In 2011, for example, one subsidiary paid Ireland just one-twentieth of 1 percent in taxes on $22 billion on pretax earnings from various operations; another did not file a corporate tax return anywhere and has paid almost nothing on $30 billion in profits since 2009... Over all, Apple’s tax avoidance efforts shifted at least $74 billion from the reach of the Internal Revenue Service between 2009 and 2012, the investigators said.
In Google’s case, an Irish subsidiary collects revenues from ads sold in countries like the U.K. and France. That Irish unit in turn pays royalties to another Irish subsidiary, whose legal residence for tax purposes is in Bermuda. The pair of Irish units gives rise to the nickname “Double Irish.” To avoid an Irish withholding tax, Google channeled the payments to Bermuda through a subsidiary in the Netherlands -- thus the “Dutch Sandwich” label. The Netherlands subsidiary has no employees... Last year, Google reported a tax rate of just 3.2 percent on the profit it said was earned overseas, even as most of its foreign sales were in European countries with corporate income tax rates ranging from 26 percent to 34 percent.
It's really weird for me to read comment threads where Apple fanboys and Google fanboys cheerlead their chosen team, as if either of them was anything but a typical rapacious multinational corporation.
This is all completely legal, too! They've got teams of lawyers making sure of that. (Teams of accountants to find loopholes, teams of shareholders demanding the exploitation of loopholes, teams of lobbyists pressuring government to create new loopholes...) That's the power of a multinational corporation in the modern age: the ability to pick and choose which sets of laws they want to apply to each subsidiary at any given time. Ala carte, from out of all the nations of the world. Which, of course, causes the race to the bottom in worker and environmental protection laws.
If fiscal conservatives really want to balance the budget and reduce taxes on the middle class, maybe they should take a look at all the behemoths who aren't paying their fair share? Just a thought.
In this episode we talk about Phantasy Star 2 and other super-grindy JRPGs; the evolution and applications of "levelling up" as a game mechanic; the disconnect between story and gameplay; and what relevance these things might have to designing an educational game.
0:43 - Old school video games on the Wii
2:30 - More intutive? Or I'm just more used to them?
3:45 - Despite my nostalgia, old school JRPGs are super grindy, segregate story from gameplay
5:30 - Spoilers for a 24-year-old game
6:00 - The feeling of progression
9:00 - Regular death vs. plot-relevant death
10:30 - Why subject yourself to random encounters?
11:00 - The browser-based JRPG engine I'm working on
13:55 - I'm not just randomly wandering around, I'm EXPLORING the BIOSYSTEMS LAB while leveling up my chosen team!
16:00 - Wizard 101, and why are MMORPGs so repetitive
18:40 - The Guild drama IS the story!
20:30 - Can't we just watch this story as a movie?
21:15 - Why stories, and games, have to END
23:00 - Learn Chinese: the JRPG
24:40 - Keeping players engaged through five years of practicing a langauge
25:00 - Design constraints of edu-tainment. Subgoals.
26:40 - Balancing the game part with the learning part
28:00 - Limitations of what can be learned in a game format
29:00 - There are only so many fruits you need to know in Chinese!
31:00 - The effort/payoff ratio of designing custom content
33:30 - Begging your friends for nails in Farmville
34:30 - Leveling Up is such a powerful game mechanic
36:15 - Leveling Up is a meaningless overused gamification strategy
37:30 - But does it let you kill stronger monsters?
38:30 - Silicon Valley ran that idea into the ground
39:30 - Why leveling up in Bejewelled is pointless
As of this month, we've discovered 884 planets, 692 planetary systems, 132 of them with more than one planet and, strange to tell, almost none of them look like us. "We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer [planetary] systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days," says Steve Vogt, astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "This is quite unlike our own solar system, where there is nothing with an orbit inside that of Mercury. So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that Nature cooks up."
An interesting observation -- but isn't it the case that our methods for finding planetary systems depend heavily on seeing a gravitational "wobble" in the star's spectrum? The more massive a planet is and the closer it is to its star, the more it makes the star wobble. In other words, our methods are especially good at detecting planetary systems with "hot Jupiters". We may be overlooking a lot of planetary systems without hot Jupiters. So it may not be that our solar system is a rare configuration, but rather that the other systems we're looking at are a systematically biased sample. No?
Even if we survive the displacement from rising sea levels, and the food shortages from climate-changed induced droughts and the bee die-off, we can look forward to a future where robots have made us all obsolete:
Assuming Moore's Law keeps churning away at its normal exponential pace, Mr Drum figures that will happen somewhere around 2040, and it will gradually make our current economic assumptions untenable: most humans will become permanently unemployable since there will be nothing they can do that a robot can't do better and cheaper, which means there will be too few consumers to create demand for the products the robots can create.
Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.
Of course, this disruption is already happening. People are already losing their jobs to "robots", even though they don't look much like science-fiction robots -- they're mostly internet-connected algorithms.
There used to be a job called "video rental store clerk", for example (I used to be one) but Netflix has rendered that job obsolete. There used to be a job called travel agent, but Expedia and other airline-search websites eliminated that. And of course Google is putting a lot of research into taking away the jobs of taxi drivers and truck drivers with their driverless cars.
