The Same Lame Blame Game


Here’s a fun little experiment you can do at home. Pick up a video game. It can be any kind of video game, all the way back to an Atari 2600 cartridge to a PlayStation 4 disc. Now, use it in the way it was intended by the manufacturer.

How many people did you manage to hurt? How many people did you kill?

Okay, now try using it in any way you can conceivably think of, even in ways never intended by the manufacturer. How many people can you manage to injure or kill before you get taken down by the police or your fellow citizens?

According to President Trump, the greatest threat to our country, and particularly our young people, comes from video games “shaping young people’s thoughts”, according to a report from the Washington Post. The report added that “[h]e also proposed that ‘we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it.’”

Well, yeah. Because goodness knows that we’ve established time and again that playing violent video games leads directly to an increase in violent behavior. Oh wait, no we haven’t. But just in case, we should violate the First Amendment rights of video game makers to be on the safe side, because that’s the best and most direct way to resolve the problem.

Apparently Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Council, suggested that violent video games “needed to be given the same kind of thought as tobacco and liquor.” Of course, because video games have been known to cause cancer and drunk driving. That’s some quality thinking there, Brent.

And that’s not the worst of the kind of conclusion-first, evidence-not-at-all thinking on display at this particular meeting. Rep. Vicki Hartzler was quoted as saying “[e]ven though I know there are studies that have said there is no causal link, as a mom and a former high school teacher, it just intuitively seems that prolonged viewing of violent nature would desensitize a young person.” I’m just curious, exactly what did you teach? Because I can’t imagine any teacher I ever had literally stating “I know there are studies that have said there is no causal link” and then trumping those factual studies with their own “intuition”. Then again, they never had the benefit of being legislators, which apparently gives you… supernatural powers?

Speaking of legislators, Sen. Marco Rubio felt the need to chime in with his usual wisdom, “acknowledg[ing] there is no evidence linking violent video games to the tragedy in Parkland. But he said he wanted to ensure ‘parents are aware of the resources available to them to monitor and control the entertainment their children are exposed to.’” Wow, that’s a brave stance. I wasn’t aware that the ESRB rating system for video games and the MPAA rating system for motion pictures were state secrets. Thanks for getting those declassified and making them available to parents everywhere, Sen. Rubio. With leadership like that you should consider running for President.

If these politicians and other “crisis actors” (yeah, I said it) really believe there’s a causal link between video games and real world violence, they need to step up and put their money where their mouth is. Start funding some quality, rigorous studies into the phenomenon, or better yet lift the ban on the CDC investigating the potential link. Address the very real concerns raised with the studies they continuously lean on (you know, the ones that don’t show a causal link?) and find something more than a spurious correlation.

The hysteria over video games recalls the hysteria over Dungeons & Dragons from the early 1980s, the outrage over explicit music that managed to stretch all the way from the mid-80s to the late 90s, banned books that seem to be a perennial controversy, or any time bad or undesirable behavior is blamed on media or culture rather than placed squarely where it belongs: on the people who perpetrate it. That’s not to say that the media doesn’t influence behavior to some extent, but to ban media in an attempt to control a handful of bad actors is very much akin to cutting off the noses of an entire community to spite one face.

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Quarterly Report: Blinded Me With Science!


As some of you may recall, I signed up for two different packages from the online service Quarterly. The first to arrive of the tandem is the Technology and Toys box, of which so far I’ve already reviewed one (which you can see here). The second arrived just last week, but with everything going on I haven’t had time to write up a proper review until now. I know, I know, just like I said to the postman, “I don’t care about your problems, I only want to know what’s in the box!” Well, here we go.

First up, I found a set of paper robots.

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All your base are belong to us.

I have to admit, this was an awesome find for me. I can remember going to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum all the time as a kid, and while I never got anything from the gift shop, this is exactly the kind of thing I would pick up and look at longingly while my Not So Humble Mother would wait for me to figure out she wasn’t going to buy me yet another toy that was going to sit around my room untouched for weeks before she finally had to throw it out. Fortunately I’m a big boy now, and I can add this to my growing collection of toys that sits around my room unplayed with that My Not So Humble Wife never gets to throw away at all, because it’s called a “man cave” now, and I can still claim I’ll get around to putting them together someday when I just have the time and didn’t you want me to mow the lawn today?

And speaking of robot toys that are right up my alley, the next item really grabbed my attention:

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Danger, WIll Robinson! Danger!

