What I’ve Been Doing

So, been quiet around here. Sorry about that. Been working a lot. But also been doing a brand new project that has gone live.

If you like what I do here, take a look at Sequentially Yours where I do the same for comic books, only in video format. Two episodes are up, one deep look at comics and social progress and one editorial about Future’s End.

Also, if you like the opening and closing themes, please consider donating even a dollar or two to the artist who is trying to raise enough money for a new single. He’s blind, independent, and awesome in every way. Just a little goes a long way.

Beyond that, please take a look, feel free to like, subscribe, and comment. Also, I will have more of the news and opinions that you love shortly. I haven’t abandoned here, just trying something else that I have wanted to. Also, if any of you have any pull with That Guy With the Glasses, I would really appreciate a good word since I’m submitting to their open auditions.

Thank you, each of my Conversationalists. You’re amazing, as well as the smartest and most attractive people on the Internet. Enjoy!

 

Having Trouble with My Cynicism

Recently, Ben Bernanke gave the commencement speech at the Princeton graduation. It was pretty fun and not a bad speech overall, but one of his points really struck home to me.

5. Since I have covered what I know about sociology, I might as well say something about political science as well. In regard to politics, I have always liked Lily Tomlin’s line, in paraphrase: “I try to be cynical, but I just can’t keep up.” We all feel that way sometime. Actually, having been in Washington now for almost 11 years, as I mentioned, I feel that way quite a bit. Ultimately, though, cynicism is a poor substitute for critical thought and constructive action. Sure, interests and money and ideology all matter, as you learned in political science. But my experience is that most of our politicians and policymakers are trying to do the right thing, according to their own views and consciences, most of the time. If you think that the bad or indifferent results that too often come out of Washington are due to base motives and bad intentions, you are giving politicians and policymakers way too much credit for being effective. Honest error in the face of complex and possibly intractable problems is a far more important source of bad results than are bad motives. For these reasons, the greatest forces in Washington are ideas, and people prepared to act on those ideas. Public service isn’t easy. But, in the end, if you are inclined in that direction, it is a worthy and challenging pursuit.

The thing is, I have trouble believing this. I know, logically, that people are not mustache twirling villains, but when somebody argues that people should starve to death so he can get subsidies, I find it hard to believe that he genuinely wants to do good. When somebody argues that lowering taxes on food would be a problem because people would just spend all of their money on food instead of other things, I can’t help but see somebody who dislikes the poor and wants to see them suffer. When somebody supports more Americans blowing up in gas explosions, or punishes kids because their parents committed a crime, or says that LGBT couples shouldn’t be protected in immigration matters (thanks to Sen. Leahey for bringing this back up again), then I find it hard to believe that they are trying to do the best for anybody other than a select few people just like them. Perhaps I lack imagination, but I don’t know how this can be attributable to anything other than abject cruelty and a desire to hurt. I don’t doubt Bernanke, and knowing people in person changes things, but I don’t know how any human being can be this deluded into thinking these things are good.

“Intellectually Challenging” Doesn’t Mean “Not Fun”

