Villainy made interesting

Tauriq Moosa is writing about villains in computer games. It was weird, it started out reminding me of me.

Stereotype dictates he be male, control a horde of minions, and have a fortress somewhere lit by flashes of thunder. His plans are some unfathomably weird concoction of revenge and pure malice, directed at something unachievable and vague – like “world domination” – and born from some dark deed or horrid wrong done to him or a loved one. He probably is talented at creating weird gadgets and weapons which, without fail, will fail.

Except for that last sentence. My plans never fail! NEVER! Mwuahahahaha!

Moosa’s point, though, is that that kind of fictional villain is boring — there’s no depth, no motivation, he’s just there — and describes a couple of video games where the bad guys are more complex.

I thought of a transitional form: Dr Horrible. It’s done for humor, but the pieces of the stereotype are all there. The villain is just a villain for villainy’s sake at the start, and he’s also got all the toys of the stereotypical mad scientist, but then it slowly becomes clear that he’s really craving the prestige of being recognized by bigger villains, and it gets all messy and complicated with the introduction of a hero who is a manipulative stuffed shirt, and The Girl…who complete tangles up The Villain’s motivations. And then there’s the inevitable Tragedy.

What makes it interesting is that it’s all told from the villain’s perspective, and he goes from moral simpleton to…moral simpleton who’s aware of the magnitude of his mistakes. That’s what makes the story interesting, is that the character changes and grows a little bit, in this case just enough to realize what a screw-up he is.

Isn’t that really what we expect from a good story? That people change in interesting ways over its course?

Lazy writer is lazy

Salon’s Katie Engelhart has a perplexing question: Where are the Women of new Atheism?

Where were the women?

Why, they were right there: stolidly leading people away from the fold. They were irreverent bloggers and institution founders. And scholars. Around the time that the DawkinsHitchensHarris tripartite published its big wave of Atheist critique, historian Jennifer Michael Hecht published “Doubt” and journalist Susan Jacoby published “Freethinkers“—both critically acclaimed. And yet, these women, and many others, failed to emerge as public figures, household names. “Nobody talked about [Doubt] as a ‘phenomenon,’” Hecht has noted. “They just talked about the book.” What gives?

Credit where due: At least Engelhart links to Jen McCreight, Skepchick, Secular Woman and the Amazon page for one of Ophelia Benson’s books. Without mentioning any of the individual women involved by name, other than Hecht and Jacoby as above.

And without a single mention of the misogynist campaign within New Atheism to silence women through constant harassment and occasional worse behavior. It’s as if Engelhart’s wrote a piece asking the question “Why Do So Many People Have Bullet Wounds?” with no mention whatsoever of people who commit assaults, or even of guns.

Those of us who’ve been in the blog world for a while might be excused for feeling a sense of déjà vu.

Nope, it’s not that the women in the movement have persevered in the face of outrageous contempt that eats up time and emotional energy they could be spending getting shit done. It’s because they have “failed to emerge as public figures, household names.”

I expect Engelhart had the best of intentions. But her article did whatever the opposite of “helping” is.

There are of course other aspects of the article that could be profitably dissected. Help yourself to the chum, oh fair denizens of the shark tank.

Diversity building at Network

USA HDR 2012-08-10 (12)

I’ve been in work and personal overload lately, and I apologize for not annoying people here nearly as frequently as I’d like. The work overload, at least, will likely lift soon. In the meantime, I wanted to pass something along about an opportunity for biodiversity-oriented bloggers. It’s below the fold. For you non-fold-looking-under Hordelings, here are some cuddly cacti:

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Actually, I hate the word ‘moron’ used as an insult, thank you very much

As pointed out by several in email, Daniel Fincke, whose last actual direct conversation with me consisted of a defense of his “Chris Christie is fat hur hur” jokes on Facebook some months ago, provides me with an opportunity to clarify something:

Also, I will note that where Chris Clarke completely unfairly attacked civility on the irrelevant grounds that you could order racist internment of people in a way that uses no abusive terms (as though just because bad things can be done civilly, routinized uncivil discourse is our only recourse to prevent that), he has not condemned Pharyngula’s routine use of the word “moron”, a word coined by racist eugenicists to justify equal atrocities against those deemed too intellectually inferior to have civil rights (even though he blogs at Pharyngula). There is an dehumanizing word that coined as part of a movement that did documentable damage to marginalized people and he is indifferent, apparently to the screams of those people while he paints me with no justification as a silencer of the oppressed simply because I advocate reason rather than bullying as the method of persuasion among professed critical thinkers and defenders of reason in the public square.

I’m ignoring the bulk of the paragraph: just shows the guy can’t read for comprehension when he’s upset. Which is an affliction a lot of us have. But he’s right about my not having offered my opinion on the use of the word “moron”.

And here it is: I don’t like it.

For my reasons, you can pretty much take this post and do the obvious find and replace.

I’ll confess I haven’t seen a whole lot of commenters in my threads using the M word, which may be because I don’t read every single comment. I also confess I slip up and use it myself on occasion, and “idiot” more often still.

Still, it’s about goals rather than perfection. I don’t like the word “moron” and wish we would all use something else non-ableist to express our disbelief at a person’s sheer wrongness. Suggestions for alternatives: doofus, fuckwad, jackanapes, buffoon, professional philosopher.

Can I go back to ignoring him now?

