So, am I a hypocrite?

September 20, 2017

I’ve talked a few times in the past about weight loss, and talked about various approaches and the importance of exercise and the right way to go about it so that it’s sustainable. And yet, recently, after having lost a bit of weight I yo-yoed at least slightly up … no where near back to where it was at its worst, but still more than I’d like. So, was I a hypocrite, talking about others when I myself couldn’t actually do it? Or was I just a ignorant person talking about the right way to do things when I had no idea what I was talking about?

I say “Neither”, because I know exactly why I gained some of that weight back. Around May, I decided to go off of my general diet a bit and eat some things that I normally wouldn’t, since my weight and even cholesterol were seemingly under control — or, at least, under control enough to not worry about — and I was also busy and so not paying attention that much. Plus, we had a rainy summer, which took away one of my primary sources of exercise, which is walking. But a little bit of that wouldn’t be an issue, but I ran that for way too long. I also tried to rework my eating in the evenings after settling an issue with acne and made a huge mistake. I found some muffins that I liked, and looked at two things: the saturated fat and the fiber content (since when I’m eating well fiber is something I don’t get a lot of in my diet). Well, they worked for that, so I started adding them for my evenings and general snacks. And anyone who knows anything about muffins will immediately see the problem: muffins have an amazingly high amount of calories. So since I wasn’t paying attention to the calories at all, I was overeating because I was eating too many muffins.

There was also another factor. At one point in the spring as I was trying to lose my Christmas weight gain — which I will always have because I always stop watching my diet around Christmas — I was losing weight too quickly. I only want to lose about a pound a weak and I was losing two or so. Thus, I was trying to make sure that I kept eating enough and didn’t get myself into any kind of starvation mode, which then helped me to overeat a bit.

So, after shuffling my eating around a bit and getting more exercise, the weight is starting to come down. I’m hoping to be back in shape just in time for Christmas.

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Post Transformers: The Movie World

September 18, 2017

So, what struck me about the Transformers cartoon post-“The Movie” is how unlike pretty much every other series that I’ve watched — which to be fair is pretty much G1 and Beast Wars — the most interesting and driving personal conflict in the series wasn’t Galvatron vs Rodimus Prime. For the most part, any real conflict or rivalry they had was shallowly done, if at all, and not a major factor in the series. On the other hand, the conflict between Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus got more direct play and was the more interesting conflict. How did this happen?

First, Galvatron in that cartoon was absolutely insane, which was noted by the characters on numerous occasions. He didn’t have the megalomania and overall evil of, say, G1 Megatron or Beast Wars Megatron, with them being evil and having mental tics but being, overall, competent and manipulative villains. While both had a temper and definitely didn’t brook betrayal or treachery — at least against them — and often went out of their way to repay perceived or real slights, they in general were still competent and not as much of a danger to their own side as they were to the enemy. Far too often, Galvatron’s competence vanished leaving him with only power to recommend him, power that he sometimes used against his own allies in his zeal to destroy the Autobots, as was noted in “Webworld”, the episode where Cyclonus ends up having him committed in an attempt to restore his sanity so that he can more effectively lead the Decepticons. Overall, this led to a general overarching impression and plot where we have the Decepticon lieutenants — particularly Cyclonus — having to work with and work around an unstable Galvatron, made all the worse for Cyclonus because he was the one who set out to recover Galvatron, seeing him as the last hope the Decepticons had after their defeat by the Autobots. Having to admit that his revered leader wasn’t really helping in “Webworld” struck deep at him and brought home to the audience just how serious Galvatron’s insanity really was.

And this can be an interesting line to take, focusing on the Decepticons reacting to an unstable leader who nevertheless is powerful enough that he can’t just be done away with and who is enough of a figurehead that the Decepticons will automatically rally to him for the most part, whereas without him the Decepticons might fall back into fighting amongst themselves again. The problem is that this sort of storyline tends to shift the focus a lot to Cyclonus, and away from Galvatron as leader. But then maybe they could have set up a conflict between Cyclonus and Rodimus Prime, but that didn’t work for two reasons.

First, Rodimus Prime wasn’t all that impressive as Autobot leader. They deliberately set him up as the inexperienced and reluctant leader, not someone who had sought it out and someone who was more impulsive than a good leader should be. And, again, this could work. But it works best against a strong Decepticon leader, one who can try to manipulate those impulsive tendencies and doubts and force Rodimus to overcome them to oppose him, like Beast Wars Megatron. Galvatron is not that sort of Decepticon leader, and Cyclonus is in general too Lawful to pursue those courses most of the time as well. So with nothing to play off of Rodimus comes across as an ineffective leader, not as a worthy leader growing into the role. Second, Rodimus doesn’t have anything that lets us see him as the natural or superior Autobot leader. He is handed the leadership for being the “Chosen One”, but aside from that he’s singularly unimpressive as leader. He doesn’t have Optimus Prime’s or Optimus Primal’s inherent leadership ability and charisma. He doesn’t embody the Autobot principles like Optimus Prime did (sometimes not seeing to care about making peace and peace conferences, for example). He’s not as physically impressive as Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal were relative to the other characters; Ultra Magnus and Springer, for example, seem more overall physically impressive. He’s not regarded as the most skilled fighter on his team, like Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal were; Grimlock and Ultra Magnus are likely better fighters. He doesn’t even have a unique and impressive weapon or abilities like Optimus Prime — his laser rifle — and Optimus Primal — flight — had. So outside of the Matrix choosing him for some reason, we have no idea why he should be leader.

