Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sagan's Anti-Dragon

In my garage I have an imaginary dragon.  It's not real.  Its just imaginary.  It's a dragon made entirely of the good thoughts and happy feelings of people who like to think there's a dragon out there, somewhere, watching over them.  But dragons aren't real, and neither is the dragon in my garage.

I tell you this, and you tell me that the dragon isn't imaginary.  You insist it's a real dragon that is really in my garage.  So I take you to my garage to show you that it's only imaginary.

We both immediately notice that the dragon is visible.  You tell me that you can see it, and ask if I can see it.  I can see it.  And it's interesting that I'm seeing the dragon, and certainly counts for something.

But why would I leap to the conclusion that because I'm seeing a dragon, it means there is a dragon in my garage?  It's probably mechatronic.  Perhaps I'm hallucinating?  Perhaps it's a hologram or some other trick of light?  Maybe there's an advanced alien species using science I don't understand to make it look like there's a dragon.  Or maybe this is a purely natural phenomenon that I don't understand.  There's no reason, just yet, to leap to the conclusion that this is a real dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

We both also notice that the dragon is roaring at us and making noise.  We both hear it, and we report the same sounds at the same times.

But we can't conclude, just form this, that therefore there is a dragon roaring in my garage.  It's likely just a recording of a dragon being played on speakers.  It may be sounds from tectonic plates underground, or the planks of the house moving.  We may just be hallucinating.  Or maybe it's a race of powerful aliens trying to trick us into thinking that there is a dragon there.  We can rule any of those things out, and a dragon is the least likely possibility.  So there's no reason to jump to the dragon explanation just yet, especially when there are other possible explanations.

You approach the dragon, and stick out your hand, and you can actually touch it.  The dragon is solid and tangible.  I can touch it, too.  This is certainly an interesting fact, that I can apparently touch the dragon, and it counts for something.

But I explain to you, just because I can touch the dragon doesn't mean there's a dragon there.  It could just be mechatronics.  It might be a tactile hallucination or some other trick on my senses.  It might be advanced technology from an alien species halting my hand, or it might be some completely natural phenomenon that we don't understand yet making it seem like there is a dragon there.  There's no reason, just yet, to leap to the conclusion that this is a real dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

You say, okay, maybe we can't trust our own senses.  So you get some heat-vision goggles and we look through them, and sure enough, there's the heat-imprint of a dragon.  And this is also interesting, and it counts for something.

But there's no reason to leap to the conclusion that just because we see the heat imprint of a dragon, that therefore there is a real dragon.  It's more likely that this is a malfunction of the device in question, or some natural effect of heat convection patterns we don't understand, or powerful aliens just playing tricks on us.  We can't rule any of these things out.  It would be irrational at this point to conclude that there is a real dragon there in my garage, especially when there are other possible explanations.

The dragon, or at least the apparent appearance of a dragon, then breathes fire.  And things in the blast actually burn, or melt, or catch fire.  My own eyebrows get singed.  And this is an interesting thing, and it counts for something.  I'm certainly curious about this apparent blast of fire.

But I'm still not willing to accept your explanation for why it happened.  You have to separate what happened from the explanation we give for it.  And I don't think we can conclude it must have been a dragon.

It's much more likely that I'm hallucinating this, than that any such creature as a dragon exists, much less exists in my garage.  It's possible we're seeing a purely natural phenomenon occurring that we don't yet understand (strange fires and lights happen all the time in nature), it's possible there's some gas leak in the garage that suddenly caught fire, or it's even possible that an advanced race of aliens is playing tricks on us.  There's no way to conclude, resolutely, that what we're seeing is a dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

So you ask me, what would it take to convince me that the imaginary dragon in my garage is a real dragon?  What level of evidence would I accept for the dragon?

And I respond that I don't know.  I don't know what level of evidence I would accept.  A dragon is an imaginary animal, and is the least likely explanation for my apparent observation of a dragon in my garage.  I would rather believe in pretty much any other explanation before believing in a dragon.

Surely the dragon knows what evidence I would accept, and the dragon hasn't bothered giving me that evidence yet.  It must not care.

