Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on canonical names.

When I am wrong, it behooves me to be wrong as loudly as possible so that those able to correct me will be able to do so. The flip side is that when I discover that I am wrong, I must be every bit as loud in turning that around. After much deliberation inside my head, I have finally realized that I have come to another instance where I have indeed been wrong in my thinking, as some of my friends will well appreciate.

But let me provide some context. Google+ has entered into the already crowded world of social media, but is currently making huge gains in the "it's-not-facebook" market. The problem, however, that is rightfully ruffling a great many feathers is that Google decided to adopt a policy quite similar to Facebook's Real Names policy. Much has already been made of the disproportionate impact this decision has for women, LGBTs and others that may be subject to harassment if their Real Names™ are revealed so frivolously. One of the better posts on this has been by Bug Girl, who clearly lays out the impact that the Real Names™ ideology has for her.

As is my usual habit, though, I wish to take a tangent. You see, I used to place an absurd amount of importance on Real Names™, and was disdainful of my 'nym using friends. Embarrassing, but there it is. The problem with this attitude — well, one of them, anyway ­— is that it presupposes the existence of a single canonical Real Name™. This assumption is not supported by reality, though.

Even in a relatively "normal" (by Western standards, anyway) case like my own name, what should I put? Christopher Evan Granade? That is surely not what my friends call me— many probably didn't even know what my middle name was before reading that. If we go with what my friends, colleagues, bosses, family, etc. all call me, "Chris" would be much closer. That name is problematic, though, in that it is so vauge that there are three people with offices on the same floor as mine that share it, to say nothing of the broader world. If disambiguation is needed, then, we move on to "Chris G.", "Chris Granade" or even "C-Bomb" (that makes more sense if you read my last name aloud), which I feel very little ownership over. Moving online, it only gets worse. I try to use cgranade as much as possible for uniformity's sake, but sometimes I have to settle instead for cegranade. In gaming communities, where using outside names is often frowned upon, I rely on the much more generic "brokenmirror", but that often has conflicts with other users.

And I'm not even married or divorced! My mother adopted my father's last name rather than taking both or her own, there's no complications with transliteration of a name more at home in a non-Latin alphabet, no dramatic name changes in my life. I have a middle and a last name, so no issues there. Really, the problems stem from that my name is a product of the context in which I use it. I do not have a canonical name at all. No one string of Unicode code points encapsulates the complex and entirely contextual rules which lead to a name by which you should call me.

Why should we, though, even expect this to be the case? It isn't true for much simpler and more rigid systems like the Web. My website, for instance, is reached by either "" or the much longer "". These two "names," though, fill very different purposes and get used in different ways. It gets worse if I were to share on Twitter or via a QR code, where either one would first be fed through a URL shortener. Thus this single concept, my website, has at least three "names" depending on the context you approach it from. When we move to something as complicated as a human identity, the preponderance of names is only exacerbated.

Any system which does not recognize the complexity that goes into names is thus doomed to fail, even if we set aside the ethics of strong-arming users into using a particular choice of name. Facebook has only survived this failure by haphazard enforcement of their own rules, but by actually practicing proactive enforcement on Google+, Google has stared this shortcoming in the face. Here's hoping that like I did, they can see where they've gone wrong in their thinking and in doing so, better serve the users whose trust forms the basis for so much of what they do.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Throwing two cents into a storm.

The Internet is a curious beast. Some stories and arguments quickly ignite, then disappear as quickly as they started. Others seem to be perpetual in that as soon as it seems to have faded away, some newcomer to the scene causes whole histories to replay and flare up again.

Of these two very coarse categories, Elevatorgate definitely belongs to the latter. In many ways, I should like nothing more than to see the whole of the tempest pass by, recovering brain cycles for more important issues. The problem with this attitude, however, is that how we in the skeptical and atheist communities treat women is an important issue. As often as people misunderstand, misrepresent and mistake the issue, at its core, what is at stake in Elevatorgate is whether we want the communities we build to be defined by positive and rational values such as inclusiveness, respect and diversity, or whether we are content to define our movement in terms of a narrow and ill-understood notion of privilege.

Up until now, I've kept my involvement in this debate (or rather, what a debate has since devolved into) to a minimum. I am, after all, a beneficiary of the very privilege under question, being male, and hence have more to learn than to contribute in this particular exchange. (Just to preempt the inevitable, that does not for a moment mean that I am "apologizing" for other men, or that I am asserting that I should take the actions of other men upon myself--- we are all each individuals, are we not?) I am also white, learned English as my native language, and was born into a affluent family in first-world country, etc. My life has hence been one in which doors open to me that are shut in the faces of others, by no virtue of my intellect, my choices or my efforts. Were I to project my own experiences on the world, then, it would thus be all too easy for me to come to the impression that those opportunities that I enjoy are universally enjoyed. When something like Elevatorgate occurs, it should serve as a wake-up call, in that Rebecca Watson was denied a choice I almost certainly would have enjoyed in the same situation: the choice of when and how to disengage from a social event.

As a progressive, as an atheist, as a skeptic, when a wake-up call like that sounds through my social media neighborhood, what can I do but attempt to understand what dynamics of privilege and yes, of misogyny, lead to that failure to respect Watson's independence? Once I start to examine these dynamics, it becomes all too obvious that such failures add to the cost that women must pay in order to participate in communities and movements that I consider to be important. If I take seriously that central value of rationality, self-improvement, then I am led just as inescapably to try to understand how to change the social environment around me so as to prevent this cost being exacted against women in the future.

An alternative approach, however, is to become defensive and to assert that things are fine the way they are. When confronted with contrary evidence, I could have instead dismissed it, and attacked the credibility of those calmly pointing out the cost associated with privilege. I could have even tried to deny the very existence of privilege, instead casting the original incident into a false narrative of "men versus women," of feminism being a thin veil for misandry, or of Watson being a drama-queen (even that term should rankle a few nerves by now!) interested not in reducing the cost of privilege but in inflating her own popularity. Such tactics, however, are fundamentally incompatible with the positive valuation of rationality, as rationality demands entertaining the notion that one is wrong, and as rationality demands a continual effort to improve oneself and to more closely align one's beliefs with reality.

It is in this spirit that I am pleased to note that despite the many men (and even women!) that see no wrong in Elevator Guy's actions, that despite the many people loudly and vilely attacking Watson, there has been a venerable chorus of men and women working hard to shape this incident into a concrete improvement for women in our communities. The fact that this incident has so inflamed passions belies the importance that we place on hashing through disagreements, rather than letting important issues fall by the wayside. Slowly, painfully and fitfully, our communities are improving due to the hard work of activists within our midst. That is something to take solace in, and likewise, is something to encourage the rest of us to join in, even when it can be discomforting.

Notes: Please accept my apology for the lack of links here today. There's simply too many good ones for me to choose a representative set from. Also, a hearty thanks go out to the person that originally suggested the subject for this post, and that introduced me to the concept of "sitting with your discomfort."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hints for the ethically challenged.

For reasons that I shall explain later, my life has (again) been enough of a mess as of late to prevent me from blogging. I will break my too-long silence, however, to note my complete disgust with an article sent to my attention by Nancy Parmalee: Manliness and Morality, from that cesspool of pseudo-intellectualism known as The Weekly Standard. Seldom have I seen so bald an apologetic for rape and for the misogynist power dynamic that rape plays in our society passed off as a highbrow and "sophisticated" discussion of current affairs.

