Gangnam Style passed 1 billion views

Gangnam Style passed 1 billion views today.  YouTube even made a special  gif for it, dancing next to the view counter.  (For some reason, it won't let me insert the gif into the post, so you'll have to go to the video and hope it's still there.) That's about one view for every seven people on earth.  I mean, obviously it's not exactly that, because it's been more often seen by the same people over and over again than it's been seen by new people, but still.

To celebrate, here's a link and an embed to the most popular song on the internet:

More about America and Guns, via Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has provided me (via Tumblr) with some more lovely information about UK versus US gun laws.

On March 13, 1995, in the small Scottish town of Dunblane, a forty-three-year-old man, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and opened fire, methodically killing sixteen children and one adult teacher before killing himself. The unprecedented massacre of children led, within two years, to legislation that imposed a total ban on the private ownership of handguns in the United Kingdom. Today, no one in the United Kingdom can privately own a handgun or a semiautomatic weapon. There was not much hand wringing or heated debate over this legislation. It was discussed, and enacted, with overwhelming public support, in response to the mood of national shame and grief over the killings.

The New Yorker: “Guns and the limits of shame” (via lauraolin)

I remember. Mostly, the people in the UK felt that not having things like this happen was a good thing. I wish these massacres would persuade the American voting public of the same thing.

(The UK had 14 Firearm-related murders last year; the US, with a population only 5 times that of the UK, had 9,369. Per this website.)

(via wilwheaton)

The New Yorker article, from which that quote was pulled, makes a number of clear, unambiguous points about the absurdity of American gun laws.

It occurs to me that this is the second time this year that I've blogged about American gun laws for days in a row.  Last time was following a preventable massacre, too.  The last time I did it was following the Aurora, CO shootings.  But now that I check, there was also the shooting at the Sikh temple in August.  So, we're up to 3 this year.  3 fatal attacks on civilian locations by individual deranged people.

To wrap this up, and hopefully not come back to it, here's one more quote, a post by confusedtannenbaum on tumblr:

There’s something I want to say about the Connecticut shooting that hasn’t been sitting well with me and it’s how a lot of people talking about this shooter are quantifying his motivations as being due to mental illness

I know a lot of people who follow me don’t really seem to buy social theories about white privilege and ableism (to be frank, I don’t know why you’d be here if you don’t, but that’s another discussion altogether) but here’s why doing that is kind of hurtful

Very few, if any of these sorts of tragedies are caused by mental illness when the killers are professionally evaluated and that’s because more often than not, these are not regrettably avoidable instances where proper psychiatric care would prevent them - they’re the power fantasies of privileged white males who grow up in a culture of fetishized violence

This is important to note for two reasons

  1. If the killer wasn’t white, the media would have absolutely no problem calling it terrorism or levying allegations of gang connections
  2. People with mental illnesses are not ticking timebombs and there are huge differences between mental illness and mental disturbances and people who suffer from mental illnesses severe enough to push them to do something like this show extremely troubling warning signs long before they have the chance to do something, if they’re not already incarcerated for lesser crimes

I know you guys think you’re contributing to a positive and accepting discourse by saying one of the ways we can learn from this horrific event is to provide better care for people with mental illnesses but what you are doing is implicitly adding an “or else…” to the end of that sentence and that’s very hurtful to a lot of people, some of whom I bet you care about

Gender neutral toys aren't evil: A response to Christina Hoff Sommers

Christina Hoff Sommers at the Atlantic has published a very long, very annoying article complaining about the existence of gender-neutral efforts in Sweeden:

 subterfuge and propaganda appear to be the order of the day in Sweden. In their efforts to free children from the constraints of gender, the Swedish reformers are imposing their own set of inviolate rules, standards, and taboos.

Sommers thinks it's very important to defend the position that it might be incredibly immoral, like, Orwell-level immoral, to pursue a non-gender-delineated society.  The subhed of her article is "The logistical and ethical problems with trying to make toys gender-neutral."  Yeah, thats right.  Ethical problems.  She's arguing that it's ethically wrong to raise kids in a nongender environment.

Her article extensively insists that "Boys and girls are different."  That quote comes from a statement put out by a Hasbro manager.  The whole article is obsessive about maintaining an impression of a gender binary, in a system that's explicitly denying it -- trying instead to insist, apparently, that Sweeden is attempting to manufacture a new gender to which they expect everyone to conform, rather than what they seem to actually be doing: removing the idea of a gender binary from the kids' self-identity, and encouraging them to value life skills outside the ones most valued by the gender they've been assigned at birth.

Children, with few exceptions, are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play. David Geary, a developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri, told me in an email this week, "One of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes are children's play preferences." The female preference for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally and even cross-species (with a few exceptions—female spotted hyenas seem to be at least as aggressive as males). Among our close relatives such as vervet and rhesus monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars. It seems unlikely that the monkeys were indoctrinated by stereotypes in a Top-Toy catalog. Something else is going on.

