Internet

Suspiciously like a carrot on a stick

My four year old Nook has made it very clear that it’s time to get a new ereader.  I don’t want a Kindle so long as it refuses to support the .epub format, so I took to the Internet to figure out what the best e-ink ereader is, and I discovered that there’s an overwhelming consensus right now that it’s the Kobo Aura One.

And not only do all the reviewers love the Aura One, but it also works really well for me: I’ve been getting my ebooks from Kobo for a while, and also, since Kobo and Overdrive are owned by the same parent company, the Aura One comes with Overdrive integration, so you can borrow library books right from the device.

Sweet! I already know exactly what I want for Christmas.

So on 10 October I went to Kobo’s website to see how much it would cost meLisa and the kids, who are totally the ones who will be buying my Christmas present.  Out of Stock, the site told me.  Will be in stock on 14 October.

Fair enough.  Waited till 14 October, went back to the site, still got the same message.  So I waited till the next day and went back again.  Out of Stock.  Will be in stock on 19 October.

Hmmm.

19 October, same message.  Can you guess what it said by 20 October?

Out of Stock.  Will be in stock on 1 November.

I googled to see what the situation is, but I couldn’t find any mention of there being an Aura One shortage in the USA.  There was a shortage in Canada in September, but judging by Best Buy Canada, that’s been solidly resolved.  (Best Buy USA doesn’t stock the Aura One; in fact, it doesn’t seem that any US retailers do.  Best Buy Canada won’t ship to the US.  Chapters apparently will ship to the US, with the caveat that I’m responsible for “any duties or taxes”.  I don’t think there should be any duties, since we’re both part of NAFTA, but taxes might be a different deal.)

So, guys, I have a question.  Do we know for certain that the Aura One is in fact a thing? For realsies?  Has anyone seen one?

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Books, but written in English

One thing I always make sure to do on a trip to Britain is to get to at least a couple of bookshops to browse through the history sections.  Nowadays I don’t usually buy what I find, but rather make a note of the title on the assumption that anything published today in print is also going to be published in e-dition.

(Because it’s a really crap thing to go into a place of business and browse their wares with the intention not of actually paying them any money, but instead ordering whatever you find from the internet, I try to make sure to buy at least the same number of titles as I write down for later.  So, for instance, in addition to whatever my mother bought for herself, I did buy in the shop a bunch of stuff to take back as souvenirs.  For Boy, Horrid Henry’s Biggest and Best Ever Joke Book, a book of Darth Vader & Son family postcards, and a grow-your-own-crystals science kit; for Girl, a London sticker book, Disney Fairies activity set and book of Peppa Pig stories; and for Lisa a novel I actually think I’m going to end up reading myself, about a woman from a village in Somerset who has to go to the East End in search of her best friend’s daughter, who’s been kidnapped on Coronation Day, 1953.  Anyway.)

There were two books that I did in fact buy right there in the shop.  I can’t remember exactly why it was that I picked out these two ahead of the others:

book coversThey Fought Alone: The True Story of SOE’s Agents in Wartime France is a reprint of the memoir of Maurice Buckmaster, head of the Special Operations Executive’s French Section.  SOE was the British organisation that conducted espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe during the Second World War, and provided aid and supplies to local resistance movements.  Buckmaster actually played himself (and did a decent job of it) in the film Odette, about the capture and torture of SOE agents Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill by the Gestapo.

Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill seems destined to be the latest addition to my Spanish Civil War kick.  It’s a history of the wartime experiences of three couples (Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar) who all passed through this Madrid hotel, which was home to so many journalists during the siege of the Spanish capital.

I won’t list all the other titles I made note of (there were about a dozen) but the ones I’m most interested in are:

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines by Clare Mulley, a biography of Christine Granville, the daughter of a Polish Catholic nobleman and Jewish heiress, who served as an SOE agent in occupied Poland and France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, only to be stabbed to death after the war by a colleague who had rejected her advances.

Titled Americans: The Real Heiresses’ Guide to Marrying an Aristocrat is a reprint of an actual 1890 guide for American young women who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Nancy Astor by marrying a member of the British peerage and becoming a real-life Countess of Grantham.

Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America by Kathleen Burk should, I think, be pretty self-explanatory as to why I’m interested in it.

The Scandalous Lady W by Hallie Rubenhold has, I discovered when I googled it, been turned into a BBC programme starring Natalie Dormer in the title role.  This made me pretty pleased, since I’ve got a bit of a thing for Natalie Dormer, but on further googling, I couldn’t seem to find any trace of the book, even though I’d seen it right there on the shelf at the WH Smith in Borehamwood.  Turns out that’s because the book’s original title, prior to the TV adaptation, was Lady Worsley’s Whim.  Excellent, progress; at least, till it turned out that Lady Worsley’s Whim has no e-dition in the US, and the cheapest price I could find for a print copy on (US) Amazon or Barnes and Noble was $180.  Finally, I discovered that the book’s title in US publication is The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, and it is, in fact, much more affordably priced (eight bucks for Kindle or in .epub).  So!  Looking forward to the book, and also to the TV show.

Last month I was complaining about having too much to read.  I come back from six days in Britain with a reading list that’s almost doubled in length. I’m awesome at managing my expectations.  Good thing school starts tomorrow.

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Dependence

I got off the plane at Heathrow last Tuesday morning and discovered that my iPhone utterly refused to receive any cell data signal in Britain.

I’m expecting this to be pretty beneficial to my cell phone bill—the last time I was home, for five days in 2011, my Android and I racked up a hundred forty bucks in data roaming charges—but it did mean that during my trip, I was completely cut off from the Internet or iMessage except when I could connect to wifi.

This was mostly fine.  Mostly.

Our hotel was in Borehamwood, just up the street from the Elstree & Borehamwood train station, so on Wednesday my mother and I decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery.  As we left the hotel room, my mum said, “And you know where we need to get off the train?” and I casually said, “Yeah.”

Reader, that was a lie.  What I had was a superficial knowledge of London geography (I can group a list of Central London landmarks into general categories like “this is in Westminster”, “this is in the West End”, “this is in the City”), and a reflexive assumption that, if I get lost, I can check for info on my smartphone.

Except that day I couldn’t.

We got on the train, and I checked the on-board map to figure out where we should get off.  What we should have done was get off at St. Pancras, so as to take the Tube from King’s Cross to Charing Cross, or else get off at Blackfriars to take the Tube to Embankment.  But I knew that the closest two stops we’d get to Trafalgar Square would be City and Blackfriars, so I had us get off at City because the picture of London I had in my head was one in which the City is close enough to Trafalgar Square for us to walk it.

(It’s close enough that I could have walked it, on my own, if I had the familiarity with the geography to know where I was going.  Figuring it out along the way and with my mum in tow, nope.)

So the upshot was that we emerged from the train station into Holborn Viaduct with no blessed idea how to get to the National Portrait Gallery, beyond perhaps, “figure out which direction is west”.

It wasn’t even that harrowing, in the end.  I managed to figure out which of the many bus routes that passed us would head to Trafalgar Square.  (The trickiest part of that was making sure we got on a bus headed in the right direction.)  After visiting the NPG, we decided to head to Bond Street to visit the shop that sells my sister’s jewelry, for which we got directions from the nice lady at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s.  (The trickiest part of that was that she told us to follow Cockspur Street and Pall Mall to Regent Street, but it turns out that Regent Street isn’t actually “Regent Street” at its intersection with Pall Mall; it is in fact “Waterloo Place”.)  Then after we got to the end of Bond Street, we turned into Oxford Street for some shopping, before taking the Tube back to King’s Cross and the train home.

But I felt a real disconnect, especially for that first quarter hour after we left City train station and had to figure out which end of the station we’d left from and which bus to take.  When Lisa and I spent a couple of days in Paris in 2009, for the first three or four hours or so, I was really disconcerted by the fact that I was somewhere where the conversations and signage that surrounded me was completely unintelligible to me.  I had a somewhat terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness.  Briefly in London last week, I got something of the same experience, just from not being able to pull up the internet on my phone.

