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.

Friday, February 17, 2012


I have spent the last two months using my non-dominant left hand to perform typically dominant-handed tasks (see Born Sinister for details). It has proven neither as easy as I hoped, nor as difficult as I feared. I am not by any means ambidextrous, and even if long practice makes me proficient in using my left hand, science says I cannot change my chirality.

At least not yet! Perhaps someday a procedure will exist that can make me left-handed, or ambidextrous. Would I seek out such a procedure? It depends on a lot of factors, but though I find the idea of ambidexterity appealing, it is not likely to be a high priority for me. I would probably do it if the expense (to finance and health) were not prohibitive.

If I were left-handed, the inconvenience of operating in a world designed for right-handed people might make the prospect of changing handedness more compelling. If I were a left-handed person living a century ago in a predominantly Christian society, I would probably feel a great deal of pressure to cease relying on the 'devil's hand'.

We might argue until we turned blue which of the above are 'good' reasons for wanting to change handedness, but I suspect we can mostly agree that such a (hypothetical) procedure is not unethical in and of itself. At various points in history, left-handed people have been pressured by society to change; that was wrong, regardless of whether it was possible.  However, there is nothing wrong with a left-hander wanting to be right-handed, or vice versa, or with either wanting to become ambidextrous.

Ah-ha! Now the ring's on the other hand! Or something...
Some of you have already figured out what I am getting at, especially if you know I like to use handedness as an analogy for sexual orientation.

I consider 'reparative therapy' and other pseudo-scientific 'cures' for homosexuality comparable to shaming or forcing a left-handed person to use his right hand. My aunt and countless other left-handed children of her generation have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of such measures. No sound medical procedure exists for changing either chirality or sexual orientation.

However, that does not mean it is not possible. If a safe and effective procedure existed to change sexual orientation, I would not deem a voluntary application of it any more unethical in and of itself than hypothetically changing handedness. Note the key parts of that statement: 'voluntary' and 'in and of itself'. Also note that I am not, in fact, advocating the pursuit of such a procedure. I just want honest discourse about the issue, which has been politicized very nearly beyond the reach of science and reason.

We still live in a society that denigrates sexual minorities, though that attitude has changed much over the last few decades. Because of the LGBT community's harrowing experiences with forced conversion efforts, the immutability of sexual orientation has become a central theme in the modern gay rights movement. The slogan 'born this way' and its corollaries stem from the conceit that sexual minorities' rights should be respected because they 'cannot help it'. Logical problems aside, I feel that this is a flawed argument because we do not actually know that sexual orientation is immutable.

Even if we banned research into changing sexual orientation, our expanding knowledge of human sexuality in general may someday put such procedures within reach of those willing to perform them illegally. If we are lucky, none of that will come to pass (and it may never come to pass, for that matter) until sexual orientation has become as much of a non-issue as handedness is now.

I hope to see a future where sexual orientation, like handedness, is considered a value-neutral variation. If, in that future, methods exist to alter sexual orientation and/or handedness, I can imagine any number of practical reasons why people would seek out such procedures. I do not mean to start saving up for ambidexterity just yet--but maybe someday.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fancy Dress Fancy

I could probably go to work dressed like
 this every single day if I felt so inclined
The first time I attended a sci-fi convention, I wore a Star Trek: The Next Generation uniform (season one, blue). Unfortunately, the smallest size it came in was 'Medium', which fit me like a potato sack on a scarecrow. I painstakingly modified it by hand, but it just never really looked right.

I have grown wiser in my costuming choices since then. I know, for example, that almost nobody looks good in a TNG season one uniform. Still, hunting for off-the-shelf clothing items that fit me remains a laborious task. All of my efforts to use a sewing machine have ended with a broken needle and/or a huge wad of thread where the seam should be

With a larger budget came the option of having clothes tailored to my diminutive frame. When my mother took a sudden and unexpected interest in sewing, I gently nudged her toward making costume pieces for me. I own some incredibly screen-accurate and comfortable Old Republic Jedi robes thanks to her.

From attending conventions regularly, I know that many costumers take their hobby far more seriously than I do. Though I often obsess over the details of my outfits, I rarely push myself out of my comfort zone to attempt a full-body Xenomorph suit or anything like that.

I still need to get rank insignia and such
My current Dragon*Con costume project is Felix Gaeta from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. I also have a notion to dress as a human version of Rainbow Dash along with several friends are planning to go as a group of characters from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Oh, and I may assemble a Saotome Alto (Macross Frontier) cosplay to match a friend's Ranka Lee.

Aside from more 'serious' costuming like that discussed above, though, I also enjoy wearing garb (historically inspired clothing common at Renaissance faires), drag, and unusual outfits in general. I proudly acknowledge my Utilikilts as a variety of skirt, to the horror of other men. I wear hats in all seasons and have a particular love for broad brimmed pinch-front Stetsons. My winter coat is patterned after one worn by Jack Harkness (of Dr Who and Torchwood fame).