(emphasis mine)

This section is just blatantly disingenuous.  Of course our close relatives among primates are influenced by the culture around them.  There are many well-known examples of monkeys modeling their behavior based on the behaviors of other monkeys, and enforcing social norms even without particular reasons.  The fact that they won't have gotten these impressions from a toy catalog doesn't mean they weren't influenced by their peers.

Sommers even tries to force people who don't identify with their assigned gender all into one category -- that of the other gender.

The Swedes are treating gender-conforming children the way we once treated gender-variant children. Formerly called "tomboy girls" and "sissy boys" in the medical literature, these kids are persistently attracted to the toys of the opposite sex. They will often remain fixated on the "wrong" toys despite relentless, often cruel pressure from parents, doctors, and peers.

No, it's not the same thing at all.  The Swedes are treating everyone like liking things and giving things a chance shouldn't be conditioned upon one's genitals.  What you're doing is saying everyone fits into one of two absolutist categories, and that the only non-traditional manifestation of these categories is when a kid of one sex identifies with the other gender.

Sommers's point overall seems to be that there's something morally wrong with discouraging children from aggressively gendering themselves and each other.  But we discourage children from plenty of needlessly harmful behavior that may come naturally to some of them.  What this sounds like to me is the panicked wailing of a cisgendered person struggling to find a way to avoid thinking about gender as being more complicated than a simple binary, and thinking about people not being constrained by particular conditions of their biology.

And if, at the end of all of this, upon the success of the Swedish nongendered schools, more people with penises than with vaginas still like trucks and arm wrestling, that doesn't mean the Swedes weren't right.  All it means is that there is a biological component to interests -- the existence of which does not validate proactively pouring massive civilization-scale resources into enforcing and reinforcing a much more restrictive and oppressive cultural component to interests.

More evidence that climate change is human-caused

(via Reddit)

 This is a picture of the atmospheric temperature in the lower troposphere and in the lower stratosphere.  The stratosphere is higher up than the troposphere.  The red and orange means "More hot."  What this image shows is that greenhouse gasses are trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The image comes from this article, which discusses new modeling systems that allow researchers to create an even clearer picture of the fact that the gasses that humans have pumped into the atmosphere over the last hundred years are the thing that's causing climate change, not -- as they explicitly point out -- from stuff like volcanoes or natural cycles of sun-heat:

“After removing all global mean signals,” the authors write, referring to natural changes like volcanic eruptions and changes in the brightness of the sun, “model fingerprints remain identifiable in 70 percent of the tests involving tropospheric temperature changes.”

In plain English, that simply means that the warming of the troposphere and cooling of the stratosphere can’t be explained in any other way than by the heat-trapping effects of human-generated greenhouse gases. “It was surprising to me how large the signal was,” Santer said.

This is also, they point out, consistent with the whole constellation of evidence that climate change is human-caused:

This is only one of the fingerprints scientists expect to see in a human–influenced climate, moreover. “In the past we’ve looked at ocean surface temperatures changes in hurricane-forming regions, patterns in atmospheric pressure; rainfall patterns, and changes in Arctic sea ice,” Santer said.

All of these and more can be identified more easily and clearly with the new models.

Gender neutral Easy-Bake Oven petition

(via Boing Boing)

The above video implores viewers to sign a petition for Hasbro to push back against the ubiquitous assumption that women are the only people who want to learn to cook, or play with cooking toys.  Mckenna Pope recorded her brother explaining that he wants an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas, but thinks "Only girls play with it."

From the Change.org petition:

Imagine my surprise when I walked into his room to find him "cooking" tortillas by placing them on top of his lamp's light bulb! Obviously, this is not a very safe way for him to be a chef, so when he asked Santa for his very own Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, produced by the Hasbro company, for me to help him be the cook he's always wanted to be, my parents and I were immediately convinced it was the truly perfect present.

However, we soon found it quite appalling that boys are not featured in  packaging or promotional materials for Easy Bake Ovens -- this toy my brother's always dreamed about. And the oven comes in gender-specific hues: purple and pink.

I feel that this sends a clear message: women cook, men work.

I have always been adamantly against anything that promotes specific roles in society for men and women, and having grown up with toys produced by the Hasbro corporation, it truly saddens me that such a successful business would resort to conforming to society's views on what boys do and what girls do.

I want my brother to know that it's not "wrong" for him to want to be a chef, that it's okay to go against what society believes to be appropriate.

Here: go sign.  I did.  They're only about 6,000 signatures away from the 35,000 signature goal.

General disappointment

I'm more than usually annoyed at civilization's failures today. According to indexmundi.com, the average American spends 25.2 minutes a day commuting.  That's 2 hours a week.  probably enough time to keep up with an online class.  (Especially a class organized for commuters.)  If we had comprehensive public transportation, people could spend the time going to and from work on buses and trains, with their laptops or tablets, learning.

