Sunday, January 31, 2010

Legacy

A few years ago I asked myself how I would want people to remember me after death.  I thought about how to phrase the question a bit and decided that I would restrict myself to two characteristics expressable by a single word.  After about a week or so I came to the conclusion that the two characteristics I wanted were

Wise
Honourable

Over the next few years I asked a number of people to give me their own answers.  They regularly tried to wriggle out of it and use a bunch of words to express general 'good feelings' about themselves but when I forced them to condense it down to two single words it got a lot more interesting.  A lot of the first answers were "A good guy" and "Does the right thing" type responses, but here are samples of the good ones I got:

Bright
Intelligent
Family-Oriented (not strictly one word, but specific enough I allowed it in)
Clever
Nice
Entertaining
Sensible
Loyal
Friendly

There were more, of course.  I found it riveting to watch people trying to summarize their aspirations, feelings and hopes in two simple words, particularly since people handled it so differently.  Some people, even those who seemed utterly secure in their livestyles and choices, flat out refused to give me answers at all.  I found it somewhat interesting that everyone was very polite and complimentary of other people's choices, save for one person.  Strangely it was my father who after hearing my choices tried to correct me and tell me that I should have chosen differently.  I say strangely because he is normally extremely tolerant of everyone else's choices and styles and unless someone is giving others grief he respects their right to do what they want.

Before you read further, please try to come up with your own words.  Don't just think about a bunch of topics and cheat either!  Write down two specific words and be sure that you are happy with your choices before proceeding.  Here is the second part of the question I also posed to each person.  Do you think that your current lifestyle and daily goals mesh up well with how you want to be remembered?  I think this is a very important point because people's lifestyles regularly do not match up particularly well with how they want to be remembered.  In many cases that I saw people who would say they wanted to be remembered as Generous (example) but who were desperately greedy and spent their money on conspicuous consumption on themselves.

Personally I feel like I am doing reasonably on my words.  I spend too much time playing games and too little reading philosophy to be maximizing my Wise, but I can't feel too bad considering my current Bible reading project.  Wise encompasses many other things including making useful longterm decisions and I feel like my current stay at home and think/write lifestyle is actually pretty good for Wise.  (Terrible for Make Money though)  Honourable is less about a state you can achieve and more about daily decision making and I am comfortable with how I sit there.  I am by no means perfect, but I feel like I act honourably in most circumstances.  I am not remotely convinced that people would actually answer Wise and Honourable if I were to die and this question were posed to them, but I hope at least that they would accept those answers as reasonable.


So here is the challenge dear reader:  Post your two words here in a comment.  If you have courage aplenty, also post if you think you are currently living the sort of life that would cause the people who know you to remember you as you want to be remembered.  If your answer is no, consider why that is so.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Instructions

I am currently on Leviticus in my Bible reading.  The thing that has struck me so far is how much of the Bible is devoted to particular details of ritual and sacrifice.  There are an awful lot of Bible stories that I am familiar with but many of them take up fairly small chunks of text in the Bible compared to various sets of instructions.

For example, God gives Moses commandments to deliver to the Israelites but the basic 10 commandments that most people are familiar with aren't remotely the sum of what was passed on there.  For example, the section of the Bible that details the familiar 10 Commandments does not mention the number 10 at all and in fact has substantially more instructions than 10.  How you divide them up is a hotly debated question, but many scholars seem to think that there are 13 actual separate instructions in that passage while  I personally feel like there are 12.  Later on God says something about 10 commandments in particular but that is attached to another section of similar sorts of rules that aren't *at all* like the 10 commandments we see quoted today.  The modern 10 commandments seem to be a fabrication/interpretation created by the church at some point.

Here is a small sample of the Bible in Exodus 30:1:

You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood.  It shall be one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it shall be square, and shall be two cubits high; its horns shall be of one piece with it.  You shall overlap it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around.

These sorts of extremely specific building instructions go on to talk about properly creating the tent, the altar, the lampstand, the tabernacle, the upright frames and more.  Pages and pages of the Bible go by while these exacting requirements for construction of the holy implements and buildings are laid out.  This level of specificity was astonishing to me; I never thought that a huge portion of the Bible would be devoted to such mundane things.  If I were writing a set of instructions for living I would probably just let people design their own tabernacles.

Leviticus is different from Exodus in that the instructions are about sacrificing to atone for sin.  It is similar in that it goes on for pages and pages about the specifics for killing, butchering, burning and destroying animal sacrifices for particular kinds of sins for people of particular ranks.  It is easy to see where the practice of the church selling indulgences came from as the Bible seems to support the idea that rich people can easily sacrifice their way out of sin but poor people cannot.  I can also see how the idea that the poor are somehow morally at fault can come out of this sort of belief set.  If you believe that God asks for a specific monetary donation for each sin it is easy to believe that rich people have more morality and importance.

I am also blown away by the amount of blood and gore involved.  Everyone seems to be expected to constantly be throwing blood on the altar, burning the kidneys, anointing themselves with blood and chopping off bits of themselves.  What an incredible mix.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Some like it Easy, Some like it Hard

And some like it in the pot, nine days old.

I was thinking today about how people tend to take two basic approaches to doing things.  The first approach is to just take the easiest route possible to what they want.  The second approach is choose the absolute hardest possible route to what they want.  It seems to me that people generally take these two approaches and ignore the middle road.

As an example, take recreation.  If you are choosing a golf course to visit, generally you choose the closest one. Rarely will people drive an extra two hours to the next town to go to a different golf course, mostly they would just go to the nearest one.  However, you still see people doing wild things like climbing Mount Everest, skiing off trail over cliffs and going on safari in Africa.  It is common to see someone going on a long vacation to a beach in a far off country, yet they don't bother to go to a beach just a few hours drive away when they have the opportunity.

Why do we see this behaviour?  My personal theory is that there are two basic rewards you can get for doing something.  The first is the obvious benefit directly associated with the activity, like being on a beach, playing a game of golf, earning money at a normal job or getting better magical equipment in an online video game.  The other benefit that drives this behaviour is the desire to set ourselves apart from everyone else.  We like the beach, and we like knowing and having everyone else know that we flew to Barbados to lay on a beach.  Other people aren't likely to be impressed by simply driving two hours to the next town so there isn't any significant secondary benefit to doing that.  In that case we simply go for the maximum basic benefit for minimum hassle:  We go to the local beach/golf course/whatever.

I see this very clearly when playing WOW.  In fact the developers of the game have specifically commented on the fact that whenever they add new ways for players to advance their character's power those players will take the easiest and fastest route regardless of what that route is or how boring it is.  People seem quite willing to play any sort of game at all as long as it makes their character more powerful.  This was very true of PVP (Player Vs. Player) combat at the start of the first WOW expansion and then PVE (Player Vs. Environment) combat in the second expansion.  In both cases players flocked to the type of play that allowed them to suck and still be rewarded.  Everyone really wanted to be able to just lose their way to victory.

We see the second type of reward just as clearly coming into play.  Whenever there is something extremely difficult to do that requires preparation, coordination and a lot of practice we see people desperately throwing themselves against it to try to be the first to get it down.  As an example early last year there was one really brutal challenge fight in the game that my guild was trying to defeat.  (Satharion 10 Man +3 for those who know what that means) It took us roughly 75 tries to succeed, which amounts to something like 15 hours of playtime.  There were plenty of other interesting things to do but our priority was to do the absolute hardest thing.  The reason for doing this was simple:  Challenge and prestige.  Prior to completing that encounter I was known as

Redcape

And after completing the encounter I earned the title

Redcape Of the Nightfall

Now everyone who looks at me in the game including myself is reminded that I did the hardest thing, defeated the greatest challenge.  Throwing ourselves at the most challenging tasks is what my particular group of friends is dedicated to doing and it is what has driven me to excel for so long.  Whether your thing is winning a Olympic medal, climbing Everest or getting the WOW achievement Alone in the Darkness it is a tremendous thrill to complete a task very few ever have or ever will complete.

Also just in, my guild got Alone in the Darkness.  Finally.  Now we are in the top 20 worldwide in progression.  Smash!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book Club for Atheists

I have been reading the Bible over the last couple of days.  I started this project because I read a number of atheist books recently and I am really interested in comparing what those books said to the actual Bible text.  I have a reasonable amount of exposure to religious ceremony and thought from my experiences at Bible camps, weddings, occasional church services and other sources so I feel I have a fairly decent grasp on what it is that religions say about the Bible.  I knew going in that most religions that rely on the Bible as a source and inspiration don't actually preach anything like what the Bible says but rather their own interpretation and selective choices from it.  As an example in the Bible, if an ox kills someone due to the negligence of its owner then the owner must be put to death, but if the ox kills a slave instead of a regular person the owner of the ox merely has to pay a 30 shekel fine to the owner of the slave.  Exodus 21:28 Mainstream religions do not preach that slavery is acceptable and that slaves' lives are worth precisely 30 shekels anymore, but they do preach circumcision, hobophobia and other barbaric practices that are supported by Biblical quotes.

