Friday, October 24, 2014

Reviews: Changeless and Blameless

It took me a long while to get back to Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, but I've spent most of the intervening time recommending her first book, 'Soulless', to anyone who will stand still long enough. That may have been why I waited so long--sometimes, when you know that there's a sequel out there to a book you really love, you're almost afraid to go on to the next one for fear it won't live up to expectations. Luckily, despite a bit of a shaky patch around the end of 'Changeless' and the beginning of 'Blameless', the sequels more than live up to the original.

The series, for those of you who didn't take my earlier recommendation to heart, revolves around an urban-fantasy steampunk version of Victorian Britain where vampires and werewolves are a vital part of the expansion of the British Empire and Queen Victoria has trusted supernatural advisors. The main character, Alexia Tarabotti, is exactly the opposite of a supernatural figure--she's a preternatural, a person whose touch negates the supernatural. Werewolves revert to human, vampires lose their fangs, and ghosts simply...well, give up the ghost. As such, she has both tremendous power and tremendous influence, as well as some pretty tremendous enemies.

The first book covered only the basics of Carriger's alternate Britain, but the second book ('Changeless') starts to really dig into the details as first London, then Scotland falls victim to a mysterious event that duplicates Alexia's preternatural touch over a far wider radius. This creates a mystery that Alexia and her husband (Lord Maccon, a Scottish werewolf who decamped Scotland to head a London pack) have to solve, especially as it involves Lord Maccon's former pack. The mystery isn't tremendously perplexing--when Lord Maccon mentions that there's weird things in Egypt that can rob a supernatural creature of its abilities, and the pack mentions that oh hey, we went artifact-shopping in Egypt, everyone in as well as out of the novel can put two and two together. Fortunately, that's not all that's going on.

For starters, there's the whole "former pack" issue. A big chunk of the novel is taken up with the strained relationships between Lord Maccon and his ex-kin, and Carriger does an excellent job of spinning out the secrets and mysteries there. A further set of secrets and mysteries involves a new character, eccentric and clearly lesbian inventor Madame LeFoux, who is just a little bit too much of a suspect in the multiple attempts on Alexia's life in this novel to allow the reader to indulge in any of the mental slashy goodness involving her and Alexia that the author oh so clearly hopes you will.

Well, not much of it, anyway.

Unfortunately, 'Changeless' ends on a cliffhanger that more or less involves Lord Maccon grabbing the Idiot Ball with both hands and clutching it firmly for the first third of the next book. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, here, but suffice to say that something that is blatantly obvious to the reader regarding the effects a preternatural might have on a supernatural is willfully ignored so that Lord Maccon can get into a big fight with Alexia. (This wouldn't be so frustrating if their wonderful, charming, flirtatious, sex-positive relationship wasn't otherwise a highlight of the series, by the way.) Nonetheless, it does happen, and the fight prompts the events of the next book ('Blameless') as Alexia is forced into exile in Italy.

Which means that it's time for some worldbuilding! 'Blameless' focuses heavily on the reaction that the rest of Europe has to Britain's alliance with bloodsucking fiends from beyond the grave and slavering hairy beasts who hunt the night when the moon is full. Unsurprisingly, not many see it as a plus, especially the Catholic Church and the Knights Templar. Surprisingly, most of the characters aren't any better disposed towards a woman who fits into their cosmology only as a soulless minion of Satan, a weapon fit to be used against the supernatural but never to be treated as a human being. There's a lot of good material here, as Alexia finds out details of her Italian father's backstory and deals with the machinations of the church. Oh, and finds out that pesto was designed as a weapon against the undead.

Just describing the A plot doesn't do the book justice, though; there's a lot of good material involving the supporting cast's efforts to unravel the plot against Alexia's life (from the previous book) and knock the Idiot Ball out of Lord Maccon's hand. The supporting cast was good in the first two books, but 'Blameless' is really where they come into their own.

