Thursday, September 13, 2012

Timely politcal post for latest news cycle.

Once again our (wider, cultural) political response to violence in the Middle East is to ignore its source, overstate its implications, and to generalize our way towards hatred. This isn’t limited to a certain mindset or political party, either. Sneering atheists point to this violence as an inherent problem with all religion. Smarmy traditionalist Christians complain about the “religion of hatred” this entails. Even the uninvested assume simply that this is an Islamic attack following Muslim ideals. None of these approaches are concerned with the Truth.

Islam is no more inherently violent than any of the other thousands of religions and worldviews that have existed over the years. Properly practiced, all three Abrahamic religions entail a certain amount of xenophobia and cultural purity as a requisite of belief. This is a factor of cultural belief as a whole, which is necessarily ethnocentric (believes itself to be better than all others) as a component of maintaining its own existence. Without an ingrained belief in the correctitude of one’s own culture, culture becomes an incredibly fluid and unstable whim based phenomenon. Human beings do not do well with instability. When we wake up in the mornings, we generally prefer life to function similarly to how it functioned the day before.

What we’re seeing here in the Middle East, what has been the driving force between much anti-American sentiment in the region for the last 50-odd years, is a form of ethnocentrism that is dealing with a crisis in cultural change. What I mean by this is that the Middle East is dealing with the implications of globalization and addressing a U.S. cultural domination of the world. Middle Easterners feel their cultural identity being destroyed and replaced with a pervasive westernness. They feel much the same way that U.S. fundamentalist Christians feel about cultural changes in attitudes towards homosexuality, religion, abortion, the place of women, and so on. Just as fundies feel they’re losing the utopian ideal that the 1950s represented, Muslims in the Middle East feel they’re losing the way they lived, which is being replaced by obsessive consumerism and secularism. And they are, indisputably; just as fundies are inevitably losing the battle for their nostalgic concept of U.S. society.

“But Jake,” you say, “why do the ragheads keep bombing stuff and generally being so violent. Fundies don’t bomb stuff!” Good question, invisible person. In the U.S. we have a strong example of a violent movement to preserve a culture. It killed more Americans than any other conflict we’ve ever been involved in and has left an indeliable mark on both the structure of the country and on a vast swath of the country. We call it the Civil War, where wealthy southerners organized a secession in order to preserve their social and economic systems. The north invaded and asserted the right of the federal government (or essentially the republicans) to legislate the entire country. We have since labored under an extremely powerful federal government largely to the detriment of state and local governments. We legally enforce some level of cultural homogeneity, though for the 150 years since the South has done a magnificent job of maintaining de facto confederate values.

I believe earnestly that if it weren’t for the thorough demonstration of federal power (and the military paradigms that have since developed that mean that the military is perpetually better equipped to fight a war than any militia would be. In the face of military might, terrorism is an annoyance) we would absolutely have another civil war. If you pay any modicum of attention to the sort of rhetoric that came out of the Tea Party and the involved conservative pundits, you’ll quickly notice a trend towards secessionist language.

But still, why are Middle Easterners so violent? To answer that question, you’d need to reframe the situation from their point of view. From their point of view, the U.S. (and U.S. corporations) is an invading power with an installed military base in the form of the Nation of Israel and vested interest in importing oil from their nations. We have thoroughly demonstrated that we’re unafraid to meddle with their politics, deposing or installing leaders as we see fit, even orchestrating a major war to decimate an existing regime on the flimsiest of suspicions. We’re unafraid to literally occupy their lands with our troops, as we have done for the last decade. We’re definitely not afraid to criticize them, as we did recently via a documentary movie about how awful they are. Even the most “tolerant” and “Liberal” among us spend quite a lot of breath on the way they treat women and how they’re simply culturally terrible (several predominant atheists are guilty of this particular brand of ethnocentrism).

So how can it be terribly surprising that any Middle Easterner would react violently to this cultural abuse? This is an occupying empire taking any number of liberties with your population and your freedom and then turning around and telling you that you deserve it because your ways are barbaric. Does this sound familiar? I hope it does, because it’s essentially the same way we treated and destroyed the Native American populations in the U.S. No one blames the Lakota for fighting against Custer today, but back then Indians were considered horrible backwards savages who stubbornly refused to bend to god and the U.S. government.

