Why There’s Still an Abortion Debate

May 24, 2019

So, in the United States the debate over legalized abortion has started up again, as some states are putting in tough new restrictive laws on abortions hoping, it seems, to get a new Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe vs Wade. In an article on Elizabeth Warren’s idea to have abortion rules set at the federal level, Andrew Sullivan comments that in the 45+ years since Roe vs Wade, opinions on abortion haven’t changed much:

But abortion? Roe was decided in 1973. Unlike many other progressive Court decisions, this one didn’t budge public opinion. In 1975, two years after Roe, some 22 percent favored a total ban on abortion in a Gallup poll; today that number is … 18 percent. Back then, 54 percent favored a middle ground: keeping the procedure legal under restricted circumstances. Now it’s 50 percent. Twenty-one percent believed in 1975 that abortion should be legal in every circumstance; today that number is 29 percent.

And while those who favour a total ban on abortion are a minority and a smaller one than those that believe it should be totally unrestricted, the vast majority of people support at least some restrictions on abortions, and that number has moved only slightly in the past 45+ years, and doesn’t really show signs of a trend.

So, why is this? Sullivan points out that for other progressive issues there has definitely been a strong trend towards the progressive side, so why not for abortion? What makes abortion different? In my opinion, the reason is this: the main argument in favour of unrestricted abortions is that the fetus should be considered as a clump of cells and not as a baby/person, but our entire view of pregnancy makes that idea highly implausible and counter-intuitive.

Think about wanted pregnancies. Here, the overwhelming cultural consensus is that the fetus at least represents a baby. When it starts to move or kick, that’s a joyful event. Prospective parents spend their time planning for it as a baby. If a miscarriage occurs, that’s a tragedy because they lost a baby, not some kind of potential that those cells might have turned into eventually. In a wanted pregnancy, the fetus is treated like a baby that is developing from the start, not like a clump of cells that, some day, will turn into one. So anyone who thinks of pregnancy from the perspective of wanted pregnancies is not going to find the idea that the fetus should be treated as a clump of cells that the woman can do with as she pleases very compelling.

But even in unwanted pregnancies, in general the considerations are about a baby and not about a clump of cells. The main reasons to have an abortion in those cases tend to be either about the health of the mother — and mostly in those cases about them both dying anyway — or about the health and quality of life of the baby when it is born or about the impact that having a child and having to raise it will have on the mother’s life. So even then we don’t treat it as a clump of cells, but as a baby and think about what life will be like if it is born. About the only cases where considering it as a baby are clearly not present are really shallow — and incredibly rare — cases like where someone says that she doesn’t want the pregnancy because she doesn’t want to be pregnant during swimsuit season, say. While these would fit the narrative, almost everyone finds them to be so incredibly cold and callous that appealing to those sorts of cases will in general do far more harm than good.

So the argument that the fetus is just a clump of cells isn’t very compelling, because intuitively we don’t think of the fetus that way. And yet the feminist arguments either make that case directly or rely heavily on it. Obviously, the argument that it is just a clump of cells so she can do whatever she wants with it relies on this, but the bodily autonomy argument and the argument from the “enslavement of women” relies on this as well, as people are hesitant to allow an unrestricted ability to kill someone else or even let them die because it is more convenient for the person who has the choice there. This is why most people favour at least some restrictions on abortion: when you’re talking about life or mental health, people can see how that might be a reasonable case for abortions, but as the reasons become more and more about the convenience of the mother people become more and more uncomfortable with it. If they thought of it as something like a wart, then that wouldn’t be a consideration, but since they don’t, then the discomfort sets in.

This, I think, even applies to the case of rape. People do seem to consider that the child itself is innocent and so doesn’t deserve to die for the crimes of the rapist father. So that argument does seem to have some traction. But empathy kicks in and we can all understand how difficult it would be for the woman to spend nine months carrying a living and developing reminder of the horrific suffering she experienced. So while someone who is willing to go through that anyway because the fetus isn’t responsible for that or even out of an attitude that bringing a new life into existence would have some good resulting from that terrible evil, we can certainly understand how it might be too difficult for some if not most women in that situation, and we hesitate to drive them insane just to have the child be born. But this still relies on considering the fetus as baby, not as clump of cells.

And I’m not sure this situation will improve, because various modern feminist debates are wearing away at the underpinnings of another assumption needed to make their arguments work. In various cases — especially the incel debate — feminists argue that it isn’t a huge or damning restriction for someone to not have sex, and so nothing needs to be done to address people who can’t have sex and if ensuring consent and the like reduces the ability of people to have sex or how much sex they can get, then that’s not in any way a problem. This, then, leads to the ideas that if you don’t want to fall afoul of the rules around sex, then you should choose to not have sex, and this is considered to be a reasonable and even moral position. However, there is a simple way for women to ensure that they never have an unwanted pregnancy and so never need an abortion: they can simply choose to not have sex except when they want to or are willing to risk a pregnancy. For now, the progressive position has been that denying people sex is terrible and has a huge and unwarranted impact on their happiness and welfare, being a big part of the abortion debate and the same-sex debate and even at times the trans debate. But as the arguments for sex not being that important gain more prominence and get accepted, that argument will no longer seem credible for the abortion debate either.

I don’t think that the argument for unrestricted abortions is ever going to gain that much traction, and will wax and wane as time goes on. The only way it will be able to do so is if we no longer consider pregnancies blessings and instead start to consider them as blah and blase everyday events. Given our biology and our culture, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Book of the Month Clubs

May 23, 2019

As I mentioned when talking about re-reading “The Stand”, I used to be a member of the “Book of the Month Club” when I was younger. That got me musing about it, and thinking that depending on how things were run that might be a good thing for me. I have the disposable income to be able to simply try things out that look interesting and since reading is the one consistent pastime that I have I’d definitely at least try to read them. So I started Googling around to see how things worked.

