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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Update Schedule

As a goal, I'm also trying to adhere to a MWF posting schedule, which is a personal challenge. If you are following this blog, look for posts on each of those days any time after 5PM, PST.

Farewell, T-Shirt Hell

I'm so sorry to say one of my favorite online merchants of offense and hilarity is closing. T-Shirt Hell, the fine purveyor of over-the-top, offensive joke shirts that pioneered the whole indie t-shirt business, in my opinion, is going to sell its last shirt on February 10, 2009. And that's it.

I loved this place because it sold me the one black shirt I always wore out on dates when I was single - the plain black trekkie-font "Talk Nerdy to Me" long-sleeve. I'd crack up on the completely inappropriate shirts that I'd never wear, but the beauty of that kind of humor is that if you actually take the shirt seriously, you're probably doing more to harm whatever cause you're fighting against than the people who are wearing it.

I saw people in Gay Pride parades wearing some of their shirts. Clowns wearing their most offensive clown shirts. And their less-offensive site, TorsoPants.com, gave me gifts to hand out to musician friends with "Accordion Hero", "Harp Hero" and "Kazoo Hero" labels on them. And they made fun of some of the worst traits in political correctness.

Specifically, the tendency of people who harbor strong racism in their opinions and speech who thought, somehow, the fact that they voted for Barack Obama mitigated their commentary about black people in general. The one shirt I loved was simply Obama's face with "We Cool Now?" underneath it. That, more than anything, is a commentary on hundreds of thousands of white Americans who sincerely believed that paying lip service to the issues of race in America solves the problem - or that listening to hiphop somehow branches across the spheres of prejudice and fear against The Others.

George W. Bush is possibly the best example of that kind of ditzy racism. Without actually saying anything, Bush's attitudes, policies, and behavior towards people of color in the past eight years was anything but equal. And while many people of all colors harbor a xenophobia towards The Others, I still believe the worst kind is the racism that exists alongside a friendly, cheerful demeanor of pretend acceptance masquerading as diversity and tolerance.

Honestly, that's why I couldn't handle half of my college university's diversity trainings and seminars that we were forced to attend. 95% of those, in my opinion, were classes and trainings that separated the gulf of the American experience between the colors of our skins and encouraged those separations.

I love Blue Scholars - a local Seattle socially-conscious hiphop group. I love their music and message. I've heard Notorious BIG once. He was a crappy artist with no message other than "I am a man with attitude." The difference for me was always listening to the words and lyrics and poetry of the artist. And yet Blue Scholars, a musically-sweet group with lyricism and positive social message that crosses gender, politic, and racial lines, is overshadowed by the industry of rap and hiphop that promotes and glorifies xenophobia, racism, misogyny and personal responsibility over social justice and personal change.

I'm generalizing here, but rap artists who talk about money, cars, women, drugs, and being a thug have traditionally sold much better than the artists who talk about wanting to improve the lives of the people in their communities and get ahead. Maybe it's because of the standard thing that happens in most poor communities - I can't go home to a small town I spent a lot of time in without affecting a slight drawl and drop articles from my sentences - even though that small town is in the foothills of Oregon. Perhaps that's what made middle America love George W. Bush - he talked like he was a redneck from a small town in Texas instead of what he was - the scion of a Maine political family whose net worth was based primarily on foreign, not domestic oil.

I still love Avenue Q's song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist", because the truth of that song is inherent in every day life. People truly are racist not because they judge on the actions of someone else, but because they assume patterns of behavior. I played basketball and soccer at Green Lake in Seattle many times, and I was always bemused by the concentration of ethnicity at the basketball court and the soccer field. And there were days where playing basketball or soccer felt like I was an albino at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. But the reverse was true - if you went two hundred yards up the road to the fields of kids playing on the swingset, it was almost like a period in the middle of a single sheet of white paper.

Anyway, the proprietor of T-Shirt Hell is closing its doors not because the site is losing money, even though that's the first reason I'd predict. One of the key indicators of an economic downturn in America is that men stop buying underwear for themselves, and that reason is fairly simple - for most men, underwear is an item of neccessity, not vanity, and the running joke that men will wear a pair of boxers until the elastic has entirely ripped from the waistband is not entirely untrue, whereas women's fashions tend to reduce the amount of material and increase the price during economic recessions. T-shirts targeted at the male demographic with disposable income aren't likely to sell well, especially at $25 with shipping and tax included.

What the guy who runs T-Shirt Hell says killed his drive for business was the harassment of other people and the threats made against his company and his employees. I don't doubt it. There are thousands of ordinary people who cheerfully convert themselves into flaming jerks on the Internet with the simple addition of complete anonyminity. But that's an easy shift. Most flaming jerks on the Internet don't take the time or energy to do anything about their cause du jour. And simple security alone will usually take care of the most random jerks who mostly just feel like a site that offends them is the place to vent all of their life frustrations.