Of course, it's possible the dragon does know the level of evidence I would accept, and that there is precisely zero evidence I would accept as proof of a dragon in my garage.  Just because I don't know what evidence I would accept, doesn't mean that I would actually accept any evidence for the dragon's existence.

And so you have to ask me:  What is the difference between a visible, audible, tangible, heat-radiating, fire-breathing imaginary dragon, and a real dragon sitting in your garage?

And so for atheists: what level of evidence would you accept for God?  Because even when Christians offer admittedly hyperbolic, hypothetical scenarios like booming bass voices from the clouds calling out your name or people's decapitated heads reattaching to their necks, many atheist thinkers still say that it wouldn't convince you in the existence of the divine.  Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Matt Dillahunty, Michael Shermer, and others have all made public statements to this effect.

But how is that different from insisting the dragon in my garage is imaginary?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Shaggydog Theory: Why George R. R. Martin Doesn't Want to Finish his Song of Ice and Fire Series

Seven years ago, the last update to the legendary A Song of Ice and Fire series came available, the fifth book A Dance with Dragons.  This book was somewhat disappointing to fans of the series.  The books failed to have any of the juicy details readers actually wanted, being not-so-affectionately labeled "Traveling Places and Administrative Tasks: The Book".  The book was also a major disappointment because it came out over five years after the previous book, A Feast For Crows, released in 2005, despite the promise of Martin that the fifth book would be released speedily since he had already written most of it when he divided the upcoming fourth novel into two separate novels.

And then the fourth book came out five years after the book before it, and was also something of a disappointment.  While the third book had betrayals and kingdom-spanning adventures for the future of the continent, the Feast was much slower-paced and almost seems a tangent compared to the promise of the original three books. Almost none of the plot lines were picked up, meaning it was over a decade, when Dragons was released, that fans got to go back to the characters they last read about in 2000 when A Storm of Swords was released.

In the intervening years, Ol' Georgie has been quite busy.... just not busy with anything to do with the book series that has sold millions of copies and was made into the most-pirated television series in history.  Martin has been instead going on tours and writing all kinds of other stories.  Some are tangentially related to the world of Westeros, others not so much.

In 2018, almost two decades since the end of the third book with all of its promise, with Martin writing stories about gambling dragons in casinos or whatever, I think it is pretty patently obvious to everyone: George Martin does not want to finish writing his series of books.

I repeat: George Martin does not want to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

He told the ending to the HBO series producers and is, apparently, content to let them have the final word on his story.

While it's obvious from his behavior and publication history that Martin doesn't want to finish the series, it's probably baffling to fans why an author who has been catapulted to fame and riches by a book series would just abandon it, especially right before the central plot struggles.

I have a theory as to why.  I call it the Shaggydog Theory.  The theory is most simply stated:

The name of Rickon's wolf is foreshadowing.

Rickon's wolf is named Shaggydog,  For those unaware, a Shaggy Dog Story is a kind of anti-joke, whose humor is in the subversion of the usual comedy format.  In a shaggy dog joke, the teller relates a very long account, assumed by the listener to be a build-up to an eventual punchline.  As the build-up stretches on and on and on, the listener expects a better and better delivery.  Until, at the end, the joke ends in some sort of stupid pun, or worse, a quick and unhumorous resolution.  The listener is left confused, only able to ask "Wait, what?  That's it?"  To those in on the joke, the confused and aggravated response of the mark is the joke.

One popular example of a shaggy dog joke is about a young man who gets insulted by a rodeo clown and made to look like a fool.  To seek revenge, he decides to go to college and studies literature, hoping to learn enough wit to retaliate the next time he's publicly embarrassed.  The story goes on with the young man studying witty retorts in graduate school, earning a PhD in the subject, becoming a world expert on witty retorts, even going on a book tour on late night TV.  Properly told, the build-up can stretch on for almost half-an-hour.  A skilled teller will even insert extra padding, about the expert having martial problems or going on a trip to the pyramids to find papyri or his father contracting cancer -- anything to waste more time and magnify expectations for the supposed payoff.  Then at last, at the end, the expert in witicisms returns to the same circus and gets insulted by the same rodeo clown, and the whole stadium goes deathly silent, waiting to hear how the world's expert will respond.  The real life listeners are also waiting to hear how the various elements of the long buildup are going to connect into some sort of magnificent punchline.  So the man stands up, points at his insulter, and says "F you, clown."

