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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in lateblt's LiveJournal:

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Saturday, August 27th, 2016
10:52 pm
The old Germans: A land after its history
In the recent book Die neuen Deutschen: Ein Land vor seiner Zukunft (The new Germans: A land before its future), authors Herfried Münkler and Marina Münkler lay out what they call "fünf Merkmale des Deutschseins" (five characteristics of being German). The book is in German, so I've taken the liberty of translating these five points into English as well as I can for readers who may be interested:

1. A German is convinced that through work (or, if possible, also through wealth), one can independently provide for oneself and their own family.

2. A German has reason to believe that a person can win themselves praise, recognition, and social status through their own personal effort, and thereby trust that in personal emergencies, a person with such social standing will have other members of their community come to their aid.

3. Religious belief, and how it is expressed and practiced, is a private matter which plays a reduced role in social life and has no relevance to professional or business life.

4. A person's choice of their own lifestyle and their own life partner is a matter of personal discretion and not to be decided by anyone else.

5. The fifth and deciding identity marker of the German should and must be the recognition of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: a constitution which was established to prevent the terrible German crime from ever happening again.

Does anything strike you when reading these five points? I don't know about you folks, but when I read these, my first reaction was: "Wait, weren't these supposed to be the defining hallmarks of American society?"

And indeed, although I have read and re-read these points several times since then, they still strike me as something wholly, thoroughly American, nothing to do with the concept of "Germany" or what anyone--whether Germans themselves or the rest of the world--considers German people to be like. The idea of religious freedom was a founding principle of the United States; indeed, it was one of the primary reasons why the English fled Britain and moved across the ocean: because they wanted to be able to practice their versions of Christianity which were not approved by the British authorities. Likewise, this idea that "My life is my life, and it's none of your business" is a thoroughly American value, and it is in fact quite the opposite of what most people consider to be fundamental "German" social values.

And what's with that part at the beginning about providing for oneself through work? Wasn't that precisely the "American Dream," the idea that if you work hard enough, you can make it independently and become a self-made person through your own dedication and persistence? Yes, this was another of the founding principles of the United States, a point which was meant to distinguish America from Europe, where old-fashioned values like human society still held importance and where you were not expected to antisocially pursue your own self-interest without considering the interest of other members in your community.

And then, as if to put the final touch on all this non-Germanness, there's that point at the end, the usual German-guilting which places the blame fully on Germany for the worst crime ever committed in all of history, a belief that Germany is solely responsible for the worst evils in the world and that none of these things would have happened if only Germany had not committed its terrible crime against humanity. How conveniently this thinking ignores the fact that the United States is primarily responsible for the current unrest in the world's most chaotic places: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Sorry folks, but none of these ideas have anything to do with Germany; every one of the points listed by the Münklers is actually a defining characteristic of Americans, not Germans, and what's kind of funny is that these ideas are about 200 years out of date: even Americans don't believe in these ideas today. Even Americans realize that the whole dream of success through hard work is a sham, a ruse, a lie that people are fed in order to motivate them to work harder with the promise that they'll somehow be rewarded for it later. This whole idea of living just for your work, and of working not for the greater good of your community but for your own personal wealth and status, is a mark of a psychotic anti-social, not a model to be imitated by any decent people, and the idea that such a lifestyle will actually pay off in the end is a fairy tale which any American can tell you has been debunked long ago through long practice in the United States. The idea that these characteristics are identifying features of German people is so absurd that I can't tell if this list is meant to be a joke. If the list is actually serious, then not only are the Münklers dead wrong, they are actually the worst kinds of traitors to the German nation one could ever imagine, because they are trying to redefine Germany from start to finish as a copy of the United States, throwing away centuries of German history for the sake of a decade that is only remembered as "the great German crime."

Of course, it would be difficult to write an entire book without including at least some true information in it. It's clear that the book was written with full awareness of the implications of the current refugee crisis, and an apparent agenda to make Germans more welcoming toward the millions of refugees coming to Europe, especially to Germany. The Münklers have one thing right: immigration to Germany is a long-standing aspect of German life which has been carried on for centuries, with countless people making the trek to Germany, especially from Poland, but also from many other lands. This is nothing new, but the sheer scale of migration which is taking place right now is unprecedented. A few stray migrants from Poland or Italy is almost tradition, but millions upon millions of migrants from Africa and Muslim countries is something that's never happened before, and if it continues, it will fundamentally change the shape of European society forever.

The Münklers declare that the idea of German-ness as being defined by one's genetics, by one's ethnicity, cannot be maintained because this would mean that people are unfairly born with or without special rights, that ethnically "German" people imagine themselves as having rights just for having the luck of being born within a certain genetic group, and that such thinking does not allow for any sort of competition among society. There is some truth to this, but let me pose a question: why is "competition" necessary for society? I would prefer a society not in which people fight or compete against each other, but rather a cooperative society in which people work together for the greater good. This idea of "competition" being a fundamental part of everyday life is, again, a thoroughly American value which has no place in Germany. This does not mean, however, that all ethnic Germans are born with the fundamental right to something, or that people who are not born German are somehow fundamentally excluded from anything, and so the Münklers do make a valid point when they declare that defining Germany or German people purely along ethnic divisons would be a mistake. Being "German" is not just in your DNA, it's also about who you are as a person, meaning your beliefs and values.

The Münklers are also right when they note that seaside lands have tended to achieve their prosperity through trade, since it is easy to establish foreign trade with seaside ports. As a result, countries which exist mainly by the sea (such as France, Italy, and especially the Netherlands) have developed attitudes which are much more tolerant, even welcoming of foreign people. In such countries, what is important is not where you come from, but how much money you can bring. Countries with relatively little or no ocean coastline, on the other hand (such as Switzerland, most of the Slavic lands, and, yes, Germany), have tended to remain more self-sufficient, avoiding international trade or migration and defending their land against foreigners. Again, however, I ask: why should this be a bad thing? Why is it bad for a country to be self-sufficient instead of trading with other countries? For a country to be economically sound, it must be self-sufficient, because then it is not affected when other countries experience a financial crisis. In general, foreign trade is to be avoided, except in cases where a country simply does not have the natural resources to produce what its people need. That is just common sense. This idea that a country somehow needs trade is not even a traditional American value, since the United States was founded as a largely self-sufficient country as well; this idea seems to be something thoroughly new and modern, a globalist idea rather than an idea attached to any one country. This emphasis on foreign trade as being one of the most important characteristics of a nation is actually a defining characteristic of commercial thinking (which tends to be fundamentally globalist in nature), the thinking which says "Wait a minute, why are we wasting our time making our own things when we can exploit foreign countries who make it for cheaper? Forget about the nation, let's let in some of that money!" This is certainly not a German value.

You might ask me, then: what are German values? It might seem, at first, like hubris for me to even consider answering such a question. After all, I am not a German: I am not ethnically German, I was not born in Germany, and I did not grow up in Germany or even speaking the German language. For a person like me to imagine that I can define the foundation of German values after living in Germany for just a few years seems ridiculous. And yet, if the Münklers are right about something, if they are right that immigration is central to German values and that foreigners not only form a defining part of Germany but should and must form a defining part of Germany, then allow me, my friends, to define what Germany means to me, the fundamental values that I treasure in Germany and which formed the reasons why I ended up moving to Germany in the first place:

1. Philosophy as a way of life, not just as a field of formal study. Philosophy is not just something you study in university for a few years before forgetting about it and moving on to other things. Philosophy is your whole way of thinking, which in turn becomes your whole way of life, and any thinking person must consider their life carefully and conscientiously throughout their entire lifetime. A thinking person does not just live for no reason; a thinking person would consider it better to die than to live what Socrates described as "the unexamined life." A German does not live for no reason, or just because they happened to be born; an animal might live for such a reason, but a German aspires to be more than an unthinking animal. Rather, the German aspires to be a creature which thinks usefully and carefully. This defines a "living philosophy," not just words written in a book by some bearded dead guy, but an entire society which ponders itself and its role in the universe, and acts thoughtfully, as appropriately befits such a thinking society.

2. Anything which is worth doing is worth doing well, and anything which is produced should be produced to the highest quality possible. Germany is an industrial land which manufactures a lot of stuff, and it has become world-renowned for the quality of its manufactured goods. Germany is also a land of scientific research, and this scientific research serves two main ends: first, to contribute to the awareness and enlightenment of humanity, a service which serves the above point about philosophy and careful thinking. Secondly, science serves engineering, which in turn leads to better-made products and better-running systems. Cheaply-made, mass-produced stuff which breaks easily and is made to be disposable is foreign to Germany. This applies not only to manufactured products made in a factory, but also any food products which are grown or prepared, as well as art and cultural works, and even things like policies and procedures, whether governmental or otherwise. German people want themselves and their products to be of the highest quality, and they strive to maintain quality in all these matters, always.

3. Money is a means to subsistence, not a path to luxury or material wealth. Although it may be difficult to live without money, one should never live for money, because then one is not living at all. Money is a sometimes-useful tool which can be used to serve the above two points, because it can allow people to supply themselves with the food, scientific research, and high-quality manufactured goods which aid the process of living healthfully and philosophically. Money is never, ever to be seen as an end in itself, and people are never to try to pursue more money after they already have enough to serve the above two points, because having a surplus of money ruins culture by causing people to seek after stupid, philosophy-destroying entertainment with their spare money. Wealth does not exist in money, GDP, or trade.

4. National homogeny and unity rather than diversity or variation. It is more important for Germans that they are similar to each other, and thus can get along with each other, than that they can tolerate people who are "different." If people do not like how things are in Germany and do not accept fundamental German values, they are more than welcome to find another country which better serves their needs.

5. Rural and small-town life. A German is most at home in a dark, quiet forest, or on a farm, whether in the fields or in their small farmhouse which they share with their family, or else in a village where most people work as handworkers, craftspeople and artisans. Large, fast-moving, loud cities are something foreign and alien to Germany, the German people, German culture, and the German way of life.

Of course people like the Münklers will say that these values are old-fashioned and obsolete. Of course they will say that these values are idealized fantasies of how we imagine much older times to be. Of course they will say that such ideas have no relevance or significance for a modern, developed, educated, progressive country. And that is why ideas like the Münklers are already obsolete: they were obsolete the moment they were formed, while the ideas which I listed are timeless and endure forever.
Thursday, August 25th, 2016
9:22 pm
The techie who refused to grow up
It occurs to me that in many ways, I seem to exhibit signs of Peter Pan Syndrome. Not in the sense of that very awkward website, nor in the more general sense of a "big boy" who just wants to have fun and refuses to take on any adult responsibilities, but there are certain things which are expected of me as an adult which I've never had much interest in and never made plans for. Although my life has been blessed with a marriage, I have no children, nor have I ever given any serious thought to becoming a father. I honestly think that I could live the rest of my life happily childless. One thing I can't live without, however, is a job, and as I get older, I'm beginning to realize that certain important choices need to be made regarding one's career for anyone who remains dependent on their job for a living as they approach middle age.

In a few months, I will turn 35 years old. This is not old in the sense that I should be getting ready to retire, but it's true that my life already has a fair amount of history behind it. I've been working pretty consistently full-time in the field of information technology for about 10 years now. That is a fairly long time to be working in any industry. Considering that a typical person's career only has about 40 years or so of productive employment, I've already expended about a quarter of my career time. This means I'm approaching a point (if I haven't reached it already) where people would apparently consider me a "mid-career professional," not someone in a position where they should be learning the ropes and being given instructions, but rather the opposite, someone who is in a position where they should be making some decisions about what others should be doing and displaying some leadership and guidance. Most people seem to think of me as a "senior" in my field; whenever I go trying to find something out, I end up with more questions than answers as people expect me to know how everything works, even when I have no idea how something works.

I never had any interest in being a manager. I didn't see myself as someone who was eager to climb the corporate ladder to reach some high-ranking position. I always just wanted to be a techie, a quiet, anonymous employee who remained out of the way and made everything work in the background. And yet it seems I'm at a point where this is no longer expected of me or offered to me. People are giving me projects to guide to completion. People are telling me to write documents that will become internal standards which define how other employees perform tasks. People are telling me to design training that will inform other employees. And yet I never asked for any of this. I don't mind doing it, but it isn't really what I'd been looking for. I'm a technician, not a businessperson; I'm built to make computers run, not to design company processes.

And yet it doesn't seem to be a good idea to refute any of this. It doesn't seem like a good idea to put up my hand and say "Hey, um, excuse me? I didn't actually want to do any of this. I just want to do the same stuff that people do when they're starting out." I wanted to fix stuff that's broken and make things work, because that is what a techie does. But there's an implicit assumption that if you work as a techie for long enough, you should no longer be just making stuff work; you're just expected to put on your adult pants and start getting more involved with the business side of things rather than the technical side of things. More than once, I've tried to get involved with some technical issue, only to be told by my direct manager that no, my time is too important for me to waste it on minor technical glitches, and that I should get one of my junior colleagues to investigate and resolve such technical problems. I'm supposed to be writing documentation, setting internal standards, and having meetings with customers. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I should probably be grateful that I'm seen as commanding enough respect and competence to be able to engage in such internal decision-making and delegation of responsibility. And yet, again: I never actually looked for or asked for any of this. (Yes, I know I sound like Adam Jensen with this.)

I should probably start thinking more productively about my future, both professional and personal. Most of my co-workers are younger than me. The ones who aren't are in management positions. I'm increasingly beginning to realize that I need to make some changes now or I could end up burying myself in a hole that I can't get out of anymore.

It's difficult for me to think of myself in these terms. It's difficult for me to think of myself as someone who's really competent or who knows what they're doing, because every day when I go to work, I still encounter technical problems which I have no idea how to fix. But I've come to understand that this is something which will never change: computer software and network systems are so big and complicated now that no one, not even those super-geniuses you hear about going into the technology industry, will know the reasons or the solutions for such problems off the top of their heads. They need to do specialized research into such problems just like anyone else would have to. Several years ago, in a previous job, I had a co-worker who was, at that time, a similar age to the one I am now, and he was one of the best in our industry I'd ever met. He was a brilliant IT administrator and had great respect from his department since he was recognized as being at the top of his group, the most capable guy in a team of very capable people. And yet one day, in a moment of reflection and sincerity, he confided to me: "I swear, if you only knew how little I feel like I really know..." And then I understood: the best aren't the best because they know a lot. There is too much information for even the most eidetic memory to take it all in and memorize every software patch, every bug, every solution, every software library, or every network route. The best have something else which makes them the best: it's not knowledge, per se, but rather some more vague ability to function and make things work even in the absence of such knowledge.

This is a good lesson to learn for people who work in the IT industry, I think. But while that might be somehow comforting, it doesn't really give me any sort of direction forward, and I seem to have reached a point where I fundamentally need one. I'm pretty satisfied with my life right now; I'm content with where I am and what I'm doing. When I was young, that was all I really wanted from my life: a normal, simple, quiet, contented life where I could feel satisfied with where I was and what I was doing. I have that now. And yet, I have an overwhelming sense that I can't keep doing what I'm doing now for the next 30 years, and that if I'm to avoid a mid-career crash and a mid-life career crisis, I need to change something soon, before it's too late to make significant changes.

Maybe it's time to change careers. Maybe it's time to change industries. This isn't the first time I've had this thought. Already in the year 2000, when the technology industry collapsed, there were many people who left for other lines of work, never to return to the IT field. For me, working with computers always seemed like a decision that had already been made: ever since I was a child, I spent most of my time interacting with computers on a technical level, so it was a natural choice to make doing that a career. But today, working in the technology industry has precious little to do with computers, as I've written so many times before. So again, this isn't the first time I'm having such thoughts. And yet now I'm realizing that these thoughts are taking on a new urgency as I begin to leave early adulthood. It wasn't that long ago that I turned 30. In another twinkling of an eye, I'll be 40. And then things will really start to go downhill if I don't have a plan ready by that time.

And so I keep torturing myself with questions I've already asked countless times: what else should I do? What else would I or could I do? I'd be no good in medicine; I would gleefully kill all my patients. I'd be hopeless as a lawyer; I would declare the entire state and its constitution to be invalid and spend all my time fruitlessly demanding a revolution. I'm not artistically talented, I have absolutely no head for sales or marketing, and I detest everything about the financial industry. I like animals but don't want to make working with them my job. I have no sympathy for tourists and support hunting and executing them like rats, so working in the tourism or hospitality industries is out. I hate food and eating, so I would be allergic to the food industry. I wouldn't mind being a farmer, but I'm in the wrong place for that, and anyway, I realize that this dream of retiring to the countryside and spending the rest of one's days on a farm is sort of a false dream, a fantasy which people idealize and which doesn't reflect the actual everyday reality of living and working on a farm for the rest of your life. In the right place, with the right people, it can work, but you have to make sure that it really is the right place and that you really are with the right people. I'm certainly not in a place to be doing that right now.

