Friday, May 30, 2014

Fiction Friday: Free Novella!

"I think the Egyptians were on to something. Because if that sun goes out..."~James Kroger (1922-2005)

Just a reminder that you can find a free and full novella right here on the blag!

The Absolute End of The World, Part I

The Absolute End of The World, Part II

The Absolute End of The World, Part III

And if you like what you see, why not show support by purchasing these fine products from Amazon and Smashwords?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Culturally Normative Behavior

There's something you learn about in psychology called norms. Like other things you learn in psychology, it's both depressing and darkly funny - basically, a norm is any behavior or belief that is so socially acceptable as to be expected. Norms are different than mores - socially expected morality - but like mores have little to do with actual morality. Murder, kidnapping, and medieval chauvinism are the norm in Northern Nigeria just as much as loudly praising God at Applebees is the norm in Albermarle County.

Few films illustrate this horror as well as Hanecke's The White Ribbon. Set in a bucolic German village at the turn of the century, it follows the everyday concerns and foibles of a broad cross-section of society. And how terribly brutal they all are.

Like the Pastor who has his son's hands tied to the bed frame every night, to prevent "impure touching." Or the kindly Doctor who socially and sexually humiliates his loyal housekeeper. Or the Baron who is as clownishly corrupt and inept as every privileged man ever. Hanecke spends a long time on each of these characters, and their victims, giving the viewer a full picture of these men in all their gigantic littleness.

That would be a worthwhile film in itself but The White Ribbon has a broader, and deeper, critique in mind. Soon, the regimented village life is disrupted by a series of pranks. Childish at first but growing more and more malicious, culminating in a tortured parakeet and savagely beaten little boy. Cruelty for its own sake.

It should come as no surprise the children are behind these acts and it gets to the core theme of the film. They act out in petty brutality because that's how they've been socialized by the supposedly civilized adults. It's a sharper satire than merely pointing out the Pastor's abusive parenting or the Baron's exploitation of the villagers. It makes the point that this savagery is deeply woven into what is otherwise considered a civilized society. The parents are shocked, of course, wondering how the little ones could have turned so wicked when so much effort had gone into training them up proper.

Because to every villager, even the few descent ones, the casual brutality exacted on women and children is normal and therefore invisible. The children have learned this brutality well, just not when it is acceptable to indulge in it, which is really what makes their behavior aberrant. Soon they'll have more than enough chance to engage in socially acceptable savagery, as the first World War flares up not in spite of civilized society but because of it. Because all the rules and propriety are nothing but a thin veneer of respectability over what has always been and always will be Darwin's world.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Silent Sane Majority

Today, we're gonna do something that never happens in American media - talk honestly about guns. I don't mean in some "What the Government doesn't want you to know!" way but in a simple acknowledgment of reality - that reality being guns are as American as drive-thru. The socialist Big Government hippies coming to confiscate your boomsticks is as much a fantasy of resentful reactionaries as trickle down economics.

In fact, that sort of paranoia does not even go hand in hand with gun ownership. Despite the joint NRA-GOP noise machine, many American gun owners are perfectly sane and thus welcoming of strict gun regulation because they respect the life-ending power of guns. I grew up in a pretty left-leaning family in northern Virginia and even my mom knows the kick of a .357 magnum. I know registered Democrats who own guns and, as I'm not invested in any imaginary culture war, I can admit this is more the rule than the exception.

To illustrate this, let's look at my friend Joe. Being a proper Virginian, he's converted his downstairs closet into a weapons locker for - at last count - two semiautomatic pistols, a .38 revolver, a Mossberg shotgun, and a H&K G3 battle rifle. That last one is a military grade weapon firing .308 rounds, the civilian equivalent of the NATO 7.62mm, and while it fires in semi auto can easily be converted to full auto. Joe loves it and as any hobbyest has blown way too much money pimping it out with rails, reflex sights, and other needless modifications.

