Archive for August, 2012

30
Aug
12

Back To School

Just FYI, if you’re one of the (very)* select readers of this blog, you might not have as much to read as often over the next few months.  The fall semester has begun at my place of employment, the California Maritime Academy…or Cal Maritime…or Cal State University – Maritime.  What one calls the institution seems to depend on a variety of factors.  I’m sure I’ll learn the system.  Someday.

Anyway, I try to teach physics to aspiring mariners.  They, in turn, try to learn physics from an aspiring professor.  Each of these endeavors has a varying degree of success.  In concert, however, the institution seems quite successful at training some of the people who move some 90% of the Earth’s international commerce (by volume).  If you like that fun fact, you can find many more with a bit of poking around at www.csum.edu.  One thing the website doesn’t do particularly well is highlight the location.  Vallejo the town isn’t anything too grand, but half the campus is about fifteen feet above sea level with a view of the lovely San Pablo Bay…and a ConocoPhillips refinery terminal.  Still, it is beautiful.  I’ll see if I can grab a picture tomorrow to add to this post and prove this assertion.

* extremely?

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23
Aug
12

And Then I Thought I’d Review My Friend’s Book

I should preface this by mentioning that the author of this book is a friend of mine.  I also know his parents and brother, all of whom make a number of appearances in this memoir.  For anyone reading who thinks these facts disqualify me from writing a worthwhile blurb about Pete’s book, well, I suppose this is where you might stop reading.*

For anyone else who stumbles upon this entry, I would first like to present a summary:  this book is a very dark and very entertaining memoir concerning Mr. Welch’s descent into and recovery from a psychotic episode.  If you own a Kindle, you can be reading it for a mere $2.99 in about thirty seconds.  And you should.  I managed to latch on to a hard copy**, because I know people who know people.

Now to elaborate a bit.  When I knew Pete best there really wasn’t any reason for me to think that he would, a year or so after we dropped out of regular contact, be admitted to a mental institution.  I can honestly say that the thought never occurred to me.  I also ran into him a few times post-psychotic episode, and to me, it was the same old Pete except perhaps with lower meat to bone ratio, a well-honed smoking habit, and a couple casually-told (at the time, also amusing and seemingly innocuous) stories about leaping into the frigid waters of Bar Harbor, Maine naked and ‘borrowing’ a car, all while on acid.  Those stories are also in this book, told with the same flair for descriptive language and entertaining style that I remember…but with extra detail and many other stories that show just how my friend descended, all within the space of several months***, from a disgruntled, LSD-addled, exhausted, seasonal Bar Harbor restaurant worker to a resident of a state-run mental institution.

This is where much of the darkness in the memoir creeps in.  To detail why and how all it fits together to make a great book would take this blurb toward more of a ‘review’, which I’m not really serious enough a writer to embark upon.  Suffice to say that by interweaving his own account with quotes from his friends, quotes from his family, and a moderate, but interesting swing through the brain chemistry that drove it all, the reader is swept along on Pete’s journey through a hell that he was rarely cognizant of while it was happening.  Though it is difficult for me, being a friend, to step all the way back and determine whether an anonymous reader would be as affected by the reading as I was, I want to say yes.  Even if I am incorrect, I can say with certainty that it’s a good read.  Highly recommended.

* There.  Marked it for you.

** Thanks Mom.

*** If I’m recalling the timeline properly here…

16
Aug
12

Of Video Games, and the Women in Them

My wife recently alerted me to an article she read on Wired.  A woman named Anita Sarkeesian of the website Feminist Frequency launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise several thousand dollars to “…explore five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games” via video documentaries.  The project lines up with her interest in depictions of females in pop ‘geek’ culture, judging from the content of her website and her master’s thesis.  A relatively long story short, the campaign attracted thousands of people to her website and Youtube channel, some percentage of whom left comments like “Tits or get the fuck out.” and “Get back in the kitchen, if you hate it go make your own games”.*  This type of behavior pissed off a lot of more reasonable people who went to the Kickstarter campaign and have donated $158,922 to date (original goal: $6,000).

