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

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Monday, January 16th, 2017
9:56 pm
How the media's use of the word "progressive" demonstrates their leftist-liberal bias
I'd like to think that I am a person who is fairly tolerant of other people expressing opinions which are different from mine. I would even go so far as to say that I am generally accepting of people claiming that their opinions are the best or the right opinions. After all, you need to reach some kind of a conclusion to make a decision: if society consists entirely of people who politely say "Well, I have my own opinions, but I respect yours even if they are different," then nothing can ever get done and no concrete decisions can ever get made. In order for any kind of planning to be implemented, for any sort of action to take place, it is necessary for people to conclusively say "We hold this idea to be the one most relevant or valuable to us, and so we're going to proceed based on that." What I do not accept, and what always bothers me in a vaguely disgusting and disturbing sort of way, is people claiming that their opinions are correct without providing any justification for this conclusion. I would hope that if someone wants to convince others that their ideas are the most correct or most valuable, they would provide some kind of justification for this idea, some kind of reasoning to explain why they think others should agree with them. Yet I regularly see people, often people who are actually very intelligent and educated, inexplicably advancing the idea that their ideas must be the correct ones simply because they like those ideas the most, and that anyone who disagrees with them is self-evidently a bad person.

An example of this phenomenon is the way in which the word "progressive" is used in the media and in general discussion today. In its most literal, dictionary sense, being "progressive" simply means having an inclination to want to make progress toward something, some desirable goal which it is seen as worth trying to move toward. On the surface this idea sounds great: who wouldn't want to advance to an improved, better state? The problem comes when you try to define what "better" is, what would qualify as an "improvement." The fact is that there is not one single goal which all humanity is united in trying to reach; in fact, many people in the world have goals which are specifically opposite to, and thus mutually incompatible with, the goals held by some other people in the world. What some people consider "progress" is considered the opposite of progress by others. There is not any one single change which the entire world would unanimously recognize as "progress" toward some desirable, worthwhile goal.

And yet the word "progressive" is widely used in news media and political discussions to refer to a specific political agenda, with the implication that whatever that political agenda wants is the way "forward" to a more highly developed, improved state of affairs, and anything which opposes this ideology is ignorant and narrow-minded, an impediment to the process of humanity improving itself. I could even say that there is something to this idea, under two conditions: first, that the "progressives" specifically identify what their goals are, what kind of plan they're trying to make progress toward, and secondly, why exactly this process of making progress would be an improvement, why it would lead us into a future which is better than our current one. Yet people who describe themselves as "progressive" usually satisfy neither of these requirements: most "progressives" exist as a sort of cult-like clique who imagine that they have the secrets to how all human beings should live, and they rarely make a point of explicitly clarifying, for the public benefit, what their vision for the future is or how they would like us to get there. When they do express social or political ideas, they almost invariably do so without offering any reasons why they think these ideas are better than others, simply declaring that any intelligent person can recognize their ideas as the best, and that anyone who doesn't agree with those ideas is ignorant, uneducated, and should get out of the way of "progress."

Given that the word "progress" implies the act of moving toward a better state, progress should mean improving humanity. This could mean, for example, euthanizing or sterilizing people with genetic defects so that they cannot propagate their inferior genes in the gene pool, as well as people with physical or mental defects to eliminate people who are of a lower quality. From a scientific point of view, this would be a "progressive" course of action, since it would reduce problems with low-quality people and maintain only people of the best quality, allowing humanity to progress toward an improved state. This, however, is not quite what "progressives" usually advocate; in fact, it is nearly the opposite of what they advocate. People who call their ideas "progressive" usually use this word to denigrate old-fashioned ideas about religion and tradition, claiming that people should leave these antiquated, obsolete value systems behind and form better ones based on intelligent reasoning instead. Yet most progressivism is not based on any kind of reason.

A related term is "enlightenment," which became very much an important word during the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" in the 18th century, and it is notable how this word parallels "progressive" in that it implies, without any justification whatsoever, that it is somehow better than what came before it, that it is a movement of light-bearing luminaries bringing vision and awareness to a benighted world. Yet in every discussion I have ever seen of this period, I have never seen any kind of a justification, not a word that attempts to explain why this so-called "enlightenment" is better than any other way of thinking. It is simply assumed that the people who promoted this enlightenment were very smart, obviously much smarter than those dumb old farmers who didn't understand it, and therefore this enlightenment was the only way forward for humanity. Even today, the word "enlightenment" is widely used in the media to refer to the ideas that became popular in the 18th century, but modern usage usually forgets the principle which was supposed to provide this enlightenment, namely scientific inquiry, and uses "enlightenment" as a synonym for anti-religion and political liberty for people to do whatever they want. I hope the irony is not lost on the reader of a movement which abandons science, the very thing which was supposed to give it some kind of grounding in reason, and promotes people's freedom to follow their infantile whims as a superior form of intelligence.

The way these words are used in the media today shows how the meanings of words are used to control what people think. Even in supposedly neutral, respectable news media today, it is routine to use the word "progressive" to describe a thoroughly left-wing ideology that does not actually attempt to improve things in any planned or scientific way (for example, as I mentioned, through eugenics) but simply promotes the idea that every person should be free to do whatever they want, with the implicit assumption that this is somehow the ideal state for humanity and that anything which brings us closer to this vision is surely a great thing for humanity. It wouldn't be so bad if these people had the honesty to just come forward and say "I want a world in which everyone is free to do whatever they want, and I think that this is the best possible vision for the future of humanity," but instead they hide this vision, claim the use of words like "progress" and "awareness" as exclusively for their own use, and demonize anyone or anything which opposes this vision as the enemy of humanity. The fact that the media not only allows such people to continue to control the use of our language in this way, but even does so themselves, demonstrates that there is a leftist-liberal bias in the media. If someone were to propose a national eugenics program, something which would actually materially improve humanity according to the scientific knowledge which "enlightenment" claims to pursue, no major newspaper on Earth would dare to describe such a program as "progressive" even if it were suggested with the aim of improving humanity, because "progressivism" is not really about trying to improve anything, and "enlightenment" is not really about making people more informed; these are just buzzwords which hedonists and anarchists have claimed for their own use, a language coup which the media has tacitly allowed and actively participated in.

Note that I am not actually proposing the implementation of a eugenics program myself. You see, unlike what so-called "enlightened" people claim to believe, I do not see science as the sole source of understanding, awareness, or thinking. There are also things like compassion, community, and basic human decency... Ah, but these things are all very old-fashioned values, so surely they would not be of any interest to the brilliantly enlightened, progressive geniuses who will lead our humanity into a better future.
Saturday, January 14th, 2017
10:04 pm
Why I like Southern California more than Northern California
The recent movie La La Land is putting some media focus on Los Angeles, a city which was once seen as the center of all that was golden in California but which in more recent years has acquired a negative reputation as a dirty, polluted, and hopelessly overbuilt haven of crime and poverty. The movie refutes this view, presenting the City of Angels as a beautiful and magical place. Since I've done a lot of writing lately about my experiences in the United States and Europe and how these contrast with each other, perhaps now is a good time for me to explain something which might surprise some people who have read my blog for a while, namely that I've always liked Southern California more than Northern California.

A bit of background: I lived in the United States for about 10 years, and although I saw various parts of the country in that time, I didn't explore it as thoroughly as I later explored Europe, because travelling around the U.S. has a much lower payoff-versus-price ratio: in Europe, you can easily travel across most countries in a day or less on a fairly inexpensive bus or train ticket, and there are so many small towns and villages in Europe with hundreds of years of history that you usually don't have to go very far to see something interesting, while in the U.S. cross-country trains and buses take longer to get anywhere because the country is bigger, and you don't really see very much on such travels. So although I've briefly visited a handful of the most important places in the U.S., I haven't been to every important city in the country. What I have seen a lot of is California: I've been pretty much everywhere in California that's worth going to between Sacramento and San Diego, and I've lived in both Southern California (commonly shortened to SoCal) and Northern California (NorCal). Cuturally, many people hold these regions as synonymous with their most famous cities, respectively Los Angeles and San Francisco, but while I never actually lived directly in either of these cities, I lived close enough to them that I travelled to them regularly, so I've seen a lot of both. I've also seen a lot of the environs which surround these cities, and based on the things I've experienced and seen, I always felt much more comfortable in SoCal than in NorCal.

First, let me address the question of just why I think this might surprise some people. Folks who have read a fair amount of my writing will know that I like culture, perhaps to the point where I consider it the most important defining feature of any populated location. There is a popular image of San Francisco that it is the most cultured city on the American Pacific Coast, since it was the first city that was really properly developed into a significant population center rather than being just one of the tiny seaside ports that dotted the coast for much of American history. The common thinking seems to be that for people who like culture, there is nothing that comes close to San Francisco on the West Coast, since the city is seen as a "European style" city in its levels of artistic output. Los Angeles, by contrast, is seen as a filthy city full of unsophisticated beach bums who just want to surf all day. The "surfer dude" stereotype and its female equivalent, the "valley girl," are both endemic to Southern California. What, then, would a guy like me who is not a party person have that could attract me to the South, and why would I not gravitate rather to the North, to that city on a hill with its highbrow, cultured scholars?

First of all, let me reiterate what I always says about culture, namely that when I talk of "culture," I mean real culture, not just some people who dance around or put on some boring theatrical production and call it culture. Nor do I mean--as some people might wrongly assume--what is commonly called "high culture," because too much of that is just obscenely wealthy snobs looking at pointless artworks and talking about how much better looking at such art makes them. Culture is a mindset, a collection of ideas and values. Culture is what a society believes in and holds as having value. Culture is expressed not only through the arts, but also in the everyday lives of people. When culture does manifest itself as the arts, it appears through creativity that expresses the people's set of values, through art and media that can articulately express a point of view, especially literature and film. San Francisco is a center for the visual arts, but there is not much other creativity or artistry which happens there. The city lacks a strong literary scene, and most of the art that exists there makes the classical mistake of focusing on what is beautiful rather than what is meaningful.

Los Angeles, by comparison, is not only a far more creative city than San Francisco, it is actually one of the most creative cities in the world. People seem to assume that Los Angeles is nothing but the "Hollywood phony" stereotype, a movie-star type who is so artificial, so detached from reality and so full of themselves, that they are beyond intolerable. I won't deny that such people exist in Los Angeles, but they are a small minority. People seem to forget that for every movie star that gets cast in a Hollywood movie, there are a hundred non-stars who get listed in the credits because they do things like write the script, operate the lights, and otherwise participate in media productions (particularly film productions, of course, but not solely limited to such) in a way which is kind of like working any regular job, but somehow more meaningful and invigorating because you're a part of the process of producing a huge work of creative media. The sheer level of artistic creativity which is present in L.A. blows San Francisco out of the water; L.A. is full of scriptwriters, directors, producers, and other people associated with the film industry who are constantly creating stories and working to bring those stories to the screen. There is certainly no other place like it on Earth, no other place where human creativity is so intensely concentrated in one place for the process of creating stories that will be told to the world.

Some people might say that the cultural heart of America is New York City, and that I in particular should like that city since it is the literature capital of the country. It's true that most major American book-publishing companies have their headquarters located in New York City, but this doesn't really mean anything; the fact that publishing companies happen to have an office in a city doesn't make that city significantly more literary or book-centric than any other city, especially since New York is so huge that the publishing industry forms a very tiny part of its overall makeup. This is not the case in Los Angeles, where the film industry is so large that it actually dominates the local cultural and economic awareness. New York is a city with great cultural offerings, it's true, but for the most part it is a city focused on business and finance; it's more about Wall Street than anything else, and as such it is dominated by businesspeople. San Francisco has the same problem: much of the city is centered around the Financial District, and as a result it is heavily populated by the negative stereotype of yuppies, naive young people who live in abundant wealth but are entirely ignorant about the effects of that wealth on the city around them. In the 1960s, San Francisco became known as a center of the hippie movement, but since then, bankers, traders, and other wealthy businesspeople have taken over the city, with the result that most people in San Francisco today are either finance people who only think about money, hippies who just want to take drugs and think they can still find traces of a long-lost movement that disappeared decades ago, or very often people who try to be both at the same time, usually failing at both.

Indeed, this focus on business activity is a sort of cancer which has eaten up much of the San Francisco Bay Area. I lived for several years there in the South Bay, also known as Silicon Valley, and I watched a region that was once vibrant with the computer industry slowly fade out as computers stopped being a growth industry. Today, as I often say, there is no more silicon left in Silicon Valley; now Silicon Valley is saturated with people who can only talk about their social-networking portal and about how much they want to encourage everyone to sign up for it, saying things like "We know that we're doing pretty much the exact same thing as literally dozens if not hundreds of other websites, but a friend of a friend of mine might have talked to an investor the other day, and we think that if we can bury our website in enough advertising and layers of JavaScript (or better yet, AJAX, because nobody knows what it is but it sounds catchy), we might convince them to give us $20 million in seed funding, which we could then use right away to build a development platform that allows people to build development platforms." These people have so thoroughly taken over Silicon Valley that this plague has spread up the peninsula to San Francisco and enveloped most of it as well. It is so vile that it made me want to vomit every time I went outside when I lived there. The computer industry was one of the greatest things to happen to American history, and there was once a time when Silicon Valley was a global epicenter of this history, a flourishing community of engineers, programmers, and hackers of all types. This community has now almost completely disappeared, and this history is now just that: history, not something extant in the present day. By contrast, the film industry in SoCal existed long before the computer revolution took over the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Hollywood scene continues to flourish today, long after Silicon Valley has died out.

Those who have read my blog for a long time know that I have no sympathy or patience for businesspeople who think of nothing but how to expand their businesses. I have nothing against business itself, as long as that business produces useful products and services which people need, but the entire "IT industry" in Northern California today is only about producing impossibly abstract software structures and elaborate marketing schemes to try and convince other businesspeople to invest in a useless library of software functions. There is no human element here, no thought of trying to make products or services which real, everyday people might benefit from. I have often heard people say that San Francisco is built like a European city, but this semblance is only skin deep. Yes, in terms of its architecture, San Francisco looks somewhat European on the surface, but culturally and economically, it is a thoroughly American city in that it exists only to try and make money by selling anything and everything that can possibly be sold, as well as many things which can't be. Since any physical object which can have a price put on it has already been marketed to death, people are now trying to figure out how to turn unimaginably nebulous ideas into saleable products. What this process does to a city and its people is very sad: it destroys the culture in a city and turns the people into sales drones whose spare time is eaten up by trying to develop ideas into a business plan.

