She-Ra is pretty darned good

I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of the new Netflix series, and I only did that because I was surprised at the vitriol it was getting from the usual suspects on YouTube. It’s feminisssst! The heroes breasts are too small! The Skwoos hate it. All that kind of nonsense from people who probably despised the original series. As I did.

I’m old, so it wasn’t part of my childhood, but it certainly was part of my children’s childhood. Both He-Man and She-Ra were badly animated cartoons designed specifically to sell toys, and they were wildly successful: we had all kinds of weird action figures cluttering up our house, like the memorable moss-covered guy who was heavily perfumed, the one with the head that rotated within its helmet, the skeleton man, and of course, the nearly naked bulgy-muscle guy with the big sword. I watched the shows with my kids, and they were perfectly predictable: there were the good guys who were good, and the bad guys who were bad, and the bad guys would be foiled at the end of the show, but not so irrevocably that they couldn’t restart from the same premise next week. I was unimpressed, but the kids were getting a lot of imaginative play out of it, so it was…fine. They grew out of it, too.

A reboot was not particularly interesting to me. But then I heard that the showrunner was Noelle Stevenson, and I love her work. Have you read Nimona? Fantastic stuff: she really tears up the stereotypes. It’s about a girl with magic powers who is sort of working as an underling to your standard sorceror with plans for world conquest, but all sides, the “good” guys and the “bad” guys, have depth and humor, and they actually have reasons for what they’re doing, and they’re not simply evil for evil’s sake. Stevenson is a writer who likes breaking lazy tropes and making you think about all her characters as people. And by people, I don’t mean they’re all the same — her characters are all diverse. Check out Lumberjanes to see what I mean.

So I watched it. Unlike the originals, the story lines are much more complex, but not so complex kids couldn’t follow them. Their resolution involves more than pulling out a magic sword and whomping the bad guys so that they slink back to their lair. And the characters are also more interesting — She-Ra starts out as Adora, who is a soldier in the bad guy army, whose best friend is a cat girl named Catra (the names tend to be comically on the nose; one of the good guys who is an archer is named “Bow”), who discovers that the other side isn’t a hive of villainy, as she was taught, and joins the forces of light (and finds a magic sword, of course). There’s this wonderful tension as she has grown apart from her bestest friend ever, and Catra is resentful and angry, and some of the best moments in the story are when Adora and Catra are in collision, yet still feeling affection for each other.

I was thinking the whole time that if He-Man’s virtue was in inspiring imaginative play, this show would have encouraged even richer play. I’ve got to call up the kids and say sorry, we’re rewinding everything by about 25-30 years, we’re going to reboot your childhoods. Although, actually, they did all turn out to be pretty good Essjooos anyway, so maybe it’s unnecessary. Also, we’ve got grandkids to inculcate tolerance and diversity and progressive values into already.

You don’t have to watch it. It is a kids’ show, aimed right at a very young audience, but it’s got a good, more complex dynamic that might appeal to older people, too. I only watched one episode to see what all the hullaballoo was about, but it was good enough that I watched a few more. And now I laugh at those strange, obsessed people moaning about the lost mammaries of She-Ra, and how a girl without big breasts is really a man and a lesbian, calling the cartoon you can see at the top of this page “ugly” and “gross”. It’s another lazy buttfucking of history by leftists, claims sad creepy beard-man who deplores the fact that girls and boys will have nothing to look forward to if we don’t set up busty blond women as an aspirational goal for all.

This is what it takes to wake people up to the fact that Bill Maher is a jerk?

He finally crossed a line: Maher finally sneered at something white men like, and the outrage has started to bubble to the surface. How dare he criticize Stan Lee and comic books?

That he’s an anti-vaxxer, that his whole smug schtick is to salt his panels with a couple of assholes and fan the flames…nah, that doesn’t matter. He can keep on inviting Jack Kingston, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, and all the other people he loves because they’re famous, all fine. That he’s a not very funny talk show host who was never in the running for any of the big broadcast late night shows, even with their relatively low standards of humor, tells you he’s kind of a flop who ought, at best, to be running an unexceptional podcast with a declining audience, instead of getting his blah words highlighted on Raw Story as if they’re news every goddamn weekend.