Yes, that’s a tin wind-up robot. It’s only a couple inches tall, but that just makes it that much easier for it to scoot across the table. I especially love that I got the one named “Ima-Robot”. This is exactly the sort of goofy little toy that appeals to me, and it went right into my kitsch collection in my office along with my Pip-Boy Bobble Head and Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

The next item in the box was only vaguely appealing to me, but at least I can understand why they included it in the Technology and Toys box, and My Not So Humble Wife is quite fond of it. It’s…. sand. Yes, you read that right.

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Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

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Still not kidding.

In case you’re wondering “what could this stuff be?” I’ll tell you right now it’s exactly what it says on the label. It’s sand. It never dries out, it’s not too damp, and it’s just like playing with sand at the beach. I personally found it entertaining for about 30 seconds, but My Not So Humble Wife is a notorious fidget and it has kept her busy for hours, so looks like we have a winner with this one.

Alas, the same could not be said for the final item in the box.

I've got style!

I’ve got style!

Yes, it’s a stylus for all your electronic gadgets. Honestly this is the sort of thing I would expect to buy on my own if I felt I needed one, and if I don’t feel a need for one I would never use one even if someone game me one. *cough* *cough* The problem is I see this going one of two ways. Even though I have exceptionally fat fingers for a man of my slender build, the problem is that either I will find it incredibly useless and will throw it away within a week, or I will get used to it and then I will lose it within a day or so of deciding I have no idea how I ever lived without it. I just don’t see the win here. I also don’t see how this relates to “Toys”, although it’s definitely “Technology”.

So here’s the final verdict: all told a cool box this month, but overall I still didn’t find enough here to justify the $50 price tag, even accounting for someone going to the trouble of curating all the items for me. It just doesn’t have enough of the “fun” or “cool” factor to say “I don’t mind paying extra to have someone pick this stuff out”, nor is there sufficient value in the goodies present to say I got enough to be fully satisfied, although it came a lot closer this time than last time. Your mileage may differ, and if you see enough stuff you like I still recommend checking it out. Also if you think you might like any of the other options, of which there are many, sign up now, because more than a few are sold out (including some of the ones I was thinking of switching to). You can sign up for the waiting list, but three months is already long enough to wait between packages. Don’t wait any longer than you have to.


The Shortcut to Enlightenment


I’m not a transhumanist, and to be perfectly honest I don’t strive to be. While most of the transhumanists I have met have been perfectly nice people, I’m a little too invested in the cyberpunk movement to really believe that science can save us. I also have too keen an appreciation of history, and for all the good that scientific progress has brought (and I’m no Luddite who will claim that science is inherently bad), there is a strong tendency to find ways to misuse and abuse technology, even setting aside the very human tendency to weaponize any scientific advance or discovery that is made. For a couple of examples from recent history, consider either the Fukushima accident or the NSA domestic spying program.

The frontier to which many transhumanists I know are currently looking, and the one that I agree we are most likely to see the next great revolution in human interaction, is the virtual world. The virtual world is already intellectually indistinguishable from the real world, except to the extent that it is superior to the real world (data exchange, etc.) If you don’t believe me, consider how fast conversation happens, how good memory is, how suitable fact checking is without access to the virtual world. Yes, there are issues with the virtual world, but those are issues of emotion, not intellect. When the virtual world becomes physically and emotionally indistinguishable from or superior to the real world, that is the point of singularity. That is also the point at which, lacking other systems, the race will cease to exist, certainly as we know it.

So why would I worry about this? To be honest, I like things more or less as they are. I’ve studied more than a few philosophies and religions to try to understand the world and my place in it, and I’ve had a lot of fun, even if I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. One in particular seems especially relevant to the point at hand.

I’ve come to the decision that I am unlikely to ever be a Buddhist. Buddhism, as I understand it, involves deliberately attempting to let go of earthly pleasures, as pleasure is a source of desire, and desire is the root of suffering. The ultimate goal is the extinguishment of the self, and achievement of nirvana. While I certainly understand and respect that point of view, I happen to feel differently about it. I lean more in the direction that self-understanding is the path of enlightenment, and understanding comes from embracing your passions. Note that I do not necessarily counsel over-indulgence, as that is more often caused by a misunderstanding of some deeper issues, but a true understanding of one’s passions is not necessarily a bad thing, and to understand them you need explore them, and to explore them you must indulge them, at least to an extent. Of course, there was a time in his life when nobody would have expected Siddhartha to achieve enlightenment, much less to be the Buddha, so it may be possible I will change my mind.