But frankly, I'd say the economic downturn is real, and that whatever you want to attribute the loss to, it's possible.

One of the things that I've found so interesting about the election of Barack Obama is not the color of his skin, but rather his attitude towards the years ahead. Bush was a party animal in office - spending huge amounts of money and living lavishly, running up the nation's credit cards and willing to bankrupt the country to accomplish what he wanted to do. He failed, but not before the explosion of cash hurt the entire country. Obama's way forward is blue collar - the kind of spending that gets a loan to expand a family business so they can do more work, not to get a loan so the business can get the latest gadgets and go to conventions.

And let's face it, the Bush years were perfect years for the tongue-in-cheek and satirical. With the departure of 43, it's entirely possible that the business, built on the perfect storm of political ill will, satire, fiscally liberal spending and fake affluence Bush and Company created, the fact that Obama steps in just as the Bush Party's check comes in makes so many people realize that the years ahead aren't going to be the years of bacchanaliaic revelry that Bush promoted in America. Obama's plans are, in all seriousness, to roll up the sleeves and get to work, and to do that work well, a drastic counterpoint to Bush's economic policies that could be best summed up by "Money For Nothing and Your Chicks for Free".

It isn't lightly ironic that in the decades of the hard-living, hard-spending, fiscally diarrhetical policies of both Reagan and the two Bush administrations the same difference between Notorious BIG's music glorifying Thug Life and the Blue Scholars' message of social advancement for the disadvantaged come into play. Both Notorious BIG and the Bush administrations popularized at times when the idea to spend money to enrich one's own personal life at all costs, to protect a lifestyle was more important than enriching one's living environment. And the popularity of the Blue Scholars also marked a shift in the attitudes - their rise and art coming to play as a reaction against the lawlessness of the early years.

Anyway. On some level I'm sad to see T-Shirt Hell go away, but on another level, I'm glad to see it go. It means that there's a time to play games and a time to get serious about what you're going to do to move forward. If I don't have to wear a shirt and tie into the office and can save money by wearing plain black t-shirts, jeans, white socks and a pair of slipon shoes, that's an awesome thing for me. At the same time, I'll also focus less on what I'm wearing than the things I need to do to get my work done.

Times are tough, but when times are tough, the trappings of society fall away and the people who remember that men don't buy underwear during recessions are the ones who make it through. Those who reach to get quick - like Bernie Maddoff and the administration whose removal of regulation made his Ponzi scheme possible - are those who fall into the dust. In some ways, I think T-Shirt Hell is just fading away into a more responsible printing and clothing manufacturer - the front of the store merely closing once the joke shirt stock goes away. In eight years, I doubt anyone will remember them.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Second Amendment - as polled by USA Today

Back in November, USA Today had a poll up on their website that asked what would seem to be a question most people would say, "Well, DUH" and answer in the affirmative. For whatever reason, I got it in my email this morning and had to reread the question. It was so strange that I actually began thinking about why USA Today would even put such a poll up on their website in the first place.

The question is: "Does the Second Amendment give individuals the right to bear arms?" Yes, No, and Undecided.

And I had to stop and think before running a bit of fact-checking on the all-you-can-read "totally true and totally unbiased!" Wikipedia. And I voted no. (On a poll that's over three months old, but still.)

And here's why. The Second Amendment protects the right of the People - not individuals.

From Wikipedia:

There are two versions of the text of the Second Amendment, each with slight capitalization and punctuation differences. The Second Amendment, as passed by the House and Senate, reads:[1]
“ 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. ”

The original and copies distributed to the states, and then ratified by them, had different capitalization and punctuation:[2]
“ 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. ”

Both versions are commonly used in official government publications. The original hand-written copy of the Bill of Rights, approved by the House and Senate, was prepared by scribe William Lambert and resides in the National Archives.

The Second Amendment says, "Right to bear arms", but they don't say what kind of arms those are. It doesn't say, "Right to own and operate a 128mm howitzer" or "Right to sharpen a shovel" or "right to have a breech-loading musket" - it just says, "arms".

The USA Today question is wrong on two levels: "individuals" is a generalized term with no outside specifics. "Individuals" means any one person. The right of a convicted felon (who is an individual) is not guaranteed nor is permitted to own a firearm - but that same convicted felon can carry mace or non-firearm weaponry with them, thus "arming" themselves, even if that "arm" happens to be a baseball bat.

