A brief interruption from your regularly scheduled political programming to discuss The Great British Baking Show.
I want to make the argument that this show is genuinely great. Not just a feel-good cooking show oozing with quaint British charm, not just a rousing volley in the post-ironic/new-sincerity wholesome media wave, but something that is worth watching for its own merits.
Before I go further, let me drop these opinions to provide some context:
1. reality tv is a cancer developed from our collective apathy and narcissism, a toxic genre that preys upon humanity’s basest instincts for voyeurism.
2. the skyrocketing popularity of cooking shows is something that future historians will write about as evidence that we, as a society, have lost touch with ourselves and each other as human beings. it is an absurd reality where we have somehow come to prefer watching people prepare and consume gourmet food rather than enriching our own lives, particularly as a billion people go hungry and obesity is the greatest threat to our longevity.
The Great British Baking Show is both a cooking show and reality tv. I believe it dodges all the failures of its peers and predecessors with a combination of sharp but minimalist editing, great casting for participants, and by letting humans be humans wherever possible. What results is a heartwarming and enriching composition that is genuinely educational at times.
Paul and Mary are model judges. Their criticisms are always fair, succinct but dense with expertise about the craft, rarely personal or overly familiar, but still sensitive and human. They never shame or twist the knife. They genuinely want everyone to do their very best. This is exactly what constructive criticism ought to look like.
There is never any mention of rewards or prizes. If there’s money on the line, it’s never spoken of. There’s no gimmicks or mechanics to the competition. The only thing that matters is making the judges happy, and this works because the participants have such obvious respect and admiration for Paul and Mary.
The participants love the craft for its own sake, and this means there is zero need to generate drama or force conflict. You get to watch creative, talented people work hard. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed. You get to know them through their work, not as some trope pulled from a hat by the producers.
I recommend this show without qualification. It restored my faith in humanity a little bit, and that is something I find myself needing quite a bit recently.
Here is my surely unpopular opinion on the matter.
Breath of the Wild isn’t Zelda.
It’s Skyrim with much better weapons, movement, and navigation. It’s Horizon Zero Dawn minus badass enemies or a world dripping with history. It’s The Witcher with beautiful particle effects but god-awful voice acting and a terrible story.
In other words, it’s another open-world sandbox RPG. A lot of people wanted exactly that. I don’t begrudge that desire. It’s a perfectly fine game. But it’s not Zelda.
I have three reasons for saying this: music, themes, and dungeons.
Zelda is nothing without its music. This has been true for every worthy entry in the series. Breath of the Wild is silent. Barren. You roam across vast plains and climb tall mountains to the tune of absolutely nothing. You stroll through towns while a faint tune drifts in and out, devoid of any worthwhile melody. What little music does appear is yet another rehash of the same melodies from Ocarina of Time.
Then there is the total absence of any musical instrument as a usable item – a constant in nearly every Zelda ever made. In particular, for Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, music is itself a central mechanic in both games. You use the ocarina everywhere. To teleport. To trigger events and quests. To solve puzzles. It marks your progression through the game. By virtue of playing the tunes so frequently, you instinctively memorize them, searing them into your brain as an explicit part of the experience.
More importantly, music is just omnipresent in Zelda, constantly playing, setting the tone wherever you are. The melodies are strong, unique, and memorable. It is not part of the background or periphery, but front and center at all times. You walk into a shop and hear a cheery browsing tune. You step into Zora’s Domain and it just feels like you’re surrounded by water. The Song of Storms feels hypnotic and cyclical like the windmill you learn it in. Epona’s Song evokes the warmth and devotion of a loyal steed. These songs are iconic and unforgettable. Zelda completely relies on its music to build its themes.
Every Zelda has distinct themes. Complete, immersive concepts, either to the whole game, or in parts and pieces within the game. Windwaker is a flooded waterworld where you sail everywhere and use a conductor’s baton to control the wind. There’s the light and dark world of Link to the Past where every object in the game has a demented counterpart. Majora’s Mask is obsessed with time, and everything is in service to the manipulation of the days and understanding of schedules and routines. And of course, Ocarina of Time’s child/adult paradigm.
As an aside, my favorite interpretation of Ocarina of Time is that it’s actually a coming-of-age story where a young, naive child goes on an heartfelt adventure, only to wake up as an adult and realize the world is a terrifying and chaotic mess.
There are no discernable themes in Breath of the Wild. People keep describing it as post-apocalyptic, but this is simply not the case. It is a lush, bright world where once in a while you come across unexplained mossy rubble and the same damn model of broken-down machines over and over. The tiny populations of Hyrule are all quite happy in their lives and seem to be carrying on with relatively little worry or internal conflict. There are some drones and robot spiders with lasers but mostly it is goblins and lizards. Oh, and there are fugly animal gundams piloted by ghosts.
Which brings us to dungeons.
One of the strangest facts about Breath of the Wild is that there are no caves. Not a single one. Barely even a crevice inside of a mountain. Yet, the story goes that Shigeru Miyamoto’s inspiration for the first Zelda was his childhood exploration of forests and caves, diving deep into mysterious and unknown territory not knowing what he might find.
At its best, that is exactly what Zelda’s dungeons provide. This sense of delving further into a labyrinth, not knowing what lays around the next corner, the uncertainty of where to go next, forcing you to study the map to make sense of what you might have missed or which room holds the key you need to go further, the excitement of finding a brand new item that will change the way you traverse the environment around you and the world as a whole. All set within the theme of the dungeon, which itself is a piece of the world’s theme.
The shrines and divine beasts in Breath of the Wild evoke none of this. They are austere laboratories that rarely challenge the mind, that offer no sense of mystery or curiosity, rarely providing meaningful rewards. They are a shallow, hollow parody of Zelda’s oldest feature, lacking tension, joy, or personality.