Completely legal in Virginia.
Not for home defense. Joe is adamant about that because, as a National Guardsman, he understands ballistics. That .308 round, if fired at a home invader, will penetrate said invader and the wall and travel across the street into a neighbor's house where it will likely end in a baby's head. Joe, as a responsible gun owner, wants to avoid shooting neighbor babies at all costs and that means the G3 is exclusively for the range.

And it's fun at the range! That's one use of guns that never ever makes it into the official debate. Sending rounds down range is a kick and it's why many gun owners, like Joe, own more than a simple shotgun or Glock for home defense. In fact defense is probably last on the list of what a gun owner actually does with his or her weapons. Number one, if you're not a twit, is cleaning them regularly and storing them securely. Like Joe with his home weapons locker.

That's what really makes Joe worth mentioning here - he's a gun owner who fully appreciates the responsibility of exercising his Second Amendment rights safely. Again, the G3 isn't for home defense and an easy way to get a rant out of Joe is mention how the loudest gun nuts are claiming that's what the AR-15 is for. At his most conciliatory, he says, "Okay, you can own an assault rifle but you have to go through six weeks of training like I did so you know how use it properly!"

Because guns, whatever cultural baggage we attach to them, are instruments of death. Responsible gun ownership demands we never forget this fact. Responsible gun owners, like Joe, recoil at the sort of heavily armed free for all preached by the NRA faithful because they understand shit happens. And when shit happens with an instrument explicitly intended for ending life...

We're never gonna be rid of guns in this country but we damn sure need to be smarter about them. A good way to start is for this silent majority of sane gun owners to stop being silent, to make their voices heard - "I'm a gun owner and darn it, I want more gun control! I want smart gun control! I want to keep guns out of the hands of idiots who just want a big boomstick to compensate for all their inadequacies without understanding and appreciating the grave responsibility that comes with possessing a firearm!"

Like this asshole.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fiction Friday: Buy My Books or Go To Hell!

If you can find a way to tell Amazon about that reference, I'll personally reimburse you! Like it's free but not really!

The True Story of Jeannot (from Fiend):
We put ashore as the sun rose over the ocean. A stirring sight - even more so as it brought such annihilating heat to the two of us. I overturned the longboat in a lagoon, making a solid shade for the day. We rested in low tide, little fish swimming and wriggling through our clothes as crabs pinched at our dead flesh... We awoke looking like we'd crawled seven miles through brambles!

"How far from Cap Francois are we?" asked Anna

"Damned if we're going back there!" I snapped, pulling off my boots to drain the seawater.

"Are we to live in the jungle then? Like maroons?" She smiled. That still beautiful smile - so rare and loveless by then - turned my stomach.

Idiota... "Not a bad idea."

We didn't, of course. But we found the next best thing - a sugarcane plantation! Just one of the hundreds dotting Hispaniola, crawling all day with slaves while the planter and his family sat with their feet up in a house to make Louis XIV envious... You'd think we'd be turned away, coming as we did in the dead of night, our fine city clothes ruined by water and wilderness. But no sooner had an elderly Negress answered the door than my Anna fell into an inspired performance -

"Oh, pity on poor travelers!" she cried, throwing herself at the surprised house slave's feet. "God's grace and pity! Our carriage was overturned and looted by maroons! And if not for my brave uncle, they'd have had my virtue too!"

The Negress immediately went for her master - who was asleep, so she had to settle for the lady of the house. A sentimental old biddy who about fainted as Anna repeated her lurid tale. With more embellishment, naturally - "A dozen mad maroons! Screaming voodoo prayers to Beelzebub! My brave uncle beat them all off with a root he tore from the ground!"

Such a clever girl...

"Attention!" a voice boomed through the building. "Visiting hour will end in ten minutes! Visiting hour end in ten minutes!"

A few of the more energetic patients made noise at this but not much.

"Oh dear, should I let you go?" his mom asked.

"Yeah," David said. "I'll see ya next... whenever."

"Okay," she seemed to hesitate.

David vaguely remembered how they supposedly briefed all visitors on words not to use. His mom must have wanted to say she loved him. Instead, she hung up her phone and gathered her coat, hurrying out the exit without a look back.

