Archive for September, 2010

Data Games

September 30, 2010 - 5:41 pm Comments Off

Thanks to Holly, a link to a Stanford article about a study that manages to combine facepalmy Just-So evo psych with facepalmy ignorance of gaming. It’s a doozy. You all know what this means.

Allan Reiss, MD, and his colleagues have a pretty good idea why your husband or boyfriend can’t put down the Halo 3. In a first-of-its-kind imaging study, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than women during video-game play.

As Holly pointed out, “activating the reward center of the brain” is pretty much a very dense and literal way to say “generated an experience that in some way felt good”. Drugs work by directly generating neurochemical experiences, which isn’t even the same thing as feeling good; if you find the experience of being completely emotionally numb alarming and upsetting you’re unlikely to become addicted to Xanax, and if you find the experience of being hyper-wired and unable to relax alarming or upsetting you’re unlikely to become addicted to cocaine. The physical dependence comes long after repetitions of the experience performed because the experience was enjoyable in some way.

All of which is to say what should be obvious to the researchers- it certainly is to the gaming industry- which is that if anyone’s getting “addicted” to Halo 3, it’s because playing it is fun. Games that aren’t fun don’t get played and don’t sell, which is why Minesweeper hasn’t had the same impact on society as crack despite being theoretically a very efficient reward-delivery system.

“These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become ‘hooked’ on video games than females,” the researchers wrote in their paper, which was recently published online in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

More than 230 million video and computer games were sold in 2005, and polls show that 40 percent of Americans play games on a computer or a console. According to a 2007 Harris Interactive survey, young males are two to three times more likely than females to feel addicted to video games, such as the Halo series so popular in recent years.

It’s also possible that what explains why there are more and more dedicated male gamers than female gamers is that the gaming industry is a massive boys’ club, virtually all video games are almost exclusively designed by and marketed to young men, and the industry overall has so little idea how one would possibly market a video game to girls or women that when they get a vague inkling that women are a large and growing subset of their market and try, the result is almost always something along the lines of “Barbie Horse Adventures”. (Real game*.) The only time that video games aren’t aggressively built around male fantasies and male gaze is games marketed “for the whole family”, which tends to lump women in with grandparents and young children. It wouldn’t be a groundbreaking research finding to note that things tend to be most popular with the age and gender for whom they are expressly designed by and for and marketed to.

Look, I love video games and I’ve been playing them since the Atari 7800, but I and every other female gamer on the planet know that the industry hasn’t got the slightest fucking idea what to do with us. Yet we’re still playing anyway, because even if we’re nowhere near the target market there’s still enough basically fun in them to make playing them worth it. I will note however that I don’t tend to go for the “extremely masculine space marine in space armor shoots everyone from behind a chest-high wall in a manly fashion” genre.

Despite the popularity of video and computer games, little is known about the neural processes that occur as people play these games.

Possibly because running brain imaging studies is a huge amount of money invested into a necessarily small number of subjects in order to get results like “things people find fun activate fun region of brain”? Or because playing games is a broad term for experiences that can be fairly complex and often differ hugely in their structure and therefore likely cognitive handling? All of which suggest that the data gained actually will tell you almost nothing of worth unless it turned out that result yielded was “things people find fun activate primal terror region of brain”?

And no research had been done on gender-specific differences in the brain’s response to video games.

Possibly because the belief that the data gained will tell you anything useful is even stupider than the above? Running studies on how women’s versus men’s brains handle video games is every bit as sensible as running studies on how their brains handle other complex tasks that involve integrating rapid sensory input and problem-solving, like driving. Oh Christ except I know there’s some sort of women-drivers study out there taking this exact approach…

He and his colleagues became interested in exploring the concept of territoriality, and they determined the best way to do so was with a simple computer game.

The game is viewable on the article, by the way. If you don’t want to go look, I was going to describe it as a shitty version of Pong or Breakout, except Breakout was a tour de force compared to this thing. I know a game that looks like a freshman CS student’s final project isn’t a fair comparison to a commercially produced product, but using this thing to study gaming is like using a Big Wheels to study car culture. The article goes on to describe the rules and features of the game in case we’re too lazy to look, too.

The researchers designed a game involving a vertical line (the “wall”) in the middle of a computer screen. When the game begins, 10 balls appear to the right of the wall and travel left toward the wall. Each time a ball is clicked, it disappears from the screen. If the balls are kept a certain distance from the wall, the wall moves to the right and the player gains territory, or space, on the screen. If a ball hits the wall before it’s clicked, the line moves to the left and the player loses territory on the screen.

It manages to be even duller than it sounds, but possibly this is just my woman’s brain talking.

