Erik Owomoyela

I write.

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Musings on Democracy

I just realized something. First I’m reading this from Matthew Yglasias about why Congress and the White House can’t work anything out:

Note that if Obama were a hereditary monarch, this would be something like the historical process through which the United Kingdom became a parliamentary system with a symbolic head of state. Parliament started with a relatively bounded authority over granting new tax revenue to the king. But the king would, in practice, need new tax revenue periodically in order to fight wars. This fact, combined with parliament’s greater democratic legitimacy, victory in the English Civil War, and successful perpetration of a kind of coup in 1688 allowed it—and specifically the House of Commons within parliament—to over time seize control of the entire policy agenda. But of course Obama’s not a hereditary monarch, and both the House and the White House have independent claims to democratic legitimacy.

Probably the most sensible resolution to this is the original British one — establish a single center of power by systematically destroying the influence of the others, in their case the monarchy and the House of Lords. In a parliamentary system, there’s one head of government who’s indisputably in charge, so people know who to reward when things are going well and who to blame when they’re not.

But that was way too straightforward for our founders.


You’re Violating the Rules of Being a Weatherman

One of the unfortunate aftereffects of being a reporter is that I’m actually interested by journalistic ethics flaps. Actually, I’ve kind of gone beyond interested, because the journalistic ethics code is one of those bizarre things that makes less sense the more you think about it. Still, I can get dragged in on occasion, particularly when the issue involves news outlets I use.

So when, during the course of driving to get some lunch today, I caught this report about KUOW (Puget Sound’s public radio service!) dumping Cliff Mass from his regular gig forecasting the weather on Weekday, I ended up sitting in my car with the engine off waiting for the story to finish. It was a nice callback to my days in public-service journalism — that rare profession held in high regard by the people who actually do it and by virtually no one else.


Beyond Good and Evil

My final Norwescon panel was kind of an odd one. It was a late addition to the schedule, so the only way for people to find out about it was from word of mouth or just walking by the room and poking your head in. (In retrospect I could have tweeted about it or something. I should have checked to see if there was a panel on self-promotion.) It also took a look at fantasy — interesting ground for me, as I haven’t been primarily a fantasy reader since I was a kid getting bedtime stories from my mom. (My mom was reading The Lord of the Rings to me in preschool. I had kind of an awesome childhood.)

One of the unsettling things about The Lord of the Rings and other fantasies of this type is that the Orcs and Dark Lords are flat, 2-dimensional evil characters with no hope of redemption.  Is there an argument for making things at least somewhat black and white?  If we reject the 100% evil creatures, what do we use for the all-encompassing threat?

My short answer was to say I think The Lord of the Rings is a problem only insofar as people take the wrong lessons from it.


Writing Sci-Fi If You Don’t Know Science

That’s not actually the title of my next Norwescon panel, and the difference is an important one.  In fact, I’ll be answering the question, “Can You Write Hard SF Without a Science Background?” And the description complicates the issue even more.

Is it easier to write a hard science fiction story if you have the technical or science background, or does it get in the way?  How do you fold in the science without making it an info dump?

My simple answer is that yes, you can write hard SF without a science background, and I don’t have a frame of reference to say whether it’s easier if you have one. But — allowing for differences between individuals — I’d guess not.


Supernatural vs. Sci-Fi: Fight!

Well, I didn’t get run out of town last night, so Norwesconers (that’s a word now) can find me at yet another panel tonight. This one’s on Supernatural versus science fiction, the epic struggle of our times:

More and more, the entertainment industry is producing television shows and films that are supernatural in nature, but are calling them science fiction. Are they really? Or is the industry “copping out” and trying to get around having to come up with legitimate science fiction shows? Why are the directors and writers skirting around the science issues instead of addressing them?

What do I think? Well, it’s complicated.


Who’s on first!

Couldn’t resist.  My first panel for Norwescon this year will take a look at how Series Five of Doctor Who compares to Series One through Four, and the 26 seasons that came before it. Summary: I’m not sure I’d say the new series is returning to the traditional mode, but it is a departure from the Russel T Davies years — and, in my view, a welcome one.


I think about Star Trek a lot.

So I’ll be sitting in on a few panels for this year’s Norwescon, starting with two tonight — one on the future of Star Trek, and one on the present of Doctor Who. Given the likely odds I’ll become completely tongue tied when I have to actually talk in front of people, I figured I’d outline my thoughts here for you.

