Symbols

I’ve been thinking about this whole flag/anthem thing. And the Colin Kaepernick thing. And I’ve talked to a few people both young-ish and old-ish about it. And I have some thoughts about where the communication breakdown is happening. Only read on if you’re willing to hear me out. To the bitter end.

Symbols mean different things to different people. Let’s take, for example, somethinguncontroversial, like the Confederate Flag. I am willing to accept that there are people in this world who legitimately see it as a symbol of southern pride. But there are also people, called white supremacists, who see it as a symbol of white superiority, and a symbol of their perceived lost status as masters of this land. And also other people who see it as a symbol of hundreds of years of enslavement, second class citizenship, and racism. And all of them are right, to some extent.

So here’s the heart of the matter. Symbols. They don’t actually represent anything. The only meaning a symbol can ever have is that which we, as humans, imbue them with. The letters on this post don’t mean anything. A ‘g’ doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a ‘g’. But string it together with some other symbols, you can create another symbol, ‘goat,’ that also doesn’t mean anything except that we have all agreed that it represents the idea of a four-legged farm animal that likes to headbutt things. But ‘goat,’ the word, the symbol, means nothing outside of our human experience.

I spent some time talking to people of my parents’ generation and people of my generation about this whole Kaepernick thing. I had made some snarky comments on F-Book about not standing for the pledge, and got an incredible amount of positive feedback from my age-peers. And a lot of very negative, angry feedback from people a generation up from us. I talked it out with my dad. And I think I’ve got a handle on it.

Here’s the deal, people of my age-group: to many in my parents’ generation, the pledge/anthem represent the pure motives of their ancestors. The people who fought and died for values and beliefs that they believe are the glue that holds America together. To them it’s a symbol of unity against all odds, triumph over evil and tyranny and oppression and all that. I would add that there are certainly people my age who also believe this, as well. To them, that is what the flag represents. And get this: they are not wrong. To them, that’s what it symbolizes. To them, they can still have respect for the flag and put their hands over their hearts even if they don’t approve of all of the things their nation does. Even if they are actively working to correct those things.

My generation does not understand this. Or don’t relate to it, anyway. And I will argue that they actually can’t relate to it. And it isn’t just people of my generation. There are definitely people my parents’ age that feel the same way. To us, the pledge means something different. It has taken on a completely different symbolic significance. And it is actually incompatible with the other view. On some level.

It goes like this. I grew up in a world that has never been at peace. I have never known peacetime. And every conflict in the world from the moment I was born in 1980, until now, my country has had a hand in, on some level at least. We have toppled democratically elected governments in South America because dictatorships are easier to manipulate. We have invaded nations to ensure the integrity of the oil industry. We have callously thrown away the lives of thousands of US soldiers in the pursuit of economic hegemony. We have murdered through drone strikes and bombings hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children abroad. We have indirectly supported the murder of hundreds of thousands of other innocent people. We have created an atmosphere in the Middle East which has bred extremism and terrorism. We have not managed to close Guantanamo Bay! We have allowed our own callous dependence on oil and fossil fuels to continue to accelerate the most massive global climate shift in human history and are continuing to do nothing about it. And to people like Colin Kapernick, it represents police brutality and ongoing mistrust of African American people.

So to us, the flag and the pledge and the anthem also symbolize that. We support the troops. We support the worker. We support our families. We respect the hard work and determination of our ancestors. But we cannot divorce that from the things that people in power have also done. We cannot ignore that. So the symbol means something different to us. Something a little darker, less good. It does not mean that we are less patriotic. Most of us still love our country and want to do everything in our power to make it a good and just place to live for us and for our children.

To all of us, saying the pledge and singing the song feels like tacit approval of all of these things on top of all of the good things. And get this: we are ALSO not wrong.

We feel uncomfortable swearing fealty by saying the pledge because we feel that we shouldn’t have to. Our loyalty to our people should be seen through our actions and not through rote recitation of an ancient oath to an inanimate object. We feel uncomfortable singing a song written by a terrible racist (I am actually in the camp where a new national anthem is in order, say, America the Beautiful? Maybe? Or Bohemian Rhapsody?) And that is what the previous generation cannot see about us. And that is why they reacted so viscerally negatively to our comments and attitudes toward Kaepernick’s protest, and our own confessions to doing similar things.

