Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 00:02 on 01-11-2013, Robinson L
Adrienne: Oh, i love Tim Zahn! His stuff is usually good fluffy fun! Where's the story?

So do I, for similar reasons. I've been reading it in a collection of novellas and short stories called "Star Song and Other Stories." I just finished it about an hour ago, and I'm not actually too impressed by it - it was okay, but it didn't wow me.

(I actually met him once, too, at a con several years back. He's a very nice man.)

Cool. I have not met him (9 Worlds was only my second con ever), but I've heard/read several interviews of him, and he does sound like a very nice man.
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at 22:38 on 31-10-2013, Adrienne
Robinson L: Oh, i love Tim Zahn! His stuff is usually good fluffy fun! Where's the story?

(I actually met him once, too, at a con several years back. He's a very nice man.)
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at 22:30 on 31-10-2013, Bookwyrm
I hate the world today. Someone tell me something nice, or funny, or uplifting, please?

Well when I hate life, this video puts me in a good mood.

Also Happy Halloween everybody.
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at 21:23 on 31-10-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Talkin' bout cookie monster, this has always improved my mood. Because it is very nice.

This, on the other hand I'd push as uplifting. While the movie itself is superb, this scene has a full story in itself, ending with a really cathartic resolution(well, the scene, the clip goes a little too long).

And exploiting the same source there's this, which I guess is a bit preachy, but a good song nonetheless.
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at 20:30 on 31-10-2013, Robinson L
Oh, also, this being All Hallow's and everything, this is probably a good time to mention that I'm greatly enjoying Sleepy Hollow, in contrast to my sisters ... who are obsessing over it.

Basically, take your standard tough cop + amateur Odd Couple (a la Bones, Castle), throw them into a Buffy the Vampire-esque setting, add a Book of Revelation garnish, dial up the silly a notch, and give the whole thing a genuinely multi-racial cast, and viola. Oh, and the whole thing takes place practically within spitting distance of my home town.

Doesn't really have much to do with the original Washington Irving that I can see, but oh well.

Happy Hallows.
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at 20:00 on 31-10-2013, Robinson L
Ulllch, well, I tend to be pretty terrible at this sort of thing when I'm put on the spot, but, here goes.

I'm currently reading "The Play's the Thing" a short SF story by Timothy Zahn which has actually prompted me to laugh out loud.

In the first scene, the narrator is explaining how he got assigned to the entourage of the first alien ambassador to Earth, through what turns out to be a misunderstanding. When he finds out he sticks with it, though out of bloodimindedness (as his colleagues have been making snide remarks about his "relative usefulness").

Besides, the briefcase they'd handed me that first day had contained a presidential plea for my cooperation and about two bucketfuls of money, both of which I was far too patriotic to walk away from.


Later, the ambassador (which is humongous) ends up making a scene at a Broadway show, which sends the audience running for cover

With the ambassador's second below even the actors lost it, scurrying for the wings like they'd spotted a critic with an Uzi.
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at 19:49 on 31-10-2013, Melanie
I hate the world today. Someone tell me something nice, or funny, or uplifting, please?


What about "Cookie Monster Learns a Lesson from Tom Hiddleston"? Alternatively, the Sad Cat Diary.

Also, a cute comic about a kitten and halloween.
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at 17:20 on 31-10-2013, Adrienne
I hate the world today. Someone tell me something nice, or funny, or uplifting, please?
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at 20:45 on 30-10-2013, Arthur B
Not started it yet (going to dig into it tonight after I'm done watching In the Mouth of Madness), but I can believe a product of the Dear Esther crew feeling inert.
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at 19:06 on 30-10-2013, Alasdair Czyrnyj
So I played Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, and I'm in a bind: I didn't like it, but I can't figure out why. I mean, it's wrapped in an atmosphere of industrial anxiety, and it evokes the anxiety of the late Victorian era, the struggles of modernity and modernism, and mankind's propensity for apocalyptic thought, stuff I'm normally really interested in...and yet it seems so inert. It has me baffled.
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at 23:21 on 28-10-2013, Jamie Johnston
So Pear took me to the Kitschies' Secret histories discussion panel event this evening and unless our ears were very much mistaken the moderator called On stranger 'there's just a little problem: the misogyny' tides a seminal work of feminist speculative fiction.

