Dishonoring political violence.

I was looking for my daughter in a brothel. Not for prurient- nor prudish reasons- but because she had been kidnapped. Since she was also the rightful heir to the Empire of the Isles, I have even more reasons to get her back. Naturally, the first room I stumble into was the bedroom of a prostitute waiting for her next client. I quickly teleported behind her and rendered her unconscious before she could cry for help.

“Are you just going to leave her on the floor” My wife asked? “She’s safe from the plague rats if I shut the door, it’ll be ok.” “No”, my wife replied, “you can at least put her in her bed.” Dishonored, from Arkane Studios is that kind of game.

Dunwall- the city in which the game takes place- has enough verisimilitude to underline the reality of the people who inhabit the world, while also underscoring how alien the world is to our own. Books are commonly found in bathrooms, guards will whistle a tune as they patrol, people fall in love, and plaster ads on billboards. The fact that these are recognizably human things to do makes it much easier for the player to treat the non player characters in this world as people.

Dishonored gives players tools for murder- a sword, a crossbow, a set of magical powers- and a mission of vengeance. The opening of the game has your character, Corvo Attano, (the Royal Protector) fail to save the life of the Empress he loves. Having given the player these tools and this mission, the game creates some very straightforward paths to murder. At the end of every mission, the game counts up the number of enemies you killed (including those that you merely placed in the path of mortal danger), the number of times you were spotted by enemies, and the number of times an alarm was run. That’s where things get more complicated, and more interesting.

Based on these factors, the game gives you a “chaos” score. The more people you kill, the more the alarms sounded across the city, the more general chaos there is. The more chaos there is, the worse the plague gets. The worse the plague gets, the more swarming rats there are, the more “weepers” (a sort of zombie) there are, On top of that, later missions will feature more guards for the player to deal with, and more the more of Corvo’s friends will die. Perhaps worst of all, Emily- your daughter- becomes an Empress who rules with an iron fist over a court of terrible cruelty.

Alternately, if the player goes through the game- if Corvo restores the monarchy- in such a way that few or no people die, the “low chaos” setting is achieved. On this low chaos mode, there missions will feature more civilians (instead of plague victims), fewer guards, more friendly non-player-characters will survive the final mission. The epilogue shows the plague being cured shortly after the game ends, and that Emily’s eventual reign is remembered as a golden era.

Which raises the question: why? The city of Dunwall has a population somewhere between half and one million. The city is undergoing a plague that is so bad the government is literally having to dump bodies into the sea. Compared to that, the upwards-of-200 people that Corvo can kill in a “maximum carnage” run simply can’t add meaningfully to that number.

All but two of the missions in the game gives Corvo a target for assassination. Along the way, the player can learn of a way to deal with a given target without killing them. It is, therefore, possible to play the game with “clean hands”- without killing anyone.

Interestingly, the chaos mechanic itself makes no real distinction between killing your intended targets and killing a plague-infected, zombie-like “weeper”. Given that your targets in each mission are chosen for political reasons, for the sake of creating regime change, it’s worth noting that the designers of the game itself value each human life the same. By contrast, non human life- such as dogs, rats, and the like- can be killed without raising the chaos level.

That’s a significant clue to why Corvo’s killings should lead to such massive destabilization. Human life matters. Human choices matter. Corvo can choose to let Emily ascend to the throne- in the game’s words- “over a mountain of corpses”. In so doing, they perpetuate a political system that legitimizes violence. The message this sends to Emily and anyone else with a pretense to power is that naked force is the only factor that maters. Emily learns to be violent, and learns to deal with all threats around her violently. People in the system- starting with the loyalist conspirators who Corvo works with, and who ultimately betray him- see the breakdown of social norms and begin to give into their own worse impulses. By visiting violence against them, Corvo does not differentiate himself from them ideologically, but rather makes the claim that his will to power is greater than they can hope to overcome.

In a High Chaos run, violence- from the point of view of bystanders- becomes random. But because random violence is used as a tool of the State, it creates a breakdown in the social fabric. The State may only legitimately use violence to protect the citizenry from greater harm. That’s why it is generally ok for the government to create quarantine zones, and to enforce those zones with deadly force. The citizens of Dunwall seem terrified by the plague, but do recognize that this is something the State ought to be permitted to do.

