Monthly Archives: January 2010

Oddity of the Week

Crown Financial Ministries has something important to tell you:

The Bible clearly forbids seeking the advice of fortune tellers, mediums, or spiritualists: “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:31, NIV). Study the next passage carefully: “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord…and even consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death” (1 Chronicles 10:13-14, NIV). Saul died, in part, because he went to a medium. We should also avoid anything they use in forecasting the future, such as the horoscopes and all other practices of the occult.*

I don’t think Crown actually thinks that you need to be warned not to base your investments on tarot readings so much as they need something other than pictures of piggy banks to pad their manual out to over 150 pages, but that’s an awfully long paragraph to never mention that fortune telling doesn’t work. I find it reminiscent of the sorcery laws in Saudi Arabia. Although a genie just told me I was thinking of Bo Obama, so maybe there’s something to it after all.

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*Crown Biblical Financial Study Life Group Manual, p. 55

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Is It Cheaper to Ride the Bus?

“Smile, you’re saving money!” says a sign on the 780.  That’s certainly the common wisdom.  People who can’t afford cars ride the bus, so it must be cheaper.  And it’s only $1.25!  What a bargain.

While it’s true that buses are the transportation refuge of the poor, that doesn’t make them less expensive.  As this eye-opening article from the Washington Post shows, it’s expensive to be poor: People on a tight budget are forced to make choices that are fiscally worse in the long run because they have no other options.  For example, buying in bulk saves money, but if you only have $20 to spend on groceries, buying a 20-pound bag of rice or a 40-ounce jar of peanut butter simply isn’t an option.  The bus, I find, is another case that is not really a money-saver, but rather the only option available.

I ride the bus from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, covering about 22 miles for $1.25 each way.  That’s a total of 44 miles for $2.50.  Estimating our gas mileage at 22 MPG, I would have spent about two gallons of gas driving, which would have cost about $6.  Of course, I wouldn’t have taken the ambling backroads route that the 780 takes.  Driving, my route would be closer to 19 miles and I would be able to capitalize on highway gas efficiency (yes, even during rush hour), so I would probably pay closer to $5 in gas costs.  Still, taking the bus would cost half as much, even before factoring in other car costs.

But I take one of the longest bus routes almost the whole way.  Say that I decide to take the bus down to Old Town Pasadena for a night out.  True, I could walk, but that would be a bit ambitious for an evening and wouldn’t leave much time for dinner or a movie.  Now I’m traveling just three miles in each direction, but I’m still paying $2.50 in fare (LA Metro doesn’t offer free transfers, so even if I went there, turned around, and came straight back, I’d still have to pay twice).  If I drove, I would be using only a quarter of a tank of gas for about $0.75, and we’d use the free garage so as not to pay for parking.  Now taking the bus is a far worse deal.

I’m lucky because my bus line runs directly to LACMA, but if I had to make just one transfer, my daily cost would be $5, or no real benefit over driving.  The lack of transfers makes riding the bus in LA not really workable as a lifestyle choice.  Say I wanted to run some errands and had four stops to make.  Even if all four stops were on the same bus line, I’d have to pay five times.

Lastly, there’s the time issue.  Riding the bus takes two to three times as long as driving, even in the worst traffic (after all, the buses are stuck in traffic too).  In my case, riding the bus takes two hours longer than driving each day.  It doesn’t matter much to me, because I wouldn’t be doing anything with that time, but someone on a real shoestring budget could have worked some much-needed extra hours or picked up a second job.  At California’s $8 minimum wage, that’s a potential $16 loss, dwarfing the $2.50 gas savings.

