Guess My Name
In today’s language
That feeling? Of living in a bad novel? This is why.
by Raq, Aeluric, and Random McNasty
Data science mecca 538 took on Dungeons and Dragons character generation last week, but their write-up didn’t align (no pun intended) with our years of empirical observation. We checked their numbers and determined that their thesis is totally wrong.
As the 538 blog reports, in August, D&D’s publisher released D&D Beyond that streamlines the process of setting up a new character. Players created hundreds of thousands of characters in the site’s first month, and Curse, the developer behind D&D Beyond, sent users’ most popular picks for races and classes from the game’s Fifth Edition to 538 to crunch. This was the resulting blog:
Is Your D&D Character Rare?
We got a peek at what kind of characters everyone is building, and a lot of players are sticking close to reality.
According to their heat map, human is the most popular race and fighter is the most popular class, and almost half of all characters created on D&D Beyond are human fighters.
We side-eyed that finding, along with a few other assertions in the post. For example, the author suggests that people play the combination halfling rogue because halflings are inherently stealthy, but also because they’ve seen this type in Lord of the Rings. So yeah, they kind of got that backwards – LOTR is the seminal work that helped spawn D&D. Halflings were designed as stealthy in D&D because that’s how Tolkein imagined them. Getting your correlation/causality correct builds confidence for your data science.
Anyway, the heat map in their blog was OK, but Aeluric thought percentages would be more helpful, and he fixed their maths as well:
This helps show that while “human” is popular, it doesn’t necessarily show that most people play “human” rather than a non-human character. And we think that’s the real choice – not human or elf or dwarf or gnome or whatever the heck an aara-cloaca is. The choice of race is human or not.
Here’s where we step away from math and towards lit crit
We offer that in D&D you are really choosing between human and non-human (choose your sub-flavor) most of the time, because that is the way that fantasy writing has always been structured –it’s hard not to think about the human perspective when you are, in fact, a human. So the fact that more than 75% of characters generated have been non-human says something interesting about how players approach the game. If we control for elf and half-elf, which are arguably sub-types of human (super-human and charismatic human respectively), there’s a fairly evenly distribution of non-human sub-flavor.
Looking at the class axis, fighter is the most popular, which makes total sense. The game is designed around fighting. If you take a party of four druids you should name your group the TPKs, but four fighters will do just fine.
Interestingly, despite being the largest overall grouping, in truth fewer than 1 in 20 characters are human fighters. As the author of the 538 blog says, there are a lot of human fighters in media. Honestly, that’s the fantasy genre; if D&D players were responding to the Aragorn/Conan/Boromir/Fafhrd/King Arthur/Roland model of human fighter, way more than 50% of characters would be Jon Snow or Galavant.
We can’t prove it without a lot more research, of course, but these numbers suggest that most people are, in fact, charting their own path in creating characters, rather than pacing the well-trodden boards. They are playing unusual races and classes rather than, as 538 says, staying close to reality.
TL;DR: Gun violence is awful, but terrorism/domestic terrorism/mass shootings may be caused by social failure to incorporate men rather than by access to guns.
I’ve been thinking and feeling a lot of things about the Las Vegas shooting, the situation and response in Puerto Rico, and our lack of good leadership. I see the flags at half-staff and feel that they mark not only the loss of human life in Las Vegas but the loss of everything good about the US. Like many of you, I suspect, I’m caught in anger, sadness, and despair…despair that this will just keep happening.
On the one hand, I want to destroy the NRA and the ammosexuals and their pet Congressmen. I am a gun owner, I even have an assault rifle (an AR-15, like many other Americans), but I don’t think it’s a right. Guns don’t give me a chubby and I’d be happy enough without them.
I’m not illiterate; the Second Amendment reads “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I absolutely support the right of any American to keep and bear a single-shot flintlock or musket, assuming they can prove membership in a well regulated militia.
Heck, I’d be willing to concede that the Framer’s Intent is to ensure that citizens can fight back against an over-reaching government. So if the US limits the military’s equipment to what a citizen can obtain (cause ain’t no amount of AR-15s or bump stocks going to help if the President busts out the US military on Americans), and also requires Americans to show proof of membership in well regulated militias in order to keep and bear arms, I’m down with that. After all, I’m a technologist and futurist, and technology advances. I believe our founding fathers knew it did too – I mean, look at Ben Franklin.
