Archive for October, 2018

Thoughts on “Truth or Dare”

October 31, 2018

So, the next horror movie to talk about — on Hallowe’en no less! — is unfortunately not all that scary, although it might be the scariest of the three, which as we have seen and will see is essentially damning it with faint praise. “Truth or Dare” starts from an interesting premise, but one that has a fatal flaw for a movie that is trying to be a traditional scary horror movie, and its attempts to add scares fall flat and actually hurt its premise.

I’ll continue below the fold for this one because this is a more recent movie.

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Thoughts on “The Conjuring”

October 29, 2018

So, if you like my general commentaries on various media, you’ll be happy, because that’s what you’re going to be getting. First, I started with my thoughts on “She-Ra: Princess of Power”. This week, because Hallowe’en falls this week — and I actually have three horror movies watched to this point and have a large current and upcoming list of pop culture things to talk about — you’re going to get three discussions of those cheap horror movies that I talk about every so often. And the following Monday I’m probably going to talk about Doctor Who. So, yeah, lots of that, so if you like it, you’ll be happy. And if you don’t, then you’ll probably want to tune back in next week when I get back to video games and philosophy.

So, as just stated, this week in honour of Hallowe’en I’m going to talk about horror movies. Unfortunately, if you want to actually be scared these three movies aren’t exactly going to do that.

“The Conjuring” has turned itself into a franchise, with at least two specific Conjuring movies and at least two “Annabelle” movies based on the doll that is mentioned and shown in the first Conjuring movie. I have the first Conjuring movie, but all of the others are ones that can, in general, be attained relatively cheaply, but I figured that I should probably watch the first one first before shelling out more cash for the sequels. This was probably a good idea, since the first one is, well, just an okay movie.

The story revolves around two plots. The first, and more directly supernaturally related, is about a family who moves into an old house and immediately ends up experiencing strange events. The second is about the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators who come to investigate the house and help them, and about the wife being a medium who had a very bad experience in their last case, which didn’t involve the doll. The paranormal investigators are the main characters in the story, but their personal story is really the B-plot, but gets explored quite a bit in the movie.

These two plots are what ultimately ruins the movie. The B-plot is in general much less scary than the A-plot, which seems to be by design as it is about a family resolving family issues. It’s therefore much more pleasant and “homey” than the A-plot. However, the scenes are interweaved with the supernatural scenes, which means that we move from supernatural horror to family drama in a relatively short period of time. This should produce Mood Whiplash, where we move from being afraid to experiencing caring people caring about each other, but it never does. This highlights, then, that the supernatural horror and suspense just isn’t that scary, especially during the first parts of the movie. Stopping the action to do the family plot doesn’t help, as that time could have been better spent building up the supernatural menace and making the movie more scary and suspenseful.

However, those parts of the movie also actually work. The family in the house is generally sympathetic and works well together, and the relationship of the paranormal investigators works as well and is interesting to watch. The plots are tied together credibly enough with only a little bit of stupidity and contortions required to fit everything together. As the main characters are paranormal investigators, the movie does a credible job of explaining what is going on and relaying the backstory of the ghosts and demons involved in the haunting. So it’s interesting enough to watch, for all of that.

So it’s not a bad movie. It’s just not really a scary movie. The threat is credible enough but the tone for most of the movie doesn’t set up the creepiness or horror required to make it all work as a horror movie. I might watch it again (or, at least, might if I had the time) but it’s not any kind of a classic movie.

Masters

October 29, 2018

So, you’re going to get a rarity: two posts on the same day! This is because I really want to talk about those horror movies that I’ve been watching this week because it aligns nicely with Hallowe’en, but there was curling on over the weekend and I can’t miss an update on that. So, two posts.

This event was the Masters, which is a return to more normal curling play. However, this year they say that they’re going to the five rock rule which is different from what had been played before. Essentially, rocks out front of the house — commonly called guards — can’t be removed until five rocks have been thrown, whereas before that could happen after four rocks have been thrown. What it really means is that the team that holds hammer — throws the last rock in an end — now can set up two guards that can’t be removed immediately, and so can force the team without hammer to do something other than simply peeling guards away on their third shot. This should result in more rocks in play, or more risky tick shots — moving the guard out of the way without removing it — that can fail and so leave more options for the team with hammer. It’s basically a limitation on defensive play and was touted as being a way to allow for more comebacks, which got be grumbling because on the Grand Slam Tour the biggest thing preventing comebacks is that they play two less ends, and so if you get down at about the fourth or fifth end it’s almost impossible to come back because you have to go for drastic measures to score rather than being able to nibble away at the lead like you see in the international game, which goes to ten ends.

And, of course, soon after Nina Roth made a comeback from being down 7 – 3 to Jennifer Jones to win that game.

The move did seem to increase scoring. Or, at least, there was a lot of scoring happening. But a lot of the time the big scores happened because one of the teams made an egregious error. In general, they weren’t forced into trying a risky shot and missed by inches leaving them in a bad spot, but instead made completely unforced errors on shots that we would expect curlers at that level to make almost all of the time. Even in the finals, the key shot was Rachel Homan clanking a guard that she should have been able to get by, leaving an easy hit for Anna Hasselborg to score three points. And Hasselborg herself had her team miss two shots because they picked up some debris or frost, lost the handle, and just died (although those misses weren’t as dramatic). Far too often, the key shots were egregious misses which resulted in big ends. But it’s not fun to watch egregious misses cost games. It’s fun to watch curlers have to make incredibly precise shots, and if they miss those shots have the other team take advantage. Forcing a team to make an almost impossible shot is fun even if they miss it (Hasselborg, I think, was forced into one of these in the final and missed it giving Homan multiple points). Having a team fumble away multiple points is more frustrating than entertaining.

And that leads me to comment on something that I’m noticing in curling mostly but also in other sports: the push for more scoring. More scoring isn’t always better and doesn’t always make for a better game. First, if more scoring happens because you take away tactical concerns — ie the planning and set-up that is normally required in curling — then curling loses one of the things that makes it uniquely interesting, in my opinion. Second, if more scoring becomes expected — in curling, threes become common — then it becomes commonplace, and no longer special. We no longer ooh and aah over a shot for three because we’ve already seen two of those in the game and it seems like it happens in every game we watch. What curling should really want is for it to be the case that big ends are possible, but not frequent, so that the team still really has to make great shots to do so. So far, I’ve seen it be a bit too easy to score big ends, especially considering the big misses that also seem commonplace on tour.