The Second Amendment, therefore, specifically gives "The People" - meaning citizens of the United States of America - the right to keep and bear Arms. Arms meaning in most contexts the weaponry necessary to mobilize in the event of a national emergency or crisis as a state militia. Since Bush's presidency is possibly the only one that has used the National Guard as secondary soldiers in foreign conflicts to any great extent, one could argue that restrictions on citizenry purchasing and using automatic weapons for world combat should be lifted, but only for members of the National Guard.

So for those people who vote yes in the poll, I'm not seeing a great deal of actual remembrance of what the Second Amendment is actually written to be. I vote no, because the Second Amendment doesn't give individuals the right to bear arms, it gives the People (capital P there) the right to bear arms. The fact that arms are being borne isn't the question - it's who is doing the bearing.

The specifics of the Second Amendment give "The People" the right to keep and bear arms. It does not give each individual in the American society a guaranteed right to keep and bear arms. In the context of "the people", that is a legal term. Most specifically against people who have committed crimes against the body politic or others. The People Vs. Joe Murderer is a generalized concept; NOT a admonition for all-inclusive rights to every person. One can't carry arms on an airplane or in an airport - weapons are forbidden in schools and many public places. That's not an infringement on individual rights - it's a limitation on when and where those weapons can be carried.

A three-year old is an individual. A serial murderer is an individual. A parapalegic vegetable is an individual. "The People" are an abstract concept of society at large that is able to determine what reasonable limits one might have on the definition of "arms" and what the phrase "keep and bear arms" actually means. When we see the NRA scream bloody murder at not being able to carry firearms in National Parks, it really doesn't have much to do with the Second Amendment - it has everything to do with not being able to carry things you want to carry into the park with you.

It's inconceivable that at the time of the writing of the Bill of Rights that such items as the atomic bomb, laser-guided munitions, flechette shotguns, compressed air weapons and flamethrowers, napalm and biochemical weapons would have been included, but under a technical definition, all of those items fall under the category of "arms", yet none of those things are ever considered in any discussion of the Second Amendment as falling under the definition of arms, for the purpose of the debate.

I guess I'm hammering this point to absurdity because so many people assume (or tend to rant and rave horrifically about those nasty big terrible restrictions) again and again about how guns just aren't accessible enough or are so accessible. But you don't hand a hyperactive chimpanzee a 9mm with a full clip in it and set it loose in a daycare - likewise, there are "individuals" out there who I wouldn't trust to handle a dull spoon correctly.

The NRA, a generally pro-gun lobby originating with firearm manufacturers in the United States designed itself as a marketing tool to promote the consumption of personal small-arms in the United States. As a result, the NRA tends to shape the conversation around small-arms manufacturing and describes it as one's RIGHT to own a fully-automatic pistol to protect one's home. However, the NRA also tends to shy away from the question of whether or not laying claymore mines throughout one's front yard to keep that damn neighbor's chihuahua from pooping in the grass is also protected under the Second Amendment.

We talk about the ownership of handguns, shotguns, and rifles more, but that Second Amendment's shape and linguistic form is intended to be vague to allow the present society and the present standards of that society to choose the correct mores that frame the appropriate use of that Amendment. It means that Americans should never be penalized for having the equipment to fight for their freedom, their homes and their families.

Because really, when it comes down to it, using the Second Amendment to justify the manufacture of a biochemical agent in your home to "keep and bear arms" against the threat of a foreign invasion is just plain stupid. On the other hand, using the Second Amendment to demand that one is absolutely allowed to keep and bear a fully automatic Uzi subcompact or a FN S2000 chambered with armor-piercing rounds on full-auto for "home defense" is kind of silly, as well.

And I am still quite happily a holder of a Washington State concealed handgun carry permit, licensed to keep a concealed pistol on me at all times - except in certain buildings, parks, schools, environments, and modes of public transportation. But the simple fact is - I don't own a handgun and wouldn't be likely to carry one. It's partially because yes, I believe that I and most others should have the right to keep and bear arms - but walking down the street packing heat 24/7 to push the envelope of that right seems ridiculous to me.

Anyway, I'm sure the poll came out at some ridiculous number of 99% yes to 1% no. But the question wasn't accurate. And the query was the wrong query. The question should have been: "Do you believe all Americans should have the right to own and carry guns?" Because really, that's what the NRA pushes. It's not about bearing arms - it's about consuming a product. If it really was about being able to bear arms, there'd be a lot fewer battles fought to be able to own whatever deadly weapon you wanted.

So maybe I'm pro-Second Amendment and anti-NRA, but then again, I'm also pretty sure that there's people who also fight for the causes of the ACLU that really wished the ACLU would just...maybe...possibly...consider toning it down a bit.

