Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Need Cheering Up?

(Read the rest of the cartoon here.)

There have been several funny events this week, and I suppose I should get them posted before April First, since they're all true.

First is Doc Thompson, guest hosting The Glenn Beck Program, claiming that the new tax on tanning beds is racist because dark-skinned people don't visit tanning salons! Yeah, we white people suffer so much discrimination, don't we? And in this case, apparently none of us more than John Boehner, House Minority Leader.

And where was Glenn Beck? Well, giving a talk at the University of Central Florida, where 53 cars were towed away after his fans parked in a fraternity parking lot. Apparently, pranksters put up signs indicating the private lot was "Event Parking."

OK, that's kind of a dirty trick, wasn't it? Then again, they were fans of Glenn Beck, so it's hard to feel too sympathetic. And maybe this will teach them not to be so gullible (not about falling for fake parking signs, but falling for complete lunatics like Beck).

Meanwhile, Fox News proudly ran a story the liberal media missed, the ironic death of a global warming activist who froze to death at the South Pole. Only maybe they should have checked the facts with first. As Snopes says, the source for this parody was a satirical website, the ecoEnquirer. Nice fact-checking, Fox! Next time, stick to reliable sources like The Onion.

And here's J. D. Shapiro, apologizing for writing the worst movie ever. Admittedly, he's got a good excuse, because he was trying to meet girls. And his apology is pretty funny, too:

Now, looking back at the movie with fresh eyes, I can't help but be strangely proud of it. Because out of all the sucky movies, mine is the suckiest.

In the end, did Scientology get me laid? What do you think? No way do you get any action by boldly going up to a woman and proclaiming, "I wrote Battlefield Earth!" If anything, I'm trying to figure out a way to bottle it and use it as birth control. I'll make a mint!

Hysteria and Demographics

In recent days, two columnists in the New York Times have made the point that demographics is behind the rage, the hysteria, the lunacy of the right-wing. I see it, too. It's in the racial slurs yelled by tea-baggers. It's in the "birthers," who refuse to admit that a black man is legitimately president. It's in Republicans who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, a socialist, a terrorist, a communist, an "Arab," even the Anti-Christ. It's in the frenzy about illegal immigrants.

Here's Charles M. Blow:

The far-right extremists have gone into conniptions.

The bullying, threats, and acts of violence following the passage of health care reform have been shocking, but they’re only the most recent manifestations of an increasing sense of desperation.

It’s an extension of a now-familiar theme: some version of “take our country back.” The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn’t existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them.

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

There's clearly more to this frenzy than politics. It's fear that drives these people, fear of minorities, fear of becoming a minority in America, fear that their mythical Ozzie & Harriet version of America is gone for good. Fox News and other Republican leaders have been pushing this fear for years. Well, it helped them take the South, and it's given them a formidable base. And these days, they have nothing to offer America but fear. For any political problem, they just naturally reach for fear. It's become a habit, as well as a necessity.

And the people they're targeting, white conservative Christians, often elderly and poorly educated, are terrified that they won't be able to compete in the modern world. Like fearful people everywhere, they look for a scapegoat,... and the GOP is happy to oblige. But will it work over the long-term?

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday took a look at the Tea Party members and found them to be just as anachronistic to the direction of the country’s demographics as the Republican Party. For instance, they were disproportionately white, evangelical Christian and “less educated ... than the average Joe and Jane Six-Pack.” This at a time when the country is becoming more diverse (some demographers believe that 2010 could be the first year that most children born in the country will be nonwhite), less doctrinally dogmatic, and college enrollment is through the roof. The Tea Party, my friends, is not the future.

Frank Rich makes much the same point. He compares the hysteria these days with what followed the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation. There was opposition to Social Security in 1935 and to Medicare in 1965, but it was nothing like what resulted from giving black people civil rights.

The apocalyptic predictions then, like those about health care now, were all framed in constitutional pieties, of course. Barry Goldwater, running for president in ’64, drew on the counsel of two young legal allies, William Rehnquist and Robert Bork, to characterize the bill as a “threat to the very essence of our basic system” and a “usurpation” of states’ rights that “would force you to admit drunks, a known murderer or an insane person into your place of business.” Richard Russell, the segregationist Democratic senator from Georgia, said the bill “would destroy the free enterprise system.” David Lawrence, a widely syndicated conservative columnist, bemoaned the establishment of “a federal dictatorship.” Meanwhile, three civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss.

America has moved on since then. We're a much different country these days. But there are a lot of people who are still unhappy that white men aren't automatically on top anymore. And this economic collapse (ironically, brought to us by right-wing Republicans, not liberal Democrats) is making them even more frightened and insecure. It's not the rather conservative health care reform bill that's got so many people going off the rails, nor the way it passed Congress by majority vote of our elected representatives. This hysteria has deeper reasons.

But the explanation is plain: the health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964.

In fact, the current surge of anger — and the accompanying rise in right-wing extremism — predates the entire health care debate. The first signs were the shrieks of “traitor” and “off with his head” at Palin rallies as Obama’s election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since — from Gov. Rick Perry’s kowtowing to secessionists at a Tea Party rally in Texas to the gratuitous brandishing of assault weapons at Obama health care rallies last summer to “You lie!” piercing the president’s address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.

If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.

They can’t. Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.

In the long-run, they can't win. We are a diverse country these days, and becoming more diverse all the time. Women are solidly in the workforce now, and in fact, they're becoming better educated than men. Blacks and Hispanics won't go back to segregation and blatant discrimination. Gays and lesbians are out of the closet. Even atheists like me are becoming more outspoken and assertive. This is our country too!

So, in the long-run, they can't win. But in the short-run, they can do a lot of damage.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, some responsible leaders in both parties spoke out to try to put a lid on the resistance and violence. The arch-segregationist Russell of Georgia, concerned about what might happen in his own backyard, declared flatly that the law is “now on the books.” Yet no Republican or conservative leader of stature has taken on Palin, Perry, Boehner or any of the others who have been stoking these fires for a good 17 months now. Last week McCain even endorsed Palin’s “reload” rhetoric.

Are these politicians so frightened of offending anyone in the Tea Party-Glenn Beck base that they would rather fall silent than call out its extremist elements and their enablers? Seemingly so, and if G.O.P. leaders of all stripes, from Romney to Mitch McConnell to Olympia Snowe to Lindsey Graham, are afraid of these forces, that’s the strongest possible indicator that the rest of us have reason to fear them too.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Child Vampire Hunters and Comic Books

(photo by David C. Laurie)

Here's an interesting story from the BBC about an incident in Scotland in 1954. It starts as a police constable is called to a Glasgow cemetery:

Hundreds of children aged from four to 14, some of them armed with knives and sharpened sticks, were patrolling inside the historic graveyard.

They were, they told the bemused constable, hunting a 7ft tall vampire with iron teeth who had already kidnapped and eaten two local boys. ...

There were no records of any missing children in Glasgow at the time, and media reports of the incident began to search for the origins of the urban myth that had gripped the city.

Politicians, churches, and the media blamed American horror comics, although there was no real evidence for that:

The blame was quickly laid at the door of American comic books with chilling titles such as Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Horror, whose graphic images of terrifying monsters were becoming increasingly popular among Scottish youngsters.

These comics, so the theory went, were corrupting the imaginations of children and inflaming them with fear of the unknown.

A few dissenting academics pointed out there was no mention of a creature matching the description of the Gorbals Vampire in any of these comics.