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He became more powerful than you could possibly imagine

I learn from Facebook comments that the “commonly accepted story” is that (SPOILERS AHEAD for A New Hope) Sir Alec Guinness persuaded George Lucas to kill off the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi so that he could avoid appearing in any Star Wars sequels. (Which, obviously, worked out real well for him.)

This is news to me.  If it’s commonly accepted, it must have only gained such acceptance relatively recently. (Granted, in my case, relative recency would be any time within the last fifteen or twenty years.)  When I was coming up through fandom in the 1990s, very much the commonly accepted story was that Lucas decided to kill off Ben Kenobi upon realising that there was nothing for him to do in the second half of the film other than hang around in the background being ineffective (something Princess Leia already had nailed down quite nicely), and that Guinness was in fact furious at the change.  Here he was, already leery at appearing in this latter-day Flash Gordon-esque, cheap sci fi potboiler, and only having agreed to do so because he had been so impressed by the enthusiastic young writer-director’s insistence that a dignified portrayal of the Kenobi character would imbue the film with a psychological believability—but now he was being told he would spend the second half of the picture as a disembodied voice.

Now, I’m not here arguing that my story is right and the new story is wrong, though personally, until I see a citation for the new version, I’ll be sticking with mine, because I first came across it in Skywalking, the 1983 George Lucas biography.  (In fact, the original account appears to be included in Google Books’s preview of Skywalking.)

No, rather, I’m just fascinated by how the story flipped completely around—from Lucas killing Obi-Wan off over Guinness’s objection to Guinness strong-arming Lucas doing it—yet both, entirely contradictory stories are to illustrate the same conclusion: that staid old Sir Alec Guinness was dismissive of science fiction and came to regret slumming it in Star Wars.

There’s something important (or at least mildly interesting) there, I think, about oral transmission and the myths we build about our past.

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Red Dead Redemption and women

That’s an episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, the spinoff of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women web series, dealing with the phenomenon of the generic female sex worker NPCs who are so ubiquitous in the background of open-world video games.  It’s thirty minutes, which is a huge time commitment on the Internet, but if you like these sorts of games, it’s well worth it.

Let me start off by making it clear: I love open-world games. I love Grand Theft Auto.  I love Assassin’s Creed.  I love Red Dead Redemption.  I love Sleeping Dogs.  I’m one of the few GTA fans who was around for the original Grand Theft Auto game in the 90s, and I own every GTA game released for console from GTA3 onward.  I own every Assassin’s Creed game released for console.  I replay Red Dead Redemption in the same way that people regularly reread their favourite book.  In fact I’m in the middle of an RDR replay right now, which I started after I finished replaying GTA5 last week; I started GTA5 right after I’d finished replaying Sleeping Dogs.  The games in this video can be divided, fairly evenly, into games I own and love, and games I haven’t played.

(The exception is Just Cause II, which I own and have played but abandoned about halfway through because I just didn’t enjoy it.  It was too much of a shooter and not enough of an action-adventure game for me.)

And yet I can still acknowledge that every criticism Sarkeesian makes in the video—of the games I’ve played specifically and of the culture of M-rated open-world games in general—is valid and deplorable.

I came across the video in Kotaku’s short article linking to it, and then I skimmed through the first few dozen comments.  The level of discourse was a lot higher than I’ve seen in other online posts confronting misogyny in video games, and there were plenty of commenters who recognised the truth of what Sarkeesian is saying.  But of course, there were also plenty who tried to refute her argument, either by being the guy who thinks he’s “living proof that any supposed correlation between ‘long-term exposure to hypersexualized images’ and ‘higher tolerance of sexual harassment of women’ is complete bullshit” because he watches “loads of porn.  I mean, crazy amounts”, but doesn’t think of himself as a misogynist; or by dismissing Sarkeesian’s legitimacy as a critic of video games (apparently because she funded Tropes vs. Women in Video Games through Kickstarter?  I couldn’t really follow the logic.); or by attempting to argue that the misogyny in these games is actually A-OK.

