Thursday, May 23, 2013


I've been wanting to write about Star Trek Into Darkness for days, but everyone is still walking on eggshells about spoilers.  This is kind of dumb, because none of the film's twists deserved the build up, but hey, they tried.  So if you don't want spoilers, don't click on this on my Twitter or Facebook (this blog is just a dumping ground for long-form stuff).

The criticism of the film is really fascinating to me because one's Star Trek "credentials" don't seem to very well predict whether people love the film or rabidly hate it.  As usual there's no notable middle ground here.

I'm not going to write a review in detail because, let's face it, I'm a dollar short, a day late, and lazy.  but I'll give you my opinion, and then move onto some of my short little raves and rants.

Bottom line: I believe that in the general genre of sci-fi/action movies, that this is the best of the Star Trek movies.  Now you always have to qualify this, because we Trek fans are weird: this isn't the film that best showcases the ideals OF the franchise Star Trek, but it's the best movie that's also a Star Trek movie.  (The most Star Trek-y Star Trek movies are probably I and IV, both of which have their own flaws in other respects.)

Moreover, this is easily the most socially relevant Star Trek movie since Star Trek VI, my personal favorite of the franchise.  It's not as sophisticated as a typical televised Star Trek episode--which has MUCH more to do with the demands of the medium than with writing and directing ignorance or incompetence--but it delivers a laudable and compelling message with conviction.  It's a very pointed critique of extrajudicial killing, which people need to hear.  Kind of an anti-Iron Man.

Major pros:

-Acting.  Just all around.

-The story; very clever, very much in keeping with established elements of Star Trek, with more playing around with the idea that everything will play out differently in this timeline.

-Themes: responsibility (Kirk is still the reckless kid from movie 1, which briefly costs him his command here and almost costs him his ship and life), mercy to our enemies (if Kirk had killed Khan, he would have killed.  If Spock had killed Khan, Kirk would have died.  Scott only kills the enemy guard when he has no choice.  It occurs to no one but Khan to kill Marcus, and Marcus' violent ways lead to his downfall), the responsibilities of a major power (science and peacekeeping > paranoid defense).  I submit that most who have dismissed this film as a generic Hollywood action movie have failed to compare its themes with the usual Hollywood kill-or-be-killed fest.

-The Prime Directive is not just referenced but discussed and majorly featured, in contrast to every other Star Trek film, with the exception of Insurrection.  Major points here.

Major Khans:

-The pacing might be the biggest flaw in this film, and I'm not sure it's an easy fix.  On the one hand the film is PACKED with STUFF, but then some of the action sequences and character moments seem to stretch on forever.  The audience is never given a moment to feel at ease, which is crucial to a good action picture.  Priorities are also questionable: much more time is spent depicting Kirk and Khan flying through a debris field (an admittedly well-conceived and cool sequence) than in any combat between the Enterprise and the Vengeance.  Important character moments get SMASHED into the margins of action sequences in a misguided effort to keep the pot constantly boiling (example: Kirk/Spock/Uhura have a heartfelt conversation while in the atmosphere of Kronos, this would have been much better suited for space or even back on the ship).

-On a related note, the film runs out of time to show us much of the Klingons.  Unfortunately, the whole plot revolved around everyone being scared shitless of the Klingons.  This is great, and the actors really sell it!  Sadly, when we actually see the Klingons they are losers who can't detect the Enterprise while it loiters in their space, and most of their screen time is spent getting slaughtered by Khan.

-Cumberbatch is excellent in the role, better than Montalban, and I know they tried to get a Hispanic actor first.  But this doesn't change the fact that they whitewashed a major character.  HOLLYWOOD!
There is potentially interesting discussion to be had here, considering that Khan was originally a Sikh name they slapped on a character who was originally white because they hired a Mexican to play him.  So in the '60s it was sort of a weird conflation of different brown people.  And while it's nice to see a non-white "superman," they definitely also milked his exotic name and pseudo-magical charisma for all it's worth in a somewhat problematic way.  Check out the advertising for Star Trek II: "Beyond the universe, beyond human experience, lies KHAN."  Would they use that tagline if he were named Steve?
Plus you know, he flies a plane into a building.  There really wasn't a right way to handle this thing.

-The completely gratuitous fanservice.  The creators seem to think it's a nod to the fans to do this; it's not.  It just reads as insulting.  What would have been a much more interesting scene from a worldbuilding point of view would be if Kirk and Marcus changed WITHOUT making it a big deal.  It's the goddamn future!

-It's a major plot point that Marcus knocked out the Enterprise communication system so they can't call for help even though they are right next to Earth.  But then all of a sudden, they call up New Vulcan so that Leonard Nimoy can freak out about Khan in a fairly awful scene.  Not ok.  You could at least tell Old Spock that in 1 minute they are going to get blown out of the sky by the head of Starfleet so it doesn't actually fucking matter.  Moreover, just...look at this.
Spock Prime in Star Trek II: "He is intelligent, but not experienced.  his pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking."
Spock Prime in Star Trek Into Darkness: "He's the most dangerous foe we ever faced, he's a killer, we only stopped him with great sacrifice, I'm going to break my temporal vow and basically do the Vulcan equivalent of a complete breakdown."

Minor pros:

-Every time you make a DS9 reference, an angel gets its wings.  Section 31 as the Big Bad is a YES EXCELLENT moment.  The wrecked province on Kronos is where General Martok grew up.

-Carol Marcus as an admiral's daughter actually explains her defense of Starfleet in Star Trek II, not to mention giving her a plausible explanation of how she met Kirk.  Also, a background in weapon design and physics makes perfect sense for her, she led the Genesis project.  Oh sure, that wasn't MEANT to be a weapon, but COME ON.

-Fallout from the "transwarp beaming" stuff from the last movie.

-The new warp effect is awesome and kind Next Gen-ish.

-The concept of a super-ship with a light crew is something that a) makes tons of sense and b) has been in the technical reach of the Star Trek future basically forever.  Nice to see that Starfleet can be scary when it wants to.  At the same time the ship wasn't SO over-the-top as to be unbelievable.