The semi-finals were interesting for me, since they featured Homan vs Chelsea Carey and Hasselborg vs Casey Scheidegger. I mused about whether I’d like to see a match where I liked both teams or where I only really liked one of them. Since I don’t care much about Hasselborg at all — I don’t dislike the team but she tends to beat teams I like better — or Carey — now that she no longer has Cathy Overton-Clapham on her team — it ended up with the latter which made it easy for me to decide who to cheer for, but I think I prefer watching two teams that I want to watch than having it be easier to figure out who to cheer for.

And, of course, Hasselborg beat a team I liked again, winning 8 – 7 with that three in the 8th on that missed shot from Homan. Hasselborg has now won the first two Grand Slam titles on the women’s side.

Next up is the Tour Challenge next week.

Thoughts on “She-Ra: Princess of Power”

October 26, 2018

So, as a follow-up to watching the three He-Man series, I sat down to watch “She-Ra: Princess of Power”, to remind myself that the push for more inclusivity and strong female characters has happened before and will happen again. Now, when I first watched the He-Man series a couple of years ago, I started watching She-Ra, because I bought them at roughly the same time. I remembered being disappointed by it which is why I ended up not watching the entire series (I was also almost certainly distracted by something else, too). However, unlike “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Reboot”, when I watched She-Ra this time I remembered why it had disappointed me.

She-Ra is just a really, really bad show.

Now, I had thought that at least the later seasons of He-man and the early seasons of She-Ra were running at the same time. It turns out that this wasn’t true, and that He-Man was replaced by She-Ra. This, I think, allows us to see one of the first problems that She-Ra had: it ended up being a continuation of He-man. Unfortunately, in the later episodes of He-Man it became clear that they were running out of ideas, and so those episodes were a lot lower quality than the earlier ones were. So branching out to something different was probably a good idea. Unfortunately, they didn’t really do anything all that different. Sure, the setting was different — although it was the same sort of magic/technology mix that Eternia was — and they were a resistance group instead of the people in power, but while that was constantly in the background of the show they never really took advantage of it. For the most part, the general model was the same: the Forces of Evil would come up with a scheme and the Forces of Good would rush to prevent it. Or something that would give the Forces of Evil a huge advantage would show up and there’d be a race to prevent them from getting it. And so on. So for the most part we were getting the same sorts of stories that we had in He-Man, which were getting stale in He-Man and really weren’t going to be tasty for another 93 episodes.

This was only made worse by the fact that She-Ra overused the He-Man characters at the beginning of the series. He-Man and various other Eternian figures showed up in many of the first 20 episodes or so. While I can see that they might think it a good idea to use their popularity to draw viewers to this show, it didn’t work because it didn’t leave any time to develop the actual characters in this universe beyond possibly She-Ra and Adora at times. Thus, we didn’t learn anything about the actual characters on Etheria and when the Eternian characters faded away there weren’t really any Etherian characters to replace them.

Adding to this — and perhaps because of this — far more focus was put on She-Ra than was put on He-Man in the original He-Man cartoon. This was bad because She-Ra was a pretty boring character. For one thing, she was overpowered. While He-Man had his great strength and a sword that was indestructible, She-Ra had the strength and the sword and her sword could turn into pretty much anything — it turned into a rope, a grappling hook, a helmet for breathing in space, a different helmet for breathing underwater, a shield, a discus, and a few other things as well — and she could talk to animals and she could heal things. With this combination, there was no real reason for her to face any great threats, and for the most part she rarely did face great threats in the entire series. She-Ra also came across, at least to me, as more arrogant than He-Man did, far more dismissive of her opponents than he generally was, which made her a bit insufferable. On top of that, her alter egos weren’t all that interesting, nor could they be used to generate interesting stories. Adam pretended to be a wastrel to avoid giving up his secret, and Cringer was an utter coward. This not only provided separation between the characters, it also potentially led to some interesting stories when Adam or especially Cringer were the ones who had to play hero instead of their alter egos. But Adora was a former Force Captain under Hordak, and became the leader of the Rebellion. She was, thus, very competent, and portrayed as such. When separated from her sword, there was never any reason to wonder if she could deal with the issues, nor any thought on the part of her companions that she might not be able to handle it. And Spirit and Swiftwind had almost identical personalities, so there was no real difference between them at all, cutting off that angle and making them boring. About the only real difference was Adora’s voice, which for the most part was more ditzy than She-Ra’s which was utterly inappropriate for her personality.

So focusing almost entirely on She-Ra — and her sidekick Bow — didn’t work because She-Ra was too boring as a hero. Fortunately, they had a host of other characters that they could have added in to make things more interesting. Unfortunately, as I’ve already mentioned, they didn’t do that.

In both He-Man and She-Ra, three characters are mentioned that know the secret of the heroes. In He-Man, the three are the Sorceress, Man-At-Arms, and Orko. At least one of them appears in pretty much every episode, and each of them at least appear in the majority of the episodes. The Sorceress discovered many of the plots and called He-Man to deal with it, Man-At-Arms invented new technologies and also dispatched He-Man, and Orko hung around as comic relief who could also be heroic on occasion. And in most of the episodes, that they knew the secret was directly referenced, usually with them at least telling Adam to go change into He-Man or summoning Adam because they need He-Man. In contrast, for She-Ra the three are Light Hope, Madame Razz, and Cowl. Light Hope does not appear until about 20 episodes in and makes an appearance before being introduced to the audience. Light Hope also appears something like two or three more times in the remaining 70+ episodes. You would think that Madame Razz would get more play as either the comic relief magician like Orko or as a dispenser of lore like the Sorceress, but she appears rather sporadically through the series and usually doesn’t do all that much. Cowl gets more play as the sidekick of Bow, but outside of the original mini-series it takes, again, about 20 episodes before they actually make his knowing the secret relevant in an episode, so much so that I was wondering if there was going to be a later origin showing how he came to know the secret. So these three characters that are of critical importance to He-Man are made utterly unimportant in She-Ra.