Second, the better counterpart to Cyclonus is clearly Ultra Magnus. As was lampshaded in one episode, Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus are mirror images of each other. Alignment-wise, we have Lawful Evil and Lawful Good. Both of them are dedicated to their leaders … or, at least, Ultra Magnus was to Optimus Prime, although he can be a bit frustrated by Rodimus Prime at times. And, heck, both of them are frustrated by and often have to work around the leadership failings of their leaders. However, neither of them have any interest in leading themselves. The conflict between them and the “Enemy Mine” situations they sometimes enter into is indeed a good conflict between similar yet strikingly different characters. Their conflict is interesting, and any attempt to slide that over to Rodimus would only create a conflict that was less interesting by contrast.

So, what we have is a series where both leaders aren’t the sorts of characters that can carry the main conflict of the series or being the main focus of the series, while their lieutenants in general were. It’s no wonder that, at least to me, some of the more interesting episodes are the ones that focus on Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus and their conflicts with each other, and not on Galvatron and Rodimus Prime.

Review of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom

September 15, 2017

So, a short review here of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. Being someone who is in general suspicious of empathy and particularly in its use in morality, the idea of someone else arguing directly against that interested me, which is why I picked up the book, to see what his overall arguments were.

One of the things that Bloom is careful to do is to separate the various types of empathy, which I’ll talk about using my terms for them (and not his): affective empathy, which is feeling what other people are feeling, cognitive empathy, which is knowing what other people are feeling, and moral empathy, which is caring about what they are feeling beyond what benefit you get from it. Bloom thinks that many people are conflating affective empathy with the other two, which causes them to think that affective empathy is required for being moral. And it’s easy to see how that can happen, since a pretty good case can be made that a moral person a) has to care about what other people are feeling to determine what the right moral action is and thus b) has to know what someone is or will actually feel. Bloom’s argument, though, is that in general affective empathy isn’t all that great at doing that and even at lining up with our general moral intuitions. The reasons he gives are pretty much in line with my general objections to using empathy as a moral basis: empathy tends towards in-group and out-group thinking, and also causes the issue of preferring the minor pain of, say, our own child over the deaths of unknown strangers. It also encourages the idea of “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” because we simply aren’t capable of engaging in actual affective empathy for people beyond a very small number. So if we are using affective empathy to get morality, once we hit large numbers of people that we need to consider the interests of we simply aren’t going to be capable of doing that.

For me, though, while reading it I had a revelation that empathy cannot be a moral basis because it can never be a justification for a moral action. If you take an action that you think is moral and someone else insists that what you did was immoral, you are never going to be able to defend yourself by simply saying that you were right about what someone — even yourself — was feeling or would feel in that situation. At a minimum, you are going to have to outline why those feelings would mean that what you did was moral, which means that you are going to have to appeal to some other underlying moral principle, like maximizing everyone’s happiness, or maximizing your own happiness, or chasing virtue, or chasing duty, or whatever. So those feelings end up being data points that may or may not matter in determining what is the properly moral course, but don’t in and of themselves determine what is or isn’t moral. Thus, cognitive and moral empathy are tools that provide data that can be used to determine what is and isn’t moral, but don’t define it, and I think most people who argue strongly for empathy as a basis for morality treat it as something that they can just run and use to determine what is moral without appealing to other moral principles. And, shockingly, they tend to be willing to act in ways that seem quite immoral to most towards people that they don’t like or don’t understand.

Bloom’s arguments and the book itself are generally pretty good. It’s mostly a collection of essays that are turned into chapters, and as such it gets awfully repetitive, and it isn’t philosophically deep in any way, but I think he nicely captures the different types of empathy and their impact on the debate, as well as some strong arguments for why empathy isn’t the right way to approach morality. It might have been nice if he had focused on some more philosophical counters instead of merely focusing on the practical argument that empathy was generally ineffective and led to moral contradictions, but it’s an approachable book that summarizes a number of useful discussions on empathy and its relation to morality.

How The Old Republic Could Spoil Me For Other Games …

September 13, 2017

So, I’ve been playing “The Old Republic” again. In fact, I just finished off my mostly Dark Sided Pureblood Sith Inquisitor. Calculating from when I got the in-game mails giving me all of the stuff that I get for being a subscriber, it took me about a month and a half of slightly more than once a week on average playing to get through the class story and all of the planet stories. I did enjoy it, although Drellik really, really irritated me.

At any rate, as I was playing and figuring out what other characters I wanted to try — next I’m planning on playing as Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and then taking on a Dark Side Sith Marauder to get the Jaessa romance — I noted that Bioware is right when they say that there are essentially eight RPGs in this one game. Each class story visits similar planets, and all of the planet arcs are the same for each character (depending on whether you side with the Empire or the Republic, of course), but the actual class story differs markedly. This means that I could, in general, cycle through playing one class story after another and be okay with the similarities in planet arcs, since it takes me a while to go through a character. For the planet arcs, using this rate as about the best I could possibly do it would take me about 3 months to repeat one, assuming that I alternate Empire and Republic, which is more than enough time for me to mostly forget the details and so to not have it feel overly repetitive.

