When Small is Big

On Twitter I recently posted this:

When it comes to seeming important, a small movement’s best friends are usually its enemies.

And got promptly asked what I meant by several people. So I might as well explain it here. There are three primary ways in which this is true:

1. Bogey Men Are Well Known

People often justify their own importance by the danger their enemies pose. Therefore they are prone to taking small groups and exaggerating the danger they pose to look important themselves. Doing this makes the bogey man they’ve chosen seem far more important too, though.

The classic example of this sort of enemy is somebody who is fighting a fight that’s already been won. They want to relive the glory days of old, but they just don’t matter any more. So they look far and wide to find some sign that the apocalypse is actually nigh and they are needed to fend it off. The result is that they seize on small groups and make them out to be a world-wide threat. It’s great publicity for the small group that they’ve seized upon. Unfortunately if the small group is actually bad, this is a net negative for the world, but people concerned with their own importance aren’t worried about that.

2. Rallying Points Rally

The thing about large groups is that they all have enemies. So when a large group attacks a small group, that small group becomes the most active place to fight the big group. This means that people who want to fight the big group will be drawn to the small group not out of any sympathy for the small group but only because that’s the place to be to fight the big group.

If the small group is extreme enough this can actually look like a tactical advantage to the big group. By causing their enemies to rally around the small group of wackos, some of the stink of the small group will rub off. This can backfire yugely, however, if the small group is not as generally unacceptable as the big group thinks that it is. The more extreme the big group, the greater the danger of this happening since somewhat mainstream groups look extreme to them.

3. Martyrdom Is Convincing

Having enemies gives you the opportunity to prove that you’re serious. It is only by having enemies than one can prove one’s courage and conviction. There is an almost Chestertonian paradox in this, but one cannot prove one’s valor on one’s own schedule. Real adversity can only come from the outside; it’s only adversity if there is an adversary. Or in other words, you can only show that you believe in a truth so much that you are willing to die for it if someone is willing to kill you for it.

It’s Normal to be Normal

Over at Amatopia, Alex writes about The Pinnacle of Flatness. To give a bit of the flavor of the post:

Extrapolate this line of thinking to cities and towns the world over. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Toronto looks like London looks like Los Angeles looks like Berlin, and so on. Not identical, but close enough. Modern architecture is but one way in which ideas of design seem to be converting on something universal…and kind of beige.

And then there’s urban sprawl and the explosion of squat, concrete strip malls, fast-food joints and gas stations, and big box stores everywhere. It seems like that’s all some towns are.

And this, of course, goes for the arts as well. Movies all feel the same, screenwriting formulae aside. Musicbooks, television shows, educationpop culture…the list goes on.

Then he asks the crucial question:

Is this just where things always lead? Is there an “ultimate design” that we as human beings have finally reached? Or is it the natural consequence of a society that embraces Adam Smith’s “capitalism” while rejecting the “guided by moral principles” part of the equation? In other words, is function driving this sameness, or is commerce? Or is something else?

Though Alex does have an important point which I’ll get to, I think even more important is to point out that his question is in some senses a very odd one. For most people throughout history, the big things tended to be very utilitarian. Dwelling places, transport, and to some degree clothing tended to be first utilitarian and second aesthetic. You have to be fairly rich before you can afford to spend money on non-functional design.

A manor house might well have heavily aesthetic influences in its design, but the average peasant’s hut would not have had a wide variety of designs whose purpose was to express the individuality of the owner. In the era before heavy machinery, those things take a lot of labor which a peasant could not have easily paid for. I don’t mean that people wouldn’t have decorated their houses to their tastes, but they wouldn’t have done much design to their tastes, since that mostly means varying the design from the most affordable one. There would have been variation in terms of adapting to the exact lay of the land, of course, but again that’s a result of not having the heavy machinery to turn anyplace into a decent building site.

Clothing is probably the biggest exception, but for the average peasant one’s clothing was made from fabric spun and woven by the women of the family, tending to limit one’s pallet to the colors wool and flax (etc) came in. And the designs tended toward those which required (and wasted) the least fabric to make, since so much work went into the making of that fabric. Modern clothing is unbelievably inexpensive since the spinning and weaving is all done by fast machines. There would have been variation because everyone made their own clothing and so it was all made differently, but that is a reflection of variations in workmanship, not in the expression of individuality.

But even more than the practical elements, aside from some people aspiring to fame and glory, human beings throughout most of history were not primarily concerned with distinguishing themselves from everyone else. They needed other people too much. Their primarily concern was solidarity with their fellow man. Your brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors were all people you depended on for survival. Showing how special and unusual you are is a preoccupation of the rich, not of the common man. Novelty is also a luxury of the rich, who can afford to pay for it. But it doesn’t at all follow that novelty is all that good for human beings. Historically there were such things as diseases of the rich—chief among them obesity and various types of malnutrition caused by being able to afford things like white flour and white rice and foods prepared in expensive ways that also happen to leach the nutrients out into the less tasty part that the rich don’t need to bother to eat. I actually strongly suspect that novelty really isn’t all that good for human beings above a relatively small dose. People of above average intelligence—like Alex—can probably take higher doses—but on average novelty may actually be more destructive of happiness than conducive to it. Consider how important ritual—doing the same thing over and over—is to sanity.

