Articles About The Poor Should Define Their Terms

I don’t have a particular article in mind here, I’m talking about many articles I’ve seen over the years, but there’s almost a genre of article using the poor as a club with which to beat Christians. This originates from the fact that Christians have a very important and undeniable duty to the poor. Christ himself said, in a parable, “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”. There’s a lot to say about about the poor, but it seems to me that much of it is never said.

The most obvious thing to say about the poor being, who is the poor. There are lots of definitions which are used in practice, but at the same time the sort of article I’m thinking of almost goes to trouble to avoid defining the poor. The most popular definition implicitly used seems to be “people whose annual income is below 20% of the GDP”. Of course, the moment an author admitted that he was using this definition he’d have very little to say. For several reasons, not the least of which is that someone earning 19% of the GDP and someone earning 1%  of the GDP have very different incomes. In writing the sort of article I’m thinking of, the author always treats everyone in the group as if they’re in the 1% group. But almost worse than this is that what really matters to quality of life (except as modified by envy) is not relative income, but buying power. If it is reasonably possible to feed yourself, clothe yourself, keep your thirst slaked, etc. on 5% of GDP, then this is not the poor Jesus was talking about when he said “I was naked and you clothed me”. There are legitimate things to say about the poor when defined this way, but they’re not the same things one can say about a naked, hungry man who hasn’t had a drink of clean water in a day and a half.

Then there are the attempts to define poverty in terms of access to almost infinitely expensive things like unlimited medical care or financial security. Under those definitions, probably 99% of the population is the poor, so this sort of thing borders on silly. Not silly, but still problematic, is the attempt to define poverty in terms of things like “access to basic medical care”. And indeed one’s heart does go out to people who can’t afford even inexpensive medicines. But here are two big problems with this. The first and most obvious is that no one in Jesus’ day had access to what we now consider basic medical care, and it’s likely that no one alive today has access to what will be considered basic medical care in 200 years. And it would make many things Jesus said absurd if everyone he was talking to was poor because they didn’t have access to penicillin or hydrocodone. The other problem is that much of what we consider basic medical care is worthless or actively harmful. Using antibiotics for a viral infection, for example, leaves you worse off. Powerful opioids which leave you addicted were harmful. Gastric bypass surgery is most likely a terrible idea. And so forth. It doesn’t make sense to be the poor because you can’t harm yourself in the way rich people often do. This is not in any sense to say that it is not a tragedy when people suffer or die from diseases which are easily preventable with a few dollars’ worth of medicine, or that we as Christians shouldn’t endeavor to get those people that medicine. But that also doesn’t mean that people aren’t often glib about what “life saving medicine” actually is or how much it costs.

Then of course there are also simply outlandish things said about the poor. I’ve come across statements like “our entire economic system is built around exploiting the poor”. This is obvious balderdash under any reasonable interpretation. The poor—if you’re not defining them as anyone below the upper middle class—have fairly low economic output. This is not, of course, to blame them, but it remains that the poor don’t manufacture goods, or drive trucks, or provide professional services, etc. Poor people—in the sense of people who, say, can’t afford to eat every day—might possibly wait tables at cheaper restaurants, but this is  not a significant part of the modern economy. It’s a minor luxury which places from McDonalds to Panera show most people are quite willing to do without. The homeless man begging by the subway station obviously has no economic output at all. It’s quite defensible that Christians should be doing more for these people, but it’s utterly untenable that these people are the basis of the modern economy.

