Movie Review: Lucy

August 6, 2014 2 comments

If you value your sanity, and if you value reason, science, and logic, for the love of gostack (may gostack ever distim the doshes) avoid this movie.

At all costs.

I really tried to summon the energy to write a point-by-point tear-down of the movie and why it is the worst comedy-masquerading-as-serious-sci-fi film ever made, but the total cost in terms of entropy created by such action was universe-devouring in scope.

Let’s leave it at this: it mangles science, philosophy, sense, and does so at the expense of coherency and enjoyability. There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t facepalming epically during the 90-minute assault on my neurons. When, near the end, Lucy, named–ha ha–in a rather transparent reference to the australopithecus afarensis, gives a bizarre speech about the non-existence of numbers and some nonsense about time, I reached such divide-by-zero levels of fury that I had to consciously stop myself from throwing my shoe at the screen in the theater.

As the credits started to role, and I began to ponder the ending lines, “Now you know what to do with it,” I realized that the proper reaction to this movie is not seething rage, but laughter.

See, the movie is a practical joke, played on all of us.

Damn you, Luc Besson, King of Practical Jokes.

The Geek-in-Chief Does Science!

June 1, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve got to be honest, dear readers. I love science, and I love experimenting. I had one of those cool whacky chemistry sets as a kid that allowed you to make all kinds of foamy, slimy concoctions and I had (have, actually) a telescope and a microscope.

I was a nerd of the best kind: I loved to explore the natural world and I had an unbounded curiosity. Sadly, my life didn’t really allow me to revel in that for very long as other concerns ate most of my attention as I got older. This is why I’m so happy that President Barack Obama hosts an annual science fair at the White House, demonstrating the capabilities of curious young scientists and engineers.

Kid: “You put a hole in the ceiling!” Obama: “Aww, you’re in trouble. I’m tellin’ Michelle.”

President Obama used the 2014 Science Fair to extoll the roles of girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and  Math) fields. According to an article by Kristin Lee at whitehouse.gov, entitled “Girls Rule at 2014 White House Science Fair,” the Obama Administration will “…host a series of ‘role model roundtables’ between girls and female STEM leaders…”

I think that this is very encouraging news. We need to get more people, especially people like women who aren’t as well represented in these fields as they could be, interested in science and math. The White House Science Fair allows some of the brightest and best to showcase their discoveries, innovations, and love of science, math, and engineering. These young people will be the people who build tomorrow’s world, and many of them could make discoveries that change the course of human history.

Alan Boyle, in an article at NBC News, noted that Obama announced more education initiatives, including an expansion of the AmeriCorps STEM program, new mentoring programs, and a series of interactive online lessons.

Boyle quotes Obama:

“As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners because super-star biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don’t always get the attention that they deserve, but they’re what’s going to transform our society,” he said. “They’re the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases, and new sources of energy and help us build healthier and more successful societies.”

I hope that the next president keeps the White House Science Fair, and continues to encourage children to pursue careers in the STEM fields. I imagine that if I had that kind of encouragement when I was young I would have stayed involved in the sciences.

So here’s to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Let’s continue to encourage younger generations to pursue lives of the mind to the benefit of all humanity.

The following is a video of the White House Science Fair:

Of May Updates and Comic Con

May 29, 2014 1 comment

Hello, my dear readers (and new readers!).

Sadly, last month, I was not able to finish the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. I kept going, and managed to get some posts up for the last few letters except for Z, but ultimately, life got in the way. I wanted to end the challenge with a bang, and write a post called “Zero-Point Energy Generators and Other Internet Malarkey,” but a person I am very fond of visited me and my priorities changed.

The challenge was very fun, though, and it was a challenge to keep thinking of new ideas to write. I’m not really the kind of person that can keep writing a daily blog like that without succumbing to some kind of fatigue or dissatisfaction at the quality of the writing. Indeed, the hardest part of the challenge was, for me, hitting the publish button on a post that I put together in haste to get one out for the day.

I will still, at some point, be writing that post about zero-point energy generators. I also have plans to add a new page for book reviews that I want to start writing. Most of them will be for books that I find for Kindle on amazon.com by independent authors. I have recently discovered that world and, honestly, I am rather impressed by it. Some of the writing is not very good, but the stories usually make up for that. But I’ll write more about that later.

My fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics, has languished since March. Part of the reason is because April was a busy month, and the A-to-Z Challenge took priority. A large part of the reason is because I have been trying to run a campaign for State Representative. I have written previously about a survey I got from Americans for Prosperity, and since then, I have done much more work and have taken other surveys. As the summer really gets started I will be busy campaigning and learning more about this process. I have to be honest that it’s been very eye-opening. There are more groups working to lobby elected officials than I had realized, and each of them wields a great deal of power. It’s frankly rather worrisome, and I’m concerned about the state of our democracy.

In the interest of keeping things separated and organized, I have started another blog for my campaign, in which I have reblogged the post about the AFP survey with a small update. It’s pretty simple, and it’s called “Josh Derke for State Representative.” It’s a work in progress (and I haven’t had much time to work on it yet) so it doesn’t have a lot of content.

I’ve also got a Facebook page for my campaign (which is also a work in progress) that can be found here.

Anyway, the most interesting bit of news was that I attended the Motor City Comic Con. And, honestly, it was great! I got to meet William Shatner, who was a kind, warm person. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect that. His panel was really neat as well, and he had some pretty great stories. He did kind of butcher science when he talked about the fact that we don’t really know anything about the universe, but his central point was, I would think, dead on: that we don’t really know what’s out there and we’re driven to discover.

So let’s get out there! (Preferably on the Enterprise.)

Anastasia wore a blue crew uniform from the original Star Trek with braids that show a rank of Commander. She got her model Enterprise signed by William Shatner. Source: The Detroit News

Shatner talked about a bit of the wisdom he’s learned about why cons are so popular: these stories we celebrate, from Doctor Who to Star Trek to Lord of the Rings (and all of the other shows that are too numerous to name) are our modern myths. I think that’s a very important observation.

We get together to explore our common ethos, and share our common myths. We revel in the stories and the heroes. The Doctor is a modern Odysseus on his own odyssey, as is James T. Kirk. And there’s something in this that speaks to something that all of humanity has in common: our use of stories to tell us about ourselves. So, at comic con, we get together to share these stories which we love with other people who love them. We meet the actors who are the heroes. We get their signatures and we take pictures with them because we make them part of us–part of our own stories. And, in this way, we become a part of the modern epics we celebrate.

John Barrowman was also a hoot, and his guest panel was hilarious. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

The thing I like about John Barrowman is that he doesn’t just shoo you through a line. He takes the time. He talks to you. He shook my hand (and I might have swooned a bit). He’s the kind of person that actually, genuinely cares about his fans and I find that so refreshing.

John Barrowman got up to dance with Katie Cassidy

John Barrowman got up to dance with Katie Cassidy

One of the things I really like about going to comic con is that I just love to see all of the passion of the people who attend. It’s great to talk to people, laugh with them, recount our favorite moments in Star Trek and Doctor Who. There were many cool costumes (and I took some pictures, but not nearly enough because I’m bad at that kind of thing) and a lot of cool displays.

These are droids from Star Wars, obviously, because LOOK! R2-D2! Some of them were built by http://www.astromech.net/

These are droids from Star Wars, obviously, because LOOK! R2-D2!
Some of them were built by http://www.astromech.net/

I thought that this guy had a really cool costume and I actually had the presence of mind to take a picture.

I thought that this guy had a really cool costume and I actually had the presence of mind to take a picture.

This is the uniform worn by Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica.

This is the uniform worn by Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica.

It even made noises!

It even made noises!

Come on, this is just cool.

Come on, this is just cool.

Bounty hunter, or baby sitter? That's for you to decide.

Bounty hunter, or baby sitter? That’s for you to decide.

The Mandalorian Mercs are a very cool group, as this picture shows. Find them at http://mercs.firespray.net/forum/index.php

The Mandalorian Mercs are a very cool group, as this picture shows. Find them at http://mercs.firespray.net/forum/index.php

And, finally, what kind of Con would it be without the 501st Legion?

Aptly named "Vader's Fist" in Star Wars, this group is pretty serious, both in warfare an in costuming. Very cool. http://www.501st.com/

Aptly named “Vader’s Fist” in Star Wars, this group is pretty serious, both in warfare an in costuming. Very cool.
http://www.501st.com/

Anyway, that’s it for tonight. I hope that I will be updating this blog more regularly again, but it’s summer and I have a million things to do. Plus, you know, summer. It’s actually nice and not cold outside. I keep hoping that my allergies won’t be bad this year and I can actually enjoy the outdoors, but maybe that’s a fool’s hope.

