Friday, October 22, 2010

Who’s in Charge of Starfleet Ship Deployment?

[spoiler alert on Star Trek movies]
There are currently eleven Star Trek movies. Take a quick guess at how many times Starfleet left Earth undefended. As we discuss this, keep in mind two relevant facts:
  • Earth is the capital of the Federation.
  • Utopia Planetia, a major starship production facility, is located on (and in orbit around) Mars. (For those who aren’t up on geography, that’s next door to Earth.)
So let’s see:
  1. Star Trek (The Motion Picture): A hostile alien entity is headed for the Earth, and the only ship that’s within a day’s travel is a newly-refitted Enterprise, crewed by a bunch of cadets.
  2. Star Trek 3 (The Search for Spock): Kirk steals the Enterprise. The Excelsior attempts pursuit but is thwarted due to Scotty’s ingenuity. Evidently it is the only other ship in the area, because Kirk gets away.
  3. Star Trek Generations: (I believed this was about the biggest plot hole ever, before I re-watched the preceding movies and realized that it’s a pattern.) A weird spacial anomaly threatens some Tholian refugees, and the only ship with warp capabilities – having just left Earth for a training run – is the incomplete Enterprise B. It wouldn’t even have taken a warship to save a hundred lives or so – anything with warp drive and a tractor beam would have done the job.
  4. Star Trek (the new one): The Vulcans are under attack, and the fleet is away – the entire fleet. An army of cadets is sent to help, resulting in a death count in the hundreds (not to mention all of the planet Vulcan).
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of that movie, how is it that Kirk’s dad was able to hold off those Romulan torpedoes for so long, and yet a fleet of ships (cadets or not) couldn’t deal with one mining vessel? They could have just stayed far enough away to avoid the missiles, while they fired phasers from farther away. Just saying.
Okay, so that’s only four – less than half. But it’s enough to send a dangerous but clear message: it is surprisingly easy to launch an attack on the Federation.
For some bonus trivia, let’s consider how many movies involve a rogue mission:
  1. Star Trek 3: Kirk steals the Enterprise to search for Spock
  2. Star Trek 4: On his way to stand trial for theft, Kirk violates the Temporal Prime Directive to kidnap two humpback whales from the 1980s.
  3. Star Trek 5: Almost all of Kirk’s senior staff mutinies in order to help Cybok on his religious quest.
  4. Star Trek 6: Spock ignores orders from Starfleet Command in order to search for Kirk
  5. Star Trek: First Contact: Picard ignores orders to patrol the Neutral Zone in order to fight the Borg.
  6. Star Trek: Insurrection: Picard undermines the Federation’s attempt to harvest the medicinal qualities of a planet’s rings.
In defense of the Enterprise and its captains, they were generally right. I guess Starfleet probably chooses people for the Enterprise that it figures will do the right thing regardless of what the ignorant (and arguably incompetent) bureaucracy says.

Amoral Ethics (or not?)

I only know a few non-Christians, and I haven’t really talked to them about religion. I’ve known even fewer atheists. But I have some questions that I wish someone would answer – on the other hand, my curiosity is so casual that I’m afraid I’d offend whoever explained it to me by dismissing what they said. But here are the questions.

1. If there’s no God, then how can you argue for the existence of morality at all?

It seems to me that the only way anything is absolutely right or wrong is if there’s someone with the authority to say so and the power to reward or punish people based on their choices in relation to it. If there’s no God, then there’s no one to arbitrate what’s right or wrong. Different cultures can come up with moral codes, but you could always create your own, and no one would be able to prove that yours was wrong. And if there’s no God (no life after death), then there’s no way to guarantee that a person’s happiness will be in proportion to how they kept to any moral code, because mortality is so full of influences beyond our control.

To illustrate this, I can imagine a conversation between two hypothetical atheists – call them MoAt and AmAt. Imagine that MoAt is a generally good person, but he has an opportunity where he could steal some money, and it is guaranteed that no one would ever find out. AmAt is a total jerk. (I’m not suggesting that these guys are typical atheists.)

MoAt: I’d kind of like this money, and I know I won’t get caught, but I don’t want to do something bad.

AmAt: Don’t worry! There’s no such thing as “bad!” How could there possibly be such a thing?

MoAt: Well, some things violate other people’s rights, right?

AmAt: So what? Rights are defined by people, and different cultures believe in different sets of rights. If you decide you have the right to that money, then it’s yours to take.

MoAt: I don’t know – I think I might feel guilty if I steal money.

AmAt: Well then you have a decision. If you think the feelings of guilt outweigh the benefits of the money, then don’t take it. But it’s a tactical decision, not a moral one. And trust me, if you steal enough, the feelings of guilt will go away.

… and so on.

If I were an atheist, and I walked in on the above conversation, I don’t think I could come up with an argument to convince MoAt that stealing is wrong. I could tell him it was dangerous, since it might form a habit, etc. But you could say the exact same thing about eating donuts. If anyone knows or is an atheist who can explain why they believe that certain things are absolutely wrong, I’d love to hear it.

Not that I think that atheists are immoral. On the contrary, I think most of them probably feel that certain things are right and wrong, because they have the Light of Christ, like everyone else. But of course that explanation contradicts atheism. So I wonder.

