In Defense Of True Neutral

I saw an article on IO9 about the best D&D alignments and even though it’s almost a year old, I wanted to respond. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of alignment in D&D, the basic idea is that there is are two axes that govern your character’s behavior: good and evil is the first, and law and chaos is the second. This forms a 3 x 3 grid (neutral options exist between each extreme) and thus, all characters will fall into one of nine different alignments. Think of it like a personality test, but for sorcerers and paladins.

Like with anything, it’s common to discuss and argue the merits of these different alignments and the value of the alignment system itself. Some feel that it’s too limited to describe all fantasy characters in just nine categories, while others think that it’s a useful abstraction. For what it’s worth, I fall into the latter camp.

IO9 ranks the nine alignments as follows, from best to worst:

  1. Chaotic Neutral
  2. Neutral Good
  3. Lawful Evil
  4. Neutral Evil
  5. Lawful Neutral
  6. Lawful Good
  7. Chaotic Evil
  8. Chaotic Good
  9. True Neutral

The placement of Chaotic Neutral as the “best” alignment strikes me as fairly dubious, due to the number of players who use it as an excuse to be evil in games where the game master does not allow evil characters. This tendency is so common, in fact, that it’s a recurring joke in the movie Gamers: Dorkness Rising as one of the characters constantly exclaims “I’m not evil, I’m Chaotic Neutral” after doing something like setting a peasant on fire for no reason.

However, the low placement of True Neutral on the list is what really raises my eyebrow. Here’s what the author has to say about the True Neutral alignment:

There are only two alignments that cannot be trusted: Chaotic Evil and True Neutral. Chaotic Evil characters are crazy evil, so what’s True Neutral’s excuse? Only the dumb would be so invested in the balance between good, evil, law and chaos that they feel they have to maintain it, which is why True Neutral is the preferred alignment of Druids, a.k.a. dipshits. Look, if there’s a chance you may decide that letting bugbears kill everyone in the party is necessary in the natural order of things, then there’s a chance I’m going to slit your character’s throat in his sleep. Hell, at least with Chaotic Evil characters you know where you stand.

Let’s ignore the slur against druids for a moment. I’m going to assume it’s a comment made by a player who either prefers wizards or clerics, the druid’s main rivals for the title of “most powerful class ever” or comes from a player who prefers fighters or rogues and is still bitter about the fact that the 3.5 D&D druid has special abilities more powerful than the entire fighter and rogue classes.

And to be fair, let’s look at the D&D second edition for True Neutral (referred to as just Neutral here):

Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes.

Druids frequently follow this True Neutral dedication to balance, and under Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules were required to be this alignment. In an example given in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, a typical druid might fight against a band of marauding gnolls, only to switch sides to save the gnolls’ clan from being totally exterminated.

Later editions steered away from this depiction of the True Neutral alignment, on the basis that it’s absolutely insane. Of course, Second Edition also described Chaotic Neutral as being the alignment of “lunatics and mad men” and that a Chaotic Neutral character was just as likely to jump off a bridge as cross it. If we’re going to laud Chaotic Neutral as the best alignment, we should do so under the same edition as we disparage True Neutral as the worst.

With that said, I’d like to argue for why I think True Neutral is one of the best alignments and it has nothing to do with some abstract “keeping the balance” or “not getting involved” justification.

Before going further, it’s important to point out that understanding of the alignments is necessarily subjective. What’s Evil in one game or story might be Neutral in another. It all depends on the morality of the storyteller, since we’re talking about fictional worlds. In a fictional roleplaying world, God is literally available to make moral judgments.

With that in mind, I’m basing my argument on the alignment depictions put forth by the core D&D 3.5 rulebooks. For a more detailed analysis of what these alignments represent and the ethics implied by them, visit this page and get ready for an in-depth, scholarly discussion of some D&D ethics. It could be argued that some of the examples here don’t fall into the particular moral classifications I’ve attributed them, but keep in mind that, in the core D&D setting, torture is considered an Evil act, in all instances. Real world morality doesn’t apply here.

To me, there are three types of True Neutral characters. “Undecided” are those that don’t commit to a side. They don’t feel strongly about law vs. chaos or good vs. evil. These characters are generally less interesting as protagonists in a fantasy game due to their overall lack of motivation. Characters of this alignment tend to be villagers or townsfolk, those more interested in living out their lives than getting involved.

