Archive for March, 2012

And this is why we can’t have nice things …

March 18, 2012

I think that there’s a common thread that’s underlying at least North American politics, and maybe Western politics itself. I also think it’s a very bad one, and it’s exemplified by this article.

The article is talking about the standard complaint in Canadian politics these days, that the Conservatives keep winning election because the “Left” or the “progressives” are split between two parties, the Liberals — who used to totally dominate Canadian federal politics — and the NDP. Thus, the Conservatives get the benefits of solid conservative support, while the other parties split the remaining votes giving the Conservatives the edge. What is needed is for those parties to do what the Consevatives and Reform/Alliance party did and merge, and then we’ll have a party of the right and a party of the left and so we can all vote based on that, as each party will pander to their left or right-wing base. An awful lot like it is in the United States currently; the reason, it seems to me, that Republicans pander so much to conservative and right-wing interests in their nomination process is that that’s who they see as being their base.

This is, of course, all completely and totally wrong-headed.

I’m not old enough to be put out to pasture yet — I recently remarked that if I kept at this job for 15 years that would still be early retirement for me — but I am old enough to remember when the Liberals dominated federal politics in Canada. It wasn’t by being left-wing. It was by being centrist. The only time in recent years that the Canadian deficit was eliminated was done not by the Conservatives under Mulroney or Campbell, but under Chretien and Martin. This necessitated massive cuts in spending, things that left-wingers hate, and the NDP — if I’m recalling correctly — did indeed hate. I’m also old enough to remember when Mike Harris won in Ontario, and while his Conservatives were, well, conservative, a lot of the push behind his victory was a response from an electorate that was basically fed-up with how far left Ontario was, and wanted it moved back to a more central position.

The whole problem for the Liberals in Canada has been, in my opinion, that they moved too far to the left. During Stephane Dion’s attempt at leading the party in an election, their environmental policy was further left than the NDP’s. That sort of thing is not what gave the Liberals their dominance in Canadian federal politics. No, what gave them their dominance was that they were able to present themselves as the party of the centre, and the party of the moderates, as opposed to the party of the extremes. As they moved far enough left to actually be considered in the same “grouping” as the NDP, voters trickled away as they weren’t really interested in a far-left party. If that was what they’d wanted, they’d have just voted NDP … which, it seems, a lot more of those who wanted a left-wing party did in this past election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are positioning themselves to try to occupy the centrist position once owned by the Liberals, which I think is one reason why they won a majority this time out. Considering that the Conservative name was always more centrist than, say, the Alliance was or you’d get by using the term “Republican”, even that choice seems aimed at trying to ensure that they aren’t seen as just being another right-wing party.

But what we’re seeing in these sorts of articles and complaints is, in fact, a lauding of the extremes at the expense of the middle. Parties are appealing to their solid base, the base that they can mostly predict and the base that has strong opinions, and likes to rant a lot. Unfortunately for these parties — and for society in general — most people are far more moderate and centrist than that. As parties focus more and more on the extreme ends, they represent less and less the majority of people, and so lose voters. The response is to become even more clearly and solidly non-centrist to ensure that you pick up what is seen as your base, which leaves even more people behind. In cases like the U.S. where there are only two options, this leaves voters with the choice to either hold their nose and vote for the extreme non-centrist party that best represents them and their interests even though they really don’t like some of the things they want, or to alternatively not vote. I think that part of the low voter turnout in recent Canadian elections is indeed caused by people saying “None of these represent me and all want to do things I think are really, really, really bad ideas. Screw it; I’ll vote for none of them”.

So, if you feel tempted to ask why people fall for the extreme right or left-wing rants of a party, remember that they may not be choosing the party that represents their actual concerns, but the party that’s the least of multiple evils. And wonder why parties aren’t trying to appeal to moderates and centrists instead of the loud extremists.