2. Where do other religions draw the line between saved and not?

This question applies to non-Christian religions, and to other branches of Christianity as well. The way I see it, you can believe that the standard is fixed, and there are certain things that will get you destroyed if you do them. Or you can believe that the standard is more subjective. If it’s subjective, then it’s hard to imagine how God could be fair, since people would be judged by different standards. Plus, how do you know exactly where He draws the line? But if the standard is fixed, then isn’t it possible to cross the line without even knowing it’s there? And what if you totally change, but you can’t make up for what you’ve done? Justice is easy to administer in this case, but not mercy.

The dilemma goes away with the idea of a Savior. Jesus Christ paid the penalty for everyone’s sins. So no one has to reach a point of no return (at least not in this life). Justice is satisfied, since every sin has resulted in punishment. And my church teaches that people who die without the gospel will receive it later, and they’ll accept it there if they would have accepted it here. So everyone gets a fair chance. Mercy is satisfied. And as for where to draw the line, that’s simple too. The line is perfection: one sin and you’re out. But it’s one sin at the Final Judgment, after you’ve been given the chance to repent if you want to. It’s all about whether you want God to change you and take away your sins. (We also don’t believe that people’s final state is a simple matter of joy or torture; in the end, people will receive whatever level of happiness they’re willing to accept.) So that’s pretty good news.

Again, I wonder how other religions resolve the dilemma between justice and mercy. Do you let murderers into heaven, or do you punish good people for mistakes or circumstance? That’s an oversimplification, I know, but still, I wonder.

The Prime Directive (and the Main Deflector)

Star Trek morality is kind of messed up. First of all, the Federation is totally atheistic, and I don’t really see how you can argue for a moral code in that sense. (Which I guess explains why they don’t have a problem with the messed-up morality of some of the cultures they encounter.) But what really bugs me is the virtue that they uphold as the Prime Directive. That is, that you don’t interfere with the natural progression of pre-warp civilizations. There’s a Next Generation episode where the Enterprise is sent to witness the destruction of all life on a planet due to some natural phenomenon. They can’t relocate the people, because that wouldn’t be “natural.” Likewise, they can’t stop terrorists or provide medical care or anything else to anyone who hasn’t developed warp drive. What’s so sacred about warp drive? That’s sort of like us saying that any we can’t do business or provide humanitarian aid to any country that hasn’t developed its own aircraft.

I should note that I do agree with the Temporal Prime Directive, which states that you shouldn’t mess with the timeline. This is especially important because I’m pretty sure that time travel is impossible, in the same sense that drawing a four-sided triangle is impossible. Actually I think that involving time travel is one of the worst decisions a science fiction writer can make, because the moment you involve it, readers/viewers end up asking “Why didn’t you just use that to solve that problem?” to every problem. (Hence the Temporal Prime Directive.)

Speaking of innovative solutions that make you wonder why characters don’t repeat them, Starfleet engineers have a habit of using their ships’ main deflector arrays to do magical things that apparently only work once. I was recently watching a Deep Space Nine episode where they were trapped in this special anomaly, and I was thinking, “Use the main deflector!” And moments later, Chief O’Brien proposed just such a solution, which worked perfectly. Starships should be equipped with two or three main deflectors, just so they’d never run out of magical solutions.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Defining “Spirituality”

I guy I talked to on my mission in Uruguay told me that he wasn’t really interested in religion because he was “a very practical person.” My response was something along the lines of “So am I, which is why it’s important for me to know what God wants me to do so that I can qualify for His blessings in my life.” I don’t think he was the only person who has used the term “spirituality” in contrast to practicality or applicability to every day life. I think that’s a misguided usage, perhaps because people aren’t sure what it means. Admittedly, it’s hard to define in terms that everyone would agree with. One of the speakers in my church’s recent General Conference said something about spiritual health, which made me think about what that means. Here are my proposals for a few definitions, with the goal being to make it acceptable as broadly as possible:

  • Spirituality is the trait of letting one’s beliefs and values affect one’s decisions.
  • Spiritual Health is the extent to which one’s beliefs and values are conducive to long-term happiness

Note that it’s possible to be physically unhappy and spiritually healthy at the same time - such as if you’re poor, but a good work ethic motivates you to create opportunities for yourself. Likewise, it is possible to be happy at the moment but in spiritual danger – such as if you’re addicted to something that gives momentary pleasure but causes long-term damage. And of course the most long-term things happen beyond this life, so even someone who feels content taking advantage of other people, and never suffers consequences of it in this life, would be said to be in poor spiritual health because the consequences will catch up and outweigh any previous benefit.

The point is that it makes perfect logical, practical sense to care about one’s spiritual heath – to try to find out what’s God wants us to do – and to do those things. Because making the right choices has positive consequences. (That’s sort of the point of this whole life thing.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Video Game Victories and Cheating

I’ve beaten about 85 video games; maybe I’ll post the list just for the doom of it. But in keeping track, I’ve had to define what it means to beat a game. This involves answering a couple of questions:

1. When is the game complete?

2. What methods are valid to get you to the end?

The first is usually straightforward, but some games (like Dr. Mario) will repeat forever until you turn them off (or lose), and others may have multiple endings depending on previous accomplishments. I believe that the following are all sufficient conditions for having completed a game:

· A victory results in rolling the credits and/or displaying “The End”, or a similar message.

