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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Environmentalism is more than climate change

Of the many things I'm concerned about with this administration, its opposition to a clean environment has to rank at the top, right up there with its lack of understanding of how democratic norms function. The nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency has to be acknowledged as a massive troll job, done to piss off opponents and presumably to distract some of them from taking the president to task on other deeply worrying topics (e.g. blanket bans on specific religious groups or on its murky links with the Russian deep state).

And while I think it's slightly more important that we keep our democracy functioning, and not beholden to corporate interests, I find it interesting (read: distressing) how environmentalism is an issue that's become so partisan. Some people will take it as read that it should be, but clean air and water is truly something that everyone benefits from, whether or not they ever get within a hundred miles of Yosemite or Yellowstone.

After all, it was a Republican president who formed the EPA (Nixon, whom no one could ever accuse of being at all left-wing), and another who established the National Parks System before him (Teddy Roosevelt).

My sense is that a lot of opposition to the EPA and environmentalism among conservatives stems from discussions about climate change. Some don't believe in the science (as if science were a thing that one "believes in"), others think limits on carbon emissions will destroy the economy (or slow economic growth, which to some in this group is the same thing). Still others think companies shouldn't have to pay for the externalities created by use of their products (predominantly in the fossil fuel industry).

While I disagree with all of these points, it's hard not to sympathize with Arnold Schwarzenegger's contention that climate change and CO2 emissions are a difficult subject to get people excited about. I first heard him talk about this issue on his second appearance on Tim Ferriss's podcast, where he said that the focus for talking about the environment should be on reducing pollution, and I can't help but agree.

To a certain extent it feels as if the environmental discussion has turned primarily into one about emissions, and talk of actual pollution is relatively rare (except in cases like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I admit this charge is a little simplistic, and any number of organizations, from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace to the National Resources Defense Council, would justifiably point to all the anti-pollution work that they do.

But my impression is that corporations have hijacked the emissions argument, because saying they're reducing emissions is a good way to get folks like me to buy their products (even if that talk completely turns off people of other political persuasions; but the likes of Coke and GE have different marketing campaigns in different regions to address that problem). At the same time media outlets end up prioritizing climate change rather than other forms of environmentalism - reading the Guardian a couple of years ago it felt like all the environmental stories (and thinkpieces) were about how we needed to curb emissions, and not about how we needed to clean up the air in London. I don't know about you, but I don't miss the black snot I used to get from walking around that diesel-infested city.

Schwarzenegger's suggestion was that environmental groups and media should be focusing on the health effects of pollution and I tend to agree. It's hard to get people to care about rising sea levels in places that they've never heard of, like Kiribati or Palau, or to persuade people living in the northern Midwest that temperatures are rising when they've had ridiculously cold winters the last few years. But I suspect it's easy to get people interested if you can directly link polluted water or air to deaths, and I believe all but the most committed Libertarians would miss the National Parks if they were to disappear.

I believe that the current administration's environmental policy is misguided and is poised to set our country back decades; moreover, I believe that it will take decades to undo the actions it takes to roll back even environmental regulations, both in terms of replenishing our natural resources and in dealing with the health effects of this anti-environmental strategy.

If you believe in clean air and clean water, regardless of how you vote, get in touch with your representative and senators and tell them so.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Does a game have to be fun?

Here's a thing I've discovered about mobile games: they aren't any fun at all.

Here's another thing I've discovered, though: I can't seem to stop playing the damn things.

I recently exerted an impressive amount of willpower and, in a short sequence of time, deleted no less than three games from my iPad. Total War: Kingdoms was the first to go, because it was a complete time- and mind-suck. I'd build a house here, fight off a Viking army there, and pretty soon I'd realize it was 10pm on Sunday night and I hadn't accomplished anything.

Next to go was Kingdom Rush, a tower-defense game that I've had dalliances with in the past. I downloaded last Saturday, played through the entire campaign, and then deleted it that same night, for the same reason as before - my brain had been there, and not on the actual issues occupying my life (for instance writing the proverbial great vampire/fantasy novel, earning enough money to survive in Trump's America, and attempting to find a woman willing to find my dead body 60 years from now and thereby ensure my corpse isn't eaten by a pet or something).

