Friday, July 22, 2011

Hilarious Indictment of the Hogwarts House System in Harry Potter

This is too funny and spot-on not to share (language warning, SPOILERS for Deathly Hallows Pt 2):
[T]here are still a lot of problems that I have with the world in general. The second-worst, which this movie highlighted, is the implicit caste-system of the Hogwarts Houses. I can never tell if this is supposed to be a scathing indictment of the education system, or just a thing that Rowling kind of thought up in the first book without really considering the implications, but I am always ALWAYS bothered by the fact that there’s one house that’s just full of all the shitty kids.

Sure, it’s always a Slytherin who turns out to be the asshole, but when ONE kid says something asinine after Harry Potter comes back — one stupid kid who wants to grab him — the WHOLE SLYTHERIN HOUSE gets sent to the dungeons. They didn’t even do anything! She said to grab him, but no one moved or anything! They were just standing there, being good, why did McGonagal send them to the dungeons?

Except, obviously McGonagal was right to do that, because apparently the Sorting Hat just puts all the shitty kids together into Shitbag House, so if they weren’t doing something shitty now, they were probably going to do something shitty in the future. But again, can you blame them? Hogwarts doesn’t make any attempt to reach out to the shitty kids, and should we wonder that the Gryffindor kids are always better adjusted?

“Oh, hello kids! We’ve looked into your soul, and determined that some of you are brave, so you’ll get to go live in this awesome tower and get supervised by one of the cool teachers, a hilarious ghost, and also hang out with our world’s only celebrity. You guys, on the other hand, are slimy cowards, so we’re putting you in this basement that’s haunted by some kind of psychotic murderer ghost, with that one teacher who’s a complete fucking asshole, and also sometimes you’ll think you’ve won the house cup — by being good at sports but also not having discipline problems and just generally excelling at your studies — except then Harry Potter will do some fucking bullshit and we’ll literally take it away from you to give to him and his house (remember, the one with the kids who AREN’T slimy cowards?), because god fucking forbid the celebrated Harry Potter should have to suffer the ignominy of NOT getting all the awards.”

Yeah, no wonder everyone in Slytherin is an asshole....
(via SB7)

Why I don't Understand the Current Debt Ceiling/Budget Debate

As I'm sure you all know, my political instincts align with the Republicans on this issue - higher taxes and bigger government are things to be avoided, not encouraged. But the thing that puzzles me is why the Democrats are so intransigent on the subject of a cuts-only solution. (I know, this already sounds like some sort of partisan hit-piece, so please just read the rest; I honestly want to understand their position.)

Allow me to lay out the reasons for my confusion. The US Federal expenditures for 2007 were a total of $2.8 trillion. The US Federal expenditures for 2010 were $3.55 trillion. This is a more than 25% increase. Where has all of this increased spending gone, and why are the programs it went to fund so critical that cutting them is not a serious option? It's not like 2007 was the dark day of anarchy, lawlessness, and starving seniors. Originally the increase was "stimulus spending" of various kinds, but it seems to have morphed from "temporary increase" into "permanent budget baseline," and any talk of serious cutting is treated as beyond the pale by the media and the Democrats alike.

I'm of the opinion that going back to the 2007 budget (adjusted to account for population growth) should be a viable option, and would save something like $5-6 trillion over 10 years. It sounds (to me) both simple and feasible. What am I missing?

(No, telling me that the "Liberals are evil and want to destroy America" is not a valid answer to my questions. Political opponents may be wrong, biased, and ignorant on occasion, but they will almost never be evil. Their intentions are as good as mine - I'm just looking for more info on the source of our disagreement on methods here.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Recommendations for 2-player board/card games

One of my friends asked me for game recommendations, and I think I'll post my response here in public, so that all may "benefit" from my pretensions at gaming sagacity. My friend is looking for a game that:
  • Takes 30-60 minutes to play
  • Works well for 2 players, though more is nice
  • Avoids common party-game antics (singing, charades, dancing, icebreakers, etc)
  • Is not a heavy strategy game
  • Does not have long turns
  • Does not have a war or fantasy theme
    Additionally, they already own a few mainline Eurogames, and are looking to branch out away from the bean-counting and efficiency-maximizing focus of those games, toward something more whimsical and luck-based. This being the case here are my recommendations, starting with those that closest fit what I believe match the criteria, with the caveat being that these are restricted to game I personally have played as 2-player games:

    (My first recommendation would be Carcassonne, but they already own it. Moving on...)