As a side note: after voting, it was more accurately 97% yes to 2% no, with 1 million respondents and 1% saying "undecided".

Friday, January 23, 2009

Remembering Mac Hall

I wish I had a happier way to wrap up the week, but my brother-in-law's father, Mac Hall, died this week in Quito from a sudden heart attack. For those of you looking for the manga-style, now-defunct college life comic Mac Hall, I'd be willing to trade damn near every one of those pages to be able to have Mac Hall laughing again over rum drinks and food with his family. Honestly, I don't know what I WOULD give on any level of sacrifice, but I'd give a lot. Mac was a good man, and he'll be missed.

Mac was one of the rounder guys. I can't give any other impression of him than "round" - his features were always warm, comforting, and he gave the impression of both sturdiness and intelligence. Conversations with him were always intelligent and fun, and though I didn't get to spend much time with him, I saw the family that my sister married into, and he was a strong, deep part of their lives.

Mac was sixty-eight, but he wasn't "old". He'd remarried, moved to Quito and lived at 12,000 feet, happily living his life with his new wife. He spent time with his kids and grandkids when they could get together, and we spent time over Christmas on Skype chatting with him.

I think what saddens me most about Mac's passing, and the reasons I'm thinking more about him these days, is that we've spent thousands of dollars in our lives trying to recapture youth and energy, and the lives we lead are targeted always towards the assumption that there'll be a tomorrow.

Sometimes, there just isn't. The good news is, Mac, when I saw him, lived his life completely - that he didn't leave something off until the next day. The important things, I mean. Telling someone they're loved - if they are - is one of the most important things you can do.

Live life today, because tomorrow, you may be in Valhalla.

iPod and personal life post

About a week ago, my girlfriend (who's not terribly technological at the best of times) and I went shopping to pick up an iPod and associated stuff that goes with it so she could have a music station in her living room - which would allow her to download her record collection into the ubiquitous "deck o'cards" and free up space on her shelves. I, of course, being her pocket geek, went along with her to work out the technology bits here and there.

We wound up spending less than ten minutes shopping for the items themselves, and spending more time driving around to get the different components. And when I went to her house a few days later, I was almost horrified to see the stuff we'd bought still lying about, not converted or changed, not packaged and sorted out. Even the little speaker set we'd gotten still lies on her floor, unopened and untested.

See, T isn't the type of girl who has a huge set of speakers in the living room. One of the first things I noticed when we started dating was the fact that she has the television (usually turned to a reality show regarding cooking or crime dramas) on and running in the background. Being a writer and someone whose friends work in public radio (KUOW.org and KEXP.org - best stations in Seattle), I tend less towards having television on and more towards having either electronica, celtic Americana, or public radio running either in the car or at home.

I find it interesting - mainly because I follow the geek stereotype of getting to play and sort out the technology and toys you just got when you get home. If I get a new GPS or a new cell phone, I'm spending six hours getting the thing to do what I want to do within minutes of unpackaging it. I'm reading the manuals. I'm doing the research I couldn't do before. I'm even wondering how I could void the warranty on it within minutes of purchasing it. When I bought my first Xbox, I cracked the case and soldered a chip into the board, replacing the original hard drive not two hours after the ink was dry on the receipt.

Whereas T loves spending time riding her horse, I keep eying ATVs that I could convert to a biodiesel ride. I geek out on the idea that I could use methane to power a system, that I could put up microfine solar panels to power my house of dreams, or that I could use a windmill to create power on a farm. The financial cost of these dreams are secondary to the concepts.

So when my significant other hasn't opened the new, neat technology toy we got, my inner geek begins to twitch a little bit. And with the idea of new music just waiting around on her computer to be listened to, even more so. Partially because when I moved to Seattle and got involved in the music scene, I spent a lot of time hanging around with guys (and girls) for whom the Ikea Expedit bookcases were a neccessity for their vinyl collections. Hard drives full of music running into the terabytes, and standard living room equipment that wouldn't be out of place at a nightclub are partially the reasons I can't spend much time in a club in downtown Seattle listening to a trainwreck set by a "paid" DJ - I've been horribly spoiled. I have listened to people make music from Garth Brooks and Depeche Mode mixes. The unfortunate part is that my music eclecticsm means I also have nearly two terabytes of legal music I own sitting around on my hard drives - and I have at least two backups of that music elsewhere.

You know how nobody thinks they'd fill a 120GB iPod of music? My old PC had over nine hundred gigabytes of music on it in a playlist. iTunes simply couldn't hold all of it without crashing. My collection shattered iTunes and reduced what should be a robust player into quivering bits of code. It didn't help much that I was also usually following at least six or seven podcasts (my addiction to NPR's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me notwithstanding, Marc Gunn's Celtic Podcast and the Splendid Table keep me more entertained on the treadmill at the gym than, say, the spandex-clad behinds of my fellow gym-goers. At least the Splendid Table can use the word "lard" as a positive noun instead of a description one's thighs).

