Monday, December 30, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hacking Up Map Tiles for Tabletop RPGs

This post was written in collaboration with Ben Criger.

We want to make tabletop gaming more fun. That means removing tedium and headaches, making games more visually gripping, and giving gamemasters the tools they need to quickly construct worlds for their players. As it stands, this world-building has to be suspended whenever combat breaks out. Too much time is spent to track what combantants are where, what the environment is like, where important objects and effects are, etc. This motivation is part of why we have previously tackled projects like hero_init, which removes from gamemasters running HERO System games much of the burden of keeping track of initiative orders and of communicating combat numerics to players.

Today, though, we'd like to look at another part of the picture: the combat map.
Hero Game, 8one6. Used under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.

The map serves as a visual language for roleplaying combat; it represents the environment shared by the players and narrators. For games that are entirely about the map, such as war games, maps are lovingly prepared with all manner of props and decorations, at great cost (both in money and time).
Dark Angels Meet Orks on Warhammer Armies, Steve Goeringer. Used under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 license.
For RPGs, however, the tool of the trade is often a wet-erase mat on which map features are drawn at game-time, slowing down combat and exploration. If a GM is well-prepared, they might have eschewed a wet-erase mat for a map predrawn on paper, but that presents its own problems (how does the GM reveal map details "on the fly," for instance).
A Riverboat In the Swamp, MockLogic. Used under Creative Commons BY 2.0 license.
Many elaborate tools and solutions exist and are being developed, including ones based on projectors, flat-panel TVs, augmented reality, etc. These ideas are not yet generally applicable, though, if only because of cost, preparation time, and the specialized knowledge needed to make them work well.

Our approach is to use a combination of rapid prototyping tools (in particular, 3D printers and laser cutters) to manufacture physical objects that help in quickly building and annotating rich environments in which minifigs can be readily placed and moved. The first step in this approach is to make tiles that can support minifigs, markers for annotating characters and locations, and that can be quickly connected and rearranged. By adding pegholes to these tiles, environmental details can be added around minifigs. 3D-printed risers together with pegholes in the tiles allow for the map to be quickly extended into the third dimension, as is useful, for instance, in superhero games with flying characters.

By making tiles from readily-available acrylic, we can prototype these ideas quickly and effectively using equipment found in hackerspaces like KwartzLab (thanks tp help from our good friend Catherine Holloway). The tile shapes are generated procedurally by a Python library, while the 3D printed parts are generated using OpenSCAD. This allows for rapid customization and manufacturing, and keeps costs low. More importantly, we will soon be making the software implementing these procedures open source, so that gamers can make their own map tiles and accessories without having to ask for permission, and can remix and extend our ideas in new and interesting ways.
A few tiles from our first batch.
Our first batch doesn't have the pegholes, due to a DXF error that has since been fixed, but with what we have right now, we can already confirm that our designs can be connected and disconnected quickly. Moreover, we can start making marker accessories for things like character numbers (useful for mooks!), grenades, status (slow, poisoned, etc.).

Eventually, we'd like to have the design down enough that we can sell tiles and accessories for those players and game masters that either don't have access to time, equipment and expertise to manufacture their own, or that prefer to buy them pre-made. Towards that goal, we'd like to offer readers of this blog a set of our map objects to use in their own games, so that you can let us know how you like them. If you're interested, please let us know!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Free Speech, Pervasive Harassment and a Stopgap Effort

The Internet can be a very unkind place; more specifically, it can be home to some very unkind people. If you are a woman speaking up on about feminism, for instance, harassment and taunting can quickly become a terrible norm. There are entire communities (I will not link to them, even with nofollow) that seem to be dedicated to the use of harassment, taunting, stalking and spamming to silence people on the internet that speak up for themselves and those they care about.  As bad as all that is, it's even worse if you openly identify as trans* or an ally.

The technology that delivers such harassment, however, can also be used to try and recover some peace. Any worthwhile social media network in existence today allows users to block anyone they wish without giving cause. Importantly, no one needs to justify to others whom they wish to separate themselves from. We get to set our own boundaries and shape our own social environments. That said, the sheer volume of harassment directed at some users can be daunting enough that manually blocking individual harassers becomes onerous and triggering. Thus, tools like the Atheism+ Block Bot for Twitter are used to help curate lists of repeat harassers so that users looking to make a quieter and more welcoming social environment for themselves have the tools to do so.

Of course, the Block Bot is rather unpopular in certain crowds, to say the least. It is derided as everything from an expression of groupthink to a violation of Twitter's terms of service. One truly disgusting aspect of many objections is how the concept of free speech is invoked to oppose any attempt to filter out or curtail the flow of such harassment online. There is practically a pocket industry to misunderstanding what freedom of speech means when it comes to harassment, discrimination and bigotry (most recently, I would categorically object to Mathew Ingram's characterization of the response to Pax Dickinson's hateful Twitter habits), so let me be very clear on this point: speech has consequences. Freedom of speech does not mean that anyone else is obligated to listen to what you say, to condone it, to broadcast it on your behalf or (as is relevant in Dickinson's case) to continue employing you when your speech compromises your ability to do your bloody job. In particular, other people have the right to talk about you when you use your speech to harass, intimidate, annoy and otherwise bully another person. If what they decide to do is to warn others that you may not be worth spending time and emotional effort interacting with, then that is a consequence of your speech that must be accepted in order for freedom of speech to have any useful meaning whatsoever.