A different problem is progress …

March 16, 2012

So, at work I’ve run into yet another one of the oddities of software design. I was checking out something that I’d never done before, and when I loaded it up one process — the one I needed to run — kept dying. I did a search on something else that does what I want it to do, and discovered that I wasn’t updating something that it was. I added it there, and then … every process either wouldn’t start or kept dying.


I was getting it complaining about my definition on the North side, and so tried to fix that. Failed due to a typo. And then just before I left yesterday, I loaded it up and … it complained about the South side.


The interesting thing is that this really counts as progress for software design. If the behaviour doesn’t change, then you haven’t gotten anywhere except that you might have eliminated one hypothesis as to what the real problem is. But if the behaviour changes, your change did something, and so that’s at least potentially progress. It stops you from simply banging your head against the wall because you can’t figure out why nothing ever changes.

In this case, it may turn out that to fix my problem I didn’t need to do the things I needed to do except for the last one, but I likely would eventually have had to do them anyway. So, progress!

I’m feeling no sympathy here …

March 15, 2012

So, as I’ve said before, I kinda got into Coronation Street. And a recent storyline — or, at least, it’s recent for us Canadians — has demonstrated yet again one issue I have with the show: it’s seeming inability to portray sympathetic characters. In this case, it seems to me that the show tried so hard to create a villain in it that the storyline suffered. Or, at least, I dearly hope that they were trying to create a villain, because if they were all supposed to be sympathetic then I weep for the morality of jolly old England.

Anyway, the storyline was the Cheryl/Lloyd/Chris/Maria (kinda) square. To summarize as best I understand it, Cheryl and Chris were married, and had a child, but he was abusive, and so she left him. She ended up with Lloyd, and he ended up with Maria, who had a child from another relationship. Anyway, Chris was discovered to have a brain tumour, and as part of that moved out on Maria — for no real reason that I can see — and ended up staying with Lloyd and Cheryl and the child while he went through treatment, which pleased Lloyd to no end, as you might imagine. Chris then started trying to worm his way into Cheryl’s good graces and cause some problems between Cheryl and Lloyd, while using his tumour as an excuse when it was found out (ie “I forgot, but forgetting is part of the symptoms”). Towards the end of it, the treatment was successful and yet Chris was pretending that it wasn’t in order to keep living there, while still applying subtle manipulation on Cheryl and trying to rekindle that relationship. Eventually, he succeeded. Cheryl and Chris slept together and she found herself falling in love with him, while he was still lying to her. After a heartfelt discussion with Leanne over which of the two she wanted, Cheryl decided to choose the lying scumbag Chris over reliable, steady, and actually really nice Lloyd. Meanwhile, Lloyd found out that Chris was lying about the treatment, and when he confronted him about it in front of Cheryl Chris quite smugly decided that he had to know about them sleeping together. Lloyd then jumped to the erroneous conclusion that they were both lying to him and was quite reasonably upset, and that ended their relationship, presumably so that Chris and Cheryl can get back together for however long that will last.

Now, the problem with this is that:

  • The most sympathetic character in this and one of the few almost sympathetic characters on the whole show got screwed over big time by all of this, and by someone who was, in fact, lying through his teeth.
  • The guy who did lie through his teeth and that we now should all despise and that the show seemed to be trying really hard to get us to despise seems to have won, at least for now.
  • Cheryl looks like a naive idiot to fall back in love with Chris while he’s being manipulative and deceitful. If she finds out about this, there’s no way their relationship can continue.
  • And, in a case of Fridge Logic, we have no idea why Maria was tossed aside to set this up, and Maria at this point should have gained a lot of sympathy based on how she dealt with Carla’s rape.

