Thursday, August 26, 2010

Five Rules For Not Being a Dick (Too Much)

Time to weigh in on Phil Plait's DBAD (Don't Be A Dick) speech, since everybody else is. In a nutshell: At first I was dismissive, as I think he was framing the question all wrong and ignoring all sorts of contrary arguments -- basically, that he was channeling Mooney. Since then, a couple of things have come up that makes me wonder if there is a problem here... although Plait's frustrating lack of specificity makes it difficult for me to tell if he was making a more nuanced point than Mooney was, one which I agree with; or if I am looking at different issues, and he was just rattling off the same old "Let's use kid gloves with religion" argument.

I do think Plait's (in)famous introductory sentence was indeed a totally ridiculous way of framing it. My first reaction was similar to what Dawkins said, much more eloquently than I ever could, on Jerry Coyne's blog:

...Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along.

Indeed. A close friend of mine was finally jostled out of a sort of nominal allegiance to Catholicism by seeing Bill Maher going up to religious people and "[i]nsulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain damaged or morons or baby rapers" for 90 minutes in the movie Religulous. She was already there intellectually, so all she needed was an unapologetic reminder that, hey, that stuff is really kinda stupid.

However, ignoring that, is he right that there are elements within the atheist community who are taking things in a counter-productive direction? I am beginning to think there might, but of course it's not the usual suspects, at least not for the most part. It's just a bunch of dumb assholes on the Internet, but... their number may be growing, and some of us may be picking up their habits. If so, it's probably at least worth reflecting on the parameters of how we want to criticize. Two recent examples have called my attention to what may be counter-productive dickishness.

The first is probably not something we can do anything about -- there are "preachy twits" in every group, nothing to be done about it. I am referring to Mark Chu-Carroll's recent rant about how, every time he off-handedly mentions that he is a religious Jew, he gets boatloads of e-mail from evangelical Christians (no surprise)...and from atheists who are shocked he can be a skeptic and be religious, and want to present him with arguments against theism.

I understand the impulse. I also find MarkCC's religiosity somewhat puzzling. On the other hand, he's made it clear that it is quite personal, and he seems to be aware of the subjectivity inherent in it (i.e. he would not confuse it with objective facts about the world). Moreover, he has not shown an inclination to talk about it, so e-mailing him, as a complete stranger, to make a big deal out of it... kinda lame. And you know these people must have been really pushy, because on this very same post I stridently stated that I thought Mark was objectively wrong on the topic of religion, and Mark didn't seem to mind. He's not some wilting flower who can't handle criticism of religion, and yet still these folks managed to piss him off.

What can one do about internet cranks, though? They are present in every group. The second problem has me more worried. Anyone reading my blog recently may be able to guess what it is: It is the atheist community's mixed reaction to the Not-at-Ground Zero Not-a-Mosque. In some ways it demonstrates a strength of diversity of our community, and refutes silly accusations that there is some kind of "gnu atheist orthodoxy". But diversity aside, I am alarmed and troubled at how many people within the atheist blogosphere -- and even a number of the extraordinarily famous gnu atheists, like Harris and Hitchens -- have lent supporting voices to the forces of bigotry, intolerance, and theocratic oppression. This is most definitely "being a dick", and not in a good way. This is not forthrightness in truth-telling; this is falling into an us vs. them mentality that clouds the truth.

So I've been thinking a lot about this, about when "being a dick" is just fine, and when "being a dick" becomes counter-productive. With that in mind, I present my Five Rules For Not Being A Dick (Too Much). These should be taken in the proper spirit -- it is okay to be a dick sometimes. It's even okay to break these rules sometimes. There are no absolutes in life, especially not in pushing for social change. I should also be clear that I am not trying to build a strawman here -- most of these rules are obeyed most of the time by the vast majority of the online atheist community. This is not a critique of the Gnu Atheism, of course not! I just hope that we can continue to stay within these guidelines (most of the time), and encourage the more trollish members of our community to keep these things in mind.

