Monday, August 06 2012

Culture and Violence

As a critical consumer of culture, I have always been skeptical of claims that movies and TV are directly responsible for violence in the real world, especially at an aggregate level, and for the most part, I still believe this to be true.  However, recent events have caused me to change my opinion slightly.  Oddly, I've seen the media directly connect the movie source with the violent result,  but I have not seen anyone make the claim that this specific movie is responsible for the violence that has ensued.

While I know the original history of Guy Fawkes, I seriously doubt most of the protestors using his image know who he was, which means that this is a meme that has its modern origin in V for Vendetta.

Posted by: Civilis at 07: 30 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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Tuesday, March 10 2009

The Geek Canon: The Classics

A number of other geek blogs (including Chizumatic, Wonderduck, and Avatar) have weighed in on what, exactly, the geek canon consists of.  What books, movies, games, etc., should I assume that most geeks have heard of?  Different posters have, of course, tackled the problem from different directions.

Movies are great for quotes, as the way the quotes are said and the surrounding context are as much a part of the humor as the quotes themselves.  Book quotes don't have that added punch, so if you're trying to look for quotes as shared context, the amount that comes from books is necessarily going to be insignificant compared to the amount that comes from movies.

My take on the problem is confusing.  I'm not necesssarily interested in which quotes are important for geeks (aside from stating that everyone has forgotten Ghostbusters, which seems to be one of the top sources of random dialog quotation interruptions whenever I'm interacting socially friends).  What I am interested is which ideas and concepts are important for geeks to know.

I have, again, been talked into running a RPG for a circle of friends.  The setting requires some background knowledge of mythology.  How much mythology do I assume my players know?  I can assume that most players will know the major gods of the Greek pantheon, and their associated spheres.  That doesn't take much academic knowledge;  a couple of episodes of Xena should provide that much.  But how much Norse or Egyptian mythology should I assume?  The source doesn't really matter.  When watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, everyone laughs at the Wooden Rabbit scene.  What's important is they don't need to remember the Illiad to get the fundamental joke.

I assume that most geeks will get the following 'classical' references:
1. The Greek pantheon and their associated spheres of influence, as well as prominent mythological characters.
2. Major members of the Norse and Egyptian pantheons, and a couple of major characters from the Babylonian, Hindu, and Japanese pantheons.
3. Basic Old Testament Biblical mythology: Adam and Eve, Noah, and Moses.
4. Basic New Testament mythology: Jesus, Christmas, the Apostles, Judas, basic Revelations.
5. Basic post-Biblical Christian mythology: Dante's Satan and Hell, Faust
6. The major players of Camelot: Arthur, Merlin, Excalibur (most likely in Monty Python form)
7. The basic Robin Hood legend, even if in Kevin Costner form
8. Recognize major characters and lines from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and MacBeth (Shakespeare being a playwright, he writes better snappy memorable spoken dialog than most authors).
9. The basics of Stoker's Dracula, Shelley's Frankenstein, and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

That's what came off the top of my head.  It's amazing what and where these things get referenced.

Anime fans should also know the basics of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Journey to the West.  It's odd, but I suspect that Biblical imagery shows up more often in anime than in modern Western geek culture.  From Evangelion to Xenosaga, it's hidden in a lot of places.

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Monday, July 28 2008

Super Movie Review!

It's very rare that I get to see movies in the theater; I think the last time was several years ago.  It costs about as much to buy the DVD for a movie when it comes out as it does for two people to actually go to the theater, and that's before time and food are taken into consideration.  However, I did break down and see both Iron Man and The Dark Knight in theaters over the past three weeks.  The experience was culturally interesting, for both the content of the films and the overall experience, although both movies were good enough that I almost couldn't think about it while the movies were in progress.

Here are some of my thoughts (non-spoilers above the break and spoilers after the break):

They've really stepped up advertising before the films begin.  When I last saw films in theaters, there was a slide show of local advertising before the trailers while the house lights were up and people were coming in.  Now, they've added full video ads, most for TV shows I have no intention of watching.  No spectacular trailers, but I could feel the sanctimonious schlock pouring from the Day the Earth Stood Still trailer, and from the trailers the new Mummy sequel felt a lot more pulpy (in a good way) than the new Indiana Jones sequel.

Both movies were good, and I heartily recommend them to any sci-fi / anime geek.  The Dark Knight was dark, scary, emotional, suspenseful and not at all scholcky.  Iron Man was a more stereotypical action film, but it was complete and the special effects were both fun and imaginative, something that seems hard to accomplish these days, and it was nice to see someone do power armor right (It made up for the awful Starship Troopers movie.  I paid for powered armor, you bastards!).  That's about all I can say without risking spoilers.  All spoilers below the fold.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 22 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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Tuesday, March 04 2008

Halting State

I've taken a break from anime and painting to catch up on my reading, getting through several books that had accumulated in my 'to read' list.  I had difficulty putting down Halting State by Charles Stross, and not because I'd gotten glue on my hands building miniatures.

