Archive for February, 2011

Watson “Makes a Joke”


Watson's Avatar


I have been watching Watson playing Jeopardy! It is really interesting. I am impressed by Watson’s performance and ability to analyse questions in natural language (although sometimes it seems like Watson’s performance is at an advantage due to reaction times).

But what really amazes me is the “interaction between” Watson and the audience (literally: the audience’s reaction to Watson). In particular, Watson “made a joke:”

[Watson gets a Daily Double]

Alex: what are you going to wager?

Watson: $6,435

The audience laughs.

Watson got the audience to laugh. Alex then quipped: “I’m not even going to ask.” But the audience laughed before the quip. The audience was laughing at what Watson said, not at Alex’s quip.

I find that really interesting because humour seems like a very human interaction (none of my electronics has every made me laugh, though I have laughed at the human generated content they display. In contrast, I have yelled at my electronics). Now, it seems like part of what is funny here is that Watson gave a very inhuman response. But what does it mean that the audience was shocked by this? What made it funny? Was the audience interpreting the answers as human-like, but then suddenly with this answer Watson fell into the uncanny valley?

It also made me think about my own experience as a human who can more-or-less parse natural language. I have always found humour to be one of the most difficult things to pick-up in a foreign language (I don’t really know why). I wonder whether the next step in the development of AI will involve the ability to interpret and/or produce humour.

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[Trigger Warning: I am writing about rape again, and I will be snarky, sarcastic and otherwise more emotive in my writing than average]

If there is one thing that could be said for Penny Arcade’s handling of the criticisms of “The 6th Slave” comic, it is that they did begin a serious discussion of rape culture that is probably reaching a wider part of gaming culture than “ever before” (*hyperbole*). More non-feminist gamers are hearing this discussion than would ever hear of similar discussions of rape culture that occur in feminist gaming forums, on feminist gaming blogs, and non-gaming feminist blogs.

When I read the Debacle Timeline, I am struck by how many genuinely thoughtful posts have been created discussing the whole affair. Many of them don’t really seem to understand what feminists are trying to express by the concept of “rape culture,” but many of them do make an honest attempt. Some posts show serious reflection, and a change of mind. They also inspired the creation of Team Respect, who are pretty willing to patiently describe the aspects of rape culture to those asking about it at xkcd forums. It might be true that the debacle also started a flame-war in the blog comments, over e-mail and on twitter. But many of the actual blog posts linked through the Debacle Timeline are pretty thoughtful, for the most part.

Perhaps that is something good to come out of the whole affair. It is true many did not listen. But some did. Many have been saying they never considered such things before, and now they see differently. So congratulations to Kirby Bits for speaking her mind. And congratulations to Penny Arcade for bringing discussions of rape culture to a wider gaming audience. Too bad it had to happen in such an ugly way that probably hurt many rape victims and threatened many others along the way.


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I began my series of posts on meta-issues associate with discussions of rape culture here. I assume that discussion in what I write here.

As a quick summary: in that post I suggested that there are two ways to understand rape: either as an individual crime committed by “rotten apples,” or as a systemic crime that is akin to terrorism or hate crimes where rape has effects on both the direct target (victim) and an indirect target (other members of the group) beyond the direct targets of the crime. ETA: On the systemic view, rape is akin to terrorism, but it is not the same as terrorism. One important difference between rape and terrorism is that terrorists usually have an explicit message, demand, or political point. In the case of rape, there need not be an explicit message, and though there is a demand made of the direct target (the victim) there might not be an explicit demand made of the primary target (women as a group). In that post I argued that rape culture cannot be perceived if rape is viewed as an individual crime. It is only when rape is considered a systemic crime that rape culture can be perceived.

In order to perceive rape culture, one has to first believe that rape is facilitated or made more effective by a number of our cultural institutions. If one accepts that view, then rape culture involves any aspect of a culture that a) makes it easier to get away with raping women, b) makes women more vulnerable to rape or denies the effects rape has on all women not only those who are actually raped, c) makes rape more effective at curtailing the freedom of rape victims, or d) makes rape more effective by curtailing the freedom of all women.


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There are many excellent introductory descriptions of rape culture available on the internet. For example: Wikipedia, Shakesville, Yes Means Yes, and Finally, a Feminism 101 blog all have good descriptions (note: the Shakesville post begins with a quote that addresses what I intend to explain in this post, but does not go into detail). They provide an introductory level understanding of rape culture. This post is not introductory; instead of rehashing the basics, I engage some of the different kinds of assumptions that lie behind descriptions of rape culture.

In each of the descriptions of rape culture that I link above, there are rich examples of “rape culture in action.” But each example also contains an implicit shared assumption that is not made explicit, and understanding this assumption is essential to understanding what feminists mean by rape culture.

