Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Saturday, November 8, 2008
It’s one of the more interesting things that the characters in Tales of Symphonia say, for an end-of-battle quote anyway. Most of the time, one of the four in the party, the one that dealt the finishing blow, will spout off some quick taunt to the now-dead foes. However, sometimes you get a combination quote out of the party. And when Colette, Genis, and Kratos are in the party, one of those quotes that has managed to stick in my mind is, “Our weapons are love!” “Justice! And-” “-hope.” (Colette, Genis, and Kratos, respectively.)
It bears thinking on. Obviously, no small amount of video games have a war between good and evil, between the righteous and the wicked. In fact, it’s common in all fiction. And I fully believe that those offhand remarks are also completely accurate. There are some qualities, some attributes, that are essential to a righteous cause if it is to be completely successful. Those qualities are what define such a cause; they’re what set the righteous apart from the evil.
And in the fantasy worlds of Dungeons and Dragons, Tales of Symphonia, Shannara… the list goes on. In a story of high fantasy where the righteous heroes are out to save the world, you’ll be able to find those qualities in the adventure somewhere. Yet are they applicable to our own world? Can it be said that the weapons of the righteous are as necessary here as they are in high fantasy?
I do think, for those good causes that people look up to, that the most important weapons are going to be love, justice, and hope. And I think that those causes, from governments to religious organizations, need to remember that an openly militant stance won’t always be an effective weapon. As counterproductive as it may seem, sometimes the most effective weapons are those that do no damage; that are worthless in killing and incapacitating enemies. After all, it’s only with such a weapon that an enemy can be permanently defeated.
At first glance, that statement seems easily contradicted. After all, the Second World War didn’t end with love, it ended with Soviet tanks in Berlin. It seems at first glance that military power has ended most conflicts, not ephemeral concepts like love, justice, and hope. This is only the case, though, if you consider the end of a war to be the end of the respective threat, which it rarely is. That concept is even more visible in the terrorist threats of the modern day, who have no capitals and have so far evaded all efforts to crush them with military force alone.
If we’re going to take the righteous high road of virtue and morality, or claim that we’re better than they are, we can’t simply attempt to eradicate all opposition with sheer firepower. If a righteous cause desires victory over those it considers wrong or evil, the only way to do so is to deploy those weapons unique to such a cause.
The word love usually conjures ideas of true love, boyfriends and girlfriends, and the old fantasy stories of a prince and a princess. But there are more kinds of love than that. There is also the tolerance to accept other people as they are, or the empathy to care about and understand any and all fellow members of the human race. Both applied even to an enemy, even to one who would see you dead. It is those kinds of love that find a place as weapons to defeat such enemies.
Those two forces combined are a powerful weapon, one that has an even greater effect than a weapon that actually does damage. While killing an enemy removes a threat, deploying tolerance and empathy can, under the right circumstances, turn an enemy into an ally. A force that shows such traits, that uses love as its weapon, will gain respect and admiration from all corners. Its allies will respect its capacity for kindness, and be all the more willing to assist; the individuals opposing it will know that they would not be ostracized if they were to switch sides.
Likewise, a “righteous” force that shows no hint of love will find its path to be all the harder. A lack of tolerance or empathy will seem insular and unwelcoming. Allies will dislike helping a force that has no tolerance for any of their unique views, and enemies will fight to the death, knowing that no quarter will be given even if they want to defect. Possibly most damning, the youngest generation will look at that force and see a hostile, unwelcoming presence. This only continues a cycle of death and destruction.
Justice is often a word used to label a righteous cause, but it is also a weapon of such a cause nevertheless. Although the exact definition of justice can at times be debated, one way to define it as a weapon is to call it respect for and adherence to a consistent code of laws. Or in other words, being consistent and open in the way that people are treated is important to a righteous cause.
Such a cause that puts a high value on justice, and treats even its enemy in a fair and consistent manner, will also gain respect and admiration from those around it. Especially if its opponents have no regard for common decency, allies can look to the righteous cause and see even and fair treatment of all. This emphasizes the need to defeat the opposing forces and helps a righteous cause gain widespread support. And as no one person or group can fight alone, such support is very important.
The contrast is a “righteous” cause that disregards justice in some form. A cause that does so, perhaps by applying a different standard to the enemy, will be viewed as having the same flaws of the cause that it is opposing. A cause that denounces a certain practice while engaging in that practice itself will be seen as hypocritical. In either case, the youngest generation will rightly question how righteous such a cause is.
The last and possibly most important weapon is hope. Technically, hope is not a weapon to be used on an enemy, unlike justice or love. It is, however, a weapon that backs up the efforts of all of the people fighting in a given cause’s name. It is the weapon that gives people the strength and the will to take up a cause in the first place. Hope, the belief that a cause will succeed in its goals, enables a person to fight to bring about those goals.
If a cause fails to provide hope, no one will be able to fight, either with conventional weapons or with love and justice. Without someone to say that victory is possible, or with a belief that victory cannot be found, no one will stand up and try to bring about what is right. A group that says, “Yes, we can” will find widespread support from many different corners; a group that says, “No, we can’t” will never even exist.
Love. Justice. Hope. An offhand comment, yes, but one that so clearly demonstrates what is important to the truly righteous of both this world and any other.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Neither is wrong, despite what ardent fans of both types would try to tell you. We all enjoy videogames differently, after all. Some people just play the game, and don’t care that they’re not perfect. I, myself, fall more into that category. I don’t usually focus on spending the time to maximize my power level, and generally just enjoy playing the game even if I’m not perfectly effective. Indeed, I often have fun playing in ways that defy effectiveness.
On the other hand, some people take pride in becoming as powerful as possible. Enjoyment comes through victory, usually against other human players. In addition, gamers of this type also take pride in the effort they go to and the results that that produces.
The problems usually arise when people in the first category, usually referred to as casual gamers, and people in the second category, usually called competitive gamers, end up competing against one another. Barring a level of luck usually referred to as a miracle, the competitive gamer inevitably wins such a contest.
From here, the flame war develops. The casual gamers that have been defeated cry foul, calling the techniques that the competitive gamer employed any of a number of negative labels including “cheap” and “exploit.” Competitive gamers respond with anger, feeling that their efforts were the result of hard work, not of cheap tactics. Understanding on any side is hard to find.
Even without actually competing, either category can still get riled up at the other. A casual gamer will see a competitive one engaging in repetitive actions, usually to improve statistics in a game, and will wonder out loud why said competitive gamer is wasting time when he could be enjoying the game. A competitive one will see a casual gamer use a less-than-effective strategy, and will inform that casual gamer that he’s not playing the game intelligently.
One wonders why anyone would bother to waste that amount of time fighting over games that are almost always marketed to children. You’re fighting over Mario Kart, people; we don’t need to care that much about it! The only thing to do is to realize that people are going to find enjoyment in different ways.
As I said earlier, I fall more on the casual side. But I’d like to believe that I’m more forgiving than some casual gamers, like the ones that take offense when competitive ones handily defeat them. I recognize that maximizing effectiveness isn’t easy, and I don’t waste my time getting annoyed when I lose. When I lose, most of the time it’s because the opponent is better than I am. And I’d much rather recognize their victory than tell them that they’re not enjoying themselves correctly.
There’s a flip side to that too, though. Some people don’t focus on maximizing their effectiveness. And as much as I acknowledge superior skill when I lose to a competitive gamer, that respect runs out real fast if they start saying, “ha ha, you suck, you don’t know how to play the game,” or anything similar to that. Yeah, I’m not doing the same things that you are, and I lost probably because of that. That doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying myself correctly.
Taking games too seriously doesn’t have to mean focusing on winning. For me, I think the phrase would be better applied to people who think that their way of playing a game is the only correct way. It’s hard, if not impossible, to find two people with the exact same personality, you know. So why should we think that we all get enjoyment in the same ways?
We all enjoy different things, and because of that, it borders on the idiotic to tell someone that they’re not enjoying themselves. If I enjoy playing casually (which I do) then who is anyone else to tell me that I can’t have fun unless I play competitively? If someone else enjoys playing competitively (which I know some people who do) then who am I to tell them that they can’t have fun unless they play casually?
Taking video games seriously enough to focus on winning isn’t a bad thing. It’s when people take it to the point where they argue with other gamers that they’re playing too seriously. Why should I spend my time arguing with others about how to play a game when I could be enjoying myself playing that game?