The second kind of True Neutral is the aforementioned “Balanced” individual, which we’ve already described. With a few exceptions, I’m not overly fond of this character.

The third True Neutral type is the Pragmatist. This is where the alignment has the most interesting opportunities. Before describing how the Pragmatist True Neutral operates, we have to look at how other alignments operate and what it means to be Good or Evil.

Generally speaking, Good aligned characters will never commit evil acts. A Good character will not torture a villain. They won’t betray others. They try to keep their word (except to villains). Generally, however, they’re idealistic in their motivations and actions. A Good character who does something like murder a villain who has surrendered has stopped being Good.

Consequently, although Evil characters might seem like the ultimate pragmatists who are willing to do anything, my general feeling is that this is not true. An Evil character will never commit Good actions. They might appear to do so as part of a ploy or gambit, but their motivations are still ultimately for some Evil cause and even then, there are limits on the Good they’re willing to do. They won’t sacrifice themselves for a goal or another person, for instance. They’re incapable of actual Good, even when Good would lead to a preferable outcome. In fiction, we see this often: a villain who betrays the protagonist even though it’s ultimately counterproductive to do so.

While Evil characters are willing to stop at nothing to achieve their goals, that’s not quite the same as “being willing to do anything.” There might be no limit to the depths an Evil character might sink, but there are absolutely limits on how high an Evil character might climb in terms of Good. If they do, they stop being Evil.

Enter the True Neutral, who is the ultimate pragmatist. This is the character who is willing to walk in a world of grey. The character who can’t be considered Good, because he or she is willing to do things Good can’t or won’t. Here’s a powerful example from an episode of Castle.

That is what True Neutral looks like to me. It’s the willingness to do what needs to be done. Tell the truth, tell a lie, show mercy, torture, obey the law, break the law. Whatever needs to be done. A Good character can’t go to this length. A Good character is the one for whom torture will always be wrong, no matter the circumstances. “We have to find another way” is the mantra of the Good character.

True Neutrals have one foot in the dark, one in the light, and not because it’s important to remain “balanced” between the two, but because sometimes, the ends do justify the means. Not always; a character for whom the ends always justify the means is probably going to be Evil.

But isn’t this “at any costs” mentality a powerful narrative motivation to justify Evil? The difference between this kind of Neutral and Evil is that “whatever it takes” goes both ways. What separates the Neutral Pragmatist from an Evil Villain is that the villain won’t self-sacrifice for his goal. The Neutral will, just as a Good character will.

And that is why True Neutral characters can be awesome. Not because of some “balance” or because of some wishy-washy non-commitment. Because True Neutral is the expression on Castle’s face. It’s this exchange, in all its spine chilling menace:

Stevens[Castle closes and locks the door to the room] I just said I don’t wanna talk, so you can’t question me. I have rights. I’m not going to say anything without a lawyer.

Castle: I’m not a cop.

Stevens: Then who are you?

Castle: You remember the girl with the red hair? I’m her father. Please know, I will do whatever it takes to get her back. The police outside are my friends… my daughters’ friends too. So it’s just you and me.

Stevens: If you touch me, I’ll press charges…

Castle: I don’t care.

My “You’re Not An Introvert” Moment Of The Day

I’m an introvert. That should be obvious based on the fact that I’m writing on a blog rather than discussing this in a social context. If you’re wondering how I rationalize my writing out thoughts I know are going to be read by other people, mostly I do it by ignoring the fact that I actually have readers. In my mind, I’m always talking to myself.

Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking was one of the best books I’ve ever read. It helped me understand and reconcile two very different aspects of my personality. I recommend the book to everybody I know, both introverts (in order to better understand themselves) and extroverts (to better understand those of us on the opposite end of the spectrum).

The book club that meets at my library is going to be discussing Quiet at next month’s meeting, so we have a large stack of copies at our information desk for people to check out. For the most part, people are either interested in the book or else have already read it. Today, though, I had a little exchange that really raised my eyebrow (and to be honest, a bit of my ire):

Person: “Is this next month’s book club book?”

Co-worker: “Yeah, it’s about introverts.”

Person: “Oh, I can’t stand introverts. I really can’t stand them. I don’t like them at all.”

Me: “Well, you know, I’m an introvert.”

Co-worker: “So am I.”

Person: “NO, you’re not. You’re not introverts.”

