Thursday, June 30, 2011

Current game sales

I don't think many of my multitude of readers - heh, heh - are gamers, but just in case, I did want to mention some great 4th of July game sales:

GOG.com is having a sale on old Interplay games, with 32 games being sold for only $2.99 each. Note that these should be ready to play on modern computers, too. (Often, I'll buy a game I already own from GOG.com, just to avoid the hassle of trying to get it to run.)

There are a lot of good games there, I'm sure, but the two I'd especially recommend are Fallout 1 and Fallout 2. They're really great games, and for less than $3 each, how can you go wrong? Of course, they're old games, without the fancy graphics you might expect these days. But their gameplay is superb.

Well, if you're not sure, check out the screenshots and the reviews at GOG.com. Note that each game is rated five out of five stars by nearly 10,000 gamers. True, that doesn't mean you'll like them. Tastes vary. But for less than $3, you're not risking much.

This sale at GOG.com ends at midnight Monday, so don't procrastinate too long. (Otherwise, you'd have to pay nearly $6 each for two of the greatest games of all-time. Terrible, huh?)

GamersGate is having sales this week, too. Civilization V will apparently be on sale for 50% off tomorrow (so, $25 then?). That's the newest version of Civilization, and I haven't played it yet. But I consider Civilization II to be possibly the greatest game ever made.

Civ IV was good, but I suspect I'd just played Civ II for too many years. (Still, if you want to try that one, it's on sale - the Complete Edition - at Impulse for $9.99.) I really don't know much about Civ V, so you'll have to decide on that one for yourself.

On Sunday, the X-Com Complete Pack will be on sale for 75% off. Right now, it's on sale for 50% off, making it $14.95, so you do the math. The pack includes five games, including X-Com: UFO Defense, which to my mind is the one game that rivals Civ II for the best game of all time.

I was disappointed in the sequels, for one reason or another (they're good, but not great), but the original is a game that should not be missed. If you'd rather just buy that one, the everyday price is $5.95 at GamersGate (I don't know if it's going to go on sale, too, or not).

But you can also buy it on Steam, during their summer sale, for only $3.34 (33% off their normal price of $4.99). The X-Com Complete Pack there is $10.04.

Now I've never bought old games from Steam or GamersGate, but I believe that they're ready to play on modern computers, too, just like those from GOG.com. Well, that's not entirely accurate. GamersGate specifically warns that X-Com: UFO Defense will not work in Windows 7. So if you're still using Windows XP, like me, you might want to play it now, while you can.

[Edit: I did buy X-Com from Steam, and it works great on Windows XP, with absolutely no setup required. Just click the shortcut and play. But note that you'll have to download the manual separately, if you haven't played the game before.]

I've got to say that I'm strongly tempted to buy both Fallout games and X-Com: UFO Defense, even though I already own them - just for the convenience. They are really three of the all-time great computer games, at or near the top of nearly every ranking of great games. You can buy fancier games these days, but better? I don't think so.

And note that all three games are science fiction games. Games - RPGs, at least - seem to be dominated by fantasy settngs. So I think it's especially noteworthy when great games use SF themes. And these are great games.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Miss USA 2011 - Should math be taught in schools?



Yeah, this is a lot like the last video I posted on this subject, but the point really needs to be made.

Michele Bachmann's holy war

(Illustration by Victor Juhasz)

This article in Rolling Stone might be the scariest thing I've read in years:
Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and, as you consider the career and future presidential prospects of an incredible American phenomenon named Michele Bachmann, do one more thing. Don't laugh.

It may be the hardest thing you ever do, for Michele Bachmann is almost certainly the funniest thing that has ever happened to American presidential politics. Fans of obscure 1970s television may remember a short-lived children's show called Far Out Space Nuts, in which a pair of dimwitted NASA repairmen, one of whom is played by Bob (Gilligan) Denver, accidentally send themselves into space by pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" inside a capsule they were fixing at Cape Canaveral. This plot device roughly approximates the political and cultural mechanism that is sending Michele Bachmann hurtling in the direction of the Oval Office.

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution. "It's your state that fired the shot that was heard around the world!" she gushed. "You are the state of Lexington and Concord, you started the battle for liberty right here in your backyard." ...

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Bachmann's story, to hear her tell it, is about a suburban homemaker who is chosen by God to become a politician who will restore faith and family values to public life and do battle with secular humanism. But by the time you've finished reviewing her record of lies and embellishments and contradictions, you'll have no idea if she actually believes in her own divine inspiration, or whether it's a big con job. Or maybe both are true — in which case this hard-charging challenger for the GOP nomination is a rare breed of political psychopath, equal parts crazed Divine Wind kamikaze-for-Jesus and calculating, six-faced Machiavellian prevaricator. Whatever she is, she's no joke.

I'd like to laugh, but this is just too scary. Look how much damage George W. Bush did to us. Well, can you imagine what a President Bachmann might do? Heck, all of the Republican loons running for president are pretty scary, and I don't think that Bachmann can win, but... what if she does?

Please tell me we wouldn't be that stupid. But read the article. You'll worry, too.

Why are people picking on religion?


We're having quite a debate in the comments to my war on science post, and I thought this cartoon fit well with that. There's no reason why religion should get our automatic respect, nor why it should be protected from criticism. After all, nothing else is. And criticism is not persecution.

Our world has had a long, sad history of religious persecution, true. The vast majority of that was by other religious believers - that was the experience that led our forefathers to the separation of church and state - but I believe it's led us to tiptoe too carefully around religion in general. Our intentions were good, but I think we've missed the point.

In America, people are free to believe anything they want. That's absolute. And most of us believe that people shouldn't suffer discrimination because of their religious beliefs. (In practice, we don't always live up to those ideals, but we generally do try.) Your neighbor's religion, if any, is his own business, not yours. You may disagree with him, but you'd fight for his right to believe what he wants.

All of this is quite admirable. But it doesn't mean that religion should get a free pass. It doesn't mean that religion should automatically get our respect or that it should be immune to criticism. You can support your neighbor's religious rights while still criticizing what he believes. Yes, he has the right to believe it, but you have rights, too. Freedom of religion does not limit freedom of speech.

Our experience with religious wars - wars within Christianity, for the most part, though we're seeing the same thing with Islam today - has led us to be respectful of diverse beliefs. That's a good thing, at least when it comes to tolerance. Many of my friends disagree with me on the subject of religion, and it's really not a problem. That's probably the greatest gift America has given the world.

But although you have the right to believe whatever you want, you don't have the right to tell other people they can't criticize those beliefs. You have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of your religion, but you don't have the right not to get your feelings hurt.

I disagree with you. So what? You disagree with me. It doesn't have to be a problem, even when we don't censor ourselves. I strongly support your right to believe whatever you want, but that doesn't mean I think your beliefs make any sense. (Note that acting on those beliefs might be a different story, depending on what those actions are. You can believe whatever you want, but you can't necessarily do whatever you want, since other people have rights, too.)

Of course, as a matter of polite social discourse, I'm not going to be disrupting your church services. You certainly have the right to attend your church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever you wish, without hassle. And we can spend time together without getting into a religious argument. I enjoy a good debate, but there's a time and a place for everything.

