Friday, October 24, 2014

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga Fic, End of Chapter 2

The woman from the Federation -- a spy? A soldier? Special Forces? -- moved swiftly and silently down the hall, a small moving patch of darkness in the murk. Wally followed, head reeling at the absurdity of it all. Here he was, a pudgy, balding scientist, clutching a rifle to his chest like a child's doll, following a spectacularly lethal, beautiful woman half his age through a dark hallway in a building infested with murderous alien monsters, the closest thing he had to a close friend lying dead behind him, and all he could think of was that he didn't know the name of any of the people protecting him.

The woman paused at a corner and gestured for Wally to get behind her. She peered carefully around the corner. "It looks clear to the emergency stairs," she whispered. "We'll take those down to the lowest level and grab the other objective. We'll use the cargo lift to get back to the surface quickly."

"It won't work without power," he whispered.

"Leave that to me," she said. "Your job is to confirm the target and make sure it's in good condition. Ready?"

"What's your name?" he blurted.

She looked at him quickly, startled, then turned away to watch the corridor again. Her face returned to impassivity as he watched. "Diesieger," she said. "Sardula Diesieger."

"Ready," Wally said.

Sardula ran for the stairway door while Wally covered her. One of her knives dropped from her sleeve into her hand, and almost immediately began to glow. Wally watched, fascinated. He'd heard of the Hilbert Atrophy before, but never seen it in action. Sardula's knife sliced through the door like butter, and in a matter of moments it collapsed to the floor. She motioned to him, and he ran quickly to the stairs.

Even going down, twenty-two floors was a long way, and Wally was heaving and puffing when they finally reached bottom. "Rest a moment," Sardula said, not even breathing hard.

Wally leaned against a wall and sucked in a few deep breaths. Sardula kept looking around, scanning for any sign of danger. Her eyes, Wally noticed suddenly, were amber, not the light brown he'd thought they were earlier. She was a Realian, of course. It made sense; almost all of the Federation's frontline troops were, and it explained how such a tiny person could kick hard enough to make a Div stumble.

Sardula sliced through the door and rolled into the hall, springing to her feet with both blades drawn. "Clear," she said. "Let's go."

Wally followed as quickly as he could. Sardula clearly knew exactly where she was going--she probably had a map of the facility in her brain. They were headed right for the high-security lab where the Original was kept. Unfortunately, he knew how the lowest level was laid out, a series of increasingly secure areas nested inside one another. "You realize we're going to have to go through Div containment to get to the Original, right?"

"Divs are drawn to sentient prey," Sardula answered. "I'm hoping they've run out of people to kill down here and all moved to the higher levels."

Wally winced, not sure whether it was the concept or the matter-of-fact tone with which she stated it that bothered him more.

They reached the mangled remains of the reinforced double doors that led to Div containment without incident, but Sardula held up a hand as they approached it. "Careful," she said. "Hope isn't a battle plan. Keep your eyes peeled; this is a great place for an ambush."

She dove through the wreckage in the doorway, blades drawn and glowing as she sprang to her feet on the far side. Wally followed, keeping his distance and sweeping the room with his gun as he'd seen soldiers do in movies. Sardula led the way slowly, primed to leap in any direction if needed.
The very large room was crisscrossed by the remnants of transparent cubicle walls, shattered and broken by hammer-blow Div fists. Most of the chambers had been filled with medical or biological research equipment, oversized operating tables, scanning devices, or computers for genetic sequencing and chemical analysis. They were in a disarray of smashed metal and stains Wally desperately hoped were the residue of chemicals or samples, not researchers. In the center of the room was a cluster of now-defunct forcefield cages, each large enough to hold a Div and give it limited room to move around.

"There's the door to the top-security lab," Wally said, pointing to an intact double door at the far end of the room. "Let's hurry."

There was a crash and a roar from above them and Sardula rolled to the side as a Div dropped down. Another tore in through the side wall near Wally; he fell back with a yelp of surprise, losing his grip on his gun.

Sardula leaped high as the Div swung at her, slashing its wrist as it passed. Its hand fell to the ground and the Div roared in pain, staggering back. The hand dissolved before it touched the ground, as did the fat, viscous drops of black blood oozing much too slowly from the stump of the Div's arm. The Div screamed and backed toward the cages, Sardula pursuing it but keeping her distance warily, waiting for an opening.

