Monday, December 27, 2010

If you can call it that...

I heard this phrase tonight on a podcast. It was a Dan Savage podcast, so you know the guests are going to be...interesting. Today's guest runs a program that helps men get in touch with their sexual energy by giving and receiving erotic massage, to/from other men.

The guy clearly represents a fringe position; he wants hetero men to share erotic massages with other men to improve their health, happiness, and sexual performance with their wives/girlfriends. True or not, this is a position outside the mainstream, yet when describing the program he says the massages "start with 'safe body parts', if you can call them that..."

That bothered me. Not the description of the program - if I was disturbed by people expressing non-standard sexual views I wouldn't listen to the Lovecast to begin with - but his inability to accept that someone might disagree with his position. Either that or he handwaved past a major component of his argument.

Sadly, both are behaviors frequently seen in people that hold fringe beliefs. They often have the unfortunate side-effect of making the outlandish belief seem more acceptable, because they hide the major flaw or faulty premise with a quick act of legerdemain.

Put differently, this is the tactic used by many tele-pundits in the Wikileaks coverage: "Assuming for the moment that Assange is found guilty; in that case, shouldn't we seek the death penalty?" Debating hypotheticals is one thing, but this behavior is problematic; in this country we're supposed to start by assuming innocence, until proven guilty, yet this premature discussion is jumping straight to sentencing! Now the airwaves are full of the hypothetical debate, instead of the actual one, and Assange's defenders are wasting time fighting the hypothetical instead of focusing on the actual issue. It's crappy argumentation, and they get away with it because no one calls them on it.

Of course, religious people are all too familiar with the behavior. Or, at least, they start to be if they take time to look around. I listen to, and occasionally enjoy, Ari Goldwag's Parsha of the week podcast; he has a bad habit of saying, essentially: "Given that Abraham had great mystical powers, it clearly follows that..."

Wait a second; back up the bus here. He has what now? How did we get there? You've made a huge cognitive leap that the rest of the home audience may not be able to replicate. It somewhat begs the question; we can't debate the mystic purpose of Abraham's sojourns until we establish he was, in fact, a mystic!

Unless you're using this to screen for like-minded people. Maybe it's a screen for education; he's assuming, or requiring, a certain amount of study or familiarity so he can just say, "As Rashi proved...", without explicating Rashi's proof. Maybe he is only interested in similarly mystical, scholarly adherents, in which case he's preaching to the choir. But an argument that only holds up within the group putting it forth is a bad argument.

I don't really want to pick on Ari here; his podcast is well researched and insightful, even when I don't agree with those insights. Once or twice per episode I have to turn off the iPod until I calm down enough to listen more, but I like that he challenges me and I have gotten several good ideas from him. I'm just pointing to him as an example of the type.

I feel I have lost the track of this train of thought, so I should bring it to a close. I was just stunned by my visceral reaction to someone that was more amusing than offensive, and examining my response I realized this was why. The casual way he dismissed his detractors; "...if you can call them that..."...

Have enough perspective to understand that those who disagree with you might, at least, have reasonable grounds to do so. Have enough perspective to recognize that, no matter how much sense it makes to you, your belief may be pretty "out there" for most people.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I probably could make some clever statement relating Wikileaks to Hannukah, but that's not the point. The point is that what's happening to this company is really horrible, and regardless of what Wikileaks did or did not do, we should be more outraged by the treatment they are receiving.

I read today that PayPal has joined the list of companies abandoning and distancing themselves from Wikileaks. At the end of the post is this comment:
Although these companies have said that their terms of service forbid the support or facilitation of illegal activity, such pronouncements about Wikileaks are debatable. While it is a crime to leak classified information, receiving and publishing it is not.
I acknowledge that there is room for debate about the legality of Wikileaks actionis, and I join with those calling them foolish for doing what they did regardless of the legality, but all of this punishment is happening in the social and business sphere, pre-trial.

Let me say that again. As far as I've heard, Wikileaks has not gone to trial. They have not had charges brought, and have definitely not been found guilty. Yet the US government is swinging their weight around in what amounts to an attempt to put the company out of business.

And what's happening? Company after company is caving, running as far away from these "villains" as they possibly can. Amazon and PayPal now get to define "criminal" activity? I should be very careful about what I use their services to buy, then, lest I trip some invisible "US Government Doesn't Approve" alert.

There's also more than a little bit suspicious about the "criminal charges" now being pressed against Wikileaks's founder. Admittedly, I haven't been following the case closely, but it sounds like a case that should have been thrown out before it had time to even look around the courtroom.

Why's this bother me? For one, our government doesn't have a very good record when it comes to government-sponsored witch hunts. Yes, I'm looking at you, Joe McCarthy. And this harassment of Wikileaks sets an uncomfortable standard.

What if they determine that the New York Times, in reporting on the Wikileaks case, aided in the dissemination of top secret information? What if Google, by returning search results about it, is culpable? Especially since most of the information that came out is, frankly, very stupid. Like Junior High note-passing stupid. "Sarkozy thinks Putin has a big nose and smells funny!" "Gaddafi's new girlfriend is a complete slut, and have you seen what he's wearing?"


