Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The worlds inside my head

Maybe it's the weather, but I'm not really in any mood to write coherently. Nonetheless, there's something I want to say, so I'll just go with the flow and hope you can forgive things like rambling, poor organization, and general incoherence. Let's start off with a little question: what's real? There are various different answers, of course. I don't know whether there's such a thing as objective reality -- in fact, it might well be impossible to know whether there is. I take it as an axiom that everything I know (or think I know) is based on my perceptions -- I don't believe in a priori knowledge. So, not "I think, therefore I am", but rather "I can hear myself think, therefore I am".

Then let's forget about objective reality for the moment. Subjectively speaking, what is real? I've already begged the question -- I'm assuming that my subjective reality is determined by my perceptions. Now, of course, I have a problem, because I perceive things all the time that are, intuitively at least, not real. I might think I heard someone call my name, or misread a word, or dream. What then? The first answer that comes to mind is that, for the moment, even those illusions are real. It's not until I realize I was wrong, until I wake up, that I'm able to perceive the difference between what I thought was true and what was actually true, and until I perceive that difference, it doesn't exist. If I start hallucinating and never stop, that hallucination is my new reality.

The upshot of this is that I believe it's reasonable to say that a completely convincing imaginary world is no more or less real than what we think of as actual reality. For instance, suppose that telepresence* technology advances to the point where I can't tell the difference between meeting someone in person and meeting them through teleconferencing. Then it doesn't seem all that crazy to say that I've met someone "in real life", even if I haven't actually physically been in the same room with them. In mathematics, this is called extensionality -- two functions are extensionally equal if when given the same input they give the same output. I'm sure there's a nice philosophical term for it too, but I don't know what it is.

If you guessed that all of this was just an excuse to fantasize about future technology, you'd be more than half right. From this perspective, an AI capable of passing the Turing Test is basically human, and sufficiently realistic augmented or virtual reality is just as good as actual reality. Bringing it back to the present day, consensual hallucinations like the Internet actually exist, not just as side effects of networks and displays, but as parallel worlds generated by the belief of their users. Less convincing illusions like the worlds inside of novels and movies are slightly less real, little toy worlds in our heads that we can start, stop, rewind, and reshape to some extent. The more the world seems to have an existence of its own, independent of the will of the perceiver, the stronger the illusion -- and thus the reality -- of reality. There's no magical line past which a virtual world suddenly pops into existence; rather, it was there all the time, slowly growing more real as it became more convincing. No matter its substrate -- atoms, words on a page, bits in a computer's memory -- if it seems real to me, then it is real to me.

I've run out of steam for the moment, but I greatly enjoy thinking about this topic, so I'm sure you'll hear about it again if you stay tuned. Again, my apologies for the incoherence.

*Telepresence, as sci-fi as it sounds, is just a fancy word for real-time communication methods such as telephone, video conferencing, instant messaging, etc., that allow people to give the impression of "being present from a distance".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My faces are many, my sides are not few

For whatever reason, the first line of this little rhyme popped into my head this morning. The full rhyme is "my faces are many, my sides are not few; I'm the Dodecahedron, and who are you?", and it's from the truly amazing children's book The Phantom Tollbooth. It's a story about a boy who finds himself transported to a world with no rhyme or reason (literally; Rhyme and Reason are princesses who've vanished from the land), where the king of words and the king of numbers are constantly at war. Eventually the boy reconciles them by proving that there is something they agree on, and brings Rhyme and Reason back to the land. It's safe to say that this book (and the associated movie) was one of the pillars of my childhood. Aside from being full of delightful word games and puzzles and such, it's a perfect allegory for the rational/emotional divide I've been talking about (see, it's not just me). The moral, of course, is that the world makes no sense if we try to separate qualitative and quantitative thought; by thinking of them two aspects of the same mind, rhyme and reason are restored. Anyway, philosophical lessons aside, it's a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it even if you're not a child.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

an idea

Recently a certain idea has been spinning around in my head. I think I want to try to build a steampunk-themed RPG, particularly inspired by the books of China Mieville (who, by the way, is an awesome writer). It'll probably be mostly based on D&D, since that's what I'm most familiar with, but there'll definitely be significant changes. For a variety of reasons, projects like this that I start are almost never finished, but maybe it'll be different this time. Anyway, I'll record my thoughts here as they come, and we'll see what comes out of it.

The most important thing about a steampunk RPG is that the focus should be very different from that of a normal D&D-type game. In D&D, most problems can be solved by quests, and in particular by fighting. In a steampunk world, most problems can be solved by science, and fighting is what happens when things go wrong. I'd like to make a system in which combat is as simple as possible, and science (research, invention, etc.) is as deep and complex as combat is in D&D. This seems to me like a fairly ambitious goal, and I have only the faintest idea so far of how I'd accomplish it.