  • So in Super Mario Kart 64, you’ve beaten the game if you beat the Special Cup circuit on 100cc, even though you can play on 150cc after that.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog is beaten if you defeat Dr. Robotnik, even if you don’t have the Chaos Emeralds
  • Bomberman 64 is beaten if you beat Altair, even though the game will progress past that point if you come back after collecting all of the Gold Cards.

· In a game with distinct levels, all are completed

· In a game with repeating levels at the end, all distinct levels are completed.

  • So in Dr. Mario, the game is over if you beat Level 20. The numbers continue up to 24 and then repeat forever, but those are all duplicates of Level 20. (Also, it shows the viruses leaving Earth after you beat Level 20, which is arguably analogous to the first condition)

As for cheating, I consider the following to be invalid in terms of declaring victory on a game:

· Any use of external hardware, such as Game Genie

· Use of passwords you did not earn, or secret codes. “Secret” is defined as button presses that are outside the context of the defined uses for the game’s buttons.

  • The pause trick in the original Mega Man may seem like cheating, since pausing the game repeatedly in order to score multiple hits with a single shot doesn’t make sense in the context of the game story. But pausing the game is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, so I don’t consider this trick cheating. Same goes for the similar trick in Blaster Master.
  • By this definition, the Konami Code in Gradius is a cheat. In some ways it doesn’t feel like it should be, since it can be used only a limited number of times and because it is so well known as to be practically part of the instruction book. But it’s not part of the book, so I still consider it cheating. (That said, it’s a great way to “train” yourself on a Gradius game.)

· Help from another person. I suppose participation in a two-player game is exempt from this, but I prefer to play through games in one-player mode so that I feel like I really completed the challenges instead of just following behind someone who knew what they were doing.

In closing, I’ll add that I’m not generally a fan of games that you can’t beat, like Tetris, or (cringe) those multiplayer online games that people have to schedule time to meet up with guild members to play. Like movies and books, games make you want to stay involved as long as there’s story left, and if they never end they can suck you in forever. Just saying.

Space Shooters

I remember the first time I was exposed to a real space shooter. (By “space shooter,” I mean a game where you control a starfighter (or dragon, or some other flying object) and pilot it through a huge swarm of enemies. By “real”, I mean that ancient arcade-style stuff like Asteroids and Space Invaders don’t count, because they don’t look cool, they don’t involve interesting decisions, and they have a low reward-to-challenge ratio.) It was an arcade game called Nemesis that I glimpsed briefly on a ferry, to or from some Cub Scout activity I think. It was a side-scroller, which I guess was unique partly because it involved terrain; a lot of top-scrolling games feature enemies but no environmental elements like walls. Terrain helps distinguish one area from the next and reduces the monotony of a game. The other thing I noticed in the few moments I saw the demo was that the ship gained little “helpers” that followed it around and matched its firepower. And apparently they were invincible. That image kind of stuck in my head as a cool science fiction theme. Some time later, my parents got me a subscription to Nintendo Power, and among the incentives was a set of four guides – one full of NES games, one for Game Boy, another for Super Nintendo, and another that contained everything you’d want to know about Super Mario World. Probably the coolest sign-up bonus they ever gave, and not just because of the hints and maps – I was able to sort of experience by proxy a lot of games that I wouldn’t bother playing, let alone buying. But I digress.

The Game Boy guide included a section for a game called Nemesis – and to my delight it seemed to be in the same series as the arcade game that had caught my eye before. Actually both seemed to be sequels to a well-known game called Gradius. (I kind of liked the name Nemesis better, but Gradius is also very cool. But you have to pronounce it with a short A sound, as in gladius or graduate. I’ve heard it said “grade-ius”, but that’s not cool.) I’ve still never played that game, but I looked at maps and read about the innovative power-up method, which is noteworthy in itself and will be discussed later.

(Strangely, I had seen Lifeforce, a glorious sequel to Gradius, many times at a friend’s birthday parties. Evidently I hadn’t looked closely enough to make the connection, because when I saw the distinctive Moai enemies near the end of the game, I was surprised to learn that the game was connected to Gradius.)

What I’m getting at is that I was intrigued by the space shooter genre long before I ever played a game in it. Which is probably good, because if there is one consistency among space shooters, it’s that they’re very difficult. Most of them are unreasonably difficult, as in one hit destroys you. I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to beat a handful of these games, most of them in the Gradius series. I even created a short one for my senior project in high school. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an “Ideal” one though. Maybe one day I’ll try making one. But before I get into what I consider to be ideal, I will catalog what I consider to be the important distinguishing elements of space shooter games.

Extra Life Handling

There are two main ways games handle losing a life when you have extra lives available:

1. You lose all power-ups and return to the last checkpoint.

2. You lose all power-ups, and your ship appears at the bottom/side of the screen, with a few moments of invincibility in case you’re inside a solid object.

