Jun 232020
 

The following is an email I wrote to New York Times technology editor Pui-Wing Tam, whose email is pui-wing.tam@nytimes.com. Inspired by Wesley Fenza.

Dear Ms. Tam:

Yesterday I learned that one of your reporters is planning an article about Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex. In this article he plans to reveal personal information about Scott, including his true name, which could jeopardize his career, and will put both his safety and the safety of his family at greater risk.

I was appalled to discover this is the standard policy of the New York Times. Doxxing anyone is considered default harmful among all people who have taken the time to consider the question, and is not done in civilized forums without strong extenuating circumstances. That such a pro-doxxing policy is still on the books at a major institution in these days is scandalous, and I can only hope that it is the result of a lapse in attention, rather than intentional malice.

In an effort to protect himself, Scott Alexander has deleted the Slate Star Codex blog. The loss this represents is hard to overstate. The blog frequently posted in-depth reviews of highly regarded books on topics ranging from historical figures to state governance. He has described in painful detail the experience of working in a hospital and watching how the modern medical system treats those dying of old age. He frequently reviews current pharmacological research. These can be salvaged with some work through archives, but far more importantly is all the great work that will now never be produced due to this silencing.

Scott Alexander is a leading thinker of the modern day. He has produced more influential work attracting many otherwise-mutually-hostile audiences than nearly any traditional journalists. He has done more to influence my life in the last five years than any other person I do not personally know. His blog is one of the cultural touchstones of my community, and the loss of it will be felt as a bleeding wound for years. It is astounding to me that such a loss of human insight and knowledge, including all the lost future decades, is being done in the name of upholding a policy that is itself a vicious holdover from a crueler time.

Please reverse the decision to dox Scott Alexander, and update your policy to one that doesn’t perpetrate violence upon the vulnerable. Thank you for your time.

Eneasz Brodski

Jun 192020
 

I didn’t expect to make another post with the same name so soon.

Earlier today I learned my father is suffering cognitive decline. He builds houses and hires a lot of sub-contractors, and apparently now he will sometimes get confused, and order or approve work he didn’t really want or need. He won’t remember doing it later, and will get upset about it.

I fear for him. He’s proud, and he’s never taken advice well. As this continues, it will become easy for evil people to take advantage of his growing confusion, and he won’t accept help lightly.

I really despise myself, for not having a better relationship with him. He was hard to have a relationship with as a kid, he was very authoritarian and stereotypically reserved. As I grew older and lost my Polish proficiency, the language barrier became a problem. Now it’s hard to relate, there is such a gulf between us. I know it’s not too late yet, but I fear I won’t cross it before his mind really starts to fragment. I’ve never known my dad, and maybe I never will.

I’m also afraid for myself, which is selfish, but there it is. He’s about 25 years older than me. That’s a lot of time, but it’s also not a lot of time.
If I quit accounting and focus on writing, that’s time to get out 25 books or so.
I’ve been a rationalist for 12 years… I have twice as much time left in the movement as I’ve already put in, to help create something greater, and I don’t know if that’s enough. I’ve done so little in the past 12.
Anti-aging tech hasn’t come far enough in my lifetime that I can say with confidence it’ll reach a place that can prevent my own brain decline within 25 years.

I hate that I’ve destroyed every relationship I’ve had that would’ve afforded me someone’s shoulder to cry on tonight.

Maybe I’ve got more of my mom’s genes. Maybe he’s just extraordinarily unlucky. Maybe it isn’t as bad as I’m thinking it is… I haven’t noticed any changes in our interactions, personally. But would I, seeing as I don’t even know him that well?

He’s done well for himself, and for us. He came to a foreign country with almost nothing, and is now very comfortable. I can’t complain. It feels so unjust this should happen to him now, after he’s finally done all the work and gotten to the restful part of life. I want to say it’s not fair, but that’s stupid and childish, nothing is fair. But… fuck. Fuck death, and fuck aging. I feel I have failed utterly, and I didn’t realize this was the test. Now it’s too late to go back and study.

Jun 162020
 

I. TERFs are shitbags

I didn’t really know what a TERF was or why anyone cared for a while. If some minority of women didn’t think that some women were “real” women, how was that different from any other form of dumb gatekeeping? As usual, enlightenment came in the form of a blog post

If you ever visit a racist internet forum or user group or whatever, you’ll notice that they do the same thing. They talk about every single gruesome crime committed by a black person or an immigrant or a Muslim, anywhere in the world. They seek these out […] [in] TERF blogs, a large share of the content is – yep – circulating gruesome, horrifying, and detailed accounts of random crimes or acts of bullying committed by specific trans people. […] Doing this warps your intuitions. It is possible to target any group of more than a few thousand people with this tactic, it tells you nothing, and it’s bad.