Me and co-worker: (speechless silence)

Person: “I don’t like introverts at all, because they don’t hold up their end of the bargain in a conversation. You have to do all the talking. I don’t like that.”

Me: “I’m actually a very introverted person.”

Person: “You’re not. You always talk to me.”

Me: “Yes, well, that’s sort of my job. I’m considerably less social on my own time.”

Person: “Well, I don’t think you’re an introvert. You’re not.”

Me: “You’re right. I’m glad you know me so well. Anyway, you should read the book. It’s a great way to understand more about introverts.”

Person: “I don’t want to read that. I don’t care about understanding introverts. I don’t like them.”

And scene.

Also? Sigh.

On The End

“The death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”

Poe wrote that.

Most agree that he knew what he was talking about.

It’s a little bit different for me.

For me, the beauty and melancholy of reaching the end of a truly amazing story is the most poetical topic in the world.

It is bittersweet in a way that reality cannot match. You find yourself mourning your loss, though what you lost is a world that never was and people that do not exist but in your mind. You are mourning something that never really was part of Reality. And none will ever share what you feel, because even if they read your story, even if they feel as passionately as you feel, they will not be mourning the same story. They will mourn only their version of it. And their version is not yours.

You will mourn your story alone in your own thoughts, your life enriched by its integration into yourself and yet also diminished, as though you gave too much of yourself to a place only you can ever tread.

Myers-Briggs And RPG Classes

Buckle up, because I’m about to go full nerd in this post. This will be your only warning.

I have something of a fascination with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and its variant the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. The Keirsey is my favorite between the two; I like his methodology after having read his book. My interest in typology comes not from a true scientific basis (I’ve heard it said that typology has as much scientific accuracy as a fortune cookie) but from the perspective of a writer. I spend a lot of time thinking fictional personalities and archetypes and the MBTI and KTS provide a language to facilitate such discussion.

One way this interest has manifested itself is an attempt to correlate MBTI results with character classes in roleplaying games, both tabletop and virtual. Although RPGs encourage you to create and be whoever and whatever you desire, I have found in my gaming career that most, if not all, players will trend towards a few particular archetypes. Some will play the same type of character repeatedly while others will choose from a small but interconnected pool.

There are two particular factors I’ve noticed that motivate these choices: archetype and mechanics. Archetype refers to the fantasy and storytelling aspect of a particular character: wizards are brilliant and studious, rogues are, well, roguish and devil-may-care, etc. A person may be drawn to a character because he or she enjoys the style, perhaps because it synchronizes well with one’s own internal version of the idealized self. In this example, what the character does in the game is secondary to what the character is in the fantasy context.

The second factor is the mechanical aspect. This is the inverse of the archetype aspect. A player operating from this perspective prefers characters that perform a certain roll or function within the context of the game. It might be a preference for characters with a wide variety of options, lending itself to versatility, or it might be a character that plays a vital role, such as defending more vulnerable characters. The archetype of the character is only important if it informs what the character can do. The player will choose a villainous death knight over a heroic paladin if it turns out the death knight’s abilities make it better at protecting others.

I’m planning on writing more posts about this subject, particularly after I can gather some actual research data on what characters people play and compare that to self-reported MBTI types. So far, I’ve been able to poll my weekly D&D group, which is hardly a conclusive sampling. I’m hoping that this post will lead to more information so I have something to followup with.

I also have my hypothesis on how I assume the class/type arrangement will be. It can vary by game to game, of course, and I may end up writing up arrangements for a few different popular RPGs. The archetype aspect is the easier of the two aspects to arrange in this way. I may try doing the mechanical aspect in the future.

For this chart, I’m going to go with the “default” assumptions of the class’s archetype and flavor. I’m not going by any one particular game, although if you’re talking about the fantasy genre, in some form or another, you’re talking about Dungeons & Dragons, so feel free to free to that if you need a background context although not all of the classes have a direct D&D analogue.

I’ve also included a few notes about my choices and experience in arranging the classes. Generally speaking, I believe that the Sensing preference lends itself better to the more martial archetypes, compared to the abstract focus of iNtuition which trends towards a mystical or magical aspect. This is why all the rogue and fighter types are grouped into the S temperaments while the N types are all magic users to some degree.