There was, however, a monster with iron teeth in the Bible (Daniel 7.7) and in a poem taught in local schools.

But their voices were drowned out in the media and political frenzy that was by now demanding action to be taken to prevent even more young minds from being "polluted" by the "terrifying and corrupt" comic books.

The government responded to the clamour by introducing the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 which, for the first time, specifically banned the sale of magazines and comics portraying "incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature" to minors. ...

Mr Smith said it had been common for naughty children in the area to be threatened with the Iron Man - a local equivalent of the Bogeyman - by their exasperated parents.

Neither Mr Smith or Mr Sanderson [who had been two of the children involved] had televisions in their homes at the time, and neither had ever seen a horror movie or read a horror comic.

This was hysteria, but not just that. There were people - the article mentions an "unlikely alliance of teachers, communists and Christians" - just looking for an excuse for this crusade.

Mr [Barry] Forshaw added: "It was a perfect fit. Here was a campaign that was looking for things to justify itself, and then this event happens.

"It is ironic that the moral furore began in Scotland, where the comics could not have been more safe."

Unsustainable Fishing

 (bluefin tuna photo from Greenpeace via this site)

Earlier, I noted an article about red grouper, how scientists had discovered their constructive role in ocean ecosystems. When we over-fish red grouper, we don't just damage populations of that fish, we affect an entire community of creatures.

Of course, fishing interests objected. Right now, we're over-fishing pretty much everything, and if we stop, some people will lose their livelihoods. That's true. But if we continue, fisheries will collapse and everyone will lose - for years and years. So it's a no-brainer, right? Surely everyone realizes we must bite the bullet and start managing our fisheries so they're sustainable, with rebuilt populations and healthy ecosystems.

No, not at all. We're talking about human beings here, so of course we're less concerned about disaster in the future than our own pocketbooks right now. But I came across a couple of articles that show some of what we've lost already.

Cod are one species that used to be abundant, before they were over-fished. And they used to be much larger than those left alive today. I thought this excerpt from an article in The Boston Globe was interesting:

University of New Hampshire researchers studying 19th century schooner logbooks — some smudged with cod oil from the fingerprints of the Yankee skippers who kept them — established that New England fishermen landed 20 times more cod in 1860 than commercial fleets catch today.

“Even farther back, in early Colonial times, cod were so thick they would sometimes stop a vessel dead in the water,’’ said the UNH’s Karen Alexander, coordinator for the Gulf of Maine Cod Project. “It’s clear, when you pore through the archives, that commercial species were not only more abundant, they were physically bigger.’’

Meaner, too. Alexander cited a terse (and ungrammatical) 1866 log entry by Beverly fishing captain Samuel Wilson: “Rugh weather but plenty of fish [I] took a man’s foot out of a large codfish.’’

Unfortunately, even where cod fishing has been halted entirely, populations don't seem to be rebuilding very well. Removing one species almost entirely from an ecosystem tends to affect the whole ecology. These aren't just living things we're affecting, but living communities.

Incidentally, that article, which describes a new census of sea life, talks about some interesting discoveries from that, too:

Among other things, they have found tubeworms that imbibe crude oil; a crustacean so shaggy it might be answering a casting call for Broadway’s “Hair’’; and a sort of singles cafe for sharks where great whites cruise hungrily for sex.
I talk about other articles - and other species - below the fold.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nebula Award Short Story Nominees

Each year, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) give a Nebula Award to the best science fiction/fantasy of the previous year, in several categories. (This is the main rival to the Hugo Awards, which are chosen by members of the World Science Fiction Society.) Note only mild spoilers below - mostly just descriptions of the plot.

Of the six short stories nominated this year, five are freely available online (scroll to the bottom of this page for all the links), including the clear best, IMHO, "Bridesicle" by Will McIntosh. A woman wakes, able to move only her face, and it turns out she died, was frozen, and is now in a dating room, where she must interest a man enough that he'll pay to revive her. (Thus, the title.)

It's a creepy story, rather scary (I could just imagine the feeling of helplessness), and quite good. As I say, this is easily my favorite of the nominees. But then, I was quite disappointed in the general caliber of story this year. There were really only two or three stories I liked at all.

The second was "Non-Zero Probabilities" by N. K. Jemisin. Probability has gone nuts in New York City. If there's a chance in a million that something will happen, it will happen. And New Yorkers like Adele have learned to adapt by practicing every kind of superstition. It's a cute little story. Maybe I wouldn't have picked it for a Nebula Award, but then, I'm generally biased against fantasies. It's worth reading, at least.

I probably expected too much from "Going Deep" by James Patrick Kelly, since I was hoping for another "Think Like a Dinosaur," his 1995 Hugo Award-winning novelette. What I got was OK, but nothing special. A 13-year-old girl on the Moon is struggling with adolescence, including the arrival of her mother, a spacer whom she's never met. And with her genes, there's always the possibility of "going deep." I won't explain what that means, since it will give away the ending. And I did (mildly) like the ending, too,... but I just didn't think the story was special. I've only read three other stories by Kelly, but I liked them all a lot better than this one.

Next is "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela" by Saladin Ahmed. This is pure fantasy, set in a Muslim caliphate. Visiting a small village, a young doctor - a lovesick courtier - is asked to help an old hermit and his shy wife. OK, I said I'm biased against fantasies, but I have to ask,... what's the point of this story? I can't imagine why this was nominated for a Nebula Award.

And I can't imagine why "Spar" by Kij Johnson was nominated, either. After a collision in space, a woman is pulled into an alien lifecraft where she and a slimy, cilia-covered creature continuously... fuck. (The first line basically describes the whole story: In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.) It really makes no sense at all. I kept hoping for a really good ending, but I was sadly disappointed in that.

The last story, "I Remember the Future" by Michael A. Burstein, is the only one not available free online. However, there's a sale at where you can buy a PDF of his collection, I Remember the Future, which includes that story - along with 14 others, most of them Hugo and Nebula Award nominees - for only ONE DOLLAR. What a buy, huh? But I have no idea how long the sale will last.

And unfortunately, I didn't like the story. But to tell why, I really need to talk about how it ended. Since there are real spoilers here, I'll put the rest of this below the fold.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Political Poll

I just received a call from a polling firm that was kind of interesting. The poll seemed to be underwritten by opponents of my current state senator, Danielle Conrad, and I thought the questions were telling.

For one thing, the questions were all black and white. To fix Nebraska's budget gap, you had to choose only one option. You couldn't, for example, choose a combination of cutting non-essential programs and raising some taxes. No, it was all very simplistic.

You could claim to be a "fiscal conservative," a "social conservative," both, or neither. Moderates and liberals were apparently lumped together. Of course, I have a problem with all questions like this. In a rational world, many of my positions would be very conservative. (How is supporting fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution not "conservative"? How is conservation not "conservative"? How is caution about changing the atmosphere of our planet, unless we know for certain it won't cause problems, not "conservative"?)

Although I disagree with Democrats about many things, I disagree with Republicans about everything. I guess that makes me a flaming liberal these days. Well, that's a subject for another post.

The poll asked for my religious affiliation, and there was no way to choose "none." I guess you're just assumed to have a religion, at least here in Nebraska.

As I say, the poll seemed to be undertaken by opponents of my current state senator. Although Nebraska's Unicameral is officially non-partisan, unofficially it's anything but. Danielle Conrad is a Democrat, and her opponent, Chad Wright is a Republican. (Most likely, I suppose either he or the Republican Party paid for this poll.)