So, by setting it up this way with an actual villain, the whole storyline leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and probably in most people’s. I don’t think anyone can say that this ended well, and there’s no way as far as I can see to go forward with this without us remembering what a jerk Chris is, in general. And it didn’t have to be this way. If they had set it up as a clash of sympathetic characters, then this would have worked out so much better and given them far more options going forward. Imagine if it was done this way:

Have Chris move in like he did, though giving a better reason than was given. Have him have an epiphany, where facing death really made him think about his priorities. Heck, do that first, and have him decide that he wants to spend as much time with his son as possible, and so this would just be more convenient. With this refocus on his child and on family, have him start thinking even more about what he’s lost, and about trying to regain that. Let Cheryl watch his bonding with his son and think about how happy being with his father makes her son, and then fall back in love with him. Things proceed pretty much as they did, except that Chris never really manipulates anyone nor does he lie about his treatment. They still have sex, and keep it from Lloyd. Cheryl has her heart-to-heart with Leanne, but now instead of us yelling at the screen that Chris is a jerk and being exasperated at Cheryl’s decision that Chris makes her feel more alive than Lloyd does we can see that there’s a real choice here, and a choice between two at least decent blokes. We then can strongly empathize and sympathize with her position, and feel the struggle along with her since in this case it isn’t clear which one is better. She then chooses Chris, Lloyd still finds out, and things proceed as before.

Again, this is a far better storyline. All of the problems I listed go away. Cheryl looks like a woman caught between two decent guys, good in their own way, and not like an idiot who’s being played by Chris. While Lloyd still gets screwed over, since Chris doesn’t look like a complete jerk we can sympathize with him and still appreciate his emotions without the additional anger. Maria gets put aside because of Chris’ attachment to his son. And now, they can either continue that relationship forward on that level and keep the epiphany, or have the epiphany wear off and Chris return to the ways that led her to break up with him in the first place if they don’t want that to happen. So, it’s a better storyline and provides more options for the future. Sounds like a better way to go, in my opinion.

Let me start planning now …

March 14, 2012

… because I’m going to need a few hundred hours in the not-too-distant future.

Here is an article about the future of the Persona series. You know, the series that contains Persona 3 and Persona 4 that I’ve played for over 500 hours combined? Well, here are the highlights:

  • They’re porting Persona 4 to the Vita with some updates. Not a big deal for me except that if the Vita is backwards compatible with the PSP then I could have the updated versions of P3 and P4.
  • There will be a Persona 5, but it will take a while. So that’s part of the future few hundred hours.
  • More revelant to the near future, P4 Arena is coming out, which is a 2D fighter made by the BlazBlue team that continues the story of P3 and P4. It also includes Mitsuru and Chie, two of my favourite female characters ever. It comes out in August. I wanna play it now [grin].

I just purchased Contiuum Shift Extend from BlazBlue — just waiting for it to arrive — and if it’s as good as people say Arena will be awesome, and if they can make Persona 5 as interesting as the previous two then that’ll be awesome as well. I think my gaming might be locked up for a while in the near future [grin].

Soundtrack CDs are my Kryptonite (Take 2) …

March 14, 2012

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

Yes, it’s an expanded version of my previous post. And on top of all of that, after writing the article I spent the next few days listening to the Silent Hill: Shattered Memories soundtrack.

Wilson and Dawkins and Group Selection …

March 12, 2012

Jerry Coyne is talking about David Sloan Wilson and how Wilson’s going after Dawkins for two reasons. First, Wilson goes after Dawkins for seemingly not looking enough at the potential evolutionary benefits of evolution, and second he complains that Dawkins is ignoring the obvious that group selection is the answer for things like altruism.

I don’t want to talk much about that. What I want to talk about is the objections that Coyne raises against Wilson’s group selection theory:

Dawkins’s argument against the efficacy of group selection was that this form of selection is usually unsuccessful because groups are vulnerable to subversion from within by those selfish replicators. That is, “cheating” replicators that are “good” for individuals but bad for the group as a whole will tend to propagate themselves. Yes, altruism may help groups propagate, but altruistic groups are susceptible to invasion by cheaters unless the “altruism” is based on kin selection or individual selection via reciprocity.

