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My Heart Melts

Looking for something else entirely, I found the film short “Chocolate Hare” featured at the Gkids website. (It’s also currently available on Youtube, where it may be more permanent.) It’s nothing more than the melting of three chocolate bunnies, frst with a hot iron, then a heat lamp, and finally a blowdryer. Just chocolate melting, but context is everything.

Go and watch it. Eerie, huh?

Chocolate shaped like a living creature already tickles our tendency to anthropomorphize; there’s a naughty pleasure in the act of biting off a chocolate bunny’s head. The soundtrack though (“Aviva Pastoral”), makes a simple melting seem like the execution of a martyr, or rather three martyrs. The spatter of chocolate that accompanies the third bunny’s decapitation is a little too much like blood, and the blowdryer a little too much like a pistol—which I’m sure is the creator’s intent. Knowing that it featured at a children’s film festival, Eileene found it deeply disturbing when I made her watch it.

But watch it again, with the sound turned off. Imagine, or better yet play in a different window, an upbeat soundtrack…say, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” or “Yakety Sax.” Just good clean fun. Or even more, imagine it with the original sound: the whir of the blowdryer, the light clunk of the chocolate head hitting the table, reminding us that it’s just chocolate. Now it’s not even a particularly fun exercise, just humdrum and rather slow. The best demonstration I’ve seen that we see what the media wants us to see since that satirical trailer of The Shining as a goofball comedy—which I’m a lot less sure was the creator’s intent in “Chocolate Hare.”


We had a warning of storms likely this evening, and as I write this, the storm clouds are rolling in.

Normally, watching a storm roll in is a pleasant exercise. There’s an inborn thrill to feeling the storm front break. I wish I could say it’s pleasant safely watching it happen from behind the library’s large bank of windows, but, alas, I’m at the library, and Eileene will take the car into the city before I return, so if we get storms I’ll be soaked sooner or later. Rather spoils the fun.

In summer, there’s the added promise of a break from the heat, but this promise too is rather spoiled by the knowledge that it will just make the next day all the more humid and unbearable. Mother nature takes with one hand as she gives with the other.

Mad Dog

Our weekly RPG session suffered an enormous cluster-fuck this week.

In game, events are coming to a head. We’ve collected almost all the magical macguffins and must soon decide to remake or destroy them, with tragic consequences either way. A woman powered by the spirit of Lilith, mother of demons, is on a murderous rampage, and she just horribly murdered “the Hack,” a techno-geek who qualified as useful resource, friend, or role model to the PCs. We arrived to late to intervene, instead discovering that the crime scene was already locked down by Detective Chase, also a useful resource, friend, or role model to various PCs. We were just starting to exchange info with Chase and begin to plan a reaction when one of the PCs went bananas, attacked one of the cops, stole a hard drive from a previously undiscovered secret compartment on the crime scene, and dashed off invisibly to pursue his own agenda.

Having done so, he returned. There was some hope of defusing the explosive scenario, but he refused to stand around and get the mildest of finger-wags from a fellow PC, shouting “I’m not here to listen to a lecture from you!” and running off again. He should have been glad of a harangue of hours, much less a gentle rebuke, because another PC wants to kill him—more on which, later.

I don’t know what was going through that player’s mind while all this went down. I still don’t. But in rapid succession, we saw three distinct forms of problem behavior.

First, that player was utterly clueless about her own PC’s abilities. She wanted to drive off the cop so her character could grab the hard drive more easily. Without any particular plan, she began reading down the list of powers (We’re using the Mutants and Masterminds system.) on her character sheet, in no apparent order.

I have control electronics!
Well, the drive isn’t on right now; how do you plan to animate it?
I have super-running! Okay, that’ll let you grab it in one round, the cop gets one round to respond, and…
Wait, I don’t want to do that! What can I do?
Well, I…
What’s communicate?
That’s like a mind-link with the target. If you’ve got communicate with electronics, you can…
Never mind. What’s penetration mean?

…and so on, simply going down the list of abilities she did not understand, nor want to understand, just as long as she could make a mess. Eventually, she decided on electrical blast, which leads us to the next problem behavior.