Or they could keep up with another reality TV show.  Or they could get in a nap.  Or they could listen to music and meditate.

Commutes would probably be longer in this paradigm, but that's fine.  That's more free time.  Time blocked out cleanly in everyone's day.

(I mean, ideally our cities would be built in a way that placed everyone close enough to their workplace that their commutes wouldn't take that long.)

I'm sure there are enough people willing to drive for a living to overcome the sudden absence of hundreds of thousands of amateur drivers.  It would reduce carbon emissions.  It would make the roads safer -- by reducing the number of cars, and by having only professional drivers on the road.

And, obviously, when I remember about this particular civilizational failure, I'm reminded of many of the other ones:  the continued existence of the penny, the horrible structure of student loans, the failures of education systems worldwide, the DMCA, American internet speeds, the war on drugs, etc.

We're suffering, in the United States, from a failure to optimize several societal institutions, because the optimization reduces the number of people who can profit from a reformed system.  Our internet isn't being reformed because our ISPs can charge us enough as it is.  Our entertainment industry is fighting against freedom of expression because it maximizes their ability to make billion-dollar, broad-appeal action movies.  Our education system is nearly a method for converting optimistic young adults into revenue streams for loan companies.  Our drug policies primarily benefit private prison owners farming nonviolent offenders for government money.

And our transportation systems are fatally crippled because all the obvious solutions would result in fewer people driving, fewer people buying gas, fewer people living in suburbs and fewer people owning cars.

There are two separate intersections on my commute to school where, no matter how wide a gap I wait for, I'm always terrified that someone is going to crash into me.  Part of it is that the roads are poorly designed, but a bigger part is that the roads are crowded with people who have no place operating a motor vehicle -- including me.  The fact that we expect everyone to do it means we've lowered our standards for who should be allowed to drive.  It's incredibly dangerous, and you really should have to be a lot better at it before they let you do it every day, whenever you want.

I'm pissed about this, because (a.) my life is daily put at needless risk because I happen to live in a country with a fetish for motor vehicles, (b.) I have to pay for this privilege because despite an infrastructure that makes them a necessity our society doesn't treat access to cars as a right, and (c.) it means I start and end every day with stress.  I spend about an hour every day being made anxious and irritated, time I could spend studying, or working, or napping, or listening to fracking music.  Really, anything other than being the person operating the vehicle would be awesome.

Video games get proper recognition as art

The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) is installing 14 video games as exhibits, meaning you can go to the museum and play these games.  Starting with the most important note:  Yes, Tetris is one of the first fourteen games going in, so they can be reasonably trusted to have some clue how to figure out what games are important.  (Tetris is the best game.) As far as I know, reasonable people no longer defend the premise that video games aren't an art form, but it's cool that some of the best games are getting the formal recognition they deserve within the larger art community, rather than only among the gamer community.

From Slate:

How will the video games, which necessitate personal human interaction to be fully experienced, be exhibited for the masses? MoMA says that visitors will be able to play the entirety of short games and experience “interactive demonstrations” or emulations of longer and older games. As for the complex universes of games like Dwarf Fortress andEVE Online, MoMA claims it will provide “guided tours of these alternate worlds.”

MoMA is defining the medium that games take place in as the code -- which seems to me to be a good way to categorize it.  They consider the playability of a game to be its essential component, the thing that distinguishes video games, not just as an art form, but as their own art form.  Slate points out that this differs from arguments that video games are art in that they consist of narratives.  It also differs from the point made by Penny Arcade that the collected works of art that go into creating a video game are what make it art ("If a hundred artists create art for five years, how could the result not be art?) -- so, pixel art isn't what earns the video game its status.

Boing Boing posted a list of the 14 games going in to begin with, alongside their years of publication -- the starting number for a collection aiming at 40 games:

  • Pac-Man (1980)
  • Tetris (1984)
  • Another World (1991)
  • Myst (1993)
  • SimCity 2000 (1994)
  • vib-ribbon (1999)
  • The Sims (2000)
  • Katamari Damacy (2004)
  • EVE Online (2003)
  • Dwarf Fortress (2006)
  • Portal (2007)
  • flOw (2006)
  • Passage (2008)
  • Canabalt (2009)

Emphases mine.  Bold=games I've never played.  Italics=games I've never heard of.  I think I've got some reading up to do.

And congratulations to MoMA for making the right decision and including Tetris in the initial selection.

In the event of my death

Delete my internet history. No but seriously, what am I going to do with all my data when I die?  I assume it's going to be a very long time from now, but I can't actually be sure.  And I am completely unprepared.

I've been thinking about this occasionally since I read this interview, between webcomic creators Joey Comeau and Ryan North.  North talks about what's going to happen with all his online affairs after he dies.  His answer, too, is apparently nothing:

Joey: Your career is on computers, and probably a large part of your life is, too. Does anyone else have your passwords? What happens if you die tonight? Will your family be able to get into your email and sort out your affairs? Do you want them to? Have you got a goodbye Dinosaur Comic in your will?