I've read Stross's more traditional sci-fi novels Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, and found them to be entertaining and worth a read, but not great.  I also enjoyed The Atrocity Archives despite my aversion to the whole horror genre.  Halting State was an impulse buy;  I recognized Stross's name but couldn't place any actual books he had written until I went home and checked the bookshelf.  It was the plot summary in the book jacket that drew me in: in the near future, a police officer must investigate a bank robbery conducted in a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game).

The summary, while not lying, doesn't actually convey the book's plot.  I was expecting something like a modernized version of Larry Niven's Dream Park, where the game is the focus of the plot.  It doesn't quite work out that way, probably for the best.  While a bit of the plot does take place in a virtual world, most of the story takes place firmly in the real world, and the game is only a small component of the overall plot.  The book is actually more a look at a possibility of what a future where society, culture, economics, and business are all networked together.  It's not about the technology, which is not at all far-fetched, but at the effects of linking all the information networks that exist today together and integrating them more thoroughly into people's daily lives.

It's interesting to see this book as representing another facet of 'cyberpunk' (for lack of a better word) science fiction.  William Gibson and Shirow Masamune separately look at the technology layer of information technology;  how changes in hardware, from computers to cybernetics, will change the world.  Neil Stephenson looks at the power of ideas and memes at what might be the wetware layer of information technology;  how individual ideas will change the world.  In this book, Stross looks at the power of networks to control and route information, in a sense bridging the gap between hardware and wetware.  (In a sense, this is a simplification.  Stephenson does cover hardware, especially nanotech in the excellent Snow Crash, while Shirow and Gibson do get into the level of ideas and minds.)

Another thing I love about this book is that Stross effectively combines a number of different interests of mine into the story.  At the detail level, there are references to both electronic gaming and tabletop roleplaying games, spy fiction, technology at the programming and business levels, geek culture, and even anime.  Stross also sounds like he at least partially understands most of what he's referencing;  the jokes seem natural, not forced.  The overall plot combines a healthy technothriller intrigue story with a mystery and a science-fiction look at the possibilities of technology.  Furthermore, the plot isn't preachy or too obviously cliche, and the technology fits into the story well and doesn't require tedious explanation of how it works.  The intrigue is well done, with a story formed from multiple plots working at cross-purposes leading to a couple of surprises.  (Stross combined genres even better in The Atrocity Archive, mixing black IT humor, spy fiction, and Lovecraftian horror into an incredible tapestry.  If only I didn't loathe the horror genre...)

Overall, this is one of the best books I've read in quite some time.  It did take me some time afterwards to get the title, however, so I'm slowing down a bit...

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 50 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Sunday, June 03 2007

Movies, Porn, and the Army of Davids

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a movie premier.  Not a major movie premier, of course.  A neighbor graduated from college with a degree in film.  As a project for his degree, he directed 45 minute movie.  To celebrate his graduation, his parents rented a theater to screen the project.  Although the style wasn't to my taste, the film was quite well done.

Yesterday evening, I read a post by Ann Althouse on the amateurization of porn, and immediately thought of the movie.  The movie wasn't porn, in any respect at all, but it does reflect the same trend.  Right now, a lot of creative content production is being done by amateurs, and to a degree that most people don't realize because we all see a very small section of the whole cultural product that is available to us.

YouTube has enabled producers of video to make their works available to the entire world.  Sites like DeviantArt allow artists to make their works available to a wide audience.  The initial audience for anime outside of Japan has always been dedicated teams of amateur fans who subtitle works themselves, now aided by the power of the internet.  Many PC games have found new life with fan-created content.  Many historical wargames started out as home rules created by gamers.

The internet has, of course, been a big enabler of this phenomenon.  It allows us to find groups of like-minded people all over the world, and increasingly allows larger and larger groups to work together on bigger and bigger projects.  Yet I suspect that it would be happening even without the internet.  I remember the days when fan-subbed anime was carried on by nth-generation copied videotapes, not p2p bittorrent filesharing.

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 30 AM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Tuesday, May 22 2007

The Death of American TV

It has come to my attention recently that American TV is doomed.  Doomed, I tell you!  The End is Nigh!!  Repent!!!   Ahem, sorry about that.

Anyways, Ace of Spades HQ posted a list of the proposed Fall TV line-up, and it looks completely horrible.  Not that I watch much on TV anyways, but there's no reason for me to even start up again.  Every so often, someone tells me about some must-see TV show that's "one of the few things good still on TV" and it's never something that sounds interesting enough to watch.