Contrast this with the lifestyle in L.A., which at least tries to develop products of human interest. Nobody has to ask why you're making a movie or what the purpose of a film is for. Hollywood is a vibrant place because it is a place where art and industry come together, where people can be tremendously creative but also make a lot of money doing it. The result is the best of both worlds, a place where people can develop careers while still having fun. Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a "fun" person, not the sort of guy who would go to a beach party or a strip bar, but even this being the case, I would feel infinitely more comfortable in such a place than in an environment populated by numbingly corporate businesspeople who only want to talk business constantly. Even though I am not a hedonist, I understand the motivation behind going to a music concert or a dance club. At least people who do that are trying to achieve something human, something that would somehow bring a happy experience into their life. The focus in Southern California is on quality of life: people there want to be happy, they want to have a good time, and they want to share their good times with other people. There's a stereotype that L.A. is full of gangsters and phonies who are just out to get something for themselves, while San Francisco is a city of gentle, thoughtful people who are just waiting to show some stranger the good life. This has never been my experience, however: I have always found people in L.A. to be gregarious, open-hearted people who are unpretentious and approachable, while people in San Francisco, if you talk to them, are only interested in figuring out how to get you to buy something. The curious thing about being wealthy in L.A. is that when you have a stupidly huge amount of money, there's no point in being stuck-up about it; even the wealthy in L.A. are oddly modest about their money and not particularly interested in trying to make themselves look better than other people, because there really isn't any point in doing so since so many other people have just as much money as them. In such a city, you might as well have some fun with your money, and L.A. is a city where pleasure is always shared, meaning it's never hard to find someone who'll bring you along on an adventure with them if you're willing to experience one.

I won't deny that L.A. has a gang problem, but this is not usually something which troubles everyday people, because most gang violence is gang-on-gang violence; random violence against innocent bystanders who are not in the gang scene is rare. It is true, too, that some parts of L.A. are sufficiently depressed and filled with crime that they should be avoided. If you end up living in L.A., it's good to know the parts of the city to keep away from, but this is true in most large cities. (Do you think San Francisco doesn't have its own slums?) As long as you stay out of the bad neighborhoods, L.A. is a reasonably safe city for its size. L.A. also has a bad reputation for the purely technical factors of air pollution and heavy traffic, and both of these stereotypes are completely true: air pollution in L.A. is relatively high because the city sits in a mountain basin which makes it difficult for the wind to disperse particulate matter in the air, and I did get tired of being in a city where I could spend an hour on the freeway and still not have driven through the city. To be fair, while L.A. traffic is terrible, I don't think it is materially worse than, say, Route 101 running through Silicon Valley, but okay, suppose that you don't want to live in a place with such traffic or pollution. No problem; you can go to San Diego, a wonderfully beautiful city with a very high quality of life and basically none of the urban problems that L.A. is saddled with. Or you can go to Orange County, or the Inland Empire, places not far from L.A. which share the same sort of easy-going, quality-not-quantity approach to living. These places have great weather, they're not too densely-populated, and they're not very expensive to live in. Compare this to the outlying regions of the San Francisco Bay Area, which are saturated with crime and poverty and still unreasonably expensive to live in.

In fact, Southern California embodies the American Dream perhaps better than any other place in the country. It is an economically prosperous region full of natural beauty and people who are happy to work together on big projects. More than any other place in America, it seems like a place where people can dream, where people's creativity is spurred on to ever greater heights. You might say that this is all a giant Hollywood illusion, that in fact this is the biggest "special effect" of all that tricks people into seeing someting that just isn't there, and to some extent, you're right: to be sure, thousands of people who go to Hollywood with dreams of being the next big star end up working as obscure porn actors for the rest of their careers, or worse yet, homeless and drug-addicted before dying young of an overdose or a drive-by shooting or something similar. To be sure, life in SoCal isn't always easy, especially if you don't have good connections with important people, and the whole sense of being able to realize your biggest dreams is, to some extent, a fantasy, an illusion which the region deliberately maintains in order to keep its worldwide mystique. Realistically speaking, I'm not sure that I would want to live in SoCal again, personally, because for all it has going for it, it's not really the kind of place for a guy like me, who doesn't like to go out much and dislikes the big-city lifestyle in general. But I must say that I had a certain sense of well-being when I lived in SoCal, a sense of deep happiness and of being at home which I never felt in any other place in America. Not everyone likes SoCal, and if you don't like it, that's fine; there are valid reasons not to like it as well, but I will always be grateful for having been able to live in such a magical and special place. I know that if I had to choose between living in SoCal, a place where people still know what is important in life, and living in NorCal, a place for hippie wannabes and miserable people who insist on living there because they think it's somehow the best place on Earth, the choice for me would be obvious.
Monday, January 9th, 2017
6:47 am
Why you?
I've been to a lot of job interviews in my life. I tend to get nervous about job interviews, because they usually inevitably end up asking questions which I don't have good answers to off the top of my head. One of the questions which I most struggle with in job interviews is the inevitable "Why you?" question which seems to come up quite often. In a job interview, you expect questions about your work history and what kind of work you're looking for; that is normal and understandable. There are often also questions about your personal style, such as whether you prefer to work alone or in a team, which also makes sense since particular job roles might favor particular working styles. But all too often, the job interview deteriorates into seemingly-pointless questions which are meant to test the candidate's response to thinking under pressure. There is a very interesting and informative book titled How Would You Move Mount Fuji? which is about these types of interview questions, the eponymous question in the title being an example of the sort of interview questions which technology companies like Microsoft and Google are somewhat notorious for. Even these questions usually have a certain logic to them, however, because they are often puzzles for which you can reason out a solution, and even if there is no concrete "correct" answer, you can often come up with a reasonable process for estimating an answer, which is precisely what the interviewer is looking for: how well you can estimate an answer when there is no hard information from Wikipedia or other sources available.

But then there's the superfluous and vaguely insulting "Why should we hire you?" question, which is typically worded something like "Tell us why you would be a good candidate for this position," or "Why should you be a successful candidate in this hiring process?" or some other prompt that asks you to tell them why they should hire you. Particularly since it usually follows a review of the candidate's work history and experience, this question makes no intuitive sense. It should be self-evident that if a person's work experience and skills give them the necessary background to do the job in question, then that answers the question. I usually try to gently answer the question with something to the effect of "Well, based on my experience and knowledge that we've talked about, I believe that I have the appropriate skills and understanding that you'd need for me to fill this position effectively," but again, this should be self-evident without it needing to be said. After we've already discussed what I know and what I can do and it's become apparent that I can do the job, what else should I do to demonstrate that I'm a fitting candidate? Shall I stand on my head and sing a Frank Sinatra song? It's not so much that the question itself is unreasonable as that it inevitably seems to come at the end of a conversation which has just answered this very question. The goal of the initial points of discussion was precisely for the interviewer to ascertain, and the candidate to demonstrate, that the candidate is appropriate for the job role. It's like taking a driving test, going through the process of operating a car correctly, and then after you've finished and parked the car, having the tester say: "Tell me why you should have a driver's license." That was the point of the test.

Besides seeming pointless, the "Why you?" question also often comes off as offensive and insulting, because it can be interpreted as the interviewer saying "I don't see the value in you." If you seem like a valuable person, the company would want to retain you as an employee, so for the company to ask "Why should we want you?" implies that you don't have apparent value as an employee. It helps, perhaps, to try and understand the real reason why this question gets asked: the problem is that because there are so many highly-qualified people in the world today, any company hiring for any position is going to get flooded with applications, and there will be many people whose work experience more than qualifies them for the job. When you're in a job interview, the point of the interview is often not to determine whether you're qualified for the job (the answer to this question in the interviewer's mind is usually "probably yes," because otherwise you wouldn't have been called in for an interview in the first place), but rather to try and pick one specific candidate out of the pool of people--usually dozens of them--whose experience and skills are a match to the job. The "Why you?" question isn't asking you to confirm that you're qualified, because that has usually already been established by that point; the question exists to give you a chance to show why you're special, why you might stand out in a crowded field of people. The sad truth is that since there are more job seekers than jobs, being qualified isn't enough. You have to somehow stand out in a way that makes you seem special enough that the people doing the hiring ultimately choose you.

This is the same problem which people face when they're trying to form personal relationships as well. A few years ago, I spent a fair amount of time on some dating websites, and while I didn't have much success in finding dates with them, I realize now that I learned a lot about human behavior from the experience of seeing how dating sites work and how people communicate through them. It's well known that women on dating sites are often inundated with messages from men who want to hook up with them, and so a very similar interpersonal dynamic is created to that of a job interview, in which the woman is the interviewer and the man is the applicant. (Obviously, I'm speaking of heterosexual relationships here. Being heterosexual myself and thus having no experience with homosexual relationships, I can't speak to how they work or how LGBT folks communicate with each other on dating sites.) Communication on dating websites often also boils down to the simple question of "Why you?" A woman on a dating site typically has dozens if not hundreds of guys who are more than eager to message her; if you're one of those guys, you might be a good-looking, intelligent, funny, and nice fellow, but that woman has a lot of other guys with those same qualities messaging her, and so she's going to be asking herself the question (even if she doesn't state this explicitly): Why you? Why should she take the time to speak with you when there are a bunch of other guys clamoring for her attention? You need to stand out in a crowded field.

The result is a dream scenario for self-centered braggarts who like to talk about their accomplishments. Even if it's not usually done so openly and obviously, most guys who contact women in such contexts are basically sending a subtle message to the effect of: "I'm special. I'm better than other guys, and you should give me your attention and affection because of the things which I'm telling you." I suppose that such people thrive in job interviews, since a job interview is basically the process of selling yourself, and people who love to boast about their accomplishments and good qualities have no problem doing that. The same is true on dating sites. I must confess that I find this whole scene rather distasteful, however. I am a normal human being. I am not defined by being smarter, more handsome, more hard-working, more polite, or more anything than anyone else, nor do I want to be. I have no desire to be "special" in some unique way that sets me apart from other people. I just want to have a normal job and live a normal life like a normal, respectable human being, and there is something very wrong with a world in which this is not possible, a world in which people who try to do this are cast aside as not being remarkable enough while the people who make it their business to inform everyone of how great they are are lifted up as Wunderkinder when they really should be taught a lesson in just how ordinary and unremarkable they are. I have no desire and feel no need to prove myself to anyone; I am who and what I am, and that is all anyone can be. I am a human being like anyone else, and I desire nothing more than to be a good citizen, a healthy and productive member of human society. What a shame to live in a world where there is no place for such people anymore.
Friday, January 6th, 2017
3:27 pm
I guess I'm in the German club now
In the years before I had ever been to Europe, I sometimes met people who spoke very enthusiastically of Germany. This happened to me several times, never from people who were from Germany or even ethnically German, but just people who had spent some time in Germany and found it such a great country that they couldn't stop themselves from speaking of it in gushing terms. As a person who self-identified as "American" at that time, it was hard for me to fathom what could be so great about Germany. I understood Germany's reputation for being efficient, clean, and well-ordered, and I certainly acknowledged these qualities as virtues, but it seemed (and still seems) to me that there must be much more that goes into a great country than just being orderly. I had always assumed that it was either some kind of latent form of racism that led these people to love Germany so much, a sort of closeted identifying with the popular image of Germans as Nazis, or else a pathological need for order that goes beyond what is reasonable, that same sort of demand for discipline which people who have been in the military sometimes retain and implement in their domestic lives even after they've left the military. Neither of these elements appealed to me, and so I always dismissed the passionate Germanophilia I occasionally witnessed as some sort of inexplicable, serendipitous synergy, an instance of individual people finding a particular place that happened to work for their personal style and set of interests but which wouldn't necessarily work for people who don't happen to be on that same wavelength, the way some people rave about finding their true home in San Francisco even though I always saw San Francisco as a boring town with nice ocean views but little else to recommend it.

Today, it's been about five years since I began acquainting myself with Germany, and looking back on my experiences and the things I've thought, felt, and written about Germany in these years, it seems I somehow got caught up in the enthusiasm. From tentative beginnings whereby I just happened to move to Berlin because it was geographically in the center of Europe and seemed like a good place to travel to other parts of Europe, I've developed an attachment to German culture and all things German which probably mirrors the same kind of enthusiasm I was once so bewildered by. I guess I'm in the German club now. How did this happen? Do I have any regrets?

Indeed, I do sometimes look back over my shoulder at the things I've written here about Germany in the past, and wonder if I've made a mistake. It's fine to like a country, but to esteem one country as better than others is dangerous. It was, after all, this very mindset which led to the military invasions and occupations which blemish Germany's history, and I have recognized, with some discomfort, how much some of my own writing seems to resemble nationalism, which I understand the dangers of. I try to avoid being extreme or unreasonable in anything. I try to back up any claims that I make with some kind of logic, not just pseudo-logical rationalizing but real concrete reasons. And yet it's clear to me that I've championed one country among Europe, one country out of a continent of around 50 countries. Have I made a mistake?

This question has long weighed somewhat heavily upon my mind, and it was for this very reason that I so doggedly pursued travel throughout the rest of Europe: not because I was looking for an alternative to the Germany which I'd so developed an attachment to, but rather to gain some perspective, to be able to see other countries in Europe first-hand without relying on other people's accounts or things I read on the Internet or from other resources. I wanted to see for myself whether I was actually wrong about Germany, whether I had just stupidly chosen it as the greatest European country because other people seemed to be doing so, or whether there was really something special in Germany for me. And now, after having been in every region of Europe (if not every single country--no, I haven't been so thorough as to scour the little island nations and micronations and the minor countries at the very edges of Europe), I ask myself again: have I changed my mind about Germany? Or does Germany really seem objectively better to me than every other European country?

First of all, allow me to say that I might pick Austria over Germany. Having lived in both countries, I honestly can't say which one I like better. They're not actually that different from each other (although I realize that many Germans and Austrians will vigorously protest this statement), so if we bring Austria into the mix, then it's kind of a toss-up regarding which country I'd rather live in. But if I allow myself this controversial assumption that Germany and Austria are more or less similar, then I can fairly confidently say with a mixture of both regret and vindication that yes, I still think that Germany (or Austria) is far and away the best country in Europe. I say this with regret because it remains a nationalist, biased, bigoted thing to say, and because I know it will offend and put off people whose loyalties remain with other countries; I say this with vindication because I feel that the things I believed about Germany (and Austria) years ago seem to have been confirmed today, namely that Germany (and Austria) really is a country special in Europe, better than the other countries in most ways that matter.

