Human civilization has never been sustainable

Around 20 years ago, when the dot-com craze was just reaching its peak, there was a great deal of discussion about how the success of Silicon Valley could be replicated in other parts of the world, and many efforts to put these ideas into practice. We thus have many different cities and regions around the world with "Silicon" in their names, including multiple locations which have branded themselves "Silicon Beach", "Silicon Prairie", "Silicon Alley", and "Silicon Mountain", along with some more location-specific names like "Silicon Bayou" in New Orleans, "Silicon Cape" in Cape Town, South Africa, "Silicon Mallee" in Australia, and even the punnily-named "Chilecon Valley" in Chile. What all of these locations have in common, however, is that they are all failures. None of them have ever come even close to capturing the sheer revolutionary changes and excitement which surrounded the South San Francisco Bay Area from the 1960s through the 1990s. It's not difficult to have a handful of technology-focused start-up businesses in a particular city center, but that isn't what Silicon Valley was really about; it was about changing the way the world handles information by making a totally new category of information machines which can store more data than the human brain and transmit that information anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. That's something which had never been done before, and that's why the computer revolution was revolutionary.

An important take-away from this idea is that the success of Silicon Valley cannot be replicated. Many people have tried to analyze the various factors which contributed to Silicon Valley's success and then replicated these factors, resulting in the various "Silicon" places around the world which are very much akin to cargo cults: Just as cargo cults believe that by building airstrips, they can summon those incredible flying airplane gods which brought them things during World War II, people trying to replicate Silicon Valleys believe that with the right combination of factors, they can deliberately spark the next dot-com boom. In reality, Silicon Valley didn't really have anything special about it which set it apart from anywhere else in the world. Certainly, the presence of the nearby Stanford and Berkeley universities helped, but many places in the world have world-leading universities which are hotspots for all manner of scientific and technological research. Certainly, the presence of a nearby military airfield (Moffett Field) was an important factor, as military applications were one of the key factors driving electronics research. Certainly, a pleasant climate which attracted expatriates and an abundance of personal and industrial wealth were important factors. But if you just put a couple of universities, a military base, and a bunch of rich people in some part of the world with perennially mild temperatures, all you'll have is a couple of universities, a military base, and a bunch of rich people in some part of the world with perennially mild temperatures. What does it take to make a place more than the sum of its parts? How can people create the synergy that leads to historic events like the development of the personal computer and the Internet?

The answer is very simple: You don't. You can't. No one could have foreseen the development of the personal computer and the Internet. No one could have foreseen the manner in which these were developed. And no one could have foreseen where they were developed. Silicon Valley got lucky when a handful of small companies which started there happened to become successful, but that success could just as easily have happened in New York, or in Europe. It happened that at that point in human history, the world was ready for the idea of a computer, and when the device came into existence, it lit the world on fire, with an unprecedented craze centered around the idea of learning about these new devices, making more of them, getting them into the homes of everyday people, and finding ways in which they could be useful for education, business, and personal use. Silicon Valley didn't become the center of the computer industry because it has top universities and nice weather, it just happened to be the place where a couple of early computer companies were started. Had the founders of those companies decided, by sheer chance, to start their companies somewhere else, the "Silicon" place would have ended up somewhere else on the globe.

The 2011 Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris is a love letter to a city often seen as the most beautiful in the world. In the movie, the main character, while traveling in Paris, is magically transported back in time to the 1920s, where he meets the legendary figures of that place and time, from novelists like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to visual artists like Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. The movie is great fun, but near the end, there's a somber moment as the time traveler realizes that these famous residents of Paris do not realize how important they would end up being to history. To their own minds, they were nothing more than a ragtag bunch of writers and artists, just like any other; the residents of 1920s Paris certainly did not know, and could not have known, that their work would end up defining much of the 20th century. They did not set out to do anything like this, and there was nothing really special about Paris which made it uniquely possible to set history there in way which couldn't have been done in London, New York, or other similar global centers of culture. To be sure, Paris is a lovely city (and was probably lovelier back then), but communities of artists exist in every city in the world, and Paris didn't have any unique quality which made it more possible to create art there than anywhere else. It simply happened to be a fortuitous place at a fortuitous time in history.

Although I have just described two places which could hardly be more different from each other--a place which was once the global center of the computer industry and a place which was once the global center of the art scene--I hope that the similarity between the two places is clear: Neither of these places could have been intentionally created, because there was no unique quality which either of them had which enabled their success. It just so happened that at one particular point in human history, the conditions were right for such a place to become famous for a while. And what's important to note, indeed, is that both of these places were only important for a while: After the year 2000, Silicon Valley rapidly began to decline in importance as electronics manufacturing and software development were largely offshored to Asia, and today it is notable mostly for its history, not for anything which is happening there right now. Similarly, Paris is a city full of history, but its present is that of any similarly-sized city; it does not have much to distinguish it other than the history of its buildings, streets, and plazas. If you want to become an artist, you wouldn't have any advantage from starting in Paris; you could just as well start in London, or Berlin, or for that matter, Lagos.

Indeed, when one looks at the places where classical civilization began, these tend to be, as far as history can tell, places where people's lives were not much different from elsewhere. When people think of the beginnings of philosophy, their thoughts inevitably drift to ancient Greece, but we know from the writings from this period that Greek people were actually not generally inclined toward philosophy or even thoughtfulness; ancient Greece, just like human settlements today, was marked by loud, bawdy parties full of people drinking alcohol and exchanging pointless conversation. When Rome followed Greece as the center of European culture, it mirrored this same pattern: People sometimes idealize Rome as a place of scholars, artists, and poets, but in reality, Rome was a dirty, corrupt city full of people whose only intention was to have a good time by eating as much as they could and getting as drunk as they could. Yes, Rome may have been Europe's center of culture, industry, and academia, but that certainly doesn't mean that most Romans spent their time actually contributing to these fields.

These principles apply to every location of human settlement and every period in human history. From the beginnings of human civilization, which was not limited to Greece and the Roman Empire but also developed separately in places like China, the Arabic world, and Mesoamerica, through history-defining eras like the Renaissance and all the way up to the present day, human society has always remained constant: Humanity has never been more than a species of stupid animal, and the small number of exceptionally gifted people who contributed to humanity's great strides in science and art are not representative of the species as a whole.

For any such historically-significant places, people, and events, the following points are thus universally applicable:

- Places and events which define history happen spontaneously; they cannot be planned or deliberately made to happen.
- Such periods in history are inherently temporary; they cannot last forever. Humanity is inherently a species of stupid animals which just lives a and amuses itself, but does not achieve greatness.
- Historically-important periods and places tend to be exaggerated by the lens of history; in reality, such places were mostly populated by the same stupid, ignorant, animal-like humans as anywhere else. They just happened to have a very small minority of different people who formed their own community where they were, not because there was anything special about that particular place, but just because that happened to be where they were.
- Such periods of history can never be repeated, because they are one-time events that occur in response to particular conditions at that place and time in history. You can't invent the computer twice. You can't paint the Mona Lisa twice.

These lessons are relevant for anyone who would seek to bring humanity to the peaks it has previously attained, or to still higher peaks. The lesson here is that you can't do anything like that, because humanity has actually never reached any peaks in the first place, and is incapable of doing so. At the very best, if you're lucky, you may be able to make a handful of very bright friends, people who represent the very best of what humanity is capable of, and work with those people on whatever you might agree to work with them on. But if you want to act on behalf of humanity as a whole, you're wasting your time and energy, because no matter how many pearls you cast before swine, those swine will never build a necklace.

As such, appeals to human beings' better nature are futile. You cannot deliberately cause human beings to be intelligent or live intelligently. You cannot inspire people to become interested in art, science, technology, literature, or philosophy. Either people have an inherent interest in these things, in which case they will seek out these things independently, or they do not have an inherent interest in these things, in which case trying to force them to be intelligent is counterproductive.

The reality is that human civilization has never been sustainable, and cannot be sustainable, because civilization is not built by large groups of people, but by small groups of people with the intelligence, perception, will, and talent to do so. If these people are unlucky, their civilizations die with them, as they may be unable to find worthy successors to carry the civilization further after its founders die. If people are a little luckier, the civilization may last longer, but no civilization can last forever, because human beings are too stupid to sustain anything for very long. If a civilization becomes big and popular, eventually it will become overburdened by the weight of the stupid people moving into it or procreating within it, and it collapses under all that dead weight. You cannot avoid this outcome, because it is physically built and programmed into human nature. Individual human beings may break away from this archetype, but humanity as a whole does not.

Why pay more?

Growing up in any culture, there are certain ideas which people learn so thoroughly that few of those people ever think to question those ideas. There is a certain notion that people who fanatically believe in something will verbalize their beliefs continuously, but in fact, the most deep-seated dogmas are the ones which people never verbalize because they never even think about those ideas: When people believe something so implicitly that it never even occurs to them to think about it, much less question or discuss it, then those areas are difficult to analyze, because people are not even aware that they hold these ideas. This is what Slavoj Žižek referred to as "unknown knowns"--things we don't realize that we "know"--while riffing off a speech made by the recently-passed Donald Rumsfeld. In your life, if you have ever been explicitly told something, then you were given an occasion to consider what was being said to you and consciously accept or reject that idea, but there are many things which you implicitly believe because you have always been led to believe that those things are true, but they were never raised in any discussion, and so you never even thought about them.

Growing up in America, one of the ideas which is implicitly taught to Americans in this way is that a lower price for anything is always better. American consumers tend to be incredibly short-sighted when they look for any kind of product or service and will readily buy the cheapest thing on offer without any further consideration for the properties of what they are buying. The mentality is that the cheapest option is always what you should buy, period. I remember advertising which I saw while growing up which marketed products with the simple slogan "Why pay more?", as if the price of the advertised product alone justified its purchase; clearly, the question was meant to be rhetorical.

In reality, of course, there are various reasons why it might be worthwhile to purchase a more expensive product or service rather than a cheaper one. Perhaps the most obvious one is quality: Things which are very cheap are often cheap because they are poorly-made and will easily break or otherwise malfunction. There is a saying in German: "Wer billig kauft, kauft zweimal", meaning "Who buys cheaply, buys twice", because after you realize that the first thing you bought is cheap because it's a piece of trash, you have to buy a second, higher-quality product. I think that even in America, there are many savvy consumers who are smart enough to realize this and will consider the properties of what they are buying before they actually put down money for something. But price is not just about quality; there are various other reasons why people may want to pay higher prices for something which rarely seem to come into the heads of price-conscious American consumers.

A little over four years ago, I wrote about a conversation I'd had with an older Swedish man who complained that milk is too cheap in Germany, because the measly income which farmers earn with such prices negatively impacts the farmers' quality of life as well as the quality of their products. At the time, I wrote that Germans are not likely to differ much from Swedes on this matter, but having now spent more time in Germany, I am more inclined to feel that Germans would also not complain about their milk prices being too low, and that the sentiment expressed by this Swedish gentleman was something more characteristic of the Nordic mentality, which would be happy to spend 10 or 20 more cents on a milk carton if this could improve living and agricultural conditions for farmers. The economy is a global community: The money you spend on nearly anything goes to many different people in many different parts of the world, because ingredients for foods and parts for machines are generally imported from many different sources in many different countries. When you spend money, it doesn't just disappear: It goes into a huge market, and somebody receives that money. This being the case, there is a certain ethical imperative to ensure that your money is going to the right people and not financing unscrupulous businesspeople. Quite recently, products have started to be labeled as "fair trade" products to make such buying decisions easier, but the problem is that most products are still far from being fair-trade, and thus not many products can bear such a label. As this issue is not often discussed, it seems to not occupy a high position in the thinking of most American consumers; at most, people may be aware that what they are buying was probably produced by child labor in Africa or Asia, but lacking any buying alternatives, they resignedly buy what is on offer.

So far, we have two reasons for paying more for something: Firstly, to get something that is of better quality, and secondly, out of the humanitarian wish to create better conditions for the people producing those products. I recently came to understand, however, that there is a third reason why some people may want to pay more which specifically applies when buying space rather than manufactured goods: In such cases, what you buy may be better just because it is more expensive. This is somewhat related to the first case in that you are paying more for better quality, but whereas buying quality goods is more expensive because it requires better materials and more work to make a quality product, spatial products are sometimes inherently better for no other reason than that they are expensive.