That’s the main one, but he goes on to fill in more later:

Dawkins’s (and my) beef with group selection as a way to evolve traits that are bad for individuals but good for groups is that this form of selection is inefficient, subject to subversion within groups, and, especially, that there’s virtually no evidence that this form of selection has been important in nature.

Let me deal with the two minor ones before getting back to the main event. Starting with the last one, we can see that it’s a bad argument, because what Coyne is doing here is saying that one of the reasons to reject the examples Wilson’s giving of cases where group selection has been important in nature is … that you haven’t found examples of cases where it has been important in nature. Except, perhaps, for the specific cases Wilson is citing. You can’t in any way reasonably claim that the fact that you haven’t found examples of it yet means that you can dismiss this proposed example. This example has to stand on its own merits, because it might be the sort of example that you’re looking to find that will prove that it has been important. Taken to the logical extreme, this sort of attitude may mean that if you can find any other explanation for it using the more “normal mechanisms” — no matter how complicated or ludicrous that explanation might seem — then that will be taken because the new mechanisms haven’t been proven yet, which is strikes me is something that naturalists pull on the supernatural all the time. Therefore, it’s not worth mentioning as a “beef”.

The first one is also a pretty bad argument when you look at evolution. The argument is that Wilson’s proposed solution would be inefficient, but it seems to me that one of the main thrusts of evolution is that it can indeed be — and often is — inefficient but as long as it works, that’s not a problem. When has it become a criteria for evolutionary explanations that it achieve maximal or even reasonable efficiency. To go down that route would risk re-introducing a need for a designer, to ensure that the mechanisms stayed efficient. That can’t be what Coyne wants. But, again, why is efficiency even a factor? Why would you sort evolutionary arguments by efficiency? Being more or less efficient isn’t a hallmark of evolutionary mechanisms, so if two mechanisms are proposed but one is more efficient than the other that says absolutely nothing about which one is more likely to be true.

That leaves us with the main complaint: cheaters. The main issue here is that there is an issue raised against the individual selection explanations of altruism as well, even kin and reciprocal altruism and it is … cheaters. Cheaters will benefit if they can get away with it, and so those individuals will prosper and those who are altruistic will be outstripped, and so altruism is not self-sustaining at the individual level. To get around this, the proponents of evolutionary explanations for altruism end up appealing to cheater detection mechanisms, where we have the ability to check up on and then punish or restrict cheaters. Of course, all cheater detection mechanisms are also available to group selection; it could be the case that you have group or social detection mechanisms through things like shared rituals that detect cheating or at least make it impossible. For example, it might be hard to steal the rabbit for yourself if you have a strong social impetus to always hunt together, and that hunting alone is just undesirable.

Additionally, it seems to me that group selection can actually get this without having to apply specific cheater detection mechanisms. After all, group selection would imply that the relevant competing entity is the group. Thus, if a group has a significant percentage of people who are altruistic, then it outperforms groups that don’t. Thus, if you have a group where this happens and where too large a percentage of the group are cheaters, then that group will cease to get those benefits and be outcompeted and presumably eventually exterminated by the groups where that does not happen. Thus, group selection here becomes self-sustaining; if you are above or at the magical percentage that means you benefit from being altruistic, you benefit over other groups as long as it stays there, but if it ever drops below that your group may well collapse and your individuals, then, all lose. Note that we would still see cheater detection mechanisms emerge because they are mechanisms that make the group stable and so less likely to fall below that percentage and collapse.

So, not only is it the case that their main complaint applies to their alternative, it seems that group selection might have an easier time solving that problem than individual selection does.

Now, of course both of these miss the main objection to evolutionary explanations, which is that they fall apart the instant you can start acting for reasons. While Coyne denies free will, he hasn’t quite eliminated us acting for conscious reasons yet, and surely I can decide in some sense of the word decide if I will co-operate or cheat, and I can do that on a case-by-case basis. Thus, once conscious reasons can override evolutionarily ingrained instincts, it becomes pointless to try to explain altruistic behaviour through unconscious evolutionary mechanisms or conscious consideration of advantage. The former is not what will be used and the latter is clearly no longer altruism.