Now, all that having been said, there is a very legitimate form of variation which is not available to the modern secular world. That is variation of virtue. A world which doesn’t understand virtue can’t tell stories of the interplay of different virtues, or how different men balance virtues in different yet good ways. As I’ve said, there’s That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell.

How To End Conversations

Recently the topic of ending conversations came up and so I thought I’d write down a brief guide to good ways to do that in case it’s helpful to someone who hasn’t seen good examples of it.

And just as a preface, if you want to exit from a conversation, don’t give the other person hints that you want to be out of it. You have very little control over how aggressively hints are interpreted, and in the best case people will wonder why you didn’t trust them enough to say what you meant. In general, passive-aggressive leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. And further, if you want a job done, don’t delegate it to someone who may not want it done.

Before I get into specifics, we should first talk about the generalities of the situation, so that the specifics make sense. All conversations have between one and two purposes. Conversations which might be said to have no purpose will generally have the purpose of fulfilling social obligations to interact with people in some circumstances. Common purposes include:

  • Wanting human connection (to stave off loneliness)
  • Enjoyment of a subject with someone who also enjoys it
  • Passing the time
  • Communicating information
  • Being polite

For the most part, people are in a conversation for one of these reasons. Exiting a conversation in a way that does not offend the other person is primarily a matter of acting consonant with two propositions:

  1. The other person’s concerns matter
  2. the reason you are ending the conversation is that something of greater importance than the current state of the conversation has come up

The specifics of this depend on the reason the other person has for being in the conversation. Though one generality is to make sure to smile as you’re ending the conversation. Smiling makes everyone less likely to be offended, as long as your smile is commensurate with the words you’re saying. (For more, I’ve got a whole video about the use of smiling as communication.) Taking them in increasing order of difficult:

Being Polite

If the other person is in the conversation merely to be polite, which typically means something like the two of you are together and it would be rude to act as if the other person isn’t there, exiting the conversation politely is generally as simple as saying that you should do something else and saying it was pleasant to talk with them. (Note: there is no way to politely exit a conversation if you will still be in the situation where it would be impolite to not talk. “I’m going to stand here and ignore you while you stare at my forehead” will always be impolite no matter how you say it.)

Here’s my stop. It was nice talking you, and good luck with [thing person said].

Passing the Time

Related to being polite, passing the time is where conversation isn’t necessary but someone finds it preferable to the alternatives. When only one person is passing the time, this can be unpleasant for the other person but may be done as an act of generosity. If you’re the one passing the time and the other person has things they’d rather be doing, generally the best way out is to apologize, since it implicitly recognizes their generosity.

Well, look at me going on and on. I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time but thanks and I’ll let you get back to [whatever they were doing or should be doing].

If the other person was passing the time, then the key is to not make them feel like they were a burden. (Even if they were; odds are very good they’ll realize it on some level even if you say nothing and anything you say will probably over-communicate that message. If a person is constantly doing this to you, greater firmness will be required, but if at all possible escalate slowly.)

Hey, it was good talking to you but unfortunately I’ve got to get to [whatever you should be doing]. See you around!

Communicating Information

On the plus side, people generally don’t have emotional investments in communicating information. On the downside, these sorts of conversations can easily get lost in the woods and wander endlessly. The key to ending them is making sure that the other person has all the information that they need and that the conversation doesn’t accidentally become mutual politeness, like the time I and a group of college friends walked to the ATM before getting food together only to stand there and look at each other to see who needed to get cash before eating when none of us did. How to get out of this conversation will depend on whether you are the one who needs information or the one who is giving it. If you’re the one giving it (at a suitable time when you’re not interrupting a thought):

OK. Well, does that answer your question / give you what you need?

If they say no, then go back to trying to answer the question. If they say yes:

OK, great! I’m glad I could help, and if there’s anything else you need, just let me know.

If you’re the one who was asking the questions, how you exit the conversation will depend on whether you got the information you were after. If you did, this is easy:

Hey, well, that answered all the questions I have. Thanks you very much for all the information.

(At this point the other person may take a moment to point you to additional sources of information, such as books, websites, etc. Actually write this stuff down if you can because in the worst case a little effort here will make the other person feel better, and in the more common case you won’t have to ask for the recommendation all over again.)