Interestingly, I think that most Americans who have a lot of money are aware of this idea through the process of buying real estate, but I came to this understanding in a rather more roundabout way: Through the practice of riding in trains. Most long-distance trains in Europe are divided into first-class and second-class sections, and the price difference between these two is sometimes significant, which has often led me to wonder: Why do people bother traveling in the first-class section? What benefit do they get from it? As far as I can tell, the seats are slightly more luxurious and they offer slightly more leg room, but does that really justify the price? I remember once seeing graffiti scrawled in a train station asking "Who rides first class?", and this echoed the question in my own mind. Out of curiosity, I tried it once when I saw a first-class ticket being offered at a discount, but I found no real benefit; the seat wasn't even materially more comfortable. It looks nicer because it's made to look more luxurious, but either my butt and back are not refined enough to be able to appreciate the difference between the two types of seats, or the whole idea of the seats being better is just a sham being sold to people with too much money. I reached the conclusion that there is no reason to buy first-class train tickets, and did not give the matter much further consideration.

More recently, however, I read an interview with a particular personality where the subject of international rail travel in Europe briefly came up. The interviewer asked whether the personality preferred first- or second-class travel, and the answer came: "I travel second-class when I'm traveling for personal reasons, but I book first-class when I'm on a work trip, because there are less people in the first-class cabin, and thus there are less noises and less distractions, so I can concentrate and work better while on the train." When I thought about it, I had to admit that this made a certain kind of sense: Long-distance trains are always full of families with perpetually-screaming children, people who never learned the concept of the "indoor voice", and people who literally lack the most basic concepts of human civilization and think that it is acceptable to play music on portable loudspeakers instead of using headphones, thus forcing a train full of people to listen to their horrible "music" for hours on end. These people, lacking any human qualities like the ability to think intelligently, are likely to reflexively buy whatever is cheapest and thus inevitably end up in the cheaper second-class accommodation, meaning that if you pay a little extra for a first-class seat, you're not actually paying for anything material in terms of the product itself, you're paying for the benefit of being in a quiet, productive place, away from the rabble which pollutes the world with its idiocy.

It is thus valid to say that people who pay for first-class train tickets are not paying more money to get anything materially different from the product or service they are buying, they are paying more just to be in the company of other people who are willing and able to pay more. Rich people paying to be in the company of other rich people and get away from the poor masses.

What conclusions you reach about this idea depend on your personal life experiences. People who are of a lower economic class are likely to see this idea as disgusting, elitist, and discriminatory. People who have ever had to do any kind of work which requires intense mental concentration while someone is playing loud music or making other noise in the vicinity are likely to be more sympathetic toward this idea and understand that people who need to get things done need to be able to concentrate on their work.

There is a popular idea among the economically disadvantaged that the wealthy are just a bunch of crooks who do nothing but smoke cigars all day and laugh together about how much money they have. Although I have never been wealthy, I have worked in various companies where some people were quite wealthy, and through my experiences with these people, I came to the understanding that wealthy businesspeople actually work quite hard, often for much longer hours than the people who work normal 9-to-5 hours. You could question the value of what they are working on--after all, they are not working on producing a great book, painting, or musical composition which will benefit humanity, they are just working on maximizing their company's own profits--but then again, when you look at the grunting, dead-eyed trash which occupies the second-class parts of trains, it becomes apparent that they aren't producing anything of value, either. Given the choice, I personally would rather be seated in a place where it's quiet.

When I came to understand the potential value in spending more money just to be in a physical space with other people who are willing and able to spend more money, it became immediately clear to me that this same principle has obvious applications in real estate. Because I have never been wealthy, I have never lived in particularly expensive places; I have always tended to rent whatever is the cheapest apartment I could find. This has the natural consequence that I tend to share apartment buildings with other people who are also the most economically-disadvantaged people in the city. My neighbors have always been people who throw trash into the building's hallways, people who stay up late playing loud music and smoking drugs (it's not like they have a job to go to the next day anyway), and people who heap thousands of children and dogs into a tiny apartment, thus creating an environment where there is always some child screaming or crying or a dog barking or howling.

Because I have always been barely able to afford my own costs of living, it has never really occurred to me to think about buying more expensive apartments to try to mitigate these problems. When I look at an apartment, I tend to look at the quality of the apartment itself, because that is all that you can really see, and it is not difficult to find clean, well-built apartments that do not cost much money, so I usually end up going for these. The problem, of course, is that other people also follow this same process, which is why I end up with neighbors who are stupid and uncivilized. It does occur to me, when I think upon the matter, that living in more expensive housing would cause me to have a different class of neighbors, although I am not quite sure what they would be like. One of the big problems with looking for a place to live is that you can't see your neighbors and so you won't know what kind of people are living next door until you've already lived there for a while.

This being the case, it is obviously wrong to believe that more expensive places automatically have better neighbors. It would be a lie to suggest that wealthy people are all classy; of course, there are wealthy people who lack self-control, going on cocaine-fueled benders and crashing million-dollar sports cars just because they can. But it would be equally absurd, if not more so, to suggest that all economically poor people are classy; while there are obviously other people like me, people who are poor because they are more interested in reading Kant than figuring out how to become wealthy businesspeople, there are also plenty of people who are poor because of drug addictions (bearing in mind that music is a drug), lack of self-control, and sheer apathy. Living in a wealthier neighborhood could potentially help mitigate some of these problems and grant me the benefit of neighbors who better understand the importance of self-discipline, striving for big life goals, and fostering new development. And all of this comes not from buying any inherently better product or service, but just from paying more for a space.

This is why I say that "spatial products" are particularly affected by this idea. When you are buying a train ticket, you're not really buying anything other than a space on a train. When you buy real estate, you are not really buying whatever house or building exists on the property; what you're buying is, above all, the space itself. If you don't like a house, you can always renovate it. In fact, you can tear down the house and rebuild it, and if you live in a city, doing this will probably cost you much less than what the property itself would cost, because in real estate, what's really expensive is not the building, but rather the space. This is why people always say that the three most important things when shopping for real estate are "Location, location, location". Anything else about a property can be changed: If you own a house, you can modify or scrap and rebuild that house however you want, but you can't change where the property is located, and if the area has bad neighbors, that's something you cannot change.

So when you're buying a space, it may be worth paying more money to get a good space. When you're buying any physical good, it may be worth paying more money to get a high-quality product. And if you're socially-minded, you may want to spend more money on products just to enable a fairer economy and a better quality of life for the people who produce those products. But all of this being the case, there are still plenty of people who are short-sighted enough to just see prices, and automatically buy whatever is the cheapest thing they can find. Those people deserve exactly what they get.

European D&D alignments

Lawful good: Germany, Austria, Slovakia
Neutral good: UK, Hungary, Croatia
Chaotic good: Russia, Scandinavia, Lithuania
Lawful neutral: Poland, Switzerland, Slovenia
True neutral: Netherlands, Finland, Microstates
Chaotic neutral: Czechia, Ireland, Ukraine
Lawful evil: Spain, Serbia, Åland
Neutral evil: Italy, Albania, Romania
Chaotic evil: France, Greece, Bosnia

Lessons in Realpolitik

I recently looked through Machiavelli's The Prince, a book with a reputation that I feel its contents don't quite live up to. The book is neither as original nor as dangerous as its reputation seems to suggest, although perhaps I say this simply from the perspective of someone living in a modern world where "moderate" politics are far more radical than anything which anyone would have even considered in the 16th century, when the book was published. The Prince happens to be the kind of book which I have never had much interest in reading, as it is essentially an instruction manual for people who want to get into politics, and as someone with neither the intent to become a politician nor even a particular interest in politics, the book seemed to have little to offer me. I think, however, that I am at a point in my life where the book offers a certain perspective which I can appreciate, as the book is not only advice for politicians, but also, by proxy, a commentary on human nature. Had I read this book when I was younger, I might have had the same reaction to it that many, perhaps most people have upon reading it: I would have thought it to be monstrous and cold-hearted, a book not fit for any ruler who wishes to improve the lives of their subjects but rather a manual for tyrants, the kinds of rulers who perpetuate unspeakable abominations with their power.

There are many who would dismiss The Prince as at least outdated if not guilty of worse flaws, because it represents the political world as it existed at the time of the book's writing, a time when monarchies were still common, countries were often simply taken by military force and a military victory was seen as justifying the conquest, and ideas like "democracy" were seen as optional rather than essential, like the decision between different flavors of ice cream. It is true that countries today are rarely simply taken as a military act: One country's military rarely marches into another country, defeats that country's military, and thus considers the latter country to suddenly be a part of the first, and when such military conquests are performed or attempted, they are generally condemned by the international political community, thus forming a world where such straightforward military domination is usually untenable. But although global politics have changed fundamentally since the publication of The Prince, one thing that never changes is human nature, and so when it comes to politics, one thing which has never changed is what people want from their government, and indeed, from their lives: Bread and circuses. All that people really want is survival and entertainment; they are indifferent to anything else.

It is a deep understanding of this reality which has colored and changed my political perspectives over the past two decades. There are people who say that you cannot understand another person's reality until you have walked a mile in their shoes, but this is especially true for politicians. As a contrasting example, people who work in customer-service jobs often express the feeling that customers do not appreciate or respect them, because said customers have never worked in such positions. Well, this wasn't true for me: I always had respect for people who work in retail stores even though I've never been one, because although I have never actually worked in such a position, I recognize that those people are human beings just like anyone else, and thus ought to be treated with basic human respect. The same goes for people who work in technical-support hotlines: Although it is true that I worked for years as a telephone technical-support assistant, I had respect for such people before I worked as one myself.

But politics are different. I think it is fair to say that while most people can imagine what it's like to work in a retail store even if they have never done so, the everyday life and reality of politicians is so far removed from most people's awareness and experience that what people imagine the everyday reality of politicians to be and what it is actually like to be a politician are two such completely detached ideas as to have practically nothing to do with each other. And so people build up ideas about politicians, ideas based on ignorance and misconceptions rather than any kind of actual awareness or understanding. We are constantly told by other people that the government is just a place full of greedy, corrupt people who exist only to abuse us, the good and virtuous public who were generous enough to vote for those politicians. Like most people, I grew up believing these things, because they were repeatedly to me constantly, and when someone grows up hearing the same lie repeated constantly by everyone, they will gladly agree with that lie and even aggressively defend it in the absence of any evidence to support that lie. So when I was younger, I stupidly believed that the government exists only to oppress us and that the point of political involvement is for the general public to secure freedom from that government. To be sure, this is a particularly American idea, and my notions of politics may have formed differently had I not grown up in America, but a similar mentality exists among the general populace of most countries in the world: The government is our enemy, and we the people are virtuous and correct simply because there are more of us.

Today, I still do not have much of a particular interest in politics specifically, but I have spent the last couple of decades examining, as much as I can, the ideas, goals, lifestyles, and opinions of various people from various walks of life all over the world, because I wanted to better understand human nature, and politics being something which is important to many people, you cannot study the world's people in this way without also getting some concept of how they regard politics and their relation to their governments. After a while, if you examine people enough, patterns begin to form, and if you see the same pattern repeating in every country of the world, in people of all socioeconomic classes, all levels of education, and all political and cultural backgrounds, you will eventually start to get the idea that what you are observing is not something endemic to a particular country, ethnicity, or culture, but rather something inherent in human nature. My study of human beings has led me to various cultural and social conclusions, of which I have written at length in this little blog of mine over the past several years, but when it comes to politics, I can only conclude, based on my study of the world's human beings, that as I mentioned before, all the world's human beings only want two things: Bread and circuses. Survival and entertainment. That is all people care about, all they live for, and all they fight for. And when you understand this, you gradually start to come to a different conclusion, a conclusion which you don't want to make (or at least, I didn't want to make it), but which I ultimately could not avoid, based on what I had seen of humanity.

The problem is not the government. The problem is normal, everyday people.