All that aside, there has been (and I stress that this is my opinion, informed in part by my own privileges and biases) a single objection to the Block Bot that rings true: that the nature of the block lists offered by the Block Bot so far is not transparent. It is not easy, for instance, to determine which admins added which users to the block lists and why. Rather than use this objection as an excuse to remove from people their ability to quickly filter their social environment, however, I wish to address the objection at a structural level. In particular, I would like to build a blocking tool that does not in any way build in my own values or views, but is a tool that can be used in a transparent way by me, by my friends, by my detractors or anyone else that desires to.

That is, I want the process of building, disseminating and applying blocklists to be decentralized. I do not want to be the arbiter of anyone's social media environments, nor do I want anyone else to be. Rather, I want people to have access to the tools they need to usefully employ social media networks without the constant threat of harassment and bullying.

Thankfully, the web is already decentralized in precisely this way. A blocking tool that simply fetches lists from various websites is thus abstracted away from the particular motivations of those running such websites. Moreover, transparency can be achieved by using standard tools common in the open source movement, such as Git, which track the history and contributions to a given file in a robust and decentralized manner. Thus, using this approach, one would pick blocklists curated by users that they trust, each hosted in Git repositories that track metadata and history in a rich and reusable manner.

With all due respect, then, to the authors and maintainers of The Block Bot, I have taken my own stab at the problem based on these principles. I have developed a userscript (that is, a small JavaScript library that runs inside your browser and modifies websites that you view on the fly) that modifies Twitter to block users based on one or more killfiles of your choice. This userscript is itself open source (under the AGPLv3, one of the strongest copyleft licenses available), such that it can be modified, reused and repurposed without my approval or even my awareness.

Instructions on how to use this userscript are available at the GitHub repository where it is hosted. If you are interested, please use it and let me know what you think and how it can be improved.  With your help, I hope we can take the next step towards making social media a tool we can all use safely and productively. This isn't the end of the story, and we must continue to work for making a better Internet, but I think it is, at the least, a useful stopgap that can help mitigate the worst of what many users currently have to go through in order to participate.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Python, MATLAB and legacy interop.

I promised that this space would see more of my side projects and random recreational efforts, so today, I'd like to introduce another of my stray software libraries: pymex. This library embeds the CPython 2.7 interpreter into MATLAB using MEX, so that Python software may be integrated into legacy MATLAB applications. (I realize I'm showing my bias here, but I consider MATLAB development to be so badly broken as to be legacy, irrespective of when a MATLAB application was made.)

In particular, pymex exposes Python to MATLAB via the py_eval.m function, which evaluates a MATLAB string as a line of Python as if passed to Python eval() inside the embedded interpreter's __main__ module. Moreover, MATLAB code can access the Python __main__ module by using py_eval.m and py_put.m; the resulting Python objects are abstracted within MATLAB by the PyObject.m class (currently very incomplete), which translates MATLAB operators and methods into calls to the corresponding CPython API functions.

If the called Python code needs to execute something back within MATLAB, then this can be accomplished by importing the pymex extension module exposed by pymex_fns.c and calling pymex.mateval(). The pymex extension module also exposes other functionality, such as pymex.get(), which allows Python code to dynamically extract variables from MATLAB workspaces.

Of course, all this leaves the question: why bother? With more and more hardware being exposed not just through C APIs, but also with Python modules, pymex can help in getting legacy MATLAB applications communicating with cutting-edge hardware. For example, I have recently discussed Galvant Industries in various places— their GPIB/USB adapter ships with an impressive array of Python modules for controlling common instruments.

The other main advantage of embedding Python into MATLAB is that legacy MATLAB applications can then gain access to the wealth of scientific Python code that has been written as of late. For example, I hope to bring tools such as the excellent SciKit-Learn and QuTIP2 libraries into the world of MATLAB. I have before collaborated in the creation of Python-language scientific tools for use in quantum information, including QuaEC and Qinfer, that also could potentially be of use to those developing MATLAB applications.

While none of this is anywhere near done, polished or even well-documented yet, I thought I'd share a bit of my software hackery with the world. With a bit of luck, this project will help make interop nightmares a bit less pronounced and increase the range of tools available for scientific development and hardware control.

Friday, February 22, 2013

hero_init: Closing the gap between tabletop and CRPGs.

My projects haven't always worked out so well, especially where gaming is concerned. That said, I do think there's some real opportunities to improve upon what we think of as tabletop gaming by bringing ideas and tools from computer-based RPGs to the, well, table. Others have done an excellent job of challenging the idea of what it means to have a map, and of bringing tabletop mentalities into the realm of web-based gaming, but there's a lot of areas yet to be explored. In particular, what does it mean for gaming when every player brings to the table a tiny device with a huge screen that is constantly connected to everything around it (that is, a smartphone)?

