Good Afternoon December 31, 2016

Good afternoon on this the thirty first day of December, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2016.

Fair warning, I won’t be talking about the changing of the year because as a mathematician I just can’t get worked up about rolling over of numbers in arbitrarily chosen bases. We all have our weaknesses.

I put together a second computer, for my second son, so that he and his older brother can play minecraft together. He had been borrowing an old laptop of mine which was very slow (“laggy” is the term my eldest son has picked up from the minecraft youtubers he watches, though to my ears that refers more to events happening after the fact rather than low framerates). Interestingly he’s a bit young for most cooperative games because in minecraft they tend to be puzzle games, and he’s not old enough to really understand puzzles. Herobrine’s Mansion, which is a class RPG hack-and-slash adventure has proven to be nearly ideal since it is cooperative but the cooperation is all about hitting undead things with your sword until they’ve been restored to a normal state of being dead. It’s a wholesome activity—demon-infested corpses should (in general) be put down quickly and inhumanely—and simple enough even for young children to get the idea and not screw up the game for their older siblings. (It’s also really cute to hear him screaming, “Naughtie zombie! Naughtie skeleton!” as he bashes them with his preferred simulation of a re-dead maker.) I suspect in another year or so they’ll be able to play the games with logic puzzles in them, which will be very awesome to watch. Incidentally, I really enjoy playing Herobrine’s mansion with them. Hack-and-slash are some of my favorite games, and were since I was a child.

Which brings me back to the topic of restored continuity. With new technology people keep recreating old games, both for nostalgia and because the old games were good—I was going to say, “and just lacked good graphics”, but sometimes the graphics were good (if mostly by being skilfully suggestive), and in Minecraft unless you’re using a high quality resource pack (like Chromahills) together with a shader pack like the SEUS shaders, Minecraft doesn’t have good graphics. Anyway, there was a huge disruption of culture in the late 1800s and the first half or three quarters of the 1900s, but I think things are settling down. My parents, I believe, felt somewhat disconnected from me, and their parents—again, I believe—felt somewhat disconnected from them. But I don’t feel disconnected from my children. I don’t mean in a complete sense, of course; all parents have a strong connection to their children. I just mean culturally. My children play the same sorts of games that I played as a child, if perhaps as a somewhat older child than they are now. Then again I listened to the same sort of music my parents did—I was a big Simon & Garfunkel fan as a child—so there is probably some similarity there too. And the things I used to do that they don’t, I mostly don’t do now either. I don’t feel any loss of cultural connection because we had land-line phones and kids these days only use cell phones. I only use cell phones these days too. I think this is classed in, “my children are better off than I was”, even though I can’t take any credit for it unlike the immigrants who worked their fingers to the bone so their children would grow up with a good education and an easy job that doesn’t leave them weary and sore in the evening.

It’s an interesting subject, because for example audio codecs have gotten slightly better than mp3s, but it doesn’t matter much and the music is still the same (especially pop music with its eternal three cords). And amusingly phones are getting HD voices at a time when people increasing text rather than call each other. That in particular I find a fascinating trend. As soon as the technology in cell phones got good enough, we didn’t move to video calling or video+smell-o-vision or whatever. We “regressed” to pure text. Bad news for the blind, perhaps; great news for the deaf, and for most of much more convenient. But we’re not going to see HD text which is radically different from the texts we send now. I’m not such a fool as to think that life will be unchanged in 100 years—in A Stitch in Space I certainly gave a vision of progressed technology with implantables that overlay on top of our optic and auditory nerves, though I didn’t flesh its implications out all the way—but I suspect that we’re going to see technological progress appearing to slow down because of human preferences. We will preferentially adopt new technology which doesn’t require much change of us, and so new technology will often emulate old technology with improvements, and the people who grew up with that old technology will feel that things haven’t changed all that much. We’ll see, of course. Nothing is so hard to predict as the future. But at the very least I sure am enjoying it as my kids do the things that I did as a kid, or those things with mild variations.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 30, 2016

Good morning on this the thirtieth day in December, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2016.

I’ve been reading the latest Deus Vult post from TOF. It’s a fascinating thing, but the thing which caught my attention at the moment is the dating. Apparently “in the year of our lord” was originally “in the year of our lord’s incarnation”, which I rather like, so I’m adopting it. Also the habit of naming particular people and how far they were into what they were known for, to locate an event, was also an interesting practice.

On a different note, I’ve been talking with a fellow to whom I’ve had to explain that pride is a universal temptation because having a self immediately brings with it the possibility of placing the wrong value on one’s self. I called it a “universal temptation” and he asked, “how could something internal be a universal temptation?” Clearly, I’m not dealing with the brightest knife in the picnic basket.

Which brings up an interesting problem. If you are far smarter than the person you’re trying to explain something to, you don’t only have to be careful not to skip too many steps in your explanation, but to go through every step patiently. That’s important, but not enough. More important is that you have to be careful of what you are explaining. There are things which are simply too complex for people of limited intellects to grasp, at least in this fallen world, because the amount of mental energy required is more than can be exerted. Even where one is willing to patiently find out every stumbling block or missing piece of education and explain them, the person trying to follow will tire and get confused. He will lose track of why you were talking about this in the first place. And the end result will not be a man whose education has been greatly improved, but a man who has been greatly confused.

