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

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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.
Monday, November 21st, 2016
9:21 pm
Zachtronics finally hit a home run with "Shenzhen I/O"
For years, I've been a fan of Zachtronics Industries, which is basically Zach Barth's one-man indie computer-game company. Barth mostly makes games for engineers with a specific focus on electronic engineers, and for a guy like me, who majored in electronics in college and wanted to work in that field as a career, these games definitely speak to a niche which no other game company I've ever seen speaks to, a niche which appeals to me tremendously. These games will never have broad, mass-market appeal because they are too specialized, but for anyone whose favorite thing to do is sit in a quiet room soldering computer circuits or writing firmware for them at 2:00 AM, Zachtronics is the game company that makes games which directly address your hobby.

Although Zachtronics has been making games for several years, I've always felt that each game speaks to a different specialty, and thus each game feels somehow incomplete in a way; they may be clever, interesting, and enjoyable, but most of them have felt, to me, more like demo games, proof-of-concept one-offs rather than full-fledged products. That's fine too, of course; many of my favorite games exist as little more than brief proof-of-concept demos which would have gotten boring quickly if they had been stretched out to more than a few minutes. (Recall that Portal began its life in this form; it was only after the runaway success of the first Portal game that Portal 2 game out, and many would maintain that while the first game, which takes about 3 hours to play, was enjoyable specifically because it didn't grind its concept into the ground, Portal 2 seemed to be grasping for ways to extend its simple core game mechanic by the end.)

Thus, for example (and by way of introducing the reader to some of the company's most important games), Zachtronics had a game called Silicon Foundry, which was an excellent effort at portraying what it's like to run a semiconductor foundry at the economic level. Besides a good portion of electronics, the game also required the player to pay attention to how much money the company was making, which meant optimizing the company's chip products for manufacturing costs rather than just performance. KOHCTPYKTOP: Engineer of the People (the first word in the title is a Latin representation of the Cyrillic transliteration of the word "constructor") was very specifically about drawing semiconductor traces to make transistors which then formed fully-functioning circuits, and I liked that game so much that I actually made a short YouTube video about it when it came out, but the game was so nightmarishly complex that even devoted electronics enthusiasts would have been hard-pressed to play that one all the way to the end. Ruckingenur (a literal German translation of "reverse engineer") was perhaps my personal favorite, partly because each puzzle in the game had its own unique flavor (it didn't just feel like an endless onslaught of puzzles), but the problem with it was that because each puzzle had a hand-made layout and video introduction to accompany it, it was necessarily very short; even with the sequel it spawned, one could play through both Ruckingenur games in a matter of minutes. Then there was Manufactoid, which had the player writing Lua code to automate a factory, but which again felt like an unfinished demo rather than a fully-realized game. One of the company's most successful games was The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, which was not a game for engineers, but rather based on the fictional science of alchemy. Perhaps it was so successful specifically because it was not based on real science or engineering, and so unlike the company's other games, it did not have to constrain itself to imitating real-world concepts; it was thus free to adhere to more conventional puzzle-game conventions, making for a game which was more accessible for the masses but also less remarkable. As the company's history wore on, they produced Infiniminer, a first-person block-mining game which might easily be their most important product for the simple reason that it directly inspired Minecraft. (No joke, look it up: the look and feel of Minecraft was directly borrowed from Infiniminer.) Last year, Zachtronics released TIS-100, a game about assembly-language programming which I greatly enjoyed because I love assembly language (I was greatly irked by the people who dismissed the game by saying that assembly-language programming is a thing of the past), but the game was a bit unfulfilling because it takes some liberties with how assembly language really works (I can say that you will probably not learn a lot about real-world assembly programming from TIS-100), and also because its visual presentation leaves it little more than a series of huge walls of assembler opcodes, which is not bad if you're into that sort of thing like me, but which once again significantly limited the scope and appeal of the game.

So you see, Zachtronics has made several games over the past few years, and while these games have done an admirable job of taking something which requires intense concentration and study and turning it into a light-hearted game, each of these games has suffered either from a lack of completeness, a lack of realism, or simply a too-intense focus which limits the appeal of the game to a small group of super-nerds.

Until now.

Zachtronics just released Shenzhen I/O. I'm happy to report that after years of half-finished one-off projects, games which most people would avoid due to complexity, or games which were moderately successful but also forgettable simply due to their conventionality, Zachtronics have finally brought it all together, producing a game that combines all the strengths of their greatest previous games. Shenzhen I/O is a home run, a game which hits all the right notes and capitalizes on the strengths of the compmany's previous games which avoiding most of their pitfalls. The game doesn't stop there, though; it actually goes beyond the company's previous efforts by including not only a fascinating set of puzzles, but also working in a background story and a fair amount of atmospheric flavor text to join the puzzles together. The game's story is simple but interesting, reflecting a bit of commentary on the current state of the world's electronics industry: you play an electronics engineer who graduates from school only to realize that building electronics is simply "not something we do in this country. Not anymore." Undaunted by this geographic limitation, your character ends up getting hired at a small electronics manufacturer in Shenzhen, part of China's sprawling Pearl River Delta, which with more than 57 million inhabitants is the largest urban conglomeration in the world. The game starts on your first day at the company, as it becomes your job to build circuits based on designs which are presented to you.

The core gameplay of Shenzhen I/O plays like a combination of the best parts of Silicon Foundry, KOHCTPYKTOP, Ruckingenur, and TIS-100. When you are first given a project, you're given a circuit board which you can populate with parts, paying attention to their layout and how much each part costs, like in Silicon Foundry. Once you set down your parts, you have to connect them, of course, and this works much like KOHCTPYKTOP, except vastly less complex. Once you've got your board populated with a circuit, you'll usually need to program at least one microprocessor in order to make the circuit work properly, and this is all done in assembly language, which hearkens back to TIS-100 but usually makes a lot more sense, since you built the board yourself and so you know exactly how the instructions are supposed to handle the flow of data on the board, unlike in TIS-100 where the physical circuits underlying the code are usually abstracted as floating blocks of text. Finally, of course, you reach a point where your circuit doesn't work as you expected the first time around and you need to spend some time figuring out how stuff works and putting it all together to make a cohesive circuit and program which does what you want it to do, like in Ruckingenur. As someone who has both designed electronic circuits and written code as a job, I can say that it's hard to imagine a game doing a better job of capturing the feel of uniting all these elements together. Shenzhen I/O is vastly superior to any other game I've ever seen which tries to do what it does, because it combines both circuit layout and microprocessor programming in a way which really feels remarkably like the real thing, while still being fun enough to be entertaining as a game. The thrill of finally getting your circuits to work compels you to move on to the next puzzle and try to repeat your previous performance, even though the puzzles, of course, become steadily more difficult as you go along.

Besides the core gameplay which takes place on the circuit-prototyping screen, Shenzhen I/O also does a fantastic job of creating a certain atmosphere. Between building circuits, you read a series of e-mail exchanges between your co-workers, and there's something about these exchanges which really captures the tense-but-hopeful excitement of being in a startup environment populated by expats from various parts of the world. You're not the only foreigner working at this small electronics manufacturer in China, and as someone who has worked for technology companies in various non-English-speaking countries, I can confirm that the e-mail conversations in Shenzhen I/O also do a pretty good job of capturing the feel of being in a globalized environment where most communications happen in English for convenience's sake but where a few messages in the local native language still slip in from time to time as locals get sidetracked into discussions between themselves. There's a sense that you're an outsider and yet part of the team at the same time; there's always an urge which pushes you instinctively forward as you realize that all these people came to this place because of a shared love of something (in this case, designing and building electronics) which they couldn't have done anywhere else. One e-mail message from an office organizer confirms: "We're here because what's possible in Shenzhen really isn't possible many other places in the world." The game does so much with so little, repeatedly evoking that sense of wonder that we get from being in a place that's simultaneously foreign and yet feels somehow like home.

The game's graphics aren't much to speak of, but they do have a certain ambience to them which suits the mood of the rest of the game. A particular standout is the music: although the game only has a few musical tracks, they're wonderful, combining a techno vibe with a swirling exotic groove that perfectly suits the rest of the game. This may end up being one of those games which, like MindRover: The Europa Project and AI Wars: The Awakening, I end up getting upset about just because it has such an amazing soundtrack that will fall into obscurity, unheard by most people because it's attached to such an obscure game which most people will never play. Shenzhen I/O even includes a solitaire card game which plays like a combination of Klondike solitaire and FreeCell but uses the images from Mahjong. I'm not sure if this card game was created just for Shenzhen I/O, but I haven't been able to find a reference to any similar card games on the Internet, and this solitaire card game is good enough to play a few times independently of the main circuit-building puzzles. It does a lot to make the game world feel even more exotic and yet welcoming, even alluring.

Of course, any game which tries to create a virtual representation of building electronic circuits and writing computer programs will eventually frustrate the player to some degree because of its inherent limitations and the corners which it cuts in order to be a game. There were moments while playing Shenzhen I/O when I said "You mean I really can't do (thing which I am accustomed to doing in real life while designing circuits or writing code)? That's nonsense! I would be able to do that in real life!" Don't expect the game to be free of frustrating moments. (Actually, expect it to contain quite a few frustrating moments.) Likewise, to be sure, if you're not the kind of person who has any interest in building electronics or writing program code, even the lovely sights and sounds of Shenzhen I/O probably won't entice you to play it for very long. But for a certain type of person, like myself, this game is a dream come true, a transcendent experience unlike any other. After years of creating games for engineers, Zachtronics have finally created the game for people who like tinkering with electronics and always thought that it might be fun to turn doing so into a game. If you read this entire description of the game which I wrote, you probably have a pretty good idea of whether you want to play the game or not. If you have no interest in electronics, you already know that you won't like the game, but if what I've written intrigues you in any way, I encourage you to give Shenzhen I/O a look; it is a true one-of-a-kind experience, and a true work of art for how it simultaneously reflects and also distorts a certain reality which anyone who's worked in the electronics industry or lived abroad will probably instantly recognize.
Thursday, November 17th, 2016
8:19 pm
When did I become political?
It strikes me that my last several posts on this blog have been highly political in nature. I don't just mean the last couple of posts in response to Trump's winning the election; it seems that in the last couple of years, my writing has become more overtly political, which I remember is something I explicitly wanted to avoid when I started writing here about 8 years ago. I even recall that at one point relatively close to the beginning, I wrote a post called "The political post," emphasis on the political post, as in the only post I would write of a political nature, in which I would clarify my views on politics and then let the subject rest after that. It's difficult for me to understand the path that brought me from there to here, from a point where I actively avoided politics to a point where politics seems to be one of the dominant topics in my thinking and writing.