David felt some mild discomfort at that. He couldn't quite place it but something about the way she left just didn't feel right. Damn, what did they give him this time? It was a minute or so before he realized his phone had fallen to his lap. He sluggishly hung it back up on the wall and pushed himself up from the chair, a surprisingly great effort. The others soon followed, hanging up on whoever had bothered to show up and shuffling off behind David.

...All except Stephen. Not Steve, as he was always quick to point out - Stephen. He still sat there, chattering with his sister. It looked like his sister, or maybe cousin. Of all the other guys at Exodus, David thought he looked the most like a real fag. He was skinny with that feminine look to his face and a voice to match. Even the other guys avoided him, like they were all back in the real world and it was understood if you got too close to Stephen you might catch a bad case of the gay.

David couldn't avoid him too much though, seeing as they were roommates. Not that they had very much in common - Stephen's only interests were reading and theater, both things David tended to avoid. But still, if asked, David would insist Stephen wasn't such a bad guy. He was okay for conversation if you gave him long enough - he could rattle off just about every line from those Monty Python movies - and he'd never hit on David or really acted all that gay. Of course, seeing as he was here...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Retro FPS Round-Up!

I'd like to talk to the kids today, regardless of what the court said.

Kids, I know you think you know shooters. You've got a new Call of Duty and a new Battlefield - sometimes called Medal of Honor - every Xmas so clearly you've got this whole First Person Shooter thing set. Right?

Sad to say, but you came along just in time for the hair metal phase of video games. Just assembly-line noise, each one little more than a patch of originals that came out ten years ago. You poor sods think a shooter is all about going from checkpoint to checkpoint, along a straight line, shooting at the generic soldiers who pop up and pausing every few minutes to admire the spectacles that could just as easily be found in any action movie. And there's nary a rocket jump to be had. You poor little bastards don't even know what a rocket jump is!

Fortunately, the VectorLog is here to give U the modern vidya games player a rundown of all the great things you missed out on! Like -

Shadow Warrior
Built on the Duke Nukem 3-D engine back when anyone cared about Duke Nukem. You play as Lo Wang - seriously - a one-liner spouting ninja with no shirt and a great big... sword. That's the kinda humor you can expect, if you ever have a moment in between the mayhem to listen. This is old school FPS, meaning you get dropped into the level and things are immediately trying to kill you, so you better get a move on and find the secret luggage room with the rocket launcher.

And shoot it up a sumo's butt!

Postal 2
Believe it or not, the open world FPS is not just a recent invention of the Far Cry franchise. Nor is taking copious amounts of drugs while handling high powered rifles. Postal 2 allowed for both in its town of Paradise, populated by gimps and terrorists and other jerkoffs just begging for a shovel upside the head. And as the crack smoking Postal Dude, you're just the man to deliver!

Yet this mayhem is entirely your own choice. It's entirely possible and in fact quite easy to run through the whole game without harming anyone, simply going about your daily errands. But when Gary Coleman is right there and you've got a bazooka...

Take that, you jive-talking midget!

Plus, if you piss on someone enough it unlocks the R. Kelly achievement!

Star Wars: Dark Forces
Would you believe there's a Star Wars game without space battles or lightsabers? And it rocks? Dark Forces was a bold experiment for Lucas Arts - a first person shooter back when such things were still associated with the Satanic murder fest of Doom and a Star Wars game that didn't rely on any established characters. You played as Kyle Katarn, former Imperial commando and now Rebel Alliance operative. And to old school gamers, the baddest motherfucker in the entire Expanded Universe. He blasted through whole divisions of Stormtroopers alone, took on the flying cyborg Dark Troopers, and even punched a giant lizard to death!

Screw the Force. Use grenades!

Katarn was made a Jedi in the sequels but he always maintained a certain practicality, picking up bombs and blasters dropped by his fallen enemies even when he could just hurl Force Lightning all over the place.

