Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Not-So-United Kingdom?

Tomorrow Scotland votes on its independence. This will have wide-ranging consequences should it pass. Notably:
  • Scotland houses British nuclear weapons it will relocate. It, as part of the UK, is, today, a US ally. It's not clear how a break-up would change the UK's ability to aid the US.
  • Scotland would need a new currency. The Pound? It's own currency (maybe pegged to the Pound?). The Euro? No one is certain.
  • A bunch of banks have said they'll leave Scotland if it goes. This would create chaos.
And so on--on the other hand, Scottish representation in parliament, often overshadowed by more conservative UK members, would become a non-issue (they'd have their own parliament). And they'd get the North Sea oil. Maybe. Vox doesn't think the risk is worth the reward--but who knows? The Omnivore sure doesn't.

On the other hand, The Omnivore is quite taken with their actual ballot:
No, although The Omnivore is watching closely, there is no Omnivorous dog in this fight.

On the other hand ...

Does This Say Anything About US Integrity?
A lot of people (including, maybe, Rick Perry?) think Texas has the right to secede from the union. It doesn't: it can decide to break itself into 2-5 states if it chooses--but they're still part of the United States. On the other hand, consider this scenario:
  1. What if, in two months, the GOP fails to take the Senate. Unlikely, yes--but not impossible. Most stats-houses put the election on a knife edge right now.
  2. Texas is not only not turning blue any time soon, it has actually gone from leaning Republican to solid Republican in the last 40 years.
  3. Imagine that in 2016, having not gained the Senate, Dr. Ben Carson loses to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At this point the GOP has a choice: admit defeat (going the way of the Whig) or become more moderate--a lot more moderate.

Of course The Way of the Whig was, if you look into it, The Civil War (the War of Northern Aggression, eh?). In other words, if the conservative rank and file takes a long hard look at (a) not winning a presidential election in their lifetimes and (b) not taking the Senate in the most favorable mid-term of their life-times, why not have non-binding vote on Texan Independence.

Now, before we go any further, let's note that the Scotland vote also isn't binding. Even if YES wins tomorrow, things don't happen instantly: The British government has agreed to negotiate a divorce if YES wins--so why not try the same thing with Texas? Conservatives of all stripes would git on down to Texas and go for broke.

Could Texas Handle All Those Conservatives?
Probably, YES. Firstly, not every Republican and not even every conservative would move to Texas. Only some would. Secondly, Texas is huge. The most conservative (not necessarily most Republican) states are listed here (topping the list are Alabama, North Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, and Utah). If every member of those states moved to Texas (which would definitely not be the case--at best, probably 25%?) the population of Texas would go from around 26 Million to 53 Million. Big jump.

Texas is around 700k square kilometers. This would put its population density around 77 people / sq. Km--About like North Carolina today.

Okay, So, Then What Happens If They Vote?
If The Omnivore were running the show the vote would not be to secede*. It would be to break Texas up into five states as its charter allows (They would be: Bundy Ranch, Galt's Gulch, Texaco, Long Horn Steakhouse, and The Great State of Texas). This move almost necessarily provokes backlash from Washington (it would be a huge disruption) and, when Washington objects, Texas then files for "divorce" on terms of breach of contract.

The invocation of the Texas charter is necessary to give the all-important "leg to stand on" before moving to forceful obstructionism in an attempt to incite violence.

Then What?
So you think you know the answer: Civil War (part Deux). The problem is that while that's the prescription, The Omnivore isn't sure we'd actually administer it. If Rick Perry refused to forcibly [ do something ] to the rebels and, erm, activated, say, the Texas National Guard to protect them from US forces who were trying to [ do something ... collect taxes? ] we'd have a show-down / potential shooting war.

The goal of the secessionist would be to amp up the tensions to try to get the US to move first, move heavy-handedly, and stoke the smoldering embers of secession into a full-fledged separatist flame (just like at the Bundy Ranch).

If enough people were like: "Let our Texas go" ... who knows, it might work. It might not--the Federal government showed admirable restraint at the Bundy Ranch--if no one did anything the movement might peter out like #OWS. Hard to say.

On The Other Hand
On the other hand, the reason we're having this discussion is because something very similar is happening not-so-far-away from us (culturally speaking) and it bears watching closely. If NO wins, okay. If YES wins and it's a disaster, okay. If YES wins and it works?

Texas, like Scotland, has a lot of oil.

That's all The Omnivore is sayin'.

* The vote would be to succeed, of course. Who votes against success!??

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Politics Of: The Giver

The Omnivore's reviews grow more timely: With The Giver almost out of theaters, The Omnivore got a chance to see it and is here to tell you about it! The first half reviews the movie--the second assumes you have already seen it.

The Giver
The Giver is the latest in a series of Young Adult dystopian book adaptations to the silver-screen. In this case the aftermath is set in a community that has abolished war, fear, and anguish--it has also abolished difference. Everyone lives in the same model house. Instead of families we get 'family units.' Young people all grow up the same way and are assigned jobs when they hit 16 by The Elders.

The story introduces us to three friends: Jonas (fresh-faced Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (fresh-faced Odeya Rush), and Asher (fresh-faced Cameron Monaghan) who are all about to be assigned. They go through the requisite big ceremony (a staple of YA books) and it's Jonas who gets the weird assignment: he will be The Receiver.

