A Philosopher's Blog

Dialogue & Games

Posted in Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 12, 2008

I’m a gamer and a writer. Hence, I appreciate both a well turned phrase and a well tuned phased plasma rifle. When I’m playing a video game, I don’t expect dialogue worthy of Socrates or Shakespeare, but I do prefer that the game creators show that the dialogue matters to them-at least just a little bit.

Not surprisingly, I am in good company here. Tycho, over at Penny Arcade, recently wrote about the dialogue in Gears of War 2 not just once, but twice. On his view, the game is quite impressive. Unfortunately, the dialogue is impressively bad.

While it makes sense for a crappy game to have crappy dialogue, it makes less sense for a good game to be tainted with crappy dialogue. When I play such games, the mind ponders as the hands twitch.

One obvious explanation is that the poor dialogue is a mistake. The developers would have preferred good dialogue, but it simply was not to be. After all, writing can be hard and people fail at it even when they try hard and are being paid to do it. Of course, failing consistently requires a certain talent at failure.

Another obvious explanation is that people do not buy games like Gears of War 2 for the story or the dialogue. They buy such games so they can (virtually) kill things-preferably using a gun with a chainsaw bayonet. Hence, dialogue is not a big concern. Asking why the dialogue is subpar would be like asking why the lettuce on a monster burger is iceberg lettuce and not something fancy: people don’t buy the burger for the lettuce. They buy it for the meat.

A third obvious explanation is that many people who play video games speak in bad dialogue. When I play online, I keep my headset off about 96% of the time. I don’t find the constant stream of repetitive obscenities, racist remarks, and general stupidity worth listening to.  I don’t expect people to speak about metaphysics and political theory online, but it would be nice to hear something besides “fag” and variants on “f@ck” (like “goat f@cker”). At the very least, people should change it up a bit and be a bit more creative in their swearing.  As such, the bad dialogue of the game matches their own way of speaking-they feel right at home in a world of word crap.

There is, of course, a place for well written dialogue. Some games, such as Mass Effect, put an emphasis on story and character interaction. The Halo series is also well written. The success of such games does show that good dialogue will not hurt sales.

I am, of course, for good dialogue. While I play video games for the action, I do like a product that is good across the board. For me, bad dialogue detracts from the game. Not as much as crappy graphics or glitches, but it still lowers the value of the experience. Also, I think that bad dialogue in games can reinforce the bad dialogue of game players. Decent writing is cheap-heck, I’d write game dialog for a copy of the game and my name in the credits. Not to say that I’d turn down cash, of course.  Hence, there seems to be no excuse for bad dialogue in good games.

Rudeness

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2008

Oprah recently focused her attention on rudeness. It will be interesting to see if this has a measurable effect. After all, some have speculated that her endorsement of Obama had a significant impact on the election and perhaps she can have a similar impact on behavior.

While older folks are fond of talking about how polite people used to be and how rude people are now, people have been rude throughout history. However, people have new ways of being rude these days, many of which involve mobile phones.

People are rude for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, it is mere ignorance-they do not know how to behave in a politie manner or are unaware of how their actions are seen by others. And, of course, rudeness can be a rather relative thing. For example, phone related behavior that strikes me as rude is actually perfectly acceptable to most younger people. Many people regard their phone as having top priority for their attention and they see this as perfectly fine. So, when a student whips out her cell phone to answer a text while I’m explaining her paper grade to her, I see it as rude and she probably sees it as socially acceptable behavior. It also helps explain her low paper grade-spending the class time texting tends to have that result.

Naturally, if most people consider a behavior acceptable, then it would be-assuming that manners are merely a matter of social convention. For example, consider the matter of what counts as proper dress-this changes with each generation.

In some cases, it is a matter of making a statement. By being rude, a person can attempt to show that she is superior (if only to herself). Or it can be an act of petty defiance. For example, students are often rude to show that they are defying the teacher or professor. Or perhaps to express their contempt for education and their devotion to their own ignorance. Of course, such rude behavior does make a statement of a different sort-it shows that the person who is rude needs to work on his respect for human dignity and worth.

