Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Latest 'Star Wars' Theory

Let's take a look at Owen Lars, shall we? Good old Uncle Owen, a nice old moisture farmer who raises his nephew and works the soil with nothing but his family and a few old droids. A kindly soul, one who doesn't want trouble and doesn't want to get involved in the wider affairs of the universe. The salt of the earth.

Except...well...admittedly, they never did delve too much into the economy of the 'Star Wars' universe, but doesn't it seem like a really stupid idea to farm for moisture on a desert planet with an extra sun? We know they've got interplanetary trade, because Han Solo runs cargo from one planet to another, so water could certainly be imported in quantity from a planet like Camino that's got it in abundance. Even if it isn't cost-effective to import water from another star system, there ought to be enough comets and similar water-bearing bodies that a space-faring civilization doesn't need to use condensation technology to get water.

And those droids...well, it's not like he's buying top-of-the-line equipment to help him with the harvest, is he? (Also, why is there a "harvest season"? Is there a monsoon period where water is easier to obtain?) In fact, he's buying stolen merchandise and is pretty comfortable with it. He doesn't even bat an eye when a bunch of strangers show up on his farm with merchandise that 'fell off a truck'. Perhaps that's not too surprising, given that he's within driving distance of the most notorious "hive of scum and villainy" in the galaxy. Good old Uncle Owen seems to be pretty sanguine about blatantly illegal activity in his backyard.

And would droids really be the best option? Sure, they don't need to be paid...but you have to buy them, service them, maintain them, and replace them (since as noted, it's not like Owen is buying quality merchandise). Hiring temporary labor just for the "harvest" seems like it would be a far more cost-effective model--but Owen doesn't seem to want anyone on his farm except Luke. In fact, he's also awful jumpy about Luke leaving the farm, especially when Luke mentions he wants to go to an Imperial flight academy. (Admittedly, Luke is planning on defecting to the Rebellion, but Owen may not know that.) Mind you, he's not nearly as jumpy about that as he is about a Jedi Knight taking interest in his farm.

So to sum up, Owen is living right next door to a group of crimelords, running a business whose model seems to be inherently and obviously flawed. He only works with close family members and robots, and doesn't like the idea of anyone in his family bringing the attention of current or former authorities onto his operations. It sounds pretty suspicious when you put it all together like that, doesn't it?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Uncle Owen's moisture farm is a money laundering operation for the Hutts, a legitimate business whose operations serve as a front for the criminals of Tatooine to disburse their ill-gotten gains without attracting too much attention. Probably his paper business has a thriving workforce of dozens of people, from Boba Fett on down through to Greedo; even though none of them work a day on the farm, their tax records are scrupulously maintained. The farm probably shows a minor loss year in and year out, the sort of thing that you'd expect when you run a water farm in the middle of the desert. Not a huge loss, or tax agents might get suspicious (which is one of the reasons he only uses droids and family members), but not enough of a profit to get people interested in examining the books.

Keeping the staff down to family members and droids also avoids awkward questions, the kind of thing that leads to bodies being left in the desert for womp rats to eat. Given that, it's no surprise that Owen wants Luke to stay there, help out on the farm, and avoid any kind of involvement with the expansionist and bureaucratic Empire or the quixotic Jedi who Owen thankfully hasn't seen in years. Honestly, we only have circumstantial evidence to show that the murders at the Lars farm are the work of trigger-happy Stormtroopers and not, say, a couple of boys the Hutts sent round to deliver a message about what happens to people who don't do a good job of cooking the books.

That's how I want to remember Owen Lars. As a criminal conspirator in the Huttese crime families, eventually brought down by his own avarice a la 'Breaking Bad'. (And don't feel too sorry for Beru. She probably came up with the whole scam. Owen didn't seem smart enough to figure out all the angles on his own.) Luke doesn't know how lucky he was--if the Empire hadn't shown up, he'd probably have gotten some ricin in his next glass of blue milk for bringing Obi-Wan into things. Snitches get stitches, Luke!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Terrible, Terrible, Agonizingly Bad Joke of the Day

That's the last time I ever buy a homeopathic washing machine. Now every time I wash my clothes, they get dirtier.

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.