    1) Ticket to Ride, with the USA 1910 expansion: While purchasing both would set you back about $60, this is the holy grail in meeting the above criteria. The "Big Cities" variant included in the 1910 expansion turn the game into a tight 2-player experience that takes about 45 minutes. Turns often take less than 30 seconds, the theme is light, and the set-collecting is moderately luck based. The only downside is that it it a light Eurogame, and thus there is point-scoring done to determine the winner. However, there is not the ruthless emphasis on efficiency that is often present in Eurogames, and so it is much less competetive-feeling (and less math-filled) than other Euros.

    Additionally, if you have more people than 2, you can always add in the rest of the destination tickets and play the 3-4 player versions. I can honestly say that I have played this game with at least 20 different people, and have yet to meet someone who didn't enjoy the experience.

    2) Jaipur: It's an inexpensive card game for two, where you are competing to become the personal merchant for the local maharajah. This competition is based on collecting sets of cards and then selling them to the market, with the focus being on the tension between getting paid more for the first goods of each type sold in the round and getting bonuses for selling larger sets of identical goods. A typical game lasts about 30 minutes, and it's light enough that it doesn;t require intense thought and concentration for most actions. You can find a detailed review here. The only real downside is that it's limited to two players.

    3) Dominion: This is a somewhat heavier card game for 2-4 players, which I covered a bit here:
    In this game, players are feudal lords of a few small estates, scheming to enlarge and enrich their respective "Dominions" by whatever means possible. Each player starts with a deck of ten cards containing three estates and seven coppers. During gameplay, players have the opportunity to purchase from 10 different piles of kingdom cards, which contain things like moats, smithies, markets, thieves, or witches. When cards are purchased, they go directly to the player's discard pile, and then eventually get shuffled into their deck. They can also purchase copper, silver, and gold (which are later used to purchase bigger/better things) or they can go straight for purchasing estates, duchies, and provinces, each of which is worth victory points. The game ends when three stacks of cards (or the stack of Provinces) run out, and the player whose deck has the most VPs wins. Since the game comes with 25 stacks kingdom cards, of which only 10 are used each game, the replayability is excellent. This game is fairly light and plays quickly, but is a great deal of fun. Simple enough that just about anybody can play, but deep enough to be fun for everybody. This game works for 2-4 players, and work well (if differently) with any of those numbers. There are many expansions available; none of them are necessary to enjoy the game, but if you like Dominion, you'll probably want to pick one or two up eventually.
    I'll add a couple of notes to address specific concerns. Typical games last 30-45 minutes, maybe an hour with 4 players. The theme is pretty standard medievalist fluff, but does stray a bit into era-appropriate fantasy and war, with witches and curses, militias and watchtowers. The theme is, however, rather pasted-on, and so I think this shouldn't be an issue, as it doesn't feel anything like a war game. It is a bit efficiency-focused, as one must have a strategy around which one is building the deck, but it's pretty light.

    4) Innovation: This is one I'm hesitant about including on the list, because it will either be a hit, or will bomb badly. I'll link to a review here - please read that, and then I'll add my notes here. It typically runs 60-75 minutes, so it's a bit long for the criteria, but not outrageously. It is very chaotic and luck-driven, but also manages to feel pretty intense, so I'm not sure how they'd feel about it. I will note that it currently holds the record for most "plays per dollar spent" of any game I own, most of which were 2-player games with my wife.

