Monthly Archives: January 2014

Culture Gaming

Let Us Larp While We May

Nerds are destined to save secularism from itself.  In our unreasonably, some might say disturbingly, passionate hearts lies the missing factor in the grand equation of a new age.  A time when reason is married to a life worth the living.

 

That life is coming, and in the creation of it, we could learn a lot from a larp.  Larping, once the dirty secret of the gaming community, is busting out in a big way.  With documentaries like Darkon, feature films like Unicorn City, and books examining the past-time like Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania, larp has overcome its self-consciousness and is aimed straight at the hearts of a generation looking for a new sense of community.  For those unfamiliar, larp stands for live action role play, and encompasses a robust variety of rich mystical escapism.  At its most organized, it allows you to flee reality for a weekend and, dressed as a bard or goblin, live in a different universe for a while, playing your character in an elaborately crafted and exquisitely organized scenario with a couple hundred other similarly minded folk out in a forest or campground.  In terms of immersive interpersonal experiences, there’s really nothing comparable this side of, well, church.

It’s a beautiful thing, really, the crossroads of so many skills that we don’t get to exercise on a daily basis.  Leadership and drama, costuming and music, set design and social networking, all meet in this one concentrated burst of creative output that I think anybody with the slightest historical or whimsical instinct can’t hear about without secretly longing for.  In every way, it is that realm of total human recreation that the 1950s thought we would have accomplished twenty years ago, but which our own misplaced sense of quietist dignity has prevented us from acting on.

 

People cannot do without people, and since we no longer particularly need each other on a day to day or community-wide basis, something must fill the void.  Secularists, guided by their own lights, have come up with some notions, but the suspension of disbelief required to keep these secular “churches” afloat has been mighty, greater even than the relatively simple matter of believing that the forty two year old guy in a cat mask drinking Kool Aid across from you is, in fact, the King of Cats.  We secularists place so much stock in our intellectual purity that we tend to instinctively eschew situations where we might come off as silly, but in the long run that’s really only hurting ourselves.

 

Perhaps you don’t have a weekend a month to spare.  I certainly do not, and won’t anytime within the next decade.  You could still try a gaming convention near you, dip your toe in just for that brief bit of time and see what you end up doing when wearing a different face for a few hours.  It might give you a notion of what sorts of interaction you are missing that perhaps you were unaware of, what you need psychologically but were not willing to admit out of dedication to your stoic self-conception.  There are even purely online variations that attempt to capture the essence of the escapist-yet-somehow-more-psychologically-true-than-reality feel of live larping (or live-arping, as the case may be).  Whatever your commitment level, there’s some sliver of the experience available to you, and for creatures of a finite life-span, experience is the whole game.

 

Life is short.  Imagine vigorously.  Because if you don’t feel just a bit embarrassed about your passion in mixed company, then it’s hardly a proper passion, is it?

Culture

Humans Are Great 9: Drag Queens: Super Heroes of the 21st Century

Seventy years ago, amidst a world tearing itself apart every way it knew how, we needed super heroes of granite – unmovable objects of pure virtue to anchor ourselves in the thick of our diminishing trust of ourselves.  Well, we weathered that storm, and many since, and have finally come back around to the conclusion that, basically, we’re an ok lot, humanity.  And our new conception of ourselves requires a new set of super heroes.  I humbly suggest the Drag Queen.

I am completely in earnest – watch an episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and, somewhere in between the cat fighting and tucking, you’ll find something utterly new and entirely necessary for our road forward: plasticity.  As Catherine Malabou has pointed out in her philosophical works, this is the trait which will, more than anything, define success in the coming world – the ability to take on any role at any time, as opposed to the “I worked for this factory for 42 years” stick-to-itsmanship of the twentieth century.  We need to conceive of ourselves less as unalterable units etched in stone, and more as exquisitely fluid creatures of chameleonish identity.

The question, of course, is how to do that while still maintaining a core that is, essentially, yourself.  Just as our grandparents might have looked to Superman and Dick Tracy as stalwart exemplars to light their way in moments of doubt, so can we hoist up Pandora Boxx and Jinkx Monsoon as the heroes we look to when we need reassuring that we can change just about everything peripheral to us while still maintaining a fundamental core of self that is engaging and well-defined.

