May 2007 Archives


I am back in New York after spending Memorial Day in San Diego.

I took a red eye flight back to the East Coast last night on which I did not get even the slightest bit of sleep.

I arrived at in New York at 5 AM. I arrived at work, straight from the airport, at 7 AM. Work starts at 9, but there wasn't much point to going home then turning around and going back to work.

Despite my head-start, work was rather heavy today. Heavy to the point where I just got home a couple of minutes ago, at 11 o'clock. With the expectation of doing another couple of hours work tonight before getting a little sleep, then getting to work tomorrow by 9 so that I can race to meet an 11 o'clock deadline.

As of right now, I have been awake for 36 hours straight.

I am not, to say the least, a *Happy Camper*.

Useless Legal Latin: Arguendo


All professions have specialized pseudo-languages of their own. English is fine for general communication purposes, but when you get a group that has to regularly convey to one another a set of complicated ideas that are difficult to couch in standardized language it becomes useful to have certain words and phrases that mean nothing to the untrained ear.

Sometimes this makes people outside the specialty angry. Lawyers get a lot of crap for all the latin terminology that worms its way into their discourse, as well as for the unusual and specialized meaning given to regular English words. Also, and I don't know if people give them crap for it, lawyers do deserve a certain amount of scowling for their occasional rhetorical excesses in creating standard terminology (my personal favorite in this regard: "You can't admit that evidence! It is the fruit of the poisonous tree!" Another fun one: "We won't be able to get anything out of the CEO unless we can pierce the corporate veil.") Still, a lot of the crap that people give is wholely unwarranted. If moral philosophers had to give a full enunciation of what exactly the categorical imperative was every time they wished to reference it, they wouldn't get a damn thing done.

Some of the criticism, though, is warranted. You will be shocked to learn that there is a lot of latin jargon in the law that serves no useful purpose. It's just there to make people who aren't lawyers feel excluded from legal conversations. Most lawyers do use these useless wods and phrases, though few consciously intend it to be exclusive; it's just a bad habit that they pick up in law school and never think to correct.

So, for the purpose of edification and mockery, I present the first in (perhaps) a series of utterly useless bits of legal latin: Arguendo. Arguendo means "For the sake of the argument." That's it. As used in a sentence: "Assuming, arguendo, that you had not already ruled in our favor on an earlier issue, these relevant facts mean that we would win the present argument even in the counter-factual bizzaro world that exists only in this pointless footnote." Arguendo contributes nothing to the clarity or meaning of legal language, it merely says to people "Look at me! I have a Juris Doctor and believe myself to be quite fancy!"

Do not use arguendo. If you hear somebody using it, tell them, "While we are in the world of counter-factuals, I see that you are assuming, arguendo, that anyone in this room gives two shits about your law degree."

So... Tired...

Got home at 9 tonight, and am too tired for a substantive post. But: Nintendo finally announced a release date for Metroid Prime 3: August 20th. So that'll be something to take the edge off of school this fall. Also: At some time indefinite time in the near future, but presumably within 24 hours or so, a new Smash Brothers Brawl site will launch. So that's neat, too.


I met a kitty on my way to the farmer's market this afternoon. She had brown, white, and silver splotches, mostly brown on top and white on the bottom. She was hanging out nervously outside the Greek restaurant mid-way up my block.

Anytime someone approached she would skitter away and watch them suspiciously, either from a stoop or one of the little alcoves between front doors, the kind that lead to basement apartments. I walked up quietly and paused about six feet away, squatted down, and rubbed my index and middle fingers together rapidly, the universal human-kitty sign for "Come over here and I'll give you a proper scratching."

After a few seconds she approached, sniffed my fingers, and then submitted to a nice petting. Somebody came out of the Greek restaurant and she dashed off to a nearby stoop. I approached again and, after she was sure the interloper was a safe distance away, she came back for more petting. The scenario repeated itself a couple of times. Eventually she took an odd interest in the underside of a car and went to investigate. A couple of minute later she returned.

After about fifteen minutes of this she spotted a pigeon in the road. She left me and quietly snuck up on it. She got quite close and then pounced, but the pigeon managed to get away. A passerby who saw asked if it was my cat. I replied that it wasn't, I'd just found her here, and I didn't know if anyone owned her or not. He said he couldn't help me.

I spent most of the time quietly contemplating what, if anything, I should do about the cat. I really, really wanted to take her home with me. I couldn't decide if she was feral or not. On the one hand, she seemed relatively friendly, at least towards me. On the other, she was so skittish when people approached that it made me wonder. Back on the first hand, she seemed fairly muscular and well-fed. At the same time, one of her ears was missing the tip, and the other had a small chunk torn out of it. Her fur had a lot of grit in it, but that isn't decisive; if she was any sort of outdoor cat, of course she'd have a lot of schmutz on her. Needless to say she didn't have a collar, or else there wouldn't even be a question.

I thought about taking her home and putting up signs to see if anyone had lost her. Then, if noone replied, I could keep her secretly in my apartment, in violation of the "No Pets" clause in my lease. I need to move out at the end of next year, anyway; in the worst-case scenario my landlord would find out and I'd have to move a bit earlier. A hassle, certainly, but an inevitable one. My roommate's moving out by the end of the month, so I needn't have worried about his potential objections. Still, my apartment really isn't ready for a cat right now. I've got stuff everywhere, I've no cat food, no litter box, no toys for it. And, if it was feral, I'm not sure it'd be too pleased with the arrangement. Being friendly enough to come over for a petting is one thing. Being tolerant of getting hauled into an apartment and confined there is something entirely different.

