I do not believe in god, so I am pretty much this movie's target audience, and even I don't like it.
OK, it's got some funny parts. My favorite is when the Muslim cleric's cell phone goes off with a Led Zeppelin ringtone. (The song is "Kashmir" which adds a whole new level of meaning.)
But mostly, it's Bill Maher smirking and preaching to the unbelieving choir. Ninety minutes of the most ridiculous-sounding quotes from religious believers that Bill Maher could find, interspersed with Bill Maher making fun of how silly they sound when taken literally.
Yes, the tenets of Mormonism or Scientology or what have you sound absurd when stated plainly. But so do relativity and quantum mechanics; they're contrary to common sense, but they're true anyway, to the best of our ability to test them experimentally. When something sounds crazy, it might be crazy, or it might not be. Maher is implying that 1. these beliefs are factually false and that 2. following them leads to behavior that is foolish or unethical; and he might be right; but he's not forming an argument, he's not supporting the thesis with evidence. He's just pointing and laughing.
(And he mocks only Western religions! The movie mostly attacks Catholicism and Protestantism while taking quick potshots at Mormonism, Scientology, Judaism, and Islam. There's not a single Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Daoist, Jain, animist... don't they deserve equal ridicule?)
The worst part is the ending. Religious fundamentalists say "Everybody needs to believe like we do, or they'll go to hell". After spending the whole movie (rightfully) criticizing this attitude, Bill Maher ends it by turning to us and saying, in effect, "Everybody needs to believe like I do (i.e. stop believing in god) or else the world is going to hell". It's preachy and shockingly hypocritical. Maher takes the fact that religious intolerance has been a cause of many wars, and jumps from that to "give up religion or we'll all doomed", using stock footage of scary explosions (i.e. emotional manipulation) in place of the logical argument he's not making.
A better movie could have taken similar material and used it in a way that had a chance of persuading someone not already convinced, instead of just preaching to the choir like Religulous did. Then again, maybe communication wasn't the point: maybe the real purpose of the whole production was to let Bill Maher feel superior.
Stuff like this just makes atheists look bad. I don't appreciate it.
Obama is winning! Virginia, Maryland, and DC had their primaries today and they put him about a hundred delegates ahead of Clinton.
Why am I so excited about this? Because this is the first presidential election of my lifetime featuring a candidate I can cheer for (not just tolerate as the lesser evil) who has a decent chance of winning. In fact, I think he will win. Here's why.
A year ago the mainstream media were treating a Clinton nomination like it had already happened; up until the Iowa primary they were still doing it; after Iowa the story was about how This Obama Kid Sure Is Plucky And Idealistic But There's No Way He Can Beat Clinton On Super Tuesday. But now? I don't think Clinton's campaign ever expected to be in second place this late in the race. Do they have a plan for catching up? Meanwhile Obama is gaining popularity with every speech that he makes and every debate he participates in; he's gaining over Clinton with every state that votes; he's increasingly driving the terms of the campaign (note how much the words "change" and "hope" are now appearing in speeches made by his opponents).
By the way, you should be ignoring everything you hear about one or the other person in a Democratic primary "winning" a certain state. The states are not winner-take-all like the general election. Rather, each has a number of delegates assigned proportionally. The news shows just like to report who "won" a state because it makes for good drama. Many states have actually split their delegates almost down the middle.
It must be a depressing time to be a Republican. Turnouts in Republican primaries are low: I think they're not excited about any of their choices. The GOP doesn't know what it stands for anymore; it's splintered into factions. It might not be much of an exaggeration to say that the corruption and incompetence and miserable failure of the Bush administration has mortally wounded the Republican party. Even now that McCain is pretty much it, a lot of his own party still hates him. Even Anne "All Democrats are traitors and should be sent to the gas chambers" Coulter is endorsing Clinton over McCain. If even the threat of the hated Hillary as president isn't enough to get Republicans unified, I get the feeling that a lot of them are just going to stay home. And Obama has done really well in the South and in traditionally red states. And he's constantly preaching a message of reconciliation and unity and rising above party politics and getting beyond the whole stupid red state/blue state divide to represent all Americans. So he might even get a significant crossover vote in the general election.
His enemies will be digging up all the possible dirt on him for sure, but there's simply not much dirt to be had. (It's the upside of his almost non-existent political record.) About the worst anybody has been able to come up with is that he had a Muslim dad ( Fox News has spun this into "Obama went to a Madrassa" which is BS ) -- and that he did drugs as a teenager. Of course Bill Clinton and Bush II both did drugs as a teenager and still got elected; I honestly think this is a total non-issue with voters anymore. And Obama freely admits it; none of this "I did not inhale" stuff. Meanwhile those who use the race card or the Muslim card (and he's not even Muslim, he just has a Muslim name) is just going to make their own side look petty and bigoted.
OK, so that's why I think he can win; now why do I think that's a good thing?
Earlier today I randomly ran across the blog of writer Dana Blankenhorn; I don't really know who this guy is but I like how he writes, especially about politics. He has a theory about how presidential elections follow a pattern of thesis, validated thesis, antithesis, and then deranged parody of thesis, before a transformation occurs that creates a new thesis. He argues that while Clinton would just be another round in a thesis/antithesis argument we're already sick of hearing, Obama could be a transformational president, a kind who comes along only very rarely, who will transcend the arguments over the old thesis and take us in a new direction entirely.
Interesting theory; I'm not sure how much stock to put in it; but I wholeheartedly agree that we need to try something new to get out of the stupid, stupid, tug-of-war between "left" and "right" that has defined politics for my entire lifetime. It feels to me increasingly irrelevant, like an advertising war between Coke and Pepsi when for the sake of our health we should be quitting fizzy drinks entirely. I recommend reading Why Americans Hate Politics by E.J.Dionne, Jr., a meaty and well-researched book that taught me a lot of things I didn't know I didn't know about 20th century American history and how the two-party system degenerated to its present dismal state. The book argues that Republicans and Democrats have basically spent the past forty years fighting and re-fighting the cultural battles of the 1960s. To grossly oversimplify: if you think the hippies were right you vote Democrat; if you think they were just dumb long-haired drug-addled teenage commies you vote Republican. And if you're more interested in the present than in the 1960s then you lose interest in politics because nobody in politics is speaking to you.
You know what's kinda neat about Obama? He's too young to have an opinion about the 1960s. He's the first potential president from a generation which didn't fight in those cultural battles. He belongs more to the present than to the past, and that's why he's so popular among my generation: someone's finally speaking to us and our concerns.
Read Obama's technology platform. While Clinton and McCain are both likely to see the Internet only as "that computer thing my kids use to waste time and steal music", Obama has a coherent policy centered around net neutrality, privacy, broadband infrastructure, and using the Internet to increase participation by citizens in government decision-making:
Obama will integrate citizens into the actual business of government by:
1. Making government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities. Greater access to environmental data, for example, will help citizens learn about pollution in their communities, provide information about local conditions back to government and empower people to protect themselves.
2. Establishing pilot programs to open up government decision-making and involve the public in the work of agencies, not simply by soliciting opinions, but by tapping into the vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry to help government make more informed decisions.
There's a lot more -- you should read the whole thing -- but I wanted to hilight "Vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry". Think about that for a second. That didn't come from the mouths of the Wikipedia project, it came from a mainstream politician.
Could this be for real? Could this be the sea-change, the new thesis? The American federal government turned Web 2.0 style?
I've been watching Obama's speeches on YouTube and again and again I'm impressed by his public speaking skills. He's probably the best public speaker of my generation: he speaks with eloquence and conviction and he proves he's the bigger man every time he praises his opponents rather than attacking them. Most of all, he inspires people. I feel inspired. The crowd obviously feels inspired. And what are the contents of his words?
Again and again: It's about us, not him. The vast distributed expertise of ordinary Americans. America should be led by the people, not by Obama or any other politician, and this can happen if we let go of the cynicism that makes people drop out of political participation, and let go of the fear that says we have to vote for the lesser of two evils.
Obama's policies themselves, while good, are not that remarkable or that different from Clinton's policies. Where Obama is profoundly different is in this, his philosophy of how government should be run. His message, as expressed in his books and his speeches and his campaign website, is so consistent and expressed with such fervor that I can't help but think it's the genuine thing.
He doesn't want to run the country like a business (as Clinton would) or like an army (as McCain would); he wants to inspire us with his speeches, remove the obstacles to our participation in government, and let us lead.
Does it matter so much that Obama lacks political experience, if he has all 300 million Americans as his policy advisors?
Now lots of people are dismissing this as fantasy, as more empty promises that will leave us disappointed, either because the Washington establishment is too entrenched to change, or because this kind of naivete in a hostile world will make us weak.
But I prefer to look at it a different way: the world is already changing. Humanity is right this moment going through a sea-change, a generational shift, of nearly unimaginable magnitude. The explosion in information and communication technology is enabling an interconnected series of revolutions in every aspect of our culture. It's hard to get a handle on, yet, but I think I'm starting to see the common thread between all these revolutions. We are seeing the open network start to replace the closed hierarchy as the fundamental organizing principle of human society. In the old way, some guys at a television news station, behind closed doors, would decide what we should think about some factoid in an election race, and they'd tell us over a one-way, centralized broadcast, communication medium, and we had no way to argue or check their facts or present an alternative viewpoint. In the new way, anyone with a net connection can create their own media -- including clips of video from the TV along with clips they recorded themselves, along with text quotations and infographics, linking everything to the original sources of information to make their research verifiable, and sharing it with the world. Anybody can easily call public attention to the hypocrisy of a public figure, or point out where the facts don't add up or where someone is lying. They can construct their own view of events and if that view rings more true to people than the official account it will be widely linked to and passed around and paid attention to.
The old way was one-to-many, one-way, boss-to-subordinate; the new way is many-to-many, two-way, peer-to-peer. It's comparable to the changes brought about by the invention of the printing press, except now everyone has a printing press. The whole point of a government is for people to band together to help each other; now that the technology allows people to instantly communicate many-to-many, peer-to-peer across any kind of distances, government can become much more democratized and decentralized. Many of the reasons we used to have to rely on a centralized, authoritarian hierarchy are simply not relevant anymore. The old style of politics, exemplified by Clinton's insider connections and mainstream TV coverage, will be swept away and replaced by something that looks an awful lot more like Wikipedia than like TV.
