About Rex
Name: Rex Stetson
Occupation: Masked Avenger Type
Base of Operations: Washington, DC
E-Mail: rexstetson@yahoo.com
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 Other Blogs of Interest
The Young Curmudgeon
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Reason Hit and Run
The Anal Philosopher
Justice Junction
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Mr. X
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Thursday, August 21, 2003

Rex Finds God Most Likely Male

I took a spin over to BookBlog today and tried out a new computer program that's been very popular on the blogosphere the past couple of days. The Gender Genie analyzes written text and can predict the gender of its author with 80% accuracy.
It accurately predicted that I was a male, that my significant other was a female, based on writing samples I scrounged up.
However, certain people confused it. My friend Eric Deamer over at The Young Curmudgeon, kept coming up "female"- he's not. I tried and tried again with different samples from his blog, but he kept coming out as a girl. So did Andrew Sullivan, though, so Eric's in good company. Thomas Friedman also came up "female", which is funny because I remember Ann Coulter once derisively said he "writes like a woman". Hmm. I put Ann Coulter through The Gender Genie and despite her brash, confrontational style- it correctly identified her as female.
What about the writings of George Eliot, the 19th Century woman who masqueraded as a man to get published? Genie said female.

What else could be done with this, I wondered. Then it hit me: Have the Genie analyze a text file of the Bible- the Word of God- and determine the gender of its author- with 80% Accuracy!

I located a text file of the King James Bible and loaded it into the genie- and anxiously awaited the results. I was breaking new ground here- never before has man had the chance to determine the sex of his Creator. Until Now. So little can be quantifiable known about God, as agnostics say. But if He exists, I will know with a fair degree of certainty what His or Her gender is....

Hey, this is taking a while. Damn. It crashed my computer.
Really. I am reminded of the scene in the very cool movie Pi- when the supercomputer tries to learn the secret to existence, and the true name of God- and it overheats and melts into goo.Perhaps man was not meant to know the answer.

Undeterred, I tried again, and again. I think it was less Divine Intervention that was the problem and more the large size of the King James text file that was crashing the program. So I broke it up into smaller sections. And each one came out....MALE.

Oh sure, It's only an 80% accurate prediction, and maybe the translators of the Bible were male, or the people who actually did the writing were males inspired by God. But it's the most solid, compelling evidence we have of God's Masculine Nature since since Jesus told His Apostles to pray the "Our Father".

Errors in transcription of the Divine Word, or Errors in Translation would be fairly random, and thus distributed equally over "male" and "female"-indicating errors- they would cancel each other out.
Assuming God did not Divinely Inspire the Translators

This is of course assuming God dictated to his Transcribers, such as Moses. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If they were merely Divinely Inspired, this could also account for the masculine skew, assuming that men did the majority of the physical writing. But, even the actual words spoken by God ("And God Said unto him:", etc.) came out male. The Ten commandments, for example.

Is it possible that God is really a female? Sure. But it just got a little less probable. Could the program or my reasoning, or my interpretation be wrong? Absolutely. Personally I doubt God has a gender- most things in the universe don't. But I suppose that the "creative, protective, but wrathful" personality He has generally had does read a little more "Male". Interestingly enough though, In all the Gender Genie testing I did, I caught a few errors of men misidentified as women, but never the reverse. It's anecdotal evidence I know, but I haven't seen any women's writing incorrectly identified as "male" by the program-regardless of style or content.

Posted by Rex @ 6:07 PM

Superheros Banned In Australia

Childcare centers in Melbourne, Australia have banned superhero costumes, claiming they encourage agressive play among children such as hitting and kicking. I personally think this is sheer craziness- part of this movement to label normal childhood behavior as abberant and pathological. And the movement to blame TV, video games, and other media for why our kids are "screwed up", instead of their screwed-up parents and family lives.
But I do think there might be a kernel of truth here- these costumes facilitate superhero play which is typically physical and sometimes a little violent. I doubt Superhero play is any more violent than playing "soldiers", "star wars", "cops and robbers", or "cowboys and indians", however- and certainly less violent than many sports.

