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 hones 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):
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.)
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.
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.)
Similarly, what about the sun rising in the east? If I see the sun sun 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?)
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 base don 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 it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Blaster Master Zero

Blaster Master is one of my favorite NES games. It's half platformer, with the novelty of your character being a tank sort of thing, and half overhead (inside caves). The music is just glorious. The game has had many sequels, but none of them was particularly good. Last week, though, I was surprised and delighted to learn of a new game in the series. It's a reboot rather than a sequel, and it certainly looked like it might finally get things right.

Blaster Master Zero is pretty cool. In spite of how much I love the original, I have complained a bit a bout a few aspects of the game mechanics, and this game fixed them. Before, you could explore, but there wasn't really any incentive to do it if you could avoid it. In Zero, there are a ton of optional but permanent items that you can get, so it's a good idea to explore all of the caves and stuff. It also has some bosses that you fight in the side scrolling view. And of course there are save points now, which takes the difficulty level from frustratingly hard to extremely manageable. (The various power-ups you can get help with that as well.)

I do have two complaints. The first is that in spite of the "E" rating, the dialog includes some profanity (D* and H*). Not cool. If you ignore that (or skip the dialog), there's also the fact that the music, while not bad, isn't terribly catchy. The only exception is the Area 1 music, which is basically the same as the original (but still without the stirring intro). It's a gaping hole, considering the before-mentioned glorious soundtrack of the original.

I really did like the power ups. There are a bunch of blaster variations that you can switch among as long as you don't take too much damage in quick succession, and there are so many neat things you can do with the vehicle's cannon that at times it feels like you're cheating. But the game does have some interesting challenges in the second half, and I found the ending sequences particularly satisfying.

I kept meaning to take screenshots, but I didn't actually do it until close to the end, and I'm afraid including them here would reveal spoilers. But anyway, it was a fun game, and aside from those two complaints it was very nice to finally get a decent second dose of Blaster Master. I have now rescued my frog twice, so things are good.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Plasma Master - in Print!

The Plasma Master trilogy is now available in paperback! Yay for self-publishing! As much as I love the whole e-book thing, I kind of see this as the definitive version, since it has formatted section breaks and stuff. And not only that, but I get the satisfaction of having written back-of-the-book summaries that don't spoil the plot, even if you read them out of order! I hate it when books have spoilers on their own covers.

In getting this ready for print, I actually found a ton of mistakes in the e-book versions that have been available for a couple of years, so that's pretty embarrassing, but I'm happy to have them fixed now. And since they only print them when people order, I can correct other errors on the fly - so if you do read this and find something wrong, let me know!

The only sad news is that it's obviously more expensive to read the books this way. Please don't go order it to "boost my sales" - I don't actually make any much more from a print copy than I do from the $1 e-book price : )

(Side-note about the picture: the first book pictured here has a matte cover because I forgot to switch it on the second proof. I'll update it when I have one with the glossy cover.)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sofia the Second

So, this is Sofia the First:

And cultured video game players know that this is Sofia III:

So one might reasonably ask, who is Sofia the Second? There's no obvious transition between those. But fortunately my son had an answer: she must be a cyborg. My daughter has illustrated it for us.

You're welcome, world.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Trump's "immigration" ban

I don't normally post a lot on current events (like on Facebook) because I feel like I'm preaching to the choir, given my limited number of contacts. But Trump's ban on people coming into the country from a set of supposedly-dangerous countries keeps coming up. And I made the mistake of reading comments on an article my sister posted. So now I have to yell some stuff to the universe.

First of all, the ban is not protecting anyone. Visa applicants were already being vetted. And there's no evidence that terrorists are leaking through from these countries. Most of the violence in America is caused by Americans. At best, we are inconveniencing innocent people and embarrassing our country. And it's not just inconvenience. Families are being kept apart. Our country has made a commitment to people and then just backed out on it without warning.

Of course, there's also the incompetence of how things have been handled. (Not communicating implementation details, no warning, etc.) But since the whole thing is ill-conceived to begin with, I'll move on. There's also the political agenda. Why not Saudi Arabia? Why not France? But again, the main problem isn't really how you came up with the list.

