Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Bizarre Case of the Black Eggs

I dreamt this last night:

I work on a futuristic chicken farm where hens occasionally lay valuable black eggs. A young woman arrives one day with a trained capuchin monkey who could predict which ones would lay the black eggs (and perhaps even encourage it), much to the supervisor's delight. He sets up a special area for the black egg-laying hens and instructs me to take extra good care of them.

One day, as I am getting ready to close up for the day, I hear a scream from the supervisor's office. I run to it and nearly knock over the young woman with the monkey, who is standing in the doorway petrified. She tells me to call emergency services. From inside the room, my supervisor shouts for me to do no such thing. I peek around the woman and see the supervisor standing over the body of a man from corporate. He says that the regional director had a tragic accident, and dismisses us.

The next day I come in to work see men in scrubs dragging the young woman away. I try to stop them. They say she is mentally ill, and must be put in a hospital. The supervisor keeps her monkey, but gradually the hens stop laying black eggs, and the farm shuts down.

Unemployed, I wander the streets. I have to run away from police at some point (I cannot remember why), and wind up in an urban park where I find the monkey. It brings me to an elderly woman on a bench. The monkey suddenly holds out a black egg to me, and I take it. The woman looks very startled.

I tell her of my previous employment, and of the monkey's sense for the black eggs. The woman says she is the CEO of the corporation to which our farm belonged, and that the regional supervisor who died at that factory was her son. She knew nothing about the monkey or our increased black egg production, and suspects foul play on the part of the supervisor.

When the she learns that the monkey's owner may have witnessed the incident and was committed to a psychiatric institution against her will, she insists that I help her find the young woman. So we set off in the CEO's gigantic airship and head to the hospital, which is off in the mountains for some reason. When we arrive, she buys the hospital to gain the young woman's release.

The young woman, who was certainly sane when they took her from the farm, refuses to speak or make eye contact with anyone. She just sits by a window on the airship with the monkey in her lap, staring out at the clouds.

One day, we dock at a city in the sky (think Cloud City), and the monkey suddenly seems restless. The young woman stands up and starts walking in the direction her monkey indicates. We follow her, and come to a shady-looking warehouse. There, my former supervisor is trying to sell several unmarked crates to another man.

The young woman points at the supervisor. Her monkey leaps up onto one of the crates, pries it open(!) and fishes out a black egg. The supervisor tries to flee, but I tackle him. He says we can do nothing to him because of extraterritoriality or somesuch. The CEO looks up from her tablet and smiles, informing the supervisor that she had just purchased the entire city, and would insure that he sees his day in court.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Betting Against Pascal

This post is not an attack on any person's belief or lack thereof. Though I do not understand Christianity, I respect those who practice it so long as they respect others in turn. This about the backfiring of a popular apologetic argument, which ended my brief foray into Christianity.

I grew up in Taiwan, immersed in Chinese culture where philosophy, science, and religions of various sorts coexist without any sense of contradiction. This mentality of syncretism and non-exclusivity makes it difficult for me to grok the appeal of Christianity.

It was in part my failure to understand Christianity and curiosity about its success that encouraged me to 'give it a try'. I chose Roman Catholicism because it is the faith practiced by the Irish American side of my family. My beloved aunt, who is a sister (nun) and a lifelong educator, gave me guidance and reading materials, and I found an enthusiastic sponsor at Saint Jude's Shrine in downtown Baltimore.

If Pascal is right, I would side with this guy
The details of my experience are for another post, but suffice to say that Christianity and I did not part on good terms. I came away from it even more mystified by the popularity of Christianity than I was before. Catholic theology in general and apologetics in particular made little sense to me, no matter how my mentors framed it. The single most obnoxious argument in their arsenal was Pascal's Wager.

Seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal posited that, with no rational means to prove or disprove the existence of the Christian god, it is safer to bet on his existence, as one has everything to gain by believing (i.e. Heaven) and everything to lose by not believing (i.e. Hell). This is known as Pascal's Wager, or Pascal's Gambit.

There are a number of serious problems with this argument--false dichotomy being the most immediately obvious--but the one that really put me off was its implications on the character of the Christian god. Pascal's Wager hinges on the assumption that the Christian god, if he exists, saves those who believe him and damns those who do not. 'Believing in the Christian god' entails acknowledging him as an omnipotent being and the creator of the human species, if not the entire Universe.

However, Christianity originated only two thousand years ago, within a rather small ethnic tradition. In order to preserve Pascal's premise, then, we must conclude that the Christian god intentionally withheld his revelation--and therefore salvation--from the vast majority of humanity for most of history. If so, he is a negligent parent at best and an egomaniacal despot at worst.

Given Pascal's conditions, I would wager against the existence of the Christian god. If he exists and would damn anyone who did not believe in him, then I want no part of his kingdom. If he exists and is the just and loving god some modern Christians make him out to be, then he would presumably save anyone who leads a good life, believer or nonbeliever. If he does not exist, then it makes no difference whether I believe in him or not.

When I left the Church without ever being baptized or confirmed (they do it in one big ceremony for adult converts), my sponsor was not surprised. My aunt kept a brave face, though I knew she must have been devastated. She told me to "follow your own Light", to which I replied that I did, and always would.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Open Letter to LGBT Allies

Dear Allies,

Thank you. I do not think we say it often enough. We appreciate you, though that might seem less obvious as queer people gain more acceptance in society at large. The LGBT subcultures are notoriously cliquish, something many of us find endlessly frustrating. To some extent this is a defense mechanism, the logical extreme of a minority group's tribal mentality. I am glad that it has not driven you away, even when we fall prey to the same kind of group politics employed by those who despise us.

At the Baltimore Pride Festival this weekend, I saw more different-sex couples and young children than I ever expected. The sheer number of strollers and baby baskets (is there another name for those things?) there amazed me.

When straight parents intersect with queer issues in the news, it rarely makes for a happy story. We read about concerned mothers who do not want their children 'indoctrinated' by the homosexual agenda. We read about fathers who send their sons to reparative therapy or special camps in the hopes of 'curing' them. We read about grief-stricken families who wished that their kids had found support instead of taking their own lives.

Yet there you are, quietly raising your younglings to love and tolerate--or raising no children, despite all of the pressures and expectations that you 'should'. I do not expect the majority to ever agree with you; I will be happy enough with their indifference, which is certainly a sight better than hate. You, however, go above and beyond just letting us be.

You are the brother who kept my secret and said you would always love me. You are the teacher who gave me shelter from the bullies, and listened when my parents would not. You are the friend who tirelessly petitioned your legislators for our rights. You are the employer who kept me on when you could have replaced me with someone more 'acceptable'. You are the stranger who smiled at us when we walked hand-in-hand.

In your eyes I see a better future, for you are living proof that humanity can rise above the petty squabbling of ingroup against outgroup. While I welcome the neutrality or even tacit sympathy of the majority, I will always cherish having you on our side, even when all our battles are won. Thank you, once again.



Monday, June 4, 2012


People say they never forget where they were when they learned of certain historical tragedies--the assassination of JFK, the Challenger disaster, 9-11. My earliest such experience, which marked me deeply, was of the Tiananmen Square incident. In Chinese it is typically referred to as 六四 (6-4) in reference to the date that the People's Republic of China resorted to military force to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations.

Though the protests had been going on for months all across China, I was five years old and oblivious. I had broken my ankle the previous winter, and spent what seemed like an eternity (but turned out to be less than two months) in a cast. Happily recovered, I had spent much of the spring rambling through the coastal shantytown on the outskirts of Keelung where we lived in temporary military housing.

I was sitting on the floor of the little concrete hovel I shared with my parents, doodling. The door stood perpetually open to admit the sea breeze that cooled steep seaward slope. My grandmother, visiting as she often did, and sat nearby shelling beans for dinner and watching news on our flickery television set.

I looked up from my drawings when I heard the news anchor say something about 'students'. Chinese children heavily identify themselves as students for various cultural reasons, so I was keyed to the word. What I saw had nothing to do with preschool. It was a video clip of the early morning hours of June 4th, when the ironically named People's Liberation Army rolled in to clear Tiananmen Square. It was a vision of darkness punctuated with fire and milling bodies, and then a line of troops.

