Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I am oppositional

I have more to say on this quote:
But the way we talk about intersectionality doesn’t quite work for atheists.  Just by saying I’m an atheist, I’m telling you that I think your theistic beliefs are wrong.  By telling you I’m a “new” atheist, I’m telling you that I think you’re wrong and you should stop being wrong.  To speak of intersectionality is to look for allies.  But we are not allies, we are opposed. [emphasis added]
Previously I discussed how I think that all beliefs are subject to morality.  So if I have a belief that is factually wrong, then it is also ethically wrong.  But here, I'm not just saying that we disagree therefore we each think the other is wrong.  I'm saying that in this case, it actually puts us in opposition, to the point that I don't want you to be my "ally".

Being oppositional makes sense for atheism.  There isn't really a possible state where we coexist and agree on everything.  This is unlike sexual orientation, where it's possible for us to have different orientations and coexist.

But I also think being oppositional makes sense for vegetarianism and veganism.  Vegans believe that consuming meat is wrong.  So vegans and omnivores can't really coexist and agree on everything.  And yet all the vegans and vegetarians I know (many of whom are active atheists) don't really push the point.  Why is that?  Why is atheism different?

The social context is different.

Animal rights activists have PETA, but most animal rights activists I know dislike PETA for its aggressive shock tactics.  I think my friends are reacting against PETA by being very nice and diplomatic.  But also, the food we eat literally comes up multiple times a day, and it seems neither useful nor comfortable to argue about it every time.  The subject of food comes up often enough without pushing the issue.  (If any of my readers are vegan or vegetarian, perhaps they have more insight into this.)

Atheists operate in a culture where most people don't want to talk about religion in any sort of argumentative or persuasive context.  It's too personal, and people will never agree.  But I think religious beliefs are important, and as such should be discussed out in the open.  The "let's all play nice" attitude enforces the status quo.  When you stand with the status quo, refusing to argue about religion is a way to win on non-rational grounds.

Fuck the status quo.  I'm pretty non-confrontational by nature, and I don't think it's worth arguing with people all the time.  But that's my official position: fuck the status quo.  Religion should be a normal topic of discussion.  Maybe we avoid it at the moment because we don't have that kind of relationship, or because people are jerks, or because there's something else important to talk about.  But don't avoid it just because it's religion.

Imagine if whenever we tried to talk about sexism, people declared that beliefs about gender are just too personally important to be discussed, and anyway nobody will ever be convinced, and we all just have different interpretations of the same truth about gender, and by the way why are you so angry?  I'm wasn't angry before, but now I'm convinced that I should be!

Another aspect of it is that people are afraid of even vaguely resembling evangelical Christian bogeymen.  This strikes me as akin to arguing that Obamacare is a Nazi policy.  What we hate about the Nazis was their healthcare system?  What we hate about evangelical Christians most is their desire to persuade people?  That's funny because what I hated about evangelical Christians most is the way that they obstruct progressive public policies, hinder public science education, and teach queer kids to hate themselves.  Specific recruitment tactics may be problematic, but persuasion is just an instrument, no worse than using pews, microphones, or weekly meetings.

"Allies" suggests having a "live and let live" attitude.  But that's exactly the sort of thing I oppose, the very thing that has been smothering discourse about religion.  Maybe in the future, culture will be different, and we can have a live and let live attitude without it secretly being a tool to enforce the status quo.  In the mean time, I will do without "allies".

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Beliefs are moral

A few weeks ago, in my post on The Asexual Agenda talking about atheism, I said the following:
But the way we talk about intersectionality doesn’t quite work for atheists.  Just by saying I’m an atheist, I’m telling you that I think your theistic beliefs are wrong.  By telling you I’m a “new” atheist, I’m telling you that I think you’re wrong and you should stop being wrong.  To speak of intersectionality is to look for allies.  But we are not allies, we are opposed. [emphasis added]
At least a few people found it shocking: I ended up arguing with one commenter, and my coblogger disagreed with it on her personal blog.  I had intended to shock, but it was still surprising to see people being shocked by something that to me is so basic.

