Friday, July 16, 2004

Back of the Envelope has moved!

Last week, I said that I was considering moving off of Blogspot, and I've been hinting that there's a major change to the site in the works. Some of you may have already put 2 and 2 together and guessed what's happening. Yes, I am moving off of Blogspot, and onto a site hosted by Powerblogs. In the process, I've registered a domain name. Back of the Envelope can now be found at www.DonaldSCrankshaw.com. I've taken advantage of this change, and Powerblogs' 75 MB of storage space, to merge Back of the Envelope with my homepage, putting everything in one place. So come visit at the new site, and please remember to update your blogrolls.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Federal Marriage Amendment fails

Old Post: My last post on the Federal Marriage Amendment is here.

As you probably already know, the Federal Marriage Amendment failed to pass yesterday. To be honest, I was never a big fan of this version of the FMA. I much preferred Hatch's version, which I think could have passed with the proper politicking. My guess is that the Republican leadership thought it was more important to force a vote on the issue than to actually pass an amendment. That was a mistake.

First, although a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage, most won't go as far as an amendment. Dean Esmay says it's because there's not enough hostility toward gays. I think he's being unfair, as he seems to assume that the only reason to oppose changing the earliest known social unit would be hostility towards homosexuals. I think it's more likely that an amendment is considered a very strong step, one that once made cannot be easily undone, and people are reluctant to go that far.

And they're becoming more reluctant. Opposition to gay marriage is decreasing as people become more used to the idea. Part of that is a natural reluctance in this country to deny people what they want. It's the same reluctance that gives us redistributionist policies. If it benefits one group a lot, but hurts everyone else only a little, then it's not worth opposing--not for the majority of the population, and certainly not in the Congress. Especially when the accusation of bigotry is all you get for your attempts. But even more important is that prior to the existence of gay marriage, you would be opposing giving people something that did not yet have. Now that it exists in Massachusetts, this federal marriage amendment would take something away from people. If the populace is reluctant to withhold from a special interest, they're even more reluctant to take away. Waiting longer, to bring it up for another vote, will only make it harder to pass the amendment.

The harm from allowing gay marriage is subtle and long-term, the benefit is clear and immediate. If in the end the harm is more than the gain, as it seems to have been in the Netherlands, by that point it will be too late.

So is there a solution? Gay marriage may be gaining acceptance, but not so much that it can be legislatively enacted into law in any state. In every instance, it's been enacted by activist judges. While I oppose gay marriage, I would not protest as loudly if an orderly decision were made by the general populace to accept it. In that case I could believe that, at the least, it had been debated, the advantages and disadvantages weighed, and the decision made with a willingness to accept the consequences. I cannot accept it being foisted on the nation by activist judges who make their decision in a matter of weeks without significant input from all sides of the debate.

I think that Senate should have gone with the Orrin Hatch amendment, which reads:
Civil marriage shall be defined in each state by the legislature or the citizens thereof. Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to require that marriage or its benefits be extended to any union other than that of a man and a woman.

This has a much greater chance of passing, now, and as I said, the longer we wait, the harder it will be to pass any amendment. This would have forced the issue into the state legislatures, and presumably removed the courts, state and federal, from the equation. By doing so, it would have ensured that gay marriage would be debated and enacted or denied by the will of the people.

Right now, it would take a supermajority of the people to stop gay marriage, since it seems that nothing short of a constitutional amendment, on the state or federal levels, can stop the courts from enacting it. The amendment would change the equation, so that it would take a majority (but not a supermajority) of the people to enact gay marriage. I take it as obvious that this is the way it should be, and it saddens me that it will take a Constitutional Amendment to make it so.

Sluggy and world politics

I don't know whether Pete Abrams, the artist behind Sluggy Freelance, is a hawk or a dove, a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat, but I do like the way he thinks. You get the impression that his head's on straight when it comes to the War on Terror, at least.

Take for instance today's comic. For a bit of background, the Dimension of Pain (represented by the ugly guys in the first couple of panels) has invaded the Dimension of Lame (the happy, peaceful dimension that has no concept of violence or good food). Torg--the blond guy with the sword--is from our dimension, and finds the whole DoL annoying. He's also the guy the DoP invaders came to the DoL to find, mistaking it for his dimension. It's all very confusing, but you can get most of it by starting at the beginning of this storyline. Or you could just start reading the archives from the beginning.

What I find most telling, however, are the first few panels, where Psyk (the pinkish cyclops) says, "I observed over time that most of these mortals seek peace out of fear, not honor or hope." He then proceeds to tell Horribus, his boss, about his plan to take over the entire world.

Now maybe I'm just reading too much into a webcomic, but you can see that the attitude that Pete is slamming as both dishonorable and ineffective is alive and well in the world. For instance, read what La Shawn Barber has to say here about how the Philippines are giving in to terrorists.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Third Revision of A Phoenix in Darkness: Part II done

If you're wondering why the blogging has been slow today, it's because I've been working on finishing the third revision of Part II of A Phoenix in Darkness. Well, it's done now, and after some significant work, I've got all the necessary web resources needed to make the story available up and running. In the meantime, Part I is available and free, so enjoy.

Christian Carnival XXVI

The twenty-sixth Christian Carnival is up at From the Anchor Hold. Check out what other Christian bloggers are saying.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Job Hunt

In case you're curious, I am still looking for a position once the funding runs out for my Postdoc, which will be happening in just a couple of months. While it's certainly frightening, it's also exciting to consider new job possibilities. I've been doing most of my searching online, using various internet job posting sites, such as Monster, Careerbuilder, and BostonWorks. I have each of them mailing me daily with job possibilities that meet my criteria. For the remainder of this month, I plan to complete one serious job application each day--a serious job application being one where I think I'm well qualified and that I would enjoy the work. That doesn't preclude additional applications to jobs that I think I would enjoy but where my qualifications are iffy, such as the Bioware job, but I want to make sure I have plenty of applications out for those jobs for which I think I have a good chance. As always, if you know of any leads, please let me know. And your prayers are always appreciated.