During this study, 22 young adults (11 men and 11 women) played numerous 24-second intervals of the game while being hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, machine. fMRI is designed to produce a dynamic image showing which parts of the brain are working during a given activity.

Young adults = broke undergrads. By the way, can we PLEASE stop pretending that eighteen year old North American college students are representative of the entire species in all times and places?

Study participants were instructed to click as many balls as possible; they weren’t told that they could gain or lose territory depending on what they did with the balls.

You… don’t really need to tell them that. It’s how the game works. You don’t really need to include an instruction manual with Pong in order for the result of “if you get the ball past the other paddle you get points” to not be a paradigm-changing surprise either. Unless these are broke college students with a really severe developmental disability, figuring out the rules and consequences of extremely simple games is a baseline skill.

Reiss said all participants quickly learned the point of the game, and the male and female participants wound up clicking on the same number of balls. The men, however, wound up gaining a significantly greater amount of space than the women. That’s because the men identified which balls—the ones closest to the “wall”—would help them acquire the most space if clicked.

“The females ‘got’ the game, and they moved the wall in the direction you would expect,” said Reiss, who is director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. “They appeared motivated to succeed at the game. The males were just a lot more motivated to succeed.”

Or- and this could even be a legitimate research result- they had faster twitch reflexes. Possibly by what was likely to have been a childhood playing a lot of twitch games expressly marketed to them. Or they cared more about winning no matter how stupid the game in question they were playing was. Or they found rapidly clicking on balls slightly more soothing on the stress of sitting in a humming MRI machine during an apparently pointless experiment. Or…

After analyzing the imaging data for the entire group, the researchers found that the participants showed activation in the brain’s mesocorticolimbic center, the region typically associated with reward and addiction. Male brains, however, showed much greater activation, and the amount of activation was correlated with how much territory they gained. (This wasn’t the case with women.)

“Subjects who were more motivated to play and had more fun at it activate fun and motivation region of brain more”

Three structures within the reward circuit—the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex—were also shown to influence each other much more in men than in women. And the better connected this circuit was, the better males performed in the game.

“Fun and motivation region of brain more active when player is performing better” Also, the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club.

The findings indicate, the researchers said, that successfully acquiring territory in a computer game format is more rewarding for men than for women.

Or men are more rewarded by pointless computer games. Or men are more into a fidgety distraction when undergoing a boring and slightly unpleasant experience. Or men are more motivated to win at something even though the task seems utterly pointless for the sheer sake of winning. Actually, you probably could have enhanced the value of this study tenfold by providing a carefully worded questionnaire afterward asking the subject how they felt about what they were doing and what they thought the point of the game was- as well as whether video games were or had been among their hobbies.

And Reiss, for one, isn’t surprised. “I think it’s fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial,” he said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species—they’re the males.”

Unless, of course, you’re not actually investigating but fishing for data to attach to a preformed conclusion. Also the statement “males tend to be more intrinsically territorial” can only be made by a man who has not paid that much attention to what the people in the Female Universe are doing. Within areas that they identify as important, women and girls can be viciously territorial. This shouldn’t be an evolutionarily challenging conclusion, either; in species that are markedly territorial, males don’t tend to be any more territorial than females are. They may be more involved with going out and securing it or defending it if in a species that lives in mixed-gender groups, but females don’t happily share territory in their absence either.

Reiss said this research also suggests that males have neural circuitry that makes them more liable than women to feel rewarded by a computer game with a territorial component and then more motivated to continue game-playing behavior.

Please do me a favor and go watch the video of the game in progress. Then see if you can say, with a straight face, that this thing imitates the process of gaining and defending “territory” to the point that we can make evolutionary conclusions about deep gender differences in our species based on it.

Thought exercise: can you imagine getting significantly different results if you hadn’t used North American college students? Mixed up the age range, or the study had been conducted in a lower-technology culture in which gaming doesn’t have a specific social context?

“Most of the computer games that are really popular with males are territory- and aggression-type games,” he pointed out.

As above, most computer games that are really popular are popular with males. Also, it’s actually really difficult to design a game that isn’t somehow based around “aggression” or “territory” or competition that’s still any fun whatsoever; virtual flower-arranging just isn’t that exciting. Your choices are pretty much limited to Tetris, Nintendogs, and the Katamari series. Though this attitude probably does explain why the MMORPG industry’s idea of making their product more attractive to women is including more collectible mini-pets and crafting activities**.

Reiss said the team’s findings may apply to other types of video and computer games. “This is a fairly representative, generic computer game,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues are planning further work in this area.

