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Category Archives: Rants
After a long, long wait, I recently purchased StarCraft II. Yes, I know it came out last year, but I only recently got a computer capable of running it. The game is great. It is absolutely everything I wanted out of a StarCraft sequel. I even love that it’s not even the complete game- that we have to wait for Zerg and the Protoss campaigns. Knowing that there’s more there adds excitement.
However, there’s one thing that I don’t like at all about StarCraft II. One thing that I find almost inexcusably loathsome. Horrible. Hideous. Disgustingly terrible.
I hate, hate, hate, hate that it’s an online game. Or rather, I hate that it has to be one. I have no problem with Battle.net, Blizzard’s multiplayer network. In fact, I kind of love it. I love that it matches players of like skill level and that you can import Facebook friends. I love that there are all kinds of achievements that you can get to decorate your profile. I love how easy it makes online gaming.
But I don’t want to have to be there.
It is impossible to play StarCraft II without logging into Battle.net. This is distasteful. Right now, I’m playing through the single player campaign, yet every time I start up the game, I have to log into Battle.net, and that offends my sensibilities. This is not because I don’t like Battle.net- it is a veritable strategy game paradise- but because StarCraft II is so closed and locked-down, it might as well have been designed by Apple.
There is no option to play on a LAN. This is repulsively horrid. I have fond memories of playing SC on my dorms LAN back in college. It’s ridiculous that a multiplayer game won’t allow for such things- multiplayer games and LANs are practically synonymous.
Mods and whatnot will be much more difficult to implement. I’ve played quite a bit of Civilization IV, and that game was greatly enriched by Fall From Heaven, a fantasy-based mod. Several other player-made mods (sometimes of dubious quality) abounded on the Civ forums, and the old copy of Unreal Tournament that I’ve got socked away on an old hard drive is very heavily modded with all kinds of ridiculous add-ons and extra widgets.
I also very much believe that games should be playable for an indefinite period of time. If you get a copy of Risk, for example, that game is playable as long as you have all the pieces. Likewise, if you were to get an old NES you could fire up any old cartridge you wanted and it would still function. Games that are dependent on online support don’t have this. StarCraftII demands that you authenticate it with Blizzard in order to work. I know that some enterprising hacker will find a way around this, but it’s terrible that if in thirty years there’s no more Blizzard, those old SCII discs will be unplayable as-is. Old NES cartridges and copies of Risk, on the other hand, will still work fine.
I guess I’m starting to sound like Corey Doctrow or some other anti-DRM digital web-libertarian type. I’ve all but shouted “screws, not glue!” I do believe in that sort of thing. I do believe that once you own something, you should do with it as you please, and that games, after money is exchanged, should be play-withable without a lot of mandatory interference from their makers. And, it’s not that I don’t like Battle.net. But, as beautiful, as wonderful, and as expertly engineered as it is- it should be optional.
The other day I had the occasion to go to a mall with some friends, and the whole Cathedral of Consumption (as per usual, this time of year) was decked out with tinsel and faux tree branches, red ribbons and assorted signifiers of consumptive yuletide. Winter Wonderland and its ilk played on the loudspeakers. Patrons moved about, negotiating mall traffic whilst clutching multiple red-and-gold bags redolent with perfunctory gifts.
Such things were expected, but in the mall I espied another seasonal phenomenon. There with the wreaths and the songs and the rest of it were several different versions of Monopoly. Not just in one store (Barnes and Noble may have been the worst offender) but in several.
Classic Monopoly. Star Wars Monopoly. Disney Monopoly. Simpsons Monopoly. Family Guy Monopoly. Anniversary Monopoly in a gold box. Monopoly called “Onyx Edition” which is in a black box for some reason. Monopoly, Monopoly, endless fucking Monopoly.
I hate Monopoly. I hate it as a game, as an object, and as a gift. I hate that it’s successful and enduring. I hate that it’s a piece of Americana and a fixture of households. I hate that it teaches bad lessons about economics and how real estate works. Worst of all, this year countless editions of it will be given as a thoughtless gift. Festive wrapping paper, glowing with festive potential, will be unfurled to reveal a board game of dubious fun and economic fallacy. The various editions will be played once, probably on Christmas or the day after, and then boxed for good. The various bills and pieces will be lost, possibly lodging themselves under refrigerators or in the ducts of heating systems. Years later, when cleaning a vent, someone will find a small, half-melted bit of plastic, and infer that a Monopoly hotel probably got lodged in there somehow.