Carnival of the Bush Bloggers

The Carnival of the Bush Bloggers is up at Blogs for Bush. It's a day late, but check it out. You may notice my post on Kerry's inability to understand the separation of Church and State, along with other posts on politics.

You may notice that I'm only really good at linking to carnivals when I have a post in there. I'm just better at remembering when I'm in the carnival. Sorry about that.

In Vitro Fertilization

Serge at Imago Dei has some thoughts on in vitro fertilization in a series of posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (Unfortunately, I can't get the link to Part 3 to work, so I just gave a link to his front page. I'll update it as soon as there is a valid link.). I first thought seriously about in vitro fertilization when I was leading the Responsible Technology discussion group at MIT. At the time, I thought that while there is nothing inherently wrong with in vitro fertilization, there is something truly abhorrent in its wastefulness. Many more embryos are produced than are ever used, and this practice should be an outrage to those who believe life begins at conception. The sad truth is that the pro-life movement, while opposing the deliberate destruction of the embryos, makes little effort to address the practices that lead to it. And I cannot say that I myself have done any better, since I saw the practice as terrible, but at the time it was easier just not to think about it too much: I had more than enough things to become outraged about already. I'm glad to see that Serge has put some serious thought into the matter, going so far as to offer practical advice to thoughtful Christian couples whose fertility problems lead them to consider in vitro fertilization:
My advice for those who are having fertility problems would be the following:
1. Talk about how far you are willing to go for infertility treatments PRIOR to attempting to conceive a child. Clear thinking and a plan is important.
2. Clearly indicate your beliefs to the IVF clinic and ensure that they understand that you do not wish to have embryos killed in this process. If they do not want to play ball, go somewhere else.
3. Prayerfully determine whether you want to go through all of this, or to adopt a child that needs a loving Christian home.

In addition, you may have noticed that I've added Imago Dei to the blogroll. Serge's thoughtful essays on bioethics make him a must-read. Plus I noticed that I was on his blogroll. (While I do not have a reciprocity policy, I do tend to check out blogs that link to me, and I'll add them if I like what I see.)

Monday, July 12, 2004

Galileo again

Joe Carter has a post up about Galileo, going over the history which I've covered before. The comments on his posts have degenerated into name-calling right now, but before they did, someone did bring up the question of what all this history proves. That the church wasn't quite so narrow-minded as they were thought to be? They still punished him for his heresy.

I think what it proves is that, as in any story, we have a tendency to find both heroes and villains, and we tend to simplify the story until the villains are truly villainous and the heroes are truly heroic, ignoring the inconvenient contradictions. Heh, I'm sounding like a post-modernist. The Church did not handle Galileo well, but they did not mishandle his case as badly as they are accused. By simplifying the story into a myth, we do a disservice both to the Church and to Galileo. The Galileo story is used to turn the religion into a villain and science into a hero, fueling contempt for religion by turning science into something it's not: a clear truth that is obvious to anyone with an open mind. Science is never obvious--it is difficult and murky and a lot of hard work separating the wheat from the chaff. We scientists are done a disservice by those who want to turn science into a quick and easy answer. Society as a whole is done a disservice when science is no longer considered debatable, where all ethical considerations are swept aside in the breakneck race for scientific progress. Laying the Galileo myth to rest would do a lot to curb this attitude.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

And now for today's comedy

If you've read Lileks's column that I mentioned below, you may remember this part:
[Moore:]For too long now we have abandoned our flag to those who see it as a symbol of war and dominance, as a way to crush dissent at home. Flags are flying from the back of SUVs, rising high above car dealerships, plastering the windows of businesses and adorning paper bags from fast-food restaurants. But these flags are intended to send a message: "You're either with us or you're against us," "Bring it on!" or "Watch what you say, watch what you do."

[Lileks:]I knew a paranoid schizophrenic once. He believed that the New York Times was sending him personal messages through its front-page headlines. He might also have believed that car-dealership flags were telling him to watch what he said.

If flying the flag is intended to crush dissent at home (as opposed to abroad) it’s not doing a very good job, is it? Personally, I fly my flag on holidays because I love this country. If you asked for secondary reasons, I’d say it’s to show support for the troops and their mission. I gave my daughter a flag to wave on the Fourth as part of a long careful education in what sets the American experiment apart from the general nature of human history. (Details to follow.)

Now Dean Esmay has a very funny post illustrating the Mooreish attitude:
Haha! I showed you an American flag! You know what that means! You cannot dissent anymore, that's what it means! See how the flag is stopping you frrrom dissentinnng?? You can no longer dissent! I have crrrushed your dissent with my fingers and with the flag!

Okay, it's funnier when you read the whole thing, with the pictures.

Meanwhile, Dave Barry's column (free registration required) covers dying pets. It's funny, mainly because it's about the sort of impersonal, short-lived pets no one gets too attached to:
I say all this to explain why I recently bought fish for my 4-year-old daughter, Sophie. My wife and I realized how badly she wanted an animal when she found a beetle on the patio and declared that it was a pet, named Marvin. She put Marvin into a Tupperware container, where, under Sophie's loving care and feeding, he thrived for maybe nine seconds before expiring like a little six-legged parking meter. Fortunately, we have a beetle-intensive patio, so, unbeknownst to Sophie, we were able to replace Marvin with a parade of stand-ins of various sizes (''Look! Marvin has grown bigger!'' ``Wow! Today Marvin has grown smaller!''). But it gets to be tedious, going out early every morning to wrangle patio beetles. So we decided to go with fish.

