17 April 2014

Where Does Power Lie?

How exactly do politics work? What’s the carrot and who’s holding the stick? These questions led me to start analyzing the chain of events that contribute to any political outcome. The ultimate question is this: Where does the true power lie? If we can realize this, we’ll know where to aim our focus to exact the most effective change in a system we aren’t satisfied with.

My initial guess is that the power is truly with the people as a whole. We’re the ones who elect officials. We’re the ones who the officials have to please in order to keep their positions. And we’re the ones to blame when the people we elect turn around and trample on our rights. However, there are some people who believe that The Man is the one with the power. They believe he has too much of it and he uses it to manipulate the people into supporting him, without their true consent and to their own detriment.

Who is correct?

Watching shows like House of Cards (vague spoilers ahead), you begin to wonder if the people have any power at all. In the show, a power-hungry politician manipulates the system he was elected into as a lowly House Representative and manages to find himself in great positions of authority without a single vote cast further in his favor. The millions of lives he manages to affect with his power plays are casualties of his ambition. His path transcends the politics that we see on the nightly news and takes an entirely different route – one that not a single citizen could have prevented at the polls.

While that is a scary picture, we must also admit that it is fiction. The world may contain comparably bloodthirsty figures vying for power, but many things needed to go conveniently right for Frances Underwood to get to where he was going. Reality simply doesn’t work that way.

Election campaign consultants have things down to an eerie science. They’ll advise a candidate that they have to support Topics A and B, but denounce Topic C in order to gain exactly 4% in the polls. These suggestions are delivered without respect to the candidate’s personal values or their party’s philosophy. It’s a game of doing whatever it takes to win. Values be damned.

In this situation, it may not be obvious who has the power, but the answer is the people. Ultimately, the politician needs to appeal to the people, who hold opinions on Topics A, B and C. In order to get elected, they must align themselves with their constituents, even if they personally disagree.

That isn’t the entire story, though. If the politicians don’t like what the people want, they have a few options to change the voting landscape. Gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, propaganda, limiting options, and outright vote rigging are all tools of manipulative influence that politicians can use to bend the outcomes of “democratic” elections in their favor. The question is: how effective are any of these methods?

At the risk of overloading the conversation with yet more questions, there are still plenty of factors to consider when it comes to determining who has the power. After the election is won, there is nothing that says a politician must adhere to the promises they made on the campaign trail. A recent study by Princeton University revealed that the policies enacted by the US government largely deviate from the average voter opinion. In fact, they align more closely with those of special interests and organized groups. The people may vote, but it’s the money that speaks.

Given this knowledge, the people are, at best, disorganized in their ability to prevent the power from slipping from their grasp. Incumbency rates in Congress are at 85%, despite record low approval ratings. Assuming the same people being polled for their approval are the same ones voting for their congressional representatives, how the hell does anyone keep their job? This is how we indirectly answer the question of how effective voter manipulation efforts are, as a whole.

Popularly suggested solutions to the supposed oligarchy that has replaced our democracy seem to center on the influence of special interest money on our policies. Remove the money and it will clear out the corruption, right? Maybe. Removing one source of corruption does not immunize against it entirely, though. There are ways to be compensated for loyalty to special interests other than cash.

The linchpin of democracy, the election, is what must be repaired in my opinion. This is a multi-faceted problem. We must ensure that everyone is allowed and encouraged to vote. We must ensure that votes are properly counted. We must ensure that voting districts are drawn with realistic boundaries. We must ensure that the information which people vote on is truthful. Lastly, we must ensure that people have the option to vote for a candidate who actually represents their interests. A tall order, but it’s something to aim for.

Every election should represent a chance to flush out our previous bad decisions and make improvements. With the effect of elections on our politics almost nullified, we, The People, are nearly powerless. It concerns me to think of what we must resort to if our elections fail to enact the change that we desperately need.

20 March 2014

What Rational Looks Like

At my work right now, we’re searching someone who is “ruthlessly logical” to fill the role of a marketing strategist. Nailing down the specifics of the kind of person we’re looking for has been fairly difficult, but we seem to like one of the attributes described in a recent New York Times article, How to Get a Job at Google. Essentially, we want someone who can make a passionate argument for something, but upon learning new information, be able to drop their opinion and reform it based on their new knowledge.