Five Rules For Not Being A Dick (Too Much)

Rule 1: You can be a theist and a skeptic at the same time, and as long as theistic skeptics keep their personal beliefs personal, we should mostly leave them alone about it.

To be clear -- I am not making an argument for philosophical faith/science compatibility. Someone who is a theist and a skeptic is engaging in at least a little bit of cognitive dissonance, or at least some careful compartmentalization. Faith can never be a skeptical position.

But no skeptic is perfectly skeptical about everything. Or at least, if someone claimed she was, I would be very "skeptical" of her claim. We are, after all, human beings, right? We jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence, we engage in confirmation bias, and we are loathe to let go of committed beliefs even when shown they are implausible.

A skeptic who keeps her theism mostly to herself is just fine with me. If she was a good friend, I would certainly ask questions about it. But if the theistic skeptic is a stranger to you... maybe lay off, unless she brings it up, y'know? I mean, if you met a fellow skeptic who had a bit of a halitosis problem, you probably wouldn't say anything unless you knew them well enough, right? Just look at it that way.

This does not apply to those who are very public and forthright with their theism, such as Francis Collins. If you choose to make your delusions a public issue, then they get denounced. To continue with the bad breath analogy, if this same fellow skeptic with the halitosis problem then wrote a book about how minty fresh his breath was, and how those who accept his dental salvation plan can achieve the same wonderful breath... okay, now it's okay to tell him why everyone stands six feet away during conversation, whether you know him or not.

I'm also not sure it applies to Catholics, Mormons, and Scientologists. I have a very specific reason for choosing those three groups: They all have a centralized hierarchy. Ignoring minor splinter sects, there is only one Catholic church, only one LDS church, and only one church of Scientology. And they are all doing Very Bad Things. So if you adhere to one of these faiths, even if you keep the matter personal, you are lending your support to some very nasty causes.

I am undecided as to whether this constitutes an exception to Rule One. I guess I could go either way. (And don't get me started on the mystery of how Isis can be both a devoted Catholic and a devoted feminist... I just don't get it!!!)

Rule #2: Unless somebody is saying something abhorrent, try to return good faith with good faith.

I don't think this is a big problem, because frankly it's not super often you see a theist drop in on a bunch of atheists and ask questions/argue in good faith, and when it does happen, I do think the community usually does obey this rule. I've seen it occasionally fall by the wayside on Pharyngula, but what can you expect.

It's easiest to describe what I mean by saying where I don't think this applies: It is not good faith to express concern for our mortal souls or to say you will pray for us. It is not good faith to express sadness that we are atheists. It is not good faith to make the old First Cause Switcheroo argument, where you argue for the necessity of an uncaused cause, and then say "Ergo Jesus". Pascal's Wager is not good faith (unless you are under 14, maybe). On the flip side, it is not bad faith to tell someone you think they are completely wrong, and to argue stridently for it.

So what do I mean? Well, sometimes a theist or two will show up on my blog, not trying to present me with some nonsense "proof" of God, but making points about potential benefits of religious beliefs, alternate ways to interpret statements by other theists, etc. That's fine, and we should conduct those sorts of conversations with dignity and respect. Not the I-won't-say-you're-wrong faux-respect advocated by some accomodationists, of course, but without unnecessary derision or excessive mockery.

This of course does not apply if the position being argued is abhorrent. A polite "good faith" argument in favor of executing people for homosexuality deserves nothing but the shrillest, most derisive, most strident condemnation.

Rule #3: Unless there's a good reason not to, take what people say at face value.

The example I'm thinking of here was a post at Pharyngula about an educational game on cellular biology that PZ criticized for it's ID-ish overtones. One of the developers showed up in the comments, declared that he was an atheist, that the ID-ish overtones were not intentional, and defended the decision to omit any mention of evolution as a compromise in order to reach a wider audience. What ensued was (mostly) a lively discussion of whether that was ever an acceptable compromise, how the game could have avoided the ID-esque stuff, etcetera, and the developer was very open and receptive to the criticism.