Another common cause is the person’s view of the relative worth of other people. People tend to be rude to those they regard as being less useful, inferior, or unable to retaliate. For example, people are often rude to waiters and service people because they regard them as being mere waiters and service people. Of course, this could be seen as being on par with animal behavior: growl down and kiss up. Selfishness or a lack of concern can also play a role here. For example, while service people are often treated with contempt, customers are also often treated with contempt as well. Based on my experiences, the people who act in this manner could really care less about the business and probably think that having to work is a terrible inconvenience.

Naturally, there are no doubt other causes of rudeness.

Whatever its causes, rudeness is generally something that people should avoid.

One reason is practical: people respond negatively to rudeness and they remember poor treatment. Hence, they will be less inclined to help rude people and might take opportunities to retaliate. Further, rudeness tends to spread. As Socrates argued in the Apology, if a person corrupts those around her and makes them worse, she is likely to be hurt in turn. In the case of rudeness, each act of rudeness can lead to more rudeness as people pass it along. This will tend to gradually increase the overall levels of rudeness, which will affect us all.

In contrast, most people respond well to politeness and good treatment. While it is anecdotal evidence, I have found that most people are nice to me when I am nice to them. From a purely selfish standpoint, you will generally get more from people by acting nicely than by being rude. Hence, being nice is the preferable option in most cases.

Another reason to be polite is that it is the morally right thing to do. While there are many moral theories, one basic principle that tends to hold universally is the notion that you should treat others as you would want to be treated. Since people would like to be treated with respect, they should treat others that way.

Also, there are excellent arguments (such as those put forth by Kant) that people have intrinsic worth and that this worth should be respected. By acting politely  we are acknowledging that worth in ourselves and others and thus doing the right thing. By being rude, we lower our own worth by trying to lower that of others. Assuming, of course, that people do have such worth.

Virtue theorists, such as Confucius and Aristotle, have also made a good case for polite behavior. Rude behavior is a vice and corrupts a person, leading towards unhappiness. This seems to be supported by studies of the physiology of rudeness-rudeness is, apparently, physically harmful.

So, be nice. At least until it is time to stop being nice.

Veterans’ Day

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2008

Since this is Veterans’ Day, it is customary to thank the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces. This is an excellent custom and I appreciate the sacrifices that have been made for the country.

However, we should not limit our appreciation to having one day in their honor. Rather, we should ensure that the people who serve the country are treated with the respect that they have earned by such service.

Currently, we are actively involved in two wars (or one, if you want to group everything under the “war on terror). This situation will, obviously, create more veterans. Further, people will come out of these wars with serious physical and mental injuries. In the past, the United States has failed such soldiers. One example of this has been the Walter Reed scandal. There are, sad to say, many other examples as well including the poor living conditions that soldiers have faced in the United States. Such treatment of soldiers is morally unacceptable. Their service has earned them better treatment. Actually, merely being human beings entitles them to better treatment than some of them have received.

People in the government have been quick to talk about patriotism and supporting the troops. However, they have been rather slow to actually do things that would support the troops. Hopefully the situation will improve under the Obama administration.

Guantanamo

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 10, 2008

One of the challenges that will be facing Obama (assuming Bush doesn’t do something about it) is Guantanamo.  Currently there are 255 prisoners there who are awaiting their fate. While there is speculation about what Obama will do, there are obviously no definite answers yet.

The Bush Administration’s handling of the situation has been something of a disaster for the United States. The commissions set up by this administration have been beset by legal challenges and the prison has served to undermine America’s standing as a just country which accepts the rule of law. As with individuals, a nation’s reputation is important. It is especially important for the United State because we Americans pride ourselves as being citizens of an ethical nation that respects life and liberty.

While the Guantanamo situation has stained America’s reputation and moral status, Obama has the chance to clean up this mess. Of course, the mess is a complex one and requires proper handling-lest another mess arise.

