Ball

Probably few people who are not professionally invested in the sport of basketball are as excited for the present post-lockout season as I am. I’m going to try and do a writeup of the so-called “offseason” and its ramifications soon, but for now, I just want to say how giddy I am about what’s going on in the league in terms of pure basketball content. Did anyone even know who Norris Cole was until two weeks ago (and also can anyone deny that no mere mortal could possibly be named “Norris Cole”; that a name like “Norris Cole” is only possessed by steely-eyed assassins in spy movies?)? Are you not excited about the possibility of almost literally watching Ricky Rubio *every single night*? Haven’t you missed that remarkable Ray Allen jumper, metronomic in its practiced repeatability?

Paradoxically, the expectation of the season is made all the better for me because I’ve already given up on any notion of success from the teams I follow. I was of course overjoyed with the Mavericks’ title last year and Dirk getting his long-awaited due; now that the team has decided that to substitute the quick-shifting sands of Lamar Odom for the concrete foundation that was Tyson Chandler (and willingly hung the Vince Carter millstone around its neck) it’s pretty clear that there won’t be a repeat, Brian Cardinal non-withstanding. I’ll still watch Steve Nash rack up assists by passing to Markieff Morris, Grant Hill, and Marcin Gortat, but the Suns aren’t a playoff threat to anyone. The Celtics roster is down to something like 3.5 players, and while they’ll probably still drub some bad teams, there’s little doubt in my mind that the Eastern Conference Finals this year will look a lot like they did last year.

So yeah, not caring about how my teams will do makes life a lot more enjoyable; I’ll still pull for them, but I’m much more free to enjoy the weird randomness that the compressed schedule and genuine league-wide chaos are going to offer up. I’m genuinely excited for the Timberwolves this year, and not because of any particular love (hehehe) for the team as such, but just because they’re new and fresh and exciting and they’re coached by Rick Adelman who always strikes me as looking a little bit constipated. I want to see if Mark Jackson knows anything at all about coaching a basketball team and whether the Curry/Ellis tandem can succeed. I’m curious about whether the Heat will finally turn into the unstoppable offensive juggernaut we all know they can actually be. I want to know if the Knicks can win a playoff series (I’m gonna go with a hesitant “yes” on that one). In short, liberated fandom galore.

Of all the sports Americans watch, basketball is by far the most conscious of itself as not just sport but entertainment. Baseball bores me, though I understand that some find it appealing to watch a guy try to hit a ball with a stick for three hours (I am told there is even “strategy” involved, though I’m not sure I believe it). Football lives up to its martial metaphors, with the consequence that intermittent moments of brilliance are frequently obfuscated by the prolonged tedium of a war of attrition. Whoa, that guy just gained two yards, let’s all stop for five minutes and contemplate that! I suppose it’s quite possible to be engrossed in every action that takes place on the football field, but I would hardly call it “entertainment” as such, and generally view it as an occurrence best left running in the background; they’ll show you replays of the good stuff anyway.

But basketball, despite entirely too many foul shots, is dynamic and entertaining. Pretty much every play contains the possibility of watching a human being do something really, really amazing, whether that’s a between-the-legs pass, an alley-oop, or a clever ankle-breaking crossover. Because there are only ten men on the court, you get to see everything that happens so you can follow plays as they unfold. It may be too much to equate basketball completely with explicitly artistic pursuits like ballet, but surely there’s some genuine parallel here that would allow us to appreciate basketball as an aesthetic phenomenon. Since basketball consciously sells itself as entertainment the game invites that kind of analysis. Say what you will about David Stern (and I hatessss him, preciousss), but if there’s one thing you can’t fault the man for, it’s understanding that.

We’re something like 8 games into the season, and it’s turning out to be every bit as great as I’ve expected.

Why Is Your Racist Uncle So Popular?

Following the GOP primary process is an exhausting feat best left to professional masochists. If I ever feel the need to submerge myself in a sea of collective idiocy, I think I’ll head down to one of the clubs on Pittsburgh’s South Side; at least the stupidity there is physically contained instead of being broadcast nationwide. There is exactly one interesting thing about this whole circus, and that’s the attention being garnered (again and still) by Ron Paul. I’m not terribly interested in debating his merits as such; if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you already know my feelings concerning the good doctor, and in any case, you can pretty much peruse any number of sources, from Mr. Destructo’s three-part Vice series to Paul’s own voting record, to figure out why he’s not really an acceptable candidate. What’s interesting to me is why the guy who is basically your racist, homophobic, anti-choice uncle is incredibly popular (especially with people who should know better) and what that says about the generally fucked-up state of our political discourse.

I think there are two major reasons for Paul’s popularity; these reasons are somewhat intertwined, but they involve two separate aspects of Paul’s personality. The first of these is his general on-screen demeanor (as opposed to, say, the shit printed in his newsletters): it can’t be emphasized enough that Paul is essentially the only candidate who doesn’t look like a raving lunatic on stage. He’s always composed, always calm, and always on-message. He doesn’t forget his lines like Perry, he doesn’t have flecks of foam around his mouth like Newt, and he doesn’t look like he’s just adopted whatever stupidity is most recently popular with the Republican base like Romney. It wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if the three aforementioneds engaged in a Muslim baby-eating contest on stage, but Paul comes across as genuinely concerned about the effects of the American war machine on both our diplomatic standing in the world and its effects on actual, living human beings. In a sea of candidates trying to outdo each other in callousness, it’s quite a bizarre sight. I think Paul’s telegenic image and ability to sound like a relatively reasonable human being half the time goes a long way towards explaining his appeal to people who, most likely, would never otherwise consider voting for a Republican, including a fair number of young-uns from my generation.

But there’s another aspect to Paul’s appeal which I think is equally important: it’s his deft use of classic conspiracist thinking. In this way, he’s different in degree if not in kind from the rest of the Republican pack, but the difference is key. Whereas the other candidates tend to focus on fairly traditional conservative bugbears (e.g. liberals, feminists, gays, socialists, elites, Muslims, atheists, and all plausible and implausible permutations of the above), Paul tends to direct his ire towards the Federal Reserve, a seemingly anodyne policy point that nevertheless has gained great traction among a certain libertarian fringe. This would seem to be a weird hill to choose to die on, but it makes sense in the following way: since the Fed is an institution that exists mostly orthogonally to the culture war issues, you don’t end up alienating anyone over a contentious social issue. Feminists aren’t likely to vote for Paul due to his anti-choice views, but there’s nothing in feminism to dispose a person one way or the other on questions of monetary policy, and people whose commitment to reproductive rights isn’t nearly as strong (e.g. a whole lot of dudes) are probably going to be more readily swayed by abstract arguments over the merits of fractional reserve banking. In any case, by keeping the focus on these technical issues and keeping his retrograde views on homosexuality, race, and women behind the scenes, Paul maintains a loose coalition of moonbats obsessed with one particular aspect of American governance that might otherwise be torn apart over social issues.

