10 February, 2021

Review: Ibyabek

IbyabekIbyabek by Hannah Blume
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's a rich history of good science fiction that takes contemporary political issues and gives them the trappings of a science fiction setting. It can be helpful for readers to see real-world events reflected in sci-fi, to better understand and identify with the characters involved.

Ibyabek follows in this tradition, showcasing the drama of what we might imagine a space-version of North Korea might look like through the eyes of a young boy trapped within its system. I'm not sure it succeeds at helping readers to identify any more strongly with its real-world analogues, but it definitely does an excellent job of telling a compelling tale.

While Ibyabek does include intrigue, with spies and ambassadors, and weaponry so powerful that it can melt a planet's surface to little more than glowing lava, it does all this solely in the background of a much more immediate story of romance as told by Kyeo, a relatively naive but narratively satisfying character who has lived his entire life on a totalitarian world.

In this short story, we follow Kyeo from his perspective as he learns, grows, and heals. The larger direction the story goes in is somewhat predictable, being so analogous to the real-world equivalent of North Korea for the fictional world of Ibyabek, but the details were still surprising and enjoyable to experience alongside Kyeo. Even the background details were pleasurable to go through; the author Alicorn successfully integrated reasonable descriptions of economics, politics, and the social side of futuristic technology into the background of this story, all told from the perspective of someone who has a very different worldview from us as readers. It's not quite a Flowers for Algernon-level difference between the reader and the protagonist in terms of how they see the world, but this story made the much more difficult attempt to truly give rational depictions of society and culture through that minimal viewpoint, and I'd say that, for the most part, the author succeeded.

I do have a few qualms with the story. There are parts that, if I were Alicorn's editor, I'd have them reconsider entirely. But that goes into spoiler territory, so if you haven't yet read this short story yet, stop reading this review and add it to your reading list. I heartily recommend it, especially given how fast a read it is.

If you're still here, then be forewarned: the rest of this review is spoilery.

There are two big objections I have to the story, and both are so large that I don't think they are fixable without significant effort. First: Alicorn has successfully got a story started where the point of view character has a completely different way of looking at things. This is great! When Sarham is introduced, they are reserved in what they say, which is also great. It allows us to learn things from what is deliberately not said, even when Kyeo doesn't. But then, when Sarham returns later in the story, he is allowed to speak freely -- and it turns out that he's highly competent. There isn't anything wrong with including such a character in most stories, but in this particular story we already have this great tension between what we as readers have to figure out and what Kyeo is saying to himself. Yet when Sarham is free to speak later on, he just tells us things that we no longer have to figure out on our own. I realize that reworking Sarham to be less intelligent would completely change the story, and it would no longer be the story that Alicorn wanted to write here, but I find myself wishing that I could read an alternate story that keeps that same divide between the protagonist's POV and the reader's POV all the way to the ending. The latter part of the story lost that special feeling of having to puzzle things out that the earlier parts held.

Second: Reading Sarham's account felt too much like telling instead of showing. I realize that this partially the point: we are trying to go back and see things from Sarham's point of view, after all. But there had been a build up of suspense on what Sarham might have written about, and when we finally get to the point where it is read, it is just... read. Sarham's writing is...explanative. I realize this is on purpose; it's how this Sarham would write. But it slowed the action to a crawl during the book portions. Narratively, it might have been better to show this in a different way, or to not show it at all. In a movie, I can imagine them switching to a flashback from a different character's perspective. In a short story, though, I'm not sure what would have worked better. All I know is that I had a feeling of tension that gripped me throughout the buildup before the book section, and all that tension dropped while I read Sarham's actual text.

I also was not entirely happy with the ending. I like the idea of the specific ending line and its callback to Kyeo's earlier fears, but the six paragraph section felt too rushed to me. Too much happened too quickly. At the end of the previous section, Kyeo was still the most recent arrival to Crane Mountain. In the final section, new arrivals appear, he got used to making plans, he started getting a stipend, he passed a test, and he moved out. This is several months worth of events described n only a few short paragraphs. While I do think the ending line is great, and the line necessitates him being in his new place, the speedup from the previous section was not at all expected and felt too rushed to me. The first three paragraphs of this section, in retrospect, depicts events over the course of months, but as you are reading it for the first time, you can't know this until you get to the line where he passes his "integration test", which you know must be months later. As a result, I had to stop, reinterpret the previous three paragraphs as a big time skip, and then continue to the ending. I would have instead appreciated a line like: "As the months passed, Kyeo met the new people coming in...". While not great, something like this would key in a first time reader to realizing that the events of the next few paragraphs are occurring at a much different pace than the preceding sections. I think that would help with making the steps toward the final line be a little more smooth.