The author of this article, Harvey Mansfield, assures us from the outset that his article is not, in fact, a work of rape apologetics:
What with Arnold and DSK, male transgression is once again in the news. Let’s not equate the two cases—one is forgivable, the other, if the accusations are true, is not [emphasis mine]. Together with these male transgressions is the reaction to them, still more interesting.
His assurances ring hollow, though, as even this first paragraph ventures into the disgusting realm of making excuses for rapists. Indeed, Mansfield starts off by drawing parallels between the marital infidelities of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn that he raped a hotel maid. These parallels can only be held as valid if one ignores the victimization inherent in the act of rape and reduces what is an inherently violent violation of another human being to being a merely unwise decision about how to act out one's sexuality.

Equating a consensual but unwise sexual relationship with what is, by definition, a violation of a human being's right to meaningfully consent to sexuality activities is nothing short of a disgusting failure of human compassion and empathy. It is, in short, quite in keeping with the norms of the comedically misnamed "compassionate conservatism" of which the Standard is so proud.

In the very next sentence, Mansfield discards any hope he might have had for maintaining even the illusion of human compassion:
The reaction shows the power of morality to produce disgust and disgrace at the sight of these male weaknesses.
Let me make this point perfectly clear. Rape is not an example of "male weakness." Period. It is a violent and heinous act perpetrated against another human being, and no amount of sugar-coating by professional misogynists like Mansfield can change that.

Bizarrely, even Mansfield himself seems to be within reach of this basic truth, as he goes on to assert that men are inherently more violent than women, and thus inherently more capable of perpetrating rape. Where he goes with this dim shadow of understanding, though, is enough to make any compassionate person cringe:
It certainly seems strange that being capable of rape can make a person better qualified for greatness, but it’s probably true.
I cannot hope to do better here than to simply let that quote from Mansfield stand for itself. Indeed, Mansfield has laid bare his own view of the world, so that we may understand it for the hateful denial of human compassion that it is.

What else can I call it but a hateful abdication of empathy when Mansfield boldly declares that "[Women] are not rapists but victims of rape"? There is no compassion, no empathy and no understanding in asserting that women are inherently to be victims. Not content to leave things to be merely that disgusting, however, Mansfield continues in this vein:
Being mothers, [women] are closer to their children, and usually suffer more from divorce. Because women are weaker and closer to children than men, the equality of the sexes cannot rest on their being the same. Nor can women be independent, or “autonomous,” certainly not as much as modern women want to be. As vulnerable, they depend on law and morality for protection. The enforcement of law and morality is done mainly by men or by women with the strength of men. [...] Women need men to save them from men.
I could continue to highlight how deplorable and depraved a view it is that Mansfield espouses in this article, but I shall refrain, as I think his own words have made clear how little he is bothered by the hatefulness of his statements. Instead, let me turn this around and offer some hints that he (and other professional misogynists) might gain some insight from considering.

To start with, I should point out a very simple fact that escapes far too many people (as Mansfield so clearly demonstrates): women are human beings. As such, ethical considerations which take into account the suffering of human beings invariably must take into consideration the suffering of the fifty percent of the human population which happens to be female. Living with the rest of humanity must necessarily include, then, living with that half of society that is women.

Another hint for the ethically challenged amongst us is that if one uses phrases like "male weakness" to excuse and to downplay the crime of rape, then in the same stroke, one denies the ethical consequences of suffering on the part of victims of "male weakness." Insofar as ethics are concerned, rape is important and appalling not because it is a "weakness," but because it denies a victim sovereignty over her (or his, despite Mansfield's hetero-normative and misogynistic stereotypes) own body. Naturally, it is important to understand the causes that lead to such violence, but we should not fall into the trap of mistaking the cause for the crime. We do not, for instance, refer to murder by firearms as an instance of "gun-wielder weakness," for in doing so, we would obscure the issue of ultimate importance to ethical considerations: a person's life has been extinguished through violence.

Perhaps the most helpful hint I can offer Mansfield and others suffering from an ethics deficiency, however, is a hint about what ethics actually is. Ethics is a way of codifying and understanding the well-being of fellow human beings, and in particular, the consequences for others that result from our actions. Rape is a breach of morality and ethicality not because it makes us feel icky or outraged, but because it compromises the well-being of other humans. Covering this essential truth with empty and baseless assertions about women inherently being assigned the role of "victim" does nothing to increase our understanding of the suffering that is caused to a woman if she is raped. As such, these stereotypes do not enable us to reach a higher understanding of ethics, but obscures the violent results of a violent act. A woman is not a victim by virtue of the nature of her birth, after all, but because someone forces her to become a victim. This is no different from if a man is made a victim by some act of violence; a clear truth made foggy by the addition of roles imposed on the basis of gender, such as the assignment of "victim" to all women made by Mansfield.

In parting, I will leave two more hints. To those genuinely concerned with ethicality, I would advise that continuing to speak out in the face of malignant pseudo-ethical arguments such as those made by Mansfield can help to make a difference. There is naught to be gained, after all, by staying silent and letting spread an unethical standard such as is portrayed by the Standard. Finally, to the ethically-challenged, I advise that a bit of careful listening to the arguments made by the rest of society can help elucidate why certain actions, like rape, are ethically deplorable. Circling the wagons in the face of evidence of a violent act does not help anyone learn to better live in society, and closes one off to a deeper understanding of the ethics which can act to minimize suffering amongst our peers. In short, we should seek to understand rape, not excuse it.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

In which I discuss Star Trek at the expense of another.

Update: My sincere thanks go out to Emily (@seelix on Twitter) for recovering this post for me after it went offline.

Bill Watterson is a sort of personal hero to me for having created the Calvin and Hobbes strip and writing such wonderful stories for 10 years.  Watterson once described that part of the charm of Calvin's character was his ability to precisely articulate very stupid ideas. This incongruence between Calvin's eloquence and his naive ignorance was the source of much of the strip's humor.

Well, today, I had the pleasure of reading some of the most precisely articulated stupidity that I have seen in a while. It is not every day, after all, that one gets to read a Tea and Crumpets Partier take issue with the utopian view that Star Trek puts forward and in doing so, lay bare the intellectual bankrupcy of the TCP movement. Truly, there is comedic gold buried in this bizarrely coherent but utterly stupid rant by Walter Hudson.

It is telling that our inadverent comedian opens with a quote from Roddenberry intended to demonstrate how Star Trek is a bad thing:

The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mould, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there. And I think that this is what people responded to.
Ironically, this multicultural meme leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tolerating every idea enables ideas which are destructive. As the franchise has progressed, it has (perhaps unwittingly) demonstrated this flaw in its own message.
Right out of the gate, Hudson has jumped the shark by presuming that his audience shares the same paranoia for the word "multiculturalism" that he does. Nowhere in the quote provided does Roddenberry state that he thought we should embrace or even tolerate all ideas equally, but rather that we should be willing to "take a special delight in differences in ideas." Multiculturalism does not preclude one from recognizing that some ideas have severely negative implications if acted upon, contrary to what Hudson seems to think.