(I know these sound like half-formed ramblings right now, but that's because it's 4 in the morning and I'm too excited to sleep because of the heady mixture of Obama speeches and technological speculation.)
Because of this transformation that's happening, it's of the utmost importance that we fight to keep the internet free and open, that we reform copyright to allow remixing and commentary and sharing of content for the sake of the free and open exchange of ideas, that we as individuals reclaim our culture from the authoritarian hierarchies that seek to control it; and that we capitalize on the technological possibilities to create a new form of government infrastructure that is more open and participatory.
That's the future. And maybe I'm just hearing what I want to hear in some vague hopeful rhetoric, but I think Obama believes in this new world and can help it to be born. That's the new thesis that's going to replace the worn-out left-right narrative.
And that is why I'm so excited about this campaign that I'm still awake at 4 AM writing this, my own small contribution to the open exchange of political ideas.
Spending so much time on airplanes gives me a lot of time to read. In case you're wondering whether I only read comic books and fantasy trilogies, here's the first of a series of capsule reviews of some interesting nonfiction.
I picked up this book expecting to disagree with it. After all, if Neil Postman means what I think he does by that ominous subtitle, then the villains of the book are probably me and people like me. There's already a very strong "Science is bad! Technology is bad!" meme in our culture. Think of the way Science is portrayed by Hollywood sci-fi/action movies as little more than "a thing that creates monsters". Or hang around any group of college students for a few hours and you're likely to hear some poorly-researched rhapsodizing about how life was so much better when we were all hunter-gatherers, before civilization came along and corrupted everything. I happen to like science and technology, and I think that most of the arguments used by their detractors are pretty vapid.
So I approached Technopoly skeptically, but hopefully. I do actually enjoy reading things which challenge my preconceptions, give me a different way of looking at things, expand my view of the world, etc. etc. So I was hoping that the book would be well-argued, thought-provoking, and maybe a little scary. Maybe it would even give me cause to rethink my position on a few things.
In that, I was very disappointed. I found the book to be a poorly-argued, illogical mess, full of unsupported assertions, shaky generalizations, and equivalences drawn between disparate concepts based only on a vague notion of philosophical similarity.
The most solid part of the book is a sort of laundry list of complaints about modern life -- that hospitals are too quick to resort to expensive testing procedures, that computerized systems screw up a lot, that IQ tests are bogus, that a lot of social science research is insufficiently rigorous, that our education system sucks, and that bureaucratic methods are really bad for dealing with the complexity of actual human situations Few people who have experienced these things would argue that our social institutions have some pretty significant flaws. But where Neil Postman loses me is when he claims that all these problems are symptoms of a single insidious phenomenon he calls a "technopoly", where human judgment is abolished and machines start controlling the direction of culture.
Of course. The single-theory-to-explain-everything-that's-wrong-with-America is pretty much a requirement for this genre of nonfiction. And whatever the author thinks it is, it's inevitably a gross oversimplification. This strikes me as particularly ironic since it seems to me that oversimplified theories of a complex reality are the real culprit behind the very broken social institutions that Postman is railing against.
Ironies abound. In his chapter on standardized testing, he complains about the "reification" of intelligence -- that is to say, the process of taking a complex, fuzzy, multifaceted idea and encapsulating it as a single quality which is believed to be measurable on a single axis. I agree entirely with his point that IQ tests are bogus. But I find it pretty ironic that this sort of reficiation is exactly what happens to the words "culture" and "technology" as soon as Postman gets his hands on them.
It's really too bad that the book is so poorly argued, because the theme of the book is an important one, and it deserves a better treatment. Perhaps by an author who was willing to support his points using logic and evidence.
Then again, Neil Postman complains often and at length about how modern society puts too much faith in objective measurement, statistical analysis, and the scientific method as ways of revealing the truth. So maybe the reason he doesn't provide much supporting evidence in his book is that he distrusts the very concept of using verifiable observations of reality as evidence for a theory. Perhaps Postman, like Aristotle, prefers to rely on deductions from philosophical first principles, unencumbered by observation?
I suspect that's the case, given how many rhetorical tears Postman sheds for the end of the Aristotelean worldview. He blames mean ol' Kepler, and Galileo and his telescope, for starting us on the path to Technopoly. In his words:
The refinements of the telescope made their knowledge so precise that there followed a collapse... of the moral center of gravity of the West.
Kepler, quoted by Postman:
...but to me more sacred than all these is Truth, when I, with all respect for the doctors of the Church, demonstrate from philosophy that the earth is round, circumhabited by antipodes, of a most insignificant smallness, and a swift wanderer among the stars.
In expressing this idea, Kepler was taking the first significant step toward the conception of a technocracy...Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo put in place the dynamite that would blow up the theology and metaphysics of the medieval world. Newton lit the fuse. In the ensuing explosion, Aristotle's animism was destroyed, along with almost everything else in his Physics. Scripture lost much of its authority... Worst of all, the meaning of existence itself became an open question.
Hooray! That's why these men are some of my personal heroes. Oh, wait, Postman is saying all this like it's a bad thing. He calls it the first step towards technocracy, after all, which he's presumably against. Is Postman seriously saying that we should avoid trying to learn new truths about the universe, because they might make us uncomfortable?
One way of defining Technopoly, then, is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information have broken down.... social institutions of all kinds function as control mechanisms... any decline in the force of institutions makes people vulnerable to information chaos...
Apparently so. Unless I'm reading this wrong, Postman is saying that "Technopoly" is bad because it doesn't have enough censorship. He's not being sarcastic here? Is he seriously saying that we need stronger institutions for thought control? He's in favor of unquestioned dogma?
...As a young man growing up in a Democratic household, I was provided with clear instructions on what value to assign to political events and commentary... The general principle was that information provided by Democrats was always to be taken seriously and, in all probability, was both true and useful... Information provided by Republicans was rubbish...
I expected this to be followed by a description of how he later grew up and realized that one should evaluate information by whether it matches up to reality, not by whether it supports your existing preconceptions. But no! Postman is seriously and unironically trying to contend that this sort of unquestioned dogma is a good thing. He calls it "a culture's informational immune system".
Up until this point in the book, I thought it was little more than a pessimistic and curmudgeonly old man ranting about how much better things were in the old days. But then I realized it was something much worse than that: it's nostalgia for medieval authoritarianism, dogma, and thought-control. Postman keeps saying how overreliance on technology is destroying "culture", but if this is what he means by "culture", then I say good riddance.
See how it's, like, a metaphor for life? Playing the saxophone is anything worthwhile that you want to accomplish. The ducky is all your comfortable habits. All those errands and busywork and trivial tasks that are constantly demanding your time and attention - those are also the ducky.
I have never yet seen Wikipedia be wrong on a subject where I had enough detailed knowledge to evaluate it. (Those subjects include: computer programming languages, progressive rock, manga, role-playing games, math, etc)
This isn't to say my experience "proves Wikipedia is accurate" or anything; it's just an anecdote, it doesn't prove anything. But based on my own experiences I have a fairly high level of trust for stuff I read there.
On the other hand, my friend Alexis has seen Wikipedia be wrong plenty of times, on subjects where she is very knowledgeable -- such as history and political science. Alexis said that just how wrong Wikipedia is on any of these topics varies day by day as different factions alternately assert their version on the top of the page.
Why the difference in our experiences? I would hazard a guess that the difference between Alexis's subjects and my subjects is that her subjects attract controversy and mine mostly don't. If you want to know whether some math is correct or what year an album was published in, those are objective facts and anyone who sees that the page is wrong wrong can evaluate for themselves and issue a correction. Nobody but vandals would be invested in maintaining wrong information.
But history and political science involve a lot of generalizations, theorizing about causes, and competing viewpoints. There's a lot more room for ambiguity. Some people have a vested interest in promoting a summary of the facts that makes their own side look good. Even if nobody has an axe to grind, there are still differences of opinion about social and economic theories, about what's important, about the "real" reason something happened, etc.
We should absolutely be skeptical of everything on Wikipedia, I agree. But I say we should be just as skeptical of anything said by any other self-proclaimed authoritative source. Never in human history have we had sources that were 100% reliable, especially about controversial topics. At least Wikipedia has revision history, sources, "", and "The neutrality of this article is disputed". All of which make evaluating the reliability of any statement a good deal more accessible than it is in sources that lack these things.
I mean, authority of sources has always been a social consensus thing, subject to constant challenges by contradicting information; Wikipedia just makes the social process visible.
Ultimately, the greatest value of Wikipedia may be in changing the way we think about knowledge - we should be considering sources and potential biases in everything we read, and Wikipedia teaches that lesson. If "the medium is the message", that's what the message of Wikipedia is to me.
Traveling to lots of foreign lands, as I'm doing this summer, has been making me wonder about the diversity of human culture. What is culture, anyway? I'm not talking about capital-C Culture like famous operas and monuments and stuff that countries show off at the World Expo; I'm talking about little-c culture; the stuff you take for granted and never even think about until you're in a place where they do it differently.
I've been learning how to cross the street in Shanghai. Some major intersections in Shanghai have crossing signals, but on most of the smaller roads, it's useless to wait for the cars (and the more numerous bycycles and motor scooters) to stop. Because they don't. Ever. They don't even slow down. You just wait for a gap and then dodge through, like playing Frogger.
Clearly Shanghai is a place where it's the pedestrian's responsibility, not the driver's responsibility, to prevent a collision.
Traffic safety might not be something you usually think of as "culture", but I think a lot of cultural issues can be phrased in terms of "whose responsibility is it to avoid a collision"?
The Shanghai attitude towards waiting in line is similar to their attitude about crossing the street. You'd better protect your place in line vigilantly, because if you don't, someone will squeeze in ahead of you. If you come from a place which has the social rule "Don't cut in line", then this can seem very rude. But in Shanghai, the responsibility for maintaining the line belongs to the person who's standing there already, not to the person who is trying to enter. If you don't care enough about your spot in line to defend it, why should you keep it?
This reminds me of that thing about "Ask" cultures vs. "Guess" cultures. I forgot where I read it for the first time, but the idea is that an Ask culture has the following two rules:
You can ask for anything you want, but don't expect to get it.
When someone asks you for something, it's not rude to say "No".
"Hey dude I'm gonna be in your city next week, can I crash on your couch?"
"Uh, no, sorry, I barely know you."
"OK bro that's cool, just asking".
A Guess culture has the following rules instead:
It's rude to directly refuse a request.