I think even Dave Barry would have a hard time writing a funny column about dead cats or dogs.

A Phoenix in Darkness Update

I've just been working on Part II of A Phoenix in Darkness. It should go up this Saturday as scheduled, despite complications in my life. Meanwhile, you can find Part I here.

Week in Review

It's been a fun week. Here's what I've been talking about:

How I almost became a computer game designer -- I recount a fun job interview, and the reasons why the job didn't work out.

Should I be moving? -- Dean Esmay is strongly encouraging people to move off of Blogspot, and the trouble it's been giving me has made the concept tempting. What will I be doing? Stay tuned.

John Kerry on Abortion -- Kerry still hasn't figured out what separation of Church and State is all about.

The Supreme Court and Saddam Hussein -- Will the Supreme Court move to free Saddam Hussein? Does it even have jurisdiction in this matter? Saddam's lawyer hopes so.

Farscape is back! -- Farscape is returning to the SciFi channel. I suppose caring about that makes me a geek, but if I were a true geek I would have found out about it back in April.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Weekly Webcomic Update

It was a pretty cool week, if a bit of a denouement after last week's excitement.

Sluggy Freelance -- Uh-oh, Horribus has finally learned that Torg's in the Dimension of Lame, and he's on the hunt. The gang goes into the sewers to escape. Curiously, it looks like the magic sword is in its gold rather than its silver state. I hope that means its partially charged. And a new filler pushes the full-color Sunday to Thursday.

Day by Day -- There's a plug for Eat what you want and die like a man, the usual mockery of Moore, Kerry, and the UN, and a correction on Thursday. A correction, of a comic strip. Yikes, it's a sad day when a comic strip has more integrity than the New York Times editorial page.

It's Walky! -- Danny meets a killer car. Wow, we don't see much of Danny these days, do we? And to think that he was the main character back when it was Roomies.

College Roomies from Hell!!! -- Hey, Marsha's wings are real! Now it looks like Dave just might make it out alive, and Roger and Mike are escaping as well. Now, is Mike permanently stuck in semi-nice mode?

General Protection Fault -- The GPFers throws Fooker a welcome back party, and they end up with Trish as a visitor. Only, is this the real Trish or the imposter Trish? It'd be helpful if they knew that there was an imposter.

Schlock Mercenary -- Well, now that they've taken care of the pet shop, it's time to track down the distributor. And Schlock needs some cold weather gear.

Wow, is it really that late?

It's past 3 am, and I'm feeling a bit worn out. I've been working on some rather major changes to my blog, to be revealed some time next week. I've also been working on my résumé and CV, getting them not only up-to-date, but into distributable formats. PDF is easy--HTML is another story. Oh, I can put them in HTML easily enough, but getting them into HTML and looking how I want them to--argh, it's not easy. In any case, drop by next week to see the fruits of my labor.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Farscape is back!

While watching Stargate SG-1's season premiere on the SciFi channel, I saw an advertisement for a new season of Farscape starting in October. It looks like we're going to get a resolution to that cliffhanger series finale.

I just hope I have a job in October so I can afford cable.

Update: The announcement is on the SciFi channel website. Apparently it's old news from April. Geez, I never hear these things right away.

The Supreme Court and Saddam Hussein

US lawyer Curtis Doebbler, the only American on Saddam's legal team, has filed a petition with the US Supreme Court to declare Saddam's detention unconstitutional. Does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction over Saddam Hussein? They might have, before he was turned over to the Iraqis, although since he was declared a POW it's not clear what the court would have to say. From the CNN article:
In paperwork at the high court, Doebbler said the detention of the 67-year-old violates multiple international laws and his constitutional Fifth Amendment right not to be deprived of "life, liberty or property without due process." He also said the war crimes tribunal planned in Iraq was neither independent nor impartial.

Let's be very clear about one thing: Saddam Hussein is not a US citizen. He does not have rights under the US Constitution. He may have rights under the Iraq Constitution, once it exists. As for international law--as Saddam was held as a prisoner of war, and treated as such, his detainment was fully in line with the Geneva convention.

The whole thing is silly, as is clear from the article:
The Supreme Court will review those arguments only if it grants permission for the filing.

"I doubt the Supreme Court will even get that far," said Fordham Law School professor Thomas Lee, a former clerk at the court.

Doebbler had filed a brief in the Supreme Court this year encouraging it to rule in favor of legal rights of foreign terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last week, justices decided the nearly 600 men from 42 countries held at the U.S. prison in Cuba may use American courts to challenge their detentions.

In a dissent to that opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that federal courts will now have to deal with lawsuits from "around the world, challenging actions and events far away."

You know, if I didn't know better, I'd think this was an article by a right-leaning news organization, as it seems to be saying that Scalia was right.

Michael Muqtada al-Moore

Steven den Beste has a lengthy post on how al-Sadr was defeated in Iraq. He thinks that the lunatic Left is making a mistake similar to the Mehdi's in embracing Michael Moore:
He's become the rallying point. He's raised the flag, and the most motivated LL's are flocking to support him. He's become their poster boy, their public face. He provides a focal point; he's a magnet around which they can gather and organize.

He has chosen the ground they will defend – and it is dreadful ground indeed.
...
Moore's stuff sells very well in Europe. It is comforting for the many Europeans who fear and hate America. They've found an "honest" American who bravely and forthrightly tells "the truth" about America: that the vast majority of us are stupid, venal, unsophisticated, uneducated, provincial, oblivious, and self-absorbed.

Moore's stuff sells in Europe precisely because it seems to justify and reaffirm the prejudices many there have about Americans. It is unlikely that Moore is actually changing any minds, however. The Europeans who buy and read his books and pay to watch his films are the ones who already agree with him. They consume his material so they can laugh as he makes fun of us, and nod sagely as he explains how Big Oil and Corrupt Businesses are actually behind it all. (And the Jews. And the Saudis.)