He will receive memories of the past from Jeff Bridges ('The Giver') who is tasked with not only holding the knowledge of the past but using it to advise the community controllers (head controller: Meryl Streep). It's these memories that could destabilize everything if they were allowed unchecked. It's these memories that open Jonas' eyes ... and lead him into danger.

The Giver has a slick modern-FX look to it: it's utopian community does look like a pretty nice place to live if you can handle intense same-ness everywhere. The film does a good job of putting a happy face on the three kid's lives and then slowly unwinding it as Jonas learns more and more about what The Elders have done to keep it that way.

The movie uses the black-and-white-to-color transition as its main character becomes more alive that was done in Pleasantville and before that, The Wizard of Oz. The movie is fairly gutsy in giving us a LOT of the washed-out Giver-verse before letting color creep in. It's a fairly effective technique.

Ultimately, though, The Giver is a product of the Young Adult fiction model and while it was (and is?) much loved, it most probably owes its existence as a high-gloss movie to the runaway success of The Hunger Games and the follow-up hit Divergent. It's a good piece of YA fiction--but unlike Hunger Games, it doesn't quite rise above its genre as highly (attempts to be more modern than the original books with the addition of drones and surveillance don't do that much to modernize it, either). It also, unlike the others, isn't exactly a trilogy and has to get its story done in 97 minutes.

YA fiction can contain televised Roman-style atrocity (The Hunger Games) or slaughter families (Divergent)--there are few places it can't go (the obvious being sex and drugs--see Lev Grossman's The Magicians for some actually mature fiction that follows all the tropes of YA stories). No, YA fiction isn't defined by what it keeps out--but what has to be in it.

YA fiction is coming of age stories for people who haven't quite (or are in the process of) coming of age and wonder what that's like exactly. This is why all three movies have big amphitheater scenes before their heroes go on to their next stage of life (Divergent & The Giver: Jobs. The Hunger Games--to die ... which one is more like college?). The Giver shines here: the transition isn't quite as ominous as Divergent and the society--although aggressively bland--does give a real sense of sheltering the characters (very explicitly) which is exactly what that part of the book / growing up is supposed to feel like. The Giver-ville is a much happier seeming place than Divergent's ruined city-scape.

We also see the conflicts in romantic triangles (not so much The Giver) and fighting City Hall (totally The Giver). The battle has to be winnable: YA novels are not studies in hopelessness (unlike, say, 1984 where there was no off-switch to beat the government). In Divergent we get a central computer--The Hunger Games has district 13 ... The Giver has to come up with something and even by the end of the movie it's not exactly clear what it was.

The final YA piece is themes. YA fiction has to give its audience some heavy human-condition stuff to work with. This can come in the form of real-life tragedies but, when turned into dystopic science fiction, becomes a streamlined metaphor that is made real in the form of the book. It isn't that these sometimes strain belief a bit (real life and real history certainly strains belief more than a bit). The problem comes when the metaphor doesn't sustain the issues grappled with. Hunger Games came close to that when we are asked to believe that the Capital would watch the slaughter of 12 year olds with excitement (rather than vengeance or horror). In the end, it pulled it off.

The Giver starts to ask questions about what you'd give up for a "perfectly safe / clean / pleasant" society--but then mixes in its conceit that whatever happened, it's not just that the kids in Giver-ville grow up without learning any history but also it seems that history has kind of been "bottled" and ... even the Elders are not allowed to know it? It's not clear. It's also not clear why: Jonas is the Receiver--essentially a kind of historian who can tell the Elders if they are going to make a mistake (or will when he's trained)--but The Elders seem pretty well versed in things like the use of force when push comes to shove.

The adaptation, according to several explainers, anyway, seems fairly credible (the great joy of Narnia's first book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is that it is cinematic out of the box!). The changes seem to be things like giving Meryl Streep more to do (her matronly villainy is fun to watch) and amping up the "love triangle" (which both only barely manages the forbidden love and mostly still isn't much of a triangle).

It is certainly watchable and visually impressive. It's sometimes sleepy opening and lack of crystalline focus probably hurt it at the box-office

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of The Giver
The politics of The Giver are the politics of Utopian Unity. The idea, long standing, is that if we could just cleanly get rid of 'X,' humanity's need for conflict would go away. The good news is that we already mostly know what X is on a personal level: an excess of alcohol. On the other hand, on a geo-political level, the problems are a bit harder to solve. Key issues like resources (as in food in The Hunger Games) are at the top of the list--but expansionist pressures can come from a lot of places and trying to sort that all out is harder.

Still, when you look at conflict events it's pretty clear that very few wars are launched simply over high-tempers. Movies like Equilibrium think that chemically taking away our passion (and limiting art and emotion) will sooth the populace. The Book of Eli felt that demolishing religious texts was maybe the answer. In The Giver they've taken away all of it. Art, music, emotions, religion, race, pets, family, and even color.

Given that, it's almost believable that they'd need some control of people "in the know" to keep things on point. But then, it looks like The Elders (in the movie) are fairly aware of what they're doing--they know "releasing people" means killing them. In The Giver, it's also clear that "memory" exists as some kind of meta-physical data-base that the chosen one can tap into and utilize.

The Omnivore was deeply disappointed that The Giver didn't load up Jonas with black-belt level Kung Fu, combat driving, and assault / penetration expertise before sending him off to rescue the baby. The Giver could've used some Matrix level ass-kicking.

The question is: would this work? Does The Giver give us insightful commentary on the idea that a society that was entirely equal would be conflict-free?

For our use-case, let's compare The Giver to the mature-audiences gold-standard 1984 and see which has produced a more controlled / stable society.

