2010/05/31

Only Middle Because It Was Central

And I've tied last year.

So, the middle ages. I'm pretty sure Stalin's historians were more truthful about the Tsar than our popular historians are about the medieval era, especially in the Anglophone world. Everything you think you know about that era is wrong.

Been reading this writer, the late Regine Pernoud, former curator of France's National Archives. She's basically your go-to gal for correct facts about the Middle Ages, especially RE: women's status.

Now, she suffers from being a specialist, in that she's very weak outside her subject. For instance, she compares the Roman Empire to French colonialism when it was more like Spanish (notice how much better Latin America did after decolonization than Africa). And she seemed to think Descartes and Aquinas were in one tradition, and Kierkegaard in another, when Descartes and Kierkegaard are in one (connected by Kant) and Aquinas in another, and Descartes is defined by his rebellion against it. She also accuses Aquinas of the Cartesian-style reducing-everything-to-a-system, which is like accusing a Marxist of not taking class into account—the quintessential trait of any Aristotelian, especially Aquinas, is that all systems are only approximations; it's a part of mitigated realism.

But, in her subject (the Middle Ages, specifically in France), she's a font of revelations. And she's oddly prone to quetsching, which I didn't think was a French thing; it's nice to know I'm not the only one who's enraged by these stupid myths.

When, for instance, someone used the phrase, "executions of almost medieval savagery", her comment?
Of course, in the century of concentration camps, cremation ovens, and the Gulag, how can we not be horrified by the savagery of a time when the portal of Reims or that of Amiens was sculpted?
Or on some halfwit novelist saying "It was only in the 15th century that the Church admitted women have souls"? She fills a third of a page with an awesome rant about the Church apparently admitting to the sacraments, revering as martyrs, and having to perpetually warn of the danger of divinizing, beings who didn't have souls. French sarcasm is scary; it's much more "through clenched teeth as I force myself to let go of my gun" than "with a sneer."

Here's some other things I found out reading her:
  • Medieval women voted as often as men (in things like town and village councils and trade associations), the literate minority was actually 50/50 split between men and women, and women could not only inherit and own property both jointly with their husbands, as equals, but also completely independently of them. They could also bring matters to adjudication just as men could. They didn't get some of those rights back till the 1960s, folks.

  • She has an excellent re-classification of eras, with the salutary side effect of making most of the ridiculous canards about the Middle Ages semi-accurate—since the only time they're not just laughably false is when you apply them to the transitional period just before the Renaissance, the time characterized by the Hundred Years War and the re-adoption of Roman Law, with the accompanying growth of absolutism and drop in women's status.

    Her new eras:
    1. Tribal (Pernoud says Frank, but we'll generalize to the rest of Europe), from the Fall of Rome to Charlemagne.
    2. Imperial, from Charlemagne to about 950.
    3. Feudal, from c. 950 to 1300; the High Middle Ages, the era of incredible growth in pretty much everything.
    4. Medieval, from 1300 to 1500; the era of transition to the Renaissance, sorta a half-assed version of the Renaissance's classicism, and therefore deserving the name "middle" because it really was a transition.

  • Things invented in the period 950-1300 (partial list, also drawing on Jaki): cams, large scale mechanical grinding for grain, mechanical saws, eyeglasses, the hang-glider (Eilmer of Malmesbury, 1010), the shoulder harness (keeps horses from choking when they draw a heavy load, lets them move their head more freely). Women's suffrage, women being allowed to own property, women keeping their own surnames, war-crimes legislation, government accountability. Oh, and the concept that laborers have rights.

    Things people claim originated in that period but are really Renaissance innovations or reconstructions: germ warfare, total war, the "cult of domesticity" in its modern sense, political absolutism, "divine right of kings", slavery, women as legal wards of their husbands or fathers. What, exactly, was it that got reborn? All the bad parts of the Roman Empire without its redeeming feature, political cohesion?

    Me, I'm gonna have to rename that era the "Relapse". Or The Derivative Age, that has a nice ring. Pernoud relates how, in 1525-26, the Venetian Senate was voting on designs for a ship to protect their shipping from pirates. And they dismissed the design of a master shipwright in favor of an antiquarian's reconstruction of a Roman quinquereme.

    That's all you gotta know about the Renaissance, right there.

  • So remember how I said "medieval" cities were actually much cleaner than 19th century ones? Pernoud backs me up, actually saying that people read 16th- and 17th-century filth and squalor back into the medieval era, without checking. Apparently the people were cleaner in the feudal era, too; not only did they have carts for disposing of human waste, but they also had public bathhouses—1300 of them in Paris in the 13th century—that most people went to weekly at least.

2010/05/29

Fantasy. Again.

Wow, it's not even June and with this one I'll be one away from tying last year. Is that good or bad?

Anyway. So I had more thoughts about fantasy. I thought square bullet-points would be fetching. And why aren't there triangular ones, in HTML? Did David Dardick threaten a lawsuit?
  • So a commenter raised the question, "Why do fantasy stories always use the same few races, when SF expects you to come up with your own aliens?" It's basically a legitimate question, but it's not something I mind, for two reasons.