The rest of this gem consists of a list of 10 supposedly destructive social messages espoused through Star Trek. Even a cursory glace at the titles of these ten sections gives one a startlingly blunt view on how Hudson sees the world:
  • The U.N. in Space
  • Prime Directive
  • No Money
  • Galactic Peace
  • Silly God, Tricks Are For Man
  • Occupations and Insurgents
  • Set Phasers on Stun
  • Cosmic Environmentalism
  • Resistance Is Futile
  • Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Only in the upside-down reality-starved community that is the Tea and Crumpets Party is this list somehow damning, but inside that petri dish of memetic insanity, words and names like "U.N," "peace," "trick," and "environment" take on the quality of nightmares induced by sleeping in front of one too many rants by Glenn Beck. Far be it from me to try and deconstruct such a perverse framework for understanding the world, for fear of being irrevocably damaged by the Lovecraftian horrors that lie dormant in such twisted logics. (OK, that last sentence was exaggeration bordering on purple prose, but it was fun to write.) Instead, I shall be content to address some of the more LOLworthy points that Hudson hits upon in his psychiatric disrobing so cleverly disguised as an article about Star Trek.

Let's start our journey into madness with the first "message": that the United Federation of Planets is much like the United Nations in the real world. Perhaps surprisingly, I agree! The UFP is transparently modeled after the UN, but I think it stands to reflect the unbridled idealism of Star Trek. Where the UFP differs from the UN is in that it works well to achieve it's intended purpose. That it achieves, finally, after so many false starts, the ideal of a cooperative body that spans across not only nations, but worlds and even species. To Hudson, this utopian idealism seems to be the whole problem:
While the occasional insurrection or insubordination was explored throughout the franchise, for the most part, no one within the Federation really questions their government. As we shall examine in more detail, in Star Trek, the government is a two-dimensional institution which works because it must in order to advance a particular political narrative.
In short, Hudson is arguing that aside from those times that people in Star Trek question their government so brilliantly and so passionately (take, for example, The Drumhead [TNG], The Measure of a Man [TNG], Star Trek: Insurrection, or practically all of Deep Space Nine's seventh season), no one ever questions their government! Hudson sees in the bold idealism of asserting a government that works well most of the time a spectre of timid uniformity. How markedly different from the Pickard, the Sisko, the Odo, the Data, the Spock, and all the other characters in whom I invested so much emotion are these timid spectres that haunt Hudson's Star Trek!

Next on the menu, we are served a deliciously absurd view of Star Trek's Prime Directive. For the uninitiated, the Prime Directive asserts that the Federation is not to go around the galaxy remaking technologically primitive planets into societies unto their own image. The Prime Directive is informed by a history of well-intentioned but disastrous interventions into the progression of other cultures, and aims to allow nascent cultures to get a chance to participate in galactic culture as equals and on the merits of what they offer, rather than to be damned by the accident of a slower technological progression. There are, of course, many points with which one can argue intelligently (and on which many Star Trek characters do!) with the Prime Directive, and I think it'd be a shame to accept the Directive as a given without critical thought. It will come as little surprise, though, that Hudson neatly sidesteps any intellectual basis for disagreeing with the Directive, instead connecting it back to the boogeyman of multiculturalism:

The defining aspect of Star Trek’s Federation is its Prime Directive, the law above all others which its officers are sworn to uphold even at the expense of their life and the lives of others. Stated simply, the Prime Directive is to never interfere with the natural evolution of another civilization. In the original series, this meant refraining from contaminating relatively primitive cultures with knowledge of Starfleet and its advanced technology. Over the years, the Prime Directive has expanded into a kind of galactic Tenth Amendment, assuring member planets jurisdiction over internal affairs.
While the latter may seem attractive to conservatives, it is worth noting that the supreme moral principle upon which the Prime Directive is based is not natural rights or individual sovereignty, but multiculturalism. In Star Trek, the one cardinal sin is applying your values to an alien culture.
Here, I have emphasized where Hudson seems to have been watching a completely different set of shows and movies than I did. What else other than "applying your values to an alien culture" is the whole Dominion War, or the earlier Cardassian War? The idea that the Federation has something to offer other cultures in terms of moral values is so omnipresent in Star Trek that picking a single example would be to miss the point. Where Star Trek differs from Hudson's wingnut world, however, is that the Federation also learns from other cultures. The interactions go both ways, unlike the one-sided ethnocentric and xenophobic ideas on foreign policy espoused by many of the TCP's most ardent supporters.

Since I don't wish to hash through this ridiculous article for the rest of my natural life, or even for the rest of the weekend, let me speed up a bit. I think you get the flavor of Hudson's approach already: isolate something that happened in Star Trek and connect it to a dog-whistle, boogeyman or spectre of the wingnut mind. To wit, "No Money" connects the absence of money in the Federation to communism (gasp!), missing soundly the point that the absence of money derives from an absence of scarcity. There's no point to money when there is no scarcity to drive economies. Whereas the Ferengi solve this "problem" by inventing new scarcities, the Federation embraces the promise of a world not held back by dollars and cents. A world freed to pursue its dreams and its ideals, no matter the price tag.

Hudson next misunderstands the ideals of the Federation rather dramatically by his characterization that "the Federation is a kind of galactic nation vying for power among hostile neighbors on all sides," and thus that "peace remains illusive." That the show documents how its characters deal with adversity in face of their ideals is not a criticism, but part of the wondrous utopia that the shows depict! Peace is so valued and well-understood by the Federation that they will work for peace even when so surrounded. One key transition depicted over the course of four shows spanning 26 seasons was the transformation of the Klingons from a violent adversary to an uneasy ally, then to a valued but misunderstood neighbor and finally to a celebrated friend in the Dominion War. What could better demonstrate the Federation's ideal of peace than their successful diplomatic efforts with a species whose cultural history celebrates violence and imperialism at every turn?

Skipping mostly past "Silly God, Tricks are for Man," I will pause just to note that it is so incoherent as to cite early Star Trek as following "Judeo-Christian tradition," as if such a thing existed outside of the weird premillennial-dispensationalism steeped mind of the modern wingnut. Far more interesting is Hudson's complete perversion of the Star Trek parables of the Cardiassians, Bajorans and the Dominion on display in "Occupations and Insurgents." No amount of analysis on my part could hope to improve simply quoting Hudson on this point:
When the United States deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, its mission was similar to that of the Federation at Bajor, keep the peace, defend the interests of liberty, and prevent old and new enemies from exerting themselves in the area.
[Deep Space Nine] became the Federation’s vanguard, defending a wormhole through which the evil Dominion could attack from across the galaxy. Iraq likewise became American’s vanguard in the global War on Terror. The Dominion’s leaders were shape-shifters who could appear as anyone or anything, and thus conduct insurgent warfare against the Federation.
Anyone who equates the Dominion's grand imperialist schemes with modern insurgents either never watched Star Trek, or suffered one too many concussions to comprehend it properly. The same complete and utter lack of understanding of the ideals of the show is on display in "Phasers on Stun":
Be that as it may, the ability to simply stun enemies rather than kill them lowered the stakes of the drama somewhat. Star Trek frequently failed to address the uncomfortable scenarios such an ability would present in real life. Even if you could stun someone who wanted to kill you, wouldn’t they still want to kill you once they recovered? Have you really dealt with the threat?
Such a flirtation with violence as being the best solution to a problem, rather than as being a poor substitute for understanding, diplomacy and rational discussion says quite a bit more about Hudson and his memetic environment than I might have wanted to see, but there it is. To Hudson, it seems that killing someone is truly the only way to "deal with the threat," and that our fiction should reflect this cruel "fact." It seems that Hudson's comedy now gives way to a brutal exposure of a genuinely unpleasant mind. Luckily, we are spared delving too much further yet by the section on "Cosmic Environmentalism":
A powerful alien probe has come to Earth looking for them, and starts trashing the place when they don’t harmonize with its cetacean song. The moral of the story is obvious. If we do not act to protect the environment today, a race of alien sea turtles may destroy our civilization tomorrow.
Admittedly, Star Trek IV was cheesy and campy, but it was wonderful seeing the denizens of a better future come face to face with their history: a people that treats their environs as immutable, exploitable and lifeless. Hudson describes this in decidedly less gracious terms:
As they peruse the landscape of ’80′s San Francisco, the crew wander about like bemused Westerners stranded among a primitive tribe.
Maybe that should give us pause, Mr. Hudson? How should our decedents see us, and how do we go about making that happen? If we don't want the future to think of us as a what you call a "primitive tribe," maybe we shouldn't act like one!

