Thursday, February 11, 2016

Agency in Fiction

I listen to several Doctor Who podcasts, including Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who. In recent episodes of both podcasts, I heard discussion of how different female characters lacked “agency” and that this created anger among, inter alia, female fans of the feminist persuasion. Female characters who lack “agency” are evidence of bad male writers, or something like that. Let me present their case and my rebuttal.

Example one was from Verity!, on the topic of Donna Noble’s departure from the TARDIS in “Journey’s End.” In brief, Donna gets zapped with Time Lord knowledge, which allows her to help defeat the Daleks, but her mind can’t cope. To save her life, the Doctor wipes from her mind all knowledge of the Doctor or her time with him. Apparently this is a Bad Thing because the Doctor takes choice away from Donna, denying her “agency.” The Verity! ladies contrast the Doctor’s treatment of Donna with his treatment of Clara in “Hell Bent."

Example two was from Lazy Doctor Who, in a discussion of Susan’s departure from the TARDIS in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” (Yes, fine, these are spoilers, but come on, the first example is from 2008 and the second is from 1964. Live with it.) Susan falls in love with a human, David Campbell, and is torn between staying on Earth with him and continuing to travel with the Doctor. Knowing that she would never leave the TARDIS and the Doctor despite the desire of her heart to stay with David, the Doctor locks her out of the TARDIS and dematerializes, making the decision for her. Bad Doctor.
One writer describes agency as
Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
At the two points in the stories described above, Donna and Susan both lack agency. Is that a bad thing from either the point of view of the story or on the part of the author? In the example of Donna, it’s hard to see how the Doctor’s actions were in any way unjustified. His friend was in trouble, and his choices were (a) let her die or (b) save her by wiping certain memories. Suppose he had given her the opportunity to choose. If she said, “No, let me die, I’d rather die now with the memories of our travels together intact than live without them,” would he have agreed? Really? How about someone who sees a friend about to jump off a ledge to her death? Would that be a good time to inquire how sincere was her desire to commit suicide, or would a responsible friend take the opportunity to save a life? In short, denying a fellow character agency may well be the best course of action.

In the example of Susan, one could certainly argue that the Doctor was being unfair/irresponsible/just plain not nice in taking the decision out of her hands. On the other hand, he seemed to be acting out of a sincere and selfless desire to ensure that she got what she wanted, rather than staying with him out of a sense of duty. I’d argue that the character was right to deny her agency.

More to the point, however, in both cases the authors of those episodes made a reasonable artistic choice. Not everyone has agency in all circumstances. Prisoners in jail cells, victims of crimes, passengers on doomed airliners - all have limited or no ability to "make decisions and affect” outcomes at those moments. Perhaps a prisoner has agency to the extent of making an escape attempt, fighting with a fellow prisoner or a guard, or even choosing to serve his time with a minimum of fuss. Similarly, a crime victim can, after the fact, call the police, ignore the whole thing, or turn into a Death Wish-style vigilante, but at the moment of the crime she is more reactive than active. When an author creates characters and places those characters into a situation - the plot - those characters often choose actions that propel the plot. At other times, however, one or more characters may find themselves passive players in the unfolding drama. To suggest that it’s somehow sexist to have this happen to female characters is absurd.

I’ve spent over 700 words venting on a subject that deserves far fewer words, but the mere word “agency” in this context, on these podcasts, hits me like nails on a chalkboard. Life provides many opportunities to be offended. Feminists, such as those on Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who,* might pick their targets with a little more care.

* In fairness, I might not have two independent observations, as Erika Ensign participates in both podcasts. Discussion in one podcast might spill over into thoughts on another.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Digital and Analog

It’s possible I have a commitment problem. Not the usual kind, involving another person, but one much more serious: I can’t commit to either a digital or an analog organizational system.
Earlier this evening, Kirasha tweeted a picture of her new planner, prompting me to reply, "Don’t get me started. I think I’ve finally kicked my planner addiction.” That, of course, is a lie. No one ever really kicks that addiction; one merely keeps it under control. Mostly.