    My more fundamental reason is, I like elves/dwarves/gnomes/fairies/goblins/trolls. And I'd much rather see them done well than watch an author have to establish the races he makes up, along with all the magic and history and silly words masquerading as place names you have to do to create a fantasy. Science fiction doesn't have to establish astrophysics as such, only give brief refreshers on the plot-relevant aspects. Take it from me: it's much easier to say "elves on this world are taller than humans, and have three elemental powers depending on what faction they are"; your audience already has a mental image of elves, and you can modify it. If I say "Phlatkerrectr was a typical sillinaemdrace, except for his height," I've really left you much as I found you, in terms of conveying my world to your mind. It's more work for a writer, and requires either a longer book or less actual plot.

    But the other thing is, nobody ever really does create new races for fantasy (it's not really that common in SF, either—easily 80% of the species I can think of are the TV versions of the Japanese, Jews, Native Americans, or, ironically, elves, with the VIN numbers melted off). Just because a particular fantasy work's not calling them elves doesn't mean they aren't. I mean, just to take a random example, the Final Fantasy series: Vieras are elves, Ronso and Bangaa are dwarves, Moogles are either halflings or gnomes, and Guado are trolls. The fact they're bunny-women, cat-dudes and dragon-guys, teddy bears, and, well, trolls, doesn't change anything.

  • The problem isn't really, I think, so much elves/dwarves/orcs/trolls/minotaurs as it is "Celtic-cum-Native American elves/Scottish dwarves/Mongolian orcs/Cockney or Caribbean trolls/Minotaurs who, to a man, should be played by Michael Dorn". You can do a lot more things with "very deeply in tune with the forests" or "insular, fond of craggy mountains" or "brutal raiders" than just those portrayals.

  • Some things changed in the course of working on my current fantasy story. I mentioned doing a language for my elves, a while ago, for instance, but now they don't have one (there's a plot relevant reason)—they just have the ability to be understood by anyone they want. They're named in the human language's ancient form, though, because that's when most of them started showing up in the history books of the current civilization.

    I keep going back and forth on whether to have two kinds of trolls (I have two kinds of elves—elves always get the most subraces, it's actually a law), or just go with trolls and ogres. Trolls and ogres are really the same thing, but one is northern European and the other is southern. I was also torn whether to have dragons (which are considered faeries, albeit big ones, in my book), but I've decided to go ahead. Everything's better with dragons (except Star Wars, Paolini, maybe you didn't get the memo).

  • Actually the reason I have two kinds of elves is...there's a synonym for troll (ogre) and one for dwarf (gnome), and one for goblin (kobold—"orc" is actually a variant of "ogre", leading me to wonder what Tolkien had in that pipe). I can sub in brownies for halflings (turns out I don't need 'em, but I had established the idea in advance). But what, exactly, is the equivalent of elf? "Fairy"? But how are goblins not fairies? "Nymph" won't work, they're all female; and something like "yaksha" would establish it as being a fantasy world where India, inexplicably, exists.

    That's intriguing by the way, isn't it—while elf and nymph both actually do have the same cultural baggage (German and Greek respectively), "yaksha" is too tied to a particular culture. It's because the others are used conventionally—between medieval cosmopolitanism and Renaissance classicism, German, French, and Classical mythic creatures are accepted stock figures of the canon. Meanwhile there's no convention for yakshas or yokai. I don't think it's bad, I'm in favor of cultures having a canon however broadly defined, but it fascinates. Similarly you can use vampire or zombie, but you probably can't get away with revenant, let alone upir, aekkwi or cihuateotl.

  • Another example I've noticed of people's inability to think outside the D&D box is, mages are always unarmored. I mean, sure, if iron interferes with magic, or something, but the only reason arcane spellcasters weren't allowed to wear armor was for game balance. But in a book, it's not like you're gonna have to deal with the guys who play fighters (yo!) complaining about the mage being a game-breaker.

  • Speaking of games, I wrote a simple little dungeon-crawl adventure, to kick off a new campaign I'm setting in the world of my book. I used a map I found of the Paris catacombs, and, seriously, these encounters write themselves, just look at the place names. "Sepulchral lamp"? "Mummified heart pillar"? "Cabinet of Osteology"? Stranger than fiction, mes enfants.

  • Does anyone else get tired of the fact that paladins in D&D-derived fiction never, ever, with the notable exception of Dragonbait, actually conform in any way to their required alignment? Most of them are actually written as, and this is ironic, chaotic evil. "Finding the right self-righteous rhetoric to dress up whatever self-serving scheme I happen to have cooking" doesn't sound like any good alignment to me, how about you? And paladin powers are explicitly Donatist, they'd already have ceased to be paladins long before they could make any trouble.

    Either powers like that are withdrawn the moment the person stops living up to the code, or they inhere in the office, completely independent of the person's behavior. "Oh, but they believe they're right, so they keep their powers." Uh-huh. So the gods are going to keep granting powers to people who shame them? Right. How likely is that, really, considering the typical D&D god?