It is possible to believe in something, and not really believe in it--brains are physical objects and we don't have complete control in them.  But I really do believe that there is no supernatural, and that supernaturalists are factually wrong.  Thus I am an atheist.  It is possible to be an atheist and not believe that others should believe in atheism--and "should" is just equivalent to saying that it's morally/ethically correct.  But I really do believe that supernaturalists should stop believing in the supernatural.  Thus I am a new atheist.

You might not be an atheist, or you might not be a new atheist.*  If so, you are wrong, and should stop being wrong.  If you are a new atheist, you are still wrong (about something else) and should stop being wrong.

*I am simplifying because being a "new atheist" also requires living in the 21st century, having some contact with atheist communities, and liking the label enough to adopt it.  But here I am using "new atheist" in the reductive sense of an atheist who believes that others should be atheists.

You believe that I am wrong about some things too, and I believe that you should believe that I should stop being wrong.

In short, I believe that beliefs are subject to morality.  People "should" believe what is factually correct.  I don't think it's an absolute principle, but I would say that this is generally true at least.  When I argue on the internet I don't know what your particular circumstances are, but on average I would say that my readers are better off with correct beliefs.

Correct beliefs lead to better decisions.  Even if incorrect beliefs incidentally lead to good decisions, "incidentally" implies that they are unreliable about it.  Christians who believe that gay sex is okay because of their particular Biblical interpretation are incidentally correct.*  That's not good enough, because now I can't rely on them to be ace-friendly, for instance.

*I think these people usually aren't using the Bible as a moral basis, but rather their moral intuitions informed by cultural norms.  But this is also only incidentally correct.  The same moral basis applied fifty years ago would not have been gay-friendly, and in fact was not.

This is true of belief-forming mechanisms as well.  A better belief-forming mechanism leads to better beliefs, leads to better decisions.  Even if a belief-forming mechanism incidentally leads to a correct belief, "incidentally" implies that it is unreliable.  Skeptics who exclusively use mockery to attack Creationists are incidentally correct.  That's not good enough, because now I can't rely on them to, you know, have any correct beliefs outside of skepticism.

Believing in god is a belief, but perhaps more importantly, a belief-forming mechanism.  The god-belief itself may not do a whole lot, but it may cause you to have more respect for religious authorities, cause you to believe in prayer, altmed, moral theology, or even just the naturalistic fallacy.  If you don't believe in those things, you are incidentally correct.  Good for you, but not good enough.

Above all else, I want to be correct.  Wanting you to be correct is just an application of the golden rule.  And most of all, I want you to want me to be correct.  I don't want you to be an asshole about it, and I want you to do your due diligence if you're going to persuade me of something.  But it's important to me, because you may be in a better position to persuade me than I am.

(There will be a part 2 to this post.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Minimum wage is complicated

According to a simple economic analysis, minimum wage should decrease employment.

At equilibrium, the wage level is set such that the supply of workers is equal to the demand for workers.  If we artificially set wages higher, then the supply of workers increases (as more people are willing to work) and the demand for workers decreases (as fewer employers are willing to hire).  The level of employment is set by the supply or demand, whichever is lower.  Thus a minimum wage should create a demand-limited market with fewer people employed.

Personally, I would support increasing the minimum wage whether or not it reduces employment.  In light of the gross wealth inequality in the US, I am in favor of transferring as much wealth to unskilled workers as possible.  Thus, I do not actually want to maximize employment, I want to maximize the product of wages and employment.  Even though a higher minimum wage might hurt some people by costing them their jobs, there is a net gain in wealth to the class of unskilled workers.

One thing that annoys me about (other) people who advocate increasing minimum wage is that they never seem to discuss the argument that it decreases employment. Do they believe that decreased employment is an acceptable cost, or do they believe that the simple economic argument is incorrect?  If the latter, why is it incorrect?  Silence is just about the least satisfying rebuttal.

But the other day I heard an interesting argument.  Minimum wage workers currently have their income supplemented by welfare.  This allows employers to skimp on wages, essentially benefiting from welfare.  A minimum wage should be implemented such that employers can no longer do this.

Intriguing, but does it actually work as an explanation?