I'm happy to report that Hudson has saved the best for last, as his sections on "Resistance is Futile" and "Can't We All Just Get Along?" meld together into a single thesis so bizarre, so stupid and so astounding that it alone could have motivated me writing this post. He opens with this doozy:

In a franchise which has clearly been leveraged to promote leftist ideology, one of the most fascinating developments has been the introduction off a villain so plainly emblematic of the Left. The popularity of the Borg, an aggressive race of cyborgs who share a collective hive mind, is no doubt attributable to the psychological horror they represent.
The Borg seek to assimilate intelligent life into their totalitarian society, wholly subduing individuality in service to the collective. In doing so, they believe they are working toward the perfection of their species. Could there be a better metaphor for the Left than these cybernetic zombies?
I dare you to count the number of buzzwords, dog-whistles and boogeymen hiding in that quotation, then add to that the ridiculous characterization of progressiveism as "cybernetic zombies." Any pretense of sanity has now been fully left behind, leaving Hudson standing bare in all his nuttiness, but he's not done yet!
The Borg challenge the Federation’s Utopian ideals, and thus those of the Left, by presenting a threat which cannot be reasoned or negotiated with.
But I thought the Borg was the Left! Oh, wait, they are again a few moments later:
The Borg are also the enemy faced in Star Trek: First Contact. At that point in franchise continuity, Picard has encountered the Borg enough to know there is only one appropriate response.
We’ve made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here. This far, no further!
So no mention of how that hard-line stance nearly cost Picard his life, his crew, his planet, his Federation, his ideals? No, as Hudson goes boldly on to conclude with this knockout of a thesis:
Again, the Borg stand as a curious contradiction to this sentiment. Strictly speaking, they share the same objective as the Federation, galactic peace. The difference is that the Borg see peace as the end result of destroying or assimilating all free people in the galaxy (a perspective they share with Islam). In this the Borg are correct, because freedom enables distinctiveness, and distinctiveness breeds discord. We will never completely get along so long as some among us remain free.
Setting aside for a moment the obscene perversion of the word "freedom" on display here, note what I have emphasized above: Hudson equates the Borg with Islam, and also with what he calls "the Left," and thus he's done! Liberals are Islam, QED. What better punchline could you imagine for such a coherently stupid manifesto?

While I have done my best to illustrate the comedy of Hudson's tea-stained view of the world, I would be remiss if I left one with the impression that this was all one big joke. The worldview through which Hudson sees Star Trek as not a utopia but a dystopia is currently still seen as a serious contender in the American marketplace of ideas; so much so that we think of Obama as liberal by comparison, so much so that Bill O'Riley has become a voice of reason on his network, so much so that Donald Trump is not immediately laughed off-stage and so much so that Michelle Bachman currently has a job. Thus, my laughter at Hudson's fevered views comes with a barb. I laugh in the hope and the promise of discrediting a bankrupt movement, against which the ideals espoused by a brilliant series of TV shows like Star Trek stands as all the more essential.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Like herding cats.

It must be a day whose name ends with a "y," for once again the Internet is abuzz with scandal du jour. This time, what seems to have set the fuse alight is Jerry Coyne's recent open letter to the NCSE and BCSE. While I found Coyne's letter to be well-written and compellingly argued enough to have been proud to add my name, there's bigger fish to fry at the moment.

Namely, I want to address the flood of comments directed at ν atheists that this melee has brought about. As Ophelia Benson has snarkily documented, this most recent shitstorm has prompted quite a few people to boldly define for their readers what ν atheism is. Perhaps my favorite contributed definition is that from Rob Knop, with whom I have had at least a few completely unproductive arguments:
Do the New Atheists really believe that they aren’t being argumentative, aggreessive, and generally dickish in their attacks on religion? Or, are the religious the “other” against whom any sort of rude behavior is justified?
With apologies to PZ Myers, the emphasis is mine, but the duplicitousness is all Knop's. Notice how Knop correctly notes that many atheists (including those often pinned with labels like "ν," "Gnu," "noo" or even "new") do not extend to religion the special privilege of immunity to criticism, but then immediately switches from talking about religion to talking about the religious. This bit of sleight of hand does the religious quite a disservice, as it implies that religious adherents are so incapable of separating themselves from their religion that criticism of their beliefs must necessarily equate to a personal attack against them.

By contrast, the view held by us νs is generally that religious adherents are, by and large, quite reasonable people, and in particular, are capable of engaging in arguments with those who disagree with them. Of course, one can point out examples where νs have engaged adversaries with more hostility, but as I have argued before, this is largely as a reaction to bad faith on the part of, well, some of the faithful. If you choose to call it "dickish" to point out that people like Knop are being duplicitous in their arguments, then I will admit that your definition of the word "dick" has little in common with any definition that I recognize.

While there is some judgment implicit in criticizing the positions of another, we rightfully do not let that stop us from criticizing political positions, accidental and intentional prejudices, breaches of ethics, illogical actions, etc. Why we should then suspend these actions where religion is involved eludes me. After all, criticism both at the level of society and at the level of one's immediate social circle is a valuable way of seeking a better world for everyone. At the same time, it is commonly understood in our culture that there is a time and a place for such criticism, but given the monumental importance that religious beliefs play in our world, I should rather err on the side of too much criticism of irrational beliefs than not enough.

To expound on that point just a little bit, let me direct your attention to one of Greta Christina's articles, in which she points out that even moderate and "sophisticated" religious beliefs must somehow deal with the genocide and infanticide on display in the holy books such as the Bible. That some widely respected theologians such as William Lane Craig decide to deal with the problem of evil in their holy books by actually making arguments that genocide isn't so bad after all should give us pause. Do we really want to leave unnoticed an elephant in the room that would render even well-educated and good intentioned people into apologists for the systematic destruction of a race? Now, before Knop or Staynard or someone else misinterprets the previous sentence, note that I emphatically did not just call all religious adherents genocidal. What I said, and let me make this precise, is that the process of rationalizing a religion with a modern understanding of morality can lead one to ignoring or attempting to justify atrocities. If criticism of the kinds of religious thoughts that lead to these problems can help make the world a better place by ensuring that we can continue to progress morally, without being bound to a the values written down in millennia-old book, then I will accept the label of "dick" that seems to come with the territory. I am, after all, in good company.