So, I found the site that calls itself “Book of the Month”. And it seemed pretty decent. You subscribe to the service, and then once a month you get a selection of books that you can pick one of to fulfill your subscription. If you want more than one, you can pay for the extra ones — essentially at the price of a month’s subscription — to get them. If you don’t like anything in a particular month, then that credit carries over to the next month, which then I presume means that it could be used — and is intended to be used — for extra books or perhaps for extra months after you’ve stopped subscribing. This is better than when I had it originally because there they’d send you a book if you didn’t tell them not to, whereas here the default seemed to be that they’d just credit it to you if you didn’t select one. However, unlike the original one … they don’t ship to Canada. So that’s out.

Browsing around, I found “My Thrill Club!”, which sounded interesting. You can select from Thriller, Mystery, or Horror categories — or a mix — and they’ll send you two hardcover books and an e-book — useless to me — for a fairly reasonable price. However, despite hearing that they did ship to Canada for an extra shipping fee, when I sent an E-mail to their customer service asking about that I got no reply. I’m actually far more concerned about getting no reply than I am about shipping costs to Canada, since them being non-responsive is not a good sign, so that’s out too.

I also tried “Bookcase Club”. Here, you select a category and get sent two books in that category. I was interested in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category and in the Thriller/Mystery category, and since the price was pretty good might have been tempted to have multiple subscriptions to be able to get it. However, they don’t ship to Canada. So that’s out.

I did browse more and found some other ones that likely shipped to Canada, but in general they were either pricey or added on a number of little items that I didn’t want, or both.

I find myself bemused that, for the most part, decent book of the month clubs simply can’t take my money. This is becoming a trend.

I guess I’ll just have to keep doing what I’m doing now. The good part of that is that I still have hundreds of books in boxes in my house to read at some point, so it’s not like I’ll end up deprived.

More Upheaval in Women’s Hockey …

May 22, 2019

The destruction of the NWHL continues, which really makes it seem like that was the intention behind the boycott from the start. The New Jersey Devils ended their association with the Metropolitan Riveters, and the NWHL has taken back control of the Buffalo Beauts when their own — who also owns the Buffalo Sabres, I believe — backed out. And now the hold-out players have formed a Player’s Association. As this isn’t really going to do them much good in dealing with the NWHL, it really seems like the push here is to get the NWHL to fold so that the NHL can create a league in the vein of the WNBA. There’s no chance of the NHL getting involved without there being a PA because the NHLPA wouldn’t stand for it. But that’s the only reason for one if the women aren’t simply acting idiotically entitled — which is a possibility — because there isn’t all that much that a PA can do for a league that’s close to folding and doesn’t have revenue support.

It really sounds like the NHL has been involved in this behind the scenes for a while now, dropping hints that they’d be willing to take this on if the league folded. Gary Bettman has repeatedly made comments that they weren’t going to get involved as long as leagues existed but that if there weren’t any then they’d do something. While I’ve read comments that the NHL won’t create a league themselves, they almost certainly will, as Bettman tends to follow the NBA in a lot of matters — and he started out there — and there’d be too much criticism and bad press if the NHL couldn’t create a WNHL for women’s hockey. Given how this has gone down and been made massively public, things would look even worse. So it really does look like the NHL and those 200 holdouts are waiting for the NWHL to fold so that the WNHL can start. That two of the teams that were associated with NHL clubs have lost that association only makes that even more obvious.

And while it might sound like a conspiracy theory, it makes one wonder if the sudden collapse of the CWHL is related to this as well. While it seems to have come as a complete surprise to most of the players, if the CWHL didn’t think they could grow the game it’s not unreasonable for them to have talked with the NHL about them taking over and gotten the “We can’t look like were bullying leagues out of existence” response, and so folded to allow for the NHL to take over and did it dramatically so that there’d be lots of attention. They might have expected the NWHL to start to at least worry over this, but their actual reaction was to absorb more teams. This, then, could have driven the boycott in an attempt to drive the league under, followed by the NHL teams abandoning the league to put even more pressure on them. So while the NHL isn’t the bully, it’s using players and teams and leagues to bully the NWHL under nonetheless.

Regardless, it’s clear that the desired endgame is that the NWHL folds and the NHL starts up a WNHL. I’ll be keeping my eye on this to see how it all works out (although I still won’t watch women’s hockey).

Thoughts on “The Stand” (Miniseries)

May 21, 2019

So, after reading and commenting on the book, I sat down and watched the 1994 miniseries that I picked up in a Stephen King collection a while ago. The miniseries is the longest of his miniseries adaptations, coming in at right around six hours, and so I had to make sure that I had free blocks of time when I was unlikely to fall asleep to watch it. It was a long weekend here in Canada, and so that worked out for me.

The miniseries itself got a pretty good reception and, spoilers, that was a bit surprising to me. What I can say about it is that it drew in a number of well-known actors who put in good performances, it was in general well-crafted, and it was well-constructed (although it had a number of special effects failures, even in more normal scenes like in the control room of the disease control centre). But it runs into the problems the book had as well as the problems that Stephen King adaptations tend to have.

The book itself ended up being anti-climactic because most of the work focused on the plague, its aftermath, and assembling the communities. However, this mostly worked because it made sure that we knew that the focus characters were important and the slice of life moments were interesting in and of themselves. Having less room than the book, the miniseries had the same issue, but also didn’t have the time to really build up the characters, so a lot was lost. It also seemed to follow the trend of taking iconic scenes from the book but without being able to delve into the backstory to make them meaningful. The worst of this is the suicide of the general, as we never really get to see his internal struggle that leads to his suicide, and so the event is a bit less shocking than it probably should be. The work also, in general, makes the military figures much more brutal and unsympathetic than they seemed to be in the book, and Stu Redman is far more antagonistic towards them than he was in the book, where he was more implacable rather than openly hostile.