Second, when she settled on blast, both GM and another player noted that was an attack power. “That’s an attack power,” said the other player. “You want to attack the detective?” asked the GM. “Okay, I want to blast the cop then,” was the reply. The other players at the table became visibly more agitated. “You’re attacking him?” asked the GM again, seeking either to make sure there was no understanding or to use the old GM trick of asking “You’re sure you want to do that?” to warn a player of an imminent blunder. “Yeah, I want to attack him.” Okay. Dice were rolled, a critical hit ensued, the cop needed to save versus damage, with a good chance he’d wind up dead. Suddenly, attacking the cop wasn’t what the problem player wanted to do at all! She had wanted to do something else! And the GM let it slide.

Third, and most damaging of all, the problem PC’s behavior openly trampled on another’s concept—mine, as it happens. My PC is firmly established as a badass of the judge, jury, and executioner school. He, too, is a Regulator, a vigilante of the supernaturally-empowered subculture, and a much harder-edged one than Detective Chase and his friends. He is driven by Nemesis, avenger of the gods; he has proven willing to kill in cold blood when someone crosses the line, has intimated a willingness to kill fellow PCs if necessary, has admitted no room for compromise, and has exhibited a particular distaste for treachery. (Other sins of particular concern to Nemesis, like hubris, patricide, and defying the rules of hospitality, haven’t come up much.) Suddenly, these two characters are on a collision course with no escape that I can see.

Time ran out, and the GM declared the evening over. The dismay of fellow players had already been clear for some time, but only once the dice were put away, and the problem player had a chance to return to her own perspective, and fellow players continued frowning, do I think the depth of trouble she’d caused, and her isolation in that position, begin to sink in, because she began protesting that she was just playing in character.

Which is a defense, up to a point. She’s playing a ten-year-old kid driven by the spirit of the Artful Dodger, so not exactly a stable and forward-thinking character, to be sure. (And he complains that the grownups don’t trust him! Wonder why…) But there’s impulsive, and there’s mad-dog berserk. Even players of impulsive characters are expected to keep some perspective, and keep that impulsiveness—or any other trait—within manageable bounds. Behavior that will destroy the campaign, or that will prevent another player from staying true to his character, is unacceptable. “I’m just staying true to character” is not an acceptable defense of a toxic character, or of toxic behavior. A character prepared to wreck everyone’s fun should not have been created in the first place.

And, I’d like to add, both GM and fellow players did an awful lot of bending over backwards to accommodate a ten-year-old superpowered thief without parents (or any other recognized authority) in the first place. Not many sympathetic character concepts would simply let a ten-year-old run loose without calling schools, foster care, the cops…somebody. If every player is entitled to a certain amount of latitude to play the character he wants, and every player is obligated to make room for that to happen, then our problem player took her give-and-take credit all up front. Now her PC has made an enemy of a fellow PC, one that’s defined the way he is because she demanded an amoral ten-year-old, and I’m not ready to sacrifice my character twice for her benefit.

So now our poor novice GM has a cluster-fuck to clean up. Hell of a thing to happen in her first campaign. I wish I had concrete advice to offer, but I don’t. Sadly, I’d be just as much at a loss were it me behind the screen. All I can offer is sympathy.

Lucy and the Football

News has it that a compromise has been reached to allow the US debt ceiling to be raised.

I use the term “compromise” loosely. Apparently, Democrats have compromised by agreeing to a trillion or so dollars in spending cuts, agreeing to take the heat from the Republican base for raising the debt ceiling, obligingly preparing to take the heat from its own base for the cuts, and surrendering any revenue increase whatsoever, not even so much as allowing the shoot-yourself-in-the-face Bush tax cuts to expire, while Republicans have compromised by… um…


Really nothing. Republicans’ big “concession” is to raise the debt ceiling, which Republican leaders had wanted in any case, once it became clear that even Wall Street disapproved of lmiting the money supply. Oh, there’s also some sort of talk about cutting defense spending, but that happens in the future, past the 2012 elections, when a new Congress will have the authority to rewrite the agreement. The current legislative body cannot encumber future ones. Additionally, it establishes the precedent that the nation’s economy can be held hostage to unrelated policy, and demonstrates that the power to set policy belongs to those crazy enough to bring the whole structure down if they don’t get their way.