-Bat'leths and "D4" Birds-of-Prey in the Klingons scenes!  The one Klingon we saw even looked "human-ish" as per canon, while still having a bit of a brow ridge.

-Khan may have seemed over-the-top compared to his old version, but 1) he actually seemed like a super-being this time around, which never really came across before, and 2) he's in peak health for once and has had months to study and work with Federation technology.  In all honesty, this movie resurrected the character of Khan from "neat, concept, had potential, kinda went crazy and fizzled" to "credible, terrifying threat."  Plus, they got the 72 crew members right and remembered that Khan always was a good leader to them.

-The Chekov redshirt gag was extremely clever.  We the audience are laughing because "redshirts get killed."  But he the character is only nervous about taking over Engineering!  The musical sting even works in both contexts.  A dangerously meta joke that they pulled off.

-"Cupcake" got a name, and an established one!

-Actually nearly all the minor characters and extras from the previous movie seemed to return.  Fantastic.  I love when it feels like the same ship from movie to movie.

-Why does Kirk have to save the warp core himself?  Because Spock ordered all the engineering staff to the weapons bays.  BAD-ASS.

Minor Khans:

-Spock's yell.  I can understand how this was justified, but it took me (and many others) out of the film, and overall seemed like an excessively clever little victory lap for the writers.  I appreciate that Vulcnas repress strong emotions, but Spock simply cannot lose his shit in the next movie or else he will start to seem like a basket case.

-Not as bad as the last film, but the casual racism towards Vulcans--who are almost a DEAD SPECIES--is inexcusable.

-Pike wants to be an Obi-Wan, but he's really more of a Rachel Dawes isn't he?  Two great scenes and then he's dead so fast it makes your head spin.  What if he'd managed to damage Khan's craft?  Whatever.

-The Enterprise is just a major chew toy, never gets a shot off.  The failure of Klingon warships to complicate the final battle also feels like a bit of a missed trick.  And even the Vengeance is crippled before it can do anything cool, even fire those mega-cannons.

-Warp speed is totally fucked up.  It's way too fast.  It acts more like hyperspace in Star Wars.  And it's implied that warp combat is this unprecedented thing, when it happened about every other week in the 22nd century show, Enterprise.

-The Enterprise falls into Earth's atmosphere in moments after taking phaser hits very close to the Moon.  That is every flavor of wrong.  Especially when the crew easily could have just been trying to avoid hitting the MOON during the save-the-ship sequence.

-Much like the Klingon fleet, the Starfleet kind of feels like it doesn't even exist.  A firefight takes place right next to Earth, and no one notices?

-Pike seems to espouse the morally bankrupt "Next Generation" view of the Prime Directive.  Spock has the more coherent and classic idea that the species should be saved, but it's worth his life to avoid wrecking their culture.  Kirk of course is just a prat.  However the movie really doesn't seem to take a position either way.  I was just disappointed that Pike was the "let them die" guy.  At least let Spock write a paper on his view and get vindicated or something.

-Kirk finds out about his relief of duty and his subsequent reassignment from Pike.  Spock finds out about his reassignment from Kirk.  Scotty still treats Kirk like the captain even when he isn't.  Does no one get e-mail in the future?  It all feels very ad hoc.

-Finally...this may be the best Star Trek movie, but without question it has the worst title.  What were they THINKING?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On Star Wars

3:00 pm, Tuesday, October 30, 2012.


Ok, I just have to blog about THE news.  Even though this really isn't a blog anymore but a place to dump my rare explosions of pop culture long-form writing.  WHATEVER.

So as you MUST be aware, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, and Disney greenlit a "Star Wars Episode 7" for 2015.

Like most people, I think my reactions have moved from shock to hopefulness.  George Lucas is the mind from which it all sprung, but he's a weird fucking dude.  He thinks Jar Jar Binks, midi-chlorians, and not releasing proper versions of the OT are all good ideas.

And in a hypothetical universe where the pre- and post- prequel marketing hammer didn't come down, we would all be aching for a fresh take on Star Wars.  But part of what makes it weird is that there is currently a ton of Star Wars shit going on in the usual comic-novel axes but also on TV.  There's something wretched and cynical about this, as if Star Wars took on a life of its own and the only way it could make EVEN MORE MONEY was to have Lucas throw up his hands and give up the idea that he was the only one making theatrical Star Wars "Episodes."

And yet...

Well, artistically, the franchise sucks right now.

A great number of people feel this way, differing only in where they date the suckage starting.  Maybe it's just me but I haven't perceived enthusiasm about Star Wars for a long time, except when a beloved author happens to write a Star Wars book.  The show gets some hype but it hasn't attracted this longtime fan, and I know I'm not alone.

I think that's why the social media conversation has so quickly taken a hopeful note.

Myself, my own feeling are very complex and conflicted.  Part of the charm of Star Wars was that no matter how bloated or ridiculous it became, and no matter how many big companies were making stuff for it, it all went back to Lucas and his not-very-big, personally-controlled film company.  Depending on how you look at it, the Star Wars films could be argued to be independent films; distributed by Fox but financed by Lucas himself and his unprecedented merchandise machine.  Whether a Star Wars entry was good or terrible, there was always a certain unique charm.

At one point, even the tie-in "Expanded Universe" had that, though in my opinion it has since lost it.

I grew up in the Interregnum.  I rented "The Ewok Adventure" at the video store, played "Star Wars: X-Wing" on the computer, and heard breathless tales of how the Star Wars movies used to have these great action figures that came with them.  I wanted more.  And soon, the figures came back, and the "Expanded Universe" entered its exciting infancy.  My very first "big" novel was Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael Stackpole, which I read in early 1995.  It was soon followed by the classic Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn.  A real effort was made to keep the various official Star Wars works in continuity with each other, building a cohesive universe from the endless hints dropped in the original films.  It was very exciting in every way, and blended seamlessly with the Special Editions released in 1997, and even pretty well with The Phantom Menace in 1999.

