"Isn't there already enough X in the world?"

Some years ago, I remember reading a novel about businesspeople which contained a scene in which a young man who had rapidly risen through the ranks of a big corporation had announced that he was leaving to pursue a career in the arts. There was a scene in which this young man was in a meeting with a senior manager who asked the young man why he was giving up a promising, high-earning career for something which didn't promise a lot of money or prestige for the future by asking the question: "Isn't there already enough art in the world?"

If you had told me 20 years ago that I would have spent a decade of my life writing in a blog where the focus was on philosophy, I would have doubted this prediction. My attitude towards philosophy, at the end of the 20th century, was similar: "Isn't there already enough philosophy in the world?" Lots of people go to university to study Philosophy, lots of people debate it, and there are thousands of years' worth of tomes which have been written on it, more than one person could ever understand in a single lifetime, so why add more to that pile?

The beginnings of my focus on philosophy came when I tried to find out more about it. I quickly discovered that philosophy is an under-treated subject in most bookstores. If you go to any bookstore, you can find shelves upon shelves of forgettable, fictional novels which have nothing to impart to readers but an entertaining story, quite a lot of books aimed at children (because to adults, for some inexplicable and stupid reason, it is important that children read, but not that people continue to read as adults), a lot of cookbooks (because one of the biggest markets for books is bored housewives with nothing to do but cook at home all day, although of course the eroding middle class is causing this market to disappear), probably a handful of books on history, languages, and travel, and for most bookstores, that's most of it. I had never paid too much attention to whether bookstores actually have books on philosophy, but when I started to look for such sections, I realized that they were very often absent--even well-stocked bookstores often lack a "philosophy" section entirely--and when present, they were severely underserved. Very often, what gets stocked in the "philosophy" section of a bookstore is actually books on religion, Eastern-style mysticism, or pop-culture books which liken ideas from presently-popular movies and TV shows to ideas from classical philosophy. Even in Germany, which until the 21st century had been easily the most philosophical country in Europe, this is the case: "Philosophy" is often entirely lacking even in major German bookstores, and when it's present, it is often this ridiculous sort of pop-culture philosophy which teaches that the way to wisdom is to burn some incense, adopt the lotus position, and empty your mind of all thoughts, which is precisely the opposite of philosophy, which is specifically about good, careful, and rational thinking. You could (probably correctly) counter that such "Eastern" philosophy is just another way of thinking about philosophy, but it is not at all what I wanted or want from my philosophy: To me, wisdom is about turning the brain on, not shutting it off.

Then it became apparent to me how rarely one actually sees philosophy represented in everyday life. Yes, a lot of people study Philosophy in university, but how many people seem to take much of this study out of the classroom with them? The arts are well represented in everyday life: Take a walk around nearly any city in the world, or go nearly anywhere on the Internet, and you will see great, heaping, overflowing outpourings of music and visual art everywhere you go: people talking about it in casual conversations, people selling it in stores, and people giving it away for free on the street because they just like painting or playing music. But how often does one see, in everyday life, people working to establish a framework for how to think about human existence or the value of human contributions to the world?

Even on the Internet, where ideas can be traded more freely than in most other places in the world, one hardly sees real philosophy being discussed. When I first started seriously writing in this blog, I went looking for blogs that offered great wisdom on LiveJournal--then still one of the world's most popular blogging platforms--and I found nothing. Looking through the most popular blogs on LiveJournal yielded, again and again, people writing very short blog entries about things which had happened in their personal lives, random thoughts which had occurred to them and which they summarized in a short paragraph, and people writing fictional stories because they like fantasy fiction and wanted to write it. This is the sort of typical notion of a "blog" which existed at the end of the 20th century going into the beginning of the 21st, the idea that a "blog" is just a place for socially-handicapped teenagers to talk to nobody about their personal lives or complain about something which had upset them on a particular day. I do not wish to sound boastful, but it's difficult for me to write honestly without sounding that way, because I am so troubled by the lack of real wisdom and thought in public writing on the Internet and elsewhere. When I make points in my blog, I often link not to other people's writing, but to previous entries on my own blog which I wrote in the past, because I just can't find anyone else on the Internet who writes about what I do in the way that I do. I'm not trying to make myself seem better than other people; I'm just so terribly frustrated by the lack of wisdom and wise thinking in the world.

So no, there isn't enough philosophy in the world; there is, in fact, not nearly enough of it. Philosophy is not a stack of centuries-old books written by people like Plato and Hegel; philosophy is something living, something which exists in the minds of people, because philosophy is about wisdom, and books cannot be wise; only living minds can be wise.

A similar position is valid, I think, for the other thing which I have consistently tried to research and document throughout my life: Detailed information about how computers work. When the Internet first started becoming common in households in the 1990s, computers were one of the most common topics of discussion online, which wasn't surprising considering that most people who were on the Internet at that time needed not only a computer, but also some interest in (and savvy with) technology to be online in the first place, since getting onto the Internet at that time was not quite as simple as it is today. Since then, the rise of widespread smartphones and Internet access mean that the average level of technical awareness of people on the Internet has steadily decreased, and the "technical" information which finds its way onto the Internet tends to be of a distinctly less technical nature.

To be sure, there are still plenty of websites which carry information about the latest graphics cards, CPUs, and other big-ticket items, but there is very little information about how these things actually work. The reality is that even most people who work in technology or consider technology a personal hobby know very little about how computers work internally, which I believe is a great failing that has far-reaching implications for a world that is increasingly dependent on computers. People think that they know a lot about computers when they can recite the numbers being advertised for the latest graphics card from some specific manufacturer, but this is actually not at all technical knowledge, but rather knowledge appropriate for a marketer or salesperson. An engineer or technician is not interested in memorizing model numbers and the marketing blurbs associated with them, but rather in understanding how devices are structured internally and how the different parts of a device fit together.

Many people might ask, then: "Isn't there already enough technical mumbo-jumbo for nerds on the Internet?", and I would once again answer: No, there isn't nearly enough. Or at least, there isn't enough real, detailed, incisive information; there is a lot of fluff and advertising and other such nonsense, but very little concrete information which could be used to construct such electronic devices in a home electronics laboratory. People go to bookstores and see racks upon racks of books and magazines for "nerds", filled with information on digital photography, smartphone apps, and operating system upgrades, and people think that there is plenty of technical information in the world, but actually, all of this stuff is just superficial trash for people who falsely imagine themselves to be knowledgeable, people who think that clicking an "Update" button makes them technical geniuses. No, there isn't enough real technical information in the world, and there probably never will be. That's why I've tried to cobble together what information I could find: Because real information, actual concrete and useful information, is very rare on the Internet.

I suppose that most people with a particular interest probably have similar feelings about what interests them. A person with a specific interest in anthropology, for example, could go to nearly any bookstore in the world and lament the lack of good books about anthropology there. Nearly any kind of scientist would likewise be lacking for books about "real science" in a bookstore; books in the "Science" section there are pop-science books written for lay audiences, not books that really contain the kind of in-depth scientific data which would be necessary for serious research. This is the nature of a bookstore: A bookstore is a business, and as such it needs to cater its offerings to its customer base. I think I wrote, some time ago, that books have always been obsolete, because books are written for mass audiences, and anyone who wants detailed, extensive, in-depth information would need to find it in scientific or academic journals which are usually not sold in bookstores because they're written for specialty audiences rather than general ones. I suppose that if you ask any question of the form "Isn't there already enough X in the world?", there exists a small but devoted group of people for whom the answer is unequivocally "no". You might hear a lot about something, but that doesn't mean that there is enough of it in the world, or that people think enough about it.

A finite universe

"Everything is not everything. There's more."
-- Dr. Gordon Kindlmann as Dr. Tom Schoesser in Computer Chess

Someone left a good comment on my last post noting that conflict and competition are inherent to our universe: not something specific to humanity or even to planet Earth, but actually to the entire universe we find ourselves in, this plane of reality, for the simple reason that both space and resources are limited. We cannot end conflict, because conflict is built into every living thing. We cannot put an end to the need to kill and create waste, because that is the nature of this universe.

This idea reframes our imprisonment not as one of politics, economics, science, or psychology, but as one of existence. It does not matter what political systems we could devise, how far we could travel, how much money we could make, or how deeply we could explore the depths of the human psyche; we would still be fundamentally trapped in the same lives we have now, by the very nature of our existing at all. This is not a new idea, of course: Sartre's No Exit portrays the horror of being trapped in an existence, and I'm sure that other people have had similar ideas over thousands of years of human history, but our modern understanding of astronomy portrays humanity's existential imprisonment somewhat differently.

For most of human history, the Earth has seemed like a prison because it is a sphere (so no matter how far you go, you can never prevent yourself from going in circles) and because we cannot easily escape it. But in the 20th century, we found a means to escape it: We can build spacecraft that carry human beings away from Earth. Yet we discovered, in the same century, that there is nowhere else to go: Even if we sent people to other planets, there isn't anything better there waiting for us. As I observed not long ago, even if we could somehow travel to a distant galaxy far beyond what our telescopes can see and find intelligent life there, it's likely that their lives would be much like ours: Just a constant struggle to find enough biological energy to remain alive.

And what about those lucky few who manage to have a life where they do not constantly struggle for survival? What do they do with the life they have? There is nothing for them to do but entertain themselves. At one point in human history, it seemed like there was some bright and hopeful future for people to work toward, but today we see more clearly than ever that all of these utopian dreams are meaningless, not because the ideas themselves weren't good, but because of the nature of our universe. It's partly human nature, but also partly the nature of the universe itself. Human nature is limited, but so is our universe.