It seems unfair to skewer Breath of the Wild for this, because I would hardly praise Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, or the Windwaker for the quality of their dungeons. They often relied on contrived mechanics and useless, even comically stupid single-purpose items. But at least they tried. They knew that this is what Zelda is about, that no other game has ever successfully replicated.
Breath of the Wild is not a bad game. It is a good game with many merits and many flaws. But it is not Zelda.
This weekend, I built a prototype for a kind of news aggregation I’ve had on my mind for a while, which I’ve called Panorama.
The idea is fairly straightforward: look for all possible articles on a specific story, across many different sources, then put all the headlines in one place, in chronological order. That’s pretty much it.
For my proof of concept, I picked Michael Flynn, for a few reasons:
1. His brief tenure made it easy to scope down the time range
2. It’s not an ongoing controversy (Turkey lobbying aside), and a relatively self-contained story with a beginning an end is easier to grok
3. Responses to the scandal are mostly polarized
The notion is that, by placing all news sources together, trends will emerge. It should be possible to identify an agenda, for bias to be (more) self-evident when placed in the context of news as a whole.
In terms of methodology, some things worth making note of:
This was all collected by hand. There are certainly errors.
I did a lot of googling and did my best to find every relevant article on the Washington Post, Breitbart, and the New York Times from the election until now. Other sources are just articles I found along the way.
I did not include syndicated articles – AP, Reuters, UPI, etc.. These articles don’t really represent what I’m interested in. Also, it turns out that Breitbart buys almost every syndicated article, no matter how redundant, so there are hundreds of these articles just for the last month of news on Flynn. I assume this is for SEO purposes, since it makes Breitbart much more likely to show up on any given search on a topic.
Just getting reliable publication times can be a huge pain. For all of these, I had to open up the source for a timestamp – sometimes I could get an ISO string, other times I’d have to convert from a plaintext time.
Some articles just don’t have accurate publication times recorded, e.g. there are articles about Flynn’s resignation showing up before he’s actually resigned.
One of the understandable but misguided responses that Democrats had during the election was that “American never stopped being great” or “America is still great”.
I get the sentiment. It feels like a natural response to MAGA. It made for a heartwarming speech from Michelle at the DNC. But it is very much the kind of fairy tail that the left must divest itself from going forward.
The cold, hard truth is that America was never great.
We’re a country whose initial wealth came straight from the blood and sweat of slaves, whose children we now imprison at ten times the rate of any other racial or ethnic group in the nation.
Our land was stolen from Native Americans, whose genocide was actively sought by our founding fathers and early presidents. The most aggressive and murderous of those, we still honor with a place on our currency.
Our dominance in the 20th century has nothing to do with our democracy, our capitalism, or our Judeo-Christian values, but the mere fortune of being separated from two world wars by two giant oceans, the pure luck of sitting on enormous quantities of oil that we discovered right as we entered the industrial revolution.
Stop painting the past as a place that we should have any desire to return to. Cease this pretense that our wealth and stability are the result of any genius or invention of our own. It is an insult to the memory of the many people who have suffered and died at the hands of American injustice.
No, America was never great. Not once. Not ever.
But it can be.
We should look forward. The future is a place of enormous possibility. We have incredible luck on our sides. A rare chance to write our own destiny. Fleeting, slippery though it might be, we can turn the tides of climate change, of racial, social, and economic injustice, of bureaucratic gridlock, nepotism, and corruption.
The window is closing. A decade or two of inaction, and our chance will be gone. We’ll find ourselves cast back onto the roiling seas, our fates determined more by the whims of weather and inheritance than our own designs.
Westworld might be one of my favorite shows ever. It is a fully-fleshed out idea executed by an ultra-competent team with a clear vision. There are so many nuances to its universe. It raises all sorts of juicy questions about consciousness, power, and storytelling – without being glib or self-absorbed. Its premise is damn near perfect – plausible to the point of being vaguely familiar to concepts we already know in the real world, foreign enough to merit curiosity, but not so much that it competes with its characters and arcs. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
There’ve been so many creations in the last few years that have raised the bar for what we can hope to find in our media. I feel like we might be in the middle of a renaissance of film and television.
Mad Max is probably my favorite action movie ever. It Follows is easily the best horror movie in several years, and Stranger Things clearly builds on the elements that made classics like The Thing and Alien so good. Black Mirror is so damn prescient and thought-provoking, and never more timely and relevant. Rick & Morty is as funny as it is creative. Game of Thrones is possibly the first genuinely respectable fantasy series.
There’s fabulous shows for kids, too. My generation occasionally likes to get nostalgic about the cartoons we grew up with, but nothing I grew up on holds a candle to Adventure Time, Bravest Warriors, or The Last Airbender. These are actually great shows that don’t treat their younger audiences like unthinking krill.
This, for me, is a bright light in the recent darkness. I’ll take whatever I can get.
1. the term itself is overloaded & ambiguous
2. it implies a false binary between real and fake
3. sometimes when we say fake news we actually mean propaganda
4. poorly handled but factually correct news was at least as damaging in this election as fake news – e.g. instant media freakout over Comey
Nonetheless, fake news is a major problem. I personally hadn’t considered its relevance until the last few months but it fits right in with my current favorite narrative that the relationship between news and social media is toxic. Depending on where you get your news, you could be living in a completely separate reality from everyone around you. Facebook already demonstrated that you can dramatically influence mood and opinion based on the general tone and content of your feed.
To up the stakes, the intelligence community is on the record – multiple times this year – in saying that there are other countries actively promoting fake news in the US. This is one of those issues that i cannot understand why it isn’t front-and-center on every outlet, on repeat.