It seems childish, too, to be ruminating over such fantasies, to react to the changes in my career by wanting to throw it all away and start from the bottom somewhere else. And yet, sometimes we need to be childish in our lives. Sometimes we need to put aside the responsibilities and expectations that are placed on us as adults for a moment and get in touch with our inner child. Not too much, but just a little, just enough that we can recognize when we're not being true to ourselves or when changes need to be made.

Should I stay or should I go? Should I try to make a fundamental change and start over with something completely different? Or should I take the 10 years I have behind me and leverage that to get into something better, something which I wouldn't have been able to reach when I was just starting out?

If only you knew, dear reader, how little I really know.
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016
10:52 pm
When the BRICS collapse
So now the Olympics in Rio are over. Some people had their moment of glory: world records were broken, medals were won, and sports fans had a good time. But now that the ceremonies and celebrations have passed and everyone's gone home, it seems that the games have been overshadowed by the highly-publicized problems which Rio as a city and Brazil as a country face in these difficult times: besides the political turmoil of President Dilma Rousseff's ongoing impeachment proceedings relating to corruption charges, the country faces the deeper and more worrying problems of a disease epidemic (or being Ground Zero for a global pandemic) from the Zika virus, and signs of rampant, deep-seated poverty and violent crime that cut through much of Rio, and indeed, Brazil. These things are no laughing matter, and to be sure, they are nothing new: much of Latin America has labored under the burden of organized criminal gangs and sprawling slums for many years. There was a lot of partying and celebrating relating to some sporting events, but a couple of weeks of Olympics couldn't cover up the problems festering beneath Rio's surface, and indeed, they seem to have had the opposite effect: the media attention which the Olympics focused on Rio have raised these serious issues to the surface, bringing them to the attention of the whole world, and now that the sports are over, these issues remain, leaving many with sobering questions about what is to be done about these problems, or indeed if anything can be done about them at all in a Brazil which openly admits that it has no opportunities to offer its young people and no clear path forward to greater stability or prosperity.

I mention all of this because it is a clear refutation of what we were told over the past few years: that Brazil somehow represents an emerging economy. You've heard about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) before; I've written about them several times before. The idea behind this concept seemed to be that the world's so-called "developed economies" (North America and most of Europe) have developed to the point where there isn't much left to develop, and so capitalism, which fundamentally requires constant growth in order to keep on thriving, went international in search of "developing economies" which could supply the growth which globalized capitalism is dependent on. The BRICS countries, then, represented a sort of economic "sweet spot": countries which are undeveloped enough that they have plenty of room to grow, but still advanced enough that they have a good infrastructure to build on. This seems, in retrospect, to have been little more than a delusional fantasy of people who make their living off financial speculation. Brazil entered a spiraling recession in 2014 which has continued to the present day. Russia likewise experienced catastrophic economic fallout from recent events in Ukraine, growth in China and India is slowing as those countries seem to be reaching a plateau, and South Africa is a virtual non-entity. All of this is happening even as Turkey, part of the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey) group of countries, goes through the turmoil of a failed coup attempt and President Recep Erdoğan's apparent decision that he doesn't really want to join the European Union after all, even as terrorist bombings erupt all across Turkey and the Syrian civil war bleeds through the Turkey-Syria border. My intent here isn't to kick these countries when they're down; it's unfortunate that all of these things are happening. My point is that people seem to have founded their ideas of future prosperity on an unreliable foundation, something hollow and rickety rather than the stable base which a country needs if it's to function long-term as a sovereign entity.

Not long ago, I read a news article proclaiming that Brazil just might be the coolest country in the world. I was shocked when I read this idea; how could a country rife with poverty and crime, a country with no sociocultural path forward, be the coolest country in the world? It seems that people are willing to forgive a country anything if it has beautiful beaches by the sea (never mind that those beaches or that sea are polluted) and peppy dance music with a beat. You got robbed while walking on the street? No problem; just dance your cares away on the beach! You have no job and can't afford basic life needs? Don't worry; just turn on some loud music and let it wash away your problems! Any sensible person would read these words as bitter sarcasm, but what's really sad is that some people seem to actually take them seriously, believing that dance music and sandy beaches are a good substitute for stable living standards. It isn't hard to see, then, where the problems in Brazil (and similar countries) began: actually, people got exactly what they wanted. They didn't really care about stability or sustainability in the first place; their thoughts were with music and dancing, and they got what they wanted. You won't find a shortage of music or dancing in Brazil. Non-Brazilians who regard Brazil don't seem to care about these problems either; all that matters to the world is that Brazilian women are beautiful and that the weather is warm, for surely this is all that you need to make a great country. Forget about the things that people actually need to live; a beach of callipygous women seems to be the only item on the world's hierarchy of needs.

It isn't difficult to prescribe a solution to fix the problems of a country like Brazil, then, but such a solution is basically impossible to enact, because it would require people to change their values and priorities, which is something that people seem to steadfastly refuse to do. The reason why the BRICS economies failed was because they focused too much on exactly what the world was telling them to focus on: near-term economic growth. It doesn't take a genius to tell you that if you try to grow as rapidly as possible without building a solid foundation to support that growth, any short-term growth will quickly collapse and leave you more deeply entrenched in problems than before. But the entire world ignored this basic idea and figured that if they just kept reaching for the stars, GDP could keep rising indefinitely. Any person with any amount of common sense could tell you that this is impossible, but unfortunately, politicians still make economic decisions based on what economists say, and economists live in a world that is not bounded by any concept of basic, fundamental reality. They dream up some chart or graph with random numbers on it, and people believe this nonsense. It's been like this for years, and so we have no reason to believe that this is going to change, because the general public has shown that it is perfectly willing to forget the past if there are women or music involved. "How could this recession happen? Wait a minute... I love this music! Let's dance! Oh yeah, we were talking about the recession... Whoa, check out the butt on that woman! Let's keep dancing, my friends! Surely economic success is just around the corner for all of us!"

The BRICS story is a somewhat retold version of the story of the dot-com bubble. Both were hyped for a while as the next big thing, then collapsed when it turned out that you can't build a structure out of hype alone. And in retrospect, people were foolish to believe in either story. At that time, of course, it didn't seem that way; no one can foresee the future, and when you're not being given facts, but rather fed a series of predictions based on incomplete data, you can make the future look like anything. But the problems inherent in all of these economic debacles are not too hard to discern for anyone who bothers to look and see them. That doesn't mean that people will see them, because most people aren't willing to see real information that would reveal anything. People want to continue to believe in the hollow dream of economic expansion, and when they look to a country like Brazil, they will never see an empty, broken country which built a house out of sand on a foundation of mud. All they will see--because it's all they want to see--is a tanned, big-bootied beauty shaking her butt to a bossa nova beat, hypnotizing them into the dreams which they so desperately want to believe in that this is the inevitable future waiting for all of us.
Monday, August 15th, 2016
2:41 pm
The problems highlighted by No Man's Sky
If you pay any attention at all to video-gaming news, you are probably extremely aware that No Man's Sky was released last week. If you pay a little more attention than that, you may also be aware that the game has received highly polarized reviews. No Man's Sky appears to be one of the most highly-anticipated video games to ever come out, and its release has been likened to that of previous games like 2001's Black & White and 2008's Spore. What all three of these games seem to have in common is that they were designed as concepts rather than as games, with the result that while they deliver pretty well on the one thing which they were designed and advertised to do, they are not much fun as "games." The release of No Man's Sky is particularly interesting to me, however, because it highlights a couple of problems which seem to be inherent in gaming culture and which have always bothered me but which other people seem to accept or even enjoy as part of video gaming.

Before I get too deeply into the details, let me explain the basics first, for anyone who doesn't know what No Man's Sky is or doesn't have many details about it. No Man's Sky is a video game which came out last week, first for the PlayStation 4 and then a few days later for Microsoft Windows. The premise of the game is simple, but powerful: the game allows you to explore a universe of 2 to the power of 64 planets. Yes, that is 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets. No joke, no exaggeration. You have a spaceship, and you can use it to fly to any one of those planets, then fly around the planet in orbit, or come down to a low altitude and fly over the surface of the planet like an airplane. If you like the looks of the planet, you can then land on it and walk around and explore the planet on foot. That is basically the entire premise of the game. The basic gameplay is not really anything other games haven't done before, like 2014's Elite: Dangerous, which lets the player explore "only" a relatively paltry 400 billion star systems, but as you might have already guessed, the appeal of No Man's Sky lies largely in its sheer numerical scope. Make no mistake: it is unlikely that all of the planets in No Man's Sky will be charted within our lifetimes. Considering that our world's population is currently estimated at almost 7.5 billion people, No Man's Sky has about 2,459,565,876 planets for every single person alive on Earth today. Obviously, no single person is going to explore that many planets within their lifetime, meaning that even if every single person alive today did nothing but play No Man's Sky for the rest of their lives, the game would still remain largely unexplored by the time the current generation of people dies. If the game is still running in 100 years, your great-great-grandchildren will still be discovering new planets. The reason for the hype behind No Man's Sky is that it thus transcends its mathematical foundation: yes, there is a fixed number which defines its scope, and yet that number is so very large as to be basically infinite for any practical purposes. The game offers the possibility of an infinite, unlimited world to explore in any way you like.

You might ask yourself: how is this technically possible? Computers today regularly have disk drives whose sizes are measured in terabytes, and a terabyte is about a trillion bytes. A few trillion bytes is a lot of data, to be sure, but nowhere near the storage size you would need to store data on the quintillions of planets on offer in No Man's Sky. And you're right: the game doesn't have a database of all of those planets which it stores on your computer. In fact, it doesn't store that data anywhere: those 18 quintillion planets don't exist yet. The game automatically generates them when you get close to them. When you fly within visual range of a planet in No Man's Sky, a computer algorithm randomly generates a planet: it generates the planet's color, the planet's atmosphere type, the flora and fauna which populate that planet, and all the other parameters which will define your experience should you decide to land on that planet and walk around. Until you actually get close enough to see the planet yourself, each one of those planets exists as nothing more than a dot in the game's vast map system. The planets in the game are like Schrödinger's cat: they exist in an indeterminate state until you actually go over and observe them. Until then, they could be anything at all. They are both everything and nothing until they experience the act of being observed by a human observer.

If that sounds like a bit of a cop-out in terms of game design, you've just hit upon one of the key problems with No Man's Sky: although advertised as a universe of more than 18 quintillion planets, the reality is that the game was released with basically zero planets. It's not a universe full of planets to explore; it's an algorithm to generate planets. They're not selling a huge, infinite universe whose secrets you can explore; they're selling an algorithm, a formula they developed to generate parts of that universe. This leads us to the problematic questions (which have already existed for years) surrounding what's called "procedural generation," the practice of generating content based on a mathematical formula rather than having a human designer design that content. Procedural generation is not limited to video games: there have already been computer algorithms to generate pictures and music for decades. These algorithms mean a theoretically infinite amount of content: any time you want to see a new picture or hear a new song, you can just press a button and the computer will draw a new picture or compose a new song for you. The results aren't necessarily sheer random noise, either, particularly in the case of music: since most music follows a fairly structured set of forms (anyone who has studied music theory knows that note progressions usually follow a set of relatively mathematical structures), it is possible to make an algorithm that produces something that sounds pretty well like music, and yet can randomly produce a new piece of music each time.

Procedural generation can work surprisingly well for computer games; in fact, it's already been used for well over 30 years to design levels for games. The classic 1980 text-based RPG Rogue did this, and it was so popular that it spawned a whole genre of games called "roguelikes" which use many of the design principles inherent in Rogue, including randomly-generated levels which are different every time you play. This means theoretically infinite replay value for a game, since no two games are exactly alike. However, game designers can't rely on procedural generation to make their games fun, and here's where the limitations of "computer creativity" come into the picture: something which was generated according to an algorithm isn't going to be as balanced or variegated as something which was designed by a skilled designer who understands the principles of what goes into a good picture, song, or game level. Procedural generation works very well when it's defined within a fairly narrow set of constraints which are defined by the game designer and which ensure that the algorithm doesn't end up producing pure garbage, but you can't rely on it to generate a whole game for you. It's well and good to have randomization that produces a different game world each time you play, but that alone doesn't make a game; there also has to be some point to that game world, some reason why a player would want to actually bother going to explore it, and this seems to have been something which was forgotten in No Man's Sky. As a result, the game falls into the same sort of pattern exhibited by the aforementioned Black & White and Spore: all of these games were marketed on a particular gimmick which they do quite well, but once you've played with that gimmick for a few minutes, you find that there isn't really much game behind it, not much to do after you've played with the "software toy" that the "game" was sold on. When No Man's Sky came out, it seems that thousands of players enjoyed a few hours with the game, but then asked: "Is that all there is? Once you've landed on a few planets and walked around for a while, what else is there to do? What kind of gameplay would motivate us to continue exploring these quintillions of planets?" It's the classical question of existential angst: we are here, but why are we here, and what are we to do now that we're here?

One thing which annoys me about this question is that it's the same question I've been asking for years about Star Control II, and yet nobody else seems to have asked this question about that game, ever. Star Control II is a game from 1992 which has a universe of a few thousand planets to explore, which was very large for a game of that time. It's consistently hailed as one of the best games ever made, and yet whenever I play it, I always end up reaching a point after a couple of hours where I just see no reason to play it anymore, because most of those planets don't have anything interesting on them. At the very most, you might find some valuable minerals in the soil of a planet, which you can then mine out through a little mini-game which gets boring after the first few times you play it. Other than that, there is literally nothing of interest, nothing you can do on the vast majority of the game's planets; out of all those thousands of planets, only a couple of dozen contain alien races which you can actually communicate with or do anything with, and those are the planets which you're supposed to visit to advance the game's plot. The rest of the planets contain nothing: no intelligent life, no interesting features to see or explore, and indeed nothing to do at all. I've never understood why people think the game is so great; it seems they're just being forgiving because it was a groundbreaking game for its time. To be sure, I love the game's story, its music, and its overall look and feel, but the prospect of a universe with thousands of planets to explore is a gimmick: the game's designers didn't actually create thousands of unique, distinct planets to explore; they created a grid of random numbers, and if you happen to follow a point on that grid, you'll be rewarded with the information that you've arrived at a planet, a planet which you can now do nothing with. What's the point? No one asked this question in the time of Star Control II, but people expect more from games now, and so everyone's posing this same question about No Man's Sky.

Perhaps in recognition of this weakness and anticipation of these objections, the designers of No Man's Sky appear to have tried injecting a bit more of a game-like element into the game by adding "Sentinels," flying robots which will attack you if you try to mine resources out of a planet you're on. Now, mining is a key aspect of No Man's Sky, just as it was in Star Control II: you need to gather resources in order to fuel your ship, since you do need fuel to fly around the game's huge universe. Perhaps it was thought that the challenge of fighting off Sentinels while trying to mine resources from the planet would make up for the monotony of the game and create a fun game-like experience. Instead, it seems to have done precisely the opposite: many people have complained that the Sentinels ruin a game which could have been fun, since they discourage the player from doing the very thing that the player is supposed to do and needs to do.

Thinking about all this, however, makes me think once again about the question of what constitutes a "game" at all, and whether a game needs to have "challenge" in it in order for it to be a game. Suppose that No Man's Sky did not contain Sentinels, but rather allowed you to simply wander around wherever you wanted to go and do whatever you felt like doing without consequences. To create an analogy with another well-known game, imagine Grand Theft Auto without police (since the Sentinels in No Man's Sky operate on a "wanted level" analogous to that pioneered by the Grand Theft Auto games). If you could just go anywhere in Grand Theft Auto and shoot anyone or do anything else without anyone trying to stop you, would there be much challenge, and would it be much of a game?

The problem is that different people would give different answers to this question. Some people would say "No, that would be boring; that would eliminate any point to playing the game, since then there would be no challenge." Other people, however, would say "Actually yes, that would make the game better and more fun, since then I could do more things in the game without anyone in the game trying to impede my actions." This whole debate reminds me of the division over the ghost in Spelunky, a roguelike game from 2008 in which players have only a couple of minutes to finish each level. After 2 minutes and 30 seconds of being in the same level, a ghost will appear. This ghost cannot be killed, destroyed, or otherwise removed from the level, and if it touches the player, the player dies instantly. The only really effective strategy for dealing with the ghost is to be fast: you need to finish the level in less than two-and-a-half minutes, and if you don't, you need to quickly exit the level so the ghost doesn't catch you. Many people decried the inclusion of the ghost in Spelunky, insisting that it ruins what would have otherwise been a fun game, since it impedes the player's ability to explore each level of the game and imposes a strict time limit which requires them to make a rush for the exit instead of adopting a more relaxed or methodical approach to the game. This is particularly relevant since Spelunky, as a roguelike, also uses procedural generation for its levels, meaning that each level is unique, and some players would really appreciate the opportunity to explore each level before they leave it rather than being forced to hurry through and possibly miss something that might have been useful or interesting. In response to these concerns, some people have released modifications of Spelunky which include the option to turn the ghost off. Whenever I play Spelunky, I personally always play such modifications; I never play the original, unmodified game specifically because I see the ghost as an offense to the whole spirit of exploration which is at the heart of the game, and for all those people who claim that not having the ghost "ruins" or "breaks" the game, get a load of this: I happen to vastly prefer playing the game without the ghost, and if something makes a game more enjoyable or fun, how can that ruin it?

