Tina K. Russell

August 30, 2008

Lessons of Fable

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 6:02 pm

(Also posted at Edge)

A dear friend of me let me borrow Fable, for the original Xbox. This game came out in 2004, but nonetheless I feel compelled to write about it, specifically because it hits on so many important points of game design for me… for better or for worse.

First of all, the cutscenes. Good God, the cutscenes! I used to hear a lot of complaining that Nintendo does not put voice acting in its games, and Fable, a game developed by Lionhead (now a Microsoft subsidiary) and published by Microsoft, is a good example of why.

When I’m playing a game, I’m not watching a movie. I enjoy the cutscenes in Sonic games, though I often wish they were far more concise (Sonic Adventure 2 struck a good balance with its scenes’ quick, Sonic-like pace), because they serve as a break from gameplay and give each level a purpose. Sonic games are not RPGs; Sonic games do not require mountains of exposition every seven seconds. Fable seems to have been developed under a solid rule that players be unable to lift themselves from the piles of fantasy-game cliché regularly served up onto them long enough to make a difference in the story. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that your beloved peasant village is destroyed (see The Grand Console RPG Cliché List, rule 2) following the game’s tutorial, and it’s all downhill from there.

If you are lucky, you will spend only about an hour performing menial, introductory tasks and waiting through massive cutscenes complemented with a hammy narrator and an overbearing tutorial character sounding like the lovechild of Sean Connery and The Legend of Zelda‘s Navi (“Lisshen!”). This isn’t the worst part, though. The reason that the voice acting is so annoying–besides the voice acting itself, which I’ll get to in a moment–is because, unlike in a reasonable story-based game, you cannot skip to the end of a line. Oh, sure, you can do so for “incidental dialogue,” such as when a trader thanks you for completing a short mission, but the game has entirely too generous criteria for what dialogue is, uh, cidental. Sean Connavi himself will give you instructions in the game’s introductory material that make it sound as though he’s being paid by the line–lines that are not counted as incidental, lines thought of by the game as part of a full cutscene, despite the fact that he is simply standing there and saying things like,

“You may want to hit the dummy with something sharp.”

“Perhaps something with a hilt, and a blade.”

“I will give you a sword, one that can cut through the dummy.”

“But, not until after this line.”

This is an absolutely maddening introduction to the game–one that, as far as I’ve played, is a sad omen–because, unless dialogue is considered “incidental,” you cannot skip to the end of the character’s line. Let me back up a bit.

Like most videogames, subtitles for the voice acting are on by default. This falls under videogame law section 329(b), subsection 10(c), paragraph 98 2/5(g), subparagraph 47(t), that every piece of relevant information must be presented to the player as loudly and in as many ways as possible. So every one of Sean Connavi’s lines, and those of every other character, in fact, is broadcast to you visually right as he begins saying it. But, without being able to skip to the next line, you must wait for him to finish saying what you already know he’s saying. During these “cutscenes,” which any reasonable person would consider to be incidental dialogue (“You may want a ranged weapon to strike the dummy from afar!” “I think I have a bow hidden somewhere in this atrocious monologue!”), you’re helpfully informed by an icon at the bottom that you may press the “Y” button to skip the scene altogether. So, the game constantly presents you with a devil’s bargain: skip the entire scene, and potentially miss important information, or slog through every one of Sean Connavi’s dutifully enunciated truisms. It doesn’t help that a common experience for me was to withhold from pressing “Y” and watch the whole scene, only to find out, yes, the dialogue was entirely incidental. I still couldn’t skip to the end of a line, though.

This may sound silly, but the game misses an important distinction between a game and a movie. Games are in-ter-ac-tive. I want to take in the story at my own pace, on my own time. The reason that Skies of Arcadia is a beloved game to me is that it did not have the massive production values per scene of its contemporary, the cautionary tale Shenmue (which has many of Fable‘s problems even more than Fable does), and because it didn’t attempt to render every nook and cranny of the game up to Pixar standards they were able to craft an enormous, beautiful world with practically boundless gameplay. And, no voice acting meant I simply read a line and pushed a button to advance to the next one. This takes about a third of the time–that’s a generous estimate–as it does to watch the scene played out by voice actors. It’s not just a matter of efficiency (though that is important), though; just the fact that I am pressing a button to advance to the next line is critical. I’m interacting. I’m taking in the story at my own pace. Incidentally, I cannot wait for Sonic Chronicles on the DS.

Also, the game’s lengthy slog of an introduction misses another basic game lesson: gamers want to start right away. I thought this was clear, by now! (Well, to all but Capcom, who, for the PS3 version of Devil May Cry 4, stunned everyone by putting in a mandatory twenty-minute installation process at the beginning of the game. Those of us who’ve been around for a while remember that Microsoft had to allay concerns about including a hard drive with the original Xbox by affirming that they would not consider for licensing any game requiring an installation process. Being able to play right away is the difference between console and PC games; it is the console’s unique selling point, its lifeblood. Capcom shot itself in the foot, doubtlessly many times in a majestic, 40-part combo. Back to the subject.) Start in media res. Start with a boss. Put the player in the action and have him or her figure out the story from there. Do as Halo did and ingeniously work tutorial details into an exciting and disorienting opening level. Do something, for God’s sake! The old rule that if you don’t have them in the first five minutes, you’ve lost them still applies. If the player’s first experience of the game is a solid hour of hammy narration, endless exposition, and detailed instructions on sword combat dribbling agonizingly slowly from the mouth of the tutorial character, it’s hard to change that impression.

