Absurd Trolly Problems

See how you compare to ~1,000,000 others in Neal Agarwal’s increasingly absurd ethical dilemmas.


life philosophy Science

Ball Lightning

Recently I began reading Richard Dawkins new book, The God Delusion. In it the author describes his reasons for not believing in supernatural beings. He points out that if one considers himself an atheist about the Greek gods or believes that “Mother Nature” is merely a fairy tale and not an actual creator, then why not take it one step further and rule out Abraham’s deity as well?

It’s an interesting and logical way of thinking. Pondering this, I decided last night to get out of my shell and do something rather uncharacteristic. I took Dawkins’ advice and kind of twisted it. I met with some nice folks who believe in a creed _not_ rooted in the God of Abraham.

We met at a coffee shop, it was explained to me, because meeting in public is a privilege that those with such radical beliefs were not always granted. Now that freedom of assembly is a protected right, they choose to take advantage of it.

The three women sitting across from me were real live witches; the older gentleman beside me, a druid. Though they followed different paths, they were all adherents, in one way or another, under the umbrella of belief known as paganism. Nothing about their appearance made them stand out; they didn’t wear pointy hats or carry brooms. One of the girls did say she was in the process of adopting a kitten and another admitted that she owned a cloak but that was where the stereotypes ended. Over the course of the evening, I learned what it meant to these people to be a pagan. Wikipedia’s introductory paragraph on Paganism provides an accurate summary:

Paganism is a term which, from a western perspective, has come to connote a broad set of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices of natural or polytheistic religions. The term can be defined broadly, to encompass many or most of the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic group of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “Pagan” is the usual translation of the Islamic term mushrik, which refers to ‘one who worships something other than The God of Abraham’. Ethnologists avoid the term “paganism,” with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as shamanism, polytheism or animism. The term is also used to describe earth-based Native American religions and mythologies, though few Native Americans call themselves or their cultures “pagan”. Historically, the term “pagan” has usually had pejorative connotations among westerners, comparable to heathen, infidel and kaffir (‘unbeliever’) in Islam.

Most of the conversation turned out to be rather ordinary. They talked about their careers, their day at work, and just the usual friendly banter that you might expect from a group of twenty-something women.
However, early in the evening one of the ladies dramatically related an interesting phenomenon that she witnessed just last night.

She said that she was giving lessons to some teens on horseback riding when she observed a brilliant ball of white light a few hundred meters away. It slowly grew changing to a beautiful blue hue and then suddenly disappeared. At that same moment the power in her house and the stables all went out. She said that about three minutes later the power came back on and although there were a few other students and adults nearby, nobody but herself and two of the 14 year old teens had been around to witness the light.

She asked the druid if he knew what it might be, explaining that her friends at work thought she was nuts. At first he appeared just as baffled as she, but then in a humorous tone he pronounced, UFO’s. I think he was joking.

I asked her what she thought it might be. She replied that she had a hunch it was some kind of supernatural being trying to give her a message, however she wasn’t sure if that message was she was on the right path and should keep doing what she was doing, or if she needed to change her life to get her life back on track. We all agreed it was not very helpful with the possible interpretations being polar opposites.
Always the sceptic, I knew right away what it was she had seen: ball lightning.

The interesting thing about ball lightning is, it seems that nobody really knows what it is exactly, let alone what causes the phenomenon.

During World War II ball lightning was reported as “escorting” bombers, flying alongside their wingtips. Pilots of the time referred to the phenomenon as “foo fighters,” initially believing that the lights were from enemy planes. UFO enthusiasts have reported seeing the mysterious lights at crop circle sites and ball lightning has also been used to explain the eerie moving lights known as will o’ wisps.
They accepted my answer more readily than I would have expected. Very modern in their thinking despite what one may expect from pagans. It is clear that although they like believing, a scientific answer would trump the unexplained if one was available. I respect that.

We chatted for the rest of the evening, sometimes about déjà vu, sometimes about the history of paganism. I found the entire evening extremely interesting, but in the end, I have to say, I still feel closer to believing in the kind of belief that Einstein professed when he said, “if something is in me which can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
But remember science isn’t always right, and who’s to say for sure that the ball of light wasn’t actually a magical being sent from another dimension for some deep mysterious purpose? Despite my scepticism, believing would be much more fun.

culture philosophy

What You Can’t Say

What You Can’t Say is an interesting essay by Paul Graham about heresy: how to think forbidden thoughts, and what to do with them. So take the Conformists test,

“Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told.”

Think about this, “We often like to think of World War II as a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism. We conveniently forget that the Soviet Union was also one of the winners.” But Graham goes much deeper than that. He explains that searching for popular misconceptions not only satisfies the curiosity and confirms whether you are right or wrong about a particular idea but it exercises the brain, “If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.”

article games philosophy

An Analysis of "Structural Ambiguity: An Emerging Interactive Aesthetic"

The following is a review paper I wrote last night for my Net.Art Class. A boring read for most, I’m sure, but I wrote it so I might as well get as much milage out of it as possible.

