Archive for January, 2010

I have been feeling an urge to talk about this story for the past couple days.  Just like other people I’ve seen comment, I’ll make it clear I can’t have much sympathy that got into jail by smashing someone’s head in with a sledgehammer (it’s just not a very nice thing to do, is all!), and I can understand that convicted criminals have in a way ceded some of their rights, but I do think there are some things that can be discussed here.

The reasons given for taking away the materials are that Dungeons & Dragons “promotes fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling.”  I’m going to work through those backwards:

  • Gambling:  I’m not sure where this even comes from.  I’ve never heard of someone betting on a role-playing game.  I kind of wonder whether someone saw that it uses dice and assumed gambling was involved.
  • Addictive escape behaviors:  I can see this.  Just about anything can be addictive, and games have been in a spotlight.  I don’t know how much that applies to D&D, though: as far as I understand most addictions don’t absolutely require a social group (even a sex addict can pursue his craving by himself).  It is, however, almost definitely a from of escape, and if I were in prison I think I’d like something escapist to do.
  • Violence:  There is violence associated with the game.  There is a reason why the most fleshed-out rule system in D&D and other role-playing systems is the combat system.  But I don’t know that it inspires violence any more than any other media.  Perhaps someone could think it dangerous to have in a prison, where there will be people who are predisposed to violent behavior.  I don’t know enough psychology to pretend to know about that.
  • Competitive hostility:  Ah, possibly.  This one depends entirely on the type of game.  AFAIK, most D&D campaigns involve the group working together toward a common goal or against a common (non-player) enemy.  There is such a thing as competitive play, and even in a standard game there is sometimes an adversarial relationship between the game master and the players, but that’s not an essential part of the game itself.
  • Fantasy role playing:  This is the one that I don’t understand at all (and neither did the guys on Fear the Boot).  Yes, D&D promotes fantasy role playing, that’s what it’s for!  It’s a fantasy role-playing system.  But why is fantasy role-playing (or just role-playing) a bad thing for the prisoners?  Why, exactly, would occasionally pretending to be a wizard that can throw fireballs have a bad influence on anyone, let alone someone who has actually killed people.  Do people really still have that prejudice that D&D is “satanic” or somesuch?

There is one other thing I want to discuss.  According to the article, among the materials confiscated by the guards was a 96-page custom campaign.  That’s a pretty big work.  Art and writing can be used as forms of therapy, creating a D&D campaign can essentially be considered a kind of writing.  Would it be the same if what was taken away was the manuscript for a 96-page novella?  Note, I’m making no judgement about content or value of the work, I haven’t seen it or played it.  But, is it normal for prisoner’s artwork or writing to be confiscated?  If so, why?  If not, would that fall under “cruel and unusual punishment”?  I do wonder about that.

/end rant

On another note entirely:

If there are any gamers reading this who are charity-minded, I also happened upon this on Drive-Thru RPG.  Basically, if you donate $20, they will give you almost $1500 in RPG PDFs.  Mostly supplements and lesser-known systems, but that’s (hopefully) not why you’re giving the money (well, not the only reason) — it goes as a matched donation to Doctors without Borders to be used in Haiti.

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Last weekend I finally got a chance to see Avatar.  The film had been delayed in China until January 2, and from what I hear about it, it’s unlikely that I would have been able to see it at that time, if I had tried (as it was I just waited until I was back in the states.

I’d already read a few reviews of it, both positive and negative, so I knew what to expect.  The story was actually a bit better than I had thought from the reviews, but it was still very much suffering from the noble savage and white guilt tropes (those aren’t necessarily bad, though), and I do see why people have objected to the hero being a white American who not only assimilates into Na’vi culture but becomes better than them at everything they do in a very short time (the second bit is the key to the objection).  However, I had to agree with my brother who mentioned the Avatar body as being “liberating” for the paraplegic protagonist.