Now to the voice acting itself. Lionhead is a British studio, and its head, Peter Molyneux, has recieved an Order of the British Empire. Because of its origins, however, every single person in the game’s vast world speaks with an upper-crust British accent. This is bizarre! I thought the British were crazy about having a billion different accents that identify yourself as part of specific geographic and socio-economic groups. You’d think fantasy Brits would have even more accents, so that you may distinguish yourself as a half-Elven mystical spice trader with a parent from the slums of the palace town and another risen from the fiery depths of Mount Doom. As it turns out, everyone from your tutorial character (who throughout the game insists on giving you obvious information every five seconds, as the developers clearly did not learn anything from Zelda‘s irritating and summarily-dismissed Navi), the elite-born Guildmaster, to the lowliest bandit scum, could be an anchor for the BBC.

I cannot tell you how annoying this was. It doesn’t help that every single female bit character in the game sounds like a whiny old woman from a remote English chocolate-box village. I think they’re all played by the same person, a person who wants a crowd of football hooligans surgically removed from her lawn. Since a significant portion of the game is finding and wooing a mate, Harvest Moon style, good luck to those intending to play a heterosexual hero. (You can choose your hero’s orientation, but not gender. I should give props to Fable for including gay marriage; the debate may rage on in the real world, but videogames have made up their mind long ago.)

(I should note that I did manage to find a woman with a sexy voice in the game. That is, if you go to the Heroes’ Guild, where the game’s main story begins, female Apprentices–heroes in training–have half sexy voices, half whiny voices. Trouble is, they all wear hoods and are impossible to tell apart. I had a good time–for values of “good” equals “poetically dispiriting and soul-crushing”–first sifting through the girls to find one with a sexy voice, and then trying to find the one I wooed last time, as they wander through the Guild at random. It makes me want to splash buckets of paint on each one so that I may be able to tell. I almost settled on one woman simply because she carried an enormous, curvaceous bow. Everybody loves an archer lady, right?)

Also, the game’s selling point is that you’re supposed to be able to do anything. Tough luck, though, unless you want to kill monsters, since your choices are really limited to the artificial dichotomy of the “good” and “evil” paths. This is not only simplistic, it’s insulting. You get “good” points for killing bandits. What if the bandits weren’t even doing anything? What if you raid the bandit hideout–you’re the invader–and start killing bandits who were merely guarding their territory? Yep, that gets you “good” points. In fact, when I reached that point in the game (after an awful stealth sequence; another Zelda lesson that Fable fails to learn is that nobody likes stealth missions in games that aren’t designed for them), I spent many tries just rushing straight through that area, grabbing the needed items and letting the bandits wail on me. After that, villagers were frightened by my scarred appearance. It’s the sacrifice I pay for being halfway moral.

(However, there are places in the game where you get “good” points for doing legitimately good things, and I really enjoy having that choice in places where, in a movie or in another game, I may have to watch in horror as the hero does something “badass” but reprehensible. Edginess, incidentally, is seriously overrated.)

I decided I wanted to participate in the game’s economy. Given the chance, I upgraded my “guile” skill, making me a better trader (able to get good deals with my natural charm!). You can buy houses in the game and rent them out, becoming a real estate baron. I decided to do that, buying houses, fixing them up, and renting them out (you can also live in them, of course). However, there’s no indication what’s supposed to happen now. Will people come and ask me about them? Are people living in those houses right now? Will renting them out cause me to get money? ‘Cause, you know, I thought that was the idea. I hoped buying these houses early on would be an investment.

This speaks to a much larger pitfall in the game, that of too much realism (see Mue, Shen). I once read a wonderful article in Edge–my favorite gaming news site–speaking of how, in a super-realistic graphical adventure, gamers are often rightly annoyed when their hero, a mighty warrior, cannot simply step onto a twenty-centimeter protrusion from the ground, and instead has to jump; or, the hero cannot jump over a knee-high stone and must go around (see number 9 in the Gamer’s Manifesto, but beware of unnecessarily coarse language); or, the hero must search around for hours for a key to a wooden door in a decrepit old dungeon despite having fire spells that could make short work of it (see number 10); or, the hero must trade for hours to find a mundane item, like a straw hat, that ought to be fairly common, and the plot stubbornly will not move forward until the hat (or fishing rod, or shrubbery) is produced (see The Grand List of Console RPG Clichés, number 116, “You Always Travel in the Right Circles”). Despite the loud crowing, however, put the same gamer in a Mario game, with its bright colors and simple, abstract landscapes–and a hero who is a charming, portly plumber–and he or she will think nothing of having to jump over a slight protrusion in the ground so as long as it is a different color. In a realistic game, it’s a distraction; in a Mario game, it’s part of the game’s language. In a realistic game, it takes you out of the game’s world; in a Mario game, it’s part of the game’s world.

