This Weeks Reader January 26, 2008  

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Atheist Spirituality
Let me get my bias out of the way at the beginning because it probably colors what I am about to say on the topic. I do not care for the word "spirituality" when referring to atheists. I have trouble getting past the "spirit" part of the word because I do not believe in spirits, souls, ghosts, demons, or anything else that is not part of the natural world. However, I recognize that my naturalism is not entailed by atheism and that other atheists are free to accept the reality of the supernatural.


EA revamps Battlefield with free, ad-supported online title
This isn't a new idea, although ad-based gaming and for-pay updates has mainly been used as a business strategy in Korea and Asia. EA has already launched a web-based, free version of its popular FIFA series in South Korea, and the game reportedly pulls in $1 million in monthly sales from its five million users. EA has also long supported the idea of in-game ads, using the Microsoft-owned Massive to place dynamic advertisements in some of its titles. Research is also showing that placing ads in gaming actually does help brand recognition, although the study was performed when the ads were placed into play, something Battlefield Heroes won't be doing.

GameTrailers panel tackles game journalism
Questioning the validity of game journalism in the age of blogging is a common practice, and many of us watched as the entire industry came under scrutiny last year after the Kane and Lynch fiasco. However, the tenuous relationship between journalists, marketing people, and public relations people has always been a cause for concern; the flow of information is tightly controlled, and one wrong move can and will lead to problems. A rather interesting panel by GameTrailer's "Bonus Round" tackles the problem.

Gordon Freeman gets bored, calls radio show
Such is the opening exchange of an irksome call that came into the paranormally-focused radio show "Coast to Coast AM." Host George Noory talks with the mysterious Gordon, who has been seeing apparitions of a man he has dubbed "G-man." The unsettling story takes a turn for the strange when Gordon reveals that he has been working on something called "Portal" technology, though the specifics go unexplained. His jittery nature reveals his true desire to be free from this strange stalking figure. He might also be working on "portal technology."

Free game for Xbox Live downtime? Xbox Live crashes
I've been trying to grab the game myself, and I'm also suffering from this error message. I'm not quite sure what to say about this; if Microsoft had any doubts at all about its ability to serve the free game, they should have released a message saying the release was bumped back a few days. Having system issues on the day you release the free game to make up for the system issues much make the marketing folks wince. Can we get a copy of Boom Boom Rocket to make up for the game that was supposed to make up for the fact that the system we're paying for doesn't work?

Fox News Smears Mass Effect
Lawrence: …the damage is this. We know that all the research shows that violence has a desensitizing effect. Well, sexuality does too… Here’s how they’re seeing women. They’re seeing them as these objects of desire, as these hot bodies. They don’t show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality. And it’s a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with.

Keighley: That’s completely incorrect… first of all you can actually play as a man or a woman in the game. Cooper, have you ever played Mass Effect?

Lawrence: (giggling) No…


Medical Credit Stores: Sorry, You Only Qualify for Subprime Medical Care
Bob Sullivan reports at MSNBC on the early developments of a medical privacy score by Fair Issac, the same company that invented the credit score for lenders. This is somewhat scary, because the entire point of credit scores is to make decision making easier, so easy that people very low on the totem pole can make decisions about you without really thinking, and because it is a number, it is imbued with an air of legitimacy. Credit scores arose after Congress forced consumer reporting agencies to open up their files; scoring allowed companies to put their analysis back into a black box so you can't tell for sure what information they use to evaluate you.

Life Stories
It will rise from the ashes
Pallet after pallet of mid-1980s Houghton-Mifflin textbooks, still unwrapped in their original packaging, seem more telling of our failures than any vacant edifice. The floor is littered with flash cards, workbooks, art paper, pencils, scissors, maps, deflated footballs and frozen tennis balls, reel-to-reel tapes. Almost anything you can think of used in the education of a child during the 1980s is there, much of it charred or rotted beyond recognition. Mushrooms thrive in the damp ashes of workbooks. Ailanthus altissima, the "ghetto palm" grows in a soil made by thousands of books that have burned, and in the pulp of rotted English Textbooks. Everything of any real value has been looted. All that's left is an overwhelming sense of knowledge unlearned and untapped potential. It is almost impossible not to see all this and make some connection between the needless waste of all these educational supplies and the needless loss of so many lives in this city to poverty and violence, though the reality of why these supplies were never used is unclear. In some breathtakingly-beautiful expression of hope, an anonymous graffiti artist has painted a phoenix-like book rising from the ashes of the third floor.

Sharing dreams is the most intimate and the most trusting thing a person can do. Dreams are her innermost thoughts, which would remain a secret if she does not tell you about them. To hear of someone’s dreams is a position of unique trust and privilege, which deserves respect. We really must never laugh at anyone’s dreams.

Is Altruism Real?
I am troubled by the idea that human beings are "really" any one thing. Human feelings, human motives, human nature itself, are all a big, complex, self-contradictory mess, and I find it very troubling when people insist on denying one part of human nature simply because we have another part that contradicts it. In particular, I'm troubled by the idea that, because our motivations are often a mixture of selfishness and altruism, and because altruism has a selfish component to it, this somehow negates the altruism, and only the selfishness is real. (And I find it interesting that the people arguing this don't consider the possibility that this conflict negates the selfishness, and only the altruism is real.)