If you didn’t get the information and it’s clear that you’re not going to, then it’s best to be a little vague, but of course within the bounds of honesty:

Hey, well, thanks. That gives me a sense of where to get started. I need to do some more research to come up with more focused, better-formed questions. But this gives me a good start for doing that.

On the real extreme end of having gotten nothing at all out of it, just thank them for their time. They’ll probably be more glad than you are to get out of the conversation. If they ask if that answered your question, I suggest discovering your inner skeptic. What can you really be certain of, anyway?

I’m not really sure, actually. I’ve got to think about it and figure out what it is I’m even trying to ask.


Possibly. I need some time to think it over and turn things over in my head and see if it makes sense or if there’s stuff I still need to ask about.

If it was such a cluster-fudge that you got information that was contradictory or you know to be wrong, stick to what’s true:

Well, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

Enjoyment of a Subject With Someone Who Also Enjoys It

This is the classic conversation between friends, at least when it’s going well. If this is actually going on with a friend, then it will probably be hard to go wrong, unless you have to leave early. With friends, openness is generally the best approach, so if something came up that means you have to run, say what it is.

Oh shoot. I promised my [blood relation] I’d [do something] now, so I’ve got to run. I need a few more hours in a day. Will you be available [time/date]?

This both gives them an entirely believable reason why you had to leave so quickly, and by making reference to when you next talk to them, communicates unambiguously that you want to continue the subject, or at least keep talking with them.

If the conversation has come to a natural close, then mostly all that’s needed is an acknowledgement that you enjoyed the conversation. Everyone has things to do in order to stay healthy and under shelter, so no real excuse is needed, though there’s no harm in providing one, either.

Well, it’s been great talking with you but I have to get going.

Or with an excuse:

Well, it’s been great talking with you, but unfortunately I need to [practical activity, such as eating or going to sleep].

If the conversation was not really symmetric, where the other person was far more into than you were, the excuse is more important. And to limit such conversations without giving offense, try to pick an early but not abrupt point to consistently end them; the other person’s sense of you being as into it as them will depend heavily on how participatory you are, so limiting your participation will naturally encourage them to look elsewhere while still thinking of you as meaning well toward them. (I’m assuming that you do; if you dislike someone and wish them ill, you don’t need advice on how to communicate that. Everyone knows how to shriek obscenities and throw things.)

Wanting Human Connection

This may be the hardest one since ending a conversation is inherently—if temporarily—severing the human connection which the other person is seeking. Accordingly, there isn’t a great way of doing this. There are actually two bad outcomes you need to try to avoid:

  1. Making the person feel unwanted or like they’re a burden
  2. Making the person think that you have more time to give them than you do, so that they are set up for disappointment when you don’t talk to them again as soon or for as long as they were expecting.

As is probably obvious, navigating this isn’t easy, since the easiest way to avoid one is to run straight into the other. The best bet is to express happiness that you conversed and to be very realistic about the next time you’ll talk. It is far, far better to over-estimate how long it will be than to under-estimate it. People are always delighted to hear from someone earlier than expected but feel quite bad about not hearing from someone when they expect to. This is of course difficult because the further off an estimate one gives, the less happy the other person will be to hear it. This is what tends to push us into giving under-estimates and disappointing them.

If this is a relative or other close person, it’s ideal to establish some sort of regularity. Calling every Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening or whatever. The regularity both gives the person something to look forward to and eases the ending of the conversation because less will feel like it’s at stake. If they feel like they can rely on hearing from you again, it will be painful—but not nearly as painful—to say goodbye.

That said, the key is to strike a balance between being cheerful and acknowledging that the ending of the conversation is not a happy thing for the other person. Much of this is in the tone of voice, of course; something gentle with a note of sadness among a generally positive sound is the goal. If you can stick to a schedule, something like this:

Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of the [realistic time period until you talk again]. I look forward to talking with you [tomorrow/next week/etc].  [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]

If you can’t stick to a schedule, then something like this:

Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of your day. I look forward to talking with you again. [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]


It is ironic that the English language does not have any literally-true colloquialisms for “what I am about to say would be too complex to say in a manner that complies with normal etiquette so I’m going to say it without normal etiquette but do not take it to mean that I think you are unworthy of etiquette and still less take it to mean what it would if you were to apply the normal etiquette-reversal filter we all use to know what the other person means”. The standard ways to say things I know of are:

  • “Honestly,”
  • “With respect,”
  • “With all due respect,” (this one really loses its effect since one isn’t bothering to figure out how much respect is actually due—which is not very respectful)
  • “I love him, but,”
  • “I consider him a friend, but,”
  • “To be blunt,”

None of these directly mean what is intended, though usually the speaker understands it from context. There’s not wrong with this. It’s how a lot of language works. It is, however, ironic, that the way one says that one will not use circumlocutions is with a circumlocution. (If you’re not familiar with the word, it means to talk around the subject rather than directly to it, circum=circle, locution=talking.)

