Archive for September, 2017

A Disappointment …

September 29, 2017

So, the MLB regular season is just about to end — this is the last weekend — and the team I cheer for — and pretty much the only MLB team that I care about one way or another — the Toronto Blue Jays are not going to be playing games in October after having made the playoffs the past two seasons. More disappointingly, they weren’t ever really close to making the playoffs, even the Wild Card game. And even more disappointingly, they weren’t really close despite the fact that for the longest time being under .500 pretty much put you in the thick of the hunt, and it’s only now, at the end, that both AL Wild Card teams are significantly over .500. The Blue Jays were never over .500 for the entire season.

The thing that struck me the entire season, however, was that despite the lamentations of many Blue Jay fans, the Blue Jays really shouldn’t have been that bad this season. Their most significant loss in the off-season was Edwin Encarnacion, but numbers-wise that wasn’t that significant; Morales and Pierce alongside the great season Justin Smoak had probably made up for that loss. They kept a pretty good rotation and had a decent if somewhat cobbled together bullpen, and had most of the offensive pieces they had last season. While they still had some weaknesses, given the players they had if the ones who had struggled a bit last year recovered and the players that performed well last year just kept it up, they should have been in the hunt for at least a Wild Card berth, even assuming the normal 90’ish wins usually needed to get there.

But Jose Bautista didn’t bounce back, becoming a liability both at the plate and in the field. Tulowitzki and Martin struggled, both with injuries and when they were playing. Steve Pierce struggled with injuries and at the plate/in the field. Donaldson missed significant time with injuries. Aaron Sanchez missed most of the season with blister problems. Devon Travis missed most of the season. Marco Estrada struggled, and there were other injuries in the rotation, requiring a number of fill ins who were, in fact, relatively weak. And the weaknesses were never fixed, and so when the purportedly strong areas faltered, nothing was there to pick up the slack.

The result was a much worse season than the team, on paper, should have had. The Blue Jays were not, on paper, as bad a team as they were for most of the season.

Going into next season, though, it’s hard to conclude that they are a really good team. Sanchez will hopefully be back, but even if he comes back and Estrada regains his form, they don’t even have a fifth starter as reliable as Liriano was (or at least seemed), and that wasn’t saying all that much. Tulowitzki, after a few seasons of sub-standard play, seems like he might be declining sharply and has a contract that you can’t trade. Martin seems to bring the best out of the pitchers he catches for but might not be as strong offensively or with throwing out runners as you might like. Donaldson seems to be recovering from a poor start to the season, and so isn’t a point of concern, but Bautista almost certainly won’t be back next year which means they need a new right fielder … when this season they had issues with and never did find a good left fielder. Their only really reliable outfielder, then, is Kevin Pillar … who is certainly serviceable but is not likely to be an offensive force. It’s probably time to cut bait on Devon Travis, who might be able to provide offensive spark but can’t stay healthy enough to actually contribute. Goins and Barney are serviceable at best but right now one of them would likely have to be a starting infielder … and Barney’s contract is up after this year, I believe. Carrera seems to be able to provide some offensive spark at times, but is a liability in the field. The bullpen is probably okay, but could definitely use improvement.

Maybe they can bring up some younger players and give them a chance, but that’s a risk and many of them — like Hernandez, who did pretty well offensively in his limited playing time as a September call-up — have potential offensive upside but are weaker defensively.

The front office has said that they don’t want to blow it up and start over, but it’s hard to see where they are actually secure and don’t have huge question marks for next season. Of course, they don’t even really have any players that they could generate decent value from if they wanted to blow up the team without getting rid of the young core that they’d want to build around. Unless some of the underperforming players recover or some of the prospects seize the reins, next summer could be another long one for Blue Jays fans.

Outta Touch, Outta Time …

September 27, 2017

So, as I’ve touched on, I’ve been pretty busy lately. And, of course, I’ve been pretty busy before. But this time is a little bit different. This is the first time that I can recall where I actually feel that I have no time. Always before I knew I was busy, but for the most part also felt like I a) still had some time left to do things, even if I decided to rest or take a break instead and b) would have the time to pick things up once work slowed down. But this year I haven’t really felt that.