Now, in some sense having just read the book causes some issues with watching the miniseries, as I both am constantly comparing the two and noting the differences and also know what’s going to happen and so don’t feel any suspense. Without that, the miniseries might be more compelling. On the other hand, I know the characters already and so will have emotional connections to them even if the miniseries itself doesn’t really develop them enough to really pull it off. So call that a wash.

Anyway, the miniseries was obviously going to have to change things up a bit to fit everything in, but in a lot of cases those changes weren’t very good. The worst one is what happens to Nadine and Larry. In the book, Larry was someone who was a bit self-interested and certainly cared more about himself than about others, which his mother explicitly called him out on when he came to New York but clearly showed that she cared about him anyway. In the miniseries, she more considers him a deadbeat like his father and his good side or potential good side is never made clear. Nadine fits into the role that another woman he met — who dies of an overdose — on leaving New York, but that removes that event and how it impacted him. Then, Nadine leaves him later, and he takes up with the feral boy Joe and Lucy Swann. They keep the scene where Joe attempts to stab Larry, but take out any other interaction between the two and how they bond over the guitar, and also Joe returning to Leo and coming out of his shell, making the character pretty pointless … especially since he can’t get a funny feeling about Harold Lauder showing that Harold isn’t all that good anymore (more on Harold later).

This feeds back into the relationship between Larry and Nadine. In the book, they had traveled together and then met up with Lucy, and I believe all came into town together. This set up the idea that Larry was in love with Nadine but since she wouldn’t have him took up with Lucy instead. Then, when Nadine comes to him in a last gasp to avoid going to “The Dark Man” and being his bride, we can see Larry acting differently, deciding to give up what he arguably most wants because of how it would impact someone else, namely Lucy. This cements that he is a changed person, while ironically dooming Nadine and potentially giving “The Dark Man” a victory. But in the miniseries none of that is clear. Lucy seems jealous for little reason — at least little reason given in the miniseries — and while we can figure out that this is Nadine trying to dodge “The Dark Man” we don’t really have any reason to think that Larry would even be tempted to leave Lucy for Nadine. This carries over to her final scene, where Nadine jumps to her death while carrying “The Dark Man’s” child because she lost everything, even Larry. There’s no real reason for her to do that at that point, and no real reason for her to be that attached to Larry, and it also doesn’t work as well as “The Dark Man” killing her in a rage, which he just prior to that had almost done to his second-in-command.

Harold also gets far less development than he did in the book. In the book, there was a tension between his good qualities and his bad ones, which then culminates in his death scene where he comments that he was misled and apologizes. Without his crush on Fran and losing her to Stu, and without his being deprived of influence that he thought he deserved, he likely wouldn’t have turned against them and betrayed them. In the book, Larry follows his directions to Colorado, and seeks him out to thank him for that and show how impressed he was by what Harold did and managed to accomplish. And then Nick cuts him out of the committee, sending him irrevocably down the path to betrayal, especially with the reward of Nadine dangled in front of him. Here, though, Harold doesn’t ever do anything all that impressive. He mostly crushes on Fran and fights with Stu. Thus, there’s nothing to establish why he would feel that he should have been on the committee in the first place, and we don’t get to see any redeeming qualities that would make his death tragic. He doesn’t even get to try to kill Nadine and almost foil “The Dark Man’s” plan, which is the start of it all falling apart for “The Dark Man”.

In the book, one of the big issues with the ending was that “The Dark Man” in the first time we really get to see him in action pretty much grabs the Idiot Ball and through his idiocy everything falls apart, which turns a potentially frightening threat into something of a farce. In the miniseries, that doesn’t happen and he fails far less, but then it’s hard to understand why his followers were so willing to turn on him. They mention rumours that the Judge got away and that Tom Cullen definitely escaped, and there was the fact that his trusted follower Trashcan Man blew things up, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to get them to start leaving and for Whitney to stand up to him at the execution. And it certainly wasn’t anything the heroes there said, as their roles are as superfluous as they were in the book. So it all collapses for no real reason and not due to anything “The Dark Man” actually did.

So, it’s time to ask the question: would I watch it again? The problem with rewatching it is that it’s really, really long. It’s not a bad miniseries, although it does drag at times, but it’s just far too long to sit down and watch. I can imagine that it would be good sometime when I’m sick and just want to have something on that I can doze off through, but other than that it’s not likely that I’ll watch it again.

The Self-Corruption of Norman Osborn

May 20, 2019

The next essay in “Avengers and Philosophy” is “The Self-Corruption of Norman Osborn: A Cautionary Tale” by Robert Powell. Here, he compares Norman Osborn in the “Dark Reign” to Plato’s attacks on the Sophists and to his dialogue with Alcibiades where Socrates shows Alcibiades that he knows little about justice and, in fact, that because of that his attempts to help his city are actually causing more damage than it is fixing. Powell suggests that Osborn’s tale is a cautionary tale of the same sort.

The problem here is that it isn’t clear that Osborn’s main concern was indeed the state or society at all, whereas for Alcibiades — at least according to Powell, as I haven’t read that dialogue in ages — that was his main concern. Alcibiades both went about helping his city incorrectly and arguably let that concern corrupt him into focusing on power rather than on justice. It would be easy to see Alcibiades wanting to take more control and have more influence in order to ensure that what he wants to happen and thinks is necessary does happen. He might well follow a darker form of the reasoning Mordin Solus in Mass Effect gives for being the primary researcher of the Genophage: he’d rather he hadn’t had to make the choice, but it had to be him. Someone else might have gotten it wrong. Alcibiades — and other well-intentioned dictatorial tyrants — might well justify having to have complete control and influence over events because others might get it wrong, either from ignorance or corruption. This even explains not surrounding themselves with advisers who will tell them the unvarnished truth: they need advisers that they can control and rely on to simply do their bidding, or else, again, they might do things wrong. Independent-mindedness is not a desirable trait when acting on their own might get things wrong.

