Scouting and gender... it's weird!

On 11 October 2017 the Board of Directors for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) did a thing:
Today, the Boy Scouts of America Board of Directors unanimously approved to welcome girls into its iconic Cub Scout program and to deliver a Scouting program for older girls that will enable them to advance and earn the highest rank of Eagle Scout.
Cue the cries of "PC!" from the usual crowd, especially on the heels of more contentious votes:
Notably, the ban on homosexual Scouts and Scout leaders was lifted, in part, over fears that a court decision would also force them to let (gasp!) atheists and agnostics in, which simply will not do:
Because of its views concerning the duty to God, Boy Scouts of America believes that an atheist or agnostic is not an appropriate role model of the Scout Oath and Law for adolescent boys. Because of Scouting's methods and beliefs, Scouting does not accept atheists and agnostics as members or adult volunteer leaders.
Needless to say, the level to which this is enforced depends greatly on the local council and troop; nobody went full Torquemada on me to get me to accept any particular religion, and I was respectful of whatever vespers/chapel program was held at a particular camp, so that was that.

But on the particular topic of "why girls in Boy Scouts?" I found that pretty much everything else about Scouting and gender is more interesting than the latest decision.

First of all, you might be thinking of a certain organization called... the Girl Scouts. And it's a great organization! Oddly enough, it wasn't explicitly connected to the Boy Scouts of America, though it was definitely influenced by the early Scouting programs.

Girl Scouts of the USA is part of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and a quick look at the list of member organizations shows that some of them admit boys and girls. GSUSA is still girls-only, but they do allow transgender girls.

You might be wondering what Girl Guides are. Well, they're the official sister organization to the original, British Boy Scouts, formed by the literal sister of Scouting's founder, Sir Robert Baden-Powell.

Now you might be wondering if Boy Scouts of America has an official sister organization. And they did, technically: it was called the Camp Fire Girls. Which is now Camp Fire USA, and has admitted both boys and girls since the 1970s, and is unaffiliated with the larger Scouting movement, and has a British offshoot. Also some really awkward use of Native American influences, which is saying something considering Scouting's awkward paramilitary aspect.

Even more confusing, BSA has already admitted girls for quite a while, as part of the Venturing (outdoors) and Exploring (work experience) programs for young adults. Apparently Venturing even has some partnership with the Girl Scouts, which, again, aren't actually related to the Boy Scouts except by theme. Young women have been Venturing since the late 1960s!

So people who are reflexively mad at this "change" are dumb, for very explicit reasons: girls have officially been part of the Boy Scouting experience for about half a century, now they can just be part of more of the program.

Of course, what should they do about the name? BSA is still (I think) the premier American get-outdoors-and-do-stuff-as-a-group organization, but GOADSAAGA doesn't really roll off the tongue. The whole "nonreligious need not apply" aspect is still problematic, too.

Well, I guess there's always Camp Quest...

REVIEW: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" and "Alien: Covenant" -- Forbearance in filmmaking

May saw the release of two films that I had very mixed feelings about when I saw the trailers. After watching both of them, my feelings became polarized, in exactly the opposite way I expected. Even then, though, one feeling remains strong: neither of these movies needed to have been produced. In fact, they maybe should never have been produced.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the latest in a long line of "gritty reboot" stories, this time about the Once and Future King, Arthur Pendragon. In Guy Ritchie's retelling, Arthur is orphaned when his evil uncle Vortigern murders his parents, and the baby Arthur is found and raised by hookers in Londinium. He grows up to become the brothel's enforcer, leading a gang of street toughs to extort merchants passing through the neighborhood and beat up anyone who gets too handsy with the girls. He also learns how to fight from "Chinese George" (not to be confused with any British Georges) and his inexplicable dojo of full-on kung-fu warriors.

If that made you scratch your head in puzzlement, there's plenty more weirdness to see here. Once Arthur draws the sword Excalibur from its stone (Vortigern has ordered a kind of census where every man of a certain age in the kingdom must attempt to pull the sword) he gets kidnapped and carted off by the resistance led by Sir Percival and the witch Guinevere (or "mage," in a bizarre turn... why not Druid?) to do his prophesied duty. Vortigern, you see, has wizard powers and is building a tower to increase those powers... somehow. A review that joked it's a "wi-fi booster" might be on to something.