When the player uses violence sparingly, Corvo upholds the social norm against political violence. He chooses not to place his own interests as the arbiter of murder. In doing so, he allows Dunwall to stand down from the cycle of coup, counter coup, and revolution. Freed from both the example of continual of murder, and having to be constantly on guard from a subject population that has learned violence as their only recourse, she is able to turn her attention to other things- and to create a golden age.

We can certainly argue about the plausibility of one person’s example being that overpowering. Was Corvo always the fulcrum of an age, whatever that age might have been, or was it greater historical forces at work? It is certainly easy to give into the temptation of history to become about the “great man”. Those are certainly interesting conversations to have! We do also need to recognize that as individuals we have choices. Sometimes they are large, and sometimes they are small. We will always see the world reflected back to us that we have helped create.


Add New Post.

I really did not want to talk about GamerGate here. The whole thing is so deeply stupid that I don’t like dignifying it with words. Yet I am going to stipulate that by being pro-GamerGate, Fine Young Capitalists have- at least- internalized certain patriarchal assumptions that make them emblematic of the problem. That’s worth a look.

The two contrary impulses in Video Game writing are between “games as cultural artifacts” (also called “New Games Journalism”), and “games as consumer items”. Leigh Alexander does a pretty good job here summing up which side she’s on, and what the sides are. “GamerGate”, roughly speaking, is an attempt by people who prefer to think of games as something to consume to silence the voices of those who want to take a deeper look at games. They’ve had at least a small measure of unfortunate success.

The truly weird thing is the GamerGate perception that Feminism is a defining feature of New Games Journalism. It isn’t. The perception that it is, however, isn’t surprising, given our patriarchal assumptions. When the default assumption is a male voice, we notice the female voice far more than it actually happens:

Another study reported that a male science teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 per cent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils. They complained vociferously that the girls were getting too much talking time.

“Fine Young Capitalists”. The name invites comparison between capitalism and cannibalism. I can’t help but enjoy that. Then you see that they’re in favor of “GamerGate” and they believe that gamers need “kingmakers”.

So: they don’t realize they’re being silly. But usefully silly! They are silly in a way that illustrates a deeper problem. They are so deeply committed to games being consumer items that they can only think to write about games journalism to the extent that it is consumer education. Kingmaker. Singular. They see gates crumbling and are decrying the lack of gatekeepers. They are, ultimately, upset that they are being shut out of the kingmaking process.

Steam is slowly opening its’ gates to allow more games on the system. In the coming years, Steam will be transitioning to an open gate policy, or for their system to be seen as a platform for any game designer to host their game. This has the potential to cause another indie game crash as the market gets flooded and consumer’s can’t find the quality among the crap.

Fine Young Capitalists want to be Kingmakers, they want to be Gatekeepers. They think that without these things, Indie games will die, and AAA games might also go down. That’s…. that’s pretty much patriarchal thinking in a nutshell. The fact that they want to solve the “problem” of the crumbling of gatekeeping by appointing themselves the new gatekeepers is just a logical extension of the idea.

And then another approach:

To me, signal boosting is the most important thing you can do to spread work that doesn’t get to be shared on a regular basis.
This isn’t meant to be read as a grand political movement, but just to show appreciation to devs and critics who like to experiment with unique tools and concepts. People have been making alternative games for a very long time now, and I just wanted to create a bot that collected and curated them.

That’s a totally different mindset. It attacks the same sort of problem, but from a non-patriarchal place. It does not replicate the structures that don’t work for the problem she wants to attack, but instead approaches the problem of obscurity from a different direction.

The key, what makes it non-patriarchal, is that it isn’t exclusionary. It does not set up a “king of the hill” system that allows only a single winner. It allows for differences in tastes and opinions, or even moods.

It’s almost grown up that way.


I am a Camera

Humor: lets talk about “punching down” and “punching up”. Someone (not the bar owner or employees) made this sign. They thought it would be funny. They were wrong.

They were wrong, because it trivialized a dead kid. A kid who is dead because a cop felt dissed. The kid was shot 4 times in the arms, and twice in the top of the head. His last words were “Hands up, don’t shoot”. You can make a joke about those circumstances, but you can’t do so in such a way that it is about the victim being a victim. The joke needs to underline the horror of the situation.

If the joke fails to underline the horror of a nightmare, we call that “punching down”. Sometimes people screw up and hit a target they’re not aiming for. I’d like to think the person who wrote this sign (again, not the owner of this bar) simply screwed up. The name “Mike Brown” is all over the news out of Ferguson MO, and so is present in our minds.

