it will be a long time before your leg is as strong as it was before Chris broke it.  It could take years, years of your fighting on a weakened leg.  

I know a lot of professional fighters don't know when to quit and their last several fights are an increasingly miserable lot as they slip down the rankings, being decisively beaten by increasingly irrelevant fighters.  I don't think any of us want to see that.  So, please, retire.  Go join Georges St-Pierre on a beach.  Get a belly.

For my part, I'll be looking forward to being able to talk about Anderson Silva without the hype machine of the UFC going full blast all the time, too.  While Silva has a fantastic legacy regardless of what happens moving forward, I think in the future we're going to acknowledge that he beat a lot of second rate fighters - it's easy to look good when you're crushing cans and all the best dudes at your weight class refuse to fight you because of a convenient network of personal relationships . . . so guys like Lyoto Machida and Shogun Rua stayed up at light heavyweight rather than fight their friend.  So, instead, Silva fought losers like Thales Leites and Patrick Cote and Travis fucking Lutter.  Yes, he beat them but let's be honest . . . it's nothing to brag about.  I look forward to this day when Silva has been reassembled as a human being in the same way guys like Fedor Emelianenko and Mike Tyson have been reassembled as human beings.

So, that's my recap.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Stanislaw Lem and the the possibility of communicating with aliens - a brief critique

I suspect everyone finds some writers to be beyond serious reproach.  I suppose for some people, that's quite a lot of writers.  For me, there are only a few.  Stanislaw Lem is one of them.  Lem is the writer I sometimes want to be - but only sometimes.  There is a bleak cynicism to his writing that I don't care to emulate and I know that he became a technophobe - I have a feeling that his life in some ways mirrored his fiction with the impossibility of real communication between people.  In Solaris, he wrote, "If man had more of a sense of humor, things might have turned out differently."  I believe that could be adapted.  "If Lem had more of a sense of humor, his books might have turned out differently."  Even where his books are funny, they're not fun.  He wasn't that kind of writer.  I don't hold this against him, not by any means, however.  Fun wasn't important to him as a writer.

He is almost unique in sci-fi writers in having come up with an idea that actually bears scrutiny.  Unlike almost all sci-fi writers, who are generally an ideal of the moment kind of guys, writing about whatever techno-philosophical idea is in vogue at the moment, Lem really has legs.  He writes about the difficulties in communication between humans and aliens.  In his books, first contact fails.  We just don't have anything to say to one another, nor a vocabulary to describe it.  I have no idea if Lem was influenced by Wittgenstein, but all of his characters violate the final words of The Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus - "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."  The characters speak, but there is no content, because of the lack of shared experiences between species.

Moreover, I find in his work this very Orwellian idea that communication between humans is fraught with peril.  Between people who don't mean what they say because they're lying, people who don't say what they mean because they're ignorant, and people who don't say what they mean because they're incompetent . . . how do we talk to each other, again? 

I also find all of this a backhanded critique of Master Kong's assertion that the first question is always the rectification of names.  Before we speak, we've got to be sure our words mean the same thing.  In Lem, they often do not.

In other words, what Lem addresses is well-worn ground.  People from the ancient days to our own have questioned the efficacy of communication and the uses of communication.  And we think we can talk to aliens?  It is to laugh.

That said, I think I found a weakness in Lem's work and it is in the rectification of names.  What do we mean by communication?  I think it's possible that we will never share stories around a campfire, but I don't see the impossibility of successful feedback driven modes of informational exchange.  I think it's possible that we'll do something and, based on what we do, the aliens will do something and we'll be able to learn about the aliens thereby - if nothing else, what they do when we do what we do.

I think, furthermore, that we have a fair bit of experience dealing with things that have non-human forms of communication - like fire.  No, hear me out.  Fire has many of the characteristics of life.  It can grow, it eats, it produces waste, it can expand itself, diminish, all kinds of very life-like traits.  It is not sentient but we can engage fire.  We can lessen it's fuel and see what it does, change its fuel, cut it off altogether or rekindle it.  This kind of engagement is not considered communication merely because we have a predisposition to imagine that fire isn't alive because it doesn't bear sufficient similarity to ourselves.

I admit, this is Marxist inspired.  We learn about things according to what we can do with them - but I will add as we shape them, they shape us.  

For instance, the domestication of dogs.  The current theory holds that humans and dogs sorta . . . grew together.  Unlike almost any other animal, humans didn't decide to tame wolves and turn them into dogs.  A symbiotic, language-less relationship developed between wolves and humans - humans followed wolves to find game, the wolves fed off of our leavings, and this became a successful mode of behavior that created a positive feedback loop.  It was a kind of communication, wordless and inhuman, but substantial and real - each side learned from the other, though they certainly learned different lessons.