One of the things which characterized the 20th century was the so-called Flynn effect, the gradual increase in the IQ of the average population which continued through especially the second half of the 20th century. Every decade, the average IQ of people in developed countries climbed a few points. This was an interesting and important trend, but arguably even more important is the trend observed since about the year 2000 which shows that the Flynn effect has been reversed: Over the past 20 years, people have been getting progressively stupider with each year. Theories about why this is happening (or whether this is even happening at all) are varied, but it seems to be generally agreed that the shift is due to environmental changes: People are living in an environment that makes them stupider than they were in the 20th century. People are more surrounded by distractions and by media which does not promote critical thinking.

Even if this were not the case, however, would it really change anything? Human beings have already reached the limit of their development. In every field of human endeavor, there is now far more information than any human being could learn in one lifetime. We've developed more information about science and technology than even the most brilliant geniuses can understand: No one actually understands everything about a multi-gigabyte operating system or the experiments now being performed in fields like quantum physics. We've reached our limits in terms of artistic expression and creativity: Every story which people tell is simply a reworking of countless stories that humanity has been telling for thousands of years. There are no new stories to tell. It's not that there is nothing more to learn, discover, or understand, but that there is nothing more that we, as human beings, can learn, discover, or understand. We, as living organisms, are very small, stupid, and weak. Some people are much smarter than others, but no one can come even close to grasping the vastness of all that there is to know in the universe. And yet even that universe is very small and limited compared to what could be.

There has been much popular speculation in fictional media about our perceptions of reality being fake, about human existence actually being something akin to a computer simulation, but I think this is only part of the picture. Even if our lives are real and everything which we perceive is real, there is probably more than just this one universe. The reason why we can't break out of our existence is not because we can't fly far enough, but because we don't have any mechanism to cross over into a different existence. In a computer, there can be many programs running at once. Each program has its own memory space, but these do not cross over: Memory space which belongs to one program cannot be accessed by any other program. Within one program, you can do as much as you want; if it's a simulation program like a flight simulation and you want to fly farther and access a new area, the computer will give you more memory to store the extra data of that new area, and you can keep on going forever, and the computer will just keep giving you more memory to work with (unless the physical memory runs out), but you'll never be able to break out of that one program you're in.

This analogy brings me back to the notion (which I wrote about earlier this year) of God as a programmer, and the universe as an experimental program, which is certainly not my own original idea (it was notably played with by Neal Stephenson at the end of In the Beginning... Was the Command Line). The idea may sound a little flippant, and I acknowledge that the analogy is not perfect, but the way that physical space and information are handled in our universe is remarkably similar to how they are handled in a computer program. If Heaven exists, it's in a different plane. Historically, people have thought of the journey to Heaven as one of distance: If you could only travel far enough, if you could only add enough digits to the number of miles you can travel, perhaps you could get there. But I don't think that it's a matter of distance; it's a whole other existence. We could never get there with the fastest rocket ship, because our universe doesn't intersect with others; at least, not in a way that we can perceive or control.

Talking or even thinking about existence in this way is dangerous, because it tends to lead to a sense of unreality, derealization, depersonalization, and insanity. People tend to get a lot of wrong ideas when they think about these things, leading them down paths of delusion which go nowhere. And even if they get the ideas right, often they can't deal with those ideas.

"There will be no order, only chaos... As soon as you discard scientific rigor, you're no longer a mathematician. You're a numerologist."

"I think that with this theory of yours, you're making a few wrong connections, and I'm worried that if you're fixating on this, the balance of wrong connections to right connections could shift, and at that point, we've lost our sanity."

Why did Max Cohen burn Sol's epiphany at the end of Pi? There are two possible reasons: Either it was all-powerful, or completely powerless. Either it really was what people thought it was, what people had been looking for, something that could give them unlimited power, in which case it wasn't something which could have been entrusted to humanity, or it was meaningless gibberish, a red herring that had no power or importance, in which case it could be thrown away, as there is already enough junk and meaningless distraction in the world. Either way, whatever people dream of reaching will never fulfill humanity.

Some of you will ask "Why?", but let's be honest with ourselves: Does it really matter why? Do you really want to know why? Would it change anything if you knew? If you don't understand why, it's only because you are not willing to take the time and effort to understand why, and anybody who's not willing to do so is someone who can't be entrusted with the answer. Anyone else already understands well enough that they know how pointless it is to ask why, or to answer that question.

People aren't going to be different in the way you want them to be

My first public presence on the Internet was the website which I first put online with GeoCities in the late 1990s; I believe the exact year was 1998. As many people do when they first expose themselves and their creations to public scrutiny, I invited feedback, noting that I couldn't think of any feedback which I wouldn't welcome. This is something that people often say when they get started with putting their presence out into the larger world, as a way of saying that they are not adverse to negative remarks; usually what "I welcome any and all feedback" means is that people do not just want to hear positive praise along the lines of "This is great!", but are also open to receiving criticism.

I did not receive much feedback on my website, but over the years, occasional e-mails slowly trickled in from random visitors who had been motivated, for one reason or another, to send me an e-mail. What I came to discover, however, was that if you invite feedback on something you've written or otherwise created, that feedback usually doesn't take the form you expect it to take.

The problem with feedback is not criticism. Criticism can be constructive, of course, but even unconstructive criticism is sometimes entertaining if not especially informative. Back in the days when it was still common for people to have personal websites where they would post information about random topics of interest to them, it was common for people to collect and even publicly share negative feedback they'd received, because e-mails full of profanity or insults are often more entertaining than they are troubling. It's amusing to think that someone became so upset by your choice of a background color that they took the time to personally insult you for it. The Internet was a different time back then; offensive and abusive behavior was more widespread but less targeted, meaning people were generally fairly indifferent to it and often even rather amused by it, because there was a sense that it wasn't so much a personal attack as just how some people behave on the Internet. Tirades full of insults were common, but they weren't usually seen as something to take personally or seriously. (I say "usually"; obviously, there were exceptions.)

What I ended up getting for feedback on my website, however, tended to be not so much positive or negative commentary on the site itself, but more like entirely irrelevant or even unrelated content which people had inexplicably felt the need to send me for one reason or another. Of course, a lot of the communication I received was spam, and even worse than the automated spam which was sent by "mailer robots" was the directed advertising which took the form of people who seemed like very nice and genuine people who took an interest in the things I took an interest in, only to later turn out to be advertisers who were just trying to get me to buy their product, or advertise their product on my site. ("I think your readers would be really interested in this amazing product I found recently" and the usual similar phrases which such people use to abuse people's willingness to give their time and attention to strangers.)

Besides the advertising, though, I got a lot of comments which had very little to do with what I'd actually put on my website. People would read some particular thing I had written and send me a long, rambling message because they were so bored and lonely that they had no one else to talk to and felt like I was someone who wanted to listen to them. So I'd get long e-mails which contained nothing that I could really meaningfully reply to, and often not even anything which I could make any real sense out of, but that didn't matter to the people who sent the messages; they were so socially outcast that they would spew their stream-of-consciousness writings to anyone who would listen to them, and even to anyone who wouldn't. I often felt bad for these people because they had taken the time to write me something lengthy, but it was also apparent that these people were somewhat unbalanced if not outright mentally ill, and it became clear to me that if I tried to reply to them, the "communication" (if one can call it that) would just go on forever.

And even when I got messages which related to what I'd written on my website, it still wasn't really anything which I could meaningfully reply to. People might say "Hey, I saw that you liked this book which I read when I was a kid. I liked that book and remember reading it with my parents" or some similar personal anecdote which would invariably leave me with not much to say other than "Thanks for sharing your story" or something similar. I realize that these messages were heartfelt and meaningful, because people had been touched in one way or another by something that I'd written and that was why they had taken the time to write to me, but there wasn't much I could say to them other than a brief reply of acknowledgement and appreciation.

I won't deny that I got some messages which were very kind and thoughtful, and which contained useful or interesting ideas or suggestions for the website, but I would not characterize such messages as being in the majority. I eventually came to understand that I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and say with the site, and so there wasn't really anything which people could tell me about it which would be both new and interesting to me: I knew what I wanted to hear, and the fact that not everyone told me what I wanted to hear was simply my own fault for expecting that people would, when clearly, they wouldn't; there was no point in people telling me what I already knew or had already said. If people would have anything new to say to me, it would necessarily have to be something unexpected.

What I learned from this experience is that people are unpredictable and confusing, and they are not the way we wish they would be, or even the way we think they are. When people imagine humanity as a whole, they tend to have idealistic notions; people seem to instinctively imagine that other people are like themselves. I think this stems from human beings' natural tendency to be friends with--and thus keep company with--people who are similar to themselves ("birds of a feather flock together"), which creates an echo-chamber effect in which people assume that because most of the people whom they see and talk to on a regular basis are similar to themselves, therefore most people in the world are similar to themselves. This is, of course, not true: Most people are pretty different from most other people, and not just in superficial ways, but in deep-seated, far-ranging ways.

I mention all of this because these ideas can, of course, be expanded to apply generally. When people who consider themselves "democrats", "liberals", or many other similar words think about humanity, they think about a big happy group of human beings who have values similar to their own, people who just want to experience the wonderful beauty of life, laugh with their dear friends and family, and give a little something back to the world to make it a better place. There may indeed be a lot of people in the world who want to do these things, but what they consider beautiful in life and what they consider "making the world a better place" may differ vastly from what you think of when you consider these ideas.

