more on Avatar

Via Yglesias and Spencer, io9 makes the race-based case against the movie: When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”? It’s a good piece, and worth reading.

It’s a lousy headline, though. First, the answer is obvious. Second, while I think this is a valid reading of Avatar and movies like it, I think it makes some unfortunate implications about the motivations of the people making these films. The self-congratulatory white guilt narrative discussed emerges from narrative necessity as least as much as it arises from an incoherent, subconscious and pervasive sense of racial culpability. Put another way: it’s not just liberal guilt! It’s professional laziness, too!

Consider an alternate explanation for the movie’s setup. We’re writing a script! We’ve gotten an impressive rendering farm online and built these neat cameras and the crew jackets are all printed up, but there are still a few nagging details to work out before we start rolling. For instance, we need a protagonist around which the action will revolve. He or she needs to have an arc. And the opposing sides of the central conflict need to be drawn in stark Manichaean terms — the innocents need to seem super-innocent — because we’re not trying to make That Kind of Movie. When things blow up at the end, we want to audience to be happy!

All of this can lead us directly to a colonial narrative, and it can do so without anyone trying to atone for white privilege at all. It also explains Romeo Must Die perfectly well, for example. And The Transporter. And Total Recall (though admittedly that movie added some pleasantly confusing recursion). And The Professional. And really just about every other action movie, where a protagonist recognizes his complicity in an evil enterprise and then assumes an unrealistically prominent (and violent!) role in resolving the central injustice.

When you draw boundaries between factions along planetary lines, it makes sense to insert race as a dimension in your story. And once that happens, I agree that an insulting and naive sort of primitivism is sure to follow — something that Reihan gets at here (though there’s a hell of a lot of projection going on in that piece — the movie says nothing about half the claims that Reihan makes about the Na’vi).

But I think that the strictures of dumb action movies are what really determines the shape of Avatar. Sure, Cameron’s only too happy to toss in some junk about Iraq, and the environment, and race. Again, the white guilt narrative isn’t an incorrect reading. But I think it is a mistake to assign it outsize importance — if you do so you wind up in weird places, like the blog post quoted by that io9 piece that essentially complains about Cameron not casting an ethnic Na’vi actor for his lead role.  I mean, you do realize you were wearing 3D glasses, right?


So, look: the conservatives have a point: this movie does not present an even-handed consideration of the case for rapacious, imperial, homicidal, psychotic resource extraction. Probably there are some really cool consumer electronics that were made possible by burning down the ancestral homeland of that indigenous population!  Not once does James Cameron’s script discuss the boost in Na’vi GDP made possible by the incineration of their psychic soul tree thing.  For shame.

Seriously, though: any conservatives who object to this movie are automatically giving up the game.  Are you really taking offense at a polemic against murdering natives and destroying the environment for naked greed? Really: you think your ideological program stands in opposition to the idea of not killing innocent people and stealing their land?  I mean, if that’s the war you want to fight, be my guest.  We can deal with that.  But I sort of thought we had called a truce and agreed that we were all trying to figure out a positive-sum way to reconcile our unbearable hippie nonsense with your corporate overlords’ ruthlessness.  We were all going to drink Coca-cola in idyllic natural settings, no?  I guess I just think it might be better for you to sit this one out.

But whatever. All that aside, it really was an awesome movie, in the original sense of the word.  A lot of comparisons are being made to a lot of different movies, but I think the most relevant one is The Fifth Element. Like Jim Cameron, Luc Besson made a bunch of great movies, then revisited a story he had been mulling since before he could conceive of decent stories.  The Fifth Element was a visually arresting, relentlessly kinetic and occasionally emotionally-compelling spectacle, and because of all that it didn’t really matter that its core was totally risible Captain Planet bullshit.