Derek Yu, the creator of Spelunky, has stood behind the decision to incorporate the ghost into the game, insisting that the ghost is necessary to maintain the flow and pacing of the game, that not having the ghost would interrupt the progress of the game and allow players to linger in one area for too long, but I can't help but question: if the player chooses to do so, why would you want to force them to do otherwise? If a player really wants to just finish the game as quickly as possible, all right, they can choose to do that, but why can't a player be allowed to take a slower and more cautious approach to the game? I don't understand this mentality which believes that even if a player happens to enjoy a certain play style more, the game designer has the right to prohibit the player from playing the game in that way. Derek Yu has even commented on other games which lack a similar timed element, insisting that while some games might be fun, they would have benefited from some kind of time limit to ensure that the player has to keep moving and can't stay in one spot for too long. This kind of thing makes me angry, because again, just because one person might enjoy that style of game, that doesn't mean that everyone else has to make the same type of game. Hey, Derek: just because you felt the need to ruin Spelunky with the ghost, don't think that means that you can tell everyone else to ruin their games in the same way.

And yet a similar kind of thinking seems to have gone into No Man's Sky, because the game's designers have expressed similar concerns about the "problem" of players remaining on one planet for too long. It seems that in the testing leading up to the release of the game, the designers complained that some playtesters were remaining on planets for too much time instead of pushing on to discover a different planet, and so they incorporated elements into the game to encourage players not to spend too much time on one planet, instead hopping from one planet to another in an infinite chain, never spending too much time on each planet because they were, again, convinced that doing this would somehow destroy the flow and the fun of the game. No Man's Sky is not really a game about exploring the planets you land on; it was designed to be a game about getting to a planet, stripping it of as many of its resources as you can grab without getting killed by the Sentinels, then running away and speeding off to another planet to continue this process ad infinitum. This process seems pointless and wasteful to me; yes, the game may contain more than 18 quadrillion planets, but why does that mean that I need to try and explore as many as possible, given that I know I won't be able to visit that many planets in my lifetime? Why can't I remain on one planet for a few days, or even longer if I feel like it, rather than just having to dash from one planet to another? It's clear that tremendous work has gone into creating the algorithms which define the universe of No Man's Sky, so it baffles me that the designers have gone to such efforts to limit how players can experience that universe. Why are they so upset at the prospect of players not playing the way they are "supposed" to play? What's the point of making an interactive game if players can't play the game the way they want to?

If you think about it, life is a process of mixing history with the future. We are defined partly by the things which have happened to us and to our world in the past, but we can still make decisions which impact the future. We can't choose where we are born or who our parents are, but we can still define a future for ourselves that is independent of this history. And yet it would be a mistake to leave that history in the past, because we can learn things from history. I wouldn't want to live a life or play a game that is all about staying in one place forever and never making any kind of changes or progress, but neither would I want to live a life or play a game that consists entirely of changes, because then there is no structure and no coherent narrative, as events move from one place to another at a breakneck speed without any moments to pause and consider where we've been, where we've come from, what path led us to where we are now and why. Remaining in one place and moving to another place are not opposites; they are two actions which complement each other, and any balanced life includes a combination of both of these. The same is true of a video game. Yet this balance seems to be lost on people today, with consequences that are disastrous for our society, culture, economy, and environment. In comparison to the problems which face our real world, perhaps the problems with a video game seem small and inconsequential in comparison, but the lack of balance in video games is a symptom: game designers who believe that their game needs to be played a certain way are attempting to force players to play in that particular style, and in this way, the debate surrounding No Man's Sky is, in a very real way, a microcosm of the debate surrounding modern human society.
Tuesday, August 9th, 2016
6:21 am
"Be entertaining"
Some years ago, when I was living in the United States, I was invited to a social gathering by a friend of mine who was an immigrant to that country, and who had integrated pretty well, in the sense that they were very enthusiastic about American society and seemed to be enjoying it tremendously. My friend was quite a lively person, enjoying the parties and the inclusiveness of American society, the way it welcomed people from all walks of life and from all over the world, which was important to this friend of mine since they wanted to feel like they could fit in. There was just one word of caution which my friend gave me as we were making plans to attend the social gathering: "Be entertaining," my friend advised me. "You will find that people like you better if you're entertaining and show enthusiasm about things." I had the impression that my friend was giving me not only advice for this particular social gathering, but for life in general.

This was, for me, a pretty nice encapsulation of the American lifestyle and the American point of view. I don't think my friend had intended to summarize American life so succinctly, but it turns out that in a serendipitous turn, they had: with those two words, "Be entertaining," they had summed up the entire American philosophy toward the meaning of life. As long as you are somehow like a character from a television sitcom, people will like you: they will react positively to the things you say and to you as a person, and they will welcome you into their social gatherings. On the other hand, if you are more like a "normal person," not someone whom you'd see on TV but rather a person who doesn't constantly have funny stories to tell or other amusing ways to make people laugh, then you will be shunned in American society, because people get together in America to be entertained, not to have any kind of society or community.

The irony is, I hope, not lost on the reader: my friend loved America for how tolerant and accepting it is, how much it welcomes all different types of people, and yet my friend had embraced yet another type of exclusionary thinking, the thinking which excludes "boring" people, the people who don't always have a joke or a trick up their sleeve. In America, it might not matter what your skin color is, what your native language is, or what country you were born in, but if you want to be like a native, it's important that you can be a fast-talking, "cool" person who impresses others with your cleverness and uniqueness. If you don't have these qualities, you'll be cast off to the lowest classes of society.

This is one thing which separates European society from American society for me: in Europe, people are still allowed to be normal people. It is okay to be like other people in Europe. It is okay to be average or unremarkable. It is okay if you don't have some weird and funny quirk which somehow makes you unique. In Europe, it is not a requirement that each person somehow mark themselves in a way that makes them unique and memorable. In Europe, you can be a part of a community, and people will not think any less of you for it, even if you don't make them laugh constantly with your funny stories and quirky eccentricities. In Europe, the most important thing is to be a good, solid person, someone who does the right things and acts with personal integrity in a way which supports the sustained health of the community. In the United States, by contrast, entertainment and unique individuality are the most important qualities a person can have: people might say that they want personal integrity from others, but what's really valued in practice is that a person can somehow give others the feeling of being in a TV show with a laugh track.

No wonder people like living in the USA so much. It's a place where the fun never stops. The show must go on, even when the TV is turned off: once the actual show ends, the real-life show continues, as people are expected to continue putting on funny behaviors that they learned from the greatest and wisest teacher of all, the electronic picture screen. It's no secret that even for children who go to school every day, the television has been America's actual teacher for several generations, and so it's not surprising that American society's values and American people's ideas have been formed by what they learn in that classroom. Today, you can see the results of such an education system: a whole country of people who just want to be entertained. You, too, can be an American, and fit well into that set of values, if you learn from the same teacher in the same class. And if you don't, well, America will also be glad to receive you as a minimum-wage laborer who works 12-hour shifts every day, lives in a slum, and remains invisible to the public eye, since no one would want to see a boring person like that.
Saturday, August 6th, 2016
5:34 pm
The shift from constructionism to instructionism
It wasn't that long ago that people were talking about a shift in education from instructionism to constructionism. But the natural limitations of our human experiences mean that things are actually moving in the opposite direction.

In the field of pedagogy, the theory and study of teaching and how people can best be taught, there is a divide between instructionism and constructionism. Seymour Papert, who only just left us this past Sunday, described the difference between these two as "Teaching versus learning." Instructionism is the more "traditional" model of a classroom in which students sit and watch a teacher explain something on a blackboard. Students have no involvement in this learning process other than just observing and receiving the instruction they are given. By contrast, constructionism is the idea that people learn best when they have some personal involvement in the learning process: constructionism is "learning by doing." The contrast between these two philosophies of learning is perhaps best typified in science classes, where there is a clear division between "lectures" and "labs." Many students and teachers believe that people learn science best by doing, by seeing the results of experiments rather than studying the principles behind those experiments out of a book. The problem with the constructionist approach is that it's limited in what it can convey: it can only convey things which we can personally witness or experience. This means that while it's easy to demonstrate simple scientific concepts like gravity, light, or temperature in hands-on settings, it is basically impossible to get a thorough understanding of atomic fission or quantum physics in a lab environment, since these processes occur at a level which we can't see and can't understand intuitively based on our everyday experiences. Constructionism is also largely useless for teaching history, since we obviously don't have the ability to personally experience historical events. Until someone invents a time machine, we'll have to rely on instructionist methods for teaching history.

The thing is, when we are born, no one comes and tells us everything that we need to know in life. The things which people know today were largely learned through a process of trial-and-error, often as the result of great mistakes which we only later recognized as mistakes because of their consequences. Imagine how the course of history would have been changed if God had told us when we were born about the toxicity of lead and the consequences of using lead to carry and store water, the health problems which lead causes and how those problems can be avoided. Imagine if God had told us about the risks of nuclear radiation, AIDS, or global climate change. But no one did. We were only able to discover these things as the result of these things actually happening, of people actually experiencing them and documenting them. And to be sure, the idea of teaching these things through practical experience is absurd: no one should have to learn about AIDS or lead poisoning by experiencing them personally. I've sometimes thought that if there is a God, then God must be a constructionist, or at least partly so, since humans have historically been allowed to make their own mistakes and needed to learn from those mistakes rather than being warned about the consequences of their actions ahead of time. But we're entering a world where constructionism is of limited value in pedagogy, because we're working with increasingly abstract concepts in all fields of education and research. Science and engineering, including the social sciences, are all becoming increasingly more specialized in their research as the things which we can intuitively understand become so thoroughly studied that there isn't much more that we can learn from them at the intuitive level.

We've reached the limits of what we can understand with intuition and gut feeling. If the process of scientific advancement is to continue, it can only do so in an environment in which people have no emotional or intuitive feeling for what they're learning, and can only understand those ideas within the context of rigid analysis. We're entering a world which we can only understand by being told about, not by experiencing it personally. This also means, of course, that we'll have no way of fact-checking anything: if a group of scientists claim that subatomic physics work a certain way or that a certain substance has been found on one of Saturn's moons, we'll have no way to verify these claims, because we lack the equipment we'd need to verify this information for ourselves. Science and technology tends to divide people into haves and have-nots, and anyone who lacks advanced scientific equipment is at a disadvantage since they have no way to test or verify anything. Computers were supposed to empower people to be able to discover and transmit information more readily than they could at any other point in history. Papert himself had high hopes for computers, believing that they could help us make the leap from instructionist to constructionist methods of learning, but the problem is that even if someone has a computer, the computer itself doesn't tell them anything about the world; they are reliant on the software which someone has written for that computer to tell them anything, and if software becomes our new medium for learning about the world, then software is a propaganda tool, a way in which software developers can get people to believe anything.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: we might be able to send a message to anyone in the world in a matter of seconds and pull up more information on nearly any topic of study than we could ever use, but we're still as dependent on other people as we ever were to tell us what the world is like or what's going on. If we're ever going to learn anything, we're still dependent on instructionism: we still need someone to tell us and teach us. And whether what people tell us is true or not is something we can only guess. These are fundamental problems with no solution, which is why they're still as relevant to us in our present day as they were thousands of years ago.
Thursday, August 4th, 2016
6:49 am
Monkey see, monkey do
I usually tend to make the assumption that other people are generally intelligent and capable of rational self-determination in the way that humans are generally capable of being. I don't know if other people make this same assumption when dealing with other people, but one thing which tends to become clear when you deal with people and examine their motivations for doing things is that this assumption is false. People may have the capacity for rational self-determining intelligence, but they do not generally use this faculty. Rather, people have an overwhelming tendency to pattern-match in everyday life. People don't decide what to do or how to live through a set of carefully-planned decisions based on well-analysed criteria, but rather on what they see other people doing.

The true extent of this "monkey see, monkey do" effect is difficult to gauge, because people do a good job of seeming to know what they are doing as they go throughout their everyday lives. People always seem to know what they're going to do and why, and so they give a pretty strong impression that they've made up their minds about something based on reasons which are clear to them, but a bit of careful questioning of people almost inevitably reveals that this is just a facade, the appearance of being well-grounded, balanced, and aware. In reality, people go through their lives quite blindly, without a clue as to why they are really doing anything. If you ask them why they are doing something, they will usually be quite content to tell you that they have no reason and don't need a reason for what they do; if they do try to supply a reason, it will usually be the simplest of all possible reasons, a rationale based on popular slogans or simplistic thinking based on what they have observed other people doing and saying.

It's well known that children form their ideas of social and behavioral norms by watching other people's behavior as they grow up. What's not so widely recognized or acknowledged is that this trend is lifelong; even in adulthood, people tend to exhibit an unconscious tendency to do what they see other people doing, and if they notice that most people seem to be doing something, they will usually start doing the same thing without really thinking about why they are doing it or what the consequences for doing it might be. The tendency to follow the crowd is perhaps slightly less impulsive in adults than it is in children, but to imagine that we live in a world of self-determined people where each adult has a clear idea of who they are or what they want their life to stand for is an illusion, a fantasy. Most adults are nearly as clueless about everything as the day they were born.

A relevant question at this point might be: how important is this observation? Is it important that people actually think for themselves and make their own critical life decisions, or is it fine for people to follow the crowd and let social norms guide their path through life?

Impulsively, many people, particularly "Western" people, tend to immediately say that of course it's important that people choose their own path, that people be "independent" and "self-defining" rather than allowing their society to choose their norms for them. But this is a sort of lip service to the idea of freedom and independence; in reality, even people who say these things are allowing their society to choose their thinking, since these ideas of freedom and independence are themselves hallmarks of "Western" ideology. Indeed, it is a characteristic of Western society for people to imagine that they are free and independent while actually living within a structure of subtle social and psychological manipulation which is all the more effective for its subtlety. It's only noticeable if you pay attention to it, and most people don't, since they were never trained on what to look for, and even if they were, most people don't want to.

Is it really that important that people be independent thinkers, though? You might think that you want to be one, but do you really want to be one? Do you know what the consequences of having your own ideas are? Do you know what it means for your life when you don't agree with anyone else and no one else agrees with you, when every person you speak to finds your ideas strange and forgettable if not outright dangerous and reprehensible? If you've never lived that kind of a life before, you don't know what it's really like. You might not know what the psychological consequences of long-term social alienation and conflict caused by having your own ideas might be.

There are indeed people who have seen both sides of life, who have observed both what Socrates famously called "the unexamined life" and its opposite, and concluded that human beings live healthier, happier, more productive, and all-around better lives when they don't think about things too much, when they don't ask serious questions about what or how or why, when they don't question the fundamental assumptions and dogmas of their society and culture, but simply allow themselves to be carried along with it. You might think that to live such an unthinking, compliant life seems like a pretty sad way to live. But to constantly be fighting against your own society by having contrary ideas to the people around you is also a pretty sad way to live.

The narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We (widely recognized as the Russian counterpart to 1984) notes that to be aware of your own thinking suggests a disorder. You are only aware of a body part when there is something wrong with it. When your stomach feels fine, you don't usually think about it; if you have some awareness of your stomach, if your attention is drawn to it, that usually suggests that you are feeling sick or beginning to develop some illness, because you are developing that sense that something is wrong with it, that awareness of your own stomach which you only develop when it is ill, or about to become so. To likewise be aware of your own mind, of your own thoughts, seems like a disorder: it suggests that there is something amiss with your own thoughts, because people who are content with their own thoughts do not pay attention to those thoughts, but simply let thoughts drift in and out of their heads like leaves being blown by the wind. You might say that to think in this way--to lack self-awareness, to lack consciousness regarding your own thoughts, to let your mind drift like an unanchored boat--is to lack development, to live more or less like an animal, obeying instinct and the actions of the herd rather than using one's own capacity for intelligence and reason to form one's own opinions and decisions. You might be right. But can you really conclusively say that to be so self-aware, to be so self-determiningly intelligent, is somehow objectively better? At the end of the day, the belief that to think in such a way is "better" is itself an irrational bias, an opinion which cannot be right or wrong since it can neither be proven nor refuted by objective facts. If you are like me, you feel compelled to think rationally because you would not be willing to live any other way. But there are plenty of people who are happy to live like monkeys, copying the actions of other people they see and feeling happy because they are in the midst of people who live just like them.

