Review:The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of FirearmsThe Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms by Iain Overton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poignant, thoughtful, and surprisingly balanced, which isn’t something you see very often with a topic as divisive as guns. Author Iain Overton travels around the world to understand the gun from the many, many different people whose lives it has affected: victims, killers, traders, creators, hunters, enthusiasts, and doctors. He doesn’t hold anything back; if the best way to understand hunting is to be a hunter, he goes out and does that. His expression of remorse and regret after killing an animal on a hunting trip in Africa was particularly emotional and heartfelt.

This is a book I would absolutely recommend to people who want to dive into the discussion about firearms and their place in the world. Overton doesn’t hold back on any aspect; he acknowledges that guns are power incarnate and that shooting them can feel very, very fun. He acknowledges that they can be collected and can be valuable and historical. But he also faces what they do to people, what they do to bodies and lives. And the result of his experiences are a decidedly less sanguine feeling about them as a whole, even as he understands them.

Unfortunately, Overton’s experiences tell us that guns aren’t going away. Not soon, maybe not ever (or if they do, it’s only because something more powerful replaced them). Nevertheless, understanding them can help come to terms with their role in shaping our world and for that reason alone, this is a book I think you should read.

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Azeroth Choppers Review

You might have noticed that I spend a lot of posts talking about motorcycles. I also spend a lot of posts talking about video games. Thus, it seems natural that I’d have an opinion on Azeroth Choppers, the web series that follows (some of) the Orange County Choppers crew as they make two bikes themed for World of WarCraft.

You’re right, I do have an opinion. Buckle up (or put your helmet on, since motorcycles don’t have seatbelts) and get ready, because I’m going full-bore nerd here.

So here’s the basic idea for the uninitiated who don’t play WarCraft. The (former) Orange County Chopper guys build a bike matching the theme for the two different player factions, the Alliance and the Horde.

If you ever watched Orange County Choppers when it was on the air, this was their whole schtick. A client would request a custom chopper to promote .  . . whatever and the crew would spend the entire episode designing it and building it and then finally showing it off to the client.

The early seasons were very much in the same vein as all the other “look at this cool job” reality shows. And to be honest, it really was cool seeing how custom motorcycle design works.

But along the way, the Reality Show Curse took hold, possibly because aside from the different designs, once you’ve seen how their build a bike a few times, the formula stays pretty much the same. So they decided to focus on the drama of bike building, which meant lots of arguing, lots of squabbling, etc. You can probably guess what point I stopped watching.

So now the makers of WarCraft decide they want custom bikes. And they want their players to vote for one of the bikes to be turned into an in-game item and given to players of that faction for free.

So when it’s all said and done, one half of the player base will get a free motorcycle in the video game that’s based on the real motorcycle that was built.

This is an incredibly terrible idea.

More specifically, it’s an incredibly terrible idea because of Blizzard’s own decisions about the value of digital content.

Collecting “mounts” is a big aspect of World of WarCraft. Mounts are exactly what the name implies: they are things that you can ride so you move through the game world. In the early days of the game, mounts were limited to things like horses, wolves, tigers, and other things that could increase your travel speed on the ground. Eventually, more fantastic mounts like dragons and phoenices were added so that players could fly through the skies.

They even added a motorcycle at one point.

The reason why mounts are a big deal is that they’re some of the game’s biggest status items. They’re the most coveted. Armor and weapons are cool and improve your character’s power, but those things don’t persist in value. You replace them constantly. Today’s legendary sword is tomorrow’s useless trash.

But mounts are pure vanity. Technically, your first ground mount and your first flying mount are the only two mounts you’ll ever need. There’s no real difference between flying around on a winged eagle-lion or a dragon, except that a dragon is amazingly cool looking. So everyone wants one.

Mounts are usually hard to get, rare items that require extraordinary luck, time, or both. And then Blizzard decided to starting selling them.

The ability to buy a mount debuted relatively late in WoW’s lifespan, during the Wrath expansion. Prior to that, the only way to get a mount was to play the game and earn it.

The first “for sale” mount was the celestial steed, often denigrated as “the sparkle pony.” For $25, you could equip your characters with a sort of glowing translucent blue version of an astral horse. The horse could also fly.

Keep in mind that this horse doesn’t fly faster or anything. It’s just like every other flying mount, including the other flying horses already in the game. You’re not getting a material advantage by buying the sparkle pony. It’s purely a vanity item, just like every other mount.

They’ve added more mounts since then, including a vampire bat, a dragon that changes colors (which I did buy, to my shame, because I’m a sucker for dragons) and most recently a two-headed dragon-ish thing (that I didn’t buy because of the incredible buyer’s remorse I had over the first dragon). All of these mounts are functionally just new models. New things to look at.