The reason why the focus on the Fed is such a great example of conspiracism is because it addresses a key psychological need of the people who participate in this kind of magical thinking: the need to feel that you know something special that no one else does. It would typically not occur to any reasonable person to attribute all the ills of the world to a single banking mechanism coupled with a fiat currency. There are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the Federal Reserve, but these criticisms are grounded in accusations that its actions are often seen to be more to the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Still, this is no more a condemnation of fiat currency than the existence of identity theft is a condemnation of having bank accounts. It is precisely because these views are counterintuitive that they are so attractive to conspiracists. After all, if the answer were obvious, then others would have probably figured it out by now, but this way, the conspiracists feel as though they possess a sort special knowledge that others do not (witness how often Paul’s defenders drop “sheeple” or any of its variants in [online] discussion). I think this is a huge part of what attracts people to Paul, despite the fact that it doesn’t happen to be accurate in the slightest.

Doubtless many will protest that I have failed to mention Paul’s anti-war views or his views on the drug war as reasons to support him. I certainly support the positions he takes on those subjects, but I don’t think these things alone can quite account for the depth of his support. After all, there are presumably plenty of people who could be found to run on those positions on, say, the Libertarian ticket, who have neither Paul’s history of noxious racism nor his gold-bug tendencies. I’m sure Reason could come up with more than a few such candidates, some of whom might even try their hand at the Republican primaries (as, indeed, Gary Johnson has done). I don’t believe it’s coincidental that the strongest support is going to the candidate of the conspiracist fringe. When confronted with the disastrous methodology for accomplishing his stated goals (End the drug war… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. End the war on terror… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT), Paul’s supporters are apt to engage in dismal mental contortions that involve a careful explanation of why Paul will be able to, as president, accomplish exactly those things that you like about him and none of those things that you don’t like. The cult of personal infallibility, the invention of just-so stories and ad hoc explanations for any and all criticisms, and the all-encompassing nature of the theory of Ron Paul governance are all classic signatures of magical thinking that brooks no counterexamples, a technique which puts at its users disposal an explanation for virtually all aspects of politics in digestible form.

Nevertheless, Paul’s candidacy is terribly important in one way, and that simply has to do with what it says about the liberal/progressive wing of the electorate. It should be both stunning and embarassing to liberals that the one guy who actually seems genuinely opposed to American militarism is vying for the presidential nomination from the party that practically has “bombing brown people” as one of its platform planks. Over at Naked Capitalism, Matt Stoller has written up an interesting piece about the challenge that Paul presents to liberals, but while I think his main thesis is correct (well, the challenge part is), his details are wrong. Stoller alleges that Paul attacks liberal thought by focusing on the nexus between central banking and war financing, but this really isn’t a problem for any liberal at all, unless one mistakently believes that wars didn’t happen on the gold standard. The truth, I think, is much, much simpler: Paul presents a challenge because it’s embarassing that liberals have not been able to field a genuinely anti-(terror/drug)-war candidate who doesn’t come with a horrible social platform and thinks that the solution to all ills is to shatter the country into small pieces. There were people (myself included) who thought that Barack Obama could be that candidate, but… well, you can see how that worked out.

That is the real challenge that Paul presents to liberals: the existence of his candidacy exposes the complete failure of Democratic Party politics to produce anything like the stated goals of the liberals who routinely cast votes for that party. Paul is riding a wave of disaffection with the standard political narratives by offering a conspiracist alternative that aims to explain every aspect of politcs via a simple (and obviously incorrect) theory. The fact that he is able to do this by advocating anti-war positions should be taken by all liberals as a direct condemnation of our failed politics and of our failed expectations of our own (alleged) ideological allies. If anything, Paul is a hell of a lot braver than any Democratic presidential candidate of the last 12 years: he’s willing to take his viewpoint to an obviously hostile constituency, while virtually every Democratic aspirant to the Oval Office has been competing with their party-mates to see how many hippies they could throw under the bus.

I’m not voting for Ron Paul; he sucks, even if he’s right about some things, even some very important things. But a lot of liberals should think about how it came about that the only person willing to say something even remotely sensible about our foreign adventures is doing so in ideological opposition to virtually his entire party. And how it came to be that our own (supposed) political allies can’t muster a tenth of that kind of spine, and may not even want to do so.

In Which A Considered Judgment Is Rendered

It is seemingly obligatory in any discussion of Skyrim, the fifth installment in Bethesda Softworks’ Elder Scrolls series, to mention the game’s scope. There’s a good reason for this: Skyrim is truly colossal in every sense in which a video game can be so. There are numbers out there suggesting that Skyrim is not, in terms of virtual hectares, the largest of the Elder Scrolls games, but it’s hard to deny that it feels larger than any of its predecessors (especially if you have the privilege of playing the game on a large-screen TV). When you step outside, the land stretches in every direction before you. Foreboding mountains loom on the horizon, and the sky changes with the weather, sometimes dark with rain and other times radiant with sunlight. The game’s dungeons are artistic masterworks; one almost gasps the first time one enters a gigantic underground cavern or sees the full majesty of a ruined Dwemer city revealed (in fact, your character’s companions will gasp in just this way). In its atmospheric qualities, Skyrim is unmatched by any other game, or probably, any other virtual production at all. It’s not really any exaggeration to say that no world of this scale that feels this real exists anywhere else.

In addition to its size and detail, the world of Skyrim improves on that of its predecessor, Oblivion, by harking back to its grandparent, Morrowind. Morrowind was not nearly as pretty or detailed as Skyrim is (for lack of technical capability, one assumes, rather than desire on the part of the design team), but its aesthetic was dark, threatening, and engrossing. In Morrowind, storms could kick up clouds of dust that reduced visibility, and the entire countryside appeared perpetually drab, lending background gravity to a plotline concerned with the resurrection of a dead god (or… something; my memory of Morrowind’s plot is somewhat hazy and all I recall is that you would end up being something called the Nerevarrine). By contrast, Oblivion, with its painstakingly detailed blades of grass, looked a little too happy a place, what with the possible end of the world on the horizon. Even the plane of Oblivion itself was a little too bright; only its brightness was of a red sort, which I suppose was intended to connote some sort of evil. In its visuals and aesthetics, Skyrim is closer to Morrowind’s spirit, coupled with superlative realization, and this is for the better.

