Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Skiffies...

Being the selection of a recent science item, hitherto unreported on this 'crawl, most near and dear to my heart.

Oddly, most of the items I've noticed recently seem reminiscent of my second book Maelstrom — from this tell-us-something-we-don't-know piece in the NY Times about the increasing fragility of complex technological systems to Naomi Klein's new book "The Shock Doctrine". Squinting at the news I can almost see the Complex Systems Instability-Response Authority gestating in the bowels of Halliburton; reading Klein's take on "disaster capitalism" I'm reminded of Marq Qammen's rant to Lenie Clarke about Adaptive Shatter: "...When damage control started accounting for more of the GGP than the production of new goods." Starfish may have been a more immersive novel; Blindsight may have had chewier ideas. But Maelstrom, I think, is way out front in terms of decent extrapolation.

Or there's this too-good-to-pass-up story out of Nature Neuroscience by way of the LA Times, in which a study combining button-pushing with the letters "M" and "W" showed that liberals are better at parsing novel input than conservatives, who have a greater tendency to fall into inflexible knee-jerk behaviors. (This would tend to explain, for example, how the inability to change one's mind in the face of new input can be regarded as a strength — "strong leadership" — while the ability to accommodate new information is regarded as "flip-flopping".) (Surprisingly, these findings have not been embraced by those who describe themselves as right-wing.)

But today's Skiffy has to go to this story in the Guardian, simply because it reflects so many facets of my own life (such as it is): marine mammals (in particular harbour porpoises, upon which I did my M.Sc.) are being infected by the mind-affecting parasite Toxoplasma gondii (whose genes were a vital part of "Guilt Trip" from the rifters novels, and which has been cited in this very crawl — May 6 2005) contacted from household cats (of which whose connection to mine own life you should all be aware by now).

Marine Mammals. Rifters. Cats.

No other contender comes close.

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15 Comments:

Blogger TheBrummell said...

The Nature Neuroscience bit was fundamentally flawed: left-leaning people in the USA (and lots of other places) have had several years of subconscious reinforcement of the meme "W is bad".

They should have chosen different symbols.

September 13, 2007 at 7:43 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 13, 2007 at 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Rob Slater said...

Professor Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba has done research on the personality types involved in authoritarian political movements, with the for-laymen version posted . In it he describes how these people are drawn to conservative political parties. One of the parts of the profile is cognitive dissonance regarding opposing value statements, which may point towards the Scramblers hypothesis.

I can't remember if that's the source for another tidbit, where people who are primed to be more fearful or anxious have preferences for more conservative and authoritarian statements and opinions. If I'm remembering correctly, Altemeyer's authoritarians tend to have a higher 'background level' of fear and anxiety than the general public. I'll leave neurological implications to those more skilled in the art.

This research motivated John Dean's "Conservatives Without Conscience" wherein he tries to figure out what happened to the Republican party he thought he signed up for many years ago.

September 14, 2007 at 4:20 PM  
Anonymous Rob Slater said...

Aaaa! The closing tag showed up in the preview. Sorry....

September 14, 2007 at 4:22 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 16, 2007 at 1:51 AM  
Blogger Neal Asher said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 18, 2007 at 7:42 AM  
Blogger Neal Asher said...

All right, just to stir things up: That study smacks of the kind of name-calling born of the liberal-left distorted view of reality where ideology dictates that no one is a bastard, no one is a criminal, no one is plain evil. Such people are ill, they ‘have a problem’ or there is something wrong with the wiring of their brains. We saw a lot of it over here with the name calling going on between the Blair and Brown factions where both sides have branded their respective opponent leaders with the description of ‘having psychological problems’. It’s bullshit. If your average lefty doesn't like another person's politics, he should either refute them or have the decency to admit that he can’t and call his opponent a prat. Don’t call him ill, it’s like being attacked with a limp stick of celery. The guy won't know whether to frightened about what’s going on in the mind of his attacker or to fall on the floor in hysterics.

September 18, 2007 at 7:44 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

TheBrummell said...

The Nature Neuroscience bit was fundamentally flawed...

And then Scott C. exhulted

Yay! A team-mentality, politically charged news item with a conservatives are dumb, liberals are smart pop-science news study! This is sure to be a pretty epic comments thread, so let me get a couple remarks in now.

...only to lament shortly thereafter...

I'm so disappointed. I figured for sure this one was going to explode with commentary ... I guess we've reached the point where there are no longer any dissenting opinions on the matter. There's no sport left in it.


And then Rob Slater said...

Professor Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba has done research on the personality types involved in authoritarian political movements ... where people who are primed to be more fearful or anxious have preferences for more conservative and authoritarian statements and opinions.

And finally Neal Asher brought it all home with...

