March 2009

Contains general discussion of the premise, but no other spoilers.

Dollhouse is the new Joss Whedon thing (you know, Buffy, Firefly: that Joss Whedon). It stars, and is produced by, Eliza Dushku, who played Faith in Buffy. Dushku plays Echo, one of the “dolls” in the Dollhouse. The dolls are reprogrammable people: their personalities are wiped and replaced with whatever the clients of the Dollhouse ask for. The Dollhouse isn’t just a brothel, although it’s part of what it does.

When the first episode appeared, there was a lot of debate on here on LJ, with posts heavily laden with feminist theoretic jargon about agency, the male gaze and so on. It’s easy to see why the feminists objected: the idea of being able to program Eliza Dushku to do whatever I want certainly causes some triggering in my safe space, let me tell you.

Still, a more telling criticism was that it wasn’t really that good. In his other work, Whedon does witty dialogue to keep us amused while the story draws us into the relationships between the ensemble cast, and there’s always a story arc which rewards watching the series in order rather than as individual episodes. This sort of thing was initially absent from Dollhouse. The first few episodes of Dollhouse are pretty much Quantum Leap (which must count as one of the neatest tricks you can do with episodic SF) without the fun bits.

Things have been looking up for the last couple of episodes, so perhaps we can forgive the early stuff as really laboured scene setting. It looks like there is an arc, we’re finding out more about the characters’ pasts so we care about them more, and the last one was funny. Worth a look, I’d say.

William liked the bit in my last post where I said that most believers are carrying a map of the real world somewhere, because they know in advance what excuses to make for the apparent absence of gods and dragons. Of course, I stole it from Overcoming Bias (mentioned previously here). Carl Sagan’s point in the original invisible dragon story is about falsifiability. The crew over at Overcoming Bias use it another way, to think about what’s going on in dragon-believer’s head when they know enough anticipate the results of testing for the dragon, but not enough to say “there’s no dragon”.

It’s that sort of keen observation that keeps me going back to Overcoming Bias despite all the stuff about freezing your head when you die. The aim of the game for Biasers is to have a map which matches the territory, and to be able to read it aloud. They’ve started Less Wrong, a new site where anyone can contribute something they think will help achieve this aim. It’s based on the code for Reddit, where users can vote stories up or down, though at Less Wrong, the editors manually promote stories to the front page, and there’s a separate page where you can view stuff that’s merely popular. You can follow Less Wrong on LiveJournal by adding less_wrong to your friends list.

The community is working pretty well so far. Watching the decline of Kuro5hin makes me worry that community moderated sites will turn to crap (although there’s still some good stuff over at k5, such as an article about the tendency of community moderated sites to turn to crap), but having real humans in charge of promoting articles might mitigate that. The system has given some new voices a chance, notably Yvain. Here are some of my favourite articles so far:

I’ve made a few comments over there, although nothing earth-shattering: sympathising with someone whose girlfriend left him for Jesus, or talking about Bernard Woolley and irregular verbs.

I’ve been thinking about posting some more about what I’ve got out of Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong here on LJ. It’s all very well ranting about religion, but rationality isn’t graded on a curve. Don’t worry, religion-rant fans: I’ve got a few more of those lined up too.

A while back Andrew Brown over at the Grauniad posted a list of the 6 Points of New Atheism. There was a bit of a bun-fight among the atheists about this, because, though Brown’s an atheist, he was criticising Dawkins Our Leader. It got even more fun when Dawkins turned up in the comments. (My own contribution was to treat the 6 Points as one of those internet quiz memes: I score 2.5/6 for New Atheism, which makes me slightly more Old Skool than New, I suppose). It’s a bit like that Southpark episode where the Unified Atheist League fights the Allied Atheist Allegiance. What’s the fuss about? Here’s part of it.

Most Christians say God is omniscient and omnipresent. Yet the Christian woman whom Yellow blogged about, the one who wrote to a Christian problem page with her self-pleasuring problem, clearly doesn’t really believe God is present and watching her all the time. But she at least believes that believing those things is virtuous for a Christian. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this latter sort of faith belief in belief.

This doesn’t just apply to religion. palmer1984 posted a poll which suggest similar things apply to moral beliefs. It is virtuous to say that we should care for people in other countries as much as we do for those in our own, but most people don’t really believe it.