The assumption that is shared among these descriptions is that rape is systemic, or in other words, rape is akin to terrorism or hate crimes. This understanding contrasts with the understanding of rape as a crime that one individual commits against another.

Note: If this entry is to long, you can just read the summary in part 3.


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On Monday, I wrote about the Bill C-389 that was voted on in the House of Commons yesterday. I am happy to report that the Bill passed the house (Yeas: 143; Nays 135). The transcript of Monday’s debate can be read in full here.

As it was with the last debate, the MPs focused on the definition of the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression,” questions about whether this discrimination is already covered, and some MPs dispelled myths about the proposed changes. The Bill is not yet Canadian law, it still has to pass the Senate. Dented Blue Mercedes has an excellent summary of this reading and passing of Bill C-389.

Of course, there are still opponents of the Bill. The Toronto Sun has an article by Brian Lilly, in which he claims that the Bill opposes equality. I want to offer some brief comments on what I believe are some mischaracterizations in Lilly’s argument. Lilly writes:

The idea is to give greater protection to transgendered and transsexual citizens.

Whatever happened to the idea that all are equal before the law?

A true equality, one in the best Canadian tradition, would simply state that all people are created equal and should be treated equally before the law.

It would do away with all those special privileges and would re-establish a unique standard for all Canadians.

Somehow, this is a radical idea these days.

Lilly worries that the bill gives “special rights” to certain groups on the basis of their group identity. According to Lilly, it would be more equal to simply say that all are equal before the law, and leave it at that. Identifying certain groups as ones that cannot be discriminated against is problematic, according to Lilly, because this creates “special” groups who have “special” rights that others do not have.

I think Lilly’s analysis is mistaken for at least two reasons. First, he confuses distinctions between kinds of discrimination and distinctions between kinds of persons. Second, he fails to note that the relevant distinction is between legitimate and illegitimate forms of discrimination, and that once this distinction is made it applies equally to all Canadians.


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Many gamers have complained about the ridiculous outfits that game designers make their female characters wear (see here, here, here, here, and here). In this video, the guys at Rooster Teeth Labs decided to see what would happen if real women tried to fight each other while wearing video game inspired clothes. The results are revealing.

I think results like these are ones that female gamers would expect. It is one of the reasons that chainmail bikini-wear tends to break our immersion (or suspension of disbelief) when we run across these outfits in games.

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This will be just a quick posts with some links to further reading.

Recently, the groups The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) released a survey “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey” about discrimination based on gender identity and expression in the United States. The Report abstract states:

Transgender and gender non-conforming people face rampant discrimination in every area of life: education, employment, family life, public accommodations, housing, health, police and jails, and ID documents…

Questioning Transphobia summarizes some of the findings:

  • Respondents were four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with incomes lower than $10,000
  • Respondents were twice as likely to be unemployed
  • One in four reported being fired for their gender identity or expression
  • Half said they experienced harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace
  • One in five said they experienced homelessness because of their gender identity or expression
  • 19% said they had been refused a home or apartment
  • 19% said they had been refused health care
  • 31% reported harassment or bullying by teachers
  • 41% reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6% for the general population

Similar statistics about discrimination apply to Canadians.

As Jill from Feministe writes:

Much of this discrimination, it’s worth noting, is entirely legal. Trans people are routinely left of out anti-discrimination laws that protect citizens from discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, nationality, etc.

In Canada, we have a chance to correct this problem. Bill C-389, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity and gender expression), is up for a vote in the House of Commons. The last vote was really close, passing by only 12 votes (Yeas: 143; Nays 131).

Bill C-389 is coming up for a final vote this Wednesday, February 9th. This time opponents of the bill have organized a letter-writing campaign to petition MPs to vote against the bill.

If you want to support the bill to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression, there is an online letter writing campaign organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada. If any readers are from Canada and wish to support the bill, please consider sending a letter to your MP from the link above.

I will include links for further reading below the fold.


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Why I like Crime Shows

One of my guilty pleasures is watching crime shows on TV. I love crime shows for a number of reasons.

First, I really enjoy being frightened, and crime shows offer the types of situations that I find scary. I don’t usually find horror movies scary because they are too fantastic and I cannot really picture any ghosts, zombies, or ghouls attacking me or any one I know and care about. But if a director combines spine-tingling music with a realistic threat posed by a (human) stranger, acquaintance or  loved one, I am drawn in. I can imagine myself or someone I love in this kind of danger.

Second, I  really like trying to solve puzzles, and crime shows sometimes offer a puzzle to be solved: who among the characters presented is guilty of the crime? I love foreshadowing when it is done well so that it does not immediately give away the culprit on the first viewing, but when watching the episode a second time one can identify the clues that identify the criminal.

