Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Discussing discussants

Mike Allison and Greg Weeks are discussing the value (or lack thereof) of discussants on panels. Given that one of my major problems with the rising challenge to panels in our discipline, the similarly-poorly-attended poster session, is the lack of discussants, I can’t really concur in whole with Greg’s position that discussants aren’t helpful. I do mostly concur with his advice for discussants, however:

1. Do not try to tie the papers together artificially. There is no point.

2. Keep your comments as brief and focused as possible. No preambles or tangents. The audience did not come to listen to you, unless you are very clearly an expert on the panel’s topic.

3. Don’t whine about how long it took someone to get their paper to you. We’re all busy.

4. If time is short after the last presentation, give it up to the audience Q&A and give the authors your comments privately. Interested audience members very often have better insights.

That said, when I have discussed papers I usually try to see if I can identify common themes and ways the papers speak to each other, in part because I think scholars at the pre-publication stage can often strengthen their papers by looking beyond the literature they’ve embedded themselves in during the drafting process. Sometimes, though, that is futile on “potpourri” panels that often get titles like “New Directions in Research on X.”

Once upon a time (I can’t remember where; possibly at one of the iterations of the job rumors site) I saw a suggestion that took things to the opposite extreme—that panels might be better organized by having the discussant briefly present all of the papers, followed by feedback and discussion from the authors and the audience. It might be an interesting experiment to try, and I think it would certainly be a good test of whether or not the papers communicate their ideas clearly enough to their readers, although I think for it to work effectively you’d need to organize the conference in a way that completed papers would be due much sooner than is the norm in political science—where usually the “deadline” is enforced about as rigidly as most undergraduates would like their assignments’ deadlines to be.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Tony Tony Tony has done it again!

The brain trust that runs ESPN into the ground has decided to suspend Tony Kornheiser for two weeks from his PTI co-hosting duties for his criticism of ESPN SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm’s recent attempts to up her MILF factor with age-inappropriate wardrobe choices.

The irony that they are punishing their viewers with two weeks of Dan LeBatard and Bob Ryan far more than they are punishing Mr. Tony (who I am sure is just heartbroken that he gets to spend an extra hour a day in the Barcalounger) appears to be totally lost on the suits.

Update: Deadspin claims that the real reason TK was suspended is due to different comments he made in the same rant about Chris Berman’s shilling for NutriSystem and ESPN’s acceptance of said advertising.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Enkindle this (aka your Mass Effect 2 mini-review)

The sequel to Mass Effect has arrived and after about 10 days with the game I can honestly say that on virtually every dimension, ME2 is superior to its predecessor. Combat has been made a lot better; the decryption and electronics “mini-games” are much more engaging than playing Simon with the A-B-Y-Z buttons on the controller; and the voice acting and animation is a step up from the original. Overall the game definitely is more polished than its predecessor and feels more complete. After a short adjustment to the “new” rules of the ME universe, I found I really didn’t miss the elements of gameplay that were reduced or simplified.

Comparing two play-throughs of the game based on different saves from ME1, I could definitely feel a more ominous sense of Things To Come based on the differences in my actions in the two “pasts”; the consequences of past actions do not affect the main plot of ME2 drastically, but I have the sense that some of Shepard’s actions in the fight against Saren and Sovereign in ME1 will have major consequences in the third installment, as well as Shepard’s actions in ME2 of course.

ME2 definitely reflects its creators’ intentions to have a “darker” middle section of the trilogy; in particular, the lines of morality are blurred much more than in ME1 (where the only arguably morally-dubious “Paragon” choice was the decision to free the last of the rachni), and certainly what might be good for the galaxy doesn’t always align with what is right for Shepard. In the various missions you have to wrestle with the morality of taking actions to rectify past morally-dubious actions by others. If one faction seeks to impose its vision of Truth on another, is it morally acceptable to turn the tables on them and impose a different vision? Should a species that was mistakenly “elevated” without its consent be hobbled until that species’ people can mature sufficiently to deal with the technological advances that fell in their laps? Should a major piece of enemy technology be left intact for one particular race’s ethically-challenged black ops organization to discover its secrets, perhaps to be used not against the civilized galaxy’s common foe but for more immediate political advantage?

I would be remiss if I didn’t also discuss the humor that Bioware stuck in the game, including (but not limited to) self-deprecation about the excruciating elevator rides in ME1, a 22nd century take on Dirty Harry, an alien scientist who performs Gilbert and Sullivan, and ads for probably the worst production of Hamlet in recorded history. I laughed myself silly several times during the game; sometimes, it was because of something Shepard did (or a squadmate’s response to it), while other times it was just something bizarre overheard in the background—random banter between bystanders, for example.

My only quibbles thus far would be with the planet scanning part of the game (I don’t mind having to gather resources, but you’d think your multi-billion credit starship’s AI could scan for minerals on its own much faster than I could), the inability to revisit some of the interesting locations from ME1 (leading to some rather improbable coincidental encounters with important folks from those locations at other ports-of-call), and a sense that some locations just needed to be grander in scope—even some of the interesting places you visit are sealed once you complete missions in those areas, so you can’t really go and see what difference your actions made. I also miss a bit of the “party banter” from the previous game; given the much larger combination of squadmates possible for missions (and the lack of elevator rides for banter to take place), however, it’s understandable.

But the quibbles are more than offset by the positives of the game. ME2 was definitely top value for my entertainment dollar.

Friday, 5 February 2010

QotD, there-are-five-lights edition

Why show trials always have ludicrous charges against the defendants in totalitarian states:

[F]orcing someone to admit to something he might have done does not send a strong signal of power. Forcing someone to confess to a crime that everyone knows he could not possibly have committed, on the other hand, is terrifying.