The anchor described (in what was probably a recap of earlier news) the crackdown on the student protesters, and the uncertain death toll. I could not fully comprehend, but I stared raptly at the screen.

"Ni-ni," I said to my grandmother (in Chinese; I translated it as best I can remember), "why would the soldiers kill the students?" To my young mind, a students were children, and soldiers were kindly 'older brothers' who played with me when my father was too busy at the base.

"Those are older students," my grandmother said. "They did something the government didn't like."

I turned around and looked at her, wide-eyed. "What if I do something the government doesn't like? Will the soldiers come after me?"

"We do not have the same government as those students," she said wearily.

"But they're Chinese, too!" I insisted, not yet understanding the complexities of the Chinese Civil War, which ended in the ongoing stalemate of Taiwan's ambiguous statehood.

"Don't worry about it," she said. "We came here so that would not happen to you."

I looked back at the television screen, which showed an interview with a highly agitated eye-witness. For all I understood of geography, it hardly mattered whether Beijing was a world away or just over the next ridge. Watching the man on that screen, I did not find my grandmother's words very reassuring.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Destroyer of Worlds

I vividly remember this conversation with my father. I was eighteen years old, visiting my parents on winter break from university. Dad offered me a lift to my alma mater so I could visit old teachers and classmates.

We did not talk much those days. I had not yet forgiven him for pressuring me to join the military, and he had not yet forgiven me for not joining the military. He did not know I was queer, and I was not ready to let him know.

Heaps of grimy slush lined the roads. He admonished me to stop fogging up his windows with all my breathing. I mentioned having talked to my eldest brother, and that he was doing well. Dad said nothing. An older, wiser me would have kept my mouth shut, but I was young and indignant.

"Would it be that bad for me to turn out like him?" I asked. My big brother and I had similar temperaments and aspirations. "He is a successful writer."

"After how many years washing dishes?" said my father, unimpressed. "You can get a good job and then write when you are retired."

I suppressed a sigh. "I could, but I would be miserable."

"How are you going to provide for yourself, and your family?" he asked.

"I'm not going to have any kids, so I doubt my income will be that much of a problem," I said. My big brother was the only one of my siblings who remained childless, and I was determined to keep him company.

Dad seemed unimpressed. "You will want children someday."

"Maybe," I said. "If I want kids, I will adopt them once I am able to support them."

"Then your excellent genes will be going to waste." He tried to sound light-hearted, but failed.

"It isn't a waste if I use them to do good in the world," I said. "Like, I can raise my kids well, whether they're adopted or not."

"It's because smart people like you aren't having kids that idiots are taking over," he snapped. "That's selfish. People like you are destroying the world."

I knew he had a temper, but even for him that came out of left field. Was he worried about his 'excellent' genes dying off? He had five children and six grandsons already. His genes were doing just fine without the contribution of his eldest and his youngest.

It is always hard to learn that a hero is not quite the person you made him out to be. Though a great man for many reasons, my father was far from perfect. Up until that day, though, I never truly doubted my father's intelligence or wisdom. That was an illusion that needed to be destroyed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Stranger than Fiction

Here are some recent WTF moments from my actual meatspace life.

A man sees me kiss my partner (in the heart of the 'gayborhood', mind you):
"Now I've seen it all!"

A woman asks me for the date of the Spring Equinox, one day late:Me: Sorry, it was yesterday.
Her: But it should be on the 21st!
Me: Usually, but this year it was the 20th.
Her: Well, I hate it when they go changing things, so it's the 21st to me.

A man asks for a black-and-white candle and I direct him to it:
Him: Is it this one? (Points to a dark-green-and-black candle)
Me: No, the one next to it.
Him: This one? (Picks up the same green-and-black candle)
Me: No, Sir. White is the color that isn't dark.

Two women arguing about my gender:Woman #1: Thank you, Sir. I mean Ma'am!
Woman #2: You blind, girl? That's a man!
Woman #1: No he's not. I mean she's not!
Me: He is, actually.
Woman #1: Oh my God, I'm so sorry, Sir! It was the earrings! I'm so sorry!

A man walks down the street shouting into his cell phone:
"People ride by everyday, and I tell ya, Moby Dick is in that motherfrakker!"
(He did not really say 'motherfrakker'; I just do not feel like digging through Blogger's TOS to see if I have to turn on the adult filter for deploying the F-bomb.)

A woman holding a tub of scented bath salt:
Her: Ooh, bath salts! (Turns to me) What do you do with this?
Me: ...put it in your bath water?
Her: Oh, I thought it was for burning!
Me: ...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Skirting the Issue

Iggy Pop in a dress. Your argument is invalid.
I like skirts--long or short, on women or on men, on other people or on myself--so long as they are wide enough to permit free movement and have usable pockets. I like trousers that fit those criteria as well, and find them more suitable for some situations, but I still prefer skirts for on the basis of comfort and aesthetics.

A lot of people seem to have this mental block: they see skirts as women's garments, and cannot move past that. Men wear trousers. Women wear skirts...and trousers. Why are women permitted to wear both, but not men? They cannot be bothered to ask questions like that.

Maybe they just do not want to consider the likely explanation, which is misogyny. This is a very reductionist version: women wear skirts, men wear trousers, and women are inferior to men; it is good for women to strive for something above their station, therefore women may wear trousers; it is bad for men to sink to something beneath their station, therefore men may not wear skirts.

Other people can accept certain types of traditional men's skirts, such as kilts or sarongs, but only if one belongs to the culture that produced said garments. My partner's mother is convinced to this day that my partner's and my predilection for kilts is justified by our Irish American heritage. The number one question we get asked when we walk around in kilts is, "Are you Scottish?" After all, why else would a man wear a skirt? Is 'personal preference' that difficult to understand?

Yes, Utilikilts 'count' as skirts.
There are also people who embrace the idea of men wearing men's skirts--but only men's skirts made for men only! Strangers sometimes ask about my 'skirt', only to be corrected by other well-meaning strangers: "It's a kilt, not a skirt!" That strikes me as similar to insisting that blue jeans are not trousers. The obsession with framing men's skirts (or men's unbifurcated garments, as some prefer) as exclusively male and unambiguously separate from women's skirts seems kind of neurotic to me. It goes back to the same misogynistic message that it is more humiliating for a man to appear womanly than it is for women to appear manly.

Every culture attaches a different set of largely arbitrary meanings to clothes. Living in the Information Age affords us the opportunity to experience many such sets of meanings from all times and places. Furthermore, we have the freedom to question, change, or discard these meanings if we find them wanting. I call bulshytt on the notion that only women can wear skirts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Escalating Privileges

It is said that the trickster Elegua once walked down a street between the properties of two men, wearing a hat that was half black and half red. After he had gone, one man made a remark to his friend across the street about the strange youth who just walked by in a black hat. The friend was bewildered, for he had seen the same youth wearing a red hat. They got into a fight, each calling the other a liar and a fool.

'Privilege', in the context of social psychology, refers to advantages conferred by membership--or perceived membership--in a group, especially a dominant group in a stratified society. The idea is that members of dominant groups often fail to perceive advantages conferred by their group membership. This is due to the phenomenon known as correspondence bias, which inclines us to give dispositional explanations for our own success ("I got the job because I am competent") and situational ones for the success of others, ("He got the job because he was lucky"). Similarly, we tend to give situational explanations for our own failure ("I lost the job because the economy is bad") and dispositional ones for the failure of others ("He lost the job because he is lazy").

Elegua's hat (he is a schmott guy!)
Unfortunately, that same psychological principle also makes it very difficult to point out someone else's privilege. Every such attempt that I have witnessed 'in the field' has ended in misunderstanding, resentful stalemate, or outright hostility. Sometimes this happens because the person pointing out the privilege is doing it in a combative way, or even employing the concept as a weapon. More often, however, it is because the person whose privilege is being pointed out assumes he is being accused of bigotry.

