On Internet Arguments

Arguments on the internet are often vicious and pointless. When people wonder why, the anonymity of the internet is usually the reason given, and the wondering stops there. Recently, I’ve had an idea on the subject that, I think, might describe additional contributors.

Due to the asynchronous nature of internet arguments, every response is expected to be more fleshed out. Any time spent asking a question and waiting for a response seems like a waste of a post. So, in a real life argument, one party might simply ask, “What?” in response to something the other party says, whereas on the internet the responder would likely make some assumption about what was meant and respond accordingly. This is one additional contributor.

This problem is compounded by a quirk of the nature of argument. There is a spectrum of ways to “win” a debate. For the purposes of this sentence “win” is defined as making the other person stop talking. On one side of the spectrum is the perfectly crafted, air tight logical argument, backed up with rigorous sources and an official looking stamp. The opposite side of the spectrum is an expulsion of gibberish and nonsense, incomprehensible to the opponent, and so, impossible to respond to.

The thing about this spectrum is that everyone hates to walk away from an argument feeling like their opponent used something on the nonsense end of the spectrum, especially if they’re not sure if the opponent knows that’s what they did. We always suspect, when someone spews incomprehensible nonsense at us on the internet, that they think they’re making a rational argument. They had time to think of that response before typing it, it’s not like they got flustered in the heat of the moment and said something they don’t mean. The idea of conceding, or appearing to do so, in that situation is infuriating to most people. As a consequence internet arguments are harder to get away from than real life arguments.

Just a thought.

12 steps

I have been annoyed by 12 step programs since high school when I first read the steps after hearing about how many people are sentenced to take them and their success rate (bad). Obvious breach of separation of church and state.

This post has two purposes. One is to make more known what the 12 steps are, since most people don’t realize how faith based, nonsensical, and redundant they are. The second is to promote skepticism, which I’m always about. The most recent Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast contained this gem. I didn’t find it written down on the web anywhere, though, so figured I’d go to the trouble. The skeptics don’t really need 12 steps, so we use some of the extra ones to be cheeky, so it’s not all seriousness.

Original Skeptic
1. We admitted we are powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. 1. We admitted that our cognition, perception, and memory are flawed and pseudoscience and gullibility are rampant.
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 2. We came to accept that the process of thinking critically is more important than any belief.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him. 3. Acknowledged the utility of methodological naturalism as a way of empirically understanding the world.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 4. Made a thorough study of the various mechanisms of self deception, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies.
5. Admitted to God, ourselves, and to other human beings the exact nature of our wrongs. 5. Acknowledged to ourselves, others, and on the internet, that we are skeptics.
6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. 6. We vow to listen to the SGU every week without fail.
7. Humbly ask God to remove our shortcoming. 7. Listen to Geologic, too.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. 8. Endeavor to examine our premises and logic and correct any misinformation or misconceptions we may have spread.
9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 9. Correct errors and false statements on blog posts and within forums unless doing so would make you a dickish troll.
10. Continue to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. 10. Continue to keep all opinions and conclusions tentative and revise them in the face of new ideas or information.
11. Sought through prayer and medition to improve our concious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out. 11. Sought through study and research to improve our critical thinking skills and keep up to date on basic scientific literacy.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs. 12. Having become more skeptical ourselves we will engage in skeptical activism and outreach to make the world a more skeptical place.

Persuasion Hypotheses

TED Talks tend to be really good, so I will recommend you watch all of them, as I have before. The above has inspired some thoughts of my own, which is why it gets special placement.

In the above talk, Ms. (?) Schulz talks about wrongness, and how we all assume we’re right even though we know everyone’s fallible. The main point of her talk is that people should be more open to the possibility of their being wrong, which I totally agree with. However, being open to being wrong doesn’t mean nobody is right. Optimally, I think, everyone would believe they are correct, be open to being wrong, and then argue and experiment until we achieve utopia or whatever.

As a subpoint of her talk, she explains what we assume about people we disagree with in order to maintain the assumption that we are correct. She says we assume that those that disagree with us are either, ignorant, stupid, or evil. This seems relatively true, complete, and self evident to me. So, one lesson from her talk is that you should be aware of your own assumptions, and when making any of these be aware that another possibility is that you are wrong. Another is that if someone disagrees with you, they probably are assuming at least one of the three about you, and that they are unlikely (unless they are as enlightened as you) to listen to anything you say until you dissuade them of these assumptions.