You can be a monkey too. It is your choice. Most people won't fault you for being one. And even if someone does, you can quickly move on and find a group of other people who will help you forget all about it.
Monday, August 1st, 2016
8:55 pm
Hex-editing your way to victory in Castle of the Winds
As if to prove the point which I made in this recent post, I recently played through the classic Windows 3.x RPG Castle of the Winds, but instead of playing through the game while building up my character, I hex-edited my character to quickly get up to maximum ability. Far from spoiling the game for me, this made the game infinitely more enjoyable, as I was able to blast through the game killing everything in sight instead of slowly and painstakingly grinding the character up one level at a time. I really cannot understand why people would want to waste hours and hours grinding up their character when they could just go right to the good parts of the game. I've tried playing the grinding way, and it's a terribly frustrating and sad way to play a game. People say that my way makes the game go by too quickly, but I would rather enjoy an hour or two of something good rather than dozens of hours of pure frustration and time-wasting.

So how do you hex-edit a saved-game file for Castle of the Winds? I thought you'd never ask. The values which I found to be useful are listed below. All location values are in hexadecimal.

(Blue attributes are current, green is maximum.)
80: Green strength
81: Green intelligence
82: Green constitution
83: Green dexterity
84: Blue strength
85: Blue intelligence
86: Blue constitution
87: Blue dexterity

9E: Current experience (lowest byte)
9F: Current experience
A0: Current experience
A1: Current experience (highest byte)

94: Current hit points (low byte)
95: Current hit points (high byte)
96: Maximum hit points (low byte)
97: Maximum hit points (high byte)

98: Current mana points (low byte)
99: Current mana points (high byte)
9A: Maximum mana points (low byte)
9B: Maximum mana points (high byte)

564: Money (lowest byte)
565: Money
566: Money
567: Money (highest byte)
Saturday, July 23rd, 2016
11:37 pm
Killing, evil, and ideology
Coincidentally, I had glanced through American Sniper, the autobiography of U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, just a few days before yesterday's spree shooting here in Munich. I mention this because the beginning of the book is thought-provoking in that unpleasant way which makes you think about ideas which people would generally rather not think about, but which one must admit make sense when you think about them. Right from the book's start--not even in the first chapter, but in the prologue--Kyle writes of shooting dead a woman accompanying a child because she'd activated a hand grenade which she clearly intended to use as a suicide bomb. Most people would rather not think about a child seeing their mother shot dead before their eyes, let alone have to shoot that mother themselves, but Kyle maintains that even thinking back on the experience while narrating the book, "I don't regret it. The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn't take any Marines with her."

I think most people, no matter what their stance on violence is, would have to acknowledge that Kyle is right. If that woman had already activated a bomb which she was carrying with the intent of blowing herself up with it in the next few seconds, it was too late to save her. She was going to die no matter what the outcome; the best thing you can do in such a situation is try to minimize how many other people she can kill. In that moment, as Kyle killed the woman with a sniper shot, he became not a murderer, but quite the opposite: he saved lives. Forget the trolley problem; that woman had already made the decision that she and her child were going to die in that moment, on that spot, and that was a decision she could no longer be swayed from. What other decision could the man behind the rifle make?

Kyle uses the word "evil" to describe these people, people who are so obsessed with achieving some kind of death or destruction with their lives that they will readily give everything they have, including not only their own life but the lives of their family, if it means that they can kill whatever enemy they hate so much. Kyle writes of "Savage, despicable evil," a hatred and a compulsion toward killing which consumes a person body and soul. On the subject of how many people he personally killed, Kyle hedges on providing a concrete number, declaring: "The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives." Obviously Kyle has an American perspective, but replace his use of "American lives" with "innocent lives" and I think you can understand pretty well the point, the reason why a murderer can be seen as a hero for murdering another murderer. This is also why the United States still has the death penalty: as I've pointed out in the past, it's not about proving that killing is bad by killing the killer. There is a difference between a just killing and an unjust killing.

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday when I heard the news that right here in Munich, the city I've lived in for a while now, there was a mass shooting in the Olympia-Einkaufszentrum, a shopping mall which I've been to many times. As you can perhaps imagine, this made things personal for me in a way that other recent such events didn't. The shootings in Paris, the bombing of the Brussels airport in March, last week's truck massacre in Nice, even this past Monday's axe attack which occurred here in Bavaria, weren't quite as personal to me as a shooting at a place where I've personally been. For me, it wasn't so much frightening or horrifying as outrageous: it felt like an attack not on me, but on my land and my people. Of course, the first assumption which most people made (and I will admit that I made this assumption as well, since it fit the pattern) was that this was yet another ISIS-inspired attack committed by people of foreign origin with a religious or quasi-religious motive, but the eventual discovery that the shooter was not the three people originally reported, but actually a single man who was born and raised here in Munich, didn't make things any better. I don't care where a person is from or what their skin color is; an attack on people is an attack on people. And it got me thinking about what I would have done if I'd been there, if I'd been at the mall when the shooting happened, if I'd been standing next to the guy or behind him when he was shooting. Whether I'd have been able to stop him is a technical question, and the answer is likely no--a guy like me, unarmed and without formal fighting training, doesn't get very far against a madman wielding a firearm--but the more pertinent question is whether I'd have had the resolve to kill him. Supposing that I'd had a gun too, that he'd been there in front of me and that I might have had the chance to shoot him and thus stop a massacre, would I have done it? Would it have been the right thing to do?

I grew up in a Christian family and went to church every weekend. I'm well aware of "Thou shalt not kill." I was taught that to go to war is a sin. I was taught that "The battle belongs to the Lord," that God protects the righteous, and that only a lack of faith would lead someone to take up arms against another person instead of entrusting their safety to the higher powers that watch over us. And yet I can't frame the unfolding of events in my mind in any other way. If I were there, right there in the mall as that guy was shooting others, and if I'd been in a position to shoot that shooter dead, I can't conceive, in my mind, of any other outcome than one in which I raise my own gun and open fire on that guy. May God forgive me; there is a difference between faith and foolishness, between meekness and madness. Chris Kyle seems to have come to the same conclusion, declaring: "I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job."

Incidentally, Kyle's death also seems to parallel something of what happened here in Munich: after serving in Iraq and killing well over a hundred people in a war zone, Kyle came home to his family and ended up being shot dead by a madman in his own country. Seems like you're more likely to die these days as a result of home-grown terrorism than in a war on the other side of the globe.

The fundamental question of whether it is (or can be) justified for one person to kill another, whether we can be making the right decision by choosing to kill, is one which has troubled humanity since time unknown. It's a question usually avoided in political, legal, and even academic contexts, since it's mostly not a very practical question. How many times in your life will you face a situation where you actually have to make such a decision? I don't think I ever have. Hopefully I never will. But it's still a question that seems to demand an answer. I've written in the past about how I would wish death upon certain people, not even just people who are in the act (or about to commit an act) of a mass shooting, but people in general whose only function in life is to take from others, people who only consume selfishly and thoughtlessly, and I can't see any way in which the world could be a better place with such people in it, but this still raises the question of whether I would actually have the certainty needed to go through with it, if I would actually choose to kill such people even if I could somehow do it without repercussions for myself. How much do you trust your own judgment? How willing would you be to end someone else's life if you felt certain that their disappearance would make the world a better place?

Again, these are questions that seem to demand answers. And yet I think it's probably better not to think about them too much, because it's not good to fixate on one idea for too long, especially a dangerous idea. This became clear in the aftermath of the shooting, when people from both sides of the political spectrum promptly weighed in, as such people tend to do whenever there's an event like this. I heard commentary from a spokesperson for the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, a political party which is often described as "right-wing populist," although some people declare this to be a misnomer, insisting that the party is neither right-wing nor populist) who maintained that these kinds of attacks are growing more common specifically because of the refugee situation in Europe, that we've committed a grave error by allowing more than a million people to come here from war-torn countries without even a form of identification, and thus no way of knowing who these people are, what their background is, or what they intend to do and what's going to happen to them after they relocate to Europe. This has been one of the central messages of the AfD since its founding in 2013, and the problem is not that there's anything wrong with this message, but rather that it seems to be the only message which the AfD is capable of. Of course a country needs to maintain basic stability and security; of course it makes sense to check people who want to enter your country and defend your borders against the risk of dangerous people who want to enter your country, and this is such a stupidly basic idea that it's actually kind of embarrassing that it needs to be said, but the problem with the AfD is that while everything they say is basically true, you can't build a political strategy on one single idea, and the AfD has hammered this one idea so consistently and insistently that one could get the impression that they don't stand for anything else at all. This is actually not true--the AfD does seem to have other opinions on other subjects, but there seems to be no good way of finding out what these are, as they are rarely publicly espoused. The political situation in Germany is similar to that in the United States in the sense that there are only two major parties which collect most of the votes and there is hardly a viable third-party alternative, but while it is true that Germany lacks a proper opposition party, while it's clear that Germany does need a political alternative, it's not clear that this specific alternative is the one which Germany really needs.

On the other side of the political spectrum, one of the saddest things, to me, about yesterday's shooting in Munich is the people who reacted to the shooting by saying "My greatest fear is that this will motivate more people to vote for a right-wing party." (This was when it was still assumed that the shootings were jihadist in nature and committed by Islamic terrorists.) Even if you are politically leftist, even if you disagree with everything which "right-wing" political parties stand for, what kind of mentality does it take for a person to hear of a mass shooting in a public place, and react not with sympathy for the victims, not with sorrow at the madness which moves people to do such things, not even with the animal instinct of fear for your own personal safety, but rather of the fear that someone's political thinking might be influenced by such an event? How brainwashed must the people of Germany be for them to hear of a shooting in their own city and immediately respond with "Oh no! I fear that this might motivate people to cast a right-wing vote!" I feel terrible for the people of Germany. What a sad, broken people they must be to hear of their own city being shot up by madmen and react by thinking that political responses to implement basic security measures is the worst thing that could happen. I don't strongly identify with either side of the political spectrum, but it becomes apparent that whatever kind of thinking drives contemporary "liberal" or "leftist" thinking is, if this is even possible, somehow more wrong-minded than the "evil" Chris Kyle described, the hatred which causes people to kill. That kind of "evil" isn't even a mentality; it's a mental state which has gone beyond all logic and reason, and people caught in its grips have no way of thinking in any reasonable or rational way, but for a calm, thinking person to respond to terror by stating in plain terms that their greatest fear is stopping that terror, is some kind of denial of basic humanity which I can't even begin to comprehend. I can understand wanting to kill someone, but I can't understand this kind of "liberal" thinking. It seems to me that this is "ideology" in the purest and most dangerous sense. Most philosophers today tend to use the word "ideology" in a derogatory way, which bothers me since I am not opposed to ideology as such, and indeed, I tend to think that ideology is necessary in order for there to be any reason to live for either a person or a nation, but I tend to think of the word in the more neutral sense of "A way of thinking," while postmodern philosophers seem to use it to mean "A rigid way of thinking which demands conformance to its precepts and denies all reality which might contradict that way of thinking," which is of course something dangerous. If that's what ideology is, then, the insistence of "left-wing" thinkers that a shift toward the political "right" is the worst thing which could happen in our world today is pure ideology in its most damaging form. We desperately need a voice of reason, and there is none to be heard; everyone who proclaims themselves to be such is just spewing more madness.

So what do we do now? We do what people have already done: we pick up the pieces and carry on with our lives. The shooter killed himself after taking the lives of nine other people, and in this case, it's unlikely that there will be copycat attacks, so there isn't any specific reason to feel particularly afraid as we go back out into the city and continue the process of living. But our most dangerous enemy today isn't some guy with a gun who decided that he wanted to bring a random collection of bystanders with him to the grave; the most dangerous enemy we face is lurking inside our own minds, and there is no end of people who want to exploit it for their own ends. If we have anything to fear, it is our own capacity for foolishness and irrationality which causes us to do things that can only be described as the most evil of madness.
Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
6:19 am
With apologies to Emma Goldman
It's not my revolution if I can't hex-edit it.
Saturday, July 9th, 2016
11:43 pm
The death of the hit
One of the biggest concerns which people have about the unification of world cultures is that everything will become the same. In theory, it's a nice idea that telecommunications technology like the Internet allows people from all over the world to share communication with each other, and it's clear that this communication goes well beyond "hi, how r u?" type messages: cultural forms of all types--music, literature, visual art, and so on--are readily shared on a global level through the Internet, and while this has been recogized as a good way for students of art and culture to be able to find information more easily and inexpensively, it's also often observed that this has the inevitable effect of blending those cultures together. As the Internet becomes more pervasive around the world, it is commonly observed that it has the effect of erasing smaller cultures and replacing them with a globalist culture that can be more readily spread through mass media. The result is often called "global monoculture," a vision of the present and future in which the entire world exists within one cultural sphere and mindset, and there is no room for regional variation. Kenya would be indistinguishable from India, Paris would be identical to Buenos Aires, and the entire notion of phrases like "Russian literature" or "Chinese art" would become obsolete historical terms with no relevance in the modern world. While we're obviously still a long way from such visions becoming reality, the effects of pervasive commercial culture annihilating local indigenous cultures has already been observed around the world. The effect is analogous to the development of "Newspeak" in Orwell's 1984: Newspeak was a language designed to limit the range of ideas which people could express by limiting the number and type of words in the language. Similarly, global monoculture limits the number of ideas which people can express through literature or art by eliminating certain ideas from the global cultural awareness.

If some people are to be believed, however, an opposite effect may be simultaneously taking place: there are those who insist that even as this globalization of culture is taking place, there is a simultaneous fragmenting effect, a process through which the idea of a cultural "hit," something so popular that it becomes a recognizable touchstone of its contemporary generation, becomes less prevalent, replaced by countless cultural niches that serve special interests, a process which is inevitably enabled by the Internet with its global reach and thus capability to connect people with niche interests who would otherwise remain isolated.

Perhaps the first book to bring this phenomenon to the public's attention in a major way was Chris Anderson's 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. The fundamental idea of this book is something which anyone who has spent a fair amount of time on Amazon or eBay will quickly understand intuitively: if you have a speciality interest, the Internet is the most likely place to find people or businesses which cater to that speciality interest. In any city or town, big or small, most stores sell either clothing or food, which makes sense since those are the things which people are most likely to buy when they go out shopping, but suppose you have a particular hobby and want to buy something relevant to that hobby. In my case, for example, I have a specific interest in old computer games. Where do you suppose I'm going to find them for sale in any shopping mall? Walk-in game stores usually only sell new games, and the idea of such a store selling any kind of game for DOS is basically not viable unless it happens to be a second-hand store, or a store specializing in "collectible" or "antique" items, and even then, the chances of you finding exactly what you're looking for in such stores--which are necessarily just random collections of bric-a-brac with little organization and no good way to see what's actually in stock in the store's inventory without looking around for a while--are sufficiently low that you can actually expect to not find what you're looking for. On the other hand, eBay generally has such items for sale, and if you're looking for an obscure book, movie, or music album, Amazon has basically the world's largest selection of such items, including the ability to provide you with a stunning array of out-of-print and import items which you basically have no chance of ever finding in a local shop. Sure, if you're looking for a Harry Potter book or Lady Gaga CD, chances are great that a store in your area sells these items, but there are thousands--probably millions--of books and movies and CDs which you will never find in a local shop, but which can be readily ordered on the Internet for a few bucks. Similarly, from a non-commercial community perspective, the Internet allows people to connect based on interests rather than geography: I have a huge interest in computer games from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it's guaranteed that I would never have found people who live near me whom I could share this interest with, but I've exchanged messages with countless people on the Internet who share this interest with me even though they live thousands of miles away. The Internet has allowed countless types of obscure cultures and niche interests to flourish by bringing people together from all over the world who would never find someone with their shared interests in their local neighborhood.

