Author Archive

Here, for no particular reason, is a list of some random fond memories I have from playing computer games over the last twenty years or so. These were shaken lose by a thread on Usenet, and I figured why not share them here as well. I’m actually surprised in retrospect how significant a value computer gaming has been to me.

  • Playing Wizardry I on the Apple 2 with a friend. We reached the wizard at the end of the game, only to be told “You meet a friendly Werdna. F)ight or L)eave?” Naturally, we left, which we thought was hilarious until we discovered we were stuck at the bottom of the dungeon with no way out. D’oh! I think that’s the first quest bug I ever encountered in a computer game.
  • Finishing Ultima IV the day before an Ultima panel at a local science-fiction convention, only to discover that I was the only person in the room (including the panelists) who had finished the game. Much advice was given.
  • Ultima V. When I found out how Blackthorn had perverted the virtues and oppressed the citizens of Britannia, I got angry. That was the first time a computer game’s storyline evoked a significant emotional reaction in me. In those days, Origin’s slogan (“We Create Worlds”) wasn’t just marketing hype. (Their game Autoduel deserves an honorable mention. Getting as close as they did to a Car Wars computer game, with the technology they had at their disposal, was an act of genius.)
  • Finishing the original Quest For Glory with a different friend at college. The ending of that game, which showed you the impact your choices in the game had on various NPCs and the world, was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The personalization made it far more satisfying than any pre-rendered cutscene ending I can recall, even though the graphics were primitive.
  • The original System Shock. The antagonist, Shodan, had killed everybody on the space station where the game was set. But when I found out she left the muzak playing in the elevators — that’s when I knew she was truly evil. But really the whole game is one entire favorite gaming memory. I wish there were a way to play it again for the first time.
  • Lemmings. The way the game ratcheted up the difficulty was seductive and brilliant. You’d do a level using all the lemmings they gave you and swear that it couldn’t be done with any fewer. Then you’d get the same level with fewer lemmings, and curse, and experiment for hours, and finally figure it out, and feel really clever for a while — until they gave you that level again with even fewer lemmings. And they repeated this cycle many more times than you’d think possible. I still have the theme song stuck in my brain almost two decades later.
  • Getting stuck at the very beginning of Sorcerer, figuring out the puzzle on Friday afternoon and then solving the whole adventure in a single 12-hour marathon gaming session.
  • Solving the infamous “Babel fish” puzzle from Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Without assistance.
  • Writing a character and item editor for the original Bard’s Tale, just because I could.
  • Boot-trace cracking the original Might & Magic. (Not something I would do today, but I was much younger then and my grasp of property rights was shaky to say the least. It’s still a fond memory because the technical problem was interesting and my ‘crack’ required changing literally a single bit of the code. That’s elegant.)
  • Having my roommate ask me for help in a combat in Ultima Underworld II. As I recall, the conversation went something like this.  Roommate: “Hey, Kyle. I’m having trouble kicking Dorstag’s ass. Any advice?”  Me: “Sure. It’s a simple two-step process. You go up to him, and you kick his ass.”  To this day, I find the “simple two-step process” a useful locution for giving useless advice.
  • “Ward Bwitish? I have a cwose personal fwiend, a wuler fwom Bwitannia named Ward Bwitish.” (This will probably only be funny to people who have detailed memories of both Ultima VII: Serpent Isle *and* Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN, but at the time it was hilarious.)
  • The interactive cutscenes in Mass Effect. Sometimes I fire the game up just to give alternative versions of the “pep speech” prior to taking command of the Normandy, because I love the cinematic nature of the experience so much.
  • The entirety of Deus Ex and Baldur’s Gate 2. As with the more recent Portal, the only complaint I have about those games is that they ended.