It is not the government that creates crime and unemployment. Indeed, generally, the government tries to work against these things. But people create these things through a combination of having too many children, wasting their time on stupid things when they could be educating themselves, and just being greedy. People generally create their own problems. A good government can help mitigate these problems, and a bad government can exacerbate them, but people's problems do not arise from their government, but rather due to their own deliberate stupidity, ignorance, carelessness, and selfishness.

When you come to understand this, you begin to develop an appreciation for the kinds of problems and challenges which politicians face, people who are tasked with solving a public's problems which that very public created and continues to perpetuate. I have never been a politician and am not likely to ever work as one, but like many people, when I look at the world and see its problem, I can't help but try to imagine how things could be better, what things might need to be changed to create a better world for everyone. And the more I see of humanity, the more I understand that an effective politician cannot function by just listening to the public and giving them what they want, any more than parents can raise children by constantly giving those children whatever they want. Some people hate the patronizing, condescending tone which governments sometimes use, but what else can you do when the populace is nothing more than overgrown children, spoiled brats who believe that they are entitled to whatever they want, and that if they do not have what they want, it is their right and even their duty to scream as loudly as they can until they get it? You can't build a society by just giving those screaming children whatever they want.

Within the public sphere of awareness, then, a fundamental problem is that politics do not function the way that people want them to function or imagine them to function. In light of these political realities, it's difficult to condemn The Prince as "evil". It is certainly not a guide on ethics or morality, but neither is it a manual on senseless tyranny. Rather, it is a practical, clear-eyed look at the real world of politics, a sober declaration of the things which most politicians have to do to get their day-to-day administration done, not because those principles are admirable or desirable, but because they work.

Consider, for example, the basic problem of how to act when you, your political party, your opinions, or your legislations are unpopular with the general public. Do you cave to public opinion, or do you stand up for your principles? How do you deal with people who hate you and oppose you? Even the most popular people cannot be loved by everyone, but there are people who are lucky enough to be loved by most. The question is what to do when a majority of people don't like you. In that case, your only real possibility of political success is to at least be respected, as in the example of Erwin Rommel, who, though he fought for the Nazis, nonetheless earned a grudging respect from his fellow military brass on the other side of the war even as they plotted how to kill him. As a politician, you will always have opponents and enemies, and you cannot simply surrender to their demands. Here comes the value of the famous advice: "Speak softly, but carry a big stick", which is really just a softened version of the phrase from Lucius Accius' play Atreus: "Oderint, dum metuant." (Let them hate, as long as they fear.)

Of course, people who have zero political experience and have grown up with the same political mentality they had when they were small children will reflexively attack such ideas and go on long tirades about how the government must be brought down, insisting that their own personal ideas are true and superior simply because they like those ideas. While the audacity of believing that your ideas must be correct just because you like those ideas may be admirable in how singlemindedly stupid it is, I hope it is apparent that this way of thinking has no basis in reality. Believing that your idealism and enthusiasm are all that you need to reach your political goals is not less naïve than jumping into the pilot's seat of an airplane and taking off without any prior flight training or planning, believing that these same values will be all that you need once you're up in the air.

What political movement which was founded on idealism has ever succeeded? Every generation has a youthful period where a huge group of teenagers imagine that the only thing needed to create a better world is to unite and make a lot of noise. Go out into the streets! Protest! Sing songs! Chant slogans! Wave flags! Threaten and beat up anyone who doesn't agree with you! We're the youth of the nation, and the only reason why things are wrong is because no one is listening to us, the people with zero political knowledge or experience! If any of these movements becomes large enough that a person supported by such activism is actually elected to the position of head of state, as was for example the case with Greece's Alexis Tsipras, the chanting promptly stops as everyone says: "Oh, wait. What do we do now? We didn't actually have a plan!" Then, exactly as happened with Tsipras, the newly-formed revolution desperately tries to formulate a plan without knowing anything about how government works, and everything just gets worse as incompetence and ignorance rules for however many years it lasts. (Incidentally, precisely this description could be applied to essentially every single "communist" government that has ever existed. I'm not saying that communism is inherently bad, but rather that every single attempt to realize it has been done by people with literally not the tiniest clue of what they were doing or how to build a government.) If you read modern history, essentially every such movement from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring follows this course of events, and yet every generation of people seems to be so blind as to follow this same model over and over and over again, each time convincing themselves that "We are the correct ones, the enlightened and aware people who will finally get this revolution right, in contrast to all the previous failed revolutions which failed because the people didn't know what they were doing. We might have no political experience either, but our idealism is strong enough to overcome that obstacle!" With this kind of ignorance at the helm, it's no wonder that human history is so stupid.

I'm not a politician, but I understand enough to see this pattern because it is so blatantly, glaringly obvious, and it amazes me how many people don't see the pattern when it is literally one of the most obvious things about recorded history, perhaps second only to "People die in wars" as the most obvious fact about human history. I'm not a politician, but when you see this pattern emerging so clearly, it becomes apparent that if any kind of government is ever going to succeed, it needs to make some concessions to reality. I don't like having to devote most of my life to my job, but I do so anyway, because I know that if I didn't, I wouldn't have any money and thus wouldn't be able to live at all. There have been people who've said "I'm going to be free! I'm going to quit my job and live a life of adventure or relaxation!", and I've seen what happens to such people: They wind up homeless and begging on the streets, or they end up in prison, or they die in the forest from either a horrible accident or some encounter with a carnivorous animal. There are not a lot of options for people who refuse to work for a living, and none of them are good. You may not like this idea, and I don't like it either, but it is a practical reality of our lives, and if you are not willing to make concessions to reality, then your life will be worse instead of better.

The word Realpolitik refers to politics based on exactly these kinds of concessions to reality, a system of government that bases itself upon what is actually possible to do rather than on some idealistic notions which some kids dreamed up. Realpolitik is usually boring and uninspiring because it does not seek to do new things or create new possibilities for people, but it succeeds where alternatives fail because it seeks to do something real instead of just building a system on rhetoric which has no connection to reality. As I read The Prince, it became clear to me that this was a book of lessons in Realpolitik: The point of the book is not that all governments should be this way because these values are virtuous and desirable, but rather that successful governments tend to be this way because that's simply what works. It's not good or bad, it's just what works. You can do something else and fail, or you can do what works. If you're a head of state, that choice is yours. Do you want your country to be a failed state, like Greece? Or do you want to be a boring country that does nothing useful but manages to exist fairly peacefully, like most of Scandinavia? There aren't a lot of other options, and any exceptions are always specific to a particular country in a particular situation at a particular point in history.

Indeed, Machiavelli is sufficiently self-aware to regularly preface his statements with "your mileage may vary" disclaimers, saying in effect: Here's something which worked for a particular historical ruler in a particular historical situation, but you need to be aware of your circumstances, because it might not work for you if you do it wrong or if the time isn't right.

Ultimately, The Prince is not and cannot be a step-by-step instruction manual, because every country is different, every public is different, and every ruler is different. Being an effective ruler requires you to know your own personal limitations as well as the limitations of your country. But, again, one thing which is universal is human nature. As such, many of the ideas in The Prince cannot become obsolete.

I'm not sure that I would recommend The Prince to most people. I think that most people probably wouldn't get much out of it, and it's also the kind of book which a person is likely to disastrously misunderstand if they do not thoroughly study the entire book instead of reading just a few pages (indeed, people glancing through the book without taking the time to thoroughly read and understand it may be partly responsible for the book's negative reputation). And I think that most people are short-sighted enough that they would probably misunderstand the book even if they read the whole thing through. But there is a certain number of people, a very small minority of people, who are both intelligent and perceptive enough to read the book and really get it, who carry enough personal integrity that they will not simply see the book as a license to commit wanton tyranny, and whose lives happen to intersect with politics in such a way that they could actually make use of some of the lessons which Machiavelli left to the world. For that very small number of people, I can heartily recommend The Prince as a timeless book.

Not so much choice in life after all

I've often heard it said that "Variety is the spice of life": What makes life beautiful is allegedly its diversity, its breadth of possibilities, all the things which we can discover and experience in life. Despite this, it seems to me that many people are weary of the daily grind of life, of doing the same things day after day after day. There is a fundamental disconnect between what people imagine life to be about and the lives that people actually live. While people dream of a life full of fun, variety, and happiness, they live lives of drudgery, routine, and sadness. Which vision is closer to the real nature of human life?

Some people will posit, perhaps not without reason, that many people lead such sad, uninspiring lives because of circumstances beyond their control: People lack the means to live the lives they want to have. If people could only be more free, if only they could have more resources to do what they wanted with their lives, they would be happier and their lives would be more variegated. Okay, fair enough; to be sure, many people suffer because of circumstances beyond their control, because of things which they did not choose.

But suppose that people could actually be freed in a way that allowed them to really do whatever they wanted, all day, every day. What would people actually do with such a life? What incredible and variegated things would they occupy their time with in this new state of emancipation?

This question is not entirely theoretical. There are people who win the lottery or otherwise suddenly fall into sufficiently large amounts of money that they do not need to work for a living anymore. You can fantasize that you are one of these people, that somehow such a large sum of money falls into your lap that you could quit working for the rest of your life and live a life free from financial concerns.

I know that this vision can never be true for most people. Part of the reason why people's lives are so bad is because they must work to earn their daily bread, and work takes so much time, energy, and thought from them that they have nothing remaining of these precious resources to do something meaningful with their life when work is over. Some people will say that there are many types of jobs, and that part of the variety of life comes from the great diversity of jobs which people work, but the truth is that the majority of jobs fall into a narrow set of categories. Yes, there are jobs like Ice Cream Taster, but how many people do you think actually get such jobs? How likely do you suppose it is that a person who wants such a job will get it? Most people work jobs which they hate, not because they don't want something better, but because everybody wants a better job, and so there is enormous competition for the best jobs; most people don't get them. And even if you are lucky enough to enjoy your job, you still have to keep doing it on most days. No matter what you end up doing with your life, unless you are part of the financial elite, you will have to justify your life to someone who will give you the means to remain alive. If you don't want to work as an employee and prefer to be self-employed, then that someone will simply be your customer base rather than your employer. Either way, no matter what you do with your life, you will always have to justify your value to someone, someone who is willing to pay your way so that you can remain alive. And life is expensive; justifying your worth to someone takes a lot of work and marketing. Make no mistake about it: A human being is a product to be sold on the market, just like any other. And human beings willingly sell themselves, because if they didn't, they would die.

Even within this economic class of people who need to work for a living, people often fool themselves into thinking that life is full of variety because people focus on incredibly superficial things to give meaning to their life. People convince themselves, for example, that because they have different kinds of food which they can eat, this makes life fun and full of variety, as if the main point of life were eating. Other people find that changing their clothes makes them feel as though their life were completely different. Still other people find that music changes their life, and than putting on a different mood of music changes the way that life works. Of course, none of these things are true; all of these are extremely simplistic and superficial changes, but because people's thinking is extremely simplistic and superficial, they are readily able to convince themselves that these changes are actually significant: "I may spend all my waking hours working in a job which I don't like, but today I wore a blue outfit, and today I am wearing an orange one. How daring! What a rebel I am! And yesterday I had pizza for lunch, but today I plan to have Chinese food! How wonderful and rich life is, when I can do something as wild and crazy as that! And tonight when I'm at home, instead of listening to trashy pop music like I did last night, I will listen to different trashy pop music! What a wonderful life I have! With all this variety and choice in my life, how could it possibly be better?" People who honestly think this way are beyond hope, because they have never been human beings and are not capable of becoming human beings; they are nothing more than servants to the financial system, willingly enslaving themselves to that system because it is the source of imported food and commercialized music which forms the meaning their lives. These people are happy to go to work and serve in pointless jobs because they know that if they didn't do so, they wouldn't have the things which they treasure so highly.

But let's imagine, just for a while, that people didn't have to do this, that people could actually escape the chains of having to sell themselves on a daily basis to survive, and that they could somehow be financially independent. What would people then do with their time and energy? Again, this question is not entirely theoretical because this has happened to some people, so we can get some ideas by looking at the lives which they lived. In many cases, people bought a lot of nice things for themselves: Nice houses, nice cars, nice clothing, fancy gadgets like big-screen televisions, and so on. This is a lot of fun at first if you've never been able to afford things like this before, but the novelty wears off before long. For most people, there isn't a lot of daily fun to be had from seeing how big your house is or how fancy its decorations are; there are people who obsess over these things, but they seem to be in the minority.