In "The Rise and Fall of the Hit," the second chapter of The Long Tail (the chapter's subtitle is "Lockstep culture is the exception, not the rule"), Anderson argues that "hit culture" was actually something unnatural and temporary, pointing out that in pre-modern times, culture was naturally segmented by geography: before the age of air travel and the internal combustion engine, different places had their own cultures due to lack of contact with each other. As transcontinental railway networks and, later, jet aircraft made it easier than ever to travel around the world, an unprecedented level of global contact with foreign cultures began to take place, and as radio and television networks arose, it became viable to transit information across entire countries--even a big country like the United States or the Soviet Union--in a matter of seconds. This had the side effect of bringing a lot of publicity to whatever those radio or television networks played: throughout the latter half of the 20th century, young rock-and-roll bands were usually made or broken by whether they managed to get airplay on the radio, and later, in the MTV era, on television. These telecommunication networks were marked by how little control listeners and viewers really had over what was played: you could change the station, of course, but in any location there were only a few dozen stations that you could pick up if you were lucky, and they were often saturated with advertising to pay for the expenses involved in operating a large transmission tower. Even in the age of satellite television, when people had access to hundreds of TV channels, there was often a sense of having "hundreds of channels but nothing to watch." This era did mark a notable beginning of fragmentation of television viewership, with speciality channels like the Golf Channel (which really is just about golf all the time), Court TV (which focused on video recordings of actual courtroom trials), The History Channel (yes, it really was just about history), the Food Network (nothing but TV shows about food), and the Cartoon Network (basically nothing but cartoons 24 hours a day) gaining significant viewership, but this still doesn't compare to the YouTube phenomenon. Having 500 television channels sounded like a lot to people in the 1990s, especially to those who had grown up in small towns where you might have been lucky to have two local television stations, but today, there are literally hundreds of millions (some counts say more than a billion) of videos on YouTube, and I can watch any of those videos in seconds without having to pay for anything other than normal Internet access. This means that even if I am a fan of the most obscure music group in the world, a band which would basically have no hope of ever getting played on commercial radio or MTV, there is nothing stopping that band from uploading their songs to YouTube or some similar online site and allowing me to listen to their entire catalog of music without having to wait for the song to come on the radio. The Internet is thus a huge enabler of niche artists and the fans of such artists, allowing obscure artists, for the first time in history, to reach a global audience without any travel or advertising costs.

Anderson cites this effect as causing the death of the hit. Throughout the 1990s, pop music groups were bigger than ever, setting one record after another in terms of albums sold. But right around the year 2000 or perhaps a couple of years after that, things suddenly collapsed. Music sales fell off a cliff, and year after year, the number of hit albums continued to drop precipitously. The music industry was quick to blame piracy for this, and it's true that music piracy surged after technology made it possible to distribute albums in MP3 format online, but the story runs deeper than that: music sales have fallen, it's true, but sales of "hit" music have fallen even more. In other words, the proportion of "hits" has fallen as a percentage of overall music sales, while smaller and more "alternative" music acts have increased in importance and popularity. If the concept of the long tail is to be believed, then, this signifies a new era in which superstars are less important and public interest is more evenly and equally distributed across different types of art and artists. Of course, some people will still be more popular than others: there are still going to be the big stars which are recognized as household names around the world, but they will arguably become less common and less pervasive as our culture turns inward and becomes more fragmented.

In a certain sense, this process parallels what is happening with the significance of countries. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States was left as the world's sole remaining superpower, but we've been hearing for years that the United States is also diminishing in importance as other countries which have been in latent stages for decades become increasingly important on the global stage. We've heard about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries and the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey) countries as emerging powers that are set to become major players on the global stage, and the European Union is often seen as existing primarily to allow Europe to maintain economic competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world, but none of these entities are really capable of taking on the entire world. All of these countries are important and have their role, but none of them are likely to maintain global cultural and economic hegemony in the way that the United States has done since the 19th century. The United States was a big hit, but like an aging rock star, it seems to be becoming less relevant as time goes by, turning from a role model which everyone wants to imitate into a sad, pathetic parody of its former self which people regard with pity among whispers of "Doesn't he realize that it's time to give up and retire?" We're entering a world where individual countries become less important, where who you are or where you're from doesn't matter anymore, and the only thing which people really care about is how much money you have or can raise, how much financial worth you as a person can become attached to.

So a question which most people might ask themselves after thinking about all this is: is this a good or a bad thing? To be sure, "big hits" in culture have value as landmarks which people share and can mutually understand. For example, most of us know the story of Cinderella, and even if this is a fictional story, it has value as something which unites us, something which we can cite as a story which is immediately recognizable to everyone in our culture and which we can build on as a recognizable symbol of something. A community's culture falls flat if people don't have such recognizable cultural symbols. Imagine if you were talking about something and used the story of Cinderella as a comparison for something, then everyone responded by saying "Huh? Cinderella? What's that?" It would be difficult for the analogy to make sense without explaining the entire story, at which point the moment would have passed and whatever point you were trying to make would have been lost. Our culture has benefited from having well-known, widely-recognized stories like Hamlet and Oliver TWist which people can reference without other people scratching their heads and wondering what you're talking about. (Imagine meeting a person with whom you had no stories in common whatsoever.) An ideal education of a well-read person mixes both the well-known with the obscure, because it's important to be able to recognize the common symbols of your culture, but it's also important to be able to go beyond them and explore more obscure corners, discovering hidden treasures which did not receive widespread fame but still deserve some study. A community of people who live in cultural isolation from each other and do not have shared literary or artistic symbols which they can recognize is not much of a community. On the other hand, the fragmentation of culture also seems to prevent one large entity from taking over, because if everyone is off doing their own thing and paying attention to their own little niche, it seems difficult for one culture to take over the consciousnesses of the entire world, as Western culture has done on a global scale since World War II.

I suppose the risk of such a new model of culture, then, is that we could end up with the worst of both worlds: a world of countless cultural offerings in which each one is the same. Every time any form of art becomes popular, it receives countless imitators. When any book, movie, song, or video game attains mass popularity, other people take "inspiration" from it (if you're being kind) or seek to blatantly rip it off (if you're not so kind) and end up producing so many clones and copies that it's hard to find anything which isn't just some stupid knockoff of an established trope. That's the danger of our new networked world, then: we may be entering a world where people all think the same and live the same, but think that they're individual and unique because they're all doing the same thing in what they perceive as their own way. In such a world, people find it difficult to communicate or connect with each other because they lack a shared cultural background, existing as individuals and yet somehow simultaneously disassociated parts of an engulfing whole, cogs in a machine who don't really understand each other (or even themselves) because they lack the shared background that would be needed to come to an understanding of each other. I don't know what can be done about this. Differences between people are as important as shared commonalities between people, and you need both for any community to function. Idealists and humanists might insist that all people are the same, that if you look, you can find commonality between any people, but the real world has shown that it's not so simple, that relationships between people are complicated things, and that it's possible for two people to have fundamentally different beliefs and desires even if they share basic humanity in common. Even in our world today, it remains as important as ever for people to be able to live with each other in a way that allows them to understand and appreciate each other while still allowing them enough independence and individuality that they can go off and do their own things without disturbing one another or being too dependent on one another for it. It remains to be seen how (or if) we can manage such a thing in a globalized world following the death of the hit.
Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
8:07 pm
The triumph of old ideas
Having lived in Europe for a while now, it sometimes amazes me how similar life in Europe is to life in North America. In many ways, people really are the same all over the world: they exhibit the same psychological tendencies, the same social patterns, and the same desires no matter where you go. Of course, this is a result of our own human nature and the basic realities and requirements of our world and the laws of science under which we live. Yet I am likewise often surprised by the things which are different, for there are things about the two regions which are strongly contrasting, sometimes even complete opposites.

One of the latter was brought to my attention recently when I was discussing the idea of management with a co-worker. I work for an "information technology" company, and after having worked in Silicon Valley for about a decade, I can attest that the general attitude toward managers in that region (and, from what I understand, most of the United States) is one of tolerance at best, the sense that a manager is a necessary evil, someone with no clue about how anything works but who manages to make the money work and who thus must be patiently borne like a child. Particularly in technology companies, there was always a sense that a manager is someone who exists within a cloud of pervading cluelessness, a person who only undertands fancy-looking charts and figures but has no idea about how the underlying technology which forms the basis of the company actually works. There was a very strong perception in Silicon Valley that a person who had never been a manager for a cutting-edge technology company--even if they had been a CEO of something else, like an insurance company or a bank--had no understanding of the technology industry and thus no place running a company in such an industry.

This mentality is the opposite of the still-prevailing European mentality, which generally believes that a manager is a manager, that someone who managed a toilet paper producer or a car repair shop has "managerial skills" and is thus equally qualified to run a microchip manufacturer or a software company. This is an idea which I saw very specifically refuted in the American tech sector: more than once, I saw someone explicitly say "There used to be an idea that a manager was a manager, that someone who'd managed any company could manage any other type of company, and that you could take someone with no technology understanding or experience and have them manage a tech company with no loss of competence, but this has been shown to not be true. The technology industry has a very specific set of demands and requirements, a unique body of knowledge and skills that are needed to succeed in such an industry." And I believed this idea because it had been repeated so many times, because I saw so many people in Silicon Valley saying the same thing, and since I am not a businessperson myself and have never managed a company to any level of business success, I assumed that what people were saying was true. And now I am suddenly in an environment where I'm being told the opposite: that there is nothing special about the technology industry, that it is an industry like any other, and that the only way to make a company in such an industry successful is to adhere to time-proven practices of business management which have formed successful companies in pretty much every other industry in the world.

I thought about it for a while, and I was a bit doubtful at first, but when I thought about it, I realized that the European idea is true, or at least, closer to the truth than the American one. Certainly, technology companies operate differently from other companies: there is a reliance on selling "new" ideas (or at least, ideas which can be marketed as new under the guise of advertising that presents decades-old ideas as the latest trend), which means that the industry is necessarily different from oil companies or other companies which deal in commodities that are more or less unchanging from one decade to another. But the technology industry is ossifying: we no longer live in a world where groundbreaking technological advancements come out every year, or where a guy in his garage can start a company that grows into a multi-billion-dollar success story. I grew up in such a world, and so did the other people my age, which means we were taught to think that this is how the world operates, but actually, that period was an aberration, a statistical blip: yes, things were very different during that time because the world suddenly discovered computers and the Internet, powerful but hitherto-untapped technologies which had the ability to change how businesses worked and how people lived, but this is not something which happens regularly, and it is the nature of the universe to settle into a sort of entropic pattern of equilibrium after such blips occur. We've been told that as time goes by, things will only get faster and the rate at which such groundbreaking technologies are introduced will increase, but actually, an examination of reality--that is to say, of the facts--reveals that the opposite is true: in fact, the rate of change is decreasing, technologies which were brand-new 30 years ago are now so commonplace that there is no longer a growing market for them, and there are no new technologies coming out which can support industry growth on the level seen back then. From a purely technical standpoint, scientific research may still be continuing and there may be refinements to existing technologies like computers with more RAM or bigger hard drives, but this is not something which drives the creation of new industries, new ways of working or thinking about work, or new job opportunities for people entering the workforce or looking to switch careers. In terms of how the technology industry intersects with society and the economy, things have solidified quite some time ago, and there have been no significant changes in years.

What this means is that the technology industry has become more or less like any other industry: in the 1990s, it may have made some kind of sense to give a 20-something guy with a smart brain and a fast-talking mouth 20 million dollars to see what he could do with that money and what kind of a company he could build with it, but that certainly hasn't been the case historically (by which I mean, over the past few thousand years), and experience has shown that it isn't the case today. A company today, even a technology company, is a business like any other, meaning that if it is to succeed, if it is to be anything more than a shooting star--appearing brightly in the sky before burning up and disappearing--then it needs stodgy old people who sit around and look at spreadsheets and talk about market capitalization and return on investment. Indeed, history has shown that most of the time, when you put a person with strong technical skills--someone who can write code and design systems as their main skill set--in charge of a technology company, the result is a business disaster. Even some of the smartest and most capable techies in history floundered and failed when they started their own businesses, thinking that they could use their technical smarts to lead them to business success. Far from the notion of technical skills being needed in the CEO of a tech company, it's become apparent that those technical skills are better put to use by a programmer or tester or other person who works as an employee but has no role in the management of a company. And contrary to the idea that a technology company can only be run by technically-capable people, history has shown that people with backgrounds in business but relatively little technical understanding have been the most successful at sustaining any type of business in the long run, even high-tech companies. Companies which were run primarily by technical people tended to be businesses that came up with what might have been a good idea, but which simply had no market and thus collapsed because they lacked a customer base. There once was an idea that the technology industry was somehow special, that it wasn't like other industries and was not affected by the rules which other businesses were bound by, and again, perhaps this was once briefly true, but that moment in time is long gone. Today, information technology is an established industry which requires established structures and procedures, and these need to be adhered to in order for anyone to remain in business, which means there needs to be some management to ensure that the company is doing the things that it will need to do in order to stay in the business.

The American and the European approaches to "management" both have their drawbacks. The American model still believes in the old-fashioned American ideal of "working your way to the top," the idea that a person who starts off in a warehouse stacking boxes could become the president or CEO of the company in 10 or 20 years. I do not know how often this happens today, but I can say that this idea does not seem to have much connection with reality. When I became an adult, I started off working in warehouses and factories, and I can say with certainty that the vast majority of people who were working on the assembly line had no career path out of that job: for a person whose entire job was putting metal parts into a machine and then pushing a button to activate said machine, there was no concept of such a person moving into a management role based on their experience at the assembly line. People who were hired into managerial positions were people who'd gone to university, people who already had management experience, people who had probably never worked on an assembly line in their entire lives. On the one hand, this pattern of "hiring from the outside" sometimes creates resentment among employees, a sense that the company does not value their efforts since it is not promoting the people who are working the hardest. American companies sometimes promote a culture of "hiring internally," meaning that people who are already employees are favored for new positions rather than the company hiring external candidates, but this does not make sense in many cases. Why would you take a person who's spent the last 20 years putting machine parts together and assume that this experience qualifies them to manage business functions? The problem with the European model, then, is the sense that once you take on a job, you're doomed to remain within it, that there is no path upward or outward from where you are now. But is this really a bad thing? Europeans still value stability and security more than mobility, and so for them it's more important to keep the same job for most of your working career than to be able to switch to something more exciting or fun. This may seem restrictive to people who are used to American thinking, but actually, there's a sort of dirty little secret of American business in the sense that most American businesses actually operate this way anyway, even if they claim not to. How many people at the bottom of American companies actually work their way to the top? Yes, I know that this idea is a sort of archetypical fantasy of the United States, a core part of the "American Dream," but as history has shown us, the American Dream is just that: a dream, a fantasy, not something with a basis in reality. And indeed, in the cases when I did see colleagues promoted out of technical positions into managerial positions, I often saw them dissatisfied with this move, a sense that they had wanted to remain techies working on technical things and had been inappropriately assigned into a managerial role because of the false idea that their technical skills somehow qualified them to do non-technical work. Even the people who enjoyed their new managerial responsibilities often didn't fill those roles properly: they may have enjoyed the sudden power and authority that comes with becoming a manager, the ability to give people orders and the sense that you can just sit back and talk in meetings while you make other people do the work, but many people failed at this kind of role because they were not prepared for it and had no idea how to do it properly other than having the skill of eating donuts in meetings. So at the end of the day, the American ideal is one that doesn't often connect with working reality, and which usually fails when it does.

When I see this kind of thing, it makes me realize that contrary to what we've often been told, the old ideas are stil the ones that matter. We're regularly told by the media and by peers that the world is changing more quickly than ever, that whole business industries are disappearing and that competely new ones which didn't exist 20 years ago are rising up instead, that social and cultural values which people have held for thousands of years are no longer relevant and that never-before-seen ways of living and thinking are being created. It's true that in terms of corporate business, things have changed and are changing, but business is not life; business may be something that people do to make money, but it is not the thing that people live for or should live for. The things that matter to people, the things that have always mattered to people, are health, safety, love, happiness, wisdom, community, honesty, integrity, and so on, and these values are still as relevant and important for us today as they ever were. This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it doesn't seem obvious when you look at the world today, because not many people are actually actively talking about these things as a goal for the world, especially the Western world. In the West, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of fatigue and boredom, because people are tired of ideas about love and safety and happiness, dismissing these as old-fashioned, obsolete relics of simple-minded "conservative" thinking which are no longer relevant or important for our modern world, claiming instead that only excitement and flexibility and achievement are important now. There is a deep sense of ironic distance from the world, a sneering sort of contempt for the ideals of stability and certainty, and yet the real irony is that these "new" ideas of revolution and reinvention have shown themselves to be ineffective and obsolete. The postmodern cultural movement existed largely as a reaction to modern ideals, a push to go beyond the ideas that we were bound by, and yet it resulted in nothing: like an IT company with no vision, it resulted in some entertaining products and many life stories which are now the stuff of history, but it produced no lasting ideas, instead flaring up and then burning out in its own ethereal baselessness. The greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century tried to think of something else, something which could replace the old-fashioned values which had guided humanity for millennia, and yet they came up with nothing, concluding that if love and health and security were no longer important, then nothing mattered at all, that life itself was meaningless and there was no reason to do anything or value anything. Some people were horrified by this conclusion, while others reveled in it and declared that we had been set free from the need to find value or meaning in life. Regardless of how people feel about it, however, if people adopt and live by the mentality that life is meaningless and that there is no reason to do anything or value anything, then they will live meaningless lives that do nothing and have no value. Like those IT companies which thought that they were somehow above basic laws of economics, people and cultures which think that they don't need fundamental human values are similarly destined to fail, collapse, and disappear into the pages of history. The only thing which can produce long-lasting, meaningful human culture is the "old" ideas which have always mattered to people. When you no longer value stability, when you no longer make an effort to build something that can withstand the test of time, you shouldn't be surprised when it becomes unstable and disappears.
Monday, July 4th, 2016
10:28 pm
The second time
The first time was very bad. It was the worst experience of my life. I thought I would never survive it. I lost everything: my whole life, everything I'd ever lived for or could live for. Yet somehow I made it through, and got my life back again when I was on the other side. And somehow, afterward, it seemed not so bad, only because I was able to learn something from it. I wouldn't say that it made me stronger; no, not at all, quite to the contrary, it made me weaker, a weakness which remains with me to this day. But I learned a lot, about myself, about the world, about other people, and that kind of knowledge is valuable. It certainly doesn't come without a certain amount of suffering. So there's that. At least I came out of it with some knowledge and understanding, perhaps even some wisdom, which I wouldn't have otherwise attained.