There are a few reasons why I originally wanted to avoid politics, and why politics have become more evident in my writing. When I started out, I wanted to avoid topics which were "timely," because I didn't want to write something which would be obsolete in a few years. Discussions of current politicians in office or current candidates running for election are well and good, but in a few decades, they will mostly be forgotten and irrelevant. I specifically wanted to be a philosopher, not a political commentator, and while there is some overlap between politics and philosophy, in general philosophy is usually concerned with more universal principles than specific details. Which candidate is the best to vote for in an election is not a philosophical question; philosophy rather attempts to answer what it means to be a good politician, what the nature of good politics is, and how it affects people. I wanted to produce timeless writing, something that people could still read in 1,000 or 2,000 years as just as relevant as when it was written, and if you think that this is not possible because of the changing nature of our world, consider that the most fundamental and classic philosophical work of all, Plato's Republic, is quite specifically a work about politics, a book that seeks to define a general blueprint for the foundation of a good government.

So why did I change? Why has my writing become less general, less universal, and more focused on current affairs? I think a lot of this simply has to do with my shift towards being a little more "practical" with how I think: general principles are important, but they don't actually mean anything if you don't apply them. It is good to start with general ideas and universal principles, but if your life is to be of any value, at some point in time you need to put those principles into action and make the decision to take some specific course of action based on the principles which you believe in and hold important. In more recent years, I have come to the realization that pure philosophy as a way of seeing the world is not only impractical but perhaps even actively harmful because it avoids taking specific and necessary actions in favor of generalizing and rationalizing everything to the point where there is no good reason to do anything or make any concrete decision. I suppose most people who are "deep thinkers" go through a process of development like this: when they are younger and first introduced to philosophy, they get sort of lost in the big universe of ideas, and spend a while thinking in a very nihilistic sort of way, imagining (if not outright believing) that there is no meaning in anything and no reason to perform any action.

At some point in time, however, if your life is to have any value, you need to progress beyond such thinking. Ideas do not have value for us if we cannot turn them to some use. And so as I stopped being so sprawlingly philosophical, thinking about everything in terms of what it meant to the big wide universe, I became more focused on human beings and their social and cultural constructs. The questions I asked myself shifted from things like "What is the nature of reality?" and "How can we remain reasonable in an existence without explicit values or certainty?" and more toward questions about human values, like "What is the value of human society?" and "What is the ideal structure for a human community to have?" For better or for worse, it is difficult for such questions to avoid being political in nature, because politics is partly concerned with precisely this very idea of how human societies should be organized and the practical day-to-day administration of those communities. I am not so much concerned with politics in terms of power structures, but rather in terms of society and civics, how people can arrange themselves and manage their resources in a way that is most mutually beneficial to everyone. You can't really address these questions without being political on some level, because the field of organizing human civilizations and distributing their resources is, by definition, the field of politics.

So I guess it's not a bad thing to be "political" in the original and truest sense of the word, meaning to be concerned with the organized and sustainable management of human communities. The word "politics" has a negative connotation because it tends to be associated with the bitter and senseless fighting that occurs when one political dogma crashes into another, but if people leave their partisan squabbling and focus on forming mutually-beneficial partnerships that help their local communities, then politics can be a good and noble thing, a high calling for people who are pure of heart and mind, rather than the dirty, conniving game which so many politicians and would-be politicians have turned it into. It is not necessarily a bad thing to be political as long as this is done with the intent of building effective structures to help everyone rather than with the intent to gain power or to descend into the endless, pointless partisan discussions which have been the cause of so much conflict all over the world. When I first realized how political I had become in my writing and in my mind, I was disappointed with myself, but perhaps I shouldn't be; politics is not only useful, it's necessary for a human society. If you do it properly, if you keep the good of the people in mind, you too can become political and still keep yourself clean. As I continue to change as a human being, I hope that I will be able to do so.
Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
9:29 pm
The rope is back, and everything is hanging upside-down from it
If you study the opinions of other people, you have probably been surprised at various times by how people can have such conflicting, absolutely contradictory opinions about things. Some people insist that a tidy, well-ordered society is necessary for people to live happily, while others insist that a life of freedom, chaos, and anarchy, unbounded by rules, is the only life worth living. Some people insist that the individual is the focal point of human society and that therefore every single person should be allowed to do whatever they want with their own lives, while others maintain that human society is (or at least begins with) the sum of its parts, and that each person must act with regard to the entire community in order for people to live fairly and harmoniously. The United States 2016 presidential election highlights a point in history in which the United States, still usually considered the world's most powerful country, is perhaps more divided than it's ever been. Donald Trump is regarded by some people as the great leader which the country has desperately been lacking for decades, while others regard him as easily the worst presidential candidate the country has ever had. Likewise, Barack Obama is branded by some as a literal Messiah (I am not using this word myself; I literally saw it used to describe Obama in some magazine), while others deeply loathe Obama and the things he has done to his country. As usual, I try to find a balanced middle point between extremes, but it's difficult for me to understand or even observe other people's behavior without being taken aback by the sheer polarizing levels of frustration and hatred that are being expressed by both sides.

One of the problems which we, as thinking people, face in trying to make sense of this mess is that the only way we can really get information about what's happening on a broader scale is through the media. You can talk to individual people, friends or acquaintances of yours, and ask them what they think, but this is really a very small-scale view, only focusing on local people whom you know from your area. You can use the Internet or other communications media to talk to people who live farther away, but this is still limited to the set of people whom you can personally contact and communicate with. To get a more general national or global picture, all you can really do is get second-hand reports from news media, and as we know, the media is never neutral. I get a lot of my news from Western sources like CNN, but I also pay a lot of attention to Russia's RT (which formerly stood for "Russia Today") network, and the problem with sources like these is that neither of them lack an agenda. Both Western media outlets and Russian ones are absolutely saturated with unspoken assumptions and clear indications of an ideology which people living within those cultures probably just take for granted, but which seem surprising, even shocking to someone who is not familiar with them. An American who only watches American news media might be shocked at the idea that Vladimir Putin is a calm, reasonable, and peaceful leader, while Russians who only watch RT might be similarly shocked at the same idea regarding Barack Obama. A person who only pays attention to one of these perspectives is often easy to surprise, and you don't even have to be the polar opposite of them to shock them; even a reasonable, moderate opinion can shock a highly unbalanced person, because they are so used to their own worldview that questioning their assumptions comes as a surprise to them.

It is the nature of any conflict, especially a two-sided conflict, that each side will try to present the other(s) as the "bad guy." A thief will try to make themselves seem generous and accuse the other side of being a thief. A liar will try to make themselves appear honest and maintain that the other side is a liar. When Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of being a Russian puppet, Trump's response of "You're the puppet" epitomizes this phenomenon: each side was trying to present themselves as the voice of truth, and the other as a crook who had woven an extensive web of propaganda which was actually false. Whom are we to believe in a situation like this?

I think that most of my readership on this blog comes from the Western world--if nothing else, simply because I write in English, so let me ask you, my dear readers, a question which may surprise you by calling into question some of the assumptions you've been taught to believe in: are you really sure that the West won the Cold War, and that Russia lost?

Since 1991, the worldview which has been taught to the West is that the Western world won the Cold War because it was able to continue its system of "democracy" and "capitalism," while the USSR lost because it ended its "communist" system and ended up breaking apart. You might be thinking, at this point, that I'm about to present an alternate view suggesting the USSR won the Cold War, but perhaps a more correct thing for me to say at this point is that the Cold War never ended. Why do we think it ended, after all? Because the USSR broke up, and its constituent countries switched to an economic model based on the West? The breakup of the USSR might have actually made Russia stronger in the long-term, because breakaway regions like Ukraine which were less loyal to Russia were shaken off, and as for the economic system, Russia today is by no means capitalist in the same way that the West is; it's not communist in the same way that the USSR was, but it seems to have found a middle point, a system uniquely Russian rather than something modeled after another country's example. The 1990s were a difficult time for Russia, but that decade ended more than a decade ago. We've been hearing media reports that a "new Cold War" is brewing, but if you look at who's been the President of Russia since 1991, Putin already became president in 1999, meaning that Boris Yeltsin, the president from 1991 to 1999, was more of an aberration than a portent of Russia's future. Putin is a man with a tremendous amount of experience within the Russian system, having begun as a KGB officer in 1975, so if we consider "Russia" to be something separate from the "Soviet Union," then what's happening in Russia today is nothing more than a continuation of what was happening in Russia more than 40 years ago.

Meanwhile, as Russia's history has gone on in the supposed post-Cold-War era, the United States has become markedly weaker. The country which was once the world's shining beacon of freedom, democracy, and prosperity has been shown to be a hollow facade of empty promises and global imperialism.

