Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kings of Israel

I just finished Kings 1 and Kings 2 in the Bible.  This was not much of a departure from the last few sections in that it was a chronicle of Jewish men (almost exclusively) and their relationship with a massively powerful, unflinchingly violent and incredibly random supreme being.  It goes on about king after king, reign after reign regularly mixing in divine judgement from on high.

The most bizarre thing is the inconsistency of divine judgement.  51 men come up to a prophet and ask him to come and see the divinely appointed king.  God incinerates them on the spot.  51 more men come up to a prophet and make the same request and are again instantly conflagrated.  Yet a third 51 men come up to the prophet and make the same request slightly more politely and the prophet decides to follow them to the king.  By this we can learn that God's response to unwanted requests is instant immolation of the offending person.

Later on we see a King of Israel offend God over and over.  He worships Baal, he sacrifices to alternate gods, he ignores God's commandments and ordinances and much of the nation of Israel follows.  God then sends that he is going to destroy this King and his household.  The King repents and begs and is granted a reprieve:  God will destroy his son and his son's household instead.  Nothing happens until the King dies, and then shortly thereafter God causes the son, the son's friends, relatives, priests and everyone else associated with him to be destroyed for the father's sin.

What?  So a King begging is sufficient to gain a decades long reprieve from destruction, but regular people are instantly destroyed?  A suitable punishment for a lifetime of 'evil' is a massacre of people who weren't involved in the crime at all while a suitable punishment for making a polite request is death.  The Bible continues to be incredibly random and unpredictable, more so than I imagined after reading atheist writings on the subject.  Reading these passages surely makes me wonder how anyone could laud the Bible as a source of law and morality.  Rape, genocide, murder, torture, oppression and destruction are regularly upheld and even required.  It is even true that people in the Bible who are insufficiently devoted to genocide, destruction and murder are denigrated for violating God's will.

At the end of Kings 2 because of their lack of obedience the Jews are scattered across the lands as subjects of other nations and Solomon's first temple to God is destroyed.  Clearly the story of a fall from grace and an odyssey of an orphaned people searching for a way to regain their homeland is a compelling tale.  It is unfortunate that the deity that granted them that homeland is 1.  Not real. and 2. A murderous, random, megalomaniacal sociopath.

I still have a long way to go it would seem.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Beautiful World

I was walking through HMV the other day and saw a rack with some comic books.  One of them had an interesting cover and was titled Dark Avengers.  I figured I would take a quick look and keep going since I was on my way to the grocery store and didn't have much time.  I opened the comic and read the first page... and was utterly lost.  20 minutes later (entirely a guess on my part) I read the final panel, closed the comic, put it back on the shelf and wandered away in a daze.   Somehow this comic had simply grabbed me like a face hugging alien and would not let me go.

This story is a story of crazy, destructive, often evil people doing mostly good deeds.  It is a story about a man who was once a villain following the path of righteousness and justice and using every dirty trick and mind game at his disposal to assemble his group of miscreants and maniacs into a force for good.  These are dark, troubled heroes in desperate times.

I *love* it.

Certainly this one comic isn't unique and the theme of tortured souls fighting for justice is a common one in modern comics as well as many other mediums.  I suspect that I would have been as easily captivated by any number of similar stories on that same rack and just hit upon this one by accident.  Like a crack addict trying to take just one small hit I couldn't put it away once I started.  I have a problem you see... I am addicted to heroes.  The world they live in has so many characteristics of a world I long to live in.  In their world those who stand for good and justice can stand up to evildoers and defeat them, brave incredible dangers and emerge alive and live without compromise.

In the real world we are surrounded by compromise and uncertainty.  The death penalty is foolish because it is more expensive than incarceration until death as well as being irreversible.  Sometimes we find out that despite our best intentions justice was not done and incarceration can at least be ended.  Our society spends incredible amounts of money supporting those who make bad life choices whether it be teenage pregnancy, homelessness, drug abuse, insolvency or crime we take care of people who have made decisions that are not good rather than just leaving them to their fate.  We prevent vigilantism because vigilantes create cycles of violence and end up persecuting the wrong people;  police bureaucracy and legal red tape is a mess but it is better than the alternative.  In these ways we compromise.  We mostly do not rely on Justice as a guiding principle but rather Greatest Happiness for All.  I agree with these choices.  People as a whole are better off by far when we strive to help people and improve their lives even when they make terrible mistakes.

Knowing that a world of compromise is best for all does not reduce my longing for a stark world of heroes and villians, right and wrong, justice and certainty.  In this world you know who the evildoer is as he is dressed in a skintight costume, has the body of a greek god and an unmistakable aura of menace.  There can be no compromise; the evildoer must be defeated.  In our world it is best to eat local, recycle, call the police if you see something suspect and crush pixillated monsters on the internet.  I hope.  In their world it is best to stand up, put on a skintight costume, be incredibly ripped and utter lines like

"You will have to go through me first you madman!"

Compromise is best for all in a world of uncertainty.  That will not stop my dreaming about a world of heroes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I'll be home for Easter

It's sort of like I'll be home for Christmas, except different.

I find it amusing that the two really important occasions of a given year for me are located on traditional Christian holidays.  The first of course is Christmas, which I value simply because it is a time when my family makes an effort to get together and return back to our place of birth.  I very much enjoy that event and strive to be there every year.

The second occasion is Easter.  This is quite different because instead of flying to visit family I drive to visit friends at the Comfy Lounge.  Back when I began university my frosh leaders told me that I would spend an awful lot of time in the Comfy Lounge.  At the time I had no idea what this entailed but they assured me that since I was a gamer I would be unable to resist the siren's call the Lounge puts out.  They also assured me that should I deny that irresistible song I would see my marks go up 20% but that few gamers managed to achieve this.  They were right on all counts.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Lounge in all its glory:

Surely there can be no nobler pursuit than the playing of games in a comfortable, familiar spot while furiously trashtalking all opponents and wishing desperately for the dice or cards to fall your way, just this once.