The size and look of this world, remarkable as it is, nevertheless fades into the background relatively quickly as one progresses through the game. To be sure, staggeringly beautiful scenes are encountered throughout the game, but they cannot sustain a 50-hour (and that, I think, is on the low side of how much time people will, on average, sink into Skyrim) adventure. For that, you must rely on the narratives of the main and secondary quests, and on the gameplay. I suspect that, at least on the first front, few will be disappointed (notable exceptions include Grantland’s Tom Bissell, who found the game’s social world tedious). The social detail within Skyrim is at least a match for the physical detail. If you are so inclined, you can join an incipient native rebellion, or team up with the Imperial occupiers to suppress it; the rebels themselves display casual, open racism towards those who diverge from their cause or happen to have the wrong color skin, a detail I mention to highlight how much work has obviously gone into a realistic rendering of social interaction. You can clear out bandit camps for a bounty, hunt down dragons and harvest their souls (a key game mechanic), join societies dedicated to either magic, combat, or theft, run errands for nobles, purchase houses, assist in piracy, and run any number of other random errands. What is remarkable is how natural all of this feels within the context of the game-world; true, many of the quests are of the “go there, fetch that” variety, but cloaked within a series of interactions with NPCs so they become miniature stories within themselves whose completion you play out. The Daedric quests are the best of all of these, in my view, all the more so because they usually end up yielding quite powerful artifacts.

All in all, there is no shortage of things to do in Skyrim. The main quest, as compared to Morrowind, turns out to be rather disappointingly thin, and the punchline (you are the Dragonborn, surprise!) is given away pretty early (you had to work for the punchline in Morrowind, and Oblivion didn’t really have one), but that’s ok because most of the time you’re going to be doing something other than following the main narrative’s path anyway. As you travel Skyrim, various ruined forts, caves, towers, villages, camps, and other habitations reveal themselves to you, and it’s usually great fun to take a detour into a nearby cave to look for goodies or level up, especially in the early stages of the game. Skyrim’s level system operates on the ingenious “getting better at what you do” principle, whereby advancement is secured by improving one’s skills; no formal class is selected. So, if you want to become a better fighter, you pick up a sword and go at it; if you want to hone your magic skills, grab a few spells and go nuts. In addition to the standard fighter/mage/thief skillsets, there are a few “minor” skills, such as smithing and alchemy (more on those later), and level advancement provides perks that unlock additional abilities with the skill tree. Overall, the system captures most of the complexity of the previous Elder Scrolls games without turning the player into a micromanager, and this strikes me as an excellent balance between complete simplicity and the level of detail involved in games based around the D&D system.

Thus far, it’s all been praise, but Skyrim has warts that don’t become obvious until well into the game. Perhaps the most serious complaint that I have has to do with the realism of the physical landscape, not just in appearance but in interaction. As I mentioned before, Skyrim’s social world is ridiculously well-developed (and despite the meme about taking an arrow to the knee currently going around the Internet, it’s also incredibly well-acted by the voice actors), but its physical world, though stunning in its beauty, often feels quite literally skin-deep. An example: Skyrim features several large rivers and other bodies of water, but upon close examination, virtually all of them are revealed to be merely waist-deep. That’s right: you can more or less walk through most of Skyrim’s waterways, a fact which feels genuinely weird considering that dungeons in Skyrim can often feel a mile deep. Practically the only place where deep water is encountered on a regular basis is in the north (though somehow frolicking in Arctic seas results in no negative effects to the character’s health).

Skyrim may be beautiful, but getting around it can be a real pain in the ass. The aforementioned rivers appear navigable (e.g. docks will have ships moored in them) but there is no mechanic to sail a boat down the river. And that’s a real shame, because oftentimes to get from point A to point B, Skyrim will force you to take a long and seriously inconvenient route; it’s almost as if the developers felt that you wouldn’t appreciate the world unless you were compelled to travel the scenic way. Once a place is discovered, you can always fast-travel there, which is great, but often you will find yourself needing to cover what appears to be a short distance on the map, only to learn that in order to do this you have to follow a serpentine path across some mountains. It’s hard to see why you shouldn’t be able to sail up and down the river if you like (although this would be hard to do if the river is three feet deep), and it would certainly facilitate exploration early on. You can speed up your locomotion somewhat by purchasing a horse, but despite years of advanced engineering (and the existence of such excellent examples as the Assassin’s Creed games) Bethesda has apparently yet to solve the complicated problem of horse-mounted combat. Seriously, how hard can this be? If you encounter enemies while mounted, prepare to dismount and fight; also prepare for your idiot horse to attack them randomly and get itself killed. Once my first horse bought it in an otherwise unremarkable encounter with some bandits, leaving me a thousand gold pieces poorer after scarcely a few hours (real time) of exploitation, I decided I’d had it with pack animals. I can imagine they might be useful if you’re harvesting Dwemer metal (it tends to be pretty heavy) but other than that, horses are a useless extravagance, looking as if they were added in an afterthought rather than as integral parts of the game.

The mountains of Skyrim are equally frustrating. In more than one case, reaching some spot that you’re trying to get to will involve negotiating a complicated mountain path. Fortunately the Clairvoyance spell will point the way for you, but it’s irritating to have to run around zapping the spell every few seconds to see the next leg of your journey (and more on this: why is there no minimap on which Clairvoyance could draw your path, having it last for, say, a minute? I realize that minimaps might break the realism a little, but that seems like a small price to pay for being able to tell where you’re going). When a mountain gets in your way, you can do nothing but walk around it; in most cases, jumping up the rocks just won’t work. I frequently found myself bemoaning the lack of a climbing mechanic within Skyrim. What would it have hurt to allow the player to scale mountains via some kind of mountaineering skill (let’s say, if your skill is too low, you could fall to your death in a storm or something). As far as I can tell, the mountains never actually render any part of the map inaccessible; they only make access to it all that much more irritating.

I also found Skyrim’s smithing system to be flawed, at best. For example, there exist something like 10 different types of ore in Skyrim, which can be combined in various ways to produce various ingots, which only then can be used to upgrade weapons and armor. Furthermore, the ore itself can only be obtained from mines (or finding it in dungeons), and in those mines you actually have to… mine it? I don’t get it; who thought Skyrim was supposed to be an ore mining simulator? Once I realized the level of complexity involved in upgrading even simple objects, I simply gave up trying to do it. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the system didn’t present one of the best prospects for upgrading your equipment when playing a warrior character; for some reason, you can’t pay other smiths in the game to upgrade your stuff for you. Nor can you break down any of the stuff you find in the world into its base components, i.e. melt down steel plate you don’t need into steel ingots. It’s hard to see what all this complexity adds to the game other than forcing you to roam the world, scavenging ore and ingots if you want to upgrade anything. And the steep learning curve of the smithing skill tree makes the skill itself even harder to use, since you need to be at a very high proficiency level before you can do anything really interesting. You can, of course, get there by simply grinding out levels (one way is to scavenge all scrap metal from Dwemer ruins, melt it down for ingots, and then forge stuff with it) but that’s a pretty boring thing to do; it would be much better if the process of gaining smithing knowledge were part of an organic development in the same way that the fighting and magic skills are.