Of course, if I'm going to make an RPG, I'm going to have to come up with a set of basic attributes. I'm far too picky to stick with the classic six-stat system, or any eight-stat, three-stat, or other pre-existing system; I'm going to have to come up with my own. In particular, I think I'm going to throw out the traditional balance between physical and mental abilities; people's brains are more complex, more varied, and more useful than their bodies, particularly in a steampunk setting. So right now I'm thinking of either five or six attributes: two physical, three or four mental. Physical would have to be something like strength and dexterity; mental must at least include intelligence, creativity, and self-expression. (I wonder if I'm the first to suggest the inclusion of a creativity stat?)

Next up are character classes. I know, not every game has to have classes, but even free skill-based games like Shadowrun end up with characters that conform to certain basic archetypes. You have your fighter, of course, your adventurer, with weird weapons and gear, who provides the muscle and the grit for dangerous undertakings. (There's a great Mieville quote about adventurers that I'd love to put here, but I left my Perdido Street Station at home.) You have your scientist, your mad inventor, with a head full of chemistry and biothaumaturgy, or whatever obscure branches of pseudo-science attract your interest. You have your socialite, your artist, writer, painter, or sculptor, politically active, reads the local seditious newsrag, knows all the cafes. You have your thief, your criminal mastermind or street thug, who knows the underworld, does the dirty jobs, can get you anything from anywhere if you're willing to pay the price. And you have your engineer, your craftsman, your blacksmith or glassblower or golem repairman, who can turn a scribbled blueprint and a page of equations into a real working gadget. It seems to me that at the very least, a steampunk game (or at least a Mieville-inspired one) needs to support characters like these.

From these rantings, maybe you can get an idea of what I'm thinking of. Unless I forget about it altogether in the next week, expect to hear more about this, and perhaps even some actual mechanics. Oh, and if you're not an RPer, feel free to ignore this and related posts. It's just something I do in my spare time. You should still read China Mieville, though, because he's awesome.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Musings on a rainy day and Japan

It's hard to feel enthusiastic about anything on a day like this. It's grey and drizzly, the sky a single sheet of cloud. It reminds me of the weather the day I first arrived in Japan. The sky was solid white, so smooth I could hardly believe it was cloud - it was as if above us was metal plate, painted to vaguely resemble sky, from some future dystopia. And in fact, people often compare Japan to the imagined future. It's not just that Japan controls most of the consumer electronics market, has produced more than its share of technological innovations, and has the most sophisticated toilets in the world. There's a sense, in this consensually homogenous society where the police don't carry guns because the criminals don't either, that this country has moved on beyond the troubles of our still-developing first world.

This isn't true, of course. In some ways, Japan remains fixed in the past. The same political party has ruled, with only minor interruptions, since 1955, and it's solidly center-right. Nativism is at least as strong in Japan as in the US. Leading politicians still spend their time rewriting the events of World War II. Entrance exams are still the primary determinant of college admissions, and employers who look at little more than school name on a diploma provide a powerful disincentive to study abroad. Is Japan a country caught between contesting forces, or a new-age synthesis of tradition and modernity? Or are these both dualistic illusions? I certainly don't know. But both as a case study of the modern world, and as a lens through which to view our own societal development, I think that Japanese society is a fascinating subject. I'm sure I'll have occasion to write more about it in the future.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dye your hair, and you too can be a superhero!

*switches gears* The traditional style of anime doesn't leave much room for distinguishing characteristics. Given that all faces are drawn more or less the same way in a given show (and often across shows), that choices in clothing may be limited by considerations like uniforms, and that anime faces are generally blank outside of the eyes, nose, and mouth, eye and hair color (and hair style) are some of the very few ways in which a character's individual personality can be portrayed in a design. (It might or might not be relevant to point out that this is often true in Japanese society as well, where dress codes at school and work limit the opportunities for self-expression through physical appearance.) As a result of this, there seem to be certain conventions dictating how a character's eye and hair color reflect his/her personality. (As a side note, the smoothness of most anime faces makes distinguishing marks stand out that much more; for instance, the freckle below his left(?) eye is a huge factor in making Vash the Stampede's appearance so distinctive and memorable.) Through a considerable amount of "research", I've come to some hypotheses on the relation between personality traits and particular hair colors. Believe them at your own risk. (Also note: many of these theories are heavily influenced by Evangelion. I think this is reasonable, since much of anime is also heavily influenced by Evangelion.)

brown: Somewhat surprisingly, brown seems to be the default color for ordinary Japanese people in anime. Even in movies like "My Neighbor Totoro", where character designs are fairly realistic, half of Satsuki's classmates have brown hair. Because of this, a main character will almost never have brown hair, unless he/she is meant to be an everyday person (caught up in events beyond his/her understanding, most likely).