I spent 12 hours a day in the Lounge for several years.  It was my living room, my den, my dining room and occasionally my bedroom.  I met most of my current friends, most of my past girlfriends and my wife there.  That room is simply soaked in memory and mystery, a place so shrouded in lore and the ghosts of games past that it is hard to even zone in without being overwhelmed by visions of things long gone.  Each year I send around an email to those who once occupied this room with me inviting them back for just one day to recapture some small shard of those times.

Each year on Easter Friday we converge on the Lounge to talk, reminisce, reconnect and play.  This year will be the 9th time we have done this and the crowd is not diminishing as the years pass, rather it is changing.  The hardcore gamer bachelors are still there, but now we regularly see babies and new parents joining the festivities.  I rather did not expect that dirty diapers and cribs would end up being a main topic of conversation in the Lounge but that is where we are these days.

The Lounge waits for us, quiet and patient.  It knows that although we have moved on in our lives once a year we will hear that song once again and be unable to resist:


(You know, the thing you shout when you have 3 for bridge and you need ... a fourth)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Underwear Atrocities Anonymous (UAA)

Hi there, my name is Sky and I keep my underwear way too long before throwing them out.

Crowd:  Hi Sky!

My wife has been hassling me for quite a while now to get new underwear.  I know I have a problem in this department; I hate going out to buy new things.  Some part of my brain insists that I need to be saving money and that going out to stores is a waste of valuable time I could be spending reading drivel on the internet.  I did this with my vacuum, I do it with my shoes, but the worst is underwear.  You see a vacuum at least has the counterbalancing feature that it is a tool.  I like good tools, tools that hum along and work smoothly and are of quality.  Underwear have this issue that they can perform their primary functions while being almost completely ruined and they are hidden away.  A terrible vacuum or wrecked shoes actually cause me pain, frustration or time while underwear do not, unless you count the time I spend telling my wife that yes, soon I will go and replace them.

Today I finally got off my behind and went out and got some new underwear.  They feel silky smooth and not at all wrecked on my bottom, though really the greatest relief is that the chore is done and I can get on with my life for another half dozen years or so.  An example of the offending garments:

I do wonder how much of it is normal and how much is just me being lazy and cheap.  Surely others delay the purchase of new underthings unreasonably too.  If I try I can put all kinds of good spins on this though, and some of them are even true:

I am helping the environment by reducing garbage volume.
I am helping keep underwear costs down by reducing demand.
I am saving cotton plants by necessitating less of them be harvested.
I am promoting a lifestyle of minimal consumption.

There, you see?  Wearing underwear until they are literally falling to pieces is a good thing and makes me a more moral person!

P.S. Briefs are for uptight people and boxers are for hippies.  Boxer briefs all the way.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Lich King is hard

Boy, is it awesome.

WOW post incoming, probably incomprehensible to the non WOW crowd.

My guild has been smashing itself into the Lich King over the past 2 weeks and I must say that it has been one of the most enjoyable parts of this expansion so far.  This fight is hard, wonderfully so.  It brings me back to the early days of WOW, where fighting a raid boss for 3-4 weeks to get the fight down was not unusual and we had to plan and prepare to find ways around the specific mechanics.  Certainly it is true that those old fights were hard because largely we were incompetent but nonetheless the experience makes me remember the first days of WOW raiding in Molten Core and Blackwing Lair moreso than most Wrath encounters.

I find that the combination of challenge and cinematic elements is what intrigues me the most.  Putting in a dps and execution check is one thing, making that check be a flying undead monster that grabs a random player, carries them to the edge of oblivion and tosses them off (unless you stop it!) is magnificent.  Having the Lich King put heinous diseases on people that must be dumped onto his own hideous creations to destroy them is great.  I LOVE the idea of getting taken into Frostmourne to do battle with an evil creature there to secure my freedom.  This battle has all the hallmarks of a brilliantly written final epic battle from a fantasy movie or roleplaying campaign.  The enemy we are facing has been taunting us, throwing his minions at us and making our lives unpleasant for over a year and now we corner him at his throne on the top of a pinnacle of ice and do battle.  Just delicious.

ICC has actually been very well designed.  The early bosses are quite easy and many PUG groups wander in and have success with them.  The wing bosses are noticeably harder and very few people are able to beat them outside of guild runs.  Then we come to the Lich King himself... and he tears people apart.  It is a fitting way to end an expansion; a boss with 6 phases who requires a combination of good gear, good basic skills and substantial practice to nail down his many mechanics.  The *big* exception to my enjoyment of this zone is limited attempts.  Practice is a huge component of being good and to be denied the opportunity to practice is frustrating.  Hardcore guilds will still use alts and 10/25 settings to max our their tries while smaller guilds are stonewalled.  This mechanic has not been successful and needs to go.

We have the Lich King to p5 (p3?  Depends how you count it) now and we just need a bit more practice to seal the deal.  5 10 man Strict guilds have defeated him so far and we are hoping to be the sixth.  Best in the world we are not, but contenders we do hope to be.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Patriot

I have always been intrigued by the way people react to the Olympics.  There are the wild, unrestrained celebrations when our athletes do well and the paralyzing sorrow and anger when they underperform.  Announcers spend huge amounts of time pumping the chances and stories of the home country athlete while trying not to actually advocate other people falling/failing/crashing.  I am not entirely comfortable with the onset of such rampant patriotism.  The Olympics themselves are relatively harmless I think, but the attitude of placing people in one's home country far and above anyone outside it is troubling.  I am proud of my country, the morals the laws of my country support and much of how my country is governed and yet when this pride is taken to extremes it disturbs me.