By now, you should be pointing out that we have a car payment of $400 a month, and even the potential income loss only comes out to around $300.  Then there’s insurance, registration, and maintenance.  Thus, while riding the bus instead of driving the car we already own may not save money, riding the bus would have been cheaper than buying and maintaining our car.  True.  Of course, our ability to adopt an aggressive pay schedule that will have our car paid off by May (about a year and a half total) is another case of having money resulting in savings, but the question is not whether taking the bus is cheaper than driving our car, but rather whether it’s cheaper than driving a car.  If we were really on a budget, we would probably drive a reliable 90s subcompact that we could buy outright for a few thousand dollars.  Insurance would run around $50 a month–a lot, but cheaper than a Metro monthly pass–and registration would add about $10, hardly what you’d call unaffordable.

By this point, we’ve got a lot of factors in play: distance, number of transfers, what sort of car I would otherwise buy, and whether or not I could earn extra money with the saved time.  It should be clear, though, that riding the bus is not an inherent money-saver.

Riding the bus versus driving is essentially the same dilemma as renting a home versus owning one.  A two-bedroom apartment in Pasadena, rented for $1500 to $2000, is not really cheaper than the mortgage payment on a two-bedroom house.  However, anyone without the money for a down payment is forced to rent; he or she has no choice in the matter.  Riding the bus may be cheaper or more expensive depending on the exact circumstances, but if one doesn’t have a few thousand dollars in hand to purchase a car, one has to take the bus, even if it costs more.

I’d like to end by mentioning quality of life.  Simply put, spending somewhat less for a vastly inferior product isn’t really a good deal.  Renting an apartment may be cheaper than buying, but the apartment will be smaller, more poorly constructed, and worse maintained than the house would be.  An apartment of equal quality to a house would cost a great deal more.  Even if riding the bus ends up being cheaper, even the most ramshackle car would provide a more pleasant ride than the LA Metro.  Thus, in the end, riding the bus is not a good deal after all.

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Bad Faith Arguments

One of the more severe allegations I level against people is that of arguing in bad faith. A bad faith argument is an argument that one knows to be false but uses anyway, or that purports to be a logical argument with the goal of convincing one’s opponent, but that actually has a different goal, such as defaming the opponent.  There’s nothing wrong with being wrong or even with arguing in favor of a position that turns out to be wrong, but if you argue in favor of a position that you know to be wrong, you’re arguing in bad faith.

There have been a troubling trend of bad faith among Republicans and other conservatives. This is disturbing because it indicates that they are not actually trying to communicate with other people, but merely to consolidate their own base. This in turn indicates that they are not trying to engage their own beliefs, address their strengths and weaknesses, and modify them based on new information, but rather have assembled a set of ideas to cling to and are attempting to fortify them from any kind of criticism.

Modern conservatism is rife with bad faith. There are ulterior motives, such as people under the thumb of big oil and coal arguing that global warming isn’t real. There were the death panels, which may have been an honest belief on the part of Sarah Palin and her ilk, but were propagated by many people who had to know it was an outright lie.  There are revealing moments, such as when conservatives applauded Chicago’s failed Olympics bid, proving that their desire to see Obama fail was their true driving force, rather than their purported desire to see America succeed.

There are, however, two specific bad faith arguments that I’d like to address.  In both cases, an argument appears to be made, but in reality, the speaker is just using loaded terms to create a knee-jerk response.  This strategy has to be employed because, in both cases, the pseudological argument being made is actually contradictory.

There’s the deficit.  Once Obama took office, fiscal conservatives started railing about it, saying that fiscal responsibility has always been a central tenet of conservatism.  Nothing could be falser.  We’ve had deficit under Reagan, Bush, and Bush, and a surplus under Clinton.  For eight years, we turned a surplus into a deficit and no conservative turned a hair.  Now, it’s true that Obama has run up a large deficit this year, even in comparison to Bush’s deficits, but I doubt that fiscal conservatives have a tipping point just over $500 billion, below which any amount of deficit is acceptable and above which it suddenly becomes utterly unacceptable.  The real issue is that they don’t like what he’s spending the money on.  There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with his choices, but they should be open about what they’re disagreeing with.  Instead, they’re using money as a stick to beat him with.  It’s an argument in bad faith.

