Wednesday, August 11, 2010


So One Manga is down. The online reader has been disabled. The site’s still there, still has plenty of features, but no one’s going to be reading any manga there for the foreseeable future. Of course, this happened over a week ago, but I didn’t have Internet access for most of the last week, so it was kinda hard to comment.

Honestly, I don’t expect my life to change much. I mean, I didn’t use One Manga. And it’s not like every manga reading site is down; Manga Fox is still functioning, last I checked. But the only thing I read there is Magical Record Lyrical Nanoha Force, and I’ll be in Japan soon enough buying the actual manga myself. So yeah.

I’ll be honest: it’s hard for me to muster up any regret over this one. Or should I say, it’s a little bit difficult to repress my sense of “had it coming”. Let’s be honest with ourselves: what One Manga was doing was, in all probability, illegal. And the only thing stopping me from saying that’s beyond any doubt is because I am not familiar with the relevant laws in the necessary detail. But I would be very surprised if it was permissible, under either Japanese or American copyright laws, to read things like Naruto and One Piece without legally paying for them.

Really, though, the legalities don’t matter as much as you’d think. Certainly, they didn’t stop uncountable masses of manga fans from using sites like One Manga. And I am perfectly fine with that. I’ve read manga online myself; I did so just before writing this. (Caught up on the aforementioned Nanoha manga.) I do not care what decisions people make in situations where those decisions do not affect me.

What I do have a problem with are people that, willfully or not, delude themselves as to the nature of those decisions. Most people don’t think about it, I’d bet. Certainly I don’t spend every minute of reading Nanoha thinking “wow, this is illegal and I shouldn’t be doing it.” But neither do I tell myself “it would be an injustice if I couldn’t do this.” I have made my decision, and I will not lie to myself about the nature of that decision.

And I think it’s almost more important to recognize that every decision carries its consequences. Even the decisions that can be recognized as “justified”, whatever that means. And sometimes those consequences deserve to be questioned or challenged. But they can never be avoided or tossed aside.

To use a somewhat extreme example, if someone chooses to kill another over a minor disagreement, in some places they can be killed by the government in return. Some people question whether the death penalty is in fact justified or not... but for the moment, it continues to exist. And anyone who chooses to commit the crime of murder, in a place where the death penalty exists, should be prepared for the relevant consequences, including the death penalty.

Of course, I seriously doubt that most criminals actually have considered that factor beforehand. But the point remains. I do not care what decisions people make... but I can have little respect for people that make those decisions without being willing to accept the attendant consequences of their actions.

The people that set up and run One Manga made a conscious choice to do so. They made that choice with full knowledge, or at least full access to knowledge, of the relevant laws and controls governing the use of material like the manga that they posted to the Internet. And now, the consequences of that choice have taken effect. Frankly, if I were one of them, I’d be glad that they were no more severe than “cease and desist.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In Control

So many people aren’t. It’s apparent anywhere on the Internet. Any half-decent comment thread, on any subject at all, descends into ridiculous chaos if it’s not moderated. Which really just goes to show that no one’s reading these posts here on my blog, because no one’s insulting me about them. Either that, or everyone who reads my opinions agrees with them, and I know better than to hope for that.

Why is it that people on the Internet seem to have no self-control in randomly insulting people for their honest opinions? Well, the most obvious answer is that people in general have issues with impulse control. I remember one memorable incident: I was waiting for the next train at a Boston commuter rail station, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the symbol of Brandeis University. Apparently, that T-shirt inspired someone to come up and tell me that they seriously disapproved of the university.

Open such a declaration of affiliation or opinion to the entire world, as one necessarily does when they post something to the Internet by any means, and the entire world full of people gets to find something to disagree with. No surprise, perhaps, that the kind of flaming or trolling behavior that practically characterizes many forums/comment threads is as common as it is.

Blizzard Entertainment, the company responsible for the ridiculously popular World of Warcraft and the highly-anticipated StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, have apparently decided that they want to do something about it. How are they going to do that? By making everyone accountable for the things that they say on the forums: forcing everyone to use their real names, through the RealID system, on the World of Warcraft and StarCraft II forums.

... I don’t quite know how to respond to that. I first learned about it from this post on the Shakesville blog, a blog I had started reading probably less than 12 hours ago by sheer random chance. Coming from the perspective that it does, the opinion there is openly hostile; by making people use their real names, it opens the door to stalking and similar privacy violations. I have to say, I see the point there. There is a reason why my full name isn’t displayed anywhere on this blog, after all.