But if you expect me to always keep my opinions to myself, especially when you express yours, you'd better think again. And if you think that religion automatically deserves my respect, well, you'll need to convince me of that, if you can. Religious violence doesn't happen because people disagree. It happens because one side or the other - or both - can't accept that fact.

Open debate in the marketplace of ideas is actually a good thing, a very good thing. You may be used to that debate always being one-sided, with religion and religious leaders being treated with kid gloves. Well, sorry, but I don't think that's right. I think that faith-based thinking is the wrong way to determine the truth, and I think that the truth matters.

I'm an atheist. I have good reasons for my atheism, and I have no intention of staying in the closet. If you don't like that, don't read this blog. Don't worry, I don't plan to go door to door as an atheist missionary, handing out atheist pamphlets and urging you to convert. Yes, I have the right to do that if I wish, but I'm either too polite or too lazy.  :)

Oh, for Fox sake!

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Oh, for Fox Sake - Stewart Eviscerates Stewart
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If you've kept up with The Daily Show, you'll know that this is part of a continuing battle between Jon Stewart and Fox (here's the first segment in this current spat, and here's the second).

Clearly, Fox is going all out with this. As Stewart says, everyone at Fox got the memo. But it's pretty funny to have a supposed "news network" feuding with a half-hour comedy show, don't you think?

Stewart skewers everyone who deserves it, right or left, and Fox definitely deserves it. But Fox also has no sense of humor when it comes to themselves. And as we all know, that just makes it funnier.

I was a journalism major - in the distant past - so there's nothing I like better than skewering Fox "News," the organization that's done more to bring back yellow journalism than any other. No, even that's not strong enough. Fox is not actually a news network at all. It's the propaganda arm of the Republican Party masquerading as a news network.

These days, the tail has come to wag the dog. As conservative David Frum has said, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering that we work for Fox."

But it's also about money. Fox is making money hand over fist, and if they have to mislead, misinform, and flat-out lie to do it, no problem. I have to wonder how they sleep at night.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pat Robertson warns of impending doom

Another one from Indecision Forever:
You thought that the recent New York Senate decision for marriage equality was a victory for civil liberties and basic human rights? Nope! Shows what you know.

Pat Robertson — in his usual charming manner — explains why this is actually the death knell of America
"In history there's never been a civilization ever in history that has embraced homosexuality and turned away from traditional fidelity, traditional marriage, traditional child-rearing, and has survived. There isn’t one single civilization that has survived that openly embraced homosexuality. So you say, 'what's going to happen to America?' Well if history is any guide, the same thing’s going to happen to us."
There scariest thing is, he's right! Pat Robertson is totally right! Gayistan — gone! Friends of Dorothylvania — gone! Democratic Republic of Homo — gone! They're all gone! All the thousands of nations that actively embraced homosexuality have all fallen into collapse. Almost as if they never existed in the first place.

Yeah, crazy, huh? But maybe you need some cheering up? Here's an excerpt from Republican Mark J. Grisanti's speech, just before he switched positions and voted for allowing gay marriage in New York state.
As a Catholic, I was raised to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not here, however, as a senator who is just Catholic. I am also here with a background as an attorney, through which I look at things and I apply reason. ... I would not respect myself if I didn't do the research, have an open mind, and make a decision -- an informed decision -- based on the information before me. A man can be wiser today than yesterday, but there'll be no respect for that man if he has failed in his duty to do the work.

I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage. Who am I to say that someone does not have the same rights that I have with my wife, who I love, or to have the 1300+ rights that I share with her? ...

We in this state have recognized same-sex couples who are married in other states and are now in New York. I have read studies about civil unions; it's shown that they do not work -- it causes chaos. I believe that this state needs to provide equal rights and protections to all of its residents.

Well, I doubt if I'd agree with this guy about too much, but not all Republicans are complete loons, it seems.

Michele Bachmann embodies that serial killer spirit


From Indecision Forever:
"Serious person" Michele Bachmann continues to be serious. One might even say deadly serious
Mrs. Bachmann grew up in Waterloo, and used the town as the backdrop for her campaign announcement, where she told Fox News: "Well what I want them to know is just like, John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That's the kind of spirit that I have, too."…

The only problem, as one eagle-eyed reader notes: Waterloo's John Wayne was not the beloved movie star, but rather John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer.
To be fair, the actor John Wayne was from Winterset, Iowa, which is only a few hours drive away, starts with a "W" and has three syllables. And the actor John Wayne has killed a whole bunch of people on screen which looks a little like killing people in real life.

So, you can totally see why Bachmann might get confused.

The Fox News 'victim thing'

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Oh, for Fox Sake
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Jon Stewart: "And that narrative of conservative victimization is the true genius of what Fox News has accomplished. Any editorial judgment, in news or schools or movies, that doesn't favor the conservative view is elitism and evidence of liberal bias. Whereas any editorial judgment that favors the conservative view is evidence merely of fairness and done to protect them from liberal bias.

"And, if you criticize Fox for this game, guess what that's evidence of? How right they are about how persecuted..."

FYI, here's the original segment, with Jon Stewart taking Fox to task for countless lies. If you haven't seen it, well, it's as good as this one. 'Nuff said, huh?

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Republican war on science



Isn't this a failure of our system of education, that Americans are this ignorant? Or is it just that we're so faith-based that we regularly just believe whatever we want to believe, despite its having no connection whatsoever to reality?

Three arguments against the singularity

Here's a fascinating post by science fiction author Charles Stross* on why he thinks the singularity isn't going to happen:
I periodically get email from folks who, having read "Accelerando", assume I am some kind of fire-breathing extropian zealot who believes in the imminence of the singularity, the uploading of the libertarians, and the rapture of the nerds. I find this mildly distressing, and so I think it's time to set the record straight and say what I really think.

Short version: Santa Claus doesn't exist.

Before we get to that, perhaps I should define "singularity." I'm no expert on the subject, but here's a website that will give you a good idea:
John von Neumann was quoted as saying that "the ever accelerating progress of technology ... gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." His definition of the Singularity was that the Singularity is the moment beyond which "technological progress will become incomprehensively rapid and complicated."

Vernor Vinge introduced the term Technological Singularity in his science fiction novel Marooned in Realtime(1986) and later developed the concept in his essay the Coming Technological Singularity (1993). His definition of Singularity is widely known as the event horizon thesis and in essence says that trans or post-human minds will imply a weirder future than we can imagine:

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. [...] I think it's fair to call this event a singularity. It is a point where our models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer and closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown."

Charlie Stross includes some useful links in his post, too, if you're really interested in the argument. But I just wanted to pick out a few details, such as this argument about artificial intelligence:
First: super-intelligent AI is unlikely because, if you pursue Vernor's program, you get there incrementally by way of human-equivalent AI, and human-equivalent AI is unlikely. The reason it's unlikely is that human intelligence is an emergent phenomenon of human physiology, and it only survived the filtering effect of evolution by enhancing human survival fitness in some way. Enhancements to primate evolutionary fitness are not much use to a machine, or to people who want to extract useful payback (in the shape of work) from a machine they spent lots of time and effort developing. We may want machines that can recognize and respond to our motivations and needs, but we're likely to leave out the annoying bits, like needing to sleep for roughly 30% of the time, being lazy or emotionally unstable, and having motivations of its own. ...