  • So seriously, what's with all the Welsh in fantasy? Leaving to one side how people think it uses a lot of consonants (which is funny to me, but my grandmother's Czech—strč prst sprz krk), Welsh, and Irish, sound pretty darn guttural, folks. And I actually know some Irish, I know what I'm talking about.

2010/05/24

Fan Dance

So I (you may have noticed) spend a bit of time in things relating to fandoms. And the more time I spend with fans, the more I realize I'm not one of them. Maybe I just have my ontological priorities straight, but I can't make a religion of any of the things I'm into. Anyway, these were some thoughts I had about fans, and how much they suck, although a few of them have to do with how people who say they suck often also suck. I am nothing if not evenhanded in my all-consuming misanthropy.
  • So there's a sort of prefab thing people say, when they complain about anime fans, especially fangirls, using broken Japanese. I've run across it several places, and it might all be one person but then again it might not. That is, complaining that said fangirls are stupid because "they think 'atashi kawaii' is a real sentence in Japanese". Well, guess what? Let me introduce my friends, Mr. Stative Verb and Mr. Omissable Particle. They're employed by Japanese grammar, and thanks to their fine work, "atashi kawaii" is a perfectly correct, albeit colloquial, Japanese sentence.

  • Fans, stop defending the indefensible. Seriously. Kodomo no Jikan (it's about a third-grade teacher whose student is constantly coming onto him) is creepy, stop pretending it's not. Yes, we know, he never has sex with her. That doesn't change the fact every page is dripping with fanservice involving third grade girls, with the same loving detail a non-freak artist would use on actual post-pubescent women.

  • That said, there's nothing inherently creepy about moe (I mean if we're talking about normal moe, not stuff like lolicon), as long as the words "izu mai waifu" are never spoken. Do you ever watch a live-action movie because an actress is hot? Well that's not real either. You probably wouldn't like the actress if you met her, and she definitely wouldn't like you.

  • Gabe and Tycho have adequately expressed, almost to a fine shade of meaning, my opinions on internet piracy (it's not the end of the world but it shouldn't be encouraged, but companies' reaction to it is often counterproductive) and protecting children from harmful media (the ratings exist for a very good reason and should be used, companies are damn fools to try and circumvent the only alternative to government regulation). I really tire of the myopia fans have on those topics, and their self-righteous tone about their, as Tycho puts it, "tarted up nihilism." It's kinda odd how often I agree with Tycho, considering his worldview and mine are so different. Then again he and Gabe seem to have a relationship very similar to the one I have with my older sister, which is even weirder.

  • Hey fansubbers, couple things. What you do is technically not legal, though it's not really much worse than the old tape-trading rings, at least until shows get licensed. But you're not experts. You are, in fact, idiots. Knock off the jokes about the companies that license anime in the US. Knock off the obnoxious fonts and karaoke effects; it's hard to read and it just looks stupid. And for the love of Eight Hundred Myriad Gods, knock off the profanity! There's only one actual cussword in Japanese, and it means "crap"! "Onna" doesn't mean "bitch" ("wench", maybe), still less does "onna no hito" (which is actually fairly polite); "mô, ii" means "enough," not "f*** off". Just stop it. One does not flaunt one's ignorance quite that ostentatiously, in well-bred company.

  • Why, why, why do fans insist GitS and Hellsing and all the rest of it is so mature? Also "cerebral"—Firefly gets called that a lot, and you know where I stand on that show. BSG, too. "Thought-provoking, challenging, innovative," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...only it's not. See, for something to be "thought provoking" or "challenging", it can't copy every other work like it. And yet there is not a single real idea in GitS that isn't in every other pretentious cyberpunk series. There's really nothing in Galactica that wasn't in The West Wing or the 814 anti-Iraq War movies nobody saw. You know why critics call them "thought provoking" and "challenging"? Because, and I wish to Christ I was kidding, they're exactly like everything else those critics have been taught to describe that way.

  • Finally, liking the "right" fictional works doesn't make you a good person, especially since, if that's your criterion for evaluating it, you're probably ignoring massive flaws in favor of its perceived moral superiority. That's what keeps Christian rock, Objectivist fiction, and preachy Hollywood movies being made: enough people buy them from some warped sense of duty, that they still turn a profit. It's a weird free-market protectionism, with the usual effect of protectionism, domestic production gets shoddy without competition.

2010/05/21

Nothing Rots That Was Not Once Ripe

That's not a quote, I think I made it up. It's neat though, huh?

So, went and looked for some ALI PROJECT videos on YouTube; 'bout what you'd expect. Apparently their style is specifically "Elegant Gothic Aristocrat". The Wikipedia article identifies it with the late Victorian; maybe in men's clothes, but the women's stuff is Early Victorian, or even earlier—a lot of it seems to predate the First Empire, whalebone corsets and such.

Yes, I'm even a geek about clothes. Makes more sense than Late Victorian anyway, since you say "decadent aristocrat" and I say "Byron, Shelley, Goethe, which last gentleman fought at Valmy." So, yeah, early Victorian. Then again, Swinburne was late and pretty decadent (though not quite as aristocratic), but he didn't exactly take fashion by storm.

