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David and the Gem Troll

2017 September 21
by sonicsuns

David and the Gem Troll


Deep under the mountains, in a place so dark that not even moles dared to live there, there was a young boy named David. If you had been there to see it, if you had stood a distance away from him across the expanse of a great black cavern, he would looked akin to a little lost star which bobbed quietly, and awkwardly, back and forth through the mournful underground. In his right hand he carried a tiny lantern, which contained a tiny candle, and the flame of this candle was the only light for many miles in any direction.

David’s eyes, if you could have seen them at all, would have seemed remarkably large, for he had to open them as wide as possible in order to see anything. His ragged hair stuck out at odd angles from under his cap. His clothes were so caked with dirt that they seemed uniformly brown, to the extent that you could scarcely tell where his shirt met his pants, or even where his pants met his shoes. He walked with a double-bent posture, scouring the ground below him and the walls around him. Now and then something would catch his interest, and he fished a small pickax from his left pocket. With a few cautious strikes he would pick away at the surface he’d chosen, eyeing it intensely all the while. And if he was greeted with flash of red or blue, or any other color, then his work became all the more intense. He would put the lantern aside very carefully then, and use both hands to extract the gemstone from the rock.

He needed gems so he could escape.

When his pack was finally full, he tied it shut with twine. Then he made the long journey back to the Gem Troll. He crossed over underground rivers and climbed underground cliffs. He squeezed his way through tight tunnels which had been made only slightly wider by his repeated use of them. Little by little, the landmarks grew more familiar, and the world passed by quicker simply because he had memorized the best way to navigate it. There were times when he hardly even needed the lantern, so thoroughly did he remember the way. And of course there was also the smell, which grew stronger and stronger as he approached the lair of the Gem Troll.

David’s pace quickened further. Maybe this time. Maybe this time. Now. Finally. This could be the moment! This could be the final haul! By the time he reached the lair he was almost running, though his legs had nearly forgotten how. He turned a corner and saw the Gem Troll in silhouette, towering at over five times his own height, seated at the Outer Wall, facing inward, surrounded by heavenly light.

“Master!” cried David, and he stumbled forward and his master’s feet. “I’m here.”

The Gem Troll made a low, deep grumbling noise. His thick black hair hung down around his shoulders, and he slowly raised a hand to scratch at the beetles which nested there. His fingers were long and bony, which only served to contrast with his large, flabby stomach. His skin was green and pockmarked. His legs were laid out clumsily before him. But even in slumber, he never moved in such a way as to give his servant any chance of escape. Finally, the Gem Troll opened his monstrous yellow eyes and stared down at David.

“You’re late” he grumbled.

David was still panting. “I…I-I’m sorry. But…it’s such a long walk, now. All the closer caverns have been picked clean, I’m sure of it! I was just-”

“WHAT DID YOU FIND?” bellowed the Troll. David knew from long experience how quickly the Troll’s mood could change.

David emptied his back at the Troll’s feet. “Here, here it is.”

The Troll bent down to inspect the gems, and for a moment a gap opened up behind him. These were the moments that David treasured, for behind the Gem Troll there lay a large gap in the side of the mountain. It was the only way to leave the caverns below the mountain, and sometimes, when the Troll shifted position, the Outer World was revealed, just for a moment. It was a brilliant summer’s day outside. Even though it hurt his eyes to look, David did not dare to blink. He dreamed of walking once more among the vibrant fields of green under a warm blue sky, and of-

CRASH! The Troll sat upright again with a start, blocking the boy’s view entirely. The cave was suddenly much darker now, and the Troll became less distinct in David’s eyes. But he knew from the hiss in the Gem Troll’s teeth that his master was displeased. A long moment passed between them.

“I…I did what you said.” started David, hoping in vain to change the subject.

“I warned you not to look” growled the Troll.

David fell to his knees. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!”

The Troll sighed with exasperation. Then he spoke again, and this time his voice took on a suave, almost gentlemanly quality, in addition to the undertone of ugliness which it always carried. “Well…I suppose I can overlook the…occasional infraction. The gems are…” and here he breathed a long breath, “…acceptable.”

“Master…I was just…”

“Bring me more.”

“I…I…” David choked back a sob.

“Don’t cry.”

“I just…”


Without another word, David picked up his pack and his lantern, and vanished once more into the tunnels that lead deeper into the mountainside.

He went hungry that day, having left in such a hurry. The next day he delivered his gems without comment, without even looking up, and Troll provided him with is usual rations: Dead beetles. culled from the Troll’s own scalp. David told himself he should be grateful for receiving anything. It was the Troll who kept him alive, after all. Without the Troll’s help, he would surely starve to death.

A month went by. Then another. David had long since lost track of time down in the depths. He could scarcely remember what life had been like before this, before the Troll had taken him. But there had been a life before; he was sure of it. It was a time of songs and light and freedom. He loved those early days. He would give anything to get them back. And that was why, day after day, night after night, he hunted through caves which the Troll was too large to explore on its own. Because the Troll had promised him his freedom, if only he could find enough gems.

With ceaseless toil and determination, David collected more gems for the Troll. He moved beyond mere rubies and sapphires. He climbed upward through jagged tunnels, sometimes slipping on his own blood in order to reach the best caverns where diamonds lay in wait. And his master was pleased, so David worked even harder, bringing him diamonds day after day until finally he worked up the courage to ask once more about his fate.



“I was wondering…I’ve brought you so many diamonds recently, and- and you you seem to like them, so…”

“I do like them.”

David dared to smile a little. “That’s—that’s wonderful, master. I was wondering if…maybe…you have enough? Maybe I can…”

The Troll eyed him suspiciously, but David couldn’t stop himself.

“…go free?”

The Gem Troll smiled slowly. “Come closer”.

David walked a few steps, then a few more. The troll leaned down towards him and for a moment David could almost feel the sunlight streaming in…

CRASH! The Troll slammed his massive hand down upon David, striking each bony finger into the ground around him. The boy fell down with a start, trapped within the cage of flesh.

“Ask me again” growled the Troll.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry please!”

“Ask me again!”

The fingers started closing in around him. David could barely get the words out. “May…may I go free?”


The fingers gripped David and slammed him against the ground, nearly knocking him unconscious. David’s vision swam, and he felt dizzy. The hand backed away, and the cave grew dark again.

“David” said the Troll, and suddenly his voice was more gentle, “you must understand that these gems are very important to me. And so are you.”

David looked up but did not dare to rise further. The Troll continued, “I am not your enemy. I am your ally. I am the greatest friend you will ever have. This is all for your own good. In time…you will understand.”

David whimpered quietly.

“Here,” said the Troll, “You’ve worked so hard recently. Have a double portion today, and take some time to rest.”

The hand re-entered the light around the lantern, and opened to reveal twice as many dead beetles as it usually contained. David could scarcely believe his eyes. Suddenly ravenous, he leapt up and began shoving them into his mouth, eating as many as he could before the Troll had a chance to change its mind. When he was full, he stuffed the remainder in his pack, wiped tears from his eyes, and warily made his way toward the dark tunnels.

“David” said the Troll.

David stopped.

“After you’ve rested…make sure you bring me more gems.”

David nodded vigorously, too scared and grateful and bewildered to disagree in the slightest. Then his disappeared into the darkness once more.

The years passed by in this way. David went deeper and deeper into the mountainside, and the trips back and forth became longer and longer, and he delivered more and more gems. Sometimes he was lucky, and found a place where gems were abundant, and the Troll praised him, but did not set him free. Sometimes, he was unlucky, and spent days or weeks barely finding anything, and the Troll was angry. Sometimes, more and more rarely, he asked the Troll about his freedom, and the Troll responded with violence or kindness or silence or laughter…but never was the boy set free.

Sometimes the Troll told him that freedom would soon be his, and the boy would work harder in order to make use of the opportunity. Sometimes the Troll told him that freedom was a long way off, and the boy would work harder in order to chip away at his long task. Sometimes the boy gave up hope and sat very still in the darkness for days. Sometimes he even thought of taking his own life. But then he would rouse himself with the memory of freedom, and rededicate himself to the task at hand. On one occasion he actually became angry with the Troll, and shouted at him, but the Troll responded with such fury that the boy never dared to show anger again. Indeed, he found that he could not hate the Troll. By long habit, all his hatred was directed inward. If only he could find more gems! If only he could be better! If only he could gain his father’s love!

“Father”? David stopped a moment when that thought crossed his mind. He looked down at his own skin, and he remembered. He was not a Troll. He had no wish to be a Troll. He did not care for gems or tunnels. He did not enjoy the taste of beetles. No, he was not a Troll and he was not the son of a Troll. He was…he was…


And there he stood, in the farthest reach of the longest tunnel he had ever explored, when suddenly the horror of his life came crashing down on him. He was not born for this. He was not meant for this. He was not….what was the word…HAPPY with this! And he saw in a dawning realization that he had long since forgotten about his own happiness, about his true place, about the injustice, the sheer INJUSTICE of what he had suffered, and his awareness of the truth had been even dimmer than the little candle that he carried, but in that moment he became aware of something.

He wept. And then with an angry cry he struck the nearest wall with all his might-

CRASH! The wall crumbled where he had struck. Small rocks tumbled apart from one another, and he saw…something…

Then he dug forward in a mad frenzy, till the entire wall fell to pieces and he saw truly what lay beyond. The Outer World. A beautiful moonlight night, with fields of long grass drifting in the wind. He felt the impossibly fresh air fill his lungs.

He had reached the other side of the mountain. And suddenly he realized that this had never occurred to him. In all his years, he had always wanted to escape the underground, but early on…somehow…somehow he had come to believe that only the Troll could set him free. There was only one exit that he knew of. He never imagined that there might be another, or that he might forge an escape route with his own two hands.

He fell to his knees, and wept again, and hugged himself tightly. He wailed and screamed and laughed and wept and breathed. And in time, he allowed himself to think.

The Troll had never intended to set him free. He saw that now. All this time…all this time…he could have forged his own path. He could have acted on the wisdom of his soul: Slavery is not freedom.

It was a long, long time before David rose to his feet. It was even longer before his scars, and his soul, could be fully healed. But on that magical evening, he left the underground. His pack, his lantern and his pickax all lay discarded in the grass, untouched. He spent his life in the Outer World, and he never saw the Gem Troll again.

Tales of the Teacher: The Wrong Maze

2016 October 13
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by sonicsuns

In a distant land, there once ruled a great emperor who came to be known as Haldonis the First. In his old age, he commanded his greatest craftsmen to build a massive tomb underground, which took the form of a great maze, and he filled the maze with hungry beasts and clever traps. In the most unreachable portion of the maze, he placed a glistening ruby, which was his greatest treasure. He did this so that no one who possess the ruby without proving himself worthy. When the great maze was completed, all those who crafted it were sworn to greatest secrecy, and for many centuries there were none who knew its location, let alone how its corridors might be navigated and endured.

Many years later, long after the empire had crumbled, a group of explorers were walking in a canyon when they discovered a hidden door. It led deep underground, and the walls inside were lined with the signs and symbols of the great Haldonian Empire. The explorers were greatly excited. They said among themselves “Look here! We have discovered the great maze of Haldonis the First! Soon we shall find his ruby!” So they entered the maze. Inside, they found the way to be extremely dark and difficult. Viscious beasts attacked them, and clever traps threatened to crush them with stone or impale them with metal. But still, the explorers said among themselves “The way is difficult, but the prize is great. We must carry on!” And so they continued their search.

In time, more explorers approach the door from outside, which was easy to find now that it was open. Each new group plunged into the darkness, taking different routes and using different strategies, all in hopes of finding the great ruby. Sometimes they worked in harmony. Other times they fought and bickered. Always they continued their search.

One day, the Teacher arrived. He examined the markings on the walls of the maze, and he reached a conclusion. He said “Explorers! You do not know what you do! This is not the maze of Haldonis the First! No, it is the maze of Mengin, who was many generations removed from him! If you had read the histories, you would have discovered that Mengin was greatly envious of his forebearer’s fame, and he sought to outdo him by constructing a maze of his own. But he had no great ruby to hide. Indeed, the empire by that time had grown weak, and much of its treasure was wasted in the construction of this very maze. Mengin himself looked for the maze of Haldonis, but he never succeeded, not even in finding its entrance.”

Upon hearing this, the explorers were greatly upset. Many of them denied the Teacher’s conclusions, even after he had demonstrated their veractiy. Other explorers claimed that the Teacher did not understand the value of persistance, nor the progress that they had made. To this, the Teacher replied: “Remember Virchessa: What is persistance without wisdom? And what good is it to make progress in this maze, when it is the wrong maze to begin with? If you are intent on finding the ruby of Haldonis, then leave this maze and search for the other maze, the maze which actually contains the treasure which you seek.” And there were some who heeded the Teacher’s warnings, but there were many who did not. Those who remained in the maze of Megin never found any treasure of great value, and many of them suffered without gain.

The people asked the Teacher: “What is the meaning of this story?”
The Teacher replied: “First, a crucial error can spoil an entire endeavor. Second, you must be willing to admit your mistakes when they are revealed to you, instead of maintaining the same course. There is little value in searching a maze if you are in the wrong maze to begin with.”
And thus, to this day, one person may say to another “You are in the wrong maze”, if the other has made a crucial error or assumption.

Examining a Critique of Anita Sarkessian

2016 September 29
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by sonicsuns

Anita Sarkeesian is a controversial figure. She’s the creator of a web series called Feminist Frequency, in which she criticizes popular media from a feminist perspective. Her most controversial material comes from a sub-series called “Women vs. Tropes in Video Games.”

I’m a gamer myself (though I’m not hard-core), and I’ve always appreciated Anita’s videos. They’re calm, fair and helpful. For instance, there really is a dearth of female protagonists in popular games. It’s good for someone to point that out so we can start making things more equal. I also like how she (nearly) always includes the following disclaimer: “It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” She’s not saying that games are evil and gamers are sexist; she’s just gently pointing out that there’s some sexism in these otherwise-good games, and we ought to fix that in the future. Sounds reasonable to me!

Unfortunately, Anita has been the subject of intense online abuse, to the point where she has needed police protection. This has reinforced the idea that Anita is pointing the way to progress whilst her critics are a bunch of crazy sexist people. But I’ve heard tell from some quarters that there are also legitimate reasons to criticize Anita, which tend to get drowned out by all the crazy sexists. (I’m also aware of the Feminist temptation to brand any and all critics as sexist, because tarring your opponents makes rhetorical victory so much easier. Lots of groups are tempted to tar their opponents in one way or another.) So I decided to find a piece of thoughtful, in-depth criticism to see if Anita deserved it. The piece I chose is called “Sarkeesian vs. Truth” and it’s written by Mytheos Holt.

Holt condemns online harassment in his introduction. I give him credit for this, and in turn I condemn anyone who harasses Holt in a similar way. But once he moves beyond the introduction and gets to the real meat of the article, his logic takes a bizarre turn. He begins his piece about Anita Sarkeesian by criticizing people who aren’t Anita Sarkessian. Huh?

Holt introduces us to Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, both of whom were known for their sex-negative views. They seem to have taken the opinion that all sex is rape, even though they simultaneously denied that they had that opinion. Dworkin even stated that women who enjoy heterosexual sex are “collaborators, more base than other collaborators have ever been: experiencing pleasure in their own inferiority.” That all sounds ridiculous and awful and worthy of criticism, but I don’t see what any of this has to do with Anita Sarkeesian. I mean, does Anita ever express these views? Apparently not, because if she did express them then I expect Holt would have proven it with a quote.

I’ll grant that her “Women as Background Decoration” videos seem a bit sex-negative on the surface, since they consist of pointing out sexy women and saying “This is sexist”, but that could easily be taken to mean that excessive female sexuality is a problem, not that it’s a problem in all cases. If women are almost always displayed a hypersexual and almost never displayed as anything else, that reveals a narrow view of what women can be. This critique applies equally well to anything. For instance, if women were almost always depicted as construction workers and almost never depicted as anything else, that too would reveal a narrow view of what women can be. I think what Anita is aiming for is variety, and so she only comes across as sex-negative because the current standard is hypersexual. (If you doubt that last bit, just look at all the hypersexual examples which Anita cites.) Furthermore, she repeatedly returns to the fact that these female characters tend to be passive in their sexuality. So it’s not a simple “Sex is bad” message, it’s “Female characters should have as much agency as male characters, on average”. I think she’d be fine with sexy women if they were treated as something more than decoration. And she doesn’t claim that all women in games are treated like this; she’s just saying that this particular brand of woman is more common than it ought to be. Sounds reasonable to me.

Anyway, Holt barely touches on any of that. He writes that Anita “clearly believes that female characters being put in sexually suggestive outfits is an attack on women’s agency, to say nothing of the loathing she holds for depictions of the sex industry in games, [which] mark her as more sex negative than not.” Again, Anita states time and again that her problem is not the sexuality itself but rather the one-dimensionalness and passivity of the hypersexual characters. She states: “These games systematize sexuality in ways that dehumanize women, essentially turning them into vending machines dispensing sex, along with other goods and services.” The key word there is “dehumanize”. She also says: “This is especially sad because interactive media has the potential to be a perfect medium to genuinely explore sex and sexuality.” Did you hear that? Anita just said that it’s perfectly fine to deal with sexual themes; she just doesn’t like it when the women are always one-dimensional and passive. But Holt seems to have missed that. He calls her “sex-negative” even though she’s explicitly ok with the idea of exploring sexual themes.

The closest he gets to connecting Anita with Dworkin goes like this: In Anita’s first video, she doesn’t mention Dworkin, but if you go to Anita’s website you can find resources associated with her videos, and one of the sources she cites…is, again, not written by Dworkin, but if you click through to this article which was not written by Dworkin but was in fact written by Martha Nussbaum, you’ll find that it begins with a quote from Dworkin.

What the heck? Is this seriously the best you can do? Here’s an idea: Let’s judge Anita by the things that she actually says and does, and not by this indirect Guilt by Association thing. I know I’d hate to be judged if I happened to cite somebody who happened to quote somebody else and then suddenly I’m thought to be roughly equivalent to this third person. It’s just not fair.

Holt also tries to forge a link between Anita and sex-negative MacKinnon, using the following quote from Anita:

“So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object”. This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found or a goal to be achieved. The brief intro sequence accompanying many classic arcade games tends to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that’s been stolen from the protagonist.”

You will notice that this has nothing to do with sexuality. Holt’s argument literally rests on the words “subject” and “object”. MacKinnon used those words to describe her views on sexuality, and Anita used those words to describe something else, therefore clearly the two of them have the same views. What? What the heck? Hey Holt, if I mention that sentences in English are usually constructed according to the pattern “Subject Verb Object”, does that mean that I’m sex-negative and I agree with the views of MacKinnon? Of course not! So what the heck is the connection here?

When Anita says, in the above quote, that the damsel is an “object”, she means that the damsel never gets to accomplish anything or develop in any significant way. She’s just a MacGuffin, and she could easily be replaced with a treasure chest or something. (“Mario! Bowser has stolen our treasure chest! Go fight Bowser and bring back our treasure!”) Likewise, when the man is a “subject”, it means that he gets to accomplish things and drive the plot and such. The most sex-positive feminist in the world would agree with this, yet Holt cites it as a clear example of sex-negative thinking.

Holt claims that Anita “only represents one, very extreme side of the feminist movement.” Where the hell is he getting that? It’s Dworkin who holds the extreme views, not Anita. In fact, just a few paragraphs ago Holt himself described Anita’s position as “more sex negative than not”, which doesn’t sound especially extreme. Anita is, at worst, only mildly sex-negative, and I hesitate to say even that. She explicitly states that sex is a fine theme to explore; she’s just got a problem with the superficial male-dominated way that it’s typically presented. She does not say that sexuality is automatically bad. So what, exactly, makes her so sex-negative in Holt’s eyes?