We clearly want machines that perform human-like tasks. We want computers that recognize our language and motivations and can take hints, rather than requiring instructions enumerated in mind-numbingly tedious detail. But whether we want them to be conscious and volitional is another question entirely. I don't want my self-driving car to argue with me about where we want to go today. I don't want my robot housekeeper to spend all its time in front of the TV watching contact sports or music videos. And I certainly don't want to be sued for maintenance by an abandoned software development project.

Eventually, we may reach the point where we could create conscious, self-aware artificial intelligences - computers who are people, for all intents and purposes. But will we? On the one hand, it's hard to imagine why. But on the other, it's hard to imagine that no one would do it, if it were actually possible.

You can compare the human brain to a computer, but there are profound differences. In particular, our thinking mind seems to be inextricably wound up with our emotions. There is clearly no disembodied mind that's separate from our flesh and blood bodies, no "spirit" that's separate from our physical selves, no matter how it might seem sometimes.

In fact, we human beings are animals first, and thinking beings second. Computers aren't animals. And why would we want them to be? Computers are useful tools, but do we really want computers as peers? As masters? Even if that were possible, it's hard to imagine why we'd do something like that.

But then, here's another possibility:
Karl Schroeder suggested one interesting solution to the AI/consciousness ethical bind, which I used in my novel Rule 34. Consciousness seems to be a mechanism for recursively modeling internal states within a body. In most humans, it reflexively applies to the human being's own person: but some people who have suffered neurological damage (due to cancer or traumatic injury) project their sense of identity onto an external object. Or they are convinced that they are dead, even though they know their body is physically alive and moving around.

If the subject of consciousness is not intrinsically pinned to the conscious platform, but can be arbitrarily re-targeted, then we may want AIs that focus reflexively on the needs of the humans they are assigned to — in other words, their sense of self is focussed on us, rather than internally. They perceive our needs as being their needs, with no internal sense of self to compete with our requirements. While such an AI might accidentally jeopardize its human's well-being, it's no more likely to deliberately turn on its external "self" than you or I are to shoot ourselves in the head. And it's no more likely to try to bootstrap itself to a higher level of intelligence that has different motivational parameters than your right hand is likely to grow a motorcycle and go zooming off to explore the world around it without you.

Hmm,... that sounds kind of creepy, doesn't it? Do we really want another consciousness with no internal sense of self, that exists only to serve a human being's needs? Can you imagine a worse slavery than this? I hope we never learn how to do this to people! And I'm even uncomfortable with the idea when it comes to computers.

Besides, what happens when the computer's perception of our needs differs from our own? My right hand will act on its own sometimes, jerking back from a hot surface before my brain can get the alarm. But it doesn't usually decide for itself what's best for me, let alone go against my wishes to accomplish something. If you've got two consciousnesses looking out for the same person, who decides?

There's a lot here that does sound intriguing to me. I'll get to that in a minute. But first, here's one more excerpt, this one about uploading our minds into software:
But even if mind uploading is possible and eventually happens, as Hans Moravec remarks, "Exploration and colonization of the universe awaits, but earth-adapted biological humans are ill-equipped to respond to the challenge. ... Imagine most of the inhabited universe has been converted to a computer network — a cyberspace — where such programs live, side by side with downloaded human minds and accompanying simulated human bodies. A human would likely fare poorly in such a cyberspace. Unlike the streamlined artificial intelligences that zip about, making discoveries and deals, reconfiguring themselves to efficiently handle the data that constitutes their interactions, a human mind would lumber about in a massively inappropriate body simulation, analogous to someone in a deep diving suit plodding along among a troupe of acrobatic dolphins. Every interaction with the data world would first have to be analogized as some recognizable quasi-physical entity ... Maintaining such fictions increases the cost of doing business, as does operating the mind machinery that reduces the physical simulations into mental abstractions in the downloaded human mind. Though a few humans may find a niche exploiting their baroque construction to produce human-flavored art, more may feel a great economic incentive to streamline their interface to the cyberspace." (Pigs in Cyberspace, 1993.)

Our form of conscious intelligence emerged from our evolutionary heritage, which in turn was shaped by our biological environment. We are not evolved for existence as disembodied intelligences, as "brains in a vat", and we ignore E. O. Wilson's Biophilia Hypothesis at our peril; I strongly suspect that the hardest part of mind uploading won't be the mind part, but the body and its interactions with its surroundings.

Now, what's my interest in all this? Well, I enjoy a good debate as much as anyone, and all this "singularity" stuff is certainly good, clean fun. Speculating on the future is always interesting. (But I'm a skeptic, too, so I naturally take every claim with a grain of salt. Maybe, maybe not. We'll see...)

But I'm also a game-player, and all this sounds quite intriguing when it comes to entertainment. OK, if mind uploading is possible, maybe we human beings won't be perfectly suited to cyberspace. Maybe our computer software will be more efficient in such a realm. I would certainly expect so. So let the computers do the work while we play!

I don't necessarily want to live there (unless, of course, the option is death). But what a great place to visit! Will we care that it's not efficient? Well, for some things, we will. But not necessarily for everything.

Likewise, I'm not sure I want another consciousness thinking that it's me, no matter how helpful it might be. But couldn't that same technology be used to put my conscious mind in a computer game? Not permanently, of course. But wouldn't you like to experience a book or a movie from the inside? (Basically, that's what a role-playing game is, although a gamer isn't a passive watcher but an active participant.)

I don't know if "super-intelligent AI" is likely or not, but we've already got computers as tools, and they're only going to get better. We already play computer games, and they're only going to get more lifelike. Whatever the end result might be, we know we can use computers to enhance our own abilities and we know we can use computers to help us enjoy life. We're nowhere near to seeing the limit of those kinds of things.

It's fun enough to debate it, I suppose, but I see enough here to excite my imagination with or without the singularity. Besides, if robots take over from human beings, they're going to be our robots, right? In effect, they'd be our descendants. Our children take over from us - every generation does that - so is it that much different? Heh, heh. Well, maybe it is,... but I wonder why.

* PS. I'm sorry to say that I'm not familiar with any of Charles Stross' novels. I've read some of his short fiction - and enjoyed it - so I really need to try something longer. I've heard especially good things about The Atrocity Archives, but also praise for The Hidden Family and Iron Sunrise (and its sequel, Singularity Sky).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Miss USA 2011 - the interview continues



I thought this was kind of clever. It's a fitting follow-up to my post about Alyssa Campanella, I'd say.

Dwarf Fortress - Lazy Newb Pack


I already posted about one game today, so I thought I'd add a few notes about another - one of my all-time favorites, Dwarf Fortress.

I never did get back to Toraliden, my last fortress. Just too much else going on. However, I still plan to test my revised trap there, the one which drops invaders through a series of trapdoors.

But Dwarf Fortress has gone through multiple revisions since then, and I don't think the old game saves are compatible. So when I downloaded this Lazy Newb Pack, I started a completely new game - in Adventure Mode, this time.

But first, a little about the Lazy Newb Pack. It's a package of the latest version of Dwarf Fortress, along with various graphics packs (sorry, but I just can't do ASCII graphics) and utilities. It's designed to make it easy for Dwarf Fortress beginners, but it's really nice for pretty much everyone. I highly recommend it.