blond: Blond characters tend to be cheerful and flippant, and often not too smart. They're usually class clowns or sidekicks. Of course, blond is also the default Western hair color in anime; I don't think these two are related, though I could be wrong.

red: Similar to the Western stereotype, red-haired characters tend to be energetic, outgoing, and quick to anger. (See Asuka.) This is only true of bright red or red-orange, though; crimson-haired characters are more likely to be serious, even grim.

black: Black is, to make a vast generalization, the Japanese hair color, and black-haired characters tend to hold to traditional Japanese values; they're usually serious and diligent. Drawing a character with long black hair is one of the quickest ways to indicate beauty (especially when the art style makes *everyone* look pretty).

blue: Oddly enough, dark blue seems to be considered a pretty normal color, like black and brown. I really have no idea of where this came from, but as far as I've seen blue-haired characters tend to fit into the "everyday guy" category. Of course, this doesn't extend to light blue, which is largely confined to hyperactive, silly people and Ayanami Rei knockoffs (no offense intended, some of my favorite anime characters are Ayanami Rei knockoffs).

pink: As in the West, pink is a very feminine color in anime, and pink-haired characters are almost uniformly girlish and naive. There are very few assertive characters with pink hair out there, and when it's done it's usually intentionally reversing the stereotype.

white/grey/silver: White-haired characters are usually serene, otherworldly, and mysterious. (See Kaworu.) It's pretty rare to have a white-haired main character, since a main character is expected to be more emotionally dynamic. Of course, this only applies to young characters with white hair; on elderly characters, I don't think it means anything in particular.

That's all I've come up with so far, but I think it's pretty interesting, and holds surprisingly often. Please post with questions, comments, or counter-examples; after all, this is science! Well, social science. Maybe. Not that I know anything about social science.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the nature of nature

A lot of my ideas on what I call dualism (it's possible that nobody else calls it that) come out of an ecology class I once took, in which I learned, among other things, that 1) anything and everything can be thought of in terms of ecology, and 2) the word "unecological" can be used as a scathing insult. I didn't buy wholeheartedly into the professor's philosophy, and I still don't now, but one thing I took away from the class was that people tend to understand things by splitting them into two groups, and then taking sides. This is unecological. The distinctions between between Western and Eastern cultures, between animals and machines, between Us and Them are never quite as sharp as we'd like them to be. For some reason, this inspired me. So, I made dualism my enemy (which, now that I think of it, is rather dualistic of me). I decided that it would be fun to promote greater understanding by, whenever I had the chance, demonstrating that two things people tend to think of as separate are actually inseparable from each other - not only can you not have one without the other, but in fact there's no consistent way of drawing a line between them. A great example of this is the idea of nature.

As a technological crusader (in my own mind, at least), one of the things that most bothers me is the view of the world that says that technology and the environment are diametrically opposed. The basis of this attitude is simple enough: technology is by definition used to change our environment to our liking; the environment would rather stay as it is. But what is this "environment" thing, anyway? Most people would agree that plants and animals are part of it. We might also include features of the land (lakes, mountains, and such), and maybe more abstract concepts like habitats or ecosystems. But what about humans? We're animals too, right? Why aren't we part of the environment? And if we are, what about the things we make? If a bird's nest is natural, then why isn't a skyscraper? We can talk about details like materials, but everything we use comes from somewhere, and if we go far back enough we'll find nature. At what point did humans become a class of our own, separate from the world around us?

My answer, of course, is that there is no meaningful difference. A forest, a park, an office building; there's nothing more or less natural about any of these. Our drive to shape our environment isn't artificial, any more than a bird's nesting instinct. The human capacity for thought, reasoning, innovation is a natural occurrence; everything that follows from it is a natural consequence. This doesn't mean that there's nothing worth preserving in the parts of the world we haven't yet changed to suit us; it just means that casting us as the villains and the woodland creatures as the heroes (or the other way around, which is something I've done on occasion) isn't a coherent line of argument. This kind of dualism is very easy to create, and it might help us make sense of the world, but it doesn't make sense in itself.

A plea for clemency: these are very rough ideas. There may be holes, there may be avenues of argument I've missed. Part of my goal in putting these up here is to help turn my vague ideas into a coherent philosophy. Please comment, but please be gentle.

(As a side note, half of the aforementioned class was spent in debates between two students who considered themselves to be on the side of nature and the environment, and myself and one other student who considered ourselves to be on the side of technology, human progress, etc. I thought this was kind of ironic.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: Webcomics of SCIENCE!