Wally scrambled after his gun, but the Div stomped between him and it. He rolled aside, barely avoiding its kick, and scrambled hastily to his feet. He ran for the nearest cubicle. Slow, heavy footsteps resounded right behind him, but he didn't dare look back.

The Div Sardula was chasing reached the cages. Its hand was now partially grown back, a lump of red flesh without fingers or skin. Without turning, it tore a half-ton forcefield generator free of the bolts holding it in place and flung it at Sardula. She dove underneath the attack and charged the Div. She leaped for the kill, but had forgotten to take its injured arm into account; a sweeping blow flung her with a crash into a torn-apart cubicle.

The Div stomped after her as the lump of flesh on the end of its wrist separated into fingers with a wet rip. Its healing was accelerating as the effects of the Hilbert Atrophy wore off; scabrous skin grew rapidly to cover it, then hair and claws began rapidly to grow.

Sardula lay amidst a pile of smashed computer equipment, momentarily stunned. As her senses returned, she realized the Div was approaching rapidly, and leaped to her feet. She shook her head to clear it, and realized her hands were empty. She scanned the room quickly, and spotted one of her knives lying on the floor, near where she had been struck by the Div. Its glow was already fading rapidly, and she had no time to search for the other, as the Div was upon her.

It grabbed for her, but she was able to duck out of the way and try to sweep its legs out from under it, to no avail. The Div's other arm came ponderously about, but Sardula was too far inside its reach for it to have much effect. She slid between its legs, kicking it in the crotch, but there was nothing there to kick but leathery armor.

She rolled to her feet grabbed the nearest weapon she could improvise, a broken-off length of glass tubing, about an inch across and three feet long. As the Div turned to attack her again, she jumped and stabbed, burying the tube deep in its eye.

The Div screamed and clawed at the makeshift spear, trying to pull it out, but its large claws were too clumsy to get a good grip. Sardula took advantage of its distraction to sprint for her knife. She reactivated the Hilbert emitters in her wrist as she grabbed it off the floor, then spun, scanning the room swiftly.

Wally scrambled desperately from hiding place to hiding place as each one was destroyed by the Div relentlessly pursuing him. He rolled under an operating table only to have the Div rip it out of the floor. In the time it took the Div to do that, he fled over the smashed cubicle wall and behind a metal table, which the Div pounded flat with a single blow of its fist.

Wally's chest was aching and his head swimming with exhaustion, but he was past noticing. All that mattered was making sure there was always one more obstacle between himself and the pursuing Div. He could barely see from the sweat pouring into his eyes, but he knew the red, moving blur was the Div, and all the other blurs were non-Divs. That was all he needed.

Indefatigable, the Div followed, destroying one obstacle after another, never hesitating. It was inevitable that it would eventually catch up to him. Wally dove behind a pile of several large pieces of equipment -- protein extrapolators and gene sequencers, he vaguely noted) -- through a gap too small for the Div to reach through. He wiped the sweat from his eyes and realized he'd backed himself into a corner. Through the transparent cubicle walls he could see the other Div snap off the glass tube buried in its eye. A moment later, the portion buried in its eye popped out as the eye reformed as if no damage had been done. Of Sardula there was no sign, and Wally realized that, in his mad scramble, he must have gotten between her and her Div.

A deafening roar echoed a few feet from him, and the Div chasing him swept the top half of the pile to the ground. Wally backed against the corner, but to no avail. The Div wrapped its enormous claw around his torso, pinning his arms to his sides, and lifted him. Wally screamed and kicked at the air as he rose into the air toward its hideous face. Its skin was hot, much hotter than a human's if not actually painful, and its stinking breath poured over him in waves.

Its claw was tightening, and Wally knew that it could crush him like an egg. Would, in a second. He wanted to scream and rage, but his arms were completely pinned and there was no way to scream louder than he already was.

To Wally's astonishment, the Div dropped him suddenly, screaming in rage and pain and clawing at the knife Sardula had thrown into its shoulder. It turned to face her as she charged, but she leaped lightly over the blow it swung at her with its good arm and vaulted over its shoulder, pulling out the knife and landing on its other side.

Sardula reached into the pile of equipment Wally had hidden behind and pulled her second knife from where it had embedded itself in the white plastic casing of a computer, then turned to face the two angry Divs converging on her and Wally.

She crouched low, knives held so that the blades pointed back along her arms. "Saoshi!" she screamed, and leapt for the farther of the two Divs. She landed on its shoulder and immediately backflipped off, slashing it with both her blades. She kicked off from the other Div, and attacked again, spinning and dodging tirelessly, never touching the ground, never touching a Div for more than a fraction of a second.

