Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A Baloney Detection Kit

An excellent short video as an introduction to sceptical thinking.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Did Darwin Kill God?

For as long as there has been recorded history, there have been gods. Some gods go back into pre-history, carried on through tribal cultures such as the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime myths, and among other things gods in some form are pretty much a constant in any society around the world. In western civilisation, but one deity has been the central figure of explanation and that deity was born out of the desert sands of Israel and over time evolved into a universal figure. What we call God is the beacon of anti-reason atheists have sought to defeat in the memeosphere. Nietzsche pronounced "God is dead" in 1882, but the question remains as to who killed God, if God is even dead at all that is.

Der tolle Mensch
It should be quite obvious that I feel God is indeed dead. There was once a time where God was alive, but was killed as better explanations came into place. Believers who cling to God seem akin to either Weekend At Bernies where God's death is being hidden for fear of the perceived consequences, or of a gorilla refusing to give up on a dead child. Maybe God's ghost is haunting us, or the apparitions of God are still being seen by those unaware of God's death.

What is apologetics but the admission of God's death? Even to the most casual observer, it appears that God is missing and has been for a long time. Gone are the days when his direct presence was known, no more fighting alongside armies or unleashing plagues to protect his 'chosen' people. Some still feel the presence of God, that fleeting touch where the senses fail. Might as well say that aliens are molesting our minds (indeed some do), relatively it's a far more credible hypothesis. Which of course is not saying much at all. When push comes to shove, there is nothing that a believer can point to as a sign of life for God. Quoting from the bible is reading God's obituary, a relic of the past that shows that one time God was alive.

God was very much alive through the childhood of our intellectual ascent. Before being able to ask the grander questions regarding reality, God served to guide us through the dark ages; a place holder for the knowledge that was to come as our species grew up. Indeed, God was alive the same way Tyler Durden was in Fight Club: A reflection of ourselves, of what we truly desire to be and to feel in control over what seems to be a situation we cannot get out of. We created God in our own image, the scanner we used to view God was but a mirror. God is indeed dead.

Confessing a murder
It seems almost human to want to put significance into one idea, or more specifically one person, that changed the course of human events. In the case of the casting off of God, it's only human to want to know what moment caused the paradigm shift in the way we view reality. The theory of evolution stands as a potential candidate, especially seeing how much the idea is so strongly opposed in certain circles. It is but one explanation in the scientific literature, but one that touches a very important element of who we are and how we came to be. It seems the prime candidate, but...

...even when the idea first came out, it was accepted in some religious circles. Many theists today support evolution at least in some capacity, even if many still think that God plays a role in the process. Evidentially one can be a believer and a supporter of evolution. But is this but a gorilla holding a dead baby? I would argue that it is no more a God-killer than germ theory or any other scientific theory. Evolution could very well be God's way of giving upgrades (as Francis Collins humorously put it on The Colbert Report).

This idea would predate Darwin if indeed science is the killer of God. It would go back to the likes of Kepler and Galileo, the two who put mathematics to observation to confirm the Copernican model of heliocentrism. Galileo stands out because of the trial for heresy, whereby the Catholic Church made the stand that the word of God and not the findings of man are what matters. If science killed God, then it was the 17th century priests and not the 19th century aspiring clergyman who made the first incision. One by one the pillars of God have fallen to scientific knowledge, and the theist has been forced to retreat to a position where God is but a breaker of supersymmetry and a crafter of protocells.

If only the Church had listened to Augustine of Hippo back in the 5th century, one who separated biblical and scientific knowledge. The conflict between faith and modern scientific thought only highlights the pettiness of belief among the faithful. But to this kind of revelation came Hume, and his scepticism forever did away with the ability to know based on anecdotes; that no evidence would ever be sufficient to qualify a miracle. But God could have survived further, being the creator of consciousness.

To those who wish it be true that Darwin killed God, there simply is no need to say so. His theory is wide-reaching in consequence, but it was but one of many blows to the special creator that God once was. Laplace in early 19th century was able to do away with God, long before Darwin came on the scene. In his famous reply to Napoleon as to why he left out God from his work on the universe
'Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.' (I had no need for that hypothesis)

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Humble Controller

Gaming has come a long way in the last 20 years or so. As technology has gotten better, games have become more complex in order to handle them. As someone who mainly games on PC, I've been largely protected from the change in design that has come from the change in controllers. Now this is set to come to an end apparently. There's a push towards more interactivity, revolutionising the interface between game and user and thus revolutionising gaming. Project Natal sure does look promising, but will it really revolutionise the way we game, or is it just another gimmick?