First off, here’s my assessment of Star Trek after the jump. Short version: I’m cautiously optimistic.


Uncanny Valley?

There’s a scene in Mass Effect 2, after you’ve completed the loyalty missions for both Miranda and Jack, when they get into a fight, you have to pick sides, and whoever you don’t choose gets mad and you lose their loyalty unless you pass a Paragon or Renegade check. Because apparently Shepard has a crew full of teenagers.

This was probably the most annoying element of an otherwise awesome game, and it came to mind when I heard about the controversy about gay characters in Dragon Age II. Mainly because I don’t think it’s really a controversy about gay characters.

Okay, this is actually two controversies that kind of overlap. The one that seems to gotten more attention, including a weigh-in by lead writer David Gaider himself, comes from a self-described heterosexual male gamer who thinks the game was neglecting straight guys. I’m not sure how anyone can get that impression from a game that has Isabela in it, but whatever. He basically seems annoyed that the game is trying to be inclusive, which I imagine could be annoying to homophobes and there’s not really much to be done about that.

But there’s also a gamer who’s starting a petition to get Gaider fired because the game gives you rivalry points if you refuse another character’s advances:

This is completely wrong, homosexuals do not approach people and force them to kiss us, the person that wrote this game should be fired for stereotyping homosexuals in such a disrespectful way, as well as creating the worst writing in characters, plot and everything else in DA2. It felt very odd that my male companions kept making passes at me, when I never found any interest or even flirted with them. This sort of thing shows that gays are unable to be normal people and think nothing about sex. This is the type of garbage that has people believe that gays shouldn’t serve in the military. We are human beings that are the same as everyone else!

It’s worth noting that nobody in the game approaches you and forces you to kiss them. And I can recall one situation where I felt I had to flirt with Anders or choose the jerk rival response. So I chose the flirt option, then went on and romanced Merrill and everything worked out.

More to the point, I think the writer is misdiagnosing the problem. DA2 introduces the 2.0 version of the dialogue wheel they imported from Mass Effect, which makes the conversational system both clearer and more limiting. Now, every dialogue choice fits in a category — you can be nice, be funny, be mean, be flirty.

I can see why they did it: The system’s great for telling you what kind of response you’ll be making before you make it. It’s not foolproof, because it doesn’t show you exactly what your character will be saying, but the bigger problem is that the dialogue system still doesn’t really reflect the range of conversation choices you can make in real life. You could argue that’s inevitable in a game where the writers need to anticipate every dialogue option and pre-write the responses, but I think it’s actually gotten a little worse than Origins’ more traditional dialogue system. In the first game, there was usually at least one neutral dialog choice if, for example, you didn’t want to rebuff a companion but didn’t want to flirt with them either. DA2 seems to have backed off on that, which does seem kind of irritating and counterintuitive. It also seems like it would be a problem regardless of the sexuality of the characters.

Obviously this came up in the context of sexuality because that’s an issue that sparks intense feelings in people, but it’s really just an issue of an imperfectly constructed dialogue system. DA2 seems to have landed in a dialogue version of the uncanny valley (took me long enough to explain that title) where the conversations feel just realistic enough to remind you of where they fail.

Bonus rant: Incidentally, Dragon Age II doesn’t have any gay characters. Rather, four of your companions are bisexual — or they exist in some kind of weird dynamic universe where the men are gay if you play as a man and straight if you play as a woman, Merrill is gay if you play as a woman and straight if you play as a man, and Isabela jumps pretty much anything. I expect that’s as close as the game is likely to get, but it’s not an insignificant point that you can complete every romance in the game without ever entering into a same-sex relationship.

Today in Metaphors

From Wonkbook, the daily roundup of government news from Ezra Klein:

House Republicans feel their preferences should take priority because they won the last election. Sharp cuts to non-defense discretionary spending are nothing more than their due. Senate Democrats counter that they still control not just the Senate, but also the White House — the House Republicans are a minority partner in this play, and don’t get to decide what the government does or doesn’t do merely because they control one of the three major legislative checkpoints. An uncompromising force is meeting an unimpressed object.

If you follow American government enough, one of the themes you pick up on is that we’ve got so many independent power centers that whenever people disagree about what to do, nobody can decide who should have the final say. Since everybody can claim some kind of democratic legitimacy and nobody has enough power to just make things happen, our government tends to end up not getting much done. Which was the founders’ original idea, but the world has gotten a bit faster since the 1780s and we’re not doing a great job of keeping up.