The ACLU has made its view clear-an ad was taken out in the New York Times exhorting Obama to close the prison as soon as he arrives in the Oval Office. While such a grand gesture is tempting, reality would seem to make this a non-viable option. After all (as the ACLU leadership knows) the situation is complex and complex situations need to be properly sorted out. That, of course, takes time.

The most pressing problem is, of course, what to do with the prisoners. Some of them are no doubt very bad people and what Bush called “cold-blooded killers.” Obviously, it would be unwise to simply let such people go. After all, they would no doubt for on to do more “bad things.” But, simply leaving them in prison indefinitely without trials would be immoral and would continue to damage America’s reputation.

The obvious solution would be to hold trials as soon as possible, preferably while the prison is being shut down. Ideally, the trials would be open-secret trials would probably just do more damage. Of course, there would have to be the usual weighing of national security against openness. However, national security has so often been invoked to hide misdeeds that its use might strike many as dubious and suspicious.

If trials are to be held, there is the question of where to hold them and where to keep the prisoners. Interestingly, while American prisons are supposedly able to hold the worst criminals, some claim that we do not have adequately secure facilities in the United States. However, it might be suspected that the opposition to bringing the prisoners into the United States is that this would have legal implications. But, if security is the main concern, secure facilities certainly could be provided. While this would be expensive, it could be money well spent-assuming that it is part of a process that helps restore America’s commitment to justice and rule of law.

Obama & Iran

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2008

While the President of Iran congratulated Obama on his win, the speaker of Iran’s parliament has criticized Obama for his position on Iran’s nuclear program. Like Bush and McCain, Obama takes the view that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is unacceptable.

While some on the right would like to paint Obama as soft, weak, and ready to cozy up with America’s enemies, this does not seem to be the case. Obama has shown a willingness to use diplomacy and conversation and some see this as a sign of weakness. Presumably some think that strength is shown by resorting to force without seriously attempting a peaceful solution. While there is a certain satisification in the gunslinger approach to the world’s problems, this seems to be a morally questionable approach. The use of force leads to death and destruction. Further, it is generally not the most effective solution. To solve a problem effectively without violence is the better approach-as Sun Tzu argued centuries ago. If talking with foreign leaders achieves our national ends without the shedding of blood and treasure, so much the better. Of course, there are times when talking fails and force must be employed. One who refuses to ever use force is as foolish as one who sees it as his only option. I don’t think Obama is a fool-but he has yet to be truly tested.

In regards to Iran, Obama will probably attempt to improve our diplomatic relations and work on achieving our national ends in this manner. However, Obama has made it clear that he will not accept a nuclear armed Iran. Whether he will be willing to fire missiles into Tehran is a question that remains unanswered. I suspect Iran will try to test Obama’s will. I think they will not find it lacking, nor the will of the American people.

However, I do hope that we can work out a peaceful agreement and ratchet down the tensions. While Iran has strong theocratic elements and has been involved in terrorism, the Iranian leaders and people seem genuinely interested in better relations with the United States. I think we can find common ground with the Iranians and work from there. Of course, we cannot be naive about things.

The McCainator

Posted in Humor, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2008

A little something for my conservative friends:

It was 2029 in the Obamanation that had once been America. The human race was running out of time. With the Same Sex Marriage Chapels running twenty four hours a day and mandatory abortion, it looked like there would soon be no humans left.

But, though the world was a gay, gunless wasteland, resistance had not been extinguished. A few brave men and women fought on against the oppressive Liberalnet system. Gathering their meager resources, they were able to build a time machine and send a single soldier back to the past. This soldier would kill, in the past, the one person responsible for the ruin of America. This would, it was hoped, set things right.

In a flurry of pyrotechnics, the McCainator appeared in the past. Well, what was then the present. What was…I mean is now. Whatever. Hell, you know what I mean.

A bit dazed and really naked, the McCainator was confronted by four young men. They whistled at him and called him “sweetcheeks.” After killing them, he decided to dress in their rather fashionable clothes. He then when in search of guns, lots of guns.

