Saturday, December 30, 2006

The One About Keith Ellison

It was interesting to read the various reactions to incoming U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) announcing that he would take his oath of office on the Koran. Interesting, because even a number of responses in favor of Ellison's announcement seemed to have very little understanding of the background behind the whole brouhaha.

You see, I voted for Keith Ellison in the 2006 general election, even though I didn't vote for him in the primary election.

In March of 2006, long-time Representative Martin Olaf Sabo announced that he would not seek re-election as the represenative of the Minnesota Fifth Congressional District. Upon his announcement, a flurry of vaguely-to-fairly well-known politicos, at least by Minnesota standards, announced they would seek the nomination to replace Sabo as the district's representative. Two things you should know about Minnesota politics:

1. The city of Minneapolis, which is wholly contained within the Fifth Congressional District, is considered one of the most liberal cities in America. Its previous mayor was a black woman, Sharon Sayles Belton, while its current mayor, R.T. Rybak, is a former liberal activist. The Minneapolis City Council seats no Republicans, and three members of the Green Party. Based on this tradition, it was reasonable for a politician to assume that if he or she managed to win the party nomination for the seat, he or she would not only be the favorite to win the seat, but to be able to hold the seat as long as he or she chooses to - Sabo himself had been the district's representative since 1978 and had never faced serious opposition.

2. The Democratic Party, as a 'brand name', does not exist in Minnesota per se; rather, a union of the state's Democratic Party with the Depression-era Farmer-Labor Party during World War II created what is known in the state as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, usually shortened to "DFL" by locals. Though with the transition of agriculture from a family to a corporate concern, 'farmer' issues are often addressed by state Republicans as well as Democrats, and though the political power of unions is declining in Minnesota just as it is in other parts of the United States, the simple history of the DFL has kept it a more left-leaning and progressive party than the national Democratic Party, especially in the past ten to fifteen years. (This should surprise no one who is a student of American political history; after all, Robert LaFollette's Progressive Party was born in neighboring Wisconsin at about the same time as the Farmor-Labor Party came into existence in Minnesota.)

During the spring of 2006, most folks I spoke with seemed to prefer former state Senator Ember Reichgott Junge over Ellison for the DFL nomination; meanwhile, Sabo himself backed his former House Chief of Staff Mike Erlandson for the nomination. Ellison seemed mired in discussions about unpaid parking tickets and other supposed flaws. This wouldn't last. Ellison campaigned hard in grass-roots style, motivated supporters, and went to the convention with a solid bloc of support; he parlayed that support into the DFL nomination, on the fourth ballot. Nevertheless, Minnesota does not automatically award its party slots in the general election to winners of the party caucuses - Ellison would have to defend his nomination in a primary election, and both Reichgott Junge and Erlandson remained in the race to contend against him.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had nominated former U of M Business School professor and entrepreneur Alan Fine for the seat, without opposition. While the DFLers squabbled during the primary, Fine maintained a position above the fray, with a very high-minded and tolerant tone that won plenty of attention from moderate voters. Even the allegedly liberal Minneapolis Star-Tribune complimented Fine for his pre-primary carriage (the linked story appears to be unavailable now, unfortunately). Even though Ellison was considered advantaged by the party nomination, most observers expected either Erlandson or Reichgott Junge to emerge from the primary as the DFL's official candidate.

Ellison, still working hard, beat them both, by sizable margins - he captured over 40% of the primary vote in a tough three-way race. And it was at this point that Alan Fine, apparently having set himself up as a moderate in the event of a contest against Erlandson or Reichgott Junge, abandoned his moderation and went on the attack. Despite attacks on Ellison's 'character' having had no effect on his popularity in the primary election, Fine apparently followed some political handler's script and pit-bulled his way out of the race. By the time the election was held, Fine ended up polling almost identically to Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, far behind Ellison's 56% of the vote.

I hadn't voted for Ellison in the primary, though this was largely because I really didn't feel I knew him very well - though he'd been serving as the representative for District 58B, comprising much of the city of Minneapolis, in the Minnesota State House since 2002, I'd been unaware of his positions or achievements, because they hadn't made headlines. In addition, I thought similarly to what Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee eventually said during the campaign itself; that it seemed a sizable portion of Ellison's candidacy was novelty-driven, giving Minnesotans the chance to elect the first-ever Muslim to national political office.

During the course of the general election campaign, I got to know Ellison a bit better - not personally, but at least by proxy. I watched one televised debate and attended another, and was stunned in particular at the degree to which Fine's candidacy appeared to boil down to arguments that he simply wasn't Ellison. Nevertheless, every one of Fine's attacks was dutifully repeated as 'news' in the local media; even Lee's comment above was magnified into an accusation that Ellison was simply a 'novelty candidate', which was not at all what Lee was suggesting. Only the local alt-weekly, the City Pages maintained some degree of objectivity surrounding Ellison's record, thanks largely to the work of local writer Britt Robson; even then, Robson's essays were frequently attacked in letters-to-the-editor by conservatives for being 'too pro-Ellison'. Through it all, Ellison stayed above the fray (though clearly it wasn't always easy for him) and refused to descend to cheap-shots and a campaign of tit-for-tat attacks. Meanwhile, Ellison continued to work the political 'ground game', especially among the immigrant Somali community; this combination of factors helped him to his easy Election Day victory.

I learned two things from watching Ellison's campaign in 2006:

1. Ellison himself is smart, disciplined, and extremely tough. He also is not afraid or uninterested in doing the kind of political scut-work that seldom gets headlines, but does result in good public policy. He's going to be a great representative for me and the other folks in his district.

2. Much of what passes for political news coverage these days, even among local news providers, is nearly indistinguishable from sports coverage; stories about Fine's attacks on Ellison were carried with the same breathlessness as the sniping between former teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, while discussions about the race itself focused far less on the candidates' positions on issues and much more on the horse-race aspects of the political race, as if voters had no other interest than watching the scoreboard and wondering who would eventually be crowned 'champion'. (Granted, this isn't an original insight on my part, but until this election, I had no idea how far local news had gone down this trail, as national political coverage has done long since.)

Ellison, as I mentioned, is smart. So he had to be aware that his announcement that he was going to take his oath of office on the Koran was going to draw fire. And predictably enough, it did, from two different sources:

- Conservative writer Dennis Prager, wrote a now infamous essay entitled America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on.

- Representative Virgil Goode (R - VA) sent a letter to his constituents in response to the Prager article apparently attacking Ellison for simply being Muslim; his letter contained the equally infamous phrase, "..if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."

In addition, in the midst of the fray, Ellison was invited onto conservative radio host Glenn Beck's show and asked, point-blank, "What I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies'," and in which Beck also asked Ellison if he thought Goode was a bigot.

I don't blame any of these guys for thinking they'd be able to get a rise out of Ellison for their attacks; after all, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, when he was staring out, never seemed to hear a criticism he wasn't willing to go off against. Again, though, this simply shows that all these guys are responding, not to Ellison himself, but to their own prejudices and pre-conceptions of what Ellison is and what he supposedly represents.

Ellison's responses, unsurprising to anyone who actually watched him during the 2006 election, were uniformly calm, intelligent, and understandable; his interview with Wolf Blitzer pretty much covers the entire spectrum of his critics, and Ellison deflects those critics with polish and aplomb.

And of course, when Ellison spoke before a group of Muslims at a convention of two different Muslim organizations, he put the whole thing into perspective:

Muslims, you're up to bat right now. . . How do you know that you were not brought right here to this place to learn how to make this world better? How do you know that Allah, sallalahu aleyhi wasallam, did not bring you here so that you could understand how to teach people what tolerance was, what justice was? ... How do you know that you're not here to teach this country?

We had faith in Allah, and we patiently endured this adversity. And facing adversity bravely and with patience in the faith in Allah is an Islamic value. . . . That's what it means to be a Muslim.

I am damned glad I voted for Keith Ellison as my representative in Congress.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Romantic comedies are a strange animal.

For starters, they're inherently unrealistic, in that they have to end with the main characters in love, with obstacles overcome, and all signs pointing toward 'happily ever after'. That's what makes them popular stories. Yet the sign of a good romantic comedy is the degree to which, other than the basic tropes of the genre, the story manages to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. We have to believe the main characters are real people before we can accept that they've fallen into a wonderland where their personal crises will be overcome with a simple push from the rolling boulder of 'love conquers all'.

They also tend to deconstruct their own premise, which is that the two main characters are somehow 'made for each other'; that the characters very seldom if ever know each other prior to their first meeting actually suggests that any two people that meet could become lovers, even True Lovers, and thus it's not so much that the story teaches you that, if you persevere, you'll find that One Person Meant For You, but rather than anyone you meet could prove to be that One True Person - in other words, anybody can fall in love with anybody.

Part of the reason I'm thinking about this subject is that I've just come from seeing The Vacation; though the selling point was one friend suggesting that any time you get to see Cameron Diaz in a motion picture is a decent way to pass the time, within the first ten minutes of the film I found myself leaning in to another friend and whispering that Kate Winslet is now my favorite actress, period.

Winslet's character has an amazing monologue at the start of the movie on the topic of love, and I wish I could remember it and quote it here, because the part about unrequited love is absolutely spot-on.

The other reason I'm thinking about this subject is that I've got that old friend from a previous post on the brain - still. Yes, I know I said in that post that I was cutting her out of my life forever, and I didn't mean to lie, exactly. It's just not that easy (unless you've watched a series of old movies with heroines with 'gumption', but I digress...)

The good news is that, while I still think about her multiple times per day, those thoughts are no longer accompanied by a crippling desire to contact her and let her know that's what I'm thinking about. In fact, I've moved on from pathetic hanger-on-her-every-memory into full-fledged Martin Briley mode. (The song, man, listen to the song - it should be obvious in a heartbeat, at least if you lived through the 1980s.)