Before this search started, one of my recent tweets that I’m most proud of went like this:



Most people are driven by the need to be right. This means that when they find an answer to something or form an opinion, they jealously guard it from all assailants. While they feel right, they are often objectively wrong. This benefits nobody. I would like to propose a new motivation for all to adopt:

Be driven by the need to find the correct answer.

This is a sentiment that I try very hard to impress on others. Embrace being wrong when you are. Be thankful to the person who opened your eyes. You are now a smarter person for it. While it is certainly valuable to be able to present your argument passionately and convincingly, if you cannot accept new information into your model, your opinion is worthless. As new information comes out and others accept it into their worldviews, you’ll be preaching to a thinning crowd. This is the human equivalent of being obsolete.

In an environment like my work, where collaboration is important, we don't have the time to deal with obsolete people. Society as a whole moves a lot slower, but it's starting to pick up speed. Don't get left behind.

07 March 2014

Happy About Nothing

Lately, I’ve been appreciating my life and, as I tend to do, questioning what it is about my life that makes it good. There are many reasons, realized and unrealized, for my current state and those reasons can be divided into two distinct categories: things I can control and things I didn’t choose for myself (but am happy to have them remain). While it would be wrong to deny that I am fortunate in the latter department, I can definitely attribute a lot of my happiness to something I actively worked to refine: my philosophy of nihilism.

In case you’ve never heard of the term, nihilism is simply what you get when you realize that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to anything. It is the tabula rasa of morality. It feels counter-intuitive that happiness might come from a lack of purpose, but I’m going to explain just how it happens – it’s not how you might think.

Now, nihilism in and of itself says nothing about happiness. It’s simply a statement about the condition of the universe. There are no moral imperatives inherent in nihilism and there certainly are no “oughts.” The trail from nihilism to happiness requires pragmatism (the dictionary definition, not the school of philosophy).

When you have a moral blank slate, and nothing is pushing you to feel a certain way about anything, you start to realize how many societal “rules” are propped up by unfounded beliefs and values. In fact, you start to realize that your reactions to things are more determined by society than your actual feelings on the matter. You don’t have to think that bugs are gross. You don’t have to think that virginity is sacred. You don’t have to worry about what other people might think about your personal decisions.

The deeper you follow this line of thinking; you start to also realize that the vast majority of those “rules” are meant to make you feel badly about various situations. Once you grasp this, you can actively choose not to be disturbed by things. This doesn’t mean you lose your motivation in fixing problems. It just means that you deal with problems more matter-of-factly. You begin to mitigate all of the opportunities in your life for undue negativity.

If I were to subscribe to society’s expectations, my life would be riddled with guilt and shame. I’m actually kind of proud of that because there's no real good reason for me to feel that way, other than dumb herd mentality. I’ve escaped the repressive grasp that a society built upon false beliefs has over everyone else. I’m making my own decisions about how to behave in a situation. It’s a more mindful existence that allows me to experience life on my own terms. I’m no longer doing things that I would otherwise feel obligated to do. I do things because I want to do them.

In short, I’m being true to my self. It just so happens that my self is a kind, well-meaning, thoughtful person, so I happen to like him a lot. Freedom of thought begets fewer burdens, which begets truth of self, which begets self-esteem, which begets happiness. Go figure.

17 February 2014

Playing Card Game: Masquerade Ball

One of my hobbies is to sit in silence with a deck of playing cards in my hand and concoct original games which can be played with it. This is the latest game of mine, which is intended to be a strategic mixture of memory and chess, with a little back story for flavor. I got the inspiration from the game of Mafia, which is a party game in which participants try to suss out who among them are killing everyone off. Please play this with your friends and report back.

Masquerade Ball

Concept:
Two opposing factions are attending a formal masquerade ball on neutral ground. Think: Montagues vs. Capulets. Their members are masked and intermingled as they dance and swap partners. Both are plotting to eliminate the other's leaders.

Players: 2

Playing Area:
The playing area is a 5x5 grid, similar to a BINGO card, with a card placed in each cell. This grid does not need to be drawn, as it is small enough to be imagined.