And so that’s what often bothers me about any game like Fable that tries utterly too hard to be realistic. No game is realistic. Every game falls back onto fairly basic absurdities. In Fable, quests are “taken” at the Guild, in the form of “Quest Cards,” and they often have you dealing with crises at hand–crises that will not appear until you take the quest. Once you take the quest, you can dawdle for as long as you want, because when you arrive in the quest’s prescribed region, you will always make it there in the (ta-da!) nick of time. Fail a quest, and you start over. Leave a quest, in fact, and it restarts, but not without first subjecting you to agonizing load times that are poorly-managed both in technical terms and in terms of user interface. Once I failed a half-hour quest because I accidentally left a cave too soon, without my client, after an agonizingly long battle and several brushes with death on both our parts. I immediately went back in, and the monsters had respawned. They killed my client, and I had to start all over.

Fable is a game that never wants to admit it’s a game, but it is. Were the game not so determined to hide its basic rules beneath layers and layers of “realism,” it might be easier to play and easier to understand. Every gamer wants to understand those basic rules, and quite frankly it shouldn’t take a trip to GameFAQs to find out. What happens when I rent out a house? Are there people living there right now? Did I place an ad in the paper? How soon will I know if this investment is profitable? Fable certainly won’t tell you. It’s frustrating because I’d like something to do–I’m a pacifist–when I get sick of monster-mashing. Fable falls into a trap, present in many such games, where it says you have freedom (Edge has had many columns on this subject) but it really only offers you “good” and “evil,” and insipid notions of each; but more than that, it’s only giving you a choice between killing one set of monsters and killing another set of monsters. (At least Shadow The Hedgehog is honest about this.) It’s an understandable limitation, given that a game cannot be everything to everyone, but one that would be easier to forgive if the game’s basic mechanics were not buried beneath layers of conceit and promises that you can “do anything.”

It’s sad because Peter Molyneux is famous as a man who makes good games that he over-hypes, to the games’ and his own detriment. It seems to be a problem here specifically, though, because Fable is exactly the kind of game, falling smack in the “uncanny valley” of realism, that you cannot do halfway, and setting unreasonable goals and meeting them halfway is Peter Molyneux’s specialty. It made me often wish I were playing a Zelda game, with their clearly established mechanics and progression. In Zelda, you break open a barrel and it has items. In Fable, you break open a barrel if it’s out in the open, unless somebody owns it or you’ll get evil points, or a fine if guards are looking. If the game lets me “choose my own path”–by containing a “good” and an “evil” way to play–it sounds like a better proposition just to play a game that specializes in one or the other. I would rather a game attempt to speak the language of games than try to emulate the real world perfectly. (The real world, after all, has already been done; GameSpot gave it a stellar 9.6.)

I have many more complaints about it. Characters are surrounded by a colored halo to tell you if they are important (green), incidental (purple), or hostile (red). Anyone who knows a damn thing about videogame design will tell you that gamers universally understand green to mean “friend” and red to mean “enemy” (just make sure your game has an option to change this for the benefit of the red-green colorblind), a perception honed to hair-trigger instinct, and any game that breaks this rule is merely killing its chances of being accessible to the experienced gamer.

When you use the standard lock-on–the left trigger, which, as is typical, resets the camera behind you if there’s nothing to lock on to–in Fable, though, every character is given a red halo. This is to indicate that you may choose to attack a heretofore friendly character, which is important in making key choices in the game. However, you often have to defend innocent bystanders from swarms of enemies, and during combat, you’ll be locking onto those enemies almost constantly. So, you can easily tell, using the standard red-green system, who’s a friend and who’s an enemy… except in the heat of battle! I’m chilled at the prospect of killing a friendly character for this reason (and never knowing, since all corpses have a purple halo).

To those who say this is realistic, I’ll answer first that this is a videogame, and the folly of ultra-realism has been apparent when Spacewar! creator (and the man credited, I think correctly, with inventing the videogame) Steve Russell decided to add a touch of realism by having your torpedo tubes sometimes clog when you press the “fire” button. (Players were driven insane and told him the game was broken, and the “feature” was scrapped.) (I believe this story is confirmed in Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games, also known as The First Quarter. I can’t find my copy right now, sorry!) Remember that Advance Wars tries to give a realistic view of battle by having imperfect information (in “Fog of War” mode) about your enemies’ troops, even though a real general would not have perfect information on his or her own army either. I’ll answer second that, were I really in this hero’s shoes, I’d be able to tell the bandits (smelly and wearing rotted animal carcasses, though they still speak with upper-crust British accents) from the traders (pleasant, wearing green clothes, hiking backpacks, and sporting abominable handlebar moustaches) fairly easily, but I need some help when watching the battle on a TV. (This is an example of why the Diablo III creators refuse to give the fans the murky gray color scheme they say they want.) Third, I’ll remind you that any game rules need to be consistent. The red-green color setup is not only a hair-trigger instinct in all action gamers, but it’s reinforced in every enemy encounter in Fable with the initial outlook showing innocents in green and hostile raiders in red. (Perhaps this is reversed in the “evil” path. I don’t know.) You cannot break this rule. It’s more than a cardinal rule of gaming. It’s something so ingrained in gamers that, if you break it, you are not only breaking your own game by making players unsure of themselves and the interface (thus putting the game’s interface–what should not call attention to itself in an “ultra-realistic” game–front and center), you’re breaking everybody else‘s games by making people unsure of the scheme altogether. If I develop an instinct for how this game works, it’ll result in a second’s hesitation when playing Halo or another action game, the kind of hesitation that invites defeat.