Anthony over at Rev Rants has a new video up in which he discusses how every time somebody points out that video games should move away from the “guns and chainsaws” mentality that so many games seem to have and focus instead on creating games that address serious philopsophical issues, there are generally two camps: the ones who smugly agree, and the ones who get righteously furious at the idea that games should no longer be “fun.”
And that’s where I lose the argument. Anthony brings up some very good points about how if games are to to treated seriously as an art form, they have to be about more than just the physical challenge of pressing the right buttons at the right time to kill your endless stream of enemies in the most creative ways possible, but I take issue with the fact that he doesn’t really go into what I consider to be the major problem with this argument.
Media that challenges us intellectually can and often is really fun.
Now, I’m not saying that he doesn’t believe this or that I have a problem with the video, which I think is largely spot on, but rather that in arguing for games to be more thought provoking, he neglected to explicitly point out that that doesn’t mean the game isn’t suddenly fun, as if every medium has to have its share of “interesting” things and “challenging” things, and checks them off a list to fill certain quotas in order to qualify as “art.”
Some of the games he mentions, for example, are not only thought provoking and interesting, they are also a real blast to play. Braid is one of my favorite games that he mentions. It was clever, artfully designed, did really fantastic things with mechanics, and told a story that produced a wonderful twist ending without significant cut scenes, dialogue, or anything that explicitly spelled out what was going on. It was a beautiful game that told a great story with a lot to discuss, and was still hours of fun.
Similarly, Journey was fantastic. It was gorgeous, emotional, and thought provoking, but also a whole lot of fun.
Far too often, the idea comes up that something, anything, can be fun or it can be intellectually challenging, but it can’t possibly be both. I hear this most often when I talk about texts and do close readings of them. The common refrain is “Can’t you just enjoy the movie/game/song/book/whatever?” or, even worse, “When I watch a movie/play a game/etc., I don’t want to have to think about it.”
When did thinking become this gigantic burden? Seriously, I’ve been thinking for the 30+ years I’ve been alive and, quite frankly, it’s the most fun thing I do.
The Rev also brings up movies in this as a medium that struggled to attain a reputation for artistry, and even mentions in passing the idea of a “Citizen Kane of video games.” He does this to point out that despite how many absolutely awful movies come out every year, there is a “bedrock” of artistic films that prove that movies can be an artistic medium, giving big studios an incentive to create films that are contemplative, so we can have the American Beautys and Fight Clubs and even Willows (which I just watched again a couple of days ago because it has some of the most perfect storytelling I’ve seen in film) without those who for some reason I couldn’t begin to articulate don’t enjoy thinking too much missing out on another American Pie or [Fill in the Blank] Movie sequel. The existence of Casablanca does not preclude the existence of No Strings Attached. Because The Godfather was made does not mean that Corky Romano was not. And the filming of Arsenic and Old Lace did not prevent the filming of The Hangover, much to my continued chagrin.
To an extent, I think this goes with Anthony’s point about how a medium doesn’t have to be one thing, in that video games can be serious and they can be fun, but I feel like he’s separating those two ideas. A video game, like any medium can be serious and fun in a single game. In fact, I would hope that is the objective in most cases: to make a point and make that point enjoyable. I can appreciate the technical aspects both in terms of film and writing of Casablanca and still be deeply invested and entertained by the plight of Rick and Ilsa.
There are two more supplementary points to this video I would like to make. The first is that the Rev makes a point I rather disagree with around the 5:27 mark when he starts to talk about comics. The point he makes is that while there are some amazing indie comics doing interesting things, the mainstream publishers are basically super hero comics, with the implication that super hero comics can’t tackle meaningful subjects in a serious way. While I love and respect a lot of indie titles, I think this seriously underestimates the ability of super hero comics to deal with important , human issues. It doesn’t take a whole lot to see the metaphor for the civil rights struggle in X-men going back to its conception, nor Stan Lee’s refusal to change a story line in The Amazing Spider-man that dealt with drug addiction in order to get a Comics Code Authority seal for those three issues. There were the Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossovers that were designed specifically to deal with social issues, and to do so by pairing a highly liberal with a highly conservative superhero so they would be able to really delve into the ideological divides present. Shortly after taking over Green Arrow in 2004, in fact, Judd Winick started a storyline dealing with Speedy (Mia Dearden) testing HIV positive that was sometimes ham-handed, but a real attempt at dealing with a serious issue that didn’t drain a drop of entertainment from the comic.
Beyond those, look at the Marvel series-wide events, most specifically the Civil War, but also Fear Itself. I make no secret of the fact the Marvel Civil War is one of my favorite comic series of all time. In the midst of the War on Terror, Marvel decided to take a hard look at how we balance our need for security with our civil liberties and used its major characters to do so. And it doesn’t just focus on the heroes themselves: it takes the time to explore how it affects everybody and the historical connotations of what we’re doing. At the end of one of the Frontline issues, for example, there is a small vignette about a couple of Japanese Americans reporting to an internment camp, and the panel sticks in my mind is where the father is telling his child that the reason why they left their home and have to live there now is that they’re “good Americans” and this is what their country requires of them.
Superhero comics are absolutely able to be serious and give insightful treatments to real problems while still remaining fun.
The other thing that this makes me think of is the current problems within the atheist movement vis-a-vis whether atheists can speak out against social injustice in light of their atheism and skepticism or rather, as some people have argued, atheism is just a non-belief in the supernatural and anything beyond that is out of bounds. Much like video games can be more than one thing, so can the atheist movement. If we’re feminists because there is no rational reason to oppose equal pay for equal work or the perpetuation of rape culture, that doesn’t mean that suddenly people will start believing in Bigfoot. Anthony says that those who agree that video games should be about more will “look down their nose” at others who don’t, but the counterblast is often just as guilty of that behavior. Applying that to atheism/skepticism, there is a fair amount of “Well, I’m a real atheist because I don’t spend my time discussing LGBT rights, which have nothing to do with psychic scams,” and that’s not only not helpful, it’s a callous attempt to avoid bringing skepticism to its logical conclusion. That being said, it’s also not prohibited to focus your energy on combating pseudoscience just because my energy is on how blind faith in bad ideas makes otherwise good people do terribly cruel things to myself and other queer folks.
Things don’t have to be just one thing. Games don’t have to be either fun or contemplative. Superhero comics don’t have to be exciting or socially meaningful. The atheist movement doesn’t have to be just about stopping quack doctors from scamming people or stopping quack preachers from advocating for the death of homosexuals. We are capable, as humans, of doing many things for many reasons, and it’s important to realize that it’s not a zero-sum game.

Link Roundup

Doing a small link roundup. Been focused on trying to find a way to make a living by working at home. Starting to get a handle on it, but for now, enjoy these links.