But we don’t really have any reason to think that Osborn is such a noble character. As even Powell admits, it seems that his actions were strongly driven, at least subconsciously, by his “Green Goblin” persona, who was not interested in civic duty. But even before that, Osborn himself was strongly motivated by self-interest. When Powell notes the manufactured crises that Osborn uses to gain power, it doesn’t seem like these are motivated like, say, Admiral Layton’s in DS9’s “Homefront”, where Layton fakes a crisis to spur the Federation Council to take action, done because otherwise they won’t take action until it is, in fact, too late. Osborn’s have always seemed aimed to give him, specifically, power and control. “National security” seems to be an excuse for him, not a motivation. And he surrounds himself with the villains he does simply because he knows that they will do the actions that he’ll need them to to gain power and that he can control them in various ways. That they betray him in the end is, of course, to be expected, but always happens when he loses power and control, and his entire purpose seems to be to gain power and control. If he falls enough so that they feel confident in betraying him, it would mean that he had already lost. Their betrayal, then, is the result of his losing, not the cause of it.

Norman Osborn isn’t a man with good intentions corrupted by his mistakes, his allies, or power. In some form, his intentions were bad from the start, and so lead inevitably to the end they are destined to. As a cautionary tale, it’s more about forming the right values rather than making sure that you go about achieving them in the right way.

A second reason why I need schedules …

May 17, 2019

Things have been pretty busy for me lately, with my having to work on a critical project at work and all of the normal things I have to do in the spring. So I haven’t been doing a schedule lately because it was mostly pointless; I pretty much only had things that needed to be done and so could pretty much keep track of that.

However, this past week due to other issues blocking me at work I had a bit of extra time in the evenings because it was pointless to work late. And with all of that extra time I did … nothing of any importance. This … is not really what I would have been hoping for.

Originally I started creating schedules because what would happen is that I’d get some free time and try to think about what I wanted to do, decide that I didn’t feel like doing some of them, start something more frivolous and then remember, too late, that there was something else that I really wanted to do that could have fit into that timeslot. This time that wasn’t what happened. This time I remembered multiple things that I wanted to do and would be willing to do and couldn’t decide between them, which ended up delaying things so long that, well, I didn’t do them. So if I had been able to schedule specific things in there, it would have worked better for me.

Of course, one of the additional considerations was that for most of those things while I had some time this week I’m not likely to have time to continue them next week, and most of them work best if I can work on them regularly (playing TOR, working on little projects, going through a course on AI, etc). So even a schedule wouldn’t have helped here. But now I’m less at the point of not having anything that I want to do and instead having too many things I want to do. That’s … different, I suppose.

Thoughts on “The Stand”

May 16, 2019

I first picked up Stephen King’s “The Stand” decades ago when I was in high school and joined the “Book of the Month Club”, as it was one of my free selections for joining. I also think I read it once again at some point after that. But I decided to re-read it now for two reasons. First, I’ve been watching a number of Stephen King adaptations as part of my watching of horror movies, and as “The Stand” was included it seemed like it might be interesting to actually read the book before watching it — I hope to watch it in the near future, as it’s six hours long but something that I want to watch before watching other Stephen King adaptations — to be able to make a direct comparison rather than to just be relying on my memory. Second, I’ve decided that my next slate of books are going to be aimed at reading more literature, and as a noted at least somewhat classic “The Stand” counted, making it a good time to re-read it as well. So, having finished it, the one thing I have to say about it is that it reminds me of “Seveneves”, which is not in its favour.

The problem I had with “Seveneves” is that while it seems that the point of the novel was the end part where they had the seven distinct “races” genetically formed from the last seven remaining women, the book spent over 500 pages talking about the disaster that caused that to be the result and only 300 or so talking about that, which meant that either there were a lot of irrelevant details in the first part or else the first part was what the book was about and thus the second part fails to build on or satisfy those things from the first part. “The Stand” is similar in that most of the book is about a flu plague that kills off most of humanity and what happens afterwards but it seems like the book’s main focus is supposed to be the confrontation between the forces of the Dark Man and the forces of good led by Mother Abigail, which only really comes to the fore at all in the last 200 pages (of a 1100 page expanded edition). So we spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t seem to be the main focus of the book.

However, “The Stand” works a lot better than “Seveneves”, for a number of reasons. The first is that the conflict is directly commented on and telegraphed throughout the entire first part. We are introduced to the Dark Man and to Mother Abigail — at least through her being in people’s dreams — relatively early in the work and so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s simmering throughout the entire first part. Which leads to the second reason, which is that it’s clear how those events relate to the confrontation, as we meet the key characters — on both sides, as it turns out — and learn about them through their struggles to reach their respective Promised Lands. This, then, allows us to make a connection with them — again, on both sides — which then allows us to follow along with them and understand them as they play their roles in the overall conflict.

The third reason is that in “The Stand” the first part is actually interesting in its own right. The premise of the plague is interesting, if not necessarily original, and King does a good job of showing how it progresses in a way that’s entertaining. It also allows him to do what he is arguably best at, which is showing how these sorts of events impact ordinary people with ordinary lives and making that be believable and interesting. Thus, he starts off with ordinary people and establishes that and weaves them into the extraordinary events that are occurring. So whereas in “Seveneves” the focus on technical details was boring and got in the way of establishing the plot or characters, in “The Stand” the focus is on the characters and events that we can clearly see are going to matter to the overall plot. King pretty much pays off almost every hint that he drops in the early stages, even having an off-hand encounter between Nick and Tom Cullen with a selfish teenage girl pay off when she joins the side of the Dark Man and ends up outing Tom as a spy.