Resources / Population Control
The Giver: We don't know what happened to society in The Giver--but whatever it was, the Community's strict population control speaks to resource management (else, why not just let elders die off). On the other hand, the one thing they don't have is land--they're on a gigantic mesa: maybe they have plenty of food, power, water, etc--and just can't fit more people? In any event, we know lack of resources is a major theme in conflict--both at a personal level and geo-politically. This is a good move--but relies on a complete head-game (no one minds the olds being 'released'). It's hard to achieve in reality.

1984: Orwell's nightmare world uses war as an excuse to limit resources. The putative lack of resources due to (eternal) war footage is manipulated to keep favored groups "on the brink" of hardship--to make them more compliant. We see that working in North Korea where a stream of goods is necessary to control the generals and, more generally, the somewhat less elite. This is working perfectly in real life (indeed, without even delivering an actual "war"). It requires no new-tech head-games.

Advantage: 1984

The Omnivore can't think of any war, other than, apocryphally, the Trojan one started over love. To be sure, there may have been some proximate wars started by emotions (such as the epic Guilder-Florin war)--but mostly? No. It is not at all clear to The Omnivore that emotions such as love or happiness are largely to blame for geo-poltiics. Even racial genocides, filled with hate as they are, are the result of geopolitical pressures more often than of emotions.

The Omnivore has heard that the inventor of the Public Address system felt guilt for its role in raising Adolf Hitler to power (he could address massive auditoriums rather than small groups). There may be something to that--but art and music's role in warfare is even less bright-line.

The Giver: The use of drugs to curtail strong emotions might work--but, again, it's new-tech. It's also not clear they need to. Certainly making sure everyone was on super-anti-depressants would help secure a society--but it might also make them less effective at things you'd want.

1984: They want emotions--specifically fear, rage at external enemies, and self-abasement to authority. Big Brother is the focal-point for love (like a religion). They have this figured out. North Korea is basically living this one too.

Advantage: 1984

Equality of Race & Class
It's perfectly possible to have races intermingle without there being any conflict: consider that the Irish and Italians were not considered "white" in America until relatively recently (and Jews, even more recently). In small enough numbers (so that there is no threat to resources), other races are seen as simply exotic. Consider that prejudice towards Asians is generally 'positive' (which is not saying it's a good thing).

The Community could add in race without much difficulty given everything else they are doing. On the other hand ... class in the society is more or less static. It's not clear how you become an 'Elder' (presumably live to be old and don't get 'released' due to being valuable?) but there's zero class or job mobility.

Having everyone live at equal levels, given this, is probably necessary: if you don't like your job assignment, at least you don't have to live in poverty.

The Giver: Their method of what is apparently ethnic cleansing (or maybe the disaster did that?) combined with a very, very small ruling class would probably work. It looks good because everyone is totally middle class rather than living in poverty.

1984: The Party appears to be a considerably larger body of elites or potential elites. The standard of living is both lower and more brutal than The Giver-verse. While there likely isn't much actual mobility, at least people in 1984 may think they can advance by being loyal.

Advantage: Tie

Yeah--Communism has the same issue: if you are to accept an ultimate authority in The State, there can't be a "higher authority." Religion would be more dangerous to The State than to other people--in a land of plenty, non-believers would probably still more or less get along. On the other hand, The Community left money on the table: they should've been the religion. There are probably elemental niches in our psyches that require religion and those would be suffering (then again, with anti-emotion drugs? Who knows).

The Giver: No religion at all--possibly with the help of drugs.

1984: Big Brother.

Advantage: Probably 1984. Humans seem to require religion and then will acquire religion if they can't get one. While wonder-drugs solve everything, the real-life example of North Korea's Great Leader(s) makes it clear 1984 would work.

Sex is not a first-order cause of geo-political war--but sexual pressure is. Societies with two many young-men-without-marriage prospects trend to war. Allegedly, the chance to "get some" on Jihad is a real recruiting point. Getting rid of sex will cool interpersonal relationship problems--but getting rid of sexual urges altogether probably would help on the geo-political stage as well. This is a good call.

The Giver: Drugs suppress libido.

1984: The State publishes pornography!

Advantage: 1984. Again, with wonder-drugs anything might work--but 1984 is savvy about it instead of hand-waving.

The Omnivore is aware of no geo-political conflict started over color. Indeed, with the exception of  familial clashes over room-painting, The Omnivore has never experienced a battle purely over hue. On the other hand, prisons and hospitals benefit from specific color-schemes designed to pacify people. Perhaps there's something to it?

The Giver: Making everyone color-blind doesn't make people non-racist. It might just be a side-effect of the drugs they're using? In any event, we'll assume it works.

1984: The Omnivore is aware of nothing like this.

Advantage: The Giver. It turns out their signature / most visible (!) achievement is possibly telling! 1984 didn't get rid of that.

Precise Language
While theories that our minds are strongly shaped by our language are out of favor, it's clear that controlling what you can say is pretty important in controlling what you do. Freedom of Speech is, after all, America's first right in the Bill of Rights.

The Giver: The characters are scolded for use of precise language which holds that "love" has no meaning.

1984: The government is creating a new language (which gets spelled out somewhat in the appendix!). It would make it impossible to write the Declaration of Independence!

Advantage: 1984 for scope and scale.

