May 10th, 2005

dragon head

Illness, geekness, finality

So I'm mostly over my illness; I'm just having the residual asthma I usually have for a week or two after being sick. Runny nose, occasional coughing- nothing too bad. I'm mostly healthy. I was in really rotten shape for most of the week, though, which is the primary reason I disappeared without a trace. (My parents hauled me home, and I appreciated it... I didn't have the resources I needed availible at the dorm. Tylenol for one, soup for another.)

Of course, that left me unable to study or write a memory allocator. I therefore did my CSE361 project in three days, and wrote a version of malloc with extremely good memory utilization, and response time that is, in most normal cases, four times as fast as the library malloc. That's impressive- I beat the standard Linux library!

Ignoring, of course, the one pathological case in which my allocator takes 34 times as long to run, on average. It's an improvement from the original form, which took 9,400 times as long to run as malloc. (Ouch.) Tip: When the efficiency of your system is built on being able to split up your free lists to keep them at or below log2 of the main index size, forcing logarithmic performance for the whole thing, don't allow a pathological case... say, 4,000 non-coalescable blocks of the same size so the list can't be split... to make a list be, ooh, 4,000 elements long, instead of the usual five.

It's a gotcha inherent to the design that I couldn't crop out in the time I had to code, since I never went to the Infirmary and can't force a medical extension. At least I did it anyway, and I did fairly well. And yes, if I may be so egotistical, I consider writing over 800 lines of code in three days, fully debugged, to be an Accomplishment.

And I have to wake up in four hours tomorrow to head back to campus for my last two final exams, then I'm done with the semester. Of course, I didn't get to study for either of them, seeing as how I've been sick and then busy. I'll see what I can do for half an hour in the car- they're both open-book, but I need to be familiar enough with the book to find the material.

Wish me luck, y'all!
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Thoughts on Disneyland Morality

First order of business, before the random unsolicited excessively long essay, is about exams. I'm done for the semester, and I think my exams went well; I at least hope they did! I have my Computational Geometry grade in- and I'm off to a good start, as it's an A.

Anyway, something I found myself contemplating recently for no obvious reason: good and evil in popular culture, and the damage the concepts have done. I suppose this is the danger of taking a Philosophy class with a strong emphasis on how everybody is wrong at the same time. For whatever reason I was thinking about it, I've come to clear conclusions: good and evil in most "light" popular fiction are extraordinarily unrealistic concepts, and the way they are presented has done definite damage to society.

The most defining feature of Disneyland Morality, as I'm calling it for a lack of any better ideas, is that it is utterly, completely clear what is Good and what is Evil. It's usually blatantly obvious from the actions and morals of the characters, of course (and I'll cover some of that later); it is easy to infer that the entity attempting to kidnap and skin ninety-nine puppies is probably Evil. But beyond that, Evil always looks Evil. Can you imagine a young, polite, blonde Cruella De Ville? How about a short Jafar who wears bright colors, smiles a lot, and is a tenor? Dr. Claw in a Hawaiian shirt for most of the show? It's simply visually obvious who's in the right and who's not.

I don't think that's good. It's convenient, certainly, but it's not good. I don't really care exactly what visual cues set off Evil from Good- although "lack of pupils" is certainly a tradition- it's the fact that they're so absolute and so universal that they exist. It has to be reinforcing racism. I don't care if Evil is as far from a racial stereotype as you can get- all things considered, "obese caucasian woman with warts" is pretty popular for "Evil"- it's that it's reinforcing the entire idea that you can take a valid moral measure of a person by appearance alone. I think that not only would it not be reinforcing this, it would make these shows more interesting if it is not physically obvious- only through actions and morals- who is Evil and who is Good. I don't even really defend it being entirely blatantly obvious- but if it has to be, it doesn't have to be visual.

