Monday, April 30, 2007

Video Games DO Cause Violence: Slate's Iconoclasm is Convincing for Once

It was with a disproportionately heavy heart that I finally gave in and read the recent Slate article, Don't Shoot: Why video games really are linked to violence by Amanda Schaffer. Not because I'm not willing to believe there is some link -- there is certainly some link in such a complex causal chain as personality and behavior. But Slate tends to preemptorily declare "That's it, the answer is wrapped up" in any number of scientific arguments, most especially their execrable "Economics" articles, often by taking one study and generalizing it to be "the answer" (Steven Landsburg and Tim Harford being the "execrablers" in most cases). So I assumed the game-violence article would be along the line of a different recently published article by Slate I'm refusing to read, "Whose life is worth more, a drug dealer or a prostitute?" (Answer: "What the fuck is wrong with you, what kind of assclown asks that?" If there is an answer that doesn't make me feel bad about the human race, I'm rather sure it won't be written by Tim "Scientist" Harford.)

But in actuality, the article (on violence) convinced me. I feel Michael Moore's "Bowling for Colombine" was unfairly lambasted on a number of levels (though he does make it easy for people by seemingly making a number of lazy incorrect assertions and sensational claims in his movies, I think), as it really was a movie that set out to test a series of ideas, and came up with a counter-intuitive (or at least, unexpected from Michael Moore) conclusion: guns really DON'T kill people, violent culture does. That is, he went through a variety of theses, from video games (nope: Japan has more violent video games and less violent crime) to gun ownership (nope: a variety of countries have more firearm ownership and lower crime) and settled on the violence at the root and promoted by any number of facets of US culture (as reflected, perhaps, in our continued imperialism and relatively blasé attitude towards, for example, the 20 to 50 times more Iraqis that have died than our own troops). It really was quite clever and, to me, well done and convincing (though undermined, most agree, by picking on Charlton Heston at the end, especially since Heston's NRA had more to do with the thesis he discarded, that of gun ownership itself being the problem). The point here is that Moore discarded video games as a prime factor, and prima facie at least, I agreed with him. But Schaffer's article reviews three seemingly-prominent studies (as an academic, I can't really trust them 'till I read them myself) with three different methodologies, bolstering her case from longitudinal, comparative, and experimental perspectives.

Nicely, as well, she bothers to distinguish between types of video games, and (seemingly a-purpose) parallels the useful aspects of video games to the downside of violent video games:
"When video games aren't about violence, their capacity to teach can be a good thing. For patients suffering from arachnophobia, fear of flying, or post-traumatic stress disorder, therapists are beginning to use virtual realities as a desensitization tool. And despite the rap that they're a waste of time, video games may also teach visual attention and spatial skills. (Recently, a study showed that having played three or more hours of video games a week was a better predictor of a laparoscopic surgeon's skills than his or her level of surgical training.) The games also work for conveying information to kids that they will remember. Video games that teach diabetic kids how to take better care of themselves, for instance, were shown to decrease their diabetes-related urgent and emergency visits by 77 percent after six months."
The implication here, which I think Schaffer intentionally includes (though oddly doesn't spend a lot of time playing up) is that these useful effects of games work on the same principles that make violent games harmful -- they decrease arachnophobia via desensitization (parallel: violent games desensitive kids to violence), they teach and emphasize a skill set (hand-eye coordination etc. useful for surgery or, unfortunately, assault and murder), and impart information (how to keep up with your diabetes, or how funny and easy it is to beat someone to death witha baseball bat). And it's worth noting, though Schaffer does not, that the military is increasingly using video games to train soldiers (or so I hear) and there are anectdotes of Iraqi soldeirs, especially younger ones, comparing the killing and blowing-up of people and things to games they've played at home. As Schaffer does point out,
"The connection between violent games and real violence is also fairly intuitive. In playing the games, kids are likely to become desensitized to gory images, which could make them less disturbing and perhaps easier to deal with in real life. The games may also encourage kids (and adults) to rehearse aggressive solutions to conflict, meaning that these thought processes may become more available to them when real-life conflicts arise, Anderson says. Video games also offer immediate feedback and constant small rewards—in the form of points, or access to new levels or weapons. And they tend to tailor tasks to a player's skill level, starting easy and getting harder. That makes them "phenomenal teachers," says Anderson, though "what they teach very much depends on content.'"
Of course, she doesn't go into remedies, which is where the whole thing often goes off the rails, as most agree adults have the right to play whatever the hell game they want, and most agree parents should be the point-guards for what their kids play, not stores or the government. And if parents have neither the time, knowledge, or inclination to keep the kids off Grand Theft Auto, well, where does that leave us... (plus the fact that of course it's not one to one, so how do you choose which kids are "mature" enough to kill drug dealers in video-game-land and which aren't? I've always found it interesting that even though I occasionally like to indulge in playing GTA and its ilk, I often feel a deep, deep discomfort or disgust at even the pretend mayhem I'm causing... which I think is likely a good thing...)