The advantages conferred by privilege range from material resources to subtle differences in social interactions, but usually share the feature of being unearned, outside the agent's conscious control. Possessing privilege does not make one prejudiced, nor does it not make one 'privileged' in the conversational sense of 'rich'. Advantages in one area do not preclude disadvantages in other areas--or even in the same area.

Consider an example that does not carry too much political baggage: height. Tall people have many advantages, both physical (e.g. the ability to reach high shelves) and social (e.g. sexual desirability, especially in men). Excluding outliers, studies show a correlation between greater height and better pay, and so on. Are there disadvantages to being tall? Sure! I expect that tall people hit their heads more often, and might have trouble finding clothes that fit them (just as short people do). However, the disadvantages of tallness do not invalidate the advantages it confers.

Now, put some of the common misuses of privilege in the context of that example. Using privilege as a brickbat is like blaming a tall person for his ability to reach a high shelf. Conflating privilege with prejudice is like saying a tall person discriminates against short people by being able to reach a high shelf. Denying a position of privilege because one also has disadvantages is like a tall person claiming that the ability to reach high shelves does not benefit him because he also hits his head on door frames.

That example gets a bit silly, since height-related issues are not a systematic source of ingroup/outgroup conflict or social stratification (at least not in adult populations). Though often discriminated against, short people are not denied equal protection under the law. Tall people, however ignorant of their advantages, do not lobby for laws that infringe on short people's rights.

Generally, the types of social inequity addressed with the privilege concept are related to gender, race, socio-economic background, and sexual orientation. So it can be said that I have male privilege and middle-class privilege. I also have white privilege, even though I am half Asian and do not identify with my European heritage (as explained in True Colors), because much of racial privilege hinges on how others see me, not how I see myself. Along the same lines, I can some benefits of heterosexual privilege simply by not mentioning my sexual orientation or the sex of my partner.

I have never been 'called out' on my privilege. Perhaps I have needed it at various times, but I do make an effort to examine my own privileges before participating in discussions on social inequity. I did this even before I knew there was a word for it, because I have seen both sides of many hats. So, even if an issue seems straightforward to me, I stop and consider my perspective: might they see something I cannot?

In some versions of the tale from the beginning of this post, Elegua came back and showed the two friends his hat, which was red on one side and black on the other. In others he watched with glee as the argument escalated into a full-blown feud, ending with the complete destruction of the village. Either ending is pretty much in character for Elegua (and for humanity). The moral of that story is supposed to be "Keep an open mind", though sometimes I think "A hat is just a hat" is a pretty good takeaway, as well.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sith

I find myself drawn to certain archetypes or tropes across many genres--well, mostly science fiction, but you know what I mean. I create my own versions of them again and again in novels and roleplaying games. Some of these probably already have more scholarly appellations, but here are my names for them.

  • The Fallen Antihero
    'Antihero' can refer to either a flawed hero or a sympathetic villain. I find the combination of those two the most poignant--the Hero who falls from grace.
    Examples: Lucifer (Paradise Lost), Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars), and Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick).

  • The Genius Advisor
    Not exactly a mentor, not exactly a sidekick, the Genius Advisor is an oft-overlooked character and a role model to many geeklings. His intelligence is the key to the Hero's success, and he is the 'good' counterpart to the Evil Vizier.
    Examples: Zhu Ge-liang (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), Spock (Star Trek), and Thufir Hawat (Dune).

  • The ÜberGeek
    If the Genius Advisor is a young geek's role model, the ÜberGeek is his fantasy self. He is intelligent, studious, and a complete badass in spite/because of it.
    Examples: Daniel Jackson (Stargate), Hiro Protagonist (Snow Crash), and Oracle/Barbara Gordon (Batman).

  • The Disciplined Sociopath
    Lack of empathy does not mean lack of self-control; the (typically hyper-intelligent) Disciplined Sociopath uses his powers for good...or not.
    Examples: Hannibal Lector (The Silence of the Lambs), Rorschach (Watchmen), and Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock).

  • The Razorgirl
    The original Razorgirl was Molly, a bodyguard/killer for hire in Neuromancer, but this type of ruthless female warrior is common in science fiction. Unlike the Femme Fatale, her power lies not in sex appeal, but martial prowess.
    Examples: Miranda Lawson (Mass Effect 2), Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell), and Catherine Li (Spin State).

  • The Crossdressing Warrior
    Typically a girl disguised as a boy so she can go adventuring, but occasionally a man dressing in drag to evade detection, the Crossdressing Warrior serves as the heart to many a comedy of errors.
    Examples: Hua Mu-lan (The Ballad of Hua Mu-lan), any of the protagonists in All the Queen's Men, and Éowyn (Lord of the Rings).

  • The Faithful Retainer
    Under-appreciated and overlooked, the Faithful Retainer accepts his lot out of love for his master. He can be a font of wit, wisdom, and courage, morphing into the Everyman Hero in his master's moment of need.
    Examples: R2-D2 and C3PO (Star Wars), Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings), and Sancho Panza (Don Quixote).

  • The Childlike Posthuman
    Maybe he can bench-press a car or recite Pi to the millionth digit, but he does not understand friendship or innuendo. Even if he kills without blinking, he retains a certain innocence, wonder, and vulnerability.
    Examples: Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Darman and other clone troopers (Star Wars: Republic Commando), and Seven of Nine (Star Trek: Voyager).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Difference is Better Than Yours

The drive to conform and enforce conformity pervades every human culture. Such behaviors strengthen in-group bonds and foster cooperation. They were vital to the survival of our ancestors and still play a role in keeping our societies functional. However, impersonal social forces can harm as well as help. Excessive norm enforcement stifles creativity and inhibits communication/cooperation with out-groups.

"Why not try to see things from a different angle?"
For various reasons, I spent much of my childhood unable to conform in several key areas. No amount of effort ever succeeded in making me 'normal' to my peers. I learned that attempting to conform in certain areas was pointless. More importantly, I learned that conforming was optional.

Even though some of my barriers to conformity were subsequently removed by relocation and medicine, I never felt 'normal'. The sense of 'otherness' had become a part of my identity. I felt no desire to fit in or stand out. Ridicule had little effect on my behavior because I was long used to enduring it for traits I could not change.

I gravitate toward open-minded and tolerant friends, usually of the 'geeky' set. That is not to say that all geeks are open-minded and tolerant, or that non-geeks cannot possess those qualities. However, I do think that geeks are more likely to share my experiences with conformity, and to regard its enforcement with some degree of skepticism.

Ironically, geekdom has become its own in-group, with its own set of norms to enforce.

Some years ago, a meme called 'The Geek Hierarchy' enjoyed some popularity. It was organized like a flowchart, and showed the order in which groups of geeks (e.g. video gamers or science fiction fans) considered themselves less geeky than other groups (e.g. roleplaying gamers or Trekkies). I instantly and violently disagreed with it. I have since realized that I failed comprehend the humor of that chart because I considered 'geeky' a positive trait. The chart was satirizing an attitude alien to my mind: "I'm normal, but those guys are weird!"

In the intervening years, 'geek' (and associated words) has been fully reclaimed to mean something positive. This has not stopped people from trying to stratify geekdom by what they consider 'cool', however. You are a geek if you like this field/fandom/activity, but a dork if you like that field/fandom/activity. Trekkies are cool, Furries are not, and Science forbid you should say a good word about the Star Wars prequels! In my mind, this means buying into the conformity game that made us outcasts to begin with, and that we banded together to escape.

Perhaps it makes me quixotic or contrary, but I fight this trend wherever I see it. If norm enforcement is inevitable, then why not enforce the virtues of open-mindedness and tolerance? One of the great strengths of geek culture has always been difference, and marginalizing our subcultures for their difference diminishes us all.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Left-Handed Compliment

I am one-third of the way through my year-long project in handedness. For the last four months, I have consciously used my non-dominant left hand to perform dominant-handed tasks wherever possible. This experience has given me a bit more patience, a new appreciation for how our hands work together, and--unexpectedly--a certain joy in writing things by hand.