(I should note that it’s possible that people are referring to Chinese and other foreigner workers in countries with lower wages than that of the US when they say this sort of thing. If so, there are several problems here which are being ignored. First, that these people are working class, not poor, in their own lands. Perhaps they would be poor if they lived in America, but they’d also be rich if they lived in some parts of Africa. But they live in neither, they live in their own land. Second, this ignores all the goods which are actually made in America, which is—despite propaganda—actually quite large. American manufacturing is far more mechanized than it was 100 years ago or is today in many other countries, so it may be harder to notice this, but the US economy is not based on China. I looked up recent numbers and US imports from China were less than $500 Billion in a year, while the US economy was around $20 Trillion. That is, trade with China made up one fortieth of the US economy. Are there lots of things with “Made In China” on them? Yes. Would our economy crumble if we had to make 100% of our own stuff? Hardly. Even worse for the case at hand, this trade imbalance is a strategic decision on the part of China’s government which has worked to subsidize the export of goods in order to jump-start their manufacturing economy. This means that some of the costs that make Chinese labor cheap are born by the government as a form of investment. N.B. none of this is commentary on working conditions in China, which as I understand are improving but also related to Chinese cultural norms as Chinese factories are largely run by Chinese people. Working conditions should improve in China, but are not related to the present discussion except in the fantasies of people who have no idea how factories are run who imagine that safety standards are extremely expensive when in fact mostly they just require discipline, training, and awareness of how to manufacture goods safely. But—as should be a shock to no one—heat-stroked, exhausted workers aren’t very productive. About the only thing which does cost money is reducing environmental pollution, but pollution affects rich Chinese as well as poor Chinese, since everyone breathes the same air. Again, though, since all of Chinese trade is a small fraction of the US economy, a small increase in cost to goods through the Chinese improving their environmental regulations would have a very negligible impact on the US economy.)

And then there’s the problem with considering the rich in America because we have a fiat currency. That is, our money is not a physical thing of which there is a determinate amount. Our money is created by fiat by our government. (More properly, by a semi-autonomous organization created by the government for the purpose.) The fabulous wealth of the most wealthy citizens is, therefore, highly suspect. Don’t get me wrong, Jeff Bezos and Marc Zuckerberg are both very wealthy men, but even though Zuckerberg should be about to buy something like 42 aircraft carriers with his fortune, he certainly couldn’t. The further fact that much of our economy is debt-based rather than wealth based—while pretty obviously not a good idea—means that figuring out how wealthy or poor someone is is even more complicated. People of very modest incomes have way more buying power than you would expect on paper.

Since this is the internet, I will emphasize that I am not saying that there is no such thing as poverty, or that poverty isn’t a problem. What I am saying is that poverty is a complicated thing, with the word “poor” meaning many very different things. The poor, however one is defining them, should always be an object of love since they are God’s creatures, and not a club with which to beat people. Since everything seems to require a name these days, I suggest the preferential option for clarity.

Fraternizing with the Frank Friar

I had the great pleasure of talking for over an hour with The Frank Friar. Father Nicholas is a Carmelite friar who ministers in New York City. We talked about how he became a friar and a priest, and plenty of other things along the way. If you don’t subscribe to him on YouTube, I recommend doing so. He makes some really great videos reflecting on spirituality which I’ve gotten a lot from. You can of course also watch the conversation on YouTube:

The Irrationality of Lack of Belief Atheism

I’ve written about lack of belief atheism before, and no doubt will again. (Enough that I can’t pick out a particular post to link to.) To give a one-sentence history: it was a failed attempt to get out of having to argue for atheism by then-atheist Antony Flew in a 1973 essay titled, “The Presumption of Atheism“. It really should be a hint as to what the purpose of this move was when the title is saying that he would really rather win by default than have to support his position.

Stupid as such a request is, laziness is certainly an understandable temptation. What I find curious is the depths to which ordinary atheists who seized on it have sunk. Most, if pushed, will claim that their position is a sub-rational one in which their head is as empty as a rock, and therefore absolutely no rational thoughts can be expected to come from them. Though in a sense as a point in their favor, they turn this tragedy in farce by then saying that it is Christians who are irrational. I’ll give one example. It’s been in my thoughts recently because I’m working on a script for a video about it.