It was quite an interesting evening, though it would have been nice if the panellists had had a bit more time and been a bit more challenged by the moderator and each other. Tim Powers came across as slightly pedantic and very unreflective about the nature of his work and fiction in general, though he had some good anecdotes and one-liners. Lavie Tidhar was thoughtful and engaging but seemed to be holding himself back a bit. I wasn't quite sure what to make of Katie Griffin but she had some interesting things to say and said them in a fun way. Pear's going to do a fuller write-up for For Books' Sake soon.
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at 15:44 on 27-10-2013, Arthur B
Fun recommendation: Room 237, a documentary that isn't so much about The Shining as fan analysis of creative works in general through the framework of fan analysis of The Shining, ranging from the credible (a lot of the stuff about the weird geometry of the film feels correct to me, especially considering how obsessively attentive to detail Kubrick was and the labyrinth motif which overtly runs through it) to the wacky (apparently it's Kubrick confessing to his part in faking the Moon landings).
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at 06:40 on 26-10-2013, Kit
That sounds potentially really fascinating!


Just chiming in (having followed this conversation for a while) to say that Latour is indeed fascinating and that anyone even remotely interested in philosophy and sociology of science should give it a whirl. I also wrote my MA thesis on a subject in science studies which touched upon some of Latour's writings, and I've got to say that it's probably the best place to start when embarking on that line of inquiry. (Also, Robinson, "Science and Imperialism" sounds quite intriguing...)
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at 04:50 on 26-10-2013, Melanie
Latour draws heavily on Alfred North Whitehead to make the argument that "nature" as a category is juxtaposed in the Western philosophical tradition (and practically nowhere else) with culture - the one being the objective realm of the real, the other being the subjective realm of human interactions.


That sounds potentially really fascinating!

And of course saying that something is artificial is important at times, for many reasons. It is helpful to know [...] I think the problem is to use such words to mean something more than they are and then categorically use the term as a value judgment.


Yeah. It's not bad to have a set of words that distinguishes between "we did this" and "we didn't do this", I don't think. I mean, if you're trying to study... fffffff... I'm just going to say "natural processes"; you all know what I mean... then it might be important whether the thing you're looking at is the way it is because of human intervention or not. Like whether a hill is that shape because of erosion or because of earth-moving equipment, say.

for example the difference in skills in mathematics between men and women have been statistically noticed, but the difference is very small and can't really explain the difference


And, apparently, also isn't the same or even in the same direction in every country. /digression

Why the chess-phobia?
Because you combat him by checking your privilege.


...Ow. Ha!
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at 11:29 on 25-10-2013, Arthur B
I imagine him being a hetero white cismale with an aversion to chess.

Why the chess-phobia?
Because you combat him by checking your privilege.
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at 11:07 on 25-10-2013, Axiomatic
Percy Privilege is an awesome character and I want to read more about him.
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at 08:08 on 25-10-2013, Shimmin
our assessment of what is "natural" affects our assessment of what we would expect to observe in ideal situations. This in turn affects our assessment of whether structural discrimination exists.

My most/least favourite example here is classroom interaction. Teachers who firmly believe they are allocating time equally to girls and boys have been shown to spend disproportionate amounts on boys; and when taking special precautions to actually allocate equal time, both they and the pupils felt that they were spending all their time on the girls.
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at 07:30 on 25-10-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
@Melanie:
So... in a certain context, "nature" also means "how things are supposed to be". Where "supposed to be" may be according to the speaker's philosophy/religious stories/thought experiments about cavemen, and doesn't have to have any connection to reality at all.

I guess this is pretty much the case. And of course saying that something is artificial is important at times, for many reasons. It is helpful to know, that a particular strain of wheat for example, is either "natural" or or wild(there probably is a term for this), cultivated(the traditional way of gene manipulation) or gene manipulated(in the sense that people are doing today). On the other hand, artificial can be a negative quality, if someone is enamored of things being natural. Artificial emotions for example or artificial sweetener as opposed to real sugar. I think the problem is to use such words to mean something more than they are and then categorically use the term as a value judgment.

So the problem arises not so much because of prescriptive statements (which are an issue too, of course, but are also, I think, fairly rare) but because our assessment of what is "natural" affects our assessment of what we would expect to observe in ideal situations. This in turn affects our assessment of whether structural discrimination exists.