Wally stared a moment, flabbergasted, but then returned to his senses. "Gun," he said to himself, peering around the room. He soon spotted it, and ran, crouching low, desperately hoping neither Div would notice him. He stumbled as he reached the gun, tumbling to the floor, but managed to keep his grip on it.

As he scrambled to his feet and turned toward the Divs, he saw one manage to clip Sardula as she spun past. Even the glancing blow was sufficient to throw off her aim, and she barely managed to get her feet under herself before she hit the ground. The nearer Div swung for her, and she dove too slow out of the way--

A hail of bullets brought it up short with a roar, and Sardula gasped in relief. Then she returned her attention to attacking the two Divs. Wally's bullets, lacking the Hilbert Atrophy channeled along Sardula's knives, could not injure the Divs, but they were highly successful at annoying them and keeping them off balance. Together, they made short work of the Divs.

After the last one collapsed with a guttural, mournful cry, Sardula sheathed her knives and began checking herself for injuries. "You all right?" she asked Wally.

He felt suddenly, intensely cold and sick, and noticed for the first time the dull ache in his chest and the cuts and bruises all over him. "Nothing serious," he said. "You?"

"A little internal damage to my left arm," she answered. "Nothing my autorepair can't handle." She walked over to the doors to the maximum-security lab.

"You're a follower of Saoshi?" Wally asked.

Sardula darkened, barely perceptibly. It took Wally a moment to realize she was blushing. "There doesn't seem to be any way to open the door without power," she said. "I'm going to have to cut it open."

"I'm sorry, I was just curious, since you saved me and all. I didn't mean to offend you."

"I'm not offended," Sardula said. "However, I'm here to accomplish a mission, not to make social engagements."

It was Wally's turn to blush. "You think I'm--no no no! I know what they say about cyberneticists, but I really honestly was just curious. I've never met one of Saoshi's followers before."
Sardula grunted noncommittally as she carved an opening in the doorway for them. "It was an exclamation under the stress of combat," she said. "It's not worth dwelling on."

"All right," Wally said. "It's obviously a sore subject. I'm sorry." Mentally, he cursed the popular conception of Realian designers and cyberneticists as clankers. Okay, so yes, pretty much all Realians were designed to be aesthetically pleasing--why not? So were most children. Parents weren't under constant suspicion of being perverts, were they? Maybe they were. Wally didn't actually know any parents.

Sardula finished cutting through the door and pulled herself through the opening. She helped Wally through, and then turned into the room. "So, where is it?" she asked.

"Huh? It should be right in--" Wally stared, then cursed and punched the wall.

The Original was already gone.

End of Chapter Two. Next weekend I'll have some more original fic up, and then Chapter Three starts after that. What do people think so far? I really struggled with this chapter--there were a lot of problematic descriptions of Sardula in the original, and I really struggled with removing those while also making clear that the same kind of blend of cultural standards, objectification, and sexism that influences the design of (for example) female superheroes and video game characters in our culture was at work on her. I also struggled with Ritzi, because she, Jensen, and the security guard all exist solely to die. I tried to avoid most of the fridge clichés as best I could, and in particular tried to make it clear that throughout Wally is driven by his own fear, not some kind of macho revenge BS, but I don't know how well I succeeded.

Soundtrack! Only a couple of tracks for this chapter, including the first from a non-Xenosaga source, ar Tonelico:

Div Attack



Sardula's Theme



What do people think of this "chapter soundtrack" idea? Does it do anything for you?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Proposed: 1992-7 is the best five-year period in animation history

No, seriously.

I mean, in TV you've got:
  • Sailor Moon
  • Batman the Animated Series
  • Irresponsible Captain Tylor
  • Animaniacs
  • Rocko's Modern Life
  • Duckman
  • Gargoyles
  • Space Ghost Coast to Coast
  • Fushigi Yuugi
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion
  • The Slayers (first three seasons)
  • Earthworm Jim
  • Freakazoid
  • Pinky and the Brain
  • The What-a-Cartoon! Show
  • Cow and Chicken
  • I Am Weasel
  • Johnny Bravo
  • Superman the Animated Series
  • Daria
  • Pepper Ann
  • Recess
  • Berserk
  • Pokémon
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena
And in film:
  • Aladdin
  • Porco Rosso
  • Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • The Thief and the Cobbler (mangled, but still there is much goodness in there!)
  • The Lion King
  • Pom Poko
  • Ghost in the Shell
  • Memories
  • Toy Story
  • Whisper of the Heart
  • End of Evangelion
  • Perfect Blue
  • Princess Mononoke