So that’s the Second Amendment part of the discussion. Now what about the NRA/Congress part? The NRA has also changed; it’s no longer about anything except making money for weapons and ammunition manufacturers and sellers. It is completely, unforgivably, evil and craven. As I said, I own many weapons and have never and will never be a member of the NRA or give them one penny.
I don’t know how you teach empathy and responsibility to people who were born without either. It’s firmware, not software you can install once someone reaches adulthood lacking a soul. However, they do care about money, and their pet Congressmen care about money, power, and face. So I would like to see European-style bold, public, and over-the-top protests targeting both. Perhaps drones dropping animal blood equaling the amount of human blood from victims of gun violence in the US on NRA HQS, or on the Capitol building. Or red paint to avoid the biohazard. Get a truckload of dolls, one for every man, woman, and child who had their life ended or irrevocably damaged by gun violence and dump it on the Capitol steps or the front lawn of Congresspeople who take money from the NRA and vote accordingly. Project images of the dead on the homes of the Congresspeople. They bear some of the responsibility for each death.
I’ll stop short of going full Hammurabi and suggesting that NRA members, executives, and NRA Congressmen lose a family member each time their weapons kill a person.
Another way to hit Congress is in the pocketbook and power zones. If people stop going to nightclubs, stop attending college in their states, stop paying to attend large outdoor events like music concerts, sports, or inaugurations, business owners and local Chambers of Commerce will change out the elected officials.
In short, there’s still stuff you can do.
But the title of this post isn’t “Raq demonstrates that she’s a Slytherin.” It’s “Getting to the root of the problem.”
I own an AR-15 and a Sig Sauer P226. My son has a Ruger .22 boys’ rifle. We have a Remington 870 shotgun for home defense. I’m from New Mexico, for Pete’s sake. I knew many people who had been shot or shot themselves by the time I was 18.
Every other weapon in our safe is a collectible/antique from WWII or earlier, though, so a lot of ammosexuals would say that doesn’t count. We are also hardcore about safety – the weaponsmithing workshop has layers of locks and security and the best gun safe you can buy. The Remington is stored elsewhere but likewise secured with multi-factor authentication (something I know, something I am, and something I have).
I would happily get rid of all of them if it would save a life.
But (again). A lot of Americans have a lot of weapons, and while those are unquestionably a factor in far too many deaths, I’m not sure the guns are the root cause of mass shootings like Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Columbine. Lots of Americans have lots of weapons, and hundreds of thousands of us never go out and shoot people. And yet, at least annually and sometimes more, a (usually white) man between teens and geriatric age will do just that. Why?
Let’s look first at history: as humans, we’ve always had problems with violent tendencies in the male half of our population. We used to be able to give them a release valve via hunting, tribal conflict, war, exploration and pioneering, or just allowing men to be violent and awful. However, it turns out that that last one is really counter-productive for society, so we’ve as a group agreed to constrain those actions. That social change came about much later than the evolutionary one that selected for aggression and violence, though, and not all men can shift those tendencies into sports, business, or becoming online trolls.
We can no longer exile these problem cases to lives of piracy on the open seas, and lives of cyber-piracy on the open Internet doesn’t scratch the itch for them. Plus you need skills for that, and most of the domestic terrorists lack skills (a point for more discussion). We can no longer exile them to the Wild West or send them to slaughter Lakota (but their ancestors did that; so many shooters come from Western states).
Possible solution: Get that Moon base and Mars colonization going. Start undersea exploration and use wildcatters for it.
Possible solution: Rework our educational system to be better suited for boys. Completely undo the factory-like approach we use now. Teach skills. Maybe actually invest in an educational system.
I don’t know though…I’m still not convinced.
Let’s look next at who DOESN’T do the mass shootings. Women. Men between the ages of puberty and senility who are minorities, and/or come from rough backgrounds (like, oh, New Mexico). White men who are Jewish or Catholic or Hindu or Mormon.
That suggests two different veins of psychosocial ore to mine: one, men who get a certain level of violence in their daily life don’t need to go create more, and two, what do all those groups have in common?