Thanks for stopping by!

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Five: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

April 29, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m at home cooking and cleaning and nursing back to health a visitor.

Busy, busy, busy. That’s all I have for today.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Four: Xenobiology

April 28, 2014 1 comment

I had a busy day so I just wanted to briefly touch on an idea I had to write a book on alien biology and anatomy as if it were a real book.

This idea first occurred to me when I was thinking of a realistic physiological explanation as to the green color of Spock’s blood. I want to write a kind of Grey’s Anatomy for aliens.

Anyway, that’s all I have tonight. Thanks for reading!

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Three: Wrestling with My Conscience

April 26, 2014 1 comment

Today’s post was originally meant to be a light-hearted retrospective of how hard it is to maintain good writing quality in the face of writing a blog post every day. It’s not that I haven’t loved doing it, but I usually like to take my time so I can write something with high quality. Instead, I have chosen to take some time today to write about something that I think is important.

As I have written before, I am running as the Democratic Candidate for State Representative of Michigan’s 93rd Congressional District. It’s my first foray into politics and my first time running for office, so it will be a great learning experience. Already I am getting questionnaires from groups and PACS who are looking for candidates to endorse (or, well, the other kind of thing they do).

Today, I got a letter from Americans for Prosperity of Michigan inviting me to fill out a questionnaire on several different topics. Well, in all honesty, the word “questionnaire” is a bit strong for what they’ve sent me. Enclosed was a letter explaining who they are with a statement that the questionnaire is meant to be “simple  and straightforward.” Simple and straightforward, in this case, means a total of seventeen yes/no questions using loaded words and giving no space to write an explanation of your policy stances.

They also inform me that they will reserve the right to distribute my answers in “any way [they] see fit” and that they “reserve the right to inform citizens of any candidate’s unwillingness to answer these questions.” Well, if that’s the case, then I will not be filling out their childish questionnaire and, instead, I will be writing more extensive answers on every question that they’ve asked right here on this blog. I feel that’s fair, right?

Before we get into that, I feel it is important to describe who and what Americans for Prosperity is, and I think you’ll see why it is important we address that. According to Wikipedia (a really good go-to source for these kinds of things), Americans for Prosperity is a “conservative political advocacy group” and “has been called ‘one of the most powerful conservative organizations in electoral politics’.” Americans for Prosperity also has ties to Koch Industries, lead by powerful energy magnates David Koch, who was chairman of the AFP Foundation, and Charles Koch, his brother. Americans for Prosperity has been accused of airing misleading advertisements, and has been given “pants-on-fire” ratings for the veracity of claims but independent fact-checking organizations.

They are also, of course, the group behind the nationally reported attack ads on the Personal Protection and Affordable Care Act that have featured misleading or hard to fact-check claims. There are three of them that have been fact-checked that I want to talk about briefly here. The first one, which aired here in Michigan, is about a caner patient who lost her previous health plan and had to get a new one that was in line with the ACA’s standards. While I sympathize with Boonstra, the ad was revealed as misleading. Glenn Kessler, writing for The Washington Post, reviewed the ad and wrote:

Meanwhile, Boonstra told the Detroit News that her monthly premiums were cut in half, from $1,100 a month to $571. That’s a savings of $529 a month. Over the course of a year, the premium savings amounts to $6,348—just two dollars shy of the out-of-pocket maximum.

We were unable to reach Boonstra, but on the fact of it, the premium savings appear to match whatever out-of-pocket costs she now faces.

Glenn Klesser originally wrote that he awarded the ad two “Pinocchios,” the rating system he uses to determine the level of dishonesty in a claim or ad. However, after some more investigating, he downgraded the ad to three “Pinocchios” and added:

Take a close look at the subtle difference in the language of these two ads sponsored by the limited-government group Americans for Prosperity. The first ad claimed the out-of-pocket costs were so high that “it’s unaffordable.” When that line was questioned—and Democrats demanded proof be given to television stations running the ad—the issue became much fuzzier. Suddenly, it became “a plan that doesn’t work for me.” That is much more subjective and harder to fact check.