A quote often attributed to Lenin states: "We will hang the capitalists with the rope which they sell us." A bit of investigation reveals that Lenin never actually said this, but even if he didn't, this line summarizes much of the ideological differences between the so-called capitalist and communist systems. The point was that modern capitalism's fanatical obsession with business deals and the pursuit of commerce would be its undoing. Indeed, today, a quarter-century after the Cold War supposedly ended, the West's global rampage, spreading ideas of "free trade" and "liberty and democracy" wherever it can has been its undoing. The incredible arrogance of the United States has weakened it rather than making it stronger; once again, pride came before a fall. This is visible from the national scale (a weakening economy and lessening global influence) all the way down to the personal scale (Hillary Clinton's loss of the election). It is especially visible in the various ways that the United States has quietly walked away from conflicts it once expressed a strong interest in. When the Ukraine crisis of 2014 began, the United States saw an opportunity to assert their global dominance by supporting the Ukraine government and forcing Russia to back off, but precisely the opposite ended up happening: Russia refused to step down, and the United States, realizing that it lacked a foundation to balance on, disengaged from the conflict, leaving Ukraine stranded. The same thing happened more recently with the conflict over Syria, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laconically admitting that he "lost the argument" when he advocated using military force to oust Bashar al-Assad. When Russia can force the United States to back down, it becomes apparent that the United States can no longer singlehandedly define the moves which every other country in the world must dance to. While its single-minded pursuit of global trade has gutted the United States, Russia has quietly been developing itself, amassing more and more strength. Today, the United States is probably the weakest it has ever been, while Russia is probably the strongest it's ever been. The Cold War didn't end with the West defeating the Eastern Bloc; the conflict is still on. The rope is back, and everything is hanging upside-down from it.

What I mean by this is that everything is the opposite of what it seems to be. Nothing makes this more obvious than the polarizing opinions expressed regarding Trump and Clinton during the election. Clinton painted Trump as a madman, declaring him so lacking in self-control that he couldn't even restrain himself on his Twitter account, and that a man with such a hair-trigger temper could not be trusted with the authority to launch nuclear weapons. Many Clinton supporters quite literally believed that Trump would start World War III if elected. Trump, of course, declared the inverse, namely that Clinton, if anyone, would launch such a war. Considering how lacking in self-restraint Trump was during much of his campaign rhetoric, it was easy for the media to present Clinton's allegations as valid. Yet consider the situation between Trump and Russia now: if the United States would start World War III with any country, it's likely that that country would be Russia. Yet Trump has promised better and closer relations between the United States and Russia; how could such a cooperative stance be more likely to start a war? If anything, it was the existing political establishment which struck an adversarial and confrontational tone. As I've mentioned, John Kerry advocated the use of military force as a solution for the problems in Syria. Hillary Clinton similarly made it a point during her campaign to explain how aggressively and forcefully she would go after Russia, trying to force Russia to do what the United States wanted, not only with Syria but also regarding other matters. Here's a news flash for you, Ms. Clinton: you don't resolve a conflict by charging up to the other side and aggressively informing them that they need to back down or else you're going to attack them. Quite to the contrary, that is how you escalate a conflict: threats and intimidation do not release tensions, but only increase them. Now, in the hindsight afforded by Trump's victory and the sudden but welcome conciliatory tone which Trump has adopted, it seems like Clinton was the lunatic after all, a person obsessed with flexing her might and showing how she wouldn't hesitate to use military force as a negotiating tactic. This image of Trump as a quiet, reasonable negotiatior and Clinton as a raving megalomaniac is absolutely the opposite of the image which the media presented us during the election campaign. "Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints..."

Recognizing how important it was that their chain of political dominance remain unbroken, Clinton and Obama are also guilty of trying to violate the spirit of the Twenty-second Amendment, with Obama openly declaring a couple of months before the election: "Can I just say I am really into electing Hillary Clinton? I really, really, really want to elect Hillary Clinton." Obama himself declared in this humorous video that he is actually happy that he can't run for a third term as president because he considers the two-term limit to be a great thing, but in subsequent speeches, he went on to declare Trump as unfit for the presidency and openly declared that he wanted Clinton to carry on the policies which he had implemented. What is the point of term limits if the previous president ensures that the next president will carry on the same set of policies? This is not only unprofessional behavior for a president, it actually explicitly violates the whole point of term limits. For the standing president to declare a candidate as incompetent and unfit is unprecedented behavior, not the kind of thing you'd expect from a guy like Obama, who is usually pretty professional in his behavior, but worse than that, it speaks to an apparent desire from the political elite to discard any notion of political reform and just frighten the populace into continuously voting for them.

If you've read all of this, you might be getting the idea that I support Trump as president, so let me reiterate what I've written before: I do NOT support Trump as president, and I am not happy about his election victory. My point with all of this is not to present Trump as a great presidential candidate, but simply to point out that the carefully-cultivated media image of Obama and Clinton as benevolent peacemakers is a huge lie. In a sense, I am glad that Trump won, because it sent a clear message that political elites can't continue to have their way by threatening the people with war and poverty forever; Americans have had enough of the ridiculous lie that they are the most free and most prosperous people in the world, and they finally opted to make a change by turning the political establishment on its head. That's a good thing. It's kind of a pity that Trump just happened to be the guy who ended up at the top, but let's give him a chance--for all we know, he might actually turn out to be all right as a president. Everything is upside-down at the moment, but things are probably going to rotate again soon enough, which won't mean that things are right-side-up again, but simply that they're skewed backwards in a different but similarly dysfunctional way.

Like the economy, which goes through boom-and-bust business cycles, it is the nature of politics to oscillate. Lest we forget, it was the Republican Party which freed the slaves in America in the 19th century, while it was the Democratic Party which ruled the South. As recently as 1976, California voted Republican and Texas voted Democrat--an outcome which would be unthinkable today. Somewhere down the line, the Republican Party stopped being the party of small-government, small-town classical liberalism and became the party for super-rich businesspeople and scary warmongers. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party stopped being about equality and fairness and started being the party for entitled upper-middle-class people who want to be told that they are good people. Nothing is as it seems, and nothing is as it was--don't assume that just because something was true a few generations ago, it still holds true today. Not all economically poor people are pure-hearted souls: some are hateful and greedy. Not all wealthy people are spoiled narcissists: some are capable of being reasonable and fair. If our world is changing, we can't make sense of it using the same stereotypes and categories which defined the world generations ago; we need to define a framework and a discussion which fits the time we are living in. But there's one principle which is almost always applicable: if the existing system is just not working anymore, you need to disassemble it and build something better. Even if Trump ends up failing to do the latter, he is an important step in accomplishing the former. The near future promises to be interesting; 25 years after the end of the Eastern Bloc marked "the end of history," we're watching history start up again, and that means new opportunities for you and me. I'm ready.
Monday, November 14th, 2016
8:35 pm
What makes a tool "powerful"?
A couple of years ago when I was taking a computer programming class in university, our teacher introduced a new programming language by describing it as "a fundamentally more powerful language" than the one we had been studying, because the language being introduced places less demands on the programmer--for example, unlike the language we had been studying, it does not require the programmer to declare variables before using them. This got me thinking about just what makes a programming language "powerful," and indeed, what makes any tool that people use more powerful than another.

(I realize that for some people, a programming language is not just a tool; for many people in many cases, computer programming is not simply a utilitarian function, but an art form, like writing literature or poetry. I appreciate the beauty of some program code and understand that the choice of a language is not only a functional decision, but in this post I am concerned only with the practical use of programming languages to make a computer program which does some desired task.)

To my mind, the purpose of a tool is to serve some useful function. The measure of a tool is not what you do with it, but what results you can get from it. A car is more powerful than a bicycle, because it can go faster than the bicycle. A rocket ship is more powerful than an airplane, because you can take the rocket ship to the moon, or a different planet; that's something you can't do with a regular airplane. With regard to the two programming languages we had been studying in university, however, a programmer could achieve the same fundamental result with both of them: any kind of program which could have been written in one language could have been written in the other language as well. To an end user who was using the program, there would have been no signs visible of whether the program had been written in one language or the other. The only benefit of one language, the supposedly more "powerful" language, was that it allowed programmers to be more lazy by paying less attention to their data types and not bothering to list the variables their program used.

I've written in the past that one thing which bothers me about the direction which has been taken by software development over the past several years is that it seems to be fixated on promoting ignorance in programmers by encouraging them to be wilfully unaware of how their programs work internally, focusing not on making software which works more efficiently or serves users' needs better, but simply on making things easier for programmers so that people with less training and education can write software. To a computer user, it would seem obvious that a technology is "powerful" if it lets you produce something which you wouldn't have been able to produce with older technology, but today's newer programming languages are not about producing a better result, but rather about making things easier for the programmer. It's important to avoid the easy elitism that one can fall into here: it's easy to demand that only highly skilled people who have been studying programming for years should be writing computer software, and while I don't want to say something like "If someone is too dumb to understand variable management, then they shouldn't be writing software," I do think that it's important for programmers to understand how their programs work, and that we don't really gain anything by encouraging programmers to be ignorant in how their programs run.

There once was a time when writing a computer program required the programmer to understand something about how to efficiently handle computer memory. Those days are gone; today, newer programming languages specifically make it a goal to eliminate the need for the programmer to understand memory management so that they can create data structures as large as they want without having to think about where that data is going to be stored. This probably says a lot about why today's software is so bloated: a web browser like Firefox thinks nothing of using up a few hundred megabytes of memory to render a simple web page, because computer memory is so abundant these days that surely, the thinking goes, such a "small" amount must be available at all times. Programmers are provided with a library of what might be called "magic functions," each of which acts as a pre-packaged gizmo that serves some specific task, and being a programmer today mostly consists of memorizing the huge list of functions available to them and what each of those magic tricks can do. Not only is there no impetus to understand how those functions actually work internally, there is even active discouragement to understand how they work: programmers are told that they should not try to understand what those functions are doing under the hood, trusting that the functions are doing what they're supposed to do, and that if something goes wrong, the programmer must be at fault for using the functions wrong, since surely the function library itself couldn't be buggy.