Schaffer has a very reasonable wrap up, saying:
"Given all of this, it makes sense to be specific about which games may be linked to harmful effects and which to neutral or good ones. Better research is also needed to understand whether some kids are more vulnerable to video-game violence, and how exposure interacts with other risk factors for aggression like poverty, psychological disorders, and a history of abuse. Meanwhile, how about a game in which kids, shrinks, and late-night comics size up all these factors and help save the world?

A little trite, but all in all, not a bad place to start.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Revisiting John McCain's Journey Up His Own Ass (and other bits and bobs)

Wow. It is, of course, old news that presidential "hopeful" John McCain is probably drawing more on hopefulness than realistic chances to win, and old news that he has must needed to suck up to conservative Republicans rather than his erstwhile large moderate base in 2000, but I hadn't really put it together as succinctly as this (via Slate's Today's Papers from a story in the WaPo): "Ron Kaufman, a former aide to Bush's father, gives us the best take on McCain's alternating praise and criticism of Bush. He bluntly states, 'It's ironic that McCain spent eight years sucking up to the White House, and now it's a negative.'"


He's right, though. I was one of those taken in by McCain's seeming moderatism and "Straight Talk" in 2000, going as far as thinking of voting for him then (had he won the nomination) and after 2000 settling on him as someone who, at least, I could tolerate as an honorable-ish politician, someone with whom you could disagree on priniciple but respect that he had conviction of his beliefs.

HA. How naïve, hoh boy. It's interesting to see, however, how much his extreme ass-kissing and sticking his head so far up his own ass he somehow ended up inside Bush's has backfired. I now think McCain was never that great shakes -- I mean, if he can't even keep up his "Man of Principle" Act throughout an unpopular war and unpopular president and falls on his sword to get a chance at the gold ring again before it's even in sight, well, how much principle would he keep to as an actual president? People aren't known for their bold, radical moves of principle after they enter a presidency (though one could argue Bush did do the bait-and-switch of moderatism and ended up making bold, radical moves of principle, at least as far as principles that apply in his own dreamworld. But I'm not sure bold and radical in this case don't stem from being a dipshit as much as "principle". And I suppose you could call it "principles" to follow your beliefs no matter what they lead to and who they kill, but that's not any kind of good principles people are usually referring to.)

All that puckering up to Bush, and it turns out that an ass is just an ass. Oh, sweet schadenfreude.

I have long been skeptical of McCain -- after all, he was not only a long-time politician, he was a Republican. He talked good on Global Warming, for example, but I read numerous articles laying out how he didn't spend his considerable political capital (now somewhat diminished) to actually get substantive bills through. He did go to the mat on campaign finance, which, most agree, hasn't really worked. (I still don't understand the intricacies of how and why it does and doesn't work, but at least he was working in an area I cared about.) Of course, when he REALLY went to the mat, all the way, offering his hindquarters up like an animal in heat, was for Bush after he lost the nomination in 2000 (in part due to dirty tricks, duly recorded and verified, such as Bush supporters spreading rumors of McCain's "illegitimate black child," presumably based on the RealFact that McCain has an adoptive Bangladeshi daughter. He says he's "very good, friendly relationship" with Bush in a 2004 interview on Democracy Now!. He has since, in order to try and win the Republican nomination, backstepped on his criticism of Bob "No interracial dating" Jones University and has spoken at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

That, of course, in addition to merrily speaking up for Bush in his 2004 speech.