First, I'd like to mention that SCIENCE! is awesome. SCIENCE! is a way of re-envisioning science and engineering, a counterweight to the negative image that science has among so many people (particularly students) today. SCIENCE! isn't boring, overly complicated, or mechanical; it's a craft, an art, maybe even a superpower. SCIENCE! can be biology, chemistry, or physics, but it can also be biothaumaturgy or crisis theory, transhuman robotics, Frankenstein-style reanimation, or even magic (in the words of one of the webcomics I'm about to mention, "any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science"). You know those shirts that say "STAND BACK, I'M GOING TO TRY SCIENCE"? This is the SCIENCE they mean. Referring back to my previous post, SCIENCE! is quite clearly *not* a purely left-brain enterprise; it requires knowledge, skill, will, and the hubris to want to change the world. So, SCIENCE! is awesome.

So, on to the comics. First, Girl Genius. The setting is a Victorian-era world where a lucky few are blessed/cursed by the Spark, an intuitive talent for all things scientific and technological. Sparks can perform amazing feats of SCIENCE! on a whim, the likes of which normal people can't hope to achieve even with years of study and practice. Of course, they have a tendency to go insane, destroy themselves with their own inventions, or be brought to justice by angry mobs with pitchforks and torches. The hero is a girl named Agatha, who really wants to be good at science but isn't.... And so a steampunk epic ensues. I first discovered this comic on an off-week during exams; for three days, I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read Girl Genius. Not only are the art, characters, story, setting, etc., all amazing, it also updates regularly, three times a week, all the time, which is really rare for webcomics, and even rarer for good ones.

Second, Dresden Codak. This is a very weird comic in which Kimiko Ross, a college student, roboticist, and quantum physicist, explores the strange corners of science and philosophy, along with her possibly nuclear-powered friends Dmitri and Alina. It starts off very strange and random (but hilarious), but eventually gets into an epic saga of futurism and transhumanism (which is also still hilarious). It's a bit less accessible than Girl Genius, because 1) it's full of references to advanced science and obscure philosophy and 2) it's extremely surreal, but it's definitely awesome nonetheless, and even more awesome when you know what it's talking about. The epic saga ended last October, and it doesn't seem to be updating very often anymore, but it's still an awesome read, and unlike Girl Genius could (theoretically) be read in a single day. If you've ever dreamt of becoming the light guiding humanity into a scientific/technological utopia (and who hasn't?), you have no excuse not to read this comic.

As a side note, it occurred to me that the protagonists of both these comics are female. There doesn't have to be a connection or an underlying reason for this, but in my capacity as an untrained amateur sociologist I theorize that it's because SCIENCE! is all about breaking taboos and stereotypes, and one of the strongest stereotypes afflicting science in our society is that women don't do it. So, support the last, best hope for scientific progress: read awesome webcomics, and believe in the power of SCIENCE!

Monday, April 13, 2009

A skirmish with an old enemy

Today, for whatever reason, I've been thinking about the divide between the rational and the emotional. We're raised from birth with this idea of the two halves of our mind, the left brain and the right brain, the analytical and the creative, and so on. This has several implications, the most serious being that the various range of human mental activities can be classified as one or another, or perhaps on a sliding scale between the two. Painting, singing, writing fiction, "self-expression" sit solidly on one side; solving puzzles, conducting experiments, programming, learning facts belong largely to the other. From this it follows that talent in one is linked to lack of talent in the other; overly analytical people can't make or appreciate art, overly creative people can't do math, etc., and if they can, then clearly these are two separate talents, a case of unusual gift in not one but two unrelated areas.

At this point, of course, I point dramatically and shout "objection!" I've done my best not to make a straw man of this argument, but it still looks like it's full of holes to me. In what sense are these two categories different? At the bottom level, thought is just brain chemistry; at the top level, it's impossible to disentangle "rational thought" from "emotion". As a computer scientist, I can assure you that plenty of emotion, and yes, even creativity goes into solving problems classified as technical; as an amateur sociologist, I can purport that the appreciation of arts such as music, literature, and video games is inextricably linked to analyzing the material in terms of one's social context. Fields like music and architecture are sometimes brought up as rare cases where the two tendencies intersect; I think this is the tip of a broader recognition that the two are intermingled in *every* area of thought.

I think I'll leave it at that for now; I have a tendency to rant, especially on this topic. Rest assured, dualism, we *will* meet again!

Once upon a time,

"why not" outweighed "why", and thus was created this. I think I'll use it as overflow space, to store my extra ideas. It's as good a use as any.

Being shy, I won't introduce myself yet. We'll see how things turn out. Being me, I feel the need to apologize in advance if this doesn't meet your expectations, though I don't know why it should, or mine, though I don't know what they are. Now that that's out of the way, I suppose I'll just dive in, and see where this newfangled web-log thingy takes me.