Uhhhhh… not really. This statement would have been true around the time of Pong’s release, but what it’s representative of and generic to is really extraordinarily boring computer games. The sad thing here is that it’s not like there’s the slightest amount of shortage of games that really explicitly are about acquiring and defending territory, and no shortage of male and female gamers skilled at playing them; this would be easy to actually study, though you’d probably have to forgo pretending that you need an MRI image to demonstrate that the players are having fun and experiencing motivation.

Comparing gamers to gamers and nongamers to nongamers would also be another good start- it’s not the instinctive first response of everybody, when handed a pointless game, to play to “win” it- and this makes a difference in motivation way, way more significant than gender.

I suspect that even if you suddenly managed to eliminate the cluelessness of game companies and the very… notably young-male dominated gamer culture of the “Tits or GTFO” reflex, women would probably remain the minority in gaming. Maybe this is even for neurological or hormonal reasons rather than the very gross and forceful cultural reasons that exist now. But attempting to use this to demonstrate that men conquered the world because they like to click dots faster is just… sad.

*The really sad thing is that these things are, in addition to being clumsily and stereotypically handled, incredible pieces of shit as a rule. Red Dead Redemption and Shadow of the Colossus are both better horse simulators even though that’s only a fraction of their gameplay. The failure of these sorts of games is often cited as why it’s fruitless for the industry to pursue anyone other than young males, but apparently the idea that the game must be well-made, pretty to look at, and fun to play is a male-specific marketing strategy.

**My Warcraft characters’ mini-pet collection pales next to Stingray’s or my guild leader’s. I craft because it makes me gold, but I resent the necessity, whereas Stingray’s main character has at least two special titles expressly earned from dedication to crafting professions. Meanwhile my two plate-wearing tanking characters whose express job in game is to get beaten up by the monsters have the bellies inexplicably cut out of their chest armor. Go on and ask whether this is true of the male models of the same armor. The plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data”, but if this is Blizzard’s way of marketing to women it’s not working out that well.

Please Tip Your Predators

September 29, 2010 - 5:32 pm Comments Off

Brought to you by Bill Maher and Jeff McMahan.

An increasingly common misconception as more and more of us are functionally raised in relentless modernity and civilization is the idea that “naturalness” is a state of health and harmony, in which God or Gaia’s true master plan is reflected in everything in its place and everything according to its role. This basic, if unspoken, sentiment underlies a breed of vaccination and germ theory denialism; the idea that if it weren’t for the poisons of misguided civilization and evil technology, we wouldn’t need vaccines or antibiotics because our immune systems obviously evolved to cope with diseases and if we just lived according to the natural plan, everyone would be healthy and happy.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in an age and a place where we can have serious concerns about colon cancer and get our primary exposure to nature from the National Geographic corporation tend not to realize it, but while our immune systems indeed evolved to cope with diseases and parasites, diseases and parasites also evolved to cope with our immune systems. The natural state of man or any wild animal is to exercise frequently, eat a healthful diet, have a constant stream of attrition to the population from disease and injury, and cope with a constant load of parasites.

This is natural:

Those are ticks, if you were wondering.

So is this: That's mange.

And this: Chronic wasting disease.  If you shoot this for god's sake don't eat it.

Why are National Geographic and the majority of nature hikes free of sights such as this? Because for most of these animals with very high parasite loads, diseases, or crippling injuries, something quickly happens to them: they are killed and eaten by predators. Predators are nature’s hard-working landscape beautification and comfortable illusion maintenance service.

To the extent that I have sourcing for the “disease” images above, all of those that I do are from American states in which large predators have been mostly or completely extirpated. Mange is a fairly normal furbearer problem for predators and prey alike, it’s just rare to see a live animal in which things have advanced that far.

Not being eaten by hyenas every time you get a sufficiently slowing case of the sniffles is one of those major motivating forces for having civilizations, which is a point that has usually never been fully appreciated by people writing posts about the dangers of thimerosol in vaccines on an iPad. Not being eaten by hyenas is also a rarely recognized but truly essential ingredient for producing people whose full-time profession is philosopher or pundit.

Far from condemning predators for their ruthless lifestyle of daily re-enacting the murder of Bambi’s mother, we should all try to have a heartfelt sense of appreciate as warming as our chai lattes for our continued ability to regard the natural world as a handsome theme park inhabited by Platonic ideals.

Thank our predators. Not only do they give animals an excellent exercise program and remove the ugly ones, once you get right down to Early Man and the problems highest on his list to solve they’re the reason we were eventually able to develop the internet and have this conversation.

Link Salad

September 28, 2010 - 6:21 pm Comments Off

Insert lame excuse here, although if I don’t get eaten by a grue I should have something good for you tomorrow.

This Is A News Website Article About A Scientific Finding. And it is both hysterically funny and bitingly accurate.