As a game it requires little to no skill and the conclusion is usually evident from the start. Someone manages to buy up the various valuable properties, and from then it is only a matter of time until the other players go bankrupt. There are no comebacks in Monopoly, and after a certain point little of the uncertainty which lends any game drama. There is very little room for cleverness or wit, very little space for elegance. It is, ultimately, a grown-up version of Candyland- a game flush with iconic adornment, but has very little in the way of actual playability. For all of its non-complexity, it demands that we pay attention and store the various player pieces, cards, bills, houses, hotels, and dice. Upend a Monopoly box, and a whole bunch of disparate shit is on the floor. It is disparate shit that is so much sound a fury (in plastic form) signifying very nearly nothing at all.
Monopoly inspires my hatred precisely because I love games so much. I love Scrabble and Cranium. I love Jenga and Apples to Apples and Trivial Pursuit. I dearly love Risk, in all of its incarnations. Each one of these games has more elegance, more grace, more intelligence and is ultimately a better source of fun than Monopoly. Yet Monopoly gets endlessly repeated and endlessly sold, and is, for some reason, one of the best loved board games out there.
This year, I implore you: Do not buy your loved ones Monopoly. Buy them something with drama, like Axis and Allies. Gift them a game that will actually make a party better (nor more boring) like Apples to Apples. Wrap in paper a game that excites the strategic mind, like Risk. These games, I guarantee you, will be more fun the Monopoly, a terrible game that is wholly unworthy of the attention, money, and love that it receives.
More than once in the past year and a half, I’ve felt myself biting back on a strong but irrational negative emotional sensation. It wells up in the back of the throat and steams behind the eyes, fomenting in the upper chest and manifesting in clenched fingers that coalesce into fists. Various primal (and unproductive) responses assert themselves, and I have to say to them “calm down.” In a few moments, it goes.
This incipient rage? Near hatred of the Baby Boomer generation. In particular, any Boomers tilting their heads and gazing in wonderment at the plight of people in their twenties and thirties. I found that much talked about piece in the New York Times earlier this year to be utterly infuriating. More recently, though, the Oregonian ran a story asking if Portland was the new Neverland, (as opposed to the old one?) and the proceeded to mock young-ish people for not yet having “real” jobs and wasting time with bikes and comic books.
Whenever I see this sort of thing, I’m dumbstruck by how Boomers (yes, I’m generalizing) try to assign blame and point fingers at younger generations for presumably not doing anything, being layabouts and slackers. I have two responses to this:
1: Older generations have always complained about “kids these days.” Here’s a famous quote you’ve probably heard before:
The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
Ladies and gentlemen, that was Socrates. Hearing the older generation bitch about the next is literally as old as Western Civilization itself.
2: The issue of people in their twenties and thirties isn’t really an issue about what’s wrong with them, or the culture, or anything else. It’s an economic issue, and trying to dodge that reality is, I think, intellectually cowardly.
We are still reeling from the effects of a gigantic recession, and are only slowly recovering. The cause of all recessions, broadly speaking, is a failure of demand. When people don’t want, don’t need, or can’t afford various goods and services, we all suffer.
Right now, there is a below-average demand for labor. Experienced workers (older workers) are going to receive preference over people who have just gotten out of degree programs or have only a few years of experience (i.e., less than a decade) and it stands to reason that younger workers will suffer.
In the meantime, why not get on a bike? (It’s cheaper than owning a car!) And why not make comics? (If you’ve got a lot of free time, you might as well do something creative in order to use your brain.) The issue that gets decried as being some kind of generational anomaly actually has everything to do with the disappearing middle class.
And so, when it is framed in generational terms, my instinct is to snap back at the Boomers and tell them that the Rolling Stones are overrated. I bite it back, though, talking myself down with a nice little internal economics lecture.
Wish they’d do the same thing…
For the first time in my life, I willingly approached a Greenpeace canvasser. “Hello,” I said to her.