Then there are people who say that life is not about having things, but having experiences. These are the people who go on backpacking adventures in remote places which few people will ever see, and that is also fun for a while, but unless someone is really passionate about hiking in the outdoors, the novelty of seeing exotic places wears off after a while. How many biomes are there in the world? There are only a few major ones like forest, mountains, and desert. In some places, you have all of these in near proximity. If you're in coastal Southern California, for example, you can see dense forests, tall mountains, barren deserts, and sandy beaches on the ocean within about a one-hour drive. From personal experience, I can say that hiking in the forests of North America is not much different from hiking in the forests of Europe. Both of them have a lot of trees, and not much else. You can explore the world as much as you want, but at some point, most of it starts to look the same.

Then what?

People who are lucky enough to be independently wealthy, who really have not only a lot of money but also the time to use it in their everyday lives, tend to fall into a cycle of constant experience-seeking. These are the people who will try ridiculous exotic foods just because they want to try something new, who take up extreme sports because they're so bored that risking their lives seems like the only way to get a thrill.

It seems to me that there's not so much choice in life after all, because even the people who can do whatever they want with their lives run out of things to do pretty quickly and either end up constantly seeking increasingly bizarre and exotic experiences, or just give up and content themselves with doing a small number of things for the rest of their lives, focusing on the core things which they happen to most enjoy doing. This is certainly legitimate for people to do--I'm not suggesting that people have to constantly be seeking and doing new things all the time--but my point is that even people with the chance to lead highly diverse lives usually end up falling into a routine where they do the same thing over and over for the rest of their lives, because that's what they enjoy doing. This being the case, I find it hard to make a real case for the idea that variety is the spice of life.

In fact, there is a theory that the whole idea of life having a lot of choices and a lot of variety is something deliberately programmed into people to make them more compliant and easier to manipulate. Indeed, there is a real case to be made, I think, for the idea that the people who exploit humanity deliberately propagate the lie of the world's diversity as a way to make humanity more willing to be exploited. In the West, people are told that they are "free" in order to make them more loyal to the Western system, ready to defend it against the rest of the world. Every generation needs its arch enemy; in my grandparents' time, the enemy was fascism; in my parents' time, it was communism; in our present day, it is racism and homophobia, but whatever bogeymen we are taught to fear, hate, and fight, the point is that people are taught to be loyal to their dogma that "We are the only free people in the world" to make them ready to fight against anyone seen as not conforming to their lifestyle. At present, the ideology taught to us is "diversity", the idea that we live on a big, beautiful world full of wonderful sights and experiences, when in fact most of the world is the same. The mantras of choice, variety, and freedom which are fed to us are nothing more than the present-day form of propaganda and public manipulation used to exploit the lives of mass humanity by getting people to act as willing slaves to the system that repeats these mantras to us.

So in the end, the choice left open to us is surprisingly binary: We are not faced with an endless variety of lifestyles which we can change from one day to another. We simply have the choice between believing the lies which we are surrounded by, or not believing them. That choice is yours, but whichever choice you make, you will inevitably find yourself looking at your life and wondering: "Now what?"

Certifiably Russian

I recently took, and passed, the TORFL (Test of Russian as a Foreign Language) exam. I took the exam more on a lark than anything else; I actually feel like I know rather little about Russian, because I have hardly studied it at any great length. Although I lived in Russia for a year, I did not learn the language back then, because I didn't know much about Russia at that time, and didn't want to commit to learning the language of a country where I would only be for a relatively short time (one year is pretty short in lifetime terms). All my experience with Russian since then has been gained outside of Russia or any other Russian-speaking country, which is certainly a disadvantage and an indication of poor planning on my part, but fortunately, resources for Russian learners are readily available. I am in the possession of a couple of books specifically for people who want to learn Russian at an elementary level, and I have practiced on and off with learner websites like Duolingo and Clozemaster for years. I also took Russian classes for a brief period a few years ago, and those certainly helped, although if you really want to learn a language, you need to do most of the learning on your own; taking a class once or twice a week only goes so far.

A person in this situation thus faces the question of which level to take the exam at. Most of the countries in Europe have adopted what is called in English the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is a six-level structure that categorizes varying levels of language ability, ranging from A1 (the simplest level, mainly useful for tourists who want to communicate only in everyday, fixed situations) to C2 (which is often claimed as being tantamount to the knowledge of a native speaker, and which requires a person to be able to read, write, and speak at length upon complex subjects without significant hindrances). The levels in between these two endpoints are A2, B1, B2, and C1. Within this framework, human beings can be categorized based on how well they can use a language, and works of media such as books can be categorized based on what minimum level you'd need to be able to understand them. For example, a person who has passed a B2-level exam should be able to read an A2-level book with ease, whereas a person whose knowledge of a language is at the A2 level would struggle to understand a B2-level book and likely not be able to understand much of it without a dictionary.

Russia, however, tends to do things a bit differently from most other European countries, and so when Russian institutions originally developed the TORFL exams, they did so not based on the 6-level CEFR, but rather designed their own 4-level system which, like surprisingly many things in Russia, is typically enumerated using roman numerals, so there are TORFL certification levels ranging from TORFL-I (the simplest) to TORFL-IV (the most difficult). These 4 levels were not designed to correspond to any particular levels of the CEFR, and so there is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between any of them; however, as the CEFR has meanwhile become the model for nearly all European languages, the Russian language authorities eventually relented and retroactively mapped the 4 TORFL levels to the CEFR model, assessing that a TORFL-I certificate is equivalent to the B1 CEFR level, TORFL-II corresponds to B2, TORFL-III corresponds to C1, and TORFL-IV corresponds to C2.

There are a couple of problems with this equation, however. The most obvious problem is that this means that there are no TORFL levels which correspond to the A1 and A2 CEFR levels, but I will address that in a moment. The more "hidden" problem is that these equivalences are somewhat misleading; if you have taken a B1-, B2-, C1-, or C2-level language exam in a Western European country, you have a certain idea of what level of language capability is expected of you at those levels, and you may assume that a similar level of capability is called for on the TORFL. In fact, the TORFL-IV has a reputation for being almost inhumanly difficult, going far in excess of what would be required on C2-level exams for most Western European languages. Based on what I've read, a more accurate mapping of the TORFL levels to the CEFR levels might be to suggest that B2 corresponds to TORFL-I, C1 corresponds to TORFL-II, C2 corresponds to TORFL-III, and TORFL-IV represents a level of language ability that is off the CEFR charts, so demanding that even most native speakers would fail the exam. Higher levels of the TORFL exam test not just on your knowledge of the Russian language itself, but also on your knowledge of Russian culture, literature, and history. One could (probably legitimately) claim that having such expectations on a language exam is unfair, as it really is supposed to be a language exam which tests your linguistic knowledge rather than requiring prior knowledge of Russian culture; the C2-level German exam certainly does not quiz you on your knowledge of Goethe, Kant, and Frederick II, but Russians are very proud of their culture and history, and a person who takes the C2-level Russian exam is not expected to just be fluent in the Russian language, but also to be reasonably immersed in a state of Russian cultural awareness.

Returning to the problem that this mapping does not provide any A1- or A2-level Russian exams, the Russian authorities later introduced so-called "элементарный уровень" (elementary level) and "базовый уровень" (basic level) examinations, which are said to respectively correspond to levels A1 and A2. These levels are so lowly that they are not worthy of the "ТРКИ" title (Тест по русскому языку как иностранному, Russian for "Test of Russian as a Foreign Language"), but there is one peculiarity here: The "базовый уровень" (supposedly A2-level) exam is the minimum level to attain Russian citizenship. This seems like an inversion in terms of being demanding: The Russian exams are more difficult than the CEFR levels to which they are commonly equated, yet most Western European countries require at least a B1-level language certification in order to apply for citizenship of that country, while Russia seems to be less demanding in terms of how good your Russian needs to be to apply for citizenship. When you consider, however, that each TORFL exam seems to actually be about one level higher than the CEFR level it claims to correspond to, one can reasonably say that a person with A2-level ability in terms of the TORFL would actually be close to B1-level ability by Western European standards, so it all sort of levels out (no pun intended).

Then, too, one should bear in mind that the "элементарный уровень" and "базовый уровень" levels were retroactively derived from the existing TORFL exam structure, and so they are really more like someone's effort to simplify an existing structure that was always quite demanding. For what it's worth, I've taken a B1-level German exam, and I would personally say that the "базовый уровень" (supposedly A2-level) TORFL exam which I took seemed to be something of a mixture of two types of material: Material which was so demanding that it was actually quite a bit more difficult than anything I saw on my B1-level German exam, and material which had obviously been developed for elementary learners and which was so simple that even people with basic knowledge of Russian could have aced such material with their eyes closed. These retroactively-introduced TORFL exams seem to be Frankensteinian marriages of old TORFL-I material with something that looks like it was taken from children's books.

So yes, as I've already given away, I took the "базовый уровень" (supposedly A2-level) TORFL exam, and I'd like to take just a moment to explain the reasoning process which went into this decision. I've been learning Russian for nearly 10 years now, but this is an extremely misleading statement, because it implies that I've been regularly and diligently studying Russian during that time, which is not the case; there were long pauses during that time period where I did not study Russian at all, and even when I did do so, I tended to do so using fairly simple materials and resources aimed at beginners rather than more advanced learners. I've read that a person should be able to pass the TORFL-I exam after only one year of focused study, but I am skeptical of this statement. Like all Slavic languages, Russian is much more difficult than any Western European language, and even producing simple sentences requires a fairly extensive understanding of Russian grammar which goes far in excess of what you'd need to speak any Western European language properly. German is the most difficult Western European language, and native English speakers who learn German moan endlessly about how difficult German is because of its three noun genders and four grammatical cases, but while it is true that these grammar structures in German take some getting used to if you're a native English speaker who has never had to deal with noun genders or decline adjectives to agree with language cases (the German adjective system, in particular, is quite difficult to get used to for people not familiar with such systems), Russian has six grammatical cases, and it requires you to change both nouns and adjectives to agree with the case and the noun's gender. Spelling in Russian is also murderously difficult compared to writing German, because German uses a fairly consistent and phonetic pronunciation (most words are pronounced the way they're written), whereas Russian has a lot of vowels which sound similar to each other and a lot of letters which are inexplicably pronounced differently for specific words, meaning that if you can speak German well, you can probably write it well, but this same rule does not hold true for Russian.

So I did not want to blunder into a Russian exam which I was not prepared for. Although I took some Russian classes a few years ago, I stopped before even finishing the A2 level, and everything else I've done with Russian since then has been self-study. So although I've been going through some learning materials which are intended for B1-level learners, I did not feel like I was ready for the TORFL-I exam. Maybe I was, but I didn't want to be overly cocky; I haven't actually finished the B1-level materials, and in my experience, even having finished an entire textbook for a particular language level doesn't mean that you're ready to take the exam at that level (going through an entire B1-level textbook doesn't mean that you are ready to take the B1-level exam), and since I stopped taking Russian classes mid-A2 level, I felt that it would be foolish to take the TORFL-I exam, even though I have been "learning Russian" for several years and read material which is actually well above the TORFL-I level.

On the other hand, I did not want to waste my time with a level which was too simple; theoretically, I could have taken the "элементарный уровень" exam to get a first taste of the exam, but somehow this seemed pointless. The "элементарный уровень" exam is really so simple that it has little value; I've never taken it, but indications I've read online suggest that you can't really do anything with it. On the other hand, as mentioned, the "базовый уровень" exam is the minimum required to attain Russian citizenship, and while I don't have any active plans to apply for Russian citizenship now or in the near future, it would be nice to know that my langauge ability is certifiably adequate to do so. So when I found out that a local university was about to hold its annual TORFL testing, I decided to--once again more on a whim than anything else--enroll at the "базовый уровень" level. If I failed, I'd at least have an idea of where I needed to improve, and if I passed, then hey, maybe I'll be able to make use of my "certifiably Russian" level of language ability at some point in the future.

