Category Archives: Logic and Reasoning

#212: Gender Subjectivity

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #212, on the subject of Gender Subjectivity.

I somewhat predictably got some responses challenging my thoughts in mark Joseph “young” web log entry #207:  The Gender Identity Trap.  (There were a few supportive ones as well, and they are certainly helpful also, but the challenging ones are under consideration here.)  One of them indicated–and I am paraphrasing the thought, so I hope I am correctly representing it–that I should be sensitive to the feelings of those who feel as if they are in the wrong body.  They would probably feel persecuted were I to tell them that they are wrong.

Indeed, it is important always to be sensitive to the feelings of others, as individuals.  I should, for example, be sensitive of the feelings of someone who believes himself to be, or to be the reincarnation of, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Abraham Lincoln, or Marie Antoinette.

Whoa, brother, that’s not the same thing.

I agree.  However, it is more the same than different.  After all, the primary difference is that most of us do not entertain the possibility that someone we meet might be the reincarnation of some famous person.  Even if we believe in reincarnation, the probability that any particular individual happens to be one of the very few historically significant persons from among the millions of ordinary commoners and peasants of any particular era is phenomenally against.  If we do not believe in reincarnation, then even that tiny fraction of possibility vanishes.  Similarly if we do not believe that it is possible for anyone to “be” the “wrong sex” for their “internal gender”, then the probability that any particular individual is so becomes zero.  A person might believe that he is trapped in the wrong body type, or that he is indeed Emperor General Bonaparte, and I should treat such an individual with the respect due any human being, but I do not need to believe that they are correct in that self-identification.

That, though, underscores another aspect of the problem which I carelessly overlooked in that previous article.  What is the basis for that self-identification?

I might taste something and declare that it has too much salt.  You, presumably, have tasted salt, and therefore you know what I mean.  Assuming you were in a position to taste the same food, you would be able to say whether you agreed with my assessment of excessive salinity.  There is a sense in which that is subjective:  you might like food that is particularly salty, or I might prefer food that is more bland.  However, there is an objective connection here:  we have both tasted salt, and so both know what salt tastes like in food.  Had either of us never tasted salt, the question, “Is this too salty?” would become meaningless.

In contrast, the person who claims to feel as if in the wrong gender body is making a subjective judgment without an objective basis.  What does it mean to say “I don’t feel like I am a man, I feel like I am a woman”?  It can only mean “I don’t feel like I imagine a man feels, I feel like I imagine a woman feels.”  If you were born a man, you have no experience being a woman.  How, then, can you possibly determine that you feel like something you have never felt?  It would be like saying that you think this food has too much saffron if you have never tasted saffron.  You’re guessing based on what someone told you.  You have no objective connection for what it is to be the opposite sex.

That means you get that notion entirely from–as observed in the previous article–cultural biases and expectations.  You say, “I do not have the feelings and interests which society tells me a person of my sex ought to have, and find that I am far better attuned to the feelings and interests which society tells me are those of the opposite sex, and therefore I am the wrong sex.”  The problem is not that you are the wrong sex for your gender.  The problem is that society is wrong in defining men and women according to its preferences and stereotypes.  “Oh, but I have always felt like I was the other sex.”  You can’t know that.  All you can know is that you’ve always felt as if society was telling you that you are not the kind of person society thinks a man (or a woman) should be, and that you think that you are more like the kind of person society has told you that a woman (or a man) should be.

What does it feel like to be a man, on the inside, or to be a woman, on the inside?  Every one of us is a combination of traits which we identify as masculine or feminine, and every one of those identifications is a societal bias.  You like to cook, which you think is a feminine trait–but many of the best cooks in the world are men.  You enjoy bow hunting, which you think is a masculine trait–but the Greeks reported the existence in their time of an entire army of female archers.  The only thing that makes any character trait masculine or feminine is the arbitrary opinion of present society.

In other words, if you feel like you’re the wrong gender for the sex of your body, the problem isn’t that you’re the wrong gender but that you’ve bought a lie about what it feels like to be what you are.  If you were born a man, you have always felt like you, and therefore always felt like a man–not like every man, certainly, because not every man feels the same, but like the one man that is you.  If you were born a woman, you likewise have never felt like a man, you have felt like that woman who is you.  We do not have the ability truly to know what others feel, what it feels like to be someone else.  We have role playing games through which we explore such things, but very rarely do we find ourselves getting more than a glimpse of the externals–what it feels like to be persecuted, what it feels like to be famous.  We never really experience what it feels like to be the opposite sex, any more than we ever really experience what it feels like to be a dog, or a tree, or a rock.  It is outside our experience entirely.  In roleplaying we only approach what it feels like to be treated by others as if we were someone or something else.  And since it is outside our experience, we cannot know that we feel like we are the wrong sex.

What you really feel is that society has rejected who you really are and made you wish you were not yourself.  Many of us have felt that way.  The answer is not to try to become someone else.  The answer is to become the best you you can be, live with that self, and push back against the pressures of a society that wants you to conform to their expectations.  Be the best male nurse, the best female pile driver, and tell the world, “I break the mold.  I am comfortable with who I am, even if you aren’t.”  Don’t let the world tell you that who you really are is wrong.  It is the world that is wrong.

#213: Political Fragmentation

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #213, on the subject of Political Fragmentation.

I have long been writing about political division, fragmentation, and polarization.  Quite a few years back I explained how our United States of America coalition government is created by people coming together into coalition-based parties, groups who do not agree entirely with each other but who agree to support each others’ important policies, and why the Republican dilemma (or the Democratic dilemma) is not solved by focusing on a single issue.  I’ve also written about the polarization developing as both parties are being more and more dominated by their extremists, and moderates no longer have a home anywhere.

Now I find a survey from the Pew Research Center which shows just how fragmented we are.  Well, I think that might be an exaggeration; I think we are probably more fragmented than the survey shows, but I’ll get to that.

You might want to begin by taking the quiz, a set of A/B choices (if memory serves, seventeen) on everything from immigration to taxation to social services by which they will place you in one of nine groups they have identified.  It will also, separately, place you on a rough scale from liberal to conservative.  I took it, and not surprisingly landed right of center (that is, the conservative direction) in the middle third.  However, the results apparently do not give us a bell curve.  As the attached image shows, the extreme groups, both conservative and liberal, are not only the largest within the general public, they are even more so the most active in politics.