The tasks we typically perform with the non-dominant hand are often just as complex as dominant-handed ones. As I struggle to manipulate objects with my left hand, my right hand must learn to position the objects being manipulated. It sounds simple, but this project has proven equally challenging for both hands. Even something as simple as knotting shoelaces takes some concentration as my oh-so-dextrous right hand fumbles with holding the correct loop in the correct location for the left hand to thread.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?!"
Often, when I tell someone I am left-handed for the year, their first question is, "Even when writing?!" I actually found that a relatively easy transition. It still takes me almost twice as long to write with my left hand than with my right. This might be a bigger problem if I handwrote more than a dozen characters in the course of the average day.

Last week, a customer asked me to label a number of items for her, and I did so with my new-found deliberation. She was, as it turned out, in a hurry to get somewhere, but said nothing as I went to work with a Sharpie. When I had finished, she burst out in effusive praise of my penmanship, calling it 'spectacular', among other things.

Having learned to read and write English during a summer-long crash-course as a teenager, I do not have what most people would consider 'spectacular' handwriting. I favor unremarkable block print, ideal for filling out forms that give you too much space for date of birth and too little for address. To this day, I only know enough cursive to sign my own name.

I might have asked her what she found so spectacular about my blocky letters, but she was in a hurry to get somewhere and left me mystified. Was she a pharmacist, inured to abysmal standards of legibility? Perhaps she noticed that I had paid a great deal of attention to writing and thought it deserved reward? Did she just like praising people? Where was she when my high school English teacher called my handwriting a 'disgrace' in front of the class, threatening to fail me unless turned in my next assignment in cursive?

Up until then, I had only ever been complimented on my penmanship while studying Japanese at university. Sensei was delighted with my handwriting, especially when we got to kanji. Kanji are logograms borrowed from Chinese, which is my native language. Penmanship had always been my weakest subject in Taiwan, but it did not take much proficiency to outshine the American students, who had to learn an entirely novel script.

In any case, the lady's praise for my left-handed writing--however unexpected--awakened in me a kind of wonder at the intricacies of vision, thought, and movement involved in writing anything by hand. Meditative writing is, for me, no longer confined to the realm of brush calligraphy (which I practice sometimes, however poorly). Every time I take up a pen now, I remember that the whole phenomenon of writing is...well, pretty spectacular.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Love is Love (Unless I Find it Gross)

Most people express a powerful, reflexive disgust at the idea of incest, even if all other aspects of the relationship in question are ethically acceptable. This belief in the 'wrongness' of incest is strongly conditioned and rarely questioned. Being the skeptical sort, I just cannot leave it alone.

The offspring of close blood relations have an elevated risk for inheriting genetic disorders, since consanguinous parent have a higher-than-average chance carrying the same autosomal recessive traits. However, incest taboos/laws in most places predate the science of genetics as we understand it today. As well, modern Western society condones relationships between fertile, unrelated persons who carry genetic disorders while condemning even non-reproductive incestuous relationships. Given the above, I think it is fair to assume that--on the societal level, at least--incest taboos cannot be attributed solely to concern for the health of offspring.

One psychological explanation for the near-ubiquity of the incest taboo is the Westermark effect, which holds that children develop sexual aversion to people with whom they cohabitate--regardless of consanguinity--from birth to about age six. Demographic studies support this hypothesis, but the phenomenon is not all that well understood. Nevertheless, most humans are strongly repelled by the idea of sexual contact with first-degree relatives.

It seems strange to extend a personal aversion (no matter how common, no matter what the cause) to other people. However, there is adequate precedence for the development of sexual taboos based on the preferences of the majority rather than any systematic ethical consideration. Homosexuality is one such example.

Sociologists argue that the homosexuality taboo has its roots in the reliance of primitive human groups on reproductive viability. In a modern context, however, homophobia seems largely motivated by personal disgust. Straight homophobes find the idea of coupling with someone of the same sex unappealing, and conclude that anyone who enjoys it must be a pervert (quoth my brother, "Why would anyone want to do 'that'?!"). Gay or bisexual homophobes internalize pressures generated by social/religious/legal prohibitions as well as homophobic peers, and develop a reaction formation to avoid confronting what they see as an undesirable trait in themselves.

As a society, we have begun to accept that 'I find it gross' is not an ethically sound argument for the persecution of those different from ourselves. When the Supreme Court of the United States struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), some commentators feared that the ruling would lead to the legitimization other sexual relations hateful to their eyes. Attempts to overturn polygamy and incest laws have subsequently failed--in the latter case, on the basis of potential harm to unborn offspring. I find that argument startling in a culture so gun-shy about anything resembling eugenics.

Non-reproductive incest between consenting adults is a victimless crime, but it can put someone in jail for up to 20 years in parts of United States. Even inbreeding, while unwise and unfortunate, is effectively little different from non-incestuous reproduction by persons carrying genetic disorders. Image the furor that would result from the passage of a law forbidding marriage or sex between carriers of cystic fibrosis!

Justice means justice for everyone, regardless of how much we revile them or their actions. That is why we permit the Westboro Baptist Church to spew hatred in front of mourners, as little as we may like their message. A free and just society should allow sex between consenting adults, including homosexuality, non-monogamy, prostitution and yes, incest. The price of admission is dealing with other people's personal choices--even if we cannot imagine why anyone would want to do 'that', even if we think it is unwise, and even if we find it gross.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Game Masters All

My favorite tabletop RPG (Mage: the Ascension) gives players the power to alter the game setting in fundamental ways. Although the game master--or 'storyteller', to use White Wolf's lingo--still has the final say, players wield a stupendous amount of power compared to 'traditional' RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons.

Eight of Wands
Mage does give the GM tools to keep overly ambitious players in check. Seriously, there is a mechanic called 'Hubris'. However, I have the fortune of GMing for a group of very cooperative players in that game. Their eagerness to portray PCs in a balanced and immersive fashion gives me a lot of freedom to world-build with them rather than around them.

I allow the players to contribute, both knowingly and unknowingly, in and out of character, to the shared reality of the game. I incorporate elements of the PCs' machinations and the players' wild speculations into the story--sometimes directly, sometimes retroactively, and sometimes in barely recognizable form. In effect, this inflicts a limited version of the Bard's Tongue flaw on every single character.

As I do this more and more, I realize that I will eventually hit a wall, which is the fundamental structure of a game like Mage--and most other tabletop RPGs--that separates GMs from players. Every now and then I halfheartedly investigate game systems that either distribute GM responsibilities (e.g. Prime Time Adventures) or have no GM at all (e.g. Narrative Cage Match), but so far I have not found exactly what I want.

What exactly do I want? I want a fully collaborative storytelling game system where each participant is both a game master and a player. The Narrative Cage Match system for the game Patheon is fairly close in concept, being a kind of themed Exquisite Corpse with dice and counters. Its mechanics, however, are centered on competition and scoring, and gameplay seems heavily reliant on the scenarios (essentially modules) presented in the rulebook. I am looking for something a bit more free-form than that, but not so free-from that it devolves into the Oldest Game.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Help Me Take This Mask Off

I visited my grandmother the day I turned eighteen. It was the first time I had been back to Taiwan after five years in the States. The trip was a gift from my parents for getting a full scholarship to university, or so they said. I had wanted to go much earlier, but there was no point arguing with them.

It was a sweltering summer afternoon in Taipei, and my cousin Erica took me on the MRT to a corner of the city I rarely visited in my childhood. The hospice center was clean and dim, its main room occupied by elderly patients in wheelchairs watching some television drama. A middle-aged caretaker guided us through a maze of partitions to where my grandmother lay strapped to a bed.

"Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes."
He explained that she could no longer move, see, or speak, and her hearing had deteriorated. We had come at a good time, however, as she was often awake in the afternoon. He put a hand on her shoulder and shook her gently, saying her grandchildren had come to see her, then left us.

Erica had to nudge me forward. Finally, I took my grandmother's rigid, claw-like hand, leaned close to her ear, and said I was back. I told her I had graduated high school, and would be going to college soon. I told her she raised me well, and did not need to worry about me. I told her I was sorry I did not get to see her earlier.

Her eyes did not focus on me, but as I spoke she started to cry. Erica told me that it happened sometimes, that it meant she knew I was there. She had no other means of communicating.