I had just about decided that it would be best to leave her there when a crack of thunder caused her to race into the Greek restaurant. This confirmed my suspicion that she was the restaurant's cat; I first saw her in front of the restaurant, and I noticed that she tended to favor the restaurant's alcove when strangers walked by. I sighed and kept walking to the farmer's market, where I got some rhubarb to theoretically turn into a pie.

I still wish that I had a cat. Stupid "No Pets" clause.

Commodity Fetishism

Der Spiegel has an article on what it calls objectophilia, the phenomenon of quite literally falling in love with an inanimate object. It's purely anecdotal but for a conversation with a retired professor of sexology whose work I would need to be more familiar with before I granted his statements credit. Also, since it's a newspaper article written for a popular audience, the whole thing has an unfortunate "Look at the freaks!" quality, though it's not overbearing.

What I find interesting about the description of the article's subjects is that it really doesn't seem to be a primarily sexual relationship that they have with the objects of their affection. There is a sexual element which the article goes to some trouble to point out, but the people involved seem to have genuine love for their objects of choice, rather than a purely sexual lust. Mid-way through the article Joachim A. goes to some trouble to explain that what he and others have is not a fetish, and while he isn't very eloquent about it (in translation, at least), I think he's right.

The portions of the article that quote sexologist Volkmar Sigusch are a bit annoying. The quotes where he discusses asexuality and the increasing isolation of modern life make me think he sees it a primarily non-sexual, but then you have quotes about "Singles, isolated people, cultural sodomites, many perverts and sex addicts." I'm inclined to give Sigush the benefit of the doubt; I feel like the author of the piece may be taking the most salacious off-the-cuff statements from his interview with Sigusch and ripping them out of context to spice up the article.

I wonder, though, how much of this really is a modern development and how much is a long-standing but rare personality trait. I can't put my finger on any examples right now, but I recall having read in a lot of stories about people with strong, affectionate relationships with objects that they use daily. Doro B.'s discussion of the relationship she has with her metal processing machine strikes this chord particularly strongly. And, really, is having a strong emotional connection with your welding machine that much more bizarre than having a strong emotional connection with, for instance, your dog or your horse? I feel like the isolation of modern life might be a factor in drawing out the tendency to form bonds with inanimate objects, but I'm dubious that this is a new phenomenon.

Of course, what I don't know about psychology would fill the libraries of every psychology department at every university and institute in the world, so treat my thoughts on the subject accordingly. Nonetheless: Interesting article.

Nothing Satisfies Like Baby Cow Tummies

According to the BBC, the Masterfoods company, maker of the Snickers, Milky Way, Mars, and Twix candy bars, among others, has begun using rennet in their milk chocolate products. For those who don't know, rennet is an enzyme found in the mucus of mammal stomachs. It allows mammals to digest milk. One upshot of rennet is that, if you extract it from a mammal's stomach and add it to milk, it'll cause the milk to curdle. Rennet is a fairly common element in the cheese-making process, and is more generally used to create whey, which you often find in snack foods.

The trouble is the part where it comes from mammal stomachs. Whey-making rennet comes from cow tummies. Baby cow tummies. The operation to extract the rennet from the cow tummy does not leave the cow in any sort of shape to continue with the whole living thing. This makes rennet, and products that contain it, not generally suitable for vegetarians. You can curdle milk using non-animal rennet, but it's somewhat more expensive. I don't think it's too much more expensive, given the reasonable availability of non-rennet cheeses and whey products, but I am not an expert.

So: Now a wide variety of Masterfoods candy products are no longer suitable for vegetarians. This is annoying.

What irks me most about the article is the part where the Masterfoods spokesman defends the switch to animal rennet as a "principled decision." I would be interested to hear exactly which principle it was that motivated Masterfoods to turn products that did not require the killing of animals into products that did require it. While "wishing to maximize our profit margins," is, technically, a principle, to use it as Masterfoods does here does violence to what is commonly understood by the term "principled decision." If a company is going to make a decision based on hard fiscal calculations, I would rather they just come out and say it. "We conducted a study and determined that the cost savings from switching to animal rennet outweigh the expected loss in sales of candy bars to vegetarians, so we decided to make the switch," at least has the virtue of being forthright. Instead, they went with, "after many nights spent tossing and turning, we have finally slain our demons and stand before you now to say 'For too long our candy bars have contained a repugnant lack of baby cow tummies! This must not be!'"

Having now voiced my opposition to this move, I must now confront the fact that annoyed bleatings on the internet are the only way I can punish the company. Since I'm a vegan, the "milk" part of their milk chocolate products has kept me away from them already. I can't spend any less than I'm already not spending on their products. I could write an angry letter, though:

"Dear Sirs,

I find your decision to include animal rennet in your products morally repugnant. I already found your decision to include milk in your products morally repugnant, but this is altogether moreso. I will continue to not buy your products just as though you had not made this decision, but now my non-purchases shall be conducted with greater gusto, perhaps accompanied by a sad shaking of the head and a clucking of the tongue.