Honestly, describing any of the plots doesn't do the books justice. The highlight here is Carriger's prose, which is light and fluffy and witty and airy and utterly gorgeous in an "Oh, so this is what it would be like if P.G. Wodehouse wrote urban fantasy" sort of way. The books absolutely breeze by effortlessly, and I definitely came away from this book looking forward to 'Heartless'...and wishing that the book titles weren't so similar that I keep having to look up which book has which title. But that's a complaint for another day.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How I Think GamerGate Is Going to Play Out

How GamerGate Is Going to Play Out #GamerGate. Summing up quickly for those of you who don't know (or those of you who know and don't want to hear about it much more), #GamerGate is a group of 4Channers harassing prominent women in the gaming industry with rape and murder threats, while ineptly disguising it as a "movement" promoting greater ethics in game journalism. It's been a big thing in the gaming industry press over the last few months, on account of how it exposed an ugly seam of misogyny running through gaming culture that gamers have been trying very hard to pretend doesn't exist and in fact still are--every post on the subject on every blog, news site or twitter feed is met with a swarm of gamers insisting that the death and rape threats don't represent them, and they'll rape and kill you for saying so.

It is still ongoing--several women continue to receive death threats for speaking out against sexism and misogyny in gaming, a problem that again I will remind you gamers are saying does not exist while threatening to rape the people who point it out. And it shows no signs of stopping, at least not yet. Here's where I see it going over the next few months. (Please keep in mind that these are merely predictions, not necessarily hopes; there are a few things in here I'd love to see happen, and others I'd love to be wrong about. You can probably guess which are which.)

1) #GamerGate is going to be replaced with a new cover story. The hashtag "#GamerGate", coined by not at all crazy person Adam Baldwin, was the attempt to legitimize the harassment of women in the gaming industry by pretending it wasn't about "hating women for having and using ladyparts without permission", it was about "journalistic ethics". This basically meant that they weren't angry with women for sleeping with men, they were angry with women for sleeping with men who were journalists. Nobody has been fooled except for the #GamerGaters, who continue to argue that they're a totally legitimate grassroots movement and not sexist at all despite the fact that there are chatlogs of people saying, "If we could just convince people that we're a legitimate grassroots movement, it'll deprive these women of their support base and we can drive them to suicide!" (Believe me, I wish I was using hyperbole instead of merely paraphrasing.) #GamerGate, as a "brand", is irrevocably tainted with misogyny and hate.

So they're going to need a new cover story. I suspect that within the next few months or so, we'll see an entirely new grassroots movement spring up, this one with a different set of faces in front of it and a different name. They'll try to keep this one more legitimate, maybe put some token condemnations of the harassment and a few token protests out there of actual bad industry practices (such as big developers paying for YouTube videos while putting clauses in the contracts stating that they can't disparage the game or show any bugs in the game), and generally clean up their act a little bit...but ultimately, it'll just be plausible deniability for gamers who want to pretend that misogyny isn't a problem for them. Expect to see a lot of posts like, "Oh, no, that's not us! We're Gamers for a Responsible Industry! You can't blame the actions of a few #GamerGaters on us!" While, of course, using a fake account to post more rape threats.

2) The threats will get worse before they get better. I don't think this will escalate to actual violence. I think these are inherently cowardly people--not just in the pejorative sense, but in the sense that they're fundamentally nerdy assholes, and a big part of the "nerd" social identity is the belief that while you lack the ability to hold your own in a physical confrontation, you're smart enough to get your revenge in various untraceable and more permanently damaging ways. The stereotype is of the jock who beats up the nerd, and comes home to find his homework assignment deleted from his hard drive and replaced by embarrassing pictures of him kissing his dog. I think the people who are involved in this harrassment campaign have bought into the idea that they're better off finding other ways to hurt people besides violence.

But the problem for them is, they're losing even in their chosen arena. They are losing the rhetorical war, becoming increasingly isolated from their own sub-culture and treated as horrible people and not the righteous defenders of geekdom that they imagine themselves to be. The women they're threatening aren't going away like they'd hoped. The glorious revenge that they imagined from all those 80s teen movies is not happening. And like all trolls, their only choice is to escalate. So I do think that we'll see more threats, and maybe some threats that skirt closer to the line of actual violence. Ticking packages, envelopes with mysterious powders...the sort of thing that makes people believe they're in imminent danger, rather than impending danger. Which leads to...

3) Some people are going to wind up in jail over this. In the past, threats delivered over the Internet have generally been viewed by society as less "real" than threats delivered over the phone or through the mail or in person. The Internet has been seen by law enforcement agencies as some sort of a weird playground for weird people, ultimately harmless and disconnected from reality. However, this has been changing lately. Recent high-profile cyberstalking and cyber-harassment campaigns have slowly been bringing lawmakers around to the idea that this is just another form of communication, and threatening to kill someone over Twitter isn't that much different from leaving a threat over someone's voicemail.