As an introvert, I tend to feel uncomfortable when under too much scrutiny, so it seems odd for me to dress in a way that draws attention to myself. Were I more outgoing, I would probably wear bizarre clothes constantly. If not attention, though, what do I get out of dressing up?

I imagine it has something to do with why I like roleplaying. Roleplaying and costuming both give physical manifestations to that inner universe, which I cherish in equal measure the outer one (see Nothing Unreal Exists for my views on reality vs. fiction). Or maybe I just get tired of 'everyday' clothes like most people do, but feel no attraction to conventionally fashionable 'going out' clothes. Either way, I cannot wait to wear my new purple wig.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

True Colors

Rober Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder
"'When I was a child,' Porphyre said, 'I was white.'"

This line from William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive, spoken by a dark-skinned character, stuck with me long after I had forgotten the plot-significant dialog surrounding it. In the context of the book, his quip underlined the disposability of appearance, and even identity, in the technologically advanced reality of the Sprawl.

It left an impression on me for slightly different reasons. I am the product of an ethnic Chinese mother and an Irish American father. I understood this from an early age, but, lacking exposure to the Western side of my heritage, I never connected with it. I identified primarily with the culture of the land in which I grew up (Taiwan) and of my primary caretaker (my Chinese grandmother).

As such, it confused me when other children picked on my appearance and told me to 'go back to America' long before I had ever set foot on American soil. It did not matter that I was born and bred in Taiwan, or spoke better Chinese than they. Adults in the village complained that my 'American blood' made me wild and rebellious, though I spent my spare time reading and playing alone.

It was enough that I looked different.

Some days, I would have given much to magically stop being a half-breed. I found my long, protruding nose ridiculous. I wanted to dye my hair so that I would not stand out, gleaming dark brown in a sea of black. I hated my large eyes, which so many Chinese people find attractive.

When I moved to the States, I thought I would finally 'fit in'. As far as skin color went, I did blend in with the dizzying ethnic diversity of Montgomery County, Maryland. Thanks to my father's foresight, I did not speak English with any discernable Chinese accent. I looked and sounded like an American kid, but knew virtually nothing about the culture that had produced my peers.

I did not yet understand then the full extent of my otherness, nor the preternatural ability teenagers possess for sniffing it out. Suffice to say that I did not have a pleasant adolescence--in that respect, at least, I was no anomaly.

These experiences have inclined me to think of skin color as a largely arbitrary trait. I realize that some people prefer to celebrate it, and I do not begrudge them that, but I do not grok it myself. I like my half-bred self just fine now, but I maintain that there is nothing wrong with wanting to change one's skin color--no more than it is wrong to want to change the color of one's hair, or eyes.

Alan Cumming in X2
A lot of people look askance at the idea of cosmetic surgery that alters someone's apparent ethnicity. It makes people uncomfortable. Phrases like 'co-opting identities' tend to crop up.

Do I co-opt the identity of white people by the sheer accident of my birth? What about a Chinese child raised by a white family? Or anyone whose cultural background does not match the majority of those who look like him?

I hope that one day, changing one's skin color will become as simple and commonplace as changing hair or eye color. It might help break this habit we have of sorting ourselves by appearance. If not, at least it will make that sorting a bit more voluntary.

Besides, I find blue skin very attractive.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Feed the Machine

They called kids like me 'late bloomers' to make us feel better. By Taiwanese standards, I was only a bit on the skinny side, and of average height, though weak in both strength and constitution (my player min-maxed, in RPG parlance). Moving to the States came as a shock, as I suddenly found myself a runt in a world of giants.

A part of my problem, I decided, was that I did not eat enough.

Like many children, I was a picky eater. On top of that, I found it hard to give up the familiar foods of Taiwan--not to mention my grandmother's cooking. The fact that my mother loathed cooking and expended as little effort doing so as possible (not that I blame her) did not help matters.

So, like any sensible teen from East Asia, I cooked myself ramen. I would spruce it up with whatever I could find in the refrigerator, and drop an egg in it at the end. It provided extra nutrition, but it rarely tasted good by any stretch of the imagination.

My father taught me from an early age to persevere. Often, faced with an unpleasant task, I would repeat one of his mantras: "You don't have to like it, you just have to do it." Somehow, this just did not work so well when it came to eating. Perhaps not having an appetite is different from just 'not wanting' to do something.

Eventually, I invented a game to make myself eat. The game did not have a name back then, but I now refer to it as 'Feed the Machine'. It involved turning the noodles into some unnamed natural resource, the chopsticks into a robotic harvesting arm, and my mouth into the processing plant. The object of the game, of course, was to harvest the 'resource', 'process' it thoroughly, and send it down to the 'factory'.

Call it a very elaborate game of 'here comes the airplane' that I play with myself. It still comes in useful when my maladaptive body decides that it just does not really like food, even though I regularly get so hungry it physically hurts.

I have been 'feeding the machine' a lot lately, to offset the loss of both weight and appetite from a string of winter illnesses. The game has started growing old, and I long to find some semblance of enjoyment in my meals again. Patience, however, is a matter for another post.