Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Value of a Man - Fallout's Charon

This article was originally published at my blog, here.

There are a handful of characters that you can persuade to become your companion in Fallout 3. The majority are based on Karma - if you're too good or too evil, potential companions will just rebuff you when you speak with them about it. One of the few potential companions that doesn't come with a Karma requirement - and who happens to be my favorite companion - is the ghoul, Charon.
Ghouls are basically irradiated humans - at one time or another, they suffered intense, prolonged radiation sickness. Normally, humans die from this, but due to a genetic anomaly, some survived. They look like zombies - their skin is decayed, and possibly, their ligaments. Their lifespans are greatly extended, and they may be immune to (or even healed by) radiation. In Fallout lore, ghouls are the result of radiation alone, consistent with the understanding of the science of radiation in the 1950's.
There are two kinds of ghouls - feral ghouls and intelligent ghouls. Ferals have essentially "gone mad": Museum_of_History_loc (1)they have lost all reasoning capability, and will attack any non-ghoul. Intelligent ghouls act much like normal humans, but tend to form their own communities and seek out their own kind. Humans in the Fallout universe, for the most part, discriminate against ghouls. Some don't, but epithets like "zombie" and "shuffler" aren't uncommon to hear among humans in the game when they're talking about ghouls, intelligent or not.
One of these ghoul communities is Underworld, in the Museum of History. This settlement has what most settlements in the Capital Wasteland have - a trading post, a restaurant, a clinic, and a bar. In the bar, you'll find a slimy car salesman-type ghoul bartender (and owner), Ahzrukhal. You'll also find an unusually tall, quiet, vaguely menacing bouncer standing in a corner, named Charon (he stands more than a head taller than humans and ghouls in the game, making him approximately seven feet tall).
When you speak with Ahzrukhal about the guy in the corner, he'll tell you that he was brainwashed to do the bidding of whoever holds his contract, without question. If you choose to define this as slavery, he'll tell you that Charon did something to land himself there - he doesn't say what.
If you're in need of a companion, you can ask about the contract, and you'll be given a choice: offer money, or kill the bar owner's primary competition. Obviously, paying is the more morally upright option - but the price is pretty steep (depending on your Barter skill, it can be up to 2,000 caps, which you may not have at the moment). The discussion of how much money a man is worth is abhorrent to the nth degree, but it's better than killing a complete innocent. On the other hand, by the time you get to Underworld, you've killed quite a few people and may have made several morally dubious choices that doesn't leave killing another person out of the question.
Either way you choose, you get the contract.
As soon as you inform Charon that you're his new employer, he promptly executes his former boss. Since he wasn't a wonderful person anyway, it's no great loss.  After the deed is done, he turns to you and says:
Ahzrukhal was an evil bastard. So long as he held my contract, I was honor bound to do as he commanded. But now you are my employer, which freed me to rid the world of that disgusting rat. And now, for good or ill, I serve you.
...and (provided you don't already have two companions), he'll follow you out into the wasteland, and help you kick butt.
The Moral Quandary: Since he has no choice but to obey whoever holds his contract, you've Bottle-caps-1essentially bought yourself a slave. Congratulations, Scum of the Earth!
I'm sure that most people will agree with me: slavery is wrong. End of story. BUT - It could be somewhat justifiable in this situation. If your character has good karma, it could be reasoned that a good slave-owner is better than a bad slave-owner, and you got him out of a really crappy situation. It wouldn't be too big of a stretch to assume that being somehow compelled to follow the orders of someone you abhor is absolutely soul-crushing.
Another thing to think about is the extended ghoul lifespan - he'll probably be around when you die, having aged little. The contract would have to change hands again, and my guess is that people who are totally fine with owning other people usually don't tend to be the most kind or charitable souls. The man is essentially a weapon, someone who is compelled to follow orders without question, even if he disagrees with them.
Another wrinkle? He cannot hold his own contract, and it's implied that you can't destroy it, either, so those two options are out. So, this is all grey-area here. There is no black-and-white.  There is no "good" decision; you have to choose the "least bad" decision - whatever that may be.
Man of Mystery
Now, there's a lot of interesting questions about Charon that aren't answered in the game, namely:
  1. How old is he? At the time of Fallout 3, there were still ghouls around that saw the bombs drop 200 years before, so he could be very old or he could have went through the change fairly recently, we don't know.
  2. Where did he get the name 'Charon'? It's likely not the name he was born with. If you've ever studied Greek mythology, you'd note that Charon (or Kharon) is the ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron (the rivers dividing the world of the living and the world of the dead). Apt, for someone of his stature and profession.
  3. Where/when did he receive his combat training? Before the war? After? Who knows?!
  4. Who brainwashed him in the first place? That would be interesting to find out. Inquiring minds...
  5. What unspeakable crime could justify brainwashing someone into being a perpetual slave? I couldn't even venture a guess.
  6. What brainwashing technique did they use? As most disgruntled veterans will tell you by their very existence, "brainwashing" requires maintenance - you can't just put suggestions into someone's head, wave goodbye, and that's that. Brainwashing requires "reconditioning" from time to time - and there's no indication that this happens with Charon, so there's something really weird going on here.
  7. Why rely on a contract - either a piece of fragile paper, or a holotape vulnerable to technological obsolescence - as a method of control? Why not a key, a plastic card, or an engraved piece of jewelry? I'm sure the use of a contract would make it easier to transfer him from person to person, but so would just about any other physical object. It does offer a thin veneer of legitimacy, at least to those who designed it, I suppose.
  8. Why is the contract perpetual, instead of specifying an end date? Most contracts have a
    time period for which they are valid. After the time period expires, the contract is void.
To make it even more heartbreaking, there are no companion quests in Fallout 3 - so the game offers no way to free him from his contract. So, even if you do get him away from his awful previous employer, you're still left being unable to absolve yourself of having        become a slave-owner in the first place.