At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?
If you think about it, software is only profitable if you can sell it to an organization. An organization is only going to buy the software if it saves them money. And how does it save them money? By letting them fire workers.
Whenver startup guys talk about "disrupting" an industry, what they mean is "we're going to fire all your workers and replace them with software, so that we -- the controllers of the software -- can be the new middlemen".
There are currently a lot of startup guys talking about "disrupting" education. Which means that teachers should be very, very afraid.
I can imagine a world where robots do all the work. In that world, capitalism and the current social contract of labor-for-wages are simply untenable. They'd have to have some other economic system for distributing the goods and services produced by all their robots. But how do we get there from here? In the short term, capitalism isn't going anywhere. And capitalism is going to ensure that technological advances continue to displace workers, while all of the productivity gains from the new technology are captured by the owners of industry.
It's a lot like what happened during the industrial revolution. If you take the very long view, you could say that the industrial revolution ended up making the economy better for everyone -- worldwide living standards and education levels and so on are higher now, and we have new jobs that are better than the old crappy jobs that were eliminated. But the long term benefit was small comfort to the people who lived through the industrial revolution and saw their jobs replaced by machines.
I'm not saying we should stop technological progress, even if we could. Instead, I think that the ongoing destruction of jobs by technological progress should be an argument for re-examining our economic system and our social contract, to try to come up with a system where the benefits of technological efficiency gains can be shared across society instead of accruing only to the top.
A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables... A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.
In April, the European Union implemented a two-year ban on three neonicotinoids... Despite the fact that at least 30 laboratory studies have linked neonicotinoids to bee die offs... the multibillion-dollar chemical industry has fought against a ban on neonicotinoids, rejecting the scientific evidence that the pesticides are contributing to bee deaths.
As the chart above shows, three-quarters of the "permanent", year-round sea ice in the Arctic has been cooked away in just 30 years. Over half of it has disappeared in just the last eight years. A vast expanse of ice larger than the European Union has vanished. What's left is half the area and only half as thick. Now some ice experts are saying what remains could be gone in as little as ten years -- or even four... This jaw-dropping acceleration of Arctic sea ice collapse is completely out-stripping the worst case scenarios of the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The news that CO2 is near 400 ppm for the first time highlights a question that scientists have been investigating using a variety of methods: when was the last time that CO2 levels were this high, and what was the climate like back then?... There is no single, agreed-upon answer to those questions as studies show a wide date range from between 800,000 to 15 million years ago. The most direct evidence comes from tiny bubbles of ancient air trapped in the vast ice sheets of Antarctica. By drilling for ice cores and analyzing the air bubbles, scientists have found that, at no point during at least the past 800,000 years have atmospheric CO2 levels been as high as they are now... That means that in the entire history of human civilization, CO2 levels have never been this high.
2 degrees warming probably equates to about a one-meter rise in sea level this century. That’s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees... The environmental-refugee problem becomes eye-poppingly scary when you look at the 150 million people living in Bangladesh. A one-meter sea level rise would swamp about 17 percent of the country.
Indeed, even moving relatively quickly toward a carbon-neutral economy will still result in a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere for the foreseeable future. But that is moot, because we are nowhere close to moving quickly in this regard anyway. Fossil fuel reserves have effectively increased, due to improved technologies for extraction, and investment in alternative energy sources has been limited due to artificially low prices on carbon-based energy. As a result, 2012 was likely another record year for human-induced CO2 production.
... As an upcoming paper being prepared by 15 of the participants* at the meeting will argue, we came to a broad consensus that there is an increasingly urgent need to seriously consider removing and sequestering CO2 directly from our atmosphere.
This idea that CO2 isn’t dangerous has been a denier talking point for some time now, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. They claim that CO2 is just a natural and “harmless byproduct of nature”, which is bonkers; try living on Venus to see why.
After Taiko practice every Saturday, we usually hang out with our friend Chris in Oakland for a few hours, watching anime and kung fu movies, role-playing, or playing board games.
After that there's an hour drive back from Oakland to Palo Alto. There's not much else to do besides talk about what we just watched or played. That leads into talking about two of my favorite topics - game design and storytelling! We've had a lot of interesting conversations on this weekly ride home.
Last week, as an experiment, I decided to record us and call it a "podcast". 99% of podcasts on the internet are just an hour some friends giggling about their inside jokes anyway (people seriously need to learn to edit that stuff out). Surely we can do better than that!
This week we mostly talked about a kung-fu movie called Tai Chi Zero. It's notable for incorporating steampunk elements and comic-book-style visual effects into the story of a very dumb guy with a "berserk button" literally growing out of his forehead.
If there's enough interest in it for us to keep doing them, I'll make a proper page with an RSS feed and stuff. For now here's just a link to the raw mp3 file. Total length is about 40 minutes.
When learning this song, I watched the intro video on youtube a bunch. It sure brought back memories. Remember halfway through watching Evangelion, when it was still possible to believe that the story was heading towards some kind of resolution, perhaps including a climax and denouement? Ahh, those were the days.
