Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dirty little secret

So, I have a dirty little secret.

As you can read in the rest of my posts, I'm a firm atheist. The thing is, I wasn't really always that way. I grew up in a Christian family, although more of an "occasional Sunday and maybe say grace when the grandparents are around" type of Christian family, rather than the rabid fundamentalist type I may rail against here from time to time. My teen years were pretty much firm atheist though.

The dirty little secret is that I slipped into religious mode through the better part of my university years, largely by falling into the first cause trap. Although I was quite proud of working myself into that philosophical position all by myself, I unfortunately did not work myself out of it.

This precipitated a number of years of reading the bible, attending church and generally seeing both fundamentalist and traditional Christianity from the inside. I have at various times felt this was one of my greatest failings, but I had a minor revelation today.

I really like reading Bad Astronomy because Phil is just a funny, smart and energetic scientist guy, plus I love astronomy. Lately he's been on a bit of a rant about creationists, and although his rather aggressive and confrontational tone on the matter makes me a bit uneasy, I generally agree with him.

Anyway, reading there led me to the Angry Astronomer's review of a Christian pastor's book. Let me sum up the book: Fundamentalist American Christianity's politicization of religion is utterly un-Christian.

That though has struck me a few times recently. Perhaps it is simply that I've been immersed through my religious journey in a bit deeper study of what the bible actually says, but I am inclied to agree.

I'm not going to dig up references at this exact moment, but these are a few things I recall:
  • *Jesus hated hypocrisy
  • *There are proverbs that seeking knowledge is good
  • *If anything, Jesus taught submission to the state
  • *Jesus taught nearly infinite tolerance and acceptance
  • *I think there was some Old Testament commandment about not lying...
Now, it's probably fair to say every creationist activist violates every single one of those at some point. (Maybe not the last one right away, but it always seems to come to that.)

So here's my new dirty little secret: I am going to dig up those references, and at the earliest opportunity I will use them in the battle against creationism. Since it's not actually possible to argue logically with these people, I wonder how they would respond to a theological argument that what they are doing is against the very religion they are claiming to support?

Friday, November 30, 2007


You may have heard the case of the teacher in Sudan who was imprisoned for allowing her students to name a teddy bear "Muhammad," but they still want to kill her.

OK, than the fact that their religious argument is totally bogus (the bear was not intended as an image of Muhammad to begin with) totally drives me crazy. Really, the only response I've been able to have to this has been, "Nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure."

And I feel bad about that. I want to be tolerant and respectful of other beliefs and religions, even though in my opinion they are entirely wrong and very often harmful. The right to be wrong and the right to be offensive are fundamental to the right to freedom of thought and the freedom of speech.

So, here's the deal:

We all have to live in the same world. I agree to be tolerant of your beliefs regardless of any criteria, including but not limited to a) internal logical inconsistency, b) inconsistency with observation and c) inconsistency with my own beliefs, on the condition that the same tolerance is reciprocated to myself and all others offering the same conditions.

Is that so hard? I suppose it is, it directly contradicts the very foundation of radical Christianity, Islam, Scientology, or any other similar belief system. It's the "radical" part that is the problem - the non-radical religions already subscribe to the above agreement. Really, it's far from sufficient for having a peaceful, open society, but if we can't even have that agreement at least in principle, we're utterly screwed.

For anyone who doesn't like it, we have the glass parking lot.

(Now, the paranoid conspiratist in me would suggest that perhaps all of this nonsense is a ruse designed to piss off even people like me enough to allow wars of aggression to proceed... I hope the fact that I still worry about stuff like that means I can be balanced about the situation and recognize when I'm being tricked before it turns to disaster.)

Game Violence

I was reading something about game violence recently. Aside from the fact that I find the entire "debate" irritating for reasons I might get into later, the interesting thing I got thinking about was the different types of violence in the world and, similarly, in games.

You basically have different situations that would generally be considered more or less acceptable:
  1. Intentional harm of the innocent (murder)
  2. Coincidental harm of the innocent (knew it was likely, manslaughter)
  3. Mutual oppositional violence (war)
  4. Defensive violence (repel invaders)
  5. Accidental harm of the innocent (no idea it would happen)
  6. Mutual permitted violence (boxing)
There may be other shades of it in there. The main point of interest was the lumping of a sport such as boxing under the "violence" label as though it was the same thing as playing a serial killer.

The interesting thing that occurs to me after writing a list in diminishing order of severity leads me to think about what the West is doing in the Middle East. We're being sold the "war in Iraq" as a war (severity 3), but really that's not quite right. The people in the country are repelling invaders (severity 4), but the US is fighting an unjustified war of aggression, which is pretty much murder (severity 1).