I’ve always had an unhealthy collection of notebooks, both spiral bound and three ring. At one point I invested in a Filofax, which still seems like a great idea - except the paper is terrible. I finally realized I didn’t want to tote the thing with me all the time, which led me to a Palm Pilot. The Pilot begat a Palm III, which begat a Palm V, which begat a Compaq handheld, which… well, you get the idea. This culminated in my current iPhone 6S with Day One (for journaling) and OmniFocus (for my task lists).

But I couldn’t stay faithful to my digital system(s). For one thing, I have far too many fountain pens to keep them un-inked forever. For another, it’s just not satisfying to poke at a phone to do anything more than dash off a quick note. So it was back to Rhodia pads an the wonderful Rhodia bound notebooks, with the occasional dalliance with other systems and brands. I’m now halfway through a Piccadilly bound notebook, which is good in many respects but whose paper will let wet ink lay on the page seemingly forever. As a left-hander, this results in page after page of ugly smears.

Piccadilly notebook. Note "Independent State of Caledon" mouse pad.

Nonetheless, I seem to be fated to keep alternating between the two formats.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Ain't Tongue-Tied

As Neil Young sang (in “Hawks and Doves”), “I ain’t tongue-tied/Just don’t got nothin' to say."

I’m trying to be in-world a little more often than the past year or so, but I can feel the effects of doing so after 30 minutes, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to actually accomplish anything. Add to that my continued problems with getting sustained acceptable frame rates with my aging iMac, and the in-world experience is a little frustrating.

Back in the “real” world, the U.S. Presidential election cycle is in full swing, and boy is it depressing. Vying to represent the party of FDR, HST, JFK, and LBJ are a septuagenarian Socialist and a lying, money-grubbing crook. Oh, and that other guy that no one has heard of. (Used to be Governor of my state. As much as I complain about the job he did, he is clearly the best of the three, admittedly an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations, which is no doubt why he’s around 1% in the polls.) I don’t want any of those people issuing executive orders, much less making appointments to Federal courts.

But the public’s attention seems to be on the circus on the other side of the political aisle. It was bad enough to have what seemed like every politician with an R by his name running, including yet another Bush and former governors of New York and Virginia from so long ago that dinosaurs still roamed the Earth - plus a former tech company CEO, plus a neurosurgeon -, each unable to get enough press time to articulate a coherent sent of policies, assuming he or she had one. We then had to be treated to the spectacle of Donald Trump and the accompanying media love/hate-fest. The Donald had one dynamite insight, which is that immigration of millions of unskilled workers and their dependents depresses the wages of people at the bottom of the pay scale, and that immigration of millions of people from the same area, far from increasing “diversity,” inevitably changes the social fabric of the country. Weirdly, no one else from the Republican party was willing to agree with that incontrovertible, and wildly popular, truth. Yet no matter what other nonsense comes from Trump’s mouth, or what mainstream liberal positions he espoused either recently or, indeed, currently, his popularity keeps increasing. (Apparently. We’ll see once people actually start voting in primaries.) I understand frustration with the political establishment, and I understand the populist vein Trump seems to be tapping into, but c’mon, people, consider the prospect of four years of his kind of incoherence. It would be like the Obama years, but with more charisma and humor.

However, there seems to be no point in saying all this. Indeed, if polls are to be believed, the previous two paragraphs have offended roughly 60-70% of voters. Now, unlike certain celebrities who keep promising to leave the country if so-and-so is elected, and keep disappointing me by reneging on the promise, I’m not going anywhere. But it’s a really depressing prospect that this is the best we can do.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Effect of Higher Minimum Wages on the Unskilled

More evidence that, yes, labor demand curves do slope downward.