Why is this so similar? Simply put, this is how one culture manages to rationalize the destruction of another culture. Throughout thousands of years of history when one culture decided for whatever reason to invade and subsume another, the culture goes through a process of Othering that culture (making it seem stranger, more foreign, different from us) as a necessary process to wash away potential doubts to the legitimacy of making war against a set of people who are fundamentally the same as ourselves (we all eat, breathe, feel, dream, and die) by convincing ourselves that we’re not actually fighting real people. We’re fighting sinners or people who don’t know better or abominations before god or a people who need the gift of our culture in order to become better. We’re not fighting our brothers or sisters, we’re fighting tyrants or the insane or fanatics or brutes.

To be certain, no group is innocent of this sort of rationalization. To the Middle Easterners, they’re fighting a faceless, godless, soulless destroyer, as vast as it is rapacious. To Middle Easterners, every slight or criticism is an attempt to crush their people under the heel of a larger nation. Because this is a nation of deviant, godless people, attacking them violently is a perfectly acceptable way to express your outrage.

Now is the part where we have to back up and qualify terms. Not all Americans think Middle Easterners are savage terrorists, but many do. Not all Middle Easterners think Americans are rapacious monsters, but many do. The people orchestrating violence in the Middle East are a minority of those who feel this way about Americans. They’re extremists; just as the Americans who burn Korans and make smear films are a minority of the Americans with a negative view of Middle Easterners. The best way to understand it is as a gradient of attitudes that eventually descends into people who are so fanatically devoted to cultural stability that they feel the need to commit to action to stop it. The majority of Middle Eastern leaders denounce this attack just as the majority of American leaders denounce the regular hate crimes that occur here.

So, in summary, the American embassy attack in Libya was orchestrated by a few fanatics whose actions were mediated by cultural conflict in the context of globalization and western economic and social domination of the world. The people of the Middle East view themselves as resisting the monoculture, of resisting the homogenizing hegemony centered on western consumer culture. That’s why they hate us.

Are they right? Are we wrong to demolish or criticize or denigrate their culture? Are our military actions just? Are their methods too violent, too reactionary? Is it really a minority viewpoint or do all Middle Easterners harbor an internal hatred of us and support extremist actions internally even if they don’t commit them? That really depends on your point of view. What’s out and out wrong is painting Middle Easterners as crazed religious fanatics with nothing but pure insanity guiding their actions or suggesting that they hate our way of life or freedoms or especially suggesting the absurdity that if we’re not fighting them in Baghdad, we’ll be fighting them on the streets of Smalltown, U.S.A.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Fuck you Isaac/entergy/landrieu/who//whatever.

Welcome to day 3 of Isaac aftermath. 80% of the city is still without power, I’m short on rent, my living room’s ceiling fell in, assorted other minor inconveniences. Civilization broke down pretty fast. And by pretty fast I mean not at all, people here are just doing what they do, yanno.
It’s pretty ridiculous, though. The power company out here, Entergy (New Orleans’ only Fortune 500 company), has had a response to outages best described as “lackadaisical.” Most recent update for today, August 31, is that power will be restored with emphasis on areas where lines are lightly damaged moving towards the more heavily damaged folks, with an estimated date of having 90% of outages fixed by September 6. That’s next Thursday. About a week. Thankfully most of Chalmette and New Orleans East and the French Quarter and the CBD all have power, so we’re not all totally fucked or whatever. I am in fact writing this from the inside of Flanagans, which has power and internet and plugs and has thus been pretty much packed since the storm eased up.

All told, it’s really not a huge dealio. People here are going to be more or less okay. It’s creepy as all hell driving around in the darker neighborhoods that don’t even have sporadic lights, but life continues more or less unabated. Buncha queers are in town ready to party for Decadence, most everything in the quarter is operating as more or less normal, though with less supplies. It looks like the play is getting cut short, since the whole area by the venue has been without power since the storm. The director is doing the whole “show must go on bit and  holding out hope they’ll be able to get lights on today before 8 or whenever we’d be running. If it does work out, I might end up running up and acting.

Because writing is a time-lapse process and I took a break to check the internet and drink a reasonable amount of alcohol, I know now there will not be a show. Thank the lord, I can cut my hair now. One theme that runs through this storm is meeting people I haven’t seen in a while cause they’re hanging out outside or something. I’m really very proud of my social circle. I don’t associate with many people that fled the city. I made friends with sterner stuff. And everyone’s been pretty good about doing the whole “coming together” stuff, though enough people are also doing a fair bit of the “coming apart” stuff also. I went out with Jo cab driving last night, which was an interesting experience in dealing with the lack of streetlights and dispatch being on generator. The passengers were appropriate to situation, one being an on call nurse headed up to ochsner, another a woman headed home from Ochsner, a third a drunk guy trying to get home from the burbs to uptown.

