Saturday, November 4, 2017

Sonic the Hedgehog

In 1993 the Super Nintendo was a couple of years old, and I figured I'd get one eventually. But there was a brief period when I considered getting a Genesis instead. This was because of Sonic the Hedgehog. Something about the ads (specifically a bit from Star Light Zone) captured a sense of epicness, and because ridiculous idea of a blue jumping hedgehog was more compelling than his plumber counterpart. I rejected this notion because I realized that despite the fact that Mario isn't that interesting as a character, Nintendo would always be the home of games like The Legend of Zelda (and I probably assumed Mega Man as well). But my friend got a Genesis and Sonic, so I sort of got the best of both worlds.

I loved Sonic. The game has great music and a beautiful, colorful world. I love how Sonic balances casually on one foot of you stand on a ledge, and (in the second game at least) waves his arms frantically if you are just one pixel away from falling. And I'll just repeat that the music is wonderful.

Sonic has a bit of an advantage over Mario in that he can gain a hit point much more frequently than Mario can, although Sonic never gains a long-range attack. On the other hand, though, Sonic games tend to require faster reflex, or at least a good idea of what is coming up next, and I had never seen a map of a Sonic level. Also, getting extra lives is harder; while collecting 100 rings will give you an extra life just like coins in Mario, in Sonic you lose all your rings whenever you get hit, and you always start a level with zero rings. This is balanced by some handy cheat codes, with which I beat the last level. Of course, that's not super satisfying, but one time, with guidance, I was able to get very close to beating it for real. Very close. Like, to the last battle, with one life left. But even though I had beaten Dr. Robotnik before, I lost that time. I was devastated.

Years passed. I told myself it was fine, because the game has this ridiculous ending anyway, in which it says "Try again" if you didn't collect all of the Chaos Emeralds, which you have a limited number or chances to collect and which require a totally different skill set from the rest of the game. (And that skill set includes a lot of luck, as far as I can tell.) And besides, Sonic is Sega character, and I'm a Nintendo fan.

But Sonic has been re-released since then. My in-laws had such a re-release for the PlayStation, which allowed saving and reverting state without a cheat code, so when I beat Sonic 1 on that, I figured it was a legitimate win, even if not the most satisfying one. (I saved only at the start of levels; saving mid-stage is a cheat no matter how you view it.) And last December I got the first two games on the 3DS for like $3 each. These editions also included the stage select without having to enter a cheat code, so I figured I could claim I could finally finish Sonic 2 that way.

Skipping some details - Today I beat Sonic 1 without any cheating! I looked at maps to find where extra lives and dangerous spots were, which helped. I actually finished with like 23 extra lives. I only got one Chaos Emerald, but you can play it again to collect more (I think), so maybe someday I'll do it. (I actually beat Sonic 2 legitimately a week or so ago.)

I only ever played the first two Sonic games - the only ones my friend got. And I have since learned that the later games used a different music composer. But those two are glorious and classical, and I'm really happy to have finished them for real.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Blaming the victim vs. protection

I recently wrote about those rhetorically dangerous situations where you have two relevant facts, and people focus on the wrong one for the current context. One of those has come up recently with respect to that "me too" thing on Facebook. It deals with an even heavier example than the one I gave in the original post.

On one hand, it is very important to avoid blaming the victim of abuse. It always floors me that anyone would suggest that someone who has been abused is somehow guilty or unclean, yet that's exactly the message that ends up getting sent sometimes. Sometimes it's framed as "you should have prevented it," but in any form, that message is wrong. It's deeply immoral. It's tantamount to colluding with the abuser, since it increases the damage done to an innocent person.

Another true principle is that it is good to avoid dangerous situations. If you don't avoid it, you're not guilty, but still, it's important to teach people to avoid bad situations if they can. If you get mugged in a dark alley while alone at night you're not guilty, but it's still a good idea not to walk down a dark alley alone at night. You don't leave your house unlocked just because it's not your moral responsibility to keep others out of your home.

The problem (well, a problem) is that people who call out that second thing frequently get accused of denying the first thing. That argument about not blaming the victim gets turned into a straw-man argument and thrown at yet another innocent person (ironically), as if any talk about prevention constitutes blame of the victim. That's very unfair, and very untrue. Both principles are important and need to be addressed. And taking an ally and making them look like the enemy so you can have someone to lash out at is counterproductive (and potentially immoral in itself).

So we shouldn't blame the victims. But teaching people to avoid danger is important too. And in doing both, we should be careful not to create enemies out of allies. There are enough bad guys out there as it is.