His primary audience here in the US is exactly the same. He's preaching to the converted. Non-LL's who have gone to see his movie have concluded that it was a total crock.

If one accepts the cynical evaluation of Moore, then it would be clear that he doesn't care. If someone watches his film and finds it shoddy and totally unconvincing, he still gets a piece of their ticket price, and laughs all the way to the bank.

Nonetheless, as D'Ancona says, the LL's have rallied to his flag. They've moved to his holy city. They've adopted positions on the terrain he's chosen for the battle. And they're using the arguments and evidence he provides as ammunition.

In the short term, it may seem as if the LL's are mobilized and fighting hard. But it also leaves them concentrated and vulnerable. And they are fighting on just about the worst ground they could have chosen.
...
Moore may or may not believe that, but a lot of the LL's who have rallied to his flag do believe it. However, will it really be the case that he nurtures that delusion? Or merely bring together those who already suffered from it? Will his flag inspire LL's to loudly proclaim that which they already believed, thus ultimately making their paranoid delusion blatantly clear to the broader electorate?

Will the LL's rallying to Moore's flag be able to inspire the broader electorate to join them? Or will they end up isolated, discredited, and ultimately disillusioned, to slink away quietly when the uprising doesn't materialize?

As usual, den Beste provides intriguing analysis, if you have the patience to get all the way through his essays. I wouldn't have drawn the same parallel with al-Sadr, but I do agree that the more the Democrats embrace Moore and his ilk, the more it's liable to hurt them. The problem is that the mainstream media seems more than willing to run interference for Moore and Gore, burying their wilder statements, giving them positive coverage which plays up how respected they are. It might work for Al Gore, but it's harder to do with Michael Moore, since anyone can simply go to see the movie or read his books.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Michael Moore: Punching bag

Dean Esmay has a deep-seated, burning hatred not just for Michael Moore, but for everyone who supports him:
I thought about it and: no way. He's a scumbag, and furthermore, if you like him, even a little bit, you're a scumbag too. You're an embarassment to liberals, an embarassment to Democrats, and an embarassment to your country. I would sooner eat dog poop than share the same room with you.

I wouldn't go that far. I don't think you need to be a "scumbag" to think that Moore has a point. Ignorant, gullibly accepting of every meme from the hysterical wing of this country's Left, sure, but scumbag is reserved for those who know he's lying and use those lies to attack the US just because they feel the US needs attacking. I wouldn't accept as fact anything coming from Michael Moore, and I'd refuse to allow such facts into any debate I was taking part in without support from another, more reliable source, but I won't call anyone who cites him a scumbag unless they know the fact they're citing is a lie and they use it anyway.

Lileks, by the way, has a thorough fisking of a column by Michael Moore in the LA Times. He's equally hard on Michael Moore. A small sample:
[Moore:]If you are one of those who love what President Bush has done for this country and believe you must blindly follow the president to deserve to fly the flag,

[Lileks:]Stop. This is a perfect example of prose from someone who either does not understand his opposition, or chooses not to grant that they have a legitimate basis for opposition. Or, it’s just bad sophomoric writing. If you are one of those who love what President Bush has done for this country and believe you must blindly follow the president to deserve to fly the flag. Yes, that’s me. Me deserve fly flag! Me blindly follow! Hulk smash!

As you can see, Lileks calls Moore a scumbag too.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

John Kerry on Abortion

Old Post: My last post on John Kerry's misunderstanding of the separation of Church and State is here. It looks like he hasn't learned a thing.

The Washington Post reports that Kerry has this to say about abortion:
A Catholic who supports abortion rights and has taken heat from some in the church hierarchy for his stance, Kerry told the paper, "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception."

Spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said that although Kerry has often said abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," and that his religion shapes that view, she could not recall him ever publicly discussing when life begins.

"I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist," he continued in the interview. "We have separation of church and state in the United States of America."

I've been wanting to comment on this, but I couldn't find the words to express just how fallacious and dangerous Kerry's argument is. In my previous post, I pointed out that this attitude is actually a threat to freedom of religion. Kerry is arguing that you can believe whatever you want, as long as it doesn't affect how you live. Ironically, it's not too different from what the Romans believed. Of course, Christians were notoriously problematic as they let their religion affect their actions, even going so far as to refuse to perform an obeisance to the emperor, a minor religious observance to prove their patriotism. And let's not even talk about how they treated slaves--so many slaves became Christians that Christianity was considered a slave religion.

Christianity grew up as an oppressed belief by a small minority. The Romans would have been quite happy to let it stay that way. Instead it started growing, it started to change Rome, and the Romans tried to stop it. Miraculously, the Christians won. Because Christians, in whatever position they held, whether slaves, citizens, and rulers, lived out their faith and engaged the world with it. Freedom of religion is the freedom to engage the world with your faith, to try to change it. What Kerry is advocating is freedom from religion, that it have no influence on anyone but the practitioner. For the Christian that is impossible. If Kerry's view had been the dominant one throughout the history of this country, there would have been no anti-slavery movement, no social gospel, no civil rights movement.

If religion cannot shape the fundamental beliefs about right and wrong which guide your actions, including which laws and policies you pursue, what can?

The Queen of All Evil points to an article in the Boston Globe where principled abortion rights supporter, Eileen McNamara, has this to say:
I, and I suspect many others who support legal abortion, had mistakenly assumed that, on this very personal issue, Kerry's conscience was at odds with the teaching of his church. His consistent record in favor of abortion rights, family planning, and reproductive freedom was, I thought, a courageous reflection of an independent mind.