View all my reviews

26 January, 2021

Katherine Hess is the 2020 Maryland Art Educator of the Year!

The NAEA Awards are for every state in the US.
Congratulations to Katherine Hess for earning the Maryland Art Educator of the Year award!

It feels like déjà vu because this seemingly keeps happening every year. But in fact Katherine has continually won more and more prestigious awards each year for her excellent work as an art educator. In 2017, she was presented with the Montgomery County Secondary Art Educator of the Year award, showcasing her high school work at the county level. Then, in 2019, she won the Maryland Secondary Art Educator of the Year award, which is presented to high school art teachers at the state level. But this year, on March 4–7 at the virtual 2021 NAEA National Convention, the National Art Education Association will award Katherine the 2020 Maryland Art Educator of the Year award, the highest award that an art educator of any kind can receive in the state of Maryland.

MAEA is the Maryland division of the NAEA.
Previous awards she's won have been high school based and more local. But the Maryland Art Educator of the Year award is available not only to educators at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels, but also those in higher education, museums, preservice, emeritus, or any other level. This is a big step up from her previously won awards!

Learn more about the IB.
I'm extremely proud of just how much she has done to promote art education in the state of Maryland. Katherine serves as the Department Chair for the Art Department at Seneca Valley High School (2014–present) and the Vice President of Communications for the Maryland Art Education Association (2018–present). She's done quite a bit to help art education both nationally and internationally, including as an International Baccalaureate Visual Arts Examiner in the Eastern and Southeastern Regions of the United States and as an International Extended Essays Examiner for the International Baccalaureate Organization throughout the world (including students from over a dozen countries!). In Maryland, she's headed the Academy of Commercial and Fine Art, developed Secondary Visual Arts Curricula for Montgomery County Public Schools, and helped to develop the first IB Middle Years Programme in Maryland.

Katherine and the always fluffy Jasper.
Katherine has been especially active during the pandemic, focusing on running social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that help art educators in Maryland succeed, as well as publishing the MAEA Gazette, the MAEA Year in Review, and the Black Lives Matter statement for the Maryland Art Education Association. I am constantly amazed that she has enough energy to do all of this while still providing a positive learning environment in her virtual classroom. (The only lack this past year was in not being able to present her artwork in public anywhere because of the pandemic. A shame, really, as her work has been displayed across five states and won multiple awards in themselves.)

I can think of no better art educator in the state of Maryland than her for this award. Congratulations, Katherine!

(You can send her your congratulations directly on her facebook wall.)

22 January, 2021

Gold Team Representation in Killer Queen Black

Enough is enough. I am tired of seeing Blue team bias in official Liquid Bit posts on the Killer Queen Black discord. We finally get an excellent Gold team image on the KQB blog post for the MMR reset announcement, but when it gets posted to the #announcements channel, it has once again been replaced by Blue team propaganda.

…only for it to be replaced with yet more Blue.
Finally we get Gold representation…

Don't believe me? Take a look at the history of posts in the #announcements channel. The first half dozen posts don't even show Gold team drones at all. When Gold team does make an appearance, it's always something like the holiday steam post where the Gold team drone is depicted as being lazy while the dutiful Blue team drones are busy putting up the stockings. And then a week later when another holiday post goes up for Switch, Gold team is nowhere to be found.

Botler is Blue team. The Fall Guys costumes were Blue team. The only times when Gold team gets celebrated are when Liquid Bit doesn't have a choice, like with the excellent BYOT trophies, or in the August Switch sale post where the fall color scheme forces Gold to be used over Blue.

This doesn't happen when the images are hosted/created elsewhere. One of the IGL images fairly shows both Gold and Blue teams equally (though the circuit pages endorse only Blue!). The AdrenaLAN uses a Gold team drone. Bumblebear showcased a Gold team patriot as the protagonist of Abs vs the Blood Queen. But whenever Liquid Bit sends an email, if a Gold team drone is present, it is undoubtedly being eaten by a snail with a Blue team rider on it.

Every patch uses a photo with a non-Gold team queen. The announcement of the Holiday chat with devs has a bunch of Blue team warriors chasing a poor Gold team drone.