More significantly, there is a relationship between costume and violence. Studies have shown that there is a link between anonymity and increased crime, increased aggression:
[A]Zimbardo study, where female students were required to deliver electric shocks to another student, found that if the student delivering the current was hooded (and so anonymous) they would be willing to deliver more shocks than those who wore name tags. Deiner et al found that masked children at Halloween were more likely to steal from the houses they called at. These two studies further support that the lack of individuality causes a loss of inhibitions. They also suggest that uniforms can cause deindividuation. For example, someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe is likely to act more aggressively than normal. Zimbardo's controversial Stanford prison experiment of 1971 showed that "about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation". These guards, who had no experience of prison, fell into their aggressive, brutal stereotypes. After the experiment was over many of the guards felt they "were not really themselves".

Superheros in comics wear masks and costumes to protect their identities- to guard against reprisals for their extralegal actions, whether from police or from the criminal element. But do costumes mask the identity, as in the comic books, or do they merely reflect it? I agree that masks, and costumes, can change their wearers, as Zimbardo's research demonstrates, both by reducing the consequences of action through increased anonymity, and by influencing a person's self image by changing their perceived role.But It takes an extreme personality to put on a mask. Klan members have extreme views and are willing to act on them- as are bank robbers. Wearing a mask is the result of these views, not the cause. I think it unlikely that masks create the ideas that cause them to be worn.

The problem, however, is never with the mask, and always with the wearer. For whatever evolutionary purpose it serves, aggression is part of being human-so is tribalism. What makes us more than mere animals is that we create abstract concepts of right and wrong, of good and evil, of fairness and justice. And whether a child plays "Superheroes", "Harry Potter", "Lord of The Rings" or even "Cops and Robbers" or "Star Wars"- there are clear delineations of Good and Evil being made. The crucial values this often-rough type of play reinforces are that there things worth fighting for, and that it's better to be one of the good guys. I think that this "morality play" benefit to society alone far outwieghs any increased risk of a few bumps and bruises on the playground.

And Superhero play teaches its own valuable lessons: In the comics, the superheroes must struggle with the temptation to abuse their strength and powers. Superman must exersize constant physical self-restraint to avoid hurting or killing people. Batman must be careful not to cross the line between justice and revenge. Spider-Man teaches that "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility". These are important lessons to learn, especially for young boys.

Just as gun control doesn't stop crime, banning superheroes won't stop playground roughhousing. If the social engineers have their way with this one too, only the criminals will have guns- and only supervillains will have masks, I suppose.

Thanks to Reason Online and Nick Gillespie for the link and inspiration for this post.

Posted by Rex @ 1:51 PM

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

"Soft" On The Zombie Problem

You can't Keep those Zombies Down! You think those Zombie movies are dead dead dead, but the genre just slowly, clumsily creeps back up to get into your brains when you aren't looking.

And I for one thing it's a Good Thing. There really isn't enough attention paid to Zombies these days. As a Zombie fan ( not to say that I root for the Zombies, mind you) I was thrilled to see the excellent zombie-genre film 28 Days Later, which I believe to be the most entertaining film of the summer. This is faint praise, I realize, given the lackluster blockbusters ( or "blackblusters" as some annoying blogger might conceivably call them) but there were a few enjoyable films- Finding Nemo and Bend It Like Beckham spring to mind.

But Back to Zombies. There isn't enough done with zombies these days. Time was when you could count on a good Zombie Film about every coulple years or so. George Romero would turn out high-quality Zombie films in the 60's, 70's, and 80's. And despite the popularity of the "slasher" horror film in the 80's, zombie films like Night of The Comet(1984), Re-Animator (1985) and the "Evil Dead" turn out a good zombie film. But the last major High-quality zombie films were made in 1992: Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, and Sam Raimi'sArmy of Darkness. You may remember these two zombie-horror hacks as the directors of the Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man films??

For 10 years- 11 years in the US- until the 2003 US release of 28 Days Later- the Zombie film as a genre appeared dead, but was re-animated by Danny Boyle, Director of the also-very-cool Trainspotting(1996).
For those of you who haven't seen it already- you had two chances already ( it was released twice with a different ending added the second time) so go see it for crying out loud. I can honestly say without any hyperbole whatsoever, it is a Million times better than anything else in the action/adventure/sci-fi/horror genres this summer. Even with Jason Vs. Freddy (two retro-80's reanimations themselves) topping the box office - in search of their former glory. This summer's movies are a lot like the California Governor's race-any desperate wierdo or wacko (or Schwarzenegger) can probably do better, so they all come out of the woodwork, smelling the fear and desperation of the general populance.