Yesterday, I took the final step, and deleted Star Trek: Timelines. As I was explaining to my dad a couple minutes ago, Timelines isn't what you'd call conventionally fun - you can have space battles, for instance, but you don't actually control the ships, and if your ship is strong enough, you don't actually have to do anything.

And yet I'm now kind of regretting deleting it. I'd built up a pretty strong and eclectic crew (I had Evil Goatee Spock from the classic Mirror Mirror episode of TOS, for example!), and had sunk enough time and effort into leveling them up. And I'd done all this without spending a dime, as Timelines is one of those annoying freemium games where you can pay for a certain type of currency, but can't win that currency in other ways.

As I said, it isn't conventionally fun. But somehow, it triggers some kind of endorphin rush that keeps me clicking on the next mission to win that piece of basic loot that I can use to build the piece of gear that will let my character unlock the next tier of rewards and perhaps, someday, actually win the episode. It's probably the most insidious version of the addictiveness of mobile games I've ever seen, precisely because it's so not fun (reading that last paragraph seems to indicate a number of reasons for my inability to attract a mate, for instance).

I've got a fair amount of experience with this stuff - I've messed about with Angry Birds, Infinity Blade and all three Kingdom Rush games, for instance. I've lost who knows how many productive hours and days on stupid flash games that I found on newgrounds.com. And back in college, I blew a lot of time on a naval battles game that let you set some conditions but didn't actually give you control in battle - someone once asked me if it was fun, and I remember trying to explain that no, it wasn't conventionally fun, but that wasn't the point.

That conversation was at the back of my mind over the past five or six weeks every time I played Timelines, which is what led me to delete the damn thing (that and a Tim Ferriss blog post suggesting I get rid of domino triggers that cause me to ruin all my productive work - for some people it's cookies, but for me it's Star Trek-licensed iPad games). It also got me thinking about why mobile games are like that - engaging but not fun.

The simple answer is that they provide a steady drip of pleasure drugs into your brain from accomplishing stuff. Total War: Kingdoms had this obnoxious thing where everything was on a timer - building a house took ten seconds, building a castle took ten hours, and so forth. But it was all staggered, so as soon as I collected money from one building, my farms were ready to harvest, and then I had to collect stone from my quarries, someone was attacking, and suddenly I'm two hours closer to my cat chomping on my face (this is a notional cat, by the way, as I haven't yet yielded to becoming whatever the male equivalent of lonely cat lady is).

But why's that steady drip of tricking your brain into thinking it's accomplished stuff so important? I'd argue that it's because they can't compete with console or PC games on graphics or gameplay. I'm told Super Mario Run has been super popular since launching on iOS, but I think it's because, by being a lot simpler than the original Super Mario Bros, they've unlocked a thing where you're constantly trying to improve on your performance. Just think Flappy Bird: it's some shitty web game where you're traveling through the same course endlessly, giving the occasional tap to keep from crashing into a pipe or something, but it unaccountably became the biggest gaming phenomenon outside of Pokemon Go, for that precise reason.

All of this is key to understanding why the mobile gaming business has eaten up so much of the traditional gaming business. Nintendo got a lot of praise when it launched the Wii for making gaming accessible to casual gamers, but then promptly lost that entire demographic to smartphones and tablets. Stuff like Angry Birds or Candy Crush provides a lot more endorphin per minute for the fifteen minutes you spend on the bus than cranking FIFA 17 or Dragon Age Inquisition does - in the time it takes to load up your first actual game in a season in FIFA, you could win three stars on the first ten levels of Angry Birds.

Paradoxically, I think it's the increasing sophistication and cinema-aping of console games that's turned casual gamers off the medium (that and shit like GamerGate, of course). You have to purposely sit down and play Skyrim, but Angry Birds can be played for five minutes and then abandoned. And that's why people get sucked into it for hours at a time.