Just unzip the main folder somewhere and it's ready to go. Click on Lazy Newb Pack.exe to start the front end. The rest is pretty much self-explanatory. The only thing it doesn't do is change the screen resolution. If you want to do that, you need to edit the init.txt file (you can do that from the Lazy Newb Pack screen)... and to know what you're doing.

Really, if you've ever thought about trying Dwarf Fortress, this is the way to do it. It's really nice. I suggest checking out the wiki before trying your first game, though. Once you get started, you can press "?" for help, but it's not easy getting started if you don't have a clue what's going on.

Of course, the Dwarf Fortress motto is "Losing is Fun." If you do something wrong, so what? Just see what happens. If your fortress goes down to crushing defeat, well, that's fun, too. And it's something that's happened to everyone who's played this game. (In fact, there is literally no way to win in Dwarf Fortress. There are many ways to lose, or you can just get bored and decide to start over. But there's no way to "win" - except just to have fun.)

I can't say anything about the utilities included with the Lazy Newb Pack, because I've never used them. Some people swear by them, though. Check them out, if you want. And note that all of this is free. If you like the game, you might donate at the website. After all, the developer, Tarn Adams, lives on voluntary donations from his many fans.

Fortress Mode is the heart and soul of this game, but I wasn't ready to start a new fortress just yet. So I thought I've give Adventure Mode a try. I'd played it briefly, a year or more ago, but there didn't seem to be much there yet. But Tarn has been working on it, and it shows.

Adventure Mode is more like a traditional RPG. (Fortress Mode is like nothing else you've ever seen before.) You create a character - I'd go with a human, because he'll start in a human town - set up his beginning attributes and skills, and send him out to gain fame and fortune killing monsters.

There are shops in human towns (but not in hamlets), where you can trade goods. And there are NPCs you can recruit to join you (it's very important to recruit a meat shield). It won't be easy getting people to join you at first, but after you've killed a few monsters for them (ask them about performing a "service"), they'll be eager to die for you.

My first adventurer was killed by bogeymen when he foolishly tried to sleep alone at night. Well, my companions were all dead, and I was hoping I could risk it. And I figured he might be tough enough to take on a bogeyman. But six of them killed him before he could even wake up completely. Lesson learned.

Now I'm playing another swordsman, Willam Leafape ("leaf-ape"). It's kind of funny. Right off the bat, I recruited three peasants, armed only with knives and wearing no armor. Two of them were killed in our first fight, and the third was critically wounded, such that he could no longer walk. From then on, he crawled everywhere. But he was still fast enough to keep up with everyone else, and he was a bonafide killing machine with that knife.

Often enough, my peasant would kill an enemy before I could even get close enough to take a swing. And though I started recruiting soldiers after that, they would die like flies, and my crawling peasant would come out of every battle alive - grievously hurt, often enough, but it never seemed to slow him down.

But on my last play, we got ambushed by goblins. I had ten soldiers with me, and my own character was fully armed and armored in iron. But there were a lot of goblins, and they had a goblin leader with them who was just unstoppable.

I had to run to the north, escaping the ambush, in order to drop behind a hill and start sneaking. I came back, but my guys were dropping like flies, even my incredible peasant. Staying hidden, I killed every last goblin except the leader. And then I started after him, but I just couldn't seem to hit him at all.

Even when he couldn't see me, he'd parry my attack and return a devastating counterstrike. Pretty soon, I was crawling, too. If I hadn't been hidden, I would never have escaped. As it is, I'll never walk again. But I happened to have a crutch in my pack, so I hobbled back to civilization.

I don't know if I'll retire this guy or not. I'd really like to take down that goblin leader sometime. But that would take a lot of grinding - first, to become a legendary crutch-user, and then to improve my fighting skills enough to have a decent chance in another fight. I really don't think that sounds like fun.

And Adventure Mode is great for killing a few hours, but Fortress Mode is where the meat of Dwarf Fortress really is. Nothing beats leading a handful of dwarves in carving a home out of the wilderness, to go from sleeping in the dirt and scrambling for enough food to an enormous fortress - a barony, perhaps - full of skilled, prosperous dwarves and capable of withstanding an assault by a whole army of foes.

But we'll see. I still need to go back to Toraliden and test that new trap design, sometime. And believe it or not, I really don't have much time in the summer to play games.

Academagia: The Making of Mages - review


I haven't finished Academagia: The Making of Mages, but I've played enough to confirm many of my initial impressions of it. It's a great idea, and I'm sure there's a fun game in there somewhere, but interface and design mistakes really make it more tedious than fun.

I did play past the midterms, so let me tell you how that worked out. As I described previously, my character was basically a smart, studious magic nerd. I started with a high intelligence and high insight. Though the game suggests studying to level 5 in all of your classes by midterm, I studied to level 6 or 7. And my knowledge of each subject was at 7 or 8 (out of a maximum of 10). Not bad for halfway through the class, I figured. I even did extra credit for one class.

So how did I do? Well, I really don't know. I got a number grade in each class, but there was no indication of what that meant. Is a 60 high? I don't know. My number was higher than what most of the kids got (there were a large number of 40's), but many kids got much higher than that. Is that actually 60 out of a hundred? No idea.

No professor said anything about it, good, bad, or indifferent. No one praised us for doing well or complained that we hadn't. There were absolutely no consequences to the midterms, not as a group and not individually. As far as I can tell, those numbers - whatever they meant - didn't matter in the slightest.

The midterms took place over a matter of weeks, with a test from one class taking up a whole morning or afternoon period. Well, there are a lot of classes, and I was only taking six of them. I knew when a test would take place, but unfortunately, not what class it was. (Why not?) So it was hard to do clever little things like casting a spell to temporarily increase my knowledge. I tried anyway, but I couldn't see that it had any result at all. Come on, you can't even cast a spell to improve your grade?

The whole thing was a huge letdown. Midterms aren't ever going to be much fun, I suppose, even in a college of magic. But they're normally important, right? These didn't seem to be important to anyone.

I talked about the terrible interface - in particular, the tiny type - in my first post. So let me focus on the gameplay decisions in this one. I really like the huge number of options in this game - hundreds of skills, 17 possible classes to take, choices everywhere you go. Initially, I was struck by the fact that I didn't have a clue which choices to actually make. However, that could be OK, if you understood that almost any of them would work.

The bigger problem is that the game doesn't take advantage of the choices you do make. You choose to study 6 courses out of 17 available (two or three of them are required by your college, but you can choose which college to join), so you'd expect that your college experience would be greatly affected by that. One of my classes was in zoology, so wouldn't I expect weird and humorous experiences with magical creatures? (Yeah, I've clearly read Harry Potter.)

But no, that's not what happens. There are apparently 800 different random events that can happen, but they all happen at random, no matter what you've chosen to do. I had random accidents when stirring potions, but there isn't actually a "potions" class. There's chemistry, which might be close, but I wasn't taking that class. Really, none of my classes seemed to have anything to do with potions. So why was I getting random potion-stirring events?