At the moment, the drag queen phenomena is riding high.  Drag Race is the flaship program of the Logo network, pulling in wonderfully high numbers, but phenomena have a way of dissipating in the cultural wind, and the lessons we can learn are too important to let that happen.  It would be easy to just allow distraction to dictate our next focal point of collective interest, leaving behind our fascination with drag queens as something “SO 2012″, but we stand to lose much if we allow ourselves that facile luxury.  These are brilliant, creative, emotionally aware individuals with a more solid conception of who they are than most of us are ever going to be likely to possess.  They are larger than life, and at the same time central to a notion of what everyday life might be.

They’re super heroes, if only we will let them be.

Books Science and Math

Humans are Great 8: Feynman’s Mirror

One of the unfortunate things we humans tend to do is rate a genius for invention as superior to a genius for explanation.  We stand with (rightful) awe before the original insights of a Bernhard Riemann but shrug off the efforts of people who took brilliant but convoluted existing ideas and found a way for the mass of humanity to gain some purchase on them.  But if something like calculus, which stumped a continent at its first unveiling, is second nature to sixteen and seventeen year old high schoolers now, it is largely because of those people who had a genius for reforming the clunky and abstract into something graspable but still faithful to the rigor of the original.

To be either a creative or explanatory genius is quite enough to earn our dazzled esteem, but to be both is to enter a slim minority of world figures indeed.  Charles Darwin was one such, and I would rank English mathematician GH Hardy as another, but for most science-y people, if you say the words “brilliant explainer” and “genius scientist” in the same breath, they will respond, “Oh, you mean like Richard Feynman?”

And deservedly so.  Yes, he’s been rather – merchandized – as of late, and with that over-exposure has come something of a backlash.  “Oh, Feynman?  I’m so done with that guy.”  But if we step back, away from the t-shirts and novelty coffee mugs, maybe we can recall for a bit what made us fall in love with him in the first place.

 

 

For me, there is no better demonstration of him at his very best than the Mirror Example in his QED series of lectures.  It is the quintessence of everything admirable about Feynman’s mind – the ability to take a vastly thorny concept and craft a physical example that retains all of the essential features of the original while smoothing out the parts that contribute formally but not comprehensibly to the whole.

What Feynman is trying to illustrate with the example is how Quantum Electordynamics weighs and combines different possible interactions for a given set of particles to calculate expected observable values.  He asks us to consider how a mirror works, and starts off the way every good science explanation should, with a confidence builder.

He reminds us of the law of reflection, which says that the angle of reflection for light bouncing off a mirror is equal to the angle of incidence (the angle it came in at).  “I remember that!” we all say, and feel that excited willingness to push on that only comes with an initial burst of confidence.  Also, we now have an anchor to come back to if we feel ourselves getting lost.  These are fundamentals of good explanation practice that Feynman just intuitively felt, and are what make him so compelling to read still, a half century on.

Having established a solid base, he starts branching outward.  What if I told you that, in fact, the path where the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection is just one possible option, the one that takes the least time to travel, granted, but that there are many more paths which light can, and does take?

 

We get excited – something that we knew for sure was right turns out to have a little bit of devil living inside of it.  And Feynman uses that excitement to start talking about probability vectors, something that most people wouldn’t have immediately found themselves interested in, but that now, eager to resolve the mystery, they will pay rapt attention to.  He tells us how to construct vectors for different possible pathways (say, A-D-B or A-E-B in the above figure from the foundational Feynman Lectures), and uses those vectors to construct a total picture of all possible reflections off the mirror:

 

 

What was an obscure concept involving vector addition and complex exponentials thus transforms, through his flair for turning mathematical machinery into physical representation, into this picture which beautifully represents how reality works.  Yes, there are lots of alternate pathways, but the ones at the edges of the mirror tend to cancel each other out, since they all point different ways, so the behavior that we witness is primarily created by the middle of the mirror, where the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.  So, at the end of the day, the law we learned in high school is largely true, from a certain point of view.

But then, like all good magicians, he saves his last trick for the moment when we feel comfortable and reestablished in the world.  We can, he informs us, by scraping away the parts of the mirror that cancel out the contributions from the edges, make those edges contribute again.  So, if we wanted, we could purposefully construct mirrors that break the law of reflection after all.  Thank you, quantum mechanics.