Looking at the first one, if it’s the case, then it would suggest that we could end domestic terrorism and mass shootings by ensuring that everyone grew up in economically strapped, prosepect-poor, violent communities. I don’t recommend that. Also, if we consider global terrorists like ISIS as well, many of them came up in underprivileged and violent societies and still turned to violence. They just aren’t female, Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, or Mormon.
Another approach might be to work to end all economic and educational disadvantage and then just deal with the spasms of the annual mass shooting.
Maybe, if we somehow get amazing leadership and amazing unity, we could end all economic and educational disadvantage AND screen for men who are going to crack and kill. Or remove all weapons. And then we’re in Logan’s Run and let’s face it, we’re more like chimps than like bonobos. I’d rather work on possible solutions.
So here’s my thought, and also where I piss of my agnostic, atheist, and white evangelical friends (if I have any of the last group left).
I think it’s a failure of communities to teach social responsibility via coming-of-age ceremonies.
Women get coming-of-age no matter what religion or culture, because you start your period and you start getting raped (or men at least vocally indicate the intent). Women are also more socially responsible by nature – give a girl a bunch of toy trucks or guns and she’s likely to decide they are a family and will go on adventures together or play house.
Both women and men in black American cultures have some coming-of-age elements. Black men get told “you are a man now” and given the list of expectations about what that means. It’s not always great, and can be overwhelmed by other social pressures.
Same for Latino men, who are largely Catholic and get it through the Church. Confirmation in the Catholic church happens in early adolescence, when young men and women are able to understand the laws of God, and it comes along with an understanding that you as an individual must observe and uphold those for the good of the community.
Same for Judaism, with bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah, and Hinduism. Coming of age ceremonies signify that a boy or girl is mature enough to understand his responsibility towards family and society, and they provide a powerful psychological ritual that members of the religion can use as a foundation throughout their lives. You belong, and belonging means that you have a responsibility, and your community says that they trust you to uphold it.
Perhaps Islam and evangelical Christianity, which both lack coming of age rituals and lack that messaging, are what we need to change. Perhaps if the underlying message in both moved away from the selfish and self-centered, away from the “you aren’t responsible” and towards the “you are adult enough and strong enough to be responsible for your people, and they tell you this via this ritual,” the puberty-and-up men of those groups would start acting like adults.
A Head Full of Ghosts is both a possession/exorcism story and a commentary on them. It’s the kind of book you want to read in one sitting, and then you really want to talk to someone about it. Unfortunately, that’s because it triggers a sort of readus interruptus. You end up wondering which interpretation is true, and each of them carry different implications. Because the significance of the story is so different depending on what’s true, it’s really important to make that call…but the author doesn’t. So what’s this about? What am I supposed to take away from it?
It is almost a brilliant story.
Spoilers from here on out.
The story revolves around your classic suburban American nuclear family, and because it’s a possession novel, that family includes a teenage girl. The father is job-focused, which is a shame because he loses his job. He is also Catholic, and has clearly let his strong religious leanings go in the face of his wife’s unbelief (atheist or agnostic? hard to tell). It’s a point of contention between them. The younger daughter is the POV character, but she’s 8 and telling this to a writer as an adult, so she admits straight-up to being an unreliable narrator. Later events make even her admission of unreliability suspect, so maybe she’s a fully reliable narrator?
Marjorie, the 14yo, starts acting weird. Weirder than your average 14yo girl. The first example Merry gives is Marjorie going out of her way to relate an awful true story to Merry. The second is Marjorie clinging to her wall halfway up, having jammed her hands and feet through the wall where she’s made a psycho wall of poster bits. I feel like you can make the call right there that it’s legitimately a possession, but we have only Merry’s word for this event.
Mom takes Marjorie to a shrink. Dad takes her to a priest. The meds don’t seem to do anything, and the priest recommends that they become a reality show. From here on out, the author hits all the key notes of a possession story (multiple voices, disturbing sexuality, and some truly creepy imagery) but it always careful to make it ambiguous. He has a deft hand with choosing which details to depict and selecting how his 8yo narrator views events. He even pulls off the neat trick of both having us live the filming of the reality show and recap the episodes via a blogger.
