Ignoring the dystopia

This is a repost of an article from 2015.  I selected this one because it mentions Never Let Me Go, a book by Kazuo Ishiguro, who is now a Nobel Laureate.  He is a great writer, and I recommend the book–but not the movie.

Instead of committing any words to my own novel, I spent the last month or so reading Pride and Prejudice.  It was research, I say.  Research!

Pride and Prejudice of course takes place in the dystopia that is Georgian England.  True to the dystopian genre, there are multiple fantastical constructs which are slowly introduced to a horrified audience.  For instance, there’s the idea of an “entail”.  I don’t really get the purpose of it, but apparently it’s a restriction on whether an estate can be passed on in your will.  And then there’s “elopement” which just means that a woman runs away with her lover.  It doesn’t sound like there’s anything wrong with that, but within the dystopia it’s a horrible thing to do, and a complete disgrace to the entire family.

There are also many neat world-building details.  I like how the servants are always there, but no one ever thinks about them much, because that’s just how wealthy people in this universe think.  At the same time, rudeness towards servants signals an unsympathetic character, and kindness towards servants signals a noble character.  That’s the only way the lower classes are ever important: in relation to wealthy people.

I also like how we know exactly how many pounds each character is worth.  In Capital in the 21st Century, the great literary critic Thomas Piketty explains that this is because there are relatively low inflation and constant returns on capital.  Thus, an author can list exact money amounts and expect readers decades in the future to have the same understanding of how much it is.*  Jane Austen really put a lot of thought into that one.

*Upon research, I discovered that Piketty’s claims are disputed by quantitative literary theorists.

Changing the subject, the other day, my boyfriend and I saw Never Let Me Go, a film based on the book of the same name.  I had read the book and thought the movie was a terrible adaptation.  My boyfriend, however, detested the movie, because of the way it ignored its own dystopia.  Without any spoilers, the movie involves some extremely questionable bioethics, and nobody ever questions it, much less gets angry at the system.  Bioethics simply isn’t a theme in the movie.  Instead, bioethics is just a plot device, a metaphor for the brevity of life.

My boyfriend thought the story wasn’t very American.  Which figures, since the writer and screenwriter are British.

But actually I think there’s something interesting about that idea.  A dystopia where nobody fights the evil of the system, or even notices that it’s evil.  Evil is simply there, and the story addresses completely different themes of love and life.

Although come to think of it, maybe that’s too trite.  Maybe that describes every story ever.

Pride and Prejudice ignores the evil of its own dystopia, and instead criticizes smaller evils.  Like how some people are so proud, other people are so prejudiced, and some people are so depraved as to join the priesthood, or to elope.  But sometimes those people learn that they were in the wrong, and eventually come to admit it.

I love that there’s a classic romance where the central plot is about two people changing their minds about each other.  Changing minds!  What a rational value!  This also implies that the woman in the romance has a mind to be changed.  A romance where the woman has agency?  It feels like the most progressive romance I’ve known in ages!

Probably the worst part of the book is that the main reason the woman changes her mind is in response to the man’s display of financial generosity.  He’s so wealthy, and sometimes he sometimes assists other wealthy people who are on the verge of losing their wealthy status!  The main problem with this part is that it reminds us, the readers, of the dystopia which we were so carefully pretending to ignore.

Generally, I’m not a fan of so-called “classic literature”, particularly when people praise it as “timeless”.  There is no way that I am reading classic works of literature the same way that contemporaries did.  I don’t think I should read it that way.  But Jane Austen was a pretty decent writer, and this novel was worth reading.

Skeptical content creation

As I mentioned in my bloggiversary post, good skeptical content creation is hard. In order to debunk something, and do a good job of it, you have to do research. You have to do a lot of research, even if it’s something ridiculous, like 9/11 conspiracies or bigfoot. Talking about a conspiracy theory is an invitation for conspiracy theorists to start arguing with you, and they tend to be pretty familiar with the topic, because it’s their topic. In contrast, the skeptic needs to spread themself thin, because there’s just so much bunk in the world.

That was fine decades ago, when “skepticism” basically referred to a committee of experts who dedicated their time to it. It doesn’t work so well today, when most content creators are hobbyists, or at least start out as hobbyists. My experience as a new blogger was that research was sometimes fun, but it got tiring really fast, and I didn’t have the readership to justify putting a lot of work into it. And rigorous research doesn’t get rewarded, because it’s not necessarily entertaining. Furthermore, “research” would mostly consist of me repeating things I had learned from basic resources, and what’s the point of that?