Next comes a section called “Sarkessian the censor”. Throughout this whole piece, Holt seems to have a strange idea of what a “censor” is. My best guess is that his framework holds only two categories: Critic and Censor. A critic is someone who reviews the work on its own merits. A critic might complain about the Damsel in Distress trope because it’s overused and boring, but they would never make larger comments about how this trope reflects or influences society as a whole. Then comes the censor, who does make such comments, and who seeks to eliminate certain tropes as being inherently harmful. But he seems to have missed the third category that falls between these two: the Social Critic. A social critic, by my definition, does make comments about how tropes impact society, but they don’t necessarily want to ban certain tropes. A social critic might complain that the Damsel in Distress trope encourages the view that women are passive, but he wouldn’t rail against the idea of ever depicting a damsel in distress. He’d just advocate for a balanced approach, where the overall media landscape has roughly the same number of “Woman rescues man” and “Man rescues women” stories. A single use of the trope isn’t enough; it’s the pattern of usage, across many different stories, which eventually adds up to a problem.

Anita says “Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.” Holt responds:

“This is the last thing a critic of any art form, especially one that relies so heavily on narrative, should say. Imagine if, say, legendary Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom dismissed the play Othello as sexist because it ended with the death of a woman, and when challenged with the fact that said death is meant to be tragic and render the hero permanently irredeemable, responded, “It doesn’t matter what the internal logic of the play does. Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This play ends with a woman being murdered, therefore it’s a sexist play.””

But allow me to counter Holt’s counter: Imagine if, say, almost every play involved women getting killed for one reason for another, but men almost never got killed. This collective pattern would indicate a rather strange view of women. Even if their deaths are all tragic, you could still reasonably wonder why it is that playwrights seem to think that women are mortal and men aren’t. This skewed framework would be worthy of comment at least, even if it didn’t rise to the level of condemnation. And therefore, even though you praise Othello as a masterpiece, you might note that it still perpetuates the “age-old cliché” that women always get murdered in plays. And maybe, because Othello is so good and the murder is such an integral part of it, you would balk at the idea of ever changing Othello, but you could still wonder if plays in general might stop using this one overused trope.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Anita is necessarily being entirely fair here. It’s worth noting that she focuses on violence against women, when the vast majority of in-game violence is directed at men. It’s worth noting that the larger social context she appeals to is one in which 70% of American murder victims are male. (Meanwhile, roughly 70% of sexual assault victims are female.) One could easily make the case that this is more complicated that Anita seems to believe, and that if the passivity of Princess Peach somehow encourages passivity in women, then perhaps the specter of Mario repeatedly dunking Bowser in lava has something to do with the male-on-male violence rate.

In addition to comprising 70% of murder victims, men also comprise 90% of murderers. So men are disproportionately violent, and also disproportionately the victims of (non-sexual) violence, and also the violent men tend to target women disproportionally more often than their fellow men (otherwise a 90% male-murderer rate would imply a 90% male-victim rate, which is not the case.) It’s all quite complicated, really, and you argue that Anita hasn’t done a good enough job of exploring these complications. But Holt jumps straight to the cry of “Censor!”, even though Anita hasn’t actually proposed, for instance, a law which would ban violence against women in video games.

Can you be a censor without supporting censorship laws? Well yes, I suppose you can. You can shame your opponents into silence with protests and boycotts and such. But when Anita says “It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”, she’s being really mild on the censorship front. She’s not asking us to boycott these games or abuse their creators; she’s just asking the creators to make better games in the future. If that sort of commentary is somehow not ok, then what is?

Holt writes: “Sarkeesian never attempts to justify her criticism of video game tropes on the grounds that they lead to bad games, or poorly told stories, but rather with the utilitarian argument that these tropes damage society too much for any story, no matter how well told, to include them.” But I don’t think that’s her position, or at least that’s not necessarily her position. Again, I think what Anita wants is variety and balance. She deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least.

Holt writes: “We rightly recoil from films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Triumph of the Will,” which can be clearly said to have contributed to the perpetuation of racism in America in one case, and the rise of Adolf Hitler in the other. However, there is no equivalent to these films in video game lore, either in content or in stylistic elegance (“Custer’s Revenge” comes close, content-wise, though its poor execution has rendered it a punchline rather than a source of shame).”

He’s correct. There are a few truly horrible games out there which almost nobody has ever heard of, but among the mass-market games there is nothing that compares to Birth of a Nation. Fair enough. But Anita never said that games were that bad. She just said that they have some “pernicious aspects”. Her strongest language is when she says “it’s dangerously irresponsible to be creating games in which players are encouraged and even required to perform violence against women in order to “save them””. “Dangerously irresponsible” does sound like the language of a censor…but she never follows through. She never calls for boycotts or legal bans. Let’s judge her by what she actually does, shall we?

Holt brings up the notorious career of Jack Thompson, who repeatedly tried to sue the game industry for supposedly encouraging violence, and he based that assertion on flimsy research. Anita’s research may be flimsy too, but it’s worth noting that she’s never actually tried to sue anybody.

Holt writes: “Art has never been required to cater to the whims of this or that ideological group simply by virtue of aesthetic disapproval, and nor should it.” But just recently Holt said that Birth of a Nation is truly rotten and a source of shame. Is it so hard to imagine, then, that some bits of media might be mildly rotten and deserving of some social criticism? That’s the role that Anita is trying to fulfill. She’s not saying, for instance, that we have to ban Jazz music because she just doesn’t like it. She saying that we need balanced depictions of women and men in order to have a more balanced society. Maybe she goes too far or forgets nuance on occasion, but overall she seems to have a pretty good point.

Holt ends his first article by reflection on how he once reviewed BioShock: Infinite. The game takes place in a floating city which is both overwhelmingly evil and overwhelmingly America-themed. For instance, you have to kill a giant George Washington robot in order to win. If he had been uncharitable, he could have denounced the whole game as “un-American”. But instead he took the time to grasp the details, and he concluded that the game is really anti-racism and anti-jingoism, and it’s a sort of parable about what America could theoretically become if it ever gave in to those temptations.

I applaud Holt for being so reasonable, but I must insist that the broader social context has some bearing on the meaning of a piece. If we were bombarded with anti-American rhetoric everyday, I’d be a little more skeptical of BioShock: Infinite. I’d wonder if the creators had internalized (perhaps unconsciously) some anti-American sentiment. I’d worry that the game might inflame anti-American feelings among its viewers, regardless of the creator’s intent. But while there isn’t a big history of anti-American feeling in the U.S., there is a history of sexism. So it makes sense that we’d be a little more sensitive to the idea of sexism in our media, since we know that’s something we tend to have a problem with. I understand that this can be taken too far. I certainly don’t want someone slamming a random game as awful and sexist just because it has a damsel in distress. But when we make hundreds and hundreds of games and the overall trend is to have damsels in distress way more often than dudes in distress, I think that’s a good time to pipe up, gently but firmly, and say “Hey guys, I think we can do better.”

In part 2 of his series, Holt criticizes Anita for having non-transparent sources. Many of her links are behind paywalls, for instance. I agree that this diminishes her work somewhat, and overall this video series does not meet academic standards. (Then again, this is a web series and not a thesis paper.) Anita says “studies have shown” a lot without really getting into the exact studies or discussing the ways in which they might be flawed. So yes, there’s some reason for criticism here.

But she still makes valid points, doesn’t she? I don’t need a study to tell me that it’s kindof weird that male protagonists outnumber female protagonists like 10 to 1. Clearly the world is split 50-50 between men and women, so why aren’t our games split likewise? I’m not going to jump to the stronger claim that, say, equalizing men and women in games would decrease the crime rate by X% or something, because I don’t have science to back it up. But as for the weaker claim, I don’t really need a lot of backup. It’s just common sense, isn’t it?

Alright, alright, Anita did say that depictions of violence against women were “dangerously irresponsible” and she linked them to real-life domestic violence, and she did so without clear proof that one causes the other. Maybe she went too far there? Hrmph. I don’t know.

When reviewing Anita’s sources, Holt writes: “Notice that there is barely a single headline in this list that doesn’t immediately reveal the author’s own biases as lining up with Sarkeesian’s”. This leaves me mildly confused; would Holt be more approving if the headlines were more opaque? Are inscrutable headlines somehow preferable to clear headlines? But I guess what he’s trying to say is that Anita should also cite the people she disagrees with, in order to give them a chance to stand on their own merits. That sounds like a good idea, though off the top of my head I don’t know who she would actually cite. Has anyone written an article along the lines of “Sexism in Video Games is a Good Thing”?

Holt dings Anita for citing Karen Dill, because Karen Dill is pro-censorship. But again, just because you cite someone doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say.

Holt moves on to criticize Anita’s comments on Dixie Kong, which may be the strongest part of his whole piece. Anita had said that Dixie is merely a knockoff of Diddie Kong, but she neglected to mention that Dixie has a special ability, and that she and Diddie teamed up to save Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong Country 2 (dude in distress!), and in the third game she’s actually the title character, and she has to rescue both Donkey and Diddie. Yeah, that’s a fair criticism. Anita missed something important here. But I should note that Dixie is just one of many examples of the “Ms. Man” trope, and most of those examples don’t have redeeming features like this.

Holt tries to make a similar point regarding Beatrice in Dante’s Inferno, but it falls short. Yes, Beatrice isn’t as passive as Peach, but she’s still pretty passive. Despite the details that give her some development, the fact remains that the whole plot is basically a Damsel in Distress scenario. It’s not like the case of Dixie, who was never damselized in the first place and who indeed gets to be the hero.

Holt criticizes Anita for her double standards with regards to Star Fox Adventures and Super Mario 2. In the case of Star Fox, it was originally going to be a very different game with a female main character, until it got changed into its current incarnation wherein the aforementioned female is a damsel in distress. This is taken as evidence of sexism in gaming. But in the case of Super Mario 2, it was originally going to be a very different game with a male main character, until it got changed and a female became one of the four playable characters. This is taken as being “kindof an accident”, which reduces its power as a counterexample to sexism. I agree that this is a double standard. I’d also like to point out that, on average, there are still way more male protagonists than female protagonists in games.

In part 3, Holt criticizes Anita for posing the argument that those who think they aren’t affected by sexism in media are in fact the most vulnerable to media’s effects. This is mostly a rehash of the charge that Anita’s sources are untrustworthy. I note that Holt doesn’t deal with specifics here. He doesn’t find any actual study which Anita cited and then show us why it’s bunk. But then again I can hardly blame him if he doesn’t want to pay for the access, so this is kindof a draw.

Anita criticizes Earthworm Jim for using (yet another) Damsel in Distress plotline, and says that even though they mock the plotline that doesn’t let them off the hook. Holt says that the mockery actually makes the game kinda feminist, since they’re making fun of an anti-feminist message. But you could argue that they’re still using the trope even if they mock it. Princess What’s-Her-Name still gets kidnapped, and Jim still has to save her. End of story.

The Secret of Monkey Island is more in Holt’s favor. Here, the Damsel actually rescues herself. That does seem pretty feminist, even if the main character is still male. Perhaps Anita went too far in this case.

Holt claims that Anita claims (in her actual thesis paper) that women must not embody masculine traits. Actually she does not say this. She says it’s “exciting” to see women with masculine traits being heroic. She just wants to see feminine traits to get the same sort of praise. Holt brings up the case of Super Princess Peach, in which Peach is actually powered with a feminine trait: namely, her emotionality. Anita criticizes this, and Holt criticizes her in return. Does she want feminine traits to be powerful, or doesn’t she? I agree that Anita’s thinking is a bit muddled here, but I appeal once again to the concept of variety: If there were a lot of different female protagonists and overemotional Peach was just one of them, I don’t think Anita would complain so much, if at all.

Holt speculates as to what kind of game Anita would find non-sexist. He criticizes her for praising ROM hacks in which, for instance, a heroic Daisy gets to rescue a passive Mario. He implies that, per Anita’s own rules, this is sexist because it depicts men as passive, and therefore Anita is some kind of hypocrite. Then he goes through a lengthy list of male/female permutations, in which a game’s hero, its secondary hero, its villain and its kidnap victim can all be male or female in various combinations. He finds that every possible combination is sexist, and therefore this whole exercise is bunk. But what Holt fails to grasp, once again, is that Anita is criticizing trends in gaming. Individual games only matter because they collectively add up to trends. Anita doesn’t demand that you fulfill some impossible task where every single game is exquisitely balanced; she just wants gaming as a whole to be balanced. So if we lived in a world where Super Mario involves male Mario rescuing female Peach from male Bowser, but at the same time there’s a game Magnificent Sally where female Sally rescues male Paul from female Brunhilda, and if those two games had roughly equal popularity and acceptance, then Anita wouldn’t have made this web series. Likewise, if every game with lots of female sex objects was countered by another game with lots of male sex objects, she wouldn’t be complaining about the sexual objectification of women (though she might still complain that sex in general was being treated without any thematic depth.) Achieving balance isn’t nearly so hard as Holt seems to think.

Holt makes the case that the Damsel in Distressed trope is more nuanced that Anita allows. Yes, it depicts passive women, but it also depicts the idea that kidnapping women is evil and rescuing them is heroic. He argues that this leads real-life men to be more sensitive to women in distress. He makes a fair point, though of course the flip side of that is that were desensitized to the idea of men in distress. Male domestic violence victims attest that they get less sympathy than their female counterparts, and I find that situation quite plausible. But either way we’re converging on the same conclusion: We need variety in our media. If men are always X and women are always Y, that necessarily presents a skewed view of the world.

Back on the subject of violence, Holt writes:

Now, note that Sarkeesian doesn’t object to all forms of violence being shown. If she did, she would have to object to most video games ever manufactured. Even Mario had to jump on Koopas’ heads. Moreover, one searches her videos in vain for an objection to the programmers having created the Dark Brotherhood Quest Line in either Skyrim or Oblivion, both of which would require the player to join an explicitly murderous religious cult, and which actually reward the player for completing the quest line, rather than penalizing them for being evil.”

He has a point. If it’s harmful to depict violence against women, why is it ok to depict violence against men? And if we can dismiss the Dark Brotherhood plotline as merely entertainment, why can’t we also dismiss “violence against women” plotlines as merely entertainment? Surely what matters here is context. If I hear a Klansman make a racist joke, I’m going to be much more concerned than if I hear the same joke from a non-Klansman. In the former case, the joke is very plausibly reinforcing racist ideas that could lead to violence. In the latter case, maybe the joke-teller just likes off-color jokes for their shock value. I think what’s happening here is that Anita isn’t particularly concerned with murderous cults and she’s much more concerned with domestic violence, since in her view the latter is so much more common. The Dark Brotherhood thing seems ok because it doesn’t feel real, but the “violence against women” thing feels problematic because she’s heard so many stories about real-life violence against women. Though there again, I have to point out that 70% of American murder victims are male, and that seems to suggest that we should starting worrying about violence against men in our media. It’s a thorny subject, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I think Holt goes too far when he accuses Anita of simply being anti-male.

Holt writes: “The irony is that if Sarkeesian were to get her way with respect to the elimination of male heroes and the vilification of masculine traits in media, the only role models men would have would be the Bowsers of the world.” Can someone point out for me the part where Anita calls for the elimination of male heroes? Can someone give me the quote where she actually says “There is no place for male heroes in media; all heroes must be female”? She never said such a thing. She never even implied it. All she wants is a balance of male and female protagonists.

Somehow we jumped from “Anita objects to depictions of violence against women” to “Anita objects to the very concept of heroes being male.” That’s a massive jump in logic, and it’s massively unfair. Likewise, at no point does she state that masculine traits are ipso facto harmful.

Holt makes the case that gamers should generally be allowed to do what they want in their games, even if that means being awful. He chastises Anita for implying that men tend toward sexism if given half a chance and therefore we should eliminate even the possibility of doing sexist things (like being violent towards women) in games. He argues that this is a pretty negative view of men, and he has a fair point there. But to say that Anita simply wants to eliminate male heroes? That’s ridiculous. And it’s not as if game creators are completely innocent here. If you create the next Grand Theft Auto and the player can kill any random pedestrian, and half of them are women, well you can’t exactly be blamed if a sexist player decides to kill all the women. That’s his own choice. But if you create a bunch of games and they always have male protagonists, that’s your own fault. At this point the player isn’t choosing to be male; you’re forcing him to be male because that’s the only option. And of course no single game should be judged for this, because maybe you just made one game and the game has one protagonist and it’s rather difficult for the protagonist to be male and female at the same time (unless you want to have an intersex protagonist, but that’s another matter). But if you make several games and men consistently dominate the narrative, and if there’s no external reason for you to do so (e.g. a realistic WWII game isn’t going to have a lot of female soldiers), and especially if your trend just exacerbates a wider industry trend…then yeah, you’re contributing to sexism. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or you’ve made a bad game, it’s just that there’s a flaw here and we’d like you to fix it. That is Anita’s message, and even though Anita herself is flawed, the overall message is still valuable.

The National Speaker

2016 September 28
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by sonicsuns

The President of the United States has two basic roles: Legal and Ceremonial. The legal role is obviously more important; it consists of things like signing bills and managing the executive branch. The ceremonial role consists of making speeches and attending ceremonies.

In the United Kingdom, these two roles are somewhat split: The Prime Minister focuses on legal matters, while the Monarch handles the ceremonies. This got me thinking about implementing something similar in America.

I don’t we should have a monarch, by any means. But what if we had someone called a National Speaker? This would be treated somewhat like a cabinet position, appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. The Speaker’s role would be entirely ceremonial. He would be selected specifically for his ability to make grand speeches and look dignified on national television. We could design a special uniform for him to wear, to make him distinctive. Whenever the National Speaker makes a speech or attends an event, that’s a way of signalling that the topic or the event is important.

This would be particularly useful for Hillary Clinton. As someone pointed out at her nominating convention, Hillary is “a workhorse, not a show horse”. Imagine what would happen if she lost the race just because she’s not good at making speeches. Wouldn’t that be crazy? Don’t we want a president who knows a lot about tax policy and military regulations and how to get a bill through Congress? If speeches are so important, why can’t we let someone else make the speeches?

Of course, Presidents (and candidates) would still make speeches. But perhaps they wouldn’t make quite so many of them. Yes, there’s something important about hearing the words straight from the source (especially in an interview, where they might be surprised by a question), but I think a lot of this could be reasonably off-loaded.

So imagine a candidate who campaigns with their candidate Vice President and with their candidate Speaker. (Formally, the election only decides who gets to be President and Vice President. But you might as well introduce your chosen Speaker early on, since campaigning requires so many speeches.) Imagine a “work horse” candidate getting extra attention because their Speaker can make up for their own lack of charisma. Imagine the candidate becomes President, and from then on whenever there’s a legal issue and a ceremonial issue to handle at the same time, the Speaker is already available to do the ceremonial stuff, so the President has more time to focus on the legal stuff.

I think it’s worth a try.

The Shelf of Wisdom

2016 April 19
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by sonicsuns


  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Authentic Living

  • I thought it was just me (but it isn’t) by Brene Brown
  • Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
  • Rising Strong by Brene Brown
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Initiates by Etienne Davoduea
  • Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  • Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
  • Subnormality

Childhood and Parenting

  • Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
  • The Myth of the Spoiled Child by Alfie Kohn
  • The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
  • For Your Own Good by Alice Miller


  • Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert


  • The Peter Principle by Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hill
  • Parkinson’s Law by Cyril Northcote Parkinson and Robert C. Osborn


  • The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan


  • The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs
  • Cults in Our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer
  • The Gaslight Effect by Dr. Robin Stern

Why doesn’t Apple use a Black Box protocol?