I will be writing here and there about what I find as I read the Bible, though I must say that there are enough crazy, strange or confusing things in there that I would need a lot of blog entries to properly catalogue it all.  For reference I am reading the New Revised Standard Version;  I have the King James edition but that tome is so immense and heavy that I am not going to cart it around for the hours and hours it will take me to plow through it all.



There are some things in Genesis that are really hilarious.  To give an example, in Genesis 9:20 Noah (of the Ark) gets himself drunk and is lying in his tent naked and unconscious.  His son Ham notices this and gets Noah's other two sons Shem and Japheth to cover Noah up while carefully not looking at his nakedness.  Noah wakes up, finds that he is covered up and curses Canaan (the son of Ham) to be the a slave of his brothers.  He then follows up by blessing Japheth and Shem and condemning Canaan to be eternally their slave.

I just can't fathom this.  Canaan wasn't even involved in the covering up of Noah, and he is cursed by the family patriarch, favoured of God, to slavery.  What are we supposed to make of it?  There are plenty of other examples, including several different places where married women who were unable to conceive a child order their husbands to have sex with their female slaves in order to impregnate them.  After the slaves have children the slaves are then sometimes banished to prevent their children interfering with the inheritance of the 'legitimate' children.

Exodus has one particular thing going on that just makes me shake my head.  Many of us would be familiar with the song line

Let my People GO!

Which is a reference to the Israelites, Moses in particular, begging to leave the kingdom of the Pharaoh of Egypt.  I was familiar with the general story of the Exodus prior, that being that God sent a series of ever more heinous plagues on the Egyptians to force them to let the Israelites go.  Here is the thing that gets me though:  the Pharaoh was willing to let the Israelites go early on.  God specifically controlled the mind of the Pharaoh to force him to keep the Israelites so that God would have an excuse to impress the Egyptians with his power!  Long before the really nasty plagues started happening the Pharaoh wanted the Israelites out but God continued to force him to deny them, eventually culminating in God destroying most/all of the livestock of the Egyptians, destroying all of their crops, inflicting them with hideous boils and then murdering the firstborn of every household in Egypt.  Of course if we accept this as literal truth it is certain that most of the people in Egypt then died of famine due to losing all of their crops and livestock in a single month.  After the Israelites finally left Egypt God delivered the coup de gras, forcing the Pharaoh to order his army to pursue the Israelites into the Red Sea and closing the waters over them, killing them all.  This takes place over Exodus 7 - Exodus 14.

Edit:  It turns out that Coup De Grace is the correct spelling.  There are also some crazy French accents over some letters in the original.  From some cursory internet searches coup de gras is a fairly prevalent way to misspell it but nobody seems to support it as the correct spelling.

A God who is so interested in utterly annihilating a people that he forces their leader to oppress God's chosen tribe to give God an excuse to commit genocide is not the God of the New Testatment.  He also is not the God of the vast majority of churches.  They teach of a God of love, tolerance, brotherhood and  morality, by and large.  Thing is, when you place the Bible on a pedestal and tell people that your rituals, authority, morals and knowedge all spawn from one infallible source you suggest that the Bible is right and that the things in it should be believed.  Unless you truly believe in all the Bible says however, the stance that the Bible is right and infallible and that God is a good and loving God is ridiculous, illogical and hypocritical.  If your stance is instead that the Bible is not right and fallible, how do you justify faith in the church?

There is an idea that has been knocking around inside my head for awhile, and it goes like this:  If you agree with some of the Bible and not with the rest of it (which describes basically everyone) then you are not obeying the Bible, but rather obeying people.  Whether you are obeying another person or your own innate moral sense varies from time to time and person to person, but the clear thing is that you are not obeying the Bible.  Doing that would entail wearing tassles on your clothing, sacrificing lambs, treating slaves as worth 30 shekels and many other ridiculous things.  We all obey our own moral codes, and justifying evil behaviour by thumping the Bible does not make it any less evil.

A long way to go yet...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Taking out the trash

Normally I try to make my gamer-centric articles pretty accessible to the public.  This one though would be too long and clumsy to try to do that.  As such, if you aren't much familiar with games you probably won't be able to make any sense of what I am going to post today.  You are certainly welcome to try though!


Back in the early days of WOW dungeons were set up to require crowd control (CC).  The tank had extremely limited ability to control multiple monsters at once and monsters generally had really nasty abilities that required them to be locked down.  You needed several of your party members to CC so that only 1-2 monsters would actually get to fight your group at once.  Every pull was done this way and any time the CC got screwed up you would generally die and have to run back.

Fast Foward two years to the Burning Crusade expansion.  Things have mostly stayed the same, the big exception being the ability of the tanks to collect and hold multiple monsters.  In this scenario it is entirely possible for a tank to keep a 4 or 5 pull under control, but the monsters had such hideous abilities that if you didn't CC them you would just die.  I remember well groups of 5 where one of the monsters would mind control, one would fear the whole party, one would fear the tank and the last two would hit like Mack trucks.  CCing was a necessity in order to keep the monsters from wrecking the party.

Fast Forward two years again to the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.  This time things will be different.  Tanks have even better ability to control crowds of monsters and monsters just don't have nasty abilities like they used to.  Nearly every dungeon is beaten by the tank grabbing all the enemies, collecting them into a pile and everyone using their Area of Effect (AOE) spells to burn the group down.  Nobody much pays attention to the abilities the monsters use since as long as they are attacking the tank nothing will really go wrong.

There are good sides and bad sides to each situation.  In the old days when CCing was necessary you could get automatic invitations to groups just on the basis of being a class that had good CC.  If the group didn't have a Mage along nearly every dungeon was massively harder so even annoying, bad Mages could get groups.  It also meant that every pull took time to set up, lots of communication was required and there was a lot of downtime.  This could be particularly frustrating if you are someone who had nothing to contribute to the CC discussion so you had to just sit around and wait while everyone else organized how the pull was going to go.  Another big downside was the time commitment;  in many old dungeons it was expected that clearing the dungeon out would take 3 hours unlike current dungeons which take 30 minutes or less.

The way dungeons go these days every pull consists of the tank rushing into the monsters and everyone blowing up the enemies in a big pile so no discussion or strategy is required.  This is great in that everyone spends all their time doing something instead of standing around, but unfortunately for many classes AOE is boring as hell.  It often means hitting a single button, waiting for 8 seconds and then hitting that button again.  It is rare that there is any reason to explain how pulls work or what the monsters do so new players can walk right in and start playing without holding everyone back.  This is great from an accessibility standpoint, but poor from the standpoint that people want their victories to feel impactful;  if every rube can wander in and defeat the dungeon then it feels meaningless to have done so yourself.

Blizzard is of course wanting to make things better for the next expansion.  They have a terribly difficult job ahead of them though, because they simultaneously want to add more strategy and thought to pulls so every pull isn't just AOEing and keep dungeons fast and accessible.  This is not easy because any time you force the players to stand around and prepare before each pull you are making the run take a long time.  In addition, the only way to force this sort of behaviour is to make the pulls extremely dangerous and punishing.  If the difficulty of the pull is enough that you have to use all your CC abilities to keep things under control then any new player who wanders is is likely to get completely demolished until they learn each pull and each monster.

Blizzard wants content to be accessible to new players but they also want it to be challenging for experts.

Blizzard wants dungeons to require care and planning, but they also want to be done in 30 minutes.

These desires unfortunately cannot all be met at once.  I am reminded of some old saying about cake, consumption of said and the simultaneous possession of same.  I expect I will be playing regardless of which way they swing, but there are certainly a lot of dollars riding on them getting it right.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Atheist's Bible

Whenever I have had conversations with other atheists about religion 3 particular books seem to come up very regularly.  While there are certainly hundreds or thousands of books on the topic of atheism it seems that these 3 books are outliers in terms of their effect on people and the power of the ideas they contain.  The books are:

God is not Great - Christopher Hitchens
The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins

I decided a short while ago that I should really read up on the arguments both for and against atheism so that I might have a greater and more balanced understanding of the topic.  I started off with the 'Atheist's Bibles' first, though my next project is to sit down and read the Bible from cover to cover.  I fully expect that to be a drastically longer and more challenging task, but I think the information I will acquire will make it very worthwhile.

