No new posts till then. In the meantime, enjoy the latest batch of Friday Links, below.
No new posts till then. In the meantime, enjoy the latest batch of Friday Links, below.
As part of my ongoing plan to learn about a new topic every week, this week I’m reading about Rosa Parks.
(By the way, last week concluded my week(s) of learning about the military. Although I picked up lots of interesting bits and pieces, the main thing I learned is that it’s a huge topic and I need to choose a more specific aspect next time.)
Rosa Parks is an icon in the U.S., and the trouble with being an icon is that people only remember you for that one, iconic aspect. I wanted to dig a little deeper.
In the case of Ms. Parks, her legend was born on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, as required by law. She spent a day in jail before she was bailed out. The incident sparked a year-long bus boycott in the city and elsewhere, and was a major force in the larger civil rights movements.
A few things I didn’t know about Ms. Parks:
This quote of hers struck me in particular:
There were other people on the bus whom I knew. But when I was arrested, not one of them came to my defense. I felt very much alone. One man who knew me did not even go by my house to tell my husband I had been arrested. Everyone just went on their way.
Here’s to those who do what’s necessary, especially when they do it alone.
Have you ever been in a situation like hers? How did you handle it?
When people ask what I do for a living, I generally say I’m a computer programmer. I say this because it’s simple and understandable, but it’s only partly true. I do a lot more paperwork than programming.
I write test plans. Follow test plans. Write documentation. Organize documentation. Read documentation that tells me what documentation to write. Send e-mails. Answer questions. Manage projects. Estimate costs. Estimate schedules. Define requirements. Design software. Explain to other software developers what we need. Consult with vendors. Receive training. Et cetera.
I’d say that computer programming – the actual writing of code – accounts for less than 20% of my time.
To be fair, these other tasks aren’t just overhead. They are part of my job description. Lots of people in IT do valuable work and never write programs at all. That’s fine.
But when I get to do some real programming – as I have this week – it makes me happy.
Yet despite all that complexity, programming is a simple pleasure.
It’s simple because computers do exactly what you tell them, no more, no less. And it’s a pleasure because there is joy in precision, in defining a thing and seeing it immediately done.
People are emotional, they’re vague, they have conflicting priorities, they lie, they frequently don’t know what they themselves are doing. Let’s face it: people are trouble.
But if a computer does something wrong, it’s because you (or someone) gave it the wrong instructions.
Programming is also tremendously creative and liberating, because once you know how to write code – in any language – you can do whatever you want. You could write a chatbot, a joke generator, a recipe database, an interactive movie, a speech recognition system, a tic-tac-toe partner – or something cooler than all of those put together.
The mind’s the limit.
I’m reminded of a quote from Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
The entire ocean. The entire world. Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is…what the Black Pearl really is…is freedom.
What programming really is, is freedom.
What about you? Do you ever find simple pleasure in complicated things?
You’ve probably heard by now that North Korea’s infamous ruler, Kim Jong-il, is dead.
He was a strange and horrible man, supreme leader of a strange and horrible country. The nation he ruled is so reclusive, it’s known as the Hermit Kingdom. It is a place where famines kill hundreds of thousands of people, a place where Nazi-style concentration camps (like Camp 22) still exist, a place locked in the absolute grip of a government that controls every aspect of daily life. It is Orwell’s 1984 brought to life. (Take a look at their surreal official website.)
Kim Jong-il himself was a man of many eccentricities. He was a big fan of western movies, and once kidnapped a South Korean filmmaker to help him create his own version of Godzilla. He was so scared of flying that he would only leave the country by train. He claimed to have sunk eleven holes-in-one on his first try playing golf. And, yes, he was responsible for some of worst atrocities in human history.
He died of heart failure on Saturday, 69 years old. Good riddance.
His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is his appointed successor, but he’s inexperienced, and power struggles behind the scenes are probable. I hope somehow, because of all this, something will change. It doesn’t seem likely, but I can hope. Right now, I honestly think a civil war would be better for North Korea than its current state of affairs.
(Technically, Korea is still in a civil war between North and South. Armed troops still stare each other down across the border, as they have for the past fifty-eight years.)