Elder Scrolls afficionados will be unsurprised to find that Skyrim, like its predecessors, is full of clutter. Every imaginable thing you can think of can be picked up, even if no good use can be made of most of them. It’s a weird sort of realism, in light of the aforementioned inability to cannibalize items for raw materials (a mechanic featured, by the way, in the underrated Two Worlds II), to find an infinity of weapons lying around everywhere you go. In one way, this adds to the atmosphere of the dungeons (of course a bandit hideout would be replete with weapons caches) but at times this abundance feels overwhelming. At the same time, good items seem to come along relatively infrequently (it seems that their appearance correlates with level), and as a result, I finished the main storyline with armor and weapons acquired about halfway through. There’s enough weaponry lying about in Skyrim to arm a world ten times its size, but you can’t do much with any of it because it’s all crap.

And speaking of populations, this is the one way in which Skyrim geuninely felt small to me. The cities of Morrowind may not have been as visually imposing, but even a tiny backwater like Balmora seemed, well, populated, to say nothing of a capital city like Vivec. In Skyrim, even the relatively cosmopolitan centers of Solitude and Whiterun feel like they’ve got about half of the population they ought to have. The landscape is dotted with little farms and inns, but the farms are run by lonely individuals and the inns have only a few regulars in them. In fact, half of the population of Skyrim appears to be made up of guards of one kind or another who patrol the deserted streets of its cities. It is, again, strange for a game that put so much emphasis on social realism to leave out so much of what makes the social real, the people.

That incidentally brings us to money, which is another weird aspect of Skyrim. I realize that replicating economic reality was probably not high on Bethesda’s list of things to do, but the end result is a world in which money just doesn’t seem to have much currency. What can you do with gold in Skyrim? Well, you could purchase equipment in the stores, but that turns out to be pointless because you will do much better just by canvassing dungeons or fulfilling quests, especially Daedric ones. For horses, see above. You can buy property in the game, which is kind of cool, but unless you’d like to feel like you’re playing Landlord Mogul, there’s not much reason to buy anything beyond one, or maybe two houses. The only real uses for money in Skyrim that I found was to purchase training and to bribe people to do things you want them to do (unlike in Morrowind, where you would make a bribe to affect a character’s disposition towards you and then try talking to them, in Skyrim you just select the bribe option and it works every time). You can accrue stupid amounts of money from completing quests and looting bodies, but for whatever reason it seems damn near impossible to get any serious amounts by selling to shopowners, as they will run out of cash well before you run out of stuff to sell. In an ironically realistic twist, their money supplies might not recover for days, by which time you’ll have rustled up even more stuff to get rid of. You can conceivably solve this problem by traveling to various cities and selling to multiple traders, but this is tedious and also unnecessary; I just ended up stashing all my treasures in a chest in my house.

Skyrim’s combat system is, in my view, weak. It’s been lauded as an improvement over Morrowind and Oblivion, but the improvement is largely in the feel of the thing, not anything substantial. True, time-based shield blocking has been introduced, but it’s quirky and often doesn’t work right; other than that, the basic elements were all present in Morrowind (the archery mechanic has been slightly altered but the main pieces are all still there). Combat is usually best conducted in the first person, but even then it can be very cumbersome. There is no way to lock on to a single enemy, and it’s easy to mistarget and end up swinging at the wall while your opponents hack you from behind. Don’t even think about doding; you can strafe to avoid projectiles, magical and otherwise (although opposing mages are unbelievably accurate) but try and get out of the way of a dragon’s breath attack, and you’ll find you just can’t, especially if it’s a frost attack (which slows you down). Fighting has a pretty satisfying crunch in Skyrim (at higher levels, attacks can result in critical hits and pretty slick-looking fatality moves) and that gives it enough oomph to keep things fun, but the system as a whole is clearly inferior, requiring nothing more than button-mashing for success. Again, it’s a strange sort of realism that puts a multitude of weapons at the player’s disposal but makes it mostly boring to use any of them. As before, I want to point to the Assassin’s Creed games (especially ACII) as an example of a system that gets this right: in ACII, I never felt like the fights were boring or perfunctory, and I always had some tricks at my disposal, whereas in Skyrim, after a while every fight feels identical. The little-known-but-beloved-by-me Blade of Darkness (also called Severance: Blade of Darkness) also got this right way back in 2001 or so, with a combo-based combat and dodging system that allowed you to hack off your opponents’ limbs. It’s not clear why Skyrim couldn’t have borrowed, conceptually, from something like AC; true, it would have compromised the first-person experience a bit, but I think that would have been an acceptable tradeoff for a fighting system that actually feels real.

Throughout the hours (don’t ask how many) I spent playing Skyrim, the overwhelming impression that emerged was that of a world exquisitely designed, but poorly planned. Skyrim is gorgeous and breathtaking, but when it comes to interacting with its world, the options are surprisingly limited. What good is it to me that I can pick up any object in the game when I don’t want to do anything with any of them? What use magic items harvested from dungeons that are too weak to use (because I already have something better) but too expensive to sell? Yes, upgrading my one-handed sword attacks certainly improves the chance of decapitating my enemies, but why can I not also dodge out of the way of their attacks? Why does my horse have tapioca for brains? It’s frustrating inconsistencies like that disrupt the truly remarkable immersive experience provided by Skyrim’s landscape and people.

I compared Skyrim several times to the Assassin’s Creed series, and I think that comparison bears elaborating. The AC games are linear rather than sandbox, so their social world is substantially less detailed (the story is told in cutscenes anyway and actual interactive dialogue is nonexistent), but the physical world of AC overflows with just the right kind of detail. The virtual Florence of ACII is not just a remarkable reconstruction of the real thing, but it also feels like it. Its streets throng with townspeople, merchants, and guards. Sure, they’re just milling about, if you look at them closely, but in the end, so are the people of Skyrim. You’ll never look at any particular person in the game twice anyway, because the virtual Florentines are anonymous and are there for atmospheric purposes (that and to get in your way when you’re trying to evade the guards). In any case, they give the impression of an inhabited town in whose affairs Ezio’s quest is a minor blip; by contrast, the cities of Skyrim feel half-abandoned and no one looks like they have anything better to do than unload their problems on you.

