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August 26th, 2012

08:25 pm - Awesome Birthday!
I'm in Hawaii – I'm currently in Honolulu, because it's easier for my parents to fly home from there, but yesterday, on my birthday I was on the island of Hawaii. My parents took Becca and I to Hawaii for my birthday (and because they remain evil, Alice was not invited). We stayed at a lovely Hotel a few miles outside of Hilo on Thursday and Friday night, and then came to Hilo for the tour of the Hawaii Volcano National Park that we went on yesterday. It was spectacular, made even better by having a guide who was a retired park ranger who had worked in the Volcano Park since 1972. We saw lava tubes, amazing volcanic landscapes, and a smoking caldera full of lava. During the day, it was merely full of smoke, but as the sun went down, the glow became visible – I could see the glow of magma, and got a number of pictures. Here's what I think is the best:
Volcano Glow
Hilo was lovely (and IMHO vastly more interesting than Kona, which from what I read is uber-touristy and noted only for hot and dry beaches (which hold no interest for me). Hilo had excellent food, amazingly lush scenery nearby, and was closer to the volcanoes. The only downside is that Becca and I both miss Alice a great deal, but we'll be home in 2 days. In any case, I've always loved fire and the images of volcanoes that I've seen, and the volcano park was incredible.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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June 18th, 2012

03:33 am - Gaming News Related To Me
At long last, Eldritch Skies is available as a printed book, either a $40 hardcover book or a $30 softcover book. I'm excited and hope this seriously increases sales (on average, for RPGs print book sales are several times PDF sales). Spread the word to anyone who you think might be interested.

Also Chaosium Inc., the company that makes Call of Cthulhu, BRP and several other wonderful games is taking part in a competition for some sort of quarter million dollar small business award. They need 250 votes to get through the first stage and it looks like anyone on Facebook can vote – they currently have 226 votes. In addition to producing games I like, they are also a company I work for, and people I respect, so please vote for them.

The information that voters need is:

Name of Business: Chaosium Inc.

State: California

City: Hayward
Current Mood: hopefulhopeful

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June 14th, 2012

03:26 am - Swiftkey keyboard oddness
So, I read the most recent xkcd, and being intigued by keyboard a learning markov chain generator that could learn from my lj (I turned it into an RSS feed and linked it to Swiftkey), and so I put Swiftkey on my phone. Then, like in the comic, I hit space to effectively allow it to create its own messages. Here's one I just got - "I am a beautiful person. I am baffled that this is a bad thing." It ended there, since after the period, it just kept going with additional periods. (...) I'm both entranced and a bit creeped out by this, I've seen spambot generated emails a whole lot less comprehensible and I didn't type a single character myself, I just let it autoinsert words of its own choosing. It's also an excellent keyboard for texting. In any case, I wonder what thinks like predictive text will look like in a decade...

Edit: I also started a sentance with "The" and let it go from there, and got "The cat and the robot have different conditions of the most appealing utopias that I've been a while..."
Current Mood: amusedamused

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June 10th, 2012

01:54 am - Bandits - a fun, charming, and wonderful film.
Several months ago, siderea made a post asking for recommendations for media with fictional depictions of polyamory that are actually well done. One of the recommendations was a fairly recent film I'd never heard of - Bandits (2001), with Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett. teaotter and I sat down to watch it tonight, and were soon joined by amberite. It was impresively quirky, funny, and quite good. The three protagonists were impressizely bizarre individuals and the result was excellent light fun that wasn't stupid and which also didn't gloss over the fact that polyamory is complex.

While it's quite different from the wonderful romance film Simply Irresistable (1999), with Sarah Michelle Geller & Sean Patrick Flanery, both are quirky films that are well outside the range of typically Hollywood films with romances in them, and both are vastly better than most of their somewhat mediocre reviews.

To many films that have anything to do with romance end with me upset due to it being offensive, or simply deeply alien to my experience in a rather horrifying fashion. It's rare to find one that leaves me with a smile on my face, and both of these managed that very well indeed.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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June 9th, 2012

04:45 pm - Musings on Cultural Blindness
Here's an article purporting to help explain why people in the US are so resistant to believing in evolutionThe article begins:
Last week, Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.