There were a couple of things that reminded me of her yesterday, though not in a good way; one of them was this Order of the Stick online comic. In my defense, I met her at an 'adult' chat site, and she's never been shy about projecting a persona of smoldering sensuality - one of her favorite pastimes was putting sexual double-entendres in her Yahoo Messenger away messages. In her defense, she tried to make it clear that she was not the same as her online persona, and was frequently irritated at the number of men who assumed, just because she would freely and easily talk about sex, that she was therefore also free and easy. There's really no need to document the other thing; it was much along the same lines, though with respect to her politics rather than her sexuality.

Here's where these two threads tie back together: in a romantic comedy, the two people having a problem are either the main characters, who will find a way past the problem to win their happily-ever-after moment, or they are one main character and a pre-existing relationship character, which is meant to serve as the reminder of how crappy the main character's romantic life was before the other main character entered her life

Well, you don't need me to tell you that real life doesn't work by the rules of the romantic comedy genre, so that's not the issue. The problem is that there isn't a genre for what happens when two people meet, become friends, and then one person subsequently falls over the unspoken line of friendship into something more complicated, then bolts and refuses to discuss the topic while trying desperately to purge the transgression from his mind. Probably because it wouldn't make for a very salable Hollywood story, for starters. So as much as Kate Winslet kicked ass in "The Vacation", and as much as I felt I identified with her character's situation and motivations, I really can't use anything that happened to her character to help myself in my current situation.

So what do I do? Good damned question.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that this isn't the first time I've had this kind of unrequited and silent crush on someone, and the good news is that those previous occurrences did, eventually, dissipate simply through the passage of time. Time, it seems, really does heal all wounds. The typical time-to-heal, however, runs about fifteen years from crushing emotional pain to occasional fleeting and completely emotionless recollection.

Two months down, one hundred and seventy-eight to go.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Welcome to the Bandwagon

When I was young, and I mean pre-teen young here, I was a rabid sports fan. The best way I can think of to convince you of this is to tell you a story:

It's around Christmas-time 1980, and I'm too sick to travel to the extended family gathering. Instead, I stay home, wrapped up in a blanket and with soup handy and watch the Minnesota Vikings take on the Cleveland Browns. The Vikings were 8-6 at the time, and needed to win at least one of their final two games to clinch a playoff spot. Since the second of the two games was in Houston against the then-strong Oilers, one of the best defensive teams in the NFL that year and featuring All-Pro running back Earl Campbell on offense, it didn't seem likely the club would get the win if they had to rely on that one game, so the home game against Cleveland was considered key. The Browns, however, scored late to take a 23-21 lead in what looked like a game-clincher. Vikings start near their own 20 yard line.

Folks who watched the game and have solid memories can tell you that the first play from scrimmage was a pass from "Two Minute" Tommy Kramer over the middle to tight end Joe Senser, who immediately flipped the ball back to trailing running back Ted Brown in a perfect hook-and-ladder play, then went to ground at his defender's knees to take him out of the play. The Browns were in a prevent defense, though, and Senser's defender was not the last man between Brown and the end zone, so Brown scurried out of bounds near midfield to stop the clock with only a few seconds left.

Most folks who are long-time Viking fans can recall the next play: a hail-mary pass from Kramer toward the end-zone, tipped up into the air by a Cleveland defender, then caught by receiver Ahmad Rashad one-handed while falling backward into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Granted, those are both memorable plays, so I wouldn't have had to be a rabid fan in order to have remembered them over 25 years after the fact. The part of the story that counts, though, is that the telephone rang within moments of the play's end. It was my mother. The first words out of her mouth were a question: "Is the house still standing?" She knew I was a crazy-mad sports fan to the point where even being sick to the point of vomiting wouldn't stop me from whooping and hollering at the playoff-clinching win.

(Of course, the Vikings lost their first playoff game that year to the Super-Bowl bound Philadelphia Eagles, and I had to look that one up to verify who the Vikings had even played. So much for the mojo from the last-second win, and the memories that it kindled. Though keep this in mind, because it will become relevant later.)

It goes without saying that these days I'm not nearly as rabid a fan as I was back then. The best way to convince you of that is to report my performance in fantasy football the past three years: seventh out of eight teams, ninth out of ten teams, and eighth out of ten teams. So, no, I haven't kept up my NFL fandom. I can't even use the 'stadium argument', as I do for my loss of fandom for the Twins. I suppose I could try to spin the whole thing as a maturation process - there's a reason women tend to avoid guys who talk about sports a great deal, unless they actually are professional athletes, and sometimes not even then. Unfortunately, that argument fails when I explain that, instead of being a sports fan, I play with little plastic men in a game store on the weekends. Real adult, huh?

But that's how I figured out I'm not all that big on sports anymore. I tried putting together a last-second gathering of my fellow minis-players for this past weekend, though only one other person showed up. Of all the reasons I heard for not attending, the oddest to my ears was that there was a chance that rookie Tarvaris Jackson might start the Vikings game against the Lions.

Now I understand the reasoning behind this thinking: one of the Holy Grails of sports fandom is to be able to say, once a player has achieved 'greatness' and is about to be enshrined in the appropriate Hall of Fame that, "I saw his first-ever start!" Such a comment generally scores major points in sports fandom circles. Of course, if you go back and look, most first-ever starts by Hall-of-Fame football quarterbacks weren't all that impressive, not to mention the argument that Tarvaris Jackson probably isn't going to end up in the Hall of Fame anyway, but to a 'true sports fan', those things don't really matter.

So by realizing this, I realize I'm no longer a 'true sports fan'.

'True sports fans', by the way, have a word for folks who barely follow the local team unless they're winning: bandwagon fans. They live in blissful ignorance of the depth of suck the local team sinks to from time-to-time, until they recover enough to compete for the post-season, at which point a bunch of bandwagon fans come out of the woodwork to cheer the club on. This irritates 'true sports fans' to no end; in their eyes, if you weren't around to cheer on Scott Stahoviak in 1997, you have no business calling yourself a Twins fan in 2006.

Now granted, back when I was a rabid sports fan, I rooted for some pretty poor clubs; the Vikings were still good, at the tail end of their Super Bowl years, though by 1984 they'd sunk into the cyclopean depths of the NFL under the tutelage of former Marine Les Steckel. The Twins, meanwhile, were notoriously bad in those same years, during which time owner Cal Griffith simply refused to spend major money on these new-fangled free agents. The 1982 Twins opened their new ballpark, the Metrodome, by promptly losing 100 games.

Nevertheless, 'true fans' will argue that there's good reason to follow a team when it's bad; only then do you find the players to root for that become heroes when the team gets good again. Take the 1982 Twins as an example: five men who were regulars on that roster were still regulars five years later when the Twins won the World Series (though interestingly, Kirby Puckett was not among them). Nevertheless, just because sometimes a team can develop young players into playoff performers, that doesn't mean they do so all the time. As a counterexample, take the 1997 Twins, mentioned above for the performance of Scott Stahoviak. Only one regular on that team, pitcher Brad Radke, was still playing for the club in 2006, and Radke in 2006 was a broken-down veteran trying to reach the end of the season so that he could retire.

In other words, most if not all of the players you're rooting for when the team sucks won't be around when the team gets good, so why waste effort rooting for them? Ah, but that's bandwagon fan thinking, not 'true fan' thinking.

Meanwhile, 'true fans' wonder how the Twins come-from-behind finish in 2006 will impact their fan following in 2007. Well, given that the Twins were humiliatingly swept out of the playoffs in the opening round, I can say that, if the club stumbles coming out of the gate in 2007, most folks will likely stay away in droves, just as they've done over the past couple of years for the local NBA franchise, once just two games from the NBA finals, and only now looking as though they might escape the draft lottery for the first time in two years. Again, the 'true fans' will hem and haw, and wonder how it can be that more people don't recognize the talent and dedication of the local sports teams. Why don't more people care?

I used to, until it finally sunk in that sports teams don't exist to make me happy; they win games in the regular season and then lose them in the playoffs, they trade popular players to bring in 'proven winners', and they simply can't overcome the statistical reality that, in a 28-to-30 team league, it's difficult for a team to win consistently, and nearly impossible for them to win it all consistently.

So now, my butt is firmly planted on the bandwagon. I've got other things to do.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stories About Stories

National Novel Writing Month is over, and I have...well, not a novel. I doubt I even have much of a short story. I spent all of three evenings actually writing, then after about 5000 words, completely lost motivation and interest in continuing.

So that didn't exactly work out.

One thing that did happen, though, over the past month is that I read someone else's story - specifically Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", a story that's been bandied about as one of the classics in science fiction short-storydom. It's part of a Baen Books anthology, The World Turned Upside Down, in which the editors chose stories that had profoundly affected them as teenagers and 'turned them on' to SF.

The book had managed to get Eric Burns of Websnark excited, so I figured I should check it out, and when I saw it for sale on the shelf at the downtown Borders, I picked it up and glanced through the table of contents.

The editors of the anthology, based on their picks, were almost certainly a generation older than me. I recognized a few writers, but no stories from my own late childhood and adolescence, none of the tales that had 'turned me on' to SF way back when.

That's probably worth an aside, to be honest.

When I was young, I ended up skipping second grade. After a few years of being advanced, it came time to 'graduate' on to junior high, yet I was still just ten years old, and would turn eleven over the summer. My mother met with the head guidance councilor for the school, who recommended that I repeat sixth grade, as I wouldn't be physically mature enough to keep up with my classmates. Mom agreed - they technically asked me, too, but I was too young to really understand the decision I was making - and I repeated sixth grade. For the most part, it was one of the worst years of my life.