Next, there’s Medicare.  Every conservative knows that the healthcare bill is bad because it established government-run healthcare, regulates private healthcare companies, and cuts back on Medicare.  But wait–Medicare is a government-run healthcare program.  If government-run healthcare is bad, wouldn’t cutting back on Medicare be good?

I can think of two possibilities.  The first is that conservatives, many of whom have had experiences with Medicare, know that it works and that cutting it would be bad, but have established sufficient cognitive dissonance to not consider that an analogous program for all Americans could also work.  But conservatives also opposed the proposed expansion of Medicare.  If you’re keeping score, Medicare for ages 65 and up = sacrosanct; Medicare for ages 55-64 = completely unacceptable.  Thus, the second possibility seems more likely.  It’s that conservatives don’t have the remotest concern with what the bill actually proposes.  They don’t care about Medicare, healthcare prices, denial of claims, or any of the rest.  Their sole goal is to negate anything Obama proposes, because they want him to fail.  In either case, when they argue against healthcare in general but in favor of Medicare, they’re inevitably arguing in bad faith.

In the cases of both the deficit and Medicare, conservatives are using the same tack for the same reason.  They’re attacking an action they don’t particularly care about so that they can unequivocally label all Obama’s actions as Bad Actions, thereby allowing them to label Obama a Bad President, which allows them to further categorize all his actions as Bad Actions because they’re done by a Bad President.  Yes, it’s circular.  They know that too.  That’s why the argument is made in bad faith.

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Write Your Own Bad Novel

2009, a year I had devoted to finishing all the half-finished novels I have lying around, is over, and I did complete one novella that had been on hiatus for far too long, so I decided to reward myself by starting my bad supernatural romance novel. It was inspired by Harlequin Teen, a Harlequin imprint spun off for the purpose of publishing more books like Twilight. Looks like some quality material there:

A scream bursts from her throat, and someone dies. Kaylee Cavanaugh doesn’t know why she is compelled to scream—she knows only that she can’t stop it. And now, just as she’s started dating the hottest guy in school, classmates are dying—and Kaylee keeps screaming…

Katie and I thought a Twilight ripoff would be a fun NaNoWriMo idea. Katie went with zombies and produced a fun novel that, if you haven’t read, you should. I came up with time-traveling cyborgs.

If you’re looking to write your own bad young-adult bestseller, there are two routes you can take: the Twilight route and the Eragon route. The former is very straightforward (take a standard romance novel, make the lead girl a Mary Sue fantasy, make the lead guy something supernatural and awesome, ???, profit), but we’re rapidly eating up all the good potentially-sexy monsters, so let me walk you through the steps to creating your own Eragon-style novel. Don’t worry; it’s easy.

Step 1: Pick a fantasy or sci-fi world you like. For my example, I decided to use Narnia.

Step 2: Pick a system of magic or technology you like. I picked the origin story of the Fantastic Four (cosmic radiation).

Step 3: Pick an awesome plot object you like. I picked the TARDIS.

Step 4: Pick a plot you like. I picked Terminator.

Step 5: Put it all together, and you’re done!

My example story goes like this:

Due to depletion of the ozone layer, people are exposed to cosmic rays that turn them into fauns, dwarves, dryads, and other fantasy creatures. Animals exposed to cosmic rays gain the ability to talk. When these fantasy creatures start becoming numerous, the humans declare war on them. A faun named James Connell becomes the leader of the resistance against the humans. The humans construct a time-traveling box and send an assassin to kill James Connell’s mother, Sandra Connell, who was a human. The fantasy creatures build their own time-traveling box and send back a faun named Cameron “Cam” Rose to protect Sandra. He and Sandra fall in love, but he is killed while fighting the assassin. Sandra and Cam’s baby, which is a faun, grows up to be James Connell.

In the movie version, I think Sandra should be played by Natalie Portman, Cam by Keanu Reeves, James by Hugh Jackman, and the assassin by a resurrected Ricardo Montalban (we miss you, Ricardo). It will be directed by Michael Bay.