You might ask me, of course, just what these ways are, specifically. You would ask with justification, for any claim to the effect of "Country X is my personal choice for the best country" should probably have some concrete reasons attached to it. Given my own history of writing within this little blog of mine, however, I do not feel any great need to enumerate the various reasons why I esteem Germany (and Austria) as better than other European countries, because I have already given several concrete reasons for this conclusion before, in many blog posts I have written in the past. If I could summarize the things that make Germany (and Austria) better than other European countries, it might be something similar to: "Yes, Germany (and Austria) is clean, efficient, and well-organized. But it's also so much more than that. If it were really only these things, then it would have no more appeal than living in a highly automated factory. People who think that Germany is only Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, and Mercedes might think that the entire country of Germany basically is just one huge factory, but having seen Germany, I see now that Germany is much more than just a car factory. Art is important to Germans. Poetry and tasteful music are important to Germans. Careful, rational, and logical thought is important to Germans, not only in matters of business, but also in one's personal life. Perhaps most of all, quality is important to Germans: for the Germans, it is important that all things--not only cars or similar manufactured goods, but also hand-crafted products, works of art, and even human beings themselves--attain the highest quality they can possibly reach, built out of the best ingredients and structured with the greatest care and workmanship."

You might not believe me. You might say that this is just me seeing Germany (and Austria) through rose-colored glasses, idealizing a country which is really not much different from any other country. You might be right, of course; a person who is unreasonably biased is often not really capable of perceiving their own unreasonable bias. I do admit that I am biased, but I believe that I am reasonably so, that I have real and valid reasons for the things I think and believe. But I'm willing to admit that I could be wrong.

And of course, this isn't to say that Germany (or Austria) gets everything right. There are many things wrong with Germany (and Austria). But identifying with a country is sort of like marrying a person. There is no perfect country, just as there is no perfect person. This means that you have to take the good with the bad, have to accept the flaws along with the virtues. It's also not always about choosing the one who's most perfect, most flawless--sometimes it's just about choosing the one you feel the most comfortable with, the most personally connected with. And while you don't have to get married, you do have to live in a country: since there is no land left on Earth which is not claimed by some nation-state (barring some tiny pieces of unclaimed or disputed territory which is not reasonably fit for human habitation), you have to live under the laws and society and structure of some country. People can sensibly choose not to get married if they don't meet anyone who is right for them, but you have to live somewhere, and since every piece of land on Earth is part of some country, you do need to pick the one which you're right for, and which is right for you.

Of course, not everyone perceives Germany the same way I do. Sadly, even the people who come to Germany as foreign migrants don't always see Germany the way I do; far too many of these people do not care about German culture, tidiness, or quality, but only come to Germany because of money: they see Germany as a wealthy country, a place where they can make more money than other European countries. This is why so many people are moving to Germany now--it's not a matter of love of fine art or diligence or quality or anything else like that, but simply the attraction to more money. I find this a great shame, because the presence of these people is corrupting Germany, distorting a land which was once relatively pure and honest and turning it into a haven of greedy thieves whose only desire is to chase whatever opportunity will net them the most money.

Perhaps even more outrageous than this is the complaints these people sometimes make of Germany. More times than I can count, I have read testimonies from foreign immigrants living in Germany (or, on some occasions, heard them first-hand in discussions I have had with such immigrants) to the effect of: "I like living in Germany because I can make a good living here, but I really dislike how uptight and strict Germans are. On vacation, I love to travel to my home country because there I can relax and feel at home among my country's tasty food and great dancing." I am not making this up or exaggerating these words at all; I really have seen or heard such opinions expressed more times than I can count, and it makes me very angry, because it's clear that these people have no love of Germany--in fact, they are actually repelled by the national character of Germany--but they remain here to take advantage of the local economy. It would be better for Germany if the economy were weaker, if the country were poorer overall, because then people would not come to Germany only for selfish reasons relating to money, but it would be difficult for Germany to reach this state, since it is precisely because of the relatively diligent and well-organized nature of Germany that the country is comparatively wealthy; it could not become poorer without losing some of the qualities that make it such a great country.

Nonetheless, I am infuriated whenever I see people who have moved to Germany but complain about how "strict" Germans are and how much more "fun" people could be having in other countries. If you have the choice between a country which values doing things as well as possible, with the highest possible quality and to the highest possible standards and precision, versus a country which approaches everything with a lackadaisical "good enough" attitude... if you could choose between a country which values purity, honesty, modesty, thrift, industry, diligence, prudence, and balance, and a country which is known for "great dancing," would you pick the former or the latter? Not only does the choice seem obvious to me, I am actually embarrassed to think that anyone would choose otherwise. Are there really people who hunger so strongly for "great dancing" that they would sacrifice all human virtue to live in a place where they can party non-stop and dance as much as they want? Are there really people who are so obsessed with "style" and "fashion" that they would give up everything that makes a good society for the sake of external appearances, something people are usually supposed to learn to look beyond by the time they reach adulthood? Are there in fact whole countries which are defined by having "good style," and which believe that this can excuse any amount of waste or ignorance? How does such a country even function? How can a society of people maintain their existence if all they are doing is dancing and admiring how fancy they are? Little wonder that such countries are struggling economically! And then people from these countries have the gall to go to Germany just to make money, then moan and complain that there isn't enough dancing going on in Germany, that Germans aren't fashionable enough, that German food is too bland. It makes me so angry that I wish to express my sentiments against these people with physical violence.

Those who have not travelled through Europe extensively might reasonably say: surely there must be other countries besides Germany which have economic prosperity. Surely Germany can't be the only country in all of Europe which is doing all right for itself. Before I came to Europe, I would have thought something similar. The thing is, there really isn't any other country which comes close to Germany in terms of sheer development, the sheer level of culture on display in even small towns, and the general propensity toward thoughtful contemplation rather than orgiastic festivities. The UK is the only other country in the EU which stands out in this regard (and as we all know, it won't be in the EU for much longer). Other European countries which are often seen as powerful--mostly France, Italy, and Spain--are actually fairly weak at this moment, their economies faltering and their national culture largely obsessed with a past which now exists only as historical records. As for the other side of the continent, well, Eastern Europe is quite a patchwork of different countries and cultures, but for the most part, Eastern Europe is still having difficulty getting caught up. Russia is an exception here, having made great strides since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but aside from that one country which was big enough to recover and retain a position of economic and cultural strength, most of Eastern Europe is still faltering both economically and culturally. Many Eastern European countries lack a strong sense of self-identity even today, and have resorted to the familiar, sad pattern of trying to imitate Western countries and modelling themselves after the American/Western European blueprint, inevitably resulting in a second-class knockoff which is neither original nor as good as the thing it's imitating.

To be sure, I had some nice experiences travelling around Europe. There are many nice places to see, things to do, and people to meet all across Europe. Some of them are really wonderful. But when I take each European country as a whole, there are not many countries that I would want to live in. Putting aside economics and finances for a moment, just focusing on matters of art and culture, there are actually not many European countries which I would put ahead of the United States in terms of cultural output. You know that stereotype that European countries are more cultured than America? This might be true for the "holy trinity" of European culture, namely England, France, and Germany, but outside of these countries, most European countries actually lag behind America when it comes to music, movies, visual art, and even "fine art" or "high arts" like literature, philosophy, and refined music. I came to Europe from the United States, and I certainly didn't do so to move to a country which has less culture.

So I live in Germany. Some people will see me as a bigot, an asshole, and/or a brazen opportunist. Perhaps I am some or all of these things. But I can't think of any other country I'd rather live in right now... and my reasons for that have nothing to do with money or economics. Perhaps my sentiments on this matter will change in the future. Who knows? I certainly never expected to like Germany before I actually physically came here, so I'm willing to accept that perhaps I will be surprised by something else in the future, but for the time being, I can only quote a famous German and conclude: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise."
Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
8:48 pm
The rise of the big American novel
Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, 2015's Purity, is a pretty big book--specifically, it's 500-and-some pages, like Franzen's other novels. It's also a novel that seems a bit self-referential, coming after the phenomenal success of Franzen's previous effort, 2010's Freedom, which garnered praise from just about everyone who touched that book and earned Franzen the (admittedly somewhat dubious) title of "Great American Novelist." Obviously it would be difficult to top such a success, and Franzen seems awkwardly conscious of this position in Purity, as the book contains a character who was once a highly-praised novelist but who has since passed his peak and is unable to reproduce the great writing he was once admired for. With regard to this character, the novel makes a reference to the phenomenon of the big book (italics in the original), noting: "Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length."

Ignoring the evident phallic reference here (yes, obviously a male writer's ability to produce writing may be psychologically intertwined with his sense of masculinity and virility), it does seem to me that novels are longer these days, on average, than they used to be. Certainly American novels, at least; yes, there were sprawling epics like Moby-Dick back in the day, but most classic American novels are relatively compact, and once upon a time, this seems to have been a defining feature of great American literature. Hemingway became known for his terse, taciturn writing style in which it was often the case that a story was told more by what was not written, and this became a style much imitated by his contemporaries and successors.

Today, all of this has changed. It seems to me that this is at least partly due to the phenomenon of the fantasy/sci-fi novel, in which it's easy to produce absurdly long tales since anything can happen in a fantasy world. With the more recent installments of the Harry Potter series and the A Song of Ice and Fire books bloating to ridiculous proportions, novels pushing 1,000 pages seem to be becoming the norm rather than the exception. There's a sense that if you only write a couple of hundred pages, as was done in previous generations, then you haven't really written a complete book. Perhaps this relates to the modern commercial mindset's conception of a book as a product: a book is not seen as simply a vehicle for good ideas or good writing, but rather as a commodity to sell, and the bigger the book, the more market value it can be seen as carrying. I hope it's obvious that this is a pretty stupid idea, but it is still an idea that people will probably think of, at least subconsciously, if they see a physically smaller book: "Why would I buy such a small thing when I can have something much bigger for nearly the same price?"

I wonder if this also has to do with the simple fact that most of the world's ideas have already been somehow encapsulated into a story, and so writers need to do more than just tell a story about some idea. If you look at classic American novels, they're usually about something, some driving theme: The Grapes of Wrath was about poverty. The Scarlet Letter was about crime and punishment in a small town. Uncle Tom's Cabin was about race relations and slavery. But these are all subjects which have been more than adequately covered in the media over the years. Today in particular, with Wikipedia and other non-fictional media about every subject you could think of just a few finger-taps away on the Internet, a novel can no longer afford to just be topical, just be a book that happens to be about some issue that is current at the moment; it has to add something more than what you'd find out from doing a search online for a few hours. How can a book stand out in our media-saturated environment without going for ridiculous maximalism, putting everything and the kitchen sink in its sprawling, multithreaded plot lines?

The problem with doing this is that it leads to a fairly distorted view of human nature. For years, I've made the case that concerns about story characters not being "multidimensional" enough are misleading. Many literary critics complain when a character in a story is too predictable, when one character continually exhibits a specific trait, but the thing is, that's actually what people are like. If a person has a particular personality on one given day, chances are that they will have the same personality the next day, and the next day, and the day after that, too. Yes, of course people can change moods or behaviors from one day to the next, and people have complex psychologies which can often mask their real reasons for doing things even to themselves, but I worry that people who learn about the world from reading books will get a wrong impression about the world from reading these huge, fictionalized narratives. Remember that classic song line "A kiss is just a kiss"? The point is that sometimes a person's action stands on its own, and there isn't some deeper motive or story behind it. From reading Franzen's novel Purity, you might get the impression that the only reasons people ever have sex are because they have daddy issues, or they feel guilty because of something they did in their past, or they're using sex as a way to get something they want, or they feel obliged to do so because of some sense of duty. Actually, in the real world, most of the time when people have sex, they do so just because they feel plain old sexual desire, and there's no deeper meaning or significance to it than that.

The problem with that, of course, is that it doesn't make a very good story. "Two people felt aroused, and so they had sex. The End." What a great story! It would certainly be a more realistic story, and once upon a time, "literary realism" was a big thing, but our deeper inspection of our world has led us to reveal that the real world just isn't as interesting as we'd like to imagine it is. If you could peek behind the curtains or the doors of people's private lives, you wouldn't find an endlessly intricate history of secrets, lies, betrayals, or other drama; you'd find a huge mass of people who lead thoroughly boring lives, going to work each day, coming home to watch television, and then going to sleep to repeat this cycle. If a writer is to write a story, he or she needs to seize on some kind of element of drama, something that would actually make a compelling story, and since this element is often lacking in everyday life, it has to be invented or contrived, which results in literature that presents a very distorted view of reality, even when it seems "real" or "relatable" to readers.

I'm not sure what can be done about this other than to reduce the role of fiction in literature. As I think about my own personal development and how I've come to see the world, I realize that a lot of the false ideas which I carried (and to some extent, still carry) in my head were acquired from reading books and making the false assumption that real life had something to do with what I read about fictional characters. Fiction is a useful vehicle for writing, but I generally find that non-fiction reading and writing is much more useful and enlightening than the contrived, faux-realistic stories that we are surrounded with. I'm certainly not suggesting that we eliminate fictional writing--just that we consider it as what it is, namely one writer's efforts to impress their own individual worldview and efforts at telling a story into text, with the associated values and assumptions that such efforts will necessarily contain as part and parcel of the overall work.

A big book needs to create and maintain a huge fictional world of plot threads and in-universe attributes in order for the work to be internally consistent, and in our media-saturated world, these fictional subplots and facts often end up supplanting our real-world truisms for the sake of entertainment. That becomes a problem when these fictions start to shape how we see reality and how we think about human relationships. It's one thing to tell a story, but something else entirely to let the story replace reality. As this process continues, I can't help but wonder if a "page war" will develop in which stories swell to ever bigger sizes as books continue to compete against each other as products to be sold by weight, or if the rise of the big American novel actually marks the beginning of the end of the novel as a medium.
Monday, January 2nd, 2017
6:56 am
The true face of America
For years, I wondered if I had lost something from my life by being born in the time and place I was born in. I've written countless times before about how I grew up through the 1980s and 1990s at a time when computer technology grew at an explosive and constant rate, only to turn 18 about a week before the year 2000 hit and yanked the rug out from everyone, leaving me to spend many years of my life re-examining who I was and what I wanted from my life at a time when the life goal which had been so obvious for me--the pursuit of a career in the computer industry--vanished as the computer industry became a thing of the past. It seemed clear to me that I had been born in the wrong time in history, causing me to become an adult at a time when the world's most powerful country no longer made its own things, but instead forced wage slaves in foreign lands to produce most of its goods in sweatshop conditions at wages that were below survival levels. Had I been born 5 to 10 years earlier, I could have become an adult and started entering the workforce at a time when computers were still the hottest thing around. Blaming everything on my date of birth wasn't a solution, though: not every person in history can have the good fortune to be born 18 years before an economic boom so that they can take advantage of it just as they are reaching adulthood. Time must move on, and with this movement comes the question of just what the other people are supposed to do, people like me who weren't around at the right time to catch an economic wave. You can't control when you were born, but you have some influence over your geographic location, which led me to began asking myself: could the problem be not only that I was in the wrong time, but also the wrong place?