Lack of Belief Atheists (who I will refer to from here on out as LoBsters) love to say that “atheism is just a lack of belief, that’s it, nothing else” but do not consider that the alternatives to God not existing entail more than just the proposition that God exists. For simplicity, I’m going to restrict this to Christianity (it only gets worse for the LoBster when you include other religions). The easiest of which are moral proposition. If Christianity is true, then:

  • Forgiveness is good
  • Mercy is good
  • Love (willing the good of someone for their own sake) is good
  • Knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake
  • The truth is worth dying for
  • Fornication is wrong
  • Adultery is wrong
  • Masturbation is wrong
  • Murder is wrong

The complete list would be much longer, but that’s plenty for now. If someone disagrees with any of these things, they are, by logical necessity, holding Christianity to be false. It’s a simple Modus Ponens.

Modus Ponenes:
P → Q
~Q
∴ ~P

Please bear in mind that affirming Q tells you nothing about P. (Trying to draw positive conclusions about P from Q being true is called the fallacy of affirming the consequent.) Modus Ponens in one of the elementary logical syllogisms which everyone who studies formal logic for even a few days learns. So the only way that a LoBster can legitimately claim to lack a belief in whether Christianity is true is by holding that Christianity is entirely correct in all of the morality which it teaches. Well, that’s not quite true. All that they have to hold is that it might be true in all the morality it teaches. But that itself has implications for how one lives, because if an act might be fine and the upside is that it’s fun, or it might be terribly evil, the better bet is to avoid it. So by and large, such a LoBster would have to live almost as if Christianity is true since he holds that it might be.

They don’t do that, of course, but their only way out is to disclaim all rational thought on the subject, and basically on all subjects. (Except Mathematics, of course, but LoBsters seem to have studied almost no math.) It’s really quite sad. Pray for them.

 

Mills

I was recently looking up mills, and came across this fascinating picture of a Roman flour mill:

Urn_holder_of_Publius_Nonius_Zethus_01_-_Vatican_museum

(Photo Credit: By Chris 73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m so extremely used to the wheel type of mill that this almost shocked me. Just to be clear, I mean this kind of mill:

Hacienda_La_Laguna-Museo_del_Olivar_Y_del_Aceite-Molino_antiguo-20110918-09618

(Photo Credit: By Daniel Villafruela. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, the wikipedia page called it an edge mill, and the wikipedia page for edge mills claims that edge mills were invented in China in the third century. Which, if true, means that the sort of mill stone I normally think of as a mill stone wouldn’t have existed at the time of Christ. Perhaps even more interesting, the sort of mill which quite possibly did exist then (the roman one in the first picture) looks to me far more complicated and advanced than the sort of flour mill which apparently superseded it. Very interesting.

The thing which led me to discover this was looking up Friedrich von Logau’s poem about the mills of God. The original poem is:

Gottes Mühlen mahlen langsam, mahlen aber trefflich klein,
ob aus Langmut er sich säumet, bringt mit Schärf ‘er alles ein.

Which was translated into English (according to Wikipedia, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) as:

Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.

Snow is Peaceful

There’s something very peaceful about snow. Snow causes all sorts of problems, of course, but it is in fact these problems from which the peacefulness of snow arises. Snow is peaceful precisely because it causes most creatures to go home. But it does more; since it takes footprints so readily, snow also proves when it has kept men away from a place:

20180113_0018

Isolation is not the best kind of peace, of course. Peace, most properly considered, is the ordering of creation according to God’s will. Among human beings, peace refers to harmony, not merely to the cessation of fighting. But in a fallen world one must often accept second-bests, and snow gives us a respite from many of the troubles which burden us in a fallen world.

It is interesting to consider that rain also drives men indoors and away from causing mischief, but rain is not peaceful. It seems to me that this different comes from three differences between rain and snow. The first is that rain is loud. Snow is not only quiet but even muffles sound, a bit. Snow gives one quiet in which to think.

The second difference is that human beings, in our natural state, are rain-proof but are not snow-proof. Except in very cold weather—which is not our predominant experience of rain—going out in the rain will make one wet but do one no harm. This is actually most inconvenient when one is wearing clothes (which is, admittedly, almost all the time). Snow will kill a naked man. Rain is only really a problem because we wear clothing, and then it’s really on uncomfortable. Our retreat from snow is, therefore, more dignified.