The question might arise why we need to do this at all. Why not dispense with etiquette all the time and just speak directly? That would work in cases where everyone knows everyone else extremely well. In small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers, for example. Outside of that, we mostly only have a basic sense of what someone means and have an instinctive tendency to take what other people mean in its most negative light. It’s safer that way. Etiquette exists in order to deal with this instinctive tendency. It softens what we say in a manner that doesn’t trigger our instinctive tendency to take everything strangers say as badly as possible, while its standardization means that we also know how to invert it to get at the original meaning at a higher cognitive level where our comprehension won’t trigger our fight-or-flight instincts. It’s cumbersome and time consuming but all safety is cumbersome and time consuming. This is also why there are protocols for temporarily setting it aside without losing all benefit from it.

Urban-Fantasy.com—An Opportunity

Silver Empire Publishing—the company who will be publishing my novel The Dean Died Over Winter Break—has just (as of February 2nd, 2018) announced an interesting opportunity for devoted fans of urban fantasy. (For those who don’t know what Urban Fantasy is but are reading this anyway, here’s the Wikipedia article on it. tl;dr fantasy in a modern-day setting.)

We’re looking for a few good contributors to our new blog! Applicants must be able and willing to provide regular blog posts on the following topics, all related to Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Fiction, or Supernatural Thrillers:

  • Book reviews
  • Movie reviews
  • TV reviews
  • Theory, critique and discussion
  • Analysis

They’re looking for people who will do this primarily for love of the genre because the perks (in addition to exposure) are related to free access to lots and lots of Urban Fantasy. If you’re interested, check out the link to the full announcement for details and how to apply.

The Problem With Outrage Quoting

I’m fairly careful to limit my intake of social media to people who say reasonable things. This is in part a survival strategy for Staying Sane on Social Media. However, this still leaves a fairly large vector for things which unbalance my mood and make me less effective at the main stuff I’m supposed to be doing: outrage quoting.

This is where a person who is themselves reasonable sees a very unreasonable thing, then quotes it to express their outrage at it. There’s also a variation on this where the person quotes it to make fun of it. The latter isn’t quite as bad as the former, but both do have the following problem: one is still being exposed to the crazy stuff one was trying to avoid.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that—the people one follows are specifically filtering through the stuff from the unreasonable people to find the craziest stuff that they say. This can be extremely unbalancing to one’s state of mind. As I talked about in Social Media is Doomed, human beings aren’t designed to deal with a large number of strangers. We deal with people by acclimating to them, but it takes time and is harder the more different sorts of people we need to acclimate to. Even when we are careful to keep our reading to a set group of people to whom we’ve acclimated—there’s no requirement that these people agree with each other or with us, only that we’ve acclimated to them—outrage quoting constantly introduces new people to our notice who are saying crazy things that we haven’t acclimated to. This is extremely stressful to human beings.

Also, please note that I’m not talking about being exposed to new ideas as being stressful. There are some circumstances in which that can be stressful, but usually it’s quite manageable. I’m talking about running into expressions of ideas we’re not used to. Perhaps we know somebody who will say #KillAllMen and we’ve gotten used to this eccentricity. There is no new argument to be found in a person saying, instead, #CastrateAllMen (I made that up; who knows, perhaps I will have actually come up with an absurd example that the universe didn’t beat me to for once). But if we’re used to the former and not the latter, the latter will be far more stressful to run into. There’s a new person here, and people are complex. They’re also dangerous. A stress reaction to having to deal with a new person is actually entirely appropriate. Best case scenario is a big drain on your emotional energy is incoming.

Except that this being a one-off quote means that actually, a big drain on one’s emotional energy isn’t incoming because you don’t actually need to get used to this new person. You’re almost certainly never going to see them again. And therein lies one strategy to help mitigate the stress from encountering outrage quoting: focus on how this is a person you’ll never see again and how they don’t really matter.

I don’t have any other good suggestions, other than be careful about people who do a lot of outrage quoting. But certainly I think the golden rule applies, here: be very careful when quoting to make sure that one isn’t outrage quoting. For example, when I wrote a humorous blog post about that CNN article on cuckolding (CNN’s Love of Cuckolding), I started it off with explaining why it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth stressing over. And I’ve stopped myself from quoting outrageous things often enough that it’s now becoming a habit to not quote outrageous things. Still, it’s something I always keep in mind—if I’m quoting something, what effect will seeing that have on the people who read what I write?