Much as with the Marvel Universe though, what started as immersive continuity became annoying wankery.  The canonical Star Wars universe is crammed to the gills with invasions by stupid-looking aliens, beloved relatives of Han/Leia/Luke becoming psychopathic monsters, Boba Fett saving the universe, and Anakin Skywalker having about ten lifetimes worth of canonical pre-Vader adventures.

So I have a feeling that Disney is going to put an axe in it.

I'd much rather that they SAVE it.

Picture this, fellow children of the Interregnum: Disney's Star Wars team makes it a goal to not copy, but ADAPT, and DISTILL, the best printed Star Wars stories into new films, just like any other novel or comic.  Recast the lead characters, throw some good money and talent at it, but use the bona fide classics that have come before instead of throwing it all away.

Imagine: Star Wars Episode VII: Heir to the Empire.  Doesn't that just send a shiver down your spine (if you're my age)?

But it doesn't conflict with the prequels, and maybe Thrawn is working for the Reborn Emperor (or retcon him out altogether, I can see the case for that) who's the villain of the next arc, and maybe Mara Jade marries Luke at the end instead of having like 10 more years happen. 

And maybe Robert Downey, Jr. plays Talon Karrde.

Just...Disney, know your audience.  Honestly, you are probably more comfortable playing ball with the 12 year olds who watch Clone Wars.  But you do a little research and you find out what young-ish adults are and aren't happy with in the franchise, you are going to wind up with Avengers money.  Which is probably why you made this deal anyway...

Either way, this is the end of an era.  Star Wars, for better or for worse, will become more like the other shared universes owned by conglomerates...Marvel, DC, Star Trek, Transformers/GIJoe, ALIENS.  Whatever happens to continuity, this is a Reboot, and the biggest franchise-related news since Darth Vader told Luke Skywalker about his parentage.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Some thoughts about Prometheus

Saw Prometheus last night.  It was undeniably...thought-provoking for me.  However not really about what the movie wanted me to think about.  Don't consider this a "review" because I won't go over it point by point, but I will share my impressions.  If their ad campaign can be overwrought and mysterious, so can I.  SPOILERS.

What is Prometheus?

Prometheus is either very underwritten or very overwritten, and in either case it is half-baked.

Prometheus is a science-fiction/horror movie.  However, it's not particularly original and it's not particularly scary.

Prometheus is like a really good issue of the Dark Horse ALIENS comic that was given a massive budget, Ridley Scott, and all the pretension that goes with them.

Prometheus asks lot of questions but doesn't answer very many.  This is probably because when it does answer one here and there you find yourself going "oh, that's all?"

Prometheus is overhyped.

To elaborate, in every way the marketing campaign is more of a noteworthy, admirable success than the film itself.  It got me there, after all.

Prometheus is a lot of fun if you're an ALIEN fanboy.

Prometheus is Ridley Scott's Avatar.  "Blue creatures and philosophy!  What rot!  Penis creatures and philosophy!  That's where it's at!"

Prometheus is the "Episode I" to ALIEN's "Episode IV."  Bigger, flashier, but only a quarter of the characters matter this time. 

If you have never before been exposed to the "Chariots of the Gods" idea that ancient aliens fucked around with humanity, you will find this film fascinating.  However I would like to know what planet the rock you're living under is on.

If you aren't the "Stargate" or "Battlestar Galactica" franchises, let's just declare "Chariots of the Gods" off-limits forever.  Also, stop naming ships Icarus and Prometheus, future shipbuilders of the Earth.

Speaking of which, Alien vs. Predator actually introduced the "Chariots of the Gods" idea into the franchise years ago.  Bad enough to get beaten to the punch by AvP, but it wouldn't matter except that it is entirely debatable which of the two films is more entertaining.

This movie is not itself a love letter to intelligent design creationism.  However, it contains several such letters.

That Space Jockey at the start of ALIEN?  He's a big white muscular man.  He's also really mean.  While there are ways that this makes sense within the universe of the films, it's difficult to overstate how boring it is.

There are two scenes in this movie that are completely conventional horror movie scenes.  They require fecklessly stupid out-of-character behavior to set up, they slaughter characters that we care nothing for, only one of them is even marginally original, and they feel like transparent pandering to the horror junkie crowd.  That crowd should probably just wait for Cabin in the Woods to come out on DVD, a film that oddly has exactly as many "Xenomorphs" as this film does.

For the most part the design work in this film is very, very good.  However, there is one creature that is basically "oh, I have to make a Giger-esque monster?  I put a vagina and some testicles on the front of a penis.  TIME FOR COCAINE."

There are four-and-a-half good actors in this movie, but sometimes the script requires them to do inexplicable things.  Poor Idris Elba goes from a criminally negligent loser to the hero of the movie, and do not mistake me for saying that his character actually develops.  This is simply what we're demanded to accept.  And Michael Fassbinder's character, while he and the character are both excellent, is so inscrutable that he crosses the line into "random plot device" at least once.

Prometheus has one great hero and one great anti-hero.  At the end of the movie they band together and fight crime, which is why the sequel that they transparently set up might actually be decent.

As I say, Noomi Rapace is a great hero, but towards the end of the movie something is so weird with the editing or character work that everyone appears to ignore her for no reason (except Fassbinder's android at the VERY end).

Noomi Rapace is a GREAT hero.  She is a completely feminine character who is not physically strong, but proves tougher than she ever imagined she could be.  She isn't Ripley, but she is a worthy successor as a character.

You can tell how great a hero she is because I like her even though she is a FLAT-OUT INTELLIGENT DESIGN CREATIONIST.  However it's the screenwriter's fault, not hers, because he made it true in their universe, so I guess the character is just smart.  SIGH.  Her boyfriend is still an annoying idiot though.

Prometheus is not ALIEN.  While it mimics and winks at shots from ALIEN at a truly staggering rate (none of them making any impact until the end, a moment that every trailer helpfully spoiled) I was actually impressed by its refusal to borrow ALIEN's structure.