The Bush tax cuts should be an easy target. 80% of Americans favor a tax increase for those earning more than $250,000 a year; a whopping 44% of teabaggers will concede that maybe that would be a good idea. Yet no taxes will be raised, for anybody, under any circumstances. Poll after poll suggest, albeit less dramatically, that a majority of Americans do not support the massive spending cuts of this bill. Once again, conservatives walk away with everything they want short of a signed confession that Obama is a secret Muslim seeking to overthrow America, liberals get nothing, and the general public gets the finger.

Don’t take my word for it. Take conservative pundit Kathleen Parker‘s opinion, in which she castigates the teabaggers for holding out for more when this “compromise” gives conservatives everything they want short of a signed confession that Obama is secret Muslim planted in the White House for nefarious purposes. (What Congressional teabaggers are holding out for at this point is the sole, narrow justification for massive, self-destructive cuts: actually balancing the budget. But that would mean cuts that extend far enough to hurt the ownership class, so we can’t have that.)

This is not compromise, it is surrender. Once again. And again, and again, and again. I used to think the Democratic party was thrown off balance by the Reagan revolution, and hampered in its efforts to regain its balance by an unfortunate attachment to the pork-barrel politics they had enjoyed by being in power too long. Then I thought Democrats were whipped, confused as to how best to respond to the right-wing propaganda mill that blamed them for everything, unable to challenge lies because they’d somehow failed to gain any traction from truth in the past, unable to challenge imperial overreach for fear of being called “soft on crime/communism/terrorism/what-have-you.” It’s getting harder and harder to dismiss what once seemed the crazy-paranoia claim that the ongoing failures of the Democratic party are deliberate. We could have had this deal five months ago, without the distraction of an artificial crisis. Democrats made a show of putting up a fight, and took a dive. I just can’t for the life of me figure out why.

This is not good policy. It is not policy responsive to public opinion, whether that opinion is wise or foolish. It is not bad policy but good politics. It is not policy reflecting Democratic ideals. It is not policy reflecting a compromise between roughly balanced parties—a balance in which Dems are still supposed to have the edge, holding both White House and Senate. That kind of perpetual and inexplicable failure breeds paranoia.

I mean, what the fuck?!?

Postscript: Still in doubt as to who won this fight? Mitch McConnell is so pleased that he’s promising to do this again next year, and every year after that.

“What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again.”

That’s what happens when you cede to hostage-takers’ demands. I say again, this agreement sets the precedent for holding the nation’s economy hostage to unrelated policy, and puts control in the hands of those crazy enough to destroy the country if they don’t get their way.


We watched saw Captain America in the theaters last weekend, and it was pretty good, a solid three stars.

In one scene, the Red Skull confronts Cap and explains that they have more in common than one might think. They are superior men, a cut above the ordinary lot, and why did Dr. Erskine give you the full superhero treatment while leaving me disfigured by a half-assed version of the treatment when we’re so much alike?

It’s a common trope of superheroic comic books, a trope shared with pulp adventure novels, Saturday morning serials, Amazing Stories style space opera, and similar adventure fiction of the 20th century. The villain gets the hero alone in a quiet moment and explains that they’re really cut from the same cloth. He may tempt the hero with promises of power and an invitation to his evil organization (Dr. No to James Bond). He may try to sell visions of a new world, a better world, built upon the ashes of the old (Vader to Skywalker). He may simply be looking for a little sympathy (Belloc to Indiana Jones). But the basic trope is an appeal to the kindred spirit the villain imagines among Nietzschean supermen.

Naturally, Cap refuses the idea, just as every two-fisted hero does. A villain might say something like “We stride like gods among ordinary men.” A two-fisted hero is far more likely to say something like, “Shucks, I just did what anybody would have done in the circumstances when I ran into that burning building to save those kittens.” It’s a peculiarly American conceit, the egalitarian sense that nobody is inherently superior, that everyone can be a hero if they choose, a departure from the earlier conceit of Victorian romances that the gentleman adventurer was a gentleman.