Novelty over substance
A few years ago, my youngest brother got the Eye Toy for Christmas. Great, it was so much fun... for about a day. Then it didn't get played with much after that. The novelty had worn off, and it turned out there was no substance behind the game at all. A new, revolutionary way of gaming? Yes. It just wasn't that fun beyond the initial gimmick. But sown in that product were the seeds of the future, one only has to look at the success of the Wii to see this. But again it seems the novelty is getting in the way of substance. I found not long after getting my hands on a Wii I rarely touched it.

And that's where Project Natal seemed to suffer as well. Is this new controller going to offer substance gameplay? I hope so for its sake. It seemed to me that it was just novelty over substance, though only time will tell. Then again, it may just be that I'm not the right audience for such a product. This might be the means to get gaming mainstream, or at the very least make parents feel that their children at getting at least a bit of exercise. But as far as that announcement went, it was all gimmick with very little in the way of indicators that it can really bring a revolution with it.

Novelty sells, there's no denying it. And it can bring about innovation in the industry so even the most jaded gamer would not deny its importance. But there is somewhat of a concern that by putting so much focus on novelty that it detracts from the substance. The way we interact is what sets the games apart from other mediums of art, the control is vital for immersion. Yet making the interface more life-like does not necessarily mean a more immerse experience. There may actually be a purpose for having so many buttons after all.

Irreversible complexity
One thing that sets humans apart from our ape brethren is the fine motor skills between eyes and hands. Our dexterity comes at a cost (such as weakened wrists), but it cannot be denied how useful hand-eye coordination is to us today. The point is that using our hands as an interface is already very natural, having a controller that takes into account the complexity and dexterity that comes from the fingers is essential.

To use an analogy, think of the way you learned to type. If it were anything like me, first it was a matter of key hunting with just the index fingers. Then slowly other fingers became involved in the process, and soon there became zones. Eventually it led to being able to type a few hundred meaningful keystrokes a minute without so much as even looking down. Half the keys have worn off my keyboard yet it doesn't matter in the slightest. Practice makes perfect.

In this sense, for the beginner picking up a controller Spielberg may be onto something when he says that a controller is intimidating. And maybe there moving towards more humble beginnings in order to get them more used to gaming could be like having them learn to type one finger at a time. But as for those who are skilled, using a controller really can't be bested. And for gaming, there is a necessity to put in enough complexity into an interface because games need complex input. Because humans have a finite memory and but a few buttons, this requires creativity to map the interface between different actions.

The necessity for precision
It remains to be seen just what optical or aural input will add to the gaming landscape. In terms of efficiency, a hand-oriented controller is both natural (well as natural as any artificial device could be) and precise. Getting into the world of heuristics will only decrease precision, losing the accuracy of input is detrimental to gaming. I think of all the times I tried to do a simple tap-in on Wii Sports Golf where the ball ended up on the other side of the green, or when I tried to frantically draw a star in Black and White which the pattern-recognition identified as a house.

Maybe Project Natal will be revolutionary, maybe we are finally at the stage where we have sufficiently advanced hardware to take on the complexity of what is being promised. After all, only a few years ago the Wii promised to do the same thing, and in my opinion under-delivered. Controllers may be restricting, but they have been designed and redesigned for the last 20 years to give an optimal experience. It may not be interactive, but it does the job it was made for and does it well.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Ethics Of Meat-Eating

Creating a bit of an open thread (if that is possible) about whether eating meat is right or wrong. To lay out my position: I eat meat. I don't have much discrimination when it comes to meat, I will try new meats when possible. Death is a natural part of the life cycle, any animal that is born will die. Life is a struggle, one that involves mass suffering - all for the slim chance of passing on genetic material to the next generation. Livestock are fed and protected by us. Their existence is relatively suffering-free compared to if they were in the wild looking for food. They even get to pass on their genetic code, and the cost? Dinner on my table.

