*we put the "mmm" in communism


This is the personal blog of Tim. Here, Tim writes on anything he has enough inspiration to finish a post on. That usually ends up being matters of science, pop culture, technology, religion, and philosophy.

This blog is around nine years old, which is over a third of Tim's current age. Back in 2003, it was called "Of Tim: Tim's life - or lack thereof", and it was as bad as you might expect the blog of a freshman in high school to be. Tim hopes that his writing is a little better, these days.

Tim welcomes any input that you, the dear reader, might have. Comments are very much appreciated, especially if you have a dissenting opinion. If you'd like to learn more about Tim, you might want to see his facebook or google+.

Also: Tim is a very avid consumer of various sorts of music. You may be interested in his playlists!

bon voyage
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This blog has now permanently moved on from Blogger.

It was a good nine years with you, Blogger. Farewell.
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I attended a forum at Cornell a few months ago, framed as a dialogue between two scientists, one Christian and the other atheist. To be frank, the entire thing gave me a headache. I was disappointed at both sides, but for quite different reasons.

The Christian plasma physicist Dr. Ian Hutchinson spent much of his time railing against a notion which he described as "scientism", the philosophical belief that the only valid source of knowledge is scientific inquiry. At no point did he name any relevant person or theory that could be accurately categorized as submitting to this fallacy, but he was nevertheless quite passionate in ridiculing it. Following this, he then claimed that there exists no conflict between science and faith, going so far as to admit that he believes the laws of nature can be broken at any time and place.

To my great frustration and disappointment, his atheist partner in this discussion, Nobel laureate Dr. Roald Hoffmann, failed to counter Hutchinson at any of these junctures. What's worse, Hoffmann abandoned a number of key epistomelogical pillars of secular humanism, stating that he felt analyzing and describing human behavior at the level of neurons and neurotransmitters was overly reductionist and threatened to destroy the magic of such experiences as beauty and love. Although I would like to take the time to expound more on reductionism, it is outside the scope of my current focus.

My problem with Hutchinson's argument is quite simple: he created a very plush strawman in scientism and proceeded to whip it mercilessly. If this were just a footnote in his proposal, there would be no qualm here. Unfortunately, Hutchinson places scientism as the primary source of conflict between science and faith.

"There is an intellectual confrontation that could reasonably fit the warfare metaphor. It is not between science and theology, however. It is between scientism, the predominant faith of the twentieth-century academic, and other faiths, including Christianity."

The notion of scientism finds its roots in common stereotypes about intellectuals, academia, and science in particular. It's another version of the Ivory Tower: modern scientists are disconnected with reality and fail to consider the existence of the rest of the world in their arguments and epistemologies. This is by no means a baseless accusation - science is currently doing a piss-poor job of making itself accessible to the public and academia is elitist practically by definition. Then there's the general prevalence of agnosticism and atheism in scientific fields - only 7% of natural scientists in the National Academy of Science identify as holding a belief in a personal God (contrary to what Hutchinson says). It is in this observation that I believe Hutchinson bases his claim that the modern academic can be characterized as subscribing to scientism.

Yet, I would firmly say that no intellectually legitimate scientist believes that only science is capable of discovering real knowledge, just as no intellectually legitimate Christian believes that Christianity has a monopoly on truth. Certainly, individuals of such a variety exist in both camps, but so ignorant a stance can be immediately dismissed as hogwash. A cursory glance at history can provide incontrovertible evidence of individuals across every spectrum of belief that successfully manage to further human knowledge and ingenuity. Our ancestors were not using the scientific method when they figured out how to domesticate animals, nor did whisperings from the gods inspire the discovery of the Golden Ratio.

Science is a methodology, a process, a strategy for engaging in inquiry and producing accurate results and reliable predictions. I do not need the scientific method to determine that I am a 23-year old male because I have a completely different set of tools (e.g. memory, perception, emotion) with which to answer that query. Part of the human challenge is picking the right tool for the job. The scientific method is probably not the right way to determine if you should get married, just like how your emotions are generally not the best tool to decide which stocks to invest in.

For all the time Hutchinson spends attempting to define science, there exists a quite simple distinction that he fails to mention: falsifiability. It is not possible to prove that something does not exist (proof by a negative), which is why science will never be able to demonstate that there are no gods, that miracles cannot or never have occurred, and that angels and demons do not accompany us everywhere we go. It is the nature of these concepts that they are untestable; as such, it is not possible for science (nor anything else) to make any definitive claims concerning them.

The conflict between science and faith that Hutchinson seeks to explain is quite easy to see, in this light. We have a profession whose progress (and very existence!) depends upon working exclusively with concepts that can be falsified; is it any surprise that these individuals would not subscribe to a set of ideas that are categorically unfalsifiable? Hutchinson's comment on this is woefully unsatisfying.

"Why, if there is a God, does he not make himself scientifically provable? Why does God seem to be only rather obliquely discoverable in science? A big part of the answer, I maintain, is that a transcendent God can never be scientifically testable, for otherwise he would not be transcendent."

Hutchinson's (circular) argument rests upon the fact that there exist many features in our daily reality that are not scientifically testable, but are nonetheless quite real. The example he uses is love; indeed, there are no tests to prove or disprove one's love for another. This does not mean you accept it without evidence. If you say you love someone, there is an expectation that your actions will conform to some ideal of loving behavior. Given time and persistence, it becomes so obvious that it would be foolish to deny the existence of that love.

This is, however, not proof. You might describe someone's love as being a fact, but this is an expression of certainty, not truth. Love is not falsifiable, and that is in fact one of its qualities; by nature of being uncertain, love requires the development of trust. Trust is not binary; you might trust your lover more than you trust your boss, but that does not mean you do not trust either person. Instead, trust is probabalistic. How likely is it that they'll be on time? That they're telling the truth? That they'll be faithful to you? The answers to these questions form the basis of certainty.

This is what makes love different from the existence of God. You might not be able to devise a de-facto test for love, but each of us have developed our own tests for accurately determining its presence with some certainty. The same is not possible for God. There are no questions that may be asked or tests that may be performed which bring one any closer to knowing, with any more certainty, anything about God. It is not scientism that creates the divide betwen science and faith, but faith's reliance on unfalsifiable concepts of fundamentally indeterminate probability.

It may very well be the case that God exists and actively intervenes in the real world, but has deigned to make his presence untestable by all of the greatest minds and methods throughout history. This seems, to me, to be vanishingly unlikely. Knowing the tendencies of human beings, with our propensity to cognitive bias, the strength of social reinforcement in maintaining belief, and our general tendency to stick with the ideas with which we were raised, I have yet to find evidence worthy of the kind of trust necessary to overcome such astronomical odds. It is, in the end, trust that has determined my faith (and the lack thereof).
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Another thing I wrote for this lame psych class. The prompt this time: why is depression & its treatment so popular in American society?

For better or worse, America is a highly individualistic society. Self-reliance is generally considered to be a major virtue. Once an adult, an American is expected to provide for him or herself with minimal dependence on family or friends. In general, people who have not attained the expected level of independence are considered lazy or slothful. A failure to perform well in school or work is usually called a flaw of that person's work ethic before anything else. In short, Americans tend to believe that most of a person's successes and failures are up to that individual, and too much help will make them weaker and dependent. While these beliefs have probably helped maintain strong economic performance, they have encouraged behaviors and attitudes that leave Americans vulnerable to psychological instability.

Historically, it has been the case that one's lot in society was determined by two things: gender and family. Men inherited the profession of their fathers. Women were allowed to perform a narrow set of tasks outside of child-rearing. Marriages were arranged, and property - if any at all - was inherited. Today, we have more freedom than at any other point in history. Freedom is a beautiful thing - but with freedom, comes choice. It's not just choosing clothes or cars, but professions, spouses, homes, and educations. The social psychologist Sheena Iyengar has done some fascinating research on the problems of choice overload, and her studies show that we become poorer decision-makers in the face of bountiful options.

"[Americans] think that choice, as seen through the American lens, best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions that don’t always hold true in many countries, in many cultures."

In the past, these choices were all made for us, and these are the choices that determine our role in society. Our role is what gives us purpose, that reason to get out of bed in the morning. When we don't know our role, we are at risk of drifting aimlessly. This is a concept known as anomie, or normlessness. As much as we might like to believe that we decide our own fates, the truth is that we often need to be told what to do, or at least given a hint or two. Part of how we figure out how to do that is through our social circles - friends and family. But the American way is to disperse wide and far across the country, away from those who might know and understand us best. Friends and family are rarely considered in decisions about where to live or look for a job.

Barring any major disabilities, living with one's parents past the early 20's is often considered to be a sign of weakness, and past the 30's it is almost anathema. Yet, in many other countries, it is the norm for multiple generations of a family to live together or in very close proximity to one another. American culture simply does not value familial bonds as highly as other cultures. It is common for children to take jobs that move them far away from not just their parents, but also their siblings, making frequent visits difficult or impossible. This distance from siblings is extremely important; studies have shown that relationships are among the strongest drivers of long-term happiness, and relationships with siblings are among the most powerful we can have. One study, the Harvard Grant Study, followed 268 Harvard graduates from the 1930's up to 2010, checking in every few years to see how they were doing.