Here are my conclusions based on my observations on the subject:
1.  There is a growing percentage of the American population that is getting disconnected from traditional media such as TV.  It's a group that by and large share traits that make them difficult to represent in surveys.  How do you accurately survey a group that shares a trait that they don't show up in surveys?  You can't, so the trend is going unreported and likely distorting viewership statistics.

2.  The growth of this group is fueled by the decisions of TV network executives.  TV programming is largely being focus-driven to appeal to the largest groups of TV viewers.  Those viewers that do not fall into these groups are left with little to attract them to TV as opposed to other forms of entertainment.  Right now, one of the largest groups of TV viewers are reality show fans.  So all networks started making reality shows.  If you don't like reality shows, there's not much for you to watch.  This means that more of the remaining viewers are reality show fans, and the networks have to compete among reality show fans for viewership.  Therefore they segment down to the groups within reality show viewers, further distorting the market.

3.  Whatever process is used to come up with creative show ideas is failing, so new shows are uninspired.  A show written to appeal to the largest possible audience is likely to not appeal to any of its intended viewers.  The creative minds are trying to insure success by repeating what was successful in the past, however, this is more often a recipe for failure than success.  I also suspect that TV executives that have to approve these shows are not likely fans of any particular genre of TV and hence have to approve shows without much understanding of what actually appeals to most viewers.

4.  The practice of canceling mediocre shows, especially mediocre niche shows in genres such such as sci-fi, is further souring fans on future shows.  Those few niche shows that get greenlighted are likely to be uncreative, written to appeal to a broad audience (and not actually appealing especially well to anyone), and fans who might otherwise be interested are unlikely to invest time on a show that can be canceled even if it is good.

5.  Marketing is subject to the same progressive failure that the creative process is.  In order to advertise that a show is out there, the networks invest in commercials and tie-ins.  Since most of the shows that are hyped end up being mediocre, viewers distrust the marketing.  What do the marketers do?  Step up the marketing.  So marketing gets less and less effective as time goes on even as more and more effort is expended on it.  Word of mouth recommendations would be a way around this, but TV networks have alienated the die-hard fan base by killing shows that had a small but devoted following.

The same problems can be applied to modern movies, with a few additional issues:
6.  Movie studios seem to be unable to determine why a movie succeeded.  Too often, the success is placed on the star or stars on the top of the marquee.  This leads the stars to demand more movies written for them, and more money devoted to hiring the star.

7.  Success is determined entirely by box office intake.  While, yes, in a market this is a good example of success, it's not a necessarily a good way to determine what the next successful movie will be.  Further complicating things is the Hollywood tradition of obfuscating just how much of the money the film made is actually profit.  A movie that makes $100 million may be more successful than a movie that only makes $20 million, but if that $100 million movie costs that much to make and the $20 million picture only cost $10 million to make, the picture isn't looking as good.


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Thursday, April 26 2007

Guns for the Children

Interesting debate at Jeff Goldstein's site on the FCC's attempt to regulate violence on TV.  There are several interesting musings I have in this topic, but I'll only inflict one on you this evening.

In a previous post, I wrote that I thought that the correlation between the traditional groupings that divided a culture into subcultures (race, religion, ethnicity, etc.) were having less of an influence on what other groupings an individual belongs to.  There are some traditional ways of grouping individuals that are still valid predictors of what other groupings an individual belongs to, or, rather, there are traditional groupings that still can be predicted to a large degree by what other groupings a person belongs to and will continue to be predictable in the foreseeable future.  The one that interests me today is age.

Hobby and interest groupings often develop out of relationships with peers, and especially at the school and college ages when one has copious free time and associates with peers of the same age.

Almost everybody imagines the good parts of their own particular childhood as the exemplar of what a childhood should be.  I get around a table of gaming buddies (one of the hobbies in which I am an age outlier and in which there is a diversity) and in discussions of childhood, everyone had it best in their own particular childhood.  Everyone's TV programs were the best, everyone's movies were the best, everyones genres were the best.  One odd predictor of age I have seen is for those who like Mel  Brooks movies, which movie is the best.  People who were raised on a diet of Westerns like Blazing Saddles, people who grew up to Star Wars like Spaceballs, etc.  It's not a surprising observation as each of his movies was written to track to a particular genre.

How does this relate to violence on TV?  Those of us who remember being children in the 80's and 90's look at TV and already see a children's programming lineup reduced to mush by previous campaigns against TV violence.  Those of older generations constantly remind us of what we missed in the way of the good Looney Tunes cartoons.  The political affiliation of the poster doesn't matter except as in which group of politicians get most of the blame.  The liberals blame the social conservative fundamentalists, the conservatives blame the nanny state non-violent progressives.