I thought it was weird, because the poll looked at what might be effective negatives against Sen. Conrad (notably, her drunk driving convictions), but not interested at all in positive feelings about her opponent. Basically, they didn't care what I thought about Wright, although they did ask who I'd vote for if the election were held today. But it seemed clearly to be setting up the usual negative campaigning we almost always see these days (and no "almost" about it when it comes to Republicans).

As it turned out, I already knew about her DUI convictions, and I thought that Conrad handled the situation poorly (certainly in a political sense). On the other hand, I've heard her speak in the Unicameral, and I thought she did a great job - knowledgeable, clear, and thoughtful. But I know that relatively few of her constituents will have heard that sort of thing, and they'll all hear about her trouble with alcohol. Well, the poll didn't want to hear about any positive feelings for her, anyway.

OK, this is politics, but does it have to be this way?

Fear and Loathing in Farmville

For gamers, here's an interesting post by Soren Johnson that's something of a follow-up to my previous post, Design Outside the Box. Apparently, the 2010 Game Developers Conference was pretty well obsessed with Facebook (if you're wondering, Farmville is a Facebook game). The sheer number of potential players - and the potential profit - has a lot of these people salivating.

And among computer game developers, it appears that there's considerable conflict between people focused on making as much money as possible and people who really want to make a good game. Many of the latter are angry that their passion for games is threatened by unethical "suits." In fact, Johnson calls Jesse Schell's presentation, that I noted before, his "now infamous DICE talk." But he does recognize some advantages to the Facebook model.

The irony is that Facebook games typically share four characteristics that really do promise great things for both gamers and designers:
  • True friends list:  Gaming can now happen exclusively within the context of one’s actual friends. Multiplayer games no longer suffer from the Catch-22 of requiring friends to be fun while new players always start the game without friends.
  • Free-to-play business model:  New players need not shell out $60 to join the crowd. Consumers don’t like buying multiplayer games unless they know that their friends are all going to buy the game as well. Free-to-play removes that friction.
  • Persistent, asynchronous play:  Finding time to play with one’s real friends is difficult, especially for working, adult gamers. Asynchronous mechanics, however, let gamers play at their own pace and with their own friends, not strangers who happen to be online at the same time.
  • Metrics-based iteration:  Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Further, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Most developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback.

Facebook doesn't interest me, nor do multiplayer games of any kind. But that's the way the industry seems to be heading. And I still find this all very interesting.

As BioWare’s Ray Muzyka put it during a panel on connected gaming, ultimately all decisions are made with a goal to make money, but the goal may be short-term revenue (“can we sell more blue hats tomorrow?”) or long-term growth (“does our community believe in what we are doing? are we creating life-long fans?”). The successes will not come from open conflict between design and business but from developers who internalize the tension and attack the problem holistically.

I have to admit my own reservations about this transformation; game design itself simply might be not as much fun as it used to be. I cannot easily sum up how enjoyable brainstorming a game is during the early, heady days of blue skies and distant deadlines. With a release-early-and-iterate mentality, these days are now over, for good. Games will no longer be a manifestation of an individual’s (or a team’s) pure imagination and, instead, will grow out of the murky grey area between developers and players. The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but I believe the best game designers are the ones willing to “get dirty” – to engage fully with a community to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Loss of control is never fun, but as Sid [Meiers] is fond of saying, the player should be the one having the fun, after all, not the designer.

And, of course, there are still the Indie developers, creating a great variety of different games,... and mainly just because they love games. Few of these people are going to get rich, and they know it. With the Internet, marketing and distributing a game is a lot easier than it used to be. So I guess I'm less concerned with this obsession with Facebook than I might otherwise be.

Breeding tiny flying syringes

(photo found here)

Some Japanese researchers have genetically engineered mosquitoes so they'll deliver vaccines when they bite. As this article in Science magazine says, it's probably "unworkable but very cool."

Mosquitoes inject a bit of their saliva with every bite (which keeps the blood from clotting), so these researchers added a compound to the saliva which will create an immune response in the host. They've even created mosquitoes that carry a "candidate malaria vaccine." Then, every bite is like a tiny vaccination. And presumably, the mosquitoes would breed true.

Cool, indeed! So why is it unworkable?

There's a huge variation in the number of mosquito bites one person received compared with the next, so people exposed to the transgenic mosquitoes would get vastly different doses of the vaccine; it would be a bit like giving some people one measles jab and others 500 of them. No regulatory agency would sign off on that,... Releasing the mosquitoes would also mean vaccinating people without their informed consent, an ethical no-no. [Shigeto] Yoshida concedes that the mosquito would be "unacceptable" as a human vaccine-delivery mechanism.

Too bad, huh? Admittedly, mosquitoes would still be just as annoying, but maybe not so dangerous.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Going Insane

Are we, as a nation, going insane? Look at the lunacy from the right-wing these days, the hysteria, and the complete absence of shame. From bringing assault rifles to political events, to "death panels," to blatant, virulent racism, to claims of "global Armageddon" in passing a rather conservative health care reform bill,... the insanity is just growing and growing.

And where are the rational people who'll stem this tide? Certainly not at Fox News, which is making money hand over fist pushing the worst of it. Certainly not in leadership positions in the GOP, where everyone is apparently terrified of not being loony enough. And maybe for good reason. John McCain has been running to the right just as fast as his old legs can carry him, but he's struggling to get far enough fast enough to suit the loonies. (He's even had to bring in Sarah Palin to boost his popularity with the tea-baggers.) And David Frum was just fired for daring to suggest that the right-wing has gone too far.

This is the French Revolution all over again. Leaders in the early years of the revolution eventually found themselves heading to the guillotine for being too moderate. Well, when extremists lead, no one can ever be extreme enough. Leaders jump to the front of the mob to avoid being overrun. If you hesitate, if you express caution or concern that the movement is going too far, you're denounced as a traitor, an appeaser,... a moderate! Fanaticism feeds on itself in this way. The most fanatic lead, when all the lemmings head in the same direction.

Friday, March 26, 2010

No You Can't

That's John Boehner, Republican from Ohio and the House Minority Leader, in case you were wondering. Yelling is about all Republicans seem to accomplish these days. Well, and lying, of course.

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Congratulations to Ed Yong, author of one of my favorite blogs, for winning three Research Blogging Awards this year. Not Exactly Rocket Science was named the Research Blog of the Year and Best Lay-Level Blog (er, apparently that means layman-level). And his post on duck sex was named the Best Post of the Year.

In further news, Not Exactly Rocket Science has moved from ScienceBlogs to Discover Blogs.

For any newcomers, here’s an introduction. Formally, Not Exactly Rocket Science is a science news site; informally, it’s a bit like an excitable child jumping up and down and pointing to things, but with more syntax. This is my attempt to portray science as the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky field that it is, to as many people as possible. You shouldn’t need a science degree to be able to dive into the stream of new discoveries, and on this blog, you won’t need one.

He really does do a great job in portraying the wonder of science. His posts are always fascinating.

Weekend Game Sales

These days, with a backlog of wonderful old computer games and easy download from the Internet, there are always great sales online. I know I can't play them all, but I wish I could.

Below the fold are a few of the PC games in this weekend's sales (some of them this weekend only; others for longer periods). They are download only, and they're generally old games - old in computer terms, anyway - although I see Torchlight on sale for the incredibly low price of just $4.95, and it was just released last October.

I've bought games from all three of these distributors, so I trust them. And even the really old games should run on modern computers. ( not only bundles DOSBox with DOS games, but presets it - and tests it - so they'll run well "right out of the box.")