Now, to say the US should pull out right now, or even on a timetable, is a much more difficult issue. They should not be there, and I've maintained that since long before they even were there. They've made a right nasty mess of the Iraq and potentially ruined the US economy with massive debt, but there isn't any good way out now. That is why any nation worth any respect whatsoever doesn't involve itself in wars of aggression.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Recently Played: Crysis

Crysis is an exercise in so many things gone right, and so many things gone wrong. At one point my son made a comment to the effect that, "They made a movie out of this game!" He didn't mean cheap Hollywood derivative crap. There are moments in the game as visually stunning and epic as any movie, which is really saying something. I partially shrug at the whole "nanosuit" thing, which basically means your character can choose between armor, speed, strength or stealth. Only one can be selected at a time, and each drains power at a different rate depending what you are doing (getting shot, sprinting, hitting things or moving, respectively). As a sci-fi theme it isn't exactly inspired, but it does let you approach any of your objectives from a lot of different angles - speed in shooting, or sneak through without raising any suspicion.

The system requirements are astronomical. Now, I have a hard time faulting them for that, because the game does look fantastic. On the flip side, Half-Life 2: Episode Two also looks fantastic and doesn't grind my moderate-to-high performance system (Intel Quad Core 6600, nVidia 8600GTS) to dust. I think there must be a balance there that wasn't sufficiently met.

But the really bad stuff is the bugs. I've seen exactly the same issues reported by others (but curiously, not by everyone) so it's not just me. Some are genuine bugs, some are design issues, but here we go:
  • Several bugs that prevent missions from advancing. In particular, some "death animations" for enemies don't work all the time, leaving them hanging in the air. This would be just a graphical glitch, except in several circumstances this also prevents the proper events from getting triggered and allowing you to continue through the game, forcing you to load an old save game. (Either by fortunate chance or good design, the game does save your progress in individual files, rather than overwriting the same one, so you can go back fairly easily.)
  • Cutscenes are often very, very slow, much worse than the rest of the game for some reason. Occasionally they will simply pause for seconds at a time, causing the audio to go completely out of sync with the visuals.
  • The end-game involved dying. A lot. Which is fine, except it was almost always for completely random reasons. Game designers figured out that was a bad idea many years ago, what it's doing in one of the most high-profile modern games is beyond me.
  • The end-game didn't exactly communicate objectives well. You get the Stupid Big Gun at the end, then go off to defeat the Super Big Bad Guy, but you can't use the Stupid Big Gun against it for some reason. After defeating Super Big Bad Guy through conventional means (which takes forever and gives little indication that you're actually doing any damage), Big Daddy Super Big Bad Guy comes out, where you CAN use the Stupid Big Gun, but only in a very specific way. Since BDSBBG is a big pushover compared to SBBG, if the whole thing wasn't presented with such style it would be immensely disappointing, instead of merely being underwhelming.
  • Did I mention the end-game involved a lot of dying? So while you're stumbling around trying to figure out what you're supposed to be doing, you tend to get killed a lot, without any idea if it's because there's a bug in the game (since we established that is a problem), you're not doing it right (which is possible, it's all explained so poorly), or you just suck.
  • The end-game is really where the framerate issues become a problem, because despite having acceptable framerates on medium settings for the whole game, even with everything on low settings the whole thing turns into a slideshow at the very end, compounding all of the above problems.
I loved this game on the whole. Still, as was a common complaint with its predecessor Far Cry, it starts off marvelously, then just takes a wrong turn at the end, which is really unfortunate. Now, maybe I'll come back to it in two years with more computing power and a few patches and be blown away. If only they could have spent another couple weeks fixing the bugs.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Stupid thing of the day

So, I heard on the radio this morning a big debate about whether to allow a gigantic Canadian Tire box store to be built in Vancouver. I don't really care much either way, really, but the interesting thing was how it was being suggested that it might generate a lot of traffic, and they were hoping to find a way to minimize it. After all it was only a few blocks away from the Sky Train...

I just couldn't believe anyone actually said that. It's a Canadian Tire. Sure, they carry a wide range of things, but it's primarily an automotive store. Of course people are going to drive there!

It's actually planned for the site of a former car dealership, so... the whole argument is just oozing lies, lies and more lies on every side really. At least the opponents had the decency to say that they mostly didn't want it because it would almost ensure Wal Mart would then find a way to put a store in (which the opponents recently prevented from happening).


Monday, November 5, 2007

Recently Played: Portal

OK, so, it's been a month since I last posted. That's not so great. Considering my audience size is about two, it probably doesn't matter, but whatever. It's been a while.

So, I bought the Orange Box, which may explain some of that absence of posting. Half Life 2: Episode Two was fabulous, and like all good things left you wanting more.

