alexxkay: (Default)
So, you know that thing about the Evil Republican who said poor people are going to have to decide between new iPhones and health insurance? I’ve seen many arguments go by about how many cell phones it takes to equal the cost of health insurance, and similar arguments on an economic or factual basis. The same sort of dialogue is happening about the National Endowment for the Arts, and many other recent political issues.

But I think there is a moral argument worth having here, also, which seems to be largely overlooked.

One of the moral stances implicitly held by many people on the Right (though they are usually too canny to come right out and say it), is that if you spend ANY money on something that isn’t a necessity, you are Not Really Poor. Or, to look at it from another perspective, anyone who is actually poor does not deserve to spend any of their meager resources on entertainment.

This, I find abhorrent. A life which is entirely spent on the bare means of survival is worse than that of most mammals. A life in which one is not allowed to EVER choose enjoyment is a life not much above that of a slave.

March

Jan. 22nd, 2017 10:06 pm
alexxkay: (Default)
I was at the March yesterday. I posted lots of photos on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/alexx.kay/media_set?set=a.10210486821740239.1073741848.1035714672&type=3), but it occurred to me that I should document it here as well.

I got started a little late, and only arrived downtown around 11:45. From the moment I exited the T, the crowds were impressive, and only became more so as I approached the central location. In fact, I didn’t get all THAT close to the center, as my crowd-phobia kicked in well before that point. There were so many people, I didn’t even get close enough to be able to hear the speakers. But I felt I was still participating by circling around the fringes, offering encouragement, and taking pictures of things I felt were noteworthy.

The March proper started late and was clearly going to go on for a long time, and remain packed throughout. So I didn’t technically march. When my spoons were running low (about 1:45), I headed home. I hadn’t seen anyone I knew in person; unsurprising given the scale of the event.

Surprisingly little in the way of counterprotest. Well, maybe some folks showed up but were intimidated by the crowd size and left without making a fuss. There were a few groups of “orthogonal” protesters (largely for socialist groups), but only one of these appeared to actually have any problems with the March, per se. I saw a grand total of one Trump T-shirt; the young man wearing it had it on over a chain mail tunic, was holding a medieval-style helmet in hand, and had a fake-looking sword stuffed down the back of his shirt. When I spotted him, he was already walking away.

All in all, a hopeful day.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
This post is eight years old, but seems more relevant today.

Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] bradhicks at Yes We Can Put Americans Back to Work. We Probably Won't, Though.

"CWA: 6,000 Men and a Scenic Boulevard"
The American way of life depends, in part, on a specific illusion. It's a lie that we tell ourselves, and tell our children. What we just did last Tuesday, an orderly, peaceful, even civil transition of power from one generation to the next, from one ethnic group to another, from one political party to another political party with a different political agenda? We lie to ourselves, and lie even harder to our children, that that is something we can count on, something we have always been able to count on, that any alternative is so unthinkable and unnatural for Americans that we need have no fear whatsoever of any alternative.

Historians know that that's a lie. Even if one accepts the incredible claim that every US President who has ever been assassinated was killed by a deranged lone gunman, acting out of personal motives, with no political motive, and with no encouragement or assistance by anyone else, the fact remains: historians know that it can get so bad in the United States, economically, that the American people will withdraw their consent to be governed. We call one particular financial industry collapse that rippled outward around the globe (among other things, ultimately bringing the Nazis to power in Germany) not just any recession or depression, but the Great Depression, because the number of people needing work in the US rose to about 3.5 million, or about 20% of all working-age heads of households. In the hardest-hit parts of the country, it reached 50%. And it's not a coincidence that the next several years saw three credible attempts to topple the United States government: a half-million man general strike called by Soviet-influenced CIO labor unions aimed at sparking a general uprising and Communist revolution that couldn't quite hold out long enough to get their revolution before it collapsed, Huey Long's astronomically-growing Poor People's Army that aimed at overthrowing the Constitution which was only thwarted via its leader's assassination, and an attempt by the 1930s equivalent of the Democratic Leadership Council, then called the American Liberty League, to use corporate money to bribe US military generals into placing them in power via coup d'etat. No, we know as a matter of objective fact: somewhere in the near vicinity of 20% prolonged unemployment, the USA starts running a serious risk of anarchy followed by totalitarianism.

We also know that by the same measure of unemployment that was in use at the time, as of this month the US unemployment rate is somewhere in the near vicinity of 15%. And rising. Fast. As in perhaps as much as 1% per month. No, really, trust me on this: everybody in both political parties now understands what everybody in both political parties understood as of 1933, when centrist (and wealthy) Democratic former New York governor Frank Roosevelt was sworn in as President: they were doomed if they didn't find some way to lower unemployment. And trust me on this, both Republicans and Democrats in our own time understand that the clock is ticking on this now, too. What remains is the question: how do we do that? Nor are today's Republican and Democratic leaders the first politicians to be faced with this question, it is the exact same question that was asked in 1933. And the political elites and the professional economists of our time agree 100% with the political elites and the professional economists of 1933. Our ruling class, just like the ruling class of 1933, believes that government by definition screws up everything it touches. That all government intervention in the economy is inherently bad, that the best it can possibly be is a short-term necessary evil. That the reason that big corporations are big is that they are lead by people who know how to make the best use of money and how to get the best work out of employees. Therefore the political elites and professional economists of our time 100% agree with Frank Roosevelt of early 1933 and with the American Liberty League of the 1930s that what we need is something like the Public Works Administration. What we need, they are 100% sure, is a public-private partnership: government identifies legitimate government needs that aren't currently being met, and bids that work out to private contractors, and audits those programs and those contractors to make sure that not one thin dime of taxpayer money is wasted on any project that's unnecessary or on any expense that can't be justified. And in a sign of bipartisanship, Franklin Roosevelt appointed left-wing Republican Harold Ickes to do just that.