Arriving at what he thought was a gun store, he went up to the counter and spat out harsh words to the foppish young fellow.

“The 12 gauge auto-loader. The 45 long slide with laser sighting. Phase plasma rifle in 40-watt range.
The Uzi 9mm.”

The fellow looked at him and replied, “dude, what are those?”

“Guns. I need guns.”

The fellow thought for a moment and said, “Oh, I remember my dad talking about those in the before time. We haven’t had any guns since 2008. I sell bongs and sex toys now.”

“Wait, this isn’t 2008?”

“No, dude. This is 2012. The fourth year of our savior’s reign.”

“Damn! They didn’t send me back far enough!”

The McCainator suddenly reached past the dude to grab the biggest bong.

“Hey, you can’t do that!”, yelled the dude.

“Wrong”, said the McCainator, whacking the dude in the face until he cried out for socialized medicine.

“I’m a maverick. I do what I want, bitch.”

The McCainator went back to the future and made sure the eggheads got it right this time.

After getting guns, lots of guns, he went looking for his target.

To make sure he got the right one, he’d ask before shooting: “Are you Sarah Palin?”

How Obama Won

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2008

Historians and pundits will be picking through the 2008 election for years, but there seem to be four main factors that made an Obama win possible.

First, there is Obama himself. He put together an excellent team, developed an effective strategy, and was a master at presenting himself. He also excelled at damage control. Further, he has the traits that Americans are looking for in a leader: he is calm, rational, competent and confident. He also seems to be willing to take steps to bring Americans together, even to the point of possibly including Republicans in his cabinet.

Second, there was McCain and Palin. McCain has many virtues, but the ability to run an effective and strategic campaign is not among them. As the pundits pointed out, he had no overall strategy and seemed to lurch from tactic to tactic based on what day of the week it was and what tape or rumor  about Obama happened to surface. Palin also seems to have been a slight drag on the ticket. Perhaps not enough to make a major difference, but enough to take votes away from McCain. Of course, it was impressive to see McCain keeping his campaign going. It was like watching a pilot somehow keeping a bullet ridden and burning plane in the air.

Third, there was the economy. As the pundits have said, if the economy was doing well and the #1 issue was security, McCain would have most likely won. However, McCain came across as weak on the economy and fumbled badly when the crisis arose. Obama handled the situation with more skill and succeeded in coming across as confident. Further, concern about the economy no doubt helped erode concerns about race. This is, of course, the classic foxhole effect. In times of such worry people care less about factors like race and more about whether someone can help them out. Obama did an excellent job convincing the American people that he can handle this crisis while McCain did not. Hence, the tanking economy gave Obama a critical boost by switching the race to McCain’s weak point and also dampening concerns about race.

Fourth, there was George Bush and the Republicans. Their actions  lead to incredibly low approval ratings and to a damaged Republican brand. McCain not only had to run against Obama, he also had to run against the damage done by his own party. If McCain had been able to do more to separate himself from Bush, then he might have had a better chance. Amazingly, calling himself a maverick did not do this. Of course, McCain was in a difficult situation: he had to cozy up to the party to get the support and funds he needed, but had to distance himself from that party to avoid being dragged down. In the end, he was unable to make it work.

Fallout 3 Glitches

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2008

When I can play Fallout 3 it is a rather cool game. However, it has some serious glitches. As I noted in a previous post, I can only run it in windowed mode. Once I got it running, I ran into crashing problems when using the VATS. Interestingly, it seems to cause the program to crash when used outside. So far, no problems when it is used indoors during gameplay. Perhaps the larger virtual area is a causal factor?

I’ve also seen some interesting video glitches. When going into the ant lair under the school, some of the ants appeared to be made of glass (that is, they were translucent). There were also some weird effects with the walls. The really annoying effects began when I went to the Super Duper mart. The screen shot below nicely shows how bad it was. The graphics got so bad I could not play the game and had to force it to quit.fallout-3

I’m sure there is a really good game under these problems and it is a testament to either the underlying game or my own stupidity that I keep trying to make it work.