This carries on to the other members of the Rebellion. Frosta appears once to ice over a hill to allow the Trigits to sled and appears in the background of one raid, but for the most part gets nothing to do for about 60 episodes, at which point we find out that she’s actually the ruler of an icy kingdom. Castaspella shows up in the background once and gets more focus in one episode where her finding Adam attractive causes her bring him to Etheria, but again gets little play in most of the series. Angella has some importance, but is no where near as prominent as the Sorceress was despite playing a similar role (ruler of a magical castle that needs defending that she defends with magical powers). Aside from Bow, almost everyone else gets too little play to be worth mentioning.

The worst, though, is Glimmer. In the mini-series, she’s the leader of the Rebellion, possessing magical powers. She appears in a fair number of episodes, but never does anything in them. When she gets some focus she: a) blasts a metal zeppelin with a stun ray (it was established that the device absorbed any energy it was hit with which it could use to attack using the same energy, so it absorbs her magical bolt and returns it to her, which stuns her), b) changes her hair colour to try to attract a Prince who uses her to make Bright Moon, her mother’s magical castle vulnerable to attack and c) accidentally manages to take out some troopers by being a klutz which then causes her to think that she’s a real action hero which causes problems for the Rebellion (while she was the leader of the Rebellion and so often in combat and has magical powers). She gets a better episode later when her father returns but is captured and her mother Angella has to give herself up to free him, and Glimmer decides to go rescue both of them — because of course the villainess wasn’t going to keep her word, and they knew that when Angella left — but even here her mother says that it’s time for Glimmer to stand on her own when, in the mini-series, both of them had been captured and so Glimmer had already had to do that, and during that time all she managed to do was lead the entire Rebellion. So even in an episode where she gets respect, she gets no respect.

Now, you can protest that the Masters of the Universe didn’t get much more attention in He-Man. Well, first, He-Man didn’t make a point of showing them in the intro to the show. Second, they got far more play than the other members of the Rebellion did. We knew that Stratos was the leader of the birdmen long before 60 episodes. In fact, the Attack-Trac got more attention than the members of the Rebellion did, not to mention more well-known characters like Ram-Man and Mecha-Neck. And, finally, with the Big Three not getting any play She-Ra had a desperate need for characters other than She-Ra to be prominent, and it didn’t have that.

In fact, there’s a sequence of episodes that shows how things could have worked better. Starting from “Bow’s Magical Gift”, there are three episodes that focus more on the side characters. “Bow’s Magical Gift” derails Bow a bit by making him obsessed with a magical item he swiped from Shadow Weaver, but he has always been one to try to take any advantage to defeat the Horde and they lampshade it when he leaves his bow behind while taking on the Horde. And Glimmer runs off after him out of concern, which gives her something to do as well. In the next episode, “Sweet Bee’s Home”, they derail Frosta a bit to make her overly and annoyingly aggressively pursue He-Man, and derail He-Man a bit in that he is turned off by her but infatuated with Sweet Bee (which never comes up seven episodes later when Sweet Bee and her people return, but She-Ra also completely forgets that they weren’t supposed to land on Etheria because the Horde would capture them, so it’s like they forgot that most of that episode happened) which is only there to give Frosta a reason to act jealous (and it ends with She-Ra calling He-Man a coward for not wanting to deal with Frosta’s attentions) but at least we got some other personalities in the mix which allowed for new interactions. And in the next episode, “Glimmer Come Home”, Glimmer gets another episode! Except that she’s struck with a sudden jealousy of Adora and a strange desire for action that makes her rush off to get Horde troopers to join her at the instigation of a disguised Shadow Weaver. The idea of Glimmer feeling like she was displaced by Adora had some promise for an episode, but it needed to come much earlier than episode 86 out of 93 … and didn’t need to derail her character so badly.

So given how their attempts to involve the others at this late date ended up derailing them, it might be for the best that they stopped doing that for the rest of the few remaining episodes.

She-Ra is also supposed to be the defender of the Crystal Castle. She might defend it twice in the entire series, and one of those was just her finding it. She defends Bright Moon far more often, although that’s pretty rare as well. And she’s actually only in it maybe two more times than she defends it. Contrast that with He-Man, where the bulk of the episodes were him defending Castle Greyskull or at least arriving at it to do something, even if that was only to talk to the Sorceress.

It would have been far better for them to drop Light Hope and the Crystal Castle entirely and replace them with Angella and Bright Hope. Bright Hope was already a magical castle with esoteric defenses that Hordak desperately wanted to capture. It was pretty much the same thing as Castle Greyskull. Angella herself had strong magical powers and access to knowledge that no one else had. Doing that would have let them develop a sister relationship between Glimmer and Adora, and could lead to some strife because Angella knowing Adora’s secret would have her calling on Adora when she needed She-Ra, which would leave Glimmer feeling that her mother relied and trusted Adora more, which would hurt and cause some friction, while still maintaining the character and the relationships.

Bow fits into the role Teela had in He-Man, which means that he fails a bit and has to get rescued, but he’s also the only proactive and half-way competent member of the Rebellion. So call it a wash. And the interaction between him and Cowl is generally interesting.

So, what about the villains? Well, the villains are, well, pretty bad. Catra is supposed to be She-Ra’s arch-enemy, but she’s absolutely no match for her. The most she can do is turn into a cat that is smaller than Panthor was, which we’d seen was a minor threat to He-Man. They could have made the cat form more of a threat, but then that would mean that She-Ra would have an actual threat to face, and they couldn’t have that, so Catra in her cat form is always dealt with rather handily. Which makes the fact that everyone seems to take it as a serious threat rather ridiculous. Outside of that, she has limited combat skills and doesn’t come up with many, if any, interesting or tricky plans. Shadow Weaver and Hordak are more competent, but again in general are speedily dispatched. And the worst part about the villains is that their voices have added tics that string out their sentence, from Hordak’s snarls, Catra’s cat noises, Mantenna’s stuttering to Leech’s slurping. This means that while they’re talking you can feel that it’s dragging not because the information is boring but because you want them to just spit it out already. This makes the villains uninteresting to watch, and lack the humour that Skeletor and his minions had.