The problem is the prime voting age population takes a look at the present situation and sees someone who claims they can make it right by getting all the garbage off of TV, without realizing that the garbage on TV isn't particularly worse then when they originally grew up.  I have my own theories that place some of the blame for the current cultural problems (which are relatively mild when you actually look at the symptoms rather than the hype) on TV, but not in the places where you would normally look.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 44 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Monday, April 16 2007

James Bond versus the Conspiracy Theories

I like a good spy action movie, and for decent production values, few do the genre better than James Bond.  In addition to the normal Bond question (Sean Connery), an interesting question to ask when discussing the movie series is: which is your favorite Bond movie?

In my case, the answer is hard to say.  I like the one where the bad guy is trying to get the two big countries to go to war against each other by faking attacks between the two.  Tomorrow Never Dies?  No, the other one.  The Spy who Loved Me?  No, the other other one.  Diamonds are Forever?  The Living Daylights?  You Only Live Twice?

The plot is a fairly common one.  Two enemies, currently at a (relative) state of peace or at least a cold war, are pushed into a deeper conflict by a third party.  It's been done in anime (El Hazard is probably my favorite example).  It's been done with the third party being the good guys (Yojimbo / A Fistful of Dollars / Last Man Standing).  Just about every Saturday Morning Cartoon show has used the plot at one time or another.

How do we recognize this plot?  We look for one of two things.  One, the presence of a party to the conflict that is supposedly neutral that deals with both sides and profits from conflict between them.  Often an arms dealer or something similar, he first shows up about the time of the first incident that escalates the conflict.  Alternatively, a militaristic member of one faction willing to go to any length to get ahead of the traditional enemy and resentful of the more diplomatic approaches taken by the current power structure.  Once you see one of those in the plot, you know he'll be the ultimate cause of the war, and it becomes up to the heroes to deliver justice and stop the villain.

Where else do we see this plot?  The conspiracy theories that have sprung up around 9/11.   It all falls into place when you assume what the conspiracy theorists assume about the administration.  Each and every member is a wannabe General Ripper.  Depending on the personal bogeymen of the individual involved, the International Jooish Conspiracy, the Military-Industrial-Oil Complex, or the Fanatic Christianists take the role of the neutral third party.  If you know they're evil, you know there's a plot involved somewhere, or else there wouldn't be a story.  If there's no story, there's no way for you to be a hero.

This idea of fitting facts to a preconceived narrative is everywhere in the news.  If you see a poor minority woman claiming to be oppressed by a group of rich young men, especially rich jocks, you know that the narrative demands that the woman be the good guy and the jocks the bad guy no matter what the evidence tells you.  When the lone, plucky scientist stands up against big industry, he's always the good guy.  Its a tempting trap, and its one we all fall into.

To start, we need to examine the way culture at all levels shapes the way we think and act.  But that is a later discussion.

Posted by: Civilis at 07: 59 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Thursday, April 12 2007

Welcome to the Dork Side

To start with, how about an introduction to your guide to this cryptic repository of thoughts and musings?  I'll throw in some idea as to what I'm trying to accomplish by putting my thoughts on paper as a bonus.  Sound good?  Read on...

My nom de blog is Civilis.  Its supposed to sound somewhat Greek in the wise philosopher mold one expects of a sage, but it means nothing.  The origins might be explored somewhere down the line as an aside, but for now they mean nothing.  I am around 30, live in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, close enough that I have something of an up-close perspective on the workings of the Federal government, but not so close that everything I see is through the lens of federal politics (a common problem among many who live off the political or government sectors of the local economy).  I work in computer support at the local government level.  My serious interests are history, international relations, politics, and technology;  my hobbies are reading, games of all types, and anime.

I write for two seemingly contradictory reasons.  I often feel the need to put my thoughts down on paper, or at least in a digital representation that is reasonably permanent.  This is selfish and somewhat egocentric;  I have no reason to believe that my thoughts are any more brilliant than those of anyone else.  I also feel the need to put thoughts out there for comment or criticism.  Its only after they have had a chance to survive the ebb and flow of debate that they fully mature.

What I hope to accomplish with this blog is with the help of commenters come up with a coherent and rational understanding of modern culture and how all the little pieces fit together.  To that end, I intend to try to link my posts to previous posts to eventually arrive at the big picture.  Wish me luck.

And you're all invited along for the ride, by the way.  Heck, if all you want to do is admire the wreck, you're fine with me.  Pull up a chair and sit down for a while...

Posted by: Civilis at 05: 33 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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