The Omnivore's assessment that 1984 scores higher on the dystopia insight scale doesn't mean The Giver is a bad movie or book--in fact, 1984 is never presented as a utopia ... The Giver seems, for a little while, like a place you might want to live. The questions of what is it worth for material and emotional security are as valid as "Wold taking away this stuff work?"

On the other hand the fact that the more-mature 1984 (yes, it's read in schools--but no, it wasn't written for a young audience) hits many of the same notes and doesn't rely on drugs to do it is telling. The Giver's politics of Utopian Unity are ultimately constrained by its YA implementation in a way that the more wide-open (and horrific) 1984 wasn't.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Politics Of: #GamerGate

In case you haven't heard of #GamerGate, here are two really excellent explainers. In a nutshell:

  1. The spark was lit when an ex-boyfriend of a game-designer (woman) wrote a piece on her that started allegations that the gaming news industry was corrupt (that she was sleeping with gaming journalists to get better reviews?). Also that gamer-journalist had donated to crowd-funded games they'd later reviewed (positively).
  2. The spark lit into an Internet consuming flame with people choosing sides and various game creators and reviewers being harassed out of their house or out of the industry.
  3. Ostensibly, the furor is being driven by the revelation that gaming journalism is corrupt and gamers, having woken up to that reality, really don't like modern gaming journalism.
That's the above-the-water part of #GamerGate. The part below the water looks like this: Lying Greedy Promiscuous Feminist Bullies Are Tearing The Gaming Industry Apart (headline from Brietbart). The battle demographics appear to be between white, male, young self-identified gamers and (a) female game-designers / journalists and/or (b) their allies in the (gamer) media.

In other words, it's an electronic / online gender-war.

How Do We Know?
The smoking gun is the #GamerGate dialog is the difference in critic and user-score for several games such as Gone Home and Depression Quest.
Gone Home (Meta Critic)
Depression Quest (Meta Critic) -- Received Mostly Positive Reviews from Critics (not reflected here)

On the left are the reviews by the media. On the right? Reviews by users (the 'gaming public'). These are the two games that came up in the conversation. The Omnivore had played Gone Home (before the controversy broke) and looked up Depression Quest after.
  • Gone Home is an an award-winning 2013 first-person game where the player takes the part of a young woman in 1995 returned home from a trip abroad and finds her younger sister and parents missing from the house they moved into while she was away. Taking place at night, in the middle of a severe storm, you wander the house unlocking audio-diaries of your sister to find out what happened (and piecing together the mystery of where your parents are). 
  • Depression Quest is a text-game by Zoe Quinn (the game-designer from #1 above) which is supposed to give you a view into the world of depression. It won some smaller numbers of awards and had somewhat more 'mixed' reviews--but for a game that has almost no graphics (static pictures), what seems to be a very truncated decision tree, and is, well, by its own admission, not supposed to be fun, it had quite a run.
These are both very, very non-traditional games for today's audience*. They have no combat, no traditional RPG-style puzzles, no advancement mechanics (treasure, leveling, etc.), and their subject matter is unlike anything attempted before. Gone Home explores LGBT issues. Depression Quest lets you maneuver your ambiguous main character through scenarios with a limited number of choices trying to ... well ... accomplish anything. Just get by.

So why the big schism?

Proposals For The Degree of Difference

The reasons proposed for the degree of difference are:
  • Corruption. Gone Home and Depression Quest got good reviews because they slept with or otherwise influenced the reviewers in some under-handed fashion.
  • Political Correctness. Both games have specific appeals social justice activists (or Social Justice Warriors in, erm, the parlance). The good reviews are given because the reviewers are left-wing partisans who will give any game friendly to GLBT / Mental Health issues a solid 10 even if it isn't a good / passable game. A less strident appraisal of this is that the games are "Oscar bait" (overly pretentious takes on 'serious' subject matter designed to attract attention of the 'elite'--in this case the gaming journalists).
  • An Actual Honest Difference. Maybe there is a difference between the journalists and the gaming public? Age? Number of female reviewers vs. female players? Something else?

This is the most interesting and perhaps troubling. Firstly, the fact that gaming journals have started (as a result of #GamerGate) forcing their reviewers to own up to any financial connections they have to the game (crowd-funding) indicates that, no matter what they say, there is a problem (some have gone even further and forced those writers not to review games they funded). That's fine.

On the other hand, The Omnivore used to have a gig reviewing games and let The Omnivore tell you: unless you are a very, very big outfit, just getting the games early and for free is a pretty big incentive to write a good review. Sure, if you are IGN, they don't have much of a choice--they have to send you the title--but for others? If you want to keep getting games you have to at least respect your supplier.

Secondly, while there are some serious allegations that maybe the creator of Depression Quest slept with someone there is no indication that the guys who did Gone Home slept with anyone. If corruption is universally responsible for these games getting good reviews, it doesn't seem likely that it's Quid Pro Quo.

Also NOTE: some of the negative reviews for DepressionQuest may be from 4chan raids to drive down the numbers? No one's sure.

Political Correctness
On the other hand, if the leftist media is, well, leftist, it's possible that the driver is a wish to appear correct. That's not unfeasible. There are trends in journalism--both online and offline and there are a good number of women game journalists--some of whom have been very badly treated by the gaming populace for entirely unrelated reasons. If you accept that some portion of the 'Gamer' public are misogynistic then it is not a super-leap of logic to think that game reporters (especially women who draw a pretty substantial share of ire) might be more 'politically correct' than, say, white, male, 20-somethings with lots of disposable income for $60.00 AAA title games.