It may be that since I began my argument from the direction that I did, that I might have exaggerated its importance. I think in the examples you give, it is important though to note that in basketball, for example, the physical attribute under consideration is very easily defined and easy to observe as well. But extending it into engineering for example, is where the trouble starts. If the possible reasons for an asymmetry in the gender of engineers is the thing under consideration, for example, then we can offer a very wide array of hypotheses as to why this is. The problem with trying to pinpoint the issue to an issue with genetics is to me always something that tries to reduce the matter into the minimum level of factors, so that statistical analysis at least appears to be possible. This in the end, ignores many quantifiable things as well as everything that are not easily quantifiable, as if these don't matter. For example social issues are hard to figure into these kinds of issues. Quite often the statistics themselves are a bit sketchy, for example the difference in skills in mathematics between men and women have been statistically noticed, but the difference is very small and can't really explain the difference, but this is still used to explain the asymmetry(and what causes the difference in mathematical skills anyways?).

A common criticism of this sort of scientific and statistical approach is that what we set out to examine(the hypothesis in question) affects the choice of proof. While this is of course understandable and nothing by itself, it becomes a problem with the sort of idealization, that is trying to reduce the matter at hand into some factors that can be handled in a way that gives clear results. But if the research is not honest enough and careful in its interpretation, this ends up in results that somehow assume that the idealization actually reflects reality in more than a very, well, ideal form.

So where I think the sort of prescriptive thing I have been yammering about still comes into question is the whole set up of these sorts of studies. We have an issue, say the existence of an asymmetry in the genders of engineers. But the assumptions made to frame the hypothesis itself are value judgments of what is important and what is not. And this leads to a circular sort of thinking where the hidden assumptions, that asymmetries in the professions are due to predominantly biological factors, becomes the result as well, because the whole study is set to prove this assumption, even if it began with that. Actually, research in anthropology or archaeology in, for example, evolutionary psychological terms, would be a valuable tool in debunking such research.

Well, just to say that even in situations where it seems that the matter at hand is purely factual, the choice of how to handle the facts and how the facts are chosen is often a matter of value where hidden assumptions or premises are often reflections of a certain set of values.

Latour draws heavily on Alfred North Whitehead to make the argument that "nature" as a category is juxtaposed in the Western philosophical tradition (and practically nowhere else) with culture

To avoid making this post insufficiently short, this sounds like an interesting book. I think one of the reason between this binary thing has to do with western philosophy's preoccupation with meta-physics. I guess one could go all the way to Platon with this, but quite often, morality(or human action) is treated in a different way because of the difficulty of deciding what moral facts are and do they actually exist. Of course there have been many efforts to ground ethics in all sorts of things, from naturalness(Aristotle and the scholastics) to god(theological voluntarism) and varied other stuff(Hobbes, Spinoza). The crux of the issue is that if we observe a thing happening in the physical world, a ball dropping to the ground, we can make observations and postulate theories of why this happens and how it happens. But as Hume pointed out, we can not really make the same claim of moral or ethical statements because these do not actually describe a thing or relate an observable fact, but instead they are prescriptive in nature, they tell us or try to tell us how things should change or be. But how can we evaluate such statements? To bring ethical statements back together with the natural, explainable world, there have been varied efforts. But while there have certainly been noble efforts, these have mostly failed to establish any hard ground on which to stand on.

Simply put the issue depends on how one resolves certain meta-ethical issues. Is one an ethical realist, that is, are there objective ethical qualities in the world to which we refer when we use the term 'good' or 'bad' in a moral sense. This of course raises the question of what sort of things are these and whether they are present in things materially(like evil can be in D&D for example) or are they something else. And if so then what?

The alternative to this is to try and resolve the issue by denying the existence of ethical facts and trying to sort it out in other terms. Utilitarianism is an early effort, replacing good with pleasure(at least with Bentham). Or one could argue that ethical facts are an emergent feature, brought into existence by independent individuals relation with other independent individuals(Macintyre's neo-aristotelism could be a form of this, I think).

Logical positivists tried to combine the "natural" world of scientific facts with the ethical human world by this sort of ethical non-realism called non-cognitivism. There are no ethical facts which could be handled through logic and where it is possible to say that an ethical statement is true or untrue. Instead, ethical statements are expressions of emotions or preference of one thing over another. If I like something, it is moral and if I don't it is immoral. And then we have the error theory(or nihilism), that says that ethical statements are sort of errors because they do not refer to anything that exists, but are by form statements that seem to do so.