Sushu was watching one of her crime procedural shows last night, and there was a scene where the "hero" tortures a suspect (off-camera). His daughter has been kidnapped by the bad guys in this episode, and the suspect isn't talking, and the narrative purpose of the torture is to show that the hero cares so much about his daughter that he's willing to break all the rules.
And I think about why America started torturing prisoners of war after 9/11, and why even after it was exposed the people responsible for the policy were never punished. And why Guantanamo is still open. And yeah, in my last post I blamed Congress, but there's more to it than that: there's a disturbingly large number of voters who support torture. To some degree, Congress is just doing what the people want, scary as that thought is.
Maybe it's partly because their image of torture comes from the way it's portrayed on TV cop shows: where it's something the heroes do for the greater good.
On TV, when the hero tortures a bad guy for information, the audience already knows the bad guy did it. Most of the time, they saw him do it on screen earlier in the episode. Because of the narrative structure of these shows, there's never any doubt that the police have the right person. So it's always like "Well, torture's bad, but this is the only guy who knows where the ticking time-bomb is, so if you don't torture him, lots of innocent people will die." So the heroes have a bit of a moral dilemma but quickly decide that saving those lives is so important that they're going to "break the rules" for it. Torture is shown as (apologies for falling back on D&D alignments but I don't know how else to describe this) a "chaotic good" action under certain circumstances.
What happens in real life, that you never see in the cop shows, is that they've captured a suspect, but nobody knows whether he's the culprit or not, and they torture him and he screams that he doesn't know anything, and they keep torturing him and he keeps screaming that he doesn't know anything, and nobody knows if it's because he's really good at resisting interrogation or because the real culprit is still out there somewhere and they're torturing an innocent person.
Or they torture him and he tells them an address, but it turns out to be wrong, because he really didn't know anything and he just made up an address to get them to stop torturing him.
Like, "innocent until proven guilty" isn't just some bleeding-heart liberal slogan; it's a good policy because police make mistakes. They're only human, and they're required to act on incomplete information most of the time. The chance that you've picked up an innocent person, and the real culprit is still out there somewhere, is pretty high.
But cop shows never end with them getting the wrong guy. They never cart someone off to prison who's still protesting his innocence. The real bad guy always confesses right after the detective explains how she saw through the one mistake in his perfect crime, so the audience can have a sense of closure.
Given that real life never gives us the certainty of a TV show, we should reject the "chaotic good" view of torture. It's not a choice between torturing a guy and letting innocent people die. Some large fraction of the time, torturing the guy gives you worthless information or no information at all, the innocent people die anyway, and you tortured a guy for nothing.. It's not a grey area, it's not a moral dilemma, it's not a difficult choice. Resorting to torture is like selling your soul to the devil for a wooden nickel.
By the way, this is why you shouldn't listen to anybody who tells you that writing fiction isn't important. Storytelling is how you create and influence culture, and culture influences values, and values influence how people vote and what people fight for, which influences history. Not to say you should set out to write polemical fiction: beating readers over the head with a political message makes lousy storytelling. But the values at the core of your work are sure as hell going to find their way into the reader's mind.
What American TV shows of the past few decades had portrayed torture as something the innocent hero suffers at the hands of a villainous government after being mistaken for an enemy of the state? Would there still be as many people supporting it?
Here's something that makes me madder than Bitcoins and iPads put together: America's ongoing, illegal, indefinite-detention-and-torture program.
I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.
-- from "Gitmo Is Killing Me", related by Yemeni prisoner Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel through an Arabic interpreter.
The number one reason I supported Obama was because I thought he would end this. I was wrong.
Remember how in 2011 he tried to transfer the Guantanamo inmates to a prison in Illinois? It would have technically kept his campaign promise to "close Guantanamo", but the issue is whether we're torturing people and holding them without trial, not whether we're doing it in Cuba or Illinois.
And anyway, Congress voted to block funding for the transfer. Remember that? The scare stories about how if we let them off of Cuba they would surely escape and do more terrorism? Like, somehow no prison in the USA was strong enough to hold them?
It was total bullshit; terrorists do not have super-powers. They're not going to burn through the prison walls with laser-vision. They're no harder to keep locked up than any other criminals. Never mind that most of the people in Guantanamo are not terrorists; they're regular middle-eastern dudes with beards who were standing in the wrong place when the Bush administration decided to make a big show of getting tough. Most of them are innocent scapegoats.
Sure, there's some terrorists in with them. You know how we could tell which ones are which?
By reading the charges against them, presenting evidence, and holding fucking trials, like we do with every other crime.
iPads crushed my dream of being a software usability guy.
It's hard for me to find the words to express why, so bear with me while I try to explain what iPads meant for my career.
My professional life in the software industry (first at Humanized, then at Mozilla) was all based around one question. It went something like:
"How can we make computers easier to learn without making them less powerful?"
"How can we give users more power without making their software harder to use?"
By "power" I don't mean gigaflops, I mean something more like the "empowerment" sense of the word. Creative power. The potential of computers to help people create things, to be a producer and not just a consumer of culture, to be smarter and more efficient and more connected and maybe even more able to self-organize and demand change from their governments or whatever. All the potentials that people used to mean when they talked about the "computer revolution".