As Timothy Noah pointed out yesterday in a lovely pair of articles on Slate.com, "Wrong Harry: Four million jobs in two years? FDR did it in two months" (with Charles Peters) and an almost immediate follow-up piece when a news item proved his point for him even better, "CBO, Meet CWA: More evidence that Obama's stimulus falls short," FDR, congressional Republicans lead by Harold Ickes, and right-wing Democrats lead by Al Smith were wrong in exactly the same way that Barack Obama, congressional Republicans, and the Democratic Leadership Council are wrong right now. The Public Works Administration did its job. It did it under budget. It wasted not a single dollar. It attracted not a single critic. And it created almost no jobs. In 1933, it turned out that there just plain weren't that many legitimate government jobs that weren't being funded already. As Ickes took his sweet time coming up with more, lest he be criticized for wasting taxpayer money, he found out that there also weren't a whole lot of companies out there begging for the chance to bid on PWA contracts. They weren't crazy about the contract stipulations, and they weren't all that interested in retooling and reorganizing their entire corporate structures to service contracts there were guaranteed to end as soon as the Great Depression ended. As an anti-poverty, anti-violent-revolution government program, the Public Works Administration was an unvarnished, absolute, indefensible disaster. Period. End of story. Nobody even tries to defend it any more; its supporters just pretend it never happened, so they can recommend the same thing the next time without anybody knowing it's been tried before, because by their politics, it's the right thing to do whether it works or not.

And along about the time that Roosevelt was about to lose his temper over this, the First Lady talked him into talking to a very successful social worker named Harry Hopkins, who only wanted a few minutes of the President's time so he could ask one question. He showed the President figures (that he later showed Congress) showing that there were about 3.5 million Americans in 1933 who were heads of households between the ages of 18 and 64 that no employer was going to hire, no way, no how, not for any amount of money, and he asked: "Can you give one legal reason why we can't just hire those people ourselves?" The thing is, he got that estimate of 3.5 million people by going through the state-by-state lists of people who were already on the dole, people who were already receiving some kind of charitable or government cash hand-out because they weren't working. And what Hopkins realized was that not only did the American people deeply resent those people for taking money and doing nothing all day, the recipients weren't any happier about it, either: they wanted to work. So FDR shoe-horned a program through Congress, first as pilot program called the Civil Works Administration, to raise about $1200 (1933 US dollars) per year per unemployed head of household: $1000 per worker per year for wages, $24 per worker per year for administrative costs, the rest for hand tools and raw materials for whatever projects he could make up. To get CWA funding, a job had to be something that no corporation was interested in providing, and that no government agency was interested in funding, and it had to be as labor-intensive as possible (see photograph above right).

Conservatives in both parties hated it. And still do. And campaigned hard against it in the 1934 congressional primaries. Al Smith's right-wing Democrats convinced FDR that if he kept the CWA, it would cost him his majority in Congress, so he shut it down after only four months. In that four months, CWA workers had already built 1,000 rural airports, built 40,000 school buildings, built or resurfaced a quarter-million miles of roads, and laid twelve million miles of sanitary sewer lines, some of the first sewer lines laid in most counties. In four months. Right-wing Democrats and anti-tax pro-corporate Republicans screamed bloody murder about all the money that the CWA was "wasting," but (and this is a point I'll come back to again) we're still using almost all of that stuff today. 75 years later, those "worthless" "make-work" projects are turning out to be some of the most valuable stuff the government had done in its first 150 years of existence. So contrary to what the right-wing Democrats in Congress were telling FDR he "needed" to do to "save" the 1934 congressional elections, terminating the CWA turned out to be the least popular thing he did as President, and as soon as the elections were over, on voter mandate, FDR brought it right back again, rammed it through Congress again as the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Only this time it had full funding, and a Congressional and Presidential mandate to try to hire every single one of the roughly 3.5 million unemployed, non-disabled, work-aged heads of household in America. And in almost no time at all, they came as close as makes no difference, getting to 3.3 million, on one simple philosophy: you tell us whatever it is you "do," and we'll find you a job doing it. Those jobs paid very nearly jack squat; nearly all WPA workers ended up living with their whole families in roughly 8" x 10" or so rooms in improvised "boarding houses," spare rooms leased out by people who were house-rich but cash poor, trying to save their homes, tenants with no control over the menu of the meal plan it came with and shared use of a single bathroom (or maybe just an outhouse and an outdoor water pump) with 3 to 8 other families. Nobody lived well on the WPA, but nobody starved either. On the other hand, nobody worked terribly hard, either, and I know this one from a very personal source: my paternal grandfather was a WPA veteran.