I said that's "mostly" what ensued. One or two commenters insisted that the developer was being disingenuous, that he actually was some sort of stealth creationist. Come on, people... this guy's story was totally plausible, he was really open about it, and he seemed to even be open to changing his opinion a bit on the wisdom of having left out all mention of evolution from the game. This is "overactive agency detection" if I ever heard of it. There is no conspiracy here. Just take the guy at his word.

The flip side of this, of course, is the infamous Tom Johnson. But that story was prima facie implausible, so that's different...

Rule #4: Don't automatically support every seemingly anti-religious cause.

If you do, you will eventually get suckered in by one flavor of theists trying to oppress a different flavor of theists -- just like what is happening with the Not-at-Ground-Zero Not-a-Mosque. Christians are attacking Muslims -- that is not a cause we want to be allied with! But it seems like so many atheists are just so used to criticizing Islam at every turn (and often rightly so!) that they just see an attack on Islam and are wanting to go along with it.

Not every anti-religious cause is just. Sometimes we must defend the rights of those we disagree with to have their opinion. More than that, sometimes we may find that our disagreements with a particular brand of theists is so minor compared to the other issues at play that it's not even worth mentioning. Or there might be a right time and place to talk about our disagreements.

Strident and consistent opposition to religion does not mean throwing all nuance out the window. Unless you're Pat Condell, but he mostly gets a pass because he's a frackin' comedian. Don't let your real life opinions look like a comedy routine.

Rule #5: Be a dick anyway. Sometimes.

Overton window, man. If there aren't at least a few people being real assholes, going too far, being unacceptably rude, then the reasonable among us will be labeled as the assholes. For the most part I'm not worried about a bit of dickishness -- even unproductive, unhelpful dickishness -- having a big negative impact on our goals here. History does not yield a whole lot of social causes that were sabotaged because its advocates were too dickish, eh? In fact, most social causes seem to really get off the ground when its advocates initially go too far.

I guess it's really just all about being aware of when one is being a dick, and doing so judiciously. Being a dick can be counterproductive, even though the extent of the damage is questionable. Let's all just remember our goals, remember our principles, and remember that virtually all strategies have their place.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sam Harris: Right message, wrong topic

Sam Harris describes what truly moderate Muslims ought to be saying about their faith. And he's not wrong. But tying this in with the Not-at-Ground Zero Not-a-mosque is unwise at best. If as "Gnu Atheists" (that seems to be the new in vogue term) we don't want people to mistake our forthright criticism as bigotry, then we should not be cheering on the voices of bigots!

I'm so disillusioned right now. Harris, Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, to a certain extent Coyne and PZ... they are all jumping on the "Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque"-(which is not a mosque)-"at Ground Zero"-(which is not at Ground Zero)-"but they shouldn't!" bandwagon, failing to see that they are playing right into the hands of Christianist theocrats and partisan demagogues. Judging from the links on, I suspect he may have fallen for it too.

Now is not the time, folks. The opposition to Park51 is primarily based on xenophobia and "Christianofascist" activism, not on high-minded critiques of Islamic theology. Those who truly value secularism and liberalism need to be speaking out against the former, because that's the threat right now.

I'm glad Harris invoked the "Danish cartoon controversy", because it occurs to me that the atheist community is making the same misstep that the moderate Muslim community made in the wake of that whole brouhaha. When there are people burning embassies and making death threats over a fucking cartoon, even mentioning that you happen to find the cartoons distasteful makes you look like a grade-A asshole. Similarly, when there are angry mobs hassling dark-skinned construction workers near Ground Zero, when there are mainstream candidates for Congress declaring that Muslims are not protected by the First Amendment -- bringing up your philosophical positions on the dangers of Islamic theology in that context makes you come across like a real jerkoff.

Priorities, people. Fight the theocratic xenophobes first. Then worry about whether Imam Rauf -- who may be many things, but is clearly not a theocrat -- is doing enough to promote moderation among his fellow Muslims.

It just hit me...