Of course, I seriously questioned what world McCain was living in anyway when, on (I think) NewsHour with Jim Lehrer years ago, he said something to the effect that he didn't believe any of his colleagues in Congress were corrupt, or took bribes. This could be dismissed as normal politicking, but he repeatedly stuck up for it under questioning, saying that there had been occurences of bribery and corruption in the past, but he seriously didn't believe any of his colleagues were subject to such things. Considering that this was still in his supposed "straight talk" days, and that Tom Delay was still in Congress, then, frankly, give me a fucking break. I don't cotton to lies that insult my intelligence; I feel if you're going to lie, at least make it entertaining (or give it the sarcastic bite McCain sometimes used on The Daily Show to give a wink to his necessary kowtowing and politicking).

In utterly other news, MarketPlace on NPR just had a story about local currencies popping up in Europe alongside the Euro. Such currencies, like the "berliner", are apparently not even meant to supplant the Euro or simply represent exercises in Nationalism, but rather to emphasize a local resistance to globalization and embrace of local variety, and to encourage patronage of local businesses. Hear hear, what a good idea! This is an idea worth revisiting in the future. In the meantime, a relevant quote from one of the founders of modern economics, John Maynard Keynes (and apparently originator of the phrase "In the long run, we are all dead"):
"Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel -- these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let good be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national."

This, of course, is dismissed by people who are otherwise pro-Globalization Keynesians as him being creaky and soft-headed in a moment of weakness, but there you go.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

And now for a word...

We interrupt your irregularly scheduled blogging for a word from Noam Chomsky, most widely quoted author in the world and persona non grata in the US:

"...Doubtless Iran's government merits harsh condemnation, including for its recent actions that have inflamed the crisis. It is, however, useful to ask how we would act if Iran had invaded and occupied Canada and Mexico and was arresting U.S. government representatives there on the grounds that they were resisting the Iranian occupation (called "liberation," of course). Imagine as well that Iran was deploying massive naval forces in the Caribbean and issuing credible threats to launch a wave of attacks against a vast range of sites -- nuclear and otherwise -- in the United States, if the U.S. government did not immediately terminate all its nuclear energy programs (and, naturally, dismantle all its nuclear weapons). Suppose that all of this happened after Iran had overthrown the government of the U.S. and installed a vicious tyrant (as the US did to Iran in 1953), then later supported a Russian invasion of the U.S. that killed millions of people (just as the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians, a figure comparable to millions of Americans). Would we watch quietly?

It is easy to understand an observation by one of Israel's leading military historians, Martin van Creveld. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, knowing it to be defenseless, he noted, "Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy."

Surely no sane person wants Iran (or any nation) to develop nuclear weapons. A reasonable resolution of the present crisis would permit Iran to develop nuclear energy, in accord with its rights under the Non- Proliferation Treaty, but not nuclear weapons. Is that outcome feasible? It would be, given one condition: that the U.S. and Iran were functioning democratic societies in which public opinion had a significant impact on public policy.

As it happens, this solution has overwhelming support among Iranians and Americans, who generally are in agreement on nuclear issues. The Iranian-American consensus includes the complete elimination of nuclear weapons everywhere (82% of Americans); if that cannot yet be achieved because of elite opposition, then at least a "nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East that would include both Islamic countries and Israel" (71% of Americans). Seventy-five percent of Americans prefer building better relations with Iran to threats of force. In brief, if public opinion were to have a significant influence on state policy in the U.S. and Iran, resolution of the crisis might be at hand, along with much more far-reaching solutions to the global nuclear conundrum.