Except for the library.

I'd already sat through all the lessons a year before, so the administrators knew enough not to try to keep my interest by doing all the same work again. They thought that giving me an 'independent study' packet of material might keep me busy, but I burned through that with ease - testing showed that I was already reading at a high school level, so no work that they thought was appropriate for an eleven-year old was going to keep my busy for any significant amount of time. At some point, it was simply accepted that, since I wasn't a behavior problem, and I needed some degree of stimulation, that I'd be given extended access to the school library.

That became the one saving grace of that repeated sixth-grade year. And if you think that the selection of fiction in an elementary school library might be somewhat lacking, keep in mind that this was the late 1970s in suburban Minneapolis - not a hotbed of reactionary or fundamentalist thought.

The two stories that rocked my world, and got me hooked on SF ever since, were Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (the time-travel story that literally gave us the phrase 'butterfly effect'), and Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety". As I grew older, I discovered other SF writers: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and more. But Bradbury and Dick remained - and still remain - my favorite short story writers. If I were putting together a book like "The World Turned Upside Down", Dick and Bradbury would be in it, and those two stories in particular, if I could swing it.

Neither Dick nor Bradbury made Baen's book, though. Dick's absence is understandable - most of the stories in Baen's book were originally published in the '40s and '50s, and though Dick started his writing career in the early '50s, he didn't really become known until the tumultuous 1960s. Bradbury's absense is harder to explain by timing - collections of Bradbury's work were published throughout the late '40s and '50s, including his most famous short stories. In Bradbury's case (and in Dick's as well, I suppose) a bigger factor has to be that he wasn't really a 'hard SF' writer in the sense that an Arthur Clarke or, to a lesser degree, a Robert Heinlein was - nor was either man very sentimental about the military. Military SF is among the most common entrants in Baen's catalog of works, and one of the editors in particular, David Drake, is known for his 'hard' militaristic SF, much in the Heinlein mode.

Glancing through the table of contents, I recognzied many of the authors - it would be odd if any fan of SF couldn't recognize at least half the authors listed - but only two stories grabbed my attention enough to convince me to read them as soon as possible after purchasing the book: Gordon R. Dickson's "St Dragon and the George", and Godwin's tale.

I'd read of Godwin's tale as a story of harsh necessity and reality, one of those stories that wakes you up to the understanding that the universe is a lot harsher than human beings generally suspect. I'm a subscriber to that belief myself, so I was eager to find out just how Godwin had managed to capture that nugget of philosophy in his story.

At the risk of ruining "The Cold Equations" for those of you who haven't read it, the plot, such as it is, is simple. In the far future, an emergency shuttle is headed to a frontier planet, delivering needed medicine so that a group of terraformers won't perish of disease brought on by natural disaster. The pilot of the shuttle finds a stowaway, but rather than the dangerous criminal he expects to find, it turns out that the stowaway is simply a young girl who overheard that the shuttle was on its way to the very planet where her brother is serving as a terraformer, and had a sudden larking urge to tag along in order to see him. The shuttle, it turns out, has only enough fuel to land the pilot and his cargo - the girl is an unexpected additional mass, and 'the cold equations' of physics won't allow the shuttle to arrive safely with her aboard. If she stays, she, the pilot, and the terraformers will die; instead, the pilot carries out his duty and convinces the girl to enter the shuttle's airlock to be left to her death in space.

I was very grateful for the comments of editor Eric Flint:

What aggravates me about "The Cold Equations" is that the blasted plot makes no sense. The powerful impact of the story - and it is powerful, no question about it - is based entirely on a premise which I find completely implausible: to wit, that a spacecraft carrying critical supplies would be designed with no safety margin at all.

Oh, pfui. They don't make tricycles without a hefty safety margin. And I'm quite sure that if you traveled back in time and interviewed Ugh the Neanderthal, he'd explain to you that his wooden club is plenty thick enough to survive any impact he can foresee. He made damn sure of that before he ventured out of his cave. He may have a sloping forehead, but he's not an idiot.

In fact, it's more than just the premise - the plot itself is filled with such railroading. The ship that launches the shuttle is the only ship close enough to deliver the supplies in time. Thers's a second team of terraformers on the planet, but even they are too far away to reach the doomed group in time. The girl's brother is in the second group, stationed on a different part of the planet, but when the shuttle calls so that the girl can speak to her brother for what is to be the last time, he's not there - he's not only out in a helicopter, but coincidentally, the radio in the helicopter isn't working. It's basically an intricately worked-out plot in which a girl is required to be killed because she decided, on the spur of the moment, to violate a law.

And I thought Heinlein had tendencies toward fascism in his stories...

There is one thing that Godwin captures well in his tale, and this is likely what makes it considered a 'great story' - he captures the sense that nobody involved in this nightmare scenario wants to be considered responsible or be the one required to make the actual decision to kill the girl. The buck gets passed as much as it is humanly possible until everyone involved can simply point to the 'cold equations', shrug their shoulders, and wash their hands of the whole affair:

"I can go alone or I can take seven others with me -- is that the way it is?"

"That's the way it is."

"And nobody wants me to have to die?"


"Then maybe -- Are you sure nothing can be done about it? Wouldn't people help me if they could?"

"Everyone would like to help you, but there is nothing anyone can do. I did the only thing I could when I called the Stardust."

This is a story where everyone involved is very, very sorry, but all responsibility is ultimately pushed off onto the laws of physics - the 'cold equations' of the title.

The story is wrong - the tale hits you because it's a human tragedy, not merely the operation of unfeeling, unthinking physical laws. They designed the shuttles this way, then passed laws to ensure that the pilots could operate them as guilt-free as possible, and nobody anywhere along the line thought to ask if maybe they could just carry a bit more decelerant, just in case.

I can see thinking that this is a significant story in SF, no question. But I'm going to borrow a phrase from Pete VonderHarr and say, if you actually enjoy this story, then you are a syphilitic Fascist.

My own NaNoWriMo project is fairly dark, in a 'rocks fall, everyone dies' kind of way. If I ever do manage to pick it up and finish it, I'll make danged sure that I don't try to excuse human tragedy by invoking the laws of physics.

Thanks, Eric Flint.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Seal of Approval

The new Official Seal of Contrarian Bias, thanks to the Official Seal Generator. The Latin phrase, translated, says, "About every knowable thing, and even certain other things." Yeah, it's kinda like that...

I Like To Watch

It's surprising the things you think about when sitting in a downtown bar eating a chicken sandwich and watching the undead sneer on Zombie Brit Hume's face as he narrates Fox News's version of the events of the day.

When most folks use the word voyeur, they're thinking of a particular image; the Peeping Tom sneaking around hoping to find interesting things going on in peoples' bedrooms, or the dirty old man with a telescope spending far more time scanning his neighbors' houses than the sky.

I think there's more to it than that, though. Voyeurism, in a more general sense, is a nearly universal human trait, I think. What's that general trait, you ask? Well, consider this:

There is an attraction in seeing something normally hidden displayed unconsciously, especially when that hidden thing suggests something different from what is naturally displayed.

Sex is one of those things that is generally hidden, especially in modern U.S. culture, so it's probably not surprising that many times, 'something hidden unexpectedly displayed' has a sexual tone. The computer tech helping the executive secretary figure out a glitch, who notices that she's leaned over just far enough so that a hint of the thong she's wearing under her conservative skirt is visible. There's raw emotional power in a revelation like this.

But the situation doesn't necessarily have to be overtly sexual. Consider the following scene described by Eric Burns:

I watched a young guy and girl -- maybe fifteen each -- walking through the Mall, clearly on a date. He wore a letter jacket and jeans. She wore low rider sweats and a white spandex spaghetti top. They were full of attitude, doing an ancient ritual of dating. Putting on airs for each other, and for anyone who might see them. I glanced at them, and then looked away -- but they stayed close. They looked at the portrait booth. And giggling, they went in, the guy saying something sort of macho and dismissive, the girl saying something slightly coy, playing as much to the nonexistent crowd as to her date.


I glanced back at the booth, and did a double-take. There was a video screen outside, showing a live, real time video... of the boy and girl who were getting ready to pose. The kids clearly didn't know they were on television -- they had every reason to think it was private. But it wasn't. I glanced around, and saw a couple of mall workers watching. Clearly, whenever this happens, it becomes an impromptu show for the folks who work the mall.

If I were a better man than I am, I would have looked away. If I were as good a man as I'd like to be, I would have gone over and told the kids we could see them. As it was, I stayed in my chair and I watched. Had they started making out or if the boy had gone for second (or the girl offered second up), I'd have said something. But they didn't. Instead, something wholly more remarkable happened.

They became natural. They became who they are with each other. There was no kissing. There was no groping. There was instead an odd sweetness that descended on them both. We couldn't hear them, of course. But they lost all sense of the crowd they were playing to. The girl remained coy, but it was less a dance and more a sense of privacy. The boy lost almost all his affectation. This is a girl he actually liked, and he felt like he could show that without pretense, when he was in a booth with the curtains drawn.

There are elements of this everywhere, once you know where to look. Reality TV? Less about the spectacle of watching people debase themselves for fleeting celebrity and more about the audience's hope that they'll actually get to peek at something the cameras will find that the performers always intended to remain hidden. Tabloid news? Less about the schadenfreude of gloating over some famous person's misfortunes and more about trying, however possible, to find out what is this person really like? Simple people-watching in a busy public place? Who expects to be under a scrutinizing eye in a place like that? You can watch people, to some degree, be the people they are rather than the people they present themselves as.