I thought it was good that he fought back, briefly, against the bizarre popular notion that terrorists are cowards who hate freedom, but those glory days are done. Retire, Maher.

The backlash against debate is in full throttle

Good. Here’s another article exposing the facile shallowness of the “debate me” crowd.

A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language — of all the endless combinations of words in all of history — “debate me” is the most badass.

Or that’s what a cohort of online dudes appear to believe. The way a drunk roughneck might square up to you for a fight in a seedy roadhouse, the “debate me” dude pops into your Twitter mentions to demand a formal argument. Ignoring that people debate shit on the internet as automatically as one might breathe or blink, he is oddly constrained by the notion that disagreement has rules, or at least a chivalrous code of honor befitting a pistol duel in the countryside. Simply tussling over this or that question is beneath him. Debate, meanwhile, is a gentleman’s contract, holy ground, a noble anachronism.

I also appreciate the categorization of two kinds of debates: the ones where it’s solely an appeal to emotion (ironically, most of the online objective reality gang’s outcomes rely entirely on emotion — see Ben Shapiro for on-point examples), and the ones that rely on formal technicalities.

Besides, it’s not as if the lad insistent on a volley of conflicting ideas is willing to be convinced by his rival. He wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t assured a victory, and so the provocation signals the egoist’s pride — as well as the almost charmingly naive certainty that competing ideologies can be vanquished by scoring enough points in a virtual joust. Of the two main models for American debate — political and extracurricular — he favors the airless academicism of the high school debate club, where he first learned some of his favorite fallacies: straw man, ad hominem, the appeal to authority. Whereas a presidential debate is decided on the intangibles, with voters swayed by gut reaction, the after-school debates play out in the technicalities, with naturally quarrelsome young men learning to fetishize what they consider their powers of logic and deduction. If they do well, they may conclude that others lack such faculties. Indeed, the “debate me” dude often behaves as if he’s the last “rational” person on Earth.

Ultimately, that’s the problem with debate: it turns discussion into a contest that requires some method of tallying up “points” to determine who “wins”, and the methods never rest on substance. Shouldn’t there be the equivalent of a TKO when someone lies or misinterprets a source, or doesn’t provide verifiable evidence, or just yells a conclusion? There are an awful lot of creationists and Republicans who’d be lying flat on the mat immediately after the opening bell, so no, those will never be criteria for success.

Now struggling to avoid falling for the naturalistic fallacy

The last two years have coarsened me. I read this story of the demise of a chimpanzee leader, and realized I’ve changed.

Chimps have been spotted killing and then eating their former tyrannical leader.

Jill Pruetz, an professor of anthropology, said that she found it “very difficult and quite gruesome to watch” the group of chimpanzees kill a member of their own community and then abuse the animal’s dead body.

Professor Pruetz has described how she saw a group of the animals discover the body of a chimp called Foudouko, a former leader of the Fongoli community who had since been exiled for five years and who was probably killed by members of the group. After they came across the dead body, they abused and ate it for nearly four hours, the Iowa State University anthropologist described.

Once I would have been horrified and thought this was a terrible, awful act.

Now I’m thinking, well, maybe this was a reasonable response. Perhaps this is simply a normal group of young chimps reacting appropriately. Maybe this is how state funerals ought to be conducted in the future.

Both sides. Both sides on this issue would have good people.

(Warning: there is video at the link.)

Friday Cephalopod: Why are some cephalopods so clever?

I’m just ruined for some things. Here’s this article that’s smack dab in my wheelhouse: Grow Smart and Die Young: Why Did Cephalopods Evolve Intelligence? It’s a topic I’m very interested in, but the article fell flat for me. I’m going to be a bit nit-picky here.