Even this might not be so bad if programmers appreciated how little understanding they really have of the overall system, but the going mentality seems to actively encourage the kind of stupidly arrogant elitism that many programmers suffer from, the idea that they must be very clever people because they can build a computer program out of the huge function libraries available to them, apparently not realizing that they are not much more than kids playing with building blocks: each function is a block that you can attach to another, and when you stack them together, you get a structure which is a working computer program. That might require some understand of how the blocks fit together, but today's programmers seem to have remarkably little perception of just how ignorant they really are regarding how each of those blocks functions internally. If a block breaks somehow, they become utterly lost, assuming that the block must work the way it has always worked and that for an individual block to yield an unexpected result is simply impossible.

Perhaps in recognition of this problem, the concept of "principle of least astonishment (POLA)" was developed, meaning a principle under which computer programming languages should astonish the programmer as little as possible. In other words, each feature should work as expected, and there should be no hidden surprises which a programmer would not reasonably expect when using the language. (The principle is also called the "principle of least surprise" among other similar names.) A language which attempts to adhere to this principle is Ruby, which might explain why Ruby has attained some relatively niche popularity, but even Ruby seems to miss the mark, because Yukihiro Matsumoto, the developer of Ruby, has declared: "[Programmers] come up to me and say, 'I was surprised by this feature of the language, so Ruby violates the principle of least surprise.' Wait. Wait. The principle of least surprise is not for you only. The principle of least surprise means principle of least my surprise." Here, again, we see the astonishing arrogance of the software developer: the point seems to be that if I understand how something works, then that's all that matters, and it's not important if anyone else understands it, because I understand what I wrote, and I see no reason why someone else needs to understand it. Matsumoto did add: "And it means the principle of least surprise after you learn Ruby very well," meaning that a person sufficiently familiar with the language should be able to use it without being surprised by it, but this is true of anything. Any system starts to surprise you less when you become more familiar with it and how it works and why.

The modern mentality that engineers should abstract the functionality of the systems they build because they're not actually supposed to understand how those systems work internally seem to have contributed to a dreadfully simple-minded mentality among people who work in the field of software development today. These people live and work in a world where for every need, there is already a pre-written software function just a few keypresses or mouse clicks away, where every problem has a copy-and-paste solution that you can just use as-is without having to understand how it works or what's really happening underneath the surface. This perhaps contributes to the absurdly childish arguments which people working in technology tend to present when asked about social, political, or economics matters. The prevailing mentality regarding the world's problems in this regard seems to be something like: "There are poor people in the world? That's an easy problem to fix: just give them more money. Surely money is as plentiful in the world as computer memory! What a simple, elegant solution! I wonder why no one in the world ever thought of it before. There must be some evil conspiracy of ultra-wealthy people who are maliciously keeping that money from the masses, just like my evil teachers in school tried to teach me how memory works! Too bad I outsmarted them by using a function which automates all of that."

There are those who would be quick to point out that this phenomenon is not restricted to computer programmers, that in fact most professions in the world today have been profoundly impacted by technology which allows people to do things more quickly and easily than they used to, even if the end results do not seem appreciably different to people who end up using them. Professional carpenters today are more likely to use electromechanical saws than non-electric hand saws to cleave wood, resulting in them being able to produce results faster. Likewise, construction workers building a house or other structure are more likely to dig out the foundation for the building using mechanical digging excavators rather than shovels, which certainly allows them to build a house faster. Yet the house does not function differently for its residents whether its foundation was dug with shovels or machines. You might ask, then: does this not invalidate my principle? Surely a backhoe is more powerful than a shovel because it allows the building process to proceed faster, even if the end results do not appear markedly different for their end user. I would respond in two parts: first of all, being a computer programmer is a very different field of work from being a construction worker. A computer programmer is a "knowledge worker," meaning that the primary focus of their job is to know and understand how things work. Abstraction of computer functions impedes programmers' efficacy in this regard by allowing them (encouraging them, in fact, and often outright forcing them) to remain ignorant of what their programs are really doing at runtime. Secondly, I do think that there is a danger in modern construction technology in that it allows people to construct with less regard for the consequences of what they are doing. The backhoe is, from a layperson's perspective, a physically more "powerful" machine than the shovel, but is it "better"? Just as today's computer data abstractions allow programmers to use magic functions to do everything, modern technology allows people to build almost anything almost anywhere in a relatively short span of time (by historical standards) without having to think about the effects or consequences of what they're doing. That is not a good thing for a city planner to have, because many city planners end up working on development projects which backfire due to a failure to appreciate the environmental, social, cultural, or economic consequences of modern construction practices.

Technology is certainly a powerful and useful thing, and we should use it, but we should use it wisely and judiciously. We should not use it just because we can; we should understand and appreciate the effects and the consequences of what technology does. We cannot allow ourselves to be led into a blind alley by assuming that our powerful machines will just keep working in the way that we expect them to. This applies equally to physical systems like a mechanical or electric machine, information systems like computers and data networks, and administrative systems like governments and businesses. It is important that we understand what's going on. It is important that we seek to understand how things work and what the consequences of these workings are. Otherwise, even as we make our machines more powerful, we make ourselves, as human beings, powerless through our own deliberate ignorance.
Saturday, November 12th, 2016
10:02 pm
"Korobeiniki" discovered in the Apple IIgs version of Tetris after all
In 2012, I wrote that although I had discovered the use of the "Trepak" music from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker in the Apple IIgs version of Tetris, the identity of the other musical snippets from that game eluded me, including the mystery of the supposed presence of "Korobeiniki," the music most widely associated with Tetris, which Wikipedia claims is in the game but which I could not find in the game. I recently asked my wife, who is Russian, if she could identify some of the other music from the Apple IIgs version of Tetris, and I'm happy to report that not only was she able to identify a couple of the other songs from the soundtrack as real Russian folk songs, she also identified the location of "Korobeiniki," which, humorously enough, I had heard in the soundtrack but had not recognized simply because like most Americans, I am so used to the Game Boy version of this music that a more authentic version is not intuitively identified as the same music. The specific location of "Korobeiniki" in the Apple IIgs version of Tetris is on "level 5" (actually the sixth level, since the levels are numbered beginning with 0), on the level with the mountains in the background. It has a very textured, plucked-string-instrument sound to it, not at all like the square-wave sound of the Game Boy music, which is why I didn't recognize it at all.

For reference, there is a YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsckunONU_w which presents all of the music from the Apple IIgs version of the game, in order. A list of the songs my wife and I have thus far identified, then, looks like this:

Title: Подмосковные вечера (Moscow Nights)
Level from the Apple IIgs version of Tetris: 1
Appears in the YouTube video at: 1:05

Title: Очи чёрные (Dark Eyes)
Level from the Apple IIgs version of Tetris: 3
Appears in the YouTube video at: 1:46

Title: Во поле береза стояла (In the Field Stood a Birch Tree)
Level from the Apple IIgs version of Tetris: 4
Appears in the YouTube video at: 2:18

Title: Коробейники (Peddlers)
Level from the Apple IIgs version of Tetris: 5
Appears in the YouTube video at: 2:36

Title: Трепак (Trepak)
Level from the Apple IIgs version of Tetris: 7
Appears in the YouTube video at: 3:10

Title: Яблочко (Little Apple)
Level from the Apple IIgs version of Tetris: 8
Appears in the YouTube video at: 3:24

Curiously, the music from level 2 does not sound like a rendition of "Эй, ухнем!" (Song of the Volga Boatmen), despite that music's ubiquitous presence in Russian folk music and the fact that it would fit perfectly with that level's background graphics.
Wednesday, November 9th, 2016
7:51 pm
The day after tomorrow
I'm surprised, but not shocked.

First of all, don't panic. The world is not going to end tonight. Or even tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. I am pretty sure of that.

What I don't know--what no one knows yet, including probably Trump himself--is: what will happen the day after tomorrow?

I mean the figurative day after tomorrow. I don't literally mean November 11, 2016. I mean: what do the next 4 years have in store for us?

This is a question not only for Americans. It's a question for the whole world. The USA is often acknowledged as the world's sole remaining superpower, and so what happens in that country will inevitably send ripples throughout the globe. The question is not if, not even when, but rather what: what will happen?

Again, I don't know. No one knows. But let's remember that this happened for a reason. It was not for nothing that people voted for a man with no political experience. I don't support Trump, but it's not difficult to imagine why someone would. For the people asking the sensible question of "How and why could this happen?", the answers are pretty clear. It's obvious that Trump supporters are dissatisfied, angry that the country has been going the way it has, and people believed (probably rightly so) that President Clinton would have been a continuation of the Obama presidency, meaning: another 4 years of nothing really changing. Eight long years ago, Barack Obama won a campaign based on promising "change" to America. The events of yesterday's election are the result of Obama's failure to deliver on that promise. Don't get me wrong: I don't have a specific problem with Obama as a president, and he did all he could from his position and his worldview, but Obama himself admitted that there are limits to what a government can do, and while some positive changes were made, he wasn't able to create the kind of sweeping changes that might be the only way to save America now. Ladies and gentlemen, let's rejoice: change has come to America. And whether it ends up being a change for the better or for the worse, it might just be the jolt which the system needs right now to really restructure itself in the way it desperately needs to restructure itself. I am not delighted by the prospect of a Trump presidency, but I acknowledge that considering how badly the United States has stagnated for the last 17 years, a drastic change might be necessary as the catalyst that results in transformation.