Enter hero_init. This latest project is an attempt to answer this in a bit less ambitious of a fashion than Project Umbra (though I would like to get back to that at some point). At first blush, hero_init seems to be a straightforward scriptable initiative tracking tool for HERO System 6th Edition, but there's a bit more to it than that.
The DM's view of hero_init, but not the complete story.
While there's a lot of utility to offering DMs nice tools to manage combats in an orderly fashion, that's hardly too innovative. Where hero_init starts to flesh out my ideas, however, is in that little status display at the top, tauntingly reading out "Server Status: Offline." Type in the command "server start", and the GUI changes to show a link that the DM can give to players that will provide them with extended information about the combat.
The hero_init DM console after enabling the server.
That's right, hero_init embeds a primitive webserver. This server tells players when it's their turn, how much health and endurance they have left and when their next turn will be.
Seems like it's Alice's turn!
Incremental as this might be, I think that there's some real potential to this small proof of concept. By reducing the amount that DMs and players have to think about managing rules and communicating statistics, the focus of the game can change to more interesting things, like story-building, role-playing, world exploration, tactics and even lighthearted banter. Less bookkeeping means more freedom to explore the game itself.

More dramatically, when computing is brought to the table, new kinds of rulesets become feasible that were previously not reasonable. Here, for instance, powers that allow combatants to slow and speed up other combatants by manipulating time become more tractable, offering more creative choices to DMs and players alike. With more sophistication, hero_init could allow for still more creative play by freeing DMs from having to track the myriad kinds of damages and statuses that would normally result from the inclusion of strange and esoteric powers.

Once we've asked how computers can help augment the games we already play, the next question naturally poses itself: how can computers help us make new kinds of rules and game structures altogether? Take, for instance, that a hallmark of the modern J-RPG is to play around with initiative systems. Final Fantasy is famous for its Active Time Battle system (and its many variants) that allows characters to be differentiated based on not just strength, dexterity and magical prowess, but also on raw speed. What Final Fantasy X player hasn't just shined with delight as they cast Hastega, throwing the entire party into double-time? While tabletop systems like HERO allow for this to some extent, they still lack the sheer expressiveness of Grandia II's rich initiative system, which allowed for players to specialize party members in different combat actions such that some characters could nearly instantly use items while others could cast spells as quickly as the animations would allow. Why not, then, take the next step and design a tabletop RPG that draws more heavily from the rich history of C-RPGs while still putting all of the world-deciding power in the hands of humans?

In this way, I see hero_init as asking a question of the gaming community. That question has as many exciting and wonderful answers as there are talented storytellers ready to play.

By the way, I should mention that hero_init is open source (AGPLv3), portable (written in Python, depending only on PySide and Qt4) and oh-so-forkable (GitHub for the win). Please feel free to play around  with it. The code's a bit of a mess, it being a proof of principle so far, but I would love to see what people can do with it!

A return and reorientation.

It's been a long while, and a lot has happened since I last tried my hand at blogging. The time has come for me to return to it, though, albeit with a few changes. While I do plan on still ranting occasionally, I would like to take the opportunity afforded to me by returning from a long hiatus to reconsider what this blog is about. In particular, I would like to take some more space to talk about the personal projects that occupy my spare time these days. By doing so, I would like to present more of what excites and motivates me, rather than focusing on talking solely about the problems that society faces. That is, I'd like to show the web a bit more of a complete view of me and what I do than I used to.

These changes notwithstanding, I plan on leaving all of my old posts intact; my words are there, however misguided they might be in retrospect. Moreover, I still plan on airing my rants on occasion. Rather, I intend to make sure that such ranting is not to the exclusion of all else.

To start things off, I will soon be posting about a new gaming project (yes, another one). Thanks for hanging in there!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on canonical names.

When I am wrong, it behooves me to be wrong as loudly as possible so that those able to correct me will be able to do so. The flip side is that when I discover that I am wrong, I must be every bit as loud in turning that around. After much deliberation inside my head, I have finally realized that I have come to another instance where I have indeed been wrong in my thinking, as some of my friends will well appreciate.

But let me provide some context. Google+ has entered into the already crowded world of social media, but is currently making huge gains in the "it's-not-facebook" market. The problem, however, that is rightfully ruffling a great many feathers is that Google decided to adopt a policy quite similar to Facebook's Real Names policy. Much has already been made of the disproportionate impact this decision has for women, LGBTs and others that may be subject to harassment if their Real Names™ are revealed so frivolously. One of the better posts on this has been by Bug Girl, who clearly lays out the impact that the Real Names™ ideology has for her.

As is my usual habit, though, I wish to take a tangent. You see, I used to place an absurd amount of importance on Real Names™, and was disdainful of my 'nym using friends. Embarrassing, but there it is. The problem with this attitude — well, one of them, anyway ­— is that it presupposes the existence of a single canonical Real Name™. This assumption is not supported by reality, though.