I am going to describe these three books in the following way:  Imagine you are standing in a formless white void, very much like the 'loading zone' Neo finds himself in in the Matrix.  A man appears in front of you wearing a stylish suit and looking extremely fashionable.  He introduces himself as Christopher Hitchens and proceeds to give you a long and extremely polished presentation advocating against religion using film, slides, and quotations from books.  His speech is powerful, his examples are emotionally wrenching and the whole presentation leaves you stirred up and agitated.  This, you sense, is a man who can convince people of things.

Hitchens vanishes, and another figure appears.  This time it is a man less polished and more eccentric, with hair a little bit akimbo and a distracted, manic disposition.  A blackboard appears and he writes his name - Richard Dawkins - and begins to lecture.  He fills the blackboard with diagrams and symbols, drags out sample cases full of tiny fossilized creatures and old bones and insists that you sit in front of an computer screen while he runs a simulation of evolution.  You cannot help but be convinced of the truth of his claims within just a short while, and yet he goes on and on with example after sample slamming home the avalanche of data that confirms evolution as correct.  You stop him eventually and insist that you believe him, that indeed no one could doubt evolution after seeing his full presentation and send him on his way.  He stumbles off dragging his equipment behind him mumbling "But I hadn't even got to the part about the independent evolution of a superior system of vision in the octopus..."

A third figure appears from out of the ether, a man standing at a podium shouting out a speech.  He says that the prophecies of the Bible have come true and that obeying religious authorities' literal interpretation of the Bible is the only source of moral guid---- and is stopped in mid sentence by a enormous block of stone the size of a house crashing down on top of him.  On the side of the stone chiseled in enormous block letters is the word

LOGIC

You say "Who did that?!?"

A voice booms from the nothingness "I DID."

Who are you?

I AM VICTOR STENGER.

What just happened?

THAT MAN HAD FAULTY LOGIC.  HISTORY CLEARLY SHOWS A CONSISTENCY OF MORAL GUIDELINES THROUGHOUT, INDEPENDENT OF RELIGION.  HE ALSO FAILED TO ACCOUNT FOR PROPHECIES THAT HAVE NOT COME TRUE, PROPHECIES THAT ARE SO VAGUE THEY CANNOT BE VERIFIED, AND PROPHECIES THAT ARE ONLY VERIFIED WITHIN THE SAME TEXT THEY ARE FOUND.  HIS ARGUMENT WAS WEAK, SO I CRUSHED HIM WITH LOGIC.

Wow.  When you crush people, are you ever wrong?

WHEN I MAKE STATEMENTS THAT CANNOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED AS CERTAINLY TRUE, I GIVE CONFIDENCE INTERVALS.  I ALSO USE WORDS LIKE "PROBABLY" AND "ALMOST CERTAINLY" WHEN CERTAINTY CANNOT BE KNOWN.

But do logic, science and statistics really have anything to say about God?

YES.  THERE ARE MANY ATTRIBUTES OF THE UNIVERSE THAT COULD REASONABLY BE EXPECTED TO BE DIFFERENT IF A DIVINE CREATOR WAS PRESENT.  WE DO NOT OBSERVE THOSE DIFFERENCES, SO IT IS REASONABLE TO BELIEVE THAT IT IS VERY UNLIKELY THERE IS A GOD.

Please don't crush me!

TO AVOID CRUSHING I SUGGEST YOU AVOID MAKING STATEMENTS YOU CANNOT SUPPORT WITH IMPECCABLE LOGIC, REASONING AND EVIDENCE.

Okay then.  Well, goodbye Victor Stenger, have fun with your crushing.

GOODBYE.

The thing about these books is that Hitchens presents some powerful, emotional arguments.  He describes many things about religion and atheism that make his points and does so with more skill and finesse than I possess.  He is a lifelong journalist and the skill with which he makes his points is evident.  Richard Dawkins is a fine writer, though certainly not as good as Hitchens.  He is a excellent and thorough scientist though and when he sets out to make his case for evolution it is almost impossible to deny.  The thing about Victor Stenger is that he is both a great writer AND a fantastic scientist.  He doesn't just give examples and call it a day, he lists his confidence intervals, insists on rigorous scientific testing for both his and his opponents arguments and refuses to overstate his case.  He makes an absolutely damning set of points about all the major arguments for religion and does it in a way that is practically undeniable.

So if you are only ever going to read one atheist book, read God:  The Failed Hypothesis.  Anyone with a scientific background will appreciate his technique even if they don't agree with his worldviews, and it is an entertaining read along the way.  The other books are fine and I am glad I read them, but I think God:  The Failed Hypothesis really has the last word.

Bible vs. Bible.  FIGHT!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fight Night

Yesterday I got a call from a Jehovah's Witness.  This has happened a number of times over my adult life and every time I have politely listened to a few words, informed them that I was not interested and then hung up.  Not this time though.  This time I had an hour to burn and was itching for a brawl.  Recently I have read

God is not Great - Christopher Hitchens

God:  The Failed Hypothesis - Victor Stenger

Now obviously with names like these you aren't getting someone who really wants to present both the atheist and religious viewpoints with equal verve and emphasis, but given that they actually present really strong arguments.  After reading what they had to say I thought it was time to give the Jehovah's Witnesses a bit of resistance and see if they were actually willing to talk about the Bible as long as I was and to find out how they dealt with unflinching criticism.

In short, they dealt with it about as well as could be expected.  The first person on the phone got very flustered when I started talking about how God gave instructions for proper slave ownership in the Bible and rapidly passed me off to the local expert.  It seems that they have run of the mill Jehovah's Witnesses giving phone scripture readings but that they aren't really expected to deal with a somewhat hostile audience, which is reasonable.  I ended up talking to The Believer (I didn't get a real name or rank or anything, however) for 45 minutes or so, leaping back and forth across all kinds of sections of the Bible and scripture in our debate.  I feel like at the end I had brought up a large number of absolutely damning points against his beliefs, but I do feel obliged to credit him with some things.

Firstly, he actually knew an awful lot about the Bible.  I bet I know a lot more than the average atheist and somewhat more than the average believer, but The Believer knew a *ton* more than me and obviously wasn't just quoting from a script, he had a Bible in front of him and was flipping to particular passages to quote me things.  The man had obviously spent a heck of a long time studying the Bible.  While I don't believe what it says, I will give credit that at least he did know exactly what he was preaching.  He also addressed some of my points in very interesting ways.  For example, when I criticized the Bible for promoting slavery he immediately came back that slavery in those periods was for a period of seven years and was often for failing to pay debts or other crimes.  This is not someone who pretends that the Old Testament doesn't exist.

Secondly he did not get angry or abusive.  In the conversations I have had in my life with religious people I have usually encountered anger, bitterness and irrationality.  In many cases the other person resorts to shouting and name calling almost instantly, removing any possibility of debate.  The Believer though simply tried his best to address all of the concerns I had in a calm, reasonable manner and bring up counterpoints when possible.  He spent time to try to educate me on how his religion works and make positive comparisons to other religions without name calling.  His examples were specific and topical and reflected a lot of thought or research into the issues at hand.  I must give credit where credit is due.

However, there were certainly some points that he had no reasonable response for.  I tried to corner him with

"So when you were choosing a religion and deciding which one to follow, how did you choose being a Jehovah's Witness over Islam?"

Zing, if I do say so myself.  On this point he actually had some prepped responses about how Islam was based on the Koran which contradicts the Old Testament and so should be rejected, so I must credit his preparation.  Of course the New Testament is riddled with contradictions with the Old Testament, so his argument does not hold up in the slightest.

In addition he had real difficulty justifying God intervening in wars between the Israelites and others (stopping the sun to let the Israelites complete the slaughter of their enemies, for example) when in theory murder is against the rules.  In general it is going to be extremely difficult to reconcile modern moral thought with the God of the Old Testament, so given that he was trying to support what seems like a completely untenable position I think he did all right.  Of course that doesn't change the fact that he actively supports the idea that it is morally right to commit genocide if your religious leaders tell you that God has promised you a particular piece of land to rule.  Note that I actually asked him if the slaughters perpetuated by the Israelites in the Old Testament were morally right, and he said unequivocally that they were.

I guess in the end The Believer really fits into the category of person I talked a lot about in my Faith post.  I have no reason whatever to think that The Believer is anything but a nice, scholarly person who believes in Bible literalism and will never hurt anyone if he can possibly help it.  I expect he is a gentle soul who actually wants to help others.  That unfortunately does not change the fact that many of his beliefs, taken literally, encourage and support fundamentalism, violence and oppression of any that do not share those beliefs.  Making it easy to convince others to commit atrocities is not something we can ever punish by law, but it certainly is an act I cannot morally condone.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A mishmash

This post is going to be less of an essay and more of a bunch of stuff.  Hopefully still interesting!