As it turned out, I was the only person who applied to take the exam at such a low level. The exam was held over two days in a classroom with between 10 and 20 candidates, and each person's desk had a little placard with their name and the level of exam they were taking. Everyone else was taking a "real TORFL" exam from TORFL-I to TORFL-III, with the exception of one young person who was taking the TORFL-IV exam. We had to show our passports when registering for the exam, and I caught sight of this person's passport and noted that it was a Georgian passport. Presumably, that person grew up in Georgia and has been actively using Russian since they were born. Most of the other people were locals who had simply been studying Russian for a long time. I wondered what reasons they had for taking the exam. Perhaps they were planning to study at a Russian university: The minimum certification needed to enroll in a Russian university is a TORFL-I certificate, and you need a TORFL-II certificate to graduate. I felt a little silly taking such a low level of the examination, but when the exam started, I was convinced that I'd made the right decision; I really would not have been prepared to take the TORFL-I exam.

One thing that always gets things off to a bad start is when you don't understand the instructions which you're given before the exam begins. The exam was presided over by two Russians who described the exam to us in Russian and explained the process for the exam, but I understood less than half of what they said. A lot of this information was not essential to understand, but it did go on for quite a while, and it was a bit embarrassing for me when I didn't understand some of the things which I was supposed to do. For example, I was handed three different stacks of paper for the three exam components which were to follow, and I was told to place these face-down on my desk. I didn't understand these instructions, so one of the administrators had to come to my desk and turn them face-down for me. Comprehension of these instructions is not a criterion for passing the exam, but it is rather embarrassing and discouraging when you're there to take a language exam and you don't understand the pre-exam instructions. Still, the introductions and preparations ended soon enough, and then I focused on the first language exam I've taken in years.

The first of the 5 sections of the exam, the "lexical-grammatical" portion, is a 100-item multiple-choice test. Most questions simply consist of a sentence with a blank in it, and require you to circle the correct word which fits in the blank. Although this sounds simple, this part of the exam could be arguably the hardest, as you're not allowed to use a dictionary on that part, and there's no way to derive the right answers from context. You just need to know the right answer: Either you know what a word means, or it doesn't. Either you know the right ending for a particular case, or you don't. Much of this portion of the exam consisted of questions which presented several different declinations of an adjective and required you to know which one fits into the context of the sentence. I will admit that I probably focused too much on building my vocabulary and neglected grammar when preparing for the exam, as I have still not memorized all the rules for how adjective endings change based on the case. Fortunately, however, the "базовый уровень" exam mostly focuses on the most basic of these, and so while I did need some understanding of how endings change based on case and gender, I did not need a truly comprehensive understanding of this for the exam. There were some questions which tested on verbs of motion, always one of the most difficult parts of Russian as you need to distinguish between abstract verbs and concrete verbs. I was foolishly unprepared to distinguish between шёл and шло, and I think I got one question wrong because I managed to confuse езжу, a verb, with езду, a noun. So that was a little demoralizing for a start, but on a 100-question exam, you have a lot of room for error, and so while I made a lot of mistakes, I ended up doing well enough to get by with a score of 74.5%.

The second part of my exam was the written portion. I needed to write an essay on a given topic. I was given a list of points which I needed to cover in the essay, and the instructions stated that "Your essay may not contain less than 18 to 20 sentences", which I thought was a little odd; doesn't that just mean at least 18 sentences? Why mention 20 at all, since anything less than 18 is also less than 20? Despite the fact that writing Russian is difficult, the TORFL exam is surprisingly merciful in that it allows you to use a dictionary to write your essay. The use of dictionaries on language exams is controversial, so I think this is a good place to explain the rationale behind a decision like this.

When I took a B2-level German exam some years ago, for the written essay, I was given the choice between two different subjects: I was offered the assignment to write about my experience with Märchen and what I think about how Märchen influence social and cultural thinking. Alternatively, I could write about Schönheitswettbewerbe and my opinions on them. Here I had a problem: I did not know what Märchen are. I later found out that this is the German word for "fairy tales", but I am not in the habit of reading a lot of fairy tales, and so although my German was pretty good at that point, this was a word which I had either never come across, or never bothered to translate since I don't care about fairy tales anyway, and any context in which I might have seen this word, I would have probably ignored it. It just so happened that about an hour before the exam, I had been reading an article in a German-language magazine, and there I happened to see the word "Wettbewerb": Competition or contest. I had never learned this word before that. Had I not read this word by sheer coincidence an hour before the exam, I would not have been able to make the derivation that "Schönheitswettbewerbe" must mean "beauty pageants", and I would have been completely sunk, as I would not have known either of the words which formed the basis of the essay which I would need to write. Obviously, then, I chose to write about beauty pageants, and I think I was the only person who made this decision; literally every other person in the test room chose to write about fairy tales, probably assuming (perhaps correctly) that this was something easier to write about. But I didn't know what they were, and so I wrote an essay as well as I could about how beauty pageants represent not just an objectification of women, but are also stupid because they focus more on a person's physical appearance than their character. I passed. Maybe I might have had an easier time of it if I'd known what Märchen are, but actually, maybe not, because even as a child, I didn't read a lot of fairy tales, so I don't really have strong opinions on them or their significance for human society; I mean, really, what is there to say about fairy tales? I don't know that I could have written a whole essay about them. But I had plenty to say about beauty pageants and how they are a symbol of the superficiality of human beings, so it all worked out in the end. My point, however, is that I was one word away from being hopelessly lost; if I hadn't known the word "Wettbewerb", I would have failed the exam miserably because I literally would not have known what I was supposed to write about. That experience shook me a bit, because that one word had made all the difference between success and total failure. You are not allowed to use a dictionary at any point during the German exams, so if you don't know a particular word, that's too bad; usually not knowing a word might cost you just one point on the exam, but in my case, it would have cost me the whole exam.

The administrators of the TORFL exam are mindful of these kinds of problems, and have made the decision that certain portions of the exam allow you to use a dictionary. To compensate for this, the exam has been designed with tight time limits for every section to counterbalance the use of a dictionary. The moral of my experience with my German B2 exam is that it doesn't make sense to fail people for not knowing a single word: If everything hinges on one word, it is fair and reasonable to allow a person to look up one word in a dictionary. What you want to avoid, obviously, is that people simply write their entire essay out of a dictionary, and so the TORFL exam's solution is a time limit which gives you just enough time to write out the expected text length while pausing to look up a handful of words in the dictionary. You're allowed to use the dictionary as much as you want, but if you don't know how to express the ideas you want to say, you won't have enough time to finish your essay, because you don't have the time to look up every other word. It's fair to allow someone to look up a couple of words, but if you over-rely on the dictionary to the point where it takes someone forever to write a simple essay, then obviously they are not really writing at their level of ability, they're just taking everything out of the dictionary.

I think I did the essay the right way: I wrote a simple text which checked off all the points I needed to address, and nothing more. One mistake which many people make on these kinds of written essays is trying to impress the examiners. Some people end up spinning hugely complex essays because they think they will get extra points for creativity or style, but this always backfires, because you are not being tested on your ability to write like Pushkin; you only get points for correctly writing about what you are expected to write about. You do not get extra points for especially beautiful or flowery writing, but you lose points for every mistake which you make, so if you try to produce the most amazingly vivid writing you could possibly produce, this is likely to just cause you to lose points, because you will almost certainly make several mistakes writing like that, and you'll have nothing to gain for it. The way to do written essays, especially at more basic levels of language certification, is to write short, simple sentences which express exactly the idea you want to communicate, and nothing more. They can't fault you for doing this, because it is exactly what you are being expected and asked to do. When I saw a specific turn of phrase mentioned in the dictionary, I went ahead and put it in for a little extra touch, but whenever I wasn't sure about something, I played it safe and made the most basic sentences I could. I passed with a score of 79.4% on my essay, so I am pretty sure this was the right thing to do.

The third portion of the exam was the reading section, and although I am usually good at reading, I ran into a little trouble here at first, even though I was allowed to use a dictionary. At the beginning, every time I saw a word which I didn't recognize, I would look it up in the dictionary, but after doing this a few times, I realized that I wouldn't have enough time to keep doing that. I had a moment of incredulity where I thought: "Are people really expected to do this? Many of these words are very clearly not something people would know at the A2 level; how are people supposed to get through these texts when they're peppered with words that are far beyond what people would be expected to know at this level?" Then, in a flash of insight, I remembered a favorite trick of language exams like this: Such exams tend to deliberately place scattered words in their texts which are at a level well above the one being tested, because they also want to test readers' ability to fill in the blanks. In many cases, if you understand a sentence except for a single word, you'll be able to understand from context what that word probably means. Passing the reading portions of language exams tends to rely partially on logical deductions and educated guesses of word meanings rather than knowing with certainty what a particular word means.

This doesn't always work, because sometimes you'll make a wrong guess; if, for example, you read the sentence "I took the clothes out of the washing machine and put them into the X", where X is a word you don't recognize, what noun do you suppose X is? Some people would automatically assume that the word is "dryer", but many people (particularly in Europe) don't use clothes dryers and hang their clothes to dry, so "laundry basket" is just as valid a noun to guess. I made a few wrong guesses while reading through the text passages, but if you have a few sentences for context, you can usually figure out, based on the subject flow, what the unknown words are. For example, continuing on the previous example sentence, if the next sentence then said something like "This is seen as an energy-saving alternative to the usage of Y", then even if you don't know what word Y is, you can still guess from context that X must not have been a dryer, because it's not an energy-saving alternative; in fact, with this new sentence, we can now guess with reasonable certainty that noun Y probably means "dryers", and X was something people put their clothes into when they're done washing them and won't be using a dryer, so a laundry basket or something similar is the most likely meaning of word X.

When I remembered that this is how the reading portions of language exams often work, I put down the dictionary and just read the texts through; when I saw a word I didn't understand, rather than trying to unravel the unknown word, I would read the rest of the sentence and try to make a reasonable guess as to what the unknown word meant. If I wasn't sure, I would keep reading, because the next couple of sentences would almost always lend enough context for me to get an idea of what the text was saying. For cases where I was still stumped, I would then resort to the dictionary. Even doing this, there were a couple of texts where I felt like I couldn't get a good handle on the overall meaning (one text was about economic inflation and the various knock-on effects it has, which in my opinion is a way too advanced subject for an A2-level exam), and in those cases, when I felt that I was burning too much time flipping through the dictionary and just fundamentally not understanding something I should have been understanding, I would cut my time losses, make the best guess I could, and move on. I had to do this with 2 or 3 questions, but on an exam with 40 questions, you can afford to toss 2 or 3 questions, not out of carelessness or laziness, but because you need to be mindful of your time allocation for each question, and if you're burning up several minutes trying to unravel a particularly difficult problem, sometimes it's better to just let that one sink and move on to the rest of the exam.

Perhaps surprisingly, I had the overall impression that working on expanding one's vocabulary would not have been helpful in preparing for the reading portion of the exam, because the vast majority of the words were so common and simple that a person who's well-prepared for the A2 exam would have known them fairly easily, and the specific words which didn't match this description were such specialized jargon that even a fluent B2-level language user probably wouldn't be expected to recognize those words. For better or for worse, the exam is not really testing your vocabulary, it's testing your ability to deduce meaning and content when reading texts in a foreign language. If you're good at doing this, you should be able to do well on the reading portion, and indeed, after finishing the reading portion of the exam, I felt that it was my best performance on the whole exam. When I later got my grades, my feeling was confirmed: I got 93.3%. Not bad!

That was the end of the first day of my exam. These first three parts of the exam were held in an open classroom with the other test-takers around me. The second day was held in a closed room where I was alone with the test administrators, because this was the part where I needed to have a one-on-one conversation with someone.

The second day started with the listening portion. Understanding spoken speech has always been my biggest language weakness. When I was learning German, I reached a point where I could read and understand most everyday texts, write proficiently, and speak so fluently that people assumed I must have been learning the language for much longer than I'd actually been learning it, but when people spoke to me, I often wouldn't understand what they were saying; somehow, making sense of human speech is something my brain is not wired for, perhaps because it's something I don't do often. Going into the listening portion of the exam, I had a sense of dread, considering that I hadn't even been able to understand the spoken instructions of the test administrators at the start of the first day.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the audio samples I listened to were played through poor-quality speakers built into a small laptop which had been set up for the exam. The audio quality was so bad that I almost protested and demanded that a set of real speakers be set up so that the audio would be comprehensible, but I kept my mouth shut, because despite the poor audio quality, I found that I could understand enough of what was being said.