Yours sincerely,
Z. Alexander Slorpe, Esquire."

Loose Lips Sink Ships

I am manifestly not allowed to talk about what happens at work. If this wasn't made obvious to me by the three sternly-worded non-disclosure agreements I was given to sign when I first walked in the door on Tuesday, it was rendered in crystal when I got a tour of the office from Justice's law librarian.

In the back of the library is a small break room. It has a table, a few chairs, a microwave, refrigerator, coffee machine, water cooler, a closet, and a bulletin board adorned with press releases. It's fairly spartan but for a single poster which, by dint of its loneliness, drew my eye when I entered. It's a picture of a cup of coffee with a group of four smiling, people of a variety of races juxtaposed below it, clearly having a good time chatting while enjoying their caffeine-intake. Reflected in the coffee is a War Room-style map of the the world. The banner headline on the poster reads "A lot of information can spill over one of these." At the bottom it contines, "Make sure your conversations are secure to the last drop."

"Heh. That's cute." I said, indicating the poster.

The librarian gave me a stern look. "We take operational security very seriously around here."

"... As do I, of course. I just... think it's a nice poster."

I would go into more detail about the extraordinary measures we have to take to maintain operational security, but I'm not certain operational security permits me to discuss those measures. In fact, I'm not even sure I'm allowed to discuss the coffee poster.

I think they need to get a new poster about the hazards to operational security presented by blogging.


Kristen's first press conference reminds me: the other day when I was scounting out Justice for my job I saw the SDNY's US Attorney outside 86 Chambers Street giving a small press conference. He had a little podium set up on the sidewalk and about a dozen newspeople in front of him, intently holding up microphones and listening to him speak.

Flanking him were, to his left, a man in a t-shirt that read "Community Action Now!" and, to his right, a monk in full-on brown hooded cloak.

I haven't looked into what that press conference was about; whatever it was can't possibly compete with the fevered scenarios I have imagined for it.

It also, I think, sounds like the set-up for some sort of joke. "A community activist, a monk, and a US Attorney walk into a press conference..."


It turns out that, for some reason, I have been assigned duties at Justice in my four lowest-ranked units. I think the assigning secretary might have read my form incorrectly. At this point, it's too late to change anything as I've already got jobs in those units. Also, I'm finding them surprisingly fun, vague moral/political compunctions aside. So I suppose I'll be sticking with it and seeing what happens. Bonus: I may get to go to trial on two cases in the coming 6 weeks, which would mean that I would get a neat experience but have to work long, long, long hours. There have already been hints dropped that I should plan on working this weekend.

On the dress code front, my fears have been realized and I'll be wearing a suit every day this summer. This is doubly unfortunate, as I discovered this morning that I've put on a little weight since the last time I did much suit-wearing and, as such, my suits are tight and uncomfortable. I'm going to need to start jogging again if I'm to make this summer at all bearable.

A friend once told me that the first week of a new job inevitably suck. Why, then, did I decide to take two jobs this summer?

My first job begins today, working at the Justice Department. My day began auspiciously with me being woken up at 6 AM by my apartment's carbon monoxide alarm. It hadn't been activated by actual carbon monoxide; it was merely informing me that its batteries were near expiration. The alarm has been designed with security features to prevent tampering by tenants, so I have to get maintenance to replace the batteries. This is problematic, since that requires filing a formal maintenance request which will be acted upon any time between three days from now and never. I put on sweatpants and an undershirt and trudged downstairs to fill out the necessary paperwork to get the battery changed. There I learned, much to my delight, that even with the door closed and my apartment being on the third floor the alarm's beeping can be heard quite clearly from the building's lobby. If I'm lucky, this may annoy one of the maintenance workers in my building into fixing my problem.

Justice wants me to wear a suit for the first day. For some reason they are playing hide-the-ball with the summer dress code; I've been told that I need a suit for the first day and that my unit head will tell me what the summer dress code is for the rest of the summer at orientation. I've a sinking suspicion that the answer is going to be "Surprise! It's still suits!"

Now I have to pick out a pair of underpants for today, ideally lucky ones. I have a pair of heart-print boxer shorts that I previously wore when I took the LSATs. I got a good score, but now in retrospect I'm not sure if that's indicative of good luck or bad. My inclination is to go with my Nintendo Logo boxershorts; they seem to be trending upwards these days. Maybe their good luck will rub off on me.

De Gustibus

I have a question for anyone out there who might be a photographer:

How do I make pictures of food not look bad?

You may have noticed that I have this sort of ongoing thing with posting picture of dinners I have made of which I am particularly proud. Generally speaking, these dinners look quite tasty on my plate, which is what causes me to say, "Why, this is the sort of thing I should take a picture of and share with the internet!" And then I take a picture and it looks like this:

That was my dinner last night, eggplant and artichoke alla napoletana with sundried tomato pesto. Part of it seems like it's the flash's fault. The bright light makes otherwise-normal food look irridescent. The trouble is that I can't really get enough natural light in my room to take pictures without a flash, as can be seen here:

And that's with overhead lights, my desklamp, and a small spotlight trained on the food. Maybe it would help if I had white light instead of yellow. Also, confessedly, the food could be more artfully arranged than it is, and the sauce is an unfortunate mixture of green and red that, while tasty, is not quite photogenic.