Some time ago I was talking to one of my wife's uncles about Afghanistan and he strongly advocated removing all of our troops from that country.  His position was that any troubles the Afghan nation is in or got into without foreign troops maintaining order were their own problem and that Canadian lives should not be wasted protecting people outside our country.  I attempted to convince him that 1.  The people that would be most negatively affected in Afghanistan would be those who flat out had no say in their situation and 2.  That simply letting violence explode in other nations has been tried in the past and is a failure of foreign policy.  In the end those problems have a tendency to spill outward and bring strife to one's own doorstep.  I did not succeed in changing his mind.

This type of attitude does not sit well with me.  While we have to prioritize people within our social group for assistance I do not think that those sorts of reciprocal agreements translate well to a nation.  We each have no reason to think we know more about how to help a particular Canadian (or whatever your nationality is) moreso than someone elsewhere and we also can hardly be said to have significantly more in common with a random Canadian than a random person in many other countries.  I should clarify that I do not think it a bad thing to help a fellow Canadian, but rather that placing Canadian lives so dramatically above the lives and wellbeing of others is something I cannot support in good conscience.

I have been thinking about parallels between racism and patriotism.  In both cases people support others based on who their parents were, what language they speak and what culture they exhibit.  In both cases no merit or connection is needed to justify that preferential treatment.  Racism is frowned upon in our society and yet patriotism is supported and encouraged.  I do not think that racism and patriotism are exactly the same, yet the similarities are problematic.  Surely patriotism is useful to nations and racism is not (particularly in Canada), but should that define our moral choices?  Why is it okay to show preference to a Canadian when it is surely not okay to do so to a Caucasian?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sky, son of Leonard

I have been slugging through Ruth and Samuel 1 & 2 in the Bible, and this section is a lot like what I was expecting before starting my reading.  They are stories of an ancient people and their struggles with their enemies and their God.  One thing that has been coming to mind here though is how powerfully the Bible is focused around males, inheritance and ancestry.  People are introduced as Jim, son of John, showing just how much the father of the person in question matters.  Abraham, who was the original person to be granted the immense tract of land God set aside for his people, was promised that his descendants would become a great nation and be granted special treatment under God.  Over and over it is made clear that God decides who is part of his people and who is not by looking at who their family is and where they trace their ancestry.

I do find it frustrating that the Bible is so obviously biased in favour of men.  The important figures are male, it is clearly stated that the most important thing about a woman is her virginity and her ability to produce sons and women are barely considered human in many cases.  I do not know how modern women, or men who claim to believe in equality, can claim that the Bible contains good advice for morality and happy living after taking a good look at the way women are portrayed in the Bible.

I thought about how we treat this issue today and some interesting ideas popped out.  We place far less emphasis on inheritance than the Bible does, but it still exists.  For example, when I am addressed formally I am addressed as Mr. Roy.  Not Sky, not Red, but Mr. Roy.  The emphasis is on my family rather than on my individual name suggesting that when things get tough and formal the importance of my ancestry increases.  I am not sure what the intent of this originally was, whether it was a gesture of respect for those backing a person, a warning of those who might be disappointed if the person in question screws up, or some other reason.

It is easy to see why the importance of family was so high before, and so much less now.  These days if you get sick or injured society will take care of you.  (In Canada, at least)  In the days of the Bible you absolutely needed your family as should anything go wrong as they would be the only ones you could rely on.  An arrangement where everyone in a family took care of one another was necessary for old age, infirmity, child rearing and more.  Being shut out of your family would be a disaster almost unimaginable, whereas today that obviously isn't true.  People can support themselves comfortably without any external network and as such the importance of family as well as the power structure based around the family patriarch diminishes.

I love my family and am very proud to be a part of it.  That said, I don't want to be judged or judge anyone else primarily based on who shares genetic material, but rather on what is said and done.  I am glad I live in an age and place where being free of that particular bias is possible.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Things to read

There is a lot of information out there on how other cultures live.  Much of it is out there to try to sell a product or solicit a donation, and much of the rest is overly specific and scientific.  In both cases looking at that information isn't going to be much fun for most people.  Generally I find books about other cultures either end up mired in history and detail such that I just lose interest, or they just don't give enough information to be compelling.  I found two particular books on this subject that manage to successfully combine the desire for detailed information on a particular cultural group with the desire to see all cultural groups.

The first:  Hungry Planet

This book is comprised of photographs and stories about a number of different families across the planet from drastically different cultures ranging from American middle class to refugee camp tents.  Each main photo is of a family with all the food they eat in a week displayed together.  They follow it up with a story about the family, descriptions of their habits, their food preparation techniques and their culture.  The photography is great (as you can see in the link) and the stories are really captivating.  It is powerful to see exactly what food a family consumes and to get a beginning of an understanding as to how they get along and how that food acquisition affects their lives.

The second:  Material World

This is a book with a similar, yet different theme.  The idea here is to go around the world taking pictures of various families with all of their possessions sitting out in view for a single shot.  It is a powerful story when you flip from a wealthy family that needs a huge lawn to display all of their many possessions to a family in another nation that has so little.  Just like Hungry Planet the strength of the book is in letting us all see our possessions (and other people's) in a way that we never do in our day to day experience.  The juxtaposition of rich and poor here is tremendous, yet the book isn't trying to get us to give money but rather just to showcase the vast variety of human standards.

If you want to see some wonderful pictures and get a small, yet powerful glimpse into the lives and stories of people who live drastically different lives than yourself, I cannot recommend these enough.  I am the sort of person who really likes ideas and theories over practical experience but both of these books presented their little chunks of the world in such a compelling fashion I found them hard to put down.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Over the lips, past the gums

Look out stomach, here it comes.