So don't ask directly for something if the answer might be "no", because you'd be putting the other person in an awkward position. You're allowed to hint, though.
Since other people are too polite to ask for things, you should pay attention to what they might be needing and offer it to them.
"So I'm going to be in your city next week, and I'm looking for a place to stay, can you suggest any cheap hotels maybe?"
"If you don't mind sleeping on a couch, you could stay at my place."
"Oh I couldn't possibly impose on you like that."
"No, please, I insist."
Either system works fine if everyone is following it. But interacting with people from the opposite culture can be frustrating. To guessers, Askers seem outrageously selfish and demanding. To askers, Guessers seem timid and passive-aggressive and why can't they just come out and say what they want, I'm not a mind-reader you know!
Ask culture and guess culture are like countries that drive on the left and countries that drive on the right. There is absolutely no objective reason why the left side or the right side of the road is a better place to drive. But you have to have an agreement, however arbitrary. If one car is driving on the opposite side from everyone else, then people are going to die. Offending someone because you asked for something they can't give you is obviously not as serious as a car crash, but it's similar in that there was a mismatch of expectations because you weren't following the same unspoken, pre-negotiated agreement.
Without such pre-negotiated agreements, every single social interaction would have to be re-negotiated from scratch. You know that thing when two people are walking towards each other in a hallway: they try to weave around each other, but they both weave the same direction, so they both switch and go the other way, then the first way again, then after three tries they both give up and shrug and giggle. How many times has this happened to you? There isn't a cultural rule for this situation (at least not where I grew up) but there could be: if the rule was 'always turn right' then that wouldn't happen anymore.
We can list plenty more examples:
Do you keep your floors clean and ask guests to take off their shoes? Or tell them to keep their shoes on because the floor's dirty? Either system works as long as people are in agreement about whether the floor is considered a clean zone or not.
In your company, if you need to communicate something to someone in a different department, do you go directly to the person in question and ask them yourself? Or do you ask your boss and they ask the other person's boss? Companies that have settled on the social rule of relaying requests through management can get quite upset if you go outside this system.
Are insults something to be laughed off and ignored in good humor? Or are they something to be taken seriously, as threats to your honor, so that you must demand a retraction or else retaliate? I read somewhere that the "defend your honor from all insults" rule is something that often arose in shepherding cultures, because when your wealth is in the form of easily stolen animals, instead of land or gold or whatever, then the best way to defend it is to develop a reputation as a crazy motherfucker who will totally murder anybody who dares lay a finger on your sheep. The idea is that once you have that reputation, nobody will dare mess with you, so you won't actually have to kill anybody. So threatening brutal retaliation is, weirdly, a way to prevent violence -- seems like a weird system to me, but again the point is that it works as long as everybody is following it.
The fact that most of these cases require everyone to follow the same system to avoid problems explains why cultures are often so harsh on anyone who violates one of their shared understandings. There has to be some enforcement to keep people cooperating. The fact that the understandings are never spoken or explained, and many people wouldn't even know how to put them into words, having gotten used to them from growing up in that culture, explains why it's often so hard for outsiders to understand what it is that they did wrong.
So anyway, that's how I've been thinking about cultural rules lately. It doesn't explain everything but it seems to be a useful framework. If you're traveling to a lot of different countries, it's never good to be in a mindset of "All these people are crazy, why do they care so much about this stupid thing, why can't they just be normal." But it's also not helpful to be in a 60s-era anthropologist "Humans are blank slates controlled by cultures which have nothing in common with each other and are inherently unknowable to outsiders and cannot be judged or understood by any terms but their own" mindset.
Instead of thinking in either of those ways, I can approach new social situations with the mindset of: What's the rule here about avoiding collisions?
One of the things Obama said a lot during his campaign that resonated with me was "We are the ones we've been waiting for."
I'm sure some people interpreted this slogan as yet more evidence of a messiah complex, but to me it means quite the opposite: it's a message of independence and individual self-reliance; Obama is not the one you've been waiting for, YOU are. It's "Don't wait for someone else (i.e. the government) to make things better better; your life is in your own hands and always has been."
What it means to me is: Be engaged as far as following issues, voting, supporting campaigns, getting involved, but never count on politics to fix things, or to go your way (or even to make sense). Making life better is up to citizens, up to the individual people involved, not the government.
It was inspiring back in 2008, and no matter what you think of how the last two years have gone, it's even more important to remember now. Never count on politics to get a good outcome; it will disappoint you most of the time. At least half of elections, probably more like nine-tenths, will produce results you're unhappy with.
Not that elections don't matter; they matter a good deal, and bad policies lead to real harm to real people. But the vast majority of life lies outside the reach of politics, thank goodness. There are plenty of ways you can work to make the world a better place. There are plenty of ways you can work to make your own life better. And the vast majority of them are not constrained by the need for an electoral majority. They're not opportunities that are taken away from you just because your guy (or your proposition) lost out in the election. Your life is still in your own hands.
I turned 30 this year, which brings with it certain thoughts about milestones, mortality, straddling the past and the future, that sort of thing.
I've been unbelievably fortunate in my life to date. By any objective measure, I'm doing great. I've got a promising career, a great relationship with my wonderful wife, I've got loving family, all the money I need, leisure time, etc. On Maslow's pyramid I've stopped having to worry about anything except the very top layer.
Naturally, this makes me think two things. One is, "There's nowhere to go from here but down" which is pretty depressing. My health is certainly never going to be as good again as it is now. I'm growing more and more white hairs, did you know that?
The other, possibly more useful, thought is "With all my own needs met, how can I help others?" Followed by, "If I can think of a way that I could plausibly make the world a better place, do I not have a moral obligation to act on it - as soon as possible, and with all the force I can muster?" Awareness of the finiteness of my remaining years and the infiniteness of things I could possibly be doing, I must then ask myself: "What's the single best thing I could dedicate the rest of my life to doing?"
Writing internet software probably isn't it.
Like, writing software is totally a fun job. I'm really lucky to have some skills in a field where I can do fun things and get paid (let's face it) ridiculously well for it. And I want open source software to succeed, and I want the Web to stay as free and open as possible, and I want web browsers and software in general to have better user interfaces. So it's not like what I'm doing now is something totally frivolous. I agree with everything in the Mozilla manifesto and I like working for a place that has a manifesto. I just think that, all things considered, web standards probably ain't the overriding moral issue of our time.
What is it, then? I don't know, exactly, but I look to the future and see scary, scary shit on the horizon. If technologically advanced human civilization is going to last the next hundred years -- and I hope it does, because I kinda like technologically advanced human civilization -- then there's some stuff we need to figure out fast.
How we're going to feed the 10-12 billion humans who will be living on this planet by the time population growth levels off, for starters. And how those people can raise their standard of living without rendering the atmosphere unbreatheable and the seas toxic, maybe that too. And whether they're going to live in systems with freedom of press, speech, and religion. What the hell we're gonna do with all these nukes left over from the cold war, and the new nukes that Iran and Pakistan and North Korea made / are making, and how to stop having crazy dictators and terrorists who want to use them. How people of different religions can live together and stop killing each other so much, maybe. How we're gonna prevent, or adapt to, melted ice caps, if global warming is real. How we're gonna make electricity and go places when the fossil fuels are used up. How to get safe drinking water for the third world. How we stop fisheries and other ecosystems we depend on from collapsing entirely. You know, that sort of thing.
Whether Firefox loses market share to Chrome just doesn't seem that important, comparatively speaking.
I don't believe in any religion. So I think this life is probably all we get. And there's probably no guiding hand pushing the world towards a happy ending. No cosmic justice, no reward for good behavior, no prize for trying hard. No Rapture or Singularity to save us from ourselves. Just human beings, our decisions, and the effects our actions have on each other. Some religious people describe my worldview as an evasion of moral responsibility, like I decided to be an atheist so I could have a hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and promiscuous sex, or something. I see it quite the opposite way. If this life is all we get, all the more reason to make the best of it. If all we have is each other, all the more reason to treat each other well. If there's no absolute standard of right and wrong, all the more reason to think through the consequences of our actions. If there's no cosmic justice, all the more reason for people who want justice to work towards building it on Earth.
The inescapable conclusion of my philosophy is that I have a moral duty to figure out my optimum strategy for reducing human suffering and/or increasing the probability of long-term human survival... and then to act on it decisively. Even if I fail, I'd rather look back on my life and say "At least I tried".
What all this means in practical terms is that yes, I'm thinking about a career switch. Not necessarily this year, or next year (there's a lot I can still do at Mozilla to position myself for the leap) but soon.
Soon, before I get too comfortable where I am. And I am getting too comfortable, I think. Writing code is less and less of a challenge as the years go by. As the year 2000 recedes into nostalgia, the computer/software/internet industry feels less and less like a frontier, a place where visionaries and madmen come to hew form out of chaos. It feels more like a place where professional certified engineers come to ship product, so that rich kids can go down to Fry's and buy a pocket gadget that's slightly better than last year's pocket gadget. Being a non-profit, Mozilla stands a little bit apart from all that. But we're still really focused on, like, how do they say this, "having a presence in the mobile space".
(I can't believe I used to care what operating system people used. God. Silicon Valley is so disillusioning. It's a snake pit of sell-outs and phonies, all chasing each other's tails. I gotta get out before I turn into one of them.)
I need to switch careers before me and Sushu have children, that's the really important thing. Once I have financial dependents counting on me, it will get a lot harder to switch and a lot more tempting to just, you know, do what I'm told so I can keep climbing the corporate ladder and get raises to put towards the kid's college fund.
The only real question is, what to switch to? Science, business, politics, social work - how to have the best chance of making a difference? Maybe I should become an artist of some kind. Start an artistic movement with a manifesto and followers and stuff. Fuck up people's complacency. Try to shift the culture a few degrees in a less stupid direction. They're doing promising research in nuclear fusion energy on the other side of the hill in Livermore. Fusion could save us, if we ever get it working. I wonder if they need programmers. I wonder if they're even going to stay funded with all the budget deficit. Maybe I should move to another country. Maybe to the developing world, where the action is, where a small group of ethical technologists could make themselves useful allies to the downtrodden. Is there an organization I could join doing good work like this?
I'm not ruling anything out at this point. I'm open to totally crazy ideas. Shoot me a proposal.