Worst Life Ever: The Story of Kazuyuki Fujita’s Skull made us laugh until important organs hurt. Do watch the video where available, though most of the later fights have apparently been yanked off Youtube due to copyright complaints. What elevates it from merely very good snark to comedy gold is that the writer is not exaggerating nearly as much as you’d think. The upshot is it’s the career of a mixed martial artist whose sole skill was to get hit in the face repeatedly without evident impact.

The British could keep rabies out of the isles indefinitely, but it took less than a decade for them to be infected with a Law and Order series. I’d apologize on behalf of my country, but seriously, if the total takeover of American cable networks with judgmental percussion wasn’t hint enough about the epidemic nature, then this is a straightforward case of natural selection. There is a small bright side in that it may be used to employ otherwise idle artists.

Bill Maher gets Christine O’Donnell to rant in gobsmackingly ignorant fashion about the “myth of evolution”, which includes one of my favorite creationist arguments for “does not get it” material, which is “if people evolved from monkeys, why are monkeys still around”. This would not be worth mentioning other than filling in a bit about her reputation as a crazy fundie if it weren’t for the fact that it’s Bill Maher, whose gotcha at the end is to crow over what an idiot she is because she thinks monkeys could evolve quickly enough to turn into humans while we observed. Icing on the cake is that Maher thinks the fucking germ theory of disease is a myth. I’m going to go drink heavily now, because these two really do represent the political class that we get to elect.

What, you thought I was joking? I’m going to go drink heavily now. Come back tomorrow.

Monday Juvenilia

September 27, 2010 - 4:37 pm Comments Off

My mother, bless her heart, finds both of us difficult to shop for when it comes to holidays. Her being a determined “internet is a series of tubes” dinosaur in an age in which geeky eccentrics can make life easier on their relatives by setting up wish lists at online stores doesn’t help, so in order to avoid the obvious problem with simply buying me books (finding me things I will enjoy and do not already own without the aid of Amazon.com), she tries to find us things that will be useful in the event of zombie apocalypse or something with similar impact upon Radio Shack. This has led to a variety of items, some big hits (thanks for that weather station, Mom, we even bought an upgrade when that one started to die), and some that left us scratching our heads a little. From the department of “good idea, questionable execution” comes the Shakelight, which is basically a shake weight with the idea that all that kinetic activity will generate light rather than toning your arms. Presented, without further comment, the manual’s visual depiction of how to bring the flashlight to climax operate the device. Click for big, and I suggest you do:

Must Be Saturday

September 25, 2010 - 11:14 am Comments Off

‘Cause there’s a new Vicious Circle up. Go enjoy Alan, Weer’d, Old NFO, Vine, LabRat and myself in Our God Is An Angry God Ron Paul Shitting in a Pool Cum Beanus Fire Goat Hipster Trainwreck. All the necessary (and mostly very not safe for work) links are over at Alan’s. It wasn’t too bad until the very end.

Fucking hipsters.

Eat Locally! 'Cause I love sticks and mud!

September 24, 2010 - 12:15 pm Comments Off

We’re foodies. There’s not much getting around it. Both LabRat and I would rather eat food that tastes good, so all the low-fat carb-free low-sodium anti-food is largely absent from our abode. We’ve got lard and we’re not afraid to use it!

In that spirit, one of the latest additions to the bookshelves here at the nerd ranch is Jennifer McLagan’s book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes. I’ve gone through the chapter on butter already, and while I agree with the spirit, and a lot of the recipes look damn tasty, the thing is pissing me right the fuck off.

Things start off smoothly enough, with an explanation of fats (saturated vs. un, poly, mono, trans; frankly it reads like a printed version of something familiar, only less detailed). There’s some fat-lore and a bit on the history of margarine (which, given the original form, I suddenly find myself with fewer objections to the modern incarnation thereof). What there’s also a lot of is the plague that hovers around the whole/organic/slow/sustainable/$buzzword-for-I-just-want-something-that-fucking-tastes-good movement, the snooty disdain for major brand/readily available sources.

Only those who lived in the countryside and churned their own enjoyed the taste of fresh butter. Thankfully, our butter is no longer adulterated, since it is highly regulated and mass-produced, but the same system that guarantees a certain standard also results in a uniformity in both the butter’s color and (lack of) flavor.

To enjoy the benefits of butter you must eat the best you can buy. Good butter not only tastes better, but it is better for you. Butter from pasture-fed cows has omega-3 fatty acids, which we need more of in our diet.

Butter shouldn’t taste only of fat, but also of what the cows ate. We should be able to savor the grass, the herbs, and the flowers. While we are all willing to spend a small fortune on deluxe olive oils, we grab a pound of butter without thinking.