Is this really necessary?

The only fair representation I could find.
The only counterexamples I can find are the Steam Game Festival post, which had fair representation, and the MMR Reset blog post, which triumphantly displays a Gold team swordsman at the top of a mountain of berries. But does Liquid Bit showcase this magnificent Gold victor when they advertise the post in the #announcements Discord channel? No! They instead replace that extraordinary Gold team specimen with some Blue team Abs that honestly needs to get his MMR reset because he is clearly overranked.

Enough is enough! I demand more orange representation in #announcement Discord posts! Let's see the Blue team get eaten in high level posts. Let's see the orange hive full of berries. Gold team deserves better!

[Why do I care? Because orange is my favorite color, obviously. Also, if you couldn't tell, I'm not being serious here. Not that serious, anyway.]

Anh showing off my many orange clothes.

The No Kid Hungry logo, which I helped choose when I worked at Share Our Strength.

The Effective Animal Activism logo (before it rebranded as Animal Charity Evaluators).

02 January, 2021

The Choice to Be Good

[Note: This entry spoils plot points in Cobra Kai, The Sword of Good, and (maybe if you stretch it) My Little Pony. Please only read this entry if you don't mind casual discussion of spoilers or if you've already read the short story The Sword of Good and watched Cobra Kai to at least the first two episodes of the third season.]

John Kreese, Cobra Kai
In the final scene of season 3 episode 2 of Cobra Kai, John Kreese kicks out the weak members of Cobra Kai and gives a speech justifying why he did so.

"Your whole life you've been told to be good. But good is only a matter of perspective. Always remember your enemies think that what they're doing is right. They think they are the hero; you are the villain." —John Kreese, Cobra Kai

Kreese goes on to say that there is no good; there is no bad. Only strength and weakness. We've heard this sort of thing from fictional villains many times before. And while there is a level of truth to this if you buy in to moral antirealism as I do, that same level of skepticism can and probably should be applied to many other things. (For a frank example of this, listen to the final six minutes of Embrace the Void's interview of Jeff Sebo (starting at 1:01:01, though the rest of the interview is also excellent).) Ultimately, speeches like this are reserved for fictional villains. Yet with a small bit of tweaking, rational fanfic style, you can construct from here a position that is not only much more convincing, but which also may very well be true.

I have been told my entire life to be good. To do the right thing, to make the good choice. At first, this was hard for me. I was rather selfish as a child; I cared very little for others, except insofar as it affected me. Even when it did affect me a great deal, I still didn't take care to do well for others, because I incorrectly judged short term personal gains over the problems that I'd create for my then future selves. If I look back to those times, putting myself into the position of that younger me, I believe I would truthfully think: It is hard to make the choice to be good. I know that the choices I am making are bad, but I like what I get when I make those choices. Lying is bad, but lies help me to get sex when I want. Not being there for friends is bad, but I only enjoy these friendships when they make me feel good, and being around when they need me doesn't feel as good, and avoiding them doesn't have negative consequences because they are pushovers.

Yes, I really did learn friendship lessons from MLP.
Does that make me a brony?
Tyson believes that labelling causes people
to make unflattering untrue assumptions
so I'll not label myself.
Putting aside the fact that I was a terrible person back then, I'd like to zoom in on the idea that choosing to be good was a hard choice for me to make back then. It took real effort of will to do. But somewhere along the line, that changed. At some point, the knowledge that eating animals was bad became a moral imperative for me to no longer eat animals. The idea that a friend needed me turned into me needing to be there for them. I can remember watching the first season of My Little Pony and learning some lesson about friendship, and then actually putting into practice that lesson by enacting that very lesson with my real life friends. By this point in my life, learning that X is good turned into me deciding that I had to do X. It was no longer difficult at all to make the choice to be good -- knowing that something was good was sufficient for me to actually go through with it.

Of course, I still improved over time, but it was more due to me learning what was good. I found parts of my life that I was morally deficient in and did my best to improve them. I learned from others what they thought about what was good or bad, determined if I agreed, and then changed my life accordingly. To me, the idea that making the choice to be good was a difficult choice to make had become alien and weird. It was hard to identify with my past self who had felt differently.

But I think I may have come full circle on this idea. The me of today, writing this now, once again believes that making the choice to be good is an extremely difficult choice to make. Not because I want to do bad, but because as time passes I become much less certain that I know what good even is. (Or, from the perspective of a moral anti-realist like me, I've become much less certain that I even know what I want good to even be.)