Call of Duty
Ah, for the days of military shooters where you just wailed on the Nazis! Wolfenstein may be keeping that alive but it still doesn't get better than the original Call of Duty. The Infinity Ward guys like their war movies and their first installment in this Frankenstein's franchise liberally cirbs from A Bridge Too Far, The Longest Day, Band of Brothers, and that great underrated Stalingrad pic Enemy at the Gates. You got to play as the Russians too, in a historically accurate and unsympathetic manner where if you ran away from the German machine guns, the NKVD would execute you. But survive that, and it's sniper battles all through ruined Russian cities! Then there's the solo SAS mission into a dam, just you and a Sten against the entire Wermacht. Original Call of Duty, competing in a field of more organic shooters, couldn't railroad the player through turret sections so you not only got the "authentic war" feel but a genuinely engaging experience that relied on U the player to move forward.

Except for when you get to role-play as a terrified conscript.

Yet the only thing they've kept from those days are your AI squad mates. A revolutionary move at the time - "No one fights alone" was both Infinity Ward's concept and marketing gimmick - it created verisimilitude without detracting from gameplay. These days, your Bad Company squadmates will wipe out the bad guys while you respawn at a checkpoint and where's the fun in that?

Deus Ex
Is it an FPS or an RPG? It's both, which is close enough for our purposes. While some of you might know the recent reboot, this original stands out as having simply more depth and easter eggs. Do something out of the ordinary, like snatching a candy bar off a friendly NPC's desk, and they'll ask what the hell you're doing. Go exploring the lady's room, and the next time you report to your boss he'll chastise you for being a perv.

There's a story full of conspiracy too, if that's your thing. But mostly you'll be sneaking and hacking your way past various cyber-mooks until you reach the plot-centric boss fight... which you can run away from. And unlike the Thief series, if all that sneaking takes too long, you can just level up your combat augs and murder your way through everything.

And another open world FPS back before consoles became just cumbersome PCs with less functionality. Taking the role of the pale and fish-faced Logan, you go exploring bases on a lush alien world, trying to unravel a conspiracy involving government and corporate interests. And if that's too familiar, this has the distinction of letting you side with the poor downtrodden colonists!

Though you'll have to defeat what's been trodding on them.

And it is a choice. You can go the evil route, the impartial route, whatever turns your crank. You also get to choose from a number of cybernetic implants and weapon mods along the way, if you get tired of highjacking enemy mecha and going on a stompy rampage.

An otherwise forgetable game, it stands out by virtue of two unique features. A respawn system integrated into the story and a protagonist who bears a striking similarity to Eminem.

Right down to grumpy twelve-year-old's scowl.

Really, there's no other reason to play it other than the respawn system. U the rebel leader get hold of a flash cloning technology early on, which prints out a brand new copy of you every time you die. Even if you were vaporized by a fazer rifle. Missions quickly devolve into suicide charges against the enemy respawner, each death just a breather in between the mad circle-strafing firefights. It feels so ridiculous, you can't help laughing you're head off. Much like every other match of Team Fortress 2.


The grayest game ever made!

...Okay, this one sucked.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Al Qaeda after Al Qaeda

Boko Haram has done what most people once thought impossible - got the American media to care about missing black girls. Granted, these are foreign black girls and they're missing in a place that can be easily exoticized so that Fox and CNN can titillate their tame audiences, but at least it's progress. Of a sort.

Unfortunately, it means you get a lot of professional commentaters trying to make sense of the world outside the Great Media Mind Warp - as the late Joe Bageant called it. Boko Haram, a whacko reactionary militia more similar to the Minutemen, is being presented as a variation of or successor to Al Qaeda and this just ain't right. But it's a trend that's been going on for over a decade now, American journalists unable to discern the difference between a serious, international operation and a smattering of short burning franchises in distant Third World hell holes.

Let's go all the way back to 2004 and Al Qaeda in Iraq. That was it's actual name, to differentiate itself from Al Qaeda Original Recipe and also because it did not exist until after the US invaded. That was headed by by a guy calling himself Zarqawi, a professional hot-head from the town of Zarqa in Jordan. It's an Arabic naming convention that never gets any airplay and it's important to understanding what's been going on.