Likewise, the physical interactions of AC are far more logical than those of Skyrim. The most obvious one is the ability to climb buildings (which of course pretty much the whole premise of the AC games) but in general the whole physical model of the AC world is far better developed than its Skyrim equivalent. Why doesn’t Skyrim have a climbing mechanic? Developing such a thing was clearly not part of Bethesda’s plan, but it would have made for a much more satisfying experience, and it’s not clear that anything else that Bethesda prides itself on (the social immersivity, the role playing aspects, etc.) would have been negatively impacted. Likewise the AC combat mechanic (especially in ACII and its sequels) is well-thought out, providing you with just enough tricks to make it fun while maintaining a decidedly visceral feel, especially on fatal strikes. From where I sit, such a mechanic would have only improved Skyrim by rendering the combat a physical reality instead of mostly a reflection of the character’s numerical stats.

It seems clear that Bethesda doesn’t terribly care about doing this, and it’s in some way to their credit that they’ve created a game that is so much fun to play despite lacking what I think are really key aspects of character-world physical interaction. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that Skyrim wouldn’t be improved if less time was spent on elaborate dungeon layouts and lore composition (in this I am in agreement with Bissell) and more time was spent thinking about what affordances the world should provide to the players. All these things nonwithstanding, Skyrim is still a great game. You’ll still (if you’re any kind of RPG fan at all) sink countless hours into it because it’s just that big and that fun. If I criticize, it is because I love, because I would go absolutely bonkers over a game that combined the size and elaborate construction of Skyrim with the physical model of something like AC. Whether Bethesda or some other game maker will ever realize my dream remains to be seen, but I think the results of such a meld would be phenomenal. If anyone from Bethesda happens to read this (ha!) and wants to get my input for their next project, you know where to find me.

Christopher Hitchens memorial linkfest

I don’t know if you all heard this, but apparently Christopher Hitchens died. I know, totes unexpected. A lot of people have written a lot of things about that, aparently, so I’ve collected some of those things here for perusal and edification.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/12/16/farewell-to-c-h/

http://nplusonemag.com/Hitch-Obit

http://articles.latimes.com/2001/may/20/books/bk-144

http://crookedtimber.org/2011/12/17/even-though-hating-mother-teresa-was-great/

http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/09/10/hitchens-as-model-apostate/

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/blog/arguing-hitchens/

http://coreyrobin.com/2011/12/16/christopher-hitchens-the-most-provincial-spirit-of-all/

http://coreyrobin.com/2011/12/18/yes-but-more-on-hitchens-and-hagiography/

http://www.businessinsider.com/regarding-christopher-hitchens-2011-12

blah blah Kim Kardashian blahdy blah

Dear everyone:

Can we all shut up about Kim Kardashian’s divorce for a second? Here’s the deal: Kim Kardashian is a free woman in a free country. She’s free to get married and/or divorced because she feels like it, or because she thought it was a good idea, or as a publicity stunt, or FOR ANY REASON AT ALL WHATSOEVER. Yeah, ok, it’s a publicity stunt. But so what? Number one, the joke is on you because you paid attention. Number two, I am so fucking tired of hearing BLAH BLAH SANCTITY OF MARRIAGE SMIRK. Well, ok, conservatives have been riding that pony since forever and certainly won’t stop on my say-so. But liberals should know better, and yet inevitably otherwise well-meaning people will trot out this horrible HOW CAN YOU NOT LET GAYS MARRY WHEN KIM KARDASHIAN BLARGLE FLARGLE.

Let’s get something straight (no pun intended): marriage, for everyone, is a civil fucking right. The case for allowing everyone to marry the person they love does not depend on whether or not Kim Kardashian lives up to your stringent standards of what constitutes a valid marriage. Going on about marriage sanctity makes you sound like a self-righteous dick with no legitimate case for self-righteous dickery. Marriage is not sacred; it’s a civil institution and people are free to take advantage of it as they see fit. If Kim Kardashian wants to be married for 72 days, well, shit, that’s her prerogative, and I’ll defend her right to do so even as I implore everyone to stop paying attention to her silly antics.

POSTSCRIPT: Just in case it’s not clear (due to departure from my usually overly prolix style) this isn’t about LEAVE KIM ALONE, it’s about STOP BUYING INTO CONSERVATIVE FRAMES ON MARRIAGE.

Getting it mostly right and completely wrong

Lots of people seem to either like or hate Chuck Klosterman. As someone who never particularly formed any opinions regarding the guy, I’m happy to continue in my unwavering agnosticism towards his writing. But I am interested in a particular piece he wrote this week for Grantland, reviewing Lulu, the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration based, apparently, on the Wedekind play of the same name.

Let that sink in for a minute. Lou Reed, who is old as dirt, and Metallica, who are only slightly younger and haven’t done anything of significance in a decade, have combined forces to put out an album which takes its theme from a play about the sexual mores of Wilhelmine Germany. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG WITH THIS SCENARIO?!

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “everything.” From Klosterman’s extremely funny review, I gather that the result is about as unpalatable as one could possibly expect. Klosterman spends a lot of time on the awfulness of Lulu, which seems totally appropriate, but it’s towards the end that his article goes off the rails and into some really problematic territory (how you like them mixed metaphors?).

See, the problem for Klosterman is that it seems to be causing him to re-evaluate his stand towards the collapse of the record industry (or if it’s not the catalyst, it at least seems to be a contributing factor). Klosterman’s allegation is that if we still lived in the 1992 where the record labels ran the show, something like Lulu would never exist. Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether this is even true; I would argue that the music industry has made its share of terrible decisions throughout its existence, and the only reason Klosterman thinks this is that he’s suffering from a common sort of cognitive bias where he only remembers the good stuff from the 90s. In the penultimate paragraph, Klosterman praises the concept, writing that “I’m glad Metallica and Reed tried this, if only because I’m always a fan of bad ideas.” He concludes:

The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don’t care if anyone else enjoys it. Now, here again — if viewed in a vacuum — that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

Klosterman doesn’t come out and say it outright, but the implication of his last two paragraphs is that he thinks that this is a problem; that the actual realization of Lulu, while based on an admirable concept, is a mistake. With this, I beg to differ.

It has been my fervent belief for many years now that the most interesting of our cultural debris is the weird stuff. And not just the weird stuff, but the stuff that’s so divorced from any plausible standard of aesthetic quality that one struggles to comprehend how it even came to be. If I asked you to imagine Lulu, you couldn’t do it; you would either wind up with some forced Pynchonesque, or something far more mundane than actually happened. The fact that Lulu exists at all, the fact that we live in an environment which makes it possible, is, to me anyway, extremely important. Not because I would actually listen to Lulu (because I’m lazy enough as it is, and I refuse to expend cognitive effort to merely enjoy something ironically) but because its existence means that even in the stodgiest, most regulated corners of the cultural space, there exists an opportunity to do something mind-bogglingly stupid. And mind-boggling stupidity, especially produced in this way, is hilarious.