Like I said, I’ve run into a small crowd of people I know here so far. The people I’ve played magic with, school friends, some people I know from steampunk stuff or Noiseco. The haunted tours that run usually are running tonight, of course. Them being closed for almost a week is a good reason to start that stuff back up again, gotta make some kind of money. It’s been great so far.
Yeah, it’s pretty crazy that a storm can come along and basically throw everyone out of whack for about a week or so. And we just live with it. It’s no big. It’s harder for the impoverished of course (it always is) but this has still yet to be outside of the normal experience of a New Orleanian. I cannot tell you how much I love this place.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Darksiders Review

THQ is a member of an old guard of publishers, names and logos of which appeared before countless titles throughout the nineties. Like other members of the old guard, the company got huge and fat and rich off of producing 5-10 games a year and selling them between $40-80 a pop to parents who bought games for their kids entirely based on the license attached to the box. “Oh hey, my reprobate overweight douchebag suburban son likes wrestling; let’s buy him the newest looking wrestling game with the longest title and latest roster.” Not kidding, that shit sold like gangbusters. 

                Then the future happened and every game had to have fancy three dee graphics and interesting mechanics and later some king of online multiplayer component or else it wouldn’t sell. Games got more expensive to make and the strength of a popular license wouldn’t go as far as it used to. So they’re all shutting down and collapsing and folding into larger companies because producing three or four games a year just isn’t instantly generating cashflow like it used to. Right now in the news 38 Studios and subsidiary developers Big Huge Games are both unilaterally collapsing after producing just one game together, a game that took three years and some unreasonable number of millions of dollars to make. Rhode Island actually lent them $75 million to bring the studio to the state because they were probably still thinking in 90s terms where games are instant money+job generators for skilled white men to flow cash into the state. Unfortunately the studio made some godawful decisions in the current gaming climate, opting to produce a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, a genre where if a game isn’t named World of Warcraft, it’s probably going to lose dicktons of money because of the sheer development size of it (World of Warcraft’s data is up to 25 GB. And this is a game made in 2004, before any of these HD-DVD things or nonsense) and the fact that you’re automatically competing with a game that’s 8 years old and still has around 10 million players. 

                So now the studio is collapsing and they can’t make payroll and it’s really not the fault of anyone in the studio. Their first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, wasn’t that bad and moved around 1.2 million copies, but in order for it to have broken even it needed something like 3 million copies sold thanks to its multiplatform nature and development cost. These numbers are astronomical, I shouldn’t need to tell you. Back in the 90s, the “golden age of gaming,” a game could sell maybe 100,000 copies and be considered a moderate success. Games were priced more reasonably to their development costs, and everything overall was cheaper to do. In the modern games era we’re tacked to the $60 new price point, just $10 more than the last generation’s price fixing scheme (you know it is) while games cost around twice as much to develop, a bump from around $8 million to $20 million on average. Games also take more time and effort to generate the high definition textures and models and 30fps animations and bug testing. What’s ironic about all this is that games themselves haven’t gotten any more complex or longer, but in fact the opposite has happened in interests of cost savings, which brings us to Darksiders.

                Darksiders is the very first step in the new direction that THQ intends to move as a publisher, away from licensed kids games that are getting too expensive and too difficult to sell (Yet they’re still making a Spongebob Squarepants game for the Wii U. Maybe they’re just reprioritizing towards their best-selling kids games) and towards original IPs wholly owned by the corporation and thus completely monetizeable. Darksiders was produced by Vigil Games, a studio founded by a pair of guys who met in college and started a bromance that has lasted over ten years and Comic Guy Joe Madureira (Portugese for “incredibly sexy”) who was the only reason I went to the first Wizard World convention here in New Orleans, but he canceled last minute because he was busy working on Darksiders 2, crushing my hopes and dreams (I still love you please call me). Also some other dude that I can’t find any info about online. 