All along, he references the key tracts of the gothic horror and possession/exorcism genres. One, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, was obvious in its absence (“Merry” is even Merricat), so when it appears at the gut-punch ending it’s not unexpected. Then there is the final gotcha? where Merry reveals the gut-punch but the description seems to indicate that not only is the “it’s a possession” the correct read, the possessed woman is Merry herself.
Here are the possibilities and their significances:
- There’s no supernatural element. If this is the true read, then the thesis of the story is that white middle-class suburbanites suck. With the inclusion of the writer characters (Rachel and adult Merry), it becomes the kind of self-stroking shit I hate, like American Beauty: “all you people are so banal and only I, the artist, can see it.” Fuck that. Also, if this is the correct read, then the author really really hates religion. I mean, like all sane people, I’m on board with hating Westboro Baptist Church, but Catholicism didn’t deserve that treatment.
- Marjorie is possessed, but not by anything supernatural. She has had a psychotic break from being able to access all the information in the world all the time. There are several indications this is what’s happening – every story she tells she could find online. When the priest says “a girl couldn’t know that” we all cheer when Marjorie’s mother defends her, because duh. Her automatic texting might be the vector of infection, the way Regan got possessed via the Ouija board. Who is Marjorie texting?
- Marjorie was never that weird and this is all Merry’s projection from Merry’s psychological issues of wanting to be her sister. Hard to believe this with the TV show footage.
- Marjorie was or wasn’t possessed, but she manipulated Merry into killing the family. Everything from adult Merry is a fantasy that is happening inside her head after she does that and goes crazy. That would be a pretty weak Shutter Island story.
- There is a supernatural element.
- It’s a house-based gothic horror, like all the stuff he references. If this is the true read, then there needs to be a core, some horrible family secret, and the whole family needs to be destroyed. It’s possible that the whole family was destroyed, but what was the core? Nope, this story is not a gothic horror.
- Marjorie is possessed. If this is the true read, it’s still weird that the Catholic Church was OK with a televised exorcism. The thesis here would be that demonic possession never has a happy ending, for anyone involved. Maybe it’s a traditional possession, maybe the demon just steered her to all the crap available online.
- Marjorie is possessed, but it’s contagious and she transfers it to Merry. That would be new, and if that’s the case (as hinted at the end with the cold), it could have been a really gripping story. If Merry is a demon talking, that would explain the religious hate. But why the long dormancy? What’s the goal of the demon now? If this is the true read, we need more confirmation.
Up until the end, the book was very carefully crafted. His only misstep was having John’s attack on the Westboro Baptist guy be a problem for anyone and a sign of his loss of control. Unless the author is a total pussy, he should understand that anyone would happily take a shot and that most punchable group. He should also understand that any parent, seeing their child attacked like that, would act. Everyone I know who’s read it has been “Go John” at that part. The only way I can tolerate the mother’s response to her husband is to say she’s angry at being forced to engage when she was trying to check out.
On the other hand, it was SO carefully crafted it ended up not being about anything. It certainly wasn’t gothic horror. I’m not sure what the author wants us to leave thinking, or why he told the story. My best guess is that it’s something about presenting a story for an audience, because Adult!Merry needs Rachel, Karen!Merry needs her blog, the events need the reality show, and Marjorie needs Child!Merry. But I can’t quite make out what the meaning is. Religion also needs an audience, and Westboro Baptist certainly does…
I think there’s a very good story hiding in the idea that a young person, anytime from 8 to teen years, could be “possessed” by online media and the information spew that is the Internet. The antagonists each have a different approach to the Internet – the Catholic Church is very controlling about information and very old-fashioned, while Westboro couldn’t exist without the Internet. I love the idea that talking to no one via the alphabet map on your phone is the same as talking to no one via the alphabet map on the Ouija board. I wish Tremblay’s editor had asked him to tease out that story rather than writing with one eye on Hollywood.
Why don’t authors spend as much time researching foreign policy as they do science? Andy Weir got some of the science wrong in The Martian, but just small details. Then he got ALL of the foreign policy so laughably wrong it discredits the rest of the book. He might as well have written that a team of brown and black poor people left a Muslim abandoned on an island, and Donald Trump selflessly contributed all his money to the rescue effort, swimming out himself to bring the guy to America, where the whole team was made citizens.