People already know this, but it’s a tricky problem. Some segment of the population assume that if you wear a lab coat you are informed, smart, and well intentioned, which is why so many commercials feature lab coats, usually on smiling attractive people of the target demographic. However, there’s another segment of the population that assume anyone with a lab coat is evil, so those commercials don’t work so well in that case.

Part of the whole trap of assuming we are right all the time is that we eventually divide ourselves into stereotypes. So, the hippies assume the suits are ignorant/stupid/evil and the suits assume the same of the hippies. We insulate ourselves in groups of people that agree with us, making it harder to be made aware of our wrongness.

One interesting problem being worked on by a lot of people is the problem of convincing people of things. Marketers do this all the time, but they tend to focus on tiny shifts in relatively unimportant things, like brand loyalty on soaps, and whatnot. Sure, all the marketing sometimes adds up to something somewhat substantial, but I’m more interested in the problem of trying to change someones strong beliefs.

It seems to me that this video perhaps shows that the approach to changing a strong belief needs four stages. First, convince the audience that you are informed. Second, convince them you’re smart. Third, convince them you’re not evil. And finally, fourth, present your case for your way of thinking.

I think people unconsciously assume that step 4 covers all of it. Clearly my rational argument on the subject will indicate my informed, smart, goodness, but, of course, this is only going to be true of someone who already agrees with you. Avoiding this trap doesn’t make the problem easy, unfortunately. It explains why people listen to their friends and not to youtube videos. A friend has already passed the first three steps by virtue of being a friend, but what is the guy making youtube videos to do?

This idea might explain some of the heightened influence of celebrity. People feel they know the person, and to some might feel they are friends. At least they might be less likely to assume they’re, ignorant, stupid, and/or evil. I think this trend will increase with the rise of internet celebrity, since they tend to have a closer two way relationship with their fans, although the subsequent decrease in size of the fan base might counteract this effect. Still, one plan would be to become a celebrity.

I think of this from the atheist/skeptic perspective. Often we have problems getting our messages across. Sometimes we, in these camps, think that it is because our messages are too complicated to make into sound bites or are just less emotionally palatable, but I’m not sure that’s true. I tend to think if we had the resources of the marketers or the churches we’d be just as good at sloganizing and spinning. That’s not going to happen, though. Luckily, we have the facts, so we don’t have to be quite as good as spin. Still, a large discrepancy in spin can make up for a large discrepancy of fact when considering the population as a whole.

Anyway, the main idea this ignorant/stupid/evil thing brings up to me is that it points the way to a better way of convincing. The best convincers need to be obviously knowledgeable, obviously smart, and obviously nice. Brings to mind Carl Sagan. But, I think, most times things can’t be perfect. There are not that many Carl Sagan’s in the world. So maybe people trying to convince the public of things should figure out their strengths regarding informed/smart/good and play those up, and try to play down any deficiencies. Also, I tend to think that there is a spectrum of people out there. Some people probably have a hard time thinking people are evil, and they might be easier to convince by those who are good at communicating their information, but aren’t the likable type. And some people might assume that people are generally pretty smart, but be suspicious of people’s motives, and need extra evidence that someone isn’t evil.

Another difficulty that occurs to me is the problem of cross subject contamination. I mean, people don’t compartmentalize subjects well. For example, say I’m trying to convince you that evolution is real, and I’m starting to make some headway, but then I mention something about another subject on which we disagree, such as abortion. Now we disagree on another issue, reminding you that I might be ignorant, stupid, or evil and throwing doubt on my progress on the evolution front. This problem suggests to me that focusing on a single subject would often be desirable. However, the same thing could work the other way. We agree on evolution and you listen to me cause I’m always saying things you like and then I mention abortion, on which we disagree. Because we agree on the other thing, perhaps you take my opinion on this new issue more seriously than you normally would and I have more sway. Perhaps opinion makers should take pains to try and separate the choir from the unbelievers and publish differently to each. Knowing your audience, apparently, really is important.