Ryan: I've got nothing. I've come close to setting up a dead man's switch: a program where if I don't check in on it once every week or so, it assumes I'm dead, and goes into action. My final Dinosaur Comic gets posted, friends get pre-composed goodbye emails, enemies get a final "HEY SCREW YOU I'M DEAD BUT I'M STILL KINDA CHEESED AT YOU" message, and important passwords get emailed to my family. But I keep thinking, what if it goes wrong? What if it goes off prematurely and starts trying to tie off the loose ends in my life when I'm still around? It's a risk I haven't taken yet. It might make a good subject for a comic though!

Anyway if you're asking for my passwords they're all "ryaniscool" now.

This is on my mind again today because Cory Doctorow posted an article on Locus Online, The Internet of the Dead, last Friday, and I got around to reading it last night.  A friend of his, a much more exhaustively embedded hacker than Ryan North, passed away, and (because no one knew what to do with it) he offered to store the data until his friend's family knew how to deal with it.

Keeping your data on your live, spinning platter means that it will get saved every time you do your regular backup (assuming you perform this essential ritual!), and if the drive starts to fail, you’ll know about it right away. It’s not like dragging an old floppy out of a dusty box and praying that it hasn’t succumbed to bitrot since it was put away.

[...]

if you just stick the PC on a shelf or in a box in the basement until you know what to do with the data, there’s a good chance that the data will be lost. When it comes to computers, storage is fraught with peril. The lubricant on the drives’ bearings dries up and the disks seize. They get flooded out, or damp infiltrates them. They get gnawed by rodents, and insects fill them with droppings.

If natural causes don’t get them, then robbery might.

Ultimately Doctorow puts his friend's files on a cloud drive, where they will be held in an archive for 10 years, prepaid.

I'm not good enough with computers to set up my own dead man's switch, and I can't afford to set up my own cloud drive archive of my whole life.  But I have thought about putting together an envelope, perhaps with a password to a ZIP file I will keep updated with all my current passwords -- or, the ones that I don't want to have entombed upon my passing.  An instruction to locate and post a final blog update, messages to my friends and family, documents appointing artistic and digital executors, and a general outline of what to do if I happen to have some kinds of assets upon my death.

And I think it's a fair bet that I've thought this through more than most of the people I know.  Granted, many of them may not have quite as much of their lives on the interwebs.  But what data they do have online means something, and for some of them, it might be lost forever.

Or, maybe most of the people I know just share all their passwords with their parents, and I'm more than usually paranoid about this sort of thing.

Playing for Keeps

You know something that's really frustrating?  Seeing ads on YouTube, every day, for a crappy romantic comedy[1. I have no reason to think the movie Playing for Keeps is actually going to be bad, but it annoys me enough to assume it is.] that shares a name with a book you really like.  Playing For Keeps, by Mur Lafferty, is a novel about a world in which a huge number of people have super powers.  Specifically, it's about the lives of the people with the crappier powers, and how the people with the good powers push them around.  It's an excellent novel, and it would make an awesome movie.

Playing for Keeps, the 2012 film starring Gerard Butler, seems, based on its Wikipedia description, like it will make a terrible film.  But it comes out in like a week, and it features a bunch of stars and promoted by people with huge advertising budgets, so ads for it are all over YouTube.

Which is annoying.

Here's the Amazon link to the good Playing For Keeps, again.

The Walmart Strike

It occurred to me just now that I've barely heard anything about the strikes that were supposed to be happening at Walmarts across the country today.  According to USA Today, it seems they didn't have much effect:

 Scattered walk-outs and protests by Walmart workers and their supporters in at least nine states may have scored symbolic points Friday by taking on the retail giant head-on, but apparently they did little to keep shoppers away as the company quickly claimed its best Black Friday ever.

The company said in a statement Friday morning that its stores rang up almost 10 million transactions from the time doors opened for Black Friday shoppers at 8 p.m. Thursday until midnight, or about 5,000 items per second.

OUR Walmart, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, claimed an estimated 1,000 protests were held from Thursday to Friday in 46 states, though the exact number is unclear, the Associated Press reports.

Walmart reps are saying that the protests consisted almost entirely of non-employees, claiming that only about 50 people across the country who actually work for Walmart participated, and that strikes only took place at 26 stores.  Strike representatives are saying that multiple workers at over 100 stores took part, and I have no idea whether one side or the other is lying outright, or whether the correct number is somewhere in the middle.  Or some other number entirely.  Or maybe unicorns attacked all the Walmarts today.  I don't know, I haven't left the house.

I don't like Black Friday

I know I'm not alone in this, and I know being against Black Friday isn't a particularly unique or revolutionary position.  I don't think I'm breaking new ground here.  But I don't like that we have a day set aside as a culture for near-psychotic level shopping. John Green blogged this morning about his view that Black Friday qualifies as a religious observance: 

I would argue that all these people standing in line aren’t really there to save money. (Like, standing in line at Best Buy for four hours to save $20 on a TV is almost never an economically rational decision.)