2016 February 18
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by sonicsuns

So apparently the FBI wants access to a phone used by one of the San Bernardino killers. It’s encrypted and it only opens with an unknown passcode. If they try too many false guesses, the phone will delete its data.

The FBI wants Apple to help them access the phone. In fact, they just got a court order to that effect. Apple has vowed to fight the order, citing user privacy.

And I’m utterly lost.

The FBI seems to be asking for access to the phone. Just this one phone. Nothing else. This detail is important. Meanwhile, Apple is responding as if the FBI has asked for access to all iPhones all over the world. But the FBI hasn’t asked for that! (Have they?)

Previously, the FBI (and other government types) have floated the idea that everything in the world should be government-breakable. So the government would have a “magic key”, so to speak, which would enable them to access everything everywhere.

Obviously, this is a very bad idea. First off, Edward Snowden has proven that the government doesn’t actually care about the fourth amendment. If they have the technical ability to spy on everyone ever, they will do that. They will violate the privacy of innocent people, without cause. Second, it would only be a matter of time until criminals or enemy governments got their hands on the “magic key”, whether via leaking, theft or reverse-engineering. (If there are ethical whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, there are surely also unethical people who will steal the key for their own purposes.)

This seems to be the scenario that Apple is reacting to. But it’s not what the FBI is actually proposing.

All they want is access to the phone, right? So why don’t we give them access to the phone, without giving them a magic key?

Here’s how it would work. First, the FBI gives Apple the phone. Then Apple takes the phone behind a closed door somewhere, without any government agents present. They whip up an alternate version of iOS on an airgapped computer. They install this update on the target phone, which allows them access to the data. They copy the data onto a USB stick. They they re-install the original software on the phone, and delete everything on the airgapped computer. Then they open the closed door, and give the phone and the usb stick to the FBI. The involved Apple technicians all sign a document attesting that they did not tamper with the data they retrieved from the phone. We’ll call this process the “Black Box” protocol, because the FBI would never know exactly how Apple cracked the phone.

In this way, the FBI would gain access to the data on the phone, but they would not gain any access to any other phone in the world. And since Apple would delete their own program at the end of the operation, even Apple would not walk away with enhanced access to encrypted phones.

Of course, the FBI might make further requests once the principle is established. But Apple would be able to review those requests individually, and challenge them whenever necessary. In essence, this arrangement would recreate the original fourth amendment setup: The government can only access your stuff if it has a valid warrant.

Why has nobody thought of this? Is there some technical reason why it wouldn’t work? Or are the two groups talking past each other, not realizing what the other one is really saying?

In their public letter, Apple writes “while the government may argue that its use [of a backdoor] would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.” But there is a way to guarantee such control. Just crack the device without any FBI agents in the room, and then delete the code you used for the crack. Apple continues “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.” Unless, ya know, you delete your code right after you use it. It’s really hard for people to use code that doesn’t exist. And yes, Apple would be pressured to re-create that code every time the FBI wants to crack a phone, but if that’s what it takes to protect the privacy of innocent people while negating the privacy of legitimate targets, then so be it. Apple seems to think it’s one or the other: Privacy for everyone or privacy for no one. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Here’s another quote: “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.” No, ya see, if you use a Black Box protocol, then the government won’t actually have that capability because they will have never had access to the code…*sigh* I’m repeating myself.

If it’s possible for Apple to crack the phone, they should be willing to use a Black Box protocol. If it’s not possible, Apple can simply refuse the court order on that basis. Perhaps the former is true, but Apple just doesn’t want to admit it. To use a Black Box protocol would be to admit, publicly, that Apple can crack iPhone encryption schemes. Perhaps they’d rather not advertise that fact. But then again, the tech-savvy consumers who actually care about that sort of thing are likely already aware of what Apple can and cannot do.

So again, it’s all a big mystery to me. It seems like there’s a simple solution here, and nobody’s talking about it.


Here’s something we all should have thought of: Before we start arguing about the implications of this court order, maybe we should actually read the court order. It appears that almost nobody thought to do that. (h/t to Gabriel Maior for the link.)

It’s clear to me now that the government is actually being quite reasonable here, and that my fellow techies are having trouble processing that concept because the government has been so unreasonable in the past.

The order states that Apple must do three things:

  1. Disable the auto-delete feature. (If enabled, this feature deletes the phone’s memory after 10 failed password attempts.)
  2. Allow for electronic passcode dialing. (This allows the FBI to brute-force the phone by trying thousands of passcodes very quickly.)
  3. Disable the auto-pause feature that kicks in between failed attempts.

The court does not say that Apple must create some sort of Master Key which the FBI could theoretically use on any phone anywhere. In fact, the order requires that Apple create special software that only works on this one phone (as identified by its ID number.) And Apple is free to do all the work at its own facility, so the FBI won’t know how they did it.

It’s true that, in the past, the government has requested a Master Key system. That debate has been going on since the 90s at least, and that’s the debate which most everyone is responding to. Everyone who hates Master Keys is mad at the FBI in this case, because they’ve all just assumed that the FBI has asked for a Master Key. But they haven’t asked for that, or at least the court order doesn’t ask for it. So really the whole thing is a big non-issue, and Apple should just unlock the phone.

Would this set a precedent? Sure. Someday Apple might be asked to unlock somebody else’s phone too. But it would all be a matter of public record, via the courts, in keeping with the fourth amendment, and Apple would have the right to challenge unreasonable requests.

I think Apple’s real goal is here is signaling. They want to have a reputation for protecting privacy. They know that if they just roll over and comply with this order, a bunch of people will just assume that Apple doesn’t care about privacy (seeing as Apple is a big corporation, it’s already on shaking footing there). So Apple has decided to fight this, more as a publicity stunt than anything else.

There’s a good chance that their appeal will get them a new court order which allows them to, say, do all the work at their own facility and not reveal anything to the FBI. Even though they already have permission to do that, it will still look like a win for Apple because most people haven’t read the initial court order. They can set this up so they look like the Guardians of Privacy, while still giving the FBI what it (reasonably) wants.

Update 2:

I feel like there should be a word for “That feeling when you realize that some of your ideological allies are idiots.”

Today I got an email from Fight For The Future, a privacy group, which describes the situation like this:

[…] FBI got a judge to order Apple to create a backdoor into the iPhone. They aren’t just asking for access to one iPhone — they’re asking for a skeleton key that can break open any phone.”

No, they’re not. The court order specifically states that the backdoor software Apple creates must only work on this one specific phone. And Apple is under no obligation to actually give that software to the FBI. They can do everything in their own facility, and they can delete the software once they’re done. The FBI would be left with access to this one phone and nothing else.

The ACLU, a venerable organization, is nevertheless acting stupid about this. Their statement reads:

This is an unprecedented, unwise, and unlawful move by the government.

How the hell is it unprecedented, unwise or unlawful for the government to search the personal belongings of a criminal pursuant to a search warrant which was properly obtained from a court under the age-old standard of probable cause? How the hell is it unprecedented, unwise or unlawful to ask Apple for reasonable assistance in executing this search warrant? The All Writs Act dates back to 1789, for goodness sake; it is not unprecedented to force third parties to offer reasonable assistance in the execution of search warrants. Neither is it unwise or unlawful.

The statement continues:

The Constitution does not permit the government to force companies to hack into their customers’ devices.

Which part of the constitution are you referring to? This whole situation is fits the fourth amendment perfectly.

Apple is free to offer a phone that stores information securely, and it must remain so if consumers are to retain any control over their private data.

The FBI isn’t seeking to prevent Apple from issuing secure phones. They only want Apple’s cooperation in gaining access to this phone. No phone aside from this one will have reduced security as a result.

The government’s request also risks setting a dangerous precedent. If the FBI can force Apple to hack into its customers’ devices, then so too can every repressive regime in the rest of the world.

Why the hell would oppressive regimes care about U.S. law? Seriously, try to imagine how this would work. Suppose that Apple wins its case and they don’t have to crack the phone. Apparently this is supposed to lead to some political meeting in The Nation of Repressia that goes like this:

Repressive Leader A: I think we should force Apple to help us hack into everybody’s iPhones.

Repressive Leader B: That would be awesome. But sadly, we can’t.

Repressive Leader A: Why not?

Repressive Leader B: Well you see, the FBI lost their court case. Therefore, we can’t tell Apple what to do.

Can’t you see how this makes no sense? Logically, the conversation would continue like this:

Repressive Leader A: What the hell? Since when do U.S. court cases have legal force in Repressia?

Repressive Leader B: Uh…

Repressive Leader A: And we’re repressive leaders, aren’t we? Last I checked, we don’t even follow our own laws!

Repressive Leader B: Oh crap, you’re right! We don’t need to listen to the U.S.. We can do whatever the hell we like!

This is just the latest instance of conflation. When the U.S. government proposes a law that bans all encryption in civilian devices, that is the sort of thing that makes people vulnerable to repressive regimes. But when the government asks for specific access to one phone, in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the security of other phones, that’s a totally different situation!

If Repressia has any intention of forcing Apple to do bad things, their power to do so is not affected by the actions of the FBI, at least not with respect to this particular case. Even if Apple wins in American courts, it could easily lose in Repressian courts.

The EFF weighs in too:

And once that master key is created, we’re certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security.

I’m sure that’s true. But if they’re asking for this key pursuant to a proper search warrant, then they ought to have access!

Privacy is not the holy grail, people. Privacy is not the all-important right which must be protected at all costs. What we want, roughly speaking, is for innocent people to stay private while guilty people are exposed. In order to tell one group from another, we use the court system to grant or deny applications for search warrants. That’s the standard we’ve been operating under since the nation began, and it’s a darn good standard.

The NSA is creepy because it doesn’t care about search warrants. It’s quite happy to gobble up every bit of data it can find, without any real regard to the probable guilt or innocence of its targets. Sometimes they get warrants from FISA, but FISA is apparently insane, as proven by the warrants it granted to access the phone records of everybody in the entire nation regardless of probable cause.

But this situation is entirely different. Instead of the NSA vacuuming everything it can find, it’s the FBI searching a particular phone. Instead of the NSA not bothering with the niceties of the fourth amendment, the FBI is patiently waiting for the court-based paperwork. Instead of the NSA grabbing data without regard for probable cause, it’s the FBI clearly targeting a guilty man, and they’ve proved probable cause in court. Instead of the NSA keeping everything classified, the FBI is operating in the open.

But for some reason all my allies are fighting the FBI here, as if they were dealing with the NSA!

The EFF continues:

The U.S. government wants us to trust that it won’t misuse this power. But we can all imagine the myriad ways this new authority could be abused.

This “new authority” is just the ability to execute a search warrant. That’s an old authority. And the courts are there to prevent any abuses, aren’t they? If you just hate the concept of search warrants altogether, you should try to amend the constitution. Good luck with that.

Even if you trust the U.S. government, once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well.

Governments have been making demands since smartphones were first invented. But we shouldn’t ask Apple to refuse all demands just because some of them are unreasonable.

Imagine if we applied this logic to any other situation. Suppose the FBI got a search warrant to search somebody’s house. Suppose that person resisted the warrant. Suppose a bunch of privacy advocates got upset, and decried this “new authority” was ripe for abuse. Suppose they argued that we can’t let the FBI search this guy’s house, because then repressive regimes all around the world will start searching people’s houses. Therefore nobody’s house may ever be searched, even if you have a proper warrant from an independent court.

See how silly that is?

And no, the fact that a third party is involved here doesn’t seriously change the moral calculus. You’re just worried that Apple will give the FBI a Master Key so they can break into everybody’s phones without going through the courts. And that’s a fine thing to worry about, except that the court order does not instruct Apple to do any such thing. (Come to think of it, why would courts want to make themselves superfluous?)

*sigh* This whole thing is dumb. There are real threats to our privacy, but this isn’t one of them. We’re making this into a symbol of something it’s not.


SCOTUS and Marriage Equality

2015 June 27
Comments Off on SCOTUS and Marriage Equality
by sonicsuns

It’s wonderful news that gay marriage is finally legal in all 50 states. People have waited a long time for this, and I think their feelings are well-summarized in this column by Frank Bruni.

Yes, truly this is a great step forward. But do you mind if I nitpick a bit?

First off, Justice Kennedy has a rather extreme concept of marriage. In the majority opinion, he writes:

From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.
I appreciate Kennedy’s intention here. He’s trying to show that he understands the value of marriage, and thus he understand why everyone should be allowed to participate. But indirectly, he seems to be saying that single people are…I don’t know…not as good? But I shouldn’t dwell on that. It’s not like he actually said “single people suck” or something.What bugs me a bit more is the reasoning used to support the ruling. Kennedy largely relies on the Due Process Clause, which reads
[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law
It’s pretty obvious that this was supposed to refer to criminal matters. To be deprived of liberty, in this case, means going to jail or whatever. But Kennedy reads “liberty” with a much broader meaning, including the liberty to get married. I could understand this if the clause just said something like “No state shall infringe upon the fundamental liberties of any person”, but that’s not what it says. In Kennedy’s reading, what are we to make of the phrase “without due process of law”? Is the state allowed to deprive people of their marriage rights after all, so long as it follows “due process”? Suppose we put gay people on trial for the crime of being gay, and then as punishment we took away their marriage rights. Wouldn’t that count as “due process”? Kennedy seems to be ignoring the latter part of the sentence.
What he’s really trying to say is that the constitution protects an unenumerated right to marry. (And possibly an unenumerated right to “dignity” as well.) The ninth amendment alludes to the possibility of unenumerated rights, but it doesn’t give any advice on how to figure out what they are (if they even exist). Now, it’s not crazy to think that the Right to Marry or the Right to Dignity are protected by the constitution. These are fair ideas. At the same time, the Court has always been reluctant to rely on unenumerated rights, because of the obvious potential for abuse. (What if the court declares that they have a Right to Luxury Yachts or something?) When protecting the Right to Privacy, for instance, the Court likes to cite the fourth amendment rather than the ninth amendment. It’s good to build your case on something more substantial than “Because we said so.”
Since marriage is such an old and important institution, it’s reasonable to think it may be protected as an unenumerated right. But I don’t see what any of this has to do with the Due Process Clause. It feels like Kennedy is just grabbing at whatever support he can find.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote a dissent, saying:
Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the due process clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.
I hate to point this out, but Roberts has a point. The Court should not act as a legislature. It should tell us what the law is, not what it should be. Of course, that’s actually a very blurry line in real life. But we should try our best to stay on the right side of it. And in that light, doesn’t Kennedy’s reasoning seem a bit hollow?
The answer is not the Due Process Clause. In fact, the answer doesn’t even rely on Unenumerated Rights. The answer lies in the Equal Protection Clause. It reads:
[No State shall] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
What is marriage, if not a form of legal protection?
Or, to be precise, let’s deconstruct the concept of marriage. On one hand, marriage is a personal bond between two people. People obviously have the right to make (and dissolve) such bonds, thanks to such rights as the Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Association, and the Right to Privacy. The state cannot force people to stop having feelings for each other. That’s not even in dispute.
But of course, when we talk of “marriage” in a legal context, we mean it in the sense of a legal institution. We’re talking about the arrangement which is formally recognized by the state, and which confers various legal benefits (for instance, hospital visitation rights) as a result.
The constitution says that everyone shall have the equal protection of the laws. But if some couples cannot get married even if they want to, doesn’t that deprive them of equal protection? A mixed-sex couple can form a legal union and receive legal protection, but a same-sex couple cannot. Surely this violates the Equal Protection Clause.
There is one way out: If the states could show that they had a “compelling interest” in marriage discrimination, the Court would have to allow it. But evidence plainly shows that there is no such interest. It’s not as if legalizing gay marriage somehow causes a spike in crime rates, or something. Thus, the Equal Protection Clause is in full force.
This leaves the states with a choice: Either you recognize marriage as a legal institution, in which case mixed-sex and same-sex couples are allowed to participate equally, or else you end the legal concept of marriage, in which case mixed-sex and same-sex couples are equally denied the protections that marriage would have conferred. (In the latter case, people would still be entitled to make “personal bonds” with each other, but the bonds would not have legal force.)
Presumably, the states would all chose the first option. But constitutionally, both options are open.
I like this line of reasoning because it makes sense. Yes, it still changes the status quo. Yes, it still advances an idea of marriage that the founders had never dreamed of. But surely we are allowed some interpretative leeway. Our understanding is supposed to advance over the centuries, and this is just the latest advancement. But Kennedy seems more willing to twist the constitution to his conclusions, whereas I prefer to stick closer to the actual words on the page.

Genesis of the Daleks

2015 January 12
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by sonicsuns

Yesterday I watched a classic Doctor Who serial called Genesis of the Daleks. There are two things I’d always heard about this serial:

  1. It introduces Davros
  2. It’s the one where the Doctor has the chance to Kill All Daleks Forever, but then he has a weird moral crisis and decides not to do it.

The first one is accurate, and Davros is a really excellent villain. But the second point is pure nonsense.

Although the episode talks about “genocide” and “killing all the Daleks”, the Doctor never has the chance to do it! In the critical scene, he’s holding two wires attached to explosives rigged up in the other room. That room is a Dalek Incubator, and it contains a bunch of baby Daleks. The Doctor frets over whether he has a right to Kill All Daleks like this. But at that very moment, there’s about 20 full-fledged Daleks rampaging around the Thall base, quite a distance away. So the Doctor has no chance to Kill All Daleks Forever; he just has a chance to Kill All The Daleks In This One Room. (Which is much less dramatic.) Of course, the other Time Lords would like it if the Doctor destroyed the whole Dalek race, but he’s never in a position to do it.

And furthermore, he changes his mind! Yes, he has a (somewhat) weird moral crisis. Yes, he drops the wires without detonating the bomb. But later in the serial, he comes back! He tries to do what he refused to do earlier. And then an adult Dalek accidentally does it for him (by rolling over the wires), which blows up the incubator just as the Doctor hoped. And then, ya know, the Dalek race continues to exist. Because the bomb never had any chance of blowing up the whole race.

The episode ends with the adult Daleks entombed in their bunker. (A separate set of explosives blows up all the exits, just after the Doctor escapes.) They’ve been slowed, but not stopped. The real question, I guess, is why the Doctor doesn’t report back to the Time Lords and then the Time Lords can send someone else to finish the job. (Hit the bunker with a thousand nukes, maybe.) But that’s just basic fridge logic; it crops up all the time. The point I’m making is that the iconic scene of the Fourth Doctor holding the wires and having a moral crisis has been totally misremembered.


2014 November 21
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by sonicsuns

Scroogism (soft “g”) is defined as favoritism towards rich people over poor people. (And, by extension, rich organizations over poor organizations.)

Scroogists support policies that will make life easier for rich people. Such policies very frequently have the effect of harming poor people in the process. Some Scroogists simply don’t care about the plight of the poor. Other Scroogists are actively hostile. (This seems to be based on the implicit belief that poverty itself is a kind of crime, and that poor people need to be punished for committing it.) Some claim that their policies will actually help the poor in the long run, even though they appear to be harmful. This may be a genuine belief, but it may also be a deliberate lie (e.g. in order to bolster support for the policy.) Of course, some policies actually do help the poor even if they appear otherwise, but I can’t think of any such policy off the top of my head.

Scroogists tend to praise rich people and criticize poor people, even on matters unrelated to their actual wealth. They tend to believe that rich people should receive lighter sentences for crimes they commit, whereas poor people should receive heavy sentences. (They may not endorse this explicitly, but they favor it implicitly. When a rich man commits a hit-and-run with his car, the Scroogists argue that he should receive mercy. The rich man is a “productive member of society”, in their eyes. But a poor man who commits the same crime will receive no such mercy from the Scroogists, no matter what the circumstances.)