“Hi!” She was smiley and pixie-like and had red streaks in her hair.
“I know you guys have been on this street corner all day. My bike’s been parked over there, and someone stole the front wheel. Have you guys seen anything?”
She thought for a minute. “Yeah!” she said, “there was some guy messing with a bike over there earlier, but I didn’t get a good look at him.”
“Any idea of what time?”
“Maybe two. I don’t know. Three? I was watching the pedestrians, mostly.”
“Do you want to help save the environment today?”
“Look, I just had the front wheel of my bike stolen.”
“You ride a bike! Obviously you care about the environment.”
“I’m in a very bad mood right now, and have to file a police report.”
“Okay, but it’s a great cause!”
I walked away. The corner where my wheel was stolen, SW Broadway and Morrison, is an incredibly busy spot. Several retail spots, tons of pedestrians, a few buskers, some canvassers, and a handful security guards are nearly always there during the day.
I asked around to see if anyone had seen someone messing with my bike. I asked the Baskin Robbins, Abercrombie &, Fitch, Nordstrom, multiple security guards, a few buskers, and a great deal of Pioneer Courthouse Square. I didn’t know why. There was no chance that I’d get my wheel back, I suppose I wanted some sort of satisfaction, or wanted to know that it wasn’t possible to just go up to a bike in a public place and, you know, steal parts of it without detection. The presence of lots of people would be enough to deter you.
Unfortunately, no one had seen anything of substance. My bike wheel was crippled, and some thief has a new front wheel, along with an old tire and much-patched tube. I was annoyed at the thieves, certainly (I had some nice thoughts about weaponizing my U lock and bruising up their soft tissue with it) but I was also pissed at Portland itself. This was on a dynamic, well-trafficked intersection. I would hope that the light of day, the presence of crowds, and general feel of the area would be enough to deter crime. It usually is, but today I got to be the one guy who happened to get his shit jacked.
In a very, very public place. The whole incident reminded me how easy it is to slip beneath people’s perception, as this clip illustrates. Stealing is actually quite easy, as is sleight-of-hand, being unnoticed, and stealth in general. When I was in high school, a classmate walked into a McDonald’s, took the gigantic ketchup dispenser with him, and then walked out. Nothing happened to him (he claimed that it was a “social experiment” and subsequently had a ketchup dispenser in his locker all year.) The Willamette Week actually did a story on this, and a reporter was able to very easily steal his own bike. I don’t have any profound conclusion here, but I really do want to believe that the presence of tons and tons of people on an intersection an exert enough ambient social pressure to make people behave. It works, I suppose, most of the time, but every so often a crowd of people on a street corner are all too happy to see nothing.
If I spent all of my time railing against right-wingers with whom I disagree, I would have no breath left in my lungs. However, I recently came across a column I thought was so subtly nasty, that I was compelled to write about it.
Like most snooty American liberals, I read the New York Times editorial page. Paul Krugman is probably my favorite avuncular bearded economist, and I find Thomas Friedman sort of amusing, as he usually gets quite enthusiastic about issues that broke five or so years ago. (I recall him being very excited about cell phone cameras in the mid 2000s. It was cute.)
Yesterday at dinner my friend L asked me if I’d read it that morning, and I said that I hadn’t. She alerted me to a piece by Ross Douthat, the NYT‘s resident token conservative who isn’t David Brooks. Douthat’s column was basically a screed against gay marriage, but not for the reasons that you’d expect. He does not seem to oppose gay marriage for religious reasons or because it will lead to polygamy. He says, basically, that heterosexual marriage is special because:
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.
Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.
This is utter sophistry. This is ahistorical dreck. This is nothing but thin apologetics for bigotry. A few points:
1: Douthat’s last section, about “equality of the sexes” is particularly laughable, especially when juxtaposed with Christian and Jewish beliefs. The ideal of sexual equality is new, and we don’t have religious traditions to thank for it. Thank the feminist movement. Thank women’s liberation. Thank Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem for that. Prior to that, wives were pretty much property. You’re actually going to claim that “later ideas” “supplemented” religious beliefs? No. Just the opposite. These later ideas overturned religious beliefs.