I have always found saying Grace before meals to be a strange event.  Sitting at a table, thanking a being I don't believe in for giving me a meal instead of thanking those who actually prepared, grew or raised it feels wrong.  Generally I have simply played along in the past while thinking that I wish this was not an established tradition.  I certainly don't want to offend anyone, yet I am not entirely happy just following along.  There are many possible responses to this.  Some small bit of me wants to follow up Grace with

I would like to thank human ingenuity and progress for providing both the infrastructure and technology to bring these ingredients to us and the cook for taking the time and energy to prepare them.  

This is really just a dig at the normal version of Grace though, and honestly isn't at all appealing to me as a thing to say before a meal.  While I think it is more appropriate to thank progress and the cook than God for the meal I am somehow sure we can do much better.  An idea I am actually extremely happy with came not from contemplation or philosophy but rather from my 3 year old daughter Elli.  One day at dinner she asked Wendy and myself to clasp our hands together on our chests and then she thrust her arms up in the air above her head and shouted


We followed suit, being a little confused and befuzzled at the new Hooray! tradition, but not finding any reason to avoid it.  We have continued to shout Hooray! and launched our hands above our heads before meals for a few weeks now.  Pretty much any option at Grace is bound to irritate someone, whether you thank God, technology, blind luck or anything else you will find a person at the table who thinks you should thank something else.  This though is a simple shout of happiness, celebrating whatever it is you want to celebrate.  I like it, and I hope to introduce it as a standard ritual before meals.

Everyone with me now-


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

Or not.

I have all the usual objections to Valentine's Day.  I dislike the assumption of massive overconsumption of manufactured sweets, the necessity of buying cheap junk emblazoned with hearts and arrows for one's significant other and the presumption that somehow romantic moments are best found on days determined by historical figures.  Many people share these objections but still go along with the crowd regardless.  It is ever so common to find someone who agrees that Valentine's Day mostly benefits card/flower/candy companies and feels so cheap and unauthentic but who still goes out and buys all that crap anyway.

As usual, I have opinions, and my opinion this time is simple:  If you don't like it, vote it out.  The way you vote out a consumer holiday is not with your words, but with your money.  If you don't like the assumption of consumption, don't consume.  I assure you that when the money trail dries up, so will the endless displays of heart shaped candies in the malls.

A few years ago when I had just started dating my wife I was discussing this topic with my coworkers.  Wendy told me that I was not to get her anything for Valentine's Day and myself and the boys were kicking this idea around at work.  They all agreed on one thing:

"If you don't get her something for Valentine's Day and make it a big deal, it will be a problem.  No matter what she says she wants, she expects it."

My response:

"If she requests that I ignore a holiday and then gets mad at me for doing as she asked at least it tells me what I need to know. It will allow me to dump her to the curb now, instead of finding out she isn't the right person for me down the road."

Simply put, if I found that my partner normally engaged in those sorts of headgames, I wouldn't want to be in that relationship.  I actually found it quite astounding that all of my coworkers not only expected their wives/girlfriends to pull this sort of stunt, but simply accepted that all women would do this.  They couldn't even accept that some women would actually mean what they say when it comes to gifts and celebrations.  Surely I enjoy the fact that I have found someone to share my life with, but if it came to the choice between someone deceitful and being single, I would choose bachelorhood every time.  I still find it incomprehensible that others so seldom demand better for themselves but instead just assume that mediocrity is the best they can hope for.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Information is power

In WOW there is a tremendous amount of information needed to perform at a high level and the vast majority of it is extremely difficult to come by yourself.  This is because the game itself provides only a small part of the information that a crazy math geek would need to understand the mechanics behind it.  Instead that information can be had from secondary sources on the internet.  The best example is Elitist Jerks.  Yes, they are Elitist.  Also sometimes Jerks.  Most importantly this is the place where people are right.

There are a few things that fascinate me about this.  The first is that even though the information is often extremely difficult to acquire there are people around who are hard at work collecting data, analyzing it and then making the conclusions available to average players just for fun.  It is common to see people requesting enormous combat logs that require the player to stand still for hours hitting a target to acquire just to test a minute detail of the way in which one item works.  When the data is collected math and computer geeks use advanced statistical techniques to discover the specifics of the mechanics they are interested in, then they incorporate their understandings into huge, detailed spreadsheets.  The information they gather this way is then condensed and posted in such a way that the average person can benefit from the science that has been done without understanding any of the actual math involved.

You might ask what exactly motivates these people to do this work?  Are the results even particularly important for their own playtime?  The answer would often be no.  Though surely some results are really impactful, much of the research being done is looking for results that are in the tenths of percentages, allowing just the tiniest fraction of an advantage.  They do this work for two reasons I think:  First because they gain tremendous satisfaction from making the completely correct choices for themselves, and second because of the recognition of their peers.  I am one of these people and I certainly fit that mold.  When I play I want to be as near to perfect as possible and I do enjoy the fact that people value my work.  Being one of the relatively few people on the forums I frequent who is granted respect and credit is certainly something I enjoy, and I enjoy it precisely because I feel that I do it very well.  Being recognized by your peers is something nearly everyone strives for, whether it be in the office, in sport or in mathematical video game analysis.

The second really interesting thing is that everyone somehow acquires these results.  The information discovered and refined by the statisticians and spreadsheet authors is condensed down to simple rules and strategies and nearly everyone manages to learn those rules.  This is true to the extent that people are considered uninformed fools if they deviate from the 'accepted' standards of play and design even though none of that information is available inside the game at all.  Somehow these ideas of how to play and what to do make the transition from the world of 'game scientist' geeks to the realm of ordinary play for all kinds of regular people without WOW itself ever being involved.  I have only a loose sense of how exactly all this information is transferred amongst the WOW population at large and I do wish I knew more.