To me, it's important to remember that these species are protected and are in a symbiotic relationship with us. We need our livestock and produce in order to survive, and they benefit from our protection. Yes, they suffer in death - just as all life does. But in its death, it helps sustain life. Do away with this bond and there is no more protection for the sheep or pig.

But to bring this to the issue of suffering. Can we needlessly cause suffering in order to sustain ourselves? I believe that we have to, in order for us to survive there is going to be suffering on account of other life. All the forests we have to devastate in order to plant our crops, we destroy the homes and food sources of other life in order to feed ourselves. Other life will die in order for us to survive.

But does that mean we have to treat animals cruelly? I would argue not. We can treat animals humanely and still put them on a dinner plate. Giving them an open environment in which to live, ensuring they have plentiful food sources and protection from predators - and at the final stages ensuring a) a quick death and b) use of as much of the animal as possible, these are ways in order to recognise the existence of their other animals and their role in the cycle of life. It would be naive to think that we can eliminate the suffering from any process of sustaining ourselves, but to minimise the suffering is what seems the goal.

Yes we can recognise that animals suffer in the process. It comes down to this for me: if an animal walked up to your house and there it died through a pure accident, would it be ethical to eat it? If that is so, then it means that the killing component of meat-eating is the concern as opposed to the meat-eating itself. If that is the case, if we killed in a manner that is much more instant and minimised suffering, then would there be an objection from vegetarians on the notion of suffering? It's fine to point at factory farming as a great injustice, but does that decry the whole endeavour of meat eating? Should we be looking towards giving animals a more hospitable environment and a more painless death, or should the whole endeavour be discarded?

Anyway, anyone who wants to tear down the world of meat-eating, go ahead. Free for all, I'm putting my beliefs on the line.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Webcomics For The Programmer

Some of these are just hilarious - at least from a programmer's perspective.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

DNF? Did Not Finish

I suppose this event was inevitable and has been for about a decade now. What began in April 1997 has ended on May 8th of this year, Duke Nukem Forever has been cancelled. 12 years of development on a single game and in the end there are but a few screen shots and leaked gameplay videos to show for it. 12 years to develop what was a sequel to a First Person Shooter that was great because of novelty. I remember playing the shareware of Duke 3D back as a 12 year old and it was fun. Wasn't the greatest FPS even at the time, but it was still an enjoyable experience. Combine Duke's action-hero persona with 2.5d gore and pixelated stripper boobies and there's recipe for success. A sequel would surely be on the cards, possibly leading to a great franchise of games.

A lot has changed in first person shooter gaming since 1997. The Quake engine revolutionised 3D, as did the Unreal Engine. Half-Life showed the quality of story and gameplay that could be achieved in the genre, while the mod Counterstrike changed online FPS gaming. Deus Ex and System Shock 2 brought RPG elements to the FPS world and again brought about change. Then there were the likes of Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament ushering in the idea of multiplayer. As network costs came down, then the likes of Battlefield 1942 brought about even further changes. Now consoles are a target market, taking away the monopoly that PCs had on the genre, and online multiplayer is pretty much a standard part of gaming experience.

12 years, so much has changed. The gaming landscape is radically different. I wonder how much the initial design has changed to accommodate the shift in gaming standards? Was DNF envisioned to be a revolutionary shooter for it's time? What did it lose? What did it gain? It would be hard to imagine that the only thing that got an upgrade in that time was the graphics engine, DN's core audience has moved on, and there's a whole new gaming audience out there with different expectations and experiences. Action heroes on the screen these days aren't in that mould anymore, he would be an anachronism by today's standards.

Though this event was inevitable, there was still a part of me that wanted to play this game. And there was a part of that which secretly hoped that this game would blow me the fuck away. It can't not, a developer puts in a decade and millions of dollars into a production and there's inevitably going to be the hype that this would be the event to end all events; that Duke would come and rock our socks off. Maybe the developers knew this hype too, maybe that hype got to them. If they released it any time at all, if it wasn't the greatest gaming event in the history of FPS then it would be considered a waste of effort.