...Democracy promotion at home is certainly feasible and, although we cannot carry out such a project directly in Iran, we could act to improve the prospects of the courageous reformers and oppositionists who are seeking to achieve just that. Among such figures who are, or should be, well-known, would be Saeed Hajjarian, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, and Akbar Ganji, as well as those who, as usual, remain nameless, among them labor activists about whom we hear very little; those who publish the Iranian Workers Bulletin may be a case in point.

We can best improve the prospects for democracy promotion in Iran by sharply reversing state policy here so that it reflects popular opinion. That would entail ceasing to make the regular threats that are a gift to Iranian hardliners. These are bitterly condemned by Iranians truly concerned with democracy promotion (unlike those "supporters" who flaunt democracy slogans in the West and are lauded as grand "idealists" despite their clear record of visceral hatred for democracy).

Democracy promotion in the United States could have far broader consequences. In Iraq, for instance, a firm timetable for withdrawal would be initiated at once, or very soon, in accord with the will of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and a significant majority of Americans. [Blogger's note: A point made here before...] Federal budget priorities would be virtually reversed. Where spending is rising, as in military supplemental bills to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would sharply decline. Where spending is steady or declining (health, education, job training, the promotion of energy conservation and renewable energy sources, veterans benefits, funding for the UN and UN peacekeeping operations, and so on), it would sharply increase. Bush's tax cuts for people with incomes over $200,000 a year would be immediately rescinded.

...[The U.S.] would allow the UN to take the lead in international crises, including in Iraq. After all, according to opinion polls, since shortly after the 2003 invasion, a large majority of Americans have wanted the UN to take charge of political transformation, economic reconstruction, and civil order in that land.

If public opinion mattered, the U.S. would accept UN Charter restrictions on the use of force, contrary to a bipartisan consensus that this country, alone, has the right to resort to violence in response to potential threats, real or imagined, including threats to our access to markets and resources. The U.S. (along with others) would abandon the Security Council veto and accept majority opinion even when in opposition to it. The UN would be allowed to regulate arms sales; while the U.S. would cut back on such sales and urge other countries to do so, which would be a major contribution to reducing large-scale violence in the world. Terror would be dealt with through diplomatic and economic measures, not force, in accord with the judgment of most specialists on the topic but again in diametric opposition to present-day policy.

Furthermore, if public opinion influenced policy, the U.S. ...would join the broad international consensus on a two-state settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which (with Israel) it has blocked for 30 years -- with scattered and temporary exceptions -- and which it still blocks in word, and more importantly in deed, despite fraudulent claims of its commitment to diplomacy. The U.S. would also equalize aid to Israel and Palestine, cutting off aid to either party that rejected the international consensus.

Evidence on these matters is reviewed in my book Failed States as well as in The Foreign Policy Disconnect by Benjamin Page (with Marshall Bouton), which also provides extensive evidence that public opinion on foreign (and probably domestic) policy issues tends to be coherent and consistent over long periods. Studies of public opinion have to be regarded with caution, but they are certainly highly suggestive.

Democracy promotion at home, while no panacea, would be a useful step towards helping our own country become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international order (to adopt the term used for adversaries), instead of being an object of fear and dislike throughout much of the world."

Emphasis added. Reposted from and

"Noam Chomsky is the author of Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan Books), just published in paperback, among many other works.
Copyright 2007 Noam Chomsky"

Ta ta for now.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Self-referential to the max!

See J-Friend Heidi praising me praising her! (More precisely, praising me linking to her. But, you know, her new blog is very deserving of praise, outstripping mine in updates and coolness, and, I suspect, readership in a couple short months. So, Dear Heidi: Praise praise, praise. Less perfunctory praise available on request.)

Most self-self-referential post... ever. (That is, this one. I think. I'm sort of confusing myself at this point. But I think so, at least until Heidi one-ups me and links to THIS, but we all know that "girls aren't competitive"* so that'll never happen.)

*This is sarcasm. If you do not realize this, please read it again holding both your hands up at chest level, then point your middle and index finger on each hand up towards the ceiling and close the rest into your palm. Now, move your hands up and down gently 1-2 times, bending your upheld fingers down into a crook shape and back to pointing straight up concurrent with the hand motions. These are sarcastic air quotes.