TERFs don’t just do the usual shitty gatekeeping thing — they actively practice blood-libel. That’s basically all I need to know about them. They’ve outed themselves as horrible people who deserve contempt. Maybe in a time before social media, that would have been the end of it.

II. Universal Guilt

Societies tend to be in favor of guilty people being punished and innocent people being left alone. This is all well and good normally, but some groups want to really dominate everyone. Millenia ago religion came up with one of the simpler mechanisms of control — universal guilt. It starts with Original Sin, sure, but that’s too abstract for the common folk. The real money is in making normal behavior “deviant.” The more powerful the drive to do the “evil” thing is for everyone, the more power the church has. Once you make sexual attraction itself a sin, you’ve really got ’em by the balls.

Governments picked up on this. It’s very inconvenient having citizens you can’t threaten with imprisonment at any time, which is why it’s impossible not to break some law simply by living a normal life. The more impossible it is to not break a law while trying to live, the more power the government has. Then the government selectively enforces the law based on how much you’ve annoyed them.

This is also the reason there are words you can’t say. Much of the purpose of having such shiboleths is for the creation of victims. It gives the punishing organization control over people’s lives. And the more such words are things people feel driven to say, the more power the organization has.

 

III. Outrage Junkies

I’m not going to re-examine the guts of the social media mob, it’s been so extensively documented that there’s nothing for me to add. Self-righteous rage is addictive, and many people need someone new to hate and destroy every week to keep their endorphins going. The bigger the target, the stronger the rush. And a juicy fall-from-grace narrative that allows people to get in on a plunge from truly outlanding heights… well, that is a prize you don’t get every day.

Enter JK Rowling. Rowling has a long history of championing progressive causes, from women to minorities to the queer community. She’s among the most famous people in the English-speaking world, and a billionaire, and has used that fame and wealth to advance the causes of progressives. It would be quite a scandal if she was a Secret Nazi.

Rowling has never displayed hatred of trans persons. (Yes, she fears cismen as a class, but I think such fears are largely legitimate) She hasn’t participated in bloodlibel showcasings of trans criminals, nor of dehumanizing speech. The worst one can say she’s done is prioritized outreach to ciswomen, and expressed fears that safe spaces for women could be phased out for gender-neutral spaces instead.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with someone prioritizing helping other people like themselves who have had the same struggles in life. No one can help everyone, and many people are motivated to help minority groups which they themselves belong to. This is fine, and common. Very few people complain that scholarships for black people don’t accept applicants who aren’t black. Or that support groups for immigrants don’t support people who aren’t immigrants.

I think it’s unfortunate that bathrooms are the defacto safe-spaces we have for women in public areas, but if there is a social goal of providing such safe spaces for women (both cis and trans), then they must prohibit men from entering (both cis and trans). I am aware that it’s debatable if such safe spaces are needed at all.

What Rowling is “guilty” of is using words that are tabooed. Of (most recently) pointing out (correctly) that our society used to have a word for “people who menstruate” and now such a word no longer exists. And being flippant and salty about it.

 

IV. Creating Frankenstein’s Monster

Because certain people are so eager for their outrage porn, when Rowling has uttered tabooed words before, they were quick to denounce her as a transphobe and a TERF, and spread the word as quickly as possible.

It’s obvious that Rowling’s first missteps were, as is normally the case, the missteps of someone who thinks that merely being a good person and being allied with progressives will offer some protection. “These people know I’m not evil” is a common mistake of someone questioning official dogma they think might be wrong.

It’s been a while since then, with a few outrage cycles. The noteworthy part of this latest situation is that in her response post, Rowling cites TERFs and repeats some TERF talking points, despite not being a transphobe herself.

As has been pointed out before, when good people censor the truth, then the only place people who want to know/say the truth can go is forums held by bad people. If one was never allowed to say “Black criminality rates are higher than the US national average” one couldn’t follow that up with “due to government-aided impoverization and the legacy of racist policies.” If the only place one could go to even utter the question “Why are black criminality rates higher?” was the forums of racists, the only answers one would find is “because black people are inherently bad.”

If the only place one can say anything in the vein of “I’m uncomfortable with governments treating a cisman who says the words “I’m a woman” as a woman for policy purposes” without being turned into a pariah is in TERF forums, then one will go there to say it. As surely as horny teens will fool around regardless of how evil sex may be in the eyes of God. And once in the forums of the TERFs, one is going to be assaulted by their vile sewage.