I think the same can be said of Avatar.  This movie would be better without narration. It would probably be better without dialogue!  But by saying that I don’t mean to imply that it’s trading solely in effects-driven flash rather than story.  It’s just that the story is so vast, so archetypal, that the specifics don’t matter, and are consequently allowed to devolve into camp (really: unobtainium?).  THIS IS A BIG FUCKING MOVIE.  That’s all I can really say about it with any sense of confidence.  That, and: go see it.  Wear the stupid glasses.  You’ll like it.

justifying hatred of a word

Yglesias responds to Michael Wolff’s ruminations on Chuck Schumer calling a flight attendant a bitch:

…by eliding the term “bitch” he manages to completely avoid the subject of sexism, which I think is at the core of the complaint here. But the term is a pure contentless gender-slur. It’s like you’re saying “I disagree with what you’re doing and also you’re a woman which is a bad thing to be!!!!!!!!”

Even if a woman is doing something legitimately bad, it’s no more appropriate to insult her with that term than it is to break out a racial slur just because a guy you have a legitimate beef with happens to be black. That’s the issue here.

Disclaimer: “bitch” is not a term I like nor one that I use. When I hear other people use it, I think less of them.

But I’m not sure that what Yglesias says above is correct. I wrote something about this years ago, but it came out hopelessly muddled, so let’s try again.

The difficulty here is in figuring out what we find objectionable about the word. It’s easy to become confused by the fact that pejorative language is reserved for unpleasant situations, and give in to the temptation to think that wishing away the word will also make those situations disappear. Yglesias understands that this is stupid way of thinking: people will continue to get upset with one another. And although it’s obvious that we should all strive to be pleasant human beings, there’s nothing necessarily unjust about expressing your strong dislike for someone. Rather, it’s the act of denigration-via-classification embodied by these terms that makes them so odious. This is also correct, I think.

But the comparison to racist language is problematic. It seems to me that as a society we’ve pretty much decided that acknowledging racial differences is inappropriate except in very specific circumstances. It sounds a little weird when you put it that way, but I think it’s essentially what we’ve done and that it’s basically a good idea — a custom that pushes human behavior in positive directions.

It’s not clear to me that a similar societal decision has been made with respect to gender differences. I say this primarily because most people continue to think it’s fine to use gendered pronouns. And if that’s all right, I don’t necessarily see an inherent problem with gendered pejoratives (though certainly there can be circumstances surrounding their use that are profoundly problematic — the practical case against the word “bitch” is quite strong, I think). Heroine/hero, she/he, bitch/dick. There’s a low-resolution take on the continuum. The fact that only the last pair would strike most people as objectionable makes me think that we’re facing the situation I talked about above: wishing that people wouldn’t get angry with one another and use harsh language. That’s a fine thing to wish for, but I don’t think it’s got much to do with social justice.

The other possibility, of course, is that we should be objecting to gendered pronouns with positive or neutral affect (e.g. heroine, she) as well, just the same as we don’t use different words for valorous people of different races. I think this is probably correct, but I also think it’s probably not a position that most of the people engaging in this debate would find appealing enough on an intuitive level to embrace. Come to think of it, resistance to the social project of eliminating gendered pronouns could easily be the thing that eventually earns the “cultural conservative” trophy for my generation (take heart, though, future young people: we’ll be dead before you know it).


A few weeks ago Sara mentioned to me that she was enjoying a band called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I would’ve been sold on the strength of the name alone; a friend’s recommendation was more than enough to make me resolve to give them a listen.

It took me a couple of weeks, though (and an additional tweet from Matt) before I got around to it. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the album. I find large parts of it to be a bit boring; other parts remind me — for reasons I can’t quite identify — of the sort of bloated, Fleetwood-Mac-ian WASH-FM rock that echoes off receptionist desks all over this town.

But “Home” — goddamn, what a song.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Home

There are a lot of things to like about it. I could’ve been counted as a fan on the basis of the Morricone-isms alone. And I’m a complete sucker for the female vocal, which has the sort of breathy, stretching-after-a-nap timbre that only happens when a really cute girl picks up a serious cigarette habit.