When I was younger, the country for me seemed as obvious as my choice of career: of course I should live in the United States. Although I spent most of my childhood growing up in Canada, it was obvious that the computer industry was orders of magnitude larger and more diverse in the United States. Although I may have been raised to value a "Canadian" identity, I grew up to realize that this idea was nothing more than empty nationalistic propaganda with no substance to it, and that when I compared the two countries to each other, Canada was nowhere even close to touching the social, cultural, and economic possibilities that Americans had open to them. It wasn't just about the money for me: if there had been something else in Canada to hold me there, I might have remained there. But there wasn't. When I moved to the United States, I considered myself an American through and through: a person who identified with that land about as much as a person could identify with any country.

I'm not sure exactly when this idea began to shift. Already around the year 2005 or so, I started seeing the gaps in the American way of thinking, the problems created by the short-sighted pursuit of quick money which defines not only the American economic mentality, but even the American social and cultural mentality. I acknowledged these problems and recognized them as something deeply rooted in American history and the American mindset, but I assumed that I just had to accept them, had to live with them as part of the framework of the country which I had made my home. You've got to take the good with the bad, after all; there is no perfect country.

But things just kept getting worse. The situation wasn't improving; at best, it remained stable, but there was no path forward anymore. When the global financial crisis starting to hit around 2007 and 2008, I realized that what everyone had assumed was a temporary rough period was actually an ongoing systemic cycle, a pattern of deterioration caused by a fundamentally unbalanced system that had no grounding. As the smoke from the crisis settled but the promised "recovery" brought a return to GDP growth but no perceptible improvement in the lives of middle-class Americans, I finally realized the horrible truth which I had been blind to because of the period I grew up in: what I was seeing was not a pause before a return to the good times, not even a "new normal," but in fact the old normal which I had never seen before. I had been promised that we had entered a difficult period, like the recessions of the late 20th century, which we would have to endure before a return to the good times. Actually, the opposite was true: the 1980s and the 1990s were a good time which some people were fortunate enough to experience before a return to the usual norm which had been visible in the first half of the 20th century.

Think back to the history of the United states around the late 19th century and early 20th century, before the Great Depression. Even then, even before that historical economic event which defined much of the 1930s, the United States was a country deeply divided between the financial elite and the oppressed working classes who lived in abject poverty and struggled to find even the most meagre work. A bit of research will tell you that this was not a brief "down period," this was (and is) in fact the default modus operandi of the United States. This pattern was interrupted by World War II because of the enormous surge of industrial investment and output that went into winning that war, and after Europe was destroyed and a huge wave of European refugees and migrants came to the United States, this allowed the United States an unprecedented position which it was able to take advantage of for decades while Europe rebuilt itself, but that kind of growth can't continue forever. As has been so commonly observed regarding the model of economic capitalism, a model which inherently depends on growth will eventually collapse, because in a finite world, nothing can continue growing forever. It was only a matter of time before that bubble burst.

Now that we see America with the benefit of the perspective afforded by time, we see the true face of America. Now it becomes clear that the second half of the 20th century was not the promise of a bright future, but rather a historical aberration brought about by the sheer destruction of history's largest war. People born in my generation--the Millennials--grew up with the wonders of computers and assumed that this was an industry which could sustain this great economic machine indefinitely into the future. People born in the previous generation--Generation X--had similar ideas about aerospace development in the wake of the great Space Race. People born in the generation before that--the Baby Boomers--grew up in a time of unprecedented American prosperity owing to the aftermath of the war. And people born in the generation before that--the so-called Silent Generation--are mostly gone now, and the few remnants are too invisible to offer us the words of caution which they might have been able to offer.

Now more than ever, the world sees clearly that America is not a boundless wellspring of prosperity and liberty, but rather the senseless exploitation of natural resources which had once existed in abundance but were then squandered. Now more than ever, the whole world sees how ridiculous and short-sighted the American mentality and American culture are, a simple-minded celebration of near-term economic prosperity won through crass marketing and the relentless desire to sell any product or service which can have a price tag slapped on it, with commercial jingles and thoughtlessly insipid television sitcoms defining the nation's cultural expression. Now more clearly than ever before, we can see how empty and meaningless the once-popular slogans of Americana are, words like "democracy" (do you really think American government is "government for the people, by the people"?) and "freedom" (the freedom to do what, exactly?), "giving everyone a chance" (a chance to do what, exactly? To work 60 hours a week until they die?), or "leaving other people alone and just minding your own business" (what's the point of a human society, then?) while other countries are forming national communities that build themselves on more than just money and consumerism, something more meaningful than GDP growth and amassing as many physical goods as possible.

I was born at the wrong time to ride the wave of the computer industry. I wanted to be a Steve Wozniak, a Vint Cerf, or a Chuck Peddle. But I was born too late for any of that. For years, I lamented my generation, my life's circumstances, and indeed, my life itself. Now I see that the problem was not the when (the date I was born), but also the where (the place I was born), and quite especially the what (the ideas I grew up with and continued to hold in my head). I missed one important historical revolution, but I have the privilege of being part of a generation that is witnessing historical events perhaps even more important in their significance: we are watching a world which is seeing, in very dramatic terms, the limits of capitalism and how urgently people need a different mentality to guide them into the future as the mechanisms of globalized capitalism collapse in their inability to perform or to bring people what they need. This already began in the 1930s, but that process was interrupted by World War II. This time around, the world can't afford another war on that scale, because everyone knows that the weapons we have now are too dangerous to release on that scale. The businesspeople who wanted to restructure global culture to be all about money are backed into a corner with nowhere to go, and there is no path forward without a significant restructuring of everything, a reworking of all the political and economic systems which have served us so poorly for most of the past 200 years.

The mask has fallen off, and a dying beast lies thrashing about under the world's watchful gaze. The past is known to us now, and with the benefit of distance, we see it all the more clearly. What remains murky is, of course, the future. I'd like to imagine that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and build something better from its ashes, but I suspect that human beings, as they always do, will focus too fanatically on one single idea, identifying a single limited point as the cause of all their problems and building a whole system for the purpose of avoiding that one problem while ignoring the other problems which slowly and insidiously creep into their society. That's not just an American problem, though... that's a problem with human nature itself. Indeed, this already happened when people tried to buck capitalism the first time: the wave of popular communism which swept much of the United States in the mid-20th century was largely a reaction to the Great Depression, but this movement failed partly because communism became too fixated on demonizing capitalism, so busy with denigrating Western economics that it neglected the important process of examining its own internal failings and how it could effectively address them. Every historical revolution has been built on that same pattern: a lack of balance, a too-specific focus on one idea. We have no reason to suspect that humanity won't repeat that same stupid mistake this time around.
Saturday, December 31st, 2016
10:27 pm
10:24 pm
The lost travelogue: Vienna and Budapest, Parts 1 to 3
About 5 years ago, in December of 2011, I took a short vacation to Vienna, the capital of Austria, and Budapest, the capital of Hungary. At the time, I wrote a travelogue intended for my LiveJournal blog, similar to other travelogues I have written and posted in the past. I ended up not posting it because I expressed some very negative sentiments about Budapest, and since I had only been in Budapest for one evening, I felt that I had not really been fair to that city, that it would be remiss for me to wholesale denigrate a city I had only spent a few hours in. I could have posted just the part about Vienna, but for some reason the blog felt incomplete if I omitted a part which occurred right in the middle of the trip, since I went to Budapest from Vienna and returned to Vienna after being in Budapest. So I simply left the travelogue alone, mostly-finished but never publicized.

Today, I have spent more time in both cities. I actually lived in Vienna for about a year and a half, in a period extending from early 2014 to mid-2015, and in this past month of December 2016, I took a longer vacation through the Balkans, the last region of Europe which I had not yet been to, including a longer stay in Budapest in which I had a chance to finally see more of the city, including seeing it properly during the daytime. Now, having had the opportunity to see both cities more clearly, I no longer feel that I am being neglectful in posting my then-half-formed opinions which I developed in late 2011. Having now seen most of Europe, I do not feel uninformed in stating opinions which have only solidified over time: Vienna is the greatest city in the world, and Hungary, although not usually considered a Balkan country, is in fact a Balkan country, the gateway to the Balkans, and everything south and east of Hungary's border with Austria is basically a place you have no reason to ever visit.

This does not mean that the Balkans are a bad place. No, that's not quite what I mean with this; what I mean is that the Balkans are the last place in Europe which has not opened up to globalized multiculturalism. The Balkans are multicultural, but they are so because of historical reasons, not because of modern influences: the Balkans are multicultural because of the pre-modern blending of people from many different groups, including Slavs, Turks, Greeks, Dacians, Thracians, and several others. It is because each of these groups has been so prevalent in the region for so long that the Balkan Peninsula has split up into several fiercely-defended fragments. Each ethnicity guards its land vehemently and violently, but this is not a problem most of the time, which is to say that this does not lead to war as long as each group remains firmly within its own borders and does not try to encroach on anyone else's borders.

What this also means, however, is that the Balkan nations are not especially welcoming of outsiders, especially outsiders who intend to take up residence in the Balkans. Tourists are usually seen as okay because they bring money with them, but because each Balkan nation very specifically wants to be monocultural and ethnically homogenous, you have very little reason to go to any such country unless you actually identify with that country's ethnic or cultural identity. And the Balkans are a place where there is very little real culture: other than obvious things like ethnicity, language, and some aesthetic style differences in terms of architecture, dance, food, and so on (the things which I have repeatedly emphasized as explicitly being not culture), the various Balkan countries hardly distinguish themselves from each other, and the Balkans are a place where people lack intellectual curiosity, but rather live like animals, living from one day to the next for whatever they can get out of it but hardly being artistic, cultural, or philosophical in the way that other European regions sometimes are. Even Bucharest's much-celebrated "Cărturești Carusel" bookstore--a project meant to revive literary culture in the Balkans' largest city--is crap, a sprawling tangle of ornate architecture which is made to look stylish but actually pushes the books off to the side in order to hide how few books there really are while putting impulse-buy trinkets front and center, resulting in a "bookstore" which is designed to fetishize the pseudo-intellectual act of going to a bookstore while minimizing how much the customers need to actually interact with the books in order to consummate this masturbatory act of self-congratulation.

If you really identify with one specific Balkan country (which is difficult to do unless you coincidentally happen to be of that country's ethnic origin) and want to become a part of their community, then you can go there and live like the locals do, since that is what a community is for: for people who identify with that community to be a part of. Otherwise, again, you have very little reason to go to any country on the Balkan peninsula. That goes for Greece as well, which I mention because Greece is often seen as somehow an exception, perceived by the West as a Western, non-Balkan country, even though this perception is based on historical notions of Greece which are more than 2,000 years out of date. And yes, that goes for Hungary too, which is a Balkan country in every possible way. Forget about statistics showing that Hungary is a highly-developed country; one trip to Budapest and you will immediately see that this is not true. It is screamingly obvious, not only in the complete lack of infrastructure development (and I don't mean large-scale industrial infrastructure, but even basic domestic infrastructure, such as transport and electrical networks), but also in the massive numbers of Hungarians sleeping on the street (these people are not refugees or immigrants; they are Hungarian natives abandoned by their own country), the sheer ubiquitous filth and decay of the city (which is bad even by Balkan and Eastern European standards), and the country's utter inability to form any industry of its own, what little industry it has serving as nearshored branch offices of Western European and American corporations. This same pattern repeats itself all along the Balkan Peninsula.

I realize that may sound harsh, so let me clarify: I am not criticizing the Balkans for their poverty. A person born into poverty can hardly be blamed for their condition, and in any case, there is no shame in being poor. I write these things not to condemn the Balkan countries or their people for failing to reach the same economic level as Western Europe, for indeed, I have seen countries which were economically disadvantaged and yet which managed to attain a high quality of life for their people and which I enjoyed visiting. The latter is the key here, then: the problem with the Balkans is not specifically that they are poor, but rather that their people suffer from that poverty and lack a high quality of life because of lack of development. The artistic and intellectual culture in the Balkans is also not developed: as I mentioned, there is a lack of culture in the Balkans, a paucity of fine arts which leaves the whole area feeling ragged and coarse. As one travels from town to town in the Balkans, there is not a sense of moving between places which are well-defined in terms of a distinct local character or culture, but rather of moving through an unchanging mass of sameness, of the repeating patterns of subsistence and decay. I write this not to condemn the Balkans, but rather to caution others who might be spared the time and unpleasantness of travelling, as I did, through a region looking for something that wasn't there. I write this to take the opportunity to warn people against expending a great deal of resources and effort into searching for a deep and hidden culture which simply isn't there. This doesn't mean that the Balkans have no culture, of course; certainly, they have a unique culture all their own, but it is a more rustic culture, a less refined and more coarse culture, than what people usually associate with European culture: Balkan culture is quite short on philosophy and literature, being more focused on music (typically folk or folk-derived music) and visual arts. To be sure, the classical Balkan image of a group of friends getting drunk and dancing while playing an accordion is still a form of culture, but again, it's not really what most people are looking for when they go out looking for culture in the world.

On that note... Coming back to what I'd written about Austria and Hungary, I've taken the liberty of finally publishing my 5-year-old travelogue, but I suppose I might as well warn anyone intending to read it that I am obviously not the most unbiased source. My conclusions have already been stated above, and if you just want to know how the story ends, you don't need to read any further. It's also not really much of a travelogue; it doesn't have a lot of interesting insights or experiences in it, but if you do want to see more details about that week I spent in Austria and Hungary in late 2011, then, my dear readers, I present to you my lost travelogue below.