... However.
The Stanley Parable
This is The Stanley Parable--a game that places you as a cog in a huge corporate machine and ... things happen. Take a look at the stats: of 47 professional-reviewer gaming houses, EVERYONE but ONE loved it. For ordinary people there is a substantial backlash.

The Stanley Parable fits the same formula as Depression Quest and Gone Home in terms of action: There are no puzzles, no violence, no (real) threat of death. It's another of these innovative games that the less you know about the better.

The key, though, is that The Stanley Parable doesn't have any Social Justice aspect. There are no GLBT characters, no mental illness issues, nothing like that. The divide isn't as -huge- as Gone Home or Depression Quest--but the trend is there: The Stanley Parable really, really delighted critics. It's hit and miss with other gamers.

So that leaves ...

A Real Difference
What could distinguish game reviewers from gamers? It might be gender--but no one I could find knows what the spread is. How about age? That's entirely possible. If your average reviewer was playing in their 20's ... in the 90's ... they're in their 40's now. That could cause a difference in perspective--sure. How about this, though: What if it's the job of reviewing things themselves?
Note how many movie critics treat formulaic stories like romantic comedies or buddy cop movies with such disdain, even though audiences love them. That's the effect of repeated exposure. Very few of us will see more than one rom-com a year, but your average movie critic will see nearly all of them. They know the tropes and gags and story beats so well they can look at one scene and tell you who is going to be in the next scene and what will happen, because they've seen this movie in various forms over a hundred times in their career.
If you are used to--and forced to play--a steady diet of games, when you see something innovative it's going to light you up as a critic. Look at Boyhood. Boyhood is a film that was shot over decades using the same cast. The young actor grew up--the parents got older. By the end, the movie was, plot-wise, kind of a mess--but there isn't anything like it.
There's nothing politically correct about Boyhood--and to be fair, a lot of people liked it--but 100% of the critics liked it. The average viewers were ... not as universally impressed.

What's Really Going On With #GamerGate
What's really going on with #GamerGate is a natural critical response (critics are more swayed by innovative games than the general public) which is amplified by tribalism (identity politics where people feel personally insulted when they perceive their group is attacked) into the current conflagration. You don't have to have a journalism industry rife with corruption for your readers not to trust you--you just have to have enough of a different perspective to have a divide of some sort and then allow people to pour their hurt feelings--whatever those are--into the gap.

This looks like an argument over journalistic ethics but it's really a battle between two sides, each who perceive the other as bullies. To the game journalist or game designer who gets dog-piled by anonymous haters it looks like massively powerful, implacable spectral forces aligned against them (as well as good old gender-based harassment). To the gamers it appears that powerful gate-keepers of the industry have set themselves up as a judgmental elite who are out of touch and driven by nonsense ideas of what a game should be.

The idea that game designers or even game journalists are 'feminist bullies' (to use the Brietbart article's term) is a non-issue: games are created by money. Critics--even hosts of Social Justice Warriors--are going to make little headway if the titles they dislike continue to sell. That's where the power is--and everyone should know it. Social Justice 'reviews' of games like Grand Theft Auto also aren't going to make headway: If they could, according to the conspiracy theorists, we'd already see it.

If you can't handle having girls online when you play or you fail to see how a big game company can fumble a public relations issue the problem isn't them--it's you. If you think you're taking back some territory by scaring a young woman anonymously you have to see that you've already got whatever it is you think you're taking--and if she wasn't anonymously harassing you, you're the one who's out of line.

The Omnivore isn't a current enough gamer to have been deeply involved with #GamingGate--but he has seen this pattern before. With tabletop pencil-and-paper role-playing games in the early 2000's there was a spat between Traditional Gamers and Indie gamers (this lives on to some extent today).

There was even the same "Is-This-A-Role-Playing-Game" pattern repeated for traditional gamers questioning the intensely focused 'indie' RPGs. For that matter, there were even 'rules' for what was considered an "Indie RPG." As with the cover-story of responsibility in journalism, the issue with tabletop RPGs had its own 'high-ground' (indie games were underdogs in the RPG-world and the designers were explorers in a new domain of games and game types).

This was nonsense. The issue--to a degree on both sides--was superiority. People felt their way of playing was better and that people who played their way were better people. This was projected into the dialog at all levels--sometimes (although rarely) explicitly. Then, as now, we see the need for inclusion and exclusion (is Gone Home a game? Is My Life With Master a role-playing game?) as the 'tell'--the 'fin above the water' which lets us know there's a darker shape buried underneath.

The Politics of #GamerGate
There actually are politics (perhaps not surprisingly). Noted actor and conservative Adam Baldwin (Firefly / Chuck / The Last Ship) weighed in on the side of the gamers. Basically, it's Gamers right, Journalists left. If you are wondering how that can square with BioShock's (anti-Ayn Rand, Anti-Tea Party) or, say Grand Theft Auto's (anti-Law and Order)'s popularity it's obvious: your media doesn't reflect who you are as much as you might wish it did.

Added Note: The observation that #GamerGate is not just American and that there are feminist components that support the '#Gamers' side came up on Twitter. That's obviously true: the 'sides' are somewhat ideologically permeable at specific cases (such as pro-feminist FYC who had a feud with Zoe and therefore came down on the side of the #Gamers--read the explainers). The pattern here is that when someone accuses you of being X-ist, the most commonly seen defense is to ally with a friendly 'X.'