To give a concrete example, I was talking with a friend about the problem of evil, and explained all sorts of possible interpretations of natural disasters and other hard cases, and this didn’t get anywhere because every explanation requires three sub-explanations, and they in turn each required several sub-sub-explanations, and so on. Finally I said, “Let’s start again. It is possible that permitting some evil allows greater good to be achieved, and I trust God.” He replied, “I don’t.” I replied, “I know.” And the subject hasn’t come up since.

Presumably I could have done a better job explaining the complex particulars of how this or that evil is compatible with particular greater goods, but for whatever reason my friend was not able to follow me there, and no matter how willing I was to explain the path to him, he would always get too tired before he had gotten far along it, and we had to drop the conversation.

So, in conclusion, if you’re having trouble explaining something to someone who seems to be having great difficulty with it, don’t just try to come up with a simpler explanation. Try to come up with a simpler conclusion. Yes, you will leave things out. But you can’t teach a man more than he’s capable of learning anyway, so the trick is to find out what the most accurate version of the truth which he is capable of learning.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 29, 2016

Good morning on this the twenty ninth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

Yesterday, I wrote about a post by Brian Niemeier. He stopped by and left a comment I found very interesting, so I’m copying it here:

Hi, Chris. I can certainly empathize with your problem.

Here’s a piece of advice from a friend who is far more financially astute than me: If you don’t have money, you can substitute time.

That advice dovetails nicely with a second key principle of indie publishing that I didn’t have space for in the OP, which is learn to do as much as you can by yourself. If you can do an hour of online research per day, take a community college night class, or attend a web seminar on cover art, formatting, or web design, you’ll gain skills that will slash your overall publishing costs.

And even if you don’t have extra time for learning new skills, producing professional quality books doesn’t have to be expensive. On average, each of my books cost me around $650 total to make and get to market. Building good professional relationships is key.

God bless,
Brian

In other news, I read this post by Russell Newquist. (If you missed my interview of him, here it is.) It’s in response to this post by Daytime Renegade, which was pondering the purpose of his blog. These posts bring up two things to me, which to some degree are variants on what Russell said. The first is about traffic growth. This blog has yet to gain much traction, or at least in ways that I know about. I’m not sure how much wordpress’s page view metrics capture people who read my posts in the wordpress news feed (supposedly 30 people are subscribed to my blog) and in RSS readers like newsblur. It might or might not, I just don’t know. My youtube channel certainly has gained more. As of the writing of this post I’m up to 182 subscribers, and there the subscriber count certainly followed something like an exponential growth pattern. (The mathematician in me really wants to point out that 1.000001n is exponential, but very close to linear.) But certainly it’s the case that since youtube recommends things based on view counts and just what people happen to watch, small numbers of views result in small numbers of recommendations. As one gets more views, one gets more recommendations, and hence more views. And thus more subscribers. But even without youtube’s recommendation engine, the same thing happens by way of more normal recommendations. In blogs this is shares on social media as well as other blogs linking to and talking about blog posts. Few readers generate few links and shares, but more generate more. The exponential growth curve is (more or less) inherent to the platform. It’s not merely how things work, it is (absent advertising) how things have to work. As Russell and I talked about in our interview, with production costs approaching zero, the key problem of our age is discoverability. And it is discoverability which produces this sort of growth curve. Patience may be the most practical of the virtues.

The other thing which I thought about was the subject of uniqueness, as Russell put it, or being an expert, as Daytime Renegade put it. Russell is right that originality is overrated. Russell gives this example:

You feel like none of your thoughts are new – but this is precisely because of all the time you spend reading: reading books, reading news, reading other blogs. You make the mistake of assuming that your readership is already familiar with all of the ideas you’re familiar with, because of course everyone else has read all the stuff you read. Doesn’t everybody?

In a word, no. Even other highly intelligent, highly educated people haven’t read everything you have. They can’t. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs on the Internet today. Roughly 1,000 new books are published every day on Amazon, with roughly five million already available in their Kindle catalog. Nobody can possibly read all of that, even if they’re independently wealthy and all they ever do is read.

That is, he gives the example of having read something that many if not most of your readers haven’t, so passing it on is giving them something that they could have gotten elsewhere, but didn’t. That is valuable, but there’s another reason that originality is overrated: in a somewhat different sense, originality is guaranteed. God is simple, but creation is complex. Every being in creation reflects some unique aspect of the goodness of God, and moreover created things work together to synergistically reflect some aspect of the goodness of God which they can’t reflect on their own. (This is related to how composite beings are real, which hyper-reductionism misses.) And rational creatures such as ourselves are each given the ability to appreciate some aspects of the goodness of God. I like archery and another man likes roller coasters; we each some some aspect of the goodness of God reflected by these created things which the other does not see. To some degree we can share these things—especially by describing the wonder of them through language. But also we can teach each other how to see these things. And here is where the guaranteed uniqueness comes from. Because each of us sees some different aspects of the goodness of God, whenever we describe anything to others, we do not describe it in precisely the same way. What is important, what is not; what we emphasize and what we don’t; what connections we make and what analogies we use—all these things may be similar, but will not the same, as what everyone else does when describing the same insight or truth. And equally true, not all readers will find all choices, emphasis, connections, and analogies intelligible; it depends on what they have been given to see. So having the same truth explained in many slightly different ways can really be of value to many people; as they find the people who explain truths in ways they find easy to understand, things they have have encountered before become intelligible. For all people, it’s quite possible that there are more than a few people who can’t learn from a smarter blogger than you just because what that blogger can give and what these people can receive are not compatible.