On their own, they don’t cause any harm, except for the buyer’s remorse factor that I felt. They don’t hurt the game. Ignore them if you don’t want one. They’re optional.

Here’s why this Azeroth Choppers thing is a stupid idea.

Throughout the entire course of the game, the developers have created the idea that mounts have value. Mounts have value. Initially, that value was represented by playing time and dedication. You had to run the toughest encounters, kill the toughest monsters, or get incredibly lucky to even have a chance at one of these.

Or you had to invest lots of time getting in-game money to buy one. It all worked to create the perception of value. More rare mounts were perceived as more valuable, simply because of that rarity.

The ability to spend actual money to buy a mount further reinforced this perception that mounts have value, especially because now they literally have value. $25 dollars per mount. If you’re an OCD mount collector, get ready to spend over a hundred bucks . . . you know, in addition to playing the subscription fee and all.

Mounts have value. They have value in terms of time, luck and/or actual money. This is the system that has been in place since the game first launched in 2004 (although I think mounts weren’t actually added to the game until 2005, it’s hard to remember. Doesn’t matter, they’ve been around for a long time).

And now we get to the heart of why Azeroth Choppers fails at its objective.

The idea was that although two motorcycles would be created, only one would be added to the game. That motorcycle would only be available to characters of that particular faction.

For the players of the other faction, they’ll get zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Sure, they could create a character on the other faction if they really want a free motorcycle so badly, but let’s be realistic. Most players have a group of players that they’re invested in. Playing both sides isn’t very common. You have your favorite character, you “main” character. And that character may not be on the side that gets a free motorcycle.

So half the players get something and the other half get nothing.

What does that accomplish, exactly? The players on the losing side feel shafted. They feel shafted specifically because the entire concept of the mount is built around the socially engineered concept that mounts are valuable. Mounts are $25 dollars.

So you, winning player, here’s a free $25 dollar thing. Enjoy. But you, losing player? You get nothing. Have fun.

This is a terrible fucking strategy. It would have been less shitty if mounts weren’t constructed around this idea of value, but they are. If the winning motorcycle had been made available to both sides, it would be less shitty, because then everyone gets something equally. Sure, the losing faction doesn’t get “their” motorcycle but they’re still getting $25 worth of value.

Most reactions seem to be that there’s no way Blizzard will enforce the competition aspect of this whole stunt. I’ve read a lot of opinions that suggest the winning motorcycle will be free to that faction and the losing one will be available in the real-money store, presumably for $25.

If anything, that idea is even stupider, a tax on the players who aren’t on the winning side. Not to mention; how many people really want to spend $25 on something that says, hey, remember that your side lost. This whole competition idea completely damages the perception of value for the item that they themselves spent money to build!

This entire thing was supposed to be a publicity stunt, which it was. Presumably, it was supposed to generate good publicity . . . which it didn’t. The concept was flawed from inception. If they really intend not to give everyone a bike, their own model of perceived value bites them in the ass.

If they change their minds and say, sure, bikes for everyone now, why the hell didn’t they just do the entire promotion like that from the beginning? The entire spectacle is based around the idea that “one bike goes into the game” and “the losers get nothing.”

Yes, the game is built around conflict. But now that you’ve taken that perception and turned it into something tangible, it’s no longer fun. Now it just feels mean-spirited. It doesn’t matter that Blizzard didn’t choose the winner, the players did. For players of the losing faction, they get to be exactly that. You guys are the losers. Enjoy playing your game, losers. Have fun being losers.

That’s . . .  not really a great feeling to instill in half your customer base.

On one final note: it really annoys me to hear everyone referring to the three-wheeled motorcycle as a “bike.” A three-wheeled motorcycle is not a bike. It’s a trike.

This annoys me both as a rider and as a fan of the English language.

Simulations

Thinking about whether the world might actually be a computer simulation isn’t anything new. We all went through that particular existential crisis after we saw the first Matrix. I have a secret hypothesis that this is why the second and third Matrix films were so lackluster; it was an effort to get everybody to stop thinking about whether or not we’re actually all just brains hooked up to a computer.

To be fair, this is something we’ve been wondering about probably as long as we’ve had the ability to wonder about much of anything. Plato wondered about it. Anybody who has vivid dreams wonders about it. It’s ingrained in the human condition.