What’s most remarkable about these numbers is their stability: these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question, thirty years ago. In 1982, forty-four per cent of Americans held strictly creationist views, a statistically insignificant difference from 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans that believe in biological evolution has only increased by four percentage points over the last twenty years.

Such poll data raises questions: Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in? What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?
It then goes on to claim that much of the reason is that the problem is people come equipped with natural instincts that are contradicted by science but are difficult to let go of. It's an interesting theory, which is also obvious nonsense, especially wrt belief in evolution. Sure, most of the US population doesn't believe in evolution, but according to this theory, the same should be true elsewhere. And yet, in Britain the numbers are rather different:

Half of British adults do not believe in evolution, with at least 22% preferring the theories of creationism or intelligent design to explain how the world came about, according to a survey.

The poll found that 25% of Britons believe Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is "definitely true", with another quarter saying it is "probably true".
Certainly not encouraging numbers, but almost twice as many people in Britain accept evolution and half as many creationism. Then, you go a bit further afield and look at the table on page 12 of this PDF (Fig. S1), where the number of people in Denmark who don't believe in evolution is literally half the number in Britain and it's also clear from reading more about these studies that even more in Europe than the US, older people are more likely to disbelieve evolution.

I found both the UK and the Europe data in a 5 minute Google search. What annoys me about this article the most is how common this sort of belief is – the idea that what is true in one nation or culture (especially if it's constant over a time period of more than a generation) is in some way innate to humanity (or perhaps, it's that even more dubious and fraught word "natural").

This sort of limited and inherently flawed thinking is behind most articles on evolutionary psychology as well as a whole lot of similar foolishness, and these days it's so easy to refute. Amusingly, in one sense, this error proves a portion of the author's point – people make mistakes, not because science contradicts people's intuitions, but because other people and places do. In large part, because these intuitions are all culturally based. The US is filled with a truly horrifying number of Christian religious zealots, but the number of such people is far lower in Europe and the presence of such people and the cultural attitudes that both foster their existence and that they produce clearly has a large effect on belief in evolution (as well as on belief in various other ideas). Culture matters, and it matters in vast ways that can easily be invisible to many people.

My favorite example of cultural blindness remains perfect pitch. until recently people in the US believed that only 1 in 10,000 people had perfect pitch and that it was some sort of rare and special genetic quirk, then they looked at people who spoke Chinese or other tonal languages, and found it to be quite common. Perfect pitch is quite rare – but only among native speakers of non-tonal languages who don't receive extensive musical education as children. Similarly, I remember various books of my youth purporting to show that humans "won the evolutionary race" because they were more violent than other apes, which in addition to later evidence of primate aggression being discovered, it's also clear that cultural factors can reduce the level of human violence by a factor of almost two orders of magnitude.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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June 8th, 2012

10:54 pm - Musings On The Future We Imagined & The One We Got
Here's an interesting (if also quite problematic) article about the problematic difference between visions of the future and the reality of the future.

The focus of the article is that modern corporate capitalism sold out the future and decreased innovation. One of the primary bits of evidence is that visions of the future from the late 19th and earth 20th century looked a moderate amount like the actual 1950s & 60s:

" Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?"

Thinking about this article, I find an interesting mixture of wisdom and utter cluelessness. The two most obvious being problems moon bases (and other off-world habitats) and flying cars.

The first is hard, inherently dangerous (swift death waits just outside every wall), and expensive – it didn't happen because you need strong incentives to convince people to do anything that is expensive, especially if it's also quite dangerous. Building a moon colony needs more reasons behind it beyond "It's really cool", a fact that fans of off-world colonization have wrestled unsuccessfully with for the last 40 years.

The second is quite simply an obviously bad idea. Without fully automatic cars that are exceedingly reliable, every flying car and jet pack is a horrible accident waiting to happen. Not only is flying inherently harder than driving, but engine failure or drunken idiocy results in impressively deadly crashes. In addition to being more deadly (a car losing power or control may be able to simply coast to the edge of the road, the same thing happening to a flying car is quite bad), accidents could result in flying cars ending up in the sides of apartment buildings or plummeting down on top of houses or hospitals. W/o total computer control, which could take away control from every driver about to do anything dangerous, I'd vote against any attempt to create flying cars.

