Archive for June, 2013

tumblr_mlpys0GHP61r55d2io1_500I’m reading about the Civil War, or more accurately, about the politics that preceded it in the southern states.  I’ve embarked once again on William Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, two volumes that chart southern resistance to anti-slavery arguments and policies.  According to Freehling, the arguments actually began during the Constitutional convention when delegates from the Southern states, particularly South Carolina, managed to get more representation than they deserved mathematically by forcing the convention to accept the odious provision defining slaves as three-fifths of a person.

I’m also in the middle of Stephanie McCurry’s remarkable Confederate Reckoning, a study of southern arguments for secession.  Such arguments relied heavily on a notion of “the people” as both the point and the engine of secession.  McCurry convincingly demonstrates that “the people” was read in this context as “white men.”  Southern demagogues did not count on resistance to secession or war from slaves or white women because they simply didn’t think of them as citizens–perhaps not even as people.  Indeed, in the rhetoric McCurry  quotes, white women and slaves alike are depicted as possessions, ancillary to the needs and desires of “the people.”

Coincidently, thanks to Amazon’s seductive habit of recommending books related to those one orders, I stumbled on to Change They Can’t Believe In, a study of the Tea Party by Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto.  I want to write more about this book, so I’ll just say now that their main thesis is that the Tea Party is primarily a reaction to the election of Barack Obama.  In other words, the Tea Party is both an extension of the white male rhetoric studied by McCurry and an angry reaction to their perceived loss of power as symbolized by the election of a black man.

Thomas Magstadt captures this anger nicely in a recent piece in Nation of Change:   “The angry white guys who dominate the Republican Party in Congress represent all the angry white men in America who cannot accept what they’ve lost forever – namely the exclusive right to take all the best jobs, run everything, make all the decisions, and, oh yes, keep everybody who doesn’t look, act, and talk the way they do out of the good old boys club” (April 13, 2013).

While I agree with Magstadt, I have to note that AWMs are causing a lot of damage on their way out the door.  The most stunning recent example, of course, is the Dread Justice Roberts’ awful decision last week to gut the voting rights act.  Some days I wonder if the the polity can survive the AWM’s current temper tantrum–they nearly split the country in two the last time they were this pissed off.


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On Windows 8

My new laptop arrived with Windows 8.  I’ve been using Windows since version 3.1, and XP was the best iteration so far–it was fairly stable and easy to use, IMHO.  Windows 7, wisely, did not depart far from XP.

Not so W8.  As you can see from this now-famous screenshot, the new interface owes much to tablet technology:imagesYou can open any of these boxes, change their colors, move them around.  You can click on them, but you can also manipulate them by touch, even though the manufacturer of my laptop suggests that we keep our fingers off its screen.

Thankfully, there is also an interface that mimics the W7 interface, and I find myself using that most of the time.

I have two gripes about the new setup (so far).  First:  the damned boxes are all linked to corporations who are trying to make money.  For example, if you click the boxes called “music” or “video” you can get to any files you’ve stored on the computer, of course.  But if you use the W8 interface you have to navigate through an annoying series of popups inviting you to sign up for one or another vendor of sounds or movies.  And it’s really difficult to find out how to disable these.

IOW, Windows 8 is more nakedly a money-making machine than ever before.  Now we not only have ads popping up all over when we go to our favorite websites–with W8 they are right there on our machines as well.  This is an interface for people who are always already plugged in.

Second:  the concession to the simpler interfaces used by tablets and gaming consoles troubles me.  It suggests that Microsoft has a pretty low opinion of users’ ability/willingness to learn new or trickier things (which we may have earned, granted).  I suspect some to many users prefer this simpler approach, as well.  But I find it alienating, and I suspect this might be true of anyone who began using computers back in the day (the 1980s, in my case).  There is a reason why one of the first mods that was made for Skyrim altered its native UI away from its affinity with consoles, substituting a more complex graphic that allowed access to far more subtle changes to the game’s mechanics.

IOW, the trend seems to be toward more and more control by the builders and a concomitant reduction in the input available to users.  If a user knows what she is doing, she can mitigate this to an extent–at least so far.  But you don’t need to read science fiction to figure out where these developments are headed.

And yes, MAC users, I hear your laughter.