This kind of attack is absolutely trivial. Botnets are dirt cheap – you can get thousands of computers signing up for accounts on every platform, promoting a simple, unified message. single individuals have been doing this with spam since the beginning of the Internet. this is effectively state-sponsored spam, but instead of ads for dick pills we’re getting propaganda about our election.
Part of me wonders if this isn’t just karma for Stuxnet, PRISMA, and the countless other violations of global trust from the NSA.
Facebook and Google might be more technologically sophisticated than what Russia and China have at their disposal currently, but the notion that Facebook alone can handle this problem is unrealistic. We cannot ask corporations to do battle with other countries and hope that they’ll stay on our side.
We’ve evolved into a system where quality journalism is worth less than clickbait. That isn’t the fault of mainstream media or alternative news or any nation-state. I doubt anyone dreamed up our current state of affairs, saying “yeah I’d love to see a landscape of news where everything is reduced to all-caps headlines paired with evocative stock photos and investigative journalism is nearly extinct”.
But this is where we are. We should not be surprised that there are people taking advantage of this state of affairs.
I have friends that identify as part of the alt-right. I would like to think that I understand their reasons for identifying with the movement. It is a fact that not all of them are racists or sexists. But the window for immunity from association is closing.
This is a movement whose strongest catalysts are actually racist, literally sexist, seriously anti-Semitic, genuinely bigoted. Every single day, Trump names a new cabinet member that is at best, deeply questionable in their commitment to serve all Americans, and at worst, shows active disdain for minorities or anyone who disagrees with them. We have not gone a single day without new revelations about people fundamental to the alt-right movement who are waving loud and proud the banner of white nationalism.
I want to empathize. I want to humanize. I want to understand. But the alt-right – questionable as it was before – is quickly becoming synonymous with white supremacy. We are entering into territory where it is supremely difficult for me to give the benefit of the doubt. And that makes it all the more challenging to know what to do.
There is an ongoing debate in the left, right now, about what conclusions to take away from this.
To my dismay, I am seeing a lot of folks double-down on their contempt for the Trump voter. The ideological divide in this country has never been larger, and there does not seem to be much hope of closing that gap right now. I am genuinely concerned that we could see violence of consequence in the next decade, given our current arms race of outrage and other-ing of entire demographics.
What has helped me reach an understanding of how someone could ever have voted for Trump, is realizing exactly how much they hated Hillary. That, in hindsight, was my largest mistaken assumption over the course of the election. Now, I will continue to argue that the hatred of her is totally unwarranted, arbitrary, and augmented by (if not rooted in) sexism. But in the final days of the election, we had:
– Comey’s absurd double-blunder, wherein he causes a media firestorm over literally nothing, and then further enhances the perception of corruption by retracting it days before the election
– Fox News running a false story based on a tip from an anonymous FBI employee that Hillary was being indicted. This ran for an entire day.
– An endless stream of emails from WikiLeaks. While none of these contained much information of consequence, they drew attention, fueled speculation, and plenty of them were vague enough to inspire all manner of conspiracy theory.
Every one of Trump’s horrifying tirades was buffered on each side by a controversy from Hillary. Yes, this is a false equivalence of the highest order. It’s an insult that we would ever compare the two as equals. But the fact remains: there was a compelling and legible narrative from the right, readily available for all.
What was the narrative from the left?
For all our talk of inclusiveness and equality, what tangible vision of change did we offer for rural working-class Americans? To the person who does not see climate change as an imminent threat, who does not know any black or hispanic or Muslim Americans and thus has little reason to care about how we treat them, who does not see sexism as a relevant force in the story of their lives, whose quality of life is more immediately threatened by the price of gas than nearly anything else – what did we offer?
Look, I’m as bleeding heart liberal as you get. I believe firmly in the policies of the left to bring meaningful, positive change to people in every walk of life.
But my belief in this stems from a vivd, tangible concept of what these possible futures look like. My fear of climate change is rooted in a very clear image of a world with a billion more refugees. My love for basic income stems from an understanding of how soon robots are going to be replacing all of our unskilled labor. My passion for feminism and anti-racism comes from listening and hearing stories from people I care about, learning the ways that my friends have suffered at the hands of bigotry and stereotypes.
You cannot expect people to just get it. Nothing in this world is as obvious or clear-cut as we like to think. It is on us to explain ourselves, to justify our ideas, to fill in the blanks, to populate the imaginations of people across the world so that we can have a shared vision, a unified goal.
It is time for the left to take up the burden of proof and run with it.
Facebook is a horribly under-developed platform for discussion and engagement.
Anyone who has spent time on forums, blogs, chat rooms, Slack – anywhere else, really – knows there are a wealth of simple features that would be really useful and powerful.
We need something, anything to alleviate this cramped hellscape of noisy presentation, constant misunderstandings due to limited tools for expression, and complete dearth of tools for curation and moderation. This is where important conversations are happening nowadays, and we deserve a platform that is capable of far more than what it currently offers.
Basic rich-text formatting. Allow bold, italic, underline, and anchors (inline links) for everything. For top-level posts, bulleted/numbered lists and blockquotes. That’s all you need.
Inline images for posts. One image preview shoved at the bottom of a post is not enough. Obviously problematic for comments, but we should be encouraging high quality top-level posts.
Locking posts. Sometimes threads have gone to shit and just need to end. Thread necromancy is fun for memories and jokes but annoying for heated or controversial discussions that just won’t die.
Deeper nesting of comment replies. Even just one more level would go a long way.
Sort comments on posts by replies, reactions, or timestamp. Provide more ways to sift through the noise.
Emoji reactions to comments. Emoji add bandwidth, empathy, and humor.
Emoji reactions to paragraphs or phrases. Like Medium’s highlight feature, except actually useful and fun.