Even the end episode lessons are dull. An annoying squirrel character hides somewhere in the episode, and reveals himself at the end of it, often mocking the audience for not finding him despite it often being amazingly obvious where he is. He then lectures at the audience for a bit, talking quickly and spouting trite lessons without linking them as directly to the episode or setting it up in that scene. In He-Man, there were usually a couple of characters interacting which made it more like a conversation than a lecture and allowed them to set up a different lesson if the episode itself didn’t provide one. His come across like a boring lecture unless you really like the character. Which I didn’t.

At the end of the day, She-Ra is just not very good. It didn’t deviate enough from He-Man to do anything new, and didn’t realize that He-Man itself was getting stale, let alone this series that was just like it. We didn’t even get new characters and personalities to watch, instead having too many He-Man characters arrive and focusing on the least interesting character, She-Ra. This ran for 93 episodes and outside of a couple of decent to good episodes was a slog to get through. I have watched the original He-Man series twice without wanting to quit, like I did with She-Ra, and I will almost certainly never watch the series again. It had the elements to be a successful show, but didn’t use any of them and ended up being boring and stale.

So, I finished my DA2 replay …

October 24, 2018

… so expect a detailed discussion of the game in line with what I’ve talked about before in the next couple of weeks. Here, I’m going to talk about a couple of minor thing I noted while playing it.

I found that I really, really enjoyed the game this time around despite being relatively unimpressed with it the last time around. I think that part of it was that replaying it after watching Chuck’s very negative comments and reminding myself of my rather blah view of the game I didn’t expect that much from it, and so was pleasantly surprised. I also think that part of it was because I was trying to experience the plot in detail, I paid far more attention to it and so was able to notice a few things that I didn’t notice the first time around, and so was more involved in the plot and the game, which I think is important for DA2. I also think that playing it after playing DAO’s ending sequence three times in a row gave me an appreciation for what it did itself and less of an impression that DAO was, say, less grindy a game. But whatever the reason, I really enjoyed myself this time out.

I also found that DA2, for all its faults, really did manage to do emotional and personally emotional scenes really well, while DAO didn’t seem to have very many OF those sorts of scenes at all. The scene where your mother died is heartbreaking, and can play into the entire third act. And while Carver’s and Wesley’s deaths can seem like they rely on assumed empathy, they are crafted well, it is clear that the people involved care about them — your mother and sister for the former, Aveline for the latter — and their deaths are used later to drive the plot and add emotional weight. Like it or not, the game really is far more personal than DAO was, and that allows for various scenes to have much more weight.

I had decided that I was going to try to romance Merrill in this game, after romancing Isabella in the previous one. Playing as a rogue, I therefore didn’t keep Isabella in my party very much, and so she deserted me in the second act. But the odd thing was that I had the hardest time making friends with Merrill, so much so that I was tempted to try to go full Rivalry with her. But that wasn’t working so well, either. Then I did her specific mission, ended up killing her Keeper and an entire village of Dalish Elves, which improved her opinion of me. A quick flirt with her, and we were in a romance and she moved in with me. As a friend of mine commented when I mentioned it to him “I guess nothing woos a girl’s heart like a little massacre…?”. She also seemed to change her outfit at the same time to a white one that I quite liked.

I liked the companions a lot this time around … except for Anders. One of the best things about them is that if you are good enough friends with them they tend to be pretty reasonable. The first time around, I chose to side with the Templars, and Merrill disagreed. I was able to convince her to go along because there was going to be a violent response and at least with me running it it would be organized and at least potentially merciful. This time, I sided with the mages, which upset Fenris and had him go to side with the Templars. But in the end I convinced him that he had to support the freedom for mages that he wanted for himself, and he stood with me. Avelline was not happy with defying the Templars, but sided with me anyway. So, in general, the companions were reasonable … and their conversations were often quite entertaining.

Except for Anders. I think I killed him both times, but this time he talked about being a martyr for others to follow and I almost regretted the decision, but decided, in the end, that him and Justice together produced a combination of fanaticism and power that couldn’t be allowed to go free, and what he had done didn’t deserve any mercy … especially since he refused to trust me with his plan but tried to guilt and manipulate me into helping him with it. He was too unscrupulous to be allowed to manipulate others that way.

Again, look for my comments aiming at Chuck Sonnenberg’s analysis of the game starting after next week.

Thoughts on “Guns, Germs and Steel”

October 22, 2018

So the last of the historical works that I decided to work through was “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. This book made the rounds of all the progressive circles that I occasionally frequent a while ago, if I recall correctly, which is why it stood out to me when I was browsing historical books a long, long while back. But for the life of me I can’t really remember why they were talking about it, except that I think they liked it. After reading it, I think I know what about it interested them, but let me give my overall assessment of the book first.

The big problem with this book is that I think it’ll have a hard time finding an audience. The book is too technical and detailed for a casual history fan like myself who just wants to know or find out some interesting things or theories about the rise of civilizations. It takes on too many areas in too much detail and spends too much time trying to prove its case to be just an interesting read. However, for anyone who really wanted to be able to assess Diamond’s thesis it’s no where near detailed enough, nor does it spend enough time linking the myriad details presented in the work to the overall hypothesis. So a serious scholar looking to assess Diamond’s theory will find it sorely lacking details, while the casual reader will find it to be absolutely swarming in details that aren’t all that interesting. In both cases, the failure to directly link the details to an overall hypothesis hurts the work because all audiences will at least spend some time wondering what some detail actually has to do with anything the work wants to talk about.

So, what is that overall hypothesis? Well, one of the problems with the book is that the book doesn’t really seem to know what that thesis is … or, rather, that it doesn’t really want to come out and tell us what that is. From the start, Diamond presents the work as aiming to simply figure out why one area in particular came to be dominant over most of the rest of the world, starting from the proximate cause of “guns, germs and steel” — weaponry and diseases — to get down to the heart of the matter. He even apologizes for taking on a question that could lead to a racist conclusion, that being that there are differences in the people themselves that explain that. Well, that sounds interesting, and potentially risky. But as the work goes along it becomes clear that his main goal is to actually refute the racist conclusion and to demonstrate that it wasn’t differences in the people that were responsible for that. He raises it initially as a question that he somewhat hand waves an objection to, but by the end of the book he’s taking it on directly. But nothing in the early stages of the book sets us up for this, which really makes me wonder why he didn’t just say from the beginning that he was taking on that idea and even to say that he thinks that geography plays a far larger role than biological differences. If he wasn’t so blatant about it later, this wouldn’t matter, but by the end he is addressing it directly despite dancing around it up to that point, which makes it stand out.