It’s the same symbol. It means many things to many people. And none of them are wrong. But we do have to find some way to get along.

Weekend At Bernie’s

Source: Google Image Search

Source; Google Image Search

Bernie Sanders is running for president. This is one of those really special things that fills certain kinds of liberals with all sorts of cognitive dissonance. The thing is, we want Bernie to run for president. We want Bernie to win the nomination. We want that m-fer to be the m-fing president!

But we know it won’t happen. Or at least, we have this little pit in our centers that tells us that it will never happen. But then we remember that the reason it will never happen is because we tell ourselves that it will never happen. The reason one person can become president is because enough people just sort of assume it’s going to happen and everyone who doesn’t like that person just decides not to vote. It’s democracy by attrition and disillusionment.

Everyone wants a representative democracy in which the representatives and the represented can communicate and agree on things and get shit done. And the thing is, this is totally possible. The people could totally elect Bernie Sanders president! It’s perfectly legal to elect someone who isn’t an evil, corrupt, vicious, warmongering, sycophantic, liar pants. But we don’t! Why is that? There are tons of reasons for this, of course. Corporate-controlled media. Corporate-controlled political parties. The Koch Brothers. Lots of reasons. But the one I’m more interested in here is this self-defeating feedback loop that occurs whenever something that is good and pure and worthy of fighting for doesn’t get fought for simply because of a sort of ideology-wide depression. The far left are so utterly disenfranchised that we even convinced ourselves that voting for a center-right president like Barack Obama was the right thing to do. Can you believe that?

It’s like we need permission from a sort of critical mass of our peers (in this case, the people of this country) in order to feel hopeful about anything and actually put some force behind someone liek Bernie. Even right now, there’s a part of me that wants to say that I know perfectly well that Hilary Clinton will get the Democractic nomination. But the thing is, I don’t know that. If we can give ourselves permission to really be hopeful (it’s only 2015; the election is more than a year away), it is actually possible for us to build the steam necessary push this thing forward.

Bernie is the real deal, folks. In almost every respect, he is, in fact, the guy we want. I mean, right off, let’s face it, any candidate that the GOP fields is going to be one of two things: a complete corporate shill or an amoral warmongering satanist (I mean this literally, but it would take me a while to explain and it’s outside the scope of this post). And the Dems…they have Hilary. And I suppose Elizabeth Warren who wouldn’t be a bad running mate for Bernie honestly. Hell I’d vote for a Warren-Sanders ticket too, probably. But other than that, there’s really no one to rally behind.

And so what are we to do? How do we somehow make it actually possible to elect Bernie Sanders president? What’s the strategy? What’s the game plan? I think the first step is pretty much just to convince ourselves that he has a chance to win. Simple as that. We already know that he, in every way that counts, is the guy we want. He’s the man for the job. There’s no one else. He’s the guy. (Except maybe Elizabeth Warren) Thus: if he’s the only candidate in the field that is worth electing, we actually have a moral obligation to push for it. We should make this the first real grassroots, internet campaign. We need to push back against corporate media. We need to grab this election by the balls and shake it until it says uncle. We need to caucus, vote, and campaign. Debate your relatives. Your friends. Your dog. Don’t commit voter fraud or anything like that. That just encourages Republicants to push for more discrimination nonsense voter ID laws and other discriminatory practices. But do everything that’s legal to make this shit happen! Do not let yourself be disillusioned until after the primary/caucus season. Let’s think that he has a chance until we’re proven otherwise. Let’s support Bernie Sanders.

Also, if you happen to read this an you’re a either a libertarian or a republican, then there is practically nothing I can say that will convince you that you’re wrong (which you are). This post is not for you. It’s for my boy Bernie. He’s the man. He’s going to be president.

Fundamental Reconditioning

Selfie

Selfie

There is evidence–that I think most people are aware of at this point–that posting certain kinds of content on the internet is a sign of a narcissistic personality. Though I would argue that there is a certain breed of teenager that lacks the self-awareness to even know that this is arguably a bad thing. Duck faces in selfies are only a particularly visible manifestation of this weird tendency in today’s youth. A culture of young people brought up in the digital age without actually understanding what that means and being absolutely utterly clueless about how it all works.

