Jonathan Coulton

January 28, 2009

It iced over here (i.e. Irving, TX) last night. I love cold and gloomy weather, so it was fun; I was walking around campus while everyone else was huddled in their warm dorms/apartments.

But then the next morning classes were canceled and I was mildly irritated. So, these are probably the exact opposite reactions to this turn of events than what most people had.

The good thing is, the Aquinas Lecture (a once-a-year thing where the Philosophy Department brings in someone cool and has them lecture about Thomas Aquinas) wasn’t canceled, so I’ll be there tonight. And probably won’t get a chance to make an actual substantial post today. Or tomorrow, or this weekend. Thus you get this post.

What I am going to do is point you towards the awesomeness of Jonathan Coulton. He’s a programmer turned musician who sings about what nerds find amusing; evil geniuses, Mandelbrot sets, and unrequited love. Plus all his stuff is under a Creative Commons license, meaning you can download it all for free, legally. Almost makes it worth it pay for it.


Tricky Questions

January 22, 2009

Today is the 26th anniversary of the Roe v.  Wade Supreme Court decision in the United States, which, for all intents and purposes, legalized abortion-on-demand up until birth (though later court decisions were required to make clear that this is what it did). It is seen as a day of mourning and penance in the Catholic Church. In honor of it, I’m going to write a post about abortion.

Recently, I’ve more and more seen pro-choice advocates use this following rhetorical strategy. Pro-choicer: “So, if abortion was outlawed, what would be the punishment for it? Would you try the mother for murder?”
Pro-lifer: “Um…” Pro-choicer: “Aha! See, you realize it would be absurd to try the mother for murder; doesn’t that mean abortion is in fact no such thing?”

A tricky question, this one… it takes advantage of the fact that abortion is currently legalized, and many women have had them. If the pro-lifers say “yes, we would try the mothers for murder”, it sounds as if they are condemning every woman who has ever had a legal abortion as an illegal murderer. Obviously this wouldn’t go over very well. And many pro-lifers are simply too focused on getting abortion illegalized to think about what would happen once it was; they themselves perhaps haven’t thought through the distinction between women who have abortions today and hypothetical women would have hypothetical abortions once it were illegal. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a coherent, reasonable, and just pro-life explanation for what would happen to a mother who had an abortion after it was outlawed.

Firstly, if abortion were outlawed, all the abortion clinics would be closed and easy access to abortion would be cut off. At this point no one could say they did not know abortion was illegal, and it would be just to punish them for it – while it would not be just to punish anyone who has had an abortion under the current state of affairs. This is something that would need to be made clear. It’s a similar situation to how slavery was abolished in the US; current slave-owners were not punished except by the loss of all the property they held in slave form, but if anyone tried to hold slaves in the US today, they would be punished, and severely. I wonder, did anyone in the pre-Civil War era use the argument, “so how would you punish slave-owners?”

So the abortion clinics are gone. But there would probably still be doctors performing abortions. In these cases,  the doctor, not the mother, would be the murderer. The main focus would be on shutting down the doctors who perform the abortions. They would be tried for murder. As for the mother, well, she would probably have to be somehow punished… but to what extent? To the same extent, no more but not less, than if they had committed infanticide. I’ve read that if a mother commits infanticide it is not seen as the same as murder; it’s treated as manslaughter. Abortion would have to be punished in the same way.

Is this unduly harsh? I don’t know. Is punishing maternal infanticide with trial for manslaughter unduly harsh? I hope no one thinks so. But if infanticide had been legalized and people were trying to re-legalize it, people might still use the argument “so how would you punish the mother?” The answer would be the same as with abortion, but people would have the same aversion to saying so – because if infanticide were legal, the mother who killed her infant legally would be just as much a victim of the process as the child himself.

Stream of Life

January 16, 2009

So, my newest favorite author is Gene Wolfe. I started reading his books about a year ago, and I’m completely hooked.

But if I have one complaint about his books, it is that the plot often seems somewhat discontinuous. One set of events leads logically enough to the other in terms of causality, but there is no sense of plot progression – X happens, then Y, then Z, then the book’s over, and it feels like the writer forgot to put in a climax.