MST3K’s Complaints About the 80s

I was just watching one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, Space Mutiny. During the end credits, Mike and the bots are complaining about the 1980s. Actually, I’ll just quote it since the people at the MST3K wikia kindly typed it up:

Crow: You and your ’80s!
Servo: Your precious ’80s!
Crow: You know it would’ve continued to be the ’70s if not for you!
Servo: Yeah!
Mike: All right, all right, that’s it, that tears it!
[Mike attacks Crow and the three begin fighting on the floor]
Crow: You want a piece of me! It’s go time, ’80s man!
Servo: Come on cool-breeze! Ow owie ow don’t!
[After a while Mike sits up]
Mike: Wait, wait you guys, wait, this isn’t us man.
[Pause of a second]
Servo: Yes it is, you hair-feathering freak! Get him!
Crow: No, no, Servo, he’s right, he’s right. This movie has us turning on each other! It won’t end! These credits just won’t end! [sobbing]
Servo: [sobbing] It’s just like the stupid ’80s, they never ended either!
Mike: No no, actually they did end Tom, there there, it’s okay. See, see there’s the copyright, that means it’s over.
Servo: [sobbing] I’m sorry, Mike!
Crow: [sobbing] Sorry, Mike!
Mike: It’s all over, you guys. I’m sorry too.

I’ve never blinked at that, but here I am watching this in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2018, where the 1980s are a distant memory of my childhood. And of course tons of material from the time like movies and songs and such. But MST3K has been off the air for quite some time, and it occurred to me to wonder when this episode was first aired. It turns out that it was aired in 1998. That’s just 8 years after the 80s came to a close. The 1990s weren’t the same as the 1980s, to be sure, but my recollection is that they weren’t nearly as different as the 1980s were from the 1970s.

Granted the above interaction was exaggerated for comedic effect, but it’s curious to see a perspective on the 1980s from relatively close to it.

Incidentally, my recollection of the 2000s is that, culturally, they weren’t all that different from the 1990s and that the 2010s are even less different from the 2000s. Certainly things changed, of course. People do dress somewhat differently, though among the mainstream (rather that people who live and breathe fashion) not *that* differently. And of course streaming is a huge thing these days. But at the same time I wonder if the prevalence of recorded media, both VHS/DVDs/Blu-Ray and streaming, will act to be something of a break on cultural change. There’s money to be made in back-catalogs, and new stuff tends to be more expensive. Plus most new stuff is garbage—in comparison to the best stuff of the last 50 years. (And atheists can’t tell decent stories.) This may partially be why so much of what’s made these days is remakes. This isn’t a well developed thought, just something that occurred to me.

History Is Safe Because It’s Over

Some thoughts on historical fiction and our perspective on history. In particular, how knowing the outcome of history makes it hard to relate to the things historical people worried about, and how this colors our view of them and their actions. You can also watch this on YouTube:

Movie Magic

When I was a kid, there was a TV show on the discovery channel called Movie Magic. It was about special effects, I believe. I never watched it that I can recall. But its title has stuck with me all these years later. It strikes me that its title captures something fundamental about movies: movies are magic. Even bad movies. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve been watching Hobgoblins.


It was Rick Sloane’s third movie and had a budget of $15,000. According to an inflation calculator I tried, that’s the equivalent of $31,337 today. And they didn’t have digital photography or editing back then. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but the acting, camera work, editing, and so on were… competent. Not compared to big budget movies, but compared to other tiny-budget movies. There were characters who were written and played consistently from start to finish. And the result was that this movie—bad as it was—had that movie magic.

Movie Magic is, specifically, the creation of a world. Not merely a temporary world, but a world which lasts in the imagination of those who watched it. As cheesey as the scenes between Macready and his boss were, in some sense they happened. In some sense this was a movie studio boss’s office:


It doesn’t make much intuitive sense, and yet it’s true.

And I think that it’s the people who have that sense of movie magic who are the primary fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000. We’re fans of it because it’s an opportunity to laugh at ourselves. Because every one of us would jump at the chance to be part of movie magic. Every one of us would make the compromises which are unavoidable when you have a budget of $31,338. But for all those tradeoffs, the movie would still be a movie. It would still be a bit of reality with places and people we made out of thin air. Maybe we’d write better dialog, but even if we didn’t it sure would be something to be part of making a movie. And I think that we all know that on some level that’s ridiculous, which is why we enjoy laughing at ourselves so much.

Hobgoblins Arrived

I recently got the 20th anniversary DVD of the movie Hobgoblins. Not the MST3K of it, mind you. Look as hard as you want, you won’t see Mike and the bots:


Granted, that’s not the best screenshot to show it. How about this:


What’s that, you say? You don’t recognize that from the MST3K episode? Indeed you don’t, and neither do I. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I’ll be interested to see what it’s like as it was meant to be seen. In my previous experience watching the original movies (MST3K: Werewolf is the only one I wrote up so far), they didn’t cheat by editing the movie to make it more laughable, so I don’t expect that to here, either. But while I’ve only watched up to the title so far, the tone is quite different from the MST3K episode. The impression I got from the episode was that the movie was goofy; watching the original it feels more like mostly-incompetent horror. Certainly the beginning sequence is played entirely straight, even though the tension was so not-tense that you couldn’t cut it with a laser-chainsaw.