This is the stupid, stupid cycle of wokeism. The thought-lines must be kept pure, so deviation is met with exile, and exiles are subsequently exposed to drowning oceans of hate-mongering and bloodlibel. The justice mob ruins lives AND makes society worse by their own metric. But hey, at least they feel really good while doing it.

Frankly, I’m relieved that Rowling appears to have remained mostly trans-friendly, with a possible blindspot regarding safe-spaces. I think she has a strong heart, and she’ll ultimately resist the hatred spewed by the TERFs. But man, what a horrible thing to do to someone. Way to go, Wokes.

 

V. Why Bother?

I pondered for some time about whether to write this at all. I lost one of the most important relationships of my life by publicly & repeatedly opposing woke dogma a few years back. Usually the price of speaking up isn’t nearly that high, but there is a social cost every time, and a lot of stress.

In large part it goes back to pedophile priests.

When I was an atheist activist, I was outraged by pedophile priests and the cover they got from their parishioners. Not just The Church. I couldn’t believe how much ordinary people would just not say anything about it. It wasn’t their business. Their priest was fine. Why involve themselves in this mess that wasn’t their fault?

I think maybe it was unfair of me to expect church-going people to denounce pedophile priests. They aren’t to be held accountable for someone else’s actions. But I never could get over the silence. It still angers me.

I don’t want to be the person who is always silent. Who sees denunciations I think are unfair, but leaves it alone because it’s not my business. That’s how everyone ends up thinking everyone is a woke-ist, when most people are not.

To call Rowling a transphobe is to devalue the word to the point where it’s not useful in fighting actual hate. Those calling her such are outrage-porn addicts that don’t care what damage they do as long as they can get their next hit. Don’t be like them. And if you see something like this happen, if you can afford to take the hit, dropping even just a “I disagree” helps. :)

Jun 132020
 

I.

In the Left 4 Dead video games, most levels are bookended by “Safe Rooms.” You leave the Safe Room at the start of a level, and the goal is to survive the trek to the Safe Room at the end of the level. The thing about these Safe Rooms is that they really are safe. Once you are securely inside them, you can’t be hurt by the zombies in any way. It’s a huge relief to rush inside one at the end of a level.

For a significant portion of the female population, the world is filled with predators. They have to be on gaurd at all times while around then, a message that is repeated to them over and over from all sides, and which is often personally reinforced through traumatic violence. Yes, not all men, but enough that one lets down their guard only at their own peril.

Through a confluence of social conventions, however, there is a sort of quasi-safe-room available in many public locations. This doesn’t by any means fix the problem, but it does sometimes help a bit. I was unaware of these safe rooms until a friend clarified for me. If a creepy man is following a woman around, maybe harassing her, just doing all sorts of things that make her feel very uncomfortable and threatened, there’s a sort of temporary escape that is sometimes avilable. Currently, a woman can duck into a bathroom with the full assurance that any man that tried to follow her in there would be stopped by anyone else around — men and women. She has the full force of society behind her to have that safe spot that no one man can enter, and she needs to give no reasons or excuses to go in there. It is unconditional.

There’s a number of advantages to bathrooms doubling as safe spaces. A man can’t follow his wife into one (for the publicly-given reason that they are public and he may be intruding on people who are not his wife). A woman can extricate herself from an iffy situation by claiming she needs to pee even if she doesn’t because that’s a plausible excuse at any time and can’t nobody contradict her — there’s no requirement to declare fear. Perhaps most importantly: there are practical reasons and legal requirements that such rooms be available in nearly all public areas. It would be much harder to have simple “safe rooms” set up everywhere for the explicit purpose of protecting women.

II.

I have recently been presented with arguments that such safe rooms are not necessary, and in fact may do more harm than good. ie:

At a certain point you’re just feeding into bad intuitions and anxiety, and it is bad to encourage a constant state of unjustified anxiety. Claims that “men are so violent and unpredictable that we as a society have provided you emergency anti-man zones for your safety” are hyperbolic and misandrist.

Moreover, there are some things that become less safe because we as a society think they aren’t. If there are more women walking around after dark, those women in general will be more safe. And since a lot of the harassment is partially caused by the general perception that women are weak and scared and in danger, because some people enjoy the power trip, if we could get rid of this cultural assumption it’d probably help. Introducing bathroom asymmetry reinforces the “women are Different” idea and that’s harmful.