The second method is generally used in games with a two-player option, so that both players can be on the screen at all times. There are advantages and disadvantages. In one sense, not having to go back may mean that you can get through a tricky part just by having enough lives , since the screen usually scrolls continuously. (Boss battles are an exception.) On the other hand, if you continue right where you lost, it may be difficult or impossible to power up your ship before you encounter the next difficult area, increasing the likelihood that you’ll lose more lives. In contrast, returning to a checkpoint may give you an opportunity to power up again before you get the place that was giving you trouble.

Taking Hits

As stated before, space shooter games punish you severely for coming into contact with anything other than power ups or your own shots (or your partner, if it’s a multi-player game). Here are some of the common results:

1. You lose a life immediately. This is by far the most common result.

2. You have a health meter, and getting hit reduces it by one unit. You may also lose some of your power-ups, if any. Of course if you run out of health, you lose a life. Dragon Spirit gives you a three-hit health meter, and having that small bit of leeway makes that game feel much more reasonable than others in the series.

3. The UN Squadron method: You lose some health, and for a few seconds you’re in “Danger”, which means that another hit will cost you a life, no matter how much health you have left.


Even games with no health meter will sometimes give you a way of temporarily protecting yourself from at least some attacks. (Crashing into something will generally cause damage, shields or not.)

1. Timed invincibility: Protects you from everything, but only for a limited time. Not very common.

2. Barrier: Positions an object near your ship that blocks attacks coming from that direction. The object itself is generally invincible, but solid objects and some attacks can still get through it. R-Type features this type of shielding.

3. Limited use: Protects your ship from shots or contact with weak enemies. Generally absorbs a limited number of hits, and then disappears. This is probably the most common. This category has additional sub-categories

  • A force field protects your whole ship, and it only takes damage when you normally would have taken damage.
  • Your whole ship is protected, but the hit box is larger than that of your ship alone. This means that if you squeeze through a tight spot, your shield may vanish even though your ship didn’t touch anything. This is infuriating behavior, but the later Gradius games feature this type of force field. I guess it’s so you’ll keep needing to power up once your attack power is at maximum.
  • The shield only protects a part of your ship. Later Gradius games give you this choice as an alternative to the full-ship force field, the trade-off being that the partial barrier can absorb many more hits than the force field.

4. The Ikaruga method: I’ve never played Ikaruga, but the idea of it is pretty interesting. All the enemies and shots you encounter are either Light or Dark polarity. Your ship can switch between Light and Dark at any time. If you touch a shot that’s the opposite polarity, you lose a life. But you can absorb shots that are the same polarity as you (and doing so charges your special weapon meter). You do double damage to enemies of opposite polarity. So you have this constant trade-off between protecting yourself and getting rid of enemies quickly so you won’t become overwhelmed later. Of course there’s no rule that Light and Dark enemies can’t be attacking at the same time.

Power-Up Methods

One of the main distinguishing features of a space shooter is the way that you power up your ship. Strangely, starfighter designers seem incapable of building advanced features into their vessels, although the ships are able to add abilities from items they find, usually after defeating a particular enemy. Here are the ways some games handle upgrading your ship:

· The classic method: As you defeat enemies (or just reach certain points in the levels), items will appear. Each item will add or upgrade a particular ability on your ship, such as allowing you to fire in multiple directions or increasing the strength of your shots. (Dragon Spirit and R-Type uses this method.)

· The Gradius method: In Gradius games, you have a power-up meter made of several boxes, each of which represents a different class of power-up: Speed Up, Missile, Laser, etc. More valuable upgrades appear farther to the right. The first power-up capsule you get lights up the first item (Speed Up), and each subsequent capsule advances the meter one to the right. At any point when you have an item lit up on your meter, you can press the Power Up button to activate that item and clear the meter. Or, you can wait to capture more capsules and advance the meter to a different item. This is quite an innovative power-up strategy; since powering up involves continual decision making, Gradius games feel less monotonous than a lot of other shooters.

· The Raiden method: I’ve only played the freeware flash game Raiden X in this series, but it has an interesting twist on the classic power-up method. I understand that the “real” games in the series are similar. There are three types of main power-ups: Laser (strong but only firing straight forward), spread (weaker but shots fire diagonally as well as straight), and homing (very weak, but beam curves to hit enemies, wherever they are). Each type is represented by a color, and power-up items rotate through the colors as they fly around the screen. If you pick up an item that is the same as your current color, your attack level will increase. (More shots, or stronger beam.) If you pick up a different color, your level stays the same but you switch to the other weapon type. So obviously you’re encouraged to stick with one type for a long period, so you can maximize its level.

· Purchased items: UN Squadron is sort of unique in that you purchase weapons before you start a level (or before you start a new life), using “points” you get from defeating enemies. You then have a limited number of those weapons to use in that level.

· Permanent Items: Space Battle for the Zune has items that appear randomly as you progress through the game. Each item increases some attributes and may decrease others. At the start of each level, you can choose which items to equip.

· No power-ups: Some games (Ikaruga is one) give you all your abilities at the beginning, and there are no power-ups to gather. The decisions are all about which weapon or ability is best-suited to each situation. There may also be a notion of upgrading your abilities as you use them, in which case you may have to balance sticking with one weapon to power it up against switching among them to stay well-balanced.