Scroogists believe that the world is essentially fair: Rich people deserve to be rich, and poor people deserve to be poor. They see rich people as being hardworking, brilliant and virtuous, whereas poor people are lazy, stupid and vile. They assert that there is a simple cause-and-effect relationship at play: goodness creates wealth, and badness creates poverty. Everyone’s success is determined entirely by his own character; no one is ever lucky or unlucky. Even when someone simply inherits his money rather than earning it for himself, the scroogists assert that he still deserves to be wealthy on the basis of merit.

One may think of this as a sort of karma, where cosmic forces give everyone what he truly deserves. There is also a parallel to the old blueblood concept, wherein nobles were thought to be genuinely and inherently better than the common folk (and not simply uplifted by favorable circumstances at birth). Scroogists don’t necessarily believe that wealth is passed on genetically, but they do share the notion that the people with power (or money, more specifically) surely deserve it. At least, they deserve it more than the commoners do!

Thanks to society’s advances, we can no longer tolerate the idea that certain people (e.g. nobles) deserve power and fame simply because they were born that way. Thus, Scroogism is presented in terms of meritocracy. But although many Scroogists genuinely believe that their views are founded in meritocracy, the claim tends to fall flat in practice. For instance, if someone complains that the rich are too rich, the Scroogist will reply that they deserve to be rich, because clearly the market has spoken in their favor. But when the market is disrupted and the rich are suddenly faced with the prospect of losing their wealth, the Scroogist clamors for government bailouts and other forms of protection. (Naturally, this protection is only extended to rich people. The poor are expected to fend for themselves.) The fairness of the market is only trusted when it allows the current crop of rich people to retain their wealth. When the market threatens that wealth, its fairness is suddenly in doubt.

Scroogists often seem to think that only management and ownership count as “real” work. (Even an owner who does nothing, and allows the company to be managed by someone else, is thought to be “working.”) The (less wealthy) people who actually run the machines, produce the products and stock the shelves are thought to be rather worthless. Obviously, any Scroogist CEO who put this idea into practice would quickly put himself out of business, because he’d have no one underneath him to do all the work! Nevertheless, there’s a vague notion that the idea is true, even if it’s not put into practice. “After all,” the Scroogist reasons, “the low-ranking people must be rather worthless, because if they weren’t worthless then they would have a higher rank.”

Some would name Atlas Shrugged as a classic Scroogist text. Rich people are favorably compared to the god Atlas, who holds the world on his shoulders. The book features a collectivist government, which collapses at the end. Only the rich people are wise enough to re-organize the world. (Thinking again of aristocrats, this is similar to the old idea that commoners were fundamentally incapable of self-government via democracy, and thus required the noble-blooded royals to hold power on their behalf.) But then again, the book also features rich villains. In fact, most people seem to have misremembered the book. But there’s still something Scroogist in Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which explicitly denounces compassion and lionizes self-interest.

Scroogists often refer to rich people to as “job creators.” This is said of all rich people, whether or not they create any jobs. A rich CEO who runs a profitable business and expands his labor force by ten thousand is called a “job creator”. A rich person who doesn’t own any businesses and employs no one is also called a “job creator” (e.g. A tax on the wealthy will be described as a tax on “job creators”, as if the non-employer rich man is somehow creating jobs just by existing.) A rich CEO who stupidly runs his own company into the ground, declares bankruptcy and fires twenty thousand people is also called a “job creator”. Scroogists cannot conceive that a rich person might actually destroy jobs, because that would contradict the tenet of Sacred Meritocracy.

To put it more bluntly: It doesn’t really matter if the rich people all deserve their wealth; what matters is the illusion that they deserve their wealth. Some Scroogists pursue this deception consciously, but probably most of them are unconscious (or barely conscious) of what they are really doing.

Scroogists endlessly invoke meritocracy, but in practice meritocracy doesn’t matter very much to them. What matters is that rich people should be served and venerated. In other words, the rich don’t deserve to be rich because they’ve shown good character or improved the world; the rich deserve to be rich because they are rich. Just as a religious fanatic cannot doubt the idea that his god is real, the Scroogist cannot doubt the idea that rich people deserve their riches, now and forevermore.

If the Scroogist allows himself to claim that anyone has too much money, he will reserve such claims for the people who disagree with him, or for the people he just doesn’t like. For instance, if a rich man makes anti-Scroogist comments, the Scroogists may criticize him. But if possible, they’d likely rather criticize a poor man with the same views. In any case, Scroogists defend their dogma: Wealth must be preserved among the wealthy.

Naturally, Scroogism is popular among rich people. But even the poor can have Scroogist sympathies. Perhaps they hope to be rich in the future, or perhaps they believe that Scroogist policies will actually help the poor as well, or perhaps they are content to venerate rich people as distant idols.

The chief complaint of the Scroogists is the existence of things, such as progressive taxation and welfare programs, which serve to make rich people poorer and poor people richer. They seem to think that the whole world is fair, except for these particular programs. They advocate policies like flat taxation, so as to let rich people enjoy their riches in peace.

Scroogists tend to think that rich people are “poor”, in the sense that they are unfairly burdened and deserve better treatment. (This is thought to be true of all rich people, regardless of their personal situations or character traits.) Likewise, they tend to think that poor people are “rich”, in the sense that they’re getting something for nothing. (“Something” refers to any form of government benefit and “nothing” refers to whatever the poor person does all day, even if they work 60 hours a week and do a good job of it.) When a Scroogist hears of poor people benefiting from Medicaid who own refrigerators, he reacts with shock and demands that such opulence be punished via the reduction of Medicaid benefits. But when a Scroogist hears of rich people benefiting from tax loopholes who own several mansions, he reacts by saying that this is right and proper, and if anything the loopholes should be expanded, so that the rich people can purchase more luxuries. In the Scroogist mind, there is no such thing as garish opulence among the rich; only poor people can be garishly opulent.

The struggles of poor people are minimized, while the (relatively small) struggles of rich people are given tremendous focus. Mild proposals to tax the rich and help the poor are demonized as “socialism”, which has been redefined as “anything I don’t like, especially if it makes life harder for rich people”.

In addition to promoting government policies designed to make rich people richer, Scroogists also insist that the rich be treated with a kind of reverence. Rich people are given space to broadcast their views on various issues, regardless of merit. A rich person with a long public track record of stupidity will still be treated with respect, whereas a poor person of greater intelligence will often be ignored entirely. Scroogists are aghast to hear anyone criticize rich people, especially along the lines that they might not deserve so much wealth. This is attributed to bitterness, greed and jealousy; the Scroogists never consider that the critics may actually have a point.

One wonders if perhaps the Scroogists are dimly aware of their precarious moral position, and thus they feel the need to aggressively combat criticism, lest they become infected with perspective and thus become burdened with guilt. But this, of course, is speculative.

We must note that it is possible for a tax system to be unduly biased against the rich. It is possible for a welfare program to be overly generous, and it’s certainly possible for such a program to be poorly managed. Reasonable criticism is not Scroogism. It’s only Scroogism if it is not reasonable. Likewise, there is some meritocracy in the world. Virtue really can lead to financial success (and of course it leads to moral success). It is not Scroogist simply to extol the benefits of virtue, or to point out meritocracy to the degree that it actually exists. It is only Scroogist to exaggerate this notion, to declare that all rich people are virtuous and all poor people are non-virtuous, by definition.

We must remember also that Scroogism, like anything else, is not binary. There are many degrees of Scroogism, from mild to extreme. Scroogism may be combined with other ideas, such as Christianity or Hawkishness. At the moment, Scroogism is very popular among the Republican Party. (This probably dates back at least to FDR, who outraged Scroogists with his progressive policies.) But there is Scroogism among the democrats as well.

Scroogism is not the only thing wrong with the world. It is one problem among many. But it is an old and important problem.

The term is named for Ebeneezer Scrooge, the main character of A Christmas Carol. He begins the book as an extreme Scroogist, but changes his ways by the end. If only the real-life Scroogists could each be visited by 3 spirits, this might be a happier world!

(Updated 27 February 2015)


2014 November 9
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by sonicsuns

You ever get the impression that every big news story is promoted as THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD, and then it just sorta vanishes a few weeks later?

This summer we had an immigration crisis with lots of kids crossing our southern border. It was a big deal…and then it wasn’t.

Then there was ISIS. A massive evil army pops up out of nowhere and nearly conquers Iraq. That was a big deal…but now, no one’s talking about it.

How about that business in Ferguson? That drifted away, somehow.

Recently there were reports of dire warnings from the IPCC about climate change. This was a big deal for maybe 24 hours before it vanished from our attention.

Heck, even Ebola fell victim to this pattern. Just last week there was serious discussion about its spread in Africa and how it’s contaminated a few people here, thus revealing the weakness of the CDC etc. etc.. But as of today, Ebola is barely a blip on our radar. The homepage of CNN doesn’t have a single story about it. (In fact, the leading story is about cold weather in the northern U.S.) The USA Today has a new article titled “Ebola establishes [metaphorical] dictatorship in Sierra Leone”, but it’s not front-page news.

It seems like the media is telling us that everything is really important. But because all these “really important” things keep falling into the background, even when they haven’t been properly resolved or dealt with, the real message we’re getting is that nothing is really important.

Perhaps we’re picking up on that underlying message. Perhaps it motivates us to stop watching so much news. And perhaps the people who run the media feel the need to keep hyping things up in order to bring us back. But in reality, they’re just driving us away.

Another Constitution Post

2014 October 13
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by sonicsuns

Before FDR attempted court-packing, he should have just proposed an amendment to the constitution. Something like this would be nice:

Section 1: Congress shall have the power by law to provide for the economic security of the people, and to provide for the proper functioning of the economy. Such measures may include: The regulation of banks and other financial institutions, the pursuance of public works so as to provide employment, the creation or maintenance of useful infrastructure, the provision of money or supplies to persons in need, restrictions or prohibitions on child labor, the regulation of working hours and working conditions, the establishment of a legal minimum hourly wage, and other reasonable measures. Congress may by law empower officers and departments of the United States to carry out such measures on its behalf, but the laws passed by Congress shall always be held superior to the regulations created by regulatory bodies.

Section 2:  The government shall grant no group of citizens special status, for good or for ill, on the basis of their political opinions, expressions or voting patterns.

Section 3: The economic system of the United States shall be fundamentally capitalist. The power of the federal government to support the economy as necessary shall not be so construed as to allow the government to directly control a majority of the economy, though a majority of the economy may be affected by reasonable regulations, and by taxes.

Section 4: Nothing in the present amendment shall be construed to limit the fundamental rights of the people.

How we talk about depression

2014 August 13
by sonicsuns

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, I’ve been thinking about the way we tend to talk about depression.

Often it goes like this:

Robin Williams suffered from clinical depression for many years. He also had a history of substance abuse. He sought treatment for his depression, bit it was not enough. He committed suicide.

See how starch that is? It gives you the basic facts, but it’s stale and it lacks detail. I want a narrative approach to Williams’ death. Obviously, I don’t know the man personally, but let’s imagine that I did. Let’s imagine that I know something about how he was really feeling, and I’ve decided to share my knowledge with the world.

If so, I might talk about his depression like this:

I think Robin was haunted by loneliness, ever since he was a kid. His parents were really distant. His siblings weren’t much better. He used to play with toy soldiers all alone. He had 2,000 toy soldiers, and he gave every one of them a different voice.

On the one hand, hey, that’s where he first developed his talent for performance. But you have to understand how it felt for him. You have to see why he did it. Sure, part of it was that it’s just fun to play with toys. Everybody does that. But part of it was that he was lonely, really desperately lonely, and he needed to make friends for himself.

Honestly? I don’t think the loneliness ever really stopped. He had millions of fans, and he enjoyed that to be sure, but inside he still wasn’t complete. I think he was afraid that people didn’t love him for being him, but instead they just loved him for doing shows and making movies. Like, if he lost his talent, then he’d turn into that little kid again, staring at thousands of plastic toy soldiers, all by himself.

These last few years were really hard for him. Every time a movie flopped, he’d go into a tailspin. He wouldn’t talk about it much, and that was part of the problem. Whenever he got really low, he’d cover it up with a joke. I think sometimes the jokes honestly made him feel better, but sometimes it was just a mask. He didn’t know how to share his deep feelings, consistently. He’d open up now and then, but then he’d go back under his shell.

He had major problems with drugs. But I see that as mostly just being an extension of these larger problems, you know? If he hadn’t felt so lonely at his core, the drugs wouldn’t have been so tempting. But yeah, the drugs did a number on him. It took a lot of work to get sober. It was an ongoing struggle.

All these troubles just built up inside, and eventually he saw his performances getting worse. Part of that was because he kept getting bad scripts for his film roles. Part of it was just because he was aging. (At 63 years old, it’s hard to be manic and have all that energy onstage.) Part of it was the loneliness eating away at him, making it hard to be funny.

So he got into this spiral. He felt bad, so his performance skills slipped a bit. Honestly, I think he was still great, even at 63. But Robin was merciless with himself. A real perfectionist. So he felt like he was losing his talent whenever he made a small mistake. And that made him feel awful, and then because he felt awful his performances just got worse. He even started thinking about using cocaine again, just to boost his energy. That really scared him, because he knew the horror of cocaine addiction and he didn’t want to go back there. But sometimes it felt like he had no other option.

He looked into the future and saw nothing. He couldn’t imagine that he’d just retire and settle down someplace, watching the world roll by, watching his daughter flourish in her career. He just couldn’t imagine that. He felt like if he couldn’t perform at the top, then he was just worthless and there was no point to living anymore. And he was deeply afraid of the loneliness. At least, that’s what I think.

He’s been struggling deeply with this stuff for about 2 or 3 years now. But in a larger sense, he’s been struggling ever since he was born. And finally, he just ended it. He just couldn’t take it anymore.

I miss you, Robin. I wish I could bring you back.

This isn’t just about Robin Williams, and it’s not just about depression. It’s about all of us, and all our personal struggles. If we’re going to help each other, we can’t keep talking like bureaucrats all the time. We need to be real. We need to tell stories.

Why the LOTR movies are better than the Hobbit movies

2014 August 13
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by sonicsuns

Despite all the hard work of many talented people, it looks like the Hobbit movies aren’t as good as their predecessors.They’re not bad movies; they’re just not as good.

But I don’t think you can really blame the filmmakers. The deck was stacked against them before they even began. Here’s why:

We’ve seen epic fantasy before

When Jackson’s LOTR came out, nobody had ever done a fantasy film on this scale. There had been LOTR cartoons, but they were crap. We had fun with The Never-Ending Story and such, but were any of those movies on the same scale as LOTR? No, they weren’t.

So when LOTR was released, it was amazing. We’d never seen anything like it! But with the Hobbit, we have seen something like it. We’ve seen LOTR.

We’ve specifically seen Middle-Earth before

We’ve met Gandalf, we’ve been to the Shire, and we know what Elves look like. All these elements, and more, were brand-new when they first appeared. But not anymore.

Sure, the new dwarves are distinct from Gimili. But at least you have a clear point of comparison. Back when Gimli was new to us, the only prior movie dwarves most of us had seen were the dwarves of Snow White! The jump from Snow White to LOTR is big. From LOTR to the Hobbit? Not so big.

The Hobbit quest makes less sense

In LOTR, we have to go to Mordor and destroy the One Ring in order to SAVE THE WORLD.

In the Hobbit, we have to go to Erebor and defeat a dragon in order to…get our gold back? Gee, that’s a bit less dramatic…

I mean yeah, I get it, the dwarves lost their homeland. But it’s not as important as saving the world, is it? And besides, obviously the dwarves have been living somewhere since the fall of Erebor. They’re not completely homeless, and they don’t appear to be starving. Even if we agree that we want the gold back, there’s no need to get it back now instead of, say, two years from now. There’s no urgency.

Both quests are foolhardy. In LOTR, we’ve got nine people and we have to sneak into friggin’ Mordor right under Sauron’s nose. In the Hobbit, we’ve got 15 people and we’re supposed to kill a dragon somehow. This is the same dragon that previously defeated the entire dwarven army, but apparently Thorin thinks he can kill it with just a handful of friends.

In LOTR, this makes sense: The only alternative is to hang around till Sauron conquers the world. But in the Hobbit, why the heck are we attacking Smaug? He’s not going anywhere. Maybe we should spend a couple years gathering a larger force and figuring out how to kill this guy.

There’s a reason why these stories are so different: The Hobbit is a children’s book! And in a children’s book, it doesn’t matter if the quest is strategically sound. But that’s where Jackson runs into a problem. He’s trying to make the Hobbit with the same general tone as his LOTR movies. But these are actually two different types of stories and they require different tones.

If I could make one change to the Hobbit movies, I’d let Old!Bilbo narrate the whole thing. That would help recapture the feel of a storybook, so we’d feel more at home. But even then, I doubt that the Hobbit films would be as good as the LOTR films.

Oh, well.

Comic Books and Writer’s Chaos

2014 August 2
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by sonicsuns

Mainstream comic books suffer from a problem which I call Writer’s Chaos. It’s perhaps best demonstrated by these remarks on Hawkman:

Thanagar’s champion, Hawkman, can talk to birds. He also can’t talk to birds. Sometimes, he can’t even speak normally at all! Even if he could talk normally, or to birds, there are no birds on Thanagar, because it does not exist. Hawkman was sent here to study Earthly police methods, because Thanagar’s own methods suck! That’s OK though, because Thanagar still does not exist! Yet it is populated by peaceful barbarians! Who are stupid, and also warlike!

Writer’s Chaos produces many annoying symptoms, such as:

  • Plain Contradictions
  • Annoying Complexity
  • Ridiculous Retcons
  • Status Quo snap-back (e.g. no one important ever really dies)
  • Stories that make no sense (even by comic book standards)

WC is caused by a number of factors:

Endless Stories

In the world of comics, nothing ever ends. Superman started saving people in 1938, and he’s still at it! There’s always a new threat for Superman to face.

On the surface, this isn’t so bad. If people are still interested in new Superman stories, why not provide them? The problems arises when the writers (and owners) insist that every story is part of the same timeline. These aren’t just unrelated stories which happen to use the same character; they’re part of a long-running megastory that will never end (unless D.C. goes out of business.)

This creates a major problem for the writers. Since Superman is supposed to keep this up forever, nothing can ever really change! If Superman dies (which he did), he has to come back. He can’t ever really age, because the readers don’t think of him as an old guy. He may reveal his secret identity and marry Louis Lane, but one way or the other that’s got to be undone. If a popular villain is defeated and thrown in jail, he will surely escape. Nothing sticks. After all, if there were any real changes, we’d run out of material! If Superman defeated all the major villains and retired to a life on the farm, what would we write about?

Think about books for contrast. (When I say “books”, I mean “traditional text-only books”, not “comic books”). When an author writes a book, he has the luxury of knowing that the book is not endless. He can include a major event, explore its implications, and then stop. Just reach the last page and be done with it. It gives the story a feeling of weight and reality, and it allows the author to quit before he runs out of ideas.

That’s the other problem, of course: Writers running out of ideas. Even if you’re a genius at comic book writing (and few people are), it’s hard to keep it up forever. (At the very least, you have to worry about the limits of your lifespan!) The good news is that comic book companies can always shift writers around, or hire new talent altogether, in order to keep things fresh. But that just leads to the next problem…

Many Writers

Comic book worlds are written by dozens of writers simultaneously, with very poor coordination between them. To some degree, this is the result of bureaucratic nonsense: Somebody didn’t get the memo that the Riddler is a good guy now, and thus the readers are treated to a confusing reference about Edward Nigma robbing a bank. But even with excellent coordination skills, you’ve still got a problem. The problem is that different writers have different ideas!