It’s also worth noting that there is no other indicator for lock-on. There is no arrow, no reticule, no sound effect, nothing beyond the panning of the camera to indicate what just happened and where you’re aiming. This makes cycling through enemies to find the important one–say, the weak guy at the back with the powerful magic wand–a laughably painful (or a painfully laughable) experience. If this were not the case, if an arrow or reticule indicated where you’re aiming, then the red-green-purple scheme could be consistent, changing only when a friendly character becomes hostile, or a similar turn takes place. (There’s no reason for a friendly character’s halo to turn red when you haven’t hit them yet.) What’s more, characters get angry when you lock onto them! It’s like a manly boast in the Fable world. People throw up their arms and ask if you want to make somethin’ of it. Moreover, this happens most often when you pull the left trigger simply to re-center the camera! This is also a matter of instinct in action gamers by now, and it took me a while to realize what, exactly, was making the villagers so annoyed with me. It’s hard to square this with the fact that I want to play a noble and chivalrous hero. Centering the camera is seen as a hostile act, once again bringing the game mechanics to the fore in a game that tries its damndest (and fails utterly!) to hide them.

My complaints could be dismissed as overly high expectations, but these expectations are ones Molyneux brought upon himself with his boasting. More important is that the game’s lofty aims are simply ones that cannot be done halfway. It would be different if the game simply had more modest goals and met them. That would have been much better. Instead, the game had impossible goals, and fell flat in the uncanny valley attempting to achieve them.

Other complaints may be fairly dismissed if there are options to turn off some of the game’s more aggravating UI quirks. (Loading an auto-save is followed by an auto-save. Whose idea was that?) But, these options (such as the elusive “temper Molyneux’s expectations” toggle button) would be ones I have not found, and would be a failure of the game to have good defaults. (Moreover, the game has two in-game pause menus and a quick access menu, each with myriad sub-menus, sub-sub-menus, and options. Good luck getting a quick reference.)

And, perhaps it is best to note here that you cannot customize the quick-access controls (beyond the small portion represented by the right trigger combined with the D-pad), though they seem to be inspired by those found in Phantasy Star Online (which are customizable!). For instance, you are always able to perform a “good” social action by pressing right on the D-pad, and an “evil” faux pas by pressing left. These are always the most potent such actions (“Expressions”) that you have available, with no choice to change what is represented (and I’ve looked!). They are represented with icons at the lower-left corner of the screen.

At the beginning of the game, the “good” action is a hearty laugh, while the “evil” action is flatulence. The laugh is represented by a person laughing. The flatulence is represented by a pair of exerted buttocks. This is extremely unpleasant, especially for something that is constantly on the screen; and it continues well into the game, until you finally obtain the “evil laugh.” Then, you merely have an evil The Joker-like grin in that space. It’s merely creepy as hell. It’s better than the everpresent butt.

It’s not that Fable isn’t a good game, it’s that it makes so many elementary mistakes (especially for an experienced creator and studio!) that it’s difficult not to pillory. It’s not even so much that it makes mistakes; it makes massive, game-killing mistakes in every phase, from the overwrought and overly ambitious concept to the final, aggravating touches on the utterly convoluted UI that fails at tasks simple and complex. It’s the classic oversell, the game that tries to be everything and thus is not as good as what it really does. It could have been a good hack-and-slash action RPG. Hell, it could have been a good portrayal of the life of a trader or vagabond, trying to make it in a harsh fantasy-medival economy. (There are already good farm simulators, such as Harvest Moon, and home economics simulators, like Animal Crossing, so I won’t go into those here.) As it happens, the story is cliché, the game mechanics are obtuse, the interface is a mess, the characters are uninspiring, and every “innovative” gameplay detail has been done better elsewhere.

Sometimes games can’t afford to focus on the big picture; every game needs to make sure that moment-to-moment interactions are fun. Fable is an interesting achievement–and a valid proof of concept–but as someone who owns Shenmue, I am not one to give points for effort.

Molyneux, see me after class.

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Respects to Abie Nathan

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:46 am

The problem with The New York Times‘s wonderful obituaries is that often it’s the first place I find out about remarkable people, right when they’ve passed away. Take this man, Israel’s Abie Nathan.

Abie Nathan, Israeli Peace Champion, Dies at 81 – Obituary (Obit) – NYTimes.com
Abie Nathan, a maverick Israeli peace pioneer, an entrepreneur and a one-man humanitarian-aid organization, who went from playboy to intrepid “peace pilot,” died Wednesday in Tel Aviv. He was 81.

A Royal Air Force-trained pilot, he crashed into the national consciousness and the quagmire of the Middle East conflict with a dramatic solo flight from Israel to Egypt in an old rented biplane in 1966. A self-appointed ambassador, he wanted to talk to President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt about making peace.

At first Mr. Nathan was seen as “a curiosity” in Israel, said Eitan Haber, a veteran Israeli journalist and former senior aide of the late prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. “But then it turned out he was ahead of his time,” he said.

Rest easy, my friend. You’ve done your country–and the world–proud.

An epicure, he was always ready to pay a personal price for his principles, embarking on numerous hunger strikes; he also served two terms in jail, in 1989 and 1991, for breaking a law against meeting with Yasir Arafat and other officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization, then banned in Israel as a terrorist group.