This can be seen, for example, among groups of people who talk about how they value "diversity" among people. When these people talk about how important diversity is to them, the irony is that what they really value is people who are like them and have the same values which they have. Their idea of "diversity" is someone with a different skin color or other superficially different physical appearance; they like that, but what they don't like is people with different opinions. This is why, time and time again, people will talk about "democracy" and "freedom of speech" and say a lot of things about how important it is that everyone be free and able to express their opinions, but then become dismayed when they hear opinions which they do not welcome: "We want the world to be open so that everyone can express themselves and their values in whatever form they want. Wait a minute... Now people are saying things which we disagree with! How could this happen? We didn't want this. We just wanted to hang out with people who agree with us. We didn't want to encourage anyone to say something we don't like!"

When people talk about "diversity", what they consistently fail to recognize is that diversity doesn't just mean people who look different, but people who have different values, different lifestyles, different goals, and different hopes for the future, including values and goals which may differ from--or even directly oppose--yours. This is a natural consequence of inviting "diversity" from humanity. If you value differences between people and want to encourage people to be different from each other, here's one thing which you need to clearly understand: People aren't going to be different in the way you want them to be. You can't control the ways in which people are different. If people are allowed to be different and make their own life decision, then they're going to be different in ways which you don't like.

That's why when people talk about democracy, freedom of opinion, and freedom of choice, these idealistic-sounding ideas inevitably come tied with self-contradictory plans about eliminating people who don't agree with them. The irony of democracy is that it is its own form of fascism: Anyone who doesn't agree with the ideals of democracy is not invited to take part in the democratic process, but rather shunned and excluded from it. The only people whom so-called "democrats" want to hear from is other people who embrace the same mentality. It's the same old story which we've seen countless times of a subculture which identities itself as being "different from other people" by means of all of its members being the same as each other.

On a recent blog post of mine, a discussion arose in the comments because someone asked me whether I would want all people to be the same. This is a common question which arises in these kinds of discussions, and it surprises me that even well-educated, deep-thinking people seem naive enough to adopt the fairy-tale line that "A world in which all people are the same would be boring and not worth living in". I think this thinking comes from the application of an unreasonable and unrealistic extreme: People seem to automatically think of some sort of theoretical science-fiction scenario in which human beings are normalized like mass-produced machines, where each person looks, sounds, thinks, and acts exactly like every single other person in the world. That's not the ideal that I mean when I say that I'd like to live in a world where all people are similar. There are differences between people which can be endured and tolerated, and then there are differences between people which cannot be.

One of the problems with public discourse about "diversity" is that people never bother to define what kind of diversity they're advocating for, which is a very self-defeating act since it's clear that there are certain types of diversity which most people could reasonably want to eliminate. For example, do you want to live in a world in which there are people dying of cancer? If the answer is "no", then you are removing one type of diversity from the world. Having a particular illness is one way in which people can be different from each other, so if you want to eliminate illness, then you want to eliminate one type of diversity. That's why, when people who value "diversity" are talking about curing widespread diseases like cancer, AIDS, or this year's history-making coronavirus, it's worth posing the question: Wait, you want to cure people who have those diseases? All of them? Because that's tantamount to a form of genocide: A great deal of culture and artistic works--books, movies, songs, paintings, and so on--have arisen out of stories (both real and fictional) of people being terminally ill. If you want to cure these terminal illnesses for all people in the world, forever, then you're removing an entire genre of creativity and expression, and also removing one facet that makes different human beings different from each other. Now, I can understand doing this; I myself would not be opposed to eliminating such diseases from the world, but that's because I do not value "diversity" in all its forms: there are certain ways in which I do not want people to be different from each other, and in fact, I would be okay with living in a world in which not one single person was dying of cancer. I think that is a world I could tolerate living in, and I wouldn't feel like that world would be boring or lacking in variety because of its lack of cancer sufferers.

A perhaps more controversial idea is poverty. Again, if you could, would you want to eliminate poverty from the world? Would you want to make sure that every person was not poor? All of them? There are many political activists who would not hesitate to answer "Yes" to this question, but consider what such an idea entails. Once again, there is a very, very large body of cultural and artistic creativity which has concerned itself with the lives of the financially poor. Countless works of genius like Les Misérables, Oliver Twist (and indeed, most of the writing of Charles Dickens), and The Grapes of Wrath are mainly about the desperate plight of the poor. These books would never have been written if poverty didn't exist. Now, you might say that it would be worth giving up these landmark books if it could mean that poverty could be eradicated from the world, and you might even be right, but consider what you are doing by introducing such ideas: You are forming humanity into a more uniform mass where all people think the same thoughts and live the same lifestyle. That dystopia of a "boring", homogenized humanity becomes much more real if you eliminate illness and poverty from the world. In doing this, you vastly detract from the variety and diversity which you claim to value in humanity.

Lest anyone think that I am some chauvinist pig talking down to humanity and telling them how important it is for some of them to be poor, be assured that my own financial situation is by no means secure and that I am not saying any of this to benefit myself. To be sure, I am above the poverty line, and so you could rightly accuse me of not knowing what it's really like to be on the verge of homelessness (or, for that matter, actually homeless), but it so happens that the virtue of poverty isn't my own idea. In many places in the world, I have seen expressions against what people call "gentrification", which is the process of neighborhoods becoming wealthier. People who have lived in a certain place for a long time become alarmed when their neighborhood becomes "cleaned up" because they fear having to pay more money for their costs of living. More than once, I've seen clean, newly-constructed apartment buildings vandalized with graffiti which says things like "Clean walls = higher rents". These kinds of anti-gentrification gestures show that some people want to remain in poverty. It's not just anonymous graffiti, either: More than once, I have seen people wearing shirts saying things like "My neighborhood will stay dirty", meaning that they don't want a bunch of posh wankers moving in. We idealize both poverty and wealth, but the reality is that not everyone is unhappy being poor, and not everyone is happy being rich. You could rightly say that concerns about gentrification are more about people worrying that other people around them will become rich while they remain poor rather than a terror of becoming rich oneself, but this is not the whole story: There are quite a lot of people in the world who are happy living in "the ghetto" or "the hood", considering this environment their natural home and the people who live in such areas their natural community. Not everyone who is poor wants to be "rescued" from their life by some knighted "socialist" heroes.

Returning to the question of whether I'd like to live in a world where all people are the same, I stand by my answer of "Yes", but emphasize that this answer must be understood as having qualificiations. I don't mean that I want every person to physically look like me, or to like exactly the same things I like. But there are properties which I want all people in the entire word to have, as well as other properties which I would like for not one single person in the world to have. Once again, I admit that this means that I don't value "diversity" in people very much, but I'm okay with that. If you think for a little while, you can probably think of things in these categories for you, too: You can probably think of things like health, happiness, or thoughtfulness which you would like for all people in the world to have, and you can probably also think of traits like being a serial rapist or a child abuser which you would like for exactly zero people in the world to have. It's okay to value differences and contrasts between people, but you shouldn't make blanket statements in which you say that "diversity" between people is important. And if you do, just remember: People aren't going to be different in the way you want them to be.

The failure of the long tail

On multiple occasions in the past, I've written about the theory of "the long tail", an idea popularized by Chris Anderson in his book of the same title. Briefly, the gist of this idea is that the Internet has enabled a huge market of relatively unpopular items to be sold; whereas pre-Internet companies tended to focus on selling just a few items in large quantities, the "long tail" represents "tail-end" products among which each individual product is not bought or sold in large quantities, but where such a huge array of niche products for niche consumers abounds that there's a whole new market opening up where people with specialized interests can buy products which they would likely have never been able to buy in the pre-Internet era.

About four years ago, I described this phenomenon as "The death of the hit", reflecting the popular notion that big-name music groups which sell millions of albums would give way to smaller-time musicians who don't sell millions of albums each, but are given a new opportunity to flourish because of the artistic and creative diversity opened up by the Internet. That's the potential benefit of the long tail: a newfound variety in mass media which wouldn't have been possible without the Internet. In the blog post which I wrote back then, I sounded a cautionary note from this perspective, because while it's true that small, independent musicians can now receive global exposure due to the Internet, the music business is still a business, and the copycat effect tends to prevail in it: If one thing becomes popular, a huge array of imitators suddenly appears, people hoping to cash in the popularity of a current trend. So rather than enabling a new generation of unprecedented diversity in music, the long tail may simply enable unprecedented numbers of me-too artists simply hoping to catch whatever is selling right now.

That's the possible risk of the long tail from the artistic perspective. It has recently become apparent to me, however, that the long tail is also problematic from a financial and economic perspective. People who tout the long tail see it as an economic equalizer: Instead of a few really huge, big-name bands dominating music sales, we're promised a future in which lesser-known artists can also sell their music to more people than they could before. But how much are small-time, independent artists actually making from sales that have been enabled by the Internet?