They’re standing in line to be part of something. And the something is consumer spending, the foundational idea of (and driving force behind) America’s relative economic health. And because we associate economic health so closely with community health, Black Friday is a way of both giving thanks and making an offering.

In the end, I would argue the rituals surrounding Black Friday—combing through emails and advertisements for coupons, waking up before dawn, communing with strangers in large indoor public spaces (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.)—aren’t just similar to religious rituals. I would argue that they are religious rituals, just ones played out in a secular world.

He points out at the end that he doesn't think it's "particularly sad or tragic or anything," so I want to be clear that I'm not trying to frame his position as agreeing with mine.

But I do think he's right that Black Friday isn't so much about saving money as it's about the theater of saving money -- the way the TSA isn't about making air travel safer so much as they're about making air travel seem safer, or the way that McDonalds's salads aren't about eating healthy so much as they're about eating something that feels healthy-ish.

I mean, even if you get loads of amazing deals all day on Black Friday, which I doubt most people do, you probably end up spending more money in the frenzy of it than you would have if you had just bought the stuff you wanted at its regular price -- or at one of the other, perhaps less drastic, sales during the rest of the holiday season.

The thing that pisses me off the most about Black Friday, though, is that it's so broadly culturally recognized that it's impossible to get on with your life as though it's not happening.  Every Black Friday that I'm not working retail (and that's a whole 'nother reason to hate it) I feel trapped in my house, because it's not worth going to try and buy something I just need because sometimes I need to buy things, and wading through the absurd lines and crowds to buy, like, a stick of butter.  (I have a fruit tart I want to finish making.)

And maybe it's other stuff.  I don't know.  I feel generally kind of awful today, and maybe it's just that I tend to feel pissy after Thanksgiving, or the emotional energy of the weekend is just overloaded too much, or that it's dark out at 5pm and I hate not having sunlight all winter, or some other combination of things.

SkyScrapers in DC

I figured I was probably going to like any article with the headline Skyscrapers in DC would be good for America.  I was not mistaken.

The main issue is that DC area real estate is one of the primary "inputs" to the federal government. If housing in the DC area became cheaper, then in effect real compensation of DC-area federal employees would rise (allowing the government to attract better workers) at no cost to the taxpayer. Similarly, the federal government would just straightforwardly save money if it didn't need to pay such high rents for office space. And as well as being the most expensive office market in America, DC also has one of the most expensive hotel markets in the country which raises the cost of doing routine federal business which often requires federal workers based elsewhere to travel to agency headquarters' in the DC region.

I have occasional arguments with people about whether the US should be more urbanized. I think it should.  A lot of people think that living in the city is an occasionally necessary evil which everyone should avoid if they can.

According to the CIA world factbook, 85% of Americans lived in cities as of 2010, so making cities better is kind of a big deal.  And one of the problems with American urbanization is sprawl.  When I say "Bigger cities," I don't mean "More sprawl."  I don't mean that more of the empty space in America should be turned into two-to-three story tall fields of suburbs and strip malls.

Instead, I think we need to make the existing cities more friendly to increasing density. Skyscrapers are a great way to do this, and since DC is the most important city in American politics, it needs to be more open to access and development.

Review and Commentary: Wreck-It Ralph

Quick review:  nearly everything about this movie is awesome.  It's fun, light, emotional rollercoster, life-affirming, optimistic and morally complex.  There are some elements that are problematic, and I'll get to that.  But I want to start by talking about the stuff I love.  Spoilers starting out below the fold.

From a writer's perspective, Wreck-It Ralph is incredible.  Every beat of the movie, every sudden dramatic moment, is perfectly set up by the characters and their setting.  The best things about Ralph -- his optimism, aspiration, and  good nature -- cause his biggest problems -- nearly getting his game shut off, destroying Vannelope's car.  And the reveal at the end, that King Candy was Turbo, came out of nowhere, and made absolute sense.  (I had thought it was just going to turn out that King Candy wanted to race, but had been programmed as an NPC.)

From an emotional perspective, this movie had me in tears more than once, for more than one reason.  If I had been watching it at home, I probably would have paused to finish weeping before getting back to the movie -- for that reason, I recommend seeing it in the theater, where you'll be forced to get the whole experience all at once.  It's worth it.

Moving on to the problematic stuff:

Wreck-It Ralph passes the Bechdel Test:  the other Sugar Racers, predominantly female, talk to Vannelope about whether she can race, and Vannelope and Calhoun are both strong women.  But for the most part, women are not represented well.  All the characters with aspirations beyond their programming are male -- Ralph wants to be accepted by the community of his game, Felix wants to impress Calhoun.  She, by the way, has the darkest backstory, like, ever, which (a.) illuminates her motivation as being down to a man's intervention, and (b.) manages to contextualize her strength as a type of weakness.