2: He is also equating marriage with monogamy. Admittedly, this is most people’s expectation, but it is entirely possible for married couples to have any array of sexual arrangements open to them. There are plenty of happily married non-monogamists out there, and their marital unions are as legally binding as anyone else’s. Marriage, really, is about whatever the people in it say it’s about.
3: Douthat also brings children into the equation. Aside from the fact that the children of gay couples tend to be just fine, who says marriage has to be about children? Matrimony doesn’t equate to kids.
4: Heterosexual marriage, says Douthat, is distinctive. All relationships are. Heterosexual relationships are distinct from each other, and homosexual relationships are also distinct from each other. For instance, an elderly couple who get married late in life and can’t have children will have a very different relationship than young people who pop out tons of kids. Both relationships, though, are worthy of legal sanction.
Douthat ends his column with this bit of semi-coherent vileness:
[I]f we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
“But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea
Douthat obviously thinks highly of heterosexual marriage. Great. Wonderful. Good for him. However, we’re not just talking about how we feel about people’s relationships, here. We’re talking about the law.
We’re talking about health care and inheritance, tax breaks and hospital visitation rights. We’re talking about partner benefits and unique legal protections that apply to spouses. We’re talking about a whole array of privileges that come with marriage. Very real privileges that translate into rights, money, and legal recognition. For that state to deny such things just because “lifelong heterosexual monogamy is a unique and indispensable estate” is indeed “bigoted and un-American.”
The state, in matters sexual, really ought to be neutral. We would balk at the government taking official positions on religious beliefs, political parties, or journalistic entities. Theoretically, the state is neutral with how it treats with all of those in their various forms and kinds. It should be likewise so with sexual behavior.
I would not be nearly so incensed about this if it weren’t in the New York Times. Not because the NYT is a liberal newspaper, but because it’s serious one with standards, an editorial board, and all that. Even though they carry Maureen Dowd, I still expect them to maintain a certain degree of intellectual cache.
Douthat would be a more honest person if he just said his thesis directly- that he does not like the idea of gay relationships. He is, I imagine, uncomfortable with the idea of two men having sex. Such queasiness is not the basis for law. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of two fat people having sex, but I still believe they should get to have their relationship sanctioned.
There is nothing left for the opponents of gay marriage. No argument that carries any sort of serious weight. Nothing for them to say that is at all persuasive. On every meaningful philosophical point, they have lost. Douthat and others like him are grasping at straws, and those straws are slipping away.
I recently watched Dirty Harry for the first time, which had since then been something of a hole in my pop-culture education. I enjoyed the movie, but found its politics to be somewhat objectionable.
To briefly sum up the film, Harry Callahan pursues and catches the Scorpio killer, a serial murderer who uses a sniper rifle, through San Francisco. Scorpio is let loose after his release, though, because the district attorney say that Harry didn’t inform the suspect of his rights, that he violated multiple sections of the Constitution, and that all of the evidence that Harry obtained was done so illegally.
The scene in which Harry is informed by the district attorney that there is no way that the authorities can bring a case is preposterous. If anything, a district attorney passing up the chance to put away a serial killer seems highly improbable. The chance to lock away a high-profile sicko is the career-making move that most DAs probably dream of.
However, the prospect of realistically portraying the civilian authorities (along with the DA, the police chief and the mayor are portrayed as similarly toothless) is not Dirty Harry‘s project. The film goes out of its way to portray such authorities as weak so that Harry, by comparison, may appear strong.
Dirty Harry posits that the warrior caste of a society may second-guess the civilian authorities. Not just may, but should. Harry’s decisions are portrayed as wiser, braver, and more socially responsible than those of his police chief, the district attorney, or the mayor.
A democratic, civilized society means that the state retains a monopoly on force. Force is controlled, regulated, and not used lightly. Private citizens may not initiate force- they may only use it in self-defense. Indeed, the state may not display aggression, either- it may only use it in a situation where the larger ends of society are served by the judicious application of violence.
Those who apply violence for desirable social ends do so at the pleasure of civilization at large. The police and soldiers who may engage in violence do so in a context where they are ruled by civilization. It is most decidedly not the reverse. The warriors do not rule in a democratic society. (Hence the hooplah some years ago about W. wearing an Air Force jumpsuit. Presidents, even if they have served in the military, traditionally always wear civilian clothes.)