Saturday, September 27, 2008
But how do we get there? How can we create a better world? I’m not sure that anyone has the answer to that question. The only partial answer I can offer is that we can do a part of what needs to be done. My brother, in training at the United States Naval Academy, is going to defend the lives and freedom of the people of that nation, and both he and I believe that that will help to improve the world. I plan on going into law, on being a judge. I guess, then, that I’ll be helping to ensure that our legal system does its job, and I believe that I can leave the world a little bit better off through that path.
Unfortunately, the problem is that sometimes people focus far too much on trying to make the world better than it is. The problem comes when people start doing anything necessary to improve the world, to the extreme of committing what can charitably be called atrocities in the name of making a better world. The question then becomes: how, if at all, can one justify doing something that could be called evil in the name of making a better world?
The first and by far the most common justification is that sometimes, it has to be done. One excellent example can be found in the movie Serenity, a movie in which the primary antagonist openly stated, “What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.” This after killing an entire settlement’s worth of civilians down to the last child, simply to deny the protagonists a place to rest and recover.
Similar examples are often suggested and debated on forums for role-playing games like the GiantITP forums, and can also be raised by TV shows like 24. Often, the questions raised in these circumstances have to do with committing evil for the greater good. Is it morally right to kill a person that will be used as a sacrifice to summon an evil demon that could destroy the world? Is it acceptable to torture someone to protect people?
In all of these situations, the justification is that although these acts are all evil, they have to be done. No one can allow the demon to be summoned; no one can stop the terrorist plot without torturing some of those responsible, and the operative of the government in Serenity has to keep his superiors’ secrets from the rest of the world, at any cost. All in the name of creating a better world for the people that they protect.
But what makes a better world? What exactly is it that these people are defending when they commit such acts? Because here’s what I see: I see a so-called defender of justice killing someone who’s all but an innocent bystander, simply because that person was the one captured by the evil cultists. I see a police officer violating all of our standards of human rights. I see a brutal murderer keeping an important piece of information from society. I can only speak for myself, but I think that a better world is a world held to a higher moral standard than that!
Committing such atrocities as torture and murder gives up on the idea of a better world, regardless of the intention behind them. Carrying out such actions is tantamount to saying, “We can’t create a better world without doing such things.” And is a world where such atrocities are accepted as necessary really a better world than the one we have now? Do you want to live in a world where torture is a necessary tool? Or summary execution, without trial? Because that is the world that is created by such actions.
To avoid creating such a world, those who want to create one have to strive for perfection. Even if it’s impossible to be perfect, it is in trying that we come as close to that goal as we possibly can. As I’ve already said, I want the world to be better; I want to try to improve the world. And the best, indeed the only, way I know how to do that is to stand by what I believe is right, and never stop trying to act on those beliefs.
Friday, September 26, 2008
The only partial explanation that I can offer is that I have just recently moved into Brandeis University. And as classes have gotten moving, I've had homework to do, and I haven't had anywhere near as much time available for blogging. Combine that with a lack of good ideas for topics to write about, and, well... you get a month with no new posts.
There will be something tomorrow around 8 pm, because I just scheduled it. So there will be new stuff to read.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
I'll try to have something next week.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
And I don’t blame them for that either; it would have little relevance to the game to have to worry about camping out for the night on the road to Hearthome City. But it’s also impossible that the minute or so that I spend biking from one major city to the next is as long as it takes in the game’s world. This is an adventure that would probably take many weeks or even months to complete; the game ignores those details to simplify the game play.
Okay, so the game doesn’t include many of the minutiae or logistics of actually traveling around on foot, and thus offers no real insights into the day-to-day life of traveling, training, and battle that a Pokémon trainer’s life would theoretically consist of. One would think, though, that we could look at the animated series for more on that, right? After all, there are eleven seasons and hundreds of episodes of Pokémon anime. Surely some of those offer more insights into what the daily life must be like.
And one would be right… mostly. Certainly, there are times when the anime definitely offers a better look. Brock is often shown cooking meals, and he’s just generally well prepared for traveling. (Good thing Ash became friends with him.) Also, Ash and Dawn sometimes do training sessions. (I wish that was possible in the game, to train without battling.)
There are, however, several problems with accepting the picture painted by the anime as the daily life of your average Pokémon trainer. Most of those have to do with the limitations of producing a show that needs to provide ratings and money. After all, it would be incredibly dull to watch an episode of the show that just had them walking along the road to the next town. Yet I have no doubt that most of their days consist of just that and very little else.
After all, from episode 469, Following A Maiden’s Voyage, (that was its title on the western side of the Pacific, anyway) to episode 516 (which wasn’t aired here in America), theoretically lasted a year. That 516th episode, for Ash and Dawn anyway, was a year after they started their adventure in Sinnoh. Now, fairly basic math then tells us that that’s 47 episodes (I’m not counting the 516th) covering the events of 365 days. More fairly basic math indicates that the vast majority of the time they spent traveling was time we didn’t see on TV.
The 516th episode, from what I can gather, was a collection of the highlights of the 47 episodes (and that year of travel) preceding it, but for Ash and Dawn, the 47 episodes could probably be considered mere highlights of a year spent walking through Sinnoh. What does a Pokémon trainer do on a day-to-day basis? If the only acceptable source of information is the games, anime, and movies, we have no real idea.
I do have a good guess, and that is: walking. After all, they don’t really seem to have any more advanced means of transport, and it’s a long distance from one city to the next. How long would it take any of us to walk from Baltimore to Washington D.C.? How about Washington D.C. to Los Angeles? As awesome as the life of a Pokémon trainer would appear to be based on the anime, there’s almost certainly a lot of less glamorous hard work, either walking or training, in between episodes that we don’t see.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Daily life as a whole has its moments, yes, but the majority of that day-to-day life is simply work. For another example, I can point to the TV and the Olympics that have been running for the past two weeks. Again, just from the competitions and the glory that we get to see, it looks like those athletes get to do some pretty neat things with their lives. Michael Phelps wins eight gold medals and becomes a major superstar, and the Chinese gymnastics teams win multiple gold medals from team and individual competition.
I wouldn’t want to be in their places, though. For all the glory and fame that they’ve received, and for all of the joy that I know they have from winning such honors, one would think that they lead such awesome lives. Yet I also know that they’ve spent the vast majority of their day-to-day lives training for this kind of event. The life of a major athlete is not all competitions and glory; if one were to randomly pick a day out of their life, I’d be willing to bet that it would be a day spent training and working out, preparing for the next meet. No glory, no accolades, just hard work preparing for the next major event.
Not every day has to be eventful; not every day should be eventful. I know that some days will be more interesting than others, and I know that some will be dull beyond belief. That’s the way life is. I’ll take joy in my moments of glory, and I’ll move on through the days of boredom. Above all else, though, I’ll remember that that’s the way it is. The day-to-day work can’t be avoided or skipped in the end.
Ash and Dawn have to keep moving onward, even if they’d rather laze around and have some mock battles in any given day. That might be more exciting than walking toward Pastoria City, but they do need to get to that city eventually, and the only way to do that is to walk. Phelps, and any pro athlete, can’t skip training often and still expect to win. Daily life may often be boring, but it can’t be dismissed.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
This latest book, part of a new series designed to continue the story of this legendary dark elf, raises powerful and complicated issues. When should past wars and past crimes be forgiven? When can they be forgiven? How does one balance past sacrifices against future peace?
In fantasy stories, such questions are often black and white. Orcs, a typical fantasy race of humanoid monsters, are listed in the Dungeons and Dragons (version 3.5) rulebooks as “often Chaotic Evil,” an alignment that basically gives adventurers free reign to kill them without consequences. Many Dungeon Masters, including myself, can and will just put orcs in as an enemy that can just be fought and killed, without any lingering moral quandaries.
And at the opening of The Orc King, that’s the prevailing view. An orc horde had recently (during the events of the previous trilogy) swept out of the mountains and fought their way to the very gates of Mithral Hall, the current home of Drizzt. That army had been fought to a stalemate by the dwarven armies of the Hall in concert with many allies from around the nearby region. When winter weather forces a pause in the conflict, the King of Mithral Hall vows to see the orcs routed from their new territory as soon as can be managed.
Why would that be a desirable goal? The arguments in its favor are simple and obvious. If only because of the many people that lost their lives during the orc attacks, one would think such a course justified. But of course, also, the orcs are warlike and vicious, and leaving such brutal creatures so close by will only result in more suffering when they attack again.
Are the flaws visible yet? The weakness in that plan is simple: it is motivated purely by hatred, most of which is unjustified and prejudicial. One can try to claim virtuous motives in pressing a war, but in a great war where vast amounts of bloodshed on all sides is assured, there are no victors, only survivors. Claiming justice or virtue behind a bloodbath is ridiculous.