So when I migrated to a Macbook, I found myself severely limited by the volume of data I could parse, and realized that my collections really didn't have much use. I have copies of Barbara Streisand, for the love of pink triangles - a musician I not only can't stand but have spent much time and effort purging from my collection - and yet, like ants in the Pacific Northwest, can't seem to quite get rid of entirely.

And I came to that realization - being able to sort through information and music to find new bands and new realms of music is fun for me. I'm still contemplating putting together music podcasts and commentary and running it through this blog as a downloadable for the people that might find me here - though truth be told, my audience is not terribly large to begin with. I have a slew of videobloggers I listen to and download. I like hearing opinions. I like listening to political speeches (though the past eight years of having small conniption fits in the car when Dick Cheney opened his mouth on radio may point to the contrary), and I can listen to television instead of watching it without being distracted.

But it's not the thing of everyone out there.

In point of fact, the drive to find new things and discover new methods of getting data, information, or even taking a new hike isn't neccessarily the cup of tea of everyone out there. I like to think that I have the ability to move beyond that personally, but realistically, each of us have vaguely different focus points in our lives.

As for T's iPod - she'll either pick it up and scruffle through the playlists of music she likes, or she won't. My collection - gigantic, confused and organized in a system of my own devising that has a quantum relationship to both music choice, when I first heard the song and whether or not I could play it through my balcony's outdoor speakers to annoy the Fremont Street drunkards at 1:55 AM (Bach, Mozart, and sometimes Beethoven work best for this) isn't the same.

I find it funny, because I know my innate reaction to someone driving a $45,000 SUV one mile to work or play classes every day is, "Why would you buy THAT, when you could get a Scion for around $15K and...you know, not be piloting a M1 Tank?" But, some people buy 52 inch plasma screen TVs to watch poker tournaments on television - I cringe at the knowledge my 32" Sony gets used for the guilty pleasure of Doctor Who episodes and bad sci-fi on cheap Chinese food and B-movie dates with the girl.

So I'm going to wind up quietly and happily sneaking over some music to T's iPod and finding new ways to load her up on some stuff I think she might like. I may even burn some CDs for her on my own computer and transfer them to her. I might even put together a few playlists of music I think she'd like of some artists that I know I do. Because my level of adoption of the technology isn't everyone else's.

But I am going to make her put The Paperboys' full discography on there. A pocket nerd has SOME standards.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I keep seeing and hearing people talk about how horrible it is that American-made weapons are being used in conflicts they don't agree with. Israel, for instance, is using American-made munitions during their incursion into the Gaza strip.

The funny thing is, most people look at this as an active decision made on the part of the Americans who make those weapons. And in some ways I understand the concept - that if we weren't making or allowing the weapons to be made, then there would be some kind of mitigation on the action, that somehow our involvement would be seperated and we'd be free to sit in moral judgement on someone else's actions. We wouldn't have anything to do with it and happily be able to sit back and bemoan the fact that, for instance, Israel is invading the Gaza strip.

Unfortunately, that's not really the case any more.

In most of the world conflicts, the United States is a key player on all levels, diplomatically and socially. I hate to say it, but the Americans are still key in smacking someone down if they're coloring outside the lines. Although our diplomatic cred has been substantially weakened by Boy George and Company, we still have an immense amount of pressure that can be brought to bear via diplomatic means on actions we deem unacceptable.

And the reality is, if the weapons were not being purchased by Israel from the United States, Israel would likely buy weapons from another, intending fully to use those weapons to defend itself and its borders. If USA-made weapons were not currently being used in the Israeli conflict, then those weapons would be Chinese, Russian, French, or Czech in origin. Those weapons' country of origin has no direct bearing on how Israel chooses to use those weapons.

One thing I've always wondered about was the logic of a lawsuit aimed at the manufacturer of a firearm used in a crime. By the same logic, a manufacturer of a machete used in a crime should be sued as well. There is no culpability in the auto manufacturer when someone drives a Chevy across four lanes of traffic and plows into two carloads of soccer moms. So why the emotional connection?

I understand that the NRA and the gun lobby have cheerfully trotted out the right to bear arms and the machismo of swinging your .357 magnum around like Dirty Harry for years, but trying to place moral culpability on Charleton Heston for the death of a six-year old (thanks, Michael Moore) is like trying to blame the rain for the suicide of the guy who jumped off the Aurora Bridge in Seattle last week.