Now, I don't know what to think. I cannot respectfully disagree with him as I do with an abortion opponent whose conscience prompts her to work to unseat lawmakers like Kerry. I understand her. She is acting on principle, lobbying to change laws antithetical to her conscience. I don't understand him, voting consistently in opposition to what he now tells us is one of his core beliefs.

Just so. In the end, Kerry is consistent in that he always tries to have it both ways on all issues.

Christian Carnival XXV

The twenty-fifth Christian Carnival is up at Messy Christian. There are a lot of submissions this time, including mine on Science, Reason, and Faith. Check out what other Christian bloggers are thinking about.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Should I be moving?

Dean Esmay is begging people to move off of Blogspot to another service. I'm always reluctant to change websites, but after the trouble Blogspot has been giving me over the last couple of days--you may have had trouble just getting to this page--I'm tempted. The cost is minimal, but that's quite different from my current cost, which is free. I have another reason to move now as well. Since I'll be leaving U of R soon, I'll be needing to change my homepage, and Powerblog's hosting and 75 MB storage space may be useful. I just checked, and my homepage only takes up 5 MB, so I wouldn't even need the more expensive options.

A Phoenix in Darkness has begun

In case you missed the original announcement this weekend, the first part of the story A Phoenix in Darkness has now been posted. It is available here.

Template change

I made a small template change that should fix the problem of my sidebar being bumped to the bottom of the screen on lower screen resolutions. Sorry about that--operation at 1400x1050 resolution makes it easy for me to forget these things.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Home today

I was going to go into work today, but I hadn't realized just how seriously people took this federal holiday. The building I work in was locked down tight. I found that curious, as I was able to find an open door yesterday, July 4th and a Sunday. Since I don't have a key to the outer door, and I was unable to reach anyone who did, I wasn't able to get in. It looks like I'm being forced to take the day off whether I like it or not. Kind of annoying, isn't it?

How I almost became a computer game designer

Old Post: I first mentioned that I might share this story in my post on Spiderman 2.

In late 2001, shortly after 9/11, I was pondering what to do with my life. I was nearing the end of my Ph.D. career, expecting to finish by August of 2002. What was more, I had recently rediscovered how much I enjoyed writing, to the degree that I had taken an Undergrad creative writing course. It was time to start looking for a job, and while the obvious thing to do would be a Postdoc or a national lab, I was wondering if I could find a job which utilized my writing talents. Around that time, I dropped by Bioware's website. Bioware is the software company behind Baldur's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, a top tier company when it comes to computer role-playing games, and I think I was looking for information on Neverwinter Nights. While there, I noticed an advertisement saying they were looking for a writer for computer games. I checked out the advertisement, amused at the coincidence, and looked at the job requirements. Surprisingly enough, I met the requirements, which were pretty vague, so I sent in my resume and a writing sample (what is now "A Stranger in the Library"). I'm not sure who was more surprised, the HR manager at getting a resume from a Ph.D. candidate, or myself, when they actually called to see if I was serious. I said I was, which was true enough. I hadn't decided I wanted to leave my field, but I was entertaining the possibility.

To apply, I had to take a series of tests. The first was a writing test, which I took in the comfort of my own home. I had to write a sample dialogue tree for a character in Neverwinter Nights. (For those who played the game, the character was Sharwyn, the bard, and the piece of dialogue was a description of a couple of quests, including one for her mother's cure. It wasn't exactly the same as in the game, and I didn't have enough information on the character to know she was a bard and a mercenary NPC, but I'm glad to say that I got her personality pretty close.) A dialogue tree, if you're unfamiliar with it, gives the player multiple things he can say, and the person he's talking to says different things depending on what the player says. In this case, since it was an RPG, the dialogue was more complicated, with the choices available depending on the player character's attributes (certain options were only available to smarter player characters, for example). To make it even more complicated, I had to write it in Word, using hyperlinks to connect the player's dialogue choices to what the Sharwyn would say in response. I had 8 hours to complete the test, which was administered by e-mail. I sent them 11 pages of dialogue, about 4000 words long.

Shortly afterwards, they flew me to Edmonton for an interview, where I talked to game designers, programmers, and the company owners--plus I went to see Spiderman with them. The next day, I took more tests, programming tests. First, I looked at a C-type script in Neverwinter Nights' scripting language and tried to spot the three bugs. I found four. Second, they had me try my hand with the scripting language, taking a basic map and adding objects and NPCs and building some events. They had a minimum set of required tasks I was supposed to do, then some optional tasks if I got those done. I got through all of them in five hours or so and was kind of drumming my fingers at the end. I considered adding a few flourishes, but the last thing I wanted to do was mess up the work I had already done. After this test, I talked to the head designer about what I could expect to be working on. Then I went home while they considered.

In case you're curious, I did sign a non-disclosure agreement. I'm pretty sure none of this violates the agreement, and by now it's dated anyway--the scripting language is one of the game features, and anyone who's played with it knows as much about Neverwinter Nights as I learned in my two days there.

I returned home, and I think it was a couple of weeks later that I got a call offering me the job. As you probably guessed by the title of the post, I turned them down. The least important part of the reason was that the position had evolved, so that the job I was being offered would be a level designing position rather than a writing position. More significant, I'm sad to say, was money. The amount they were offering was well below what a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering could expect to make, and that was before you factored in the exchange rate--the job was in Canada, remember. But the most important reason was timing. By that point it had become clear that I wouldn't be finishing my Ph.D. in August--as it turned out, the most significant data in my thesis, the data which is central to my recently published paper, wasn't taken until that August. Since I didn't know how much longer it would be before I finished my Ph.D., I felt that I couldn't take the position. While I may occasionally regret not taking the job, I would have regretted not finishing my Ph.D. more.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Week in Review

I was a bit more productive in the posting this week, so there're a few more posts to highlight than last.