"'The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, 'What have you learned from the Grant Study men?' Vaillant’s response: 'That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.'"

For many, therapy becomes the only immediate option to replace these relationships. Multiple therapists have told me that some of their patients really just need friends. This is not to suggest that most depression is just a result of not having good relationships. I do believe, however, that the structure of American society makes Americans vulnerable to depressive attitudes and behaviors. The behaviors of depression are strongly self-reinforcing; poor sleep patterns can encourage anti-social behavior, poor eating habits can exacerbate anxiety and fear. Without trustworthy people nearby to interfere in our lives, we become prone to doing whatever we feel like. For many people - myself included - the tendency is to feel like doing nothing. The cycle begins there.
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In economics, an object's liquidity is described as how easily it can be converted into currency without loss of value. I'd like to propose that the internet makes use of a similar concept in how information is distributed and exchanged. Information liquidity.

Here's a pre-internet example before we dive in. Say you've written a book, and now you want people to read it. To do that, you need a publisher that will first print a large quantity of copies of your book, and then distribute those copies to locations that place your book in close proximity to the largest quantity of people (book stores and libraries). Next, potential readers have to be made aware of the existence of your book, as it's not enough for it to just be available. There are thousands of books in even the smallest book store, and people aren't just going to magically know that your book has been added to the collection. Publicity or advertising in one form or another will be necessary.

If the currency of the internet is viewership (and certainly other possibilities exist, but that's outside the scope here), I would describe the liquidity of a site in terms of how easily it can generate viewership. A site's liquidity is determined by how accessible it is from the user's current location. One factor is by the quantity of links that are directed to that location across the internet - the probability of any user ending up at a given site increases as more links to it are made. Another factor of liquidity is through the minimum number of links that must be traversed before reaching a given site.

Described numerically, a site's liquidity is the inverse of the number of links required to reach it. For users already familiar with a site, its liquidity is naturally 1 because they are likely to have its address memorized. As such, the analysis here is not concerned with content already familiar to users, but that content which is unknown to users. For sites which have no links or have not been indexed, their liquidity would be 0. Everything else falls somewhere in between.

Without search engines indexing much of the internet, a great deal of content would be mostly inaccessible except through very specific avenues. With search engines, however, the minimum distance can be as short as just one or two links, depending on the search criteria and accuracy. Considered like this, Google is the world's largest information liquidator. Google also provides temporary information liquidity through advertisements, which serve both to increase the number of links to a site while also reducing the average distance from a user's location to a site. The flip side to this is that search engines aren't a destination. Ignoring Google's other services, the probability that a user will traverse from to is nearly 100%.

What about social networks, then? They provide information liquidity, but certainly not to the same extent that a search engine does. Social networks aren't crawling the web for content to index; they're limited only to what its users are sharing through their service. The liquidity they offer also has a very short expiration date. Content has at most half a day of direct exposure, and long-term accessibility is mostly out of the question (especially given that Facebook and Twitter prevent Google from indexing their content). Still, social networks consistently generate large quantities of content with minimal user input, while also providing a lot of temporary liquidity for off-site content. They manage to be destinations as well as gateways.

The last example I'd like to touch on is video games. It may seem a case of apples and oranges next to social networks and search engines, but they represent one of the purest forms of destination on the internet. Video games decrease the liquidity of nearly all information that exists outside their networks. It's difficult for two players in different video games to communicate with one another; video games are effectively islands of interaction. Problems exist for intracommunity engagement, as well; few video games support robust linking mechanisms such as might be found in traditional instant messaging - they just aren't the ideal place to be sharing articles or videos. That said, services like Steam restore some of this liquidity by providing a cross-game mechanism for communication. This may also help to explain the wide appeal of MMOs, as they provide the satisfaction of playing a video game while limiting the information (and social) isolation that is commonly associated with video games.

The next concept in this scheme I'm looking to develop is traversal probability. I recognize that measuring user-link distance is insufficient to describe liquidity, and this is for two reasons. First, not all links are equal. The top result from a search is vastly more accessible than those that appear on the following pages, to provide just one example. Factors such as reputability, clarity, and visual prominence come into play. Second, the identity of the user greatly influences which type of links end up having the greatest appeal. Male users are going to have different behavior than female users. Danish users are going to have different behavior than Brazilian users.

If I'm on the right track, I think this is what I was attempting to measure in my previous graph.
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I wrote another thingadoodle for my abnormal psych class. The prompt was "How is the DSM IV a vital tool in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders? How is it an obstacle to the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders?".

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the Judeo-Christian god interferes with the attempts of mankind to build a temple that reached to the sky (now believed to be a Babylonian ziggurat) by inflicting a curse upon the men building the temple. The curse was that of individual language; by causing each man to speak and understand only his own language, they were no longer able to collaborate and finish the complex task of constructing the temple, and it was abandoned. This story speaks to a basic truth of mankind: collaboration requires that we have a shared understanding of one another. The DSM-IV is our current best attempt at achieving this shared understanding in the field of mental health.

By standardizing the definition of known mental illnesses, the DSM IV allows doctors and mental health professionals to speak the same language. When a clinical psychologist says depression, a psychiatrist knows something meaningful and tangible about the mental state of that patient, allowing her to adjust her treatment strategy in a manner that will, more often than not, better address the issues at hand. The psychiatrist is not strictly bound to this diagnosis - a wise psychiatrist will understand that a patient's entire past, present, and future cannot be summed up in a single diagnosis, that the diagnosis may change, or that the original diagnosis may not have been accurate. This is the challenge that all doctors face - how trustworthy was the analysis of this patient's previous doctor? Were all of the appropriate tests performed? Did the nurse perform the tests accurately? Human error exists at every step of the way, and it is part of the job of men and women in the field of medicine to use good judgment, taking into account all of the available evidence.

Still, today there is no controversy in pointing out that the DSM IV is imperfect, and that its flaws have created, for some individuals, more problems than solutions. Temerlin (1968) illustrates this all too well: if told that an individual is psychotic, the majority of psychiatrists will then see that individual as psychotic, regardless of the individual's actual behaviors. Similarly, Rosenhan (1973) demonstrated that individuals placed into institutions have vanishingly slim chances of being correctly identified as healthy, once inside. Clearly, we run a serious risk when we cease to consider patients as individuals, but seek only to compare their behaviors to symptoms. With one hand, the DSM resolves many problems, but with the other, it creates dangerous traps for doctors and mental health professionals to fall into.

Such is the way of progress. The DSM is necessary to ensure consistency and accuracy between diagnoses, and it also serves to bring legitimacy and recognition to disorders the surrounding culture may not be willing to accept as true disorders. Autism, for example, has historically often been lumped together with other disorders such as mental retardation and schizophrenia (even including in the DSM-I and DSM-II). Although it wasn't until 1980 that autism was granted its own classification in the DSM-III, this marked a change in how the mental health fields would treat autism. No longer could it be placed incorrectly alongside fundamentally different conditions - it would now demand diagnosis on its own terms, and treatment could now be more accurately directed.

The DSM is a powerful tool. Like all tools, it can be misused, abused, and completely misunderstood. Despite this, it manages to create the potential for mental health professionals to communicate with a common vocabulary, to justify diagnoses using accepted criteria, and to identify unknown illnesses through the recognition of defined symptoms. Without this, psychology could never be a legitimate entry into the field of medicine, but would be relegated to postulation and pseudoscience.

Literature Cited

Rosenhan DL (January 1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, 179(4070), 250–8.

Temerlin, M. (1968). Suggestion effects in psychiatric diagnosis. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 147(4), 349-353.
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echo (echo)
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I actually got sidetracked a bit at the end of my previous post, which is perhaps why I've had such trouble writing the continuation. What I mean to examine isn't the community that develops around a given website, but the level of individual engagement (feedback) that the medium offers. But let me explain why I have an interest in this, before I go further.

Each day over the last few months, I find I have more and more mental acuity at my disposal. I keep having ideas, everywhere, all the time. I used to struggle for material to occupy my mind with, but I now find that half as many hours exist in my day as would be necessary to properly investigate all the concepts my mind is chasing after. Maybe I was always having lots of ideas and I just never took them seriously - I really haven't a clue. Point is, I've been on a roll and it doesn't appear to be slowing down. That's great - so long as I'm headed in the right direction. Which is where it would be nice to have feedback. Facebook, G+, Twitter - these things may generate plenty of viewership for me, but none of that comes with feedback.

I've been pondering why, exactly, that is. Part of it, I believe, is that they're dense sources of information. You can scroll down a handful of pages and encounter a hundred links to different places all across the internet. The more I thought about this, the more certain I felt that it was time to make a graph. Tremble and despair.

There's a lot of things worth disagreeing with in this graph. I'm aware of its imperfections, but it's an idea I'm driven to explore. I've been trying to write this damn post for over five hours now, because this has been driving me nuts all week. There's something here, but finding how to express it has been a major challenge. I don't even like either of the terms I'm using here. It's all I've got.