What it all comes down to is understanding how your brain works, and planning accordingly. I'm not an alcoholic, but now that I've deleted Star Trek: Timelines I understand Chris Hardwick's analogy of a million baby birds chirping at you to take a drink. Despite the cellular noise saying that I really should have seen what happened when I leveled my one-star Desert Ezri Dax to level 100, intellectually I understand I'm better off.

And I restarted my campaign on Dragon Age Inquisition yesterday, so at least I don't have to decide on whether to eventually be eaten by my dog or my cat until I finish that, at the bare minimum.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ex Machina vs. Westworld

I just finished watching Ex Machina last night, and while I thought it was an interesting exploration of themes like free will and the ethics of artificial intelligence, I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the ending.

Oh, but first, let's trot out our old friend:
To be honest, today I'm spoiling not just Ex Machina but also Westworld, so consider yourselves lucky!

Now, jokes aside, the first thing to say is that both Ex Machina and Westworld deal with humans encountering artificial intelligence. While the Turing Test is explicitly mentioned in Ex Machina, there are scenes in Westworld that also play into it - for instance, when William appears in the second episode and asks the woman who greets him whether she's one of the robots or not. Her response is along the lines of, "If you can't tell, does it matter?"

Both works also ask the question of who owns the artificial life, or if it has the same right to self-determination that a human intelligence does. In Westworld the question comes down to the power struggle between Anthony Hopkins's character and the Evil Corporation who funds the park, whereas in Ex Machina it ends up being slightly more subtle, as the AI, Ava, appears to make common cause with Domhnall Gleeson's character, Caleb, in order to escape the Evil Corporation.

I think the problem I have with Ex Machina is that it ends up being a lot more straightforward than it could have been. Caleb wins a week at the estate of his reclusive boss, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (who really seems to be everywhere these days); when he gets there, he has to sign an NDA and then meets Ava, for whom he's supposed to be the interlocutor in a set of Turing Tests. Caleb discovers some unpleasant stuff about Nathan, plots to break Ava out, and then when he does so she locks him and Nathan in the compound and escapes.

I'm not going to go into all of the stuff to unpack about the movie (but you can read the AV Club's review to get an idea). But that ending...

I think the problem with the movie is that as soon as you meet Ava you know she's going to escape. Or more accurately, as soon as you see the glass enclosure where she lives, which has impact fractures. The minute you meet Nathan, you know he's going to be evil and sociopathic. Both assumptions are accurate, and while they don't have to be proven wrong for the movie to work, the road there is disappointingly straightforward.

But there's no indication of why it had to be Caleb - there's some business about him not having a family or girlfriend to miss him, but while it works in Ava's favor, there doesn't seem any reason for Nathan to care about that - unless he was planning on killing Caleb, but we never find that out.

Ava's escape is also overly simple - she stabs Nathan, wraps herself in other the other fembots' skin and clothes, and leaves via convenient helicopter. The pilot takes her away without asking why some woman he's never seen before is leaving the place, or without asking what happened to Nathan or Caleb. From interviews and comments I heard, I'd assumed more twists and reveals.

It all felt rushed, which is why I'm hanging this post off a comparison with Westworld. That's another kind of flawed work, in a lot of ways, but it has the advantage of teasing its ideas out over ten hours, rather than just two. I suspect Ex Machina could have worked better with more time to explain Caleb, Nathan and Ava - to say nothing of all the other fembots that Nathan built over the years.

Instead the viewer is left feeling a lot like Caleb, trapped in that compound and not knowing why things played out the way they did.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

5 Things I've Learned About Writing

Writing is such a personal thing that it's hard to come up with a list that'll work for everyone, or for every type of writing. Some people plot things out exhaustively, for example, and others have to feel their way through a story.

I was struck by this a little last night while out with a friend, and he was surprised that I make lists of 10 or 20 things that happen in each of my stories as a way to plot out where I want them to go. I've seen this mentioned in various places, although I haven't used it for every story I've worked on - but my friend was a little skeptical about the numbers.