The second time was not so bad. It wasn't as dramatic, as destructive, as chaotic. Yet it was somehow worse than the first time, because when it was over, I realized that the cycle would just keep repeating itself, the same pattern recurring throughout my life for as long as I lived, ending only when I died. At least the first time I could say that I had learned something, had gained some insight into myself which I would otherwise never have gained. The second time, What did I learn? Only the same lessons I'd already learned the first time; there was no need to repeat them. And yet repeat them I did, and this was much more terrible than the first time, because even though I survived it all right, I came to realize that there was no stopping it all, that all the wisdom and understanding I'd achieved the first time wouldn't actually benefit me; it wasn't enough to stop the cycle from recurring, and so I was trapped within that cycle, doomed to repeat it until death delivered me from it. That's the problem with the second time: not that the experience itself is worse than the first time, but rather the aftermath, the realization that you can't stop, that no matter what you learned, whatever wisdom you thought you had actually benefits you nothing, because knowing about it and understanding it doesn't make it stop, doesn't help you deal with it, doesn't help you prevent it from happening over and over.

And then there were the rest of the times...
Thursday, June 30th, 2016
11:29 pm
The dogma inside
One of the biggest concerns of human society in the mid-20th century was freedom, specifically how human beings could bring themselves closer to a state of being free in a world that had dramatically witnessed--and in many ways, was still continuing to witness--the effects of systematic oppression of the general public. The most famous approaches to this goal tended to favor political solutions, but there were many who approached the problem and its possible solutions from a more psychological perspective, analyzing human behavior patterns and what they implied for the prospects of reforming human civilization. William S. Burroughs wrote of "the policeman inside," the idea that within each of us lives a psychological aspect which restricts our freedom because of our own innate desire to conform to expectations and do what other people tell us is "proper." The response of many people of that time was to rebel against this inner nature of ours, to free ourselves from what Freud called the superego and allow ourselves to do whatever we wanted, resulting in a whole generation of people whose primary goal was to seek out new experiences which were primarily centered around the pursuit of pleasure and rebellion for its own sake, the act of aggressively violating social norms specifically for the purpose of showing how flagrantly those people were defying the expectations of others.

I can understand the desire to be different and to rebel against the expectations which other people place on you, but I think that this is not a constructive solution. To aggressively attack people's beliefs does not promote an environment of mutual trust and understanding; it does not create stronger or better communities of people, but rather quite the opposite. It can only create conflict between people and destroy any hope of them building a sustainable community together. Certainly, there is value in asserting yourself as a person and making it clear that you have your own ideas and opinions, but it doesn't help to do this in an aggressive or defiant way, telling other people that you refuse to work together with them because you don't like them or their ideas. The idea of "the policeman inside" might have been a relevant observation worth making, but making an observation is only the first step; the trickier step is deciding what people are going to do in response to this situation, and in the 1960s, as people busily set about trying to destroy the "old-fashioned," "oppressive" structures of society which had been built over thousands of years, I think people chose a solution that was not helpful, a course of action which didn't actually lead anywhere, certainly not to anything which could reasonably be called progress.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to observe repeating patterns in human nature, because we as human beings do tend to exhibit certain behaviors which are common to all cultures, all social and economic classes, all ways of life, and all parts of the world. Among the strongest of these human tendencies is the drive toward pleasure, especially physical pleasure, and the demand for "freedom," the ability to do whatever one wants without having their ability to experience pleasure be impeded by anyone else. This might seem obvious at first: of course people want to experience things that feel nice, right? Yes, it does make sense, and you don't have to think about it very hard to understand why people would rather experience something which feels nice than something which doesn't feel nice. This is normal and natural, and I don't mean to imply that it is a problem in itself, but it becomes a problem when people demand that they be enabled to experience as much pleasure and as much freedom as they want, whenever they want it. This is not a realistic expectation because of simple facts of life and the world: a person has a basic responsibility to their community to contribute some kind of service, because people who do work for human society are needed, at a minimum, to produce food for the community to eat. (The story of the little red hen is relevant here, and although the story may seem outdated since agricultural work today constitutes a minority of jobs in the workforce, it is still among the most essential sectors for the continued survival of human civilization.) Throughout human history, this pattern repeats itself time and time again: when a civilization becomes big and strong, people get it into their heads that not only should they try to stimulate themselves with pleasure as much as possible, but they have a natural and fundamental right to do this all day, every day. This leads not long thereafter to the collapse and disappearance of the civilization, for reasons which are probably not too hard to imagine. This idea is so prevalent in the course of history that one might call it the most enduring dogma of all human thought. As I've written in the past, there is nothing more deeply ingrained in the nature of a creature, nothing more powerfully effective as a motivator of behavior than the drive toward pleasure. This drive toward pleasure is so strong that it constitutes a sort of ideological dogma which exists within us; you could call it "the dogma inside." Anything which stimulates the brain's pleasure centers, anything which gives people the sense that they can do whatever they want without negative consequences, anything which sounds in any way convincing that people have "freedom" and that this freedom not only should be but must be defended--through physical force and violence, if necessary--as a matter of first principles, will eventually be adopted by any human society given enough time, because these ideas are a matter of human nature. This is the dogma inside.

Just like any other natural human tendency which occurs not as a result of conscious thought but as a result of more biological processes in our bodies, the dogma inside needs to be kept in balance. I do not mean that it should be completely suppressed or that people should attempt to eliminate it altogether, because this would not be healthy either; I only mean that our capacity for being rational and our intuitive sense of judgment should be employed as a counterbalancing measure so that we don't get carried away with our desires. We need to counter these tendencies specifically because of the human tendency to be immoderate: since the human being has a natural inclination to do things which are unhealthy simply because it is more pleasurable to do so, and because most human beings, given enough time, tend to drift into extremism with regard to these unhealthy habits, it is necessary for us to take deliberate, conscious action against these inner tendencies so that "the dogma inside" doesn't end up taking over, lest we lose control of ourselves and destroy ourselves in our ecstasy.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we should deny ourselves the possibility of taking pleasure in life. Just as the 1960s counterculture revolution recognized a legitimate problem but reacted to it badly by adopting an extreme opposite as the solution, recognizing the problems of totalitarianism and concluding that total anarchy and hedonism was the ideal state for humanity, so do many people who recognize the problems inherent in pleasure-seeking advocate a bad solution by concluding that the polar opposite is the ideal state for humanity, denying all possibility of enjoying any experience, expressing any kind of light-heartedness, or experiencing any kind of basic happiness. This is not an ideal state for humanity to be in. Far from it. Although I am disgusted by the decadence and obsession with personal pleasure in the world, it would be a mistake to go to the opposite extreme and live such an austere life that we live only for duty and service and fail to take any joy in life's simple everyday pleasures. When I attack "the dogma inside," I do not say these things with the intent that anyone should propose the complete absence of pleasure as a desirable solution or state for people to live in; just as stereotypes often have a kernel of truth to them if you don't over-generalize them too much, so do dogmas. A dogma is not a false idea; it's just an idea which people make the mistake of not questioning. There can still be great truth and value to a dogma, and as such, the solution to dogmas is not to dismiss them entirely, but to examine and refine them. So too do people make a mistake if they try to condemn or fight against our own human nature. It is not a mistake to be happy, or to try to be happy; what matters is that we are happy in a constructive way. The enemy is not happiness or pleasure, but rather stupidity, ignorance, and selfishness; the problem with hedonism is not that it brings pleasure, but rather that it brings all those negative aspects along with it. When we learn to identify the real enemy and then moderate or reform it rather than destroying it entirely, we're living in balance with the universe.
Monday, June 27th, 2016
10:05 pm
History is being written by the losers
The results of last week's Brexit vote were surprising to me, but I would say that there isn't necessarily a lot that we have to learn from that historic day. The reasons why people would vote for or against the Brexit were already known years before the vote happened, and it was known months ahead of time that the vote would be close, so the fact that the vote went a few percentage points this way or that way is mostly just a statistical blip--a blip with consequences, to be sure, assuming that we hold to the idea that an exact 50% threshold is the dividing line for which side "wins," but the numbers from the vote don't really tell us a lot other than what we'd already suspected. What does potentially have a lot to tell us about people and the world is the reaction to that vote.

A common adage has it that "History is written by the victors," meaning that after a war, whoever wins the war gets to determine how that war is recorded in the history books. This is not always true, however; many wars have been historically recorded in ways that are sympathetic to the losers. In this particular case, the people who voted Leave in the UK might have constituted a statitical majority in some sense, but the media response to the vote has heavily favored the Remain side. It has long been known that the mass-media has a "left-wing," "liberal" bias, and it sort of has to, because it is mass-media's job to gather information from all over the world and present it in an entertaining way for consumers, which can only be done when that media is cosmopolitan and globalized. The media's response to the Brexit vote, however, has been so excessive that it says a lot about what the media wants and how it informs us.

The reporting on the immediate financial result of the vote is disproportionate, but understandable: the mass media always reports on single-day fluctuations in the stock market, even though these losses usually quickly recover. I've lost count of how many times I've seen front-page news about how some major stock market dropped several percentage points as if this heralds some kind of doomsday, even though the market almost invariably recovers a few days later and no real wealth ends up being lost. In this case, it's not surprising, then, that the media widely reported all major European and North American stock markets being down on Friday, as well as the sharp drop in value of the British pound. What's unfortunate about this reporting is that it ended up ignoring the results of the following Monday, when the pound actually increased markedly in value; even though the pound might have lost about 11% of its value on Friday, it increased by 4% on Monday, a sign that the initial market shock was already beginning to pass and that the markets would carry on as usual. I say this reporting is unfortunate because it will always be recorded in history that way: history books in the future will always report that the pound dropped 11% in value on the day after the vote, and very few people will bother to actually do a bit of research and find out that the pound started to recover the very next business day. The reporting is biased in favor of reporting doom and gloom, and the fact that the Brexit hasn't actually changed anything yet in Britain's everyday life--and won't change much in the future--is something that simply doesn't make news, requiring the media to emphasize a negative angle as much as possible.

And what a lot of negative angles they've reported. I can understand some general uncertainty about what happens now, but actually, the way forward is very clear, and always has been so: assuming that the Brexit proceeds, the UK will negotiate an exit with the EU, new laws and agreements will go into place, and everyone's lives will continue just as they did before the vote. I've lost count of how many headlines I've seen which claim that the vote has caused the UK or all of Europe to be "plunged into chaos" because no one has any idea what will happen next. One headline claimed that the UK was in a "constitutional crisis" because politicians apparently don't know what they're going to do now. This idea is so laughable that it defies every idea that we've ever had about government. Does anyone really believe that no politician thought in advance about what would happen after the Brexit? Does anyone actually believe that the results of the vote were such a surprise that no one could have planned for what happened after that? Far from it: the politicians of every country affected by the Brexit have spent months actively preparing for a potential Brexit and writing up agreements and plans that they would deploy in the event of said Brexit. The legislation to deal with the Brexit was already written weeks before the vote, and every affected country knows exactly what they're going to do about it, so anyone who tells you that any country is in "chaos" as a result of the vote is trying to sell you an idea that just isn't true. The plans are already in place, and they were in a fairly mature form before anyone even confirmed whether there would be a Brexit or not.

Indeed, it's still not confirmed whether there will actually be a Brexit. Technically, the referendum which happened last week is only a public-opinion poll; it is not legally binding, meaning that lawmakers are free to say "Oh, you had a referendum? That's cute. Congratulations! Now bugger off," and there has been some speculation that they will do exactly this. It wouldn't be the first time in recent history that a European government has completely ignored a public referendum and done the exact opposite of what the people voted for, like the Catalan independence vote of 2014 which voted overwhelmingly (more than 80%) in favor of independence, but which was subsequently quashed and then ignored by the Spanish government, or the Greek referendum last year in which the Greek people rejected a third bailout before the Greek government went ahead and accepted the bailout anyway. For some reason, there hasn't been much consideration given to this idea in the case of the Brexit: not many people seem to be pointing out that the referendum was non-binding, that it technically doesn't mean anything concrete right now, that it could still be discarded and the UK could still remain a member of the EU. Every news story has reported with finality that the UK is out, as if this is a done deal and there's no way to undo it now. I have a sense that this is deliberate, that the news media is deliberately trying to terrify people with the idea of a Brexit as much as possible so that people become so frightened by it that when the government finally decides against the Brexit, people will be so relieved and thankful that they'll feel like they've been saved from the brink of disaster. The media is deliberately trying to punish the English for their vote, to make them feel ashamed and regretful for standing up for their country.

This theory seems to be supported by the widely-reported idea that several people who voted Leave didn't actually want to leave and didn't think that the Leave vote would win; I've also lost count of how many news stories I've seen suggesting that the Leave votes were actually "protest votes," cast by disillusioned people who voted to send a message because they thought that their vote was pointless anyway, and who now bitterly regret their decision to vote Leave. (This idea has already led to the buzzword "Regrexit," because political ideas are now sold to us under catchy brand names in the same way as cleaning products and chewing gum.) A common statement from alleged Leave voters seems to be something like "I voted Leave, but I didn't actually think we would leave." This is a perfect quote for the media to use to represent the vote, because it suggests that Leave voters are catastrophically stupid and ignorant. I can certainly believe that this might apply to some people, that there are folks who might have voted Leave more as a statement than a genuine intent that the UK would leave, but are we really expected to believe that this picture represents a majority of the Leave votership? Are we really supposed to believe that more than 17 million people voted Leave on a lark, with no intent that their vote would actually count for anything? This idea undermines the whole concept of democracy, as does the growing insistance (which I've also seen reported countless times) that we need to have a second vote, which is about as stupid an idea as anyone could imagine. Why don't we have a second vote for every public election? Why wasn't there a second vote after every election for a president or prime minister, just "to make sure" that the voting public hadn't changed their minds? I once observed that when the government gets an idea into its head, it will advance this idea as many times as necessary until the idea finally catches on; if people vote against the idea, the government will simply reintroduce the idea with a different name and attached to different laws, but one way or another, the government will find a way to get around the voting public. This is a perfect example of that case: having encountered an election result which they didn't like, the government will simply recalibrate the public's expectations and then hold another vote, and if that one doesn't go the way they want, then they'll just keep having votes until they get a result they like, at which point they'll mysteriously stop caring about public opinion.

The suggested possible consequences of the Brexit started off being reasonable, even predictable (lower amounts of international trade, less freedom of movement for people who want to enter or leave the UK), but when the media saw that people weren't frightened enough by these prospects, they invented a whole series of bogeymen to terrify the public with, and I have seen the media advance some truly mind-boggling claims attached to the Brexit, ranging from the bizarre to the absolutely senseless. Among these:

"The Brexit will lead to war between European states."
It's true that the EU was originally formed in the aftermath of World War II as a sign of cooperation between countries that had been damaged by the war. In this sense, the EU is highly symbolic of peace and cooperation. However, the key word here is symbolic: yes, the EU might stand for peace and cooperation between countries, but it is in no way required for peace and cooperation to happen, nor (as history has painfully shown) does it guarantee peace and cooperation even between member nations. It's nice to talk about peace between countries, but the idea that the EU is the only thing keeping the peace in Europe today, or that a country leaving the EU will inevitably lead to that country going to war, has no basis in any kind of logical or reasonable thinking whatsoever.

"I am an EU citizen living in Britain, and I am worried that I will have to leave because of the Brexit."
I can understand this concern, but it has already been refuted. It was explicitly stated even before the Brexit vote that nobody is proposing the deportation of people who went to the UK legally. The Brexit is not about suddenly kicking everyone who's not British out of the UK.

Stephen Hawking made the claim before the vote that a Brexit would cripple UK universities and their research by preventing students and researchers from coming to UK universities. This is a claim based on pure ignorance. Do you really believe that every single student and researcher in every single university in the UK is an EU citizen? A basic fact-check will assure that this is not the case, meaning that in fact, the EU is not a requirement for foreign students and researchers to go to the UK and perform academic work there. I have no idea how someone as intelligent as Hawking can lack the basic self-respect to make such a ridiculous claim; it makes me wonder who paid him to say it and how much his price was.