The more surprising thing in the box was Portal. I was expecting an interesting puzzle game involving portals (create your own "holes" in walls, go in one and you'll come out the other). What caught me (and many others) off guard was the very subtle and very funny story that ties the game together. To top it all off, it has one of the best credits sequences in any game.

Really, Portal is just a nearly perfectly executed game, and meshes perfectly with Valve's game design theory. They always design their levels to teach players the skills they need, and then give them progressively harder problems to solve with those skills. The story that helps hold that together involves an insane, homicidal computer running the show, but this aspect is only gradually introduced. In fact, the story is so subtly introduced I have read raging debates on the forums about what different parts of the story actually mean. That people care that much about the story is perhaps the greatest indication about how well done this game is.

More to the point, I wish I had made it. :-)

At least it gives me some good ideas on how games I'm working on should be designed, and hopefully help make them better.

As usual, Yahtzee has generally captured the essence of what I'd like to say in Zero Punctuation.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Just returned from: Los Angeles

I just returned from Los Angeles. Impressions:

  • LAX is just a terrible airport. Everything is miles from everything else, there's pretty much no place to buy anything, and the parts that aren't claustrophobic are uninspired and drab. And even after you've walked the country mile to get to the baggage claim, you still have to wait around forever before your luggage actually arrives.
  • Highways. We don't really have highways in Canada I think. Highways in California have at least 4-6 lanes in each direction, and average speed is about 120-130km/h. While scary as hell, I get the impression this vastly reduces the number of impatient, idiotic drivers. "Me before anybody else!" is the prevailing attitude in Vancouver, but I didn't see that as much down there, presumably because everybody's already going stupid fast. Note: you could drift into another lane pretty fast at that speed.
  • The air in LA sucks. Vancouver's not great, but at least the rain cleans it out a bit (yay, the rain is good for something!)
Overall I give LA a C-, mostly because I got to drive Really Damn Fast in a Relatively Legal Fashion. No, I did not buy an "I *heart* LA" t-shirt.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Recently Played: Bioshock (PC)

I recently finished playing BioShock.

Overall, it is an excellent game, probably the best game of the year so far. That said, I keep thinking back to my previous gaming obsession, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and somehow it was never quite as captivating. I logged over 100 hours in Oblivion and mostly stopped playing in order to get some sort of a life back (World of Warcraft players, I salute and pity you). BioShock clocked in at probably one fifth of that time, but somehow there was never that compulsion to play, that planning your life around figuring when you can get back to the game.

What's good about BioShock? The graphics are amazing, certainly. The Big Daddy is simply an awesome character, perhaps one of the most memorable characters I have seen in years. The setting is very cool, an underwater city in 1920s art deco style. The sense that Something Very Bad has happened is ever-present - there is scarcely any part of the city that is not falling apart in some way, leaks and rubble everywhere. Thinking back on the sterile environments of most games of even a few years ago really makes an impression as to how far games have come even recently.

Still, I just don't feel as excited about the game as I think I should. Maybe it's because the story gets a little derailed after the main plot twist (and the story was a little confusing to begin with). Maybe it's that the final boss battle is such a departure from the rest of the game. (Really, the ending of the game is a bit of a letdown.) Maybe it's because the game takes control away from the player at some key moments, most notably at the end. Really, the places where control is taken away are exactly the points in the game where giving player a choice would have made the game great. (Note to self: After the final big boss battle, do not take control away from the player and end the game immediately.)

Maybe it's because, despite one attempt at allowing the player to make a moral choice, the game forces you to do some rather questionable things in order to advance. That linearity to the game is really the biggest weakness. At the end of each level, the game's transportation system will allow you to travel to any of the previous environments, but there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to do so.

All of the ingredients are there to have an open ended game with multiple solutions to each problem (the easy, evil road, or the hard, good road) but they were never executed on. I really have to suspect that that is the game that was originally designed, but could not be achieved for reasons of money or time. Being a game developer I have an immense amount of sympathy and understand as to why those things may not have panned out as expected. Certainly the pressure to get the game out the door, especially one as good as this, would be immense. Maybe I'm just disappointed that what could have been an all-time classic (as I would expect Oblivion to be considered) will go down as one of many games-of-the-year that are all too quickly forgotten.

Buy it, enjoy it, just don't expect it to change your life.

See also: Zero Punctuation Review of BioShock

Thursday, September 13, 2007


So, I missed posting anything on 9/11, partially because Real Life interfered, as it often does, but also because there wasn't much to say.

The usual questions were raised, should Canada fly its flags at half mast on Sept. 11, etc.

Yes, people died. That is by definition tragic. Many, many, many more people die every day, in even more heartbreaking circumstances.