So…all’s well that ends well?  After all, those idiots anonymously posting hateful comments about her gender, beliefs, possible Jewish heritage**, etc, didn’t get the last laugh.  Ms. Sarkeesian pocketed over $150K and goes about her business, albeit with financing far in excess of what she ever might have hoped for***.  And for that matter, it seems to me that you probably can’t go far on the Internet without attracting the trolls at some point along the way.  Particularly if you’ve ever expressed an opinion about anything.  Youtube videos that talk about politics or global warming tend to attract some real crazies.  Even in the relatively well-behaved forum environments of some tech websites that I read, there isn’t a single author who isn’t routinely accused of being biased or on the take or incompetent.  Still, I think the reaction to her project was exceptional in its viciousness.  In my mind, this is largely because the specific community that she wishes to examine, video games/gamers, has (1) a majority male population, (2) has a terrible reputation for this kind of thing****, (3) a broader reputation for being (sometimes very loudly and rudely) fickle, entitled, opinionated, and obsessive, and (4) contains at least a similar % of assholes compared the rest of the Internet population.  Typical then, that the members of point (4) reacted to nothing but the project outline and perhaps some vague inferences based on the content of her website.  If anything, criticism should come when the finished documentaries are presented to the world and not before.  But then, actually watching the videos, examining their data and conclusions, and then writing a reasoned critique might be difficult and time-consuming.  God forbid.

Anyway, here, I’ll demonstrate the technique in a passable manner:  Having read Ms. Sarkeesian’s master’s thesis entitled “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You:  Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television”, I would like to make a few points regarding its content and conclusions.  First of all, I think the overall premise of the research, that strong female characters in sci-fi and fantasy television tend to be given their strength by possessing stereotypically masculine traits, is solid.  I think the clarity and cohesiveness of her argument would be better served by maintaining the narrow focus outlined early in the paper – in particular her discussion section really broadens out too much – but generally her original point is well-supported.*****

Second, a more specific series of assertions that she makes is first that strong female characters are underrepresented, also that women of color are more underrepresented, and finally that queer characters are even more underrepresented.  These are reasonable conclusions, though the latter two could easily be said on the male side of things as well.  It is definitely a problem in American television/movies at large, not just sci-fi and fantasy, that white, straight actors, writers, and directors predominate.

Finally, I’ll address Ms. Sarkeesian’s ‘research’ portion of her paper.  In fairness, I thought the paper as a whole was a well-written expository and argumentative essay…but the research portion was, in a word, disappointing.  I’ll let Ms. Sarkeesian set up the research portion herself:

…I noticed a scarcity of queer characters, representations of disability, and women of colour in television, and when they did appear they were more often villainized, demonized and killed than their white, straight, female counterparts. …I watched and thematically categorized the female characters in eleven prominent science fiction/fantasy television shows…  …I began by finding all the female characters who appeared on the show in three or more episodes, tracked their intersections of privilege, identified whether they were evil (and if so, whether they were eventually redeemed) and if, when and how they died. My results…corroborated my casual observations, that when women of colour and queer women are represented in television they die more often than white women.

This is technically an accurate statement based on her data, which is as follows.  Total female characters – 207, 43% dead.  White female characters – 153, 35% dead.  Women of color characters – 53, 36% dead.  Queer characters – 6, 50% dead.  The discrepancy between the total and the sum of the categories can be explained, I think, by the fact that some characters fall into more than one category.  However, anyone familiar with statistics should be cringing already when examining the validity of her claim.  Put simply, consider an ‘experiment’ where you flip a coin ten times and tally the number of heads.  The uncertainty in this measurement is plus or minus about two (the square root of the average number of heads one expects).  To extend the principle to this data set, if the writers for these shows were just completely random in determining whether or not a character died, the % of characters killed could vary significantly given the sample size that Ms. Sarkeesian considers.  If just one queer woman of color character found herself alive at the end of a television series instead of dead, it would invalidate Ms. Sarkeesian’s statement…a statistical knife edge, and definitely nothing on which to base a conclusion.

I guess the reason I go into such detail here is that really (really), I’d like Ms. Sarkeesian’s research regarding female video game characters to be successful.  I want to her to show the slack-jawed punks that left those messages on her Youtube channel that there is something to be worried about in how females are (typically) portrayed in video games.  Of course, they probably wouldn’t even watch her videos, so maybe I’d just better hope that whatever the outcome of her research, that it is good, statistically and logically sound, and inspires future video game writers to think just a bit before copy-pasting the last game’s generic damsel in distress****** into their current opus’ plotline.  I’m looking forward to the outcome.

* These are nowhere near the worst of them.

** No really, there was almost as much bile about this in those comments as there was about her appearance and gender.  Welcome to the Information Age.

*** Better be some sweet video documentaries.  Just saying.

**** For a related example, see the saga of Bioware’s Jennifer Hepler.

***** I would, however, argue against her use of Ellen Ripley as a character who is not a “fully complex female action hero”.  If Ripley is not one of these, there are none (of either gender).

****** Or for that matter, the last game’s badass female warrior who inexplicably wears armor that barely covers her breasts let alone vital organs.