"The results of the Brexit vote mean that Donald Trump will win the U.S. presidential election."
Absolute madness. They're two separate elections in two separate countries, and as such will be voted on by a completely different body of people. The two have nothing to do with each other, and the idea that one somehow leads to the other is not any kind of political commentary, but rather a statement regarding the speaker's sanity (or rather, the lack thereof).

"Hatred of immigrants drives the urge to leave the EU."
This is the very definition of a strawman argument, and it's being used because people respond to it. People have been trained to say that racism is bad and discrimination is bad and wanting foreigners to leave is bad, and if you can get people to associate racism with the Brexit, then you can train them to think that the Brexit is a bad idea which only stupid and ignorant people want.

I could go on, but the point, I think, is clear: the news media is so comically bent on digging up every possible argument against the Brexit they could possibly think of that it's become apparent that this is not any kind of journalism; this is propaganda in its purest form. What's really frightening about the aftermath of the Brexit is not the political implications of the UK leaving the EU, but how nakedly the news media has displayed how thoroughly it is controlled by globalized interests, people and organizations for whom a one-world market is in their interests and who are hitting the panic button in their desperate urge to reprogram the public after one of the world's biggest economies has taken a step away from their global agenda. I'm normally not the kind of person to believe in conspiracy theories, but the media over this past weekend has thrashed about so desperately and so absurdly in an effort to get people to believe that "The Brexit is bad! You don't know what you're doing! You've ruined everything!" that it's clear someone is pulling some strings behing the scenes. Someone with an agenda has made sure that the media has a goal of teaching the world to think that this is a disaster. We're seeing the man behind the curtain show his hand. Someone more powerful than you or I will ever be has an idea which they desperately want to sell us, and it's clear that they will say anything to get us to believe in it.

Sometimes, however, if someone lies enough (and the media has certainly told enough lies to last us all several lifetimes), they trip themselves up with their words, and the truth becomes clear. This was the case in one article I read about the future of trade between the UK and the EU. Technically speaking, there is nothing about a Brexit which would prevent free trade between these two entities; the EU could (and would have good reason to) open up its trade market and offer free trade to the UK even if the UK does exit the union. However, the commentary I read on this subject noted that this is unlikely to happen, for one simple reason: the EU is unlikely to give the UK free access to the EU market, because that would encourage other countries to leave the EU. It would cause other countries to say "Wait, you mean I can leave the EU and STILL retain free access to its market? Then I have no reason to stay!" The fact that this is a concern makes it painfully clear that despite what we've all been told, the EU has absolutely nothing to do with multiculturalism, freedom, peace, or generosity: it is all about trade. Money. Commerce. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, but it's rare that the people who benefit from that commerce will reveal it so openly. The EU exists because some businesspeople wanted to exploit people, labor, and goods in an effort to make more money. Everything else we're told is a fairy tale for children so that they'll go to sleep wanting to fight for globalization and have bad dreams about the big, bad nationalists.

It makes me wonder what the consequences for someone like me might be. I have no stake in the whole Brexit situation since I don't live in the UK, nor do I have family in the UK or plans to move there in the future. I comment on the situation as an outsider, but this obviously doesn't prevent me from having opinions on it, and it strikes me that if the media can suppress undesirable opinions even when those opinions are a majority (as last week's voting reveals them to be), an obscure guy like me with a tiny, unread blog like mine could easily disappear. What if something were to happen to me? I've invested a lot of time and effort in the words I've written, yet all these words could disappear in a moment, deleted by someone who found that my ideas didn't agree with theirs, and all the things I'd written and said would disappear forever. Humanity would enter a future in which history taught them that the Brexit was a mistake to rival World War II, a "never again" scenario like the Holocaust, representing humanity's darkest time rather than a flourishing of courage and integrity in the face of intimidation and uncertainty. The people who voted Leave voted against fear and despite uncertainty, standing up for what they believed in instead of caving to pressure from those with more money and power than them, and that kind of courage is something which business will always want to suppress, because business thrives on people's fear, especially fear of losing their jobs and having no money; business could not function without intimidation and uncertainty. That's why today's history is being written by the losers: the entire financial system and the entire media network has been constructed to benefit a minority group, to exploit the great mass of humanity so that an elite few can profit from the results. The furious backlash against the Brexit vote makes me feel that even if the UK does leave the EU in the end, this will terrify business to such an extent that they'll just clamp down harder out of fear that other countries might start leaving. The entire financial system is wound together so tightly that it will take much more than one referendum to undo that mess. People like me wouldn't survive such an event; as it is, I should probably be grateful that I'm not some famous media commentator, because I would end up being assassinated. Some people complain when journalists who criticize Putin are killed under mysterious circumstances, but the largest and most ruthless "secret police" network in the world is the one which makes us devote most of our waking hours to some soul-destroying work and then placates us with television series and colorful trinkets. Long after we're dead, those are the people who will be describing the circumstances of our deaths and recording in history that we must have died as a result of "nationalism."
Friday, June 24th, 2016
7:55 pm
The 21st century just brought us its first good historical event
It's been a long and difficult decade-and-a-half. The 21st century got off to a historically bad start. First there was the dot-com bubble implosion in the year 2000 and the massive loss of wealth (even if it was just paper wealth) and jobs which followed. Then, in 2001, of course everything became worse after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Then there followed endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by the Great Recession marking the worst global financial crisis in almost a century, and then Barack Obama's disappointing presidency, where the man who was so full of hopes, dreams, and promises, the man who sold us "change we can believe in," turned out to be just another talking head who dramatically revealed to the whole world how even the President of the United States is basically powerless to do anything or change anything. Everyone has been getting poorer, the world has been getting more unstable, and the future has been getting more uncertain--to put it briefly, everything has just been steadily getting worse since the new millennium came upon us. There has been almost no relief at all; at best, things stopped plummeting downhill, but there hasn't been a single landmark to signify any kind of uptick, any hope of an improvement.

Until now. Ladies and gentlemen, the 21st century just brought us its first good historical event, the first event upon which we can look back and remember something fondly instead of shuddering with horror as the world's people wound themselves into ever-tighter downward spirals. Today, my friends, history was made, history that can make people smile instead of making them cry with hopelessness.

There are those who say that the Brexit is a bad thing, of course. The vote was close: about 52% to 48%. To be sure, not everyone will agree with me. There are many people who are saying that this is yet more bad news, that this heralds the beginning of the end of Europe, that the concept of a "unified Europe" is now history and everything can only get worse from here. I understand these people's concerns, and I don't want to dismiss them. Change is often scary, especially big change, and this is potentially a big change. But people should understand that these fears have been overblown: these fears have been taught to us by the people who exploit us through that very fear, the fear that if something like this happens, it would be very bad for us. Already stock markets around the world have tumbled dramatically; the UK's FTSE 100 Index is down more than 3%. Germany's DAX is down more than 6%. (Amusingly, Germany's stock market fared much worse on this news than Britain's own.) France's CAC 40 is likewise down more than 6%, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 2%... the list goes on and on. On top of that, the British Pound also dropped precipitously, as did the Euro. You get the idea: a picture of doom and gloom painted by the financial markets, by people who make it their business to exploit others. This is precisely what the Brexit was meant to do: to reduce the importance of markets to the people who are not stock traders (that is to say, a majority of the people). As we see the world's big money take a tumble, do not be afraid; this means more opportunities and more freedom for the people who don't have a hand in that big money. The Brexit makes us all more equal and more independent as people. It's great news not only for Britain, not only for Europe, but for the entire world.

V for Vendetta made famous the quote: "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." I don't completely agree with this quote; governments serve an important role in keeping order, and while it's true that people should not live in fear of their government, the reverse is not a good situation either; I believe that governments should work together with their people, because the two exist in a mutual relationship that is supposed to promote cooperation, not conflict. If people want an enemy, if people want something to fight, something which impedes their freedom, they're looking in the wrong place if they look to the government. The government is not your enemy; the market is your enemy. The people who hold the capital, the people who use that capital to manipulate people into working their lives away for no good reason just so some hidden individuals can reap the wealth of that labor, the people who created markets in the first place as a way of captivating and controlling people, are the ones who should be afraid. An event like the Brexit makes it more difficult for those people to work their evil.

The sun rose today on a different world. Boris Johnson, former mayor of London (recently replaced, in a sign of just how much things have changed, by the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city), entreated Britons to "change the whole course of European history," and they did. For once, something went right with the world: the general public refused to allow themselves to be intimidated by the threats of businesspeople and actually chose something other than money, a decision which placed value on something better than commerce and finance, which is something I would never have expected from the general public. I'm shocked. I never thought that such a good thing could happen in our sick, broken world. I'm so happy. I want to dance. I want to sing. Perhaps only the day on which I was married marked a happier day in my life. If I die tomorrow, I can die knowing that I was there to witness a great moment in history worth remembering. We've waited long for this moment, and let me assure you again, my dear readers, that the Brexit does not herald World War III, a global collapse of society, or any other kind of catastrophe that people with no understanding of anything are predicting. The UK will continue to work closely with the rest of Europe; how could it not? The idea that the Brexit represents an end to UK-Europe relations is unthinkable. This event simply means that Britain will be able to make its own decisions for the first time in more than 40 years. History takes a long time to happen, but now we can truly say that the world has been kind enough to deliver us our first glimmer of hope from the 21st century, even if it took 16 years for it to happen. Keep calm and carry on, my friends. And smile: the world is a better place today.
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
9:03 pm
The Munich U-Bahn: Too clever by half?
When I first moved to Munich last year, I wrote about my initial impressions of the city, and one of the things which I complained about was the U-Bahn, specifically the way that the escalators in U-Bahn stations tend to be bidirectional: rather than having two escalators in each station, one which goes up and one which goes down, stations tend to have just one escalator which can run in both directions, requiring people who want to go in the direction which the escalator isn't currently running in to wait until people using the escalator have finished using it, or else take the stairs. This seemed to me (and still seems to me) like what someone thought was a bright idea and which they implemented as an example of their own cleverness, only for the idea to turn out to be dumb and shortsighted in practice.

Last week, another example of this same kind of thinking surfaced in the Munich U-Bahn system when an entire segment of transit line U1 broke down. The cause of the problem was given as a faulty rail switch, but to my mind, the problem lies deeper in the design of the system itself. The Munich U-Bahn is one of very few subway systems I've ever seen where different transit lines overlap each other for significant lengths of track. Lines U1 and U2 share the same track through the city center, lines U3 and U6 do the same with each other, and then lines U4 and U5 do the same with each other as well, meaning that there are actually three bundled pairs of subway lines running through the heart of the city. The BART system in the San Francisco Bay Area does something similar, but I can't think of another system I've seen which works the same way. In theory, this kind of system makes sense, because it reduces how much track you need to build in the middle of the city: trains can share the same tracks when they pass through the city core, and then they bifurcate and spread out to various different suburbs once they get away from the city center. There are a couple of problems with this kind of system, however. The first problem is more of an annoyance for absent-minded people: you might end up getting on the wrong train. More than once, I've gotten onto the correct train platform where the train I needed to take would arrive, then ended up taking the wrong train because in the few minutes that I was waiting for the train, I started thinking about other things and forgot to check the route number on the train as it rolled into the station. This problem is avoided in most subway systems, since most of them have just one train line that operates per track. As long as you're on the right platform, any train which arrives there will be the right one.

The second problem with such a system, however, is the vastly increased amount of rail switching which needs to happen. This process is normally fairly invisible to riders who use the train system, but it should be fairly obvious that if you have different train tracks merging into each other and then later splitting off from each other again, there need to be switches in place at each rail junction, and this becomes problematic if one of those switches breaks down. That is what happened this week with the Munich U-Bahn: a rail switch at Kolumbusplatz station broke, meaning that line U1, which normally runs from the Olympia-Einkaufszentrum through Kolumbusplatz and the Hauptbahnhof to Mangfallplatz, is not able to make its complete journey. As a result, all trains which run from Mangfallplatz must stop at Kolumbusplatz, and riders who want to go further need to take a different train. I happen to live on the affected segment of U1, meaning that this arrangement causes delays during my daily commute to and from work, as well the daily commutes of thousands of other people. You might say that this is a normal thing which happens sometimes: certainly, moving mechanical parts are bound to break down eventually, and this is understood, but it seems that the Münchner Verkehrsgesellschaft (Munich Transport Company) didn't think to have a spare switch somewhere in their inventory. Apparently the broken switch is the only one of its type in the entire transit network, meaning that rather than simply being able to swap the switch for a new one, it is now necessary to wait until the factory can produce a new switch of the same specification from scratch. The result is that the Munich transit network has been disrupted for more than an entire week, and remains so as of this writing, all because of one simple broken switch which no one had the foresight to recognize as what engineers call a "single point of failure," a single item which could break down the entire system if it fails.

My wife, who is from Russia, noted this disruption and commented that even in a place like Russia, such a thing never happens. The reason for this is quite simple: Russian subway networks don't use track-switching. Even at stations where two subway lines cross each other, you can't just get off a train and wait for a train running on a different line to arrive on the same track; you have to take an escalator or staircase to get to a different level of the station where a different subway line runs. This is how not only most Russian subway systems work, but in fact most subway systems around the world, and although this does cause the inconvenience of having to walk to a different level of the station to get to a different line, it has the distinct advantage that there is nothing in the rails to break down. The rails do not move: they are nothing more than metal bars affixed to heavy blocks embedded in the ground, and nothing short of an earthquake, bomb, or other significant event of terraforming is going to change their form. The worst thing that can happen in such a system is that a train breaks down and blocks a section of track, in which case you can simply push the train out of the way and get other trains running in its stead. If you build the rails themselves to form a switching network and thus to shift back and forth through the motion of mechanical actuators, the rails which the trains run on are only as reliable as those mechanical parts, and as soon as a mechanical part breaks down (which is inevitable when any moving parts are involved), the rails become unusable until the broken part is fixed or replaced.

It makes me wonder why the Munich U-Bahn was built this way in the first place. Surely it must have been foreseen that this kind of thing could happen. As I've said, a single, fixed rail is very difficult to move unless something really catastrophic happens, but moving mechanical parts will always break down after a while. Even I know this, and I'm not a railway or mechanical engineer. The whole Munich U-Bahn system strikes me as a system that was over-designed, the result of a team of engineers who thought that they were smart enough to build a system that worked efficiently enough that it could avoid basic safeguards, fundamental principles of engineering that any competent designer would put in place to compensate for the breakdown of a single component. It does indeed seem to be a symptom of "modern" thinking for us to imagine that our own cleverness has somehow rescued us from the need to consider what happens if something goes wrong, that our own brilliance in designing and creating things will somehow ensure that everything keeps working correctly just because the people who built the system were so smart. This is actually a very American way of approaching the design process (although of course it is not limited to Americans), which helps to explain why the American automobile industry broke down in the late 20th century, when car companies assumed that because their engineers were so smart and their production lines were built so well, surely their cars must be reliable and there was no need to implement thorough quality-control and testing on the cars which came off the assembly lines. As I observed recently, Munich does seem to be the most "American" of all German cities, so perhaps this accounts somehow for the mentality that went into the design of its U-Bahn, since the relatively infrequent train departures (and subsequent long wait times between trains) and over-engineering which seem built into the system are endemic to American public-transit systems. The result is a transit network that's just too clever by half, and it's probably quite embarrassing for Western societies when Russia has decades-old rail systems which are still running like clockwork simply because they built those systems on fundamental engineering principles, while Germany's train systems, reputed to be rigorously punctual, are actually breaking down because some people had the bright idea that they didn't need to rely on such old-fashioned principles. As the East continues to hold up against a steadily disintegrating West, the reasons for this outcome are clear to anyone who bothers to look and see.
Monday, June 20th, 2016
8:54 pm
On the Brexit
I have thus far avoided writing on the Brexit, the possible departure of the UK from the European Union, because I didn't have much to say about it that hasn't already been said. I figured that if I was going to write anything about it at all, then I might as well wait until the vote on June 23, when I could comment on that history after it had already been written. My little blog is certainly too obscure and my opinion too meaningless to be able to influence the outcome of that vote, and so I didn't see much point in writing a whole post about the subject before things happened, since things would change after the vote and I might have something to say about those events afterward. It occurred to me, however, that the inverse would happen: the events surrounding the Brexit would influence me and my writing after the vote, so to make my stance clear before the results of the vote are tallied, I decided it might be more consistent to make my opinions known before the vote is final. With the mentioned day now coming up this Thursday, I suppose there's no time like the present to clarify what I think about the idea and why.

