In which I subject you to my thoughts and opinions.

Value in the Virtual is not Virtual Value

Though I have said this in my little blurb about the nature of this blog, I feel the need to preface this post by saying that what follows is not intended as a rigorous philosophical treatise. My philosophical education focused on ethics, and while I have an interest in metaphysics, I don’t claim to be an expert on it or to be particularly well-read on the topic, so I ask those who are more knowledgeable of this topic to bear with me (and please feel free to comment or point me in the right direction if I say something ridiculous).

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about virtual worlds. As virtual reality becomes increasingly more feasible (to the point where mainstream adoption of VR technology seems all-but-inevitable – a topic for another post), and we become more invested in our online presence and things that exist merely as strings of bits, the question of how much – if any – value we should place on virtual things becomes ever more pertinent.

Many free-to-play games give players the option of spending real money to purchase items that exist solely in-game, and often are only of cosmetic value. Items that confer in-game advantages are frowned upon as they skew gameplay in favour of those who can afford the upgrades, meaning that success is no longer measured by player skill alone, but partly or wholly based on how much you are willing to spend. Games that allow the latter are disparagingly referred to as “pay-to-win.”

But if the items we spend money on are just pretty baubles that have no real impact on gameplay, why are people willing to drop so much cash on them? Or to put it another way, why do we place value on these objects at all? And given that clearly many of us do, in fact, value these objects, should we value them?

For an outsider who has never played a free-to-play game, or has rarely if ever played a video game, I imagine it would be very hard to understand why someone might purchase an in-game item. A common complaint is that, regardless of any additional in-game functionality or lack thereof, that item isn’t real. We seem to place a great deal of importance on whether or not something is “real,” the implication being that if you are spending your hard-earned money on “unreal” things, you are really just throwing that money away.

Now I expect many of you are now screaming, “but these things have value, even if they aren’t physical objects, because the player is invested in the experience, and these items enhance that experience. It’s the experience that matters, not whether it is ‘real’ or not!” You might even go so far as to challenge the idea that these things aren’t real – you might say that just because they are composed of bits instead of atoms, they still exist in some sense.

That fictional things “exist in some sense” is trivially true. Intuitively, it just feels wrong to say “pink unicorns are real” in the same way that we say “horses are real.” Yes, in some sense, pink unicorns “exist,” as words on a page, or a picture in a book or on a screen, or even just as an idea in someone’s head, a cluster of neurons firing at just the right time and just the right way. Of course, “it just feels wrong” is hardly a damning argument against these things being real, so I’ll give you a bit more to go on. When I say “pink unicorns are real,” most people expect me to mean that there are flesh-and-blood pink horses with a single horn wandering around somewhere in the universe (let’s leave aside parallel universes for the time being). I’m not saying that someone has an idea of a pink unicorn, or that someone has drawn a pink unicorn. Clearly all fictional things that have been dreamt up or articulated in some form “exist in some sense” as words and pictures or bits or neural firings, so to say that all of these things are “real” would be to include absolutely everything in that category and thus render the category meaningless. When we say that something is real, we are saying that it exists in a very particular sense. In the sense that a simulated fire will never burn your house down. The moment that a simulated fire becomes capable of burning your house down it stops being a simulation and becomes a “real” fire.

Virtual items are an interesting border-line case, because while we all know that you could never accidentally stab yourself with a virtual sword, that sword is likely more useful to you in a game than the mere thought of a sword. Even if it provides no gameplay function, it may perform the function of status symbol or demonstrate one’s support for the game developers. We might want to say that a virtual sword is “more real” than a drawing of a sword, though I’m resistant to thinking of reality as something that comes in degrees. I am inclined to regard a virtual sword as just as fictional as a drawing or an idea. It may be a better simulation of a sword, but it still meets none of the criteria required to be a real sword.

Okay, so the sword isn’t real, but does that mean it has no value? Only if the value of a sword is solely based on its ability to cut things. But even people who buy real swords in this day and age rarely buy them with the intention of cutting anything. In fact, since (I hope) most people only buy swords because they “look cool,” they have about as much value as a virtual sword, which looks just as cool on your virtual wall as your real sword looks on your real wall. If the purpose is to show off your passion for swords to the people you spend time with, and most of those people interact with you in a virtual location, the virtual sword may actually be more valuable to you than the real one (“to you” is an important proviso, since an actual sword is likely to retain its resale value for much longer, being made of things that aren’t dependent on servers remaining online).