I’m going to assume that it’s pretty self evident what the problems are with the first two of those—the dude with too much porn and too little self-awareness, and the guys who would find a way to dismiss anyone who criticised the boobs in their video games—and instead address the last, the guys who acknowledge the misogyny on display here but who have arguments to legitimise it.  I’m mostly going to concentrate on Red Dead Redemption, for three reasons:

(1) It’s the game I’m seeing these commenters cite most often with their arguments;

(2) It’s one of my favourite games of all time; definitely my favourite console game;

(3) It actually is really progressive as far as these things go.  It has multiple strong female characters, one for every act of the game.  Apart from the single instance of the Dastardly trophy (discussed in the video), the player’s interactions with the prostituted women are always either polite or heroic, and the player is not allowed to avail himself of their services.  And again apart from the Dastardly trophy, every instance of violence against women in the game is depicted as making its perpetrator a horrible human being.  I ask myself with every narrative game I play, “Just how bad is the misogyny here?”, because I want to know if this is a game that I can discuss with or recommend to the women with whom I discuss games, and with Red Dead Redemption I come closer to saying, “Not that bad at all,” than I do with pretty much any other open-world game besides Assassin’s Creed: Liberation.  But it’s the very fact that Red Dead is actually one of the least offensively misogynistic games of its genre but is still such low-hanging fruit for a feminist critique that shows just how pervasive a problem this is.

(And yes, I do have to consciously ask myself about the misogyny, because I’m a straight male, and I’m aware that just being a straight male gives me the male privilege of ignoring that misogyny if I don’t make the effort to look for it.  Having male privilege doesn’t make us, as men, bad people; it just makes us men.  It’s only if we use that male privilege to pretend our blindness to misogyny means that the misogyny isn’t there that we make ourselves bad people.)

(Also, it should come at no surprise at this point when I warn that there will probably be spoilers for Red Dead Redemption ahead.)

The counterarguments seem to fall into two general categories: relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s just realism or historical accuracy; or relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s counterbalanced by the presence of three well-developed female characters.

The first argument is easy to refute: it’s just flat out not true.  Even if the situation were simply that Red Dead Redemption depicts women as passive and irrelevant while it’s the men who actively drive events (which of isn’t what’s being criticised, but the commenter would like to pretend that it is), it still wouldn’t be accurate.  You only assume it’s accurate precisely because you’ve been exposed to so much media that pretends it is.  Women have always been active in our public life; women have always been present in fields we think of as traditionally belonging to men.  Anyone who tells you that all the women characters being relegated to passive, supporting roles and kept away from the real action is legitimate storytelling because history isn’t qualified to tell you anything about history.

And besides, that’s not even how Red Dead Redemption presents its world.  It’s not that women don’t get much say in the course of events; it’s that most of the women who appear onscreen are sex workers. I mean, the game allows the character to roam across the American southwest and the Mexican northwest, and about half the women he sees are prostitutes.  Prostitutes who only ever appear in public wearing nothing more than their underwear.  Are you really going to argue that that’s valid in the name of accuracy?  The town of Armadillo is, in the game, the only urban settlement in the state of New Austin.  Its population apparently consists of one general storekeep, one gunsmith, one doctor, one telegrapher, one marshal and two deputies, a staff of three or four at the train station, that weird dude who runs the cinema, a dozen or so pedestrians, a dozen or so customers at the saloon (as well as the saloon keeper and the piano player), and two or three dozen prostituted women.  Does that really seem like an accurate portrayal of a frontier town’s economy to you?  Even accounting for the ranchers in the surrounding counties, there must be one prostituted woman for every two men west of Hennigan’s Stead.  This is no more “accurate” than is GTA5’s depiction of strippers as a demographic who really really want you to grope and fondle them in the champagne room, if only it wasn’t for that mean bouncer putting a stop to their fun, and who will happily take you home with them if you can manage to fondle them enough without the bouncer seeing.

