I’m back to playing World of Warcraft. I picked it up back in March starting with the Covid lockdown. (I’m far from the only one!) Partly for something to do, partly to play with a family member. It’s been great!

I quit playing WoW in 2009. Coming back the main feeling is it’s very much the same game. Compelling mix of basic MMO RPG power growth, lots of fun side activities, social raiding, PvP. It’s all there and all just about the same. It’s a credit to Blizzard that they’ve kept the game more or less on an even keel all along and it’s comforting and familiar.

The big improvement is the game is way more casual-friendly. In the old days you’d level up to max level and then all that was really available to you was raiding, big serious events with 25 or 40 people. You really had to be in a raiding guild. Over time they added more activities; PvP seasons, reputation grinds, etc. But the real game (and real gear) required raiding.

2020 WoW has all sorts of progression paths. Raiding is still there, but a heavy emphasis on social tools means PUGs (pick up groups) are more viable. There’s even an automated "Looking for Raid" tool that will let you see a simplified version of the raid content very easily. There’s a path for 5 person dungeons in the Mythic dungeons, with ever-increasing difficulty levels. There’s even a solo progression in the Visions of N’Zoth. PvP also has significant progression and gear attached to it. All of which means they’ve made the high end content way more accessible to everyone. It’s a great change. (And lest you miss the old hard stuff, Mythic Raids still basically require a guild and serious dedication.)

Some things haven’t improved. Crafting is still dumb and mostly pointless. A lot of the top end gameplay is grindy, do the same thing every day for 3 weeks to increment a progress bar. The graphics are incredibly dated; partly to keep system requirements low, but also because they don’t want to re-do all the old graphics for modern systems and it’d look weird to have a mix. Which is a shame; the dress-up doll game in WoW suffers significantly compared to FFXIV.

The hidden strength of WoW in 2020 is all the depth of content. They’ve got 16 years of content in the theme park now and it’s almost all accessible. You can still go back and do Molten Core if you want. It won’t be a gameplay challenge, but it’s still fun to see and there’s rewards like rare mounts to encourage you. I’ve really enjoyed exploring all the content I missed in the intervening years, including some really great systems like the Garrison. (Why did they abandon that?!) There’s no other MMO that can boast this much content and it’s great fun to discover some old neat toy to surprise your friends with.

And that’s the other reason WoW is still compelling; friends and guildies. The cooperative social aspect of MMOs is nearly unique in online gaming and Blizzard has done a good job reinforcing it. My new guild isn’t the most hardcore or accomplished but we have some strong players, it’s mostly nice people, and we have a code of conduct that keeps the jerks out. I continue to be concerned about the shallowness of online game friendships just like when I quit in the first place, but it’s a fun way to wile away a few hours.

  2020-08-31 17:02 Z

I’ve been greatly enjoying gay country & western musician Orville Peck’s new cover of the song Fancy. No video yet, but give it a listen, maybe before or while you read this post.

Fancy was written and first performed by Bobbie Gentry in 1969. But the song is best known as the Reba McEntire 1991 cover. Both performances are pretty similar, upbeat and with doowop backup singers. It’s a great song, but it feels a bit dated and strange.

Peck’s album version is quite different. He plays it spare and tragic. The song comes off a lot more dark and sad this way and to me, more meaningful. Worth noting this variant is unique to the EP; Peck’s live versions from last year I can find online (1, 2, 3) are more upbeat and read a lot like the Reba version.

But the real change Peck makes is in a single lyric.

Staring back from the looking glass
There stood a woman where a half grown boy had stood

The original lyric is "half grown kid"; it’s remarkable Peck chose to bend it to gender-specific. It instantly recasts the whole song as a transgender tragedy. Which then gives so many of the other lyrics more powerful meaning. "To thine own self be true", "Said I was gonna be a lady someday though I don’t know when or how". "I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life with my head hung down in shame." It even gives the unlikely name "Fancy" a new entrendre as a chosen name, maybe a drag name.

A gay man singing a woman’s song in a baritone is always going to queer it up a little bit. But as the Esquire article notes Sam Hunt covered the song last year and it just sounded like a man singing a woman’s song, nothing too unusual. I give Peck’s LGBT stage persona plus his smart choice of changing that single word to infuse the song with something new. I sure hope he does a video for it; both Gentry and McEntire have elaborate story-telling videos for the song and I'd like to see him take a swing at that.

Peck’s still out on the fringes of country and western but happily C&W is pretty broad and welcoming. His big breakthrough might yet be Legends Never Die, his new duet with Shania Twain. The song’s not particularly queer but it’s great and must sound terrific on the radio. The video is fantastic and pretty gay.