Any suggestions on how to stage a food shot so that it doesn't look gross?

In Other News...

I bank with USAA. It is a small bank, but there are those who love it. I generally consider myself to be among them. It has its inconveniences; the fact that it's based in Texas and has no branch offices means that all checks I receive have to be mailed, so no quick check cashing. It has no ATMs, so I theoretically have to pay fees whenever I withdraw money. But USAA membership has its perks. One of them is that, because it has no ATMs, USAA reimburses me for the ATM fees I pay at the end of every month. There's an upward limit on how much they'll reimburse so I do occasionally pay fees, but otherwise it makes getting money very convenient. Plus, USAA is only open to members of the armed services and their families. Thanks to their public service ethos they're notably less likely to screw their members over for an extra nickel of interest than are most banks. I'm generally very pleased with them.

I just wish they would let me into my bank account.

When I signed up with USAA, I received a USAA Member Number. It's an 8-digit number, nothing too onerous to remember. I've been using the same number for the last 7 years. I don't have to look it up; it's long been ingrained in my memory. At the start of this year, USAA's online services decided to implement a new Online ID system. Rather than forcing members to recall 8 semi-random digits, members could now establish easy-to-remember usernames. Now you can log-in with that instead of your member number.

Did I say "can"? It would actually be more accurate to say "must."

Needless to say, I have now forgotten my easy-to-remember and convenient online username. But I'll remember my account number to my grave.

Yoder! You Seek Yoder!

As a general rule, the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom only provides protection against government acts purposely designed to inhibit or require the expression of religious faith. If the government mandates school prayer, that's a problem. If the government bans certain religious symbols from being publicly displayed on private property, that's a problem. On the other hand, general laws that happen to inhibit religious practices are usually untouched by the First Amendment. Thus, for example, laws that ban serving alcohol to minors aren't unconstitutional even though they might inhibit Catholic priests from giving communion wine to young parishioners (as a practical matter, most state alcohol laws contain exemptions for priests serving alcohol as part of a religious ceremony, but that's an exception in the law, not in the Constitution). The only time a general law runs afoul of the First Amendment is if it's really a stealth attack on religion. Thus, a law that bans all headwear, then contains a list of exemptions that removes every conceivable piece of headware from the ban except yarmulkes would be unconstitutional despite being couched in religion-neutral language. Other than that, there's no way you can use your religion to get out of obeying a general law.

Unless you're Amish.

This is the legacy of Wisconsin v. Yoder, one of the Supreme Court's most embarrassing bits of caselaw. The case came to the court in 1972 and concerned a small Old-Order Amish community in Wisconsin. Wisconsin had a law requiring children to be educated, whether in public or private schools, until 16 years old. Several members of the Menonite community in question withdrew their children after the 8th Grade, when they were 13 or 14 years old, claiming that their beliefs forbade obtaining education beyond the basics learned in elementary and middle school. The state brought them to court over the issue.

The law hadn't yet developed to the point it has now, but there were still enough decisions on the intersection of religion and education to state that, broadly, you could not use religion as a reason to opt out of the educational system entirely. Wisconsin thought it had an open-and-shut case. And it did. A young prosecutor was given the case and he presented hardly no witnesses and did barely any cross examination. The defense relied upon an expert witness, Professor John Hostetler, an anthropologist who specialized in studyin the Amish communities in the United States.

Hostetler presented an idyllic picture of Amish life. A simple folk, the Amish live isolated lives that forbid the use of even simple technologies that we take for granted. Among their beliefs is that one should not think to highly of oneself or concern oneself with matters beyond one's calling. Thus, the education in science, history, and higher mathematics required by Wisconsin's high school curriculum interfered with the practice of their religion. Even high school education within Amish schoolhouses was too much; Amish children reached the threshold of necessary knowledge at the end of the 8th grade, and beyond that further learning was offensive. Education up until then was fine; children needed to know how to read in order to know their bibles, to write and to do simple arithmetic in order to conduct the business of the farm. Anything more advanced, however, was forbidden.

He also touched, particularly in cross-examination, on another problem with high school education. As students progress in the school system they begin learning value systems that are at variance with the Amish culture. High schools teach love of technology and modern society. They teach the values of competition and individual achievement, while the Amish prioritize the community over the individual. All of these are, perhaps, persuasive arguments for a law-maker. But the Constitution has nothing to say about them. There is no constitutional protection of the integrity of your community, only of your right to individual religious expression. Hostetler tried, as much as he could, to tie the communitarian argument in with the religious one; insofar as Amish religion is heavily focused on the community, preservation of the Amish culture and protection of their religious believs were one and the same.

There's something else in Hostetler's testimony, only briefly hinted at. The Amish community at the time was facing a huge problem with abandonment by its children. Population growth among the Old-Order Amish had become stagnant, because many Amish youths were leaving the community once they were old enough to set out on their own. One of the reasons the Amish community wanted to stop sending their children to high school was to make it harder for them to leave the community by giving them fewer of the skills necessary to survive in modern society.

Not surprisingly, the court ruled against the Amish. The arguments about religion were nice, but didn't really fall within the scope of the First Amendment. Yoder lost again on appeal. But then the Wisconsin Supreme Court, somewhat bafflingly, reversed the lower court and ruled in favor of the Yoders. The state appealed, and the Supreme Court took the case.