We stayed with her for a while, and she wept until she drifted off to sleep. I followed Erica back out into the sun-baked street. I felt like I was underwater, as if everything came to me from a great distance. Even the heat and humidity of a Taipei summer could not banish the sense of disconnect. It was the first time I felt the vast numbness that passes for my grief, but it would not be the last.

Because the progression of Parkingson's Disease had been frightfully quick for my grandmother, I do not think that either she or her doctors thought she would hang on for so long, forlorn and cut off from the world. I will never know if she wished for death in her final years of darkness. If we could have known then what she wanted, we would have done it; but she could only cry.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Twilight Sparkle is only obliquely connected to this post.
"I don't like being labeled."

What do we really mean when we say that? I can think of three major motivations for expressing that sentiment, or some variation of it: concern about possible misclassification, conflation of group membership with self-identity, or general wariness of labels.

Whatever our stance on classifying people, just about everyone dislikes being misidentified. Of course, strangers or casual acquaintances often have no way of knowing certain things about us. For example, people often assume I am gay because I have a male partner when I am, in fact, bisexual (the phenomenon of bisexual erasure may also affect this in some instances, but I am referring to people with no access to any information about my sexuality other than my present relationship).

Conflating group membership and self-identity is similar, but more subtle. Group membership often matches self-identity, and many people consider them one and the same. If there is a discrepency between them, we might feel as though we have been misclassified, even if that is not the case. For example, I am a citizen and resident of the United States, which makes me a member of a group called 'Americans'. However, I did not grow up in the USA, and do not identify strongly with the culture thereof. I do not really think of myself as an 'American', even though I am one by most relevant definitions.

Some people just do not like labels in general, even accurate ones that harmonize their their senses of self. I suspect there are many psychological reasons for this. People who grow up enduring social torment as outsiders--'weirdos', 'nerds', etc.--might reject any kind of label. Some argue that labeling is a kind of objectification, a way to reduce people to stereotypes. I do not really think we need an example here, but for the sake of symmetry, I match all of the common criteria for the label 'brony'.

The nature of the human cognitive process inclines us to classify everything, including people. That does not make it good or bad in itself, just nearly inevitable--at least given our present level of technological sophistication. We almost certainly all do it, whether we realize it or not. The biggest (and perhaps only) problem with a sentiment like "I don't like being labeled" is that it sets standards for other people that we ourselves probably cannot meet.

I think of labeling not as reducing someone to stereotypes, but linking someone to concepts that are helpful in thinking or communicating about them. These include physical descriptors, location (both in cyberspace and meatspace), interests, cultural/subcultural identification, connection to other acquaintances, and so on. Maybe I only see it that way because I rarely feel uncomfortable with being labeled myself (with the exception of misclassification, which I am working on).

Or maybe I am overthinking this, just a little.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Queendom Come

Flowers in the Mirror (鏡花緣), written in the early 1800s, is now broadly considered a classic of satire--a kind of Chinese Gulliver's Travels. It critiqued bureaucracy, racism, and patriarchy, among other things, all while telling a charming Odyssey-esque tale of adventure in unknown lands. As a proto-geek growing up with little access to modern sci-fi and fantasy (except through Japanese animation), I adored that book.

Women playing go. Surely the patriarchy is doomed!
The protagonists' journey to the 'Country of Women' left an especially deep impression on my young mind. The Country of Women was much like dynastic China, but with all the gender roles reversed. Women wore masculine clothing, owned property, conducted business, and waged war. Men wore feminine clothing, did housework, had few rights, and generally submitted to their women.

Inevitably, the female King takes a liking to one of the male protagonists, and insists on marrying him. Held captive in the royal palace, he is forcibly prepared for his wedding. Servants scrub him clean, pumice away his callouses, pierce his ears, bind his feet, and so on. Eventually, one of his companions secures his release by performing a task for the King, but not before the man-bride-to-be is thoroughly humbled.

Even as a child, I found the message fairly self-evident: it is unjust to treat an entire sector of society as lesser beings. By then, Chinese society had long since abolished practices like foot-binding, and no longer treated women as chattel. Common wisdom, however, still regarded women as the weaker sex. Parents hoped for sons and lamented daughters, and my grandmother was seen as uncommonly courageous--but probably foolish--for leaving her husband.

My own life was full of strong, independent, and educated women. My grandmother was a voracious reader, and would have gone to university if not for the Chinese civil war. My aunt was a teacher--the most respected profession in Chinese tradition. My mother went to the ROC Military Academy, ran marathons, and regularly jumped out of 'perfectly good airplanes' (as my father liked to say).

So it seemed obvious to me from a very young age that viewing women as 'lesser' than men was patently ridiculous. Yet whenever I pointed this out--even to the strong women in my life--I was dismissed. It seemed as though adults regarded the whole idea of equality between the sexes as a non-issue either because it was unattainable, or already attained. In other words, they accepted the status quo, sexism and all.

I thought that things would be different when I came to the States, the land of promise that so many in Taiwan believed it to be. Americans talk a big game about gender equality and love to politicize it, but there is just as much sexism in the US as in Taiwan, if not more. Feminism is a far bigger phenomenon in the West, but as a movement it seems walled in by group politics.

The Nightsisters of Dathomir will kill your family in style.
Fictitious matriarchies have continued to fascinate me, not because I think it would be a good or bad idea in real life, but because they remind us to reexamine social constructs that we take for granted. Most of these matriarchies--the Amazons of Greek legend, the Drow of Dungeons and Dragons, Angel One in Star Trek, Dathomir and Hapes in Star Wars, et al.--are dystopian to some degree. Some serve to point out the injustice of sexist patriarchies, and others are in themselves sexist commentaries  on the dangers of giving women power.

Because I cannot keep up with the sociological theories or jargon of women's studies, I hesitate to call myself a feminist. Nevertheless, I hold the same conviction now that I did when I first read about the Country of Women: that no society can be truly just until it sees its members as people first. Everything else--tall, short, male, female, yellow, white--merely serves as description.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Just Drawn That Way

Many roleplaying games have morality--or 'alignment'--systems that describe and proscribe the behaviors of characters.  Like all game mechanics, alignment systems must balance verisimilitude with manageability. Too much system granularity can overwhelm players in both video and tabletop games, while too little makes roleplaying morality less compelling.

"Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost."
The classical Dungeons & Dragons alignment system has two axes: 'ethical', consisting of Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic, and 'moral', consisting of Good, Neutral, and Evil. All characters in the game fall into one of the nine intersections between those axes, e.g. Neutral Good, Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Evil. While very granular and elegant in theory, I have found this alignment system unwieldy in practice, and largely cosmetic in most tabletop games.

My favorite tabletop RPG alignment system is the Path mechanic in Vampire: the Masquerade. By default, PCs (who are all vampires) follow the 'Path of Humanity', essentially a simulation of secular humanist morality on a scale from zero to 10. Each level has a set of behavioral standards, the violation of which triggers a roll that determines whether the character feels remorse for the action, thus retaining his Humanity, or rationalizes the action and drops one level on the Path.

This mechanic seems clunky, but I have found it surprisingly useful and intuitive in the context of the game. It has an admirable balance of crunch and fluff, providing system incentives both for maintaining a high Humanity score and for letting it slide, just a little. Even more, the game contains several other Paths to which characters can 'convert' if they reject Humanity, including ones that glorify that which most humans conventionally regard as 'evil'.

Many video games have linear alignment systems. Star Wars games, such as the Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Knight series, use the Light Side/Dark Side system as portrayed in the films. The Karma systems in the inFamous and Fallout series both measure morality on a Good/Evil axis, and adjust the way NPCs interact with the PC accordingly. A common problem with these single-axis mechanics is that they often yield rewards only at the extremes, which can discourage roleplaying in favor of powergaming the alignment system.

The most interesting and nuanced alignment system I have encountered in a video game is Reputation in the Mass Effect series, which grants Paragon or Renegade points for dialogue choices as well as other actions. It looks like a single-axis Good/Evil system on the surface, but in fact Paragon and Renegade are closer (though not equivalent) to Lawful and Chaotic. Furthermore, they are measured on completely separate scales. So the player can gain both Paragon and Renegade points in the course of a single encounter without one canceling out the other. High scores on these axes unlocks special actions that can affect the game in fairly dramatic ways.