But, y’know…? In the pulps, the heroes and villains truly are superior to the ordinary man, in almost every way: stronger, smarter, more daring, richer and better-looking. And the heroes don’t just do what anyone would, as evidenced by the crowd of onlookers who did not, in fact, dive into the burning building. Perhaps anyone can be a hero in the real world, but within the world of the pulps, the villains are right and the heroes are wrong, if only on this particular issue.


This morning I learned of a Twitter hashtag called “#FuckYouWashington” and went to check it out. To my delight, it demonstrates that the teabaggers aren’t the only source of political anger in the country. As anywhere on Twitter, many tweets are content-free, but among those with something specific to say, the complaints in #FuckYouWashington are predominantly liberal, populist, and rooted in reality. Teabagger rallying cries like “Get government out of my Medicare” hardly appear at all. Just a quick read turns up such gems as:

#fuckyouwashington for punishing whistleblowers, bell-ringers, hacktivists, & journalists who tried to save you from yourself.
#fuckyouwashington for letting 47,000 die/yr without ANY Healthcare,while Saying we have the BEST Healthcare in the World
#FuckYouWashington for being willing to destroy the economy in order to defeat Obama.
#fuckyouwashington for making this tweet feel like it’s worth more than my vote

Also, I appreciate founder Jeff Jarvis’s observation “And now we’re talking about the fucking hashtag and fucking Twitter instead of fucking Washington. Nerds.”

That comment was necessary because #FuckYouWashington is trending, big time, and the nerd community is getting just as animated about trending as about the content. Or rather, it would be trending big time, if Twitter weren’t blocking #FuckYouWashington from the trending list. Conspiracy buffs like to accuse Twitter of doing so to suppress the populist outcry and help The Man, while Twitter claims it’s just concerned about obscenity in the hashtag’s title. Which is kind of a shame, if doing so helps hide real obscenities. Obscenities like 40% of US children relying on food stamps, a US president’s public approval of torture, and the world’s highest imprisonment rate shouldn’t be hidden away to protect delicate ears (eyes); they should be spread loud and often, to protect the real victims. And Washington should be reading it. Just sayin’.

Postscript: As of this posting, #FuckYouWashington has been transmogrified into #FYW, performing the same function without a four-letter word and without the visceral power of the tag. We’ll see whether it trends, too.

Human Interest

Eileene and I periodically argue politics. I’m a good liberal, though I hope a reasonable one; she’s got a conservative bent. (Although in the current political climate, she comes off as a moderate with strong liberal views on social issues, and I come across as a knee-jerk leftie. It’s our country’s politics that are extreme.)

When we discuss what’s wrong with the country, I often cite the consolidation of news into literally half a dozen media conglomerates. Journalism suffers because reciting press statements is cheaper than finding out the truth. Stories aim at an ever-more-common denominator. A broader perspective is lost. But above all, news organizations almost inevitably become a political mouthpiece for their owners; if we only have six owners from which to choose, we only have six opinions from which to choose—how else can one be informed of current events?

Eileene has pooh-poohed this objection in the past from a variation on the magical self-correction of free markets. She has argued, as others might, that compromising the news for a personal agenda is not in a news service’s interest, because the audience will leave for a source that will keep them better informed. Such arguments ignore a basic inertia in the audience, but more importantly overlook the fact that corporations don’t make decisions; individuals do. Corporations are a legal fiction; decisions are made by a corporation’s owners or executive officers, and their interests are not the same as a corporation’s, much less the general public’s. We see it every time an executive inflates short-term stock values by selling off (or firing) the company’s vital long-term assets. We saw it when when Wall Street execs loaded their companies with insane risks in order to inflate their salary bonuses, culminating in the 2008 crisis. We saw it when the Wall Street Journal began slanting news on China to aid owner Rupert Murdoch’s—just to pick a name—plans for investment in China.