Outstanding! I’m right there with you, butter is awesome already and should be awesome-er with some care and attention and selection! I’m gonna actually check this shit out at the store rather than just grab a pound! Only one problem. Above the vast swaths of margarine, which we’ve already established is bad and really only good for spreading on toast* there are…hold on, this is tricky counting this high… there are three brands available! Store Brand, the one with the Indian girl you can cut the box up to make it look like she’s showing her boobs, and the one with the deer! Well, ok, let’s go by the actual numbers and compare the fat content on these suckers. They all have the exact same FDA grading, so we can rule that out as a yardstick off the bat. As it turns out, the fat content and breakdown of saturated vs. un is identical across all three! So between the three brands I can pick from, the only measurable difference is price.

Ok, no problem. A little effort isn’t too much to ask in tracking down better chow. I’ll just pop over to the specialty store and… oh. Wait. No I won’t. Los Alamos has two grocery stores, both branches of the same major chain. Oh, and some of the convenience stores sell milk by the gallon, which I’m sure is the very peak of quality and not at all priced unreasonably. Fine! I’ll just make my own!

The simple act of making butter will give you an insight into the magical transformation of cream into butter and show you just how good very fresh butter can taste. Unlike Alexandre Dumas, you won’t need a horse (see quotation at right)**- just an electric mixer, a sieve, and the best cream you can lay your hands on.

All right, over to the milk section, let’s see what they got.

Really? Just three brands, and that ZOMG WE’RE ORGANIC PAY AN EXTRA FIVE BUCKS stuff? Again? Dammit.

Well, maybe I’ll go straight to the source and visit the nearby dairy? Nope. Some effort is fine, but a two hour drive each way for better milk and butter just ain’t gonna happen. And these are still outfits looking to maximize their profits. I don’t think we’re gonna be seeing milk from cows treated all Kobe style out of these joints.

And this is really the crux of what gets me. There is virtually no middle ground between that twit on Food Network going on about how to pick the right curtains to go with that stove-top-and-kraft-cheese concoction and the hardcore “IF YOU CAN’T TASTE THE SEASON YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG” crowd. Yes, absolutely there are some truly amazing foodstuffs available locally. But small-scale pasture-fed cows? Not likely. Well fatted chickens? Not unless I raise ‘em myself. Damn near every one of these current crop of “make food that doesn’t suck” books and/or personalities come from a big city where you can’t swing an organic, locally produced sustainable dead cat without hitting a specialty store that imports your poison of choice direct from the world’s best poison-of-choice producer.

Fuck it. Maybe I’ll just get an ostritch egg or two next time I go to Albuquerque. Meanwhile, I’ll just go raid the freezer for the beef*** Ms. McLagan only wishes she could get. She can look down her nose at the butter I use all she likes, it ain’t gonna magic up a better option.

*Yes, I know. I do think the butter tastes better on toast, but there’s a certain point of diminishing returns for effort to reward, and the hassle of getting hard, cold butter to actually spread on toast is beyond that point for me. Your mileage may vary.
**Apparently he tied a jug of milk around his horse’s neck at the start of the day’s ride and got butter out when he stopped in the evening. A bit slow for my taste, but clever, I’ll grant that.
***We lurves us some FarmFamily raised beef. Oh yes. If you find yourself in a position to obtain some, it’s well worth it.

Jacking Jackasses

September 23, 2010 - 3:16 pm Comments Off

One of my long-time guilty pleasures is Dan Savage’s sex-and-love column in The Stranger; over time he’s been steadily morphing from a usually compassionate and often clever advice columnist into something of an insufferable asshat so there has been more guilt and less pleasure in that, but catching up with his column still yields enough entertainment to be a valid option when I’m bored. Some years back he managed to, more or less successfully, make an obnoxious right-wing Senator’s name synonymous with an unpleasant side effect of a sexual act, and ever since this juvenile but somewhat funny trick fans have been writing in trying to get him to do similar things to other politicians they dislike, with rather less success. Only funny/relevant once, really.

Predictably, in his most recent column, Christine O’Donnell is coming up for the same treatment. The reader proposal, under a cutesy acronym that distills to HATEFUCK, is to declare a national “masturbate to Christine O’Donnell day”. Dan cheerfully agrees.

Now, I don’t actually give a good goddamn about Christine O’Donnell. I think it’s nice that an overall anti-incumbent, anti “same suit different day” mood is prevailing and that it’s nice that made it possible for her to win a primary. She’s to the right of me and doesn’t seem to be half as crazy as the instant and predictable caricatures of her make out, but I doubt I agree with her about a great deal and frankly don’t care as I’ve managed to largely kick political junkie-ism as a vice. However, two things make this worth comment to me.