But there weer two people involved in that murder. The victim- Mike Brown, and the murderer- Darren Wilson. As of 22 August 2014, Wilson is still at large, being aided and abetted by his fellow gang-members. police officers.

So how do we rewrite that sign to punch up? How do we use humor to point out the monster?

Start by calling it the “Darren Wilson special” Let’s name the bad guy. I kinda like calling it the “6 shot dine and dash”, but I don’t want to encourage people to not pay their bills. Or “6 shots, because YOLO”, but again, dead kid.

Maybe “Darren Wilson Special: 6 shots and you will respect my authority”.

It’s not great, but it’s the best I have so far.

(Image and story from Buzzfeed)



First things first: the name had to go. Wait. Let me back up.

By now, nearly anyone on Earth who has the leisure time to be entertained, or is working on something more technologically advanced than agriculture, is doing so using a screen as an intermediary. Humans who are off Earth, of course, are literally living and dying based on the performance of their screens.

Within living memory, live entertainment was primarily enjoyed by people close enough to the actors/singers/athletes to feel the actual heat from their bodies. And then the movie theater. The television. The Computer. The e-book reader. The smartphone. These screens did not merely displace physically being at a live event; they created even more space in which that live event could exist in a very real way. People cheering for Team Mexico in any bar in the world are doing so simultaneously with the people at the stadium cheering for Team Mexico in person.

It isn’t merely the watching of live events that have been revolutionized by screens. Work, as well, has been forever changed. I am writing this on a device that is only usable because it has a screen. I work at a restaurant–one that is wholly at the mercy of screen uptime. Photoshop and GIMP have even turned most forms of pictorial art (certainly its commercial cousin) into screen-based activities. Accounting? No more need to cramp our hands and stain them with graphite or ink. Since the invention of the calculator, accounting has been given over to the screen. The screen-based spreadsheet is a dream come true for a work obsessed numbers nerd. Etcetera. So forth. Even farming. Unless you are so far down the farm chain that you are literally picking crops by hand, you are using a screen to design, buy, sell, ship, or account for those crops. Or using a screen to track the labor of people who are.

Screens are incredibly important. The companies that want to own the world need to figure out how to own the screens. Inexplicably, Microsoft has failed to even compete. Yes. Microsoft. That’s the point of this post.

A few years ago they very nearly had all the pieces in place to make your home life a bit better, a bit smoother, and a bit more interesting. Their efforts over the past few years have shown that they don’t quite understand (or their corporate culture refuses to let them meaningfully cooperate to enact) how various screens can work together to form a stronger whole.

In 2014, in the homes of most Americans, there are roughly 4 screens that get used on a regular basis. The 3-5 inch screen in your pocket (the phone), the 7 or 10 inch screen (the tablet) that has no specific home, but is an auxiliary screen for a whole lot of various tasks. Then there’s the 11-24 inch screen (computer, either lap- or desk- top), which is generally used for business and games. Its other functions taken over by newer form factors. And then finally the 36 inch and bigger television.

These are the broad categories. There is a lot of overlap. Tellingly, each of these screens is attached to a rather powerful computer. But the computer itself is not the important part. The computer does not really dictate the function to which people put the screen. Nor does the power of the computer dictate the size of the screen. This next bit is really important, so it will get its own paragraph.

The size of the screen is decided based on the place in which the screen will be used, and the interface for that screen is decided based on the size of the screen.

I am willing to concede a lot of quibbling around the edges. There are, for instance, a lot of 8 inch tablets. I do know that it takes more processing power to run a 5 inch screen than it does a 4 inch screen. And so a specific designer might well decide which size screen to give their phone based on how much power they can cram onto a chip. Nor does it matter whether a TV can be given the same processing power of a modern desktop PC tricked out for gaming. There are a whole lot of edge cases, but let us not get cut on them.

The important point is that we first decide on the function, then we figure out how much “oomph” that function will require, and how much it will cost to create that “oomph”.

Another important general point to remember: there is a sort of normal (bell) curve where we can put “ease of content creation” on one axis and “size of screen” on the other. As an example, try visualizing writing an entire novel on your 4 inch phone. Now try visualizing writing that same novel on a 60 inch TV. These things are possible, but… no. Just no. I don’t mean to imply that there is a perfect screen size, but there are definitely ones more suited for purpose.

So: if I wanted to be the software/hardware company that “owned” the inside of people’s houses, what would I do?