The third reason is that snow is less dangerous to us when we have shelter. Rain is just an inconvenience until one gets too much of it, in which case it causes floods which are extremely destructive and deadly even when we have shelter. And while these are unusual circumstances, they’re not unheard of. In the places where people have floods, floods happen every few years, if not more often. In the places that get snow, enough snow to collapse buildings is very rare. Water moves and combines its power but snow mostly falls where it lands. That’s not true of mountains where avalanches happen, of course, but I imagine that snow isn’t nearly as peaceful there.

But in more ordinary places, snow only keeps men indoors where they give each other little trouble, and so it’s deep snowfall is very peaceful.

20180113_0007

Judging The Last Jedi By Its Title

You should never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you should judge a movie by its title. In this episode I talk about why I judged The Last Jedi as not being worth seeing. This is somewhat a followup on my post Star Wars Movie Titles. You can also watch the video on YouTube:

The Internet Needs Distributed Recomendations

It is widely recognized that centralization, such as one sees in most social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) has strengths which bring concomitant dangers. Possibly the biggest danger, and certainly the most pressing on people’s minds, is censorship.

Distributed media, such as blogs, make censorship much harder. However, this has (so far) been at the cost of making discovery much more difficult. Finding new blogs is a very haphazard things, to a great degree relying on cross-promotion in blogs. By contrast YouTube is able to leverage its centralized information to provide a list of recommended videos to the user after each video. Given the massive data available to them of what people watched and how long they watched it for, this enables them to make recomendations for videos which are often good. Almost every YouTube channel I’m subscribed to I found through recommended videos.

It probably goes without saying, but unfortunately recomendation engines are extraordinarily succeptible to manipulation by hosts with an agenda. Moreover, it would be virtually impossible to discover such manipulation as it’s only relevant to people who are not aware of particular video makers anyway.

In order to make distributed media truly competitive with centralized media, what we really need is a system for making distributed recomendations. It’s not immediately obvious that this is doable, unfortunately. A system of distributed recomendations would be a spammer’s dream ifi they could figure out how to manipulate it. In fact, most parties would be deeply desirous of manipulating this system. This guarantees that a lot of effort would be put into trying to figure out how to game the system. Worse, the system would almost certainly need to be anonymous, so as not to track people’s reading habits, which makes fake recomendations all the harder to defend against.

The most obvious approach to avoiding spam would be to attach micro-payments to the recomendation system. That brings with it its own problems, but it also has benefits. There are probably other options, too. Especially if one were to somehow include negative reviews as well as positive reviews, the correlations required to spam people might need to be far too complex to allow for useful spamming.

Anyway, if you know anyone who likes to develop algorithms, try planting the seed of a distributed recomendations network. It may not be doable, but the internet would benefit tremendously from it if it is.

Generational Warfare

Over at Amatopia, Alex wrote a post titled On Boomer Hate. It’s a good post which I recommend reading. Here’s a sample:

t’s trendy to hate Boomers. Literally, everyone is doing it. I did as well. But when something is trendy, it’s usually garbage. But a funny thing happened on the way to critical thinking: I’ve changed my opinion.

The more I thought about generational struggles, the more I realized that generational warfare hurts us all: What I’m getting at is that I think generational warfare is stupid and counterproductive. And I’m not just talking about the young. Us older folks do it too and we should to stop it.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that the righteous Gen X indignation against Boomers is pretty hypocritical, especially since many of us express the same sentiments towards Millennials.

As they say, read the whole thing. What I find interesting about this is the way my mother—who is towards the end of the baby boom, but still solidly inside it—spoke about the demonization of her generation and the lionization of her parents generation. She objected to both.