Repeat as needed.

Alternatively, read Joan Williams' book, Unbending Gender: Why work and family conflict and what to do about it. In a quote that didn't make it onto the cover, "It fucking rocks."

As the Klingons, Kahn, and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos say, "Schadenfreude is a dish best served cold..."

Ok, actually, what those three say is revenge is a dish best served cold (Nerd break: "...and it is very cold... in space...") But I'll settle for the suffering of others right now over direct revenge; basically, anything bad that happens to Don Rumsefeld's career is A-OK with me.

He hasn't managed to sink any lower than being fired, er, "resigning" from the Bush Crime Syndicate, but a story unearthed from last November's The New Yorker shows one of his oldest friends wondering if he had been wrong about his friend Don all along. Kenneth Adelman, of the Defense Policy Board (to which Rumsfeld appointed him), opened up to reporter Jeffrey Goldberg:
A few days later, Rumsfeld was out. Adelman is, apparently, still in. “I’m heartsick about the whole matter,” he said. He does not know what to make of the disintegration of Rumsfeld’s career and reputation. “How could this happen to someone so good, so competent?” he said. “This war made me doubt the past. Was I wrong all those years, or was he just better back then? The Donald Rumsfeld of today is not the Donald Rumsfeld I knew, but maybe I was wrong about the old Donald Rumsfeld. It’s a terrible way to end a career. It’s hard to remember, but he was once the future.”

Ahh... Just bask in that first line... "A few days later, Rumsfeld was out..." This is delicious because, in the story reported by Goldberg, he (Rumsfeld) was in the middle of assclownishly trying to get his "friend" to resign rather than be fired since his "friend" was being "negative" on the "successful" Iraq War.

The article isn't that long, but it provides some refreshing pathos in the showing of the incredible bathos generated by the Bush Crime Syndicate being given its comeuppance only a few paragraphs later.

It is a small victory, and actually one already stale in terms of real effect (Rummy's gone but the war goes on), but this article is worth coldly basking in the embarrassing of Rummy, truly an asshat if there ever was one. You can only feel schadenfreude for someone like this:
"'I suggested that we were losing the war,' Adelman said... ' looked like we needed a Plan B. I said, 'What’s the alternative? Because what we’re doing now is just losing...' ...Rumsfeld didn’t take to the message well. 'He was in deep denial—deep, deep denial. And then he did a strange thing. He did fifteen or twenty minutes of posing questions to himself, and then answering them.'"

It's nice (read: horrifying) to know that Rummy uses this method* with his friends, and not just the American Public and the Press and Congres that he wishes would just kiss his ass and be thankful for the opportunity.

Ahhhh... it is very cold in space, Rummy. No doubt he's somewhere swimming in a pile of gold coins à la Scrooge McDuck, but if somehow, he finds himself alone on a street corner in the dead of winter, he can just burn his 1977 Presidential Medal of Freedom to keep warm -- hell, maybe the White House gave him a box of them on the way out, they seem to have enough to go around to award all of the incompetence among their cronies (and boy, is there a lot). Not that I'm hoping he finds himself alone on a street corner in the dead of winter -- I figure, while we're dreaming, he may as well have one foot in Antarctica and one in the Gobi.

Money shot: "Are there still Taliban around? You bet. Are they occupying safe havens in Afghanistan and other places, correction in Pakistan and other places? Certainly they are. Is the violence up? Yes. Does the violence tend to be up during the summer and spring, summer, and fall months? Yes it does. And it tends to decline during the winter period. Does that represent failed policy? I don't know, I would say not. I think you've got an awful lot of very talented people engaged in this, and the decisions that are being made are being made with great care after a great deal of consideration. Are there setbacks? Yes. Are there things that people can't anticipate? Yes. Does the enemy have a brain and continue to make adjustments on the ground, requiring our forces to continue to make adjustments? You bet. Is that going to continue to be the case? I think so. Is this problem going to get solved in the near term about this violence struggle against extremism? No, I don't believe it is."