There are more Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim than there are gay Americans. Though I am not a member of either group, I find that pretty stomach-churning.

"Listen, I'm fine with Stupid people, as long as they don't flaunt it in public. I take a Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell policy towards Stupid."

Friday, August 20, 2010

If you are liberal or atheist and you oppose the Park51 community center, you have been bamboozled

It's infuriating, but probably not too surprising, how many conservatives don't understand the First Amendment. Regardless of how you feel about the Park51 community center, you cannot mount a legal challenge to it. This should be obvious to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with what it's (supposed to be) like to live in America.

What is equally infuriating, but far more surprising, is how many liberals and atheists/skeptics, while at least understanding the constitutional aspects of this case, have expressed disapproval with the community center. They say they recognize the right of the builders to go ahead with the project, but they say it's a bad idea, it's "in bad taste", it's "insensitive" to the victims of 9/11.

If you are one of those people, you have probably been bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of a towering minaret, its spire casting an ominous shadow over the ashes of the World Trade Center, you have been bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of a more modest building, but still with a Middle Eastern architectural style that some might find provocative as it stands across the street from the site of the 9/11 tragedy, you have been bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of this modest Middle Eastern-style building, it's spire just barely visible between two skyscrapers as one stands at the sight of Ground Zero, you have been bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of a completely Western very modern inviting building, a corner of it just barely poking over the top of another nearby building, you have been bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of this nice modern building, completely invisible from the World Trade Center site and not anywhere you are likely to pass going to and from Ground Zero, housing a fire-and-brimstone style Muslim-equivalent-of-American-Evangelicals congregation, you have been bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of this nice modern building, far removed from Ground Zero, whose primary purpose is to allow a congregation of a few hundred very progressive New York Muslims to peacefully come together for their weekly worship, guess what, you have still been bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of a nice modern building, far removed from Ground Zero, whose primary purpose is to provide Muslim families with wholesome activities they can do right in downtown Manhattan, such as basketball, swimming, i.e. all the things you'd expect to find at your local YMCA, you are still being bamboozled.

If your mental picture is of a nice modern building, far removed from Ground Zero, whose primary purpose is to provide all New Yorkers with wholesome activities like basketball, swimming, etc., just like the way your local YMCA is open to the public and, though it might have a small chapel, has barely anything to do with Christianity whatsoever... ding ding ding, you've got it right!

And if you are still opposed to that, and you call yourself a liberal, or you call yourself a secularist? I don't know what to say...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Everything that ever needed to be said about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque"

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Religion, philosophy, or science?

Or, maybe, science-plus-fifty-years... D'oh.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Mathematics of Demagoguery

From Politico via Ed Brayton:

A recent CNN poll showing that 68 percent of Americans oppose the construction of the mosque also found that about half think there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. No political genius is required to decide which issue to run on.

Argh. The GOP has truly become the Party of Stupid. "A majority of Americans are no longer fucking retarded bigots on the same-sex marriage issue? Oh noes, what are we Republicans to do! Oh snap, look at this, a majority of Americans now believe in repealing the First Amendment just to piss off some Muslims! We're saved!"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

James Fergusson: "You must understand the lopping off of a young girl's nose in its proper historical context!"

In CiF, James Fergusson argues that human rights violations, and the brutal violation of women's rights in particular, are not a reason for the British military to remain in Afghanistan.

The first two-and-a-half paragraphs are perfectly reasonable. He initially seems to be arguing that, as important as the rights of Afghani women are, that is not and has not been the purpose of the military mission, and that the military mission is unlikely to succeed in bringing about reform in this regard. This is a fair argument. Frankly I personally have not made up my mind as to whether I think we should stay on the ground if Afghanistan trying to fight for human rights, or if, in a heartbreaking but perhaps necessary stroke of realpolitik we should just get the hell out while we can. These are difficult questions, and both sides can be honestly debated.