By making computers easier to use without dumbing them down, that power could be democratized, made accessible to more people. That was my theory, anyway. Thinking about it that way made me feel like I was working on something important. The idea of this search was the source of my job satisfaction.
(Naiive techno-utopianism, in retrospect.)
When the iPad came out, at first I ignored it. Why would anybody want an iPhone that was too big to fit in your pocket and doesn't make phone calls? I had zero interest in iPhones and iPads seemed strictly inferior. I figured they'd disappear without a trace within a month.
When they started getting popular -- when every other company in the industry started scrambling to follow Apple's lead -- I slowly realized the horrifying truth:
The computer industry was no longer interested in searching for a balance between power and usability. The new trend was to make a thing super easy to use by taking away all of the power. Instead of making computers easier to use, they'd give people things that are not really computers anymore, but appliances.
Yeah technically they're "computers" in that they have a Turing-complete CPU inside them. But tablets are what you get if you strip away everything that made me interested in computers in the first place -- the ability to hack the thing, to reprogram it, to run whatever software you want, to use it to make creative works and share them.
Instead, with iPads and the "app store", it's Apple, not you, who decides what software you are allowed to run on this machine that you supposedly own. (Which by the way is far more restrictive than anything Microsoft ever did at its most monopolistic -- at least Microsoft would let you distribute whatever software you wanted for Windows. They might clone your product and crush you if you got too successful, but at least you were allowed to try.)
Also, the touchscreen UI and lack of a real filesystem or decent inter-app communication channels make it terrible for trying to create any kind of content. Trying to type words on it sucks. Trying to draw on it sucks. (Yes, I know you can attach an external keyboard. Congratulations, you've created the world's crappiest laptop.) The touchscreen UI is really only good for poking icons and panning/zooming through static content. It's an interface optimized for passive consumption.
Ironically, when I first heard "Apple is making a tablet" I imagined a thing optimized for drawing on. You know, like with a pressure-sensitive stylus and high-quality art software. Silly me; that's what Apple of 1984, the company focused on education and creativity, would have built. The Apple of 2010 is focused on being the middleman for streaming music, games, and TV shows, so that's what they built. An appliance for consuming streams of corporate-approved entertainment product.
iPads and other tablets are more similar to a new kind of television than to the computer revolution I imagined. The industry's recent obsession with them -- the "post-PC era" -- is a direction I have no interest in following. Feel free to laugh at me for being an old fogey who can't adapt with the changing times, but I wanted to make computers easier to use, not replace them with fancy TVs. If the industry doesn't want that anymore, then maybe I had no place in the industry.
Ultimately, the iPad posed a serious philosophical challenge to my whole narrative about democratizing the creative potential of computers. If the iPad got really popular, if most people saw this new appliance class as an acceptable substitute for a computer, that meant that most people are not interested in hacking or creating -- they're content with a locked-down, corporate-controlled internet media consumption device. The computer revolution I had imagined was never going to happen, because the people I thought I was fighting for didn't want it.
April 2010, when the iPad was released, marked the beginning of the end of my software developer career. I spent another year and a half trying to figure out some way to respond to this philosophical challenge, some way to fix my narrative, to get my job satisfaction back, to imagine a future for myself in that industry. (Tablets were not the only trend driving this; equally distressing was the software industry's move to an advertising-centric model that I find ethically dubious. But that's another blog post.)
By fall of 2011 I had given up. I'd accepted that my dream of being a software usability guy was based on phony assumptions, and that the role I had imagined for myself had no place in the post-PC era. I hung around Mozilla long enough to finish up my projects and then I walked away from the industry.
In short, iPads challenged what I thought computers were all about. They made me re-examine why I was ever interested in computers in the first place. And in that re-examination I realized that most of my reasons were no longer valid.
So maybe it's not quite right to say I "hate" iPads. Maybe I should really be thanking Apple for making me realize that software was not the right career for me and giving me the impetus to break away and search for something new.
You may have seen recently that Bitcoins lost half of their value in one day. This may have frightened you into thinking that Bitcoins are no longer a safe retirement plan! You might be thinking that Bitcoin is nothing more than an interesting experiment in solving the "double spend" problem of virtual currency without a centralized verification service. You might even think Bitcoin is a giant scam designed to take money from naiive libertarians!
Fear not. I'm here to reassure you that Bitcoins are the future! Just consider all the advantages that Bitcoin has over your precious "fiat currency" with its "governments" and their "laws" and "regulations":
A great incentive to learn computer security and maintenance, since you lose all your money if your hard drive crashes!
Exchange rate vs fiat currency fluctuates by orders of magnitude from day to day, making it impossible to plan purchases or budget anything!
Great for money laundering, black-market purchases of illegal goods, and income tax evasion! You can anonymously buy illegal drugs, child pornography, and bomb-making materials!
If you want to buy food or clothes or pay rent you'll have to exchange your Bitcoins for dollars first, but this is just a temporary inconvenience until MacDonalds and Wal-Mart start accpeting Bitcoins, which they'll have to start doing any day now or they'll be left out in the cold when Bitcoin replaces all government fiat currency!
Nobody can help you if you're a victim of fraud. Fraud prevention would require non-anonymous transactions and/or a central authority to resolve disputes, both of which are contrary to FREEDOM! Fraud is just part of The Free Market, so get used to it! Caveat Emptor, statists!