The money quote:
My baseline estimate is that this period’s full set of minimum wage increases reduced employment among individuals ages 16 to 30 with less than a high school education by 5.6 percentage points.
It doesn't seem to matter how much research is done: far too many people persist in thinking that increases in the minimum wage are somehow a magical cure-all for poverty.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Day

Pope Francis rolled into town Tuesday afternoon, with a schedule for the subsequent two days that involved multiple events in downtown DC, so Federal bureaucrats did what we do best: panic. The guidance from OPM was to treat the event like a major snowstorm, so we did, and, by and large, stayed home. I worked from home on Wednesday, only to see Metro announce an unusually high vacancy rate in their parking garages and ridership roughly 20% below that of the previous Wednesday.

Thursday I needed to be in the office, and the Pope’s schedule, while bringing him closer to my office than the day before - addressing Congress at 9:30 a.m. -, seemed to involve fewer events for fewer people than on Wednesday, so I took my chances with Metro. Ridership was again light, and attendance at the office was again down considerably, so the day passed reasonably uneventfully, for which I was grateful.

My office overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue, so I did take a half hour to watch out the window as a small crowd gathered on the sidewalks below, anticipating the Pope’s return from the Capitol. Sure enough, flanked by more than a dozen police motorcycles, police cars, and unmarked black Chevy Suburbans, the Fiat 500 drove up the street.

In general, I have mixed feelings about telework. For Pope Days (or snow days), telework is a great way of allowing people to get work done when the alternative is taking the day off, so having the ability to work at home is great. Regular telework, though, takes people out of the office and makes interacting with colleagues more difficult. Today I had a number of instances where I needed to talk to someone and had to figure out if that person was in the office or at home and, if the latter, if it made sense to email the question, find a home number, or just wait for a more convenient time in the office. On Wednesday, I managed to get some work done, primarily by scheduling a report draft to be delivered that morning so I could edit it and provide comments by the afternoon. It’s great to avoid the time-consuming and energy-sapping commute, but I’d be hard-pressed to argue that I was more productive overall.

Yet the government is making a big push to have workers telework more. For some jobs, particularly those that do not require much personal interaction, that makes sense.  For many others, however, the costs can be quite high. The benefits accrue mainly to the employees. We’re told that telework can lower costs for the agency, but it’s hard to see where. The agency has to provide more equipment (network infrastructure, portable computers rather than less-expensive desktops). The goal seems to be to reduce the number of square feet the government leases, mainly by eliminating private offices, but for that to work nearly everyone in the agency needs to be working from home most of the time. (For example, I’m told that at the Government Services Administration headquarters they’ve eliminated offices and insisted everyone work in large rooms at a random desk, with a small locker available for personal items. Most employees telework three to five days a week, allowing the agency to reduce space by more than half. In contrast, someone at my agency working at home one day a week still keeps an office, and few work at home more than one day a week, so the agency hasn’t saved anything on office space, as far as I can tell.)

I also suspect that if I had to stare at my walls and not talk to anyone for days on end I would go raving mad. Perhaps I already have and just haven’t yet noticed it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


On Tuesday, I had a disturbing experience on the Metro. At the Bethesda station, a pretty young thing got on and took a seat. A few stops later, a stocky young man got on, carrying a plastic beverage cup and some food in a wrapper (eating and drinking are prohibited on Metro, but some passengers choose to ignore this, apparently feeling that rules are for little people). I didn’t think of either of them until Rockville, the penultimate stop. The guy was standing in front of me as I started to pack up, and I soon realized why: he was staring directly at the girl from about three feet away. For the next few minutes, he changed positions several times but never stopped staring. Eventually, halfway to Shady Grove, the girl became sufficiently disturbed that she moved halfway down the train car and took another seat. The guy waited a few seconds and then followed her, deliberately “tripping” on her foot before taking up another position to start staring again.

Even though I wasn’t directly involved in this little episode, I was creeped out. I can only imagine how the young lady felt. She left the train with a female Metro employee, so I felt confident that she was in no immediate danger. Afterward, I regretted not having the presence of mind to use my phone camera to take a picture of the perp.

By the way, this wasn’t some 2 a.m. run: the whole incident occurred right around 4 p.m.