Prometheus also subverts the distressingly common "alien infectees go mad" cliche...for the most part.  As mentioned above, there is a bit where a zombie attacks for no reason that is so out of left field that even the characters immediately forget about it.

Appreciation: continuation of the franchise "names of androids" gag.  Ash, Bishop, Call, and now David.

There are two great moments toward the end of the film that, as alluded to above, were thoroughly spoiled by every trailer.  One of them was also held back by poor characterization.  ("I WILL DIE FOR YOU CAPTAIN!  Why?  Fuck if I know.")

Just to finally get the endless fucking teases out of the way.  There are "Xenomorphs," i.e. Aliens from ALIEN, in this movie.  One shows up in a wall carving in a baseball-bat-of-subtlety moment, and then one pops up in the last scene (too late to affect the story).  It's a completely new design, that is CGI like every other just-good-enough monster in the film, but it's obviously a type of Xenomorph and it's actually pretty cool.  Actually, if you disregard the wall relief and the "Alien vs. Predator" movies, there is a suggestion that the Xenomorph race was actually born from the Noomi Rapace character's womb, which is actually a nice sick Giger-esque twist.

The alien bioweapons in this movie are actually a lot more convincing and effective as alien bioweapons than the Xenomorph itself ever was.  This is actually a GREAT thing for the franchise because it expands the range of stories that can be told.  Apparently nobody but Ridley had the balls to do it.

As a biologist I was really disappointed by the science scenes.  They use cool, relatively believable props, but no one actually discusses their findings and their implications in a satisfying way.  We never find out something as simple and well-worth-testing as what the fuck is with that black goop that does everything.  And no one shows any interest in any life form (that isn't killing them) except for the Space Jockeys.  There's even a scene in which a trained biologist's lack of interest in a giant spaceman head is played for laughs.  Nothing short of a taser could have gotten me or any one of my colleagues out of a room filled with honest-to-god extraterrestrial cadavers.

It's ok for the Space Jockeys to stay mysterious, but it's hard to sit through a movie when your "gods" are trying to kill you for no reason, only to have the hero lampshade at the end "you know, I really want to find out why our gods are trying to kill us."  Perhaps we should have met one that did something other than grunt and punch people out.


One problem with sci-fi body horror is that once you can fly to another planet, you have pretty much mastered quarantine procedure and you have the ability to shoot unarmed angry aliens.  This film failed to transcend these problems and just resorts to contrived stupidity.  This further cements my stance that it would take a real genius to follow up on ALIEN and ALIENS, which work because of the characters' justified ignorance.

In general, the film must disappoint because the only characters we can sympathize with fully are prevented from learning any of the answers that they are so obsessed with.  They went to uncover a universal mystery and instead everyone died for no reason.  ALIEN was a much smaller story, with much less ambitious characters, and it worked because survival became the goal and the story.  Event Horizon worked because the central mystery of the plot was actually answered to our and the characters' satisfaction, and then they could concentrate on escaping.  Even Alien vs. Predator worked on some level because the mystery was just the plot hook, we got that answered in 2 minutes of exposition, and then it was just entertaining mayhem.  But Prometheus, even though it showed us a Xenomorph and a Space Jockey WMD plant and all kinds of shit, is still just teasing us.

How Prometheus 2 should begin: Shaw wakes up from the Space Jockey cryostasis pod.  David informs her that they've located the Jockey home planet.  They land their ship and disembark to find millions of dead Xenomorphs on the ground riddled with bullet holes.  Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) strides forward toward them.  "Now where the fuck have YOU been?"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

This is why I hate tribalism

What is it about Rebecca Watson (@Skepchick) that inspires me to blog? I think she has a nose for issues too complex for me to sum up in just a few tweets...also, because it seems particularly important to be cautious and avoid misunderstandings, given that she's attracted an unusually strident and persistent hate movement.

Anyway, here is a recent Twitter exchange, that for some reason was brought to my attention by my perennial favorite blog, Pharyngula (@pzmyers).

dcturner: Grab an iron bar and leave him "Para-para.....Paralysed"
Retweeted by Rebecca Watson

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson You complain about threats of violence to women on the Internet but think its funny to joke about paralyzingly someone?

rebeccawatson: @tkmlac You might have a point there, however the "victim" doesn't see it so I don't think it's equivalent.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson True, but the situations are similar enough so that it might be worth asking where to draw the line.

Wait, no. That only happened in the mirror universe, where people who have had no previous disagreement are polite, restrained, and sane.

This is how it went.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson You complain about threats of violence to women on the Internet but think its funny to joke about paralyzingly someone?

rebeccawatson: @tkmlac If you seriously think that's anywhere near the same, you haven't been paying attention.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson Please explain it to me, then. I put paralyzing someone in the same category as rape. Bad, low humor that could offend ppl.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson I don't think the rape jokes are taken any more srsly by those making them than this twerp joking about paralyzing someone.

rebeccawatson: @tkmlac You need me to explain the dif btwn that retweet & women getting real, direct threats of physical violence? B/c, no. Figure it out.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson For the record, I'm not defending those ppl. I think it's pathetic.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson thanks for clearing that up.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson So you think the rape stuff on reddit are real threats, not kids trying to get laughs from their friends by being shocking.

rebeccawatson: @tkmlac You are very sad if you think an avalanche of rape offers directed at a 15-yr old = 1 RT of a pun that the "victim" never sees.

tkmlac: @rebeccawatson That kind of humor should be treated equally. That's all. Let's all respect each other, whether we are women or Coldplay fans

rebeccawatson: One resolution already broken: Do not argue with twits on Twitter, lest you become one with the twit.
"tkmlac" was offended by Watson's tone and the way the discussion went, so she (judging by the name "Katie" on Twitter) posted the following on Reddit.