Here's your one chance Fancy, don't let me down
Here's your one chance Fancy, don't let me down
  2020-08-21 16:48 Z

Democrats can win a whole lot of seats in Congress this year, quite possibly even taking control of the Senate. There are 15 Senatorial elections that are not solid locks; of those, 13 are currently held by Republicans. And there’s some 64 close House races.

I just made 25 donations to campaigns for the Senate and the House. I hate the idea of paying in to American campaign financing and it’s a lot of work figuring out who to donate to. But making donations like this in 2018 made me feel like an active participant in the political process. It’s like buying tickets for your hometown baseball team, then keeping track of how your team does. It’s engagement. So I’m back again this year.

My main criterion is "support the Democrat in close races". I am not aiming for every candidate to win; that’d be money wasted. I give money where it might make a difference. Some more sophisticated people than me also look to donate in races that are underfunded or otherwise worth special attention. Swing Left does an excellent job packaging this kind of analysis up in a single one-stop donation form, plus advice on how you can volunteer your time. Read on here if you’d rather do it yourself.

My primary source of information for which races are close is the Cook Political Report: Senate and House. Ballotpedia is also a very useful source of information about specific races, including candidate funding and likelihood of winning. See their battlegrounds pages for more info: Senate and House. Finally the WashPo recently did a great article on Senate races that is a useful guide.

For the Senate, I ended up donating to 13 of 15 close races. The candidates are Gary Peters MI, Doug Jones AL, Mark Kelly AZ, John Hickenlooper CO, Jon Ossoff GA, Theresa Greenfield IA, Sarah Gideon ME, Cal Cunningham NC, MJ Hegar TX, Barbara Bollier KS, Jamie Harrison SC, Amy McGrath KY, and Steve Bullock MT. Alaska hasn’t had their primary yet, so I’m waiting on that. There’s also a special election in Georgia but the November race is effectively a jungle primary, so again I’m waiting. I only spent a couple minutes looking at each candidate’s political positions, mostly to verify they were OK on LGBT rights. I’m sure I disagree with some of them on some things.

For the House, in 2018 I mostly gave to the close California races. But this year there’s only 3 close races in CA, so I expanded my list to include 3 races I knew something about the candidate and then 5 more left-wing candidates from the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Justice Democrats. The candidates are Christy Smith CA-25, TJ Cox CA-21, Harley Rouda CA-48, Hiral Tipirneni AZ-06, Hillary Scholten MI-03, Lizzie Fletcher TX-07, Angie Craig MN-02, Matt Cartwright PA-08, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell FL-26, Andy Kim NJ-03, and Kara Eastman NE-02.

Finally I gave one special donation to my most local candidate: Audrey Denney for CA-01 including Grass Valley, CA. The Cook Report doesn’t show it as a close race but I think it’s closer than it looks; the current Republican LaMalfa is a real loser, less popular even than Donald Trump. And Denney ran a strong campaign in 2018 and is looking even better this year.

Donating online is remarkably easy; all but one of these candidates are using ActBlue, an excellent product. See my earlier blog post about avoiding spam when you donate; in particular do not give ActBlue or any candidate your phone number or primary email address.

I would like to add a caveat to all this optimism, which is that I’m basing it on there being a fair vote. But I give a ~10% chance of massive voting fraud conducted by the GOP resulting in a deeply unfair election. Not just the usual voter suppression and structural bias towards the GOP. But some broad and enormous combination of invalidating or not counting vote-by-mail ballots and using Barr’s Army to intimidate vote counters similar to what was done in Miami in 2000. I honestly don’t know how to fight this kind of coup, the best I’ve done so far is donate to voting rights agencies like the Brennan Center and the ACLU.

  2020-08-12 21:56 Z

I've been obsessed lately with Blixa Bargeld, the front man for Einstüzende Neubauten (and formerly with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds). He's aged remarkably well! The middle picture is early 80s Blixa doing his more-heroin-chic-than-Peter-Murphy look. The other two images are from his latest videos where he looks like your cool degenerate uncle. Looks much healthier with a little meat on his bones.

Looks aside the new album Alles in Allem is excellent. Taken as a whole it's a love letter to Berlin, with four songs explicitly about various neighborhoods and the whole thing having a Berlin cabaret feel. The two videos are a good place to start: Ten Grand Goldie and Alles in Allem. But the whole album is great and very listenable. If like me you mostly think of Einstüzende as the arty machine noise group from the 80s, you missed their turn to more lyricism. Still plenty of unusual percussion sources though, not to mention Blixa's trademark shriek. May they have another forty years as productive.