As I illustrated in my argument for such a conflict, the lives already lost in battle are often raised as justification for continuing. Aside from the need to exact revenge on the enemy for those lives lost, wouldn’t we be turning our back on those casualties if we avoided a war that they had died for? I strongly disagree with that line of thinking.
Revenge is a destructive impulse, and one I refuse to be controlled by. One can kill every person that had any connection to a terrorist attack, but what will that accomplish? It won’t correct any of the security failures that contributed to the attack. It won’t mitigate the damage done. And it certainly won’t heal any of the physical or emotional injuries that were inflicted. All it will do is offer a fleeting moment of righteous pride that will vanish either in a loss of purpose, or worse, in the damage and casualties of the revenge that the allies of those terrorists will respond with.
But what about the feelings of the casualties? How can we abandon a cause that so many have fought and died for? The problem with those questions is the certainty behind them. There can be no certainty when the people in question can no longer be questioned about their feelings. I can only speak to my own motivations, yes, but I would not want a continued trend of violence, death, and destruction in my name, even if I had died in a war.
I don’t believe that the cause that we devote ourselves to should be the destruction of the enemy. Rather, the priority should be ending the threat that they present. And there are far more ways to accomplish that goal than merely killing all of the enemy; in fact, simply killing is rarely enough to end a war. The cause that soldiers have died for need not be one of annihilation, and it need not be considered disrespect for us to end the threat they fought with diplomacy rather than destruction.
The real price of hatred is best seen, however, in the second “justification” to proceed with annihilation. For some, there is a certainty that any respite or truce the enemy offers is nothing but a trick, a façade to gain an advantage. Allowing the orcs from the world of Drizzt Do’Urden to remain in their position without challenge will inevitably result in a future attack by those enemies.
I would hope that the prejudice and hatred in that defense would be obvious. Again, there is too much certainty there; too much faith in a prejudicial look at the enemy beliefs. In The Orc King, there were two major factions in the orc forces: those that wanted to continue the war, and those that wanted to hold their current ground and establish more cordial relations with the surrounding kingdoms.
As the example shows, it’s a rare enemy that cannot be negotiated with or handled nonviolently. Not that they don’t exist, though; I’m not advocating a halt on all war. I freely admit that there are some enemies that must be fought with. What I will strongly argue for, though, is that we are as open-minded as we can possibly be. That we remember that even in war, the other side is composed of people as well, with their own motivations and desires.
And how can we say that those people cannot be talked to? If we refuse to give diplomacy a chance, then it will fail by our own choice, not by anyone else’s. The prejudice and hatred that gives rise to statements like, “They can’t be trusted to keep their end of the agreement!” or, “We can’t negotiate with them, we have to kill them all!” will set the future on a path to destruction. Had the King of Mithral Hall insisted on fighting the orcs, a great war would have begun. Many lives on all sides would have been lost, and the outcome would have been uncertain.
Would that be a better result than the peace that the two sides managed to find? Who would prefer the uncertain outcome of a certain bloodbath to the uncertain outcome of a truce between bitter foes? In the end, the price of hatred must be measured in lives. If one would insist on hating the enemy as opposed to merely pacifying them, one must be prepared to sacrifice the lives of those on both sides. And if Mithral Hall and the (orc) Kingdom of Many Arrows had insisted on clinging to racial hatreds, they would have been unable to avoid that bloodshed, as will we if we can’t abandon our own hatred.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
First for the links. The first of those is a link to the webcomic Misfile. It's an absolutely hilarious story that I can't even really begin to explain. Suffice to say that if everything that exists is controlled by a filing depository in heaven, then a misfile can have some catastrophic results. Certainly nothing that I'd want to deal with, since I'm satisfied with the last two years of my life and with my current identity.
Second, I've added a link to the social networking site, Facebook. I just recently created my own Facebook page, which spurred my desire to add a link here. I do realize that I haven't put enough information in my profile to allow anyone reading this alone to find me on Facebook, but for now I prefer it that way. Eventually, I may add my real name to my profile, and when or if I do, I would welcome messages sent to my Facebook page, but for now, I'm remaining anonymous.
Finally, I'm adding a link to the TV Tropes and Idioms wiki. This wiki has resolved as its mission to document the common tricks of the trade used in creating fiction. It's a very interesting website, and I often use it when searching for information on anime series, as it also documents many TV shows, if only to share some of the common tricks that are found in that show. It has also expanded far beyond just TV, and can thus be used to learn more about many if not all forms of entertainment created today.
That's it for the links. But... I did say I had a new capability. I just got a new computer to take to college with me, a Dell XPS M1530 laptop. And one of the features of that laptop is a built-in webcam, which means I can now record video of myself or of my surroundings. I don't plan on using that ability much, just because I like posting essays onto my blog as opposed to videos of myself reading essays. But I don't mind speaking, and I may choose to make a speech on some topic in the future. Either way, I have the option now.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
As a video gamer, I’m fairly familiar with the progress we’ve made in that department, at least as far as artificial intelligence is concerned. Since video games use a computer to provide a challenge to the player, they have to be able to make tactical decisions in a lot of different situations. Advance Wars is one obvious example; it’s essentially a war game. The computer has to be able to evaluate the situation, attack and defend intelligently, and so on.
The progress that AIs have made in that respect is obvious. The first Advance Wars AIs were, quite simply, pathetic. They made tactical decisions on basic priority lists, to the point where a specific unit that had no tactical value could draw fire for more valuable units. As time passed and more games were released, the computer became much better at providing a challenge.
In fact, there were many maps in the first Advance Wars game that were blatantly lopsided. The player was at a major disadvantage to the computer, and if there was a human player in control of the computer’s position, victory was assured. Those maps either don’t exist anymore or have been more balanced, because the computer has become more capable of providing resistance.
Even if the AI in Advance Wars could mount a challenge that equaled that of a human, though; even if the AI could play the game better than any human, it still would not be the equal of one. After all, that computer can play Advance Wars, yes, but I can put Advance Wars down and play Pokémon Diamond. Or MegaMan Star Force 2. Or… well, you get the idea. That is the challenge that faces modern science: how does one create a computer that can match a human in all aspects?
Frankly, I’m not even sure if it’s possible. Again, I could be way off here; I’m not keeping track of current developments as much as I should be. But I haven’t seen a computer yet that can exceed its programming. The computers in today’s world are programmed to perform a task. They are often far more capable at that one task than a human would be, but cannot do anything outside that task. The computer that controls a robot can be programmed to vocalize a greeting, such as, “Hello!” when it identifies a human in front of it. But when I see someone I don’t know, I can say any number of things, from “Hello!” to “Good afternoon!” to “What’s your name?”
Often, I don’t even know which one I’ll use until right before I use it. It’s not like I go walking around thinking, “Okay, I’ll walk up to that person and say hi.” Which is another aspect of a human intelligence that I’m unsure about replicating: spontaneity. I can decide to do something for no apparent reason. Very little factored into the decisions I made about what to do next as I rode down the highway. (I’m coming back from vacation as I write this. Yay laptops!) I just felt like playing games for a little while, and then I took out my iPod… none of that was determined by reasons that a computer would be able to find. I just felt like it.
As I said in the second part of The Growth of High Technology, an essential part of being human is human emotion. How does one code for that? Sometimes, when I’m faced with a serious challenge in a game, I quote Captain Sisko, among many others (“Fortune favors the bold”) and just charge in. Sometimes, humans act outside of self-interest or in unpredictable ways. Whether motivated by altruism, love, or just sheer insanity, humans don’t always act logically. Yet computers are driven by logic; how does one create computer code that can replicate such quirks of humanity?
There are several predictions flying around as to the power of computers in the future. Certainly, they’ll grow ever more powerful; it’s not like they haven’t been in the past. I’m not sure, though, if we’ll ever design one that can imitate a human perfectly. There are just too many facets of human behavior that can’t be easily measured or copied. Regardless of one’s beliefs about a soul or other aspect of humanity beyond that of scientific confirmation, there are too many things about humans that can’t be seen.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
The problem was fairly simple, as legal questions go: what crime had she committed? What statute had she violated? Unfortunately, when technology evolves faster than statutory law does, some acts that seem criminal, such as harassing a girl on a social networking site using a false account, can manage to not violate any existing laws. However, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, where MySpace’s servers are located, elected to charge Mrs. Drew with the crimes that I listed above. The more observant will notice that Mrs. Drew is not charged with murder or even seemingly anything connected to the death that occurred.