Finally, I like shows that are morally complex. I don’t like shows that have clear “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead, I prefer shows that examine the complexities of criminality and look at how structural elements of particular societies work to criminalize some behaviours while excusing others (for example, see this YouTube video featuring Angela Davis on Prisons or Michael Moore’s satirical take on a Cop show about Corporate criminals).

In particular, if a show deals with the kinds of structural relations discussed by feminists, then I will love it. Most TV shows don’t meet this standard. The only TV show that does meet this standard that I can readily call to mind is The Wire. Although this feature of narratives is probably the one that I would rank most highly in terms of importance (it would override the other two criteria if ever it were present), so few TV shows meet this standard that I tend to overlook it when deciding whether a show is worth watching. I apply this standard very loosely, if at all.

These three elements that I like in crime shows create a means of ranking crime shows that usually corresponds to how much I like them. First, the situations have to be realistic and second, they cannot give away the criminal’s identity too quickly. Finally, for (overriding) bonus points, the show should be morally complex and should not explain all criminal behaviour in terms of “bad” types of persons. Most crime shows vary along these dimensions from episode to episode, and also trends in this variation can be identified over time.


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Almost nobody likes commercials. Since technologies such as VCRs, DVRs and TiVo are now available, many people prerecord TV shows and skip through the commercials. So marketers and advertisers are trying to come up with commercials that we are willing to watch, or that we cannot get around watching (for example, because they are part of the TV show itself). I am not usually a fan of commercials; I usually only watch prerecorded TV precisely because I can skip the ads.

The Box Art for LittleBigPlanet2

But last night, I was playing LittleBigPlanet2 and I ended up playing a commercial for the Prius (Part 2 of the level is here). The level is published by “LittleBigPartner” and is described as:

Join Sackboy* as he solves puzzles in his treehouse and takes his Prius for a drive in the city. With the objects you collect here, create your own Prius-inspired level for a chance to win a Sony Bravia 3D HDTV and other prizes. Visit http://www.us.playstation.com/psn/events/littlebigprius.html for more details. NOTE: Name your contest levels “Prius_[Your Level Name]” in order to enter.

The contest has been pretty popular, and there are now a number of Priusthemed user-made levels. From a marketing perspective, this is probably a great campaign. It encourages people to spend a lot of time thinking about the Prius and how to use it in a level they are creating. The Prius car, and various other objects (like wind turbines, and so forth) are given away in the level, and users are encouraged to use “as many of the collected objects as possible” (at 0:59) in their own levels. This allows Toyota a degree of control over the kinds of messages that users create in their levels. The objects that are given away are all associated with environmental themes and alternative energy sources.  If a user incorporates these objects, there is a good chance that the level will end up with a theme that associates the Prius and environmentalism.

Since LBP2 includes the user “LittleBigPartner” I am quite sure that there will be many more of these commercial levels in the future. Perhaps this is a good marketing strategy, for the reasons I described above, but I found it really off-putting. First, I was annoyed because I found the level through the “Media Molecule Picks” and in the past Media Molecule had always featured levels made by regular players, rather than advertisement levels. I felt tricked when I played this level, because I expected a user level, but instead got an advertisement. Second, the contest feels more insidious that previous contests. Both LittleBigPlanetCentral and LittleBigLand have held contests in the past, but these contests did not promote a particular product. This contest seems to be piggy-backing on the work done by previous competitions in the LittleBigPlanet game-universe.

*Note the use of the “universal” or “gender-neutral” “he” and “Sackboy,” which I complained about before.

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A picture of the Cast of Law and Order: SVU

[Trigger Warning for discussions of violence against women and rape.]

One of my guilty pleasures is watching crime shows on TV. I explain why I like crime shows in this post, but I am also aware that crime shows have a number of problematic elements. Crime shows are often problematic because of the way they portray, and sometimes sensationalize, violence.

As it is with many topics, feminists have offered a number of views about the use of violence against women as a form of entertainment. Some feminists object to Law and Order: SVU because it sensationalizes violence against women, depoliticizes rape, and paints female victims as liars. Other feminists claim that SVU might have some problematic aspects, but also some redeeming qualities, such as detectives expressing the belief that no woman deserves to be raped. Still other feminists have describe their reaction to SVU as one of ambivalence caused by its mix of progressive and regressive elements.

I recently noticed one episode of Law and Order: SVU that passes the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is named for Alison Bechdel who writes the comic Dykes to Watch Out For. The test is supposed to provide a metric for the development of female characters in a film, TV show or other story. To pass, a film must meet the following criteria:

1) there are at least two named female characters, who

2) talk to each other about

3) something other than a man.

[SPOILER ALERT: Below the fold I discuss the Law and Order: SVU episode “Dirty” (Season 12, Episode 14) and give away the ending]


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