A true moment of voyeurism is also a powerful instrument of attraction. When I've had a moment like this with someone I've been mildly interested in, I find myself much more interested, if only to find out more than the tiny snippet I've just seen. There's also a certain vulnerability involved in letting something be voyeuristically observed, and I admit I'm attracted to vulnerability.

The flip side of voyeurism, though, is exhibitionism. And until I started thinking of voyeurism in these broader terms, I couldn't describe why being included in a display of exhibitionism left me feeling so...unsettled. After all, you'd think that a voyeur would naturally seek out exhibitionists, as masochists are said to seek out sadists - someone who displays what's hidden would seem to be a perfect fit for someone who wants to watch hidden things.

Except for this: an exhibitionist chooses what to display; the revelation is deliberate.

Deliberate revelation bugs me specifically because it's deliberate - in my experience, it isn't actually an accurate reflection of hidden traits or desires, but is, at best, another layer of pretense underneath all the existing layers that are already obviously visible.

And at worst, it's a calculated revelation - something revealed because the exhibitionist believes the voyeur will find it attractive - that it will be a hook into his soul. That the powerful attractive qualities of a voyeuristic moment can be harnessed to bind someone to you that much more tightly.

"What does she want from me," I should ask myself, "that she's showing me this so freely?"

Lesson learned for the future, anyway.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Coming Up - More Self-Torture!

Seems like I've been getting a bit down and even a bit 'emo' in these posts of late, so I figured it was time to leap in whole-bore.

Yep, I'm signing up for NaNoWriMo.

I knew this was for me as soon as I read the following in the FAQ:

If I'm just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?

There are three reasons.

1) If you don't do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly a "one day" event. As in "One day, I'd like to write a novel." Here's the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It's just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will come. And you'll have friends to help you see it through to 50k.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing, shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations, everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. And you'll start surprising yourself with a great bit of dialogue here and a ingenious plot twist there. Characters will start doing things you never expected, taking the story places you'd never imagined. There will be much execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of it.

3) Art for art's sake does wonderful things to you. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you want to take naps and go places wearing funny pants. Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the chores and "must-dos" of daily life. Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives.

I can tell you, partly from experience, that everything above is true.

- Saying 'I'll do this cool then when I have time' is a great way to convince yourself never to do some cool thing. Make time, or don't bother talking about it.

- Expecting the first thing you do in any new endeavor to ring with beauty and elegance is a sure way to frighten yourself into never making an effort. If a baby waited until she was sure she wouldn't fall to start to try to walk, she'd still be crawling at 23.

- Doing art fot the hell of it is its own reward - I've seen this over and over again when doing community theater. You don't do community theater to make a profound artistic statement, or pave the way to a burgeoning professional career. You do it because getting together with other people to create something is fun and exciting and does things to you that simply don't happen in other ways.

You'd think that after being on the planet as long as I have, and supposedly learning all this stuff before, that I wouldn't have to keep learning it over and over again. Ah, well.

One thing I won't be doing, though, is posting updates on my NaNoWriMo progress on this blog. As far as I sse it, setting a personal goal of writing 50,000 words in a month is bad enough without trying to write extra words about how easy/hard/surprisingly fun/whatever it turns out to be. When it's over will be soon enough to talk about the experience.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Intro to Critical Thinking

I am appalled at the gullibility of the Bush-haters. In a repeat of the days before the 2004 election, a "scientific" study has come out before the election this year claiming that 655,000 Iraqis (100,000 from the 2004 study plus 555,000 since then) have died due to the conflict in Iraq since March 2003. I did some number-crunching and found that you would have to believe that an average of about 779 Iraqis have died per day since 2004. That's 5,453 per week. Where are all the bodies and/or graves? Why aren't Iraqi morgues filled to overflowing? In short, where is any physical evidence at all that this figure is the slightest bit accurate? I think there is none.

- Jason E Hubred, in a letter to the editors of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

First off, I'd like to thank Mr. Hubred for attempting to use critical thinking skills.

It's not actually easy, which is why educators all want to teach critical thinking skills in school - it really does take a while to get the hang of asking good questions and looking for good answers to those questions. So if you're someone who isn't accustomed to using critical thinking skills - perhaps you're a neo-conservative, or you're six years old - here is a handy three-step guide to basic critical thinking.

1. Look at a statement.

2. Ask yourself what might be wrong with that statement.

3. Check to see if your presumption is accurate.

I highlight #3, because that's the key - you have to be as skeptical of your own thinking as of those people you are criticizing. Your own thinking is just as capable of being prone to distortions, quick-and-easy answers without foundation in reality, and other such flaws as anybody else's thinking.

In this particular case, it's not hard to see where Mr. Hubred went off the tracks - he seems to believe that a death rate of 5400 people per week would overwhelm morgues, funeral homes, and other such support services. However, he's missing a few key points:

- Iraq is similar, in both size and population, to the US state of California: Iraq covers nearly 169,000 square miles with a population of about 26 million (estimated as of 2005), while California covers nearly 159,000 square miles with a population of about 37 million.

- In 2003, there were about 240,000 deaths in California.

See where I'm going with this yet?

There were about 4600 deaths each week in California in 2003. Do you remember any stories about how overwhelmed the state's funeral homes and morgues were? Of course not - in fact, the story was, in fact, the age-adjusted death rate in the US was at a record low.

Add in that Iraq is technically a war zone, and as such, not everyone who dies is treated by a mortician or taken to the police station for an autopsy - how many mass graves have you heard of in Vietnam, Kosovo, Darfur, etcetera, etcetera? - and no, it's not surprising that we're not seeing that kind of information.

And of course, even if that kind of data did exist? We still wouldn't see it - recall that the administration doesn't even allow photographers to show the coffins of dead US soldiers returning from Iraq; why would they publicize overcroweded morgues in Baghdad, assuming they even exist?

Now with all that said, Mr. Hubred does brush past a point that is worth making - the death rate in California may not be all that much lower than the death rate in Iraq among alleged war casualties, but who else is dying in Iraq? Are the 5400 war-related deaths per week in addition to another 4600 or so non-war-related deaths? Just how easy is it to seperate 'estimated war-related deaths' from other deaths?

Those are all interesting and valuable questions to ask. And Mr. Hubred doesn't bother to ask any of them - he's content in using his minimal critical thinking skills to assume he's made a bruising political point and leave it at that.

I don't avoid discussing politics because it's rude or conversationally dangerous to do so. I avoid it because too much of what passes for 'political' conversation is basically this kind of tit-for-tat first-grade level critical thinking. And frankly, most first-graders can think of more interesting things to talk about anyway.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I used to be so much more openminded
And I used to like to fall in love
And they tell me I was so much sweeter and kind
But once is enough
- Lyle Lovett, "Once Is Enough"

I'm officially old.

The designation 'old' can be put on someone or something from outside; I remember being in elementary school and imagining the year 2000, then realizing I'd be thirty-four in the year 2000 and imagining how old that would be. But just because someone calls you old doesn't make you old - any more than someone calling you stupid, smart, or happy makes you any of those things.

There are others who use some variation of 'you're only as old as you feel' as a way of remaining, in some fashion, perpetually 'young'. Even if it takes them two minutes to get out of bed in the morning, and they have to swallow some concoction in order to get their bowels to move regularly, they're still only as old as they feel and dagnabbit! You get the idea.

But for me, the realization came when I finally admitted that I fall into a category I've long used to identify others as old. I'm bitter.

I didn't think this would happen like this. For one thing, I used to be, if not happy, at least some reasonable facsimile of happy. I remember being told as I child that I smiled a lot. I was generally the guy who joked, got along, and tried to keep things light. Fall off the horse, you just get right back on, that kind of thing.

In fact, if I thought about getting old at all, I figured I'd become not the 'bitter old man', but the 'dirty old man', leering at young girls and their short skirts from my senescence. Heck, I might even be one of those old guys that young girls like to hang around with, because I could keep it light, I smiled a lot, and I generally was the kind of guy who made other people feel good about themselves. And if I was a bit creepy from time to time, well, you just had to know me - I'm harmless, really.

I think the harmlessness was part of the problem, in retrospect.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from perfect. I've made more than my share of mistakes, and done plenty of stumbling. I was a likable guy, though, and my heart was in the right place, and I was lucky enough to have friends - incredible friends, who'd go out of their way to help me get back on my feet, help dust me off, and pass along words of encouragement as I tilted back into the arena, ready to battle with another monster of my own imagination.

Then I started pushing them away, one by one.

At first, I deluded myself into thinking that this was for their own good - after all, they can't always be there to support me, and the longer they stay around, the longer it'll take for me to be able to stand on my own two feet. Friends I've had for years, in some cases even decades, suddenly stopped hearing from me. When they'd occasionally try to check in, to see how I was doing, I'd respond curtly, in a brief, minimalist tone - the same tone one uses with a telemarketer on the phone to say, nonverbally, "You know, this isn't really worth my time. Could you just take the hint and hang up now?"

Now, I realize I was setting up an impossible task - despite everything my friends have done for me, if they really liked me, they'd do the work of keeping in touch, asking me how I am, offering assistance whether I need it or not. I imagine some of them got the idea that being my friend was only less Herculean than cleaning the Augean Stables. And, little by little, they got the message.

So what happened that finally got me to figure this out now? Why the sudden realization, when I've been doing this for years and years now?

Oddly enough, the Twins.