In 2013, Apple trumpeted that iTunes had sold 25 billion songs--a lot of songs, to be sure. At that time, it had a catalog of about 26 million songs, which means that on average, each song on iTunes had been sold about 962 times. As of this writing, iTunes has a library of about 60 million songs, but it's probably reasonable to assume that average sales per song are somewhere in the same ballpark, because there are also more songs available in the library than there were back then. A song on iTunes usually costs 99 cents, and while you might be tempted to make the math easier by calling it a dollar, remember that not all of that money goes to the artist: Generally, Apple collects a 30% commission on iTunes sales, meaning that only about 70 cents of each sale go to the artist. That means that in 2013, the average amount an artist earned per song released on iTunes was 962 sales * 70 cents = $673.40, which is certainly not bad, but not nearly enough to make a living on, especially since this is not what the artists were making monthly, but rather the total intake over the entire time period that iTunes had existed, which at that point was 12 years since iTunes launched in 2001. $673.40 in 12 years is an average of less than $5 a month. And remember, that's an average; some artists are still way more popular than others, meaning there are some artists who were earning much less than this. I consider it likely that despite iTunes' 60-million-song library, there are probably many songs which have not sold even a single copy, and I feel quite certain that there are a great many songs in the library which have been bought less than 10 times in iTunes' history.

What we see here is a sort of fundamental failing of the long tail in terms of is economic viability to artists and producers: Yes, the Internet opens up a new market to people which had been previously closed to them, but that market has been opened up to all people, in all places of the world, and that's a lot of people. One of the problems with a very large global population is how big numbers become when they're multiplied by all those people: Climate change is a serious problem partly because even if each individual person's economic footprint is small, almost any practical number--even a very small one--multiplied by the current estimated global population of 7.8 billion people becomes a very large number. And math works in reverse, too: Any number multiplied by 7.8 billion tends to become really big, but any number divided by 7.8 billion tends to become really small. Any resource available to people, even a seemingly plentiful one, becomes scarce if it is to be equally divided among 7.8 billion.

The long tail was once seen as an economic equalizer because it gave everyone a chance, but the thing is, if you give everyone a chance, few people are going to emerge successful, because they're all competing against each other. As it turns out, what the long tail has done is repeated the same pattern we saw before: There is a huge array of starving, unknown artists who lack exposure or income, and a tiny group of very popular artists whose fame is replicated by mass media. And who's the big winner? Why, the big winners are, of course, the services which distribute that media to the people; distributors like Apple (music sales), YouTube (video views), and Amazon (sales of nearly every consumer product imaginable) are the ones making the big bucks from all these sales. The actual artists are lucky if they can get the average amount of $5 a month, because that number, as a mathematical average, is skewed upward by big-name artists who make much more than that.

So the long tail just ends up perpetuating what we saw before: Unequal distribution on a mass scale, with the big winners being only the sellers, who ironically are the people who did the very least: The distributors didn't create the music, write the books, or film the videos, all they did is resell other people's work. This recalls an article I wrote earlier this year noting that "Trade benefits the people who work in trade enormously, but traders are the people who do the least work, because they do nothing more than take other people's work and sell it". The long tail does not resolve this pattern, but simply repeats it.

This pattern also reflects the repeatedly-seen consequences of economic communism, in which wealth is forcibly redistributed to the masses. The problem with communism is that there are a lot of people, and if you really evenly distribute everything to everyone, the results are not that everyone becomes rich, but rather that everyone becomes poor, because you're adding so little money to each person's actual net worth that inflation quickly eats up the difference; communism does not benefit the people at the bottom, all it does is destroy the people who have even slightly more than the poverty baseline. It ruins even people's dreams of attaining a better life, because there is no better life to be had. Its only victory is its gratification of people's sour-grapes jealousy, gleefully proclaiming: "There! Now everybody has nothing! Now we are happy!" What is astonishing about human nature is how content people are with poverty as long as everyone is poor: they will howl and complain ceaselessly if anyone has anything they do not have, but if everyone is terribly poor, they are happy and satisfied with this state.

To provide the example of a popular target: As I write this, Jeff Bezos is listed as the richest person in the world, with a net worth of 113 billion U.S. dollars. For any one single person, that's a lot of money, but again, the current global population is estimated to be about 7.8 billion people. If Bezos' money were divided equally among all those people, each person would end up with less than $15, not enough to feed even a frugal person for a week. What benefit does the public really gain from attacks on Bezos or demands that his money be redistributed? Each person would get such a small amount of money that it would be meaningless, not even worth the time and trouble it would take to get that money. All it would do is gratify people's petty jealousy. No, Bezos may not have "earned" that level of money, he may not "deserve" it, but what does it benefit us to hurl bitter accusations against him? Hate damages everyone; people who hate the wealthy also end up hurting themselves because they fill themselves with a lot of pointless negative emotions that bring nothing.

This is why I tend to discourage anger and jealousy towards the rich: Yes, each individual member of the elite may have more money than you or I, but if someone were to take all their money and distribute it among the masses, it would come out to such a pittance that it wouldn't be worth the effort. If some person had enough money to make every person on Earth a millionaire, that would be different, but to have that much money, someone would need $1,000,000 times 7.8 billion people = 7.8 quadrillion dollars, which is about 100 times the estimated amount of all the money in the entire world. There literally isn't enough money in the whole entire world to make everyone rich. So let the damned rich people have their money; it wouldn't be enough for the rest of us anyway.

The long tail was and is a nice idea. At the very least, it's an interesting reflection of how marketing, shopping, and distribution are changed by the Internet. But it hasn't really materially changed the world very much; at the end of the day, there are still too many people in the world competing for too few resources, and only a few winners. This is not a problem which can be fixed through political or economic change; it can only be changed by reducing the number of people. The number-one problem in the world is overpopulation, by far the biggest contributing factor to nearly every other major problem which the world faces today, and that's something you can't fix through a communications network. The Internet is pretty cool, but as the decades go by, it's becoming apparent that the Internet has changed the world less than people thought it would. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The never-ending cycle of power exchange

It occurs to me that I often write about messages which I see in graffiti scattered throughout my wanderings. Although I abhor most graffiti because it usually consists simply of some person's name or a stylized logo of their "street name" which they were vain enough to think needed to be plastered all over the city, occasionally graffiti contains real messages, and as such represents a sort of "voice of the people" which unheard people otherwise might not have. While this doesn't give people the right to broadcast their message anywhere they see fit, it is true that sometimes one sees messages of importance, wisdom, or at least relevance in graffiti. If nothing else, it gives you an idea about what some people are thinking.

So it was with a piece of graffiti I saw recently which said: "Comfort the disturbed. Disturb the comfortable". It became immediately obvious to me that this graffiti represents an infinite loop, and as such, it accurately represents the never-ending cycle of power exchange which is the heart of most political activism. Most political activism is about taking power (bearing in mind that money is a form of power) from people who have it and giving it to the people who don't have it, on the basis that the people who have power are using it to oppress people who don't have power. This has been done many times in many different places and at many different points throughout history, and the result is always the same: The direction of oppression simply flips. The group which now has power uses it to oppress the group which used to have power.

There are many examples which could be cited, but one which is particularly relevant for our present day is probably the takeover of Russia by the Bolsheviks, both because this is relatively recent history and because it so dramatically displays what I'm talking about. Russia had suffered under tsarist oppression for generations, and dreamed of a liberating movement which would take power away from the Russian elite and bring it to "the people". The Bolsheviks rose to power on this message, but as soon as they had seized control, it became immediately obvious that they were bent on being even more oppressive, taking away land which had been owned by families for generations and destroying wealth wherever they could find it because wealth was the enemy of the people.

There is a popular image which exists in the mind of the public that poor people are all humble, wise, and good-natured people who deserve to have wealth, while the people who have wealth are greedy, cruel, and deserving of destruction. In fact, many wealthy people are kind-hearted, generous people, and many poor people are greedy and cruel themselves; their presentation of the wealthy as being such is often just psychological projection, the fallacious attribution to other people of properties which you yourself carry. There is not some angelic underclass of wonderful people who would live good lives if only they had the money to do so; if the poor became wealthy and powerful, they too would simply use that wealth and power to oppress their perceived enemies.

The mechanism of political activism produces a loop of power exchange that just goes on forever. If you "Comfort the disturbed" and "Disturb the comfortable", it is pretty obvious that you will soon need to reverse these motions, because the people who were formerly the disturbed are now comforted, and the people who were formerly the comfortable are now being disturbed. It's like one of those joke cards which has "Please turn this card over to the other side" written on both sides. I don't know whether people actually realize this cyclical nature of their activism (it seems pretty obvious to any thinking person) or whether they just don't care and are willing to accept that their work is pointless, but lately I am inclined to suspect the latter: It really seems to me that people are not actually so stupid as to be unaware of the pointlessly cyclical nature of their work, but rather so addicted to conflict and chaos that they simply want to create it wherever they go, in any way they can. And what better way to create conflict and chaos than to pit all of humanity against itself? Human beings will quite readily fight, oppress, and kill each other, so why not amplify these tendencies so that chaos lovers can get what they want?

One thing will always remain constant: There will never be actual equality in the world because people will always be different from each other in some way, and as long as there are differences between people, there will always be something for people to fight about, and for some group to claim they are being deprived of. The lovers and sowers of chaos have fertile fields to plant and harvest, because humanity really is an endless sea of ignorance, selfishness and destructiveness. And they'll always justify it by claiming that they are doing it "for a good cause".

You don't "get money"

One thing which many people don't seem to understand is how they're supposed to get money. At various times in my life, I have been asked by people where I think they could get some money, which is asking the wrong question, a bit like asking "Where can I get health?" The answer is simple: You don't just "get money". Focusing on the acquisition of money defeats the purpose of having money in the first place.