One thing that really set me off is the repeated comment I've heard that it's "only temporary". Come on. The internment camps in Wold War 2 were only temporary. They were also a blatant violation of people's basic rights. That event happened because people were afraid of what so-called "outsiders" might do, just like the sentiment now. I don't think those internment camps actually protected anyone - those people were American citizens and no less likely to be violent than any other citizen. But even if there was a spy locked up somewhere, it still wouldn't justify the camps, because a threat from a bad person is not an excuse to violate the rights of an innocent person.

And that's the key issue here, I think. Sure, the people involved aren't American citizens, and the magnitude of what's happening is less than in the internment camp example. But I really think the principle is the same: People are scared, and they want someone to hate. They think that if they can just push some people away, they'll feel safer. But by doing that based on where you were born - not what you've done or even what you think - the country is pretty much abandoning the whole created-equal thing. And I can't believe how many people are going along with it.

We are not safer as a result of this. But even if we were, it's an embarrassment to the country.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mario Maker

I got Mario Maker for my birthday. (The 3DS version.) I was a little put off by the fact that you can't search for levels by ID or publish levels online like the Wii U version, but the fact that it comes preloaded with 100 levels from Nintendo means that it's essentially an entire game's worth even without the make-your-own-level stuff, so I figured it was worth it.

The Course Challenge (comprising those 100 levels) is definitely awesome. The levels are creative, and most of them aren't that hard to beat, but each one has two challenges, like defeating all of certain kind of enemy, or collecting all the coins, or sometimes some pretty obscure stuff like never pressing the jump button. Some of them are super hard, but I finished with like 85 lives left, so I can't really complain about those.

The course designing stuff is great too. I don't have tons of ideas bursting to come out, but I have designed a couple of levels that I'm very proud of (and therefore a bit sad that I can't share them outside my family). My first was a simple thing that just throws goombas at you in just about every form imaginable.

My second level is a Gradius-themed level, which features a super cool recreation of a common Gradius boss that makes me very happy. A screenshot is below. The large goombas serve as the "cores", which you have to blast through the barriers to reach. Each goomba has a key, which makes defeating the "boss" a requirement. The cannons and flame jets hopefully help make the thing look like a space ship.

My most recent level is a conglomeration of simple castle towers. It's inspired from level 4-3 in Mario 2, which I love. Mine has multiple levels on the outside of each tower, and each tower has something to set it apart from its neighbors so you don't get lost (what it's made of, how you get to different floors, etc.). There are eight keys you have to collect, so exploration is mandatory. I'm especially fond of the bits at the end where you use the keys - designing little buildings and niches is fun.

My favorite Mario game is Mario 3, but I didn't use that theme for either level. That kind of surprised me, but I think I figured out why: The things that make Mario 3 superior to the other Mario games don't really apply in Mario Maker. The control in this game is good regardless of which theme you choose, and all the themes have the same amount of variety in level elements and enemies. And I've always liked the original Mario music better than anything in the successors. Plus, the Mario 3 theme gives everything a shadow on the background, which looks a little weird (and wasn't in the original). Mario 3 does have a better look for goombas than the original, but then the Wii U version makes them look perfect (if less nostalgic).

Speaking of differences, they added some mechanics in this game that aren't exactly in the "real" Mario games, like Bob-obms blowing up hard blocks, and being able to put buzzy beetle shells on your head as protection. But that sort of stuff enables lots of different types of puzzles, which adds to the epicness of the game, especially since there is no state (other than sometimes lives) carried from one level to the next. So I'm down with it.

I haven't actually filled out the whole Gradius level yet, and after that I don't have specific plans (other than maybe a jerk level filled with question blocks, some of which have keys, and maybe a little map or some other kind of hint system of where to look). But my kids have a blast with it, even though none of them is very interested in actually playing Mario levels. If they would just add the ability to search for specific stages, it would be pretty much perfect. In the meantime, stacking giant goombas is pretty fun.