OTOH, there also may be some truth in this article – while automation has become quite impressive in the past 40 years, people in the developed world have replaced some labor with automation and a whole lot more with poorly paid labor in the developing world. I rather suspect that if there had been better laws governing that sort of thing (mandating better wages, environmental, & safety standards in developing world factories making goods for sale in the developed world) we'd have more and better automation in factories in the developed world. Also, I suspect that we'd have far better batteries for electric cars if the oil and gas lobby hadn't been so powerful in the 80s and 90s.

That said, I also see a lot of impressive developments going on today – no, as the author mentioned sequencing the human genome didn't result in instant cures for diseases, but various gene therapies ( for both medical uses and athletic enhancement ) are in the early stages of testing or even use, and vaccines for cancer & for parkinson's disease are currently in development.

We have probes around most world in the solar system, which isn't bad at all. Also occasionally I see articles that utterly blow me away, such as this bizarre piece about artificially evolving proteins to create unusual materials - it seems like bizarre SF, and it happening today.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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May 11th, 2012

01:36 pm - Eldritch Skies Out!!!!
At long last, and a year to the day after the Kickstarter ended, Eldritch Skies is now available as a PDF on drivethru RPG. I'm exceptionally proud of it, the art and layout look awesome, amberite's fiction pieces are excellent and I really hope people enjoy the book (and buy lots of copies, especially since I get half of the profits for each book :)

Pre-orders for the print book will start very soon.
Current Location: Home
Current Mood: jubilantjubilant
Current Music: Hey Ho by Tracy Grammer

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May 2nd, 2012

05:53 pm - A Wonderfully Hopeful Series of Blog Posts
I'm posting this because I've only seen on mention of it on LJ and it's an impressive and wonderful story. Here's an article about a couple who were raised Quiverfull (aka scary extreme fundies), who got married and had a few kids. At that point, one of them realized she was transsexual and transitioned, the couple stayed together, made a new life for themselves, and left their religion behind

The article is good, but it's even better to read the series of nine blog posts one of the two people wrote about this. The blog posts are powerful and excellent and gave me insight into a life and a journey that is well beyond my experience.

I also looked at some of the other posts on that site and was very impressed with them. I particularly liked this one about looking for bibles and books of bible stories to read to her young children, and being overcome with horror at how brutal these stories are and not wanting to inflict them on young children – a feeling I've also seen posted by several parents on my f-list who are now ex-religious.

As I mention here and in other posts, Christianity comes from an era when people's regard for the lives and suffering of others was simply less than it is in the modern developed world, and I can easily see people deciding that such attitudes have no place in modern life.

In any case, the posts about how this couple's lives changed is one of the more powerful, joyful, and hopeful things I've read in a while.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

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05:09 pm - Musings on "Gritty" Fantasy
After reading another post about the problems with the current fascination with rape, misogyny, similar vileness in modern "gritty" fantasy novels and TV shows, I remembered the only fantasy series I've read which had extensive depictions of gritty warfare, the protagonist was the leader of a 15th century mercenary company - Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle These books were exceedingly gritty – passages about being covered in gore, cold, hungry, and listening to the screams from the medical tent were not rare. The pre-modern warfare in these books was ugly and brutal. However, when rape was mentioned in the books, it was both clearly shown as a problem (in the sense of soldiers being out of control in ways that their commanders found problematic), and it was never portrayed in great detail. I found the third book of the series to rather weak, and wasn't as satisfied with the ending as I could have been, but I enjoyed it a great deal, and was never once tempted to throw any of the books across the room, unlike the time I read the first part of Martin's first Game of Thrones novel. I've attempted to read other similar novels and never get very far as a mixture of boredom and disgust sets in. I've complained about Martin's novels before, and they are far from alone (Here's a ludicrously self-indulgent rebuttal to the post I link to by R. Scott Bakker, who also writes "gritty" rape-filled fantasy novels). In thinking back on Gentle's Ash series, it occurred to me that that major difference is that Martin, Bakker, and similar authors are not simply attempting to write fantasy that's "grittier" or more brutal, they are making a conscious or unconscious decision that gritty realism not only must include large amounts of rape, misogyny, and racism, but that all of these must be described in extensive detail. These are not choices that I respect or am willing to read. In any case, if you want to read a fascinating, unusual, and seriously gritty fantasy series, Ash:_A_Secret_History is well worth reading.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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April 20th, 2012