I say "no, games (with video games as a subset) are not art". But before you leave angry comments, let me elaborate. Games are not art, they are something else entirely, something which is equally capable of cultural significance and equally worthy of considered study as art. They exist on a different plane from art and should be judged on their own terms.
Trying to treat games as an art form actually does games a disservice; games deserve their own critical vocabulary and their own form of analysis because many of the tools we use to analyze art are poorly suited to analyzing games. A player of a game makes decisions and actively participates in constructing what they experience; being audience to a piece of art lacks this dimension. Art critics don't even know how to address interactivity; they lack the vocabulary to ask the right questions.
Art can be meaningful because of the meaning that the artist puts into it (and sometimes meaning that you read there that they didn't intend). A game with a storyline can have traditional author-intended artistic meaning encoded into that storyline, but this is usually incidental to the game itself. Games have their own way of conveying deep meaning: the decisions that you and your fellow players make reveal human nature in action. Games like Poker, or Werewolf/Mafia, or Diplomacy, which have no storylines at all, are like windows straight into dark parts of the human soul. Intense, first-person psychological studies that teach you about relationships, trust, lying, small-group dynamics, mob mentality... there's a whole world of depth there, which can never be understood by asking about "the plot" or "the characters" or "what was the artist trying to say".
Game design is about crafting a rules framework that supports, constrains, elicits, and focuses meaningful and interesting decisions by the players. Good game design contains brilliant gems of ingenuity; rules that work together to subtly draw players in a certain direction or to demand that they consider something they've never thought of before. Like the way the scoring system in King of Siam encourages you to pretend to support one kingdom while secretly angling for a different one to win. Or the way the first few screens of Super Mario Bros. act as a silent tutorial, teaching the player the basics of play without using words. Or the way that the gun dice and fallout dice in Dogs in the Vineyard make you constantly ask yourself, do I care about this enough to draw a gun over it? If you understand the depth of what the game designer accomplished and the elegance of how they did it, it can take your breath away. But all this creative genius is invisible to you if the only question you know how to ask is "what artistic statement is this game trying to make".
Do games deserve more respect than they get? Yes. But the attempt to make them respectable by shoving them into a place on the Pedestal Of Significance that our culture reserves for Art is fundamentally misguided. Games deserve their own Pedestal Of Significance, equally high but separate.
The whole "is it Art" question is a red herring. Ebert, and the gamers who argued with him, are asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places.
...no matter how much the MPAA and RIAA want you to believe it is. Unauthorized copying of copyrighted material is illegal, yes, but it is a different and distinct crime from the crime of theft.
If I steal something from you, then you don't have it anymore. Stealing is both morally and legally wrong because it deprives another person of their property.
If you record a song and I duplicate that recording, you still have the original recording. I may have violated your legal rights, I may have marginally reduced the likelihood of you obtaining future profits from your recording, but I haven't stolen your property.
Equating the words "copy" and "steal" makes semantic gibberish out of both of them. It confuses the issue. Which of course is the point. Large copyright-holding industries have been waging a Newspeak campaign to confuse the language in hopes of transferring the moral stigma of theft onto the act of duplicating copyrighted materials.
Plagarism, the act of claiming someone else's work as your own, could perhaps more reasonably be called a form of theft, but plgarism isn't what I'm talking about here. People sharing unauthorized movie files on the internet aren't trying to pass those movies off as their own work.
Calling copying "piracy" is even sillier. Piracy is the act of hijacking a ship by force, murdering, kidnapping, or enslaving its crew, and stealing its cargo. It's a violent crime that leaves people rotting at the bottom of the sea. How is duplicating the bits of a video file in any way comparable?
(If you want a cute name, call it "bootlegging". i.e. making and selling alchohol to people who wanted it but couldn't obtain it legally, a fairly apt analogy.)
Here's what copyright law is. As a society, we want to encourage people to publish their creative work and make it easier for creators to earn a living from that work. To make this possible we set up a law wherein the governemnt grants the creator of a work a temporary legal monopoly over the right to make copies, literally a "copy-right". It was invented in a time when the only form of mass duplication was the printing press, so the original copyright laws are mostly about who has the right to print copies of a book (or a piece of sheet music).
To enforce this artificial monopoly, the government started restricting the right of other people to print copies of that book. Notice what is happening here: normally, I have freedom of the press as guaranteed by the first amendement, meaning if I own a printing press I can print whatever I want. The restrictions placed on me by copyright law are an exception to the press freedom I otherwise have. (This is important to understand now that the Internet has effectively given everyone a printing press.)
As a society we've decided that this restriction on press freedom is an acceptable trade-off because we believe that if anyone can make copies of any book, it becomes too hard for a writer to make a living at writing, and then we won't have any books at all.
And this is probably true. That's why we've applied the same logic to each new form of media that has been invented since the printing press - recorded music, movies, TV programs, software, etc.
So the existence of copyright law is entirely reasonable. I'm not saying abolish copyright law, and I don't endorse violating it. You should think of the potential effect on the livelihood of artists, writers, musicians, etc. before copying something, and remember that you might be trying to sell work of your own someday.
But I am saying: recognize copyright for what it is. It's not some sort of absolute moral law or self-evident truth. It's an artificial government-imposed restriction on our freedom that we accept as the price for supporting a professional creative class in our society.
When media companies do these things, and justify it by invoking the need to fight "theft" or "piracy"; remember to ask yourself: Is this actually furthering the intended purpose of copyright law? How much further is it restricting our freedom, and is it worth the price? Is it something truly needed to keep creative people in business?
Or is just it an abuse of power by hugely rich and powerful media corporations who don't like facing competition?
I saw an amazing talk yesterday by my favorite computer-idea-guy, Bret Victor. (The same Bret Victor` who wrote "Kill Math".)
This time, he's talking to an audience of engineering students about the possibilities available to them in their careers. The talk is called Inventing on Principle. The video is almost an hour long but worth watching all the way to the end.
There's two parts. First he talks about the principle that guides his inventions, which is that creative people need tools that give them a direct connection to their work. Ideas are precious and fragile, and there are all sorts of ideas that you'll never even think of if your tools are keeping you disconnected from your work.
He has some jaw-dropping demos of what programming, circuit design, and animation might be like if we had tools that truly connected our hands to the essence of what we're doing. If we didn't have to spend most of our brainpower guessing how the computer is going to interpret our instructions. "This is what it might be like to design an algorithm without a blindfold on.", he says. Bret's a very humble person. He doesn't say things like that lightly. He really means it; after catching a glimpse of how things could be in a better world, coming back to the tools we have now feels so primitive.
The second half of the talk is about other people who invented things according to their own guiding principles, like Larry Tenser who went on a personal crusade against modes in software. Bret suggests this path to the students as an alternative to the career paths that are usually offered to engineers (e.g. "define yourself by the skill that you're good at"). He points out it's more like being a social activist except that you try to change things by inventing instead of changing things by organizing people. He talks about how you might try to find a principle of your own, if you choose this path.
This is inspiring, and it comes at just the right time for me since over the last year I've gotten increasingly disillusioned with the software industry. I spent 2008-2012 trying to make things according to Mozilla's principles, not my own. Before that, I spent 2005-2008 trying to make things according to Aza's principles, or more accurately according to Aza's dad's principles. Working on other people's dreams isn't enough to motivate me anymore. I want to do my own thing. This might involve leaving the software industry or it might involve starting my own company. Either way, examining my guiding principle(s) will have to be part of it.
Games: We start by telling the players the win condition, so they understand what they're trying to do. Each player forms a strategy which they think will take them to victory and then chooses moves according to that strategy. But their desired moves are blocked by the opponent's moves, or are stymied due to random factors, or hidden information, so the player has to rethink their strategy on the fly. This increases the tension as the players are forced to make difficult choices, with the chance of victory riding on the outcome.
Music: The initial notes establish the key of the piece, letting the listener hear the tonic and the root chord. The melody and chord progression take us farther and farther away from that starting point, while creating a tension that can only be resolved by returning to the tonic / root chord again. E.g. the chorus of a typical rock song might have chords C -> F -> G -> G7, setting up a tension which makes the listener desire resolution. Then it goes back to the C chord at the end of the chorus, satisfying that desire.
(The listener doesn't have be able to consciously identify the chords or even know what a chord is - it still works. It's magic.)
Storytelling: Exposition in Act 1 introduces the protagonist and sets up their motivation, so the reader knows who to root for and what's at stake; they expect that the resolution of the story will see the protagonist either getting the stakes or not. Act 2 increases the tension, using complications to challenge the protagonist, put the resolution in doubt, and force some character development. Each complication raises new questions in the reader's mind. Act 3 has some sort of climax, the moment of maximum tension, where the protagonist faces some life-defining decision and whatever was motivating them finally gets resolved.
I'm sure you can think of exceptions to these simple schematics: non-western music may not have a root chord, some computer games deliberately obfuscate the goal in order to create more of a feeling of discovery, etc. Whatever. I'm not going for comprehensive definitions right now.
What I'm saying is: see a parallel here? The ending gives meaning and direction to everything that comes before it, so the game designer/musician/storyteller must hint at the ending. But it's the tension that makes things interesting, and the tension comes from the frustrated desire of the player/listener/reader. To create tension the game designer/musician/storyteller must tease an ending but deny the obvious path to that ending.
We even use the same language - "tension" and "resolution" - to talk about all three art forms.
I've told them June 7th is my last day. On June 8th (the start of Sushu's summer vacation) we leave for a two-month trip to China, and when we return I'm going to be jobless.
On the surface, quitting Mozilla seems remarkably foolish. They're a respectable company, they pay me the big money, they treat me very well, I like the people I work with, and I get to work on fun stuff. I've been extremely fortunate to have a good job while so many people around me were losing theirs, and I've been able to use the money to help my family pay off a lot of debts. I'm grateful for all they've done for me.
I started at Mozilla in spring 2008, so it's been more than four years now. I've been working for Mozilla longer than I've been involved with any other organization in my life. The first few years were great, but everything took a turn for the worse in early 2011.
I tried to make it work, I really did. I spent the second half of 2011 vacillating. I would tell Sushu that I was going to quit; then I'd have a few really good days in a row and change my mind. I really do like the people I work with and I don't want to let them down. But then I'd have a few miserable days in a row and Sushu would once again have to put up with my bitching about work.