I admit to not yet having read the full fourteen-page Pew Research Center article on its survey; I got through the first page and left the remainder for a time when I had more time.  You might find it easier, although less informative, to read the briefer article in the Detroit Free Press, although that is less about the groups and more about the fragmentation, the fact that were we to have the much-suggested second civil war most of us would be very uncertain on which side we should be fighting.  We just don’t have enough agreement on any specific issues.

That is perhaps why I think we are more fragmented than the survey analysis really shows.  My quiz results placed me in the category denoted “Country First Conservatives”, the smallest group on the chart but one which includes people ranging from barely left of center to fairly far to the right who have agreement on some issues.  What strikes me about this is I disagreed with the majority of people in this group on all questions of foreign policy (there were three) and government performance (there were two), and I would think those would be the defining issues of the group.  That is, were we to create a conservative party called “Country First”, we would expect that foreign policy would be at the top of its platform–but I would not support that platform, because I disagree with that policy.  That doesn’t mean that the analysis placing me in the moderately conservative group is wrong; it means that even these groups are more fragmented than the simplified results the survey demonstrates.

What it clearly does demonstrate is that “liberal” and “conservative” is not a simple scale but a generalization of scales on multiple issues, that both sides of the divide are built of people who really don’t agree on any one issue but work together toward similar goals, and that the people who are most active in politics, the large minorities on the extremes, seem very much unaware of the majority of more moderate people in the middle.

It also suggests that a moderate candidate on either side could probably defeat an extremist candidate on the other, simply because the people in the middle from both parties are more likely to identify with someone near the middle.

On the other hand there’s something to what Doc Brown said (paraphrasing):  when you can hold an entire television studio in the palm of your hand, it’s no wonder your President has to be an actor.  At least sometimes, style beats substance.

#208: Halloween

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #208, on the subject of Halloween.

An internet friend tagged me in a Facebook thread in which he had raised the question of the Christian response to Halloween.  It’s a subject we were addressing here in America at least as far back as the early 1980s when I was working at Christian contemporary radio station WNNN-FM, but my friend is in Europe, and the holiday is just making its first inroads there, so he wanted some feedback from people who had already reached a decision one way or another and had time to apply it and decide whether it worked.  I posted most of this there, but decided to tweak it a bit and repost it for a more general audience here.

If I have my history right, a lot of the trappings of Halloween come from the Celtic celebration of Samhain, which was a sort of new year celebration.  Like the Jews, the Celts ended a day at sunset, and so the year ended the night before the morning of the new year, a celestial event halfway between the equinox and the solstice.  That night was a sort of “no man’s time” during which the dead could walk the earth–not necessarily a bad thing, and I think in some places table settings were laid for the ghosts of recently deceased relatives, although people avoided going out without some sort of protection because of the potential for malevolent spirits of the restless dead.  Protections included carrying a gourd or turnip with a candle inside and a frightening face carved through it, or wearing a costume to appear to be something frightening yourself.

The Roman Catholic Church quite sensibly recognized that you can’t deprive people of their holidays, so they attempted to co-opt them.  Samhain was replaced by All Saints Day, the celebration of the lives of all the Capital-S-Saints and particularly the martyrs who either didn’t have their own days or whose days were overlooked because, let’s face it, no one celebrates every day

(well, almost no one.  I remember as a child seeing a birthday card that said, “Happy Birthday to a Man who Only Drinks on Holidays” and then inside had three hundred sixty-six listed holidays including such gems as Birthington’s Washday and several repetitions of Bluebeard’s Wedding Anniversary.  However, it is not really possible to celebrate every day and still live an ordinary life, and if you celebrate every day in some sense it ceases to be a celebration at all.)

Since Catholicism began the day at sunrise, the night before All Saints Day became All Hallows Eve, or Hallowed Evening, or Hallowed Even’, or Hallow’e’en’, our modern Halloween.  In that sense it was always a “Christian” holiday, but like most of our Christian holidays borrowed and attempted to Christianize the practices associated with the holy days it replaced (e.g., much of our Christmas tradition comes from Yule, and even some of our popular carols use the word).

Early Reformation Christians objected to the catalogue of Capital-S-Saints, and so their objection to Halloween was that they didn’t like what the Catholics were celebrating.  Thus they chose to use the day to honor the Reformation.  Modern Lutherans still often celebrate Reformation Day, but think it was created to escape the Pagan holiday, when it was a reaction to the Roman one.

In my experience, celebrating Halloween all my life, it has always seemed to be a modern secular holiday–something like our Memorial Day or Independence Day without the national idolatry, or our Thanksgiving without the non-sectarian religious undertones.  It is a cultural celebration, not a religious one.

Someone mentioned having read something by a former Satanist priest favoring Halloween.  I don’t know who they read, but the two most popular–Mike Warnke and William Schnoebelen–have both been discredited.  They have never had any connection to Satanism or Witchcraft, and frequently confuse the two as if they were the same thing (which they are not).  Both made a lot of money by selling their sensationalist stories of fictional experiences they invented and claimed as true.  Further, modern witchcraft–Wicca–has no history prior to the nineteenth century, so any claims they make to holidays are co-opted from information preserved by Christians.

Certainly there are children who are better off being shielded from horror stories.  Frankly, there are adults for whom that is true, and I tend to avoid horror movies and television because I don’t care for that kind of frightening if there isn’t some redeeming aspect to it.  That’s definitely a “weaker brother” issue:  some people very much enjoy such stories, and even gain faith from the notion that whatever evil is in the world, God is greater.

Touching on costumes, certainly you can limit them to dressing as “good” characters (although that becomes a definition issue at times–is a soldier a “good” or “bad” character?  What about a magician?).  On the other hand, psychology has found some benefit in “being the monster” as a way of defusing our fears of the monster.  The kid who is afraid of ghosts might be less so after being one for Halloween, because suddenly the ghost on the outside is just a person on the inside, and he knows the ghost isn’t dangerous.