06:07 pm - My Recent Gaming
I've been making my (admittedly) meager living writing RPGs for around 15 years now, but for the last few years I've only had fairly sporadic gaming, until this year. Within a month of each other, two games started that I'm in, one run by each of my wonderful partners. For those of you with an interest in such things, here's what games I'm currently playing: Info on both campaigns followsCollapse )
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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April 17th, 2012

02:40 am - Musings on History, Violence, & The Hunger Games
When I saw The Hunger Games a bit over a week ago, one of the more striking things in the film was the use of the mass media in the movie's setting. They had a similar reality-TV-like aesthetic, but for a show about children murdering one another. My first thought was that nothing like this would or could happen anywhere in any nation at all like any of the modern developed world. Legal restrictions aside, the entire developed world (and much of the rest of the planet) is now a place where open bloody violence is no longer acceptable entertainment, that's as true in Germany or Japan as it is in the US, even long cultural traditions like bull-fighting in Spain are under intense public pressure and are in the process of (thankfully) being banned. Anything involving bloody violence against humans is on the far cultural fringes even if it doesn't involve any risk of death or serious injury.

However, then I considered the past, including the recent past. 150 years ago, public executions were considered great fun by many and morally uplifting by some – people regularly took their children to them, both for the spectacle and for moral education. Going further back, we have quite a bit of writing from various Roman authors, and while a fair number of them wrote about gladiatorial combat, only one, Seneca wrote against them, and his objections were largely that they were only fit for base minds and that they promoted decadence among the viewers than that they were intrinsically hideous and wrong. Of course, prior to the early 20th century, with the rise of modern medicine, death was far more ever-present, and quite honestly life, including human life was considered far cheaper than it is in any of the developed world and much of the rest of the planet (life sadly remains pretty darn cheap in places like Pakistan or North Korea, but such hell-holes are growing increasingly rare).

In any case, if there was some way to combine pre-20th century attitudes towards violence with advanced technology (which seems far from impossible, especially if, like in the film, access to this technology was drastically unequal), then I can definitely see people avidly watching their view screens at the sight of children murdering one another. Such are the ways that humanity changes, and yet another reason that I regard the pre-modern past as universally hideous.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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02:18 am - Theories of Politics and Mind + the Current Broken State of US Politics
I've discussed Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory previously. It's interesting and he and some of the others working on the relationship of cognition and political preference seem to be onto something. However, I've also recently begun to encounter a number of articles like this one, that both attempt (rather dubiously, as is true of at least 95% of all evo-psych theories) to tie these preferences into inborn genetic traits, and also to use them to explain the current political tensions in the US.

I've written a number of posts about why I think most evolutionary psychology is not merely bogus, but that it is also ideologically motivated pseudoscience .

However, that's only half of my disagreement with thin and various similar articles I've seen. While most don't come out and say it, they hint that major tensions between conservatives and liberals are unavoidable and thus that the current poisonous state of US politics is in some way natural or unsurprising.

However, it's worth considering exactly how bad US politics has become and more importantly exactly how insane and twisted the Republican party has become. Yes, it seems liberals and conservatives evaluate the world in different ways, and yet in the 1990s, a similar set up of a Republican House and a Democratic president was at odds with one another, but somewhat less badly than they are now. Also, prior to the 1980s, the Republican Party was not the party of fundy bigots and was a whole lot less crazy.

More importantly, the differences between conservatives and liberals may be inherent, but the extreme differences are clearly not. The UK is a nation with common cultural roots to the US, and yet while I consider their Tories to be fairly vile, they also aren't insane fundy bigots. The closest UK analog to the US Republican Party is the BNP, who are insane racists. However, in the UK the BNP regularly only gets around 2-3% of the vote and are widely reviled by everyone else. It's well worth keeping in mind that the current state of US politics and of the Republican Party is in no way normal, it's sick seriously non-functional. I've also rather suspicious of the motives of writing articles that imply that the current state of affairs is in some way normal.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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April 9th, 2012

01:51 am - Musings on Movie Trailers
The trailers were also an interesting mix – The Avengers looks to be fun (especially with Joss Whedon directing it, since he's best at working with an ensemble cast, but the presence of only one female hero was also very noticeable – perhaps if this film does well Black Widow will get her own film (given that she's played by Scarlett Johansson, this seems like a definite possibility). I'd also love to see Wasp, She-Hulk, Monica Rambeau/Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers/Ms Marvel/Captain Marvel, or the Scarlet Witch join up to make the team a bit more balanced. Either Carol Danvers or Monica Rambeau seem like the best choices to me, but the Scarlet Witch could also work.