Sharing for comments. A single comment can be the best part of a thread. You can link directly to comments, but this is awkward and unreliable.
Leave a placeholder text when comments are deleted. Threads become unintelligible when it isn’t clear a part of the conversation has disappeared. Indicate whether the comment was deleted by the author of the post vs. a page admin vs. the author of the comment.
Move Like and Reply to the left or right of comments. Replace text with icons. Vertical space is a premium and for any post longer than 3 lines, this is wasted space and noise.
Hide name / profile picture / timestamp for successive comments by the same author. It’s noisy and makes it much harder to read long threads.
Allow highlighted / sticky comments. Let authors select a comment that appears first to set the tone of the conversation. Many blogs and news outlets do this, and it’s useful.
Notify commenters when visibility has changed on a thread they’ve posted to. I’ve seen people get burned by this, and that has a chilling effect on discussion.
Create a separate field for hashtags on posts. Allow posts to join the global conversation without necessitating noise in the post itself.
Scheduled posts / future posting. Sometimes you find stuff you want to share but you’ve already posted a few times today already and don’t want to spam. All the major blogging platforms have this feature — let authors set a time and date for posts to appear.
Allow filtering of your news feed. There are times when you want to see the news, other times you want to see what your friends are posting. There’s filtering by reactions, hashtags, posts with links to articles vs. posts with photos vs. posts with just text. Give people the ability to control the kind of content they’re exposed to.
Separate notifications into reactions, comments on your posts, and replies to your comments. Notifications are ridiculously noisy right now.
Show view counts to authors. We have this for videos, why not for everything else? It’s important.
Add searching for your timeline. There’s no way to find a thread you commented on. It’s hard to find something you posted a long time ago. There’s no easy way to say the things you’ve liked or reacted to. There’s no way to search your photos.
Show the profile intro in the hover popup for profiles. Give people a space to present themselves to people who don’t know them. A profile picture / cover photo / location are not enough. More bandwidth here facilitates more human interactions between strangers.
Tag friends on any post without commenting. Tons of spam / noise is generated by people tagging friends because it’s the only way to generate notifications without putting things on someone’s timeline.
Give control over the size of thumbnail images. Scrolling through your feed, almost half of the real estate at any given time is taken up by stock photos that offer no meaningful information and server only to draw attention.
Colors, damnit. Zebra stripe comments. Apply a pastel background color for comment threads, or colorize the left-hand border. Differentiate threads with unique colors.
Up til this point, I have felt okay with my level of participation in the political process. I spend at least an hour or two every day reading the news, trying to learn stuff. I post links. I write my little essays. I vote. I try to stay informed on the issues that matter and share that information with my friends and family. What else is there to do?
But this election has changed the way that I think about the future. I already knew that progress was not guaranteed. But I still figured it was likely. There might be setbacks, but they would be temporary.
I no longer feel this way. There is no hard floor to this descent. There is no inevitable march forward. It will be far easier for this administration to burn bridges than it will be for us to rebuild them. It may take decades to rip down the walls that he builds in a few years.
The point of this being, I think you are going to see me getting a lot more political in the coming months and years. My now perpetual state of anxiety dictates that I take action and do whatever I can to subvert the incoming tidal wave of xenophobia and racism. I cannot abide my own existence if I am not actively working towards a future that doesn’t suck.
I am going to keep pondering what, exactly, this looks like. I know relatively little about law and have a lot of reading to do before I can hope to meaningfully change a system I do not understand.
I will be looking for ways to get involved with my local government so that I can see how the system works at the lowest level. I will be sketching out ideas of tools to build that can alleviate the major pain points in our system. I will be searching for ideas and inspiration wherever I can find them.
And, of course, I will keep writing, trying to improve my grasp on the slippery eel of social media that I have never felt comfortable with. But it is clearly a necessary tool of the trade, now, and I will learn whatever necessary to be an effective actor in this system.
One recurring thought for me is that what most of us feel right now must be similar to how Trump’s base felt when Obama was elected.
This isn’t to say that the feelings are equally legitimate. But an entire sector of our media was devoted to painting Obama as the antichrist. There was endless FUD about FEMA concentration camps. Or that he secretly hated America as evidenced by his refusal to wear a flag pin for a few days. Or that he was a black supremacist. Remember the whole thing with death panels? And, of course, the birther movement. A lot of people believed all of that to be true.
Now we have someone that really is what the media says he is. There’s no hyperbole when we express fear that he would deport millions of Americans or begin racial and religious profiling en-masse. He truly does think that climate change is a Chinese hoax. He actually sees nothing wrong with sexually violating women. The fires of bigotry, sexism, racism, and xenophobia have been stoked by this election, and minorities throughout the country are justified in their terror.
How can you make clear the difference to someone who really thought Obama was a terrorist? What words are available to use when we’ve already been running on maximal hyperbole for nearly a damn decade? Is there any possible phrasing that would bring home the gravity of this mistake? Or have we been screaming for so long that we’re just deaf to one another?
First off. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. I love you no matter who you voted for. Trump built his campaign on demonizing the other, and if we have any hope for the future, we have to build on the premise that we’re all human beings with legitimate needs and desires. But my choice to love my neighbors unconditionally does not mean I will not speak my mind.
We’re staring down the barrel of the most malevolent and incompetent government ever devised. A government that runs the world’s largest military, the largest economy, and a huge nuclear stockpile. A man who cannot be trusted with his own twitter account will soon be handed the keys, and none of us can get off this bus.
I don’t have any hope of impeachment. If Trump’s base was not dissuaded by the infinite catalog of horrors that spilled out during his campaign, I see little reason to think that he could ever do anything in office that would meaningfully change his image. We are stuck for at least 4 years.