I put the travelogue behind an lj-cut for the sake of brevityCollapse )
Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
9:29 pm
The Mixed Messenger
There are a lot of people who, when asked a question, tend to avoid giving a clear answer or give answers that only lead to more questions. Sometimes it seems like they do this on purpose, deliberately giving non-answers for the purpose of misleading or confusing other people. Sometimes this can be the case, of course, but keep in mind that often when people seem unwilling to answer a question clearly, it's not because they don't want to communicate, but because they don't know the answer. Remember that when you talk to someone who regularly avoids answering your questions head-on, this might not be a sign of dishonesty or hiding something, but rather of uncertainty on their own part. Remember that when you ask someone a question and they're exceedingly hesitant or reticent about giving an answer, it might be because they don't know the answer themselves. You might expect people to just say "I don't know," but many people are unwilling to give that answer for a variety of reasons, and more to the point, many people who don't know the answer don't realize that they don't know the answer, because they're so used to habitually giving those non-answers to themselves that they give the same answers to anyone who asks and then consider this to be honesty, because it's what they tell themselves as well.
Sunday, December 25th, 2016
11:19 pm
The Gini Singularity
Economic inequality is a major theme in the media these days, and rightly so. I suppose it's always been a major theme, even before recorded history; it just wasn't called "inequality" until quite recently. The ways in which people think about economic inequality and possible solutions for it are often not productive, however. Many people jump to the most simplistic solution of implementing laws or other systems to force people with more money to distribute their money to people with less money, which seems "fair" in a purely numerical sense but has many problems associated with it, not least that it can take money away from people who don't deserve to have it taken from them and award that money to people who don't deserve to receive it. Another idea which is often misunderstood and misused is that of the Gini coefficient, a number which attempts to mathematically represent the level of income inequality in a country. The calculation behind the Gini coefficient is not intuitive for people who are not especially mathematically-minded, and so the Gini coefficient is sometimes explained by stating that in a country with absolute income equality (where every single person receives precisely the same income), the Gini coefficient is zero, while in a country where one single person has all the income and everyone else has zero, the Gini coefficient is one. In practice, since neither of these scenarios is realistically possible for any country, the Gini coefficient for each country in the world is a number somewhere between zero and one. Theoretically speaking, then, the closer the Gini coefficient is to zero, the more economically equal the country is, and the closer the number is to one, the more economically unequal the country is.

Like many other statistics in economics, the Gini coefficient is an interesting idea which isn't very useful if you take it as an absolute. It's pretty easy to find lists of all the world's countries and their corresponding Gini numbers (for example, here on Wikipedia, or here from the CIA's World Factbook), and a casual glance at such lists should make it pretty clear that something's wrong. The curious can feel free to take a look through the lists; if you do, try to compare a few countries with similar Gini numbers, and you'll quickly realize that even if those countries have the same Gini coefficient, they are clearly not similar in terms of their income equality or the overall level of economic opportunities which people in those countries have. That's one of many problems with Gini measurements: a country's people exist at many different economic levels, and to get a clear picture of where the people in that country exist within different economic brackets, you need to see a list of how many people exist within each income bracket. To encode all that information into a single number for the entire country erases much of this critical information, resulting in a figure which is misleading at best. Usually when we think of an economically "equal" country, we imagine a country where most people are middle-class, able to live reasonably without having too much or too little money, meaning that the highest and lowest economic classes should have relatively few people in them. However, if you take such a country and remove some of its middle class, you can still retain the same Gini coefficient for that country if you make appropriate changes at the top and bottom of the income spectrum. For those who want to play around with Gini numbers to see what results you get based on different input, there are several websites with forms which calculate Gini coefficients for you automatically, including here and here. A few minutes experimenting with putting different numbers into these calculators should make the failings of Gini calculations pretty clear. For example, you can often make the Gini figure go down by adding a few extremely wealthy people to a country, creating the appearance of a more "equal" country based on this calculation even though the people who were previously in the calculation remain unchanged.

The problem with income inequality, as I've observed in the past, is that it makes things (including basic needs of life) too expensive for some people. The "invisible hand" of the marketplace gradually adjusts prices to attain maximum sales based on what people can afford and what they're willing to buy, but this process also means that people with less money are eventually priced out of buying housing or food if they live in a place where many people have significantly more money. This is why people who live in countries where wages are low are not necessarily "poor" if most people have a similar level of wages, since prices will have to be lower to meet local buying power: if everybody makes approximately the same amount of money, then stores will have to adjust their prices by making those prices lower, or else nobody will be able to buy anything. Where you run into trouble is if there is a significant population of higher-income people, since stores will begin catering to that clientele and raising their prices to take advantage of wealthier customers, pricing lower-income shoppers out of the market. This is part of why much of the modern world's investment in developing countries is paradoxically creating more poor people even as it creates more wealthy people: because not everyone benefits from the economic investment created by modern globalization, countries which formerly contained mostly low-wage people are now experiencing a surge of higher-income people, causing local prices to rise, which is making it difficult for people who are not caught up in that rising wave of foreign investment, including people who formerly had a decent quality of life before foreign money started coming in and starting big businesses.

A potentially interesting thought experiment, then, is to imagine the scenario with a Gini coefficient of one. Recall that I mentioned that this can only happen if one single person has literally all the income in the country, and every other person has exactly zero. (Gini values of higher than one are theoretically possible if some people are recorded as having negative income, but for this discussion, let's go with the original assumption that a Gini coefficient of one is the highest value.) With such a maximally-unequal national economy, are people as poor and economically disadvantaged as they can possibly be? Actually no, since the vast majority of people are living without money. With literally zero money, assuming that people are still surviving, it becomes clear that people have transitioned to a non-market lifestyle and are either trading according to the old-fashioned barter system (in which two people might, for example, agree to trade a sack of wheat for two goats) or have otherwise found a way to be self-sufficient without depending on money to supply their means of living. Indeed, this picture is fairly close to reality in many countries in Africa, where Gini rates tend to be the highest in the world; this does not necessarily mean that African countries are economically "unequal" in the way that we think about this concept in the West so much as that they contain significant populations who are simply living without money, surviving through subsistence farming and not taking part in economic activities. This results in a relatively high Gini factor since many people in the country are living on literally zero money, and yet those people are not poor or suffering due to their lack of money, because money doesn't mean much to them.

In a country with a Gini coefficient of absolutely one, no one is poor, because there is no money in circulation among the populace. For practical purposes, a country with a Gini coefficient of one is identical to a country with a Gini coefficient of zero, because people have the same amount of money; the one person somewhere who holds literally all the money does not impact the other people in any way, because that one person's money does not change hands and no one does anything to buy or sell anything using that money. My point here is that, paradoxical though it may seem, very high Gini values for a country are good, just like very low Gini values. As the Gini figure starts to approach one, you start to reach a Gini Singularity, a point where so much of the money is concentrated in the hands of such a small number of people that it starts to become irrelevant to the average person, the working person whose primary economic concerns are providing the means of living for themselves and their household. If the nation's money is held by a very small group of ultra-rich elites, this is not a problem for the lower classes, since stores cannot sell exclusively to that small group of wealthy elites; stores will still need to price their goods at levels that the average consumer can afford. As the Gini figure gets ever higher, the group of people who hold super-huge amounts of money becomes so small as to become irrelevant for the vast majority of the populace. Let the ultra-rich play with their expensive toys; they don't concern us very much.

This is why much of the thinking about "the 1%" versus "the 99%" is off base: during the so-called "Occupy protests" which started in 2011, there was a common assumption in much of the world that economically disadvantaged people were suffering because a tiny clique of ultra-rich elites were holding the vast majority of the world's money while "the 99%" were left to scrape together whatever meagre amounts of money they could find. Actually, this cannot be true: businesses which sell to end consumers could not afford to ignore 99% of their potential customer base. If the United States were really divided into a group of 99% of the populace who all had about the same amount of money, there would be no problem. The problem is not the ultra-wealthy, but rather the upper-middle-class, the considerably larger number of people who are not millionaires, but still making considerably more than the lower classes. In San Francisco, news stories regularly circulate about how wealthy people who work for Google or similar technology companies are buying up real estate and pricing long-time San Francisco natives out of the housing market. When you see this kind of thing happening, think about it: do you really think a multi-millionaire is going to buy an apartment in San Francisco's Mission District? The idea is absurd. The wealthy people snapping up apartments in these gentrifying areas are not millionaires, but rather people making salaries of something like $100,000 per year. That's nowhere near enough to put these people into "the 1%" but still many times more than what a person working minimum wage earns. That's the real problem there: not the tiny cluster of multi-millionaires we like to point fingers at, but rather the university-educated, office-working set who end up with significant pools of disposable income and are very much more than 1% of the populace. Some people dream of expanding that 1% figure, putting more money into the hands of more people, but time and experience have shown that this is actually the worst thing you can do for the lower classes: the more people have money, the worse off the people without money are. The only way you can benefit the people who most need help is by assisting the people at the bottom, not by putting more people at the top.

When you start to realize all this, it becomes clear that most of the developments which have taken place in the last few decades have actually created more economic inequality than ever before. Proponents of globalization like to point out how many new jobs and how much new development modern economics has created in regions which were previously underdeveloped, and it's true that many regions in parts of the world which have historically been economically depressed are now expanding in ways that they never experienced before, but the problem with this kind of development is that it doesn't benefit everyone--it only benefits the relatively small number of people who are able to catch a hold of that rising wave of development. These people are a small minority, but there are enough of them that they are significantly altering the shape of their local economies. If they were really a very tiny group of people, it wouldn't matter very much because they wouldn't be able to effect big changes, but because they are significant enough for their money mass to change the tide of local prices and capital flow, they change the lives of their neighbors just by living in the same neighborhoods. As economies reach a middle state, a state where many people have benefited from huge inflows of capital but many other people have not, they actually attain the worst of all possible states, a state in which the maximum number of people are excluded from taking part in their local economy. When it comes to local economies, people benefit most from extreme states: either a state in which everybody is equally poor, or a state in which the people who are not poor are so small as to be economically insignificant. Middle states, at least as measured by the Gini coefficient, hurt the little people.
Thursday, December 22nd, 2016
10:03 pm
Old English is still current in German
The recent xkcd strip which touches on the problem of English speakers saying "me" instead of "I" when the personal pronoun occurs after the verb got me thinking about how many language features which used to be standard in English are still standard in German. In general, German is a more conservative language than English, meaning that it still retains many historical characteristics which English has since lost. Common examples include the case system (which is built into German but today retained in English mostly only in pronouns, like the distinction between "I" and "me" or "he" and "him") and the distinction between singular and plural "you," which once existed in English with "thou" and "ye," respectively.

In general, the trend in modern language development is to simplify languages, reducing the number of grammatical forms which learners need to know and making the languages more "analytic," meaning reducing the number of ideas crammed into a single word and making each word stand on its own without having multiple concepts within the scope of a single word. This is as compared to "synthetic," "agglutinative," or "inflected" languages, which are all concepts relating to the tendency of a language to encode more than one meaning into a word. For example, the text on the Reichstag building which famously reads "Dem deutschen Volke" (to the German people) actually encodes two concepts into the word "Dem": this word is in the dative case, and so it actually means "to the," even though a German-English dictionary would simply translate this word as "the." English would separate this concept into two words, which is in line with its tendency to be a more analytic language; in fact, as of this writing, English is the most analytic of all the world's major languages. This is likely the result of the language's global reach and the efforts to make it more accessible to non-native speakers.

Not all development of English has simplified the language, however; some of the changes have rearranged the form of the language in peculiar ways. For example, a basic rule in German is that the verb in a sentence should appear in the second position of the sentence. This was once true in English as well: if you read Shakespeare or other works of pre-modern English, you will see questions like "What have you?" while such usage today is so archaic as to be incorrect, with modern English preferring to use "do" and then put the main verb on the end, resulting in the preceding sentence appearing as "What do you have?" even though the form which is now archaic for English would still be used in German: "Was hast du?" Indeed, non-native English speakers often characterize their confusion with the "do" format by asking questions like "What means that?" which, literally translated, would be a perfectly valid question in German but sounds incorrect in English today because the form is linguistically considered obsolete.

But coming back to the matter of saying "me" or "I," it used to be a general principle in English that if the speaker was the subject of the sentence, they should always say "I" instead of "me." This is because the subject of the sentence is rendered in the nominative case. A big giveaway that someone is the subject of the sentence, and thus should be spoken of using the nominative case, is when the verb is any form of the verb "be." Thus, for example, it is correct to say "The next person is I" rather than "The next person is me," because "is" is a conjugation of "be." German speakers would still render the sentence this way, because the case system is still so widely used in German that you have to make this distinction in order to speak the language properly: you have to recognize who or what is the subject (usually the noun which is acting in the sentence) and who or what is the object (usually the noun which is being acted upon). Most native English speakers today, however, have so little understanding of the concept of subject and object in sentences that they instead adopt the simple rule of thumb that if a pronoun comes first in the sentence, you should use the nominative form, while if the pronoun comes at the end of the sentence, you should use the oblique form, even though this is not always correct. I must admit taking a gentle satisfaction in the realization that Germans understand how to use English grammar better than native English speakers. Native English speakers today are using their own language incorrectly based on a misunderstanding of how case works and the misapplication of an over-simplifying rule, while Germans have been using English grammer correctly for hundreds of years.
Tuesday, December 20th, 2016
8:30 am
Brexit reaffirmed
It's been about 6 months since the Brexit vote, and various media outlets are reporting on the current mood among British voters. Various unofficial polls have been done to see if people might have changed their minds since that historic referendum. I've noted recently that various politicians--Tony Blair prominent among them--have been suggesting that there should be a second referendum to check whether indeed perhaps the British voting public might not have changed its mind in these 6 months. It is certainly clear that both the government and the media (which is increasingly transparently functioning as a propaganda arm of the government) have been doing their best in this time to try and scare the people into thinking that their vote was a mistake, that the terrible consequences of the Brexit vote include the British pound losing a statistically insignificant amount of its exchange rate and less foreign investment in the UK.

The results are clear and positive. Most of the people responded that they continued to support the Brexit even recognizing and understanding fully well that it would have negative financial consequences for them. When was the last time that an entire Western country chose en masse to embrace a matter of personal integrity at the risk of their financial markets? When was the last time such a country chose to care for their own national culture rather than sacrificing everything they had for that beloved but infinitely hungry god--the Market?