Perhaps the funniest reaction I saw to Trump's presidency is an article which declared that a President Trump would be a bad thing because it would impede the process of globalization. This is kind of like saying that if you've been poisoned, you should fear the prospects of an antidote, because that would impede the action of the poison and save your life. The current political mode is supposed to impede globalization and undo the damage it's done; that's the point. To fear a Trump presidency because Trump might set back globalization is exactly as stupid a reaction as all the hand-wringing which happened after the Brexit vote, media-stoked terrors that the sky was falling and the entire economy was collapsing because the UK was becoming a sovereign country. The markets were supposed to become damaged: it was about striking a blow against big, global business and trying to distribute some of the action to the lower classes. For the media to declare that Trump is a bad thing because he might impede globalization is for the media to show how desperately out of touch it is. It's true that globalization can bring jobs to the United States, but it seems to have escorted more jobs out of the United States, and given that more people have lost jobs to globalization than gained jobs from it, and since democracy favors the majority, the people who had lost jobs to globalization won the election. That's how democracy works. For every American person you can find who can claim to have gained their job through global trade, there exists more than one person who has lost their job through that same trade. So when unemployment, underemployment, and low wages are serious issues, and if globalization is a net negative in this regard, why wouldn't people do something to stop it? People did exactly what made sense. If foreign business stops wanting to invest in the United States, that's great news: it means that American companies will be forced to create jobs for Americans, developing the American economy instead of weakening it by just selling that work to whichever country has the cheapest labor.

Let me be clear about one thing: readers may remember that I was very happy about the Brexit vote. It made sense (and still makes sense, I think) for the UK to leave its dysfunctional relationship with a dysfunctional European Union. I am not very happy about President Trump. But the reasons for this have to do more with the man as a person than his political policies. It must be admitted that a person being an outrageous, offensive buffoon does not inherently prevent them from being an effective politician. Those who read my previous musings on the election will recall that I dismissed Trump not because of his personal rhetoric, but for the simple reason that he lacked a political platform and seemed to be running for the sole reason that he was a media personality and wanted to further inflate his already absurdly top-heavy ego. I still believe that much of this is true. But as I read some of the international reactions to Trump's win today, something struck me: there are actually many countries around the world which welcome Trump's presidency. Contrary to what American media might have you believe, it's not only Russia which is celebrating Trump's win--apropos of which, by the way, Russia's elation is not a bad thing at all: if the United States and Russia, two of the world's most powerful countries, can get along together instead of fighting each other, how could such cooperation and partnership be a bad thing? But in any case, it turns out that there are actually several countries, mostly economically disadvantaged countries, which are glad about Trump's policy of non-intervention, because they seem to have the hope that this means the United States will stop incessantly sticking its nose into other countries' business the way it has been doing since World War II. Hillary Clinton would have had you believe that the USA's policy of making sure that it determines what happens in other countries, a policy which it has assumed as a matter of course since World War II, is the best way to ensure peace. Actually, the USA's post-WWII policy of getting involved in foreign affairs which it has nothing to do with--Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya--is something which most of the world is well sick of, and which has been one of the primary motivators of anti-American terrorism. A great deal of the world has had to endure decades of abuse from the United States imagining itself to be "the world's policeman" which must intervene in every foreign conflict, and many of these countries are now actually celebrating the prospect of being able to independently and autonomously manage their own affairs without Uncle Sam coming over to tell them whom they must elect and what policies they need to enact. Trump's victory was a surprise, but the bigger surprise might be that his presidency could be the best thing that has happened to the world in decades.

Or it could be the worst thing. We still don't know. Here's the thing, though: the election is over. We can't change that history anymore. There is no more going back to the past now; there is only a future ahead of us. And I think that the literal crying and despairing that I've heard today is a little overdone. Whatever happens now, my friends, we can only go forward. We won't know what will happen under a President Trump; it could be great, it could be terrible, but in all honesty, I think it will probably be just another few years of nothing much really changing. Then again, I was already wrong about something before: I, like most other people, expected Clinton to win. It's clear that all bets are off and that at this point in time, anything can happen. Trump himself made a point of gloating during his campaign that he wants to be unpredictable, and he will probably continue to be exactly that right up to the last day of his presidency.

So for now, let's follow the advice of that famous World War II poster: "Keep calm and carry on." Let's continue with our lives just as we did before, but let's also be cautiously optimistic for the future. Let's embrace the possibility for change, my friends. What the world needs right now is a good shake-up. It might be painful in the short-term, but in the long-term, we have a lot to gain, and a lot we can learn from the experience of a President Trump. Please don't be afraid--World War III is not going to start because of this, and in fact, something good might start because of it. At the very worst, it'll be another few years of political mismanagement, the likes of which we would have gotten with any other president anyway. When it's over, we can all say that we watched history unfold.
Saturday, November 5th, 2016
5:33 pm
What would you do if you found out your life wasn't real?
The idea that our life is not as we perceive it, that our whole understanding of reality is distorted if not outright falsified, is one of the earliest and most fundamental ideas in philosophy. Plato's allegory of the cave, often considered the most famous philosophical idea in our recorded history, likens our existence to that of people in a cave who only see shadows of reality flickering against the cave wall. This idea has been carried by humanity throughout history, reaching another famous peak with Descartes' simple formulation "je pense, donc je suis", suggesting that this was the only thing which Descartes could be certain of. In more recent times, as modern technology and its movies, video games, and "virtual reality" have shown us how easily we can be immersed in a simulated perception, many people have begun to realize just how easily we can be fooled, just how simple it would be to trick a human consciousness into believing in something that wasn't really there. Several respected scientists have even concluded that we are, in fact, probably living in a computer simulation of sorts, with this TEDx Talk by George Smoot going so far as to boldly title itself: "You are a Simulation & Physics Can Prove It".

A somewhat different but related idea is the thought that maybe what we are seeing is real, but constructed. In this mode of thinking, the things we see are really there, but the entire life we've been given and living is somehow constructed without our knowledge. While The Matrix spoke to the former idea--that our entire reality doesn't exist at all--this latter idea is something more like The Truman Show. Neither of these ideas are new, of course, but I cite these two movies as well-known representatives of these ideas which are widely recognized in our popular culture. Another notable portrayal of the latter idea is this video for Beck's song "Nausea", which I link to because there are actually several videos for that song, and this particular video (of Beck walking down a street at night) is the relevant one here.

One thing I want to ask about these developments is: if people are taking this idea seriously, doesn't this validate the whole concept of God after all? For centuries, "enlightened" people, people who believe in reason and science, have attacked the idea that there could be a God, insisting that the notion of some big man living in the sky and watching over us is a childish fantasy. In more recent times, the term "intelligent design" has gained currency as a more scientific alternative to classical ideas about "the Creation," but scientists have continued to denigrate intelligent design as something which only idiots believe in. Now scientists are coming along and saying that they consider it likely that our world is some kind of a computer simulation, and I can't help but ask: aren't our "intelligent design" and our "computer simulation" just two different terms for the same thing? If we're living in a computer simulation, there must have been some computer programmer, someone equivalent to The Matrix's "The Architect," who is very much a God-like figure in that series of movies. Admittedly, the Matrix movies borrowed much of their ideology and symbology from Christianity, but even many religious people who believe in God admit that it is a bit silly to imagine the classical image of God as a bearded old man, so if we accept that God can have some other form, then aren't scientists today suggesting, with their ideas of a simulated reality, that someone designed our world after all?

The real question I want to ask, though, the more practical question which I want to pose to anyone for whom this idea is of interest, is simply this: even if our world isn't real after all, what are we supposed to do about it? What would you do if you found out your life wasn't real?

In this regard, at least, I suppose that my way of thinking is very "practical," because I don't see the point in spending a lot of time or thought on something which we can't do anything about. Similarly, I am not interested in the lengthy and heated discussions which some people get into over the origin of the universe--whether it evolved over billions of years as a matter of chance or whether it was designed by some Creator--and I am not too much concerned with the question of whether intelligent life exists on other planets, for two main reasons: first, these are questions which we can't conclusively determine the answer to, and secondly, even if we could, what would we do about it? If we ever make contact with beings from other planets, then I'll start thinking about what we might want to communicate with them about, but until then, I don't see the point in fantasizing about something which we have no knowledge of.

The same applies for the question of whether our lives are real. Even if our lives aren't real, we'll probably never have any way of finding out, but even if you did, even if you someday saw concrete, irrefutable proof that you were living in a simulation or computer program, what are you supposed to do then? Shake your fist at the sky and shout "I know you're out there, computer programmer gods!" or start some kind of protest group to go out and march in the streets? Contact the police, a lawyer, or the UN? Commit suicide because your life isn't real anyway? I don't see the point of pursuing any of these courses of action. Speaking for myself, even if I discovered now that everything I knew was a lie, I don't think I could do anything other than continue living my life the way I have, since there just wouldn't be anything else I could do about it. Both The Truman Show and that video for Beck's "Nausea" end with the protagonist walking out through a door, but in our life, there is no door that we can just exit through, except maybe suicide. (Sartre's famous play No Exit reflects this.) People have sometimes come to me with the question of whether I think all of this is real, and I never really know what to say in response. Quite honestly, I don't know, and I don't really care, because it doesn't make any difference to me either way. If anyone has any plans or ideas for what I (or we, if I am in fact not alone in the universe) can do about this, I'm open to suggestions, but until I hear a serious course of action that makes sense to take, I can only continue to live my life. What other choice do I have? So I'm not worried about these questions or their answers, and I don't think you should be either. But that's just my opinion; if it's important to you to worry about these things, that is your decision, and you can think about them as much as you wish. Just understand that you're not going to get anywhere in the end with such thinking.
Thursday, November 3rd, 2016
8:32 pm
All the good people are already dead
"The good die young." It isn't hard to understand why this saying came about and why it seems true. People who are idealistic, noble of heart and mind, and attentive to the needs of others tend to be gentle, sensitive souls who just can't deal with the harsh realities sometimes seen in our world. Often they end up committing suicide because they are not willing to live in such a world. Even people who don't end up directly killing themselves in a single decisive act often end up indirectly killing themselves through their own refusal to do things that would benefit their survival (as in the case of Simone Weil, for example), and sometimes their idealism takes them to such extremes that they end up getting themselves killed through a sheer fearless insistence on doing what they think is right (as in the case of Olga Romanova of the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis). The people who survive often do so through their own selfish desire to do things for themselves. If we generalize this principle, then, it makes sense that most of the people in the world are basically bad people who exist primarily for the purpose of survival: anyone with other intentions is likely to get themselves killed, leaving behind a world of coarse people who are interested in little more than self-preservation.