Furthermore, downballot was a disaster. Simply put, we are not going to see progressive legislation for several years. This doesn’t mean that every good thing we know and love is at risk – the nature of Congress hasn’t been altered and significant legislation of any kind is still near-impossible to pass.
But stagnation is no comfort. The status quo means that gerrymandering and voter restrictions will continue to increase. This means that his 4 years are more than likely to turn into 8 years. We should not hold our breath and wait for this to dissolve.
This is not the time for despair, for self-pity, to wallow or to embrace nihilism. We have work to do, friends.
The interaction between modern social media and democracy seems overwhelmingly toxic.
More than any previous year, Facebook and Twitter have played a central role in every step of this election cycle, possibly to everyone’s detriment. Facebook shoves breaking news about world events in between wedding photos and clickbait listicles. Everything is competing for our attention.
Modern journalism is enslaved to view counts and there is no room for nuance or depth. Headlines are carefully selected to make people upset, because when we’re upset we click and share. Everyone’s screaming into echo chambers, recursively amplifying outrage.
Our memory seems to grow shorter and shorter. Scandals and tragedies constantly flow through our feeds, but never stick around long enough for the full story. We’re left only with hyperbolic headlines that reinforce our pre-existing notions and biases about the world.
In this environment, it seems that lying is optimal. If what matters most is spreading headlines, then Trump has demonstrated the winning strategy. The man’s tweets are pure, uncut viral gold. Liberal outrage over his nonsense may very well be the fuel for this eternal dumpster fire. We broke one of the basic rules of most internet forums: don’t feed the troll. But we’re way past that advice, now.
It remains to be seen is what lessons other politicians take from this debacle. If we can’t divorce ourselves from this model of news that makes us so susceptible to these loops of outrage, I fear that November 8th will not be anywhere close to the end of what we’ve been experiencing for the last year and a half.
In person I’m happy to bring this up and talk about it, because it’s so much easier to gauge the other person’s feelings on the topic. I usually know when to back off or shut up, when someone wants to hear more, and how I should phrase my experiences so that I’m not transmitting any judgment or disrespect. Hopefully, anyways.
Writing about this is far more difficult. Being honest while still showing love and respect is hard enough in most areas of life, and this is people’s raison d’etre. All that’s to say: I dearly hope I can manage to explore this topic with the utmost respect and sincerity, whatever beliefs you (you!) might have.
My religious past is something that strongly informs my worldview. I know what it’s like on both sides of the fence. Usually, that means reading any mainstream (secular) writing about religion is purely obnoxious. The people who feel most compelled to spout are usually those that have no real familiarity with what being part of a church community is actually like. So, it was with a little bit of surprise that I encountered this very decent article on Joshua Harris and the purity movement of the late 90’s early 2000’s.
This was quite the read for me.
As a teenager, I went to multiple purity seminars where I signed my name on a heart to give to God. I went to a bible camp every summer where there were 2-3 sermons every day, half of which were about sex and lust. Joshua Harris was frequently mentioned by folks in these circles and at church – the article does not exaggerate his prevalence in this movement.
One of the core tenets of this ideology of purity is that by having any kind of lustful thought or desire, you are sinning against God. For me, this meant I was in a constant, unending state of sin.
Have you ever wronged someone you love – intentionally or not – so badly that there is no amount of apologizing that would make a difference? The kind of harm that you can only hope that the other person will forgive you for…eventually? You know the way that guilt hangs so heavily from your heart, makes you want to sink to the bottom of the ocean? That is what my guilt over my sin felt like.
It was relentless, inescapable, and all-consuming. For years, I prayed regularly and earnestly for God to take away my lustful thoughts and dreams. I wrote about it in my journals, on my blog, and took up hours and hours of my mentors’ time to anguish about it. And this is as someone who didn’t start having sex until 19 (right around the time I left the church). I barely dated in high school.
Hopefully now you can imagine the strength of my feelings on this topic, having gone and done all of the things I swore not to do, to find that very little of what I was told turned out to be true:
You really can fall in love more than once. There is more than one possible companion out there.
It is possible, and often necessary, to talk openly, without shame or judgment, about past relationships with someone you’re dating.
Sex can be safe. Birth control works. STD tests are accurate. It’s possible to fully trust someone on these issues without being married.
People have wildly different desires and expectations from relationships. Not everyone needs the same thing. For most people, your virginity is not important.
There is no platonic ideal of sex. Sex can be a lot more different than you might imagine and still be perfect.
If you’re with a good person, you will not be loved less for your past mistakes.
Sex is not inherently ethereal, transcendent, or magical in any way. It is made fabulous by passion and creativity.
You might indeed lose parts of yourself through some of your relationships. But this will not dilute you. You will also walk away with a piece of them, too. What they leave with you will make you a far better person than you were before.
These are a few of the things I wish i’d heard as a teenager. What the purity movement gave me was the exact opposite.
I hope that Christianity can embrace sex-positivity, some day. But I’m not holding my breath.
I haven’t written about a game in quite a while, but I definitely felt inspired after spending my week with No Man’s Sky.
I don’t tend to get excited about upcoming games. That feels like a depressingly adult thing to say, but building up expectation when disappointment is so likely seems like a masochistic way of life.
No game taught me this lesson better than Fable. As a kid, I vividly remember reading a now-infamous interview with Peter Molyneux, where he was hyping up Fable. He talked about how the whole world responded to your actions. Knock an acorn to the ground and come back years later to see a fully grown oak tree. Become evil and knights in shining armor would try to hunt you down, or be righteous and fend off bounty hunters and crimelords. Build houses, get married, raise a family, rule the land.
Fable had none of those things. The spirit of the game that was described – an open-ended journey full of countless, unique possibilities – was not present in the slightest. It was a cramped museum of strict and compromised designs. It wasn’t a bad game at all, but it was nothing like what had been promised. It utterly failed to capture the spirit of its promise.