Zarqawi, and the Al Qaeda spin-off he headed, were never the real driving force of the Iraqi insurgency. The Bush Administration wanted him to be, as did Al Qaeda proper, because that fits both their narratives - "See? We're totally fighting terrorists that were totally in Iraq!" "See? We're totally leading the charge against the Great Satan!" The truth of the matter is the truth of any insurgency, that the local population didn't like being occupied by a foreign army.

With Zarqawi gone, Al Qaeda in Iraq soon morphed into Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That's the ISIS you may have heard about in the context of the Syrian civil war, namely as one of the major foreign jihad groups fighting Assad. Last year when the royal baby was popping out of Duchess Whatsherface, ISIS staged a massive jailbreak in Iraq and smuggled everyone into Syria.

ISIS, despite its Al Qaeda (in Iraq) origins, is very much a local operation. It's right there in the name and there's the simple matter that they lack the logistical capability to mount an operation in the US or Europe. Al Qaeda Classic could do that, owing to Osama bin Laden's massive family fortune - thanks, House of Saud! - and a ready crop of dedicated operatives who could pass in Western cultures long enough to get into position. Those mostly Saudi highjackers on 9/11 were the Muslim world's equivalent of hiptsers, more money than brains and following the latest trend. Things have changed in the past dozen years and now all the cool kids are jihading at home against their own oppressive governments.

ISIS, for all its rhetoric, is a very local operation. As is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Provo Al Qaeda that hit Mali two years ago... and Boko Haram.

In fact, the Mali AQ team and Boko Haram share a common origin in Libya. Politico has a rare insightful article about this but, being infested with Beltway thinking, can't look cold and analytically at this.

The simple, gruesome fact is that Boko Haram and all the other Al Qaeda spin-offs popping up in Africa since the Libyan war are just leftover mercs. Gaddaffi never had a proper amry and so had to rely on hired guns and those same hired guns have now spread out into the rest of Africa with no skills but shooting civvies and generally being evil bastards. Like all other mercenaries ever.

But the Islamic angle is just that. They're claiming to be on a mission from God for the same reason as the Blues Brothers - it sounds badass. Their real motivations are as local as ISIS if not more so. Boko Haram in particular is a holdover from when the inland Muslims ran Nigeria as proxies for the British. When the Brits landed, they didn't care for the congenial Igbo and Yoruba with their proto-democratic culture, but the inland Hausa displayed proper Anglo values with their tribal kingships and viciousness. The Nigerian Islamists are almost all Hausa, owing more to the long history of the spread of Islam throughout North and West Africa and how it's now just as anti-modern as Southern Baptists.

And that's about all that connects Boko Haram with the larger Al Qaeda movement. Against the modernity embodied by the West. And not one of these franchises has the logistical capability to mount another 9/11. The most Boko Haram can do is murder doctors administering vaccines and kidnap school girls. Assholes but inconsequential assholes.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Benghazi and Capitalism

Benghazi. Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi... It's the manufactroversy that just won't die, owing to a professional partisan noise machine and the relative paucity of scandalous behavior by the Obama administration. At least that the GOP can get a good head of outrage over.

Benghazi looks safe to them. Nice and economics free, letting them just trot out the same old neocon chest-thumping, repeating the fantasy that Republicans are the warfighting party and Dems are a punch of granola munching hippies. But if they keep pushing into this story, they're gonna unearth some ugly facts that directly contradict their pro-business dogma...

Let's go over the basics of US Embassy security. First  of all, the Marines are there to protect the embassy grounds only. If you're a State Department employee and you're not on the grounds when things kick off, then you're shit out of luck. Security for personnel is contracted out to indigenous police forces, which works quite well in a place like Germany but is just asking for trouble in free fire zones like Libya. So if you're lucky, security in these places is handled by mercs - "contractors" to use the PC term - from places like Blackwater, or Xe, or Rainbows or whatever they're calling themselves these days to sound less evil.

The reason for doing this... is no reason at all. It relates back to a long standing tradition in Western Civilization of not manhandling the diplomats. A tradition that didn't exist in Iran in 1979, which probably should have tipped people off that things needed to change.