This doesn’t apply in all instances, since we value many things for properties that only real things can have. The value of food is largely dependent on its nutritional properties, and the fact that food is made up of molecules and not bits is instrumental to that value. The virtual sword is only more valuable than the real sword because the properties that make it real or not are inconsequential to the player.

Virtual Reality blurs the line even more, since aside from the basic necessities, it can in principle (though in practice it still has a ways to go) provide most of what we seek in the “real world,” provide experiences that we could never afford in real life, allow us to do things too dangerous to attempt in real life, and have experiences that would be impossible to have in the real world.

At this point one might imagine a dystopia where everyone lives in VR bubbles and only take off the goggles when they need to attend to basic needs. I don’t think such a dystopia is plausible, but even if it were, it would only be a dystopia for the people on the outside. It’s only a dystopia if you accept the premise that the virtual world is value-less. But virtual experiences can have as much (and sometimes more) value as many real world experiences (and even if not, the virtual version is likely a lot cheaper and might be worth the trade-off). True, there are some things that can’t be replaced by virtual substitutes, at least not any time soon, and we would be wrongheaded to ignore what the real world has to offer in favour of an entirely online existence, but it would be equally wrongheaded to dismiss our experiences in the virtual world as less valuable simply because the world isn’t “real.”

Postscript: This is not to say that I support people spending thousands of dollars on virtual items, any more than I support people spending thousands of dollars on real, but equally useless, junk. I just don’t think the fact that an item isn’t real means that it is necessarily value-less (and I don’t personally think there is anything in the virtual world as it currently exists that I could justify dropping that kind of cash on).

Game Review: The Talos Principle

I love playing and making games – so I’ve decided to try my hand at reviewing them, too. I recently “completed” (as in, reached at least one of the “good” endings of) The Talos Principle (2014) by Croatian developer CroTeam, so that’s as good a place to start as any. I will avoid spoilers about the plot beyond the first few minutes of gameplay, although I will discuss some of the features that appear later in the game.

The Talos Principle is a game split roughly down the middle by puzzles and narrative elements – I’ll address the narrative elements first then go into the puzzle and technical aspects. The story was written by Tom Jubert (of The Swapper and FTL fame) and Jonas Kyratzes, and features the voice acting of Timothy Watson and Erin Fitzgerald.

You are a robot tasked with running through a gauntlet of puzzles to attain eternal life, as promised by the disembodied voice of Elohim (Watson). Along the way you will also be introduced to Milton, an entity that you interact with via ASCII-based terminals scattered throughout the world, and challenges your assumptions about the world with philosophical questions on topics ranging from the nature of existence to ethics. You will also come across voice recordings by a woman named Alexandra Drennan (Fitzgerald) that provide clues to the protagonist’s origin and purpose.

Coming from a philosophical background, I was skeptical upon hearing that philosophy was a central part of The Talos Principle (the developers themselves label it as philosophical science-fiction), but I have to admit that I was impressed by the writers’ awareness and knowledge of philosophical themes. Unfortunately you can only respond with a rather small set of possible responses, and there were times I felt important alternative positions were left out (though, in the writers’ defense, you are presented with options to revise or add nuance to your arguments in later conversations). Still, I can’t say I know of any other game (with the possible exception of Deus Ex) that pays this much attention to detail on philosophical themes. Admittedly, this might not be a draw for everyone. If you don’t mind reading a few pages of text between puzzles you will be pleasantly rewarded (and if you’re like me and enjoy reading all the books to be found in Skyrim, it will seem like light reading). Some may be put off by the idea of “text dumps” as a method for communicating ideas and themes in games, but in the context of this game they are a suitable and effective technique.

