Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

I resolve to finish the handful of unfinished posts percolating in my draft box. I also resolve to drink less, live more, and figure out how to pay for grad school.

Happy New Year one and all. May midnight find you with an attractive member of whatever sex you prefer, giving you the ol' eye from across the room.

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Peter Beck on North Korean economic progress. It touches a lot of the points I made two days ago but is better informed (and I daresay better written). 
  2. In line with our recent articles on signs of improvement, the Institute for Far East Studies summarizes North Korea's economic progress in 2010. From the always-excellent North Korean Economy Watch.
  3. Also from the North Korean Economy Watch, an amusing list of products and advertisements uniquely North Korean. 
  4. And another article on the organic capitalism springing up in the North, this one from the Economist which focuses on the threats of unstructured reunification by focusing on the comparison to East and West Germany. 
  5. How to improve baseball from The Hardball Times (via The Browser). Discussions of how to improve baseball always make me think fondly of The Sports Guy's rants. 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Teaching English in South Korea

Seoul

Times have been growing increasingly austere for foreigners teaching English in South Korea. When I first started teaching in 2005, the economy was booming. Korea's newly developed middle class had made their money through fierce competition and, like all parents who had struggled for success, wanted to give their children every advantage. For kids, this translated into an education regimen that would make even the nerdiest westerner blanch. 

The Tyler Cowen

  1. A look back at Foreign Policy's art this year, for which the magazine has been nominated twice by the National Magazine Awards. 
  2. North Korean rice prices jump after the shelling of Yeongpyeong. With currency pegged, economic reactions to world events play out elsewhere. Thanks to the North Korean Economy Watch.
  3. The evolving state of artificial intelligence. It wasn't until we abandoned our attempts to mimic human logic that artificial intelligence started to really take off. Via The Browser. 
  4. After successfully flexing its muscle, a softer South Korea now appears open to more dialogue with the North and is expressing concern about the rights of North Korean citizens. 
  5. Wonderful subway-map inspired understanding of capitalism and misery via Cool Infographics.

Youth and Young Manhood Review

Young kings circa 2003. Might as well be 1973.
I remember first hearing the Kings of Leon while scrolling through the contents of a friend's iPod. (Remember those? The one's with a scroll-wheel? It made the most delightful clicking sound as you wound your way through a list.) The song I heard was none other than Happy Alone off their first full-length album Youth and Young Manhood. In my youthful impatience, I listened to the first few seconds and, deciding I knew what I was in for, flipped to another song before the vocals kicked in. That simple piece of impatience cost me untold cool points as I am just now getting into the band when they are too popular to be considered cool.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mission Statements

Here at BofHam we're facing something of a conundrum. The presence of one of our senior staff in Seoul has shifted the focus of our blog away from pop culture (particularly as it pertains to video games) and toward politics. As a result, we have been forced to better organize BofHam by creating a list of tabs at the top of the page. While the home screen will continue to be the ideological melting pot of our various interests, the reconfigured tabs should give the reader a better idea of where to find the content most appealing to him or her.

Thanks, as always, for your patronage and interest.

Love,
The BofHam Team

Darwinism in North Korea

Just how childish is DPRK leadership? Let us count the ways...

  1. They never say thank you.
  2. They throw fits when they don't get their way. 
  3. They don't share.
  4. They lie even when condemning evidence is thrust in their face.
  5. They demand constant entertainment with little thought to the costs.
  6. They want presents upon presents

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Next year's wars by Foreign Policy. Happily, the Korean peninsula is not on their list. (Although their list seems to be solely populated by countries ripe for internal strife.) 
  2. Consumer culture in North Korea
  3. Beautiful piece about snowflakes and how they relate to people from the New Yorker. (Try to ignore the polarizing red herring regarding global warming at the beginning.) Via The Browser. 
Almost 2011 and still yet a flying car in sight. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Embedding videos! Is there nothing we can't do?
  1. 38 North on brinksmanship on the peninsula. Don't know if I agree yet. 
  2. Corrections to the U-bend of happiness. Statisticians think the relationship is pretty weak. 
  3. Stranded Buses
  4. The ever-charming Gawker on Kim Jong-un's popularity
  5. Nice photos of an environmental tragedy

Monday, December 27, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV Review

Is there any medium more ripe for watchdog scandals than video games? Movies are protected by a culturally-accepted rating system that is generally trusted to keep the more impressionable from consuming the darker stuff. Books, notwithstanding the recent uproar over The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure, seem to be past their scandal-causing prime of the Enlightenment. Even music, which as recently as twenty five years ago was knitting Tipper's panties into a knot, seems to have been accepted by the permed-soccer-mom mafia.

Uncertain (as ever) In North Korea

The New York Times wrote about the recent trip to North Korea by Bill Richardson. Some interesting quotes throughout, betraying an ideologically fractured nation. One the one hand, North Korea appears to support the leadership and buy into the statewide propaganda while on the other it is pessimistic about its chances for economic recovery:
“Nuclear weapons mean we cannot be invaded. I really want to say that. We cannot be touched.”
“I heard a rumor that [Kim Jong-un] said we have more bullets than food. So maybe he will be a good leader and feed the people,” 

Updates

We put our best man on the job to spruce up the look of the place this weekend. Apologies for any inconvenience during the transition. If you don't like the new look, please forward all complaints to our best man.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Monogamy

A great short-short story quoted by an English teacher from my old high school. Unfortunately the article is from a magazine that seems to only live in the physical world so I'll have to dust off my old footnoting skills.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Cowen

  1. An incredible set of photos of 2010 from the Boston Globe. Found through the wonderful Marginal Revolution.
  2. Probably not the season for a North Korean Top Gun but we're on the dark side of the moon anyway. Thanks to North Korean Economy Watch.
Merry Christmas from Seoul!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A different perspective on North Korea

A refreshing bit of calm from an expert on North Korea.
"When we consider cases of vulnerable and failed states, the inability to govern and paralysis of national functions presage regime collapse. However, in the case of North Korea, the ruling mechanism is still working."

The Tyler Cowen

  1. A great example of how to do infographics right. The before/after comparison of a bloodtest result shows just how important visualization is to data. 
  2. Merry Christmas indeed!
  3. What was I complaining about before? Something about how no one stands up to ignorance anymore? I take it back.
Happily cavorting into the holidays. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Deterrence

Edward Luttwak has an article praising the South Korean military for taking a harder line on the North. While hindsight is perhaps 20/20, he does (somewhat indirectly) make a good point regarding the complicity in which third parties empower the image of the DPRK.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Snapshots from Seoul

More juicy details of living with threats hanging over our heads:
  • "I'm going to scurry my ass off. That's what they do in the movies right? Shit jumps off and all you see are people scurrying? That'll be me."
  • "Yesterday I woke up when some people were drilling in my basement. I thought the shelling had started. It sounded like those aliens from that Tom Cruise movie, War of the Worlds. Everything was shaking. I decided to try and fall asleep again as quickly as possible. Path of least resistance."
  • "I'm going to have three quick shots of whiskey to numb the fear. It might dampen my intelligence but at least I wont be paralyzed."
  • "Should I just cut my losses and send money home now or try and ride out the storm, hoping the exchange rate will turn around?"
  • "What do I do if I'm in the middle of a class? Herd those little shin-biters all down to the basement? The parking garage? You'd think we would have even a modicum of training for such eventualities."
Good times. 