The Court ruled for the Yoders. In a decision that constitutional scholars still find embarrassing, the 7-justice majority found that the Amish had a right to withdraw their children from high school for religious reasons. The opinion is a paean to the glories of the simple, rural lives that the Amish lead. The majority offers very little basis for their decision other than "who are we to interfere with their way of life?" If they decide that they want to reject modern society and withdraw from the educational system, who are we to stop them?

The lone dissenter, Justice William O. Douglas, calls into question exactly whose decision the majority is respecting, that of the parents or of the children. Our Constitution has an individual-orientation, not a community-orientation. We preserve individual rights, not community ones. If a law interferes with the right of a community to decide the fate of its children, that interference has precisely nothing to do with the Constitution. In America, we have decided that, to ensure individual ample opportunities throughout thei lives, everyone must be educated through a certain age. Even if that education interferes with certain values that a community may hold, it should not be made optional. We ought not, he argued, sacrifice individual rights to preserve insular communities.

Justice Douglas was not persuasive enough, and to this day First Amendment law contains a dubious exception for the Amish when it comes to education, an exception not granted to any other religious group. Others have tried. They have all failed. Only the Amish receive this exemption from general laws.

Since Yoder, the Amish have universally withdrawn their children from high school. Within a few years, abandonment of the community by Amish youths had dropped to nearly nothing.

What's interesting is how much of the decision in Yoder turned on Hostetler's testimony. Wisconsin figured it had an easy case, so they prepared only a weak case at trial. As such, the only factual basis regarding the Amish community was provided by Hostetler, and his cross-examination by the state was short and perfunctory. The problem is that in the American system finding facts is the function of the trial court, not appellate courts; once the trial ended, Hostetler's testimony was the only testimony the Supreme Court could look at. And, as you might imagine, Hostetler's testimony was glowingly positive for the Amish case.

The problem is that Hostetler had very good reasons for wanting to see the Amish community preserved. He was an anthropologist who had built his career on studying the Amish. The Amish community was stagnant and education was part of what was causing its population problems. Of course he was willing to say what was necessary to preserve his niche, the people he made a career out of studying. Hostetler didn't necessarily lie on the stand, but he did fudge some things and elide certain facts to present a more friendly picture than was reality. When an expert witness's livelihood depends on the court ruling one direction, the Court ought to grant that witness's testimony less credibility than it did in this case.

What's interesting about Yoder is the degree to which the outcome turned on one expert's testimony. Given the realities of the tendency for experts to become entranced by their subjects, the Court would have been well served to treat the anthropologist's testimony a bit more skeptically than it did.


No Amish. Too exhausted, plus I need to go back and actually read the case to refresh my memory.

Instead, I am officially declaring that today was the first day of summer, based on my subjective impression that it was the first day that felt lie summer. It was overcast and a bit muggy in the morning, but skies were clear and sunny the rest of the day. Slightly hot, but not so hot as to get uncomfortable (that won't come until later in the summer). The trees on the medians and in the park have shed their blossoms and are now a verdant green. I spent a couple of hours today just walking around, and another couple of hours just sitting on one of the par benches the city puts on the medians at every intersection on Broadway north of Columbus Circle. You don't really realize what a lovely place Manhattan can be until you sit and stare at it for awhile on a bright sunny day.


Sadly, too busy for a real entry today; I've been doing a semester's worth of back-studying for tomorrow's Criminal Procedure exam. I have, however, done a bit of housekeeping that I should have done months ago; I finally re-built my blogroll and I added a link to my e-mail address, both tasks I've been putting off since I moved the page from Typepad.

I promise an interesting (according to certain definitions of the word) post tomorrow. Here's a hint: It may involve anthropology. And the Amish!

Cerise, a project of The Iris Network, recently launched with its May 2007 issue. Its goal is to be a semi-scholarly publication for articles that address the intersection of gender and gaming, encompassing video games, board games, and role playing games.

The debut issue has some articles to recommend it. There's an interesting piece on the history of the Girls' Games Movement of the mid-90s written by Lindsey Galloway, a more general discussion of the problems of male-centric gamer culture by Natalie Hill, and a fun piece on crafting your own tabletop miniatures using polymer clay by Robyn Fleming. It's a bit light on content, but a big part of that is that the call for submissions only went out about a week or two ago. And, to be fair, some of the articles aren't as strong as others. Still, it's a very solid first effort and I look forward to seeing it develop in future months.

Today Kotaku, one of the internet's largest video game news aggregator blogs, linked to the first issue. The post, and ensuing comments, can be found here. There's a lot of bad blood between the folks who run Kotaku and the folks who run Iris and Cerise. Several months back Kotaku's founder Brian Crecente wrote a post complaining about the lack of prominent women bloggers. He apparently decided that Kotaku needed a woman writer, examined the existing woman video game bloggers, and found them lacking. Feminist video game blogger Andrea Rubenstein took issue with this. The Kotaku post, and subsequent uproar in the female video game blogging community, provided the backdrop for her to launch the Iris Network, a feminist video game resource that she had been working on for several years. Which, naturally, led Brian Crecente to take credit for inspiring her and the others involved to create the project.

This history is somewhat alluded to in the post linking to Cerise's first issue by Michael McWhertor. To his credit, the post itself isn't particularly hostile. That's saved for the comment section.