At the start of the third paragraph, for a flickering moment it even seems as if Fergusson will avoid the sickening cultural relativism that has poisoned some elements of the Western left with shockingly illiberal beliefs:

This does not mean the west should stand by in silence. On the contrary, it is our duty to go on arguing the case for gender equality and to keep Afghans engaged in that old debate.

Indeed. If we must, in the interest of expediency and self-preservation, withdraw militarily from Afghanistan, we must at least continue to speak out and advocate for reform.

But then we get the first indication that in the end this is not at all the message Fergusson wishes to get across:

But we have no right to be shrill...

Ex-fucking-scuse me?!?

A girl gets her fucking nose chopped off for trying to escape a forced marriage, a pregnant woman is brutally flogged and shot to death in front of a cheering audience for the crime of adultery while her partner in "crime" gets off scot-free, and you tell me not to be shrill?!?!?

Fuck you, James Fergusson.

From there, he just continues to spiral into the faux-multiculturalism trap that tricks otherwise liberal minds into defending the most brutal oppression:

It might help if we understood the Taliban better. The harshness of the punishments they sometimes mete out only seems incomprehensible to the west.

Indeed, it does seem incomprehensible to the West. And at the risk of coming off as a moral absolutist, we are fucking right. I believe it is wrong, objectively wrong, to cut off a young girl's nose just because she doesn't want to be forcibly fucked by an older man she doesn't even know night after night after night. Don't you?

So tell me, James Fergusson, how can "understanding the Taliban better" change my mind on this issue?

The strict sexual propriety the Taliban insist upon is rooted in ancient Pashtun tribal custom, the over-riding purpose of which is to protect the integrity of the tribe, and nothing threatens the gene pool like extramarital relations.

Oh, I see. The Taliban's brutal oppression of women is okay, you see, because it is necessary to uphold their ancient custom of racism. Now I see the light! In the New Multiculturalism, misogyny is wrong -- unless you the misogyny is result of trying to protect against miscegeny. Then it's just dandy!

See, we in the West see a young girl who wanted to make her own choices and, you know, not be raped and all that. But the Taliban see a vile strumpet who is trying to pollute their pure gene pool! The Aryan Pashtun race must not be tainted by lesser blood!

The maltreatment of women is by no means exclusive to the Taliban, nor even to Pashtuns. It is practised all over Afghanistan...

And if all your friends jumped off a bridge shot a woman to death, would you do it too?

In fairness to Fergusson, I took the above quote slightly out of context. After the ellipses:

...including by the state that Nato troops are currently dying to support.

This is indeed a problem, and if Fergusson had stuck to a narrow thesis of abandoning the military mission, this might have been a good bit of evidence to bolster his case that military action cannot be effective in saving the women of Afghanistan. Coming as it does, however, after a plea for us to "understand the Taliban better" so that we can see why it's A-ok after all to replace Monday Night Football with the much more entertaining Monday Night Pregnant Woman Flogging, I just can't take it that way. It comes off less as "the military operation is propping up a regime that is also unacceptably poor on women's rights" and more like "everybody in Afghanistan is doing it, so what's the big deal?"

It seems a paradox, but in the 1990s the Taliban leadership did not see themselves as oppressors of women but as their defenders. Westerners forget the historical context in which the Taliban emerged in 1994, although no Afghan ever will. The Taliban's first purpose was to bring law and order to a country that had been devastated by five years of vicious civil war... To many Afghans, including many Afghan women, oppression was a small price to pay in exchange for an end to the wholesale rape and slaughter of the preceding years.

See, the Taliban are the good guys, because they rape and slaughter fewer women than their predecessors. Hooray for the Taliban! They treat women less like dog shit and more like cattle. What nice fellows!

And just for good measure, let's throw in a nice helping of tu quoque:

The west views gender equality as an absolute human right and so we should. But no country, certainly not Britain, has yet managed unequivocally to establish that right at home; and we tend to forget both how recent our progress towards it is, as well as how hard the struggle has been.

Ah yes. We still have workplace discrimination, a gender imbalance in politics, etc., so who are we to criticize someone for shooting a woman in the head? We really ought to get our own house in order first, eh?