Similarly, while we can focus on the fact that American-made weapons are being used in the Gaza conflict as a side show to the actual issues at hand between Hamas and Israel, we eliminate the causality and focus instead on the little details, which means we miss accomplishing the big mission at hand.

It's entirely possible that both Russia's bravado against the Ukraine and most of Europe regarding their natural gas supply and Israel's push against Gaza are coincided with the transition between presidencies in America - and by the time Obama takes office, both conflicts will have resolved without much American "interference". Maybe that's the idea.

Weapons exist, and the fact that they're used to settle conflicts is an ugly truth. Where those weapons come from and the sale of those weapons are a continual shade on the economies of many nations, but those weapons and that supply chain will always exist as long as humans feel the need to defend themselves or attack each other. Removing the refined ability does nothing to resolve the conflict.

Anyway, I see the reaction of many people who are anti-gun, anti-weapon, anti-American armaments as that visceral reaction to something they don't like, but that antipathy towards a tool seems misguided to me. Rather, I think the focus should always be on convincing the person holding that tool to use it in an intelligent manner, and to make sure that the use of that tool is always reserved for the most neccessary of actions.

Rather than labeling the tool as "evil".

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Will The IRS Tax Warcraft / Second Life virtual currency?

In the theme of "All Things Warcraftian" this week, apparently the United States Internal Revenue Service is looking into taxing online transactions between sellers of online currencies.

For those who aren't initiated into this secondary world of MMoRPG gaming, gold is what you can use to buy reagents, items, potions, food, or other items that your character might need and/or want. For a lot of players who don't have time or energy to spend running around getting thousands of pieces of silk or mining ores for your character's development, it's simply faster to go online and buy these things through the Auction House or marketplaces in game.

However, the "gold" is a complete fiction. It mirrors the decimal metric system of most modern economies, and like anything else, when there's a supply, there's always a demand.

There are countless stories of players who use the "sell high and buy low" mentality to increase their personal wealth, watching for when trends or changes to the game drive a price increase or decrease in one type of item for sale or another on the Warcraft auction houses. Likewise, in Second Life, there are people who make decent amounts of money by generating Linden Dollars by doing services (in one case, a virtual escort in Italy picks up the equivalent of a cocktail, one virtual customer at a time).

But most of the gaming companies that create this kind of virtual online currency aren't making the currency a financial opportunity. Blizzard, World of Warcraft's creator, has specifically punished both players and sellers of the currency, eliminating huge amounts of gold currency simply by deleting it from their servers and the sellers' and buyers' accounts.

The issue at stake in this review by the IRS is not that companies making money off of the sale of virtual goods should or would get taxed. The legality of these organizations is one thing. Much like a website selling components that allow you to hack into your own Xbox and modify it to copy games, the actual legality of the transfer of goods from one customer to another is in a questionable gray area.

For instance, Blizzard retains the rights to the character and to the account that each player "owns" - allowing access to that account for a flat monthly fee. The license agreement of the Blizzard software means that the servers, the characters, the items, the gold, and everything else is owned proprietarily by the company - not the person playing the game. Which means that an independent third party selling gold is actually selling the transfer of in-game assets from their account to another account. They're not actually "selling" property that they themselves own; they're making a profit off of what Blizzard owns.

That nebulous concept is what has kept gold selling websites like IGN.com and IGE.com in business for years - that the gold sellers and gold buyers are just transferring immaterial things. However, Blizzard's operating procedure is still fairly clear - gold sellers and buyers screw up the game's mechanics and warp the economy as surely as a Ponzi scheme or Bernard Maddoff's stock market shell game have done to Wall Street.

In some ways I truly hope the IRS doesn't get into this sort of thing, although I do believe taxing the people who make money off of the gold sales is the most logical thing to do. The money is income; and regardless of whether that income was gotten through approved legal methods, the transaction histories of most of those sellers (usually through PayPal or other electronic funds transfer systems through the Internet) should still remain onboard.

The biggest issue (and possibly the stickiest of them all) would be the foreign companies that have comprised so much of the gold seller market - companies who have outsourced the gaming and the wealth generation to, of all places, China and Korea.

Which begs the question - if you're selling a nonexistent product using a bank account that doesn't have a physical address and a buyer who doesn't pay you any recognized currency of any kind, can you actually tax it?

The answer is no, so Warcrafters, don't worry. You don't have to shell out 30% of your WoW profits from killing those three hundred spiders in Goldshire to Uncle Sam. However, if gold sellers who are intentionally violating the Terms of Service of Blizzard are making money by working their keyboards to nubs, then yes, it's likely they'll need to fork over a chunk of their change.