Grampa Hicks was himself a right-wing anti-tax anti-communist Democrat of the American Liberty League school, and he hated the WPA with a fiery passion for the entire rest of his life. It was from him I first heard the joke: "How many people does it take to do one WPA job? Three. One on his way to the bathroom, one on his way back from the bathroom, and one leaning on the shovel pretending to work." But here's the funny thing. You know what Grampa Hicks was before the Great Depression? He was a bum. A mostly-unemployed unskilled laborer on the rare occasions he had a job, a street brawler and small-time crook, a chronic alcoholic and wife-beater who spent most of the 1920s in jail. So when he showed up in one of Harry Hopkins' branch offices and they asked him, "What do you do?" all he could answer was, "Nothing." So they stuck him on one of the WPA's archetypal projects: a National Guard armory. Under the thin pretense of "military preparedness," Harry Hopkins made up this total BS scenario whereby some day, in some foreign invasion of the US, we might end up having to retreat all the way back to any random tiny little town in America, so every tiny little road-crossing town and every suburb and every city neighborhood in America should have a solidly built, concrete-block or raw stone building that the state militia can store their weapons in until that day, and can use as a fort when we get nearly conquered. Nobody was fooled. Everybody knew it was a lie: it was building buildings just for the sake of building pointless buildings. Furthermore, the whole "fort" thing was just an excuse to make the job take longer, to build out of improbably heavy materials and as slowly and carefully as possible, so those mostly unskilled laborers didn't run out of something to do before Hopkins and his few staff could come up with something else to do. Grampa Hicks went to his grave still mocking the work he'd done.

But you know what? There's a funny thing about that, something I'm pretty sure Grampa Hicks never thought about. First of all, if it weren't for the WPA, we Hickses would still be bums. Grampa Hicks was desperate to get out from behind that wheel barrow and that shovel, but was too drunk to do plumbing. So he took to hanging around when the electricians were running wire, and managed to get himself a totally useless job as a sort of human Vice-Grip. "Here," says the skilled electrician who was himself out of work, yelling over to my grandpa because the WPA wouldn't spring for proper tools, "you there -- hold these two wires together while I tape them together." By following that guy around and watching over that guy's shoulder, Grampa Hicks taught himself basic electrical wiring. And when the WPA was over, he was able to lie with a straight face to employers that he was a skilled electrician, and that got him his first real job, one his son learned from him, and that I learned from my dad that paid my way through college: electrical sign erector, IBEW local 1.

But never mind how much difference those "pointless" National Guard armories made to my family, there's something even bigger that Grampa Hicks didn't know. We're still using almost every single one of those buildings. I saw an article a while back (citation lost, sorry) by an architecture student who'd gotten curious about what ever happened to all those National Guard armories, so he got some grant money and went on a national tour. And what he found was that in almost every single rural town in America and even in most suburbs, those "ridiculously over-built" armories were the first truly solid building ever built there. And because they were "ridiculously over-built," they're still in use. A few are grocery stores or other businesses. Some are schools or community centers. Most are police stations or city halls. Almost all of them double as emergency shelters for the town during natural disasters. So the student did some math to figure out, using standard construction techniques and assuming standard maintenance costs, and assuming that we would have built something to do those jobs some time between then and now, what it would have cost some of those counties to have done without those buildings. And compared that to what it cost them and their descendants in federal tax money to support the WPA and to pay off its debts. The WPA actually made money on its most "useless" projects.

You can take almost any WPA project from the 1930s that was widely mocked as a pointless waste of money; nearly all of them paid every penny back in long-term savings to the taxpayers, in taxes paid by people who learned their trade on those projects who would have otherwise stayed on the dole, or both. In the 1936 elections, Roosevelt's political enemies handed out campaign buttons mocking the stupidest-sounding idea the WPA ever had. See, in even the smallest towns, the WPA built the first sewage treatment plants those counties ever saw, and laid sewer pipe for them. But lots of Americans still lived in areas too rural for even that. So the WPA paid teams of laborers to ride from farm to farm, shack to shack, shanty to shanty all over America looking for private outhouses that were rickety, or worse were too close to water supplies or food preparation. Those teams were given a standardized design with a water-tight roof, solid construction that would require almost no maintenance for decades, and most importantly: clean concrete floors and toilet hole lids that could close nearly air-tight, plus ventilation stacks that were designed to be insect resistant, in order to reduce both ground-water contamination by and insect-born transmission of fecal bacteria. Many areas turned the WPA down, especially suburbs around cities, and people all over America relentlessly mocked the WPA workers who thought that the US had "nothing better to do" than to waste $17 per rural house building massively over-engineered fancy outhouses. But you know what? Over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, almost every area that turned the WPA down on the outhouse project and other sanitation projects suffered major cholera outbreaks. Areas where the WPA built sewage treatment and sanitary outhouses escaped, saving tens of thousands of children's lives, and probably millions of dollars in hospital costs and lost wages.

Some people were really determined to not even do anything as useful as pretend to dig ditches. So they claimed, when the WPA asked them "what do you do?" to be writers or actors or artists. Some of them were even sincere, and had actually studied those subjects in high school; others just made it up. When asked about it, Harry Hopkins famously shrugged and said, "Why not? Those people have to eat, too." So the government made up make-work programs for them, too, all of which were relentlessly mocked all through the 1930s. You're an actor? Here. You've got no budget for props, sets, costumes, or stage rights for plays. We'll let you use an empty storefront and call it a "theater," especially if you'll bring in some WPA laborers to build a stage and some seats for you. No, wait, you can have some costumes, but not many; we have some households headed by widows who could stand to do some sewing for you at WPA wages. And you can have any public domain script you want. Now, put on plays. We don't care what plays, or how many you do, but you will come in 20 to 30 hours a week and work on them, and put them on when you're done ... including you, Mr. Orson Welles. Whose acting, then directing, careers are still bringing in taxpayer dollars every year; all by himself he's probably paid back the entire cost of the WPA's program for actors.