Furthermore, while it would certainly make the most afraid people more axious (until they were able to see violence hasn’t increased and they are able to adjust to the lived experience of a less-scary world) the gains from making more of society gender-neutral outweigh the discomfort people would experience during the transition.

I am not yet convinced by these arguments. But I think they have potential. I am including them for completeness sake.

III.

Let us assume for the rest of this post that it is a good thing to have safe spaces for women in society, even though that might not be the case.

A particularly vulnerable subset of women are transwomen. In many areas transwomen are targetted for violence at a higher rate than ciswomen, and with greater ferocity. They are in even greater need of such safe spaces than ciswomen (though admitedly in much smaller numbers).

If we grant that safe spaces should exist, that means common, legally required, and socially-sanctioned safe areas must be designated as places that men can’t go. Society will discourage them from entering, and possibly stop them if required.

Allow me to slightly rephrase, since we are living in a period of vocabulary transition and words can mean a number of different things that people can (and do) misrepresent.

To go into women’s bathrooms one simply has to be a woman, whether cis or trans. Men (meaning cis and trans) shouldn’t be allowed in women’s restrooms if we want to preserve them as safe spaces.

In practice, this means bystanders prevent cismen & transmen from going into women’s restrooms. And “Does the person in question look like a man” is the only criteria they can reasonably use.

Yes, there is a subset of women (both cis and trans) that may look masculine enough that they are geninuely mistaken for men and trigger a safe-space-protection response. This sucks. I’m not sure what can be done about that while preserving the safe-space concept. I assume it will be pretty rare.

It is, of course, possible to go to entirely ungendered bathrooms if we want to simply preserve them as places people go to relieve themselves and abandon the safe-space idea entirely. But as long as it is a social goal to have an area that men aren’t allowed to enter, then people who are believed to be cis & transmen must actually be disallowed from entering it.

(To reiterate: the people who simply deny transwomen access to women’s bathrooms by saying “But thur men!” are assholes.)

Jun 112020
 

I’m a Polish immigrant. I’ve had certain experiences in my life that no native-born American will have because of this, and even a few that no non-Polish-immigrant will have. In addition, I’m eligible to join certain organizations in some major cities that accept only Polish immigrants as members.

I also have some very woke friends, because I don’t discriminate against people for having bad politics. :) It’s not uncommon to sometimes hear things like “Only Native Americans are true Americans, everyone else immigrated here!” or something similar. This is mainly used in arguements against racists or anti-immigration bigots.

But, in theory, such a friend could say to me “We’re all immigrants, only Native Americans are true Americans. You have no moral right to exclude me from your organization. Moreover, you have no right to claim I am not an immigrant! We are all immigrants! You are a racist bigot, and the world should know you deserve to be shunned.”

Would a person who was born in a different country not have a valid complaint here? That there are in fact some material differences between the two groups, and that conflating the word “immigrant” to such a degree erases my experience, and the shared background I have with other immigants?

To be fair, I came here so young that this barely effects me, but my parents would be extremely put out, and I would be strongly on their side. Or should my parents be required to sit quietly for fear of being called anti-immigration bigots?

Jun 092020
 

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Synopsis: A messiah origin story. On a dying colony planet, humanity unknowingly persecutes the one person who could save them by reconciling humanity with the native alien population.

Book Review: This is a story of extremes. The planet is tidally locked, so humanity has settled in the thin terminator line between broiling day and deathly night, but it is not a happy medium… it’s just the place where the two extremes meet. This is a repeated theme. The two cities are split between an ultra-repressive puritanical hell, and a lawless warzone ruled by warring crime families of hedonists. The two main relationships are a caring platonic couple of unconditional acceptance, and a horribly abusive relationship of exploitation. The humans are exploitative and violent, the aliens are so pacifistic they let themselves be killed rather than fight back.

Overall the theme is strong and well done, but I’m not really sure what it was in service of. It seemed to be more of an aesthetic choice than something used for a purpose. I may just be missing it. But much of the book didn’t quite click for me. I loved Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky. It was a delightful, surreal combination of absurdism and sincerity that really captured the chaos of being young. The City in the Middle of the Night decided to turn away from surrealism and instead tried to be a realistic “hard SF” world. Anders wasn’t able to bring her gift for surreal expressions of emotional truth into the world, and it suffers for it.