My reference to my insanity is basically designed as a comment on how I reacted to the article I saw on Thursday morning. Most people would simply say what they thought, or write a letter to the editor. I, on the other hand, went straight to my computer and searched for the text of the statute where the crimes in question were defined, and I believe I’ve found the relevant statute. My next stop was MySpace itself, where I searched for the Terms of Service that define MySpace’s rules.
Did I mention that after I graduate from Brandeis University four years from now, I’m going to go to law school to become a lawyer? I spent the next half-hour reading the statute, reading the Terms of Service, and examining the legal issues for myself, as best I could without actually having the professional training. According to the Post article that aroused my attention, the defense lawyer for Lori Drew has formally requested that the charges be thrown out, because of how common her actions are.
After all, how many of us can say that we actually read in detail those EULAs and those Terms of Service agreements that always pop up before we can install any new program? Most of the time, I know I don’t. I try to read them more carefully for online activities, such as MMORPGs like EVE Online or websites like the one hosting this blog, to get a good idea of what is and is not prohibited by that service’s rules, but even then I almost never read every detail, and I never recheck those things like most say you’re supposed to do. And I know for sure that I have actually violated the EULA of at least one of my games: apparently you’re not supposed to share your password for an MMO account with anyone else.
The arguments for such a dismissal of charges, then, are obvious. Everyone would be guilty of accessing a computer without authorization, including law-abiding citizens like me, if breaking the Terms of Service or the EULA of a program or website qualifies as accessing a computer without authorization. Those agreements aren’t really designed to be understandable; they’re designed to ensure that the company in question is protected from any liability and has a justification for kicking people out if they commit actions that run counter to that company’s website. Since people won’t want to use MySpace if people on that site are posting pornography on it, MySpace bans links to adult websites. It’s common business sense, not law in and of itself.
And yet. My sense of justice rages at envisioning a person that I see as responsible for a young girl’s death walk away without sanction. Having gone over many of the documents that I thought would be relevant to this case, I think that there’s easily enough substance in the charges to justify hashing the details out in a trial. Not actually being a lawyer, I’m not even going to try to sort out all of the issues with these charges; that’s for the prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers that are actually involved to sort out.
However. From what little understanding I have, I don’t think a guilty verdict in this case would be justification to strike down anyone who’s violated an EULA. I haven’t exactly covered the U.S. Code in great detail, but the terms of the statute that I’ve been looking at (Title 18, part I, chapter 47, §1030, from http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/cybercrime/1030NEW.htm) don’t appear to merely criminalize unauthorized access. All of its sections, from what I can see, also refer to some element of harm that is caused by access without authorization. I’m safe, then; not only do my “indiscretions” with the passwords of my best friend, my brother, and even my own (you’re not supposed to share your own or use anyone else’s) have failed to cause any of the harm detailed, but I was also acting with the express permission of those people.
And even if a guilty verdict in the Drew case opened up prosecutions of teenagers across the U.S. that had merely misrepresented their age on MySpace, then what of it? Maybe that should be punished. It would probably be a waste of time for the courts, for certain. But maybe we need to start cutting back on the anonymity of the Internet. The anonymity present on the Internet, since no one can determine who’s behind that user name on a forum or MMO, does not grant a right to misrepresent yourself, to lie, to other people.
And if people are going to take the ability to say whatever they like on the Internet, and use that to create a situation where a young girl kills herself, then there needs to be a change somewhere. People tend to think that there’s no harm involved, that no one is worse off if they call themselves 21 rather than 17 on the web, just as it’s easy to say and think that they were just kidding when they were making fun of someone else. But actions have consequences. That kidding around that seems like harmless fun on the outside is really miserable when you’re the target of the insulting jokes. And the little lie about one’s true age is still a lie.
In the end, the damage done is to society. I’m an idealist; I accept that fact about myself. I think we’d all be much better off if honor, decency, and moral values were more highly regarded in society. And we can’t build a society that values the truth by condoning lies of any kind. And if we don’t either punish Mrs. Drew for her actions or create new statutes directed at her actions (preferably both, in my opinion) then what’s to stop the next person from creating a false impression that causes the death of someone else?
Saturday, July 19, 2008
However, destiny exists in the real world as well, although the extent of that would be hotly debated. Whether a force exists that is determining the events of the future often becomes a debate over religious beliefs in today’s world, and raises vast numbers of additional questions that are far too numerous to address here. That said, though, there hardly needs to be a divine force to create a predetermined future, and one does not need to be a mage to read the course of the future. The question then becomes, how does one react when in a situation where the future is already known?
Admittedly, when I say such things, I refer almost exclusively to the immediate future. As a mild example, I offer my experiences playing Halo with one of my friends this past Thursday. I’d like to believe that I’m reasonably skilled at most types of video games, and I have played Halo before and proven to be at least mildly proficient at it. But I don’t own an Xbox 360, and I can’t practice with Halo 3 as much as my friend can.
Predictably, then, he is several times better than I am and absolutely merciless. You can probably imagine how much I welcomed the one-on-one duels that he was setting up. Of course, my destiny (for the next few minutes, at least) was pretty much set then. I knew that there was no way that I would be winning the upcoming matches. Hardly the world-spanning divinations of powerful magicians, but it was a predetermined course of events that I was able to read.
What mattered then were the details. After all, it’s rare for divination, especially of the future, to reveal every single detail. Certainly, even knowing I was royally doomed didn’t tell me how that would happen, or what the final score would be. So, really, I had my own choice to make in the matter. The choice before me was the same that many others have faced: the wisdom or worth of fighting a battle that was already lost before the actual battle began.
How should we react when we can tell what course the future will take? What can we do when we believe that we know what will happen next? There are those who would argue that fighting a lost battle is a waste of effort and power that could be better used for more uncertain pursuits. I can see the wisdom in avoiding a fight that cannot be won, to be sure. Especially when the resources at stake are the lives of soldiers in an army as opposed to the numbers on a computer screen that I typically work with.
Wars, however, are not won by numbers. Victory in battle is not always measured by the units lost and units killed, and battles are not always those of war. In the Naruto manga, the titular character was confronted with one of his most difficult challenges yet during a promotional exam, a powerful enemy that repeatedly insisted on the inevitability of destiny. Among other things, he told Naruto, “…the moment I was selected as your opponent, your fate was sealed as well.” And certainly, it didn’t look like Naruto could win.
Had Naruto taken his words as truth and surrendered, though… As it turned out, his opponent’s reading of the future was incorrect. It is in challenging what appears to be impossible that we discover what truly is impossible and what is merely difficult, and by accepting the most likely outcome of a course of action, we can find the courage to try for a different one.
As I have expressed in previous articles, I’m a fairly mediocre runner. Better than many, yes, but also hardly the best of the athletes that I know. And due to the nature of my preferred sports, cross-country and track, I have never really been able to count myself as the best in any one event. There are far too many more skilled athletes on the course or the track for me to simply win.
But then, why is it that I keep running? Essentially, I’m doomed to at least a form of defeat every time I run, just as I’m doomed to defeat whenever I’m pitted against my friend in Halo 3. However, I learned long ago not to think of my destiny in such terms. The joy I take from challenging myself and all of the runners near me is reward enough to explain my preference for the sport, and the challenge I find in trying to even kill my friend is a major part of why I didn’t flinch from fighting him one-on-one.
What is the appropriate response when destiny comes calling? How should we react to a fate that may be inescapable? We cannot really read the future with any great accuracy, certainty, or detail; such a precognitive ability rarely appears even in fantasy. In the end, then, all that we can do is try. Even if there’s no realistic hope of me actually winning the race outright. Even if it’s impossible for me to best my friend in a direct contest of skill.
I know that I’ll learn and improve despite my predetermined fate, and maybe eventually I’ll learn enough to change that fate. Merely because I’m destined to lose the next race I run in doesn’t mean that that fate will always be so. In the end, intent and the will to carry it out change the future. If I work to improve, and challenge myself in every race I run, I may lose most of them, but there will be one where I don’t. That is a destiny that cannot be found by refusing to challenge fate.
Friday, July 11, 2008
EDIT (Sunday, 9:21 AM): Well, I'm not going to try to deny it anymore. I've got nothing. I did mean it when I said that my creativity could be very hard to pin down, and today I couldn't find it at all. I'll try again over the week and hopefully have something this upcoming Saturday.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
Don’t we all. I can barely begin to count the times when my imagination has put me in the forefront of whatever story I read last. Or when I’ve just made up new stories with myself as the protagonist. If my imagination was reality, I would have found myself in every fantasy world I’ve ever known at least once.