Some games, especially the arcade-style, vertically-scrolling ones, have no terrain. Instead, the only things in your way are the destroyable enemies and their shots. I think it’s a lot more interesting when the game sends you through some actual terrain. Having a floor and ceiling creates an opportunity for new types of enemies, and walls to doge can help make individual levels feel more unique from the rest of the game. Also, platforms in the middle of the screen can create multiple paths through a level, adding to the choices the game presents you with. Terrain is more common in side-scrolling games, although Dragon Spirit and Lifeforce (in which half the levels scroll vertically) are exceptions.

Getting Started

Before I finish, I’ll mention a few considerations for anyone who, like me, is intrigued by the idea of a space shooter but doesn’t want to spend their whole life memorizing bullet patterns by trial and error. If I were to pick an ideal game to get started, it would have to be one of these:

· Lifeforce (for the NES): This game features the classic Konami Code, which in this case gives you thirty lives per continue instead of the usual three. Since the game also has you start new lives instantly instead of sending you back to a checkpoint, this means that with a reasonable amount of practice you can beat at least the first level without too much trouble. If you can lose no more than about 15 lives per level, your three continues will see you through the whole game. (Yes, that’s cheating, but that’s a valid learning strategy.)

· Gradius 3 (SNES): The really nice thing about this game is that it lets you choose your power-up configuration before you begin – that is, what kinds of missiles, what kinds of lasers, etc. I’ve found that the following configuration will let you cut your way through the game with a minimum of anguish:

  • Hawk Wind missiles. They fire up when you’re on the top half of the screen, and down when you’re on the lower half. If you fly in the center, with Options (clone helper ships) above and below you, you can take out ground enemies pretty effectively.
  • Double: It doesn’t matter which type you choose – you won’t use it, since it’s not compatible with Lasers.
  • Twin Lasers. You can fire them and then dodge, and they’ll still travel toward where you fired at, unlike Cyclone Lasers. More importantly, in areas with solid matter you have to fire through (like dirt or the pellets in bonus stages), Twin Lasers will cut through it more thoroughly than other weapon types.
  • Formation Options. Being able to fire from above and below your ship minimizes the amount of time you need to risk near the floor or ceiling. It also means that you can push your Options through a thin surface to fire on the other side without first going to that spot on your screen, like you’d have to do with standard Options. (The Rolling Option type has a similar advantage, but all that constant spinning can be distracting, and it just doesn’t look as cool.)
  • Reduce-type Shields. This shrinks your ship so it’s harder to hit, but more importantly, it doesn’t increase your hit box, like all the other Shield types do. It doesn’t look as cool, and it only absorbs three hits (making it the weakest shield ever), but it’s worth it because your shield won’t go vanishing on you when you dodge through a narrow passage or between a pair of enemy lasers.
  • Full Barrier. This will put your Shield at full strength if it’s partially damaged. Without this, you can only recharge your Shield if it’s completely gone, which means you’re vulnerable. (Speed Down is another valid choice. Normally you would want only one or two Speed Ups, but there’s one level where you have to have three in order to avoid the fast-scrolling walls. Once that part’s over, you’ll find that your ship is overly jumpy. If you don’t have Speed Down, the only way to slow down is to blow up, and then of course you have to start powering up all over. But I’d rather do that once than go without Full Barrier for the whole game.)

· Gradius Galaxies (GBA): This game is pretty hard, but it also includes a Save feature. You can start in any section of any level you’ve been to, and it backs up your progress with a battery. So while you may spend a lot of time powered down, you can try an area as many times as it takes to get through it.


That about covers the variations – beyond that, each game is a lot is about powering up and staying powered up, so you’ll be able to take out the endless swarms and monstrous boss enemies that come at you. The “one pilot vs. an entire alien army” theme is pretty epic feeling, and – as frustrating as it is to be constantly blowing up – when you do get past a frustrating spot, it’s rather rewarding. Now, if they could just invent starfighters for real, we’d be all set.

The Meaning of “Good” Government

There are sort of two main philosophies about government these days. The first is that government should make the world good – it should take care of people, prevent bad things from happening, and compensate for people’s losses when bad things do happen. The second is that government should ensure freedom and then stay out of people’s lives as much as possible. For the sake of this discussion I’ll label these ideals “Equality” and “Freedom,” although both terms are overloaded (in the programmer sense – they can mean multiple things depending on the context) – hence the capitalization to distinguish the specific meanings I’ve given above. Now, it’s not immediately obvious why Equality and Freedom should be mutually exclusive objectives, but when we’re talking about how much power leaders should have over the lives of citizens, it turns out that you generally have to choose one or the other.

I think it’s pretty clear that Equality is winning out in today’s government. And from a naïve perspective, that my look like a good thing. After all, don’t we want life to be Good? Shouldn’t the government make the world Good? What good is Freedom if some people use it to take advantage of or ignore the needs of others? It’s an understandable challenge, but it is very important not to take those questions rhetorically; without very clear answers, they can lead to a very dangerous place.