Once I watch the entire movie I’ll write up a review of it. I find this sort of dive into movie history to be very interesting.


I was recently looking up mills, and came across this fascinating picture of a Roman flour mill:


(Photo Credit: By Chris 73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m so extremely used to the wheel type of mill that this almost shocked me. Just to be clear, I mean this kind of mill:


(Photo Credit: By Daniel Villafruela. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, the wikipedia page called it an edge mill, and the wikipedia page for edge mills claims that edge mills were invented in China in the third century. Which, if true, means that the sort of mill stone I normally think of as a mill stone wouldn’t have existed at the time of Christ. Perhaps even more interesting, the sort of mill which quite possibly did exist then (the roman one in the first picture) looks to me far more complicated and advanced than the sort of flour mill which apparently superseded it. Very interesting.

The thing which led me to discover this was looking up Friedrich von Logau’s poem about the mills of God. The original poem is:

Gottes Mühlen mahlen langsam, mahlen aber trefflich klein,
ob aus Langmut er sich säumet, bringt mit Schärf ‘er alles ein.

Which was translated into English (according to Wikipedia, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) as:

Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.

Snow is Peaceful

There’s something very peaceful about snow. Snow causes all sorts of problems, of course, but it is in fact these problems from which the peacefulness of snow arises. Snow is peaceful precisely because it causes most creatures to go home. But it does more; since it takes footprints so readily, snow also proves when it has kept men away from a place:


Isolation is not the best kind of peace, of course. Peace, most properly considered, is the ordering of creation according to God’s will. Among human beings, peace refers to harmony, not merely to the cessation of fighting. But in a fallen world one must often accept second-bests, and snow gives us a respite from many of the troubles which burden us in a fallen world.

It is interesting to consider that rain also drives men indoors and away from causing mischief, but rain is not peaceful. It seems to me that this different comes from three differences between rain and snow. The first is that rain is loud. Snow is not only quiet but even muffles sound, a bit. Snow gives one quiet in which to think.

The second difference is that human beings, in our natural state, are rain-proof but are not snow-proof. Except in very cold weather—which is not our predominant experience of rain—going out in the rain will make one wet but do one no harm. This is actually most inconvenient when one is wearing clothes (which is, admittedly, almost all the time). Snow will kill a naked man. Rain is only really a problem because we wear clothing, and then it’s really on uncomfortable. Our retreat from snow is, therefore, more dignified.

The third reason is that snow is less dangerous to us when we have shelter. Rain is just an inconvenience until one gets too much of it, in which case it causes floods which are extremely destructive and deadly even when we have shelter. And while these are unusual circumstances, they’re not unheard of. In the places where people have floods, floods happen every few years, if not more often. In the places that get snow, enough snow to collapse buildings is very rare. Water moves and combines its power but snow mostly falls where it lands. That’s not true of mountains where avalanches happen, of course, but I imagine that snow isn’t nearly as peaceful there.

But in more ordinary places, snow only keeps men indoors where they give each other little trouble, and so it’s deep snowfall is very peaceful.


The Internet Needs Distributed Recomendations

It is widely recognized that centralization, such as one sees in most social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) has strengths which bring concomitant dangers. Possibly the biggest danger, and certainly the most pressing on people’s minds, is censorship.

Distributed media, such as blogs, make censorship much harder. However, this has (so far) been at the cost of making discovery much more difficult. Finding new blogs is a very haphazard things, to a great degree relying on cross-promotion in blogs. By contrast YouTube is able to leverage its centralized information to provide a list of recommended videos to the user after each video. Given the massive data available to them of what people watched and how long they watched it for, this enables them to make recomendations for videos which are often good. Almost every YouTube channel I’m subscribed to I found through recommended videos.

It probably goes without saying, but unfortunately recomendation engines are extraordinarily succeptible to manipulation by hosts with an agenda. Moreover, it would be virtually impossible to discover such manipulation as it’s only relevant to people who are not aware of particular video makers anyway.

In order to make distributed media truly competitive with centralized media, what we really need is a system for making distributed recomendations. It’s not immediately obvious that this is doable, unfortunately. A system of distributed recomendations would be a spammer’s dream ifi they could figure out how to manipulate it. In fact, most parties would be deeply desirous of manipulating this system. This guarantees that a lot of effort would be put into trying to figure out how to game the system. Worse, the system would almost certainly need to be anonymous, so as not to track people’s reading habits, which makes fake recomendations all the harder to defend against.

The most obvious approach to avoiding spam would be to attach micro-payments to the recomendation system. That brings with it its own problems, but it also has benefits. There are probably other options, too. Especially if one were to somehow include negative reviews as well as positive reviews, the correlations required to spam people might need to be far too complex to allow for useful spamming.

