Posts Tagged ideals

Achievements at Parties

Just got back from a day of galivanting around to wedding and party – it was great!  The wedding I just went to, between good friends (of mine, and of each other, obviously!) Kelly and Laura was so wonderful, and despite there being a ton to talk about re: their specific event, I decided to talk a little bit about a kind of peripheral activity they had: achievements for guests to earn.

Rebecca and I,  two Mays ago, had a combined birthday / “passed the bar” party where I provided achievements for guests.  Basically, there was a list of activities the guests could do to get credit, and then either Rebecca or I would give them the badge.  At the wedding today, they had a table set out with the conditions to achieve and the nametag sized badges.

As social games go, the achievement game is pretty great.  It has especially wondeful social merit in situations where not everyone “playing” knows everyone else.  For example, if you tell people to go mingle to get an achievement, you are incentivizing them through the game to come out of their shell a bit.  By making it a game, a certain class of typical asocial people (i.e. gamers) will stray from their comfort zone, which I personally think is awesome.

It’s not a game that can be used in every context.  However, it is one of the few I have played where it is relatively easy to get non-gaming inclined individuals to participate (whether they are striving toward achievements, or helping others to fulfill theirs).  In that way, it is very powerful, and very valuable, and I will continue to look for ways to engineer incentives via this achievement game to involve people in games. :)

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The Bechdel Test

I didn’t realize this, but I found it very interesting: there exists a test for media that is a rather compelling look at the inequality of gender in said media.  It’s called the Bechdel Test, and it is beautifully elegant:

To pass the test, there must be:

  1. Two females who
  2. Talk to each other about
  3. Something other than a male.

It was surprising to me how many movies and books fail this test.  I suppose that means that (a) I am naive about my notions of equality being shared among my fellow humans, and/or (b) I have a much stronger bias in this field than I thought I did.  I do strive to see every person, male or female, black or hispanic or white (etc.), as equal, but I do know that I have subconscious biases due to my upbringing (I just didn’t know many “persons of color” and I live in a male-centric world) that I try to correct for.  One great point made by someone on the site was not that this test is a case for a movie aligning with feminist ideas or such, but rather that if you reversed the genders (two men who talk to each other about something other than a female) it would be much less common for a movie to fail.  Another point made to me recently was that the pressure for a male protagonist in our society means more media will fail (because by their very nature, stories are about the protagonist)… but that’s part of the point in terms of audience shaping content.

There’s another test, the so-called Johnson Test, that replaces “female” with “person of color” and “male” with “white.”  It’s interesting that although mainstream media fails this test even worse, there are a large number of media in what I’ll call more specialized sections (the author of the test mentions “urban lit” as such a category) that pass it easily.  Definitely an argument for the importance of context.

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There’s a relatively famous article (it’s about playing Magic, but the lesson it teaches applies to all pursuits) I have read called “Stuck in the Middle with Bruce.”  In it, the author details as aspect of the subconscious that he names after a friend of his, Bruce.  Bruce is the part of us that needs to fail.  What? you think to yourself.  I don’t need to fail!

Or do you?

I wanted to take the lens of Bruce to my own thoughts and see if I can uncover areas in which my subconscious is influencing/sabotaging me in this way.  I guess I mean the higher Ideal Dave, who has his dreams and goals, and though Ideal Dave believes himself above the influence of Bruce, I know deep down he is not.

  • In pursuing relationships with women, I often find myself attracted to ladies who are taken.  I know I have heard that’s because I see they are valued by other men (because they are in a relationship), but maybe it’s because I’m “safe” from the risk of failure this way?  (Which, of course, is the failure Bruce desired anyway.)
  • I have often complained about my job being annoying/terrible/frustrating (jobs prior to this one! :)).  But if the common thread is me, and if maybe-just-maybe I am subtly putting myself into situations where I am not challenged, and therefore I’m again “safe…” well, maybe that satisfies my subconscious desire to fail (to exceed).
  • I am upset with my current state of fitness.  I worked out today, and I felt awful because I am so out of shape.  “I don’t have time to exercise,” I always tell myself, “there’s more important stuff to do!”  Those excuses, though – maybe that isn’t really what’s going on.  When I am out of shape, I am less likely to go out and meet new people (because I am less comfortable with myself).  So maybe my Bruce is protecting me from meeting new people, so I can stay comfortable with where I am (and not have too much shake-up).

It is hard to admit I am subconsciously sabotaging myself; even now, as I write, my logical Ideal Dave is screaming “I am in control of my choices!”  It’s like trying to catch a reflection out of the corner of your eye, and analyze subtle differences that might indicate there’s something wrong.