This is getting absurdly long so I’m going to cut it short, but one of the big themes of creation is that of delegation. When we feed a hungry person, we become God’s gift of food to that person. When two parents create a child, they become God’s act of creation of that child. In this way, by delegating his power to us, God incorporates us into himself. (This makes the incarnation, and the ancient Christian saying that God became man so that man could become God especially relevant, I think.) But it seems that within creation there is a great deal of delegation too. It’s easy to see in professions where people make tools for others to use, and so we share in each other, but this is specially relevant in intellectual matters. Geniuses can rarely explain things well except to very intelligent people, and very intelligent people can rarely explain things well except to intelligent people, and so on. There is variation, of course, and teaching is a learned skill, etc. But for those who think that they have nothing to contribute, it is no small matter to take the work of someone greater and make it intelligible to someone lesser. We all have our place within the hierarchy of being, and the greats often need the merely highly intelligent in order to have any impact at all. Socrates may have been the wisest man who lived, but his wisdom would not have helped nearly so many people were it not for an army of teachers who followed after him to explain his wisdom to people who couldn’t get it directly from his words.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 28, 2016

Good morning on this the twenty eighth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I read an interesting blog post by Brian Niemeier on the subject of how an indie author pays for all of the work he does while wearing his publisher hat. I think this accurately sumarizes his conclusion:

Never give anyone a percentage of the royalties for one-time work on a self-published project.

So far I’ve followed that myself, though Brian (being a much more popular author) comes at it from a very different angle than I do. He discusses at length why giving away a large part of what you own—let’s face it, as important as the cover, editing, etc. are, without the book they’d be nothing—is a really bad idea financially. And let’s face it, authors do not typically have a smooth, even, reliable income stream in the way that, say, university professors do. And to be clear, it’s obvious in his post that he’s talking about paying a fair one-time price for a person’s work, such that they’ve been well compensated for the value of the time they put in.

But I’ve got the opposite problem. My royalties don’t amount to much, yet—I’m still only in year 3 of my 20 year plan—and until one starts to make real money from books there’s absolutely no guarantee that one ever will. (So far sales have paid for one cover and part of the second cover.) Especially in my case where I’ve never been the stuff of which popularity is made. So I’ve got a strong preference for paying a one-time fee for work such as cover art and copy-editing (I haven’t been able to afford to pay for full editing yet), because this ensures that the person I’m dealing with has been paid fairly for their time. I’m not asking anyone else to share in my risk.

God bless you.

Good Evening December 27, 2016

Good evening on this the twenty seventh day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I’m sorry I missed the last few days. Things have been really crazy. On the plus side, I did the interview with Russell Newquist:

It was a great conversation, and while it did digress a few times—all conversations which involve me as a participant digress, it seems to be an iron law of conversation—I think it hit on a number of interesting subjects and I found Russell’s perspective quite interesting.

I also suspect he’s right that advertising as a business model is probably going to be increasingly non-viable to support writing, and that with distribution coming ever closer to being free, the big problem that we’re going to have to solve is discoverability.

Good Evening December 24, 2016

Good evening on this the twenty forth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I was recently in a conversation which Eve Keneinan pointed out (paraphrased):

I think that you need to grasp what the resurrection means fully in order to evaluate it. Christ brought a couple people back from the dead, so it’s not just that.

Which brought to mind this passage:

“I have the power to lay down my life, and I have the power to take it up again.”

Which is an utterly fascinating statement. To be brought back to life by the power of another is not that different from being brought to life in the first place, which is normally done by the power of another. But to be able to bring oneself back from the dead is quite another thing. It implies quite a different level of power, and quite a different reason for having a temporal life in the first place.

One of the many interesting things about Christianity is that it is entirely a story about a freely given gift; which fits in which what natural theology teaches us. Since God is complete in himself (simple with no parts), we cannot give him anything, an so the only possible reason God created us was for our sake. He cannot receive, but he can give.

On a different note, I’m at a relative’s house and we’re watching The Grinch Who Stole Christmas on DVD, and while it’s certainly enjoyable, it does turn out that the Blu-Ray version is noticeably better than the DVD version. (I’ve found that’s often not the case, for example I don’t think that the blu-ray of Terminator 2 is noticeably any better than the DVD version. Pride and Prejudice, by contrast, is much better on blu-ray. The one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, I mean.)

Have a happy Christmas, and may God bless you.

Good Afternoon December 23, 2016

Good afternoon on this the twenty third day of December, in the year of our Lord 2016.

I see that TOF just posted his latest installment in the Deus Vult series. It’s a series of historical blog posts which is very reminiscent of his excellent Great Ptolemaic Smackdown series. I’m looking forward to reading that.