Returning to the original point, though, why is it that such dishonest and useless definitions as that quoted above still have such staying power? There are obviously lots of reasons for the unfortunate pervasiveness of the "New = Asshole" style of definitions, but I would like to add one more for your consideration: ν atheists are, for the most part, hard to characterize. Is ν atheism new? No; people have been loudly and proudly atheistic for quite a long time. Is gnu atheism well-characterized by a set of beliefs that are distinct from "garden variety" atheism? Not that I've been able to tell.

What unites noo atheists is mostly  what unites many humanists, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, brights and what have you: a dedication to the positive power of rational thought as a tool for advancing human understanding. This comes along with quite a lot of consequences, naturally, which are adopted more readily by some rationalists more than others, but that's as basic an understanding of ν atheism as I've ever been able to achieve. Past that, there is a constant flux of arguments by which we refine and develop our understanding. We are, by nature, curious and exploratory. Many of us are feisty in our ways, celebrating not only in chances to show someone else wrong, but to be shown wrong ourselves. From my view, trying to characterize ν atheists is a project as doomed to failure as trying to herd a bunch of cats.

Monday, March 07, 2011

When good faith fails.

My previous post notwithstanding, there are many times when one finds themselves arguing some position with someone that has little to no interest in seeking the truth. When one's opponent fails to reciprocate your good faith and intellectual honesty, what remains? One strategy is to shift your goal to demonstrate to your audience the lack of honesty exhibited by your opponent. In doing so, perhaps it can be demonstrated that their argument does not rest upon logic and evidence, but upon emotional appeal and on preconceived notions. If so, then the audience is enlightened for having seen the pretense and facade of rationality stripped from your opponent's counterarguments— assuming, that is, that they truly are violating the principle of intellectual honesty.

The question, then, becomes one of how best to strip away pretense and nonsense from what is claimed to be a logical argument. Enter humor. A long tested technique in discourse, the use of humor to defuse emotional appeals by one's opponent and to lay bare the flimsy pseudologic of their arguments has been elevated to an art form. Take, for example, a rhetorical device such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The FSM doesn't make its point directly through well-reasoned arguments, but by a sort of reductio ad absurdum that cuts to the essential absurdity of intelligent design creationism (IDC): the Christian god is added ad hoc without any justification, when any other deity (even a manifestly absurd one like the FSM) would do just as well in its place.

By ridiculing the intelligent design creationist argument, then, the FSM device makes room for a real debate (that is, one based on good faith and intellectual honesty) to occur as it adds a cost to introducing further irrational arguments of a similar kind. In this way, we can see that ridicule acts as a cultural tool to enforce good faith: when one deviates from the principles that enable a debate to be productive, ridicule and sarcasm can be employed to steer the argument back to a potentially constructive state.

One can also think of ridicule as a kind of memetic inoculation against bad-faith arguments such as those used to prop up IDC. Used as inoculation, ridicule works quite well along side well-reasoned and honest arguments, as the ridicule can serve as the mnemonic hook upon which an argument can be hung. For instance, following an argument about the methodological incompatibilities between science and faith, using a term like "faitheist" adds a social cost to using the same discredited arguments (such as "they must be compatible--- to prove it, here's a religious scientist") to justify complete compatibility. In order to be effective, one arguing for compatibility must either provide a novel demonstration of why the arguments packaged up in "faitheist" are wrong, or they must provide novel arguments not addressed in preceding discussions.

In a completely different context, economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman effectively uses ridicule in the same way: his use of the terms like "Serious People" and "Confidence Fairy" serve to keep readers in the context of a previously made argument. Whereas the Republicans (and neo-conservatives more broadly) rely heavily upon a small set of arguments even long after they have been discredited, the use of ridicule can serve as an expedient way of connecting such a discredited argument to its rebuttal.

Even beyond the importance to enabling discourse, there is another important aspect to ridicule and even outright scorn that we ignore to our detriment. Many humans implicitly measure the acceptableness of a position by how their peers react to it, so should we not use that mechanism to stymie the propagation of truly hateful ideas? Leaving the material questions of an afterlife aside, for instance, should we not ridicule and scorn the hateful notion that a being worthy of worship would ever create a place of eternal torment? Hidden in such a supposition is the truly despicable idea that people ever deserve to be tormented, much less for eternity. By ridiculing those advancing without evidence claims of a literal hell (see, for instance, George Carlin's hilarious rants on the subject), we can introduce a social cost not just for being illogical, but also for being hateful.

The danger, of course, in the use of ridicule to remedy bad faith and enforce social costs is that it can all too easily become another example of bad faith itself. Put differently, ridicule is a tool that can be used to manifestly delegitimize arguments that aren't actually legitimate in the first place, or it can be used to delegitimize arguments that are in fact made in all good faith. As a step towards addressing this danger, note that ridicule can be its own balance. Someone that uses ridicule poorly or as a bludgeon to cut off reasoned debate instead of fostering it should themselves be ridiculed. After all, the best of applications of sarcastic wit must necessarily draw upon reality, so having reality on one's side lends potency to their ridicule.

In an ideal situation, such a tool should never be needed, but in practice, I posit that there are many situations that call for tools like ridicule to make room for reasoned discourse to start. I look forward to the day where I can assume good faith by default, but until then, I shall have to be content to have a laugh at the expense of poor reasoning.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The importance of good faith.

Listen long enough to any group of humans talking, and you're likely to hear an argument of some kind. It may be a small argument or it may be a loud and angry argument, but either way, it will very likely nucleate about a disagreement between the parties about some aspect of reality. After all, if all parties involved in an argument agreed with each other on their assessments of reality, there would be nothing to argue about. In much of our arguments, then, we should expect that our goal is to impress upon our peers that some claim is true and correct.
This process of disagreement and ensuing debate are thus potentially good and useful: to the extent that we are only convinced by logically and empirically sound arguments, then debate furthers our understanding of the world. Implicit in this assessment, however, is an assumption that both parties are actually interested in the pursuit of truth. That is, arguments are useful only insofar as the parties to an argument are practicing good faith.

If one is honest about their arguments, then that must necessarily include an understanding that they could be wrong and hence that they could "lose" an argument. Thus, one can violate good faith by disallowing for any change in their views as the result of an argument. This violation is especially common in discussions about religion, where one party to an argument (typically the more religious party) refuses to admit of any evidence or line of reasoning which could possibly budge them from their beliefs. It is simply not plausible that any individual human is infallible, even within some particular domain of knowledge, and so to argue from infallibility is to deny that one's understanding of the world could possibly be more complete. Such a denial is fundamentally incompatible with the goal of learning, and hence has no place in a discussion intended to bring enlightenment.

In a similar vein, good faith requires that one only advance arguments that they do not already know to be false. If someone shows that your argument is not in correspondence with reality, then continuing to use that argument is an affront to the pursuit of understanding and of truth. To be particularly blunt, the use of known-false arguments is simply dishonest, and is the practice of a liar.

