Thursday, January 26, 2006

In Other Election News...

Holy Crap, HAMAS WON.

The Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, which has said it favors the destruction of Israel, won a landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections, securing 76 seats in the 132-member legislature, officials said Thursday.

The preliminary results showed Fatah, which has held power since the creation of the Palestinian Authority, garnered only 43 seats, dramatically shifting the political landscape in the volatile region.

The 13 remaining seats went to smaller parties and independents.

Even before results were announced, the outcome was apparent. "We have lost the elections; Hamas has won," Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian lawmaker with Fatah, said early Thursday.
So, um, hooray for democracy?

Needless to say, this is not good news for Israel, or for those in the region who want the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians resolved. Check out Israel's reaction:

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel could not accept a situation in which Hamas in its current configuration -- committed to the destruction of Israel -- was a part of the Palestinian Authority.

"I will not negotiate with a government that does not meet its most basic obligations -- to fight terrorism. We are prepared to assist the Palestinians and [Palestinian President Abbas] very much but they must meet their commitments," Olmert said, according to a statement released by his office.
The problem, though, is that while this is excellent rhetoric, I wonder whether Olmert will be able to follow through with it. Is Israel going to cut ties altogether? How will they administer the occupied territories?

Yet, there is perhaps some good news: as seen in this related story, "for the first time, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians oppose violent attacks against Israelis". So it may well be that Hamas will be forced to moderate, if it wants to retain the power that it has finally won.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Canadian Election

Stephen Harper wins, with (as of right now) about 121 seats to Paul Martin's 105. Not the results he was expecting-he was expecting a much stronger minority, or even a majority-but he still won, nonetheless.

Yet it's important to remember in the coming months that this does not really show a wide swing to the right in Canadian political culture. Harper won by, essentially, painting himself as a progressive. He acted like a "middle-class guy", his GST cut prediction was actually progressive, and he soft-pedaled his conservatism.

When a majority or a strong minority was in the cards, the possibility existed that he would drag the country to the right, or reflected a move to the right. Neither is likely now, as instead he'll be focusing on those issues (like the GST cut, and increased provincial power) that appeals to parties like the NDP and Bloc Quebecois.

Instead, this election was really a combination of two factors: the internal rift in the Liberal party (which led to the Martin faction believing that they would escape blame for the Chretien faction's failings) and a dismal campaign by the Liberals, rooted in a lack of clarity as to what, if anything, the party truly stands for.

(That's the flipside of the "scary Harper" concept- he stands for something that Canadians aren't necessarily fond of, but they'll take that over a party that seems to believe in nothing.)

Martin is done as leader- the Liberal party is now embroiled in what will probably be the most important and contentious leadership race in decades. The key question a leader needs to answer is what the Liberal party is all about: and, if it decides that it is rooted in small "l" liberalism, what that truly means.

I have my own opinions on that, but they'll come later. Right now, the important thing is that the party that could, potentially, embody liberalism in North America is about to redefine itself. Time will tell as to what that means.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Others on Ebert

Ebert's comments started a firestorm of controversy: I thought that I should link to the latest iteration here. Others cited Shadow of the Colossus as the best example, although others brought up games with recognizably mature storylines, like Planescape: Torment. Torment is a trickier case: the integration of form and function is (to a certain extent) limited by technical requirements and its adherence to the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. In terms of strong narratives that integrate gameplay, however, it's a classic.

As for SotC, people brought up the tragic mood that is carefully cultivated whenever the main character succeeds in scaling and killing one of the colossi, but doesn't get into the broader themes in the game. That's understandable, as nobody truly understand what SotC is really about until the final moment of the final scene, which is one of the main reasons I'm so reluctant to discuss it.

(If you do read this, Mr. Ebert, I'd be more than happy to get into greater detail in an email.)

Another "Ebert on Gaming" Piece

I have little hope of actually ending up on the man's radar, but I figured that i would once again respond to Roger Ebert's take on the idea of video games as art.

Q. I was saddened to read that you consider video games an inherently inferior medium to film and literature, despite your admitted lack of familiarity with the great works of the medium. This strikes me as especially perplexing, given how receptive you have been in the past to other oft-maligned media such as comic books and animation. Was not film itself once a new field of art? Did it not also take decades for its academic respectability to be recognized?