Anyway, if you know anyone who likes to develop algorithms, try planting the seed of a distributed recomendations network. It may not be doable, but the internet would benefit tremendously from it if it is.

Generational Warfare

Over at Amatopia, Alex wrote a post titled On Boomer Hate. It’s a good post which I recommend reading. Here’s a sample:

t’s trendy to hate Boomers. Literally, everyone is doing it. I did as well. But when something is trendy, it’s usually garbage. But a funny thing happened on the way to critical thinking: I’ve changed my opinion.

The more I thought about generational struggles, the more I realized that generational warfare hurts us all: What I’m getting at is that I think generational warfare is stupid and counterproductive. And I’m not just talking about the young. Us older folks do it too and we should to stop it.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that the righteous Gen X indignation against Boomers is pretty hypocritical, especially since many of us express the same sentiments towards Millennials.

As they say, read the whole thing. What I find interesting about this is the way my mother—who is towards the end of the baby boom, but still solidly inside it—spoke about the demonization of her generation and the lionization of her parents generation. She objected to both.

The “greatest generation” were the people who endured the great depression then fought in World War II. It is certainly true that they went through a lot. However, they didn’t do it voluntarily. It was not an ascetic practice, nor (in the main) a job they volunteered for. It happened and there was nothing to do about it and they put up with it as best they could. The great depression, which overlapped Prohibition, was filled with crime, both organized and disorganized. If you look at divorce statistics they had been trending up since the 1860s and showed a dip during World War II followed by a much larger spike afterward:

marriage_and_divorce_over_time 1867-2011 new _with-trend

That spike in divorces afterwards is somewhat typical of how much mother characterized the generation before her: finally done with deprivation, they finally wanted to get theirs. By the way, I added that trend line, and it brings us to another thing blamed on the boomers. People complain about the introduction of no-fault divorce, but if you look at the data, it really seems that no-fault divorce led to a spate of divorces on stocked-up divorces which then let off once the backlog had been processed. Granted, marriage is down and so one would expect divorce to be as well, but it’s very far from obvious that the boomers had any real causal relationship to the boom of divorces which happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Especially when you look up the history of no-fault divorce and find out it was done because people were lying about having cause for divorce so often that people feared that respect for the truth was going to disappear.

And so it goes with many of the problems of the boomers. To quote a famous boomer/songwriter, they didn’t start the fire. And they were handed quite a lot to deal with in the form of a deeply racist society, too.

Did the boomers do a lot wrong? Of course they did. Every generation does a lot wrong. We live in a fallen world. Which brings me to where it brought Alex: inter-generational warfare is stupid. There’s no way to judge the raw materials that any given generation was given to work with, and in any event it’s deeply ungrateful. The previous generation gave us life. Imperfect life, to be sure, but life that’s quite a lot better than nothing.

And thinking about it as a parent, it’s painfully obvious to me how imperfectly I’m raising my own children. I suspect something like this applied to every generation. Our children always suffer for our mistakes. It does no good to blame our parents. What we really should do is ask God to have mercy on us all.

Popularity in the Digital Age

I don’t know how many of my readers aspire to publish publicly and have their words read by an audience. I suspect that it’s a fairly large percentage. I know this is something that I have always been drawn to, since I was young. It’s not that I wanted to be famous, though I suspect that all human beings are tempted by fame. Fame makes some very empty promises very loudly. But there are othaser good reasons to want to have an audience. In particular, having an audience enables one to give away knowledge that one has been given. Next to learning, there is nothing more satisfying than teaching. (In learning we are looking at the goodness of God directly, in teaching we are (by God’s gift) taking part in God’s self-gift to others.)

The commonality of wanting an audience for one’s writing, combined with the way that technology has made publishing all but free, has resulted in there being so much writing that finding things is incredibly difficult. Further, with so many options on offer, we all look for those voices which speak to us very effectively. Since there’s so much available, there’s a lot of sifting to find the things we really like. Thus the problem in the age of handwriting was copying, the problem in the age of print was distribution, and the problem in the digital age is discovery. How does one find an audience, which is really the question: how does one’s audience find one?

Aside from large amounts of money, there do not seem to be any sure-fire answers. At least quick answers. How does one get a sizable audience in six months without spending a ton of money on advertising and cross-promotion? Heaven knows. But it does seem to be the case that longevity is a major component of finding an audience without a ton of spending. This is for two reasons, I think.

The first is that much of stumbling into an author that one enjoys reading is by luck, and luck takes time. Over the course of several years, some people will stumble into one’s blog and like it. The other is that recommendation (posting on social media, emailing, etc) is itself something which grows with the size of one’s audience. A small audience rarely recommends posts, a larger audience recommends posts more often. Thus the few people who find one initially will occasionally recommend one’s work in a way that puts other people who enjoy it together with that work. Over time that builds, as well, both because there’s more time for that to happen but also because there’s more time for older posts to become relevant to some conversation or topic.