Thus, in theory, I could continually cycle through all of the classes, creating a new character, playing through it, and then starting another one. Arguably, this could continue indefinitely. Since I can only play one game at a time right now, this would mean that I’d be playing only “The Old Republic” for at least a year at a time, if not longer.

I don’t think this will happen. That being said, I have just finished one character, have explicit plans to do two more this year, and want to do Smuggler and Agent again at some point, as well as potentially Bounty Hunter. Given that, it’s not as far-fetched as it originally seemed.

Tour Challenge …

September 11, 2017

So, the first stop on the Grand Slam of Curling schedule happened over this weekend, the Tour Challenge. I actually didn’t get to watch much of it as I was pretty busy this weekend with things that kept me away from the TV while it was on, but I did manage to catch the women’s Tier 1 final, with updates from the Tier 2 final.

The Tier 1 final was between two teams that gave me the impression last season of being teams that tended to do really well in the round robins and even in the playoffs but tended to fall flat in the big games, like finals. Both Val Sweeting and Anna Hasselborg tended to be factors in every tournament but never seemed to be able to put in a really strong, consistent performance in big games. Things started out that way for Sweeting, as she gave up a steal of three in the first end and was constantly just missing shots for the first half of the game, leading to her saying “We got one!” when she finally made one of those close shots. But Hasselborg struggled in the sixth, allowing Sweeting to take three, and her last shot in the eighth was heavy, giving Sweeting a steal of one to win the game. So, in the struggle of two teams that didn’t seem to be able to win the big game, Sweeting won … but has to be a bit concerned over coming out flat, again, in a big game, and only winning because Hasselborg kinda threw it away.

In the Tier 2 final, Kerry Einarson beat Chelsea Carey, which only cements my view of Carey’s team that it isn’t that great a team, but was getting a lot of attention because she won the Scotties once. But every time I see her play, I find that both her shot making and shot selection is a bit weak. She’s on the low-end of the Tier 1 teams, and won’t be playing there, for the most part, this season.

The other thing that really struck me is that given the nature of curling it can and has gotten a bit more personal than some other sports. At the finals, you tend to have two teams of four people, with focus on the skips. And you usually can hear what they’re saying. Exhibition tournaments have even mic’ed up the players so that the audience can hear them, and they’ve often responded by making more jokes and comments that the audience have laughed at and reacted to. I noticed that this time because Sweeting is pretty expressive, but is in a nice way most of the time, and the cameras focused on her after she missed and made shots to get that reaction, which definitely added a personal touch to it, which I think adds to the watchability of the game. You can now cheer for a team based on how well you like the players, not just on skill level, geographical level, or general impressions of them from interviews, but instead on how they really act and talk in a game.

Next up is the Masters, just before Hallowe’en.

Reactions …

September 8, 2017

So, I was watching Chuck Sonnenburg’s review of Technobabylon and had an interesting reaction to it. At one point, the two detective characters are investigating the murder of a married couple, and a flashback shows that the couple is a same-sex couple. And I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “Of course”, in precisely the same way that I react to clearly pandering attempts to appeal to vocal minority/special interest groups. Except … that wasn’t an obvious case of that. Sure, it’s clearly an attempt to portray that sort of relationship, but since those things happen having it just be in the story shouldn’t have been enough to trigger that sort of reaction. Now, later, Chuck talks about how one of the characters is trans, Asian, lesbian and probably one or two other things as well, which does justify that sort of reaction, but why was I reacting to that there? I’d never played the game and there wasn’t anything that really stood out before that, and my reaction to the revelation that the lesbian character was a lesbian only garnered a “Huh” reaction, so why did that jump out at me? I won’t give myself credit for having seen the obvious pattern and so came to the right conclusion from the subtle signs, so why did I react that way when, objectively, I had no reason to?

I think the reaction comes from the current context around discussions of these sorts of issues. Currently, any game that isn’t seen as being “diverse” enough is criticized, and any game or media that is seen as “inclusive” is praised for being that rarest of the rare and doing something great and modern and sticking it to the Gamergaters and all of that crap. Sure, many of the sites I read — who for the most part aren’t gaming focused, interestingly enough — take on that mindset so I see it more often than a Not-So-Casual Gamer should, but it’s still prevalent in the media and in the discourse. And thus when I see something like that appearing in a game or other work my first reaction is to think that it’s there only to appeal to that market, stifle those criticisms, or because the designers or studios are led by SJW-types who think it is important to make sure that’s in there. And that might be unfair, but more often than not, given the state we’re in, it’s also often right.