Digital natives? Not a chance. Kids today don’t know how a computer works any more than grandma does. They know how to operate an interface. They understand how to swipe and to text and to post pictures. I have had students who had never actually realized that Clash of Clans is a computer program written by humans. Completely oblivious to the fact that computers are really stupid and need lots and lots of human hours by smart people to be made to do anything useful at all. Or anything entertaining. They don’t get this. When something goes wrong with their computer, they don’t know how to fix it.

One day, I had a drove of iPhone wielding sophomores eagerly awaiting new iOS version drop. Talking about how sweet it was going to be. The weird thing about this is that while I get that they were excited and had I an iPhone, I might have been excited as well, but I feel like we would have been excited for completely different reasons. They were excited because the icons were getting a makeover. The physical feel would be different. I would at least be able to temper my expectations with the knowledge that those sorts of changes are purely cosmetic. A software update is still just a software update. It’s just company doing its job, maintaining base code, expanding functionality, fixing security loopholes, or maybe introducing new ones for the government to exploit. It’s incremental. So what if the icons got a makeover? It’s still basically the same device with mostly the same functionality. What’s cool is the under-the-hood stuff. Or at least, it’s the stuff that I think is cool.

Lollipop gave the Android OS a new Java runtime which is arguably a huge step, but in the minds of everyone out there who has a Galaxy S5 holstered at his/her hip, it’s irrelevant. What do they care that apps will load faster or that ART has faster and less frequent garbage collection, or that it compiles to native machine code! They don’t. All they actually care about is that it seems different and maybe just a little better. Without the accompanything interface tweaks and reskins and the big Material Design push, they would not really be aware that anything had changed. It might feel smoother. It does feel smoother. But that would be it.

And arguably that’s the point. We build interfaces to sheild people from complexities. We as programmers build interfaces to sheild ourselves from complexities as well. It’s why we like frameworks. Frameworks keep us from rewriting the same boilerplate code every time we want to build a web page. Frameworks and IDEs increase efficiency dramatically, but they also make us lazy. Interfaces make us lazy. They make us forget (or not even be aware) that (for example) the tcp/ip stack is a monumental mess of poorly documented, convoluted spaghetti code.

spin-onehalf.com used to have a different theme that was written entirely by me in HTML, PHP, and CSS. It was really great in its heyday when I first built the blog, but it was time for a new interface. Something with a more modern look. And so I thought about building my own from the ground up again. But you know what? My heart wasn’t in it. So I used one of the WordPress defaults. And I don’t even feel bad about it.

Oh, sure I’ll customize it and put my banner ads back (which you people never click on anyway), and add personalized header bar and maybe some cool bootstrap stuff, but the underlying code will stay mostly as it is. I will save reinventing the wheel for another day. For another website. So it’s fine. I am being lazy. I am using an interface to get something done rather than putting it off. Am I no better than the selfie-posting teenager? Maybe a little bit. At least I have a bigger vocabulary.

Wo denkst du, du gehst?

Yet Another Defense of Interstellar

The Golden Globes were last night. Interstellar was not even on the radar, which I consider a crime.

There is a peculiar amount of dislike for Interestellar. It had a profoundly mixed reception from fans of science fiction and I feel like it’s unjustified. Most of this dislike appears to focus on the crazy deus ex machina ending. First of all, I do actually like Christopher Nolan in general, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanboy. I am certainly not going to make the claim that he is anywhere near the caliber of Stanley Kubrick, though I do intend to draw some comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is widely regarded as a flawless movie.

Some people think it’s slow, a perception that I do not agree with or even understand. I frequently fall asleep during movies. Even action packed thrillers. But something about this movie (and it was kind of long, wasn’t it?) had me rivetted from beginning to end. There was not a moment when my attention wandered. This film sank its hooks into me with a ferocity that I had not expected. It had everything. The realistic portrayal of a family torn apart by forces beyond their control. Indeed, it’s a story that has been told many times. It’s the father going off to war. It’s the father killed in a car accident. In this case, it’s the father who’s going off to save the entire human race. It is maybe a bit of a stretch, this “only pilot that can drive this thing” scenario. But I can defend it on the grounds that this is a world where nobody looks to the skies anymore. No one flies planes anymore. The things that are flying are unmanned drones and such. This is a world that has lost its ability to imagine what could be. And so perhaps it is convenient that he happens to live next to NASA’s secret headquarters, but it is established that he is an engineer of no small skill and it is also established that he has ties to the people that run NASA, so I don’t feel that it’s a completely unreasonable plot element. It’s a bit cliche, but I feel that it works.