Unfortunately, the big issue with the book is that because so much time is spent on those little details the final confrontation ends up being entirely anti-climactic. Again, it is resolved in about 200 pages, much of which is spent talking about various journeys. A lot of the threads, then, get resolved far too quickly for how important they are supposed to be. To return to the point above about the teenage girl, she outs Tom as a spy right before he leaves, and other events start happening so that nothing really comes of that revelation. There were three spies sent right before the final confrontation, and none of them actually provide any information that the heroes use: one is killed before even getting there, the other has to make a heroic sacrifice to stop Tom from being outed — right before he is outed and leaves, making it pointless — and Tom, again, doesn’t ever really tell anyone what he’s learned, nor is it actually important to any of the plot. We have a long character arc of Larry Underwood trying to overcome being a taker when it comes to other people, but in the end while he does end up being the “leader” when the first leader Stu gets injured he never really makes any decisions and the big decision he tried to make — not leaving Stu behind — is overruled by everyone else. Ralph, who comes along, doesn’t even get a lot of development and doesn’t do anything. Glen, the sociologist, is killed taunting the Dark Man but that’s neither a character arc for him nor does it really seem to have anything to do with how it all gets resolved.

And the resolution is the worst victim of the rush towards the end. The four heroes set out on an epic journey to defeat the Dark Man, this huge and existential threat. Before that, the Free Zone was bombed by a traitor who leaves with the Dark Man’s bride in what it seemingly a devastating blow to the side of good: the bride will give the Dark Man a child and two key members of the ruling body are killed. Mother Abigail had just wandered off into the wilderness to get a vision and returns, only to simply tell them to go and then die. So, presumably, these heroes are going to do something meaningful, right? As already mentioned, Stu gets injured along the way. At the same time, the supposedly hyper-competent and knowledge massive threat Dark Man essentially starts shooting himself in the foot. He arranges an accident for the traitor … who almost shoots his bride before he can do the deed. Then, he meets up with her and rapes her, putting her into a catatonic state, at which point he discovers that the spy Tom has managed to get away because he didn’t tell his second-in-command that someone who was associated with Nick was going to be a threat, resulting in the second-in-command not immediately moving on stopping him. But that’s okay, because Tom didn’t do anything anyway, except that scrambling the helicopters to look for him triggers bombs that their resident pyromaniac set after feeling slighted by the others, killing their only trained pilots, which the Dark Man didn’t do anything about despite that person being someone the Dark Man considered important and privileged. Then, as the heroes arrive and are captured, his catatonic “bride” suddenly starts taunting him to a degree that causes him to toss her out of the building in a rage, killing her. Then, in interrogating Glen, he forces his second-in-command to kill Glen despite his not wanting to. Then he sets up a public execution of the remaining two, which seems to have no other effect than to cause a distraction and get one of his followers to reveal that he and they were going to leave, which then causes the Dark Man to create some kind of lightning to kill him, which then ends up setting off a nuclear bomb brought back by the pyromaniac as an offering, destroying everyone in the city.

So, the heroes don’t do anything except maybe be a distraction, and the entire thing was falling apart even before they got there due to the Dark Man’s paranoia and errors. He himself had destroyed his bride and unborn child, meaning that that goal was lost no matter what happened, and the people who stood up to him were going to leave anyway. There was no reason for the heroes to actually make that trek and die there. Stu, I think, later muses that God demands a sacrifice and this could be seen as drawing a parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus … except that Jesus’ death not only had a specific purpose but Jesus knew what that purpose was and so went to his death willingly. The heroes here don’t actually accomplish anything and, even if they somehow did, had no idea what that end they were trying to accomplish was. All this does is make God seem like, well, a bit of a dick, demanding that people die for no good reason to fulfill His Will, which means that any attempt parallel falls flat here.

It would have worked so much better to either have their taunting have a greater impact — actually causing the second-in-command to turn, for example — or else go all the way and have the pyromaniac be driven by revenge rather than reverence, by having him find the incendiary devices and the nuke, desperately want to “play” with the incendiary devices and have him be told no — because the resources were too important to waste that way –, have him overhear insults from important people, and then decide that he really wants to set off that nuke that he found and figures that wiping them out as well would be a great way to go out. The book had already established, at least in the extended version, that he had already ruined his life by his inability to control his pyromania and so it would have tied neatly back into that story. It still wouldn’t have made the sacrifice of the heroes meaningful, but it at least would have seemed a less contrived ending.

So, having read this book at least twice before this, after reading it for a third time the question remains: would I read it again? I think I would. As I said, the overall plot and characterization is interesting, and the only real flaw is that the ending is anti-climactic for something that they set up so strongly throughout most of the book. But that really happens for about 100 pages out of over 1100, as even Stu’s final return home has the character moments that made the rest of it interesting. The length is the biggest deterrent to re-reading it, but still I was able to read it faster than a lot of the historical works that I had been trying to read, so it isn’t that bad. Worth a read as long as you aren’t going to get too attached to the supernatural conflict and instead focus on the story of humanity recovering after a plague extinction event.

Thoughts on Voyager: Answering Questions

May 15, 2019

So, I’m still watching “Star Trek: Voyager”, and I’ve noted something that probably isn’t all that common but has stood out to me: Voyager, and Janeway specifically, often doesn’t bother to explain things to the rest of the crew when they raise good questions that, nevertheless, Janeway and the others actually have good answers for.