Some people, especially those with a scientific education (or a certain sort of evangelical Christian background), think of belief as affirmation of a set of propositions. To those people, it’s obvious that these propositions should not be internally contradictory or conflict with reality. But, as Saunt Yudkowsky observes “it is a physical fact that you can write “The sky is green!” next to a picture of a blue sky without the paper bursting into flames”. The same applies inside our heads. Dr Vilayanur Ramachandan’s fascinating experiments on anosognosia patients seem to show that explaining why a belief is valid and changing your beliefs are separate systems in the brain.

I take Yudkowsky’s point that speaking of belief doesn’t capture the psychology here precisely because “beliefs” are often taken to be propositional sentences, but our brains don’t deal in those much. Instead of talking about what someone “really believes”, I suppose he’d prefer to say that the woman speaks-as-if she believes God is omnipotent and omnipresent, but, at least in some instances, behaves-as-if God is not.

Brown says he’s annoyed with neo-atheist rationalist fundamentalist sceptics because neo-atheists think that all brains work like theirs or can be convinced to do so, but that thinking is wildly optimistic. This is the point of Brown’s Freud vs God post, which you should all go and read. See you in 5 minutes.

Back? Brown’s getting this stuff from Dennett and from anthropologists who study religion, such as Pascal Boyer. Boyer details his views over at a sceptics’ website, where he tells sceptics off for their narrow understanding of religion. Another anthropologist, Scott Atran, does a similar thing on, responding to Sam Harris and others in the wake of the Beyond Belief conference back in 2006.

The anthropologists say that religious beliefs should not be understood as propositional statements about the world, however much they resemble them. What of God’s omnipresence and omniscience? One thing religious people do with this belief is check whether an action is morally right by imagining what their model of God would think of it. This might be done retrospectively, if a religious context provokes thoughts of God. They certainly don’t anticipate-as-if God is in the room and watching.

Brown has linked the ideas of the anthropologists with the observation that most people don’t try to formulate coherent propositions on anything, including religion. I don’t know whether the anthropologists would agree with this, I’d need to read more of their stuff to tell. It’s clear that most religious people do try to draw a map of the real world. As Yudkowsky illustrates with his dragon-believer example, most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them; or as heroes of the faith for showing such belief, like the monks and martyrs. I’d paraphrase Brown’s argument as “most people don’t see the virtue of having one map for all occasions, or of being able to articulate it”.

Of course, if you’re a religious believer, you might find the anthropologists’ approach a little patronising. Some of you seem to have beliefs which are propositions about how the world is. As I said over on robhu‘s journal a while back, Dawkins at least does believers the courtesy of taking them at their word. What do you think?

Contains spoilers, obviously.<lj-cut text=”Let me at it”>

The pace was good until they reached Earth, at which point there were multiple “endings” as we saw in the Lord of the Rings films. infinitemonkeys said Golgafrincham, and I mentioned shaggy God stories (there’s this guy called Adama looking for Earth: see what they did there?).

I was sceptical about the way the survivors all decided to chuck away their technology. As Pratchett and Gaiman said, people who try going back to nature soon find out why civilisation has been a quest to get as far away from nature as possible. That seemed like forcing the characters to meet the demands of the plot.

Speaking of Good Omens, Angel Gaius and Angel Six reminded me of Crowley and Aziraphale, somehow (perhaps because Gaius looked a bit demonic). In a way, I thought the explicit talk about God (who doesn’t like that name) spoilt the mystery of just what the angels were. If it’d been me, I’d’ve ended with Adama on his hilltop; the stuff about modern robots made it look like it was going to turn into the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

They got the supernatural stuff right with Kara: she just vanishes, and we never quite find out what she was. She walked with God and was not, for God took her.

Loved the nods to the original BSG: the old style Centurions, and the old theme playing as Adama takes one last look at Galactica (this video and this one are fun if you remember the old series).

The opera house stuff was a nice way to tie off that mystery. The flashbacks worked well to show us the beginnings of the endings we saw. The endings were satisfying (and in Roslin’s case, moving). I think Ron Moore did well there.

Now to re-watch the miniseries 🙂

Edit: Peter Watts describes it as emotionally satisfying but intellectually empty. Metafilter has more thoughts.

Inasmuch as there’s an atheist movement (Dawkins for Pope!), it seems pretty male dominated, both online and off. So, what about the atheist women? They’re out there, and this is a post to link to some of them.