And now we’re seeing it again, as the Wall Street Journal, Fox “News,” the Washington Post, and a few but prominent and politically powerful news sources leap to the defense of Rupert Murdoch—again, just to pick a name—and whatever yet-to-be-revealed involvement he may have had in the News Corp phone hacking scandal, and the numerous allegations of further criminal and scandalous behavior that are crawling out of the woodwork to join it. Such defense stands out because it comes exclusively from news sources that belong to Rupert Murdoch. What a co-inky-dink!

(It might be noted that the more nearly universal castigation of News Corp is being reported by that conglomerate’s competitors, but that merely reinforces the point that news services serve their owners and officers, and not the general public.)

And as bad as it may be that perhaps a sixth of news consumption may come from a source compromised to serve its owner when his interests diverge from those of his company, his shareholders, or the general public, consolidation of news services presents an even greater threat.

The owners of these massive news conglomerates are necessarily very, very rich. Which means that all of them share certain interests that may be (are!) at odds with those of the general public. Bad enough that voters who get their news only from the right-wing Fox propaganda mill will hear only Murdoch’s preferred version of events surrounding his various companies’ misdeeds before voting, in part, on whether news corporations need closer oversight. Far worse that virtually all voters will be getting their information on the merits of progressive or regressive tax structures, for example, or copyright issues, or libel laws, from their choice of multi-zillionaire media owners.


Eileene drew my attention to this morning. She first learned of the site through a news article describing it in the most glowing terms.

I’m always suspicious of wondrous new teaching systems, because the reportage on such successes typically suffers from a systemic error: failing to observe that spectacularly successful new (or, more often, revived) teaching systems often get their results from kids for whom the previous system wasn’t working. Neither system is better; they just reach people with different learning styles, and careless reporting leads to unrealistic expectations of the new system, which typically fails to produce the same results on a large scale.

But it’s hard to argue with an improvement by two standard deviations in performance of students using Salman Khan’s lectures. And the results seem to work across the board, although the best results are found at the extremes: the remedial students who can rewind and pause when they need to, and the talented students who needn’t be bored by belabored points. In both cases, it’s the age-old principle of helping students to learn at their own pace.

Khan’s system combines online lectures and active solving of sample problems with an online drill in the methods used. The lectures aren’t very good; they go too fast (though students can rewind), skip details, and operate from a presumption that one only needs stick the given numbers together because math problems are made to be solved tidily—a dangerous attitude to take into the world outside the classroom. The drills, however, are excellent. Khan uses gamification superbly, giving students virtual achievement badges for correctly solving ten problems in a row on a given topic, and “unlocking the next level” when a topic is sufficiently mastered. Giving gold stars is an old technique, and one that works, done properly, but educational software usually screws it up, turning students off with a patronizing tone and a childish spin on the rewards; Khan sets the tone of his rewards just right. I can believe reports of students eager to earn achievements and “level up” to the next lesson.

This looks like a wonderful system, used properly, which is to say, in addition to, and not instead of classroom instruction. It offers a strong vehicle for patching up or filling in neglected skills without classroom drill—a double curse that eats up instruction time and makes math boring. Having watched several of Khan’s lectures, I’m not ready to adopt the whole system, in which kids watch the lectures online and turn to the teacher for hands-on instruction, but only because I don’t like his delivery. The principle of offering the basic instruction online makes perfect sense; the initial instruction—the lecture—is mass produced and mass consumed, the basic principles laid out so everyone can be on the same page. Everyone agrees the best teaching method is hands-on, personal instruction; we get too little of it because it’s also expensive and time-consuming. A teacher freed from the time spent on a lecture can spend that time doing that hands-on instruction. I plan to encourage my kids to use the drills. With slightly better lectures, I’d be wholly on board.

This week’s “Extra Credits” is a particularly good one, insightful at a level that an amateur observer of the electronic games industry, like me, can digest. It treats the free-to-play business model for games, which allows players to play a game for free but gets them to cough up their dough for microtransactions: small purchases that grant access to new content, better gear, customized graphics, whatever the game company thinks it can sell, and which can add up to more money than the cost of the game alone might.