Failure is as much of an art as success, although typically success is achieved by consciously creating something of value, whereas artistic failure is something generally lucked into: either by dint of overreaching on the basis of your previous achievements (e.g. Lulu) or by being hilariously awful (e.g. Plan 9 From Outer Space, although honestly I never found it to be nearly as cringe-inducing as its defenders claim). The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were a hardwood masterpiece made flesh, a team that won an astounding 72 games; the 2009-2010 New Jersey Nets were a hilarious embarrasment to the league, winning a mere 12. Sure, you’d rather watch the Jordan Bulls play (assuming you’re a neutral) but as a narrative, isn’t the Nets’ despair infinitely more compelling? After all, you already know a team like the Bulls is destined for a ring, but the Nets, right up until the end of the season, had the potential for badness of historical proportions (that they fell just short of that is disappointing in its own right, although they did set the historical mark for worst start to the season with 19 straight losses). I cared nothing for the Nets, but couldn’t help checking their results every morning just to see if the lows they’d fallen to would go even lower (further bizzaritude: of the three wins that kept New Jersey from tying for the worst-ever season, one was a win on the road against eventual finalists the Boston Celtics, and two more came in double-overtime wins against the Bulls and the Miami Heat, both playoff teams). Were not the historically abominable Detroit Lions far more interesting than if they’d gone 4-12? Of course they were, and you know it.

The same thing holds for artistic endeavors as much as athletic ones (though in truth the lines between the two are blurry). Is not the existence of a film such as Howard the Duck irrefutable proof of the non-existence of God? In what kind of just world would it be possible for the profoundly schizophrenic Hudson Hawk (which seems to begin as a relatively unremarkable action/heist film, and yet goes on to contain a scene in which a little girl in a museum is told “You’re a disgrace to your country!” in a scene which has only the remotest contextual relevance to the plot) to exist? Only in a world in which it was possible for someone to take Bruce Willis seriously as a screenwriter.

These various failures are like a sort of Ozymandias lining our cultural highways: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. They are, by and large, fascinating examples of people trying out completely preposterous, downright stupid ideas, and winding up with colossal failure that demands appreciation on an aesthetic level. Studied competence is a quality we demand from doctors and civil servants; our artistic products, to be interesting, should be either transcendentally successful, or implausibly horrid. Edgar Bulwer-Lytton (he of the much-and-unjustly-malgined “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, an opening sentence about as unremarkable as they get), towards the end of his life, concocted an absurd proto-science-fiction story about a subterranean race that thrived on a mysterious form of energy. The novel apparently caused a minor mania, becoming an obsession of Theosophists and people who thought Atlantis was real, as it was taken as a veridical description of reality; can anything remotely similarly fascinating be said about one of Hardy’s ponderous chronicles of English peasant life or the interminably dull regional fiction of a Sarah Orne Jewett? Sure, Bulwer-Lytton is considered to have failed aesthetically, but he failed in such a spectacular fashion that you can’t help but admire the audacity.

The best of our aesthetic artifacts share this kind of demented energy with the worst; they contain sparks (or even full-blown fires) of something crazy, something you won’t see if all you shoot for is competence. Metallica producing a competent, or even relatively good (say, on par with the Black Album) record would not arouse the slightest curiosity, but Metallica teaming up with Lou Reed to adapt Wedekind is a fascinating, not even but especially since it’s so disastrous. Klosterman is wrong to be filled with (admittedly limited) nostalgia for the world of record label control; the fact that the destruction of that world allowed something like Lulu to be created is direct evidence that we’re better off without it.

how do i awarded prize

I don’t know when I stopped paying attention to the National Book Awards because I’m not sure I ever paid attention to them in the first place. I suppose “National Book Award Winner” is some additional motivation for acquiring reading material, but it ranks pretty low on the list of criteria that I care to look at when making my decisions. Does anyone outside the publishing industry really care that much about them?

One person who does care about the awards is Laura Miller, Salon‘s book critic. And a few weeks ago, she published in Salon what I think is a really bizarre analysis of this year’s slate of nominees. Before I start in, I just want to say that I haven’t read any of the books up for the award this year nor do I have any opinion whatsoever regarding their quality or lack thereof. My reaction here is solely to Miller’s confusing and poorly-reasoned article. Take it away, Miller:

Over the next day or two, expect to see observers pointing out the absence of two widely praised fall novels — “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides — and the fact that four of the five shortlisted titles are by women. (Those with longer memories will hearken back to the much-discussed all-female short list of 2004.) However, two prominent new novels by women, Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” and Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” were passed over, as well.

Again, maybe The Marriage Plot (book titles in italics, damn it!) belongs on the list of nominees. I have been hearing great things about it. But it’s not clear to me why the fact that four of the five novels are by women needs explaining. Miller seems to think it does, but if it does, she doesn’t explain it, and if it doesn’t, why bother mentioning it? It’s a weird “some people might say X” formulation without bothering to check if X is important or relevant in any way. It’s also not clear whether “prominent” is supposed to mean “good” in this paragraph. Are the novels by Patchett and Waldman any good? I have no idea, and it would seem to be at least concomitant with a book critics responsibility to inform her readers regarding their quality.

Although the judges for the NBAs change every year, the sense that the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public is eternal. (One notable recent exception: the selection of Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” as the winner two years ago.) The press, assuming that the amount of media coverage a novel gets is a reliable indicator of its merit, expresses bafflement. The judges, if they respond at all, defend their choices as simply the best books submitted.

There’s a “sense” here of something, but Miller is so thin on evidence that it’s impossible to tell whether that sense is actually supported by anything that transpires in the world. Who is “the press” in this context? Is it book critics like Miller, who, presumably, have the capacity to make independent evaluations of the various books out there? Or is it someone else? I read “the press” every day, and so far as I can tell, no one outside the actual circle of literary reviewers seems to devote any real time or energy to writing about books. The one article per year in the arts section about who won what prize might count as “press,” I suppose, but that’s almost always just straight reporting (see the Times article about the awards from last year). There’s no real “bafflement” on evidence. As one might expect, the judges don’t really feel obligated to justify themselves to “the press” (or in any case they shouldn’t), but with regard to their (supposed, Miller gives no evidence for this) defense of their choisces as “simply the best books submitted,” Miller asserts,

Neither view is entirely persuasive.

Why is Miller unpersuaded of this? It remains a mystery because she doesn’t say. What she does say is,

While it’s certainly true that celebrated novels are not necessarily good, it’s also true that they aren’t necessarily bad, either.

Wait, what? What is the argument here, exactly? Celebrated novels aren’t necessarily bad, therefore… more celebrated novels should be picked? How is that in any way contradictory to the judges’ (imagined by Miller) defense of their choices? If I tell you that Book X is better than Book Y, that doesn’t mean Book Y is trash; it just means that I think Book X is better and should… I don’t know, win a prize or something? The bafflement here is all Miller-generated.