So, r/atheism, even with the juvenile and lowbrow sexist humor, you were right all along. (self.atheism)


I didn't like seeing the rape jokes that Rebecca Watson pointed out on Skeptchick, but I didn't consider them actual threats like she did. I was glad she at least addressed the issue. Those jokes are stupid and offensive, but who am I to go on a crusade over it? Watson chose that as her "thing" and ran with it and more power to her for standing up for a young girl, even if the title of the blog was rude and misleading (you know the one, "r/atheism makes me hate atheists). I still followed her on Twitter, her and I both don't like getting hit on by drunk men, okay. Then she was complaining about her neighbor playing Coldplay loudly and retweeted someone telling her to go next door with a blunt instrument and "para-para-paralyze them."

Now, that's kind of clever, it's a play on words that incorporates a Coldplay song, but I wondered, this joke being maybe more clever than the rape jokes, still had an element of violence to it. If someone is going to go on a crusade over people insulting each other on the Internet, why would this be funny to her? So I called Watson on it, in a very nice way, explained my position, and instead of actually having a discussion about it, she shot off, flew off the handle, insulted me and called me a twit in a passive aggressive tweet.

R/atheism, I apologize from the bottom of my heart for doubting you. Rebecca Watson is a temperamental, hypocritical jerk. I un follows her so I don't have to see anymore of her mastubating her own ego anymore just to get attention. And damnit, she almost had a good points after elevatorgate, but now I'm thinking that what happened HAD to be over exaggerated by her. I wouldn't trust her to do otherwise at this point.

Tl;dr Rebecca Watson is a bitch.

...and that's when I found out about this flamewar, because while I love PZ, it does indeed seem that no flamewar that mentions him or Pharyngula is beneath notice. But I digress.

Arguably this rant is a much better example of "flying off the handle" than Watson's own dismissal. But this is what tribalism does. For months, the skeptical/atheist communities on the Internet have been doing their level best to divide the world into, to borrow PZ's terminology, "Watsonites" and "anti-Watsonites." So Watson was asked about the consistency of a bit of her humor with her stand against Internet bullying. She probably figured this was Hater #31813114 and was dismissive. tkmlac, being minorly offended/snubbed by Watson, then flew to Reddit, which is apparently now a bastion of "anti-Watsonites," and pledging allegiance to them, crying to all and sundry that obviously everything Watson had ever written or said was in question.

Watson deigned to reply to the post, making it clear to them just how much she was deigning:

To the OP: I'm sorry I called you (and myself) a "twit." It's difficult to get constant demands from people asking me to explain what are (to me) very basic concepts, particularly on Twitter, where I'm limited to 140 characters. For instance, the difference between the retweet of a one-off song-based pun that is not directed at a named individual, and a torrent of sex and rape jokes directed at a 15-year old girl.

If my neighbor was disabled and there were hundreds of people sending him direct "jokes" about paralyzing him? Yeah, that would be a problem, I agree.

So anyway, constantly explaining things like this to people who feel they deserve my time? It gets tiring. And when they persist, I will occasionally get dismissive. I'm sorry for that. It'll probably happen again because I do a lot of stuff online and I'm not perfect.

I'm not sorry for now thinking that you're an asshole for starting this thread, but whatever.

So go ahead, r/atheism! Post about what a bitch I am. I'm sure plenty of people have stories of me saying the wrong thing to them. Take all the stories and mash them together and sculpt a giant bitch statue that you can throw tomatoes at. Start a bunch more threads about the bitch statue, and then look at all the threads and point to them as evidence that the bitch statue is blowing things out of proportion again. "It was just a Tweet! Shut up already, bitch statue!"

It'll be fun.

Of course, dismissiveness aside, both times Watson was absolutely correct. Venting is not the same thing as a targeted threat, even if both involve threats about violence. She even acknowledges that she was initially too dismissive and insulting. And of course she is absolutely right that tkmlac's ridiculous overreaction was the action of, well, an asshole.

However I can't help but think that this whole thing would have gone really differently in a pre-"Elevatorgate," pre-"Redditgate" universe. If Watson hadn't (rightly or wrongly) assumed that tkmlac was insincere or opportunistic in her inquiry, i.e. that she was not on "her side," the exchange could have been much more interesting, even productive. And if tkmlac had put this whole thing into context instead of assuming that, since Watson was briefly less than a paragon of politeness, the "other side" was where she wanted to be, than I wouldn't have had to read about this horseshit in the first place.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why I keep picking at the "Elevatorgate" scab...and why everyone else is, too.


If you read my blog (all none of you) it's been awhile. Feel free to ignore the Deep Space 9 reviews below, written and ignored well over a year ago. Work happened, life happened, and lately, Twitter happened. I'm reviving this soapbox and linking it to my Facebook and Twitter accounts--which people actually read--just so I can pump out a long post. If I feel like people are commenting and reading, I'll figure out a way to revive this blog on a more permanent basis.


Here's what I want to say.

The unfortunately-named "Elevatorgate" scandal is well into its third week now. For those of you who aren't familiar with the atheist, skeptical, or feminist communities, you may have no idea what I'm talking about. Here is a succinct summary. I'll include a link below so you don't have to take my word for least point a skeptic ought to be carefully considering everyone's biases and emphases.

Rebecca Watson, aka Skepchick, was at a skeptical gathering and said a few words about sexism in the skeptical movement. Later that evening, she was taking the elevator back to her hotel room when a mystery man forever immortalized as "Elevator Guy" asked her back to his room for coffee. She turned him down, and a short time later made a video about her conference experience. She described the incident rather gently rebuked EG, saying that the situation made her "uncomfortable," and critically, said that she didn't care to be "sexualized" in that matter.

Now pay attention, because many summaries, notably the ones in the mass media, skip this part. The video inspired some responses from others in the skeptical community, some 100% positive, some critiquing. One Stef McGraw, an apparent admirer of Watson, took somewhat flip exception to Watson's description of the event as "sexualizing." Shortly thereafter, Watson took time out of a talk she was giving to roughly criticize McGraw, who was present in the audience, as nothing less than a defender of sexism.