In other words, Republican's dislike of being called racist aided Herman Cain in 2012. Herman Cain therefore benefited from both being black and from leftist calling Republicans racists sufficiently enough to catapult him to the #1 spot for a little while.

Secondly, while the left-right divide may or may not exactly apply outside America's borders, if you look at, profile-wise, who is on what side, it's pretty clear that outlets like Brietbart disliked feminists well before #GamerGate came along and have had bones to pick with "liberal media" for decades. The idea that outlets like HotAir share an honest common cause with gamers who want better reviews of their games is wishful thinking--if someone entirely external is allying with you, it behooves you to ask why that is.

* Let us note, though, and this is important--although foot-noted--that they are not entirely new. Gone Home has roots in the original Portal game (which The Omnivore played and enjoyed--no, not the one with cake) and Depression Quest could trace back to a lot of places like Executive Suite. The fact that most gamers, today, have never seen these--and they are 1980's vintage, doesn't mean they are unprecedented.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Minimum Rage Increase

It Doesn't Even Demand Bathroom Breaks
McDonald's Employees are protesting--striking--for a starting wage of $15.00 USD. A bunch of them were even arrested! (No riots  though--they were just on the wrong side of the street). Should they get it 15/hr? For McDonalds??

Let's take a quick look at the situation--pros and cons.

The Minimum Wage In General
The Minimum Wage, generally speaking, is set by both Federal policy (7.25/hr) and individual state law which can go higher (topping out at 9.32 in Washington State). The whole thing started in 1938 with a MW of .25 and its highest effective purchasing power was in 1968.

Who Makes The Minimum Wage?
According to statistics Minimum Wage earners are:
  • Disproportionately young: 50.6% are ages 16 to 24; 24% are teenagers (ages 16 to 19). 
  • Mostly (78%) white; fully half (or even more, depending on which source you believe) are white women. 
  • Largely part-time workers (64% of the total). 
The job-description breakdown on this is people in cash-intensive (bartenders, waiters, fast-food) low-skill businesses. The median hourly wage for these people (that's the number that separates the lower half of the population from the higher half--not necessarily the average) is around 9.00 (so the middle population person in a 'minimum wage position makes a $1.75 more than the Federal Minimum Wage).

  • The average age is 35 and over 80% of Minimum Wage workers are over 20. They are not mostly teenagers.
  • Many are full-time (it depends on which poll you believe--between 35-54%)
  • About 27% of Minimum Wage workers have kids.
  • The average Minimum Wager brings home half of her (55% are women) family's income
For a visual, just for Fast Food, it looks like this (click for the whole infographic):

Conclusions: The idea that Minimum Wage / McDonald's workers are all over-paid teenagers doesn't hold up when looking at the stats (only one MW worker in 8 comes from a high-income family). There are a good number of adults, just over a quarter with kids, who rely on that income ... instead of just living off the Government.

And when we think of those people (and those kids), let's remember: these aren't easy jobs.

What About McDonalds?

So, okay, why not either raise the Minimum Wage or just give McDonald's workers $15/hr like they want? Well, there are a few reasons to look at. Let's see ...
  1. Raising the Minimum Wage would just result in inflation that would eat up the gains, reduce employment, and won't help the poor
  2. If you give McDonald's employees $15/hr that's all they'll ever make (15.00 For Life)
  3. McDonald's / Fast Food margins are too small--they can't afford it
  4. It's unethical or at least un-capitalist to force businesses to give minimum wage workers that much
Inflation Will Eat Up The Gains, Etc.
Maybe. Economist do disagree (it can also lower corporate profits, spur innovation or at least efficiency, and all that money in people's hands drives spending). But while some studies show that a small change in the MW would have, well, a pretty small effect, 15/hr isn't a small change. Let's keep a few things in mind though when using this line of logic:
  • Earned Income Tax Credit (see 2nd anti-wage article) is considered a better means of helping the poor. If you don't favor a high minimum wage because it won't help the poor, do you favor that? If not--are you using the "won't help the poor" reasoning as a smokescreen? Also note: it will help a lot of the poor and a lot of the middle class under the median set of assumptions (see the first linked article above)--do you favor helping the middle class?
  • People who lose jobs due to MW increases will go on public assistance (or, ehh, starve in the streets?). On the other hand, 7.25/hr for a single mom is still on public assistance or starving in the streets. If she doesn't lose her job, 15/hr would likely get her off the public dole (and probably out of Obamacare subsidies). Even increasing unemployment for the low-skill classes might save the nation money.
15 For Life (It's All You'll Ever Make)
The Omnivore saw this on Twitter and questioned it--not the basic question of whether anyone would ever get a raise: You'd need a crystal ball for that--but rather: is that argument persuasive to anyone making MW at McDonald's right now? The argument put forth was that (a) employees usually get two raises in the first year and (b) McDonald's hires from within pretty regularly--so a dedicated employee at a reasonable wage could logically expect to move up. True? Maybe--but probably not persuasively. A McDonald's General Manager Salary is an average of 48k/yr (around $24/hr)

The average employee won't ever make that in their McDonald's career so they'd probably take their chances at 15/hr. Also, raises tend to be in the 10% of salary range or even less (a few cents per hour) so two a year starting from 8.00 would take 5+ years to get several years to get to 15/hr. Most people won't want to be there that long. This person (Reddit, Canada) has been there 5 years and makes only 12.00/hr. Oh, hey--this guy makes 21.00/hr ... Ermm ... he's in Denmark ... and credits unions for his high wage.