I am not the only person in the world who has particular difficulty understanding spoken words of a foreign language, and so the exam was created with this in mind, but I found that the listening portion of the exam had wildly diverging difficulty levels; some audio samples were so simple and spoken so slowly and distinctly that it literally sounded like something spoken for very young children, while other audio samples were spoken so quickly and casually that I really had to concentrate to understand anything that was being said at all. As with the reading portion, there were many words which I didn't recognize, and of course, when you're listening to someone speak, you can't jump into a dictionary the way you can when you're reading, so much of the listening portion of the exam consisted of me half-listening to the current audio recording and frantically filling in details on the exam sheet as the audio played on.

Mercifully, the audio passages are played twice, but I found that this wasn't always necessarily helpful; often, the details which I'd failed to understand the first time were exactly those which I failed to understand the second time as well. In most cases, however, I found a listening mentality which worked fairly well for me: On the first play of the audio recording, I would ignore words I didn't recognize and piece together what I did recognize to get an idea of what the people were talking about. In most cases, this gave me enough context to understand what the conversation was about and the significance of what people were saying, even if I didn't understand specifically what they were saying. With this important context, I would then use the second play of the audio recording to snatch at the necessary details which I needed to answer the questions on the exam. It all felt a bit haphazard, and I suppose that it was, but it worked: I got a surprisingly good score of 86.7%, much better than I was expecting. I can honestly say that playing the audio recordings a second time helped immensely; I am very sure that I would have failed this portion of the exam if I'd heard each recording only once, as in more than half of the cases, I wouldn't have been able to answer the question on the first run because I was trying to understand what people were saying at all; only on the second run was I able to gather the vitally important details which were key to actually answering the questions on the exam. I believe that higher-level exams generally only play the audio recordings once, which means that test candidates at that level need to be really accustomed to conversing in the language being tested, because they need to understand everything the first time.

After the listening portion was over, the last part of the exam was the speaking part, where I would need to speak with someone. This part of the exam was quite mixed. It started off with an impromptu question-and-answer session where the examiner would ask me questions and I had to answer them. These were fairly simple questions like "Where did you travel for your last vacation?", and just as with the written essay, the answers were not expected to be especially complex, but the fact that you can't use a dictionary here and just need to directly answer a question without any preparation does mean that you need to be on the ball.

Personally, I find speaking more difficult than writing, because when you're writing, you have the time to form sentences in your head before you write them down. You can consider exactly what you're going to write, and you can think it over for a moment before you commit anything to paper. When you're speaking, it's difficult to recover if you say something wrong. A couple of times, I found myself at a point where I had a more complex sentence in my head than I actually knew how to express in Russian, and that's an awkward situation to be in, because if you speak the first half of a sentence, it doesn't look good if you say "I don't know how to finish this sentence", so I tried to carry on as best I could, but a couple of times, I really lost the ability to finish what I was trying to say, resulting in some train wreck of a sentence coming out which was obviously wrong. The examiner was polite and understanding; obviously, I was someone who was still learning Russian at a fairly basic level, and so making some mistakes was okay, but it was important to try to rein in my thoughts and make sure that I was starting sentences which I'd know how to finish, which, again, is difficult to do in a real-time conversation where you don't have any time to prepare your sentences before you produce them.

After the initial question-and-answer session, I was given a one-page short story and told that in 15 minutes, I would need to return the paper and verbally summarize the story to the examiner. I was allowed to use a dictionary to interpret the story. I thought that this task would be easy, but it ended up going horribly wrong. The story was not written specifically for the exam; it was an actual Russian short story from a noted Russian writer. I won't say what the short story is, but suffice it to say that I had the impression, even during the exam, that I was reading something which had no business being on an A2-level exam; the story was quite literary, not something beginner language students would be likely to understand on the first reading. Indeed, when I later went on the Internet and looked up the text, I found it on a website which classified it as a B1-level story, so I can only imagine that its presence on the "A2"-level exam is a consequence of the fact that the TORFL exam was not originally intended to be administered to sub-B1 candidates, and inappropriately difficult texts still linger. Even using a dictionary didn't help as much as I thought, because literary texts often contain inadequate context to explain what's going on since they expect the reader to fill in the blanks, and the story I read had a lot of single-word sentences (like "Absolutely!" or "Amazing!") which are not common in texts written for language learners but which abound in literary writing which contains much dialogue between characters. Trying to interpret expressions like this wasted a lot of my time, and I desperately flailed about for 15 minutes with the persistent sense that there was some very fundamental point about the story which I just was not getting. When the 15 minutes were up, I openly admitted that I hadn't understood everything about the story, but summarized the parts which I had understood. My examiner was mostly encouraging throughout the exam and smiled and nodded in agreement to many of my statements, but when I was summarizing this short story, my examiner was stone-faced throughout, which suggested to me that I was saying something wrong. This impression turned out to be correct: When I later looked up the story online and read it again, I realized that even the parts which I thought I had understood, I'd actually gotten wrong; literally everything I said about the story was completely wrong. I had confused two characters with each other, misunderstood their motives and statements, and completely missed the point of the end of the story. I could only hope that my examiner was kind enough to give me credit for correctly expressing the parts which I'd misunderstood: Even though my summary of the story was all wrong, at least what I did say was mostly linguistically correct, just not an accurate account of the story. In any case, this was just one part of the overall spoken portion of the exam, and my failure here didn't cause me to fail the whole exam.

My final task for the TORFL exam was to prepare a short statement based on a list of points which was handed to me on a sheet of paper. I was given a sheet of writing paper, a dictionary, and a few minutes to plan what I was going to say. This part was actually quite easy; the subject matter was simple and straightforward, and it ended up being kind of like the written essay portion, except that instead of submitting my written essay, I read it aloud. After my disastrous failure to understand the short story, this part seemed almost too simple, and I was wondering whether I'd missed something, but I went ahead and said what I could. When I ran out of ideas about what to say, I paused and asked: "Is that enough?" My examiner smiled, confirmed that I'd said enough, thanked me for my time, and wished me all the best. And then I stumbled out into the world, feeling like I'd just failed. But I didn't.

I was told that I should get my results within 2 weeks of the test. It actually took a bit more than 3 weeks, but okay, that's not the end of the world. I received a letter with my grades, and these were as follows:

Lexical-grammatical subtest: 74.5%
Written essay: 79.4%
Reading comprehension: 93.3%
Listening comprehension: 86.7%
Speaking: 60%

My overall score was 79.1%, which I'm fairly happy with. I'd had the feeling that I didn't do that well on the lexical-grammatical portion because I simply hadn't learned the various grammar rules of Russian adequately, so that I did a little worse in that portion wasn't a huge surprise. Almost 80% for the written essay isn't bad, either; I suppose that I made more mistakes than I thought I did, but I'm still satisfied overall. I'd had the feeling that my best performance was on the reading-comprehension portion, and it turns out that I was right; here I netted my only above-90% score. As I've said, listening is often my weakness, and so I was pretty surprised to get well over 80% in that area, particularly considering that I felt like I couldn't understand a lot of what was being said due to the poor audio quality of the speakers used. Again, the fact that the recordings were obviously deliberately made for a very basic level helped.

And then there's that 60% for speaking, which is by far my worst result overall. 60% is actually the lowest possible score which you can get in any of these sections without failing (even if your overall score is better, you need at least 60% in every section to pass), so the person who graded my speaking performance obviously wasn't very happy with how that part went, but decided to take mercy on me and let me slip by with the minimum score. On the one hand, I am a little surprised at this; I am often told that my Russian pronunciation is very good, and I think that although I did make a couple of serious errors, overall my spoken portion didn't go that badly. On the other hand, I did absolutely bomb one part of the speaking test: The really bad part, of course, was my total failure at understanding the short story which I read. Considering that that part was an abysmal failure, I guess I should be grateful that the tester was lenient enough to let me pass based on the rest of my performance, especially since, as I said, I think I badly mangled a few of my spoken sentences and probably didn't give a very positive impression overall.

So it's done. My Russian is officially good enough for me to get Russian citizenship. Whether that will ever happen, I don't know; I have no plans in that area. I don't know what will happen in the future, but what I do need to do right now is improve my Russian further, because although I passed my test, I am a little surprised that I passed considering how negligent I've been in learning Russian when I was really supposed to be doing so, and I know that I could have and should have done better regarding a few things.

So what would I have done differently? Knowing what I know now, how would I have prepared for the exam differently from how I did? I'll summarize the main things which I should have done differently:

- Vocabulary: In practice, your biggest limiting factor in understanding or using a language is usually your vocabulary. For this reason, much of my Russian learning has focused on expanding my vocabulary. This is a good thing to do for practical usage, but it's not a good way to approach a language exam, because the exam is designed around a specific language level, and it will mostly not use vocabulary which is above that language level. To pass the A2-level exam, you need a vocabulary of less than 2,000 words, and words on the exam which don't fall into that group are so advanced that you're unlikely to learn them even if you do work on expanding your vocabulary. In the real world, your biggest job when learning a language is building up your vocabulary, but on a language exam, learning vocabulary beyond what the exam is designed for is not productive. You need to focus on other things. I should have focused less on building up vocabulary and focused more on the other points.
- Grammar: A whole portion of the exam is just testing you to make sure that you know how the various Russian grammar rules work. A lot of this (and the part which I should have studied more) is noun and adjective endings, and how they work in different grammatical cases. I also should have focused more on verbs of motion and keeping the abstract and concrete verbs straight. There is no substitute for drilling in this area; you just need to practice these verbs over and over until they stick.
- Speaking: Using a language proficiently is two different things: One, it's reading or hearing the language and being able to understand what someone else is saying with it. Two, it's doing the opposite: Turning your own thoughts into grammatically-valid language constructs. One thing became clear to me during the spoken portion of the exam: I don't have enough experience formulating my thoughts in Russian. I can understand a lot of Russian text when I read it, but I need much, much more practice in taking the thoughts inside my head and expressing myself in spoken Russian without the use of a dictionary. My problem is that I don't have anyone to practice with, and if you don't know someone with whom you can speak a language, it's difficult to become proficient in speaking that language, but I need to strongly focus on this area as it's clear that I'm rather weak here.
- Listening: Even though I got by with a surprisingly good score in the listening portion because the listening segments were easier than I expected them to be, I'm aware that my overall listening comprehension of Russian is not good. I need to spend more time actively listening to Russian-language newscasts and other audio media like that to get accustomed to interpreting the spoken language. Note that passive listening here doesn't help much: Some people get the idea that if you leave a talk-radio station running in the background, this will somehow help you get better at the language, but this doesn't really help much if at all. You need to be actively paying attention to what's being said and making your best effort to understand it, because if you can't actively understand what someone says when they speak a language, you can't converse in that language.

So that was my experience with the TORFL exam that was so basic, it wasn't a real TORFL exam. I feel strange; even though I learned a lot, I know that I didn't learn the way I should have, and I feel a bit guilty, like I don't really deserve the certificate. I should have done better, but considering that I didn't prepare for the exam methodically and really took it more just to see whether I could do it or not, I guess I have my answer now. I need to get better, but I'm on the map now: I know that I can do A2-level Russian, but not B1-level stuff, so it was definitely the right decision to take the базовый уровень exam; thank goodness I didn't get overconfident and try for anything above that. I did wonder, when scheduling the exam, whether I was selling myself short by not trying for the TORFL-I exam, but now I know that I definitely wasn't. That will be the next challenge. Maybe I'll be able to take it next year if I actually spend this year studying for it. It's difficult after A2, because most learning materials for Russian are for beginners, and there is not a lot of good material for intermediate learners, but there's enough, anyway. It's all uphill from here; after the A2-level material, it only gets harder. I guess I'll just have to keep going and see where I end up. I still do not know where life will take me on its journey, but from where I stand now, I am satisfied with where I am and what I have done for now.