Turnover early -- The US turned over power to the Iraqis earlier than expected. It's not a scoop, but I have a few thoughts in this and the follow-up post.

They may look like wimps, but... -- I sing the praises of Torg, Dave, and Jason, my favorite characters in Sluggy Freelance, College Roomies from Hell!!!, and It's Walky! respectively.

Some bad news -- It looks like my time as a Post-doc will be coming to an end earlier than expected. While disappointing, I'm not too worried yet.

Science, reason, and faith -- I comment on posts at Evangelical Outpost and Letters from Babylon discussing the conflict between science and philosophy and that between faith and reason.

A Phoenix in Darkness begins -- I've at last begun to publish this story. The first part is free.

Spiderman 2 review -- My thoughts on the new Spiderman movie, with a few spoilers.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Weekly Webcomic Update

This was a really cool week in a number of webcomics.

Sluggy Freelance -- The evil magic sword's fully charged again and Torg is killing demons left and right, and looking very cool while doing it, with a little help from the magic-wielding Alt-Gwynn.

Day by Day -- Michael Moore and ACT, the Washington Post and the Academic Elite, are all getting an earful, but the most fun comes from Sam and Zed being Sam and Zed.

It's Walky! -- Daisy kills Beef. Jason kills Penny and finally confesses his love for Sal. It's about time!

College Roomies from Hell!!! -- Dave breaks free of Jay's headlock, lasers him, then saves his life before kicking him into submission while shouting "Blue is MINE!" And, yeah, Marsha has, um, wings. I don't know what's up with that either.

General Protection Fault -- Geek eye for the luddite guy! Okay, there's just a few too many "Queer Eye" parodies these days.

Schlock Mercenary -- Knocking over the petshop goes smoothly, with significant property damage but zero casualties. Schlock's bound to be disappointed.

Spiderman 2 review

I don't usually go to see movies by myself. In fact, just about the only time I'll go to a movie theater is when I'm going with a group, and in that case, I rarely give much input on what movie I want to see. However, inspired by the positive reviews from both Howard Taylor and Donald Sensing, I decided to go see Spiderman 2. It was a Saturday matinee, and it was certainly worth the mere $5 it cost.

I saw the first Spiderman when I was in Edmonton for an interview with Bioware (it occurs to me that this would be a pretty interesting blog post in itself--look for "How I almost became a computer game designer" later), where the entire company went to see the movie. It was a lot of fun watching it with a bunch of geeks who knew their comic books inside and out. My favorite part of the movie then, which remains my favorite part now when I watch it on DVD, was the very beginning, when Peter had first gained his new abilities and was just learning to use them. I highly doubted that the second movie could recapture that excitement.

It turns out I was wrong. I'm trying to avoid details--the fewer spoilers the better, but you can't write a review without some--but if you've seen the commercials, you already know that Peter Parker walks away from being Spiderman. The reasons why are manifold, and you can guess at most of them just from the first movie: always broke, unable to hold a regular job, hated by most of the city, never able to keep his commitments and thus always letting his friends down. MJ, the girl he loves and who loves him, has just about given up on their friendship altogether. His best friend, Harry Osbourne, can't forgive him for protecting Spiderman, who killed Harry's father. It surprised me how long it took to build up to Peter giving up on being Spiderman. The one detail that didn't make the commercials was how the stress in his life was affecting his abilities, which made his willingness to quit more believable. Once he quits, his abilities desert him completely, reducing his ability and thus temptation to be a hero. As you might expect, he has several opportunities to do so, and he doesn't go back to his Spiderman habits the first time he encounters someone who needs help. This makes his return all the more remarkable, and his comeback has the same sense of discovery as when he first gained his abilities. (Of course he comes back--don't tell me you consider that a spoiler.) This sort of thing is a cliche anyway (Do you have any idea how many computer game sequels use some variation of this to prevent the hero from being overpowered at the start of the new game?), and now that it's been done once it can't be believably used in a third movie, but it still worked well this time.

Aside from the sympathetic hero, Spiderman 2 also gives us a sympathetic villain. Sure, Osbourne from the first Spiderman was somewhat sympathetic, but you felt more pity than hope for him. He was ruthless even before he became the Green Goblin. Dr. Octavius was fundamentally decent before he became Doc Ock, and you find yourself hoping that he can find redemption.

The central story is not about Doc Ock, or Harry, or even MJ. It's about Peter, and whether he's willing to make the sacrifices needed to help others. Donald Sensing draws parallels with the US experience, but I'll just keep to the movie.

I won't tell you the ending, but you know the questions. Does Peter reconcile with Harry? Does Doc Ock find redemption? Can MJ and Peter be together, or at least remain friends? Who of his friends and enemies will discover his other identity? I will tell you that the answers are not all happy ones, but I did find the ending of this one more upbeat than the ending to the first, and more satisfying.

Overall, a very good movie, and worth seeing.

New Post: My post on "How I almost became a computer game designer" is now here.

A Phoenix in Darkness begins

As you may have noticed from from the image at the top of my sidebar, I've finally posted the first part of A Phoenix in Darkness. Due to a technical glitch, namely my staying up until 3 AM last night working on it, the link originally led to an older version of the story which I had used as a placeholder. The proper version is there now.

Here's how I'm describing the story:
For centuries, the Ordo Dominorum has protected humanity against threats beyond its comprehension, but the Order’s secretive ways and strange powers has earned the Domini only fear and hatred from those they seek to protect. Aulus and Nathan, two young Domini, believe that the Order’s success in hunting down and destroying magical threats has now made it possible to reform the Order and make it a part of the world. Will the murder of a fellow Dominus by a peasant woman be the impetus to begin this change… or proof that the Order has not been as successful as they believed?