Life During (Almost?) Wartime

Somewhere roughly 125 miles to the west of me, South Korean shells are presumably (hopefully) plunking harmlessly into the water. And, as always, the sensation of being caught between what I read on CNN and what I see around me is difficult to reconcile. Two large cranes operate just outside my window, constructing a new building as Seoul continues to march further down the path of development. Across the street, students bundled in parkas against the cold rush into a Gimbap Chungook (think traditional Korean McDonald's) for an early dinner before their hogwan starts. Buses filled with people lumber through the all-too-narrow streets and everything crackles with activity.

It is amazing to think of the difference between South and North Korea. Conceptually we all understand the great disparity in standard of living but it's different to really feel it. Put yourself in the shoes of a North Korean for a moment and look again at the scene. The new construction, free of any government planning or party oversight, cropping up organically. The students, unique yet uniform in their stylized self-expression, entering a restaurant overflowing with food and patrons, with ten similar establishments within a two minute walk in any direction. This very building, 8 stories tall with no less than four individual hogwans in it, all doing brisk business. And the streets, a constant stream of traffic, rushing hither and fro, each with unknowable purpose.

It is an overwhelming sensation, an impossibly complex tableau of activity. How can there be so many cars? How can there be so many stores and restaurants? How can organic creation produce such order? The inability of our minds to fully grasp the details of a thriving capitalist system is reason number one why centrally planned economies cannot work. And the very idea that this scene might be threatened by a few errant shells 125 miles to the west is equally confounding. One cannot imagine such a scene from scratch but, now it is laid out before us, one cannot imagine it stopping. Perhaps all it will take to free North Koreans from their indoctrination is an afternoon stroll through Seoul.

The Age of Enlightenment

New evidence from Gallup shows that 40% of Americans believe God created humans 10,000 years ago. Another poll illustrates the relationship between what news you watch and your propensity to believe ideas that are demonstrably false. How susceptible humans are to believing what we're told instead of what we can see with our own eyes. And if this is the situation in America, one of the world's most powerful, educated, and prosperous countries, imagine how long it will take to undo 60 years of propaganda in North Korea.

This is an important reminder how fragile our progress is and how quickly our civilization can be wiped out. New  ways of understanding our world are not permanently solidified in our popular thinking as soon as they have been discovered. We dangle in a loose web of rationality over the gaping maw of the unknown. Should this web be broken, we will once again be surrounded by an incomprehensible universe in the blink of our species' eye. (Not that we've got it all figured out now mind you, but progress is progress.) A second dark age is just a shout away.

What is most confounding about our slow inching toward ignorance is that so little effort is given to reaching out to the blind with cold, hard facts. Those of us who accept the strong scientific evidence on which our theories of evolution and global warming rest, seem to lack the energy or interest in demonstrating this evidence to those who don't believe. Even the rationals have bought into the idea that our positions have more to do with faith than with fact and it is in this folly that the seeds of our undoing are sown.

Faith and fact are the twin pillars of our understanding of this reality. They must coexist but they should not overlap. Fact can explain much but where its descriptive ability fails, it must be filled in with faith. In a way, the two combine to form a geopolitical map of our universe. As the territories claimed by one are lost to the other, overlap and conflict will occur.

In the branch of physics, there are the contested territories of the Big Bang and the Gulf of Gravity along with smaller conflicts in the regions of the Speed of Light and various related sci-fi tropes. In the theater of biology, most of the fighting is on the Plains of Evolution with smaller skirmishes in the Archipelago of Cells, particularly among the Islands of Stem and the Sperm-Egg Strait. Across the theaters of both chemistry and biology, violence plays out along the Environmental Coast.

Too much territory is being given up to faith where facts should be digging in. While it would be nice to destroy those mouthpieces of ignorance, Fox News and various extremists, this would be an ineffective way to win the war. Rather, the facts need only be paraded again and again until their clarifying light wins out. The truth will set us free eventually. No matter how far back into the dark ages we may slip, the human mind will always be swayed by fact as long as the fact is available. We are caught in a shouting match between the ignorant and the educated. It is time for the educated to shout louder.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Well, I didn't die but I've managed to come down with a helluva cold. Everything aches, including my eye-lids. Is it possible to have a headache in your eyelids?

As I sit here typing, I can hear the street vendors outside in the market hawking their wares through loud-speakers and I'm reminded of how scary this place is when you first arrive. You don't speak the language, you know there are threats of a war, and the first time you see a blue truck drive by with a grey loudspeaker on its roof bellowing something, your instinct is to think it's some sort of alarm. Or when you first see one of the huge airbuses rattle overhead and wonder if something went wrong. Or an attack helicopter.

Anyway...enough of my yammering. Good links below.

  • Another nice read from 38North, this one again featuring the mysterious Inspector O. It's funny to think of a few crappy fables cited by a world leader inciting a research craze in Pyonyang. 
  • A slightly corny but still interesting look at the bridge between China and North Korea. These simple indicators of disparity are nicely digestible. 
  • For some reason I've come across a lot of articles on marriage and compatibility today. All the articles come at the issue from different angles but my favorite is the biological importance of odor. Should I be choosing a mate based on friendship and compatibility for a happy marriage in the long-term or based on sweat glands and urine musk for stronger immune systems in my children? Should I just forgo marriage altogether? Am I really to believe that my current girlfriend, for whom I have what feels like a bottomless well of affection, will one day leave me cold? Ah to be 28 years old. 
  • Nice article on the u-bend of happiness. We're at our least happy around the age of 46 as our ambition dies but hasn't yet been replaced by acceptance. But the later years are increasingly happy again. 
  • Although perhaps redundant to our own links, the Atlantic Wire has a nice summary of some of the current thinking around the Korean peninsula.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

  • Fascinating interview with the only surviving North Korean assassin from 1968's failed attempt on then-president Park Chung-Hee. This culture's capacity for forgiveness is truly awe-inspiring. While the story isn't a fairy-tale, the redemption of a man who, in most any other society, would have been locked away for a long time, is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, he falls far on the hawkish side of the spectrum with regards to current South Korean foreign policy against the North. 
  • The first page of Foreign Policy's 'This Week at War' is on the prospects of a North-South war. In the style of these articles, it is terse and to the point, painting a bleak picture of the next few months. They seem to believe that status quo is unsustainable after the shelling of Yeongpyeong: either North Korea will recognize the hard-line and avoid further provocation or things will escalate quickly.
That's all for today. I'm heading out on the town to try and enjoy life lest is be snuffed from me unexpectedly. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Yeah yeah, so I should be reviewing The Prisoner of Azkaban now. Yes, I know I'm jumping ahead. But I lost track of time due to alcohol-related scheduling conflicts (devilishly tricky things, those alcohol-related scheduling conflicts) and here we are on the date of the new movie. So which is more relevant for tonight's show? Episode 3 (in which I'm lead to understand Harry and company cavort around the castle, getting into mischief and avoiding some escaped madman-who-turns-out-to-be-his-father-figure and a werewolf) or episode 6 (in which, I was advised, there are several critical plot twists that need to be viewed in order to appreciate the newest flick)? Love Guillermo though I do, I decided to watch episode 6.