1. Holy fucking Christ is this creepy and misogynist! It’s the same old profoundly fucked up instant sexualization and humiliation of women who are recognized as being politically off the reservation. HATEFUCK’s acronym says it all; I highly doubt Christine O’Donnell will actually be sexually assaulted, but as a symbolic gesture it’s kind of difficult for it not to come off as vaguely threatening as well as gross. The whole Santorum/anal sex thing was silly and gross, but it doesn’t approach “I hate you and I’m aroused by you, take this” in its subtext. Dan never had much in the way of feminist cred, but that he apparently doesn’t see or understand that there’s anything genuinely disturbing as opposed to silly and irreverent about this pretty much says it all.

2. Okay, look, liberals, I’ve got some news for you; conservatives have and enjoy sex, including masturbation and also including a very long list of things you seem to think only you have thought of. Exposing them to sex isn’t fatal to them or disturbing or world-expanding or paradigm-shifting, it’s just rude and annoying. Yeah, some of them have some rather restrictive and obnoxious ideas about sex, and I’m right there with you on opposing that, but even very kinky and non-straight sex isn’t fucking revolutionary to them and they’re likely having as much sex if not more as you are, just within a relationship frame they DO support. Or, for that matter, not; yes, some of them are closeted, but forcibly outing them and using that to destroy careers doesn’t so much prove their hypocrisy (that was trivially obvious but likely they still think what they’re doing is wrong, they just can’t resist) as it proves you’re pleased to use someone’s sexuality as a weapon against them. Two hypocrites for the price of one.

Where was I? Ah yes. I honestly don’t understand what anyone who thinks stunts like these are somehow political protest thinks they’ll accomplish. I’m not all that right wing, but I’m far enough along that axis that I can see from the eyes of someone who likes Santorum or O’Donnell, and I know exactly what it looks like from there: “these people are tasteless idiots that think the entire world revolves around their genitals”. Not even so far as “that’s outrageous”, because it really isn’t; it’s just stupid and predictable as hell in all the worst ways.

No Soup For You

September 22, 2010 - 7:50 pm Comments Off

Most of my time and energy is currently taken up by correspondence at the moment, and when I asked Stingray if there was anything he wanted to write he made a noise like the ghost woman from The Grudge and I decided not to press the issue.

Free ice cream to resume when possible.

It's Not Elementary

September 21, 2010 - 5:41 pm Comments Off

When I was 15, I went through a rite that I think is nearly mandatory for introverted bookworms, which is reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon as originally written by Arthur Conan Doyle. It was as much an act of profound summer boredom as anything else, as I found I don’t actually enjoy Conan Doyle’s writing all that much; I can get through the Victoriana and language evolution that leads to such hilarities as having Watson constantly ejaculating in public and Holmes knocking up poor Mrs. Hudson, but the fundamental structure of Holmes stories is rather like the structure of just-so stories; they are, basically speaking, written backward. Start with the conclusion, then reconstruct a plausible chain of “deduction” backward from small details that otherwise might have huge numbers of different possible and valid explanations but, because of the way the universe’s structure is set up, lead always or with rare exception to the correct conclusions.

As a writer of mysteries, Doyle was middling at best, which is a bit of a pity because I do love a well-crafted mystery and that’s what I was originally after in the stories. As a creator of characters and a writer of adventure stories, on the other hand, he was very good, and this is the fundamental reason why Sherlock Holmes has a vast body of what is essentially professional fanfiction based on the universe Doyle created. The details of the stories are very nearly irrelevant except as plot devices, but the characters of the eccentric and individualistic genius fighting crime aided by his brave sidekick (because eccentric geniuses are not very interesting at all if no one is writing them down) was an enduring and highly appealing concept, with the Victorian setting making for a very good “age of adventure” one- although if there’s one thing makers of adaptations have been unable to resist, it’s been putting those same appealing characters in an updated, modern setting. Those of us who are used to thinking of the “classic” Holmes movies as those featuring Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone usually forget that that was a modernized adaption of its day, updating Holmes and Watson from the close of the nineteenth century to the thirties and forties- a distinction lost on those for whom both are “back then”.

To someone whose primary and strongest introduction to the Holmes mythos was reading the canon, the adaptations have some… interesting… trends, and by interesting I mean often infuriating. The most notable to any fan of the original books is what nearly every one save the most recent has done- which is to stretch Watson out of shape to the point of being unrecognizable as the same character featured in the books. We originally meet Watson returning with fresh war wounds and a tendency to scream in the night from the Afghan front*, and he spends the rest of the books beating villains about the head and shoulders, shooting them, collecting clues and being a fairly active participant in the intellectual “solving the mystery” bits; functionally speaking, he’s a bright action hero (with obligatory ladykilling habits) who happens to be the sidekick because the protagonist is, in-universe, one of the most intelligent men in the world. By the time he makes it into most adaptations, his role serving a plot device in the book canon- to be the man who writes down Holmes’s exploits- has become his entire role, and his function to the story is to serve as a human exposition device by being such an idiot Holmes has to explain the significance of every clue should Watson otherwise accidentally eat it or something equally silly.