I figure it’s neighborly to participate in Halloween, and every year we give out canned or bottled soda and/or water (kids need something with which to wash down all the candy).  A few times we’ve printed our own “Living Water” leaflet to tape to the containers, although in recent years the costs in time and money have been challenging. Still, kids look forward to finding our house, and we have made connections with some people through this–and we’re not otherwise particularly neighborly, I think.  The time when people knew their neighbors is behind us; we’re too mobile a society for that, and we tend rather to interact with people based on common interests rather than geography.  Halloween might be the only event that preserves that neighborhood interaction.

I suspect that when Nikolaj tagged me he knew he was asking for a long answer (in my mouth, all stories are long), so I hope this helps him and anyone else reading.

#207: The Gender Identity Trap

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #207, on the subject of The Gender Identity Trap.

What if it were really true,
Most girls like pink, most boys like blue?
Just what would color mean to you?

We live in a world filled with gender expectations.  Call them stereotypes if you like, but it goes deeper than that.  We have persuaded ourselves that girls, and women, have a certain inherent character that causes them to be interested in specific kinds of things, and that boys, and men, are similarly innately interested in a different set of things.

We can explore these with what we might call common sense wisdom and observation.  Boys tend to be athletic, and competitive.  We want to prove ourselves the strongest, fastest, toughest.  We communicate with our fists, and the emotions we are willing to show are all what might be called “hard” emotions–anger, jealousy, pride.  Girls, meanwhile, tend to be nurturing, interested in exploring relationships, in caring for those younger or weaker than themselves.  They are articulate creatures, talking even when no one listens, and they display the “soft” emotions–sympathy, affection, sadness.

Balderdash.

I don’t want to argue against the scientific work that has been done in this area.  Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson and his ilk make a potent argument for an evolutionary basis for gender differences, that women favor those qualities that enable them to manage child care and foraging while the men are better suited to hunting.  One does not need to be a religious person to believe that we are male and female, and that these are different.  However, I raise two objections to this concept.

The first can be stated as that generalizations are always false (including this one).  There are many men who have never been interested in sports, who have never been physically competitive or athletic, who have abandoned physical violence as a means of conflict resolution, and who are willing to let their softer emotions show and who are nurturing and caring.  There are similarly many women who are athletic and competitive, sometimes violent, sometimes violently angry.  When we identify traits as specifically masculine or specifically feminine, we are making a generalization, drawing conclusions from what we might call the “center of the bell curve”–most men have this trait, more or less, although some have it to an extreme while others seem to be lacking it entirely.  You will find men who are not at all “manly” in the stereotypical sense, and women who similarly break the mold that defines the feminine.

The second objection, though, is that these cannot truly be used to define what it is to be male or female, a man or a woman, and for a very simple reason:  we do not really know which ones are innate, or to what degree, versus which ones are learned, and to what degree.  Some little girls easily learn to play with guns and toy soldiers, while others put the guns aside and treat the soldiers like children in a schoolroom or nursery.  Some boys have no trouble playing with dolls or appreciating cute figurines, while others are ready to turn even Precious Moments figurines into combat-ready mechas.  When we have a quality that is generally true of a group, we always find that it is not universally true of the group, and even among those for whom it is true, it is true to varying degrees.  No quality is universally true of any group, unless it is itself a mandatory definitional quality of that group.  Not all those of African descent have dark skin–there are negro albinos born in some families.

We opened this with a question of color preferences–pink or blue.  Through most of the twentieth century, blue was the color for boys and pink for girls.  We might think that inherent in gender identity, as it was so common and still is generally thought to be the preference.  However, in the late nineteenth century it was quite opposite.  Blue was considered a pacifistic color, appropriate for girls, while pink was aggressive, the right color for the nursery of a male infant to encourage his masculine aggressiveness.  The matter of the right color for girls or boys proves to be entirely cultural.  We only think it innate, because it is our culture, and we are immersed in it.

Herein lies the problem of gender identity.  We have become persuaded that it is possible, first, for someone who is really, personality-wise, one gender to be born in a body exhibiting the opposite sex.  However, our conception of what constitutes the appropriate personality for a gender is constructed entirely of generalizations and cultural notions.  A boy who does not like sports is not internally a girl, any more than a girl who does like them must be internally a boy.  Whether boys play with dolls or girls with guns is in part innate, but it is also culturally learned to some degree, and a child who exhibits culturally opposite gender preferences in play is not the opposite gender, but a unique individual with unusual interests.

When people come to believe that they are the wrong sex on the outside for their gender on the inside, it is because they have been persecuted into thinking that if they really were a person of the sex they appear to be then they would have different preferences, different abilities, different qualities than they do.  We are taught, incorrectly, to think that the generalities are the definition, and that those who do not fit into the cultural expectations are aberrant.

So be aberrant.  Buck the expectations.  Be yourself, and embrace who you are as a whole person, inside and out.  I am a man.  That I raise my children and do the cooking and a certain amount of the housework and sewing and such, and that I disdain sports and physical competition, does not make me less a man or more a woman; it makes me a unique individual.  The girl who is an Olympic track star, who is competitive at the highest level of athleticism, is not therefore less a girl, less a woman; she is a unique individual, a woman with qualities that are less common in women.  Be who you are, inside and out, and don’t let anyone persuade you that anything about you was made wrong.  No one is the wrong sex on the outside for their gender on the inside, except those who foolishly let popular culture dictate who they should be instead of simply being who they are.

#204: When the Brakes Fail

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #204, on the subject of When the Brakes Fail.

It happens all the time in movies and television shows:  someone is driving, and someone has sabotaged the car so that the brakes don’t work, and frequently, too, the accelerator gets stuck so that the car is now out of control and headed for a major accident.  I have seen it enough times that what bothers me is the number of ways of slowing or stopping a car that they don’t try.  I have not been in the kind of situation portrayed in these fictions, but I have had brake trouble and have given thought to how to address the kinds of problems so portrayed.  Maybe if those people had considered the possible solutions to the problems before they happened, they would have avoided the life-threatening accident–and perhaps if we talk about the options, you will know what to do if it happens to you.