So with that in mind, I thought nevertheless that it would be useful to list five important things I've learned about writing, or at least my own working habits over the years:

  • I need to plot, or at least have a general idea of where I want to end up.
    • As I mentioned above, I'm one of those writers that needs to plot stuff out. The extent to which I need to plot depends a little on the length of the story, of course - a novel's so much more complex than a short story, and a movie treatment is somewhere in between.
    • Oddly, I'm plotting the hell out of a short story right now, mainly because it's a pretty complex idea and because I'm adapting it from an idea I was turning into a movie script last year. The plotting has taken a number of forms, from the axiomatic list of 10 things that happen, to simply writing down a bunch of questions that I feel I ought to know the answers to, even if I don't resolve them in the story. 
  • Walking does help to jar ideas loose. 
    • While banging my head against that story last weekend, I went out for a quick walk around the block twice, and found that on both walks I resolved a question that had been bugging me. In doing so, I was able to move ahead with it, and get to the impasse I'm at as of this writing. Success!
    • More seriously, it's probably a cliche, but it's also true that letting your mind drift to some other topic, or at least changing your setting, can dislodge ideas. It's similar to when you have something on the tip of your tongue while talking to someone, but you don't remember the term you wanted until much later.
  • Stuff you learn writing one type of story does transfer to other types.
    • This relates mainly to how I've transferred ideas about three-act structure from my movie ideas to prose, but it's gone the other way too, in that my technique for proofing a novel has proven kind of helpful in proofing short stories and (perhaps to a lesser extent) movie scripts.
    • But it's also a deeper point, in that good writing is good writing, and practice in one type of writing helps in others. Writing poetry helps with word choice and concision, prose helps with visualizing a scene, and movie writing helps with dialogue.
  • It's helpful to know my own style of productivity.
    • By style of productivity, I mean how long I can devote to a task, and what kind of environment I need for it. When I'm writing prose, music is great but podcasts aren't, because the speech distracts me from what I'm writing, and vice versa. If I really need to focus, something instrumental, or even ambient is perfect. Or for a hit of perfect productivity I'll listen to a binaural beats video on YouTube.
    • Time-wise, I've found it helpful to devote an hour each night to writing, from 8 to 9, during which I aim to get something done. It has to be a concrete goal, like finishing a certain number of words or pages, and if I accomplish that in less than an hour, I have the option of taking the rest of the hour off, or forging ahead.
    • The one caveat is to not use this as an excuse not to be productive. Maybe I've messed around for twenty minutes and am sitting down later to write? Maybe I'm spending too much time looking for something to listen to? It's not very fashionable but at a certain point you need to sit in your chair, open whatever you're working on and do the work - your brain will rationalize why you shouldn't, but sometimes you need to shut your brain out.
  • Writing stuff by hand is helpful, except for when it isn't.
    • To be honest, any of these points could come with this caveat, but it feels most relevant to put here, because it really doesn't seem to work every time.
    • Specifically, I was listening to a podcast where Joe Hill talked about how he keeps a notebook to write in, by hand, which allows him to work out the story and then create a second draft automatically when he transfers it over to the computer. I tried it out a little with the story I'm working on now, and in this case I've found it pretty hard to make it work.
    • Of course, that's probably because I didn't plot the story out as well as I could have. Again, detailed plotting isn't always necessary for a short story, but it seems to be with this one, and writing by hand might be easier if I'd had a better sense of where I needed to end up.
This list isn't exhaustive, of course. I've learned a number of other things over the years (e.g., writing workshops are good in small doses, but if they become a commitment then they take away time from your own writing), but some of them have been covered elsewhere (get good beta readers, learn to revise a story) or are so axiomatic as to be unhelpful (do it every day, or keep a journal, or whatever). But these five are the big ones for me, which I've road tested over the years.

That said, they're always in flux, too. I've developed these habits over the years, and I expect them to evolve as I get more practice. But that's fine too - you can't expect to approach writing (or any endeavor) the same way you do at 37 as you did at 27 or at 17. What I look forward to is seeing how my habits change once I become a professional - here's to 47!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Super Bowl 2017 Is Not the 2016 Election

Like a lot of people, I was watching the Super Bowl yesterday, and like a lot of people, I was having a hard time separating the action on the field (or screen, in my case) from the results of the election. After all, we all know about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick supporting Donald Drumpf, and the MAGA hat that Brady has in his locker, etc etc.