Fergusson might have had a convincing piece if he had just left out this "we need to understand the Taliban" nonsense. There is no historical context that justifies this kind of violence and oppression towards women (or anybody). Maybe he's right that the military mission ought to be abandoned. But when he tells we "have no right to be shrill" when we speak about these atrocities, he can take that sick moral relativism and shove it up his postmodern asshole.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Phone call from God"? I like it!

Via comes an article about Bible campers who each received a "phone call from God" as part of their camp experience. The comments on the article have many atheists chiming in with the kind of outrage you might predict: "...lie to children in order to brainwash them...", "...despicable when adults are so deceitful and manipulate little children this way", "title of this article should be 'still lying for jesus'", etc. Oh, they're not wrong. But I had a different reaction, one that might surprise you:

Right on!

Why do I say that? Because this is putting Jeebus firmly in the same camp as Santa Claus. Which sounds great to me.

The only reason it's cute when we have kids sit on Santa's lap or pretend to mail their letters to the North Pole is because we assume that as they start to grow up, they'll start to realize the absurdity of the whole charade. Even young children can smell bullshit when you have to explain to them that, "Oh, yes you're right that Santa can't possibly be at every mall at the same time. See, that's just Santa's helper!" Ironically, the charade itself becomes the first frayed threads that start to unravel the entire mythology. If there were no Santa-at-the-mall, there would be no corresponding realization of the implausibility of Santa-at-the-mall, and the myth of Santa might last just a little bit longer in these young minds.

These kids getting the "phone calls from God" are seven, eight years old according to the article. It won't be more than another year or two on the outside that they realize it wasn't actually a phone call from God, I would think.... and maybe that will be their first inkling that something doesn't smell quite right.

It's probably beyond the average ten-year-old to identify the flaws in Pascal's Wager, or to recognize the arbitrariness of their own beliefs in relation to the beliefs of children in another part of the world, or to spot the problems with the Cosmological Argument (most ten-year-olds in fact are quite swayed by the much more simplistic Teleological Argument). But your average ten-year-old knows that "phone calls from God" are fake. Your average ten-year-old may even go on to think, "Hmmm, now why did the adults at the camp bother to fake that phone call from God, if they knew I could just pray about it? I wonder..."

So I say, go for it. This kind of absurd shenanigans demystifies and deromanticizes God, and potentially invites some rather "inconvenient" questions -- and in my book, that's a good thing.

(Side note: This reminds me of my vision of a distant post-Christian future where there are kiosks at the mall where once a year you can take your kids to get First Communion pictures, complete with a comically dressed Pope -- or Pope's Helper, as the case may be -- wafers shaped like Dinosaur Jeebus, a variety of optional photo packages, etc...)

We're not adeists, okay?

Gary Gutting writes:

...Dawkins’ argument ignores the possibility that God is a necessary being (that is, a being that, by its very nature, must exist, no matter what). On this traditional view, God’s existence would be, so to speak, self-explanatory and so need no explanation... His ignoring this point also undermines his effort at a quick refutation of the cosmological argument for God as the cause of the existence of all contingent beings (that is, all beings that, given different conditions, would not have existed). Dawkins might, like some philosophers, argue that the idea of a necessary being is incoherent, but to make this case, he would have to engage with the formidable complexities of recent philosophical treatments of the question...

Here we go again...

Look, even if the "formidable complexities of recent philosophical treatments" manage to resurrect the dubious Ontological Argument, Argument from Contingency, or Cosmological Arguments -- and frankly, I have trouble imagining how they might, but I'll grant Mr. Gutting the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is merely a symptom of a lack of imagination and/or ignorance on my part -- those only get you as far as a deistic God. There's a great yawning chasm between deism and theism, and Dawkins' (and others') arguments are quite effective at demolishing any would-be bridges seeking to unite the two.

