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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.


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.


Two Worlds

In video games, I have recently been gifted the “Epic Edition” of the 2007 PC/Xbox game, Two Worlds.  Yes, 2007.  Generally speaking (particularly if I am buying the game with my own small pile of cash), the games I play are over a year old.  This has many advantages, primary among them being the price, the stability of fully-patched game, and the ability of my outdated hardware to run the game.  Anyway, the game is a terrible, wonderful, no-good, steaming pile of very entertaining trash.  That’s my one-sentence review.  The language and voice-acting used in the game, a sort of stilted Ye Olde English, pretty much sums up the whole game: the delivery is not good, the script is not good, but the end-user experience runs somewhere between bemusement and hilarity.  Thumbs up.
Now I might, perchance, do some in-depth game reviews on this blog, but verily, this won’t be one of them.  Instead, I shall ask the question – why do I continue to play this game?  For instance, I could be playing Deus Ex, another elderly game that is sitting in my Steam library.  It is generally acknowledged to be a classic of modern(ish) gaming.  It has a 90 aggregate Metacritic score, which is excellent.  …and this is just one example.  I have several very fine games that I either haven’t started or haven’t played through to the end sitting only a double click away from me.  Add to this the fact that the time between waking up and falling asleep is limited, and has many important things other than video games occupying it, and forsooth, my motivation for playing Two Worlds should be near zero.  And yet, it is not.  Why?
There are undoubtedly neurological reasons for this behavior.  Radiolab’s most recent broadcast (“Stochasticity“) had a segment in it regarding the release of dopamine in the brain.  In context, it was discussing a woman who had developed an intense gambling addiction as a result of a Parkinson’s drug that essentially overstimulated dopamine release in her brain.  Apparently researchers have found that the human brain disproportionately weights (in terms of dopamine release and thus, warm, fuzzy, good feelings of satisfaction) unexpected rewards.  The evolutionary rationale is that if, for instance, you find a food source that you don’t expect, you should be biochemically encouraged to figure out why/how this reward came to you so that it will continue to arrive.  This extends obviously (and tragically, given the probabilities of reward) to gambling, but I think the principle extends to games like Two Worlds (or Diablo or many others).  These games feature an elaborate system of randomized loot (gold pieces, weapons, armor, etc) that can be used to improve one’s character.  Just like gambling (though admittedly with a positive result that is at once less tangible but more assured) the rewards are unpredictable.  A particularly shiny piece of armor drops randomly from a slain enemy, you pick it up, see what it is, and <snap> a warm, fuzzy feeling prevades your consciousness.
This all sounds, mayhaps, a bit insidious.  (The game is turning my own brain chemistry against me!  Soon I shall be powerless to resist its, er, power!)  However, though the mechanism I described is certainly present in Two Worlds, there must be other reasons.  After all, plenty of other games operate on a similar system of unexpected rewards.  So, other reasons to play…  There’s a mild social component – my friend Joe has also played through this ridiculous game, and there is, verily, entertainment in shared experience.  There’s the campy mode of speech and script.  There’s the story of a brother trying to rescue his kidnapped sister from evil-sounding and evil-looking hoodlums.  There’s wanting to finish something that one has started.  There’s being able to have your character wield an axe half as tall as himself in either hand and dispatch enemies while he says things like “Say hello to death!” and “Ahhhhh!”.  There’s then there’s, well, um, hmmm.  Mayhaps an analogy, with some setup, will suffice.
When I was in middle/high school, I spent some of my allowance on paperback science fiction and fantasy novels.  Not classics in the genre.  Classics by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Tolkien, and Lewis I could get at the library.  The ones I bought were almost all terribly written pulp: various Dungeons and Dragons branded novels, the novels of David Eddings, etc.  My Mom, who was at this point in my life probably hoping that I’d progress past the quality of writing that I’d come to enjoy back in second and third grade when devouring the Hardy Boys “mysteries”, gently pointed me towards finer literature.  I (mostly) ignored these attempts, and I still don’t read much fine literature, despite knowing that it’s good for me.  I’m sure you’re getting the analogy already, so I’ll go ahead and avoid comparing whatever won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction last year (no, not this year) to, say, Baldur’s Gate 2.  So there you are:  Two Worlds, the video game equivalent of a pulp fantasy novel.  You can probably even get it cheaper than what a paperback costs these days, so if you’ve got the time and inclination, enjoy and then feel a little guilty about it afterward.  Fare thee well, traveler!



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