In tandem with that, there are a multitude of examples of things happening because they are convenient for the plot but that don’t really make much sense upon examination. The protagonist’s mother sacrifices herself to stop a fire from destroying a major food source while her coworkers just bicker. But like… how? We are literally told only what I just said. Did she just throw herself on the fire to smother it? If she was doing literally anything else, why would no one one attempt to assist or try to summon help? It seems like a minor detail, but I am thrown out of stories when humans act like ludicrous caricatures so that a primary characters can demonstrate virtue. It’s Atlas Shrugged-ism without the courage to go balls-out Atlas Shrugged with it.

I don’t know how fair of a complaint this is, because I have been on a tear recently about lazy writing being used to create “great scenes” without any narrative cohesion, and when one is primed to be sensitive to such a thing, even small transgressions can jump out and really irritate. I can’t say for sure that two months ago I would have been as bothered by this kind of thing. An author can’t go into detail about every little thing in the world, there’s just a lot that has to go unsaid. But I’d like to at least believe the author considered it and has a picture in her own head on how such a sacrifice would have actually played out, and I cannot believe that given what we read.

There’s a bunch of similar examples. A villain tells a mook where a character is being held (in detail!) while the hero happens to be in earshot for no reason at all (aside from making life easy for the hero). The humans arriving on the new planet open the airlock and then immediately fall gasping to the ground under the strange atmosphere and increased gravity, because a cool scene is more important than people being smart enough to check the air first, and also feel gravity before the door opens?? Two otherwise intelligent characters tromp through the streets yelling after curfew in the military lockdown city for no freakin reason except because the story needs them to get caught by the police now. When the main character reveals to her friend she can speak to the aliens, her incredibly intelligent and socially liberal friend laughs her off — which is already ridiculous — and the main character responds by never bringing up this ability to anyone else ever again. OK, I get that she’s shy and she has trauma but, really?

The thing is, I still like the story overall. I like Anders’s style, and I like messiah stories. This is a good messiah origin story, and it ends with such a beautiful breakthrough scene that it’ll stay with me for a long time. But all the irritation of people acting ridiculous along the way detracted from that, and I almost didn’t get there because of it. If I didn’t already love messiah stories I don’t think I’d be very into this novel.

Also, half the novel follows a parallel POV character who is really bad ass at first, but who ultimately doesn’t do anything, and I’m not sure why she’s here or why we follow her. The main story is about the messiah coming to accept her burden, the other POV is just… kinda there.

This one is kinda on the line for me, but I guess if I can’t heartily recommend a book, it’s not actually fair to recommend it. So, mildly Not Recommended.

Book Club Review:  As a Hugo nominee, this may be worth picking up due to the meta conversation about this year’s Hugos and the state of the SF publishing landscape. If you’re not into that there are other things that can spark conversation, but it’s hard to say how much it varies from most other works. Several people in our book club didn’t finish it, and almost everyone agreed that the middle was a slog to get through (I was the one exception, I thought it was fine). I dunno, overall, also mildly Not Recommended.

May 202020
 

I.

In 2007, M John Harrison, a genre author of some renown, posted an essay on what he saw as the scourge of worldbuilding in genre fiction. It was Harrison’s contention that genre creators were so enamored with “worldbuilding” that it was crowding out important things like character, plot structure, and what we now call “rule of cool.” Importantly, writers were cramming irrelevant worldbuilding details into their works simply to demonstrate they’d thought of them, rather than focussing on characters and story.

In addition, he decried the rise of a certain type of fanboy that searched for every inconsistency and failure of realism in a fictional world, to crow about how they’d found a plot hole. You know, the CinemaSins types. Those who tear down works over trivialities and dismiss the emotional journey.

These were good points, and worth articulating in the climate of the day. Unfortunately, he coined this the “Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism,” presumably because he’d grown to despise his audience and wanted us all to know of his contempt. Even more unfortunately, people took his good points regarding extremism in setting-over-story and over-applied them so broadly that now we have the opposite problem — realistic portrayals of anything are scorned and everything is chaos.

Enter: Late-Season Game of Thrones, and Picard.

II.

In one of my more popular posts I point out that the great thing about Game of Thrones is that it took the Standard Fantasy Honorable Paladin, removed him from a spurious world that rewarded him simply out of narrative fiat, and placed him into a real, breathing world with other real people to explore how the story changes when the author isn’t covering him with Plot Armor. The result was complex, rich stories that people ate up.

When the show runners ran out of source material they fell back to “creating cool scenes,” such as Jamie’s infamous charge at Daenerys’s dragon. It was the fallout from that scene that told the audience “There is no more story here. No characters. Just a series of scenes we think look cool that are strung together chronologically. Don’t expect any consequences to anything. Don’t expect people to make sense.”