I wanted to do some simple mathematical analysis, like I did with monopolies and monopsonies, but I immediately ran into problems.  For one thing, a simple analysis of welfare suggested that it should actually increase wages, not decrease them (perhaps I'll show this in a different post).  For another, a quick bit of research revealed that nobody understands how minimum wage affects employment.

Apparently, it's one of the hottest questions in economic research.  A few major meta-analyses show that there is no link between state-level minimum wage and unemployment, and that net positive results are due to publication bias.  However, there might be a link for federal minimum wage.  Economists have proposed all sorts of explanations but few of them I can understand, and none of them have consensus.  One thing's for sure, the simple economic analysis is inadequate.

Lesson learned: I was wrong.  I had a little bit of knowledge of economics, but this is a case where a little knowledge is actively harmful.  I believed that I could apply simple economic analysis when I couldn't.  People who argue that minimum wage does not increase unemployment, but fail to supply any reason for this are in fact taking the correct position.  So far as we can tell, minimum wage does not necessarily increase unemployment, and so far as we can tell, no one knows why.

Friday, June 20, 2014


 Tornado, by Francis Ow and David Petty.  Instructions online.

I've previously shown a couple examples of "planar models" of origami.  I still have a handful more.  But this model is different.  It's a pseudo-planar model.

The thing about the planes in this model.  If you follow one of these "planes" around in a circle, you arrive in a different place than you started.  And if you keep on going round and round, you will have covered the entire model.

I drew a diagram of this model, way back.  Check it out!
Later I found a small error in this image.  Can you find it?

The diagram is probably difficult to understand without having the hands-on experience of actually creating a planar model.  Each line represents a "plane".  When two lines cross each other, that represents an intersection of the two planes.  But in a real planar model, each line is a circle, eventually reaching back to its original location.  Here, the planes don't go in circles, but go in spirals.

The other thing to notice about the diagram is that it's based on a particular polyhedron, but it's a rather irregular polyhedron.  This polyhedron has 8 triangle faces, and 10 quadrilateral faces.  That's not a regular polyhedron at all.  It's some sort of... well they aren't even regular triangles or quadrilaterals!  The polyhedron is pretty chaotic, not gonna lie.  But the chaos is beautiful.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

More literal spaghetti

Yesterday, I wrote about the spaghetti metaphor for Everettian Quantum Mechanics (aka Many Worlds).  Unfortunately, the metaphor breaks down because different worlds in quantum mechanics can constructively and destructively interfere with each other on a microscopic level, although we generally don't need to worry about this on a macroscopic level.

But there is another interpretation of quantum mechanics for which the spaghetti metaphor is more exact.  I'm speaking of the Bohmian interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The Bohmian interpretation is usually the go-to example for how we can have a deterministic theory of quantum mechanics.  In Bohmian theory, every particle has a well-defined trajectory, and only occupies one position at any given time.  The fact that we can't predict exactly where the particle will be just has to do with the fact that we do not (and cannot) know with certainty the particle's initial position.  Bohmian theory makes all the same predictions as the other major interpretations of quantum mechanics.  But this comes at a cost: faster-than-light information transfer.

I'm largely a Many Worlds partisan, but I give the Bohmian interpretation credit, because it basically starts with the Many Worlds interpretation.  In Bohmian theory there is no wavefunction collapse.  Instead, the wavefunction simply evolves according a single equation, and splits into many worlds just like in the Many Worlds interpretation.

The difference is that the wavefunction is not interpreted as a description of reality (and therefore there aren't really many worlds).  While the wavefunction is a real object, it is seen as distinct from all the particles we see around us.  The wavefunction is interpreted as a pilot wave which merely guides the motion of particles.*  All particles have a definite position, and we just need is this complicated pilot wave object to determine their motion.

*For those who have studied quantum mechanics, it's actually quite simple to understand.  Even in standard quantum mechanics, we speak of the probability current.  We can obtain the probability "velocity" by dividing the probability current by the probability density.  Bohmian theory interprets this literally, by having the particle velocity equal the probability velocity.