Part of the issue is that I have not only had a lot of things to do at work and around the house, but I’ve also been trying to do a number of other things. I’ve been trying to get some programming in regularly, as well as some writing, and wanted to put them on a schedule. Which I think is what most led to the issue, because the schedule I put together is, at least technically, rather packed. As I commented, I have budgeted about an hour and a half of TV watching a day, which is what I’ll get if all of the schedule works out the way I plan, with it only being the case that I get more in if I, say, don’t work as late as I generally plan to. That leaves little time to actually watch anything, as it would take me upwards of two months to watch an hour long show. And there are a number of them that I want to watch or watch again. I have a regularly scheduled 3 – 4 hours of video game time a week, which means that it would take me five months to finish a game like Persona 5 if I stuck to the schedule. And I have something like 8 hours for project-type stuff — writing and programming — if I stick to the schedule.

Before, if I wasn’t getting anything done it was because I wasn’t sticking to the schedule. Now, it really looks like I won’t get things done even if I stick to the schedule. And I never stick to the schedule.

And I even tried to slide some other things into other sorts of spare time, like watching DVDs while I’m working weekends which might then let me actually get some of the things I want to watch watched. But there isn’t that much time those days and whether I even go in or not varies, and on top of that if I don’t go into work for a while or don’t want to have that on, then what do I do with that series that I’m watching? The whole point to trying to watch it then is that I don’t have time to watch it otherwise. I’ve thought about doing things like writing or blog posts while compiling, but I find switching between the two to be distracting, and it doesn’t take me that long to compile anymore. I’ve thought about doing stuff like that before leaving work, or even taking an hour around lunch time to read, but if I’m working on something then I don’t want to stop looking at it and if I’m not working on something then I’m usually either waiting for something — and I don’t wait well and so would be distracted by the waiting — or else I’m planning on going home early instead and doing other things. So even when I would have the time to do things there, I wouldn’t and it would be better for me not to do it. So for all of these, I can’t really put anything regular in there, and if I can’t put anything regular in there, then it won’t help me get those things done, and if it won’t help me get those things done, then it isn’t helping me all that much.

And that, I think, is the real key. Always before when I put together a schedule, I could pretty much fit in everything I wanted to do somewhere and get what felt like enough time to do all of them. Sure, I didn’t always or even usually do all of those things, but again it was just a matter of my actually sticking to the schedule or just getting temporarily and unexpectedly busy. But now, that’s not the case, and there are things that I really want to do that I don’t feel that I have the time to do. That makes me feel like I don’t have time anymore.

I guess the key here is to accept my time constraints and either try to be more efficient or else accept that some of the things that I want to do I just won’t be able to do. I’ve already done that for hour long shows (for the most part) and I’ll have to see what else I’ll have to accept not being able to do.

Thoughts on Beast Wars and Beast Machines

September 25, 2017

So, the last segment of my spin through Transformers was the CGI-based series “Beast Wars” and “Beast Machines”. For the most part, I think both of these series were definitely hampered by a move to short, 13-episode series from a longer Season 1 of “Beast Wars”, although “Beast Machines” suffered more than “Beast Wars” did.

While the post-movie Transformers cartoon definitely tried to take on more mature and darker topics than the original cartoon, these series went even further, although oddly while they were definitely more serious they weren’t typically darker overall, at least in “Beast Wars”. There was still a huge sense of fun that the post-movie cartoons seemed to lack, and that was also more absent in “Beast Machines”. So ultimately it started down a path of having more detailed and involved plots and characterizations and character arcs, which worked really well. And they both tended to not only have these be more detailed, but also to have more of them, and to have them all going on at the same time, which allowed for them to advance multiple arcs in the same episode while the overall episode focused on one of them or, at times, none of them.