Really, 9/11 was a tragic event with really, really good marketing. The western world's response to it would most accurately be described as over-reaction. The terrorism catch-phrase makes a lot of people a lot of money.

I think what we should remember is that our world changed that day. We need to remember what it is like to live in a world that is not controlled by fear. We need to remember that any of us could die at any time, although the odds may be against it. We need to remember that we will all die, eventually, and that that is a good thing. We need to remember that trading freedom for safety is neither a fair trade, nor a feasible one.

We need to remember that life before the world changed, in hope that our children or our children's children may find it again.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Pessimist's Theory of Happiness

The Pessimist's Theory of Happiness states that happiness can neither be created, nor destroyed, but can only move from on person to another. Put another way, there is a constant amount of happiness in the universe, and the only way to get more happiness is to take it from someone else.

OK, I just made that up. Well, not just, I came up with it some months ago, but that's not the point.

Of course the Optimist's Theory of Happiness states that happiness can be created willy-nilly without any particular consequence.

Somehow these theories make me think of conservatives and liberals, respectively. There is perhaps some validity to the Pessimist's version. For instance, if you raise taxes to provide services, sure somebody gets the service, but everybody also gets taxed more. Similarly, if you're rich and can convince the government to give you a tax break and pass the cost on to everyone else, you can manage to extract happiness from them that way. Of course, then you get into the Laws of Happydynamics, and see that when bureaucracy manages happiness, some of that happiness is irrecoverably lost to ambient heat.

I hear someone at the back shouting that, "money does not equal happiness." Perhaps not, but at least we have standard units of currency. What is the standard unit of happiness exactly? "I'd like one decagrin please." Money is irrelevant anyway, it's just a way of keeping score. The point is that a lot of people obtain their happiness by extracting it from others.

Now, on the other hand, there are people who create stuff that make a lot of people very happy. There are many wonderful authors who have written things that have surely made many people very happy, surely significantly in excess of whatever struggles were required to create it. That is one of the cool things about creating - it seems at least possible that you are increasing the total amount of happiness in the universe, while all the consumers / non-creators are busy just moving all of the happiness around until we achieve apathy-death.

Unfortunately, I don't recall if I actually had a point when I started writing this post. Certainly one has not arisen as quickly as I would have hoped. If you have any happiness you could send my way, perhaps I could find a way to wrap this up more satisfactorily. Thanks!

Friday, September 7, 2007

What are we?

From time to time I think about our (that is, human's) place in the world / universe.

I remember being in elementary school, and we were being taught to classify things into "natural" and "man-made." At the time this struck me as an exceptionally stupid way to classify things, because people are as much a part of nature as anything else. Really, despite our manipulation of tools and our invention prowess and communication abilities, we have more in common with squirrels than bacteria living in under-sea volcanic vents do. I'm not really an environmentalist,
but man-made is not a natural classification for me.

Let me get to the point: We are animals. We are made of atoms, just like trees, dirt, rocks, and fuzzy bunnies, and everything else that is not hard vacuum (and even then quantum mechanics makes that a bit iffy, but that's not the point, not yet anyway). We are not special in any universal sense. We are special in a personal sense, possibly, but ultimately we're just a bunch of stuff crawling around on the surface of a rock orbiting a giant fusion reactor. As I heard someone say (quoting someone else, I believe, and I'm not going to track down the original author right now): We're just a bunch of cells that decided to be "us" for a while.

Now, those sorts of thoughts probably freak out the religious among us, who regard humans as exceptionally special. I think it's pretty cool to think of a person as a bunch of single-celled organisms that got together and created a person, but maybe I'm just weird that way.

There's a quote from the TV show Babylon 5 suggesting that we are the universe attempting to understand itself. When I first heard that, I thought it was pseudo-religious garbage - the universe "intentionally" creating people to help understand itself. I realized recently that's not really what it means. We actually are a part of the universe. We're a bunch of supernova remnants. We are just a chunk of the universe. And we are trying to understand the universe. Yes, we literally are a piece of the universe trying to understand the universe (i.e. itself). That doesn't imply intent, creation, or anything else, that's simply a statement of fact.

I'll have to think more about what that means, but it seems a very interesting way to look at things to me.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

So, I was thinking....

I make games for a living. On one hand, it's very rewarding, because at the end of a project there's actually something that you have created that literally hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people will enjoy. I have wondered with increasing frequency over the years whether it would be more valuable to put my skills towards things more obviously beneficial to the health and welfare of humanity.

In the end, though, I have brought a lot of joy to a lot of people over the years. I do this better than I do anything; it is quite possible I do this better than I will ever be able to do anything else. I can sense myself casually drifting to the point where my experience often interferes with my ability to try reckless new approaches to things. I'll fight that as long as I can, but my days of being able to change the world are probably numbered.