Maybe I’ll write it up when I’m done with my cyborg romance novel.

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Oddity of the Week

I think the very existence of hamster shows, complete with breed standards, is a wonderful sort of oddity.  It’s not what you’d call rigorous–today’s show was held in someone’s living room and virtually all the hamsters came from about three breeders–but it is a lot of fun.

Upon discovering that Pinky, Inky, and Blinky were a standardized color (red-eyed argente), I decided it would be fun to show Pinky.  Clyde is dove, a carrier of both the red-eyed argente and the black gene, but he’s far too skittish to do a show and he’s got some scarring on his nose and tail from the others fighting with him.  Inky has better size and fur quality than Pinky, but he’s a nasty biter.  Blinky, of course, has gone to the big hamster wheel in the sky.

Seeing Pinky alongside the show-quality hamsters, the difference is immediately obvious.  He’s smaller, skinnier, and has a thinner and duller-colored coat.  The judge immediately pegged him as a pet-quality hamster, but hamster fanciers are the sort of people who just like hamsters in general and see the good points in every specimen, so she complimented his personality.  He came in last among the standardized Campbell dwarves, but she awarded him Best Stripe in the pet/fun awards, and he also came in third in the dwarf hamster ball race.

The ball races were held by laying out a blanket, setting all the balls in the middle, and seeing who makes it off the blanket first in any direction.  If you think Syrians have an advantage in the ball race, think again.  The dwarves took off immediately; Pinky would have been first, but he decided to stop and groom himself about six inches from the end.  The Syrians, even though they’re bigger, are much more leisurely, and a few of them were content to just sit in the middle of the blanket the whole time.

Jordan and I think it might be nice to get a Syrian next.  For those who don’t know, those are your regular teddy bear hamsters.  They’re less manic and easier to handle than our dwarves with their penchant for fearlessly leaping off of high objects, and I just love the banded pattern.  Or maybe a pair of rats or a pair of guinea pigs, or, if we leave the Draconian state of California, sugar gliders…

Ah, the possibilities of the future.

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I’ve Heard of Him: G.K. Chesterton

This article is, I hope, an “I’ve Heard of It” in name only, for I greatly hope that you all have actually read G.K. Chesterton.  A Catholic writer from the turn of the 20th century, his work ranges from philosophy to detective stories, all with a decidedly apologetic bent.

His ideas are reminiscent of C.S. Lewis, though of course the inspiration runs the other way; in fact, his writings contributed to Lewis’ conversion.  His influence continues to this day on people as disparate as Philip Yancey and Neil Gaiman.

Chesterton’s ideas are a mixed bag, sometimes brilliantly incisive, usually spot-on, and occasionally way out in left field.  That’s the way of prolific writers: one can’t be brilliant all the time.  What really sets him apart in my mind is not his ideas but his writing style.  In my opinion, he may be the best prose crafter of modern English.  His style is playful, but can deliver a message with great urgency, and always remains understandable, and both fluent and beautiful enough to warrant reading aloud.

I’ll share a few passages where he communicates his thoughts on language.

One of my first journalistic adventures, or misadventures, concerned a comment on Grant Allen, who had written a book about the Evolution of the Idea of God. I happened to remark that it would be much more interesting if God wrote a book about the evolution of the idea of Grant Allen. And I remember that the editor objected to my remark on the ground that it was blasphemous; which naturally amused me not a little. For the joke of it was, of course, that it never occurred to him to notice the title of the book itself, which really was blasphemous; for it was, when translated into English, ‘I will tell you how this nonsensical notion that there is a God grew up among men.’ My remark was strictly pious and proper; confessing the divine purpose even in its most seemingly dark or meaningless manifestations. In that hour I learned many things, including that there is something purely acoustic in much of that agnostic sort of reverence. The editor had not seen the point, because in the title of the book the long word came at the beginning and the short word at the end; whereas in my comments the short word came at the beginning and gave him a sort of shock. I have noticed that if you put a word like God into the same sentence as a word like dog, these abrupt and angular words affect people like pistol-shots. Whether you say that God made the dog or the dog made God does not seem to matter; that is only one of the sterile disputations of the too subtle theologians. But so long as you begin with a long word like evolution the rest will roll harmlessly past; very probably the editor had not read the whole of the title, for it is rather a long title and he is rather a busy man.