The thing is that if you’re going to do that many involved and detailed arcs all going on at the same time, you really need the time to develop them all. In the first season of “Beast Wars”, there were enough episodes and few enough arcs that this could be done. But when the seasons shortened to 13 episodes, there wasn’t enough time to develop them all and still develop and resolve the main plot for the season. Season 2 of “Beast Wars” didn’t suffer from this as much, because it could utilize what was developed in the first season. But the third season struggled a lot more with this, ending up with a number of arcs that seemed rushed — Tigerhawk, for example, resolves the Tigertron/Air Razer kidnapping plotline by his showing up to fulfill some kind of prophecy in one episode and then dying the next — which really hurt those arcs. The Dinobot clone is another example. After the wonderfully done death of Dinobot earlier, this whole arc would have to be handled carefully, but it could have been done, especially given its ending. But the clone wasn’t properly developed and there wasn’t room to really go into detail with it, so instead the whole thing seems less than monumental. At least it didn’t feel like it ruined that original wonderful arc, but it certainly was far less than it could have been and seemed almost superfluous.

“Beast Machines”, however, suffers the most from this. For the most part, this series can’t utilize what happened in “Beast Wars” because it’s a new series, back on Cybertron. It also has a mystery to resolve and a clash between the organic and technological to resolve, as well as a number of character arcs. And it has to do it in … 26 episodes. It fails to do that, and in so doing makes many of the arcs seem rushed and, ultimately, unsatisfying, as well as a bit confusing. For example, the arc of Tankor really being Rhinox and then setting out to trick Megatron and Optimus Primal into destroying each other and the organics that Optimus was protecting or trying to revive is a good one … that is hampered by there not being time to show Rhinox developing his hatred of organics or, in fact, actually explaining it, and then Rhinox is defeated after only a few short episodes, which then loses the series an interesting antagonist. And then his redemption arc takes place in a short scene in the first episode of the next season. At that point, the arc really seems like a waste.

And this happened to so many arcs, even ones that carried on throughout both seasons. Black Arachnia’s attempts to restore Silverbolt and, once that happened, having to deal with his guilt and cynicism. Cheetor’s development into a more mature leader. Optimus’ growing obsession and mysticism. They even manage a late romance for Rattrap … started and resolved in the last couple of episodes and that ties too conveniently into the plot of the last few episodes. These ideas were all good and could have been great … but they simply weren’t developed enough and so in general come across a bit flat.

“Beast Wars”, though, is still a pretty good series, especially in the first season to season and a half. “Beast Machines”, though, is merely okay and a lot of that comes from it being a continuation from characters that we already know and like. It was worth watching, though.

Carrier on Plantinga’s Tiger …

September 22, 2017

So, lately, Richard Carrier has been posting very long and very snarky and insulting posts talking about philosophy in general, with a particular focus on ethics and religion. The problem is that those posts being long and taking lots of time out to insult the people he’s criticizing and any who might hold a similar position makes them very hard to read, and would do so even if I agreed with him … which, of course, I generally don’t. In fact, it’s worse when I disagree with him because the insults don’t add anything to the conversation for me and yet I feel that I really should read through the entire post to make sure that he doesn’t make a point that, well, makes sense or address some of my objections.

However, there are, at least on occasion, things that I want to address in them, so I’m going to try. In this post, I’m going to address his comments on Plantinga’s Tiger thought experiment and the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, that he discusses in two posts.

So, what is this thought experiment, and what is this argument? Well, Plantinga wants to argue that if accepting evolution and naturalism would provide a defeater for our belief that evolution and/or naturalism are true, then we would have reason to reject at least one of them and accept some other view, which he suggests would be a theistic view. How he tries to get there is to argue that if our cognitive faculties were selected for by evolution with no supernatural influence, then they were selected for simply on a survival basis; they were selected for because using them allowed the organism to survive longer and/or reproduce more than those who didn’t have them or didn’t use them. In general, we assume that propositions have to be true in order to provide a survival benefit; if you don’t have an accurate view of reality, you probably aren’t going to be able to survive for very long. But this is exactly what Plantinga wants to challenge with his thought experiment.