You say you're a journalist or a historian or a writer? Hmm. Tell you what. During westward expansion, an awful lot of tiny little towns got founded, and the people who founded those towns are getting old; go ask them who founded the town, and why, and what it was like, and write it up as a history of the county. Take all the time you want. Nuts, we're out of tiny little towns, and still have writers left over. Think of something. I know, go interview former slaves; we'll give them some time off from their WPA jobs so you can write down what they say their lives were like. What, we're still overstocked on people who say they're writers? Fine, here, we'll hand 'em to the state tourism boards; we'll send teams of 'em to just walk around every state in the Union, get drunk in the local bars, describe the local sights, and make tourist guides. And, oh, by the way, who knew? That'll turn out to include an entire generation of America's most famous writers, including America's third and fifth ever Nobel prizes for literature. Just the taxes on the movie rights to John Steinbeck's novels have probably paid for that entire program all by itself, and are still paying taxes. Not to mention that we still have all of those books, and most of their notes towards the unfinished books, and guess what? Generations of grad students in history are extremely grateful to the WPA; they wish every generation of Americans had been as well documented.

I don't think you can come up with a single dollar of WPA spending that actually counts as wasted, not a single WPA "make-work" project so pointless and stupid that we didn't get our money's worth out of it, especially if you count all the on-the-job job skills training it gave the 8 or 9 million people who went through the program. And that's even if you don't factor in the analysis of very serious historians who question whether or not American "G.I.s" would have fought so hard or so well to save the world from 1941 to 1945 if they had been as resentful, and as starving, as they were in 1930. But no, the blunt fact of history is that if the truth were ever told about the WPA, if the truth hadn't been being smothered in lies by the same political factions that opposed it at the time all the way up to this very day, everybody would know what the WPA proved as inescapable facts. No dollar of government spending is wasted, if it does a job that nobody else was going to do and it builds something that lasts. Almost nobody is so greedy and lazy that they actually would prefer to be paid to stay home and watch TV or get drunk or stoned all day; there are untold tens of millions of us now that no employer would touch for any of a long list of bad reasons who would rather be working. And no matter how lazy you think they are, boredom is a powerful motivator, and so is a desire not to let down your team, and so is a desire not to look bad in front of others: bring 'em to work, leave 'em alone, and nearly all of them actually will work, will actually build things that are built well, built for the ages, built to last. Paradoxically, the really wasted money is the money that gets spent on government overseers determined to make sure that none of the workers waste any money: point people at jobs, give 'em simple hand tools, and tell them to take their time and build something solid and it's almost impossible for us to not get that money back in long-term savings.

Nor is this even all that "liberal" an idea. Ronald freaking Reagan himself briefly campaigned on it, calling it "Workfare:" if you can't find a job, we'll make you one, whether you like it or not. But he didn't even get sworn in before the same pro-corporate Republicans and right-wing Democrats convinced him to drop it, to instead concentrate on cutting taxes for corporations as his only unemployment-fighting measure. No, there is now, just as there was in Franklin Roosevelt's time, a bipartisan consensus of the elites in this country that the way to put Americans back to work is that taxes must be cut on investors and corporations. We are, apparently, supposed to ignore the last thirty years of history, which teaches us that every tax cut we pass and every subsidy we grant to big corporations will be used to hire robots or to move jobs overseas. No, this time we're supposed to believe it will be different and this time they really will use that money to make more jobs. Trust them on this, they say. And just as in Roosevelt's day, the exact same political coalition of big-corporation Republicans and big-corporation Democrats insist that if that won't do the job fast enough, then what we need are even more public-private partnerships. And ironically, even Barack Obama, who very nearly lost his political career early on because he was caught on the fringes of Tony Rezko's financially corrupt public-private partnership, one that Barack Obama had gotten for him, somehow hasn't learned that it's public-private partnerships and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, not government make-work programs or benefits for the unemployed, that are the real welfare cheats. Being a Harvard graduate who grew up under the steady drumbeat of pro-corporate propaganda about how evil the WPA was, he's still talking up the need for more public-private partnerships like Harold Ickes' old Public Works Administration.

So I figure the odds at roughly 4 to 1 that he's going to screw up the unemployment situation in America, at the very least doing nothing to help it, and quite possibly making it worse by funding the elimination of yet more American jobs, because that's exactly what the new President and his cabinet officers are talking about doing, lately. Sadly, these are even better odds than we would have had under either Clinton or McCain, neither of whom would have even considered anything but public-private partnerships. Obama will, I think, at least think about it. But I don't think he'll do anything but try to set up another PWA. Which is a damned shame. Because what we really need is another WPA.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Last night, I spent more time comforting my psychiatrist than vice versa. But then, I can pass for a member of the dominant classes; she’s a black woman with an Arabic name…
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Dear Marvel and DC,

Please stop creating stories which revolve around ethical debates about superheroes. It is impossible to honestly tell such a story without coming to grips with the fact that the vast majority of your protagonists are one or more of:

• extralegal vigilantes
• people who solve almost all of their problems with a combination of brute force and deceit
• people who routinely lie to their loved ones
• people who encourage minors to participate in the above activities

I’m not saying it’s impossible to tell good stories about superhero ethics – but I AM saying that it is impossible to do so within a shared corporate universe that is dedicated to maintaining the profitability of its trademarks. (And given that those corporations are direct descendents of organized crime cartels, getting them to ever put ethics or story values above profits is always going to be an extreme uphill battle.)