I think A Song of Ice and Fire is a shaggy dog story.

I think Martin knows the ending, and has had it planned since the beginning.  The ending to the series is something intentionally and infuriatingly anticlimactic.  Such as: the Others simply invade and kill everyone, despite all the efforts of the protagonists over seven books.  Something equally as anticlimactic as that.  As originally intended, the ending was supposed to thwart reader expectations about what an epic fantasy was, thinking the epic size would lead to an epic payoff.  Now that the series has become internationally famous, he doesn't want to write the ending he had planned, and he doesn't know how else to end the series.  Martin is intentionally stalling to avoid the backlash the true ending will  get, and he's not going to finish the books. in his lifetie

So that's the theory.  But what's the evidence for it?

Firstly, Martin's own testimony that A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by and based on the other series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams.  Anyone who has read MST knows this already, but it might surprise fans of the HBO series, or readers less into fantasy, to know that the world of Westeros is almost entirely borrowed from Osten Ard of MST.  The history, the characters, the central conflict of the world, the in-fighting between brothers for the kingdom, the exiled elven-like creatures who live in the northern woods -- all of it is from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

If so much of ASOIAF is borrowed from MST, including the central conflict between humanity to the south and the Others to the north, it stands to reason that the resolution of the conflict is also borrowed.

Now, MST does not have an anticlimactic ending.  But it has an ending that throws a wrench into the usual expectations of epic fantasy.  (I'm being deliberately vague because I won't want to spoil the series -- if you read the books, then you will understand where I'm going)

I think Martin intended an ending similar, but different, to the ending of MST.  An ending that subverts our expectations, but does so by dashing all of our hopes to pieces.  I think ASOIAF has the ending that Williams would have given to his series if he had been more willing to enrage his audience.

But what about textual evidence?  Is there anything in the series that would lead us to suspect that Martin intends to build up our hopes and then dash them to pieces?

I don't even really need to ask that, do I?

But here are a few examples:

1. Ned Stark, who we are led to believe is the main protagonist, dying almost halfway through the first book.

2. Robb Stark, who we are led to believe is the new main protagonist out to avenge his father, dying almost halfway through the third book.

3. Renly Baratheon, out to avenge his own brother, raising an army to usurp the mad boy-king Joffrey, only to be unceremoniously killed in his tent.

4. Bran Stark, who overheard the plot of Cersei and Jaime in the tower, forgetting everything and never remembering any of it, ever.  Not even suddenly recalling the plans just in the nick of time.

5. The Viper, fully channeling Inigo Montoya, suddenly being crushed to death at the very end of his fight against the Mountain, technically losing and thereby condemning Tyrion to death.

6. Arya Stark, losing her dire wolf but hearing hints of it in the countryside, and then never, ever finding it again.

7. The Brotherhood without Banners, the only noble, decent people on the entire continent,  fighting with the spirit of Robin Hood to right the wrongs of the world, becoming just a bunch of thugs who go around killing people for no reason.

I could go on.  So many of the threads in the story are clearly echoing tropes, playing on expectations.  We almost fill-in the stories ourselves before they're over, then suddenly they go nowhere and are all abruptly cut short by reality.

This all is Martin preparing us for the ending.

Do you remember where you were when you read the Red Wedding?

I do.  I was in my old room in my parents' old home.  And I was furious.  I threw the book across the room.  I cursed.  I questioned why I was even reading it.  I almost just gave up on the series.

But it was a small detail that suddenly crept into my memory that made me continue going.  The little hint Danaerys sees in the House of the Undying.  Martin was planning the Red Wedding since at least the second book.  It was set up.  He had primed his audience to expect it, and had left little hints in the text that it was going to happen.