I’d once again like to reiterate that I have nothing but sympathy for Julie Boonstra and that it is my fervent hope that things work out well for her. I am only investigating the veracity of these political advertisements. And the investigation, so far, is not looking good for AFP. They subtly changed the language of the advertisement, and as Kessler notes, some of the claims were incorrect. According to Kessler, she can keep her doctor, her premiums were cut in half, and she has a premier gold plan. Kessler writes: “In other words, her old plan cost $13,200 a year—before co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses. The new plan is $11,952—including co-pays and out of pocket expenses. That’s a savings of more than $1,200 a year.” It’s plan to see that she will be getting the same care with significant savings.

So, in the end, this is an ACA victory, and a success story. Stories like these are why I support the PPACA. I wish Julie well and I hope that she continues to get the treatment that she needs.

The second ad features a family from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Glenn Kessler also covered this one, and of this ad he wrote:

Wendt published an opinion article in which she provided additional details about her options and confirmed that she choose not to select a plan on healthcare.gov that could have saved her thousands of dollars a year. Our colleagues at FactCheck.org ran the numbers and found several options that “would provide better benefits at less cost than the plan” Wendt currently has.

For this reason, Kessler awarded the ad two “Pinocchios” and noted that the claims in the ad were hard to swallow. And I have to agree: the claims do not seem to bear under scrutiny. While I take no joy in sussing out these details, it is important that we consider where the information is coming from, and whether or not the information is true or false. In this case, it seems that both ads have had misleading claims that have ill-served the people of Michigan.

Indeed, the article by FactCheck.org that Kessler references reports that, “It turns out that Wendt found a cheaper, subsidized plan on the exchange, but declined to accept it because she did not want her children on the Children’s Health Insurance Program.” She had an opportunity to pay less, but decided not to because she didn’t want her children enrolled in CHIP, which is certainly her right. The FactCheck.org article is very well-written and researched and definitely worth a full read. It further states that, “We don’t take issue with Wendt’s decision, but rather her assertion that the Affordable Care Act is ‘destroying the middle class,’ when other families faced with the same choices may have made a different decision that could save them thousands of dollars a year.” This is also what I take issue with because it obfuscates the facts of the new health care law (here’s a third article by Glenn Kessler on another misleading anti-Affordable Care Act AFP ad which he rates with two “Pinocchios”).

But these ads also highlight another issue which is vital in our democracy: money. How much money is being pumped into our elections and by whom? The Detroit News reports that:

Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch brothers, said it will spend $1.5 million for the three-week ad buy. It puts the group’s spending in Michigan at around $5 million — almost all targeted against Peters for his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

$1,500,000 for a three-week as buy, with total spending at $5,000,000. Five million dollars. And, as I wrote above, the ads are largely misleading and have been debunked from a number of sources. I don’t know about you, but five million dollars is a lot of money to me. Personally, I have spent maybe $20 on my campaign so far, not because I haven’t been campaigning, but because I am not raising funds or taking money from outside groups. I will not be in the pocket of special interests or other outside groups who want to throw money around to influence elections.

With that rather expansive background, let’s get to my answers for their survey. They ask seventeen question in five categories with two question in an “additional questions” area. Each question is yes/no and offers no room for exposition.

Healthcare:

1) Support setting up a state healthcare exchange in response to Obamacare?

First of all, it seems to me that this is a loaded question because Obamacare is a word the polls more negatively than the actual name of the legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I shall address it by writing ACA when I make my responses.

Now, to answer this question, yes, I do support setting up state healthcare exchanges as per the ACA. Personally, the ACA has worked for me as it allowed me to stay on my parents’ health insurance while I was attaining my bachelor degree at the University of Michigan and afterward, as took the science and health classes required for a Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies. This was vital for me as I have a heart condition called aortic valve stenosis that requires biannual echocardiograms and other expensive tests (with costs that can reach up to $6,000). But more than that, a state-run exchange would better help me find a plan that would work for me, as well as others like me. Recent reports even indicate that Southern states don’t want the ACA repealed.

2) Support the state of Michigan’s expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare?

Yes, I do support the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. As this document, provided by the State of Michigan, explains:

Medicaid would be expanded to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level, meaning that those living at or near poverty (about $30,000 per year for a family of four) would receive health care. In total, 320,000 Michiganders wil be covered in the first year, 470,000 will be covered by 2021, and Michigan’s uninsured population will drop by about 46%.