But if we somehow do achieve this technological singularity and embody the virtual world (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the virtual world would embody us), I don’t believe we would have the same passions, the same desires, and in some very real sense we wouldn’t even be the same selves. That’s not to say we wouldn’t be better (as the transhumanists might argue, that’s the whole point of it), but in some ways it seems like abandoning our bodies for a virtual existence would be like a shortcut to Nirvana. Even worse, like any shortcut we would be missing the main road and everything along the way, which is kind of the point of the journey. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment, no matter what your version of enlightenment is.


Calling Off the Fall of Civilization


There is an ingrained and pernicious belief that the birth of modern communication, and particularly the World Wide Web, has created the ability to form microcosms of communities based around interests, ideas, ideologies and beliefs rather than around the necessity of geography or shared experiences (such as high school). This in turn creates communities that are more extremist in their belief systems, less inclusive and perhaps even xenophobic, and certainly less open to shared experiences than what we used to have “back in the good old days”.

Let’s unpack that a bit and see if there might be some rose tint in those glasses.

Has anyone ever heard the term “northern liberal”? How about “southern conservative”? “Dixiecrat”? Then there’s the notion that “out west is where the weirdoes live”, and we all know about the Left Coast. Then if you really want to get into it there’s the ugly fact of “the black side of town” and other ethnic ghettos (which every wave of immigrants has experienced, including the Irish, Italians, Jews, Polish, Russians, Koreans… and that’s just in New York City), where people would move just to be close to others who were like them (or were “encouraged” to).

It’s not that the internet and other forms of mass communication have insulated us from people like us; it’s only that it’s insulated us from the people we don’t like. It’s enabled us to connect with people that we do share interests and ideas and beliefs with. For example, people would (and still do) go to church…or synagogue, or the place of worship most appropriate to their form of worship… but that only emphasizes my point. You went to the place most like your belief system. Your worldview wasn’t being challenged, it was being reinforced (and if it wasn’t you were being made to conform). In a similar fashion, most sites people visit on the internet will conform to and agree with 90% of their worldview, and the 10% that is being challenged will be a modest challenge at best… just like your place of worship. The difference is that the internet untethers you from physical space; if there is no place you feel comfortable close to you it doesn’t matter, because you can find what you need electronically. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s valuable, or who thinks that what we gain is outweighed by what we have lost, has never been the outsider.

More than that, when people did gather in these geographical or experiential groups of necessity, what was gained in comity and politeness was done so at the expense of real connection. Here’s another older phrase some of you might recognize: “There are certain topics you don’t bring up in polite conversation; religion and politics are at the top of the list.” You didn’t discuss these things (and still don’t at family gatherings) because the neighbors may not and probably don’t agree with you, and unless your intention is to make sure they never invite themselves over again you stick to certain safe topics (usually weather and sports, unless your neighbor is a Browns fan). Usually the goal was polite conversation, for everyone to have a good time and to come back again for more empty conversation and good times and high balls.

The internet has none of these things. There are no high balls, there aren’t many good times, there’s an absolute dearth of polite conversation (although empty conversation still abounds), and trolls lurk under every comments section. But there is at least a chance of having a real conversation, of engaging with another person while everyone else is busy talking past each other, and that chance is better than another night at the Rotary Club knocking back drinks and mouthing empty nothings. Sure, most people just go to places where they know everyone already agrees with them and takes their turn preaching to the choir, but how is that any different than what used to happen in clubs and meeting halls across America before the advent of the internet? Again, the difference is less about the effect and more about the scope; more people talking to each other, mouthing the same words at each other, and a few loners finally finding each other.

Is it paradise? No. But it’s not the end of civilization either.


Opening the Black Box


I’ve been having technology problems the past week. First my new computer (that should be able to orbit Jupiter) quit playing any sound. In a withering blast of irony this happened right as I bought a new set of Bose speakers for the system to end all systems. At the same time our house A/C went on the fritz… again. What do these two things have in common, besides driving me to my knees in anger and frustration? Mostly they reminded me of the black box society we live in, and the misconception that this is a recent phenomenon.

Ever since computers became a common household fixture, I have heard people talking about “black box technology”. If you aren’t familiar with the term, the idea is that technology has become so complex that the average person can’t open it up, tinker with it, and figure out how it works. I think this misconception derives at least to some extent from the middle of the 20th century when for the first time we had a large middle class that was largely educated and technically savvy, thanks in no small part to having spent time in the military (where they were exposed to and forced to learn how to fix a wider variety of technology than ever before). This also lead to a generation of “gearheads”, guys who enjoyed working on their cars and taught their sons to work on them too (I guess their daughters got taught how to bake; don’t look at me, it was the Fifties).

