Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Daily Life of a Pokémon Trainer

Yeah, interestingly enough, that’s something that even the most dedicated of Pokémon fans know very little about. In the games themselves, it makes very little mention of distances or of time spent traveling, and the day-night cycle is based on the real world’s time. (The alternative is a system like that in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, where a certain amount of real time, measured in minutes, caused an hour to pass in the game’s world.)

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

The Price of Hatred

I just finished reading the newest Drizzt Do’Urden book, The Orc King. Truly, R. A. Salvatore is a master of his craft, and I have always enjoyed reading the many books he’s written over the years. And not only for the simple pleasure of combat against monsters that so often appears in fantasy stories, but also for the more complex moral issues that his books have been developing recently.

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

Cool new stuff

Just wanted to post out of my schedule to let people know about some new things that I have. I'm adding a few new links, and I have a new capability as well.

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

What Can't Be Seen...

One of the enduring mysteries of science is the person sitting three rows away on the train. Seriously. As much as we know about the form and function of a human body, how close are we to an artificial creation that is the equivalent of one? Honestly enough, I’m not all that sure; I don’t keep up that well with current scientific developments. I’m pretty sure that the biggest hurdle to such a creation, however, is the mind.

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.