That study smacks of the kind of name-calling born of the liberal-left distorted view of reality where ideology dictates that no one is a bastard, no one is a criminal, no one is plain evil. ... If your average lefty doesn't like another person's politics, he should either refute them or have the decency to admit that he can’t and call his opponent a prat.

And I didn't say much of anything all this time, because a) my damned internet was out, and b) only five years too late, I discovered Halo. I do note, however, that while the MW study didn't exactly provoke a torrent of comments, it provoked way more than the rifter/cat/marine-mammal posting that was the actual focus of the posting.

Your mother and I are very disappointed in you all.

But for what it's worth, my own thoughts are mixed. Yeah, the study was a bit simple. If I was looking at it in isolation I'd probably accept it more unreservedly. The problem is, just within the past year or so, two other studies — also published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals — have concluded that a) people with insecure, frightened chiuldhoods grow up to be conservatives while those with solid, affirming chilodhoods become liberals, and b) exactly the opposite. (I would provide the citations, but this is only a comment, and besides, I wanna play Halo. I'll dig 'em up if anyone really wants me to.) So I'm gonna wait until the dust settles to see whose data prevails.

That said, though, we're talking some pretty hefty peer-review to get into Nature Neuroscience; that's a damn prestigious journal, not some trash-talking tabloid. And doesn't the very word "conservative" imply, by definition, a resistance to rapid change? And might that not be an adaptive trait; do fit organisms really want to embrace every novel datum that comes down the pike, however inconsistent with previous experience? Science itself is a pretty conservative process — the null hypothesis is always "nothing happens", you never "accept" a hypothesis, you only "fail to reject" it — and it's all the better for it. (Granted, the indispensible core of the process is the fundamental admission that whatever we believe at any point is likely to be wrong, which is more a liberal trait than a conservative one, going by the results of this study anyway).

We've all had a good laugh at the right-wing flat-earth creationists or climate-change deniers out there, but skepticism in the fact of new information is also a part of science. As one of those close-minded right-wingers once said, you can only open your mind so far before your brain falls out.

September 18, 2007 at 7:18 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Oh yeah. Neal also said...

...ideology dictates that no one is a bastard, no one is a criminal, no one is plain evil. Such people are ill, they ‘have a problem’ or there is something wrong with the wiring of their brains.

I can see both sides of this. In fact, I embrace both sides of this. If you truly accept the premise of a reductionist, Darwinian universe, then there is no such thing as "good" or "evil", there's only nature: what works, and what doesn't. There's no Invisible Friend watching over us, handing down moral absolutes. "Good" and "evil" are convenient labels used to justify the desired social conventions of the time. Not so long ago, not so far away, Nazis were good and Jews were evil. Some people still think that way. (I've just submitted a story about an evil Holocaust survivor to Nature — it's taking a while to hear back from them, now that I think of it.) And let's not get into the whole recent Closeted Republican anti-gay/washroom-cruising travelling circus...

So from a purely empirical standpoint, we're really just making it up as we go along. The closest things we have to moral absolutes are hardwired instincts like mother love and sugar addiction — but that set also quite possibly includes an equally-hardwired distrust of those who don't share our genes or the desire to copulate at any cost. So if you're going to sanctify motherhood issues because they're built in, then logically you've got to sanctify xenophobia and rape on the same grounds. So, uh uh. Not so keen on the good/evil thing.

OTOH, I got no problem calling someone a bastard or a git. And I've spent much of my life with my blood at a low boil, seething at this abuse or that injustice or the other latest revelation of gangs of cops beating the crap out of some innocent Jamacian and then charging their victim with assault. It works for them, most of the time. They get away with it. I live in a reductionist universe, and should just deal with it. But I don't. I get mad. I get mouthy. On rare occasions, I get violent. And in some cases which have not yet tested me, I believe I could get downright homicidal, because those fuckers got no right. I don't care if it's good or evil. I just know it's wrong.

I don't know if that makes me liberal or conservative or just deeply inconsistent, but I do know that's why I have serious problems with the whole right/left classification scheme to begin with. Anybody whose political and social beliefs can be effectively summed up by a single point on a one-dimensional line — no matter which end of that line it's closest to — probably doesn't think about their beliefs all that much.

September 18, 2007 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 19, 2007 at 5:31 AM  
Blogger Neal Asher said...

Certainly we're all products of our environment (including our genetics) but that's not the bit that gets my goat. It's the left-liberal taking the moral high-ground by labelling as sick those they perceive to be below them. They're basically putting a reductionist gloss over their true feelings of 'I hate your views and think you're an "evil" shit.' It's semantic game and a kind of moral cowardice. Call someone a psychopath and lock him away for life and you're no different from someone who calls him evil and locks him away for life, but you can pretend that your motivations are entirely different.

Hah, just watch a Sam Harris video in which he comments, "The appendix is the reductio ad absurdum of intelligent design". Excellent stuff.