There are already countless serious studies on game theory and criticism available, including Mark S. Meadows' Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan's First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, and Mark J.P. Wolf's The Medium of the Video Game, to name a few.

I hold out hope that you will take the time to broaden your experience with games beyond the trashy, artless "adaptations" that pollute our movie theaters, and let you discover the true wonder of this emerging medium, just as you have so passionately helped me to appreciate the greatness of many wonderful films.

Andrew Davis, St. Cloud, Minn.

A. Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Again, I hold no illusions about the volume of readers that I command vs. Mr. Ebert, but I already cited a few examples:Shadow of the Colossus, and Fahrenheit, as examples of games-as-art.

(Even if the ending of the latter was somewhat disappointing, the basic concept of playing hunter-and-hunted was still brilliant and well executed.)

The question I'd put to Ebert is: is architecture art?



It's important. Architecture combines two elements: the visual, aesthetic element, and the utilitarian element. Architecture that is aggressively useless isn't in any way better art than architecture that elegantly combines form and function. Far from it, it's the effective combination of the two that makes it what it is. If the form and function seamlessly integrate, it's great architecture.

(It's much like comics, where the art lies not in the text or the visuals, but the interaction and tension between them.)

Ebert is complaining, essentially, that people must interact with the game- but in that it is no different than architecture. The architect must take into account the fact that it is to be used for something. So must the game designer. The advantage a game designer has is that he controls the experience- he can create the game so that interacting with the thing he has built in and of itself serves to create or intensify the ideas, moods, and themes that he is trying to express.

It is like that piano performance piece where the pianist sits down, prepares to play, and then sits in silence for a time, before explaining to the audience that their own reaction was the performance. It's like a play with audience participation. It's like any number of guerilla "performance pieces". Only the medium is different.

For an example, I'll go again to Fahrenheit, an aggressively cinematic game, at least in terms of presentation. One of the key themes of the game is inevitability; one of the key moods that of ambivalence. Both of these are served by the game's twinned protagonists, where the killer (that the player controls) is trying to avoid leaving clues for the detectives (that the player also controls).

The player quickly learns that whatever clues they leave behind will be picked up. They are held by the tension between these two roles: if they leave too much, they will be caught, and the central mystery remains unsolved; wheras if they leave too little, their task as detectives becomes difficult to the point of impossibility. All the protagonists are sympathetic characters, particularly the detectives- the player cannot (and, thanks to the sympathetic characterization, almost certainly wouldn't want to) leave them high and dry.

A player in a game quickly grows to think of his avatar as an extension of himself; by exploiting this to have the player see two opposing forces as these extensions, they destabilize the boundary between Self and Other; between Us and Them.

The game thus does something that is extremely difficult, if not impossible in movies. It takes gaming's matchless empathy between character and player and uses it to do the difficult task of making them empathize with all the players in the drama, rather than one.

Ebert asks how a game can make you "cultured, civilized, and empathetic"? To misquote Alan Rickman, I give you Fahrenheit. All the world is a stage: empathy with other avatars is a step towards empathy towards other people.

(And I haven't even got into Shadow of the Colossus. I can't, because readers may well have never played it and it relies on an element of surprise, but it is perhaps the best example of a game where everything, and I mean everything, about it serves the artistic purpose of its creators.)

Oh, and one other thing, Mr. Ebert: Despite what Professor Bordwell told you, the vast, vast majority of games do not require anything near 100 hours to master. For that matter, the vast, vast majority of books do not require 3-5 hours to read. Shadow of the Colossus takes, on average, maybe 10-12 hours, and I got more out of those 10 hours than hundreds of hours of movies I've seen, and tens of thousands of hours of television.

(Might I suggest, next time, that you ask the young fellow Bordwell is supervising about it? The one actually making the comparison?)


Returning to the Canadian election, it's almost surprising to discover how quickly Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been eclipsing Paul Martin's Liberals- whereas before the holidays people were musing about a weak Liberal minority, today the numbers seem to indicate that Harper may well win a majority. This is odd, considering that Harper's success seems tied to what are, essentially, progressive policy promises: he's going to cut the Goods and Services Tax (the GST) by 2%, he'll (for all intents and purposes) replace the old "baby bonus" where parents get cash each month for their kids, and a series of carefully-targeted income tax cuts. There are lots of non-progressive elements to his platform, of course, but there's nothing as retrogressive as in the previous policy platforms he's advocated.