– Cliff Pervocracy talks about how to have sex on purpose. Very funny, very insightful stuff, and I love that they are really trying to combat the mistaken idea that sex is something that is spontaneous and perfect, or there’s something wrong with you. Sex, like most worthwhile activities, requires and benefits from planning, discussion, and interactivity outside of just having sex. A pull quote:

If I’m going to do one thing in this part, I’m going to completely tear to pieces the idea that sex is only passionate or romantic or whatever if it’s completely spontaneous. That great lovers just fall into bed together and know what to do. And that if you’re not a great lover, you’re still supposed to fake the “just knowing”. So maybe you read sex books or Cosmo sex tips or whatever—do read Cosmo sex tips, by the way, they’re fucking hilarious, but for God’s sakes don’t actually do that stuff until you’ve checked if your partner likes shoelaces tied around their balls—but in “everything has to seem spontaneous” world you’re not supposed to let your lover know you’re reading up. (Hell, a lot of those sex books are actually titled “don’t let him or her see this,” because shoelaces on your balls is only really pleasurable if it’s a complete surprise. Obviously.) You’re supposed to come to bed completely like “Oh, a female body? I know how to work these!” and then either all your moves are perfect or you’re bad at sex, sucks to be you.

– Jerry Coyne drops some history on us about Pangur, one of the earliest recorded cats named in history. Listen to the song at the end, which does a great job of making the piano sound like a cat is occasionally walking on it, like they do.

– Another from Jerry Coyne that I’ve been waiting for an excuse to share and am just going to. This is about the project by Kelly Houle to fully illuminate On the Origin of Species. There are some pictures of the work she’s done so far and I have to say that this is one of the most beautiful projects I have ever seen. I hope that prints will be available when it’s done.

I mean, just look at her rendition of the tree of life, then go to the link to see an explanation of the visual elements she used and why she used them, as well as a more detailed pic and a few others of her work.

Kelly Houle's illuminated tree of life

What incredible work, and don’t forget to go read about the art theory she put into the specific visual elements.

– Finally, the newest edition of Overbytes has the Game Overthinker (this is not the show with the plot, this is a shorter, just commentary show) discussing the announcement of the PS4, or more to the point, the lack of announcement. I think the point he makes about backwards compatibility being the best bulwark against simply losing games and having large chunks of game history disappear the way that others mediums have allowed are right on point. He, being a film scholar primarily, talks about how we have lost so much film, so many things that could be important that are simply gone because we’re careless and didn’t think that one day we may want any number of different pictures that were instead left to disintegrate or disappear.

As a SCAdian, I see this in the twofold way that part of what we do is attempt to maintain our history that would otherwise be lost, but also I see the result of centuries of neglect for preservation that have left us with, for example, no existent copies of ancient Greek music, though we have a number of commentaries on it. I don’t want to see that happen to games, where years from now we have photocopies of reviews of, for example, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, that talk about its fantastic soundtrack (still one of my favorites) and how it showed that the SCUMM system was more than a one-game trick pony, building part of a bridge that would lead us to Sam and Max and The Secret of Monkey Island.

Please Stop Getting So Excited

So, remember back when people were all excited because they thought Chick-fil-a was changing its tune on homosexuality and within 24 hours we saw that that was a hoax? But everybody was all excited because, you know, waffle fries and stuff.

Then, the next time I saw people get excited was Chris Christie’s embrace, literal and figurative, of the president following Superstorm Sandy. “Classy move!” they said, praising the New Jersey governor for demonstrating a basic sense of humanity or at least self-interest. I said at the time, and was chided, that he’s still a jerk and the fact that he’s playing nice with a guy who can help get him much needed funds to rebuild his state after a terrible tragedy doesn’t make Christie any less the guy who had just vetoed marriage equality in his state, who yells at teachers when they point out that he doesn’t give a damn about public schools because he doesn’t have kids in them, who has made a name for himself by yelling and screaming at everybody who has the temerity to actually question his policies instead of responding to them rationally.

And now he has vetoed an increase to the state’s minimum wage. He’s sent it back demanding that it be 25 cents an hour less, be phased in over three years and, here’s the kicker, not be tied to inflation. The biggest problem is that any benefit gained from that level of minimum wage will be erased by inflation before the three year phase in actually completes. Essentially, he’s said that working class New Jerseyans need to keep struggling with something not even approaching a living wage.

But he hugged the president! He didn’t say mean things about him! Credit where credit is due!

My liberal friends, I love you, I really do, but stop getting so damn excited every time somebody who appears to be a gigantic asshole acts in a manner marginally representing being a human. Chris Christie is still the same jackwagon he always was, and just because he wasn’t a complete prick when he needed something from Washington doesn’t make that any less true. If he shows a consistent stream of behavior that doesn’t mirror this, then we’ll talk, but stop throwing parades every time a conservative does something that doesn’t make you want to vomit. We don’t give out cookies for acting like a human being.

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