First, I’d make sure that I had a device for each of the screens. I’d make sure that any component of those devices that could be broken out into a separate app would be broken out into a separate app. For instance, the thing I use to play music on my phone should be something I can download onto phones not mine. And also onto TVs that have someone else’s software running them. Etc and so forth.

Secondly, I’d make it very easy for people to import stuff from outside my garden as possible. Notice that I’m taking it for granted that there will be a store, and that this store will help me make money from my devices. Additionally, I’d make it easy for people to leave my garden, if they want. My garden might have walls, but those walls will be adorable and attractive hedgerows People are significantly more likely to attend a party when they know they won’t be taken hostage.

Thirdly, I’d make sure that I had a user interface that was as similar as possible across as many of these screens as possible. I would want to make doing things on my devices as familiar as possible, and that means having people doing the same sorts of things over and over again. If I touch the screen on my phone, tablet, computer, or TV in the same way, I should get the same result. How do you touch the screen on your TV? Glad you asked. More on that later.

Fourthly, any bit of software that an end-user brings into my garden should be usable on any screen an end-user wants to use. I said earlier that my mind recoils at the idea of writing a novel on a 60 inch TV. When talking with a friend, I said that “writing on a wall is how movies demonstrate madness”. But hey! If a mad-person wants to process words on their giant TV, that’s their prerogative. But more on that in a bit.

So how does this work in practice? I wake up and grab my phone to scan headlines/read twitter/whatever. Something grabs my interest for further reading, and I send it to my tablet- reading things in a relaxed manner is the killer app of tablets. The article is about a book, so I buy a copy and it sends to all of my devices. I’ve got a bit of time before work, so I finish up a presentation while on my desktop computer. On the drive to my train station, I start listening to the book on my phone (which I can plug into my car’s audio system). On the train, I am able to start reading the book from where I left off the audio portion. I get to work and have to put the book away in my pocket. Best believe I’ll be reading it whenever I need to use the restroom. Now it’s time for work, though. I’ve got a presentation to give!

I log onto the screen in the conference room using the limited-rights “work” setting- the setting that lets me have full rights, but lets my employer and coworkers have some ability to see some of the things I’m doing. My presentation seamlessly appears on the screen in front of me, and I spent some time biting my nails before people file in. During the event I am able to use gesture controls as I talk, showing people the slides I’ve prepared. At the end, a question emerges which causes me to dig into my original data. I am able to do this using the same basic UI as I would on a tablet, the gesture controls on the TV simulating a touch UI on a smaller device.

Do I need to go on? The idea is that the same sorts of data can be used in different ways based on the screen size available. It may not always make sense for me to play a game on both a PC and a tablet- but if I buy the next Batman game, there’s no reason I can’t play it on both my TV and my desk. I understand why a book is a separate thing from an audio book, but if I buy both, they really should interact. And so on.

The important idea here is that the software industry has decided that we are not buying “good”, but rather buying “a licence for a service”. Additionally, every industry that can get away with the transition has decided that they, too, are selling licenses for services. If that’s the case, than my license should work wherever the user ends up. Smart companies are the ones which understand that. The winning companies will be the ones that make it work.

Etc and so Microsoft.

They had all the pieces in front of them. They had a phone. Moreover–they had a phone with a UI that was actually distinct from Android and iOS. I want to marvel at the fact that they had something which a) didn’t copy their competitors, and b) still worked really well. That’s hard to pull off. With the Surface they had a good tablet, with a good UI that also worked on the phone.

Their desktop… this is where they ran into problems. Oddly enough, everything I’ve heard about Windows 8 tells me that its primary problem was not the UI, but rather a violation of the second point. It was their garden, they owned it, and they never ever wanted you to leave it. Knowing they’d done something their users would react very negatively to caused them to then violate point three, by bolting the “classic” interface onto the operating system. Which then left people wondering why they would want to buy Windows 8 when they would be spending all their time in the Windows 7 interface.

No matter how defensible the decision might be on its own terms, the desire to own an entire locked-down garden caused enough negative side effects that it seems to have damaged the entire project. The problem is that it took away a lot, without giving anything in return.

Finally, Microsoft owned the TV. At least: they were creating a device specifically designed to be the perfect counterpart to the TV. Their Kinnect device even allowed them to use the same touch-UI on the TV as users had gotten used to using on tablets and phones. That’s brilliant. The name of the overall TV package? X-Box One. Sorry. That’s a bit of a clunker. That was the first thing that needed to go. I’ll get back to that.

