Wednesday, November 19, 2014

VGHS: A Review

The series finale of Video Game High School came out this week. I've watched every episode of all three seasons, and enjoyed them all. But with the series' conclusion, I've been thinking about it as a comprehensive whole. Would I recommend it? If you're a fan of video games, absolutely. If you're not ... maybe. It is an interesting show in a lot of ways, in that it is considerably better than its constituent elements.

Let's start with something quite obvious, though. VGHS is a web series, and viewing it as vehicle primarily distributed through YouTube, it is incredible. The production values are TV-quality -- low-grade, camp TV, but still. I could write a review of VGHS taking all of that into account, and it would be gushing. But I don't get the sense that VGHS wants to be judged as King of the Little League. I'm treating it as a television show because I think that's the league it wants to play in. In a sense, the highest compliment I can pay VGHS is that I never felt the need to grade it on a curve.

Okay, that being said, let's start with the plot. It's nothing special -- indeed, in some ways it is entirely unoriginal. Other than the arc I just completed, and the overarching "boy meets girl" thing across the entire series, I don't know if I remember any of the specific happenstances in any of the episodes. With the semi-exception of one late-Season 3 entry, none of them had any serious ambition or tried to break new ground (and that one episode, incidentally, was a rare instance where one of the weaker cast members really managed to shine).

The acting is much the same. Of the core main cast, only Johanna Braddy (Jenny Matrix) could be characterized as a good actress. This makes sense, as she's the only one who has a serious acting career (I nearly flipped out when she made an appearance on Shameless). Ellary Porterfield (Ki Swan) is decent, but Josh Blaylock (BrianD), Jimmy Wong (Ted Wong), and Brian Firenzi (The Law) are mediocre at best. Blaylock plays leading man Brian as every sad-sack semi-unpopular-but-not-dweebish high school kid that starred in a 90s teen movie (he even kind of looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Ten Things I Hate About You), and adds nothing to the archetype. Jimmy Wong is awkward and wooden as Ted, and only the former is arguably part of his character. And Firenzi plays an maniacal jerk who lacks any of the qualities which make maniacal jerks interesting.

The supporting cast often was better. Sometimes that's because they were able to get a bunch of high-profile actors to make appearances, ranging from brief (Joel McHale as the President) to substantial (Cynthia Watros got main cast billing as Jenny Matrix's mother/coach). But even some of the more obscure names shone -- the breakout character of the series, for me, was Harley Morenstein as VGHS Dean Ernie Calhoun. Morenstein's prior claim to fame was the YouTube series Epic Meal Time, but every one of his appearances was a thing of beauty.

The excellent supporting cast also points to one of VGHS' greatest strengths and missed opportunities. It does a very good job of building its world. One caught glimpses of a whole bunch of characters and cliques and back stories attending the high school, all of which held great promise as vehicles for storytelling. The best shows that have this element -- think Parks and Rec or Community -- do a great job of exploring their environs: one understands that their main cast truly inhabits a larger world whose denizens themselves are rounded individuals with their own interests, talents, and personal desires. VGHS had the superstructure to pull something like that off, but it never quite got there -- when we did venture out and meet some of the other students, too often they felt like 2-D cardboard cutouts who existed to serve the main plot. Indeed, my desire to explore more of VGHS' internal workings was part of the reason why the Napalm High story arc fell somewhat flat for me -- it drew the focus away from the core of the show and instead cast the lens on an external player whose place in the overall ecosystem was never fully made clear.

All of this sounds pretty negative, and I said at the top that I really did enjoy the show. Why? VGHS -- a good but not great show -- reminds me a lot of a good but not great video game. The best video games are serious enterprises -- they believe that there is deeper meaning to their work and invite their players to explore that meaning in a robust, even literary, fashion. But there are plenty of perfectly decent games that abjure that type of seriousness in favor of just placing you in an interesting environment and letting you have fun. And that's what VGHS does. It presents an interesting world-concept -- where video games are serious business of the kind that could support an entire network of academies -- and just lets its characters play around inside. As serious as the characters take video games, the show doesn't take itself seriously at all. And for all of the cliched teen-angst romance that drives much of the plot, this is fundamentally a happy show. People do cool things! They play games! They get live inside those games! We can see that they're getting to have fun, and so we have fun with them.