    Other games I might recommend, that don't fit the criteria quite as well, but I enjoy as a two-player game:

    Pandemic or Forbidden Island (too much thinking, too little luck)

    Stone Age (standard Eurogame, so too much bean counting)

    At the Gates of Loyang (long turns, too much thinking and bean counting, too long of a game)

    Race for the Galaxy (efficiency focused, steep learning curve)


    ADDENDUM:

    I just remembered another good two-player game - Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League. I suspect the theme would amuse the original advice requester, as it's a German pulp scifi adventure from the heyday of space opera. The game itself is a light pick up and deliver card game with a substantial luck element and a misguided view of how orbital mechanics work (but that only bothers me). I'd probably put it #4 above Innovation. It's cheap, quick to play, and not too intense. Unfortunately, it is only for two players.

    To be honest, I've heard good things about most of the Kosmos 2-player line, but this is the only one I've played myself.

    Thursday, July 14, 2011

    Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Lutheran?

    I must, reluctantly, draw some attention to this asinine headline:
    Michele Bachmann's Church Says the Pope Is the Antichrist
    And respond with two points:

    1) As noted in the article (buried deeply in the text) Bachmann is no longer a member of the WELS congregation she once attended. What, if any, congregation she is currently a member of is unknown. So I am puzzled how the Wisconsin Synod is considered "her church."

    2) Leaving that aside, the main point of this article seems to be that it is politically beyond the pale to be a confessional Lutheran. After all, the Smalcald Articles are pretty specific on the subject:
    This teaching shows forcefully that the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power, which, nevertheless, is nothing, and is neither ordained nor commanded by God.
    As was pointed out by a commenter, the existence of this story "is right up there with those vintage 1959/1960 stories that since John F. Kennedy was Catholic, as President he would take orders from the Pope."

    As a Lutheran, I'm a bit puzzled that this position is controversial. We're friggin' Lutheran. Of course we have problems with the papacy! Asserting that this is somehow surprising and notable betrays a remarkable amount of historical ignorance.

    (Headline stolen shamelessly from a response to the article over at getreligion.org. Thanks for the pointer, Karl!)

    Thursday, July 07, 2011

    Links Roundup for 7/7/2011

    Here's another round of things I find amusing, engrossing, or appalling on the internet:

    1) The law is being an ass in Australia. A ruling like this has the potential to kill the concept of telecommuting.

    2) The bizarre story of a suicide attempt that ended with a kiss(?).

    3) A doctor telling the tale of how she finds comfort in Grimm's fairy tales. They creep me out, personally.

    4) Why you should never trust the government about a "temporary" tax. (If the 2008 "temporary stimulus" spending becoming the new baseline wasn't enough to convince you...)


    6) A fascinating dialogue on cheating in higher education, between a professor and a dude who does others' homework for a living.

    7) Apparently Uncle Sam is fining oil refineries for being unable to magic cellulosic ethanol into existence.

    8) The only logical conclusion: "not only are Tampa’s children comically precious and vulnerable to suggestion, they also apparently can’t read."


    10) The funniest internet video I've seen in ages. If you click no other link here, click this one.

    11) What if Sauron built with LEGO?

    12) This reminds me of our honeymoon trip to Dollywood, except this video is far funnier.

    Monday, July 04, 2011

    Libertarianism and God

    When wandering about the internet, I seem to have stumbled across another instance where someone is declaring that libertarianism and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible. As a man who considers himself both moderately libertarian and devoutly Christian, I'd like to take a moment to defend those of us who believe that they can be reconciled. First, I'll let the article in question state its objection:
    In their book The Declaration of Independents, authors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch argue for a Libertarian ethic based on the Declaration of Independence, a document they describe as “the most influential English-language formulation of liberty written during the 1700s” (ix). They focus on what they consider to be “the refreshing blast of radical Enlightenment thought contained within” the following “three dozen words” (ix):

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    I was surprised that the authors would begin their defense of Libertarians by an appeal to this section of the Declaration that specifically links Inalienable rights” with a “Creator.” A Creator assumes the existence of God. The existence of God presupposes a law-giver, and yet Libertarians almost never reference God in defense of their worldview. They can’t and be consistent. It’s one thing to appeal to a Creator in defense of inalienable rights and the undefined “pursuit of happiness” to keep politicians from ruling our lives, but it’s another thing to ignore the Creator when it comes to moral particulars given that the Declaration also states that the He is “the Supreme Judge of the world.”
    ...
    Once God is gone, everything becomes permissible and possible, whether it’s consented to or not.
    While this is just an excerpt of a longer piece, I believe it to be a fair representation. The objection seems to boil down to the fact that the author can see no way to reconcile (1) not wishing for the state to ban certain things, and (2) the Bible clearly condemning many of those things as sinful. Also, the author seems to think that the absence of religious references in defense of libertarianism means that we libertarians know that they cannot be reconciled, and seek to conceal that knowledge.