As for the idea that the presence of a strong female character balances out the purely male-gaze prostituted women who are so visible in Red Dead Redemption and, indeed, in so many other open-world games.  Red Dead does indeed have three really solid female characters with a lot of depth to them, and that’s (sadly) a lot for a game like this.  In fact, let’s take a look at all the main characters in Red Dead Redemption to see just how overrepresented women are.  I’ll even highlight them so it’s easier to see their prevalence in the game world:

(I’m defining a “major character” here as someone who either (1) is John Marston, (2) gives Marston a main-storyline mission, (3) is one of the major villains Marston has to hunt down in the climactic missions of each act of the game, or (4) doesn’t give Marston a mission per se, but who is a frequent companion of a mission-giver and accompanies or leads Marston on multiple missions, like Nastas the Indian or Captain Espinoza.)

CHARACTERS IN RED DEAD REDEMPTION

John Marston, male

Characters in the New Austin act

Bill Williamson, male (Williamson also appears in one mission in the Mexico act.)

Bonnie McFarlane, female (Bonnie also appears in two missions in the final act.)

Marshal Johnson, male

Jonah, male

Eli, male

Nigel West-Dickens, male (West-Dickens also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Drew McFarlane, male (Drew also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Seth, male

Irish, male

Characters in the Mexico act

Landon Ricketts, male

Captain de Santa, male

Colonel Allende, male

Luisa, female

Captain Espinoza, male

Abraham Reyes, male

Javier Escuella, male

Characters in the final act

Edgar Ross, male (Agent Ross also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Agent Fordham, male (Agent Fordham also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Dutch van der Linde, male

Professor MacDougal, male

Nastas, male

Abigail Marston, female

Jack Marston, male

Uncle, male

I mean, yeah, right?  It’s ridiculous how overrepresented women are in Red Dead Redemption.  It’s clear as day in that list.  Twelve per cent of the characters in the game who speak, have personalities, interact with the player and move the game forward are women.  That’s a ridiculously high proportion for a game with pretensions to “historical accuracy”.

(Seriously who can immerse themselves in a huge, deep game world like Red Dead Redemption but where only three out of twenty-five actual active human beings are female, and somehow come away with the idea that they’ve been playing a “historically accurate” rendition of how Western society works?  I guess the same guy who can play a game in which you can lasso and hogtie a prostituted woman, then place her on the train tracks, and she continues to sassily flirt with you while you both wait for the train to come run her over, and still describe the game he’s been playing as “historically accurate”.)

Like I said, Red Dead Redemption does have more—and more fully developed—major female characters than its peers such as most of the Grand Theft Auto games and most of the Assassin’s Creed games and Sleeping Dogs.  But that just highlights how low the standard is; it doesn’t make Red Dead some sort of bastion of egalitarian storytelling for giving John Marston literally one woman per act to interact with.  Pointing to Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail as if they somehow insulate the game from being called out on the objectification of the sex worker NPCs does much more to confirm accusations of misogyny in video gaming than it does to refute it.

But let’s say that three strong female characters really was impressive.  Let’s say Red Dead Redemption really did have a historically accurate, representative gender balance in its main narrative and cast of characters.  That still doesn’t change that the bordellos in towns throughout the game are creepy, male-gazey bits of window dressing that encourage the players to treat these women as being there just for their own entertainment.  Quite simply, the presence of the one element doesn’t erase the presence of the other.

(This works just as well in the opposite direction.  A lot of the commenters seem to take Sarkeesian’s criticism of Red Dead Redemption’s sex worker NPCs as her somehow saying that the presence of Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail doesn’t count.  Sarkeesian doesn’t ignore the major female characters or pretend they don’t exist; they simply aren’t relevant to a discussion of Red Dead being yet another instance of games that use sexualised images of women as objectified window dressing for the presumed straight male player.)

I started out by saying that I love open-world games in general, and I love Red Dead Redemption in particular.  I’m reiterating that now.  It’s important always to remember that finding some elements of a piece of media problematic doesn’t mean that other elements of it can’t be very satisfying and rewarding; it’s also important to remember that it is okay to like even the problematic elements.  But that doesn’t mean the problematic elements aren’t problematic, and it doesn’t mean we can wave away or dismiss the very real issues they raise.

Read Dead Redemption would be just as compelling and immersive a game without its three towns full of women walking around wearing only corsets, bloomers and stockings.  The gameplay experience would be just as satisfying. And yet someone still seems to think they need to be there.  And not just in Red Dead, but over and over again, in GTA, in Assassin’s Creed, you name it.  Why?