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Shagged by a Parrot

OK, this is funny, but it's sad, too. There are only about 60 of these flightless parrots - Kakapo - left alive in the wild. The BBC program name, Last Chance to See, says it all.

Well, their extinction isn't inevitable, not yet, but will they have enough genetic diversity to survive? And will we share enough of the planet with them to make survival even possible?

Nice t-shirt!

Nice t-shirt!

Edit: If you need a larger size, it looks like you can get the same shirt here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shamus Plays Lord of the Rings

This is really funny, at least if you're a gamer. Well, Shamus Young is a very funny guy. In this story, he's on a play-through of Lord of the Rings Online. (If you want to start from the beginning, try this link.)

The game doesn't seem to be anything I'd want to play, but it's still fun to read along. And I'm sure it's not nearly as ridiculous as it's presented here. As Shamus says, "I'm... one of those strange abusive fans who expresses his appreciation through satire and mockery, which is the fanboy equivalent of being a wife beater."

He's done this before, with his play-through of Champions Online. But this kind of thing has become so popular online that I suspect it's as much fun to write as to read. For another example, here Chocolate Hammer does it with Morrowind (that's very funny, too, but you might not enjoy it as much if you haven't played the game).

I guess I see this as part of that new create-your-own-story kind of gameplay I discussed before (here and here). These games weren't designed for that, but the story creation - by the player himself - shows the same basic idea, don't you think?

"The Naked Sun" by Isaac Asimov

The Naked Sun (1956) is our March selection in the ClassicScienceFiction reading group at Yahoo. It's the second novel in Isaac Asimov's Robot series, sequel to The Caves of Steel (1953). Both are detective stories, but the mysteries are far less interesting than the science fiction, to my mind.

It's been years since I've read The Caves of Steel, but I still remember it pretty well. Detective Elijah Baley must investigate the murder of a Spacer ambassador on Earth and is forced to work alongside a highly advanced humanoid robot called R. (for "robot") Daneel Olivaw.

The "Spacers" are members of thinly-populated colony worlds which have a monopoly on space travel and have become wealthy from their use of robots. They look down on the teeming masses of an overpopulated Earth, considering them little more than disease-carrying vermin. Earthmen have a huge inferiority complex, and so they, in turn, enjoy keeping robots on an even lower rung of society (they call every robot "boy," which had obvious implications in the 1950's).

Earth has strict rules against robots (which makes sense, given their population pressures). But they can't afford to anger the powerful Spacers, who insist on their robot, Daneel, being part of the investigation into this crime. Although it's a mystery, a detective story, the really interesting part is the portrait of a crowded Earth and the society which has developed as a result. Baley's difficulties working with a robot are made even worse because of the inferiority complex of Earth.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fear Strikes Out

I can't resist another post on health care reform, this time to note Paul Krugman's latest column, "Fear Strikes Out," in the New York Times. Here's how it starts:

The day before Sunday’s health care vote, President Obama gave an unscripted talk to House Democrats. Near the end, he spoke about why his party should pass reform: “Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made ... And this is the time to make true on that promise. We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.”

And on the other side, here’s what Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House — a man celebrated by many in his party as an intellectual leader — had to say: If Democrats pass health reform, “They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” by passing civil rights legislation.

I’d argue that Mr. Gingrich is wrong about that: proposals to guarantee health insurance are often controversial before they go into effect — Ronald Reagan famously argued that Medicare would mean the end of American freedom — but always popular once enacted.

But that’s not the point I want to make today. Instead, I want you to consider the contrast: on one side, the closing argument was an appeal to our better angels, urging politicians to do what is right, even if it hurts their careers; on the other side, callous cynicism. Think about what it means to condemn health reform by comparing it to the Civil Rights Act. Who in modern America would say that L.B.J. did the wrong thing by pushing for racial equality? (Actually, we know who: the people at the Tea Party protest who hurled racial epithets at Democratic members of Congress on the eve of the vote.)

Krugman points out how cynical the whole campaign against health care reform has been:

For the most part, however, opponents of reform didn’t even pretend to engage with the reality either of the existing health care system or of the moderate, centrist plan — very close in outline to the reform Mitt Romney introduced in Massachusetts — that Democrats were proposing.

Instead, the emotional core of opposition to reform was blatant fear-mongering, unconstrained either by the facts or by any sense of decency.

It wasn’t just the death panel smear. It was racial hate-mongering, like a piece in Investor’s Business Daily declaring that health reform is “affirmative action on steroids, deciding everything from who becomes a doctor to who gets treatment on the basis of skin color.” It was wild claims about abortion funding. It was the insistence that there is something tyrannical about giving young working Americans the assurance that health care will be available when they need it, an assurance that older Americans have enjoyed ever since Lyndon Johnson — whom Mr. Gingrich considers a failed president — pushed Medicare through over the howls of conservatives.

And let’s be clear: the campaign of fear hasn’t been carried out by a radical fringe, unconnected to the Republican establishment. On the contrary, that establishment has been involved and approving all the way.

Note that Gingrich's comment, which he's desperately trying to spin, was all too accurate. In 1964, the Democratic Party, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation outlawing racial segregation. At the time, the South was solidly Democratic - and vehemently opposed to racial integration. But with the help of northern Republicans, the bill passed to far-reaching effect.

All political observers knew what this would do to the Democratic Party. This would lose them the South, until then the most solidly-Democratic voting block in the country. As Gingrich noted, this pretty well shattered the old Democratic Party and let the Republicans dominate for decades. The Democratic leadership - in the House, the Senate, and the White House - did it anyway. It was the right thing to do.

Republicans were gleeful - absolutely ecstatic. This was their chance to take the South for themselves. So they started deliberately appealing to white racists, both subtly ("states' rights") and blatantly ("Willie Horton"). They raged against immigration. They did everything they could to woo the Deep South, then as now the far-right Bible Belt in America. They became anti-science, anti-reason, anti-foreigner. They even abandoned one of the bedrock principles of America's Constitution, the separation of church and state.

And it worked. The South is now solidly Republican. And with this new coalition, the Republican Party has dominated American politics for decades. All because the Democrats ignored the political consequences and did the right thing. Foolish of them, huh?

A Ticket for Rush!

On his radio program, Rush Limbaugh said he'd move to Costa Rica if the Health Care Reform Bill passed. Well, guess what? It passed.

So this website is collecting $1 donations to buy Rush a ticket. (If he refuses - or if Costa Rica won't take him - the money will go to charity.)

Bye-bye, Rush. I wish I could say it's been fun having you here. Well, it will certainly be fun seeing you leave! Maybe you could take Glenn Beck with you?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ray Comfort and the "Origin of Species"

Brian Dunning says that this is old news, but it was new to me. Yes, I'd heard about the Ray Comfort version of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species - a fancy copy of the text (long since in the public domain), supposedly in honor of its 150th anniversary, but actually with a "Special Introduction" designed to discredit this great work.

He was giving it away free to students, just another attack by creationists. But according to Dunning, it was even sleazier than I'd thought:

For, while the Ray Comfort pages are nicely typeset, well designed, and festooned with illustrations, spacing, bullet points, and indentation, the Charles Darwin part has been forced through some kind of Disneyland supershrink machine. It’s been compressed into a tiny, virtually unreadable font. All breaks have been removed. There is no whitespace at all, except for a double space and a centered title at each of the 14 included chapters (not even a page break!). I don’t consider my eyes to be the worst in the world, but I can’t read it. The font is so small over these long, unbroken lines that I lose my place every time I try to go to the next line. I’d need to use a straightedge to read it, seriously. ...