Certainly, in video games, anime, comics, and movies, it’s common enough for apparently random people to end up being the hero that saves the world. In Mega Man Star Force, Geo Stelar meets an alien being and becomes the newest incarnation of Mega Man as a result. Of course, only the demands of the plot direct when and where that alien arrived, making the choice in the game world itself somewhat random. Magic Knight Rayearth is another good example, where the three people that were summoned from Tokyo could just as easily have been anyone else as far as the summoning spell cared.
The storyline of In the Starlight is another example. Eventually, the links that the protagonist has to the rest of the story are shown to be far more complicated, but before that point, said protagonist actually muses on many of the same things that I’m going to, about having a normal life as opposed to having strange things happening to her. Finally, in the fourth Die Hard movie, the computer hacker (who I will always remember as the guy from the Mac commercials) wonders how and why McClane does what he does.
Who doesn’t wonder what they would do if they were the ones forced into an unknown situation, and who doesn’t think that they’d do better than the protagonists of those events? And yet, I find myself wondering these days if that would really be as fun as I used to think it would be. Who can really tell how much fun that would be? I’ve never actually been in any kind of situation that resembles one from a game, never had to prove whether I could stay calm or react quickly to an immediate problem.
Geo, in Mega Man Star Force 2, gains a lot more publicity and recognition. Although, most of that is recognition for Mega Man, not Geo, he still doesn’t like it. That was a little hard to understand at first. I know that when I do something right or reach some kind of goal, I’d rather have people know about it. I was irritated when I learned that the principal would announce the valedictorian and salutatorian of my high school class at graduation practice because I knew that I was the salutatorian, and no one outside school staff and students would be at that practice.
For Geo, though, it wasn’t a matter of people recognizing his actions. He didn’t like being called a hero because of the expectations that came with that title. The few people that knew who Mega Man really was kept turning to him when a crisis broke out, and he was afraid that he would fail to live up to their expectations. I can fully understand that; after all, everyone saw me as a genius during high school. Which can be a good thing, but gets very annoying when I hear for the third time, “You got a C? You???” Yes. I’m a human being, is this some huge surprise?
Being a hero is a lot harder than it may seem. For a very long time, I fantasized about how I would react if I found myself in any number of the fantasy worlds I’ve seen, as I already mentioned. And in all of those imagined events, I adapted to the new circumstances rapidly and acted with all the intelligence and efficiency I could muster. You would think, though, that the heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth would be able to do the same. Fuu had played video games before, after all. Yet they had no small amount of difficulty adapting to their new circumstances.
The difference, I think, lies in the setting. All of my fantasies have been with worlds I’m well familiar with. From the time I imagined myself also getting thrown into Cephiro and meeting the aforementioned magic knights, to all of the times that I’ve intervened at a key part of some other story, I’ve already been well familiar with the world and the rules. For Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu, they found themselves in an unfamiliar setting, and a situation that they knew nothing about. Who can say if they’d be able to retain their poise when faced with a completely unknown situation?
I worry that there are people in this world who are absolutely certain that they would make a good hero. I have no doubt that there are people that yet dream of them protecting others from some danger, or intervening to save the world. But those kinds of dreams aren’t how one becomes a hero. I can tell myself that I would intervene if someone’s life was threatened, even at the risk of my own, but I can never be certain unless I am actually tested in that regard. And because of that, I hope that I never will be certain.
Heroes aren’t created by people going out and looking for trouble. Geo Stelar, despite the power that he had access to, didn’t wake up every morning wondering what problems he’d have to solve that day. He was reluctant to act even when a problem threatened him personally. Yet he always did something. McClane in the fourth Die Hard movie didn’t really want to be a hero. As he put it, “Believe me if there was somebody else to do it, I would let them do it. There's not, so [I'm] doing it. That's what makes you that guy.”
Running around bragging about what you would do if someone broke into your house doesn’t make you a hero, and it wouldn’t even if you did manage to repel an intruder. Humility is a trait that goes unrecognized far too often, and without it, it’s hard to gain respect as a hero. Hoping to prove yourself as heroic means that you probably don’t have the right mindset to be a hero; as I see it, some of the greatest heroes are the ones that hope they never have to act, but do so anyway when they must.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Monday, June 9, 2008
Obviously, I haven’t played D&D since its creation; the game is older than I am. I was first introduced to the game around the time of its 30th anniversary in 2004, and haven’t really known D&D in anything but its current 3.5th edition. I’ve been enjoying the game since I first got it, and have been running our current game for over a year now.
And on the days when we gather our friends together to play the game, we create a world. A lot of that is my job; as the Dungeon Master, I’m in charge of creating the adventures and all of the characters in them that aren’t controlled by the players. And we do have no small amount of help from the books, since I’d rather not spend my time attending to every single little detail that goes into a world.
Even with the caveats, we’re essentially creating a novel, or a play, or any other kind of fictitious story here. There are six authors rather than just one, and each author only controls what one of the story’s characters does (except the sixth, me, that controls everything not covered by the other five), but I think it still counts. And frankly, one of our greatest D&D experiences came when I abandoned the dice that normally arbitrate the results of actions taken and just rolled with the story.
The adventuring party, controlled by my friends, had just returned to a city called Sharn. Which isn’t in and of itself notable, but the fact that they had greatly annoyed the authorities of the nation that Sharn is in while on their last adventure was a problem. And the city’s police force arrested them almost immediately upon their return.
Or rather, tried to. As a side note, in many videogames the heroes are “arrested” by guards or other forces that present no real threat. The heroes should be able to wipe the floor with the mooks that are sent to arrest them, yet they don’t. Obviously, the players of such videogames can’t do anything about it, since the events can’t be changed short of changing the code of the game. However, D&D is not limited in such a fashion. And my players had no interest in being arrested.
As my players now tried to leave the city, I sent reinforcements after them. And every time the guards confronted the players, the players escaped in truly dramatic fashion, often involving flight or a good fireball. They also at one point decided that they needed to discuss this whole deal with the commander of the city guards. They proceeded to fly up the tower that was the guards’ HQ and broke through the stone wall to talk to him. (Negotiations didn’t work; they left rapidly through that same hole.)
Finally, they left the city on a ship, destroying any pursuit with more fire magic. (And those ships were carrying the enemies that could have actually arrested them, too. Note to self: send in high power reinforcements earlier.) And as if all of that wasn’t enough, they were kind enough to me to split up on the way out of the city, by sending the one character that could transform into animals out of the city early. All of this with the maps of the Sharn prisons sitting in my folder, gathering dust.
While I may not be a literary critic, I really don’t think that’s too bad of a story. And that’s not even a tenth of the series of adventures I’ve led that group through. Some of my most creative moments have come when I was making the next challenge for the players.
And that isn’t even all that D&D is. As much as it is a joint story created by the Dungeon Master and the players, it is also a tactical war game based on an insane amount of statistics and on the luck of a die roll. The character sheets that my players use are four pages of little boxes with numbers and text in them, all of which describe anything from special abilities of the characters to the modifiers applied to an attack roll.
What’s the average sum of a roll of ten six-sided dice? We’ve dealt with that question before, and not on a math quiz either. (It’s 35.) The mathematics inherent in the game, while hardly calculus-level, aren’t the easiest calculations either. The first example deals with the average of a die roll, but that’s hardly the only one. All of this complicated by the fact that the requisite information that these statistics are created from is scattered throughout the several-hundred-page Player’s Handbook.
Those statistics add a distinct element of mathematics to the war game. In most videogames, they would be dealt with by the computer, but the players have to handle it themselves. Of course, being a game in which the Dungeon Master can and will kill off the players, some measure of tactical ability comes well advised also. If Pokémon is a game that helps develop some tactical ability, D&D is one where it might be better to have some before you play.
I can’t even begin to describe all of the battles that have been fought over that table, nor can I do any justice to the clever plans they’ve used on the enemies that I’ve created. Suffice to say they’ve utterly trashed several of the challenges that I thought would be nigh-impossible with some very clever strategies. (Note to self: don’t allow enemies with low health to go anywhere without defensive abilities.) It works in reverse though, as I made what should have been an easy fight harder with my own plans. Putting an invisible ally in a room with enemies makes spells that damage an area hard to use, by the way.
When it comes down to it, Dungeons and Dragons is far from a waste of time. From the creative, story-telling role-playing aspects of the game, to the lessons in anything from mathematics to tactical combat, I’m glad to have come across the game, and I know I’ve learned at least something from it over the last few years.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I asserted at the end of Part I of The Growth of High Technology that we already have the tools to create happy, satisfied lives. And I believe that the answer to creating such lives cannot be found merely in the pursuit of technology, but rather in the many, varied activities that make up human life today. I believe, really, that the activities that people enjoy are far more important than the pursuit of the high technology, convenience, and ease that would destroy those activities.