But anyways, this connects to the binary split in that ethical or moral facts are not something that can be handled by empirical means since the existence of genocide is no reason to assume that existence by it self is justification or by Hume's Guillotine, we can't tell what ought to be from what is. I don't know how Latour resolves this, but I am predisposed to think that he will bump into some problems on the way.
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at 00:36 on 25-10-2013, Robinson L
Melanie: Extranatural? Post-natural? Anatural? I dunno. It doesn't seem like there really is an applicable word in the whole natural/unnatural/etc. cluster of words.

The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities, some consider to be ... ‘unnatural.’

Okay, obligatory Star Wars joke out of the way, I actually wrote my MA dissertation on "Science and Imperialism," for which my academic advisor had me read Bruno Latour's "The Politics of Nature." Latour draws heavily on Alfred North Whitehead to make the argument that "nature" as a category is juxtaposed in the Western philosophical tradition (and practically nowhere else) with culture - the one being the objective realm of the real, the other being the subjective realm of human interactions. It's how you can have stuff like the split between facts (nature) and values (culture). My brain is operating at too low a capacity to explain the argument much better than that just now, but basically, Latour thinks this ontology of a binary between nature and culture (the "bifuraction of nature" in Whitehead's terminology) like the gender binary, is inaccurate and unhelpful, and he spends the rest of the book devising an interesting if slightly esoteric method whereby all the useful work of scientific inquiry, politics, morality, and a host of other important human pursuits could be managed without reference to said binary.

So, uh, yeah, slightly roundabout way of saying that my recent reading would tend to uphold the interpretation that the use of "natural" as a descriptor is spectacularly pointless.


... But now ptolemaeus has just got back home on a visit and I haven't seen her since March, so I now bid you all a fond good night.
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at 00:30 on 25-10-2013, Arthur B
"Tremble, evil-doers! It is I! Non-Coercive Campaign For Social Progress Man!"

SEE NCCFSPMan pamphlet an entire city in the space of a second! GASP as his power of multiplicity makes him a true one-man protest! THRILL as he counteracts the diabolical schemes of his foes, including Percy Privilege, Roger Reactionary, and the Dastardly Derailer!
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at 00:12 on 25-10-2013, Dan H
@Janne

You are no doubt right in this. But I would say that this demonstrates exactly the problem of moving from scientific description to prescriptive commands.


I think that's partly true, but I think it gets difficult in practice, particularly when it comes to questions like discrimination.

For example, most professional basketball players are tall. This isn't because of widespread discrimination on basketball courts, it's because tall people are genuinely better at basketball than short people, for obvious reasons (those reasons, of course, being that in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, tall people would have to go out and hunt mammoths by throwing balls into their ears while they slept). Nobody thinks that the NBA needs to be more accepting of short athletes, or that it is a problem that short people are under-represented in professional basketball.

Similarly, women are under-represented in a whole variety of areas - Engineering is a good example. Now a lot of EvPsych arguments would suggest that women are naturally poor engineers, just as short people are naturally poor basketball players, and that the small number of women in engineering is simply a reflection of the small number of women who have the capability to succeed in engineering. Quite a lot of people disagree, and feel that women are just as capable of succeeding in engineering as men, and argue that if women are under-represented it is because the field is hostile to women for solvable, cultural reasons.

Now you could argue that even if women *were* intrinsically worse engineers than men, we should still try to encourage more women to go into engineering, but that argument has a rather shaky ideological footing. If a perfectly fair system produced a gender imbalance as a result of innate biological predispositions, it would be hard to justify changing that system to correct the imbalance, unless you genuinely believe symmetry is more important than fairness.

So the problem arises not so much because of prescriptive statements (which are an issue too, of course, but are also, I think, fairly rare) but because our assessment of what is "natural" affects our assessment of what we would expect to observe in ideal situations. This in turn affects our assessment of whether structural discrimination exists.

Or something.

Also @Robinson:

Thing is, the types of evil I'm most concerned with combating are structural - it's hard to see how having superpowers would help much in that kind of fight


This strikes me as a potential setup for the BEST SUPERHERO COMIC EVER: "Tremble, evil-doers! It is I! Non-Coercive Campaign For Social Progress Man!"
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at 02:35 on 24-10-2013, Melanie
Plus it raises the question of whether it is unnatural or supernatural, what humans are?