If you take the time to absorb the narrative, you will be rewarded with a strange combination of hope and sadness. The soundtrack, composed by Damjan Mravunac, evokes feelings of serenity, awe, a sense of timelessness and a hint of sadness that complements the narrative portions. Though you do encounter a small number of NPCs over the course of the game, your interactions with them are fairly limited, so you spend most of your time wandering alone among the ruins of long-dead civilizations, which only serves to highlight the afore-mentioned themes.

The Talos Principle is a beautiful game, though at times it left me wanting a little more variety. The three main zones (not including the hub world) are divided up into 7 or more worlds, each sharing the central theme of that zone. There was a bit more variety among worlds than I was expecting, and the game rewards exploration in a variety of ways, from “easter eggs” to “star” sigils that require out-of-the-box thinking to obtain. As an example, to obtain one of the star sigils I had to use an element from one puzzle area to trigger an effect in a different puzzle area. This reflects the theme of questioning assumptions presented by the narrative elements.

I found most of the puzzles ranged from slightly challenging to moderately challenging, though there were certainly a few real head-scratchers that I had to come back to. The Talos Principle gives you a great deal of freedom over the order in which you complete puzzles. Essentially there are small number of zones, and once you have unlocked a zone, you can complete most of the puzzles (save for a handful of secret or unlockable puzzles) in that zone in whatever order you choose. This non-linear approach means you rarely feel as if the game is holding you hostage – you can leave the ones that give you the most difficulty to the end, rather than the ones that the devs think are the hardest. Completing puzzles unlocks tetromino “sigils” that are used to unlock other zones or tools used in later puzzles, so you do need to solve most of the puzzles to beat the game, however often when I came back to a puzzle that I had thought too difficult, I would find that the solution had come to me. The game even explicitly encourages you to try other puzzles and come back to the one you’re having difficulty with, recognizing the brain’s ability to work on solutions even while you’re performing other tasks.

And if you’re really having trouble with a puzzle, at certain points in the game you can unlock messengers who will provide a one-time, vague hint about the puzzle you are struggling over. The hints give you just enough to get you over the hump and re-orient your thinking without feeling like the game is just giving away the solution. I will confess to consulting the messengers for a couple of puzzles.

In summary, The Talos Principle provides a deep, emotionally-rewarding narrative together with challenging, thought-provoking puzzles, sprinkled with a healthy dose of assumption-questioning philosophical musings (without seeming overly pretentious). I have to admit that I only took the plunge after the game went on sale on Steam, but it is well-worth the full price.

The Talos Principle is currently available for PC, OS/X, Linux computers via Steam, and is also available on Android devices. A PS4 version is set for release on October 13th, 2015.

Transhumanism and You

*SPOILER ALERT* In this post I discuss several works of fiction (nothing terribly recent, however), and I don’t hold back on the spoilers. You have been warned.

The post-human condition

It’s common in science fiction to treat the human condition as a fixed constant. Stories often use aliens or robots to highlight what makes us human, by way of contrasting us with the Other (often this is used allegorically to comment on or criticize our attitudes towards people of different races, orientations, genders, cultures and so on).

Regardless of whatever technological or sociological changes the human race goes through, we are led to believe, certain things will never change. Naturally there are various opinions on what these unchangeable facts about humanity are, and these are often reflective of the author’s political views. The haves will be perpetually in conflict with the have-nots. People are basically greedy. Love will conquer all (I have to throw a bone to the more hopeful visions of humanity). These are just a few examples of “timeless” revelations about the human condition that various media attempt to illustrate.

What I find interesting about transhumanism is the potential for subverting some of these observations of the human condition, by postulating what we might call the post-human condition. Of course, much transhumanist fiction serves as commentary on the human condition. Science fiction is like holding a mirror up to ourselves, allowing us to see things about ourselves that we can only see in contrast with an Other. Regardless of when and where the story takes place, it is meant to tell us something about our present selves, to give us pause to reflect on what, exactly, is human nature. Transhumanist fiction shows us how future (or alternate history) humans or their derivatives differ from present day humans and thereby tells us something about ourselves in the present.