What does the betterment of humanity mean exactly anyway? For a lot of people, I have made life more enjoyable. I'm sure for some, I have made life worth living, if even for a short while. There are other things I could do that might save lives, but saving a life is not the same as making a life worth living. What a drab place it would be if everyone worked only to keep everyone else alive, only to have them inevitably die at a later time anyway.

We often forget that we will die. We more often forget that we should die, to make room for new people, and more importantly, new ideas. Saving lives has become and end unto itself, grown from this forgetfulness, until we have forgotten how to live.

So I will continue to do what I do. I will continue to touch people's lives in the best way that I can, and hopefully make us all better for it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Things That Have Annoyed Me Recently

I have added a wonderful new permanent box to my page - Things That Have Annoyed Me Recently. This, as you may have guessed, will be a list of the many things that have Annoyed Me Recently.

In a wonderfully self-referential accident, the thing that has annoyed me most recently is the fact that, despite my efforts to edit the raw HTML, the boxes down the side of my page apparently refuse to display a bullet-point list. Which means when it word-wraps a line, it doesn't format it very nicely. More puzzling, when I did it with an actual built-in "list" type box, it still didn't bullet-point anything.

As for the other things, driving in Vancouver is an adventure. I recently had someone come up behind me fast as we exited the highway, even though I was probably going at least the posted limit. Then they pulled back out of the (very short) exit lane, pull around me, cut across the painted island, and nearly cut me off, and then they were gone. I passed them less than 30 seconds later, as they were stuck behind several cars at a red light. I waved, but I doubt they saw me, unfortunately. For futile impatience and endangerment of others, I would like to award a "Please Die in a Disemboweling or, if unavailable, Decapitating Collision Award" to this person.

As far as merging, the basic theory is this: You need to be going the same speed as the lane you are merging into. The other important thing to note is that "merge" and "yield" do not mean the same thing. More to the point, they mean practically the opposite of each other. Further, if you attempt to yield when you are supposed to merge in Vancouver, you may never get moving again until most of the city has gone to bed. I award a moderate rear-ending to anyone stopped in the merging lane. I also award a "tango with a semi" to the bastards who won't make a hole big enough for us to merge into, which often precipitates said stoppage.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Sleep. I could probably use more. I've been on vacation for about seven weeks now, and somehow I'm only barely rested. I'm not sure if going back to work next week is going to be good or bad for that. A regular schedule is actually kind of good for me, because I only actually feel like working around the house when the sun is up. Interestingly, I can work on the computer any time of the day or night, so my choice of occupation was probably a good one.

The problem is not that I can't sleep. I almost always fall asleep very quickly, and once I'm out it's hard to wake me up. Even if I do wake up, I can generally go back to sleep fairly easily.

No, the problem is, as I've long known, that I hate change of state. I hate going to bed. I think it's a form of laziness - it's significantly less work to keep playing on the computer than it is to go to bed. By the same token, it's significantly easier to stay in bed than it is to get up. The difference is, I go to bed when I want, but I have to get up for school or work, which is outside of my control. I'm fairly sure it's a form of laziness, because the more tired I get, the less inclined I am to go to bed. That there is an unlimited amount of stuff to read on the web doesn't exactly help the situation either - there will always be "one more" interesting thing to read.

I also know from experience that if I do let my sleep schedule drift, it tends to drift until I'm going to bed around noon and/or getting up around midnight. Somehow that seems to be the point where things stabilize, which seems a bit odd. Since I can stay up long past any usual "bedtime," and work on something longer than a 24 hour day, I'm not sure why it stabilizes at the most awkward possible schedule.

So, while my vacation has been relaxing, it hasn't necessarily been restful.

Possible courses of correction:
*Brush teeth two hours before bed, when I might still have the energy
*Take the laptop to bed so I can do stuff, but not expend much more energy than closing it when it's time to sleep
*Convince myself to go to bed on time like a responsible adult (ha!)

I think it's good that I stay away from drugs and alcohol entirely. It's much too easy for me to do things before I go to bed and regret them in the morning.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

September 11, 2001

I have a thing for conspiracy theories. At first it was kind of humorous, not unlike driving by a traffic accident - uncomfortable with your interest, but unable to avoid taking a quick peek. There are a lot of strange theories out there, particularly theories that the plane that crashed into the Pentagon was not a plane at all, but a missile. Also that the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center were remotely piloted.

