Tuesday, March 31 2009

Let's Try This Again

There are some key concepts to keep in mind when playing a game, or looking at the world as a game:

1.  Theory always takes a backseat to reality.  In theory, one can sit down with the rules of the game and devise an ideal strategy.  In reality, this doesn't work, at least for most games.  Any game involving luck, interaction with other players, or information only available to one of the players, can't be won by sticking to the theory of how the game should be played.  Luck doesn't follow rules, and player interactions are player-specific knowledge are matters of psychology.

2.  Not every battle can be won, and not every battle is worth winning.  A major lesson of wargaming, is that you have to pick and choose your fights.  Sometimes, you will run into a battle where one of your forces meets an overwhelming enemy force that you cannot stop.  If you can recognize this, you can save some of your forces, or otherwise use the defeat to your advantage.  A more important distinction is recognizing a battle that you can win, but only at a cost that you can't effectively afford in the long run;  a Pyrric victory.  (Although I'm using wargaming analogies here, you can substitute money or influence or any limited and essential quantity for forces and the analogy still works).

3.  Don't let your emotions cloud your judgement.  The trap in number two is that if you are emotionally invested in winning, then you have more difficulty recognizing losing battles or too-expensive victories.  It's easy to fall for the flaw of emotionally investing in a bad strategy.  If one of your opponents scores an impressive victory over you, it's easy to get emotionally committed into getting back at them, even if it's a losing proposition, or a distraction from your ultimate objective, winning the game.  If you can recognize when other players in the game have switched over to emotional behaviors, you can use it to your advantage, such as tempting them into going for too-expensive victories.

4.    Always know your victory conditions, and know the different ways to achieve them.  Remember what your final goal is, and don't get fixated on one particular plan.  It's easy to get so focused on a particular plan for achieving victory that you don't notice that you don't have the resources to pull it off.  It's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a particular battle is the only route to victory.

5.  The game isn't always fair.  Know that the game and the other players punish and reward certain behaviors, and plan accordingly.  Take advantage of it when you can, and don't waste your energy struggling against it when you can't change it.

Why did I call this "Let's Try This Again"?  Because, ultimately, I'm working on a more thoughtful look at the current conservative blogosphere slug match I alluded to down below, which is a microcosm of the conservative web presence as a whole.

We've got two prominent conservative bloggers and their readers after each other.  One's trying to be diplomatic with the left, and one's taking an aggressive tone.  The aggressive blogger has rightly pointed out that playing diplomatically cedes much of the terms of discourse to the progressive side, and hasn't helped in the past;  the progressives have won by being nasty and playing dirty with conservatives.  The diplomatic blogger has pointed out that aggressive rhetoric turns off many people we might be able to persuade, and serves only to rally those already on our side.  Which one's right?  Both are, or neither are.

Yes, the progressive media has unfairly demonized the right for years.  Yes, they've used every nasty trick in the book.  Yes, this isn't fair (Rule 5).  Responding in kind isn't going to work at this time.  The constant demonization of conservatives has already worked.  "Conservative" is now tied to "Evil" in many people's minds.  In theory, we're right (Rule 1), but this means nothing in reality, where things are shaped by people's perceptions, which have been carefully steered by the media.  We can't just say "Progressives are evil", because if we do, the people we're trying to reach are going to ignore us.  Yes, this isn't fair (5 Again).  We need to persuade people that we're in the right, and starting with emotional arguments that immediately turn them off to our message (like "[insert Progressive politician's name here] is Evil") won't work;  they voted for the guy, of course they're not going to accept our claim that his policies are harmful just on our say so!  Fighting the battle of language is a difficult proposition, and one that will take a lot of work.  Unless we give it our full effort, it's probably a losing battle.(Rule 2).

With regard to the Conservative bloggers, the policy disagreements have escalated into emotional disagreements (Rule 3), and the bloggers are spending time and effort to fight each other because they have an emotional stake in beating the other guy.  It's led both to make stupid mistakes which infuriate the other side even more, escalating the tensions further.  More importatntly, defeating the other conservative blogger doesn't help enact conservative policies and conservative politicians (Rule 4).

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 51 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Monday, March 23 2009

The Rules of Discourse

I have the annoying tendency to try to break down things into hard-and-fast rules.  Once I know the rules, I can theoretically find the loopholes, gaps, and tricks that allow me to gain an advantage.  Alas, this doesn't always work in the real world.

Two exceptional blogs, which shall remain nameless, have reduced themselves into a mindless feud over a series of ultimately minor debates which all come down to the question of which rules actually apply.

On the one hand, allowing observers to define what you say to suit themselves is a recipe to have the perpetually offended shut down conversation.  If you can define what I said, then there's no way I can debate you, because you can always define away my statements into meaninglessness or into something that can be used against me.

On the other hand, allowing people to exclusively define what they say means that there is no way to hold people to a position.  If I can redefine my position after I've stated it by claiming that your interpretation of my words is wrong and I really said something completely different.  As long as I can juggle words, I can be all things to all people.

Strictly applying either rule breaks the ability to have debate.  The world is full of undefinable gray areas.

More importantly, the more effort we devote to battling our allies, the harder it gets to fight our enemies.

[Rant Mode Off]

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 35 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Tuesday, March 10 2009

The Geek Canon: The Classics

A number of other geek blogs (including Chizumatic, Wonderduck, and Avatar) have weighed in on what, exactly, the geek canon consists of.  What books, movies, games, etc., should I assume that most geeks have heard of?  Different posters have, of course, tackled the problem from different directions.

Movies are great for quotes, as the way the quotes are said and the surrounding context are as much a part of the humor as the quotes themselves.  Book quotes don't have that added punch, so if you're trying to look for quotes as shared context, the amount that comes from books is necessarily going to be insignificant compared to the amount that comes from movies.