The key point is to decide what is Good – that is, what is really the ideal state of a mortal world. If Good implies a utopia where nobody is sick, nobody is poor, and nobody can get away with being dishonest, violent, or unkind, then again, it seems natural to try to enforce those ideals. And who better to enforce them than a powerful government? (Again, not a rhetorical question. There is an answer.)

In my view, a “Good” world is not one where bad things don’t happen. In fact, such a world will never exist (at least as long as we’re in a mortal state). And giving power to a few government leaders will certainly not make it happen. It has been tried before, and history makes it very clear that when you try to force people to live an ideal – even a worthy ideal – you end up violating their rights and creating a world that is the exact opposite from what you set out to build.

So what is “Good” then? I certainly wouldn’t argue that peace and prosperity aren’t desirable, but when we’re talking about what is Good, in the sense of morally and ethically right, and worthy of enforcing with the government, is the ability of people to make their own choices for their own lives. Of course there are situations where one person’s choices affect someone else, and the world is on fire with debates about where those boundaries lie. But I think that essential to the definition of Good is the notion that nothing is morally good or evil except for human choices. And that means the government’s highest objective should be to preserve Freedom, even in situations where it must come at the expense of someone’s prosperity or comfort – or even their sense of Equality.

To illustrate my point, imagine a society in which the leaders force everyone to work, then take the food and other goods that are produced and distribute them evenly to everyone. For the sake of argument, assume that they produce enough food to meet everyone’s needs (despite the fact that history casts strong doubt on that). So we have a society full of non-hungry people. And we also have a lot of people whose hard-earned money is going to feed less-fortunate people. So is this society Good? Are its people charitable? I argue that neither is the case. No one is voluntarily giving money to the poor, so no one is being charitable. And the government is taking people’s money against their will with nothing in return, so it is violating their freedom. Not good.

Now consider a society in which the government does absolutely nothing to redistribute food or money. There are rich people and poor people. Some of the rich give to the poor, and others don’t. Is this society Good? In this case, we could judge the society based on how charitable its members are. We almost can’t even talk about the goodness of the society as a whole, because its individuals are all at different points on the goodness scale. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. They’re free to choose how good they’ll be. And that, as far as the government’s role is concerned, is Good.

But what about justice? Can we really sit back and allow people to let their neighbors starve? Well it depends on who “we” are. If “we” refers to the government, then I say, simply, yes. If “we” are individuals, then we should take care of each other. But it’s a moral “should”, not a legal one. (And that brings up an ironic side note: a lot of the people who believe that the government should enforce redistribution of wealth because that’s what’s “right” are the same ones who will tell you that you shouldn’t vote based on what you believe. See [this entry] for more on that topic.)

And lest my claims seem too callous and uncaring, I’ll add that I do think that the voluntary acts of charity in a society will contribute to its strength. When you choose to contribute to those around you, you gain a vested interest in the prosperity of others, so you’re more likely to make decisions that will help build up society. On the other hand, if the government is already taking a huge chunk of your money, you’re likely to feel that you’ve already done your part and therefore feel content to focus on yourself. I don’t have any empirical data to back up that claim, but I do have a couple of scriptural examples that I think are relevant.

(And remember, I’m not claiming that my ideas are endorsed by my Church.)

The prophet Moroni wrote that the fate of our nation would be tied to the righteousness (read “ethical choices”, if you want) of its people:

Ether 2

9. And now, we can behold the decrees of God concerning this land, that it is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fulness of his wrath shall come upon them. And the fulness of his wrath cometh upon them when they are ripened in iniquity.

12. Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written.

We aren’t serving God if we’re not free to choose whether to do so or not. In a lot of ways our country is less “ripe” than a lot are, but we’re ripening. I don’t think we’ll turn around because the government forces redistribution of wealth. We might turn around if people are forced (and allowed) to take responsibility for their own communities.

The other problem with redistribution of wealth is that it takes someone with a lot of power to do it. Arguably, it would take more power than anyone should have. After all, we’re talking about the power to forcibly take away people’s property and decide where it goes. Can we trust the government to do that justly, let alone effectively? (Hint: no.) And even if we happen to trust the people in charge today (which I don’t, generally speaking), can we trust whoever’s in power tomorrow or ten years from now? Here’s what King Mosiah said on the subject when he explained to his people why he was setting up a representative government instead of choosing an heir to the throne:

Mosiah 29

13 … If it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, … then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you. …

16. Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.

17. For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction! …

24. … it is not expedient that such abominations should come upon you.

26. Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.

(Verse 27 is good too, but it’s a slightly different topic.)

Doing business by the voice of the people requires Freedom. It even means that we have to be free to make the wrong decisions at each other’s expense if we choose, because if we lose that choice, we lose the ability to make the right decisions. And even if were in the government’s right and power to make our society peaceful, happy, and even Equal, we couldn’t trust that the people in power would always leave it that way. Better to count on the majority of the people to get it mostly right most of the time.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Shannara Series

I was introduced to the Shannara series when my fifth grade teacher started reading The Wishsong of Shannara to us. (Side note – evidently the author, Terry Brooks, pronounces it “SHA-nna-ra”, but I think that’s ridiculous. Feel free to read it “Shan-NA-ra.”) I was pretty impressed. The characters have some nifty magical powers, it’s a classic “normal person needs to save the world” motif, and I really like the character Allanon. The Wishsong is actually the third book in the series, but I ended up reading those three books in reverse order. (They’re all at least a generation apart from each other, so you can really read any of them independently.) Some time after that, I learned that Terry Brooks was writing more Shannara books, and I was pretty excited. The Heritage of Shannara is a four-book series that’s tied together – three characters are given separate tasks to accomplish that will (somehow) allow them to defeat the evil forces that are spreading over the Four Lands. Each of the first three books focuses on one group of characters, while mentioning the others. The fourth book ties them all together in a very impressive finale.