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As it happened!, except more concisely

One of my favourite Twitter feeds that I follow is @RealTimeWWII, a six-year project to do a real-time retweet of the Second World War, broadcasting every event exactly 62 years after it happened. I started following late last year, after the fall of Poland and right before the Soviet Union invaded Finland; this morning, I woke to find the Germans had occupied Paris.

I also really like @JQAdams_MHS, which reproduces John Quincy Adams’s daily diary entries on the two hundredth anniversary of when each entry was written. John Q is currently the American ambassador to St Petersburg, and word should be reaching the Russian capital any day now of Napoleon’s invasion.

And I followed a live-tweet of the hundredth anniversary of voyage of the Titanic, though I picked the wrong one–the one I followed wasn’t terribly good, and I found a couple of much better ones after everyone had wrapped everything up.

As is my bent, I found myself wanting to do my own real-time historical Twitter stream, and tried to think of a good topic. Fairly naturally, considering that the best one I’ve seen so far is a Second World War stream, my first thought was the First World War. But that’s not really feasible for a couple of different reasons–first, with its hundredth anniversary approaching, there’ll be a whole lot of people doing the same thing, better than I could; and second, the First World War is too well-chronicled and too intense an event for me to give it the treatment it would demand. It’ll need two or three dozen tweets a day.

So I looked for an event in the more distant past, something that proceeded at less of a frenetic pace. A friend suggested the (Anglo-American) War of 1812. This was attractive, because there are several parts of the way the War of 1812 is commonly taught and thought of that I really disagree with. But one of those ways is the insistence in American historiography of teaching it like it’s an independent war, rather than a minor theatre of the Napoleonic Wars, so I decided I couldn’t spend two years presenting a picture of only the war in the North America and feel like I was presenting a picture that in any way resembled the context that its participants were actually living in.

So then my next thought was to do the Napoleonic Wars as a whole. And then it occurred to me that that would mean the French Revolutionary Wars as well, since the break between the two is pretty arbitrary. And then it occurred to me that I’d be blogging, in real time, a series of events that lasted for twenty-six years from 1789 to 1815.

And really, I have to admit in the end that I’m probably just not suited for this sort of thing. I simply don’t have the attention span to give it the care and effort it needs continuously for months or years on end. But I still like reading them when they’re well done, and I still daydream about doing them.

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SOPA, PIPA and sopapillas

ETA: Within about two minutes of posting this, I watched an excellent summary of the current state of SOPA and PIPA pop up in my e-reader from Making Light.  A wonderful highlight of some of the bills’ most egregious freedom of speech implications.

Yesterday, 18 January, was SOPA Blackout Day, when websites all across the Internet ideally went dark (like Wikipedia), or else put up educational messages (like Google), to raise awareness about the real threat to freedom of expression, and freedom in general, posed by SOPA and PIPA.

And it seems it worked.  On the tide of a groundswell of phone calls and emails, U.S. senators and members of Congress backed off SOPA and PIPA in large numbers.  Many, including even several of the bills’ co-sponsors, explicitly turned against it, for which they’re to be commended.  Others refused to formally renounce it, instead choosing to state that they have reservations about the bills in their current form, and are going to want to work on them some more to improve them; they probably aren’t to be trusted on this issue and should have an eye kept on them until the matter comes to a vote.

What really caught my eye about the congressional renunciation of SOPA and PIPA, though, and what troubles me about it, was that it was a wholly Republican-led phenomenon.  It was predominantly Republicans who condemned the bills, Republican co-sponsors who loudly took their names off them; it was predominantly Democrats who tried to sound like they were distancing themselves from them while retaining the freedom of action to vote for them once public scrutiny has faded.

Call me socialist.  Call me progressive.  Call me liberal.  I embrace all three labels.  I’m a socialist because I believe that it is through society that we can best foster the flowering of the individual.  I’m a progressive because I believe in progress, in a future that’s better than our present.  I’m a liberal because I believe in freedom and opportunity for everyone, and not just for the privileged.