Interestingly, there is real scientific research that’s being done on this stuff. I’m not sure if it’s possible to prove a simulation hypothesis, but we certainly have a lot of reasons to infer one, just by the fact that we’re getting better and better at creating simulations ourselves. Considering the fact that consciousness is one of those things we don’t really understand, is it possible that consciousness will arise out of a computer game character? I certainly think it’s possible, albeit unlikely for a long while. But some day? Certainly.

What if we do end up proving that reality is a simulation in a computer?

I’m trying to imagine how that makes me feel. On the one hand, it doesn’t really change anything: all my experiences are going to be the same. Reality as I know it is already so many electrical impulses being transferred between the neurons in my brain. The revelation of a simulation would just mean I wasn’t interacting with those electrical signals in quite the same fashion.

On the one hand, it might even be encouraging to realize that our world is a simulation. Simulations, after all, are built for a reason and while fiction likes to say this reason is to enslave its occupants, that seems like a very expensive way to do what chains and metal bars do already. It seems more likely to me that the reason for the simulation’s existence would be benevolent or at least indifferent to us; certainly not malevolent.

Would that be an improvement, to find out that there really is a power and intelligence behind the reality that we perceive?

There are other benefits to a simulated world. It might mean never having to experience the heat death of the universe and the realization that everything in reality is doomed. It might be a strong reason to believe our consciousness goes somewhere after death.

On the other hand, to find out that everything, absolutely everything, was a simulation would remove a lot of the mystery and wonder out there. Certainly, we’d be able to wonder about the simulation itself, who built it and why, but we’d no longer be drawn to the most distant stars and dream of being the first ones to visit them. The world would become a much smaller place.

There’d probably also be a lot of suicides if it turns out we’re all in a computer simulation. Maybe. I’m not really sure; one thing I try to never underestimate is the resilience of the human spirit.

It’s something that is very interesting to think about, whether or not this is ever proven to be true.

An Idealistic Thought For The Day

I know I linked to him in yesterday’s post about Romanticism, but I think David Brin really did have a point about the state of the world (beyond just the scope of Romanticism and the fantasy genre) and I wanted to highlight it in light of some other recent news.

From David Brin’s blog:

“. . . anyone who thinks we’ve gotten worse in our brutal savagery is simply a historical ignoramus.  I mean an ignoramus of historical proportions, who knows nothing of what the Assyrians did to the lost ten tribes of Israel, or the Romans to Judea, or the Mongols to Poland, or the Spanish to every native population they encountered. Or the Polynesians to each other, every year. Do you doubt that I could go on with this list? All day and all week? Can you cite counter-examples? Sure, but not many.

By comparison, . . . the per capita rate of violence on planet Earth has plummeted every single decade.

Don’t believe it? Watch this: Stephen Pinker on the Myth of Violence. Then ponder the most marvelous irony: that you think modernity is more violent and cruel only because modernity has succeeded in raising our standards of decent behavior, making us more self-critical about the travesties that remain.  Crimes that are so much milder than our ancestors committed routinely, without a twinge.”

It’s a good point to keep in mind. I know I fall victim to feeling like things are getting worse. It seems like every other day, some asshole from Tucson is making us all look bad. Or people are getting shot. Or blown up. Or blown up due to negligence. Anyway, it just feels like things are getting worse, even though, as Brin argues, the inverse is actually true.

That despair we’re feeling at the state of the world? That’s not the world descending into hell, that’s us getting more sensitive to the horrors that need our silent consent to continue unopposed. A generation ago, fuckwads like Tucson’s own Dean Saxton couldn’t be publicly shamed for his idiocy. Sure, that means he has a larger audience now and his message will reach more minds. It also means that more people will have an opportunity to say, “fuck you and fuck your ideas.” Contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as bad publicity. The parts of you that exist on the Internet are eternal. These things have a way of sticking around. Maybe Saxton’s name will come up when he’s applying for a job and his fifteen minutes of fame will cost him. Or maybe this will be the greatest aspect of his legacy and this is how history will remember him, as a hateful misogynist swept aside by the changing times.

Silence and ignorance are the sanctuaries that breed cruelty the most effectively. Sure, it doesn’t make a big difference, calling out one asshole to a small audience on a wordpress blog (even if I did pay for my domain so you know that I’m hella serious). The effective change in the world won’t be felt today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. I haven’t made the world any better by writing this post. Nobody saves the world by tweeting about it.

But if you get enough small changes? Over a long enough period?

Then you have enough change to erode mountains. Enough small changes together can move continents.

That’s what our technology is doing for us. It’s making us better by helping us to demand that the world be better. And in the mind of a better person, an injustice that was once ignorable is now intolerable. The world seems more intolerable today than it did yesterday because today we’re less willing to tolerate today what yesterday we could comfortably ignore.