That's why the Brexit is a great thing.
Friday, December 16th, 2016
10:25 pm
There's nothing wrong with being corny
Alan Thicke died on Tuesday. I wasn't a huge fan of his work, but he was a respectable actor who fit the role of the affable everyman pretty well, probably because this matched his real-life personality, and it isn't that difficult to play yourself as an actor. I bring this up not because there was anything especially remarkable about Thicke's death, but because the article I read which summarized his life contained the following quote from him regarding his role on Growing Pains, the role for which he is best known:

"[I'm] proud of what it stood for. I share the corny family values espoused on that show... Corny and dated as it is, it's still relatable, understandable... So if that's what goes on my tombstone, I'm perfectly comfortable with it."

Growing Pains is indeed Thicke's metaphorical tombstone in the sense that it's what people will remember him for, but I bring up this quote because something about it bothers me. Why does Thicke feel the need to defend the show or his set of values for being "corny"? What does that really even mean, anyway?

Like many other words, "corny" is a word which most people probably couldn't necessarily provide a clear definition for without a dictionary, but which we understand the intention of when we hear it or see it. It suggests a mood or an idea which is old-fashioned to the point of being obsolete, so overused as to be no longer interesting, or so sentimental as to be unrealistic because it is based in naive idealism rather than objective, clear-headed thinking.

This idea raises many questions in my mind, especially if you apply it to something like "family values." Why should family values be considered old-fashioned? What is there in our modern, not-old-fashioned world that has made family values obsolete, and why should this be the case? Is there not virtue and value in having a happy family?

Perhaps even more to the point, why should an idea be uninteresting just because it is often repeated? Human beings and their need for good physical and mental health is a common theme; does this mean that this idea is boring and obsolete because so many people have talked about it for so long? What about themes like freedom, justice, or fairness? If any ideas can be obsolete, surely these ideas must be, since they have been discussed at such length since before recorded human history that they must have gotten obsolete long ago, right?

I understand that some ideas which might have once had relevance for people lose their importance because of changing circumstances. I understand that it is important for people to examine their own thinking and change their thinking as appropriate if the ideas which they hold are not correct or not based on a full understanding of reality. But there is no shame in cherishing "old-fashioned" or "traditional" values just because they've been around for a long time.

The basic significance of lasting, caring human relationships is not an idea which can become obsolete for human beings, because it is part of the foundation of human life and why human beings exist at all. The importance of good physical and mental health is likewise a value which can never become outdated or old-fashioned. It angers me, then, when people attack these values to the point where someone who defends them has to self-deprecatingly confess that they are defending something "corny," as if this is something they might have reason to be embarrassed or even ashamed about. Supporting these values is something people should be glad about, not regretful.

It seems to me that people who attack "old-fashioned" values as "corny" are people who dislike "boring" things and want excitement or entertainment in their lives. They are so bored by the prospect of quiet, simple, domestic life that it actually frightens them, and they react by trying to demonize such a life as a banal prison rather than a happy and contented life. Of course, it is fair for these people to have their own set of likes and dislikes: they do not have to like the lifestyles depicted on shows like Growing Pains, and if they do not like such things, they are free to express their dislike, but why not just be honest enough to say that you don't like something? Why couch your dislike in the idea that such ideas are "corny" and no longer relevant to our generation instead of just making a statement as simple as "I don't like that kind of thing"? Wouldn't that be a lot simpler?

The idea of the word "corny" itself is a corny idea, an idea which has no place in a sincere, cooperative environment where people communicate honestly with one another. The concept of "corny" is used by civilization's discontents, people who are not satisfied with the idea of living a "normal" life and use such concepts to attack the fabric of existing society. These people are motivated by hate, hate for peaceful, simple life and the desire to make something chaotic and destructive in its stead. When you see someone denigrating human society as corny or obsolete, call out hate speech for what it is. That way, the next Alan Thicke might not feel the need to defend the simple act of portraying universal human values.
Wednesday, December 7th, 2016
9:59 pm
Pre-assessment and post-assessment pragmatism
In thinking about my own mindset and how it relates to the real world, it occurs to me that one of the philosophical ideas which I have struggled with the most is pragmatism. Here I mean "pragmatism" not in the more purely philosophical sense--namely the idea that since true knowledge is unknowable, we should not even bother trying to learn the deepest truths of the universe, but instead focus on how philosophical thinking can help us achieve tangibly recognizable goals in our perceptible lives--but rather--and perhaps somewhat appropriately--in the more basic sense of practical thinking, i.e. eschewing "floaty" or "fantastic" thinking in favor of sober and rational analysis of known information and how we can use what we know (or at least, what we seem to know) to help us understand things (or at least, what we seem to be able to understand). In some respects, my thinking is very practical, very much aligned with pragmatism, or at least what we often think of when we consider the word pragmatism. In other regards, my thinking is very impractical. I suppose this is normal, as most people's thinking reflects their own personal set of values and emphasizes the things which they consider to be important, while de-emphasizing things which they consider to be irrelevant or less important.

It further occurs to me, in thinking about the problems I have with pragmatism, that these problems can be thought of in terms of pre-assessment and post-assessment pragmatism. Here I use "assessment" in the most basic of senses: the act of assessing what is to be considered true and what we should conclude from information presented to us. Pre-assessment pragmatism, then, occurs when we have not yet reached a conclusion and are still trying to make a decision, using pragmatism as a mindset toward the goal of making such a decision. Post-assessment pragmatism occurs after something has happened, when we are trying to decide how we should think and feel about events in the past, what conclusions we should reach about things that have already happened.

In the pre-assessment process, then, when you are still trying to make plans regarding what you will do, you might use pragmatism to make decisions, using the simple and practical axiom that "If something is useful, then you should try to achieve it, and if something is not useful, then there is no point in spending time and energy on it." One problem with this sort of thinking, as technologists never fail to point out, is that we don't know what is useful, what we might have a use for, until we actually have it for a while. When the telephone was first invented, many people said that it was a useless toy, that there was no purpose to conveying human voice through a wire when people could simply talk to each other face-to-face. Similar ideas about computers and the Internet were famously expressed before they became what they are today. In retrospect, perhaps those ideas were more correct than most proponents of the Internet would tell you today, but the point remains that something could end up being useful, even if we don't know it yet.

A similar lack of knowledge tends to plague the post-assessment process. The pragmatic mindset tells us to simply "go with what works," meaning that if something has been proven to work in the past, then we should keep doing that, since if something has worked before, the assumption is that it will keep working in the future. This is obviously a fallacy, since things which worked in the past often fail to work in the present due to changing circumstances, and furthermore, it must be understood that it is not always clear whether something really works long-term or not. I often use seat belts in cars as an example: when automobiles first started to be developed, it was not appreciated, for quite a long time, how important seat belts are in terms of saving people from death or injury in the event of an accident. Even today, I still sometimes see people who drive without a seat belt, and if I ask them why they're not wearing one, they adopt the seemingly-pragmatic conclusion that since they have never been injured while not wearing a seat belt, therefore they don't need one. For these people, driving without a seat belt seems to be a problem-free way to do things, and so they "go with what works." Only extensive research over a long period of time under various conditions can tell us whether something really works in the long-term or not. Countless other examples can be taken from history. A common instance of something like this happening is a dangerous chemical being used which was not recognized as harmful until it had already been widely deployed. Historical examples range all the way from the widespread use of lead-based plumbing in the Roman Empire to modern cases like the use of DDT as an insecticide or CFCs as refrigerants. The negative effects of these chemicals were not immediately apparent, and so when they were demonstrated to work, people took the conclusion that "They seem to work, so let's start using them en masse." Only later were the negative effects of long-term use of these chemicals brought to public light through extensive study and research. Thus, our own natural human lack of knowledge sometimes prevents us from being able to make practical decisions even when we think we are being practical in our thinking.

Another problem with pragmatism which can occur during both the pre-assessment process and the post-assessment process is that it may promote a wrong set of values. I use the word "wrong" here while fully aware that this is a subjective word. It is difficult to make the case that anything is really objectively right or wrong, which brings me back to the point I made previously: almost every person's approach to decision-making is, in their own mind, probably "practical" from their point of view, because people will naturally pursue whatever is personally important to them in terms of what personal values they hold, and so people will see anything which promotes something they like or want as "practical," and anything which does not contribute to serving their personal set of wishes as a waste of time.

Speaking about values in a general sense, one problem with pragmatism is that it tends to focus on the needs of life, the things which are physically necessary for biological survival, while neglecting the things that actually make life meaningful, the things which give us a reason to live in the first place. This effect is very widely seen in economics, because economics is almost solely focused on numbers-based analysis, and completely neglects cultural, social, and emotional quality of life in favor of measurable outcomes. Since food and other necessary means of life are capital which can have a numeric economic worth assigned to them, people end up becoming slaves to these economic systems. If economists recommend a change which ends up increasing the national GDP, those economists will not hesitate to exclaim: "There, see? It worked! The GDP went up!" This is done absolutely irrespective of whether people's lives became better or worse during the same time period; the focus is entirely on economic outcomes rather than quality of life. To my mind, this is a very wrong way of thinking about people's lives and the goals which we should have for our lives. I realize that some people will disagree with me, saying that economic numbers are the most important goal we should be striving for, to which I would like to recommend to such people, as politely as possible, that they go get stuffed. I realize I can never objectively defend my values as right, or even prove them to be somehow better than any other set of values, but I simply cannot accept any analysis which posits economic growth as the highest end goal and ignores all other human factors in the service of that goal.

My point with all of this is that while "practical" thinking is certainly useful sometimes, it is a very reductive way of seeing the world. To say that you should "go with what works" is an almost absurdly simplistic way of thinking about the effects of our actions, and a pretty obvious one, perhaps suitable for young children who are first learning about cause and effect, but not for adults who independently make decisions that guide their own lives. Realistically speaking, if all human beings wanted was to be practical, then they would do exactly that; the fact that people pursue goals which are not practical suggests that the things which make our lives meaningful are not always things which are practical. Pragmatism cannot claim, then, to make things better, since it does not inherently focus on the things which are important, meaningful, or "good" in any concrete or objective way.
Sunday, December 4th, 2016
11:27 pm
Another December
These days, Decembers aren't very good for me, because my birthday is in December, and so this month reminds me of how I'm getting older. When you're a kid, birthdays are great: they mean parties, presents, and one step closer to the independence that comes from being an adult. And then you become an adult, and the whole picture flips upside-down: from that point forward, birthdays are no longer a landmark toward some dearly-awaited day, but rather a milestone on the long, slow road to death.

This year is particularly bad because I'm turning 35. My 30s are already half-over, and what do I have to show for them? What have I done with the last 5 years of my life? And what do I have to look forward to in the next 5?

It all starts with a job. It's hard to build a life for yourself if you don't have some line of work, some kind of career path by which you can support yourself, make a little income, pay for a place to live and start to build your life in that little space that you work so hard for the right to sleep in. In the last several years, I've watched the IT field--the field which I chose for my career--just keep drying up and getting smaller and smaller. Today, I'm not in a better position than I was 5 years ago. I make less money than I did back then. I live in a smaller, trashier apartment than I did back then. And there isn't any prospect of it getting better on the horizon; all indications are that by the time I'm 40, things will have gotten much worse for me instead of better.

The only thing I have to show for these years of my life is these words, all these words that I put on my blog, the combined output of the little bit of wisdom and learning I was able to scrape together with my life. And what difference does it really make? Who even reads my words? Most people who read my words become offended, upset, disturbed--they think that I'm a maniac, a fascist, a judgmental jerk who has nothing pleasant to say. They're probably right. I only wrote these things because they were true. I didn't want to write something pleasant or happy; I just wanted to write the truth that my heart and mind cried out to tell. I'm sorry to anyone whom I might have offended with my words. But I can't apologize for writing them: these words are all that's left of me, all that remains of the person I once was.

Even now, every day, I still ask myself: why do I even bother? Why do I try? Why do I carry on with my life, my sad, empty little life that goes nowhere?

It's not just me, either. All of the people whom I know either personally or professionally are worse off than they used to be, too. They're either making less money or on the verge of losing their jobs, being made redundant because they're too expensive to keep around. We've built a world in which human beings are obsolete. Relationships and communities between human beings are a thing of the past. Today, everyone just seems to live in a sort of trance, not caring for what happens tomorrow, and indeed, seemingly not much concerned with what happens today either. The people who are "lucky" enough to survive can't seem to do much to help anyone else, either. What could anyone really do for another person without turning them into a pure, long-term charity case?

December is also difficult because it heralds a New Year, a time when people can make new beginnings. But there is no new beginning on the horizon. Next year promises to be the same as this one. In 1996, Counting Crows sang: "It's been a long December, and there's reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last." In the 1990s, there was still such hope: the world was on the cusp of an economic boom the likes of which the world had never seen before and will likely never see again. Today, there is nothing but a vast darkness stretching out before us, a long, slow descent into the void as humanity becomes too overwhelmed with regrets and sorrows to even care or feel anymore. All we do now is trudge on like zombies, unable to look around or comprehend where we are or where we are going.

It just keeps getting worse. Every good thing that shows up leaves as quickly as it came. Every bad thing remains, usually worse than it used to be.

Do I even want to make it to 40?

If it were just me, if my own life were somehow inexplicably cursed, if I were the only person this miserable in a world of good-living people, I would have already ended it all, concluding that I was somehow not meant for this world. But I know that I'm not the only one. I know that a majority of people are as miserable as I am, and they find various ways to try and hide it, to escape the reality which they know but don't want to dwell upon.

God help us all. I'm not asking for the past back; I know that we can't turn back the hands of time anymore, but can we at least get a better tomorrow?
Thursday, December 1st, 2016
11:28 pm
The dissemination of culture in a nation
One of the things which I think Germany very much did the right thing with was to disseminate its culture throughout its territory instead of concentrating it in a specific city. One of the classic problems which has existed in many civilizations throughout history is the near-total clustering of all the nation's culture--all its art, libraries, schools, and so on--in a single city, usually the capital city, resulting in the historically prevalent imbalance in which people in the countyside live as uneducated, uncultured savages while people in the cities use this as an excuse to look down on the peasants even as those city-dwellers live decadent lives of luxury and feasting. It has been a long-running historical problem that culture and education in rural areas has been neglected, leading many people to assume that these two go inseparably hand-in-hand, when in fact there is nothing which prevents rural dwellers from being highly cultured people as long as they have the resources and will to do so.

At least in Western Europe, this divide has been a historical problem and is still visible in both England and France, among the world's most visible countries, which is part of why the stereotype still prevails that urban dwellers are educated and logical while rural dwellers are ignorant and superstitious. There really is nowhere in England like London, nowhere in France like Paris. Of course there are other cities in these countries, some of them with important histories and cultural institutions, but they really are not on a level commensurate with the global fame associated with English and French culture. The United States and Canada both inherited these problems from England and France, although that is partly because those North American countries are both so historically young and so geographically vast that most of their land hasn't had enough time to develop a proper history or culture. Given that the world's most popular "Western" tourist destinations exhibit this pattern, then, it's perhaps not surprising that most people implicitly assume that you can't have a strong culture in the countryside.