The funny thing is, Arthur, being a street rat in this version, doesn't give a shit about legends and magic swords―that's no basis for a system of government, after all―and hilariously, neither does the movie, really. Except for the final showdown between Arthur and Vortigern (and boy does it suck) most of the explicit fantasy stuff is relegated to montages (of Arthur getting attacked by giant animals in the faerie world, including Rodents of Unusual Size, in what I'm pretty sure is an intentional troll move) or the prologue. And the non-fantasy stuff, like when Arthur masterminds an assassination attempt against Vortigern, is pretty great.

All the actors acquit themselves well. The music is good. There are legitimately cool or funny parts. It's processed cheese and great fun to watch while drinking beers with friends. The biggest flaw is the needlessly complicated worldbuilding, and the brick-stupid video-game-style final showdown.

So I had a fun time with King Arthur. And yet it probably should never have been made.

Alien: Covenant is the sequel to Ridley Scott's crime against science fiction, Prometheus, and the prequel to one of the great cosmic-horror slasher films, Alien. Ridley Scott has moments of genius (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, The Martian) and moments of badness (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, Robin Hood) but is generally a good filmmaker. And Alien: Covenant is certainly a well-made film. The actors are good. The music is good. There are some cool scenes and some definitely great images. The biggest flaw is the needlessly complicated worldbuilding, and the brick-stupid video-game-style series of final showdowns. (See where I'm going with this?)

For all its technical virtues, Alien: Covenant is a bad film. It's bad in the worst way possible for a film to be bad: it's gratuitous and worthless.

We don't need to know how the alien in Alien came to be: as a horror film, that's part of the point. A good horror monster, especially in the Lovecraftian style, is explained in vague terms, half-guesses and speculations by the ignorant and terrified protagonists (read: meatbags/victims). And in Alien we get exactly that: a mysterious spaceship, a monstrous humanoid Engineer with a burst chest, weird eggs, facehugger, chestburster, alien. And the android Ash's ominous admiration of its "purity: survival unclouded by conscience, or delusions of morality."

James Cameron's Aliens does just enough to expand the universe into the military-sf action genre without ruining the first film's horror: aliens have Queens, big and nasty final-boss versions. And even if you have kickass military tech, a whole horde of aliens will ruin your day.

Hell, even bullshit like Alien v. Predator didn't screw with the backstory, it just included the Predators in the same universe and said that they would seed planets with aliens so they would have something to hunt when they got bored.

Then Prometheus gave us brick-stupid scientist characters stumbling on the living Engineers who turn out to be blue skinned giant human-like people who seeded life on Earth (evolution doesn't work like that) and were represented in ancient human art (fuck off with ancient astronauts it's not good sf anymore) and the aliens were actually the end result of a biowarfare program... okay, to the extent that this resembles the assumed backstory of the Shoggoths from Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, I'm basically fine with it.

Oh, but now Alien: Covenant doesn't let it go, and shows us how the Engineers weren't wiped out until rogue android David drops the bioweapon on their capital city (and somehow their only population center even though they have spaceships and so many goddamn plot holes) and continues to experiment and "perfect" the alien form until he achieves the life cycle we know and love from Alien.


The colonist characters are sort of dumb, which on the one hand makes sense because we're not told they're the world's best scientists like in Prometheus, but on the other hand wouldn't you select competent people for your colony mission? Ridley Scott made The Martian, wouldn't hypercompetent people getting wrecked by supernaturally-competent aliens be even cooler...?!

There are abysmal lapses in storytelling, like how nobody bats an eye at a lush planet full of earthlike plants (including fucking wheat, evolution does not work that way) when we're explicitly told that the original target planet isn't all that hospitable (and canonically no exoplanet in the Alien franchise has been hospitable). Or how there are massive ion storms in the upper atmosphere but they repeatedly fly ships through it instead of waiting for the storms to play out (it's not like they really expect to find Dr. Shaw alive in the first place).

Or why for some reason we see multiple fully-lit shots of the aliens scuttling about, spoiling the horror aspect and needlessly padding the run time (I don't care that it climbed the walls, I can guess that).

And then the final conflicts, alien vs. knockoff-Ripley using a giant crane on a spaceship fleeing the Engineer city, then alien vs. knockoff-Ripley and Danny McBride on the colony ship using a giant truck and the airlock... these scenes are overlong, overwrought, and introduce the ludicrous suggestion that the only weapons that can hurt a Xenomorph are sufficiently large pieces of construction equipment.