Hell is indeed other people.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Coexisting with Jerks

Most people one meets are reasonably nice - or fake it well. Sadly, there are exceptions, and the Internet seems to give those exceptions license to behave as badly as they can. Case in point: my friend,* Casey Liss, who is one of the three hosts of Accidental Tech Podcast. As the title suggests, the podcast is a tech show, but the guys occasionally veer off into other territory, including their personal lives. Some listeners apparently don’t like this, which is their prerogative.

Then Casey shared this particular piece of feedback - anonymous feedback, of course.
Listening to Marco and Casey droll on and on [sic - I presume the listener meant “drone on and on,” but it’s fascinating to me how many angry people are also bad at basic communications skills] about their sh**** defective kids is the worst thing to have happen to you on a long commute where you can’t play with your phone to change the track. Worst 30 minutes of my life.
Casey provides a few more choice examples of these kinds of uncalled-for comments, but the above quote is the epitome of the genre: ugly, with unnecessary profanity, and taking a cheap shot at young children, along with the general level of whininess about content.

It’s a widespread phenomenon that crosses genres and political boundaries. The anonymous trolls of GamerGate. The (usually) anonymous hate mail that conservative columnists such as Michelle Malkin receive. And neither side in the Sad Puppies/Hugo Awards nonsense has distinguished itself.

Now, everyone has bad days, and I’d hate to be judged on my ugliest behavior, but I’d venture that 95% of us are decent people and, of the rest, 80% fake it well. It’s that last one percent that feels compelled to spew vile insults and generally make lives miserable.

Why are you wasting your time on this? (Part 1)

Our anonymous jerk complains that he lost 30 minutes of his life listening to something he didn’t want to. Well, get a grip. If you know you’re going to be in a car unable to change what you’re listening to, either accept that some minutes are not going to be to your liking or find something you know you’ll like. I don’t listen to podcasts in the car for this reason; if I find a section I don’t find interesting, I’ll skip it. Instead, this guy is so annoyed at the 30 minutes he can’t get back that he wastes still more time writing a nasty comment.

Why are you wasting your time on this? (Part 2)

Of course, one might ask why I’m wasting my time on a low-life. The answer is that I don’t like bullies, and that’s what this guy is. He’s taking advantage of the anonymity afforded by the feedback form and the fact that Casey was likely to be offended, quite rightly, at the cheap shots at his family.

This is my little reminder that we can’t do anything about people like this out there on the Internet, but we can control our own reactions to trolls. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Easy to say, hard to do, I know. This kind of crap comes with the territory, though, and the more listeners a podcast has, the more of these reactions the podcast will get. The response isn’t to eliminate feedback; feedback is useful, and polite feedback should be cherished. But vitriolic comments are just noise. Don’t pay attention to them, and don’t let them ruin your day.

* Okay, he’s not really my friend, never met him, he’s just some guy with a podcast. I spend 90 minutes or more each week with these three guys, which is more time than I spend with a lot of actual people I know and like. It’s a strange world we live in. Still, Casey seems like a likable human being.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Math is Hard

Every year at work I am required to take a refresher training course in the often-bewildering ethics rules. For two out of every three years, the training consists of certifying that I have looked at a web page. However, every third year the training is in person. This is such a year for me.

In order to keep attendees paying attention, the ethics folks organize some kind of a game. One year it was “football,” in which correct answers would move the ball some random number of yards down the field. Another year it was a version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” I seem to recall a version of “The Weakest Link” as well. This year it was “Deal or No Deal.” For those who haven’t seen the game show, the key feature is that the contestant selects an object of unknown value and he or she can play for the value of the object or can take the offer of some known amount of money. The offer is usually somewhere around the mean value of the remaining objects. (As an example, if the contestant knows that his object is worth either $100 or $1000, the banker might offer $525, slightly under the mean value of the two choices.)