I also saw a trailer for what will clearly be a total train-wreck of a film – Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which if the trailer is correct is about a wire-fu/wuxia Abraham Lincoln killing (or perhaps more accurately killin') vampires with an axe. This could have been a bad & cheap comedy, but it actually looked to be action-horror, which was simply ludicrous (much of the audience was rightfully giggling after that trailer). The fact that it's being directed by the director of the Russian films Night Watch and Day Watch is just going to make it more painful to watch – wow. I am baffled that this was made.

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01:45 am - Two Movies Well Worth Seeing
Last week I saw John Carter, and it was as visually stunning as Avatar, while being both considerably better in terms of the plot making sense as well as far less offensive. It was lovely, the plot worked, the hero could perform impressive feats because he was essentially Superman (ie he came from an environment with a much higher gravity) on Barsoom, Dejah Thoris was both a skilled warrior and a scientist and well acted by Lynn Collins, and both facts were important to the plot, Tars Tarkus was played wonderfully by Willem Dafoe, Sola was an interesting and complex character with her own story arc, and amazingly the sex of female tharks was actually not exceptionally obvious. Taylor Kitsch can't act his way out of a paper bag, but everyone else made up for this also,
the helpful and heroic Martian "dog" actually survived the film, I kept expecting it to die in a scene of cheap pathos, and it didn't, a fact that contributed to the film's overall humanity

teaotter and I saw The Hunger Games today. As I'd read, it was quite impressive from a gender PoV – As this article discussed, Katniss Everdeen is an unusual character for modern US film or even for wildly successful modern YA novels. TV is typically considerably more progressive (and simply more adventurous) than film, and we had Xena and Buffy in the 90s, but Katniss isn't inherently outside the range of humanity, like Buffy or Xena. Also, and perhaps most importantly that fact that she's a female hero is less important than the fact that she's a hero, and that's not something that I've seen very much in any US film. Later this year, we have Brave, and Snow White and the Huntsman both coming up later this year – interestingly enough in a year also featuring both the Republican War on Women, and also a significant feminist push-back against this.

It was an interesting film in other ways – the scene where the tributes were initially styled reminded me (certainly intentionally) of the make-over scenes in America's Next Top Model, and the entire feel of the movie was informed by reality TV. However, it was also discomfiting and a bit frustrating to watch a film about injustice and the first stirrings of revolution to overthrow a truly hideous society, which also clearly contained as little social commentary as the people who made it could possibly manage. I haven't read the book (preferring to avoid YA dystopias) and so don't know if the book contained much in the way of social commentary, but I suspect not. It's equally clear that in the modern US, if the film had contained significant social commentary it would not have been a big-budget picture, but this lack was still frustrating, since it felt like it should have been there. In some ways, even John Carter has a bit more social commentary than The Hunger Games (although nothing more complex than environmental destruction for profit & shadowy white overlords = bad)
The Hunger Games was however, very well done and visually quite impressive despite this lack.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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March 26th, 2012

06:22 pm - A nifty sounding upcoming book
The 3rd Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee) is one of the my two favorite Doctors (along with 9), and so this alone would be mildly interesting:

"Harvest of Time will feature the Third Doctor as played by Jon Pertwee and will be the first all-new adventure for a Past Doctor that BBC Books has published since the show’s return in 2005. A novel set on both 20th century Earth and far into the future, it will have the Doctor battling his arch-nemesis, The Master, to save the universe – and facing the ultimate moral crisis."

However, I'd normally also be somewhat dubious, because the few Dr. Who novelizations I've read have been fairly mediocre, except that this one is being written by Alastair Reynolds, who is my favorite living SF author, and it turns out a big fan of Doctor Who. The only downside is that it won't be out until 2013, and I also have to wait until then to get the 2nd of his so-far-excellent Poseidon series.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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March 24th, 2012

03:14 am - Iain M. Banks' Culture novels and disagreements about Utopias and Dystopias
I enjoyed reading most of the novels in Iain M. Banks' Culture series Banks' has stated that one of the reasons he started writing about the Culture was to create a space opera for progressive, rather than yet another example of interstellar feudalism, and which Banks has described as " a Socialist utopia written as a Lefty wish fulfillment". Add in the increasing number of transhumanist technologies that have appeared in those novels and you have a setting that I greatly enjoy reading about (in a number of exceedingly well-written novels).