  • Greta Christina is gay and atheist, and draws some parallels between the two. Atheism seems to be a lot harder in the USA than it is here. Greta writes about how to be an ally to atheists in the same way that you might speak of being an ally to any other disadvantaged class of people.

  • Mathurine (not her real name, for obvious reasons) is an ex-Muslim woman. She wrote a three guest posts over at Tree Dreamer: one the hijab, another on making atheist communities friendly to ex-Muslims, and another answering atheists’ questions on Islam.

  • Lily originally blogged at Leaving Eden, writing about her experiences as a closet atheist at Wheaton College, a Christian college in the USA. Since graduating, she’s been blogging as Peaceful Atheist (I’ve mentioned her before in my posting on doubt). There’s an article over there specifically on women in atheism.

  • No Longer Quivering is the blog of two women who were once part of the Quiverfull movement. As Salon explains in an article about them, that means that as well as accepting the standard evangelical stuff on male leadership, they also rejected birth control and sought to have as many kids as possible. They got out, and are blogging about how they feel about it.

    I traditionally googlebomb the word complementarian with a link to Houseplants of Gor. Of course, there are differences between the Gor series and the Bible: one is a historically-based fantasy which, although some people have found it rich enough to base their lives on, undoubtedly advocates a patriarchy based on the “natural roles” of men and women; and the other is a set of books by John Norman.

  • Deborah Drapper isn’t an atheist. She’s the Christian girl who was the subject of Deborah 13: Servant of God, a BBC documentary about her and her family (the link goes to a post on the Dawkins site where you can watch it on Youtube). She’s something unusual in this country: she’s part of a large family (there are hints that they subscribe to the Quiverfull idea) and home-schooled. I was reminded of her after No Longer Quivering because of the point in the documentary where she explains that she belongs to her father until she marries someone.

    Deborah comes across as bright, articulate and a firm believer in evangelical Christianity. Her blog has been inundated after the screening of the documentary, but I hope she’ll continue to write. Her father also has a blog where you can find out about how the EU is part of the coming world government of the Antichrist, and that the King James Version of the Bible was inspired by God.

The Thursday crew were down a couple of people, so we decided it’d be a good time to run a one-off of Dogs in the Vineyard (mentioned previously here).

The Dogs are young men and women sent to the frontier towns established by the Faith (which isn’t quite Mormonism), to bring practical and spiritual help to the community. Sometimes it’s the sort of help that comes from the barrel of a gun. After the basic character generation stuff, the game starts with each player saying what they hoped their character accomplished in training, leading to a conflict where the GM takes one side and the player the other, and the character gains another character trait as a result. All the conflicts in the game are like poker matches with dice, with each side having a pool of dice for raising and seeing.

Dramatis Personae

Brother Jeb, played by Tom who jacquic knows: ex-thief who converted to the Faith. At 30, he’s a bit older than the other Dogs, who are in their late teens/early 20s. Jeb hopes he can beat a demon. He wakes up in the middle of the night having sleep-walked into the storeroom of the Doghouse, mysteriously left unlocked. Whispers in his head are tempting him to steal the valuables in the storeroom but he spots something like a shadow in the corner and throws some sacred earth (which is also in the storeroom) at it. Brother Jeb got a trait of “I exorcised a demon”.

Brother Isaac, played by Rob who is not robhu: child of converts, very strictly brought up on an isolated farm, tends to see things in black and white. Hopes he can learn something about the real world. As suggested in the rules, Rob played Brother Isaac before the change his player wanted, and scribb1e played the thing trying to make him change. Isaac follows a thief who steals fruit from a stall in Bridal Falls (which isn’t quite Salt Lake City) and finds he’s taken it to his home to feed his starving family. Great raises and sees: Isaac: “You should have gone to the Faith for help”, Thief: “You’re the Faith, you help” (what the rules call Reversing the Blow). scribb1e ran out of dice and Isaac’s player narrated how Isaac makes the man take the stuff back and then Isaac buys him food instead. At Tom’s suggestion, Isaac got a trait of “There’s always a perfectly reasonable solution”.