And so, from safety, through excitement, to comprehension to safety to daredevilry, Feynman has taken something outside the veil of everyday thought and brought it home to us all.  It’s that willingness to take some time to work on MERE explanation that I love about him, and about those generations and generations of teachers who sit up at nights trying to find new ways to illustrate our scientific heritage to coming generations.

Culture Uncategorized

The Republican Atheist: Lost Cause or Missed Chance?

There is no way to start this piece without a confession.  Until the age of nineteen, if you asked me which political party I identified with, I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer Republican.  Having grown up first on a farm and then in the lap of Babbittish San Diego isolation, I didn’t even see my first Democrat until high school.  The only thing I really knew was that it was a Democrat who led the charge that killed the Superconducting Super Collider project, and that was enough to earn wrathful ire from a kid with grainy hand-scanned pictures of atomic physicists lining his wall.

To give an idea of how much things have changed, my justification for identifying as Republican was that I felt they were pro-science, as demonstrated by their support of the SSC and distrust of anti-positivist academic trends, pro-environment in a Roosevelt conservationist mold, and pro-reason, as I heard in their relentless snickering at the vogue of popular spirituality drifting about in the late eighties and early nineties.  I was president of our high school’s Teenage Republicans Club my sophomore year, and one of the first things I did was dedicate a meeting to the proposition that “Under God” should be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, a notion that the four or five people gathered there didn’t really have any problem with.

 

 

My atheism and Republicanism seemed like natural allies.  I heard the pundits rage against self-indulgence, and nothing seemed to me more intellectually self-indulgent than Christianity.  Surely, all Republicans must be dead-set against an ideology which so blatantly pandered to people’s laziest fantasies of revenge and reward.  I was so sure, and received so little correction from my immediate environment, that I assumed it was the case nationally, when a pundit spoke of the need for more God in schools, that they were doing it out of a sense of historical antiquarianism, not an actual deep-seated belief.

The Republican Party claimed a profound respect for hard work over entitlement.  Again, atheism seemed the clear choice.  Atheism is hard.  You have to believe things you don’t really want to believe.  To maintain yourself against world opinion, you have to study science and math, philosophy and history, comparative religion and foreign languages.  It is a massive effort to maintain a set of ideas that you wish wasn’t true, and tends to produce rather straight-laced nerds who might talk graphically about the luscious hedonism they could theoretically partake of, but who in practice spend their time learning about Fourier Transforms and passive periphrastic structures.  Christians and atheists have the same basic sense of morality on everything that matters, but atheists have a towering academic responsibility on top of that which I felt was necessarily a draw for any self-respecting Republican.

The Republican Party I knew also had a keen sense of rigor and standards, that the road to truth was a scrabbly and difficult one, and all assertions made must be tempered in the fire of intense scrutiny.  Truth isn’t something a vocal gathering of people feels ought to be true, it’s something that has survived every possible test put to it.  When the Republicans hooted at the state of nineties academia, it was that very lack of standards they bemoaned, and whether or not they were right (I come in at a very unhelpful “sometimes”), it seems natural that that distaste for squishy epistemology should transfer to the realm of religious thoughts as well.

In short, the virtues of the perfect early 90s Republican (self-discipline, willingness to believe things that work against your own interest if they are logically plausible, intellectual rigor) were the virtues of the atheist, and it was utterly unthinkable to me that, secretly, the entire party wasn’t fundamentally atheistic in outlook.

I was, of course, hopelessly naïve.  I listened to Rush Limbaugh and, with all the concentrated narcissism of the teenager species, heard only the things that happened to apply to my small sphere of interests and none of the ones I had no direct experience of.  I knew nothing about larger social and lifestyle issues having never looked past my zero-diversity surroundings, rationalized away the growing presence of fundamentalists at party events, and carried on expounding a Republicanism that I pasted together out of invisibly thin strands of reasoning and wishful thinking.

But I was soon disabused of my fanciful notions.  The first election I had a chance to vote in was the 2000 contest between Gore and a candidate selected by my party as if explicitly to drive away people like me – a religious extremist, anti-intellectual, barely coherent, historically uninformed, massively self-indulgent, environmentally callous slug of a man who showed to me all in one moment how far the party was from the things I had believed it stood for.

My first vote in a presidential election went to a Democrat.