First, let’s get a few assumptions here.  First, it is unlikely that you will completely lose your brakes without warning, and similarly unlikely that your accelerator will jam; it is thus unlikely, barring sabotage, that both will ever happen at the same time.  Second, you are very unlikely to be the sort of person whom someone would attempt to kill by sabotaging your car.  That’s not to say that no reader of mine is such a person, but it’s a very unlikely sort of way to try to kill someone, and a very small percentage of the population are actually targets of killers, and even fewer of careful conniving killers with clever assassination plans and the mechanical knowledge to so rig a vehicle.  So you should probably assume that if either of these problems ever occurs to you, it is random mechanical failure, not an assassination attempt (don’t be paranoid, and don’t panic).  If both happen together, that’s a different matter, but let’s start with the assumption that only one happens.

Brakes once failed when they got wet.  Modern brakes generally don’t.  However, the regular driving brake on most vehicles is hydraulic (except for large trucks, which use pneumatic brakes because they work better with the trailers).  That means that there is a fluid, a hydraulic oil, in the lines, and pressing the brake pedal compresses the fluid which closes the brake pad creating the friction which slows the car.  Modern anti-lock brakes have a sensing system to prevent wheel lock skidding, but otherwise work much the same.  If air gets in the line, as from a leak, this can malfunction.  For both of these conditions, wet brakes and air in the lines, the first line of defense is to “pump the brakes”, that is, to press and release repeatedly over perhaps ten to fifteen seconds.  This will help dry wet brakes; it will help compress the fluid in hydraulic lines forcing the air out of the system otherwise.

If within ten seconds this is not showing any sign of improvement, the obvious second line of defense which is almost never used in the movies is what is properly called the parking brake but often identified as the emergency brake and in some vehicles the hand brake.  In cars with a center console it is frequently there as a lever that can be pulled up; in other cars, it is often a pedal by the driver’s door.  In both cases the control is ratcheted so that when pulled or pushed it locks into place until the release is pressed or pulled or otherwise activated.  The proper intended use of this brake is to lock the car in place when parked, particularly on slopes.  However, it serves as a secondary brake in an emergency situation.  It uses the same brake pads as the hydraulic brakes (although frequently only the rear brakes), but is connected to them by a cable, not a hydraulic system, and so is effectively a secondary but more direct method of applying the brakes.

There are other ways to slow a vehicle if the brakes are not working, but first we should consider the problem of the accelerator jamming.  The problem here is generally that the engine is being given gasoline and so increasing in revolutions per minute (RPM on the tachometer if you have one), and correspondingly increasing the vehicle speed.  The obvious first answer to this, in addition to applying the brakes, is gently to drop the transmission into neutral.  (With a standard transmission this can be accomplished simply by depressing the clutch, but standard transmissions are no longer standard on most cars.)  The engine will roar as it no longer has the burden of pushing the vehicle, but you will cease accelerating and unless you are pointed down a steep slope you will begin to decelerate.

The transmission can also be used to slow the car if the brakes are not responding, by downshifting.  If you do this at too high a velocity, you are likely to destroy your transmission and/or damage your engine, but if it’s a choice between thousands of dollars of damage to the vehicle and a fatal crash, that’s probably not a difficult choice to make.  This is less likely to be helpful if your accelerator is stuck, but it is an option that might reduce your rate of acceleration.  The objective is to let the engine be a drag on the velocity, although it works considerably better with manual transmissions than with automatic ones.

If you have put the vehicle in neutral but the brakes are not working and you are headed down a slope, if possible consider getting off the road.  Roads are generally designed to be smooth and provide the right kind of friction for rolling vehicles.  Shoulders are usually rougher and will slow the vehicle more, and if the ground beyond the shoulder looks flat and level it will probably slow the vehicle more.  There is the danger of hitting a hole that will damage an axle, but this will at least stop the vehicle and cost considerably less than a transmission or an engine.

You might also consider aiming for objects that will slow your car but neither stop it completely nor flip it.  Hitting a tree at high velocity is a bad choice, but a bush will collapse under the impact and slow or possibly stop the car less abruptly.  Sideswiping a tree, if you can control the vehicle well enough to do so, will also slow the car.  New Jersey Dividers–those perhaps three foot tall concrete walls with the half-parabola curved sides that often line highways–are designed to slow a vehicle and press it back into the lane from which it is coming.  In recent years, large usually orange plastic barrels have been placed in hazard locations along highways, such as construction areas; these are generally filled with water, and as such are designed to collapse when hit, providing a less than solid impact surface.

One other method of slowing an out-of-control car should be mentioned:  shut off the ignition.  If the car is in gear, the engine will immediately become a drag on the car, and in most modern cars the fuel pump will stop providing gasoline to the cylinders.  If you have power steering, it will immediately become much more difficult–but not impossible–to control the direction of the vehicle, somewhat worse than standard manual steering.  It will not affect the parking/emergency brake, and will have only minimal effect on the operating brake.

I have also considered the option of pushing the vehicle into reverse or park.  This requires overriding safeties on the transmission (it will require you to press or maneuver something to shift out of neutral in that direction), and will probably destroy it and damage the engine, but again if you are worried about dying versus destroying your car, that’s an easy choice.

So now if the thing that probably never will happen to you does, you’ve got some ideas about how to handle it.  I would like to say that I have tested them, but I am more pleased to say that apart from pumping the brakes I have never needed to, although I have tested the idea of pushing the car into neutral while driving, so that also works.  Oh, and once when I was teaching someone how to drive I had to use the parking brake to stop the vehicle before he drove in front of a rapidly oncoming car at an intersection, so that works, too.

#197: Launching the mark Joseph “young” Forums

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #197, on the subject of Launching the mark Joseph “young” Forums.

Once upon a time, what now seems a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there were forums at Gaming Outpost.

Well, there were forums almost everywhere, but the ones at Gaming Outpost were significant, big deal forums in the gaming world for a while, and then not so much but still important to me and to many of those who read my work and played Multiverser.  They were probably then the most reliable way to reach me, and there were plenty of discussions, not to mention quite a few games played, on those forums.

Then they crashed, and all of that was lost.

I can’t promise that this won’t happen to these new forums, but we’re going to make an effort, with the help of our Patreon and PayPal.me supporters, to keep them up and running, and to pay attention to what is posted here.