RPG Class/MBTI Type Comparison According to Archetype

Guardian (SJ)

  • ESTJ: Marshal
  • ISTJ: Monk
  • ESFJ: Fighter (Warrior Archetype)
  • ISFJ: Fighter (Defender Archetype)

Artisan (SP

  • ESFP: Bard
  • ISFP: Rogue (Thief Archetype)
  • ESTP: Rogue (Swashbuckler Archetype)
  • ISTP: Ranger

Idealist (NF)

  • ENFP: Paladin
  • INFP: Druid
  • ENFJ: Cleric
  • INFJ: Shaman

Rational (NT)

  • ENTP: Artificer
  • INTP: Mage
  • ENTJ: Summoner
  • INTJ: Wizard

Guardian: In the guardian temperament, all of the class choices are all variations on the same martial archetype, but this does not mean they all fill the same rolls. The Marshal is a leader that supports the other characters while the monk is characterized by inner power, discipline, and focus. I chose not to use the term barbarian, as even though it’s an iconic part of many RPGs, the word carries more of a negative connotation than I’d prefer. Characters of that type can be considered part of the “Warrior Archetype” of the Fighter. Overall, we see a group of characters that, although different in ability, are categorized by their more down-to-earth nature and their focus on protecting or supporting others, whether through leadership, defense, or combat skills.

Artisan: For the most part, I think the choices here speak for themselves. The Bard was already referred to as the Performer in Keirseys’ types. This group, like the Guardians, is more martial than mystical as a result of their S, but these characters are more individualistic than the Guardians. I thought about changing the name of the Thief to something that didn’t imply criminal larceny, but the term is fairly well situated in the fantasy genre. The only one that seems out of place is the ISTP Ranger, but Keirsey describes them as “looking for any opportunity, and just because they feel like it, to play with their various toys: cars, motorcycles, boats, dune-buggies, hunting rifles, fishing tackle, scuba gear, and on and on.”

Idealist: This is the arrangement I feel the most confident about, possibly due to my own familiarity/bias as an NF. Cleric and Paladin were placed due to their Extroversion; in my opinion, these are characters that are leaders and champions of their churches and faiths which suggests an Extrovert mentality. Shamans and druids are more isolated and removed from social structure, meditating alone on the elements and natural world respectively, which to me indicates Introversion. All four derive their power from an abstract, mystical source, a trait they share with the other N temperament.

Rational: All four of the classes here are variations of the same core archetype, that of the mage. Fortunately, the mage archetype has many different permutations which allows for a wider variety. The Artificer could also be called the alchemist; this is the character that uses magical items or enchanted equipment such as potions and the like. The difference between wizard and mage was harder to articulate, due to the imprecision of the terminology, but in this context, the INTP mage was the more reclusive sort who would be focused on the study of magic while the INTJ wizard would more resemble Gandalf, an entity who is not eager to lead but steps in during moments of crisis.

Originally, I conceived of this list as mapping specifically to World of WarCraft’s classes, however, I decided to change to a more general approach when I realized that WoW’s classes were missing a few of the important fantasy archetypes. Even with the larger, more general approach to fantasy RPGs that I took, I still missed a few popular archetypes. I wasn’t sure where to include the fighter/mage and sorcerer, for example.

One final note: in preparing this list and reading through the descriptions, while there were a few choices I felt were very strong, most ended up being more arbitrary than anything. If I were to revisit this list, I might better note the places of ambiguity: mage, for example, might be better classified as xNTP, rather than indicating a particular preference for Extroversion or Introversion.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment and let me know where I got it right or wrong. And if you are feeling so inclined, feel free to post your own MBTI type and the class or classes you prefer to play, whether in WoW or in other RPGs. It’d be great to get some hard numbers for future comparisons.

Saints Row The Third: A Friend And A Song

A few months ago, one of my friends had a “house cooling party.” We said farewell to his old place, shared drinks and food, and helped ourselves to the pile of stuff he’d laid out to give away. Amid the expected books and DVDs, there were a few Xbox games in the pile. This explains why I picked up a copy of ultra-thug GTA wannabe Saints Row the Third. It’s not something I ever would have purchased otherwise.

I’m not really a fan of Grand Theft Auto or any of its sequels. I played San Andreas for a little while specifically because censors were telling me not to, but I didn’t love the game. I enjoyed the freedom to wander around and create destruction, but games are ultimately about story and character interaction for me and GTA games don’t really seem to have that.

Regardless, I received a free copy of this Saints Row game and decided to give it a shot. After all, free game! So what happened?