And I think this sort of backlash explains some of the public reactions to recent movies and games and the like. From what I can tell, “Wonder Woman” didn’t get the same sort of backlash that the revamped “Ghostbusters” did, and when it did it was more from the women who were going on about how “empowered” it made them feel and somehow knowing what men had been feeling all this time — when most men generally didn’t feel anything like that from the male-led movies — than criticism over it being a female-led movie. And the strongest reactions I’ve seen to “Ghost in the Shell” are from the Social Justice side criticizing it for “white-washing” a character that might well have been white originally, not from people complaining that it had a female lead. Besides Sony and the producers/directors doubling-down on the sexism claims, I think one of the main reasons for the difference in reaction is that neither of those could be seen as pandering. If DC was going to start up a DCCU and do a Justice League movie, Wonder Woman had to be there and had to get a movie of her own. And Ghost in the Shell had always had a female lead, so the adaptation doing that only made sense. But when Ghostbusters did it, there was no reason to think that it wasn’t just pandering, and given the context it seemed pretty likely that that was the reason for it … which may or may not have been the case originally. So the same thing applies to my reaction: I had no reason to think that it wasn’t pandering, so it immediately struck me as pandering given the context that pandering is seen as a good thing by so many people.

So, it seems to me that saturating the landscape with these comments and criticisms and demands is a bad thing, and so the people who actually want more diversity in games would do themselves a huge favour by being more selective when they talk about this. The problem is that if they don’t talk about these things, no one will hear about them and so no one will do anything about them. So they’d have to walk a fine line between mentioning it enough and loudly enough that people will pay attention to them and being so loud and constant that they annoy people. However, I can say that this quote from a review by Carolyn Petit of Tacoma at “Feminist Frequency” is absolutely not the way to go about it:

Tacoma feels bold not just in its speculation about technological advancements, but also in its assumption of a present in which stories with a cast of six people and nary a straight white man in sight can elevate everyone’s humanity. So often when I express the need for broader, better representations in games, I’m met with a response that’s some sarcastic variation on “Sure, why don’t we make a game about a queer black Muslim bisexual trans woman?” As if such a character is inherently less human, less deserving of being the center of a story than a straight white cis man.

Tacoma features a black woman, a Muslim woman, and a queer Asian man, among others, and the humanity of every character is incidental, fully assumed and fully granted by each of the others; the game is full of conflict but none of that conflict is rooted in the specifics of anyone’s gender, race, or sexuality. The game envisions a future in which discussions like the one I’m having right now no longer need to happen, because everyone’s humanity is fully recognized. I look forward to the day when we no longer need to praise a game, film, or TV show simply for who it dares to be about, but although Tacoma imagines such a day, and although we need visions of what that day might look like, we’re not there yet.

A review that is praising diversity in a game for deliberately excluding white men is not, in fact, going to help. First, it’s going to draw attention to that fact, which will lead people to think that it’s pandering. Second, it’s highlighting there not being any white males as a benefit, which strikes against diversity. And third, the over-the-top praise for doing gives an incentive for game companies to do it and thus pander to these interests, giving an inherent reason to think that the company really is just pandering. All in all, all this will do is get people to notice these things and roll their eyes at the shameless pandering.

And the sad thing is that I expect that if I had simply picked up and played Tacoma — which I haven’t — without reading the view I wouldn’t have noticed that there wasn’t a white male character, and if I had it wouldn’t have bothered me, and that that would hold true for a large number of gamers. After all, it didn’t bother me in Fatal Frame, or with the female characters I played in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Old Republic and, well, most games I play, and I don’t recall there being this reaction to those games or to Silent Hill 3, which had Heather as the main character. Outside of this context, if the game and/or characters are good few people will care if they are a white male or whatever. It’s when the context is poisoned by either the game or the media making a big deal out of it that it starts to look like pandering and the seams start to appear.

Even if they aren’t there.

How Things Have Changed

September 6, 2017

So, for the longest time I refused to watch half-hour TV shows when they didn’t allow me to play the entire disk non-stop, and then stopped watching an anime since it only did “Play All”. Now, however, the flexibility of half-hour shows has become more important, and so I’ve found myself taking on half-hour shows where I can select the episodes one-by-one, like Yu-gi-oh, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and most recently Transformers, and watching them almost exclusively while not watching any of my hour-long shows. And, in fact, I’m having a hard time finding a way to actually watch those series ever again.

The reason that half-hour shows are currently so dominant is that the time I have to just watch TV has greatly shrunk. Generally, I expect to get around 1.5 hours to watch in the evening a day (right before I go to sleep, so generally in my cool down time). But that time varies. I might wrap everything up for the day 2 hours before I want to go to sleep, or 1 hour. As noted in the previous article, hour long shows aren’t very flexible when it comes to time. An hour long show runs about 45 minutes on DVD, which means that if I have an hour left in the day I could watch one episode and then have to stop early. With half-hour shows, I could watch three and only run a little over, which works out reasonably well (my bedtime isn’t that set it stone). And if I wanted to stay up a little later, I could watch another episode without adding 45 minutes on, which is a bit long most of the time. And if I ever wanted to stay up that extra 45 minutes for some reason, I can just watch two more episodes. This also works if I start earlier, because all I need to do is add episodes 20 minutes at a time until I hit time to shut down for the day. If an hour long episode would fit, I can put two half-hour episodes there, and if an hour long episode wouldn’t fit, then I can add an extra half-hour episode and generally fill that gap. So the flexibility is really in demand for me right now.