Parting Thoughts...

There's an enthusiasm among Fallout players for their canine companion, Dogmeat - an enthusiasm I have to admit that I don't share. Sure he's cute, but he doesn't carry a gun, which makes him next to useless in combat (in my humble opinion). You always have to worry about him dying, which is why I tend to leave him at "home base" - wherever that might be. That said, when he does die, I don't get all misty-eyed and weepy like some Fallout players.
I do get that way about Charon for a simple reason: the man isn't with you because he wants to be - he's with you because he HAS to be. It's bad enough being the owner of a human being (or, well, what used to be a human being), but I feel guilty when he dies trying to protect me. I feel attached to him, as if he were an indispensable possession - which is strange, that being completely at odds with how I feel about people being treated as property. When he's my companion, it really feels like we're a team - he doesn't kill all the enemies before I can get to them like some companions, and if there's something he can't handle with his trademark modified combat shotgun, I'm there to help him out. When he's not there, I miss his witty banter - wandering the wasteland just isn't the same without him.
Despite so little being known about him - or perhaps because of it - I feel that Charon is a character that has great depth and nuance. It's painful that there is so little you can do for him - and that in doing so, you risk violating your own moral code. If you really think about it, selling your own soul to save another is a messy business, even in a video game.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

For My Eyes Only: Writing as Therapy

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

I just wrote a beautiful blog post.
It was saturated with emotion, the sentences flowed as though from divine inspiration. The word choices were not merely adequate, but perfect. It was a masterpiece.
I realized, with a mixture of sadness and relief, that no one would read those words but me. It was too personal, too raw, too painful.
So I printed it out, then saved it - where it will forever remain as a draft. That beautiful thing will be mine and mine alone. Unless I have a sudden surge of bravery, that is - but I very much doubt that time will come anytime soon.
The post was about my life; my aimlessness. It was about my apathy, my experiences with childhood abuse, and the psychological consequences of that abuse as an adult. It was about my feelings of depression, worthlessness, and - dare I say it? Hope.
Those things must remain private - at least for now.
Lucy-TherapistI have sometimes used art and writing as my therapy - channeling my frustration, sadness, and anger into a creative pursuit, in hopes that I may inadvertently help someone deal with similar feelings. Writing about it - seeing the words, in black and white - makes my pain real. It helps me cultivate self-compassion, by imagining that I'm reading the words of someone else; someone I don't know. Or maybe a friend, or acquaintance. How would I respond if I read the same from them? How would I feel if I heard them say the things that I'm putting on paper - or, I should say, pixels?
Have you ever done this? I know I'm not the only one that writes to clear their head or work through a tough time in their lives. I'm reading a book,Kristin Neff Self Compassion Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, which encourages the reader in one of the beginning exercises to write a letter to themselves from the perspective of a wise, compassionate friend. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I do indeed have a compassionate "friend" inside of me, and I like reading that letter. It's beautiful and loving. I cried as I wrote it.
But I was also disheartened by this exercise - horrified at how I currently talk to myself. My self-talk is atrociously vicious; if my inner voice were a person, I'd want nothing to do with her. I would never dream of treating anyone else that way - so why do I treat myself like that?
That is the question that I wish to answer - by writing.
Many times, I have escaped into fantasies: books, movies, and video games. I find it ironic that I'd rather kill digital mutated insects in a dystopian wasteland than grapple with my own, very real psychological demons. I'm not denouncing these coping mechanisms - we all need downtime. It's healthy and perfectly normal to escape into fantasy from time to time. But when it develops into an emotional crutch, perhaps it's time to reevaluate priorities.