Much like with their desktop offerings, Microsoft did not talk about all the cool stuff users would gain by transitioning from a “goods” model to a “service” model. Instead, all we heard about was the stuff that would be taken away. Partly this was poor messaging. But mostly it stemmed from thinking about X-Box as being a business unit, rather than thinking of X-Box as being the living room component of the Microsoft garden.

Microsoft crafted the perfect under-TV device for my father. But the problem was the name. My father- 65 year old retiree who watches TV and listens to music but does not play video games- would simply not buy any device called “X-Box”. An X-Box is a video game console. It is not the perfect compliment to the home media experience. So the first thing to go should have been the name.

The Live Box One (or something like that) marketed and sold as a complement to Windows 8, could very well have been a monster hit. They want me inside their garden. So tell me that “everything you purchase from the Microsoft Live Marketplace will be usable by you from wherever you log on- phone, living room, office. On your Surface Tablet or Desktop computer. Wherever you live, there’s Live.” Or something. I’m not a marketing expert. I’m just a consumer who wants things.

The good news is that Microsoft has all the pieces they need. I’m probably underestimating the amount of work it would take for them to start working as a coherent entity. Mostly, I think it will require a change of philosophy rather than a change in the direction or sophistication of their software. Their hardware is pretty good also.

Microsoft may never get there. Someone will, though. Someone will build me the better home garden I want to live in. I can’t wait.


The more things change…

This 1960s era Lego commercial is amazing. The core values of the company don’t seem to have changed. (Video found at this site.)

A couple notes: while the sing-song about the girl does show her building a house, the later shot of the 3 kids playing has her working on a skyscraper. It’s less of “homemaker” fantasy than an “architect” fantasy.

Something on display here that Lego does well and a lot of companies could learn from: Lego has all sorts of price points. Any given series of Lego product will have sets that range in price from “Affordable-on-8-year-old’s-allowance” to “Affordable-on-*ahem*-36-year-old’s-allowance”. Relatedly , When I was 12, the competitionist in me made me save up for some of the $100 kits, but I had never felt like any of the less expensive kits was “lesser”. Lego knows that giving good value at all pricepoints makes customers feel comfortable spending more in the future

Another thought: Lego pieces aren’t markedly more complex today than they were in the 1960s (at least, not judging by this commercial). But the things people do with Lego kits are significantly more complex than they used to be. Look at this Lego Sopwith Camel:

That propeller actually spins.

Yes: there are some pieces there that are simply not seen in that video above. And no: I’m not prepared to say that the people who designed the Sopwith Camel on my mantel are smarter than the people who invented Lego in the first place. Nor would it be fair to say that the people who designed my Sopwith Camel are smarter than the people who designed the most recent Lego Sopwith Camel. But in 2012, the designers had a working example of what a Lego Sopwith Camel ought to look like. They had over a dozen years of extra experience to work with. And so on.

The thing that makes our species thrive, what gives us our power- what makes us worth preserving- is that we are capable of adapting our memes in response to new information. Maybe one day we’ll hit a dead end and run into a problem our collective experience and communication cannot overcome. In the mean time, there’s Lego making everything awesome.


The greatest of these is Hop

So I was all set to write something about the humanity of Jesus meaning that his followers heard him fart, etc. I was then going to follow up on this by imagining a Gospel in which an offhand reference to a belching Jesus was made- and how American Fundamentalists might deal with that sort of passage. A good time may have been had by all.

So that led me to looking up the text of 1 John 4:3. My memory had it that the text of this passage was a) the only time “Antichrist” was used in the bible, and b) ascribed the Antichrist label to people who denied the humanity of Jesus.

So… imagine my surprise when I looked up a few different translations of the passage in question. Half the translations (generally those following the King James tradition) seem to hold with my understanding of the passage. The other half simply damn to hell those who deny that Jesus is the anointed one. In other words: the translators cannot seem to agree with themselves whether it is more important to note the flesh of Jesus or the spirit of Jesus.

I’m pretty sure that if I could get my hands on a copy of the original* Greek I would be able to actually figure it out for myself. But that’s a project for another day. In the mean time, I’ll have to make non-biblical fart jokes.

*Yes, yes, the oral tradition that got written down as the Bible started in Aramaic before being added to and translated into many languages. But the Gospel of John seems to have first coalesced in the Greek language before being translated into Latin and so forth.