Even in a relatively "normal" (by Western standards, anyway) case like my own name, what should I put? Christopher Evan Granade? That is surely not what my friends call me— many probably didn't even know what my middle name was before reading that. If we go with what my friends, colleagues, bosses, family, etc. all call me, "Chris" would be much closer. That name is problematic, though, in that it is so vauge that there are three people with offices on the same floor as mine that share it, to say nothing of the broader world. If disambiguation is needed, then, we move on to "Chris G.", "Chris Granade" or even "C-Bomb" (that makes more sense if you read my last name aloud), which I feel very little ownership over. Moving online, it only gets worse. I try to use cgranade as much as possible for uniformity's sake, but sometimes I have to settle instead for cegranade. In gaming communities, where using outside names is often frowned upon, I rely on the much more generic "brokenmirror", but that often has conflicts with other users.

And I'm not even married or divorced! My mother adopted my father's last name rather than taking both or her own, there's no complications with transliteration of a name more at home in a non-Latin alphabet, no dramatic name changes in my life. I have a middle and a last name, so no issues there. Really, the problems stem from that my name is a product of the context in which I use it. I do not have a canonical name at all. No one string of Unicode code points encapsulates the complex and entirely contextual rules which lead to a name by which you should call me.

Why should we, though, even expect this to be the case? It isn't true for much simpler and more rigid systems like the Web. My website, for instance, is reached by either "" or the much longer "". These two "names," though, fill very different purposes and get used in different ways. It gets worse if I were to share on Twitter or via a QR code, where either one would first be fed through a URL shortener. Thus this single concept, my website, has at least three "names" depending on the context you approach it from. When we move to something as complicated as a human identity, the preponderance of names is only exacerbated.

Any system which does not recognize the complexity that goes into names is thus doomed to fail, even if we set aside the ethics of strong-arming users into using a particular choice of name. Facebook has only survived this failure by haphazard enforcement of their own rules, but by actually practicing proactive enforcement on Google+, Google has stared this shortcoming in the face. Here's hoping that like I did, they can see where they've gone wrong in their thinking and in doing so, better serve the users whose trust forms the basis for so much of what they do.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Throwing two cents into a storm.

The Internet is a curious beast. Some stories and arguments quickly ignite, then disappear as quickly as they started. Others seem to be perpetual in that as soon as it seems to have faded away, some newcomer to the scene causes whole histories to replay and flare up again.

Of these two very coarse categories, Elevatorgate definitely belongs to the latter. In many ways, I should like nothing more than to see the whole of the tempest pass by, recovering brain cycles for more important issues. The problem with this attitude, however, is that how we in the skeptical and atheist communities treat women is an important issue. As often as people misunderstand, misrepresent and mistake the issue, at its core, what is at stake in Elevatorgate is whether we want the communities we build to be defined by positive and rational values such as inclusiveness, respect and diversity, or whether we are content to define our movement in terms of a narrow and ill-understood notion of privilege.

Up until now, I've kept my involvement in this debate (or rather, what a debate has since devolved into) to a minimum. I am, after all, a beneficiary of the very privilege under question, being male, and hence have more to learn than to contribute in this particular exchange. (Just to preempt the inevitable, that does not for a moment mean that I am "apologizing" for other men, or that I am asserting that I should take the actions of other men upon myself--- we are all each individuals, are we not?) I am also white, learned English as my native language, and was born into a affluent family in first-world country, etc. My life has hence been one in which doors open to me that are shut in the faces of others, by no virtue of my intellect, my choices or my efforts. Were I to project my own experiences on the world, then, it would thus be all too easy for me to come to the impression that those opportunities that I enjoy are universally enjoyed. When something like Elevatorgate occurs, it should serve as a wake-up call, in that Rebecca Watson was denied a choice I almost certainly would have enjoyed in the same situation: the choice of when and how to disengage from a social event.

As a progressive, as an atheist, as a skeptic, when a wake-up call like that sounds through my social media neighborhood, what can I do but attempt to understand what dynamics of privilege and yes, of misogyny, lead to that failure to respect Watson's independence? Once I start to examine these dynamics, it becomes all too obvious that such failures add to the cost that women must pay in order to participate in communities and movements that I consider to be important. If I take seriously that central value of rationality, self-improvement, then I am led just as inescapably to try to understand how to change the social environment around me so as to prevent this cost being exacted against women in the future.

An alternative approach, however, is to become defensive and to assert that things are fine the way they are. When confronted with contrary evidence, I could have instead dismissed it, and attacked the credibility of those calmly pointing out the cost associated with privilege. I could have even tried to deny the very existence of privilege, instead casting the original incident into a false narrative of "men versus women," of feminism being a thin veil for misandry, or of Watson being a drama-queen (even that term should rankle a few nerves by now!) interested not in reducing the cost of privilege but in inflating her own popularity. Such tactics, however, are fundamentally incompatible with the positive valuation of rationality, as rationality demands entertaining the notion that one is wrong, and as rationality demands a continual effort to improve oneself and to more closely align one's beliefs with reality.