For instance, imagine that Joey the Writer has some great ideas about The Death of Captain Courage. He’s got a big plan for how it’ll happen, and how the Captain’s friends will deal with it. In his version of events, Captain Courage doesn’t need to come back, because someone else takes up his mantle. Sounds good, right? But across the hall we’ve got Sam the Writer, who has his own ideas about Captain Courage proposing to his long-time love interest, and the two of them can get married and have children. Eventually they form a whole family of superheroes: the Courage Clan.

Imagine you’re the boss here. What do you do? Both of these ideas are good, but you can’t make both of them happen. Captain Courage can’t be dead and alive at the same time, can he? So you’re stuck with bad options. If you pick one storyline and leave the other untold, you’re wasting good material. If you try to tell both stories, then you have to do something stupid when Captain Courage dies and we explore that for a bit but then somehow he comes back and gets married and so we explore that for a bit but then somehow his family is erased from time so he’s solo again and we explore that for a bit…and eventually it’s just a big fat mess.

Sometimes writers have bad ideas, plain and simple. But sometimes writers have good ideas and they still run into problems, because everyone is trapped together in this shared universe.

And there’s another problem too…

No backtracking

Jenny the Writer has been writing Captain Courage stuff for awhile now.  In his last appearance, she arranged for good ol’ Cap to get caught in a truly frightening deathtrap. The walls are closing in on him, armed with vicious spikes. Cap tries to escape with his super-strength, but it’s no good! Villain McMastermind laughs at him over the loudspeaker, revealing that the room is made from reinforced adamantium-3, which even the Captain cannot hope to bend! So ends the issue in a nail-biting cliffhanger, and we briefly shift our focus to some other characters. (Might as well draw out the cliffhanger, right?)

Jenny’s got a great plan for Cap’s escape. He’ll use the Pendant of Teleportation that he got back in issue #23! He’s had it under his uniform this whole time, you see, so no one will be expecting it.

But as Jenny prepares the script, she suddenly remembers something: Captain Courage actually lost the Pendant of Teleportation back in issue #56, when he visited the Temple of Darragon. He had to bribe the Old Guardian with a magic item, so he gave him the pendant…come to think of it, the Guardian actually ate the pendant!

Well crap, this is a problem! How’s he gonna get out of the deathtrap now??

If Jenny was writing a book, she wouldn’t have to worry. Just go back to the chapter with the Old Guardian and change it around somehow so that Cap gets to keep his pendant. Maybe he bribes the guy with some other magic item. Whatever. It’s not a big deal. But in comic books, it is a big deal! The Temple of Darragon story was published a year ago. You can’t just change it now, can you? That would be stupid!

Well in many cases, that’s exactly what they do. Writers come up with some sort of retcon to explain away the troubling storyline. Sometimes this is done in a really clever way that feels natural. But often, it just sucks. Things that were clearly established are now suddenly un-established, because the writer doesn’t know what else to do.

The other option, of course, is to figure out a way for Captian Courage to escape the deathtrap without using the Pendant of Teleportation. But often that doesn’t work out either.

And then there’s the problem of Dueling Writers. One writer establishes that Captain Courage is immune to laser guns, then along comes another writer that says no, he’s not immune to laser guns. (“I’ve got a whole plan for him to fight the Martian army, and and don’t want him to be immune to their main weapon!”). This goes back and forth indefinitely, and the readers get more and more confused. If this were a book, and not a comic book, the writers could either agree on what they’re doing or else just split up and write separate books.


The Solution

The solution to writer’s chaos is simple: Stop jamming everything into a single endless continuity! There’s really no need to do it this way.

I propose something called Shards. A shard is a special kind of continuity, with the following properties:

Clear leadership

Each shard has an owner. This may be a single writer, or it may be a small group of writers who share a common vision and who know how to cooperate. The rules of the world are laid out in advance. There’s no risk of successive writers running roughshod over each other. Of course, the shard may be cancelled outright if its sales are low. (Sadly, this is still a business and we need to make money.) But it won’t be subject to random interference from outside writers.


Shards do not cross over with each other. They’re not part of a larger universe. So the writers don’t have to keep track of each other’s work, and they don’t have to block each other out. For instance, imagine that Captain Courage is popular enough that he gets two shards. Both shards start off fairly similar, but then they change dramatically. (This is all presented to management when the shards are first proposed.) In Joey’s shard, Cap dies. And stays dead. In Sam’s shard, Cap gets married. And stays married. So even though two writers are using Captain Courage, they’re not using the same Captain Courage. Both writers get to explore their ideas, independently.

And yes, I really mean independence. We can’t do a multiverse thing where one Cap exists on Earth-1 and another exists on Earth-2, because inevitably there will be a storyline where Zorgon the Destroyer messes with the fabric of spacetime and both Captains end up meeting each other…and soon enough we’ve got another mess! It’s just that sort of crap that forced DC to reboot the whole thing with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Granted, Crisis was a good story. But we shouldn’t be forced into mega-events because of continuity snarls. Instead, we should prevent the snarls from forming in the first place. Thus, we need independent shards.

Clear markings

Every shard has a name, which is clearly displayed on every issue. Make it easy for the readers to understand which shard is which. Explain that the shards don’t affect each other. Make it easy for them to find all the issues in a given shard, starting at #1. Ideally, the whole thing proceeds in a simple progression: #1 leads to #2 and thus to #3, without any weird meandering or special comics that don’t have numbers. Let the reader start at the beginning and work his way to the end, step by step.

Which leads me to my next point…

Not endless

Shards are expected to have a clear beginning and a clear end. Write with the end in mind! Make sure everything moves smoothly to that point. Feel free to make big changes without dreaming up ways to reverse yourself. Do whatever you want with these characters; the sky is the limit. Make the story as long as it needs to be. Don’t stretch it out. Don’t prattle on after you’ve run out of ideas. This, of course, builds into another idea:

Clear plan

To avoid the “no backtracking” problem, plan out the whole story in advance! In fact, you might want to produce the whole thing in advance, and don’t release it till it’s really done.



For clarity’s sake, here’s a simple shard proposal. (A real proposal would likely have more detail than this.) Notice how the shard concept allows me to do things that would normally be impossible.

Shard Proposal
Title: Gotham Times

Batman exists, along with some associated allies and villains. Other superheroes, such as Superman, do not exist and have never existed. The setting is realistic. There is no such thing as magic, aliens have never landed on earth, etc.. Batman has been operating in Gotham for three years. He has never had a Robin. Jim Gordon was the police commissioner and Batman’s ally, but he was murdered six months ago by an unknown killer. The new commissioner, Allan Drake, distrusts Batman.


A major feature of the story will be Gotham Times, the city’s premier newspaper. The main character is Mary Scott, a field reporter for the Times. Investigating the rumors of Batman, she discovers that he is real. Batman is initially suspicious of her and conceals himself, but over a number of months Mary assists him in crimes by leaving notes where she knows he will find them. Her efforts largely revolve around researching a shadowy organization called the Penguin Syndicate, and reporting her findings to Batman. Eventually, she begins to gain his trust. Around that time, the Syndicate itself begins to suspect that a Times reporter is assisting Batman. They launch a plan to discover the assistant’s identity.

Another major figure is the Joker, who has no organization of his own but still gains a wide reputation as an unpredictable serial killer. He takes an interest in Batman, considering him to be the ultimate target. He also takes an interest in the Times, due to its habit of splashing his exploits on the front page.

As Mary delves deeper into the world of crime, she comes to understand Batman’s instinctive mistrust of others. At the same time, Batman slowly realizes that he has become too isolated since Gordon’s death, and he decides to regain his connection with the “real people” of Gotham (such as Mary). There is suspicion that Allan Drake is part of the Syndicate, but he is eventually revealed to be trustworthy. (The Syndicate was actually framing him, as part of a plan to replace him with someone more corruptible.)

Gordon’s killer is revealed to be a hitman named Deadshot, who was hired by none other than Mary’s boss at the Times, as part of a plan to cover up his personal dealings with the Syndicate. Mary arranges to make herself Deadshot’s next target, as part of a plan to lure him into the open. The plan succeeds, and Batman apprehends Deadshot before Mary can be harmed. Simultaneously, Mary’s boss is arrested by the GCPD.

Searching Deadshot’s belongings, Batman uncovers vital clues about the Penguin’s operations. Over the next week, he and GCPD launch a massive assault against the Syndicate. The Penguin makes a last-ditch effort to save himself by hiring the Joker as a bodyguard. The Joker accepts the offer, and then promptly kills his employer. Batman enters the Penguin’s compound and the Joker attacks him. After a desperate struggle, the Joker gives Batman a mortal wound. Just then, Mary shoots the Joker in the back. He smiles at the irony, and falls dead.

Mary and Batman share a few words before he dies. He thanks her for her help and tells her his true identity, which she agrees to keep secret. She calls Alfred, and they arrange for Batman to be cremated. They scatter his ashes over his parents’ grave. (Bruce Wayne has reportedly left Gotham to go live on a private island.)

With the Penguin defeated, citywide crime drops dramatically. Mary receives a promotion at the Times, and she agrees to help Drake clean up what remains of the Syndicate. Mary writes a final headline for the Times: “BATMAN IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE BAT.”



See? You can do so much with shards that you really can’t do anywhere else! Comics like Y: The Last Man are successful in part because they run on the shard concept. Y doesn’t suffer from Writer’s Chaos, because it runs on these principles. All you need to do is apply these ideas to mainstream characters, and you can do all kinds of stuff with them.

If some people like old-school campy Batman while others prefer grim-and-gritty Batman, you can let both characters exist at the same time! Just put them in different shards, and you’re done.

When one shard ends, readers will just move on to other shards. Perhaps they’ll keep track of their favorite authors, or perhaps they’ll look to new interpretations of their favorite characters. But each shard will feel purposeful and coherent, instead of the jumbled mess we have now. Some shards will come to be regarded as classics, and readers will seek them out many years after they’ve concluded.

In fact, this is basically how it works in Japan. And let me tell you, it’s great! Manga isn’t popular just because of the art style or the character archetypes; it’s also popular because most of it runs on shard-style principles.

There’s a lot of good that could come for this, if only the management would get behind it.

Nine Rules of Wisdom

2014 June 26
Comments Off on Nine Rules of Wisdom
by sonicsuns

A wise one watches the world

He seeks to surpass illusion. He does not treat assumption as truth. He values experiment and observation. He seeks to achieve a detailed understanding. He is willing to accept new evidence. He is willing to examine new ideas.

A wise one questions everything

He knows that if an idea is supported by his friends and allies, or by his opponents, or by the masses, or by a select few, or by his neighbors, or by the residents of a distant country, or by powerful authorities, or by powerless dissidents, or by tradition, or by departure from tradition, or by a sacred text, or by an ordinary text, or by venerated geniuses, or by forgotten fools, or by convenience, or by inconvenience, then such an idea may be right, but it may also be wrong. He knows that everything must be judged according to the evidence, and that all evidence must be examined fairly.

He does not trust in foolish arguments, even if they appear to support truthful conclusions. He trusts only in wise arguments.

He is willing to go wherever reason may lead him.

A wise one knows his ignorance

He does not pretend to know what he does not know. He recognizes that a guess is merely a guess, and not an established fact. He knows that some of his beliefs may be false. He acknowledges uncertainty, and acts accordingly.

A wise one admits his mistakes

When he finds that some of his beliefs are false, he changes his beliefs. He does not pretend that the false beliefs are true. He does not pretend that the false beliefs were never his own.

He knows that all his efforts must be judged fairly. He knows that good intentions do not always produce good results. If he finds that his efforts are harmful or ineffective, he adjusts his actions accordingly.

He makes amends for his own wrongful actions, when possible. He resolves not to repeat his mistakes in the future.

A wise one knows nuance

He does not insist that all matters are black and white. He acknowledges shades of gray, when they are present. He recognizes that between truth and falsehood there is often half-truth. He recognizes that something which is true in one context may yet be false in another context. He recognizes that something which is good in one way may yet be evil in another way. He recognizes that a person who is wise in one area may yet be foolish in another area. He knows that even a fool can speak truth, and even a genius can speak falsehood.

A wise one takes the proper time

He neither rushes nor delays without reason. He understands the relationships between various goals and tasks. He knows that important things are not always urgent, and urgent things are not always important.

A wise one cares for the heart

He seeks healing for all, in the long run. He seeks to sooth those who are in pain, and to comfort those who worry.

As he does this, he maintains rationality. If someone holds an irrational fear, he teaches them to think differently. If someone holds a rational fear, he reduces the danger. If someone feels shame for no reason, he teaches them to think differently. If someone feels shame for a good reason, he teaches them to make amends and find forgiveness. He holds this patten for a variety of troubling feelings, and acknowledges nuance in every case.

As he helps others, he also helps himself, and he allows others to help him.

He knows the value of love. He knows that true love does not enable cruelty. He knows that self-love is not the same as arrogance or selfishness. He knows that love of others does not constitute mindless praise or blind loyalty. He knows that love can be found in romance, friendship, family relations, and in many other things. He also knows that it is possible for people to assume that a given relationship is founded in love, when in fact it is not. He knows that true love, and likewise true compassion, is very important.

A wise one seeks to encourage wisdom in others

He shows others how to think rationally. He shares his knowledge, with the exception of things which must be kept private for the greater good.

He does not seek wisdom so that he may have power over fools. Rather, he seeks wisdom so that he may have power over nonsense itself.

He is not threatened by the prospect of fools becoming wise, even if they become wiser than himself. Rather, he rejoices in their advancement.

As he seeks to spread wisdom to others, he remembers that he himself is imperfect. When he meets a person who seems foolish, he considers their arguments fairly. He knows that sometimes he himself may be the fool, and the so-called fool may be wise.

A wise one seeks to improve the world

He observes the flaws of the world, including his own flaws, and he seeks to address them. He seeks to eliminate unjustified suffering. He seeks to promote meaningful happiness.

He takes care to ensure that his efforts do more good than harm in the long run. He knows that misguided idealism can be harmful. He knows that great logic can still be foolish, if its product is used for evil purposes.

What’s the actual number?

2014 January 4
by sonicsuns

Watch out for phrases like these:

  • “up to”
  • “as many as”
  • “as few as”

Whenever you hear these phrases, in almost any context, your first reaction should be: “What is the actual number?

For instance:

“With our new diet plan, you can lose up to 15 pounds in just two weeks!”

What’s the actual number? How many pounds do most people lose? What’s the typical result of this diet plan?

Here’s another:

“Our business is very successful. Sometimes we earn as much as ten thousand dollars per month!”

What’s the actual number? How many dollars do they earn in an average month? (The business may actually be losing money, for all you know.)

Here’s another:

“Several studies have evaluated these two medicines. Some of them say that Medicine A is as much as 60% more effective than Medicine B.”

What’s the actual number? What is the overall result of all the studies? (Or all the trustworthy studies.)

Here’s another:

Electric bills in this area can cost as low as $20 per month.

What’s the actual number? What is the average electric bill? And how much will you spend personally? (You may use more or less electricity than your neighbors.)

Most of the time, you don’t want to know the maximum or minimum value of something. Instead, you want to know the average value, the typical value, or the value that applies to you personally.

So watch out for these phrases, and learn to think critically.

Tales of the Teacher: The Travelers and the Great Tower

2013 December 13
by sonicsuns

Once, there was an old city, with many winding roads. In the center of the city stood a Great Tower, which could be seen for miles around. It was said that this tower contained ancient wonders, and many wished to see inside.

One day, five travelers approached the outskirts of the city. They were faced with a problem: How would they navigate the winding streets of the old city, in order to reach the tower at its center?

The first traveler said “The best way is to always turn left.” So he entered the city, and turned left at his first opportunity. He turned left again, and again. In time, he had left the city entirely. He never reached the Tower.

The second traveler said “See, our friend who turned left has failed. If I am to succeed, I must do the opposite as him.” So this traveler decided to always turn right, instead of left. He entered the city, and turned right at his first opportunity. He turned right again, and again. In time, he had left the city entirely. He never reached the Tower.

The third traveler said “See, the first two travelers were both wrong. The solution is to take the middle path, splitting the difference between them.” So he entered the city, and he never turned right or left, but instead he always marched forward. But in time he reached a solid wall, and he could not advance. He was forced to turn back. He never reached the Tower.

The fourth traveler said “These fools don’t know what they’re doing. The solution is not to go left or right or straight. The solution is to do each of these things in sequence, at the appropriate time.” He took a scroll from his coat. On the scroll was a series of instructions, written by an earlier traveler who had reached the Tower successfully. “If I follow this scroll”, said the fourth traveler, “I will surely reach the Tower.” So he entered the city, following the directions as they were written. Sometimes he turned right, sometimes he turned left, and sometimes he went straight ahead. He made good progress. But there came a time when the scroll told him to turn left across a bridge, and he found to his surprise that the bridge had been destroyed by an earthquake. The scroll was suddenly useless, and he was forced to return the way he had come. He never reached the Tower.

The fifth traveler pondered over what he should do. Then, to his good fortune, he saw that the Teacher was approaching. He said to the Teacher, “I am trying to reach the Tower, but all my friends have failed. Whether they turned left or right, or walked straight forward, or even followed the directions of those who have gone before, all of them have failed to reach their goal. What must I do?”

The Teacher said “Can you see the Tower?”

“Yes,” said the traveler.

The Teacher replied “Go that way.”


This may seem like a silly parable, and in one sense it is. Anyone should be able to navigate towards a tower by looking at it. But when it comes to other problems, many people make the same mistakes as the first four travelers.

  • The first traveler chooses a course of action, based on nothing more than assumption.
  • The second traveler sees someone else’s failure, and assumes that the opposite action must lead to success.
  • The third traveler commits the Fallacy of Moderation, assuming that the solution is some sort of “middle way” between the previous failures
  • The forth traveler has a good idea: consult with someone else who has already been successful. But his method is far too rigid. His plan depends on the idea that circumstances have not changed.

The first 3 travelers rely on nothing more than assumptions. The fourth uses information, but it’s (partly) irrelevant. The Teacher points out the value of immediate information. What can we know about our situation right now? And remember that “now” is constantly updating. Every step that you take, every turn that you make, changes your position with respect to the Tower. So it’s not good enough to look at the Tower once and plot a course from there. You must repeatedly look up, check to see where the Tower is, and update your plans as you go. (Also, if you take a path that seems good but in fact leads to a dead end, make a mental note of that and find another path.)

Let’s illustrate with an example.

Suppose that various people were each trying to start their own business.

  • The first decides to sell cheap products , even if they’re also low-quality. His business fails.
  • The second decides to sell high-quality products, even if they’re also expensive. His business fails.
  • The third decides to sell mid-range products, regarding both price and quality. His business fails.
  • The fourth decides to follow the exact strategy of a previous entrepreneur who was successful. Perhaps this involves a mix of products, or a particular advertising strategy, or whatever. But he fails to realize that his circumstances are different from his predecessor’s circumstances. His business fails.
  • The fifth takes the time to actually analyze his own personal situation, and the current status of the market. He collects information about what products will sell, what advertising will work, etc.. He constantly updates this information, tests his theories, and learns from his own experiences. (Though this does not preclude learning from others.) He may end up selling any type product, whether expensive or cheap or mid-range, but the point is that the product is actually suited for his unique skills and circumstances at this particular moment. He does not assume, like the others did. He learns, and he never stops learning. This man is the most likely to succeed.

Shaman Chess

2013 November 17
by sonicsuns

I propose a variation on chess, called Shaman Chess. It is played with a standard chess set, plus two “shaman” pieces. Each shaman starts the game two spaces in front of its queen.