However, moving beyond the novels' admitted literary merits, I enjoy reading about the Culture, because it's fairly close to what I would consider not merely a utopia, but one of the most appealing utopias that I've ever encountered (although, it's also a place that's clearly non-ideal to live near, given the way amount of well-meaning interventionism). It's definitely on the rather small list of places that I'd moved to in a heartbeat if given the choice. In a recent and lengthy discussion of history and fiction with alephnul, amberite, and alephnul's relatively new housemate, and relatively new friend of mine, Ben. What puzzled me was that Ben had read several Culture novels and considered it a fairly unpleasant dystopia, in large part because humans and being with human-level intelligence are essentially pets of the AI Minds. This idea doesn't merely not bother me, but it seems inherently superior to government by humans, but to Ben the combination of the lack of self-determination and the fact that the Minds are sufficient smarter that they've thought of and imagined everything a human could possible think or imagine means that humans are entirely irrelevant, which makes it a dystopia to him.

I realize that my own view on politics is odd, because while I find democracies clearly superior to other existing systems of government in practice, the fact that I can vote is utterly irrelevant to me, since my vote is one in hundreds of thousands (in local elections) or hundreds of millions) in national elections, and so individually pointless. Also, in Jonathan Haidt's six moral foundations, I score by far the highest in care (ie keeping others from being harmed), high in fairness, with all of the others, including liberty/oppression being considerably lower, and with loyalty, authority, and sanctity all being exceptionally low.

Yesterday, Ben and I were talking with other people about gaming, and I was amused to learn that by far my favorite type of game is one where the GM is solely in charge of creating and controlling the world and comes up with the plots and stories for the PCs, while Ben prefers non-traditional RPGs, where power is shared somewhat, and even in a game where the GM is excellent and creating excellent and engaging stories, he has problems with that style of gaming and finds it too constricting. It immediately struck me that this difference in preference came from the same basis as my viewing the Culture as a utopia and Ben considering it to be a dystopia. In any case, I'm also intrigued this difference and am also curious as to how other people feel about this. Also, here's a pollCollapse )
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Current Music: Steely Dan - Hey Nineteen

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March 7th, 2012

03:26 am - Musings on Suffering, Modern Life, and Religion
I ran into an interesting series of posts on a study about why people cease being Christians. There seem to be three primary reasons – other Christians responding badly to the person expressing doubts, prayers not being answered, and also people having theological issues with Christianity. Many of the examples of the later involved dealing with the idea that God allowed or inflicted suffering, and I found that very interesting, while also not terribly surprising.

Christianity, like all of the other pre-modern faiths, evolved in an era when many children died in childhood, when relatively minor injuries could easily be fatal, and where significant suffering was not merely universal, but also entirely out of the ability of anyone to predict. In one person, a bad scratch might heal in a week, in another, they might get blood poisoning and be dead in six days. In addition to the world seeming far more random than it does now, everyone had far more experience with death. If you made it to 30, you had likely buried your parents, at least some of any children you had, at least one of your siblings, and very possibly your spouse. People were far more inured to the deaths and suffering of others, and especially to those of people they didn't know well. You can see this in the popularity of watching public executions and of various horrific sports like bear baiting and dog fighting. Insanities like dueling or lethal gladiatorial games were also widely popular in various eras.

All this changed in the 20th century, first with antibiotics and vaccinations, and even further with vastly improved trauma medicine. For much of the 20th century (at least in the developed world) people dying before they become elderly had become far rarer than it was a century or more before. Because of these changes, attitudes have changed. Huge number of people died in pre-modern wars. Even in the last century, 10 million soldiers died in WWI and relatively few people called for these wars to stop because so many people were dying in what a relatively pointless war. In recent equally pointless wars, people all across the developed world get exceedingly upset about wars that kill a few thousand people. I even recently saw that less than a third as many stray cats and dogs are being euthanized in the US was were 40 years ago. The drop in the murder rate has been equally clear.