Of course, however, there is a “but”. But what about accountability? Couldn’t I say whatever I like in this space, without any fear of retribution? As it stands, someone randomly wandering the Internet that came across this blog wouldn’t have much of an idea who I am. Which may not matter when I’m just randomly yapping about how I like StarCraft II, but if I was encouraging people to actually do something, I think it would matter a little bit more.

As the Internet is now, there is no accountability. And I think there’s something lost as a result. On the 24th of June, the Supreme Court of the U.S. decided the case of Doe v. Reed (link to Supreme Court website), a case in which the Court ruled that the names and addresses of people that sign referendums can be made public. The people that brought the case in the first place argued that they were being harassed as a result of the release of information about themselves, and tried to get the Court to block the public release of the referendum so as to prevent this harassment.

The Court refused. Eight to one, they held that in a broad sense, the disclosure of such information does not violate any First Amendment rights of the plaintiff. (They acknowledged that this specific release may be blocked on narrower grounds; that issue is still pending.) And for me, the most direct and convincing argument came from Justice Scalia. Which was somewhat of a shock for me considering that I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with him in the past.

As quoted by the Washington Post article on the case:

“There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance,” Scalia wrote in a separate concurrence. “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

Now, I admit I’m an idealist. I admit I am from the height of privilege, an upper-middle-class white male. And I admit I’ve never had anyone stalking me before. I can’t change who I am or what I’ve experienced. But I can’t disagree with Scalia here. If you wouldn’t be willing to publicly admit to your beliefs and opinions, why do you even hold them in the first place?

Internet trolling still functions because it’s anonymous. If I post an anonymous comment to a blog saying “you’re an idiot” no one will ever know that I posted it, and so I will never see any consequences for my action. I can hold and express that opinion without any recrimination from society.

Now, with what Blizzard plans to do with their forums, that won’t work anymore. Now, if someone wants to inform someone else on their forums that they think they’re an idiot, the troll will have to stand by that opinion publicly. If someone wants to repeatedly annoy someone else on the Blizzard forums, it’ll be plainly obvious who is doing it. If someone wants to ignore the consequences of those actions, including possible legal recourse... well, that won’t be possible anymore.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Moral Differences

Anehara Misa is kind of a hypocrite.

She’s one of the main characters in an anime called Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou, and a hacker of nearly matchless ability. You see, the “gendai mahou”, or “modern magic”, of the title is of course computer code-based. How people can “compile” code that manages to do anything from creating swords out of thin air to attracting cats is never explained, unfortunately.

Anyway, near the end of the series Misa either falls into a pathetically obvious trap by the main villain or intentionally triggers it to gain an advantage, I’m still not sure which. In the ensuing confrontation, when Misa reminds the villain that “Stealing is a crime, you know”, he all but laughs in her face, saying “I never thought I’d hear those words coming from you.”

After all, the hackers of fiction are never the “white hat” gainfully employed hackers that are hired by companies to test their computer security. It’s probably overly cruel to tag Misa as a “black hat” style hacker, but considering she did create a botnet out of millions of computers (also, the anime doesn’t exactly realistically depict hacking, either) for her own personal benefit at least once, it just might be justified.

This is when Misa tries to argue that there’s a world of difference between grey and black. To some extent, I suppose she has a point, considering her stated goal is to ensure that malicious computer code doesn’t end up doing damage to society. But I really don’t think that the question here is a difference of kind. Only one of scale.

To be fair, most of Misa’s questionable decisions were made when the other obvious choice can best be summarized as “Tokyo destroyed”. But to the villain, that amount of harm was an acceptable sacrifice to force the world as a whole to recognize the existence of modern magic. Theoretically, that would vastly increase that magic’s prevalence among the people as a whole, giving them the weapons and abilities to vastly improve humankind.

... Personally, I think that justification is utterly ridiculous. But perhaps in the long term, had the villain succeeded, it would have ended up being “worth it” in the end by a purely utilitarian calculus. Certainly, the villain believed that to be the case.

I have very little respect for someone who would so casually write off a city of 35 million people as “acceptable casualties”, but the fact remains that he isn’t doing that for his own personal amusement, or even some clearly defined personal gain. I’m sure Misa felt better about herself to accuse him of “black” morality, but she too was willing to sacrifice lives for what she felt was best, in the end.

So the moral difference isn’t really a major one after all. Both could agree that sometimes, the best result will require the unwilling sacrifice of innocent others. They may disagree on how many lives (one, or millions) can be toyed with, but is that really enough of a difference?