Wendy tells me that I actually have a PhD thesis here, if I only spent enough time researching the ways in which information moves within a MMO like WOW.  Certainly that would be an interesting bit of research but I just don't have the time.  I have to update my spreadsheet you see, to account for the new patch that just came out.  One must have priorities, after all.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


In my Bible reading I have been lately going through Joshua and Judges.  That is, when I am not just sickie sick in my bed.  Boo @ sick.  This part of the Bible is in fairly strong contrast to the earlier parts in terms of the morality involved.  In the early parts of the Bible, Exodus, Leviticus, etc. there are some really bad parts, but there are also a ton of good, useful rules to help make a society work better.  It is a really mixed bag, and taking it all as unchangeable truth seems crazy but there is much in there to admire.

Joshua and Judges is a extreme departure from that because it is just evil.  Joshua was basically a long list of people the Israelites massacred with God's help and places they sacked and conquered.  This isn't some battlefield victory followed by an occupation, it is pure genocide.  The Israelites, by God's specific demand, murder every living person and animal in the areas they capture.  They destroy the creations of those people and then move on to the next area.  Specific non-Israelites are mentioned so that their torture and eventual murder can be catalogued.  Reading this just makes my stomach churn.  This isn't good, it isn't defensible, and it isn't holy.  It is a story of genocide ordered and orchestrated by God, and I can only apply the word Evil to it.

Judges is slightly different in that it contains a series of stories, each of which unfolds in the same way.  Firstly, the Israelites go astray and stop worshipping God properly, or worship Baal, or deny God his sacrifices.  Then God causes another group to walk in and enslave and oppress the Israelites for years or decades in punishment.  Eventually they complain enough and God raises up a champion among them who then proceeds to inflict brutal slaughter on their enemies, again leaving none alive.  The Israelites worship God for awhile, then the cycle continues.  Over and over this occurs, Astray, Slavery, Hero, Massacre, Worship.  Can anything good be said about these stories?

Joshua and Judges is one of those parts of the Bible that is just indefensible.  It a club, a bludgeon to smash gullible people into believing God to be jealous, angry and whimsical, the sort of person/thing that must be desperately feared.  This is not a God of universal love and forgiveness, but a brutal tyrant who delights in the terror and obedience of his subjects and the destruction of those who are not part of his chosen clan.  It portrays the execution of a non Jew to be not just free of guilt, but an admirable, necessary task in the pursuit of God's vision.  I have found many good things in the Bible I didn't expect and now I have found chapters that are evil to an extent I never imagined.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Too Good to be True

This morning Wendy and I were discussing scams.  Specifically we were discussing what sort of heuristics you could use to determine whether or not something was a scam rather than a legitimate offer.  This is one of those bizarre situations where it is fairly easy for a objective person to determine what is a scam or isn't given a short description but it is fairly challenging to write a simple heuristic to make that same decision.

The example we saw was a snippet of a newspaper ad from many, many years ago.  It was advertising a writer's group that would test you to see if you had substantial latent writing talent and invite you to learn by correspondence if  you passed the test.  The idea was that they had a staff of professional writers would would mentor you and provide feedback and advice on your assignments.  All for a very modest fee, of course.  It turns out that they passed everybody who wrote their 'exam' and were happy to ship completely generic advice to you that was not at all generated by the actual assignments completed.

More recently I had two different friends fall prey to two other scams.  The first is a 'modelling agency' which finds people at fairs and shows, tells them they stand out in a crowd and should be a model and then fleeces them for tons of money for 'portfolio fees' and whatever else they can get.  Needless to say the fleeceee never does any modelling.  The second is pretty much a straightforward pyramid scheme selling phone/tv/internet services where the fleeceee pays a substantial fee to join the system and then has to both sell and recruit like mad to try to make their money back.

So how can we differentiate these from real opportunities?  As far as schooling goes I suggested the 'They might turn me down' method, whereby if the school will take absolutely anybody then you must be suspicious that the only thing they care about is your money, rather than the quality of the applicant.  This works for universities and 'writer's groups' but fails for most colleges and many other real programs.  The only thing I was able to come up with that actually worked is 'I personally would hire someone who had that institution's name on their resume'.  If someone gets a degree in Medical Biophysics from the University of Toronto, I know it is something.  If they get a writer's certificate from the New York Newspaper Writer's group I would totally ignore it.  You could easily determine the worth of a learning opportunity by contacting recruiters in the industry in question and asking their opinions of an institution before enrolling.

As far as modelling agencies and pyramid scheme sales jobs go, the heuristic is actually extremely simple.  If you are looking at a job offer where the job pays you, it is probably legit.  If you are looking at a job offer where you pay the job, IT IS NOT LEGIT.  There is always good old reliable "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is" which certainly sorts out all kinds of different problems but is remarkably unspecific.  Perhaps the best possible solution is to make use of the fact that people make bad decisions individually but that large groups of people make much better decisions.  If an offer concerns you, ask the 10 smartest, most objective people you know.  If they mostly think it is a scam, it is.  If they don't, it isn't.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mature Discussions on Matters of Commerce

Or, as we like to call it in WOW, trade chat.

The theory of trade chat in WOW is that people will make posts offering goods or services and others can respond to those posts.  In theory this is a place where people can come to conduct in game business, whether that be acquiring goods to make better gear or just trying to play the margins and fleece the rubes.  The reality of trade chat though is that there are posts here and there pertaining to the topic of commerce but they are largely drowned out by the offtopic roar.  There are somewhat offtopic discussions like people trying to recruit for guilds or for dungeon runs and then there are *really* offtopic discussions like debating who is going to win the super bowl and whether or not Chuck Norris could beat up Mr T.