At any rate, of the three objections given by Coyne none of them, when examined strictly, are all that strong an objection. Now, I’m not completely up-to-date in this sort of theory and so might well be missing something, but it seems to me that if Coyne wants to claim that Wilson has lost it, he should come up with arguments that are more obviously problematic than the ones he’s given here.


March 10, 2012

So, since I’ve gotten rid of cable and now mainly watch DVDs, one of the few shows that I still watch on TV is “Canada’s Worst Handyman” (in re-runs). And on two recent seasons I’ve seen the work of these handypersons be criticized as “Amateur”. Um, hello? These are amateurs. If I was on that show — and my handy skills are probably bad enough that I’d qualify — and if the expert called my work amateur, I’d immediately point out that I am an amateur, and so it probably should look that way, at least until I’d done it enough times to really get good at it.

I also seem to recall that one of the times it was said it was aimed at the guy who came into “rehab” unable to even do a job without a massive stress overload. For him, being called “amateur” is, in fact, a compliment.

Just one of the oddities that I see when I watch TV. We now return to “The Real Ghostbusters”.

Intrinsic Moral Value …

March 9, 2012

I’ve been in some discussions at Camels With Hammers about morality, and came across a case where a distinction that I have made in the past but usually don’t formally make and that isn’t normally made in the literature is actually a crucial one: the difference between saying that something has intrinsic value and that something has intrinsic moral value.

I’ve talked before about how you should only do moral things because they are moral, and not because they give you something else. This means that morality has intrinsic value, at least in my view; it should only be chosen for its own sake and not the sake of anything else. But if we just stop at saying that it has intrinsic value, then there is a concern that it seems that pleasure is also something that has intrinsic value, and then if I say that being moral means choosing things that have intrinsic value over things that don’t, pleasure seems to be something that fits in there. Since I reject all hedonistic moral systems — and Utilitarianism is one of these — that leaves us in a bit of a bind.

But note that I don’t have to stop at intrinsic value. I can distinguish between having intrinsic moral value and having intrinsic hedonistic value. At this point, I can then make my distinction and argue that while pleasure has intrinsic value, it isn’t a moral value, which means that while it doesn’t fall into the intrinsic/instrumental distinction it does fall into the intrinsic moral/intrinsic hedonistic one. At which point, the argument that pleasure does have intrinsic value doesn’t come into it at all.

Now, the hedonist can argue that pleasure itself does have intrinsic moral value. But note that most of the hedonistic arguments rely heavily on pleasure or happiness being the only thing that everyone values. But my distinction acknowledges that, but moves on to demand that the hedonist demonstrate why pleasure itself is something that has any moral value at all, let alone intrinsic moral value. That everyone values it doesn’t mean that they value it for its moral content, or that it has moral content at all. So the hedonist needs to make a link between the value of happiness and the moral value, unless they want to argue that morality itself is not something we should value for itself.

Both tacks are problematic. Against the first, we can muster the intuitions that there are cases where increasing the happiness or pleasure of the majority of people — taking the Utilitarian case as an example — does things that we think are immoral. If you could prove that slavery increased happiness more than not having slavery would, then it would be moral to institute slavery. But most of us would recoil at such a claim. And there are many other cases where we can raise doubts that increasing happiness or pleasure would make the action moral, or have any impact of the morality of the case. On the other hand, to argue that we are only interested in being moral to the extent that it increases our happiness or pleasure leaves them open to the charge that they should abandon morality if it would increase happiness or pleasure. But this does not seem reasonable; surely it is not praiseworthy to act admittedly immorally for the sake of increasing pleasure or happiness. So it’s only natural that most hedonists want to take the first tack, and while they may be right and might be able to bite the bullet on those cases it’s still a problem that they have to address.