Holmes likewise suffered a great deal of whitewashing as a character in the journey from page to screen. Original flavor Holmes was smug, lazy, self-centered, eccentric to the point of being otherwise impossible to live with before Watson came along, and often frankly misanthropic; he solves cases because it entertains him and gratifies his ego less than he does because he loves justice. By the time he makes it to the screen, he has generally undergone a makeover as a noble Victorian gentleman pursuing truth and justice in a deerstalker hat and cape. (Something he never wore in the novels except in depictions by a certain illustrator but became ubiquitous symbols on the screen.) Restoring Holmes to his roots began happening earlier in popular adaptations than it did for poor Watson, as Jeremy Brett began blazing that path. Anti-heroes are apparently more in favor than sidekicks that are actually useful.

As annoying as both tendencies are, they’re both following the grooves of narrative tropes that are more popularly satisfying- and useful to filmmakers- than their original incarnations. Movie heroes are supposed to be heroic, and it wasn’t until the late eighties and early nineties that anti-heroes did become broadly popular; a cocaine-using Holmes would never have been acceptable to the Hays code era, but it was more than that that made his original characterization unpalatable to both filmmakers and audiences. He doesn’t just represent a brilliant man but a profoundly threatening version of an intellectual character- one who really doesn’t think much of his fellow man at all and does what he does for love of intellectual pursuit rather than much sympathy for others. Traditionally speaking, that’s a classic villain characterization rather than a heroic one, and I think the discomfort of that contrast underlies another, nearly universal feature of even the most recent and more faithful adaptions, which is the massively inflated role of Professor Moriarty.

In the original Holmes stories, Moriarty was a plot device more than he was a character; Doyle was completely sick of writing Holmes and wanted to move on to more “serious” literature, and so he resolved to kill off Holmes and thereby end the series. Thus Moriarty was introduced, explained away as a curiously unmentioned “arch enemy”, and went over Reichenbach falls with Holmes in what was intended to be the ending of the series: Holmes defeated by the only villain smart enough to manage it. The public outcry was so great- and the temptation of more money equally so- that Doyle brought him back as clumsily as he had written Holmes out, and that story as well as a throwaway mention in another are the only other times Moriarty appears in the canon.

Nearly every subsequent adaptation, however, especially ones meant to be a single-shot rather than a long series, feature Moriarty prominently and recurringly as Holmes’s ultimate arch-enemy, and the plot will revolve ultimately around his defeat, usually by means less anticlimactic than tossing the both of them off a waterfall. Part of this is just that culturally speaking, we love hero/villain tangos; even if Doyle had little enough use for them except as an exit door, they fit very naturally into the storytelling imaginations of audiences and writers alike. It also gives audience and writer alike another comfortable groove- the polarized comparison of hero and villain. As I said, Holmes’ fundamental original characterization is one more associated with villains than heroes; heroes are action-oriented and act out of a sense of decency or rightness, villains are cerebral and act out of self-interested indifference to mankind. Especially if you’re going to use that characterization straight without bothering to whitewash him, Moriarty provides a polarizing contrast- in shorthand, of course the threateningly intelligent misanthrope is the hero, because this is the threateningly intelligent and misanthropic villain and they are enemies.

Irene Adler gets a similar casting upgrade in many adaptations; originally, she gets a turn in one story as an antagonist and is very occasionally mentioned thereafter as the only one to have escaped Holmes by simply outwitting him, largely due to his assumption that women are stupid and harmless. However, she receives an upgrade to love interest in every adaptation she appears in that I’m aware of- despite Holmes’s original characterization as completely uninterested in sex or romance of any kind. Having a love interest is another way to humanize a hero and therefore make him more sympathetic and acceptably heroic. Part of this is the apparent discomfort of many writers with not including a romantic subplot of any kind in a movie or book series, but she is also as useful as Moriarty in underlining his hero status.