                The game on the surface is about Prince Arthas War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and his super-manly quest for vengeance after the apocalypse happens early and everything goes wrong. There’s some background mythology on a “three kingdoms” approach to this where there’s three kingdoms of reality, man, heaven, and hell; and there’s some loosely explained third party called the charred council that created and operates the horsemen. Big props for the way the game tells the story, nothing is explained to you in didactic style, either by a magic codex or by grating, supercilious NPCs. The game actually ends with a pretty open-ended cliffhanger, as all that really gets done is War’s vengeance quest (and you beat the final boss guy). The only problem is that the story is mind-crushingly stupid. Every single character oozes testosterone from their giant, muscly pores. The dialogue reads like it was written by a WH40k fan that got C’s in high school English. The plot apparently dispenses with the concept of motive, instead simply saying “this character does this” and leaving it there. The real problem is that none of these characters feel like sentient people, much less intelligent or interested people. They feel like excuses to propel a game forward. And hey, that’s exactly what the plot here is. 

                Which actually turns out okay, because as a game it’s pretty darn great. It’s derivative as all hell, but most of the best video games are, and the game picked the right franchises to be derivative from. It’s a third person action game that plays almost identically to The Legend of Zelda, albeit with more manly and complicated combat. Sections are divided between puzzles and combat and the occasional gauntlet-of-enemies-to-be-defeated-with-special-weapon segments.  Like I said, this is not a bad thing. There are not enough legend of Zelda clones on the market, and Nintendo seems content with releasing one ever 5 years, which is awful and terrible and totally unsatisfactory. 

                Everything of course is much more gory and manly than Zelda. The game even has a mature rating, though aside from the ridiculous blood everywhere (this games versions of Zelda’s keys are actually little daggers you stab through the eyes of barriers to your progress, eliciting a huge spurt of blood) there’s nothing particularly mature about this game. The only time vulgar language is used is towards the end when the sole female character is called a “bitch” and a “whore,” both pretty jarring as the only severe insults throughout the game (other than ludicrous threats of murder from silly-looking demons) and both towards the only woman in the game. This is a boys only club, folks. Women aren’t allowed.  But hey, that’s not really out of the norm. What was the one female in Gears of War 1 again? Some woman literally half the size of the protagonist wearing a short skirt?

                Anyway, overall Darksiders is not that bad. It’s probably worth your time if you like Legend of Zelda and you can check out from the library for free like I did. Just be prepared for everything that’s wrong with modern games on this disc. We’ve got gameplay pretty down, but presentation still leaves a lot to be desired. Darksiders 2 is out this August, to star another horseman, Death. THQ is doing slightly better financially, and the success of this game is probably going to be a major factor of the publisher’s health going forward. 

                THQ is a great story, though. They had a CEO that became really adamant about producing a drawing tablet peripheral for kids to play games with, a fiscally untenable move in any case that isn’t Guitar Band or Rock Hero. The uDraw tablet underperformed massively and is the number one reason for the publisher’s stock sliding so badly at the end of last year. They fired that guy (and I’m pretty sure he wrapped a corvette around a tree afterward, as is the natural life cycle of sociopathic executive)  and a bunch of other people, but they took the smart move of leaving their dev studios intact and simply refocusing their efforts to other games. Darksiders is one of the original wholly owned IPs that THQ hopes to turn into a comic series, a cartoon, a series of novellas, a card game, maybe a movie, and so on. Viva Capitalism!

Friday, May 18, 2012

In Regards to the Hospitality Zone

Hey there. 

My Name is Jacob Germain, I’m a resident of the Seventh Ward in an area that is called the “St. Bernard Crescent” by realtors and landlords who want to distance it from being in the seventh ward.
My apartment is inside the original hospitality zone as it was introduced, though not much hospitality happens here and I’ve since been written out of the bill. I live in one of those parts of town that we warn tourists away from because presumably the people of my neighborhood are going to rob and shoot them. My immediate neighborhood used to be up and coming, but this and that happened and it ended up falling to the wayside. The streets are busted, there’s a blown out former adult education center down the street, every other lot is abandoned or blighted. 

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about this bill and why two thirds of the revenue from this bill is NOT going towards infrastructure improvements. I understand some representatives are here from the CVB, purportedly to support hospitality in general and the wonder and glory that is a service economy. What they’re not here to talk about is the fact that they stand to make an additional 5 million in taxpayer dollars every year if this bill passes. They’re not interested in fixing the broken streets, the busted sidewalks, the damaged infrastructure of any part of this city, let alone the French quarter. They’re here to line their pockets with public money.

I’ll be frank with you: I’m already aware that this legislature is the result of a number of backroom deals. Just look at where the money is going. It’s not cleverly hidden or obscured, but laid bare in the law. This is Louisiana politics as usual; the kind of political profiteering that makes it possible for some people to be rich in a city of minimum wage service jobs and rampant unemployment.