On top of that, without that direct challenge to the racist conclusion, his hypothesis isn’t all that interesting or controversial. It essentially boils down to the fact that a number of peoples who stayed in the hunter/gatherer mode instead of moving to towns or the more “civilized” mode did so primarily because geographical factors made that move at the very least impractical if not impossible. At a minimum, the geography meant that towns and so on weren’t obviously more beneficial than the hunter/gatherer models that they were using at the time. The reasons for this can be interesting, such as it being the case in the Americas that there were few remaining large animals that they could domesticate for use in agriculture (although I find his reasoning for this — that they were too trusting and so were hunting into extinction — a bit specious). But overall it’s a mildly interesting theory that I might listen to at a party but not one that I want to spend a 400 page book reading about, which includes a survey of all areas to try to explain all of those things. It’s only if one is attached to the idea that it has to be biological differences that one would really care about his theory, which is precisely why it is so baffling that he doesn’t focus on that more throughout the entire book and be obvious that that is the theory he is directly challenging.

Even his refutation of the racist conclusion is lacking, however. While all of those factors certainly were the base causes of the distinctions, most people who care about the racist conclusion do so because of its implications for today. And since those geographical distinctions persisted for thousands of years, those conditions could have an evolutionary impact, and so the people could indeed have different capabilities today based on how they lived for those thousands of years. Diamond even ends up at least the specter of this while trying to show that the people of a particular area that he worked with are as smart as we are. He does so by appealing to them being able to do spatial mapping that he and most Westerners wouldn’t be capable of, explaining it as being necessary for them to survive. But if that’s the case then that would have been selected for and the sorts of capabilities that are necessary for our Western societies wouldn’t have been, and so it might still be the case that their biology makes them less capable for our world as our biology makes us less fit for theirs. Or it could just be the result of lots of practice. Either way, he leaves much room open for those who want to claim biological differences while spending too much time arguing against that for people who have no attachment to that hypothesis.

At the end of the day, it was an okay book. I didn’t hate reading it, but it didn’t thrill me either. I highly doubt it will get the 3+ reads that “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” got.

And that’s the last of my history reading. As already stated, I’m now reading some older science fiction by Ben Bova, which is a huge departure from the formal academic stuff that I’ve been reading for the past while. Hopefully, I’ll also find it more enjoyable, if less educational.

On Anger

October 19, 2018

Anger is making the rounds these days. Well, to be honest, anger has been a big part of many groups’ playbooks for quite a few years now, but lately rage and anger seems to be everywhere, and everyone seems to be using it, talking about it, justifying it, or using it to justify things. And while all my examples in this post will be from the Left, anger bridges the political spectrum. If progressives seem to be talking more about it now, that’s probably for two reasons. The first is that they are experiencing setbacks, which always generates anger. People get angry when things don’t turn out the way they hoped they would, especially when that happens because others don’t do what they expected them to do and seemed to be the obvious answer. The second is that anger has worked for progressives in the past, so their strategies tended to incorporate it directly, so they continue to use it and use it. But as we saw with the testimony from Kavanaugh, anger is used by the Right as well.

I’m Stoic-leaning, and so I believe that relying strong emotions in general is a bad idea, and think that anger is a particularly bad strong emotion. The problem with strong emotions is that they are effectively judgements about a situation and about what the right reaction to that situation that are both self-motivating and self-rationalizing. Strong emotions always contain a belief about the world — that’s what triggers the emotion — and prime you to take an action in response to that. Once that happens, strong emotions trigger the emotional motivation system that we have and so strongly motivate us to take that action, and since the judgement seems so strong we are always tempted to find reasons to accept that our strong emotions are justified, and so rationalize our reaction using reason. Anger is particularly bad for one simple reason: it’s usually wrong. While we might be justified in being angry at the situation, it is rare that anger suggests the right reaction to the situation. Even when it does, while anger itself can be sustained its rightness cannot. Ultimately, anger wants to keep feeding itself and keep its state alive, and ultimately will always end up overreaching. If you keep your anger alive and nurture it, eventually it will betray you by pushing you to do something that you shouldn’t do.

Which leads to this post by P.Z. Myers, where he talks about Donald Trump’s strategy as a “rage troll” Myers first quotesthis Slate article:

Donald Trump is an anger troll. Rage is the one thing he capably nurtures and grows. … He wants to make his followers feel threatened. To achieve this, he needs his opponents to seem irrational. So he sets about making them angry.

He insults them, railroads them, calls people protesting for justice liars and profit-seekers even as he openly enriches his friends. He gives them offensive nicknames and mocks their pain for fun, and to get them to lose control. He’s doing this in plain sight—it’s pretty obvious why people are angry—but his goal is to make their reaction look inexplicable, beyond the pale. After leading angry crowds to yell abuse at anyone he points to, he turns around and marvels at how irrational and dangerous his targets are.

As tactics go, this one is dumb and transparent, but it’s worth describing it because it works. It works a lot.

Myers then goes on to add to that description:

Yeah, that’s the man. But it’s only half the problem: the other half is an electorate that falls for it every time …

Well, no, the problem isn’t that Trump’s supporters or moderates or, well, anyone except those progressives on Myers’ side that get angry fall for it. No, the problem is that the progressives on Myers’ side keep falling for it. They know that Trump is doing things just to get them angry and to push them into acting out in ways that are irrational — or, at least, can be spun that way — and they constantly let him do that to them. You’d think that the obvious way to blunt this strategy is to stop letting Trump goad them into acting irrationally by getting them angry, and so only acting after considering the situation rationally and coming up with the perfect rational response.

Of course, that’s not what Myers suggests:

We need to own our anger, because that’s the alternative. Our rage is aimed at a deserving target, their rage seems to be self-inflicted.

So, in other words, he appeals to “right makes might”. Their rage is justified, their opponents’ rage isn’t, and so they need to “own” it by justifying it and declaring it and the actions that follow from it justified and right.