This is McGraw's reaction, which has links to her and Watson's original posts. This is apparently her last word on the matter, and I don't blame her one bit.

It's at this point that popular blog Pharyngula weighed in, which brought the matter to my attention. PZ Myers, whom I admire very much, came down heavy on Watson's side. As soon as I read up on it, I wasn't so sure. However at this point the Internet had caught fire.

Now comes the part mass media is drooling over: Richard Dawkins elected to weigh in with three rather ill-advised comments on Pharyngula. These comments were in every sense of the word wrong, empirically, morally, and tactically (presuming that he had a motive other than to troll). You can track them down yourself, but the short version is that they trivialized the right of women to feel threatened by an unsolicited comment in an elevator at all, the likelihood of women to be sexually assaulted in one, and overall reeked of contempt. It couldn't have been a better job of tossing on gasoline if he'd been trying.

In short, I'm of the persuasion that Watson and Dawkins have both behaved badly. So where does that leave me? Isn't "Elevatorgate" Watson vs. Dawkins?


Mind you, at least one of those two has made some attempt to frame it as such. And it's in the interest of the mass media to depict it that way. "Plucky American blogger dethrones famous British scientist" is a terrific headline. And lo, how the tweeters and bloggers who unreservedly support Watson have descended. Dawkins is an old, white, pompous, misogynist short, the old guard that must be swept away. Dawkins' charitable contributions and feminist advocacy are inconvenient facts easily ignored--much less that Dawkins is in fact a sexual abuse survivor and Watson, to the best of my knowledge, is not.

But no, this is not about Watson vs. Dawkins. The true problem that Watson by her actions unwittingly unearthed is nothing less than that the "skeptical movement" itself might be a misnomer.

The concept of skepticism, by and large, has not entered the debate. Elevator Guy, a figure who can be evaluated by one line of dialogue relayed by one tired woman, is fearlessly and shamelessly depicted by debaters however it suits them. An unreservedly pro-Watson faction formed almost immediately and attacked anybody who did not join their collective with the most strident language, reminiscent of the tactics of their chosen exemplar. Anybody who dared agree with McGraw's initial critique--male, female, straight, or gay--was immediately dismissed as a sexist. Criticizing Dawkins and standing up for Watson's original video are not enough. Agreeing with Stef McGraw that Watson was not "sexualized" (or at least she hasn't made her case) is more than enough to get you excluded from the pro-Watson brigade, which will then claim that it alone represents "women," "feminists," and/or "people who get it."

And as for the "other side" (which is about as monolithic as the Balkans)? Well, there have to my mind been some excellent responses. See here, and all the recent posts here. Unfortunately, it's also brought troglodytes and the worst kind of "pro-man activists" out of the woodwork. IMO this seems to go beyond the normal "if you post it they will troll" that's the cost of doing business
on the internet. These screeds are also relentlessly non-skeptical, they are sometimes hateful, and like Dawkins (but more so) they only weaken the position that misogyny is not rampant in the skeptical movement.

The emphasis on arguing loud and emotional, as opposed to well, has bogged down the skeptical movement in a flailing funk. Make no mistake, the simple anti-Dawkins story plays well now, but if this goes on long enough someone will write a real story and the skeptical movement, a small yet plucky beast at the best of times, will become a laughing stock. It's already been seriously suggested that this is a "schism." Allow me to get briefly profane: this isn't a fucking cult, assholes. It should freeze your blood that a group that has something like 99% agreement on major religious, political, and scientific issues is cheerfully devouring itself over Skepchick's anecdote. Groups that possess political power DO NOT get paralyzed by issues this small.

One of the contributing factors to our chronic case of talking past each other is an inability to agree to even the simplest of terms. So I'll construct a brief glossary:

Feminism: the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state (Cambridge). I can say that Richard Dawkins is not a feminist, but I would be wrong.

(actions based on) the belief that the members of one sex are less intelligent, able, skilful, etc. than the members of the other sex, especially that women are less able than men (Cambridge). Disagreeing with a woman does not reflect that I am a sexist, but if I disagreed with nearly all women I'd start to wonder.

Male privilege:
a sociological term that refers quite generally to the special rights or status granted to men in a society on the basis of their sex or gender, but usually denied to women and/or transsexuals (Wikipedia). Ha ha! I have the right to ask you out, but you don't have a right to ask me out, thanks to my male privilege! Actually, I kind of wish you would ask me out. Oh god, I'm so alone.

Women: A woman is a female human (Wikipedia). They are possessed of a considerable diversity of opinions, but are often treated as a single monolithic class by online debaters of both genders (pers. obs.) I speak for all women when I say you're a bitch!

Sexualization: to make sexual in character or quality (, and just try and find a more reputable source for this definition). I'm trying to ask a girl out without sexualizing her but it's somewhat difficult. Perhaps I'll ask her for coffee?

given these definitions, I'd like to point out some fallacies I have observed:

1. This is not a case of "feminists" vs. "everyone else." There are feminists on both sides of the issue. This is true even if you believe that men cannot be feminists. A variant of this is pretending that this is "women" vs. "men." This is facially untrue, but be prepared to see the term "gender traitor" flung about if you point this out.
2. The proper response to a technical dispute in feminist theory (is an unwelcome come-on an example of sexualization, which is a bloody poorly defined term) is not an accusation of sexism. It would be impossible for feminist theory to do anything but stagnate if this was a standard response in the field. This is analogous to charging a fellow evolutionary biologist with creationism due to a disagreement over how many millions of years ago a divergence took place.
3. Strawmen, and by the bushel. A nice example is Greta Christina's post that everyone is crowing over. She presents a beautifully reasoned argument against a caricature that does not exist--an alleged group of men who are stridently defending mankind's "right" to inappropriately proposition women. Seriously, I've been searching the elevatorgate hashtag on Twitter every day for two weeks now and there's simply nobody saying this. I think she picked a troll at random to focus on.
Of course, Dawkins himself presented a strawman of Skepchick as blithely unconcerned with global misogyny. And Jen McCreight is apparently getting it from idiots over her posing for some calendar while simultaneously taking Watson's side that EG was sexist and creepy. Disagree with Jen all you want, but her calendar-posing has fuck-all to do with anything. (Guess that's more of a Red Herring than a strawman.)
4. There is much bewailing and gnashing of teeth over men and women who "just don't get it." The implication is that all boys and girls who got "Feminism 101" would agree with Watson et al. If you think this is true, keep in mind that a condescending teacher educates his or her pupils but poorly.