Literally Speaking
When you read these definitions of what it is to be scientifically literate, you come to the quick realization that a scientifically literate person (such as the president of a country) is all-around better equipped to make decisions of all sorts. In matters of science, politics, security, health, economics, and almost any other category you can come up with, a person armed with the tools of science is much better prepared to evaluate claims and data so that they may craft more thorough and better decisions on all matters. This goes directly against our listener’s premise that only “a few” issues are affected by a president’s scientific literacy.

Bigotry Should Disqualify a Presidential Candidate
It is no secret that politicians are going to pander to our fears and prejudices. The real story is about how the media covers such pandering, especially when it crosses the line into bigotry, and how this coverage varies based on the target of the bigotry. We can learn a great deal about which prejudices remain socially acceptable and which will bring rapid condemnation by examining some recent examples.

Guest Post: Teaching Lies Jeopardizes America's Future
This trend, which seems to be accelerating, is creating two Americas. On the one hand we have the 'reality-based community' (which does include many theists) which views the world in a naturalistic, evidence based manner and views American history in a manner based on actual documents and writings of our founding fathers. On the other hand, we have the Christian Dominionist and fundamentalist faction which views the world in a god-centered creationist manner, taking the bible literally (which bible? and what about the places the bible contradicts itself?) and views American history in a god-centered manner, taking out of context bits and pieces of the documents and writings of our founding fathers to support a Christianist theocracy.

Radical Love Gets a Holiday
Until my heathen Damascene moment during a ninth grade unit on Greek mythology — my disbelief that a great civilization could actually believe in such far-fetched malarkey made me take a hard look at the virgin birth — I was one of the meek majority of Christians who never make the news, who would never dream of judging or hating others because the primary occupation of a true Christian is self-loathing. (All that wretch-like-me, original sin talk meant I spent my entire childhood believing I was as depraved as Charles Manson when in reality I might have been the best-behaved 9-year-old of the 20th century.)

What’s So Bad About Religion?
The third problem I have with religious beliefs is the persistent entreaty that I respect religious beliefs simply because they are religious. My response to this demand is that I’ll extend to religious beliefs the same degree of respect that I extend to astrology or phrenology or alchemy and not a speck more or less than that. Nevertheless, I will always strive to respect believers, regardless of what I think about their beliefs. If believers want their beliefs to be considered as plausible foundations of social, economic, international, educational, or any other public policies, then I will critique those beliefs just as scrupulously as I would critique the beliefs of a Marxist, a Maoist, or a monarchist. Religious beliefs are simply one class of ideas among many that have the potential to do real damage to individuals, societies and nations (though it seems self-evident to me that false beliefs will seldom pass muster as suitable foundations for good policy decisions). All ideas, religious and otherwise, should be scrutinized ruthlessly before one renders judgments regarding their soundness. Religious ideas are no more special than any others, they are simply more widespread and more deeply ingrained than most.

Thoughts on Sex and Religion
Even today, within the church and outside of it, unmarried women who become pregnant frequently carry a disproportionate share of the blame for getting pregnant in the first place, and the subsequent responsibility for rearing, with little or no assistance or financial support from the fathers, the children they conceive. It’s still the case in western societies that sexually active women are often regarded, negatively, as sluts, and sexually active men are regarded, positively, as studs. The implication continues to be, within our current supposedly liberated, enlightened culture, that women should restrain their own sexual appetites, and those of their male partners who, after all, are just being men and can’t be expected to control themselves.

Romance I An Illusion
Man is a rational animal, Aristotle declared, but experiments have demonstrated that reason is not a gift of our species alone. Last December, researchers reported that monkeys were almost as good as college students at arithmetic (at least when the arithmetic involved adding dots on a screen). And our rationality is not a smooth machinelike intelligence but a complicated landscape of strengths and weaknesses. We're good at solving reasoning problems if they're presented as social puzzles. We don't do as well if the same problems are expressed in the abstract language of logic. A number of researchers argue that the results emerge from our evolution as social creatures, not logicians.

Comet McNaught Over Chile

Women, Science and Writing
Since The Scientist is revisiting this issue on their blog, I decided to poke around in the primary literature a bit and, as a result, I have concluded that the general lack of female science blog writers is clearly a reflection of scientific publishing and indeed, of the scientific community in general. The fact is that female scientists do not publish as often as male scientists. Why? Some people have told me that women do not produce scientific results that are of the same high quality as those produced by men (nor do they write life science blogs as well as men, apparently) and that male reviewers can readily recognize when a woman is the lead (or sole) author of a scientific paper because "women do science differently from men" (whatever that means). Basically, science is still a very sexist community where its female practitioners publish less frequently than men at least partially because of the peer-review system that is in place. I think the commonly used single-blind peer review process is biased against papers whose lead (or sole) author is female, just as the field of science is biased against women in general.

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