Was this done accidentally? Was it done to save money? Of course not. It was done to discourage readers from attempting to access the content they tried to purchase; to tie a gag around Darwin’s mouth while Comfort preaches away unrestrained. 

Dunning shows examples of this. He's scanned pages from the "Special Introduction" and then from Darwin's text. I'd say it's pretty clear that Comfort didn't want anyone actually reading the Origin of Species.

Well, since it's in the public domain, you can always download it for free from Project Gutenberg. Keep in mind that it's a 150-year-old science book, so it's not exactly designed for easy reading. And as published, they didn't worry too much about white space then, either (but it's not anywhere near as bad as Comfort's version, and you can buy modern editions that are much easier on the eye).

Although this book is the foundation of modern biology, we're learned a lot since then. Darwin knew nothing about genes, DNA, biochemistry, etc. But it's amazing how well scientific discoveries over the past 150 years have just confirmed his theory of "natural selection."

Here's the last paragraph of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

A Conservative Health Care Bill

Considering all the loony claims about the health care reform bill - death panels, government takeover, socialism - it's funny how conservative it really is. It's an improvement, yes, but just a modest one. And it adopts a great deal from Republicans (admittedly before they became such far-right extremists). Here's Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration:

Medicare built on Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal notion of government as insurer, with citizens making payments to government, and government paying out benefits. That was the central idea of Social Security, and Medicare piggybacked on Social Security.

Obama's legislation comes from an alternative idea, begun under the Eisenhower administration and developed under Nixon, of a market for health care based on private insurers and employers. Eisenhower locked in the tax break for employee health benefits; Nixon pushed prepaid, competing health plans, and urged a requirement that employers cover their employees. Obama applies Nixon's idea and takes it a step further by requiring all Americans to carry health insurance, and giving subsidies to those who need it.

So don't believe anyone who says Obama's health care legislation marks a swing of the pendulum back toward the Great Society and the New Deal. Obama's health bill is a very conservative piece of legislation, building on a Republican rather than a New Deal foundation. The New Deal foundation would have offered Medicare to all Americans or, at the very least, featured a public insurance option.

For a right-wing take on it that's remarkably similar, here's conservative commenter, and former Bush speechwriter, David Frum:

But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

Hilariously, Mitt Romney is busy running away from his own record in Massachusetts. Well, everyone in the GOP is running to the far right just as fast as they can, terrified of being labeled a "moderate." It's the French Revolution all over again, but in a rightward direction. When extremists are in control, no one is ever extreme enough. These days, all Republican politicians are desperate to show no taint of moderation or compromise.

But Romney, of course, has a lot farther to run than most. Luckily, he has no principles at all. Here's his comment on the health care reform bill that's actually similar to what Romney himself passed in Massachusetts:

His health-care bill is unhealthy for America. It raises taxes, slashes the more private side of Medicare, installs price controls, and puts a new federal bureaucracy in charge of health care. It will create a new entitlement even as the ones we already have are bankrupt. For these reasons and more, the act should be repealed. That campaign begins today.

Funny, isn't it? Are even Republicans so dumb that they can't see through Mitt Romney? More importantly, are the rest of us actually dumb enough to believe the right-wing slanders about health care reform? Certainly, the local media here in Nebraska seem to think so. They're busy following the lead of Fox News. It's really embarrassing.

But Frum, at least, seems to be worried that his team has shot itself in the foot:

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

Well, one can only hope. Abject and irreversible defeat is exactly what they deserve, and exactly what would be best for our country. But we'll see. So far, the right-wing seems almost giddy with anticipation of what political gold this could be, if they just keep up a united front. Certainly, they all seem to be frothing at the mouth about it.

Edit: Here's a follow-up post on the health care reform bill.

We can't handle the truth

England and America aren't so very different, apparently. According to this article in The Boston Globe, Dr. David Nutt quickly lost his position as the United Kingdom's top drug adviser (he was fired the very next day, in fact) when he questioned their policy of throwing marijuana smokers in jail.

But behind Nutt’s words lay something perhaps more surprising, and harder to grapple with. His comments weren’t the idle musings of a reality-insulated professor in a policy job. They were based on a list - a scientifically compiled ranking of drugs, assembled by specialists in chemistry, health, and enforcement, published in a prestigious medical journal two years earlier.

The list, printed as a chart with the unassuming title “Mean Harm Scores for 20 Substances,” ranked a set of common drugs, both legal and illegal, in order of their harmfulness - how addictive they were, how physically damaging, and how much they threatened society. Many drug specialists now consider it one of the most objective sources available on the actual harmfulness of different substances.

That ranking showed, with numbers, what Nutt was fired for saying out loud: Overall, alcohol is far worse than many illegal drugs. So is tobacco. Smoking pot is less harmful than drinking, and LSD is less damaging yet.

Nutt says he didn’t see himself as promoting drug use or trying to subvert the government. He was pressing the point that a government policy, especially a health-related one like a drug law, should be grounded in factual information.

What? Base government policy on factual information, rather than what's politically popular? Heresy!

The more data we accumulate about drug harmfulness, the more it seems like the classification systems used by the United States, the United Kingdom, and other governments need to be dismantled - and the more it becomes clear that societies can’t, or won’t, take that step. Drug laws are rooted in history and politics as much as science.

As much as science? Far more than science, in fact. This caught my attention because lately, here in Lincoln, the news has been full of drug busts. Police have discovered one marijuana-growing operation after another, in two weeks finding 13 times as many plants as they found in all of 2008 (I don't know how many they found last year). It's big news here.

But what does it really mean? By far, the biggest danger in marijuana lies in supporting the violent drug cartels that ship the drug here. Marijuana itself is comparatively benign (not harmless, but not nearly as harmful as alcohol). Marijuana is dangerous mainly because it's illegal. And by keeping it that way, we enrich some of the most violent men in the world.

In this case, growing the plant locally might be considered almost beneficial. Yes, it's still illegal, and I have no idea who is actually behind this operation. But if it keeps money from going to drug cartels, how bad is it? As I say, I don't know who's behind it, so I'm certainly not going to claim that they're wonderful people. But it points out how crazy our drug laws are, doesn't it?

No politician in Nebraska, no public official of any kind, would dare to say anything like this. Not a chance. It would instantly mark him as insufficiently "tough on crime." (In America, prisons are our only growth industry these days. And no one seems to be bothered by that.) Frankly, no politician would even dare to say that drug treatment is more cost effective than throwing users in jail. Drug treatment isn't popular because it's not "punishment." Punishment is always very popular, whether it works or not (rather like abstinence-only sex education).

And it shows how we're not smart enough to try something new when a policy doesn't work. We've lost the war on drugs. It's been a complete failure. Violent drug cartels have become so powerful that they're waging war on Mexico itself. But - just like our Cuba policy - we simply will not reconsider a failed policy and decide to try something new. Maybe it's just another instance of the status quo always having powerful defenders, I don't know.

I'm not saying that marijuana definitely should be legalized, but maybe we should look at it. I'd rather our police concentrated on really dangerous drugs and more serious crimes. I'd like to see the drug cartels stop making so much money from prohibition. And I'd prefer that prisons weren't such a growth industry here - and certainly not the only one!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

SMBC - one of my favorite comics

Adventure Games

I've never been a big fan of adventure games, though I must admit that Grim Fandango was certainly great fun (in fact, it was one of the very few games I've ever completed). Adventure games used to be a popular genre on the computer, but they're few and far between these days.