In the end that was fine, it was a bit cathartic (except for the Patriots winning, of course), but I hope nobody was taking the "narrative" too seriously. Is Belichick awful? Sure - but we all knew that long before the endorsement, and frankly, we knew that long before Deflate-Gate. Is Brady a douche? I think Bridget Moynihan has a privileged viewpoint on that.

To be honest I couldn't find it in my heart to be mad at Tom Brady about that hat. I don't know if he's a racist or not, but I can imagine he's met Donnie a couple of times, someone gave him the hat, and he just held onto it. Who knows or cares how Brady voted in November? America's pretty great for him whatever happens, isn't it?

I guess you could say that the Falcons didn't have it in them to hold onto the win, but it's also true that the parallel with Hillary Clinton ends there - she didn't have the lead in the election at (hardly) any point. And we can't blame third-party candidates on the Falcons losing, either (though it would be funny if someone could have blamed the Raiders for last night).

The point, in the end, is that the country's definitely fractured, and in a dark place. I arrived at my friend's house early enough to catch this week's episode of Saturday Night Live, complete with that Sean Spicer impression by Melissa McCarthy. More to the point, we had ads constantly assuring us that corporations like AirBnB, Coca-Cola and Budweiser don't share the ideals being espoused at the moment by this "administration". No matter what happens on the field, that shows that those of us who don't choose this dark path aren't alone.

And let's be honest, I like the idea that those ads offended all the people who like to throw around the term "snowflake" as if it were an insult. We're a long way off from seeing Coke come out in support of Black Lives Matter, but seeing supporters of the "President" following his example and throwing tantrums at the thought that not everybody agrees with them is pretty satisfying.

So let's all have a Bud, or a Coke, depending on your poison. Let's all enjoy some guacamole and stay at AirBnBs and remember that it was just a football game. If the Falcons had won, we'd still have woken up to the same people occupying the White House and the legislature. We don't get the moral victory, but we do get to keep working for the world we want - and the opportunity to do so is even better than a Super Bowl ring for Matt Ryan.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

2017: I Am Not Pleased So Far

Well, that didn't take long, did it?

You have to say this for ol' Drumpfie, he's motivated af. Obamacare? No thanks. EPA? Let's just shut their communications down. National parks? Don't want them talking about stuff. Muslims coming to America? Nope. And, oh, people on the national security council who know stuff about security? Nah, let's put some racist twatwad on instead.

It's a brutal time, folks. The mind, parsing all of this, asks two questions: how much worse can it get? And how does someone even as monstrously narcissistic and unhinged as "Shut the Fuck Up, You're Out of Your Element" Donnie maintain this level of intensity for the next four years? Yet, having asked those two questions, the mind realizes that it maybe doesn't want to know the answer - it would rather retreat to those halcyon days of, let's say 2006, when the world was full of possibility and the previous worst president ever (who also only got into office because the electoral college is fucked) found himself having to change his mind from time to time as things got bad in Iraq.

Admittedly, the other stuff swirling around is kind of getting annoying too. Senate Democrats, in particular, seem to think that wagging their fingers is a dangerously provocative move, and so, for all their outrage, haven't considered blocking any of Donno's cabinet picks. They have reservations, of course. These picks aren't remotely qualified, even Elizabeth Warren admits that. But blocking them? Gosh, you guys, I don't know - I mean, there's this lovely high road here, and it leads to... I think that sign reads "Irrelevancy", but I can't be sure. Why don't we go up there and check?

In the meantime, all the cool kids are deleting Uber from their iPhones, which I feel slightly vindicates my principled stance in not taking it (seriously folks, I've only ever ridden in an Uber twice in my life, and one of those was paid by my boss). Although it's unclear whether Travis Kalanick ordered an end to surge pricing as a way to profit off the taxi strike in NYC, or as a measure of solidarity. Or... could it be both?