Which, in strict economic terms, means that if you are one of those people who love to plonk down actual money for virtual currency, regardless of its legality, expect that in the near future, your gold may well cost you a few more real greenbacks.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Video Game Torture - More or Less

Back in December, Wired Blogger Clive Thompson penned this article. I read it, thought about it, and let it percolate for a long time in the back end of my brain, then forgot about it, until members of my Burner World of Warcraft guild picked it up and started talking a bit about it.

I've been thinking about this concept for a while; not just due to the torture quests of Warcraft when I began playing the new expansion from Wrath of the Lich King. As an active player on the Silver Hand server and a lacksadaisical player on Doomhammer, I've run the quests the writer talks about, and in all honesty, I recall my reaction being less of a shocked feeling and more of a: "Oh, really? I have to go stab a captive prison guard with a shockstick to make him talk? Okay, this might take a little longer than I expected. Gosh, I wonder if I have enough health to do this; I'm hoping he doesn't enrage or anything and attack me in the middle of the interrogation." Pain, suffering, torture of prisoners by agencies of "good" - didn't matter, really. I was far more concerned about whether or not my resurrectable character was going to get smacked around if the interrogation didn't go well.

Many of the themes in the game of Warcraft are dark, but they're also tracked with a yes/no acceptance of the mission. We're talking about a game that specifically talks about an entire world being ripped apart by magical energies (Outland) and destroying half of a world with its refugees taking shelter on another world. It's fantasy fiction in gaming and while I agree that the reflection of the themes can be violent, I can also say that the tendency of most "soft" games to go a-hunting giant rats gets old REAL QUICK. Hence, the creative guys at Blizzard find new and interesting ways to pull characters along a single-track storyline.

Part of the reason I find Warcraft so appealing is not that you have a great deal of choice in your character's arc. The quests to be accomplished don't allow moral choices. You either complete the quest line, or you don't, and gain experience and gold as a result. Everyone has the same questing experience; though the rewards from the quests are different. There isn't much leeway in this, so the social significance of the torture as presented by the writer doesn't really grab me.

In the game, I ran through the quest three times on each character. Because I knew if I zapped the guy four times, I could finish the quest and move on to my wholesale slaughter of poachers a little to the north for a druidic organization bearing a significant resemblance to the militant group PETA. I didn't care, overmuch, about the moral issue of the quest when I did it. I just wanted to get it done so I could finish the quest line and log off for the day.

It's funny, too, because I'm sure that many people who have been employed as professional interrogators and torturers throughout the ages of time don't, or didn't think about their jobs that much. It was just a job. Something to put food on the table and take home some extra at the end of the week. The fact that the people who were on the other end were dying probably didn't matter. It was just a job.

Humans have been cannibals since time out of mind; it's an open secret that during the siege of Stalingrad during World War II meat appeared on tables with no non-human animals around to provide the meat. Torture, prior to the 20th century, was a time-honored tradition to extract information / confession from individuals, including the Inquisition. The darker corners of the human psyche exist, and denying that they exist (or, in some cases, that they're fun - horror movies where teenagers who drink and have sex are killed are successful because they are enjoyed by the people watching them) simply doesn't do anyone a service.

Yes, people are beautiful creatures with love, intelligence, beauty and wisdom, but people are also hateful, stupid, ugly, and crass. Screaming out "Is it so much to ask to skin a tauren" is hilarious - I will happily admit that I made my undead rogue instead of a blood elf rogue because he's ugly and evil, and playing ugly and evil in a game is a way for me to enjoy that aspect of human foibles.

The more complex we make our games and the more involved we become the rarer it is that there are black and whites in the decisions. Checkers is a simple game; chess more so than checkers, but we don't accuse the board of violence when one checker makes it across the board through strategy to be "kinged". Parables of human violence exist in virtually any artificial construct - from the stories of Peter Rabbit to Gears of War - the format of the video game allows people to see and shape that in a much more refined, sharp format. It focuses the nasty aspects of humanity down to a small core to make a point about the cruelty of humanity, and it can make people react viscerally - not to the agony or the causality of what they're seeing - just the visceral aspects of it.

The impulse for a heroin addict to switch to methadone, then to cigarettes, then to coffee, or for a former brawler to focus on tai chi and beating the crap out of an Everlast bag, or for people to immerse themselves in true crime novels and roleplay demons online to exorcise or let their darker natures come out to play in a safe environment is one of the things that enables people to release that tension.

The need I have to create a painting or a detailed written script or comment on the darker aspects of human nature, or pour out my feelings for someone into a written letter and seal it into an envelope are able to be channeled into something else. The running joke that a writer who spends ten hours a day in front of a computer will come home and work for five hours on a story or a novel or even just catching up on email isn't untrue. I know that everyone has their methadone in one form or another.