Yet, as most Canadians are no doubt aware, it's extraordinarily unlikely that he has himself become in any way "liberal", or even really moderate. He has carefully constructed a bland inoffensive persona, but there is a world of difference between that and his true opinions. The controversial attack ads by the Liberals that quote his old attacks on Canada as being "socialist, in the worst sense of the word" speak to this, and are clearly intended to remind people that despite the progressive policies, he isn't one himself.

Yet, it isn't working, not really. People are so distrustful of the Liberals that they won't believe that the quotations are real, and not pulled out of context; they see the bland persona and match it with the quotes and come out in favor of the persona.

Also, the media's reaction has been odd too: while they used to be somewhat hostile to the Conservatives and the old Reform party that still makes up the majority of their members, now they're almost embarrassingly friendly, and astonishingly hostile to the Liberal party, considering their past positions. Even the publicly-funded CBC has moved in this direction, despite the zealous free-marketeer Harper being the worst possible person to control the purse strings of a public broadcaster. Forget strategic calculation on behalf of the CBC, the very fact that they're public employees should incline them to skepticism of Harper's libertarian mantras, yet that hasn't happened.


Because of the myth of the "time out".

It seems that everybody in Canada, media and public alike, wants something like the Liberal party to be running the show. The Conservatives' current policies read like something Martin would draft in the 1990's. They're angry and fed up with the perceived corruption of the Liberal party, and the factionalism within the party- that underpins Martin's unspoken "I was shut out because Chretien hated me" defense of his non-involvement in the sponsorship scandal- is either forgotten or ignored. They believe that the Liberal party has been in power too long, and needs a "time out". Like a willful child, they should be sent to the corner for a little while to calm down and think things through, so they can come back and be a better party.

The problem? If the Liberals lose, I truly doubt that anything like this is going to happen. The Conservatives will do whatever they can to cement their hold on the country- they're essentially Bush republicans without a drawl, and we've seen the games that Republicans will play in order to retain power. There's no guarantee that the Liberal party will return in anything like its present form, or that the Conservatives won't poison the well to the extent that the Liberals could never get anything done.

(The devolution of powers to the provinces is an excellent example- once done, it cannot be reversed, and a weak federal government would make it extremely difficult for the Liberals to do anything when they regain 24 Sussex. Harper doesn't care, because he has come not to praise Canada, but to bury it- to make the provinces so relatively powerful that Canada becomes no more united than the European Union. The Liberals, however, are the party of the center, and of a single Canadian identity.)

(Gutting public broadcasting won't help, either.)

Even if the Conservatives are unsuccessful in neutering the federal government, the Liberal party is very unlikely to sit down and think things through. The whole problem with it is that it's riddled with viciously infighting factions, so much so that it's an open question as to whether Chretien supporters are deliberately sabotaging the campaign. If the Liberals lose big, then the factions will only get worse, as both Chretien and Martin's lieutenants blame each other for what happened.

That fight is unlikely to end well: both factions are responsible. Chretien's faction is responsible for the scandals that created this situation in the first place. Warren Kinsella may dodge around it with all the skill of an old political operative, but the fact remains that the so-called "Adscam" happened under the watch of his old boss and his allies, who thought that their mission to fight the seperatists was more important than anything else, including legality. They then left the scandal to afflict Martin's government; while I only speculated about "poisoning the well" on Harper's part, it damned well happened with Chretien.

On the other hand, Martin couldn't have more badly misread the reaction to the scandal. He hoped that by distancing himself from his predecessor, he would escape the fallout from it. He forgot that to the average layman, there is one Liberal party, and they will blame ALL Liberals for what happened. That is what's happening now- even after Gomery exonerated Martin and his allies from responsibility, the scandal is still a millstone around his neck. Martin thought that he could distance himself from his own party- unfortunately, Franklin's old comment that "we must hang together, or we will most assuredly hang seperately" has never been truer.