And even when I didn't decide to explore the city, I'd have random events happen there. My character had almost no social or artistic skills, and certainly wasn't studying anything like that, yet I still had acting and singing random events. I ran into magical creatures, but not in my zoology class. Yes, I could often use my knowledge of zoology then, but I could use other skills, too. (There are normally several different skills you can use to succeed in a random event - out of hundreds of different skills available to learn. And they don't seem to be affected by anything but pure chance.)

The problem is that my choices - which classes to take, in particular - didn't seem to matter in the slightest. Those choices didn't affect my college experience, since the events were just random, and it didn't really matter which classes I chose, or which skills I trained, because it was just a matter of luck whether they'd be of use in any particular encounter.

Having 800 different random events is great, but they could have been tied to our choices - for example, different events depending on which classes we chose to take. Likewise, there are more than 80 other students at the school. But it's really hard to get to know anyone, when there are 80 different people encountered randomly. It was hard to even get to know the people in my own college.

I should have been having experiences in class with a subset of those kids. As I say, there are 17 different courses, but each student studies only six. My zoology class could have been an opportunity not just for events particular to that class, but for getting to know a few of my fellow students. Playing the game again, studying different courses, would then lead to a different experience - different events, different friends (and enemies), differences based on those choices I made.

Heck, why didn't I have a roommate? Why weren't there a small group of students I'd naturally encounter more often, either in class or in my living quarters? Think about your college experience. Did you know every student at the school equally well? Of course not! And why is that?

As it is, there are a lot of choices in this game, a lot of options, and a huge number of random events. But it's all kind of bloodless. It's all kind of... random. Yes, I can make a lot of choices, but those choices don't actually matter, because pretty much any choice will give you a similar random school-year.

I started a second game with a different kind of student, this one a very charming, very lucky rich boy. And I had him join a different college and take completely different classes. Since he was charming and lucky, it was natural for him to concentrate on different skills, too. Really, the variation in this game is impressive. But it still didn't really seem to matter. For both students, their experiences were random.

There's a similar problem with the "adventures." Apparently, there are more than 100 different adventures in the game, of which a random assortment are available for each character. These are like the random events, except that I choose when to experience each one and they're all multi-part experiences that can't be completed in just one time-slot.

I never actually completed one, myself. The thing is, they get more difficult as you continue. If you fail at any point, you can just choose to try again later. But there's a very limited amount of time available in this game, and there are always a lot of things you need to do. Also, if you succeed in using a skill, in a random event or an adventure, you get better at it. If you fail, you often gain the chance to study a new skill - which, again, takes up your precious time - but you sometimes lose a skill point, too.

So when it comes to adventures, it only makes sense to do the beginning parts of all of them, before moving on to the tougher parts. After all, you're unskilled at first, so there's no way you can actually complete one. And succeeding in the first parts of them will make you better able to tackle the later parts. There's really no other rational way to do it. Unfortunately, this breaks the whole "adventure" experience, since, when you come back to an adventure weeks later, you often can't even remember what happened previously. So you lose the narrative, and that's just not much fun.

A better design choice would be to give characters one adventure at a time, at steadily increasing difficulty levels. So you'd start with a very easy adventure, something any beginning student could expect to complete. (Admittedly, to do that, they'd have to be linked to your skills or your classes, at least to some extent.) And once you were successful with that, you'd get another that was slightly harder. You could still have a hundred different adventures, so that no two characters would see the same ones, but they'd be designed so that each one, taken individually, would seem like a real adventure. (And it would be nice if they had real consequences for the rest of the school-year, too.)

There are a lot of things in the game like this, where the game could use our choices - and random events - to give us a personalized experience. As it is, most of our choices seem meaningless. I've got a familiar, but I don't know why. I don't know what good it is. Is it just because wizards have familiars? I can train my familiar, but that takes up the time I could use to train myself, instead. So why would I do that? I've no idea.

I have trained my familiar, but I don't know what that did for me. It seems to be another of those options that don't mean anything.

I've learned "phemes," too - tons and tons of them. Supposedly, phemes are the building blocks of magical spells. I can add them to a spell when I cast it, but... I almost never have a reason to deliberately cast a spell, I seem to have no reason at all to add a pheme to them, and it's tedious in the extreme to search painstakingly though a long list of phemes - in tiny type - to find one I might want to add. Yeah, partly this is an interface problem (again), but mostly... it's just not any fun.

Clearly, a lot of work went into constructing these phemes. I mean, there seem to be hundreds of them. But why? What was the point? I could see automatically learning new spells when you discovered the phemes for them. I mean, spells are at least fun, right? Well, except that you don't really cast spells, except in random events - and in those cases, the result isn't personalized to what your character knows.

Here's how the Academagia website describes the game:
In your first year, you'll attend classes, build skills, compete for the glory of your College, and explore the history and powers of an ancient world of flying islands and fallen empires. What you choose to do - whether it be to create a new magical item, to butter up your instructors, or to duel with your bitterest rivals - will ultimately determine how your character evolves throughout the school year. With many secret skills to uncover and hundreds of unique actions to learn and bonuses to collect, character specialization is unprecedented in its breadth. You can explore the campus, research in the many libraries, help your friends, visit exotic merchants or cast powerful spells: the choice is yours!

It sounds great, doesn't it? And it really is a great idea. There are so many great possibilities in this game. Unfortunately, the execution is lacking. It's not nearly as much fun as it sounds. Indeed, it's rather tedious.

But I love the idea behind it. I really hope that they continue with Year 2, but make my choices matter. When I take a particular class, I need to have fun things happen there - things directly related to taking that class. And I need to experience these things with a small subset of those 80-some students - and nearly 20 different instructors - at the school.

I need to have my choices make a real difference in my experiences. Yes, pretty much any choices will work. Any kind of character will work, and any choice of classes will work. But your experience should be different depending on those choices. Random events for all characters, no matter what choices they've made, just makes those choices immaterial. My choices should clearly affect what random events I see.

Above all, studying at a university of magic should be fun. It shouldn't be like studying to be an accountant. (OK, maybe I'm slandering accounting professors here. If so, I apologize.) This game is just tedious. If I choose to go on an adventure, I want to enjoy it. I want to see that adventure through - beginning, middle, and end - before I start a new adventure (think mini-RPG adventures, each one a different module).

I want wild and crazy things to happen in class (the class I've chosen to take), and I want the results to affect my relations with that particular professor and with those (relatively few) students who are in the class with me. And I want this particular narrative to continue throughout the whole year.

I want the midterms and the final exams to be important, or at least seem to be important. I want the professor to be happy or unhappy with the results - for the whole class and individually, too. I want to know if I did poorly or if I did well, and I want to know why.

Academagia is almost exactly like the Harry Potter books, except that the Harry Potter books were fun. You might think that a game about attending a school like Hogwarts would have to be fun, but you'd be wrong. This game really has a lot of promise, but I can't recommend it right now.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Raspberries

My strawberries are done, just as my raspberries are beginning to bear ripe fruit. Nice timing, huh?

I talked about growing strawberries a couple of weeks ago. They're really easy to grow here, requiring no spray at all (my usual downfall when it comes to fruit). After the strawberry season is over, I usually mow off the patch (with the mower set as high as possible), and then remove the plants from half of it, letting runners from the other half re-colonize that part.