Ahem. My point in all this is that it reminded me, there seems to be this idea abroad in the land that aristocracies are born decadent. Essentially a lot of people seem to have this idea that aristocrats just somehow got this power, for no reason, and that their status was always based on bloodline. Of course even a cursory reading of history will show that's poppycock, but it's still fascinating: people honestly seem to think aristocratic systems spring up out of nowhere. Possibly it's because we've made a sort of lobotomized religion out of liberalism, and we need a lot of euhemeristic myths to account for the rise of the "heathen" political systems.

In actual fact, at least for the aristocracies one found in Europe in the early modern era, we know exactly how they arose. After the collapse of the Imperial government in the West, the people, the townsmen and the small farmers, turned for protection to the big landowners, who could afford to hire soldiers. In exchange, they gave them a share of their land's produce, or money equal to a percentage of the value of their city property. A landowner would also be getting customary dues from the serfs who worked his land, although generally only a portion of the harvest (and one he couldn't change without their consent). In exchange for all these dues, the landowners had to provide protection. There were probably other factors, remnants of Roman law and barbarian custom, but at base the medieval aristocracy originated in free, rational contracts.

But then it all went south. Of course; they don't call this crappy world the Valley of Tears because of the sea air. The late Middle Ages brought back Roman law, with charming things like slavery, absolutist government, and women being legal non-entities (some recent reading suggests I was understating the case when I said medieval women had a lot of rights—apparently, High Medieval women had every right men had with essentially no exceptions, at least in France). The failure of the Crusades and the loss of Byzantium broke Europe's morale as a society. Know what happens when your militocracy's officers are demoralized, have no enemy to fight, and have spent a century and a half resurrecting laws from an era when their class was actually considered spiritually better? Yeah, they turn into assholes.

The decadent aristocracies the Enlightenment liberals saw around them had outlived their usefulness, but they did have it, once. Nobles' pride in their bloodlines was precisely because their ancestors had done their jobs as nobles. But in fiction? Nope. Do any of the Death Eaters brag about the deeds of their ancestors, the mighty magics they wielded or earth-shaking dweomers they laid? Do any of them have the more powerful magic you'd expect from the heirs of ancient wizard families? Course not. Now, if Rowling were actually going to have them be like England's aristocrats—to whit, they haven't preserved any traditions, but are in fact mindless slaves to fashion and being up-to-date ("Generally speaking the aristocracy does not preserve either good or bad traditions; it does not preserve anything except game," as Chesterton said)—that would be all right, and impressively "subversive". But there's no sign Rowling actually knows about that aspect of the case; instead, all we get is these ex nihilo nobs, whose ancestors have always just been proud of their blood as such, even going back to when it was just like everyone else's.

It makes liberalism look weak, when its modern apologists don't even appear to know there are arguments for the alternatives. Pro tip, in this as in other fields: convince me your system is better, don't just say (or worse, indirectly demonstrate) that you can't conceive of why anyone would ever have chosen a different one. That just makes me think yours is the system of choice for unreflective dullards.

2010/05/19

It's Like the Roving of the Dog in Tolkien

Yeah, Roverandom. I have, in fact, read pretty much all of Tolkien's fiction—I've even read Farmer Giles of Ham. Look, basically what I'm saying is this is a "random stuff" post.
  • Chuck Norris has signed on to be a spokesman for the NRA. My first thought was, "Wait, guns really do carry him for protection!"

  • So, Vic, the thief/information broker in Infinite Undiscovery. It's apparently supposed to be some kind of shocker that "he" is actually a girl. No, that's not a spoiler, you'll know the first time she shows up. Hint: if you're a girl trying to pass as a boy, don't wear garments that bare your midriff (or, more to the point, your hips). Apparently Cappell is an idiot; it kinda makes you wonder how many female impersonators he's unwittingly hit on.

  • Why do so many RPGs have random missions you pick up in grizzled bounty hunter bars? Resonance of Fate and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance both do it, though the latter does have the decency to start off with story-motivated missions. I ask you, why? Some random assortment of "Honey Do" lists from thinly-characterized NPCs, some of which might advance the plot, is certainly not what I'm looking for in an RPG.

  • On the other hand, many other RPGs have obnoxious grinding hack-and-slash right after major plot developments. Maybe the writers figure you'll be willing to do it in order to get to the next part of the story, but why bother? It's a fight with a hive of giant spiders (yes, Infinite Undiscovery again), not my math homework, so why make me force myself? Games are to be enjoyed, and you putting this meaningless crap in the middle of my story hampers my enjoyment.

  • All of this would, of course, go away if there were only a market for Visual Novels in the US, but that ain't happening. I hate American video game audiences, I really do.

  • Speaking of visual novels, The World God Only Knows is getting an anime. I for one plan to eat it with a spoon. Hopefully next spring? I'm not really sure how long the adaptation process takes for a manga of that type (mercifully there's relatively little action, and action sequences are often the most time-consuming). Here's hoping they do things smart, and realize that the show needs to be in the exact style of a dating sim. You should think it's the anime of a game, not a manga.