In the third Pokémon movie, one of the major driving forces in the plot is a five-year-old girl named Molly Hale. Molly’s father is partially an archaeologist, but is also an authority, as much as anyone is, on legendary Pokémon. And his studies keep him away from home and finally lead to his disappearance early in the movie. Of course, Molly is devastated by her father’s disappearance, especially since she seemed to be a very lonely child to begin with.
However, the point of this story is not entirely what effect the elder Hale’s pursuit of knowledge had on his daughter. The message, I think, is best shared in the ending theme song, To Know the Unknown: “I don’t want all the answers, ‘cause one thing is true: as long as my heart beats, I’ll always love you. So I don’t need to know the unknown.”
As ephemeral as human emotion can be, it is also integral to being human. Love, friendship, anger, and all of the numerous other emotions that one can feel are part of life. The path towards creating a future that all humans can find happiness in includes, along its journey, accepting that the human body and the nature of humanity is as good as it needs to be. We do not need to improve the capabilities of the human body; we do not need to spend our time decoding all of the secrets of the universe.
I will not try to argue that humanity is perfect in nature; the atrocities that humans have committed and still are committing in all corners of the world cannot be denied. However, these problems are not ones to solve by changing or upgrading the human mind. Unfortunately, there will always be those people without respect for their fellow man, either in today’s world or in a future of high technology. And for all of the atrocities that are held up as evidence of humanity’s faults, I can gladly point to even more things that humanity has done for good. I refuse to believe that humans are essentially evil or destructive, not in a world that shows no small amount of respect for the ideals of justice, freedom, and equality.
And I will gladly argue that humans are as perfect in form as we need to be. The human body is not a perfect machine from an engineering standpoint, to be sure. There are so many ways that humans can be damaged, and so many things that we can’t do. The problem with that standpoint is that humans are not cars, to be made as safe and reliable as possible with a bunch of features besides. Humanity has existed for no small amount of time, and become the dominant creature of this planet, so I hardly think we could need that much improvement.
When it comes down to the essential point, focusing on humanity’s faults is no way to create a happy future. As clichéd as it sounds, we need to focus on the positive things of human life in order to create such a future for humanity. What do you enjoy in life? Some, like myself, find joy in the work we put into personal improvement. As I commented in Part I, I’m a runner, and I’d like to believe that I work reasonably hard to improve my running ability. I enjoy that; it’s one of the things that I can take pride in.
And yet, in a future of high technology, I wouldn’t have that joy. After all, it will only take one genetically-engineered runner to make the rest of us completely obsolete. If these technologies come to fruition, I’ll have the choice between upgrading myself or being unable to compete. The ability I have to try to improve myself and work for personal pride will be gone, and unrecoverable besides.
I know there are those people that take pride in teaching, or scientific research, or any number of other activities. Composing music, writing books (or a blog like this one), playing chess… the list goes on and on. And yet, in a technological future where efficiency is the goal, people probably wouldn’t be doing any of them. After all, computers can teach, conduct research, create music, write, and play chess far more effectively than slow, weak human minds can.
Yet happiness lies in those activities. People vastly enjoy many of those, and in a future of high technology, such sources of happiness would disappear. How can we create a happier future in such a manner? Creating a happier future must necessarily be based in embracing such activities as uniquely human, and encouraging the pursuit of those activities that people enjoy.
Going back to the movie, in Spell of the Unown the lives of the Hale family were not significantly improved when the elder Hale discovered more about the Unown, the rare Pokémon that was his particular concern. However, at the conclusion of the movie, the elder Hale returns to his daughter, and the scenes playing during the credits also show the return of Molly’s mother as well. When the elder Hale backed off from his research and came back to his family, their lives improved dramatically.
That is what’s more important in life: not the endless quest for greater power, in the mistaken belief that humanity, either as an organism or as a race, is seriously flawed. Rather, the pursuit of human life, in whatever form. The pursuit of greater understanding, a quest to improve oneself through one’s own hard work, the effort put into a hobby or task that one enjoys…… all of those are what will truly bring happiness to human lives, and those are goals that we do not need the power of high technology to find.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Possible spoilers from Star Wars: Episode III (as if anyone hasn’t seen that movie), Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz, and a book titled Epic.
Peace, stability, security. All sound like important goals. Especially peace; right now in the U.S. political climate, there’s a massive debate on the subject, especially as it relates to the war in Iraq. People tend to view peace as superior to war, and I can’t say I entirely disagree with that idea.
Yet I also believe that there are things more important that peace or stability. Which doesn’t mean that I think war is a good thing, but sometimes, it’s better than the peaceful, stable alternative. And frankly, Star Wars is probably too obvious of an example of that.
After all, when Chancellor Palpatine made his speech before the Senate about what the Jedi had done and announced the formation of the Empire, he emphasized the positive to an extent. He spoke of ensuring the security and continuing stability, along with the justification, “for a safe and secure society.” And with all due respect, I can’t say that the Empire wasn’t a stable, secure government.
If the priority of a populace is on peace and stability, they might get just that. And indeed, for the decade and more that the Empire reigned supreme, I have no doubt that the vast majority of the Empire lived in what could be called peace. They weren’t living in fear of the Separatist droid armies or some other major threat. For most, the idea that there were stormtroopers was probably viewed as a good thing; after all, said forces would protect the people from outside threats.
And yet, who can call the Empire a good society? If the standard used is the presence of a peaceful, stable, secure society for the majority of people, then by that standard, the Empire is a good society. The standard used, however, is flawed, for a number of different reasons.
The first of those is the importance placed on peace. As was expressed in the Gundam Wing movie, Endless Waltz, “peace is not something that is just given to you.” People cannot sit back and wait for peace to arrive, and people cannot ignore the fact that there will be threats in the world. Pacifism is a lofty ideal, but as the movie demonstrated, it can only work when every single person in the world is a pacifist.
If a government disarms completely or nearly so, as the Earth Sphere Unified Nation did, they become a target. There was no one capable of fighting the army that landed and took control. And that shows why peace must take a backseat to preparation. A nation or a group of people that cannot defend itself against groups that have no desire for peace is a nation that will fall to such groups.
In addition, the presence of weapons that can be used for war is not an assured war. Peace can be maintained even in the presence of weapons. Disarmament is not a path to peace any more than maintaining weapons is a path to war. In the end, the presence or absence of a peaceful society will be decided by the people of that society. If the people either place too much importance on military power or on the absence of such weapons, the ability to maintain peace will be severely hindered.
The importance of stability in that standard is also a problem. Certainly, stability is often preferable to the alternative. That said, though, if the choice is between a stable Empire and an unstable civil war between the Empire and the Rebellion, who can say that they’d prefer the stability? Sometimes, action must be taken. Justice carries more importance than stability.
One book I’ve read, titled Epic, is another excellent example of how the ideals of peace and stability can be seriously misused. In the world that the book describes, a person’s life is all but dependent on their ability in the game world, Epic, that everyone in the world participates in. Any physical violence in the real world is a crime punishable with immediate exile. Legal challenges and many other issues are resolved through player-vs-player combat in the arena. And unsurprisingly, those people in charge of this society are the ones with the best players.
Thus, any challenge to the decisions of the central ruling committee ends in combat against them, which inevitably results in death. In essence, that committee can do anything, and no one can argue. And when the main characters of the novel earn enough money to become a threat to this committee’s characters, one of the rulers of this society lectures his fellows, “We preside over a society of what, five million souls? A peaceful society, a stable society. And what keeps it so? Epic. […] A better system of government has rarely been achieved. Certainly the warfare that our ancestors fled has no possibility of appearing.”
Again, I see the importance placed on peace and stability, on the lack of any physical violence. And yet. The people of that world are ruled over by an oligarchy that cares nothing for their welfare. Anyone who defies the government dies, even if that death is only in a virtual world. Is this a good society, or one that deserves to be ranked high?
In the end, the message I can find in all of these different worlds is much the same as the one that motivated the creation of the Declaration of Independence. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Sometimes, peace and stability isn’t enough. People deserve more than just stability.
And if the choice is between a stable, peaceful rule by a government that ignores the ideals of justice and liberty and an unstable time of war to overthrow such a government, then I say: let there be war.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
I suspect that the spoiler warning will become standard issue. For this one, I’ll be referring to the video game BioShock and a manga called Aqua.
Hopefully, we’re all familiar with the growing development of technology. It’s visible everywhere: computers get faster almost every week, cars powered by electricity or solar power are announced, and many other examples. And almost without exception, we herald these changes and improvements as better. We’ve grown to the point where we consider new technology to be a good thing.