There are places that efficiently distribute content. There are places that enable effective user-to-user or group-to-group communication. There aren't many that do both.

In my search for feedback, I realized that I would never receive the kind of analysis and criticism I want through any of the mediums I'm currently engaging in. I would need to find a community of individuals that were capable of providing the feedback I want. It's hard to search for something when you aren't sure what it looks like or where it might be. That search goes on - but in the meantime, I remain interested in this relationship between content and feedback. Specifically, I want to know what something in the top-right corner of that graph would look like. I hope to return to this topic a number of times, especially once I've reached some more solid conclusions.
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The digital forest is exceedingly information-rich. Its incredible density and volume are far more than what is possible to usefully organize, which is why we must search. Search is merely a mode of transportation to the specific content we want to consume. Searching isn't an efficient way of discovering content, however, and it also requires the user to already know what she wants to find, or at the very least to have a question that a search can provide an answer to. This is why we have feeds.

We subscribe to feeds because they consistently provide novel content without going on a hunt. Feeds are all functionally equivalent - they differ only in context and constraints. They all distribute information and entertainment in discrete bursts of varying size and format. This isn't so different from the world a few decades ago, but back then, feeds were called television channels. Before that, it was the radio. Before that, it was newspapers. Other examples exist, I'm sure - the point is, at the end of the day they're all regular sources of content. It doesn't matter whether that content comes from a printing press or an ethernet cable.

The only power a subscriber has over a feed's content is feedback. It seems that regardless of the type of content we consume, we create mechanisms to provide feedback to the distributors and creators. Newspapers feature letters to the editor. Some radio and television shows once used air time to share audience responses. No video game is complete without an accompanying forum, and to have a blog without comments is unheard of. It's not just because readers are so desperate to broadcast their opinions, but is rather the primary way that creators can acquire alternative perspectives on the quality and success of their work.

This process is so important to long-term improvement and constructing priorities that some of our institutions are structured so as to provide feedback whenever possible. School is a constant cycle of instruction and correction. Projects, quizzes, and essays come back littered with red ink that tell students where they went wrong. Grades provide students with an idea of how much more improvement is possible to be made within the current context. In the workplace, individuals can expect to receive detailed criticism on anything of consequence - this is the mechanism by which minimum standards are met and specific objectives are reached. Evaluations are performed regularly at all levels of organization - not just as a way to inform employees of potential areas of improvement, but to provide employers granular data on how successful their internal management has been. Without feedback, we don't get better at the things we do.

Currently, the internet has piss-poor mechanisms of feedback - and it's not a technological limitation. I don't mean the oft-mentioned issue of body language and its lack of satisfactory counterparts in digital interactions. Although that's relevant here, I don't refer to issues of miscommunication, but more of ineffective communication.

How many quality discussions have you seen on Facebook - ever? Do you even need two hands to count them all? I certainly don't. Yet, what surprise is it, given the tools that Facebook offers for interaction? A near-meaningless, publicly visible like button is the bare minimum for expressing approval, but it falls short in so many contexts. If someone posts an article about a surge in AIDS diagnoses, it is entirely awkward to like this, but one may still wish to express approval of the article being posted. Updates are truncated in the feed after 3 lines, encouraging Twitter-length messages for optimum viewership. By default, pressing enter causes comments to be posted, encouraging even shorter responses. Excessive quantities of space are taken up by visual clutter, and yet fails to provide information efficiently, leaving your average page of viewing space to represent relatively little novel content. No wonder people aren't carrying out intelligent conversations - the medium doesn't even support it.

It's clear, however, that even these rudimentary systems are enough to propel our overwhelming desire to share the things we find and create. Stupid as the like button may be, it expresses a classic kind of satisfaction when you see that someone has shown appreciation for what you shared. It makes you want to find more stuff to post. This also explains why Reddit has grown to the extent that it has. While I have my share of beefs with the website and its community, it consistently succeeds at finding informative and entertaining material, while also generating discussion that is, once in a while, quite good. I don't buy that the community there is fundamentally different than anywhere else on the internet. A simple anonymous karma system (anonymity is important for these things to work!) combined with better composition tools, an upvote button in addition to a downvote button, and structuring comments based on rating leads to higher quality posts attaining greater visibility. When people see that performance is rewarded with visibility (which also begets feedback, since people respond to top-rated comments), suddenly there is now a predictable cause and effect. Make worthwhile contributions, get karma and visibility.

It doesn't always work this way, but the average discussion on Reddit still runs circles around anything you might see on Facebook in a month. But still, it's really lacking. Subreddits don't come as close to simulating a real community as does, say, a traditional forum. In the end, Reddit is just a halfway point between Twitter and forums. Forums are terrible at distributing content, but excellent at generating discussion, and as a result tend to develop very dedicated communities. Twitter is excellent at distributing content, but worthless for discussion. I'm sure exceptions exist, but that doesn't really mean much. Blogs create content and discussion, but are tempestuous by nature. Unless the author expands into other media, blogs generally don't have the staying power to develop a dedicated community.

Gonna have to stop here. I'll wrap this up later.
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The design is still a work in progress. If you've visited multiple times over the weekend, you've seen quite an evolution in quality. I've greatly enjoyed this process, and it feels refreshing to have something new here. I was once very attached to the old background - and certainly, it excelled in a number of categories. It was unique, it made the setting, and it was personal. I probably squeezed as much out of that formula as possible. If anyone's curious, the process wasn't all that complicated. I made a gradient from orange to black, ran a cubism filter, ran an edge filter to add some perspective, and then added a light and bumpmap. The only difficulty was in getting the color and lighting done properly. As much as I dislike GIMP's interface and design, I can't begrudge its unique capabilities.

Over the years I made many attempts to move on from that scheme, but I possess very little in the way of free-hand skills. I can't sketch or draft to save my life, but the doodles I made as a kid on church bulletins during sermons became the one thing I actually found aesthetically pleasing and satisfying to create. I would use the logos or text as a kind of seed, and draw as many concentric circles and parallel lines surrounding the original features on the page as I could. I still do the same kind of doodling at every possible opportunity, so my notebooks for any lecture class are packed with doodled patterns. Similarly, many of the things I made in Minecraft were the product of pseudo-algorithmic reduction.

The irony of algorithmic approaches to art is that it ends up being a lot of brute force effort to determine what works and what doesn't. If a pattern results in inconsistencies or asymmetry, then the next iteration need only produce fewer errors. However, that usually means a lot of iterations will be required before a quality result is attained. The advantage is that improving is more a function of time than of dexterity or inspiration. Some people have the imagination and skill to take a blank canvas and create something where previously there was nothing. My talents seem to lie more with altering existing material, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between my creative productivity and the number of tools that are available to me. This might be why I still do all of my code in N++.

My goal with this design is to test the limits of what can be done with nothing but CSS and HTML (and perhaps later, javascript). Every time I visit an artist's website and I encounter yet another series of bloated Flash galleries with an unresponsive interface, a part of my soul dies. It's quite possible that I just don't spend time in the right circles, but I have encountered few to zero websites that engage the browser itself as a medium for artistic expression. CSS3 opens a lot of creative doors; opacity and border-radius - combined with z-layers and borders - make many complex constructs possible. I can't wait to see what this looks like in an old version of IE, but I've decided not to concern myself with that as far as the design process. My code passes validation - my responsibility is fulfilled.
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I wrote this for my abnormal psychology class, in response to the prompt "Identify a behavior that you engage in that others might classify as 'abnormal'. Why is this behavior seen as different or unusual? How have you responded to the reactions of others?". My choice of topic may at first seem glib, but I enjoyed writing it, and I like where I ended with it. I love being in school again. Nowhere else might I be asked to conjure up something of this nature.

I work in an office where the median age is in the late 50's to early 60's. Being 22 years-old, a number of my habits and behaviors naturally come across as abnormal to my co-workers. Some of these are merely a feature of different tastes and interests, but those that seem to have the most significant impact upon my interaction with my co-workers seem closely related to the different kind of relationship I have with technology. I have been using computers in various shapes and sizes since I was three years-old, and I generally find it extremely easy to engage in multiple activities (of a specific nature) simultaneously or in rapid succession.

One of these activities is listening to music via headphones - which I do almost ceaselessly, every day. I am the only individual in the office that does this with such frequency, and it seems to create a point of confusion in social interaction for my co-workers due to its relative abnormality. As best as I can tell, many of them seem to perceive music listening as a unique activity, engaged only in specific contexts. By contrast, I spend an average of ten hours every day listening to music - it is an integral aspect of my work, recreation, and travel. To account for this divide in perception, I have had to develop a series of indicators to assist my co-workers in understanding that they have my attention.

