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.

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?

Charlie Sheen is a Loony Toon

In an effort to further fuel the fires of Charlie Sheen’s astonishing media blitz, I feel like it’s my personal moral obligation to add my tiny contribution to the blogosphere on this very important pop culture phenomenon. My very good friend, Q, has sent yet another message from the future detailing the demise of Charlie Sheen. However, I am more interested in just what, exactly, it is that he is doing right now.

Charlie is saying things that are insane. Some of his more lucid moments are from the Piers Morgan show (who the fuck is Piers Morgan, by the way? And just where did he come from?).

Another place to get really good quotes is the Sheen Wars Mashup.

Of course, my personal favorite is the Good Morning America interview.

The thing is, none of this is being taken out of context. All an interviewer has to do is ask him a question and he hands them pure gold! There is a strange sort of bizarre honesty in this kind of insanity. Sheen reveals something to us, the public, that perhaps even he is not aware of.

“I have a ten thousand year old brain and the boogers of a seven year old.”

There’s a peculiar arrogance, conceit, pretension to it all that is almost…what…endearing, maybe? I can’t hate him for being batshit crazy. This kind of megalomania is clearly the product of a diseased mind. I think it comes down to what the media is doing with him, which is exactly what feeds this sort of manic episode: they are feeding him. They are indulging him. And they are doing it, I might add at the public’s demand. The American populace loves the image of a trainwreck. We are rubbernecks by nature. Humans, maybe, are this way. It’s sort of like watching men hack each other to bits in the Roman Coliseum. It’s that kind of thing. We can’t get enough of this kind of pathos.

“I’m bi-winning. I win here and I win there. Now what?”

He is not, by his own diagnosis, bi-polar. Here’s the deal if you had a friend or an acquaintance, or if there was some random dude at the bar who was saying the sorts of things that Charlie Sheen is saying, what would you think? What would your assessment of that person be? Would he be the sort of person that you would want to make sure got an interview on Good Morning Bloody America? Of course not! Those people are crazy. But Charlie Sheen was in Platoon! That’s the crucial difference.

It doesn’t matter what Sheen says. He is crazy and maybe it makes us feel a little better about ourselves to know it. Just like when celebrities get sick. Maybe Sheen is sick, but nobody is doing anything to give him a legitimate diagnosis, we are just letting him run his mouth and drink his…tiger’s blood…and say these crazy things in these interviews because we are entertained by it! This guy needs help and what do we do? We laugh and make Star Wars mashups.

I’m not even going to make the argument that this is a bad thing. I mean, the things that he says are too priceless not to get on tape. As long as he doesn’t start actually hacking people up with that machete, I say let him go bonkers. Enjoy it while it lasts, because he’s going to crash sooner or later, and once that happens, it’s just going to be sad and someone is going to have to go and pick up the pieces.