I'm not saying this movie is the worst representation of women in media right now, but it's not exactly breaking ground in that area.

This movie also comes off a bit like propaganda for the status quo.  Let's take a look, for example, at the Bad Guy Mantra:

I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.

There's a page on TVTropes called Villains Act, Heroes React.  (It turns out, the one called Status Quo Is God is not as relevant to this argument.)  It describes the tendency, in heroic plots, for the villain to do all the trying to change things, and the hero to do all the trying to keep things the same.  The villain's plan is usually awful, and it's good that they're being stopped.  But eventually it starts to feel like the point is "Change is bad."

In Wreck-It Ralph, the worst kind of people are people who compromise the playability of their game, and you compromise the playability of your game by changing things.  Even when Ralph does make a big change (in Sugar Rush) it's only okay when it's made clear that he's restoring an older, truer status quo.

Now, I don't mind the lesson that the way for things to be better is for everyone to accept and celebrate each other's value, as the NPCs in Fix-It Felix accept and celebrate Ralph at the end.  And, I recognize that this lesson is implicit in the premise -- an arcade game can't change how it works spontaneously, so the premise can't allow for that.

But that's just one way to phrase the lesson at the end -- another easy way to phrase it is "Know your place."  There's something a little bit dark about a world where the life of a villain is so consistently miserable that they need a support group to get through it, but have to keep that lifestyle, even though it's unrewarding, or their home will be destroyed for them, and everyone else who lives in that game.

Halo 4's potential new zero-tolerance policy

ArsTechnica reports on  an interview with developers on Halo 4, discussing the potential for harsher sanctions than before on sexism in Xbox live games:  they're planning to institute a zero-tolerance, lifetime ban policy for sexist remarks.  From Gamespot's interview:

"As developers, we have a personal responsibility to think about how our games come across," [343 Industries head Bonnie] Ross said. "With Halo 4, we were very deliberate in thinking about who should be female and who should be male in the game, and if we came off stereotypical, we went back to question what we were doing and why."

[Executive producer Kiki] Wolfkill agreed, saying that while games can often reflect the culture of the studio that's building them, the success or failure of games can also reflect consumer responsibility. Part of this responsibility includes changing perspectives about the games industry as an exclusively male-dominated area.

Casey Johnston at ArsTechnica points out the obvious reality that this kind of enforcement can't be 100% effective, but it's still a huge step in the right direction.  She keeps herself muted when she plays online, because her voice makes her an immediate target for harassment.

The more the industry stands against the sexists and for fair and open play space, the less acceptable it will be for these vile behaviors to stick and spread.

The narrative of debt and poverty in America as I see it

I've been thinking a lot about debt recently, for reasons which I expect should be obvious.  One of the things that usually floats to mind when I start thinking about this is the Net Worth comic that often floats around the internet, embedded below.

Unfortunately, the original source of this comic appears to have gone offline.  (Or maybe they just crashed today.)  Apart from that, it's fairly unlikely that someone begging on the street has no debt -- that homeless man probably has quite a lot of debt, or at least terrible credit.

I've also been thinking about debt after watching John Green's latest Vlogbrothers video, in which he explains the national debt:

We tend to think about the nature of debt as being a very simple story, but in reality debt is an incredibly complicated social structure.  And that led me to think about the simplified narrative of debt that I grew up with in America.

My narrative leans towards the conservative political version of the narrative, because while one side of the political range wants to keep things the way they are, and the other wants things to change, our culture largely agrees on what the narrative is at the moment.

This is a post I'd really like to get responses on, if any of my readers have been considering commenting.  My experience of American life is far from universal, and I'm interested to see whether any of these aspects are less universal than I understood them to be.

Part 1: Birth and childhood

Americans are ostensibly born with a balanced ledger -- all [humans] being created equal, and all.  But if your parents keep you, you immediately start accruing debt.  (I'm okay with the idea that parents keeping their children from dying is awesome, but we tend to treat it like a service rendered for an ambiguous reward.)  Americans have a number of entitlements, such as a twelve-year education, food and shelter, some vaguely defined amount of medical care.

Straight up into our mid-teens, we aren't generally expected to go into any sort of debt apart from the nebulously defined debt to parents.  But at some point between 14 and 19, we're expected to get a job.

Part 2: Adulthood and debt

Whether we're supposed to go to college is sort of ambiguous right now -- as of twenty years ago, we were supposed to be heading towards an America in which everyone goes to college.  Mostly, we're supposed to do that by getting student loans, and going into debt.

During or after college, we're supposed to get a car that's more expensive than we can afford, and start making payments on that.  At some point later than that, we're supposed to get a house, with a mortgage.

At this point, we're supposed to have a job, and savings, which should be offsetting our debt.  At some point in the middle of our lives, we're supposed to be taking in more than we're spending, slowly reducing our debt-total.