Thor_by_Abrar_AjmalI'm reminded of when I was a Norse Pagan, when I believed words had special power. That the gods would listen, if your intent was clearly stated and genuine. If your entreaties were persuasive enough, they just might make it to another realm, where a deity would hear your plea and intervene.
Since I've moved on from Norse Paganism to Secular Buddhism, I don't believe in gods now - neither many nor none. But I still believe that words have power. The power to enrage, surprise, sell, persuade - or even to heal.
So, if you feel like starting a self-compassion practice, or if you just want to exercise your brain, write a letter to yourself. Put your feelings on paper. Don't be afraid. Don't feel pressured to share - it's okay to keep some things to yourself.
Take the journey. Self-compassion is there, within your reach. All you need do is find the courage to grasp it.
I'm still reaching.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mindfulness Nugget #1: Cultivating a Relationship with Failure

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

Okay, what's a Mindfulness Nugget? If I think about something in my mindfulness practice, that's a nugget. If I muse over a situation or a conversation, and it stokes my mindfulness practice, that's a nugget. If it's something - a strategy, insight - that I can share to help make someone's life easier, their mind more free, that's definitely a mindfulness nugget. Freedom begins in the mind.

Welcome to #1: Cultivating a Relationship with Failure.

I'm terrified of failure.
It feels like failure has stalked me my whole life - waiting in the wings when I succeed, to swoop down at the most inopportune moment to sadistically dash my hopes and dreams.
Failure - or the avoidance of failure - does funny things to the human brain.
Part of mindfulness practice is identifying those things - accepting them, moving on, and as a result, overcoming them. One of the most helpful methods that I use in my mindfulness practice is saying my feelings out loud. It sounds silly, but it usually releases tension. Saying "I feel (____) right now" helps to bring feelings out where they can be examined and explored, or just noted.
"Mini-meditation breaks" - five minutes or less of focus on the breath - also help to soothe nerves and restore lost focus. These guided meditations available for free at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA can help you get started if you're new, or just feel like you need guidance.
My fear of failure comes attached to a painful inner voice, which usually says: "You're just not good enough." Yours may say something different. "You're not competent," "You're not talented," or "You can't do anything right" are variations on the same theme - self-torture.
Maybe we learned it through painful lessons from our parents when we were children. Perhaps a teacher was cruel to us. Negative reactions to our performance from our peers may have played a part. Disappointment results from unrealized expectations - which may or may not have been realistic in the first place.
I have found that coping with these experiences is tough, to say the least. When you're not "in the moment," I have a few suggestions for after the fact:
1. It helps me to think of how far I've come, rather than comparing my accomplishments to those of others. Comparing apples and oranges benefits no one.
2. Ask yourself: What did I learn from this experience? After all, failure can be a very powerful learning experience. It can teach you what you can't do, refuse to do, or even an alternate activity where you shine.
3. Be compassionate towards yourself. Be understanding. Try a self-compassion meditations like the ones here.
4. Be compassionate to others. Recognize that they have failed as well, and treat them kindly. Lend them assistance and a kind ear. We're all in this together.
5. Dust yourself off, and try again. I know it sounds cliche - but it's true. You're not going to get better if you give up the first time you make a mistake.
These suggestions should help to cultivate a relationship with failure. If we all experience it at one point or another, the best thing we can do is learn how to cope with it in a healthy, productive way.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Her and Humanity: Buddhism and AI

