Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Too Sensitive

How many times have I heard those words? 'You're too sensitive.' 'Don't take it personally.' 'Just ignore them.'

Those words always serve to invalidate my complaints. The problem is not the situation, it's my sensitivity. Never mind that many of those things bother other people as much as they bother me, such as with bullying.

But what if they really don't bother others as much? I've been told that I'm too sensitive about online flaming. When I'm the target of a flame war, I literally can't sleep. I almost quit a game I really like because the culture of the players is so unpleasant. Meanwhile, my brother gets it just as bad in that same game and just shrugs it off - the same boy who is chronically depressed from just watching bullying at school! If my brother can handle this, maybe the problem is me.

Except, I don't think what makes me more sensitive is really a bad thing. You see, many people tend to forget that online interactions have other people on the other side. I never do. When someone tells me hurtful things about my newly level 85 mage, I am acutely aware that this is a person, choosing to say these words to another person. To me.

And besides, even if I am too sensitive, so what? I can't turn it off. I tried, in the past, and it didn't work. They may not be expecting me to be that sensitive when they first say something hurtful, but once I've reacted, they know. They know that they have hurt me. They know I'm sensitive enough not to shrug it off.

Given that, it's a matter of ethics. Do you knowingly cause pain to a person, or don't you? If they playfully punched someone in the shoulder, and the person doubled over in pain and said they had arthritis in their shoulder, would they hit them again?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Watching A God At Work

I have just recently signed on as a backer to the Grandroids project. As a backer, I get access to a special website where Steve Grand provides detailed progress reports (for example, recently he got the motor system working and tested it out by giving the creature a seizure).

For those of you who don't know, 20 years ago Steve Grand made the first game of my favorite series, the Creatures series. In this series, you raise little creatures called norns (at least you're supposed to, but it's a very open-ended game so you could instead leave them struggle to survive on their own, do experiments on them, run game show type activities while getting forum members or blog commenters to vote on them, the possibilities are pretty much endless). It's not like most artificial pets games, for one big reason - the norns are alive. They have their own internal biochemistry - they digest food, breathe, get sick or poisoned, they even have ATP and ADP. They have a neural network brain that can learn from experience and decide what to do. And they have a genetics code that decides the structure of both, which is inherited from the parents but with a few random mutations - which means they can actually evolve.

However, this had to run on computers in the 1990s. So the norns are very simple creatures, by real-life standards (even though by digital standards they're the most complicated life simulation so far). A single worker ant would beat them in intelligence. Their biochemistry didn't require conservation of energy, so sooner or later they all evolve into immortals. (This is most well-known in Docking Station, where the warp system that allowed players to trade norns also allowed many generation lines that were far longer than the patience of any players.) Their motor control consisted of genes specifying animation poses and other genes stringing those poses together, allowing for some very unrealistic motor disabilities (such as a disability where, when angry, they'd step on the spot instead of moving forward, but any other time they walked fine).

That's where Grandroids comes in. Steve Grand no longer has anything to do with the Creatures franchise - this is his new project. The Grandroids (which will not be called that, by the way) will have most, if not all, of the above design issues fixed. They will have much more complex biochemistry, based on some of the features of real-life chemistry. They will have a motor system much like ours, meaning the kinds of motor disabilities they get will also be much like ours. And although we have no idea yet how smart they'll be, Steve Grand's goalpoint is orangutans, which are almost as smart as humans. Their genetics will also be more complicated, and at the same time more familiar to many users because it's more similar to mammalian genetics.

Some of the backers have jokingly compared Steve Grand to God, and vice versa. Which brings me to a new philosophical question. I don't know how smart the Grandroids will be, but either they, or some future project building on this one, might involve creatures smart enough to have their own culture, their own belief system, their own religion. They may be smart enough that people could tell them about Steve Grand, and they would understand that he created them. From their perspective, Steve Grand is, quite literally, God, with the players being lesser gods controlling their individual universes.

What impact would this knowledge have on their cultures? Certainly some players may tell them the story of Steve Grand, and others may not. Those who do tell the story will each tell it a little differently. What impact might that have?

Furthermore, each player has a different playing style, which will have a different impact on their lives. They may have a kind, nurturing god who cures their sick, teaches their young and protects them all from the dangers in their world. They may have an absentee god who hatches the first generation and then has minimal involvement, returning much later when the wolfling run is over. They may have a newbie god who tries to care for them but speaks gibberish to them, confuses them by calling things by the wrong names, and punishes or rewards them pretty much at random. They may have a mad scientist god who hatches children with serious disabilities, puts them through weird tests, or creates strange new objects for them to interact with (some of which may be intentionally or unintentionally harmful). They may even have a sadistic god who enjoys watching them suffer, and who only helps them in order to ensure that they survive for more torture.

Each of those gods will bring a very different experience, and this, too, might shape their culture. If, like Christians, they see god as an attachment figure, they may react the same way that they would to a caring or neglectful parent. (I'm guessing the first generation especially may see us that way, given that we'd be their only parents.) This may impact on how they treat their own children (assuming they raise their children, unlike norns). Or they may view god more like a king, and see in their god's actions the way an authority figure should manage their underlings.

If multiple players share the same world, or if they get traded or warped between players, they may even see different gods managing things very differently. For example, some norn torturers posted norns they'd tortured on their websites, and other players downloaded these norns and tried to rehabilitate them. It's pretty much lost on norns, but maybe these Grandroids would come to interesting insights based on this contrast.