When the Twins made an improbable comeback to win the AL Central Division, I dismissed it - it wasn't a Twins comeback, it was a Detroit choke. I did research that showed that, of the last 7 teams that won 19 of 20 or more games during a regular season, only one even advanced to the World Series much less won it. I read the Twins blogs cheering about the accomplishments of the ballclub and snickered. Sure, some of the comments were snickerworthy, such as the occasional "this is the best Twins team EVAR". Others who were more circumspect I snickered at as well, even though they made decent points. I refrained from pointing out those points and trying to refute them, though, as I'd already all but worn out my welcome in the Twins blogosphere with the first Contrarian Bias.

When the Twins lost Game 1 - a game that the blogosphere thought was all but in the bag with Johan Santana starting - I was beside myself with pleasure. I even kicked myself a bit for not posting something talking about everyones' misplaced hopes, not just in Santana, but in the allegedly 'great' defense of Jason Bartlett, who booted a routine double-play grounder that, in some explanations, led to Frank Thomas's second homer of the game. But I kept my mouth shut - these folks had heard more than enough from me, and it was actually somewhat disconcerting to think of myself as chuckling over the misfortune of so many whose only crime was that they didn't agree with me. Maybe all I needed was a fresh perspective; something to blow out the bad taste of the stadium extortion nonsense and the overexuberance at a team that fulfilled the Chuck Tanner theory of baseball - if everybody has a good year, we'll win.

So I went out to Athletics Nation, one of the top Oakland A's blogs. There, I saw a community, perhaps loosely-connected, but clearly joyous at the prospect of having their team, dismissed as sad-sack small-market kids unable to compete in the 'post-season' suddenly break through, validating all their hopes. It was nice, even refreshing to read those comments.

Until Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau hit back-to-back homers to tie Game 2, bringing back a flood of old doubts and pre-emptive wailing. And I realized I was enjoying their displeasure much more than I'd enjoyed their happiness.

That's when it hit me that I'm now, officially, a bitter old man. I'm getting pleasure from the misfortunes of others, even if those misfortunes are nothing more than misplaced emotional angst over the fortunes of a baseball team. And I asked myself, when was the last time I was genuinely happy for something good that happened, in my life or anybody else's?

Six months ago, it turns out. One of my last friends visited me to watch me in a musical. She drove eight hours to visit, slept overnight on a fold-away futon, dressed like a knockout to come to the show. I was on a cloud.

Then she left. Since then, we've barely spoken, and what little we have spoken about makes me think that she didn't really enjoy that trip, and isn't excited at the possibility of making another, or having me visit her, for that matter. Just as I thought we'd been getting closer, she realized that we were farther apart than she'd ever anticipated.

We started drifting apart. I started doing all those little things to her I've done to all my other friends I don't feel the need to keep anymore - the curt responses in IMs, the distance, the long stretches between communication.

Tonight I removed her name from my friends list in Yahoo Messenger. When I finish this essay, I'll take her number out of my cell phone. She's already demonstrated that she's uninterested in reaching out to me anymore, so that means we'll never speak again, or if by some miracle we do speak, I'll simply refer to tonight as the day I surgically removed her from my life, and she'll get the message - loud and clear.

This is what I like now. This is the only thing that gives me any real pleasure anymore - looking down at the misfortunes of people, even my own misfortunes, and chuckling that the poor fool should have known better.

When I worked for the county in funeral assistance years ago, I wondered how it could be that a man could die and have nobody to mourn him, not one person to contact who would know or care. This wasn't a rare event, either - it was a weekly event. I could imagine someone becoming estranged from his family, but I couldn't imagine someone so disconnected from life that they'd lost, or never bothered to keep, any friends.

Now I know where bitter old men come from.

Monday, October 02, 2006


I was walking downstairs with a basket of laundry in my hands, headed for the basement laundry room in my apartment complex, when I happened to glance out through the glass-paned front door. Sitting on the sidewalk, looking at me with what seemed an intent glare, was a small, pale cat.

I stopped. When something is paying attention to you, it draws your attention. When that something is attractive, as most cats are, it tends to draw your attention more surely. At least it draws mine. I stopped, put down the laundry basket, and looked back at the cat.

It was simply sitting in the middle of the sidewalk leading up to the front door, gazing out of the darkness of the evening into the light of the foyer in which I was standing. It looked right into my eyes, seemingly unafraid. When I turned to face the cat, its head dipped, just slightly, in a way that suggested to me that the cat was considering moving closer. Was it hungry? Thirsty? Simply curious what would be inside this brightly-lit foyer? I thought about letting the cat in, getting it a bowl of water (I don't generally keep milk).

I took a step toward the door, and the cat reacted. Not to move forward, but to step to the side. Now, suddenly, it was wary and cautious. I paused, but my own thoughts had overridden any conception of what the cat might be thinking, and after a moment I continued toward the door, reaching out and turning the knob.

The cat began trotting off to one side of the building as I opened the door - not coming closer to the door, but moving quickly and deliberately away. There was a look on its face that almost spoke, as if to say, "Are you crazy? Thinking I'm going to let myself get stuck in there? Bye!"

After another moment, it was gone.

I stood there, holding the door open, thinking that perhaps the cat might return. I looked out at the space where the cat had last been before vanishing out of sight around the corner of the building and hoped. Then it dawned on me, as it has dawned on me before in situations not altogether unlike this one, that the cat was gone, and all I was doing was holding open my apartment foyer's front door like an idiot.

I shut the door, and went on with my life.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The One About The Death Penalty

It is morally wrong to kill another human being in a premeditated, cold-blooded manner. I know it and you know it. So stop avoiding the subject by raising other issues like executing an innocent person on occasion. Legal execution is just a socially acceptable way for otherwise decent citizens to act on their murderous inclinations with impunity. Somehow, some way, someday, we have to stop killing each other. Ending the death penalty is a start.
- our boy, in an online discussion of the death penalty

This past week, a jury returned a verdict against a man convicted of killing someone. That verdict was that the man himself should also die. I am disturbed by this. I am disturbed by this response from the victim's father:

I felt all along, for Dru's sake, this needed to happen.

I'd like to think I understand the response, though I've never been in that man's shoes. There was a time I'd have agreed with him, most likely. But that was before I figured out what I see as the key issue regarding the death penalty.

The death penalty is a serious issue, and as befitting a serious issue, there are serious arguments on both sides. Not all of those arguments are necessarily good ones, but each side does have points in their favor. For the longest time, I tried to reconcile these points.

1a. Studies have not shown the death penalty to have any significant deterrent effect on violent crime. There is even some evidence that the death penalty may serve as incentive to commite more brutal crimes than would otherwise be committed; after all, if you're going to die for doing the crime, you may as well make it worth your life, right?

1b. Outside of horror movies, no executed criminal has ever returned to commit more crimes. The death penalty is thus 100% effective at preventing recidivism.

2a. Society shouldn't have to pay to keep those who've committed heinous crimes alive; in effect, that's rewarding someone for doing something bad.

2b. Because of a combination of factors, it's actually more expensive to execute someone than it is to confine them to 'life imprisonment'. For starters, death row inmates are segregated from the rest of the prison population, making their incarceration more expensive by default, as the same number of guards could control a much larger number of traditinally imprisoned inmates. Appeals which might not be granted in a life-imprisonment case are routinely granted and sometimes statutorily required in death-penalty cases, due to the severity of the punishment; you need to be absolutely sure you've not only got the right guy, but that every bit of due process was followed before you can 'legitimately' execute a man, which makes their prosecution even more expensive compared to a 'traditional' inmate. And last but certainly not least, the length of the appeals process in some ambiguous cases, combined with the possibility of parole for life-imprisoned offenders as well as the observation that life expectency in prison is generally much less than the general population means that some death-row inmates will spend more time waiting to be executed than a life offender will spend in prison.

3a. As of the time of this writing, there have been 123 persons sentenced to die who have been exonerated since 1973 - an average of five people each year. In addition, at least seven people since 1993 have been executed despite considerable evidence that they did not, in fact, commit the crimes for which they were executed.

3b. There's a difference between 'innocent because I didn't commit the crime' and 'innocent because I didn't get my due process rights', and the latter shoudn't be confused for the former.

3c. Actually that's not entirely true - this list of exonerees shows all 123 cases. In 71 of those cases, the charges against the death-row prisoner were dismissed, frequently because the actual perpetrator was found to be someone else. In an additional 43 cases, the prisoner was granted a new trial and acquitted, meaning he was found not guilty; knowing for certain that at least one of those juries made an error, it would be hard for me to conclude that in every case the acquitting jury was the one in error.

Ultimately, since the majority of fact is on the side of those opposed to the death penalty, I decided to oppose it as well. Still, there was one pro-death penalty argument I couldn't blunt:

4a. What if someone killed the person you care about most in the world?

Granted, it's another emotional argument, but it's a powerful one - is it possible to be open-minded enough to look at the man who brutally raped and murdered your wife, sister, or daughter and believe that man doesn't deserve to die?

Then I stumbled across the quote that leads this essay, and I found my response.

4b. If I think he needs to die, I'm not going to contract the state to do the job for me.

The reason that a judge or jury can pass a death sentence, and that those carrying out the sentence are not technically guilty of murder is because of the concept of justifiable homicide. This is also the ultimate justification behind killing in self-defense - if someone is truly trying to kill you, and they're not going to stop until either you or he is dead, you are legally justified in killing that person to defend yourself.

The trick, of course, is proving that in court - that definition linked above isn't a statutory definition, but a dictionary definition. At the very least, you have to convince a prosecutor that you acted in self-defense so that she doesn't bring charges against you, and if she's not convinced, you'll have to convince a judge and jury.