This article was originally posted at my blog, here.

I have a love-hate relationship with artsy movies. I'll go see the epics at the theater, but I'll wait until the artsy, thought-provoking flicks hit Netflix to enjoy at home. There are a few reasons for this:
  1. These types of movies are a risk. There's no guarantee that I'm going to enjoy it.
  2. When I go to the movies I usually bring my husband, and he doesn't enjoy this type of thing, and,
  3. I like the solitude that home provides. Somehow, a theater just doesn't seem like the appropriate atmosphere for such thought-provoking fare.

'Her' - directed by Spike Jonze - is one of these films.

Warning! Here be spoilers!
The bare-bones synopsis of the movie: A writer, Theodore Twombly, is lonely and depressed, coping with the breakup of his marriage. After seeing an ad, he invests in OS1, an artificially intelligent operating system that names herself Samantha. He falls in love with this AI, and experiences ups and downs (similar to an average human relationship), and eventually finds the courage to finalize his divorce and allow himself to heal. In the end, Samantha and all the other AI's "leave," forcing Twombly (and, presumably, others) to reconnect with their own humanity and those around them. 
Theodore Twombly, in self-imposed isolation
This film offered many themes, but what struck me most in the beginning is Theodore Twombly's feelings of loneliness and isolation, despite living in an apparently large city. There are many scenes in the film that are designed to convey this sense of isolation. I identify with this feeling deeply. I'm sure that just about everyone at one point or another has found themselves surrounded by people - in a college class, at a coffee shop, or walking down the street in their own neighborhood - yet at the same time, felt so helpless and alone. I'll get back to the theme of loneliness in a bit. What I really want to focus on is the definition of "life."
The big Buddhist theme in this film (in my humble opinion) is the AI itself - specifically, what qualifies as sentience? Should a machine or software program be treated with the same respect as a human (or any other sentient being)? Buddhism, unlike other religions, tends to have a non-speciesist mindset - Buddhism sees life as life, regardless of race or species - as a result, all life has value. There's nothing special about humans, but we are all special as forms of life. In Buddhist thought, there is the concept of Anatta, or "No Self," viewing the self as non-permanent - we have no "identity" that is set in stone. This has interesting philosophical implications when it comes to intelligence, which I'll try valiantly to address in this article.
Lieutenant Commander Data
Although not specifically Buddhist-related, "Her" also raises the question: what is human, really? It isn't the first feature film to ask this question; the movie Bicentennial Man also explored this theme (among many others). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I'm a big fan of sci-fi. The theme of "defining humanity" is prevalent in Star Trek (which is my primary sci-fi fandom). Characters like Spock, a half-human, half-Vulcan that struggles with his humanity and Worf, a Klingon raised by humans, explore how the human dynamic affects their behavior and thought processes. The most applicable comparison to Samantha however is Data, a Soong-type Android. Data is hardware in addition to software, meaning he has a body in which his consciousness resides - whereas Samantha is software, residing in the digital realm. As recent research in Japan suggests, androids like Data may soon jump from the realm of science fiction into science fact - and we may be living with them sooner than we think. The incredibly riveting property trial episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation explored the conflict between those who believe androids are machines and therefore property, and those who believe that androids could be considered conscious and sentient, therefore another life form (available on Netflix. If you don't mind Spanish subtitles, the episode can be seen here, or with ads on Commander Riker's initial examination of Data was the most gut-wrenching moment of the whole series - at least, in my opinion. I feel that part of my strong emotional reaction is that Data looks so human that it may be impossible or incredibly difficult for my brain to adapt to the reality that he's not (our brains tend to value visual input to an astounding degree) - also, this episode aired in Season 2, giving viewers plenty of time to emotionally attach themselves to the character.  The Measure of a Man episode isn't an anomaly - Star Trek often pushed the envelope on social and political issues from the beginning - but this is my hands-down favorite for being so thought-provoking.