Today the main topic in trade chat was penis length.

Before we go any further there are two Big things you have to know about me.  Firstly I have opinions.  Lots of them.  Some of my most dearly held opinions concern the human body and ways in which we treat it.  Specifically I heartily dislike the demonization of genitalia and the way in which they are often thought of as obscene and taboo.  We have penises and vaginas, they aren't evil, and there is nothing wrong with discussing them.  Secondly I have no fear of expressing those opinions in public.  In fact you might even suggest that I enjoy the loud, uninhibited free exchange of ideas in a confrontational format.  Given these two things, it should be surprising to no one that I waded on in and began telling people how things are.

As regularly happens among people who discuss genitalia in public, the debate turned to whether or not size matters.  Most of the conversation revolved around making crude (sometimes funny, usually boring) jokes and trying to combine the topics of Chuck Norris and penises, but here and there some actual debate took place.  The main thing that interested me was one particular poster - Puritan - who objected strenuously to this debate taking place in trade chat.  He cried out

"There are minors in this channel you know!  I am going to open a ticket with Game Master to get you guys to stop."

Wow, really?  People under 18 playing video games?  Who would have suspected that?  Thing is, kids are taught about sexual organs and their functions at a very early age now.  They know about them, and if they are attending school then we aren't going to teach them any new words.  We might teach them a lot about how people treat sexuality in a social context, but that is useful information to have.

I ended up calling out Puritan on the basis that
1.  The game has a profanity filter he can turn on if he wants to.
2.  The game allows him to permanently ignore people he does not want to hear from again.
3.  He can leave trade chat any time he wants and come back if he chooses.
4.  Penises are not evil, filthy or degrading.

He came back at me with the argument that trade chat is for trade, and hence we were in the wrong, only discussion about trade should take place.  The thing is though, this is a public channel.  Anyone can join, anyone can leave, anyone can post.  If you don't like trade chat, go make your own channel (trivial to do within the game) and invite others who want to discuss only commerce to join you.  You will rapidly discover that this is not going to work, primarily because the thing you actually want is an audience, and what the audience wants is Chuck Norris jokes and to talk about penises.  Occasionally they are going to respond to the commercial messages but mostly they are there to spout off and be entertained.  Even if you could remove all the offtopic junk you wouldn't want to because the channel would be desolate.  Everyone would move over to the "When Chuck Norris crosses the street the cars have to look both ways" channel, and that channel would be infested with primarily offtopic chatter and occasional commercial content.

There is a reason that Prime Time is filled with hot new TV shows and occasional advertising and 4 AM is the time for infomercials.  If you want people to buy your stuff you need to get them to listen in the first place.  The best way to do this is to have the newest episode of 24 with occasional commercials, not a channel of 100% ads.

In a post awhile ago I talked about the reaction of some of my relatives to my posts, particularly the ones with controversial/sexual topics.  I wonder what my Grandmother thinks of this one...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

An Angry God - Reloaded

I have been reading Numbers and Deuteronomy in the Bible these past few days and wow, the God depicted there is a jerk.  The thing that is blowing my mind though is not that God is a jerk to the non-Israelites, but rather that he is a jerk to *everybody*.

If you take the Bible as literally true you would be forced to conclude that it is a very bad thing to be an enemy of the Israelites in the days of the Exodus, but it is probably even worse to be an Israelite.  If you are not an Israelite you can believe whatever you like and do all kinds of strange things but unless you actually get in the way of the Israelites and their conquests God has nothing to say about you.  If you are an Israelite though and you break God's commandments (this includes all of the hundreds of rules in the Bible, not just the best known ten) you will be destroyed.  Your crops will wither, your courage will falter, you will run in terror from nothing and your enemies will kill you.  As an Israelite you don't have the choice of another life, because unlike everybody else you *must* obey God or he will personally see to it that you are ground to dust.  The heathens appear to have drastically more freedom and fewer consequences for sinning that the Israelites themselves.

It doesn't start and end with a lack of freedom though.  Any time the Israelites express doubt in God or in their future God becomes angry at them and smites them.  He sends plague after plague at the Israelites for their faults, and in most cases it is noted how many people he killed.  It must be a hard thing for morale when some of your people go and protest against the current leadership and God sends a plague among you and twenty four thousand people die.  It isn't limited to plagues though, God sends poisonous serpents among the people, causes the earth to open up and swallow them and curses them to wander the desert for forty years for their transgressions.  Time and time again the Bible records how many thousands died to this new atrocity inflicted by the vengeful God.  Being a Israelite may mean that you are the chosen of God, but the benefits of being chosen seem very poor indeed.

I was wondering how exactly the Bible was going to be filled out considering just how much there is left to go.  I am less than 1/4 of the way through the Old Testament and yet I have already seen the majority of the Bible stories I am familiar with.  I wondered how the rest would be filled... until I got to Deuteronomy.  It seems that the way to fill the space in these many, many pages is repetition.  Tell the same story as the chapter before but with slightly different wording and a few new things thrown in and you can fill up space admirably.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Guys, I've solved it!

Yesterday my father brought me a new book.

The Big Questions - Steven E. Landsburg

It is a book written by a economist/mathematician about all kinds of interesting philosophical topics from religion to morality to the limits of human knowledge.   Trade agreements, costs, distribution of wealth and taxation were topics on which the book makes some good points but like many economists he makes the fundamental error of presuming people are perfect economic units maximizing their own happiness.  People are not perfect economic units and they make terrible decisions; any model that does not account for that is a waste of space.  Additionally when he tries to branch out to philosophical arguments he often gets caught up in the mathematics of the situation while totally failing to account for the psychology.  He tackles several classic philosophical problems, one of which follows below:

A train is speeding out of control down a track.  On the track ahead of it 5 people are tied up, unable to escape.  There is a switch that you can hit to send the train down an alternate track on which 1 person is tied up.  Should you hit that switch?