-Turns out a ton of people wanted my vacuum.  Post Here  As such, it is going to a good home despite only being mediocre at its primary function.  The new owners are convinced they can fix anything, but I am not at all sure that their 'fix-fu' is better than mine.  Either way, I don't get to hatchet it up.  In an amusing twist, it is the same people that I gave the Dr. Scholls pad to a few weeks ago.

-I wrote very recently about the WOW mod GearScore Here.  After I published my post I got a reply from the author of the GearScore mod giving me an update about it.  Apparently the newest version of the mod is going to fix a lot of the issues with the old one and allow the user to check and see if the target is geared intelligently or stupidly as well as the raw power level of their equipment.  From the video he posted it seems like the update is really good and informative so I look forward to using it.

I have to say, that reply got me really pumped up.  I know that a number of my family members and real life friends read my blog which is great, but if there were 100 equally good blogs they would read mine because of our real life connection.  Them reading it says I don't suck, but it doesn't really say I am great.  However, when a total stranger comes onto the blog to make a post it makes me excited because it means I am leaking out into cyberspace.  I have no way of knowing who reads my posts as the only record I have is who is signed up as a follower.  It often feels very strange to write here because I really don't know my audience.  From my time in sales I am used to tailoring presentations to the audience in question so it is quite bizarre to be trying to write to a completely unknown demographic.

Is it a little wrong to be giddy that I have more of an audience than I thought?

-I heard on the radio today that people are going to be allowed to bring carryon baggage onto planes to the US again.  This is something that just boggles my mind.  Everyone who thought about it for 1 minute knew that people who wanted to smuggle potentially explosive compounds onto airplanes could do it.  When a man tried to detonate explosives on a plane in the washroom and failed, it was not a sign that planes were suddenly more dangerous than we had thought, but rather a sign that even if a terrorist gets explosives onto a plane (which is easy) it is remarkably hard to actually accomplish anything.  When this man failed to destroy a plane he changed *nothing* with regards to airplane security.  However, the response of banning all carryon luggage on US flights went forward regardless, causing incredible amounts of frustration, delay and cost.

Every time the authorities overreact in a useless manner to a threat already well documented and understood they help terrorists rather than hindering them.  There are many great ways to prevent terrorism such as preventing access to the flight deck, scanning for metal weapons and training airport personnel to look for suspicious behaviour.  Once these are implemented there is no reason to rapidly change the rules unless a really new, unexpected threat comes to light and this is not such a threat.  If terrorists cannot actually blow anything up they are certainly happy to cost their targets time, energy and money and create an environment of fear.  By panicking and giving in to desperation we are hurting ourselves and giving terrorists even more reason to continue in their awful ways.  Have the courage to stand up and say that we are doing all that can be reasonably done to protect ourselves and stick to it.  People would be much better served knowing that security is doing the right thing than knowing that they are thrown into a state of mad panic every time something happens.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Office Space

I am reminded of the movie Office Space, in particular the scene where the tired, angry office workers take the printer out to a field and destroy it utterly.  >Here< I was thinking about this because of my vacuum.  Note this isn't the vacuum Wendy got me as a present since that one is functional and fine, but rather one that we bought together years ago.  You see, this vacuum has been getting worse and worse over time as the motor wears out due to dealing with immense quantities of cat hair and long people hair.  The power of the vacuum was slowly and steadily going down to the point that I would drive it over some fluff and it just wouldn't pick it up.  Every time I would go to vacuum I would dread using the wretched machine.

I have this very powerful tendency to hold onto things until they really, really break.  This is true of clothes, tools, all kinds of things.  I don't keep broken things around when I have a good alternative but I dislike going and buying something new until I absolutely must.  Only this tendency had kept me from replacing the terrible vacuum for so long.  Yesterday I went out and bought a new vacuum.  As soon as I started it up I had a

Grunt, Grunt, MORE POWER!

moment, just like Tim Allen used to do in the show Tool Time.  The bloody thing blasted the pictures we have stuck to the fridge right off while I was vacuuming in the living room!  Of course, this is wonderful from a 'new power tool' kind of perspective but will be terrible in two weeks when things are back to the routine.  The new:



I now had the opportunity to go Office Space on this vacuum and crush it utterly for all the cursing, fuming, ranting moments it caused me over the past year or so.  Of course I don't have a convenient field nearby in which to smash this vacuum and I think cathartic destruction of objects is really best done in a crowd.  Best to minimize the chance of rationality taking hold and maximize the mob mentality that exults in destruction if I am going that route.  The vacuum cleaner afraid for its life:



Instead though I am going to give it away via Freecycle.  This is an idea and system I feel obliged to plug.  All you do is get signed up which is free and then you can send out emails to the group whenever you have things you want to give away.  You can set it up so you receive emails about things that other people have to give away or not.  Anyone can email you back asking for it and the person getting it has the responsibility to set up a time and place to take it away.  I have used this for old monitors and the less than successful Dr. Scholls massage pad and in both cases it worked perfectly.  People came and took away things I would otherwise have tossed in the garbage and were absolutely ecstatic to be getting them for free.  I even got a thank you email from the Dr. Scholls person telling me how therapeutic they were finding it and how their kids were having a ball.  This is such a great way to reduce consumption and reuse goods.

Of course I mentioned in the post that the vacuum is functional on floors and poor on carpets, so we will see if anyone jumps on the opportunity, they may not.  And if not I get the good feeling of trying to reuse along with the enjoyment of giving the infernal machine its comeuppance.  Of course, I wouldn't be a savage and smash it with a baseball bat, I have a much finer, more sophisticated tool in mind.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The ethics of the boot

I was running a dungeon today and encountered an ethical situation I had never been in before.  Normally when the group kills a boss and checks out the loot he dropped it is rolled randomly to see who will get it.  If someone really needs it to use they get it, and if not then the game randomly hands it to someone who will then presumably sell it for a small sum of gold.

Today though a boss died and a rogue in my group grabbed the item as if he needed it.  I looked at him and noticed that not only did he not need it, he did not need it in a truly over the top, egregious fashion.  His current item was a good 80% better than the one he had snagged and there was no possibility of his not being aware of this.  I called him on it and told him to roll randomly to distribute it.  He responded by equipping the new item for 30 seconds or so and then putting on his old, drastically better item and continuing with the dungeon with a "I think I need it" excuse.  A few minutes later another item dropped and again he just grabbed it with a flimsy excuse.  Again I checked and found he did not actually need it and was just straight up stealing.

At this point I was getting pretty pissed off.  I told everyone else in the group that he is stealing and that I wouldn't stand for it.  Once a dungeon starts I basically have two options if I want to get out of this situation:

1.  Boot the offender.  I can't do this until 15 minutes have elapsed and I have to get the rest of the group to vote to boot him.  The votes are private though, so I have no idea who votes for or against the boot.

2.  Just leave.  If I left my group would be totally wrecked and would just die.  They would have to find someone new and restart the whole thing from scratch.

I told the group that a boot was incoming, and when the 15 minutes had elapsed I started a vote to kick the rogue.  One of the other people in the group told me to quiet down and just deal with it since the amounts he was stealing from us weren't very large, and when the vote came back the others had let him stay.  We ended up finishing the dungeon and the rogue stole another item when the final boss died.

So here is the question:  What should I have done?  Voting to boot a thief is certainly right, but when the rest of the group refuses to cooperate I can either finish the dungeon out and accept being stolen from or just quit the run and watch they rest of them die and have to restart.  The challenging part for me is that there are two people in the group I am quite happy to desert and leave up the creek and two I don't know about.  The thief and the person who defended him on the basis of "Stealing is okay if it isn't much" can rot for all I care, but the other two people in the group may have voted the thief out, I have no way of knowing.  I know that the thief himself and his supporter voted to keep him, so the remaining two votes are lost.

Is it ethical to inflict unpleasantness on two people who may or may not have done anything to deserve it in order to do what I feel is right and to inflict reasonable punishment on those who have wronged me?

It is much like my struggles with capital punishment when I was younger.  When I was a teenager I was all for capital punishment figuring that if you commit premeditated murder it is totally reasonable to forfeit your life.  I still don't have any issue with that penalty, but the issue is not the penalty but rather the certainty.  We convict people wrongly sometimes.  Not often, but enough that there is no justification for capital punishment.  It is better to remove that option completely and incarcerate forever than to kill a very small number of people unjustly.  In this case of video game crime I am in the same situation in that I know what I would do if I had all the facts, but I must admit that I do not.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sing Along

I have had a number of talks over the years with religious people about the rituals involved in their faith.  The vast, vast majority of these discussions and experiences were with various Christian denominations, including time spent at church camp and other religious activities that I ended up in.  In many cases when the exact meanings behind the rituals or words involved in the songs were brought up the believers were quick to deny any real importance behind them, and for most of my life I tended to believe that.  Just today though I started to think more about it and I find that my position on religious ritual has changed substantially.