Brother Ezra, played by me: 3rd generation Faithful, brought up on a big farm with brothers and sisters all over the place. Overcompensates to get attention. Ezra already had “I was top in Sunday school” as trait, so I decided Ezra shoots scripture from the hip and thinks that can solve anything. I wanted him to learn some humility. The conflict played out in the Faith’s hospital, where he tried not very successfully to comfort a dying girl with words from the Book of Life. She died, and he got “I can’t do everything by myself”. He took quite a lot of fallout, which lead to a relationship to the dead girl, and a bump to his “Heart” stat.

The town, played by scribb1e, was the rule book’s Tower Creek example with the names filed off as scribb1e knew I’d read the rule book. Tower Creek is recommended for new players as it’s hairy: it goes all the way to hate and murder in the Something’s Wrong progression, stopping off for some adultery and false priesthood along the way. In our version, it was called Dove Hill. Brother Ezra has a great aunt there, Sister Polly, and Brother Isaac has a cousin, Celestina.

Dove Hill

<lj-cut text=”Cut for demons, miscarriage, adultery, and mayhem”>The Dogs ride in to Dove Hill and end up at the Steward’s place. He’s asking for a blessing on his wife, who can’t conceive. The players think he’s talking about Sister Eleanor, who’s with him, but it turns out he’s also married to Sister Celestina, and she’s the one who can’t have kids. The Steward has 3 daughters by Eleanor who are married off, but hopes for a son to run the farm. The Faith allows polygamy (but not polyandry) but Eleanor doesn’t approve: Celestina is an interloper and young and pretty to boot.

Ezra and Isaac go with Eleanor to the local creek and find Celestina. They split up to have private conversations with each woman. Eleanor tries to persuade Ezra that Celestina should be made to divorce the Steward: the lack of children shows the King of Life doesn’t favour the marriage. There’s a conflict but Ezra knows that the Book of Life says the King of Life hates divorce, and he wins easily.

Isaac talks to his cousin. Celestina says that Eleanor won’t leave her and the Steward alone together, which makes the whole conceiving thing a bit tricky.

Back at the Steward’s place, before the Dogs can get into this, there’s a knock on the door. Sister Maria wants something, and holds a whisphered conversation with the Steward. “You can’t ask them to do that, it’s wrong”, he exclaims. “That” turns out to be naming Maria’s baby. Fine: it’s one of the duties of a Dog. The only problem is the baby is dead. Stillborn, and buried in a pathetically small grave near the meeting house. The players hew pretty closely to the Mormon idea of baptism for the dead, even though the rules allow them to make up the Faith as they go along. There’s no conflict as all the Dogs decide they’ll perform the naming ceremony over the grave, and do so post haste. Ezra decides to name the baby Grace. Maria sings “Amazing Grace”, and it’s kind of poignant.

On the way back, the Dogs meet Brother Nathan, the local lawman. He wants them to carry out a wedding. Fine: it’s one of the duties. But he actually wants them to confirm a wedding that Sister Polly carried out, between him and Sister Celestina. Turns out Nathan and Celestina were having an affair, and Polly got it into her head that the best way to deal with it was to marry them: after all, a man can have two wives, so why can’t a woman have two husbands? Ezra and Isaac win a conflict with Nathan on whether they’ll promise to do the wedding.

Meanwhile, Jeb wanders away from the lawman for some reason, and finds Polly’s house. She admits to the wedding, but says she was just trying to do the right thing. She tries to persuade Jeb to leave town as nothing good can come of the Dogs’ presence, but loses the conflict: Dogs have a duty to sort this stuff out.

The Dogs sleep in the Steward’s haybarn. Jeb is awoken by the feeling he got when the demons attacked him in the storeroom. He tracks it past the Steward’s house and thinks it’s gone to Polly’s place. The conflict here was odd: the stakes were “Do I track the demon?”, but scribb1e and Tom weren’t too sure how to raise and see in this metaphysical conflict. scribb1e gave away more of the location each time she had to block, which seemed wrong: if she’d taken the blow or Jeb had reversed it, maybe. Anyhoo, Jeb came back for the other Dogs. It was morning by now, and they all rushed over to Aunt Polly’s.

Jeb continued to experience the Reek of Wrongness about the place, but the other Dogs sense nothing, and just see an old lady in her nightgown. Maybe she’s in danger. They rush inside. It’s a one room house with no visible demons. Hmmm… Jeb asks Polly to hold his Book of Life for him, but she demurs. Uh oh. We kick off a conflict with stakes of “Do we find out what’s going on?”, which escalates suddenly when Polly becomes possessed and starts flinging kitchen knives. At this point, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, and we decide we’ve probably got the stakes wrong. scribb1e reckons she should have just narrated us finding out Polly’s a sorceror and then let us decide what to do as a conflict. As it was, when Jeb accused Polly of invoking the demons to try to help Celestina, scribb1e gave way: we’d worked out what was going on.