I finally got my video responding to my friend’s nephew out. (The Probability of Theology.) I’ll be posting the script to it soon. I’ve still got a bunch of other videos to edit, including Chapter 4 from Orthodoxy which I recorded several months ago. Editing audio can be a real chore, I’ve found. Partially I’m not that fond of listening to the sound of my own voice, but partially it’s that it’s hard to edit audio in less time than about three times the time that the audio takes to run. Even with fast movements, one must listen to the audio, make the edits, then listen to make sure that the edited audio is correct. It’s quite time consuming. On the plus side it can be done five minutes at the time, and while the house isn’t as quiet as it has to be for recording.

On an unrelated note, something I’ve never understood, and may well never understand, are thin-skinned people with sharp tongues. I can understand people who can give as good as they get, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me that people who can’t take sharp criticism will give it out. That’s just inviting people to respond in kind; it’s like a person with brittle bones picking fights with strangers on the street. It makes no sense purely from the perspective of self-interest.

This is related to the phenomenon of twitter atheists telling me I’m irrational, delusional, and mind-controlled by an evil entity, then complaining when I tell them they’re badly educated and incompetent at logical thinking. Twitter atheists are almost invariably both of those things; one fellow who told me that theists can’t deal with logic seemed taken aback when I asked him how many university-level logic courses he’d taken. I’m increasingly wondering if this isn’t just an influx people who all want to be the next Christopher Hitchens or TJ Kirk or Bill Maher or whomever, all trying out what they’ve seen and hoping to get fame and fortune as a result. In fairness to them, who becomes popular is often very hard to predict. None of the famous atheists I mentioned are particularly beautiful or smart, though they are charismatic in the same sort of way that dogs are. I mean, if you think about it, people love dogs despite them being ugly, smelly, greedy creatures who urinate on your floors and expect you to clean it up. That’s not a bad metaphor for popular atheists, either.

Also that atheist who told me that theists can’t handle logic later offered to debate me without insults, and I explained that I’ve read Hume and Nietzsche, and I have several friends who are Nietzsche scholars, so what the hell does he have to offer me that I should debate him? He told me that he wasn’t interested in debating me any more because I’m too full of myself. Meanwhile, in theory he doesn’t even have a position. Which is necessary for a debate to happen anyway. I had to point this out to a number of commenters. If one person makes the case for a position and another person says that he didn’t do it well enough, he’s just heckling. As my friend put it, “If you don’t have a position then by definition you’re in the audience. Shut up, sit down, and listen to the people who do have positions. Maybe you’ll learn something.” I wonder how many of these people realize that if they’re doing anything, they’re making Christianity seem more plausible by making atheists look dumb. On the other hand, it is their claim that while geniuses can be Christian, and even partial idiots can be Christian, all complete idiots are atheists. It’s tempting to say that they’re voluntarily claiming to be dumb as a bag of hammers, but it’s never been proven that hammers are that dumb. It is a very curious question in what way hammers relate to God. Of course in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy we like to think of matter as dead, but experiments in quantum mechanics certainly are suggestive (though by no means conclusive) that that’s not the case. It turns out that elementary particles just don’t behave themselves (hence falling back to statistical trends instead of individual prediction). And the world is in general a stranger place then we tend to imagine it.

God bless you.

 

Good Evening December 22, 2016

Good evening on this the twenty second year of December, in the year of our Lord 2016.

So I got the idea to interview some of the authors that I know on my youtube channel. Specifically I’ve lined up Russell Newquist and Brian Niemeier. Both men are Catholic, and thoughtful, so I think there’s some rich ground to explore. One of the great things about the Catholic faith is that it is universal in the sense of being for all sorts of men, not for being a cookie-cutter that can make all men alike. That is, I think, the ideal for conversation: enough in common real subjects can be talked about; enough different that different ideas can be exchanged.

Actually, I should mention that Russell is also an indie publisher with a nascent publishing house in addition to being an author. His publishing house is called Silver Empire, and  they’ve got a project in the works called Lyonesse. It’s a way Russell has conceived of making short stories economically viable in the modern age (with magazines having gone the way of the horse drawn carriage. Incidentally, I actually was driving behind a horse drawn carriage two nights ago, for a minute or two, before it turned off the main road. (I think it was some kind of Christmas gimmick.)

I think that we’ll have interesting discussions, but of course one motivation for Russell and Brian is that doing these interviews functions as publicity. But my channel isn’t very big. Right now it’s only got about 170 subscribers. But publicity doesn’t need to be all that big; there is of course the issue that it’s not about how many people you reach but how many of the right people you reach. (By “the right people” I mean people who want to buy what you’re selling.) But for things to reach a large audience without you having to pay for it with money, you have to pay for it with something, and generally that something is interesting content. And that’s where doing an interview on a small-time youtube channel can be worth it. I don’t have many viewers (compared to what you need for selling enough books to make a living at it), but if the interview is interesting, Russell and Brian have friends with larger audiences who will spread the word about the interview. This is related to a mistake that self-published authors sometimes make. Your friends are not your market; they’re your marketing. At least if you write a book that they can be proud of. If you write something they would be embarrassed about, that’s a different matter. But if you do that, you’ve probably got bigger problems on your hand.