But is it a good thing in and of itself? Is improvement simply to make a more powerful computer a good thing? And the million-dollar question: do we apply the idea that everything is a system to improve upon to our own bodies?
For me, the answer is a resounding no to all. And I can gladly call upon many, many examples from the fantasy worlds that I enjoy to defend that point.
The most obvious example from the games that I know comes from BioShock. As a quick caveat, I have not actually played the game; my knowledge of the game comes secondhand from sources such as the Plot Summary article on GameFAQs. (For those interested in seeing that themselves, go to GameFAQs through the link I have, search for BioShock, and click on FAQs.) And even then, it’s not really the game play or what the protagonist does that really concerns this topic. It’s the back story, the events that set the stage for the game, that provide a chilling example of the faults of high technology.
Admittedly, that quick comment doesn’t do the many factors in the fall of Rapture any justice. For those unfamiliar with the story, a man named Andrew Ryan built an underwater city called Rapture to break from the ideals of the world. He wanted a purely capitalist society where no one would be obligated to share what they had, as people in the U.S. and the Soviet Union had to. The city quickly became a haven for what Ryan felt were the best examples of mankind, and indeed, their technology progressed much faster than the rest of the world’s.
That didn’t exactly save them, however. When a new substance was commercialized by a man named Frank Fontaine, Rapture slowly descended into war. This substance, called Adam, had the power to change the human body in unimaginable ways. And yet, as this new technology granted Fontaine ever more power and influence, it also led to Ryan’s strong desire to eliminate him. The resulting civil war destroyed the city as the utopia that Ryan intended it to be.
The point behind all the back story is that the technology of Rapture didn’t help improve the lives of its citizens. While it certainly wasn’t the only factor involved, it also was a contributor. I see the story of Rapture as a warning: the warning that an ever-increasing march toward “better” technology isn’t certainly going to improve the lives of people.
As with anything, the real determinant of what our lives are like won’t be directly connected to how advanced our technology is. As human beings throughout history have found, the enjoyment that one gets out of life is connected to what you do with that life.
Simply making our lives more convenient isn’t going to ensure that we’re happier. As Akari Mizunashi put it in the first volume of Aqua, “All the cities are progressing with beautification and simplification. It’s very neat and tidy. And shopping, and work—unlike here, you can do everything from home. It’s very convenient. But… I feel like something is missing in those neat, tidy, convenient cities.” That, I think, exemplifies this reason against a continued improvement of technology. Some things can’t be quantified in science, and those are exactly the things that would be missing.
How do you measure the joy that one gets from a job well done? The pride when one is praised by a parent? Or the determination to complete a task? These are all things that the future would ask us to sacrifice, if the future holds a continued race to higher and higher levels of power.
Akari left those neat, tidy, convenient cities to come to a different world. She came to do a job that in the advanced world would be a computer’s job, as a gondolier and tour guide in a city much like Venice. Yet that is what she wanted to do, and what her attention was devoted towards from the day she left that advanced world. She sought that determination, that pride and joy in her life. In a world of the highest possible technology, she wouldn’t find those things, and neither would anyone else.
Simply upgrading ourselves so that we can run faster, breathe underwater, or even fire lightning bolts from our hands isn’t a ticket to bliss. I am a runner; I enjoy track and cross-country. But I can’t say that I’d be considerably happier if I could improve my time with genetic modification or nanotechnology. Either would improve my fairly mediocre 11:04 two-mile race, yes. But I take pride in what I do. I work to improve my capability as a runner, and I find joy in doing so.
That last race, when I set that 11:04, was one of the best races I’ve ever been in. I was constantly changing positions with two other runners, with first place in that heat as the prize. It was a matter of sheer determination at the end there. I fell behind the leader by four seconds at the end, and only barely held second place against the other runner. That race required all of my skill and determination, for sure.
And had I been “improved” to be able to run 10:34 rather than 11:04, then one of two things would have happened. Either I would have won because the others were not enhanced, or they also would have been enhanced and nothing would have changed. What would my victory have proven, then? That I had a better geneticist than the other two? Certainly, not that I was a better athlete or runner than they were. When I win, or when I set a personal best time, I take the joy from the fact that my work paid off, not from the victory or the personal record itself.
So, what does this say about the growth of high technology? That it is nowhere near an assured utopia for all. Rapture tried to create that; they failed spectacularly in a manner that assured death for all involved. Akari found herself in the growth of such a “utopia,” and found it to be unsatisfying. Why then must we continue to strive for such a false hope, when we already have the tools to create happy, satisfied lives?
Of course, I have no doubt that some question our ability to create happy lives. That, however, is a subject I’ll address with my next major post.
Friday, May 9, 2008
I'm sure that many of us are familiar with those people that call themselves moral and virtuous. I personally know at least one person that really is one of the most moral people I've ever met. Likewise, I've met people that claim to be righteous or moral. Sometimes they are, but for anyone that would take that title, there are a few major pitfalls to avoid. And ironically enough, it's the villains of most games that bring those pitfalls into the spotlight.
As a side note, one of the anime series that I actually have the complete DVDs for, if the spoiler warning didn't tip you off already, is called Magic Knight Rayearth. For those unfamiliar with the series, Magic Knight Rayearth describes the adventures of three schoolgirls transported to an alternate world of magic and monsters. Their goal is to save that world by defeating the High Priest, Zagato, that kidnapped the princess.
That description makes it sound very clichéd, but it really is a very complicated situation and a very interesting story. One of the key mechanics in this alternate world, called Cephiro, is that the world is a land of the will. A strong will does more for a person than anything else in the world. Magic is powered by convictions and beliefs, and determination literally ensures victory.
One of Zagato's minions was in love with the High Priest. She betrayed everything else, including her former teacher, to fight for Zagato. Near the end of the series, she learned that Zagato was actually in love with the princess. This destroyed her usually calm demeanor, and she lamented that everything she had done was for him. Zagato responded coldly, "No. You fought for yourself. People always fight for themselves. You are no different. It was not for me. If you look, you'll see that you fought for your own heart."
I can hear the righteous of the world yelling, "No, that isn't true! I help others!" Well, yes, maybe. I can hardly deny that some are motivated by the needs of others. But can any of us ever say that we're completely devoted to the needs of others? Can you truly, honestly say that what you want never even enters the picture?
As an example of what I'm trying to say, I'll gladly refer to Magic Knight Rayearth yet again. The three girls that were transported to Cephiro were (understandably) extremely disoriented when they first arrived. Think about it: what would you do if you were standing in a skyscraper's observation deck one moment and falling out of the sky in a strange world the next? I can bet there aren't too many people that would just coolly brush themselves off and accept that they weren't where they came from.
Yet then the problem emerged. When they first came to Cephiro, they didn't question the situation that they were in. They focused on the next goal that they had been given, and didn't stop to question what was happening to them. They were often more concerned with getting back to Tokyo and protecting each other than they were about the world that they were in. And as much as they may have said that they were going to save the princess and save Cephiro and its people, I have to find some serious flaws in their reasoning and their motivations.
Thus does Magic Knight Rayearth illuminate a major pitfall of altruism: when those that are trying to help have other motivations behind it. Helping others to get people to see you and admire you is wrong. If a person helps others merely to be recognized by his friends and associates, then what happens when he no longer needs or wants more time in the limelight? And for those who like happy endings, the protagonists of Magic Knight Rayearth recognized this as well as the first season ended. Throughout the second season, they devoted themselves to actually helping Cephiro, rather than just following instructions. They realized that if they were going to help Cephiro and its people, they needed to focus on, well, helping Cephiro.
It's put best in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. In that game, the world was devastated by a rain of meteors that nearly meant the end of days. The sun was blocked out for over a year, and the majority of the world's surface was damaged in the fall. The main character of the campaign, Will, tags along with and eventually becomes the commander of a division of troops that remained intact and now focuses on helping as many people as they can. However, the head of a military contractor, Caulder, welcomes the devastation. After all, a world without much organization or government means no restrictions on scientific progress, and no restrictions on experiments that would be kindly called "despicable."
When Will finally reaches Caulder's main base, Caulder mercilessly assaults the basis behind Will's actions. He tells Will, "You have simply been conditioned to accept the values of society. And now you unthinkingly spout those same values to me. Do you not fight? Do you not kill? Is this not for selfish reasons?" And, there is a tiny bit of sense in what he says. After all, who's to say whether one does good things for the people that benefit, or for that sense of righteousness that one gets when one does good things?