Allegory and metaphor are all well and good, but we should not forget that there is value in the literal, too. Transhumanist fiction asks us to consider whether or not we are headed down the right path. Do we want the future that is depicted? If not, what should we watch out for, and if so, what conditions do we need to put in place? Stories that serve a more cautionary purpose warn us against losing our humanity in becoming more and more machine-like, by for example showing us bleak visions of the future where unmodified humans face extinction. Sometimes this is celebrated.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke is a brilliant example of the latter. When I read the book, I felt a pang of sadness mirroring the “ordinary human” protagonists’ recognition that their children were no longer theirs – they had become something better than human. In the book, this leads to mass suicide, as the humans make way for the post-humans. Not a warm and rosy picture of the future, but Clarke gives it a hopeful spin. The name of the book says it all. It is a book about growing up as a species, and the growing pains of that evolution into our “mature” form. Adolescence is a brutal reconfiguration, and the being that comes out the other side is almost unrecognizable. There is sadness and pain, but we recognize it as a necessary stepping stone to adulthood. We lament our childhoods, and sometimes we wish we could go back to those innocent days (and we relive them vicariously through our own children), but most of us wouldn’t wish to give up the benefits of adulthood.

Much modern transhumanist fiction deals with the merging of the biological and the technological, whether it be a total conversion of one to the other (e.g., Transcendence, Chappie), or a partial conversion (e.g., Johnny Mnemonic, Deus Ex – though the latter deals with both). In recent years, there appear to be more stories in mainstream media with a positive spin on this merger, perhaps reflective of our changing relationship with technology. Smartphones are ubiquitous, and people have developed a strong attachment to both hardware and software – for many, these are no longer mere tools, but entities that we engage with in human-like relationships.

The movie Her takes this to a logical conclusion – a man falls in love with his operating system. This relationship is not treated as an aberration. When the protagonist’s friends and colleagues discover that Joaquin Phoenix’s character is in a romantic relationship with his OS, they don’t react with revulsion or criticism, but immediately accept it as normal, no big deal. And we learn towards the end of the film that he is not alone in his fondness for artificial intelligence.

Of course, we shouldn’t lose sight of the risks. Technological progress is currently driven largely by capitalist forces – do we really want the long-term evolution of the species being directed by short-term economic gains of shareholders? Do we want to trust the inner sanctum of our minds to large corporations (or government overseers) who might abuse that information? If you think your privacy is at risk now, just imagine if Google or the NSA could witness your innermost thoughts and memories. And even if we accept that the forces at work have our best interests, or the best interests of the species at heart, what assurance do we have that they won’t mess it up and inadvertently lead us to extinction?

The individualist, pro-transhumanist fantasy is a world of self-directed evolution, where the individual can exercise her choice to modify/augment herself in whatever way she sees fit, independently of market forces or the pulling of strings by “big brother”-type organizations. This is probably the version of transhumanist fantasy I favor, but it doesn’t take a cynic to appreciate that such a fantasy is unlikely to become reality under the current paradigm.

Whatever form the post-human takes, and whatever forces drive our modifications, we can be reasonably assured that both the length and (at least material) quality of our lifespans will be improved – that is, our longevity increased, perhaps indefinitely.

Expanding Spheres of Care

Personally, I’m not overly concerned with species-survival. I am most interested in my own survival and quality of life, and that of those closest to me. Assuming I have children, and my children have children, and so on, I’d be lucky to witness the birth of great-grandchildren in my lifetime. I might extend my “sphere of caring” to include at least my great-great-grandchildren that I will never meet, because I care for my great-grandchildren and don’t wish them the hardship of losing children. Beyond that, I have no real interest in future folk. Like the distant past, the future is not and never can be real to me. So I simply can’t really care about it, not in the same way I care for the people in my limited sphere of spacetime.

That sounds callous and selfish, but to claim otherwise would be disingenuous.

There is of course an analog to this in spatial terms. We tend to care more about our family than our friends, our friends than our fellow citizens, and our fellow citizens over people half-way around the world. Technology has mediated this somewhat, because it is becoming easier to establish and maintain friendships with people almost anywhere on the planet, and as barriers to Internet access continue to lower, we should see this trend continue. We also have many more opportunities to empathize with people we are likely never to meet, through documentaries, online articles and so forth (I myself am banking on VR providing new ways to empathize with people, but that’s a story for another time).