And one more thing

Speaking of blame: Apparently there are a lot of guys who feel threatened by that whole movement. They hear women saying they don't trust men, and they throw out that "not all men" hashtag and complain, as if they (the men) were somehow wronged by being grouped in with the abusers.

Here's the thing. While it is true that not all men are evil scum, that's not really a super relevant point to the discussion. It's certainly not helpful to a woman who has been the victim of abusive behavior, especially by many men. Women don't owe us their trust. We haven't been wronged if a woman doesn't trust us, even if we really are good people. And even if we are somehow damaged by that lack of trust, that damage is insignificant compared to the level of damage the woman in question has suffered. So if you're feeling threatened by a woman's distrust about men, or even overly-broad accusations against them, then help fix the problem instead of just trying to distance yourself from it.

How can we fix it? Well the obvious way is with your fist or another weapon if you witness an act of abuse. If it's verbal, you can speak up and hold the abuser accountable. At the very least, don't be a part of the problem. Which takes us back to my first point: Don't blame the victim. Stop complaining.

Friday, October 13, 2017


Every once in a while you'll hear someone tell a story that some would explain as a coincidence and then conclude saying "I don't believe in coincidences" or "There are no such things as coincidences." This could be regarding a conspiracy theory or a miraculous blessing. And don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that everything is a coincidence, or that there are no conspiracies, or that God doesn't intervene in people's lives. Of course there are, and of course He does. But denying the existence of coincidences is ridiculous.

The most obvious reason it's ridiculous is that it's so easy to refute. If I flip a coin three times, it might come up "tails" each time. COINCIDENCE? I THINK NOT! If you don't think that's a coincidence, then you must believe that someone rigged the penny, or there is some sort of divine symbolism in the event. Please, please tell me that no one would interpret that event in that way. It could just as likely have been heads-tails-heads or tails-tails-heads. The result was a coincidence.

On a deeper level, I think the real claim that people are trying to make is that important things happen for important reasons. It's easier to believe that, I guess, and maybe it's comforting to believe that there's a specific purpose ]behind a significant event. And again, to be clear, sometimes there is a reason. But sometimes, ya know, there just isn't. The conspiracy side of things isn't as interesting to me, so let's look at the religious side.
Speculation alert: Please remember that I'm not trying to represent my church or anything here. This is how I view things, but I have occasionally been wrong.
Okay. So apparently Einstein had this quote saying that he didn't think that God plays dice with the universe. And Hawking has one saying that he does, and that he throws the dice where nobody can see how they landed. I happen to think that there's some truth in both points of view. Certainly God doesn't leave the success of his plan to chance. But I think he also designed the universe to happen with a certain random element - hence the need for the Fall of Adam and Eve. God wasn't going to create evil and disaster in the world, but he did provide a way for those things to exist so we can experience opposition and grow. This doesn't mess with the plan because God can take a bad situation and bring a good thing out of it. And of course he also provided a way for the results of all that bad stuff to be taken away after this life, through the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ. As in, nothing bad that happens here is permanent; after the resurrection, our happiness will only depend on who we are, not anything that happened to us.

The real question people have on this subject, though, is "Why did <this bad thing> happen to me?" The answer to that is rarely forthcoming. People try to answer it by saying "God wanted you to learn <this important lesson>" or "God wanted you to have the chance to demonstrate/develop <this virtue>". And maybe he did. But does that mean that he causes natural disasters and leads people into situations where they will become victims of abuse? I don't think so. I really don't. Rather, I happen to think that he allows things to happen naturally most of the time, and when bad things do happen, he steps in and makes something good come out of it, in the long run at least. (Or at least he will if we allow him to.)

I think that's an important distinction, because if you look at the bad things that happen in the world and believe that God did them, or even planned them, then you're going to lose faith in him pretty fast. And I don't mean not believing that he exists; I mean losing confidence that he really is the source of happiness and a moral compass. I've known a lot more people who are mad at God than don't believe in him. And I think that has to do with a misunderstanding of who he is and the role he plays in their life. (And as for why God allows bad things to happen instead of actively preventing them, I think it's important to know that we understood before coming to this life that bad things would happen, but that their effects would be limited to the century or so that we are here. We saw that as a good deal, or we wouldn't have agreed to come. Knowing that doesn't make bad situations less painful, but it does lend a bit of perspective and hope for the future, at least for me.)