But here’s the thing – I left the party, as much for the selection of Bush, Palin, Hannity and other fumbling indulgence monkeys as the party’s pantheon as for what I learned about the world once released from my isolated cocoon.  About different people, their struggles, and how they deserve to be treated.  About my own over-bearing arrogance in judging certain areas of human achievement as “better” than others.  And about how human history actually works and what direction we need to go.  I left for good, but many stayed, and are there still, waiting quietly for a return to an environmentally responsible, scientifically literate, philosophically sophisticated platform that they can embrace again.  They say they believe in God, because that is what they have grown up with and because the public image of atheism frightens them.  But, intellectually, in terms of the virtues they claim to honor, this is where they need to be, and we need to realize that, not giving up every Republican as a lost cause and waste of resources.

They’re there, and they’re largely unhappy living a double life of constantly frustrated ideals.  And now that we’ve settled down a bit as an intellectual movement, maybe it’s time to reach out and say what we have to offer them and hear, perhaps, what they have to offer us that we didn’t even know we needed.

Culture Gaming

Humans are Great 7: Cooperative Board Games

“Hey guys, I’ve got a new problem.”

Back in college, those were the words that energized a hall.  People would stop what they were doing, grab a whiteboard, and all join together for a moment to try and break whatever thorny problem one of us managed to stumble across.  Sometimes it fell quickly, sometimes it took hours, but in those moments of working through a mathematical or scientific puzzle with a bunch of other nerds while shoveling candy and over-caffeinated soda into our maws, life was perfect.

There is nothing better than getting together with a small group of like-minded folk and tackling a problem that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything actually useful.  Unfortunately, life after college doesn’t present too many opportunities to engage in such activities.  Friends specialize out into their own branches, move off to different places, and so that singularity of purpose and expansiveness of time dissipate.

But humans are clever primates, and some of the substitutes we’ve come up with can, at their best, entirely approximate the cooperative intellectual rush of bygone days.  For a long while, that’s the place that tabletop roleplaying games occupied – Dungeons and Dragons, Changeling, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, and dozens upon dozens more all gave adults the chance to meet a few hours every week and put their resources together in a creative, spontaneous setting to solve the problems concocted by their much put-upon Dungeon Masters.

And those were (and are) fantastic, and if you are refraining from looking into them out of pride, you’re missing out on some truly memorable times.  However, the start-up on these games is pretty hefty.  You have to create your character, familiarize yourself with the often weighty core manuals, and get comfortable with carrying out character dialogue at a candle-lit kitchen table.  For those who love problem-solving but didn’t quite have the time to go in for the whole RPG experience, then, there rose the cooperative board game.

It used to be a somewhat rare breed in the board game genre, but has steadily grown in recent years so that a well-stocked game closet can now have a good half dozen quality co-op titles.  The rules are usually pretty simple to pick up, but the coordination and cleverness required can often deliciously strain a room full of the brightest brains.  Here are my top four picks, and if you have a favorite, do drop me a line!

4. Shadows Over Camelot:  You and your friends take up the role of the Arthurian knights as take on the manifold challenges threatening Camelot.  It can be a BRUTAL experience, as no sooner do you tie up one quest than three others go absolutely critical requiring all of your combined mental dexterity to resolve.  Definitely the hardest coop game I’ve played, but every time you end up winning you feel like you definitely EARNED your bowl of pretzels.

3. Ultimate Werewolf:  Sort of co-op, sort of not.  It’s basically the old campfire Mafia game (sit in a circle around the fire, two people are secretly appointed as mafia goons, and one as a police officer, and the game is to communally find out who is who) but with a supernatural twist and a lot more specialty roles, so that the game can actually support up to 68 players.  When I had game night with my students, we tried it out and had a marvelous time piecing together the bits and pieces of psychological clues we found, or thought we found, in each other’s behavior, leading to wild accusations and much fun.

2. Arkham Horror: A classic in the Cthulhu universe, in which you and your fellow investigators have to navigate the twisting hellscape of a city slowly giving way to the invasion of the Old Ones, trying to stop the incursions of monsters and corruption before a supreme embodiment of evil awakes and wipes you off the board.  Like Shadows, there’s a lot here to punish you if you’re careless with your abilities and movement, which means that every turn is open for intense discussion about how to achieve mutual optimization.  So, there’s that same intense manipulation of lots of variables, but in a really cool, creepy setting.