After receiving his six-month sentence in 1989, he issued a typical explanation of his person-to-person mission: “Violence will only increase and it will be impossible to heal the wounds, whether among the Arabs or the Jews, unless we decide to sit with each other. Our bullets alone cannot solve the problem.”

August 29, 2008

Give it time

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 10:25 pm

Please read.

Response: Young transsexuals should be allowed to put puberty on hold | Comment is free | The Guardian
Your article (‘My body is wrong‘, G2, August 14) sensitively reports the anguish of the young teenage transsexual as the body changes in the direction of the wrong sex. That anguish is medically treated in other countries. But in the UK the “wrong puberty” is allowed to progress for years before treatment. Not only are these unwanted body changes traumatic as they develop, but if the teenager goes on to live as an adult of the other sex, they pose additional hardship. Aptly, the article tells of a mother whose (now) daughter was denied hormone treatment “until the age of 16, by which point she already had an Adam’s apple, a deep voice and facial hair”.

It is difficult for someone who is not a parent of a very distressed – perhaps suicidal – young teenage transsexual to empathise with what appears to be such a radical treatment. This is similar to the situation 40 years ago with sex-change surgery for adult transsexuals. In 1969, when I endorsed the first transsexual surgery for the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, not only were most physicians opposed, but I was, with my surgical colleague, concerned about the possibility of prosecution for mayhem, punishable by 14 years in prison.

There are arguments against early puberty suspension. Your article quotes Polly Carmichael of Gender Identity Development Service as saying: “The Dutch data [on gender suspension] looks promising. But they have not been doing it for so many years that you have long-term follow-up.” Perhaps. But we do have long-term follow-up of the consequences of denying timely treatment.

Impressions

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 2:49 am

As a blogger, I feel like some contractual requirement mandates that I write about Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. Well… it was excellent. It was really, really, really, really, really that good. It’s hard to say just after watching it, but…

I felt a certain sense, at the end, a certain quaintness, an enlightenment… that Obama had turned the elaborate staging around, took a brilliant display of tens of thousands cheering one on man and changed it to a celebration, by one man, of the tens of thousands who put him there. It put a spark in me, it’s like all the brilliant stagecraft melted away just for long enough to get Obama’s message through in full force. This is no ordinary election. This is no ordinary time. Barack has come with a strange request: that a skinny, black, middle-aged man, with a pizza head, big ears, and a funny name, should become President of the United States. That a man who was a no-name eight years ago, and a breakaway star at the convention four years ago, stands today at the head of the parade and a favorite for the nation’s highest office. I got a chance to cherish how weird that is. Desperate times, eh?

There was a letter to the editor some time ago, in The New York Times, saying that it seemed silly to have the new guy running with a “voice of experience” veep. Shouldn’t the one with experience be at the top of the ticket, with the new one running as his apprentice? Ordinarily, that might be the case, but we can’t wait eight years for an Obama presidency. We need him right now. It’s a chance, but given his background as a voting-rights lawyer, a Constitutional law professor, a community organizer, and a state- and federal-level senator, it’s one I’m willing to take.

Often in this campaign, I’ve gotten a chance to cherish the parallel’s between Obama’s story and that of Abraham Lincoln, brainy lawyer turned party stalwart turned President in the midst of crisis. Both have the qualities that endear Lincoln to me when I read about him; namely that, like me, he was lanky, reserved, and well-spoken. It’s not just superficial, though… if you look at who led the factions in the Civil War, in terms of nominal experience, Jefferson Davis should have won. He was educated at West Point; Lincoln was educated in law and had no military experience. What Lincoln had was a brilliant military intuition and the good sense to keep a diverse blend of associates (the famed “team of rivals”) to give him the broad views that would allow him to pick the best ideas. Lincoln had, in short, good judgment. McCain, bless his heart for serving our country, has bluster on every issue and promises to make sure America is as obstinate and bellicose on the foreign stage as possible. Obama strikes me as shrewd, careful, well-reasoned, but with a firm (and well-placed!) conviction, and those are the qualities that Lincoln used to get us through the Civil War.

This is, of course, a lot of gushing. But every time the McCain crew makes fun of Obama for being out of touch, I get a little bit of joy knowing that someone as cerebral as Obama is running for the nation’s highest office and favored to win. Yes, Obama is smart! And when times are tough and the country is rushing from crisis to crisis, I don’t want a President who makes absolutism a point of pride, who promises we’ll stay in Iraq until he can decide on a victory condition, who needles Obama for saying that he may talk to people who don’t like us. I should say that I don’t want four more years of a President who does such things. We’ve had enough. I want a president cool and collected to stay on top of the situation. I want a President who uses, yes, them fifty-buck words.

I respect McCain for some things, but he strikes me as a candidate unable to extricate himself from conservative orthodoxy, for fear of being an actual maverick (and alienating his base) rather than merely playing one on TV. Meanwhile, Obama brilliantly summarizes and synthesizes liberal and conservative positions and values, as he did repeatedly throughout the speech. Obama strikes me as someone who will use all the tools in the toolbox. As he told the reporter who spoke to him on economics (see “Barackonomics,” below), “my ideology is what works,” and he’s shown a firm grip on what’s worked and what will work in the future. As far as McCain’s principles go, he opposes universal healthcare on principle, he opposed the new GI Bill on principle, he opposes ever leaving Iraq on principle; his principles seem to contradict everything we’ve come to realize we badly need. Obama’s principles seem to be more suited to the office of President: that if he cannot use every method available to him to address the issues at hand, he would not be doing his duty. I suppose that’s why I like him. …That, and just the message of personal empowerment: that you need to work, but the government can help. The nuance is so unfamiliar, it’s almost blinding.