This is death for a long-running narrative. Cool scenes are perfect for shorts, and for music videos. They can be heart-wrenching or life-affirming, when taken on their own. But when Inigo Montoya finally tracks down the Six-Fingered Man, we expect him to try to kill him. For him to forget that the Six-Fingered Man was right in front of him, and wander away to some other part of the castle, is inexcusable. Those aren’t the actions of a human, those are the actions of an automata acting on the whims of an author that wants to prolong this revenge narrative.

Game of Thrones was a tragic example, because it started off well-written by someone who cared about the world and the people within it. Picard never had that problem, it didn’t give two damns about anyone within it making sense from the very first scene. It was a naked cash grab. Picard had a singular purpose – create individual scenes that pop. Any scene, taken in isolation, is generally pretty good. The dialog is well written and well acted. Exchanges of emotions would be compelling, if they were taken as vignettes without any greater context. Action scenes would be visually interesting and seem to matter.

The problem comes when you place these scenes in a chronological order and try to imply that they are related to each other. There is no conceivable world where the actions we see on screen are those that real humans would take. No government would ban taking box cutters onto planes and not ALSO look into who was behind the 9/11 attacks. No person would see a loved one stabbed through the chest and not call for medical help. The actions taken cannot be attributed to humans. They are taken purely for the benefit of the camera, to create a scene for an audience that does not exist within the world.

III.

Powerful scenes emerge naturally from good story-telling. They are rare, the culmination of a lot of work during the telling of a story. Scene-chasers don’t want to do that work, and they don’t care about the story. They simply want the accolades of a moving or exciting scene. An impatient writer that just wants to jump from powerful scene to powerful scene without first building the people, the story, and the world in which this can actually happen isn’t just lazy. He’s the equivalent of the over-eager virgin stripping his date’s pants off before taking the time to flirt, tease, kiss, and caress. It will be terrible for everyone involved.

Perhaps this is a problem of perverse incentives. Afterall, it is the scene where Hodor holds the door that we all remember and talk about, and not the seasons of build-up that made it meaningful. It is the 72-second Action Scene clip that gets posted on YouTube that draws attention. It is the tearful confession that’s shown just before the Oscar winner is announced. Everyone wants to write a good scene.

But those pressures have always existed. So perhaps it’s that now too many people hold disdain for the work of building up a coherent world to set a scene within. Of creating and fleshing out the real people to populate a scene with. Now this work isn’t part of the work of the creative person, it is imposing a Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism, which true artists shouldn’t sully themselves with. It’s the nerds who care about what happened to the hero when he’s unhorsed mid-battle and the camera faded to black, only for him to wake up, alone, in complete safety. It’s the nerds who care about knowing why transporters work to get kidnappers into someone’s apartment but not out again. It’s the nerds who care about someone betraying everything they and their ancestors have worked for (in service of preventing humanoid extinction!), simply because it’s convenient for the protagonist.

A character in these situations is not in a living world full of real people. There are no human interactions to explore here, because there are no other humans. There are no consequences of choices to explore, because there are no consequences. These are sterile sets that exist only to provide spectacle for a camera. There are no people here. The writer has created a dead world.

IV.

“Who cares?” I am sometimes asked. “Can’t you just watch the show and enjoy it?”

It depends on what you want. Hell, on the far side of things, slapstick cartoons don’t even need object permanence as long as they are entertaining. But if I’m not in the mood for a cartoon? Can’t people inhabit a world designed to maximize on-screen drama?

One of the common effects of schizophrenia is feelings of immense importance placed on common experiences. The schizophrenic feels as if they are constantly within a defining moment of history, as if there is some supernatural focus on them specifically, and struggles to explain why this is happening. Common answers are attention from God, or aliens, or the CIA/FBI/Illuminati. 

The fact that the world is engineered for an audience is in itself deranging. The Truman Show is about a real person trapped in a dead world — a world designed to bring emotional scenes before a camera. Redshirts is about a character trapped in a dead world — a world that literally pauses when commercial breaks occur, so interesting scenes aren’t missed. Rick in Rick and Morty appears to know he’s playing for an audience.

A world where nonsensical things happen for the purpose of entertaining an outside observer is distinctly different from one where a normal narrative can happen. In all the above cases, the fact that the protagonist is in a dead world where nothing matters is what the story becomes about. All of these works are varying levels of surreal, and all of them are ultimately existential in nature. The struggle to find meaning and purpose within the meaningless existence of a dead world becomes the narrative.