It’d be difficult to say that Saints Row the Third has a good story. The story is very strange and very, very irreverent. For a game that starts out about thugs and gangsters and such, you realize somewhere between the zombie invasion and fighting tanks in midair in a tank that fell out of a plane that this game is a bit of a subversion. Usual story conventions don’t really seem to apply here. The motivation for anything in the plot seems to be “do as much cool shit as possible!”

So you have your gang of fellow thugs and criminals to accompany you; you can also design your own character, male or female. One thing I particularly liked is if you create a female character (which I did), she’s in charge of this gang of criminals and nobody says anything about it. Nobody calls your gang out for being led by a woman. It’s not weird or remarked upon. It just is. Your gang’s color is purple whether you are male or female.  It’s all surprisingly refreshing.

Anyway, there’s a scene early in the game where you and your fellow gangster Pierce are driving to a destination to complete a task. Usually, on these sorts of drives, the characters will talk about plot things. You know, something to get the story rolling. I wasn’t expecting to come across anything particularly poignant or meaningful.

Here’s a YouTube recording of the scene. The game play of crashing into cars is irrelevant to my point; the thing I want to focus on is the dialogue. Warning: NSFW language is present throughout.

What’s going on here? This isn’t plot dialogue or exposition. Pierce says, “we need some driving music,” flips on the radio, and then suddenly Pierce and my character are singing along together while they drive.

That’s powerful. Do you know why? Because suddenly I feel like Pierce is my character’s friend. They’re having this moment together. It’s not a romantic moment. It’s just a moment between friends. It’s a moment that creates a bond and it only struck me with how powerful that moment was once I realized how few games try to do this.

Listening to Pierce and my character sing, laugh, and tease one another forged a bond that was with me for the rest of the game. It informed decisions I made later on when certain choices were presented. It was a small moment, a silly moment, and yet it was one of the most powerful I’d ever experienced as a gamer. It’s so rare for games to do anything like this.

“Here is your friend,” the game tells you. “You care about this person.” Rarely does the game try to give you a reason. Rarely do you have a moment of two characters interacting in a way that friends would. But this game, with all its ridiculousness and irreverence for taking things seriously, nevertheless manages to pull off a powerful and serious bit of character building with nothing more than a bit of Sublime and two characters singing along together.

Countdown To NaNoWriMo

We’re just over a week away from November 1, which means we’re a week away from another National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is one of those things people either seem to love or hate; you either drink the kool-aid (as I have) and are a believer that it’s a great antidote for procrastination or you scoff at the idea that writing a novel is something that can be distilled down to a 30 day flurry.

I’m torn about what to do this year. I have two ideas for novels, one titled The Snake Detective about a herpetologist recruited by the police to help solve a bizarre snake-related murder. Now, murder mysteries are certainly not my forte, aside from my love of the TV show Castle, and I can safely say I’ve never written a murder mystery of any kind in my life. So while the murder mystery might be a genre as over saturated as any other, for me, it’s uncharted water. Also, I’m pretty sure very few people have written murder mysteries about herpetologists, so there’s my hook. Yes, this idea was inspired by my reaction to the rock python strangulation in August.

My second idea is one called Dreamshift. This one is more nebulous in my mind, but the basic idea is that each time you fall asleep, your mind shifts into a different world. This worlds exist concurrently, so each world you shift into moves on without you even after you wake up. The main character would then be living out fragments of his or her life in several different storylines. I’m sure this idea is already the basis for an anime somewhere, because that’s what always happens when I have a high concept idea like this. “Oh, that sounds just like Neon Galaxy Ghost Dream Warriors.”

The last idea is to try something different, which is to break one of the cardinal rules of NaNo. One of the rules is that you shouldn’t work with a story you’ve already been working on. There’s too much investment and time which can interfere with the ability to just write like crazy. There’s always the chance you’ll get bogged down. Also, you can’t use a word count from last year as a starting point, since that would be cheating.

Regardless, you’re still free to do what you want and since I’ve “won” the last few NaNo’s, it might be time for a change. My idea is to take the novel I wrote last year, Bleed, and finish it. I stopped at about 50,000 words, which wasn’t the end of the story. The goal then would be to create another 50,000 words. Bleed, Part Two, maybe. Bleed was my first venture into the cyberpunk genre; basically, a near future where everybody had their smartphone equivalents implanted directly into the brain which led to problems as the distinctions between the virtual world and the physical world began to bleed into one another. Hence the name.