At some point, our parents die, reducing the incalculable debt that we've had since shortly after our birth to one final payment, the funeral costs.

Part 3: Retirement and settlement

By the time we retire, we're supposed to have paid off our house, our car, have settled all our outstanding debt. Mostly, if we die with debt, that debt gets taken out of our estate, but can't be passed on to someone else, but that's not supposed to happen.  We're supposed to have an estate to leave to our children, helping them along their way in all this complicated stuff.

The end.

Afterword

I'm writing this all out because, obviously, life, money, and debt are all more complicated than this.  But no one in my life has ever really gone through the complex considerations of debt, so what I have to go on is the vague impression I've gathered from a lifetime of innuendos, implications and fictionalized examples.

This is one version of the possible story, but for a lot of people it's not really how ti works out.  I don't know in great detail how this all ultimately shakes out for my life, but I know that I need a better idea of which parts of the implicit cultural promise I have an actual chance of looking forward to, and which things would be irresponsible and disappointing pursuits.

Again, I'm hoping to get comments on this one.  What kind of story do you feel like you've been taught to expect?  Do you think anything I've written is very wrong?

Rebecca Watson's new article on Slate

I haven't been paying attention to the Atheist community for a while now.  It was mostly the sexism -- after Elevatorgate, I just got sick of getting in arguments the other person was trying to frame as "It's us (male atheists) or them (all women, everywhere)."  But I kind of figured that what was happening behind the scenes was, everything was cooling down, intelligence and compassion was prevailing, and people were being less nice to the people who were being totally awful. I guess that's not the case, though.  Rebecca Watson, a central figure in the increase in attention to feminism among the skeptic community, published an article today on Slate, It Stands To Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too.

When I first got involved with the skeptics, I thought I had found my people [...] At conventions, skeptic speakers and the audience were mostly male, but I figured that was something we could balance out with a bit of hard work and good PR.

Then women started telling me stories about sexism at skeptic events, experiences that made them uncomfortable enough to never return. At first, I wasn’t able to fully understand their feelings as I had never had a problem existing in male-dominated spaces. But after a few years of blogging, podcasting, and speaking at skeptics’ conferences, I began to get emails from strangers who detailed their sexual fantasies about me. I was occasionally grabbed and groped without consent at events. And then I made the grave mistake of responding to a fellow skeptic’s YouTube video in which he stated that male circumcision was just as harmful as female genital mutilation (FGM). I replied to say that while I personally am opposed to any non-medical genital mutilation, FGM is often much, much more damaging than male circumcision.

The response from male atheists was overwhelming. This is one example:

“honestly, and i mean HONESTLY.. you deserve to be raped and tortured and killed. swear id laugh if i could”

I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me these messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.

That was where we were starting from.  like I said, I hoped it was getting better.  But this glimpse back into the community made it very clear that things haven't gotten better in the atheist/skeptic circles.  Most distressingly, I discovered (a few months late) that Jen McCreight stopped blogging.  Watson quoted,

I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few), [...]

I just can’t take it anymore.

This was a super-depressing thing to discover.  I'm not really sure what to do with this information, but it just sucks to see.  I'm glad, at least, that Rebecca Watson hasn't been completely shoved out of the dialogue.

What. The. 43. [NSFW]

(via Boing Boing) I don't know what's going on here.  I don't know what to think.  I mean, my first thought is "A lot of this looks like it's going to be really offensive and gross."  But, unfortunately for my desire to not have to think too hard about movies I probably won't watch anyway, a lot of the other bits look really funny.

I'm embedding the trailer below, and I want to say again that it's really NSFW.

Right?

I mean, there's like a solid fifteen seconds in there of a dude shouting "You're black!"  But there's also Emma Stone and Mckauley Culkin, and Steven Merchant and Hallie Berry, and the big section about the parents trying to make homeschooling like an awful high school experience could be great.

At best, it looks like this movie could nail the balance of offensiveness and self-awareness, and while that doesn't make the awfulness go away, it can make it a lot less damaging, and sort of double-edged-sword-y in the sense that it can also push the concepts far enough into the absurd that they become points of defense against bigotry.

But that's really hard, and even the people who do it really well are still on rocky terrain.

The next best thing is some of the directors directing some of the chunks (it's directed by loads of different people in small parts) do some really good, funny work, and I just have to sit through crappy, bigoted and offensive jokes in the spaces between those segments.  But that's pretty bad, too, because those segments still help to legitimize that kind of dialog.

And, worst case scenario, which I think is also the most likely, is that it's just terrible, and that all the people involved are using the "Everyone else is doing it!" defense to give each other the chance to be really awful with impunity.

I will be reading some reviews before I decide if I'll actually see it.