I arranged the forums in alphabetical order; I was going to arrange them in reverse alphabetical order, because I have always hated being the last in line for everything, but as I installed them the software put the next one on top, and although I could see how to resequence them, I realized that that would put Bible and Theology on the bottom, and while I’m not a stickler for silly formalities I could see that some people would object to that, more so than anyone would object to any other forum being at the bottom.  It is probably appropriate that it is on top.  The forum categories correspond roughly to the web log main topics, with a few tweaks and additions.

I long wished for a place to discuss time travel and time travel movies, and that’s there now.  I don’t expect most of the discussions will wind up here, but perhaps at least some will, and that will make it worthwhile.  I’ve also made a home for discussions of the Christian Gamers Guild Faith and Gaming series, and for the upcoming (this December) Faith in Play and RPG-ology series there.  There are music and ministry sections, space for logic problems discussions, law and politics pages, space for games, and a place to discuss my books, if anyone is interested in any of those topics.

I have also added a Multiverser game play forum.  I have in the past been overwhelmed by the number of players who wanted to play, even with my rule that I would only post one time per day to any game thread and expected players to observe the same courtesy (except for obvious correction posts).  Please do not presume that because you want to play Multiverser you can just start a thread and I’ll pick up your game.  I will give first priority to people who have played the game with me before, whether live or online, picking up where we were; I will also open the door on an individual basis to people who have wanted to play for a long time but for various reasons have not been able to do so (such as Andrew in South Africa).  Beyond that, well, talk to me and I’ll see what kind of time I have–after all, I have no idea how many of my previous players will return, or how much work it’s going to be to get back up to speed on their long-interrupted games.

My thanks to Kyler and Nikolaj, who have already helped me track down some of the bugs and fix them.  I’m told that if you are not registered, the link on the top left corner of the page will work, but the one on the top right corner will not–unfortunately, I can neither see either link while logged into the site, nor find how to fix a lot of those problems.  But I am working on it, and there is a forum specifically for contacting me about problems, and a link to my Facebook page if you can’t even get as far as that.

I look forward to seeing you.

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#195: Probabilities in Dishwashing

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #195, on the subject of Probabilities in Dishwashing.

I was going to call this, What Are the Odds?, but that’s too useful a title to use for this.  Actually, almost every time my bill rings up to an exact dollar amount, ending “.00”, I say that to the cashier, and usually they have no idea, so usually I tell them.  But I’m a game master–I’ve been running Multiverser™ for over twenty years, and Dungeons & Dragons™ for nearly as long before that.  I have to know these things.  After all, whenever a player says to me, “What do I have to roll?”, he really means “What are the odds that this will work?”  Then, usually very quickly by the seat of my pants, I have to estimate what chance there is that something will happen the way the player wants it.  So I find myself wondering about the odds frequently–and in an appendix in the back of the Multiverser rule book, there were a number of tools provided to help figure out the odds in a lot of situations.

And so when I saw an improbable circumstance, I immediately wondered what the odds were, and then I wondered how I would calculate them, and then I had the answer.  It has something in common with the way I cracked the probabilities of dice pools decades back (that’s in the book), but has more to do with card probabilities, as we examined in web log post #1:  Probabilities and Solitaire, than with dice.

So here’s the puzzle.

At some point I bought a set of four drinking cups in four distinct colors.  I think technically the colors were orange, green, cyan, and magenta, although we call the cyan one blue and the magenta one red, and for our purposes all that matters is that there are four colors, A, B, C, and D.  We liked them enough, and they were cheap enough, that on my next trip to that store I bought another identical set.  That means that there are two tumblers of each color.

I was washing dishes, and I realized that among those dishes were exactly four of these cups, one of each of the four colors.  I wondered immediately what the odds were, and rapidly determined how to calculate them.  I did not finish the calculation while I was washing dishes, for reasons that will become apparent, but thought I’d share the process here, to help other game masters estimate odds.  This is a problem in the probabilities of non-occurrence, that is, what are the odds of not drawing a pair.

The color of the first cup does not matter, because when you have none and you draw one, it is guaranteed not to match any previously drawn cup, because there aren’t any.  Thus there is a one hundred percent chance that the first cup will be one that you need and not one that you don’t want.  Whatever color it is, it is our color A.

In drawing the second cup, what you know is that there are now seven cups that you do not have, one of which will be a match.  That means there is one chance in seven of a match, six chances in seven of not matching.  This is where I stopped the math, because I hate sevenths.  I know that they create a six-digit repeating decimal that shifts its position–1/7th is 0.1̅4̅2̅8̅5̅7̅, and 2/7ths is 0.2̅8̅5̅7̅1̅4̅, and in each case the digits are in the same sequence, but I can never remember that sequence (I don’t use it frequently enough to matter, and I can look it up on the table in the back of the Multiverser book as I just did here, or plug it into a calculator to get it).  So the probability of the second cup matching the first–of drawing the other A–is 14.2̅8̅5̅7̅1̅4̅%, and the probability of not drawing a match is 85.7̅1̅4̅2̅8̅5̅%.

So with a roughly 86% chance we have two cups that do not match, colors A and B, and we are drawing the third from a pool of six cups, of which there are one A, one B, two Cs and two Ds.  That means there are two chances that our draw will match one of the two cups we already have, against four chances that we will get a new color.  There is thus a 33.3̅3̅% chance of a match, a 66.6̅6̅% chance that we will not get a match.

We thus have a roughly 67% chance of drawing color C, but that assumes that we have already drawn colors A and B.  We had a 100% chance of drawing color A, and an 86% chance of drawing color B.  That means our current probability of having three differently-colored cups is 67% of 86% of 100%, a simple multiplication problem which yields about 58%.  Odds slightly favor getting three different colors.

As we go for the fourth, though, our chances drop significantly.  There are now three colors to match, and five cups in the deck three of which match–three chances in five, or 60%, to match, which means two in five, or 40%, to get the fourth color.  That’s 40% of 67% of 86% of 100%, and that comes to, roughly, a 23% chance.  That’s closer to 3/13ths (according to my chart), but close enough to one chance in four, 25%.