If the story doesn’t become about the unbelievability of the world, then not even the protagonist is a relatable human being. The story degenerates into a series of images that have nothing to do with our common understanding of what it is to be human. There are no characters on screen, there are only puppets that pantomime human actions. There is no life anywhere, merely corpses animated by a deranged lich king who giggles as they emote strongly at one another, tears summoned to their eyes for aesthetic effect, words summoned to their lips that signify nothing deeper within. The writer has created not life, but a mockery of it.

You cannot have characters without a world for them to inhabit. You cannot have meaningful actions that are only there for spectacle. For a story to matter it must have some depth the audience will never directly see that it’s built upon. It must have a world that has been created with at least some care for those that will live within it. Worldbuilding is what prevents dead worlds.

May 192020
 

Normally I try not to call out things just for being bad, because that’s a bad spiral to fall into. But I have a special place in my heart for TNG – I bought the full series for the express purpose of teaching morality to any offspring I may have (back when that was in the realm of consideration), because it’s one of the best guides on how to be a moral person in the modern day. It’s my three-letter answer to anyone who would ask “How will you teach kids morality without religion?”

Also, this is a symptom of the wider problem of lazy writing. I’ll write more on this shortly, but it comes down to show runners simply not caring if their writers don’t think about what they are writing at all.

First, Picard isn’t all bad. There’s some good parts. The acting is amazing! Patrick Stewart knocks it out of the park. Jeri Ryan is fantastic as Seven of Nine.

And the dialog is obviously something the writers/show runners actually did care about – it works well. If this show was just a series of dialog scenes showcasing great acting, it would be perfect.

But it’s not, because that’s not all there is to story telling, and the series is trying to tell a story. A good story also needs a coherent plot, and comprehensible motivation for the people within it. Picard lacks these. Here are specific examples of what I’m talking about.

Spoiler below

Picard saying “I learn that the man I’ve been mourning for 20 years had a daughter, then I saw her killed before me, and then I found out she has a twin, of course I’m going to go find her!” basically for the audience’s benefit. The show had absolutely failed to establish this motivation over the past 3 hours of run time, even though that was it’s only job. Yes, those facts were presented to us, but they had no salience. I am glad the writers were self-aware enough to add the line, having realized that their attempt at showing this motivation sucked, but it was bad and lazy. They should have reworked the script to show us this instead.
There were many scenes of a similar vein.

Stupid stuff happened just so the writers wouldn’t have to put in extra effort, like the fallout of the Mars attack. The writers want Synth’s banned, and the attack was a very believable way to do that. But after the Federation bans synths, they just dropped the whole thing. Any real group of humans would put SOME effort into finding out who the hell hacked the Synths and murdered all of Mars, and then make the hackers pay (or “bring them to justice”). The fact that the Synths were hacked is blindingly obvious, and yet no one did anything about it, cuz the goal of the writers wasn’t “Make a believable world” it was “make Synths be banned.”

There was this sort of stuff all throughout, and it came to the worst cresendo in the final episode. The fact that the tal’shiar romulans had a collective lobotomy at the end was inexcusable. Their entire reason for existence, what they’ve sacrificed loved ones and all their own ambitions for for thousands of years, is to prevent the extermination of all biological life. At last they are at the point where all they have to do is bomb one tiny village to accomplish this goal, and they have an entire fleet to do it. Picard mimics his ship (using an annoying Super McGuffin introduced just for this purpose) and they decide to divert all firepower into shooting those down instead of launching one damned torpedo at the village at the same time. Then the federation shows up, and they flex at them instead, rather than launching one damned torpedo as soon as possible. It’s abjectly unrealistic and stupid. And then at the very end they just…. forget that’s the reason for their existence, and fly away. And the Federation lifts the ban on Synthetics for no reason.

I don’t want to overstate how bad that final episode was. I mean, yes, it was awful. But it was the culmination of all the lazy, stupid things they’d done before, crashing home all at once. It wasn’t qualitatively worse, it was just where all the other things caught up so you could see the full quantity all the badness at once.

This post isn’t just to warn people away from wasting 10 hours of their life on a bad show, though. This is but one example of a deep rot. More on the greater problem soon.

EDIT: As I was writing this, I was alerted that Mr. Plinkett just released a video covering much the same ground. I haven’t watched it yet, but here it is if you want more examples of this type of failure.

May 162020
 

Agency, by William Gibson

Synopsis: The world’s first GAI throws a coming-out party for itself.