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sailor Moon Crystal Liveblog: Episode 8

01[15:00] <Froborr> Oh right, Sailor Bwee.
[15:01] <Arrlaari> Mercury has uwee
01[15:01] <Froborr> BWA
[15:01] <FoME> What.
01[15:01] <Froborr> That voice coming out of a little cat is HILARIOUS
[15:01] <FoME> Agreed.
[15:01] <Arrlaari> Yeah
01[15:02] <Froborr> I know they won't, but it'd be pretty cool if it turned out our main character *wasn't* the destined princess, but was instead just one of her elite guard.
01[15:04] <Froborr> Moon's tiara is all "No way, I can TOTALLY out-crescent her!"
[15:04] <FoME> Sailor Moon's tiara evolved again. Must be a Bug-type.
01[15:05] <Froborr> And once again Usagi is all, "So hot, must add her to my harem."
[15:05] <FoME> And V's been spying on them through the arcade machine. That's not creepy.
[15:05] <Arrlaari> "Oh, I wasn't hallucinating"
[15:06] <Arrlaari> "I really was being lectured by my hero through a video game at my favorite arcade"
[15:06] <Arrlaari> "that is a relief"
01[15:06] <Froborr> It's a good thing that Usagi wasn't playing that Starfighter game next to Sailor V, she would've gotten recruited into COMPLETELY the wrong adventure.
[15:07] <FoME> Lol
[15:07] <FoME> Ad.
01[15:07] <Froborr> Ad.
[15:07] <Arrlaari> ad
01[15:07] <Froborr> lol
[15:07] <Arrlaari> It's as if we are all using the same website
[15:07] <Arrlaari> 10 seconds remain
[15:07] <FoME> For this ad.
01[15:07] <Froborr> I just started a second 30 second ad.
[15:07] <Arrlaari> Repeat of same ad
[15:07] <Arrlaari> Mine is also 30s
[15:07] <FoME> It's as if we are all using the same website.
01[15:08] <Froborr> back
[15:08] <FoME> Likewise.
01[15:08] <Froborr> Arr?
[15:08] <Arrlaari> yes
[15:08] <Arrlaari> same as you all
[15:08] <Arrlaari> I didn't pause when it ended, did you all hold up?
01[15:09] <Froborr> Yes.
[15:09] <Arrlaari> whoops
01[15:09] <Froborr> Ah, this is the Explain the Plot Episode.
[15:09] <Arrlaari> I'm now paused at 7:59
[15:09] <FoME> With Sailor Exposition
01[15:09] <Froborr> I'm at 7:49.
[15:09] <FoME> 8:02
01[15:09] <Froborr> Hitting 7:59... now.
01[15:10] <Froborr> So, if she destroyed the moon kingdom and killed evryone... who sealed her?
[15:10] <FoME> Some of them died after sealing her.
01[15:10] <Froborr> Fair enough.
[15:11] <Arrlaari> I like to think she's named Metallia because of the vicious metallic dust that covers the moon now
[15:11] <FoME> "Regolith" doesn't have quite the same ring for eldritch abominations, does it?
01[15:11] <Froborr> Wait, why is "Artemis" a male cat?
[15:11] <Arrlaari> Actually it totally does
[15:12] <Arrlaari> Artemis & Luna
[15:12] <FoME> @Froborr: The fandom has made that joke many times.
01[15:12] <Froborr> Endymion, eh?
01[15:13] <Froborr> The mythical shepherd and astronomer that was the mortal lover of the moon goddess Selene. Slightly more obscure than I gave this show credit for.
[15:13] <FoME> I can't help but note that no one's called her "Minako" yet. It's always "Princess" or "V-chan." That's kind of sad.
01[15:14] <Froborr> She's kind of encouraged that, though? She's defintiely playing the sempai role to the hilt.
[15:14] <FoME> True.
01[15:14] <Froborr> Not to mention, the way she's worried about them regaining their memories suggests she KNOWS she isn't the princess.
[15:14] <Arrlaari> It's notable to me that you connect the sempai role to the princess role
01[15:15] <Froborr> Well, they're both social superiors, one by birth and one by experience.
[15:15] <FoME> Ad.
01[15:15] <Froborr> Ad/
01[15:15] <Froborr> Also: "we"
[15:15] <Arrlaari> Ad
01[15:16] <Froborr> Are ALL cats part of a vast ancient lunar conspiracy?
[15:16] <FoME> I wouldn't be surprised.
[15:16] <Arrlaari> Two rounds of the 30s ad here
01[15:16] <Froborr> How Lovecraftian of them.
[15:16] <Arrlaari> same as you guys, right? So there's no need for anyone to pause at the end, right?
[15:16] <FoME> Back.
[15:16] <Arrlaari> I guess not
[15:16] <Arrlaari> what
[15:16] <Arrlaari> a THIRD run
01[15:16] <Froborr> And I had a 10 second ad followed by 30 and now another 30.