What I’ve found is that very often–perhaps even always, though I shy away from absolute statements–those three different things boil down to one core issue: when the powerful wage war upon the weak, I side with the weak.

This is why I overwhelmingly find myself aligned more closely with Democrats than Republicans in American politics.  It’s not that Democrats can be relied upon to side with the weak when the strong come after them, because they can’t.  There’s always a sizable faction of Dems aligning with the overwhelming majority of the Republican Party on the side of the strong.  But what voices there are consistently rising in support of the weak are Democratic voices.

We’ve seen it time and again over the past ten years.  The movement to roll back our civil liberties and stifle our freedom of action through things like the USA PATRIOT Act.  Efforts to decide whether marriage to the person you love is a right enjoyed by all Americans, or a privilege restricted only to the heterosexual portion of the population.  The debate over how the burden of adequately funding (or inadequately funding) our government should be distributed over the economic spectrum of our society.  Efforts to strip workers of the protections that trade unions provide them.  The fight to ensure that no one in America should have to choose between bankruptcy and illness.  Consistently, in all those national conversations, I’ve watched the Republican Party and a sizable faction of the Democratic Party on the side of the strong, while on the side of the weak are the other faction of the Democrats, either alone or buttressed by a small, fringe minority of Republicans calling themselves libertarians.

SOPA and PIPA are unambiguously attacks on the weak by the strong.  Everything in them stacks the deck against those without resources and in favour of those with them, from the way they punish someone simply for having an accusation made against them, to the provisions designed to ensure that, when the accusers actually are found to have deployed the laws unjustly and abusively, they’re immune from suffering any penalty–like the penalty they will already have visited upon their target.

And today, it’s the Republicans who stand with the weak, and the Democrats standing with the strong.

I’m a copyright holder.  I’m in exactly the demographic PIPA and SOPA claim to be protecting.  Copyright and copyright protection are important to me, both in terms of my own copyright and livelihood, and in terms of copyright as an intellectual principle.  And online piracy is a grave threat to copyright and needs to be combatted.  But PIPA and SOPA are not acceptable ways of doing that.  They would, in fact, greatly limit my ability to exploit my copyright, by restricting and penalising the free flow of discussion and ideas.

FiveThirtyEight presented an obvious reason why the congressional parties should align the way they seem to have here: ninety per cent of political contributions from Hollywood go to the Democratic Party.  Which raises another salient point about yesterday’s win over SOPA and PIPA:

It’s only temporary.

Truckloads of money will continue to trundle across the country from California to the District of Columbia.  And every provision in those bills will be back.  It might be under the same name; it might not.  Certainly, there’ll be more circumspection about how it’s reintroduced.  But if we’re not prepared to act, again, against it, then it will come to pass.

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Monsters specifically for the hospitaal

A photograph taken by Stephen Fry:

Hospital sign

Worth a momentary chuckle. But what really made me find this hilarious and decide to repost it here was the exit sign at the top of the picture, telling us to run in the opposite direction from the monsters.

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DVD

As I remind my readers every month, I’m in the process of assembling my music library for my iPod. I keep a list of all the songs I’ve yet to own, and every month I spend a certain amount of money getting songs from that list.

I used to do the same thing with DVDs. I have a list of all the TV shows and movies I want to have at my fingertips whenever I want to watch them, and every month I would buy two or three of them. But then I stopped.

I believe strongly that an artist has the right to be paid for the enjoyment of their art. “I want it but I don’t want to spend the money that costs” is not a sufficient justification to me for stealing that art.

But I’m only willing to pay a fair price, and it occurred to me that DVDs simple aren’t priced fairly. In ten years, they’re going to be as obsolete as CDs. It’s going to be as universal to download our movies as it is to download our music. (It’s pretty commonplace now.) So I’m no longer willing to pay $20 for a physical copy of a movie that should only cost me $10 to get online.

This doesn’t mean I download my movies now, either legally or illegally. One of the things about coming to a decision not to buy DVDs anymore was that it forced me to consider whether or not buying movies at all was worth the expense, and I decided that I really don’t watch any given movie enough to justify how much it costs to download it. And the thing about downloads is, if I decide there really is a movie I want to watch right now, I can just go get it instantly, rather than driving to the shop (and potentially having to wait six hours for it to open, since I’ve decided I want to watch the movie at 2AM).