Right around this time was when I first encountered the word procedural, one of the buzzwords that has seen a resurgance alongside No Man’s Sky. In this context, it refers to a world that is generated by formulas and processes, rather than explicitly designed by a human. I heard of this when Will Wright delivered a brilliant GDC presentation on Spore. The game he laid out in that talk was genuinely incredible. He shows a thoughtfully populated universe at several distinct scales, continuously filled out with player creations, crafted by incremental choice, guided evolution. Where Peter Molyneux talked, Will Wright demonstrated in precise detail.
At that time, I was like 15 and had no way of knowing how outrageous the game’s many promises really were. By the time the game came out – a full 3 years later – it was clear it had become mired in development hell and irrevocably damaged by the production process. The game that was released was, like Fable, nothing akin to the vision that had been laid out.
I talk about these games because No Man’s Sky has similarly excessive ambitions. It has an awe-inspiring trailer that immediately generated huge amounts of interest. There’s been countless interviews with the lead developer where he clumsily evades questions while simultaneously stirring up visions of a grand universe with complex interactions and infinite possibilities. But unlike Fable and Spore, No Man’s Sky actually does some justice to this goal.
First, let’s get the negative stuff out of the way. Because for me, getting to the pearls in this game has meant swimming through oceans of hot garbage. Swim with me for a minute, if you will.
Far and away, the most common thing you will spend your time doing in this game is moving piles of exotic sand between inventories. To worsen matters, the interface for managing your sand collection is just no good.
As someone who earns his salary designing and building interfaces, I cannot tell you how little this differs from getting punched in the nuts by each and every member of the 2016 American Olympic team (that’s 558 people, in case you were about to check).
The focus on collection and crafting with this space dust is oppressive. In a game whose soul is all about exploration, to find yourself wedded to the act of vacuuming up shit particles everywhere simply feels wrong. In any other game this might be considered a novel or satisfactory piece of gameplay, but this is No Man’s Sky. There are quintillions of planets begging for exploration, but there you are, unmoving, unthinking, as you squirt lasers on a pillar of galactic fartrock.
Lastly, it must be mentioned how hilariously insufficient – perhaps even inappropriate – the aliens are. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these off-brand Walmart humanoids populate every planet and solar system in the galaxy.
They’re grotesque, poorly animated, and devoid of personality. Most of them are apparently chair-bound, born with an Ipad strapped to their right hand, which they idly peck at before delivering a completely arbitrary multiple choice question. It’s a feature of the game so breathtakingly vanilla, yet somehow so incomplete, that one can only wonder what the developer’s intentions might have been.
It forces you to think of the game as actually being empty, simply devoid of intelligent life. That’s a meaningful distinction, too. If there are no larger civilizaitons or structures waiting out there in the universe, what can this universe really show you? What is the drive for exploration?
The answer to that, for me, is the phenomenal variety of planets. Let me break this down a bit, because this has been a huge part of the sense of awe I get from this game.
Blasting around in a solar system feels great – they nailed the scale and speed of it all. Planets feel huge and distant, but you still feel fast. There’s a bit of magic in getting jumped by space pirates and dogfighting among asteroids with a whole planet as your backdrop.
It’s taken for granted that you can enter a planet’s atmosphere from any direction, but think of any game you’ve ever played – you’re always going through explicitly defined entry and exit points wherever you are. In No Man’s Sky, this experience, which would be a blank loading screen in any other game, is genuinely fun. All the alarms go off, everything shakes, there’s a lovely halo of plasma, and the features below fade into view. You can start to make out some of the features – gray soil, purple grass, green oceans. Garish, but still kinda badass.
You cruise around for a minute until you find a landmark that interests you. It’s a little hard to see from your cockpit, so you spin your ship so that you’re flying sideways and can see the terrain a little better. You fly really fast compared to how you walk, so you have to slow down and start pulling tight circles until you think you’ve got it right. Your ship slowly lowers, and now you get a sense of the scale of the hills you saw from above, which now loom all around you.
This planet has giant mushrooms three times your size, there’s little crab-squid things galumphing around on the ground, and apparently it’s lightly raining acid. There’s a new type of tree you’ve never encountered before at the top of a big hill, so you decide to head that way to take a closer look. On the way you find a species of butt-faced dinosaurs that try to kill you but they can’t quite path around some tentacle flowers so you laugh at them and move on. As you crest the top of the hill, you see a sky filled by a neighboring planet and contrails left by alien spaceships. The view below is a canyon filled by a lake, filled to the brim with platypus-like squiddies and mushrooms with wavy tendrils. The sun starts to rise behind you, and the landscape changes from being heavily tinted green-blue, to a softer orange-red.
If this sounds awesome, that’s because it is. No, not every planet is that great. Many of them are shitty. Some of the patterns in generation become more obvious over time. The interest in exploration goes down once you don’t need to collect resources or upgrades any longer.
The fact remains that No Man’s Sky contains so many stunning compositions of colors and shapes, intermingled with all sorts of comedic and bizarre creatures. No designer sat down and created any one of them specifically, yet many of the environments in No Man’s Sky are far more beautiful than anything you can find in any modern game. I would go as far as to suggest that this is one of the most intrinsically beautiful games ever made.
There are moments in this game that genuinely made me feel like Darwin visiting the Galapagos. I could imagine his excitement at finding all these new and fascinating kinds of plants and animals, trying to piece together a narrative about why they have these sorts of claws or that sort of beak. That’s the heart of exploration, and No Man’s Sky captures that in a way that no other game has.
This kind of novelty is why procedural generation holds such promise. Games should create unique experiences that were hitherto inaccessible. They should be able to show us things we haven’t yet imagined. No Man’s Sky manages to keep itself together just well enough to do that.