If these figures are correct, we can lower the population of uninsured people in Michigan by 46% (which I would call a good thing), which means giving health coverage to people who didn’t previously have it. So you have to be thinking, now, how much does this cost us? Well, the report claims that, “There is no net cost to the state over the next 21 years, and Michigan will save $320 million in uncompensated care costs by 2022 and $206 million in General Fund costs in 2014 alone.” So it saves the state money because it decreases uncompensated care costs.

How could you possibly oppose this? It has positive outcomes for Michigan residents and positive outcomes on Michigan’s budget.

3) Vote to allow an “opt-out” of Obamacare when possible?

No, I will not vote to allow an “opt-out” of the ACA when possible. This feels like a sound-byte ready question to hammer people with. I’m not really sure how this law would work or what the consequences would be if it passed. How does one “opt-out” of a law that is designed to ensure you can’t be denied for pre-existing conditions, or allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26? Is it an opt-out of the mandate? Or an opt-out of…what? Are you going to buy a private insurance policy? Because all of them will be regulated under the ACA. This question is not clear and I can find no real credible information on what the legislation would look like, so my answer is a solid and firm no.

Energy:

1) Support a 100% competitive electric energy market? (Background: currently it’s only 10% of the market with thousands of customers on a waiting list to switch energy suppliers.)

I don’t support a 100% competitive electric energy market, but I certainly do support competitive energy markets. It’s obvious that we need to be critical of where the electric energy comes from and how much a competitive market helps consumers. I would have obvious questions: how do we regulate a 100% competitive market and how does the average consumer get informed about the choices of providers?

2) Support raising Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)?

The Renewable Portfolio Standard is a fancy term for a regulation that mandates an increase in energy from renewable sources. A full report on the status of the Michigan RPS can be found here.

In the last election cycle, Michigan voters were given the choice to raise the RPS to 25% by 2025 as a constitutional amendment, which was voted down with 60% opposing. The current RPS is 10% by 2015. Perhaps 15% over the course of 10 years is a little high, but I have to say that, generally, I support raising the RPS over time so we can transition to renewable forms of energy. That being said, I am not totally opposed to nuclear power. I do, howveer, prefer biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar power. And with the leaps in photovoltaic cell technology, solar power isn’t the pipe dream it used to be.

3) Vote to ban the practice of Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) in energy exploration?

Honestly, I think there are too many questions about the safety of the chemicals and processes in fracking for me to give it any support. I wouldn’t support a ban, per se, but I would definitely support serious investigations into the safety of the fracking tech for consumers near the sites. Does it, for instance, cause earthquakes and poison water supplies? It certainly seems there is a lot of evidence to the positive for both of them, as Ohio has found links between fracking and earthquakes. This data and information is not something we can ignore, and it needs to be addressed before we can really start the fracking process.

I want to know: is fracking safe? The evidence points to the answering being no.

Academics:

1) Vote to remove Michigan from the list of states adhering to common core standards?

I would not vote to remove Michigan from the list. I will acknowledge that there are problems with the common core standards at the lower grade levels, such as math tests that are problematic or perhaps developmentally inappropriate (and I have addressed the questions about certain math problems here), but it seems that the standards are fairly more sensible at the high school level.

I can’t ignore very real concerns that the common core standards place too much emphases on test taking and argumentative writing, but these are all things we can address within the context of the standards.

2) Support using student performance/progress in determining teacher pay & job security?

I have questions about such things. How do we assess student performance and progress in relation to teacher’s teaching ability? Is it how well they do on standardized tests? How well they fare in grades?

How does parental responsibility factor in, as well as the responsibility of the students themselves?

In short, I don’t see how to make this work in any practical or fair way. Why put the blame on the teachers when the parents and the students are also accountable for how well they do in class? I don’t ever recall hearing from any of my parents, grandparents, or family that it was the teacher’s fault I did poorly on a test. It was always my failure to prepare, and I can’t argue with that. When does the student or parent’s responsibility end and the teacher’s begin?

3) Support expanding the number and accessibility of cyber schools in Michigan?

No. The news I see shows that they generally have abysmal records, and I am wary of any private virtual institution.

Roads:

1) Vote for higher fuel taxes? (Background: Michigan has the 5th highest taxes on gas in the country).

According to this article, MDOT states that “state fuel tax revenue, which is dedicated exclusively to road and transportation funding, has been falling since 2004 as a result of inflation and increasingly-efficient vehicles.”