What he argues is this: our behaviour is determined, in some sense, by our beliefs and desires. We believe some facts about the world, have some desires, decide that given the facts we have about the world that a certain action will achieve our desires, take that action, and then see what happens. If it works, we assume that our reasoning was correct and we have the right facts, and if it doesn’t we assume that either our beliefs or our reasoning about what would be a good action are correct, and so try to correct one of them. But Plantinga argues that we can derive the right behaviour from the wrong beliefs, as long as the wrong beliefs are assembled in the right way. And that’s what his thought experiment is aimed at showing. It argues that if a human comes across a tiger, the right behaviour in terms of survival is to run away. So if the person believes that a tiger is a threat, and that the right behaviour to ensure their survival is to run away, then that is what they will do, and they will succeed. But if the person believes that the tiger, say, wants to play tag, they will also run away, and they will also succeed. Because Plantinga wants to make an argument that the probability of getting true beliefs just from pragmatics is low, he argues that there are many, many ways to assemble appropriate false beliefs, but only one way of assembling true ones, so a cognitive faculty that was selected for on the basis of pragmatics — the beliefs it produces works out — would be unreliable. And if our cognitive faculties are so selected and thus are unreliable, then any belief produced by them is produced by an unreliable mechanism and so cannot be trusted. But our belief in naturalism and evolution are produced, he argues, by those mechanisms, and thus would be unreliable. So we’d have a defeater for those beliefs if we accepted them, and so it’s not rational to believe them.

Now let me generalize a bit from this to make it clearer, because I believe that some of the things he assumes he doesn’t have to assume to make his point. First, I think that his view can be summed up as this: selecting for pragmatics isn’t the same as selecting for truth, and so you cannot assume that a mechanism that produces useful beliefs is also producing true ones. Second, I don’t think he needs to argue that the probability of getting true beliefs is low, just that such a system will produce false beliefs a significant amount of the time. If it does, then we’d have to doubt any belief we have since we wouldn’t know — and couldn’t tell — which of the beliefs were true and which were conveniently false, which would provide our reason to doubt evolution and naturalism.

Now, before I get into Carrier’s counters, let me briefly outline what _I_ think is the best counter to it. While it’s relatively easy to find one case where we can massage beliefs to get the right behaviour, most of our beliefs are used in a number of situations. It’s a lot harder to imagine that we can have a set of false beliefs that would work in every case where those beliefs are relevant to our behaviour. It’s a lot harder to assemble a consistent set of beliefs that work with every other belief that we have in the situations where other beliefs are relevant to our decision. You can do it, but it usually involves a lot of workarounds and patch-ups and by the end of the day it really seems like just having true beliefs is far less complicated and actually works far more of the time. In isolation, the thought experiment might seem plausible — many people, however, don’t find it plausible — but as we build out a full Web of Belief it starts to look quite implausible.

So, then, what are Carrier’s counters. The first one I’d like to look at is the idea that Plantinga’s idea of beliefs and desires producing behaviour isn’t an accurate way to describe our cognitive faculties:

He does so by simply asserting all that happens in cognitive evolution is the natural selection of belief-desire pairs (“see tiger, run”). That’s wildly false. As I already noted, it’s total bullshit, worthy of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter. You can’t explain the reliability of human vision in accessing reality (which gets us mostly to a correct basic physics of the world, like where objects are and what shapes they have and what the patterns of their geometry and movement tell us about reality, e.g. discriminating a live tiger from a dead one, or a tiger from a wildcat, or an angry tiger from a guy in a tiger-pelt cloak), and the evolution of human hypothesis-testing in accessing reality (which gets us things like “a spear will kill a tiger”), with the same selection model at all, much less Plantinga’s nonsense about “belief-desire pairs.”

The problem is that even if Plantinga insists that our cognitive faculties work entirely on “belief-desire pairs” — and it isn’t clear that he does — this doesn’t matter, because that still works as a relatively accurate description of how we act in the world based on the facts we have, which is the only thing that evolution or even pragmatics can work on. We have facts about the world, things we want to accomplish, and we use those to determine how to act in the world. Whether those facts form from reasoning into an explicit belief proposition or from an automatic parsing of sense data, at the end for everything we know beyond the instinctual — and possibly even in the instinctual — we have a fact and a desire and combining the two gives us an action that we can take to see if it works out in the world, which many people then use to conclude that the facts and reasoning are true. If Carrier is going to deny this, then he’s going to have no way to actually test any cognitive faculties, and will undercut his own pragmatic arguments. So this argument is entirely irrelevant to the debate.