To relate this to the spaghetti metaphor, let me consider the classic double slit experiment.  We send light through two slits, and the waves coming from the two slits interfere with each other.

 Waves of light go through two slits, located at the bottom, and travel upwards.  (Technical details: I'm just showing the real part of the wavefunction, with blue positive, red negative, and green zero.)

At some points, the waves interfere constructively, and at other points they interfere destructively.   This creates alternating dark and light fringes.  In more ordinary quantum interpretations, this is because the wavefunction of the light determines the probability that the light is in any particular location.

 The colors here show the probability that light is in any particular location.

But in the Bohmian interpretation, we do not interpret the wavefunction as probability.  Instead, we interpret it as a pilot wave.  The light goes on a well-defined trajectory, it's just hard to predict which particular trajectory it's on.

Here I show many possible trajectories for the light, as calculated using Bohmian theory.  As you can see, particles don't respect conservation of momentum, and even though light only goes through one slit, it is obviously affected by the presence of the other slit.  (You can find lots of similar images on the net, but this whole post is really an excuse for me to write a Bohmian calculator, so I'm giving you my image.)

Perhaps now you can see how this follows the spaghetti metaphor.  Each possible trajectory for the light is a single strand of spaghetti.  When we speak of probabilities in quantum mechanics, we're really talking about our degree of belief that we are in any particular strand of spaghetti.

The difference is that in the Bohmian interpretation, there is only one strand of spaghetti, the one that includes us.  And in my Literal Spaghetti interpretation, there are many strands of spaghetti, of which we are just one.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Convergent spaghetti worlds

3:AM Magazine had an interview with Alastair Wilson, a philosopher who thinks about the Everettian Quantum Mechanics (also known as the Many Worlds Interpretation, henceforth referred to as EQM).  It's nice to know that some philosophers are thinking seriously about it, since physicists generally aren't trained or paid to do so.  Wilson plays to the strengths of his academic discipline by identifying the most interesting questions of Many Worlds.  I'd like to discuss a few of them.

Branching or parallel worlds?

Wilson says:
In informal or popular discussions, people use two metaphors pretty much interchangeably to describe the Everettian multiverse: branching worlds and parallel worlds. Of course, these two metaphors are in tension: the former suggests mereological overlap of worlds, like a branching tree, whereas the latter suggests mereological distinctness of worlds, like a packet of spaghetti.
Wilson goes on to note (correctly) that the many worlds of EQM are an emergent macroscopic structure, from the much more complex fundamental structure of quantum physics.  Therefore, the question of a branching tree vs a packet of spaghetti is really a question of which is more useful.

Wilson prefers the spaghetti metaphor because it partially resolves the "probability problem" of EQM:  If all of the many worlds exist, then how does it make sense to assign probabilities to each of the many worlds?  In the spaghetti metaphor, when we speak of probabilities, the probabilities represents our belief that we are in any particular noodle.

I am agreement with Wilson, but it's worth poking at that answer.  Let's consider the simplest kind of world-splitting.  No, not the double slit experiment, even simpler!  Consider a beam splitter.

A beam splitter takes a beam of light, and reflects half of it while transmitting the other half.  It's a rather standard optic, and we have several of them on the laser table in our lab.

But suppose that instead of a beam of light, we had a single photon of light.  Even though there's only one photon, this single photon will still split paths, becoming a superposition of path 1 and path 2.  We've generated two distinct worlds, one where the photon is on path 1, and one where it's on path 2.

But these worlds are not very different from one another.  Put another way, they are very close to each other in parameter space--all their parameters are exactly the same, except for the one parameter describing the location of the photon.  Because the worlds are very close to each other, it is possible for them to interact, and experimentally feasible to make them interact in a controlled manner.  In the EQM picture, we would say that the worlds have not yet diverged. Note that the distinction between divergent worlds and not-yet-divergent worlds is an emergent distinction rather than a fundamental one, since it partly has to do with what is experimentally feasible.

The beamsplitter in reverse

Yes, it's entirely possible to join these two worlds together again, to perform the beamsplitter experiment in reverse.  Simply place mirrors on the two beam paths.  This is a very common setup, called an interferometer (used in many experiments, but best known for the one that led to Relativity theory).