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Modding Time

I recently received good news, so I celebrated by buying a new laptop.  I chose a very fast machine that has a fairly small hard drive as gaming rigs go these days.  Larger hard drives (a terabyte or more can be had) spin more slowly and thus slow loading times for graphics-intense games.  Because the machine’s storage space is smaller than that on my desktop, I had to think awhile about what to put on it:  no photos and movies, for sure.

But of course the entire point of buying all that speed is to play games.  Because I now have pristine space in which to experiment, I’ve spent the last few days adding modifications to games I play on my PCs.  You might legitimately wonder why an elderly woman would waste time in such arcane pursuits.  One answer:  getting a mod up and running is fun–at times more fun than replaying an old game.  It’s also taxing–figuring out things like the proper load order allows dabblers like me to appreciate the work involved in programming.

But the best reason to alter a game is that modders’ work is simply gorgeous.  Take this screenshot from MSGO–short for “Morrowind Sound and Graphics Overhaul”, written by the folks at Ornicopter:


If you played the original Morrowind you may remember the rather clunky shapes that characterized flora and fauna alike.  Graphics technology has improved markedly since 2002, when the game was published, and modders have taken advantage of improved engines and bigger, faster machines to upgrade their graphics.  Note, for example, that while the foreground here is clearly rendered and beautifully detailed, the far background is also visible.

But modders don’t stop there.   You can find new companions, more beautiful faces, better hairdos and clothing, or even nudity if you’re into that sort of thing (and who isn’t?).  There are new plots for those of us who were disappointed in the original endings, and new maps to explore.  Modders have also put together utilities that enhance gameplay–such as one that switches the rather clumsy user interface in Skyrim away from its console ancestry and toward a more PC-like layout.

Older games have also profited from overhauls.  The prime example here is Fallout 2, originally published in 1998.  A modder named Killapp got hold of the original plans for the game, whose original designers were forced by the suits at their company to rush its completion.  Killap restored the missing parts of the plot, and while he was at it he updated the graphic design:


Except for its clunky on-screen interface, this version of Fallout 2 could pass for a contemporary game.

I haven’t been spending all my time with games.  I’ve also been reading some very good books, and I hope to post about those in a few days.

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even though it’s getting really hot out there!

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Scarey Encounter

Wheelchair-symbol-1390Something really scarey happened yesterday, as I drove through Tempe to keep an appointment with my chiropractor.  I turned right onto a busy street, and just as I was preparing to speed up, a man in a motorized wheelchair slowly rolled off the sidewalk and into the street right in front of my car.  He fell out of the chair as I watched.

I stopped, turned on my hazard lights, and jumped out of my car.  I ran over to the the man and helped him to stand, which he was able to do.  Then I tried to lift the chair back onto the curb, but it was too heavy for me.  Thank goddess a young man stopped in front of us, parking his big pickup kattywampus across our lane.  He helped me to get the chair onto the sidewalk.

We got the man onto the sidewalk and back into the chair and made sure it was still working.  We asked him if he wanted us to call anyone, or to call 911.  He said “no”–he only wanted to wait for the bus.  He seemed dazed or, perhaps drugged, and I was reluctant to  leave him there in the heat, although we did get him situated in the shade under the bus stop.

I hated to leave him there alone, but he plainly wanted to be rid of us.  And both our cars were causing a massive traffic jam as drivers could no longer see any reason why they were parked in the middle of a lane.  So we got in our cars and drove away.

After I had time to reflect I got scared all over again.  I only vaguely remember checking first to see whether traffic was right behind me when I stopped my car.  Luckily I had made my turn at the end of their green light, so three lanes of traffic were waiting impatiently to get going again.  I imagine the drivers at the front of the pack saw what had happened.  But I worried all the time we were in the street struggling with the chair that some asshole would rear-end my car and kill us all.

Later still, it occurred to me that maybe the man in the chair was trying to commit suicide.  That would explain the methodical roll to the street, as well as his seeming lack of affect when we talked to him afterward.  In any case, I hope he is okay–whatever that might mean for him.

