Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt from the library recently. It was recommended by the Make Me Smart podcast, which I listen to regularly.

Seeing the term "righteous" in the title immediately made me think of this as a religious book, but that's not really the case. The theme of the book is morals and ethics, and of course religion does play a role, but not a major one. The author explains the use of "righteous" in his introduction as an intentional way to point out that the human mind is not just moral, but also judgmental and critical and intolerant (as in "self-righteous").

That's something of a negative start, but it's an important point that drives much of what Haidt has to say. The book is divided into three sections, each of which presents a principle of moral psychology:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Haidt describes the mind as being like a rider (reasoning) on an elephant (intuition - comprised of emotions, gut reactions, etc). When the elephant has a reaction to something, the rider's primary job is to support that reaction. While it's possible for the reasoning rider to change the elephant's direction, it's difficult and rare. Most of the time, our reason looks for a way to justify whatever our gut feels to be true, ignoring evidence or arguments to the contrary.

2. There's more to morality than harm and fairness. This section presents the Moral Foundation Theory, which describes how different morality systems around the world can all be traced back to a few "foundations". The MoralFoundations.org website describes the theory and foundations as well as some of the research supporting the theory. I think this makes a lot of sense - just about everyone has a sense of "liberty" (to use one foundation as an example) but exactly what that means can be very different between people or cultures.

3. Morality binds and blinds. Moral systems are about more than just personal beliefs, they apply to the groups that we identify with. We gravitate toward groups that line up with our intuitions, and those groups also influence our ways of thinking and behavior. People are willing to do things for their groups that aren't necessarily in their individual interests. That can lead to positive or negative results - the same group instincts can lead to supporting charitable organizations or becoming suicide bombers. We're rarely willing to listen to points of view that run counter to the interests of our groups, even if we would benefit at an individual level. Religious and political associations are used as two examples of groups that can have significant impact on how their individual members behave.

I'm far from an expert on ethics or the philosophy of the mind, but the ideas that Haidt presents in this book certainly seem to make sense to me. I've long thought that most people behave in a largely rational manner if you consider that they have an internal set of assumptions (which they are rarely willing to reconsider, despite whatever evidence may exist to the contrary). Haidt's rider-elephant metaphor fits nicely into that concept, so it wasn't much of a stretch to wrap my mind around his model.

Understanding this is one thing, but it can still be difficult to accept for those of us that consider ourselves rational people. I like to think that presenting evidence and well-ordered arguments is a good way to convince people (including myself). When I really stop and think about it, though, there are examples everywhere that reasoning really is secondary to intuition, including many that Haidt describes in the first third of this book. It's especially true in cases where time is short, either because a snap decision is required or because I simply don't bother to spend a lot of time on something.

This model of "intuition first, reasoning second" has obvious applications for advertising, political campaigns, and other kinds of marketing. If you want people to buy your product or vote for your candidate, you need to present something they identify immediately as good, at an instinctual level. Then you can add logical arguments to that gut reaction to seal the deal. Sounds obvious, but it's not always easy, particularly if you're trying to convince a diverse group.

The Righteous Mind was a very interesting read, though not a quick or easy one. The morality model presented by Haidt is a good fit for explaining how diverse groups of people can have such different ideas about what is moral or ethical. I consider my time with this book to be well spent.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

New Holland Pub on 8th 8k

I took a trip a bit east to Holland this weekend for the New Holland Pub on 8th 8k run.

Holland is about a 40 minute drive to the east for me, so I don't get out there regularly, but it's an easy trip. The New Holland Pub is right downtown on 8th Street (thus the 8k distance). Parking was amazingly easy, lots of places within a few blocks. Probably helped that it was a Sunday afternoon, not as busy as a Friday or Saturday would have been.
This was a fairly small event, probably a couple of hundred runners all told. As far as I know, this is the first year they've done it, so it'll probably grow in the future. There was both a 5k and 8k course, and from what I could tell there were about the same number of folks doing each distance. We all got a nice commemorative beer glass, the usual T-shirt, and a complimentary glass of New Holland Brewing beer after the run. (I had a Mad Hatter.)
I enjoyed the course, which ran out from downtown by the river, then back through a park and back to the brewery. A couple of spots did have distinctive odors, though - by the Heinz plant where you could smell the vinegar, and a swampy smell by the park entrance. But the wind was blowing in off the water and those smells didn't linger once I ran along a bit. There was a decent amount of up and down, but no really big hills to slow us down.
The weather was hot and fairly humid, and I felt it, especially in the early going. It's nicer to do these runs in the morning during the summer, but I suppose that would have been a difficult sell with the beer at the end. I felt better a mile or so in when we ran along the river for a while - it wasn't much cooler, but being along the water made it feel less oppressive. I ended up running just over 43 minutes - far from my quickest 8k time, but considering the heat I'm happy with it.
It was nice to make the trip out to Holland and take a run out by the river, and of course sample some New Holland Brewing beer. A race well worth keeping in mind for next year.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Bringing a female superhero to the big screen in a leading role hasn't been done often, but DC did a solid job of it with Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman (2017 film).jpg
Unsurprisingly, Wonder Woman is an origin story. The character appeared briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the entire movie is basically a flashback sequence from that modern-day version of Diana. The entire movie takes place in the past, specifically the World War I era. If that sounds familiar, it's because Marvel did more or less the same thing with Captain America. It's hard to really fault the writers for copying, though, since all these superhero movies have their roots in decades of comic book stories, many of which are very similar. Hard to really say who is copying what, with all that history.