Mathematically guaranteed to be deflationary, since there's a finite supply and Bitcoins will go out of circulation over time due to computer failures. Nobody in this utopian virtual economy of the future will want to spend Bitcoins on goods or services when they could be hoarding their Bitcoins to sell later! Don't you know that "incentives to hoard" are an important part of any exchange medium?
Since they're super cheap right now, this is a great time to trade all your fiat currency for Bitcoins. Do it now, so you can get in on the next bubble! Wait did I say bubble? I meant completely justified increase in value, driven by all the people abandoning fiat currency for Bitcoins! A heavily hyped-up asset whose price shoots up by thousands of percent in a short time with no change to the underlying fundamentals is always a good stable currency and not a speculative bubble at all! The one who benefits from the next price increase will definitely be you, and not one of the early adopters who's been hoarding massive amounts of BTC since the easy-mining days, waiting for a chance to cash out. Listen to those guys, they're smart. When they tell you to buy BTC and thereby increase the value of the BTC they already hold, they only have your best interests at heart.
Be part of an exciting online community! Join your fellow internet anarchists and Ron Paul fans and have fun ranting about the evils of the Federal Reserve, "fiat currency" (AKA any money not made of gold), and "coercion" (AKA living in a country with laws). Hoard ammunition and canned food to prepare for the imminent collapse of the U.S. economy due to "socialism" (AKA any government that collects taxes to pay for services).
Did you know that dollars haven't been backed by gold since the 1970s? They're, like, just pieces of paper with no inherent value, man! Did I just blow your mind??? They're "fiat currency" which means the government could print as many as they want! And I bet the government is just itching for a chance to undermine its own authority by intentionally making its own currency worthless with massive economy-destroying inflation! They're probably going to start doing that any day now! Wake up, sheeple!
But with Bitcoins, the supply is limited to 21 million! That's all the Bitcoins that will ever exist, thanks to the arbitrary will of some anonymous computer geek nobody's ever met who goes by the pseudonym of "Satoshi Nakamoto"! That means that Bitcoins are literally as good as gold, because the value of a currency depends entirely on scarcity and not on what people are willing to trade you for it (Don't listen to those economists who say the gold standard is a stupid idea. They're trying to trick you!)
Feel like a big shot when your "mining rig" (thousands of dollars worth of graphics cards and power supplies) manages to cryptographically "mine" its first bitcoin after running for just a month! Sure you've lost money, but everybody on Reddit will be real impressed!
You might think all the decentralization would make Bitcoins inconvenient to use, but don't worry: the fans of decentralization have settled on a single centralized place to trade your decentralized currency! It's called MTGOX which stands for Magic: The Gathering Online Exchange (because it was created for trading Magic cards and then pivoted to trading Bitcoins) and despite its reputation for horrible lag, a huge majority of all exchange between BTC and USD go through MTGOX -- giving MTGOX all the power of a central bank, with none of the benefits and none of the responsibility. MTGOX may even be manipulating the Bitcoin exchange rate for their own financial benefit.
There is no way the government could ever crack down Bitcoins, because they're anonymous and decentralized! If they shut down one Bitcoin exchange, another will arise to take its place! Viva la revolucion! Nobody can stop our glorious free market! Sure, they could crack down on the endpoints where people exchange BTC for US dollars, making it impossible to exchange Bitcoins for goods and services from the real-life economy, but who cares! We don't want your worthless US dollars anyway! We can get everything we need on our online black market! (All a healthy economy needs is drugs, porn, server space, and Reddit karma, right?)
Never pay taxes again! When the IRS tries to collect, tell them that your income was $0 last year! Since you took payment only in pretend internet money and not dollars, they can't tax you anything! There is no way the IRS will charge you taxes based on an estimate of the dollar value of your income, nor will they be able take your ass to court for tax evasion when you refuse to pay up. No, the IRS will be totally stymied by a simple technicality. Bitcoins are untaxable!
Learn the hard way why the real-world financial system has all of the regulations and safeguards that it has built up over the last few centuries! Sure you could learn about speculative currency bubbles, pump-and-dump schemes, and Ponzi scams from a book, but isn't it more exciting to be a part of it yourself and learn from first-hand experience?
That's why Bitcoin is sure to replace all government fiat currency any day, I tell you, any day now! You'd be a fool not to trade your dollars for BTC.
"One of my professors used the theory about why Chinese work harder than Americans in his class. He went through the entire script that Chinese worked the rice fields and that it took them six hours or something to get a result, while the US Farmers had to work simply 40 hours per week to get results in the wheat fields. Is there an explanation as to why the Chinese work harder, or is this just a statement based off prejudice?"
You're skipping a step here. Before asking "why do the Chinese work harder" you should stop and say "Hey, is it a true fact that Chinese people work harder?". A lot of people skip this step, in all sorts of contexts. They jump straight to "why" before they check whether the "fact" they're explaining is actually a fact.
And if you ask "Do Chinese people work harder?" then you should ask "Compared to who?" And "How do we measure how hard someone works?" Average hours worked per week? Worker productivity per hour? Where do we get the data to make this comparison? Are we talking about Chinese people in China or Chinese-Americans?