Yet Will has a perfect response. Although this isn't the direct response, Will does eventually say, "If those ideas aren't my own? If he conditioned me? Then that's fine. Keep your theories, Caulder. What's important is that I help people. I have no other ambitions. That is what my heart tells me to do, and my heart is my own."
If you're going to be a righteous person, then take the lessons of Magic Knight Rayearth and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin seriously. If you want to help people, don't do so for the accolades you'll get or the rewards that society gives you. Don't do the right thing because you'll be rewarded for it. (Far too often, you won't be.) Don't do the right thing because you have to, whether because you know nothing else (Magic Knight Rayearth) or because someone else would punish you otherwise. Do the right thing because you want to. Do the right thing because it is the right thing.
Huh, I thought this would be about conflict more in general. Oh well. In any case, I mentioned scientific progress when I talked about Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. For my next article, I'm addressing that in more detail, and asking a very hard question: when should we tell the scientists "no more"?
Monday, May 5, 2008
Topping my list is Giant in the Playground Games. Aside from having a forum for discussion of all sorts of games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, GitP is also home to one of the best webcomics I've read, Order of the Stick. If you like parody comics that poke fun at roleplaying games, I highly recommend it.
Second on the list is The Nerd Report. This is another blog that was started at almost the same time mine was, and I took note of it. The people working on that blog are trying to create a news site for nerds, and since I'm one such, I thought that I'd gladly support them in that goal.
Following that is GameFAQs. I use this site whenever I need help with a video game. The site features guides contributed by really anyone for just about any game you can think of. I've always turned there first when I was looking for game help online, and I've usually gotten that help as well.
Finally, we have OneMoreLevel.com. This website is bascially a Flash game arcade, and there are quite a few games on there that I enjoy. If you want to waste some time playing Flash games online, that site is as good as any to find something to do.
Despite these many, varied Pokémon items, there are still games that keep to the original format. From the original Red and Blue versions, the games have gone through four generations. Each generation has added new Pokémon and changed the world that the game takes place in. Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl represent the newest games in the series that maintain the exploration, capture, and battle that Pokémon was built upon.
I first played Pokémon almost ten years ago, when Pokémon Blue was released in the U.S. in September of 1998. I’ve been enjoying the games of the Pokémon world ever since. The question now is: was the time I spent enjoying myself pointless entertainment? Or is there some meaning, some lesson I can take from my long years of game play?
As should be obvious, the answers to those questions aren’t simple. Looking back on how I played Pokémon, I’m forced to come to the conclusion that there’s more than one way to play the game.
When I was younger, first playing Pokémon Blue, I wasn’t exactly old enough to worry too much about such questions. I didn’t really worry about how I was playing the game either. I considered it a mark of pride that I could use my Wartortle, a Water-type Pokémon, to defeat the challenges of the third Gym, Lt. Surge’s Electric-type Gym. After all, since I was at a disadvantage, obviously I was good to be able to win with a disadvantage. The fact that my Wartortle was ten levels higher than all of the Gym Leader’s Pokémon didn’t strike me as odd, nor did I think about what that meant for my victory. I was playing the game, and I was enjoying myself. Certainly, there was nothing wrong in what I was doing. And yet, I wasn’t really getting everything I could out of the game.
Fast-forward to the release of Pokémon Diamond. I hadn’t played Pokémon games for almost four years, since I ignored the releases of FireRed, LeafGreen, and Emerald, along with the fact that I had finished and become bored with Sapphire shortly after its release. I picked up the game again, and this time I played very differently. Rather than using my starter Pokémon all of the time, and ignoring type advantages in favor of raw power, I trained every Pokémon on my team. I played using all six of the Pokémon I could have in my party, using my type advantages to overcome the opponents who were now higher level than I was.
The culmination of that was my battle against the Elite Four. (Although, why they don’t just call them the Elite Five is beyond me, since there’s always the Champion after the Elite Four.) That fight taught me how Lt. Surge felt. My Pokémon were constantly lower-level, and for the final two battles, I was facing at least a ten level disadvantage almost constantly. And the first time I fought them, I lost. I didn’t take that defeat too badly though. Actually, I had expected it the whole time. While I took on the Elite Four that first time, I was taking notes, though. They weren’t much more than “use this Pokémon against this enemy” repeated for the entire Elite Four, but that was enough. I was able to limit my losses and conserve my recovery items the second time through, and succeeded in defeating them.
What does that say about the value of the Pokémon games? In the end, Pokémon is a tactical battle game. To win, the player has to be able to either overpower the enemy or exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. Overpowering force isn’t hard, and I managed to enjoy myself using the same Pokémon over and over again. But that isn’t all that I got out of Pokémon in the end. When I came back to the game in high school, I took the second route. I focused on using the weaknesses of each Pokémon to find attacks that would be more effective. I had to plan out my actions and choices of attack to overcome the same overpowering force that I had used years ago.
I had to plan, and I had to think. Strategy and tactics are very important when one plays the game without overpowering force. Since then, I’ve built three different teams, including a Lv. 5 and under team that required a vast amount of planning and effort to create. I faced down a four-Pokémon team controlled by another human being, the issue here being that he had one level 100, two level 90, and one level 76 Pokémon to my six level 73 Pokémon. A seventeen-level disadvantage should not be overcome at all, especially not when there’s a human being directing those attacks, yet I nearly defeated him, and I still can say what I should have done differently to win the battle outright.
In the end, Pokémon has taught me about thinking and planning ahead, about strategy and tactics. What’s the most effective way for me to achieve this goal? How are we going to carry out this order? Answering those questions is fundamental regardless of what the goal is, whether it be the arbitrary target of a video game or the requirements of a job ten years in the future. Being able to make a plan, whether that plan is for a strategic challenge in a video game or a project assigned to a manager in a corporation, can only aid in becoming a better leader.
And I haven’t even begun to talk about the animated series or any of the movies. But those are subjects for another time. For my next article, I’ll take what I’ve seen in anything from anime to video games to address a fundamental human question: why do we fight?
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Friday, May 2, 2008
First of all, I'm still a student. I'll be going to college for the first time around the end of August 2008. I am definitely looking forward to the changes I'll be experiencing, starting out in college and learning more about the world. I can actually be eager about schoolwork, although the last few days of high school have pretty much destroyed my usual enthusiasm.
When I have free time, I usually unwind with video games, computer games, etc. Hence the title of the blog. Although, I also enjoy reading science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and similar fare. And not all of my games are electronic; I also enjoy pencil-and-paper roleplaying games. That is to say, Dungeons and Dragons. Finally, I watch some TV, although I'm sure it's much less than the norm for my generation. I definitely prefer using my TV for videogames. When I do watch TV, it's for cartoons or the Discovery Channel. I also have a few DVDs, almost all of which are anime. However, my lesiure time activities will get a lot more attention later.
I am solidly liberal, and when I actually do turn 18 I'll definitely be a Democrat. Fair warning to anyone who doesn't want to read a liberal's opinion. Although, I'd like to believe that my political leanings will be irrelevant to the things I'll be talking about.
And on that note: what I'm generally going to make this blog about. Quick note, though: I don't plan on holding to a schedule or entirely devoting myself to one topic. I plan on trying to get something new every month, and I'll see if that needs to change. Neither is every post going to be in the same general category; although I do have a focus, I'll gladly comment on anything that I particularly want to write about.
Caveats aside, now I'll really get to my focus. Basically, this is how I feel: video games, computer games, anime, any form of contemporary entertainment, really, gets the short end of the stick in the world at large. Video games are denounced as a waste of time and effort, especially. I've heard this opinion from more than one teacher or adult, that games are nothing but juvenile entertainment. If one believed all of the hype from some groups, one would never watch TV again for fear of being irrevocably poisoned. The movies, TV shows, games, and books that are being produced today inspire violence, witchcraft, escapism, and sloth. How is the world going to survive the relentless tide of younger people growing up under these influences?
Well, I won't deny that video games are entertainment, and I certainly won't deny that they've had an influence on people. What I question is just how bad that influence is. Will all of my forms of entertainment really destroy me? I highly doubt it. In fact, I firmly believe that I've developed a little with Mario and Pikachu. While video games, computer games, (most) TV and movies, certainly are entertainment, that doesn't mean that I can't learn something from them anyway. That's what I plan on exploring in this blog: what lessons have been learned from or reinforced by my chosen forms of entertainment? I've had more than enough of talking about theme, meaning, and all of the like in English class, but what happens when I turn those analytical techniques to movies, TV shows, or video games?
I've already given it some thought, so I know where I'm going to start. My next article will address a ten-year phenomenon, in the words of Wikipedia "the second most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world": Pokémon!