Yes, and he fits my ideology that the government works best when it’s enabling people to do great things, when it supports small business, builds physical and technological infastructure, and gives every child a top-class American education. He says, quite rightly, that the free market is wonderful and cannot do everything. He says (and I’ve been waiting for someone to say this!) that you cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots. Perhaps I like that just because I’m somebody who doesn’t fit in… I want to make my own way. It’s nice to think I’ve got Uncle Sam not to hold my hand, but to have my back.

Wow, that was long. I intended just to write something quick to fulfill my blogging obligation (or, perhaps, my blogbligation, and if you turn that into a trendy neologism, I will hurt you). Well, there you have it, Tina’s meditation on why she likes Obama. Next up, why Tina likes Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and wishes she still lived in his district.

When buying equipment for the disabled, don’t use price as a crutch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:29 am

Letter – Medicare Bidding – Letter – NYTimes.com
In your Aug. 22 editorial “Medicare’s Claims,” you refer to the postponement by Congress of a new competitive bidding system for durable medical equipment. Such a system might sound great, but it does not serve or help people with disabilities. It can literally kill us.

I use a $20,000 power chair for mobility and a $15,000 vent to breathe. This equipment has allowed me to drive, teach, write books and plays, and enjoy a full life. Allow competitive bidding, and I’d be using inferior equipment and my quality of life would be compromised.

I really loathe this argument. “You get what you pay for” is kind of a myth; you don’t get anything with a Rolex, save for the status symbol of having paid hundreds of dollars for a wristwatch. Meanwhile, it’s kind of a no-brainer that you should choose the least-priced option that meets your prescribed standards of quality. If you’re not getting the right quality, the answer isn’t to pay more money, it’s to raise your standards.

And, you know, if you’re supposed to pick not the most expensive option, but not the cheapest, either… than what? Should we pick something somewhere in the middle? The second-cheapest option? Third-cheapest? Whatever arbitrary meaning we give to prices is waiting to be manipulated by manufacturers that will put their prices right where we want them, regardless of the quality of the product.

The best option, of course, is to remember that price has utterly no bearing on the quality of the product, and we should rate the product on its own merits instead. But, that’s just me. And since you’re reading this blog for free, and not paying me hundreds an hour as a marketing consultant, my opinions are clearly worthless. I should learn to charge more for the same service.

Oh, and buried in my ellipsis is this gem:

Moreover, surgical suppliers of such advanced and often custom equipment are already working on an extremely low profit margin. If the government starts awarding funds to the lowest bidder, it would reduce the ability of surgical suppliers to stay in business.

Yes, remember that the government is a charity organization for unprofitable businesses! Seriously, if those hardscabble mom-and-pop surgical supplies operations, surviving on sheer pluck and spunk, are just so much gol-darn better than the cheaper competition, that should be the reason to select them, not for being the next-most expensive. Remember: cost of manufacture is a baseline for the final price, and sometimes not even that. (Sony loses money each time you buy a PlayStation 3, for instance.)

Price is what companies think you will pay, not necessarily what the product is worth. If you’re afraid of the shoddy work of the theoretical lowest bidder, that means that quality standards must be raised, not that quality should be judged on how expensive the product is. In fact, I have some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you. It’s just $493,000 an acre.

August 28, 2008

Tina talks about race, again

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 11:17 pm

America Needs To Have A Superficial Conversation About Race | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source
Like it or not, the U.S. needs a stupid conversation on the issue of race relations. Perhaps more importantly, we need this stupid dialogue to be couched in the most self-righteous, know-it-all attitudes on the part of those involved, as if they have no idea whatsoever of how much more complicated the issue is, and how little their one-dimensional approach to it brings to the table.

It’s our duty to put aside the complexities of cross-cultural communication and focus on the first idea that comes to mind. Then, after we’ve wasted 20 minutes discussing whether the term black is offensive, we can repeat the first idea over and over until we have alienated all listeners who did not already agree with us at the beginning.

I do think we need a national conversation about race, but this op-ed (it’s great! read it) from The Onion, America’s finest news source, has a point. So many of these conversations result in trite sentimentalism and daggers drawn at the first hint of offense. (As someone who–I may explain this later–has been in college for-freaking-ever, I know how this works. Someone who doesn’t mark every one of your ideological check boxes is a racist hypocrite.)

But, I think part of that has to do with our heightened emotions and sensitivity. We have to air our stupid ideas if they’re to be corrected and improved. I worry, sometimes, that anti-racism can bury people’s legitimate concerns, even if they’re ill-informed. You can’t correct an impression that’s unspoken, buried deep in the hearts of Americans.

