Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The duty of the weak

Just finished watching Heroman, Stan Lee's vehicle for joyously celebrating a host of cliches, many of which he both invented and rendered cliche.

At the beginning (well, after a little bit of establishing that our protagonist suffers from the appropriate degree of youthful angst) aliens invade Los Angeles and cause a large amount of destruction. The US military, obviously, is on the scene in short order, but no amount of conventional weaponry- spec ops, tanks, or airplanes- has any effect on even the weakest alien foot soldier. The nuclear option is mulled, but in the end only the powers of our teenaged protagonist and the titular Heroman are either capable or necessary to save the day a few episodes later.

Then, after some intervening action, the aliens invade Washington, DC, apparently oblivious to how much better off our country would be without it. And we see that, even though twenty episodes and about a year have passed in which tanks and machine guns were proven completely ineffective, conventional weaponry is again employed and quickly destroyed until Heroman can pop along and save the day.

Now, I am not here to criticize that first decision to deploy troops to LA, since it was at that point a wholly unknown and obviously aggressive threat. Nor, perhaps, can we criticize conventional troop deployments in the smaller skirmishes right afterwards. But at some point, a point long since reached by the invasion of Washington, it has become abundantly clear to the thickest of politicians, bureaucrats, and officers that conventional weaponry is useless and that conventional attacks are suicide.

And there you are, a tank crewman on DuPont circle, as the aliens prance down the street, knowing with absolute narratively ordained certainty that there is not shit you can do with that tank to improve anyone's situation (all the civilians were evacuated) and that the one and only thing on the entire planet that can do anything against the threat is working at full bore on the other side of town. What moral obligation do you have to continue putting up the pretense of resistance? If we ascribe intrinsic value to every human life, is standing there like an idiot blasting away with your nerf darts not, on net, an evil act when accounting for the greatly increased risk of Redshirt Off-screen Death Syndrome?

Of course, the word impossible is nearly always nothing more than a failure of imagination. You have to get pretty creative to even imagine a situation in which nothing you do can have any impact at all, but what if we weaken the conditions a little bit. Suppose I am a citizen of Texas (not much of a stretch) and I have political opinions (still not straining ourselves over here). No matter how much I wish to exercise my political voice, there is not one single thing (nor any collection of things) that I can do to affect the outcomes of state level or higher races.

My vote will not matter, because even in the hypothetical of major race being one vote off the whole process will fall into a recount and then to the courts because the error bars on a statewide election are well into the hundreds, if not the thousands of votes. If any part of the process even began to threaten to allow my vote to count, it would be taken out of the hands of voters and placed in the courts to be decided by a judge.

My money won't matter because spending is generally capped, and even if I went in with all my own money as independent expenditure I haven't got and won't get anything close to what would be needed, and even if I did, money is just a subset of voice.

My voice won't matter firstly because I can't speak loudly enough. Even if I devoted my entire life to becoming wealthy enough to buy a voice (for which I lack the skill and drive) or to becoming influential enough to be a major media personality (for which I lack charisma, or even basic social skills, and drive) and ended up as the most watched media personality in the state, I still wouldn't have much push on an electorate that sees politics as a team sport more than a method of governance. Remember Dan Rather? I sure didn't, and had to google some indirect search terms to find his name. The people who already agree with whatever impassioned nonsense I have for them will continue to agree, and the people who disagree will continue to disagree.

What, then, am I to do? What, then, is our beleaguered tank driver to do? Do either of us owe a moral duty to take the stand and fight the unwinnable* fight, putting our time, emotions, and possibly even lives (in the latter, not the former case) on the line for a hopeless cause? When other children had their firefighter phase, I had a Don Quixote phase, so this conclusion saddens me doubly, but no, this sort of fight is neither wise nor moral. That tank driver needs to turn the fuck around and hope that those with the power can avert disaster. Most opinionated people need to calm down and shut up. There are fights that can be won, such as battles for self-improvement and struggles to raise a family, and there are things that are not battles on which those efforts can be expended, like comfort, entertainment, and exploration.

And even if Heroman fails to save the world and we are dominated for all eternity by evil alien overlords, that isn't a reason for us to direct any sadness at ourselves or at other similarly powerless mortals. The world is big, the universe is even bigger, and no one is guaranteed a hero or a happy ending. The only moral thing to do once a futile battle is identified is to walk away, ignore it, and focus on the good things in life.

*Google's spellcheck dictionary does not even recognize the word unwinnable, which perhaps offers a different perspective on the subject.

Small Yapping Dogs

I went over to a neighbor's house a few days ago. He has a small dog, perhaps one foot tall, who runs around the house. When the door opened and I stepped inside the dog stood about half a yard in front of me, took a defensive pose, and begin to bark its hostility. That dog has never liked me, but neither the shushings of my neighbor and his family nor their generally non-hostile reactions to my entrance were able to calm him and the people involved decided to take our conversation out to the quieter yard.