A quicker way to do it in game, though, would be to assign each of the eight cups a number, and roll four eight-sided dice to see which four of the cups were drawn.  You don’t have to know the probabilities to do it that way, but if you had any matching rolls you would have to re-roll them (one of any pair), because it would not be possible to select the same cup twice.  In that sense, it would be easier to do it with eight cards, assigning each to a cup.

I should note that this math fails to address the more difficult questions–first, what are the odds that exactly four of the eight cups would be waiting to be washed, as opposed to three or five or some other number; second, how likely is it that someone has absconded with one of the cups of a particular color because he likes that color and is keeping it in his car or his room or elsewhere.  However, the first question is an assumption made in posing the problem, and the second question is presumably equally likely to apply to any one of the four color cups (even if I can’t imagine someone taking a liking to the orange one, someone in the house does like orange).  However, it should give you a bit of a better understanding on how to figure out the odds of something happening.

For what it’s worth, the probability of the cost of the purchase coming to an even dollar amount, assuming random values and numbers of items purchased, is one chance in one hundred.  That, of course, assumes that the sales tax scheme in the jurisdiction doesn’t skew the odds.

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#188: Downward Upgrades

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #188, on the subject of Downward Upgrades.

I have been playing a game on a “smart” cellular phone for the past few months–obviously not constantly, but in spare moments when I am stuck somewhere like waiting for the washer to finish or for the dog to decide to come back inside.  I’m going to name it, because this complaint is in some sense specifically their fault, although they are certainly far from unique in this.  The game is called My Singing Monsters, and it’s a sort of time-eating building game with some interesting twists, the best of which was that eventually I got to create my own songs using their tools.  I reached something around level forty-three or forty-four, which was far above anyone else I ever saw playing the game, the best of whom stopped playing around level thirty.

Then the game stopped working, and I know exactly why it stopped working, and in a very real sense it is the fault of the designer, and in another sense the designer is just doing what everyone does:  I was forbidden to continue playing unless I installed the latest upgrade, but the latest upgrade was too big for the memory space on my phone.

It’s not as if my phone is filled with junk.  I have seven “apps” (that’s short for “applications” but it means “programs”) that did not come as part of the original software–Netflix, but no saved video, Kindle with only two books at a time saved locally, a remote control for my bedroom television, my bank’s access program, a voice recorder for making quick reminder notes, a program that cleans junk off the phone and monitors its functionality, and a very small program that tells me what my phone number is when I look.  I had a couple other games, but I deleted them, and very much for the reason that I just deleted this one:  without me adding any new functions to my phone, the existing functions kept using up more and more resources.

This has been a habit of the software industry for a generation (well, in software terms that’s probably twenty generations, but it’s only a few decades).  Once upon a time making a program “better” involved writing it such that it used less space, had fewer command lines, and did as much with less resources.  Now it seems that making a program “better” means bloating it with more code to provide features the user never requested–if I’m using my phone for directions and I plug it into the power supply, that cleaner program shuts down the running map program and locks the screen; it did not do that when I first installed it, but included that “feature” which I consider a “bug” in one of the upgrades (and there is no option to disable it).

Of course, the hardware manufacturers are even more supportive of this practice in connection with phones than they were with computers.  At one time when the resource demand grew too great you could upgrade the computer–install a larger hard drive, more on board RAM, faster processor, better sound or video card.  With a cell phone, you can’t even add memory–oh, you can put in an SD card, but the system is designed to prevent you from running programs from it, so you can only store media there (I have a thirty-two megabyte card hosting a dozen photographs and a lot of empty space).  Ultimately if you run out of room on the phone you either have to delete programs or you have to buy another phone.  Industry hardware executives are of course hoping ultimately you will be forced to the latter.

So I hope that the My Singing Monsters designers hear that they lost a player because they upgraded beyond his phone’s capacity, and give some thought to whether it’s really worth making the program bigger to add features no one requested, and also that the rest of the cell phone software industry might take to heart the idea that in many cases the best way to improve a program is to make it smaller, remove worthless code and features, and have it accomplish what it is essentially made to do with a much lower use of system resources.

I’m also hoping for world peace, the brotherhood of all mankind, and a perfect hot fudge peanut butter sundae.  I might get one of those.

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#187: Sacrificing Sola Fide

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #187, on the subject of Sacrificing Sola Fide.

img0187Luther

My Gordon College friend Walter Bjorck has apparently been posting a series of suggestions concerning how to create a genuinely Christian genuinely non-denominational fellowship.  He has been doing this via Facebook–which I find a particularly poor medium for that kind of thing, both because it is challenging to find all the posts in the series and because it provides a rather limited opportunity to respond and discuss.  To the former, I have no easy answer for him (try a web log, or possibly start a Facebook group?), but for the latter I have removed a piece of the discussion hither.  It happens that shortly after he posted this it was his birthday, so I was alerted to visit his page and saw this, and was prompted to respond here:

6. Justification by faith. All Christians believe in justification by faith, but Protestants went a step beyond by saying justification by faith alone. Both views must be allowed, understanding that all viewpoints have usually agreed that true faith produces godly works. We should also understand that Christians have agreed that fallen human beings cannot produce good works apart from the grace of God in Christ. Christians agree that Christ alone lived a sinless life and fulfilled the mission that Adam and his descendants have failed to fulfill.

Let me mention that Walter is one of those people whose intellect impressed me.  In our collegiate days he would visit meetings of various unorthodox groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science) and discuss with them how their views differed from Evangelical Christianity, and why the latter was more likely true.  That he was able to do this at all impressed me; that he did it in an open and friendly non-confrontational way which created dialogue and got people listening even more so.  So as I come to his ideas here, I think it important to express my admiration of his ideas and his efforts.

I must also mention that this is the only item on the list I found, but I found part of the list (without links) and recognize that there are some other issues on it I would find problematic and might eventually address if I manage to locate his comments on them.  Overall, I think C. S. Lewis was right when he somewhere said that what divides Christians is not that we disagree about the important things but that we disagree as to what the important things are.  I have a wonderful example of this, reported to me by Presbyterian Reverend John Highberger who said that an Episcopalian priest commented to him that Episcopalians and Presbyterians would never get together because Episcopalians go forward to receive communion and Presbyterians have it delivered to them in their pews.  It sounds silly to the Presbyterian that this would be an issue, but that specific act conveys a tremendous amount about the beliefs of the two denominations:

  • To the Episcopalian, the priest is a representative of Christ and God, and so standing as Christ gives the bread and wine to the individual individually, an act of communion between the individual worshipper and God.
  • To the Presbyterian, the minister is an officiant, a servant performing the ritual, which partly for convenience is done all at once by everyone so that everyone is involved in the service continuously (i.e., no one is sitting awaiting his turn to be involved again) and which incidentally connects the worshippers to each other as they take the bread and then the wine simultaneously, corporately as one body.