Caffeine-free Diet Coke didn't just invent itself. People wanted something that tasted similar to Coke without the sugar, and without the caffeine. Without Coke as a basis for their desires and their needs, those same people dropping $10 on a case of fizzy carbonated water would simply sip tea.

When we are angry or furious or frustrated, so many of us go for a run or a walk or clear our heads in the streets, breaking ourselves out of the default world and moving us to a new environment. We act to divert the dark energies into something else - a grounding of sorts that keeps us from becoming something hated by ourselves and others. We work out in sterile gyms on plastic-and-metal machines powered by electricity and facing televisions that blare out more information to take our minds off of what we fear cleaning out in the corners of our own heads. As any teenaged kid will tell you, just shoving everything in the closet to sort out later is the fastest way to look like you have your kit together.

It's very easy, I think, to judge a game, or art, or a story, or a fictional work, or a musician that reflects the savageness of humanity's past and to accuse that work of art, fiction, or music as the culprit behind the human gestalt it portrays. In the 1980s, Jack Thompson made his entire career based around that accusation and created an idea in the conservative consciousness that you could point at the straw men of 2 Live Crew for the decisions of hundreds of thousands of urban teenagers without addressing the real core cause behind the human ugliness.

Young men who kill because they thought it was just like "Grand Theft Auto" still chose to kill, regardless of the reflective mirror they looked in that spurred them to that act. It could have just as easily have been a bunny death Flash Animation. Since "Grand Theft Auto" is a videogame, and still the favored scapegoat of many who simply don't understand the phenomenon or the technology, the blame is still laid to rest by many at the feet of the people who mirrored the reality of some aspects of humanity.

The reason I go to the desert and to Burning Man every year is that in the desert, I can play and do things that I never could in the default world. In Warcraft (or any other computer game) you can shoot the terrorist, murder thousands of bunnies hopping through Teldrassil, annihalate undead legions, munch on Taurens, crack jokes about farming dwarves for beard hair, skin yetis and take down the King of all Stormwind. In CounterStrike, you can kill terrorists with no repercussions.

One of the most telling aspects of the game for me is that I routinely roll my eyes, when the current Big Baddy, the Lich King, shows up, and starts monologuing about my character's feebleness, and how mighty he is all up on his Frozen Throne, watching me from afar. Every single time he shows up, I keep wondering why he doesn't just zap me and every adventuring character into icicle oblivion once his inept minions screw up his chances to turn me into warlock soup. It's almost to the point of ridiculousness - I half expect the Lich King to show up wearing a Dr. Evil suit at the end game fight and make references to one million gold pieces in ransom.

In order to get there, though, I'm going to have to slaughter hordes of giants, kill thousands of enemy players, cause geopolitcial strife among blue and red dragons, hunt hundreds of endangered species in a subtropical rain forest, travel back in time to correct time alterations by shadowy conspiracies, sort through myriad piles of fecal matter (for some reason, in this version of the game, processing animal and character waste is a primary component of many, many quests and subsequent poop jokes) and probably fall into lava.

None of those things are things I feel compelled to do in real life. None of the adventuring, questing, arguing, insulting, bantering, or yapping that gets done ingame spills much over into real life, and sometimes I do wonder if my creativity has been hampered by it, or honed. One thing I do know, though, is that as a direct result of playing the game, I don't feel compelled to torture random people with a pain receptor stick, slaughter orcs with black magic, or ride a mammoth across the plains of a dying world.

In a Schroedinger's Box frame of inquiry, I'd ask whether playing World of Warcraft channeled that energy away from the experiences I might have without the game as an outlet. Likewise with my experiences attending Burning Man - whether the energy I've poured into that event might have been spent at home in my community building similar expressions had I not chosen to go to the desert for a week out of every year.

But humans aren't a black box like that, in many ways. Adding torture, or murder, or deception, embezzlement, theft, or assassination to a video game, novel, or movie doesn't cause the behavior. Rather, I'd say the mirror held up to the darker aspects of our souls sometimes simply reminds people of the devil inside them. It's up to the individual who acts upon their darker human nature, not the maker of the painting, the sculpture, the video game or the novel, the pornography, the performance art or the dance to be aware of its incitement.

Or, in other words: people just do stuff, sometimes. And they don't think much about it. I'm sure if I went through and read every quest that I've ever done, or thought about every decision I made yesterday - from my purchase of gas at the slightly cheaper station to snacking on a Payday candy bar, some infinite number of possible decisions branch from each of those choices I made that have shaped my future life.

Sometimes, you're just trying to finish the quest by the time you have to go home.
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