If your professor actually said that US farmers only had to work 40 hours a week in the wheat fields, he's probably full of shit. The 40-hour work week we have in America has nothing to do with how long our farming ancestors had to work -- it was a hard-won achievement of the labor movement during the industrial revolution, along with a lot of other worker treatment standards that we take for granted today.
If workers in China work longer hours (under worse conditions, for less pay) compared to workers in America, it's probably not because they want to -- it's because China has shitty worker protection laws (ironic, for a country that still claims to be Communist), and because it's got a ton of people from poor rural provinces competing for a limited number of factory jobs in the cities. If you're trying to explain a difference between the hours people work in China vs America, there's no need to invoke ancient agricultural habits -- look at labor laws, look at political systems, look at basic economics.
If you're talking about Chinese-Americans versus other groups of Americans, then you bet your ass this is a statement based off prejudice. To see how the prejudice got started, all you have to do is look at racist 19th-century political cartoons and the arguments supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The following is a very, very rough overview of this period of history. Sushu and Bankuei both know a lot more about it than I do. (Maybe they will add some details?)
Lots of Chinese people came to America in the 19th century trying to escape poverty and earn some money to send back to their families. White Americans wanted cheap labor power (to work in the mines and to build the transcontinental railroad, among other things) and could get away with paying Chinese immigrants shitty wages because the immigrants had little to no negotiating power.
But at the same time as we wanted cheap labor, white Americans were scared of Chinese people because oh my god, they look different and they write different and they have a different religion and they wear their hair funny (queues were mandatory on men until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 or so).
We were so freaked out that we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese people, unlike any other nationality, were forbidden from immigrating to the US. This lasted from 1882 until fucking 1943. We also passed a bunch of laws banning Chinese people from professions that we thought were too good for them. (You know the stereotype of Chinese people running laundromats? It's kind of an old one, I think it's finally dying out, but the reason that started was because America had legally excluded Chinese people from so many other professions that in some cases laundry was all they were allowed to do.)
This was all justified by, first of all, paranoid ranting about how the Chinese immigrants were all secretly preparing America for invasion and conquest by China (aka "The Yellow Peril" aka "White people's fear that they would be treated the same way they'd been treating everyone else for the past few centuries")
...and second, by making white people afraid that Chinese immigrants were going to steal their jobs, because Chinese people could work longer hours for lower pay, because unlike white people Chinese people had no wives or children to support and were happy living in conditions of unimaginable squalor and were generally not quite human. Conveniently ignoring the fact that it was the white business owners who were making them living in conditions of unimaginable squalor by forcing them to work long hours for low pay in the first place! And they didn't have wives or children with them because the racist immigration laws had forbade them to bring their wives and children with them from China!
This is how racism works: it creates its own self-justifying circular logic.
If you dig into how a lot of stereotypes got started, they're basically "The majority group passed laws to keep you poor, and now we make fun of you for being poor." Like, you know the stereotypes about what kinds of food African-Americans supposedly like? The traditional cuisine of black people in the south was the result of making the best they had with cheap ingredients, because they couldn't afford to eat anything better, because centuries of slavery and Jim Crow laws had made sure they were poor.
Over time, the Chinese stereotype slowly morphed into the more positive, but still prejudicial attitude of "Oh those Asians, they're so hard-working". But America's racism towards underpaid immigrant workers hasn't improved that much since then; it's just that most of the hate has transferred from Chinese immigrants to Hispanic "illegals".
Even though it seems positive on the surface, "Chinese people are hardworking" has a dark side -- it's called the "model minority myth". It implies that if any other ethnic group hasn't done as well as the Chinese, it's their own fault for being lazy and they just need to try harder.
Looking over it again, my biggest regret is that it feels too rushed. Ten pages was a little too short for this story idea. As a result, the art and the dialog both feel a bit cramped. I'm pondering maybe doing a "director's cut" where I expand it to 14 or 15 pages, just to give it a little more room to breathe and develop.
It turns out that only four of us could make it. And it's just as well, because they only gave us an 8-foot-by-10-foot space to play in, squeezed between the giant ugly fiberglass baseball glove and the giant ugly fiberglass Coke bottle. With the size of our drums, there wouldn't have been room for a fifth person!
We put on Happi coats over our aprons, because it was hella cold and windy up there.
They asked us to play between innings 1 and 2, and between innings 2 and 3. We were like "How long is an inning?" and they gave us a look like "how stupid are you" and said "Uhh, as long as it takes! Keep an eye on the scoreboard!"
They also told us that we only had 1 minute and 45 seconds to play each time. That posed a problem -- we don't know any songs that short! Putting our heads together and rehearsing a bit with a stopwatch, we figured out that if we played the intro of Kenka Yatai, then skipped all the solos and went straight to the finale, it would be about right. And it was! We ended just on time.
It was weird playing without really being able to see our audience, but they pointed video cameras at us and put it up on the Jumbotron. So we were playing in front of several thousand people. That's a first! I got an email later from an ex-Mozilla coworker who was watching the game with his family and recognized me. It felt pretty great when we finished and this huge cheer came up out of the stadium.