I don't see why this isn't possible with even very alien aliens.  (Though I will hold that it could be extraordinarily dangerous.  Wolves don't have planet destroying technologies and there's a fifty-fifty chance that the first aliens we meet will have such technologies, I feel.)  Through our mutual interactions, no matter what they are, because what we do effects the aliens and what they do effects us, that is a kind of communication.  Even if, as in Solaris, there is no set pattern of repetition - if we do A, B does not follow - even that teaches us.

I also reject the idea that we can't think non-human thoughts - or at least approximations of non-human thoughts.  This came to me, specifically, today.  I was laying down, thinking, and I started thinking about the way that computers use fuzzy logic.

To a human, fuzzy logic is, well, fuzzy.  It involves the participation of a set in multiple values.  In many ways, it is the native human method of thinking.  We understand that a person with an average height is somewhere between short and tall, that a thousand dollars is somewhere between being broke and being rich, in a unity of thought.

Computers, on the other hand, can't really do this.  By their design, all computers do nothing more than boolean operations.  Our native understanding of in-between states is not boolean.  Most people don't have any real experience with boolean algebra, after all!  Likewise, the specific interactions of human brains do not appear to be boolean logic gates.  There is simply no reason to imagine that human brains operate according to the mechanisms of boolean operations.

Yet, computers can approximate this knowing-ness that we humans possess organically through fuzzy logic databases interpreted by those boolean operations.  The process contextless data according to the programmed dictates of logic gates.  That's it.  Yet . . . there is communication.

It is fair, at this point, to point out that computers are human tools invented by humans for humans.  Absolutely.  I'm not saying that talking to an alien will be so simple, but use this to illustrate the point that naive human intuition can in some ways be understood by the quite non-human reasoning of boolean operations.  While admitting it's an approximation, and admitting all language is an approximation, I continue to assert it's better than nothing.  Which is, I think, the point of divergence from Lem.  

In short, I think that the people studying Solaris learned quite a bit.

However, this is a very . . . nuanced criticism of Lem's work.  Mostly the guy just blows me out of the water. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Steroid use vs. weight cutting - let's talk hypocrisy

Today,'s Ben Fowlkes said that we have to make up our mind about steroids in MMA.  In the question about steroids, for me there's an interesting artifact that already exists inside MMA - and all combat sports that are divided into weight classes - and that's weight cutting.

The problem people have with steroids, I find, is often vague.  It's cheating.  In the sense of the term that there are rules against steroids, this is absolutely true, of course.  But let us be clear, in most jurisdictions, cutting weight is illegal.  Let's look at New Jersey, for instance!  Here's what New Jersey law says about weight cutting from the New Jersey Administrative Code 13:46-1A.3 Weighing of Boxers (which also applies to MMA as per the NJAC):
(a) Weighing of all boxers for all shows must take place not later than one o'clock on the day of the show in which said boxers are to take part.
(b) Weights must be determined by a representative of the Commissioner with the matchmaker concerned present.
(c) Opponents should be weighed in the presence of each other.
(d) Members of the press, in addition to the responsible handlers of the boxers, shall be permitted to attend the weighing of principals.
(e) All weights stripped.
(f) No boxer shall be permitted to lose more than one percent of his body weight on the day of the boxing contest in an attempt to make the weight required by his boxing contract and by N.J.A.C. 13:46-1A.3.
To me, this is pretty clear.  There are no provisions in the law for doing weight cuts on any day other than the fight, the law clearly expects weigh-ins to be on the day of the fight, though they can't be later than 1pm, and fighters have a one percent leeway.  I suspect, in practice, is that if your weight at the fight is more than one percent over the maximum weight of the class, you'd be cheating.

Regardless, in New Jersey law, weight cutting is illegal.  It's clearly, definitely and I think unambiguously cheating.  And, yet, in no MMA contest I've seen held in New Jersey has this law been followed.  Weight cutting, by which I mean cheating, is absolutely ubitquitous in MMA and boxing, everyone knows it and no one is doing anything about it.

Weight cutting is also dangerous.  People die from it.  And even when they don't die, it's brutal on your body.  It saps them of health and vigor - of strength and endurance - right before a rigorous athletic contest.

How is this permitted?  Why do we ignore this one rule that is easy to enforce and good for the fighters while freaking the fuck out whenever anyone's testosterone ratios are out of whack?