It's called an interferometer is because the light can actually end up on two paths: path A or path B.  Whether it ends up on path A or B depends on whether the waves of light are in sync or out of sync, which is to say, whether they interfere constructively or destructively.  Let's say that they interfere in such away that they only go down path B.

This presents a problem for the metaphor of the packet of spaghetti.  Let's treat path 1 as a packet of spaghetti, and path 2 as another packet of spaghetti.  If we have just path 1 on its own, half of its spaghetti goes down path A, and half of it goes down path B.  And if we have just path 2 on its own, the same thing happens.  And yet, if we have the photon go down path 1 and path 2 simultaneously, all of the spaghetti ends up on path B.

There is spaghetti from 1 that goes down A, and spaghetti from 2 that goes down A, but rather than adding the quantities of noodles in A, we subtract them.  Here the metaphor of spaghetti just breaks down, since there's no reason you would ever subtract quantities of spaghetti if we took the metaphor seriously.

But we had already admitted that the spaghetti was just a metaphor for an emergent macroscopic structure of EQM, so it's unsurprising to see the metaphor break down on the microscopic level.  It's just good to keep in mind how exactly it happens, and maintain skepticism about our metaphors.

Why divergence?

Now that I've illustrated how in EQM worlds can converge as well as diverge, we can ask why divergence is so much more common than convergence.  Ultimately, it has to do with the Second Law of thermodynamics, and the increase of entropy over time.

If you have two strands of spaghetti, there are many ways for them to be apart from each other, and only a few ways for them to be stuck to each other.  That is to say, pulling strands of spaghetti apart is associated with an increase in entropy.  Thus, strands are more likely to diverge than converge.

But there's also an issue of dimensionality.  Imagine that the spaghetti strands are close together in parameter space, in that they only differ by one parameter: the location of a single photon.  As long as this is the only parameter which distinguishes the strands of spaghetti, it's as if they're trapped in a low-dimensional space.  They're like cars, trapped on a 2d surface, prone to crashing into one another if we're not careful.  But once the worlds differ by more parameters, we add more dimensions.  It's much harder for two airplanes to collide into each other than cars, because they live in a 3-dimensional space.

However, not impossible

Now imagine that the two spaghetti strands differ by billions of billions of parameters.  This can easily happen, if for instance the photon on path 1 hits a screen, a screen which is composed of about 10^23 electrons and nuclei.  So now we're talking about airplanes not in 3-dimensional space, but airplanes in 10^23-dimensional space.  It's not surprising if they hardly ever collide.

And that's why the many worlds metaphor works.  If macroscopic worlds converged as often as they diverged, then we'd constantly face this problem of interfering noodles.  But convergence only tends to occur on the microscopic levels.

Update: I have a followup post talking about the Bohmian interpretation

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Realistic" characters

I've seen loads of media criticism where we talk about fictional representation of certain groups, or lack thereof. Women in video games. People of color in movies. Queer people in books. Atheists on TV. It's an issue that affects all minority groups in all fictional media. People within those groups would like to see more representation, as well as better representation.

"Better" does not necessarily mean more positive. For instance, east Asians are often stereotyped as very intelligent and studious, which is a problem when Asian Americans can't live up to that. Such stereotypical characters are also often one-dimensional and lopsided. No, "better" does not mean more positive, it usually means more realistic. Realistic, meaning that they have a mix of good and bad qualities, and don't easily fit into standard types.

This is what I think about when I set about writing a novel. Realistic fiction no less, meaning that there are no fantastical or futuristic elements. So far my initial impression is that something is askew with this attitude towards representation, and that rigidly asking for realisticness* doesn't quite work. Realistic characters in realistic settings don't make for the most interesting stories.

*I'm avoiding the word "realism" because "realism" doesn't mean true to reality, it means dark and gritty.

Here's the basic problem. I imagine some realistic characters, and have them interact with each other. To determine the outcome, I think about what these people would do if they were really in that situation. 90% of the time, they don't have any conflict, or if they have a conflict they immediately resolve it, because they are mature and reasonable people. They also waste lots of time on boring things like introducing themselves and arranging times to meet. You can make that sort of thing interesting, but it's a major constraint.

