Welcome to the Stifyn Emrys blog. Visit this site to stay updated on the latest news and releases from author Stifyn Emrys, along with serious, silly and occasionally sarcastic observations about the world around us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kill the Ref! How Online Drama Spoils Everyone's Fun and Games

Some people may wonder why online group moderators post reminders of the group rules or mission statement. Others complain of being "censored" when they behave rudely toward others. Imagine for a moment that you're attending a football game. If the game were an online group, this is how things might play out ...

Player 1 hits a player from the opposing team over the head with a 2-by-4 just as he's about to cross the goal line, knocking him senseless and preventing him from scoring. The referee blows his whistle and throws a flag.

Player 1: "Why did you blow your whistle ref?"

Referee: "Because you weren't following the rules."

Player 1: "Rules? There are rules?"

Referee: "Yes. The rules say you can't hit an opponent over the head with a 2-by-4 to stop him from scoring. I'm afraid I'm going to have to eject you."

Player 2: "Yeah, that hurt!"

Player 1 ignores Player 2 and continues speaking to Referee:

Player 1: "Well, your whistles hurt my ears. I'm going to sue you for damaging my eardrum!"

Fans (leaping out of stands to surround Referee): "Yeah, ref. Let 'em play!"

Player 2, ignored in the rapidly escalating confrontation, picks up the 2-by-4 and whacks Player 1 over the head with it.

Player 1: "Hey!"

Player 2: "Now we're even!"

Referee throws another flag and blows his whistle again.

Referee: "You're ejected!"

Player 2: "Me? What about him?"

Referee: "I already ejected him."

Player 2: "But he started it. I was just defending myself!"

Referee: "Did you read the rules?"

Player 2: "There are rules?"

Referee: "Yes. And according to my roster, you're not even eligible to play in this game. You shouldn't have been here in the first place."

Player 2: "Well, you're interpreting the rules wrong."

Referee: "But how would you know? You haven't even read them!"

Fans (booing loudly): Get off the #&%*#&* field, ref! Let 'em play!"

Referee: "I'm afraid they're the ones who will have to get off the field. I've tried to be nice about this, but there's something you should know."

Fans, Player 1 and Player 2 together: "What?"

Referee: "I own this stadium."

The part of Player 1 was played by Rude Group Member.
The part of Player 2 was played by Troll.
The part of the Referee was played by the Page Administrator.
The fans portrayed themselves.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Outlook for Supreme Court Vote on Marriage Equality Mixed at Best

With the Supreme Court poised to weigh in on same-sex marriage tomorrow, here's a quick prediction about how things will play out. For those of us in favor of marriage rights, the outlook seems mixed at best.

Same-sex couples are most likely to get a positive ruling on DOMA, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (more accurately: the Denial of Marriage Act.) The outlook here is somewhat positive for one simple reason: this court seems to have a fairly consistent disdain for laws passed by Congress. It invalidated a bipartisan deal on campaign finance in its Citizens United decision, for example, and just today nullified a broadly bipartisan vote in 2006 that reauthorized the Voting Rights Act.

Congress also passed DOMA. In today's decision on voting rights, the majority argued that the situation had changed dramatically since the act's passage several decades ago, and that minorities no longer need the level of protection provided by the Voting Rights Act. Under this reasoning, the court could also determine that the situation has changed dramatically concerning attitudes toward LGBT rights and that, as a result, DOMA was no longer appropriate.

However, if the justices impose this logic, that could pose a problem for opponents of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California after a state court had declared it legal. It could be argued that evolving cultural norms make it unnecessary for the court to intervene, and that this evolution toward the acceptance of same-sex marriage should simply be allowed to run its course. The court tends to trust voters and states a lot more than it does Congress, so it would (in theory) be far less likely to overturn a state-passed initiative than it would a congressional law.

This court has, on balance, favored states' rights over federalism. This would argue for a ruling upholding Prop. 8.

Ironically, the conservative wing that constitutes a slim majority on the court has also argued that it's too soon to weigh in on the issue because same-sex marriage is (supposedly) a relatively new phenomenon. The court tends to take its time on validating cultural change, so it's unlikely to do so in this case before it's ready. One thing worth remembering is that decisions weigh heavily on precedent - not just written legal precedent, but common law and cultural precedent, too. The perceived cultural precedent for limiting marriage to one man and one woman mitigates against any sweeping action on the court's part to sanction same-sex marriage on the basis of equal protection.