All of these dead-end plot threads and frustrations and dead characters and losing heroes are all training, so that at the end of the story, when we read the anticlimactic ending with Dany and Jon simply dying and the Others overrunning the continent in eternal winter, we will close the book and not be able to say that we weren't warned about it.  "Of course it ended that way," we'll eventually say.  It will still hurt, and we'll still be pissed we wasted 20 years following these stupid books and rereading them every five years when new ones come out, but we won't be able to say we had any right to expect anything other than what we got.  And in a book series filled with epic stories and quests that ultimately fail and lead nowhere, we'll look back and see it, right in front of our faces the whole time, the name of Rickon's wolf: shaggy dog.

Except that the series became extremely popular.  Martin's reimagining of fantasy was his first foray into the genre, and he probably wasn't expecting the reception he got.  His books became an international bestseller, falling into the fantasy canon alongside Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Earthsea, Harry Potter, Lovecraft, Conan the Barbarian, or Wheel of Time.

Writing the planned ending will, possibly, destroy the esteemed position of his book.

This is why he is willing to let someone else finish his grande opus: because it is not really his grande opus.  It is instead his attempt to readapt a different series to have a  grittier, more subversive ending that will definitely piss off all of his readers.  Best leave it to Hollywood to jam a traditional, boring, happy ending into it.

I think Martin's plan is to compile notes and wait until he dies so that someone else can pick up the story and finish it the way he originally intended, without Martin having to live through the backlash that will come from it.  The readers will be disappointed by this ending.  For most, though, the ending of the TV series will be the only ending to the series, and I expect that ending to be much more upbeat and typical.

So that's my theory.  The books are a shaggy dog story, and Rickon's wolf is there as foreshadowing of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

How to Save Soccer and the World Cup

I'm not really a soccer fan.  Really, I'm not much of a sports fan at all.  But I'm married to a Central American, so every now and then soccer comes up.

Right now the World Cup is going on in Russia.  And from what I understand, there's some problems going on.  I admit I don't know much about it, really, but a friend of mine recently told me his proposal to fix the rules of the game to make things more fair for all the countries involved in this globally important sport.

I think my friend's proposal is pretty brilliant, and thought I'd share it.

Firstly, you break each game into two distinct segments.  I know, the game time is already split in half.  I mean that now, there will be two distinct parts of each game.

In the first half, you play the game commonly known as football or soccer, and try to score as many points as possible by kicking the ball into your opponents' goal.  The only real change during this segment is that there are no penalty kicks.

In the second half, the field is cleared and a stage is dragged out.  Each team picks their three best actors, who will go on the stage and give their most dramatic performance of a person who has been injured in a sports game.  Just really ham up the anguish and imaginary pain on stage for all the world to see.  A panel of 5 judges will score the performances, and the top three performances will be awarded three points to their teams.

Your total score is a combination of how you did at playing the game known as soccer or football, plus how well you can do at pretending to have boo-boos.

I think this will help in some real ways.  Right now, the rules are written to already award points to players for giving their best performance of injuries on the field.  But the rules aren't explicitly written this way.  This hurts teams that think they're supposed to be playing soccer, and don't know that they're supposed to be rolling on the ground screaming because the mean man touched them.

However, certain teams obviously greatly rely on the acting talents of their thespian players.  They have such talent at rolling around, grabbing limbs, and contorting their faces into perfect masks of torment, and it would be a shame to not continue awarding this exceptional ability.

Acknowledging this very important part of soccer with official recognition will go along way to helping both kinds of players.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Giving Clerics Their Due

In the DCC RPG ruleset, many have noted that Wizards are given an extraordinary level of awesome, whereas Clerics sort of get shafted.  A huge amount of space is dedicated to Wizard corruptions, spells, how they find spells, and Wizard patrons.

Clerics have fewer official spells, all the deities get a single line in a table with just their name and alignment, and all Clerics for all deities are given a single Disapproval table that they always roll on.  This contrasted with pages and pages of example patrons with complete flavor text descriptions, invoke patron results, patron taints, and patron spells.