But just because little boys were putting together ham radios and big boys were tinkering with fully assembled automobiles doesn’t mean that all of technology was somehow an open book. There were tech trade schools even back then, although the societal meme at the time was “typewriter repairman” rather than ITT Tech. But they both serve the same purpose, and for the same reason: there is abundant technology that the average person uses all the time and has no notion of how to repair.

As I was growing up, I had a lot of friends who would assemble their own computers (I had neither the money, the skill, nor the patience). Some even made good money doing this for other people, because this was a “black box technology” even though computer assembly even today is basically just like Legos: snap the pieces together and start it up (just make sure to snap the right piece in the right slot). It’s actually easier than it used to be, because things are better labeled and systems are more forgiving. But for the life of me I still can’t get my sound card to work, and I still had to call out a repairman to work on my A/C (who’s a great guy, by the way). HVAC has been around for a long time as well, and they have had trade schools for that as long as I can remember, so why is it that neither I, my wife, nor either of my roommates, all of us reasonably intelligent and reasonably well-educated, had any idea how to fix it?

The black box is nothing new. We just have more black boxes than ever before, and we’re more afraid than ever to open them up.


Classical Liberal, New Media


Last semester I had the good fortune to take a class on Digital Rhetoric and New Media. It was a fascinating class, and it offered me the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of new concepts, particularly among them the idea of media specific analysis. To some degree most of us have had some exposure to this, as we don’t analyze movies quite the same way we do books, but we went into it in much greater depth and detail in the class, as well as trying our hands at doing digital art projects.

Coming out of that class, one of the concepts I was introduced to was the idea of “twitter novels” or “twitter stories”. The idea is somewhat flexible (as social media seems to be), but one version of it is taking an existing work and adapting it for Twitter. I was inspired by the idea and decided to try my hand at it. I selected as my source the essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read, working off the 50th anniversary edition published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

The experience was interesting, to say the least. First I went through the entire essay, trying to break it down into individual tweet-size pieces. This wasn’t as simple as just writing it out 140 characters at a time, because I wanted to accomplish several things with each tweet: I wanted them to seem “real”, I wanted them to be interesting in themselves, and I wanted them to be re-tweetable. Part of making them seem “real” was adjusting the voice of the essay, which is very formal, and making it less so. While I didn’t succeed everywhere, I do think I managed to make it more casual overall. One of the things I discovered in this process is that I am not very comfortable with Twitter; it was only just before I moved into the launch phase that I realized I hadn’t really made use of hash tags, and I had to go back through and find places they naturally fit. I did manage to incorporate bits and pieces of the web here and there, so I feel pretty good about that.

Actually scheduling the project was more of a challenge. Considering the work totaled over 100 tweets, I obviously wasn’t going to be sending them all manually. I had originally planned to send them in half-hour increments (give or take), and after talking with a coworker who is more versed in the use of social media than I am I decided to use Tweetdeck. Now, unless I am missing something, Tweetdeck could be a lot more user-friendly. My original schedule would have stretched out for at least a week (I only intend to have tweets go out between 10 am and 4 pm so I can monitor them for issues), and I had to adjust the schedule. Even being able to keep track of what I had already scheduled was a hassle, as Tweetdeck kept shuffling my pre-scheduled tweets out of chronological order, which does not fill me with confidence. When I tried to reschedule some, it looked like the program has just duplicated rather than rescheduling the tweets. Finally I tried to clear them all out, and upon refreshing things looked fine. Then I deleted that whole column, set it up again, and a whole set of tweets showed up again!

Once I finally got past those difficulties, I started over. I put all my tweets in a spreadsheet and set up a schedule there. I then copied them over and scheduled them rigorously according to the timetable I had established.  At the time of writing this they sit queued up, waiting to launch. Over the next few days I’ll see how well the process turned out.

For those who are interested in trying a project like this, here is my advice:

1. Write your tweets in advance. This will give you time to think about what you want to say, make adjustments as needed, and have a cohesive story to present. Don’t think of Twitter (or any other social media platform) as your creative medium; it is your presentation medium. George Lucas doesn’t write the script as he’s filming, neither should you.

2. Think about the medium you are using. What makes it distinctive and unique? Why are you using this medium to tell your story instead of another? In particular familiarize yourself with the conventions of the medium. That’s not to say you can’t break convention (many artists have done so quite successfully), but do it deliberately.