Okay, I could go on and on, but this is probably out of context without more of the actual doctrine, which can be better found in other places (like here, for instance). My point, though, is that assuming specific intent behind everything that looks like a coincidence might actually lead you push away people (including God) who are actually on your side.

There are such things as coincidences.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The "split-message dichotomy"

There's this idea I've thought about from time to time that I wish there were a word for so that I could talk about it more concisely. For lack of a better term, I call it a "split-message dichotomy." The general idea is this: Sometimes there are two principles that are both true and relevant, and two audiences that need to understand them. But one principle is more useful to emphasize for one audience, and the other for the other audience. Emphasizing a principle for the opposite audience can cause them to overlook an important part of the truth and end up making bad decisions. You don't always have the luxury of tailoring your message to just the target group, which makes crafting your message tricky.

One example of this comes up a lot in church, when you're talking about a specific commandment, although you could easily broaden it to any piece of good advice if you want. To be very specific, let's use the commandment to stay away from recreational drugs. There are two important messages here:

  • Using drugs is very destructive. Don't do it. The consequences can hurt both you and others, and they may be permanent.
  • If you're already addicted, healing and repentance are possible. Don't give up.
And of course the two relevant groups are these:
  • People who haven't used drugs, but might be tempted to do so
  • People who already have
To someone who hasn't started using drugs, you want to emphasize strongly just how bad the effects of them are, and how some of those consequences may be permanent. If you dwell too much on the availability of help and repentance, you might unintentionally convey the message that people can just try stuff out now and fix whatever problems arise later.

On the other hand, if someone in the room is already addicted, focusing on how bad and irreversible the consequences are might just convince them to give up trying to change. For that person, the message of repentance and the availability of help is exactly what they need to hear.

So you can see the problem. I guess the only real solution is to make sure that you cover both aspects of the issue, and do your best to be aware of the specific needs of the people you're talking to so you can tailor the message as much as possible.

It's pretty common though. I guess it applies to any choice that people make with major consequences. All the chastity stuff comes to mind. But the situation can also come up when one of the audience groups isn't really facing a decision. To use a super heavy example, imagine that you're talking to someone who has lost someone to suicide. They might worry about the soul of that person, since taking an innocent life is a sin. You'd be inclined to explain to them that the person clearly had a heavy burden of depression and probably wasn't seeing things clearly, and that God will take that into account - in other words, the person probably wasn't as morally accountable as most people. But you would never want to send that message to someone suffering from depression or thoughts of self-harm, because "you can't help it" is probably one of the most destructive things you could possibly say.

Anyway, back to the start - I wish there were a word to describe this situation. Because it comes up a lot, and I don't think that most people think about it. We tend to focus on only one of the two groups, and that can be really dangerous for the group we're not thinking about. It's very important to give proper attention to all sides of the truth so that a little fragment of that truth doesn't blind people to the rest of it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The authority void

People are good at looking at other people and figuring out (right or wrong) what those people should do to fix their problems, or overcome their weaknesses, or just generally become better. We're not always that good at analyzing ourselves. That's not the end of the world, though, because we have other people around us whose opinions we trust, and who can give us that outside perspective.


When we're little, we have various adults who we view as authorities on various topics. As we grow up, we might change whose opinions we think are the most reliable. These people could be parents, teachers, religious leaders, or friends. But I think that a lot of adults reach a point where they don't have anyone left who they would listen to if they suggested a change. This might happen because you feel so successful that you don't need anything, or because you've thought your life through so thoroughly that you can't imagine anyone else adding anything to it. Or maybe you just don't respect anyone enough - or trust anyone enough - to believe that their input could benefit you.

In any case, I think that this situation - where there's no one in your life who could convince you to change course. If you're in that position, and if (by some crazy chance) there's some decision you're making or habit you have that is preventing you from getting where you want (or need) to go, and if you haven't already figured out the solution, there's really no way you're going to get there!

I'm speaking in general terms, but this is a situation that drives me crazy when I see it in other people. Back to my first comment, I can see someone I know and care about proverbially heading for a cliff, and it's super obvious to me what they need to change. But I don't have enough of a relationship of trust to give that input. And I can see that nobody else does either. And so disaster happens.

Of course, I'm not in this situation, I hope. For one thing, I'm married to someone very wise. (I highly recommend this.) And I'm pretty sure I'd at least consider the advise of a bishop (for instance) who counseled me to change something. And then there's extended family. So hopefully I'm not driving anyone else crazy over this particular issue.

But the point is (PSA time): If you can't think of anyone whose advice you would listen to even if it seemed wrong at first, FIND SOMEONE! Because otherwise you are betting your happiness in life on your own ability to make perfect decisions, and you're gonna lose. And that's going to drive me crazy.