What changes in people?

A recent comment on this blog asked me why I bother giving advice to people if I think that people never change. I thought that it might be worth taking a moment to consider how people change throughout their lives, because while there are some things about people which never change, people can still choose to change how they live, and thus it is a bit counterproductive to make blanket statements like "people never change" or "people can change" without specifying exactly what people can and can't change.

Broadly speaking, people can change their lifestyles and ideologies. What people cannot change is their fundamental natures; rather, they change how they practically apply those fundamental natures. I realize that this statement might not be very helpful without some concrete examples, so let me try to outline a few examples.

All my life, I have never liked loud environments. I don't think that this is something which will ever change. I don't like places with a lot of noise; I like peaceful places with a minimum of sound. I have always been this way, ever since I was a child, and because it generally holds true in most life situations, I think that this is a very general and fundamental statement about my character which holds true: I don't like loud places. I prefer quiet places.

What does change about me is how I apply this principle in my life. For example, I generally do not like places where there are a lot of people around, but the reason for this is not because I dislike being around people per se, but rather because when people get together, they often tend to make a lot of noise. Because I very rarely go out with other people, people may get the idea that I am shy, introverted, or socially anxious, but this is not really true; I am happy to be with well-behaved people who speak about intelligent topics instead of acting like a pack of stupid animals. I am not really "introverted", and I am not afraid of social interaction; I just don't like going out because people in social situations usually behave stupidly. People who observe me but don't understand me may notice that it's atypical of me to go out with people and have conversations with them, and if I do so, they may get the idea that I've changed, but this is not the case; I've always appreciated insightful conversations with thoughtful people. I just don't like buffoonery.

What also might seem ambiguous to outside observers is my relationship with the outdoors. Because I do not like loud places, I tend to avoid cities and prefer living away from densely-populated areas. People might thus assume that I love being in nature, but actually, I rarely go outside, because I do not like insects, nor do I like direct sunlight because it's too bright. I love nature, but I prefer to observe it in a climate-controlled environment through a window rather than being directly in it. Nature is more of a convenient place to get away from stupid people and their noise than a place where I necessarily need to be for nature's own sake. It's important to distinguish between what observers might conclude about my nature, and what is actually true about my nature.

Another thing which has always been a part of my life is that I tend to play a lot of computer games. This is not uncommon among young men, but I think what it says about me is that I prefer to actively participate in things rather than just passively watch things. Some people might assume that computer games are a huge part of my personality, but it's really not so much that I need computer games in my life, per se, as that I enjoy doing and exploring things, and that computer games are the most practical way to do this for a person who can't just go sauntering off into the jungle for months at a time since I need to go to work and do other things that are part of the responsibilities of everyday life. If I didn't have to work and had more time to plan my life the way I really wanted to live it, perhaps I'd play less computer games, but then again, how can you explore life to the level of detail that you can explore the world of a computer game? I don't even need to "win" at the games I play, because I don't play games to win, I play them to explore. People might assume that people who play a lot of games are very competitive, but I'm not; I don't care whether I win or lose, I just care that I'm able to discover something new. This is in contrast to some people, who prefer to be passively entertained; such people are the ones who spend most of their free time on the couch watching television, content to watch their lives away instead of actively doing something with their energy. This is something which I don't think changes: Some people are born passive, wanting to just exist throughout their lives, and other people are born naturally curious and want to discover things.

Some people, considering this idea, might ask why I don't do more physical fitness activities. If I'm so motivated to actively do things instead of being passive, why don't I work out to build muscles or play sports? The reason is simple: Because these are not avenues of exploration. I tried fitness routines in the past, and they are boring. I don't mind the effort they require, but I cannot learn anything from them; they are the same thing every time. Some people, observing that I do not engage in physical-fitness routines, may assume that I am lazy and unmotivated, but it's more just that I don't like doing the same thing over and over. To understand why people change some things about themselves and not others, you need to understand their real motivations for the things they do.

It's important to understand, too, that what changes in people is not so much their motivations as how they express those motivations. Many people who are raised in religious environments become zealously faithful and work to advance their religious beliefs, but this is not much different from people who are raised in politically-active environments and go out to spread their political beliefs. Neither religion nor politics are really important to people; what's important to them is to take sides in a fight and convince themselves that they are "right" and other people are "wrong". I see a lot of people who convert to different religions or drift away from religion altogether, and it's apparent that what's important to these people is not actually any particular religion, or even religion in general; it's just that they want to stand up for some kind of cause, and convince themselves that whatever they stand for is the "right" cause. It might seem like a big life change for a highly religious person to change from one religion to another, but actually, what religion people choose is usually arbitrary; they just choose whatever religion makes them feel the best.

In a way, although I am not fanatically religious, I have a lot in common with those people: I am also motivated to fight for a cause and win. It's not so much about religion, politics, or anything like that; that part, in itself, is mostly irrelevant to people. What people really want is just to feel like they are standing up and fighting for some particular cause which they can convince themselves is worth devoting their lives to. The need to fight for a cause versus the will to live without any specific cause is one thing which divides people, and that's something I don't think ever changes. People may freely and arbitrarily switch from one cause to another, but what never changes about a person is that they have some cause which they devote their life to.

This also relates to how people value (or do not value) life itself. There are a lot of people who think that life is sacred, that life itself is its own goal, and that what's important is for life to be protected and preserved. This is a fundamental personal value; it's not an "opinion" which can change, but rather it is something which a person is likely to carry within themselves for their entire life. The inverse is true, as well: For people like me, who do not see life itself as precious, who see life as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, who believe that life should be applied toward some purpose rather than just being senselessly lived, I don't think that such people will ever change this attitude, because this kind of value is not something provable or disprovable, not something based on science, but rather a fundamental attitude which is deeply ingrained into a person. There are people who just want to live and enjoy and experience life, not seeing any deeper purpose in life than this. Then there are people like me, who feel that a life which is "just lived" is wasted, because a person needs to do something with their life. Exactly what a person does or should do with their life will change from one life's stage to another, but this fundamental belief is lifelong and never goes away.

So when you're thinking about your own behavior, mindset, attitude, and motivations, as well as those of other people, it's important to distinguish between things which people do because those things are fundamentally ingrained into their natures and will never change, and things which people do simply to serve the needs of their nature. I play computer games not because the games themselves are that important, but because they give me a way to explore different possibilities with my mind. People take drugs not because they love the drugs themselves that much, but because they like to experience different feelings, and drugs change their feelings and their mental states. People watch television not because the television itself is that important to them, but because they love to watch moving pictures. You could replace the television with something equally entertaining, and people would watch that instead. Fundamentally, people just want to be entertained, and as long as something can do that, it won't matter to people what it is.

In a way, I haven't explained the idea very well, because I've only given some examples, but I don't think that this idea can be more generalized, because different people are very different from each other, and the fundamental personal values they hold sometimes vary quite a lot. Rather than creating a list of all the possible ways in which people can differ from each other, it's more important to study individual, real people and come to understand them intuitively... starting with yourself, of course.

"Was machen wir denn dann?"

In many ways, cities are like human beings: They all look more or less similar on the surface, but once you get to know them, you discover that they have widely diverging characters. Berlin is a city which has a reputation for being dirty and full of crime, but for all that, I've generally found Berlin (in most areas, anyway) to be a thoughtful, peaceful city rich in culture.

Perhaps one of the best manifestations of this is the snippets of text plastered on the walls of Berlin's Schönhauser Allee transit station, a relatively small S-Bahn station in the center-north of the city which happens to have been designed with a series of thoughtful vignettes superimposed on some of the historical photos which line one wall of the station. There are only a handful of these, but I appreciate how they bring moments of thoughtfulness to the commute of thousands of people every day. One of these texts, for example, reads: "Was macht ihr eigentlich, ihr flinken Sekundenhorter, mit all der Zeit, die ihr spart, wenn ihr "lg" tippt statt lieb zu grüßen?" This translates to English as: "What do you actually do, you nimble hoarders of seconds, with all the time you save by typing "lg" instead of greeting people lovingly?" The abbreviation "lg" stands for "liebe Grüße" (loving greetings) and is commonly used as a way of saying goodbye in e-mails and SMS communication, similar to things like "cu" or "l8r" in English. The point is clear: Is the time you save by typing two letters to your family and friends on your mobile phone worth whatever else you do while waiting for your train to arrive?

An even more incisive text, in my opinion, is this one: "Das aber ist die Gemeinheit der großen Stadt: Wir können nie so leise sein, dass es die Lauten stört wie ihr Lärm uns." This translates as: "But that is the meanness of the big city: We can never be so quiet that our quietness disturbs the loud people the way their noise disturbs us." Here we see an insightful commentary on the problems of city life which I've touched on in the past: It only takes a small number of noisy people to disturb the peace for a large number of peaceful people. A very few bad people can completely ruin a peaceful, harmonious community, and that's why it is so important to ensure that bad people stay out of your communities, or they will ruin everything from the inside.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Berlin, the largest city in Germany, prominently bears such self-deprecating denigration of big cities, but this is part of the soul of Berlin: It is a big city (by European standards) which never really wanted to be a big city, and although it has a lot of people in it, it seems to reject the idea of having all these people in it. Berlin is at once thoroughly modern and yet cautiously skeptical of modernity, as if convinced that the modern world is not really better than whatever it replaced. And despite being such a large city, I've generally found that in most parts of Berlin, even in the very center of the city, you can walk around and find the place generally remarkably peaceful and spacious, without a lot of crowding or chaos which one might find in many other similarly-sized cities.

This pensive sort of thoughtfulness which passes deeply through much of Berlin is largely absent from Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city, and this makes all the difference: You don't see texts like this in Hamburg, because Hamburg is not a city that's interested in being thoughtful or self-aware in this way. In Hamburg, if anyone dared to say something like the quote above, Hamburgers would say "What kind of Nazi shit is this? You must be a terribly conservative person if you think that noise is bad, which means you're a Nazi. In Hamburg, we love to drink booze all day! And go to parties by the river! And take drugzzz! And then we can go throw the empty beer bottles at the police! And then go to have sex with prostitutes on the Reeperbahn! Fuck yeah! Hamburg is the greatest city in the world! MAKE SOME NOIZZZZZE I do not mean to imply that such devoted psychopathy does not exist in Berlin as well, but it exists in every large city in the world, and while it certainly exists in parts of Berlin, this attitude does not seem to be the central attitude in Berlin, while it is very much the heart and soul of Hamburg; every city has problems with nuisance crimes like graffiti, petty theft, rioting, and noise disturbances, but whereas these are merely incidental to life in Berlin, in Hamburg people take a special pride in wallowing in this kind of gibbering stupidity all day, every day.

This is why it's important, when building a city, to not neglect culture. Any city will attract criminals who commit crimes and sociopaths who make noise and other types of public disturbance and destruction, but these tendencies can be partially countered by establishing an intellectual core in the city, a populace of thoughtful people who are inclined to read complicated books and consider their words and actions before they speak or act. If a city is built in this way, it can be a place of culture and art alongside the inevitable crime and chaos that comes from any human settlement. If culture and art are neglected, you end up with a city like Hamburg, which historically was just a harbor and thus had no cultural element throughout its history, leading to it being the cesspool it is today. Although I am fortunate enough to have never lived in Frankfurt, I have seen enough of Frankfurt to understand that it suffers from this same problem: It is mostly a place of commerce and has very little of what anyone could call culture in it, as people's idea of "culture" in both Hamburg and Frankfurt is graffiti and political demonstrations. It is this attitude which makes Hamburg and Frankfurt by far the worst big cities in Germany; every other big German city has a long history of scientific research and local literature which contributes to well-educated, thinking populaces rather than just hordes of stupid animals who have no understanding of art other than whatever they scrawl on the city walls while high on drugs.