Both, however, are at fault for the policy weakness of the Liberal party. Chretien seemed obsessed only with winning elections; people were complaining for almost his entire period of governance that his government was listless and without a core political philosophy to draw on. His biggest legacy remains almost losing the country in 1993.

Martin, in turn, had a lot of ideas, but they were often contradictory and he never fully reconciled himself with jettisoning them in order to protect a minority government. All the comments about the "democratic deficit" were clearly intended to reflect on the flaws of Canadian majority governments, not minority governments; a minority government that does not keep discipline does not keep intact, and the next election is always in the back of the leaders' minds. The comments he made about a better relationship with the Americans also didn't survive the Republicans' rightward rush following 9/11; he knew that Canadians were deeply troubled by what they saw to the south, and many were angry over American duplicity on trade, so he could not both keep domestic support up and please Washington. He had to choose, and he chose nationalism over continentalism.

(Yes, it was a political choice, but it was a political choice in the best sense of the term: a politician reacting to the public's will, on an subject where policy is indeterminate and human rights are not the issue.)

He never fully explained the reasons for these choices, and never quite broke with his past. He never fully admitted that the quasi-conservative Martin of the Liberal leadership race is dead and buried, but tried to have it both ways.

So, with both sides to blame, neither side can claim ascendancy, and neither side can really heal the wounds. A third force would need to emerge in order to bring things together, and I think that's what everybody is hoping for, but that third force has not shown itself yet. More importantly, the Liberal party needs to come to terms with its own nature as a liberal democratic party, but the infighting that will follow a loss to the once-hapless Harper by a truly hapless Liberal campaign is unlikely to provide the forum for effective debate of political philosophy. Especially when Harper essentially ran with a Liberal policy platform in a differently colored book.

Instead of rebuilding itself during this "time out", the Liberal party may well tear itself apart. I doubt Harper and his Calgary base will shed a tear, but I suspect that the rest of the country isn't going to like the results of their tactical choice. This "time out" could end up longer than anybody expected, with results few would welcome.

Harper is NOT a progressive, and not a stand-in for the Liberals. Canada will learn that, to its sorrow. I just hope the damage he'll do can be fixed.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sharon Has "Life-Threatening Stroke"

From ABC News:

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive, life-threatening stroke Wednesday and underwent lengthy surgery to drain blood from his brain after falling ill at his ranch. Powers were transferred to his deputy, Ehud Olmert.

Doctors placed Sharon on a respirator and were trying to save his life only hours before the hard-charging, overweight, 77-year-old Israeli leader had been scheduled to undergo a procedure to seal a hole in his heart that contributed to a mild stroke on Dec. 18.

Israel Radio quoted an unidentified Israeli health official as saying that Sharon's prospects of a full recovery were slim.

Sharon's cerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding stroke, came at a time of upheaval among Palestinian factions in Gaza and in the midst of both Israeli and Palestinian election campaigns. Sharon's absence would halt momentum toward further peacemaking with the Palestinians and leave a major vacuum at the head of his new Kadima party, which was expected to head a government after the March 28 vote
Needless to say, this tragedy will throw Israel into disarray. With its leader definitely out of politics (and here's hoping that's the extent of it), the new centrist party Sharon was leading will be in grave danger of collapsing. Israel will almost certainly have an election shortly in order to determine its new head of government, but the identity of that man (and the policies that would follow) is very up in the air. It could be Peretz, or could be Netanyahu, (or perhaps even Peres), and that will lead to two (or three) very, very different Israels.

Easier Response

Edit: Heh. "Renopse". I haven't been blogging since I wrote this post, so I hadn't noticed the title issue. Almost tempted to leave it, but it should probably be made clearer.

A nice piece over at Crooked Timber debunks the ludicrous notion that the leak about NSA spying is as bad as Plamegate. He brings a lot of arguments to bear, but misses the easiest response:

Did it involve outing a covert agent? Did it endanger the lives of her contacts in doing so?


Then it isn't as bad. Simple as that.

(They're similar in one respect, though: they're both playing merry hell with Bush's credibility, and alienating him from the Republican party. I've been focusing on the Canadian election because I believe that the American political scene is currently at a low ebb in comparison to the vicious battle in Canada, but that doesn't change the fact that Bush is clearly flailing, and the Republicans with him.)