The Everlasting Man, pp. 155-156

It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard ones, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtletly in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

Orthodoxy, pp. 230-231

I think the laziness of long words also applies to long essays.  It’s hard to distill your ideas into one page; it’s easy to throw more words at it until it’s a rambling behemoth no one will ever think to read.  This is useful both to people who don’t really know what they’re talking about and people who know they don’t have sufficient justification for their opinions.  How else do Supreme Court justices manage to write hundred-page responses when they just ruled the law unconstitutional because it’s a conservative law and they’re liberal justices, or vice versa?  An opinion expressed in too many or too long words is of little more value than an opinion not supported at all.

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Review: Beyond Good and Evil

My Christmas present to Jordan was Ubisoft’s 2003 game Beyond Good and Evil.  It remains one of my favorite video games and one of the few that can hold my interest well enough to make me want to play all the way through and even replay.  Warning: this review contains major spoilers.

Yeeeeaaaaaahhhh!

This third-person adventure takes place on the archipelago planet Hillys, under attack from aliens called the Domz.  The Alpha Sections, an elite branch of the army, are supposedly protecting the Hillyans.  But when the hero, Jade, gets contacted by the rebel Iris Network to help them investigate a series of kidnappings that are going on amid the chaos of the Domz attack, it falls to her to find out what the Alpha Sections are really up to.

Jade's model is simple, yet expressive.

Like a predecessor to Portal, Beyond Good and Evil explores gameplay oriented towards women without being oriented towards casual gamers.  Jade has a little midriff showing, but no cleavage, and her body is proportioned like a normal human being.  She, along with her porcine uncle Pey’j, lives in a lighthouse where they take care of orphans–thereby extinguishing the moral relativity of the title.  Her main role throughout the game is as a reporter, taking pictures for the Iris Network to publish in order to prove to the Hillyans that they’re being deceived by the Alpha Sections.  Jade does fight things with a staff, but her most powerful weapon is her camera.

Not pictured: moral ambiguity.

Speaking of her camera, the most fun and unique element of the game is how Jade makes money.  Killing things?  Not usually.  Breaking open inexplicably money-filled crates?  You can, but it’s not very lucrative.  Petty larceny?  Only a few times against the Alpha Sections.  No, the main way you make money is by taking pictures of all the animals on the planet in order to help the science center compile a database.  You start with humans and the various anthropomorphic species on the planet, but work your way up to trickier animals that are puzzles in themselves to find.  There’s whimsy in the design of the mostly-invertebrate species.  For instance, in one room there is a box with a stream of bubbles coming out from behind it.  You can’t see behind the box, but when you shoot it with your disc shooter, the stream of bubbles moves to another box in a different corner.  You have to shoot the box and then quickly take a picture of the animal as it hops to the other box.  The creature’s name?  Timorea Saponifera: timid soapy thing.  Jordan and I were also laughing at Blabera Gregaria, a “very greedy insect” that you catch by putting a piece of food in a cabinet and then taking a picture as the insects come out and carry it off. Picture taking is a great solution to a frustration I’ve faced in other games: wanting to interact with the world and the animals without just killing everything.

Peekaboo!