It is in this spirit that I am pleased to note that despite the many men (and even women!) that see no wrong in Elevator Guy's actions, that despite the many people loudly and vilely attacking Watson, there has been a venerable chorus of men and women working hard to shape this incident into a concrete improvement for women in our communities. The fact that this incident has so inflamed passions belies the importance that we place on hashing through disagreements, rather than letting important issues fall by the wayside. Slowly, painfully and fitfully, our communities are improving due to the hard work of activists within our midst. That is something to take solace in, and likewise, is something to encourage the rest of us to join in, even when it can be discomforting.

Notes: Please accept my apology for the lack of links here today. There's simply too many good ones for me to choose a representative set from. Also, a hearty thanks go out to the person that originally suggested the subject for this post, and that introduced me to the concept of "sitting with your discomfort."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hints for the ethically challenged.

For reasons that I shall explain later, my life has (again) been enough of a mess as of late to prevent me from blogging. I will break my too-long silence, however, to note my complete disgust with an article sent to my attention by Nancy Parmalee: Manliness and Morality, from that cesspool of pseudo-intellectualism known as The Weekly Standard. Seldom have I seen so bald an apologetic for rape and for the misogynist power dynamic that rape plays in our society passed off as a highbrow and "sophisticated" discussion of current affairs.

The author of this article, Harvey Mansfield, assures us from the outset that his article is not, in fact, a work of rape apologetics:
What with Arnold and DSK, male transgression is once again in the news. Let’s not equate the two cases—one is forgivable, the other, if the accusations are true, is not [emphasis mine]. Together with these male transgressions is the reaction to them, still more interesting.
His assurances ring hollow, though, as even this first paragraph ventures into the disgusting realm of making excuses for rapists. Indeed, Mansfield starts off by drawing parallels between the marital infidelities of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn that he raped a hotel maid. These parallels can only be held as valid if one ignores the victimization inherent in the act of rape and reduces what is an inherently violent violation of another human being to being a merely unwise decision about how to act out one's sexuality.

Equating a consensual but unwise sexual relationship with what is, by definition, a violation of a human being's right to meaningfully consent to sexuality activities is nothing short of a disgusting failure of human compassion and empathy. It is, in short, quite in keeping with the norms of the comedically misnamed "compassionate conservatism" of which the Standard is so proud.

In the very next sentence, Mansfield discards any hope he might have had for maintaining even the illusion of human compassion:
The reaction shows the power of morality to produce disgust and disgrace at the sight of these male weaknesses.
Let me make this point perfectly clear. Rape is not an example of "male weakness." Period. It is a violent and heinous act perpetrated against another human being, and no amount of sugar-coating by professional misogynists like Mansfield can change that.

Bizarrely, even Mansfield himself seems to be within reach of this basic truth, as he goes on to assert that men are inherently more violent than women, and thus inherently more capable of perpetrating rape. Where he goes with this dim shadow of understanding, though, is enough to make any compassionate person cringe:
It certainly seems strange that being capable of rape can make a person better qualified for greatness, but it’s probably true.
I cannot hope to do better here than to simply let that quote from Mansfield stand for itself. Indeed, Mansfield has laid bare his own view of the world, so that we may understand it for the hateful denial of human compassion that it is.

What else can I call it but a hateful abdication of empathy when Mansfield boldly declares that "[Women] are not rapists but victims of rape"? There is no compassion, no empathy and no understanding in asserting that women are inherently to be victims. Not content to leave things to be merely that disgusting, however, Mansfield continues in this vein:
Being mothers, [women] are closer to their children, and usually suffer more from divorce. Because women are weaker and closer to children than men, the equality of the sexes cannot rest on their being the same. Nor can women be independent, or “autonomous,” certainly not as much as modern women want to be. As vulnerable, they depend on law and morality for protection. The enforcement of law and morality is done mainly by men or by women with the strength of men. [...] Women need men to save them from men.
I could continue to highlight how deplorable and depraved a view it is that Mansfield espouses in this article, but I shall refrain, as I think his own words have made clear how little he is bothered by the hatefulness of his statements. Instead, let me turn this around and offer some hints that he (and other professional misogynists) might gain some insight from considering.

To start with, I should point out a very simple fact that escapes far too many people (as Mansfield so clearly demonstrates): women are human beings. As such, ethical considerations which take into account the suffering of human beings invariably must take into consideration the suffering of the fifty percent of the human population which happens to be female. Living with the rest of humanity must necessarily include, then, living with that half of society that is women.

Another hint for the ethically challenged amongst us is that if one uses phrases like "male weakness" to excuse and to downplay the crime of rape, then in the same stroke, one denies the ethical consequences of suffering on the part of victims of "male weakness." Insofar as ethics are concerned, rape is important and appalling not because it is a "weakness," but because it denies a victim sovereignty over her (or his, despite Mansfield's hetero-normative and misogynistic stereotypes) own body. Naturally, it is important to understand the causes that lead to such violence, but we should not fall into the trap of mistaking the cause for the crime. We do not, for instance, refer to murder by firearms as an instance of "gun-wielder weakness," for in doing so, we would obscure the issue of ultimate importance to ethical considerations: a person's life has been extinguished through violence.