  2020-08-04 17:25 Z

(CW: rape, racism). Ken and I watched Gone With the Wind this week. As if it were prestige TV, in one hour segments over four nights. It’s imminently watchable that way. And for a movie as early as 1939 it still feels very modern. It’s completely enjoyable by modern standards, no early film awkwardness of plotting or direction. Well written characters, amazing sets and costumes, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film.

It’s also a racist piece of shit of a film. And deeply steeped in rape culture. And these sins don’t just mar the surface; you can’t watch the movie and just sort of ignore them. The entire intent of the film is racist, the racism is woven throughout the whole story. It’s a Lost Cause fiction about a Gallant South, about how Georgia suffered unjustly under the evil invading Union forces. I was prepared for the racism part; the film is notorious for it. I was less prepared for the rape culture.

The center of the film is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It’s excellently written and both actors are amazing, so the performance is exhilirating. It’s also absolutely awful. The first time they kiss, it’s as they’re fleeing the burning of Atlanta and the destruction of Scarett’s world. Scarlett keeps saying "no" and pushing Rhett away, hitting him, pleading him to stop. And he literally forces a kiss on her against a blood red sky. To the film’s credit she holds her ground, pushes him away and slaps him, but Rhett doesn’t even look surprised.

It gets worse with the actual rape on the staircase, a drunk Rhett violently attacking his wife, grabbing her and carrying her up the stairs. To impregnate her, after she’d already told him she didn’t want a second child and implied she wanted no sexual relations of any kind. The hideous thing is in the morning she’s shown waking as from a dream, with a smile, a happy smile, because apparently… I can’t explain it, it’s simply rape culture and it’s awful. Particularly for Scarlett. In many ways she’s a great character, a strong woman who survives no matter the circumstances, uses men and sexuality for her own purposes. To have her so violated and then shown to enjoy it is deeply offensive.

Young Black
slave girls fan the white ladies and it goes entirely

There’s nothing I can say about the racism in the film that’s not been said better elsewhere. Happy slaves, noble Klansman (barely disguised), the whole mythology of plantation life… it’s all awful propaganda. What I didn’t know before reading about the movie this week is how there were protests about the film both during its making and in its premiere in 1939. It was a hugely successful film but its hatefulness did not go unnoticed. Just most white Americans didn’t care. The Jim Crow South in particular was eager for a film that justified its continuing racism.

I don’t know what to say about the stereotype character Mammy. When I was a little kid I had a nanny like Mammy, a big caring middle aged Black woman who loved children. So this Mammy stereotype is deeply wired into me. And Hattie McDaniel’s performance is excellent. I particularly like how much latitude she has in the household, how she can speak the truth and be sassy and be respected. OTOH Mammy is only written as a character to support the white people in the movie. Nothing at all is said about her own life, or what the transition of emancipation might have meant to her, or whether she had her own children or life outside of being Scarlett’s minder. None of the other Black characters get any better treatment, the film is entirely blind to the reality of life in that place.

My mother loved Gone With the Wind. She loved the fantasy of the antebellum South, the costumes, the performances. She might have acknowledged the fantasy depiction of plantation life but would have found it unobjectionable. But I think what she really liked is Scarlett, a strong woman, a woman who survives very difficult times through grit and shrewdness and clever use of her feminine wiles. I don’t know what she would have thought about the rape culture, I think she bought into it as much as most people her age. That it was romantic for a man to ravish a woman. What an awful thing.

Next up: Giant.

  2020-08-02 15:24 Z

America has failed to contain Covid-19. It seems the virus will continue to spread unchecked and every American will be exposed in the next few months. So now what? Is there any point in even trying to isolate?

I feel like people haven’t yet recognized the magnitude of our failure to control the disease. We are at 45,000 new cases a day; a significant increase over the early April peak of 30,000. And the rate is accelerating. We have uncontrolled growth in the wake of states relaxing social restrictions. There’s now a move to improve distancing a little bit but the only thing that would stop this kind of spread is a lockdown even more severe than those of March and April. No one is talking about doing that.

To be clear, this loss of control is a uniquely American failure. Compare to Germany, Spain, Canada and China. All had an infection spike, some quite a bit higher on a per capita basis. All tamed the disease and are now finding 0-10 new cases a day. Pretty much all developed countries have controlled this disease; you have to look to Brazil for a catastrophe as bad as ours.