What a difference 6 years makes! It's as if all my complaints from The Chamber of Secrets were magically transported back in time to when The Half Blood Prince was in the planning stages and subsequently taken to heart! While still overly long at two and a half hours, the movie never drags or feels bloated. The plot is streamlined and easy to follow. The special effects are beautiful. And those child actors done growed up!

It's not a flawless piece of entertainment by any means but, given the perspective shift provided by its horrendous  forbearer, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. That glowing commendation being given, there are still a few problems that need pointing out before I can tell you to go watch it:

  1. There are times when the editors knife cuts are a little too apparent. There are a few points in the middle of the movie where, though heeding sound advice, the post-production team was a little too ham-fisted on the chopping block. I'm all for heavy cuts from the middle of an overly long movie, but there is one particular sequence of scenes that was jarringly jumpy. 
  2. What does the "chosen one" really mean? This criticism probably has more to do with the books on which the movies are based but, seriously, what's the deal here? Is this meant to be a super-powerful chosen one like Neo from the Matrix? Because Harry, thus far, seems pretty weak-sauce in everything aside from riding the pine (broomstick). Is he meant to be some kind of spiritual leader a la Moses? Because he can't even keep the attention of a Quidditch team. Or is he more of a Jesus figure who will be sacrificed for the sins of the many? The movie, and I'm assuming the books as well, never really seems to settle on an archetype for the young man and, as a result, every reference to that moniker feels a little clumsy. 
Overall though, the movie is a hoot. There was only one point during my viewing where I cringed at the sight of Harry's agape mouth and then he thankfully filled it with the supple lips of a bonny lass. It was funnier, darker, slicker, and sadder than the previous entries one well worth the 153 minutes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

To prepare for the Friday release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a few friends and I have decided to re-watch the movies in order. After watching The Chamber of Secrets, I don't know if we'll be able to make it to Friday.

I managed to miss the first film entry, The Sorcerer's Stone due to alcohol-related scheduling conflicts. If The Chamber of Secrets is any indication, I should probably be glad that I did. Harry's second outing is over-long, overwrought, and under-cooked.

"But Jim," you say. "How can it be all three of those?"

Rock, paper, scissors my friend. This movie is caught in a catch-22.

It's over-long because it's under-cooked. 
How many goddamned times did they go into that bathroom with that ear-bleedingly annoying ghost? Like 5? If you're revisiting the same set more than twice in a fantasy movie, you've got fat to trim Chris. There's actually a plot point that takes an entire semester to unravel! This pacing can work in book form because, contrary to popular belief, books are far more accessible than movies. We can really move into the world and enjoy going through the semester with the kids. But in a movie form this feels bloated. The Chamber of Secrets is almost three hours long when it could have been a lean, mean 2 hour adventure if it had just stayed on the editor's grill a little longer.

It's overwrought because it's over-long.
The titular chamber and the violence it inflicts on the denizens of Hogwarts is certainly a worthy MacGuffin. However, with so much space to fill, the plot becomes complicated to the point of confusion. There are tangents twisting everywhere, from a fantasy form of racism to a totally superfluous Quidditch match. There is a house-elf responsible for miles of plot machination whose motives are never explained. When it takes Harry a good thirty minutes to even get to the school, you know it's going to be an overly ornate affair. And these 13 year old actors pinwheel between the three same emotions through all the incomprehensible set-pieces and characters: worry, concern, and fear. If I never see Daniel Radcliff with mouth agape again, it will be too soon.

It's under-cooked because it's overwrought.
With so many scenes to film and characters to enliven, it feels like the post-production team just ran out of gas. From a special effects perspective, it looks like they started with the spiders which are genuinely unsettling. Then they tackled the basilisk. Then they said, "Shit! we still have the bird, the magic, the Quidditch, those little blue fuckers in the cage, the ghosts, the hat, the car, the house, the cake, the...the.... AND WE STILL NEED TO EDIT THIS THING!" The Quidditch match, in particular, looks like it belongs on a TNT Sunday afternoon special. Were there fewer pieces to focus on, those that remain could have been polished to perfection instead of the uneven mess we're left with.

The Chamber of Secrets was doomed in a vicious cycle of follies all sprung from an inability to more forcefully edit the plot down to size. But, even with all that vitriol being spewed, I have to admit the flick is not with out its charms. The discovery of blood-written messages is genuinely unsettling and the arachnaphobe in me was in contortions from the spiders. But a handful of more mature moments do not justify hours of hackneyed torment.

What could have saved this mess? I dunno...Guillermo Del Toro? What's that you say? He directed the third? Oh dear god let's hope it didn't get the better of him.

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Sweet map of NY demographics. The NY Times has some of the best interactive infographics around. 
  2. Another interesting look inside North Korea.
  3. The sun explodes
  4. I wish I knew this in elementary school. (Gizmodo has some great videos today.) 
  5. Ah to have an appetite for complexity and yet not be encumbered by it. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Article about Miyamoto. Has the balls to explicitly call out the similarity between video games and masturbation.
  2. Wonderful piece about anarchism. I miss reading Benedict Anderson. His focus on communication technology's impact on nationalism is seductive. 
  3. Really beautiful map of the world as drawn by Facebook connections. Should we be concerned that there's a significant tear between Canada and America along most of the northwest border?
  4. Scary blunt words on American engagement with North Korea. "Unless the United States changes course, the threat to its interests and those of its allies will get much worse in the months ahead. Expect more provocations, escalation, and possibly even war." 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Appaloosa Review

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson, seemingly out of nowhere, decided the time was ripe for a throw-back Western. Thankfully, they're a talented couple of people so the resulting flick was downright enjoyable. Or more accurately, it is enjoyable as long as you can overlook / accept a few key points.
  1. Appaloosa is in the vein of Clint Eastwood westerns of the 60's and 70's. It's a story about terse men living at the edge of civilization where the luxuries of modernity are mostly missing. This starkness extends beyond outhouses (although an outhouse visit weaves its way into the plot) to human interaction. Relationships congeal faster than one would expect. If you are willing to accept certain emotional connections between characters who, five minutes earlier, had just met, as honest depictions of life on the frontier instead of sloppy writing, the core of the movie will pack some punch. Personally, I went for it, assuming that shorter life expectancies and harsher conditions validated relationships built on little foreplay or courtship.
  2. There are more than a few cliches on display here. Church-bells clang doomingly over draws, secondary characters might as well be part of the scenery, and a cowboy goes so far as to ride off into the sunset. Again, if you're already drowning in meta post-modern references, these tropes might seem tired to you. I never felt like the movie was winking at me, however, which is where I draw my threshold for cliche. These scenes didn't feel forced or even self-aware and their honesty made them palatable. 
  3. Renee Zellweger. She is enormously hit-or-miss for me. There's something about the squeaky voice emanating from a face contorted into that twisted half-smile that can really get on my nerves when the movie asks me to find her cute or attractive. Thankfully, Appaloosa didn't ask this of me and her unsettling nature fit well with the setting. 
So what are we left with after you've accepted the above? Two great actors who are having a good time stretching their legs, some snappy direction, and an uncomplicated but engaging plot. Neither role asks much of the two leads but Ed Harris has a few gut-checking moments as his seemingly unflappable tough-guy gets flapped. And Viggo is just fun to watch. He's very comfortable in his role and nothing feels forced, though his is the more stereotypical character by the end. 