So here’s the thing – that’s where the awesomeness of the Shannara series fades out. There’s a prequel – First King of Shannara. It’s okay, but there’s about a page near the end of the first section that you need to skip, because it’s really icky. (I believe I skipped it, actually, but it was pretty clear that nasty stuff was afoot.) And then came the next series, The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara. It starts out with a guy getting washed up on shore, and I was worried about how graphically his demise had been detailed, but I kept going because – hey – this is a Shannara book. The way the plot unfolded felt very professional, bringing in all sorts of nostalgia while weaving in enough new stuff to avoid making it feel cookie-cutter-y (although I might have preferred that). There was lots more graphic violence in the book though, and the next two only got worse. There’s a lot about people being possessed, by both a homicidal computer system and a witch-type guy whose method is nasty enough that I won’t describe it. And for some reason I kept reading; I guess I thought that if I got closure on the series, the rest of the stuff wouldn’t bother me as much. But when I got to the part where a female character is brutally killed (etc.), I had to decide to stop reading Brooks’ new novels. And by the way, there really isn’t much closure to the series – it sort of leaves you with a cliffhanger, I guess so you’ll read the next series.

The bottom line is that I totally recommend the first seven Shannara books. (Anything whose title is “The <blank> of Shannara” is good). First King is okay, but watch out for that nasty bit. And I strongly recommend against reading anything beyond that.
I’ll write more about the individual Shannara books later.

Splash Woman Controversy

[Spoiler alert for Mega Man 9]

When I was looking up something about Mega Man 9 (which is, incidentally, awesome), I saw a comment someone had posted that complained about how Splash Woman (the first female Robot Master) was the weakest boss in the game. This is in reference to the fact that she takes only 14 hits from the arm cannon to defeat, compared to 28 hits for all the other Robot Masters. While I admit this does seem to feed a bad stereotype, I’d like to say a few words in the game’s defense. First of all, while Splash Woman may have the lowest defense of her peers, she is by no means the easiest boss. You can beat Galaxy man with the normal weapon without getting hit, if you’re patient. But even with the right weapon on Splash Woman, her “fish summoning” attack is very hard to dodge, and the fish can even block your shots. The second thing to keep in mind is that, as a 14-hit boss, Splash Woman is in very good company. Magnet Man is my favorite Robot master – he kind of looks like Optimus Prime, he has a neat weapon, and he has two actual hands, firing Magnet Missiles out of wrist launchers – and he and Top Man only take 14 hits. The Mega Man 1 bosses take even fewer. So while I don’t see any good reason why Splash Woman takes fewer hits than her contemporary Robot Masters, the fact that she does need not be a cause for complaint against the game.

Voting and Morality

There’s a common battle cry in today’s politics that goes something like this: “You’re trying to legislate morality! You’re trying to push your values onto me!” The problem I have with that is that all major laws are moral issues that people have decided to legislate. There’s no scientific reason why stealing or killing need to be illegal. There are laws against them because the vast majority of people believe they’re wrong and don’t want to live in a world where they’re allowed. Of course some laws are more arbitrary decisions, like driving on the right side of the road. But even then, you have a group of people who made a decision – what they thought was best – and then legislated it. Either way, legislating morality is at the very core of what a government is for. The goal is not to take religious beliefs out of the law, but to make sure that the right ones – the ones most people can agree on and will preserve people’s freedom the best – make it in. And even the “preserve people’s freedom” part is a religious value – relatively few people in history have held that as a high priority for the government.

Given that perspective, it’s easy to see what would happen to the world if we removed all laws that were subject to religious controversy. Should murder be illegal? Well there are plenty of people in the world that believe that you are not only allowed, but obligated to kill someone who is of the wrong religion if you can. Slavery? The folks in northern Sudan would be religiously offended by our claims that they should not enslave people they consider to be inferior. And who are we to say that their beliefs are wrong, just because we don’t share them? You see the point. We have these laws because most Americans believe that stealing and killing and enslaving people are wrong, and they are willing to legislate those beliefs.