But I was just reading a post by Igor Hardy called What is an Adventure Game? and it started me thinking. We could argue definitions all day, but Hardy basically sees an adventure game as solving certain types of puzzles in an atmospheric game world - puzzles which are "not based solely on conscious data analysis and step-by-step logic, but which key aspect is the player noticing/finding non-obvious and unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated game world elements."

Well, on that note, I might point you to this article on Old Man Murray about Who killed adventure games? It's an entertaining read: Who killed Adventure Games?  I think it should be pretty clear at this point that Adventure Games committed suicide. Heh, heh. That puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3 is extreme, but yes, that's basically the kind of puzzle Hardy is talking about.

I've always seen adventure games as generally a matter of beating your head against a wall until you (1) finally figure out some illogical puzzle, or (2) give up. If you figure it out, yes, it does feel good. I can understand the sense of satisfaction if can give a player. It was always a bit too frustrating for me, but if you enjoy that kind of thing, no problem. Or, rather, there wasn't a problem in the early years of gaming. But these days, there's a big problem. It's called the Internet.

You see, you don't have to beat your head against a wall these days. If you get stuck, just go online and get the answer. Even if you do enjoy this kind of puzzle, you're not going to beat your head against a wall for very long, not when the answer can be had so very easily. It's just too tempting to take the shortcut. But that being so, what's the point of the puzzle? It will certainly make the game a lot shorter when you're not stuck for hours on end. But more importantly, if that's the essential gameplay in adventure games, what happens now that it doesn't work like it used to?

Maybe adventure games have committed suicide. Or maybe the Internet has killed them. Either way, I have a hard time seeing this kind of gameplay these days,... well, except perhaps as comedy. Adventure games have often been tongue-in-cheek, and these kinds of elaborate puzzles are a good fit for humorous games. There's still the problem of solutions being so easily available online, though, so I think modern games will have to rely far more on humor and less on elaborate puzzles. They may have funny elaborate puzzles, but not difficult ones, not the kind historically associated with adventure games.

But I had another thought, too. I've been posting that games - RPGs in particular - shouldn't be trying to tell a story, but rather give players the opportunity to create their own "story" during gameplay. But adventure games might be different. Adventure games tend to be linear, and the story is usually a big part of the game. The gameplay is just figuring out the puzzles in order to advance the story. Player choice is never a factor.

Heh, heh. It's kind of funny, really. I've always pushed for "adventure game elements" in role-playing games - by which I meant both exploration in an atmospheric gameworld and a great story. Well, I still want the former in an RPG, but I've completely changed my mind about the latter. As I've said, I no longer think RPGs should be trying to tell a story at all.

I guess that adventure games and role-playing games aren't as similar as I'd always assumed. (And I think that others have assumed that, too. Note the continual debate about puzzles in RPGs.) 

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Enforced respect and the religious support of evil

Here's a great editorial by Johann Hari, published in The Independent (London). In fact, it's so good, I can't think of anything to cut, or any comment I could make that would add to it. So here's the whole thing:

What can make tens of millions of people – who are in their daily lives peaceful and compassionate and caring – suddenly want to physically dismember a man for drawing a cartoon, or make excuses for an international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists? Not reason. Not evidence. No. But it can happen when people choose their polar opposite – religion. In the past week we have seen two examples of how people can begin to behave in bizarre ways when they decide it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith. It has led some to regard people accused of the attempted murders of the Mohamed cartoonists as victims, and to demand "respect" for the Pope, when he should be in a police station being quizzed about his role in covering up and thereby enabling the rape of children.

In 2005, 12 men in a small secular European democracy decided to draw a quasi-mythical figure who has been dead for 1400 years. They were trying to make a point. They knew that in many Muslim cultures, it is considered offensive to draw Mohamed. But they have a culture too – a European culture that believes it is important to be allowed to mock and tease and ridicule religion. It is because Europeans have been doing this for centuries now that we can no longer be tyrannised into feeling bad about perfectly natural impulses, like masturbation, or pre-marital sex, or homosexuality. When priests offer those old arguments, we now laugh in their faces – a great liberating moment. It will be a shining day for Muslims when they can do the same.

Some of the cartoons were witty. Some were stupid. One seemed to suggest Muslims are inherently violent – an obnoxious and false idea. If you disagree with the drawings, you should write a letter, or draw a better cartoon, this time mocking the cartoonists. But some people did not react this way. Instead, Islamist plots to hunt the artists down and slaughter them began. Earlier this year, a man with an axe smashed into one of their houses, and very nearly killed the cartoonist in front of his small grand-daughter.

This week, another plot to murder them seems to have been exposed, this time allegedly spanning Ireland and the United States, and many people who consider themselves humanitarians or liberals have rushed forward to offer condemnation – of the cartoonists. One otherwise liberal newspaper ran an article saying that since the cartoonists had engaged in an "aggressive act" and shown "prejudice... against religion per se", so it stated menacingly that no doubt "someone else is out there waiting for an opportunity to strike again".

Let's state some principles that – if religion wasn't involved – would be so obvious it would seem ludicrous to have to say them out loud. Drawing a cartoon is not an act of aggression. Trying to kill somebody with an axe is. There is no moral equivalence between peacefully expressing your disagreement with an idea – any idea – and trying to kill somebody for it. Yet we have to say this because we have allowed religious people to claim their ideas belong to a different, exalted category, and it is abusive or violent merely to verbally question them. Nobody says I should "respect" conservatism or communism and keep my opposition to them to myself – but that's exactly what is routinely said about Islam or Christianity or Buddhism. What's the difference?

This enforced "respect" is a creeping vine. It soon extends beyond religious ideas to religious institutions – even when they commit the worst crimes imaginable. It is now an indisputable fact that the Catholic Church systematically covered up the rape of children across the globe, and knowingly, consciously put paedophiles in charge of more kids. Joseph Ratzinger – who claims to be "infallible" – was at the heart of this policy for decades.

Here's what we are sure of. By 1962, it was becoming clear to the Vatican that a significant number of its priests were raping children. Rather than root it out, they issued a secret order called "Crimen Sollicitationis"' ordering bishops to swear the victims to secrecy and move the offending priest on to another parish. This of course meant they raped more children there, and on and on, in parish after parish. Yes, these were different times, but the Vatican knew then that what it was doing was terribly wrong: that's why it was done in the utmost secrecy.

It has emerged this week that when Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich in the 1980s, one of his paedophile priests was "reassigned" in this way. He claims he didn't know. Yet a few years later he was put in charge of the Vatican's response to this kind of abuse and demanded every case had to be referred directly to him for 20 years. What happened on his watch, with every case going to his desk? Precisely this pattern, again and again. The BBC's Panorama studied one of many such cases. Father Tarcisio Spricigo was first accused of child abuse in 1991, in Brazil. He was moved by the Vatican four times, wrecking the lives of children at every stop. He was only caught in 2005 by the police, before he could be moved on once more. He had written in his diary about the kind of victims he sought: "Age: 7, 8, 9, 10. Social condition: Poor. Family condition: preferably a son without a father. How to attract them: guitar lessons, choir, altar boy." It happened all over the world, wherever the Catholic Church had outposts.