We didn't stick around to see how the game went, because we had to wheel all the drums out (through the crowds -- all these kids were running around and I kept worrying we were gonna run somebody's foot over with our carts), load 'em into the van, and head home. (Puerto Rico won.)
The thing I'm least happy about with the finished story is how cramped it feels. Honestly, the idea that I picked was a bit too complex for ten pages. But I didn't have time to think of a simpler one, so I had to go with it. As a result, some pages are overcrowded. Pages 2 and 3 are both nine-panelers, which is seriously pushing it.
Working under a length limit was good for me, though. Spilling over to an eleventh page was not an option. (Good thing, too, given how long ten pages took.) It helped me learn to think of dialog as a limited resource -- you can only squeeze so many lines into a page, and only so many words into a line. But there's so much that needs doing! Backstory exposition, character development, plot advancement, expressing conflict, telling jokes, etc etc. Spread that duty across the limited lines of dialog and every line has to be carrying a lot of weight. Double or triple duty.
I don't think my dialog in this story is particularly great, but at least I've eliminated all needless lines. Dialog is almost always better when it's shorter.
Finish Your Shit
It's not good to go through life with one "master" story you're perpetually "working on". Because then every idea you have wants to get into that story. They have nowhere else to go. All those extra ideas clinging on to the sides of the story like refugees on the last bus out of town, making it unweildly, weighing it down. The story becomes too big to finish, so you're always doing it but it's never done.
Cough, Yuki Hoshigawa, cough. (The irony is that Yuki Hoshigawa was itself originally supposed to be a quick project to do for practice before I got into the big story I really wanted to do, which was my Epic Space Opera.)
It's better to have multiple smaller stories so ideas can go into each one as they fit and no one story gets overly bloated. I only thought of "We Can Regrow That For You" a few months ago, and now it's done! That's a good feeling. I haven't had to give it years of rent-free lodging in my brain.
Me and Sushu are still figuring out how we work together on creative projects. We've tried to do some before which kind of fell apart. But I think we're starting to figure out what it takes to make it work: We have to know which one of us is in charge of the vision. The other one just helps with the execution. In this case, the comic was my baby and Sushu helped me execute. The Chinese learning game got a lot easier to work on once we accepted that it's Sushu's baby and I'm just executing.
Sometimes collaboration creates something mysterious. Sometimes Sushu saw something in my sketch while inking it that I didn't mean to put there. I didn't mean to give the waitress on page 8 a huge ridiculous bow tie, but Sushu thought she saw one, and somehow it works, so there it is. Who created that bow tie? Neither of us did! It's spooky.
Like, duh, right? Fiction is made up. But it still surprises me how fake everything about my story is.
Most of the writing I've done in my life has been nonfiction -- blog posts, argumentative essays, lab reports, expository technical writing, etc. There's a set of facts which are the fixed stars in your firmament; your task is to put them in order and explain them in a coherent and maybe entertaining way.
And when you read fiction, if it's any good, you experience it like a true thing. Like you're peeking into another world where all this stuff is really happening. It seems like there's a fixed set of facts there, and the author is just guiding us through it. And fanfic writers sure do care about getting the "facts" of their canon right.
So there's a misconception I had when I started trying to write fiction that it would be like this: there's a world in my imagination, I open a channel to it somehow, observe events there, gather a set of "facts", and then guide the reader through those "facts" in a logical way.
But no. Everything about telling a story is artificial. Everything. There's no facts. There's no alternate world. There's just me, drawing a bunch of lines, and making a bunch of decisions about what I want my lines to express.
Nothing is sacred. Every time I catch myself thinking of a certain plot point as fixed and necessary, I'm wrong - there's always something else could happen instead. The order of events is flexible. Characters' personalities are flexible. Basic assumptions about the setting are flexible.
It's like sculpting with mist. There's just nothing solid there.
If the end result resembles naturalism, if the reader believes for a moment that the markings on paper represent a consistent alternate world, it's only because the magic trick worked.
This means that the writer's experience is never going to match the reader's experience. The writer doesn't get to have the reader's enjoyment of discovering this world - no more than a a magician can be fooled by a trick while they're performing it.
The Character Just Took Over, Man
Speaking of magic tricks: Sometimes authors talk about a character having a mind of its own and telling the author where the story should go.
I'm not sure what's going on there, man. Maybe if you're writing a new entry in a series and have some long-established characters and you need to stay true to them. But when you're writing a character for the first time? You decide who the character is. Whatever you make them do, that's who they are. For any given character there are infinite possible interpretations, which you narrow down with each word or action you give them.
I do think that sometimes you write a line for a character and suddenly the character clicks, like you just discovered who they are. That's happened to me a lot. With role-playing game characters especially. But the character still doesn't have "a mind of their own". It's just that you discovered a characterization that works for you.
That said, consistent characterization is really fucking important. Nothing ruins a story faster than character motivations that don't make sense, or that are plain missing. Bogus science can be hand-waved, but if your people don't act like people, nothing can save your story. So out of all the magic tricks, "this character has a mind of their own" is the most important illusion to create.