Perhaps the most helpful hint I can offer Mansfield and others suffering from an ethics deficiency, however, is a hint about what ethics actually is. Ethics is a way of codifying and understanding the well-being of fellow human beings, and in particular, the consequences for others that result from our actions. Rape is a breach of morality and ethicality not because it makes us feel icky or outraged, but because it compromises the well-being of other humans. Covering this essential truth with empty and baseless assertions about women inherently being assigned the role of "victim" does nothing to increase our understanding of the suffering that is caused to a woman if she is raped. As such, these stereotypes do not enable us to reach a higher understanding of ethics, but obscures the violent results of a violent act. A woman is not a victim by virtue of the nature of her birth, after all, but because someone forces her to become a victim. This is no different from if a man is made a victim by some act of violence; a clear truth made foggy by the addition of roles imposed on the basis of gender, such as the assignment of "victim" to all women made by Mansfield.

In parting, I will leave two more hints. To those genuinely concerned with ethicality, I would advise that continuing to speak out in the face of malignant pseudo-ethical arguments such as those made by Mansfield can help to make a difference. There is naught to be gained, after all, by staying silent and letting spread an unethical standard such as is portrayed by the Standard. Finally, to the ethically-challenged, I advise that a bit of careful listening to the arguments made by the rest of society can help elucidate why certain actions, like rape, are ethically deplorable. Circling the wagons in the face of evidence of a violent act does not help anyone learn to better live in society, and closes one off to a deeper understanding of the ethics which can act to minimize suffering amongst our peers. In short, we should seek to understand rape, not excuse it.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

In which I discuss Star Trek at the expense of another.

Update: My sincere thanks go out to Emily (@seelix on Twitter) for recovering this post for me after it went offline.

Bill Watterson is a sort of personal hero to me for having created the Calvin and Hobbes strip and writing such wonderful stories for 10 years.  Watterson once described that part of the charm of Calvin's character was his ability to precisely articulate very stupid ideas. This incongruence between Calvin's eloquence and his naive ignorance was the source of much of the strip's humor.

Well, today, I had the pleasure of reading some of the most precisely articulated stupidity that I have seen in a while. It is not every day, after all, that one gets to read a Tea and Crumpets Partier take issue with the utopian view that Star Trek puts forward and in doing so, lay bare the intellectual bankrupcy of the TCP movement. Truly, there is comedic gold buried in this bizarrely coherent but utterly stupid rant by Walter Hudson.

It is telling that our inadverent comedian opens with a quote from Roddenberry intended to demonstrate how Star Trek is a bad thing:

The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mould, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there. And I think that this is what people responded to.
Ironically, this multicultural meme leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tolerating every idea enables ideas which are destructive. As the franchise has progressed, it has (perhaps unwittingly) demonstrated this flaw in its own message.
Right out of the gate, Hudson has jumped the shark by presuming that his audience shares the same paranoia for the word "multiculturalism" that he does. Nowhere in the quote provided does Roddenberry state that he thought we should embrace or even tolerate all ideas equally, but rather that we should be willing to "take a special delight in differences in ideas." Multiculturalism does not preclude one from recognizing that some ideas have severely negative implications if acted upon, contrary to what Hudson seems to think.

The rest of this gem consists of a list of 10 supposedly destructive social messages espoused through Star Trek. Even a cursory glace at the titles of these ten sections gives one a startlingly blunt view on how Hudson sees the world:
  • The U.N. in Space
  • Prime Directive
  • No Money
  • Galactic Peace
  • Silly God, Tricks Are For Man
  • Occupations and Insurgents
  • Set Phasers on Stun
  • Cosmic Environmentalism
  • Resistance Is Futile
  • Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Only in the upside-down reality-starved community that is the Tea and Crumpets Party is this list somehow damning, but inside that petri dish of memetic insanity, words and names like "U.N," "peace," "trick," and "environment" take on the quality of nightmares induced by sleeping in front of one too many rants by Glenn Beck. Far be it from me to try and deconstruct such a perverse framework for understanding the world, for fear of being irrevocably damaged by the Lovecraftian horrors that lie dormant in such twisted logics. (OK, that last sentence was exaggeration bordering on purple prose, but it was fun to write.) Instead, I shall be content to address some of the more LOLworthy points that Hudson hits upon in his psychiatric disrobing so cleverly disguised as an article about Star Trek.