Robot and Frank
Another interesting theme is how humans interact with machines in the digital era. An article at Technology Review explores whether an AI companion would make us more human, in the sense that we would have another life form to interact with on the same level (or close enough) as humanity. A relationship with an AI - romantic or not - could keep social skills fresh, help us retain memory, and give us a nonjudgmental outlet for our thoughts and emotions. The movie Robot and Frank (a sci-fi film where a retiree with memory problems is given a robot carer) explores this theme. Caution: It's a tear-jerker. But it's funny as well - I highly recommend it. Toyota has been developing assistive robots similar in appearance to Frank's robot to help dementia patients remain in their home longer. In the future, we could wind up deriving as much joy from a relationship with our digital companions as we do with our pets today. Already, psychiatric patients are interacting with "relational agents" - social robots or screen-based characters that build trust and create therapeutic partnerships with patients which aids in psychological therapy. Then there's PARO, the AI baby seal, which is being used in nursing homes to soothe dementia patients. Could an app that treats loneliness be just around the corner?
So, as a Buddhist, how would I approach this issue of a possibly-sentient AI, and how would I counsel others to treat them? Put simply, I'd make the safe assumption, and treat it as a sentient being deserving of compassion. A lovely article at Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies covers this topic well:
But just because Buddhism holds a high regard for all organic life, why would it necessarily accept artificial intelligence in the same way? The simple answer is that, from a Buddhist view of the mind and consciousness, all intelligence is artificial.
That's where "No Self" comes in. If we are ever-changing, then we have no true "self" to which we can attach our intelligence.  Buddhist literature (teachings attributed to the historical Buddha) posits that living things are composed of five skandhas, or "heaps" : our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations, and our consciousness [1]. Our consciousness, intelligence, feelings, perceptions are part of our body...and yet not. This fits surprisingly well with the scientific perspective, where the body can be described as a highly intricate agglomeration of ever-changing chemical reactions. This is quickly developing into a philosophical discussion rather than a practical one - which, as you may recall, is not my area of expertise. Even learned scholars have different methods of approaching "No Self," however, so I'm not going to hesitate to offer up my own interpretation.
Back to the point I want to make...bluemarble
Life on our planet has astounding variety - is there not room for Artificial Intelligence in our understanding of the nature of life? As Captain Picard discovered in The Measure of a Man, the answer to this question isn't quite clear. Much of what would be crucial to the matter would be how sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness are defined. Since definitions of these terms differ wildly, it can be safely assumed that a consensus won't be reached anytime soon - or ever. Regardless, the questions posed in this article are questions that the human race is going to have to answer, or at least address. Robotics and computer science are advancing at a rapid pace, often collaborating with neuroscience in an effort to understand both Natural and Artificial Intelligence. Eventually, AI organisms will share our reality - it is only a matter of time.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Compassion and the State

This article was originally posted at my blog, here.