So I'm saying it's good. It doesn't break any new ground in re-imagining the classic western but it doesn't do the genre a disservice either. Watch it you princes of Maine, you queens of New New York. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Good reading! Good for your health! Eat up!
  1. Great piece on Wikileaks and the implications of our reaction on net neutrality.
  2. 38 North on what could be the beginning of Kim Jong-un's cult of personality campaign. 
  3. I miss DFW with the intensity of a thousand suns. But this Franzen seems like a decent guy. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

American Exceptionalism

While the topic of Wikileaks is already starting to feel stale (though God knows why it should beyond our insatiable appetite for new gossip), I wanted to drive home a point regarding American exceptionalism using Wikileaks as my hammer.


American exceptionalism is the evolved idea, cherished by many, that the United States is righteous in the realm of international affairs. That the US keeps the greatest good as its highest priority while conducting itself in the international arena. That our foreign policies are primarily aimed at helping the less fortunate and punishing the wicked. Or to put it in the mouth of one of its greatest proponents, "America is a certain kind of country, dedicated to the inherent and equal dignity of human lives. It is this ideal - rooted in faith and our founding - that gives purpose to our power. When we have a chance to do the right thing, we take it." This modern incarnation of our national hubris is sprung from combination of our earlier notions of exceptionalism (the first nation to be created based on an ideology) and our victorious emergence from the Cold War.


American exceptionalism has become an article of faith among a subset of the population that seemingly puts its head in the sand whenever evidence to the contrary arises. The well-documented corruption of Haliburton with regard to the Iraq War, the tacit and explicit support given to dictators and human rights violators across the globe, and the continued exploitation of Central and South American populations by government-backed MNC's all seem to be ignored by those that continue to trumpet America's purity. Given this history of willful ignorance, should we expect the diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks to silence America's righteous minority? Only one way to find out!


The diplomatic cables starkly highlight an American international presence that is totally amoral and refreshingly competent. Nowhere in the cables is there any sign of an American ideal 'dedicated to doing the right thing when the chance presents itself.' Nowhere does America appear to be a just monitor of international relations. Rather, American diplomats are fighting tooth and nail for American objectives that are wholly self-centered. America is no different in its diplomatic endeavors than any of the other countries with whom the cables describe our business. 


Ironically, it is in this common ground that part of Bush's above quote is validated: we are equal. Our human lives may not be dignified, particularly when we pull back the PR curtain to see exactly how we behave, but at least we are equal. This is the great hypocrisy of American exceptionalism that is undermining the very foundation its proponents tout so loudly. It implies that, because we value the equal dignity of human lives, America is unique and therefore superior. It is a self-defeating position whose hypocrisy is lost on those for whom it is an article of faith. If we could only accept our commonality with the other players in the international realm, we could avoid further foreign policy mistakes and even start to reclaim some of what has been taken from us since 9/11. 


American exceptionalism has been a cornerstone for justifying our biggest international blunders since the end of World War II and, despite the lessons offered by history, every generation provides a new batch of voters willing to empower those who use its rhetoric. It is surprising that proponents of American exceptionalism not only deny the ample evidence against it but also decry the few instances where American foreign policy seemed to truly be selfless. Our failed involvement in Somalia was used to villainize Clinton by the same people who supported the Gulf War on exceptionalist grounds. Our attempts to end the Serbian genocide were similarly altruistic but have largely been ignored by politicians attempting to list our righteous international affairs. 


But turning this phenomenon into a partisan lightning rod does little to save America from its effects. It is the idea of a superior, morally-just America we must abandon, regardless of our political affiliations. Though its function as a legitimizing rhetoric for wrong-headed foreign policy is dangerous, our self-perception as superior is far more damaging within American borders. Would we be so willing to accept deeper intrusions on our privacy and freedom were we not convinced of our special status? The very word 'exceptionalism' is illustrative. As we crawl further and further into the police-state that will be marked as the beginning of our civilization's decline, we console ourselves with exception. It can't happen to us, we say, as we shred our constitution. We're special. 


We're not special. We're not an exception. We're just another state in web of order dangling over the maw of anarchy. Our diplomats know this, our academics and leaders know this. It is time for the masses to accept this as well. Abandoning this vain misconception is the first step toward understanding the real threats to our way of life that come not from foreign terrorists but from ourselves. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Ship Has Sailed

Well we've hit Friday and I'm still alive (apparently). No reign of fire has smote me yet. A hedonistic last Saturday (all excited but don't know why Prince? maybe its cuz we're all going to die) notwithstanding, everything feels pretty par for the course right now. Koreans are angry at the military for not responding harshly enough (today's Korea Herald has a front page splash showing a satellite image of how badly South Korean shells missed their targets)* but it's a tired sort of frustration. Everyone knows the score. Everyone knows how limited the military options are and no one wants war.

No one, that is, except for my 13 year old students. Still swaddled in their warm psychological blanket of invulnerability, they see the reign of fire as the ultimate snow day. But the joint-military exercises ended Wednesday without much fanfare. Not to knock the Talking Heads, but Life During Wartime here is not exactly as advertised.

But just I'm getting used to it, more gut checks! More inflammatory reports! North Korea has promised to attack before the end of the year? Lusia (her spelling) claims that it will all go to pieces on December 15th? South Korea has committed to a full-scale aerial assault in response to any further North Korean violence? And...and...

And I begin to gain a deeper understanding of what it's like to be a South Korean. News media anywhere in the world make their money by appealing to our attention and what is more attention-grabbing than fear? The difference between South Korea and America is that there is, conceptually, a lot to be scared about over here. In America, soccer moms cluck over bad news abroad and lament the decline of their civilization however it may be presenting itself in that day's headlines. In South Korea (at least in Seoul), everyone is constantly exposed to the very real threat of imminent destruction.

But humans are a basically happy species. (We all want to be happy at any rate, as evidenced by the great lengths, healthy and otherwise, we go to avoid negative human emotions.) A human simply cannot be scared 24/7. Fear can be a nice diversion when it breaks us out of our mundane routines (the ultimate snow day feeling still has its hooks deep within our hearts) but it's not sustainable in the long-term.

When I was here in 2006, I was shocked at how calmly the layman took the news of a North Korean nuclear test. While the media played to my worst fears, my coworkers and friends just met my questions with smiles. At the time, I thought they were just pretending to be tough. It was the first time North Korea tested a nuke!

But now I understand that the threshold for fear, anger, and the host of other negative emotions that attend bad news was too high for the nuclear test. Your body adapts to your environment in an attempt to reach a normal human experience. Unless North Korea does something that physically impacts South Koreans, my friends and coworkers are not going to get too bent out of shape. And here I am, slowly understanding this coping mechanism on more than a purely cerebral level. Nice.