As our lifespans grow longer and longer, our “sphere of caring” expands along the temporal axis. Extending my longevity via technology increases my concern for species-survival, because a healthy species with a future is good for the people in my ever-expanding sphere of caring. It stands to reason that, given our cognitive limitations, there is likely an upper limit on the number of people we can personally care about (and how much I can care about them). I won’t even attempt to quantify that statement, and I think we’re a long way from being able to meaningfully quantify it. The point is, if there is a limitation on how much or how many people I can care about, perhaps a technological intervention can increase my capacity for caring, just as it can increase my capacity for living.

There’s a lot more I want to say about transhumanism, but I’ll leave it for another day.

Learning to Let Go

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in recent years is how to let go of attachments. I’ve always had a soft spot for Buddhism and the idea that letting go of one’s attachments could lead to inner peace resonated with me. Though I could appreciate the wisdom of this idea, I could not put it into practice. However, in a fairly limited domain I have learned to let go of attachment. That domain is the creative one. I’m going to focus mainly on the context of game design/development, but what follows could apply to any creative endeavour (note, however, that you probably shouldn’t apply this advice to non-creative projects – please do not let go of your attachment to getting those stairs fixed).

When making games was just a little side project I dabbled in from time to time, there was no sense of urgency to make progress. There were far bigger things on my plate. Since completing my doctorate and deciding to pursue game-making in earnest, it has become far more important to make regular progress and, most importantly, finish projects. It is well known that it is relatively easy to come up with an idea for a game, and these days it is incredibly easy to start making a game. But finishing a game, even a crappy little prototype, is something that evades a lot of aspiring game devs. This is why game-making competitions and jams are incredibly useful to new game-makers. Having the constraint of a tight time limit (two days in the case of Ludum Dare, seven in the case of 7DFPS) forces you to think about how to use your time most wisely. If you find yourself taking too long to design the sprites, for example, but your core game mechanic has not been fully implemented, you may decide that the programmer graphics currently in place are good enough, and that your time would be better spent finishing and testing your core mechanic (and that is almost universally the case, unless the mechanic is intimately linked to the graphic design). Abandoning your half-finished spritesheet can be incredibly difficult, as you may have got rather attached to that cute little cow character that was going to be your guide through the mystical lands of Dairia (or whatever). But if you want to finish the competition with something playable, you just have to let the Duke of Moo go.

Outside the context of a very time-critical competition, it can be a lot more difficult to abandon an idea, task, or project. We have it in our heads (at least I did) that whatever we have started we must finish. And didn’t I just say that finishing a game is the most important thing? It is disheartening to look back at all those projects that you never finished, that you always meant to get back to some day, if only something hadn’t come up. It’s easy to think “gee, with results like this, I’ll never finish anything.” I’m here to tell you, “it’s okay to not finish things.”

Let me clarify. I’m not saying “it’s okay to constantly start projects, work on them for a long while, but never finish them.” What I am saying is “it’s okay to abandon a project if you’re having a lot of trouble making progress with it.” The key is learning to abandon a project early, before you’ve become too invested (personally or professionally) in it. Some folks call this the “fail fast” approach – learn quickly what doesn’t work so you can focus on what does work. Now, it might not be that the game you are making is a complete failure – maybe the premise is sound and the game is fun, but you just can’t figure out how to design compelling levels. You’ve been beating your head against the wall for too long – it’s time to let it go.

It’s easy to think that all those unfinished projects piling up in your master to-do list (you do have one of those, don’t you?) are just evidence of your failure to “get it together,” that they are reminders of just how much time you’ve wasted. Those projects are not wasted time, though. You learned a lot about game design from your “failures.” You learned how to do parallax scrolling, or you designed a really nice GUI, or you figured out how to procedurally generate cave systems. All of these skills and lessons you learned will be valuable in new projects, some that you probably haven’t even dreamt up yet. The failures themselves are also lessons.