I’m not going to crowd source this particular decision, of course. I’ll start working on whatever I feel the most inspired by come November 1. But some feedback would still be interesting. What do you think?

Gravity

A message posted to Twitter earlier today: “I’m thinking tonight should be a movie night. Been wanting to see Gravity. Anybody interested in joining me?”

It doesn’t seem like much, just one more social invitation in a digital world that is already overflowing with events, shares, likes, and retweets. And yet it was also something else; to me, it was the attempt to continue a small, personal tradition that had gone unbroken for as long as I can remember. That tradition was this: I never go to the movie theater alone.

I’ve gone to restaurants alone. Bars. Museums. Hikes. Motorcycle rides. So many things. I am an introvert, no matter what my ability to be both loud and gregarious may indicate otherwise. Being alone is my preference most of the time. It’s easier to think when you’re alone.

Movies, however.

There was something about going to the movies that seemed to me a requirement that it be a social event. Part of it was habit; I have a little brother, which means that until a certain age, you always go to the movies with somebody else. Later on, it was one girlfriend or another, because going to movies was what one did on dates, especially in the age before legal drinking was an option.

Even after that, there are so many movies that encourage going with friends. With a comedy, it’s practically a requirement, but even a good epic sci fi or fantasy film is better when viewed with a friend.

I think it was the social component of going to a movie that made it different than watching a DVD. After the movie, there was drinks at a nearby pub or bar. There was a discussion of the movie, assuming it had enough content worth discussing. If not, there was other discussion.

My tweet was an attempt to continue a tradition. It didn’t work. If tonight was to be a “movie night” and not a “Netflix-or-Red-Box” night, I would be breaking my little streak and going it solo.

I’m glad that I did.

Gravity is a movie about being alone. It’s a movie about the powerful inexorability of the most fundamental forces of life and how they absolutely do not give a shit about our existence. Momentum doesn’t care about us. Newton’s laws don’t care about us. You get the idea. Human desire and will doesn’t matter. In space, there is only the ironclad certainty of physics.

Unless (tiny spoiler warning) you’re clever enough to bring Chekov’s gun, or in this case, Chekov’s fire extinguisher. Then you can argue with physics a little bit.

Gravity is a beautiful movie. It may or may not be a satisfyingly feminist movie; our heroine requires rescue early on, although by the end, she’s taking care of herself. It didn’t feel particularly patriarchal to me. It felt real. Others may disagree, which is fair.

More than anything, though, Gravity is a movie about being alone. Alone in space. Alone, helpless, adrift. Sometimes life feels that way, too. Not always, but sometimes.

This is a movie to see by yourself. It’s a movie that you should think about on your way back to the car. On your drive home, without music or cell phone. It’s almost impossible to find silence in today’s world and yet silence is as much the core of Gravity’s theme as solitude and desolation are.

Gravity doesn’t lend itself well to a rousing post-theater discussion over beers at the bar. It’s a movie that needs time to think and reflect: on life, on the laws of the universe, and on being alone.

Is it worth seeing?

Yes, I believe it absolutely is, although keep in mind this endorsement is coming from a guy who loves 127 Hours and gets choked up on almost any survival story. In my opinion, however, it’s worth your time, though, and your consideration.

See it by yourself, if you can. I think it’ll be better that way. And if you feel the need to talk about it, as I do, maybe write it down. Even if it’s a blog post, writing is still the most lonely form of communication we have. For this, I think that’s fitting.

Arizona’s Favorite Beer Is Not What You Think

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I enjoy beer. It’s basically a cliche at this point; if you’re a writer, you drink (you may also smoke, although I don’t). If you looked at my desk right now, the evidence would confirm everything you suspected. It might also tell you that I desperately need to clean my desk.

I pride myself on being a bit of a beer snob. At a bar, the minimum I’ll settle for is a craft beer. I drink local and regional microbrews with a fierce passion. I can tell you that my favorite region of beer is the Pacific Northwest, although Arizona does have some excellent options and my very favorite beer in the world comes from San Diego.