We were running out of time and didn’t want to start a follow on conflict. Jeb’s all in favour of shooting Polly, but Ezra’s reluctant to shoot his old aunt, even if she’s been summoning demons which, rather then helping Celestina get pregnant, have been causing miscarriages and stillbirths. Just for fun, Ezra’s the only one with a sidearm (the other two have long rifles which are back in the barn) so there could even have been some conflict between the Dogs.

We’d decided Nathan can’t marry Celestina because it’d be condoning adultery, and their marriage was invalid in any case, because Polly’s a false priest. scribb1e reckoned Nathan might try to leave the Faith and take Celestina with him, but we never played that out.

In the end, we had to stop as it had gone midnight, but alas, the juicy conflicts were still to be played out. lumpley recommends against spending too much time with everything shrouded in mystery: the fun in Dogs is resolving the impossible situations, not in working out who’s sinning against whom. I don’t think scribb1e did too much of the mystery stuff, but we did spent a while resolving the initial conflicts where everyone in town wants to persuade the Dogs to back their side.

I think another hour would have enabled us to sort the sinners out to our satisfaction, and that more practice at the game would have enabled us to sort out stakes for conflicts better. We spent some time sorting out how the rules worked, too. The co-operative story telling was interesting. scribb1e said that GMing it felt not too dissimilar to being a player, and indeed it was Tom (in his initiatiory conflict) who turned the supernatural dial up from demons as bad luck to demons having some visible presence, albeit as shadows where none should be. I enjoyed it and liked the poker raise/see mechanic for conflicts, even if it wasn’t clear how to use it for conflicts which weren’t with a particular person. Would play again.

Dawkins Our Leader was on Minnesota public radio. I was interested because some people on the radio station’s live blog of the interview were saying that Kerri Miller, the presenter, was too aggressive. I don’t think she was. Dawkins isn’t a Muslim or Christian in need of molly-coddling lest he accuse people who disagree with him of being disrespectful. Her directness got quite a few interesting responses from Dawkins:

Deism is Wrong but Respectable. There was a bit of fuss on some Christian blogs about this when he said it in the Dawkins/Lennox debate. It seems as if people have an idea of Dawkins as the Pope of Atheism. His arguments are soldiers and any concession towards theism is a sign of victory for God. As Ruth Gledhill found, he seems the opposite of the Pope of Atheism in person.

Theism is Ignorant and Infantile. Dawkins feels no shame in referring to popular theism as a belief in an imaginary friend. Rilstone says this metaphor is actually pretty close in some ways, so it’s not clear why so many Christians get upset about it.

Dawkins wonders why sophisticated theists bother to call themselves Christians when they don’t believe in any of the uniquely Christian stuff (virgin birth, water into wine, even resurrection in some cases). He shows a touching faith that a Church of England clergyman would accept this stuff (he’s talking about Polkinghorne, whose theological position I don’t know).

Theist scientists like Francis Collins show a double-mindedness that Dawkins finds curious. Not everyone is convinced that single-mindedness is a virtue, though, as recent convert Sam Harris argues: “If Francis Collins wants to believe that the historical Jesus was actually raised from the dead and still exists in an ethereal form which renders him both clairvoyant and mildly disapproving of masturbation, these beliefs do not even slightly detract from his stature as a scientist.”

Mysteries exist to be solved, not celebrated. Dawkins says he has faith (I’m looking forward to seeing the first theist quote mining of this statement), not that the mysteries will be solved, but that trying to solve them is worthwhile. The greatest mystery he’s aware of is the subjective experience of human consciousness.

What of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? Dawkins reckons the evidence is poor. Like evolution, we have to rely on the clues that remain. Those for the resurrection aren’t very good.

Will Dawkins be an atheist on his deathbed, without hoping for an afterlife? Probably: minds and brains seem to be linked, there’s no reason to think you can have a mind without a brain.

Why has Dawkins written The Greatest Show on Earth? Not to reach the dyed-in-the-wool Creationist, but the people who haven’t thought about it yet, the same people he hoped to reach with The God Delusion.