  • Speaking of anime adaptations, Kurogane no Linebarrels is the example of exactly what not to do. They made Kouichi from "good guy who's a little bit of an ass" into "complete self-absorbed monster". The way they screwed up the time sequence makes the characterization bizarre, though they were probably doing it in order to justify their "Kouichi as Satan" portrayal. Worst of all, they changed the really interesting character designs into the generic Sunrise style (see also S-Cry-ED and Gundam SEED) and turned the mecha from things that looked like Metal Gear concept art (!) into a bunch of generic CGI. Let's not even discuss the hash they made of the later story.

  • In the Linebarrel anime's defense, the opening by ALI PROJECT totally sounds like the black, decadent, goth polka that will be danced on the world's last day. Which is awesome.

2010/05/16

For the Future of Mankind

I ask you, what the hell else you gonna call a post about Iron Man 2 and feminism?

So saw Iron Man 2. Nice. Anyone else notice how much the original version of Hammer's armor looked like Spartan MJOLNIR armor? I think Bungie should be proud they've managed to color how we think of powered armor.

But apparently not everyone had an enjoyable moviegoing experience. Ms. Magazine's critic actually says the film is advocating acting like Tony Stark. That is, she seems to think that any of the things Tony does other than invent cool gizmos and stomp bad guys is presented as good, admirable, or in any way worthy of emulation. I'm curious, Natalie Wilson, do you also think Gregory House is being offered up as a paragon of the medical profession? Because pretty much the point of Tony's entire character ark in this movie is that he's an ass. He is, in fact, Gregory House—just swap out liquor for Vicodin, heavy metal poisoning for a bum leg and superscience for diagnostics. The whole point is him becoming a hero by growing out of that.

Maybe Gloria Steinem needs to sleep with more rich businessmen so Ms. can hire literate film critics. No I'm not making that up. I couldn't actually make up feminist hypocrisies that are worse than the real things Steinem and Simone "Harley Quinn" Beauvoir have actually done.

What the hell, though? Apparently it's also racist that Tony had a problem with his weapons being used to kill Americans but not America's enemies—you see, the only distinction is one of race, not, you know, one's your damn country and the others are its enemies. I'm racially identical to most of Canada, but if we were at war with them, I'd have no problem killing their soldiers. Nationalism has its own abuses, but not to know that it is, in fact, not the same concept as racism, is simply to announce you don't get complicated ideas. Maybe Ms. Wilson had a boy do her social studies homework or something.

When Tony ogles every female around, I'm curious, did Wilson not notice Pepper calling him on it? Did she not notice that the women he does it to hold him in contempt?

Did she not notice that, far from women's most important asset being their bodies, every woman in this succeeds far more frequently by computer know-how or sheer brute authority? The one use of force by a woman in the whole movie was pretty damned stylized, but we can't expect every female secret agent to be Nina Williams.

One last thing: Wilson objects to the "overt sexualization of females" (emphasis mine). Uh, Wilson, I'm pretty sure you just outed yourself, because I'm a straight guy and I think Tony Stark was fricking hot. If you don't understand that the Iron Man suit is far more fanservice than the very tightest of leather catsuits, you're really not qualified to have opinions about geeks. (Pepper Potts was no slouch either, and she wasn't "overtly" sexualized.)

And Tony's leering? Yeah, you're not supposed to approve of that. His backup dancers, at his presentation? Yeah, again, you were supposed to cringe at that, permit me to congratulate you on actually having a human response to one thing in the whole movie. It's like the Almighty Tallests' laser show in the first episode of ZIM, a tacky, pro wrestling-style gimmick. It's intentional, to show just what kind of shallow, again, ASS Tony Stark is.

I just checked: my 13-year-old brother understands that movies don't endorse every behavior they depict, even on the part of their heroes. Wilson appears unable to avoid divorcing incidents from their obvious narrative point, and assigning them meanings without reference to their context: she's actually less qualified to critique films than a seventh grader! Maybe chicks should leave film criticism to the boys.

I kid. Really, what happened is that Wilson saw the movie she expected to see, rather than the one she did see, a classic confirmation bias and to be expected in a "church circular" like Ms.. Ideology makes you stupid, and it's not just feminism—I've read a libertarian who thought It's a Wonderful Life was collectivist. Yeah, I know, the quintessential private-property, small-town populism movie: apparently you're a damn Commie if you happen to object to towns being dominated by joyless misers.

Still, though, Wilson is unusually unsubtle about being a vapid ideologue.

2010/05/13

Two Legs Good

So, David Brin. The man looks like a bald Rowan Atkinson and wrote The Postman—yes, the dry version of Waterworld. With a track-record like that, I'd have killed myself a long time ago, but I'm capable of shame.