My take on the problem is confusing.  I'm not necesssarily interested in which quotes are important for geeks (aside from stating that everyone has forgotten Ghostbusters, which seems to be one of the top sources of random dialog quotation interruptions whenever I'm interacting socially friends).  What I am interested is which ideas and concepts are important for geeks to know.

I have, again, been talked into running a RPG for a circle of friends.  The setting requires some background knowledge of mythology.  How much mythology do I assume my players know?  I can assume that most players will know the major gods of the Greek pantheon, and their associated spheres.  That doesn't take much academic knowledge;  a couple of episodes of Xena should provide that much.  But how much Norse or Egyptian mythology should I assume?  The source doesn't really matter.  When watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, everyone laughs at the Wooden Rabbit scene.  What's important is they don't need to remember the Illiad to get the fundamental joke.

I assume that most geeks will get the following 'classical' references:
1. The Greek pantheon and their associated spheres of influence, as well as prominent mythological characters.
2. Major members of the Norse and Egyptian pantheons, and a couple of major characters from the Babylonian, Hindu, and Japanese pantheons.
3. Basic Old Testament Biblical mythology: Adam and Eve, Noah, and Moses.
4. Basic New Testament mythology: Jesus, Christmas, the Apostles, Judas, basic Revelations.
5. Basic post-Biblical Christian mythology: Dante's Satan and Hell, Faust
6. The major players of Camelot: Arthur, Merlin, Excalibur (most likely in Monty Python form)
7. The basic Robin Hood legend, even if in Kevin Costner form
8. Recognize major characters and lines from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and MacBeth (Shakespeare being a playwright, he writes better snappy memorable spoken dialog than most authors).
9. The basics of Stoker's Dracula, Shelley's Frankenstein, and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

That's what came off the top of my head.  It's amazing what and where these things get referenced.

Anime fans should also know the basics of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Journey to the West.  It's odd, but I suspect that Biblical imagery shows up more often in anime than in modern Western geek culture.  From Evangelion to Xenosaga, it's hidden in a lot of places.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 25 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Tuesday, March 03 2009

Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran....

No, not seriously.  Well, perhaps a little.

Right now, Iran is seriously close to building a nuclear arsenal.  This is a Bad Thing.  Iran may or may not use a nuclear weapon against Israel.  On the one hand, the President of Iran has repeatedly said that he's going to do so.  On the other hand, given that the Mullahs really run the country, he might not have the power to do so.  This is a moot point.  (It's not a moot point to the Israelis, of course.  Iran using nuclear weapons against Israel would be a Really Bad Thing regardless of what happens afterwards.)

I'm not actually referring to that, at least in the specifics.  In the general case, it's more complicated than that.  We troglodyte neo-conservatives have been assured by the people that know better that deterrence will prevent Iran from using their nuclear weapons, and that deterrence is a good thing.  But is it?  We are stating that if Iran uses nuclear weapons, we are willing to annihilate the country of Iran.  Wipe it off the map.  Fuse it into glass, then polish it off with Windex.  We are willing to kill 65 - 70 million people, many of them women and children, many who might not approve of their government's actions, because that's what nuclear deterrence is.  And that's not talking about the fallout, or the environmental destruction.

Personally, if I was president, I don't know if I could give that order.  I'd, with one action, be responsible for the deaths approximating the total casualty figures for the second world war.  And what's worse is that, intellectually, I know that not being willing to push that button means that, likely, more people will die in the end.  And that wavering on my ability to push the button means it's more likely that I'd have to make that terrible decision.

Recently, at mass, during the intercessions, the priest prayed for nuclear disarmament.  I couldn't join in.  Imagine if that prayer for nuclear disarmament was magically granted, and, poof, all nuclear weapons vanished.  The first country to rebuild their arsenal wins, because they get to use them.  Alright, the magic wish removes all nuclear weapons and the capacity to rebuild them, ever.  Well, then, what other deterrant weapons are available?  Chemical weapons are the old standby, and quite nasty, but you can't go wrong with biological weapons.  The purpose is the same: guarantee that in the event of a war, your opponent can't win.  A terrorist group with access to smallpox could conceivably easily beat my hypothetical 65-70 million death toll.  Well, then, the magic wish removes all weapons of mass destruction, both current and all hypothetical future ones.  What does war look like?  What did war look like before nuclear weapons?  Hark back to 1944, and tell me you'd rather be a soldier or civilian in a war zone then.  War was won by the states able to mobilize the biggest population, the biggest industry, and the most morale.  Nuclear weapons mean that any state, no matter how big, can still lose.  It also means that loser states like Iran can opt to take their enemy with them.  During that mass, I prayed instead for a world that would be safe enough for nuclear disarmament.

Iran, specifically, is a bad egg.  They've turned to proxy warfare to be able to hurt a country that could wipe the floor with them in a conventional conflict.  Iran with a nuclear arsenal would be able to expand their support for proxy warfare by massively increasing the threshold at which we would be willing to respond with conventional force.  In the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan refused to hand over bin Laden, and the US invaded.  Would we have invaded if Afghanistan had a small nuclear arsenal?  Even if they couldn't hit the US directly, they would be able to threaten US forces in the theater, US allies and other regional targets.  An Afghani government that faced defeat by the US would have no reason not to use a nuclear arsenal that it was going to lose anyways.  Any president that had that happen on their watch is not going to get re-elected.  And so it goes with Iran: a nuclear armed Iran would be untouchable for anything less than the use of nuclear weapons, and even a domestic democratic revolution would be a major threat to regional peace.

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 01 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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