If you had asked me what the most popular beers were by state, I would have described the Northwest as being into craft beers. Maybe some of the more affluent regions of the Northeast. But the Southwest? Good ol’ Arizona with its cowboy hats, Wild West-esque love of guns, and its proximity to Mexico? Bud Light, maybe. Possibly Corona, if the Mexico angle is played up enough. Certainly nothing more exotic than that, though.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I read this map of the most popular beers by state. From the article: “America has a new king of beers – and it’s Blue Moon.”

Bud Light still has a strong grip on the Midwest, which isn’t surprising. I’m still surprised to see a Belgian-style witbier like Blue Moon is popular with my home state. Blue Moon still has a reputation as a craft beer, even if that reputation is the subject of controversy and disagreement among more elite beer aficionados.

I’m really curious to find out what prompted the shift away from a staple like Bud Light. Is it the taste? Is it a sign of a cultural shift away from “good ol’ ‘merica?” Is it becoming cool to be elite again? I certainly hope so. I like to think that beers like Blue Moon are the gateway beers; gateways to appreciation of excellent microbrew and craft options.

Ahab Syndrome

Last time, I called the government shutdown a poker game, one where the Republicans were trying to bluff out the Democrats despite only holding a pair of threes. Upon retrospect, I think it was actually worse than that.

I think this budget fight was more akin to a game of Russian Roulette in which every chamber was loaded and the Republicans were the first ones to pick up the gun even though they knew every chamber was loaded and their opponents knew it too.

“I’ll do it,” they said. “I’ll go first and I’ll play and you’ll look like a wimp because I’m taking charge and doing what’s right.”

“Okay,” the Democrats said. “Go right ahead.”

And what was gained, for all this effort and all this spent political capital? You exhausted your good will with all but the most ardent of your base, surely it was for a reason? Nope. Nothing happened. Nothing was accomplished, unless you count costing the economy an estimated $24 billion dollars an accomplishment. Certainly I have never managed to spend $24 billion dollars. So, achievement unlocked! I guess.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that there is an element within the Republican Party that can be diagnosed with Ahab Syndrome. It’s not a real psychiatric disease as far as I know (monomania would be the medical term, but this is more pleasantly literary).

Obamacare is their white whale. It’s the one thing that must be stopped, must be crushed, must be killed. It is the ENEMY. Does it matter if your crew dies around you? Does it matter if your ship is crushed and sunk beneath the waves?

No. All that matters is the objective. All that matters is the end of Obamacare, even if the country burns in the process, even if it costs America its position as the world’s sole superpower.

The worst part? The very worst part? I’m worried that this isn’t going to change. I keep hoping that the Republican party will oust its far right wing element and unshackle itself from the religious right. I keep hoping for the resurgence of the Rockefeller Republican. Not that I would vote Republican even if that was the case, because I am too far to the left, but it’d be nice to work with those guys. I think we could come to compromises more easily and find some common ground.

I’m still hoping this fiasco will mobilize the moderate elements in the party (assuming there are any left) and say, okay, enough is enough, let’s get back to business. Being crazy is bad for business.

And then I read something like this and I worry that all my hopes are in vain:

For a certain block of House conservatives, the ones who drove Speaker John Boehner toward a government shutdown and near-default against his will, the lesson of the last few weeks isn’t that they overreached. Not that they made unachievable demands, put their leadership in an impossible position, damaged their party’s position with the public and left a deep uncertainty about whether the GOP conference can recover and legislate.

No, what they’re taking away from the 2013 crisis is: They didn’t go far enough.

They aren’t angry with Speaker John Boehner for ultimately capitulating to Democratic demands. They’re frustrated with their more mainstream colleagues who put him in that position.

Despite my rhetorical tendency to elaborate and exaggerate (like in the Russian Roulette example above), my general position is to assume that the person on the other side of an argument is not an idiot. Most people are rational. Most people are trying to do the best they can and want to do what they think is right. Very few people wake up in the morning and say, mwahaha, how best might I destabilize the country and run the government into the ground? The ones that do tend to explode or get gunned down by police, not elected to office.

It seems to me that a rational person would look at this situation and say, “wow, you know, we really alienated everybody here. Everybody thinks we’re crazy and extremist. We need to tone things down and win back the respect of the moderate elements.” Make no mistake, the self-reporting moderate element is the largest in the country.

