What if I’m nothing like her?

I love Robyn’s ‘Who’s That Girl,’ for many, many reasons (including that it’s a solid pop song by The Knife). I don’t want to take away from the song’s interrogation of problematic social expectations of women, but I think it works more broadly as cri de coeur in response to the pressure of social expectations.

I think one of the things that makes it is so rich and effective is its psychological complexity, and I think this aptly captures the experience of the weight of social expectations. The song’s central conceit is that this woman is a fiction, a myth. But the argument cracks, and the song simultaneously expresses the anxiety that maybe there are women out there who better live up to these social expectations, and that we’re nothing like her.

Facebook as a community

I hate Facebook, for many reasons (and I am not using the word lightly). I think it’s despicable how Facebook presents you with a choice between economic exploitation and social connection, and I think it speaks to a deep erosion of what is good in American society: there are fewer and fewer spaces for human existence without the omnipresent hum of monetization, even exploitation. I like what I’ve seen of social networking tools beyond Facebook (esp. Friendica), and I’m looking forward to using them more.

That being said, I think Facebook feels more like a community than it did a couple of years ago (at least for the people I know). There’s a group of people I know will be on Facebook on a regular basis; I can message them or post something with them in mind and know they’ll probably see it.

I’m sure there are technical changes that have imperceptibly adjusted the Facebook experience, and it probably helps that Facebook has changed from something novel and stylish to something functional. But in the end, I think it’s less that the technology has changed than that people have changed the way they use it. When Facebook started, there was a certain pressure to burnish one’s reputation, to be aspirational in choosing what to post. Now, Facebook has so many people at different ages that aspirational posts are less salient than they used to be: a stylish post might just as easily receive a comment from your mom or brother as a carefully curated set of likes (and it’s kind of delightful to see this sort of misfire in Facebook posting). Facebook has become a community space in some way, a neighborhood bar rather than a trendy wine bar (or whatever is trendy: no fucking idea). And as numerous are its problems, and as hateful I find its venality, it’s hard for me not to see something valuable in the way we use Facebook now.

Thoughts about Fallout: New Vegas

It’s too bad that Fallout: NV had such a rough launch, because after playing it a bit in recent weeks, I am coming to think that it is, in fact, a better game than Fallout 3.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, VATS quickly unbalanced the gameplay in Fallout 3, and they’ve made it a riskier tactic in Fallout: NV, which adds a nice layer of complexity to the game. The factions in Fallout: NV are better. The Legion is a bit monochromatic, but they make pretty great villains all the same. The Fellowship of the Apocalypse is a nice faction; it’s nice to have an unaligned faction, it really fleshes out the world, I think. There’s a good mix of humor and darkness in the game– a lot of things that are funny but also melancholy, and a number of amusingly random things, like Creeper in Morrowind. FO3 had some of all of this, but the humor felt unearned and just wasn’t funny a lot of the time.

I think a big part of it (at least at this point) is simply that it feels like a real place. Fallout 3 started to feel samey and uninteresting as a place after a time. (This may be an accurate reflection of the DC suburbs, however.) Much of Fallout: NV feels like a place, or approaches that feeling more than Fallout 3. It’s funny how your sense of place works, though. I have a much stronger sense of place in a lot of IF than almost anything else. A close second is Morrowind, and all of the distinct kinds of landscapes they managed to cram into Vvardenfell. (I can remember the surprise of coming upon Suran and Telasero for the first time, or running around in Vivec– those felt like real places.)

As with any Bethdesda game, there are definite kinks. For one, it’s silly that the game as shipped has so many invisible walls, particularly given that one of the joys of the game is simply exploring. It kills that joy to have to find a decent mod to be able to explore in an organic way. The encounters can be randomly difficult, it seems: most of the encounters on the main quest line seem pretty easy, but random encounters seem surprisingly difficult (though maybe that’s a kink of the leveled encounter system).

To talk a bit more about quests, NV opts for a somewhat unhappy compromise between the open world of previous Bethesda games and the elaborate quests and writing of a Bioware game. The problem, however, is that the game doesn’t actually have the extensive railroading that makes Bioware quests run smoothly. I was just trying to play through the ‘Beyond the Beef’ campaign, and came up with a whole series of ways to break the quest, many of which resulted in the PC and important NPCs getting killed. This kind of thing breaks the immersion of the game, for one, but it also means that the ethical/role-playing dimensions of the game are limited or constrained. A GM would be able to see or determine what you are trying to do and the ethical balance you as the player are trying to strike, but the computer is just confused. It’s funny to think back, though: Morrowind was a gem of a game, but the quests were largely very simple, very rudimentary fetch quests. But the simplicity of these quests meant that interacting with the world was largely uninterrupted by constantly trying to figure out how to run a particular quest.