I keep the ear on the side of the entrance to my cubicle free, and an ear phone in the other, so as to ensure I hear when my attention is being requested and to visually indicate my availability. However, on nearly every occasion where a co-worker comes to ask a question or bring something to my attention, their facial expression and physical demeanor express great uncertainty until I go through a specific ritual to indicate my awareness of their presence. I must take my hands from the keyboard, turn my entire body to face them directly, remove the ear phone from my ear, and finally, verbally acknowledge their presence. If I leave any of these actions out - keeping my hands on the keyboard, or not removing the ear phone - they will stand next to me, silent and unmoving. Yet, if I was not listening to music in the first place (that is, if I did not have an ear phone in), they will have no trouble engaging me as fluently as they do any others in the office.

This might at first seem like an obvious and necessary ritual for a work environment, given that it is of high priority that individuals know that their communications have been heard and understood. However, most of these interactions last less than thirty seconds and tend to involve relatively trivial matters. Among my peers, it is almost universally understood that music is not an activity that need be eliminated for anything but the most important of engagements.

Although it can be a tiresome ritual to have to perform multiple times a day, the benefits I gain from listening to music far outweigh the inconveniences of adapting to my co-worker's expectations. I accept that it is a fundamental consequence of the generational divide between individuals whose lives are inseparable from modern technology and the habits it enables, and those for whom technology has altered or erased the norms of the past.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 2 Comments
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Realistically, this post should have come two months ago; most of the inspiration for this came while beating Skyrim until it was long past the dead horse stage. If you are unfamiliar with the Elder Scrolls franchise of RPGs, this may cause you to feel bored. I won't be offended if you turn back now.

This game devoured my time in a fashion not unlike that of a blue whale consuming krill. I purchased it the night it came out, and having been stricken with viral bronchitis, it proceeded to consume a full 110 hours of my spare time over the next ten days. I will credit this ferocity primarily to the bronchitis, rather than the game. In any case, I left the game utterly beaten and broken. I completed every quest line, owned every property, blah blah blah. Point is, I utterly exhausted its content. It held no secrets from me.

The first few hours are delightful - Skyrim is filled to the brim with things that you wish were in more video games. It's a high fantasy interpretation of Grand Theft Auto. This idea alone has caused dignified men and women to drool for socially unacceptable periods of time. It's natural that everyone would want to love it, that it would receive rave reviews across the board. Yet, the better I got to know Skyrim, the less I loved it. I even began to resent it very deeply. I am no Scrooge. I do not dislike things simply because they are widely enjoyed. I do, however, feel agony at missed opportunities and misguided endeavors. The ES franchise, I have come to conclude, is one long story of these very things. Looking back, I realize that they've all failed to accept some very basic facts of life. Each of them have been an ocean wide and an inch deep.

The fundamentals of the RPG are the following: leveling up; learning cool abilities; acquiring equipment and treasure. Advancement paths are placed on a log scale to provide rapid progression early on but greater challenge over time. Ability sets are made thematically and mechanically distinct, each favoring different types of playstyles. Equipment provides tangible statistical and aesthetic rewards by enhancing personalization and specialization. Package this into an alternate universe of some sort, and you have yourself an RPG. If it sounds formulaic, that's because it is. The FPS genre is much the same way; the formula there is probably less complicated, too. The devil, however, is in the details.

There's a lot about the game I could single out. The completely braindead nature of the AI, wherein you can expect mudcrabs, bandits, and skeletons to behave in the same manner (they charge directly at you and path awkwardly around terrain). Or the absurdly bland lore that has been used and re-used since the second game of the series (let alone the hilariously awkward voice acting - arrow in the knee, anyone?). Or the laughably bad interface that was actually a step backwards from the previous game, and perhaps even Morrowind, too (it consists only of menus that have to be traversed linearly and cannot be sorted in any way). Or the lack of any worthwhile mechanisms of travel (it was actually faster to sprint than to ride a horse!). These are the kinds of oversights that can be forgiven when the game has something truly lovely to offer, such as a compelling story, creative mechanics, challenging gameplay, or an immersive presentation. Skyrim does not.

Anyone that played WoW from BC to WotLK knows what a great talent tree looks like. A good talent tree enables specialization into different styles of play and forces tough choices between competing but appealing enhancements. Yet, for the most part, the skill trees in Skyrim are filled with nothing more than steroids - "become 20% better at" and "deal 20% more damage with". The few that contain mechanical enhancements will almost never change the way the game is actually played. The top tier talent for archery was a percent chance to proc paralysis on shot - think about this. Doing exactly what you did before (shooting arrows at the enemy), you now cause your enemies to flop down on the floor, where you will continue to shoot them until they remain flopped on the floor permanently. How thrilling. In some cases, mastery over a skillset didn't even require placing any points into the tree (unless you wanted to waste points). This is nothing but absolute horseshit.

But then there's the problem of challenge. RPGs rely on scaling difficulty in order to ensure that the game stays interesting. It's not fun to walk around one-shotting everything in the game, but that's what I did after 15-20 hours. I'm a min-maxer, and it didn't take me very long to find an optimal combat strategy that meant I never died unless I made some grave error. Part of this is a result of the aforementioned stupid NPC AI. Part of it's the fact that all of the dungeons were linear and all but a handful of encounters were exactly the same. Ultimately, though, it was a result of fighting the same enemies, endlessly. The majority of mobs will be encountered within the first 2-3 hours of the game, and from that point, nothing but adjectived, higher HP variations of those same mobs will appear.

Of course, even if there were a decent challenge, there wouldn't be any reward. A whopping 10(ish) different sets of equipment exist in the game, and they're divided in half between heavy and light. On top of that, it's a flatly tiered system. Aesthetic preferences go out the window as you replace one piece at a time every few hours, garnishing those handfuls of armor points. None of them offer any kind of abilities or ability modification (+%skill does not count). Most of them don't even look good. Some of them even look patently ridiculous. They've clung to glass armor for so long now, but it appears they missed the memo that it is simply not cool to waltz around coated in glass, no matter what sort of adventurer is being played. Weapons never manage to surpass anything more complex than dealing damage at a varying time period after left-clicking. Spells are worse than derivative, being poorly balanced from a numbers perspective while never bestowing a sense of satisfaction or power.

I hear your question. If it's so lame, why did I play it? Well, there's two circumstantial factors. There was the bronchitis (doing anything but sitting in a chair lead to lots of coughing fits), and I have a bit of an obsession with 100% completing games once I've started them. I get a certain satisfaction knowing that I covered all the available content. Outside of that, however, I'd probably say it was based on the hope that what I hadn't seen yet would change my mind. For sure, some of the environments were really pretty - particularly the Dwemer dungeons and the subterranean nexus cave with the glowing tentacles and whatnot. Those might have even been worth the price of admission; it's a tough call. I'm certainly a sucker for artistic grandeur.

In any case, here's my point: Skyrim is a game that fails to advance its genre in any way. So many games have developed excellent solutions to the problems that plague the Elder Scrolls series, but it's a series that doesn't seem willing to move on from where it was ten years ago. Given the fundamentally derivative mechanics and presentation, it leaves me to wonder if the designers have spent much time playing the games that other folks have made. My interest in games these days is in creativity. I want puzzles that force me to think in ways I haven't thought before. I seek out mechanics that enable novel playstyles. I crave alternate universes with lore that goes beyond elves and orcs, and crafts a world that I really haven't seen before. I want to be challenged, such that I'll be forced to learn and adapt long after I've mastered the fundamental mechanics. Games shouldn't be about forgetting reality. Games should enrich our lives, such that reality becomes a better place, more filled with creativity and ingenuity.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 5 Comments
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Three months ago, I said I had begun taking bupropion. It's time for an update on that. For the record, if you believe it unwise that I should discuss such a topic on the medium of blogs, I no longer see this as being fundamentally different from prescribing an antibiotic for an infection. This is not to suggest that modern psychotropic medication even begins to approach the level of accuracy or certainty as there exists with, say, penicillin. It is more to posit that I don't think this should be a subject of taboo. I would rather like to be able to discuss this without that awkward sensation of entering a zone of excess intimacy.

To recap a bit: medication was not something I had an interest in at any point prior. I felt strongly that the causes of my void of progress were a fatal cocktail of environmental issues combined with self-disciplinary failures. I saw myself as too unprincipled to maintain the kind of long-term responsibility necessary to make it through higher education, a problem that was exacerbated by the fundamental errors of the structure of American society as was available to me. I'm sure that both of these things contained a kernel of truth. However, the medication has brought about a level of change that I had previously not thought possible. I am now faced with the possibility that accepting medication may have been one of the best decisions of my life.

Bupropion is considered a norepinephrine-dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, but it also initiates the release of additional norepinephrine and dopamine. Basically, it increases the concentration of those two neurotransmitters within the system. Rather than list the known uses and consequences of bupropion, I'll just tell you about my experience. The first thing I noticed was an overall increase in energy. In fact, for the first three weeks, I found it absolutely impossible to exhaust myself. Waking up in the morning was absurdly easy, but going to sleep was a serious challenge. Once I did fall asleep, I slept very lightly and found myself frequently waking up during the night. This had the interesting consequence of making me much more cognizant of my dreams (everyone dreams when they sleep, but if you don't wake up during or directly after dreaming, it's forgotten), which made sleeping a very entertaining experience. Despite my increased energy levels, I found my ability to focus increased dramatically. Whereas before I would be consistently interrupted by very disruptive trains of thought and emotion - no matter what I was doing at the time - within a few days I became able to hone in on my task without mental distraction.