It's also possible the court will allow the lower court ruling in Prop. 8 to stand on the grounds that its proponents didn't have proper legal standing to appeal the case after lower courts invalidated California's ban on equal-protection grounds. The state's governor and attorney general (who is now its governor) both declined to appeal the case because they agreed with the lower court's decision overturning the initiative, so a group of citizens took up the appeal. Whether they had a right to do so is an open question, and this court has shown a tendency to use legal technicalities as a means to avoid far-reaching decisions.

Conservative courts tend to view far-reaching decisions, and this court is no exception. The chances for a sweeping decision declaring same-sex marriage legal nationwide on equal protection grounds seem slim to none given the court's propensity for 1) yielding to precedent, whether legal or cultural, 2) favoring states over the federal government and 3) avoiding "big" decisions.

On DOMA, however, the court's tendency to act as a foil for Congress and could swing things the other way. Moreover, a decision striking down DOMA would not be nearly as sweeping. It is clearly important, because it would clear the way for same-sex married couples to access federal benefits, but it would not force states to recognize such marriages or offer state benefits to such couples.

Of course, it probably all comes down to a single "swing" vote: Justice Anthony Kennedy, who more often votes on the conservative side but has favored same-sex rights in the past. Kennedy, however, tends to be cautious, so the guess here is that he'll avoid signing on to any broad equal protection ruling on Prop. 8.

Here are my odds, purely subjective on my part, on the two cases:

  • DOMA: 70 percent chance the court will invalidate it, 30 percent that the law will be allowed to stand.
  • Prop. 8: 50 percent chance the court will find the challenge lacked standing and allow the lower-court's ruling (against the proposition) to stand; 49 percent chance it will overturn the lower court ruling and uphold Prop. 8 out of "respect" for the state's electorate; <1 percent chance of a sweeping equal protection ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

I hope my prediction on Prop. 8 is unduly pessimistic. I hope I'm wrong. Given the court's previous behavior, however, this is my best guess. I'm hoping to wake up tomorrow to a pleasant surprise.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gay Marriage, Labels and the Dangers of Religious Elitism

"Why do they have to call it marriage?"

That's a question I've often heard from opponents of same-sex marriage. They can't understand why civil unions aren't good enough, why gay and lesbian couples have to lay claim to the term "marriage" - a term they seem to consider theirs and theirs alone.

They often base their argument on the contention that same-sex marriage is outside the bounds of their religious tradition. It's sinful, evil and to their way of thinking, a threat to their way of life. Of course, it isn't  threat - this is pure rubbish. No one in favor of same-sex marriage wants to criminalize marriages between men and women. What they want is equal access, pure and simple.

Gay and lesbian couples are the ones being denied the opportunity to engage in an activity that's open to others. Yet those who would deny them this opportunity claim they're the victims. They say same-sex couples are denying them the right to practice their religion. Yet the only way this could possibly be true is if their religion somehow demanded that everyone on planet Earth conform with its code. Not just believers. Everyone.

Labels are important in this process, because people find their identity in labels. You can say it's just a piece of paper, but a marriage license symbolizes something far deeper to a couple. The same holds true for other labels that are viewed as expressions of identity. At various points in history, the church establishment refused to recognize groups such as the Gnostics, Cathars and Lutherans as Christians. Instead, they were heretics. The name "Christian" could only be claimed by those who swore allegiance to Rome, with the Catholic Church holding a de facto trademark on the label that was enforced at the point of a sword.

Why was this important? Because those identified as heretics posed the same sort of threat to the establishment as same-sex marriages pose to straight couples: the threat of an alternative. The possibility that their way wasn't the only way. And this scared the bejeezus out of them. Galileo was silenced for the same reason, even though he could offer scientific evidence to back up his claims (made earlier by Copernicus) that Earth wasn't at the center of the solar system.

When you get into the realm of religion, evidence can be scanty. Instead, most assertion is generally based upon authority and tradition. There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Many traditions took hold because they made sense at a certain point in history and subsequently "stood the test of time." The problem arises when traditions stop being subjected to this test - when they are defended, not because they are effective, but rather for their own sake.

The geocentric model of the solar system probably made sense to a lot of people for a lot of years. It stood up to certain observable tests: the stars appeared to rotate around Earth, as did other heavenly bodies such as the moon and sun. To the casual observer with limited resources to test the idea, it must have made pretty good sense. The problem occurred when people insisted on holding to the tradition in spite of clear evidence that it was false.

This is like saying, "It works because we've always done it this way," rather than, "We've always done it this way because it works." Following tradition for the sake of tradition is getting it backwards, and since humanity tends to gather new information as time progresses, the idea of viewing the world through an ancient lens doesn't always work.