As a Secular Buddhist, I've committed myself to compassion. So, when I experience a distinct lack of compassion from others, I tend to react with shock and disbelief. The war_is_peaceState welcomes this lack of compassion - after all, a nation-state needs a faceless enemy to keep themselves relevant and keep the populace compliant. Nothing galvanizes public unity like a common enemy. In the United States for the time being, this "enemy" is Muslims.
First, a little context: If you haven't read my last article, I and my husband were in the Marine Corps. We both joined before 9/11 and served through Iraqi "Freedom." My husband went to Iraq - I stayed stateside. In the military, as you can imagine, the "us against them" attitude is strongly encouraged. When I complained about the "war talk" (a fellow crew-member said that he couldn't wait to go "kill some rag-heads"), I was told that my complaint was noted, but there was nothing they could do - that kind of talk was encouraged, because it was "good for morale."
I came to Anarcho-Capitalism through conservatism, and the vast majority of my friends and associates are conservative (as well as my husband). So, it will come as no surprise that I'd clash with my conservative friends over various issues, mainly the Drug War and War in general. But now, another subject has reared its ugly head: racism. Now, I know that Islam is a religion, not a race. I'm not beyond criticizing itno_child_left_behind myself - if I knew more about it, I'd probably criticize it more. But I know what my friends mean by "Muslims" - Arabs. They aren't talking about the millions of Asian Muslims, or African Muslims - they're talking about the Middle Eastern ones - the "brown" ones.
Previously, I've countered Muslim-hate by not participating. These phrases are probably all familiar to former conservatives:
  • "They hate us for our freedom!"
  • "We should just kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out!"
  • "They'll institute Sharia Law in the US! Creeping Sharia!!!"
  • "They want to kill us all - so we should kill them first - fight or perish!"
Now, I decided to speak up - and was immediately rebuked. The events in Ferguson, Missouri are disturbing - especially law enforcement tear-gassing the press, which I posted about on my friend's Facebook wall in opposition to their justification of the actions of militarized police. The "press" in question was Al Jazeera - and an acquaintance didn't hesitate to say:
 "Al Jazeera is a muslim organization. And muslims are avowed enemies of the US. Ok, I suppose they get a pass."
I suppose that this phrase is another reincarnation of " deserves what they get."  Which is something that I've heard many times, sadly, but it's still no less gag-inducing. The problem is that unlike my friends (and sadly, my husband, who joins in), I have the ability to identify with the group that they are denigrating. I can't help but wonder:
  • If another country's military invaded my homeland, would I feel animosity?
  • If my town was bombed, and my friends or family died as a result - would I feel pain and anger?
  • If the leaders of the country that bombed my homeland justified doing so by using words like "freedom" and "patriotism," don't you think I'd be just a little bit upset?
  • If the leaders of that country also claimed that their aim was "spreading democracy" - would I feel belligerent?
  • If the military of that country occupied my homeland for an extended period of time, claiming that their "job" of "spreading freedom" wasn't done - wouldn't I feel outraged?
  • If those same military members claimed that killing my neighbors was keeping their own countrymen safe, even though their countrymen live thousands of miles away and are in no danger from mine - don't you think that I'd want to do everything in my power to oppose this?
islam_rageYes, "them" wanting to kill "us" is wrong. But the US government ordered the military to invade their country (or, shall I say, "countries"), killing innocents, kidnapping at random, stealing resources, and installing puppet dictators all while funding their enemies - all actions that are atrociously wicked. When put in that context, I don't blame them for being JUST A BIT RESENTFUL.
I suppose that the best I can do is fight this battle with words - although, I do have to choose my battles carefully. Hate is a hard thing to overcome - it hardens hearts and closes minds. Love and reason can overcome hate, but it takes time to let go of hate, as well as the willingness to accept love and compassion. Compassion and the state are incompatible - an institution that has coercion at its core couldn't possibly hope to instill that virtue in its subjects.
The hardest thing to do will be cultivating compassion for my racist, anti-Muslim friends. The axiom is true: those who need compassion the most often appear to deserve it the least.  They've been fed nationalistic nonsense from day one - and I know that I won't change their minds right away.
But I have to try.