[15:17] <Arrlaari> I got 3x30 that is merciless
01[15:17] <Froborr> back
[15:17] <Arrlaari> done
[15:17] <FoME> Lovecraft vs. Lovecraft. Metallia vs. cats. Who will win?
01[15:17] <Froborr> Cats.
[15:18] <FoME> Obviously. They have much better PR.
01[15:18] <Froborr> Also thus far Metallia doesn't appear particularly Lovecraftian, tbh.
01[15:18] <Froborr> She's not particularly eldritch.
[15:18] <FoME> Point. More generic "shadow demon"
01[15:19] <Froborr> Um, yes, DUH it's a trap!
[15:19] <FoME> Wow. So much for that secret identity.
01[15:20] <Froborr> Wow, so, why didn't they just have Kunzite show up from the start and kill everyone?
01[15:20] <Froborr> He seems kind of OP relative to the other generals.
[15:20] <Arrlaari> Killing the humans means they can't be exploited for energy
01[15:20] <Froborr> True.
[15:21] <FoME> You don't kill sheep to shear them.
[15:21] <Arrlaari> This move looks like it works like Power Word: Kill in that it's wholly ineffective against strong targets
[15:21] <FoME> Huh. No power-up incantation for Venus.
01[15:21] <Froborr> And the same song as Mercury and Moon--no unique transformation music like Mars and Jupiter.
[15:22] <FoME> Jupiter can fly, apparently.
01[15:22] <Froborr> BTW Jupiter can fly.
[15:23] <Arrlaari> BY THE WAY: TEAMWORK
01[15:23] <Froborr> "precious friends," is that what the kids are calling it these days.
[15:24] <FoME> This is why you don't try to heal shields, Usagi.
[15:24] <FoME> Ad.
01[15:24] <Froborr> Ad.
[15:24] <Arrlaari> ad
[15:24] <Arrlaari> It worked great against the other guy - was that zoicite?
[15:24] <Arrlaari> The one who had to get rescued by Beryl
[15:24] <FoME> True. And yes.
[15:25] <FoME> Back.
01[15:25] <Froborr> Still mid-ad.
[15:25] <Arrlaari> Artemis' Serious Cat voice is a pretty good surprise
01[15:25] <Froborr> THIRD ad.
[15:25] <Arrlaari> done
01[15:26] <Froborr> back
[15:26] <FoME> I just noticed the bunny ears on Usagi's new tiara. They're kind of hilarious.
01[15:26] <Froborr> Tuxedo Mask's all, "Kissing a conscious girl? I don't know how to handle that!"
[15:27] <FoME> I liked the "Thanks for the save, now get out here while the adults fight."
01[15:27] <Froborr> Yeah, it was pretty great.
01[15:27] <Froborr> Sadly, I am virtually certain he survived.
[15:27] <Arrlaari> And masculinity anxiety claims another life
[15:28] <Arrlaari> Alas, that would have read much better if I had been just slightly faster
[15:28] <FoME> Seems like gravity can now be ignored when the plot demands it now.
01[15:28] <Froborr> Indeed.
[15:28] <Arrlaari> Anime jumping
[15:28] <FoME> I'm going to say Jupiter is using some kind of maglev with the Earth's field.
01[15:29] <Froborr> Plus everyone except Tuxedo Bats is a superhero, and he's Batman.
[15:29] <FoME> But can he breathe in space?
01[15:29] <Froborr> Only one way to find out!
01[15:29] <Froborr> Actually, given that they had a civilization ON THE MOON, presumably none of them need air.
[15:30] <Arrlaari> One assumes the moon used to be a lot more pleasant an environment
[15:30] <FoME> "Oxygen? You mean you're still using that? How quaint."
01[15:30] <Froborr> It'd be pretty cool if we eventually found out that the dream-memory-things are actually being translated into human terms by the process of reincarnation, and in their past lives on the moon they were all hideous blob monsters.
[15:31] <FoME> And Endymion still fell in love with one.
01[15:31] <Froborr> Wait, Endymion was from Earth?
01[15:31] <Froborr> I mean, in the myth, obviously, but in the show as well?
[15:31] <Arrlaari> FoME just slipped up
01[15:32] <Froborr> Grr.
[15:32] <FoME> Yeah. I keep forgetting that the twenty-year old spoilers are still spoilers for you.
[15:32] <FoME> My bad.
[15:32] <Arrlaari> You mentioned that Endymion was more obscure than you expected to see. It turns out Naoko Takeuchi is way into old Greek & Roman stuff
01[15:32] <Froborr> Huh, interesting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fundamentals: Where Morality Comes From