So rather than just leaving the poor State functionaries to fend for themselves, we hired a bunch of free enterprise child rapists to keep them safe. This situation would worry more thoughtful pols but since those don't exist in America, we've got congressional Republicans clamoring for an investigation that will either expose how the CIA handles its operations or will show that outsourced security is no substitute for the big guns of Big Government.

A quick aside - of course the CIA was running operations out of the US Embassy in Benghazi. It was a frickin' war zone and the CIA always runs its ops out of embassies because even HUMINT is outsourced to moles and mercs these days. And then we wonder why no one saw this attack coming...

Knowing all this, you should be wondering right about now if the GOP don't care to put egg on the face of their favorite economic talking points or if they're just really stupid. Which just shows you haven't been paying attention because last year's shutdown pretty clearly demonstrated it's both. They're more than happy to keep this not-scandal rolling in the hopes of picking up a few more seats in November and they're dumb enough to think that'll actually happen, if they just keep repeating this unfunny meme.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Lawrence Paradox

D.H. Lawrence is a curious case in literary history. Most of those with a little college remember him as the dirty old man behind Lady Chatterly's Lover, if they remember him at all. Most would lump him in with the Victorians for his cold, realistic style - which is probably more accurate than placing him in the Modernist crowd alongside the tarted up prose of Joyce and Woolf. At the very least, he gets some credit for pushing feminist ideas back when women's suffrage was still new and scary.

Except when you get into the actual, historical Lawrence... he's kind of an ass.

"If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I'd go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the 'Hallelujah Chorus'"


Anti-democracy, anti-suffrage, pro-despotism - Lawrence displayed all of the worst sins according to the moral judges of the Twentieth Century... And yet he wrote some of the most insightful, heartfelt fiction ever to come out of England. Not in spite of but because of such a reactionary streak.

Idealists may write inspiring prose, but that same inspiration prevent more nuanced critiques. Idealism handicapped the brilliant economic analysis of Marx and dumbed down the best psychological work of Dostoevsky because it presupposes a happy ending to all this.

Reactionaries like Lawrence don't have that problem. Whatever else you can say about them, their vision is clear - Lawrence wrote the grasping pettiness and existential desperation he saw in those around him every day. The depth of his women characters is not in spite of but because of this low opinion of his fellow man, as it gives him a clearer picture of what it means to be a woman in a society that relegates women to second class citizens.

Two of his novellas display this best - The Fox and The Captain's Doll. The former concerns a formerly independent woman and her lady friend coming under the thrall of an exasperating young man, who casually wreaks havoc on their bucolic life with the assumed privilege of a man over women in turn of the century England. In the latter, the same dynamic is challenged by a Scottish officer's Continental mistress who will not be so easily held down. Though the narrative begins with her, it ends with the titular Captain and his bitterness at not being the center of all things, as Lawrence demonstrates through his contempt for a mountain. A thing much grander than the captain, a direct challenge to his "gigantic littleness" as a critic of Dr. Johnson would put it.

And even in this cruel examinations of humanity, Lawrence never hates his characters. As petty and self-centered as they can be, he still paints them as whole people with just as many virtues and fears. And it's exactly such a sympathy without sentiment that allows for his penetrating insights into the human condition.

Move out from Lawrence, and you see this is actually the norm for the best Twentieth Century and later authors. Take Houellebecq's sympathy for the common German soldier, who would much rather be home in Dusseldorf drinking beer and chasing ladies instead of tromping around occupied Paris, waiting to get his throat slit or slit the throat of some other desperate victim. Or, on the subject of Nazis, here's something from Celine's first novel - "So Alcide had asked to do a double hitch, to stay in Toto for six consecutive years instead of three, for the sake of his little niece... With hardly a thought of what he was doing, he had consented to years of torture, to the crushing of his life in this torrid monotony for the sake of a little girl to whom he was vaguely related."

This is what I mean by the Lawrence Paradox. Authors with the worst politics, with the most animosity towards other people, and they can show more compassion in a rural woman lamenting the death of a fox than can a thousand social realists with their politically correct populism.

And for what it's worth, they also love animals.