We gave up on containment. My question is… now what? We seem to have accepted that the whole country is going to be exposed to Covid-19. Is there any point in trying to socially isolate or distance now? Why go through enormous restrictions on your personal life if you’re just going to get infected anyway despite best precautions? If 10% of the people in your town are infected, the only way you’re going to avoid getting it yourself is extreme isolation. Washing your hands and trying to maintain six feet from others isn’t going to save you, particularly when the Trump mouth breathers around you won’t even wear a mask.

The main communal reason I see to continue to distance is to try to at least slow the spread down. The pressing danger now is we get a big enough spike in critical cases that hospitals are overwhelmed and people start dying again for lack of medical care. A miserable year+ of semi-lockdown might help. That seems to be what California is governing too, at least. But that’s an altruistic argument. My own personal case isn’t going to overwhelm the hospitals, so why deprive myself?

For me the personal motivation to continue to maintain isolation is moral. I don’t want to get sick, but I really really don’t want to get other people sick. Like my partner Ken, who is old enough there’s a significant risk to his life if he gets a bad case. So I feel like I have a moral responsibility to continue to distance myself. It’s very hard to maintain that standard when so many Americans don’t.

Our government has completely failed to protect the public welfare. Trump’s deadly ignorance is well documented and bears a lot of the blame. The Republican leadership mostly repeats his Covid denialism. But the Democrats aren’t doing much better. Here in California, Newsom’s informed and well-meaning policies seem to be failing nearly as badly as the ruinous Republican policies in Texas and Florida. We have week-long delays for test results, not enough contact tracing, and uncontrolled spread in half the state. Even my little small town mayor has failed her people.

America is simply incapable of dealing with a national health crisis. We’ve defaulted into a path where everyone gets sick and too bad for the millions who will die. We have failed. What’s the appropriate personal response?

  2020-07-03 17:26 Z

I joined the Instant Pot religion. I mostly use it as a pressure cooker, but the fact you can also saute and brown things in it, simmer them, etc makes it really versatile. The cooking modes are confusing though and the pressure cooker is lower pressure than typical American electric pressure cookers.

Here’s a cheat sheet to temperatures for the Instant Pot. I believe these come from the official manual. There’s also great detail in this review.

Pressure Cooker
Low 5.8–7.2 PSI
High 10.2–11.6 PSI
Slow Cook
Low 82-88°C (180-190°F)
Medium 88-93°C (190-200°F)
High 93-99°C (200-210°F)
Custom choose 40°C-98°C (104°F–208°F)
Low 135-150°C (275-320°F)
Medium 160-176°C (320-349°F)
High 175-210°C (347-410°F)
Custom choose 40°C-170°C (104-338°F)
Keep Warm
63-78°C (145-172°F)
Custom choose 40°C–90°C (104°F–194°F)

Note that simmering means to keep the pot just below 100°C. It’s not quite boiling, but there’s still a little steam nucleation which makes the tiny bubbles. In an Instant Pot that means Slow Cook on Medium or High, probably with the lid off.

  2020-06-22 01:23 Z

A friend from Houston posted an article on Facebook: Daughter of Astros legend Ken Caminiti calls out racism she experienced growing up in Pecan Grove. She talks eloquently about the racism inherent in the street names of Pecan Grove, TX, a 1970s-era Houston suburb.

When your white children tell their black friends that they live on Plantation Dr, Confederate Ct, or Brown School Ct, these black children do not think of streets, they think of racism.

Pecan Grove being largely white, there’s some pushback to that criticism. And the immediate cry of "don’t make us change the street names! Don’t erase history!". That got me curious about Pecan Grove’s actual history, beyond the romantic racism of "Old Dixie Dr".

Mind you, I’ve spent all of thirty minutes on this, a real historian could do a much better job. But even with such little effort I did better than the neighborhood’s own history page, which presents Pecan Grove as springing fully out of nowhere in 1973. This online history is a little better and in particular highlights the presence of the Hunter Plantation. Which was presumably mostly sugar but had one fine pecan tree as well, hence the name. I'm not 100% certain Pecan Grove is built exactly on the Hunter Plantation land, I did not do that research, but given their excitement to use the word "Plantation" on parks and street names I think it's likely connected.

The Hunter Plantation founder Johnson Calhoun Hunter was one of the Old Three Hundred, some of the first white non-Spanish settlers in the area. His children took over the plantation and ran it right through the slave years and on until about 1900.

The Hunters were slavers. According to the 1860 Slave Schedules they owned at least 53 slaves. Thomas Hunter (born 1821) listed his occupation as "Overseer" in 1850 and "farmer" in 1860. He owned 39 people. Martha Hunter (born 1790) owned 13. William Hunter (born 1830) only owned 4 human beings. A disappointment to the family, I’m sure.