I'm a firm believer that the key to understanding some aspect of human behavior is to understand the motivations behind it. If you know why people do what they do, then understanding what becomes trivial.

Further, I firmly believe that you cannot prescribe until you first describe--that until you have done your best to understand what something is, you have no business arguing about what it should be. So it follows that, if I am going to talk about morality and ethics--and given that I regard morality, politics, and aesthetics as inextricably intertwined, I have talked and will continue to talk about them--it behooves me to first try to understand what motivates them.

So why do people want to be moral? The glib answer, of course, is the same reason anyone ever wants anything: they think it will feel better than the alternative. But what feelings, specifically, are at work with morality? I think it comes down, ultimately, to four emotions:
  • Shame: Being seen by others as immoral feels bad, being intimately associated with rejection and negative judgment.
  • Guilt: Seeing oneself as immoral likewise feels bad, being associated with failure and self-doubt.
  • Pride: Seeing oneself as moral (and being seen by others as moral) feels good, because it's associated with acceptance, positive judgment, achievement, and self-esteem. (Note: Tentatively I place the sense of fairness here--that is, we wish to be treated fairly and to treat others fairly because of its impact on our sense of pride. It's possible, however, to regard fairness as a separate, fifth emotion underlying morality.)
  • Empathy: Not exactly an emotion, but definitely emotional in nature and a strong motivator behind altruism.
Ultimately, moral behavior is a matter of avoiding shame and guilt, pursuing pride, and acting with empathy. Moral crises come about when it's not possible to do all of these at once--for example, when avoiding social disapproval means failing one's own standards and vice versa.

Of course, looked at this way, it becomes immediately obvious why no logically consistent moral code--regardless of the metaethics behind it--can really work: emotional states aren't logically consistent. And we can't actually reject this emotional basis, because without it there's no reason to be moral. Nor can any one of these emotions be ignored: Shame is necessary because it's how we learn to be guilty. Guilt is necessary because it's the moral equivalent of burning one's hand on a hot stove. Pride is necessary because without it the only advantage to being moral over being amoral is that you might get caught. And empathy is necessary because without it morality becomes an irrelevant abstraction, unconnected with the material wellbeing of real people in the real world. Together, shame and empathy prevent morality from becoming solipsistic or narcissistic; guilt and pride prevent it from becoming conformist.

So why bother with thinking about morality at all? Why not just go with kneejerk emotional responses to every situation? I think Daniel Dennett has a good answer here, and I recommend the relevant chapters in his Freedom Evolves on the topic. (And all the rest of it, for that matter.) But basically, thinking about moral questions and coming up with rules of thumb serves a few purposes.

The first reason is what Dennett describes by analogy to the story of Odysseus and the Sirens: Having principles is a way of metaphorically tying ourselves to the mast, so that when we face a situation "in the moment" we are better prepared to resist temptation. In other words, principles are about recognizing that we are imperfect actors and sometimes make decisions in the moment that, once we have time to think about them, we regret. Thinking about moral questions and adopting rules of thumb or broad principles is a kind of self-programming, training ourselves to feel extra guilt when we break them and extra pride when we follow them, thus increasing the likelihood of resisting temptation in the moment.

Another reason is communication. Part of morality is accepting responsibility for one's community, and shame is a critical tool for policing that community. Shared principles are a key way for a community to define for itself how it will police its members by clarifying what kinds of behaviors are appropriate for other members of the community to shame. Of course members of the community may disagree, resulting in conflict, but conflict is an inevitable (and frequently desirable) part of being in a community.