One of the sites I came across was http://www.whatreallyhappened.com, where at one time or another I read both of those theories. Something interesting happened a while ago though. They essentially decided that some of these crazier theories were being set up as straw-man theories to discredit people with valid questions about 9/11 by lumping them together with the crazies. Whether this sort of meta-paranoia has any validity or not is hard to determine, although I have noticed a bit more restraint and sensibility from people the mass-media would paint with the "crackpot" brush. Sites such as http://www.911truth.org/ at least seem to be interested in providing evidence.

All of this stuff is fairly hard to discuss rationally, because six years on this is still a highly emotionally charged event. I'm convinced there are troubling unresolved questions, but a lot of people are still just weird about the whole thing. I suppose it had its intended effect, whether you're a terrorist or part of a conspiracy to gain power.

There is one question I would really like to have answered: Why did WTC7 collapse? A 47-story building collapses, although it only sustained secondary damage and fire. The appropriate response would be to give full access to an independent panel of structural engineers to determine exactly what happened and how to prevent it from happening again, or determine better methods for building such structures in the future. What actually appears to have happened is that any independent engineers were given a dog and pony show / tour and all evidence was sold and shipped to China as quickly as possible. Even in the best light, that is massively incompetent. I would expect it is criminal.

I once heard these issues being discussed on a local, respected radio station (CKNW) while interviewing a "conspiracy theorist" on a call-in show. I don't recall too many specifics, but I did notice this: Every single person who believed the events of September 11, 2001 were either planned or permitted by elements of the US government provided strong evidence and reasons for their position. Every single person who took the official government position provided no evidence whatsoever and responded to all questions with nothing more than name-calling and personal attacks. This isn't an isolated incident, I see it every single time this is brought up in traditional media. It hardly seems surprising though - as I just mentioned, all evidence that might support the official story was quickly and deliberately destroyed.

I try to remain skeptical of both sides of the discussion, but there is one fact that seems hard to explain: Sibel Edmonds is the most gagged person in US history, for attempting to expose criminal activity within the US government related to 9/11. I really would like to hear what she has to say.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Logic of Religion

They say that logic and religion don't mix. This usually seems to be stated at roughly the same time any meaningful religious debate has entered the, "you're right, but I'm not going to change what I believe anyway," stage. I love playing with metaphorical fire, so here we go.

If we start with the assumption that some omnipotent, omniscient god exists, we can go all sorts of interesting places. But first a little formal logic.

If a sentence is of the form "If A, then B" we get a truth table as demonstrated here. The interesting thing here is that, if your premise is false, your statement as a whole is always true. This may also explain a great deal of political debate, but that's not really the point.

If god exists, then god created the earth. If god exists, then god creates the rain. If god exists, then god ordered the locusts to destroy your crops.

The interesting bit is, these statements are always 100% absolutely certainly true as long as god doesn't exist. Once you starting assuming that god exists, you can pretty much stop thinking about the "if god exists" part and believe any old thing you like. It pretty much sounds like this:

  • If god exists, then god created the Earth.
  • If god created the Earth, then god created people.
  • If god created people, then there must be some unusual reason that bad things happen.
  • If there is some unusual reason bad things happen, then god must have a plan to fix it.

Western religion can just magically spring into a relatively logically consistent existence as long as you are simply willing to assume that god exists. If you create a religion with that assumption, you can simplify the whole thing down to:

  • God created the Earth.
  • God created people.
  • There must be some unusual reason that bad things happen.
  • God must have a plan to fix it.

The problem is, any of these statements could be either true or false - they are all atomic, not implications. I hardly think it a stretch to say that early humans, just barely learning to communicate with each other and figure out the complicated world we live in, would have made this accidental little logical oops.

  • If god exists, then you are being punished for your sins.

If god doesn't exist, this statement is always true. If god does exist, well, you maybe have a 50% of being right or wrong.

From this perspective, religion may be true, but it's more likely to be true if god doesn't exist. That doesn't tell us much, I just thought it was funny. :-)

So, why "inverse?"

One upon a time, back before normal humans were allowed on the Internet, or practically anyone else for that matter, I used to dial up BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) on my exceptionally slow modem, over the phone lines. That would be like having to dial a different phone number every time you wanted to go to a different web page. The isolated nature of each of these boards made each of them feel a bit more like a community than most things you get on the Internet today.

I visited some of the real-time chat boards regularly. Chats like this are weird, you don't see them a lot now days. The weird thing is that you can be in the same room as a couple dozen other people, and you can all be talking together, or you can all be talking at the same time. Trying to parse out a single conversation line from all of the noise is really strange at first, but with a little practice, it becomes pretty easy. The human brain is very cool.

Anyway, every user had a "handle," which is your user name. I'm not sure where the term "handle" disappeared to, but it was a good term.

