Monthly Archives: August 2011

You spin my head right round

Labyrinth is, of course, the 1986 fantasy film with David Bowie:

However, labyrinth also refers to the balance organ of the inner ear. The structure contains three orthogonal fluid-filled canals (hence “labyrinth”) that sense rotations, along with additional organs that sense linear accelerations. This combines with visual inputs to give us our sense of balance.
So while the word labyrinthitis could refer to an uncontrollable nostalgia-driven desire to revisit the aforementioned David Bowie flick, it is actually the name for a viral infection of the balance organ. The symptoms of this infection bring to mind another movie entirely:

The experience of labyrinthitis can be easily simulated by a healthy individual. First, get your alcoholic drink of choice. Then, consume it until it feels like the room is spinning. Now imagine that this sensation persists continuously for a week. I’ve been describing it as “like being drunk without the fun part.” Naturally it’s tempting to grab some booze and add the fun back in, but I suspect that this approach is contraindicated.
At one point this week I thought the vertigo had become so severe that it felt like I was in an earthquake. Then I realized it was an actual earthquake. The various natural disasters striking the East Coast this week are not helping my condition any, but maybe if Hurricane Irene is spinning in the same direction as my head I won’t even notice it.
Years ago, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, I contemplated in dinosaur comic form the possibility of being stuck with a constant spinning sensation. At the time I thought it merely a theological hypothesis, but now I know that labyrinthitis truly is… rotating hell.

The future for America’s broken government

Longtime readers will recall that this used to be primarily a political blog. Eventually, though, I fell victim to outrage fatigue and turned to other subjects. These days we have a different administration, but one reason I’ve been escaping into pop culture (for the first few posts since I started updating again) has been that my reaction to the current political situation can only be properly expressed by this Uncyclopedia page.
I’m very, very pessimistic about the political outlook for the next few years. The traditional norms that allowed Congress to function in the past have totally broken down: the Senate now requires a 60-vote supermajority for anything due to routine use of the filibuster, and as we’ve recently seen the Republican congress is willing to put a gun to the head of the national economy by demanding concessions before raising the debt ceiling.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is willing to use its executive authority to launch a new war in Libya, but not to unilaterally take action on the economy. Since the only stimulus the Republicans will accept is more tax cuts for the rich, we can expect that unemployment will continue to remain sky-high through 2012.
Then, Obama will lose re-election to whomever the Republicans nominate. It might be Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann. If we’re lucky (!) we’ll get Mitt Romney, who might be unprincipled but at least appears to be sane. The economy is by far the strongest predictor of presidential election results, and with unemployment as high as it is, the independent voters will go for the Republicans in droves. A very harmful political dynamic has taken hold whereby a minority can wholly obstruct the legislative agenda in the Senate, use this to prevent any measures that might help the economy, and take advantage of anti-incumbent sentiment to regain the majority.
So, basically, we’re doomed. At the very least the next Congress needs to change the rules of the Senate to eliminate the filibuster. It could be one upside of a Republican Senate: it would not be out of character for them to remove the obstructionist tools they relied on when they were in the minority. Maybe they’d get rid of the debt ceiling as well once they were the ones spending (or more likely, cutting taxes). It would result in a lot of policies I don’t like, but in the long run getting rid of both of those things would be good for the country.
If I had the power to rewrite the Constitution I’d get rid of the Senate entirely, and maybe just institute a parliamentary system, but obviously neither of those things are going to happen. Instead I’ll just watch old episodes of The West Wing and imagine what it would be like to have a functional government.