While I haven’t been able to watch “Learning Curve” — it’s one of a number of episodes missing from my streaming service — I did watch Chuck Sonnenberg’s discussion of the episode, and it has always struck me that it was trivially easy to show the Maquis crew member why you don’t just go ahead and fix things that you see are broken. My thought was always that since the result of his changing the gel pack was to interrupt Janeway’s holodeck program, all you needed to do was take him to the Sick Bay area and pull a gel pack, which would deactivate the Doctor, and then ask him what would happen if the Doctor was performing a surgery at that precise moment. But, in general, it’s pretty easy to explain why you don’t do things that might have an impact on people around you whenever you feel like it. Any company that has any kind of IT department has already figured out why that is: because you might end up causing people to lose something they’ve worked on for ours or might impede something customer critical, and you don’t know who is doing what at what time to know that it will be safe to do so now. That’s why even emergency server or power outages tend to get at least a little warning so that people can stop what they’re doing or plan for the outage to make sure that their time isn’t wasted. Someone, say, coming in to work on a weekend to get something critical done is going to be very upset if they suddenly discover that they can’t actually do anything due to an unscheduled outage or, even worse, if it happens in the middle of what they’re doing meaning that, at a minimum, they’re going to have to wait for it to be over before they can continue to do their work, wasting their time.

It’s actually pretty odd as well that when the big issue was about the Maquis crew members not understanding or wanting to follow Starfleet protocols that Tuvok’s way of teaching that to them is … to essentially put them through harsh physical basic training instead of, say, sitting down with them in a lecture setting to explain what the protocols are and why they should follow them. Running 10km with heavy packs in increased gravity really isn’t going to do much to either teach the protocols or get them to understand why they’re important, and seems more like “You will follow them or else we will punish you”.

But while I can’t remember the episode name, there’s another episode that I’ve recently watched that drives this home for me. Seven disagrees with what Janeway wants to do, and Janeway insists that Seven has to ignore her solution and follow Janeway’s. Seven snaps back that Janeway claims to want Seven to become an individual, and yet whenever Seven disagrees with what Janeway wants Janeway insists that Seven follow Janeway and not act on her own individual conscience. Janeway ends up ordering her to follow along, but here was a glorious opportunity to point out that contradiction and show why it exists. What could have been pointed out is that while humans are indeed all individuals with their own individual ideas, it simply cannot be the case that they always just go off and do things completely on their own. They need each other’s help to get things done, and everyone going off on their own might even end up with them all interfering with each other. So things need to be ordered so that we don’t get that kind of unproductive behaviour. This is one advantage of the Borg Collective: everyone always pulls in the same direction because they don’t have any ideas other than the one that the Collective has decided. However, that limits their creativity, as it is difficult for them to generate really new ideas unless those ideas follow from the mindset that the Borg have. For example, while it can be said that the Borg can adapt to almost anything — which might suggest creativity — their attempts to adapt have seemed rather mechanical. Instead of adapting their personal shielding to phasers in general, they adapt them to specific frequencies, allowing the tactic of shifting frequencies. The same trick works wrt shields. And it can be argued that the reliance of their enemies on energy weapons is precisely why their shields don’t work against physical attacks like bullets. Their adaptation is mechanical: they get hit with something and then adapt to that specifically, but don’t even come up with a general counter-measure against things like that.

For the Borg, information and ideas flow down the chain of hierarchy: the Collective Mind comes up with them and then propagates that to all the drones. Humans, on the other hand, have ideas flow in both directions. The whole point of the Magic Meeting Room is to generate as many ideas as they can so that the one in charge — the Captain — has all the ideas there and can make the best decision, and then that decision flows back down the chain of command for everyone to follow through with. Janeway could have even pointed out that Seven’s unique perspective as a former Borg brings great ideas to the table that are useful, even if Janeway ultimately decides against doing it. Especially since the combination of unique ideas can generate new and better ideas that take the benefits of those ideas while minimizing their disadvantages. Thus, a point could have been made about human superiority — which Seven really needed to hear — while acknowledging that the Borg approach has its advantages, too, and noting that the Starfleet command structure is built around trying to marry those two perspectives into, ahem, the best of both worlds.

Of course, Janeway has never been one to allow dissent — see her over-the-top reaction to Chakotay’s strong disagreement over allying with the Borg in “Scorpion” — so it might be too much to ask of her that she do so.

Anyway, I think they missed great opportunities to explain things and explore the concepts around those questions, and instead simply shut them down without discussion. That’s not something that more cerebral sci-fi works should do.

Thoughts on “2 Broke Girls”

May 14, 2019

So, I’ve finished watching all six seasons of “2 Broke Girls”. This was a series that I had mused about watching for ages and managed to find for a decent price a while ago, mostly because I had seen and liked Kat Dennings in the Thor movies and the premise sounded somewhat interesting. That it featured two attractive women as the stars didn’t hurt either. But in the end it was a disappointing series.

The basic premise of the show is that Caroline Channing, the daughter of a wealthy financier, loses everything because it turns out that her father was pretty much scamming everyone to make his fortune. She meets diner waitress Max Black (played by Dennings) and ends up getting a job at that diner and moving in with Max as her roommate. It turns out that Max is making money selling cupcakes and Caroline then believes that they could turn that into a business, which then is what happens over the next six seasons.

The show is very joke intensive, mostly snarky insults and sexual jokes. The problem with this is that the show spends so much time tossing out jokes that it really doesn’t have time to do anything else. Sure, its rapid-fire jokes mean that you’re probably going to come across something funny relatively quickly, but most of the jokes aren’t that funny and become very predictable, so that you can often seem them coming. Still, again, there were usually one or two at least amusing ones in every, say, five minutes of the show, and some of them were downright funny. It’s just kinda overwhelming at times.