If anything’s going to change, I’m afraid it will have to come from the top. Protests swept the world in 2011, from Tunisia to Libya to Russia, but those protests relied on masses of angry citizens who knew what their government was up to. The people of North Korea are force-fed so much propaganda that it’s hard to imagine any kind of grassroots revolution taking hold.
By the way, North Korea officially calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Article 67 of its constitution reads as follows:
Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association.
That’s what words on paper are worth. That’s what the First Amendment would be worth, too, if Americans stopped caring (or paying attention). Something to consider if you describe your political affiliation as “apathetic.”
Okay, I’m done. Old Man Buckley is off his soapbox.
Tell me, what does this shift in power mean to you?
I believe I’ve mentioned before that this is the third blog I’ve started.
The first, back in 2008, was a mock presidential campaign I ran for a friend of mine, as a joke. The second, in 2009, was Coffee With Sargeras, written from the viewpoint of World of Warcraft’s biggest villain. And now this one.
(Oddly enough – and I’m just realizing this right now – I started all three in the February/March timeframe. Must be something about the end of a long winter that makes me want to inflict my suffering on other people.)
Anyway, for a while now I’ve been meaning to write a post in celebration whenever this blog surpassed the other two and became my longest-running to date. I always meant to look up when that would be, but never got around to it. Figured it was still a while off.
Yeah. Turns out, it happened almost four months ago.
A toast. To kicking ass and taking names. (Where “taking names” means “people leaving their names in the comments,” and “kicking ass” means, as it always does, “putting a lot of words on the Internet.”)
Man, enough about me. What about you guys? What have you celebrated lately?
Normally, when Wikipedia describes somebody, they sum up their occupation in one or two words. Emily Dickinson, poet. Patrick Stewart, actor. A quick, neat label tells you what they’re all about.
Here’s the first sentence of Richard Burton’s Wikipedia page:
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was a British geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat.
Not to be confused with the other Richard Burton, Captain Sir Richard Burton was a man of many talents. But he didn’t just sit at home being impressed with himself. Among his more notable accomplishments are:
As usual, I’m running short on time this morning, so I have to stop there. Suffice it to say, if you decide to read more about Burton, you won’t be disappointed. I’ll leave you with these four lines he wrote (poet, remember?).
Do what thy manhood bids thee do,
from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies
who makes and keeps his self-made laws.
What would you like to be remembered for?
In my experience, philosophy is mostly useless.
I don’t just mean that it has no practical application. I mean it’s mostly useless even at its main job, answering philosophical questions. If you have a question like “What is the nature of reality?” or “How should I live my life?” and you read ten different philosophers, you’ll get ten different answers and still not have it resolved.
I get it. These questions are hard, and I’m not knocking philosophy as a pursuit just because of that. Of course we’re going to ponder the Big Ideas. We’re humans, it’s what we do. All I’m saying is that generally, if you ask a Big Question, you’re not going to get a Definitive Answer.
Today, we’re changing that. In this very post, I, Brian D. Buckley, will resolve the Free Will vs. Destiny question once and for all. (Pause for giggling.)
This used to bother me a lot. Picture sixteen-year-old Brian sitting on a bench, mulling it over. Here’s the fundamental question: Do we make our own decisions, or are they predetermined?
On the Free Will side, you have the visceral feeling, the absolute conviction, that we can make our own choices. I’m doing it right now! I choose to type, and I type. Look at that – I wiggled my thumb, just because. Take that, Fate!
On the Destiny side…well, Destiny is the wrong word, I guess. “Destiny” makes it sound like I’m talking about soulmates, or finding the universe’s purpose for your life. But I’m talking about something else. Science has shown that our thoughts are determined by the firing of neurons in our brain. Our neurons, in turn, are (like everything else) governed entirely by the laws of physics. Their paths are just as set as a boulder rolling downhill, albeit far more complicated. Cold, hard equations control everything we do.
The typical reaction to that last sentence is: “Ha! I’m more than a bunch of equations! People do wild, unpredictable things that make no sense. The equations can be wrong.” I find that reaction deeply unsatisfying because it deeply misunderstands the argument. Nobody’s saying humans are predictable by other humans, only that they are predictable in a more abstract sense: our thoughts are controlled by the immutable laws of physics, and humans have no control over physics.
So what’s the answer?