My handle was Matrix. I'm not sure exactly why, mostly I thought the word sounded cool, but also suggested my math-nerdiness. I had recently been learning about them in university. They are a mathematical table of numbers that one can do interesting things with. It's very important to note that this was before The Matrix the movie came out. The original obscure nerdiness is gone, and replaced by nerdiness-in-black-leather. I really like the movie, but now it would just seem too fanboyish to use it as an alias, when that's not what it was about.

Ah, but all is not lost. Similar to the way the inverse of a real number x=1/y (or x=y^-1) means that xy=1, the inverse of a matrix M^-1 is the matrix such that MM^1=I, where I is the identity matrix (a square matrix with 1's on the diagonal from the top left to the bottom right, and 0's everywhere else). It's a very useful and interesting property. All of this is well explained on the Wikipedia page above, so I will not geek out at this time, enticing as it may be.

So, I have adopted the name inverse, without capitalization for reasons that I'm not really clear on. I'm obsessive about correct capitalization when I'm writing and posting, so perhaps it's simply subversive only to me. It's a nerdy word, it's related to matrices, and it means in some respect "upside down" or "opposite." The page is called "inverse thinking," which literally means "me thinking," but also means "upside down thinking," or maybe "unconventional thinking."

I like it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Recently Watched: Happy Feet

I recently watched Happy Feet, mostly because it was the movie that beat Pixar's Cars at the academy awards, which to me seemed to be a rather significant accomplishment. It may have deserved it, it was very good, although I got the feeling a rather large portion of the movie could have been edited out, still made the same point and tightened up the pacing quite a bit.

I'm not here to critique the movie, though.

One of the main plot lines in the movie is that aliens (humans) are stealing the penguin's food supply (fish) either selfishly or unwittingly. From the penguin's perspective (and these are singing / talking / dancing penguins now), humans are simply beyond comprehension. At the same time, penguins are (to some humans) stupid, worthless birds, so why not take all of their fish?

I've been seeing articles fairly frequently recently about Fermi's Paradox (see here and here) and this got me to thinking about the existence of alien life, and what it would likely do if it encountered us. The problem we face is that, if life is even remotely as probable as suspected, and the odds of a technological space-faring race evolving is at all probable, the aliens should be here and everywhere else already.

One of the posts in the second link above suggested that any race sufficiently advanced to travel between stars must be so advanced that they've solved all energy, food and mortality problems. That seems a bit ridiculous, presumably from the perspective of 600 years ago you could believe the same thing about a civilization that could cross the Atlantic. Or the Pacific. Or circumnavigate the globe. In an aircraft. Well, our fabulous civilization has done all of those things, and so many more, but those problems are more than a little way from being solved.

It seems that our perception of an alien race is some race so advanced that it is impossible for them to make a mistake. Crashing in Roswell would simply be impossible for a race that has traveled the stars, despite zero-g space travel and landing in a rather significant gravity well with an atmosphere being two fairly different problems. I think we have to admit it's at least possible for alien races to make mistakes, for machinery no matter how advanced to fail, and that we have only slightly more insight into how to build an interstellar spacecraft than penguins have about how to build a fishing trawler.

So, it's back to the penguins again. Perhaps we are the penguins. Perhaps the purposes of alien life is so beyond our understanding that humans are of little interest beyond the occasional alien zoologist, who might drop in to catalog us, and then be on their way. It is supreme arrogance to assume that we are so intelligent and advanced that a space-faring species would feel compelled to drop in and start a conversation? Penguins can communicate after a fashion, but it seems it would be scarcely worth the effort to communicate with them. Taking part in their mating ritual hardly seems compelling. Even if they were more intelligent, discussing the consistency of snow and ice and how tasty raw fish is would only be novel for about a week.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems we have is that we have never met another species with even remotely our level of abstract thinking. If other species had arisen that we could interact with (and we could resist wiping them out) perhaps we would understand a thing or two about other intelligent species - and perhaps that once you have done so, meeting others isn't quite as cool as we think it would be. No denying, it would be big for us. Maybe not so much for them if they've done it hundreds, thousands or millions of times with species a lot more advanced than we are.

There are lots of potential reasons why Fermi's Paradox isn't a paradox at all. Maybe they are here, and they're either hiding, or they just don't care. Of course, maybe the chances of a technological society arising are absurdly small. Life has existed on this planet for a very, very, very long time. We are the only species known to have even been able to create fire in all that time. What did happen to our evolutionary path that brought us to that point that every other species seems to have missed, and why did it take so long? Or maybe it was fast, and nobody else really is there yet. It's entirely possible there are billions of worlds exactly like ours, minus us, so the universe is filled with life trapped on their worlds until their stars explode and the whole thing starts all over again. The odds of life arising may be small, so far there has only been one verified case of human-level intelligence ever, despite billions of years of evolution, and that's us. (I might be willing to provide an exception to some of our parent and sibling species, but regardless there is only this one line that has even approached a technological society, and only one that has achieved it.)