We are not a-deists. While many of us find deism to be unnecessary, irrelevant, and frankly somewhat silly, most of us don't categorically reject it as impossible. Moreover, you will rarely find an atheist mounting an attack on deism. The most we have to say about deism is when somebody tries to play the old switcheroo (as Gutting does here) and we are forced to point out that what that person is trying to pass off as a justification for theism is really just a justification for deism, and that the latter is a great big Whofuckingcares. That's about the worst you'll find an atheist saying about deism.

So please. If you are going to make an argument to undermine atheism, do not make a case for deism. That's retarded. That would be like if I said I didn't like soccer, and you tried to convince me to watch a game by extolling the virtues of baseball. It's not even a coherent conversation. So just stop, please, thank you.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

There are no fucking As in "definitely"

I'm sure a bazillion people have made this same post, but I am fucking PISSED. There are NO FUCKING "A"s IN "DEFINITELY", FUCKING INTERNET!!! GAH!

Holy shit, I just realized my calling in life is to write a fucking browser plug-in that filters all incoming text, and if a string appears that matches "definitely" but with one of the fucking characters substituted for an A, then it will fucking fix it so you don't have to see humanity with its pants around its ankles tugging at its weiner and spewing "A"s all over a word with no fucking "A"s in it.

This is fucking rediculous.

The punchline may not be worth it. I am experiencing physical pain seeing that last word on my screen...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

SMBC rescues the Teleological Argument

The fatal flaw in the Teleological Argument, even before Darwin came along and gave us a better explanation, is that it leads to an infinite regress. If you think that the only acceptable answer to the question, "What created all this shit?" is "God", then you're going to have a doozy of a time with the question, "What created God?"

Until now.

Turns out that God was created by an insane space monkey who rules reality. Who knew???

Solves that pesky theodicy problem too...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

PZ and Ebert can criticize video games as much as I can criticize modern jazz

I don't get a lot of types of jazz. I'm not talking about the groovy sort of big band-ish stuff like "The A Train" and "Take 5" and whatnot -- that stuff is riffy and cool and I totally get it. It's the jazz where everything just seems totally chaotic and fast and, to an untrained ear like mine, random. You know, maybe it will be a jazz trio, and the drum is doing some sparse super-fast jazz beat, the piano is constantly soloing, and the bass is doing a walking bassline that is moving about 150 bpm and constantly changing, never repeating.

My problem with that kind of jazz is, if I asked you to say, "Oh, how does that song go?", I don't think you could do it. You'd have to play me the actual song. What's the theme? I just don't hear one, at all.

But you know what? That's probably my fault. I know a fair bit about music theory, but I have not "practiced" at listening to jazz, and in general I've found that the really out-there variations-on-a-theme-type stuff -- in any genre -- is a little beyond me.

I feel like I do have one legitimate semi-objective criticism of that type of music: In my opinion, the highest aspiration for a piece of art is for it to appeal simultaneously on both a deep level and an accessible level, i.e. there is enough substance there to please a connoisseur of that type of art, but it also functions on a level that is immediately understandable to the uninitiated.

But if I were to assert on that basis -- and admittedly not having any concept of the finer points of that type of music -- that it could never be art, well, I would come off like like a boorish ignoramus, don't you think?

I know I'm months out of date here, but so it is, I think, with Ebert's and PZ's respective slamming of video games as an art form. How you can you look at a form of entertainment whose advocates spend countless hours practicing in order to fully appreciate it, and then come in and announce that you are more qualified to judge it as an art form than they are? That's exactly the equivalent of someone who has spent almost no time practicing listening to jazz (like me) announcing that because he doesn't understand it, it must suck. That is a boorish and ignorant attitude.