The only defense is . . . everyone does it.  Everyone does this unhealthy thing to cheat, so it's okay.  This is so legally and morally vapid that it doesn't deserve comment.

But we have a problem with steroids.  I think that all this fuss about steroid is looking for a speck in your neighbor's eye while ignoring the plank in your own.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stopped watching Falling Skies

I'm near the end of the third season of Falling Skies, a TV show about an alien invasion.  I'm not sure why I'm quitting thirty episodes in, but quitting I am.  It's just bad science fiction.

It's awful in basically three ways - the aliens, the social interactions between the humans and an honest assessment of effects of an alien invasion on human beings.

First off, the aliens.  They're done very poorly.  They're supposed to be this species that goes around the universe conquering planets.  BUT their primarily foot soldiers are unarmed.  Sure, they're physically impressive, but they're unarmed.  They also have no vehicles, they march everywhere on their feet.  They have mechs, but it takes them literally five seconds to target someone, which means if a person moves from cover to cover the mechs can't hit them at close range.  The mechs have missiles, but their destructive abilities are very limited - maybe a three meter blast radius, maybe two, not big at all.  The aliens have air superiority, but the planes on the show all move slowly and their bombs have a very limited blast radius.  Also, aircraft is rarely employed.  The aliens, in theory, possess nuclear weapons in abundance but don't use them - even though their latest plan is to build a planetary force field that will irradiate the planet, so in my eyes any hesitation to use nuclear weapons is . . . weird, to say the least.

The aliens also have lousy sensors.  Human sensors can detect people in the open from space.  Despite the fact that these aliens were able to find a habitable planet from at least trillions of miles away, they can't detect where large concentrations of humans are located.

The aliens do have some interesting technology, particularly in the realm of mind control, but they seem unwilling or unable to use it on a large scale.  So their mind controlled sleeper agents don't spend all their time spreading around the tiny mind control devices.  They also have rat-sized vermin-like weapons capable of chewing through concrete and steel that were used once, despite them being quite effective in their one appearance.

So, despite coming from the depths of space, they don't look high tech, really.  Their mechs are not particularly impressive by the standards of armored vehicles - they're slow, don't have that much firepower and have poor accuracy with their weapons.  They are routinely defeated by machine guns on civilian trucks, which is sort of like a World War 2 tank being defeated by a charging knight.

They have air superiority, but their planes are rare, slow, fly low to the ground and are underarmed.  I mean, even if the aliens hesitation to keep using nuclear weapons has a point, there are far more powerful bombs than the ones the aliens use - we have all manner of quite powerful, non-nuclear bombs.  Where are the alien thermobaric bombs?  The totally unarmed nature of their infantry is also simply baffling, as is their total lack of even trucks.

I understand the two big reasons for doing this - the first is money.  Animating planes with incredible firepower, badass mechs, the aliens with mindblowing weapons, so forth and so on, would be incredibly expensive.  Pacific Rim cost $190 million to make, after all.  This is a TV show.

But I don't think that's the real reason.  I think the real reason is the general problem with all alien-invasion fiction - giving the aliens the gear that they would actually have would make human resistance preposterous.  If the alien infantry were not only tough, fast and agile, but also armed with rapid fire, accurate weapons that could penetrate all cover, the idea of fighting them would be preposterous.  If a single enemy mech could destroy an armored battalion, fighting them would be silly.  If the alien aircraft could do hypersonic flybys dropping thermobaric weapons that could level the countryside, fighting them would be impossible.  If you're going to make a TV show about an alien invasion, you've got to make it possible to fight the aliens - giving them the actual technology that you'd need to travel the stars would make this narratively impossible.  They putting lasers in space that zap every human they see, with ground penetrating sensors and equally outlandish devices, while plausible, wouldn't be very narratively interesting.

So this kind of media always goes the other way.  What you do is make the aliens absurd, you give them this superficial gloss of having advanced technology but they always end up having inferior technology.

Another way the show fails, for me, is the social end of things.  The human rebels are . . . curiously tolerant of serious crimes.  Even taking away the instances of alien mind control, one of the characters is a murderer and a thief who had betrayed the human rebel group more than once.  Why isn't he executed?  Sure, he's brave and hates the aliens, but he's scum.  It is common emergency situation practice to execute looters and murderers.  So where's the tribunal and bit of rope?

It's not just that one dude, either.  At one point, they confronted a group of humans collaborating with the enemy that was giving human children to the aliens to be enslaved. I actually tried for a few minutes to imagine a worse crime, but came up with nothing.  What's worse than that kind of treachery fused with enslaving children to alien overlords?  Jesus.  That's horrible.  But for some reason, these traitors and slavers weren't given the rope.  It's baffling.