Let's start our journey into madness with the first "message": that the United Federation of Planets is much like the United Nations in the real world. Perhaps surprisingly, I agree! The UFP is transparently modeled after the UN, but I think it stands to reflect the unbridled idealism of Star Trek. Where the UFP differs from the UN is in that it works well to achieve it's intended purpose. That it achieves, finally, after so many false starts, the ideal of a cooperative body that spans across not only nations, but worlds and even species. To Hudson, this utopian idealism seems to be the whole problem:
While the occasional insurrection or insubordination was explored throughout the franchise, for the most part, no one within the Federation really questions their government. As we shall examine in more detail, in Star Trek, the government is a two-dimensional institution which works because it must in order to advance a particular political narrative.
In short, Hudson is arguing that aside from those times that people in Star Trek question their government so brilliantly and so passionately (take, for example, The Drumhead [TNG], The Measure of a Man [TNG], Star Trek: Insurrection, or practically all of Deep Space Nine's seventh season), no one ever questions their government! Hudson sees in the bold idealism of asserting a government that works well most of the time a spectre of timid uniformity. How markedly different from the Pickard, the Sisko, the Odo, the Data, the Spock, and all the other characters in whom I invested so much emotion are these timid spectres that haunt Hudson's Star Trek!

Next on the menu, we are served a deliciously absurd view of Star Trek's Prime Directive. For the uninitiated, the Prime Directive asserts that the Federation is not to go around the galaxy remaking technologically primitive planets into societies unto their own image. The Prime Directive is informed by a history of well-intentioned but disastrous interventions into the progression of other cultures, and aims to allow nascent cultures to get a chance to participate in galactic culture as equals and on the merits of what they offer, rather than to be damned by the accident of a slower technological progression. There are, of course, many points with which one can argue intelligently (and on which many Star Trek characters do!) with the Prime Directive, and I think it'd be a shame to accept the Directive as a given without critical thought. It will come as little surprise, though, that Hudson neatly sidesteps any intellectual basis for disagreeing with the Directive, instead connecting it back to the boogeyman of multiculturalism:

The defining aspect of Star Trek’s Federation is its Prime Directive, the law above all others which its officers are sworn to uphold even at the expense of their life and the lives of others. Stated simply, the Prime Directive is to never interfere with the natural evolution of another civilization. In the original series, this meant refraining from contaminating relatively primitive cultures with knowledge of Starfleet and its advanced technology. Over the years, the Prime Directive has expanded into a kind of galactic Tenth Amendment, assuring member planets jurisdiction over internal affairs.
While the latter may seem attractive to conservatives, it is worth noting that the supreme moral principle upon which the Prime Directive is based is not natural rights or individual sovereignty, but multiculturalism. In Star Trek, the one cardinal sin is applying your values to an alien culture.
Here, I have emphasized where Hudson seems to have been watching a completely different set of shows and movies than I did. What else other than "applying your values to an alien culture" is the whole Dominion War, or the earlier Cardassian War? The idea that the Federation has something to offer other cultures in terms of moral values is so omnipresent in Star Trek that picking a single example would be to miss the point. Where Star Trek differs from Hudson's wingnut world, however, is that the Federation also learns from other cultures. The interactions go both ways, unlike the one-sided ethnocentric and xenophobic ideas on foreign policy espoused by many of the TCP's most ardent supporters.

Since I don't wish to hash through this ridiculous article for the rest of my natural life, or even for the rest of the weekend, let me speed up a bit. I think you get the flavor of Hudson's approach already: isolate something that happened in Star Trek and connect it to a dog-whistle, boogeyman or spectre of the wingnut mind. To wit, "No Money" connects the absence of money in the Federation to communism (gasp!), missing soundly the point that the absence of money derives from an absence of scarcity. There's no point to money when there is no scarcity to drive economies. Whereas the Ferengi solve this "problem" by inventing new scarcities, the Federation embraces the promise of a world not held back by dollars and cents. A world freed to pursue its dreams and its ideals, no matter the price tag.

Hudson next misunderstands the ideals of the Federation rather dramatically by his characterization that "the Federation is a kind of galactic nation vying for power among hostile neighbors on all sides," and thus that "peace remains illusive." That the show documents how its characters deal with adversity in face of their ideals is not a criticism, but part of the wondrous utopia that the shows depict! Peace is so valued and well-understood by the Federation that they will work for peace even when so surrounded. One key transition depicted over the course of four shows spanning 26 seasons was the transformation of the Klingons from a violent adversary to an uneasy ally, then to a valued but misunderstood neighbor and finally to a celebrated friend in the Dominion War. What could better demonstrate the Federation's ideal of peace than their successful diplomatic efforts with a species whose cultural history celebrates violence and imperialism at every turn?