The “greatest generation” were the people who endured the great depression then fought in World War II. It is certainly true that they went through a lot. However, they didn’t do it voluntarily. It was not an ascetic practice, nor (in the main) a job they volunteered for. It happened and there was nothing to do about it and they put up with it as best they could. The great depression, which overlapped Prohibition, was filled with crime, both organized and disorganized. If you look at divorce statistics they had been trending up since the 1860s and showed a dip during World War II followed by a much larger spike afterward:

marriage_and_divorce_over_time 1867-2011 new _with-trend

That spike in divorces afterwards is somewhat typical of how much mother characterized the generation before her: finally done with deprivation, they finally wanted to get theirs. By the way, I added that trend line, and it brings us to another thing blamed on the boomers. People complain about the introduction of no-fault divorce, but if you look at the data, it really seems that no-fault divorce led to a spate of divorces on stocked-up divorces which then let off once the backlog had been processed. Granted, marriage is down and so one would expect divorce to be as well, but it’s very far from obvious that the boomers had any real causal relationship to the boom of divorces which happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Especially when you look up the history of no-fault divorce and find out it was done because people were lying about having cause for divorce so often that people feared that respect for the truth was going to disappear.

And so it goes with many of the problems of the boomers. To quote a famous boomer/songwriter, they didn’t start the fire. And they were handed quite a lot to deal with in the form of a deeply racist society, too.

Did the boomers do a lot wrong? Of course they did. Every generation does a lot wrong. We live in a fallen world. Which brings me to where it brought Alex: inter-generational warfare is stupid. There’s no way to judge the raw materials that any given generation was given to work with, and in any event it’s deeply ungrateful. The previous generation gave us life. Imperfect life, to be sure, but life that’s quite a lot better than nothing.

And thinking about it as a parent, it’s painfully obvious to me how imperfectly I’m raising my own children. I suspect something like this applied to every generation. Our children always suffer for our mistakes. It does no good to blame our parents. What we really should do is ask God to have mercy on us all.

Popularity in the Digital Age

I don’t know how many of my readers aspire to publish publicly and have their words read by an audience. I suspect that it’s a fairly large percentage. I know this is something that I have always been drawn to, since I was young. It’s not that I wanted to be famous, though I suspect that all human beings are tempted by fame. Fame makes some very empty promises very loudly. But there are othaser good reasons to want to have an audience. In particular, having an audience enables one to give away knowledge that one has been given. Next to learning, there is nothing more satisfying than teaching. (In learning we are looking at the goodness of God directly, in teaching we are (by God’s gift) taking part in God’s self-gift to others.)

The commonality of wanting an audience for one’s writing, combined with the way that technology has made publishing all but free, has resulted in there being so much writing that finding things is incredibly difficult. Further, with so many options on offer, we all look for those voices which speak to us very effectively. Since there’s so much available, there’s a lot of sifting to find the things we really like. Thus the problem in the age of handwriting was copying, the problem in the age of print was distribution, and the problem in the digital age is discovery. How does one find an audience, which is really the question: how does one’s audience find one?

Aside from large amounts of money, there do not seem to be any sure-fire answers. At least quick answers. How does one get a sizable audience in six months without spending a ton of money on advertising and cross-promotion? Heaven knows. But it does seem to be the case that longevity is a major component of finding an audience without a ton of spending. This is for two reasons, I think.

The first is that much of stumbling into an author that one enjoys reading is by luck, and luck takes time. Over the course of several years, some people will stumble into one’s blog and like it. The other is that recommendation (posting on social media, emailing, etc) is itself something which grows with the size of one’s audience. A small audience rarely recommends posts, a larger audience recommends posts more often. Thus the few people who find one initially will occasionally recommend one’s work in a way that puts other people who enjoy it together with that work. Over time that builds, as well, both because there’s more time for that to happen but also because there’s more time for older posts to become relevant to some conversation or topic.

In essence, the key to winning the lottery is to buy a large number of tickets; the way one does that in blogging is by writing a lot of blog posts over a lot of time. Something similar applies to YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, etc.

Once again it turns out that patience is the most practical of the virtues.

Game Design and the Rule of Cool

The Rule of Cool is, I believe, actually a TV trope, it applies to video games as well. The variant I’m thinking of is when all inconsistencies between game play and the story are waved away as game play being more important than consistency with the story.

Now, in fairness, games must be unrealistic in order to be games. If a game was perfectly realistic, it would be a simulator, not a game. And people would mostly only do them to train for doing the real version. Thus wounds must heal in seconds or minutes, not weeks or months. Thus is should take minutes to build a hut, not days. And so on; there are a lot of things which need to be cheated in order to have a game and not a simulator. This I grant.