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The Tool Trap

Often I rail against money, or scarcity.  I also rail against injustice served up by free markets.  But I don’t rail against technological tools (like teleportation or power generation) that could be leveraged to evil ends.  What gives?  I was thinking about this because I do believe in the usefulness of tools, and I wanted to speak to what I believe are their moral implications.

Tools are powerful.  I feel like more than any other idea or thing, tools are the means by which humans gain mastery over their environment.  But tools have a secret cost (I mean, in addition to their not-secret costs, like materials or skill) and it’s that they allow us a wider range of choices, and therefore require from us more responsibility when we have the opportunity to make a good choice.  The advancement of technology happens at the speed of science and engineering, but the advancement of reason and wisdom can happen at a different rate.  If we don’t “grow up,” so to speak, at the same rate as we generate more and more powerful tools, then we are bound to screw up and make bad choices that have bad consequences.

It’s troublesome, because often once a tool is created, it is impossible to know who will use it.  Thus the moral cost of the creation of the tool is unknown.  It’s something to keep in mind – are the creators of the atomic bomb (or perhaps more ambiguously, those who figured out it was possible) morally responsible for the deaths of those the bombs have been used against?  I don’t know what my answer to that question is, but it certainly isn’t “definitely not.”

I don’t think we should stop making better tools, but I do think we need to be aware that a tool is only as Good as its wielder.

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One Wish

Patrick wrote an article – about a week ago? – that was an interesting treatment of the “what would you wish for?” thought experiment.  He defied other gamers in the room and claimed he would not wish for anything.  Why?  You can read it here, but basically, I boil it down to two fundamental reasons:

  1. The universe is in the correct state right now, even though it might not seem like it.
  2. The result of a wish has little value compared to the result of one’s own experience and actions.

I couldn’t agree with Patrick’s conclusions (not to use the wish) but I had a hard time framing why until today, having mulled it over quite a bit.  I just disagree with the first reason, but I think it is by far the weaker of the two – my ideal universe bears only a small resemblance to the current universe, and others may not assign the same moral weight to those ideals.  I do agree with the second reason – human experience is very valuable.  I believe things are essentially worth what you pay for them (the value you assign to them), not what others are willing to pay.  However, though I am a fan of promoting this particular virtue, I think there is a spectrum of reasonableness in promoting virtue and this falls outside the line I would set for myself.

Yes, I do want to live my own life and make my own experience – the good and the bad.  But I also think there are things more valuable than one’s personal, human experience and those are the kinds of things I would wish for.  It is the value that we assign to things that makes them matter, and I am quite capable of receiving a boon or gift from an altruistic person I’ve never met – it becomes a tool I can use to do good.  (I may write more about tools in a later post.)

I do think it is admirable in a way to push the virtue of self-sufficiency (doing things on one’s own, enjoying the labors of one’s own hand(s)) so far, but I would not do the same.

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It Could Happen to You

I’m spending the weekend mostly inside (or gallivanting around at dog parks) with the beagle trio (Max, Tulip, Buddy), so I am reading – programming – watching movies.  I saw It Could Happen to You, a movie from 1998 that I had no idea existed, with Nic Cage and Bridget Fonda.  The premise is that a very honest cop in NY doesn’t have cash on him to leave a tip at a diner, so he promises the waitress half his lottery winnings (from the lottery ticket he just purchased) on the next day.  Obviously, he wins, and then he gives her half, fulfilling his promise.  Antics ensue.

My favorite part of the movie is later, when the two of them are talking, and she says, “I just couldn’t believe you went through with it.”

“A promise is a promise.  Anyone would do the same,” he replies.

“No,” she says, “nobody would do the same.  Nobody!”

How important is a promise?  I used to believe that keeping my word was one of the absolutely most moral things I could do.  Then, as I became a bit wiser (I like to think!) I decided that sometimes doing the right thing means going back on your word, because when you made your promise, you didn’t understand the full consequences of your action.  I do think that honoring one’s word has moral value – it is Right to do it, integrity is a virtue worth promoting, and reliability of stated intent is something valuable.  That implies that I find lies evil, on principle, but unlike my ideas about fairness or the value of sapient life, I don’t think it is as strong a principle as to form a core of a philosophy.

I’d like to believe that I would have done what Cage’s character did, but like all of my moral posturing, I don’t honestly know how I would act in the moment, when the decision actually stands before me.

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Over the weekend, I got a new Bluetooth headset – I saw Monty with one and was immediately jealous, because man do I hate wires.  I hate them so much.  So anyway, I ordered the headset, and got it and an adapter to enable my desktop/laptop for Bluetooth shenanigans.  Over the course of a few days I had some ups (whoa longer range than I expected in the office, and sweet I can control my music from the headset!) and some downs (ugh multiple devices in the same room causes trouble, and blech it causes trouble with my audio programs when I let it go idle too long).  Now that I have some time to reflect, what do I think?