*It seems that the accompanying imagery has since been removed. I've tracked it to STRATFOR.com and then to the Digital Globe which I'm hoping will be viewable through this link in PDF form. The imagery in question is on page 12. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Links I like:
  1. Kim Jong-il looking at things
  2. Wikileaks restores faith in American diplomats. Is American exceptionalism on its last legs? (Please let it be so.) 
  3. Tyler's own theory of Wikileaks. (His understanding of the impact on China-North Korean relations bears weight on our own.) 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks


As long as we're operating in a moral vacuum here, I think the trove of diplomatic cables recently released by Wikileaks is totally awesome. And not just awesome from a voyeuristic standpoint (though they surely are titillating in that regard) but also from a game-changing real world perspective. By pulling back the curtain on the honest appraisals, thoughts, and machinations of our diplomats, Wikileaks has effectively obviated the PR games that governments feel compelled to pursue. At least for the time being. As these cables slip out of immediate relevance we will doubtlessly return to BuSiness as usual. So we might as well enjoy this glimpse while it's still saucy! Here are a few that are particularly interesting for yours truly:

1) Hey North Korea! China thinks you're a bunch of dorks!
North Korea's leadership is notoriously petty when it comes to their reputation. (Really? A dictator of small stature with a bouffant hairdo is vain?) The public revelations that their greatest (only?) ally considers them childish headache could make the North think twice about future provocations. Though China's official line is unlikely to change, this betrayal of true sentiment must make North Korean leadership do a gut check.

Additionally, these revelations could very well add fuel to any fires of insubordination among ruling North Korean elites. While it's a stretch to assume anything about the hermit kingdom, let's say that high-ranking officials in the DPRK government have access to these cables. The language of these cables explicitly underscores North Korean weakness. Those party members chafing under the recent reorganization of DPRK power might find enough validation in the cables to motivate them to more rebellious positions. Dare we say that these cables might actually bring about the collapse of Kim Jong-il's regime? It wouldn't be surprising (although causality would be impossible to prove) but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be bloody.

2) North Korea is hemorrhaging not only its population but also its leadership.
This is particularly embarrassing for the North. While the quantities of refugees from the North could be blamed on famine, the defection of North Korean diplomats represents a particularly black eye. These are the lucky members of society, those who have made it to the top. If the landed elite are abandoning the country, what does that say about the society? Refugees from famine are sign enough of weakness but privileged defectors are damning. As with the news about China's honest appraisal of the North, should this information reach disgruntled members of the DPRK's ruling party it might be enough to push them to action.

3) US and ROK diplomats believe Kim Jong-un doesn't stand a chance.
Kim Jong-il is sick and on his way out the door. Kim Jong-un is young and inexperienced. Kim Jong-il had to weather 3 separate insurrection attempts during the 90's and he had the benefit of 20 years of experience as a party heavy-weight before assuming the throne vacated by his father. Kim Jong-un is a mid-20's 4 star general with no military experience. The wolves are circling, just waiting for the death of the old man before taking over the party.

Can you imagine how Kim Jong-un is going to feel if he gets his hands on that?

Conclusions:
While North Korea has shown every sign that it is a rational (if not downright shrewd) international actor, these cables threaten to disrupt the ruling members who make up this group. And these ruling members have shown every sign that they are petty (if not downright insecure) leaders. So how do we think the various players will react to these cables? Let's break them down point by point. For the sake of simplicity we can divide the leaders into two groups: pro-status quo and pro-regime change.
  • China thinks North Korea is an annoying l'il bitch:
PSQ: What?! Whoa...better not do anything drastic.
PRC: What!? These leaders are idiots!
  • North Korean is losing everyone:
PSQ: Uh oh...can't let rebellious factions see this.
PRC: Oh come on! These guys gotta go.
  • Kim Jong-un is going to fold like a house of cards:
PSQ: OH DEAR GOD!
PRC: Goddamned right. You're going down you bastards.

So what is most likely to happen really? (Again, assuming that the leadership in North Korea has access to these cables.) Sensing that the game is almost up, I'll bet North Korean leadership gets REALLY aggressive. It might be deterred somewhat by China's transparent frustration but the pro-status quo leadership (mainly Jong-un) will attempt even harder to cement his position of leadership internally. Until he feels comfortable about his position, I'm guessing exogenous threats from China, South Korea, and the US will come secondary.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Op-Ed: Strategic Diplomacy


A quick response to the post on Strategic Diplomacy while the getting's good.

I think the 'Aristotelian' assumptions about both China and North Korea are overly simplistic, digestible though they may be. Treating states as the primary actors in this area reduces a lot of potentially valuable analysis, particularly with regard to North Korea. The recently confirmed reports of Kim Jong-Un as heir apparent along with the various other changes to DPRK leadership make assumptions of cohesive leadership downright foolish.

I believe North Korea's recent aggression can be better understood when framed as part of internal jockeying by Jong-Un to establish credibility both among DPRK leadership and the international community. This is not to say that the strategic calculations with regard to China, South Korea, and the US as outlined in Strategic Diplomacy are inaccurate. However, it seems highly unlikely that this aggression has anything to do with sabre-rattling to get more aid. More realistic is the assumption that young Kim is trying to prove he's got the same balls as his father.

So what does this mean about the conclusions drawn in the Strategic Diplomacy post? Two things:
  1. Holding joint-military exercises on Sunday might be more dangerous than imagined. If Jong-Un is attempting to show off his huevos, he's more likely to escalate the violence when presented with what the North is calling aggression.
  2. China has less clout over the DPRK's actions and is therefore both more and less important a consideration. The US and South Korea should spend less time trying to convince China to pressure North Korea. However, China's strategic concerns over open war are still valid and, if they have less influence over the North than imagined, they might be more inclined to take a hard-line on policing any potential violence in their backyard.
All that being said, fear-mongering cries of insanity or illogic still have no place in this discussion. Kim Jong-Il has proved that he knows how far he can push the violence and, even if his son is flexing some muscle now, that's no reason to assume that the senior is totally out of the picture. The basic interests of all parties still align on a preference for uneasy truce, a foundation that will be important to keep in mind on Sunday.
Hard though it may be to stomach, North Korea's aggression must be mostly ignored. Unless confronted by inarguable facts to the contrary, US and South Korean forces should assume that any North Korean actions are isolated and do not represent a larger move toward open war. The existing rules of engagement are well-suited to defusing escalation and they should not be abandoned now.

Yes it sucks. Yes it's a really tough pill for anyone to swallow. But it's better than the alternative. If Seoul goes up in flames, the global economy takes it in the chin. If open war is declared, the two world superpowers inch dangerously close to WWIII. Bored nihilists might be okay with that, but everyone else with a stake in this era of human civilization should recognize that, if war is avoidable, it should be avoided at all costs.

