Monday, 30 July 2007

Up! Fest

The Up! Festival. It's a strange name for a festival. For an anything, I would suggest. But I know that I'll be going to it. Franti has said before that when he started out in hip hop he would decry the media. His classic track Television - Drug of the Nation is this very point. He followed that comment by saying that rather than destroy the media, we should become the media. In Rock the Nation he writes:
Bom bom
Rock the nation
Take over television and radio stations
Bom bom
The truth shall come
Give the corporations some complications
And he's right. Media is a powerful force. I have my suspicions that part of the power of television is not that it tells stories that we can all relate to, but it tells stories that we wish we could relate to. Some women don't relate to Teri Hatcher in Desperate Housewives, but they probably wish that they looked as good as her, with a house as large as hers and so forth. Most men won't relate to the detectives on NCIS but they probably wish that they could kick down the door and "bust come caps in the ass" of some criminals.

Media's power is often through the visualisation of fantasy. It turns a fantasy into an on-screen reality. For as long as the audience's eyes are on the screen, that screen is their experiential reality. I support Franti in his efforts and want him to succeed. My trepidation comes through wondering whether his version of the media will have the same power because the fantasy/reality that he would probably put on those same screens may appeal to fewer people.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Much Munchkin

NOTE: Gaming topics have been moved to Tabletop Manifesto.

Recently I acquired some expansion packs for Munchkin. Expansions 2, 3 and 4 are now in my possession, and today I played my first game of it with the expansions. I have to say that they're completely worthwhile.

Maybe I'll get to play a larger game (up to 6 players, according to the box) soon. 3 players is good, but 6 would be a completely different dynamic.

Friday, 20 July 2007

The Offensive War

When the cruise missiles were launched into Iraq all those years ago, I did a calculation on the back of a napkin, comparing the cost of the missiles and what that money could have done if it were used for education and clean water, rather than missiles.

It seems I am not alone. Allow me to quote from the Sojourners blog.

The financial cost is staggering—a new Congressional Research Service study reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now cost $12 billion per month. When that monthly price tag is compared to the $10 billion per year it would cost to educate the world's 800 million children under six years old, the contrast opens up a real debate on what truly makes for national and global security.
So, yearly costs are these.
144 billion USD - Iraq and Afghan war
10 billion USD - Educate 800 million children under 6

Education will do more good in this world than fighting those two wars. And it's cheaper. This is one reason that I find this "war on terror" to be the Offensive War.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Capital Gain, Capital Loss

Consider this hypothetical - and very common - situation.

Your house is for sale. You bought it five years ago for $200,000 and because of current high property values you now have it listed for $400,000. You haven't renovated the house in that time but have maintained it well. It is in much the same condition as when you first moved in. How do you feel about this?

For some people, this is good news. The asset has increased in value and they have an extra $200k in their bank account if they wish. If you are one of these people, you may not have asked yourself where the extra money will come from. So where has it come from?
It will come from the person who buys your house, not just at the time of sale but for the next 25 to 30 years. Your gain of $200,000 is being funded by the next person. Your gain is their loss.

You might suggest that in return they get an asset that is worth $400,000. But is it really worth that much? Did you add $200,000 worth of renovations to it? Not likely. You might suggest that they can sell the asset to pay off the debt. But where will they live?

The buyer is in a difficult position. The amount of money they must save to even enter the property market has more than doubled. Furthermore, the amount of money that they must earn in order to pay off the interest has more than doubled. If we total the interest payments for the larger loan, will it be worth less than the increase in price? Probably not.
So, your gain is their loss - and it will be their loss for many years to come. Will they require two incomes to pay for it? Probably. What effect will this have on the children that they raise?

In short, the net effect on private home-owners of each transaction like this is negative. Extra labour must be produced in order to hang on to the same physical assets. The social cost of this extra labour is enormous.

We like to call this event a "capital gain" because the amount of capital has increased. This feels like a good thing, but remember that capital is nothing other than the general equivalent of labour. An increase in $200,000 plus interest now demands the additional labour that will total $200,000 plus interest.

I cannot call this an elephant in the capitalist's living room, simply because most capitalists do not even know that it is there. They cannot ignore something that they cannot see. Now, the conundrum for you the home-seller is that you might feel that you have over-priced your house. At least until you think of the price of the next house that you want to buy. How will you afford it? You can only afford it if you use the increased value of your current house to get it. And you can only use that if you are willing to pass on the additional burden of funding your new house to the one who buys your current house.

Eventually, it will all be paid for by people who do not now own houses. Either they will pay it when they buy the first one, or they will pay it in the rent to the one who owns it. People who do not own property are funding the increase in property assets. The property owner can set whatever price they like, but the people who will foot the bill are ultimately those who do not currently own property.

The terror of this situation is that the people who can least afford it are the ones who are forced to pay it.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Amnesia Played

NOTE: Gaming topics have been moved to Tabletop Manifesto.

So, on the weekend we played Amnesia. I've written a brief overview of it on The Voice of the Revolution forums and have copied it to here in case you don't want to click on the link. I know, clicking is such a chore.

The game worked out well. None of us had used Fate before, so that was a fun learning experience. The system and the dice were very supportive of the plot, allowing us to concentrate on the struggle that these characters had in trying to figure out what had happened to them, and then how they would react.

In order to explain the amnesia (an aspect from the beginning), I chose to set this in the world of The Matrix, because I know the setting well, and if I was going to be shakey on either the rules or the setting, I didn't want to be shakey on both.

The characters were rogue programs, unleashed into the Matrix at the start of the episode. They had no recollection of anything prior to that moment because they didn't exist. They started in the unique position of being able to interact with the world but without preconceptions of it, or skills for how to work within it. That made it a challenge to avoid meta-gaming, but we worked our way through that.