But more than that, it’s an amazing recorded performance between the two singers, one that evokes a genre tradition but invigorates it with a sense of utter, honest vulnerability. I haven’t heard anything like it in a while.

If someone stuck you in a studio, said “We’re rolling, try to sound in love“, could you do it this well? I’m left completely charmed, slightly wary, and unsure whether to believe in the singers’ talents or (god) their love. I may vaguely hate them for making me write that sentence, but I can’t deny that the sound they make together is miraculous.

a beautiful and unique snowflake

There’s nothing quite like sorting through resumes to make you feel like an untalented cliche.

I can’t even play drums!

fear of a black hat

Earlier this week my old boss, JP, sent me a note saying that the full-text RSS script I’d written was being shut down.  EchoDitto was nice enough to continue hosting it on their servers, but it had been consuming an increasing share of resources, and finally it needed to be killed.  Sad.

Then, horrifying.  JP had mentioned it idly, but until I saw the Google Alert for this I didn’t quite realize what had been going on.  The self-described black-hat search engine optimization crowd — the folks who assemble sites peppered with ads that are designed to attract search engine traffic, aka “link farms” — had been using my script to steal other people’s content and republish it on their own sites.  Using this sort of genuine content helped them snag traffic more effectively than they could with the gibberish that you sometimes see in spam, so they were sorry to see the script go.

Well, I appreciate the attention, but it’s not exactly what I had in mind for my work when I released it.  So I explained the situation, and bid them adieu:


I was at least somewhat aware of this danger, and consequently didn’t open-source the code (thank goodness).  It was still a bit of a shock to see the reality of what I’d wrought, though.

I still believe what I wrote in that initial post: it’s pointless for online publishers to try to control how their readers consume content.  If you wish to publish digitally, you need to accept the realities that come with doing so.  Pretending otherwise is just going to inconvenience your readers and slow your business’s necessary evolution.  Prolonging that process seems likely to increase the painfulness of the process, not eliminate it.

For those curious, the algorithm was exactly what many in comments had guessed.  I used some regular expressions to build a hierarchical structure representing all the <div> and <td> elements in each page associated with an RSS item.  These tags are the ones most often used to provide a page’s layout, and the full text of an entry can usually be found in a single instance of such a container.  I then traversed this structure, looking for the text excerpt from the original RSS item.  Once found, the rest of that container’s contents could be pulled out.  It’s a simple idea, though the realities of HTML — and the difficulty of preserving byte offsets between a sanitized working copy and the original — made the actual implementation require quite a bit more cleverness (and caching) than it may sound like.

The result worked pretty well. Still, there were a few problems with the approach.  For one thing, comments were frequently included in the same container as the main entry.  For another, the script would fail if the RSS entry text was a summary of the item rather than an excerpt. I think that both of these are surmountable problems: a better approach would examine the “textiness” of each container using a variety of scoring metrics.  Something similar could be used for detecting the start of comments (which tend to be peppered with timestamps, quotations of the original text, and occur after a big <h[1-6]> containing the word “comment”).  I took a stab at a new, Pythonic implementation using Adrian Holovaty’s templatemaker and a few other tools, but a lack of immediate success (and much higher computational demands than the original script) made the project fall by the wayside.  Now that I know how it might be used, I’m even less likely to pick it back up.

But I’d still love to see my algorithm adapted by the people who make RSS readers, and would be happy to talk to any interested and qualified parties about making that happen.  Those SEO morons don’t appear to be particularly technically proficient — I’m not too worried about them managing to steal content via a client-side app (though certainly some thought should be given to the matter before giving the store away, say via Applescript).

beating up on donkey rescuers is poor form

If you ask me, this New York Times article is fairly asinine.  Is our collective decision to exempt the nonprofit sector from taxation a good idea? Well, I don’t know.  I think you can make a pretty good case that it isn’t — that the sorts of problems that charities try to solve would be more constructively handled with coordinated state action, and that there’s not much of a reason at all for exempting various types of membership organizations from taxation.