I find, sometimes to my own disappointment, that I gravitate toward playing 'good' PCs. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from portraying a well-developed villain or anti-hero when I game master, yet have little interest in such characters as a player--this includes video games. I have occasionally made 'bad' characters in games like Jedi Knight or inFamous just so I can go on a rampage, but lose interest in them fairly quickly. Unless I make a conscious effort--and sometimes even when I do--I end up playing goody two-shoes characters. This probably explains, at least in part, why I have so much interest in alignment mechanics that break the Good/Evil mold.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tempest in Russell's Teapot

As detailed in Nothing Unreal Exists and Faith and Farce, I take my skepticism very seriously. So seriously that I cannot quite bring myself to subscribe to atheism, no matter how appealing I find it.

Nevertheless, most of my friends are atheists, agnostics, humanists, or freethinkers of some variety, and I like to consider myself an 'atheist ally'. Religion (or lack thereof) is a private matter, and I oppose its involvement in any public sphere, especially education.

Vitarka mudra - the gesture of discussion
However, I seem to have trouble talking to atheists (especially New Atheists) about atheism, even though I often get 'read' as an atheist myself. Maybe I am doing something wrong, but somehow those conversations have a way of ending with an atheist insisting that all religion is harmful to humanity and we must do away with them if we are to advance.

I practice Chan (Zen) and Discordianism, but see no reason those religions must contradict with science. I accept materialism as an ideal baseline for discussing consensus reality (although I suspect an information-based paradigm will supplant it within my lifetime). I do not proselytize or expect others to understand why I meditate and Partake of No Hotdog Buns. I do expect tolerance to be answered with tolerance.

I suggested this to an acquaintance, who replied that he saw no reason to tolerate a delusional worldview, and that religious people have already given up on logic by discarding reality for faith. Questions of civility aside, this stance is not particularly constructive. It shuts down discourse and alienates believing allies.

As I see it, discourse of any kind requires some degree of faith in a shared reality. We assume that our senses convey independently verifiable information (not always true). We assume that other people interpret our words the same way we do (often not true). We assume all manner of things that the nature of our very cognition render impossible to prove or disprove (for now).

There is nothing wrong with any of that, but I think it worthwhile to be aware of the assumptions we make. Where we draw the line between 'rational' and 'delusional' assumptions is culturally determined, and sometimes rather arbitrary. It serves no one to assume that someone who professes a different set of beliefs must be incapable of coming to an agreement on basic definitions for the sake of discourse.

To me, a person who believes that a teapot might orbit the Sun between the Earth and Mars, acknowledges the empirical shortcomings of this claim, and willingly entertains other points of view is far more rational than someone who will not stray from his own paradigm--whether spiritualistic, transcendental, materialistic, or informational.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pandora's Question Box

When I was four years old, someone gave me a basketball. Not an adult-sized one, but a toddler-friendly one, only about 20 centimeters in diameter.

After I got into trouble with my mother for bouncing the thing around willy-nilly, my father decided to teach me how to pass and receive a ball properly. You know, by four-year-old standards.

Somewhere in the middle of this, I asked my father why the sun rises and sets.

He told me to get a marker and bring it to his room. I picked a black one from the 24-color set my grandmother had given me (Chinese children use markers instead of crayons--they are more efficient for doodling on everything within reach).

Basketball rising over baseball.
"Pretend that this," Dad said, palming the basketball effortlessly, "is the Earth." We must have covered the bit about the world being round at some point, though I do not remember that conversation. I nodded.

He then took the marker from me and drew a little blob on the basketball. "Pretend this is Taiwan," he said, indicating the blob.

I scrunched up my face at him. "Why can't I see us, then?" (Cut me some slack, okay? I was four.)

He chuckled. "Because we're too small. Now, c'mere." He picked me up, sat me on the edge of his desk, turned on the long-necked reading lamp, and doused the overhead light. "Pretend that's the sun."

I squinted at the desk lamp and its incandescent bulb--the only one in my tiny toddler world (most buildings in Taiwan use fluorescent lights to save energy). It certainly looked yellow and round enough for its role.

My father held up the basketball. "Keep your finger on Taiwan," he instructed, and I obeyed. "It's daytime right now. But the Earth spins, so..." He rotated the basketball. My stubby index finger moved with 'Taiwan' toward the terminator, then crossed into the dark half of the 'globe'. " it's dark."

"Because the ball's in the way," I said.

"...And the ball is the Earth," Dad reminded me, "the ground under our feet."

I clearly recall thinking very hard about that. "So the sun sets because...the ground gets in the way?"

"That's right." My father smiled. I knew I had done something to made him proud.

Then something occurred to me. "What about the moon? And why does the ground move? How come we can't feel it move?"

"Oh, boy..." Dad heaved a long sigh. "You were a rug-rat, then a knee-gnawer, and now you have officially become a question box. Go get me a baseball."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Some Other Time

I had a vivid and detailed dream last night, the kind that remains plausible even after you wake. With some effort, I recalled a good deal of the dialog word-for-word, and even the names. It went like this:

I stroll through Baltimore City on a balmy afternoon, holding 'Zilla's hand. His gait is strange, but swifter than you would expect a four-year-old to walk. He talks about dinosaurs and robots, and what he wants to eat. I feel more than hear a burst of static as my collective tries to talk to me--but I should have signal downtown.

I look around and realize that we have strayed into the edges of a massive protest. Someone has set up an impromptu stage a few blocks away. 'Zilla squeals with delight and takes off, slapping the control modules at his waist. Suddenly he is no longer toddling, but running faster than a grown man.

"'Zilla! Get back here!" I give chase, but he is small and weaves effortlessly through the mass of humanity gathering on the street. Traffic grinds to a half, blocked off by tractor-trailers and charter buses whose stone-faced drivers hold pro-union signs beneath their cigarettes. I lose sight of the boy, and climb up onto the loading dock of a nearby building to find him. I spot his purple jacket near the stage.

A bus pulls up alongside the dock much too fast as I jump down from it, and I narrowly avoid being squashed, activating my reflex enhancer as I probably should have done when 'Zilla first got loose. I dart through the crowd, dodging bodies and barricades, ignoring hateful glances. The boy is trying to climb onto the stage, but I snatch him up and put him on my shoulders.

Sirens approach as the protesters finally get their antique amplification system working. A petite redhead takes the microphone and exhorts her fellows to remain calm, that they are sending a message, not starting a war. The crowd seems ambivalent. I run as fast as I can, but the police are closing in.

I head for a sleek(?!) SUV near the edge of the police perimeter. One foot goes on the front bumper, the next on the hood, a hop over the windshield and onto the roof without losing stride. I leap from the back of the SUV and over the perimeter, pulling 'Zilla off of my shoulders in mid-air and holding him to my chest like an awkwardly shaped football. The hang-time seems eternal, and when the ground hits me it hits harder than I expect. Warnings chime in my head, but the pain is fleeting. I roll clear of the startled police, stagger to my feet, and keep running.

There is a greenspace half a block from us, and law enforcement seems more concerned with containing the crowd than chasing us. I put 'Zilla down once we reach the gates of the park, abstractly aware that my left leg is damaged. We sit down on a park bench beside a middle-aged woman with ribbons and feathers braided into graying hair. She offers us some food in a soft, unfocused voice. 'Zilla happily accepts an apple from her and climbs onto my lap.

"Such a cute little boy!" the woman coos. "I hope you didn't have any trouble downtown, with the action today."

"We just missed the police," I reply, rubbing my leg absently.

"I'm terribly sorry, dear." She pats my hand. It feels a bit intrusive. "At least you made it to a peace zone. You know why we have these actions, right?"

I almost sigh. "You oppose automization and cyberization."

"It's dehumanizing," she says, shaking her head. "It taints everything. Imagine if you took your son to the hospital and they tried to put machines in him!"