This probably seems like a stupid problem that only I would ever have, but as a baby fiction writer I am allowed to have stupid problems, and write about them.

It seems to me that many other writers have this problem as well, whether they think about it or not. One of the reasons I don't like comedy shows is that they're generally filled with complete jerks, complete idiots, or complete liars, because that's the only way writers can think to generate conflict and comedy. But then, the ubiquity of unrealistic characters in popular TV probably reflects the fact that most viewers just don't care. Maybe it's just a problem with me, that I have these pet peeves which severely constrain storytelling.

Still, I think the media critics are correct, and that it's important to represent groups of people in non-stereotyped ways. But maybe the characters don't need to be realistic at all, they just need to avoid stereotypes. For instance, it's okay for a bisexual character to be a complete caricature, just as long as it isn't the standard caricature of someone who is fickle, infidelitous, and hypersexual. Mix it up by assigning the bisexual person the caricature that we typically assign to a scientist character! Or something like that. Not sure if this actually works.

My other idea is that representations should come in pairs or more. For instance, instead of having one token black character, have two. Make them foils to each other. That way, they can't both conform to the same stereotype.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Asexual atheists on The Asexual Agenda

I wrote a post on The Asexual Agenda opening the topic of asexual atheists.  It's sort of like my "fantastic primer" only it's a much more earnest attempt to start conversation, instead of talking about whatever the hell I want to.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Community agreements and other workshop excesses

At this point, I am trying to stop going to queer conferences. I haven't stopped completely (in fact, I'm going to GaymerX2 next month), but I am trying. I'm tired of conferences, with their inspirational but lacking in substance keynote speeches, and attendees who are all younger and more enthusiastic than I (at least in the case of college student conferences).

And workshops. Some workshops are great, but many are just bad. Here's an illustration of a bad workshop:

The facilitator picks an overly broad and vague topic, like "queer masculinity". Because it's so broad, lots of people think there's something there for them, so there are maybe 50 attendees. The facilitator decides that each person should introduce themselves, where they came from, and their favorite celebrity or whatever. This takes 20 minutes out of an hour workshop, and causes further interruptions when people trickle in later. After that, they spend another 10 minutes on "community agreements", so that we all have the same understanding of how the discussion is supposed to go.

Finally, the facilitator makes it clear that they don't actually know how to run a discussion, and that's why they were stalling so much. People are called on one by one, and allowed to talk for far too long. And no matter what the original topic was, the discussion somehow comes back to one of the strange attractors of queer discussions. Like "labels", there's a strange attractor if I ever saw one. Everyone leaves vaguely unsatisfied.

I'm exaggerating slightly, since most workshops don't have all these bad things all at once. But many workshops have at least one of the bad things.

Like introductions. Unless you have a workshop with under 10 people, what's the point? The more people you have, the more time it wastes, and the less beneficial it is. When 20 people introduce themselves all at once, who's going to remember any names? There are better ways to do introductions, like have people say their name when they speak, or introduce themselves at the beginning of small group discussions. Or skip introductions altogether.

"Community agreements" are intended to maintain safe spaces, but are also often a time waster. Community agreements are often given catchy names like "step up, step back" (don't dominate the conversation), "one diva, one mic" (don't interrupt), "use 'I' statements" (don't overgeneralize your experiences), "don't yuck my yum" (don't mock people for what they like), "ouch, oops, educate" (how we're supposed to treat errors), and so on. There's also "confidentiality", "don't assume", and more. Facilitators pick their favorites.

I will grant that community agreements have some value, but I don't think we should be wasting ten minutes on them, and definitely not ten minutes every single workshop. And some agreements are just too obvious or vague to be much help. I'm pretty sure people know that they're not supposed to dominate the conversation, and that the problem doesn't arise due to ignorance. Sometimes it feels like community agreements are just a superstitious tradition, with no way of knowing if they are effective. Or maybe the agreements are like Pavlov's bells to get the dogs salivating, only we're conditioned to respond to this bell by thinking THIS HERE IS A SAFE SPACE STOP BEING AN ASSHOLE.