But the article really doesn’t get into any of that.  Instead it just talks about the large number of nonprofits, rather than discussing where the big tax expenditures actually lie.  Then they throw in some anecdotes about charities for donkey rescue and sending clown noses to soldiers, which, ha ha, sound pretty stupid to readers that don’t care about donkeys or clown supplies (but probably do care about various tax-exempt universities with big endowments and profitable sports programs (also tax-free) that’ve still been raising tuition much faster than inflation).

At any rate, we’re working on the nonprofit sector over at Subsidyscope, and will have more to say about it soon. But for now, suffice it to say that health care and education is where the money is in the nonprofit sector.  Podunk institutes and foundations that seem to be put together to secure prestige for their organizers more than to do good works might offend our sensibilities, but they’re not really costing our government all that much money.

the rational justification for auction sniping

There’s an interesting conversation taking place on the HacDC email list right now about the use of auction sniping tools — software that places your bid at the absolute last minute.  It’s most game theory, but there are some psychological aspects to this as well (your evaluation of this ratio will likely vary with your own prejudices*).

Anyway, it’s exactly the sort of thing that someone should write a smart blog post about.

Not me, though! I have to catch a bus.

* FWIW, my anecdotal experience is that sniping tools have sometimes — but rarely — helped me get great deals.

while I have the attention of the internet’s earnest post-post-punks

I should take this opportunity to note the awesomeness of last night’s premiere of Steven Seagal: Lawman. Gabe Delahaye ably sums up the basic mechanic that they’ve established for the season:

But it’s oh-so-much more than just a crappy, bloated, arthritic has-been hassling poor black men in run-down parts of Louisiana.  There’s also the poorly-affected cajun accent! And the constant prefacing of every utterance with “as a lifelong practitioner of the martial arts…”! And the relentless pomposity that Seagal directs at his fellow officers, like a tourist advising a gypsy how to better beg for coins.  He gives driving directions; he helps a supposedly hapless overweight colleague train for firearm certification; he expounds wisely and constantly on how his wisdom offsets the constant danger that they’re all in (nice kevlar vest, incidentally! Though I couldn’t help but notice that the officers who aren’t unstoppable human weapons don’t seem to feel they need them…).

It’s a great, great show, is what I’m trying to say. Talk to your Tivo about it.

UPDATE: Also, this.

studies in musical jerkishness

I still have a whopping seventeen minutes to go until I need to head to the morning’s first meeting (I am told there will be pastry), but Twitter means that I already have compelling internet content to share. To wit!

  • Fugazi were dicks. I realize this was part of the appeal, even as I simultaneously realize that (having not been a part of the Fugazi fanbase at the time of their relevance) I shouldn’t claim to fully understand their appeal. Still, forget the humorlessness, the stories about straight-edge-inspired violence, the earnest para-anarchist nonsense. Just listen to the self-satisfied incredulity in that stage banter (banter admittedly being entirely the wrong word in this case). It’s hard to listen to it without cringing for ever having been young.
  • John Davis, on the other hand, proves himself to be kind of a sweetheart, even as he correctly identifies the flaws in the musical abominations that he’s decided to stick up for, seemingly because he simply rejects the idea of negativity entirely. I mean, The Pina Colada Song? That’s bold. But it’s also sort of strangely big-hearted, and makes me tempted to compare Davis to my friend Chris, which Chris doesn’t like because he worries that people with beards all look the same to the rest of us, and that’s prejudice.

    There is one problem with Davis’ interview, though, and it leaves me in the awkward position of needing to stick up for Dan Snyder. Davis makes the same claim as Wikipedia:

    Snyder eliminated the popular Mr. Six character from Six Flags commercials [citation needed]

    Citation desperately needed! Snyder bought the park in 2005, and I’m certain I’ve seen Mr. Six dancing away his bankruptcy worries since then. More importantly, it should go without saying that the character was never popular, and rarely even tolerable.