Most recently, some characters were robbed by a bandits and . . . the bandits were given a pass.  Because these bandits had been robbed and one of their number killed by other bandits, it somehow rationalized their banditry?  Where I come from, two wrongs STILL do not make a right.

I suspect this one is just because they don't want to show how awful this sort of thing gets.  I understand that.  A show about humans executing other humans for their crimes would be pretty dark.  But there's a way around it - don't tell those kinds of stories!  As it is, the idea that the traitorous slavers should get a pass is insane.  It makes no sense.  But that sort of thing happens over and over, again, in the show.  There is nothing that anyone can do, it seems, that merits serious punishment, but they keep making shows about people doing things that are just beyond the pale.  But they don't have to make those kinds of characters and situations.

The other thing that drives me a little crazy is the parochial nature of the human resistance.  They talk about the United States as though it is the world.  They make almost no references to other countries, much less the idea that they might have their own highly effective resistance groups.  So, when the show starts out in Boston, the idea that there might be Canadian rebels never occurred to anyone.  They have made great effort to talk to human groups in California, but not the Caribbean.  Ugh.  They say how they're fighting for the human species, but it's all America, really.  Once again, the world needs us to save them!

While I understand the reason for this - Americans are highly nationalist so a TV show made in the US is going to reflect that nationalism; we mostly do believe we exist to save the world - but I don't like it.  It's childish.

The third area the show sorta sucks is the way the humans react to their conquest.  They are very plucky!  This is the least sin of the show, but when so much of the rest of it stinks this is like salt on a wound.  I understand that a show about the psychic effects of conquests would be very dark, regardless of how plausible those effects would be - and media tends to go too far, one way or the other, with this.  So in Falling Skies, the crushing weight of conquest and the murder of over ninety percent of the human species and the effects on the human psyche are generally ignored.  It is depressing subject.  But in something like The Walking Dead, everyone is just so awful to everyone because they believe its the end of the world, to an equally absurd extent.  No one grapples with these demons in TV shows - they either defeat them easily or are overwhelmed by them altogether.

Again, I understand why media does this - the shows exist to tell stories.  Falling Skies isn't about the psychological trauma of conquest and the existential futility of fighting an enemy you can't beat; The Walking Dead is only about these things.  But when combined with the other issues with Falling Skies, like I said, it is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Are there good things about the show?  I've seen 28 of them and . . . well, uh, not really?  A few of the performances are good, but with a cast this large it's hard not to get at least a FEW such performances (Ben and Maggie are my favorites).  But Noah Wyle as Tom Mason, history professor turned rebel leader, is pretty flat (and the character arc is the heights of silly - how many times does a dude need to get captured, really?) and I don't know if it's her name or performance but . . . Moon Bloodgood?  Tom Mason's eldest boy, Hal, is such a vapid pretty boy that my soul hurts - so when the show treats him like he has character it sorta makes me die inside, a little.  (Also, he played lacrosse at his snobby private school, which . . . not only has Archer associations but, uh, let's face it, that's the sport that snobby private schools keep so spoiled rich white brats can feel athletic even when they can't make the cut for the football or basketball teams - who are filled with poor kids given scholarships to boost up the team's chances to make state with athletes who would otherwise never be seen in a private schools.)  The effects would be considered amazing twenty years ago, but are "meh", now, and it isn't like the music is going to win any awards.  

Which begs the question of why I watched the show.  I think I want to like sci-fi more than I do, sometimes.  I want there to be a good alien invasion show.  The guy who comes closest to what I want is David Gerrold, but I find his books altogether unreadable.  (He is a sci-fi writer of the pedant school - he spends entirely too much of his time, writer-wise, having characters confidently give long-winded explanations about The Way the World Is and then uses his narrative authority to insure the grandiose pronouncements are True.  I don't like this kind of writing when I agree with what the person is saying; it is sloppy and lazy, I feel.  I prize the ability for an author to have the characters and situations of the work demonstrate whatever it is the author wishes to say.  If you are just going to tell me, write a goddamn essay.  It is, unsurprisingly, even worse when I disagree with the author, as I do with Gerrold.)  But the narrative opportunities of alien invasion literature seem, to me, to be a fertile field for so many reasons that I want to like such media, even though I'm nearly uniformly disappointed by it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

On the death of Nelson Mandela

I think that Mandela was one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century and a real hero.  He saw the end of the apartheid state in South Africa with very little violence.  His life is a testament to the power of peace and the strength of peace.  While I am saddened by his death, I am amazed and by the wonder of his life.