Mrs Sandman. Bring me a dream….

Today, for the first time, I heard the phrase “so and so has sand in their vagina”. And I’m freaking in love with it.

The thing is: I understand _exactly_ why someone with that condition would be irritable about everything, ever. Moreover, it seems like that’s the worse possible place to have sand. Sand in your eyes? Humans have tear ducts specifically to deal with this situation. Sand in your mouth? Unpleasant, but saliva will deal with that over time. Nostrils? Sure, but… the nostrils are open. The vagina will rub against itself, causing chaffing. And the asshole is bad place to have sand, but as it’s generally dry, I don’t think it’s as bad as a place to have sand as a vagina.


The problem (with this idiom) is that only one gender has a vagina. Moreover, the term “vagina” (or any of its derivatives) tends to be a rather specific insult. Much as straight dudes and gay ladies are supposed to enjoy interacting with that part of the female anatomy, saying that someone personifies one is somehow not an endearment. And falsely saying that someone has one is (weirdly) a way of calling them weak.

Now, we could ungender this idiom by replacing “vagina” with “urethra”- which both men and women have. Sadly, replacing a vulgarity with it’s scientific term pretty much always robs a phrase of the oomph it needs to be meaningful.

So what should we do? Ideally, we’d simply declare that the phrase is gender-neutral and refers to someone who is pissed off in general about things that don’t really have to do with the issue at hand. But if we’re not adult enough use the phrase gender neutrally, perhaps “sand in his dick/her vagina” will suffice?

I dunno. What are your thoughts?


The world ended. I still feel fine

Earlier this week, a coworker told me that he was trying to save money to get married. I congratulated him and asked if she knew yet. And then I stopped myself and said “er, her, right? Or him?”

I’m not always the most eloquent of people.

This coworker clarified that it was a lady, and then thanked me for pausing to make sure. We both sort of realized that heteronormativity is both easy to slip into, and a bit painful to be on the wrong side of. During the course of this conversation I learned that this coworker is the sort of christian who is waiting until marriage.

Let me be clear that I respect that choice. It’s not the one that I made, but I do respect it. And waiting until marriage to have sex is a choice, in the way that being gay is not a choice. That understanding is the reason American society has been rapidly swinging around towards acceptance of gay people as people- as fully human and deserving of all the happiness that life can bring. It’s that very understanding that lead a US District court to strike down a Utah law banning same-sex marriage.

I bet there are a lot of men in Utah tonight frantically looking for a suit in which to get married. I don’t mean to exclude the women from that sentence, but, well… 364 days ago today I was scrambling around San Francisco looking for a suit in which to get married. I found one, and a day later I said some vows, my lady said some vows, and our lives changed.

It was cold that night. Cold enough that I really did think it plausible that the world might descend into entropy the way crackpots were saying the Mayans had foretold. And I was happy enough to make jokes during the vows.

She married me anyway.

I can’t even say the way being married has changed me. I know it has, but when people talk about a “mystical union” they’re right. And today and tomorrow and for a long time to come, an entirely new group of people will feel that fierce joy that I have felt on being in a partnership with another human being. For the rest of our lives.

Mazel Tov

(But I’m the one who married Sorako, so I win.)


When you talk about destruction, Don’t you know that you can count me out.

There is a cancerous cult stalking our nation’s discourse. It is not the curse of ill conceived nazi analogies, though those are always great fun. Rather, it is the “journalistic” tic of false equivlence.

Let us understand what is happening in Washington DC today. While I write this, 97% of the US Federal government is shut down. Much of the remaining 3%- including the FBI and air traffic controllers- are being asked to work with only the hope of retroactive pay. As this is happening, we grow ever closer to a point at which the US Federal Government will need to pay certain bills, but not have the legal authority to borrow the funds to pay those bills.

These are two separate events. Either of them taken alone would be bad enough. The fact that they are occurring together is- like an earthquake during open heart surgery- a potentially catastrophic coincidence.

The debt limit thing is a bit hard to explain the details of, so let me be super simple. People are willing to lend us money because we have always paid them back. _Always_. When you have a reputation for always repaying your loans, people start being being willing to pay you for the privilage of loaning you money. Like as if you gave me a dollar today with the promise that tomorrow I would give you 99 cents back. That’s a fantastic deal. it exists because financial world craves solidity and order.