A Phoenix in Darkness is part of the backstory for The War of the Elementals, taking place a few years after “A Stranger in the Library.” Both of these stories can be found here.

A Phoenix in Darkness will be published in five parts. While the first part is free, the four remaining parts will cost $1 each, payable through Amazon’s Honor System.

You may wonder why I'm trying to sell this story. While I'd love to make some cash, for obvious reasons, I'm not so naive as to believe I can support myself selling stories over the Internet. I figure I might reasonably expect to sell 10 copies of each part, which, after giving Amazon its cut, should be enough for dinner and a movie for myself and a date. Assuming my date pays her own way. I'll be ecstatic if I sell 100, but I'd need to sell a thousand to make this a serious career possibility. Which is what brings me to the why. I'm doing this to see if I can. I want to see whether I can make money this way. I don't expect to make a lot, but I'd like to see how much interest there is in what I write, and how seriously I should take my writing hobby. We'll see...

Friday, July 02, 2004

Evangelicals and Civic Responsibility

View from the Pew has a nice, long post on evangelicals and civic engagement, based on a position paper under consideration by the National Association of Evangelicals. He's quite happy with the document, and has some good thoughts on it.

Underblogs?

Do you know of any blogs which are under-rated? LivingRoom is having a contest to highlight blogs which deserve more recognition. Go give your recommendation. (Being no stranger to self-promotion, I've already recommended myself as well as a few others.)

One thing I noticed is that some people have odd definitions of under-rated. One Hand Clapping, Captain's Quarters, and The Belmont Club are all very good blogs, but they receive from 100 to 300 times the traffic I do, so it's hard for me to call them underblogs.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Science, reason, and faith

Letters from Babylon has a couple of posts on faith and reason, while the Evangelical Outpost has an interesting post on philosophy and science. These are related but not identical topics, and I thought I'd say a little about how they connect.

First off, there is a tendency today to conflate reason and science, which is one of Joe Carter's main beefs in his article on philosophy and science. Science is quite effective when it comes to falsifiable theories, which can be tested by scientific experiments. There are quite a few realms of inquiry which do not benefit from such experiment, such as ethics. Those who conflate science and reason say that if it cannot be experimentally confirmed or falsified it is by nature irrational. It is no surprise that this leads to the quasi-postmodern worldview which seems to be dominate in the Western world. This view holds that if a premise has been scientifically vouched for, it's true, but if it cannot be, then it is for all practical purposes neither true nor false--the absolute truth of the premise is irrelevant. Since its truth cannot be tested, it has no effect on anything, and believe it or not as a matter of opinion but don't try to convince me either way. This is not a reasonable approach to life, and even the most scientifically-rigorous skeptic believes in a myriad of facts that cannot be scientifically tested, including the premises that underly scientific inquiry, simply because it is impossible to go through life any other way.

I believe that people who take this approach are more irrational than those who do not, which helps to explain some of the bizarre worldviews among certain prominent scientists. Once you decide that there is only one way of knowing things, and that everything which does not fit into that investigative technique is beyond argumentation, you are a lot less open to debate. Either you adapt a "You go your way and I'll go mine" attitude, or, what seems to be more common, "I believe this because it is self-evident, and no fact or argument will have any impact on my beliefs. For you to believe differently means that either you are lying or stupid." There's also the attempt to frame all debates in terms of the one "proper way" of knowing things, but usually when scientists do that it's merely a variation on "It's self-evident and you're too stupid to see it." They often do this by stating their speculation and opinions on the subject as fact, and daring anyone to call the "expert" on it. (This, by the way, is my biggest pet peeve.)

This brings us to the posts at Letters from Babylon on whether faith and reason are compatible. Science, in itself, has very little to say about the existence of God. Almost every time someone applies science to examine some religious claim, the full extent of the scientific inquiry is to examine whether you really need a miracle to explain the event in question, or whether there's a naturalistic explanation. Since Christians are quite willing to accept that God often works through subtle, natural means, the only thing science can do in these cases is show whether there is a naturalistic explanation or not. The believer generally isn't affected one way or the other. The skeptic may be moved to re-examine his worldview due to the evidence pointing away from his, but more often he'll say "We don't know, but I'm sure we'll find out someday," or "And that proves that it never could have happened and is thus a lie."

Reason, on the other hand, has quite a bit to say about the existence of God. There are quite a few logical arguments for God's existence, some good, strong arguments, and others very weak. There are also arguments against the existence of God, mostly rather weak. (Admittedly, as a believer, my view is somewhat biased, but from what I've read, there really are very few good arguments against the existence of God.) Letters from Babylon discusses the insufficiency of reason to bring someone to saving faith, and I'm not going to argue the point. I will say, however, that there are many people for whom reason provided a push in the right direction. I don't think you can reach God by reasoning about him, but you can reach the point where you begin to seek him.

Some bad news

I work for two professors, who divide my funding evenly between them. On Tuesday, one of the professors told me he would not be able to support me past the next few months. Today, the other professor let me know that he would not be able to take over full funding of my position. What that boils down to is that I will be out of a job in a few months.

It's not entirely unexpected. There have been funding difficulties for a while now, and while Postdocs usually last for a couple of years, they have to end when the funding does. It's better to let me go than any of the Grad students, since it should be easier for me to find another job, and I'm more expensive to support anyway.

So while I'm disappointed, I'm not bitter. I am of course somewhat worried, but I'm not panicking yet (I tend not to panic until it's too late to do any good).

In any case, if you know of any positions that could use a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, let me know.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Christian Carnival XXIV

The Christian Carnival is up at Parableman. Be sure to see what other Christian bloggers are saying.