The Wire’s Narrative Complexity

I’ve just started watching The Wire again, and I’m reminded what a phenomenally well-written show it is (even if some of the directing early on is a little clunkier and more heavy-handed than it would become).

I’ve just been watching S1E4, and the characterization is really, really tight, but also really, really rich– it’s just amazing. Poot, for example, is consistently obsessed with sex, from early on in Season 1; it’s not something they ever dwell on, but it’s a recurring theme for a minor character.

But other characters are even more carefully drawn, and even more complex. I just watched that great scene where Herc sits down and talks with Bodie’s grandmother; over the course of the show, Herc develops in a complex way, but it’s interesting to see how he’s characterized early on in the show. Prez, too, is the one who blinds the kid, but then he goes on to mature and become a much more sympathetic character.

In the background of all of this is a broader point the writers of the show want to make, the way that institutional arrangements shape or even determine character: Herc is white in a department where black officers are groomed politically; while Prez starts out as a morally weak loser because, in some sense, his job has just been handed to him, and he’s politically protected. But it’s all very, very subtly done.

Fringe Season 4, genre TV, and drama

I like shows that split the difference between well-characterized, well-shaded genre TV and drama: Lost in parts, pieces of Buffy and Angel, and above all BSG. (It’s one of the reasons I have a hard time getting back into Trek– the relationships are pretty wooden.) And it’s really one of the things that I had really liked about Fringe. From the mid- to late first season until the end of the third season, Fringe has this great narrative arc (even if some of the episodes along the way are a little weaker, esp. the MOTW ones in season 2).

And while the narrative driving the story forward is great, the characters and drama in the story are pretty good, too. Like everyone says, Anna Torv is really phenomenal as Olivia and Fauxlivia, in a way that brings out nuances in both characters, and much could be said for John Noble (though Walternate is a bit of a caricature at times). It’s really one of the best alternate/mirror universes I’ve seen. The show isn’t _that_ great at drama, however– certain developments are just sketched or tacked in– Peter and Walter making some sense of their relationship after Peter finds out what’s been going on, for example; and there was something forced and quick about Peter and Olivia finally getting together after she returns from World-2.

But something goes missing in season 4, and I’m hard pressed to say what it is. The return of Peter feels strange and awkward, in part because it has to be resolved at some point– there isn’t any real question of him not returning, and there isn’t any question of the timeline not being restored in some way or another. There’s something stilted, dramatically, about the world without Peter: we’re supposed to think that Olivia and Walter would remain more or less distant without Peter (with some belated opening up in “Subject 9”), but the relationships in this alternate world seem geometrically derived rather than organic, airless and forced (like the weak, early parts of Season 1). (Peter’s response to the whole thing is very Peter-like, though.)

I wonder whether some of this is because the show, intentionally or not, deprives us of one of the pleasures of watching a show like this, which is the human pleasure you get from interacting with the same set of characters week after week. The human, or dramatic, elements of Fringe are what make it enjoyable, in the end; it’s not as intellectually satisfying as Trek (with time travel and time paradoxes, for example); though it’s more scientifically sophisticated at points than something like the X-Files, a lot of the “science” just ends up being jibberish-y. The show loses much of its attraction by (temporarily) scrapping this human dimension of the show.


the joys of programming

I spend so much of my time reading and writing and doing things that are sort of intangible, that it’s been a real pleasure to be doing some (light) programming, and having things just work (or often, not. But then being able to fix them and getting them to work). There’s a longer post in here on the intellectual pleasures of different kinds of language, and probably also something to be said in favor of Perl and CPAN, but I’ll just leave it at this point for now.

Random bits

Things that have caught my attention recently:
C64 SID music (as in the excellent compilation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sq9ZZ8zilDw ) How did I not know this exists? And is often so good? (h/t to Jimmy Maher’s excellent blog.)

Similarly: the Cygwin project. How nice it is to have a *nix terminal in Windows (especially if you alias some Windows files in Cygwin)! This is totally something I’m going to install on every computer from now on.

New EMA – pretty fucking rad.

The DM Genie – I was already excited looking at the screenshots of this, but then I saw the ones where you can simulate the weather… damn.