The form of the act itself expresses the theology behind it.  In this case, Episcopalians go forward because the act of going forward matters to them; Presbyterians remain in their pews because it does not matter.  I am disinclined to believe that either represents first century practice or the origin of the ritual, but on some level that’s not the point.

There is a degree then to which Sola Fide, “Faith Alone”, matters to Protestants.  Yet the deeper question is, should it?  Should we be willing in the name of Christian unity to sacrifice this doctrine, one of the defining identifiers of Protestantism, or should we maintain it?

I think there is a problem with the Reformation doctrine of faith, but I do not think it is in this aspect of Sola Fide.  For those who do not understand it, Sola Fide means that faith is the only means of obtaining grace and thus the only way to obtain salvation, and specifically justification.  Nothing else matters but that you have faith in Christ.  If you do not have faith in Christ, nothing else will ever be sufficient to earn God’s forgiveness; if you do have faith, nothing else will ever add anything to that salvation or reduce it in any way.

For those for whom Sola Fide is not a correct doctrine, there must of course be some alternate means of justification.  Two candidates are commonly mentioned.  Walter references one, good works.  The other is technically known as “means of grace”, which we will explain in a moment.

In regard to faith and works, I am going to mention Dr. J. Edwin Orr, who visited us at Gordon College and addressed us on this subject (among quite a few others).  I will be citing some of his statements on it.  The issues are, can one obtain justification by doing good works without faith, and if one has obtained justification by faith can that be improved by works?

The first question suffers from the issue of the perfect score, the 4.0 grade average, “batting a thousand”.  To be “justified”, as in the colloquial definition “just as if I’d never sinned,” you have to be perfect.  Doing good works doesn’t earn you points because that’s the default–you lose points every time you fail to do good works.  As Dr. Orr suggests, if you think that doing good works will make up for bad ones, ask your local police chief whether it would be all right for you to murder your spouse if you build a clinic first.  To earn justification by good works you would need to be perfect every minute of your entire life–including all that time before you realized that you needed to be perfect.  That not being humanly possible, you are going to need grace, and thus presumably faith, and you are now looking for justification based on works plus faith–not much different from justification based on faith plus works, addition being commutative.

So the other side of the question is if you are justified by faith, what can works add to this? Can you then be more justified?  If being justified means being treated as if one is sinlessly perfect, without flaw or blemish, what can be added to that?  Or are those justified soley by faith somehow less justified, regarded as less perfect, than those who are justified by faith plus works?

Certainly works are part of our salvation.  However, as Dr. Orr put it, we are saved by “the faith that works”, that is, faith that inspires us to act differently–and at this point maybe we should stop and identify what “faith” actually is.

One of the complications is that the New Testament has only two words for the concept we call “faith”, a noun and a verb–which would not be problem but that we recognize that there is a range of meaning in those words which we then attempt to capture by rendering the word to different English words in different contexts.  We take the one verb and make it “have faith”, or “believe”, or “trust”, or “be faithful”, all of which are valid senses of the word–but then we think that because the English words are different the meaning is different.  We do much the same with the noun.  Fundamentally the sense of the verb is to trust, and the noun then refers to that trust.  Being justified by faith means that by placing our trust in Christ we are treated as if we had never failed, never done anything wrong.

It is that aspect of complete justification that becomes the problem for any doctrine of “faith plus”.  If we say that those who add works to their faith are “more justified” than others, then we have unquestionably said that those others are “less justified”.  However, in all of Jesus’ parables about judgement, the outcome is always black and white–no one is told, I’m sorry, you can come to the party after we clean you up a bit.  Either you are completely justified and “in”, or you are not completely justified and “out”.

Arguably, in quite a few different senses some are “more saved” than others.  The penitent thief on the cross had enough time to make a confession of his own sin and his trust in Christ, and received a promise of salvation without anything else (and it is difficult to imagine that he had no ill thoughts toward those who would be watching him struggle for life and then breaking his legs so he could no longer do so).  Of some we might recognize that they went through far more trials and struggles toward a life of devotion to Christ than most of us; for others, we might recognize that they seem closer to God, more changed, more loving, than most people.  Some people clearly are able to trust God through far worse challenges than others, and so seem to have–and to need–more faith.  Grace expresses itself differently for each individual it touches.

Yet there is a sense in which that is an illusion.  If I ask whether you have faith, I must mean do you trust God completely.  That faith might be more or less tested, and all of us will fail on one point or another during life, but that trust means that we also trust He forgives our failures, and that the tests we fail were there to make us stronger.  Trusting God completely is in that sense a yes/no proposition–either you do or you don’t.  Trusting Him enough for the problems that come in life is different, but only in the sense that the problems come to teach us to trust Him completely.

What, though, of “means of grace”?  These are often called “sacraments”.  The Roman Catholic Church has at least a half dozen of these; the Baptists as a rule have none.  Lutherans have a couple, and it is more difficult to tell exactly what things are and are not sacraments in other denominations.  Baptism and that bread-and-wine ritual for which we have at least four distinct names (Mass, Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Supper) and many times as many theologies are the two most commonly recognized.  I have never been a “means of grace” person, so I am sure to misrepresent this, but the theory seems to be that you use up the grace you were given in the past and have to replenish it, and that the performance of these rituals by authorized persons delivers more of God’s grace to you.  It is the difference between the belief that justification by faith at a specific point in your life forgives you for all the wrongs you have not yet committed and the belief that you have been forgiven for everything you have done so far but need more grace for those wrongs which you continue doing.  However, it also involves the recognition of a priesthood as a conduit of grace–you do not receive forgiveness by confessing your sins, exactly, but by being given forgiveness by God’s representative.  It again suggests that the grace of initial total justification is less than total, and needs to be supplemented if you are to have any hope of heaven.