Which leaves one main difference between the Internet and reality: It's actually much harder to avoid leaving a trail that leads back to you when harassing someone on the Internet. The reality of it is, America has become a police state to a not-inconsiderable extent, and the privacy protections we are supposed to enjoy in our communication have become more of a privilege than a right. Telecommunications companies are all too happy to give over their records to law enforcement officials, and communications that were once transient and impermanent now leave records everywhere. And while that's generally a bad thing in principle, it is going to mean that justice is going to be served in this particular instance. The people who are leaving these threats are, I think, going to find out to their shock and dismay that what you say on the Internet can land you in jail in real life.

Now, some of them no doubt think of themselves as 7334 hackers with mad skillz who can evade the governmental cyberdragnet...and probably for about one in ten who think that, it's actually true and not a boast that they'll profoundly regret. But the thing is, the FBI (who now has all the chatlogs gathered by Zoe Quinn regarding her harassment, as well as several of the threats sent to Anita Sarkeesian) uses their own form of "hacking". They don't use social engineering to gain passwords; they use it to gain confessions. Hacker A might have covered their cybertrail pretty well, but they have a friend in Hacker B who isn't so careful. And Hacker B will flip on Hacker A to avoid jail time. I think that actually, quite a number of people will be seeing men with badges in their not-too-distant future. Which is why...

4) Eventually, this will die down. I don't think it will ever go away--there are still people trying to roll back Social Security, and that's older than most of its current recipients. It's hard to really imagine that the same people who are filled with the kind of hate that made them do what they're doing now will just calm down and walk away. But I think they will realize that they have to limit the expressions of their hatred or face consequences. I think that this will keep them from using threats to try to force women into line or out of their hobby. And I think that without those threats, what power they have will eventually fade away and be spent. And frankly, good riddance.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Things I Share With You: Welcome to Night Vale

During my extensive hiatus from blogging, one of the things that was making me happy was "Welcome to Night Vale", which I binge-listened to over the course of the last couple months' commutes. For those of you unfamiliar with the cult series and its basic concept, it's a podcast that purports to be the local radio show for a small town called Night Vale out in the, somewhere. Somewhere very difficult to enter, and possibly even more difficult to leave. A place where the strange and inexplicable are ordinary and everyday, and reported on by friendly broadcaster Cecil to all his listeners.

Cecil reports on local news, like the opening of the new state-of-the-art Dog Park ("dogs are not allowed in the Dog Park...people are not allowed in the Dog Park") or the PTA meeting which was interrupted by an infestation of pteranodons; he covers traffic, explaining to people that the signs which once displayed "either a graphic photo of a run-over pedestrian, indicating you should wait, or time-lapse photography of flowers wilting, indicating that it is safe to cross" now read, terrifyingly enough, the stark and chilling word "WALK". He delivers the Community Calendar, which contains such tidbits as the information that this Thursday, the Night Vale Public Library will become unknowable and everyone will forget it exists for two hours. And he delivers ads from sponsors, such as Outback Steakhouse ("Outback Steakhouse: Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.") In short, he's a full-service small-town radio host, in a small town whose inhabitants just happen to include a literal five-headed dragon, a glowing cloud that rains small dead animals, and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home.

It's brilliant, hilarious, deadpan dark humor, and it's also quite poetic and deep at times. There's a lot of hidden depths that are gradually revealed, and mysteries that are unraveled...or not. That's the thing about a series like this. Answers may be provided, but they are never guaranteed. Oh, and the voice acting is fantastic, starting with Cecil Baldwin as the voice of Cecil and going through guest stars such as Jackson Publick and Mara Wilson and Wil Wheaton. It's very much worth a listen. I highly recommend it if your sense of humor is as twisted and as warped as mine.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Back from the Missing

So where have I been? I suppose I've been off being terribly, terribly angry.

Let's face it, the past few months have not been good to those of us who believe that human beings are...not even "fundamentally good", but simply not horrible whenever they think they can get away with it. A group of people on 4Chan decided to destroy a woman's life more or less just because they could, and have spent the last several weeks insisting that they're actually ethical humanists standing on a point of journalistic principle despite being caught in private chats saying, "You know, people get a lot less mad at us when we lie and say we're actually ethical humanists standing on a point of journalistic principle. Let's do that." The woman they've been harassing still can't go back to her house. People are now insisting that her continued complaints about this are a plea for attention.