First off, I remember getting a set of wireless speakers way back, that operated on basic radio, and it was abysmal.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand much about how Bluetooth was different until I ordered these headphones, but I have found out that the protocol is a bit more refined and it seems to behave well in “happy” circumstances.  For example, over the entire course of the workday, I had my music playing while I was at my desk and it worked great.  So, on that level, the reliability level, the technology is pretty reasonable.

Secondly, I am finding myself annoyed much more by other wires now, now that I have severed the headphones-connection.  My mouse at work is wireless (yay!) but my keyboard is not… and my laptop is certainly not portable in the sense that I am jacked into power, ports and network.  So that’s a bit frustrating.  Overall though, I feel like I am making progress (slowly and surely) into a more futury world!

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Patience and Serenity

I had a minor epiphany (not a major one – maybe one day!) on the drive home from work yesterday, that went like this: there are really only two things that frustrate me.  The first is not knowing something, and the second is not having control over something.  Interestingly, the two qualities that indicate capacity to handle those frustrating states – patience and serenity – are two qualities that I both lack and want to improve upon.

Now, it’s not that I want to know everything.  There are some things I am okay with not knowing (for example, how to manage a sewage plant, or the current angular momentum of Sagittarius A*) but there are a ton of things I wish I knew, even though a lot of them aren’t realistic (for example, what my friends are actually thinking at any given moment, and how the universe came to be).  One of my core identifiers as a person is my pursuit of knowledge, so I have a hard time accepting that some things are not for me to know (lies! of *course* they are for me to know!)… rather than accept it (serenity) or wait for deeper elucidation through experience (patience), I just need to know now now now

I also don’t really want to control everything.  I am quite happy allowing people I don’t know personally to live their lives, the planets and the stars to do their thing (orbit, rotate, accelerate), and in general for things outside of my sphere of influence to do what they will.  But I do want more (direct) control over my life, and often that involves other people who I accept as free-willed individuals, and therefore should be outside of my control.  It is a very hard lesson, one I understand intellectually but which still escapes me instinctively, to relinquish control over others and external situations, and by so doing achieve greater happiness.

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Choice vs. Consequence

I had an interesting set of conversations with Mark (Rosewater) today, which was great, but I also identified something in my own thinking about morality and “good” that I need to define a bit better: the relevance of choice versus the outcome (consequence) it produces.

Mark brought up the following question: if a person is in need, and you help them, and they are happy/better off/no longer in need, is that good?  To me, there are two factors at work here:

  • My decision to help a person, apparently in need
  • Whether they are in fact helped by my action (or harmed by my inaction, to look at it a different way)

I am pretty sure I can only assign moral weight to my decision, because I can’t necessarily affect the outcome significantly.  For example, if the person is lying and doesn’t need help, does that make my decision to help them any less “right”?  What if they are truly in need, I help, and they end up no better off because I couldn’t give them what they needed?  In both cases, I believe that my choice to help the person is just as moral as the choice to help the actually-in-need-and-I-end-up-helping person in distress.  The consequence is relevant, in the sense that I think the world could be better off in some utilitarian way if the outcome is positive, but not as relevant as the choice.

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What is Good?

I think there’s a lot that goes into the question of “what’s Good” with a capital G, and sure, a lot of it is probably subjective, but I wanted to focus on two of them that I believe in pretty strongly: fundamental principles, and reasoned insight.

By fundamental principles, I mean that there are things about people and the world that you can deduce as intrinsic.  You could imagine situations that contradict these “guidelines”, but for the most part they form a reasonable baseline for goodness.  One of them is the idea of fairness, as in there’s no basic reason to treat one individual differently from any other.  Another is the value of freedom: to thinking beings, having choices is generally preferable to predetermined outcomes, so actions that preserve choice are generally “good”er and actions that constrain choice are generally “bad”er.  (I understand that there can be value in violating fairness or freedom, but I think those are much more edge and I am focusing on the core of what’s good.)

By reasoned insight, I mean the kinds of conclusions that rational beings can draw upon given these fundamental principles.  This is where the bluriness starts to creep in, because two people acting rationally can either (1) disagree on the correct application of principles to situations, or (2) disagree entirely on which principles apply and in what priority. Some of the conclusions that people reach (and that I agree with) are:

  • Faithful/loyal service should be rewarded (projecting fairness backward)
  • Treat strangers well (projecting fairness forward)
  • Promises should be kept (expectations of outcome that constrain individual freedom should be met)

This is all a very highly logical view of things.  I think you could unravel a lot of systems of thought down to these principles-and-conclusions, and I may try to tackle that one day.  I do know for sure that if I can identify what principles and conclusions a person I am interacting with is using to define “good,” I’m always in a much better place to understand them (and myself, in relation to them)!

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