The good part of the story is that it’s a review of various hypotheses for the evolution of intelligence in various clades. They propose 3 general classes of hypotheses.

  1. The Ecological Intelligence hypothesis. Intelligence arose in response to food foraging challenges. You’ve got to have a detailed knowledge of your environment in order to take advantage of scarce or difficult to extract food sources.
  2. The Social Intelligence hypothesis. Animals with complex social interactions build complex brains to match.
  3. The Predator/Prey hypothesis. Avoiding predation in some organisms might require an intelligence comparable to that required to negotiate social interactions.

Not mentioned is an alternative sort-of null hypothesis: there was no selection for intelligence at all. It hitch-hiked along with an expansion of neural tissue associated with morphological changes — intelligence is something that just emerges with a surplus of brains that arose for other reasons.

OK. With my addition, I think this is a reasonable framework for discussing the evolution of intelligence. Unfortunately, the paper has a couple of problems. One is that, well, it’s a review paper that doesn’t have any data or experiments or even any real evidence. It’s speculative, which is fine, but I went into it with higher expectations.

The one piece of information I found useful, though, was this table, which gathers together information about groups of animals with a reputation for intelligence and puts them in a comparative context. That’s what I like to see!

But. Here’s what bugs me: it’s comparing a whole taxonomic class, the cephalopods, with a couple of families. The cephalopods are diverse, with some impressively intelligent representatives, like the octopus. But market squid? Are they particularly bright? I don’t think so. We could say the same of primates — are we really going to compare Galago with Homo? This table would have benefited from a much tighter focus.

It also leaves out some features unique to various groups. Can we compare complex active camouflage with complex language? It seems to me that maybe there are different preconditions that can lead to intelligence, and maybe an illustration of the significant differences between them would be more informative? There could be many, radically different paths that lead to increased demands for more flexibility and intelligence — maybe all three of their hypotheses, and more, are all true.

For instance, look at the last rows of the table, on life history. That part is really interesting, and the paper does discuss it at length. Some cephalopods are intelligent creatures that are cruelly cursed by their nature with very short lifespans of 1 or 2 years, where reproduction is often a death sentence, and the opportunity to educate offspring is non-existent. What intelligence they do have has to be inherent, because there is so little opportunity for learning.

Also compare social lives. Cephalopods, depending on the species, are either solitary or live in large schools, and do not seem to form long-term social bonds; the vertebrates on the list are all social to various degrees, and do pair-bond. After reading the paper, I came away thinking that I mainly saw diversity and different forces that could all lead to intelligence, and don’t have much unity of mechanisms. There is at least a nice summary of cephalopod evolution.

Around 530 Mya a group of snail-like molluscs experienced a major shift in their morphology and physiology: their protective shell became a buoyancy device. The comparison with nautiluses, the only extant cephalopods that retained the external shell, suggests that this key event co-occurred with the emergence of arms, funnel, and crucially, a centralized brain. The increase in computational power at this stage might have been selected to support arm coordination for locomotion and object manipulation, as well as navigation in the water column and basic learning processes. Next, around 275 Mya the external shell was internalised (in the ancestors of cuttlefish and squid) or lost (in those of octopuses). It has been speculated that competition with marine vertebrates was a driving factor that led to dramatic changes in the lifestyles of these animals. First, the disappearance of the external shell allowed animals to occupy a wide array of ecological niches. Consequently, modern cephalopods are found in all marine habitats, from tropical to polar waters, and from benthic to pelagic niches. Second, the loss of the protective shell drastically increased predatory pressures and consequently the rates of extrinsic mortality. These novel ecological conditions might not have only played a major role in the emergence of sophisticated biological adaptations (e.g., lens eye, and chromatophores) but also in the coevolution of intelligence and fast life history of cephalopods.

Maybe intelligence is something that just arises in response to complex life strategies, where “complex” is an all-purpose buzzword for any of a million situations. If we ever meet aliens on a distant planet, this tells me you’d be unwise to try and predict what they’d look like or how they live or what the mechanisms behind their intelligence might be.