It would seem a simple enough matter to adapt to new information by modifying one's worldview. New information in the 16th century indicated that the sun was at the center of the solar system. Relatively new (within the last half-century or so) information in our own time suggests that homosexuality is not a choice, as previously assumed, but an integral part of a person's identity.

But too often, religious traditionalists refuse to acknowledge such new information because they view the old information as authoritative. It was written down in a sacred book, incorporated into time-honored dogmatic teachings and passed along by figures who claim authority - priests, seminary graduates, pastors, high priestesses, imams and so forth. Such figures seek to preserve tradition for tradition's sake precisely because they have a stake in the game. Their authority is being challenged, and to admit they might have been wrong would shatter their reputation as the ultimate arbiters of truth.

Sometimes, we become so caught up in the new information that we too quickly rush ahead, abandoning "old ways" that may have worked better. This is not because we tested the old ways too rigorously, but because we failed to test the new ways rigorously enough, throwing ourselves headlong into new technologies before we've sufficiently worked through the implications. Sometimes, it's best to return to older ways of doing things - sometimes, but not always, and not simply for tradition's sake.

A line from Tim Minchin's song White Wine in the Sun comes to mind here: "I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious it means that they're worthy." The word "just" is important here. Some tenacious ideas are worthy; others aren't. They're worthy if they work; they're not if their tenacity is the result of authoritarian attempts to take and/or consolidate power. The motive behind continuing a tradition will tell you a lot about whether it's worth continuing.

All of which brings me back to the topic of labels. There are those who seek to hoard labels to themselves - whether they be husband, wife, Muslim, Christian, Pagan - based on tradition alone. They defer to the god(s) they worship as authorities for excluding other possible viewpoints and disparaging new traditions in order to reclaim or preserve what's always been comfortable. Where compelling evidence is lacking (and even, as in the case of Galileo, where it's present), they seek to have their beliefs accepted as a substitute. Then they seek to force their viewpoints on those who don't agree as a means of validating their dubious or even erroneous conclusions.

True marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. True Christians don't (or do) speak in tongues. Real Pagans worship the gods. Real Wiccans are Gardnerian. True Muslims are Sunnis (or Shiites). Real men eat steak.

Who says? The self-appointed authorities who believe they're speaking on behalf of a divine agent. The problem lies in the fact that the divine agent him/herself never seems to speak directly and incontrovertibly to humanity - or even a significant segment of it - simultaneously. We're asked to believe that the self-appointed authorities are the "true" authorities, that their decrees outweigh any evidence to the contrary and that their interpretation of scriptures and doctrines is the correct one.

The tenuous nature of such a belief is exposed when two authorities conflict (the mutual excommunication by the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople in 1054 is a great example) or when evidence and public consensus overwhelms some previously accepted tradition. I have to laugh when I think about the two patriarchs telling each other, "You're not a Christian, goddammit! To hell with you!"

The common thread in all this is that such condemnations are always focused outward - not toward the self, but toward the perceived "other." Rather than focusing on controlling themselves, such self-appointed authorities spend most of their energy trying to control others. Those on the receiving end of this process usually have no interest in controlling anyone; they simply want to live their own lives while enjoying the same rights and privileges their accusers enjoy ... but seek to deny them. The right to marry whom they wish, regardless of sex. The right to call themselves Christian or Pagan or Muslim. The right to believe as they please without being told that their belief is an "offense" to someone else.

That shouldn't be a burden on anyone, and it shouldn't be too much to ask.

Monday, June 3, 2013

J.J. Abrams' 'Into Darkness' is a Black Hole for 'Star Trek' Fans

I don't want to be too negative, but I want to be clear: Star Trek Into Darkness is, in my view, easily the worst Star Trek movie I've ever seen.

Worse than The Motion Picture, with its half-hour panorama homage to the Enterprise.

Worse than Nemesis with its supposed clone of Picard who doesn't look a thing like Picard.

Worse than The Final Frontier with its self-important theistic speculation.

I had my doubts about the movie going in, based on the Matrix-like imagery of the movie posters and trailers, but this film looks nothing like The Matrix. In some places, it looks more like an SNL parody of the original (most specifically, The Wrath of Khan). In others, it's wholly inconsistent with scientific reality - even the reality of the universe in which it's supposedly set.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Oh, sure. Cap a volcano and you can keep it from obliterating a culture. That's like placing a bandage on a cancerous sore. Just ignore the science of plate tectonics and pretend that everything's as good as new. And while you're at it, design space suits with glass visors that crack when they're hit by debris. Just brilliant. By the way, a blood transfusion can now cure radiation poisoning in a person who's been dead (and presumably without any oxygen to the brain) for several minutes, if not, as it appears in the movie, longer.