Before I can protest that I am not his father or think to shush him, 'Zilla pulls up his shirt, exposing the baselayer that keeps his implants from chafing. Two ports on the suit expose the control modules. "I already got machines!" he cries. "I can't walk without them. Now I'm like Godzilla!" By way of demonstration, he hops off my lap and lumbers around on the bike trail, exaggerating his gait and saying "boom" with every step.

The woman turns from him to me with an expression of dawning horror. I thank her for the food and, taking 'Zilla's hand, leave as quickly as I dare make my leg move. He waves at her over his shoulder with the half-eaten apple.

Once we exit the jamming zone, I contact the collective, recalling the ones who had gone looking for us when I went off the grid. We arrive back at the shop shortly before sunset. Only two members of the collective are there, one cooking upstairs and the other tidying up the storefront. 'Zilla pulls free from my hand and sprints the last block. I let him.

Amelia steps outside, holding the boy to her with one arm and operating an archaic tablet with her free hand. She is half a head taller than me and dressed in a dark red unitard. "I need to look at that leg," she says. We send 'Zilla upstairs to help with dinner and, locking up the store, go into the back room.

It serves as both a workshop and an operatory, though not legally in the latter case. She makes me sit down and strips the street clothes from me. "These are pointless, you know," she says, tossing my t-shirt aside, "the unitard regulates temperature far better."

"Not everybody feels as comfortable you do in skin-tight metafabrics," I grumble. My jeans go flying, too.

I can feel her accessing my logs from my time off the grid--like the 'static' and the damage notification, it is not mapped onto any existing sense, but has an emulated neural pathway all its own.

She rolls her eyes and pushes me back into the reclined exam chair, finding and unzipping the invisible front seam of my unitard as she went. She runs deft fingers over my exposed skin; my scars look all the paler against the rich brown of her hands.

"I thought you were running a diagnostic on my leg," I say, propping myself up.

She laughs, a single 'hah'. "I already ran that diagnostic. It was just the same old wound again. You really ought to have the whole thing replaced."

"I'm fine," I insist. She picks up my left leg and rotates the injured ankle. Pain shoots through it momentarily, before the regulator blocks it off again. She is tapped into my feed, but does not flinch with me.

"Pain is either signal or noise, baby," she says, "nothing special about it unless you make it special. You can have all the pain you need, and a leg that doesn't give out every time you do something stupid."

"Maybe some other time," I concede. She massages my leg as we wait for the rest of the collective to return home. We say nothing more to each other, either vocally or electronically, comfortable in the quietude of our intimacy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Consequence of Humanity

I recommend reading Inherit the Earth first, but those familiar with the concept of transhumanism can probably afford to skip it. In case you are wondering: no, I did not do all of my research on Wikipedia, but it does makes a convenient quick reference for readers unfamiliar with the terms.

Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game
At last year's Dragon*Con Transhumanism Open Discussion, someone brought up the idea that transsexual rights are similar in some ways to transhuman rights. While most people are not familiar with transhumanism, they do generally have a passing familiarity with transsexualism. Public opinion and legislation surrounding gender variance may well inform us about the way society will react to emerging transhuman issues.

Transgender (gender variant) people in general face a great deal of prejudice and, in some parts of the world, denial of basic rights. Transsexual people in particular, whose bodies do not match their gender identity, often seek medical procedures to transition to their target gender. This is accomplished through sex reassignment therapy, which may include hormone therapy, genital reconstruction, hair removal, and various cosmetic surgeries.

Many social conservatives regard gender variance of any sort as a deviation to be suppressed. Even social liberals often find transsexual people intimidating, and profess discomfort at associating with them. The fear and misunderstanding of these issues has lead to the development of a 'gatekeeper' mentality in legislation and standards of care relating to sex reassignment therapy. Transsexual individuals must undergo lengthy psychological assessment, and may be barred from medically transitioning if they do not meet the criteria.

Such barriers exist ostensibly to keep people from undergoing procedures they do not require. However, the gatekeeper mentality is, like censorship, founded on society's lack of confidence in itself. Transsexual people with no access to legitimate sex reassignment therapy often seek illegal alternatives, so the 'gatekeeper' system is not really effective at 'protecting people from themselves' in any case.

It is hard to imagine anyone going through the pain, expense, and social fallout of sex reassignment without good reason. However, if a man decided that he wanted breasts, or did not want a penis, he should have as much of a right to seek treatment as a trans woman (a male-to-female transsexual). In the same way, a man should have the right to seek a prosthetic replacement for his hand whether or not the original one functioned (I did not say this is a good idea, or that the technology is 'there' yet--only that it should be allowed). Mandating therapy (for all of the above) is still a good idea, especially in the case of minors, but ultimately the choice should belong to the individual.

I do not mean that the transhumanist desire for modification is equivalent to the agony of gender dysphoria and social rejection that drives so many gender variant people to suicide. At minimum, though, the rest of society will likely see transhumans the same way they see transsexuals--incomprehensible and frightening. Legal and medical gatekeeping of human augmentation will likely come to pass as such procedures become more common. I hope that society will grow more enlightened on the topic. Until then, transhumanists should advocate for the rights of transsexual people. Not only is it the right thing to do, it sets important precedents for other changes to come.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Where All the Lights Are Bright

Things overheard or said to me in downtown Baltimore.

A sharply dressed man: I don't do butterflies, 'cause I don't wanna look like those gay guys. They use that as a global code, you know? Even though in some cultures, the butterfly is a symbol of transformation.

A woman carrying a large number of bags:
Her: What time is it?
Me: Ten o'clock.
Her: But is it going on twelve?
Me: ...It's ten o'clock.

A very energetic woman: Son of a sea serpent!

A man buying a rabbit's foot:
Him: A lot of places don't sell rabbit's foot anymore.
Me: I guess there must not be much demand for them.
Him: In Virginia, where I'm from, people kill rabbits and keep the rabbit's foot. They wash the blood off.

A man wearing many necklaces: Blue swan, blue swan, blue swan....

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Inherit the Earth

I consider myself a transhumanist--that is to say, I have an interest in ideas about modifying and improving the human body and mind through technology. No, I do not think the Strong AI In the Sky will solve all our problems overnight, though I cannot discount the possibility, either. It seems likely that changes will occur within my natural lifespan which would have been unthinkable at the time of my birth--or even now.

I recognize that misusing technology can spell dire consequences for humanity and the Earth. However, fear and luddism make poor strategies for averting such consequences. No amount of regulation or doomsaying is going to forestall technological progress now. The key to ethical and beneficial advancement lies in understanding technology and making it accessible to more people.

Not just for lightsaber-related injuries!
Transhumanism is an enormous complex of ideas. Here, I would like to focus on the acceptability of human augmentation or modification.

I believe in the right to modify the human body on a voluntary basis. That goes for tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, cybernetic prostheses, gene therapy, et al. I do think that regulatory/medical oversight should exist for some procedures. However, if I want to amputate my right hand and replace it with a prosthesis at my own expense, I should be permitted to do so. (Edit: I understand the current limitations of prosthetic technology; I am speaking hypothetically in order to underline a philosophical issue.)

Say I lost my hand in a tragic lighsaber...'accident'. Most people would find it understandable if I seek a replacement, and see nothing unethical about it. What if the injury only rendered my fingers useless? Or just less dexterous? What if the hand worked fine but never stopped hurting? I do not see a rational justification for drawing an arbitrary line and saying, "You must be this impaired to seek treatment."

It startles me how many people disagree, even with regard to existing procedures. Though tattoos and piercings have finally gained some degree of mainstream acceptance, many people seem to have reflexively negative opinions of other modifications. I have striven to understand these concerns, and have found the following three most common:

  1. Lack of desire for modification and inability/unwillingness to imagine why no one else would desire it.
  2. Belief that vanity (or some other moral failing) is the primary motivation for modification.
  3. Attachment to ideas of purity (e.g. "The body is a temple") or naturalness (e.g. regarding breast prostheses and implants as 'fake'), and seeing modification as detrimental to same.

I suspect these concerns will fade as the idea of modification becomes less novel. A much more serious potential barrier is the 'gatekeeper' mentality assumed by governments and the medical community toward certain elective procedures. The assumption is that medical information and advice are not sufficient to prevent individuals from making bad decisions. This is probably true in some cases, but I do not think it is right (or effective) to legislate common sense.