Over on the ObjectivismOnline forum, somebody posted a question from a conservative about some aspects of Objectivism and asked for assistance answering it. My ‘quick’ answer wound up being a bit longer than I originally intended, so I figured I’d cross-post it here. Here’s the original question, followed by my response:

How does objectivism deal with scientific concepts of events or objects that by their very nature cannot be observed or measured? Also does objectivism compensate for issues concerning the potential inaccuracy of the five senses or is it assumed that the senses and the external data that they gather in for intellect and reason to process are always correct? As you can imagine I don’t accept objectivism as a worthwhile philosophy for my life because it excludes too many avenues of discovery. It puts to many limits on lines of though and inquiry and when taking to its fullest potential it seems to be a child of nihilism something akin to atheistic existentialism. I may have misconceptions or a misunderstanding of the philosophy because I haven’t delved deeply in to it but much of what I read I couldn’t agree with.

I’m just tossing this out in a few minutes between other tasks at work, but here’s my thoughts. First, Objectivism definitely takes the position that the senses as such cannot be in error. We draw a strong distinction between the form and object of perception, and between the perception itself and the conceptual identification of the information given in the percept. Let’s concretize this by examining a standard perceptual illusion — the stick in water. We look at it and it seems bent, but we know that it’s really straight. Aren’t our senses giving us incorrect information? No, they aren’t. We are perceiving the identity of a particular part of existence, viz. a stick in water, and the form in which our senses respond to this identity is the perception of the bent-stick-in-water. The object perceived is the stick-in-water, and the form in which we perceive it integrates together multiple causal aspects — the shape of the stick and the refractive index of the water. Our conceptual identification of the percept (which may be in error) is that the stick appears bent because of the effects of the water in which it is immersed.

Because the senses operate causally, they can respond in only one way to any given situation… the way dictated by their nature and the nature of the object being perceived. Since there is no alternative in how they respond, concepts like “error” do not apply. A perception can no more be mistaken than a chemical reaction or a rock rolling down a hill. For a further discussion of the nature of perception, perceptual form and perceptual judgment, see the first few sections of Chapter 2 of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism, or perhaps David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses.

As for how Objectivists deal with concepts of events or objects that cannot be observed or measured — it depends on what is meant by “cannot be observed or measured”. Aspects of reality which cannot be observed or measured perceptually must be dealt with by inference, using concepts which are themselves ultimately grounded in perception. We cannot directly perceive atoms, for example, but we know they exist based on a lengthy chain of scientific experiments the results of which are directly perceived. (See David Harriman’s article on “Proof of the Atomic Theory” in the most recent issue of the Objective Standard for a more detailed explication of this.) If, on the other hand, the question is about concepts of events or objects that by their nature cannot be reduced to the perceptual level, then the Objectivist response is that assertions of the existence of such events or objects is arbitrary and illegitimate. On what basis can such events or objects be claimed to exist? By definition we cannot have sensory evidence of them directly, nor can they have any causal connection to anything else that we can perceive and use to infer their existence conceptually. Such things cannot be identified either through the senses or through reason based on the senses, and there are no other legitimate means of obtaining knowledge about reality. Objectivism rejects faith, innate ideas and speculation absent evidence. The only “avenues of discovery” that are epistemologically legitimate are the senses and conceptual inductions and deductions based on the senses. Anything else is just making stuff up, and while that can be fun as entertainment it isn’t a path to knowledge.

I can’t really respond to the questions about Objectivism being a “child of nihilism” or a form of “atheistic existentialism” other than to note that, yes, it is an atheistic philosophy. I don’t find it nihilistic because it takes a very strong value orientation. Life matters, values matter, happiness matters, morality matters. That’s the opposite of any form of nihilism.

Ezra Levant is currently my favorite Canadian. He’s been fighting a solid, principled battle for free speech in Canada in the face of radical Muslims trying to use Canada’s “human rights commissions” to crush speech critical of Islam. Freedom of speech is the carotid artery of peaceful cultural change — block it off, and the prospects for improving the culture die with alarming speed. The kinds of things Levant is facing are a microcosm of the future we face in the United States unless we are vigilant.