This rant brought to you by the fact that I recently caught up on a bunch of Marvel comics which were involved in the Civil War II crossover. A lot of characters had to suddenly be a lot stupider than they previously had been in order for that conflict to happen.

I note that Squirrel Girl was not involved. My personal headcanon is that she was off-planet during this mess. If she HAD been around, it would’ve been wrapped up in one or two issues, three tops, and would never have gotten so heated as to deserve the title ‘Civil War’.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I meant to write about this film after Kestrell and I watched it together several months ago, but was distracted by Life. But now seems like a more important time than ever to talk about the power of Art to inspire Deeds.

As you might have guessed from the title, the plot is loosely based on The Scarlet Pimpernel. But instead of Revolutionary France, we are in Nazi Germany. Leslie Howard (who also produced and directed the film) stars as Horatio Smith, an English archaeology professor who is using the cover of an archaeological dig in Germany to rescue “intellectuals” and smuggle them to safety. (Heroic archaeologist versus Nazis – was this an influence on Indiana Jones?)

It’s an exciting and suspenseful adventure film. You could call it a propaganda film, which is accurate, but misleading. The characters are moral, but not preachy. There is a bit of speechifying at the end, but as [livejournal.com profile] sovay points out:
…this is no comfortable re-enactment of settled history. The film is set in 1939, made in 1940—Britain is under the Blitz, America is not yet even in the war; there are no hindsight assurances. So it must be prophecy … sympathetic magic, summoning. Imago. And Howard's ghost is still speaking out of that dark.
But the real reason that I feel compelled to write about Pimpernel Smith today is to point out the inspiring effect it had on one person in particular. Quoting Wikipedia:
When Pimpernel Smith reached Sweden in November 1943, the Swedish Film Censorship Board decided to ban it from public viewing, as it was feared that such a critical portrayal of Nazi Germany could harm Sweden's relationship with Germany and thus jeopardise the country's neutrality in the Second World War. Raoul Wallenberg did, however, manage to see it at a private screening, together with his half-sister, Nina Lagergren.[11]

She later recalled that on their way home after the screening, "he told me this was the kind of thing he would like to do."[12] Since 1941, Wallenberg had made frequent trips to Hungary, and knew how oppressed the Hungarian Jews were. He travelled as a representative and later joint owner of an export-import company that was trading with central Europe and was owned by a Hungarian Jew.

Following the mass deportations that had started in April 1944, Wallenberg was sent to Budapest in August 1944, as First Secretary to the Swedish legation, assigned under secret agreement between the US and Swedish governments to organise a rescue programme for the Jews. By issuing "protective passports", which identified the bearer as Swedish, and housing them in 32 buildings that he rented and declared Swedish territory, he managed to rescue tens of thousands from the German death camps.

Tens of thousands saved. Leslie Howard didn’t live long enough to hear about it, but I’m sure it would have pleased him.

Pimpernel Smith is available on Youtube. I highly recommend it.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
In the game Marvel Puzzle Quest, I've recently spent a lot of time playing both with and against a particular version of Black Widow (gray suit). When used strategically by the player, she is a *considerable* badass. The opponent AI, however, has no idea how to properly apply her powers.

I take this as an accidental-but-apt commentary on the character's recent treatment in the movies. The actors and directors make her badass, but none of the money people know what to do with her.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Kestrell discovered this today, and we watched the first two episodes. It’s a newish TV series from CBS that’s available for free on Amazon Prime Video. It’s basically “The West Wing” meets “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, with an extra dash of black humor. We’re definitely intrigued enough to watch more.

Also, for extra geek cred points, after the first episode, the “previously on Braindead” segment is a song by Jonathan Coulton (with slightly altered lyrics each week). While there is definitely a horror element, the level of gore is consistent with broadcast television. On the other hand, if you have trouble with a plot revolving around mind-controlling bugs crawling inside people’s brains, you might want to give it a miss. And of course, having only seen the first two episodes, I can’t guarantee that the quality will stay high. Provisionally recommended.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Recently happened upon an interesting article about Tammany Hall. One bit seemed especially relevant to the dynamic I was talking about in my recent sketch of "The Game of Power":
Tammany embraced immigrants because they knew how to count and they understood that, as these Irish immigrants began washing up on South Street in New York ... there were two ways that New York could respond to these immigrants:

The Whig Party, which was the main opposition party at the time, chose to regard these immigrants as aliens and interlopers. And people, because most of them were Catholic, thought of them as people who could never really understand the Anglo-Protestant idea of liberty ...

The Democrats were a little more practical. They realized that if these people were extended the hand of friendship — and I do believe it was friendship — then well, you know, maybe they would show their appreciation on Election Day.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
A Civ-like game, but with a rather different focus, and a Message in the mechanics.

Mechanics of Production and Combat are present, but greatly simplified. Exploration and (peaceful) Expansion are NOT present. By the time the player gets here, all the good places to put cities have already been occupied. Research is not an issue, at least in the initial version.