TED talk: Rachel Botsman on Reputation Capital

I was disappointed, watching this 20 minute long TED talk, that Rachel Botsman did not once mention Whuffie, Cory Doctorow's reputation currency in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  Still, she hit on all the important points -- and she approaches reputation capital from a slightly different angle. In Doctorow's book, reputation had become the medium of exchange because we had achieved post-scarcity -- there was enough stuff for everyone to have as much as they needed.  So value and priority was established, not by an individual's ability to leverage their scarce resources, but by their reputation among their peers and admirers (or enemies.)

In Rachel Botsman's talk, reputation currency isn't a solution for post-scarcity.  It's just a solution for the crappy, rapidly failing system of capital that we've been working with for the last few hundred years.  Technology having caught up to fill the gap in community between small villages and global societies, we can start the process of abandoning the debt-based medium of exchange we use now, and replace it with an inherently positive-sum reputation-based medium of exchange.

The thing I'm most optimistic about in her talk is the fact that she doesn't portray the change as some kind of violent overthrow, or organized and deliberate reshuffling of financial modes.  The reputation economy integrates smoothly into the debt economy in ways that, she points out, are already happening.  Your score on Stack Overflow can get you a job, your reputation on TaskRabbit can earn you work opportunities.  It occurs to me that reputation also figures into the success of Kiva microlending, whereby the reputation of the borrowers is how they get the capital to establish their own businesses and places in their communities.

Change is organic.  It's not easy, and I'm not sure it's possible, to get all of humanity to do something by insisting that it's important.  (Look at climate change.)  There have to be forces that push towards it, and in the case of a reputation economy, the forces of convenience and effectiveness are pushing cash and credit scores aside to make room for star-ranking on eBay and karma on Reddit.

Well, maybe not Reddit.

Aside: the implications of reputation economies on sociopaths

It occurs to me that a lot of horrible people are able to do horrible things because our economy as it exists now rewards them for it.  This thought doesn't really fit into the above post, but I think it's also worth noting that a reputation economy would be more likely to push down people who were likely to hurt others in pursuit of personal gain, which would organically mitigate the ill effects sociopaths would have on their communities, rather than magnifying them.

Worst company currently selling chicken

(via Vondell-Swain on Tumblr) Yesterday, Chick-fil-A made a big deal out of promising not to support anti-gay groups financially anymore.  In an internal memo, they stated:

[Chick-fil-A will] treat every person with honor, dignity and respect-regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation and gender, [... our] intent is not to engage in political or social debates.

Having apparently not quite gotten the hang of the accelerated internet news cycle, Chick-fil-A seem to have assumed that they only had to keep their promise for like sixteen hours to satisfy the rainbow-flag-waving public.  The company is sponsoring the WinShape Ride for the Family, a bike ride with an admission fee sent directly to the Marriage and Family Foundation.

See, Chick-fil-A's not donating to an anti-gay group.  They're just paying for the fundraiser.  And putting their name all over it.  And proudly tweeting pictures about their participation.

Cory Doctorow explains Wikipedia by example

(via Boing Boing) There are lots of explanations for the way Wikipedia works, and because they're not sinking in for a lot of the population, there are a lot more coming.  This is a good thing.  Cory Doctorow wrote one for the Guardian that went up today, which explains why author Philip Roth had to publish a letter in the New Yorker before the Wiki editors would let him change a piece of information on his own page.

The whole article is awesome, and it provides great context for understanding the way Wikipedia functions.  Here's the link -- if you don't get it, and want to, I recommend reading the article.  Here, though, I just want to pull out and highlight a few fantastic, isolated points:

On Pseudonymity

(Which is not to say that Wikipedia doesn't care about identity. If you sign onto Wikipedia as HoneyBadger666 and spend 10 years making good edits to Wikipedia entries and generally being a conscientious user, this fact is significant in adjudicating the disputes you have with other users. But Wikipedia knows how to verify the HoneyBadger666 pseudonym: if you have the password for that account and if there aren't obvious signs that the account has been hacked, then the words posted from that account are taken to have originated with the account's owner. Knowing who the account's owner is isn't important – all that matters is what that account owner has done for Wikipedia.)

On Wikipedia's authority:

Wikipedia strives to confine its assertions to facts about facts, as in: "Fact X was reported by reputable source Y." This still leaves Wikipedians arguing at great length about which sources are reputable. But once consensus emerges that the Guardian is a reputable source of news, it's clear to everyone where the Guardian's website lives. No one has to argue about whether a website called TheRealGuardianNoHonestly.com is the Guardian's website.

[...]

Authority matters to Wikipedia, but it is outsourced. Reliable sources are Wikipedia's authorities, and it must be so, because the location of reliable sources and the utterances they make are things that people who don't know each other but work together on the Internet can point to and agree upon.

(Emphasis mine)

Because I will likely link back to this page this semester (I have a lot of arguments about Wikipedia in college) I want to add two more points, that aren't my own, but that I'm writing anew:

Anybody can edit Wikipedia, but anyone can reverse those edits, and

The original web was invented for academic citation of exactly this purpose.