The other reason, though, is the total number of hours that each series has. I can, in general, watch a disk roughly every two days. For an hour long show, that’s 2 episodes a night, while for a half-hour show that’s 4 episodes a night. If I’m watching an American/Canadian series, you’re generally getting into about 20 episodes a season, and the number of episodes is about the same for hour long and half-hour shows. Thus, I finish half-hour series about twice as fast as hourly ones. So I can finish a season of an hourly series in roughly two weeks (11 – 12 days), while for a half-hour series I can finish a season in roughly a week. So if I wanted to watch a 5 season hour long series, it would take me about 60 days or 2 months, while I can finish a half-hour series in about a month. This means that the turnover rate is faster, which keeps me from getting bored with it, lets me feel like I’m making progress, and avoids my feeling like I’m watching it more to finish it and less to actually watch it. Add in that most of my favourite hour long series are more like 7 – 10 seasons instead of 5 and this becomes even more important.

So, half-hour series are more flexible and spread out over my relatively short TV watching time better. Since I don’t have any other time to just watch TV, when can I watch those hour long series that I love so much again? When can I watch Babylon 5, TNG, DS9, Buffy, Angel and Smallville? They are too long to binge on while on vacation or slide into times when I’m, say, working or wanting something to watch while I’m eating and baseball isn’t on, but don’t fit into the flexible schedule at all. But I’m definitely going to want to watch them again.

I’ve moved from wondering when I can watch half-hour shows, and not really watching them to wondering when I can watch hour long shows and not really watching them. That’s … different.

(As an aside, I calculated how long it would take me to watch all of the Dark Shadows soap opera again with my current time allocated for watching TV. It took me about four months the first time, and this time it would take me … about 11 months, or almost a year. Yeah …)

Thoughts on “Transformers: The Movie”

September 4, 2017

So, not all that long ago I decided to clean out my closets, which included my collection of DVDs and VHS tapes. In doing so, I tossed out all of my old VHS tapes — since many of them just aren’t playable anymore — and decided to replace them — if I hadn’t already — with DVD or Blu-Ray versions. One of those tapes was “Transformers: The Movie”. And now that I’ve shifted to watching half-hour shows in the evenings, I thought it’d be fun to watch the original cartoon series up to the point of the movie, watch the movie, and then continue on with the rest of the cartoon, as well as “Beast Wars” and “Beast Machines”. I’m now past the point of “Transformers: The Movie”.

The movie was definitely pretty dark and brutal. The first scene is Unicron destroying an entire planet, and we don’t get the “great disturbance” and quick kaboom of Star Wars. We see the inhabitants see Unicron start his attack, panic, try to flee, and even have a ship sucked in with a screaming inhabitant. Then, from there, after a little light banter and plot setting, Ironhide, Prowl, Brawn and Ratchet, at least, are killed in a Decepticon attack … and Ironhide gets deliberately slaughtered by Megatron while trying to make a last ditch effort to stop him from ambushing Autobot City. And then there’s the big opening battle, where a number of characters on both sides are killed, and Optimus Prime and Megatron are both gravely wounded. Then, Optimus Prime dies. Then, Megatron and some other Decepticons are left to die to light Astrotrain’s load. Starscream is eventually destroyed by Megatron. Then Unicron attacks the moon bases and seemingly kills Jazz, Cliffjumper, Bumblebee and Spike. Later, Ultra Magnus is killed by the Decepticons. We see Kranix and an unnamed bot killed by Sharkticons. Eventually, we see inside Unicron and see other bots dissolved in the equivalent of stomach acid before Spike and the others are rescued. Cybertron is decimated by Unicron’s attack.

Now, Transformers was on when I was in grade school. It ran at lunch time and often it was shown at school during lunch. Thus, we can imagine that a lot of relatively young children liked the series and would want to see the movie. All of this was likely to leave them utterly devastated. I believe that Chuck Sonnenberg once commented in one of his reviews that the death of Optimus Prime left children crying, and I can imagine that a number of scenes left them that way, especially since many of them seem to be deliberately crafted to provoke that. While the scenes are well done, this “kill ’em all” approach might not have been a good one for a work that they had to know would largely draw children. A number of parents who took their kids to see the movie, I imagine, were regretting that they did so.

The movie itself, though, is fairly well done, and is pretty well paced. Things move from scene to scene quickly so that you can just follow it along without getting bored or distracted. The fight scenes have the right sort of tension and drama to them, and are written for the most part to take advantage of the typical heroes vs villains sort of conflict. Plot elements are not deep but weave into the events fairly seamlessly and quickly. It’s a movie that I could pretty much watch from start to finish without ever being tempted to read while it was on.

If there is a criticism, though, it’s that the new characters aren’t very well developed at all. Sure, we get some hints as to their personalities and goals, but I have watched all of the cartoon and so know the characters already and still felt that they were two-dimensional, if that. There are flashes of character development, but nothing major and nothing at all outside of Kup, Arcee and Hot Rod. Rodimus Prime is introduced too late to really get character development, and Wheelie and Wreck-Gar get none and only seem to appear as plot devices to get the heroes to the next stage. Given how many fan favourite characters were unceremoniously killed to be replaced by these, the lack of character development makes that a poor trade. But the Dinobots almost make up for that themselves, especially Grimlock.