It is probably no surprise to most people who have been long-time readers of my blog that I am generally in favor of the Brexit. Why would I not support it? After all, the most important things to me are culture (specifically, what some people now feel they have to call "high culture" for fear that someone might confuse Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey with culture) and philosophy, and the continual blending of countries together is one of the biggest destroyers of culture. It is globalization that leads to the proliferation of mindless non-culture like the works I just parenthetically mentioned; how could anyone reasonably support that?

There are those, of course--and there will always be those--who say that to create divisions is exactly the wrong thing to do right now, that what we need right now more than ever is unity and cooperation, that "We need to be drawing closer together instead of pushing ourselves farther apart." What those people perhaps don't realize is that breaking up the European Union is precisely the best way to achieve these goals. Increasing frustation with and opposition to the rules and requirements of European Union membership is fueling tensions and conflict between the various member states; the best thing they could possibly do, as with any people who get into a fight, is to walk away and cool off for a while. This doesn't mean they have to be enemies forever; it just means that they need to take a break and spend a little time apart. They can come together and talk more later, when they're ready.

And be assured, they will. Does anybody really believe that if a country leaves the European Union, this marks the end of all its relations with other European countries? There is absolutely nothing which prevents a country which is not a member of the European Union from having relations with a country which is. If this were not the case, how could global trade be possible? How could international diplomacy be possible? How could cultural exchange and travel to foreign countries be possible? All of these predate the European Union by thousands of years, and none of them depend on the continued existence of the European Union, or any other formal political union.

Lest anyone not be willing to take my word or any form of speculation on this, be assured that you don't have to. One of the longest continuously existing states in Europe is not a member of the European Union and has explicitly rejected membership in the union: Switzerland. If anyone thinks that not being a member of the European Union creates divisions and prevents foreign relations between countries, just take a look at Switzerland. This country has long been an awkward embarrassment to proponents of the European Union, because its location makes it hard to ignore: it sits right smack in the middle between Germany, France, and Italy, easily three of the largest and most influential states in Europe, and it enjoys excellent political, cultural, and economic relationships with not only those three countries, but indeed the rest of Europe despite having never been a member of the European Union. If anyone thinks that the European Union was necessary to prevent war from erupting between European countries, then ask yourself: how did Switzerland avoid being at war even before the European Union was formed, literally in the middle of three warring states during World War II and yet untouched by that conflict? If anyone thinks that being in the European Union promotes economic prosperity, then ask yourself: why does Switzerland have a much healthier economy than most European Union states despite not being a member of the union? And if you think that Switzerland is some kind of bizarre exception that simply got lucky through a fluke, then be assured that it's not the only example: Liechtenstein, Norway, and Iceland are all much more peaceful and economically wealthy than pretty much any European State despite having never been in the union. And all of these countries maintain excellent political, cultural, and economic ties to the rest of Europe--again, without being members of any union. Meanwhile, on the other side of things, last year's disastrous negotiations with Greece during that country's financial crisis show clearly that a country being a member of both the European Union and the Eurozone do not in any way guarantee that it will get along with the other countries in that union despite formal membership.

All of this being the case, it's absolutely baffling how anyone can believe that the European Union is a prerequisite for peace, prosperity, or cooperation between European states. This is clearly not true, and I don't understand how anyone can take this idea seriously when real evidence to the contrary exists in our world today in the form of the non-members I just mentioned. The existence of non-members of the European Union is not some kind of "what if" scenario that requires speculation over what would happen if a country were not in the union. These countries are already non-members of the European Union TODAY. How can anyone take seriously the claims that not being in the European Union would cause chaos and collapse? How did Europe exist as a global center of culture for centuries without this union?

Some people will say that the world has changed, that the world today is different from the world you read about in history books. Well, that's true, of course: the world today is different from how it was back then, but what is it about the world today that requires a union for continued cooperation between countries? What prevents diplomacy and foreign trade from happening without that union existing? The answer is absolutely nothing, because diplomacy and trade continues today on an extensive level even between countries who have no formal union memberships or even trade agreements with each other, and it will always continue between countries regardless of what formal laws or agreements are in place.

Relationship counselors can tell you that one of the worst things you can do for a marriage or other similar relationship is try to force its sustenance through rules. Some married couples think that they can maintain the strength of their marriage by creating rules like "Spend a minimum of at least an hour a day communicating with your spouse." It sounds like a nice idea for helping people to remain in communication with each other, but what usually ends up happening when people create such rules is that the relationship becomes strained precisely because of these rules, because the rules turn something which was enjoyable and natural into a forced obligation: communicating with your partner under the basis of such a rule becomes not something relaxed and mutual but rather a drudgery to be gotten over with, another chore to check off on the daily to-do list. This is not the kind of environment in which a loving and mutually generous relationship flourishes; cooperation and communication are not nurtured by rules that require obedience and compliance. Such rules only create an antagonistic and formalistic approach to the relationship, a sense that the agreement is a burden which must be tolerated and endured rather than something in which people gladly partake. Generous, open participation in communication and sharing only happens when people are invited to partake voluntarily, as a call to our better natures rather than a duty which is enforced through rules that would lead to punishment if broken. In this sense, then, the unbinding of countries from the European Union could ensure a renewed sense of voluntary and mutually beneficial cooperation rather than the current sense of forced togetherness which most members of the EU labor under.

It is telling to look at the reasons given for why the UK should remain in the EU. The arguments almost always boil down to money. It's not about sharing, cooperation, or mutual exchange; it is all about business. Britain's continued membership in the European Union is primarily of interest to large companies. It is a widely-acknowledged fact that global trade primarily benefits large corporations. Many fear that the trickle-down effect of such large companies means that anything which hurts large companies will also hurt the little people who happen to work as employees of those companies, but this is another example of the global GDP trap: if you don't do anything to stop the increasing growth and influence of large companies, things will only continue to get worse for the little people. It has been observed that fears of an impending Brexit have already negatively impacted stock markets in the UK, but this is precisely what should happen, and needs to happen. Whom do you think those stock markets benefit? Do you really think that 95% of people in Britain will ever benefit from rising stock values? What needs to be done is to cut the head off the snake before it consumes everything around it. Decrasing stock values in Britain mean that large companies are reaching their limit of expansion, allowing individuals and small-business owners an opportunity to compete on the same level without needing to somehow reach a global market. There are, of course, also smaller companies in the UK which benefit from EU investment, but this investment is the carrot part of the carrot-and-stick system which proponents of globalization use to encourage smaller-time businesses to support European integration even though it is against their interests in the long run. The threat of economic disadvantages is the stick part, the fear which the market's proponents use to manipulate the public into living for the service of the market, the fear which is mongered among the populace to terrify them into the idea that they're all going to lose their jobs and end up with less money if they leave the EU. Actually, precisely the opposite is true: the UK's exit from the EU would mean that individual workers in Britain would have more opportunities in their own country's domestic market.

To be fair, a Brexit wouldn't be a magical solution to fix all problems in the UK. Certainly, there are problems in the UK which go beyond anything you could solve with political solutions, but none of these problems seem to be helped by EU membership. A popular basis for the Brexit is the current refugee crisis in Europe, and the idea that hundreds of thousands of refugees are coming into the UK unhindered to spread crime and poverty, but even a Brexit wouldn't prevent this from happening. Those refugees are going to keep going to the UK whether it exists in the EU or not. Some time ago, I saw some graffiti which said "The flow of immigration remains unstoppable!" It's not clear whether this graffiti was pro-immigration or anti-immigration; it could have been either, both, or neither: was it a defiant rallying cry that immigrants would continue to come in despite the state's efforts to stop them, or was it a woeful lament of the same? Or was it simply a neutral commentary without a specific agenda? I don't know, but in any case, the message remains true: when people are literally dying on the tracks of the Chunnel, walking a 50-kilometre underground rail tunnel on foot in desperate efforts to reach England from France, it becomes apparent that changing a few rules and agreements isn't going to stop a much more fundamental problem. But then again, retaining the current rules and agreements isn't going to, either. If nothing is going to help the problem, you might as well at least do away with things that only make it worse.

Perhaps there wouldn't be such an impetus to leave the European Union if the EU itself hadn't done so much to push countries to leave. The European Commission is increasingly acting much like the United States, speaking as if it is the entire world's government and enacting policies with the apparent expectation that all countries will simply politely follow whatever it says, since after all, it is the boss. This has become much more publicly visible in the light of the ongoing refugee crisis, although these problems existed for years before they were so violently and dramatically thrust into the global spotlight. As an example of the EC overstepping its boundaries, at the height of the refugee crisis when Europe was taking in close to 10,000 new refugees every single day and some countries were discussing how they could deal with this constant flow, the European Commission helpfully stepped in and declared that migration limits were illegal. Some countries had been discussing putting caps on how many migrants per day they would accept, but after Germany had already taken in 800,000 mostly-undocumented immigrants in a single year, after much of Europe had already done more than anyone could reasonably ask of a continent which is geographically one-third the size of Africa and less than one-quarter the size of Asia, the European Commission actually had the gall to tell Europe that the act of limiting how many people could enter your country is against European law, that in fact all the countries of the EU needed to bring in even more people, and that failure to do so could result in penalties. The European Union has really shot itself in the foot. If it could only have worked together with individual European countries and tried to meet them half-way instead of trying to force them to act in accordance with its globalist agenda, a compromise might have been reached and we might not be where we are now, but it has become clear that the EU expects nothing less than the complete destruction of every EU country's ability to exist as a distinct political and cultural entity. Again, the EU is increasingly behaving like the USA: it seems to assume that the whole world desperately wants to be a part of it, and therefore it believes that it has full reign to tell all the world's countries how they must govern themselves and what they are and aren't allowed to do within their own borders. Nobody wants to exist under the constant administration of that kind of a bully, no matter how much foreign money they promise.

That's why it's not at all surprising that so many Brits want to leave. And why wouldn't they? Why would they want to stay when the EU has for years been using Western Europe as a cash cow to fund Eastern Europe and turn the most recent EU member states into carbon-copies of capitalistic, globalized states? Why would the UK, long one of the world's most fiercely independent global powers, not want to remain in charge of its own affairs? Leaving the European Union would mean that the UK could remain British instead of becoming a multicultural mishmash of everything, another New York or Hong Kong. It certainly wouldn't mean that Britain would stop working together with the rest of Europe; it simply means that Britain would be able to make its own decisions regarding its own national affairs. You can be assured beyond a shadow of a doubt that even if Britain leaves the EU, it will continue to maintain close political, cultural, and trade relations with the rest of Europe; that is a process which a Brexit cannot change. Britain's exit from the European Union is an absolute win-win for everyone. There are literally no negative aspects to it. Anyone who says otherwise is a person who wishes to control the entire world, and is frustrated at anything which impedes their efforts to do so.
Thursday, June 16th, 2016
6:46 am
It came as quite a surprise to me that even a person such as I could be happy. More surprising yet was that the solution turned out to be quite simple. But it involved doing something I hadn't wanted to do: isolate myself from people. I thought I wanted to be with people. I thought I wanted to integrate into a good society, a place where I could share life with people who were like me, a place where I could belong, and therefore a place which I could call home. And yet: there is no such place anywhere in the world. My examination of the world over the past few years has only taught me this sorrowful conclusion. Where does a person go when they've got nowhere to go, when they have no home, no place they can belong?

If that person is lucky, they can find a little place to be alone. And then things start to happen. When I wake up in the morning, what happens depends largely on my neighbors in the apartment down the hall. If they are playing loud music, as they are wont to do, then this disrupts my serenity and ruins the rest of my morning. But if all is quiet, then I am grateful for this start to the day, for the air I breathe, for the light I see, for the silence I hear. And then I can enjoy my little shuffle to the bathroom, and I am gladdened by the gentle click of the light switch as I press it, that little sound which accompanies the rising illumination which welcomes me into the new day, that light which is always so ready to greet me with the movement of a switch. And I am gladdened by the gentle trickling of the water in the sink as I wash, that lovely water which we are so privileged to have piped directly into our residences. What a marvelous thing plumbing is. If only people could be more grateful for this simple but potent luxury, this wonderful enhancement to our lives, bringing cleanliness to us and swishing away our filth.

It saddens me a bit when I think of how much time I wasted pursuing things which were not important to me. When I was younger, I sometimes sought after days spent on the beach by the sea, or gatherings of merrymaking people, because these things seemed to make others so happy, and I just assumed that they would make me happy, too. It took a long time for me to realize that the things which made other people happy were just not working for me, not bringing me any lasting satisfaction. It is a strange thing how sometimes a person cannot recognize their own feelings. But when I did, when I finally had the courage to make a little place for myself, a tiny space of calm stillness and muted lighting, away from the dazzle and noise and commotion of the world, I found that even I could be happy.

It's tempting to say that if even I can be happy, then anyone can be. But I know that it isn't so simple: there are many others who have it much worse than I. I cannot tell others how to be happy. I cannot help others be happy. I cannot prescribe or even recommend anything for them. I can only say that you might have been lied to, that the things which you were told make people happy might not be the same things that make you happy. And once you learn to recognize your own feelings, you'll understand better. This is especially difficult if, like me, you are a person who lives largely without emotions, or at least without strong ones; then it's pretty difficult for you to even tell yourself how you're feeling. But you'll get it eventually if you learn to listen. Listen. Listen, listen, listen. Listen to the people and the world around you, but don't forget to listen to yourself, too.
Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
11:18 pm
Come along with me
Memories back when she was bold
and strong
and waiting for the world to
come along

-- "Better Man", Pearl Jam

I understand that it is hubris to imagine that one could judge a person as being better than someone else; to say that "Person X is better than Person Y" is a judgmental and subjective statement, inherently dependent on the biases of the person making such a statement and what they know of the two people in question (which is always limited, since you can never know any person completely, not even yourself). And yet we do this. We have to do this; how else could we decide whom we will marry, or which people we will become close friends with? How could we make any sense of history without doing this? Would we really be able to garner any meaning whatsoever from what we know of humanity's brief history if we said "All people are equal, and therefore Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, and John Wayne Gacy were all equally good people"? To say such a thing is worse than just nonsense; it denigrates and devalues the greatness of good people, while affording respect for people who don't deserve it.

I understand that it is even worse hubris to judge oneself to be better than another person. To say "I am better than that person" is a dangerous thing to say. It immediately lays the foundation for a narcissism complex which will only tend to grow from that point. And yet what else can we do? When people disappoint us, when we see people who clearly are not putting forth basic efforts toward decency and civility which we expect normal and decent people to put forth, what else can we conclude? It is impossible to avoid developing a lower opinion of such people, and if you tell yourself that you still think of them as equals because all people are equal, then you are lying to yourself. You don't really believe it in your heart.

I understand that it is hubris to the point of insanity to think oneself better than all other people. And yet, what else can one do in a world such as ours? I don't think I am a good person; I certainly am not the best person I could possibly be. And yet I constantly see other people who seem to be putting forth all of their time and effort into a mad scramble to dig a hole straight to the bottom, to be the lowest, meanest, stupidest, most selfish and thoughtless people you could ever imagine, stuff that you couldn't even make up if you tried, things which no one would believe if you were to write a book about them. And yet these people and their lack of quality are real. How can we avoid it? How can we close our minds to the pervading, howling stupidity and malice which surrounds us all day, every day?

I don't think there is anything special about me. I don't do anything unusual, or anything which other people couldn't easily do. I just try to avoid stupid things which waste my time, and I try to do things which will inform me about the universe and about the nature of people, places, and things. That's all I do, and I don't think it's anything remarkable in any way; it seems to me like something which a lot of people would do, or should do. Is it not the nature of a human being to want to grow? Is it not in our deepest desires to want to learn more, to discover more, to know more, to understand more? It seems like a natural thing that every person wants to do. We often talk about "progress," about building a better world for tomorrow, and yet: how can we do this if the people of the world are ignorant? People have these strange ideas that we can build a better world for future generations by building more sophisticated technology, or improving market economic conditions, or legalizing marijuana use. Apparently people don't understand that within human society, what counts is people: you make lives better for people by developing better people. And that's something which can only be done if people are willing to improve themselves. And yet I rarely see people doing this. Usually I just see people chasing escapist entertainment like it's an oasis and they've been in a desert for days without a drink. That doesn't make the world a better place; that doesn't improve the state of humanity. It does precisely the opposite.

I'm not expecting or asking for a miracle. I'm not expecting all of humanity to turn itself around. I'm just asking for people to do basic things to try and make themselves into better people instead of waiting for the next episode of their favorite television series or vampire novel to improve their quality of life. And no, you don't need money for this; most of the information in the world is available for free now. You can improve yourself without paying any money for it at all. It always baffles me when people don't do this, when people just sit around and distract themselves as if there was nothing else to do. There is an entire lifetime's journey of discovery waiting for anyone who cares to make that journey, and yet no one seems to have any desire whatsoever to make it. I'm still waiting for the day when humanity will progress to the point where people are actually willing to take that journey. I am still waiting for the world to come along.
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