Thursday, May 17, 2012

Moral Humility

This is one of my favorite TED talks.

Humility, moral or any other kind, is hard. But necessary.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Have the Geeks Won?

Freddie deBoer writes that geeks need to stop playing the victim card because they've won.

The success of the Avengers is only a small part of a broader phenomenon: the rise of “geek culture” as the single most powerful force, commercial and cultural, in the art and media landscape. The major genres and media once consigned to the realm of geek or nerd culture, such as science fiction, high fantasy, comic books, and video games now dominate both in terms of commercial success and popular attention. They are simply unavoidable. Year in and year out, the most highly promoted and widest opening blockbuster films come from broader geek culture. Superhero movies have become so ubiquitous that filmmaker demand is outstripping the supply of comic book characters that could plausibly carry a movie. (Jonah Hexx happened for a reason.) Coverage of video games is now prevalent in general-purpose newspapers and magazines. Television shows like Game of Thrones and Grimm bring Dungeons and Dragons-inflected fantasy—once a bridge too far even for many genre fiction fans— to a large audience. Even the traditionally high-brow cultural media, publications like the New York Times and The New Yorker, devote more attention to sci-fi and superheroes than they do to opera, orchestral music, and ballet.

Yet despite this dominance, there remains a remarkable sensitivity towards perceived slights among these genres’ most dedicated fans.

It's a good essay. I wonder where this feeling comes from. As deBoer points out, it wasn't that long ago that geeky things weren't taken quite as seriously as they are today. However, I don't think it's proximity to the recent past that is fueling the aggrievement. My guess is that it comes down to two things.

One, on a large scale, geeks may have won. I don't think the same can be said on the individual level. A pasty-white, math genius who loves Dungeons and Dragons is a lot more likely to get teased and picked on and bullied than the star quarterback. It's hard to proclaim that geeks have won when you're getting shoved into lockers on a regular basis.

Two, geeks are still portrayed as sort of oddball losers in many forms of media. Not in every show and movie, of course, but in many. People are good at taking portrayals of their group in media and making it their own whether or not it matches their own experiences.

These are just a couple of off the cuff thoughts I had while reading deBoer's essay and not any sort of rigorously thought out ideas. Maybe I'll think differently tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Lowest Difficulty Setting

John Scalzi, sci-fi author and blogger extraordinaire, wrote a post analogizing being a straight, white male to the lowest difficulty setting in life.

Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

It's a good analogy. What I find most fascinating, though, are the comments. Plenty of SWMs pop-in to cry foul and "what has being a SWM ever done for me?!?!"

Many SWMs listen to someone talk about the privilege they have and immediately cry foul which is why Scalzi avoids using the word in his analogy. "I was born poor," they say. "I've contracted cancerAIDS," they say. "Some minority got a job instead of me just because of Affirmative Action," they say. Naturally they miss the point. Scalzi is not saying that being a SWM is a guarantee of riches and an easy life. He's saying that it gives you a leg up. Of course a SWM is (usually) still going to have to put some effort into life to get ahead. It's just that it won't typically have to be as much as someone who is, say a gay, Arabic woman. More doors open more easily for SWM than they do for people who are not.

The larger point that Scalzi is making is that the people who are privileged, the SWMs, need to be aware of this. Being aware doesn't mean needing to feel guilty or to run around making apologies for what they were granted by accident of birth. It means understanding that others have not been granted the same. It means asking, "What can I do, what can we do as a society to reduce the privilege gap so that all people have the same opportunity (not the same outcome) for success.

This is not a simple problem by any means and it's not something that will be solved overnight even if everyone agreed that it was a problem that needed solving. There are still people out there who think white supremacy is a good thing. But the first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging that there is one. That's what Scalzi's post aims at doing in the clever way he's so good at.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Town Outlaws Texting While Walking

File under "Annals of the Ludicrous." A New Jersey town has outlawed texting while walking.

Pedestrians in Fort Lee, New Jersey will have to stop to text, following the passage of a new law that imposes $85 fines on walkers caught texting. Fort Lee Police Chief Thomas Ripoli cited numbers of pedestrian crashes to support the ban: Last year there were 74 crashes involving pedestrians; three pedestrians were killed this year, according to The Record's

“It’s a big distraction. Pedestrians aren’t watching where they are going and they are not aware,” Ripoli said during an announcement of the ban.

Following a brief warning period, New Jersey police began issuing fines to distracted walkers near the end of March, with more than 117 violations recorded to date.

This sounds like an excuse to collect money from the citizenry. Sure, distracted walkers are getting into accidents and getting killed, but how is criminalizing it going to solve the problem? Oh, that's right. When we ban things as with alcohol or drugs, no one uses them anymore. Got it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

An Enterprise in 20 Years?

An engineer is saying that if we dedicate the resources, we could have our own starship in twenty years.

In Star Trek lore, the first Starship Enterprise will be built by the year 2245. But today, an engineer has proposed — and outlined in meticulous detail — building a full-sized, ion-powered version of the Enterprise complete with 1G of gravity on board, and says it could be done with current technology, within 20 years.

"We have the technological reach to build the first generation of the spaceship known as the USS Enterprise — so let's do it," writes the curator of the Build The Enterprise website, who goes by the name of BTE Dan.

This "Gen1" Enterprise could get to Mars in 90 days, to the moon in three, and "could hop from planet to planet dropping off robotic probes of all sorts en masse — rovers, special-built planes and satellites,” BTE Dan says.

I'd by lying if I said that this doesn't make me feel giddy. This guy isn't some dreamer, either. He actually is an engineer. He's got plans on the website for the ship including plans for funding the endeavor.

The importance of dreaming big cannot be understated. Dreams inspire us to achieve new heights, to strive for better things. They challenge us to be better than we are today. Without dreams we stagnate. NASA inspired so many people back in the 60s and 70s, but it has lost that these days. Just check out this recent Onion headline: "NASA Announces Plans to Put Man on Bus to Cleveland." How sad that it has fallen so far.

There are a lot of anti-science people out there and there's a lot of people out there who argue that "we shouldn't spend money on space stuff until we fix our problems down here." Guess what? There will always be problems here on Earth.

We are humans, imperfect constructs. We have messy feelings and emotions and an inability to perfectly reason. That's not going to go away. But dreaming big and aspiring to new heights will help us solve problems. Look at this list of technologies that came out of the space race. And that's just the start! It's hard to overestimate what the drive for space technology did for those of us stuck on terra firma. A new push for space will have the same effects. It will inspire new scientists in all sorts of fields.

Maybe this specific project isn't the answer. Or maybe it is. The sad fact is that there is far too little talk of space exploration. Check out his website, though. Check out NASA's website. Bug your Congressional representatives to fund more space exploration. Make your kids watch Star Trek. Inspire them.

Updated Blogroll

I just updated my blogroll over on the right hand side of the screen. I try to read a variety of stuff from around the spectrum. And it's all interesting. It makes me think which is the requirement for any blog I read. Check 'em out. They're worth your time.

Battling Robots During the Inevitable Uprising

This is crucial information. I hope you're taking notes.