So he wrote about how Star Wars is terrible, "backward-looking", fascistic—in a nutshell that George Lucas ought to be sent to the Gulag for counter-revolutionary agitation. Let's go line by line through what he says Star Wars' message is.
Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn't be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.
Um, do you honestly mean to tell me that you don't realize that "they may only choose which elite to follow" is absolutely co-terminous with the party system that dominates your precious "democracies"?
"Good" elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.
Aside from the fact Jedi are all about suppressing their whims, please tell me you're aware of what's known as "the judicial usurpation of politics", which is where unelected judges use judicial review powers to enact laws they feel should exist, "without evidence, argument or accountability".
Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.
Mary Jo Kopechne on line 2. More to the point, it's true, about sin, as opposed to crime (it's just that everyone's important enough). But the distinction seems lost on Brin, who insists on identifying not only the civil order, but his specific political theories, with the moral law.
True leaders are born. It's genetic. The right to rule is inherited.
Well, it is, even in a "democracy"—oh, unless we were to abolish birthright citizenship. Tell me, Brin, how do you feel about Starship Troopers?
Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.
Wait, you mean you disagree? I'm sorry, but are you actually concerned to deny that people do evil things from good motives? Just shut up right now; the grownups only have so much patience.

Basically Brin decided it was okay to stop learning about the world in eighth grade, and he was obviously deeply, deeply affected by civics class. Only guess what? Societies cannot avoid having elites; inequality is an inherent trait of the universe, since no material thing can partake absolutely of any good. But there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with an elite. The right way is to acknowledge them, and try to set limits on their behavior—using the benefits of their rank as a carrot, and some form of penalty (often shame, an emotion Brin doesn't appear acquainted with) as a stick. The wrong way is to deny the elite's existence, thus depriving society of the means, the right, to control it. Everyone's equal, we're all comrades...and yet for some reason when one of the comrades gives speeches, nobody wants to be the first one to stop clapping.

Basically, children, what happens when you declare all animals equal is that some are more...you know where it's going. So here's a question: Orwell understood that, but wasn't smart enough to avoid dying of syphilis (a treatable disease even then, and one quite easily avoided by not going to brothels). Brin does not understand it, so how is it he's managed to avoid eating anything out of a container with a skull on it?

Elsewhere in the same article, Brin says:
It is essential to understand the radical departure taken by genuine science fiction, which comes from a diametrically opposite literary tradition—a new kind of storytelling that often rebels against those very same archetypes [Joseph] Campbell venerated. An upstart belief in progress, egalitarianism, positive-sum games—and the slim but real possibility of decent human institutions.
Huh. Well. Even to the extent that is true, and it largely isn't, so what? A certain economic and social theory explicitly characterized by "an upstart belief in progress, egalitarianism, positive-sum games—and...decent human institutions" killed 120 million people in 72 years, so why in hell should we want that to inform our literature?

Then there's this:
"Star Wars" belongs to our dark past. A long, tyrannical epoch of fear, illogic, despotism and demagoguery that our ancestors struggled desperately to overcome, and that we are at last starting to emerge from, aided by the scientific and egalitarian spirit that Lucas openly despises. A spirit we must encourage in our children, if they are to have any chance at all.

...

But over the long haul, history is on my side. Because the course of human destiny won't be defined in the past. It will be decided in our future.
And we will bury you! You and your capitalist imperialism will be consigned to the dustbin of history! And we strike a glorious blow against despotism and demagoguery by murdering the Tsar and his family!

And hasn't anyone noticed by now—well, other than Chesterton, who talks about it in What's Wrong with the World—that people who talk so much about the future are always trying to screw you in the present? Or that "fear, illogic, despotism and demagoguery" is a better description of the 20th century than of any century before it? Progress is a myth; the goodness or badness of a given era is not even correlated with, let alone caused by, its occurrence earlier or later in time.

Brin is probably not a Communist, but he has, in common with them, an inability to distinguish politics from morality—"that which advances the program" is alone good. For Brin, it doesn't matter if you strive in every way to enact justice, dignity, and prosperity for your people; if you weren't elected to the post that lets you do it, you're evil. He's an idiot, of course—direct democracies aren't workable, and "representative" ones always become dominated by an elite. If you're not going to have hereditary elites, you'll have an elected one (that is, advertising will become the basis of political power) or a scholarly one (acceptation by the various academic cliques will become the basis of political power, and academic fads will be the de facto law of the land).

Does anyone else really get tired of these little apple-polishing true believers preaching to us? I actually do have a soft spot for children's uncritical acceptance of everything they learn in Sunday school, but that's about supernatural, avowedly mystical things. If you have that attitude of simple, childlike faith in a political ideology, I for one have no interest in being one of the millions that dies while you traverse your sharp learning curve.

Idiot.

2010/05/08

Not the Russian for "Handheld Anti-tank Grenade-launcher"

Hint: the clue is, "What does RPG stand for?"

Remember how I expended utterly otakuppoi—otakurashii, even—amounts of thought on the concept of tsundere? Well now I'm gonna do the same for RPGs.
  • I may well be alone in this, but I prefer the first version of the 2nd Edition rulebooks for D&D more than any other version. I mainly like the look of it, the '80s fantasy Larry Elmore/Willow/Labyrinth/Legend/Clyde Caldwell aesthetic; there's a psychological atmosphere there that you also get from hair band and laundromats. It's one of the main things that attracts me to Dragonlance—I can only read the original editions of the Chronicles trilogy, I know, it's weird.