I think it was early January that I first told Jinghua (my manager) that I was going to leave. She made a sad face. She talked me into staying for another few months, which I agreed to because there were some projects I wanted to finish up. By June I'll be able to finish my current work on Test Pilot and Collusion and hand both projects off to other people. (Up until now, every software project I've worked on has died the day I stopped working on it. It will be nice to have a project outlive my involvement for a change.) She's still trying to figure out a way to talk me into staying.
But I won't. Leaving is just something I have to do. I will try to explain why.
They say some people have had 10 years of experience and others have had one year of experience ten times. Corrolary: if you find yourself having the same year of experience over again, it's time to try something new.
Mozilla has gotten too comfortable. I'm not challenging myself here. I'm not stretching, I'm not growing. The days and weeks and months have been slipping by with no sense of forward progress. I'm also not getting any younger.
I'm terrified of waking up one morning to find that ten years have gone by and I'm still sitting in the same desk, doing the same job, having accomplished nothing of lasting value.
Four years is a really long time for me to do any one thing. Most of the "chapters" of my life have been about three years; at around the three-year mark at Mozilla I started to feel the wanderlust, the voice inside me saying it's time to move on.
I desperately want to get out of Silicon Valley. It's hard to explain how much I despise this place -- its suburban sprawl, its strip-mall parking lots, its expensive lawns, its traffic jams; its rich, smarmy, boring yuppies; its disturbing lack of weather and seasons; its phony cheerfulness; its bubble culture; its incestuousness; its endless gossip about the same few software companies; its lack of history; its self-importance.
I miss winter, I miss artists and blue-collar workers and other people not in the software industry. I wish I could just ditch this place and move back to Chicago to be near my family.
But I won't, because the one thing I want more than that is to stay with my wife. So as long as her teaching job is here, I'm here. Mozilla would actually let me work from anywhere; ironically, it's not my software job that's keeping me in Silicon Valley, but Sushu's non-software job.
So we've been trying to figure out a way to live anywhere else. First we explored the idea of living in China for a year or so, but she can't get that much time off from school. Then we explored living in San Francisco, but it would make her commute much worse and we'd be paying twice as much for 1/4 of the space so it wouldn't make any sense.
So I've accepted that I will be physically stuck here for the forseeable future. The only way open for me to get the change I seek is to change my daily routine -- and that starts with quitting my job.
Second: Mozilla is changing.
The Mozilla manifesto says we're supposed to be fighting for freedom of individual user choice on the web. That sounds great, but how exactly does making improvements to Firefox advance that goal?
Mozilla is an organization forged in battle against Microsoft. Back in 2001, "freedom of individual user choice on the web" meant "don't let Internet Explorer have an unchallenged monopoly". But Mozilla essentially won that battle already. In fact, they won it before I even joined. Today, the web is very far away from a browser monopoly. People code to web standards, the capabilities the web can offer are advancing rapidly, and even if Firefox ceased to exist tomorrow, the competition between Internet Explorer and Chrome would keep them both honest.
The biggest question for Mozilla, therefore, is "Now what?" With their main goal accomplished, why do they need to continue to exist as an organization? As long as I've worked there, they've been flailing about looking for an answer to this question.
That was good for me, because it meant that I got to work on lots of experimental projects as part of the search for a new direction. However, a lot of the stuff I've been doing also doesn't feel very productive. The threats to web freedom in 2012 are very different from those in 2001, and it's hard to fight the threats of 2012 using an organization that was built up to fight the threats of 2001. It's kind of like that saying about generals always preparing to fight the previous war.
Honestly I think the biggest threats to the internet these days come from the government, not from any corporation. We can complain all day about how evil Facebook and Apple are, but at least we all have the choice of not using their products. Whereas 60 senators with no clue about how computers work could pass a law like SOPA or CISPA and force us to comply. You can't build an open-source alternative to the law.
Really, if you were building an organization with Mozilla's mission statement from the ground up today, it would make more sense to build a legal/political advocacy organization, not a software company at all.
Nevertheless, Mozilla-the-software-company continues to grow rapidly, and there are a lot of growing pains. When I started, they were under 150 people, and it was just barely possible to know everybody. Since then the number of employees has quadrupled, and with that comes more layers of bureaucracy. We're having to create formal processes for things that used to get done via personal relationships. And as we hire more people from Silicon Valley who aren't necessarily open-source advocates, the culture is starting to feel more and more corporate, with less of the open-source hacker spirit that made it an exciting place to work in the early days.
As for the "Now what?" question, they've recently decided that the best thing to do is try to build a mobile-phone operating system to compete with iPhone and Android. (Really.) The logic is that users have lots of choices for desktop internet software, but the mobile phones are still very locked down. Especially iPhone, where Apple gets to decide what software you are and aren't allowed to run. Maybe we could help break that open by creating another competitor together with some kind of open standard for apps which would be portable between different mobile platforms?
That's cool, I guess. Good luck! But personally I have zero interest in working on smartphone software. I don't have a smartphone, I don't want one, and I don't want to write software for them. If Mozilla's trying to turn itself into a mobile-phone OS company, they need people who understand that stuff. They don't need me; I'll just be slowing them down.
They'd let me keep working on Test Pilot as long as I wanted, but I don't really feel like I'm advancing the cause of web freedom by doing that.
And without the cause, Mozilla is just another software company.
Third: I've stopped caring about computers.
I used to care about computers for their own sake, because it was fascinating to have a machine that could do anything I wanted, provided I could figure out how to express it in code. I got all excited about learning new programming languages or techniques or whatever.
These days I'm like, a computer is just a tool; it crunches numbers fast. What are we doing with that tool? Are we using it to make life better for people? If not, who cares?
I used to have strong opinions about what hardware or software was good or bad, and would try to convince people to switch. Now I'm like, whatever; it's all basically the same, use whatever works for you; why should I care?
The rate at which people upgrade their computers is slowing down; computers are already fast enough for everything people want to do. Half the internet is still on Windows XP because there's no good reason to upgrade. The internet has matured and has been basically feature-complete since about 2005. Video game graphics are as good as they need to be. AI is stagnant. Computers are really boring now.
Postulate: The computer revolution is over. All that programmers are going to be doing from now on is rewriting the same applications over and over again, for ever-crappier platforms, using ever-higher-level languages.
The software industry today is an arm of the advertising industry. That's just a cold economic fact. Mozilla is no exception -- our money comes from Google and Google gets it from advertising. An industry driven by advertising is always going to serve the advertisers' needs, not the users'. ("If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product.") I don't really want to work for the advertising industry.
Since around 2005, when I got involved with Humanized, I had the idea that I could be a usability guy, and help people by making computers easier to use. But I've realized that usability, too, is just a tool. What is it that you're making easier to do? Something that's truly beneficial to the user? Or are you just making it easier for them to spend hours on Farmville while giving their private information away to advertisers?
In the last few years the industry seems to have decided that the way to solve the usability problem is to stop giving people computers and start giving them locked-down information appliances, which are "easy" because they can't do much. (i.e. tablets). This isn't what I wanted; I wanted to make the power of real computers accessible to more people, not some dumbed-down baby version. But maybe it turns out that people don't even want that power; maybe they just want to watch vidoes and play Angry Birds.
Anyway, being the usability guy was Aza's dream, not mine. I've given up on being that guy now. I'm looking for a different guy to be.
I don't think I want to make software anymore. But programming is my main marketable skill. Maybe I can find a job in another industry where I use my programming skills for some kind of higher purpose, like education or renewable energy resources or robotics or something. I'll go back to school and learn new skills if I have to.
Fourth: Sushu wants to have a baby soon.
This thought is absolutely terrifying to me.
Right now, I have the freedom to change jobs just to pursue personal satisfaction. I have the freedom to not care about how much money I make, because I don't have any dependents.
Once I'm a dad, I won't have that freedom anymore. I will have to be responsible.
If I'm going to change careers -- to green tech or robots or education or whatever -- I need to do it now, before any babies happen.
The title is three dudes' names, so I opened the book thinking it was going to be some kind of triple biography. Nope. It's... something else. A very strange book, not like anything else I've ever read. There's not an easy word to describe GEB, either its structure or its subject matter.
I started the book years ago. 2008, I think, and I just finished it today. This is not the kind of book you try to tackle in one sitting. It is thick, dense, demanding. It is for math/computer-science geeks what Ulysses is for literature geeks. It's like a whole year of college squeezed between two covers.
My favorite books are often the ones that feel like an invitation to come live inside the author's brain for a while. GEB is certainly one of these: not so much a single-subject book of nonfiction as it is a tour through Douglas Hofstadter's obsessions, following the connections that he sees between seemingly unrelated topics.
Specifically: GEB is about the deep connections between mathematics, music, and art. It's focused on concepts of formal systems, self-referentiality, self-contradiction, infinite loops, and paradoxes, and how they're expressed in math by Gödel, drawings by Escher, and music by Bach.
Along the way, there's a series of puzzles, exercises, brain-teasers, and Zen koans to ponder; this book is very interactive. If you're into that kind of thing, you don't just read this book, you do it, like a kind of Activity Book for grown-ups. All of these exercises tie back into number theory and the proof of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (yes, even the koans!) So do the music and the art - he's not just throwing in Escher drawings and Bach fugues because he thinks they're cool, but in order to draw analogies with the mathematics, shine a light on it from many different angles, get you to think about it in a creative and intuitive way and not just a mechanistic logical way.
Structurally, GEB alternates between nonfiction "chapters" and fictional "dialogues". The chapters teach you about math, music, and art in a rambling, digressionary, conversational, but basically straightforward way. The dialogues are something else. They star Achilles and the Tortoise (borrowed from Zeno's Paradox) and occasionally also a crab, a sloth, and an ant colony, having absurdist adventures and arguing about logical paradoxes.
Some of these dialogues structurally replicate certain musical forms, such as a six-voice fugue or a "crab canon" (a piece of music that harmonizes with itself when played upside-down and backwards). Most of the dialogues involve seriously lateral thinking; some are shaggy dog stories; some are setups for elaborate multilevel puns; usually the content of the dialogue reflects somehow on the structure of the dialogue or of the book as a whole -- this is a self-referential book about self-referentiality.
The dialogues are kind of like the Shadow Play Girls in episodes of Shojo Kakumei Utena, that seem nonsensical on the surface but serve to cast some metaphorical light on the meaning of the other events in the episode. When you get to each Chapter of GEB you're ready to learn a new math concept because you've already been primed for it by some completely ridiculous Tortoise/Achilles shenanigans.