It’s true that we have one of the highest taxes on gas in the country. It’s also true that we have crumbling roads and bridges in need of maintenance. If not a fuel tax to fund road repair, a use tax. We cannot avoid this problem and it will cost money to fix, and each year we ignore it, the costs only increase.

2) Vote for higher vehicle registration fees?

We might consider this for repairing the roads as vehicle registration fee increases would be a good way to direct a use tax at motorists, so people who don’t use roads aren’t being taxed. My last vehicle registration fee was $116, so I already feel the pinch. Still, if it would save my suspension and tires wear and tear and possible other, more costly damage, I think it would be worth it.

3) Work to dedicate all revenues collected from fuel taxes to transportation purposes: primarily road repairs and construction?

As the above article indicates, this seems to already be the case, so I guess I would just support the continuation of such.

Taxes:

1) Support a repeal of the Michigan Personal Property Tax (PPT)?

I wouldn’t support a full repeal, no. As this article from the Detroit Free Press mentions, “But state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said she feared the state would be the ultimate loser, with the loss of $300 million in tax revenues in the first year.”

I would like to know how local communities will cope with the loss of revenues, and how a $300,000,000 hole in the budget will be filled.

I support restructuring and modernizing the PPT, however.

2) Actively support and vote to lower the Michigan State income tax rate back to 3.9% or less? (Background: The current rate is 4.25%–in 2005 it was 3.9%)

As with all tax issues, we have to ask how we make up for the loss of revenue in the budget, and if we slash the budget, which parts we slash. A balanced approach to this question requires more than just asking to support tax cuts. Nobody likes high taxes, but at the same time we have to assess where the revenues to fund state and local services will be coming from. This website shows that Michigan has a relatively low state income tax compared to other states.

3) Vote for appropriations that grow at or less than the rate of inflation?

I can’t support appropriations that grow less than the rate of inflation. MSU notes that “If appropriations had been increased at the average national rate for five years, MSU would have an additional $140 million in state support, sufficient to reduce tuition by approximately 21 percent.”

If appropriations grew less than that rate of inflation, we’d fall even further behind in vital areas like higher education. It’s important that we keep investing so things are properly funded.

Additional Questions:

1) Support state tax revenue being used for the city of Detroit to emerge from bankruptcy?

It depends on how much state tax revenue would be used. It’s important that we revitalize the state’s economy, and doing this would probably mean helping out the communities in Michigan that are currently having issues like bankruptcy.

I can’t outright say I would support it.

2) Support placing all government workers (including teachers) into a defined contribution and retirement plan?

I need more information on what this “defined contribution and retirement plan” looks like before I can comment on it.

And that’s it. It’s a lengthy post and it took me hours to write it, but it was necessary given the brevity of the questionnaire itself and the group that sent it. All of these questions were answered sincerely and to the best of my ability in the short time I had. I will not be sending the questionnaire back to Americans for Prosperity of Michigan because I was not impressed with its quality.

I imagine that they might use some of what I have said here against me in some way during the election, and that’s okay. I’m being honest and upfront, checking my sources, and doing my best to stand up for the best interests of the Michigan residents I hope to represent, and even those that I would not. I hope that people interested in my positions will find their way here, and more than that, I hope they will engage me in a reasonable and open dialogue about these issues. That’s really what I’m after here: dialogues about how to move Michigan forward for the better.

And I would rather do that free of moneyed and special interests that, as I have shown above, aren’t entirely trustworthy.

Thank you for reading.

Josh Derke

Democratic Candidate for State Representative, 93rd Congressional District

A-to-Z Challenge Twenty-Two: Video Games and Narrative Literacy

April 25, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent article by Emily Gera at Polygon focuses on the controversy in the new Tomb Raider game that arose when gamers learned that it would include the suggestion of rape. It’s a pretty decent article, and as Emily reports, writer Rhianna Pratchett found a silver lining to the controversy:

“There’s silver linings that come from just talking about these things,” she said. “Once I did get announced and could talk, we could finally discuss how we think about female characters in games.”

It goes without saying that this is an important topic. Female characters in video games have often been stereotyped under the “damsel in distress” theme, or they’ve been objectified to conform to some kind of ideal sexual standard, with exaggerated curves or large breasts. So it’s good that we’re starting to finally have a dialogue on how women are portrayed and what kinds of roles that they have in the games. Recent polls show that nearly half of gamers are female.

