Erik Owomoyela

I write.

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This year’s debates are going to be terrible

Mock Debate

Because we can’t even agree on what makes a good debate anymore.

The NBC News Commander-In-Chief Forum was a good idea on paper. Two of the biggest problems with modern political debates are the way that they cram too many issues into too little time, so that there isn’t enough room to examine any of them in detail, and the way moderators like to tailor their questions for each of the individual candidates instead of just setting the topic of discussion and letting the debaters challenge each other. Having an extended, one-on-one interview with each candidate should have been an ideal solution.

In practice, the forum somehow made both problems worse. And the reaction to it is a pretty good example of why we can’t have nice things.


Dynasty envy


Monarchy is a completely nonsensical form of government. Making someone the leader of your country because one of their immediate relatives was leader of your country is blatant nepotism, and history is full of examples where it produced rulers who had no business being in charge of anything.

I mention this because apparently Queen Elizabeth has been Queen Elizabeth for a really long time, which serves as a news peg for Vox’s Dylan Matthews to make the argument that monarchy is actually great.


Nation-State Socialism


I tend to be skeptical of American socialists. Partly because I think that socialism doesn’t actually have a useful definition within American political discourse, because supporters and critics both treat it as a nebulous concept that stands for whatever they want it to stand for.

The other problem is that socialism hasn’t been a major distinct force in American politics since the 1930s, when FDR absorbed a lot of its ideas to make the New Deal. Which means the socialists who do understand what they’re talking about are working from an old playbook that doesn’t always hold together.


If Kirk was a Republican


There’s a certain element of Star Trek that really appeals to conservatives. Usually it manifests in a weird fetishization of the show’s military aspects, like the non-canon but ubiquitous Starfleet Marines, but fans who are too respectable to associate with the fandoms can try arguing that the whole show had a conservative message.

I assumed that was the direction Ted Cruz would go when the New York Times asked him if he preferred Captain Kirk or Captain Picard. Instead,  he actually had some fairly thoughtful reasoning:

Let me do a little psychoanalysis. If you look at ‘‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’’ it basically split James T. Kirk into two people. Picard was Kirk’s rational side, and William Riker was his passionate side. I prefer a complete captain. To be effective, you need both heart and mind.

He’s still wrong, but not as wrong as I’d expected.


Creative Constraints of Ice and Fire

One of the things about A Song of Ice and Fire that I was less than enthused about is the books’ fixation on constructing an intricately realized bizarro version of medieval England. Why so many Americans are fixated on a world that was largely gone by the time Columbus made it across the Atlantic, and whose influence a lot of our ancestors came here specifically to get some distance from, is kind of irritating.

But since Western fantasy fiction co-opts medieval Europe all the time, this isn’t really news. What apparently is news is that the books have a lot of violent sexism and misogyny, which led George R. R. Martin to tell Entertainment Weekly that the one choice necessitated the other. Naturally I was not enthused.


Star Trek was already too Star Trek-y

Because I am very clued in, I learned that the Internet was freaking out over Simon Pegg having called genre fiction infantile after he’d already posted a reaction to the Internet’s reaction.

As to his main point, I think he’s half right. Major film studios have absolutely taken to using genre fiction as a way to deliver spectacle rather than deep or challenging narratives, but that’s hardly a problem unique to fantasy or science fiction. The Fast & Furious franchise or The Expendables both blockbuster ticket farms too, and I wouldn’t argue they have a greater enduring cultural value than The Avengers.

What’s most concerning about the comments is the context: Pegg happens to be co-writing the next Star Trek film, a role he took on after the studio booted the movie’s original director after some unspecified creative differences. In his interview, Pegg said the original script was “a little bit too Star Trek-y.”


Too many planets


One of the stranger arguments against counting Pluto as a planet is that if we were to include any object of its size and mass that doesn’t orbit a bigger planet, then our solar system would just have too many planets in it for our brains to handle.

The idea got a lot of play back when the International Astronomical Union was debating whether Pluto should be considered a planet. But evidently it’s become so widespread that even critics of the IAU’s decision are buying it:

In a sense, the IAU chose to cauterize a wound, a weakness in the definitions, that if left unchanged, would have led to who knows how many planets in our Solar System.

Mostly, that article goes to argue for a new set of definitions for celestial bodies that isn’t just haphazardly tailored to produce a specific set of planets in our solar system. But it still doesn’t explain how the discovery of a new planet would constitute a wound. Evidently, without official intervention, we should fear that a bunch of fuzzy pictures of small planets might start spilling onto high school astronomy charts, and freak out our impressionable youths who need to be able to count everything using their fingers.


Black holes and the trouble with science fiction


I should be really excited for the movie Interstellar. I think part of why I’m not has to do with my growing skepticism about movie plots in general, which I’ll have to get into later. But regardless, this sort of thing is really impressive:

 In short, in order to accurately create a visual for the story’s black hole, Kip Thorne produced an entirely new set of equations which guided the special effects team’s rendering software. The end result was a visual representation that accurately depicts what a wormhole/black hole would look like in space.

What really impressed me, though, is that apparently nobody thought to do this before. And that kind of says a lot about the state of both science and science fiction.


Mass Effect 3 Revisionism

What's your favorite color?

Okay, when I saw that someone had come up with a 400-page plan to rewrite Mass Effect 3 I was a little annoyed that I hadn’t done it myself, because it seems like a fun project for someone who has too much time on their hands, as I occasionally do. On the other hand, the whole project seems based on exactly what I thought was so off-base about the whole Mass Effect 3 freakout in the first place.

Part of the problem is that the complaints tend not to acknowledge the constraints that arise when a script needs to be paired with the expense of creating an interactive 3D environment and pairing it with actual enjoyable gameplay and making it all work on a budget. But the bigger issue involves whether total freedom of choice is a realistic goal to begin with.