Bill O’Reilly’s remarks that black people aren’t so bad after all, while hilarious, reflect a preconception that I would guess is fairly common among whites who are only exposed to black people through MTV rap videos and late-night local-news scare stories. On a similar subject, those who try to slip in rumors that Barack Obama is Muslim are not coming out and saying Muslims are bad, but are exploiting a vague unease that non-Muslim Americans often have about the faith; that Muslims must be good people, but what about the head coverings and stonings and such? It’s hard to correct these beliefs if people are too afraid of being branded “racist” to express them. (To be fair, this is a straw-man argument. I suppose I should instead say: never be too quick to vilify someone, and perhaps make a friend by presenting your view as well.)

Then again, I think we’re too often afraid of being branded as “racist” to express what we really mean; and what’s most embarrasing is when people are so defined by this fear that they begin sentences with “well, I’m not a racist, but…” (thus making it clear in everyone’s minds that this person is a racist). I’ve seen people get really mad about the animated version of The Boondocks because the creator, black cartoonist Aaron McGruder, somehow “shouldn’t” be making these bold criticisms (22 min. video) of black people and black culture when writing for a mostly white audience. What, so he shouldn’t be allowed to speak his mind, or he should be socially shunned from doing so? Should white people continue to see a false unified front of black people, a monolithic “voting bloc” with no dissention in its ranks? Should America’s view of “black television” remain one of vulgar comedy routines, ghetto sitcoms, and BET’s gyrating rear ends? Should white people valiantly ride in to save black people from themselves? Will us white people ever have the humility to admit that black people are individuals and may not always need the help of whites? (And can we say this without casting off our responsibility as Americans to repay, solemnly, the debt that black Americans are owed?)

Surely, there are a billion holes in my argument, but these are just random musings. I’m just concerned–and no, I can’t back it up–that people are too afraid to muse like this, and so we’re not able to attack those kinds of prejudices that us liberals are so worried about. (Who can attack the holes in my argument if I’m afraid to make it?) The Onion once had another article on race, saying that our noble efforts to fight racism have resulted in a lethal strain of “super-racism,” a far more powerful strain harder to see and harder to fight. We may have driven it underground… and that’s hardly progress.

So, yes, try not to vilify people you disagree with, or boil an issue down to slogans. That Onion op-ed spends some time making fun of conservative viewpoints, too, but I’m a liberal, so I’ll stick to talking about my crew for now. It’s hard to have a dialogue on issues that are merely simmering below the surface.

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (PDF)

August 27, 2008

Tina waits in line for zero minutes to vote

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:33 pm

Editorial Observer – No One Should Have to Stand in Line for 10 Hours to Vote – Editorial – NYTimes.com
Everyone complains that young people don’t vote, but consider the experience of students at Kenyon College in Ohio in the 2004 election. Officials in Knox County, Ohio, provided just two voting machines for the school’s 1,300 voters. Some students waited in line for 10 hours, and the last bleary-eyed voter did not cast a ballot until nearly 4 a.m.

That same day in Columbus, voters in black neighborhoods waited as long as four hours, often in the rain. Many voters there and in other urban areas — including Toledo and Youngstown — left their overcrowded polling places in disgust, or because they could not wait any longer, without casting a ballot. In many of Ohio’s white-majority suburbs, the lines were far shorter.

Troubles in Ohio drew the greatest attention in 2004, but that state was hardly alone. There were complaints of long lines in other states, including Colorado, Michigan and Florida, where elderly voters endured waits in blistering heat.

You know one state that didn’t go through that? Oregon.

We vote by mail. We get a chance to look over our ballots and think seriously about them. We have time to discuss it with our friends. We fill them out in our living rooms, in our coffee shops, in our libraries, and in our workplaces, voters’ pamphlets and reference material at hand. We can sleep on our choices, many times, in fact. We can send in our ballots early by mail, or drop them off any day up to the deadline at any official ballot box.

Vote-by-mail has its flaws. For instance, unscrupulous people might set out phony ballot boxes and then do whatever they want with the ballots inside; this makes it important for the government to be clear about where the official drop boxes are. (They’re often at schools and libraries. In Portland, I dropped my ballot off at the library that was mere blocks from me, and here in Eugene, I drop it off right at my university campus.) But, we’ve worked out most of the kinks. For instance, you put your ballot in a secrecy envelope and then put it in the mailing envelope (and sign the back), so that they can ensure that you voted, and separate your vote from your name so that it gets counted in secrecy.

The best part is that you can recieve your ballot and spend weeks just sampling the choices on there, reading information in newspapers and blogs, asking your friends what they think, and slowly coming to a decision. This way, hot-button, high-octane races don’t crowd out the rest of the ballot, and I’d wager people are much less likely to vote a straight ticket. Moreover, people see me when I vote, see me asking my friends, see me reading about the issues, see me interested in the debates, and all that with every voter in Oregon fosters a culture of democracy and respect. If you seriously think your vote doesn’t matter, remember that when you engage in a democracy, you naturally engage your friends. Vote by mail multiplies that effect.

All this baffles me as to why we’re the only state with statewide vote-by-mail. Voting here is no longer a hassle; it’s a pleasure. Of course, most states allow you to request an absentee ballot, which would at least allow you to fill it out at your own pace and beat the voting-day rush. It’s even better, though, when you find out that it’s time to vote because they send you a ballot in the mail before you even ask. Just register, and they send you a ballot in the mail for every election until you change your address. (Then, just register your new address.) Moreover, all your friends just got ballots in the mail, and you can talk about it over hot cocoa and coffee cake. It is, I must say, bitchin’.