In the developed world, and to a large degree all across the planet, people have become are a whole lot less tolerant of others dying from accidents, violence, or any other cause other than old age. These feelings include strangers and even pets that they don't know. However, Christianity is a faith from another far grimmer and bloodier era, and all of the basic theology was written by and for people whose life was unimaginably horrible, violent, and death-filled by the standards of every resident of the first world.

It doesn't surprise me that answers about the question of suffering and of God stopping it or causing it that worked for people in 1,200 CE or even 1,850 CE do not work for many people today. In fact, that change pleases me greatly for reasons that have nothing to do with my attitudes about any particular religion, because a world where people are more generally compassionate and far less willing to accept the deaths of others is IMHO an unqualified good. The fact that issues relating to how theology deals with random suffering and death are one of the more common reasons for people to leave Christianity seems to me to be yet another proof of my idea that as life becomes less random and less violent, overall religiosity declines, which is one reason why organized religion is in such swift decline all across the social democracies of Western Europe.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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March 6th, 2012

03:21 am - Musings on TV, Fanfic, Continuity, and Change
I've given up on watching White Collar, to the point that after watching the season finale, I no longer particularly care what happens, and that got me thinking about the various reasons I watch and enjoy TV.

White Collar is one of a very small number of shows I started watching because I first encountered the fan-fic, which was largely fanfiction involving polyamorous triads, some of which was written by people who actually understood polyamory, which naturally made it of interest to me, and the show was enjoyable and pleasantly unusual for actually featuring a happy and functional married couple whose interactions did not have the hideousness that seem exceptionally common among TV het romances. However, I remained more interested in the fanfiction than the show, and so over the last season as the show slipped in quality and began a season-long plot that was both dismal and seemed to violate a number of established truths about several characters, my interest in the show waned. In addition to bad long-term plotting, I particularly noticed two problems. One was simply that the direction the show was taking made the fanfiction I liked increasingly less plausible for a number of reasons.

This is pretty much inevitable for long-term shows and is one reason that I've discovered that all of the shows I really like are ones where my enjoyment of the fan-fiction is secondary to my enjoyment of the show itself – as I've mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of Fringe (in fact, teaotter and I are gradually rewatching seasons 2 & 3 with amberite (who didn't have time to see it when Becca and I first watched it a few months ago), and I'm enjoying it almost as much the second time around), and I've tried reading Fringe fanfiction, but haven't found anything I have more than a passing interest in. At this point, I'll keep looking for good fic for shows that I enjoy, but it's clear that I should avoid shows if what I enjoy most about them is the fanfic.

Also, another problem I with White Collar is something that I periodically see in TV, and unwillingless to alter either the basic premise or the basic character dynamic, even when events on the show make one or both of these changes seem inevitable. White Collar set out the two protagonists as the untrustworthy and undisciplined con-man and the by the book, law-abiding FBI agent. By the end of the second season, this dynamic had changed, and the attempt to reset it in the last season felt forced. For the past 20+ years, TV has increasingly been dominated by shows which have a large degree of series-long continuity, and the older episodic (and IMHO largely far inferior) shows have faded away. However, it's clear that some people working in TV have habits formed by working on or watching episodic TV and the result is typically annoying and problematic. Also, one of the things I love about modern TV is long-term story arcs. I love good long-term story arcs, including both season-long story arcs or multi-season arcs as well as long-term arcs focused on how characters change and grow, and it's become clear to me that I'll tolerate a large number of episodes of exceedingly dodgy plots if the long-term story or character arcs are done well.

For example, Fringe has truly awesome small details, impressively excellent character arcs and long-term story arcs, as well as wonder character interaction, but many of the individual episode plots that are not focused on the long-term arcs are ludicrously dumb, and yet it's my second favorite show (after The Vampire Diaries, which has both excellent long term arcs and often equally good episode plots). In contrast, I remember that the X-Files often had quite good individual episodes, but the long-term story arc was frustrating and increasingly stupid, and so by the middle of the 4th season, I stopped watching it. Similarly, when White Collar fell down on the long term story and character arcs, I lost interest.
Current Mood: geekygeeky

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March 2nd, 2012

02:18 pm - Success With Gluten-Free Baked Goods
Both amberite and my dear friend Aaron have celiac, and so I've had to learn a bit about gluten-free baking. I've found that commercial gluten free flour mixes (I use Pamela's Gluten-Free Bread Mix & Flour Blend and have found that it's possible to make everything except yeast-risen items, but the results are usually fairly dubious. Sugar cookies I've made are sweet, but the texture is definitely inferior to conventional cookies, and so my preference is to make two batches, one for myself and anyone who can eat gluten and another that is specifically gluten free. However, while I've found that Alice and Aaron appreciate such foods, I often dislike making them, because I dislike making food that I consider seriously flawed. Given that almost all commercial gluten-free cookies that I've tried have been similarly dubious, I doubt that I'll be able to do much better that I am now.