Shamans can only move by switching places with another piece. There are two ways to do this:

  1. On your turn, you may switch your shaman with any other piece you have on the board, except for the king or queen.
  2. You may capture the enemy shaman. However, when you do so, the enemy shaman does not leave the board. Instead, it moves to the previous location of the capturing piece. (Afterwards, it still functions normally.)

There is no pawn promotion in shaman chess. However, there is pawn reclamation.  If you advance a pawn onto the enemy’s back row, you may move the pawn to any empty space within the first two rows on your side of the board. A pawn reclamation may count as one complete move, or it may be combined with another (possibly unrelated) move within the same turn. For instance, if you move a pawn onto the back row, you may choose to reclaim the pawn immediately, within that same turn. Alternately, you may leave the pawn on the back row indefinitely, and reclaim it at some point in the future, during your turn. (Obviously, if the pawn is captured in the interim, it cannot be used thereafter.) If you reclaim the pawn on some later turn, you may still move another piece during that turn, because pawn reclamation does not count as a normal move.

En passant captures are only permitted in cases of normal pawn movement. A pawn which moves via shaman switching is not vulnerable to en passant capture as a result.

In algebraic notation, the shaman is denoted by S.

I have two suggestions for the shape of the piece:

  1. Realistic: The shaman is a woman wearing a cloak, with her arms raised high.
  2. Abstract: The shaman is a sphere on top of a flat base. The sphere has spiraling lines on its surface, culminating at the top.


  • Wild Shaman: The shaman may switch with the queen.
  • Supreme Shaman: The shaman may switch with the king or queen.
  • Void Shaman: The shaman begins the game outside the board, in a space called the “void”. Each shaman has its own void space, which can only be reached by shaman switching. Other pieces may occupy the void, if the shaman switches them there. When your shaman is in the void, you may switch it with any piece you have on the board, except your king. (Optional: Queens are also exempt.) When your shaman is on the board, it may only switch with the piece which is currently in its void. But the capture rule above still applies. (Optional: Friendly captures are permitted.)

Wash with like colors

2013 September 8
by sonicsuns

All my life, I’ve heard that it’s important to “wash with like colors” when you’re doing laundry. You have to do the whites in one load, and everything else in another load. If you mix them up, then the colors from the colored clothing will leak on to the whites, and you’ll wind up with green underwear or something.

All my life, I’ve ignored this advice. And the colored clothing has never leaked onto the white clothing.

Is this advice out of date? Perhaps modern clothing is made from different material than it used to be. Or perhaps there’s something different about modern washing machines…

Sometimes, well-known advice isn’t worth following.

Smug-faced crowds

2013 July 3
Comments Off on Smug-faced crowds
by sonicsuns

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

–Siegfried Sassoon


2013 April 29
Comments Off on Looksism
by sonicsuns

Looksism” (or “looks-ism”) means “judging people unfairly, based on their physical appearance and/or sex appeal.”

(Admittedly, “looksism” is kindof a cumbersome word. But I haven’t been able to think of anything better. “Appearance-ism”? “Sexiness-ism”? I’m willing to take suggestions, though.)

  • When men try to date sexy girls, while ignoring plain girls who might actually have better personalities, those men are committing looksism.
  • When your faith in a politician is bolstered because the politician is handsome, you are committing looksism.
  • When girls hate themselves just because they’re heavier than average, they are directing looksism at themselves.

Looksism is wrong. Looksism ruins lives.

I do not mean to say that it is wrong to appreciate someone’s physical beauty or sex appeal. If you see a sexy person, and your enjoy the sexiness, that’s fine. But if you see a sexy person and then assume that they are also honest or kind, or that they would make a for a good partner in marriage, or anything else like that, then you are committing looksism. Some sexy people are honest and some sexy people are not, and you really shouldn’t assume these things based on sexiness.

Conversely, if you see an unattractive person and you’re aware of the unattractiveness, that’s fine. But if you go on to assume that this person is also lazy or stupid or anything other such thing, then you are committing looksism.

It is not looksist to think “That woman is beautiful.”
It is looksist to think “That woman is beautiful, and therefore she is a good person.” (Or “That woman is ugly, and therefore she is a bad person”)
It is also looksist to think “That woman is beautiful, and beauty is the only quality that really matters when you judge someone.”

Looksism encompasses a wide variety of unfair assumptions. Just as it is looksist to think “That woman is sexy, therefore she is a good person”, it is also looksist to think “That woman is sexy, therefore she is a shallow person.” (Sexy people have personalities too, you know.)

Of course, it’s often tricky to separate “looksism” from “justified appreciation of physical beauty.” But they are different things, nonetheless.

Looksism is often combined with sexism; women tend to face more looksist attitudes than men. But looksism can fundamentally be applied to anyone, male or female.

Looksism is wrong.

Questioning Global Warming

2013 April 28
by sonicsuns

(I made errors in the first version of this post. Please see the updates below.)

The IPCC is, by far, the most prestigious scientific organization when it comes to Global Warming. I have long had faith in the IPCC, and in the idea that human-caused Global Warming is a serious problem that needs to be addressed soon.

But suddenly, I have doubts. I came across two articles recently that appear to prove that the IPCC has a terrible track record at predicting Global Warming. Namely, they claim that the IPCC has been predicted far more warming than has actually occurred. Furthermore, they claim that average global surface temperatures have scarcely risen (on average) for over 10 years. If true, these results throw the entire field of Climate Science into question.

The articles are here and here.

First graph:

Second graph, which deals with the 2007 AR4 report:

Important note: I don’t have reason to believe that either of these sources are especially trustworthy. But they claim to be getting their data from great sources, including the IPCC itself and the Met Office in Britain.

The big question is this: Are these graphs based on real data?

If the articles are simply making stuff up based on nothing (which certainly happens sometimes), then we have nothing to worry about. But if this is the real, actual data…then Global Warming appears to be tiny compared to what we expected.

The temperature data appears to be confirmed here, at least mostly.

One of the scientists from the DailyMail article says he was misrepresented…but his response never seems to refute the idea that the IPCC has been wrong four times in a row (95% confidence range!). He says that the “highest-response models” are “looking iffy”, which seems to indicate that, yes, errors have been made…and then he fails to address the magnitude of the errors alleged in the DailyMail article, which he is responding to.

I’ve tried searching for articles by climate scientists who refute these findings. I haven’t found much.

Michael Lemonick, a journalist, writes that surface temperatures have indeed stayed pretty steady for the last ten years. He says that although the surface temperatures haven’t been increasing, the ocean has been absorbing an unusual amount of heat. He says that the heat in the ocean will eventually return to the air around us, causing a quick increase in temperature. I can see how that might be true…but why didn’t the IPCC see this coming? The graphs above show confidence intervals for 95%. Is this ocean phenomenon really so rare? And how do you explain the IPCC being wrong 4 times in a row over several years?

I’m wary of post-hoc explanations. Perhaps the ocean argument is true, but perhaps it’s merely speculative (and wrong). Perhaps the climate scientists were simply wrong to begin with, and now they’re convincing themselves that it’s ok, because of this new development with the oceans. But if we don’t understand the oceanic absorption of heat well enough to account for the climate over a 10-year period…what else don’t we understand? I mean really, you’re not supposed to exit the 95% range four times in a row. That really indicates that the system is more complex than you realized.

Some may say that the long-term predictions of the IPCC will still come true, even though the short-term trends have failed. But how can we know? What reason do we have to trust the IPCC, considering their failures thus far?

Reuters, which I consider trustworthy, chimes in with this article: Climate scientists struggle to explain warming slowdown
There’s a response here, and a response to that response here.

Reuters dismisses the idea that the warming slowdown has been caused by a slowdown in carbon emissions, saying “Greenhouse gas emissions have hit repeated record highs with annual growth of about 3 percent in most of the decade to 2010, partly powered by rises in China and India. World emissions were 75 percent higher in 2010 than in 1970, UN data show.”

So…emissions are going up, but global warming is slowing down…and as far as I can tell, the graphs I showed earlier really did display real data, and the IPCC does in fact have a terrible track record with its predictions.

So…have we been wrong? All this time? I don’t know. If we have been wrong, three things:

  1. Yay! No more climate crisis!
  2. Oh crap, we’ve been misleading people all this time…
  3. We had better change some of these laws we set up!

I do not make any strong conclusions simply on the basis of these graphs. Considering the sheer weight of scientific consensus that “Global Warming is a big deal and we need to address it now”, I simply say that I have doubts about Global Warming. If I had the power to do so, I’d send out journalists and scientists to re-evaluate all the data we have, and figure out exactly what we do and don’t know, and where we have and haven’t been wrong. I wish the president or somebody would launch a serious investigation of this, and figure out exactly what is going on.

And if, in fact, we’ve been wrong all this time…we need to face that. There’s no point in ignoring reality. That’s not how science works.

Always check the data. Always admit to the truth. Even when it’s inconvenient.


Here’s another graph, from the same source as the first graph above:

Notice how the black line is higher than it was originally. Also, look at the brackets on the right side that indicate the confidence ranges of the reports. In most cases the black line still resides on the lower side of things, which indicates that the IPCC has indeed overpredicted Global Warming. But at least it’s in the ranges, instead of being below them entirely. And in the case of SAR, the black line seems to fit perfectly!

I don’t know why this graph is different from its predecessor. They’re from the same source, after all. Is this one just using a different sort of analysis, perhaps? Or has someone been sloppy?

Update 2: It seems the first graph simply drew a line between the first and last datapoints. Since 2012 was unusually cold, this brought the line lower. The second graph is more of a best-fit scenario considering all of the data, which makes the second graph more authoritative. (Climate change should always be measured according to long-term trends.) So the climate-skeptic case is weaker than I first thought when I wrote this post, but it’s still a lot stronger than I would have expected prior to seeing any of this data.

Update 3: The BBC chimes in: Climate Slowdown. It says that warming has indeed slowed down, and describes this trend as “unexplained”. It says that this new data lowers the probable short-term temperature forecast, but that the long-term forecast remains unchanged. But it’s really unclear about what counts as “short term” and “long term” in this context. The best I can figure is that “short term” runs to maybe 2100 (or maybe not as far as that), and “long term” is thousands of years. I think we can safely ignore any climate problems that won’t crop up for more than a century. After all, after a whole century has gone by, who knows what technology we might have? Carbon scrubbing could be simple, at that point.

I’m still not sure what to think about all this…

Update 4: A blog called ClimateDepot has published a long post on the (alleged) state of the science. Can this blog be trusted? I don’t know. But it links to other sources. Notably, it linked to an article where James Lovelock, a scientist, admitted that his earlier views of the climate had been “alarmist”. (Though his views had been really extreme to begin with.) More notably, Dr. Ivar Giaever, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, is mentioned as a firm skeptic of global warming. Physicist Hal Lewis felt similarly, until his death in 2011. There’s also a page on Dr. Lennart Bengtsson, formerly of the IPCC, who is also skeptical. (Many of his quotes are poorly translated, though.) Matt Ridley weighs in here.

All told, I’m still not sure what’s going on. It’s very difficult to keep track of all the different sources, and their various degrees of (possible) bias, and to adjust for degrees of certainty, and the difference between “The earth will heat up by one degree” vs. “The earth will heat up by one degree if X amount of carbon is emitted within Y amount of time.”, and to judge the accuracy of the latter statement when in fact we’ve emitted L amount of carbon within M amount of time.

It’s very confusing.

Update 5:

Here’s an article with plenty of graphs, describing the earth’s temperature according to various databases: Ten years of ‘accelerated global warming’ ? If this data can be trusted, it’s clear that global warming actually ended back in 1996, and the trend is actually slight cooling over the last 10 years.

We could imagine a situation in which global warming pauses for 16 years and then starts up again in earnest. But do we know that this will happen? What do we actually know, and what is speculation?

President Obama recently said that warming has accelerated over the last 10 years. If this data is correct, then Obama is utterly wrong. And if he’s utterly wrong, that demonstrates a disturbing disregard for the facts on his part.

What’s going on here? Is all this data simply wrong? Is it made up? Has it been misinterpreted somehow? Or is Anthropogenic Global Warming simply a crackpot theory, which persists despite massive contradictory evidence?

By the way, the initial graph for this post displayed confidence ranges of 90%, not 95%. I was wrong about that.

But still, I have great doubts about Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Update 6:

Some videos from Anthony Watt:

He posted a guest post about climate science here.

Update 7:
(4 January 2014)

Want to see a big technical post with lots of raw data? Here is is:

And here’ a year-end summary from Anthony Waats:

*sigh* At this point, I qualify as a Global Warming Skeptic. Call me a “denier” if you like. But I just don’t see how the mainstream theory can be reconciled with the data.

Here’s my rough sketch of the situation:

  • The earth is getting warmer. Slowly.
  • The earth will probably continue to get warmer over the next century. Slowly.
  • The current rate of warmth is not going to cause major problems. Our warmth-related problems will be minor.
  • The rate of warming is not likely to accelerate to such a degree that it produces major problems anytime during the next century.
  • Carbon, along with other man-made greenhouse gasses which we currently know of, has some power to warm the climate. But the effect is small. Perhaps it is so small as to be completely negligible.
  • The mainstream scientific community has it wrong. We all jumped onto a bandwagon, and we lost our impartiality.
  • I believe that believers in Global Warming are generally good people who honestly want to improve the world, and their biases are generally subconscious. This is not, as some right-wingers allege, a grand scheme to reduce our freedoms. This is largely a case of well-intentioned passion which overpowers our ability to think clearly.
  • Environmentalism in general is not rendered false simply because Global Warming is false. But we should re-evaluate each part of environmentalism individually, to see what does and does not make sense.

I admit I may be wrong. But this is my position at the moment.

Update 8:

The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change is a skeptical organization.

More data:

BBC shows some dissent within the IPCC:

Update 9:

Dr. Judith Curry, a climatologist, speaks out:

The more I research climate change, the more skeptical I get.

Update 10:

Nigel Lawson weighs in: Cool It

(last updated 4 May 2014)

Gun Control and Australia

2013 April 27
Comments Off on Gun Control and Australia
by sonicsuns

The Daily Show is a comedy show, but it also makes a lot of great points. The recent series about gun control and Australia was particularly informative.

(You can avoid the ads if you install Adblock Plus)

Part 1:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gun Control Whoop-de-doo
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

Part 2:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gun Control & Political Suicide
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

Part 3:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Australia & Gun Control’s Aftermath
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

John C. Wright’s conversion to Christianity

2013 April 26
by sonicsuns

Notice: Christians (and other theists) who do like to have their beliefs challenged should probably not read this post.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was recently introduced to some Christian blogs. Today’s post is a response John C. Wright’s conversion story, which you can read here. (For background on my own views, you may browse my other posts on religion.)

He begins:

I am more than a presumably rational individual, I [was] a champion of atheism who gave arguments in favor of atheism so convincing that three of my friends gave up their religious belief due to my persuasive reasoning powers, and my father stopped going to church.

Upon concluding through a torturous and decades-long and remorseless process of logic that all my fellow atheists were horribly comically wrong about every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic, and my hated enemies the Christians were right, I wondered how this could be. The data did not match the model.

Now, the atheists I know do not tend to be “horrible and comically wrong” about “every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic”. It seems to me that Wright has known some especially irrational atheists. (I’d list QualiaSoup as an example of a very rational atheist. There’s also Carl Sagan, among many others.)

Wright continues:

For the first time in my life, I prayed, and said. “Dear God. There is no logical way you could possibly exist, and even if you appeared before me in the flesh, I would call it an hallucination. So I can think of no possible way, no matter what the evidence and no matter how clear it was, that you could prove your existence to me. But the Christians claim you are benevolent, and that my failure to believe in you inevitably will damn me. If, as they claim, you care whether or not I am damned, and if, as they claim, you are all wise and all powerful, you can prove to me that you exist even though I am confident such a thing is logically impossible. Thanking you in advance for your cooperation in this matter, John C. Wright.”

I decided to replicate Wright’s test. First I said the prayer almost exactly as he said it, attempting to speak to God in the same style as Wright. (I reworded things a bit to fit my views.) Then I got on my knees, closed my eyes and said another prayer, which I made up as I went along. Like Wright, I asked God to show himself to me. I’ll tell you the results at the end of this post.

Wright had a profound experience three few days after the prayer:

Three days later, with no warning, I had a heart attack, and was lying on the floor, screaming and dying.

-Then I was saved from certain death by faith-healing, after which–

-I felt the Holy Spirit enter my body, after which–

-became immediately aware of my soul, a part of myself which, until that time, I reasoned and thought did not exist-

-I was visited by the Virgin Mary, her son, and His Father-

-not to mention various other spirits and ghosts over a period of several days–

-including periods of divine ecstasy, and an awareness of the mystical oneness of the universe-

-And a week or so after that I had a religious experience where I entered the mind of God and saw the indescribable simplicity and complexity, love, humor and majesty of His thought, and I understood the joy beyond understanding and comprehended the underlying unity of all things, and the paradox of determinism and free will was made clear to me, as was the symphonic nature of prophecy. I was shown the structure of time and space.

-And then Christ in a vision told me that He would be my judge, and that God judges no man. I mentioned this event to my wife. Then about a month later, when I was reading the Bible for the first time beyond the unavoidable minimum assigned in school, I came across the passage in the book of John, a passage I had never seen before, and to which no Christian in my hearing had ever made reference, which said the same thing in the same words.

-And then I have had perhaps a dozen or two dozen prayers miraculously answered, so much so that I now regard it as a normal routine rather than some extraordinary act of faith.

Well, that’s quite an experience! The only awkward thing about it is that, overall, the evidence against the existence of the Christian God greatly outweighs the evidence for the existence of the Christian God (I’ll just call him “God” for the rest of this post). And yes, that’s still true after considering Wright’s conversion story. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Small note, Wright says:

Christ in a vision told me that He would be my judge, and that God judges no man

Isn’t Jesus just the incarnation of God? Aren’t they the same person? (Or “three persons, one god” as the vague saying goes.) So if Jesus judges people…how can it be that God does not judge people? But this is a minor point, so let’s move on.

Wright continues:

In hindsight, if only I had not been so arrogant,  I could have glanced around at the earth and sky, and seen the intricacy, wonder, and beauty of nature, regarded the unanswerable authority of the conscience within me, and known that I was a created being inside a created cosmos, not  a random sandheap blown for a season into a meaningless shape by blind winds. Any child can see it, and all children do.

A few points here:

  1. I acknowledge the intricacy, wonder and beauty of nature. But just because nature is wonderful doesn’t mean that God designed it. (I’d also like to point out that nature is flawed: In addition to providing us with air, nature has also provided smallpox.)
  2. Who’s to say that the human conscience is evidence of God? Isn’t it enough to say that human beings simply observe their surroundings, and can see for themselves that some actions are good and others are bad, that some actions bring happiness and others bring sadness? Isn’t that the basis of morality?
  3. If we were created out of randomness, why would that imply that our lives are meaningless? Perhaps there really is a basic Meaning to the world, a basic Law of Right and Wrong, just as there is a Law of Gravity. And happily, we happen to have the basic abilities to pursue Meaning and make the world Better. So we can still potentially have meaningful lives, even if we weren’t consciously designed for that purpose.
  4. Even assuming that there is a loving God who created the universe, what makes Wright so sure that Christianity is the one true religion? Well, his religious experience, of course. But I’ll cover that in a bit.

Wright continues:

So I was prepared to say adieu to logic and reason and just take things on faith, when I then found out that the only people who think you have to say adieu to logic and reason in order to take things on faith are crackpots both Christian and atheistic.