If you read that, you wouldn’t care how good the Muslim guy’s science and problem solving was, or how funny his quips are – you wouldn’t be able to take the story seriously, nor would you think the overall problem had been resolved in any realistic way.
I don’t mean to bag on Weir, who is a friend of a friend (but who isn’t?)…he’s just following in the footsteps of so many other creatives. Authors and filmmakers strive to get the science and technology and military aspects right. They don’t always achieve it, but they try. Police and medical and legal procedural aspects are sometimes researched and generally only abused when the author/filmmaker needs a lazy way to create or resolve conflict. But whenever diplomacy and foreign affairs are included in a story, it’s clear that not one shred of research has been done, and not one bit of verisimilitude is desired. Why?
Theory #1: No one’s bothered about it before, and no one complains, so why expend the effort?
Theory #2: “I watch the news so I already know everything about this stuff.”
Theory #3: It’s really complex, and not at all sexy. I mean, they don’t even use guns!
Theory #4: “All the people who work for international agreements have to be as dumb, fucked-up, and selfish as Congress, right? I’ll just write them like Congress.”
Theory #5: All of the above.
Foreign affairs practitioners, be they the diplomats and military and espionage professionals ofthe JSOC and the JTTF (as character-assassinated by Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War), Foreign Service Officers (even if you assume that a guy wouldn’t know he was fucking a dude, to give Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly its premise, no FSO is going to exclaim “I got promoted to Third Secretary!”), or the magical science and technology liaisons of the world’s space programs in The Martian, are the Rodney Dangerfields of fiction. They get no respect.
The work, and the world they work in is incredibly complex, and by failing to show the same respect for the profession that they show to the military, our media tells the public that it’s OK to be uninformed or misinformed, and OK to disregard foreign affairs. Then you get Obama (at best), who had to learn it on the job and never really undid the mess left by Bush, or you get Trump (I’m not going to say “at worst,” because while Trump’s presence as the GOP nominee is unimaginably bad, it can always get worse), who can sell the idea of a wall along the US-Mexico border, paid for by Mexico as a possible thing.
Please. Don’t include the foreign affairs career in your work if you aren’t going to treat it with the same respect you’d show any other element.
ETA: A friend reminded me that this is one of the two reasons I quit watching Black Mirror (the other was the gaspingly atrocious misogyny): the unrealistic depictions of politicians and leaders in service of the plot. For the story to happen that way, the creators replaced the experts with characters who had the professional expertise of a rutabaga.
This is my theory: superhero movies are filling that gap in our entertainment lives that would be filled with ballet, if we were wealthy and/or Russian. You go to the ballet to gasp in awe at the feats of physicality, to be emotionally manipulated by music, costume, movement, and spectacle, even if you don’t know what the fuck you are watching.
And let’s face it, Swan Lake makes a lot more sense than Captain America: Civil War.
That’s the only reason I can come up with to justify the giddy love for CA:CW, a movie that I and two 11-year-old boys found decidedly meh. The combination of beautiful women, muscular men, and choreography must just set the lizard brain awash in happy juice, decoupling it from all rational higher brain functions.
I love looking at Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans as much as the next person, and I love Sebastian Stan’s glower, Chadwick Boseman and Paul Bettany’s voices, and everything about RDJ’s Tony Stark (but mostly the cool tech). The costume design and manufacturing, the special effects, most of the fight choreography, the shot compositions: all great. But like so much ballet and opera, it’s sound and fury with no significance, no story that can survive even the barest consideration.
From a big picture standpoint, MCU need Cap and Iron Man to fight in this one. They couldn’t do the Civil War storyline from the comics, because it’s no longer topical to talk about how awful the Patriot Act is (although it should be). Also, Tony was just an ass for no reason in the comics…but in giving Tony credible motivation for the movie, they put Cap in the position of being morally in the wrong. Which he should NEVER be.