However, I've recently been experimenting with another option – baked goods that specifically use little flour. In addition to various nut-based tortes, I recently make both
chocolate lava muffins (which has almost no flour) and sour cherry financier (which uses twice as much almond meal as flour), and the results were delicious. I've made gluten-containing chocolate lava muffins before, and there was no difference at all. This seems to be the best option I've found for gluten free baking, and given that I love European nut tortes, I'll be doing this more.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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February 22nd, 2012

10:19 pm - Musings On PantheaCon and Oppression
The San Francisco neopagan gathering PantheaCon happened last weekend, and while I wasn't there, I know many people who were. Like last year, there was an incident involving a group of Dianic pagans (led by well-known Dianic elder Z. Budapest) excluding transwomen from their rituals. Last year, they didn't state this and instead refused entrance to anyone who they thought might not have been born female. Rightfully so, there was a fairly impressive outcry about this sort of bigoted nonsense. To make matters worse, Z. Budapest posted a vile transphobic screed that is discussed and quoted here.

This year, the same group, led by Z. Budapest had another ritual, which on the program they listed as for "genetic women only". There was a silent protest out front of this ritual, which my good friend lupagreenwolf attended – here's her account of the experience.

Many people have discussed the obvious problems with this sort of bigotry, which are even more obviously egregious because in the 1960s and 70s, one reason that Dianic Wicca cam about what the lesbians and gay men were frequently excluded from traditional Wiccan covens, including those run by various important Wiccans, because they "had the wrong sort of energies". There were even some early women only covens and groups that excluded lesbians for the same reason.

However, it's also true that Z. Budapest and her fellow bigots are obviously entirely within their rights to worship as they please and to exclude who they wish from their rituals. I've also heard of a few openly racist pagan groups that exclude people of color. I think openly condemning Z. Budapest and the other members of her group allows people to let off steam, but also isn't going to change anything.

What I see as the far more important issue is that PantheaCon is open to all pagans, and collects money from all who attend. So, I ultimately see the problem as being that the people who run PantheaCon allow people who put on rituals at the gathering, which are open to attendees, which are also openly bigoted. To me that important thing to do is to call the people running PantheaCon to task about this issue, including organizing an email campaign and if necessary, a boycott.

It's easy to see how the people who run PantheaCon got into this position – the reason is all about gaining access to resources, including money, social capital, and prestige. A pagan gathering that theoretically welcomes all pagans, including both transpeople and their friends and allies, as well as transphobic people, and allows all of these people to put on programs based on their own agendas will obviously have more attendees and more positive press than one that either openly states that the exclusion of trans-people is acceptable or which forbids this sort of bigotry.

The first choice would cause many trans people and their friends and allies to speak out against PantheaCon and would likely cause many of them not to attend, the second choice would almost certainly cause Z. Budapest and her group to cease performing rituals there and might cause them to not attend. Either result costs the people running the event money, social capital, and prestige. In the absence of strong pressure to do otherwise, the best policy for the people running PantheaCon is to say and do nothing, to forbid nothing, and thus to have the various groups attack one another, while continuing to have all such people to attend PantheaCon.

I see this as the same sort of pseudo-liberal dodge that causes radio and TV networks to permit open bigots to work as commentators and spew their hate over the airwaves, and the solution is identical – call the people running PantheaCon out on this sort of nonsense, and at that point they'll need to decide whether they will side with the bigots or the victims of bigotry. Something that I've repeatedly seen is that when groups like convention organizers, TV stations, or whatever pretend to be non-partisan, they typically end up supporting bigots and the best way to change the situation is to force them to actually choose a side.

In any case, here's contact info for PantheaCon as well as contact info for the pagan store Ancient Ways that sponsors it and that is run by the organizer.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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