The most violent video game is rated E

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.
—Attributed to Joseph Stalin
It’s been a while since I’ve seen any uproar over violent video games. I’m sure there’s some background level of complaint about it, but I guess with three actual wars going on and a terrible economy, most people have other things on their minds.
Nevertheless, I’d been thinking lately about one of the (many) ways in which objections to such games are misplaced. The most socially objectionable games are generally taken to be those in the Grand Theft Auto vein that allow players to run around committing heinous crimes against innocent people. (Of course, even in the GTA games one is more typically attacking “bad guys”, i.e. other criminals, but the sandbox game style gives the player the free will to go on random killing sprees.) However, if the immorality of the in-game acts of violence is the measure by which they are judged, it seems to me that there’s a category of game that’s literally orders of magnitude worse.
After all, when we think of history’s greatest monsters, we don’t think of gangsters or even serial killers. No, we think of Jimmy Carter, because of The Simpsons. But after that we think of guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who killed millions and caused the suffering of millions more. What if there were a video game that put the player in a role like that, allowing them to institute a fascist police state, launch wars of aggression, and even wipe out entire nations of people?
Indeed there is such a game, and the ESRB rated it “E for Everyone”. I refer, of course, to the Civilization series. In Civ IV it was even literally possible to play as Stalin or Mao; the bounds of good taste (and the German video game market) kept Hitler himself off the roster. So why is it that we never hear about Civ from the video game moralists? Why is it bad to let children play with a single simulated machine gun, but not an entire army of machine gunners? Why restrict access to virtual rocket launchers, but not virtual ICBMs?
It’s clear that the issue is somehow graphic violence. But again, why is that? It’s certainly true that violence in Civ is depicted in a manner closer to pieces moving on a chessboard than the gorefests of Mortal Kombat. But this must be if anything even worse. What is more desensitizing than viewing millions of people’s lives as a number on a screen to be erased at the push of a button? That ESRB badge hilariously lists only “mild violence” for a game in which entire cities are routinely sacked, pillaged, and burned to the ground with no survivors.
One could argue that children can more easily pick up a gun and emulate the antisocial behavior of a GTA installment than they can seize control of a country and try for world domination. But clearly some children do grow up to be crazed dictators. And even if only one kid in ten million is a potential Hitler, isn’t it important to keep him from turning out that way?
Now, anyone who’s looked at my Steam stats knows that I’m actually a big Civ fan. And if I had kids, I’d totally let them play too. So all I’m arguing here is that there’s something strange about a moral intuition which says we need to prevent kids from playing GTA, but that playing Civ is fine. As for the potential Hitlers out there, I’m just hoping they develop a crippling addiction to “one more turn” and stay away from the actual levers of power.

Revelation Space, and how not to write the big reveal

I’ve been working my way through Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series lately. He has an astronomy background and his novels tend to be all the way at the diamond end of the Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness. I’m impressed that thus far in the series (I’m almost done with book 4) there’s been no faster-than-light travel whatsoever: I take the extreme view that hard sci-fi should never include any form of FTL, because of the consequences for causality. Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky is probably the best slower-than-light space opera I’ve read, but the Revelation Space novels are in second place.
More generally, Reynolds often gives technical and plausible-sounding justifications for the various advanced technologies that appear in the books, which is a nice bonus for the reader who knows enough physics to make sense of it (but probably impenetrable to others). The problem with this is when I have enough expertise to know why it doesn’t work in reality (i.e. the few references to condensed matter physics), I can see behind the curtain and the illusion is ruined. But most of the time it works, and it’s a nice way of extending the sense of wonder that can be found in physics.
Unfortunately, this attention to plausible justification in the scientific realm isn’t matched in Reynolds’ characterization. I’m finding that the biggest flaw in his writing is that his characters’ actions often seem insufficiently motivated. Certainly reasons are provided, but they often just don’t ring true.
It’s appropriate that both his strengths and his weaknesses are in the realm of explanation and justification, because most of his books center around some grand mystery, and much of the urge to keep reading derives from the desire for an explanation. The real climax of the book tends to be the big reveal, although there’s usually a nice space battle afterwards. Reynolds has used various devices across his novels to keep the mystery under wraps, some more successful than others. In particular, what he does in the first book in the series (itself called Revelation Space) is so frustrating it feels like being cheated.
Revelation Space alternates between three viewpoint characters who start out in separate places but come together over the course of the novel. And the big mystery (the titular revelation) is actually explained to one of those characters early on. But to keep the reader in the dark, the narrative cuts away right as the explanation starts. Later on, this character’s thoughts on this topic are only related in vague terms to keep the secret (and at the same time remind the reader that there is a big secret). Then, when she finally tells the second viewpoint character about it, the story cuts away again! Only when the third character finds out, late in the novel, does the reader get to learn the secret as well.
So why do I say this feels like cheating? There are similar devices that seem legitimate: for instance if a mystery novel briefly takes the viewpoint of the killer during the murder without revealing his identity. I think the problem here, though, is that these are persistent viewpoint characters throughout the book. That gives them a special status, where the reader’s immersion in the fictional world is directly connected to the reader’s immersion in those characters’ minds. To keep the reader out at these critical moments in the story sets up a distance between the character and the reader, and sets the author up as censor rather than storyteller.
That said, I think one could do something interesting with this device in a first-person narration in which the narrator was deliberately keeping secrets from the reader, but in third-person limited mode it was jarring and frustrating. Luckily, Reynolds must have seen the error of his ways, because after his first novel this particular trick hasn’t shown up again.