For example, a couple years ago I ended up at a religious event where hymns were being sung.  One of the songs contained the phrase "Jesus is lord" over and over again.  In fact, at least 2/3 of the song was simply those words repeated time and time again.  At the time I just dismissed this as pathetic songwriting and unpleasant to listen to, but I think it deserves more thought than that.  The second major example was more recent when I was hearing some Christmas music in a store.  The song in question contained the phrase "Jesus our savior" which is both quite common in Christian song and considered fairly tame by most people I have met.

When I have discussed these sorts of phrases with people who are religious I have always been met with the argument that it isn't a big deal.  Always it has been portrayed that the songs are familiar and pleasant and that people don't really listen to the lyrics.  The idea goes that if people who sing these songs generally act decently towards others than there must be nothing wrong with them and that since they have been around forever the words are comforting and not offensive.  I don't buy that anymore.  These songs are saying that Jesus is our savior, and the obvious consequence is that since I reject that savior I am not going to be saved.  Note that not being saved has a well defined meaning in the Bible - An eternity of misery and torture in hell.  If you sing songs that proclaim Jesus as our savior, you are in fact singing songs that say

"Sky is going to burn in hell for eternity for his beliefs."

Now these people that I have talked to generally are decent folks.  They don't want me to suffer eternally for the sin of disbelief, but they are willing to devote large parts of the lives, their time and have their community, morals and behaviour directed by an organization that absolutely believes this.  These people enjoy their religious community and they certainly don't want to turn their backs on it because of the massive disruption and inconvenience.  They also have tended to protest that their churches are moderate ones, ones that don't preach hellfire and damnation and are inclusive and accepting.  Again, those defensive statements are largely going to be true.  Many churches do accept homosexuals, working on Sundays, questioning of dogma and women with open arms in ways that the Bible would not approve of, which is great by me.  However, those churches still have Bibles in them, they still sing songs of being saved by Jesus, and they still proclaim to the world that the religion they are part of is right, which means they still support the statement

"Sky is going to burn in hell for eternity for his beliefs."

Of course so far I have taken it as an article of faith that these statements and rituals are meaningful and oppressive.  If you don't buy that, let us do a thought experiment.  Just imagine for a moment that a new building was constructed down the street from you.  This new building is a beautiful building with nice architecture.  In this building people get together regularly to sing and socialize and they are looking for new members for their group.  Sounds a lot like a regular church so far!  Now imagine further that the people that go to this building go there to wear white hoods.  They call themselves the Ku Klux Klan.  They sing songs with phrases like

"White people are the true people and black people must all die"

which are accompanied by beautiful organ music from the talented choir director.  They spend time together, bring their children to the building for regular education about how white people are the best and black people must die and are eager to talk to people about coming to their building and joining in their rituals.  They like to hand out pamphlets about their beliefs and hopes for the world.  What do you think of this?  If you are anything like me your immediate reaction is

HOLY HELL what are these maniacs doing here?  This is completely bonkers!  These guys are talking about killing people!  Their literature literally talks about murdering people who don't agree with them!

Certainly some people would inevitably respond that the Klan is a dangerous group of maniacs who are violent.  The Christian church is responsible for the Crusades, devout Muslims blow themselves up to kill those from other religions or even those who are from the 'wrong' sect of Islam.  Christians committed genocide against Muslims in Yugoslavia and Muslims blew up the twin towers in 9/11.  Violence is very much a part of religious tradition.

You might yet argue that racism is different than religiousism.  Hating someone because they are from a different area is not quite the same as hating someone because they believe in a slightly different version of the same book but I cannot imagine how they could be really differentiated in terms of morality.

Yet it is possible to argue that the texts of the Klan are evil, but one would be forced to concede that the Bible regularly and enthusiastically supports total genocide against those of the wrong religion and that death is a reasonable penalty for disbelief.  Both beliefs and textual quotes range from the simply offensive to the outrageously hateful and murderous in these two examples.

So then what is the difference between a church promoting the Bible and a Klan group promoting their agenda, presuming that neither of them actually goes out and does anything violent or destructive?  Say for example if the people in the Klan meeting never actually stage demonstrations or attack blacks or do anything really bad, but just sing their racist songs and hand out racist propaganda?  The most obvious difference of course is that the church will be accepted.  People might be slightly put out depending on the denomination and area, but by and large it just won't be a big deal.  The Klan building on the other hand would be littered with graffiti, surrounded by protesters and might even be the target of arson or some other such extreme action.  Certainly those who wanted to go there and sing their songs would not find their lives comfortable in the slightest.

Keep in mind here I am not comparing a gentle, easygoing United Church to a bloodthirsty band of Klan members intent on burning crosses and beatings.  I am comparing a gentle, easygoing United Church to a gentle, easygoing Klan organization.  The conclusion you must reach from this exercise is this:  What is said in the texts of an organization matters to people.  The content of your songs and rituals is important.  We as a society care about these things and the precise content of them is relevant to our choices.

If you do not support massacre of unbelievers, if you do not believe that atheists who act morally are going to burn forever in torment and if you do not support a belief in the fundamental corruption of mankind, then supporting a institution that does believe those things is hypocrisy.  Suggesting that those words in the songs, those texts held sacred and those rituals performed are not important or should not be taken literally is wrong.  The reaction to the statements above will be proof enough of that, barring of course any Klan members who might read this.  If you do not believe it, do not support it.  You can believe in a good creator who watches over us all, community and morality without supporting a history of violence, exclusion and persecution.

Rate my gear

Something new and interesting has been slowly seeping into the culture of WOW, and its effects are pretty intriguing.  I speak of the mod GearScore.  Basically what this does is give you a number to use to rank how good the equipment of a character is, and it works on anyone you can see including yourself.  For example, my main character Redcape has a GearScore of 5420, my max level warlock who has not done much has a score of 3450 and my Level 3 starting character has a GearScore of 0.

Essentially this allows someone to rapidly determine how powerful the equipment of another character is and distill all that information into just one number.  This is useful because it can take quite a lot of time to look at another character and inspect all the equipment they have to find out how powerful it is, whether they have the proper enchantments and enhancements on it and such.  Getting that information very quickly is good when you want to start a group for something challenging because you can easily glance at their score and know if it is far beyond their capabilities.

It used to be that making these sorts of determinations about another player was really quite difficult.  There were no addons to the game that created these sorts of scores and so you would have to check over each person individually to see how equipped they were.  When you went into a dungeon with a group there was no way to know exactly how good anyone was aside from simply watching your screen and making some educated guesses.  However, when a group went very quickly and efficiently most people would remember it and would try to group withe the same people again.  This became a very social dynamic, where maintaining a good reputation was important because the way you got into groups was to have people remember that you were skilled and not a jerk.  If you acquired a reputation for being terrible no one would group with you because there was no easy way to actually check.

Fast forward to modern WOW and things have changed.  GearScore is a huge change, but damage meters are another.  This second type of mod is basically a database of everything that happens during a dungeon clear.  When I have this running (and I always do) I can see exactly what abilities someone else is using, how often they get critical strikes, what % of their damage comes from each source and more.  Now whenever I consider playing with someone I can instantly tell how good their equipment is and once we begin fighting I can tell right away how good they are and in many cases start giving them advice on how to be better.  Being known across the server as an idiot certainly doesn't help any, but the necessity for a good reputation and connections has decreased massively.  Advanced diagnostic and statistical tools now allow a modern player to not only improve his own game, but also to rapidly evaluate potential partners for skill and equipment.

Of course, there are big downsides.  The most hilarious of which is that GearScore is easy to fool.  There are many pieces of gear that are either bad or inappropriate for particular roles that a player can equip to try to fool the mod into overestimating the player's gear.  For example, if you are a paladin who specializes in healing people a trinket that makes you stronger isn't any help at all, while a trinket that makes your spells more powerful is.  However, GearScore simply does not distinguish between these things and will assign someone with a mismatched, ineffective set of equipment a high score if the equipment is 'powerful' even if it is useless to the player in question.  This leads to a couple of amusing situations:

1.  Players abuse this loophole to inflate their score.  There are many people out there collecting useless (to them) equipment just to fool other people's GearScore ratings.  They put on useless gearsets to get into groups and then put on reasonable equipment afterwards.  This is almost exactly like lying on your resume in that it can easily get you into jobs you can't handle and will get your ass fired in a hurry if anyone finds out.