It'll Sink McDonald's: The Margins are Too Small
Heritage says the margins are too thin for a wage increase like that (and also: Fast-Food demand responds quickly to price changes--people want it cheap). On the other hand, this article thinks that 15/hr would be a 27% price increase (Or: about a buck twenty-eight per Big Mac)--but overall, the food prices are more dependent on the basic material costs than labor:
Note that McDonald's in other countries seem to do okay with more unionized requirements. 

It's WRONG! Companies Set Their Prices!
You can make all sorts of libertarian or philosophical arguments around what's right or wrong (child labor? Okay or not?). The arguments here are all from whatever your underlying axioms are. The Omnivore wouldn't presume to try to untangle this argument. Note that according to this, Henry Ford didn't pay his people enough to buy a Ford car because he was cool, he did it because he needed trained labor and needed to stop churn.

That may be so--but The Omnivore suspects that even at the training levels of McDonald's there are mutual benefits to paying employees more--a significant number of which will be mature, possibly have young kids, and provide a substantial portion of the income to their family a wage that will (likely) ensure they stay over a substantial period of time. Consider Costco, which pays extremely well finds value for their money even though their jobs are not more training-intensive than other retail worker's.

What Does The Omnivore Think?
Here are a few take-aways:
  1. Anyone who claims economic theory / examples / common sense are clear on what will happen in the event of a wage increase is partisan. We don't know what the short term or long term impacts of either giving McDonald's employees 15/hr or raising the Federal Minimum Wage to, say, $10.10 will be. We just don't--and we can be pretty sure that whatever the impacts are, they will not be equally distributed across the US (for example: more people in the South than anywhere else in America make the Minimum Wage).
  2. It is easier to be sympathetic to a single mother with kids making the Minimum Wage than a massive corporation which might make fewer billions in profits. This makes it a powerful campaign issue but doesn't help untangle who exactly is the victim here. Keep that in mind when reviewing any material. On the other hand, someone painting McDonald's workers as all or largely being rich teenagers is either uninformed--or is being misleading (or, ah, misled).
  3. If you are thinking about the "If the workers get the wage increase they'll be replaced by robots!" argument, consider that long-distance truckers are on the cusp of being replaced by self-driving vehicles whether they complain or not--and that goes for a lot of other people too. The "asking for more money" dynamic is not the primary factor in replacement of people. They could ask for no money and, eventually, a robotic ordering system will be invented that is cheaper than a person--it happened to horses. If you're thinking "Yeah--but it'll happen faster!" Maybe--but around that time the difference gets significant you're either advocating universal health care or the ever-popular "Don't get sick" medical plan.
The Omnivore thinks we are approaching a significant change in how society thinks about work. More and more jobs are going to be replaced by automation--or reduced due to supply chain efficencies. We will need to adjust our thinking accordingly and that new world has no clear road-signs to guide us there.

Please Drive Carefully.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Illuminoimia Ch 27: Death-Match

In 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It remains a seminal work of conspiracy fiction. Today, The Omnivore continues a serial-fiction experiment: Illuminoimia. 

Everything You're Afraid Of Is True.

The battle between Rex and his father ... concludes.
Previously On Illuminoimia
Ch 12: The Heart Vault  
Ch 13: Last Flight Out 
Ch 14: The World Trade Organization 
Ch 15: Postmortem Interrogation 

Chapter 27: Death-Match
New York City. Christmas Eve.

I saw the son turn to face the father and I’d never felt so far out of my depth. Between them it was like there were these invisible lines of force that linked each of their joints to each others--each movement--casual or quick--was matched by another and another in a sudden flow of immense complexity as the blond man stepped into the room looking at Rex.

They didn’t quite circle: It just seemed like it. The man--’Dad’ walked about halfway into the room with a kind of crystalline murderous intensity directed at his son and ‘Rex’ rolled out slightly, turning to face him with a sort of easy grin on his face.

Rex: “I hoped it’d be you.”
Dad: “You are damaged and disappointing and I am going to undo all you have striven for and despoil everything you have ever loved.”

Dad’s hand passed over the desk as he came by it--Hal was flattened against the wall like a man trying to avoid an onrushing subway car--and it came up with an ivory handled letter opener with a golden blade.

Rex scoffed: “Someone in here must have ceremonial weapons,” he said. “You want to do this right?” He glanced around the office structure. To Hal: “Who has something cool on their walls--like a set of samurai swords.”

Hal might have croaked something and nodded his head--I didn’t exactly see because I didn’t take my eyes off ‘Dad.’ I also faded back to the small island of leather sofas and chairs away from the main desk. I could feel my pulse. If he threw the knife at me, I would die bleeding on the floor--I was sure of it. But for some reason, taking cover seemed, in the moment, more likely to get me killed than just standing there trying to pretend I didn’t exist.

I stood there, trying to pretend I didn’t exist.

There was something else too. There was the Hierophant. Rex had guessed I didn’t remember our meeting because of whatever hypnosis mojo these guys had. He was wrong: I did remember. I remembered everything--and I knew that whatever Rex thought, ‘Dad’ was going to butcher him in a fight.

Dad thought the same thing.

“Do you really intend violence?” He asked his son. He was cruel and amused--sardonic. “You think making a game of it can save you? No. No--you really think you can win. I’m reading you now. Effortlessly.”

Rex turned his back, walking through an adjacent doorway. “Over here, yes? Something we can use?” Whatever he’d gotten from Hal he thought it should be there. I watched the older man’s fingers on the knife. Rex slid out of view. “Cavalry sabers. Perfect,” he called back.