But the Zombie movie was great! But why are zombie films cool, exactly? they're not sexy like vampires or werewolves, and they're not as menacing as slashers like Jason and Freddy- in fact zombies are kind of (comically sometimes) easy to kill. And I think therein lies the answer to their popularity.

Japanese roboticist Dr. Masahiro Mori has a wonderful theory which decsribed human reaction to humanoid but non human creatures. Apparently real humans have favorable responses to human-looking robots, but as they grow increasingly human-looking, subtle differences between the androids and a real human (primarily in movement but also in apearance) cause observeres to have negative emotional responses ( such as revulsion and horror) instead. If the differences are reduced, the emotional response illicited becomes more positive again-This dramatic dropoff reverses itsef- when graphed, this strange statistical dip, called "the Uncanny Valley" is evident.

The key here is motion. The jerkiness of zombies. And their eerie similarity to regilar humans. But Vampires look too normal, and werewolves look too different- and they have to DO Something to be scary. Zombie just stand there or walk a little. Plus death and the dead are creepy in general- and rooted in real life experience. Most of us have been to a funeral and seen the waxy skin of a corpse- something resembling the departed loved one, but just looking...wrong somehow, in an insettling way. How often do we run into vampires and werewolves in real life?

The "rules" of Zombies have similar rules to those of vampires and werewolves- zombiehood is passed by bite- and thus the victim loses their self, by becoming one of the bad guys. But vampires and werewolves still retain some humanity- free will, thought, etc. Becoming a zombie is like getting a lobotomy, and just as scary a proposition. Zombies are often easy to kill- just a head wound will do it most of the time-and this vulnerability, coupled with their grotesque appearance, allows the zombie fighter and we in the audience to dehumanize the zombie, making it fun as hell to kill them.
Anyone whose ever played Resident Evil can attest to this fact.

The versatile and compelling Zombie paradigm (of agressive transmission, loss of mind and self through a "living death", and assimilation into an evil, homogenized whole) has been extensively adapted to the different social and political fears of various times in recent history.
It was used in the Cold War as an allegory for Communist Infiltration, in the Pod People of Invasion of The Body Snatchers(1956). It was used in the 60's and 70's as social commentary on racism in "Night of the Living Dead(1968)" and as commenary on mindless consumerism in 1978's Dawn of The Dead.
The virus-like spread of Zombieism made an excellent parallel to the AIDS panic during the mid-80's, just as the slasher film reflected the fear of the Bundys and Gacys out there. In the 90's the Villianous Borg of Star Trek used zombie tactics- spreading like a computer virus throughout the galaxy, like the homogenization of 90's globalization. And today- in the age of Ebola, MonkeyPox, and SARS- Zombie movies again treat Zombieism (in its purest form) as a deadly virus in 28 Days Later.

Oh sure, the precise rules of infection and vulnerability change slightly from film to film, but all these villains are basically zombies. IT is tricky to figure out the "rules" in a zombie movie sometimes ( as with werewolves and vampires) for this reason, but once you do, it's a lot of fun. Destroy that shadowy reflection of yourself!!

Computer programmer Kevan Davis has written an imaginative and super fun, if flawed Java simulation of the spread of Zombieism. Similar models have been used to predict the spread of diseases and computer viruses. Little dots represent zombies and infiltrate a city full of other dots representing humans. The humans flee and panic, but eventually the "city" is filled with zombies except for a few humans hidden deep inside an impenetrable room. Which is fairly accurate, based on the movies I've seen. I say this simulation is flawed because it doesn't allow for humans to fight back and kill zombies -which is as reasonable as running from one. Also, it doesn't allow humans or zombies to function collectively (reinforcing a door, or breaking one down) and favors an "every man for himself" approach. It also assumes that all humans have equal defensive ability, running at the same speed, etc.- rather than randomly varied AI, for example) Zombie fans know that sometimes things don't play out this neatly in the "real life" of the movies. Some people sacrifice themselves so that their friends or loved ones might live, for example. It's a little more complicated than Davis's admittedly very fun simulation allows.