It also means that plots drag on longer than they should. On a few occasions, they spent multiple episodes exploring plots that didn’t have enough content for more than one or two. For example, there’s one sequence where Max is trying to get to her old boyfriend after he blocks her to try to reconcile, and it takes about three episodes for them to get there, but even with the disastrous things that happen to them — plane crash, stolen credit cards, he goes somewhere else — the plot really runs out of steam long before that, and if they hadn’t been so focused on tossing funny scenes and jokes in there they could have wrapped it up in an episode or two at most. This also happens when they go to Hollywood to negotiate about Caroline’s movie, with there being very little happening there that couldn’t have happened with them still in New York. To compare it to a sitcom like “Three’s Company”, they had certain jokes that they wanted to be focused around — misunderstandings, Jack pretending to be gay, his clumsiness, and so on — and seemed to think “What kind of plot do we need to be able to do that?”, whereas in “2 Broke Girls” it seemed to me that most of the time their plot ideas followed the catchphrase of a friend of mine from high school: “Wouldn’t it be funny if?”. A lot of the plots were simply putting together events that sounded funny and then tossing their standard jokes into the mix and hoping to produce something good. But it ended up making their episodes kinda like cupcakes themselves: kinda enjoyable, but devoid of substance so you’d get tired of them if that was all you ate.

The Hollywood plot also suffered from having to foist the creator fan character Sophie into the plot, as she goes there to see some kind of healer about having a baby. The show really wants us to like Sophie, as whenever she arrives in a room there’s whoops like you’d get for someone like the Fonz or Kramer from “Seinfeld”. The problem is that she’s not a very good character and has no real interesting role on the show. You’d think that being of Polish descent myself my big problem with her would be how she’s supposed to be Polish but the stereotypes about her have nothing to do with actual Polish people (for example, you would expect her wedding to be Catholic because that’s pretty big in Poland, but instead it’s some kind of weird semi-Christian type of thing) but that doesn’t bother me since it’s clearly done for laughs and isn’t to be taken seriously. My problem with her is that she’s entirely selfish and self-centered and self-absorbed and prone to snarky insults, especially towards Caroline. This might have worked out — she likes Max and doesn’t like Caroline — except that if we want someone to be snarkily self-interested and make sexual jokes a lot, well, that’s what Max is for. Even her snarking at Caroline doesn’t work because Max already snarks at her more than enough to make those sorts of jokes, so what is she there for? Having her get together with the pervert cook Oleg doesn’t help, as both of them are annoying and inappropriately sexual but Oleg is supposed to be and he gets numerous moments where he helps them out just because they need the help. She doesn’t even get that and it seems that the show expects us to not find Sophie annoying, and there aren’t really any jokes that she brings to the table that the others couldn’t make just as well: Max snarking about Caroline, Oleg making jokes about strange foreign custom, Max and Oleg making jokes about odd sexual practices, and so on.

The humour is also often very mean-spirited. Max and later Caroline constantly insult Han, the owner of the diner, with rapid-fire insults pretty much any time he talks to them. This also continues after, again, Han goes out of his way to help them with their problems. This, then, makes the continued insults seem ungrateful, and most of them are simply insults about his height and looks and not firing back against him being, say, too uptight or trying to boss them around. It gets better when he starts to fire back more often, especially with Max, but it never quite becomes mutual snarking to show that they care about each other and does more seem like general insults. At least they do help Han out later in the series.

There’s also a lot of jokes about Caroline that come across as mean, especially with regards to her body. There are a lot of jokes about her being flat-chested. Now, if this was just about her having much smaller breasts than Max, that would be okay, and there are some jokes where that’s what they’re referring to and it allows Caroline to fire back at her, like at least one case where the joke is mostly over Caroline focusing on attracting men to her legs because her breasts won’t do it for her. But no, a lot of the time the joke claims that Caroline’s breasts are small to non-existent. Now, I’m not going to oppose that on the basis of an opposition to body shaming, but the worst part about those jokes is that they, well, aren’t true. When Caroline wears a tight shirt or sweater we can see that she is definitely not flat-chested. So, again, the jokes come across as being mean rather than as goodnatured teasing.

The show ends up suffering from a lack of sympathetic characters. Earl — the cashier — is fine but has a rather limited role. Han comes across sometimes as long-suffering but also a bit cheap. Oleg is not someone you’re supposed to really like. Sophie is just plain annoying. So that leaves the two main characters. Max is mean and snarky but can generate some sympathy based on the stories about how crappy her life has been … but often being incredibly irresponsible hurts that. Caroline starts off as being sympathetic but at the end has her self-absorption dialed up to 11, making her more annoying. So, at the end, I didn’t really want to watch either of the two main characters or the creator-pet Sophie. What they really should have done — and it did start out that way — was have Caroline be “Spoiled Sweet”, being someone who has always had things work out for her and so assumes that that’s how it will always work out for her and how it should work for everyone else, while keeping Max as the bitter and cynical one because things have never worked out for her ever. Then, as the show progressed, Caroline would keep her optimistic attitude but temper it with some realism, while Max would learn that sometimes things do work out if you try and so that never trying is a bad idea. There are hints of this throughout the show, but this progression really should have been the focus. But, again, the swarm of jokes makes it hard to do this sort of thing in the limited time left over for plot and character development.

By not following this progression, the show also seems to try to reset their condition after every season, finding ways to reduce them to limited money or put them back into similar situations. It’s not quite a reset button because they’ll at times change things — set up their business somewhere else or change to a dessert bar — but for the most part something bad happens to set them back financially, at least. It would have still worked if they had let them get ahead a little but still have a lot to do to accomplish their dreams, because doing that is indeed hard work and takes time. And this tendency to do that to set up for the next season means that they don’t get an ending, as season 6 sets them back financially again and sets up a conflict between their boyfriends that never gets resolved because the show was, presumably, unexpectedly cancelled. I’d find that a problem like I did with “Reboot”, but I found that I didn’t really care that much to be all that bothered that it didn’t get an ending.

So, what did I think of the series, at the end of the day? Well, I didn’t want to watch it again right away after finishing it like I did with “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. But while I was happy to get to the end of it so that I could watch something else, I didn’t have to struggle through it like I did with “She-Ra”. It’s a show that I could watch again, but now have so many other things to watch that I can’t think of any possible time when I could that I couldn’t find something better to watch. The show is mildly amusing but not particularly entertaining.