This isn’t owning your anger. Owning your anger is acknowledging that it made you angry, acknowledging that you acted out of rage, and acknowledging when the actions you took out of rage were actually irrational. Owning your anger means taking responsibility for your anger, both when it is reasonable and when it is excessive, and not justifying excesses because “They made me do it because they made you angry!”. Abusers justify their actions on the basis that what the other person did just made them so angry that they couldn’t see straight, and surely they don’t want to act like abusers, right?

(Ironically, the cartoon that Myers shows right above that in his post is about a Trump supporter trying to make someone angry and that person not actually getting angry at all. It misrepresents the situation in a way that both dishonestly makes progressives out to be far less actually mocking than they were and grossly insults anyone who prefers their steaks done that way, but most importantly it, uh, supports the idea that progressives shouldn’t be baited into getting angry, which is not the message Myers is promoting here).

But anger is self-justifying, and Trump has kept progressives in a constant state of anger. And so they keep justifying being angry and the way they act in reaction to that.

Dalrock has a post that gives two examples of this, focusing on feminism specifically. In the first, a woman goes off on a rant against her husband:

I yelled at my husband last night. Not pick-up-your-socks yell. Not how-could-you-ignore-that-red-light yell. This was real yelling. This was 30 minutes of from-the-gut yelling. Triggered by a small, thoughtless, dismissive, annoyed, patronizing comment. Really small. A micro-wave that triggered a hurricane. I blew. Hard and fast. And it terrified me. I’m still terrified by what I felt and what I said. I am almost 70 years old. I am a grandmother. Yet in that roiling moment, screaming at my husband as if he represented every clueless male on the planet (and I every angry woman of 2018), I announced that I hate all men and wish all men were dead. If one of my grandchildren yelled something that ridiculous, I’d have to stifle a laugh.

My husband of 50 years did not have to stifle a laugh. He took it dead seriously. He did not defend his remark, he did not defend men. He sat, hunched and hurt, and he listened. For a moment, it occurred to me to be grateful that I’m married to a man who will listen to a woman. The winds calmed ever so slightly in that moment. And then the storm surge welled up in me as I realized the pathetic impotence of nice men’s plan to rebuild the wreckage by listening to women. As my rage rushed through the streets of my mind, toppling every memory of every good thing my husband has ever done (and there are scores of memories), I said the meanest thing I’ve ever said to him: Don’t you dare sit there and sympathetically promise to change. Don’t say you will stop yourself before you blurt out some impatient, annoyed, controlling remark. No, I said, you can’t change. You are unable to change. You don’t have the skills and you won’t do it. You, I said, are one of the good men. You respect women, you believe in women, you like women, you don’t hit women or rape women or in any way abuse women. You have applauded and funded feminism for a half-century. You are one of the good men. And you cannot change. You can listen all you want, but that will not create one iota of change.

In the centuries of feminist movements that have washed up and away, good men have not once organized their own mass movement to change themselves and their sons or to attack the mean-spirited, teasing, punching thing that passes for male culture. Not once. Bastards. Don’t listen to me. Listen to each other. Talk to each other. Earn your power for once.

So, something that even she admits was minor prompted her into a roaring rage that scared even her. In the middle of it, even she had to pause to wonder if he really deserved what she was saying to him. And then the rage overwhelmed her and justified her anger despite the fact that he was doing the thing that feminists insisted men do to women: listen. But that wasn’t good enough for her rage, and so she goes on to blame him specifically, a man in his 70s, for not forming or being part of some kind of men’s movement that could fix all these problems and so her rage at him specifically was justified because he was a man and men hadn’t done enough to fix the problems. The rage justified itself so that she could feel good about her rant and that, ultimately, she did the right thing because he deserved it.

And the irrationality of her “reasoning” is clear. Men originally would indeed get together as men and only men to try to solve the problems of women. When they did so, feminists complained that you can’t solve women’s problems without having them represented. So they did. But then feminists complained that male voices still dominated the discussion, and so started demanding equal representation, or even dominance in numbers. Men, they argued, shouldn’t be the ones driving discussion about women’s issues. This led to the actual advice that men listen to women, usually expressed as “Shut up and listen!”.

So he did. And she justified her anger by insisting that he stop doing what women were telling him he needed to do, and instead go off with men and figure out how to solve the problem without making women do it for them, which is precisely what women and feminists told him he couldn’t do because it was unacceptably sexist. Thus, she creates a circle of unacceptability where nothing he does could ever possibly be right and she can always be angry at him for not doing what he’s supposed to do, despite there being nothing that he could do that would be acceptable.

Plus, her question here is basically him why he didn’t come up with a solution for her problems, to which I can only reply as Raiden did in the first Mortal Kombat movie: Why didn’t you? When she had a man who as she admits would listen to her, why didn’t she come up with a solution and tell him to get together with men — and maybe even women — and go implement it? If she thinks the solution is so easy or obvious that a man can easily figure out what it is despite not having the problem himself, surely she should have been able to come up with it and communicate it to men who, by her own admission, were listening to her, right?

But she didn’t. Because her anger and rage isn’t about solving the problem. Her anger and rage doesn’t care about solving the problem. It only wants to keep being angry. And she is accepting its recommendations blindly and wondering why nothing gets better, which only stokes her rage. If she calmed down and thought about things, presumably she’d see that she was being unfair to her husband and irrational in her conclusions. But anger wants to keep being angry, and it keeps telling her that she’s justified in being angry and that everything she did was right. If she let it stop, then she might have to accept that what she did was unfair and irrational. And few people ever want to accept that.

The second link I’m going to talk about is from earlier in the year, and features a woman talking about liberal men being fed up with liberal women and their anger:

To a certain extent, we expected it from the men who wear lobster-printed pants, the men from Connecticut, the Young Republicans of America with their gelled and parted hair, their summers in Nantucket, their LL Bean slippers worn on the porches of fraternities, 2pm on a Monday. But when my friend pulls me aside in a hotel bar and tells me it’s happening to her husband—a man who donates annually to NPR and voted twice for Barack Obama, who has a degree in Art History and works for a non-profit—neither one of us knows what to say.

Everywhere across America, liberal unions once so strong in love—relationships founded on mutual respect and trust and commitment and loyalty—have found themselves upended, or at the very least foundationally rocked, by the political escalation as it relates, perhaps most specifically, to womanhood and gender. Twenties or thirties or forties, children or no children, married or engaged or committed via long-term relationships: I have met more women than I can count in these past three weeks alone who have confided, in low voices—or once shouting, disbelieving, desperate, we have three children, one woman cried to me—of the disruption in their own home.