Whatever policy each panel of judges embraces, over the years, the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention. The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of “writer’s writers,” authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside.

“The impression has arisen that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.” I mean, is there some evidence for this impression? Is this all a play being staged within the Cartesian theater of Miller’s mind? Who knows?! But even if this “impression” is accurate, what of it? Given several novels of putatively equal quality, there’s nothing wrong with giving the award to the less successful novel on the grounds that the bestseller doesn’t need the exposure. Why not promote a “writer’s writer” who might also become a reader’s writer? Miller seems to think that this is a problem, but it’s not clear what the problem actually is. Miller seems to think that “the reading public has… proven recalcitrant” to picking up these books, and offers this gem:

If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with. This is especially common when the nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.

I don’t know if Miller (unlike me) actually intends to insult the reading public, but this has got to be the most backhanded compliment ever. Hey reading public: Laura Miller thinks you’re too stupid for a poetic prose style!

And what the fuck is a “professional reader?” I mean, I know what the answer is: it’s a book critic. But that’s a really dumb and insulting way of phrasing things. Because here’s the thing: either the “reading public” actually consists of literate people capable of forming their own opinions about books and working their way through challenging literature (in which case they aren’t likely to complain about it in the first place, so why is Miller doing it for them?) or the reading public is a bunch of children who get put off by such oh-so-complicated literary innovations as… a poetic prose style! or elliptical and fragmented storytelling! in which case, fuck the reading public. I don’t ask a buch of 15-year olds about their literary opinions, because their literary opinions are shit; they probably think Ender’s Game is the apogee of the literary canon. If that’s the level of the American reading public’s opinions, then to hell with their opinions.

What’s really, really awful about this is that in the next paragraph Miller basically undermines her entire thesis:

If outsiders fail to sympathize with the judges’ perspective, the judges often have a distorted sense of the role literature plays in the lives of ordinary readers. People who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that) want to make sure that they’re reading something significant. Chances are they barely notice media coverage of books — certainly not enough to see some titles as “overexposed” — and instead rely on personal recommendations, bookstore browsing and Amazon rankings.

So let’s look back on the path of this argument: there’s a “sense” or possibly an “impression” that the awards are somehow hostile to ordinary readers, who actually don’t follow press coverage (so where does this “sense” come from?) and want to read “something significant” in their limited spare time. Ok, ordinary readers, well, we’ve convened this panel of critics to hand out an “award” to the best “book” published “nationally” this year. What’s that? You’d rather make your selection from Amazon rankings? Uh, go fuck yourselves.

Jesus Christ, I know that critics don’t always get it right and all that, but if you really care about reading the one or two most important books of the year, you could do a lot worse than consult a group of people who read books for a living. Which in fact Miller acknowledges, if somewhat obliquely and reluctantly:

Prizes are one part of this mix, if an influential one, and the public mostly wants the major awards to help them sort out the most important books of the year, not to point them toward overlooked gems with a specialized appeal.

Simple logic, people: an “overlooked gem” can in fact be one of the most important books of the year. The word “important” is doing a lot of work in this sentence; it’s being used as a sort of code for “popular.” The prize panel is telling you, “read this book, because we think it’s great,” not “read this book because it will flatter your own limited capacity for aesthetic appreciation.”

All this reminds me of a joke that was popular among Russian Jews. So two Jews meet and are talking about their lives and one of them says, “Hey, are you going to see the new production of Aida?” and the other one says, “Nah, my friend sang it to me over the phone, and it sounded terrible!”

It wouldn’t be any fun if Miller’s incoherent article didn’t conclude with a “Fuck you, Dad! I won’t do what you tell me!”

For these reasons, the National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach. Like the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, awarded by librarians, the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.

Ok, number-fucking-one: the next asshole who insults vegetables should have their fingers broken so they can never type this bullshit again. Seriously, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are:

1. Delicious
2. Good for you

This is entirely analogous to when conservative man-children throw fits about the promotion of nutrition in schools; if it ain’t meat and potatoes, it’s socialism. That’s some good company you’re keeping there, Laura Miller. I’m gonna go out on a limb here: if the most creative food you can imagine consuming can be obtained at Steak ‘n Shake, you probably have horrible taste in food. Analogously, if the most sophisticated literature you’re capable of consuming involves nothing more complex than droning monosyllables, you probably have horrible taste in literature and shouldn’t be listened to in discussions concerning the same.

Yes, the NBA (hehe) indicates a book that “somebody else thinks you ought to read.” That is the whole point of the fucking award! That’s how literary awards work! Someone reads a bunch of books, then picks the one that they think is best, and then says, “We think this book is the bees’ knees! You should read it!” Apparently in Miller-world, awards are supposed to just reinforce the pre-existing prejudices of the reader; their job would seem to be to say, “Hey, you’re doing good!” even if what you’re really doing is drooling all over yourself.

The coup de grace is the “proof by childhood reminiscence”:

As a kid, after several such medicinal reading experiences (“… And Now Miguel” by Joseph Krumgold was a particular chore to get through), I took to avoiding books with that gold Newbery badge stamped on their covers. If it weren’t for a desperate lack of alternatives one afternoon, I’d never have resorted to E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” which became one of my favorites. Today’s adult readers, with millions of titles a mere click away, are unlikely to find themselves in such straits.

That’s fucking right: Laura Miller got so tired of reading all that shit that librarians want you to read so much that they give it a Newberry Award that she went out and read… 1968 Newberry Award-winning book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. You can’t make this shit up.

I am shocked, shocked to find that libertarians are misogynistic assholes!

I was going to write something a little more serious today but fuck it, it’s Friday and I’ve been engaged in a really stupid Facebook argument for the last day or so that’s made me pretty pissed off. So here we go.

If you are a breathing human being who has any interest in politics, you probably know who Elizabeth Warren is; I don’t need to sing her accolades because she’s awesome and she’s running against Scott Brown for a seat in the Senate from Massachussetts in the 2012 election. So here’s Warren, campaigning, and in the course of doing so gives what in saner times would have been a completely uncontroversial defense of the democratic social contract:

I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Keep in mind that this is a campaign stump speech given to supporters and not an academic treatise explaining why the social contract is justified (although I have no doubt that Warren could produce one of those too, given the time and inclination). It’s a statement of a sort of basic reciprocity that was once a fundamental pillar of civic life in this country, namely, that when you benefit (disproportionately, one might add) from the existence of public goods, it is incumbent on you to share in the upkeep of those goods. That’s how things work in countries that haven’t lost their fucking minds.