  • The other thing I like better about 2nd Edition was what's known as the "fluff". The rules' tone hits a good balance between hardcore and non-threatening: the rules are explained gently, without Gygax's recourse to what Buckley called the Zoo section of the dictionary, yet at the same time there's no attempt to hide the fact this is a game for geeks—and "he" is a generic pronoun, which made my linguist heart happy. Sure, they changed demons and devils to tanar'ri and baatezu, but since they're emphatically not fallen angels and never were, it's all for the best, politically correct or no. Plus, 2nd Ed. had the best settings: they made Forgotten Realms the default instead of Greyhawk, which I like, and they had Spelljammer, Planescape, and Dark Sun, each a work of art in three very different ways.

  • Still, 3rd Edition has a better rules system, nobody can deny that. It brought D&D out of the stone age by making it skill-based, and made it actually worthwhile to play clerics and druids—perhaps too worthwhile.

  • Though D&D was my first love (well, no, Tolkien was, but as an RPG I mean, and we're not even getting into the LotR RPG from Iron Crown Enterprises, which sucked out loud), I admit to preferring games with a single mechanic, like Vampire and Alternity. I especially like Alternity because it's so light on setting, meaning you come up with your own; I have a (currently dormant) campaign set in my SF novels' universe, with homebrew psionics rules.

  • Vampire—and Werewolf, which is vastly underrated—were the first games I played with non-relatives, and they're very solid, except for, well, the setting. Vampire's actually has some work in it, it's a serviceable world to play in if you don't mind Gnosticism As Understood By Tenth Graders being the only valid holy text, but the backstory of Werewolf is garbage, garbage undiluted. Also, there's not enough love for Shadow Lords, who are plainly the best tribe. For Vampires it's gotta be Malkaves and Tremere. I wish I'd known then what I know now about anxiety disorders, because I didn't really know how to pin down my Malkavian's insanity; he was mostly just "too nice to the point of Williams syndrome".

  • All that I will say about 4th Edition D&D is, there is a D&D4E "For Dummies" book at Barnes & Noble. A needless redundancy! More seriously, I really do feel that each edition after 2 has jettisoned more of what made D&D unique, becoming closer to a generic fantasy game, as Alternity is essentially a generic SF game. It used to be as unique a fantasy game as Gamma World was unique among SF games. I think something inside of me died a little when they took Bigby, Tasha, and Mordenkainen's names out of the spell-lists.

  • On the other hand, my trouble with the revised WoD is much simpler: did you guys actually try to make the World of Darkness Darker And Edgier?!

  • Go read some Dragon Magazines from the late 80s and early 90s, when Roger E. Moore (he played Tasslehoff Burrfoot, not James Bond) was the editor. Now read the MST3K Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. Similar vibe, huh? Apparently geek-related groups in the upper Midwest are all awesome.

  • Mention of Tas reminds me, kender cannot possibly be immune to fear; they must just have some kind of weird compulsion that suppresses all their flight response and inhibitions when they're near something they're curious about. See, if they were immune to fear they'd all be sociopaths who can't be tickled. I still like them better than D&D's halflings—hobbits with the serial numbers filed off—though I make an exception for Olive Ruskettle. Don't get me started on Athasian halflings, though, or how each edition after 2nd has been blending halfling and kender more than the previous one.

2010/05/05

Has an Android Buddha Nature, Or Not?

.

Anyway, you can find videos on YouTube of Hatsune Miku, the Vocaloid, singing the Amatsu Norito and the Shariraimon—Shinto's equivalent of the Pater Noster or the Shema Yisrael, and the Mahayana school's Verse of Homage to the Buddha's Relics. It's kinda odd, because Miku...isn't a person, she's an entirely simulated character, but at the same time it's damn cool. If I ever manage to make my books into shows you can rest assured that both will feature in the soundtrack.

But that—a vocaloid participating, even fictitiously, in the spiritual life of a nation—set me off on a number of delightful SF-writer tangents. Another Vocaloid song, Kokoro Kiseki (usually performed by either or both of the Kagamine twins, Len and Rin), is basically everything that's good about Astroboy and none of what isn't. The song's conclusion also deals with...questions. Morphology, longevity...incept dates.

A BladeRunner quote for your delectation; expect more to follow.

As I sort of touched on in "What Is a Man?", there really aren't any real questions raised about "what it means to be human" if you could make AI. Oh, sure, there might be questions about "what is a mind?" if you could make one—assuming you found a software work-around to get past Lucas-Penrose (the work-around used in my book was deprecated in Deuteronomy 18:10-11)—but that question would either have to be solved before you could make one, or be answered when you made one. Not that real philosophy doesn't already know: mind, or intellect, is how a rational being interacts with concepts, just as the senses are how a sentient being interacts with stimuli. Interestingly, it'd actually be (in a sense) possible for an AI to be rational but not sentient. Yes it'd be weird to have an AI whose only data source is keyboards and computer networks—one with no haptic, auditory, or visual perception—but you could do it.