 

1. Pandemic:  You and a team of disease specialists are running around the world, trying to cure outbreaks of four different diseases as they arise and spread across the globe.  The rules and actions are much simpler than Shadows and Camelot, so it’s a good game for people who aren’t used to board games, the challenge being how to pool your limited array of abilities to halt the steady spread of plague.  It takes all of 5 minutes to explain, and a typical game only lasts about an hour, but there is a lot of subtlety there so you always feel that you are being challenged as a group to find the most elegant use of moves possible, making it the ideal starter co-op game.

So, there you have it.  If a bit of group intellectual challenge is something you feel missing from your life, grab any one of those, two or three friends, and have a go if only to taste  again for a moment those days when all you had was time and all you needed was a delectably devilish problem to while it away with.

Culture

Atheism’s New Year’s Resolutions

It was a fine year for atheism.  At the risk of being a bit tartish, I’d even call it VERY fine.  American Atheists celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Sylvia Broeckx made a beautiful film showing the world the day to day struggles and triumphs of your average atheist, Tombstone da Deadman and Shelley Segal both released elegant albums on atheist themes… we even got ourselves a new Doctor Who (not directly related to atheism, granted, but Whovianism seems to be the new common denominator amongst Our Kind, doesn’t it?)

There were, however, some embarrassing moments amongst the general progress, and as it’s a time of resolutions, here are three notions that might serve us well moving into 2014:

 

  1. Let’s stop letting ourselves get drawn into petty fights.

 

Obviously, I’m thinking of the Billboard Wars.  I wrote about this in the last Freethinker – how we let a stupid, stupid billboard (“Thank God you’re wrong!”) draw us into responding with a monumentally stupider one (“OMG: There is no God!”).  As atheism grows more successful as a way of looking at the world, it’s also grown cockier, and one of the unfortunate side effects of cockiness is that it occludes your ability to figure out what fights are worthwhile and which are not.

 

My hope is that, in 2014, we’ll be able to watch Christians do deliciously self-destructive things in mis-guided attempts to regain their groove, and resist the urge to respond in turn at the cost of dignity.  Clever we might be, but nobody is clever enough to enter that battleground without looking the worse by scuffle’s end.

 

2. Argue less, live more.

 

One of the peculiar things which has happened with atheism is the drawing of a causal link between two events that were merely temporally proximate.  We saw that the numbers of atheists surged as more books came out Arguing about the weakness of theism’s proofs, and thought that the latter must have caused the former, and that the way to grow even bigger is to be seen to argue MORE.

 

Arguing is fun, and familiar, and changes minds just often enough to keep the whole structure rumbling onwards.  It is lifestyle, however, more than argumentation, which have swelled the ranks of the non-believing.  A surging mass of humanist sentiment refined to perfection in the 19th century, dashed upon the rocks of the 20th century’s excesses, and only now coming back into its own.  It’s about the personal thrill of engaging with humanity face to face even as the maw of mortality threatens to swallow you, the planet you’re on, and everything else.  That boundless, dark-edged optimism of a Doctor Who that is infectious and life-sustaining in a way that our arguments never have been.  Enthusiasm, happiness, curiosity – the sight of people living by those watchwords is intoxicating and attractive, and we need to be seen doing more of that.

 

3. Support our pragmatic efforts via a mass of creative ones.

 

This really goes with #2.  After decades of slogging up the political and legal hill, our intellectual forefathers having fought and scraped for every bit of ground, we are finally just able to poke our noses into the rich valleys of pure creativity beyond, to evaluate who we are, what we mean, and how we WANT to live.  And the proper medium for those questions is the creative arts – in movies and novels, comic books and songs.  These aren’t fluffy side-pursuits that distract from the Serious Work that atheism has before it.  Rather, they form the absolutely crucial foundation of self-understanding without which all of our future pragmatic acts can’t sensibly constitute themselves.  They’re the place where we’ll find out what is, fundamentally, important, and thus will form the rudder for future action, galvanizing the movement (though I hate, hate that term) in ways we can scarcely imagine now.

In short, we need to live, and to create, and do both with the dignity of the humanity whose virtues and vices we have made our business.