09
Aug
12

Election 2012

The 2012 American Presidential Election will occur about three months from now*.  It is becoming difficult to ignore.  This is despite (1) not watching television except through the glorious filtered lens of the DVR, (2) almost solely reading Google News headlines, reading ArsTechnica, and listening to NPR as news sources, (3) not owning a landline, and (4) not living in a “swing” state.  Point number one is great because I don’t have to watch political ads.  (Oh no!  How will I become ‘informed’ about the candidates and their positions!)  Point number two is important because it doesn’t involve the 24-hour news networks, which are tools of Satan.  Point number three allows me to avoid all but the most determined political pollsters.  …and point number four is a nice coincidence that means less money gets spent trying to shout at me and everyone else in California.  If you’re reading this, and you live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, or a couple others, well, I feel for you.**

Now I realize that the Supreme Court has enshrined political speech of almost all types as free speech under the First Amendment, but around election time, particularly Presidential election time, I find myself wishing for the powers of a despot.  You know, so I could make an arbitrary set of rules like the following:

  1. No money or time may be spent advocating for a particular candidate or candidate’s position unless specifically called for in these rules.
  2. There shall be three Presidential debates.  Questions can be submitted by anyone, and the questions asked during the debate by the moderator(s) will be chosen by a committee made up of three representatives of each candidate and the moderator(s).  The debates will be held during primetime, begin three weeks prior to the election, and will be weekly.
  3. The candidates will be responsible for accurately stating their positions on various key issues.  This information will be included in the voter information pamphlet given to every eligible voter.
  4. In addition to the three debates, each candidate will have the opportunity to make two twenty minute documentaries: one about themselves and one about their opponent(s).  These will be fact-checked by a non-partisan panel and will be televised once per week for three weeks prior to the election.  Documentaries must be factual in content, but give the opportunity to comment on candidates’ voting records, character, background, etc.
  5. Election day will be a national holiday.  Every employer must allow employees time to vote.  Every citizen that is eligible to vote must vote unless they pay a small fine.

Now as a despot, I’m sure my lust for power would eventually cause me to abolish these silly election things altogether and write lots of other rules granting me all sorts of cool titles: “Supreme Lord of This That and The Other Thing”, “Grand Master of Chess, Checkers, the Internet, Water Polo, and Chili Cookoffs”, etc, etc.  Still, it might worth the risk.  I kind of like these five arbitrary rules.  Can you imagine not having to listen to candidates and their talking heads say the same things over and over again with only the occasional break to talk about some ridiculous phrase they managed to parse out of the other candidate’s speech?***  It would be glorious.  Like nothing else on this Earth.  Vote me in as despot, and I promise those are the only five rules I’ll ever make.

I’m Matt Fairbanks, and I approved this message.

*Forewarning: I’m not really sure where this bit of writing is going, and it may not end up anywhere in particular.  Just so you know.

**Unless you’re employed by a network affiliate in one of those states, in which case you’re probably doing well since all your advertising spots are sold out from here to the election.

*** “I like firing people…” and “…if you have a business, you didn’t build that…”, I’m looking pissed off at you right now.

03
Aug
12

Tomatoes vs. Whiteflies

My wife, a friend, and I are sharing in the “gardening” of two tomato plants this summer.  Gardening goes in quotes here, because we are all apartment dwellers and thus the tomatoes reside in a large pots sitting on one of our friend’s balconies.  Weeds are not prevalent.  Sun is plentiful.  The soil came out of a bag.  Under these conditions, tomatoes grow like the (friendly) weeds that they are.  The quotation marks are particularly important for my share of the gardening, which involves picking up the watering can, filling it in the sink, and then dumping it over the two tomato plants.  Done.  Now to dust off my hands, wipe my brow, and crack open a tasty adult beverage.

This is not to suggest that apartment-based gardening is without effort or hazard.  Evil little creatures called (as one might expect after seeing them) whiteflies, probably silverwing whiteflies, attacked one of our two potted tomato plants last year.  And yes, of course I’m anthropomorphizing the insects who put a dent in my summer tomato eating schedule.  I refuse to excuse their little black hearts by ascribing their destructive behavior to their natural lifecycle.  Anyway, the one they did attack had a short, tortured existence after the infestation really got going.  See, whiteflies are like tiny (~1 mm) plant vampires, sucking the sap from the underside of the plant’s leaves until the leaves start becoming pale and withering away.  As you might expect, this has a dramatic effect on the plant and in this case, reduced the tomato output (the only metric that really matters) by >90%.  The vampire simile breaks down after that:  Whiteflies are not immortal and do not respond to silver, stakes through the heart, running water, sunlight, crucifixes, or garlic.  They also don’t respond to most insecticides and quickly build up a tolerance to the insecticide used on them, like bacteria vs. an overused antibiotic.  There are lots of suggestions on how to control these agents of evil, but in our case, laziness may have been the largest contributing factor to this year’s success – planting late in the summer often means that the whiteflies have already moved on to look for other breeding grounds…and we planted in early July.