The tesseract at the ending is the primary beef that people seem to have with it. There was this air of the fantastical to it that maybe broke some people’s suspension of disbelief. I feel sorry for people who had this experience, because the whole thing blew me away. Here is where I’m drawing the comparison to 2001. When Dave Bowman is transported across the space and time via the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, the viewer is treated to a hallucinatory vision as Dave is transformed into the Star Child which now gazes down upon the earth.

Here’s what Kubrick is doing. 2001, like the novel it is adapted from, is hard science fiction, all the way to very end, after which, it branches off very much into the speculative. The fanciful. But I argue that it does not become actualy fantasy. “Here is what we think science is actually capable of acheiving” says 2001 through most of the movie. Here are the things that, given our current knowledge, we think it’s actually possible to acheive in a reasonable timeline.

The end, however, is a speculation of what might be possible if we could continue to develop unhindered by whatever forces hold us back. Here is a pure imagining, a chance to say, “What if,” a moment of pure speculation. Dave Bowman is reborn as a higher form of life. We might make the mistaken assumption that 2001 is just “crazy” at the end, but if we approach the filmwith the assumption that everything that happens is entirely comprehensible to a being of sufficient intelligence and insight, we can surmise that Dave has encountered some greater being(s) which have elevated him, allowed him to transcend his mortal self to become the higher being.

Nolan does the exact same thing in Interstellar. He builds a fantastically tense scenario all thoroughly grounded in science (some admittedly still theoretical, but soundly theoretical), and it is only at the end where he departs from what we know about the universe and begins to speculate about what might be possible if only we could find a way to tap it. It’s a conceit to be sure, but it’s the kind of conceit that we should be willing to indulge. It’s the kind of conceit that we need today. It dares us to dream about what might be possible if we can only be as clever as we like to think we are.

And maybe the whole tesseract inside the black hold is impossible. Sure, maybe. But remember the black holes present a paradox in which they seem to violate some laws of physics; namely there is the black hole information paradox, which states that information disappearing inside a black hole must somehow not be irretrievably lost (through some mechanism or other).

So the whole disappearing inside the black hole and actually managing to get a message out is not irretriavably stupid. Especially if we can play with the idea of a hyper advanced race of beings (possibly even hyper evolved humans), instigating it, building the tesseract in the first place, and shunting him off into this new place where time appears like a spatial dimension.

It’s not that it’s something we think it’s possible. It’s a sort of what-if. It’s not the “power of love” that saves the human race here. It’s the power of the imagination. Imagination is, as cheesy as it sounds, the most critical ingredient of science. Asking the question “What if?” is the most fundamental part of science. It’s the formation of the hypothesis, the first step of the scientific method.

The thing is, it is science fiction’s job to inspire the next generation of scientists, and I believe truly that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar does this more than most doomsday scenario movies which discourage inquiry and cause fear of what sorts of disasters scientists might bring on us in their hubris. And it does a heck of a lot more than the glut of superhero action flicks too (which are also designed to appeal to the dreamer/fantasizer demographic). I think in the future, we will see a whole crop of new astronomers and physicists who will list movies Interstellar and people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson as their inspiration, just as the last was inspired by 2001 and Carl Sagan.

Affluenza Is A Misdiagnosis

smaug_affluenza

I do not mean to compare the actions of a teenager to those of a centuries old dragon who essentially committed genocide. Or do I? In a way, maybe I do.

Let’s put on our imagination caps for a moment. Imagine you’re a great dragon growing up in middle earth, doing all those dragony things that dragons do when they’re young. Burning down villages, stealing gold and jewels, eating dwarves and humans, causing a ruckus and whatnot. Now imagine that, as a dragon, there is, in all likelihood, no one in any way capable of standing up to you. There are, in effect, no negative consequences for your actions. We assume that dragons have no intrinsic sense of justice here. Indeed, there is only positive reinforcements for all your dickery. Lots of loot, people grovelling, making offerings so you won’t burn the town down and such. And then, what? Centuries go by. Eventually, you hoard all your gold in a mountain and go to sleep for a while until a murderous little halfling comes by and bests you. Oh, the indignity.

Centuries unopposed. Done in by a fat, hairy-footed burglar. At least, that’s how it might appear to Smaug.