I wrote a review of a restaurant the other day, a hole-in-the-wall place in Oakland that we stopped in for breakfast when the place we were actually trying to eat at had a 1 hour wait. The food was good but nothing special -- objectively, a 3/5. But the place was infused with an incredible happy energy. The owner -- a 55 year old Korean woman -- greeted every customer with a fist bump (not optional) and everybody there just seemed to be cheerfully munching on classic greasy diner fare. We loved it. We loved the feeling. So I gave it four stars instead of three, because isn't just getting to feel happy worth a star?

VGHS doesn't have the best acting, or the most innovative plot. It doesn't do everything it could have with the world it created. But is a happy show, and it makes you happy watching it. That's worth quite a bit, in my book.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Suppression of All ... Assent?

The Israeli Knesset is moving forward with a bill that would ban the free distribution of the daily Israel Hayom newspaper (the paper wouldn't be outlawed, it would just have to charge money).

Oh, I'm sure the folks talking about Israeli society suppressing all dissent will have a field day about this. Except ... they seem oddly quiet. Why is that?

Ah yes: Because the paper is owned by prominent right-wing mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson and is seen as basically a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. That doesn't really fit the narrative, now does it? The narrative it does fit is a broader fracturing of Bibi's coalition -- from both right-ward and left-ward challengers.

Now, a few caveats. Needless to say, I'm no Bibi fan, and as for Sheldon Adelson, well, I basically saw him as a toxin in the Jewish community even before his outrageous dismissal of Israel's democratic character. And there is something weird about talking about "censorship" when the putative target is a prominent supporter of the incumbent administration. I also don't know how this law fits into broader free speech norms in Israel or other important elements of legal or cultural context that factor into the law.

Even still, I do admit some sense of discomfort at the prospect of limiting media distribution -- even when it's from a repulsive figure like Adelson. And more to the point -- since when has "not knowing important elements of legal or cultural context" ever stopped anyone from hopping aboard the "Israel is fascism defined" train? I think it's fair to say that's not what's causing this yawning silence.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In Praise of the Grinch

The Montgomery County Public School system -- of which I am a proud graduate -- recently decided to stop including religious labels for days off from school. So instead of Christmas Break, we have Winter Break; instead of getting Yom Kippur off, it's just "no school." The decision was made following requests from Muslim students and parents who wanted one of their holidays to be recognized equivalent to how Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, etc., were. Originally, the plan was apparently just to strip the Jewish holidays of their identification, an amendment instead removed all such religious designations.

I must be the only person outside the school board itself who agrees with this decision. Everybody is unhappy. Conservatives are blaring with their usual war on Christmas schtick. Jezebel blares out a headline "School District Removes Christmas From Calendar to Spite Muslims."

I've long been dismissive of people whose faiths requires government-sponsored training wheels to remain viable. It is one thing when we're talking about genuine religious accommodations -- something I still support even as Hobby Lobby did terrible damage to the concept -- that take away material barriers to one's religious observance. It's another thing entirely to act as if your faith will wilt away unless some official government body gives it appropriate symbolic representation.

Hence, I take a very different conclusion from what Eugene Kontorovich calls "the Menorah Principle" -- that once one minority religious group gets equal religious recognition on par with that enjoyed by the majority faith, all will want it. It is alienating for some religious groups -- but not one's own -- to be given public and official recognition. And I agree that this demonstrates the unworkability of this form of pluralism; it would be impossible to provide actual "equal" recognition to every single faith group in the immensely diverse United States. Kontorovich says that therefore "the only obvious place to draw [the line] is at Christianity." I say that this demonstrates that government is a body particularly ill-suited to "recognizing" religion, and should get out of the game.