I felt like the movie did a good job of setting up Diana's past, explaining the role of the Olympian gods and her home of Themyscira. Seemed to me that there was enough explanation to make sense to a non-comic-nerd, though I admit that it's hard to tell since I am one. There have been lots of versions of Wonder Woman over the years, and this one seems as good to me as any.

Gal Gadot did a fantastic job as Diana, and I thought the writers and director captured the character very well. Diana's naivete is very clear as she makes her first foray into man's world, but she never seems weak or lost because of it. There's very little sexual content, which isn't easy when your main character is a gorgeous woman running around in skimpy battle costume. There's a fine line to walk with this character, and I think they did an outstanding job.

I wish I could say the same about the action scenes. There's constant use of slow-motion sequences in the middle of the action, and just about every one of them annoyed me. The scenes themselves were fine, well designed and executed. I particularly liked the no-man's-land advance, with Diana playing the "tank" for the soldiers. I just wish the director hadn't been so in love with slowing the action down over and over again. It's fine to do that once or twice, to call attention to some particularly impressive feat or important small detail, but it was badly over-used here.

The plot and minor characters are serviceable, if not particularly impressive. The "twist" with Ares' identity and the god-slayer weapon was so heavily telegraphed that I hesitate to even use the term. Outside of Steve Trevor, other characters are present only as opportunity to show off some aspect of Diana. But none of that is surprising, as it's hard to do much in an origin story film outside of the main character without making things too complex to easily follow.

Wonder Woman is a big step forward for the DC cinematic universe. I know we'll be seeing more of Diana, and I look forward to it. I hope to see more of this quality of writing, directing, and production in the future DCU movies as well.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Diemer Run 5k 2017

The Brian Diemer run was held this weekend over in Cutlerville.
Just about every year the race sets a record for the number of runners, and this year was no exception. An email sent out earlier in the week said that they had passed 1280 registrations for the 5k. And there's a handcyclist race and some kids events as well.

The weather was warm and humid, though a bit less so than last year. Still, plenty of heat, and there were warnings to beware of dehydration. The race officials had plenty of water available, and I didn't see anyone having problems.
I felt fairly good throughout the run, although the heat did take a toll. I was pretty beat by the end - certainly glad this was a 5k and not 10! It helps that the course is nice and flat, along suburban streets with no narrow chokepoints. Finished right around the top third of both my age group and overall, which is about what I expected.

As is the custom, there were several bands set up along the race course. One of them was a bit late and was still tuning up when I passed, but the rest were ready to go. I bring my own music to listen to, but it's nice to have a serenade along the course as well!
Always good to get out in the early summer for a run, especially at an event like this that supports good causes. I certainly plan to be back next year!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Fortitude Season 2

I recently watched the second season of Fortitude via Amazon Prime streaming. It originally aired earlier this year.
Fortitude-titlecard.jpg
Season two of Fortitude is going to look very familiar to those who watched season one (as I did a few months back). Obviously you expect that from the second season of any show, but I thought it was particularly striking here. Almost all the central characters are back (even a couple that didn't look very healthy at the end of season one). The big mystery from season one continues to have effects into season two. Political intrigue, personal relationship drama, and unexplained mysterious deaths are everywhere. And the landscape is still snow, snow, snow with the occasional ice and freezing-cold water mixed in for variety.

None of that is bad, since I liked season one and more of the same is pretty much what I signed up for when I hit play on season two. I will say, though, that this season felt weaker, as if it was a less intense version of the first. Some of that is familiarity with the setting and actors, taking the shine of discovery off, but I also think the writing may have been struggling a bit. It's not easy to follow up success, and I think that shows here.

Having said that, it's still a fun ride through the second season. Some of the new characters are fairly weak - the shaman in particular - but they still have depth. No one is all good or all bad, and there's plenty of misdirection about motivations to keep things interesting. Disturbing and mysterious deaths show up regularly, keeping the suspense going. I also thought the family drama of the Lennox family on the personal relationship side of things was a good addition.