2.  Players actually look at the scores generated by the mod to make decisions.  I hadn't actually seen this in action today until I took a look at a person in my group at the end of a run.  He had gear specially designed for resisting frost damage equipped for a normal dungeon clear where there was absolutely no frost damage expected.  He had this gear enchanted with extremely expensive enchantments that also didn't remotely match the frost resistance theme of his gear, so at first I could not fathom how this came about.  Then the truth hit me:  This guy was simply maxing his score.  He wasn't trying to be good and he wasn't looking to be powerful.  He only wanted to convince the people using GearScore that he had powerful equipment, and actually had no real intention of improving his abilities.

So now we have a situation that large numbers of players are using a particular game modification to make decisions on how to build their groups, which causes many other players to use this mod.  These other players end up building their characters to maximize their score instead of their effectiveness, which means that instead of actually improving their ability to beat things they only strive to improve their ability to convince other people that they can beat things.  Using this mod to decide how to improve your equipment is better than truly random selection, but loses out to even the most incompetent decision making.

This ends up being something of a tragedy of the commons.  If everyone would simply use GearScore as a way to condense information and not worry about maximizing their own return it would end up being a very useful tool and would allow more efficient decisions to be made and more appropriate groups to be formed.  Unfortunately there is an incentive for each individual to try to fool GearScore and virtually zero penalty for doing so personally which means that the mod becomes drastically less useful for everyone as people compete with each other.  We also end up with people who gear themselves by what a mod says is powerful rather than asking someone or making educated guesses and the overall quality of play drops, if only a little.

A race to the bottom indeed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Family First

I was talking with The Philosopher yesterday and we had an intriguing conversation.  A significant part of it centered around family ties and obligations and the ethics surrounding them.  The standard in every society I have ever heard of is to place a lot of importance on family ties.  Different societies do prioritize particular relations differently, but by and large it is universal that treating our families in special ways is both desirable and ethical.

It is obvious where this comes from.  There is the evolutionary source, which is simply that helping people who share some of our genes helps preserve copies of those genes so it is sensible from the perspective of "Humans are vehicles for genes to reproduce themselves" for us to help our families more than anyone else.  Helping my uncle/nephew/cousin may not help my procreation directly, but it does increase the success of their genes which have a lot more in common with mine than the general populace.  This sort of behaviour is not at all unique to humans, other animals will assist their more distant family relations preferentially too.  The other source of this behaviour is the necessity to raise children.  Any set of genes that did not give rise to people who want to have children and who want to take care of their children would die out nearly immediately.  As such it is clear that there is going to be a tremendous attachment between parents and their children.  These attachments propagate along the family tree because obviously when A and B care about each other a lot and B and C care about each other a lot A will tend to care about C at least a little, since their situation affects B.

So we know why families have such strong attachments, the question that arises though is how ethical is it to prioritize your own family above all other people?  This isn't saying that we should treat our families badly, but rather asking the question "Why do we not treat *everyone* as well as we treat our families?"

It is challenging to categorize the ways in which we define family.  For example, when someone marries into a family they are often treated exactly as well as their partner despite the fact that there is no genetic similarity.  However, when those people divorce if someone ends up not being part of the family anymore it is the partner who is not genetically related.  Not every breakup ends up with people leaving families wholesale, but nonetheless it does happen with regularity.  So in some ways family is very much a set of people with a common genetic heritage, but in many ways it is a social organization.  My cousin's aunt may have absolutely zero (beyond normal statistical expectation) genes in common with me, and yet she would be considered part of my family, and thus worthy of special consideration.  You could easily look at family as a social contract mandating mutual assistance.  Everyone is expected to provide certain things to everyone else and by doing so all benefit.  Looking at family in any one of these ways though simply does not well describe the phenomenon that we observe, and so the description seems most likely to be some kind of extremely complicated combination of these things.

There are many different ways in which people decide who to treat well, and they pretty much all boil down to one thing:  How much the person in question is like you.  People tend to treat others better when those others are of the same ancestry, are of the same gender,  look the same, dress the same, are of the same social class, speak with the same accent/language, desire to mate with the opposite/same gender, and of course family.  All of these reasons to treat one person better than another have been deemed unethical by our culture and/or laws except for preferential treatment based on family.  Of course some of these things are a bigger problem than others and some are merely considered rude or unpleasant as opposed to evil.  Denying women or natives the right to vote is a huge ethical issue, refusing someone entry into the country club because they aren't rich is unpleasant and rude.

Canadian society in particular is advanced in its tendency to remove race, class, ancestry, sexual orientation and many other factors as barriers to success and freedom.  This makes me tremendously proud, as I very much wish to live in a nation that does not permit discrimination based on these things.  I also feel that my family is very important and I want very much to keep them involved in my life.  It is only in this theoretical state that I question my ways of doing things and look at how to derive a most ethical society of individuals from the basic principle of greatest benefit to all instead of just working within the framework that we have.  I wonder why it is reasonable for parents to give all they have to their children even if their children do not need those resources, particularly when there are so many other people who need them more.  I wonder why it is considered normal to go out of your way to support, assist and maintain relationships with relatives regardless of whether or not you like them or agree with what they do.  If I were simply handing off money to someone and specifically chose someone based on race, gender, or many other factors I would be branded a bigot, and yet when I choose my children exclusively it is not only the norm, it would be extremely frowned upon to do otherwise.

So where is the limit?  When does giving to some white person change from evil to ok just because they share more genetic material with me?  A random white person in my city most likely shares more genetic material with me than a person with African ancestry, yet favouring them would be racist.  Picking a particular person who happens to share much more genetic material with me and also shares a social group for favour is acceptable, even mandatory.

Note this isn't some kind of call to change, because I really don't know what changes I would advocate for, or even if there is a problem.  It is merely a call to thought, asking us to consider why we do what we do and looking at the benefits and costs from as objective a standpoint as possible.

Monday, January 11, 2010

No practice makes not perfect

Imagine a scene for me if you will:

You are sitting in front of your computer just having installed a new game you bought at the store.  You go through the introduction, watch the cinematic and start playing.  You solve a few fairly easy puzzles, get a little bit into the game and then hit a really hard bit.  You try the hard bit a few different ways, do some testing and after half a dozen tries at it the game says,

"Sorry, you are out of tries.  You will be able to try again next Tuesday.  Goodbye."

If you are at all like me you would first try to figure out the joke and get back to playing, and the second thing you would do is blow a gasket and go back to the store and demand your money back.  This is exactly what Blizzard Entertainment has done in WOW, though to a less ridiculous extent perhaps.  The actual implementation in the game is this:  There are several new bosses available to for our guild to fight this week and two of them are fairly straightforward while the third -Professor Putricide- is quite difficult.  You get 10 tries to defeat Putricide and then you are done for the week.  You cannot engage him again until the server resets the dungeon on Tuesday.

On our raid this past Tuesday we defeated all the bosses in the new dungeon without too much difficulty and then we arrived at Putricide near the end of the raid.  Normally what we would do with a new boss is just pull him and see what happens and get ready to get reamed.  Generally this is the pattern, you start fighting the boss and he does something heinous to you and you die.  You all get resurrected, cast your buffs, eat your food and resolve to move to the left when he casts the spell "MOVE LEFT OR DIE" and try again.  Of course bosses have many different spells like "SOME PLACES ARE ON FIRE" and "HERE IS A CRUDDY MINION FOR YOU TO SMASH"  and it can take awhile to move left, get out of fire and kill the minions efficiently.  Thing is though, this is the most fun part of the game.  We walk in and see what happens and figure out strategies to defeat it.  Then we yell at whoever is getting killed too quickly because they are standing in fire, and eventually we sort out a good way to defeat the boss.

This new design means that we don't do this.  Instead of just pulling the boss and seeing what he does we end the raid and spend a good chunk of time the next day surfing the web for strats.  We look for all the information out there on how to fight him, how his abilities work and what to expect.  When we finally do engage him for the first time we have already told everyone what to expect and how to play.  Our strategy is still going to evolve a little, but the thrill of discovery certainly is lessened.   The most frustrating aspect of this new way of doing things is that it pits us against each other.  When Corporate Plunderer stands in fire and dies, normally we just die, mock him and come back and go again.  When Barrel Plug pulls an extra pack for no reason we sigh, take our lumps and curse him out.  Now though when someone screws up and plays dumb we lose more than just time; we lose the ability to defeat this boss for the week.  This creates a new pressure to not fail that I don't particularly enjoy.