I don’t know how anybody can look at this situation and say, “we didn’t lose because we went too far. We didn’t lose because we were too extreme on this issue. WE LOST BECAUSE WE WEREN’T EXTREME ENOUGH!!!!!1

I had hoped the message learned here is that dysfunction cannot be tolerated for the sake of disagreement. Disagree if you want, argue if you want, but above all else, keep the gears of the machine moving. Don’t jam a wrench into the cogs because you didn’t get your way.

Worst Ways To Die?

Thanatology is the scientific study of death. It’s also an excellent name for a metal band and it makes me wish I’d studied it in college so I could have a business card that proclaimed “Matthew Ciarvella, Thanatologist.

A rousing discussion that started about the horrors of flogging, whipping and scourging morphed into one of those “worst ways to die” discussions. It’s always fascinating to me to see how people react to such discussions, even though it generally confirms that my attitudes towards death are outside the general norm, to say the very least. It probably has something to do with the fact that I’m always wearing a black shirt.

HowStuffWorks has a list of 10 worst ways to die. Here are my own thoughts on these various untimely ends:

  • Starving: Starving seems pretty bad, especially because of how slow it is. You’re certainly going to have plenty of time to think about how miserable you are right up until the end. On the other hand, you’re not quite experiencing the sort of soul shattering agony that comes along with some of these other deaths. I also remember reading somewhere that victims sometimes experience a sense of euphoria in the final stages of starvation as the brain dies, which isn’t too bad, all things considering.
  • Adrift at Sea: Another slow death and one that’s made worse by the crushing despair of the immensity of the ocean and the cruel indifference of the natural word to your plight. You have several ways to die here although the most likely ones to me are drowning due to exhaustion, dehydration (ironically), or hypothermia. You could also be eaten by a shark, I suppose.
  • Fall into a Volcano: It certainly has more style points than more mundane kinds of burning, which is the typical answer most people give for this question. I have to imagine that this particular death would at least be quick, even if it’s very, very painful.
  • Human Sacrifice: The exact specifics of death vary on this one; you might be left to die of exposure on a mountain or have your heart cut out of your chest. This one seems much more tame to me than most of the others, if only because it’s the only death on the list that has something approaching a sense of purpose for the victim. If you were Aztec, sure, you were dying, but you were dying to keep the sun from abandoning your people. That’s something, at least.
  • Plane Crash: The horror here comes from how long you have to think about the fact that you’re going to die; usually several minutes or so. I think this one also trades more on the fear aspect most people have for flying than anything else.
  • Eaten by Animals: There are so many different ways to be eaten by animals, many of them before your dead. There are many, many horrific variations, too many to list . . . although there’s one I’ll mention later, because it combines this with another entry further down the list.
  • Crushed to Death: Sounds pretty bad, but at least it’s quick. I still wouldn’t want an elephant stepping on my head to be the last thing I ever saw or felt, though.
  • Freezing to Death: I’m surprised that this is considered worse than burning to death. I remember reading somewhere that, during the final stages of hypothermia, the brain experiences euphoria like it does during starvation. You also tend to feel very warm, even hot, again due to the oncoming brain death.
  • Torture: Such a simple word and yet it carries with it the very worst legacy humanity will leave on the world. There are so many ways to torture someone to death, and while the article mentions a really, really bad one involving a tub of shit and maggots, there are also the tortures that involve the “getting eaten by animals” part. A popular medieval technique: take a basket, sew it onto a victim’s neck, and then drop a few starving rats in the top of the basket. Leave them alone for a few days. Yeah.
  • Embarrassment: Certainly, dying from embarrassment (or fright or whatever) would certainly be, well, embarrassing, but is it really worse than having your head gnawed on by starving rats? I’m not certain.

There are a few things I’m surprised didn’t make the list: getting buried alive certainly deserves a place on here. But for my money, the very worst-sounding death I’ve ever had the misfortune to read comes from another article on the same subject:

A physician we interviewed recounts the story of a laborer in Africa who worked around vats of sulfuric acid — one of the most caustic forms of acid. The man fell in one day. He quickly leapt out, but was covered in sulfuric acid, which immediately began to burn him chemically. In a panic and excruciating pain, the man ran outside. By the time his coworkers caught up to him, the man had essentially dissolved.

The acid burned the man to death, searing through skin, cauterizing blood vessels, and eating through organs until he died. The pain would be unbearable, and the circumstances irreversible. This is unquestionably a really bad way to die.

Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call that one “the absolute worst way to die.” It takes all the worst aspects of burning to death and then cranks that shit up to 11.