The major focus of the game (both in theme and mechanics) is on Culture (with a sideline in Diplomacy, as that's strongly related). Military conquest is relatively straightforward, assuming greatly superior force. And the player will start the game with sufficient military force to easily conquer some of his immediate neighbors right away. The really interesting part is not the war itself, but the decisions that build to the war, and those in its immediate aftermath.

After you conquer an enemy city, you are given three choices: Genocide, Enslave, or Assimilate. Genocide is the simple way to take all their territory and physical infrastructure, but has the critical failing that you lose the potential population growth. Given the timescale of this game, population growth through breeding is a minimal factor at best; you really want to get conquered people working for you. The simple way to do THAT, is to Enslave. Slave workers, however, are not very efficient, and you also need to allocate a significant amount of your military to police functions, to keep the slaves in line. To get the FULL benefit of your increased population, you need to Assimilate them as citizens. This has its own difficulties, of course.

Most of the player’s actions outside of conquest consist of shaping the Culture of your civilization. Your Culture will have opinions, possibly strong ones, about Genocide versus Slavery versus Assimilation. They will have all sorts of other opinions as well, which may initially seem largely pointless, but which help define your cultural identity.

In the build up to a Conquest, one of the most crucial points is how your cultural identity compares with that of the target city. If you move your own Culture away from theirs, and paint them as completely barbaric, that gives your own soldiers bonus strength in combat, but makes it almost impossible to Assimilate the target afterwards. Conversely, if you try to make your culture similar to the target’s, your soldiers will be less enthusiastic about fighting, but Assimilation is far more possible, and will go more smoothly, afterwards.

Ultimately, the winning player is likely to be the one who has the largest definition of “us”, the most all-encompassing cultural identity. Though their soldiers are actually the least efficient, this is more than compensated for by the number and productivity of their workers.

My design goal is to demonstrate interactively both how demonizing the Other is an attractive short-term political strategy, and how EMBRACING the Other outperforms it in the long term.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
A few days ago, I had a dream where, for some unknown reason my subconscious decided that Donald Trump was yelling at me. Now it happens that I have been so thoroughly avoiding television news and advertisements that I actually have NO IDEA what Donald Trump SOUNDS like. But my subconscious dream director was like, “There must be yelling here, so we need a voice. Just reuse some appropriate one from deep memory storage.” So now, in my personal head-canon, Donald Trump speaks with the voice of Yosemite Sam.

Hamilton

Jan. 31st, 2016 01:50 am
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I finally got around to listening to Hamilton. Yeah, it really is all that. If you want an overview of what the show is, and why everyone is talking about it, Siderea did an excellent write up.

Having listened to the music, I began a cursory read of some of the associated meta-text; news articles, interviews, and such. In so doing, I’ve come up with one insight that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

The composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, reminds me of no one so much as the young Orson Welles, with one crucial difference. Like Welles, Miranda is brilliant, driven, and egotistical. However, unlike Welles, he understands that theater is not a zero-sum game.

Welles always had to be the lone genius. Though he surrounded himself with talented people, he always denigrated them, or played power games to assert his dominance. Karmically, this resulted in relatively untalented people exerting power and dominance games over Welles, greatly reducing the amount of art he was able to complete.

Miranda, by contrast, doesn’t seem to play power games at all, as far as I can tell. He understands that when everyone is working to make the best possible show, that results in the most personal gain for everyone involved.

What it was is an environment where everybody felt they could do their best. That sounds simple. But all of us have been in environments where we didn't feel like that. We felt like our best was going to threaten somebody else, or we were stifled in some way. But Hamilton was a carefully crafted environment where everyone felt like we could come in and dump all of our toys out in the center of the floor.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I saw this on a friend's Tumblr, and felt it was worth sharing.  But I don't really understand how Tumblr works, so am copy-pasting here.

I’ve read a lot of scholarly articles on Much Ado About Nothing that dismiss Don John as a terrible villain, or criticise Shakespeare for the lack of finesse in constructing him, but honestly, I’ve always felt like that’s the point.

Don John is no sly, silver-tongued Iago – he is crude, brash and malicious. He makes statements like “I am a plain-dealing villain,” goes about attended by idiot henchmen, and takes advice and inspiration for his plots from others around him.

But even so, this weak caricature of a villain nearly brings ruin upon all of Messina.

How?

Because, even before he had made plans to trick Claudio into thinking Hero was unfaithful, the culture of Messina had already done most of the work for him. Don John is not the true villain of this play; he is merely an agent. The real villain of Much Ado About Nothing is the culture of misogyny in Messina.

From the moment Benedick and the soldiers return to Messina, they engage in lewd sexual banter and joke about horns, adultery and cuckoldry. Leonato’s first instinct upon greeting them is to make such a joke, for when Don Pedro politely inquires if Hero is his daughter the old gentleman immediately quips, “Her mother hath many times told me so.” This banter speaks volumes about the underlying misogyny and anxieties about female sexuality that the men share, and it works to create an atmosphere that is ripe for Hero’s shocking rejection.

Thus, all Don John has to do is suggest to Claudio that Hero is unfaithful, offer him a sliver of proof, and the prince and Claudio, made susceptible by popular myths of female inconstancy, find the rest of the proof themselves. Claudio starts to see certain cues as evidence of Hero’s guilt where before they were badges of honour. He declares, “Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.” And so Hero, by the simple machinations of a cardboard cutout villain, is publicly disgraced, left for dead, and threatened with death by her own father, showcasing how quickly those seemingly harmless jokes about women can escalate to actual violence.