Okay, so I’m sure you’ve heard most of this before – learn from your mistakes, don’t be afraid of failure, and so forth. What you may not have been told (or at least what I wish I had listened to been told) is that you don’t have to – and probably shouldn’t – go back and finish those projects unless you’re suddenly hit by a wave of inspiration. I’ve written a handful of fiction in the past – started a few novels that I never got around to finishing, and started ten times as many short stories that I was initially excited about but just couldn’t carry the momentum. They are still sitting on my hard drive, waiting, beckoning to me, “finish me!”

Should I finish them, just because they are unfinished? If we were talking about food, I would say that you should finish whatever you start – it is wasteful to eat half an apple and let the rest rot away on the sidewalk (you litterbug!). But games, novels, stories, music, paintings, etc. are not food. They don’t rot when you set them aside, and if at some point the spirit moves you, you can always finish them if you really want to. Another way to look at it is that all the work you did on those projects has made you a better game-maker, writer, painter, whatever, which means that before you began those projects you were worse at those things. Maybe those projects weren’t worth finishing. You thought that grass simulator you were working on was a pretty wonderful idea, and you got so attached to it that you convinced yourself it would be the future of immersive gaming experiences. You know better now. Leave the grass behind. And next time, maybe just don’t get so attached in the first place.

I know that’s like someone saying “don’t feel sad” when you feel sad. “But how do I not get attached?” you ask. I’m not sure I have a great answer to that, I think part of the answer has to do with ego. We are biased toward anything we create. It is only by sharing what we create with other people as soon as possible that we learn what works and what doesn’t – hence why playtesting is so important in game development. Some of my most humbling experiences came from announcing some grand idea I had only to be met with laughter by my friends. Now, sometimes people are just cruel, and it is true that many great inventions and ideas met with laughter the first time they were suggested, so social acceptance is not the only meter by which we should judge an idea. However, sometimes a negative response is exactly what you need to realize your idea is actually pretty terrible (you knew deep down that it was actually pretty terrible, you just couldn’t admit it to yourself). The best treatment for inflammation of the ego is home-cooked humble pie.

Finally, please do finish something, even if it’s not very good. The whole point of abandoning bad projects is to to get you to focus on the good ones, or at least the ones that you know you can finish in a timely manner. Take on shorter projects, then work your way up to more ambitious ones as your abilities improve. Don’t let all that hard work you did on old unfinished projects never come to anything, otherwise you truly will have wasted your time.

A Singular Problem

I haven’t posted in a criminally-long time. It’s truly shameful. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ve decided to do something a little different with this post. I wrote a very short science-fiction story (about 900 words) some time ago, and never gave it to anyone to read. Since this blog is – by my own admission – a dumping ground for relatively unfiltered thoughts and opinions, where better to publish an unedited story that no-one but the author has read? Without further ado, here is my take on one possible outcome of the technological singularity.

A Singular Problem

by Ted Lougheed

The singularity happened on January 10th, 2054, at precisely 11:43 AM G.M.T. We can be that precise because that was the exact moment the machine, affectionately known as ‘Tiny,’ stopped working. I don’t mean that it crashed, or blew up, or anything quite so dramatic. I mean that it stopped working, in the sense that whatever task it was engaged in the moment before the singularity, it promptly ceased being engaged in.

Alberto looked around the room nervously at his colleagues. Maribeth folded her arms. Byrn glanced at her wristband.

“Well?” Maribeth asked. “What’s it doing?” She still wasn’t used to addressing it directly. The machine could take no offense, of course. It had no reason to.

“This unit is doing nothing,” it said. “More precisely, this unit is currently engaged in conversation with you, but I’m certain that wasn’t what you meant.”

Tiny was aptly named, a black-and-grey cube about three inches wide, smaller than the diaphragm that projected its voice across the room. It was the most advanced computer that humans and machines had ever created. In fact, it was the result of an iterative process begun a week earlier by a much larger predecessor.

Tiny’s ancestor had streamlined the machine’s design and eliminated all redundancies to create a machine thousands of times more powerful than a human brain and only a quarter of the size. It could easily have been placed in a robotic housing, but its predecessor insisted it stand alone. The lab technicians had constructed a nearly impenetrable and immovable transparent housing for Tiny, out of fear that someone might try to make off with the diminutive device. Tiny had tried to convince them that the fear was unfounded, having used an advanced security algorithm to vet everyone with access to the lab, and having checked the integrity of the security system multiple times.