It is concerning ourselves with good faith that we find it important to be aware of common logical fallacies. It hardly does anyone any good if an argument is tainted by mistakes which have been well-understood for centuries to be flawed. Appeal to authority, post hoc ergo propter hoc and confusion between correlation and causation, to name a few examples, should all be seen as undermining an argument and hence avoided.

On the other hand, it is similarly unconstructive to bludgeon others with a mistaken understanding of some particular logical fallacy, such as the ad hominem fallacy, that favored bludgeon of those arguing from bad faith. ("What? You called me a clueless gobshite? That means I won!") Focusing on name-calling, ridicule and other such patter comes at the cost of focusing on the merits of an argument. Taken to its extreme, critiquing a lack of decorum represents bad faith in that it distracts from critical evaluation of an argument. Of course there is a point at which a stream of ridicule or a particularly vile insult also disrupts useful debate; I call it a failure of good faith when this valid concern is exaggerated and perverted for the purposes of distraction or suppression.

Perhaps the most common and hence egregious violation of good faith, however, is the intentional mischaracterization of another's opinions for the purpose of delegitimizing their views. While there is room, of course, for arguing that one's opponent is being dishonest in how they describe their views, there is a wide gulf between such arguments and flat-out lying about what someone else does or says. By lying and employing such strawmen, one once again gives up discovering what is true. To wit, fighting a strawman doesn't expose holes in an argument, but rather is a strategy explicitly purposed to prevent having to change one's views in the face of opposition. Such dishonesty is by nature incompatible with reasoned and constructive debate, and should be disdained as strongly as any other form of blatant dishonesty.

Why is good faith so important to me, though? Because I actually care about learning more about the world. Because engaging someone in an well-reasoned argument is time-consuming, and should be reciprocated in kind. Because we, at a societal level, desperately need constructive discourse, no matter how much popular etiquette demands that certain views be kept out of the public sphere. Because constructive dialogue is much more about intellectual honesty and mutual respect for the truth than about how many profanities are spoken. Because we, as a culture, seem to have forgotten (if indeed we ever knew) that truth is something to strive for and that dishonesty is something to hold in contempt.

I don't ask that the whole world agree with me--- that would be boring and quite useless, after all. I don't even ask that people refrain from calling me an ignorant fucktard (or whatever the slang of the day might become). I merely ask of my peers that we all engage in good faith as we seek to improve our understanding of the world.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

τ keeps on slipping...

Apologies: this post is somewhat more specialized than my normal fare, and probably will be boring as hell without a some mathematical knowledge.

Electrons have a negative charge. When you think about it, this really doesn't make much sense; after all, electrons are the charge carriers for electric charge, and so we would hope to assign their charge a positive value. That electrons carry a negative charge isn't a fundamental statement about reality, though, but rather an unfortunate consequence of an arbitrary decision made early on when electricity was being studied, but when electrons were still undiscovered.

Similar cases of unfortunate arbitrary conventions can be seen in other areas of mathematics and science. Recently, for instance, Michael Hartl has argued that $\pi$ is not the right constant to use in the equations governing such things as circles, frequencies and angles. Rather, Hartl argues that $\tau = 2\pi$ is a much more natural choice. Using this convention, the circumference $c$ of a circle is $c=\tau\ r$, eliminating the awkward factor of 2 in $c=2\pi r$. It may seem that we lose something when considering the area $A = \frac12 \tau\ r^2$ of a circle in this notation, but in fact this is much more natural for expressing as an integral, as those familiar with calculus will be happy to note.

Today, I'd like to show you somewhere else in physics where changing notation makes things much more natural. Concretely, I'd like to argue that using a different $\tau$ makes quite a lot of sense, when we using $\tau = it$ as a replacement for the time $t$ in equations. In fact, I take it as a lesson of quantum mechanics that we should consider time to lie along an imaginary axis and not along the real axis. This notational trick, known as Wick rotation, simplifies many physical equations, such as Schrödinger's equation. I find that \(\frac{d}{dt} \left\vert\psi\right\rangle = i \hat{H} \left\vert\psi\right\rangle\)  makes much more sense expressed in imaginary time:
\[\frac{d}{d\tau} \left\vert\psi\right\rangle = \hat{H} \left\vert\psi\right\rangle\] Adopting this convention also makes it manifestly clear why complex conjugation is intimately related to time reversal, since $\tau^* = -\tau$.

It is, in fact, quite rare for $t$ to appear in quantum mechanics without a factor of $i$ attached. Even when describing a classical object interacting with a quantum mechanical system, such as an oscillating field introducing a time-varying term to a system's Hamiltonian (that is, the operator which describes the energy of a system--- if that makes no sense, don't worry), we write something like \[\hat H(t) = \cos(\omega t)\ \hat\sigma_x + \sin(\omega t)\ \hat\sigma_y.\] But wait!, you say! There's no $it$ in that equation! As it turns out, there actually is, but we've hidden it by using trigonometric functions where an exponential function is more natural: \[ \hat{H}(\tau) = e^{-\omega\tau\hat\sigma_z/2}\hat\sigma_x e^{\omega\tau\hat\sigma_z/2} \] This form also has the advantage of making it manifest that the oscillation of the classical field can be thought of as a coordinate rotation of a time-independent field.

Other key results of quantum mechanics become much cleaner with the imaginary-time convention. For instance, this convention along with the natural units convention that $\hbar = 1$ makes Ehrenfest's theorem much less awkward to write: \[\frac{d}{d\tau}\left\langle \hat A\right\rangle = \left\langle \frac{d\hat A}{d\tau}\right\rangle + \left\langle[\hat H, \hat A]\right\rangle\]

At the end of the day, such notational choices as the sign of an electron's charge, the choice of circle constant, or the axis which we use to represent time are all arbitrary. We can do physics quite well even when a choice lacks something in mathematical beauty. My point, then, in exploring the fun of $\tau$ is to show that even though our choice of notation is an arbitrary choice made for the convenience of the humans that work with it, by making our notational choices carefully, we can coax out and make manifest deep truths.

Testing MathJax support

I have recently decided to add MathJax support using the techniques described at Dysfunctional. Unfortunately, math does not seem to be working in preview mode, and so I wrote this test post to see if formulas render when actually published. $H\left\vert\psi\right\rangle = E\left\vert\psi\right\rangle$. $x^2$ $\sqrt{x}$ \( |x^2| = x^* x\)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thoughts in the endgame.

Welcome to the endgame of a long political play for electoral dominance in the United States. What do I mean by that? I mean that groups like The Family and Koch Enterprises, amongst others, have been playing the long game in American politics, and that they have nearly reached the culmination of their strategy. As Rachel Maddow brilliantly explained, the unrest in Wisconsin can only be understood in the context of a struggle for the survival of the Democratic Party. After all, unions are the last bastion of the left in terms of fundraising, and so cutting off unions means cutting fiscal support for the Democratic Party. Especially post-Citizens United, elections are won with money, and so marginalizing unions means disenfranchising voters from all walks of life.