I was impressed by the depth of the world and the alienness of the creatures living there.  The world of Pandora is beautifully rendered and at no time did I detect a flaw in the CGI — in fact, I didn’t even think about it most of the movie.  Like others, I noticed the conspicuousness of the humanoid Na’vi on a planet where all other land animals have six limbs, a second pair of eyes, and breathing orifices on the underside of the body, particularly when much of the world uses realistic science to make fantastic landscapes (those floating mountains are not magical in the least).  I do, however, think it is a good alien design for the purpose — there are a few things that will take people out of their comfort zone (the neural link takes on a whole different meaning when you find it not only links to other animals, but is also used during mating — though in my mind it makes it more plausible as far as evolution goes).

Plus, too much alienness in the Na’vi could have messed with one of the reasons I saw the movie: the language.  I’ve tried creating languages, or conlanging, a bit myself, and when I had read that a linguist consultant was hired to construct the language I knew I wanted to see the movie, and I think this language could possibly achieve its goal of “out-Klingon Klingon”. I have tried to find as much information about it ever since.  The consultant, Paul Frommer posted a sketch of the language at Language Log, and I know of a fan site that is trying to make sense of what materials have come out.  Certain bits of the romanization (which I hear were decided from above) irk me, (x marks ejectives when ‘ is being used for the glottal stop?) but I do think that the language has a beautiful sound to fit the beauty of the Na’vi while still being somewhat unconventional.  I would like someday to see a developed constructed language for aliens that actually used some non-human sounds, but I can understand Cameron’s desire for actors to perform their lines without manipulation.  In any case, don’t be surprised if you hear me calling someone a “skxawng” (if I can get the pronunciation down, that is 😛 ).

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Yesterday Google put up a blog post (via Jason Morrison) mentioning cyber attacks originating in China that appeared to be targeting human rights activists.  Since entering China, Google has been in a precarious position of balancing the Chinese government’s insistance on censored results with their own mission to make information free and available to everyone.  It is a little surprising though, to see their conclusion here:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

I don’t pretend to know what Google means by this, whether they are seriously considering shutting down their China offices or just trying to draw attention to China’s censorship policies.  Cyber attacks can come from anywhere, and pulling out of China will not make Chinese cyber attacks go away, whether they really are government attacks or just nationalist Chinese vigilantes.  In any case, I’m sure it will get some of the authorities going.  ChinaSMACK poster Python seemed just as confused and skeptical about the issue (note: go to that post to get some translated Chinese reactions to the news):

The reasons provided by Google for the closing of their Chinese offices are rather vague if not unpersuasive.

  • Yes, cyber attacks exist in China and some originated from this country, but Google is not the only victim and even its major opponent Baidu recently got DNS hijacked by the so-called “Iranian Cyber Army”.
  • Second, isn’t it Google’s responsibility to utilize all its technical might to protect users’, including human rights activists’, privacy? Saying “we will retreat because some of our users’ email account were monitored” is like admitting their own disadvantage in technical strength and persuading users to switch to other companies.
  • Third, I fail to see why compromise of some users’ computers due to their own lack of sense in internet security is a fault of Google itself: anyone using ANY email system could be hacked if the user acts like a security newbie, and it doesn’t matter where the login portal pages are hosted (I remember Google doesn’t have a data center in China).

Anyway, we’ll see whether this leads to any real policy changes on Google’s part.  The ChinaSMACK article linked above recently updated with a translation of a Sina blog post (original Chinese here) calling Google’s announcement “psychological warfare”, and I’m inclined to agree, considering that the announcement itself said that this information was shared partly to contribute to “much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”  If that’s the case, let’s hope someone gets the message.

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Haven’t posted here for a while.  Right now I’m hanging around in Shanghai, staying at a hostel until we have to leave tomorrow.  How much I post after I return depends on how busy things get, I have one last semester of college and some job searching to do, though I do have at least one draft that I want to get to (not China related, and a very belated topic).  Anyway, I will be flying out of Shanghai tomorrow, and after what is sure to be a terrible travel experience given news of even more ridiculous security procedures coming our way.  I think if there is a Hell, my own personal version would likely be being eternally stuck in the international air travel system constantly switching between impossibly long flights and never reaching a destination.

But this time I’m sure I’ll get home eventually.  See everyone there.

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