Germany, on the other hand, has a more evenly-spread culture: Germany's culture is not concentrated just in its capital city of Berlin, nor indeed in the other million-plus cities of Hamburg, Munich, and Cologne. This is partly an unintentional result of Germany's history, given that what is now "Germany" existed as a loose collection of literally dozens of small kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and city-states for centuries before being united into a German Confederation as a reaction to France's Napoleonic sweep across Europe, but the results have worked out well for Germany: in most German small towns, you can usually find some historical element of culture which lends that area its own unique identity. In most relatively unimportant, medium-sized German cities of, say, 300,000 people, you can find more culture than in the capital cities of most Eastern European countries. This isn't to say that every tiny German village has something comparable to the Louvre, of course, but unlike more politically powerful countries which often sought to establish their "greatness" by building huge monuments, Germany always had a more quiet, humble soul which sought to establish its greatness in the wisdom of its people rather than in the impressiveness of its landmarks (with admittedly some exceptions like the Kölner Dom and the Church of St. Nicholas in Hamburg), resulting in a nation which is much more resiliently great.

To be sure, Germany isn't the only country in the world, or even in Europe, which has spread its culture across the land. Although Rome was indisputably the center of the Roman Empire in every conceivable way, modern Italy has several cities which are now arguably equal or nearly equal in importance to Rome in terms of their culture, art, and history. Russia has also done an admirable job of propagating culture and education throughout its lands: after a regrettable history as a country which had some catching up to do, Peter the Great famously reformed Russia into a global cultural force, and Soviet leaders continued these efforts to make sure that people living in smaller provincial villages of the Soviet Union received a good education that balanced art with science, resulting in a country with a surprisingly educated populace given both its negative reputation and the sheer scope of the land with its unparalleled distance between major cities. Other countries around the world with large land masses have similarly tried to disseminate their culture more uniformly, with varying degrees of success.

In general, I find that countries which successfully do this, which spread their culture throughout the land so that people in smaller settlements can partake in the national culture as well, are more balanced and more stable than countries which seek to build a single glorious capital to the neglect of other places, since a country with a widely-disseminated culture which de-emphasizes urban development gives you the best of both worlds: in the countryside, you can still enjoy the local flavor and customs of the people, while cities tend to be safer and more friendly than huge cosmopolitan megalopolises, avoiding the key elements of urban decay while still allowing you to experience the sense of being in a bustling town. Likewise, countries which focus on grouping their brightest artists, scholars, and scientists in a single city end up creating the worst of all worlds, fueling a countryside of ignorant, coarse people who live like animals while cities become expensive, loud, dirty, chaotic, and laden with crime and all the other ills that come with overpopulation. I think this is part of why I feel most at home in countries like Germany and Russia. I am, after all, in search of balance.
Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
10:37 pm
Just what IS "community-oriented thinking"?
The simplistic interpretation which we often hear explained is that "community-oriented thinking" is a somewhat older, more traditional thinking generally seen in less "developed" countries where the focus is on the greater good, where people are encouraged to think about not what benefits themselves personally, but their entire community as a whole, while "individual-oriented thinking" is a somewhat more modern mentality typically seen in "Western," "developed" countries which encourages people to think of their own personal interests and needs and cater to these without giving consideration to the wants or needs of other people. Our natural gut reaction seems to generally suggest to us that community-oriented thinking seems like a better option, because we like the idea of living in a supportive community, a place where people stick up for each other and where each person isn't left alone to fend for themselves against the entire world: a strong, supportive community makes us "stronger together," as Hillary Clinton's recent political slogan put it. There are, on the other hand, people who argue pointedly that individual-oriented thinking is actually better for us in practice, that our focus on charity and generosity is actually a dangerous and damaging mentality born out of a falsely-attributed, mushy sentimentality which degrades us both as a society and as individuals. Ayn Rand was among the most famous people to argue for such a mentality, and there are still plenty of serious philosophers today who would make such a claim, but they seem to be in the minority. By and large, most people, if you asked them, would probably say that they would rather live in a supportive community than a do-it-yourself, individualistic society.

What's perhaps funny about this is that most people might say and even think that they want a community-oriented society, but what they really want is an individual-oriented society, and they just don't know it because they've never really thought about it. The reality is that human beings are generally selfish by nature, and the only reason why modern society can function at all is because it convinces people that they can get whatever they want and do whatever they want while simultaneously believing that they are actually doing nice things that help other people. One of the greatest tricks human beings ever pulled off was being able to live in a wantonly destructive, self-seeking way while simultaneously convincing not only themselves, but the whole world that they were somehow doing it in a way that benefited everyone worldwide. What's also funny about this is that people think they want community-oriented thinking because they don't really know what it is; they have been taught to associate it with specific feel-good events that make them think that the world is heading in the right direction, and they are never encouraged to think about these shallow displays of cheap sentimentality too deeply.

The real essence of community-oriented thinking is what is formally called utilitarianism in the study of philosophy. The idea behind utilitarianism is simple: decisions should be made based on what brings the greatest benefit to the most people. This sounds like a great idea until you stop to think about the implications and repercussions of such a conclusion. Ask yourself the classical question: is it forgivable to kill a person if it could somehow save the lives of 10 other people? What about 100 other people? A thousand? A million? A billion? Utilitarianism would say that if by killing one person, you can save several other people, then not only is killing that person excusable, it is actually a requirement, because allowing multiple people to die to save the life of one person is a bad deal. You might have saved that one person, but in so doing, you caused several others to die; how is that justifiable? Particularly if you believe that "all people are equal," then that is a net loss. You can see, then, that utilitarianism can be thought of as operating in terms like a simple math formula. If you kill one person to save ten, then you have a net gain of 10 - 1 = 9, and so that was the right decision to make to avoid a net loss.

It should be apparent by now that utilitarianism is the essence of true community-oriented thinking: it is prepared to sacrifice the rights and needs of an individual to serve the greatest good to the greatest number of people. If you truly think in terms of bringing the most benefit to the greatest number of people, then the classical trolly problem is already a solved problem: you don't even need to think about what choice you'd make. Killing one person to save several others would be the right thing to do in such a system.

You can see why some people begin to balk at such thinking at this point. Yes, community-oriented thinking might be about trying to create "the most good," but in its consummate form, it seems to become somehow inhuman: it is no longer about compassion or care, but simply about a mechanical, mathematical system of distribution. This is similar to the problem which was encountered by many of the "Communist" nations of the 20th century: in theory, communism was about the entire populace working for the good of everyone, but the planning and administrative structures which were put in place to enforce such thinking actually deadened people's natural compassion and turned them into robot-like creatures which acted not out of sympathy or respect for others, but simple mechanical obedience. You can't automate love or reduce it to an equation.

On the other hand, most people do not like the idea of living in an everyone-for-themselves society, a place where everyone just tries to take whatever they feel like taking and never considers what they might have to share with others. To deal with this problem, the system of the modern charitable spectacle was created: we are regularly informed about "feel-good" events which seem to verify the natural goodness of human beings. We read about "random acts of kindness," cases where some person who had encountered some personal catastrophe was raised up as a media figure and consequently received an outpouring of material support from sympathetic people, allowing the media to cap off the story with a "happy ending." Perhaps it's all very well and good that these people who are highlighted in the media end up receiving the support they need, but this ignores, of course, the countless other people who are in similar circumstances and remain invisible and unknown because hardly anyone sees them and few people are willing to lend them any substantial amount of help. The tragedy of "random acts of kindness" is that they do not really exist to make the world a better place or to help people who need help; they exist to make the doer feel better about themselves. Modern systems of "charity" primarily exist as a way of assuaging people's guilt about living in the modern lifestyles which they have.

A similar impetus seems to be behind the similarly modern push toward creating "equality" for LGBT people and racial groups which are subject to discrimination. While it may seem just and proper to defend such groups of people and their rights, the simple fact is that racial minorities are, quite obviously by definintion, a minority, and thus a movement which supports them can never be "community-oriented," because it does not seek to benefit the entire community as a whole, but rather it targets a specific subgroup of people who are arbitrarily chosen as the beneficiaries of such a movement. This is not to say that LGBT people and racial minorities should not receive support, but rather that the decision to single them out as groups deserving our support is not community-oriented thinking, but rather an emotional response triggered by our natural sense of justice vs. injustice and the intuitive sense we feel that a group of people is being wronged, with the subsequent natural desire to correct a state which we see as unjust. We perceive such social activism as community-oriented because people are not doing it for themselves personally, but actually, such thinking is still very much individual-oriented, because it is defending the "right" of each person to be an individual rather than to become an integrated part of a larger society. One of the problems that has prevented political balance from being achieved is the misunderstanding of such individual-oriented thinking: the public perception that such activism benefits the community at large, when really what it does is encourages small minority groups to present their problems as the world's most important problems even though those problems actually don't affect most people.

There are those who would posit that such "social justice" movements are community-oriented because people benefit from being happy and feeling good about the moral integrity of their society, and so when people know and recognize that their community is doing what it can to be inclusive, to welcome people who are not the typical, "average" demographic in the local community, then this is to everyone's benefit because everyone can feel good about it. There is of course some value to this theory, but in practice, the general reality seems to be that people do not have the time or the resources to cater to every minority group within a community. There has been, in the past several years, a very specific focus on people with non-heterosexual preferences or from ethnic minorities, but this is done to the exclusion of people who might differentiate themselves from the mainline social norm in other ways. If community-oriented thinking is meant to do the greatest good to the greatest number of people, then it must necessarily focus on the state of the majority, the most highly-represented people in the society. To focus on minorities is not focusing on the community at large--to focus on minority groups is in fact quite specifically antisocial.

Nothing that I have written in this article is meant to denigrate any one mentality or perspective which I have described here. As with most such fundamental divides in philosophy, none of the sides described is inherently "right" or "wrong." Most people would agree, however, that the "best" system of thinking and judgment is found between extremes: that it is important to think of the community, but that since a community is made up of individuals, it makes sense that each individual has the ability to be happy and healthy as well, at least to the greatest extent possible without becoming a detriment to the health and stability of the overall community as a whole. My point here is not to denigrate community-oriented thinking. Far from it, in fact: like most thinking people, I too am horrified at how selfish and consumerist our modern society is. My point here is to point out that community-oriented thinking, if it is to be effective, must be a coordinated effort by a large proportion of people living in the community; it cannot be the random, scattershot bursts of misdirected and misguided charity which characterizes most efforts to "change the world" today. If you really want to change the world and reform human society, you'll need more than just yourself--you can't do that alone. You need to understand how the economics of human civilizations work (keeping in mind that "economics" has nothing to do with money, but rather with the distribution of resources), and you need to understand how social structures work to create meaning and sustainability for people, at not only the physical/material level but also the emotional, psychological, and cultural levels. A human community is a great thing, but you can't manipulate it from the outside; you have to be a part of it, meaning you have to know how it works, you have to personally know the people within it, and you need to take part in the activities which they take part in. A person who thinks they can solve the problems in some foreign country which they don't even remotely understand by just throwing their disposable income at it may be doing more harm than good. If you're going to support anything at all, it makes sense to inform and educate yourself about what you intend to support. Only then can you start making contextually-appropriate decisions and working toward positive change that benefits both individuals and communities.
Monday, November 28th, 2016
10:02 pm
Are the politicians trolling us?
One thing which I would very much like to avoid doing with this blog is to have it become another one of those running commentaries on everything I see in the media which I disagree with. The Internet is full of blogs and "social media" feeds which consist almost entirely of one person picking every news article they see which they don't like and then posting a link to it with a few lines of outraged commentary. This makes a blog pointless for two reasons: first of all, it almost guarantees that everything you post will become obsolete soon, since those current news stories will become forgotten in a matter of weeks. Secondly, the people who do that almost inevitably end up focusing on a specific issue, and so every single post they put up becomes basically another case of "Yes, yes, we get it already, you don't like (idea which is currently in the media), thanks for reminding us yet again." I already tend to repeat similar themes on this blog of mine too often, and as I mentioned in a recent post, I want to avoid obsoleting my writing by focusing on what's current, since what's current now will become forgotten soon, and a blog of current affairs is a blog which is destined to disappear, likely not even valuable as a historical relic. All of this being the case, I would very much like to avoid making another post commenting on the events surrounding Donald Trump, especially since I have already posted about him several times in the past couple of weeks, and he is not even president yet, so it seems sensible to me to avoid beating a dead horse until the guy has at least had a chance to show what he's made of, politically speaking. Unfortunately, I am a human being, and like any human being, I am weakened by my own wills and desires, and thus there is a limit to how little I am willing to say when there is still so much that is relevant to be said. I will try, at least, to say something new when I write, to not retrace the same themes over and over but to somehow present a new idea or perspective on the matter which I have not yet presented.

To that end, let me advance a question which has already been asked by other commentators, but which I'm hoping I can ask in a slightly new way: are the politicians of the world really just trolling us?

Obviously, it is useful, when asking such a question, to define what is meant by "trolling." To some extent, it is known and accepted that politicians don't always mean what they say, that as public figures they need to choose their words carefully so that they say things which are considered politically "correct" even if that isn't precisely what they really want to communicate. When I speak of trolling, then, I obviously don't just mean politicians saying something other than what they really mean; I don't mean politicians lying, and I don't mean politicians hiding things, which they might sometimes have valid reasons for doing (such as knowing classified information which they are not authorized to publicly release). I mean something more like the rhetorical device of playing devil's advocate, of saying precisely the opposite of what you mean as a way of showing how absurd your opponents' position is.