It's certainly very possible that we'll see more Fortitude at some point. There's plenty of plot threads left dangling in terms of the big mystery. While a few characters seem pretty well gone, there are plenty left to keep going. If the powers-that-be decide that they want more tension in the ice and snow, there's room for it.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

2017 Hard Cider Run at Sietsema Orchards

This weekend I went up to Sietsema Orchards for the Hard Cider Run. It's a 5k race through the orchard and surrounding area, with cider waiting at the end.
I did this same race last year, when the weather was terrible. This year, it was a whole lot nicer. There were some clouds in the sky, but no rain, and it hadn't been raining in the past few days either. That kept the trails (mostly) dry. So unlike last year, I wasn't spending a lot of energy simply trying to stay upright on slippery, muddy trails.

That doesn't mean it's an easy course, though. The trails are pretty narrow and the hills are steep. I saw one person trip over a tree root and nearly fall, but fortunately she was able to catch herself on her hands and keep going. According to the GPS on my phone, the course goes up and down more than 100 meters overall. It certainly seemed like we were pretty much constantly going up or down!

The race was much better attended this year. Last year's total was only around 600, while this year we had over 1000. That's good for the race, but it did make things a little more difficult out on the trails. There were several bottlenecks where there wasn't room to pass anyone, even if you set aside the initial starting spot that's always crowded. Plus there were some people who didn't get the memo about there being a race...I ran past a few hikers and an entire scout troop, who had clearly come into the forest elsewhere and wandered into the race course.

Crowding aside, I thought the event went very well. Plenty of volunteers taking care of handing out race materials, enough parking (though it got a bit tight as the morning went on), and even the line for the portable bathrooms wasn't too bad. And of course, there's the cider and doughnuts when you're done, always a good way to end a morning.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Renowned Explorers

The folks at Abbey Games know their business. I loved their first game, Reus - one of the very few that I've enjoyed enough to unlock all the achievements on Steam. Renowned Explorers is their second effort and it did not disappoint.
Renowned Explorers logo.png
In Renowned Explorers, you take charge of a group of three adventurers who set out on expeditions around the globe to discover fame and treasure. The gameplay takes place on three levels:
  1. The between-expeditions strategy phase where you improve your crew, make scientific discoveries, and plan where to go next.
  2. Moving from location to location on each expedition's map. This part is semi-randomized. Many of the map components are always the same, but located in different spots and connected in different ways from one game to the next.
  3. Turn-based battles between your crew and various enemies, ranging from animals to villagers to cultists, and even the occasional angry ghost.
I use the term "battle" loosely, because you have three different approaches for conflict resolution. You can be Aggressive with actual physical harm, or Devious with calculated insults, or make Friendly overtures. The idea is to overcome their resistance to your cause, and any of the three approaches is viable as a primary focus. In each conflict, there's an overall "mood" based on the combination of your approach and that of the enemy. You often need to tailor your approach based on the specific enemy you're facing. For instance, if you encounter a bunch of Devious monkeys, it may not be a bright idea to charge in Aggressively, since your crew gets a penalty when the mood is "Escalated" (you Aggressive, enemy Devious).

I really like this "combat" system that gives you more options than just smacking around the bad guys. Making good use of the mood can swing a conflict in your favor (or vice versa, of course). Which crew members you have along in a particular game can make the exact same encounter play out very differently from one game to the next. And the game might give you bonuses for using a particular approach, giving you incentive to find a way to prevail even despite negative moods.

A game consists of taking your crew on five expeditions. You collect renown based on how well you find gold, gain status in the eye of your peers, and make scientific discoveries. A game is won if you exceed 2500 renown after finishing your five expeditions. I won most of the games I played, though occasionally I'd fail to reach 2500 renown or my crew would be defeated in a tough encounter.

There's plenty of crew members to choose from, divided into four classes: scientist, fighter, scout, and speaker. Each class gives you bonuses at certain types of challenges, and each individual crew member has strengths and weaknesses during conflicts. Choosing a crew such that the members compliment one another is important!

The game got quite a bit easier once I picked up More to Explore, the first expansion. It added two new mechanics that give you additional bonuses: Campfire stories, where your crew's expedition stories give you bonuses; and Treasure bonus choices, allowing you to choose from a set of bonuses when finding a significant treasure. The latter is especially useful since Treasure bonuses are very powerful, so being able to choose one that fits with the crew you're playing helps a lot.

There's also a second expansion out now, The Emperor's Challenge. It adds a whole new game mode where you're collecting trophies based on completing specific challenges, rather than just going for the highest renown score. I haven't played it quite as much yet, but I've liked it so far. The trophy requirements often go against the strengths of your crew, so you need to be extra careful in planning how to get those trophies while still staying alive and completing your expeditions.

There's very little to find fault with in Renowned Explorers, in my opinion. If the style of gameplay appeals to you, then the game will have its hooks in you pretty quickly! My only real complaint is that the options for expeditions is fairly limited, so you end up doing the same things repeatedly as you play more games. The expansions are helping with that by adding more expedition options.

I've made it through about 70% of the achievements in Renowned Explorers, and I fully expect that I'll keep playing until I get the rest. After this and Reus, I'm looking forward to seeing what Abbey Games comes up with next!