The comments to that post are a wonderful microcosm of the entire debate on women and video games that occurs on mainstream websites. About half of the posts are people complaining that they don't see why women need a special, separate community and they should be integrating, not segregating. The other half are commenters remarking on the sexual desirability of the woman pictured on Cerise's title page, or other similarly denigrating comments (My favorite, this charming contribution from Lixie: "A new mag for when they're on the rag"). A lot of the commenters seem confused about what Cerise is; they seem to be operating under the belief that it's a new print magazine, ala Electronics Gaming Monthly or GamePro, targeted at women, rather than a monthly on-line journal. This is probably symptomatic of the fact that the commenters in question are shooting their mouths off about what's wrong with Cerise and why It Should Not Be based on three brief paragraphs of description by McWhertor coupled with the memory of arguments made in flame wars past, with minds uncluttered by the potential bias and dilution of their points that would result if they actually clicked the link and read the magazine.

A couple of things stood out to me. My favorite "Careful! Your bias is showing!" slip comes from the second commenter, KidNicky, when he remarks that "but in their introduction article,they rattled off a few names that are "household words" to the average gamer,and OH NOES THEY ALL MEN." This is interesting because there is no introductory article. There's a from the editors section, which doesn't contain the aforementioned list. There's a mission statement linked from the masthead, again without that list. The list can be found, though; it's in the article "Girls Don't Play Video Games," the last article before the review section and the only article written by a man. It's also the article that gets the most attention in comments (though part of that is because of people responding to and buildin off of KidNicky's early comment). It was probably a mistake on KidNicky's part, but I find it interesting that the single article with a male author gets elevated to Introductory, such that the one man who writes for the mag is made the de facto spokesman for the enterprise. Sort of like how women gamers wouldn't exist had Brian Crecente not willed them into being.

There aren't a lot of defenders for Cerise in those comments, as of this writing, which isn't at all surprising. Kotaku's commenting environment is utterly toxic, as demonstrated in part by this very thread. Feminists and others who don't believe that Women Need to Shut Up are quickly shouted down when they voice an opinion not in line with that of the average Kotaku commenter. Thus, Kotaku has become a place where everyone is free to comment, provided they don't think that women need their own space to discuss video games. The dissonance is delightful. If you express feminist opinions at Kotaku, you are told to shut up and take your arguments elsewhere. If you build your own site to have those arguments, Kotaku links to the site and commenters tell you that you don't need your own site and if you want to stop being second-class citizens you should be commenting at Kotaku. If you are a feminist, then, Kotaku commenters are not particularly pleased with you expressing your opinion anywhere. Which, I suppose, is the whole point of the endeavor.

I also find the whole Shutupicrat philosophy that underlies most of the comments fascinating. Until I got onto the internet I had never met somebody who gets actually angry about the fact that some people care about things that he or she doesn't. It would be sort of interesting to meet some of these people in real life:

"Excuse me, but why in the hell are we learning German? I don't want to speak German, and I don't see why anyone else should. Can't we all just speak English and shut up about stupid foreign languages I don't care about?"

"If you don't want to take German, why are you enrolled in this class?"

"I'm not; I was just looking on a bulletin board and noticed that German was being taught, and since I don't think German is interesting I felt I should come here and let everyone know that they're being stupid and wasting their time."

"Why do you serve blueberry pancakes? I hate blueberries, and I don't really like pancakes that much, either. If people would just shut up about their blueberry pancakes I could get back to ordering waffles in peace."

I do somewhat see the argument for the anti-segregationist build-a-better-culture-from-within perspective. The problem is that I think it's a false choice; it isn't either be a part of the larger gaming community or be a part of the female/feminist gaming community, it's both be a part of the larger gaming community and be a part of the female/feminist gaming community. Moreover, I don't think the problem of women gamers being isolated from the gaming community writ large is as big a problem as the one of women gamers being alienated from the gaming community in general as a result of overt and subrosa hostility to women in gaming.


Someone just called me from the 510 area code, MIdway-3 exchange. The Caller ID was "ST OF CAUCBERKE." I assume the BERKE is Berkeley. And, actually, the UC before it is probably UC. Oh, and ST of CA is probably State of California. I could have told you that from the 510 area code and 643 exchange.

So did anyone who reads this call me from a UC Berkeley phone number around 8:08 this evening (5:08 Pacific Time)? I hope I don't have an overdue library book or something. Or else maybe the alumni association has finally tracked me down.

A Genealogy of Gamers

I found this interesting post via Kotaku. It's an attempt to classify gamers and gaming styles into different types. The author, Christ Bateman, identifies nine types of gamers, but allows that the list is only tentative and could expand or contract. Further, he implies in his self-description at the end that the categories are not intended to be exclusive and that gamers can be classified as hybrid types.

I find the list fascinating, and am now inclined to read up on some of the theoretical material that he mentions at the start of the article and that I didn't really understand. Some of the categories definitely struck a chord with me as accurate descriptions of the way I approach certain games, while others that didn't necessarily describe what I experience echoed the sentiments I've heard from others in describing games.