On the Wesnoth forums, Eleazar articulated his objection to Gene Wolfe thusly:

Gene Wolfe is an amazing and imaginative writer, but ultimately his stories IMHO aren’t about anything… there’s no message, no point, no focal idea… just random events, interesting in themselves but with no real connection or larger significance. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth after reading, even though his skill at putting sentences and pages together is probably greater than any other active sci-fi writer.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s no real connection or larger significance, and I don’t think it leaves a bad taste in the mouth (though this is, I guess, subjective), but Eleazar’s clearly on to something, I think. It’s almost as if Wolfe’s books have no metanarrative (insofar as a work of fiction can be said to have a “metanarrative” at all, rather than simply a narrative :P). Wolfe is guiding the narrative somewhere, perhaps, but not paying attention to whether the audience is at least emotionally aware of where it’s heading.

This can be taken as a flaw in his work – or an intentional omission. It’s an interesting idea – leaving out the “story arch”. Perhaps it’s more true to real life.

How so? I’ve been thinking recently about the metaphor “stream of life”. Life can be looked at a stream of events, you flow downhill towards your final destination, and eventually you’re there. It’s a somewhat common turn of phrase – it even has a Magic: The Gathering card associated with it.

What’s interesting about streams, though, is that they don’t have any goal in mind. They flow downhill, following the laws of gravity and inertia, and end up where they end up – in the ocean, in a lake, dried up in the desert, wherever. Streams don’t have story archs. They don’t build up to some goal – they just run on and on until they reach their destination, then stop. There is no story to a stream. If life is like a stream, does that mean our lives have no metanarrative, either comic or tragic? I think, perhaps, so. (This is kind of the same idea I tried to convey in the poem I posted recently…)

So, life has no story arch. We go from place to place to place, do X then Y then Z, but there’s no reason Y should lead to Z dramatically – only logically. You’ve perhaps heard it said that life is not a fairy tale; well, neither is it any kind of story. It’s just what it is, life.

But we need metanarratives. We need our lives to have storylines. Perhaps we make our own; we try to craft our lives to fit what we think our storyline should be. But then the world intervenes and prevents our storyline from coming true.

To return to Gene Wolfe, then; perhaps he’s not making a mistake by having his stories have little dramatic build-up. Perhaps it’s an invitation to draw what connections we will between the different events – to try to discern the storyline that may or may not be hidden in the various and seemingly random events happening to his characters. I’ve always known Wolfe was a writer who forced the reader to interact with his work (heck, you can’t even figure out what’s going on half the time, let alone what it means, unless you’re willing to put in a decent amount of work); this would be just another level of such interaction.

Or maybe this is all nonsense and this is actually just a flaw in Wolfe’s writings. I dunno.

Campaign: Gali’s Contract

January 14, 2009

I’ve just published a new Imperial Era campaign, called Gali’s Contract. You can read the release announcements here and here. I’m just throwing this up here to say that yes, I have been doing something with myself this break; I came in having one and a half scenarios written and now have the entire campaign written and published.


I’m not going to start another campaign any time soon… I’m probably going to take a break and then figure out what, if any, campaign I want to write next.

The Library

January 10, 2009

Two loosely related topics.

One, it seems to me that if a library has three books of a tetralogy (one in which the books are as closely related as those in the Lord of the Rings are to each other), it ought to have the fourth. What, I ask you, is the point of having Nightside the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun, and Exodus from the Long Sun, if you’re not going to have Calde of the Long Sun? I am now unable to finish the Book of the Long Sun until I somehow get a copy of Calde… which sucks, because the BotLS is pretty awesome. I’ll take this opportunity to once again recommend the works of Gene Wolfe to whoever is listening. I haven’t read anything by him yet that didn’t bewilder, mislead, and ultimately awe me.

Two, I’m trying to organize my personal library, and finding it somewhat difficult. Ignoring the question of ownership – some of the books on my shelves were bought by my parents, some by me, and some I have no idea – there’s the question of how to sort them. Currently, I have two main sections – “school books” and “non school books”. The school books – basically, all the books I’ve read in my English and Philosophy classes the last few years – are arranged chronologically. The other section contains everything else – the Redwall books and stuff like that, but also some non-fiction, some dictionaries, some collections of ancient mythology… and this stuff’s organized by subject matter, loosely, with some books just fit in wherever they can be.