It’s a business model that draws a lot of suspicion from players, who fear getting ripped off, and especially fear losing the game to an inferior player with lots of money to throw around for game advantages. The “Extra Credits” team acknowledges these problems, but argue that microtransactions don’t necessarily mean player abuse, and offer their plan for making good games with profitable microtransactions. As I say, it’s an excellent analysis.

Perhaps it seems particularly salient to me because it describes the market generally in terms that match me specifically. I, too, am suspicious of hidden costs and victory for sale. I am put off by innocuous offers like the infamous $70 monocle, which has no game effect and can be ignored without penalty, if they seem predatory—preying upon the addicts, kids, and the gullible. Like the reluctant producers the article cites, I wonder where the money to support the game will come from if cheap bastards like me can get the whole experience without paying.

But, as I wrote yesterday, I took WoW out for a free-to-play spin after departing the game as a paying customer a couple years back, and it’s been fun. Fun enough for me at least to consider restarting my subscription. It’s not likely to happen, but if I’m tempted, many will buy. And yup, conveniences like bag space and faster mounts that at first seem unnecessary begin to look worth $5 or $10. The psychology works. If a game is good, good enough to win me over and get emotional investment, it will get my financial investment, especially if—again, as the article puts it—I feel the producers have already given me a fair shake.

I’m never buying a $70 costume, though. Never.


Last night, I was growing bored again with World of Warcraft. I’d signed up for one of their new free-to-play accounts to keep myself entertained on nights when Eileene is out of the house, and enjoyed the nostalgia. But I’ve reached the level 20 cap imposed on free accounts with a warrior, priest, and mage (okay, only 18 with the priest, but it won’t take long, and I’ve seen those quests twice already now…) and that was about all there was to see.

Then, just as I was ready to shrug and hang up on WoW again, I got a whisper from someone seeking to put together a pickup group (PUG) for “random dungeons,” a new (for me) feature that lets people put out their shingle as willing to endure the perils of a PUG for the benefits of dungeons. Up Side: better loot than you get off the ordinary mobs found outside dungeons and the potential thrill of team play, especially a chance to show off your class’s particular talents. Down Side: possibly getting saddled with one or more jackasses for an hour or so.

On this occasion, things went pretty well. Having reached level 20, picking up some blue-grade dungeon gear is the only way to improve my stats now, and I got some. More importantly, it was my first chance to tank ever—that is, deliberately draw all the fire of the bad guys to my heavily-armored self in order to free more offensively-aligned teammates to concentrate on killing. My first try at tanking was not an epic display of mad skillz, but I did all right, despite a slightly overagressive shaman occasionally messing up what should be an orderly management of enemy aggression. When I asked, after the first dungeon, whether I’d made an ass of myself on my first job, one teammate just laughed, and another said “No, you did great.” Hard to judge how seriously to take these responses, but I did get invited to tank a second dungeon, so I must have done okay. The second dungeon went rougher: I died once alone—not my failure, since I’m supposed to take all the damage; either the healer slipped up or some squishy teammate got too aggressive and distracted the healer. We also had a team wipe, for which blame is to be shared. Our leader didn’t lay out the plan, so we engaged the wrong guys; an overeager teammate dove in too soon and drew too many mobs in the wrong place; I didn’t hold all the aggro…a genuine snafu.

But I had a great time, and look forward to exploring the random dungeon system further. At a minimum, it’s added a little life to a game that I’d otherwise exhausted, having gone as far as I can without spending money…or grouping without a guild. At best, it might make for a fun weekly activity, almost capturing the spirit of the Kneecappers back when I was a fully-paid WoW player and a dedicated party of five gnomes and dwarves took on the world. Playing alone is too repetitive, and defeats the purpose of “multiplayer” in MMOs; playing in large raids (20 or more) makes your individual performance almost meaniningless; but in a five-man group everyone is important, and working in coordination is a thrill.

Interestingly, this experience ties in closely with the recent “Extra Credits” article on the free-to-play model in electronic games. My reactions to that tomorrow.