His better counter is to introduce a distinction between our innate cognitive faculties and our developed ones, like logic and science. The former are clearly produced by evolution and are also, according to Carrier, actually pretty bad, as he expects given evolution. But they are good enough to allow us to develop those other cognitive faculties, and those ones work really well, and those are the ones that justify evolution and naturalism:

Plantinga is explaining the wrong thing. He thinks innate faculties have to generate scientific knowledge. False. All they have to be able to do is generate the ability to discover a technique (like the scientific method). And then the technique generates scientific knowledge. Using those underlying faculties. But it is not the faculties alone that are doing it. Those faculties have to be manipulated according to a procedure, one not evolved, and not innate in the brain (nor easily learned…remember, no human learned it for hundreds of thousands of years; and no human learns it today, unless they are taught it by someone else).

Note that we don’t even need evolved faculties that generate the techniques that can gain greater access to world knowledge. We only need evolved faculties to have the ability to generate those techniques. And observe history: that’s what happened. Our evolved faculties did not just generate those techniques (in the way they readily generate, for example, knowledge of object permanence). They failed to do so for countless thousands of years of countless millions of humans tinkering around and exploring different techniques. That that process would stumble across the cognitive tools we now use (science, math, logic) was statistically inevitable; it just would require a really long time. And lo and behold, we observe that’s exactly what it did. Evolution by natural selection is confirmed. Intelligent design is refuted.

(Note that Carrier tends to use a lot of emphasis, which doesn’t come across when I copy from his posts. I’m too lazy to put it back in, but it’s in the second link above if you want to see it).

But the problem with this view is that simply generating a technique or cognitive faculty isn’t enough. It has to be a technique that we can verify is reliable, meaning that it produces true beliefs more often than it produces false ones, and preferably that produces true beliefs almost all of the time. If our underlying faculties are in general pretty poor at doing that, we can’t use them to verify these new faculties. And since that’s all we have, there doesn’t seem to be a way that we can justify that these faculties are reliable, and so no way we can know that they are reliable. And if we can’t know that they are reliable, then Plantinga has his defeater.

Now, Carrier would argue that we test everything against survival, or rather that they work in the way outlined above: they produce beliefs that, when we act on them, actually work out as expected. Our innate faculties work well enough to be useful and to help us produce tools, but when we acted on them we found them to be insufficient as they are wrong way too often, but when we act on science or logic they work out far more often, and so are more reliable, and so we judge them reliable because, well, they do indeed work. This is probably about the only way we can go … but note that as I commented above this just retreats to justifying our cognitive faculties on the basis of pragmatics, and Plantinga’s argument is that trying to use pragmatics to justify our cognitive faculties doesn’t work because we can have a large number of sets of false beliefs that happen to produce the correct behaviour, meaning that those false beliefs happen to “work”. Thus, Carrier either gives Plantinga his defeater, or else uses the precise justification that Plantinga is attacking. Carrier hits at this attack:

It is not true that we can build consistently false beliefs about the world and still successfully navigate it. False beliefs kill you, e.g. a hungry man who runs from a tiger will starve; a hungry man who endeavors to kill the tiger, will eat. More to the point, if you don’t know you can’t hide from a tiger inside of a coconut; that objects don’t cease to exist when they move behind other objects; that you can’t summon water on a journey; that a leaf doesn’t hold enough water to drink in a day; and on and on and on, you will not do very well at survival compared to someone who does know those things.

But while a number of these things seem right, and even his attack on Reppert in the first post cited above is not unreasonable, nobody thinks that the sets of false beliefs are this trivial. Even Plantinga’s example is more complicated than this. Carrier, it seems to me, really needs an argument like the one I outlined above (which may be buried somewhere in his posts), which is that as we get into more and more complicated actions and interconnected beliefs, creating consistent false beliefs that always work is simply untenable.

So Carrier’s counters aren’t all that strong, certainly not strong enough to justify the strong tone he takes. That being said, I don’t think Plantinga’s argument works either.

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.

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.