Most of Writing is Rewriting
The reader experiences the story beginning to end, as a series of fictional events. The writer experiences it first draft to last draft -- as a series of decisions to be made, blanks to be filled, plot holes to be fixed, etc.
The story would ALWAYS be better with another rewrite. But at some point you have to call it good enough and start drawing. One good thing about working under a deadline is that the deadline forces you not to be a perfectionist about the rewriting.
My original idea changed a lot in the development. Like, the first draft was just Zach and assorted background characters. Julia and Pedro didn't exist yet.
I rejected my original ending for being all talk with nothing interesting going on visually. I think this was the right choice. Repeat it with me: Comics are a visual medium. If you have a whole page of talking heads to draw, something is wrong with your script.
After I wrote a better ending, I realized I had some empty roles to fill, so Julia and Pedro were invented to fill them. I think it's a way better story with them in it.
The original idea, the inspiration, is what gives you motivation to start working, but don't cling to it. You'll have other ideas. Sometimes the original idea is just a stepping stone to something better.
A lot of story problems are the result of seams between different drafts -- this page will be at revision 5 and this other page at revision 6, as it were, and they don't quite line up. Sometimes a page is full of holdovers, stuff that was needed in revision 5 but doesn't matter in revision 6. Sometimes the holdovers stay in for a while before you notice them. It really helps to have someone else read it over and point out the seam for you.
Like, in the first draft, it was important to show Zach interviewing for the job and getting hired. That took up page 1 and part of 2. The interview stuff stayed there for several revisions before I finally realized that it was a relic. There was no need to see the interview: I could tighten things up a lot if Zach wasjust already part of the company when the story opens. Several panels on the finished pages 1 and 2 were originally drawn for the interview scene and then repurposed -- that's how late in the process I figured this out.
An unexpected benefit of drawing comics is that it makes you look more carefully at the world around you. Because you might need to draw anything. Random everyday objects you've never tried to draw before, that would not usually be a subject of art: there they are in the background of a panel! Better find one and figure out how to draw it.
Walking around town when my brain is in "comics mode", I see things I wouldn't normally see. A person with a cool hairdo that I want to swipe for a character. A neat old building that would look good in the background of a panel. The shape of a tree. Etc.
On Science Fiction
The science fiction that interests me most is what-if stories about social change. Which means you need four parts:
the what-if: the new technology or whatever and the rules for how it works
the society: how does this new whatever do to affect the tangle of unspoken rules and assumptions we call culture
the characters: what do the changes to technology and society mean for the characters
the themes: what are you trying to say about, you know, the human condition and stuff. Hopefully something more interesting than just "oh no, this technology/social trend is really bad". Write a blog post if that's all you want to say
The themes and characters are what the story's about. The what-if and the society belong in the background.
A lot of really shitty science fiction has been written by writing the what-if and the society and ignoring themes and characters.
Balancing themes, characters, and world-building is really hard! It's hard enough to get one of those things right, and when you try to do them together, sometimes they fight each other. Science-fiction fans, including myself, love to nitpick stories where the world-building isn't quite consistent. But trying to do it myself has given me a newfound sympathy. I'm starting to think it's a valid artistic choice to favor the emotional impact of the story over the consistency of made-up science if the two are irreconcilable. Nerd heresy, I know.
Will The Audience Get It?
There were a lot of things I wanted to say in "We Can Regrow That For You". Themes and ideas I didn't have space to explore in depth. So I just hinted at them. I have no idea how many readers will pick up on the hints, but they're there.
Readers hate being bashed over the head with something obvious, right? I figure it's better to hint at things and let the reader feel smart when they figure it out. Instead of telling the story directly, you describe the edges of a story-shaped hole and let them fill in the blanks.
That's what "Show, Don't Tell" is about, right? It's really more like "Show them one thing by telling them another thing"
The story, in my head, is a cloud of marvelous possibilities. I hope that in the reader's head, it becomes a cloud of marvelous possibilities as well. But in between, it has to be flattened to pass through the narrow, limited, linear medium of scratch marks on paper, that can only hint at the story I imagined. I can only hope that whatever story the reader creates in their head, inspired by my scratch marks, is meaningful to them.
Today (a week past the due date) I finally turned in the finished version of "We Can Regrow That For You", a 10-page science-fiction comic, which will be published in the upcoming anthology Sci-Fi San Francisco by Skodaman Press.
This is kinda my first "real" comic, in that it's a finished, self-contained, original story, that is being published in print by somebody I don't know. I'm even getting paid (a little) for it!
Finishing it was an ordeal. My plan was to get it done before leaving on my trip to New Jersey-New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts, but I started too late, had to bring the work with me, and ended up spending almost the entire week desperately trying to finish the comic! I'm afraid I was rather rude to all the people I visited, trying to multitask between visiting them and inking pages with a stylus on my laptop.
It didn't help that I was doing it in GIMP. Screw you, GIMP.
Today was a week past the due date. I really, really should have started earlier. Luckily, it was still accepted.
I still wouldn't be done if Sushu hadn't volunteered to step in and save my butt. Besides proofreading and feedback, she also did the majority of the inking and shading. The actual lines you'll see on the finished page are mostly hers. I asked the publishers to please put both our names in the byline, since it turned into a team project.