The Board justified its decision on the grounds that the days it gives off aren't meant to affirm any particular religious observance, but rather are reflective of days where lots of students and staff are absent anyway. Montgomery County has a disproportionate number of Jewish students who miss school on the high holidays. Perhaps more importantly, they have a high number of Jewish teachers who also miss school, such that the district couldn't effectively staff its classrooms if it didn't declare a holiday that day. That's an entirely reasonable basis for deciding when to close schools. It also in no way requires that the district officially declare that it is closing for "Yom Kippur" (or "Christmas", or whatever).

MCPS isn't "intensifying the contradictions" of religious pluralism, it's resolving them. They made the right call here, and I genuinely fail to see the basis for the backlash they're experiencing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Moral Credentialing and Supreme Court Decisions

Noah Feldman has a Bloomberg column up provcatively titled "Obamacare May Die So Gay Marriage Survives". The idea behind it is that conservatives on the Supreme Court will -- unconsciously -- trade a "liberal" result in the seemingly-inevitable gay marriage appeal for a "conservative" vote in the latest Obamacare case. The basic idea is that by producing a high-profile liberal decision (in the gay marriage context), the conservatives can safely deliver a major conservative ruling without sacrificing its legitimacy, or the Justices' own conceptions of themselves as neutral arbiters whose decisions are governed by law rather than politics.

Dale Carpenter is not amused by this line of inquiry.
One can fully accept that political allegiances and the Supreme Court’s own desire to preserve the perception of its legitimacy, which is itself a form of politics, can influence its decisions. But Feldman’s approach calls on us to examine the deep and hidden psychological motivations of the Justices–which he agrees they would deny publicly and privately–without even considering whether there are perfectly reasonable and defensible legal grounds for the way they may rule in a particular case.
I am sympathetic to Carpenter's concerns. But I think some of them may be, if not dispelled, at least allayed if we look into the psychological literature which seems to underlie Feldman's argument (Feldman does not cite this literature, which probably doesn't help matters).

The phenomenon Feldman describes, to my eyes, seems most similar to the idea of "moral credentialing." I discuss this concept a bit in Sticky Slopes, but the basic idea is pretty simple: People have a strong self-conception of themselves as fair-minded and egalitarian; values which genuinely matter to them. But they also are motivated, often subconsciously, to act in unequal and unfair manners (e.g., racial or sexual favoritism). The first element often acts to check the second; when evaluating job applicants, for example, favoring a man over a woman would threaten the egalitarian self-concept. However, if a person has had the opportunity to demonstrate their egalitarian bona fides, that act provides a "credit" which allows them to engage in discrimination without threatening their self-image. Call it the "how can I be racist, I donate to inner-city charities!" effect. Having a salient egalitarian act one can point to makes it harder for observers (or the self) to infer that one makes biased decisions; paradoxically, this makes people more likely to indulge in precisely that sort of bias.

One can easily apply this same logic to judges, who have private "political" motivations regarding case outcomes that exist alongside a genuine commitment to fair and neutral arbitration that rejects the validity of relying on such preferences. For this reason, judges are undoubtedly quite sensitive when their legal rulings "just happen" to match their policy preferences -- it raises the specter that their decisions are actually motivated by politics rather than law. An easy way to dispel those fears is to point to another case which doesn't fit that mold. "If I were the sort of judge who voted on political grounds, how do you explain my vote in X v. Y?" Having this credit, the judge can effectively discount the possibility that he or she is influenced by such political concerns -- and accordingly will be less like to check against the subtle impact such desires have on his or her reasoning. I'll admit to having a similar suspicion regarding the latest health care case, albeit linked not to a gay marriage ruling but to Chief Justice Roberts' vote in the original Obamacare decision. That vote provides the Chief with a "credit" demonstrating that his votes on this subject are law-based rather than motivated by any antipathy to the Affordable Care Act or Obama administration. Consequently, it would be much harder to assert that a subsequent vote against the federal subsidies is motivated by bias -- after all; if he was the sort of judge that would be swayed by such concerns, why wouldn't he have simply struck down the law tout court?