Then, there was its impacts on anxiety. I found myself alleviated of a weight that I had not previously realized was there. I would not have described myself as a stressed or anxious person in the past, but when I recall the frame of my consciousness as compared to now, it was filled with innumerable checklists that I was constantly running through, again and again. This was completely eliminated. I felt able to strip my current focus down to what was truly relevant, and ignore the extraneous material that was generating an intense feeling of being overwhelmed and incapable of handling reality on a moment-to-moment basis, let alone the long-term.

Then, there was the shame. Again, I would never have described myself as an ashamed person - but once it left, I knew that it had been there all along. Time did not seem to be capable of healing the embarrassment I felt about any of the events in my past. I could think back to errors or misjudgments I had made as far back as early childhood and I would instantly feel a sledgehammer of vindication and guilt. Yet, this did not compare to the intensity I would feel when I had erred in the moment. Social mishaps were like landmines waiting to thrust me into an oblivion of despair, serving as incontrovertible evidence that I was the worthless human being I had always feared that I might be. If it sounds dramatic, that's how it felt. I insert no exaggeration here.

This, too, vanished - and I mean vanished. I could return to the same memory, but this time my reaction would be within the realm of reason. I could recognize it for the mistake that it was without obsessing over the multitude of possible cosmic consequences of that event. These things, on the scale of it all, were extraordinarily average moments of the human experience that I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn from without suffering in a truly lasting manner. I was no longer haunted by memory, but in fact propelled. Memory became my own personal data set which I had the joyous convenience to analyze, and each moment of living experience was a chance to add novel information to that collection.

Never would I have called myself a person filled with fear, but I would say now without hesitation I was absolutely loaded with fear. Fear of being average. Fear of spending my life alone. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being an asshole. Fear of disapproval. With the shame gone, there was no fear. With the fear gone, there was no anxiety. I could now carry out my actions without a backdrop of agitation and uncertainty. My energy was no longer divided between accomplishing my present task and paying my dues to an unrewarding black hole of non-reality.

But enough rhetoric. Talk is cheap. Where are the results?

I began taking the meds in early October. At work, I started calling in late and sick significantly less. Two weeks later I wrote a proposal to start a new project on our website. My boss accepted the proposal, and I got bumped in hours. The increase in hours allowed me to save up the money I needed to pay off my debts and go back to school. I am enrolled at TC3, and for the first time, I'm on top of my shit. I have all of my textbooks on time. I spent ten minutes talking to one of my profs after class. I did homework on a Saturday afternoon. None of these things have occurred in the past. It's helped immensely with quitting smoking, too. I still crave at moments, but the act is not nearly as satisfying. In the last two months, I have purchased three packs. Before this, I was consuming a pack every three days. There's more I could talk about, but I think this is just the beginning. Really, really, really.

The only negative side effect has been my loss of appetite. I don't eat as much as I used to, mostly because I just don't desire many foods. I still feel hunger, but it competes with a lack of desire to consume anything. I remember frequently remarking on my love of eating months ago, but now I find that it's infrequent to feel a strong compulsion to eat anything. I still eat regularly enough - it's not hard to tell when my body is starting to lose functional efficiency due to lack of resources. It just doesn't have the same zest. Outside of that, I can identify no ill consequence.

My mind has never been sharper. Some anti-depressants leave people feeling like zombies, or disconnected from emotions they previously enjoyed. This has not happened for me, and my heightened focus and clarity of consciousness enables me to experience most things in a fuller way. It's true that I no longer have the episodes of euphoric creativity and confidence, but I do not think they were doing me much good anyways. My delusions of grandeur have subsided, and I am able to accept that I am, objectively speaking, not very different from anyone else. That doesn't weaken my identity - I just don't have to feel like an alien any longer.

Best of all, I no longer find that I am comparing myself to my role models again and again. Comparison is patently ridiculous - why should I aspire to be another, when I am already me? I can certainly learn from the successes and failures of my peers, but it is useless to wish to be someone that I am not. I am who I am, with the many strengths and weaknesses I possess, whether due to genetics, environment, or personality. Another quote says it better than I can.

"There is a time in every many's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide," - Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I told my mother, I believe it's a new era. My vision is clear, my course is set. A long road is ahead of me, and I will savor every moment of it.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 3 Comments
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I wrote an email. Wouldn't you like to read it? It's about Minecraft.

Dear Notch,

I'm a long-time player of Minecraft - since 1.1.0 alpha. The single player mode consumed about 20 hours of my time, but I put it down when I realized that no one else would ever be able to enjoy the fortress I'd created. A few weeks later, I got together with a group of my friends and we started a server. It's tough to say how much time I've put into the projects on that server (see here) - a thousand hours would be a low estimate. I mention this solely to support the statement that I've spent a great deal of time thinking about where Minecraft has been, where it's going, and what its potential is. Right now, that potential is being squandered. You created a wonderful game, the first viable entry into what could be a totally new genre of video games. However, I feel strongly that the direction you've taken the game is one of very, very limited potential.

I share your affinity for dungeon crawlers. I see the influence RPGs have brought to bear on the game, and I respect the intention. I think it's shooting too low. I love RPGs of all shapes and sizes, but they are nothing if not arbitrary. Experience, enchantments, achievements, tools, armor - all of these things are fine, but they are not ends that encourage a truly dynamic or novel experience. They do not enhance the creative potential of the player because they insert static incentive structures. This, of course, is the core of every RPG. The game for players then becomes developing behavior that most efficiently garnishes rewards from those incentive structures, which is why grinding/farming occurs. Vying for efficiency is much of what makes RPGs so delightful, but it is a wretched outcome in Minecraft. With the right mechanics, Minecraft could be a game with unlimited possibilities.

I've read most of your blog entries over the last year and a half, and you seem to have an interest in procedural mechanics and emergent interaction. I notice you've done side projects related to cellular automata. Certainly, the work you did with the terrain generation in Minecraft is fantastic, and the quality and diversity of environments you're able to produce with the biome system is unmatched by anything else today. Combined with dynamic light, water, and lava, environments become truly natural. Their qualities are no longer arbitrary, but emergent - and on top of that, they are fully subject to modification. This principle could apply to much, much more than just the environment, but the direction of Minecraft's development does not seem to recognize this potential.

Pistons, redstone, water, and lava are the only true block-block interactions.

You built a foundation for extremely complex interactions by including redstone. With logic gates, it is suddenly possible to create complex interaction scenarios. Yet, aside from pistons, the only blocks the redstone can influence are superfluous (lights, minecarts, doors), but pistons have enabled some of the coolest creations in Minecraft (did you see that mountain builder where they alternated flows of water and lava suspended in the air?). They're the first real step of enabling true interactivity in Minecraft. Nothing since, and pistons are hampered by the game's engine anyways. The netcode isn't accurate enough to enable rigorously timed operations on a server. Redstone is absurdly bulky to work with, and planning anything beyond simple functionality requires significant planning. On top of that, pistons can't be customized in any way. Making something as simple as a secret staircase is extremely cumbersome. Here's a short list of blocks and block modifiers that would go a long way:

Note: At this point, I managed to send the email half-completed, before I was able to proofread the above paragraph. Which is why it sucks.

- Moving (floating) platforms (think Zelda or Mario), blocks to modify another block's position from a distance
- Blocks that modify block color, blocks that emit a given color of light
- Blocks that change state based on environmental details - weather, light, time, elevation, proximity to water, lava, or air
- Blocks that generate new blocks, blocks that consume blocks (more sponge!)

The possibilities for block-block interaction are endless. An entire RPG could be made within Minecraft, if these types of blocks were available. We've seen Minecraft servers develop into massive community projects, accomplishing feats of immense collaborative nerdiness. Imagine if these people had the tools to take their creations from glorified dollhouses to living, breathing dungeons filled with stories, battles, platforming sequences, and puzzles. It's entirely possible - the communities that exist out there would most certain make use of the capability. But...

Limited mod support hinders the greatest avenues of growth.

With a good mod API, all of these features could be modded in without trouble. If this isn't a direction you're interested in taking the game, then I implore you to make it feasible for the modding community to do so. Some of my friends believe that another company will eventually pick up the torch and release the game that we wish for Minecraft to be - but I am doubtful. Competitors may mimic your focus, and embrace the block world as a format for adventuring. Terraria certainly didn't build on it. Ace of spades shows its viability with the FPS genre, but the updates I see are primarily focused on the shooting, rather than the world. But here's what I think the modding community would be able to bring to the game:

- Ability to dynamically alter/script player stats (speed, size, vision) and interface (status effects, menus, maps, dialogue)
- Dynamically alter/script mob behavior (shopkeeper NPCs! dungeon bosses! questgivers!)
- Simple physics, simple machines (it's been demonstrated that cellular automata can approximate simple physics!)
- Creating new block properties - temperature, mass, density, pressure, permeability - the list goes on
- Custom block textures

These kinds of features barely scratch the surface of what is possible with a world simulator like Minecraft. Some of these ideas are much, much more complicated than others, but I believe every one of them would establish Minecraft as a pioneer of a new way of playing video games - through the act of active creation, rather than following the path that someone else made. Perhaps I sound outside the bounds of rationality, but I genuinely believe you have a golden opportunity in your hands. My talents do not lie in programming - so I'm left at the mercy of such venerable programmers as yourself.

