Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The SUPER CLEVER mathematical formula that could save us all from extreme political gerrymandering:

The Supreme Court has heard several cases in the past about gerrymandering, and one of the main points they have in not being able to take a hard stance against it is that they lack an objective way to measure whether or not a voting district has been gerrymandered. But law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos and political scientist Eric McGhee, from the University of Chicago, have come up with a relatively simple mathematical equation that seems to solve that problem. And it's bloody brilliant.

Note: This depiction of the formula is my own, rather than a variable-by-variable recreation of the formula heading to court.

For those who need a refresher, "gerrymandering" is the practice of drawing up voting districts in a way that gives a distinct, unfair disadvantage to one of the two major parties, by "wasting" votes for the other party. Essentially, gerrymandering is the single most widespread form of CHEATING in America's political system. To get a more complete understanding of how it actually works, I have to recommend this clip from John Oliver's show:

Two quick notes:

• Every time gerrymandering is brought up, people will immediately claim that "both sides do it!!" – but it's important to understand that this is only true in the most pedantic sense possible. In practice, Republicans have engaged in far more gerrymandering, and to a far more extreme extent, than the Democrats have. Were it not for Republican gerrymandering, the Democrats would currently hold a clear majority in the House of Representatives.

• There is a Supreme Court case (Whitford v Gill) coming up later this year that is all about how blatantly the Republicans have gerrymandered the state of Wisconsin, and whether or not this equation is a valid antidote for the problem. So all of this math is not simply a theory – it could VERY SOON have a VERY VERY LARGE IMPACT on elections in America.


As John Oliver's segment explained, there are two main forms of gerrymandering: "packing" and "cracking". "Packing" is the process of shoving excess voters of one party into a district where that party is already almost certain to win. "Cracking" is the practice of slicing up one party's voters into small enough segments in each district that they will be canceled out by the other party.

Say you have a state with five voting districts, and each district consists of 100 voters (for simplicity). And here is how the election played out:

In this hypothetical example, the Republicans won 3 districts to the Democrats' 2, but a total of 220 votes (60+60+60+20+20) were cast for Republicans and a total of 280 votes (40+40+40+80+80) were cast for Democrats.


Any vote for the losing party is considered "wasted", by virtue of that vote being canceled out by the winning side (these votes have been "cracked"). BUT – any votes for the winning party in excess of  the 50% needed to win can also be considered "wasted" (these votes have been "packed").

The formula starts by tallying up all the "wasted" votes:

• In the red districts, 40+40+40 = 120 votes "wasted" by Dem voters
• In the red districts, (60-50)+(60-50)+(60-50) = 30 votes "wasted" by Rep voters
• In the blue districts, 20+20 = 40 votes "wasted" by Rep voters
• In the blue districts, (80-50)+(80-50) = 60 votes "wasted" by Dem voters

This leads to a total of 180 votes wasted by Democratic voters, and only 70 votes wasted by Republican voters. The net difference is a 110 vote deficit for the Democrats.

Finally, to calculate how badly a district has been gerrymandered, divide the wasted vote deficit of the disadvantaged party by the total number of votes:

110 / 500 = 0.22 

In other words, this division of voting districts gives Republicans a mathematically unfair advantage by 22%. The formula's creators call this result the "efficiency gap". (I might prefer the term "CHEATER'S GAP", myself.)

It should be noted that there is virtually no way to get this number completely down to 0% in this sort of election system. But Stephanopoulos and McGhee have crunched enough numbers to conclude that an efficiency gap greater than 7% means that a voting district map has been deliberately designed to give one party an unfair advantage over the other.

And there you have it: an objective, unbiased, non-partisan standard for determining whether or not once party has cheated to give itself an advantage in drawing a state's voting districts.

Like I said – brilliant, isn't it?

(Also, doesn't it say something about the current state of American politics that liberals are the ones most excited by the prospect of ending the most prominent form of political cheating?)

Taking South Park Down a Peg


Thursday, May 4, 2017

Game Reviews: Doom, Firewatch, Never Alone, Zelda: Minish Cap, Batman: The Telltale Series



I can't say I had ever played a Doom game until this one - and I probably wouldn't have played it, if its single-player mode hadn't been so highly recommended by IGN. And the reason IGN recommended it so highly is that the game's campaign is just sheer, dumb fun that is well aware of how absurd it is, and never takes itself too seriously. Set a couple hundred years in the future, you play as an unnamed human protagonist, awakening in a lab on Mars and wearing a super-soldier exo-suit. The reason you're on Mars is that a huge, evil corporation is using Mars as its base to farm natural resources from Hell, and send them back to Earth. (Yep.) Except those Hell-demons have retaliated, obliterating the Martian facility and threatening to burst into our world to destroy the rest of it. (Or something like that. It doesn't matter, it's all just the setup for a bunch of dumb fun.)

The gameplay is basically just running from room to room, blasting demons in the face and collecting various bits and bobs hidden in different areas around each level. That's about as deep as it goes. You upgrade your armor, you upgrade your guns, you become hilariously overpowered over the course of the game, but the basic gameplay loop remains the same. It's dumb, but it's so over-the-top violently dumb that it's legitimately fun! The music is the cheesiest "ass-kicking" metal ever (in a good way),  and the artwork, gruesome though it may be, is impressive. The game is legitimately funny, as well – from the absurd way the corporation treats its employees, to the hysterically violent executions, to the overall self-aware tone. The one downside to the game is that it's a little slow to get into – the single-player mode is about 10 hours long, and the first 2-3 are a little dull. There's also a multiplayer mode, which was utterly forgettable. But who cares? Just play single-player and charge right into the literal depths of hell, chainsawing and shotgunning everything you see :D

Overall: 7/10


A first-person game that is essentially the polar-opposite of Doom, Firewatch is a narrative-driven indie game that's both moving and incredibly tense, especially on your first playthrough. I refuse to spoil the introductory sequence, but the main game sees you playing as a man going through a very rough patch in life, who has just taken a job as a lookout in a remote mountain region to keep watch for any forest fires that may appear (hence the name). Your sole connection in the world is by two-way radio to Delilah, your fellow lookout in a tower just a couple miles from your own. As the (3-5 hour) story slowly unfolds and builds up, you encounter several bizarre, creepy events that ratchet up the tension and mystery of your time in the mountains. There are no guns, no weapons, no fighting of any kind – just you, hiking through the woods, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And between the incredible storytelling and writing, the beautiful use of natural colors, and the top-notch sound design and voice acting, this game nails most of what it sets out to accomplish.