Now of course libertarians and Republicans (two groups which for political purposes are nearly identical in American political life; if you want to talk to me about No True Libertarians, kindly fuck right off) have worked themselves up into a lather over this because being forced to pay taxes is a whisker’s breadth short of being castrated and thrown in a Soviet gulag (i.e. because they are idiots). And while one could make (incorrect but at least) consistent arguments against Warren’s assertion, that simply won’t do for some people because that’s hard and requires thinking and it’s just easier all around to call Warren an uppity bitch and feel very smug about yourself.

And of course that’s pretty much what happens. There’s a picture floating around the web in which a photograph of Warren speaking (it’s a close-up photo that basically has nothing but her face and hands in it) has been image-macro’d (is that a word? is now!) to contain the following text:

There is no woman in this country who got hot on her own. You have a really nice ass and a great boob job? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You got to the gym on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired a plastic surgeon the rest of us paid to educate. You’re safe from hotter, foreign women because of INS agents and boarder [sic] security the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that Colombian or Polish women would come and steal your boyfriend. Now look. You work out and wear nice makeup and look fantastic – good for you. A big chunk of the sex you have should be with people you choose. But part of the underlying social contract is that you take a chunk of the sex you have had and have that sex with people the government chooses.

Contemplate for a second, if you will, the sheer level of assholitude and general hatred of women that is required to write something like this.

It doesn’t take a Socrates to see why this doesn’t hold up analogically, and we’ll get to that, later. For now, I just want to point out how horribly misogynistic this is for anyone who is too dumb to read and understand the meanings of words. The first major red flag here is at word #4; it’s quite telling that in this example, it’s the hot woman who somehow owes sex to others (presumably men, though that’s a tacit assumption). This is of course entirely in line with the male libertarian ethos of entitlement, whether it be to money or to sex (but especially sex). Of course it would never occur to a self-declared Randian paragon of rationality that the reason women don’t want to fuck him is because he tends to treat them like objects and not like people (as one might surmise from seeing someone share this image on Facebook, say). The reference to boob jobs and a great ass further reinforces this point: women are eye candy and must conform to pornified male standards of beauty to be desirable (the implicit reading being: shut up bitch, we’ll judge your social worth by whether you’re hot or not). Also interesting is the implication that somehow the INS is responsible for keeping hot foreign women out of the country because otherwise all you oh-so-smart American women would be replaced by the submissive foreigners of our masturbatory fantasies who would never do such un-womanly things as engage you in political debate or run for public office or refuse to have sex with you because you’re a jerk; this of course is a common trope one finds among so-called men’s rights advocates, a group that tends to intersect fairly heavily with libertarians and Republicans. And of course the most egregious part of the whole thing being that if you’re hot, you owe people sex, because paying taxes, which people do all over the civilized world, is the same as being raped (because that’s what it means when you’re forced to have sex with people you don’t want to have sex with, you guys).

Now of course, upon being called out on their misogynistic behavior, people who share this image start moving goalposts. It’s all just a joke! It’s an analogy to what Warren is saying about taxes! It’s an argument about “legitimate interests” that “should not be arbitrarily taken away” (that one is something that was actually written!). These are all abusrd and easily dismissable, the last two first: Warren has never argued to the best of my knowledge that arbitrary confiscation of property was an unalloyed good. Taxes are not, in fact, arbitrary confiscation; one can reasonably debate what level of taxes we should be paying (or even whether we should be paying them at all) but that’s a debate that’s had by laying your philosophical assumptions on the table and making the actual argument, not by twisting the original into a stupid non-analogy about government allocating sex. Yes, of course you have legitimate interests in property, and in your bodily autonomy. Thankfully, most reasonable people realize that your interest in not being raped is a lot stronger than your interest in not paying taxes (or really, pretty much any other material property interest). On these grounds, the analogic argument fails entirely.

As for the joke, well: if you find this funny, then you find degrading women funny, and that makes you a misogynistic asshole. Yeah, chances are you don’t go around actively beating or raping women, but you’re still an asshole because you’re perpetuating the attitude that bitches ain’t shit, that women’s social worth is to be judged by the size of their tits, and that equating taxes and rape constitutes a valid political argument. When pointed to these facts, the response is always “waaaaah you called me a mean name!” Oh, you don’t want to be called mean names? Then don’t do mean things, you ass! There’s nothing about this image that in any way refutes any point that Warren makes and its distribution is nothing more than an attempt to put a woman in her place by means of sexist remarks and implications.

ADDENDUM: Secondary to the above is the fact that the analogy fails even if you accept its basic premises. Consider this: Ryan Gosling is hot (I would have used Diego Forlan as my example but not enough people will know who that is; Diego, if you ever read this, you know how to find me). First, it doesn’t follow from this fact that Gosling has in any way acquired his hotness by means of any contribution from me or from anyone else. It’s much more probable that Gosling has simply won the genetic lottery and that his favorable genes combined with a bit of exercise (or possibly even without it) make his career possible (I guess he also knows how to act, but whatever, that’s not the point). But ok, let’s accept the fact that we as a society have made some contribution to Gosling’s hotness; we have certainly made a contribution to his overall success because not only did he drive to the gym on public roads, but he also went to work on public roads and there was a whole infrastructure in place that made his career possible. The logical end-point of this argument is not that Ryan Gosling owes you or me sex, any more than my being educated in public schools obligates me to become a school teacher; the logical end-point is that we as a society, having made Gosling’s success possible, have a legitimate interest in reclaiming the fruits of that success in the form of taxes. So even given the basic assumptions of the “argument” we still wind up with the conclusion that what we’re really after is not fucking Ryan Gosling (well, not as a society anyway) but rather the resources (i.e. taxes) that make it possible to maintain the public infrastructure.

Stop putting stupid shit in your webpages, or, Fuck your Web 2.0

Ok, here’s the deal, internet people. I know that everyone is totally stoked as all fuck about Web 2.0 and how you can put doodads in your sites that do all kinds of crazy shit. What a lot of you apparently don’t realize is that you’re populating the internet with functional equivalents of the HTML blink tag. All this motherfucking flash and JavaScript that does god knows what and takes up memory on my computer is unnecessary. I’m calling for a goddamn moratorium on this shit. Here are all the things your website should ever have:

1) Text.
2) Images. But not too many. Only those that are necessary.
3) The absolute minimal amount of JS to do whatever it is your site does. All these crazy popout menus and weird Flash crap and whatever else you’ve got going up in there, I’m looking at you, Salon, cut it out! I don’t need any of this nonsense to read your site!

Seriously, just because it doesn’t look as blatant as blink doesn’t mean it’s not irritating or won’t slow down everything that’s going on in my browser. If I’d had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten an “Unresponsive script” error, I would be able to buy lunch like three times this week.

Fuck you! Make it easy for me to read your shit, assholes!