This principle doesn't just apply to the simple idea of biological survival, however. It applies in a more figurative sense as well. In systems which are modeled after the "might makes right" principle, people who make their way to the top generally tend to be the most ruthless and the most fanatically obsessed with power and its acquisition. This is particularly true in business, for example. Business doesn't reward generosity, fairness, or thoughtfulness. Business usually only rewards the most vicious and greedy. Whenever you see a businessperson who has reached a high-ranking position in a large company, you can usually be assured that they got there through a long series of acts of pure greed. Particularly at the very top, when you look at company founders who built their business from the ground up, it's apparent that those people structured their business through the businessperson's single-minded, fanatical devotion to a single idea. Bertrand Russell said it well: "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts." An intelligent, thinking person is usually willing to consider both sides of any issue, to listen to different opinions and weigh them in making a decision. Unfortunately, business does not reward this kind of careful, balanced, judicious thought process; business rewards the people who charge forward mindlessly toward some target, not knowing what they're doing or why, but blindly thrashing around like a maniac because they demand to be "successful."

The same idea applies in a social and cultural way as well. The people who get the most attention in social reforms are the people who scream the loudest and make the most noise. People who sensibly and thoughtfully advance social causes are drowned out by the constant, deafening screams of people who chant, over and over, "We want rights! We demand the right to (do some thing which is personally important to them), and if we don't get it, we'll scream even louder and make even more trouble until we get what we want!" These people never seem to think or care about whether anyone else actually cares about their little pet issues, or whether the issues they're campaigning for actually improve the world or the quality of life for anyone else. They want the government, the media, and society in general to cater to their preferences, and they'll attempt to shut all of human society down if they don't get what they want. Meanwhile, people who are actually trying to enact change that would benefit humanity at a broader level are made invisible because no one is interested in their ideas. The things which actually matter to people, the things which shape our lives and influence our future, are not even discussed as issues, because they are so completely eclipsed by trivialities which people inflate into nation-breaking issues to feed their own sense of self-importance. Causes for humanity wither and die, while special-interest groups continue to rage on with their protests, imagining that they are making the world a better place by trying to force governments and societies to capitulate to their demands for what they want from the world.

We live in a beautiful world populated by astonishingly ugly, brutal people. Rare indeed is the good person who is blessed enough to continue living a good life for a while. All the good people are already dead, and if you are still alive, you too face the choice of becoming an ugly, stupid, and vicious person to propagate your own existence, or disappearing from the world and becoming forgotten. I must have made the wrong choice since I'm still here.
Tuesday, November 1st, 2016
7:47 pm
A program to make playing Civilization much easier
Okay, I've really done it this time. After writing this post and later this one, I finally just went ahead and wrote a program to properly automate the process of making the DOS classic Civilization much easier to play, the way it should be. I got lazy and wrote it in C instead of assembler this time, but I am not too ashamed of this since the program consists mostly of data structures and direct file-level reads and writes.

The only things you'll need to set are the two #defines at the top, the first of which defines the filename of the saved-game you wish to edit, and the second of which you'll want to set according to which civilization you're playing as in the game. (Valid civilizations and their corresponding numbers are in the comment right below the relevant #define line.) Make sure to quit the game and run this program REGULARLY while playing to prevent the enemy civilizations and barbarians from ruining your progress.

#define SAVEFILE "CIVIL0.SVE"
#define CIVNUMBER 1
/*
1: White (Romans/Russians)
2: Green (Zulus/Babylonians)
3: DK Blue (French/Germans)
4: Yellow (Aztecs/Egyptians)
5: LT Blue (Americans/Chinese)
6: Pink (Greeks/English)
7: Grey (Indians/Mongols)
*/

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
{
  char goodmoney[2] = {0x30, 0x75};
  char badmoney[2] = {0,0};
  char goodresearch[10] = {0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF};
  char badresearch[10] = {0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0};
  char goodfood[4] = {0x70, 0x70, 0x70, 0x70};
  //Don't use FF for food or it will become negative and the city will have no food.
  char badfood[4] = {0,0,0,0};
  char palaceblueprint[22] = {4,0,4,0,4,0,4,0,4,0,4,0,4,0,0xFF,0xFF,3,0,3,0,3,0};
  char spaceshipblueprint[132] = {0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0x06, 0xFF, 0x07, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0x08, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0x08, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0x07, 0xFF, 0x06, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0x06, 0xFF, 0x07, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0x08, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0x08, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0x07, 0xFF, 0x06, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF, 0xFF,
                                  0xFF, 0x02, 0x01, 0x02, 0x02, 0x01, 0x01, 0x02, 0x02, 0x01, 0x02, 0xFF,
                                  0x04, 0x00, 0x04, 0x04, 0x00, 0x04, 0x04, 0x00, 0x04, 0x04, 0x00, 0x04,
                                  0x03, 0x00, 0x03, 0x03, 0x00, 0x03, 0x03, 0x00, 0x03, 0x03, 0x00, 0x03};

  char bytebuffer[1];
  int i;

  FILE *filepointer;
  filepointer=fopen(SAVEFILE, "r+");

//Money starts here
  fseek(filepointer, 0x13A, SEEK_SET);
  for(i=0; i<7; i++)
  {
    if(i+1 == CIVNUMBER) {fwrite (goodmoney, 1, 2, filepointer);}
    else {fwrite (badmoney, 1, 2, filepointer);}
  }
//Money is finished

//Researched discoveries start here
  fseek(filepointer, 0x4F2, SEEK_SET);
  for(i=0; i<7; i++)
  {
    if(i+1 == CIVNUMBER) {fwrite (goodresearch, 1, 10, filepointer);}
    else {fwrite (badresearch, 1, 10, filepointer);}
  }
//Researched discoveries are finished

//Make the level of future technology research really high
  fseek(filepointer, 0x8BAC, SEEK_SET);
  *bytebuffer = 0x90;
  fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
  fseek(filepointer, 0x8BAD, SEEK_SET);
  *bytebuffer = 0x01;
  fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
//Future tech level has been set

//Now we do the cities
  for(i=0; i<128; i++)
  {
    fseek(filepointer, 0x1513 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
    fread (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
    if (*bytebuffer == CIVNUMBER) {
      //Set food and money for this city
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1514 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      fwrite (goodfood, 1, 4, filepointer);
      //Food and money for this city have been set
      //Now set the buildings for the city
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1508 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      fread (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      *bytebuffer = *bytebuffer | 0xFE; //Avoid changing whether the city contains a palace
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1508 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1509 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      *bytebuffer = 0xFF;
      fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      fseek(filepointer, 0x150A + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      *bytebuffer = 3; //Avoid turning on the spaceship bits, and also avoid power plants to avoid pollution
      fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      //Buildings have been set for this city
    }
    else if (*bytebuffer != 0) {
      //Set food and money for this city
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1514 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      fwrite (badfood, 1, 4, filepointer);
      //Food and money for this city have been set
      //Now set the buildings for the city
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1508 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      fread (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      *bytebuffer = *bytebuffer & 1; //Avoid changing whether the city contains a palace
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1508 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      fseek(filepointer, 0x1509 + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      *bytebuffer = 0;
      fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      fseek(filepointer, 0x150A + (i*28), SEEK_SET);
      *bytebuffer = 0;
      fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
      //Buildings have been set for this city
    }
  }
//Cities are finished

//Let's fill in the game map too, so we don't have any "Fog of Civilization"
//Note that this only reveals the big main game screen's map, not the minimap in the upper-left corner.
//(The minimap is not stored in the .SVE file, but rather in the accompanying .MAP file,
//which, believe it or not, is actually a picture file stored using a compressed image format.
//That's not something you can easily edit using a little hex editing, and it's not worth
//getting into just to see the full minimap. If you really want to view those images, you
//can do so using Joel McIntyre's PicViewer program or darkpandaman's JCivED program.)
//Also note that this causes other civilizations to be destroyed by barbarians at an alarming rate,
//so much so that you may find it hard to play the game, because you keep "winning" due to
//all the other civilizations being destroyed. If you want to play the game for a while, you
//may want to comment this part out.
  for (i=0; i<4000; i++) {
    fseek(filepointer, 0x56C0 + i, SEEK_SET);
    *bytebuffer = (1 << CIVNUMBER);
    fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
  }
//The map is now fully visible

//Build up our palace so the game stops bothering us about what part to develop next
  fseek(filepointer, 0x918A, SEEK_SET);
  fwrite (palaceblueprint, 1, 22, filepointer);
  fseek(filepointer, 0x93B8, SEEK_SET);
  *bytebuffer = 37; //There are 37 possible additions to the palace, so this will max it out.
  fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
//The palace is now fully built

//Build the spaceship
  fseek(filepointer, 0x8BF6 + (CIVNUMBER*180), SEEK_SET);
  fwrite (spaceshipblueprint, 1, 132, filepointer);
//The spaceship is now fully built

//We can also disable the barbarians.
//Note that doing this breaks the game in such a way that you can't win by defeating all the other civilizations.
//If you do this, the game will simply keep going, even after you have defeated all the other civilizations.
//You can still win with this, but you will need to manually turn on the least significant bit
//of location Ch in the saved-game file before defeating the last city of the last civilization.
  fseek(filepointer, 0xC, SEEK_SET);
  fread (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
  *bytebuffer = *bytebuffer & 0xFE;
  fseek(filepointer, 0xC, SEEK_SET);
  fwrite (bytebuffer, 1, 1, filepointer);
//Barbarians are now disabled

  fclose(filepointer);
  return 0;
}
10:19 am
Why is Apple still not getting it after all these years? No really, why aren't they?
Almost a year ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook made the following statement with reference to the launch of the iPad Pro: "I think if you're looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one?"