The reasons that Blizzard implemented this policy aren't bad ones.  They wanted to accomplish a few things:  First, to prevent people from throwing themselves at new, hard bosses for days on end.  The top guilds in the world literally play 24/7 for days sleeping in shifts to defeat new things, which certainly isn't overly healthy.  The second major reason to do this is to slow down the speed at which players defeat new content.  If everything added to the game is defeated on the first day people feel like there is nothing new to do, so if you prevent them from practising then they will take longer to defeat the challenges set up for them.  Unfortunately these measures don't accomplish their respective aims overly well.  Top guilds have all of their players with multiple characters so they can do the dungeons first with one set of characters, then another to give themselves more time to practice.  They still end up playing outrageous numbers of hours to defeat new things and of course get things done first.  The trouble with limiting attempts on a particular encounter is that the truly hardcore people just run through it over and over on more characters and the people like myself and my guild end up just stymied because we have no attempts left and no secondary characters to play on.

We end up in a situation where we can't get in the major predictor of success, practice.  More than innate skill, more than equipment or preparation practice determines success.  Saying to ourselves "We don't have any more time tonight guys, lets go sleep and try this again next week" feels fine, we are living within our schedules.  Saying "Sorry guys, the raid is over because Blizzard has declared that we aren't allowed to try this any more this week" does not.  It is time to get rid of this model and move on.  At the outset it seemed like an intriguing idea, but after fully experiencing it we can safely say it was a failed experiment.

Icecrown Citadel:  Our new target.


Within Icecrown Citadel:  The lair of Professor Putricide.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Where everybody knows your name

Last night Wendy and I went out to a bar for a birthday party for a friend.  His name in this blog comes from an incident years ago...

Full Throttle, Hobo, Wendy, this friend and myself were all sitting around a gaming table preparing to start a new campaign.  We were all starting up new characters and essentially introducing ourselves to one another.  This friend had a history of making up characters for games that had totally innocuous names to his mind, but to the dirty, dirty minds of his coplayers these names were ripe for mockery.  Always we ended up making fun of his characters names because they rhymed with something or sounded like something obscene and inevitably these references were sexual in nature.  This time though, things would be different, or so he thought.

So this friend says to us "I thought a long time about this character's name and spent hours trying to find any possible way you guys could twist it around to mock me and found nothing.  There is no way you guys can find any kind of sick reference to mock my name this time."  Then he says, "My name is Iolo Longstaff."

Pause.

A look of stark, desperate terror comes over Iolo Longstaff's face and his mouth forms that O you see in movies when someone is saying "NOOOOOOOOOO!" in slow motion.  A look of "Oh, no, what have I done?" settles onto his face as the rest of us begin to giggle, to titter, to utterly collapse into gales of uncontrollable, hideous laughter.  (We failed our saving throws)

Occasionally punctuated by outbursts of "Longstaff?  No possible sexual reference? You spent a week coming up with that?" we sat on the floor with tears running down our cheeks, having fallen right out of our chairs.  It took us a good half hour to get back on track with the game, but I must say that it was one of the most magnificent breaks from the action we had ever taken.  Henceforth in this blog I dub you Iolo Longstaff.

Back in the bar, Iolo shows up and the party is getting started.  We sit around with friends, order some food and take in the atmosphere.  This is something people like, to be out at a bar with friends, drinking some high priced beer, eating some excellent (but not so cheap) food, and to engage in conversation.  It just doesn't have that much appeal to me though.  The problems of course are that 1.  The food and drink are expensive, to the point that our whole family could eat for a 3 days on the cost of 1 entree.  Also, I don't particularly like alcohol even when it is free, so pricey alcohol isn't so much my thing.  2.  The place is damn loud.  I can speak loudly to 5 people, but to speak to anyone else there including the birthday boy I have to first wave or shriek to get their attention and then shout just to be heard.

We stayed around for about an hour and a half and then wandered home.  I enjoyed going out, but I can't help but feel like the time we spent just could have been done better.  Going out to the bar is a traditional sort of thing to do for the birthday of someone who is a fan of alcohol and likes experimenting with it, but it just seems like the wrong way to go.  Could we not find a place to go where we could talk to one another?  Surely somewhere there is a place where we can gather to drink and eat and celebrate that does not set such strong requirements for spending and such limits on speaking distance.

This is not the first time I have internally raged at the limitations of a venue.  I recall many times throughout my life sitting in a bar next to random people from the group I was with and wondering why I was there.  Sure, I am happy to shout conversations at the 2 people who can hear me for awhile, but given that I was there for hours it would have been nice if we were in a place where talking with different people was easier.  I remember being frustrated at sitting alone with the people beside me both engaged in conversations I could not make out while I listened to the combination of overloud music and the babble of the crush.  If I wanted to be alone with incredibly loud meaningless noise I could sit in a box with an airhorn all night.

The bar we are at isn't bad.  The food is really, really good and the music isn't overloud, so this isn't a night where I am frustrated at being there at all.  It is a night where I think that there must be a better way though.  On my birthday people randomly showed up at my house and we sat around drinking juice and water from the fridge and eating cookies from the freezer.  It was an absolute blast for me because all I really wanted from my birthday party was to hang out with my friends and I am perfectly content with simple, cheap things to accommodate that.  It is true that the point of a birthday party is to do something the birthday person wants to do (hence why I was out at the beer bistro in the first place) but I wonder if people really consider all their options or just go out to the bar because that is what is expected.

If you have an opinion, please let me know.  I am always interested in anything people want to say about my posts and I am curious about the reactions my rants generate.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Raising the bar

I just went and saw the movie Avatar.  For those who have not seen it, some of the following information will be a spoiler, so if you really want to see it and have not, you may want to not read.

This movie really raised the bar for all movies that come after it, the same way that movies like The Matrix or Goodfellas change the way we look at a particular kind of movie.  After The Matrix you couldn't just release a kung fu action flick without being compared against it, usually unfavourably.  The same with mob movies, although you might go see a mob movie and think it was good, there is always going to be the note in the back of your mind that it was pretty good, given that it wasn't Goodfellas.

The 3D aspect of Avatar is the main thing that really puts it above all previous contenders.  I have seen 3D before and normally it is used to throw scary things in the faces of the movie audience to make them jump.  While this gets a reaction, it isn't something that is going to make a lasting impression.  The difference with Avatar is that the 3D is simply part of the background.  Things that are closer to the camera appear closer and the world blends together in a way that feels tremendously real.  They movie doesn't attempt to bludgeon the viewer with the new technology but simply builds a tremendous visual scene using the tools on hand, and the result is fantastic.  The scenes are beautiful and it makes you feel like movies that don't use this are going to eventually fade away.

There are some other great points though, particularly in the storytelling.  Most science fiction movies end up with some really clunky lines in them where the people in the movie tell the audience the ridiculous pseudoscience behind their futuristic lives, but Avatar skirts these issues neatly.  Firstly it uses lots and lots of technology that we could build today if we really wanted to but would be hideously expensive and fragile and just hands that out all over the place.  It feels like a ton of innovation and improvement went on over the years from now to then but you don't get the feeling like nothing makes sense or they are making stuff up as they go along, all the tech fits.  I imagine by the time we can navigate easily to other star systems and set up bases there that technology will be practically unrecognizable when compared to what we have today, but using technology that is at least entirely understandable and believable to a person living today makes the world a rational place where the viewer can empathize with and understand the character's actions.

The exceptions to this are few, firstly the basic premise of the movie which is that a few people can climb into high tech machines and take control of avatars which are large biological bodies crafted by man.  They essentially become this new creature and feel entirely at home in their new bodies.  The key to the success of this is that the movie makes no attempt whatsoever to explain the science behind it.  They give a explanation of how it works and it is easy for the viewer to follow along with what is going on, but the clunky, ridiculous make up science is just not there.  Hooray!  I often lose the immersion in a science fiction movie when the hero sits down to explain to the audience how their technology works and I end up grimacing at the abuse of known scientific fact.  The technology and its limits are pretty crazy, but the movie takes the right road in simply telling us that this works, this is how it works, just accept it and move on.

The other major exception to the 'science makes sense' theme is that the world of Pandora has some really weird biology going on.  There are some things there in the biology of the native peoples that are really crazy and some of the physics of the various locales are a bit beyond what we would expect, but nonetheless Avatar handles it well.  They give a few very broad explanations of how these things might work, but don't try to belabor the point or make outrageous things up.  The scientists in the movie pretty much say "Well, this stuff is crazy, and here is some really interesting things we found that could explain it, but even then we will have to do all kinds of studies to get a sense of what is going on."  Perfect!  Give us a bit of justification and then just move on with the story.  The balance of scientific explanation and "Just accept it and look at the amazing visuals!" is in the right spot, and that is rare.