    Allow me to tackle the latter question first. Libertarianism, in general, is founded upon the principle that the liberty of the individual should be the primary value of a political system. Whether we believe that the "unalienable rights" of which such liberty is composed were bestowed by a benevolent deity, merely exist independently of the existence or nonexistence of any deities, or simply think it sounds like a pragmatic way to structure a society is immaterial. The source of the liberties is not the basis for the movement, so why bring it up? I believe, as a Lutheran, that the natural law from which our unalienable rights are derived was written on our hearts by the triune God of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But I would only piss off the atheists who share my political goals by bringing it up. So long as we agree on the route and the destination, I am not of a mind to complain about others' reasons for trying to get there.

    But, the first question still remains - how do I reconcile my personal Christian beliefs with libertarianism? Specifically, why don't I want to ban sinful things? While I have several reasons, my primary two are merely pragmatic. First, I have a long list of things that I believe are sinful, and that good people ought not do. I believe that in the world that conforms with God's law, none of the things on that list would occur. Other people (e.g. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc) have very different lists of what does not conform with God's (or gods') law. They believe that their list is correct just as strongly as I believe mine is, and I do not believe any earthly authority is capable of justly adjudicating which list(s) are correct. As the price for being safe from a theocracy forcing me to live under Old Testament law or Sharia law, I am willing to also forego banning everything I think is sinful.

    Second, and equally pragmatically I believe that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Accepting, arguendo, that we can all agree on what constitutes the perfect system of governance and all laws that are fully in accordance with God's law. I do not believe that any earthly person or system can be trusted to justly implement such a system (that would, of course, strive to ban all sinful actions). The more things the state is granted power over, the more opportunities we sinners have to bend others to our will using the mechanisms of the state. Any system that attempts to be perfectly just must be administered by people who are perfectly just. Therefore, I am again willing to accept a system wherein the state's ability to force people to act justly is reduced, in order to reduce the abuses that will inevitably befall those who do not control the levers of the state.

    Finally, God has commanded us "do not judge, or you will be judged." In this fallen world, such a standard is impossible for a state to live up to while fulfilling its obligation to protect its citizens' rights. But that is where the state's obligations end. A state restricted to protecting our unalienable rights is what libertarians are striving for.

    This is basically how I arrive where I do. I believe that this world and its people (including myself!) are deeply flawed and sinful, and cannot be trusted with the power that necessary to implement God's law, nor can we be trusted to determine it in the first place. If such is attempted systematically, it will inevitably fail in its aims, and in such a way as to make us wish the attempt had never been made. When it is attempted piecemeal, it does not fail so spectacularly because those who are abused as a result of any individual act or law are neither so numerous nor so prominent that the majority can be made to care.

    Independence Day

    I'm reposting in full my meditation on part of the Declaration of Independence from last year. Enjoy some food for thought.

    ----------------------------------------------------

    Nobody actually agrees with the Declaration of Independence anymore

    Well, that's putting it a bit strongly, but saying "<20% of the American population agrees with the Declaration of Independence" doesn't have quite the same punch to it. Every July 4th, people intellectually genuflect in the direction of our founding documents, but nobody actually thinks about the meaning of these words:
    That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
    These words mean that, in principle, secession from a political state is both possible, and sometimes necessary. But mainstream opinion has it that secession from the USA is both unthinkable and immoral - tainted by association with the Confederacy's battle to preserve slavery. But if you take these words seriously, the Declaration of Independence implies that it should be possible for states to secede peacefully if the people no longer believe that the federal government is securing their "unalienable rights".

    Some food for thought on your independence day.