I think I’ve covered enough stray tangents. In conclusion, I think there’s room for a multitude of imperfect approaches to this difficult problem, but in general I think awareness of this whole ignorant/dumb/evil idea might be a good thing to watch out for.

Dragon Age

Oh, and another thing I forgot to mention in my ramblings, as long as we’re automating things, can we do something about loot? Why do I have to wander around the battlefield waiting for creatures to drop their loot, sometimes for minutes, click on every one of their corpses even though my teammates are constantly getting in my way, and then click another button to take their worthless stuff. Then I have to manage it, because my backpack is soon full, and wander around trying to find someone to sell it to. There should be smart autolooting. I should be able to set it, automatically take weapons and armor worth x amount, or with stats at least this good, automatically take potions, never take scrolls, show me everything else… for example. First game to do that will be praised.

Also, I’m the freaking hero. I should have a lackey that can run my stuff to town for me and sell it. And a team of lackeys to carry my carts of gold. I don’t think item management should be such a major part of modern RPG’s. Try and make it optional game guys.

I wish it weren’t so

I recently posted about The Last Airbender and the casting controversies surrounding it, here. I stand by my arguments in that post, but I am writing again on the subject of the film, now that I’ve seen it.

I’d like to start my review by saying that it’s a huge disappointment and I can’t think of anyone who should see it. It is not as bad as you might think from reading reviews on the internet. Those have been unjustifyably vitriolic. It is still a deeply flawed movie that shouldn’t be seen.

It’s tragic because the movie is really good at a few things. All those things you see in the trailer. The action is good and the world in general looks like the Avatar world would look if it wasn’t a cartoon. If you took out all the talking everything would kinda feel right.

Everything else is awful, though. The acting, the lines, and pacing, the plot. If you know the series, it’s not like it anymore. They killed all the funny cartoony goodness in order to shorten the first season into 2 hours, consequently changing and ruining several characters. They couldn’t have survived even if they had been played well. The exposition is the worst I can think of in my movie watching history.

I know that blame doesn’t need to be placed, but if I was asked I would place it squarely on Mr. Shyamalan. He wrote the screenplay and directed the performances. I’m not sure if the casting was just bad, but I’d bet that the cast could have at least done a passable job given the chance. I think Shyamalan¬†drove the movie into the ground by somehow needing to get exactly 1 season into 1 movie.

It should have been done like a comic book movie. Take the characters and world from the show and make a movie using them. Tell the origin story. Cramming 400 minutes of excellent cartoon into 120 minutes of anything is going to be really really difficult, if not impossible, and I see no reason to attempt it if one doesn’t have to. And nobody ever has to.

Oh, and I went and saw it in 2D because I knew it was an upscaled 3D which I don’t approve of. From what I hear I made a good choice. The 3D just makes things more expensive and worse. That shouldn’t matter since if you take my advice, you won’t see it at all. Unfortunately.

If they don’t kill the movie projects entirely I’ll be looking for some drastic changes before I pay to see any sequel, even given my adoration for the original material. /sadface

Racebending

Disclaimers first. I am a fan of Avater: The Last Airbender the cartoon series. I have watched every episode of that show twice. I have not seen the movie. I also have not closely followed the controversy around the races of the actors cast in the movie, although I have been aware of such a controversy. On that subject I have some things to say here. I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not defending it’s quality or content, I just wanna talk about that whole race debate part.

On the left is cartoon Aang, the main character of the show. He is played by Noah Ringer in the film. He looks like that picture on the right. Oh the humanity! They look so different! The cartoon is clearly Asian and this putz over here is so white. He probably can’t even jump.

On the left is Katara. She’s another major character. On the right is her portrayed in the film by Nicola Peltz. OMG OMG OMG. My eyes! Why would you cast such a white chick to play someone from the South Pole of a fictional world?

I could give other examples. As far as I understand people are upset that pretty much every actor in the film is white, while, in their opinions, pretty much every actor should be Asian. I’m going to skim past people lumping many diverse cultures into one gaint group based on fatty eyelids ¬†and the general problem of over representation of upper class white people in the media and say that these “Avatar should be Asian” chanters are wrong, and maybe racist. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a cartoon about a fictional world. The voice actors speak English with no accents or affectations (except Iroh, but he’s not a major character) and they are drawn as… well, mostly cartoons, but I think they look like they have European ancestry.