What’s more, this culture of misogyny is what keeps Benedick and Beatrice apart. These two dorks start the play madly in love with each other, but their shared fear of horns and cuckoldry divides them. Beatrice is also repelled by Benedick’s attitude as a self-confessed “tyrant” to her sex, and patriarchal culture has convinced her that no marriage could ever be happy, and no man faithful. Both of them (but especially Benedick) must thus overcome and abandon patriarchal values and the culture of misogyny they are entrenched in. Again, the culture of Messina is the antagonist, not Don John.

Beatrice has the advantage of being resentful and rebellious towards patriarchal culture from the very beginning, and so it is Benedick’s conquering of his sexist attitude that becomes the axis on which the rest of the play turns. He starts off entrenched in a culture of toxic masculinity, but once he acknowledges his love for Beatrice, and after he sees Hero disgraced and left for dead, he becomes sickened by the views he once held. Beatrice flies into a rage at her cousin’s treatment, and in no uncertain terms rails against misogyny and the patriarchy and the culture that nearly killed Hero. She wishes she “were a man for his [Claudio’s] sake,” telling us that, were she a man, she would use her position of privilege and power to protect women rather than abuse them. Her next wish, “that I had any friend would be a man for my sake” is a challenge to Benedick to do what she, as a woman, cannot: defend her cousin with action, not words, and publicly oppose the culture of misogyny in Messina.

This makes her initial request, “Kill Claudio,” less a demand that Benedick murder his friend and more a plea that he break with the toxic culture of male camaraderie. And Benedick agrees. In the midst of a play saturated with jokes about women’s volubility and defined by the rejection of a supposedly unfaithful woman, he then makes the monumental decision to trust Beatrice. He listens to her when she grieves and finally asks her a single question: “Think you, in your soul that Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?” When she replies in the affirmative, her word is all the proof he needs to part with the prince and challenge his best friend.

When he meets with Don Pedro and Claudio, they are keen for him to validate their treatment of Hero with his witticisms, plainly desiring to hear the japes about cuckoldry he had trotted out at the start of the play. But with Hero almost “done to death by slanderous tongues,” Benedick knows tongues are as deadly as swords in Messina, and so leaves his wit in his scabbard. He challenges Claudio and informs the prince he intends to discontinue his company, officially cutting his ties with their little boys’ club.

Speaking to Margaret shortly after, Benedick claims he has “a most manly wit… it will not hurt a woman.” He no longer uses his tongue to scorn or denigrate women. Instead, he uses it to delight them, turning his efforts to poetry and song, and courting Beatrice with the jokes and witticisms he once reserved for his male friends. Shakespeare uses Beatrice to convince Benedick, and by extension the audience, of the shortcomings of masculine culture and shows us that true valour comes from men using their strength to protect women rather than hurt them: for this alone may Benedick call his wit “manly.”

Through their love, Benedick and Beatrice conquer the true villain of the play: misogyny. Don John, who is merely the agent, is instead undone by Dogberry and his idiot watchmen, who discover the plot and bring the truth to light. With all put right, the end of the play provides the denouement where Benedick, having proved his valour and cast off misogyny, is at last free to marry the woman he adores. He makes a speech where he mocks the old views about women and marriage he held, gaily advises the prince the marry, and tells Claudio “love my cousin,” the implication being that the only way Claudio and Hero will live happy is if Claudio follows Benedick’s example, throws off misogyny and loves and trusts his new wife as Benedick does Beatrice.

Much Ado About Nothing, quite simply, mocks the hypocrisy of patriarchal society at every turn. It questions why men should demand chastity in women when they display none themselves, and why women are thought of as sexually insatiable when experience generally showed the opposite. The play’s accompanying song Sigh No More is even about the unfaithfulness of men. The lyrics declare “Men were deceivers ever… to one thing constant never,” and the men of Much Ado tend to live up to this, being generally lusty and faithless while the women are constant and faithful. Shakespeare disproves common myths about female inconstancy by making Hero the blameless victim of men’s obsession with female chastity, a scapegoat onto whom all their repressed fears are projected. And Don John, the active agent of the culture of misogyny, is a bastard, living proof of men’s infidelity and unfaithfulness.

So yes, Don John is a terrible villain – but that’s precisely the point. His weak characterisation feeds neatly into the play’s subversive agenda. For what could this bitter, scheming man have accomplished had the culture of misogyny not predisposed Don Pedro and Claudio to suspect unfaithfulness? What power did he have over Benedick and Beatrice, and how did he serve as their antagonist?

Don John is not the true villain. Misogyny is. Hero’s shocking rejection and near-death proves how dangerous misogyny is, and how easily violent words lead to violent actions. Meanwhile, the witty, sparkling lovers journey together to overcome their internalised prejudices, and provide vivid proof of what happiness a marriage based on trust and true equality can bring.

Much Ado About Nothing is play about a battle of the sexes – and only once the two sides call a truce and join forces to overcome the real villain, misogyny, may the happy ending be achieved.