Dirty Harry posits that the mechanisms of democracy are fundamentally broken, that the safeguards of law and order, the rights embedded in the Constitution, are deterrents to justice. In Dirty Harry, the implication is that if San Francisco really wanted to catch the Scorpio killer, if they were serious, then they would not go to the mayor, the police chief, or the DA. If they were serious, they would go to Harry Callahan and allow the warrior caste to call the shots over the civilians, not the other way around.
The stance implied by the film is a deplorable and socially irresponsible position, basically stating that borderline-sociopathic individuals such as Harry Callahan are necessary for civilization’s survival. The whole thesis of the movie reminded me of another famous speech, wherein Jack Nicholson’s Co. Jessup rationalizes his existence in A Few Good Men.
The scene above, though, is more nuanced because Jessup is explaining himself to other members of the military. A Few Good Men is essentially about members of the armed forces who conduct themselves as normal participants in a democracy rooting out and investigating those (such as Jessup) who behave as if they belong to an exceptional warrior caste a la Harry Callahan.
The polar opposite of Nicholson’s speech (and ideological sibling to Dirty Harry) is Team America: World Police. I’ve always found the final (NSFW) speech to be something like the opposite of A Few Good Men, and in it Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to articulating something akin Dirty Harry’s thesis- that society needs a certain population of nasty, violent people in order to survive.
Though they admit that pussies are necessary, too. How big of them.
Make no mistake, I am not a pacifist. Not by any means. I don’t believe that we should dismantle the Pentagon or anything like that, and I find people who are reflexively anti-police to be kind of strange. Every contact I’ve had with people who’ve been members of the armed forces or law enforcement has led me to believe that those who are responsible for public safety are more or less normal people. I worked for the Department of Public Safety at the University of Oregon for two years, and none of the police officers I met (a few of which were former military) seemed nearly weirdly barbarous as Harry Callahan. My grandfather was in the U.S. Army, and while he had seen and participated in WWII’s horrors, he certainly wasn’t a monster.
Granted, the Dirty Harry is a bit self-conscious about how monstrous the protagonist is- the word “dirty” is right there in the title, after all- and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t delight in seeing Clint Eastwood blow dudes away while glaring that steely glare of his. But, Dirty Harry tries to turn the pathologies of the main character into virtues; virtues that civilization supposedly needs in order to endure. We do need warriors, certainly. We need cops and soldiers and marines and fighter pilots. That is true. But we do not need monsters. We do not need Col. Jessup or Team America, and we certainly don’t need Harry Callahan to survive.
I like numbered streets. They are a force of good in the world. If, for example, you are looking for 32nd Ave, you would do well to look between 31st and 33rd. Easy, intuitive, and logical. Numbered streets are wonderful. Only slightly less awesome are streets that are in alphabetical order.
Portland, though, has decided that the beautiful efficiency of numbers is apparently a bad idea, and has started chipping away at this by renaming 39th Ave Cesar Chavez Blvd. Now, I have nothing against Chavez- but I mourn heavily the loss of number 39, an innocent number that really should be nestled in their with its little sister, 38, and its big brother, 40. Instead, the number 39 is now a restless orphan, wandering the streets alone and trying to sell matches, all the while slowly dying of consumption.
I want to reiterate this again- I have no problem with Cesar Chavez Blvd. as a name. However, I would be opposed to replacing any number with anything. If 15th were going to be replaced with Cuddly Bunny St., I would oppose that. If 82nd was going to be renamed Delicious Pie Ave., I would oppose that. If 33rd was going to be rechristened Screaming Orgasm Drive, I would oppose that, too.
Maybe I’d be okay with having 42nd renamed Douglas Adams Ave. Maybe.
If we wanted to commemorate Cesar Chavez, then we should have used a street with a boring, prosaic, name. I think Grand would have been an ideal candidate. It’s a main arterial, not a numbered street, and has an entirely generic name that could suffer a bit of erasing. Instead, we got rid of a perfectly lovely number. As awesome a guy as Cesar Chavez was, he can never replace 39. No one can.