Setup:
1. Separate all face cards and aces from the deck
2. Deal out an additional 9 cards on top of the 16 cards that were removed
3. Shuffle the 25 cards
4. Arrange the 25 cards randomly in a 5x5 grid, face down.
5. One player owns the red face cards, the other player owns the black face cards.
6. Draw from the leftover cards to see who goes first (highest card wins)

Card Names:
J & Q = Operative: can attack other cards
K = VIP: must be protected
A = Bodyguard: if attacked, kills attacker while also being killed. Becomes an operative (no longer a bodyguard) when all other operatives are dead or are revealed.

Objective:
Eliminate both of your opponent's VIPs or all of their operatives first.

Gameplay:
Each turn, a player may choose to perform up to 2 of 3 possible moves:
1. Reveal (Peek under the mask): the player peeks at one card of their choice to learn its identity. Other player cannot see.
2. Swap (Trade partners): the player chooses to swap the position of two cards on the grid. Optionally, a card may simply be moved into an empty spot which is local to it. In both cases, the cards can only be moved to grid positions that are touching the card (sides and corners).
3. Attack: if the player knows where one of their operatives are located, they can indicate a card adjacent (touching a side) to it to attack by flipping both cards over. The dead card is removed and its space on the grid remains empty. The attacking operative is then flipped face-up and is unable to be moved by its own player for the rest of the game, and can only be swapped by the opposing player. If the card being attacked is a Bodyguard, the attacking card dies as well. The player may accidentally attack its own cards, and the result is the same.

Players take turns until victory conditions are met.

Note: If a player reveals a card in error or indicates a card to attack with that is not one of their operatives, the card must be revealed to the other player (then hidden) and the offending player loses their next turn.

Masquerade Ball is an original card game that uses a standard deck of playing cards. It was developed by Andrew Gonsalves. All rights to its name and rules belong to Andrew Gonsalves. You must obtain permission from Andrew before using these rules for commercial use.

15 February 2014

No Pills For Me, Thanks.

I recently stumbled across a subreddit called "TheRedPill" and I am a little saddened by it. I've long been aware of pick-up artist logic, anti-feminism, and general alpha-male mentality, so this community's existence is not surprising. What's so sad about it is that it represents a portion of the population whose first reaction to the illusion of being marginalized is to push back in the opposite direction. They call this adaptation, but what they're really doing is painting themselves in with every other movement that fought social change to the bitter end.

To summarize The Red Pill, it's basically a bunch of men huddling together and complaining about how women are by nature incompetent and should not be trusted with any responsibility or authority. This also means that they view women, not as individuals, but as naive, manipulable creatures who inconveniently just happen to be holding the one thing they need them for - sex - at arm's length. They collude on how to raise their sexual market value. They laugh at hapless women who attempt to use sex for empowerment, but actually just stumble into the trap they set.

You can't blame these men for feeling marginalized, since fear and defensiveness is the typical reaction of someone who has very little empathetic ability or intelligence (not to be mistaken with the ability to read and write). They don't know what being the marginalized sex actually feels like, so the first time they realize that getting what they want out of life is sort of difficult, they devise an oppressive enemy (feminism) that's holding them back and rally the troops. They never stop to consider that maybe it's they who need to change.

This isn't to say that there aren't certain cultural truths that make sex difficult to obtain for some more than others. In the USA, being a rich, attractive, white (for those who aren't white, call this "white-acting") male will almost certainly guarantee you all of the sex you'd ever want. If you aren't there yet, increase your value in those areas and you'll probably see an improved response from the opposite sex. However, there are two missing factors in this equation that Red Pillers keep leaving out, possibly because they are deficient in them. Those factors would be intelligence and individuality. It seems to me that if your sole goal in life is to bed vulnerable and uninteresting women, then the Red Pill philosophy sounds like the perfect feedback loop.

Since happiness is variable and subjective, I'm not going to say that they're not happy doing this. What I would like to accomplish with this post is to establish that they're simply wrong about their motivations. If they were to admit that jocking around and fucking women is what makes them happy, I wouldn't have a problem with them. The issue arises when they justify their motivations by denigrating women and the men who support them by making fallacious claims and thumping their chests about it. Own up to it, Red Pillers, and you're off the hook.