My post on being born again is included. Jeremy Pierce wonders when I'm going to get around to explaining what this has to do with the difference between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. I thought I had explained that, although a second look shows that I just breezed through it at the end of the second, extraordinarily long post--partly a result of my own exhaustion after having written it. I'll try to explain it in more detail later.

They may look like wimps, but...

Today Torg and Dave, my favorite characters in their respective webcomics (Sluggy Freelance and College Roomies from Hell!!!), demonstrate once again why it is very dangerous to underestimate them. I'm sure I could draw some political analogies or talk about mythic archetypes or infer both good and bad theological lessons, but right now, it's just a lot of fun to watch. As usual, I recommend reading the comics from the beginning--the links are in the sidebar--but if you don't want to do that, the current storylines start here for Sluggy and here for CRFH. (The CRFH storyline is a lot longer, having started in August of last year.)

Update: I neglected to mention Jason from It's Walky!, who also proved quite dangerous today. Of course, Jason doesn't seem to be a wimp as much as Torg and Dave--except in comparison to all the superpowered freaks he works with. The storyline started here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Fahrenheit 911

I really have no intention of seeing this movie. I haven't gotten around to seeing the movies I might actually enjoy, much less one that'll just leave me angry and frustrated (my standard response when I want to argue about something but don't have anyone to argue with). But I did read Christopher Hitchens' review, which everybody is recommending. An excerpt:
It must be evident to anyone, despite the rapid-fire way in which Moore's direction eases the audience hastily past the contradictions, that these discrepant scatter shots do not cohere at any point. Either the Saudis run U.S. policy (through family ties or overwhelming economic interest), or they do not. As allies and patrons of the Taliban regime, they either opposed Bush's removal of it, or they did not. (They opposed the removal, all right: They wouldn't even let Tony Blair land his own plane on their soil at the time of the operation.) Either we sent too many troops, or were wrong to send any at all—the latter was Moore's view as late as 2002—or we sent too few. If we were going to make sure no Taliban or al-Qaida forces survived or escaped, we would have had to be more ruthless than I suspect that Mr. Moore is really recommending. And these are simply observations on what is "in" the film. If we turn to the facts that are deliberately left out, we discover that there is an emerging Afghan army, that the country is now a joint NATO responsibility and thus under the protection of the broadest military alliance in history, that it has a new constitution and is preparing against hellish odds to hold a general election, and that at least a million and a half of its former refugees have opted to return. I don't think a pipeline is being constructed yet, not that Afghanistan couldn't do with a pipeline. But a highway from Kabul to Kandahar—an insurance against warlordism and a condition of nation-building—is nearing completion with infinite labor and risk. We also discover that the parties of the Afghan secular left—like the parties of the Iraqi secular left—are strongly in favor of the regime change. But this is not the sort of irony in which Moore chooses to deal.

I agree, this review is worth reading.

Monday, June 28, 2004

More info on the turnover

Old Post: I first mentioned the early turnover of Iraqi sovereignty below.

Robert Alt has a good article on the early turnover at National Review. Robert Alt has more to say on how the US has been slowly turning more and more power over to the Iraqis for the last couple of months:
In the days and weeks leading up to the transition, many in the United States criticized the June 30 transition date as too soon — while some, such as Sen. John Kerry, were critical of the decision to set a firm deadline for the transfer of power at all. Even so, the transition began much earlier than anyone anticipated. On March 28, 2004, the Ministry of Health became the first of Iraq's 26 ministries to shift to Iraqi control, thus beginning the transition process that was completed last week, when the last of the ministries came under Iraqi authority. Today's ceremony was in many ways just that — ceremonial — representing a change in authority that had effectively already occurred.

Despite some claims to the contrary, the autonomy enjoyed by the agencies is substantive rather than merely symbolic. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Electricity, and the Ministry of Communication will retain only a small handful of Coalition consultants, who will have no operational authority, but will simply provide technical assistance as requested by the respective Iraqi ministers. Other ministries, like the Ministry of Education — whose 300,000 employees make it the largest of the 26 — will have no Coalition consultants at all.

All in all, a good day for Iraq.

When did that happen?

Parablemania has apparently changed its name to Parableman. I'm not quite sure when that happened--I wouldn't have noticed without the e-mail sent out about the Christian Carnival. Parableman is a long time nickname for Jeremy Pierce, and an inspiration for his blog's name, at least according to a post that I can no longer find, so it's not too surprising he'd return to the original name, but I still can't find any post announcing the change. Parablemania or Parableman, it's still a good blog. Check it out.

Turnover early

Now this is good news. Demonstrating once again Bush's love for surprises, the CPA has turned over authority to the Iraqis early. Most bloggers shouldn't be too surprised by this. People like Captain Ed had noticed that the CPA had already turned quite a bit of authority to the Iraqis, but it's nice to see the official turnover done ahead of schedule. It won't stop the violence, of course. Those prisoners currently in the hands of the terrorists are still unlikely to survive. It does do a lot to take the wind out of their sails, and ruins any plans they might have had to target the turnover itself.

Anyway, it now looks as though the new Iraq and I share the same birthday.

New Post: More above.

Today marks three decades since...

The day I was born. Not to make a big deal of it or anything, but I'm thirty today. I think I have to consider myself a grown-up now.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Week in Review

Once again a rather slow week, with few posts. Of course, if you exchange quantity of posts for quantity of words, due to two very lengthy posts, it's not too bad.

Honesty and the sitcom mentality -- I discuss how most sitcoms get their humor from the lies their characters tell, and wonder whether this is a new development.

C2 Review -- Coke has a new half-calorie drink, and I give my thoughts on it.

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism: Born Again I -- I return to my discussion of the differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism in a discussion on what it means to be born again.

I'm a brownshirt? -- It may not be original, but I join in the fun in mocking Al Gore.

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism: Born Again II -- The second and even longer post on being born again, and how one becomes so.