Dad walked past us like a lethal thundercloud. I was struck with his immense presence. I looked at Hal whose eyes were huge and glassy. There were family pictures on his desk.

Hall blinked. “You should run,” he said in a hoarse, intense whisper. “And throw yourself off a balcony. There’s one past the executive kitchen. If you’re fast--” he coughed--”you could make it.”

The adjacent space was a massive conference room. There was a large oaken table in the far depths of it--but there was a big enough empty space and I could see Rex standing there, two sabers--his father, closing--and then rolling to his left as though coming to the edge of an invisible barrier--if it was Rex’s potential striking distance it was wildly huge.

Rex grinned. “Afraid, father? Don’t worry--I won’t kill you unarmed.”

He tossed one of the sabers through the air. It caught the dim light in the room and his father snatched it from its arc without looking at it.

“You are a fool,” his father said. The letter-opener knife had vanished somewhere but I had no doubt it would reappear when his father wanted it.

Rex took a theatrical practice cut with his saber, turned it and looked down the blade, frowning.

“Replica,” He said, disappointed. “Still sharp--but you should execute whoever’s doing the furnishings. They’re second rate.”

Hal stepped over next to me. He was older … and looked older than that, still--as though whatever he’d see had weathered him.

“He’s trying to provoke him,” Hal said, quietly, perhaps numb--but maybe awe-struck. “He’s trying to provoke his father.”

I guessed that was true--maybe for these guys it would work. I figured if I tried to provoke someone into hitting me I’d just likely get hit first.

“You know why you’re going to lose father?” Rex said. He raised the blade in a sort of salute. His father’s blade … came up as well. They were going to do it.

His father didn’t reply.

Rex looked at me. “You know why we play the Goldberg Variations in our temples?”

I didn’t like him drawing attention to me during this … event. I shook my head as little as possible. No.

“They say,” he said, “it’s because symbolically they were written to help with insomnia--to pass the long dark hours of wakefulness in the night--to symbolize that we are awake while humanity--the rest of you--are asleep in your ignorant little cocoons.

“But that’s not why. The reason is the same reason we don’t have Springsteen play at every major event we hold--or why we didn’t attend the concerts by Mozart or whoever when they were alive. It’s because we hate talent. It’s the one thing we can’t fake--not really. We can acquire skill.”

He lowered the blade and started to circle for real.

Dad did too--silent, mouth set in a sneer. I’d read the diary--this was going to go fast and I had a terrible feeling it was going to go the wrong way.

“But they can’t get heart,” he said. “We can’t make art because we’re dead inside--most of us, anyway. So we hate it. We steal it--we use it--we mock it--but we hate it because it’s the one thing we know we’re never going to have. We’re hugely skilled. Awesomely trained.”

His blade gleamed as tip wavered.

“Entirely predictable--”

Djau ǂwa ǃʰã--AMANDA LOVED YOU!” I shouted. I shouted it explosively from the bottom of my lungs. I used the ‘command’ voice I’d read about in theater class. The Hierophant--or whatever he was called--had told me about that. The first part was a code--something early--guttural phonemes from man’s first language in southern Africa. It was like a header or something. The Hierophant had spoken it once with me watching his gleaming ring. I’d memorized it.

The second--the second part was from Rex when he lay foaming at the mouth on the floor of the Cathedral. “It’s viral,” he’d said. The crack in their dead dead hearts--the fissure in their ordered minds: The broken part from their harrowing that let their souls pour out. It was the blind-spot they didn’t dare look it. It was a last remaining sliver of guilt which they’d buried within them so they would never feel it again. Unless you brought it up.

Then they would. Killing your soul-mate makes you a monster--and it leaves you broken and dead on the inside. I’d just applied an electric shock--like from a defibrillator. He was too far gone to save--but he felt it.

Dad reeled for a moment--just as he was impaling Rex with his blade. That was enough for Rex’s strike to land.

Rex’s strike caught his father across the side of his head, opened his face up and collapsed him to the floor.

“OH FUCK, THAT HURTS,” Rex coughed. He slumped, a wet gasp. Blood spreading wildly across his shirt. He looked at me, a hand over the gushing red hole--and then he fell too.

Dad lay there--on his back, eyes closed. I saw him breathe.

I stared. Hal looked at me.

“What did you say!?”

“I met a guy who said he owed me one--for something I did kinda accidentally in Atlanta,” I told him. “He said that I already knew where to hurt these guys for a millisecond--which’d be all I’d need.”

“You knew this was going to happen?” He looked incredulous.

“He thought I was going to need it when Rex tried to kill me … or something.” I paused. “He wasn’t real clear.”

Dad … coughed. Rex lay still.

I looked at the man on the floor. Fuck.

“Hal do you have … a gun?” I didn’t want to get anywhere near the blades or the bodies. I’d seen enough horror movies.

It turned out that company executives were required as part of their insurance policy to have access to a firearm. He fumbled with the safe behind his desk.

When Hal handed me the gun he looked like the life had gone out of him--brittle--like he didn’t have the strength to lift the weapon and was only standing out of habit alone.

It was a huge classic-looking forty-five. It had a magazine in it. I lifted it, aimed down at the figure of the man with the lacerated face. When I pulled the trigger, on the wide-screen TVs in the front room, the Christmas party story abruptly changed: Someone blew up Washington D.C.