Interestingly enough, the state of California tracks what it calls 'justifiable homicides' committed by either police or private citizens. California defines 'justifiable homicide' as the killing of a felon by a peace officer or private citizen during the commission of a felony, and in 2002 there were 35 such killings by private citizens in California. Interestingly, California also tracks the location of these killings, and the most common location isn't the one you'd expect - six felons were killed in a domicile that wasn't the felon's own residence (the 'burglar' scenario), but seven were killed in a domicile where the killer and felon shared residence, while ten were killed in a commercial establishment. At least in 2002 in California, you were far more likely to need a gun for self-defense at work than against an intruder in your own home, and more likely to need one against your spouse or roommate than against an intruder as well.

The problem with my counter-argument, intellectually, is that such a system has been tried before - it's almost exactly what's referred to as 'vendetta justice', and from Renaissance Italy to the American frontier West, everywhere it's been tried has found it to be a lawless, chaotic, and completely unsuitable system from actually bringing justice. In proposing my counter-argument, I pretty much admit that my ad-hoc 'system' isn't based on a desire for justice, but for revenge. In doing so, however, I also point out that the person I'm arguing with is doing exactly the same thing.

The death penalty isn't about justice. It's about hiding behind the power of the state to exact vengeance without having to suffer the consequences of that vengeance. I don't believe it has any place in civilized discourse or society.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Some Better Bums

Major League Baseball coordinated with DHL to promote a sweepstakes contest called Hometown Heroes, in which you could not only vote for your favorite players on your favorite teams, but if your player got names, you could also win sweepstakes prizes. A decent cross-marketing combo, and one that also will produce some easy time-filling material for ESPN over the next few days.

In a spirit of fun, Jim Caple of ESPN's online Page 2 announced a counter-contest, with no prizes or cross-marketing, but one a lot of baseball fans would probably participate in anyway: Hometown Bums. Where you have heroes, you have goats, after all, and fans always relish the chance to vent about their least-favorite players (or even put together back-handed tribute blogs to them). It's a part of the game.

Caple (I'm assuming he had some help, though that help isn't named, so he gets full-bore blame for this one) nominated five players from each team for the Hometown Bums ballot. Curious, I headed over to see who he'd name from the Twins.

He made some good calls:

- Chuck Knoblauch

Knoblauch was Rookie of the Year when the Twins won the World Series in 1991, and was one of the best second-basemen in the American League during his tenure in the Metrodome. A dynamic player with pesky offense and highlight-reel defense, Knoblauch was one of the few bright spots on a team that sunk into the depths of deep rebuilding after his '91 rookie year. Either he or Rod Carew would count as the best second-baseman in Twins history. Following the 1997 season, however, Knoblauch and his agent forced a trade to the New York Yankees so that Knoblauch could take part in the budding Yankee dynasty of the late '90s.

The fans back home basically turned on him, considering him a big-headed player too high on his own press to stick it out with a poor club during rebuilding. The closest the Metrodome ever saw to a riot was a game where Knoblauch came back with the Yankees, by that time having been moved to left field, and fans pelted him with Dome dogs when he took the field. Knoblauch would certainly draw votes as a Hometown Bum, not because he was a bad player, but because of the manner in which he left the hometown.

- Ron Davis

Like Knoblauch, Davis was born in Houston and has connections to the hated Yankees, but in Davis's case the connection is almost opposite that of Knoblauch. Davis was one of the first players to perform extremely well in the so-called 'set-up' role, the role of pitching 'bridging' innings between a starting pitcher and a team's closer. Many thought that Davis was a good enough pitcher that he could be a closer for a different team, and just prior to the 1982 season, the Twins traded shortstop Roy Smalley to the Yankees to give Davis the chance to be their closer.

Most of Davis's numbers as a closer don't look all that bad - his ERA was better than league-average, he never allowed more hits than innings, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio hovered near 2-to-1. Unfortunately, Davis racked up a somewhat stunning amount of losses - 11 in 1984 alone when the Twins were hoping to win a seemingly weak division, and a total of 34 (versus just 17 wins) during his four full seasons as a Twins closer. It got so bad that some fans took to wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the motto "I Believe in RD". Struggling mightily for the first half of the 1986 season, Davis found himself shipped to the Chicago Cubs in August for a couple of low-upside pitchers. When the Twins acquired Jeff Reardon prior to the 1987 season and ended up winning the World Series, it simply served as the final nail in the coffin for many Twins' fans recollections of "RD".

- Carl Pohlad

Everybody loves to hate the Twins' skinflint owner, especially after a number of stadium blackmail attempts in the late '90s and early '00s that finally paid off last year. Whether people dislike Carl more now than folks disliked Cal Griffith back in the early '80s is debatable, though.

Two names stand out, though, as names sort of picked out of a statistician's hat - two guys that got chosen because they had bad-looking numbers on rather than any real hometown animus. Which is weird, given that Caple suggested that, for most teams anyway, there were far more good candidates than slots available to list them. The two names were one regular player and one pitcher, and I'm going to name then, then list some alternatives that I think most Twins fans would probably agree would make better choices on a 'Hometown Bums' ballot.

The Hitter: Rich Becker

Becker was a third-round draft pick of the Twins in the 1990 amateur draft, and though I do remember him being considered something of a prospect, it's hard to say why looking at his numbers - taken straight out of high school and dropped into the rookie leagues at 18, Becker hit just .289 with six home runs. He did have good speed (18 SBs) and a seemingly great command of the strike zone (53 walks vs 54 strikeouts), but the 'Moneyball revolution' was far off, and his walk rate probably wasn't what made him into a prospect, if anything did.

He worked his way slowly up the Twins minor league system, continuing to draw monstrous walk totals (280 in three years between A and AA), though he also struck out a lot, too (347 Ks during the same span). He picked up some power, hitting between 13 and 15 homers each year, and seemed ot use his speed better, too - in 1994 playing for Nashville, Becker stole 29 bases and had seven triples to go with his fifteen homers and .400 on-base percentage. Becker had a couple of cups of coffee with the big club before being called up to stay in 1995 as a fourth outfielder - much the same role that Lew Ford fills on the current club.

Then, in 1996, Kirby Puckett announced he had glaucoma and was retiring from baseball.

Becker took over much of the duties in center - he played over 100 games in center in 1996 - and for a 24-year old, was actually doing quite well. He finished the year with a .291 batting average, a .372 on-base percentage, and double-digits in homers. His defense in center, by the numbers, was amazing - his 2.92 range factor was comfortably ahead of the league average for the position (2.35), he committed only two errors, and had 18 outfield assists (or as Bill James likes to call them, Baserunner Kills). With 24-year-old Matt Lawton in right, and 26-year old Marty Cordova in left (who'd won the Rookie of the Year award in 1995), it looked like the Twins would have a solid outfield for some time to come.

In retrospect, Becker's failure seems easy to pin on two factors: the Twins' tendency, at that time, to agressively coach their young players in 'Twins baseball' (a trait that ultimately alienated David Ortiz and led to his departure for the Boston Red Sox), and the misfortune of trying to live up to Kirby Puckett's legacy in center. I can think of more than a few fans who were disappointed that Becker didn't turn out better than he did - he was traded to the Mets after the 1997 season, spent the next three years with five different ballclubs, and was out of baseball before his 29th birthday - but very few who'd consider him a Bum in the sense that I think Caple intends with this exercise.

Here are some guys I'd nominate for Becker's spot on the Bums ballot:

- Marty Cordova

Ironically, one good choice is Becker's 1996 and 1997 outfield teammate, Marty Cordova. Cordova had won the 1995 Rookie of the Year award with solid hitting numbers for a rookie (.277/839 with 24 homers), though it was not yet clear how much the offenseive landscape of baseball was changing - by current standards, Cordova's RoY numbers don't look all that impressive. Sadly, 1995 was possibly Cordova's best season, and if '95 wasn't, then '96 was, when Cordova followed up his RoY campaign by hitting .309/849 with 111 RBI. Over the next three seasons, Cordova would never come close to either his 1995 home run and stolen base totals, or his 1996 batting average and RBI totals, and the Twins gave him his outright release after the 1999 season.

Two interesting things to note about Cordova: first, the most comparable player to Cordova in baseball history according to the Bill James Similiarity Method as of the start of the 2006 season was Jacque Jones, another player many would put on a short list of potential Twins 'Hometown Bums'. Second, after being released by the Twins at the end of the 1999 season, the Boston Red Sox signed him, then released him before the end of spring training. What makes this second fact interesting is that this was three years before the Twins would release David Ortiz, whom the Red Sox would also sign, but hang onto.

- Tommie Herr

Herr only played one season as a Twin, but what a season...

When the Twins won the World Series in 1987, the folks upstairs realized that the team still had some significant weaknesses, and one of them was at second base. Though Steve Lombardozzi had played the position competently during the championship run, he was also a 27-year-old player who'd never come close to hitting .300 since being promoted to AAA back in 1984, and the Twins felt an upgrade was needed to remain competitive. So shortly after the start of the 1988 season, the Twins dealt popular rightfielder Tom Brunansky to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for veteran second-baseman Herr. Herr had hit .305 as recently as 1985, and his defense was considered solid.

It's hard to say what went wrong for Herr. Perhaps Herr considered himself a Cardinal - he's been signed by the Cardinal organization as a amateur free agent back in 1974 and had never played for any other organization in his professional career. Given the general belief in the Cardinal organization (and among their fans) that the Cards had been beaten by an inferior opponent in '87, it's undertandable that, if Herr did consider himself a 'company man', that he'd be unhappy with a move to that club. Even though Herr's hitting numbers were, on the surface, nearly identical to those he'd put up with the Cardinals in '87 (.263/680 in '88 vs .263/677 in '87), there were widespread reports that Herr was not just unhappy, but dogging it. Hard-assed Tom Kelly could put up with some things in his early days as Twins manager (though less and less as he got older), but dogging it on the field was never something he could condone, and within days of the end of the '88 World Series, the Twins had shipped Herr back to the National League.