The accusations over such minor differences illustrate just how easy it is to assume superiority. Too easy, in fact, considering people can try to assume superiority (as Misa did) when they might not actually have it. She only missed one thing: you can’t claim the moral high ground unless you actually have it. If you don’t, all you accomplish is making yourself look even worse in the end.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Different Realities

Conventional wisdom holds that this concept of “reality” is a monolithic, unchanging constant: reality for me is no different than reality for anyone else, and the only time the concept of an overarching reality comes up is when it is differentiated from those things that are clearly not real. Such as, you know, video games. Say what you will about the realistic graphics or the actual scientific concepts shown, but it won’t change the obvious fact that Halo is not “reality”.

I have to wonder if that’s actually the case, though. And no, I don’t mean the bit about Halo. But I do have to think that this concept of reality as presented there may not be the way the world actually works.

I’m not going to go so far as to say there are physical alternate realities... but then, there are people that would. After all, what is the Christian afterlife, but two alternate realities separate from the world most of us are familiar with? Advancements in scientific research and exploration have all but proven that a heaven or a hell do not exist in any place we could physically travel to.

Perhaps I stole that from Dungeons and Dragons. I still remember the many different world systems of the D&D campaign settings. The Prime Material Plane was the “real” world as we would call it, and then there were multitudes of other planes, heaven and hell in all the colors of D&D’s oft-maligned alignment system. There were even rules for finding other Material Planes; that paragraph set me to imagining that maybe we were one of those Material Planes, and that the world of Faerûn could actually be found one day.

... Maybe that doesn’t count though. After all, if they do exist, then they would be part of this thing we call “reality”, wouldn’t they? The fact that someone believes they might exist doesn’t make his/her reality different from mine, it just means we have different sets of beliefs. And if those beliefs conflict in an irreconcilable fashion, then in “reality”, one of us has to be wrong. Right?

Well, for one, seeing the world in that fashion is a good way not to make friends. It really matters very little what you believe exists after death: whether a cycle of reincarnation followed eventually by absolutely nothing, or an eternal reward in a paradisiacal realm of God, we can’t know for sure until we die, and perhaps not even then. Trying to “prove” that one is “right” does nothing beyond annoying people, most of the time.

While the debate wasn’t over something as difficult as life after death, perhaps the recently-aired anime Strike Witches can illustrate what I mean. Near the end of the season, the main character was confronted with an enemy that was acting... strangely. And by that, I mean the enemy flyer wasn’t shooting at Yoshika, which was a change from the norm.

I’ll get into what exactly happened a little later. For the moment, the important detail is this: Yoshika became convinced that the enemy could, perhaps, be reasoned with. And over the next episode, she spent her time trying to convince her fellow Strike Witches that maybe they didn’t have to fight them. Unsurprisingly, her squadron mates... disagreed. Angrily, most of the time. All Yoshika really accomplished by pushing her case was pissing off her friends, to be honest. So perhaps it’s better to let different realities coexist.

There’s only one problem. That is very much a different example than the theological disputes I presented earlier. It absolutely matters whether or not an enemy can be reasoned with, because being able to end a war peacefully means not having more people die. So doesn’t it matter which of those differing realities is an accurate picture of the true “reality”?

Actually... maybe not. What actually happened: Yoshika tried to fire on the enemy, found that her safety was on. While she was turning her safety off, the enemy turned into a replica of a Witch and began flying in circles around Yoshika, who chased the enemy “Witch” without trying to fire on it. The enemy revealed its weak point to Yoshika, and Yoshika was about to touch it before the rest of the squadron arrived.

And that’s it. Yoshika was convinced that the enemy was playing with her, not trying to fight. The rest of the Strike Witches were convinced that it was a trap. How do two wildly different pictures of the same events come about?

To put it simply, we all view reality a little bit differently to begin with. There is no such thing as “reality” that is the same for two people; starting with their observations and carrying on through their analyses of those observations, “reality” is colored by those biases and perceptions that we all inevitably carry.

Yoshika didn’t really want to fight in the first place. Sure, she joined the Strike Witches when she learned of her father’s work and felt she had to help protect people, but her first memories of war was the loss of her dad to that war. Many of the other Strike Witches, on the other hand, have personally observed the devastation wrought by the enemy and aren’t inclined to settle for anything less than the eradication of the enemy.