It occurs to me that, for all the implied sociopathy displayed by my neighbor in adopting said yapping dog, the dog itself is displaying some marvelously pro-social behavior. What could I seem to that poor animal but a monstrous titan, wholly alien in appearance, towering perhaps six times it's height, and making all manner of utterances. I could crush that dog with my feet even without effort, or if I decided to make an effort there are very few scenarios in which I do not win a one-on-one fight with that dog. Nearly every cat in the neighborhood, cursed with the same small size as that dog, responds to those same triggers with distance, caution, and flight. Fans of last year's Attack on Titan saw the same reaction justified over and over again in humanity.

And yet, there stands the dog, obviously frightened but still taking its stand. If I do attack and the dog is unsupported, this would be a disastrous strategy. But dogs are social creatures, and this dog believes that the sight of it being attacked would bring the rest of the pack to its rescue. In reality, I would give my neighbor about a 50% chance of either rushing in to attack me or to just stand there, confused and horrified that an acquaintance would attempt to kill a dog in someone else's house, but what does a dog know about social customs?

And we see now that this terrifically annoying behavior is the selfless devotion of a million movie heroes who shout, "Stand back, love interest! I shall face this peril!" to which the culturally determined correct response is, "What grand heroism! I may not have much strength to lend, but what I do posses is yours to employ in violence, lest we forsake that which is precious to us!" or, for the brief, "and my axe." Perhaps I have been watching too much anime, but what follows from the dog's perspective is either a self-sacrificing martyrdom to allow the rest of the group to escape, and thus worth doing, or the heroic trigger that will bring the rest of the pack to their duty in dispatching the predator once and for all by sheer weight of numbers. Or, perhaps, both.

What it doesn't do is make the dog any safer, though the following analysis is surely beyond the mind of an animal. The family across the street owns two dogs who are larger, perhaps thigh height and in better fighting shape pound-for-pound. While I could fight one of those dogs with some success, I would be hard pressed to do it without injury to myself. Both dogs together would be a genuine threat to my health. These dogs are substantially more dangerous, but until writing this post, I have never once fantasized about killing them.

Pit bulls get sensationalist newspaper headlines and yapper dogs get poisoned by angry neighbors and survive only through the forbearance of a general mass of humanity averse to violence even in the face of provocation. The objectively more dangerous retrievers and Irish hounds face none of this, because they are pretty and quiet and interact well in human society. The more aggressive dogs may do well in some post-apoc society where they can once again run in packs, but it is those dogs who have been bred into quiet submission, shown off for physical beauty and repertoire of tricks, that seem likely to thrive in more plausible futures.

This being December, it is time for predictions about the future. I predict that terror cells and the scattered remnants of global communism (except, obviously, for China) will continue to evoke passion well beyond the amount of danger they could ever conceivably pose. I predict that Russia has implicitly joined the European Perpetual Peace, even though they may never become accepted as a properly "western" nation. And I award the Senkaku Islands the honor of being both the most important and most underreported story of the year, especially if the most recent surveys of Pacific methane hydrate deposits pan out.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Fine Selection

I sat at lunch today on the patio of a nearby burger place. As I waited for lunch, another group of three, dressed like business partners, walked out of the restaurant into the parking lot.

One person said to the other, "You picked a good place for lunch".

Another said, "Yes, you did a good job" and the recipient gave some small thanks.

Now, both parties were correct in that this place has a pretty good hamburger. Hardly earth-shattering, but more than sufficient for a business lunch and at a good price as well.

What I could not shake off was that they were thanking their co-worker for suggesting one of a dozen possible places to acquire lunch as if she had in some way added value to the meal. She obviously had no hand in the creation of the burgers, fries or soda, and had she paid for all three meals I suspect other stock phrases would have been employed. At some point back at the office someone had said, "let's all go to lunch. Where should we go?" And she had said, "Let's go over here." and her choice was agreed to by all, and for making that suggestion she is rewarded with mild verbal praise.

Perhaps there was a non-obvious power dynamic going on, and the selector was either of higher standing or a customer, and thus worthy of sucking up to, but I suspect it was simpler than that.

She was being praised, not for her skill at creating anything, but for her skill at selecting which group of creators was her favorite. If I was some highbrow type, we could say that she was being rewarded for her skill at curation.

Certainly there is a case to be made that curation is a valuable skill in the modern economy, and [Jason Kottke]( has on occasion made it quite well. And yet, what an imperious talent to cultivate, either in yourself or in others! And to those around her, did they accept the suggestion merely to avoid the all to common debate about where to get lunch (and how much wealth and privilege informs that debate?) or because they genuinely were unsure which of the local restaurants were the best and were deferring to their host? The former seems most likely in this case, but the latter is both common and baffling.

The people who complain about the abundance of choice, for whom recommendations, top 10 lists, and favored curators are their primary source of entertainment astound me. Some of them are simply afraid of new things, but quite often they will claim they just don't have time to go exploring through the great morass of human creative achievement. These are the people who don't understand why Wikipedia has a "random page" button, or why Steam allows greenlit and early access indie games. The people who post comments on Hulu to the effect of "this sucks. Hulu shouldn't have this series. I feel like I wasted my life."

I think part of this is that I am bad at understanding the motivations and inner lives of other people, but I also think part of it is that they have fallen into the habit of min-maxing every aspect of their life, as if spending time with a sub-par entertainment will prevent their "entertained" score from being high enough when they face the final boss fight.

I think the secret to happiness is low expectations.