Each time they died, they were returned to a "wise man" figure in the form of a character called the Tutor, who asked them to tell him what they learned and asked them what they would like to learn from him. I treated each of these events as a phase in the character creation process. So as the session went on they filled out the skill pyramid, chose most of their aspects indirectly - always as a result of the conversation with the Tutor.

The whole story reached its climax when they learned from the NPCs about their true natures. They realised that they had a choice to make (in classic Matrix style, its all about choice and destiny). They had become dangerous to the program who had created them and believed that he wanted them to be deleted. To save themselves, they either had to sieze the power of deletion from him, or try to upload their consciousnesses into the minds of humans who were "plugged in" and escape from the Matrix.

So the game became one of moral and ethical questions.
- Is it right to pursue self-preservation at the expense of an innocent?
- What should I do with my life, if I have no purpose and seem unable to die?
- Is it right to accept service to another, simply because they have the power to take your life away?
- Is it right to kill someone because they have the power to take your life away, even though they explicitly state that they won't use it?

The last one was especially interesting. The Big Bad said to them, "When a pedestrian crosses the road, their life is in the hands of the motorist driving towards them. But just because the driver has power of life and death over the pedestrian, the pedestrian doesn't take a gun to the head of the driver to kill him first. And yet, you come in here with guns drawn, threatening me because you think I will delete you?"

It was a great climactic moment! The villain eventually escaped, wounded but alive. The protagonists were free, for the moment. As one of the players said, "It's just like a movie, they've left it open for a sequel!"

Everyone was pretty satisfied with the scenario. It told a story of discovery, of moral choices and of adventure. It resolved the big moral choices presented to the protagonists without it being necessary to resolve all parts of the plot.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Belief Without Proof

Edge (the magazine, not the guitarist) likes to postulate a question each year to a group of prominent thinkers (scientists, philosophers, etc.). One year, the question was, "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?"

This is a great question because it allows space for something that we intuitively "know" even without any evidence one way or the other. Perhaps the most obvious answers were those that involved God. Although many great minds have attempted to argue for or against the existence of God, none have yet been able to actually prove their case.

Such a result does not necessarily mean that the existence of God is only in the realm of intuition. If that were true, neurobiologists would still be looking for the so-called "God spot" in the brain. Such a search was abandoned because the spot doesn't exist. The question of the existence of God should be considered as a matter of objective fact about the universe. Either God exists, or God does not exist. The manner and mode of God's existence is something that can be argued about by those philosophers and theologians who are willing to believe without proof that God exists. Those who believe without proof that God does not exist are quite unlikely to get involved in the debate.

So, to believe without proof is something that we all do, perhaps without realising it. Some call this activity "faith" but faith is such an emotionally and socially charged word that I will avoid using it where possible. The breadth of meaning for the word is too wide for it to be useful. Instead, to believe is merely shorthand for "believe without proof for or against."

Belief without proof is also different to belief without reason. Most people who believe something is true will have a good reason for it. A person who has dreamt about their child saying a specific thing prior to the child even being conceived, and then hearing the child say that very thing when old enough to talk... such a person will have reason to believe that there is something more to the universe than merely the 4 dimensions of space-time. This is belief with reason.

In a way, most reasons are experiences. Someone with a better grasp of poetic English than me once said that the person with an experience is never at the mercy of the person with an argument. A rational argument can batter against an experience until the end of time and have no effect on the belief that comes from that experience. Ultimately, experience - and the conclusions that we make from those experiences - will shape our beliefs more than any logical or consistent argument.

The only hope for someone who is trapped in a false belief is to investigate how they went from the experience to the belief. This is the niche of the structuralists and it is at this point that I tip my hat to Žižek and his crowd for their relentless project to find holes in the ordinary experiences of humanity in order to force those who are trapped in them to question the world in which they exist. In other words, question everything around you, especially the things you think don't need to be questioned.

Belief is not the enemy. Without belief, there would be no organised enquiry to find the truth. At present there are a number of people who believe that the Higgs boson will be observed. There is no proof that it exists, but there is a lot of belief and a great deal of reason. Belief is quite useful. It will direct you towards the truth.

So what do I believe that I cannot prove? I believe that there is a God and that this God probably did not create the universe. The rest of that argument will have to wait for another time.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Sustainable Pluralism

I was listening to Insoo Hyun on the Philosopher's Zone and heard him make a remark that I will only paraphrase because I won't guarantee that it's a word perfect account.
We live in a pluralistic society. That means that no ideology dominates the others ... at least, that's the ideal.

First of all, it's interesting to see how the word "ideology" is no longer connected with an ideal. An ideal is acceptable and worth pursuing. An ideal is something that we should all strive towards. An ideal is encouraged. However, an ideology is not. That is, a structured set of propositions that are centred around an ideal is far from encouraged, and a way of life to accompany those propositions is even more discouraged. Therefore, under pluralism, it is acceptable to have an ideal, as long as you don't do anything to make that ideal a reality.
Secondly, the very idea of avoiding domination by a single ideology is in itself an ideology. If a person steps out of line by suggesting that any particular ideology should be either promoted or opposed, that person is either an ideologue (dangerous in the extreme) or just plain intolerant (to be re-educated).

Within pluralism is the inherent contradiction that pluralism itself is something that seeks to dominate everything else. I suspect that there are only two ways for it to function. It must either be a pluralism that encouraged ideals that are never acted upon, or it must be have a mechanism to prevent any particular ideology from actually gaining power. Perhaps the tendency for contemporary democracies to elect centrist governments is the actualisation of this second condition. Extremist governments aren't elected for long. They either get voted out or pervert the electoral process to ensure that they return.

The sustainability of a pluralist society relies on people rejecting the actions of their own ideals.