Having granted that, it’s important to point out that it does not follow that no thought should go into how one cheats reality in order to make a game. This is not true, of course, of pure games, such as tic-tac-toe or tetris. But in games that have a story, it is extremely important to consider how the gameplay fits in with the story. Recently I’ve been playing ARK: Survival Evolved, so I’ll draw my examples from there. The one thing that you need to know about ARK is that it’s a survival-type game (i.e. you gather resources and craft tools, structures, etc) with dinosaurs. An the dinosaur models are gorgeous.

Of course, the first problem is that ARK isn’t really a survival game. It’s a team assault game where the weapons are gathered in a semi-survivalist sort of way. I say semi-survivalist because after a certain point all of the resources are gathered by heavy machines. It just so happens that the heavy machines are dinosaurs, but aside from having a setting where they can aimlessly wander around and having a breeding mechanic, they are designed just like heavy machines would be. There are heavy trucks (brontosauri), light trucks (diplodocuses), tanks (rexes), armored assault vehicles (allosauruses), and so on. There are even spy helicopters (pteranodons), attack helicopters (tapejaras) and cargo helicopters (quetzals). You might think that flying reptiles would be more like planes, but they’re all slow, very maneuverable, and extremely good at hovering. The more heavily laden they are, the slower they move. It makes sense as a game mechanic but makes absolutely no physical sense. If a slow moving animal flapped very slowly, it would fall like a rock.

And the problem is that this takes you right out of the story. When flying reptiles are actually swimming through the air in entirely impossible ways, the beauty of the models loses most of its effect. The same is true of the walk-cycles which don’t adapt to the ground, but I think for different reasons.

Granted, walk cycles which don’t use physics to adjust the skeleton in natural ways for locomotion will never look entirely right, but I think that we’d forgive scripted walk cycles far more if the dinosaur which was walking imperfectly was actually moving with a purpose. But in ARK they aren’t. Or rather, they almost never are. On occasion a predator does run at another dinosaur to attack it. But under normal circumstances the dinosaurs simply wander around completely aimlessly. The herbivores do not eat, nor do the walk towards plants. They are simply on a random walk. And I think that the fact that their movements are completely pointless make you far more likely to notice that they’re not walking correctly.

And this problem carries over to appreciating the models for another reason. It’s great that the triceratops looks almost exactly how you’d picture it, but it’s hard to notice that when they’re not behaving at all like how you’d expect. They’re a herd animal. You should see them in groups and they should move around with some relationship to the others in the herd. That they don’t just breaks the illusion even more.

And of course everything has terrible eyesight in ARK. Predators don’t notice prey until they’re within about 50 yards. Prey doesn’t notice predators until the predators have  actually bitten them. No creature in ARK has a nose.

Of course, none of these are likely to be overly noticeable if you’re playing in team-versus-team since you have to be on constant lookout for other teams who will try to kill you if you’re alone.

I should note that the dinosaur taming also suffers from the idea of gameplay-over-story. With exceptions, dinosaur taming is accomplished by using tranquilizers to knock a dinosaur unconscious, then feed it its favorite foods while it’s unconscious. Once it’s eaten enough it then instantly forms a lifelong bond to you where it is willing to go on suicide missions on your command. Granted you have to cheat taming an animal somehow for this to be a game and not as simulator, but this is extremely stupid. Worse, as you are shooting the dinosaur with tranquilizer-soaked crossbow bolts in order to knock it out, once it’s torpor falls below a certain point it realizes that you are trying to tranquilize it and runs away at its top speed. This is very stupid because tranquilizers make animals slower, not faster, but it also makes taming dinosaurs frustrating. There’s also no way to vary the amount of tranquilizer being delivered per shot, so larger, higher level dinosaurs require very large numbers of shots to tranquilize. That’s tedious, not fun. (This is another case where the game is made for multi-player, because using one of the many multi-person dinosaur mounts makes chasing after dinosaurs much easier since one person drives the dinosaur while the other person shoots. It’s also the case that, for example, four people can deliver 4x as many tranquilizing shots so chasing may not even be necessary for teams.)