You should rethink this legislation. You should reconsider what its purpose is and why you’re passing it. You took an oath to serve the people of Louisiana; people like me and my fellow hospitality zone residents. You did not take an oath to serve the highest bidder.

Thank you for your time. 

[editor's note: I wrote this as public comment for the committee hearing on the Hospitality Zone bill. the bill was amended at the hearing to feature a newer 50/50 split between infrastructure and marketing, with 20 percent going to the CVB, who hired around 50 people to wear red shirts with the phrase "tourism matters" and stand around during the hearing. The bill is vastly improved, but they still stand to make $2 million a year from taxpayers. Not mentioned here is the Convention Center holding $30 million in infrastructure improvements for ransom unless this bill passes. It's a whole lotta fucked, folks.]

Monday, May 14, 2012


                People should have a reasonably equal chance at succeeding in life, or maybe people should be able to do what they want to do. Or maybe people should be able to live life according to their principles without undue hardship. People should be free, except when that freedom infringes on other people’s freedom, except when their concept of free destroys the existing systems of society. There are all kinds of ways to construct a moral framework without using a traditional religion, but none of them are sufficiently perfect. No moral framework is ever perfect. Everything needs qualification.

                Let me cut to the chase: there’s no reason to construct moral frameworks. Reject them when people try to sell them to you, no matter what their intention is. Moral frameworks only create division and foster “us vs. them” thinking. Do not reject the people, do not shame those who do build frameworks, but recognize where that leads. Reject no one.

                The irony here, of course, is that I’m describing a moral framework. I’ve delineated what is good and what is bad. “Moral frameworks” are something to reject, people are something to embrace. An enlightened master in my framework is a person who accepts people and rejects their moral frameworks. So really it doesn’t mean anything. I can’t tell you how to be happy; you’re going to have to figure that one out, yeah? Live how you want. Don’t hate other people, not cause it’s “bad” or whatever, but it won’t make you happy. New moral framework here: being happy is good, being sad is not. Sad people are failing to live up to moral standards, happy people are succeeding.

                Not going to work either, happiness isn’t exactly a binary proposition. Sometimes you’re clinically incapable of being happy, sometimes your experience has created a problem where you can’t actually feasibly happy. People suffer from ptsd and depression and all kinds of things no matter whether they are trying to be happy or not. Life circumstances can cause someone to totally involuntarily hate someone. Cultural conditioning does that all the time.

                Maybe being happy isn’t right. Maybe you can just not make other people sad. But that’s another set of issues. Some people get sad over weird things. Communication is imperfect, and we’re trying to bridge a gap between people with wildly divergent social backgrounds. We’re all living drastically different realities, which is why we developed a series of social expectations in the first place. Society bridges the gap and gives everyone a reasonable expectation of how another person will behave and maybe what their motivations are. This way we’re not terribly shocked when someone jabs their open hand at us. We know it’s a gesture of friendship and meeting and we’re supposed to shake it with our hand in turn. Similarly we recognize that someone gesturing at us with an angry face and a middle finger raised means us ill will.

                Similarly, moral frameworks are intended to give us an idea of what we’re supposed to striving for. When we say something like “people are basically good” what we mean is that we’re all socialized into a certain framework of social expectations where bad people would presumably not exist because we responsibly believe that being bad would make them feel bad, especially because being bad makes us feel bad. This breaks down in the face of pathologies where people are incapable of feeling guilt or social obligation, pathologies where nearly every behavior triggers a guilt response, and rationalizations where people will mentally justify bad behaviors as actually being good and thus don’t trigger a guilt response.

                Since so many exceptions exist to this sort of thing that maybe it’s more fair to just say something like “approach each situation with an open mind.” Or “don’t prejudge any person or situation” or something like that. I’m not sure that’s fair either. Prejudgment is something that we do as a species as a way of efficiently categorizing experiences and making them useful in the future. We prejudge that fire is hot, for example, so that in the future when we see fire we know to stay away from it because it’s hot. Shutting off a structural facet of memory is much more easily said than done and probably not a great idea. I’d suggest maybe you just don’t behave like you’re prejudging them anyway, but it’s essentially impossible to entirely separate your thinking from your behavior.

                Do you see what I mean about moral frameworks? They’re slippery, imperfect things. Like fish downriver from a paper mill. Do what you want. I don’t believe in free will anyway, so you’re just going to do whatever it is you’ll do. Godspeed.