Returning to Carpenter's objections, he complains that Feldman does not account for entirely legitimate, law-based reasons one might vote "conservative" in the health care case and "liberal" in the gay marriage cases. But moral credentialing, like all forms of motivated cognition, operates in the space of ambiguity -- it wouldn't work unless there were credible neutral reasons supporting one's (politically) preferred outcome. No moral credit of racial egalitarianism will enable one to justify hiring a drunk White high school dropout over a Black valedictorian. Rather, moral credentialing comes into play when there are facially legitimate reasons for a variety of different actions: a job opening sought by both a qualified White and Black candidate, for instance, where one could legitimately make a case for either. And so it is with law: whatever credit one receives for crossing "party lines" on a high-profile case -- demonstrating one's neutrality as a judge -- can conceptually only be redeemed in a case where reasonable minds might differ.

It is for this reason that Carpenter is partially correct regarding another one of his arguments -- that the psychological motivation forwarded here is "non-falsifiable." He's right, at least at the level of explaining individual cases. If the male and female candidates for a job are both equally qualified -- if there is a solid, credible case for either party -- non-prejudiced decisionmakers should still hire the man roughly half of the time. Any individual decision to hire a man may be entirely neutral and unaffected by the existence of a prior "credit." Where the effects of moral credentialing start to emerge is when we aggregate cases and see that the percentage of women hired plummets amongst actors who have in their possession a salient anti-sexism credential.

And this hypothesis probably could be put to the test with respect to judicial behavior. Are judges who break with their "side" in a high-profile case more likely to indulge in seemingly partisan or political voting in the aftermath? It seems that, measured across a large number of judicial decisions, this is a hypothesis that could be confirmed or falsified. Someone should get on that.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Poor Loretta Lynch. Of course Republicans are going to try and sink her. Or people who share her name. Whatever. It's nothing personal. Does anyone think there is anyone Obama could nominate for his first open cabinet position under this Senate and have it go through smoothly? He could have put up the vengeful ghost of Robert Born and Republicans would still be baying for a scalp.

Poor Loretta Lynch. I hope she realized that she's the bait to be devoured in the hope that the monster is satiated.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Judge Kopf Calls It

Though put in the words of a character, I think we can fairly ascribe this as Judge Kopf's prediction regarding how the Supreme Court will handle the gay marriage cases:
Scalia, your former boss, will go ape shit, Kennedy will write something inane, and the liberals will join him and reverse you.
The real question is what cases that line wouldn't describe?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Thick as Thieves

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has an interview with Michael Quinn, the retired police offier who was the main source for Pointergate. It's ... not as awful as it could have been. That isn't to say it's good, by any means. He remains adamant that this was a gang sign, which is just transparently ludicrous at this point, and completely dismisses any racial overtones to the story. That said, his discussion about the role of racism in the criminal justice system is definitely above median. Anytime I hear a cop state that racial divides in arrest rates is both "evidence of racism individually and certainly of racist policies" I have to give a little nod of my head. Ditto with "There is something really wrong with law enforcement policies and criminal justice polices that puts that many people at risk." This is an unusual combination, to be honest -- acknowledging systematic racism in the abstract but denying it in what seems to be a really clear cut case (normally, one acknowledges the obvious case but dismisses it as an aberration). So, I dunno -- 3.5/10? Maybe 4/10 if I'm feeling generous.

But the best part of the interview -- and this is on the transcriber -- was when Quinn was asked whether this would have been a story if Hodge's photo-mate had been White:
"This isn't about the race of the gang. We've got white gangs within the state of Minnesota that are every bit as viscous as any black gang on the street."
While I'm sure Quinn actually said "vicious", I do like to think that the primary problem with gangs in Minnesota is that they're so damn sticky.