To give you a sense, Wendy saw Avatar with me and said that the biggest scientific gaffe in the whole movie was when one of the characters picked up a pipette and held it the wrong way.  Now being in the home of a scientist I know that a pipette is a thing to move small amounts of substances from one container to another.  I still couldn't have told you what scene that pipette was in and the idea that I would notice that it was held wrong it pretty ludicrous.  This was the *biggest* scientific fact that they got wrong from her view.  I gotta say, if the worst thing a scientist can say about your science fiction movie is "One of your characters held a scientific instrument the wrong way in one of the scenes" you really have to be doing something right.

So, go see Avatar.  It is one of those movies that is going to be a benchmark against which other movies will be measured and is a truly new movie experience.  Also, I liked it.  The story hits pretty hard with the "corporate greed and dismissal of native rights are WRONG!!!!!" message, but that doesn't stop the characters and story from being a ton of fun.  Note that I agree with the message being delivered, but any time a moral message comes delivered by a big fat baseball bat it can cause havoc with storytelling.  Thankfully the rest of the movie works well given that context.  Remember, only 3D in the theatres, so don't wait to rent if you want the real experience.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Propriety

In a recent post I made a thinly veiled sexual reference and it got a reaction that I wasn't quite anticipating.  Specifically:

"Unless that car contained a pair of limber, red headed, voluptuous, horny identical twins I wouldn't even look twice."

The reaction was a bit of surprise that I would post something like this in my blog given that a number of relatives including my grandmother, various aunts and uncles and such were going to be reading it.  When I was making that post I didn't really think much of that comment but in retrospect it is pretty interesting.  The ways in which we talk about sex vary tremendously based on the company we are in, which is natural, but I think the denial and secrecy of sex in our culture don't fit well with my values.

Here is the thing:  Every relative (over the age of 35) who could possibly be reading this has had sex, most of them many, many times and yet the idea of such a sexually open comment was treated as a touch over the top.   This got me to thinking about how sex is discussed and how we have specific circles of people that are allowed access to that portion of our lives.  When I was young though this sort of topic just didn't come up.  Not that I was in a puritanical household by any means, but just like most kids sex was the sort of thing that you would get a talk about with a "Where did I come from" book but it would not be discussed at all in the sort of comfortable, casual atmosphere that adults reserve for each other.

I noticed a really substantial shift in the way the generation before me spoke around me right after I had a child.  They seemed to immediately include me in a sort of 'parents club' where talking about sex was allowed whereas before it had been taboo.  It isn't like suddenly we were discussing the latest issue of Penthouse, but there was a distinct change in the tone of conversations and it was clear that certain topics that before would not have been discussed if I was around were suddenly ok.  This change doesn't seem to be about age or marital status though, as I have not observed the same thing with my other cousins who are largely of ages similar to mine, nor did it occur when I got married.

Clearly there is some kind of bond that parents share, something that comes from mutually understood suffering I believe.  It is the sort of thing that people do for many other reasons, whether they be war, disease, discrimination or midnight feedings; we tend to hold people who have suffered in the same way we have closer and reveal things that we know that outsiders might not truly understand.   There is a feeling of tribe, of closeness and understanding that is different from the feeling of family altogether that people share after dealing with something harsh.  While there is a lot of joy in parenting too, there is certainly no shortage of frustration and exhaustion.

It is fairly clear that a lot of sexual repression comes from religion.  Certainly the cultural norm of not discussing sex with our relatives cannot completely be blamed on religion, but equally certainly there was an unambiguous and powerful message for many, many years from religious sources that said that sex is dirty, shameful and in many cases sinful.  The desire for sex was denounced and a natural consequence of that is a lack of discussion and acknowledgement of sex, particularly among those of different age and cultural groups.  

To be sure, I am not going to start off breakfast conversations with Elli like "So, let me tell you what daddy and mommy did last night..." so there needs to be some kind of balance between openness and repression.  Some part of me likes the idea of a completely sexually open society, where sex is no more taboo to speak of than a game of tennis, a hug or cooking dinner together.  A far bigger part of me is realistic though in that those sorts of changes take huge amounts of time and that my mind is simply not able to make that switch so easily.  I have been brought up amongst cultural norms that would make that sort of situation extremely uncomfortable.  I would be just as uncomfortable in a Victorian setting where sexual desire even for one's mate is frowned upon and the idea of bringing up that topic in discussion was outrageous.  I suppose I end up a little left of centre on this issue, wanting society (and myself!) to be more comfortable with sex and discussion of it than they are.  

Despite this newfound level of openness I experienced with the previous generation in my family over the past few years I still won't be leading off with "How about that retrograde wheelbarrow?  Eh?  Eh?  Pretty great!" I do hope that people in general and the people I deal with in particular (sue me, I'm selfish that way) learn to be more comfortable with themselves and sex in their lives, but realistically these things happen generation by generation, not year by year.  I do look forward to the day that I can let Elli into the club, though I certainly have no idea just yet what will trigger that change.  Perhaps it will wait until she has her own children or perhaps it will be when she has her first highschool crush; I just don't know.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Get Ripped Fast

I have been seeing an incredible number of ads lately trying to sell me 'free' weight loss or 'muscle gain' pills.  All kinds of sites I regularly frequent have ads linking to the following sort of page:  http://www.myrippedinfo.com/?sub=ca_160_01

So here is the question:  Why do people fall for this kind of stuff?  Everyone knows how to be thin or get really cut but we don't generally make the choice to all be beautiful people.  Before you argue with me about that, just ask yourself what would happen if you took all the junk food in your diet and replaced it wholesale with broccoli, spinach and brussel sprouts, then spent 1 hour a day every day doing a really hardcore cardio and weights workout.  Obviously even someone with a really slow natural metabolism is going to drop a ton of weight and put on a lot of muscle doing this and it isn't any kind of secret.  Everyone (nearly so anyway) knows that the 'formula' I just listed will get them thin and fit, but there are obviously huge numbers of people out there pouring money into scams like the website I listed nonetheless.

I am not saying that everyone can have a supermodel body easily, on the contrary it is quite hard.  It requires discipline and a ton of work.  I should get a lot more exercise than I do and could easily be more fit, though my diet is really quite good.  What I suggest though is that nearly anyone *can* do it if they really want to, it is a matter of priorities.  In this way I think it is similar to my financial situation in that a lot of people like to talk about it like it is impossible when in fact it is just challenging.  In this case though I have decided to have the discipline to live on very little money I don't seem to have the drive to get really fit and cut.

So when people look around at their lives and decide that they aren't willing to cut out junk food and aren't willing to exercise really hard every day they are deciding that they would rather maintain the bodies they have and the lifestyle they have.  This isn't a wrong choice, but it is a choice a lot of us make and we should recognize it as one.  Once a person has made that determination though they have the choice to either accept the consequences of their lifestyle decisions or hope for a miracle.  Of course in this case the 'miracle diet' on the cover of Woman's World (funny how they have a new miracle diet every single issue... you would think some of their readers would be getting thin by now what with all the miracles) is the miracle we are referring to, rather than some kind of divine intervention.

So week after week, month after month people buy these magazines for their miracle weight cures, use internet sites to buy harmful pills to purge themselves and any other number of desperate gambles.  There simply isn't enough money in these schemes to keep them rolling if people aren't buying in over and over so clearly many people go for sucker scheme after sucker scheme trying to get their perfect body the easy way.  After the first 4 'get fit quick' schemes horribly fail you might think that the average customer would end up getting smart and stop buying this crap, but that doesn't seem to happen.

My theory is that people need some ray of hope, some reason to believe their situation can be changed.  Perhaps it is that they accept that they won't ever change their lifestyle in the ways they would need to but still find solace in the idea that things will change and that the improvement they desperately seek is just around the corner and all that is necessary is for them to find it.  It might even be that people don't accept that others have the discipline to get really fit and that there in fact *must* be a secret out there because clearly there are beautiful people who have taken advantage of it.

I don't begrudge people their lifestyle choices most of the time.  If someone wants to eat terribly and not exercise and is okay with that choice and the inevitable results then fair enough.  I would hope for their sake that they exercise moderation and find some healthy path, but it isn't a big deal.  Far more frustrating are people who refuse to take that final step and accept responsibility for their actions and the obvious, logical results.  This is particularly true when they continue to throw themselves after mirages in the desert chasing a secret cure that clearly doesn't exist.  If an easy way to a beautiful body did exist we would all be using it already.

The path to beauty is there and we all know it.  Don't eat crap, do eat green vegetables, exercise a lot.  Do, or do not, but don't complain that it is impossible and please, please stop giving these scoundrels on the internet your money.