What I find most interesting is that, while I would describe myself as a hybrid of several of the player types, I seldom think of myself as fitting more than one type for any given game. Thus, certain strategy and RPG games I will play as a Manager, where I'm less interested in the game itself than I am in the way that the game is constructed. But other RPGs, particularly Final Fantasy and similar Japanese RPGs, I experience as a Wanderer. When I play those games I'm more interested in the plot than I am in the actual gameplay, which I tend to view as an inconvenience on the road to more plot.

My experience with Final Fantasy X is a good example of two different way of approaching the same game. As you know, Bob, modern Final Fantasy games tend to be rigidly linear until the very end, at which point a vast array of entirely optional side-quests open up. At this point you have two options: Spend 100 hours trying to force your way through the final dungeon and complete the game with a barely-powerful-enough party, or spend 100 hours playing underwater soccer and hunting for treasures on giant chickens, thereby acquiring skills that make your party so powerful that it can blast through the final dungeon in minutes.

When I reached the end of Final Fantasy X I was primarily interested in seeing the end of the story. Thus, in the hopes that I would get lucky and break through that last boss without spending hours on underwater soccer, I tried to muscle through the last boss without any side questing. It took about a dozen attempts, but eventually I got lucky and finished the game. Some time thereafter my roommate played through FFX. He got to the end game and immediately started in on all the side quests, the soccer, the arena battles, the optional bosses that are 100 times more powerful than the final boss, the insane game where you have to dodge random lightning bolts 100 times in a row. Eventually he got everything, maxed out all of the characters, beat every optional boss... and quit. He never went through the motions of actually finishing the game, even though the ultimate battle of good versus evil would have only lasted two hits: Him hitting the boss and the boss hitting the floor. For him, the plot was entirely inconsequential. The meat of the game was the actual gameplay and the collecting element at the end.

What I really like about this article is that it puts into words something I've noticed before but never really articulated: the variety of ways that different players interact with a game. What's always struck me as interesting is the way that two people, similar enough to like video games and even similar enough to like the same game, can like that game for entirely different reasons and can approach it from opposite angles. When I played FFX I played it in Wanderer mode; my roommate played it in Hoarder mode.

What's also fascinating is that not only does a given game trigger different play styles in different players, but that the same player might have different play styles activated by different games. Building on my example: I enjoyed FFX as a Wanderer while my roommate enjoyed it as a Hoarder. But it wouldn't be accurate to say that that's because I AM a Wanderer and he IS a Hoarder. When I played through Zelda: Twilight Princess I became obsessed with completion, to the point where I finished the 100-level bonus dungeon in order to get a power-up that I didn't really need to finish the game. For whatever reason Zelda triggered my Hoarder type, where Final Fantasy X triggered my Wanderer type.

It would be interesting to see, if you had a gestalt game that can be reasonably approached from different angles, if it is possible to step back, recognize the different angles, and force yourself to make a gestalt switch. Could I go back and play FFX and appreciate it as a Hoarder? Can I dynamically alter my experience of a game as I'm playing it? Could I, for instance, play half-way through Xenosaga and then say to myself, "Well, this plot is utterly vapid. I'll resolve to go make myself a sandwich while the players talk and focus exclusively on the character development/collection aspects of the game" and turn it from a bad Wanderer experience into a good Hoarder experience?

In terms of how I would describe myself according to the types listed, I would say I'm mostly a Wanderer or Manager. I occasionally have my Hoarding instincts awoken by just the right game, and I also tend to unfortunately Hoardish tendences when playing Real Time Strategy games. Certain puzzle games put me in Zoner mode, as well as some side-scrolling shooters like Gradius V. Interestingly, while I tend not to be a Conqueror generally I enter that mode when I play old video games. Perhaps I'm reverting to a previous type that I identify with the games of my childhood. Finally, while the list is focused on video gamers I find that I'm a Participant when it comes to board games. I'm less interested in winning board games than I am in being around people who are enjoying a game.

Revolution Has Been Done!

Tonight's dinner: Revolutionay Spanish Omelet with Roasted Red Pepper-Almond Sauce!


And for desert: Banana Muffins, recipe courtesy of Dianna


Project for when I am bored: Go through the Questionable Content archives and figure out exactly how much time has passed within the comic since the first strip. The strip is great, but the pacing is very, very slow and the author, Jeph Jacques, is unusually consistent about having each series of strips occur on the same day, then moving on to the next day, and so on. The trick is, though, that the plot moves along in real-time, even as time moves slowly within the strip. It's jarring when a new day dawns in QC's Boston and you look back through the archives and realize that the last three months of plot developments all occurred in one day. Seriously, I'll bet the events of full four years of the strip thus far have transpired over the course of two weeks in the characters's lives. A month at the outside.

My Year of NES: Battle of Olympus

So, um... I sort of fell of that Year of NES thing, didn't I? First Spring Break came, which interfered with playing games and writing them up, then I took a while unpacking stuff and getting set up again, and then finals started looming and, well... here we are. But now I am motivated and focused and ready to talk about another game! To the extent I can remember it.

220px-Battle_of_olympus.jpgThe Battle of Olympus was released by Brøderbund in 1988. Yes, Brøderbund! The Carmen Sandiego people! It turns out that, in addition to publishing a variety of quality edutainment titles, Brøderbund also publishd a number of Japanese games in the US for companies that had no American arm. This wasn't an uncommon side-business for American software companies in the 80s; Sierra On-Line, of King's Police Space Quest for Glory fame, published a few Japanese games in its early years, like Thexder and Sorcerian.