Hofstadter really wants you to understand Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem - not just in an approximate and hand-wavy way, and not just in a rote mathematical recitation way. He wants you to understand it on a deep and intuitive level. He wants this so badly that he's willing to spend seven hundred pages on math lessons, music theory lessons, thought experiments, riddles, and bizarre digressions about a smartass tortoise all in order to build up your intuition about number theory, just so that when you finally get to Gödel's proof you will have the background you need to get your mind COMPLETELY FUCKING BLOWN by it.
And it's pretty mind-blowing stuff. By encoding a self-referential paradox into a mathematical theorem, Gödel proved that any sufficiently complex system of mathematics will contain statements which are true, but can never be proven within that system. Gödel destroyed every other mathematicians' dream of ever having a perfectly complete and consistent theory of mathematics. He did it in the 1930s, so it was around the same time as the quantum mechanics gave us the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; it was a time when humanity discovered that there are limits to our knowledge, certain things the universe just doesn't allow us to know completely. Western philosophy is still trying to recover.
Hofstadter has a lot of thoughts about how the Incompleteness theorem applies to other areas. Art and music, of course, but also computer science - there's a lot in here about computability and the Halting Problem. There's a chapter on genetics: is the genetic code a "sufficiently complex system of mathematics"? There's a bunch of stuff about the meaning of "meaning" -- how much of a proof's meaning is in the symbols of the proof, and how much is in the mind interpreting those symbols? How about the meaning of a painting, or a symphony? But mostly, he wants to talk about how the Incompleteness theorem relates to artificial intelligence and human consciousness. It seems that formal rule-based systems like computer programs and mathematical proofs are vulnerable to getting caught in paradoxes like the one in Gödel's proof, or infinite loops like Turing discovered. Yet humans have the ability to deal with infinite loops and paradoxes -- we can recognize when we're caught in one, and make a creative out of the rule system to resolve it.
Does this ability to leap outside of a rule system mean that the human mind is fundamentally different from a computer program? And does that mean that AI is impossible? But how can that be, when the brain is made of neurons which operate according to predictable physical laws? Or is our mind governed by a higher-level rule system that gives us the ability to leap outside of lesser rule systems? If so, what happens when we try to leap outside of that one? Are the sensations of consciousness and free will related to the brain's capacity for self-referential thoughts? What is the equivalent of Gödel for the brain - are there things we're not allowed to know about ourselves, or thoughts we're incapable of thinking?
Central to Hofstadter's thesis is the difference between logical, mechanistic thought and creative, intuitive leaps. So it's appropriate that he leads you to his point using both methods. The chapters walk you through the logical explanation while the dialogues encourage you to make the leaps of intuition for yourself. Again, it's a self-referential book about self-reference: the form reflects the content.
I don't know any other book that has blown my mind so many times.
Holy crap, guys, tomorrow is my last day at Mozilla and I'm leaving for China on Friday morning. It's like I'm starting a whole new life. I'm excited! The future has a sense of wide-open possibility again, like I haven't felt for a long time.
My life has been too comfortable the past few years, which paradoxically depresses me because I'm like "Is this as good as it's ever going to get? Is the rest of my life just going to be a slow decline?" Something in my psychological makeup needs the unknown, needs weirdness. I have to believe in the possibility of growth, and growth requires encountering things outside my experience. I can't imagine a utopia or a heaven where I'd be happy, because they all sound so dreadfully boring.
Somebody asked me recently whether I was scared of leaving my job. No, quite the opposite: I'm scared of staying in the warm, stifling embrace of a well-paying job for so long that I turn into a Boring Person who plays office politics and acts entitled to his salary and hasn't questioned his beliefs for a decade. I need to get out there and fight for myself again. Worst case scenario, I said, if my next thing doesn't work out, I can always go get another software job. My interlocutor was like "No! Don't give yourself a backup plan, that will make you hesitate! You gotta commit!" He was a burn-your-ships and smash-your-pots kind of guy.
I just finished a small PHP project for my wife's family business. I've tangled with this codebase before. Like many legacy PHP projects, it's a nightmare of copy-pasted code, misspelled variable names, multiple versions of the same file living in different subdirectories, load-bearing posters, etc. I'm not sure the original developers knew what a function was.
Years ago, when last I tangled with this codebase, I raged at it for days. I'm afraid I was rather unpleasant to be around. I raged at the barely-competent contractors who had hacked it together with no regard for readability or maintainability, but the greater half of my ire was reserved for the design of the PHP language itself that leads inexperienced developers to sail onto these reefs.
PHP is infuriating to good programmers because it's a fractal of bad design. Many of its features and standard library functions are flagrantly misdesigned for no reason. Design trade-offs I can forgive, but things like the inconsistent capitalization and order of arguments across PHP standard library functions is just wrong. There's no advantage to it - it wouldn't have cost them anything to apply some consistency to the standard library, and PHP would be a lot easier to deal with if they had. You can hammer in nails with the side of it, sort of, but why not use a tool that's designed right in the first place?
And yet! PHP is quite possibly the most successful programming language in history, if you count by number of projects written in it that are actually used every day. Maybe Excel macros, if you consider them a programming language, could give PHP a run for its money. I used to think that PHP was only popular because it comes pre-installed on most web servers, but that begs the question of why PHP was in so much demand that web hosts would include it. Despite its manny flaws, PHP runs most of the web.
Obviously there is a huge disconnect between what programmers think is "good" and what customers want.
"Good" to a programmer means clean, elegant, orthogonal, modular, easily maintained, well-documented. No extraneous moving parts, any subsystem can be swapped out and replaced, interfaces behave consistently, and all actions are reversible.
If the technology that nerds thought was good won in the market, we would all be running FreeBSD, or better yet, Plan 9, on our reduced-instruction set chips (the Intel x86 architecture is hopelessly crufted up with obsolete backwards-compatibility modes). We'd be running programs written in a beautful language like Erlang or Haskell, and instead of the lousy hack that is the World-Wide Web, we'd be connecting to Xanadu with its bi-directional links and live transclusion. If HTTP even existed, we certainly wouldn't be using it to cram rich application interfaces through port 80! That's designed for hypertext only, dammit.
Instead, the average computer is a jumble of commodity hardware running IE (or, these days, Chrome) on top of Windows (probably XP) in order to connect through HTTP to Facebook (built on PHP) and log in using cookies (a hack to get around the statelessness of HTTP) to look at YouTube videos (using the proprietary Flash plugin because the browser fails to support video natively). To a programmer who lets themselves think about it, this is a tottering Jenga tower of kluges on top of kluges.
The nerd favorite loses every single time. From Windows to the Web to PHP, the worst technology (from a nerd perspective) always wins.
There's a piece of wisdom among marketers: the customer doesn't care how "good", in some abstract sense, your product is. They only care whether it solves their problems.
Notice "solving the customer's problems" doesn't appear in the list of things a programmer thinks are good. That's because most programmers are mainly concerned with how hard it is to fix bugs in their codebase; somebody else in the company gets paid to worry about customers. But a definition of "good" that doesn't consider whether it solves customer problems is fallacious, like a definition of "price" that doesn't consider how much somebody's willing to pay for something. The programmer's idea of "goodness" is really more like "technical purity".
Is there a pattern to the "worse" technologies that end up winning? If I squint I think I can see one.
If you already had DOS, it was easier (and much cheaper) to run Windows on top of DOS than to switch to a Mac. If you were already using a web browser every day it was easier to use a web application than to install a desktop application even if the webapp wasn't quite as good. And if you were already hosting an HTML website and needed a few dynamic features it was easier to drop some PHP tags into an HTML page than to rewrite the whole thing in a Python web framework.
All of the "worse" technlogies offered something very important: an easy upgrade path from something somebody was already using. The klugy solution can be bolted on to whatever you're already running, and it might not work the best and it might not be pretty, but it lets you get your stuff done. The technically pure solutions ask you to throw everything out and start from a clean slate. No wonder they're not popular!
Of course the current popular trend is mobile-phone apps. Which are horribly designed from a software architecture perspective. Phone apps are the ultimate in siloed functionality: they're mostly single-function and there's no way to get data from one to another, so you're putting your whole UI into a whole different mode for every feature you want to use. Plus you can't link to them so discovery is hard, and on iPhone Apple has a stranglehold over the sole distribution channel so they get to decide what software you are or aren't allowed to run.
It's all terrible, but having these features on an object that you already carry in your pocket is convenient enough to overwhelm the drawbacks for most people. Apps, like Windows and PHP, are a bolt-on to something people were already using.
This time, when I approached the project for my wife's family business, I kept all this in mind, and tried to make peace with PHP. I still wouldn't recommend choosing PHP for a new project, but there's no sense nerd-raging about it. Their site is done in PHP, they needed some features added, and I could either do them in PHP or I could refuse to help them at all. I took a deep breath and accepted it. It's not like rewriting their website in Python is going to save the polar icecaps, or even get the business a single new customer.
My suffering came from attachment to the idea that people "should" be using something that fits my idea of well-designed. I am learning to let go of that attachment. People use what solves their problems, and their problems are not the same as my problems. The market will always be dominated by stuff I think is terrible from a technical perspective. I'm now trying to make peace with that fact. It doesn't matter what software other people choose, compared to the important things in life, like how people treat each other. This is a big change in my attitude towards programming work. Past Jono from five years ago was all about the technical purity.
Beautiful and well-designed code is better than crufty and unmaintainable code, all other things being equal, but we shouldn't think of beautiful code as an end in itself. We've got to remember that it's still just a tool. Whether beautiful or ugly, it ultimately has to serve a human purpose or it's a waste of time. Sometimes the human purpose is not served by pursuing technical purity; sometimes it's best served by just doing what the client wants and hacking another feature into their mess of PHP.
We really shouldn't look to computer code for creative expression or spiritual fulfillment. Code is ephemeral. I mean, yeah, all human endeavor is ephemeral, but code is even more ephemeral than that. If you paint a picture or write a song it can be enjoyed by future generations. Your most beautiful code probably won't even run five years from now. It will just be ones and zeros rotting in an archive somewhere, broken by some operating system change or browser upgrade, unless somebody cares enough to maintain it.
Lately I'm thinking I want to start a sustainable business of my own so I can be self-employed. That will mean wearing two hats - programmer, but also small-business manager. When I face choices about what language to use or what platform to develop for, I can listen to the programmer and take the technically pure choice, or I can listen to the businessman and follow the users.