Meanwhile, one professional football player was finally disciplined for a brutal physical assault on his wife. Not, I want to stress, because the NFL finally realized that they had a moral and ethical duty to take a stand and make it clear that there is some degree of horrific and evil viciousness that they simply won't tolerate. No, it was primarily because they realized they were getting bad press over it all. The worst thing about the whole Ray Rice debacle wasn't even the attack, as terrible as it was. It was that the NFL attempted to exploit it for positive publicity.

And of course, we also had Adrian Peterson, insisting that he couldn't be a child abuser because he didn't intend what he did to be abuse. This is not a train of logic that generally holds weight--you can't say, for example, that you're not a murderer because you really intended to stop hitting the other person before they died--but Peterson continues to stick with it to a degree that suggests to me a deep and profound mental immaturity. I have gotten to the point where I really don't think he comprehends, on a fundamental level, that he's in real grown-up trouble. And once again, his employers defended him to the hilt as long as it looked like it wouldn't cost him anything, only to be utterly shocked and disgusted by his actions when it became commercially expedient to do so. These are not things that reinforce my faith in humanity.

And it's also election season, which is never a good time to have any kind of faith in the human race. The Republicans have settled on their strategy of blatant racism and sexism, lying and fear-mongering, and a healthy dollop of vote suppression in an attempt to cling to the last vestiges of power that they have. It's a strategy that's dooming them in the long-term, but given the sheer ineptitude with which they pursue the act of governance, it feels like we may be perilously close to the point at which there will be no "long term" for them to fail in. Pestilence, Famine and War have all made their appearances in the past few months, and the Republican response is to say, "Yes, but the other side wants to give the immigrants YOUR jobs!"

Oh, and then there's the continuing terrible-ness of Ferguson, which has died down because the police have finally figured out that the media leaves when you stop actively tear-gassing peaceful protestors, but which has never shown any signs of a resolution that doesn't involve a white man getting away with murdering an unarmed black man. That's not cheerful either.

Oh, yes. And the guy from 'Duck Dynasty' keeps opening his mouth and saying things. And he's still gainfully employed, and hasn't been hit by a meteor. In fact, karmic justice seems to be in remarkably short supply these days, and it's hart not to notice it. And that makes me angry, and being angry without being able to do anything about it leaves me frustrated and in no real mood to blog.

But I don't think I can be angry forever. I don't think it's healthy for anyone to dwell on the injustices of the world for their whole lives, because it's been 10,000 years and they haven't gone away yet. Hoping that this is the week we get rid of them hasn't been a good strategy for me, so I'm going to set my anger aside for a while. This isn't to say I'm setting it down; I can't see a point where I give up. I can't see a time when I will agree with the bullies, or when I will stop believing that the slow arc of the universe is turning, in its wobbly and erratic way, towards justice. But I will try to keep in my mind the words of the late, wonderful Molly Ivins:

"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce."

And I'll try to blog more. Because the people who come here are special.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elementary Suggestions for "Cutthroat Kitchen"

In the wake of the sad demise of "Sweet Genius" (I presume someone lawyered up after Chef Ron dropped one of their relatives into the pirahna tank for serving him NutraSweet, and he's gone into hiding), my new favorite cooking competition show is "Cutthroat Kitchen". It has the perfect deranged glee for someone of my dubious moral character; for those who haven't seen it, it takes the basic structure of "Chopped" (three rounds of competition, eliminating the worst chef each round) and adds the twist that chefs can sacrifice some of their potential winnings to sabotage the other contestants, during an auction-style preliminary before each round. The sabotages are designed by Alton Brown, the host of the show, and range from the irritating (take away your opponent's protein/starch, force your opponent to use a non-standard mixing vessel/heat source/tools) to the dementedly inspired (force your opponent to get all their ingredients for a birthday cake by opening gift-wrapped boxes, make your opponent cook breakfast in bed while lying in an actual bed, or the infamous "tiny kitchen" sabotage, which is pretty much what it sounds like).

The thing I like about this show, apart from the obvious humor value in watching someone try to cook while wearing a Chinese finger trap, is that there's game strategy involved on top of the cooking skills. A well-timed sabotage can derail even the best chef, and it's a lot of fun watching people try to figure out when to bid and when to risk getting stuck with something that can make their task a lot harder. (Oh, and it's also fun to watch the judges tasting each dish, since one of the rules is that the contestant can't tell the judge what they had to deal with. There are a lot of culinary buzzwords thrown around to disguise the fact that they had to make a sandwich with soggy bread and no meat.)

But that said, I think that some people could use a few tips. So, despite the fact that the crossover audience between "my blog" and "Cutthroat Kitchen contestants" is probably less than zero, here are my suggestions!