Over the past year plus that I’ve lived here, I have found new reasons to love you. New areas of weirdness and wonder, new quirks and oddities to marvel at. You, Portland, are a tremendous place, and I routinely feel a swell of irrational pride at you being my native city. However, there is something that we need to talk about. Something that you could be doing better. No, it’s not the lack of bike lanes on Sandy Blvd., though that is annoying. Nor is it the eyesore that is SE Powell. I have every confidence you’ll clean those up eventually. No, what we need to talk about, Portland, is the couple of blocks downtown that you have decided to dub “Chinatown.”
Chinatown sucks, Portland. It’s more than a little embarrassing. I was recently in San Francisco, and took a stroll through that city’s Chinatown. I’d been there before, but it’s a fun neighborhood and I was with people who’d never been. I snapped a few photos. Here’s an example:
That’s not any particular landmark or a significant intersection or anything. That’s just a bit on the street. Nothing too unusual. Here’s another one:
Again, that’s not a famous landmark or anything. I was just walking down the street, snapping away like an obnoxious tourist, and took a picture of that building. Pretty commonplace.
For contrast, here’s the House of Louie, one of Portland Chinatown’s most “Chinese” buildings. It’s kind of decrepit and sort of a sad sight:
And here’s Royal Family Ginseng, right next door, abandoned. Someone papered up the windows, but now those brown sheets are peeling away, the markings of abandonment themselves disintegrating:
And that’s it, really. There are a few other “Chinese” type buildings, but that’s pretty much it in terms of what Portland has. Why the disjunction? Why does San Francisco have a Chinatown where storefronts and apartments are culturally distinctive and Portland has pretty much just a pair of crumbling buildings?
The answer is pretty simple- San Francisco’s Chinatown actually has Chinese people in it. The distinctive cultural flair of the area, the storefronts, tea shops, and restaurants, are all a product of the actual residents. Sure, they play it up for the tourists, but it’s completely possible to go into a dim sum shop and be the only English speaker in the place. San Francisco’s Chinatown actually reflects an immigrant population where they can get together, speak their own language, eat their own food, etc. As someone who’s been a stranger in a foreign country, I can totally see why such a place is necessary.
Portland, on the other hand, has a big gate, a bunch of red street lamps, and some rather dubious buildings. That’s about it. What’s missing from Portland’s Chinatown is, well, Chinese people. The are near Old Town is the official Chinatown, but there are a lot more Chinese people and businesses out on 82nd Ave. In the official Chinatown you can find hipsters, drunks, and homeless, but you won’t hear anyone speaking Mandarin.
So, Portland, here’s what I’m proposing: stop pretending. Stop pretending that we have a Chinatown, because we really don’t. We have a neighborhood with some red lamp posts, and that’s about it. It is a neighborhood that I really like, but it’s not reflective of an immigrant population, it’s not an enclave that Chinese people have made for themselves. I’m not saying we should tear down the big gate or anything, but we should all acknowledge that Portland’s Chinatown is, at the end of the day, complete bullshit.
In 1942 Isaac Asimov, in his short story Runaround, coined the term “robotics.” The word has since entered the lexicon, and people who know about such things are generally aware that Asimov was the first to use the term. He’s credited in the Oxford English Dictionary with being the first person to ever use it, and he is rightly respected and admired for inventing a shiny new word.
Asimov didn’t invent the term “robot,” though. The term that we use for our shiny metal friends was coined by the Czech playwright Carl Capec in his play R.U.R., a drama that featured (what else?) robots rising up and overthrowing their fleshy human masters. Like Asimov, Capec is recognized as coining the term. He gave us all a wonderful new thing to say, and for that we thank him.
Which brings me to George Lucas and the term “droid.”
I was extremely surprised to see, in an ad for the Droid smartphone, legalese to the effect that “droid” is copyright Lucasfilm and is used with permission. I don’t want to start sounding too much like Cory Doctrow here, but, quite frankly, Lucasfilm enforcing a copyright on “droid” is ridiculous. Utterly indefensible. Stupid. Idiotic to the point where it is pitiable.
Imagine, if you will, every commercial use of the term “robotics” appended with a note that the word was the copyright of the Asimov estate, and used with permission, or if each commercial use of the term “robot” cited Capec. It would be entirely stupid. Lucasfilm, though, seems to think that they are somehow more entitled than these two authors, and is apparently insisting on being credited with the term “droid,” a word that’s been part of the English language and science fiction since 1977 when Star Wars came out.