Every non-crackpot thinks faith is that on which you rely when unreasonable fears tempt you to disbelieve that to which your reason has consented. If your father says you can dive off the high dive with no risk of death, and he has never lied in the past, and your reason tells you to trust him, it is rational to take his word on faith and jump, and it is irrational to let your eyes overestimate the danger poised by the height.

I think that Wright is confusing three different definitions of the word “faith”. The definitions are:

  1. Belief in something
  2. Belief in something despite the evidence (or lack of evidence)
  3. Belief in something because of the evidence.

When the evidence shows you can jump off the high dive without injury, it requires Faith #3 to make the jump. When the evidence does not show that you can smoke cigarettes all your life and not increase the risk of cancer, in requires Faith #2 to keep smoking and ignore the risk.

Christian belief is largely based on Faith #2. The people who recognize this fact tend to use phrases like “I don’t need evidence; I have faith!” Then someone like Wright comes along and talks about “faith” in the sense of Faith #3, and it tends to confuse everybody. (Perhaps this is a small point, though.  You may ignore it if you like.)

Wright discusses how his atheist friends responded to his conversion experience:

They reasoned as follows: “God cannot possibly exist. Therefore any evidence that you encountered that God exists must be hallucination, mis-perception, faulty memory, self-deception, coincidence, or anything else no matter how farfetched and absurd. Since any evidence that you encountered that God exists must be hallucination, mis-perception, faulty memory, self-deception, coincidence, or anything else no matter how farfetched and absurd, therefore none of your evidence proves God exists.”

I found their perfect, childlike faith touching.

No matter what they saw, no matter what they heard, no matter how the world was against them, they would go to the lions rather than look at the evidence, lest their faith in their faithlessness be shaken.

Now, as I said earlier, it appears that Wright knows some very irrational atheists. According to Wright, these atheists treat the nonexistence of God as an axiom, and dismiss all evidence in favor of God on that basis. This, of course, is a terrible way to approach the subject of God.

You have to start with neutrality. Find the evidence in favor of God, and the evidence against God, and weigh them against each other. If you discover that God very likely does not exist, even after considering Wright’s testimony, then you may conclude that Wright was likely hallucinating or mis-remembering or whatever. But you can’t just start with “There is no God, because I said so.” That’s just stupid.

However, this seems to be a case in which stupid logic has produced a fairly accurate result. (That can happen sometimes, by pure chance.) Because when we actually look at the evidence, we do indeed find that the concept of God simply does not fit the data.

The train of thought should begin with something like this: “If God existed, the universe would look like this. But if God did not exist, the universe would look that that.” Then you take an objective look at the universe and figure out which scenario matches up. Are we living in a God-is-real universe, or a God-is-not-real universe? Where does the evidence take us? Which side wins out, in the end?

So let’s look at this God that Wright is proposing: This God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. (i.e. God is  all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.) If that God existed, what would we expect to see in the universe? Well obviously, we’d expect to see that nobody suffers, or at least that nobody suffers any more than they properly deserve. Suffering should either be nonexistent, or it should be proportional to personal morality. Whichever of those scenarios you choose, or even if you somehow blend them together, there should be no exceptions whatsoever to the rules. After all, this is a Perfect God. He has no limitations at all (except in the sense that he’s Perfectly Moral and thus does not commit evil.)

Now let’s look at the universe. Is there suffering? YES! There is lots of suffering. For instance, millions of people have starved to death. (All around the world, for countless centuries). Well, that’s a bit odd…

But perhaps the suffering is proportional to personal morality. Perhaps only evil people starve to death, while good people are miraculously given food (like the manna which God allegedly gave to the ancient Hebrews.) Well…no. That doesn’t fit the data either. Innocent people starve to death all the time! Especially poignant are the stories of children who live in poor countries, and there’s a famine or whatever, and the kids starve to death despite being only 5 years old, and completely innocent of any crimes. And this applies to Christian families just as much as anyone else.

Now, considering all that, does it really make sense to believe in an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent God? Seriously, go look at the websites of some of those hunger charities. Find the pictures of starving children they sometimes show. Look at those children and try to reconcile the idea that there is a Perfect God somewhere who could easily provide these kids with abundant food, at no personal cost or risk to himself. And he knows about the kids, because he knows everything. And he wants to help the kids, because he’s all-loving (or at least he loves innocent people). And he has the ability to help the kids, because he’s all-powerful! And yet….somehow…he doesn’t help the kids…

It just doesn’t make sense. It makes no sense at all.

Christians, of course, try to defend their belief by making excuses for God. “It’s ok,” they say, “because the kids are going to heaven!”. First off, I’d like to have some evidence that heaven actually exists. Secondly, I’d like to point out that you would never make that excuse for anyone else. If an actual human being decided to let the child starve, when he could have easily fed the child at no cost to himself, you would call him a monster. But when God does the exact same thing, it’s ok!

Now tell me, Christians: Are you really being rational about this? Or are you just being biased?

And heck, I’ve only talked about starvation. I could easily go on and on about diseases, droughts, hurricanes, meteors, murderers, or any number of other things that have killed innocent people before. If God really existed, he could have stopped all of these…but he didn’t. You know why he didn’t? There are only two possibilities:

  1. There is a God, but he doesn’t have all the qualities that you attribute to him. Maybe he’s all-loving, but he’s not all-powerful. (Or whatever.) A limited God, in other words.
  2. There is no God. God does not exist.

In either case, Christian theology is wrong.

You can go on making excuses if you want. You can point to the experience of George Mueller, for instance. He was a devout Christian who ran orphanages. On several occasions they almost ran out of food, but they were saved by last-minute donations. Mueller thought that this was directed by God. The trouble, of course, is that plenty of other orphanages in the world really have run out of food at one time or another, or else they got hit by a tornado or a plague or something, and children died. If God helped Mueller with his orphans…why doesn’t he help all the other orphans? Or hey, here’s an idea: Maybe the last-minute donations were not directed by God. Maybe they were just the actions of good-hearted humans, who had either heard that the kids were running out of food, or they simply showed up at the right time due to coincidence. In light of all the innocents who suffer in the world, the non-God explanation makes a lot more sense to me.

Another excuse is that God works in “mysterious ways”, and therefore somehow it’s ok when he lets innocent children starve to death. I can understand how God might be mysterious, but this excuse is simply nonsense. You’re basically saying that you can’t explain the situation, but you’re sure that God is real because…well, you never really get to that part. It’s Mysterious.

Really, now. Look around you. Are we living in the God-is-real universe, or the God-is-not-real universe? Of the two, the answer is clearly the latter. (If you’d like to propose a limited God, we can have a separate discussion about that. But that’s not what Wright is proposing, so I’m mostly ignoring it for now.)

There are many parts of Christian theology that don’t make sense. But the Problem of Evil is probably the most obvious. It also helps to know that Jesus was likely a myth to begin with, and faith-healing doesn’t seem to work. (Granted, one historian and one study do not automatically settle the debate. But as far as I’ve seen, the overall evidence still leans heavily toward God-does-not-exist.) Also, it’s interesting how various people believe that they’re in direct contact with Jesus (aka God), yet somehow they disagree on what Jesus wants us to do. Are they really all talking to the same divine being? Are they talking to any divine beings?

There are so many things that just don’t add up…

Wright says:

I then discovered that the Christian world view makes sense of much that the atheistic or agnostic worldview cannot make sense of, and even on its own philosophical terms, is a more robust explanation of the cosmos and man’s place in it, answering many questions successfully that atheists both claim cannot be answered, and then, without admitting it, act in their lives as if the question were answered, such as how to account for the rational faculties of man, the universality of moral principles, the order of the cosmos, how best to live, etc.

The Christian worldview actually does not make sense in light of the evidence I just cited. And I don’t see what exactly atheists lack. We have plenty of plausible answers to the Big Questions. Our answers aren’t perfect, I’m sure. But that doesn’t mean that the Christians are any better.

My answers:

  1. The cosmos as we know it was created in the Big Bang. (I don’t know why the Big Bang occurred in the first place, but it’s better to admit ignorance that to invent a baseless answer.)
  2. Man originally evolved from other forms of life on planet Earth. Our place (as far as I can tell), is to pursue Compassion and Wisdom, while discarding Cruelty and Ignorance. (Again, not perfect. But it’s something.)
  3. The rational faculties of man came about through evolution. Originally this was just a method for devising better ways to stay alive and pass on genetic code. Nowadays, we have reached such levels of intelligence that we can ignore those basic goals and pursue other goals if we want to. (In a way, we’ve gone beyond the normal process of evolution.)
  4. Universal moral principles exist in the same way that Gravity exists. I don’t know where they came from, but I can perceive that they are real.
  5. The order of the cosmos is governed by physical laws. Its meaning is governed by moral laws.
  6. It is best to live with compassion and wisdom. We should seek to end needless suffering and to improve human life in general.

Christianity provides other answers to these questions. And in some ways those answers are more appealing than the ones I’ve listed here. Unfortunately, Christian theology simply doesn’t fit the facts. The aesthetic appeal of that theology should not blind us to the truth.

And again, just because I don’t have a perfect explanation for everything doesn’t mean that Christianity is automatically superior. It is better to admit your ignorance than to adopt baseless answers.

Wright continues:

One skeptic, in a bit of a lapse of his vaunted presumably rational character, told me solemnly that I could not possibly have had Jesus tell me something from a book in the Bible I had never read before. He said that I had read it afterward, and developed the previously undiscovered ability to edit and rewrite my memories, which I then used on myself, so that I only thought I remembered Jesus telling me about the nonjudgmentalism of God. The memory was created after I read the passage, and then back-dated. Then I used this power again to make myself forget that I had the power to make myself forget things.

I asked him if I also had the power to rewrite my wife’s memory, since she remembers me telling her about the passage before I read it. He then tried to cut the conversation off, while accusing me of being irrational.

At this point, everything Wright says has to be weighed against the evidence for the nonexistence of God that I’ve already cited. That means that the case for memory alteration is a lot stronger than it would be otherwise.

Memory alteration is a real thing. It’s not a point-and-click process, of course. And it’s not something that you do consciously. But unconsciously, memories can be altered in order to fit your own biases and beliefs. (I recommend a book called Mistakes were made, but not by me. It discusses self-justification and unconscious memory alteration.)

That said, the atheist here is proposing a needlessly complex theory. Here’s a simpler one: Sometime before his deep religious experience, Wright heard about this passage in the Bible. There are over 2 billion Christians in the world, so it’s not too strange to suggest that he heard this passage from someone, at some point. (In fact, he mentions that he had read parts of the Bible in school! Isn’t it possible that this “unavoidable minimum” actually included the Book of John, which he later misremembered as being some other book? So perhaps he had read this passage before, but he didn’t realize it. Or maybe he saw it on a poster, or whatever. Somehow he encountered this passage.) Then he forgot about it, in the perfectly normal way of forgetting. Upon converting, Wright was thinking a lot about God. He remembered this passage, though he didn’t remember where he had first encountered it, and assumed instead that this memory was actually the Voice of God. He mentioned the passage to his wife, telling her that God had told him about it. Then he later discovered that passage in the Bible.

Notice there’s no need for memory alteration in this theory, aside from the normal sense of forgetting something, remembering it again, and mis-attributing the source. And it easily explains what happened with his wife.

Wright continues:

Another atheist told me I induced a heart attack in myself with my previously undiscovered heart-attack inducing power. And then cured the heart pain with my previously undiscovered heart-attack-curing power. I did both things in order to convince myself falsely of a doctrine I did not believe and had no interest in believing, but, unbeknownst to myself, my secret desire to believe was so great that it overwhelmed and sanity and seized control of my subconscious biological and cardiovascular processes. When I questioned him about such things as whether he was familiar with my medical record, or when I asked to see the evidence supporting this theory, he called me names.

I’m guessing that Wright simply had a heart attack for normal reasons. Somehow or other this near-death experience caused his religious experience.

Is that a thorough explanation? No. Is it common for people suffering from heart-attacks to convert to other religions? No. But considering the evidence I cited for the non-existence of God, it’s more plausible that a normal heart attack (and subsequent near-death experience) caused the conversion, as opposed to the idea that God gave Wright a heart-attack and then revealed himself to Wright via divine power.

Also, note how Wright describes his attitude toward Christianity at the outset of the heart attack:

[Christianity was] a doctrine I did not believe and had no interest in believing

That strikes me as being quite odd, because earlier in the post Wright made another description of his pre-heart-attack feelings on Christianity:

Upon concluding through a torturous and decades-long and remorseless process of logic that all my fellow atheists were horribly comically wrong about every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic, and my hated enemies the Christians were right, I wondered how this could be. The data did not match the model.

So, prior to the heart attack, Wright believed that the “the Christians were right” regarding “every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic”. It sure sounds to me like he was half-converted already! If that was the case, is it really fair for him to describe Christianity as something he “had no interest in believing” at that time? I agree that he was not actually a Christian until after the heart attack, but it certainly seems plausible that he was interested in Christianity. Perhaps we could even say that he wanted to believe, despite his claim that he had “no interest” in it.

It’s something to ponder, anyway.

(No, I’m not saying that Wright probably gave himself a heart attack. But I’ll return to this point about prior-half-conversion later in the post.)

Wright continues:

Another atheist told me that that heart failure was a coincidence, not a direct result of my prayer tempting God Almighty, and if that had not happened, something else like a car accident would have happened, and since I am irrational, I would have drawn an improper post hoc ergo propter hoc conclusion no matter what happened, on the grounds that God cannot exist no matter what the evidence says nor how obvious it is, and so anyone who draws the obvious conclusions from the evidence MUST be irrational.

I’m guessing that if Wright had not experienced near-death soon after his prayer, he would not have converted to Christianity. It’s just a coincidence that he had the heart attack soon after his prayer. (Side note: Why did God decide to wait for three days, anyway?)

And again, I don’t disbelieve in God regardless of the evidence. I disbelieve in God because of the evidence. The atheist he cites seems to be irrational.

Wright continues:

In general, the argument that I am impeached as a witness on the grounds that my testimony did not confirm the prejudices and assumptions of a third party is not one likely to prevail in a court of law, or as a debate among sober philosophers, scientists, nor anyone trained in rigorous reasoning.

Wright, I do not impeach you as a witness because your testimony does not conform to an arbitrary belief. I impeach you as a witness because your testimony does not conform to reality, as measured by objective observation.

And so far not one atheist has approached me with a legitimate argument, such as the Problem of Pain, or the Paradox of Determinism, or any apparent inconsistencies in the Bible.

Again, Wright, you appear to have been talking to irrational atheists. But now that you’ve brought it up…how do you explain the Problem of Pain?

Actually, you don’t explain it. Not in this post, anyway.

(Also, by the way, there are plenty of inconsistencies and errors in the bible.)

Wright continues:

My question for [atheists] is this: if science discovered tomorrow that the universe was half its apparent age, and estimated the stars as half their current number, would the believe in God somehow be twice as credible in your eyes?

If so, why so?

If not, then, logically, the age of the universe and the number of stars has no bearing on the credibility of belief in God or in the Incarnation.

Wright has made an error in his logic. Christian theology consists of several beliefs. Here’s a small sample:

  1. The universe was created by God
  2. The universe is less than 20,000 years old
  3. Jesus Christ was born of a virgin
  4. Jesus Christ came back from the dead
  5. Good Christians go to heaven after they die

If we discovered tomorrow that the universe was only 7 billion years old (instead of 14 billion), then Belief #2, listed above, would indeed become about twice as plausible than before. (It would still be ridiculously small compared to reality, but it would be less ridiculous.) But Belief #2 is only a small part of Christianity, so the plausibility of Christianity as a whole would only increase by a small amount. And thus, the belief in God would become more plausible by a small amount. A very small amount.

But yes, indeed, our data about the universe really does matter when judging whether God exists.

Wright continues:

Again, if you are attempting to persuade me that I should not believe in unusual events or unheard-of or hard-to-believe on the grounds that no unusual nor unheard-of nor hard-to-believe events never happen, simple logic shows that this cannot be the case:

Logically, every ordinary event is unheard-of before we hear of it; and the first example of even repeated events is unusual until the second example occurs; and events are hard-to-believe when and only when our expectations and our experience does not match: therefore every novelty is as incredible as the platypus when first encountered. Therefore not only do incredible events happen, they must happen, for if they did not, the concept of credibility could not exist.

At one time, there were reports of a newly-discovered creature called a platypus. People said “That’s unheard of! It cannot exist!”. But it was later proven that the reports were true. The platypus really does exist.

Around the same time, there were reports of creatures called mermaids. People said “That’s unheard of! It cannot exist!”. It was later proven that the reports were false. Mermaids do not exist.

So yes, indeed, some things which seem impossible turn out to be true. Other such things turn out to be false. So, what about God? Is God like the platypus, or is he more like the mermaid? How would we know the difference? By checking the evidence, of course. Which I’ve already done, earlier in this post.

If, on the other hand, you are arguing that I ought not believe reports of miracles on that grounds that miracles do not exist, and that we know miracles do not exist on the grounds that no believable reports of them are heard, you are arguing in a circle.

You ought not to believe in miracles, on the basis that countless supposedly miraculous events have been better explained with non-miraculous explanations. (And by “better”, in mean that the theory better fits the evidence, overall.) If you find a specific alleged miracle in which the non-miraculous explanations make less sense, in light of all the evidence, than the miraculous explanation, then you you may believe in that specific miracle. But considering the evidence supporting the non-existence of God, it’s hard to imagine what miracle could be so convincing, and so clearly miraculous, as to be logically considered an actual miracle. (And no, you’re not allowed to jump straight from “I don’t know how this happened” to “God did it!“. You have to be more thorough than that.)

Wright continues:

You are also implying that the human race, all of whom believe in gods, ghosts, magic and miracles of one sort or another, except for that exquisitely tiny minority of persons who are consistent atheists, just so happened to have all made the same lapse of judgment in the matter of paramount and foundational importance in their lives, and continue to do so, some of whom would go to the lions rather than reexamine the aforesaid lapse of judgment. While it is possible that everyone during the parade is out of step except the fond mother’s son in the old joke, this would seem to be as unusual, unheard-of and hard-to-believe as a Virgin birth, if not more so.

Ah, the argument from popularity. There are several responses to this.

First, Wright himself disregards this argument when it comes to most of Christian theology. It is indeed true that the vast majority of people believe in “gods, ghosts, magic and miracles of one sort or another”. But it is also true that the large majority of people disbelieve in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They also disbelieve in the idea that faith in Christ will bring them eternal life.  So I can use Wright’s logic against himself: He is implying that most of the human race, which disbelieves in the resurrection of Christ,  just so happens to have all made the same lapse of judgment in a matter of paramount and foundational importance in their lives, and continue to do so, some of whom would go to the lions rather than reexamine the aforesaid lapse of judgment.

Wright takes popularity as a sign that Christianity is true, except when it comes to those areas in which Christianity is not popular…in which case popularity suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. (This would be ok, if the evidence was still in his favor overall. But it’s not.)

Second, I can use Wright’s logic against him again by citing that earlier bit about things which seem absurd but are later proven true. After all, if the vast majority of people believe in a God, then by definition atheism seems absurd to them. It’s “unheard-of”, or “unthought-of”, to their way of thinking. Thus I can write: Logically, every true idea is unthought-of before we think of it; and the first example of even “obvious” ideas is unusual until the second example occurs; and ideas are hard-to-believe when and only when our pre-existing beliefs and our experience do not match: therefore every novelty is as incredible as the “earth is round” theory when first encountered.

When Christianity seems absurd, Wright says that absurdity is no reason to dismiss it. But when atheism seems absurd (as judged by its popularity), Wright takes this as a sign that atheism is wrong. (This would be ok, if the evidence was still in his favor overall. But it’s not.)