Of men—previously, pleasantly, progressive—rising up with unprecedented hostility, anger, abandon, and resentment.

Hours later, another wrote to tell me of a save-the-date no longer in need of saving.

My fiancé called off the engagement, she wrote. He loves me—he’s sure, and I believe him—but he’s “overwhelmed” with everything and “doesn’t know how to comfort me” and “doesn’t love who I’ve become.”

Who I’ve become: a phrase I’ve heard most frequently by women who have found themselves rightly riled, women who have perhaps never before—until recently—cited themselves as feminists report the fury, the frustration, the foundational shift as it’s occurring in the men they love so fiercely and the relationships that hold them as a consequence to the male gaze gazing now at their woman, riled.

But I knew these men—I loved one myself—and they are far from misogynistic monsters. They are far from Trump supporters. These men, on the contrary, comprise a particular slice of American males: they are men who did not vote for nor support Donald Trump, but are reticent to admit his behavior, rhetoric, and policies are as outrageous and offensive—downright threatening, maddening—as their female partners perceive them to be. These are, make no mistake, men who wholly sought us for our strength, our independence and education. The jobs we held or coveted. The degrees degreed in our name. Our passions and pursuits and our can-do, want-it-all attitudes. They work as medical researchers or in the arts, in teaching or social work. They queue up the Saturday Night Live skits that humiliate Trump, to consume with our coffee on Sunday mornings, but find it unpalatable and unpleasant that our resentment and our fears linger long into the workweek.

Perhaps it was sexy, initially: how they saw in us an equal. But how quickly we lose our status when we as women are angry or upset, frustrated beyond belief, when we add our voice to the chorus of #metoos or feel daily symptoms borne of helplessness. When the solution to our problems is not a man or a new necklace, but a sense of elongated empathy emanating from the person we’ve chosen as our partner.

A psychology colleague suggests the mental butler—a well-known psychological phenomenon that argues our subconscious is so acutely aware of our tendencies, predispositions, and preferences that it influences behavior. He explains the idea via racially motivated shootings, arguing that while a white cop may not be overtly racist, his mental butler—who, over time, has come to associate African American men with athleticism, aggression, and larger stature—may cause him to act more quickly, confidently, and aggressively when encountering a black man as opposed to a white man.

If a man has somehow wrongly internalized that to be a feminist is to be hateful towards an entire group of people, angry for the sake of anger, condescending, inefficient, than perhaps no woman he has chosen or been tasked to love can shake him of his mental butler. Perhaps no man is capable of understanding, truly, what is always on the line when you are a woman, and how Trump and his toxic rhetoric threatens so very much of it. Perhaps no man can recognize the sinister in Trump’s threats because he has not endured them—in some form or another—for the whole of his life.

My boyfriend? He once built me benches color-matched to our dog’s collar, knowing the matte of that mint green brings me more joy than anything. He lined the benches by the garden. The garden we’d built together. We did that work in unison: he backed up the pickup while I shoveled soil into the beds. The peppers are finally ripe enough to pick, but he’s no longer around to eat them.

In my backyard, in my America, I think of the mental butler. I try to imagine a mindset so wholly shaped by gendered bias that—despite any sense of love or tenderness, respect or commitment to partnership—a man, even a progressive one, automatically and subconsciously conflates feminists or a rise in feminist outrage to a threat to the collective male contingency/population. I think of the way a spider moves—fast and without reproach. First the problem is on the porch. Then it is climbing up your bedpost. Look as it spins a web around your morning and then your month and then your marriage. Look—and please keep looking—as it grips and continues gripping everything you once held dear inside his web.

What I wish these men could know—far beyond our disappointment in the president, or in their leaving—was how it felt, for so many of us, to wake on buses or trains or planes on our way home from the Women’s March. I woke that night to a thousand taillights—many cars but far more buses, thousands of stories packed onto wheels—as we traced the edges of America, making our way home, creeping, fading slowly into the places where we might not so easily belong. But as we climbed the smudged dusk of West Virginia—the heart of America, indeed, the heart of Trump Country—it seemed, if only for that evening, as if the porch lights had been left on for us, for this and this night only, and how amazing it was, truly, to watch our steady stream of red lights blink and brake as we led one another home.

So, these were liberal men. These are men who supported their goals and ambitions, oppose the same things they do, share the same political beliefs, seemed to be in love with them, and all sorts of other good things. And when these men tell them that they’ve changed, that they aren’t the people that they fell in love with anymore, that they’ve become obsessed, that they seem to always be angry, that they seem to be advocating irrational and harmful ideals, she and her friends don’t stop to ask “Maybe we are“. Or, at least, they don’t do so for long. Instead, they rely on a rather ridiculous idea of “the mental butler”, or that they’ve been convinced by others that feminism is about hating men as opposed to even thinking if maybe, just maybe, they were convinced of that by the rage-filled rants of the feminists in their lives that quite likely ranting about how terrible men are without bothering to exclude those wonderful men that they supposedly were in love with, like the first post I linked here. But their anger is justified, right? Trump just is that anti-woman, right? Maybe. But if he is and if it is right for women to be angry at him not everything you do while angry is justified as a response to the situation. If these women — as I suspect they did — were constantly angry and constantly going on about that situation, their men would likely get tired of it after a while. To use an analogy, imagine someone who thinks that their co-workers are stupid and lazy, and constantly tells you about how they think that. You’d probably get sick of that after a while and wish they’d talk about something else. Now imagine that you are one of their co-workers, and they not only don’t exclude you from that assessment, they explicitly include you in their rage. Just imagine how quickly you’ll get tired of that.

But anger — and strong emotion — justifies itself, and justifies its actions. The author here combines justified anger with a justified feeling of solidarity or belonging to insist that the men are just unreasonable and/or unconsciously sexist and/or just don’t understand. They’re right, and their feelings are right and so their actions have to be right, right?

But they aren’t right. And as long as they are under the influence of anger and other strong emotions, they’ll never see that. And they won’t be free of that influence until they stop, sit down, evaluate things rationally, and see what actions are justified and which aren’t.