Skipping mostly past "Silly God, Tricks are for Man," I will pause just to note that it is so incoherent as to cite early Star Trek as following "Judeo-Christian tradition," as if such a thing existed outside of the weird premillennial-dispensationalism steeped mind of the modern wingnut. Far more interesting is Hudson's complete perversion of the Star Trek parables of the Cardiassians, Bajorans and the Dominion on display in "Occupations and Insurgents." No amount of analysis on my part could hope to improve simply quoting Hudson on this point:
When the United States deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, its mission was similar to that of the Federation at Bajor, keep the peace, defend the interests of liberty, and prevent old and new enemies from exerting themselves in the area.
[Deep Space Nine] became the Federation’s vanguard, defending a wormhole through which the evil Dominion could attack from across the galaxy. Iraq likewise became American’s vanguard in the global War on Terror. The Dominion’s leaders were shape-shifters who could appear as anyone or anything, and thus conduct insurgent warfare against the Federation.
Anyone who equates the Dominion's grand imperialist schemes with modern insurgents either never watched Star Trek, or suffered one too many concussions to comprehend it properly. The same complete and utter lack of understanding of the ideals of the show is on display in "Phasers on Stun":
Be that as it may, the ability to simply stun enemies rather than kill them lowered the stakes of the drama somewhat. Star Trek frequently failed to address the uncomfortable scenarios such an ability would present in real life. Even if you could stun someone who wanted to kill you, wouldn’t they still want to kill you once they recovered? Have you really dealt with the threat?
Such a flirtation with violence as being the best solution to a problem, rather than as being a poor substitute for understanding, diplomacy and rational discussion says quite a bit more about Hudson and his memetic environment than I might have wanted to see, but there it is. To Hudson, it seems that killing someone is truly the only way to "deal with the threat," and that our fiction should reflect this cruel "fact." It seems that Hudson's comedy now gives way to a brutal exposure of a genuinely unpleasant mind. Luckily, we are spared delving too much further yet by the section on "Cosmic Environmentalism":
A powerful alien probe has come to Earth looking for them, and starts trashing the place when they don’t harmonize with its cetacean song. The moral of the story is obvious. If we do not act to protect the environment today, a race of alien sea turtles may destroy our civilization tomorrow.
Admittedly, Star Trek IV was cheesy and campy, but it was wonderful seeing the denizens of a better future come face to face with their history: a people that treats their environs as immutable, exploitable and lifeless. Hudson describes this in decidedly less gracious terms:
As they peruse the landscape of ’80′s San Francisco, the crew wander about like bemused Westerners stranded among a primitive tribe.
Maybe that should give us pause, Mr. Hudson? How should our decedents see us, and how do we go about making that happen? If we don't want the future to think of us as a what you call a "primitive tribe," maybe we shouldn't act like one!

I'm happy to report that Hudson has saved the best for last, as his sections on "Resistance is Futile" and "Can't We All Just Get Along?" meld together into a single thesis so bizarre, so stupid and so astounding that it alone could have motivated me writing this post. He opens with this doozy:

In a franchise which has clearly been leveraged to promote leftist ideology, one of the most fascinating developments has been the introduction off a villain so plainly emblematic of the Left. The popularity of the Borg, an aggressive race of cyborgs who share a collective hive mind, is no doubt attributable to the psychological horror they represent.
The Borg seek to assimilate intelligent life into their totalitarian society, wholly subduing individuality in service to the collective. In doing so, they believe they are working toward the perfection of their species. Could there be a better metaphor for the Left than these cybernetic zombies?
I dare you to count the number of buzzwords, dog-whistles and boogeymen hiding in that quotation, then add to that the ridiculous characterization of progressiveism as "cybernetic zombies." Any pretense of sanity has now been fully left behind, leaving Hudson standing bare in all his nuttiness, but he's not done yet!
The Borg challenge the Federation’s Utopian ideals, and thus those of the Left, by presenting a threat which cannot be reasoned or negotiated with.
But I thought the Borg was the Left! Oh, wait, they are again a few moments later:
The Borg are also the enemy faced in Star Trek: First Contact. At that point in franchise continuity, Picard has encountered the Borg enough to know there is only one appropriate response.
We’ve made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here. This far, no further!
So no mention of how that hard-line stance nearly cost Picard his life, his crew, his planet, his Federation, his ideals? No, as Hudson goes boldly on to conclude with this knockout of a thesis:
Again, the Borg stand as a curious contradiction to this sentiment. Strictly speaking, they share the same objective as the Federation, galactic peace. The difference is that the Borg see peace as the end result of destroying or assimilating all free people in the galaxy (a perspective they share with Islam). In this the Borg are correct, because freedom enables distinctiveness, and distinctiveness breeds discord. We will never completely get along so long as some among us remain free.
Setting aside for a moment the obscene perversion of the word "freedom" on display here, note what I have emphasized above: Hudson equates the Borg with Islam, and also with what he calls "the Left," and thus he's done! Liberals are Islam, QED. What better punchline could you imagine for such a coherently stupid manifesto?

While I have done my best to illustrate the comedy of Hudson's tea-stained view of the world, I would be remiss if I left one with the impression that this was all one big joke. The worldview through which Hudson sees Star Trek as not a utopia but a dystopia is currently still seen as a serious contender in the American marketplace of ideas; so much so that we think of Obama as liberal by comparison, so much so that Bill O'Riley has become a voice of reason on his network, so much so that Donald Trump is not immediately laughed off-stage and so much so that Michelle Bachman currently has a job. Thus, my laughter at Hudson's fevered views comes with a barb. I laugh in the hope and the promise of discrediting a bankrupt movement, against which the ideals espoused by a brilliant series of TV shows like Star Trek stands as all the more essential.