Far from changing this paedophile-protecting model, Ratzinger reinforced it. In 2001 he issued a strict secret order demanding that charges of child-rape should be investigated by the Church "in the most secretive way... restrained by a perpetual silence... and everyone... is to observe the strictest secret." Since it was leaked, Ratzinger claims – bizarrely – that these requirements didn't prevent bishops from approaching the police. Even many people employed by the Vatican at the time say this is wrong. Father Tom Doyle, who was a Vatican lawyer working on these cases, says it "is an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse and to punish those who would call attention to these crimes... Nowhere in any of these documents does it say anything about helping the victims. The only thing it does say is they can impose fear on the victims, and punish [them], for disclosing what happened." Doyle was soon fired.

Imagine if this happened at The Independent. Imagine I discovered there was a paedophile ring running our crèche, and the Editor issued a stern order that it should be investigated internally with "the strictest secrecy". Imagine he merely shuffled the paedophiles to work in another crèche at another newspaper, and I agreed, and made the kids sign a pledge of secrecy. We would both – rightly – go to prison. Yet because the word "religion" is whispered, the rules change. Suddenly, otherwise good people who wouldn't dream of covering up a paedophile ring in their workplace think it would be an insult to them to follow one wherever it leads in their Church. They would find this behaviour unthinkable without the irrational barrier of faith standing between them and reality.

Yes, I understand some people feel sad when they see a figure they were taught as a child to revere – whether Prophet or Pope – being subjected to rational examination, or mockery, or criminal investigation. But everyone has ideas they hold precious. Only you, the religious, demand to be protected from debate or scrutiny that might discomfort you. The fact you believe an invisible supernatural being approves of – or even commands – your behaviour doesn't mean it deserves more respect, or sensitive handling. It means it deserves less. If you base your behaviour on such a preposterous fantasy, you should expect to be checked by criticism and mockery. You need it.

If you can't bear to hear your religious figures criticised – if you think Ratzinger is somehow above the law, or Mohamed should be defended with an axe – a sane society should have only one sentence for you. Tell it to the judge.

Science-Based Medicine

What's the difference between science-based medicine and evidence-based medicine?  I never realized there was a difference. But according to this post by Steven Novella, the difference is in the precise role of plausibility, or prior probability. He makes some interesting points.

Plausibility is essentially an application of existing basic and clinical science to a new hypothesis, to give us an idea of how likely it is to be true. We are not starting from scratch with each new question – which would foolishly ignore over a century of hard-won biological and medical knowledge. Considering plausibility helps us to interpret the clinical literature, and also to establish research priorities. But plausibility is not the ultimate arbiter of clinical truth – it must be put into context with clinical evidence, just as clinical evidence must be put into the context of scientific plausibility.

He lists three categories of plausibility:

The first category are those treatments with a known mechanism or mechanisms of action that should, according to our existing models, produce a certain clinical effect. ... We may also add to this category treatments for which there is anecdotal or preliminary evidence for efficacy – clinical plausibility.
The next broad category is not implausible, but neutral or unknown with respect to plausibility. For such treatments we have no particular reason to think that they should work, but no reason to suspect that they do not or cannot work either.
But there is a third category in the plausibility spectrum – treatments that are inherently implausible. These are treatments that not only lack a known mechanism of action, they violate basic laws of science.

Novella makes a very good point here, that it would be foolish to ignore the medical knowledge we've accumulated when attempting to evaluate a new claim. It's always possible that our existing knowledge is wrong - this concept is fundamental to the scientific method - but that doesn't make it likely. And if you intend to overthrow established science, you'd better have very strong evidence indeed.

Homeopathy violates the law of mass action (a basic principle of chemistry), the laws of thermodynamics (extreme dilutions maintaining the chemical “memory” of other substances), and all of our notions of bioavailability and pharmacokinetics.

Homeopaths therefore substitute any notion of chemical activity with a vague claim about “energy” – but this just puts homeopathy in the category of energy medicine, which is just as implausible. Invoking an unknown fundamental energy of the universe is not a trivial assumption. Centuries of study have failed to discover such an energy, and our models of biology and physiology have made such notions unnecessary, resulting in the discarding of “life energy” as a scientific idea over a century ago.

Essentially any claim that is the functional equivalent to saying “it’s magic” and would, by necessity, require the rewriting not only of our medical texts, but physics, chemistry, and biology, can reasonably be considered, not just unknown, but implausible.

"Implausible" does not mean "impossible," of course - at least, not theoretically. Theoretically, everything we think we know about science could be wrong. But that certainly shouldn't be our assumption. And it should take very, very strong evidence to convince us otherwise.

Having said that – even the most implausible claim can still prove itself with sufficient clinical evidence. If homeopathy actually worked, it could be demonstrated through repeated rigorous clinical studies (something which has never happened). Admittedly, the bar for such evidence would be as high as the prior implausibility of the claim – which is very high – but if it really worked, that bar of evidence should theoretically be reachable. In that very hypothetical situation, the results would be extremely intriguing – clearly there would be something fundamental missing from our understanding of the relevant areas of science – a situation that often results in Nobel prizes.

There are always powerful defenders of the status quo, in science just like everywhere else. But the advantage in science - one of the advantages - is that there are equally powerful forces on the other side. Science reserves its highest rewards - fame, money, and position - to those who successfully overthrow established thinking. So, although there's often an incentive to go along with the crowd (just as there is everywhere), there's also a strong incentive among scientists to buck it.

Of course, such researchers still have to be right. You can find all sorts of individual scientists with bizarre ideas. That's a good thing. But the vast majority of them are almost certainly wrong. It's not likely, not at all, that established science is in error (current thinking on cutting-edge science is different, of course). It does happen, and every scientist hopes to be one of those few heroes of the field. And the rest of us also enjoy rooting for the underdog, don't we? It would be neat if some of those things were right. But without very good scientific evidence, confirmed in multiple independent studies, we should remain skeptical.

The mainstream, the scientific consensus, will change if the evidence is there. It happened with the idea that bacteria cause ulcers. It happened with the idea that prions cause Mad Cow Disease. And it will undoubtedly happen again. But the odds are low, especially for those extremely implausible ideas that would require a complete rewrite of our scientific knowledge.

Taking the fun out of work

Here's a cartoon and commentary from Shamus Young about Activision CEO Bobby Kotick's pledge that "We're going to take the fun out of making games." Young says:

I think most people understand that part of running a creative business is making sure your creative people are happy. Actually that's good advice for any business, but creative ones in particular. Most other businesses are trying to figure out ways to take their boring, tedious jobs and make them more fun. People are more likely to put up with low pay and crap hours if they feel like their work is rewarding and that people appreciate it. But even if you're a magnificent imbecile and you don't comprehend the relationship between morale and productivity, what exactly is there to be gained by removing fun from a job? This sort of hyperbole is funny when it's coming out of the mouth of a Dilbert character, but it's really disturbing to realize this is a very powerful man talking about making people unhappy. On purpose. For no damn reason.

If it was fun, they wouldn't call it "work," right?  Actually, it's to everyone's advantage - shareholders, management, customers, and employees - that people have fun at work. It's particularly shocking to hear the CEO of a game company express the reverse opinion, but it's true everywhere. This is an incredible insult to the employees of Activision, don't you think? How would you like to hear this from your boss? How motivating would that be?

In fact, a lot of people do enjoy their jobs. They might enjoy the socializing with co-workers or the feeling of doing a good job, being respected by their boss, or just being part of something that's important. You don't have to be unhappy to be professional. The fact is, managers would be far better off trying to put the fun into their businesses, not taking it out.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Solium Infernum

Bill Harris is posting beginner's guides to Solium Infernum on his blog, Dubious Quality. Take a look if you're just starting. I haven't played the game myself yet (there's just not enough time in the world for everything), but I've really enjoyed write-ups of the gameplay, such as this hugely entertaining piece from Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Normally, I'm not interested in multiplayer games (note that Solium Infernum can be played single-player, too), but that's really fun, isn't it? And I think it shows the same kind of story creation in games that I talked about previously (here and here). Of course, this is a strategy game, but I think it works particularly well for this kind of thing.