And note how Wright uses the steadfast devotion of certain theists as implicit evidence that theism must be true:

some of [these theists] would go to the lions rather than reexamine the aforesaid lapse of judgment.

But on that note, remember how Wright himself described the irrational atheists earlier on:

No matter what they saw, no matter what they heard, no matter how the world was against them, they would go to the lions rather than look at the evidence, lest their faith in their faithlessness be shaken.

When theists are deeply devoted to their belief in God, Wright appears to take that as a sign that God is real. But when atheists are deeply devoted to their nonbelief in God, Wrights takes that as a sign that the atheists are simply being stubborn and irrational. (Though again, I agree that these particular atheists really were irrational. I’m just pointing out how Wright judges theists and atheists by different standards.)

Wright doesn’t appear to have any solid evidence to support his argument that God exists. Or rather, he doesn’t have so much evidence as to overpower all the signs that God does not exist.

“But what about his experience of God?”, you may ask. “Doesn’t that count as substantial evidence?”

Well no, for the reasons I already mentioned. But here’s one more point: If we decide to believe in God because of Wright’s testimony, we must also believe in alien abductions, due to the testimony of abductees.

There are many people who believe they were abducted by aliens, who fit Wright’s basic mold:

  • Previously, they did not believe in alien abductions
  • They had no history of mental illness
  • Then they had an abduction experience, which they could later recall in great detail
  • They formed a deep conviction that this experience was real

There are differences, of course. Alien abduction seems to start with Sleep Paralysis in most cases, and I don’t think Wright had that. It also tends to be furthered by hypnosis, which “reveals” (actually invents) further details about the experience. I don’t think Wright has ever seen a hypnotist. But still, the fact remains that people can have profound fictitious experiences if the circumstances are right.

Fundamentally, I think that’s what happened to him. Somehow, some way, the circumstances were right and he had a vivid hallucination of Jesus etc..

If that still seems far-fetched, let me remind you of two things:

  1. As I mentioned earlier, it appears that Wright had already half-converted before his heart attack. He had concluded that the atheists were wrong, and furthermore that the Christians were right, with regards to “every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic”. Considering that this attitude already existed in his mind at the time of his near-death experience, doesn’t that make it plausible that he would suffer pro-Christian delusions?
  2. There’s a lot of evidence that the Christian God does not exist. Hence, it would seem that any experience of that God is probably an illusion. (But no, I don’t take the nonexistence of God as an axiom. Review what I said earlier.)

Of course, maybe Wright just knows something I don’t. Maybe he has some noncommunicable evidence. But I doubt it.

I honestly tried to replicate his test: I prayed for God to reveal himself to me. Three days later…nothing happened. No heart attack, no near-death experience, no faith healing, no miracles, no visitations from divine beings, no sudden sense of the oneness of the universe…nothing. Three whole days went by and nothing happened which even slightly demonstrated the existence of God. Nothing whatsoever.

Maybe God’s just biding his time for some reason. If I do have a profound God-based experience sometime soon, I’ll update this post. But I don’t think that will ever happen. (Update: It’s been 3 months now, and nothing has happened. Recently my aunt, who is a very devout Christian, prayed over me with great passion. But I still haven’t received any divine signs or visitations. I remain an atheist, and I’m comfortable with that.)

Some will say that God works in mysterious ways. They’ll say that he heard my prayer and simply decided not to answer. Or maybe he did answer, but in a way I didn’t notice or acknowledge.

But really, considering all the other arguments I’ve put forth, both in this post and in my other posts on the subject, what’s more likely? That the Christian God really exists as advertised, and all the evidence against him is somehow bunk? Or that the Christian God simply doesn’t exist in the first place?

Wright, I’m sure you had a profound experience. I haven’t been through that experience myself, so I won’t pretend to understand what it felt like. Nor will I claim that your Christian beliefs have necessarily degraded your life. For all I know, your conversion was a great change and it helped you to become a better person. I don’t pretend to know things like that, one way or the other.

All I do know is that, to the best of my judgment, the evidence against the existence of your God massively outweighs the evidence in his favor. Your testimony is not enough to outweigh all the contrary evidence. Even the collective testimony of many similar converts still pales in comparison to the anti-God evidence. (Especially when you consider all the people who have had profound experiences which led them to convert to other religions…but I digress.)

I don’t hate you. I’m not angry at you. I’m not laughing at you. I’m not even saying that you’re generally an irrational person. (In fact, you seem like a smart guy!) I’m just saying that I think you’re being irrational on this one particular issue. Your evidence is insufficient.

I remain an atheist. Specifically, a humanist.

But anyway, regardless of what you believe, I wish you well.

(Updated 28 April 2013, 31 July 2013)

Magic Martial Arts

2013 April 25
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by sonicsuns

I found something funny in the middle of this article:

Yanagi Ryuken, an aikido practitioner in Japan, managed to convince many people — himself among them — that he had mastered the “no-touch knockout”: an ability to vanquish his opponents without even touching them. The first of these two videos […] shows Yanagi effortlessly thwarting dozens of his students as they appear to attack him:

In the second video, he confronts a martial artist not in on the delusion, and that second martial artist punches Yanagi in the face.

Let’s take this as a reminder that claims need to be tested in proper circumstances. It’s not enough to show that the master can prevail against his own students. We have to see how he fares against an outsider.

And now that we’ve shown that Yanagi is not a skilled as he seemed, we have to wonder: What’s going on in the first video? Ordinarily, I would say it’s simply a fake. I would say that everyone in the video is in on it; they’re all just pretending that Yanagi is amazing, so their school can get more attention or more funding or whatever.

The trouble is this: If Yanagi knew he was a fake, why did he agree to fight with an outsider in the second video? Perhaps he thought the strength of his reputation would send the opponent to the ground. Or perhaps (as the bold text states), Yanagi actually believed that he had the ability to knock people down without touching them. That is a strange idea…and somewhat frightening…

If Yanagi really thought he had mastered this technique, it’s a reminder of how people can be irrational without realizing it.

Here’s another video, which I found at this site:

Truly, the human capacity for self-deception is incredible.

Dawkins, Religion, and Mehdi Hasan

2013 April 25
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by sonicsuns

Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist, recently composed some controversial tweets on his twitter feed. I learned about the tweets here.

The topic was a journalist named Mehdi Hasan. Hasan writes for the New Statesman. He is also a practicing Muslim.

Dawkins wrote:

Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed [sic] flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.

Let’s dissect Dawkin’s assertions. (Dawkin’s beliefs are in bold, and my responses are below them.)

Mendi Hasan believes that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse.

On this, we agree. Hasan really does believe that.

It is ridiculous to believe that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse. This belief is not supported by the evidence.

Once again, I agree. Though I hasten to add there is nothing specifically Muslim about this problem.

  • Christians: It is ridiculous to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
  • Jews: It is ridiculous to believe that the ancient Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt via a series of miraculous plagues.
  • Hindus: It is ridiculous to believe that people are subject to a cycle of reincarnation
  • Buddhists: It is ridiculous to believe that Buddha, or any of his followers, has ever displayed supernatural powers.

Ridiculous beliefs in the supernatural don’t have to involve religion at all:

  • It is ridiculous to believe in ghosts
  • It is ridiculous to believe in astrology
  • It is ridiculous to believe in fairies
  • It is ridiculous to believe in telepathy

Anyone who believes that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse cannot be a serious journalist.
Or, more broadly: Anyone who believes in something ridiculous cannot be a serious journalist.

This is where we disagree.

First off, it should be obvious that this belief about Muhammad has no practical effect on Hasan’s work as a journalist. It’s not as if he’s thinking to himself “Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, therefore I shouldn’t double-check my facts or quote my sources accurately.” These are two separate areas of thought.

Secondly, lots of people have done great work as journalists, despite their supernatural beliefs. Personally, I’m a big fan of Bill Moyers. Moyers believes that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, which is ridiculous. But that doesn’t stop him from being a great journalist! He’s highly intelligent and I value his work. (Some will ask how I can remain an atheist when I openly admit that many intelligent people are theists. The answer is that the raw evidence just doesn’t add up. Also, I can name intelligent people who are atheists like myself. For instance, I.F. Stone.)

Modern journalism has lasted for a century or two, depending on how you define it. During that time, the vast majority of humans on this planet have believed in supernatural powers. Journalists, as far as I know, are no exception to the trend. And yet there’s been plenty of good journalism regardless. (There’s also been plenty of bad journalism, but in most cases I don’t think the badness is actually the result of religion or supernaturalism.)

And of course, this principle extends beyond journalism. There are plenty of plumbers, designers, architects, soldiers, writers, singers, bakers, teachers, carpenters, scientists and whatever-else who all have ridiculous beliefs regarding the supernatural, and yet they still do an excellent job when it comes to their primary profession.

Dawkin’s wrote a follow-up tweet, saying:

You’d ridicule palpably absurd beliefs of any other kind. Why make an exception for religion?

Personally, I don’t make an exception for religion. If someone believes in UFO abduction, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a bad journalist. If I’m going to judge him as a journalist I’ve got to examine his work as a journalist.

For yet another example, consider Edgar Mitchell, a U.S. astronaut who was the sixth man to walk on the moon. Edgar believed in such nonsense as remote healing and alien visitation, stating that he is “90 percent sure that many of the thousands of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, recorded since the 1940s, belong to visitors from other planets”. Here we have an example of nonsense that actually seems somewhat germane to the man’s profession: He’s a former astronaut who believes that aliens have visited our planet. And yet, despite this ridiculous belief, Mitchell was a perfectly capable astronaut. He did his job well.

Some people do make unfair exceptions for religion. But the defense of Hasan is not based on such exceptions. The defense of Hasan is based on Hasan’s actual work as a journalist.

Dawkin’s criticism is unfair.

Causing offence

2013 April 24
by sonicsuns

They say that the only way to avoid offending people is to keep your mouth shut. Anything you say will be offensive to somebody, at some point.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all statements are equal. Some statements are wise and others are foolish. Some statements are kind and others are cruel. So the speaker can’t simply dismiss all criticism by pointing out that everything offends somebody at some point.

At the same time, people should be free to make reasonable statements, even when they may cause offense.

I’ve mostly offended people by talking about religion. I’m an atheist (specifically, a Humanist), and I don’t have any supernatural beliefs. I think that most people believe in a lot of nonsense. However, I am very aware that religion has a good side. Lots of people find hope, joy, morality and community through religion. All of these are good things! I place high value on hope, joy, morality and community, despite the fact that I’m an atheist. (In fact, there is really no contradiction between atheism and goodness.)

The Christian says “Be good, because Jesus said so.”

The Humanist says “Be good, because it’s the right thing to do.”

We agree on the most important matters. The rest is just details.

So please, do not misunderstand my motives. When I criticize your religion, it’s not because I want to rob you of hope, or joy, or morality or community. I’m not trying to drag you down. I’m trying to enlighten you.

And if in fact I am foolish, if in fact there is a God and I just don’t see him for some reason, then at least I am an honest fool, a well-intentioned fool. Do not assume that I am some sort of villain who aims to insult or destroy. I am only trying to help.

I do not aim to offend. I only aim to enlighten. If the truth is offensive, then I am sorry to offend, but the truth must be told nonetheless. (Though again, there’s always the chance that I’m wrong and you have the truth.)

I am only trying to help.


The Rules of War

2013 April 23
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by sonicsuns

The basic Rules of War, to my way of thinking:

Rule One: War must only be fought for good reasons. The essential purpose of the war must be to preserve human rights and advance the general welfare of humanity. (In World War 2, the Axis broke Rule One, but the Allies more-or-less followed it.)

Rule Two: Civilians must not be harmed. There is always the chance of accidents, and of course civilians suffer indirect harm when their loved ones take up arms and are killed on the battlefield. But as much as possible, civilians must not be harmed. And no military force should use civilians as human shields, because that seriously increases their risk of being harmed.

Rule Three: Combatants who are out of the fight must not be harmed. If a combatant surrenders, or is captured, or is wounded such that he can’t fight any longer, he must not be harmed. Such combatants may be confined, to prevent them from joining the fight again, but they may not be tortured, abused of killed.

Injustice at Guantanamo

2013 April 22
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by sonicsuns

I’ve written about this before, so I’ll just leave these links:

Heck, even Fox News quoted an ex-Bush official who admitted that many of the people held at Guantanamo are innocent:

We’re abusing innocent people! And we’re ok with this??

My old essay on American corruption:

As always, the best source for information on these issues is Glenn Greenwald.

A strange tragedy

2013 April 22
by sonicsuns

An old co-worker emailed me recently. He said he had been reading this blog, and he sent me links to other blogs written by committed Christians. Apparently, my co-worker is trying to convert me. (This is ok, by itself. He has every right to make his case, and there’s always the chance that I’ve been wrong all this time.)

He mentioned these three blogs:

The last of those is the most intriguing, and it inspired this post.

Unequally Yoked is written by a woman who grew up in an atheist household. In time, she began to question her beliefs. She studied Christianity thoroughly, and eventually became a Christian. (Specifically, a Catholic.)

I’m sure many would consider this to be a great example of the power of Christianity. Surely, they would say, the evidence supporting Christianity must be really massive! After all, it converted an intelligent girl who was raised as an atheist, and who made a thorough study of the topic before converting.

The only trouble with this idea is that I have exactly the opposite story.

I was raised as a Christian. (Specifically, a Methodist.) At first my faith was superficial, but starting in 6th grade I developed a deep and abiding faith. I wanted to live my whole life in dedication to Jesus Christ. But in time, I began to question my beliefs. I studied Atheism thoroughly, and eventually I became an Atheist. (Specifically, a Humanist.)

So now we have one girl who grew up as an atheist and then converted to Christianity based on the facts, versus one guy who grew up as a Christian and then converted to Atheism based on the facts.

And here’s the tragedy: One of us is wrong.

We can’t both be right! Either there is good reason to believe in God, or else there is no good reason to believe in God. And either way, whoever is right, someone has made a massive error in judgment. Because we’re not mild in our beliefs; we don’t each think that we simply have a 51% change of being right. She believes very firmly that God exists, and I believe firmly that no God has been proven to exist (and thus that we should disbelieve in God).

And yes, I did read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It was nonsense.

This girl is clearly intelligent. So am I. (Sorry if that seems like bragging.) We’re both intelligent people. And clearly, we’ve both given this a lot of thought. But we’ve reached opposite conclusions.

And that leaves us with an obvious fact: It is possible for an intelligent person to think about an issue thoroughly, and still reach a very wrong conclusion.

And that’s just sad. Regardless of who is right or wrong (I’ll probably review these blogs later), it’s sad to know that such wrongness exists.

After all, if intelligent people can be wrong about religion, what else are they wrong about?

How to reduce gerrymandering

2013 April 12
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by sonicsuns

Gerrymandering is the practice of arranging political districts (such as congressional districts) so as to bias the results. For instance, you could have a state where 50% of people are republican and 50% are democratic, but then you could gerrymander the districts such that 60% of the elections will result in a republican victory.

There’s a simple way around this. When it’s time to change the district lines (or when X years have gone by), give everyone the opportunity to submit election maps for consideration. A nonpartisan system of rules will judge which is the best map. (In order to apply these rules, you’ll need  polling data, determining not only which party people favor but also where each person lives.)

Rule #1: Every district must be contiguous. In other words, you can’t take several unconnected pieces of land and call that a “district”. This rule is already the law of the land, thanks to the courts.

Rule #2: Districts must have roughly the same population as each other. So the most populous district may not have more than (for instance) 10% more people than the least popular district.

Rule #3: The district map must lead to results that fit with the people’s overall political leanings. Conduct a virtual election, assuming everyone votes for a candidate of the party they favor most. (This is where we use the polling data.) For instance, suppose that the state is half democratic and half republican. One map runs a virtual election and finds 58% of the seats go to democrats. Another map runs a virtual election and finds that 53% of the seats go to democrats. The second map is superior, because it more closely resembles the overall feeling of the state.

Rule #4: Townsplitting is discouraged. This is used as a tiebreaker, in case several maps reach the same results in the virtual elections. The idea here is that people who live in the same town should probably be in the same district. After all, they live under the same local laws, so they’re a little more likely to have similar interests. Every map gets a townsplitting score, calculated like this: Look at every town in the state. If the town belongs to a single district, that’s worth one point. If it’s split between two districts, that’s worth two points. Three districts, three points. etc.. The map with the lowest townsplitting score is the winner.

If multiple maps tie in the virtual elections and the townsplitting scores, then the legislature can simply vote which one to adopt. This might be a chance for corruption to creep in, but by this point all the really bad maps have been removed, so it’s not a big deal.

Another method to fix gerrymandering is to use Mixed Membership Proportional representation.

Doctor Who: New Time Society

2013 April 12
by sonicsuns

This post will only make sense to ardent fans of Doctor Who. If you’re not a fan already, skip this post.

In classic Doctor Who, the Doctor was not the only Time Lord. He was merely one member of a whole Time Lord society, centered on the planet Gallifrey. This led to several characters, such as the Master, the Rani and the Meddling Monk. It also led to several storylines, such as the Doctor being put on trial. Unfortunately, this also made things hard for new viewers. Time Lords kept mucking about in each others’ business, making everything hard to understand.

When the series was rebooted in 2005, the Time Lords were gone. Aside from the Doctor himself, the entire race had perished in an offscreen Time War with the Daleks. This made things much easier on new viewers (which was especially important to do, because this was a reboot.) The series has progressed very well since then, showing that the show doesn’t need a Time Lord society in order to stay entertaining. The Master has returned a couple times, and the whole of Gallifrey returned briefly for the climactic end of David Tennant’s run, but in general the Time Lords have been swept out of the show. And it works!

Still, there are certain advantages to having a time-traveling society in the setting. Perhaps someday the concept should be revived. Let’s examine the idea.

First off, this sort of change shouldn’t be taken lightly. It should only happen if the writers feel that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Let’s run with this “the Doctor is the only Time Lord” concept for as long as we can before we give up on it.

Second, we shouldn’t simply bring back Gallifrey and its entire cast of characters. If we did so, we’d largely be retreading old ground. The return of Gallifrey worked well as a one-time temporary thing, but it won’t do well as a permanent change. Let Gallifrey fade away.

Still, we could have a roughly comparable society, composed either of Time Lords or simply people who know how to time-travel without being Time Lords themselves. Probably it would be some combination of the two.

How would this get started? Two obvious possibilities: First, the Doctor is married to River Song, who is a partial Time Lord herself. If the two of them had a child, that could be the start of a new society. (Yes, I know about what happened to River in her first appearance. But there are ways around that.) Second, the Doctor already has a semi-clone daughter by the name of Jenny. Perhaps she could be a part of this new society.

The great thing about time travel, of course, is that we wouldn’t necessarily need to wait around for these things to develop. Everyone could basically show up all at once, to the Doctor’s surprise.

The Doctor would still be a unique figure. He’s probably have the only TARDIS, though others would have timeships of a different design.

By the way, Jack Harkness referenced Time Agents in his original appearance. They haven’t showed up since. Perhaps that referenced could be retconned into a foreshadowing of the new Time Society? It’s a thought, anyway.

Changing myself

2013 April 6
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by sonicsuns

Inscribed on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop (1100 A.D) in the crypt at Westminster Abbey in London:

When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits I dreamed of changing the world.

As I grew older and wiser I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I entered my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I sought to change only my family, those closest to me, but alas! they would have none of it.

And now as I lie on my deathbed and realize (perhaps for the first time) that if only I’d changed myself first, then by example I may have influenced my family and with their encouragement and support may have bettered my country, and who knows, I may have changed the world.