What inspired me to write this was that I just recently finished playing through Limbo, an art-y puzzle platformer similar to the highly-acclaimed Braid in its aspirations (though completely different in both mechanics and tone, of course). It occurred to me that it would have been more difficult to appreciate some of the artistry of the game if I had less experience/skill with video games. If you get really stuck on a particular puzzle, for example, that can interrupt the flow of the narrative and disrupt the atmosphere. Proper pacing is only achievable if you have sufficient skill. Imagine if, for example, one of the ridiculously cool set pieces in The Matrix (the original one, please!) could either be compressed into a slick hyper-adrenal three and a half minutes -- or drawn out to a tedious 20 minutes of posturing and flailing about, depending upon how many action movies the viewer had seen previously? In that alternate reality, would you lend any credence to the verdict of someone for whom all the scenes were tedious and drawn out? Of course not!

This is even more true of Limbo than of other similar games, because it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that you are playing a game. There is no status display to speak of. There are no subtitles or exposition. It doesn't even tell you how to play, except for a very simple screen that you can access via the pause menu, that simply tells you that one button is "Jump" and another is "Action". (And you are not at any time shunted to this screen -- you could play through the whole game without seeing it)

For Limbo -- at least for an experienced gamer -- this is no problem, because it makes creative use of various video game tropes to quickly build up a repertoire of environmental interactions, without having to coach the (skilled) player. I mean, dude, if there is a ledge I can't jump to, and there is something vaguely crate-shaped nearby... Yeah, I'm pushing the crate. Other more beginner-friendly games might tell you to push the crate the first time you see one, but Limbo assumes the player already knows this. Which I do, of course.

By doing this, the game accomplishes two things. First, it keeps the atmosphere intact. I'm not taken out of the sense of being a lost boy wandering through a shadowy nightmare-like forest by the incongruity of a pop-up screen telling me what buttons to press. Second, by assuming the player is already familiar with these tropes and then immediately building upon them, complex and original gameplay mechanics are achieved almost immediately. You don't spend 20 minutes collecting twenty trinkets scattered about some beginner's sandbox. You spend more like 60 seconds doing some jumping and pushing to get a feel for the physics and BAM! you're into real gameplay.

Now, how the fuck are Ebert or PZ supposed to understand that? That experience is as foreign to them as is to me the experience of hearing a fast-walking jazz baseline outlining an augmented 7 chord. We both have no clue what is actually happening. Oh, we may have some abstract concept of it if explained to us (you could use an augmented chord in a different, more stable, type of music and I'd probably get it) but at the moment we can have no real appreciation of it, because we have little to no practice at it.

I did mention that I felt my criticism of that type of jazz as inaccessible was at least somewhat legitimate. And if Ebert and PZ want to criticize video games for asking too much of the audience in order to appreciate them... yes, for the most part I agree! Listen, I've been playing video games since I was probably six years old, and with these modern consoles, I still say, "Oh shit, wrong button!" way more often than I ought. The Wii was a big step in addressing this but... I would agree that a lot of the more accessible games don't necessarily qualify as "art" (nor are they necessarily intended to).

It's one thing to criticize a genre of art that you have difficulty grasping as being too "inaccessible", yet it's another thing altogether to decree that it can never be art. I am big fans of Ebert and PZ, but that is a boorish and ignorant opinion, and they could do with a big heaping dose of humility when it comes to video games.

Ideal kids programming

I'm working from home today, and sort of half-watching my son while my wife sleeps in. Just got past my least favorite song in Elmo in Grouchland. Oy...

My son actually likes cool music, it seems like. He was totally grooving to Gnarls Barkley the other day, for example. And I know nobody will believe me, but he seems to find Mastodon rather relaxing.

But he also likes furry creatures with big eyes that talk in squeaky voices. Can't there be a show with both? When will somebody make Elmo in Indie Rockland?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Ladder of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

So much for religion as "another way of knowing".

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is co-owned by "no less then six denominations. The primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic church, with lesser duties shared by Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches." But these guys are all Christians, right? So if there is any epistemological value to Christianity whatsoever, they should be able to come to some agreements, even if it takes a while... right?

Enter The Immovable Ladder of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Over 150 years ago, somebody placed a ladder up against the wall of the church, presumably doing some basic maintenance. Now nobody will touch it because there is concern that the other five denominations with joint control of the church will flip out or something.

Yeah that's uh, messed up.