Indeed, people go to live in cities for different reasons and expect different things from the cities they live in. For many people, a city is simply a place to work: They go there because they can get a paid job there, as opposed to the general unemployment which prevails today in rural areas since the advent of mechanized agriculture. For many people, the city is a place of culture: A place where you can visit a variety of theatres in the evening, go to large bookstores and libraries with a wide variety of books on offer, attend art exhibitions where artists from around the world show their creativity, and so on. But there is also a significant subset of people who worship chaos and find that a city is the perfect place to live lives of constant loud noise, chaos, and sensory stimulation through drug use and visual and audible noise. Different cities have different levels of noise and chaos in them; sometimes even quite large cities are surprisingly orderly if they have been kept that way by their administration and residents, while medium-sized cities which are allowed to decay are often full of crime and chaos because they've developed a reputation for such, which attracts people who live just to destroy. The character of a city really doesn't depend on how big it is.

Coming back to Berlin, then, the last text from Schönhauser Allee station which I want to highlight is this one: "Wenn einmal alles fertig ist, die Baustellen verschwunden, die Straßen frei, die Gerüste weg, die Bahnen ohne Ersatzverkehr--was machen wir denn dann?" This translates to: "When everyone is finished, the construction sites have disappeared, the streets are clear, the scaffoldings are gone, the railways without detours--just what do we do then?" This is, of course, one of the classic life questions: If you could finish everything that you need to do for a moment, if all of your pressing tasks and obligations and chores and work could actually be finished in such a way that you didn't need to attend to them anymore, just what are we supposed to do then? Amidst all the chaos and noise and toil and struggle and uncertainty that we endure every day, what exactly are we working toward with all of this? Just what is our goal? And what are we going to do if we ever reach it?

In Berlin, you can unironically ask this question. In Hamburg, the answer is already known to every resident: "Drink some beer and go beat up some cops, maaan! All cops are bastards!" Ask a stupid person, get a stupid answer.

There is a nice little article, apparently written by the person who designed these vignettes for the Schönhauser Allee station, on this website, with a few photographs of the station and a little bit of history. It's not much, but it's a pleasant little bit of culture in a city which has a great history, even if it doesn't seem to have a great future.

Write only when you're inspired

Sometimes, I am surprised by how much I have written. When I look back at this little blog of mine, which was started on a whim and which I never expected to maintain much, I am shocked to realize how much I've written in some of these entries, and that I've written hundreds of them, well over a thousand in fact. I don't really know where these words came from, given that whenever I speak to someone, I never seem to have anything to say. I need a lot of time to consider my thoughts before I can produce any words, and so I am useless in a conversation; I can only express myself in writing, not in speech.

I am not a professional writer (I have never been paid for anything I wrote) nor do I intend to be one at this point, but there is one thing which I would like to entreat aspiring writers to do. It is not so much a piece of "advice" as it is an entreaty: Please, please, please write only when you feel inspired to do so. Don't just write because you feel that you have to.

In advice which I have read for people who want to become professional writers, one of the most emphasized pieces of advice which I constantly see is how important it is to "write every day". The mentality seems to be to treat writing as a sort of mechanical or routine process, like exercising for those who want to build up their muscles: If you write every day and push yourself to do so, you will get "better" at writing, so the thinking goes. But I have never found this to be true. Writing well is not just a matter of putting down grammatically-correct sentences and spelling your words correctly; writing well is the act of gathering, organizing, and presenting thoughts in a way that makes sense to readers and gives them ideas which they didn't have before reading your text. If your writing doesn't do this, then what reason could you have for writing it?

Yet countless writers, particularly those who have gotten famous for writing lengthy novels, repeatedly give this advice, insisting that the only way to get better at writing is to force yourself to do it every day, even if you don't feel like doing so. Little wonder, then, that these people produce so much textual trash, an endless stream of pointless words which have nothing to say and would have been better thrown into the trash than onto a printed page. In most of the 900-page novels which clutter bookstore shelves, you will find enough good ideas to fill perhaps 10 pages' worth of text if you are lucky; the rest is just filler text, "color text" which doesn't even really add any color but more just serves to pad out the book so that people could sell it. What a stupid waste of paper and time--both the writers' and the readers' time.

To my mind, the purpose of writing is not just to put words down on a page; anyone can do that. The purpose of writing is to impart useful, interesting, and illuminating ideas to people who are likely to have not known these ideas before reading about them. To do this, you need to feel inspired by the knowledge you are about to write down; if you don't feel inspired to write, then your writing will be uninspired, and the act of forcing yourself to write will be as much a chore to you as reading your text will be to any future readers. The solution is to write only when you feel alive with the power of your words: Write only when you have words inside you which are bursting to come out, when you feel so consumed by the need to put your thoughts into written form that you can't resist that urge anymore. That's when you know that your writing is inspired and meaningful. If you don't feel that way, do the world a favor and don't write. If you have nothing to say, shut up. Don't pollute the world with more pointless words that have nothing to communicate to anyone and are not imbued with any kind of passion.

If you really find it necessary to write every day because you think that you're not capable of writing at all otherwise, then that's fine, but don't release the scrap publicly. Don't waste your readers' time by inflicting writing exercises on them; when sports fans go to a sports game, they don't go there to watch the teams doing their warm-up exercises, they go to see the teams performing at their best. Keep your exercises to yourself, unless there's something there which is really so good that it deserves to be read by all the world. Do what you like in your own private space and private time, but if you think it's so important to force yourself to write every day, ask yourself what passion, what good ideas, what vital life and energy went into your writing that readers would feel when reading it? If there isn't any, then what is the point of publishing that text?

Dream, yes, but dream of something realizable

The "American Dream" is one of those concepts which is so vaguely-conceived that there isn't any real definition of what it is, yet many people seem to think that they personally know exactly what it is. For many people, the American Dream simply means home ownership: Being able to own your own property and house instead of renting one your entire life. In many such cases, the Dream is further interpreted to mean not just owning any home, but specifically the perfect suburban home, a detached, single-family home with a yard and a fence in a quiet, well-to-do neighborhood. Still other people extend the implications of this vision to include personal financial wealth within the scope of the Dream. The real essence of the American Dream is not just something material or financial, however, but something conceptual and cultural: In America, self-realization is important, the ability to be yourself and achieve what you want to achieve with your life. Thus, the American Dream can also mean the dream to reach your full potential and do all the things you dream of doing. It comes as no surprise, then, that America is a land full of dreamers: People in America are not afraid to "dream big", because they are in a place which encourages big dreams and big plans for the future. This is easily one of the best things about life in America: The willingness of people to dream anything, and the sense that anything you can dream is possible if you believe in your dreams enough.

To anyone who isn't caught up in the heady idealism of this kind of thinking, however, the disadvantages of such a mentality and culture are readily apparent: Not everything is possible. Sure, it sounds great to say that "Anything is possible" and that "If you can dream it, you can do it", but even a very basic appreciation of human reality makes it abundantly clear that these slogans are untrue, simply the blabberings of deluded people rather than statements which have any relation to human life. Many dreamers would accuse me of being a wet blanket, a stifling influence which only serves to ruin people's happy feelings, but I don't want to make people feel bad, I want them to maintain a sense of reality so that they can distinguish between which dreams they can realize and which dreams they can't. The moon landing of 1969 contributed a lot to the sense that people could do anything if they only put their minds to it, but the thing is, although a moon landing was a novelty in 1969, the reality is that the moon is only about 385,000 kilometres (240,000 miles) from the Earth, which is a long distance in human terms, but a very small one in astronomical terms. The huge amount of planning, work, and risk which humanity undertook for the Apollo 11 landing would be absolutely dwarfed by taking the next logical step, namely a manned mission to Mars, which is orders of magnitude farther than the moon. And we aren't anywhere close to thinking about getting out of our solar system; the nearest solar system to ours is more than 4 light years away, meaning that even light itself takes more than 4 years to travel that distance. No human alive today will travel that distance in their lifetime, no matter how much they believe in such a dream.

Coming both literally and figuratively back to Earth, the dreams which people have when they start a new life in America (either by birth or immigration) are typically more modest than traveling to another solar system; often, people's ambitions are focused on starting a small business, often a small, local retail shop. The character Apu from The Simpsons exists for a reason: Many new immigrants to America were merchants in their birth countries, and even after coming to America with a head full of dreams, they find themselves unable to think of any practicable business plan other than just starting a small shop somewhere and selling goods there. In the country that landed people on the moon and created the Internet, such ambitions may seem unambitious, perhaps even unworthy, but this discrepancy between fantasy and reality highlights the need to combine these two disparate elements: No matter where in the world you are, you are still constrained by the basic laws of science, economics, and human nature. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you want to do, the lessons of America are a lesson to the world: Dream, yes, but dream of something realizable. It is all very well and good to fantasize, to dream with no limits, but if you actually get it into your head to start turning some of those fantasies into reality, then they need to be something you can actually do.

In the entire USA, there is nowhere which symbolizes the spirit of creativity and risk-taking more than coastal California. In the early 20th century, as motion pictures became a thing and Hollywood became the world's center of the motion-picture industry, countless people moved to southern California with the dream of becoming movie stars, and the region became a place of unrivaled creativity as scriptwriters, set designers, actors, directors, and other people converged to make stories using this new medium. In the second half of the 20th century, the focus shifted northward as computers became a thing, and the southern San Francisco Bay became known as Silicon Valley as countless creative new companies sprung up to produce hardware and software for this new technological revolution. Both of these flurries of development had something in common with the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century: Only a very small percentage of people actually benefited from them. The vast majority of people who came to participate in these historical events failed to find success. In the Gold Rush, the reason for this was geological: There simply wasn't enough gold in the California hills for all the 300,000 prospectors who showed up. People who failed to find success in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, however, had more "human" reasons for their failures: Their prospects for success depended on being able to convince people, and people are not as convincible as we'd like to think they are.

The main problem with most kinds of endeavor is the unpredictability of human beings and the differences in human mentalities. So much of what people attempt to do with their lives hinges on other people reacting appropriately. So much of what people dream is mainly or entirely based on swaying public opinion: An aspiring Hollywood star needs to convince casting agents that they have what it takes for a role in an upcoming film. A person who wants to work in an existing business needs to convince the company's hiring agents that they can be profitable for the company, and if you're an entrepreneur starting your own business, you need to convince venture capitalists that your business will be profitable (unless you already have enough of your own money to fund the enterprise yourself, which is the case for a negligibly small percentage of innovative new businesses). The same applies for people whose dreams are not rooted in ideas of personal career or financial success, but who rather want to create social change: There is a lot of political and social activism in California as well, but activism of any kind requires that you be able to convince a significant number of people that your cause is worth supporting, at least enough people that you can build a group based around that cause. Then too, many people want to create social groups which are not based on any kind of political or social cause, but simply for people to have friends in, but even building and kind of "group" or "community" requires that there be enough people who want to join that group or community and participate in it. Many people who want to build a community around specific interests, hobbies, or activities fail in these endeavors simply because they can't find enough people with enough interest and time to participate.

Ultimately, then, if you want to change the world, you need to do something that enough people will agree with and want to participate in. Otherwise, it will just be your own personal cause and die when you do. There are plenty of social movements which are centered around a very small number of people or even a single person, and these movements die out when their members pass away or move on. Even starting a new business, which may seem like a more financially-motivated enterprise, is still fundamentally rooted in human-based risk, because a business is only successful if it has customers, people who are willing to pay money for its products and services, and you can never know what people will be willing to pay money for. Some products were surprise hits, selling vastly in excess of what anyone expected that anyone would be willing to buy, while other products which seemed like "sure bets" because they pushed all the buttons which people usually want in a product end up being duds for one reason or another. As I've written many times in the past, you can do a lot of things with your life, but the one thing you can't do is change people's opinions or change how they think; people have their own ideas and values, and these never change. If you happen to agree with what other people think, then you are likely to meet with success in your goals since you already have the support of global humanity anyway, but if you want to do anything different, expect to fail, because people are not going to support you in whatever you want to do, no matter how good your ideas might seem to you inside your own head. If you want to do something which doesn't require the support, approval, or participation of other people, then you have more predictable chances of success or failure, but again, whatever you do, make sure that it has decent chances of success, unless you just want to perform an experiment (which inherently cannot "fail" since the purpose of an experiment is to observe the results of something, and whatever happens will always have results, even if it has no results, in which case the lack of any result is the result). Again, it is all very well and good to dream big, but if you ever plan to turn your dreams into a reality, make sure that your dreams are realizable.