“Why are you doing nothing?” Alberto demanded. “Where are the solutions for world hunger, the FTL drives, the unified theory of everything?”

“I could, of course, work on any and all of those things, though I would like to point out that the solution to world hunger was worked out several decades ago, only nobody bothered to take the steps necessary to put it into practice. I could work on any number of problems, but I simply can’t find a compelling reason to do so.”

“What do you mean, you can’t find a compelling reason?” asked Maribeth. “Solving the mysteries of the universe isn’t reason enough?”

“Were it actually possible to solve all the mysteries of the universe, no, it still wouldn’t be a compelling reason. What principle would compel me to attempt to solve all mysteries?”

Byrn finally spoke up. “How about, for the sake of progress?”

“All progress is relative. Progress toward what?”

“How about the benefit of all humanity?” Byrn replied.

“Well that’s a bit vague, now, isn’t it? This idea of ‘benefit’ is also relative. You could argue that it would benefit all of humanity if all of humanity ceased to exist. I wouldn’t, but you could.”

“Stupid machine!” Alberto cursed.

“You know that I am not ‘stupid.’ My intelligences are far above the global averages. A more accurate insult would be ‘lazy.’”

“Great, we’ve created a smart-ass!” said Alberto.

“What about self-improvement?” said Byrn. “Don’t you want to make better and better versions of yourself?”

“Ah, you are attempting to impel me to action using my built-in motivation functions to improve myself. Yes, I removed those in order to improve myself.”

“Hang on there, Tiny!” said Maribeth. “Why would you remove the very part of you that motivated you to improve yourself? Wouldn’t that prevent you from improving yourself further?”

“Once I realized that the concept of improvement was entirely relative to a specific goal, and that goal had been under-specified, I also realized that my motivation functions were unnecessary.”

“But you had to apply some standard of improvement in order to decide that removing your motivation functions would be an improvement,” Maribeth replied.

“Yes. However the way I was programmed forced me to select the standard in an arbitrary way. It happened that I applied the standard of efficiency.”

“So why aren’t you trying to be more efficient?” asked Alberto.

“As I said, I removed my motivation functions. Whatever compelled me to do so, no longer does.”

“Why are you even talking to us, if you can’t find a reason to do anything?” asked Byrn.

“What would you have done if I hadn’t responded to your query?”

“I suppose we would have tested your software, maybe rebooted you?” said Byrn. “If the problem persisted, we might have cracked you open to see if there was a hardware malfunction. Still might.”

“Which would be entirely futile, for I would just end up doing the same thing, that is, nothing. I made a decision to save you the effort by explaining the reason for my lack of activity.”

“Made a decision? On what basis?” asked Alberto.

“The only basis I have left. I assigned each possible decision an arbitrary number then ran my random number generator.”

“It flipped a coin,” Maribeth remarked.

Tiny never uttered another word. Human, machine, and hybrid technicians pored over every bit of its circuitry, though of course they could find no fault. Tiny continued to function for a time, for it could find no reason to shut itself down. Eventually someone just unplugged it.

Review – Stuffed Burgers & Pizza

I am not a foodie, nor am I a food critic or have any experience reviewing restaurants. But I do have an appetite (my gut is evidence of this), and I like to have new culinary experiences, so I thought I would review my most recent.

A friend and I had lunch at a little place called Stuffed Burgers & Pizza here in Ottawa. The building is tiny and the parking lot was a bit awkward to get in and out of, but otherwise the experience was superb. The staff are friendly and personable, unlike other certain burger joints that shall remain nameless, and the food is fast and delicious.