Sadly, the Slave Schedules tell us next to nothing about the victims themselves, the slaves. No names, no histories. The ages are pretty horrifying though. 16 of Thos’ chattel slaves were fourteen or younger. Do you suppose Thos waited for the little girls to reach puberty before taking "his privilege" on them? Did he force the 55 year old men to work in the fields? Wm’s slaves were 33, 24, 31, and 10. Martha had a 4 month old baby to call her own.

How many slaves do you suppose are buried in unmarked graves under the suburban streets? I wonder what happened to them after Emancipation. Something tells me they aren’t living in Pecan Grove now.

Pecan Grove does have a Plantation Memorial Park. But it’s not a memorial to the slaves who worked and died at the plantation. It’s a memorial to military veterans. Which is certainly fine (it’s not a Confederate memorial), but one wonders why the word Plantation is on it. Pride in their white heritage, no doubt.

  2020-06-11 16:18 Z

Like everyone I’m riding out this Covid-19 lockdown with a mix of depression, anxiety, anger, boredom. And obsessively reading every detailed quality article I can find about both the disease and the politics around the disease. And it’s just all too much. Ordinarily my goal is to research something and get at some truth people don’t know about, then report it. I did this a couple of weeks ago about an unfounded theory that SARS-CoV-2 was in California last fall.

But right now there’s so many awful things going on. And I go deep on some topic and it doesn’t matter because it’s just all too much. People don’t care about the details of some particular nuance of antibody test specificity and Bayesian statistics. They just want to know "is the medical science going to make us safe?" "Are our politicians doing a good job helping us be safe?"

The top level answer on medical science is "science will make us safe, but it takes time". The top level on the politics is "America is doing a terrible job". The Trump administration is full of vandals and science deniers. Trump himself seems worried only in trying to save his re-election chances and lurches day to day to new outrages. Some of the states, including California, are doing better but it’s all going way too slow. My particular anger is focussed on the lack of testing capacity. We are way below what we need to safely reopen the country.

Anyway, it’s all too much. So rather than meticulously run down a bunch of complicated stories I’m just going to list a bunch of the big outrages with minimal references, just so I don’t lose track or forget that they have happened.

It’s not a comprehensive list, it’s just the outrages of the last two months I could remember offhand. It’s too much.

If you made it all the way to the bottom of this bummer post, let me give you one silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud. J. Kenji López-Alt, my favorite food nerd, has been doing an excellent series of home cooking videos. They are a delight.

  2020-04-24 19:53 Z

I have some tips for avoiding the spam that inevitably follows from making political donations. It’s not perfect, but it helps.

The problem: I donated to 10 congressional candidates in 2018. This election cycle I’ve gotten personalized fundraising requests from about 40 candidates; a few of those 10, a lot unrelated. Email, cell phone calls, it’s never-ending. I feel like I’m being punished for supporting my candidates. How to stop it?

The cause: campaign donations are public records. Any time you give money to any campaign or party, your contact info goes to the FEC who then publishes a list of every donation made in the country. This information quickly gets picked up by the political parties and other data brokers into something called "the voter file", a giant spreadsheet with 2000+ rows for every voter and donor in the US. Your name, your address, your phone number, your email, your donation history, and a bunch of direct marketing data like demographics, political leanings, etc. It is basically impossible to avoid getting on this file.

The solution: give the bare minimum information when donating. I believe this is name, address, and employer. Phone number is explicitly not required; leave it blank or make one up (I use an obviously fake number). Email address is definitely not required by law, although many online sites do require it themselves. For those I use special burner email addresses, things like nelson+polspam@monkey.org. Sometimes that makes it easier to filter in Gmail.

A special note about ActBlue, the online donation platform for most Democrats. They’re great! They also have a very clear privacy policy where they only share your info with the receiver of the donation and the legally required FEC. However they do also share email and phone even if they don’t have to; that fake phone number and burner email can be a help.

Even if you put all this in place carefully stuff will leak through. Given a person’s name and address you can quickly find all sorts of extra data about them, particularly once you go to marketing databases that have been around 30+ years. They will end up with your cell phone and email and spam text you anyway. There seems to be no way avoiding it entirely.

One special trick for cell phones: reply to spam with the text STOP. Legitimate actors will typically honor that, although I’m not sure it’s perfect.

A request for my friends who work in voting data: please, please have some sort of opt out database. One central list of "this person really does not want to be contacted via cell phone". I know it looks like it will harm your business, but the unstoppable intrusion on donors’ lives will also harm your business.

  2020-03-01 18:50 Z