CONTINGENCY PLANS:

A series of if...then... statements for lazy politicians looking for a shortcut:
  • If North Korea lobs shells into the west sea, then the allies should ignore it. (REASON: No harm, no foul. If our joint-military exercises are firing into the waters off the North Korean coast, DPRK leadership needs to be given the flexibility to do the same.)
  • If North Korea engages allied military vessels, then the allies should take all necessary steps against the immediate physical threat but not extend violence to more removed military targets. (REASON: The is in line with an established pattern of behavior that, while raising tensions, has not lead to outright war. Furthermore, even destructive patterns of behavior like this still constitute patterns which reduce uncertainty in the long-run.)
  • If North Korea fires on non-vital South Korean soil, then the allies should return fire in kind. (REASON: Firing on sovereign soil is an important message but one that does not need to be met with an escalation to outright war.)
  • If North Korea fires on vital South Korean soil, then the allies should assume a full-scale war is imminent and take out strategic military targets as quickly as possible. (REASON: This really needs little explanation. This is the threshold at which the allies should draw the line.)
The overall idea being as follows:
Since there is little actual communication with the DPRK leadership, alternative methods of communication are needed to reduce mutual uncertainty. Much as one trains a wild animal, repeated patterns of behavior can gradually establish norms which lead to better communication. As North Korea gets a little wilder with their leadership transition, this is precisely the approach that allies should take to tame this new beast.

Snapshots from Seoul

Having just finished a delicious meal of Sam Gyup Sal with a few close friends in Guri, a satellite of Seoul, I thought I would jot down a few notes from our conversation. Unsurprisingly, the conversation dealt heavily with the weighty matters of conflict in our yard.
  • "Shit. I don't think I have my uniform anymore. How can I get drafted if I lost my uniform?"
  • "Where's the first place you go if the call comes in that things have escalated? The embassy? The bar?"
  • "Speaking of which, I left my passport in the office. I wouldn't even be able to get into my own embassy."
  • "Imagine what it would feel like if you got a text message from me just being like, 'it started.' What would I even write? Would I write that? What about 'IT BEGINS!' Or maybe 'those assholes should have stayed out of the West Sea.'"
  • "What will I wear? Should I take a shower?"
If the devil is in the details then the details are delicious.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Strategic Diplomacy

INTRODUCTION:
As the din rings round and round regarding the motivation for North Korea's attack on Yeongjyeong, I thought I would drop my two cents into the ocean for posterity's sake.

I believe that, when viewed from North Korea's perspective, the recent inflammation of relations is perfectly logical. I'll start by outlining the basic priorities of North Korea and China and then exploring how these priorities logically lead to the current type of diplomacy playing out on the peninsula. I'll then outline what I believe should be the reaction from the US and South Korean to the latest and any future hostilities.


ASSUMPTIONS:

Let's start with an Aristotelian assumption about North Korea: namely that it is working toward what it perceives as the greatest good for itself. Contrary to what the rest of the world is patiently waiting for, North Korea does not want to collapse. It wants to become a stronger player in international relations in order to bolster it's domestic prosperity. It is currently almost totally dependent on China for trade and basic materials and, as anyone knows, diversification is the best thing for a healthy portfolio. (For this most basic level of analysis, I feel comfortable using the state as the primary actor. The leadership of North Korea may have additional incentives for success such as prestige / wealth / whathaveyou but, in the face of knee-jerk cries of insanity, I want to state clearly that I don't see North Korea's actions as illogical.)

Based on this assumption, additional conclusions can be drawn. For example, North Korea does not want outright war on the peninsula without the assurance of China's full support. It recognizes that it would be destroyed without China's support and China is not making any promises. North Korea also wants help any way it can get it. Beneficial trade agreements, aid, etc. Finally, North Korea wants to be one of the big boys with the attendant military capabilities and technology savvy to show for it. It is in the crucible of these three basic interests that North Korea's international actions can be understood.

Happily, the same Aristotelian assumption can be applied to China. (Dare we go so far to assume an Aristotelian framework for all states? Only as far as the individual Aristotelian priorities of it's leaders don't come into conflict, creating illogical state behavior says I! But that's another idea for another time.) Therefore, China also wants to become a more dominant player in international relations and wants to continue to prosper domestically. As with North Korea, China's international actions become immediately understandable when viewed in relation to the basic priorities.


NORTH KOREA EXPLAINED:

While North Korea doesn't want outright war, it does want beneficial trade agreements and aid. North Korea views the riders attached to the existing offers of trade and aid as ultimately detrimental to the country. North Korea knows it is weak and suspects that the restrictions that come with the aid and agreements will hasten its collapse. Put more simply, aid is less important than sovereignty.

But god damn it needs those agreements! Dear land it needs that aid! Maybe not as much as it needs a stick big enough to deter those would would steamroll it if China ever withdrew its support, but a few million dollars worth of food would go a long way. So when the US says it won't sit down at the negotiating table until the nuclear program is halted, North Korea rattles its sabre like a child clamoring for attention.

As reprehensible as this sabre rattling may be, one can't ignore the strategy behind the actions. Big, headline-grabbing actions that are, nonetheless, just below the threshold for open war. With the shelling of Yeongpyeong, North Korea indicated that it was not to be ignored. However, its troop positions indicated that it was not preparing for total war. (Claims to minute-man-caliber readiness notwithstanding.) These twin messages managed to straddle the line between attention-getting violence and outright war. And with the intimidating presence of China backing them up, it seems that North Korea can get away with it.


CHINA EXPLAINED:

But why is China playing this role in the first place? Cold War-era understandings of an international fraternity of Communists don't help anyone understand anything at all so let's look closer. If China wasn't involved, what would happen? I daresay the United States and South Korea would have steamrolled Pyongyang years ago. China first helped North Korea push back to the 38th parallel back in the Korean War in order to limit US influence in the region and this basic strategy has persisted for the past 60 years.

If China doesn't throw it's hat in the ring with North Korea, the peninsula goes up in flames and is replaced by a stronger US presence. If China shows any signs of pulling its support, it fears the same result. We should also remember that open war would destabilize the Asian (nay, global) economy, produce a glut of refugees, and, potentially, turn part or all of the peninsula into a radioactive wasteland.

China is trying to prevent open war by limiting the US-South Korean military options through its very presence. China is the North Korean equivalent of the US 'trip-wire' presence that has protected South Korea for the past 60 years. The two superpowers are basically nuclear weapons providing the threat of M.A.D. (more or less...at least enough mutually assured destruction to prevent escalation) to keep the truce.


TRICKINESS:

However, unlike a lifeless hunk of missile that will do your bidding at the touch of a button (assuming your engineers carried their 1's correctly), China needs to be given diplomatic outs. And this is where North Korea's aggression gets more strategic. It needs to rattle its sabre enough to be noticed, not enough to make South Korean and US forces declare war, AND it needs to give China at least a little space in their preferred neutral ground. China needs to be able to (somewhat) legitimately claim that both sides are responsible. 'Yeah, he might have slapped you but you were running your mouth. Both of you calm down.' or 'Yeah, he might have slapped you but I didn't see it and I don't trust the multi-national team of detectives that agree that's what happened.' China needs wiggle room or the whole game is up.


CONCLUSION:

So...what? Good work on your strategy North Korea? Hardly. In case you haven't noticed, you're rattling your sabre a little too hard. The resolve of the US and South Korean leaders is hardening. You're pissing people off now and, while their logical reaction might be to go back to the negotiating table and get you some food for the winter at least, it looks like they're not behaving very logically. Sending a carrier to conduct joint-military exercises off North Korea's coast after Pyonyang's explicit warnings not to do so suggests frustration rather than strategy.