In a recent episode of Spellburn, one of the hosts went so far as to say Clerics are useless, suggesting that they should just be combined with Wizards.

All of this is massively unfair to the Cleric class.

I think it's possible to make Clerics just as cool and flavor-filled as their arcane comrades.  In fact, the rulebook already contains  everything you need to build on, but I never see them built on explicitly.

A deity should be just as complicated, or moreso, than a patron.  A patron is a lone supernatural eccentric with twisted plans and motives who works through mortal tools, but is otherwise largely hidden.  A deity is an established super-supernatural entity made known to mortals in the world and worshipped by some sort of established organized religion.

You need to customize your deities, similar to how you make patrons.

When making write-ups for deities, here are some things to figure out:
  • deity's holy symbol
  • deity's mark of disapproval, given to fallen priests
  • sacred texts of this religion
  • moral requirements and membership requirements
  • particular lists of unholy creatures and allowed weapons
  • a custom Disapproval table based on this deity's religion
  • the spells that this deity grants to a Cleric
  • the particular deity spells that only this deity will grant
  • name of religious order(s) devoted to this deity, and its hierarchy
All of these things are going to have actual impact on the gameplay.

I'm going to flesh these points out with some examples, but TL;DR, the most critical things are moral requirements, custom Disapproval tables, and custom deity spells.  (And much of this isn't limited to DCC, but also applies to D&D and other RPGs)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Roko's Basilisk and why people were afraid of it

I'm really late on this one, but I wanted to explain Roko's Basilisk, for all the people who heard about it a while ago and never really "got" it.

The idea first started going around the internet a few years ago, and apparently was seriously freaking out a number of people in the Less Wrong forums.  I think I first heard about it from this Slate article, maybe, then spent time trying to find somewhere to explain why this idea was considered so horrfying.  The RaionalWiki explanation likewise failed to shed any light about why anyone would actually be scared of the thing.

The concept builds on a number of premises that float around the Less Wrong community that relate to the technological singularity, namely "friendly god" AI, utilitarian ethical calculus, and simulated consciousness.

The Basilisk is a superhuman AI from the future.  The abilities of this AI are essentially infinite, even up to traveling backwards in time.  The idea of the Basilisk is that it wants you to contribute your money to helping it be built, and if you refuse to help it, it will create a simulation of you and torture the simulation forever.

And so I think a normal person quite understandably has trouble understanding why anyone would even think this is a good B-list villain for Star Trek, much less a cause for existential dread.

But it's actually not that silly.  And once you understand the background to it better, it all makes sense.  So let me explain to you what the Basilisk is in clearer terms, so that you too can experience the angst.   (That was your warning)

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Monty Hall Problem, Bayes Theorem, and a fault in Numberphile

I watch a lot of educational videos on YouTube, in particular the awesome channel Numberphile.  I recently saw their video on the Monty Hall Problem, and was kind of disappointed at what seemed to be a rather pointless calculation that didn't really show the result, and instead showed something that was already kind of obvious.

The video can be found here and explains everything, but let me explain it again for completeness.

The Monty Hall Problem is a classic apparent paradox in probability, named after gameshow host Monty Hall from Let's Make a Deal.  In the show, the contestants are shown three doors and told behind one of the doors is a brand new car.  Behind the other two doors are "worthless" prizes; anything works, but traditionally the problem says the other two doors hold goats.  The player gets to pick any of the three doors, and whatever is behind the door is what they win.  If they pick right they get a car, otherwise they get a goat.

To add tension, after the contestant picks, Monty Hall would walk to another door, a door that the player did not pick, and show them what was behind it.  And look!  It's a goat!  The car is still out there!

In the Monty Hall Problem (not necessarily the show), Monty then asks if the contestant would like to change their mind.

The question is, what is the probability of the player guessing correctly if they swap their pick?

The answer is quite obviously $\tfrac{1}{2}$, or 50%.  Except that isn't the correct answer, and the probability of winning if you switch is actually much higher.  It's actually $\tfrac{2}{3}$ probability, or 67%, if you switch.  But why?