So there you have it. We are so eager to exclude and define that we have rejected all that is laudable about skepticism in favor of fallacy, categorizing, rejection. No matter who you think is "right," if anyone, this is a problem. If you prize the skeptical movement, you must become aware that it is throwing away its two most important strengths: unity of purpose, and its own professed rationality.

I'm going to close with a list of what I think the interconnected but distinct questions that "Elevatorgate" has raised actually are, and give my position on each.

1. Did EG behave appropriately?

No. His choice of setting and his actions made a fellow human being very uncomfortable.

2. Is EG a sexist or a misogynist?

Impossible to say.

3. Is sexism endemic in the skeptical movement?

Possibly. It is endemic in society at large, and many women have shared anecdotes about unwelcome male attention. I don't believe there is any stronger evidence than that however.

4. Does EG demonstrate this?

Fuck no. In my opinion fixating on EG and Dawkins is a crucial tactical error by the group of thinkers who seek to expose and abolish sexism in the skeptical movement. They are trivializing themselves by focusing on individuals who are natural allies (EG is a cipher but Dawkins has a strong history of feminist advocacy), and they are therefore not making their case.

When the conclusion does not follow from the premises, peer pressure alone will not unite the skeptical movement.

5. Was Watson wrong to post her video?

Absolutely not. Some do think she was: I categorically disagree. Many pro-Watson bloggers think this is the primary axis of the argument--I'm not sure what argument they think they're having. I (and McGraw) dispute a single point that she raised in the video. It was once possible to discuss this point of contention like adults.

6. Was Watson wrong to attack McGraw?

Yes. I believe that she set the unacceptable tone of the "debate," immediately.

7. Did Dawkins produce some grade-A shitty blog comments on Pharyngula?

Yes, see above.

8. Do you think that a boycott is an appropriate response?

No, it's a petty overreaction. Witness Ophelia Benson, Jen McCreight, and PZ Myers jump ship from this...actually, Watson's latest post seems to back away from this as well. I think she's actually a lot more moderate on the whole shitstorm than many of her supporters who have taken to the barricades on Twitter, Facebook, and various blogs.

9. What about the letters from victimized women to Dawkins?

I have no problem with the concept; I think it's good all around for him to recognize the wrongness of his comments. I can't speak in more detail because I refuse to go through the letters and nitpick them. I presume that they are all sincere and, thus, laudable.

10. Do I think that discussion of "Elevatorgate" should stop?

No, I do not, because for whatever reason this has hit a chord with hundreds of people and inspired real passion within the movement. All of the negative consequences of "Elevatorgate" flow from a lack of reason and empathy. Prominent individuals on both "sides" have laid into their "enemies" in the movement as eagerly as they've ever laid into actual misogynists, scam artists, and religionists. The culture of violent rhetoric and exclusion that many of us find so appealing has poisoned our movement, and the likes of Jeremy Stangroom are justified in their gloating.

Keep talking. Stop yelling. I'm not bitching about tone for its own sake; I'm imploring us to stop being a bunch of idiots who can't distinguish each other from genuine threats to our way of life.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Here is the list of things that are distracting me:

The end of the semester just happened, I just had my 23rd birthday, got a Nintendo DS for my birthday, started a new project, and my beautiful girlfriend Courtney is going to be here tomorrow.

I've actually watched a lot more episodes than I've reviewed, but I plan to get to them! Next up, the delightful "Trials and Tribble-ations!"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

DS9 Reviews: "The Assignment"

Ok, so I've been toiling away with a couple of my very favorite phylogenetics programs for hours now, and when I put in a command, it takes them a good few minutes to process. It's been very start-and-stop, a frustrating way to work. If I were better at multi-tasking I'd be reading papers, but I will try this instead. So this review itself may come out a little disjointed, but no one will grade me for it (let alone read it).

So...according to the excellent Star Trek Wiki "Memory Alpha," about once a year the writers liked to do an "O'Brien Must Suffer" episode. This is the entry for season 5. The basic story of the episode is that a malign presence has taken over O'Brien's wife, Keiko, and is coercing O'Brien into doing its bidding under the threat of murdering Keiko.

I think Star Trek badly overuses fantasy cliches (overlaid with obnoxious technobabble) like possession. Hell, there was already an episode back in NextGen where O'Brien was possessed but Keiko wasn't! Nonetheless, this episode somehow manages to transcend its premise to become perhaps the most solid episode of this early part of season 5.

So anyway, the episode picks up as Keiko returns from a trip to Bajor and her apologetic husband has killed her precious bonsai trees out of semi-comical ineptitude. Keiko, a botanist, uncharacteristically brushes it off with "They're just plants, Miles." She then very matter-of-factly states that she's actually an incorporeal being, possessing his wife, and that she can kill her in a split second. O'Brien isn't quite sure how to take this, but as he finds out, treating it like a joke was not the best idea. In this setting, that's just a dangerous lack of genre savvy.

So the possessing creature (later revealed as a "Pah-wraith," so henceforth, "the wraith") gets this close to killing Keiko, stands back up, and thus establishes the rules. This scene is very creepy and it works because Colm Meaney and Rosalind Chao had been playing husband and wife for over six years at this point, even if only semi-frequently. Chao really seems to relish getting to order Meaney around in, not in a "comically nagging wife" way, but a life or death kind of way. She, as the wraith, also plays the part of Keiko perfectly when anyone else is around, even throwing the awkwardest birthday party ever for Miles. "It would arouse suspicion if we canceled it, dear." She even insists that they share the bed, though this being Star Trek that's as far as it goes (and it's quite creepy enough!) She tells him to make a large number of seemingly minor modifications to the station, with a strict time limit, and to do so without arousing suspicion.