As humanity exited the darkness and despair of the middle ages and entered the renaissance, literature and theatre established themselves as mankind’s primary tools for stimulating critical thinking. A new book or play would tackle subjects with the intent of educating while it entertained. In an effort to increase the influence of these mediums, authors and dramatists alike have been striving to create interactive constructs. Randomized non-linear books however have not been plentiful nor are they generally considered anything more than a gimmick. Choose Your Own Adventure books fall short due to the fact that once a path is read the interactivity remains but the ambiguity, the intriguing nature of the book, is lost. Theatre has more potential to be interactive but it has only been in the last century that society has seen numerous attempts to alter the traditional linear productions. While they are more successful than literature they still fall short of true interactivity due to the fact that for the most part the essential plot structure is unaffected by audience member participation; there is little ambiguity from show to show. Giving the audience full control over a full-length commercial production would be too expensive and too taxing on the actors.

Enter New Media — the medium that possesses a unique capacity for interactivity. It is cheap and accurate. It is the new catalyst to inspire creative thinking all the while entertaining through humankind’s natural desire to discover. Jim Gasperini’s article “Structural Ambiguity: An Emerging Interactive Aesthetic” articulates that computer technology realizes both the ability to convey a dynamic story while at the same time has the potential to maintain replayability through structural ambiguity. He believes that if computer technology does not develop a true interactive aesthetic then it fails to take advantage of the essential power of the medium.

Gasperini explains that there are three levels of ambiguity — two familiar levels and one that is quite new. They are textural, interpretive, and structural. Textural ambiguities are the double meanings we find in prose and text through similes and metaphors. Interpretive ambiguities are those that appear when words emerge as part of a theatrical performance. The same words may be used, but two different renderings of the play may choose to make very different interpretations of the script. The final level is structural ambiguity, which arises from the role the audience or user plays in creating the plot. The two subclasses of structural ambiguity are closed-ended and open-ended. Closed-ended structural ambiguity is found in what Gasperini refers to as “twich” games. Games that depend primarily on learning to perform hand to eye coordination task fall into this category. He also includes the action / adventure genre. By his definition some examples of closed-ended ambiguity style games are Tetris, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros., and The Adventure of Zelda series. Gasperini claims that interactivity is only feigned in these closed-ended structural games and that replayability leaves something to be desired. I have to point out the fact of the matter is these games are classics and are fun to replay — if not so much for ambiguity and mystery than for nostalgia. Open-ended structural ambiguity, on the other hand, comprises works that become more ambiguous the more they are played. The style of game where this is most evident, explains Gasperini, is within the simulations genre. He highlights Sim City and Hidden Agenda as prime examples of games that use open-ended structural ambiguity. It should be noted that Gasperini has a bias because he helped write both Sim City and Hidden Agenda. Personally I wonder if you can find more people still playing the tried and true arcade classics like those I mentioned above over simulation type games like these. I hadn’t even heard of Hidden Agenda before reading this article.

It is Gasperini’s intention to try and define a new genre for these simulation games. He would prefer that because they are different than games with closed-ended structural ambiguity that they not be called games at all. He doesn’t seem to realize that it’s okay to call something he cares about deeply a game. But as he points out himself, even America’s favorite pastime, baseball, is just a game — and many people take it seriously.

Gasperini goes on to extol the strength of the medium. He articulates how the media enables the audience to become the protagonist and how it allows them to gain a greater sense of empathy toward points of view other than their own.

In the end, Gasperini asks a lot of seemingly rhetorical questions and then answers them with very “ambiguous” answers. I’m not sure, but is he striving for a theme? One would expect that in his conclusion we should find something substantial to back up his thesis; instead he ponders deep philosophical questions about the relation between games and quantum physics. He does however get back on track when he admits that the medium is still new and that it will take time for authors to develop stories that make the best use of the tools available.

The article sets out to convince us that if computer technology does not develop a true interactive aesthetic then it fails to take advantage of the essential power of the medium. He isn’t right because given the capitalist nature of our society, rather than choosing the type of game that best takes advantage of the medium it is judicious to let the people designing games to give users what they want; design a game that is fun to play that keeps them coming back for more. Examples of these games mix aspects from both the closed-ended structure and open-ended structure. They sometimes include a compelling single player campaign mode and enthralling multiplayer action. These games range from real-time strategies like Warcraft and Starcraft to first person shooters like Doom and Half-life. On the one hand their single player missions give a narrative that forces the direction the game takes, but on the other hand the multiplayer mode places the user in a situation where anything can happen. Not only do the users choices affect the outcome but also there are a lot more random events that can affect the game-play. This type of interactivity with other players makes the games addictive. So much so that it might just kill you.

Gasperini seems motivated to sell the types of games that he likes and that he has helped produce. While he made some good points about the dynamics of games that use an open-ended structure, he was so focused on that one aspect of the game design that he ignored the fact that there is more to making a good game than having an open structure. Most users want to have their cake and eat it too; they want the comfort of familiar closed-ended structure of campaign mode as well as the more ambiguous nature that the open-ended structure of multiplayer melee bestows.