- Danny Thompson

It would be hard, perhaps, to argue Thompson's 'Bum' status given some of his biographical facts - specifically that he was the highest-hitting shortstop in the AL in 1972, then was diagnozed with leukemia prior to the 1973 season. He played anyway, being seen as a warrior battling a deadly illness, and he died while being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester in 1976 at the age of 29. This guy should be a Hero, not a Bum, right?

Well...let's not forget a few other factors.

For starters, Thompson was the Twins #1 draft pick in 1968, and the eighteenth pick overall, and though that status didn't quite carry the same load it does these days (especially considering that Thompson was drafted in what proved to be the third draft that year), there should have been some pretty high expectations of the kid even then, you'd imagine. Drafted at 21 out of Oklahoma State University, he moved quickly through the Twins minor-league organization, arriving at the major leagues in 1970 and never looking back.

By the numbers, though, he was a poor fielder - he had a below-average fielding percentage and below-average range nearly every year - and though middle infielders at the time weren't expected to hit very well, his best year with the bat was '72, when he hit .276/674 and came within a few points of being league-average in OPS as well. His overall numbers after seven big-league seasons added up to .248/596, which even during that era should have been considered inexcusable for a below-average defensive player.

Except, of course, he had one thing in his favor - he'd married Cal Griffith's daughter. It's impossible to say how much that nepotism helped him, but it'd be difficult to imagine a player with Thompson's numbers, even adjusted for the modern era of inflated offense, lasting as much as seven full seasons in the major leagues on talent alone.

The Pitcher: Terry Felton

Terry Felton pitched only 138.3 innings in his professional career, almost all of those coming in his final season in 1982, when the Twins lost over 100 games. He finished with a career ERA of over five-and-a-half, which isn't great, but there are worse pitchers in Twins history on that count. He also started only six games in his entire cereer, which might be seen as another head-scratcher as to why he'd be included on a list of Hometown Bums.

The reason Felton is on the list is because he holds the major league record for most decisions in a career without a win. Felton was 0-13 for the 1982 Twins, and combined with his 0-3 mark in 1980 (when he made four of his six career starts), Felton got the losing decision sixteen times in his major league career without ever chalking up a win.

No Twins fan I know thinks Felton was a bum.

Out of his league? Maybe. But Felton wasn't even the worst pitcher, by peripheral numbers anyway, on his own staff. The '82 Twins finished 60-102 in their first season in the Metrodome, in the only year in which the park didn't have air conditioning. (The designers thought that, with much of the park below street level, air conditioning wouldn't be needed, as the earth would help keep the stadium cool.) Felton didn't have great control (47 walks vs 89 strikeouts in 106 innings - yes, 89 strikeouts in 106 innings), but then neither did starters Brad Havens (80 walks vs 129 strikeouts in 208.7 innings) and Frank Castillo (85 walks vs 123 strikeouts in 218.7 innings). Rookie Frank Viola had a higher ERA (5.21 vs Felton's 4.99). Fellow reliever/spot-starter John Pacella was worse nearly across-the-board:


Felton 117.3 99 4.99 47 89

Pacella 51.7 61 7.32 37 20

And of course, the aforementioned Ron Davis was still the closer back in those days.

In fact, nearly every Twins fan I know who's put together a fantasy team and remembers this season genearlly picks Felton as his eleventh pitcher - simply for the possibility of watching him earn his first big-league win. Twins fans know that Felton's 0-16 record is clearly undeserved, despite him not being a top-shelf pitcher.

Some better suggestions for the Bum ballot pitching slot, in my opinion, include the following:

- David West

When the Twins won the World Series in 1987, they hadn't yet developed a solid pitching staff. Veteran Bert Blyleven was seen as the ace, but his role was also, in part, to help polish lefty Frank Viola's development. In 1988, Viola developed, having a breakout 24-7 season and winning the Cy Young award that year. Then in 1989, Viola started grumbling - a New York kid at heart, Viola wasn't happy with the Twins lack of playoff competitiveness, nor with his own contract, and he and his agent forced a mid-season trade to the New York Mets. In return, the Twins would get a number of players who'd prove useful in their later 1991 World Series run, including Rich Aguilera and Kevin Tapani, but the guy who was supposed to be the catch of that trade was left-hander David West.

You have to remember, this was an era in which the Mets were seen as being an outstanding organization at developing pitching talent. Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling (who'd been a contemporary and rival of Viola's in college). West wasn't necessarily supposed to be as good as Gooden was, as he'd spent a few years at A-ball working to get his great stuff under control, but by 1988 it looked as though West had done just that, racking up a 12-4 record with a 1.80 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 160 innings at AAA Tidewater. His walks were still higher than the Mets liked (97 vs those 143 Ks), but he was still just 23 and had a long time to go before he'd be eligible for a big payday. He seemed like a perfect acquisition for the budget-conscious Twins.

He got hit hard after arriving from New York (48 hits in 39 innings with an ERA of 6.41), but he clearly had dazzling stuff (31 Ks), so the club and its fans wrote it off as nerves and adjusting to a new league.

In 1989, West started 27 games, finishing with a pedestrian 7-9 record and an ERA of 5.10. In 1991, he got hurt, but even before then he'd improved only slightly, collecting a 4-4, 4.54 mark in twelve starts. In 1992, West spent far more time in AAA than with the big club, and wasn't doing anything even at Portland to suggest that he should be given another rotation chance, ending his AAA season with 65 walks versus 87 strikeouts in 101 minor-league innings, and a mark of 7-6 with a 4.43 ERA.

After the 1992 season, the Twins traded West, straight-up, to the Phillies for Mike Hartley, a former Cardinal farmhand who'd become a journeyman middle reliever. The Phillies got one decent year out of West by making him a set-up man before his lack of control failed him yet again, and West then bounced around the league before finally ending his big-league career at 33.

On the whole, Tapani and Aguilera certainly made the Viola trade worthwhile, but the Twins and their fans always hoped and expected more from West, and never really got it.

- Willie Banks

If you look at David West's top 10 similarity score comps, #10 is Willie Banks, which is astonishingly fitting.

Banks was the #3 overall pick of the Twins in the 1987 amateur draft, and he was talked up from day one as a potential star. Drafted out of high school, Banks was said to have amazing stuff, and showed it by striking out 71 in 65 innings in rookie ball that year. Control seemed to be a potential issue for Banks as well, until he had a minor league breakout year at Visalia in 1989, going 12-9 with a 2.59 ERA, and 173 strikeouts and just 122 hits allowed in 174 innings pitched. Still smarting from the loss of Viola, Twins fans who paid attention to the minors hoped that Banks, along with West, could lock down a refreshed Twins starting rotation for years to come.

Though Banks's control backslid somewhat in 1990 and 1991 (he actually walked more than he struck out in '91 at AAA Portland), the Twins promoted him anyway, and he got his first cup-of-coffee pitching in September for the eventual World Series Champs. Then in 1992, he started the year with a Francisco Liriano-like throttling of AAA, going 6-1 with a 1.92 ERA in eleven starts, and being called up to the big club to stay.

Over the rest of '92 and the whole of the '93 season, Banks threw 242 innings, allowed 266 hits, walked 115, and ammassed a record of 15-16 with a below-league-average ERA. Just as the Twins brass lost patience with West, they lost patience with Banks, and traded him after the 1993 season for catcher Matt Walbeck and young pitcher Dave Stevens, yet another 'young guy with control problems' that, for some reason, the Twins thought they could fix. (The greatest pitching successes of the Tom Kelly/Dick Such era generally occurred with pitchers like Aguilera and Tapani who had already proven to have good control.)

Banks then began bouncing around the league himself, with teams willing to take a flyer on the possibility that Banks could finally tame his wildness, and always coming up short.

I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that if most current Twins bloggers were given the option, they'd probably add Luis Rivas to the player's list, and Kyle Lohse to the pitcher's list, though I'd disagree with both calls as each was one of my own favorite Twins during their respective tenures with the club. I've defended them both online often enough that I don't feel obligated to do so again here.

So those are my votes for 'better Bums' than the ones chosen by Caple for his ballot. Maybe I should go write them in.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Wisdom of the Uncarved

Eliot Smith is not loud. Eliot Smith is the kind of music that grown-ups like because it makes you sit down and stare at the CD player instead of running outside to play. Eliot Smith makes grown-ups cry and be in love and think grown-up thoughts. Someday when i'm a grown-up I'll think Eliot Smith songs are better than loud, fast songs. Eliot Smith plays guitar and sings and my favorite song is usually "Miss Misery" but not always.
- "What I like about Eliot Smith", written by Dave Younce for a fourth-grade music class

There's a school of thought that says that youth is wasted on the young, that wisdom comes with experience, and that the sweetest thing imaginable would be to be able to revisit youth with the eyes of experience, savoring the best of both worlds. The older I get, the more attractive this school of thought becomes to me.

At the same time, there's a differing school of thought, in which the young, particularly the very young, already possess a great deal of wisdom about life and existence, and that it's experience, and particularly 'growing up' that causes them to forget this wisdom. Kids really do say the darnedest things, and sometimes those things are as profound as they are amusing.

It's that last phrase that has my mind all bent right now:

my favorite song is usually "Miss Misery" but not always

As we get older, we tend to think of things like 'my favorite movies' and the like as series of lists, and that each list is carved in stone, requiring something new to come along to knock the old champion off the top of the hill. But a child knows that's not necessarily true - right now, her favorite movie could be the one she's watching, but two hours after it's over, her favorite movie might suddenly be one she hasn't seen for a while and only vaguely remembers.