The mowing is apparently to reduce leaf diseases. But it's usually so very, very dry here in the summer that my plants seemed to struggle afterward. So last year, I didn't bother - and one of my patches did very well, while the other did quite poorly. Yeah, right now I don't know what to think.

This year, I just took a weed whip to the poorer patch - doing pretty well what a mower would do (since I wasn't able to get the mower in there) - but I'll leave the other one alone. And since none of my plants are more than two years old, I don't think I'll renovate either patch. We'll see what happens.

At any rate, my black raspberries are quite easy, too. Heck, I didn't even have to plant them, since the birds did that for me. Some years ago, I noticed a small raspberry plant growing at the corner of my garage and my chainlink fence, where the mower couldn't get it. So I thought I'd let it grow and see what would happen.

Well, that one plant has spread to two long rows now, and the raspberries are absolutely delicious! The sweet black fruit is borne on last year's canes. After it's done, I go through the patch and cut down the old canes (since they'll just die, anyway) and tie the new canes to a couple of wires. When they get to the topmost wire, I cut the tip off, so the cane will sprout out daughter canes. Then, in early spring, I trim those back to 18" or so. That's where the fruit grows.

Unlike red raspberries, black raspberries don't spread from the roots. Instead, the tip of each cane will root where it touches the ground. When you top the canes, to cause them to sprout out daughter canes, each of those will then root where the tip bends down to touch the ground. (And yes, they'll root even in thick grass, so a patch will spread, if you don't keep it under control.)

Like the strawberries, I never have to spray them. And unlike the strawberries (which are shallow-rooted), the raspberries don't need much irrigation (but the berries do better with more rain). However, the raspberries are so thorny that I can't even think about netting them. Still, although the birds get their share, it's only in really bad years where that matters much.

The instructions usually call for topping the new canes at 30" or so, but I let them grow higher - much higher - than that, because I don't want to get a backache picking them. After all, the canes grow like crazy, and the daughter canes all grow down to the ground even from six foot high. There certainly doesn't seem to be a problem with plant vigor.

On the other hand, I've been having increasing problems with the tops of my canes dying over the winter, and I suppose there might be a connection. I really don't know.

If I had more room, I'd do things a little differently. I'd put my fence posts at a slant, creating a 'v' shape down each row. Then I'd run the wires along the top of the 'v' at each side. The old canes would lie on one side or the other, letting sunlight get to the middle where the new canes were sprouting. After the old canes were finished bearing, I'd remove them, and then tie the young canes to the wires, alternately on one side or the other.

As it is, my old canes will sometimes shade out the new ones, since they're just tied to wires running straight down the row. But I don't have the room for anything else. My yard is horribly crowded with fruit plantings as it is.

This year doesn't seem to be a good year for raspberries (or really, for most of my fruit, for one reason or another). But I'm sure I could still eat my fill, every day or two, for the next couple of weeks. And that's really how the raspberries taste their best, right from the cane.

They're a bit painstaking to pick, since they're so small (and, as I say, the canes are really thorny). So it takes some dedication to pick a big bowl of them. Still, just like the strawberries, I like to freeze some to eat with my oatmeal during the winter. (And I like to give some away, too, but I don't have as many to give as I do strawberries.)

There's another advantage to these two fruits, and that's that they ripen early in the season. By the end of summer/early fall, I'm usually so swamped with fruit that I don't even want to pick it. And by then, I'm pretty well living on bacon and tomato sandwiches, anyway. But early in the summer, fruit is really welcome.

And both my strawberries and my raspberries are really, really good-tasting. I've never found anything comparable in the grocery store.

Alien vs. Senator

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I meant to post this yesterday, but I got busy.

Just think: John McCain was the least objectionable lunatic Arizona was going to pick as Senator last fall. Amazing, isn't it? What has happened to America?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Winning the Futurama

"I know I have in the past been opposed to an overthrow of civilization by machines," the Romney shouted at voters over the deafening sounds of machine gun fire, anguished screams and whirring hydraulic joints, "But I meant that strictly at the state level."


Comedy Central's Indecision Forever has posted a few of these photos of Republican candidates a thousand years from now (here and here), apparently to promote the season premiere of Futurama.

They're hit or miss, but I thought these two were pretty funny.

"Newt Gingrich was noticeably agitated as he stood posing with his 37th wife, who was in fact a clone of his 29th wife, whom he'd had vaporized 50 years prior. If this photoshoot did not end soon, he would be forced to detonate a pulse charge into the studio, killing all biological beings within, including his new bride — he was running late for a rally in support of traditional marriage."

Fox News false statements

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"Wow! Fox News is like a lying dynasty. They're like the New England Patriots... of lying." True, oh, so true! All in all, this is one of his better take-downs of Fox, don't you think?

If you're interested, here's the "annotated edition" of Jon Stewart's claims, a single page at PolitiFact with links to every Fox News-related fact check Stewart mentioned.

Here's another interesting page at PolitiFact. Apparently, readers wrote in to comment on the first part of this, Jon Stewart's claim that Fox News viewers are consistently the most misinformed:
One reader wrote, "I'm afraid I'm rather disappointed with this article. The methodology is fine, no question. You gather the facts, you report fairly what you find. The problem is you were analyzing the wrong facts."

"Again and again you say in this article the word ‘ill-informed,’" the reader continued. "The problem is that Stewart did not, in fact, choose this word. He actually chose misinformed, which is a bit different, at least to my mind. When I hear ‘ill-informed,’ I think of receiving little information. I might use that word to speak of someone who pays little attention to the news. When I hear the word ‘misinformed,’ I think of something else quite different. That brings to mind someone who has been informed, but with the wrong information." ...

Steven Kull, the director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, wrote us after the story appeared to say that testing for lack of knowledge is not enough. "We analyzed the effect of increased exposure to news outlets. We found that with all other outlets, increased exposure generally resulted in less misinformation. However, for Fox viewers, on nine points of information, increased exposure correlated with increased misinformation. This was true of only one point of information for public broadcasting and MSNBC viewers, and two points of information for network news. This effect was found in the 2003 study as well. Fox viewers were the only group for whom increased exposure resulted in greater misinformation."

Kull added that, "simply on face value, such issues as knowledge of who was vice president are unlikely to be related to exposure to news outlets. Information on issues that were very foreground in media reporting and analysis, which ours were, are more likely to be related to exposure" to media outlets.

Fox News viewers might indeed know who the vice-president is. That's the kind of factual information that Fox News is unlikely to spin. Why would they? What political value would there be in it?

That makes it possible to be misinformed, without necessarily seeming overly ill-informed. Well, that's the argument, anyway. I report, you decide. :)

Another Texan in the White House?


Can you believe it? Now Texas governor Rick Perry is consider cramming himself into the GOP presidential race. Didn't we have enough trouble with the last Texas Republican in the White House?

And Perry is as loony as they come, even suggesting that Texas might secede from the Union. Gee, didn't they try that once already?

Anyway, I only mention it because I wanted to post this graphic from Indecision Forever. I thought it was pretty funny. Yeah, the phone book is absolutely packed with crazies. But I suppose there's always room for one more, huh?

Halfway Sarah

According to Real Clear Politics, Sarah Palin has quit halfway through her bus tour:
Less than a month after she appeared poised to shake up the Republican presidential campaign, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has once again receded from the 2012 limelight.