So should a Zombie attack actually occur, a more accurate predictive model would be necessary, I suppose. But Mr. Davis is to be commended for his groundbreaking research nonetheless. I read in an Onion AV Club interview that George Romero was considering revisiting the zombie genre with another "living dead" film- this one depicting a world in which the humans have reached an equilibrium with zombies, and developed a stable relationshp where the humans live in gated communities to protect them from zombie attack. The racial, class, and social criticism in this pitch is obvious, and consistent with the director's previous work. But the true horror is that the zombielike mindlessness and homogeneity of the suburbs would be the perfect ironic metaphor. If the zombies drove cars, that is. Suburbanites don't walk- they drive. More importantly, they drive the way zombies walk- slow and jerky and in great numbers. And they're always just out driving around aimlessly, except when they think like a pack and all head the same direction simultaneously.

I wonder if Romero has grown "soft" on the Zombie Problem...

Posted by Rex @ 2:49 PM

Monday, August 18, 2003

Rex's Theory On Why New Yorkers Were Well-Behaved In Blackout

NYC Photographer John Wehr has posted some trulycool photos of New Yorkers calmly and unhysterically enjoying good clean fun during the 2003 NYC blackout. Each picture is labelled with an informative caption describing the scene for those who couldn't be there to experience it, such as this:

"Young people, in the street, drinks flowing to the steady drumming of an impromptu drum line. August 14th will live on in bongo infamy. Once every decade the bongadeem are called into the darkness by revelevers seeking the faux-ethnic rythms only the forbidden drum can provide. This was that night."

Reason Online's Nick Gillespie remarks on how well-behaved New Yorkers were compared to the "night of terror" and "rampant lawlessness" of the 1977 Blackout, and speculates that modern communications technology might have prevented panic and hysteria form occuring.
Though I enjoy Mr. Gillespie's writing style and adore his pop-cultural references, I am skeptical of his explanation. I find it illogical, inadequate and unsatisfying. It seems that any communications advances since 1977 ( cell phones, internet news, e-mail, wireless blackberry/bluetooth/Palm Pilots) were rendered useless by the lack of power to communication towers and netwrok servers. NYC had the same payphones and radio news coverage to inform them they had during the blackout of 1977, and for that matter, during the relatively calm 1965 blackout, chronicled in the 1968 film "Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?"

Conventional wisdom is that during the 1965 Blackout, would-be rioters and looters instead stayed home and had sexual intercourse, resulting in a massive spike in birth rates 9 months later. This is, excuse the pun, a common misconception.

Blogger Glenn Hauman offers a more simple, reasonable, and thus more compelling explanation for the difference in panic/hysteria levels.

"The first blackout hit at 5:16, November 9, 1965. There was still light on the streets. People had time to react.

Yesterday's blackout hit at 4:10 PM. Plenty of daylight time to get supplies and make alternate plans, and to find their way home.

The '77 backout happened on July 13 at 9 at night. The sun was down, and the city was suddenly plunged into darkness without warning. No way to reprovision, and so on."

Of course, violent and property crime was a LOT higher in 1977 New York- lights or no lights. You used to be able to smoke pot in the Subway trains, now you can't smoke cigarettes in bars. Real Costumed Vigilantes had to patrol the subways just to keep them somewhat safe. And real costumed villains roamed the streets too, though less flamboyantly than in the semi-realistic 1979 film"The Warriors"

And I think the difference in crime rates fueled the difference in rioting rates during the blackouts. Not because New Yorkers are "better" people than they were in 1977. And higher poverty and unemployment were not the reason, either. People always blame crime on economic inequity- and those same people will happily tell you how the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer (yet crime goes down!)
People felt less rioty because they felt more secure in 1965 and 2003 than they did in 1977!

I suspect, though I cannot prove, that New Yorkers in 1965 and 2003 shared a respect for authority figures like policemen and city officials, whereas the 1977 rioters did not. This might be a return to decency and solidarity of being "in this together" due to 9-11, but I bet it's just the result of an increased expectation of actual police work happening. The 1977 NYPD were at best inept- definitely corrupt-and city-wide failed to provide effective law enforcement to many areas of the city. They do a much better job now- lights or no lights- so "bad" people don't see darkness as a licence to run wild, and "good" people don't see it as a reason to panic.

For those to young to remember- Recommended viewing and fun pop culture references: Serpico, The Warriors and Death Wish.

Survivors of the 1965, 1977, and 2003 NYC Blackouts, are encouraged to tell their stories at George Mason University's Blackout History Project.

Posted by Rex @ 12:36 PM

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