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wrath-of-cumberbatchThe Deserts and I went to see Star Trek:  Into the Darkness on Saturday.   The movie offered some fun for us olds–a few laughs erupted in the crowded theater, for instance, when McCoy says “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a (fill in the blank)!”  On the whole, though, director J. J. Abrams seemed to prefer eye candy for young people to reverent homage to the Star Trek series.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I don’t keep up with the tabloid press, so I was completely surprised when the veddy Bridish actor playing the villain (who has the wonderful name of Benedict Cumberbatch), announces in a full-screen closeup that his name is KHAN.  Didn’t see that coming.

Having Khan played by a white guy brings a certain amount of menace to this plot that was absent from the original.  Khan, remember, was genetically engineered to be the perfect human.  His being played in the original series by Latino actor Ricardo Montalban suggested that those who developed these beings were indifferent to race.  To turn this character into a scion of a former empire, then, is to miss Roddenberry’s subtle jab at white supremacy.

When I contemplate such things I’m probably asking too much of Abrams and the current generation of movie fans, who seem far more interested in CGI effects than in plot.  Granted, the scene where a starship crashes into San Francisco is spectacular.  This did not excuse what seemed  to me to be elementary carelessness, however.  Would Enterprise-class ships be able to land on planets?  The huge size of these ships is the whole point of “beaming up,” after all.  And as I recall, Enterprise disintegrated when it fell through a planetary atmosphere in the third movie.  In another scene in the new film, crew members port down to a small planetoid, where they move about without protective gear of any kind (how do you breathe in space?  Not for long).

Still, the film is worth a watch, if only to see these beloved characters through yet another director’s eyes, and to see talented young actors take over the roles of McCoy, Scotty, and Chekhov.  It also gives us olds something to bitch about:  “Why, in  my day, Captain Kirk would never . . .”

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This drawing by Quickreaver represents Robb Stark and his direwolf, Grey Wind.  In the third book of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire Robb, his mother, his wife and his wolf, along with a host of retainers, are treacherously slaughtered at a wedding feast later known as “The Red Wedding.”

The episode depicting this event aired on the teevee version of Game of Thrones last Sunday evening.  Weeping and rending of garments ensued!  According to  twitter feeds, comment sections, and you-tube videos, unsuspecting fans of the show were upset, outraged, angry, distraught.  One young man rolled up into a fetal position, refusing to talk to friends and family.  A young woman covered her head with a blanket and fell to the floor weeping.

Others responded angrily to Martin and/or HBO, refusing to read the books, ever, or to watch the show further;  one fan even cancelled his subscription to the channel.  Many were especially upset by Grey Wind’s death, although another of the Stark wolves, Sansa’s Lady, was killed early on in the show, and another, Arya’s Nymeria, is missing (although us readers suspect she will play a big part in the end of the epic, if Martin ever gets around to writing that.  I remain pissed that only the Stark daughters lost their companions in the early books).

But I digressio.  One entertaining feature of watching the you-tube videos of fan reaction is to pick out viewers who had read the books prior to watching the teevee version.  You can tell who they are because they sit quietly, smiling smugly, while friends/family writhe, shout, and scream at the teevee.

I’m about to be smug too, but in a slightly different way.  Martin based his novels on British history–notably the 100 years’ war.  In wartime people are betrayed and killed–kings and king wannabes most frequently of all (some historians estimate that 25% of the nobility died violently during this period).  Throughout the books and the series, Martin and the show’s writers have faithfully depicted the slaughter and mayhem, the destruction of the environment, and the disastrous effects of continual war on poor people.  Yet none of this evoked the emotional outburst that occurred Sunday night among fans of the show.

Why?  Because in conventional teevee the good guys are not supposed to be killed, especially if they are as handsome as the actor who plays Robb Stark.


So Martin’s real sin is that he and the show’s other writers allowed reality to surface within a popular fiction:  humans can be vile, treacherous sons of bitches, and even the smartest, most handsome, best fighting hero can’t always overcome a villain.  Which tells me that the point of popular fiction is to keep reality at bay, to perpetuate myths about the way we wish the world were (wouldn’t it be nice if all kings looked like young Robb?)   To this end a set of conventions has been built up (for confirmation, see that great site about teevee memes) that cannot be violated without the risk of losing readers/fans.

Does this fact mark one difference between popular fiction and literature?

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