When Palin launched her "One Nation" bus tour on Memorial Day amid a swirl of media attention and excitement from her fervent fan base, many political observers who had once dismissed her were reminded of the jolt that her candidacy could provide to what has thus far been a relatively sleepy GOP nominating fight.

As Palin toured historical sites along the East Coast, she was clearly reveling in the tangible excitement she'd ginned up: She even eagerly answered questions -- from the denizens of the "lamestream" media -- ranging from matters of political process to an array of issues facing the nation. ...

Though Palin and her staff never announced a timeline for the remaining legs of her trip, aides had drafted preliminary itineraries that would have taken her through the Midwest and Southeast at some point this month. But those travel blueprints are now in limbo, RCP has learned, as Palin and her family have reverted to the friendly confines of summertime Alaska, where the skies are currently alight for over 19 hours a day and the Bristol Bay salmon fishing season is nearing its peak.

Of course, the "lamestream media" were hanging on her every word, breathlessly reporting every move of their favorite celebrity, as she kept them guessing where she'd go next. But when Weiner's wiener took the spotlight away from her, I suppose she got bored.

Well, that's why she only managed one-half term as governor of Alaska, quitting halfway through her first term. And this is the person wing-nuts want as president?

But I've always doubted that she'd run for president or any other public office. She quit as governor in order to make big bucks on Fox, and that's still her primary goal, I'm sure. This whole bus tour thing was just a way to stay in the headlines. After all, celebrities need the publicity, or someone else will come along and take their place.

Actually, the same is true of politicians, too, I suppose. But Palin is far more a money-hungry, publicity-seeking celebrity than a politician. She's sort of the female version of Donald Trump.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The schlong goodbye

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I hate to post two clips from the same Daily Show, one right after the other, but this is too good to pass up. And this fits well with the previous clip, since it really demonstrates Jon Stewart's point.

Are there no journalists left in America, at least in television? What is stopping you from doing your job?

And it's not just Fox "News" to blame here. Yes, it is Fox, but it's the other networks, too. They may not have a liberal bias, but they do have a bias towards the sensational and the inconsequential.

Yes, reality has a notorious liberal bias

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"Fox News isn't fair and balanced." Yeah, we knew that. But this idea that they're countering the liberal bias of every other news organization? Pure fantasy. Like most on the far right wing, they live in a little world of their own.

The baby itself is a minor detail

(photo from Shane Hegarty)

I got this from PZ Myers, so I'll quote what he says about it:
It's a page from an old Irish Catholic schoolbook.

I like how not only do they clearly indicate the hierarchy of God's love, but they force the child to be complicit in assigning that love by circling the right picture — that's excellent indoctrination technique right there. It's a bonus that they don't even bother to show the baptized baby; its worth comes from the priest's hand.

He goes on to say that it's the "little conceits and assumptions like this" that make him despise religion the most. He's got a point. But there's another little conceit here that also strikes me.

This book came from human beings, and so of course God loves little human babies - baptized ones, at least - the most. But what if cats had invented a god and were teaching their young about him? You know that God would love little kittens - baptized ones, of course - the most then.

What if dogs... well, dogs might be a special case, I suppose. But at the very least, dogs would imagine a god who loves puppies just as much as human babies. And pretty much every other species would find their own young special, just as they'd imagine a god just like them - a god who liked what they liked and disliked what they disliked and who'd designed the whole universe just for them. Talk about conceit!

What could be more obvious than this? Heck, long before the Christian era, Xenophanes understood it: "But if oxen (and horses) and lions... could draw with hands and create works of art like those made by men, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses, and oxen of gods like oxen..."

He even noted that, "The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair."  That was more than 2500 years ago! So how come, despite a vast increase in knowledge since then, we still believe in our own little conceits and assumptions? Well,... we believe because we want to believe, don't we?

We want to believe that we're special - and not just that human beings are special, but that our own little group of them are specialer than any others. God doesn't prefer just human babies, but babies baptized into the Catholic Church,... if you're Catholic. Obviously, all those other people who believe in different religions must be wrong. How foolish of them! Don't they realize that your people are special?

Unless you believe in one of those other religions, of course, in which case you're right and those Catholics are just foolishly misguided. But in any case, God agrees with you. God loves you the best, and you can be sure of this, because you imagine him this way. These conceits and assumptions are pretty well universal.

Just once, I'd like to see a religion where God liked someone else the best, where some other group were the chosen people. Just once, I'd like to see these little conceits turned around - not just that your god didn't like you any better than anyone else, but that he actually preferred other people. Just once, I'd like to see your god disagree with you.

Heh, heh. Well, I suppose I wouldn't like that much better. Obsequity is no better than narcissism, and could well be worse. What I really want is for people to start thinking, to start believing based on evidence and careful reason, not on what they want to believe and not on just whatever they've been taught since infancy.

My kind of woman


I don't like beauty contests. Oh, I have nothing against admiring attractive young women. That's just biology. It's natural. It's an instinct that's been around since before we even became human.

But beauty contests are pretty much just livestock exhibitions, with girls paraded around like sides of beef. Honestly, it's completely ridiculous. Beauty is very nice, but it's not the most important thing for anyone. And how many young girls can hope to look like that? Beauty pageants tell them that their looks are what really matter - looks that won't last for very many years, no matter who you are.

Oh, sure, beauty pageants include talent contests and interviews, to pretend that it's not just looks. But no one believes that, I suspect. And to demonstrate that, guess how many of the Miss USA contestants were actually smart and educated enough to support evolution, the bedrock of modern biology? Two. Just two out of 51! How embarrassing is that?

To her credit, the new Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella, pictured above, was one of them. From USA Today:
Score one for Charles Darwin. The newly crowned Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella, 21, of Los Angeles, who calls herself "a huge science geek," says evolution should be taught in public schools. ...

Before her victory night, Miss California earned her way into the semifinals in preliminary judging including interviews in which she was one of only two among 51 contestants to unequivocally support teaching evolution. ...

But the evolution answers would make Answers in Genesis -- the folks behind the Creation Museum and the upcoming Noah's Ark theme park -- proud.

One after another of the contestants, like Miss Maryland, confused the evolution of species with the origin of life (not the same) or said a variation of Miss Michigan's line that it's "silly" and "ignorant" not to know "both sides" including, evidently, religious views in public schools.

Three were flat out opposed: Miss Kentucky, home state of the Creation Museum; Miss Alaska who assures us "each of us was individually created by God for a purpose"; and Miss Alabama who doesn't believe in evolution.

Only Miss Massachusetts and Campanella stood up for Darwin.

Stood up for Darwin? I'd say stood up for science - and stood up for the Constitution of the United States of America, too. We don't teach religion in science classes! Evolution is science, solidly-established science, and there just isn't a competing scientific theory. Not one. And it's been that way for well over a century. So why wouldn't we teach it in science classes?

Clearly, beauty contestants' brains aren't their primary attribute. Two out of 51? That's even worse than the American public in general, and our ignorance of science is the laughing stock of the world (with the possible exception of certain Islamic countries, who push their own religion's version of creationism).