Be clear, however: principles, lists of rules, and all other attempts to codify morality are models, which is to say they are necessarily not the thing modeled. Morality is not adherence to a set of principles, but rather a complex and irreducible social and emotional state, which is why excessive adherence to principles leads always to advocating obviously immoral behavior. Ethics, in other words, is rightly a descriptive, not prescriptive, branch of philosophy: journalistic ethics is a description of how good journalists behave, not a set of commandments handed down by the journalism gods from on high. Studying such models is obviously very useful in becoming a good journalist, but is not in itself sufficient--like any rule set, the point is to understand them well enough to know when to break them. Journalistic ethics are, of course, just an example--the same goes for any other kind of ethics.

Of course, if morality is emotional in nature, it follows that just as there is no "correct" way to feel about something, there is no "correct" morality. That said, just because there's no correct way to feel doesn't mean there are no incorrect ways; it's simply factually untrue to say that there isn't a broad consensus about certain behaviors in certain scenarios. Baby-eating, for example, is almost universally regarded as repulsive, and so we can fairly safely say that a model of morality which prescribes eating babies as a normal practice has failed to accurately depict its subject.

More to the point, it doesn't actually matter that there's no correct model: if my morality--which here includes both the ways in which I model morality through principles and reason and the underlying emotional reality--demands that I oppose someone else's actions or attempts to make their model of morality dominant within the community, then it demands it. Which of course is why people give logically inconsistent answers to ethical dilemmas: the curious responses to the trolley problem are of course completely understandable once you recognize that while passive and active choices aren't logically different, they feel different.

In the end, as with aesthetics, any prescriptive model will necessarily be imperfect. But that's the human condition, isn't it? Making do with imperfect materials, striving ever to replace our old mistakes with new ones.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Still podcastin': Lucifer with Uncle Yo

Yep, I continue to be on geek comedian Uncle Yo's podcast We Are the Geek to talk about Mike Carey's Lucifer. We're up to volume 9 now, and things are heating up!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

But, you know, whatever you want to do is fine (Filli Vanilli)

[insert "!" and Metal Gear Solid sound effect here]
It's February 15, 2014. Katy Perry and The Lego Movie still top the charts and box office respectively. In the news, the U.S. federal government recognizes all same-sex marriages in states where same-sex marriage is legal; Facebook allows users to set a custom gender; and a massive cold wave and winter storms strike the southern U.S. and Britain.

On TV we have the Amy Keating Rogers-penned "Filli Vanilli," the second major reference this season to pop acts that predate both the target audience and the majority of the bronies, but will be immediately recognizable to the older bronies and parents. Specifically, the title refers to the late 80s/early 90s German R&B group Milli Vanilli, who were the center of a scandal when it was revealed the apparent members of the group, Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, were actually just lip-synching to prerecorded music.

Other than the title, however, the episode has little to do with the scandal, since it's actually the opposite situation--in real life, Morvan and Pilatus were hired after the band had started recording to provide its public image, and later asserted they had been contractually "trapped" into lip-synching after initially believing they were going to sing, while in the episode Fluttershy is actually invited to be a part of the onstage group and it's her choice that she remain backstage, lip-synching.

Indeed, this is one of the episode's greatest strengths, that it remains focused throughout on Fluttershy's choice. Her stage fright is of course unsurprising, given her intense fear of public humiliation as depicted in "Hurricane Fluttershy"--indeed, when she finally is exposed backstage, the crowd's cheering transforms quickly into images very reminiscent of the jeering masks from that episode.

But despite these fears, and her initial rejection of Rarity's suggestion that she join the Pony Tones as a fifth member, Fluttershy elects to compound her potential humiliation by deliberately restoring her "Flutterguy" voice from "Bridle Gossip" (played to hilarious effect in that episode by Blu Mankuma, and here equally well by Alvin Sanders and Marcus Mosely--in both episodes, the voice actors do a marvelous job of imitating Andrea Libman's performance at a lower register). Fully aware of Fluttershy's earlier objections, Rarity insists that Fluttershy doesn't have to do it, but Fluttershy feels she must for the sake of the animals whose benefit concert is in danger of cancellation.