(source link: http://penfairy.tumblr.com/post/133400268109/misogyny-in-much-ado-about-nothing)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I just got a robo-call ad from Marriott Hotels. I don't get many such calls, so this was unusual to start with. But then it occurred to me -- I was physically inside a Marriott for a few hours on Monday. Did some system note my presence (or at least the presence of my phone number), and therefore figure I was a reasonable marketing target?
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Just saw a very curious Warner Brothers cartoon: "Old Glory" from 1939.  It's not humor, it's patriotic history propaganda.  And it's very interesting what gets covered and what doesn't in its 9-minute running time.  They devote a good deal of footage to Paul Revere's ride, but never make any mention of "British", just calling out "To arms!"  The entire Revolutionary War passes without any direct mention or depiction of the Britsh.  We then pass on to the colonial period, with, as usual, the middle of the continent described as "undiscovered", and no depiction of the natives.  There <i>is</i> a mention of difficult "marches" -- that the settlers went through!  Almost the last bit is Lincoln quoting a bit of the Gettysburg Address.  Naturally, there is no context, no mention of a Civil War, and certainly no allusion to slavery.  Very much an artifact of its time...
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Feminist Frequency has been doing a Youtube series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games. If you haven't checked it out already, I commend it to your attention. The latest episode touches on an issue I have a bit of personal experience with; how even a game which is relatively non-sexist in its *content* can appear extremely sexist *as advertised*.

I remember when Ken unveiled the BioShock Infinite box cover art for the company. Many people on the team were dismayed. We had been spending considerable time and effort working on a game that had as a central Design Pillar "Elizabeth is the soul of the game", and yet she wasn't even on the front cover. As Ken explained, first to us, and later to the press, it was all about Marketing. This was the cover that Marketing believed would sell the most copies.

Feminist Frequency is arguing for social change. It's no accident that the positive examples noted therein are all games from small, independent companies. Games from large corporations are beholden to the Almighty Dollar. Marketing departments, by and large, want to sell games to the audiences that *currently* exist. Attempting to expand the potential audience, or to try and change the attitudes of the existing audience, are not on the agenda. Indeed, they would be seen as financially risky maneuvers, ones that most corporations would not approve.

Of course, change *is* risky. And any tentative experiments which result in failure (or even *perceived* failure) make the suits even less willing to try new things.

Once again, it comes down to Capitalism. When profit is the only standard of value, social issues get ignored.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
"...if we *are* to be the new mainstream, then it is incumbent upon us to take up the responsibility of that power to be a *better* mainstream than what came before..."

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/the-big-picture/7645-With-Great-Power
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
This is a followup to my earlier post.

In the comments, [livejournal.com profile] siderea pointed out that most of the real *scandals* of recent years have not been because of isolated individuals, though they often started that way. They erupted into scandals only when the offending individuals are supported (overtly or implicitly) by the leaders of the community.

So "pushing the assholes out" is not really the right approach. It's to clearly establish, and enforce, what standards a community has. Bringing pressure on the leadership of a community can, and often does, prompt those leaders to act to correct bad situations. Often the leaders were unaware (or insufficiently aware) of these problems, and just speaking up is enough to inspire action. Sometimes the leaders are an *active* part of the problem. In these cases, making a public stink may cause these problem leaders to reevaluate their problematic stance, or potentially resign, or be removed by election or some other process. In the worst case, if the leaders are both problematic and holding onto their power, then at least it has become clearly established what kind of leaders they are, and, by extension, what the organization is willing to tolerate, so that members (or potential members) know what they're getting into. In *that* situation, I certainly encourage people to vote with their feet.

Last year's ReaderCon incident is an interesting case study. When the problem was first brought to the community leaders, they acted badly. But as community pressure kept up, that set of leaders resigned, en masse, and a new set was elected, who acted quickly to (re-)establish community standards.

I've been mulling this over for a few days, but was particularly inspired to post by this announcement from Kickstarter. It details the problem, what actions the leadership of KS did (and didn't) take, and why. Most importantly, it established clear new standards that will hopefully prevent that particular offense from re-occurring. It's a *model* of a well-structured apology, and appropriate corrective action. I applaud them.

While writing this post, I took a short break and was reading LJ, and saw *another* story to illustrate my point. Exodus International, a decades-old ministry devoted to 'curing' homosexuality in Christians has decided to shut themselves down and apologize for all the harm they caused. Even a group that takes toxic ideas as its central focus can, in time, come to realize its own toxicity.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
A lot of people I know are concerned because their social circle (or subculture, or industry) has suffered from an increasing number of scandals due to systemic sexism and racism and other types of Fail in recent years. People fear that their group is somehow degenerating.

In the examples I am closely familiar with, what's going on is exactly the opposite of degenerating, though things appear bad on the surface. The truth is that the institutional Fail has been there all along. What's changed is the context the Fail happens in. On a broad level, societal mores are changing (if not as quickly as we would like). On a more personal level, many fewer victims are willing to quietly accept it when tribal elders mistreat them. More people are willing to speak up, and patterns of abuse in specific individuals become more apparent. Moreover, many people who would have formerly stood by and shrugged their shoulders when seeing only rare instances of abuse, convert to active allies when they are made aware of its actual extent.

I hear people say things like "Why should I stay part of a group that has such vile members in it?"

I'll tell you why. Because *every* group of human beings (larger than about three) contains some assholes, at least at first formation. If you have groups which *don't* contain assholes, then it's because people have done the work to make it clear to the assholes that they are Not Welcome. Such things do not occur on their own.

I'm not saying that you are morally obligated to reform every group that exists, far from it. But if you think a group sounds like a neat place to be, if only it wasn't for the assholes -- then at least consider whether it's worth your while to try and push the assholes out. It's more possible than you might think, and gets easier every time it happens.

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Alexx Kay

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