For the record, I would not call myself a feminist. I guess it's more due to the stigma of the word and the implication that I'm somehow claiming that women are superior. I know that many people would not ascribe that definition to the term, but I'm going to just leave it be and say that I think everyone is an individual and should be evaluated on their own merits. On a large scale, women certainly trend toward various ends of various spectra, but that doesn't mean that every single one of them can be nailed down by a simplistic view. My mother, for example, is both emotional and logical. While I've read that Red Pillers defiantly detest a woman's voice in the matters of financial management and logical discussion, my mother has been in charge of her household's finances for as long as I can remember and she has done a wonderful job. She identifies as an engineer and she manages logistics of production as her job. She's just one example of where the Red Pill preconception has been so utterly wrong.

I suppose what irks me the most is that they let each other get away with making outrageous generalizations that crumble to pieces the moment you meet a woman with any intelligence. Nobody is there trying to keep the conversation from disintegrating into a puddle of oozing retardation. There are dumb women out there, true, as there are dumb men. Where they intersect, we call this The Red Pill. For the rest of us in Intelligent And Individual Land, the economics of the Red Pill sexual market value break down when exposed to multitudes of individual case studies.

I'm a white male who has been relatively lucky to have a roof over his head throughout his life, so for the sake of fair comparison, I won't begin to suggest that men of different races and financial backgrounds could replicate my results. However, as a resident of New York City for over 9 years, I have it on good authority that there are places and communities in this world that are color-blind and socio-economic-status-blind. In fact, if you're not whitewashed, even better. If you're bitter because you were born into the wrong situation, maybe you should change your neighborhood - if you're able. If you're not able, it still doesn't give you license to say shit about women that simply isn't true.

When I compare myself to other men, I see huge differences. I've always been skinny and rather awkward. I've never been very socially aggressive either. A Red Piller would sooner blame the feminists for taking away my masculinity and tell me that I need to counter-act their voodoo by being, essentially, a dickhead. I never saw it that way. Instead of trying to transform into the same piece of meat that was diverting the gazes away from me, I invested in my strengths, which are intelligence, humor, and individuality. You'll have to take my word for it, but it's paid off, and I happen to have some amazing women in my life as a result.

According to my sexual market value (SMV), I should be reading the ForeverAlone subreddit instead. But, like many claims that don't bother to consult reality before being disseminated, it's a good thing The Red Pill philosophy is absolute garbage.

13 February 2014

Getting Over Free Will

The notion of free will is philosophical comfort food, but it doesn't stand up to empirical knowledge. We have a scientific model of how the world works, which allows us to figure out the things we don't quite understand yet through extrapolation. In this case, we don't have a complete grasp on how the mind works, but we have a good idea about how the matter that makes up our brain works, so we can infer through various evidence that the mind is a manifestation of the physical brain. If you wanted to suggest otherwise, you would need to invent some unobserved, unproved mechanism without having any proof. Some people call that the soul or the spirit, but I don't see those terms filling up any scientific journals.

Back to what we know about matter; it has no mind of its own - it follows the laws of physics without fail. This gives rise to what is the determinist philosophy: Our minds, being the emergent property of predictable physical processes, are only following the script written for them by the matter they are composed of (which, in turn, follow the laws of physics). This is more than just hypothetical logic; there is actual evidence for this. In studies, we have seen with fMRI imaging that a brain's activity indicates a decision is made a split second before the conscious mind is aware of it.

The conclusion at this point is that free will doesn't actually exist. If it did, the process would probably work in the opposite direction, with the conscience being aware before - or at least the same time - the brain reacted. We are tricked by the illusion of control, which is no different than believing that the sun rotates the earth. You would not be blamed for holding this belief before being presented with evidence to the contrary.

Once the evidence is provided, however, the idea of free will starts to fall into the realm of supernatural belief. This may not be intentional though. What's more likely is that those who support the idea of free will are working backwards from a foregone conclusion. There are some huge moral implications to the idea that free will doesn't exist.

For one, it means that we cannot justify our hatred toward evil. With this model, evil doesn't even exist. Without free will, we lack fault for our faults because we had no choice or instrumentation in becoming the people we are. Obviously, this turns the whole concept of criminal punishment inside out. It's not moral to punish someone for being nothing more than who they had no choice to be.