Alien: Covenant should never have been made. In some sick way it redeems Prometheus by making it only the second-worst crime against sf that Ridley Scott has produced. It explains what never needed explaining, introduces plot holes where before there were none, demystifies the monster, and outrageously centers humanity in what was once a setting utterly hostile and indifferent to humanity. The story of the Alien movies becomes about humans somehow getting shafted for our collective hubris, an utterly exhausted trope, instead of being about humans getting shafted just because the universe was never meant for our benefit.

REVIEW: "Heir to the Empire" and "Thrawn" -- Legends and Canons

Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the iconic Star Wars characters who never appeared in the movies. He looks cool (blue skin, glowing red eyes, white uniform), does cool things (pull victory from the jaws of defeat, makes Our Heroes look bad), and just is cool (admires his enemies' art, so he can infer their strategies and weaknesses).

Recently, with the re-canonization of Thrawn in the new-canon cartoon Rebels, I decided to actually read Timothy Zahn's introduction of the character in Heir to the Empire. Specifically, I listened to the 20th Anniversary edition of the audiobook, narrated by Marc Thompson.

Production-wise, the audiobook is pretty great. You get all the ship engines, blaster fire, lightsaber hums, and weird alien noises that make it sound extra Star Wars-y. On the downside, sometimes the background noise (when the characters are aboard ship, for example) gets annoying when you're trying to listen to the narration.

On the topic of narration, Thompson does quite an good job with all the voices (including a simultaneously impressive and hilarious Wookiee-in-translation voice), including passable impressions of the movie characters. His actual narration suffers a bit from over-emotion, though: he tends to speed up and read more vehemently during action scenes, or actually put a strain in his voice when he narrates a character straining with effort or whatever. This is sort of juvenile; listeners don't need to be told that an action scene is exciting, it should just be exciting. And it's not like Zahn's competent sf writing chops aren't sufficient.

Now, in light of the fact that Heir was the first book in the Expanded Universe after the release of Return of the Jedi, it's absolutely amazing how much EU content derives specifically from this book. I own a copy of the "Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels," a fun coffee-table book that's an in-universe encyclopedia of all the notable vehicles in the movies and novels, and a ridiculous amount of that book is just from Zahn's trilogy, with descriptions lifted almost verbatim from the books. Even something as throwaway as "most of the Empire's promising young officers were killed when the Executor crashed into the Death Star II" are part of a character's inner thoughts from Heir to the Empire.

At the same time, some of the stupider elements of the Expanded Universe are also straight from Zahn, like the unjustified (and in my opinion unjustifiable) nonsense that clones can't spell their names right―so we know that Joruus C'Baoth is a clone because the original was Jorus C'Baoth... what?!

Anyway, the actual story is pretty good: Grand Admiral Thrawn, a genius tactician with a penchant for psychoanalyzing an enemy's battle tactics by studying their culture's art, wants to crush the New Republic. To do this he acquires some Force-negating lizards and an insane cloned Dark Jedi (the aforementioned C'Baoth) to trap and kill Luke Skywalker and his friends. Fair enough, there are worse plans.

But Thrawn is also a genius tactician, and that's the real fun of the book. Other than maybe Darth Vader, Star Wars hadn't actually had a smart villain, and Zahn's strategy of "Sherlock Holmes, but an evil alien space admiral" works quite well. Thrawn anticipates his enemies and thwarts them; and given that he's leading the Imperial Remnant, Zahn manages to make him a scrappy underdog that we root for, and a credible threat to the heroes we also root for. I imagine this effect was more pronounced when the book first came out and readers didn't know that Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, and the droids would survive for hundreds more books...

Other new characters are pretty fun, too: though it's very obvious that Talon Karrde and Mara Jade are next-level Mary-Sue versions of Han/Lando and Leia, even in this book. I mean Mara is the sexy redhead (!) former Imperial assassin (!!) who also ends up being a Jedi (!!!) that Luke can marry because she's not his sister (!!!!), and Karrde is a smuggler who actually smuggles and is good at it, so yeah. Meanwhile, Thrawn has a Watson character to match to his Sherlock, Gilad Pellaeon. There's also a scary bodyguard from a species that mysteriously reveres Darth Vader as their savior. Cool stuff, all.