A mechanic where you feed the awake dinosaur until it likes you would have been much better. This does actually exist with a few dinosaurs, but even here this has been screwed up so that it isn’t too easy, by which I really mean, too fun. There’s a dolphin-like marine reptile which likes to come up to survivors (what the players are called) and nuzzle them. You can give them meat and this tames them, except that once they realize you’re trying to tame them, they run away. This makes no sense, and is no fun. Apparently the most important game mechanic is that the player must struggle for everything.

Ultimately, ARK is an absolutely beautiful games which isn’t very much fun to play in single player mode because its central theme is being a tribal warfare simulator where it takes hundreds of hours to build up assets that get destroyed in a few minutes during a raid. The later stages of the games are even fought with automatic weapons and heavy artillery; the dinosaur seem almost out of place among auto-turrets and C4 bombs.

But the upshot is that the game really doesn’t work as a single player game. It really looks like it should work as a single player game. There should be an enormous amount to do all on one’s own. But it’s mostly ruined by inattention to the story. It’s not possible to suspend one’s disbelief long enough to enjoy it. Which is a great pity because the dinosaur models are gorgeous.

Advance Review Copies of The Dean Died Over Winter Break

The first bit of news is that Silver Empire Publishing will be publishing my novel The Dean Died Over Winter Break. It’s due out on early February. And as you might be able to guess from the title, it’s a murder mystery.

tddowb

And on that note, if you are interested in an advance review copy of The Dean Died Over Winter Break, please contact Russell at Silver Empire (russell at silverempire dot org). As I understand it the only requirement is that you agree to read it and leave an Amazon.com review on the publication date. Which, I should point out, is a very kind service to perform. Amazon reviews are extremely helpful in connecting books with people who might enjoy reading them.

Falcons Are Murderous Parrots, Not Raptors

At least, so says this biologist. Basically, the idea is that instead of being a splinter off of raptors (hawks and eagles) which specialized for speed, falcons are actually a splinter off of parrots who specialized for speed and meat eating.

The article goes on at length about how shocking this is, but having been very into studying falconry in my youth and having once had a pet parrot (well, a cockatiel, but it’s in the parrot family), I’m actually not very surprised. Eagles (mostly) look kind of like large hawks, but falcons just don’t look much like hawks at all. They actually look more like short-tailed parrots. This is especially true of their wing shape. Falcons have long, narrow wings where the flight feathers stick together forming a (mostly) solid surface. Hawk’s and eagle’s flight feathers stick out independently, looking almost like outstretched fingers. Parrot’s wings look extremely similar to falcon’s wings, with the flight feathers touching each other.

Granted, looks aren’t dispositive, which is the point of the original article. I just think it’s worth noting that it goes out of its way to emphasize the ways that falcons look like hawks but not how they look dissimilar.

And it should be noted that the results of convergent evolution are, in the end, convergence. That falcons are more closely related to parrots than to hawks means very little; you can train hawks and falcons for falconry (hunting), but you can’t train parrots to hunt. Falcons don’t talk like parrots do, and you interact with them much more like hawks than like parrots. Hawks, eagles, and falcons are all fairly solitary creatures.

So while it’s fascinating trivial that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to hawks, it’s not actually useful information. You still shouldn’t name your gyrfalcon polly, or offer it a cracker.

That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell

Recently, I wrote about The Story Modern (Western) Screenwriters can Tell. I realized that the modern story can be put even more succinctly: the main character decides whether he’s going to be completely worthless or only mostly worthless.

Usually the thing which precipitates this crises is that the main character wants to be completely worthless, but the plot makes it such that if he is as completely worthless as he wants to be, many people will die (or at least suffer). In the end, we find out if he’s willing to go beyond himself to alleviate their suffering in the way that only he can do.