For me, morality and being moral is a valuable end in and of itself. Because of this, I am drawn to moral systems like that of the Stoics or Kant that recognize that some things just have intrinsic moral value and do not need to be justified beyond that. The problems with pleasure or happiness being that standard are serious enough to make me reject them out of hand. Thus, I argue that while pleasure has intrinsic value, it does not have intrinsic moral value, and so if you want to be moral you should always choose being moral over gaining pleasure, but it’s fine to seek pleasure if that doesn’t cause you to act immorally. Which is pretty much Seneca’s defense of his own wealth while considering money an indifferent.

Radio killed the radio star …

March 8, 2012

So, I’ve started listening to CDs on the way to work and back.

Now, this might not seem all that different, but it marks a major change for me. For what has to be at least the past 5 years, I’ve been listening to the radio. I started listening to one radio station all the time, but then ended up hating their morning show. Essentially, the tone just evolved into being way too “dirty” for me. Now, I’m not quite a prude, and can even enjoy some more risque jokes, but the morning I decided that I had had enough was the morning where there was a significant part of the show going on and on about sex. At that time in the morning, I really didn’t want to have that much sex talk; it just didn’t fit the attitude I had as I was heading to work.

So, I switched to Bob FM. Now, I’d listened to it before, but had hated one of the presenters, who shall remain nameless. Sandy Sharkey just wasn’t the sort of person that I enjoyed listening to. But they had a mix of good music and J.R. actually managed to play a good straight man to her kookiness, and so I settled in and enjoyed it. Afternoons, I could tolerate Steve Gregory but he wasn’t one of my favourites. Not only was he a bit kooky, but he also managed to drag anyone who was with him there as well. But it was okay.

Later, when I started working later into the evening, they got a new DJ called Vinny White, who was certainly also kooky — at this point, I might have to start calling them “characters” — whom I really liked. He was a character, but he was an entertaining one. It was rare with him that I was tempted to roll my eyes at him just “talking stupid”, which was often the case for Sandy or Steve.

So, I settled in to this, and even started listening to that radio station at home. Things were good.

But then J.R. went off to the business side, and they started having to find people to fill in. I forget who was first, but at some point Stuntman Stu came on and they added their sound guy Hammer on, and it was okay because Stu could play the straight man well — although I felt the others interrupted his comments far too much since they were generally more interesting than anything the others had to say — and so it fit in. But then he left to go to another morning show on another station, and Vinny White moved down and Melanie Adams moved in from another station. And I actually liked the both of them, and found that they had a really good chemistry together, in that their radio personas played well off each other, even if that was played as them generally disagreeing with each other. But four people fighting for mike time was getting a bit overwhelming. And due to various circumstances, Vinny White left, Hammer is now gone, and Cub Carson has come on to work with Sandy and Melanie.

Now, Cub Carson used to do evenings on another radio station, and I really liked him there. But he came on to Bob FM for weekend afternoons, and I found that his style again didn’t suit what I wanted out of weekend afternoons, so I stopped listening weekend afternoons. Turns out that his style doesn’t suit me for mornings either. And so, what we have are two people I don’t really want to listen to and one I do. That’s getting to be far too much in the dislike column for me to bother.

And the afternoons have added Cody Jeffries … and I don’t care for her much either. Adding her to Steve Gergory, then, makes them mostly unbearable. So that’s out. She also does weekend afternoons, so take that off the list. I think she used to do evenings, but haven’t bothered to check that either.

So the only times that I can actually listen and not be annoyed by the DJ are weekend mornings — since I could listen to Kristin Marand all day, which makes it a shame that she isn’t replacing someone on the morning show — and the later morning show since I like Milky. I don’t listen to the radio when Milky is on for other reasons, so that leaves weekend mornings. Which is not the time that I’m driving to and from work, generally.

So since I want to listen to something, that leaves CDs. And so I now listen to CDs and not the radio anymore. And it’s radio’s own fault.

New Old Republicans …

March 6, 2012

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up, about my first impressions of The Old Republic.