Extranatural? Post-natural? Anatural? I dunno. It doesn't seem like there really is an applicable word in the whole natural/unnatural/etc. cluster of words. Even when "nature" is used to mean everything except humans and our stuff, that doesn't seem to really carry an implication that we as a species are specifically (or at least, necessarily) unnatural. But then, "unnatural" has more of a sense of being opposed to nature (or at least, the speaker's understanding of nature?), not just not being part of it/from it. Of wrongness. You don't really hear anyone saying that... pencils, say... are "unnatural", even though they clearly don't just occur without human intervention--they're "artificial" instead. So... in a certain context, "nature" also means "how things are supposed to be". Where "supposed to be" may be according to the speaker's philosophy/religious stories/thought experiments about cavemen, and doesn't have to have any connection to reality at all.

Which is what makes "unnatural" a value judgement when "artificial" is more neutral (not to mention "impossible"). They're both antonyms, but for different senses of the word.
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at 06:12 on 23-10-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
If you want to say that we're part of nature and not special or separate, that we evolved in this environment and so we're part of it just like everything else... that's a perfectly valid point, but it renders the words "nature", "natural", etc., meaningless

That's basically true and perhaps it would be preferable to limit it's use to that, given that the distinction between natural and not-natural is hard to make and is really value ridden. Plus it raises the question of whether it is unnatural or supernatural, what humans are? The way natural is used is that it is somehow better, even if that is usually not true, as Jules pointed out. Is human exceptionality a good thing or a bad thing? If it is bad, and humans are somehow outside nature in a bad way, it leaves open the way for arguments like we've discussed, appeals to natural laws(in a moral sense) that are being broken, which is what most moral condemnations of sexuality considered to be less normal than others are, even if made by religious people. On the other hand, if the exceptionality is considered a good thing, does this not leave open options of just considering non-human things somehow beneath us and over which we have authority to use as we see fit? If natural and natural laws are used in a strictly scientifically realistic sense, it might be a bit useless, but at least it would remove the basis of moral arguments based on perceived naturalness of things. If something exists, it must be because it is not breaking any natural laws. This might force us to reconsider the way humans have defined those laws, in case of anomalies. But in these terms, when someone is said to break a natural law, it would be as nonsensical as claiming that that person is in opposition to the strong nuclear force somehow.

Thing is, the types of evil I'm most concerned with combating are structural - it's hard to see how having superpowers would help much in that kind of fight, and you might just as easily fall into reinforcing one or another oppressive system.

To butt in, if one would have some sort of abilities that generated a lot of power, perhaps that power could be used to generate lots of clean power. It wouldn't solve all problems, but it would make some things easier and make it possible to have a fairly regular life. Generating power from 9-5 and then do things.

Most probably the hypothetical AI would consider all these hopes and aspirations heaped upon it to be creepy and stress inducing. Try being a unique life form going through some heavy stuff in relation to your place in the world and some dorks are clamoring for you to enable their pointless hedonism.
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at 04:42 on 23-10-2013, Bookwyrm

Thing is, the types of evil I'm most concerned with combating are structural - it's hard to see how having superpowers would help much in that kind of fight, and you might just as easily fall into reinforcing one or another oppressive system.


Yeah same here. If I had superpowers I would want to spend my time rescuing people, not hunting down criminals. Aside from the above reason I just don't think I have it in me to hurt anyone. Besides there is a very realistic possibility that I could interfere in what I think is criminal activity and wind up hurting innocent people . There's also the possibility that I could run into a crime so violent and disturbing that it scars me for life. Which would cause me to give up super heroics altogether... or turn me into Rorschach.
Ideally if I were a superhero I'd work with public service. That way I could get training (basic first aid, how to handle injured people, emergency protocol, etc), insurance, a salary (I won't have to split my time between a regular job and superhero duty), access to therapists, and legal protection. I'd also like a secret identity. I value my privacy.
As for superpowers I would really like have the ability to phase through solid objects and invisibility. It makes getting from place to place easier and makes you impervious to harm. These powers also make it easier to lose people who are attempting to follow you. It allows you to sneak up on people, just for the giggles.
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