It’s actually pretty hard to find games with positive portrayals of women that aren’t also hypersexualized. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few possibilities (and I’m sure someone might disagree with me, and that’s okay). The first up is the female version of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect games. For Mass Effect 3 she was given a default look that was voted upon by gamers and it tilts away from what I’d like to see, but the fact that they featured the female version in ads I think was a big step.

I would also nominate Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, who was very self-sufficient and intelligent. Give her a gun and a problem to solve and she’ll take care of business.

While it’s true that there’s a bit in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 where she gets injured and you have to find some kind of extract to help heal her (kind of playing into the “damsel in distress” narrative–but she does get right back up and kick ass afterward), she’s a strong person and, I feel, completely undermined most treatment of women in video games.

There’s another thing that Pratchett brings up:

According to the writer, the games industry is only beginning to gain a sense of what to do with the narrative designers they have hired, adding that often these writers are hired guns brought in late during development. The result is similar to attempting to write a film while the film is being shot – games writing is continuously in flux as other aspects of the release are being tweaked and re-worked.

There are some games that really highlight this process, with subplots that seem to go nowhere, or are completely dropped. One of the most obvious examples in my mind is Mass Effect 3, where it seems as if several of the important foreshadowing and subplots from Mass Effect 2 were just completely forgotten (whatever happened to the dark energy subplot?).

Gera further quotes Pratchett:

“The narrative literacy in games is quite low,” said Pratchett, “but we should be interacting with all areas of the team because story comes through everything.”

I don’t know if I agree with Pratchett when she says that narrative literacy in games is low. Perhaps there are design and end product issues with games related to the narrative, which makes sense given the focus of games on the gameplay mechanics. In fact, it can seem sometimes like a story is being told at you like a movie, which often seems at odds with the interactive nature of video games. I can imagine that ways to get around the limitations in games is to keep writers on staff full-time so they can work out these details before they even start coding.

However, I think that there are several games that are high in narrative literacy, maybe because they’re so story-driven. Let me list a few of them here and talk about them briefly. I have plans to delve deeper into some of them at a later time (I’ve been saying this for over a year now and life keeps happening…). So here’s my brief list:

  1. Mass Effect Trilogy
  2. Bioshock Trilogy
  3. Alan Wake
  4. Half-Life 2 (and Episodes 1 and 2)

Mass Effect often strains under the weight of its own narrative, as does Bioshock. However, the central stories of all three Mass Effect games is classic science fiction. For instance, in the first game Sovereign, the Reaper–a member of an ancient race of sentient machines–talks about how they have used technology to guide the technological and social progress of races in the galaxy for millions of years. That’s a very fascinating idea to explore. Mass Effect 2 raises questions of identity, a la Shepard’s resurrection at the hands of Cerberus.

Bioshock is one of the most complex series of games I’ve ever played. I actually call them philosophical dissertations in video game form. The first one especially has my attention as being a take on Ayn Rand’s objectivism. It has a lot of imagery relating to her novel (second-rate, in my opinion) Atlas Shrugged that’s really important. Bioshock 2 takes on different philosophies, like altruism. Bioshock Infinite is probably the most complex of the three, and has a lot to say about determinism and the illusion of choice.

Alan Wake is a favorite of mine because it’s almost a meta-narrative. It’s got a pretty straightforward horror story narrative, but it plays on the video game aspects pretty interestingly and the story is pretty awesome. The game and the narrative work together as light is your best weapon, and light is perhaps the central motif of the game.

It’s hard for me to talk briefly about Half-Life 2 and the expansion games. As far as video games go, I would rate it as the most loyal to science fiction. I mean, think about it: the protagonist is a “rogue physicist” with an MIT education. That’s pretty outstanding. One of the parts that sticks with me the most is one of Doctor Wallace Breen’s communications the protagonist, Gordon Freeman:

Tell me, Doctor Freeman, if you can: You have destroyed so much. What is it, exactly, that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.

You spend most of the game destroying and, yes, killing to get to this final part. The antagonist levels this criticism on you, and it gets at the heart of the paradox of Gordon Freeman as a protagonist: he only destroys. And it’s true: there isn’t one thing in the game, that I can’t think of, that he actually creates.

Anyway, I think I’ll actually be getting to writing more on all four of those. But for now, I hope you enjoyed this post, gentle readers.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 456 other followers