Image from the YouTube version of
Brodski's audiobook version of
Yudkowsky's The Sword of Good.
Our whole lives we've been told to be good. But good seems to be only a matter of perspective. We must always remember that our enemies think that what they're doing is right. They think they are the hero; that we are the villains. Yet if we have proper epistemic utility, we must allow that they may be right! The choice between good and evil is not to say "I choose good"; it is to look at a set of facts and to determine which choice is the good choice.

During Christmas, I skyped with family and we played a discussion game. On each person's turn, we were asked a question that we had to honestly answer, not in a kneejerk way, but to really consider and answer truthfully in front of our family. The card I was dealt asked me about mistakes I had made in 2020. The big one was obvious: I almost died because I had not been properly getting checked up medically. But the other mistake was potentially just as grave: I had not been properly considering the value of actively helping to enact social justice.

Those who know me well will understand that I am still very much thinking through these things. I do not yet know to what extent we should value free open discussion over the comfort of people experiencing social inequity. I know only that either extreme seems wrong to me and that I will likely end up endorsing some middle position between them. But figuring out what actually is the good... That is a question that, once answered, may potentially redirect large amounts of intellectual and financial capital in the EA movement and beyond. As a communicator, I feel that if I am able to find a good middle ground, I may be able to help convince a large proportion of the EA community to take that middle ground seriously. But it is important that I get this right.

I told my family that I was having this problem. That knowing that you want to do the right thing is not enough; the hard part is figuring out what the right thing even is. It's especially difficult when the arguments on one side are well written, competently organized, and internally consistent; while the other side purports to give its best face through a racial equity workshop where the trainer talked about their astrological sign, an insistence that marginalized people feel unsafe even among people who are doing their best to be considerate of racial equity merely because they publicly recognized the achievements of someone else who isn't considerate, and who continually push for the idea that direct impact dominates intent when it comes to support of white supremacist institutional structures, regardless of any other externalities. Quite frankly, it is difficult to take one of these sides seriously given how poor their most-often presented arguments seem to be. Yet (ironically) when I look past the impact of their arguments and instead look to their intent -- when I see their suffering and inability to construct a good argument as to why they are affected so much -- it makes me want to delve deeper, to look further, to seek out what I'm missing. Meanwhile, the other side seems so smug. So uncaring. It's as though on the one hand one side seems to be obviously true, and yet simultaneously the other side seems to also be equally obviously true. The contradiction is striking.

Good seems to only be a matter of perspective. To see clearly, we must disregard status quo bias. Imagine that you're starting from scratch. Look to the consequences. If you must aim solely for greatest utility, then you must properly value fairness to avoid utility monsters. Don't fall for Pascal's mugging. Don't overvalue pithiness. Notice confusion. Do check with someone you trust to see if you've made a mistake in your logic. Set aside how you feel when going through logic, but trust your feelings as an alarm bell if it tells you that something is wrong. Remember, though, that sometimes the error is in the alarm system, not the logic. If your conclusion will seem to harm your public image too greatly, then your temporal discounts are probably too high. Just because one of the sides claims loudly to be the good side does not make it so; but also if they can do so with a straight face then you should value that as evidence that they are in fact doing mostly good things. Overall, we must come to a decision eventually, so don't keep retreading old ground. It is difficult, but we must make the choice to be good. We must.

27 December, 2020

Social Justice and Moral Uncertainty

[Note: This entry spoils portions of the most recent season of The Mandalorian, as well as the excellent rational story Metropolitan Man. Please only read this entry if you don't mind casual discussion of spoilers. I also spoil a few other pieces of fiction, but as most are over 100 years old, it's honestly your fault if you haven't read them by now.]

Well worth the read.
As I work through my understanding of representativeness, equity, and inclusiveness and how they should apply to my work, I find myself thinking back to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, & Wales’ Metropolitan Man. Lopsided power differentials make for poor relationships, even with full good intent. Satan’s argument that God is tyrannical despite his benevolence, purely because he has the final say is paralleled by Nora’s unease with Torvald and Luthor’s fear of Superman.

The power and fear you feel from Anakin in Rogue One is one-upped by Luke in The Mandalorian. It does not matter that Luke is a Light side user; his power is so overwhelming in that scene that his intent does not matter. No one should wield that level of power. Lex’s argument applies: he is just too dangerous to live in our world.