Overall, Heir to the Empire is a good-but-not-great, fun Star Wars book. I'd rate it at 3.5 out of 5, rounded down to 3 because of its non-canonicity.

Even more recently, Zahn re-introduced Thrawn to the new canon in Thrawn, which is explicitly an origin story of how the blue-skinned alien from the Unknown Regions actually becomes a Grand Admiral in an Empire that's corrupt as hell and biased against all non-human species.

I listened to the audiobook, which is also narrated by Marc Thompson. Though Thompson has improved as a narrator, basically all my comments about the production and narration hold. I think the production job was actually slightly worse than Heir. There were a few scene transitions involving spaceship noises that nearly overwhelmed the narration; also, Thompson was unaccountably bad at doing the voice of Emperor Palpatine, while he was otherwise quite good at doing female voices and a wide range of English accents. Notably, Thrawn's voice is completely different now, as Thompson had made him rather menacing with a deep voice in Heir, whereas here he matches Lars Mikkelsen's softer and more thoughtful (though not really any less menacing) tones here. It still works for Thrawn, and Zahn does even more (at least compared to <i>Heir</i>) to emphasize how Thrawn is a ruthless warrior but intensely honorable, compared to someone like Grand Moff Tarkin or the Emperor himself.

Intertwined with Thrawn's story is the story of Eli Vanto, a young ensign from the Wild Space region (with a suitable Texan accent) who takes over Gilad Pellaeon's duties as the "Watson" figure to Thrawn's "Sherlock." There's actually more of a "Robin" element here, as Vanto has certain knowledge and affinities that Thrawn lacks himself, and grows to become a useful ally.

Thrawn also gets a "Moriarty" style adversary, the proto-Rebel ringleader code-named "Nightswan," and the two play a cat-and-mouse game all throughout Thrawn's ascension to Admiral before the final confrontation that will (inevitably) gain him the Grand Admiral title―complete with a face-to-face, "we're not so different, join me" conversation that actually worked much better than the usual cliche.

The book also chronicles the rise to power of Arihnda Pryce, the Imperial Governor of Lothal in the Rebels cartoon. Zahn does a good job sketching out a plausible path that takes her from being an otherwise decent person to a power-hungry and desperate authoritarian (who will eventually lose her shit in Rebels when the Rebels threaten to destroy all that she has tried to build for herself).

Thrawn is a more interesting character in his own right, rather than interesting as an uber-competent villain. His tactical genius is there right from the outset, but Zahn gives him the major weakness of being completely naive when it comes to the dirty-tricks corruption and variously racist and classist prejudices of the Empire. He comes to rely on Imperial Security Bureau agent Wulf Yularen (who appears in the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons) to apprise him of these thorny matters. It's not a particularly original idea, but it does give Thrawn actual setbacks and blind spots that might be his final undoing.

Overall Thrawn is a very good origin story (in fact, several origins in one) with all the same good and bad qualities as an audiobook. It doesn't have the unbridled insanity that Heir does (seriously, double-vowel clones?!) but there's also a clear corporate imprint to the worldbuilding even as Zahn is a good enough writer to make it work anyway. I'd rate it 3.5 out 5, except this time rounded up to 4 because it nicely informs the other works in the new canon.

Do people want to be advertised to?

So the lots of people (especially on the Internet) got mad at a video advertisement recently. Fair enough; I watched the ad in question and it's cringe-inducing, clearly the product of too many marketing meetings and too many focus groups from not the right demographics. But almost immediately after seeing the first think-piece headlines, a more troubling question came to my mind.

See, the narrative was overwhelmingly "the company really dropped the ball with this ad," "the company totally misunderstood the current political climate with this ad"... generally this ad was disappointing. But unspoken seemed to be an agreement that there is a hypothetical "good advertisement."

The question, then, that came to mind: Do people actually see advertising as a worthwhile element of their lives?

Apparently, yes; they jump at the chance to extol the virtues of "radvertising" but are just as quick to shame "badvertising." From the Gawker blogs (rad rad rad bad bad) and other random time-waster sites (rad bad) to mainstream media (rad bad), writers are meticulously comparing and contrasting ads.

But comparing and contrasting presupposes a spectrum of "good" and "bad" ads. Is there really such a thing as a "good" ad?

In my view, no. Advertisements are, at what might be called their "peak" if not their "best," a category of art that tries to associate certain feelings (generically, demand) with the purchase of a company's product, so that people go out and actually buy the company's product. Some people seem to have developed a mental model where noticing the feeling of "I want that" is called "good."