Vulnerability and sharing are tricky things with social media.
It’s been oft-observed that most people choose to share the positive, exciting parts of their lives here. Vacations, weddings, births, and all the various accomplishments we encounter in life are the meat and potatoes of what people reveal online. They’re safe, they make us look good, they give off the impression that we’re living happy and fulfilled lives.
Certainly, not all negative things get hidden. I see a lot of people sharing their grief over death, especially over time. I remember it being less common in the past, but perhaps we’re getting comfortable as facebook becomes more of a fact of life, in combination with its slow support for varied reactions (until recently, I never felt comfortable liking an announcement of a death).
But there’s so many things that never show up here. It’s not very often you’ll see someone announce that they’re suffering from crippling depression. People generally don’t feel comfortable saying they lost their job, dropped out of school, or failed to achieve one of their dreams. But if you pay attention, you can often tell when something’s up.
We’ve probably all had those moments where you stumble across someone you haven’t kept up with for a while, and the tone of everything they share has changed. They moved. They’re alone in all their pictures. Wait, weren’t they married — oh my god they got a divorce. It’s these moments that remind us how much of our lives remain obscured from most of the world.
Of all the aspects of life that are shared asymmetrically on social media, relationships are probably at the top of that list. It’s universally cool to express your love and affection here. No birthday, anniversary, or wedding dare go unannounced. Even the saltiest cynics will gleefully post every picture with their loved one. But you never see the other side.
It often seems that no one wants to hear about how painful it is to go through a break-up. You won’t find nearly as much support if you want to talk about how much it sucks to be single, how lonely the world can feel without a companion, the emptiness that comes with parting from someone who fundamentally understood you, or the way that memories of past relationships can haunt you at random moments throughout your day.
Admittedly, it’s tricky stuff. Assuming you care about the people in your life – past and present – you have to take so much caution with what you let slip out. Oversharing can damage more lives than just your own. The safest option is often to say nothing at all, to grit your teeth and bear it.
But for myself – and I have to assume for many others – so much of my life experience is wrapped up in my past relationships. I learned so much. There are beautiful memories. intense pain, embarrassment, frustration, lessons learned, time lost, and wisdom gained.
It feels like such a dishonesty to say nothing about these things, but I lack any notion of a healthy way to broach these topics through this medium. I don’t know what the solution is, or if one exists at all. Perhaps facebook will never be a place where that kind of honesty is truly safe.
It seems a grave tragedy that the parts of our lives that would benefit the most from community support, open communication, and honest discussion, are ostensibly the most taboo. How many marriages would benefit if we were more willing to discuss the thorny, complicated realities of long-term relationships? Could we not all learn from each other’s mistakes? Don’t we all have lessons that we wish someone had shared with us earlier in our lives, that might have made us better partners, better human beings?
One of my ponderances of late has been how our exposure to the news shapes our perception of the world.
I read at least 100 headlines a day, knowingly or otherwise. I scroll through facebook, reddit, twitter, and my RSS feeds a few times a day. It’s all filtered through the people and organizations I like or trust, building into some vague sense of what the state of the world is, what the nearest possible futures look like. But that whole sensation of knowing what really goes on in the world is just a complicated lie, a house of cards built from countless availability heuristics.
I try to counter that by searching for data and statistics, but this is just a fart in the hurricane. For instance, there’s no way to test the idea that global xenophobia is actually getting worse; I can only make a guess based on the number of bigoted statements that make it into the headlines over the last month. And the certainty of that guess is always haunted by the very plausible notion that the world is the same as it has always been, and I just happen to hear about more of the awful things that occur.
What is the true value in this increased awareness? There’s so much anxiety to be found in keeping up with the goings-on of humanity, but I feel a responsibility to keep trying, lest I unknowingly perpetuate the sins of my ancestors or participate in the errors of my own generation through my ignorance.
Some of these matters, I tacitly know that I lack the discipline to contribute to the solution. Knowing full well the horrors of industrial farming, I really do just love beef, even the stuff they dole out at Taco Bell. Meanwhile, my outrage over racial injustice seems to be limitless. My heart ached in very literal pain and anger as I read of the latest shootings last week, even though these incidents are total deja vu.
There is a temptation towards nihilism as I add all of the latest crises together. There are so many, and none of them can be considered unimportant or irrelevant. Is it possible to care about everything that much? Can our hearts stretch infinitely so that we become capable of empathizing with all the important goings-on of the world? Or are we forced to pick our battles and hope that, between the lot of us, someone else cares enough about the other problems – climate change, education, sexism, poverty, health care – to take care of them? Don’t most of these problems require effort and attention from everyone to truly solve? Is humanity really capable of solving its own problems, or have we built a society more complicated than our meager brains can manage?
Preface: I love you no matter who you vote for. Even if it’s Trump. I don’t think there is much progress to be found in ostracizing or villainizing those who make poor decisions, whatever those decisions pertain to.
When Bernie first announced his campaign, I was on board. I had known about him for a long time prior, and I was immediately excited, even if doubtful. I felt the bern. But by the time the NY primary rolled around, I ended up checking the box for Hillary. Admittedly, I stood in the booth for a solid 10 minutes as I weighed that choice, but that’s where I landed when the time came to pick.
I’ve not mentioned this to many people, as I’ve had a genuine fear of what my more passionate friends would think. I don’t want to lose their respect. I hope they’re able to understand.
I made that choice out of pragmatism. It was very clear, at that point, that if Bernie had a real shot, he needed to win South Carolina months prior. He got trounced there, and while he had respectable showings in many states thereafter, he was always losing ground. So, it was my desire to see his campaign wrap up and move towards reconciliation with Hillary so that we could secure the election against Trump.