This explains why the game's plot is so very... odd. You play Orpheus and are trying to rescue Euridice from the underworld. To do so you must fight a hodge-podge of different monsters from Greek mythology. The mythological elements don't really fit together in a coherent way; you're left with a sense that the game's developers just threw in a slew of names from Bullfinch's Mythology at random. It's jarring to meet Prometheus and be told that his town is under seige by the snake-woman Lamia, but that if you can defeat her he'll give you the Staff of Fennel, which you can use to fight enemies. And which shoots fire! And all of this from the same company that brought you Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.

Brøderbund might have worked a bit harder on the translation. The game's various puzzles are obtuse enough without dialogue like "Here is the sandals. If you can find my father he knows how to use it," and "There may be a crystal ball that helps you see invisible things." In a way, it adds to the sense of accomplishment when you find something and figure out, retroactively, what the game's characters were trying to tell you. Nonetheless, once the retro charm wears off wrestling with terrible translations is one of the less fun aspects of playing older games.

So how does Battle of Olympus play? Exactly like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. I played this game a lot as a kid and somehow never caught on to the fact that it was a Zelda II rip-off. Before picking it up again I'd heard people mention this fact occasionally, but I generally rolled my eyes and wrote them off as too cynical for their own goods. But no! It's Zelda II, only now Link's wearing a tunic and a wreath of laurels! The animation is the same, the controls are the same, the single-screen houses are the same, even some of the graphics are out-right stolen from Nintendo. It's Zelda II in ancient Greece.

Stepping back a bit, it's hard to really evaluate Battle of Olympus. As I played it, I realized that game design philosophy has really fundamentally changed since it was made. If you play a modern game, you'll find it's trying to be fun from the moment you turn it on. Modern games seek to engage the player and give them interesting things to do from start to finish. Battle of Olympus, and a lot of other games from its era, is a chore. The game is designed to be a challenge. The fundamental relationship between developer and player has changed since Battle of Olympus was made. Modern developers see players as consumers looking for entertainment, and ask "what can we do so that players will have fun?" Developers of the 80s saw players as adversaries, and asked themselves "How many roadblocks can we place between players and the goal of beating the game?" Modern designers make games to be fun; designers of the NES era made games to be hard.

I played Battle of Olympus a lot before writing this. I'd estimate I spent maybe 10 hours plugging away at it in my week with it, and I got maybe half-way through the game. In all the time I spent playing it, I can honestly say I never had any fun. At no point did the game cause me to feel joy. I felt no exhileration at what I was doing. What Battle of Olympus did make me feel was satisfaction. I died dozens of times trying to beat the Cyclops in Pelopennesus. When I finally beat him and got some bauble that made my incredibly vulnerable avatar marginally less weak, I was pleased with myself. The game had been beating me, hard, and I had just hit back.

Ultimately, I don't think Battle of Olympus is a very good game. The fact that it's challenging and not fun throws the shift in design philosophy into sharp relief, but that doesn't excuse the fact that it isn't fun. There are a lot of other game from the era that managed to be both challenging and entertaining.

I wouldn't pay more than $2 for Battle of Olympus. It's not terrible, there's some enjoyment to be squeezed out of it if you're willing to work at it and take pleasure in surmounting punishingly hard video games, but it isn't particularly worth it if there are more entertaining alternatives.

No musical selection for this game because the game's music is wholely foregettable. The one exception: When you enter a God or Goddess's temple the music that plays is an 8-bit chiptune rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor. Odd, considering that the piece wasn't written until around 2000 years after when the game is supposed to take place, but interesting and unique nonetheless.

Tax Freedom Day

No, not the bogus publicity stunt put on by the Tax Foundation. It's the day I officially finished Federal Income Taxation! As of 6 PM this evening, I submitted my final and said my farewells to §162, §212, §274, even §7872. Oh, §1231, how I'll miss your hotchpots and sub-hotchpots.

To be honest, I actually quite enjoyed Tax. I found it far more interesting than one would reasonably expect. I've signed up to do some tax work at the firm this summer, so we'll see if my interest holds.

And to celebrate my Tax Freedom Day, here's a picture of my dinner: Morrocan vegetable stew served over couscous!


I recently got a webcam (under protest!). Now I can finally make all those self-aware YouTube webcam parody videos I've been meaning to make. Or I can put up a live feed and allow the internet to watch me at all time. It'll be like Big Brother in 1984, except that I actually paid money out of my pocket for the privilege of enabling others's voyeurism.

Incidentally, if one were to tune into my live feed, one would discover that my computer activities consist principally of 1. staring at the screen while manipulating my mouse, 2. staring at the screen while typing, and 3. staring at the screen while eating.

In other technology-related news, I finally bought a cell phone. No, you can't have the number; I don't want to talk to you. Or anyone. I dislike talking on the phone and hate all cell phones, in theory and in practice. I've gotten the cell phone out of necessity for work, since lawyers are expected to be on-call at all hours of the day and night. In the best of all possible worlds, I would be paying $40 a month to receive and place no calls, ever. And a further warning: I haven't paid for text messages, but it's impossible to get a cell phone these days that isn't text message-capable. That means that it costs me ten cents for every text message I receive. DO NOT TEXT MESSAGE ME. If you text message me I will personally break your thumbs.

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