Overall, it’s actually a pretty good movie, and despite its dark tone seems to capture a lot of the elements of the original cartoon while completely shaking up the status quo. The series that follows this is at least starting off much more dark as well, with the Decepticons fighting over scraps of Energon, but while the shift is there at least some of the main elements seem to be intact. I definitely enjoyed watching it.

Don’t Trust Skepticism!

September 1, 2017

Rebecca Watson decided to try to demonstrate her skeptical credentials by taking on an article in Jezebel on past-life regressions. Out of the gate, she turns the entire thing into the equivalent of a skeptical “pissing contest”:

This week I read an article on Jezebel about a “skeptic” who underwent past life regression and surprise! She was super convinced that it was real and an awesome experience. I’m a skeptic, too, and allow me to give you an alternative perspective: past-life regression is stupid, and occasionally dangerous, nonsense.

This would have more thrust if the author of the article — Madeleine Davies — actually was super convinced that it was real, meaning that it was a real past-life regression. The problem is that if you read the article she isn’t. She does think that it was a wonderful experience, but she says several times that she isn’t sure if this was a real past-life regression or just an invention of her psyche:

Feeling remarkably light after she and I said goodbye, I called my parents and told them what I had done. If reincarnation was real, I wanted them to know how deeply happy I was to keep experiencing life with them. If it was all a figment of my imagination, I noted, they should still feel touched that my brain chose to cast them in such significant roles.

But while I found reassurance in Barham’s interpretation of the regression, and repeated everything to my parents with verklempt enthusiasm, very little time passed before I began to doubt all that I had seen or heard while under hypnosis.

Or maybe I wasn’t. One of the chief skeptical speculations about past life regression therapy is that what’s experienced while under hypnosis is the result of cryptomnesia, the accidental plagiarism of books, TV, movies, or stories. Considering my own regression, I can certainly find enough pieces of The English Patient or The Lost City of Z (or even the survey of Africa course that I took in college) to create an exciting story. Another possibility, as some in the psychiatric community speculate, is that what I went through was the result of confabulation—the creation of false memories—a phenomenon often associated with recovered-memory therapy, a highly controversial technique that, while meant to recover memories from the past, has, on occasion, planted false (and often traumatic) memories in the patient’s mind.

I found myself impressed with the exceptional power of the human brain—my human brain!—and its ability to produce a (very gripping, if I do say so myself) story of that magnitude, seemingly out of scraps and pieces of long forgotten ephemera. My imagination was able to produce a sense of emotional freedom and solace that I’ve since been able to revisit, and it’s been useful—whether it’s based in reality or not.

Does that sound like someone that’s “super convinced” to you?

Without even getting into the specifics of the experience, Watson tries to stack the deck against Davies being a real skeptic by attacking things she said in the article as a preamble:

The writer claims that she was a skeptic, relying on the fact that she once made fun of a past-life regression, and that she doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and that she jokes about astrology. But she also admits that she is scared of ghosts and doesn’t sign “important paperwork while Mercury is in retrograde.” The ****? I honestly can’t tell if that’s a joke or not. At first I assumed it was, but then she went on to describe her past-life regression session in glowing terms so now I’m not sure. Heads up: you were not a skeptic. You were someone who made jokes about superstition because you thought it would make someone think you were smart, when you’re actually not very smart.

So, what Watson is trying to do here is poison the well, argue that Davies can’t really be skeptical because of those things. Except that those points are brought up to, in fact, acknowledge the precise sort of tension in her that Davies is acknowledging and trying to address:

This was my first time meeting Barham, but it was not my first time seeing her. I had written about her once before when she appeared on a talkshow late last year, demonstrating past life regression on one of the Real Housewives. To be frank, I wasn’t particularly kind in my write up of the segment. As I put it at the time, “It’s all bullshit, anyway.”

But bromidic though it may be, since turning 30, I’ve become more and more intent on exploring what scares me and better understanding my own paradoxical spirituality: For example, I don’t believe in an afterlife, yet I’m terrified of ghosts; I joke about horoscopes and astrology, but still try to avoid signing important paperwork while Mercury is in retrograde; I put my faith in science, but lack the certainty or courage to commit fully to atheism. In that vein, I do not reject the notion of past lives outright. Growing up, my family—not exactly new age, but not exactly not—discussed the concept frequently. My parents visited a past-life channeler when I was a child. The channeler then told my step father that power was very important to me and that I don’t do well when it’s taken away, an insight that turned out to be invaluable to him as I adapted to living with someone who was not my biological father. (He still partially credits it for our closeness and good relationship to this day.) But despite a strong familiarity, I’m still reluctant to believe anything until I experience it myself.

So, she acknowledges that while she doesn’t believe in those things, she has some leftover impulses that imply those things, and she’s trying to figure that out. For past lives specifically, she has an anecdote from someone she trusts that doing one of those things gave an insight that at least that person found accurate and useful but that they believe they couldn’t have gotten as easily otherwise. So she isn’t willing to just believe that’s the case unless she explores it herself, and isn’t willing to simply dismiss it as being obviously false … despite her doing that initially. So her response is to go out and investigate it herself.