Now, this doesn’t seem ideal to me; I’m probably going to end up organizing by subject matter, ignoring whether or not I read it for school or not. So, ‘literature’, ‘sci-fi/fantasy’ (including collections of mythology), ‘philosophy’, ‘history’ loosely defined… and then arrange those chronologically. The problem is this makes some things hard to categorize – some seem to fit in multiple categories, some in none at all, some need their own special category… plus I don’t have infinite bookshelves to put them on. A very limited number, actually.

Hm… anyone have a better sorting solution? Alphabetical could work, perhaps… but it seems so inelegant. What if I forget the name of the author but know around when it was written (much more likely than forgetting when it was written but knowing the author)? And sorting by subject seems necessary – otherwise  there’s no organization at all, just meaningless order. Meaningless order, in some ways, bugs me more than disorder.

Accidental Dualism and Responsibility

January 5, 2009

I am often irritated by reading about how scientists have found a “physical explanation in the brain” for a given behavior/personality trait. It is treated as if this discovery means that the trait, which was previously considered as under the control of the possessor or completely part of their genetic make-up is now in this weird third state where it’s not under the control of the possessor, but neither is it natural – it’s caused by something, but no one knows what because we don’t understand how the brain develops. A few examples:

It’s not that I think there is something wrong with any of these findings in particular. It is that I think the fact that this is how we present the findings – they’re all cast in terms of discoveries about how the brain is linked to our behavior – is wrong. Of course people who commit suicide will have a different brain structure than people who don’t; they’re thinking in a different way, and thinking differently is synonymous with having a different brain structure. And we already know children from poor families do worse in school on average than children from rich ones; why would it surprise us that their brains look different as well? The same with the article about the risk-taking brain. The obesity one is different; it talks about how, because what is controlling obesity is in the brain, not the glands, it is under the control of the possessor in a way it was not when it was glandular.

All of these, I think, reflect a kind of dualism. The first three represent a mind-body dualism, where if something is present in the body (which includes the brain), it means it’s not present in the mind, and free will does not apply to it – rather it acts as a constraint on the mind, one beyond the control of the mind. The last one represents a brain-body dualism, which functions similarly to the mind-body dualism except that the brain is the mind.

Now, I tend to think all such dualism is fundamentally flawed (mainly because of my extremely anti-dualistic Phil of Man class I had in Rome). Why are they popular then? I think because they let people shuffle off responsibility… if there is something in their brain that makes them want to take risks/commit suicide/be stupid, then their desire to do so isn’t their fault; their brain made them do it. And since if you look hard enough the brain will be different according to every change in personality, you will always be able to blame your brain.

What people don’t realize is that this removal of responsibility also removes free will. If what is in our brain is not our fault, it also is not to our credit. And since there would be evidence for everything we do in our brain (whether or not it is the ’cause’ is another story), we wouldn’t have free will at all. This doesn’t seem desirable.

Of course free will is a complex question, and it is really difficult to find a philosophic position that makes sense of it, but I think the dualism reflected by these BBC articles is worse than most. If we really were Cartesian points floating above our head controlling our actions through the pineal gland it would make sense, but the truth is we’re not, and the brain either controls or reflects (I’m not even sure there’s a difference) all of our actions and personality traits, so this kind of dualism makes nonsense of free will (because the Cartesian point would control nothing).

So… what are the chances we’ll ever stop seeing it in popular culture? Probably slim to none. The ghost in the machine is a powerful concept.

Resolutions (January)

January 1, 2009

I’ve never really been into New Year’s resolutions. They seem stupid. There’s no reason to wait for the new year to try to improve yourself.

But this year I have some, kinda. I’m going to make some modifications to my social persona – mainly because the new year is between semesters, and it’s easier to change how you interact socially with people suddenly after not seeing them for a while than to gradually do it over the course of a semester. I’m not doing it because it’s the new year, but still, I guess I count as one of the many people making New Year’s resolutions.

This somewhat reminds me of the Orbivm character Vaniyera, the hero of his eponymous Epic and one of the villains in both the Fall of Silvia and Alfhelm the Wise. His life story is, basically, he is young, rash, impetuous, and makes mistakes (sort of), he is assigned to a new teacher, he reforms (sort of), then gets killed by Alfhelm. The basic connection is in the “reforms (sort of)” part. How Vaniyera changes is, well, open to debate, but he definitely does change, and intentionally.

I am also reminded of the Picture of Dorian Gray, and how, near the end, he promises to himself he will reform, but that promise ends up leading to his, uh, I guess suicide. Fun. Maybe you can’t try to reform yourself morally.

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