Let’s spin this out a bit more, since that’s what we do here. I propose to you dear, readers, that, in the case of Ethan Couch the the right thing happened.

You heard me. Justice was, in fact, served. Well, I might have made some minor tweaks to his punishment, but, all in all, I do not think that punishment was too light.

I know what you’re thinking. In fact, it seems like most of the internet is eager for blood on this one. They want to see the boy strung up by his toes, flayed alive, perhaps even executed. At the very least, they want to send a 16-year-old boy to prison. This, I think, would be a fantastic miscarriage of justice. And I’ll tell you why.

He’s sixteen years old. That’s it. He’s a kid.

I don’t give two shits if he’s rich or poor. He’s a kid. I am well aware of the fact that this same judge sent a 17 year old to grown-up prison for manslaughter. It just so happens that this kid was black and poor and not rich. And that was, in fact, a miscarriage of justice. That was wrong. That kid was also just a kid. That kid should also have been sentenced to probation and sent to a cushy treatment facility on the taxpayer’s dime (since it seems unlikely that he would have been able to afford their program on his own).

You see, Couch doesn’t suffer from “affluenza”. That’s a goddamned made-up word. That’s a bunch of gold-plated bullshit. It’s very clever bullshit, but it’s just utter nonsense. He suffers from being 16 years old. I’m a substitute teacher and you know what I’ve found out about 16-year-olds? They are idiots. Most of the time, they are benign idiots just discovering what it’s like to try on different personas, just starting to have opinions about stuff, but for the most part have not actually accrued anything resembling real world knowledge. I posit that no 16-year-old truly understands the consequences of his/her actions.

I sometimes find myself wondering, while talking to some idiot 16-year-old, “How can you be such an idiot?” but I have to remind myself that every generation is a bunch of new idiots. And every generation has to learn all the lessons I learned the hard way. No generation of kids is ever going to learn just by you telling them what’s what. They don’t care what you think and won’t until well after they learn the hard way. They are going to screw up and do completely stupid, moronic, possibly downright offensive stuff. Some of them will learn. And some of them won’t. But all of them are still figuring this stuff out.

Now, to be honest, I would not have sent the kid to some posh resort with horseback riding and yoga. I would have sent him to a hippie commune with farming and yoga. That kid would spend every summer vacation until college growing his own food without a car or a credit card. He would be put in a position to learn what it is to work. And he would be a better person for it. Maybe. I also would have done the same thing with the poor black kid who ended up in prison.

But there’s a problem with this. The American justice system is not built on these principles. In fact, this sort of punishment would not serve the actual function of the American criminal justice system. What is that function you ask? It’s to maintain a hierarchical society. Couch didn’t go to prison because he’s rich. He did the same idiotic thing that the poor kid did, but because he’s rich, he didn’t go to prison. I don’t even think the judge was bribed (though I did, I admit, initially knee-jerk in that direction). I don’t think the judge needed to be bribed. Maybe he even saw a bit of himself in the boy. He saw someone of his own class (because you don’t get to be a judge without being affluent yourself).

The fact that practically the entire internet thinks this kid should be in prison like the poor black kid speaks volumes about our blood-lust society. Everyone is saying, “He should be treated as badly as me.” No one is saying, “I should be treated as well as he.” Everyone wants to drag others down. No one wants to elevate anyone.

I have a radical theory that the truly morally correct way to reduce recidivism in youth crime is to take that gang member or rich drunkard and separate them from their peer group, isolate them in a safe, comfortable place like a farm, or research station, or poor village in Africa. They will grow vegetables, help do science, or pass out food and medical aid. That is how you fix the problem. It even pads the resume rather than blemishing it.

If a person is an adult and robs a convenience store, should you put him in jail? No. You should give him an interest free loan to go to school, learn a trade, start a business, or whatever, until that person can pay back the person that he wronged. That’s how you handle crime.

But, you say, won’t that encourage crime? I don’t think it would. Poor people, by and large, commit the most crimes (excepting the mass atrocities committed by world governments or corporations). If you elevate those people, rather than send them to prison, they will stop committing crimes. Most crimes are committed out of desperation, not out of evilness. Even murders are often acts of desperate people.

The problem is that we, as a country and civilization, are more interested in punishing and degrading than we are in understanding and elevating. And it isn’t working. The statistics support this.

Couch got what was coming to him. I just want to see everyone get the same kind of punishment.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
? Nelson Mandela