Compare that to Watson’s response:

I’m guessing not, because no one has ever shown any proof of a past-life regression, probably because there’s no such thing as reincarnation and even if there was there’s no such thing as old memories sticking in your new brain matter and even if there was there’s no way for anyone to dig those memories up.

Watson just knows, somehow, that this stuff is all fake and can’t possibly occur. She’s done little to no investigation — or, at least, hasn’t given any here — and falls back on the really bad argument that she can’t see any method for this to occur anyway, which is a standard skeptical argument. Of course, if we could demonstrate somehow that the recollections really were a past life, we’d then go look for by what method these things carry over like we do for pretty much any new scientific discovery, but why should scientific skeptics bother to follow any of the methods of science in making their claims.

So, let’s compare the two cases to Watson’s definition of what a skeptic should be:

A skeptic, in fact, should be someone who thinks critically about everything, including and especially their own experiences. A skeptic understands that their own perspective on things can be warped. They understand that there are con artists in the world who know how to manipulate others and will do so for money or fame. Madeline Davies is not, I assure you, a skeptic.

Except that when confronted with something that she had some anecdotal evidence for but that she didn’t believe in, Davies’ response was … to go and test it out. Watson’s response, on the other hand, was to insist that it wasn’t real and so no testing was necessary and that Davies was just gullible and Barham, the therapist, was a con artist who should have her marriage and family therapist license taken away. Despite the fact that if Barham was using this as part of her regular practice, the test for whether she was doing wrong by this would be to see if her patients were getting better using this, which Watson never bothers to ask about or explore in any way. Instead, she nitpicks over certification:

As exhibit one, I present the fact that she wrote an article about seeing “a certified past life therapist” without ever asking who is certifying past-life therapists and how does one get that certification. Is it like certifying a saint, where you have to show “proof” of three verified past-life regressions?

But this doesn’t matter. Davies chose Barham because a) Davies had criticized her strongly before and b) she was at least technically certified by some organization that tries to do that. Thus, if Davies was going to test it out, Barham is at least someone where it is more difficult to simply say “Well, they didn’t know what they were doing”, and Davies it seems wanted to test if her original impression of Barham was valid. This comment about certification is nothing more than an excuse to say that you don’t even have to test out or question your initial presumptions at all. It’s no coincidence that this nitpick leads directly into Watson’s above-quoted comment about this stuff all being fake implying that there’s no need to test it.

Watson then goes after the caveats:

For instance, Barham reassures Davies that no matter what happens, Davies is not gullible. Even if it turns out that her entire “past life” is obviously just a recounting of an episode of Joanie Loves Chachi, this is just due to the “Jungian concept of synchronicity.” Instead of being skeptical about why Barham is giving her a defense against accusations of stupidity, Davies instead lists two more ways to say the same nonsense, each one more hilarious than the last: “the acausal connection of two or more psychic and physical phenomena”, and “the psychological profundity of coincidence.” Yep, you’re definitely not just super gullible. It’s Jungian!

It never seems to even occur to Davies that she is paying for Barham to make her regress into a past life, but Barham herself is already offering excuses for why what happens may not be real, and may just be her psyche offering symbolic metaphors. If you can actually make a person remember a past life, and if you are charging them for the honor of doing this, why would you need to couch your services by telling clients that even if it’s not real, it’s still beneficial?

Because for Barham it being beneficial is the point, not that it regresses you to a past life. Barham, it seems to me, believes that past lives exist and that their influences can influence the psychological state of people in the present, and that in order to address at least certain problems addressing that influence is key. But many people will doubt whether or not they are really getting past lives or are just getting invented scenes in their own mind. And if that’s the case, Barham is okay with it, because she feels that most of the time this will still result in an interesting insight that can help these people. So her main goal here is not to regress them to a past life, but to address underlying psychological problems. If the person doubts that it’s a real past life but it helps them anyway, for Barham that’s a win.

As for assuring Davies that she isn’t gullible, Barham’s point here is to argue that Barham, herself, isn’t going to guide Davies to any conclusion. She’s going to try, at least, to do nothing more than let Davies herself take an experiential journey through whatever her mind comes up with. Thus, Davies is not going to look gullible in the sense that she’s not going to look like she’s simply accepting without thought what Barham says while she’s in that state and is not just going to have an experience that Barham implants in her. Whether or not this is true will depend on the details of the session itself, as Barham might well be doing that … or might be doing what she claims and leaving it up to Davies herself.

Again, does this mean that Davies’ experience has to be a past life regression? No, but Davies herself admits that, and accepts that the alternative that Barham provides might be the case: it’s just an invention of her own mind. I don’t think Watson has a better explanation than that one handy, and Davies and Barham constantly concede it, so it seems that the skeptical approach of considering alternative explanations is in full force here. Hardly a reason to think that Davies isn’t properly skeptical.