An unequal power dynamic.
These are all fiction, but it reminds me strongly of the power dynamics that exist within our culture of white supremacy. (I'm using the new definitions here, not the old ones that required a higher standard for deeming something white supremacist.) Social justice demands corrective action — the question, for me, is not to question its need, but to what extent should corrective action be prioritized. Satan abandoned paradise; Nora left her children; Lex committed murder. How far is it appropriate for us to go?

It is too easy to say that free open discussion norms trump the outright ban of certain topics. It is too convenient to claim that the needs of tortured animals are so immediate that they take priority over making the animal advocacy community a safe space for disadvantaged members. We can accomplish our goals of doing good without trampling on the needs of other communities. There is no need to take the position that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did when they opposed the fifteenth amendment. Frederick Douglass stood with them from the beginning, but was abandoned when the right to vote was being proposed for black men. I look back upon such decisions in disgust; why did the leaders of these causes break ranks so readily? Why could they not stand together? And then I think of the work that Animal Charity Evaluators is doing and wonder: to what degree are we justified in trampling over others' rights and needs?

ACE holds the position that corporate campaigns to help animal advocacy are good. They may or may not be effective at reducing the total amount of suffering undergone by farmed animals in industrial agriculture, but regardless they are considered as accomplishing good. Yet by working with a company like Burger King, praising it for introducing the Impossible Burger, for example (in 2001 PETA's campaign caused BK to release a veggie burger; then PETA targeted them again in 2006, showing that working with orgs like PETA to reduce bad publicity is a waste of time), we are trampling over the needs of the animals that Burger King kills. Is this justified? I want to say yes. I think that it is still good to endorse corporate campaigns because they reduce real suffering in expectation, even if other animals are tremendously harmed by the organization that we are working with and effectively praising.

Similarly, I recognize that there are black, indigenous, and people of the global majority (bipgm) that are actively harmed by some of the organizations that are doing effective animal advocacy work. They are not harmed nearly as much as the animals are in the previous example, but they are definitely harmed significantly. Is it justified to trample over their needs in order to effectively help the massive number of animals being tortured? I argued for 'yes' in the previous paragraph. Shouldn't I also argue for 'yes' in this one? The harms being incurred in the former paragraph are certainly higher than those being incurred in this one. And yet I find myself leaning toward 'no' instead. It doesn't feel justified to me, but I'm having trouble identifying why this is.

PCRM's reprehensible campaign.
When the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ran a campaign aimed at convincing people to be vegan in 2012, they used fat shaming images in their videos and images. I was horrified. It bothered me that the PCRM was okay with using PETA-level tactics that actively hurt another disadvantaged group. When I learned that Ginny Messina, a member of their board, had spoken against it in their board meetings and been ignored, I lost all respect for the organization. (Messina resigned from their board over their insistence on (and lack of regret for) running this campaign.) I thought to myself: we can do animal advocacy work without actively harming other communities. We should aim to do good in all its forms, even if it sometimes reduces the effectiveness by which we can work on our core mission. This is especially true when our beliefs on which are the most effective interventions have low resilience. I remain convinced that running such ads is not only a bad idea, but that doing so is wrong, regardless of if the inclusion of fat shaming results in convincing more people to go vegan in the short term. I think this not just because I believe that in the long term we must be truthful for marketing and trust reasons, but also because I very, very, very strongly do not want to trample on the rights of fat people while doing the work of saving farmed animals.

Similarly, I want social justice for BIPGM while we work toward effective animal advocacy. I do not feel that it is justified to trample over fellow humans' rights while we do our work. So why am I seemingly okay with trampling over the other animals' rights while endorsing corporate campaigns? Am I being speciesist? Am I undervaluing the needs of the animals being harmed in the former paragraph? Or am I overvaluing the needs of the humans being harmed in the latter paragraph?

Moral Uncertainty
These are very difficult issues that I'm still working through. I'm not sure what is best. I find myself resorting to a Ord/Bostrom-style parliamentary vote of my inner credences and continually wishing that I had a better familiarity with updating on new evidence repeatedly. At subsequent moments, I keep thinking that each side's vote is getting more than its fair share through what seem to be rather one-sided deals — only to then think the same for the other side.

Currently, I just don't know what to think, other than to emphasize that figuring this out is a relatively high priority path for me to be on. And so I will continue to discuss these issues with others until we can come to an appropriate and justified solution.