The whole reason why money was created is to act as a medium of value exchange between people. A classic parable explaining why money is useful begins: "You have two cows..." The point is, of course, that without money, you could only exchange with someone who not only needed cows (or at least one cow), but was willing and able to give you what you want in exchange for cows. A much easier way of doing things is to have you sell your cows for some agreed-upon quantity of money, and then use that money to buy what you want from someone else. Money is not magic: It is only worth as much as people are willing to give up for it. It exists as a way to exchange value between people who agree on a value for whatever is being bought or sold.

This is why asking "How can I get money?", as if money can just be "gotten", is such a pointless question. Again, it's like asking "Where can I get health?" The answer is simple: You don't. You don't just "get" health from somewhere; you can't buy it in a store or find it hidden somewhere. If you want to be healthy, you will have to do things that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. If you want money, you need to offer something of value to other people. If you don't offer people something of value, they are going to give you exactly the amount of money which represents the value you gave to them: Zero.

If you want money, the real question is not "How can I get money?", because no one will just give you money (except possibly your family, or random people in small quantities if you become a beggar), nor is the question "How can I make money?", unless you want to start counterfeiting cash. The real question you need to ask is: "What can I offer to other people that is of value to them? What things or services could I provide to others that would be sufficiently valuable to them that they would give me money in exchange?" If you can answer that question, if you can offer a person or people something which they would consider sufficiently valuable to be worth paying for, then they will give you money for it. If you don't offer them something of value, they won't give you money. It's that simple.

Now, I will not deny that there are many people who try to circumvent this intention, with varying degrees of success. People who invest in financial markets like the stock market are not really "providing value to people" in the usual sense; it's more like they are using money to get even more money. The wealthiest people in the world kind of ruin the financial system because they can use their wealth to get even more wealth without actually providing anything of value to people. If you have a lot of money, you can do this too, but chances are that you probably already know this; people who ask "How can I get money?" are not likely to be people who have a lot of money to start with. Then too, there are criminals who "get money" through theft, deception, or other illegal or immoral means, and yes, this is a way that you can "get money" if you're okay with turning to a life of crime. But both of these types of people ruin the trust and fairness of the financial system by turning money from a way to exchange value into a way to gain an unfair advantage. If you're okay with being a worthless person who does not contribute value, then that is something you can probably do.

But if you want to earn money legally and morally, then you need to stop thinking about how to "get money", because money is not going to just fall out of the sky. Stop asking how to make or get money, and start asking "What could I offer to other people that would be valuable to them?" When you can answer this question, the money problem will sort itself out.

From local software to web applications and back again

One thing I don't understand is why so many companies and organizations are now producing apps which are specific to particular mobile operating systems. In the first few years of the 21st century, there was a movement to get away from writing for particular hardware or software platforms, because software written for a particular platform isn't portable and cannot easily run on other platforms without being rewritten or emulated. The idea was that in the future, most software would run through a web browser, and thus coding locally-run software was a thing of the past. This has led to a significant decrease in the amount of software written for computer operating systems like Windows or MacOS, because unless a program is quite large and requires the extra hardware horsepower which comes from running locally, it can typically run more conveniently, portably, and securely through a website instead of a local executable.

But now that smartphones are replacing computers, people seem to be changing their minds about this and deciding to write apps for Android and iOS. I don't really understand the motivations for doing this; I can only speculate that there are 2 main reasons for this:

1. Because smartphone screens are so small, websites would not display very readably on them; if you made a website which was then viewed on a smartphone, the features on the site would be so small that they wouldn't display properly on such a tiny screen.

2. Because smartphones are not always connected to the Internet, a web-based application running on a smartphone would stop working every time the user's mobile data connection broke. While it's true that most smartphone users have mobile data plans, reception is not always reliable for people who are travelling, and they don't want their ability to use apps to be dependent on a mobile data connection, so having the code run locally ensures that the program will keep working even if the data signal drops out.

These are valid reasons to make locally-run software, but when one considers that developers turned away from writing local software for computers, which today have vast quantities of resources available, because they were too hard to code for and decided instead to write for smartphones which are much smaller in every way--slower CPUs, smaller memory, smaller storage, smaller screens, and fewer input choices--it seems like a ridiculous comedy of errors. I imagine a conversation like this:

Normal person: Hey, you can write software for new computers which offer you literally billions of bits of RAM and storage space to use, big screens that are sharp and easy to read, and full-size keyboards with a hundred keys to make use of.
Software developer: No, that's too hard. I'll write for the web instead, which adds an extra layer of interpretation that makes everything run much slower, consumes more memory, and reduces the possibility to communicate with the hardware.
Normal person: Oh well, at least that means your software will be portable then. Okay, what software are you writing for the web?
Software developer: Oh, I changed my mind and I'm coding for smartphones now, because their screens are so tiny and they have no input devices, so they're the ideal platform for my software.

It's like people saying "We have big, paved streets to drive on, but that's too complicated for us, so we're going to throw a few shovelfuls of dirt on the ground and use that as a dirt road to drive on instead, because that's the way of the future". People really will inevitably end up choosing the worst and stupidest possible option.

One more new pass over old territory

After my last journey through Poland and the comments I made about it back then, it did not escape my notice that I had omitted some of Poland's most important cities on that trip, and that I would perhaps be giving the country more of a fair shake if I went back and explored what I missed. Well, this month, I tried to do exactly that. I've briefly summarized my thoughts and experiences on this trip below, but to make a long story short: I didn't reach any conclusions that I didn't reach on the previous trip, and my overall impressions of Poland do not remain particularly positive.

I started the trip by taking a bus to Łódź, Poland's third-largest city and the most geographically central of its large cities. My bus dropped me off at Łódź Fabryczna railway station, which Wikipedia describes as "the largest and most modern railway station in the city of Łódź", which is a bit like describing one particular defecation as the newest among all the defecations in a dung heap. Fabryczna station looks good, but it has the curiosity of having neither trains nor people in it. It is a huge, impressive and modern-looking building which serves no function because hardly any transportation actually goes there. Fortunately, it is within reasonable walking distance of the city center, being only about one kilometre east of it. So with a map of the city in hand, I set out to explore.

As Łódź is a relatively new city (in 1830, the city population was only 4,300 people), most of its growth has happened in the modern era, which has lent the city a regular grid pattern, in contrast to the twistier and less planned layouts of classical-era cities. This makes navigating Łódź fairly easy, as you usually know whether you're walking north, south, east, or west, unlike other cities where you can start off walking in one direction and soon be going in another because the street curved around more than you realized. To see as much of Łódź as I could, I thus took a methodical "scanning" approach, walking from north to south along the east-side street of Jana Kilińskiego and working my way west from there one north-south street at a time, ending my scanning matrix at the west-end street of Stefana Żeromskiego.

Despite my use of terms like "city center", "east-end", and "west-end", I soon came to realize that these terms do not have much meaning in Łódź, as the city does not have the usual sense of gradual urbanization that most large European cities have. Because the city is relatively new and does not have a long history, it hardly has any center; the real center of Łódź is Piotrkowska street, the one single street in the city which has been made up to look anything like an actual city. The rest of Łódź does not feel like a city, but more like a lifeless small town or suburb where nothing exists except underdeveloped properties, battered-looking apartment buildings, and occasional shops. What's really stunning about Łódź is how unplanned it all feels; different types of properties exist next to each other, and in fact often in the same building, with no rhyme or reason to any of it.

The more I saw of Łódź, the more I was struck by questions regarding its inexplicable lack of structure. Why do official-looking government buildings exist next to fast-food stores? Why does an "international software company" have its main office in the ground floor of what looks like an apartment building (and indeed, probably is one), in a space so small that the entire company cannot consist of more than perhaps 4 people, while the floor above it is visibly being used as a warehouse for bed linens? Why do signs advertise the locations of stores which appear to have no doors and consist entirely of a boarded-up window? And why does every business in Łódź have opening hours from 10:00 in the morning to 15:00 (which is 3:00 in the afternoon)? Do people in Łódź not have daytime jobs here that would prevent them from going shopping during these hours?

The more I saw of Łódź, the more incredulous I became. The city is so absurd that it's hard to believe it is real; it almost feels like a huge joke which someone played. Did the entire city planning board really leave their city in this state of disarray and neglect? Why do gorgeous new apartment buildings exist right next to torn-down ruins of old buildings that have not been inhabited for decades? Why do random, empty buildings exist in empty lots next to the street? Why did people fill the entire city with street tram lines when the city does not contain any people? Why does Łódź, of all cities, have a place called "Muzyka City Bum Bum", which describes itself as a "School Of West African Percussion & Dance", but no supermarkets?

When I had seen the entirety of what passes for the city center, my overall impression of Łódź was that it is a great city to visit for people who are looking for something different. Łódź has nothing to attract tourists in the usual sense, but once I had gotten used to the city, I found that I tremendously enjoyed it because of its sheer sense of insanity. Łódź is so surreal that it's actually surprisingly entertaining as a comedy of errors, as a funhouse freak show of urban planning failures. Even in the nominal city center, on Piotrkowska street, where some effort has been made to make the street and buildings look pretty, you can look down literally any side street and see scenes of such destruction and decay that I had the feeling of being on one of those movie sets where the city is just a cheap facade. Well, it is a cheap facade. Łódź has no city center because it is not even really a city; it's just a random grid of streets and buildings which was hastily constructed in response to population growth, and no further planning or development occurred beyond that.