And no, these women weren't taken by surprise by this question, either. They all knew what they'd be asked ahead of time, apparently. They're just that ignorant. All but Miss California, Alyssa Campanella, and Miss Massachusetts, Alida D'Angona. They seem to be my kind of women - smart and well-educated.

PS. For the record, Miss Nebraska said, "In public schools, you have to give all credited theories equal amount of time, so I think creation and evolution should both be able to be taught."

The problem is that creationism is not a theory, "credited" or not. It's a religious belief, and while religious beliefs could be taught in a comparative religion class (assuming you include many different religions), they have no place in science classes.

As a Nebraskan, I'm embarrassed - not because a beauty contestant from our state is this ignorant, but because anyone from our state is this ignorant of basic science.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Race and the right wing



Disgusting, isn't it? Our first black president has really ramped up they hysteria among white racists - not for anything he's done, but just because of who he is.

So why haven't reasonable, responsible Americans turned against racism like this? Have we white Americans completely lost our minds? Are we that cowardly? How pathetic!

How can even conservatives just let this pass? What has happened to my country?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The reality of global climate change


Are you bored yet with articles about global warming? After all, we've been talking about it for years, and half the country has been moving steadily to a denialist position.

Heck, cap-and-trade used to be the Republican position - as late, in fact, as John McCain's 2008 presidential bid - in opposition to the more effective and rational idea of a carbon tax. Now, only one Republican running for president (Jon Huntsman) even admits that global warming is anything but a hoax, and even he no longer calls for us to do anything about it.

Now the conservative position of cap-and-trade is called "cap-and-tax" by the increasingly fanatic GOP (just as the Republican plan on health care reform is now dubbed "Obamacare"). As the Democrats have moved to the right, the Republicans have moved even further to the right, leaving our nation more polarized than ever.

And what about the scientific consensus? That gets stronger every year. Climatologists - the experts when it comes to this particular scientific issue - are overwhelmingly in agreement that climate change is real, that it's caused by human beings (notably by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere), and that it's likely to cause immense problems for human beings and other life on this planet.

But the American public seems to be moving in the exact opposite direction - not because of any particular knowledge or expertise, and certainly not because of any evidence. No, it's all just a gut feeling. Even obviously intelligent people like my anonymous commenter here, too smart to dismiss the scientific consensus entirely, are convinced it's all been "blown out of proportion."

Well, I hope that's true. But on what does he base that? As far as I can tell,... nothing, really. Just the "he said/she said" of climatologists on one side and political pundits and talk show hosts on the other. Obviously, if there's that much disagreement, this can't be anything really serious, right?

So this recent article in Newsweek really struck me:


Joplin, Mo., was prepared. The tornado warning system gave residents 24 minutes’ notice that a twister was bearing down on them. Doctors and nurses at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, who had practiced tornado drills for years, moved fast, getting patients away from windows, closing blinds, and activating emergency generators. And yet more than 130 people died in Joplin, including four people at St. John’s, where the tornado sucked up the roof and left the building in ruins, like much of the shattered city.

Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.

From these and other extreme-weather events, one lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty. The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone. Which means you haven’t seen anything yet. And we are not prepared.

For what has become such a political football, this is a pretty strong article, don't you think? Of course, I don't really know. Maybe it was paired with a denialist column? But there's no sign of that on the web page.

But what will people like my anonymous commenter think? Here's what he said previously:
Recently I got into a conversation with some teenagers who were convinced that if we did not do 'something' (very vague on what that something should be though and certainly not something that should change their own personal life style at all) then we would all face a 'Day after tomorrow' scenario soon.

And this is the problem as I see it. Virtually every natural disaster is put down to 'climate change' from Katrina (which was a humans being in the wrong place and poor engineering problem) to droughts being declared in one of the wettest places in the world (because the water companies allow so much leakage from their pipes problem).

The thing is, I wouldn't necessarily listen to a random bunch of teenagers, either - or anyone else, for that matter. And I wouldn't automatically believe a published article. But I would listen to the scientific consensus, especially when pretty much every year sets new global temperature records and when their forecasts of increasing and increasingly severe weather events seem to be taking place before our eyes.

No, you can't say that any particular storm, drought, or flood was caused by global warming. Some storms will happen anyway. Global warming predicts that we'll see an increasing number of such events and/or events of increasing severity, and that's exactly what we're seeing. It's not proof, of course, but science isn't about proof. And for Jeebus sake, why take that risk?

Why, after all, would you just assume that things won't be as bad as scientists say? You don't know that. You can't know that. Maybe they'll be even worse. A runaway climate change disaster hasn't happened while human beings have been around (with the possible exception of the last ice age), because otherwise we might not be here. And that's no coincidence, because there's nothing natural about this one.

But given even a chance of utter disaster, why take that risk? Why just shrug it off? Why wouldn't we listen to the experts in a clearly scientific matter like this? The scientific consensus may indeed be wrong, but that's sure as hell not the smart bet!

Here's an article in Scientific American about a current weather event:
One of the driest spring seasons on record in northern Europe has sucked soils dry and sharply reduced river levels to the point that governments are starting to fear crop losses and France, in particular, is bracing for blackouts as its river-cooled nuclear power plants may be forced to shut down.

French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire warned this week that the warmest and driest spring in half a century could slash wheat yields and might even push up world prices despite the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's predicting a bumper global crop due to greater plantings.

Was that caused by global warming? Who knows? No one can say, not for sure. You just can't claim that any particular weather event was caused by increasing global temperatures. But this sort of thing is consistent with what scientists have forecast. Aren't we smart enough to understand something like that? It doesn't seem so difficult to me.

Apparently, scientists and our more capable government leaders - those who don't choose their gut feelings over the scientific consensus - are beginning to give up on humanity being smart enough to do the right thing. Now, it seems they're beginning to look at emergency measures.

From The Guardian:
Lighter-coloured crops, aerosols in the stratosphere and iron filings in the ocean are among the measures being considered by leading scientists for "geo-engineering" the Earth's climate, leaked documents from the UN climate science body show.

In a move that suggests the UN and rich countries are despairing of reaching agreement by consensus at global climate talks, the US, British and other western scientists will outline a series of ideas to manipulate the world's climate to reduce carbon emissions. But they accept that even though the ideas could theoretically work, they might equally have unintended and even irreversible consequences.

This is crazy. No one really wants to experiment with geo-engineering, especially since we can't know what might happen. It's insane to risk our only planet like this. But it might be our only choice, if we're just too stupid to change our ways.

Well, it's already too late to prevent dramatic global warming. We've dithered too long already. And it's only going to get worse the longer we delay. The Earth's atmosphere, the Earth's climate, can't be turned around on a dime. Unfortunately, this is a long-term problem, the kind we humans are the worst at confronting.

But when it becomes a true emergency, it will definitely be too late. It will certainly be too late for doing the right thing. At that point, we may be left with an unproven and very dangerous geo-engineering experiment, where the cure might end up worse than the disease.

All because we're just too dumb, just too short-sighted, just too willing to believe what we want to believe. I really hope the scientific consensus is wrong. I hope the forecasts are wrong - and not in the wrong direction, either. But hope is a piss-poor response to something like this. We could be doing something about it. And even if the scientific consensus were wrong, we'd end up with cleaner, more efficient energy sources. Big problem, huh?

So why aren't we that smart?