Thanks for all your work - I appreciate what you've created and enjoyed Minecraft immensely. I'm sure you're busy, but if you have feedback or comments on this I would tell everyone you're a cool guy with awesome hair. I promise.

Take care,


P.S. Sorry for sending this in two emails. As you may have guessed, the first part was sent prematurely. Story of my life.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 0 Comments
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I've kept an eye on the Occupy Wall Street protests these last few weeks. I'm lucky enough to have several people in my social networking feeds that are doing the same thing, even including one guy who's been on the ground with his camera. We'll see what happens tomorrow with the temporary eviction, which I think could be serious test of the movement's public image if they don't work amicably with the rather reasonable desire to keep the park in good condition.  Then again, it could also just be a pretext for shutting it down.  It's hard to know for sure - regardless of the the motivation, I doubt the protesters have any interest in leaving, and I also doubt the police will feel any reticence in evicting them.

There's a lot of discussion about what the point of this whole movement is supposed to be.  I've found this to be frustrating, because I don't think it's that hard to understand who and what are being protested - the problem is that the protests are coming about three years too late.  There would be absolutely no question about the purpose of these demonstrations if they had occurred in the weeks following the major bank bailouts.  Some people would use this as an example of the scourge of apathy across America, but I believe there's a few reasons it's taken so long for any serious protests to occur.

1) The mortgage-backed securities fiasco was complicated.

There was plenty of outrage, to be certain, but laying down the train of cause-and-effect meant understanding some of the basics of how the market functions.  Over the following months, some great videos and resources came out to understanding exactly what happened and why, but the average American watching cable was not being presented with anything in the vein of intelligible information.  Effective protest means directing anger at the proper source, but also requires an understanding of what is in need of changing.  Some blamed the banks.  Or Magnetar.  Others blamed the administration.  Or the people who bought houses on bad credit.  Or the Fed.  Or Paulson and Geithner.  Without a unified target to direct energy, public outrage turned into yet another liberal vs. conservative shitshow.

2) We had a new president who was supposed to perform serious reform.

The feeling of anticipation I had for the smackdown I thought Obama would bring on the banks and hedge funds was tangible.  That smackdown never came, and instead, there was even a bizarre cognitive dissonance coming from the financial sector: they felt villainized and discriminated against by the administration, despite the fact that Obama couldn't even stop the CEOs from receiving millions in bonuses.  It became, in my mind, a classic feature of Obama's tactics - good intentions, but lacking the balls to do what's truly necessary.  He's too eager to compromise.  The system was left mostly unchanged.

3) There were no examples.

Within the last decade, the closest thing America has seen in terms of nation-wide protest has been the Tea Party, and this, I feel, is but a shadow of genuine activism.  A movement that was swiftly co-opted by the right wing, the Tea Party became nothing more than a tool to lower Obama's ratings and later, to fight the heath care bill.  Legend has it that in the beginning, the Tea Party was not unlike the Occupy Wall Street protests, having a serious interest in disentangling the incestuous relationship between government and corporations.  By the time I ever saw anything of it, however, any trace of that had evaporated into mindless outrage.

Recently, however, there's been the Arab Spring, a subject of great interest and admiration all across the American media.  Many people have shown a serious interest in how these budding revolutions are turning out, and it's practically a guarantee that the courage and spirit of people in the Middle East has been a source of inspiration for the protests we're seeing today.

A little late in coming, we now have the Occupy protests sprinkled across the country, and the haters are hating hard.  CNN, at first refusing to acknowledge their existence, now rather brilliantly co-opts the movement to make the movement suit their needs (if you don't get it - consider the simple irony of a movement called Occupy Wall Street being primarily about government corruption).  Twitter continues to keep #ows and its affiliates out of the trending list.  You can tell any given news outlet's stance just based on how they're phrasing the upcoming eviction.  They're either jobless hippies dirtying up the city or valiant warriors against The Man.

I want to see this movement succeed.  I understand exactly what they're trying to express.  Frustration about a lack of change.  The absurdity of corporate personhood.  The ever-growing maw of income inequality.  The oligarchical system of relationships between the government and business.  A void of effective and trustworthy regulating authorities.  A fear for the future of America as a free nation, if we continue on this path.

The obstacles, I fear, are too great.  Misinformation is rampant, and without individual spokespeople, there is little hope for control over public image.  Demands will never be met because the protesters have zero leverage, especially without public support.  I will be surprised if any significant change occurs as a direct result of these protests.

Even still, I don't think all hope is lost.  If it can be done once, it can be done again - and better.  These protests reveal a hunger for highly organized and effective activism.  Maybe the Occupy movement will find that in time to prevent its own fizzling out - but my instincts say that if it were going to happen, it would have happened already.  Only time will tell.
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Of late, I've had a certain experiment on my mind. It's a well-known study that involves placing an electrode into a specific area of a rat's brain, and putting the rat into a box with a lever that activates the electrode.
Rats will perform lever-pressing at rates of several thousand responses per hour for days in order to obtain direct electrical stimulation of the lateral hypothalamus. Multiple studies have demonstrated that rats will perform reinforced behaviors at the exclusion of all other behaviors. Experiments have shown rats to forgo food to the point of starvation in order to work for brain stimulation or intravenous cocaine when both food and stimulation are offered concurrently for a limited time each day. Rats will even cross electrified grids to press a lever, and they are willing to withstand higher levels of shock to obtain electrical stimulation than they are to accept for food (thanks Wikipedia)
Reading this, I immediately see myself pressing the levers that make the pretty pictures appear on my screen and sounds burst from my speakers. My relationship with technology has been highly isolating. For as long as I can remember, my pattern of behavior has often resembled strong addiction and compulsion. I've spent a great deal of time wondering what my life would be like in an age without computers, the internet, and the many video games I've devoted tens of thousands of hours to. These entities have also enriched my life in myriad ways, enabling me to acquire knowledge and hone skills that have become the foundation of my identity. If I have any claim to mastery over rhetoric or vocabulary, I owe that to technology (and my grandmother, for all those games of Boggle). But the internet is a poor teacher of self-mastery, and my lack of this has been my continued downfall.

I don't subscribe to the idea that taking command of one's life is a matter of willpower. Given what we know about developmental psychology, it seems clear to me that very few aspects of our life are the result of choices we make. We have an immensely powerful subconscious that guides a great deal of our behavior, which forms the foundation upon which conscious thought occurs. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a metaphor that I rather like from his book, The Happiness Hypothesis:
The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.
I'm not going to spend too much time waxing depressive about the havoc weakness of will has wreaked on my life since puberty began, but I've reached a point of maximum frustration with myself. I've dropped out four times. I've burned through three relationships in one year. I'm 22, and I'm back to living in my parent's basement. I'm not ungrateful - I'm glad that my parents are willing to let me stay while I recover my debts and try to save up for school - but as my friends disperse out across the globe, I am unsatisfied with what I've accomplished in the time given to me. I'm tired of hearing about how much potential I have and how I have the ability to do anything. I want more from life - or more accurately, I want more from myself.

I've spent too long fucking around with this depression. The older I get, the more clearly I see how it's permeated my life since puberty. I recently found and re-read one of my journals from when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I was stunned by how clear and painfully obvious my depression was. Entry after entry, I express utter hopelessness and despair. Until reading it, I reflected on my teenage angst as just that - the unfortunate curse of adolescent frustration. Yet now, I suspect that my agony was more than just the curse of hormones and high school. I mean, fuck, I missed 53 days of school my senior year, 30 in my junior year. Even as an adult, I don't think I've truly admitted to myself how serious of a problem it's been. My time in the psych ward is an excellent example. I was able to turn the event into a personal victory through story-telling, but even as I wrote it, I denied the very foundation of that event, brushing off my overwhelming apathy and despair as being trivial, characterizing the doctors in the story as overreacting to my suicidal ideation. I've always recognized my delusions of grandeur, but only within the last year have I seen that they're intimately connected with the intense mood swings that have been the hallmark of my daily life for ten years.