So what about more controversial issues – values that are shared by a much smaller majority? In this case, it is even more important that people be willing to vote based on what they think is right. There are two sets of scenarios to consider. First, the majority can be right or wrong. Second, the majority can be willing to vote based on their beliefs or unwilling. Obviously, if the majority is right and willing to vote on its beliefs, then the laws will be right in a government where the people choose the laws. If the majority is wrong and willing to legislate its beliefs, then the laws end up wrong. But if the majority is right and unwilling to vote based on beliefs, the situation is no better – the laws still end up wrong. Only now, the people who knew better have to live with the will of the minority because they were unwilling to stand up for what they believed. (And of course, the minority in this case were obviously willing to vote for their beliefs.) The final possibility is that that the majority is wrong and unwilling to legislate based on beliefs, in which case the laws presumably end up right. The following table summarizes the possibilities:

Majority legislates decision

Majority does not legislate decision

Majority is right

Good laws

Bad laws

Majority is wrong

Bad laws

Good laws

So if you say that the majority should not legislate its beliefs, you are betting on most people being wrong most of the time. Not really a good bet, since if most people have wrong values, your society is going downhill anyway. It’s true that you still have a possibility of bad laws if everyone votes for what they think is right, but at least you only get the bad laws if that’s what people choose and again, if most people are choosing what’s wrong, you’re in big trouble regardless of what your laws are. It makes more sense to bet on the majority being right. Which means that everyone should vote based on what they think is right, not what they think is politically correct.

Of course that doesn’t mean that people should try to turn all of their values into laws. It just means that they should not refrain from passing a law just because it happens to correspond to a personal value. If they hesitate to vote on issues they have religious beliefs about, then the laws will still be based on values – but they will be the values of minorities. (And I don’t mean ethnic or religious minorities; I mean ethical minorities.) When any old minority can get a law passed just because the majority believes it is wrong and therefore won’t vote against it, your society is guaranteed to fail.

The Origin of Orcs

I’m generally not into overly deep social issues when it comes to fantasy novels. The occasional allegorical event can be cool, (my favorite is probably the ending of The Druid of Shannara,) but I generally read fiction for entertainment. And frustrating stuff is rarely entertaining. On that note, one of the things I like about The Lord of the Rings is that the bad guys are just plain bad. Orcs, in particular, are not creatures that you feel sorry for. There are no orc widows or orphans – indeed, I maintain that there are no orc women or children.

Now, in The Silmarillion and some of the other “extended” literature about Middle Earth, Tolkein explores (but to my knowledge doesn’t definitively explain) the origin of the orcs. In this discussion, there are some details that would seem to contradict my perception of them as creatures of pure evil. The problem lies in the matter of the Secret Fire – the power of Ilúvatar (the all-power creator of Tolkein’s world) to create new life. Morgoth (Sauron’s old boss) seeks this power, but his search is always in vain because it is an essential attribute of Ilúvatar himself. What this means for this orcs is that Morgoth could not have created them. Rumors in Middle Earth suggest that Morgoth captured some Elves and turned them into orcs. But I have a problem with that. Are we to believe that the only reason orcs are evil is because they were raised that way? If you took a newly-spawned orc and had it raised by loving parents, would it become a contributing member of an enlightened society? Certainly not. If that were the case, then why aren’t the Elves making any attempt to rescue the orcs?
On the other hand, if orcs really are pure evil, then did Ilúvatar create them that way? You see the problem. And it gets worse. I seem to recall that Tolkein suggested that Sauron’s orcs were literally bred from a mixture of humans and orcs. Now that’s just messed up – something like that would be enough to make me not want to read the series. In my opinion, that suggestion was just an attempt to reconcile the existence of orcs with the fact that only Ilúvatar could create life. I believe I have a better explanation.
To begin, I assert that orcs are spawned (Legolas’s exact word), not born. I think this is one area where the movie embellished the facts and got it exactly right. Orcs emerge as adults from a nastly-looking hive, with no desire but to cause injury in the rest of the world. This claim raises two immediate questions:

1. How did the orc hives get there in the first place?
2. Where does the newly-spawned orc’s consciousness come from, if the forces of evil can’t create life?
The first issue is perhaps the less important, but it is worth mentioning as a foundation for the second issue. I believe that orcs emit spores wherever they go, especially when they are at rest. These spores stick to the orcs’ surroundings but usually perish quickly, especially in sunlight. However, if enough orcs are in the same place for long enough, the spores have a chance to fall in a concentrated way. Once a critical mass of spores accumulates, a hive is formed. This idea is consistent with the fact that orcs are generally concentrated in dark, secluded places, and that they tend to multiply most quickly when left alone.
As for the source of the orcs’ consciousness, I believe that each orc’s mind is a sliver of the mind of Morgoth. He could not create life, but as a Valar he would have been able to split off pieces of his mind to act independently – a small price to pay, since he could then send armies out where he might be noticed, or to complete tasks he did not want to do himself. Though he was banished from Middle Earth, I think it’s fair to assume that parts of his mind that are disconnected from his consciousness could still exist in the races he had begun. Although the idea of a split consciousness might seem like an unreasonable stretch, we do have a precedent: The Ash Nazg – the One Ring of Sauron. The Ring managed to betray Isildur, find its way into Gollum’s hands, and then slip away in a den of orcs, all without Saruon knowing where the Ring was or what it was doing. With this in mind, I think it is reasonable that Morgoth – a much more powerful being than Saruon – was able to accomplish the same thing.
(Incidentally, it seems logical that the minds of orcs are “recycled” when they die – they return either to Morgoth himself or to some large pool of potential orc minds, to await the creation of a new orc body in one of the hives.)
With these two facts in mind, we are free to enjoy the conquest of the book’s villains without worrying about all the poor orcs “back home.”