Overall: 8/10

Never Alone

This game was a collaboration between an indie development studio and a tribe of Native Alaskans called the IƱupiat. Despite being an extremely short game (2-3 hours) with extremely simple platforming, its hook is that you are playing out a story of the tribe's traditional lore, as it's being told (via voice-over) by one of the tribe's elder storytellers.

Here's the game's trailer to get an idea of how it works:

The concept of the game – to merge gameplay with IƱupiat lore – is the best thing about it, creating a unique experience that almost serves as an interactive museum exhibit. The downside is that the game itself is so short and simple that there's not much else going for it. That said, the game does have a co-op mode for two players, where one player controls the little girl and the other controls her fox companion (which is how we played the game). Even with the game's additional DLC story, there's just not much meat on the bones here. But the bones sure are neat!

Overall: 6/10

Zelda: Minish Cap

Originally released in 2003 for the Game Boy Advance, we played it on the Wii U Virtual Console. This is a top-down Zelda adventure (like Link to the Past) as opposed to a fully 3D Zelda game (like Ocarina of Time). But since the GBA was more advanced that the SNES, and since this game came out after Ocarina and Majora, it incorporates improved graphics and several characters and sound design elements from the latter games. The end result is a solid, fun Zelda game with great art direction and relatively streamlined controls. It may not be as epic as an entry like Twilight Princess or Breath of the Wild, but its short-and-sweet nature led me to like it more than Wind Waker or Skyward Sword (two of my least-favorite Zelda games). That said, there's one factor that prevents me from giving this game a 10/10: a fairly large chunk of the gameplay revolves around finding and using "kinstones", small round medallions split in half that must be connected with other characters in the world that have the corresponding halves. I found it to be tedious and dull, much like Wind Waker's sailing or Skyward Sword's motion controls. But given how much I enjoyed the gameplay, art, and sound design, it's a flaw that I'll have an easy time putting up with on future playthroughs!

Overall: 9/10

Batman: The Telltale Series

This game follows Telltale's established formula of focusing on story and dialogue, and giving players the option to heavily influence how the branching storylines play out, with a smattering of action and puzzle-solving in between story beats. And like many Telltale games, the story is incredibly well-written, require the player to play as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, and to approach situations differently depending on which side of the character you're playing as and what kind of attitudes and approaches you want him to take. Not only is it superbly written and voice-acted (with plenty of interesting twists on traditional Batman lore), but the gameplay is simple enough that my dad can play and enjoy the game, and he doesn't do much gaming at all.

Alas, this game suffers from the same problem that LITERALLY ALL Telltale games suffer from: so many glitches and bugs that you have to wonder if they've ever even heard of the phrase "quality assurance". Sometimes the sound cuts out for no reason. Sometimes the animations go wonky and Bruce's neck is stuck facing the wrong direction, leaving him looking like the girl from The Exorcist. Sometimes the framerate/performance stutters at just the wrong moment. Sometimes the game takes several minutes to load. Sometimes the main menu crashes completely. WHAT THE HELL, TELLTALE? For crying out loud, if you really want to be a AAA-caliber game development studio, you guys have GOT to start getting this shit figured out at some point. There really are no excuses. If the game had been on par with Rocksteady's Arkham series in terms of technical performance and graphical quality, this game would VERY EASILY have been a 10/10.

Overall: 9/10

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

It's Not A Privilege

This article from Jezebel has its share of problems, but overall it does a fairly decent job of trying to give feminists a less-myopic view of masculinity.

There are still a few issues with it: first and foremost, the article is still frames the problem as being an issue of 'patriarchy' - a framework that feminists love, but is an immensely inadequate and inaccurate description of the problem. For another, all it takes is a quick glance at the comments section to see how quickly feminist eyes glaze over when men try to express the idea that we feel pain in our lives too.

It's a fact you may not be comfortable with, but that myopic view of masculinity and its resulting lack of empathy toward men is reason #1 the Men's Rights Movement exists at all: it fills that empathy gap. (A gap which, by the way, also contributed heavily to Donald Trump's election win.)

Liberals should be ashamed of ourselves for lacking the courage to hear and grapple with these issues, and for trying to boil complex gender issues down to cute little one-sided bumper-sticker slogans about "patriarchy" and "privilege" and "mansplaining" instead.
"Would I be able to write this if I was not later socialized to discuss my pain and anger nonviolently rather than lashing out? Even men who have been able to distance themselves from the "privilege" of masculinity are unable to write about their dehumanization under it because as the "dominant oppressor" [quote marks mine], often their words are misconstrued as a shirking of responsibility for their actions or "taking away" from the suffering of women. The irony is that without someone exposing the pathological suffering of males due to "patriarchal" [quote marks mine] socialization, it will continue to be evil men versus victimized women and no one will attain an equal humanity."
One commenter:
"Keep trying. Just keep trying. Men are not the enemy and toxic masculinity is the enemy. You can hate, fear, and distain[SIC] toxic masculinity without feeling that way about men."
Sound familiar?