And this is the cool part. As the diplomatic tune shifts further, China will notice it. And China will realize it's getting closer to being forced into a very difficult position. Will it go toe-to-toe with the US in its own backyard? China might well be soon forced to choose between a more prominent US presence or an all-out war. If the US plays its cards right, it can show China that it has more to gain by working together to peacefully dismantle North Korea than watching a bloody war that would surely end with a stronger, nuclear-armed US ally at China's border.

In conclusion, the US and South Korea should continue with their joint-military operations and aggressive posturing but this message needs to be coupled with an extremely honest meeting with Chinese leadership. China needs to understand that the patience is hemorrhaging fast with this latest attack and that it needs to take a harder line on its ally. The US and South Korea should make formal promises for a decreased US presence and no nuclear weapons on a post-reunification Korean peninsula. If these promises can reassure China's security concerns, China should have an easier time accepting that North Korea isn't worth the effort anymore.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Louie Review

Louis C.K. is a comedian who has been turning all the right heads for the past ten years as a writer, actor, director and stand-up. He has a new show called Louie which was picked up by FX this spring. The first episode aired on June 29th, 2010.

I've been a fan of Mr. C.K. since a coworker forwarded me his bit about airplanes from an appearance on Conan a few years back. Getting more into his comedy, I discovered that he wasn't fucking around with a mordantly depressing outlook just for laughs. His bit about being overweight and addicted to eating is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, a line lesser comedians either have the wisdom not to straddle or try and fail. Most of his humor follows the arc of an amusing set-up, a human failure, and then total ownership of not only the isolated incident of failure but of the neurosis that gave rise to it.

One of his most refreshing characteristics is that he doesn't rely on sarcasm and irony for laughs. He owns his outlook and inhabits the situations he describes, whether he actually experienced them or not. He is not a snide observer watching a 22 year old girl shiver in the cold with nothing on, standing on line for a club. He is himself and he gets his laughs by exposing the audience to his thought process. Sympathy for her youth, resentment at her sex appeal, and palpably, depressingly, desperation. We laugh with him as he laughs at himself.

This is not to say that Louis is a loser that we laugh at. While there are certainly vestiges of a self-deprecating class clown in him, he has an air of confidence that fully humanizes his neuroses and makes them relateable. And it is this fully rounded picture of a human that elevates his comedy above others in his field. Comedy has traditionally been used to make light of the situations in our lives that would otherwise bore, depress, or sadden us. But with Louis C.K., comedy makes light of us. The situations are merely pathways into our shared human experience which we all recognize when paraded onstage but would prefer not to think about at any great length on our own.

This post claims to be a review of the television show Louie and, despite not dealing with any content from the show itself, it is. Louie is Louis C.K. As he does with his stand-up, Louis totally inhabits his show. He is a man obsessed with the incongruity between how we like to think of ourselves and how we really are. A man obsessed with the gulf between how we think humans should behave and how we are actually wired together. And while the first two episodes of his show have him acting out stories instead of recounting them, he does not lose his clout. We swim in the gap between social and private behavior as easily (and entertained) as we do in his stand-up.

Watch Louie on FX, Tuesdays at 11pm.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Top Five Sexiest Female Sidekicks

It's difficult to find a true "sidekick" in a video-game and far more difficult to find one that's female. For the purposes of this list, a sidekick is defined as an NPC who participates in the experience but isn't an avatar for the player. This definition helps weed out almost all traditional RPGs whose party members you control at one point or another (mostly during turn-based battles). While soldier games (particularly the most recent spate of them) are chock-full of sidekicks, this is a list of the sexiest females so those strapping soldiers will have to wait for the all-male review. Fighting games are also out for the same reason as typical RPGs. Finally, princesses in need of rescue aren't really participating in your adventure and therefore don't make the cut. This begs the question: how many games even feature a female sidekick at all? Well there's Mass Effects 1 & 2 which feature a bevy of attractive ladies (both human and alien) enough to populate this list. But we're taking one candidate per franchise so that leaves four slots open. Read on to find the results.


5: April O'Neil (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
April O'Neil has filled various roles across the two decades since she first graced consoles back in 1989. More often than not, she has been the damsel in distress, motivating the Turtles to leave their pizza parties and wallop some Foot. She was also a playable character in the Smash Brother's rip-off of 2009. But it is her performance in TMNT: Turtles in Time that puts her in at the number five spot on the list.


April has certainly changed a lot over the years. Originally a sassy computer programmer, she seems to have grown younger and younger as the years have gone by. They heyday of her sex appeal came with the Turtles animated TV show (and attendant Turtles in Time videogame) where she was sporting a yellow jumpsuit. While the modern-day April might not race any motors with her baggy jeans and thug-appeal, her early-90's look combined with her sidekick status in Turtles in Time nets her the fifth position on this list.


4: Ashley Graham (Resident Evil 4)
Ashley was both the damsel in distress as well as your companion through your harrowing escape from Los Illuminados in RE:4. While not the offensive tour-de-force Leon needed, Ashley still assisted with opening gates and occasionally kicking ass. Granted she also was forever getting tossed over one bad guy's shoulder or another and getting antsy if you were beneath her on a ladder and aiming skyward. But she was a trooper till the end and managed to stay sexy-prep through the entire ordeal.


3: Cortana (Halo series)
Halo's AI program Cortana emerged a sex-icon with the original Combat Evolved. Granted, her rapid ascension to this status was fueled in-part by Halo's popularity but there's no denying her place among the sexy female side-kicks. Part damsel-in-distress, part voice-in-your-head, and all sass, Cortana won our hearts early. Looking back on it now, it seems like Bungie didn't realize the sex-appeal of their Jane (Orson Scott Card reference anyone?). It wasn't until the fanboys had spoken that Cortana was self-consciously portrayed as an object of desire in Halo 2. But her place on this list was assured, in part, by the character that was developed in Combat Evolved. Cortana is the quintessential best friend tomboy that we fall for, the girl-next-door archetype downloaded onto a data chip that we were happy to jack into the back of our helmets.


2: Rachel (Ninja Gaiden)
Unlike the preceding entries on this list whose roles skirted the line between sidekick and damsel in distress, Rachel was all kick-ass. (Notwithstanding a brief slip-up which landed her elevated spread-eagle, waiting to be rescued by Ryu.) And, more than any other sidekick on this list, Rachel was self-consciously sexified. Battling demons in an indescribable S&M-inspired leather one-piece? Check. Winding up covered in demon-drool that might as well be swimsuit shoot oil? Check. Rachel didn't tantalize us like April's exposed collar-bone or Ashley's chaste pantie-protection. And Rachel didn't win us over with her mind like Cortana's witty nagging. But she wasn't about pretense. She was a sex-kitten and a sidekick, earning her place at number two on our list.