I have a feeling that Łódź somewhat mirrors the American model of city development in which the city center is left as a derelict pit of urban decay, and all the nice development happens in the suburbs, beyond easy reach of the pestilence which breeds in the center. Looking at maps of Łódź suggests that nice shopping centers and supermarkets exist outside of the city center in areas where tourists and other non-residents will not find them, and indeed, when I took a train out of Łódź, I became conscious of the reality that there are suburbs beyond the city center which look nice, normal, and relatively prosperous, featuring normal attractions like a zoo, a water park, and stores which actually open sometimes. There is nothing to see there and no reason to go there unless you live there or know someone who does, but the people in Łódź who know the city well seem to be the ones who have the sense to live outside of it.

Speaking of taking a train out of Łódź, after I had walked all up and down the "center" of it and wondered how such a place could exist on Earth, I went back to Fabryczna station with the intent to take a train to Bydgoszcz, Poland's 8th-largest city and the next planned stop on my trip. The people who sell tickets in Polish railway stations almost never speak a word of English, so I tried to buy a ticket from a ticket-vending machine because such machines usually have options for three languages: Polish, English, and German. After choosing English and informing the ticket machine that I wished to buy a ticket to Bydgoszcz, the machine helpfully informed me that no trains were running there, which seemed odd to me, as I had checked on the Polish train system's website ahead of time and seen that there were multiple trains supposedly running that route. Of course, having free public wi-fi wasn't part of the plan for the "modern" Fabryczna train station, so I didn't have a way to check train schedules online. Finally, I went to a ticket agent and, correctly guessing that she didn't speak English, simply said "Bydgoszcz?" to her. Correctly guessing that this meant that I do not speak Polish, the woman simply held up 5 fingers and pointed at ticket window number 5, which I presume meant that she didn't want to deal with me and was passing me along to some other colleague. At ticket window number 5, I repeated my question, after which the woman there replied with a long answer in Polish, the only word of which I recognized was "Warszawa", the Polish name for the capital city of Warsaw. After a moment of trying to imagine what to say, I asked, in English: "Do you mean to say that it's necessary to change trains in Warsaw?" The woman gave me a much shorter reply in Polish, which I also did not understand but which seemed to have the tone of "I don't understand what you're saying". I thanked the woman, walked away in thought, and a few minutes later, returned to the first ticket window and simply said: "Warszawa?" Moments later, I walked away with a ticket to Warszawa Centralna, the main train station in Warsaw. Łódź does not appear to be well-connected to other cities in the Polish rail network, which makes sense considering that there is no reason to go there. Fortunately, it does not take too long to get from there to Warsaw by train; the trip only lasted about an hour, and at Warszawa Centralna, I was able to buy a ticket directly to Bydgoszcz, arriving there a few hours later.

On my previous trip to Poland, I gushed about Wrocław, a fairly small but lovely city which feels more German than Polish and is located on a landform which feels like an island but isn't quite an island because it isn't entirely surrounded by the river which encircles most of it. Bydgoszcz is kind of like a cross between Wrocław and a regular Polish city: It has a really wonderful old town, known as "Stare Miasto" (old city) in Polish, which is located on a peninsula on the river Brda that feels more like an island and which is very German in its architecture and mood, but outside of Stare Miasto, Bydgoszcz is just another disorganized group of random shops and residential blocks with nothing interesting or even superficially beautiful to see. I did make my first YouTube video of Poland in Bydgoszcz which can be viewed here, but to put it briefly, Bydgoszcz is a wonderful old town on a river peninsula, and the rest of it is just a generic city without any real character.

From Bydgoszcz, I also took a one-day train trip to Gdańsk, Poland's most important city on the sea. Gdańsk, too, used to be a German city, but today it does not seem to be so much German as international. Its architecture feels like a mix of the naval German architecture one sees in e.g. Hamburg, naval Nordic architecture one sees in e.g. Denmark, and something else rather unique. Gdańsk has become neither a German city nor a Polish city, but actually a highly global city. It seems to want to be both a Nordic and a Baltic city, as the flags of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland are prominently flown in many locations around the city, and in some spots, the flags of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania join them, but really, Gdańsk has gone global in a way that is distinctly un-Polish. I would say it is by far the most global city in all of Poland; a mix of different global cuisines are available in the city's manifold restaurants, one hears more foreign languages on the street than in any other place in Poland (hearing foreign languages in other parts of Poland is very rare, and when it happens, the language is almost always either German or English), and I saw the rainbow flag flown prominently in many places in Gdańsk, which is something one does not see often in other parts of Poland.

For these and other reasons, Gdańsk is also easily one of the most touristy cities in Poland. I have a hard time deciding whether Kraków or Gdańsk is more touristy. Gdańsk has a smaller tourist center than Kraków does; in fact, the tourist center in Gdańsk is very small and consists of only a few city blocks, but within that tourist region, I think there is more diversity in all the usual senses--not only racial diversity, but also musical, culinary, and architectural diversity--than in any other city I've seen in Poland. Once you get outside of that tourist area, however, this rapidly fades away and Gdańsk becomes just like any other Polish city, mostly decaying apartment buildings and disordered shops. Gdańsk is worth a look if you like places that cater to international tourists, or if you want to see the most un-Polish city in Poland, but I do not like tourist-centric places and so I did not enjoy Gdańsk much, although it is a beautiful city and it was worth the relatively short one-and-a-half-hour train trip from Bydgoszcz.

From there, my last stop on the trip back to Germany was Szczecin, a city very close to the German border. As one rides a train west from central Polad, the landscape and the towns which one sees along the way gradually become increasingly German, as the territory, of course, used to belong to Germany. I was particularly impressed with Wałcz, an absolutely gorgeous small city about half-way between Bydgoszcz and Szczecin. I would have liked to have stopped there and taken a look around, but like most of the good places in Poland, Wałcz is simply a city for locals and there is not much there to attract foreign tourists. It really reinforced the idea which I had already developed in my mind during my previous trip to Poland that Poland's large cities are terrible because Poles are bad at organizing cities or putting any kind of culture into them, but the real warm heart of Poland is in its countryside and small towns, where Poles are excellent at creating strong communities and wonderful homesteads. It's a nice place to live if you want to live in a small town for the rest of your life and be either a farmer or a tractor mechanic.

Arriving in Szczecin, I had assumed that it would be similar to the small German-looking towns I'd passed on the way, as it is right next to Germany and so undoubtedly has strong influence from Germany despite having been part of Poland since the end of World War II. I was wrong. My first impression upon walking into Szczecin was that I suddenly understood why there is so little traffic to see in Polish cities like Warsaw, Kraków, and Łódź: All of Poland's traffic is in Szczecin. The city was clearly not built to handle its current population of over 400,000 people, and although the city does have a street-tram network, either the city's tram network is not adequately serving the needs of the population, or people just don't use the trams enough for some reason. Whatever the reasons, Szczecin has such ubiquitous and intractable traffic that it forms a good case study of failed transportation design in a city, as I have never seen such pervasive traffic congestion in any other city in Poland. It actually feels like an American city in this regard, the kind of city where everyone drives everywhere because of failed public-transit design.

Szczecin's urban planners seem to have decided that since they didn't know how to deal with the city's traffic problem, they could make their city more beautiful and appealing by simply turning every intersection in the entire city center into a "place", a plaza named after some historic personage. Unfortunately, this measure was ineffective: Even with some kind of significant plaza at every single street intersection, Szczecin is still a remarkably ugly and unpleasant city. Like so many other large Polish cities, it looks like a city which might have once been beautiful but which has since been neglected and turned into a cheap strip mall with trashy shops lining the sidewalks and trashy apartments above them. I walked around Szczecin for a few hours and suddenly said: "You know what? I don't like it here. This place is ugly, unpleasant, and uninteresting, and I have no reason to be here any longer". I walked back to the train station and took the next train out of Poland. Along the way, I noticed some graffiti scrawled on a wall which said: "Suck dick, not economy". I do not know exactly what this means, but I do know that these words constitute the greatest pearl of wisdom I saw during my time in Poland.

While on the topic of summarizing countries, now that I have been to every Balkan country except for Moldova (regarding which I will defer to Bald and Bankrupt's coverage of the matter, which is much better than anything I could ever manage), I might as well take a moment to provide a quick summary of each. I gave this summary verbally during the second video of my trip to Skopje earlier this year, but perhaps it might be appropriate to communicate these impressions and opinions textually as well:

Slovenia: Too small to be interesting in any way, Slovenia is a pleasant little mountainous country that serves mainly to be the first country that gets invaded when some invading force comes out of Germany, Italy, or the deeper Balkan regions. Ljubljana is a pleasant small city that is distinctly Slovenian in that it has nothing to distinguish it. Maribor is more of an Austrian city--which is not surprising considering that it is close to the Austrian border--with the exception that there is still nothing interesting in Maribor.

Croatia: Widely and correctly recognized as by far the most beautiful of all the Balkan countries, but for the wrong reasons. Most people think of Croatia as a great place to go to the beach, but in fact, Dalmatia, the region of Croatia which is on the Adriatic Sea, is a dead, ugly, and dangerous place. The real beauty in Croatia is in its northern half, including arguably Europe's most underrated capital city and other wonderful towns to take a stop in on your way to the inferior countries which Croatia borders.

Serbia: Powerful but uninteresting, Serbia is a place you should go to just once so that you can say you've been there and explain to others why you have no reason to ever go back there.

Bosnia and Albania are both living nightmares to be avoided as stringently as possible.