Frankly, my aim is to get out of the room in no more than an hour, and I don’t care about the outcome of the game. My colleagues, however, are so competitive they are constitutionally unable to help themselves. This year they even argued about some of the answers in a legalistic, hair-splitting manner. As a result, one would think everyone should be strategizing about both the answer and the bet - taking the “deal” or not.

As we got to the last two questions, my team was up by about $900 and would get the last question. All of the objects near the average value were gone - all that remained were some low-valued objects ($100, $200, and $600, if I recall correctly) and some high-valued ones (three more in the $2000 range). The “banker” offered around $1000 - enough to get ahead of my team if the other team answered the question correctly. Take the deal? There was a 50% chance that the object would be worth less than $900, and thus the team would lose regardless of whether it got the question right. There was a 50% chance the object would be worth a lot, although the team would still have to get the question right to climb ahead of my team. At that point, we’d still get a chance to answer one more question for the win, and we would know whether we’d have to roll the dice on the object in order to get enough money to win.

Taking the $1000 offer by the banker is straightforward: to win, the other team needs to answer the question and hope we blow our question. If the probability of answering correctly is 50%, then the odds of the other team winning are 25%. Rejecting the offer is more complicated. Half the time the object will be worth too little, and the team loses with certainty. Half the time the object will be worth more than enough to get ahead. Depending on the draw, we might be able to win by taking the banker’s offer and answering the question - the same odds as if the other team took the $1000 banker’s offer. The rest of the time we’d be forced to reject the banker’s offer and hope for a good outcome. We don’t know the odds of this outcome, but if we’re in that branch of the decision tree there’s some chance the other team will win regardless of how we answer the question; otherwise, it still comes down to whether we can answer the question correctly. In short, the only way this choice is better is if the odds are high the first team gets a good draw and the second team gets a bad draw from the remaining objects, because all the other possible outcomes are no better (and some are substantially worse) than just taking the banker’s offer. Yet we could all see the distribution of remaining objects, so the “first team’s draw is good, second team’s draw is bad” outcome is unlikely.

Naturally, the economist-free team rejected the banker’s offer and got an object worth $600. Game over. In the end, I’d like to think I re-learned some of the ethics rules and the other team learned a little about probability theory.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Farewell to Venexia and Goatswood

From Ziki Questi’s blog, I see that two photogenic role-playing sims are about to fade from the grid: Venexia and Goatswood. I never made it to Venexia, despite some good intentions, or if I did I neglected to memorialize my visit in this Journal, but I did report on my visit to Goatswood here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Journey to the Ninth Circle of Hell

In Dante’s Inferno, the Ninth Circle, the lowest level of Hell, is reserved for the traitors. Frank Lefravre has re-created Dante’s vision in Cocytus: the Ninth Circle of Hell. (My thanks to Inara Pey for chronicling the exhibit.) A latter-day Virgil starts by crossing a wooden bridge and then descending into the caves.

Ninth Circle of Hell 001

The circle has four concentric rings, starting with the Caina, named after Cain, and containing the traitors to relations.

Ninth Circle of Hell 002

The next circle is Antenora, after a Trojan nobleman who betrayed the city to the Greeks, and contains political traitors.

Ninth Circle of Hell 003

The third circle is Ptolomaea, after the governor of Jericho in the second century BC, who killed his dinner guest (and father-in-law), and is reserved for traitors to their guests.

Ninth Circle of Hell 004

The fourth area is named Judecca, after Judas Iscariot, and contains traitors to their benefactors. These traitors are completely encased in ice.

Ninth Circle of Hell 005

At the center of Hell is Satan, condemned for treachery against God. Satan stands waist-deep in ice, beating his wings but unable to escape.

Ninth Circle of Hell 006

Dante and Virgil escape Hell by climbing down Satan and through the center of the earth, before emerging in Purgatory. Fortunately, one need not take that particular perilous journey; a teleport is all that is needed to escape this particular Hell.

Dante’s Inferno is a popular theme in Second Life, it appears. Back in 2011 this Journal commented on such an exhibit.