I don’t know much about Mr. Levant or his views apart from the free speech issue, but on that he is dead-on accurate. Recently he testified before the U.S. Congress. He also has an interesting post commenting on testimony by a Pakistani diplomat on the efforts by Muslim nations to twist western legal systems into penalizing criticism of Islam (“blasphemy”) under the code word “defamation”.

Oh, hell, just go to his blog and read the whole thing. It’ll probably scare the pants off you, make you a better person and give your dog a bath, all at the same time.

Earlier today I received a phone call from a polling company. They wanted to ask me questions about my local water district authority. For the most part I was ignorant, but one of the questions struck me as extremely odd. There was a section of the survey in which they read me a series of statements and asked me to indicate whether and how strongly I agreed with them. One of the statements was “The water provided by the district authority meets all federal, state and local quality standards.”

Bear in mind that this was a random survey. I’m John Q. Public to these people. Now ask yourself what information you would need to be able to evaluate that statement. Do you know all of the federal, state and local water quality standards that apply where you live? Do you know the details of the contents of the water and the condition of the water infrastructure? I don’t, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either. And without that information, there is no basis to hold any opinion on whether the statement in question is true or false.  The chance of any randomly selected person knowing what they would need to know to give a meaningful answer to that question falls squarely between ‘slim’ and ‘fat’.

If the people who made up these surveys had any grasp of proper cognitive methodology, asking such a question would be simply unthinkable. But, sadly, they do not, and they’re probably no different in that regard than the majority of the people they poll. As a result, these sorts of polls turn into an orgy of mutual subjectivism, in which the emotionally-driven responses of hundreds of people get aggregated together into a pseudo-objective sum. The fact that some percentage of people ‘think’, on no particular basis, that the water district is meeting quality standards winds up being adduced as evidence that the water district is doing its job well.

Collective inter-subjectivity as a substitute for objectivity. I’ve been back from OCON for less than a week, and already I feel like I’m surrounded by monkeys.

Anne comments: I was in a job once where I was tasked with creating a survey for the organization’s membership (approximately 20,000 people at the time). I had no particular experience in creating surveys, but I worked with a consultant who did. One of the things I was very careful about was to ask questions that would produce the data we actually wanted. That’s trickier than you might imagine, and involves taking into account all the possible exceptions that someone might have to a survey question — but without making the question so open-ended that it produces useless results.

Apparently Kitty Genovese died in vain.

That is all.

(Anne speaking):

I’ve already pointed out to Kyle that the Kitty Genovese case has actually been significantly misrepresented in the common mind. But that’s neither here nor there. I can’t speak for everyone, but the fact that I’m a 5’1″ female fatass with no fight training whatsoever would not stop me from leaping on that asshole and doing my best to choke him to death, or at least sit on him. And no, I wouldn’t hesitate. Of course, in an ideal world, I would be permitted to get a CCW permit and would have a gun with me. That would solve the problem and I wouldn’t have to break a nail.

Former Georgia congressman Bob Barr wants to run for President as the Libertarian Party candidate.  The first thing that ran through my mind on reading that was a wish that he could pick former Democratic senator Sam Nunn as his running-mate — just because the advertisements for the Barr / Nunn ticket would be a speck of humor in an otherwise utterly depressing election.

Several years ago, I heard the observation that the sign of a dominant political party in a democracy isn’t winning elections by huge margins. It’s consistently winning the close elections. That’s a sign that the winning party holds the support of the voters on the margin. In 2002 and 2004, the Republicans won the bulk of the close elections.

Now it’s 2008. And in that well-known bastion of liberalism, Mississippi.

I smell elephant roadkill, incoming.

I just noted a comment on an older post of mine accusing me, somewhat ungrammatically, of being a Republican and therefore an idiot. I find this sort of thing hilarious, because I’m not a Republican. In fact, I find myself wondering what definition of Republican people like that have in mind that they consider me to be one.

Is it party affiliation? I’m registered Democratic.