We don’t cite Asimov or Capec, though, because we expect authors to coin terms. There seems to be a part of the zeitgeist wherein terms that are coined by wordsmiths are completely okay to use and adapt. Quite frankly, this is wonderful. If I were ever so lucky to coin a term like “robotics” in my life, I would burst with joy and pride, and get a warm fuzzy feeling every time someone said a word I invented.
Other media, such as films, should not be an exception. Just as people freely borrow terms from books, anyone who wishes to should be allowed to borrow linguistic adaptations from film and television. It enriches the language, mixes up the lexicon, and generally makes the wordy landscape more colorful. I remember feeling a twinge of joy when characters in Battlestar Galactica referred to the human-looking Cylons as “skinjobs,” a term I recognized from Blade Runner. Use of the term was both homage to the original, and a reflection of the accumulation and adaptation of science fiction terminology.
Lucasfilm, in appending their name to the term “droid” is standing squarely in the way of this wonderful process. Lucas made a new word for “robot,” and he should be justly proud. Star Wars should indeed be cited as the source of the term “droid.” But to claim utter ownership, to demand permission for use of what has become a normal English word is utterly silly. I did not think I could lose further respect for the Lucasfilm empire, but I have.
There seems to be a not-very-promising-looking kids movie coming out today all about the Greek gods. I have no plans on seeing it, but I’d like to use this as an excuse to talk about something that has bugged me a lot: Pop culture’s persistently negative portrayal of Hades. You know what I’m talking about- he’s usually portrayed as some kind of Greek version of Satan, or like something off a death metal album cover. Apparently in the shitty-looking new movie coming out today, he’s one of the main bad guys. And remember the Disney movie with Hades as the bad guy? Or how he looks like some inhuman S&M fantasy in the God of War games? It’s everywhere.
Unfortunately, this popular depiction of one of the major Olypians is utter bullshit. While the ancient Greeks were afraid of the lord of the Underworld and found him to be something of a hardass, he was not the “bad” member of the pantheon.
Hades was the more or less passive ruler of the next world. If he were a D&D character, he would have been Lawful Neutral king who managed his domain the same way that Zeus ruled the sky and Poseidon the sea. (Solid earth was open to all of them.)
The Greek underworld itself was also pretty varied, it wasn’t just a hell-like place where everyone got zapped with flames or tormented in a Dante-like fashion. For the most part, it was gloomy and boring, though the Elysium and Tartarus were offshoots of the underworld, where souls were either rewarded or punished, respectively.
While Hades was considered a fairly morbid and fearsome guy, people were afraid of him and his domain in the same way that people have always been afraid of the irreversible nature of death. A realm of death and eternity that no one could ever leave is kind of scary no matter how you slice it, but Hades was nothing like this:
If anything, he was one of the more just Olympians. Yes, there was that nasty business with the rape of Persephone, but for the most part he was a pretty passive and predictable administrator. You know who was a pretty nasty member of the Greek pantheon? Well, almost all of them. Zeus, for instance, was a colossal dick, what with all the womanizing and the petty punishments he kept dishing out. Ares was a bloodthirsty maniac. Even Athena, one of the more likable deities, got all bitchy envious and turned Arachne into a spider. They were a petty, nasty belligerent bunch, which is why they’re such great characters and we continue to tell stories about them to this day.
But, for gods’ sakes, please stop using poor Hades as the stock bad guy. Cut the poor dude a break. If anything, Ares was the nastiest, what with all of the bloodlust and destruction.
BONUS MYTHOLGY RANT!: You know the sequel to The Mummy? Remember how The Rock makes a deal with Anubis and gets super-powerful? Remember how Anubis was portrayed as basically the Egytian version of Satan? Also wrong! Anubis was the god of morticians, and basically in charge disposing of corpses in a sanitary fashion. Portraying his as the malevolent figure in the Egyptian pantheon makes about as much sense as depicting St. Peter as the central villain of Catholicism. IT MADE NO SENSE! Especially since Egyptian mythology had Set and Apophis, two perfectly interesting malevolent baddies, available. Why did they pick on poor Anubis?