As for strange attractors of discussion, maybe they are just a pet peeve, since I never hear anyone else complaining about them. But every time meatspace groups start talking about labels, I get so annoyed. Inexperienced moderators often think "If people are talking so much about labels, then clearly this conversation hasn't gotten enough attention yet!" And there isn't really much I can do to change the conversation because all I can think to say is to tell everyone else how wrong they are, and then I become part of the strange attractor problem.

Lastly, facilitators need to seriously think about discussion structure. Calling on the audience one at a time works when there are ~10 people, but it does not scale!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar

The other night I saw Jesus Christ Superstar again, the newer version from 2000. I've probably seen the musical four or five times by now--I am a fan. But there are also aspects of it I don't care for, which I will get to below.

The really outstanding thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is, of course, the score composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Weber manages to incorporate plenty of musically interesting ideas, and make them easily accessible, and catchy, even. One of my favorite parts is the introduction of the high priests, which uses polytonality to great effect. The high priests sing in a minor key ("He is dangerous!"), while the crowds praise Jesus in a major key ("Jesus Christ, Superstar!"). Polytonality is an idea that is very hard to "get", but in context it makes complete sense. This kind of thing is only possible in incidental music!

And that's not the only song which plays with tone. There are a few examples where the same theme is repeated with different tones (such as when Judas and Jesus argue while Mary tries to calm Jesus down). And there are examples where the musical tone is bright, but the meaning is soured with irony (such as when the zealots ask Jesus to lead them in battle, and when King Herod asks Jesus to perform a miracle).

My least favorite songs are the ones expressing straightforward devotion to Jesus. I prefer music with more anger, bitterness, or tension.

The many devotional songs, especially concentrated near the end, I think speak to the definitively Christian perspective of the musical. But one of the great things about the musical is that it lends itself easily to alternate interpretations. King Herod has a classic scene where he asks Jesus to perform a miracle to prove that he isn't a fraud--Jesus has no response to this. Judas has a relatively sympathetic portrayal, and says lots of sensible things ("You've begun to matter more than the things that you say").

Judas is a jerk, mind you, but then again, so is Jesus. Jesus Christ is like a D&D adventurer who rolled high charisma, but whose player doesn't actually know how to role-play charisma. Everyone is falling over themselves to please Jesus, from Judas to Mary to Pontius Pilate. But never does Jesus do anything to justify this treatment. Instead he spends most of his time throwing tantrums, telling people that they don't love him enough, and offering maddening hints that he intends to die. And then, when he dies, he has the gall to forgive people for carrying out his intentions.

This is part of a larger problem with the musical, which is that it relies too much on the audience knowing and accepting the source material. The audience already likes Jesus, so the musical doesn't spend any time demonstrating Jesus' charisma. On the other hand, the musical still felt the need to hit all the common Bible stories from the New Testament, even when they didn't really fit in with the rest of the narrative. As a result, my boyfriend, a first-time watcher, complained that the plot was very thin, and that it seemed more like a series of unrelated vignettes.

My own complaint is that the ending is just way too slow. Spoiler alert: Jesus dies and everyone is sad. They are so sad that the music loses all its anger and becomes boring. Oh, if only Jesus were still around, he'd make the music more interesting by yelling at people for no apparent reason. Yeah, I'm harsh.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Fractal maze 3: Walls and carpets

See fractal maze 1 and fractal maze 2.  Following those other two examples, I wanted to try designing a maze that would be qualitatively different.  In all previous fractal mazes, lines represent paths.  Why can't lines represent walls, like in a traditional maze?  Because then you can't have paths cross over each other.  So I tried creating a fractal maze which does not have any crossing paths:

Click for a larger version

This maze contains four copies of itself, which for notation purposes I've labeled A, B, C, and D.  If you actually try to zoom in, you'll find that the lines become too thick.  Just pretend that the lines are mathematically thin.  In this maze, you must travel from the start to end without crossing any lines.  (No fair leaving the maze to do it!) 

If you'd like to check solutions, please e-mail me at skepticsplay at gmail dot com.