Most people answer yes.  Some people think it is okay to hit the switch and some people think you have an obligation to hit it, but the overwhelming majority feel that hitting the switch is the best choice.

A train is speeding out of control down a track.  On the track ahead of it 5 people are tied up, unable to escape.  There is a very large person standing near the track and you are confident that if you push that person onto the track it will stop the train, saving the 5 people.  Should you push that person onto the tracks?

Most people answer no.  The author of the book answers yes, and in fact is completely shocked that *anyone* would answer no.  His view on the matter is that it is simply a matter of numbers, saving 5 people is more important that saving 1, QED.  This is a classic example of someone trained to believe in people as perfect economic units, and not so much a salesman.  I can tell you from personal experience that being a salesman instead of a academic gives you a *drastically* different (more accurate) idea of how people actually behave.

Firstly, the world is always full of uncertainty.  In the examples above people are told that shoving the man will 100% stop the train and that the train will 100% not stop on its own, but in real life people doubt.  They don't know what is going on, they aren't sure how things will be, and their grasp of the physics of the world around them, particularly when a split second decision is required, is not very good.  Thus people are naturally cautious when performing a violent, dangerous act to effect a future good.  Everyone is sure that pushing that man onto the tracks is really, really bad and the only way to make up for it is being completely certain that it will stop the train.  Given that in the real world the train may stop on its own, someone else might be near a switch that will divert it and the man might not stop it anyway it is extremely reasonable to not interfere.  In the first example though you are not adding any additional harm to the situation if there is something you don't know about going on.  Barring something very strange happening there is no reason to think you made things worse.

The second issue here is that there is no accounting made for personal guilt.  This should not be news, but people care more about their own suffering than someone else's.  Pushing a man onto the tracks will cause tremendous personal guilt, particularly if it doesn't work!  Also, it is a known fact that people are tremendously more willing to inflict pain, suffering and death on others as long as they are physically removed from the situation.  Hitting a switch to drop a bomb is hugely different than beating someone to death with a rock even if the net result is one death.  People intuitively know this and know that their personal guilt from shoving someone to their death would be far greater than their personal guilt from hitting a switch to divert a train.  This may not be the 'correct' way to reason from an abstract, moral point of view but it is exactly how people think.

I don't take umbrage with the conclusion that in a world of perfect information we should choose 1 death over 5.  If somehow these situations were clear and certain it is the correct moral choice.  However, the assumption that people will actually make choices like moral logicians in a world of perfect knowledge is completely irrational.  When you ask people questions they respond by thinking about them in terms of the world they live in and what they know.  When you forget that you are setting yourself up for some really rude surprises.

Check this out:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Final Boss

The Final Boss of WOW is out and his name is Arthas the Lich King.  We saw him commit hideous crimes against his own soldiers in Dragonblight, we saw him destroy legions of fighting men in Icecrown, and many of us remember back when the Scourge invaded the rest of Azeroth and the world was turned upside down for 4 days.  Now it is our opportunity to corner him in his lair and take him down.

On the very first day Arthas become available to fight a guild defeated him.  The fight is certainly very challenging as many, many guilds tried and failed.  Now we go to the WOW forums for comments and find that the world has ended.  People are signing up in droves to complain that an iconic figure in the lore of the world has been destroyed in no time.  They are screaming from the rooftops that Blizzard has ruined everything and that the final boss should have taken weeks, no *months* to defeat.  How can any of us continue on playing knowing that someone else beat the game first?

When you go and lift a 80 kilo weight and feel good about it there is doubtless someone else lifting a 160 kilo weight.  Of course the guy lifting that 160 kilo weight probably trains for hours a day and devotes much of his life and energy to becoming incredibly strong while you hit the gym for 3 hours a week.  He probably makes it a priority.  This is something that I find really quite interesting about competition that manifests itself very obviously in WOW; people look down on anyone with a different level of involvement than themselves.  This is not unique to video games at all, but the unbridled anger and vitriol that gets spewed about is not generally seen in other venues because the anonymity of the internet is not so readily available.

When someone is more involved in a chosen sport or activity they are regularly looked down upon as having no life, being too competitive and not being willing to just have fun.  When someone is less involved in that same activity they are just casual, not committed and are weak.  In most fields of endeavour these feelings must be squelched to a large extent to keep from violating social norms.  People will slander others in this way in private with people they know are in the same strata of commitment as themselves but will largely keep it there.

In WOW that sure isn't true.  Because the game itself is so intertwined with the internet the people who play it find the temptation to log on and scream out their frustrations over the tubes irresistible.  They scream that the game is too easy because someone else beat it (never mind that those who beat it play 40 hours a week) and then they turn around and insult those who accomplished the feat calling them basement dwelling no-lifers.  Of course next week they will be screaming that the Final Boss is far too hard and the game is catering to those same no-lifers because no normal person could hope to defeat it.  The hardcore players will then post that they beat the Final Boss too easily and that the game is being dumbed down for the casuals.

A reality check:  Like in most things in life, if you actually want to be the best, the first, the brightest and the guy who makes the front page you have to be the most committed.  If you prioritize other things in life then bully for you, but blowing your stack because you can't be the best player in the world on a couple hours a week is simply foolishness.  If you prioritize WOW and are amazing at it, fine and well, but suggesting that all the time and effort you and your team puts in to being great is nothing and that everyone can do it trivially is asinine.  Just like ultimate frisbee, knitting, lifting weights or climbing mountains there are going to be people more and less committed than yourself.  Spending your time putting others down only makes you look insecure; demanding that the game be solely designed for someone of your exact committment level makes you seem selfish and irrational.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Grand Plan - A Nap

I have guests around over the next couple of days so my posts and Bible reading will likely be somewhat sporadic, so expect my usual volume and excessive wordiness to resume at the end of the week.