Thank you.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns

I played Metroid: Samus Returns over the last couple of weeks. It is glorious.

For context, we haven't seen a new Metroid game since 2010, and there hasn't been a new side-view one since 2004. That was Metroid: Zero Mission, a remake of the original Metroid game. It was wonderful too. I remember going out to buy it on its release day. I finally found a copy at the third place I went to. I started playing on my Game Boy Advance in the parking lot. (Fortunately I had late classes at the time.) And ever since that day, I hoped that they'd remake Metroid 2, which needed a remake even more than the original, since the sequel was a Game Boy game. (Yeah, four shades of gray.)

Earlier this year, there was an ill-timed fan remake called "Another Metroid 2 Remake". Nintendo shut it down pretty fast for now-obvious reasons, but it was pretty cool too. It raised the bar for this one. But... man, Samus Returns is really, really good.

The graphics are amazing. The screenshots on the Internet look a little odd, but on the tiny screen nothing looks polygonal - it looks real. For instance, I love how the wave beam makes these little spiral-y trail-y things on your shots. And of course with the 3D on, it's even more amazing. I actually kept wanting to zoom in and look at things in greater detail.

The controls are great - they make use of every single button on the 3DS (except for the "New"-model-specific ones) and still use the right part of the touch screen to select weapons. (This is actually a bit tricky - it takes a while before you stop pressing the wrong button for some things.) The mechanics are nice - the game is challenging, but not tedious. My favorite thing early one was the map. If you come across an item that you can't get yet, the map sticks a little icon on there for you, so you know where to come back to later on. They threw in teleporters, which is handy, because the world is much bigger than I expected it to be. The "fast" ending requires you to beat the game in under four hours, compared to 2 or 3. (My first run took nearly twelve.)

The Metroids are pretty cool. They're a bit stylized and don't quite look like their counterparts in other games, but Metroids are known to develop differently in different environments, so that's not really a problem. The Queen battle was particularly satisfying. (It was also really hard - I had to leave and gather more items before I finally won, although I have since learned a trick that would have made life easier.)

Of course no Metroid game is ever likely to approach the awesomeness of Super Metroid, even if only due to nostalgia. And I think Metroid Prime is still my second favorite, for similar reasons. But I find myself wondering whether I like Samus Returns better than Zero Mission. It has several points in its favor: Samus Returns is longer, has better graphics obviously, there are no annoying Speed Booster puzzles, it has unique new abilities, there are "checkpoints" (temporary save points) before and after major milestones, and it doesn't even have the immodesty issue in the ending scene. (Unless you buy and use one of the Amiibos to unlock "Fusion Mode", but I hate Amiibos.) But there are a few disadvantages as well: less variety in boss battles and not as many catchy tunes among them.

Speaking of music, Samus Returns does have some good stuff. It's mostly "mood" background music (although it's a huge improvement over the original), although it has a nice remix of the one good tune in the original, plus a few from Super Metroid in a couple of places. The ending music is silmilar too, but it's extended and doesn't quite come across with the same level of catchiness. Of course Zero Mission doesn't have as good music as Super Metroid either, but it does have more "tunes" and less "background" stuff, which I like.

So the comparison is a tough call. We'll have to see how my impression of the game changes after some time has passed. Right now I'm trying to decide whether to attempt a speed run or to play the game on Hard mode. Either one is going to be tough, since I lost a lot in the first run. But the game is awesome, so that's okay.

Here's a Tableau viz, just for fun:

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flat Earth & the Alt Right

I had a bit of an epiphany today. It involves to seemingly-unrelated topics - one pretty trivial and the other very important. But they share something important in common. I'll start with the trivial one.

Debunking "Flat Earth"

A few days ago, I made the mistake of reading the comments on a Facebook post about some astronomy thing and was painfully reminded that there are a bunch of people who are convinced that the world is flat, and that all the evidence to the contrary is either forged or misunderstood. For some reason, it really, really bugs me to think that there are people who believe this. I find myself wishing that I could sit down with these people and have an honest conversation; I felt like if I could just ask them one or two questions, I could convince them to change their ways.