Anyway, it’s part of a nice situation where things are mutually beneficial, at least as long as I do a good job interviewing them. 🙂

God bless you.

Good Morning December 21, 2016

Good morning on this the twenty first day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I ran into this description of knowledge on twitter:

Which, in case twitter ever goes away, said, in reponse to my saying that you can tell which actions are good and which evil, “by all the normal methods of discovering how the world works”:

You mean my senses filtering information to my brain, which reasons and makes choices based on past experience?

Unless I’m badly misreading the guy, he’s gone full Hume. As the saying goes, never go full Hume. Oddly, he’s also one of the people who argued with me about alinguism. If knowledge is “knowledge” by which we mean anticipation of future sense experience by way of past associations of sense experience (that’s not Hume’s definition word-for-word, but it’s close enough), then “language” would indeed not mean anything. To some degree this is just a testimony of how little atheists think about what they or anyone else says.

I think that I may do a video on alinguism, issuing a challenge to atheists to provide evidence of language to me. If I do, I’ll have a section where I anticipate the most common “evidence” of “language” so I can get those out of the way. I may even have a section at the end where I give the game away and explain that the problem is that atheists fall back on hyper-reductionism, where no composite entities are real; only the indivisible elements out of which they are made is real, and since language is not an indivisible element, this hyper-reductionism doesn’t permit believing in language. What makes this work is that composite entities have a different mode of being than indivisible entities, and consequently a different sort of reality. Because these different sorts of reality can be distinguished, one can be denied while the other is affirmed. This is appalling nonsense, of course, since as human beings they are composite entities and to deny the reality of composite entities is to deny their own reality. And yet they continue to exist.

Oh well. Atheists will frequently say that their believing in morality while being an atheist proves that morality is in no way dependent on God. I have no idea what to do with a person who is not in the habit of thinking about what he himself says. Fortunately, we can pray for him.

God bless you.

Good Evening December 20, 2016

Good evening on this the twentieth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I don’t have much because today my oldest son was recovering from a minor outpatient surgery he had yesterday. It went well, and he’s doing quite well—up and active—but he gets upset very easily in an atypical way that suggests that all is not normal. Which I wouldn’t expect it to be, it’s just in the category of appearances can be deceiving since he seems to be doing so well.

Yesterday on twitter I declared myself an alinguist. That is, someone who lacks a belief that language exists. Words exist, of course, but they’re brute facts and “language” is just a fiction that bronze-age people used to explain words. And since I don’t believe in language but communicate just fine, communicating with words is obviously not evidence of language. But if anyone has such evidence, I’d be glad to hear it. After which I will summarily dismiss it as not evidence, of course, since there cannot be evidence that language exists, but being willing to listen marks me out as being very virtuous. And just to make things clear, linguists don’t believe in Klingon or Sindarin, I just don’t believe in their language either.

And so forth. Sometimes one needs the emotional release afforded by parody. It’s not like any atheists will actually get it, of course, but on the other hand you never know when you’ve tilled the ground so that someone else can plant the seed that will one day turn into the tree that will bear fruit. And the inspiring incident was some twitter atheists showing up out of nowhere and saying stupid things at me with all the self-assurance that goes along with an impressive incompetence at the basics of logical thinking. Which is not in itself a justification for making fun of them, but on the other hand making fun of them may be a bitter medicine which helps them. Some of them are so bad at thinking that the only response which seems at all honest is to point out that they’re far too bad at thinking to be attempting thinking on serious issues, and should go back to the beginning. That sounds harsh, but where it’s true—and the people I’m talking about are incompetent at secular thinking, not just thinking on religious matters—anything else would be doing them the disservice of allowing their false notion of competence to go unchecked. Such people won’t learn from me, of course—I often recommend courses in logic at local community colleges for that reason—but they weren’t going to do that anyway. If a man has a clear compound fracture in his leg, but for some reason challenges you to a 5k, the thing to do is not to politely humor him and slow up so he’s not too far behind. The thing to do is your best to get him to a hospital. Now imagine if both his legs had multiple compound fractures, and there was a gaping wound in his left arm, and you saw him struggling mightily to lift a gun to his head because (due to loss of blood) he thought it was a fly swatter. Now just replace all those things which the epistemological beliefs of the average twitatheist, and you’ve got an idea how badly off these people are. Sportsmanship is for healthy people. Who are playing sports.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 19, 2016

Good morning on this the nineteenth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

Last night my children and I watched the A Charlie Brown Christmas. The seven year old got more out of it than the four year old did, which I think will shock no one. It’s a very interesting short film. It’s fundamentally about the contradiction between the secular holiday of Christmas and the religious holiday of Christmas; as such it is itself just such a contradiction. It is fundamentally a commercial work, and yet its theme is genuinely religious.

Ken Levine has an interesting blog post where he recounts how it came on the air in the form we know it, and it’s not surprising that executives at CBS wanted the part where Linus quoted the bible removed (I recommend you read the whole thing, btw). And yet it is a commercial work, not a religious work. That need not be a big distinction, since Christians do engage in commerce and their christianity should infuse everything they do, but for a great many people it is a big distinction, which is what makes it being a smaller distinction here so surprising. Sometimes, it turns out, someone having an artistic vision does result in better art.