Kosovo is basically Albania, except with a huge infusion of American money and influence. Kosovo does not have any large cities--even its capital of Pristina is like Łódź in that it feels entirely suburban and has no identifiable "center"--but as a political experiment, it forms a fascinating laboratory where American political and cultural values clash with some of the most deep-rooted backwards thinking in all of Europe. As a political or sociological study, Kosovo is interesting, but for more traditional tourists, there is nothing in Kosovo to warrant a visit in any way.

Montenegro: A tiny country with huge mountains, Montenegro benefits economically from wealthy tourists who visit to go to the beach or to the mountains, and it's a great place for these activities. However, Montenegro is entirely devoid of any culture or its own cultural identity; go to Montenegro if you want to explore its stunning mountain landscapes, but don't go there expecting cultural attractions.

North Macedonia: I have a personal fondness for North Macedonia because it is such a small country that takes itself so seriously. It really tries very hard to distinguish itself from its neighbors, and it does a surprisingly good job of this. The city center of Skopje is very pleasant and warrants a stroll through if you happen to be in the area, but I wouldn't go out of my way to go there if you're not already travelling through the Balkans.

Greece: One of Europe's biggest train wrecks, Greece appeals for its beaches and mountains, which are nice if you like that sort of thing, but Greece is not a cultural travel destination, because the only culture it had disappeared literally thousands of years ago.

Bulgaria: Bulgaria's capital city of Sofia is a pleasant but unremarkable place. After spending days there, I honestly can't name a single location there which stands out in my memory. The really nice place in Bulgaria is the city of Varna on the Black Sea, which is a surprisingly beautiful and enjoyable place to be a tourist, as the beaches are great, the city center is pleasant and compact, and good shopping opportunities abound. Everything in between these two cities is absolute desolation which should be avoided except as a place to pass through on the way to either of these destinations.

Romania: A country split roughly in half by the Carpathian Mountains, Romania consists of Transylvania, the part northwest of these mountains, and the real old Romania, which is the part south and east of these mountains. Old Romania is a horrific place where urban planning, economic development, culture, and basic human decency go to die. Transylvania used to be nice when it belonged to Austria-Hungary, but since it went back to Romania after World War I, it has become much the same as the rest of Romania. The Black Sea resort town of Constanța tries to attract tourists, which makes it all the more astonishing how shockingly ugly and dangerous it is; go to Varna in Bulgaria instead.

Hungary: Western Hungary, including Pécs, Győr, and the "Buda" part of Budapest are nice places with a small-town feel that are pleasant to visit if you don't mind that nobody in Hungary speaks English. Eastern Hungary, including Debrecen, Miskolc, and the "Pest" part of Budapest are among the worst disasters in all of Europe, featuring such deep-seated poverty, decay, and hopelessness that it's hard to believe such places can exist in the world, let alone in the European Union. Szeged is okay, but it's not a Hungarian city, it's an international university town.

Some people will protest the inclusion of countries like Romania and Hungary in this list and say "Hey! Those aren't Balkan countries!", but these people are wrong. Romania and Hungary are Balkan countries, no matter what anyone else says.

I guess that's all. I wanted to give some of Europe's underdogs another chance by making one more new pass over old territory. Sadly, this trip only served to confirm popular biases regarding which I am of course entirely neutral and in no way subject to personal bias of any kind. I'm so done with complaining about Eastern Europe. I really should just never go back at this point; that would probably be the best thing to do. So I probably won't go back again. I hope that my travel notes are worth the time, trouble, and expense I endured to go there.

Thoughts on my relationship to music

Over the years, I have very occasionally written about music and my opinions regarding it. I do not write about music much, for the simple reason that it is not that important to me. For most people, music is an integral part of daily life; every day, I see countless people who wear headphones in public and seem incapable of functioning without the constant blare of music in their ears. By comparison, I listen to music relatively rarely. I enjoy music sometimes, but I don't want to listen to it constantly, because to me, that would be like eating constantly, or having sex constantly. Music is something to be enjoyed when one can focus on it, and I only like to listen to music when I can pay attention to it and thus really appreciate it; I don't want it to be just some constant background noise which follows me everywhere.

There's a question on OkCupid which asks something like: "Do you play music to represent how you currently feel, or to change your mood?" For me, it's never really been either of these; I don't necessarily play music that reflects how I feel at the moment, nor do I use music as a utility to change my mood. I just listen to music because I want to listen to the music itself. For me, music is music. It's not a tool to change how I feel or reflect how I feel. I play music because I want to hear the music.

The more I think about what music means to me, the more I realize that I have some attitudes about music which are probably quite different from what most people think, and I decided that it might be worth writing these opinions down, not because there is any great wisdom in how I feel about music, but simply because it took me a long time to realize some of these things about myself, and if these things are true for me, perhaps they are true for some other people as well. There may be people for whom these ideas apply but who never actually realized these things about themselves, and so perhaps me writing these things down concretely will help other people realize these same traits in themselves.

The first important idea I'll mention about music, then, I'll mention because it is particularly relevant in our world today, and it's something I already touched on above: I don't want to live with constant ambient music. When I was younger, I used to think that this was a cool idea, as other people seem to think it is, this idea of constantly being surrounded by music wherever you go and whatever you do, but when I tried it, I found that I didn't like it. If you constantly hear music, you begin to tune it out, and then it's pointless, as pointless as going to watch a movie and then focusing on something else while in the movie theatre. For many people, music works like a drug, and they reach a point where they literally cannot function in everyday life unless they have some constant music playing in the background, and that destroys the art in music by turning it into something functional rather than a work of art. I only want to listen to music when I can devote the attention to be able to focus on it, not to have it play while I am working or doing something else, as so many other people play music. When I used to work in factories and on construction sites, people often played music as a way to make the day go by faster, and I always abhorred this practice; it completely destroyed the meaning of the music because people were not really listening to the music, they just wanted to have it on because they were bored. Those people ruin music.

This isn't to say that I never use music to set a certain mood or atmosphere. Sometimes when I read or write, I play classical music because I like the state it puts my mind into, and since it doesn't contain any lyrics, it isn't distracting, and so I can get my mind into the music and into the text at the same time. And yes, I sometimes listen to soothing music if I want to calm down, or energetic music if I want to feel inspired and focused; music's ability to communicate emotions without linguistic content is valuable, and I'm not at all saying that people shouldn't feel anything when they listen to music, but simply that music should only be played when you can really focus on it, not used as "white noise" that fills the background because people can't stand the sound of silence. Sometimes silence is wonderful, and people need to learn to appreciate it.

A related idea is that people should be able to choose when they hear music and when they don't. There are many moments in life when we are assaulted by unwelcome music, such as when you can hear other people's music on a bus or when you're in a store and they're playing music over the loudspeakers, and this, again, is like eating when you're not hungry or having sex when you don't want to. As much as music is an important part of people's lives, people should have the right to not hear music when they want. It is important to have times of silence in life, and being forced to listen to music without our consent robs us of these important moments of silence. To force other people to listen to music when they don't want to is no less a violation of people's personal space than rape or robbery.

Moving on to more explicitly musical aspects of how I feel about music, one thing which I think separates me from a lot of music fans is how important it is to me for different parts of the music to fit together. I don't like solos. I never really found it very interesting when one person sings or performs alone. Even the very greatest and most talented musicians in the world can only do so much at once. In particular, I usually don't like violin solos; they're thin and boring, because a violin can only play one note (or at the most, two notes) at a time. I love the sound of an entire bank of violins playing in harmony, but one violin by itself is a waste of time.

Looking back on my childhood, I think this is one of the reasons why I was never particularly devoted to my music practice. I think one thing I missed as a child was being able to play in an orchestra. I learned to play piano and violin as a child, but I was never really passionate about these, and when I think about it now, I think one reason for this was because I could never make the sounds that I really wanted to make. I didn't want to be just one person playing an instrument alone; I never liked that, either from myself or from others. I would have enjoyed being in a large orchestra, because there you can take part in really soaring harmonies, but a single person playing a violin is like trying to make a movie by hand-drawing one frame at a time. No matter how talented that one person is, the results will never be as good as when a whole band of actors work together in harmony and synchronization.

This doesn't just apply to classical music, by the way; it applies equally to other genres of music. Here, for example, is a YouTube video describing why classical music and heavy metal work together so well, and a lot of it has to do with the way that different sounds harmonize and complement each other. While mentioning that YouTube channel, I should also mention this popular video from the same channel which clearly describes another important concern I have about music, namely the death of melody, how melody is disappearing from music because people are emphasizing rhythm and vocalization more than melody. I've written in the past about the scourge of rap music, and one of the reasons why rap music is so terrible is because it removes melody from music entirely and focuses only on rhythm and vocalization, which is like modern fast food that removes all tastes from food except the tastes of sugar, salt, and fat. (No, it has nothing to do with racism; rap music has long stopped being black music. Today, even most white people listen to rap, and white pop stars produce music that is closer to rap than melodic pop.) Of course, this does not mean that music should not have rhythm or vocals, but simply that these should not be the centerpiece of the music. The centerpiece of music is the melody; rhythm may support that melody, but it should not be the other way around, where the rhythm is the focus and a few notes are injected to justify calling that rhythm "music".