This has nothing to do with heroism, but it is mistakable for heroism by people who primarily think in terms of story beats (i.e. of plot points broken down by scene, the way that screenwriters do when writing or editing stories). Real heroism is not about whether someone will do the minimum necessary, but whether he will go beyond what is necessary. At its core, heroism is about generosity. That’s why it moves us so much—it’s about being a true image of God.

I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that modern writing is primarily concerned with how imperfectly the main character will be an image of hell.

What Atheists Would Actually Do If They Came to Believe in God

Apparently there’s a popular type of video for YouTube atheists to do where they answer the question, “If you became convinced that God exists, would you worship him?” I explain what they’d actually do if they came to believe in God. You can also view the video on YouTube:

Star Trek TNG: Sub Rosa

I forget why, but I was recently reading about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Sub Rosa. It was an unusual episode, being described by Memory Alpha as a foray into gothic horror. It was a (sort of) ghost story, centering about an “anaphasic entity” which had been haunting the women of Beverly Crusher’s family. Haunting isn’t quite the right word, as it seemed to live symbiotically with them. Though like all TNG episodes, it had its share of plot holes.

For one thing, it was said to have lived symbiotically with the “Howard Women” for centuries, except that family names are patrilineal, not matrilineal, so they would have been Howard women for a single generation. (You could get around this by skipping a generation, going from grand-mother to grand-daughter, which happened in the case of Beverly Crusher but didn’t at any other time.) I bring this up not to nit-pick, but because it’s a good symbol of how much the TNG writers cared about plot holes: not very much.

A bigger plot hole was that the anaphasic entity was supposed to be sinister, but it seemed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. Beverly came into contact with it because she was burying her grandmother at a very old age, and the Howard women were, if I recall correctly, generally described as hardy. This suggests that the anaphasic entity kept them healthy. It also, according to Beverly’s grandmother’s diary, kept them happy. Why, then, it was supposed to be bad was completely unclear. It did eventually murder someone, though there was no obvious reason that things got to that point.

As I said, it’s not that I particularly care about the plot holes in TNG episodes, at least not any more. When I was watching them as a teenager I would immediately call up a close friend and the two of us would nitpick the night’s episode for the better part of two hours, but I’ve gotten over that. What I do find interesting is what this suggests about resource allocation: most of these plot holes would not have been at all hard to fix. The producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just didn’t care. And what I found most interesting about the Memory Alpha article were some quotes from the writers at the end. First, from Jeri Taylor, the showrunner at the time:

Rick and Michael were very distrustful of this story. They considered it a romance novel in space and felt the possibility for embarrassment was monumental, but I just knew it would work. It’s a different kind of story for Star Trek to tell. It is a romance but we do have women in our audience and women do traditionally respond to romantic stories.

This from Bannon Braga:

It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. I just thought she did a wonderful job. Picard catches Beverly masturbating for crying out loud! What a tough role to play. When I was writing the words, ‘She writhes around in the bed having invisible sex,’ I just thought, ‘Oh man, we’re asking for trouble. Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ Thanks to [director] Jonathan Frakes and Gates, it was not hokey. It was very good. Look, I scripted the first orgasm in “The Game“. This was mild by comparison. Sure it was racy. Even Rick Berman had said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ I think they trimmed quite a bit out of the writhing sequences.

And finally, this from René Echevarria:

“I can still reduce Brannon to shudders when I go into his office and say, ‘I can travel on the power transfer beam’. But the cast loved it. Every woman on the lot who read it was coming up to Brannon and patting him. Ultimately I think it was worth doing because it was campy fun and the production values were wonderful. The sets look great and everybody threw themselves into it. Gates did a wonderful job. It just got bigger and broader and to the point of grandmother leaping out of the grave. Just having Beverly basically writhing around having an orgasm at 6 o’clock on family TV was great. For that alone it was worth doing. We got away with murder.”

That last line really summed up a sneaking suspicion I have about the writing on The Next Generation. “We got away with murder.” They weren’t trying to tell good stories. They were trying to be clever.

(I should note that I mean good in the sense of, well, good. Not in the sense of “addictive”.)