1: Samara (Mass Effect 2)
As mentioned in this list's introduction, the Mass Effect series boasts an impressive number of sexy sidekicks. So why Samara? Why not Miranda or Liara? (Typing this highlights the prevalence of open-vowel monikers for the vixens of the ME universe. Was Bioware consciously appealing to the momma's boys in their fan base? Or is applying linguistic philosophy here a touch too heavy for the top five sexiest female sidekicks list?) Samara beats out the rest of the ME NPCs due precisely to her untouchablility. The forbidden fruit is the sweetest and Samara embodies the woman who is totally out of our league. She's older, she exhibits complete poise, and she could probably throw our skeletons right out of our bodies if we got on her bad side. It is precisely for this fact that she takes the number 1 spot on this list. She is the vanguard of the next generation of females in the constantly evolving videogame universe: one who will never need rescuing but will instead rescue us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fable II Review

Fable II enjoyed many perks that it's predecessor did not. The expectations had been managed by the muzzle Microsoft had finally strapped to Molyneux, the Xbox 360 had the power to deliver more of the dream that got everyone so amped for Fable I, and it was a sequel. A guaranteed solid performance was all but in the bag. The reviews would be positive, the money would be ample, and the fan-base would be satisfied. A year and a half later and it looks like it all worked out for Lionhead and co. Fable II is the best-selling RPG on the Xbox 360, weighing in at around $3.5m in sales. Critics were generally positive, aggregating for an 89% positive ranking on the MetaCritic scales. And, despite a few bugs early on, the fan base seems fairly happy.

RPG's of old were weighed partially on how they excited the player's imagination. Without the power of modern technology to realize sweeping vistas and fantastical creatures, there was an art to suggestion. Those unreachable mountains, those unbeatable creatures...the best RPG experiences knew how to draw you into their worlds without the polygons to actually put you there. The loss of that sense of wonder is one of the main criticisms the old school has against the new. It is to the credit of Lionhead Studios that they are able to still evoke the player's imagination in much the same way, despite being firmly of the new school.

Such potential

STORY: 4/5
Fable II's story is Horatio Alger set in Albion. You start off as a homeless child and eventually grow to be the greatest hero in the land. Along the way you free some slaves, befriend some locals, and, should you choose, find a spouse and settle down. Most of the story ranges from uninteresting to downright laughable due to the enormous brush it's painted with. The main villain is slightly deeper than the rest of the cast but, for the most part, it's a forgettable yarn.

Despite touting a good-evil morality system, most of your choices are inconsequential unless you are deeply concerned with your avatar's appearance. Bold claims to the contrary notwithstanding, little of what you do has a lasting effect on your world. And the actions that do effect real change don't feel connected to their outcomes. (I love the idea of the butterfly effect as much as the next guy but the result of my youthful actions in Bowerstone didn't resonate when I returned a man. And if a game fails at giving you meaningful feedback on your actions, revolutionary game design doesn't matter.)

Didn't I see you in the last town I was in?

Another example of the skin deep story is in the NPC's that surround you. It is ironic that so much work and hype have gone into the NPC AI because the villages don't feel populated in the slightest. Sure the denizens might react (relatively) believably to my actions but what does that matter if they are un-differentiable? What does it matter if I don't believe in them as characters? They become another transparent feedback gimmick that reflects how I'm playing the game. They might as well be the flies that circle my evil character or the halo that adorns my pure one.

But, despite the aforementioned problems with the story and world, Fable II still manages to evoke serious wonder with its surroundings. The game's linearity combined with it's impressive art direction creates vista after haunting vista that draws you into the world. And their inaccessibility captivates you in much the same way as the inaccessible beauty of RPGs of old. Every region is a narrative unto itself with an attention to detail that hints at a story far more interesting than the ham-fisted yarn you're forced to play through. The table is set for the world of Albion but, thus far, no decent food has been prepared by the chefs at Lionhead.

Pretty, yes. But she's a bitch to steer.

GAMEPLAY: 3/5

As with the story, the gameplay of Fable II is a mixed bag. When it shines it shines bright but good gameplay is the exception rather than the rule. With unresponsive controls, a headache of a shooting mechanic, and uninspiring puzzles, the only truly fun part of controlling Fable II is in hacking and slashing (and magicking). There's a good sense of weight to your blows and alternating between swordplay and fireballs is svelte. Walloping someone with an ax feels different and fresh compared to slicing and dicing with a one-handed saber. And stringing together a few fine cuts with a force push never gets old.

But everything else (and I mean everything else) feels wrong. Your character steers like a truck, button inputs across the board have a noticeable lag between your press and the action, and the game world jitters. And don't even try to negotiate those menus. They stutter and freeze and hesitate to load. In fact, the whole game seems like an asthma attack, constantly gasping to keep up.

It oozes all the right things. (Style, atmosphere and beauty you pervs!)

CONCLUSION: 7/10
Like it's predecessor, Fable II tantalizes us with what could have been. Project Ego's hype continues to elude Molyneux and Lionhead, despite their most valiant efforts to deliver. While more of Project Ego's ideas are present in Fable II, the game feels like it's barely hanging together. It's a distracting, fourth-wall breaking problem that even the inspired art direction can't overcome. Add to the glitches the soulless NPCs and uninspired story and you've got a downright bad game. But there is magic here and the combat is enough to keep you entertained. One of these days the dream will be realized and Fable (III? IV? V?) will be as originally touted back in 2003: the best game ever. Until that day comes, it seems we'll happily shell out money for these bastard children of the dream.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rooting for the Underdog

While it's hard to call the EA-backed Bad Company 2 an 'underdog', they are currently ranked #2 in both the wallets and minds of online console shooters. And they are competing for that top spot with the current owner of the 'largest entertainment release in history' moniker. So, within the narrow confines of our myopic view of this competition, Dice and co. are the underdogs.

And boy are they milking it.

The first crack at MW2 was more of a friendly jab than an actual gut shot. (Turns out that Bad Company 2 isn't releasing any new maps for free but rather just unlocking some game modes on existing maps.) But with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, EA / Dice's marketing team lifted MW2's own language and used it for themselves.

The second crack at MW2 has upped the ante considerably. MW2 has developed a reputation for playing host to the ignorant, the homophobic, the racist online. And while our civilization's scum usually crop up in varying numbers all over the interweb, MW2's F.A.G.S. ad made Activision and co. more culpable than other hosts in the ether. It's hard to tell what Activision's intent was with this ad because the fallout is clearly negative across the board. (Unless they were trying to get more racist / homophobic young men as consumers. In which case, Activision should probably read up on demographics.) But it's most lasting effect is that MW2 is now thought to have more awful human beings populating its servers than its competitors.


And just when pop culture's focus had shifted elsewhere, Bad Company 2 brings this skeleton back out of the closet. This isn't a friendly jab. This is a hay maker. Bad Company 2 is running the ad that MW2 should have run and, in so doing, saying a lot of things about both itself and its competitor. To whit:
  • it's saying Bad Company 2 is funny and fun
  • it's saying Bad Company 2 is not ignorant
  • it's reminding us that MW2 is ignorant
  • it's asking us, are you a BC2 person or a MW2 person?
Answering that implicit question is where the hay maker comes out. If you are a MW2 person, you're a homophobe. If you're a BC2 person, you hate homophobes. So? Which are you?

In asking this question, EA and Dice need us to forget all the other reasons why we play video games. Trifling issues such as gameplay, presentation, and story. But I won't be labeled a homophobe! I'm a BC2 man!