The reason other people think they are Asians is because the cartoon is drawn in the anime style and the fictional world has many traditional Asian themes, like martial arts and some of the clothing and architecture. These things don’t mean the people in the world all have to be Asians, though. It is a fictional cartoon and it’s own world and nothing in it necessarily spawns from anywhere on our planet. Assuming that every cartoon wearing a pointy hat or doing roundhouses is Asian is more a much worse example of latent racism than casting white actors to play cartoon characters.

I think the cartoon characters are intentionally universal. They are supposed to appeal to all children and probably be potential role models for children of any race. I don’t know, but I suspect the creators want all the kids to identify with Aang, no matter how skinny their eyelids are. Carrying that to a live action movie is challenging, and I suspect, pretty impossible. I’m not sure what the casting situations were, and I’m not sure I would do what they did, but I am glad they didn’t try to cast one person of every race. Hopefully they were looking for acting ability and fit with the part instead.

Race based casting makes sense only when a character is strongly linked with the race, and an actor not of the race would through you out of the fiction. The characters of Avatar have no strong races, especially not of the real world, so there is not need to burden the cast with strict racial boundaries.

Yip Yip

Compendium, oh Compendium

Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast/Dungeons&Dragons I enjoy your products very much. And you do cool stuff to make it better, like making this D&D Compendium. At least I think it would be cool. A huge, comprehensive, searchable database of all things D&D. What a useful tool! Oh wait, it’s only useful for people who pay a monthly subscription. Boo!

I get that you’re a company and you want money, and I also understand that subscription gets you more than the D&D Compendium, but come on. You are doing yourselves a disservice. This compendium is exactly the sort of thing that when offered for free encourages interest in your products and ultimately makes you money.

If I knew whenever I had a spare moment or a stray thought about D&D I could plug in a quick search to the compendium and scratch an itch, I would be all over this compendium. And while I’m search for the exact wording of Feat X, I’d see there is another feat I didn’t know existed, and I’d find that it was in The Planes Below which would get me thinking about how it would be cool if my party did x y z. And I’d search for y or z and find more things in The Planes Below of interest to me. And then, what is your thinking? I just find everything from The Planes Below in the compendium and copy it down on note cards? NO! I go buy your book. And you get my money.

*sigh* I think that my scenerio is way more likely than someone going to your website and thinking, “Hey, neato, a compendium. Sure I’ll pay $7 a month for this.” Plus there’s general good will amongst your customer base.

Ok. Rant over. I do think they’re missing out. And I really want to use the thing, but I can’t justify paying for it when I don’t even have any 4e games going. /pout

American Gods review

I finished American Gods about a week ago. I definitely wasn’t incited to write a review. I decided to give it some time to see if thoughts would collect. Unfortunately, even despite a bit of effort, not much coalesced.

It was fine to read, like, in the moment. I wasn’t bored or annoyed or anything like that. It was entertaining. That’s pretty much the highest praise I can give it, though. When I try and think of a review, I find, I can’t really figure out what the book was about. And even while I was reading it I always felt that way. I kept looking for clues to the rules of the world, which there never really are, or clues to the giant metaphor of the whole novel, which if there is one, I didn’t catch it.

In the end I think it kinda falls into the category of soft sci-fi/fantasy. I call it soft because the fantasy elements are not clearly defined or fleshed out. Limitations on the fantasy are not set or explored, because that’s not really the point of the book. I think the point of the book is just to be an entertaining walk through the American Midwest and a brief tour of world religion from the rather creative position of gods being real. My problem is that the idea of gods being real, especially including “modern gods” like technology and media, is so interesting that I just wanted him to explore that more. Way more than he did, so I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed by the whole thing.

Still, he doesn’t avoid the subject, obviously. I get some exploration, and then some other stuff, which isn’t awful. And I don’t really know how you really test the limits of the “gods are real” idea without it being pretty generic or pretty stupid. Nevertheless, American Gods just seems like and okay book to me, nothing really great.