There’s also something fascinating about A Charlie Brown Christmas because it is a deeply melancholy film. There is the counterpoint of the dancing to Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy, which is an extraordinarily fun piece of music. But the driving force behind the plot is how Charlie Brown is unhappy that he doesn’t fit in, and further that he’s unhappy that he’s unhappy since the Christmas season is supposed to be a happy time. Which actually, I think, makes the film work rather well as an Advent film. Consider the lyrics from one of the few Advent songs:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
who mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Charlie Brown is mourning in lonely exile, even if his exile happens to leave him physically next to other people. After all, in the Babylonian Captivity the Jews didn’t all live in the hills; many of them lived among other peoples after they were scattered. And in fact the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, where the other children partially accept Charlie Brown by way of accepting his tree, then singing Hark! The Herald Angel Sings, also mirrors the refrain of the song:

Rejoice!  Rejoice!
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

It is somehow fitting that exiled among the Christmas songs is one Advent song, and exiled among TV Christmas specials is one TV Christmas special which is really about Advent. And both are about being exiled and longing for things to be put right. Well, that’s what Advent is all about, Charlie Brown.

God bless you.

Getting Cinelerra to work with a Webcam Video

This is just a quick technical post which I’m leaving more for anyone googling around trying to figure out what was wrong and how to solve it. It’s going to be pretty much nothing like my normal posts.

This is all taking place on Ubuntu 16.04 using a Logitech C920, Cheese to record the webcam video, and Cinelerra compiled from the official upstream (though the same thing happened in cinelerra-cv). I recorded the video in 720p even though the camera supports higher because it saves disk space and my intro and outro are in 720p. Plus it’s just me talking, not something interesting to look at, so I don’t think that the extra disk space, upload time, etc. is worth the trouble, especially since most people stream 720p not 1080p (I believe; I haven’t looked up official youtube statistics if there are any). What Cheese produces—I’d say “by default” but about the only option you get is the recording resolution—is a .webm file, which is a matroska container with VP8 as the video codec and vorbis as the audio codec.

Initially this looked like it worked well as it imported into cinelerra. But then I ran into the first problem: for some reason the video was marked as having a frame rate of 250.0, not 25.0. This caused cinelerra to play it at 10x fast forward. That was fixed easily enough by right-clicking on the media clip and choosing info and setting the framerate to 25. But then I hit the bigger problem which took me quite a while to solve: my voice sounded like the chipmunk effect had been applied to it. Also it was out of sync and then did weird, repeaty things when it ran out but there was still video to go. Of course that sounds like an audio-rate mismatch, but it wasn’t that. I triple-checked that one. Finally I noticed that there was a single channel in the audio stream. Well, actually, I kind if figured that out when inserting the video in cinelerra only pasted one track and I had to duplicate it, but I didn’t notice that for some reason cinelerra thought that the video had two audio channels. I’m not sure if this is a limitation in cinelerra or what, but the number of audio channels was not configurable. So I used ffmpeg to convert the video to stereo with 25fps, and it worked perfectly in cinelerra. For reference, here’s the command like I used:

ffmpeg -i ~/Videos/Webcam/2016-12-14-173128.webm -s hd720 -r 25 -ac 2 -strict -2 output.mp4

I converted to mp4 for an inconsequential reason, I think it would have worked as well to convert to VP8. Also you may notice I scaled to 720p, because I did actually record the original in 1080p and I wanted it to make my intro and outro video segments which as I said above were in 1080p. I believe this (which leaves the video unchanged) would work too:

ffmpeg -i ~/Videos/Webcam/2016-12-14-173128.webm -r 25 -ac 2 -c:v copy -c:a vorbis -strict -2 test.webm

A quick test showed that video to be slightly out of sync, so I’m not sure what that’s about, but something like it would probably work.

That being said, I’m switching to guvcview. It’s got far more options, can pull video at the full 30fps the camera can deliver it (using the camera’s built-in h.264 compression), and can record in stereo audio and video marked at the correct framerate. If I could just figure out some way of getting it to record the h.264 coming off of the camera rather than re-encoding it, that would be even better, but it’s not the end of the world to re-encode it. My computer is far more than fast enough to re-encode in h264 or vp8.

Good luck.

Good Morning December 18, 2016

Good morning on this the eighteenth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

Yesterday I talked about the game Dragon City. I’ve kept playing the game, and there’s a very interesting dynamic in its mode of play. It uses the free to play model, where it’s free but you can pay money for extras. But the odd thing about this is that paying the money doesn’t actually get you much. Here’s where I am today, btw:

Screenshot (Dec 18, 2016 11-11-06 AM).png

And if I had put about $10 in yesterday, I’d be only a little further along. It’s likely I don’t know the best way of using gems (the things you can buy which can be used to speed up certain actions, and pay for certain types of buildings), but at the same time it’s not like there’s a detailed video tutorial which explains how to get the most out of your gems. Especially since I’m not flush with cash because it’s too hot in my house to burn more dollar bills for heating, it seems much more practical to just wait a bit longer.