So, it's like, I hate smartphones, I hate "social networks", but that's where a lot of the potential users are. If it's a choice between hating smartphones or becoming successfully self-employed, maybe it's time to let go of my hate.
I'm usually a pretty cheerful guy but every once in a while I get depression to the point where I can barely function. I fell into it in a bad way last September. It hit me again about a week ago and I've been struggling with it since.
I've never been diagnosed so I don't know if I have capital-D clinical Depression or not. I've never had to take antidepressants in order to function. I have friends who have needed medication, and I don't want to trivialize their experience by suggesting it must be just like mine. I'm just lucky I haven't had it as bad as them. I can only speak for what's going on in my own head.
It's worse than just being in a bad mood or feeling crappy; it's like a switch in my head gets flipped and suddenly I'm in a world where there's no possibility that anything good will happen, ever again. I become incapable of even imagining happiness or enjoyment.
Depression takes away my motivation to do anything. It makes me not want to do things that I usually enjoy. It reminds me that all human endeavor is futile and everything will come to dust in the end, so there is no point in doing anything. It becomes especially hard to work on long-term projects like coding or writing or studying Chinese, but even fun activities that usually provide immediate gratification, like playing accordion or painting minis, lose their appeal. That's what makes it different from an ordinary low mood. It's like there's a wellspring of positive energy that usually rewards me for doing things I like, and I've been cut off from it. Severed, like when the bad guys in The Golden Compass cut children off from their daemons.
The depression doesn't start randomly; it's triggered by some event or realization. The current bout started when I read that Arctic sea ice reached its lowest recorded level this summer, and that we're currently on track for 6-degree-celsius global warming by 2100. (I'll blog about that some other time.) This was compounded by hearing that there's now a good chance Romney might win the election and put the climate-change denialists back in power; together it makes me think that our political system is utterly incapable of facing up to the coming environmental catastrophe or doing anything to stave off the global food shortages that are going to come with it.
But whatever triggers it, once it starts, depression is self-sustaining. Depression will use anything it can find to make me stay depressed. It takes the news about global warming and politics and forces them into the most pessimistic possible interpretation. Anything bad must be true; anything good must be fake. Depression likes to remind me that I, and everybody I know, will die someday, and will be dead forever, and that there's no reason to believe in any kind of afterlife. It points out that I'm already 32 and haven't achieved my dreams; it tells me that now it's too late, I'm too old, I failed, and my life will be all downhill from here. I'm unemployed and my ideas for starting a business will never work out. Also, in a few billion years, the sun will go red giant and consume the earth, and after that all the stars will go out, and eventually even protons and black holes decay, and the universe will suffer entropic heat death.
When I'm deep in it, depression makes me not want to get better. It makes me not want to do things that would make me happy, almost like it's a parasite that will fight to prevent being removed from its host. It makes me want to indulge in more negative thoughts, providing a grim satisfaction when I think of more reasons why everything is horrible.
And this self-destructive impulse always masquerades as rationality. It's not a mood, it's not a mental illness: it's a rational appraisal of a reality where everything is objectively horrifying. Or that's what it tells me, anyway. When cutting off my motivation it tells me that my desire to do things was irrational: logically there's no reason to do anything, not when global civilization is about to collapse from food and oil shortages and we're all going to die. Happiness is an illusion anyway, so logically there's no reason to want to be happy.
When I'm depressed, I can barely talk to anybody; depression makes me want to avoid people, and when I have to talk to somebody it's a struggle to get the words out. I avoid eye contact and have long pauses in my speech and what I manage to get out is only the barest approximation of what I'm really feeling. I think this is another way the parasite fights for its own survival -- it knows that human contact is part of the cure, so it tries to prevent me from getting any.
There's also this weird thing that happens where I feel guilty about being depressed. After all, other people have it much much worse than I do. I've been extremely lucky in my life; I've had a lot of privileges; I've never faced any real hardship. I don't deserve to be depressed when other people are missing limbs or getting shot at or facing abject hopeless poverty or dying of cancer. So I get into this guilt/depression death spiral, and after a week I'm not depressed about the original triggering event so much as I'm depressed about the fact of being depressed! And I feel like I shouldn't tell anybody about it because I'd be violating some kind of imaginary social contract by admitting to depression.
So that's what my depression feels like. Here are some things I've been doing lately to try to pull myself out of it.
First, I think of it like an actual disease. When I've got a flu I don't try to pretend everything is OK, nor do I let the flu rule my life. I change my habits to try to help myself get better - drinking lots of hot fluids, getting lots of sleep, etc.
In this post I've been talking about depression as an external thing -- "Depression does this, depression does that" -- because I've found that's the key to fighting it. This is silly, but I visualize it as like a ghostly grey parasite creature that clings on to my chest and feeds off my bad feelings. Sometimes I can feel it there, pressing down on my lungs like a physical weight. But like a flu, I don't think of it as part of myself; it's a thing that I've got, temporarily.
That way when I wake up each morning feeling like "ugggggggh humanity is doomed life is pointless why should I get out of bed" I can respond "No, that's the depression talking". By imagining it as external to myself, I can turn and face the enemy.
I can't deny that the world is screwed up and bad things are happening. If I try to deny it, the depression always wins that argument. Trying to "logic" depression away doesn't work.
But what I can do is say "look, maybe my chances of doing anything to improve my life or make the world a better place are 0.00001% under the best of circumstances. But as long as I'm depressed my chances are absolute zero. If there's any path to anything better, it has to start with getting myself un-depressed."
Sushu has been wonderfully loving and supportive through this thing, helping talk me through stuff, getting me out of the house, holding me to my goals, and just being there for me. I am relying on her a lot.
Next, I try not to be alone with my thoughts for long periods. I force myself to get out of the house and talk to people. This is harder now that I don't have a job, because I don't have an office to go to or a time that I have to be there every day. But I've been using a local coffee shop (Philz on Middlefield Road) as a substitute office, going there every morning to work.
I've been making myself reach out via email and instant message to people I haven't spoken to in a long time.
I'm avoiding triggers. The trigger for this spell of depression was reading about global warming and politics so I'm forcing myself not to read any more articles about those things for a while.
I'm setting some modest, not-too-difficult goals. I worked with Sushu to define the next milestone for the Chinese study game, and set a due date of next Wednesday. She's going to help hold me to that.
I try to recognize the signs of a mental death spiral, and refuse to indulge in it. "Nope, not going to think about that right now" , I say, and distract my attention to something else.
Finally, I remind myself that it's OK to do pointless things just to make myself feel better; I think of them as a form of self-medication. Playing games with friends is good! To play a game is to care intensely about something (the goal of the game) even though it doesn't matter in the big scheme of things. Reminding myself what it feels like to care about things is essential to climbing out of depression.
I don't have a great conclusion to go there; this is an ongoing process. I welcome anybody reading this to share their experiences of depression and what they've done to try to combat it.
Back from two weeks in Illinois, I now return to my regularly scheduled life in California, and the challenge of trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do. Now that I have outgrown my former dream of being some kinda fancy open-source usability hacker guy, my life is missing a main plot thread. The idea of life having a "plot" is nothing but retroactive self-mythologizing anyway, but it's been a useful illusion for getting myself up in the morning.
Lately I have the weirdest feeling that I am a new person, only a few months old, who has inherited the body and memories of this 32-year-old dude. Many of Past Jono's motivations, while I remember having them, hold no appeal to me. Why did Past Jono buy this box of crummy anime toys which are now taking up space in Mom's house? Why did Past Jono care so much about boring computer stuff? What's with all these blog posts Past Jono wrote? Why are they so poorly written and why are his opinions so terrible? I'm glad Past Jono decided to marry this cool wife, but why did they live in Palo Alto of all places?
Time for a fresh start. The downside of being a newborn is that I'm nobody. But on the upside, I can do anything I want. I can also look at Past Jono with eyes unclouded by certain illusions that he clung to. Such as: holy fuck did he derive way too much of his identity from his job. He would have argued that he didn't buy into society's definitions of success and failure, but he obviously fell for the one that told him he had to have a respectable job to feel good about himself.
The work now begins in earnest: constructing an alternate value system to replace the old ideas of success and failure that Present Jono no longer gives a shit about.
Last week year I saw a Chinese movie about the Henan famine of 1942. A bad drought combined with the Japanese invasion (and a Chinese central government pulling grain out of drought-stricken Henan to feed its army) caused about 3 million people to starve to death, no joke.
The English title is "Back to 1942". It is amazingly well-crafted, ambitious, and beautiful, but emotionally devastating. All I could do for an hour afterwards was make this face:
Most movies about real-life tragedies are too heavy-handed. One horrible event follows another until they start to lose their emotional impact. Even though the movie isn't any good, you feel bad criticizing it, because the subject matter really is important. But a movie that's all "THE WORLD MUST NEVER FORGET" instead of telling a story is the cinematic equivalent of having to eat your vegetables.
1942 avoided that pitfall. It didn't make me emotionally numb because it had nuance and contrast and variation, weaving together stories of many different people making choices on many different scales. It had a lot to say about politics and human nature beyond just "Famine sucks".
...Like, how crises peel away the veneer of civilization to reveal humanity as frightened, hungry mammals. We see the social structure in complete collapse. People stripped of all dignity and culture, caring only about survival. Pointing guns at their starving neighbors because, well, my own family comes first and we don't have anything to spare for you and I know you're going to try to steal it. Nothing personal.
There are all sorts of cool subtle parallels. We see corrupt provincial ministers politicking over how relief grain shipments are to be distributed, and we see refugees fighting over a packet of crackers. The ministers have nicer clothes and use more polite words, but the underlying dynamic, the desperate need to grab what you can before someone else does, is exactly the same.
The scene where the Japanese planes are bombing the refugee lines was really hard to watch. After some movies where horrible things happen I can tell myself "it's just a movie". Not this one, though. Sushu's grandparents lived through this. They fled to Sichuan province where they took refuge from Japanese bomber runs by hiding in caves.
The portrayal of Chiang Kai-Shek is very nuanced. For years, due to Communist censorship, mainland Chinese movies only showed him as the villain; a corrupt tyrant who gets overthrown by the heroic Communists. So it's kind of amazing how not-villainized he is in this film. He comes off as a well-meaning man who is just waayyy out of his depth. A good soldier but not a good politician, thrust into a no-win situation, surrounded by men who are afraid to tell him bad news, making mistakes which contribute to a lot of deaths.