An objection that I'd expect to face is that I'm over-analyzing childrens' entertainment, "After all", my hypothetical detractor might suggest, "children can't understand complex morality. Obvious evil is required." And I completely disagree with that. I'm considering my experiences watching Into The Woods, and things brought up during the interview with the playwright. The two acts of Into the Woods have very different flavors- the first as a traditional fairy tale, and the last a minefield of unclear morality, difficult situations, and no clear answers. The Witch turns out to be the only rational voice amongst total chaos, and the remainder of the cast- who weren't flattened by her feet- are forced to kill a giant who is only out for very reasonable revenge against one particular person- but the community defends the murderer, the thief, Jack. (Y'know, Jack and the Beanstalk?) It's never clear who was really in the right, and I think that's how it should be. The show was written for a mature audience.

But y'know what? During the talks with the playwright, the second act was discussed. In his experience, children have no trouble understanding it, and are quite comfortable with and accepting of the concept that morality isn't always clear. They didn't try to simplify it, nor were they frightened by complexity; they merely accepted that the situaiton was complex. And this didn't take explicitly telling them what was going on. This is one anecdote, but I hold that children are a load of a lot brighter than most people give them credit for. I don't think children inherently assume theat morality is obvious, and nor do I hold that this "innocence" should be preserved. Whether or not a child believes that morality is black and white, it's quite clear that such a child can learn otherwise and understand otherwise- and I state that he or she should.

That is the other component of Disneyland Morality- not merely a lack of it being visually obvious who is Good and Evil, but it even being totally clear from the situation. I can't think of many situations where Good and Evil are truly obvious. Sometimes it is, but the vast majority of cases are not. I suppose it's comforting to think so, but it's not accurate. What's even more blatantly wrong is the observation that in Disney movies, Evil is always aware that it is Evil. Furthermore, it is generally proud of that fact. Consider Rasputin's musical number in Anastasia, for example.

That's not very realistic either. The vast majority of Evil, as far as it can be clearly found, justifies itself, tries to believe that it is doing something Good. The terrorists commiting murder in the Middle East- I don't care which side they're on, both sides are wrong- believe they are executing the will of their God- and to them, there is no higher good. To an unbeliever, or to a polytheist who believes that the whims of a God are not always the best thing to follow (in short, the belief in falliable deities), these people are murderers, committing indefensible crimes against innocent civilians. I'm strongly within that category- the whim of a God does not override morality, and it certainly doesn't define it- but I can understand how these individuals, commiting evil acts, see themselves as agents of good.

I'd say the same for the Southern Baptist fundamentalist Christian movement. I consider their systematic attack on civil liberties- most notably and visibly against homosexuals, but against anybody who doesn't agree with their religion or morality as spewed from the whim of their God and then twisted by two thousand years of political humans- to be Evil. Do I even need to explain how Good they consider themselves? I would suggest that every single follower of that movement believes that this is Good, and my very nature- as bisexual, as Pagan, as Otherkin- is Evil. I wouldn't be so sure of the administration- there may be motives of profit and power within it as the primary drive, rather than any semblance of piety- but they aren't the primary forces.

This sort of situation never happens in Disneyland Morality. Evil is EVIL AND PROUD OF IT. Good is Valiant, Bold, Heroic, and Posessed Of Shiny Teeth. And teaching that- that good and evil are always clear-cut and obvious- is far, far more dangerous than any teaching that it's visually obvious. It leads to people being taught that it's correct to make hasty assessments. People are taught that it's not worth their time to think about morality. Consider- is philosophy (such as this) a common pastime? Shouldn't just thinking about things, like the entire basis of one's concept of ethical decisions, get a little bit of brain-time once in a while? Like, say, really frequently?

But I've seen the impact. I've been to two Philosophy courses, and it becomes clear in the first weeks that they are the first time my classmates have questioned their opinions, beliefs, and morals. (Ooh, the abortion debate was fun.) These people never even thought about it; they merely assumed they'd found Good. This is what we get from a society that teaches that morality is obvious and quesitoning is bad. I suppose almost any society would tend towards that, as societies tend to be self-perpetuating and such disorder would tend to fragment a society. That doesn't make it any healthier or safer. What, then, is the inevitable result of people believing in black-and-white morality?

George W. Bush and his righteous War on Terror, for one.