But strong emotions like anger make that difficult if not impossible. And that’s why we shouldn’t trust them. And that’s why it’s so scary that so many people not only do trust them, but revel in trusting them … which is precisely what we should never do.

Very, very, very early thoughts on “Cultist Simulator”

October 17, 2018

So, I decided to buy “Cultist Simulator”. While my initial impression of it after reading the description didn’t interest me, I heard later about how the game did good things with narrative and flavour text, and finally read comments on GOG about how the game has things happen and follows the narrative even if you play the game properly — one comment talked about the cultist dying from getting sick not for any real reason other than that sometimes you get sick — and thought that this might be a game that implements my view on there not being bad ends or loss states, but only ends and decided it’d be worth a try just to see. And it would give me something else to talk about on the blog, which is never a bad thing.

Anyway, I bought it, downloaded it, and started playing it just to see what it was like. And I felt overwhelmed with all of the actions and was just placing cards on areas as soon as I could, and mostly was doing that at random and plunking in anything that would work. And then the game crashed. Or, rather, it seems to have made my graphics driver crash. But despite that seeming like a bad thing, it actually improved my view of it, because when I restarted it everything seemed to be frozen when I loaded my save. Was the game screwed up or corrupted? And then I finally noticed that … the game was paused. Which led to another revelation: you can pause the game! I realized, then, that instead of letting it run in real-time what I needed to do was pretty much pause it anytime anything happened. That would let me read the flavour text of the “cards” to get the feel of the narrative that it was building and let me see what each slot on the table was asking for and what each card did so that I wasn’t just trying out everything and seeing what worked, but was instead actually learning how the game worked. This would allow me to not be overwhelmed while still not actually having to fully understand the game to — hopefully — enjoy it.

Given that, this is a game that I need to sit down and spend time analyzing and working with. However, I already have a game that I’m doing that with.. So it’ll have to wait for a couple of weeks at least. But I do think I’ll give the “perma-pause” strategy a try and see if I enjoy the game, and more importantly the semi-random narrative that it can generated.

Back to (old) SF …

October 15, 2018

So I’ve updated my reading list. As you know by now, I’ve finished my third read-through of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, and in addition to that I’ve finished reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” (I’ll comment on that book in the near future). This pretty much clears out my list of historical books that I wanted to read. Thus, I need to decide what I’m going to read next.

I actually have a historical book left to read, about the battle of Waterloo. I picked it up in Chapters recently while browsing for books. But I think I’ve read enough history for a while, and so wanted to do something different. The biggest non-fiction thing on the list is my long, long list of philosophical works that I want to read, but I wasn’t really in the mood for that. I considered just taking a break from trying to get things finished and just read the X-Wing books, but I tend to read those in December and it’s not quite December yet. So I’d still like to try to get something read that I can say that I made progress reading things and to generate content for the blog before taking a break from that with something that is simply pure enjoyment.

So I kinda split the difference. A while ago I went through all of my books and divided them into a number of boxes that contained books that I definitely wanted to read in the near future, books that I might want to read at some point, and books that I would never read again. I have hundreds of books in the first two categories. Among them was a collection of Ben Bova novels, whom I discovered after reading and enjoying his non-fiction work “The High Road”, which talked about using solar power satellites to solve power generation problems. Since I noted the name, I started buying fiction books that he had written. So I have ten of those, and while doing the sorting figured that I should just sit down and read them all at some point. This seemed like a good opportunity to do so. I also decided to finally read “The Mote in God’s Eye” and “The Gripping Hand” that I bought during my rant at the Hugos and and started reading but abandoned because I wanted to read some things just for fun. Since I’m now reading things not just for fun, it seemed like a perfect time to add it to the list and get one more thing accomplished.

I’m treating these like the Sheckley books I read last year: I’m going to read the books and see how well they hold up today and how much I personally enjoy them. The interesting thing is that with the Bova books I might well have read some of them before, but don’t really remember it. I had a tendency to buy books and never get around to reading them (hence some of the Sheckley works, actually). I did this less when I was really young, but more as I got older and had less time to read and more time and money to buy books, and so kept getting distracted by new and old things. Part of that sorting of books was to sort out the books that I should have read at some point but probably never did. So it’ll be interesting to see which of them I remember and which of them I don’t, which wasn’t the case for Sheckley because the only book I remember reading was “The Status Civilization”, and was pretty sure I didn’t read any of the others.

So watch for comments on these to appear in the near future (obviously, these books are easier to read than 1000+ historical texts [grin]).

Thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”

October 12, 2018

So, it took a while, but I did manage to finish reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for the third time. However, this time was interesting because I read it right after reading “The Storm of War”, and I was interested in seeing how I’d feel reading this book immediately after that one. But it worked out really well. “The Storm of War” focused more on the events during and after WWII, while “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” focuses a lot more on the lead up to the war, as one might expect. So while some of their events overlapped, they really complemented each other. In hindsight, it would have been better to read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” first and then read “The Storm of War” to fill in the details of the later parts of the war that Shirer skims over, but it works out pretty well regardless.

For such a heavy book — both in terms of content and in actual weight — “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is a remarkably entertaining and accessible read. Shirer mixes in some personal insights with detailed descriptions of events as well as copious quotes from actual memos and other documents, and yet the book rarely seems dry or technical. Shirer’s writing style works well, and he organizes the book in such a way that, in general, one set of events follow from the previous ones so you really do seem to be just progressing through history. In general, it’s a solid read.

I also recommend that people who are interested in calling other people Nazis read this book, because it gives a detailed yet mostly unbiased view of how Nazis worked and why things turned out the way they did. For example, anyone who wants to insist that one of the main reasons Nazism managed to expand was because they weren’t punched enough will note that violence was a common strategy used by all parties in the elections, and that even though they killed more members of other parties the Nazis at least claimed to have had a significant number of deaths as well. The big differentiator was the control of the media, which had been used against the Nazis until they managed to get enough government power to use those controls against their opponents. It also shows how deeply and how shallowly most Nazis adhered to Nazi values, making things more complicated than they might appear at first. For the most part Shirer avoids psychological explanations for the phenomenon and just outlines what people believed, taken at least in part from his own personal experiences, which makes them extremely valuable.

All in all, it’s a great book, and might be the best historical book that I own. Despite it being over 1000 densely packed pages, it is clear that I will eventually read it again for the fourth time.