Hey, Congress, if you really think Wikileaks did something damaging, arrest them. What, are you worried because you know it was completely legal, and you don't want the further embarrassment? Either put up or shut the hell up.

And Amazon and PayPal and all you other craven corporations? Stop shrinking away to hide just because the government looked at you all mean. That's not how it works. Stand up to them now, or lose the ability to ever do so.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Comments Fixed (Hopefully)!

Several people have told me comments weren't working on blog posts. I think I fixed it, finally. All I had to do was get rid of the template I'd spent so much time customizing. Guess it's good that happened during Hannukah; fits with the whole "rededication" theme.

Gaming and Ethical Questions

One of the things I love about tabletop RPGs is they provide an excellent laboratory for interpersonal interaction and ethical dilemmas. Most of the time people keep the game at a very surface level, but every once in a while it goes deeper, or prompts an interesting question.

For example:

I'm in a Pathfinder game that just started a few weeks ago. We've only had a few sessions, so I'm still developing my character and finding my role in the party. One of the things I knew for certain is I did not want to be the party's voice/smooth talker; it's a role I've played many times, especially as a GM, and I wanted to try something different. Accordingly, I deliberately built my character without the social skills and traits I would need to be good at that role mechanically; one of my favorite parts of RPGs is how game mechanics interpret and reinforce the story, so leaving Diplomacy off my sheet is an important reminder that I'm not supposed to be the diplomat.

It's also important to me not to be the social character because there's another player who is running a social character - a Bard. I don't want to step on her toes, especially since she's never played this type of character before. I know how easy it is to get discouraged from trying to play a Bard well; you worry so much about being clever or a smooth talker that you over think it, and sound more like a bad theater or English major than a silver-tongued scoundrel of legend. So mechanically and behaviorally I have incentive to let other people take the lead in social-based encounters.

Our most recent session was a lot of fun, but there were several moments that I felt I was overstepping my character's bounds, letting my personal "sneaky-bastardness" substitute for my characters. It worked - and more importantly was a lot of fun! - but afterwards I felt...guilty? That's the closest I can describe it. And it got me thinking: is it more important for me to act in the group's best interest, even if it means overstepping my bounds, or to let designated group member do their job and risk failure?

The question extends beyond gaming. I saw this type of situation develop time and time again working with volunteer groups. In almost every one of those situations the "helpful" volunteer was severely overstepping their bounds, and their action was detrimental to the group in the long run because they taught the newbie to depend on them rather than do it independently, or weren't able to focus enough on their other tasks, or ruined other plans they were unaware of in their narrow view of the situation.

It's easy to write off people those volunteers as "more interested in their own status than the good of the group"; frequently that's true, but there are also people that legitimately have the group's best interest at heart, and just don't understand the full consequence of their actions.

On the other hand, there are moments when timely action on your part can save a project from the incompetence or inexperience of the person that should be doing it. Inaction at those moments is as bad or worse a crime as whatever it is you should have prevented; you can't, for an extreme example, allow your company to send out toxic cat food just because quality control isn't your job.

The trick is in determining which type of situation you're in; that's often an easy call as an armchair quarterback or after the fact, but can be very difficult while you're in the moment. It's easier said than done, but I find that if you can honestly focus on the good of the group you will usually make the right choice.

So did I make the right choice? I think so, because it contributed to the enjoyment of the entire party and I didn't overshadow any of the other players, deliberately or otherwise. Ultimately this instance is not terribly important - this is only a game, after all - but the question it prompts is.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Holiday Frustrations

Yes, I know this post from Cake Wrecks is written in jest; my frustration, as I've walked through the stores this season, is that many retailers really do seem to think this level of stuff qualifies as Hannukah-themed.

When the heck did blue & white come to mean Hannukah? I know, I know; 1948, when "Israel" became synonymous with "Jewish". Ironically, I got really upset when I saw blue & white "Merry Christmas!" wrapping paper; what, are they trying to trick Jews into buying it?

"Honey, I wrapped all the Hannukah presents and...wait, the paper says "Christmas"? Well I guess we have to be Christians now!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Happy Assimilated Hannukah Everyone!

Happy Hannukah to all; may your dreidles spin mightily and your candles burn brightly!

Last year I celebrated by making latkes that caused heartburn for eight days, even though I only used enough oil for one. Not repeating that.

Thought for the week: last year our temple had a guest speaker most notable for the fact that every time he visits us, he pisses off at least me and usually one of my friends. Not in a "Sir, I disagree with your conclusion!" kind of way; more a "Why did you tell my Catholic friend that all Christians are guilty of massacring Jews at Easter?" way.

Anyway. Last year he gave a very patriotic/jingoistic "Yay for Hannukah!" speech, celebrating one of the central story of the holiday: the victory of traditional Judaism over the Hellenistic Jews. A triumph of preserving our religion, he said!

Problem is, he said this in a room where every Jew was carrying a cell phone on Friday night.

The Hellenistic Jews were the assimilated modern Jews of their day. Nowadays the closest parallel to the Maccabbe/Hellenist conflict is probably the Ultra-Orthodox/Reform rift. Given that, how do we understand Hannukah so that it's a celebration of maintaining and preserving our tradition, without including the self-hating, anti-modernist aspect?