The reaction of the gaming community seems to be one of slightly disgruntled apathy, those few gameplay snippets have emerged were encouraging enough that the game had potential, but the game itself has been nothing more than an in-joke amongst gamers for about a decade now. This event has finally come to be, and I guess in a way its eventual demise is better than playing a stock-standard FPS that lost its cultural relevance a decade ago. It might have been great, it could have blown us away. But all that we are left with is speculation and claims of incompetence among staff at 3D Realms. Was it over-ambition? Technical incompetence? Competitors releasing genre-changing products? I guess we will never know, short of a Gamasutra post-mortem on the whole experience.

So goodbye Duke. I couldn't wait forever, and neither could it seem the gaming community or those funding the enterprise. Maybe in a parallel universe, quantum physics means that in that alternate reality a copy was released and maybe it really was the best gaming experience of all time. But in this reality, we now will never know.

Monday, 1 June 2009


Another abortion clinic doctor has been murdered, shot in the lobby of the church where he worshipped. This is a lamentable loss of life, a tragedy that someone found the need to forfeit the life of another. What I really don't get is why people who spend their time protesting abortion clinics call themselves pro-life. They aren't pro-life at all, they simply are anti-abortion; perhaps at best they are pro-foetus. But in terms of actually being for protecting the survival of life, the effort is greatly misdirected.

So much time and effort is going into stopping abortion, protesting and harassing people for doing their job and condemning those who use the service. Whether abortion is moral or ethical, the fact remains that it is legal. So to harass and intimidate those who work at a clinic or those who use the practice is a bad way of going about things. Are we not civil? Protesting doesn't have to use intimidation, and to punish the staff or even the customers for use of a legal service is contrary to the notion of an open society. Yes, they have the right to protest, but actions have consequences. Asking for moral decency from those claiming the moral high-ground surely isn't too much to ask for. What is that slogan again? Hate the sin, not the sinner.

35 million people starve to death every year, many more are killed through conflicts and natural disasters, then there is preventable illness as well. Would anyone seriously argue that mass starvation where children are suffering down to their last breath is a less of an evil than abortion itself? At best one could argue that these are equal evils, that sin is sin regardless of severity. But to argue that abortion is a great evil while there are millions of people who don't even get the bare minimum sustenance seems like a misguided effort. The money and effort that the pro-life movement could be put to far better use feeding those who are suffering and dying. So why isn't this the case?

I was recently speaking to a philosopher friend on the matter, and he mentioned that it was not that abortion was any more an evil than starving children, but that it was universally recognised that starving children was an evil. There's no point in protesting against starvation because there is no need to get awareness about the issue out there. In effect, there is no moral high-ground in taking a view that is unanimously held. While that time spent protesting could have been used to raise money to help bring better farming practices to those countries in need - trying to get the issue in the political spotlight and getting governments to act in order to bring a sustainable future to the most vulnerable people on the planet, instead the practice of protesting is to make one feel morally superior. Actually doing something beyond that? Well that would get in the way of personal satisfaction.

If one really wanted to get the number of abortions down, then it seems the best means of doing so is to try to emulate societies that have low abortion rates. And in terms of low teen pregnancy, one needs look no further than the Netherlands. That's right, the country that is known for its red light district and pot-selling coffee shops has one of the lowest teen pregnancy and abortion rates in the world. So why is this the case? By all indications, this comes down to having a comprehensive sex education system. They have the highest contraceptive use among teenagers in Europe.

So what does that suggest? To me, if these "pro-life" people really cared about preventing abortion, then the focus should be on educating people. Forego the abstinence-only education and pushing sex-before-marriage as a sin. It's not working, the huge teen pregnancy rate in the US is testament to that. The fact is that teenagers are having sex, so if stopping abortion is what they really want to achieve, then following a model that allows for the severe reduction in abortion seems to be the best way to achieve that. Stop putting children in the dark about sexuality, give them advice on how to use contraception because it should be obvious to anyone that the current model is not working.

But that would be pragmatic, and I have a feeling that this issue is never about actually doing something useful to limit abortions. If this is about feeling morally superior then the anti-abortion movement makes sense. But it's almost impossible to reconcile the behaviour of those who protest abortion but on the same token reject the notion of actually educating children about sex. What do they honestly think is going to happen when information they receive comes through hearsay as opposed from those who actually are in the know? But this issue is not about that, it's about feeling morally-superior as opposed to doing something useful.