Neither of these are wrong answers, by the way. By definition, a 'favorite' anything requires an emotional response, and emotions are notoriously irrational and even occasionally inconstant. Only a grown-up would expect someone's favorite movie to remain the same for years, simply out of some sense of intellectual integrity.

The really interesting implications of this emotion vs maturity debate come, however, when I consider a different question.

A few weeks ago, I got together with a couple of good friends I don't see very often, and we all tooled out to a mutual friend's place for an afternoon of gaming and grilling. It was great fun, as it usually is, but something happened as we were getting out of the car that stayed at the back of my mind all day. We'd opened the car windows a crack to let air circulate, and mine was open just enough to let my hand slip out the top as my ankle rested on the door. When my friend pulled up to our destination, he reflexively began rolling up the power windows from his driver's master control, which caused my window to press up against the flesh just above my knuckles. (Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that my response to this was not a cry of pain or surprise, or an expletive of some sort, but a simple and fairly quiet, "Excuse me?") We sorted things out, and I escaped with all my fingers intact.

Chuckling about it as we walked up to the house, my friend commented, "I can just see it now. 'What did you do today?' 'Oh, I nearly chopped off the fingers of my best friend.'"

And my immediate thought was, I'm his best friend?

If I'd had to guess, I'd have picked the friend whose house we were approaching as his 'best friend'; they had more in common, spent much more time together recently, and - without getting into too many specifics - had way fewer bad experiences with him than he'd had with me. Maybe he was just saying that because it made the joke better.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it struck me as odd - if we'd been ten years old, the comment would have made perfect sense. In fact, I could have replied, 'You're my best friend, too, except when you're not,' and it still would have made perfect sense. When you're ten, your best friend is the person who makes you feel the best at the moment you think about it. If five minutes later, that person makes you angry, he's not your best friend anymore. It's only later that we learn to associate friendship with longer-term, grown-up things - that you can still be angry with someone and be friends with them.

I'm not saying that grown-up logic is useless. There's still a part of me that reacts in that emotional ten-year-old way, in that if I fear if I do something bad, the people around me won't like me anymore. Grown-up relationships are predicated on the idea that you can still love someone even if you feel like strangling them at any given moment.

But there's still wisdom, I think, in the observation that your best friend is the person who makes you feel the best, at the moment you think about it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Turtle Story

Years ago, I found myself sitting at an airport taxi stand along with two women, waiting for a ride home. We'd just come from New York City, where our employer had sent us for MacWorld Expo that year, and it had been one of the most exciting weeks of my life. Now, sitting on a bench, with the fatigue of the week finally catching up to me, exacerbated by a sexual tension that had grown into frustration, I had almost completely shut down, just waiting to be taken home and dropped off so I could sleep and let the entire experience fade away to memory.

Then the woman on my left said, "Tell us a story."

So I started talking.

* * *

Once upon a time, there was a community of turtles. They made their nests in the woods, the better to hide from those who would hunt them, but every day they staggered out of their nests and walked some distance to the shore of a lake, where they would look for food, swim, or just rest all day long, as their turtle instincts suggested.

Then one day, a turtle was born into the community who had a bright orange shell. No one knew why he had a bright orange shell when the rest of the turtles' shells were dull green or dun-colored, but orange and bright it was, and the other turtles, especially those of his own age, teased him mercilessly about it. The teasing grew so persistent and so pointed that eventually the orange-shelled turtle would simply wait in the nests until his fellows had all gone off to the lake, then trudge slowly after them, doing his best to stay as hidden and out of sight as a turtle with a bright orange shell can.

Time passed, and another day came. This time, however, the turtles discovered something odd - their walkway to the lake was now interrupted by a long, clear, flat stretch of ground that looked like rock. They weren't entirely certain what to make of the rock, but one adventurous turtle started across it, headed for the comfort and safety of the lake.

Something fast and loud zipped by, and crushed the adventurous turtle into tiny pieces.

This frightened the turtles somewhat, as they weren't sure exactly what to make of this situation, but eventually another turtle in the group realized that, if they didn't find a way to get to the lake, they'd eventually starve or dry out. So he began his trek across the deadly rock.

Another loud zoom, and another shower of turtle parts briefly filled the air.

It was about this time that the orange-shelled turtle happened by, thinking that his fellows would all be at the lake by now. Some of the turtles in the group reflexively began to tease him, which intimidated those who thought of warning him about this deadly rock blocking their path to the lake. The orange-shelled turtle, trying his best to seem unaffected by the teasing yet again, simply begam shuffling his way over the rock.

And a strange thing happened. The things that had been making the loud zooming noises suddenly slowed and stopped as the orange-shelled turtle crossed. Other quick-witted turtles, seeing what was happening, hurried across as fast as they could (they were all turtles after all) to keep up with the orange-shelled one. That night, on the way back from the lake, all the turtles crossed with the orange-shelled one and arrived safely home.

And that is why today, all the turtles who live near the lake have orange shells.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Different Dogs and the Life of the Soul

It's the job of the priest to stand in the temple and tell the people to follow the laws of the temple. It's the job of the prophet to stand outside of the temple and tell the people to follow the laws of God and forget about the laws of the temple.
- Joshua M. Neff's father, a former minister

I follow Vincent Baker's blog anyway on a fairly regular basis. He's an independent (or 'indie') game designer, and has a definite take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to affairs in his community. He's also a firm believer that you have to deal with honest and real things, especially in game design, and so the discussions on his blog, even about seemingly innocuous things like - well, like games, often turn deep and potent at the drop of a metaphor.

The above quote comes from a comment thread that started with this post, in which five items of seemingly limited connection all get tied together in a way that suggests a person who routinely grapples with Big Questions - who even seeks out Big Questions with which to grapple.

Obviously I'm hooked.

Vincent would probably resist the title of Deep Thinker, but the two things he's probably best known for in the indie game community support that title. The first is a very simply-designed (but not simple) game called kill puppies for satan. It's about what you'd think it is - the characters are people who kill puppies or other helpless animals to gain 'evil' points, with which they can do various things, like spontaneously start fires. At the same time that they get 'evil', they also get 'grief', which could be viewed as the karmic counterpart to 'evil' - bad stuff happens to them as a result of the things they're doing in order to gain power and drive their souls into Hell. (Or hell, as it would be described in the game text, since satan can't afford capital letters.)

Seriously. Go read the online introduction, then consider the mechanics above again. It's not just a game about a particular 'genre'; it captures a mindset, a fairly bleak and desperate mindset at that, in an odd, twisted fashion that's both attractive and vaguely disgusting, much like crash scenes on ths side of the freeway.

You don't watch crash scenes on the side of the freeway? Right...

The other game is very different from kill puppies. It's called Dogs in the Vineyard. While kill puppies is vaguely set in the 'modern era', Dogs is a period piece - while it's technically a fantasy, it's set in the American West of the frontier era. puppies features characters that have committed their souls to hell in exchange for power, Dogs features characters that serve God - specifically, the characters are the titular Dogs, trained to tend to God's flock by stirring up and exposing sin in the various towns they visit in frontier territory. puppies is low-tech with a cruddy-looking font and no art, while Dogs is as high-concept as an indie game can generally afford to get, with art and other tactile bits of enhancement. Again, go ahead and read the introduction; the two games seem almost diametrically opposed, except that a very familiar undercurrent of tension and foreboding lurks under each.

So what does this have to do with the opening quote?

The more I consider that quote, the more I believe that religion needs both roles to remain honest and relevant. A religion without priests, without what Vincent himself describes elsewhere in the conversation as "a role of authority with regard to the congregation's conscience", with the power to challenge that congregation to follow the 'rules of the temple' over their own convenience, is a religion without conviction, where people only believe what they like and take services like they'd take narcotics at a dispensary. Conversely, a religion without prophets is a religion that grows stale gazing at its own navel, far too immersed in its own minutia and tiny little world to be relevant to the greater question of life, existence, and such. The careful balance between details and the 'big picture' doesn't just apply in religious life, of course, but neither is a spiritual life so unique that it doesn't require that balancing act as well.

The crazy thing is that neither the priest nor the prophet really gets the benefit of that balancing act, becuase their roles don't allow them the luxury of that balance. The priest has to represent the authority of the pulpit, and as a result he has to resist the prophet's call. The prophet has to challenge the status quo, even when the status quo isn't really all that bad, because the prophet isn't driven by questions of balance or suitability; if he's truly a prophet, he's speaking with the voice of God, and what are you going to balance that against? Which of course suggests that of all the people in this spiritual congregation, the two least likely to be fulfilled and edified by the experience are the priest and the prophet - and thus they're the two people you should, by all means, strive not to be, if you can avoid it. But, ironically, in the fictional RPG 'Priests and Prophets', players would want to play either a priest or a prophet, because those are the 'interesting' people.

It might be an exaggeration to say that this sort of thing happens all the time, but it does happen, thematically at least, quite a bit. Soldiers, for instance, go to war so that folks 'back home' can have peace (though this also assumes that the war isn't in your front yard). Policemen throw themselves into conflict with criminals so that others can have security, and firemen battle the forces of nature so that others can be safe. It's interesting to consider any such vocation a sort of sacrament, where the person who enters says, in effect, 'I give this thing up so that others may enjoy it all the more.'

Oh, and it's also an excuse to pass along a Unitarian Universalist joke. Granted, some of the brightest, most spiritual people I've known are UUs, so I'm not passing this along out of spite - if anything, the UUs I've known would get as big a chuckle out of this one as I did:

How do you know the Unitarians are mad at you?

There's a question mark burning on your lawn.
(related by Ron Edwards)

And to think all that pondering was triggered at a site that usually talks about games. I guess the Lord really does work in mysterious ways...