And this is where we come to the curious aspect of this sort of game. It’s designed to be very addictive, but it requires not inconsiderable amounts of patience to play. There’s a small amount of action every few minutes, but most of the time you’re just waiting for things to complete. So the very odd things is that while it is created the way it is in order to try to maximize profits for the people who made the game, it turns out to be a fairly good tool for teaching people practice. God has a sense of humor.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 17, 2016

Good morning on this the seventeenth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

As I write this, the two oldest children are currently watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the second time. It’s one of my favorites too. Boris Karloff does an amazing job narrating and acting the story. Of course I saw it at least once per Christmas season as a child myself. There’s a lot made of the massive discontinuity in how children grew up with how their parents grew up that’s been brought about both by cultural changes but especially by technology, and that’s certainly true, but in many ways technological change is slowing down, and those of us who grew up with technology are having our children grow up with at least similar technology. If we don’t tell many stories around the fire any more, we do watch the same Christmas specials. I’m not interested in arguing that it’s the same—because it probably isn’t—but on the other hand it is continuity. There are things my children are doing which are just like the things I did, and this does form points of connection. As nice as it is to have things in common with my children, I think it’s much more important for them to have things in common with me. My oldest son found it very interesting that I used to watch Scooby Doo, and he’d often ask for “the Scooby Doo you used to watch as a kid.” Granted, it was very well done and I still enjoy it now (see my post about formative fiction), but I think that personal connection was important to him, too.

And on the subject of technology, there was for a while—I think most concentrated roughly in the 1950s through the 1990s—the idea that technology was on an exponential curve of improvement. You can find people who will talk about the singularity (when technology really starts accelerating because technology is able to make itself without our intervention, which I jokingly summarize as, “and the word became silicon, and dwelt among us” (see John 1:14)). And yet, this is not how a great deal of technology actually develops in practice. Consider cars, for example. From 1910 to 1960, the top speed of (ordinary) cars went from something like 20 miles per hour to around 70 miles per hour. By the 80s, however, the practical top speed of cars was something like 85 miles per hour. Again talking about ordinary cars, you wouldn’t want to drive a car made in the 2000s above 90 miles per hour. While the engine and drive train and so on can take it, the problem is that he aerodynamics are awful. It’s not just a matter of air resistance, but the fact that the air can push so hard on a vehicle at that speed that it isn’t safe to go faster. Between aerodynamic lift and sideways pushing, it’s just dangerous to drive a common car that fast. I don’t think that there’s much of a difference between cars made in the 2000s and cars made in the 2010s in that regard, and I don’t think there’s likely to be much of an improvement in cars made in the 2020s in that regard either. Most roads don’t permit you to go nearly 80 miles per hour anyway, so why pay lots of extra money and make trade-offs in convenience and interior space to be able to drive at such high speeds once every few years? And here we come to one of the most significant retarders of technological progress in the modern world: economics.

There are all sorts of things it’s technologically possible to do which do not get done because no one finds them to be worth the money. There was, a few years back, a high powered rifle which used a linux-based computer and high quality digital camera to be able to identify targets, then when you pull the trigger it waits until you are aiming the gun exactly to hit the target and only then fires. It could accurately hit targets almost two miles away, I believe, but it cost well in excess of $50,000. So no one bought it, because, well, why would you? It’s very expensive and takes all the fun out of shooting. My guess is that they probably had military applications in mind and were just using the civilian market as a means of proving that it worked, but who knows? They stopped making it because of a lack of interest, and it no longer exists, so far as I know. It’s not that we can’t make it, it’s just that we don’t. (The “we” being our species.)

Televisions are another interesting example of this. TV makers have a big problem that people don’t replace TVs very often, but there was a big boom in demand back when everyone was switching from CRTs to LCD TVs. They really want another replacement boom, but despite the fact that it’s now possible to replace one’s 40″ TV with a 60″ TV, most people don’t find that to be very necessary, and while they might go for a bigger TV when their current TV finally breaks, it’s not compelling to spend the money now. TV makers also hoped that 3D was going to be huge and drive another lucrative replacement cycle, but 3D offers very little over 2D (not nearly as much as color offered over black-and-white) and is generally too much of a pain in the neck to be worth it. 4K TVs are the current hoped-for rainbow with a pot of gold at the end, but the actual quality improvement over 1080p as far as human beings evaluate it is very minor. (Technically 4k is four times the resolution and thus four times as good as 1080p, but it makes for a very slight increase in enjoyment to a human being.) I’m going to come back to this topic later and give it a more thorough treatment, but the upshot is: technology is slowing down in an umber of key areas because our capacity to enjoy technology is becoming saturated. So I think we’re going to be feeling like there is more continuity between the generations than the people in the 1960s through the 1980s felt. Just a guess, but it’s looking like it, at least on the technological disruption front.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 16, 2016

Good morning on this the sixteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord 2016.