And this isn’t just limited to anime. In the Washington Post today, June 3, 2010, there are letters responding to the recent events in Israel, off the Gaza Strip. A letter arguing that the people of the flotilla that was attacked knew what they were getting into and were attempting to provoke violence is printed right above a letter presenting the flotilla as a peaceful, multinational aid group.

... Different realities. In the real world, it’s all too easy to see what you want to see, painting a picture of reality that supports your biases. I won’t even argue that we should try to avoid that: it’s impossible. All we can do is acknowledge it: “reality” does not exist. I can present what is to me the clear and unvarnished Truth, and someone else can still logically and in good faith disagree with it. Perhaps, then, we need to do less presenting of Truths and more acknowledgement that different realities can exist, even in our world.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Angel's Lament

So there's a new anime airing in Japan at the moment, called Angel Beats! (Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.) It's being produced by Key/Visual Arts, which is a company known for producing some damn good stories in the past. And by that, I mean the computer game Kanon. That game is one of the most well-known visual novels ever, and the story is nothing short of amazing.

With that to recommend it, it didn't take much convincing to get me to watch Angel Beats. (No, I am not going to put in the exclamation point every time.) In keeping with Key's typical mode of operation, the story varies between "depressing" and "really freaking sad" with a few glimpses of hope thrown in occasionally. It's surprisingly effective at getting one to care for the characters of the story, as both Kanon and Angel Beats demonstrate quite readily.

But I'm not really sure who exactly I'm supposed to be finding sympathetic. I guess the two obvious main characters from the beginning have been Yuri and Otonashi... but the third main character (or, possibly, antagonist - certainly she appeared to be that at first) has inevitably drawn a great deal of my attention. That third character? Tachibana Kanade, all too often called Tenshi. Those familiar with Japanese will know that "tenshi" in Japanese (天使, if anyone was curious) means "angel".

I would give a large deal of money to know how and when she got that nickname. To be fair, the anime is set in the afterlife. More likely some section of it, for the people that have had really, really crappy lives. And I mean that. Every backstory we've heard (Yuri, Otonashi, Ayato Naoi, Iwasawa, Hinata) has been damn near hellish. This is the driving force behind Yuri and her Battlefront: her goal is to go find God and have a word with Him. And somehow, I doubt that word will be "thanks"; considering that Yuri owns a number of weapons, it may not even be a word at all.

And that brings us to Tachibana Kanade, aka Tenshi. At first, she was the student council president of this fine part of the afterlife. (Did I mention that this section of the afterlife was a Japanese high school? No? Well, now I have.) Tenshi was thus charged with keeping order in the school. And she could: she's a short little white-haired emotionless girl that doesn't look like she could be a physical threat to anyone, until she says "Guard Skill: Hand Sonic" and summons a freaking armblade from thin air. And uses it to deflect bullets.

So that's why she's an angel! Except... no, actually. She developed those abilities herself, in what was implied to be a similar manner to the way that Yuri, Otonashi, and the rest of the Battlefront get their weapons. Oops. She's just Tachibana Kanade, another of the girls at this school in the afterlife, trying to maintain order as best she can, not because she has to, but because she wants to.

Not that Yuri cares. This "Tenshi", a nickname that the Battlefront themselves tagged her with, has been the target of their operations merely because she could be the link to God that Yuri's searching for. She's going after Kanade because Kanade is one of God's angels... except she started calling her that in the first place. Who's supposed to be the villain here?

What I'm trying to say here is this: when one is deciding on a course of actions, isn’t it a good idea to actually think about it a little first? Tachibana Kanade shouldn’t have had to develop an ability that gave her armblades to keep order in a school. She shouldn’t have ever had to use something like that to keep students under control. And yet, the Battlefront goes even more heavily armed as a matter of habit. Their target was a lone girl who was just trying to do what she felt was right.

Maybe I’m just biased. I’ve been teased before. I spent a large part of my middle school years as a target, or so I imagined. Never quite to the “friendless” extreme that anime characters like Kanade end up representing, but it felt that way sometimes. My personal experience aside, it just seems wrong to intentionally go after someone, either with words or weapons, unless one is damn sure of what they’re doing.

You don’t have to have a reason for everything you do. I blog because I like to express myself, or try to. (My update schedule does suggest that I don’t worry about expressing myself that often.) And for all that I argue that video games or anime can be educational, I enjoy them because they’re fun. I’ve never tried to claim that the benefits are anything more than side effects of what is primarily supposed to be entertainment. But if you’re going to do something more, something that affects other people... for anything from making jokes at their expense to shooting at them, don’t you need a better reason than just “it’s fun”?