Lastly, what impact might this have on human culture? If Grandroids becomes well known, will it cause a shift in how we view life? Will religious people draw parallels between Steve Grand or Grandroids players and their own God, for example wonder if God is giving us a wolfling run and the end times will come when he decides to return and see what we've evolved into? Will ethicists speculate on what rights Grandroids deserve, similar to how they speculate about animals? Will researchers write papers using Grandroids as analogues to humans? Lastly, what will the next generation think? People who played Creatures as children are now adults. When the people who played Grandroids as kids have grown up, how will they see life and the universe?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. And some of them may be my imagination running wild, and the Grandroids won't be in a position to raise those questions. But still, it's incredible to watch new life being made, and wonder about the meaning of life.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pacifist Ponies

Lately, I've gotten to be a fan of the TV show My Little Ponies: Friendship Is Magic. Normally, I wouldn't even consider watching My Little Ponies, because I thought of it as just a little kids' show. But when Amanda Baggs wrote a blog entry about how one of their episodes showed something important about relating to animals, I decided to give the show a try.

And I found out that it's really good. Better than many 'more adult' shows that I've enjoyed.

They have consistent characters.They have plots that aren't always wrapped up in a single episode. They have protagonists who aren't always right, and when they're wrong, they're wrong in ways that make sense for that character. They have an interesting world that works on different rules from our own, but remains internally consistent. They have characters who see their own world as the norm instead of seeming transplanted from our world.

And with all that, they also have a strongly positive moral message.

Most TV shows, whether for kids or adults, have certain kinds of problems always being solved by violence. Kids' shows usually involve beating bad guys up, adult shows often involve killing said bad guys. Violence is also the solution to a good guy turning bad - you beat them up and restrain them, then fix whatever is wrong with them against their will.

My least favorite My Little Ponies episode(s), the two-parter Return of Harmony, is what made me realize this most clearly. That episode, unlike the rest of the series, does solve the problems with violence. The contrast made me appreciate the other episodes even more - even the first season's two-parter, with its own big bad, is resolved peacefully.

Resolving conflicts peacefully is not only a good moral example, it also requires more creativity. A violent solution is always basically the same, while every peaceful solution is unique. In the superhero and crime-fighting shows I usually watch, very often I know exactly how the story will end - the hero will beat up the bad guy. In My Little Ponies, in constrast, I'm never quite sure how they will resolve the conflict.

And furthermore, in most TV shows, almost all conflicts result from villains. In contrast, most My Little Ponies episodes have conflicts arising from good characters who make mistakes. One episode involved TwilightSparkle, a diligent student, panicking because she doesn't have a lesson about friendship to write to her teacher this week. She is catastrophizing about how her teacher (the princess of the realm) will react to her being late with her letter, and running around town looking for a problem she can help a friend with. It gets to the point where she decides if she can't find a problem to solve, she'll make one. This is not a villain deciding to try to drive a wedge between friends in order to be evil. Instead, it's a good character getting herself into a mess and doing something bad because in her current mental state that's what makes the most sense. (The lesson for that episode isn't for TwilightSparkle, but for everyone else - even if a friend seems to be overreacting, you should take their concerns seriously because it's real to them.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Karla Homolka and Co-Offenders

Recently, I found a Cracked article titled 5 Horrific Serial Killers (Who Are Free Right Now). The only woman on the list is Karla Homolka from Canada, a serial killer co-offender.

Karla Homolka met Paul Bernado when she was 17 and he was 23. Shortly before their marriage, Paul Bernado became obsessed with her younger sister Tammy and convinced her to help him rape her. They drugged Tammy and both of them raped her, and she choked on her own vomit and died. The two later kidnapped, raped and murdered two other young women before the police were onto them.

All three attacks were instigated by Paul Bernado. He also physically abused Karla, at one point beating her with a flashlight until she was covered in bruises. Paul Bernado also did several separate crimes - a series of rapes. Karla Homolka claimed that Paul Bernado forced her into participating in the killings.

Now, it's unclear if this is true. Paul Bernado gave a conflicting account that claimed that while he and Karla both participated in kidnapping and rape, Karla did the killings of her own initiative when he was out of the room. It all depends who you believe more. But much of the public outcry over Karla Homolka's shorter sentence, including the Cracked article, is based on the assumption that if she didn't want to be a party to murder, she would have gone to the police.

Stanley Milgram originally made a similar assumption. He designed a study in which the participant, designated the 'teacher', attempted to teach a word list to the 'learner' using steadily escalating electric shocks. The learner was in fact a confederate, was not receiving any shocks, and was instructed to progressively make mistakes, protest the situation, and then eventually fall silent (suggesting the possibility of serious injury). Milgram predicted that only a small number of people would proceed until the experimenter agreed to stop - most, he felt, would refuse at some point.

He was wrong. Fully 65% of people showed full obediance to the experimenter. Of those who broke off the experiment, all had progressed at least to the point where the learner fell silent. Repeat studies have confirmed this finding, as well as extending it to a situation where three 'teachers' (two confederates and the subject) conferred about shock and the two confederates both pushed for a steady increase.

Of course, there are numerous differences between the situation of Milgram's subjects and that of Karla Homolka. But the differences go both ways. On the one hand, the subjects in Milgram's study were not directly faced with their victims, since the learner was in another room. The experimenter, a scientist with a respected university, promised that no harm would come to the subject. And the participants believed that good would come out of the study, since it would advance scientific knowledge. None of this appeared to be true for Karla Homolka.

However, the experimenter had no power to punish the teacher in any way, whereas Paul Bernado clearly could cause harm to Karla Homolka. The subjects had no prior attachment to the experimenter, whereas Karla Homolka was in love with Paul Bernado. Furthermore, once she'd done the first attempted rape of Tammy, going to the police would have involved confessing to her own wrongdoings as well.

If Karla Homolka's account is to be believed, therefore, she was not so strange as people think. Many people, in a similar situation, might do the same thing. Not that her behavior was in any way morally right. But it was not necessarily the behavior of a psychopath. It could have simply been the behavior of an overly loyal person, or perhaps a coward.