As Bernie’s campaign has winded down, Jill Stein has picked up many people of the #bernieorbust attitude. This is not surprising, of course; a significant fraction of Bernie’s base were independent voters that only registered as Democrats just to vote for him. So it should be expected that there would be some people returning to that. But there are some basic facts about the democratic process in America that make voting third-party an unwise decision.
I want to talk about guns, but let’s talk about hate first.
We do this thing, as a society, where we start calling someone a terrorist, and that makes it really easy to think of them as some kind of alien. A terrorist materialized in our midst and caused great suffering. In our lexicon, terrorist is basically the antonym of American.
But the majority of these shootersare Americans, born and raised. Most of them white. They speak English. They had jobs, cars, phones, bills. They lived in our society for decades. Often we hear every variation on the phrase “we never would have suspected” from friends and family. And I bet most of them weren’t lying.
We’re so hung up on ISIS and Islam. But maybe this guy, and the guys before him, just followed the lead of our culture, the examples of our role models and aspiring leaders. We had 29 years to talk this guy out of it. He spent his life in America. Maybe he learned his hatred from us.
Can we not find daily examples of homophobia broadcast across all channels of life? This last year has seen the campaigns of Cruz, Rubio, and Carson – people actively denying basic truths about sexual identity and promoting draconian ideals about gender and sexuality. More explicitly anti-LGBT laws have been proposed in state legislatures this year than ever before.
Why should we be surprised when someone takes to heart the messages from our society that some people are less deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
Littered in my sketchbooks are outlines of a modern progressive epistemology, where I try to detail each of the core tenets of progressive politics and ideology. It’s a fun thought experiment, but when I try to flesh it out into paragraphs and pages, it grinds to a halt.
I ask myself who I’m writing this for.
It can’t be for myself – dreaming up political theory in a vacuum is a gross cocktail of narcissism and solipsism.
Who, then, is it meant for?
Providing support for progressives that already agree? Eh. The world doesn’t need more preaching to the choir.
Attempting to sway centrists or conservatives? Most progressives wouldn’t read a modern conservative’s epistemology, nor would most conservatives have any interest in my treatise. Another poor tool for effecting change.
So, I put to rest this notion, but there remains an urge. Change requires unity. Unity requires shared understanding. Everywhere, I see a lack of shared understanding.
Discord seems to be growing in America across all spectra. Demagoguery is on the rise. Tensions are building. Sure, it’s election season and maybe things will chill out in 2017. I tend to doubt it.
How is that even possible? Regardless of what the future looks like, we live in a time of the greatest abundance in the history of mankind.
There is, at this very moment, enough food to feed everyone on the planet.
The most common deadly diseases can be cured, treated, or vaccinated against – globally.
We have enough labor and materials to provide shelter to everyone.
Knowledge has never been more widespread and available.
But we’re still fighting over basic goods and services.
Given dire enough circumstances, humans will do just about anything for survival. That’s a pretty uncontroversial fact. It’s the premise of most post-apocalyptic stories, but history gives us a pretty good picture of this as well.
For most of history, humanity has had little control over those dire circumstances. A year of drought could lead to mass starvation. Disease could swoop in from a few rats (or gerbils) hanging out on a wagon. Our margins for error were a lot thinner. That’s in societies where more than half of the population were farmers or directly involved in agriculture, and they still struggled to feed everyone.
A War on Poverty would not make sense in ancient China, medieval Europe, post-revolutionary America, or any other point in history. Eliminating poverty wasn’t an achievable goal until the mid-20th century. Class and caste systems inherent to many past civilizations are a direct response to that. There’s no point in hoping for a better life – you were born into poverty, best just to accept it as your lot in life and hope for better luck next time.
Scarcity changes everything.
But we don’t live in a time of scarcity.
If there’s one idea that I think needs to spread, it’s that we are in an era of overwhelming abundance. There are enough resources to meet everyone’s needs, without qualification or exception. This is a fact.
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy task; the logistics of distributing resources are intense. Our economies might not be configured for the task – but that can be changed with less difficulty than we might imagine.
Many of our current political schisms seem to be premised in the notion that not everyone can be prosperous and not everyone deserves to prosper. But if the first notion is false – we have the abundance to provide basic necessities universally – why is there any need to determine who qualifies for help?
I’ve been following with some interest the story of Facebook’s Free Basics endeavor, which was recently shut out of India. The notion is that Facebook would offer free but heavily limited internet access to developing countries, the rationale being that something is better than nothing in a country like India, where internet penetration is still only at 15-20%. I will now write briefly about why this is a terrible idea.
I have a hard time imagining a more interesting presidential race than what America is faced with in 2016. The Republican end of things is, of course, both fascinating and troubling in ways that no one could have foreseen, but the Democratic primary presents a deeply meaningful choice to voters that care about the issues.
Is it better to have an effective president who offers slim, but guaranteed gains for progress? Or to have an authentic president who will pursue the most progressive policies currently viable in the country, with a significant chance of complete failure?
That, to me, is Hillary versus Bernie in a nutshell.
Here goes my attempt to explain and justify basic income in America. Many others have done this before, but these are the components of it I find to be most relevant and compelling. It’s become rather dear to me and, at least until research comes out demonstrating it to be a colossal failure, it sits now at the core of my current political philosophy.
They say that writing about art is like dancing about architecture.
Just kidding, I’ve never heard anyone say that. But I wanted to record a little formal history of how I started making artwork, explain some of the different kinds of pieces I make, talk a bit about process and such. There will be a smattering of personal details and hopefully very little philosophy about the meaning of art or its practice. There are few questions less interesting than “what is art?” and I do not intend to indulge the inquiry here.
Without further ado, a brief history of my journey with art.