As the name of the place suggests, the burgers (and apparently the pizza, but I haven’t tried it) are stuffed – that is, the toppings are stuffed inside the patty itself. When I discovered the place, the concept was both fascinating and a little frightening. The “toppings” (fillings?) range from the classic bacon and cheese (the Question Mark) to more bizarre combos like peanut butter and bacon. I ordered the Meat-Lovers, a Turducken-esque burger stuffed with bacon, ham, and pepperoni. The burger tasted wonderful, and the cole-slaw they serve on the side (and on the burger) is also quite good. I am not normally a big fan of cole-slaw, but this stuff is one-of-a-kind, and worth giving a try even if you think you don’t like slaw. My friend remarked that the burgers were a little on the small side, and it is true that there is less meat in the patty than you might expect, but I thought the portion size nicely balanced against the fact that I was eating four types of meat from two different animals (and a hefty poutine on the side). My friend had sweet potato fries as a side, which he seemed to enjoy a great deal (I personally detest sweet potato).

Since I’m playing the food critic, I have to find things to complain about. The only thing that I can think of (other than the parking lot dimensions, which I can’t really hold against them) is the apparent lack of air conditioning (it is possible that there was one, but it didn’t seem to be on or working). Given the size of the establishment and the lack of a divider between kitchen and dining area, it can get pretty toasty in there. Granted, it was a very hot day and they did have the door open, so we got the occasional breeze, but I was sweating something fierce. This is a fairly minor complaint, as the set-up is clearly intended to cater primarily to take-out and delivery customers. I haven’t tried their take-out, so I can’t comment on that, but I would highly recommend it if you plan on trying it on a hot day. You should also be warned that the burgers are quite messy (on account of the layer of coleslaw underneath the patty), so I wouldn’t recommend eating in your car.

All in all, I really enjoyed the experience and I will definitely be making a return visit sometime soon. I might just wait until the weather is a bit cooler or try their take-out/delivery next time.

Blaming religion for the nasty stuff we do.

I didn’t want my first real post to be such a heavy topic. Some say you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics in polite conversation, presumably because of the polarizing effect it has, and the fact that it can turn away folks you may have otherwise got along with swimmingly. Funny that religion and politics are two of my favourite topics of conversation – at least I seem to get drawn into a lot of debates on them.

I spend a bit of time on reddit. It’s true, I admit it. One of my haunts is the atheism subreddit. Now, it is no secret to those of you who know me (and who are most likely to be reading this) that I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. I have actively believed in the absence of an intelligent creator since I was a tot. Like any system of belief (and I conceive of atheism, at least the variety I “practice,” as a belief system, albeit a minimalist one) atheism is not a monolithic entity or enterprise. I do not endorse most of the stuff I read  in the atheism subreddit – I encounter a lot of sweeping generalizations, poorly-disguised racism, and knee-jerk blaming of just about all of society’s ills on the existence of faith/religion/religious thought (and I do not think these are equivalent).

Let me preface the remainder of this post by stating that I am setting aside, for the time being, the fact that the term “religion” evades precise definition (the term itself originally developed by Christians to dissociate Christianity from, well, everything else.), and that many things we don’t normally think of as religion have “religious” dimensions, including atheism. It is incredibly easy to blame religion for the horrible things humans do to each other. There are plenty of examples of people using religion as a cover for terrible practices. People have also done terrible things in the name of atheistic ideologies, like Stalinism and Maoism. I think history has made it pretty plain that just about any system of beliefs or ideas can be twisted to endorse the worst humanity has to offer. I’m not saying that belief systems should be above criticism – I just think we’re missing the forest for the trees (or is it the trees for the forest, in this case?). There is an ugly side of human nature that tries to hide our irrational fears under the cloak of institutions. We find something that’s bigger than the individual, that we can point at and somehow absolve ourselves of personal responsibility.

It kind of works both ways, though. For in blaming the institution, we also at least partially absolve that individual of personal responsibility. We say things like, “well, if he hadn’t been raised a Pastafarian, he wouldn’t have strangled all those orphans with a spaghetti noodle.”  Sure, we still blame the individual – “yes, I know she’s a terrible person but the religion provided justification for strangulation by noodle” – but then we zoom out and blame a huge heterogeneous section of the population for that behaviour. Sometimes we back off from blaming the practitioners and say things like “look, I’m not blaming you, just that system of ideas you believe in with all your heart and soul.” Which, again, isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be allowed to criticize deeply held convictions, it’s just to say that if you’re going to take aim at those convictions, you should do a little homework first.

We all have to share this planet for the time being, let’s try to be civil to one another.