We're also supposed to believe that all the top military brass in Starfleet convene - in a publicly known meeting - for a war council in a glass-paneled room on some upper floor of a skyscraper. Then, when some rogue helicopter pilot decides to open fire on them, the government doesn't immediately scramble some futuristic version of F-22 Raptor to blow him out of the sky. Instead, Kirk makes an improbable horseshoe toss of a fire hose into the copter's intake engine in order to bring it down. Here's what it amounts to: Calling in Roy Rogers because you didn't think to call in Tom Cruise from Top Gun. And these folks are supposed to be the guardians of the free universe?

If anything, the Klingons' security is even more lax. This is a culture that supposedly honors great battles and feats of bravery during wartime above all else.Yet somehow, inexplicably, no scout ships or battle cruisers are stationed at the edge of the neutral zone, and a rogue ship - without any weapons! - is able to make it all the way to the Klingon homeworld without so much as a tap on the shoulder. "Hey, guys, you might want to stay away from our planet, or we'll kick the crap out of you." Nope. Nothing of the kind.

When it does come time for a confrontation, it's the Klingons who get the crap kicked out of them by one guy with a gun. Granted, he's a pretty tough customer, but it's hard to imagine him getting the best of several dozen Klingons while wearing nothing more than civilian clothes and a cape (no body armor in evidence) and standing fully exposed on high ground. It's one thing to ask the audience to suspend disbelief; it's quite another to ask us to obliterate it.

Then there's a scene near the end of the movie where the Enterprise is orbiting the moon one moment, then suddenly finds itself caught in Earth's gravitational pull. Huh? Explain that to me. But first, you might want to warn the crew of the International Space Station, who are a heck of a lot closer to Earth than the Enterprise was in this film, and might be in some real danger. Yet, no, they somehow manage to ride along contentedly in orbit without the least little worry about being pulled down to their doom by Earth's gravity.

I realize this is an alternate universe, but that doesn't mean you get to just throw everything out and start from scratch. You shouldn't stick a 24th century institution (the Daystrom Institute) in the 23rd century, when it hadn't even been founded. Presumably, alternate timelines run parallel and don't include major advances in one universe that aren't yet discovered in another. Not here. There's no precedent for a Spock-Uhura relationship. In fact, the only precedent for any human relationship (one that was never consummated) involved Spock and Christine Chapel - who in this movie, is conveniently shipped off to some hinterland and nowhere in evidence.

At one point, Original Universe Spock (Nimoy) appears, Yoda-like, on the Enterprise viewscreen without any explanation of how he got there, to provide some timely insight for Alternate Universe Spock. He duly pronounces Kahn the most formidable foe Starfleet has ever faced, conveniently forgetting the Borg (yes, Spock was still alive during this time period in the original chronology).

The acting is hit-and-miss, but to be fair, the script is largely at fault. William Shatner set the standard for James T. Kirk by playing him with a self-confident over-the-top sort of bravado that somehow worked. That's because Shatner knew when to rein himself in and get serious. He - and the writers of the original series - had a strong sense of timing that this script sorely lacks. Here, the jokes seem forced most of the time, and poor Chris Pine (as Kirk) masters neither Shatner's sense of humor nor his heroic emotions. Pine tries to play it straight and winds up looking, for the most part, like little more than a cardboard cutout who likes to leer at women.

Zachary Quinto is better as Spock, but he's given the impossible task of transforming an almost entirely stoic character into one who regularly shows emotion. That's the fault of the script more than Quinto. Leonard Nimoy was a master at showing that Spock had emotions without actually displaying those emotions. Quinto is forced to be more explicit in his emotional displays and, because of this, loses some of the dramatic tension Nimoy employed to such great effect.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a solid villain, though it's never explained why an Englishman is playing a character who was previously played by a Mexican actor of Spanish ancestry - both with thick accents that are nothing like each other. Imagine Chekov suddenly speaking with a Scottish brogue and Scotty with a Russian accent. More alternate universe shenanigans, I suppose.

Karl Urban does a decent job as Dr. McCoy but isn't given much to do, while Simon Pegg is a decent but not exceptional Montgomery Scott.

When it comes right down to it, this is an absolutely horrible film. It is, quite simply, the worst I've seen this year. Maybe it won't seem as bad to the uninitiated who walk in with little or no knowledge of the Star Trek universe. The guy behind this film, J.J. Abrams, has been chosen to helm the next Star Wars installment, as well.

Wait a minute. Does J.J. stand for Jar-Jar?