Yet to some degree this might be less egregious than faith plus works, because it seems fundamentally to be faith plus faith.  That has not always been so, or at least, not everyone has so understood it–stories of Spanish conquerors in the New World having priests throw water at Native Americans and pronounce the ritual words so that when the Spanish armies slaughtered them they would go to heaven suggest a mechanical magical process by which the power of the ritual releases grace even on those who do not have faith, but this is still based on the theory that someone else has faith by proxy, that the faith of the one performing the ritual releases grace on the unbeliever.  So “means of grace” are fundamentally about faith, faith in God through a ritual believed to have been instituted by Him for the purpose of conferring grace on His people.  I don’t believe in the ritual delivery of grace; I do believe in grace through confession and prayer and other aspects of a personal relationship with God, though, and accept that for some people, at least, those personal aspects might include rituals which have no meaning to me.

Ultimately, then, it seems that justification must be by faith only, or it fails to be justification at all.

On the issue of the relationship between faith and works, I recommend my Parable of the Boiler, elsewhere on this site.

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#182: Emotionalism and Science

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #182, on the subject of Emotionalism and Science.

This recounts a true story told me decades ago which it occurs to me has relevance to our present situation.

img0182Baby

It occurs to me that at least one of my readers might remember Mr. Ernest “Ernie” Larrat, whose lifetime of involvement with the Boy Scouts of America has impacted many lives of which mine is perhaps a drop in the bucket.  You will be pleased to hear that I saw him last year, at my mother’s ninetieth birthday party, and he looked well, not much different than I remembered from the two hundred mile canoe trip for which he and I were leaders forty years previously (although I doubt either of us could make that Bicentenial Delaware River trek today), and was still involved in the Ramapo Council.  He also had a day job, somewhere in the chemical industry, from which he recounted this story.

It takes place in the late nineteen-sixties.  An issue had been raised concerning children’s pajamas.  Someone had realized that clothing made of natural fibers such as cotton and wool burned, and so did clothing made of modern synthetics such as polyester.  Infants and toddlers dressed in such clothing who were caught in house fires were frequently burned alive when their clothing caught fire, and sometimes fires started when such clothing came in contact with high heat sources such as candle flames.  Somehow the concern reached the ears of our elected officials, and they held a Congressional hearing on the matter.

The first presenters at this hearing were connected to Ralph Nader’s group of consumer advocates.  I do not intend to denigrate them; they have done much good over the decades.  They presented the problem, with graphic images and details of children burned alive by pajamas catching fire.  It was a horrid thought, a very moving and emotionally gripping presentation.  By the time the presentation was completed, our lawmakers were ready to take action–so ready, in fact, that they ended the hearings immediately and drafted and passed legislation requiring that all child and infant sleepwear be treated with flame-retardant chemicals so as not to ignite when exposed to flame.

They never heard any presentations from the chemical industry or the garment manufacturers.  After all, what could they possibly have to say, other than suggesting that the costs of such treatment would reduce their profits?  It was clear that something had to be done, and Congress was going to do it.

What the chemical industry was prepared to explain, had anyone cared to listen, was that there was only one known chemical that could be used to make such cloth permanently flame retardant.  It was known as Tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate, or just Tris for short.  (There is another chemical, Tris(2-chloroethyl) phosphate, more recently used as a flame retardant, more commonly known as TCEP.)  It had not been used in children’s garments, though, because of other properties.  It was known that when exposed to elevated temperatures not high enough to cause ignition of common fabrics, Tris would begin to break down and release a noxious gas rapidly and painfully fatal if inhaled.  I don’t know, but I suspect that this is at least part of why it was flame retardant:  as it heated, it robbed the fire of oxygen, preventing ignition.

However, its use was at the time the only way to comply with the law, so the chemical industry began providing large quantities of Tris to be used by the garment industry in the manufacture of children’s clothing.  Now fewer children were burned alive, because many more were killed by the gas released by treated clothing heated by the fire long before the clothing itself would have ignited without such treatment.

Over a very brief period of years, it was also determined that the chemical was a carcinogen when absorbed through the skin.  In 1977 the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned its use in children’s clothing, and clothes went back to being untreated cloth for lack of an alternative.

The lesson to be learned is that it is important in addressing a problem to research the potential consequences of any proposed solution.  Congressmen who voted in favor of flame-retardant treatment of children’s clothing knew they were addressing a serious problem.  They did not know that they were creating a more serious problem.  Within the narrow confines of the problem, indeed mandating flame-retardant chemicals in children’s clothing seems the ideal solution–but it is magical thinking, it is believing that direct solutions to problems do not have effects that might cause other problems.

And that is what is happening in the climate change hysteria today.

No one doubts that there are environmental problems that must continue to be addressed.  No one wants to undo the progress that has been made since the nineteen sixties.  Those of us who have lived so long can attest that conditions are better now than then, and that much more is being done to protect the environment now than then.  However, environmental extremists are drawing pictures of burned babies to provoke an emotional reaction and induce us to take extreme measures to protect the environment before this happens–and in this case, they are theoretical pictures, descriptions of what might happen if current trends go unchecked.  We have no burned babies, no real cases of environmental disaster causing or caused by climate change.  We have educated guesses–educated guesses on which many scientists disagreed until they were pressured by threats of funding cuts or ostracization or banishment from publication venues, to bring them into the fold.  We are supposed to react to these images by taking immediate action to protect the metaphoric babies, passing the legislation that metaphorically protects them by treating their clothing with a carcinogenic poisonous chemical that prevents ignition.

We should not move so quickly on this.  We should attend to the fact that every action has consequences, and extreme and hasty actions usually have severe consequences.  There are many problems that have nothing to do with the environment, and indeed even our supposed efforts to repair the environment may have unanticipated environmental consequences.

This has all been said before.  It was not so long ago that I wrote #175:  Climage Change Skepticism, and only about a year ago that I wrote #80:  Environmental Blackmail.  Before that, though, I gave you #10:  The Unimportance of Facts, suggesting that to many in the political world the truth does not matter, only the victory.  Let’s try to get back to learning the truth, instead of trying to use scare tactics to get our preferred outcomes.

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