So, demand vote-by-mail in your state! (All this and I never actually send my ballot in the mail; I use the drop boxes, where I can be as late as I want up until the deadline. Either way, there are no lines.) Here in Oregon, we even have bring-your-ballot “voting parties” as a house event for your favored candidate. I think that is excellent.

Rogue diplomacy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 8:17 pm

U.N. Envoy’s Ties to Pakistani Are Questioned – NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the United Nations, is facing angry questions from other senior Bush administration officials over what they describe as unauthorized contacts with Asif Ali Zardari, a contender to succeed Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan.o main parties, announced in Islamabad that his party was leaving the coalition.

Mr. Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr. Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts, a senior United States official said. Other officials said Mr. Khalilzad had planned to meet with Mr. Zardari privately next Tuesday while on vacation in Dubai, in a session that was canceled only after Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, learned from Mr. Zardari himself that the ambassador was providing “advice and help.”

“Can I ask what sort of ‘advice and help’ you are providing?” Mr. Boucher wrote in an angry e-mail message to Mr. Khalilzad. “What sort of channel is this? Governmental, private, personnel?” Copies of the message were sent to others at the highest levels of the State Department; the message was provided to The New York Times by an administration official who had received a copy.

Da haa haa haaa! Doesn’t Mr. Khalilzad know that the #1 rule of the Bush administration’s dealings with Pakistan is never to talk to anyone who actually has power?

It really does sound like Khalilzad crossed a line and needs to be reined in. Pakistan’s political scene is volatile enough without more reasons for Pakistan’s people to accuse us (part rightly, part not) of being “meddlers.” It’s just funny that he’s basically tested the US policy of hanging on to weak, unpopular leaders to the very end by going against it, and now, he could lose his career.

August 24, 2008

Will good things come to those in Kuwait?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:06 pm

This is important, so I hope Al Watan won’t mind me reproducing the whole thing:

Al Watan Daily
Chairwoman of the Arab Committee for Human Rights Violette Dagher has sent a letter to National Assembly President Jassem AlـKhorafi and MP Mohammed Haif AlـMutairi requesting them to “review the law pertinent to transexuality and the introduction of laws which may modify the existing criminal laws.”
She explained that the issue of transexuality in Kuwait occupied a central position in the committee”s agenda as the law in Kuwait equated them with criminals, which consequently led to the imprisonment of some cases.
Transsexual individuals in Kuwait are often verbally insulted and humiliated, and some even pay penalty fines that could reach up to 1000 U.S. dollars.
She described the treatment of transsexuals in Kuwait as “inhumane,” especially those who were imprisoned. She pointed out to the fact that some had developed severe and complicated psychological disorders at a time when they needed assistance and compassion rather than punishment.
Dagher referred to the farـreaching consequences of the law, including depravation of leading a normal life as some families detached themselves from their transsexual relatives, and some transsexual individuals were barred from education.
Dagher confirmed that transsexuals do not have control over their sexuality, as it is not developed according to their own volition. She argued against their regarding them as “offenders.” She explained that bisexual faculties exist in all of individuals at varying degrees and, therefore, transsexuals cannot be penalized for their hormones.
Dagher stressed that Kuwait enjoys a healthy democracy and consequently antiـtranssexual laws needed to be modified. She suggested that the first step should be the introduction of a specialized body, able to deal with transsexuals, their unique needs and challenges in a professional manner.

That sounds like the right approach. Nobody chooses to be transsexual… honestly, I’m not sure who would. Transsexual pride is, well, an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.

I’d be interested in learning more about the status of transsexuals throughout the Muslim world. I know I’m not the only one who feels she is a) transsexual and b) the work of God, so I’d like to see more perspectives on this.

August 22, 2008

Barackonomics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:14 am

Magazine Preview – Barack Obama, A Free-Market-Loving, Big-Spending, Fiscally Conservative Wealth Redistributionist – NYTimes.com

This is a wonderful article! Barack Obama basically says a lot of the things I’ve been feeling for the past few years: that the free market is a wonderful thing, and the government can help out by doing the things the free market can’t. Moreover, if the government invests in infrastructure, in education, in people, only then will the market reach its full potential or will people get the most from the market.

This is exactly why I love Obama and came to support him in the primaries: he’s sharp, he’s a pragmatist, and he’s a liberal. His University of Chicago background has made him fluent in the language of economics, making him just the one to tackle the crises of our time. The article is right in saying that Obama needs to unload the economic big guns and find a way to distill his economic plans into a marketable message to go against the aloof McCain. It’s become cliché, but it’s true: McCain, trying to win support from the base, has basically formed a policy of ticking every box in a column of archconservative dogmas that even conservatives are rethinking these days. Meanwhile, Obama has avoided a similar regurgitating of orthodoxy by looking carefully at liberal and conservative ideas and synthesizing a policy that shows a lot of promise. We need that guy in the White House ASAP.

(I always found it funny when people said Obama is “arrogant” or “too smart” or something. I kind of want a smart guy in the White House. I want a smart guy who surrounds himself with smart people of various ideological stripes. McCain is smart, of course, but he has no clear plans, no conviction, no direction. The man is past his prime. Obama, meanwhile, is brilliant and at the top of his game. If pundits think he’s too professorial, I say, class is in session! Poverty, war, and illiteracy are about to get a schoolin’!)

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