It's nice to see that Cook is carrying on the legacy of his predecessor, Steve Jobs, by making it abundantly clear that he is utterly clueless and lacks a concept of how people use devices. Steve Jobs was famously ignorant of how technology works but made a career for himself as a salesman anyway, and now Tim Cook is proving, years later, exactly why Apple devices are useless trash.

Think about a big-screen computer monitor. Think about that sitting on a table, and you being able to see it comfortably from even a couple of metres away without having to strain your eyes. Now compare that mental image with the idea of watching a video or playing a game on a tiny handheld screen that you have to lean in close to see. Similarly, imagine the idea of a proper keyboard that you can type on with all 10 fingers while receiving real tactical feedback from keys that move, and then compare that idea with the idea of tapping with two fingers on a tiny piece of glass. You have these two experiences on offer, and Apple's CEO is seriously saying that he can't see a reason why people would choose the former over the latter. Thank you, Mr. Cook, for providing all the reason I need to explain why I don't buy Apple products. I could not possibly imagine a more clueless, ignorant comment about technology. And this is coming from the CEO of the world's biggest publicly-traded company and most valuable brand.

Remember that famous quote from Ken Olsen of DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) which he said in 1977? Specifically, the quote was: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Things have come full circle. In the 1980s and 1990s, Olsen's quote was widely repeated as a sign of how ignorant and short-sighted the computer industry had been. Today, when Tim Cook says it, it's supposed to be visionary. Seems like Olsen might have been right; he was just 40 years ahead of his time. Except that both people are still wrong. Instead, let me ask the opposite question, even though I've asked it many times before: when you have the choice between buying a computer and buying a smartphone, why would you buy a smartphone? Seriously, why would you? Why would you trade the opportunity to see things on a big, comfortable screen and use a big, comfortable keyboard for the experience of squinting at a tiny screen that you have to fumble around with your thumbs on? I literally cannot comprehend why anyone would make that deal, why anyone would prefer something awkward and uncomfortable to something which is simple, efficient, and effective. Why would anyone hire Tim Cook? No really, why would they?
Monday, October 31st, 2016
10:05 pm
What should people and societies want?
When I was a child, I often watched cartoons on television, as I suppose most children do. It is sometimes surprising to think about the ways in which these aspects of childhood influence our thinking as we grow up and continue to subtly shape our worldview into adulthood. Much is made of how Western cartoons promote violence in children through the constant element of fighting between characters, even if that fighting is comic in nature, but this influence is perhaps less insidious precisely because it has received considerable media attention and so we are aware of it. Potentially more dangerous are the things which we pick up as children but don't realize and therefore remain an unconscious influence on our thinking in the form of unquestioned assumptions. In my case, one thing which I picked up from my childhood cartoons is that characters almost invariably wanted to retire on a beach. Any cartoon episode which featured some kind of money-making scheme (which is, tellingly, a common theme in Western cartoons) would nearly always be driven by some dream or fantasy which the schemer holds of being able to afford living on a beach, sitting by the ocean and having dancing hula-girls bring them piña coladas all day. I never really consciously thought about or questioned this idea, since as a child, one doesn't really think about what you are supposed to do with money, and so I grew up with this idea, even carrying the assumption partially into adulthood that every person's greatest wish and desire in life is to be able to live a life of absolute idleness and luxury, usually associated with tropical beachside locales and abundant music, dancing, and alcoholic drinks. I never asked myself whether this assumption was valid or whether this was a good life goal to have, but even if I had, I would have probably come to the conclusion that there wasn't anything else to aspire to; what else could a person want from their life?

It wasn't until I had become an adult and already been working for a while that I began to question the idea of what people should aspire to and what they should want to do with money. After all, people spend most of their lives working for money, and so it seemed to be a reasonable question to ask myself (and others) what a person would do if they already had all the money they needed, if they had enough money that they didn't have to work anymore. As my career developed, this became an increasingly pertinent question, because I was spending the best years of my life working just to have enough money to pay for rent and food, and it struck me that if my life was to be worth anything, I would need to devote it to more than this. What was the ultimate goal, then? Supposing that I someday got into a high-paying position where I could make a significant surplus of money--more than I needed for just the means of survival--what would I then do with all that extra wealth? I came to realize, in time, that I was not very much interested in sitting on the beach and just drinking and listening to music all day. So just what did I want? What should I be aspiring to with my life? What, in general, should people want to do with their lives and the time and other resources which they have during those lives?

I was always very heavily into computers, especially computer games. I am the kind of person who, if locked in a dark room for the rest of my life, could probably live quite happily if I had a constant supply of computer games to play for the rest of my days. In a certain sense, perhaps it's nice that my wants are relatively modest, that I don't want expensive riches or luxury but simply a computer screen to make little pixelated game-characters live their lives on, but it struck me, too, that perhaps this was not a constructive or helpful dream to aspire to, that me living the rest of my life in the form of computer games would probably not fulfill my potential as an adult, as a thinking human being with the ability to make thoughtful and deliberate decisions with my life. I started asking other people questions, usually a question along the lines of "If you had enough money right now that you didn't have to work for the rest of your life, what would you do with your life, with the time, money, and abilities that you had?" I came to understand, through the answers which I got from people, that although most people don't specifically dream of the cartoon ideal of living on a sunny beach for the rest of their lives, people's desires for their lives are, for the most part, basically selfish. Most people have something which they're into, an interest which they could happily pursue for the rest of their lives. For me it happens to be computer games, but for other people it might be extreme sports such as mountain climbing or skydiving, it might be artistic expression through media like drawing or music, or it might be any of the other hobbies which people pursue as leisure-time activities. Even the people with family ambitions, people whose greatest wish and desire in life is to have children and raise them, are essentially selfish in this desire, since that is something which they want, and there is no way to ask their yet-unborn children whether those children want to be raised by that particular person.

This idea extends into the realm of the people who think bigger and aspire toward making global change. Throughout history, there have always been people who wanted to be "global players," conquering nations and ruling them from a position of power. Even people who don't aspire to be kings, presidents, or other heads-of-state often think at this level and want to participate at this level, which is part of why fascism was so successful in the 20th century: in retrospect, we have the benefit of history to tell us that 20th-century fascism was a direct path to brutal dictatorship, but at the time, for the people who rallied behind it, fascism was about building better, stronger people, and individuals who believed in their country were willing to sacrifice their personal interests for the sake of the greatness of their nation and their countrymen. For better and for worse, the same motivations remain with us today: there are still people who are willing to go against their own self-interest, even against common sense, for the sake of what they consider to be a higher cause. The difference is that today, with people disillusioned with the idea of instilling noble and lofty values in people like modesty, communitarianism, and self-improvement, most people who believe in "community action" have embraced ideals of personal freedom and independence--essentially, the freedom to "do whatever you want." One of the problems with this thinking is that it is a contradiction in terms: given that people's naturally selfish desires are usually focused on themselves, the idea of promoting the best possible values in people by creating a world in which they are freed from any constraints and given permission to do whatever they want with themselves cannot create the best possible people or the best possible lives. This does not mean that all people are inherently evil; I believe that there is a natural goodness in people too, a desire to do something that is right, but most people need some amount of guidance to realize these desires, and you can't really create a nation of good people by just telling everyone to run loose and do whatever they feel like doing.

In a larger sense, one of the most serious problems with people trying to impose their own vision and values onto the world is the principle of unforeseen consequences. Every large-scale shift in the political, economic, or social systems which guide people's lives has resulted in outcomes which were not (and could not have been) foreseen, because people lacked enough information to predict what would happen after those changes. This has been a consistent problem with every effort to improve the world. Even when people are driven by the desire to create a more fair, just, and sustainable world, they often make the mistake of carrying this ideal to extremes without understanding the effects of what they do. A commonly cited example in the present-day world, perhaps because it's a dramatic and obvious one, is the state of the Middle East after the West's attempts at intervention: Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi may have been dictators, but their removal by the West has served only to destabilize the countries they ruled by leaving a devastating power vacuum in their wake, and similar effects are now being seen in Syria due to the relentless efforts to remove Bashar al-Assad. Perhaps some people honestly believe that they are doing the right thing by trying to interfere in foreign politics this way; perhaps they honestly believe that they are making the world a safer, fairer, and overall better place by doing so. And yet even a casual glance at conditions reveals quite the opposite to be the case. The West's current maniacal push toward "social justice" is utterly counterproductive, making the world a less just and less safe place. It would be better for the world if these people would stop their efforts and mind their own business.