Peter, after playing patience on my computer for a whole day (some years ago) I decided never to let computer games near it ever again.

September 19, 2007 at 8:09 AM  
Blogger AR said...

You like Halo? I couldn't even get past the idea of one of the first weapons you get: a standard issue assault rifle whose bullets seem to have the kinetic energy of a small caliber pistol round, a larger spread than a modern shotgun, and no selective fire switch. Not that the lack of selective fire matters much since the aforementioned spread seems to also apply to a burst's very first shot as well, making the weapon's effective range comparable to that of a garden hose.

Weapons from centuries in the future should not make the player think, "Couldn't they find this guy an AK-47 and a 1911?"

September 29, 2007 at 6:33 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

I dunno. Expecting anything like scientific verisimilitude (someone should tell me if I'm spelling that right) from a first-person shooter might be like expecting wit and intelligence from an episode of "Friends". It's not really the point of the exercise.

There's a lot to criticize in "Halo" — the goofy grunts, the infuriating inability to save your game except at certain predefined checkpoints — but I'm finding that I tend to play it compulsively even when I'm not really enjoying it. I think it taps into the same kinda basic reward circuity that keeps people pulling at the slots in casinos, even though they're losing their shirts. Or maybe it's just me. I've also found myself staring intently at those little time-series graphs showing bittorrent download speeds; every time the line ticks up I shake my fist and shout yes! yes!, while when my fucking provider (Rogers, but not for much longer) starts throttling the flow I grind my teeth and growl in frustration. It seems pretty dumb to get any kind of rush from watching a baud rate change. It's not as though I have any control over that process. Then again, is it any different from the folks who spend their weekends betting on the horses?

Anyway, Halo is basically just Half-Life on a ringworld. And Half-Life is basically Doom with character development and back story (and soft porn, I guess, if you play with the Nude Alyx mod). There may only be one FPS on the planet; in terms of actual gameplay (as opposed to the storyline that justifies the action), all that fundamentally changes is the production values and the skins of whatever you're firing at. I've played a few, usually liked 'em, but the Half-life series remains my favorite, with Deus Ex coming in a close second (on account of its clunky dialog interface). Of course, that might change if what I'm hearing about Mass Effect and Bioshock is halfway true, although I won't be buying Bioshock until they back off on that pernicious DRM.

September 30, 2007 at 4:27 PM  
Blogger AR said...

My complaint doesn't have a lot to do with scientific verisimilitude (my spell checker says you spelled it right) as much as the fact that it just feels wrong. I mean yeah, you could make the case based on realism and the utter ridiculousness of these weapon designs from a practical standpoint, but when it comes down to me running around a rotating space ring shooting virtual xenos in the face, the important thing is that I feel like the weapon my avatar is wielding has power and precision, which Halo just doesn't do.

I suspect this may have something to do with my real-life use of firearms, as when one can get 6 inch groups at 100 yards with iron sights and a second or two of aiming (as reference for those non-firearm savy readers, that's not very good. The rifle I use is able to make 2 inch groups at that distance in sufficiently skilled hands, and it would take more skilled shooters even less time to line up the shot), which is good enough to reliably hit a non-moving human-torso-sized target, one expects that one's avatar should be able to do the same and a whole lot more when you're playing a game about the baddest motherfucker in the galaxy.

Even so, it's not as though realistic weapons are without precedent in video games themselves. The assault rifle in System Shock 2, for instance, actually worked like a real-world assault rifle, in that it was so much more powerful than every other weapon (except in situations where a rocket launcher is appropriate) that there was no reason to ever use anything else once you got it except to conserve your rifle rounds for bigger enemies.

(Not that System Shock 2 is entirely good in this regard, as the firearms in that game tend to break after only a few shots. For comparison, the Colt 1911's initial reliability tests involved firing several such weapons 6000 times without proper lubrication, during which the weapon did not malfunction even once.)

For a more recent example, consider FEAR, which I highly recommend. The combat there is defiantly a different sort of FPS gameplay! Mainly, it comes from the realistic weapon damage (a burst of rifle rounds will reliably kill just about anyone) and well-executed AI. Of course, this would normally just be a recipe for the non-commando player get slaughtered, which is why they add the supernatural bullet-time-like reflexes of the player character that you can use sparingly. In any case, it IS possible in that game to make precision shot placements with rifles.

In regards to Bioshock, you might not want to get that even if they do get rid of the problematic DRM. Here's a good review of the game that accords with my own experience with a pirated copy.

As the moment, my current game of choice is Team Fortress 2, which comes with the Orange Box. You can pre-order it now and start playing in the TF2 beta right away, if you so desired. Just remember: Shoot the medic first!

September 30, 2007 at 6:08 PM  
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October 26, 2007 at 4:35 AM  

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