To finish up, I liked the movie, not only because it was well done, but because it makes me think about all of this stuff, and that's just good nerd fun. It gave me a new perspective on how aliens might perceive us, and gave me a bit of a reality check on some of the exceedingly arrogant perceptions we might have of ourselves as a technological society.

Recently Read: Ender's Game

I recently read Ender's Game for the first time. From what I could gather, this was one of the stock nerd must-read books, but somehow I had managed never to read it. I'm sure there are many discussions of the relative merits of the story and the writing quality (the author makes reference to as much in the introduction), so I won't really go into that much.

The short version is that Ender is a six-year-old genius who is recruited by the military to be the leader in a great interstellar war. He is hated by his peers, as they are jealous of him or have their own weaknesses exposed when compared to his exceptional skills, but he uses his superior intellect to overcome this.

I intentionally skipped the introduction when I read the book to avoid any potential spoilers (although I was already spoiled on the main twist in the book anyway). Reading it after having read the book made me realize something rather interesting. Writing about the fans of the book, the author mentions that the people most fond of the book didn't love Ender, or pity him (which the author states is a common adult response to the book), but they were Ender. The thing that surprised me was not that I felt that I was Ender in some capacity - that was obviously the reason the book is held in such high esteem by people like me - but mostly that I had never considered that other people might react with pity to Ender, and by extension, myself. Apathy, jealousy, dislike perhaps, but not pity.

I never considered myself as pitiful. I'm relatively successful in my career, have a good home and a loving family. I have suffered through some of the bullying and jealousy, but never as extreme as many people suffer, and that is not a reason for pity - that is a reason for disgust at the bullies and those adults too blind to do anything about them. Why pity Ender? I admire him. He overcomes his problems with intelligence and dignity.

I have never been much of a leader. I realized in the last few days that I never considered that intelligence could actually be applied directly to leadership. Leadership either seemed to be something that came naturally without any thought, was derived from the joy of pushing people around (which I generally lack) or just generally came in the form of random fads of techniques, processes and sayings that amounted to nothing. Reading this book made me realize, for the first time, that leadership is the process of using intelligence to both gain mutual trust (different from obedience) and solve a complex resource allocation optimization problem. I now understand much better how to be a good leader, and I understand why I have seen many bad leaders - intelligence can be the key difference.

So, what can I say about this book? I had fun reading it. It made me understand myself better. I feel that I came away from reading it a better person. I can think of no higher praise than that.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Nerd humor

So, my wife walks into the bedroom and screams, "What the fulcrum is going on in here?!" and the young lady with me shouts, "I thought you were gonna lever!"
A little something to alleviate the rather grim tone I began this page with. As far as I know, that was created by me.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I Have Seen Beyond

I have various thoughts come to me "out of the blue." What follows is one of those things. Well, the first line came out of the blue. The rest just naturally seemed to follow.

I have seen beyond the little things
Seen freedom's end on broken wings

I have seen beyond the hate and fear
The terror that colors all we hear

I have seen beyond the lies we're told
That break our will, which we have sold

I have seen beyond the ignorance
The ever louder song and dance

I have seen beyond, and so I tend
To fear our world is at an end

I had intended to make these lyrics. While a competent musician, I doubt I will ever be able to bring myself to release a recording of myself saying them. I really don't like my voice that much. Perhaps some day.

Although I often think of myself as optimistic, you can probably tell from the above that I'm fairly pessimistic about America, its people and its government. Not actually being American makes it worse. There is next to nothing I can do to change the course to destruction that they are on. I despise them, pity them, love them and fear them. I am afraid for them, and I am afraid for us all.


I once asked a friend, "Why would I describe the intimate details of my life in an online public forum, when I wouldn't walk up to a random person on the street and do the same thing?"

That pretty much sums up my early opinion of writing an online diary. The fact that they quickly became known as... erk... "blogs" (there I said it, carefully imprisoned by quotation marks) didn't give me much motivation to actually start one, particularly when any site I would be likely to post one on probably had the word in its name. I hate the word. Really, it's the sound a dog would make while puking up the remains of something that really didn't agree with it. Well, not really, dogs have a bit of trouble pronouncing the letter B, even when losing their breakfast, but reading the word gives me roughly the same feeling as watching such.

So, why write this journal thing? There's a complicated answer to that, which I won't get into now. The simple answer is that I feel it would be a benefit to me to write it, and be a benefit to others to read it. I don't intend to write much about the intricate details of my daily life, but I do want to share my perspective of the world. Then again, perhaps that is the most personal thing I can share.