It’s simple. They’re both right.
Yes, we have control of our own decisions. Yes, we can think about problems, make real choices, do things that are seemingly random or spontaneous. But all those decisions, all those thoughts we feel so much ownership for, are determined and ordained by physics just as much as that downhill-rolling boulder.
I’m not saying free will is an illusion. We really can do what we want. But that feeling of “doing what I want” is the judgment of a process about itself, and the process is ultimately a mechanical one.
To put it yet another way: like a computer, we are following a program from which we cannot deviate, an unfathomably complex program that includes even the acts we feel are “random.” But that program in execution is our will in action. The laws of the universe and the laws of the mind are one and the same.
A couple notes about all this:
1. I didn’t come up with this on my own. A lot of reading guided me in this direction. By far my biggest influence was Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, which I highly recommend for anyone who wants their mind blown. I agree with some of his ideas and disagree strongly with others, but it’s all extremely thought-provoking.
2. I’ve shied away from using the term “determinism.” Back in Newton’s time, people talked about a “clockwork universe,” a world where – theoretically – you could predict everything to the most precise detail, based on the laws of physics, if you only had precise enough information about your starting conditions. A deterministic world, in other words. Well, quantum physics has thrown a wrinkle in that. We now know the universe is not deterministic but probabilistic, and that “precise information about your starting conditions” is inherently impossible. Nevertheless, I don’t buy the argument that free will is somehow “hiding” in quantum mechanics. The universe may be fuzzy, but its laws are not. And anyway, neurons operate on a decidedly macroscopic scale.
So – what do you think? Do you buy my explanation? Did it even make sense?
Alternatively – are there any Big Questions you feel you’ve solved once and for all?
I haven’t bought (or even played) a video game in a long while, and I wasn’t planning to buy Arkham City, either. But a friend kept raving about it and its predecessor, Arkham Asylum, and in a moment of weakness, I forked over the fifty dollars.
I’m glad I did. Arkham City is an amazing game.
Granted, they didn’t make it easy to find that out. First, I couldn’t even run the game, because right after installation the Release Date Check DRM inexplicably failed (as did the troubleshooting procedure they tell you to try). I say “inexplicably” because I bought the game legally, new, from Walmart. I had to reboot just to get past that screen.
Then, even more inexplicably, the game demands you set up both a Windows Live account and a Gamer Tag. “Slow” is the word here, both for the initial setup and for the mandatory updates you get occasionally, and neither adds anything to the experience that I can see.
And finally, the game couldn’t figure out the input from my USB controller, and got the left joystick up/down signal backwards. I had to edit a damn INI file to get that fixed.
Computer games, man. I’m a console guy for a reason.
Lurking under all the technical frustrations, though, is a really incredible experience. You play most of the game as Batman himself. Superhero abilities are notoriously difficult to capture in a video game *cough, Superman 64* but this is where Arkham nails it: as you play, you really do feel like the Dark Knight.
Let me tell you, that’s a pretty cool feeling.
The controls are fairly complicated (probably would’ve helped if I’d played the first game) but once you get used to them, the city is your playground. You can use your grappling hook to get to the top of almost any structure you see. You can leap off a building and glide to the street, cape outstretched. You’ve got your batarang, your smoke bombs, and lots of other gadgets right from the beginning.
But it isn’t just the gadgets. The game actually makes you think like Batman. When you’re taking out a gang of thugs, you don’t just rush in and start punching. You watch them first, perched on a nearby gargoyle, hidden in shadow. You see who’s armed and who’s not. You listen to them talk, their nervous comments about what the supervillains are up to, and what they’ll do if “the Bat” shows up. Your reputation precedes you. And they’re right to be scared: you strike unexpectedly, leaping from the shadows, taking them out with quick, efficient moves while they shoot wildly.
All the villains are there: the big names like Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Bane, and Mr. Freeze, plus lots of lesser-known supervillains I hadn’t even heard of, like Zsasz and Deadshot. The game perfectly showcases their various quirks and psychoses. The city, too, is spot-on: pure Gotham, dark and moonlit and brooding.
And I’m only a few hours in.
As usual, I’m running out of time this morning. I’ll cut it off there. But, yeah: Arkham City, I highly recommend it.
Played anything good lately?