But there is still a question, "What is the spiritual nature of an AI?" Given that an AI is a rational being it would stand to reason it would have the same rights as a person...which would make those Asimov laws monstrously immoral. But at the same time other rational beings have a right to protect themselves, so it would be entirely moral to build in some kind of kill-switch for AIs. Counterintuitive, but there it is: an AI has all the rights of a human, including the right not to be killed without a good reason, but the rights of other people still make it permissible to render an AI easily killable, even though they don't make the 3 Laws okay. We let cops carry guns, we don't lobotomize the citizenry.

But what's an AI's role in society? It's a bad idea to make the things without first figuring that out. Though a company could just get involved for the publicity—"GiantEvilSoftCo: Other computer scientists talk about AI, but ours actually did something about it"—they're more likely to want to sell them. Or, well, hire them out, if we're going to pretend slavery will never come back. And then the question becomes, "What the hell you want one for?" Certainly you won't actually want univerzální roboti; not only don't you need AIs for menial tasks, not automating at all can be beneficial, at least in the "idle hands are the Devil's plaything" aspect of social policy.

Basically you'd want AIs for things where you want to minimize the possibility of human error, but still have control by an actually rational being, rather than an automated system. You'd probably get a lot of AIs in administrative positions, especially in the military and large-scale industry where lots of operations have to be coordinated by someone with an actual understanding. If they're right about the role of the observer in quantum physics, you might also use AIs for watching experiments. You might actually see them as something like super secretaries, acting as administrative assistants to every executive or officer in a body, simultaneously. The only difficulty there is secretaries can't be hacked, but AIs can't be tortured or blackmailed, so it probably balances out. You also probably can't have an affair with your AI (let's all keep exceptions to that rule to ourselves, hmm?). You might use them as spies or similar, depending how expensive they are to make.

All that is, of course, assuming the people who set AI policy understand them, which won't be the case. In my book, for instance, AI isn't widely understood, the process for making them a closely-kept secret. AIs can be bought and sold (they're not legally people, because the company that makes them hasn't told anyone they are), and, while they're mostly used for the roles I mentioned, people also sometimes put them in sex-'droid bodies (most sex-'droids only have video-game "AI", of course, but some people prefer more depth—of course, they seldom ask the AI's permission). Squickety doo-dah, squickety-day!

Finally, ahem (and yes, I know, replicants are bioroids, not really AIs):
I've...seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams...glitter in the dark...near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like...tears in rain. Time to die.

2010/05/02

Itsumô Wareware no Bentô wo Tabeyagateru

Yes, that means "Always fricking eating our lunch." In Japanese. No that's not an expression there.

So I was recently thinking that perhaps an American animation art-style, for instance that of this person's Harry Potter fanart, might be better for when I draw my characters—I don't draw much, and the manga/anime style I favor is very hard for me; it also tends to obscure what ethnicity characters are (the industry term is "mukokuseki" or "country-less style"). Anyway I came across a bunch of articles comparing anime and western animation. You probably know where this is going now.

There were a number of things people said, for or against one side or another. Guess what? They're all wrong. This is a thing I have; if you argue wrong, I'll say you're wrong even if I actually agree with you. Your opinion might be right, but you probably don't have a right to it.

Naturally, this brings us to an ordered list. Who the hell do you think I am?
  1. Pro-anime: anime has strong female characters.

    It also has moe, the loveable pervert, and (most of) the bishôjô genre. So, as they say, there.

  2. Anti-anime: anime's portrayal of women is sexist.

    Compared to the Disney Princess thing? The Disney thing is also simultaneously snobbish and ignorant of the concept of noblesse oblige (far from being the selfish brats in Disney movies, real princesses, like real princes, barely got private lives). Also, anime has at least managed to grasp that "strong" and "feminine" are not mutually exclusive, a concept most westerners struggle mightily with. So (again) there.

    Oddly enough, apparently not hitting girls is part of feminism, in Japan. Who knew?

  3. Pro-anime: anime doesn't have superficial good vs. evil stories.

    One questions how the conflict of Being and Nonbeing is superficial, precisely, but then again, Western work doesn't involve self-righteousness from a largely-unrepentant Axis Power, either. So...yeah, there, really.

  4. Pro-anime (yeah there's more of these): anime is critical of our treatment of the environment.

    Right, because there's never a Green message in American work.

  5. Anti-anime: anime is more about high-tech stories without much depth.

    Yes, people've said that, I don't get it either—do they know there's more anime than Ghost in the Shell? Anime, like Japanese culture generally, is much better at coping with a highly technological civilization. And they're always as deep as comparable western work (that meaning, "most anime is as deep as Batman: TAS, because that's the only really comparable work").

  6. Pro-anime: anime at least understands that animation isn't only for children, and that you can tell serious stories in it. While Western animation is just kids' shows or Family Guy.

    Yeah, well, pretty much, actually, but I don't see anyone who says this asking for Hollywood to make more serious stuff for grownups. Then again if they did, it'd probably suck; Hollywood's recent crap has been almost as stupid and politically myopic as the "we're the reason for half the world's war-crimes laws but we think we still get to criticize other people's foreign policy" thing. Look at comic books: do you want an animated Marvel Civil War? Yeah, thought not.