One of my friends is having no trouble with the game and another friend cannot even get the game to run long enough to leave the vault. I suppose that it is working for enough people that Bethesda’s profits are in no danger.

Naturally, fairness compels me to say that writing games for Windows can be difficult and there are so many PC hardware and software variations that problems are all but unavoidable. That said, all the other games I bought in the past few years have worked just fine.

A patch was released for the game-hopefully that will help with some of the problems.

Is America Post Racial?

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2008

My ethics class has long featured a section on racial equality and yesterday gave me the opportunity to discuss the subject in a new light. Not surprisingly, my students were quit pleased with Obama’s victory and they felt quite optimistic. However, they were also realistic about what his election means.

To focus the discussion, I used Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech. In his speech,  three of the problems he mentions are segregation, discrimination and poverty.  As the class discussion revealed, while segregation and discrimination are now illegal, they still remain serious problems. After all, it is possible to segregate and discriminate in ways that do not break the law. For example, while African-Americans make up a disproportionately large percentage of the the prison population in America, they make up a disproportionately small percentage of those in leadership positions (political, academic, and business). Poverty is, of course, still a concern and wealth still seems to follow racial lines in the United States. These problems and other factors clearly indicate that America is not post racial.

Not surprisingly, racism and concerns about race cross racial lines. Despite the fact that I have been a professor at  Florida A&M University since 1993 and have written extensively about race, some people made it clear on November 5th that they assumed I had racist tendencies simply because I am white. I was (once again) informed of the racism of white America and how it was thought that white America would not permit a black man to be President.

My responses were the obvious. First, it seems racist to assume that a person is racist simply because s/he is white. This is similar to assuming a black person uses crack simply because he is black. Second, to talk about “white America”  and making assumptions about how all whites think is to group people into a stereotypical class based solely on race. This certainly seems to be racist. Just as blacks are individuals with their own views, whites are also individuals with their own views. Third, obviously “white America” was, in general, just fine with electing a black man President.

Initially I was slightly surprised that people would make such remarks about whites and “white America.” After all, Obama had just been elected President and had spoken about the need to get beyond race. Of course, a moment’s reflection revealed the obvious: his election has been a major milestone, but people do not change quickly. Many people, regardless of their color, are still very much concerned about race. As such, while we are heading towards a future in which race will matter less and less, we are still here in the now. And now race still matters.

Reasoning, Autism & Vaccines

Posted in Medicine/Health, Reasoning/Logic, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2008

Good parents are protective of their children and fear things they think could do them harm. Unfortunately, parents (like anyone else) can be mistaken about what is and is not harmful. This can occur because, ironically, people tend to reason poorly when they are afraid. This is ironic because such situations are when we really need our reasoning skills the most. One such situation is the controversy over vaccines and autism.

Dr. Paul Offit recently wrote a book on the subject, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, that has generated a great deal of controversy. One of the purposes of the book is to address the alleged causal link between vaccines and autism. His position, which is well supported by the weight of scientific research, is that vaccines do not cause autism and are safe for children.

Despite the fact that the weight of evidence shows that vaccines (including the thimersol that was once used as a preservative in some vaccines) do not cause autism, many people still believe there is a connection. Part of this is due to the fact that a now retracted 1998 study suggested a link between vaccines and autism. Part of this is due to the fact that lawyers, celebrities, and people in the media continue to claim that there is a connection. Even John McCain asserted his belief in the connection. In some cases, these people are honestly mistaken. In other cases, they stand to benefit from such claims.

Not surprisingly, Offit is the target of anger and even threats. In the case of people who are willfully misleading the public, this is to be expected. In the case of people who are honestly mistaken, this might seem surprising. After all, one would think they would be grateful to know the truth. Of course, there are those who doubt that Offit has the truth.