It's clear that playing devil's advocate, the act of arguing the opposite of what you really think as an argument tactic, is also not the same as "trolling" as we understand this word on the Internet today, so let me be a bit more specific by pointing to the events which led me to ask this question. I am thinking, at the moment, specifically of the ongoing push in the United States to demand a recount of the election votes amid claims that the results were fraudulent, tampered with to make Trump win. This is a hilarious development precisely because Trump, in the days before the election, declared that if he were to lose, it would be because the vote was rigged, and everyone laughed at his claims. Experts from all across the board ridiculed Trump's accusations, insisting that the elections in the United States are so closely watched, so carefully monitored for fraud and interference that for an actual case of electoral fraud to swing the election is nearly unthinkable. As Trump repeatedly declared that the election was going to be rigged and that if he would lose for any reason, it would be for that reason, everybody declared that Trump's use of this line of argument was not only ridiculous, it was actually dangerous to the democratic process because it undermined the very notion of an election, that most sacred institution in the church of democracy. Trump was reaffirmed as a madman in the eyes of his foes, a bloviating lunatic who was making baseless and impossible accusations to cover for the fact that he lacked any political platform. Then Trump won the election, and everyone who opposed him was suddenly caught without a defense. The line of thinking for the past couple of weeks has basically been: "Trump's claims that the election is rigged are completely baseless and ridiculous. Actual cases of voter fraud are extremely rare, and we've implemented world-class security processes to make sure that a fair and accurate vote can be tallied after the election. And now that we've reassured you all about the accuracy of the vote, we're very pleased to announce how glad we are that Hillary Clinton will be the next... um... wait, what? You mean Trump actually won? Well... uh... gosh. That was unexpected. What are we supposed to do now? Um... The vote must have been rigged! It's obvious that Trump only won because the Russians interfered with the election!"

My point here is that it has become impossible for anyone to claim voter fraud without making themselves look ridiculous. After Trump spent weeks garnering ridicule for his claims that the vote was rigged against him, there is now nobody who opposes Trump and can make similar claims, since the people who oppose Trump were the very people who have just spent weeks assuring the whole world that such fraud is impossible. Either you accept that Trump is now the president, or you go down the very same line of reasoning which Trump did. I can't help but ask myself: did Trump anticipate this? Did Trump make all those claims of voter fraud precisely to make it impossible for his enemies to make accusations of fraud without them making themselves look ridiculous? Trump may have won the election, but that doesn't mean that everything is settled now; quite to the contrary, many people are explicitly rejecting the results of the election, and it would have been to Trump's advantage to make his accusers look ridiculous from the start, so that they would have no platform on which to accuse him without putting their own hypocrisy on blatant display.

The question on my mind, then, is: does Trump specifically say what he knows people are going to attack him with so that they have no way of attacking him with it without sounding like they took the idea from him? This would not be a new tactic, of course, and if he's really doing this, it doesn't mean that Trump is right about something; it just shows that he is, rhetorically at least, one step ahead of his opponents, and willing to troll them as a way of making them look stupid.

This idea was brought again to my mind when I recently saw this image on the Internet:

Germany&quot;s alleged reductio ad absurdum

Before I actually continue my line of thinking, let me point out two things: yes, I know it's actually reductio ad absurdum, not "redactio," so don't complain to me about the picture being wrong; I didn't create it. Secondly, this being one of those Internet meme pictures, let's not take the conclusion too literally; the point is not that Hitler was right, but instead of thinking about that, let's replace the world "Hitler" in the picture with "the right wing."

The reason this picture has some relevance is because I've been observing German Chancellor Angela Merkel for several years, and if you've only become aware of who she is in the last year or two, you might only know her as the woman who decided that millions of refugees should come to Germany. It's not that simple, however: if you watch older interviews with Merkel from before the current refugee crisis started, she took a rather different sort of line of reasoning, declaring that while she sympathizes with people who suffer in regions affected by war or poverty, Germany as a country is limited in what it can do, and it would not be possible for Germany to simply house every refugee who wanted to travel to Germany from Africa or Asia. In the more distant past, Merkel took an even more vehemently anti-immigrant stance; recall that Merkel is actually from the former East Germany, a region which has been known since German reunification for its more nationalistic and anti-foreigner sentiments. It's possible, of course, that Merkel has had a change of heart since then, but there is a sense among some German observers that she is opting for a reverse-psychology trick, specifically allowing refugees into Germany for the sake of fueling the rise of the right-wing, nationalistic, anti-immigrant elements in Germany as a way of dealing with the problem. After all, if the government tried to fight against immigrants coming to Germany, people would be outraged and fight against the government; it would be easier to stir public sentiment against refugees so that the government can claim innocence and the problem can deal with itself without the government having to get their hands dirty. This tactic, if it is really what Merkel intended, seems to have met with limited success at best (despite what German media might tell you, I haven't seen a huge surge in neo-Nazism here in Germany in the past couple of years (no, the AfD is nothing even remotely close to the Nazi party)), but from what I know of Merkel's past, I can't help but suspect that she is taking a gamble by adopting the ideology of her opponents and taking it to an extreme. Again, this isn't really "trolling" in the usual sense, but I hope that what I mean is understood when I suggest that people like Trump and Merkel may be trolling the public as a way of getting the reaction they want.

If indeed the right wing has been trying to troll the left, they have had some success in the sense that the left is becoming desperate and has no way to regain control without, again, making themselves look foolish. Just as American opposers of Donald Trump are calling for an electoral recount, politicians in the UK who oppose the Brexit have long been calling for a second vote on whether the UK should leave the EU, with former prime minister Tony Blair openly declaring that the Brexit can still be stopped, repeatedly suggesting that there should be another referendum to check if maybe the UK voting public have changed their minds. This is what I mean when I've written in the past about the government never letting go of an idea: if they want something to happen, they will keep advancing it under new propositions and new bills and new reforms, and if those efforts get rejected, they'll just rename them and try to get them passed again, and again and again until they're successful. The same is true for a vote: if the government doesn't like the results of a vote, they'll just keep having more elections and referendums until they finally get the results they want. The government desperately wants to avoid the Brexit, and they have been on a campaign for months to try and convince people that the vote was a mistake and people should change their minds. They do this because they know it would be difficult for them to avoid the results of the vote at this point: they can't ignore the referendum without acknowledging that the most basic principle of democracy no longer exists in Western politics and that we actually live in an oligarchy which serves the wealthy. They try to terrify the public with images of reduced GDP, claiming that the Brexit would slow down the economy, but as I've written in the past, GDP growth does not benefit the general public: only the most wealthy really benefit from GDP growth, so the average voting Brit actually has nothing to fear if GDP starts going down.

This is what the political establishment really fears: the prospect of the public finding out the truth. What the political elite now fears more than anything else is people living through Trump's presidency and finding out that it isn't actually a disaster, that in fact they didn't benefit that much from what Obama did, that they wouldn't have benefited much from what Clinton would have done, that in fact Trump didn't start World War III and that everything they were told by his opponents was a lie. They are terrified that the UK might go through a Brexit only to have the British populace realize that neither their economy nor their government nor their entire society collapsed as a result, that in fact they did not require the EU to keep on living, that what the globalists had told them had been a huge lie. More than anything else, the wealthy want you to be prevented from learning the truth. And they will be willing to go to any length to prevent you from finding it out.

Perhaps nothing makes this more clear than the united front which Barack Obama and Angela Merkel presented regarding the Internet, blaming the Internet for the rise of anti-globalist sentiment, with Merkel in particular actually taking steps to try and censor Internet posts which express anti-immigration sentiments. Remember when the Internet was hailed by the left as a force for freedom of speech in the 1990s? Back then, it was assumed that somehow everyone on the Internet must be a free-spirited liberal, and so "progressive" people pushed the Internet as a tool in their fight against conservative-minded folks who might have had something against the technological disruption brought about by the Internet. Just as I characterized the sudden about-face from Trump's opponents, one could summarize the left's sentiments on the Internet thus: "The Internet is a force for freedom and democracy! You can't control the Internet, and so now more than ever, people will have the ability to voice their opinions openly! What a great thing! We need to get more Internet access to people all around the world, and we need to fight against censorship on the Internet! Wait... What? You mean there are people on the Internet who disagree with us? Um... We need to censor the Internet to protect people from wrong-minded ideology which they might find there!" 20 years ago, it was the conservatives who fought against the Internet, characterizing it as a cesspool of freaks where every dangerous crank went to vent their barbaric opinions; today, it's the left who claim the same thing. Where once the left held up the Internet as a way for people to break down barriers to communication, now that they've discovered that not everyone on the Internet agrees with them, they've taken to branding everyone on the Internet a "troll," insisting that the Internet is a dangerous place where you might see ideas that could convince you that what you've been told might not be true. Who lives by the sword, dies by the sword: where globalists once saw the Internet as a key way to advance their ideology, now they see it as a persistent threat that might cause the very empires which the Internet once supported to come tumbling down.

Little wonder, then, that if so-called "trolls" are being censored on the Internet now, they're simply taking their ideas offline and into the public space, the way they used to do things before the Internet.
Thursday, November 24th, 2016
9:23 pm
Why the thinking about "introverts" and "extroverts" is all wrong
People often divide themselves into introverts and extroverts, with the idea being that introverts are people who like to keep to themselves and don't like being in big groups of people, while extroverts are lively, talkative people who thrive in large groups such as at parties or other gatherings. Of course, to divide people so starkly into two groups is a false dichotomy, which is why there is allowance for terms like "ambivert," where the "ambi" means "ambiguous," i.e. a person who is somewhere in the middle between an introvert and an extrovert. There is also a distinction between introversion and sociophobia or agoraphobia: a person with a phobia is specifically afraid of social situations or crowds of people, while an introvert is more generally someone who has no specific fear of such situations but simply does not enjoy them, in much the same way that the word "aliteracy" describes someone who can read but chooses not to as a matter of preference. A typical description of introverts holds that they become drained of energy in large groups of people, whereas extroverts have precisely the opposite reaction, deriving energy and becoming excited in large groups of people.

That's all very well and good, but my own experience and the experiences which have been related to me by other people suggest to me that this thinking about "introverts" and "extroverts" is all wrong, that people have mistakenly attributed something to a preference regarding being around people in general, when it seems to me that introversion is really nothing more than a very normal preference regarding being around similar people. People--very nearly all people--seek the company of compatible people with whom they share similar styles and interests, and are encouraged and energized by the presence of such people. Similarly, very nearly all people become awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of people whom they have nothing in common with, people who do not share their interests or views.

Speaking for myself, I can say that people often have the impression of me that I am hyper-introverted. This isn't true; it isn't that I don't want to talk to people, but rather that I have nothing to say to the people who hold this opinion of me. People who think that I am shy or awkward are people to whom I usually have nothing to say, and since I believe in only speaking when I have something relevant and important to say, these people get the impression that I am somehow not talkative or uncomfortable around other human beings. Conversely, on many occasions, I have been told by people several times before that they have seen me suddenly become surprisingly animated in certain gatherings. Allegedly at some point I became uncharacteristically sociable and talkative. This usually happens when the conversation turns to something which interests me, for after all, why wouldn't I want to participate in a conversation about something which is personally interesting to me? It's when people go on interminably about television shows or silly personal anecdotes that I shut down and begin isolating myself from people.

In the presence of people who share my interests, I come alive. In a group of people whose greatest interests are soldering modifications to the Apple II or hex-editing DOS games, I could hold lively conversations for hours. Why wouldn't I be excited, why wouldn't I become energized by the opportunity to share conversation over a subject which I find personally interesting with like-minded people? The reason I habitually avoid large gatherings of people is because in such settings, the line of conversation predictably and invariably steers into boring small-talk, and I cannot bear to witness people engaging in small talk, the act of talking without saying anything, speaking only to be uttering words without having any point to those words. I honestly think that I would rather participate in a murder than in small talk, because at least murder can be meaningful and have a point to it sometimes, whereas people engaging in small talk seem to specifically do so with the intention of reinforcing their nihilistic ideology in their minds--their dogma that life has no meaning and that everything we do is meaningless, so we might as well party it up. It is painful for me--physically and especially emotionally--to even behold these people, to see them in their stupid thoughtless cavorting, and it is a natural thing for anyone to avoid something which is painful for them, especially something which emotionally disturbs them and makes them sad.

Now, admittedly, all of this is a retelling of my own personal expriences and thoughts and feelings, and perhaps I would be willing to write myself off as a unique and strange case if I didn't have information to the contrary. As a so-called "introvert," I have met many other people who share (or think they share) this same trait, and a common sentiment which these people have expressed to me is something similar: they avoid large groups of people because they don't like the drinking, the loudness, or simply the sheer stupidity that people tend to generate in large groups, but they are actually revitalized by the company of people who have similar styles and interests to themselves. All of this leads me to suspect that our conceptions of introverts and extroverts is wrong. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that introverts are more concerned with the inner thoughts and feelings of other people, and energized by the opportunity to share these sentiments with other people, while extroverts are more interested in the external appearance of people and in the physical proximity of other people, enjoying "company" that consists of simply being in the same place at the same time, regardless of what other people are really like on the inside.

I'm not an introvert. I am not afraid of people or of social situations. I seek my own people, a place I can call home, a place where I can belong, a place where people do not strive to surround themselves with mountains of inanity, but rather seek to understand people, places, and things. I am excited at the concept of being able to build such a society, a place which cultivates schools to nourish the philosophers of tomorrow and prisons to contain the small-talkers of tomorrow. (What I mean, of course, is that we would call them "prisons" publicly, but there is no need to waste public money housing and feeding such people when they can simply be processed into food and fuel.) In such a place, among such a people, I would feel alive, energized by the positive atmosphere. I am not a weirdo, a misfit, or an outcast; I am simply a normal person who wants to be among my own people, like any other normal person. I'm neither an introvert nor an extrovert, because introverts and extroverts don't really exist. I am a person who wants to live for something, something important and meaningful, something greater than human beings and their selfish, petty designs. And when I am in a group of people with the same hopes and the same values, I have no reason to be withdrawn or shy. There is no difference between "social" and "not social" people; there are just differences between people generally.
Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016
6:40 am
Philosophical man, political man
The man without a woman in his life thinks about philosophy, because he seeks a reason for his own existence. He doubts himself and the value of his life, and before he goes on with the business of establishing a life for himself, he wants some certainty, some assurance that there is a reason for him to do all that. If he fails to find such a reason, his thoughts turn to suicide, as he contemplates ending a life which, after all, probably had no reason to exist in the first place, and apparently has no reason to exist now.

The man with a woman in his life thinks about politics, as he no longer doubts himself or the worth of his own life. He no longer feels the need to establish a reason for his existence, because he has that reason already, and his goals turn from confronting his existential self-doubt to the monumental task of doing something significant with his life: he begins plans to build a family, a career, and a legacy, to establish some kind of meaningful imprint upon the world with which his life can assert its personal set of values. This state of affairs remains as long as the woman remains in his life. If the woman leaves, the man goes back to the beginning; plans and hopes are abandoned and disappear, and he begins to doubt himself and the significance of his own life again.

Just saying.
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