Aside from the clear-cut evil of the Japanese invaders, 1942 isn't much interested in identifying heroes and villains for the audience. I'm used to American movies where heavy-handed music and dialogue constantly remind you who you're supposed to like and who you're supposed to hate. 1942 is like: here are these people faced with horrible choices. This guy made this choice, and he lived. This guy made the other choice, and he died. Like there's a bit where the Japanese are toying with two prisoners of war. One guy refuses to submit to their humiliations, and they kill him. The other guy submits, and lives. In some movies the guy who refused would be a hero, meant to rouse us all with his defiance. Here, he's just dead.
But seeing as how, two months into the famine, the living are utterly without hope, and openly envying the dead... who's to say the alive guy is better off? It makes you think some really cold thoughts, this movie.
Major spoilers: The ending scene hit me hard. Dongjia (a main character) is sustained through most of the story by the need to protect his family and project hope to keep them going. But he loses them all - one by one, they either die or they get sold into slavery for a few pints of grain. By the end, he has nobody, and so he has nothing left to live for; he's just waiting to die, walking east so he can die closer to home. But then he finds a random girl whose whole family has died, too; he kind of "adopts" her. Suddenly he has a reason to live again.
It got me thinking: Humans survive by making some kind of meaning out of their situation, no matter how horrible. Even if it's a meaning as small as keeping someone else company while you shuffle weakly down the barren road together in search of your next meal. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have houses to live in and food to eat and who aren't getting shot at (and we are very lucky indeed) even for us lucky ones, this fact about life is the same. We're all on a road with death at the end, and maybe finding someone to care about, to create some meaning along the way, is the best any of us can hope for.
You should watch 1942. Just be prepared to experience absolute despair.
Oh, and if I ever complain about food again, somebody punch me please?
Both applications required a personal Statement of Purpose and in both cases I procrastinated until literally the last minute before submitting it. Like, I had a week to do the essay in each case and I literally couldn't force myself to write the first sentence until utter panic set in about four hours before the deadline.
This was way worse than my usual procrastination. This was some sort of black-hole time-warp form of mega-procrastination that paralyzed me for days. My usual amount of procrastination is just because I'm a terrible person who fails at basic life skills. But writing grad school application essays is so much worse. My brain rebels against doing it at all. Why is that?
The stakes are high, so I'm stressed.
I'm really bad at selling anything, much less myself.
I'm writing for an audience I know nothing about: a group of people I've never met, judging me by criteria I'll never know, and there's no way to gauge their reaction or get any feedback until it's too late.
They want me to talk about my research interests and career goals. Uh, I don't know anything about this field I'm trying to enter, that's why I want to go to school for it, so anything I say about research interests or career goals is a wild guess.
I know how to write a job application: "You should pay me because I have these skills that I can contribute to your company." But for grad school, I'm paying them to get skills I don't have yet. Do I talk about what I can do for them, or what they can do for me, or neither?
Last and most frustrating, they want to hear my plan for my whole life, how everything I've done has led up to Stanford's Energy Resources Engineering program (or whatever), and how going there will make all the difference in my career plan. They want me to fit my life into a tidy narrative.
But honestly? I spent 2000-2003 teaching English in Japan because I thought Japan was cool. Then I got back and thought I wanted to be a computer programmer, so I applied to University of Chicago in 2003. Why the U of C? Because it had a good comp-sci program? No, because it was conveniently located close to my parents' house. Joining Humanized was the result of meeting Aza, which was the result of doing the Shingo Mama dance at an anime club party in early 2004. Coming to California in 2008 was the result of not seeing any other appealing prospects other than following the Humanoids to Mozilla. Staying in California was because I got married to Sushu. And then I didn't want to be a computer programmer anymore, because I realized the software industry has become nothing but a branch of the advertising industry, so I quit Mozilla. Now I'm stuck in California, unemployed, with a set of skills optimized for a career I don't want, looking for something meaningful to do with the remaining years of my life.
It's been an opportunistic random walk the whole time. Any narrative connecting my past education or life experiences to Stanford or Berkeley's programs would be pure retroactive invention.
I remember seeing some interviews with scientists when I was a kid. The scientists would always say things like "I always wanted to be an astronomer since I saw an eclipse when I was 6". Hearing that, I wondered when my eclipse was going to come -- you know, the life-defining event where it suddenly becomes clear what I was put on this earth to do.
But now I suspect that astronomer probably was interested in lots of stuff and could have been good at lots of stuff given the opportunity. What probably happened is he/she just lucked into a sweet gig, then cherry-picked a plausible narrative precursor from all the events in his/her past.
But I don't think graduate school admissions want to hear that. So writing these essays is like pulling my own teeth out because it feels like trying to pass off creative writing about myself as non-fiction. It feels dishonest. My brain rebels against writing shit that I don't believe.
Does everybody secretly feel like this? Or do competent people have life stories that make sense, where they know what they want to do from a young age?
Is all this doubt a sign that I really shouldn't be going back to grad school, after all?
Rather than calling my mental state "depression", I think it's more descriptive to say I'm in a state of "scriptlessness": I don't know who I am, why I'm here, or what I want.
The cultural/psychological/narrative construct that I used to use to understand my place in life began coming apart sometime around the fall of 2011, and by this year it had completely unraveled, leaving me staring into the abyss.
The symptoms of my "depression" - lack of enjoyment, lack of meaning, hopelessness, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts -- these are the results of living without a functioning narrative.
Humans can't survive on facts and logic alone. We need to make sense of the world by telling stories. Usually, stories where we can cast ourselves as the hero, on an epic struggle against the forces of evil, so that we can feel our actions have moral significance.
In fact, I've got a theory about meaning: If you want something to have a meaning, you have to tell a story about it. Meaning only exists within a narrative context, the way a variable "X" only exists within a set of equations that define it. If you strip the storytelling away from your life, well... a carbon atom in a live human body and a carbon atom in a dead one follow exactly the same physical laws. Biology can describe life as a metabolic process, but it won't give you a logical reason to prefer life over death, or good over evil.
I think I understand why people follow religions, now.
At the same time, I'm very suspicious of grand narratives, because they easily turn into ideologies, and ideologies can be used to justify atrocities (especially if "forces of evil" becomes identified with some other group of humans). Besides, if you believe too thoroughly in your own self-mythologizing, you'll reject information that contradicts your self-image, and then you'll never be able to grow into a better person.
But complete honesty with yourself can reveal extremely painful things. It's like that magic mirror in the Neverending Story -- confronted with their true selves, most men run away screaming. Deconstruct your own story too much and you're left with carbon atoms. So you have to strike a balance between questioning your own narrative (to avoid becoming a zealot) and building it back up (to avoid falling into despair).
When I became disillusioned with Mozilla, it wasn't just one company's weird internal politics driving me away. I lost my ability to suspend disbelief in my internal narrative -- the one that took me from the University of Chicago to Humanized to Mozilla. It went, "I'm improving usability of open-source software, thereby helping Mozilla fight its competitors, thereby helping keep the internet free, thereby helping decentralize democracy and culture, thereby saving the world."
I've already rejected two other easy narratives. One is the script of the responsible middle-class American male. According to that script, since I have now procured a job and a wife, my next steps are to put a down-payment on a house in a neighborhood with good schools, climb the corporate ladder, and produce offspring. Maybe some people find meaning that way but it holds no appeal for me.
The other one is the typical silicon valley computer programmer life script, which is different from my Mozilla script in many ways that may not be obvious to an outside observer. According to the silicon valley script I should be doing things like obsessing over the latest gadgets, staying on top of trends, getting rich quick by building an "app" that I can sell to Google or Facebook, blogging about "design" or cutting-edge software development techniques, trying to increase my number of Twitter followers, having an opinion about Android vs. iOS, living in a trendy part of San Francisco, and going to Burning Man and SxSW.
These easy scripts are examples of the unexamined life -- doing something just because everyone around you is doing it. To me it's always been obvious that this is a trap. In fact I may have a bad habit of overcorrecting too far in the other direction. I have a curmudgeonly streak. If I see too many people doing something, it makes me want to do the opposite. I have a strong aversion to doing anything I listed in the last paragraph, even if it might benefit me; maybe it's something about trying to prove my "unqiueness". I used to want to be a computer guy, but being around thousands of computer guys made me not want to be one anymore. It's like that joke -- "I wouldn't want to join any club with standards so low that they would have me as a member."
For a while I was obsessed with the idea of finding a different job and/or moving away from Silicon Valley, since I believed that my depression was caused by unhappiness with a specific flaw in my life situation, and would easily go away on its own once I had gotten away from the irritant.
But that's not right. Changing jobs and addresses whenever I get unhappy is itself just a piece of my old script -- something that worked for me in the past, so I mindlessly try to repeat it.
It won't work anymore. Depression isn't a passing phase that will go away on its own with the right lifestyle permutation. Depression is the normal state of things unless I construct happiness for myself, until I build a ladder to climb out of the pit. I have to build a whole new narrative for myself, from scratch. My old one is gone for good, beyond repair; the ones offered by the society around me are bum deals. I have to do something like bootstrapping a whole new operating system, except it's for my own brain, and it's made out of philosophy and storytelling instead of code.
When I put it that way, it actually sounds kind of exciting, not depressing at all. I get to invent a whole new way of living, with myself as the test subject. Creative destruction, applied to myself. Anything is possible!
I heard a parable about three stonecutters. Asked what they were doing, the first says "I'm making a living." The second says "I'm trying to become the best stonecutter in the entire country!". The third says "I'm building a cathedral."
When this story is cited for business/motivational purposes, the moral is usually that you should be like Cathedral Dude. Best Stonecutter dude is supposed to be a warning about getting too caught up in process and losing sight of the goal. And the one who's making a living? I guess we're supposed to ignore him.
But maybe the first stonecutter is really the wisest. He's decided feeding his family is more important than the church's megalomaniacal architecture project. He's not going to work himself to death for somebody else's idea that he won't even live to see completed. He sells his labor at the best price he can and then goes home to the people he cares about. The cathedral still gets built whether he's a true believer or not.
Besides, how many software projects are comparable to cathedrals, anyway? Most are more like ramshackle shopping malls. (or, if you really want to get cynical, prisons.)
In these projects, people who think they're building cathedrals might be better described as "having drunk the kool-aid".