Book Review: A couple months ago one of the panelists (don’t recall which one) at the Reason Roundtable commented that “William Gibson is very good at describing surfaces.” He meant this literally, and it’s true, Gibson does indeed do great visual descriptions, and you really get a feeling for how surfaces look and feel. But it works on a metaphorical level too, because this book is beautiful on the surface level, but doesn’t seem to have much depth to it.

At first I thought it was intentional, because the book is about an AI creating the infrastructure to manipulate the physical world, and her first step is to recruit a human agent. The human chosen is perfect for this role because she is pathologically passive. The world is on the brink of nuclear war and her primary concern is where she’s going to get coffee. She doesn’t really care about anything, and it makes complete sense that she’d do whatever the AI says with minimal prompting. The AI scoured the country and chose her mark well. I liked the nefarious implications.

But then the AI is removed from the narrative about 1/3rd of the way through, and things continue apace. Things keep happening to the protagonist, and she keeps getting shuffled forward in the plot, but there’s never much here to make us care. The protagonist doesn’t have motivation or desire, and makes almost no decisions. She doesn’t really have any agency in the story. Which feels like it should be some sort of theme, given the title, but it is never explored in the way a theme is explored… it’s just there.

The “very good at describing surfaces” comment kept coming back to me. Gibson has created a fantastic world. It has complex power structures and entrenched interests. It has a deep history. It is a marvelous place for stories to take place in, and I kept thinking this would make a wonderful source book for a role-playing game. There was even a plot-thread about an AI establishing its powr base that players could be guided through by a skilled GM. But it lacked characters, and so lacked a compelling story. It was a beautiful surface for a story to be painted on/within.

And upon further reflection, I think this is a feature of Gibson’s works. He crafts incredible worlds that are immensely cool to explore and be inside. The more weird and esoteric the world is, the more there is to explore and and be dazzled by. Like, what do you remember from the original Sprawl trilogy? If you’re like me, you recall there was a plot about freeing an AI-in-a-box, but that’s about it. The main attraction in those books was exploring an insane and awesome cyberpunk future (especially since this was the basically first time that had been done). I love that trilogy with a passion. But I don’t recall much plot, just an amazing world and the bizzare characters that peopled it.

The plot of Agency seems to be mainly about giving us a tour of this world, which has two problems. The first is that it’s a near-future world with very few deviations from our own. Someone whose strength is creating breath-taking new worlds should make them significantly different. That’s what made the Sprawl triology awesome. It’s what made Mieville’s Perdido Street Station + sequels awesome. A near future without much devation doesn’t have much to explore.

That brings us to the second problem. Since there isn’t that much difference to explore, the novel feels padded out to fill a word-count it can’t justify. There’s a lot of action that doesn’t have any purpose. And there’s a ridiculous amount of wasted word count. You know how soap operas will pad out their run time by having frequent commercial breaks, and after each comercial break they will recreate at least a full minute of what aired before the commercial break, except shot from a slightly different angle? That happens MANY times in the novel, when perspectives switch from one charecter to another.

You know how before people knew how to make movies we had wasted shots? To take my favorite example – in the first James Bond movie, Dr No, there’s a scene where Bond knocks out an assailant. He the walks back to his car. And the camera stays on him. On his back. As he walks. Slowly. Back to his car. For a good several seconds.

Because people just didn’t know you cut out the boring parts, I guess? That the audience can infer Bond walked back to his car if the next scene is him getting out of his car at the next location? Anyway, Agency was full of moments like this, completely unneeded descriptions that did nothing and were the literally equivalent of walking back to the car. Yes, the descriptions were good. But you skip the boring parts in a novel. You don’t show us the hero sleeping and going to the bathroom if it’s not important. Agency literally has a scene where someone goes to the bathroom, and it’s not remotely important.

Which is just to say, Gibson is great at making worlds, and skilled at wordcraft, but I found the plot and emotional drive in Agency sorely lacking. I do not wish to besmirch the rightly-celebrated author of one of the most influential works of the 80s. But as for Agency – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Some interesting discussion, beacuse the world really is created very well. But not too terribly much to talk about, as there isn’t much theme or story. Not bad, per se, but not something I can recommend, given how much is published every year. So again, Not Recommended.

May 162020
 

I was remiss in sharing this when I reviewed Player of Games — A friend of mine has a reaction-style podcast where he and a friend are reading through the entire Culture series together. He’s read it before, the friend has not. For those familiar with We’ve Got Worm, it’s that style of podcast. The whole series can be followed at the Discord under the #more-art-than-science channel, or the RSS.