In most games, RPGs in particular, I think that single-player gaming is far better suited for story creation. Why? In multiplayer role-playing games, most people are consciously playing a game, not role-playing. Ironically, real people just don't act like real people, not given the premise of the gameworld and the roles they're supposed to be assuming.

Human beings cannot replace well-crafted NPCs, not if you want a world that makes sense. Human beings generally act as gamers. That's fine, if that's what you want. If you want to socialize with other gamers in a gaming environment, no problem. But for creating your own story in an imaginative gameworld, other gamers tend to ruin that suspension of disbelief that's necessary for all stories.

But that's not really the case with Solium Infernum, and I don't think it's entirely just because it's a strategy game, not an RPG (partially, yes, but not entirely). No, I think it's because a dedicated role-player in this setting would act like a gamer. Through genius or just accident, this title makes gaming perfectly plausible behavior for this setting and premise. And since you play a leader in Hell, not just one of the nameless minions, it's probably realistic that ambition and greed would trump fear, too (it's hard to feel fear when it's a game you can quit at any time).

At any rate, I think this game in multiplayer works remarkably well for the kind of story creation I want to see in games. In fact, since I haven't played it myself, I don't know if it would work as well in single-player. That's really unique, don't you think? Every other game I've mentioned as pointing the way to this "story creation" gaming future has been single-player - and for good reason.

Everyone else does it?

Like Greta Christina, I was furious at this clueless "everyone else does it" defense of child abuse by Catholic priests, but she explains why better than I could:

Brown's analysis of the child rape statistics are appallingly ignorant, both of statistics in general and of these statistics in particular. There is every reason to think that child rape among Catholic priests occurred -- and for all we know, is still occurring -- at a much higher rate than in any other field where adults have access to children and authority over them.

But as far as I'm concerned, that question is only tangentially relevant. And for Brown to focus on it so fixatedly shows that he is completely missing the point.

What makes the Catholic Church child rape scandal so morally repugnant, and what is making it have the effect of turning people away from the Catholic Church, is not the rapes themselves. Of course the rapes themselves are morally repugnant. And of course we need to be looking at whether there is some institutional force that makes Catholic priests more likely to rape children than other people in positions of trust and authority: such as the celibacy requirement for the priesthood, or the Church's fear and loathing of sexuality as a central part of their theology, or the special power that priests have because they purport to have a special line to God, or religion's veneration and armor against criticism which makes people less comfortable making accusations against it. (Indeed, it's fair to look at whether it's even true that Catholic priests rape children at a higher rate than other trusted authority figures.) But it is certainly the case that child rape does occur in other fields where adults are in positions of trust and authority with children: teachers, coaches, etc. Brown's not wrong about that.

That is not where the depth of the scandal lies. What makes the Catholic child rape scandal so morally repugnant, and what is giving it the effect of turning people away from the Catholic Church in horror, is the way the Church handled it.

The Church knew about widespread reports of priests repeatedly molesting children... and instead of acting to protect the children, they acted to protect the priests, and themselves. Thus deliberately and knowingly putting more children in the way of known child rapists, solely for their pure self-interest.

Repeatedly. Time and time again. In every part of the world. As a cold-blooded matter of Church policy.

That is the scandal.

As I noted earlier, the cover-up involved threatening children with excommunication for reporting the rape, while considering child rape itself as a lesser offense. Apparently, the church still doesn't understand how very wrong this is.

Are you sick, too?

Do you have the cancer? The cancer of progressivism? Jon Stewart finally understands that we have cancer.*

I knew we should never have given women the vote. And don't get me started on poultry inspection!

* That's only a minute and a half long, but he continues his hilarious send-up of Glenn Beck in the next clip, too.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I think my head is going to explode

I'll be honest. I don't understand statistics. I don't think most people - even most scientists - understand statistics, but I know that I don't. So I had a hard time wrapping my head around this article in Science News.

Frankly, I wouldn't even inflict it on you, if it weren't for the "boxes" at the end of the article, where they give some examples of how misleading statistics can be. For example:

One set of such studies, for instance, found that with the antidepressant Paxil, trials recorded more than twice the rate of suicidal incidents for participants given the drug compared with those given the placebo. For another antidepressant, Prozac, trials found fewer suicidal incidents with the drug than with the placebo. So it appeared that Paxil might be more dangerous than Prozac.

But actually, the rate of suicidal incidents was higher with Prozac than with Paxil. The apparent safety advantage of Prozac was due not to the behavior of kids on the drug, but to kids on placebo — in the Paxil trials, fewer kids on placebo reported incidents than those on placebo in the Prozac trials. So the original evidence for showing a possible danger signal from Paxil but not from Prozac was based on data from people in two placebo groups, none of whom received either drug.

Get that? If you compared the "statistical significance" of the two studies, you might come to exactly the opposite conclusion from what the evidence showed. One study just had more incidents from kids in the control group, those who didn't get the drug at all.

Or try this:

For a simplified example, consider the use of drug tests to detect cheaters in sports. Suppose the test for steroid use among baseball players is 95 percent accurate — that is, it correctly identifies actual steroid users 95 percent of the time, and misidentifies non-users as users 5 percent of the time.

Suppose an anonymous player tests positive. What is the probability that he really is using steroids? Since the test really is accurate 95 percent of the time, the naïve answer would be that probability of guilt is 95 percent. But a Bayesian knows that such a conclusion cannot be drawn from the test alone. You would need to know some additional facts not included in this evidence. In this case, you need to know how many baseball players use steroids to begin with — that would be what a Bayesian would call the prior probability.

Now suppose, based on previous testing, that experts have established that about 5 percent of professional baseball players use steroids. Now suppose you test 400 players. How many would test positive?

• Out of the 400 players, 20 are users (5 percent) and 380 are not users.

• Of the 20 users, 19 (95 percent) would be identified correctly as users.

• Of the 380 nonusers, 19 (5 percent) would incorrectly be indicated as users.

So if you tested 400 players, 38 would test positive. Of those, 19 would be guilty users and 19 would be innocent nonusers. So if any single player’s test is positive, the chances that he really is a user are 50 percent, since an equal number of users and nonusers test positive.

Wild, huh? So what does all this mean? If you want to read the whole article and explain it to me, in very simple language, feel free. But I'll tell you what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that we can't trust anything scientists say. It doesn't mean that we're not learning more all the time - in every field of study. It doesn't mean that our gut is just as good at determining the truth as scientific research. Not at all.

But I would take most studies that rely on "statistical significance" - and especially meta-analyses - with a grain of salt. I'd be cautious about concluding anything based on research that shows only a slight, statistical effect. (I'd be even more cautious about accepting the accuracy of research as reported in the popular press, since the media have needs - and problems - of their own.) And certainly, I'd want multiple independent studies backing up any preliminary findings.

None of this is easy, and it's particularly difficult when we're talking about human health. We can't do research on human beings without being very careful not to cause harm. I would never want to change that, but it does make determining the truth more difficult than it might otherwise be. Statistics is a tool, but it's a tool that can easily be misused - and even more easily be misinterpreted. Lying with statistics is easy, even if it isn't always deliberate.