The one exception is Doctor Who. I’ve started buying Doctor Who DVDs again, right now at the rate of three a month. This came from a trip to Barnes & Noble, where I came across all the Who DVDs that had been released since I stopped buying DVDs two years ago. Thumbing through them brought back to me how much fun it had been to watch all that Classic Who for the first time in fifteen years. And besides, The Boy and I have such fun watching the new purchases early in every month.

I

Now- and then-

Yesterday I talked about how useful I find Wikipedia for first-level research–for providing a general basis of information so I can decide where to focus my research more specifically. But there’s another way that I find Wikipedia a great resource: the horrible, horrible writing.

The overwhelming volume of prose on Wikipedia is contributed by people wholly without skill as writers or editors. At least the factual inaccuracies are generally violations of some Wikipedia policy or another, such as neutral point of view or original research or verifiability, so there’s a mechanism to correct them. But not only is bad writing itself not a violation of Wikipedia policy, many Wikipedia writers actually go to great length to enshrine bad writing as policy; witness, for instance, the protracted argument over whether we should talk about the Beatles or The Beatles, in which over eleven thousand words are expended before the proponents of The grudgingly concede that the is correct–though as a peek at any Beatles-related article will show, they have then proceeded simply to act as if the outcome of the argument was that the capital T should be used at all times.

I’d go so far as to say that the writing on Wikipedia is so bad that it becomes instructively bad–often, there’s something to be learnt about writing good prose from examining just how the prose on Wikipedia manages to be so bad.

The Wikipedism that I always find most glaring is their habit of peppering their nouns and adjectives with the modifiers then- and now- at every opportunity they can find. It’s endemic throughout Wikipedia, and seeing it over and over again has led me to a conclusion: it is never appropriate to make your writing uglier by prepending then- or now- to a word.

Right away, I’m suspicious of that declaration. I’m generally distrustful of absolutes, in writing, in philosophy, in life; it’s my experience that almost always, the best path is some sort of middle road. I hope there’s an exception to the then- and now- rule; I hope some day I either think of a circumstance where they add meaning or aren’t ugly and awkward, or come across the circumstance in my reading. But of the hundreds of times I’ve seen them appear in Wikipedia articles, in every single instance they have been ugly and awkward, while adding no meaning to the sentence.

From Wikipedia’s article on the 1938 Munich Crisis: In fact, Edvard Beneš, the then-President of Czechoslovakia, had the military print the march orders for his army and put the press on standby for a declaration of war. Whoever wrote that sentence must have believed that if they omitted it, his readers ran the risk of not understanding that, in an article describing a diplomatic crisis between Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1938, the person referred to as “President of Czechoslovakia” was president at the time of the Crisis, and not necessarily president at another time. What exactly is the author worried about? That we’ll think the president mobilising the 1938 Czech army and making announcements to the 1938 Czech press is actually the current president of a no-longer-extant nation? Is the 1974 president? The 1919 president?

Or from Wikipedia’s article on Peter Gabriel: The third album is often credited as the first LP to use the now-famous “gated drum” sound. Again, what is the author of that sentence worried we won’t understand if he omits the now-? Is it that we might think the gated drum sound was famous in the past, but isn’t famous now? That makes no sense. Or does the author want us to understand that while the gated drum sound is famous now, it wasn’t famous at the time it was introduced? Well, how would we reach the conclusion that it was famous at the time it was first used? How many recording techniques are famous before they’re invented?

Let’s look at these sentences if we make one small change to each of them:

In fact, Edvard Beneš, the President of Czechoslovakia, had the military print the march orders for his army and put the press on standby for a declaration of war.

The third album is often credited as the first LP to use the famous “gated drum” sound.

They both mean exactly the same as the originals. Removing the unwanted modifiers makes the sentences lexically more attractive, and it does it without removing a single drop of meaning. Wikipedia articles are full of horrible habits like these, but this is the one that’s always struck me as amongst the most widespread, easiest to spot, and unambiguously indefensible.

I

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