What would it mean, though, for the Republicans to have won so thoroughly? To answer that, it helps to understand what the Republican Party (under all its guises) is and what they stand for. As much as the Democrats are beholden to the forces of irrationality, the Republicans mark themselves as being still less rational. As much as the Democrats are subservient to unbounded corporatism, the Republicans distinguish themselves as being still more enamored of model of the corporation as state. While the Democrats are weak on issues of human rights, the Republicans are plain monstrous.

This last point deserves some elaboration: witness the unabashed war on women, going so far as to seriously propose that it be legal to kill doctors for providing medical care to women that includes abortion. Faced with economic crisis, they would callously eat the future, all the while saying "so be it." Given the pro-democracy movements in many parts of the world, the Republican taking heads are by and large siding with the dictators and using the movements to inflame Islamophobia. What other word than "monstrous" can describe these kinds of actions and positions?

We must ask ourselves, then, whether we want future challengers in the political arena to be obliged to play by rules written by the current crop of Republicans; rules that increasingly leave no room for reasoned debate, or indeed, for any thought more complex than a sound-bite. Do we want to solve our problems, or are we content to let a small few make them much worse as they pursue their own self-interest? Those that have brought us to this endgame know full well that they will not reap what they have sown, for the consequences are still longer-term than their callous and wicked plays at power. Thus it falls to us, those who care about the world that we inherit and that we pass on to the next generation, to decide what the nature of politics will be.

It's not all so bleak, of course. Given that there's about 90,000 people protesting in Wisconsin against the latest round of union-busting, the Republican endgame may yet be averted or at least postponed. Let us not waste the opportunity given to us by this uprising, but instead use it to remind people of what the stakes really are.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Project Umbra Update for 19 Feb

Just thought I'd let you know what I've been working on with Project Umbra for the past two weeks.


The biggest change in Shadowtable has been the addition of a new Combatant Details pane that provides more details about a selected combatant. In the future, this pane will also let the game master quickly change initiative scores and other details.
This pane will also be used for managing players connected to a given combatant via Shadowcloud.


Speaking of Shadowcloud, the mobile-web component of Project Umbra has been updated with several new mocked-up pages which in the future will allow for users to create characters and view their statuses.

The biggest update, however, has been that Shadowcloud is now available for use at Many parts of this app are still non-functional, and those that are are quite alpha-ish, so please be gentle!

Some of the more interesting parts of Shadowcloud that can be viewed now are the character creation page and the character status page.


That's it for this update! I hope you enjoy following Project Umbra, and that as it matures, that you will find it useful.

(Speaking of useful, I could still really use some help from those amongst you more experienced at mobile web development than I am. Please let me know if you would like to join the Project!)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scorching the common ground

Only the most ardently Luddite amongst us deny that technological advances change our lives in myriad, dramatic and often unexpected ways. Western approaches to city planning post-automobile, for instance, differ in marked ways from before the introduction of cheap medium-range transportation. Likewise, the introduction of telecommunications technology like the telegraph and the telephone changed how people relate to each other, making distance that much less of an impediment to human interaction. Broadcast media such as radio or TV changed nearly completely the primary modes by which information and culture diffuse in Western societies.

Of course, too, many of the features of society which we take completely for granted now are the products of advances in technology as well. We use signage to indicate all manner of information, as it is reasonable to expect that the vast majority of adults are literate and thus will be able to understand such signage. Though nearly invisible in its prevalence, then, the use of signage is a feature of a society that has truly adopted the printing press technology to the point where literacy is a requirement for societal participation.

It thus behooves us to understand how technology reshapes society. We do this in many ways, not the least of which is by exploring technological impacts in fiction. Betraying my own literary interests, I feel compelled to point to science-fiction as being one of the primary vehicles for exploring how society--- even humanity itself--- change in the face of technological advances. To choose an example that has truly permeated into the culture-at-large, consider the technologically-driven optimism of Star Trek: the United Federation of Planets represents humanity at its best, thriving in a true post-scarcity economy enabled by fictional technologies such as the replicator. Whether or not we ever make a replicator, or whether such a thing is even physically reasonable, setting a show against the backdrop of a world in which replicator technology has banished scarcity helps us understand something very real and very timely today: rapid prototyping. Sites such as MakerBot, Shapeways and Thingiverse reflect that there are some kinds of scarcity being made obsolete by technological progress. Primarily, scarcity deriving from access to manufacturing equipment is becoming less and less pronounced, shifting scarcity onto raw materials. This obsolescence of scarcity was explored first in fictional worlds such as that depicted in Star Trek, and so we are at least somewhat prepared for its impacts.

Where, then, do we turn to understand how the line between human and machine becomes less obvious by the year? Where, then, do we turn to understand the changing of such concepts as "gender" from immutable to transient? Where, then, do we turn to understand the impacts of an ever increasing longevity? We turn to many things, including turning again to fictional realms. We turn to stories like Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, to stories like Accelerando (free e-book, CC licensed), to stories like Ghost in the Shell. There are, of course, many many others that could and should be mentioned in such a list--- it is beyond my intent to provide such a list here, though. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the usefulness of a story to discussion need not hinge on its direct physical reasonableness. Indeed, fanciful tales help us understand quite a bit about the relentless advance of technology and of scientific knowledge.

Many issues of transhumanism and of a society transformed by access to information can be understood under that most controversial of umbrellas, the Singularity. There, we find stories and arguments abound to help us understand what it means to be human when our biology is a platform as fungible as any other. In discussing and understanding the arguments and stories that go along with the Singularity, we find new perspectives on the human condition, at least some of which shall hopefully be useful in the decades and centuries to come.

Here, I note that those defending the irrationality of religion make arguments that are, on the surface, quite similar. It doesn't matter if there exists any literal gods, so long as the stories help us understand ourselves. The primary difference in my argument, however, is that I do not advocate rejecting the application rationality and skepticism on the basis that temporarily suspending it can be a useful exercise. Indeed, it is well argued that the rejection of skepticism is a highly dangerous position to take, even at its best. Thus, I reject the "rapture of the nerds" approach to the Singularity as completely as I reject the whole thesis of religion.

The conflating of useful hypotheticals and of artistic endeavors with a religion-like dedication to a set of claims, even in absence of evidence, is why I take issue with the Kurzweil approach to the Singularity so rightfully mocked by PZ Myers today. By turning the Singularity from a discussion into a religion, Kurzweil and others like him obstruct the usefulness of Singularity thought. Rational and skeptical people, reacting to Kurzweilian nonsense like "immortality in 35 years," are inclined to sometimes also reject the usefulness of hypothetical thinking about posthumanism, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and of pervasive information networking.

My humble proposal, then, is to reject the scorched ground of religion-infused Singularity thinking and to instead find common ground well-supported by the rigors of evidence and yet informed by hypotheticals. We can have it both ways insofar as we are willing to refrain from magical thinking about technology that passes Clarkian thresholds.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Announcing Project Umbra: Mixing metaphors (in a good way).

It's no secret that I am a gamer. I play board games, card games, video games, tabletop games... pretty much every kind of game this side of LARPs (I do have limits). As a gamer, I see games changing in response to technological advances, along with everything else in society. Video games, for instance, have transformed immensely into one of the richest new art forms available. At the same time, advances in small-run printing coupled with online fora for game reviews have allowed for many more unique board and card games ranging in complexity from stunningly simple (such as Zombie Dice) to mind-mindbogglingly complex (such as Arkham Horror or Battlestar Galactica).