Then, of course, there's my unassailable fortress, my intense criticism of society at large. I declined any suggestion of medication because I was convinced that these were social problems, and there is no pill to fix society. What I really needed was to get away, to be with people that understood and appreciated me, to be in a place where things were done properly. Coming home from Europe, I brought with me a fantasy that life was truly, objectively better in another part of the world, that if I could find a way to stay there, I would know fulfillment and finally integrate into society. I conveniently forgot that, while there, I was shielded from the myriad responsibilities that go into maintaining an independent life. I ignored the fact that I was only there for four months, that many people have acted on the same impulse, discovering that a year later, routine has wormed their way into their life once more. Don't get me wrong - cursed be the day that I abandon my hopes of living abroad and integrating into other cultures - but I've been foolish to believe that the essentials for fulfillment are there, and not here also. Fulfillment, it seems, is a personal responsibility.

To this end, I sought out my doctor and have begun taking bupropion. Hopefully that will get the elephant on track. We'll see how it goes.
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I can't pretend that Ithaca could be called a city, but the resemblances are budding if you look closely enough. At the State St. house, I was precisely halfway between collegetown and downtown, which are the focal points of most activity in the area. It's as busy as this town gets, which is quite dull. Still, it's a few steps away from suburban, and I was surprised at the quantity of adjustments I found necessary. It took me a while to sleep through sirens a few times a night (on weekends especially), or just the generally constant passing of traffic. Once I adjusted, though, it became like white noise not unlike the whine of cicadas. Not unpleasant, and perhaps even a welcome reminder that the world is still going on. It even made me feel a bit jealous on those days I was bedridden with disease, knowing that everyone else was doing their thing while I could not.

There was, however, a sense of aesthetic disconnection from nature. This feels strange to say given the sometimes awkward artificiality of suburban landscapes (even in Ithaca), but there is something to be said for the sheer quantity of greenery consuming the visual field. Roads, sidewalks, power lines, and buildings gradually become more densely packed while trees and bushes seem more at odds with their surroundings. The roof was a delightful escape from this offense; at somewhere between three and four stories tall, the house was just tall enough to see above the tree canopy. It was distant enough from the ground and obscured from the main road by trees, so it bestowed just enough privacy to feel at ease. It was also well above the street lights, allowing for a very wide view of the stars at night. It was a place of intense excellence.

Growing up, I didn't pay a lot of attention to nature - even in a place as overwhelmed with natural beauty as Ithaca. Boy Scouts provided the majority of my outdoor experiences, but I valued the hiking and camping more as a social activity than as an opportunity to experience genuinely natural environments. I biked a lot, but I was much more focused on my speedometer than on the landscape. I just didn't have any innate curiosity towards the natural world.  It lacked movement, meaning, and excitement.

Of course, it could also be argued that I didn't have any curiosity in the structure of the world - natural or human - as an adolescent. At fifteen, I remember arguing with my father about why in the world I would ever want to go on a family trip to Germany. I believe I actually uttered the phrase "Dad, castles are boring". Admittedly, this had far more to do with pissing off my dad than making any kind of value statement. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the priority that such forms of enrichment held for me. I saw nature in much the same way that I saw history: a quaint novelty, best left for eccentrics and enthusiasts.

Although I'd spent a lot of my childhood watching Animal Planet, I'd never really been exposed to anything but the most classless of nature documentaries (I love you, Steve Irwin, but I did not learn much from you). My brother was the first to introduce me to Planet Earth, which was probably the first time I began to see how the complex interactions of nature form something uniquely beautiful.  It left me excited in the same way that, previously, only philosophy seemed able to do. I had this sense of understanding just a little more about the elements of existence, and for the first time, evolution descended temporarily from the abstract.

At the State St. house, Matt and I watched and re-watched Planet Earth again and again. Every viewing seemed to reveal something new and exciting about the natural world, and we spent many hours discussing how the environments presented before us engendered the adaptations of the organisms in question marveling at the seemingly infinite complexity of nature. Just as we grew tired of Planet Earth, another David Attenborough masterpiece came out - Life - and we quickly devoured that, too. Side note: if you're a fan of Planet Earth or Life, I would strongly recommend checking out The Life of Birds and The Life of Mammals on Netflix. No one does nature better than David Attenborough.

As soon as winter began to fade, we were back outside.  As early as April, we were down at First Dam for a swim in some frighteningly balls-cold water. We spent many days and nights in the Wildflower Preserve, hunting for good vistas and discussing whatever features of the environment struck us as novel. For the first time, the environment became truly alive to me. Trees were no longer just the concrete of the forest, but a living organism existing on entirely different time-scale. Walls of slate were no longer just impressive for their size and dominance, but evidence of an ice age that saw glaciers slicing up the landscape. Even the deer, which I once saw only as a pest, came to represent something more - an absence of wolves, an abundance of resources, a challenge of urbanization. Evolution had leaped from theory to reality, and it was revealing significance and qualities worthy of fascination in even the most mundane aspects of the environment.

Which just so happened to coincide with my employment at a publishing office for ecological science.

posted by MC Froehlich at with 0 Comments
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As little as I post, the blog weighs heavily on my heart from day to day. I think often of the posts that I should and could be writing, but the last three years have found me incapable of seeing the process through to the end on a consistent basis. I have this overwhelming sense of potential for this place, reinforced by a nagging awareness of how cathartic writing actually always ends up being for me. I'm easily discouraged, however, and if I don't find myself spewing forth beautiful imagery with every keystroke, I wander away to other corners of the Internet that promise more immediate satisfaction. I'll leave a tab open with the two or three half-fulfilled paragraphs just waiting to be injected with life, and every time I sit down I am forced to conjure a new reason why I can't complete the entry. At this point, I feel with certainty that I would benefit greatly from lowering the bar for what's worth publishing. I have been awkwardly using social networks to do what this blog is much better equipped to do. Shorter posts will go a long way by placing less pressure on each individual entry. But enough melancholy.

At a friend's recommendation, I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (wiki). It's a philosophical text written in the form of the Socratic method. As it happens, the last book I read was also written in this format, so I guess I have an affinity for the style. Halfway through the book I began to realize that the author was genuinely crazy, which was a shame given how valuable a lot of his insight had been up to that point. Still, I enjoyed his perspective on culture and mythology.

Quinn's idea begins pretty simply. If we were to go back to the age when jellyfish were the most advanced organisms on the planet, and we asked them to tell their creation story, the jellyfish would say that the pinnacle of creation is the jellyfish. They would describe the earth as being made for jellyfish. Quinn then goes on to examine the words we humans use when describing our origins "then there were marsupials, then mammals, then came primates, and then, man!". It ends at humanity - not just because we can't see into the future, but because, by and large, modern culture sees man as the end product of the evolutionary process. In reality, the forces that brought us into existence are still acting, and will continue to do so long after humanity goes extinct. He uses to then describe various ways in which modern culture is violating the basic rules of sustainable engagement with the community of life. What's really interesting, however, is his integration of the Genesis story into his analysis.

While in England, one of my big turning points was reading a commentary on the book of Genesis. I'd started reading it because a new student had showed up that was very passionately resistant to evolution, and I found my lack of genuine understanding about Genesis to be inhibiting my ability to engage with her (she interpreted the Bible quite literally). I wish I could remember who the author was, but it was positively brilliant, and it was the first time I'd been exposed to the idea that Cain and Abel could be a metaphor for the conflict between farmers and nomads. Quinn takes it a step further and retells the entire story of the Garden of Eden as being a metaphor for the agricultural revolution. It's surprisingly apt. The agricultural revolution is wholly responsible for the development of technology and collaboration, and marked a significant change in lifestyle for Homo sapiens. Compared to the absurdly difficult work of farming, nomads led relatively leisurely lives. The agricultural societies were waging war on the nomadic cultures for land, and so the story the nomads passed down to their children emphasized the folly of the farmers - giving up an easy life in an attempt to take more control over their own fate. Not knowing what agriculture would eventually give rise to, early farmers really must have seemed like the worst kind of assholes.

Of course, every word Quinn writes thereafter is a snoozefest of complaints about the evils of modern society. I should have known, really, as from the first chapter he claims to have the answer to today's problems. That's always a dead giveaway that the author might be a douche. Now it's time to move on; I started on Walden, but I think I may shift gears to fiction and dive into Game of Thrones.

On the documentary end of things, I finished Ken Burn's series on the Civil War. If you've got Netflix (and 15 hours), it's a mighty fine documentary, even if it seemed to revel in its dryness at times. I've now started on a series by Ric Burns (younger brother of Ken Burns) following the development of New York City, from 1600 to the present day. I don't really have any particular interest in NYC above any other major city, but what can I say? I'm a sucker for good information presented well.

Hey, look at that. A finished post.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 1 Comments
scientification, act 1
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I think I have some explaining to do regarding the last two years of my life. I've strayed from sharing the day-to-day details of my life on this blog, but I think it's time to make this place a little more human. As my dearest friends disperse out across the world once more, it would suit me to become comfortable providing some more detail about the progress in my life.

Spring 2009 was a rough period in my history. I was still working at the Geek Squad, a job whose only saving grace was a team of exuberant and eccentric co-workers that allowed me to share in some of their excellence. I was really enjoying the academics at IC, but the social scene was intensely isolating and in my semester there I couldn't manage to make a single friend. I was also struggling to come to terms with my gradual conversion to atheism and what this meant for my identity and future. Living with my parents greatly exacerbated all of these issues, and I was eager to get out. When John approached me about joining him on an apartment hunt, I was totally on board.