As the episode progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Fluttershy is greatly enjoying performing with the Pony Tones. The episode never makes explicit whether this is because she just loves singing (which the cold open makes quite clear), relishes the opportunity to be a part of a music group of which she states herself to be the "number one fan," or if she's enjoying the opportunity to hear the crowd cheer for her even while she remains safely backstage and anonymous. (Social anxiety, after all, does not negate the need for social approval and validation.) The episode works well with any or all of these explanations, so in this case leaving it open to viewer interpretation is likely the right call--regardless, what's quite clear is that Fluttershy is happy with the lip-synching and upset when she realizes it's her final performance. This leads her to throw herself into the performance as never before, dancing in mid-air backstage and throwing in improvisations that Big Mac struggles to accommodate with his performance.

It seems reasonable to suspect that, regardless of her motivations for enjoying the performance, some part of Fluttershy wanted to be found out. Maybe she wanted to get credit for her work; maybe she felt guilty about deceiving the audience. Whatever the reason, her lack of caution in this final lip-synch belies her fear of public performance, forcing her into the spotlight, where she panics.

Here again the episode shines. Pinkie Pie is obliviously straightforward, to the point of hurting Fluttershy, but the other ponies quickly catch on to how upset Fluttershy is and, just as Rarity did throughout the episode, allow Fluttershy to set the pace. She performs with the Pony Tones for a tiny audience of just the Mane Six and her animal friends, and then when they suggest she join the Pony Tones for a larger concert, she refuses--and the episode ends with the others acknowledging and accepting that she will set the pace for dealing with her stage fright.

There is a principle I've discussed several times on this site, but I think this is actually the first time it's come up with Friendship Is Magic. Which is fitting, actually, because most other times I've talked about it, it's been in regards to cases of characters failing to abide by it, and thus creating disaster. Here, instead, we have a pitch-perfect example of what I'm talking about when I discuss helping versus saving: this is what helping looks like. Helping is offering resources, opportunities, and support without asserting control; in this case, it means letting Fluttershy decide that she wants to work backstage or put on a tiny concert for an audience of animals and close friends, not perform onstage at a major town event. It is the open acceptance by the rest of the Mane Six that their offered opportunity could be rejected, and that's okay, because the goal is not to save or fix Fluttershy, but to help and support her.

In other words, for Rarity throughout the episode (and indeed, for Big Mac as well; note that he is clearly increasingly uncomfortable with lip-synching with each performance, but is shown looking at Fluttershy and then resuming his efforts) and for the Mane Six at the end, this is not about pushing Fluttershy to some arbitrary standard they set for her, according to abstract principles or their own egos and perceptions, but rather about being supportive and providing whatever resources she decides she needs to work through her own issues. They do not treat Fluttershy as being broken, a project in need of supervision, but rather as a friend to whom they can offer a hand, trusting her to decide whether to take it. It is immensely more respectful and far healthier for both them and Fluttershy.

Except for Pinkie Pie, of course. But she's an interesting case, too. I've taken Rogers to task a fair few times for having characters behave horribly for the sake of a joke, especially in Season One, so credit where credit is due: she seems completely aware that she's doing it, this time. From the audience's point of view, Pinkie Pie is clearly in Comedy Mode, saying awful things to Fluttershy because Pinkie being oblivious to social cues is a recurring joke. But critically, the other characters don't respond in that way--most notably when they point out to Pinkie that in her frightening rant to Fluttershy after the lip-synching was exposed, Pinkie didn't mention how well Fluttershy sang, and Pinkie tries (poorly) to correct that error. In other words, even Pinkie is trying to help, she just can't because the episode structure won't let her.

This feeds back into the helping vs. saving narrative at the end, when Pinkie starts to go off on yet another rant to Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle silences her: often the hardest part of helping someone is doing nothing, standing by quietly because while someone you care about struggles, yet do not need or do not want the particular kind of help you're able to give. The impulse to try to save them--to impose assistance regardless of their wishes--is strong, and so knowing when to shut up and listen is a key skill for helping. One Pinkie Pie clearly still needs to work on; fortunately Rarity, Big Mac, and to a lesser extent Twilight all show themselves able to teach her as and when she asks for help with it. As Fluttershy says: baby steps.

Next week: I honestly don't remember this episode well enough to have anything to say about it. Hopefully I come up with something by next week?

Kill la Lill and Sailor Moon Crystal Liveblog Chat Thingies

Last week's chatlogs are both finally up, and I'll be back-posting Fiction Friday shortly. Sorry, spending Thursday in the emergency room and Friday sleeping off the drugs they gave me has rather thrown off my blogging. 


How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching Kill la Killand commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST today. Then we'll take a short break, and at 3:00 pm EST we'll watch Sailor Moon Crystal.


Kill la Kill chatlog below the cut!