The wraith is a brutally effective villain because there's seemingly no stopping it. O'Brien runs down a list with the computer of ways he could render her unconscious, but none of them are faster than the split second it would take the wraith to burst a blood vessel in his wife's head. The wraith has relatively little to lose, since it won't be harmed by this...if O'Brien forces the issue, the wraith gets a setback but O'Brien loses his wife. She can also threaten their young daughter Molly. The deadline she has him working under is too harsh for him to get much time to consider alternatives. When he does try to get help from the other crew members on the Promenade, the wraith has Keiko jump off the balcony--she knows everything Keiko knows and can predict his movements. Sure that part's a little contrived, but it certainly keeps the tension boiling.

This episode also does some very neat dovetailing of it's A- and B-plots. When last we saw Rom (Quark's brother and Nog's father), he had lent his considerable engineering talents to the service of the station, quitting his job at Quark's and working as a maintenance technician. We see in this episode that he's not very popular initially, both because he's a Ferengi and because he's a bit of an idiot savant, with absolutely no sense of social graces. Sometimes Rom is painful to watch, but in this episode he's more entertaining, joyfully trying to fit in by eating Earth-style breakfasts as his disgusted brother looks on.

Rom's position as a social pariah on the night shift, his dedicated work ethic, and his incredible engineering skills make him the perfect tool for O'Brien as he frantically tries to complete the modifications. It's a little sad how he takes advantage of Rom, telling him that he's on a secret Starfleet mission and not to say anything to the senior staff even if he is asked (as they are testing his loyalty, see). This even extends to setting him up for the fall when the senior officers notice the modifications and catch Rom in the act. This is an awfully shitty thing for a guy to do, and yet...who among us would not, for the sake of their wife or husband? The characters have been married in the show for so long that there's no "establishing" how much O'Brien cares for her, it just IS.

By now O'Brien has only a few hours to go, and he's almost finished when Odo, having a devil of a time wringing any answers out of the guy, drags O'Brien down to talk with him.

Rom's character development since the early days is evident here. He keeps the chief's secret but reveals that he knows it's not a secret Starfleet operation, and he's also figured out the purpose of the modifications where O'Brien has not--the station is now set to flood the wormhole with "chroniton" particles, killing the aliens who live in it...the Bajoran Prophets.

Just to remind you all (and because I'll be dealing with them at great length in later episodes), the Prophets are the gods of Bajor, discovered to be non-corporeal aliens living in the wormhole by Sisko back in the pilot episode. Now, the reason that they are "Prophets," supposedly, is that they experience time in a "non-linear" fashion.

This is a really cool idea that makes alarmingly little sense. See, the Prophets talk to our characters from time to time (as they must, for them to have any relevance in the show) and yet they respond to them in an unmistakably "linear" fashion (i.e. the characters give them information, convince them of things, negotiate with them, etc. Heck, in "Emissary" they are surprised to meet Sisko). One can imagine that they experience the future and yet are doomed to continue to act it out, a la "Dr. Manhattan" from Watchmen (who doesn't really make sense either). Yet, they themselves rarely do interact with the physical plane and alter the course of events for seemingly arbitrary reasons. How can they experience the future even as they are causing it to change?

The wraith's nefarious plot revealed, it pays lip service to these creatures' "non-linearity" even as it highlights their "linearity." See, "chroniton particles" are Star Trek's magic time travel voodoo (See Star Trek First Contact) and the idea is that they will kill off the Prophets by "forcing them to interact with time" or something. Yet if they were not interacting with time already, it seems very strange how a plot to assassinate them could possibly be executed.

"Non-linear beings" are probably nonsensical. But from a scriptwriting point of view? They are REALLY nonsensical.

It gets better. So the Pah-wraiths turn out to be basically evil, exiled Prophets that were stuck on Bajor (in the "Fire Caves", where Keiko visited. Woops.) guess who's vulnerable to "chroniton particles" too?

The ending of this episode could be seen coming, but it is no less satisfying. O'Brien, on the run from the station personnel who have finally figured out his game, convinces the wraith that he's still willing to help by saying "I know what you're up to but I don't care about your damn incorporeal war. I just want my wife back." Which, frankly...wouldn't be too out of character for him. Why does he give a shit? He's never met a Prophet. So they board a runabout, open the wormhole, trigger the station's new Prophet-killing beam, but OOPS, O'Brien targeted the runabout instead. And apparently THAT kills the wraith faster than it can kill Keiko. Hell yeah!

And thus, O'Brien outfoxes the wraith, gets his wife back, avoids any consequences by simply explaining to everyone what was going on, and promotes Rom to the day shift. Which means this IS an unusual "Screw over O'Brien" episode...usually he gets insanity downloaded directly into his brain, or maimed, or copied and forced to kill himself, or something else insane like that. This one actually has a pretty happy ending!

One reason why this show is interesting is that it was clearly written to be a stand-alone show, like every other "O'Brien's Life Sucks" and "Random Ghost-Alien Possession" episode. Shows like this that use only standing sets and have cast members randomly being mean to each other are, essentially, cheap filler programs, and DS9 did plenty of 'em in the early seasons that never were referenced again.

And yet...this becomes one of the most important episodes of the show, in retrospect. Years later, the thread of the Prophets' enemies, the Pah-wraiths, is picked up and becomes key to the show. In this episode, the precise motivations and nature of the being that takes over Keiko is somewhat important to the plot, but is ultimately could easily imagine that the relative handful of lines dealing with it were simply added at the last minute because some smart guys (according to the wiki, Rene Echevarria and Robert Wolfe) realized the potential future storyline.

This is the kind of planting and payoff that Babylon 5 excelled in, right from the pilot. It took Star Trek a good, long while to catch up to the idea. :P