The gameplay is interesting and varied, managing to exploit a simple system of controls to place you in a wide range of situations: combat, stealth, puzzle-solving, racing, and so on.  Jade’s combat is wonderful to watch.  All you ever do is point and click, and she goes through a series of kicks, spins, backflips, and jumps that make you feel like a brilliant martial arts master.  The puzzle segments are long, but they’re varied enough (sneaking past Alpha Sections, riding conveyor belts, and the inevitable Crate Expectations) that they don’t get boring.  Nor are all the puzzles as simple as “find a way to get to the other door.”

Ohhhhboy.

For example, the third hovercraft race seems impossible.  It’s easy to come in second, but Rufus, the champion, will always be ridiculously far ahead.  Outside of the race, you can find Rufus (a humanoid shark) in the bar.  He won’t talk to you, but he will move his hand to cover up a slip of paper with a code on it.  The code unlocks his room in the bar, which contains some hovercraft speed boosts.  You don’t need the speed boosts yourself–you can find or buy them in many other areas–but once you take them, Rufus gets slower and it’s possible to beat him.

Does Rufus have something to hide?

One of the most clever parts of the game design is the combination of linear and sandbox elements.  Any game with a plot, like this one, must find a way to make you go through the story in the proper order, but this can get frustrating for players, as with the endless series of quests you’re made to undertake to get into the Blacklake District that made me lose interest in Neverwinter Nights 2Beyond Good and Evil controls where you can go two ways.  First, you need passes to get into certain parts of the city; you collect these passes on your quests.  Second, you buy upgrades for your hovercraft that allow you to get to different places, and completing each quest gets you the money you need to buy the upgrade to get to the next quest site.  In between, there are plenty of places you can explore in any order you want.  The illusion of being a true sandbox game, combined with the short game time (it took us 15 hours at a leisurely pace), kept me from having any frustrated moments of “Why can’t I go through this door yet?”

Pearls are a form of currency.

Hillys itself is beautiful and immersive.  The seascapes are drool-worthy.  You’re free to explore by foot or hovercraft, and you’ll definitely want to.  You can even use your camera to take personal pictures.  Music is another highlight, capturing the emotional highs and lows, the fast-paced fights and slow-paced stealth.  Some of the songs, like Propaganda, and the races, are downright catchy, too.

Just cruising in the hovercraft.

The AI is better than many games, so the people wandering around seem like actual people going actual places for a reason.  Your cute-as-a-button orphans, for example, will lie down on their beds, watch TV, and go outside to play.  Combined with well-written dialogue, the game makes you actually want to talk to people instead of just clicking through their speech bubbles until they give you the next quest already, and it builds emotional content so that you feel like the people of Hillys deserve to be protected.  The moment when your lighthouse gets destroyed and the children kidnapped is genuinely sad.

What happened to all the kids?

The AI also shines with your allies, Pey’j and, later, soldier-spy Double H.  They make themselves useful and, more importantly, aren’t constantly getting themselves into trouble by walking off cliffs and getting attacked by monsters (Jordan did manage to make Double H miss one jump that you aren’t supposed to be able to miss, requiring a game restart, but it was only once).  This allows you to actually start caring about your allies.  I’m also glad that the expected romantic tension between Jade and Double H is completely absent: he’s likeable, but a little too stupid and goofy for that.  His special power is ramming through steel grates with his helmet, for instance.

Pey'j avoids the electrified wires.

Finally, the cutscenes merge seamlessly with gameplay, as you’ll discover immediately when the intro ends segues abruptly into a fight.  Since the game beckons you to emotionally invest, the cutscenes feel welcome instead of dreaded (“I’ve stumbled into another wild cutscene!” was a frequent complaint when I was playing Neverwinter Nights 2, where you’ll sometimes have to wait through multiple cutscenes in a row).  They’re also short and not too frequent.

The intro cuts straight into this.

Beyond Good and Evil was a commercial failure upon release and remains little-known to this day, but it was well reviewed and has developed a loyal fan base that currently waits in eager anticipation for Beyond Good and Evil 2, currently in preproduction with an uncertain future.  If the sequel is better marketed, perhaps this excellent title will finally receive the recognition it deserves.

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