3. Plan, plan, plan. It’s not just the writing, it’s all the tools you will use. If I was more familiar with the ins and outs of Tweetdeck, Bit.ly, and Twitter in general, I would have had an easier time, but just knowing Word and Excel and having a good vision for the shape of the project (I spent weeks working it out in my head) saved me when I hit roadblocks.

4. Have fun with it! In the end this is still an experimental medium, which means there are few if any rules, and this is the chance to do something truly new and innovative.

If you’d like to see my experiment in Twitter writing, it runs this week starting Jan. 7, 10 AM EST at @IPencil2013. If you have your own digital works, please share them in the comments below!


How the iPod is Killing Political Discourse


I was discussing gun control with My Not So Humble Wife the other night, and something strange happened. She’s mostly libertarian like me, but unlike myself, she actually believes in putting certain limitations on gun ownership. Tanks, for example, are straight off her list for private ownership (no, I am not kidding, this was a serious part of the discussion). I personally see no problem with it for several good and sundry reasons that I won’t get into now, so she upped the ante to nuclear weapons. I couldn’t name even a theoretical reason why someone might want a nuke (self-defense? sport? cocktail party conversation starter?), and I had to concede that even my tank argument didn’t apply. Let’s face it, if you need a nuke to defend yourself against the government, the situation is already well beyond salvageable.

This is when things got weird: we talked it out and came to a reasonable solution we could both be okay with. She conceded that the government didn’t need to have gun registration laws (it’s no business of theirs who owns which guns), and I conceded that certain classes of people (namely felons) shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns, so background checks are acceptable. I couldn’t get her to budge on non-violent felons, but my big beef there is with drug laws, and that’s a different issue anyway, so I was willing to concede the point. We also both agreed that waiting periods should be abolished, because the technology exists to do immediate background checks, and those checks should be done everywhere, including gun shows.

What’s so weird about all of this? Watch fifteen minutes, or even five minutes, of political television and then ask me that question again. Granted, we came from roughly the same starting place, but we still had some strong views that we disagreed on, and we both gave a little to get to something we could agree with. It’s called “compromise”, for those of you too young to remember what it looks like. And I blame the iPod for its absence in contemporary politics.

Sounds crazy, right? Bear with me for a little while and you’ll understand. When I was a kid, we had one TV in the house (well, two, but the one in the basement was tiny, black and white, and got crap reception, so it doesn’t count). It got exactly two channels: whatever my sister and I could agree on, and whatever Dad decided to put on when he got home. Occasionally, when I was very lucky, my sister would be at a friend’s house before my folks got home and I would have a few hours of TV to myself, but that was a rare luxury and one I didn’t count on.

Growing up like that I had to learn the art of compromise. Granted it usually involved a lot of yelling, screaming, cursing, and more than a little hitting, but that’s politics for you. What I didn’t learn was an attitude of entitlement, one that said I could have whatever I want whenever I want and everyone else could go suck an egg. That all changed when the iPod came along.

Don’t get me wrong, the iPod was and remains one of the greatest inventions in human history. The chance to have your music, your way, whenever you want wherever you want is a glorious thing. But it shapes expectations; people become accustomed to having what they want, without having to negotiate with others. It’s not like the boom boxes and ghetto blasters I had as a kid, when “sharing” music was a very immediate and sometimes involuntary experience. Facebook and other social media have only exacerbated the phenomenon; people choose the stories they want to hear, and they shape the media they are exposed to before and as much as the media shapes them.

This sort of “a la carte media” has expanded into all aspects of life. If you can’t find a cable channel that caters to your specific tastes, there’s a YouTube channel that will. Streaming radio will introduce you to new music, unless you skip past a song you decide you don’t like in the first few beats. And there’s a website out there dedicated to every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that aren’t.

What is the net result on politics? The politicians we elect reflect the media of our time. It used to be that politicians were like mass media: they appealed to broad demographics, even to the point of being criticized for chasing “the lowest common denominator”. But hey, at least they were accessible to everyone. Now every politician is like a personalized playlist, narrowly targeting key demographics with a hyper-partisan message, and who can blame them? The electronic graffiti that litters the walls of our social media pages screams for it, begs for it, demands the same hyper-partisan rhetoric they are only too happy to deliver. If we aren’t getting the politicians we want it’s only because we’re getting the politicians we’ve been asking for, and maybe deserve.