(Advertisement can become true art, but only once there's a safe distance between the advertising object and the product it's pointing to―say, for example, a hundred years later when the specific product is no longer available.)

At their worst, it's a company trying to short-circuit your brain to re-interpret "give us your money!" as "owning this thing will make you feel [cool/sexy/important/confident/competent/fun]!" through kludgy social engineering. We notice this influence, and we call it "bad."

That's not necessarily to say that market transactions have a "corrupting influence." But advertisement is a form of communication between a firm and a potential customer, and communication can be virtuous or vicious. Certain recognized forms of abuse are primarily communication-based, for example, and need not involve physical contact.

Bringing it back to the hot takes about this particular advertisement, I wonder: why bother getting extra mad about an advertisement that's muddled or even offensive? It's an advertisement, so shouldn't the default position be somewhat negative? Ads are already generically bad, an annoyance of living in the modern age. We don't need to be disappointed in any particular one...

... unless, of course, we really want them to meet some standard of what a "proper" advertisement should be. Which presupposes that we should consume advertisements (as advertising) at all!

When a firm is trying to say "here is a product; give us your money!" why should we also expect it to say "this company supports $SOCIAL_ISSUE!" in the same metaphorical breath?
Hello fellow Bernie Sanders supporter! I also supported Bernie Sanders. Help me move my couch?
Coming from a flesh and blood human person, the juxtaposition of an impersonal request with a possibly unrelated applause line would come off as deeply disturbing! I know that corporations aren't "people" in the same sense, but does that mean we can drop that particular expectation?

And to the extent that I even do this, I want to stop sharing advertisements with people. (Of course, once I try to notice and stop myself, I'll probably see that I do it an alarming amount.) Will I occasionally share product reviews? Sure. (I write my own reviews, too!) Previews, in the case of digital media? Maybe. But what use is a vaguely concept-driven short video with corporate #branding to anyone not in the business of producing said videos? What use is talking about the alleged "merits" or "disappointments" of a specific advertisement, as an advertisement?

What use, except to signal one's acceptance of the ideology of advertising? (And that's enough of that for one post.)

Open letter to Mark Miloscia, WA State Senate

Exercising freedom of conscience: A virtuous act for any American or Christian

Dear sir,

The First Amendment to the Constitution seems clear to me: civil protest and peaceful assembly are basic American liberties. They are also Christian liberties, which also seems obvious to me given the history of the Christian religion; but as I am not a Christian, perhaps I am wrong about that.
Though I may not be a Christian, I still respect the many Christians over America's history who have stood their ground against the government---facing public ridicule, arrest, even physical injury or death---because of their beliefs.

Specific examples that come to my mind are abolitionists, suffrage and civil rights proponents, and conscientious objectors. Moreover, I firmly believe that Americans or Christians have the right to assemble and protest against abortion or extending marriage beyond certain traditional interpretations, even if I just as firmly believe that the government should not meddle in matters of pregnancy or the loving relationships of consenting adults.

Did you call a political protest "unAmerican" or "unChristian" merely because it opposes the current order of things? In my view, to do this is to demean and disparage the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the coalition of church leaders who marched with him to end segregation; the Hofer brothers who perished from abuse in military prison rather than go against their Hutterite faith and fight in World War I; Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister who advocated abolition of slavery and universal suffrage; on and on throughout the history of this nation.

Of course, those people too were "unAmerican" and "unChristian" according to some of their contemporaries. Were those critics correct? Or was it "unAmerican" or "unChristian" specifically to march for those beliefs, even if the beliefs are eminently American or Christian (or both)? If so, does the First Amendment have an escape clause when the protests are against certain American values, or certain Christian values? I don't see one, but perhaps you can explain my error.

Or will you release a similar statement condemning those people who participated in the Washington March for Life on Monday, 23 January? Surely they acted much as the Women's March participants or the inauguration protesters did, only for a slightly different cause... but it seems possible that some of the same women marched in all three events. Do they start being Americans and Christians once they participate in "correct" demonstrations? Is it American for every citizen to hold entirely the same set of beliefs?
In the end, I guess I'm just confused how you intend to remain in office after slandering so many Washington State residents, Christians, and American citizens.

Thank you for your time. I wish you good fortune in any future recall campaign.


Stephen Peterson