A quick desert bobcat-related note

A few days back my neighbor Teddy Quinn asked me if I’d be willing to provide a minute or so of audio on the whole “bobcat trapping in Joshua Tree” issue I mentioned this week. Said audio would be aired on his new project, Radio Free Joshua Tree, a community podcast.

He asked me for a minute and I gave him five, but he played the whole thing anyway. It’s at minute 17 of hour 2 of his variety show for February 3, the whole thing of which you should check out. My neighborhood is replete with good musicians, and Teddy is kind of a local impresario curating their work and boosting their careers.

But if you don’t have time for that, or if you hate music, I’ve posted just my audio at Coyote Crossing as well.

I was reminded, doing this, of how easy and fun audio work is. I’ve decided I want to do more. Probably mostly ruminations on life in the desert, that kind of thing. If you want to be kept in the loop, my Twitter account is probably where I’ll announce new recordings more reliably. Follow me there to be part of the in-crowd.

A story

She stormed into the living room, throwing her tools at the storage bench. The clatter would have startled him, if he hadn’t heard her cursing all the way up the hill. “Vile-assed, scum-eating, mouth-breathing idiots!” She pointed an angry finger at him. “They wouldn’t know competence if it dropped a hammer on their toe, and all they can do is sit around and make stupid fucking comments about women’s body parts.”

“Sweetheart, really. You shouldn’t let the Neanderthals get to you like this.”

“I’m not talking about the Neanderthals. You don’t get it. I’m about fucking ready to move in with the Neanderthals. This is the men in your clan. The so-called progressive males of our vaunted fucking Cro-Magnon community. They’re a bunch of mis-bred, ill-trained, self-absorbed, mouth breathing, own-breath-smelling…”

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Frontiers in taxonomy

There are days when having a glass desk is a serious health hazard, because I run the risk of serious facial lacerations when I read certain things.

Take this extremely well-intended article at

Human-accelerated climate change is a disaster waiting to happen. We’ve already seen the superstorms and drought it can create. Although we can work to slow climate change, there’s no way to stop it completely. This reality means adaptation will once again become the most important strategy for survival.

One thing’s for sure: the Earth will continue to exist as it has for eons. The question is, what will be left behind to inhabit it? Below are five species known for their resilience and ability to survive in adverse conditions. They are the most likely to survive a climate change disaster.

If you’re going to write one of those web-traffic pandering List Posts — not a criticism: I’m writing one this weekend as it pays the bills — that’s not a bad topic to tackle. True, the fact that the article starts this way might cause an anticipatory eyeroll:

Survival of the fittest. This basic tenant of evolution explains why the dodo bird no longer exists and why humans have opposable thumbs.

I’m trying to imagine what a basic tenant of evolution looks like. Maybe a Sphenodon. She’s paid her rent on time since the Pleistocene, comes from a good family, never made noise or caused trouble. You know the type.

That said, if I start making fun of people for typos there’s about a decade and a half worth of mine online people can choose from.

And it’s a great idea for a post. What species are likely to survive the disastrous climate change we’re almost certainly facing in the next decades? Human-adapted pests, probably, like rock doves a.k.a. pigeons, Rattus norvegicus, German cockroaches, but those stories have been written over and over again. How about wild species? Western sagebrush, maybe: that complex of subspecies in Artemisia tridentata that’s only just gotten settled in the Intermountain West, and is busily evolving new regional strains since the end of the Pleistocene? Or invasive exotics in the wild? That’s be a good if not precisely new topic.

Nope. Here are the five “species” listed:

  1. Trees in the Amazon
  2. “Wolves and coyotes”
  3. Ants
  4. Algae
  5. Cockroaches.

We can call “species” 2 and 5 near misses: wolves and coyotes comprise two closely related species, and while there are about 4,500 species of cockroaches and five commonly found in human dwellings as pests, the author mentions one in particular, the American cockroach. Though that’s not the one you usually think of as surviving Armageddon.

But those others. “Trees in the Amazon” as a species? really? There’s not a single place on the planet you could have picked where there are more tree species. One estimate of species diversity for trees in the Amazon basin put the likely number of species in the Brazilian section alone as above 11,000.

There are an estimated 22,000 species of ants. The author says this, almost:

There are approximately 20,000 different species of ant, with colonies of millions located all over the world. They were here long before humans, and the odds are good that they’ll be here long after.

One has to wonder what the author thinks the word means, if a species can be made up of more than 20,000 species. “Taxon,” maybe? Hard to say.

And “algae.” The author says:

Once of the few species that has been around since the beginning of evolution (remember the primordial slime?), there are over 200,000 varieties [of algae] known to man.

A chance to use the word “species”  correctly, almost, but the author opts for “varieties” instead.

This is an inconsequential article and the author meant well. It’s a good thing to get people to think about. And Care2’s editors, if they have any over there, are really the people to blame here, if I were blaming rather than observing.  Which I’m not. Really.

But to quote the celebrated environmental scientist Rush Limbaugh, “words mean things.” Maybe it’s just PTSD from having spent most of my adult life editing prose by environmental activists. I may well have had a big red button pushed. But if you’re writing about saving the natural world, you need to know at least a little bit about the natural world. And when you write about threats to biodiversity, knowing the actual definition of the word that represents the basic unit of biodiversity is a good idea.

Lest you end up calling “algae” a species.