By extension, then, one other thing which I realized about how I feel toward music is that I don't like vocalists who show off. I very strongly dislike it when some singer takes it upon themselves to show how impressively that can exhibit some kind of vocal effect or range. A lot of people become amazed and say "Wow! What a great voice! That person can really hit the high notes!" and I can only wonder: Why should anyone care? That's not music; that's just some egoist showing off. Great music is not just a voice, it's an entire group of instruments and notes coming together. In fact, when I think about most of the music which I like, it's often instrumental music which lacks vocals altogether, and even when there are vocals in the music, the vocals usually take a back seat to the instruments: I like it when the melody is carried by instruments, and the vocals, if present, accompany the instruments rather than dominating the audio. In this sense, it's fitting that one of the most widely-sung songs about hitting high notes is the national anthem of the United States of America. Other countries have national anthems which contain instruments (Kosovo's national anthem officially has no vocals whatsoever; there are versions of the anthem with lyrics, but these are unofficial, in effect "fan-made" versions of the anthem), but the American national anthem is usually sung a cappella, because the USA is not a country about people working in harmony, but rather about each person trying to show off how special and unique they are. It's a song for a country of egoists.

Finally, there's one big thing about music which I've mentioned in the past, but I'll mention again here because it seems to fit with everything I've said thus far: I don't like live performances. I don't really understand the point of going to a place to hear people perform live, because you don't have the same ability to mix and balance audio levels in a live performance that you have in a professional recording studio. In almost every live performance that I watch or listen to, I just can't help but think: "Wow, this sounds terrible". Even the world's best and most talented performers just can't produce the same fineness of tone in a live performance which can be achieved in a studio. And at the very best, the live performance sounds about as good as the recording, which begs the question: Why go to a live performance at all? Just stay home and listen to the recording. I have been to music concerts a grand total of about 5 times in my life, and those were generally more about watching the performances than actually hearing the music, because I liked the performers so much that I wanted to see how they performed on a stage.

This brings me back, once again, to the point that music is, for me, about the music. I once spoke to someone who was very passionate about live musical performances, and who explained this passion thus: "It's more about the experience of sharing music with other people than about technical perfection". But for me, that's the thing: Music, for me, really is about the technical perfection of the music. A live concert is not really about the music; sure, music is played, but people go to concerts mainly for reasons other than the music, such as to experience dancing (or moshing) with other people, or to see the performers on stage. If it were really just about the music, then people could stay home, because a recording of music is almost always better than a live performance. People say that they like the "energy" of concerts, but for me, the energy which comes from music comes from the structure of the music: how it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece perfectly positioned so that every note is spot-on and sounds at exactly the right moment, the way the tempo is timed just right, the way the entire piece of music functions like a well-oiled machine is what gives me musical energy. I get energy from music's melody and harmony, not from seeing some drunk person moshing next to me. Music is an art, and the more care that goes into the art, the more beautiful and enjoyable the music. Being around other people just takes away from that experience.

All of this being the case, it's very difficult for me to actually become a musician in a way that agrees with what I value in music. There is really no point in me putting on live performances, because those performances won't be as good as what I could create in a studio. I could be a musician who simply produces recordings and never performs (there are many such musicians in the world), but even for that I'd need a lot of instruments, since I don't want to be just one person playing one instrument. Or I could just put everything together digitally on a computer, but then that would pretty much limit me to electronic music, since you really can't create an authentic sound with digitized instruments.

If you ever intend to become a musician, I think that before you begin learning the technical aspects of music theory and how to play instruments, it's important to first ask yourself the more personal, emotional, psychological, social, and philosophical questions of why you want to make music, and what you hope to achieve with that music. For years, I wanted to be a musician, but I never really acted very convincingly on this desire, and now I understand why: Because I never really had any reason to be a musician. I liked the idea of being on a stage and being able to perform well, which is a dream many young kids have when they see performers and imagine themselves in that performer's place on that stage performing that music, but really, what's the point of it all? The music doesn't sound as good live, and I have no reason to get on a stage and prance in front of a crowd; that would be just pointless pride. If I ever make music, it would be best to make it quietly and anonymously in a recording studio somewhere and release it with neither my name nor face on it. That's how you make music that is really about music. Anything else is just vanity and self-gratification.

The paradox of progress

It occurs to me that people's whole idea of "progress" is somewhat backwards. Intuitively, people think that if you keep focusing on the idea of "progress" or "moving forward", if you consistently strive to move on from where you are now, you'll keep making forward progress and become somehow better, or at least better situated, than you are now. But this isn't really true. In fact, very often the opposite is true.

There are many reasons for this. One is the fact that what many people consider "progress" is very often not progress of any kind, but simply change. An example I've often used from the world of software design is the way that software designers insist on arbitrarily changing long-standing facets of the software for absolutely no valid reason, then claim that they've "improved" the software by "revamping" it. "We updated the software to make it easier to use! Now instead of having to click on "Programs" to see what programs are installed, you can click on "Apps" instead! Thanks to this change we've made in the user interface, users have a better experience with the software overall". No, they don't. What software developers have actually done with changes like this is require that existing documentation be changed to reflect changes that didn't have to be made, and users have to re-learn how to use the software which they've used the same way for many years and which didn't need to be changed. They've created more work and more wasted time for everyone, for an "upgrade" which doesn't actually help anyone or make anything better.

A lot of what people do in their lives is like this. They change something, then somehow convince themselves that what they've done will make themselves healthier, happier, or otherwise better able to function in life. "I changed my hair color! This will improve my quality of life". So one major reason why change doesn't improve things is because that change isn't really change, or if it is real change, it is simply swapping one thing for another which works the same way.

Another reason why progress doesn't work the way people think it does is that people see progress as permanent and infinite. Here I often use the example of characters in computer role-playing games, whose basic statistics like strength, dexterity, intelligence, and so on are expressed as simple numbers. In many role-playing games, you can simply keep developing these attributes infinitely, because numbers go on forever. If your strength rating is 10, then you can increase it to 11, or 20, or 100, or 1,000,000 if you play the game enough. People have the idea that real life works this same way: If you just keep adding something to a list, that list can just keep getting infinitely bigger. In reality, there are limits to how big something or someone can get. A person who is already at their peak of physical attainment is not going to become stronger or faster if they exercise more. You can graduate from lifting 10-kilogram weights to lifting 20-kilogram weights, but you will never lift 10,000-kilogram weights, no matter how long or hard you train. Information is the same: People have the idea that a human being can just keep learning more and more by reading more, but actually, if you do this, you will find after 20 years that you have forgotten most of what you read 20 years ago. Some key points may remain vaguely in your memory, but most of the details will have faded away. If you try to cram too much into a finite space, eventually some of what you put in there will just fall out again.

The above points are, I think, very intuitive if you think about them for a short while. Everyone knows that human beings have finite capacities of physical and mental strength, and all people (except, perhaps, software designers) understand that changing something for no reason is not actually an "improvement", but simply change for the sake of change. But there are more subtle reasons why focusing too much on "progress" is actually counterproductive to that progress.

Psychologically, obsession tends to be a weakness. The more you fixate on something, the more difficult it becomes to think about anything else. If you remain extremely focused on a particular task or goal, you can never move on from it; you will never be able to make real progress if you remain focused on one thing, because you will just remain focused on that one thing for as long as you focus on it. And even if your goals change, if all you're thinking about is achieving goals, then you're still not really making any progress; you can focus on doing different things, but if all you're focused on is getting things done, then you lose the big picture: You lose sight of how those goals fit into a larger framework, meaning you forget why you wanted to achieve those goals in the first place. "Goal-oriented thinking" tends to be self-defeating, because it favors the short-term over the long-term, focusing on producing easily-visible results rather than considering what the future implications of achieving goals would be.

People intuitively think that repetition is the enemy of progress, but the way that real progress is made is, paradoxically, by doing the same thing over and over. In physical tasks, this is very obvious: If you're digging a hole, you can only achieve this by repeating the same action of picking up a shovelful of dirt and tossing it somewhere else. But repetition also creates progress in other ways. If you want to remember something, you need to repeat that information to yourself several times, because the memory tends to forget things it only experiences once. By repeatedly re-exposing your memory to the same information over and over, the memory takes notice and says, in effect: "Hmm, I've seen this information somewhere before. The fact that I keep seeing it suggests that it's important and I should remember it". You can only learn anything through repetition. Progress is made by going in circles, doing the same thing over and over.

All infrastructure of any kind requires maintenance. If anything at all has been built, it needs to be maintained. Structures like bridges, buildings, and roads will slowly degrade over time if they are not kept in good shape, and machines will eventually break down if someone does not maintain them. The same is true of human beings themselves, as well as the intangible structures they create like relationships, societies, and cultures. If there is to be any kind of reliable, long-term infrastructure in the world, you cannot just build it once and say "There! We're done!", you have to constantly and regularly attend to it to ensure that it is going to remain intact for the foreseeable future. If anything at all is to be built, it has to be built on some kind of stable foundation, and stability only comes through repetition and routine. If all you focus on is new construction and new plans, the old construction and plans will fall apart behind you, and you'll have lost whatever progress you thought you'd made. Focusing too much on "progress" erodes any existing foundation because it forces you to constantly restart from zero again.

Obviously, this is a general principle to keep in mind rather than a fixed rule. Don't take this idea to ridiculous extremes. Obviously, you won't make any progress in your life if you just repeat the task of touching a rock with your finger for the rest of your life. What I'm saying is that you need to understand how creation and change interact with destruction and stability. The act of creation is inherently a destructive act, because anything that you build or create exists only because of the disassembly and displacement of whatever existed there before, and yet, in order to exist in a stable state, that new construction needs to rest upon something which was there before. This is a paradox that needs to be understood by anyone who would seek to create change: You cannot remove things from the world or create things in the world, you can only take what is already there and change it, but change is not "good" or "bad", it's just change.