Yesterday I got a unexpected reaction to my last post.  Wendy read it, gave me a very strange look and asked, "You do know that the Bible was written by many different people over many different time periods, right?  It wasn't laid down all at once in some kind of revelation."

Yup, I know that.

The reason this confusion was there is that my intentions when I started my 'Read the Bible and blog about it' weren't clear either to myself or anyone else.  Now that I have begun though the way I need to go about this has become more clear.  I know a fair bit about how religious groups operate and what they say to people and I know what atheists preach.  What I didn't know until very recently was what exactly was in the Bible.  This project then is about reading the Bible and trying to react to the things I see in it without paying attention to all the knowledge I already have stuffed into my brain about what to expect.  I hope to read it with an open mind and share that experience.  I don't want to just regurgitate the objections that atheist scholars have already shared with me and I don't want to read the Bible trying to find justification for religion.  The goal is to simply read the Bible, understand what is literally written there and try to understand it.  Once I have done that I will take time to actively compare it to the religions it has spawned and consider the objections to it I have already read.

The way naps have evolved in my household has greatly amused me.  It used to be that Elli would take a nap each day for 2 hours or so.  Last year this was my opportunity to get my games, hobbies and such in while also trying to get some work done.  Lately though she has been uninterested in napping so we began to enforce quiet time.  At first she would play quietly in her room and we would retreat to our bedroom (also the computer room) to play video games together or nap ourselves.  Now though Elli wants to have the run of the condo aside from our bedroom during quiet time and we found it hard to deny her this since we certainly weren't using the rest of the space.

Now we have reached the point that when naptime comes it is Mama and Daddy who retreat to their room and close the door to have a lie down for awhile while Elli runs around the place doing things.  I might be a little ticked off at this if naps weren't so wonderful.  A decade ago I would have laughed at the idea of a nap - I have too much to do!  But these days the opportunity to let the 3 year old run around on her own and stop the endless tide of "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, look at this look at this Daddy watch me!" and have a little rest is just nirvana.  I don't know the exact date when Elli's naptime became Mama/Daddy's naptime but we sure are there now.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Divine Transformation

When I started writing my blog I gave "Warning warning, Danger danger" notes at the top of my posts to denote religious content.  Given that I have begun to write every second post on a religious topic I think that those sorts of warnings are unnecessary and distracting while serving no real purpose.  Some people have even suggested that it may be insulting to the reader to assume they need such warnings, though I am not sure that I buy that.  Regardless my intent going forward is to remove all warning labels and even to push further into controversial territory.  I hope to drop the walls a little bit more and let my thoughts pour onto the screen.

Over the weekend and today I have been reading Leviticus and Numbers chapters in the Bible.  The stark differences between Genesis and the following chapters is really starting to become more clear now;  God has changed from a Omnipotent Creator to a Tough Guy over these pages.  It feels very much like the Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers chapters would make more sense if the deity in them was not the same deity as the beginning of the Bible.  The God of these chapters is jealous, cruel and extremely interested in the minutia of running a civilization.  He feels much more like a human emperor that is unbelievably powerful yet still distinctly personal.

The God of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers (ELN) is very concerned with unclean things.  He is very worried about men not cutting off their foreskins, women bleeding during menstruation and animals being without blemish.  There are immense quantities of instructions about dealing with unclean animals, insects and food and yet no real acknowledgement given of the premise that God created all of these things as they are.  It is as if God - ELN was written up as a personal God of the Israelites who was incredibly interested in how they ran their everyday lives and was happy to massacre their enemies for them without thought given at all to the creation myth.  The jarring difference between the two Gods pictured here makes it seem like the stories were written separately by people who had dramatically different views on the nature of the singular deity but were stitched together later regardless of the inconsistencies.

I also find amusing the way that details of the events at the time were recorded.  Numbers 7:78 records the specific sacrifices brought by Ahira son of Enan including the sheckel value of each of the gold or silver items he brought.  Needless to say Ahira son of Enan never appears in the Bible again.  A few pages later the people cry out for meat (possibly because they have to sacrifice enormous quantities of livestock constantly) so God brings quails in from the sea and stacks them two cubits deep all around the Israelites.  The Israelites eat the quail, which enrages God so he strikes them with 'a very great plague' and they name that place for all the people they have to bury there.  You might think that God providing sustenance in such a magical way, becoming enraged at the eating of said sustenance and then plaguing the people would be a big deal, but the space devoted to that whole event was the same as the space devoted to chronicling the sacrifice of Ahira son of Enan.

If you disobey this God he might:

Curse you with childlessness
Curse your family with childlessness
Curse your servants, slaves, household, clan, friends or nation with childlessness
Strike you blind
Turn you into a pillar of salt
Cover you in boils
Cast you out of your nation
Instantly slay you
Cause others to slay you
Rain fire on your city to destroy you
Summon plagues to randomly kill people
Bring swarms of insects to eat your crops
Slay your livestock

But one thing he won't do is curse you to eternal torment.  In this part of the Bible hell is not a thing at all, once you are dead you are quite done.  I am very curious to see how much eternal torment/reward shows up in the Bible because it is such a central feature of religions these days.  In the Old Testament it just isn't there... although God is more than happy to inflict hideous torments on people he stops at the grave.  That is, unless you count the fact that he will curse your family up to the fourth generation for things you have done.  You may have passed beyond his jurisdiction, but your offspring have not, and inheritance is of critical importance to the God of ELN.