The sun goes down, the sun comes up, the US pays its bills. If the US government defaults on even one loan, it will be the first time in nearly 300 years it will have done such a thing. That would cause as much turmoil to the world financial markets as the sun stopping at midday would to human physicists.

So on one hand we have a Republican party that is willing hit the debt ceiling and not pay (some or all) our bills. And we have a Democratic party that really, _really_ does not want to do this. And similtanously we have a Republican party that likes the fact that the government is shut down, and a Democratic party that does not. And there, in that very second link above is Chris Matthews writing about how “both sides” need to give and take.

What president Obama and the Democratic party have decided- what all decent Americans should decide- is that paying our bills and having a functional government are not negotiable. They are certainly not bargaining chips. They are, in fact, the starting points of a functional American society. They are the sine qua non of any society. America has invaded other nations for less cause than defaulting on our loans would be giving, say, China.

Not to mention the global catastrophe that would happen if large banks/nations were planning on repaying their loans with the money they were expecting to get back after having loaned it to America.

We can argue- and should- about the things the government ought to do. We can even argue that it is wrong for the government to assume more than a certain amount of duties even if all the things we’d like it to do are wholly legitimate. But once we make protecting the existence of the government the responsibility of one party we begin a very short road to disaster. I’d like the media to be doing a much better job explaining this. This is a another problem we have, separate from the shutdown, the potential default, and conspiracy of math that makes the first two problems almost inevitable.

The difference between this problem and the others is that we can ignore Chris Matthews until he stops being so fucking stupid.


Hate the players, sure. And hate the game

Football has a problem. Players are getting massive concussions that can cause them health problems and death upwards of years after they retire. Replacing all the players and coaches won’t fix this problem. It is a problem that owes to the design of the sport itself. Likewise: holding new elections won’t fix America’s problem. America’s problems are endemic to the design of our electoral system.

Let us assume that we could actually hold new elections tomorrow. Our system doesn’t allow for it; we’re in hypothetical land, so it’s ok. What happens in those elections are that congress basically gets returned exactly the way it is. Unless we think are any Republicans so upset about the way their GOP member of Congress is handling this shutdown that they’re willing to vote for a Democrat. Or likewise: that there are so many Democrats pissed off at their Democratic House Representative that they vote for a Republican.

In a certain sense, the game is rigged in favor of incumbents. We’ve all heard about the evils of gerrymandering, and while there is some truth to it, the problem might be more fundamental the who draws the lines. Nor, indeed, does it seem that gerrymandering actually causes the extremism we see in our political system.

The problem is how we choose who represents us. The incentives are pushing in favor of extremism, and sharpening the divide between the two parties.

And, indeed, the fact of a two party system is the problem. Read that sentence again. Carefully. Note that I used the word “system”. The way that Americans vote- our first past the post, winner take all system- creates a two party system. The two party system is the natural resting place of all voting systems like ours, though times of upheaval might temporarily cause multiple parties to vie for dominance. The last time this happened in America was roughly 1859, when the Republican party grew out of the Whig party. Your high school history teacher might have touched on the events of the following 5 years.

The problem with a 2 party system is that it allows only for binary choices among policy options, and exaggerates differences until they appear catastrophic. Which is not to say there are no differences between the Republican party and the Democratic party- there are! But the differences are along a very small number of preferred policy outcomes. Neither party, for instance, is seriously suggesting a 70% top marginal tax rate. Nor is either party in favor of returning the copyright term to 14 years. Instead, they’re arguing about how big the market for health insurance ought to be. The party in favor of fewer and smaller healthcare markets is so upset by creation of larger and more healthcare markets that they’ve gone so far as to stop paying all government employees except themselves.

The solution to this temper tantrum is not “vote only for the tea party instead of the Republicans”. Nor is it “vote for the Greens instead of the Democrats”. We’d just end up back in this mess several years down the line. No.

Instead we must create a House of Representatives with multimember districts such as in Japan, or a mixed Federal/local voting system such as in Germany. If the example of those two nations seem vaguely historically sinister, take heart: those nations have great electoral systems because they were written by patriotic Americans after we defeated each of those nations in the Second World War. Those systems aren’t at all foreign, they were some of our best exports.

Things must change, and therefore they will change. The question of our time is not whether they will change, but how much destruction will accompany that change. Let us amend our own Constitution, change our own institutions, and let America get back into business.

It’s time to bring good governance back home.