I recently started playing the game Dragon City:

Screenshot_20161216-110922.png

It’s a mobile game, which means it’s played on a phone or tablet. My two boys have been playing it, so I decided to start playing too in part because it looked like fun, and in part because I think it’s good for me to be playing the same games that they do. It gives us a connection, both personally and as parent/child so that adulthood is not as foreign a thing to them. A lot of people lose sight of the nature of the parent/child relationship. It is not an equal relationship, but it’s purpose is to raise the children up to adulthood so that it can become an equal relationship. There’s a reason why God is analogized to a father within christianity; he created us out of nothing so that he might give us more, and even more than that incorporates us into himself so that we might become more like him. As the ancient Christian saying goes, God became man that man might become God.

On the one hand, playing games is part of adulthood, and not showing children that is misleading. On the other hand, it’s also the case that to raise someone up, you have to be able to lower yourself to meet them. If they could meet you on a higher level, they wouldn’t need your help.

There’s also an interesting aspect to such games that they are nearly perfect skinnerian training devices for playing them. A descendant of games like farmville which was itself a descendant of Sim City, it’s in the genre called resource management where you farm for some resources and then allocate them in order to maximize your resource acquisition. You can also buy things enjoyable for their own sake; in this case dragons where you get to enjoy the pretty art. That last part is crucial because if your game is purely utilitarian in the way that materialists assure us that real life is, we lose interest very quickly because it’s utterly pointless. No one takes a boring game and attempts to give it some other meaning like atheists constantly assure us is why we are not without meaning if we are without God. In real life, we only consider activities meaningful if they are related to something we inherently know is meaningful, beauty being perhaps one of the clearest examples. I think that game makers are increasingly discovering that allowing people to unlock beauty as the reward for playing the game is one of the best motivations there is. (Which is not to denigrate other motivations, like the excellence of action which is the reward in many games like first person shooters, etc.) It’s an interesting trend.

And of course there is also the risk of such easy rewards becoming addictive. That’s the flip side of it being a skinnerian training device for playing it. On the other hand that’s why such games are fun at all—that you can get lots of success and rewards with enough effort to feel like you’re doing something but the minimum effort so you get the rewards much faster than in normal life. Like most good things, it can be abused.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 15, 2016

Good morning on this the fifth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I ran into an interesting video talking about how in the star wars universe the Dark Side doesn’t make sense:

To some degree it’s meant for humor, but it’s also got serious analysis, and it points to a common problem, especially in modern fiction, of unrealistic evil organizations. To some degree this is a similar sort of issue pointed out by the top 100 things I’d do if I was an evil overlord. It includes things like:

45. I will make sure I have a clear understanding of who is responsible for what in my organization. For example, if my general screws up I will not draw my weapon, point it at him, say “And here is the price for failure,” then suddenly turn and kill some random underling.

48. I will treat any beast which I control through magic or technology with respect and kindness. Thus if the control is ever broken, it will not immediately come after me for revenge.

68. I will spare someone who saved my life sometime in the past. This is only reasonable as it encourages others to do so. However, the offer is good one time only. If they want me to spare them again, they’d better save my life again.

187. I will not hold lavish banquets in the middle of a famine. The good PR among the guests doesn’t make up for the bad PR among the masses.

188. I will funnel some of my ill-gotten gains into urban renewal projects. Although slums add a quaint and picturesque quality to any city, they too often contain unexpected allies for heroes.

Basically, the problem is that evil organizations are often designed in completely unstable ways that could never work. This instability is exploited by the hero, making the writer’s life much easier but the story far less satisfying. Truly evil organizations are generally the decaying corpses of better organizations which are currently run by a parasite, but it is a short-lived phenomenon because it can only last while there is host left to be consumed. The most obvious counter-examples are marxist dictatorships, but as evil as these were, they rarely managed to be completely evil. Like the Roman empire killing Christians in the arenas, the extreme evil tended to be in spurts, and concentrated in particular places. North Korea might be the best counter-example to this, but I believe it largely continues to exist as it does because it is the client-state of China, and as such it still represents decay, though a somewhat special case because it’s one small decaying piece of a much larger host. Much of what keeps North Korea intact is, I believe, aid from China. (I’m not very familiar with this and I might be wrong; it might be a better counter-example than I think it is.)

This was always a problem with the Klingons, incidentally. Modern armies have a tooth-to-tail ratio of about 1:10; the high technology of Star Trek would probably leave that about the same through increasing maintenance requirements but also increasing automation. So how did a warrior culture as thoroughly warrior-focused as the klingons manage to have scientists and engineers and accountants? These are all things necessary to get a functioning space ship flying around in outer space, and yet all anyone in the Klingon empire wanted to do was hit each other with pain sticks and boast while they ate live animals which were trying to eat them first.

Probably the worst example of this in fiction would be the reavers in Firefly. They were a completely chaotic society of mindless killing maniacs who somehow also managed to operate and maintain space ships. One can at least imagine Klingon engineers who did all the warrior stuff in their spare time; the reavers couldn’t even talk to each other—at least they only appeared capable of jibbering—and were so consumed with killing and destruction it’s really hard to imagine them refueling their space ships, let alone performing maintenance on them.

It’s a theme I’ll come back to, but it’s tied into the basic truth that evil does not have a positive existence, only a negative existence, like a shadow. Evil organizations can, therefore, only ever be in decay. Minimally functional societies require far too many virtues to ever be completely evil.

God bless you.