We checked out 7 or 8 different places, but it was the last place we looked that we ended up going for. It was a pretty good deal – 500/month, all utilities included, tons of space, in-house laundry, and a landlord that seemed very clearly to not give a fuck. Boom. To afford this venture, I took out a bit of school loans, assuming that I would still be at IC in the fall. Of course, it wasn't until after signing the lease that I received my letter of suspension – no matter, I said. I can do TC3 from here.

As soon as I looked at my coffers and saw how bountiful they were thanks to the loan money (I get a great laugh remembering how I thought $6k would last me forever), I saw no cause for pressure or worry. I shrugged a massive “meh” to TC3 after starting the semester and bowed out of my job at Best Buy. I was determined to forge a unique and stellar path with my new beginnings out on my own. I spent a few weeks daydreaming about going back to Europe, looking into some sort of transfer program that would send me to Germany or beyond. The reality is, of course, that no such opportunities exist for college dropouts. I resigned to stay.

The interview for my next job was an interesting affair. The CTO had been asking me a series of fairly standard questions, when the CEO walked in and said that if I could fix the virus that was plaguing their email, I was hired. So I stayed for a few hours and cleansed their network. At 20 years old, I was the (wholly unqualified) systems administrator for a multi-million dollar small business that specialized in materials testing. It was a pretty exciting place for the first two months. I was given nearly complete control of 35 workstations and half a dozen dedicated servers. I answered only to the CEO and CTO. I spent half of my time just trying to sort through the ridiculous mess that had been left behind by my predecessor. I performed the company's first inventory of software and hardware. About every two weeks a server would crash, and it was on me to figure out why and fix it in the shortest possible time-span. I had to learn to use Unix on the fly. I was constantly using and installing crazy software I'd never touched before. It was quite the novelty having a job that consistently provided intellectual challenge and reward.

This would have been wonderful were it not for the absolutely miserable working conditions. The net turnover rate exceeded 300% - some positions saw more than half a dozen individuals cycle through in a given year. This was because the CEO was probably the most controlling and narcissistic character I've ever encountered. Most of the engineers were getting paid less than I was – and I was underpaid as it was. It was a place of extremely low morale and job satisfaction. After working all day on Christmas Eve, I never came back. I just didn't show up again. It was at this point that I realized how much I needed to be in school. If I didn't want to work crap job after crap job, I'd need a degree. My realization came a little late, though. I still owed TC3 for the fall semester. There wasn't enough time to acquire loans, either. To enhance the situation, I'd gone on a spending spree in the fall, still feeling financially invincible. School was out of the question.

I clutzed around assuming that finding another job would be as easy as it was with the sysadmin position. I spent a solid two months jerking around in a state of relative inactivity. By the time Feburary rolled around, I realized that I could only afford one more month of rent, and panic set in. Three dozen applications later without a response I began trying to join the Air Force, but I couldn't even get a call back from a recruiter. The margin between finding my next job and being forced to move out was less than a week. Looking back, the absurdity of my irresponsibility is matched only by my extraordinary luck.

The place I landed at and where I have managed to stay for the last year and a half is the publications office for the Ecological Society of America. The ESA publishes a suite of scientific journals in the field of ecology, most of which rank in the top 20 for impact factor. My official title is that of the esteemed Office Assistant. In a nutshell, I perform the nitty gritty data entry that comes with the processing of scientific manuscripts. I proofread manuscripts for adherence to the venerable ESA style. I enter information about manuscripts and authors into a database. I put together folders for each manuscript. The most complex of my tasks is converting and formatting the online appendices that come with each manuscript. Most of that task I have relegated to a small number of regular expressions in Notepad++.

To explain the immense importance of this job in my life, I'll have to begin detailing what it was about 611 East State Street that was so critical in my life all this time. Which I'll get to. For now, I need to go pick up my father from the airport.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 0 Comments
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This blog was given an award.

It wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Adorable was perhaps the last adjective I had in mind in the creation of this blog, though Laura did say it was given ironically. Social convention dictates that I accept and conform to the stated rules of this award:

  • Thank the person who gave you this award, and link back to them in your post.

  • Tell us 10 things about yourself.

  • Nominate your bloggers.

  • Contact these bloggers, and let them know they received this award.

The alternative to doing these things is that I embrace my inner asshole and analyze the shit out of a seemingly minor event. Can you guess which one I'm going to do?

I hear the objection in your voice. "BUT TIM! It's just a fun little award, why must you destroy it with your antisocial nitpicking!"

On the surface, this is certainly just a fun little award. However, a closer look reveals it to be the blogger's adaptation of an age-old social mechanism: the chain letter.

There are two driving forces behind the propagation of chain letters. First, there's a threat; if you don't pass it on, you'll suffer or die. Many chain letters include anecdotes about some schmuck who didn't pass on the letter and would later be met with the cruel fate of herpes and perhaps death by falling chandelier. Second, there's a promise of future reward; if you do pass it on, you'll be met with great wealth and true love. Because the effort required to pass on the letter is so low (just pass it to 10 people! 50 gold pimp canes awarded if you forward it to 100 or more!) and the apparent risk of not passing it on is massive (I don't want to be infertile!), chain letters tend to spread like wildfire among those who haven't encountered them before. Once you've seen a few, however, it's easy recognize that there are no risks or rewards because the contents of the letter are entirely fiction.

How does this relate to the Adorable Blog Award? Well, let's first consider a classic blogging mechanism: the link swap. It's simple - I post a link to your blog and you'll post a link to mine. Everybody wins! And by win, I mean both blogs get free publicity (readers may as well be the currency of the blogosphere) by accessing each other's readership. At least, that's the idea - it turns out that just slamming links everywhere doesn't work in an age where there are too many links for anyone to click all of them. Internet users these days generally need a decent reason to take the time to investigate a link these days. If they're disappointed, they're less likely to take the recommendation of that source in the future. In the information age, we tend to value those that are best able to sort the wheat from the immense quantity of chaff. Besides, long-term readers can only be attracted and sustained through the consistent generation of novel content. In any case, we have the promise of future reward that the Adorable Blog Award offers: publicity.

The negative reinforcement is a little more subtle. It's not stated outright, but is found in the unspoken implications of not continuing the chain. Ignoring recognition is fundamentally rude - especially if that recognition comes in the form of an award. Even though the award is entirely fictional and arbitrary, to decline the award would be to reject the good will of the offering blogger. Networking lies at the heart of the blogosphere, and to offend one blogger may be to offend many. For a medium whose quantitative value is measured in readers, this prospect is not savory.

For the coup de grâce, the Adorable Blog Award comes packaged with an invitation to write about oneself in the form of fun facts. In general, society frowns upon people talking extensively about themselves unless asked, or if we happen to find them especially fascinating. In general, it would be rather trite to post ten assorted personal facts without provocation, but it's cool if someone or something has asked you to do so. It's exciting, too, because if a question has been asked, then there must be interest. It's much easier to talk when you think your audience is interested in what you have to share.

There we have it: a self-propagating organism driven by the fundamental social mechanics of blogging.

Oh, and here's my ten fun facts:

  1. I haven't read a full book (nor even half of one) since I got back from England. Yes, I know how silly that is. I've started a great number, but something always happens a third of the way through.

  2. I spent most of last summer going completely barefoot (including to work), until I stepped on glass in Nate's backyard. Goddammit, Nate.

  3. Paul has a new blog. This excites me.

  4. I've lost two pairs of glasses to dancing. That is to say, at some point while dancing they fell out of my pocket and I left the bar not realizing they were missing.

  5. I thoroughly enjoy thunderstorms. It reminds me of when my family would hide in the bathtub with a bunch of pillows during tornado warnings. Tornado sirens, for the record, are pretty much just air raid sirens.

  6. For nearly six months, I went to sleep every night watching the Deep Sea episode of Blue Planet. I have the first ten minutes of narration memorized. I usually fell asleep after that.

  7. I still use my scrobbler. The top track - which I haven't listened to in over four years - is an ambient goa trance loop with 5,208 plays. The runner up is a Crystal Method song that I exclusively listened to while playing HoN.

  8. Aside from a few things from the Salvation Army, I haven't purchased new clothes for myself in 3 years. Birthdays, Christmas, and a lot of forgetful borrowing have initiated any and all of my wardrobe changes.

  9. I've never had a broken bone or sprain/twist of any kind. I've never had stitches, and I've never had a cavity. Amazing, considering how gross my teeth were in high school.

  10. For my 21st birthday, I went out alone because it was a Wednesday night and nobody else could go. I managed to collect 14 free drinks from 9 different bars. Halfway through I had a lengthy conversation with a visiting conductor to IC. We discussed the future of orchestral music while consuming lemon drops. They were half off, you see.

Thanks for the award. I hope I didn't ruin it.

If you're curious, it appears the Adorable Blog Award originated from here. The comments on that post are, to me, beyond priceless.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 2 Comments