We live in exciting and perilous times, and it behooves us to think well on these matters. To be human is to strive and innovate, to overreach and learn from mistakes. Humanity will advance, that is a near certainty; how we do it, though, is still in the air. It is my hope and my goal that we find a way to move forward with wisdom and intent.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Faith and Farce

As I explained in Nothing Unreal Exists, I am very skeptical by nature. For many people, this translates to (philosophical) materialism or atheism. My skepticism goes beyond that; the malleability of perception leads me to doubt the essential reality of everything, even phenomena I can directly observe. I do find spiritual faith difficult to accept, but only marginally more so than material faith.

Long-Shan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan
To me, a philosophical paradigm--whether materialistic, metaphysical, transcendent, or otherwise--is a tool that frames perception, something that can be swapped out to suit the situation. This viewpoint is not uncommon in East Asia, where multiple religions and philosophies have coexisted and cross-pollinated down through the centuries.

In the temples of Taiwan, people revere Daoist deities, Bodhisattvas, and Confucian sages side-by-side without compromising their confidence in the theory of evolution. So I have come to practice both Chan (Zen) and Discordianism, with no sense that either of them must needs interfere with my interest in modern science.

Usually, when someone asks my religious affiliation, I just answer Buddhist. This is laziness on my part, as I do not feel like explaining the intricacies of syncretism or Discordianism. Most Americans, even the proselytizing Christian variety, will not take on a major faith, though they may gladly run roughshod over a minor faith (or the lack thereof).

Every so often, when I find myself conversing with people who seem genuinely curious, I will tell the whole truth in brief--including the part about Discordianism being a joke. Sometimes these people ask me why I would practice a 'made-up' religion. I contend that all religions were made-up at some point in time, whether by gods or by men.

Why, yes, I do have a super deformed
Quan-Yin on my brush rack
To put things in perspective: I do not care if the history of the Sakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) is 'true'. Even if I learned tomorrow that Zen was an elaborate joke made up by Bodhidharma, it would not change the fact that Buddhist practice has improved my quality of life.

Buddhism does not require unquestioning faith; in fact, both of my mentors have discouraged it. When I took Refuge, I made a decision to trust that the Three Jewels could help ease suffering. Had I found otherwise, I would have parted ways with Buddhism as genially as I have with other religions.

Discordianism requires nothing (and more!), but I find it useful in its own right. It reminds me not to take myself--or anyone else--too seriously. Besides, if you do not believe in Eris, you are likely to be turned into a precious Mao button and distributed to the poor in the Region of Thud.

Fiction can teach us truth in the form of parables parables, poems, word problems, and analogies. So why not belief systems, too? Perhaps next year I will give Thelema a try, or Luciferianism...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Parental Advisory

When I was fifteen, I saw an alarming news story. You might be familiar with the sort: footage of children gaping at a screen; "Video gaming--some experts call it an epidemic," the narrator warns over a clip of a talking head; "Are your kids addicted to video games? XYZ News investigates."

After the segment, I turned to my father and asked his opinion on the matter. Although we did not own any game consoles, he knew I played strategy games on our PC.

"Well," he said, "you can't take this stuff too seriously. When I was a boy, they thought comic books would rot out our brains. Then it was Rock n' Roll music, then television shows, et cetera. Since my brain seems pretty much in tact, I reckon you don't need to worry about those games."

He took a sip of his beer and narrowed his eyes at me. "If you start playing too much, though, your ass is grass and I'm the lawnmower."

Then we ate dinner and I played Outpost while my parents watched NYPD Blue or whatever. My father never needed carry out his threats, save once (see End of the Beginning). I did not realize my tremendous fortune.

About a year after that, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. My parents had no opinion about the game itself, but seemed faintly relieved that I had finally started making friends outside of clubs and sports. One of my first players (half-elven Fighter/Mage) sheepishly asked us not to tell his mother what we were doing. Since she forbade him to play D&D, he had to pass our game sessions off as 'watching movies'.

I was bewildered. Why would a parent object to imaginative and cooperative play? Apparently, the poor woman had gotten it in her head that roleplaying games caused suicide, and could not be persuaded otherwise. ("Has Dungeons & Dragons brainwashed your child? Details at seven.")

Some years later, I sat in a dimly lit dormitory common room, meeting my partner's Roman Catholic mother for the first time. She was making awkward small talk, and I struggled to reciprocate.

"So, how did you two meet?" she asked.

"We played in the same Dungeons & Dragons campaign," I replied, thinking myself clever for omitting that it had been a game run by my ex, or that my partner had played a Cleric of Kord.

"Dungeons & Dragons? Isn't that the thing that makes kids kill themselves?!" she cried. ("Stay tuned to Channel 0 News to find out!")

I shot my partner an incredulous look. He just slumped down in his chair and groaned. We spent the next half hour reassuring his mother we were not in a cult, worshipping demons, or contemplating suicide. It has set the tone of my relationship with her ever since.

I also started appreciating my own parents' laissez-faire style. True, they were frequently absent in my childhood. They never attended any of my games--not when I co-captained my varsity soccer team, and not when my quiz bowl team went to the nationals. They expected much and praised little. However, they did for the most part trust me, not just to tell the truth, but to make my own decisions (again, excepting the incident in End of the Beginning).

Whenever I hear about how 'helicopter parenting' has ruined my generation ("XYZ News correspondent Chick N. Little reports her findings."), I wonder whether my parents avoided that trap by design or happenstance. Did they refrain from micromanagement to make me stronger? Or did some combination of my personality and circumstances render their negligence harmless? Either way, I am grateful, and studiously avoid television news. It will rot your brains out.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An Afternoon with Death

Like many geeks, I am terrible at platitudes and socializing in general. As such, I have a difficult time at mixed gatherings even when I know everyone involved. For me, going to a rural Pennsylvanian Catholic memorial service full of strangers is the social equivalent of diving into shark-infested waters wearing Lady Gaga's meat dress.

Okay, not exactly.

Yesterday, I attended the wake of a woman whom I did not know--my partner's great-grandmother. I accept this as a part of being in a long-term relationship with someone who has drifted away from/avoided his extended family.

I went along to provide emotional support, but it did not work out that way. Instead, I shadowed my partner and tried not to intrude on the grief of people I only distantly recognized from his grandfather's funeral a year ago. Some of them had never met me at all. The introductions went like this:

Mother-in-law: This is Zeph, my son's friend.
Distant relative: Nice to meet you, Jeff.

They treated me kindly, but the awkwardness never went away. I come from a world utterly alien to people who have lived their entire lives in a small town where one finds out about the death through the newspaper rather than social media. 'My condolences' sounded as stilted and out of place among them as my slim-fit suit and Windsor knot looked.

I kept my head bowed and my mouth shut during the prayer service. The Catholic liturgy was graceful, except for occasional wedged-in creeds. It read like poetry with interpretations written in between the stanzas.

Afterwards, a lector (I think?) encouraged mourners to talk about the deceased. No one seemed to know what to say. The exercise had an incongruously modern flavor to it, a certain awareness that the service was really for the living and not the dead.

My partner amazed everyone by using his smartphone to locate a restaurant that met their disparate criteria. They talked about bygone family activities, snapshots from a childhood my partner rarely discussed. I listened and nodded when it seemed appropriate.

Following dinner, my partner and his brother decided to visit their grandfather's grave. We stood on the hillside in the dying light, hands shoved deep in pockets, shoulders hunched. The brothers, both lapsed Catholics with their own grudges against Church and maybe God, talked about the headstone.

In Taiwan, we would have burned incense--even if none of the mourners were religious--without worrying about whether we did it for the living or the dead. Chinese culture juggles the spiritual and the material, the secular and the religious, with an effortless grace that I often wish would export better. Alas, I had nothing to offer them but my silence.

Leave-taking involved many exhortations for us to visit, though I doubt if anyone really expects it. They wanted to make me feel welcome, and I appreciated that, but they knew that I was not--and probably never would be--'one of them'. What they may not know yet is that my partner is not, either, and perhaps never was.