Offit’s critics contend that he stands to gain financially from vaccines and hence is biased. Offit profited from the sale of the vaccine RotaTeq and has also been a paid and unpaid consultant for the drug company Merck (which now manufactures RotaTeq).

From a critical thinking standpoint, this concern is reasonable. After all, a person’s credibility is reduced to the degree that they are biased and money is a strong biasing factor. When people raise this concern, they are reasoning well-provided that they are raising it on good grounds and not as a rationalization for their rejection of his claims.

While money is a biasing factor, when assessing the credibility of a source it is also important to consider the whole picture and not just one factor. To do otherwise would be fall victim to a bias. Offit’s personal history and behavior seem to indicate that he is more concerned about the well being of children than about money and people do speak highly of him. These factors might very well offset any bias from his financial ties to vaccines and, of course, his scientific credentials are quite solid.

Fortunately, resolving the key issue (whether vaccines cause autism or not) does not depend on Offit’s credibility alone. There has been extensive research into the alleged connection between vaccines and autism and, as noted above, the weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly against there being a meaningful connection. Why, then, do people still believe that there is a connection?

First, as mentioned above, there are celebrities, people in the media, lawyers and others who claim that there is a connection. People are often bad at discerning between legitimate authorities on a subject and people speaking on that subject who are famous for something else (like being an actor). When people make this error they are committing a fallacious appeal to authority.

Second, people are generally poor at scientific reasoning and critical thinking. Even college educated people. My own university’s assessment process revealed that most of our students are weak in these areas and similar assessment at other schools have revealed similar results. These results match my own experiences teaching critical thinking. When people are not very good at scientific reasoning and critical thinking, they tend to not know how to assess such research and also tend to be less influenced by logical arguments. Instead, they tend to be more influenced by emotional factors and poor reasoning. This leads to the third reason.

Third, people are more influenced by their emotions than by reason. Many parents are worried that their child will develop autism. Thus, fear and love leads them to be concerned about anything that might cause autism. These emotions can impede their ability to assess the matter rationally and they can come to feel that vaccines are a threat when they hear about the connection. If they are not good at critical thinking, they will not be able to properly investigate the matter and hence will tend to stick with how they feel rather than finding out what would be most rational to think.

Fourth, most people tend to be more influenced by poor reasoning than by good reasoning. As I tell my students, fallacies tend to be far more persuasive than logical arguments. After all, people tend to feel far more strongly than they think. Further, people tend to fall into very predictable patterns of poor reasoning and accept the results as true.

In the case of autism and vaccines, people seem to fall into the post hoc fallacy. This allacy derives its name from the Latin phrase “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” This has been traditionally interpreted as “After this, therefore because of this.” This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. In the case at hand, parents might notice their child showing signs of autism after receiving vaccinations and assume that the vaccinations are the cause. However, without adequare evidence linking the two, this would not be a reasonable inference.

Fifth, when people do not know what is causing something harmful, they can start grasping at explanations. People, sensibly enough, do not like being ignorant of what is causing autism. While this does motivate people to search for a cause, it can also lead people to simply pick an explanation so that they now feel more in control. Of course, if someone does not have a good grasp of critical reasoning, they can accept something as a cause that really is not. For example, people have explained illnesses and deaths in terms of witchcraft, curses and vampires. Today, few people would attribute autism to supernatural causes, but taking vaccines as the cause without adequate evidence can be seen as somewhat similar: a cause (or scapegoat) must be found to make people feel better.

Does this mean that vaccines have no possible link to autism and the people who worry about it are foolish? No, clearly not. There could be cases in which a vaccine has triggered autism by interacting with many other factors and it is reasonable to be concerned about such a possibility. However, it is also important to approach the matter rationally and not let fear lead people into making unwise choices.

After all, while there is the possibility that vaccines might have some link to autism, it is well established that vaccines protect children from very real harms. Some parents, afraid of the alleged link, have not vaccinated their children or are not following the recommended schedules. Given the serious consequences of some of these diseases, a failure to vaccinate properly could be very harmful to the children. Naturally, these vaccines should be made as safe as possible.