Watson then tries to deny that Davies considers the potential harm by pointing out where Davies … uh, considers the potential harm that Watson is concerned about:

She still thinks the experience was fantastic and highly recommends it to readers, with nary a word of caution. Again, for a skeptic, it’s amazing that it doesn’t occur to her that there are inherent dangers to this. Davies’ attitude is basically “sure it may not be an actual past-life regression, but you should do it anyway because of what your psyche will reveal!” Here’s the number one problem with that: there are innumerable cases of people having incredibly dangerous false memories implanted during these kinds of “regressions.” She mentions that this has happened “on occasion,” which is a ridiculous downplaying. It’s extremely easy to plant false memories in people, and it sends people to prison, makes them think extremely horrific things happened to them, damages them psychologically, and ruins their lives.

So, Watson at best is upset that Davies downplays it … except that in past life regressions most of Watson’s objections don’t hold because in context these aren’t current or recovered memories. No one is likely to rush off and claim that they were sexually abused because this technique that isn’t supposed to recover actual current memories recovered one. I’d presume that if someone claimed that it had recovered an actual current memory Barham would be suspicious of it because, again, the process isn’t supposed to do that. If everything works out like Barham planned, the person will come out of this thinking that in a previous life they were a certain person and had a certain experience, and will remember it as a past life and not current life experience. The next best thing is that is was an invented experience that reveals something about their psyche. In no way would Barham support it being an actual memory, and thus most of the danger isn’t there.

Watson’s summary really does indicate the extent of her skepticism:

Meanwhile, there is no certification for a past-life regression therapist. It’s just a con artist who is taking your money. Sure, maybe you’ll come away with a positive experience, and maybe it won’t break your bank because some stupid blog paid for you to do it and then write about it, or maybe the con artist did it for free for the advertising. But maybe you’ll drop a few thousand dollars just to let a con artist manipulate your memories.

Instead, you could spend that money on an actual psychiatrist, therapist, or psychologist who believes in science-based healthcare and who will help you work through whatever issues you have without putting you into a vulnerable state and telling you that you were Cleopatra’s handmaiden.

For some people, even if it isn’t a past life progression, techniques like this could give insights that regular techniques can’t. But since this is supposed to be “science-based healthcare”, one would think that a science-based skeptic would want to take the obvious science-based approach and, well, test it. Watson can argue, rightly, that Davies’ approach here isn’t a proper scientific test. But Watson is using her preconceptions about things like reincarnation to dismiss this out of hand and to in fact dismiss the need to test it at all. Which includes the idea that the technique can be helpful even if it isn’t revealing a real past life. Which, of course, we have scientific approaches to test, using what is commonly referred to as psychology.

Watson, here, justifies claiming that Davies is not a proper skeptic because she deigned to try to test a proposition that she thought obviously true — reincarnation and past lives are bunk — and that Watson is indeed the proper skeptic here for insisting that it is obviously true without bothering to test that. Does that seem backwards to anyone else?

Thoughts After Re-Reading “The Tamuli”

August 30, 2017

In addition to the fact that “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” kept distracting me from reading this trilogy, it was very interesting reading this because I was reading not merely or perhaps even not mostly for fun, but instead was reading it to compare it to “The Elenium” and decide which of the two I liked better. So I would say that I found the series entertaining and would read it for fun, but the entertainment factor was muted a bit by comparing it to “The Elenium” and seeing which of the two I preferred.

And my overall assessment is this: “The Elenium” is more personal, while “The Tamuli” is more epic, which might also match the difference in scope between “The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon”. If you want to think of the works focusing on Sparhawk as Eddings redoing those first two series right, there’s plenty of evidence to consider that the case. I really liked the addition of the other races/kingdoms/civilizations, and the added focus on politics was welcome to me. And I think that Eddings does a good job of weaving the expanded cast into the work so that it doesn’t seem to be taking too much away from the purported main cast. However, I think it also risks making things a bit overly complicated at times, and I miss the more personal, focused story that we got in “The Elenium”.

And for some reason, Eddings’ emphasis on the female characters and their abilities grated on me for some reason. Part of this is likely the current context, where strong female characters showing up male characters is overly emphasized to the point of extreme annoyance. But a big part of it is indeed how they often break characterizations of both themselves and the men to make that point. Aphrael was always going to be a bit of a Mary Sue given that she’s a god, but the “little girl” act makes it more grating, especially when she does it in her Danae guise. Sephrenia ends up blaming Vanion for being too slow to make up with her even though it was her utterly irrational reactions that made him afraid in the first place. Her having to make the first move because of that works, but her having to essentially blame it on him didn’t. But the worst is probably Melidere’s pursuit of Stragen, where she lets him in on her criminal schemes and then says that either he has to marry her or else she’ll have him killed. This is despite the fact that he probably liked her and that earlier she was talking about what signals to send. “Marry me or die” is not a signal, but somehow we’re supposed to consider this the appropriate and reasonable approach. Yeah, right.

The Atans are also altogether far too impressive for the role they had in the story, and are talked up far too much for that to work. And since the most competent of them were women, it feeds back into that same dynamic. As does Xanetia. For too much of the work, Xanetia, Mirtai and Sephrenia run roughshod over everyone else, with Aphrael there to fall back on when they aren’t available for some reason.

Ultimately, however, this can be overlooked, as the rest of the work is pretty good. But at the end of the day, I think “The Elenium” is my favourite of these series.