Probably the bulk of Watson’s morphing into a useless moron is a temptation to provide comic relief as strong as the temptation to provide a love story, but by the same token the bumbling but well-meaning Watson also underlines “this is the story’s hero”- villains don’t keep useless people around and aren’t kind to them, and the bumbling but well-meaning character is usually presented as innately good- innocence (partially represented by stupidity) is not devoted to villains. For that matter, an intelligent and capable Watson represents a kind of threat of its own to Holmes’s status as the primary hero- by being action-oriented and romance-oriented he is a much more traditional hero and in danger of therefore overshadowing Holmes, especially in visual mediums that favor action. Rational and science-oriented, when not a villain characteristic, is more often found in sidekicks to action-oriented, love-interest-getting heroes. Reasserting the original Holmes’s martial artistry and boxing capabilities, which is part and parcel with the more faithful characterization, is also one way to free up Holmes to be the unquestionable primary hero of the story while allowing Watson to retain his own original badass status.

As pleased as I am with more recent and much more faithful adaptations that honor characterization in what was always a deeply character-driven universe, I do have to wonder what effects the popular reception will have on future adaptations. I would not be entirely surprised five years hence to see the “edgiest” Holmes and Watson yet in which Watson shoots villains Sin City style and Holmes snorts cocaine off Watson’s prostitutes. We can only hope.

*A particularly egregious review of new BBC adaptation Sherlock includes a noting of Watson returning from the war in Afghanistan as one example of the updates made for the purposes of the series’ modernization to the 21st century… palms struck faces around the world for that one, I hope.

Bite Sized

September 20, 2010 - 4:19 pm Comments Off

The next gen consoles (dilemma solved by noting that the entertainment budget currently has plenty of stretch) have landed. We spent the majority of the weekend exploring the remarkable range of possibilities the Wii offers for a couple to compete with one another in entirely petty ways. (Damn his superior large-motor coordination, by the way.) Stingray is spending today in a heroic effort to get said time-wasting device to recognize the house wireless network so that we may waste time in more varied and sociable ways, which seems to be a process of moving the error messages obtained in a direction of constant and productive change. This process is somewhat impeded by the constant need to remove the cat from various nooks in the network closet, and I can gauge overall progress and his frustration levels by whether one, both, or neither dog is taking refuge under my desk. Having two large, heavy-coated dogs panting and radiating body heat directly next to me is not making for an overall quality of life improvement for me, either.

So, short form. Again. Getting to the doc to investigate various alternate ways of dealing with Pollen Brain Fog is on the to-do agenda for the week, so hopefully things will improve on that score soon.

I never bothered to mention the recent neandertal bombshell that the latest deep genetic investigation has revealed, which is that it turns out that modern humans and neandertals had enough inter-species hanky panky that it’s left significant changes on the human genome, largely because I keep thinking I’ll have something more interesting to say about it than “sounds about right”. What makes me giggle every time I think about it, however, is that said neandertal DNA is only present in populations that departed from Africa at the correct time- which makes aboriginal African genetic groups the only purebred sapiens populations on the planet. “Racial purity” acquires an entirely new meaning.

Again belatedly-because-I-thought-I-might-have-more-to-say, if you want a dose of thoughtful natural science that may bend your brain and your perception of “natural” a bit, go check out Steve Bodio’s piece on passenger pigeons, their natural history, and their place in the North American landscape as a creation and ongoing experiment in constant, dramatic environmental change. The short version is that the passenger pigeon as massive, environment-altering mega-flocks may have been just as much our creation as its extinction was, the long version is worth reading to find out. On my list of “things I mean to write but never even know where to begin” is a thing about our concept of “natural” and our curious and entirely erroneous vision of the concept as both a static thing and something we somehow exist entirely outside of. I can’t say it’s anywhere close to coming together but if- big if- it ever does, I may use this as a starting point.

A comment from Phlegmmy on the last post touches on another of those white-whale posts that I want to write someday but can’t yet because it doesn’t have enough internal skeleton to hang the material off of. Specifically, I want to talk about our cultural concepts of femininity and feminine ideal and how those concepts are bound up with class and status issues. I’ve written and deleted about five sentences after this and this should tell you about how far along I’ve come to being able to actually do so, but the gist of it is that a great many of our historical ideas of ultimate femininity are bound up with being the ultimate status symbol of wealth. The Chinese practice of foot-binding is the most direct example I can think of- no poor farmgirl could aspire to the ultimately feminine lotus-blossom foot, because she needed her feet to work; the entire purpose of foot-binding, or for that matter of very long fingernails, is to send the message that their bearer does not work and is above it. Men may adopt similar status symbols, but it tends not to be baked into gender identity the way it so often has been for women.

How does that at all relate to that post or Phlegmmy’s comment? A poor girl may not be able to afford clothes and makeup and hairstyling to show off the flower of her beauty, but she can be sweet and demure. Ever notice that most of the older cultural tropes we have of openly assertive or aggressive women are intrinsically lower-class ones? Think fishwife. Or, as Stingray just noted, the Wife of Bath.