1. Remember that there are no winners in Rounds One and Two. "Cutthroat Kitchen", like "Chopped", is an elimination-based game. You aren't trying to make the best dish; you're trying to avoid making the worst dish. This is important in the first two rounds, where you have more than one person you can get in front of. Keep this in mind when bidding on and dishing out sabotages--a sabotage that affects two or three chefs isn't as big of a deal, because even if you get it, you're not any worse off than one or two other people. Likewise, as tempting as it is to stick it to the one person who's sabotage-free and getting an easy ride through to the next round, it's more important to look for the person who's already in the most trouble and hand them that metaphorical anchor. Your goal is to make one other person's task impossible, not to make everyone but yours hard.

2. Don't Splash Out Early If You Can Avoid It. One of the biggest factors that affects the final round is how much money is left on the table going into it. There are usually fewer sabotages at the end, but they tend to be game-changers, and having enough of a cash advantage that you can guarantee you won't get stuck with them is a pretty big deal. That means not shelling out ten grand in the first round for a sabotage, even if it's a really devastating one. Obviously, there are times you will have to break that rule--if a sabotage is a clear ticket to elimination, you're better off bidding on it in Round One than handing back all your money to Alton--but you really want to keep your powder dry for the final round if at all possible. (Especially because if the other person doesn't follow this rule, you'll be able to pick up the sabotages for cheap at the end, because they won't have the cash to gainsay you.)

3. Don't Get Cute. There is one thing I see on this show that always sends a chill of dread into the pit of my stomach (or a thrill up my spine, if it's a particularly irritating chef). It's when they decide to get "creative". The thing is, creativity is something that is forced on you by this show. The dishes are all traditional favorites with an obvious Platonic ideal form, and judges looking for that ideal. Every deviation is something they're marking off, and a lot of contestants have to deviate due to the sabotages. So given that, do not--and I mean do NOT--try to do your own personal "twist" on whatever the dish is. Don't decide to put blue cheese on your fish sandwich because it has such a unique flavor profile. Don't decide to splash cognac into your beef stroganoff because it's a variation on the dish that you champion at every opportunity. In short, do not mess around with a perfectly good recipe just because you want to be creative, because the judge is not looking for any more creativity than is absolutely necessitated by the format of the show.

4. Don't Panic In the Pantry. The other thing that always sends dread/thrills, delete where applicable, is watching someone run out of the pantry and say, "And then I realized I forgot the (sugar/mustard/pickles/salt/eggs/baking soda/other basic-but-essential ingredient)." Every time it happens, it's like those contestants gave their opponents a free sabotage good for them only. Keep the most important ingredients foremost in your head and make sure you get every single one. (And then, as Alton himself says, grab some sugar, flour and eggs, on the grounds that you can always make effective use of them.)

Keep all these things in mind...oh, and know how to cook and stuff...and you have a better chance of walking away a winner!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How Wrong Is This?

I was reading a bit about Scientology today, on account of a Gawker network article about someone who went in to take their personality test just to see what the results were. (Spoilers: She's a terrible person and she needs Scientology's help badly.) And one of the more disturbing articles I read was about Sea Org, the cultiest wing of the Scientology cult. This is the one where you have to sign a billion-year contract to join, and you work a hundred hours a week in exchange for room, board, and a small stipend that in no way shape or form equates to even minimum wage, and crucially for purposes of this post, you can't have kids. If you want to stay with Sea Org--and oh hey guess what, these are the levels of Scientology you don't leave unless you want your life to become an unending hell of harassment--you get an abortion (or convince your partner to get one, delete as applicable).

Now I should say that I come to this as pro-choice, but it's pretty clear that this is not a situation where "choice" is involved. Women are being coerced into getting abortions, which is the exact opposite of the pro-choice position. It is, however, in line with what the pro-life movement thinks that the pro-choice movement believes. Which is where I had my idea. My wonderful, awful idea.

Why not forward articles about this practice to Randall Terry's Operation: Rescue? It seems like a match made in heaven. A paranoid, litigious, secretive cult duking it out with a judgmental, tenacious, self-righteous cult. Worst-case scenario, every hour and dollar they spend on each other is time and money they don't spend making the rest of the world miserable. Best-case scenario, either Scientology gets protested into irrelevancy or Operation: Rescue gets sued out of existence. I really can't see a downside here.

Which is probably what they said right before the beginning of 'The Stand', but...