Is it who I plan to vote for in the election? Not John McCain, that’s for damn sure.

Is it which party I support financially? I don’t give a dime to the Republicans.

Is it supporting the campaign in Iraq? I think Bush has thoroughly botched it.

Is it being a religious nut? I’m a secularist.

My guess is that to people like this commenter, “Republican” simply means “Doesn’t agree with the left on everything.” If so, well, I’m guilty of that, but I prefer a different term to describe that — sane.

I haven’t had the time or inclination to blog much recently, but this is just too sweet to ignore. Apparently John McCain (whom I do not like very much and will neither support nor vote for) is having some issues with the campaign finance reform system that he himself has supported so vocally. He seems to think he has a constitutional right to back out of the system now that its spending limits are crimping his campaign.

Sorry, John-boy. You don’t get to deny my political freedom of speech and then claim its protection yourself. If one of the consequences of your rape of the First Amendment is the blocking of your path to the White House, I call that justice in action. Cry me a river, please — your anguish sustains me.

Or, putting the point more simply: <voice=”Nelson”>Ha ha!</voice>

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of my favorite novels, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. There have been a lot of articles recently on the significance and influence of this book, which I won’t try to recap here. My own favorite such article is this one by Robert Tracinski.

Oddly enough, this year also marks the 20th anniversary of my own first encounter with Rand’s writing. Back in 1987 I was 16, a junior in high school, very intelligent but increasingly cynical. A girl I knew, and had kind of a crush on, spent about six months pestering me to read The Fountainhead. She said it was the “most rational thing” I would ever read, and she was more or less right. By the time I reached the scene where architecture student Howard Roark was explaining to the dean of his school why the Parthenon was badly designed, I was hooked. I ploughed through that 700 page book in three days, then hit the library.

There I found two other novels by Rand: a novelette called Anthem and a huge doorstop called Atlas Shrugged. Since I hadn’t done any schoolwork for the past few days on account of The Fountainhead I decided to do the responsible thing and check out the short one. That took about an hour, and I was back at the library the next day. The 1168 pages of Atlas took me five days, and boy did I not get any homework done. (Precious little sleep, for that matter — it was wonderful being young.) That summer I worked my way through most of the extant non-fiction, and never looked back. (Well, there was that unfortunate libertarian anarchist phase I went through in college, but I got better. Let us never speak of it again.)

Many people say that Rand’s writings changed their lives. I’m not sure I would go that far in my own case. I always valued reason and freedom. What Rand taught me was how right I was to do so, how to understand exactly what it was I was valuing, and how to defend those values in action. She showed me how to think systematically, a skill which has proven invaluable in my career as an engineer. And she taught me not to be ashamed of being happy, or of pursuing happiness.

Anne Speaking:

Sure sounds to me like her writings changed your life. I had a similar experience. I always valued freedom, individuation, and reason. But Rand gave me the words for it, and the justification down to the most elemental level. That certainty has made me more content, and made my life a more joyful journey.

Rand described her philosophy as one “for living on Earth”, and that’s exactly what it is. Properly understood and applied, I have found it leads to a happy and successful life. It’s true, and it works. What more could one ask for?

So, although I haven’t seen the girl since I graduated from high school, thank you Liz for pushing me into reading Rand. You were right, it was the most rational thing I’ve ever read, and 20 years later I’m still benefiting from it. And, more profoundly, thank you Ayn Rand for your insight, your courage and your inspiration. Well done.

Anne speaking:

OMG you had a crush on her? Who was this girl?? SHE WILL DIE!

But seriously, I had never heard of Ayn Rand until about 1993, which was when Kyle starting pestering me to read The Fountainhead (it only took me, what, 5 years into our marriage?) I went on to read Atlas, heeding Kyle’s advice to “read all of Galt’s speech. You think you know what he’s going to say, but you really don’t.” Good advice. Terrific books and an important philosophy that isn’t getting enough attention in schools or from humanity generally.