And yet that is something which people are not willing to do. The one thing which would probably help most at this point--a policy of non-intervention--is precisely the one thing which these people are not willing to do. A significant reason for this, it seems, comes back to the principle of selfishness and self-motivated desire for fulfillment: people feel the need to make something out of their lives, to do more with their lives than just fall into the living-to-work trap, and they believe that by advancing their political and social causes, they can turn their lives into something more than what they currently are. A great deal of the political and social activism which happens in the world today exists for precisely this reason: people who feel personally powerless and insignificant, people who feel dissatisfied with their lives, people who feel a desire to fill that void in their lives by validating themselves with the idea that they have made the world a better place by pushing their agenda onto it. Lest anyone accuse me of hypocrisy here, let me be the first to confess that I have these same desires myself: I, like any other thinking person who pays attention to the world, am horrified by the state of the world and also feel a wish to improve it in my own small way. Yet I acknowledge that any efforts on my part to do so could likewise create problems which I cannot and could not foresee.

Even if we acknowledge this reality, however, that still leaves us with the question: what else are people supposed to do, then? Are we supposed to just withdraw from the world, retreat into our little caves and live our lives in isolation from the world? I think there is a middle point between these two extremes, and this brings me back to the point I have made several times before in this blog: the real value of a human life is in small communities, small settlements where people are personally acquainted with each other instead of in large, globalized spaces where other people are complete strangers and social discussion happens in isolation which most people neither see nor contribute to. The problem with current "social justice warriors" is their insistence on carrying out their plans for the world within their tiny cliques of like-minded people, developing ideologies and plans which suit their own values but which are not discussed with the larger community nor weighed against the impact on people who might not share the same values. It seems like people might be better off sticking with the model of small communities, communities which clearly communicate their own values and desires among their own members but have no desire to propagate those ideas outside of their own borders.

A valid criticism of this idea is that it necessarily creates fragmented, balkanized communities which have little presence beyond their own immediate area, but the thing is that human beings naturally settle into such patterns anyway: even in large countries with "globalized" and "multicultural" populations, residents naturally settle into enclaves where people with particular values and lifestyles live together and people with incompatible values are excluded. This is the natural state in which human beings live. You know the saying "Think globally, act locally?" I used to think that saying made sense, but lately I'm wondering if we should even forget the "Think globally" part and just try to focus on our own local circle of people, building strong, unified communities of people with similar values and a similar vision for what they want from their lives. Perhaps it's better to have a world of relatively insular societies which mind their own business rather than living amid the chaos of a globalized world where every person is trying to tell every other person what values they should have and insisting that anyone who doesn't agree with the one true set of values is an evil person. One of those ideas is a social system which humanity has adhered to for thousands of years; the other is a self-defeating idea which is destined to collapse under its own weaknesses. Which one would you choose?
Friday, October 28th, 2016
7:12 am
"Allein kann man nicht frei sein"
An art project undertaken a few years ago in Berlin seeks to achieve a sort of urban renovation and renewal by painting philosophical quotes on various structures around the city. German artist Wolfgang Nieblich found the concrete blocks used for various construction projects in Berlin-Mitte (a central district of the city) unbearably ugly, and ended up compiling a list of thoughtful quotes and painting them on a few dozen of these concrete blocks, naming the art project, appropriately enough, Auf Beton (On Concrete). Information on this project is barely even available in German let alone in English, but for those who want some more information and don't mind translating from German, there's more on this subject here, as well as on Nieblich's German-language Wikipedia article. As much as I am disappointed by much of the direction which Germany has been taking over the past few years, I do find it encouraging, and a strong sign of why I prefer Germany to most other countries, that while most countries would try to beautify their cities by putting up brightly-colored works of "modern art" which look curious but mean nothing, German artists beautify their cities by painting stark text on blocky concrete. It says a lot about how German thinking is still more inclined to value the content of an idea rather than just trying to make things look entertaining or appealing, and gives me hope that if there is any nation still worth fighting for in this world, perhaps Germany is one. It may have gotten a lot worse in recent years, but at least at Germany's core, somewhere deep inside, there is still a soul, something which lives for more than just business and pleasure, which is more than I can say for most European countries today. But moving away from national identities for a moment, one of these quotes which particularly interested me happens to be unique not only because it is from a relatively unknown figure, but also because the figure in question is still alive. I'm referring to the quote: "Allein kann man nicht frei sein" by Reinhard Knodt, which translates into English as "One cannot be free alone," or perhaps more idiomatically, "You can't be free by yourself." I'm inclined to think that he's right. Without taking the interpretation of these words too literally or to too much of an extreme, I believe that he has a point.

Human beings are naturally interdependent creatures. We depend on each other for our survival. A single person living in the wilderness alone, away from any human settlement, would find it difficult to survive, let alone to create a good quality of life for themselves. And after all, isn't life all about quality and not quantity? It doesn't really matter if you manage to scrape out a bare survival if your life isn't good; that would be a type of "freedom" more in line with the American ideal of freedom, a wild, feral notion of freedom which eschews the idea of human society and emphasizes a person living by their own savage survival instinct amid chaos. That is not freedom; as long as we are slaves to some desperate need to survive from one day to the next, we cannot be free in any meaningful way. Useful, productive human society, in which people are craftspeople who produce food and other useful objects that make our lives easier, actually helps to make us paradoxically more free: although it makes people interdependent on each other for their sustenance, it also allows them more personal free time and helps to ensure some level of stability, survivability, and sustainability which a person living alone among wilderness wouldn't have. To be sure, there is no such thing as complete freedom: we can never be free of basic human needs or of the laws of science which restrict us, but a reasonable level of personal autonomy and independence can be achieved by people working together to create a better life for each other.

This effect seems to drop off, however, once human settlements become quite large. When a human settlement contains only a few hundred or a few thousand people, the co-existence of those people together in the same village or town is mutually beneficial. As cities become very large, however, they begin to return to a savage state, a state in which each person is mostly fighting for survival because there aren't enough resources for everyone and it is not possible for people to support each other in a long-term sustainable way. Once a city starts to contain millions of people, it becomes so saturated with human presence that rather than forming close social and cultural ties to each other, people tend to isolate themselves from one another, and people end up being as alone as they would be if they lived in a place with no people at all. Human experience suggests that the greatest freedom and quality of life comes from people living in small, quiet settlements where most of the people know most of the other people by name. Human safety, health, and quality of life diminish rapidly when people move from such a small-town model toward a big-city model. So, again, I think that Knodt is right: you can't be free if you are completely alone, but we shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that if some is good, then more must be better: in moderation, human society and civilization makes us and our lives better, but too much of a good thing destroys us.
Wednesday, October 26th, 2016
8:58 pm
The Walmart lesson
I don't think I've been very secretive about my opinions on business and how our modern economy believes that all of human life should revolve around business and commerce. As much as I loathe the modern business mentality, however, I tend to read a lot about it, partly because it dominates so much of our world that I simply can't get away from it, and partly as a sort of "know your enemy" thing, the need to understand what I oppose in order that I may oppose it intelligently. Of course, one must be careful when doing this to avoid having one's perspective warped by living in a skewed reality for too long (cue Nietzsche's quote about how he who fights monsters should be careful to not become a monster himself), but when you look at business, it's often easy to find lessons in it about how business works and exactly why modern business is such a bad thing. Last year, Walmart, the world's largest company by revenue, gave us a sad lesson in how the economy works (or doesn't work) by taking what should have been a simple, good idea, and getting negative results from it.

On February 23, 2015, Walmart announced that it was increasing the base (minimum) wage of its employees to $10 per hour. This news was met with widely different reactions. Some people praised the world's largest company for paying a relatively fair and livable wage to its employees as a response to historical claims that Walmart employees were underpaid wage slaves. From a humanitarian perspective, this gesture from Walmart was generally appreciated and well-received.

Businesspeople had other ideas. The increase in employee payroll costs caused a significant dent in Walmart's profits, and by October of the same year, Walmart's stock had plummeted 10 percent on concerns about the company's profitability. It remains true that no good deed goes unpunished: after making a move which was designed to benefit its employees, Walmart received no reward, and indeed, experienced a financial loss.

Some people will say that the long-term benefits to Walmart's business in terms of employee loyalty will pay off, but the thing is, the vast majority of Walmart's employees are unskilled retail workers with minimal training. These people are, in business terms, mostly disposable: if they choose to leave, they can be immediately replaced without any need for training or a lengthy hiring process. So employee loyalty frankly doesn't mean anything to Walmart. I appreciate the company's efforts to try to treat its employees more fairly, but from a business perspective, the Walmart wage increase was a pure loss for the company.

I say this to point out a basic principle of business. Many people ask why business or governments don't just increase the wages of the lower classes, or try to offer increased benefits to employees as a way to offer a better life. The answer is simple: it doesn't pay off. I am not saying that it should be this way; I am not suggesting that I approve of this thinking, but I am saying that it is this way. Remember the reason why a business is created: to make money. Businesses are not started with the idea of providing a high income or quality of life to the business' employees; that is in most cases a complete non-factor. Business are founded and maintained with the sole aim of gaining a profit, and anything which impedes this goal is actually an obstruction to the whole purpose of the business.

The Walmart lesson is a lesson to us all. Anyone who wonders why businesses don't treat their employees more fairly should examine the Walmart wage increase and the net effects for the company. This history reveals why business functions the way it does and why gentle efforts to make businesses treat employees more fairly are not welcomed by businesses. Again, I make no claims that it should be this way; I can only say that it is. Your employer sees you as nothing more than profit, and if you do something to prevent the company from profiting off you, there is a very good chance that the company will cease your employment. This is true for nearly everyone, because as I recently observed, we're all low-skilled workers. No matter what job you have, companies go to great efforts to make sure than no one is essential or irreplaceable. Your job can be whisked away from you at any time, and if you do anything that is contrary to the company's bottom line, chances are that it will be. This is actually a very simple principle; some people try to complicate it because they imagine themselves to be clever, but the world, by and large, operates on such a simple principle that the next time you ask yourself why the world is the way it is, the answer shouldn't be far off.
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