There are two stories in CA:CW. One is about the Sokovia Accords, and the other is about vengeance, pretty much. It’s about the fact that the Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parents, and Cap has somehow known this and not told Tony. The Sokovia Accords is Scarlet Witch’s story, but since female characters don’t get to have stories, it’s used here as a giant misdirection for the audience and the backdrop for the bad guy to pull off his amazingly convoluted plan to set two of the Avengers at each other’s throats.
Swan Lake asks the audience to believe that a human can shapechange into a swan. Everything else is pretty straightforward, following the excellent advice that a story can only have one fantastical element in it. If none of the other rules of physics applied in Swan Lake, it would be surrealist at best, rather than a classic. CA:CW asks the audience to believe all the superhero stuff: a woman can do telekenesis and mind control; a couple guys were given serums that made them super-strong and durable, frozen for 50 years, and are OK now; a man is mind-blowingly rich and flies around in a magic metal suit; several characters have suits or accessories of the magic metal, which breaks every law of physics; a guy can become bug-sized or giant-sized, still be heard when he’s bug-size and not dent the ground when he’s giant-sized, etc.
With all that the rest of the story needs to be plausible. Instead, we’re somehow supposed to believe that there were at least three perfectly positioned and IR-equipped cameras exactly at the spot where Bucky ambushed the Starks. One caught the action from the front of the car, one from the back, and one was just right to get a close-up inside the car. “No witnesses,” say Hyrdra, but man they were great about ensuring the video record.
OK, but even if you give the movie that dumbass premise, we then have to believe that Zemo decrypted all of the Hydra files Black Widow made public, somehow found the video in them when no one else did, and then thought “I know! I will make Iron Man and Captain America fight each other! This will tear the Avengers apart! Somehow that will make up for my loss…and it’s so easy! All I have to do is make sure Iron Man sees this. I’m sure Captain America already knows it, and I’m sure he will act to protect this Hydra assassin, because I’ve seen the first two Captain America movies and I know that Cap’s love for Bucky is stronger than any other relationship he has!”
Having come up with this watertight plan, Zemo does the obvious: he emails Tony.Stark@starkindustries.com, Subject: You need to see this and attaches the mp4 file.
Except no, he doesn’t.
He teaches himself Russian and German (let’s assume he already spoke English and Sokovian), decrypts all the rest of the Hydra and SHIELD stuff on Wikileaks, builds an EMP generator in a closet in a German hostel (or brings it, which might be even harder) during UN meetings he clearly planned for, develops Mission: Impossible-level disguise abilities, makes himself look like the psychologist that he somehow knew would interrogate Bucky after Bucky is apprehended due in part to the interference of Black Panther, which Zemo somehow also knew about. Oh yes, he had previously disguised himself as Bucky in Vienna in order to have the cops go after Bucky. All that under the noses of the JTTF and JSOC, so that’s comforting. In and around this he located former Soviet Hydra agents, out-smarted and out-fought them, located the secret Hydra base in Siberia, dragged Cap, Iron Man, and Bucky to it, killed the Hydra murder squad (because he knew that it wouldn’t be ALL the Avengers coming after his ass), and then played the video there.
Zemo is AMAZING.
He is like 5000 times more competent than any of the Avengers. He should be running Stark Industries. He clearly plans big, and then fucking executes like a boss. And he’s got no superpowers and no bank account.
But we still have the Sokovia Accords. It’s almost possible to believe that people would be so scared of superhumans that they wouldn’t be able to think through “If Scarlet Witch had left the bomb on the ground, many more people would have died,” but I still feel like that was all a giant waste of screen time. Not as much of a waste as the Spiderman stuff, which was a mini-movie, because the Spidey stuff was just clearly a trailer for the next set of Spiderman movies.
It’s possible CA:CW could be recut to actually be about something. Zemo’s right – an empire that falls because it comes apart from internal fighting never returns. Marvel had a chance to talk about the internal fighting in the US, fomented and fed by the media’s control of what people see and when. Zemo chose what the heroes saw and when and led them to conflict, but there was a core of truth that pushed Red Guy and Blue Guy to fight. This could really have worked, but I suspect RDJ didn’t want to be seen as a Trump proxy, and Marvel, a media giant, didn’t want to criticize the media.
Next time, I’ll spend the $100 it cost me to take two kids to this movie on ballet tickets instead.