Meanwhile, every right-wing dickbrain out there seems to think that calling protesters "snowflakes" is the height of cleverness. Well, I don't want to be rude, but which side just spent the last eight years getting butt-hurt over how people would throw facts and logic at them? I think all the "special little snowflakes" are on the Republican side here.

Sigh. I spoke once about wanting a hard reset for the political class. I didn't mean tearing the system down or anything, I just meant that it might be time to redesign certain parts of the system. Now I'm not so sure - Plato's Republic is looking better and better, tbh.

Things don't seem to have moved on so far this weekend, but I wait with bated breath to see what horrors will be unleashed tomorrow. In the meantime, here's the website for the ACLU's donations page: https://action.aclu.org/secure/donate-to-aclu

And remember, this isn't a left-versus-right thing - it's about respect for the rule of law and for the Constitution. If you think this is just a bunch of whining lefties protesting - you're on the wrong side of history, snowflake.

Monday, 23 January 2017

What Makes Space Opera Tick?

I've been thinking lately about space opera.

Specifically, I'm wondering if there's a formula to it, the way there is for epic fantasy. Both are forms or genres that seem to prefer large, sweeping stories spread out over multiple books. Epic fantasy is perhaps more known for multi-book storylines, but I can equally point to epic space opera stories, like Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos or Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy. There's also the notable case of Stephen R Donaldson, who's known for both the Thomas Covenant books (epic fantasy) and the Gap novels (space opera).

Admittedly, I've read very few of those books above - I loved the Hyperion books, but was less taken with Night's Dawn, and have never gotten around to the Gap books, though I keep meaning to. My experience of space opera revolves more around other media, specifically TV (Star Trek), movies (Star Wars) and video games (Mass Effect), which tend to skew more toward the mystical elements that epic fantasy also shares. Heck, Star Wars even has magic in it, and features a farm-boy toppling an empire.

But there are enough similarities to begin to move toward a unified definition of space opera, and chiefest of these seems to be multiculturalism (or at least politics, since alien races aren't present in much of Hyperion or Battlestar Galactica). Even the Ender/Shadow/whatever else novels by Orson Scott Card mix characters of different (Earth) cultures and find narrative momentum by examining how they interact.

Another common theme is hyper-specialized Earth analogues. Hyperion's setting is full of planets that are based on one specific aspect of Earth culture, and so is Night's Dawn - in fact, that's one of the things that put me off about it in the first place, as one of the planets in question has recreated Victorian-era British culture, an idea I found stretched credulity far more than the idea of the dead rising and invading human space. Go figure.

Star Trek leans less in this direction, though there are some notable episodes that glance at this kind of idea (like that early episode of TNG with the African-derived culture). Likewise, Star Wars doesn't have much in the way of Earth-cultures, but its equivalent is the array of landscapes it uses to show alien planets, from Tatooine to Dagobah to Endor.

The intersection of politics and business is another big theme, though not in Star Trek, where business doesn't really exist (a fascinating idea on its own, and one that seems to have been explored only there and in Iain Banks's Culture novels). Or if not politics and business, then the politics behind certain galactic corporations' misbehavior seems to be another favorite theme. It feels like a more recent addition to space opera, but timely, as the role of corporations in our own politics grows ever-larger.

Fantasy, meanwhile, seems to have started to embrace talking about business only in the last few years, the main example being the books of Daniel Abraham (whose favorite theme seems to be economics in general). It's probably less relevant to that genre as a whole, but does provide some thematic tension in the form of modernity versus tradition, similar to how it must have played out in actual history.

Daniel Abraham, in fact, is one reason why I'm setting my thoughts down like this. He famously held a discussion on how epic fantasy works with a number of other New Mexico-based SFF authors a few years ago, and the result is his series, the Dagger and the Coin, the last book of which I'm currently reading now. I'm fascinated by looking at the themes in common of space opera, not just because I like it but because it's a form I'd like to try my hand at, and I think an understanding of the tropes and themes is a good starting point.

So let me throw the question out to anybody reading: what space opera stories should I read? And what themes or ideas have I missed?