There are ways around this problem, but I don’t think they were very healthy for the movement. One method is to gloss over the lack of rigor with humor and mockery. Another method is to get by with a few general principles of reasoning, the stuff we call “critical thinking”. I took the latter approach, so I will talk about that.

The trouble with fallacies

Critical thinking in the skeptical movement was an odd beast. What exactly is it? How do you practice it? Can you name any principles of critical thinking?

Some of the most recognizable principles are the logical fallacies. You know, ad hominem, begging the question, argument from authority, etc. Many people such as myself gravitated towards logical fallacies, because it’s fun to learn about all of them and read silly examples of them. I liked to write about them too.
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Colorful origami subgroups

This is the second part of a series about symmetry in origami. Here I talk about the role colors play in reducing symmetry.

Let’s return to the ninja star that I showed you last time. I said that it has a symmetry group of order 4, because there are four transformations preserve the shape of the ninja star: rotation by 0, 90, 180, or 270 degrees.

But suppose we want to preserve more than the ninja star’s shape. We also want to preserve its color. The only tranformations that preserve shape and color are rotations by 0 and 180 degrees. So the ninja star actually has two kinds of symmetry groups: the shape symmetry group of order 4, and the color symmetry group of order 2.

The color symmetry group is always a subset of the shape symmetry group. We have a special name for groups which are subsets of other groups, we call them subgroups.

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Link Roundup: October 2017

Something Something Soup Something – It’s a browser-based game about classifying things as soup or not soup.  A fun philosophical exercise for the whole family!  It shows that when people are asked to define soup, they use a slightly different definition from the one they use to classify soup.  Also, soup is a metaphor for video games.

Everything You Need to Know about Gun Rights (also see part 2 and part 3 tba) – Crip Dyke explains the history of the 2nd amendment, and how it wasn’t intended to guarantee individuals’ rights to guns.  This is all news to me, I don’t know anything about constitutional history.

Hillary Clinton almost ran for president on a universal basic income – In her memoir, Clinton says they seriously considered campaigning for universal basic income, but decided not to when they failed to come up with a realistic policy proposal.  I have mixed feelings about this.  Should she have included it in her campaign anyway?  And why didn’t Bernie campaign on UBI, since apparently, a lack of realistic policy doesn’t otherwise stop him?

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A melondrama

On the topic of celebrity drama, I follow the YouTube channel The Needle Drop, run by music critic Anthony Fantano. Fantano claims to be the most relevant music critic on the planet right now, and given his million subscribers, it may even be true. I have discovered a few great artists through him, and have even linked to him a couple times from here.

Recently, the Fader published an article that claims that Fantano has a lesser known channel that panders to the alt-right. If you want to see a shorter and more neutral article, I also recommend this article on Junkee.

As a follower of Fantano, most of the accusations seem unfair.

First, some background. Anthony Fantano has at least three YouTube channels. theneedledrop, with a million subscribers, publishes music reviews and a few thinkpieces. fantano, with 180k subscribers, publishes mostly reactions to music industry news. thatistheplan, with 400k subscribers, publishes meme stuff.  Or it did, before it was taken down.

I didn’t know what was actually on thatistheplan, because I only followed the other two channels, and blocked thatistheplan practically immediately after it came up in recommendations. I found it exceedingly obnoxious, although that isn’t a strike against it. Plenty of YouTubers make content that I am not interested in. Anyway, Fantano took thatistheplan down, saying YouTube policies were preventing him from monetizing it, and it wasn’t worth the drama.

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10 years of blogging

As of today, I’ve been blogging for 10 years!  Yay!  Time for a retrospective.

I first started reading blogs around 2006, when I started college.  I was a fan of the Bad Astronomy website which had funny material debunking the claim that the moon landing was a hoax, and other skepticism-related stuff.  At some point I found that there was an associated blog called Bad Astronomy Blog.  From there I branched off to other blogs, including The Friendly Atheist, Memoirs of a Skepchick, Pharyngula, and the ScienceBlogs network.1 After reading these for a while, I decided to start my own skeptical/atheist blog.  I called my blog Skeptic’s Play because I was bad at coming up with names.

I came bursting out of the gate, writing original content once per day.  Obviously that wasn’t sustainable, but I think it goes to show that I always had a strong motivation to write, which is probably the most important determinant of long-term success in blogging.

However, it was immediately clear that I wasn’t cut out for skeptical blogging.  To be a good skeptical content creator, you either have to know stuff, research stuff, or else you have to not give a shit and just be entertaining.  I gave a shit, but didn’t give quite enough shit to spend significant amounts of time researching every bullshit claim.  I ended up writing about a lot of low-hanging fruit, like logical fallacies and elementary philosophizing.  I also wrote about physics, math puzzles, and atheism.

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