The next series was chosen because it has style, it has flair and, well, it’s there. Stayed tuned if that doesn’t mean anything to you.

With Great Power Comes Great Culpability

May 13, 2019

The next essay in “Spider-Man and Philosophy” is “With Great Power Comes Great Culpability” by Philip Tallon. This essay asks if Peter Parker is really responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, given that while he did refuse to stop the criminal from getting away who would go on to kill Uncle Ben, all of that was unintentional and due simply to bad luck. If the criminal had been caught before leaving the building or had done any number of other things that would have had him avoid even meeting Uncle Ben, Uncle Ben would have lived (and possibly depending on version no one else would have died). Peter didn’t intend those consequences and couldn’t have reasonably foreseen that those would be the consequences. Can he be held morally responsible for such situations.

Tallon seems to disagree that Peter is morally responsible, but he explores a counter-idea raised by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel that says that sometimes we seem to be held morally responsible for actions that depend a great deal on luck, using the concept of moral luck. The example Tallon gives is of someone who doesn’t get his brakes checked when he should, and of two different cases. In the first case, the man finally goes to get them checked and discovers that they are in such bad shape that his driving that car was a huge danger, but nothing bad happened. In the second case, a child runs in front of his car and due to his bad brakes he cannot stop in time and kills the child. The argument is that we would consider the latter case at the very least worse morally than the first one, indicating that we can indeed hold people responsible for outcomes even if the intentions are the same.

As this is a common argument against my preferred moral stance — intentionalism — the issue here is that in general intentions are taken too shallowly. Sure, the man didn’t intend to kill the child, but in the example given he did intend to be negligent about getting his brakes checked to a dangerous degree. Imagine this case: someone hears a noise that might indicate a problem with his brakes, but can’t hear it all the time and isn’t sure, and decides that instead of running to get them fixed right away he’d wait for a couple of weeks because he’s getting everything checked out then anyway, and if things get bad he’ll go then. Imagine that his brakes actually are bad and happen to fail so that he hits the child. We probably would consider it an unfortunate accident, because he did everything that we would reasonably expect him to. So it’s still not really the luck that changes the moral status at all, but instead what the person did and whether or not that was reasonable.

By the same token, maybe the mechanic shouldn’t let him off easily morally for driving with brakes that were that dangerous. If he knew that he really should have had then checked or fixed and did so anyway risking killing someone, it doesn’t seem to absolve him morally that he didn’t happen to actually kill someone. He still took the chance knowing that he was risking that. This also applies to the other examples in the essay, where someone tries to kill someone who trips and thus avoids being killed. While legally that would only be attempted murder, if that was the only thing that stopped them from doing so from a moral standpoint they’re still as much a murderer as if they had actually succeeded. So it’s not clear that the morality of an action ever meaningfully depends simply on moral luck.

Tallon does bring some interesting ideas here in reference to the Control Principle, where we are only morally responsible for things that are in our control. This would seem to refute the idea that we are morally responsible for those cases of moral luck, even if intuitively we might tend to think that we are. However, he cites Susan Wolf pointing out that moral people take responsibility for their actions and their consequences. Thus, a moral person who knows that they did nothing morally wrong in a situation that results in bad consequences might want to make amends or feel responsible for making amends because, ultimately, it was their action that caused those bad consequences to happen. This wouldn’t be accepting that they did something wrong, but instead accepting an obligation to, nevertheless, try to mitigate the damage their actions did to others. And it does seem a standard notion in morality that one should always minimize the damage done to others, even if the moral thing to do requires doing so.

But in the example — retconned — where Aunt May feels responsible for Ben’s death because he was only outside because he was cooling off after they had a fight we can see another and more likely possible driving force being Peter’s guilt, which I’ll refer to using the TV Tropes example of “Can’t Get Away with Nuthin'”. They feel that they did something wrong, and those consequences were the result of that. There was no way for them to know that taking that action would have that result and they certainly didn’t intend that result, but nevertheless they did something wrong and that’s what happened. If only they had stepped up and done the right thing, those bad consequences wouldn’t have happened. Thus, they feel moral guilt not because they are indeed morally responsible for the consequences, but instead because they failed to be properly moral which led to those consequences. In Raimi’s version of Spider-Man, Peter does seem to be less bothered by not stopping the criminal and more concerned by the fact that the only reason Ben was there at all was because Peter lied to him about going to the library to study and instead went to participate in the wrestling to earn money for a car. If he had simply stayed home, Uncle Ben wouldn’t have died, which ties in with Aunt May in the main continuity saying that if they hadn’t fought he wouldn’t have gone outside and so wouldn’t have died.

This also fits in to Peter in the main continuity and with his not stopping the criminal when he had the chance. He knew that he could have done so with no risk to himself, and knows that he should have done so. But he didn’t, and because he didn’t, Uncle Ben died. So he’s seen the consequences of acting against what is moral, and they were devastating. Thus, he needs to make sure that he remains virtuous and always does what he can to avoid those things happening because of his lack of virtue. With great power comes great responsibility, after all, as he is capable of preventing great wrongs and choosing not to do so will result in those great wrongs occurring.

So Peter seems to be more about avoiding his inner weaknesses than any direct responsibility for Uncle Ben’s death. As William Adama said in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series (in the episode “33”): when we make mistakes, people die. When Peter fails to act morally, people get hurt and people die. Thus, he must always do whatever he can to prevent that, trying to at least get to the point where he can console himself with the idea that he’s done all he could, both in stopping things before they happen and in making things as right as possible when he can’t. It won’t stop him from feeling guilt for the bad things that happen nevertheless because he never wants to have his actions or inactions cause bad things to happen, but at least that guilt won’t be because he didn’t do all he could.