This begs the question: if you only had their attention for one question, which would you ask? It can't be too complex or rely too much on math, because if you have to rely on something that abstract then you've already lost the argument. I had a progression of questions that came to mind (along with some of the responses I might get):

  1. Why hasn't anybody just taken a picture of the edge? That should settle the matter pretty easily. (I guess they believe the South "Pole" is the edge, and it's dangerous to get there, and your navigation gets messed up, so you're not where you think you are.)
  2. If you can't get to the edge, then why not just do a trip around the edge of Antarctica, and measure the distance/time? With the globe model, the trip should be the same as a trip at a high northern latitude. But with the flat model, the trip should be much longer than it would be even at the equator.
  3. My wife brought up the question of seasons - that doesn't really make sense in a flat world. (I guess a lot of people don't understand the seasons anyway.)
  4. Similarly, what about the sun rising in the east? If I see the sun rise on the eastern horizon, shouldn't everyone? (I wondered if maybe they thought that horizon is just as far as you can see, so maybe they'd think that the sun on the horizon just means the sun is really far away but in the sky?)
  5. Even simpler: If it's noon for me, the sun is high above. Shouldn't it be high above for everybody? Why is there no sun in the sky at all for some people?

I think question #5 should do it. The fact that some people see the sun to the east, others to the west, some straight up, and others not at all - at the same time - has to mean that the world isn't flat. And it's super simple - it relies only on a phenomenon that we experience every single day.

So, why do I care so much about people not believing this? Hold that thought for just a moment.

Debunking White Supremacy

There are people in the country right now who are convinced that white people are in danger. I'll discuss why this is wrong later, but for just a moment, let's try (I know it hurts) to understand their claims. They see all the good stuff in American history and American culture, and guess what? Most if it involves white people. These people, like all people, have problems. And they look around and see efforts to lift minorities out of what seems like very similar problems. Scholarships. Quotas in schools. Diversity efforts in companies. From these people's perspectives, these efforts can't help but displace white people and supplant their culture.

To be very clear, that's all a distortion of the truth. It's too big a topic to discuss fully, but let me give a quick example of why. Let's say you're a white guy who's applying for a job. There are ten positions open, and twenty people applying - ten white and ten black, all of them qualified. The employer is a white supremacist. Guess what? You have a 100% chance of being hired!

Now change the scenario - let's say that the employer isn't racist, and laws prohibit hiring based on race. Now your chances of getting the job have dropped to 50%! From a purely self-centered, unprincipled point of view, the change in policy has hurt you. It has taken a chance that was once yours and given it away. I guess that's why the "alt right" is worried. But of course we can see that the extra chance you had originally was unfair, and the new system is actually better. It's just not more convenient for you. And if you're a moral person, that distinction matters.

And one more thing: Since before this country was founded, you've had white people who knew that racism was hypocrisy in a nation that believed in freedom. You have also had people who were afraid that if you granted freedom to minorities (particularly black people), then they'd use that freedom to retaliate. And guess what? Those people have been wrong every time. The slaves didn't try to take over the south. When black people could vote, they didn't try to eradicate white people. Sure, you've got the occasional evil person who has advocated violence, but the fact is that white people at large have never been in danger from the people who have managed to get free of the historical oppression that has afflicted them.


The second point has been on my mind in the past few days due to the Charlottesville thing. And today as I was thinking about the flat earth bit, I realized why it bugs me. It's because of the mentality that leads to it - and that it's exactly the same mentality that leads to a belief in white supremacy.

Believing that the world is flat involves limiting your point of view to your own experience, ignoring the multitude of experiences that show that the world is more complex and more interconnected than you can tell from any single point. If you open yourself up to what the world is like to someone on the other side of it, you have to realize that the flat earth model is inadequate. And the same is true of white supremacy. Sure, you can find someone with darker skin who has life a little easier than you. But if you listen to just a few of the stories of this country, you'll see the obvious - that there's this big, ugly stain on American history made of racism. We have come a long way toward removing it, but there are still people suffering from it. A lot of people. We can disagree on the best way to fix it. But pretending that white people are in danger from our dark-skinned neighbors is just as wrong - and even more infuriating - than believing the world is flat.

And that leads to an important distinction: While people's belief in a flat earth doesn't really hurt anyone, the belief that white people are superior and threatened is extremely damaging. It's making that big ugly stain grow even as we're trying to wash it out. People are literally dying because of it.

I'm really not sure what the best way to fix the problem is, especially since I'm pretty much preaching to the choir as I write this. But I hope that someday I get to talk to a white supremacist. Not to yell at them or tell them how embarrassed I am to have them in my country (although that might be the gut reaction), but to sincerely talk and maybe ask them one question in an effort to force them to see the world in a new, broader way. To change their mind. I wonder what question it would take to get them to do it.