You can then see why some people might adamantly argue for the existence of free will, despite evidence to the contrary. It is no longer a matter of finding the truth, but more a defensive mechanism to hold their concept of reality together. We see the same justification in Young Earth Creationists, who believe what they do, not because of any convincing evidence, but because otherwise their concept of authoritative morality would crumble and they would lose their mooring to reality as they know it. To protect themselves, they establish that their conclusion must be true, and then work backward from there.

The good news is that you never had free will, so realizing you don't have it doesn't change much for you. It's a shame that people hold on to it so dearly, though, because it could possibly improve a lot of lives if we gave it up.

05 February 2014

If I Had Debated Ken Ham

Last night's creationism debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was eagerly watched by thousands of geeks like me, all waiting for Nye to deliver a slapdown of biblical proportions, burying Ham and his flawed ideas once and for all. Nye had other things in mind. He wasn't there to bury anyone, rather, he was there to spread his passion for science to the young audience who may have been watching at the behest of their parents. He knew that there was little to lose by appearing on stage beside a blowhard who hardly knew about the subject he criticized. There would be no "evolutionists" converting to creationism. Bill Nye agreed to debate with Ken Ham because he saw it as a chance to get his ideas in front of an audience that would have otherwise never hear him.

While I and others were frothing at the mouth, salivating with every delicious morsel of complete buffoonery that Ham dropped, Nye rarely took the bait. He left a lot of points and barbs on the table, but he knew that his position needed no defense. The fact of the matter is that creationism is a niche belief and its presence is more of a political hurtle than any real ideological struggle. By acting as a missionary of science, Bill Nye may have disappointed many of his fans, but he did not lose them. Instead, he may have potentially gained many new ones by filling the pursuit of science with an air of hope and mystery while demonstrating creationism to be devoid of wonder on any practical level.

But I can't help but imagine how the debate might have gone had Nye channeled a little Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris while he was at the podium. There were moments where I don't think I could have resisted laughing in Ham's face if I had been up there. So, as an exercise, I've let myself imagine if I had been the one to debate Ken Ham instead.

To begin the debate, each side was given 30 minutes to present their case to the audience. In a competitive debate, this favors the bullshitter, as he is able to spew nonsense uninterrupted and then leave his opponent with a mountain of crap to clean up afterward. Still, if I were Nye, I would have reserved a few minutes at the start of my presentation to dismantle Ham's case before proceeding with my own. Ham's two main points were thus:

1) Science should be redefined and split into two categories: observational and historical. Observational science includes all of the functional stuff we utilize during our every-day lives, like technology and medicine. Historical science, meanwhile, is about determining all the stuff that happened in the past. Ham's main argument here is that if we did not see it happen, we cannot prove that what our science is telling us is actually true.

2) The bible contains all the explanations we're looking for and is thus more reliable when it comes to "historical" science.

Upon hearing these claims, I would have begun:

Ken Ham's position is to defend the bible's plausibility as an accurate historical account. In doing this, it defies reason that he should be allowed to use the bible itself as part of his defense. I may as well use the book of Harry Potter as proof that wizards are real. This is called circular reasoning and if Ham intends to use the word "logic" even once during this debate, he should realize how badly his claims stray from it. You cannot use the thing you're defending as its own defense. I may as well write my claims on a napkin and proclaim its inerrancy.

To Ken Ham's followers, I ask you to pause and question this man's claims for a moment. Just for a moment. Think to yourself: if you are being told that the bible is this abundant source of accurate information, shouldn't there be some piece of evidence out there, apart from the bible itself, that corroborates its story? The answer to that question is that everything we know, as people of reason, as people who have scoured the world in search of knowledge and information, conflicts directly with the story of creation within the bible. Consider, as well, that the other side of the story has been misrepresented to you, so that it may be easier to dismiss.

Also, if I may inquire, is Ken Ham 6000 years old? If he claims that so-called "historical" science is invalid because it deals with events that we were not around to directly observe, how then can he be so sure of his own story, which deals with events that took place long before he was born. It is worth noting that Mr. Ham's interpretation of the bible is relatively new. That is to say that nobody shared his views a couple centuries ago, despite having better odds at having witnessed it first-hand.

If science must be split into historical and observational categories, then, I propose, so too must theology. Do this and you'll be left with a heap of purely hypothetical conjectures in the former category and absolutely nothing in the latter.

...

Who knows how that might have stirred things up.