What remains, however, is the conception that tabletop, board and card games are based on physical objects (dice, cards, boards, papers, tokens, figurines, maps, etc.) whilst video games are based on information processing. This divide means that the more complex games, like those mentioned above, require an awful lot of bookkeeping to play, dissuading all but the more passionate gamers such as myself. This is seen in extremes with many roleplaying game systems. The rulebooks for HERO System 6th Edition, for instance, cost $80 and weigh in at about 1,000 full-color pages. Players must keep track of endurance, body and stun damage, mental and physical defences, skill level allotments, initiative, position, etc., while the game master (GM) must keep track of all of this and more for each of the antagonists.

My question, then, is what power can be gained by mixing the physical and informational models. Let the computers do what they do best, keeping track of rules and statistics, while the humans do what humans do best: spin stories and build worlds. Of course, many tools exist that nudge in this direction, but very few embrace the fusion of information processing with physical metaphor and human creativity.

Enter Project Umbra: a suite of web-based tools for keeping track of stats and states in Shadowrun 4e. Players will be able to log in to a game hosted by a GM from their smartphones, and will be shown their damage levels, wound modifiers, initiative orders and other vital information. The GM, for his/her part, will be able to use an Android tablet (Honeycomb or later) to view and manipulate entire combats quickly and unobtrusively. Games won't have to be interrupted to ask for initiative rolls from each player in turn; they can simply tap a button on their phones to make that information available to the GM, keeping table talk focused on the characters rather than the rules.
A player can quickly see what games are available to them from their mobile phones using the web-based Shadowcloud client.
In the future, I plan on expanding Project Umbra to other roleplaying systems, but for now, focusing on Shadowrun 4e allows for the project to be developed organically--- that is, without having to understand the full scope before writing each line of code. The potential here is rather unexplored, after all, and so it's far from clear what the right approach will be to each problem.
A game master can quickly view and manipulate an entire combat by using an unobtrusive tablet, instead of a laptop whose screen blocks their view of players.
Like any truly community-minded project, Project Umbra is an open-source project based on open specifications and open platforms. The tablet-facing part of Umbra is based on the Android platform, and as such, can be run on any of the many forthcoming Honeycomb-powered devices. The web-based portion uses Google App Engine for Java (itself a derivative of the open-specification J2EE platform) to serve standards-compliant HTML5 content powered by the open-source jQuery and jQuery Mobile libraries. Communications between components are handled by JSON serialized data, generated by the Gson library. All Umbra-specific code is licensed under either the GPL or AGPL, as appropriate, and as such, is freely available to interested developers for reuse.

I think the potential for Project Umbra is quite exciting, frankly, and am looking forward to playing more with it and making the most I can of the technology. If you would like to be a part of the project and help in any way, please let me know. Just like any good game, Umbra isn't limited to just one mind.

Happy gaming!

Monday, February 07, 2011

An opportunity for self-improvement.

The abstract is often easier to understand by way of concrete examples. It is all well and good to speak of a pattern, but without showing an anecdote that illustrates that pattern, it's difficult at best to understand the significance of that pattern. It is thus that I'd like to briefly revisit last night's post on moral blind spots, taking the time to point out one specific community that could benefit from some self-reflection about such blind spots.

I speak of the problem of sexism within the atheist community. To put my example in context, consider some of the reasons an individual might adopt atheism: a skepticism towards unsubstantiated claims made by religions, an understanding of and respect for science as a method of learning, and (perhaps most importantly) a dedication to the use of reason as a problem-solving and decision-making tool. Note that all three of these reasons by necessity involve some level of introspection, observation and rational thinking--- all tools essential to making good moral decisions. Moreover, by definition, atheism is absent the intense homeostatic motives of religion, enabling a greater responsiveness to advances in moral thinking.

One would thus be justified in suspecting that the atheist community would be, on the whole, less susceptible to the all-too-human biases, preconceptions and discriminatory divisiveness found in so many other human communities. Alas, however, there exist some stunning counterexamples, from which I wish to highlight a particular counterexample. Jen McCreight has taken a fair amount of her time lately to document examples of sexism in the atheist community, including accepting a guest post on the subject and documenting the deplorable behavior found at r/atheism (see here, here and here).

As I have said before and will likely say again, one of the quintessential features of scientific thinking and of rational thinking is the capacity to self-improve by recognizing errors. Here, we see a notable blind spot that many (but not all!) of my peers in the atheist community seem to share. If we are as truly dedicated to the cause of rationality as I would hope that we are, then this is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that we need not be burdened by such irrational biases. We can make manifest our willingness to be wrong and to make amends by recognizing that our behavior is not as respectful of those women in our community that offer such potential to enrich and broaden our views. We can make positive changes to grow our community into a healthier and more diverse group, starting by eschewing sexism.

It is no secret that our culture is not always kind to women, girls and others that check the "female" box when filling out forms. If, however, we are to truly take the principle of self-correction seriously, then we must rise above the nonsense that is sexism. Please, don't squander this opportunity to do the right thing.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

On weak points and blind spots.

It's been a long time since I've written here, I know. I'd like to break the silence with some long, epic post composed of sheer brilliance, but I don't see that happening. Instead, I'd like to expound briefly on some themes that are by now familiar to readers of this blog.

In particular, I've been thinking a lot lately about how and why intelligent, well-meaning people can still do horrible things, or at the least, turn a blind eye to them. Even the most thoughtful of people can be seen to ignore the role, for example, that the Catholic Church plays in perpetuating the AIDS epidemic. Those that otherwise serve as prime examples of humanistic morals can still ignore or deem unimportant the moral issues associated with modern communication, such as censorship, DRM, or net neutrality. Passionate feminists can still take a sex-negative attitude (though many, thankfully, do not). So too can passionate advocates of science and education be misogynistic creeps.

In my experience, everybody, regardless of intelligence or compassion, is afflicted by moral blind spots and weak spots. It is important to remember this as we make decisions in life, as none of us is infallible, and as none of us have privileged access to the facts and logic that must direct our compassion. Indeed, there have been many times where I have been wrong in my thinking about ethics and morals, and where I have been happy to have been shown the errors in my previous modes of thought. (This is a theme that I hope to get around to revisiting soon!) To my mind, then, the most important part of moral thinking must be a willingness to be wrong, paired with a dedication to discovering and correcting such wrongs.

Of course, I have been a bit glib until now in using words like "wrong" to describe moral hypotheses, so allow me to rectify that. When I discover that my attitudes and morals imply a course of action that would unduly harm another sentient by infringing upon their ability to exercise their freedoms as they see fit, I call such attitudes "wrong." Just as surely, if I harm someone by unfairly restricting their opportunities, then that is also "wrong." If I base my moral thinking on suppositions which are found to be false, then that thinking is "wrong." Thus, self-correction takes the form of education: to avoid such wrong-headed approaches to life, I must be educated sufficiently to empathize with as many points of view as possible, and I must be educated such that I can well predict and understand the consequences of my actions.

Invariably, however, I will not achieve omniscience, and thus must by necessity commit to wrong modes of thought where ethics and morals are concerned. The drive to improve oneself is essential in coming to terms with this reality; if I cannot eliminate blind spots, can I not make them smaller?