In essence, the key to winning the lottery is to buy a large number of tickets; the way one does that in blogging is by writing a lot of blog posts over a lot of time. Something similar applies to YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, etc.

Once again it turns out that patience is the most practical of the virtues.

Game Design and the Rule of Cool

The Rule of Cool is, I believe, actually a TV trope, it applies to video games as well. The variant I’m thinking of is when all inconsistencies between game play and the story are waved away as game play being more important than consistency with the story.

Now, in fairness, games must be unrealistic in order to be games. If a game was perfectly realistic, it would be a simulator, not a game. And people would mostly only do them to train for doing the real version. Thus wounds must heal in seconds or minutes, not weeks or months. Thus is should take minutes to build a hut, not days. And so on; there are a lot of things which need to be cheated in order to have a game and not a simulator. This I grant.

Having granted that, it’s important to point out that it does not follow that no thought should go into how one cheats reality in order to make a game. This is not true, of course, of pure games, such as tic-tac-toe or tetris. But in games that have a story, it is extremely important to consider how the gameplay fits in with the story. Recently I’ve been playing ARK: Survival Evolved, so I’ll draw my examples from there. The one thing that you need to know about ARK is that it’s a survival-type game (i.e. you gather resources and craft tools, structures, etc) with dinosaurs. An the dinosaur models are gorgeous.

Of course, the first problem is that ARK isn’t really a survival game. It’s a team assault game where the weapons are gathered in a semi-survivalist sort of way. I say semi-survivalist because after a certain point all of the resources are gathered by heavy machines. It just so happens that the heavy machines are dinosaurs, but aside from having a setting where they can aimlessly wander around and having a breeding mechanic, they are designed just like heavy machines would be. There are heavy trucks (brontosauri), light trucks (diplodocuses), tanks (rexes), armored assault vehicles (allosauruses), and so on. There are even spy helicopters (pteranodons), attack helicopters (tapejaras) and cargo helicopters (quetzals). You might think that flying reptiles would be more like planes, but they’re all slow, very maneuverable, and extremely good at hovering. The more heavily laden they are, the slower they move. It makes sense as a game mechanic but makes absolutely no physical sense. If a slow moving animal flapped very slowly, it would fall like a rock.

And the problem is that this takes you right out of the story. When flying reptiles are actually swimming through the air in entirely impossible ways, the beauty of the models loses most of its effect. The same is true of the walk-cycles which don’t adapt to the ground, but I think for different reasons.

Granted, walk cycles which don’t use physics to adjust the skeleton in natural ways for locomotion will never look entirely right, but I think that we’d forgive scripted walk cycles far more if the dinosaur which was walking imperfectly was actually moving with a purpose. But in ARK they aren’t. Or rather, they almost never are. On occasion a predator does run at another dinosaur to attack it. But under normal circumstances the dinosaurs simply wander around completely aimlessly. The herbivores do not eat, nor do the walk towards plants. They are simply on a random walk. And I think that the fact that their movements are completely pointless make you far more likely to notice that they’re not walking correctly.

And this problem carries over to appreciating the models for another reason. It’s great that the triceratops looks almost exactly how you’d picture it, but it’s hard to notice that when they’re not behaving at all like how you’d expect. They’re a herd animal. You should see them in groups and they should move around with some relationship to the others in the herd. That they don’t just breaks the illusion even more.

And of course everything has terrible eyesight in ARK. Predators don’t notice prey until they’re within about 50 yards. Prey doesn’t notice predators until the predators have  actually bitten them. No creature in ARK has a nose.

Of course, none of these are likely to be overly noticeable if you’re playing in team-versus-team since you have to be on constant lookout for other teams who will try to kill you if you’re alone.

I should note that the dinosaur taming also suffers from the idea of gameplay-over-story. With exceptions, dinosaur taming is accomplished by using tranquilizers to knock a dinosaur unconscious, then feed it its favorite foods while it’s unconscious. Once it’s eaten enough it then instantly forms a lifelong bond to you where it is willing to go on suicide missions on your command. Granted you have to cheat taming an animal somehow for this to be a game and not as simulator, but this is extremely stupid. Worse, as you are shooting the dinosaur with tranquilizer-soaked crossbow bolts in order to knock it out, once it’s torpor falls below a certain point it realizes that you are trying to tranquilize it and runs away at its top speed. This is very stupid because tranquilizers make animals slower, not faster, but it also makes taming dinosaurs frustrating. There’s also no way to vary the amount of tranquilizer being delivered per shot, so larger, higher level dinosaurs require very large numbers of shots to tranquilize. That’s tedious, not fun. (This is another case where the game is made for multi-player, because using one of the many multi-person dinosaur mounts makes chasing after dinosaurs much easier since one person drives the dinosaur while the other person shoots. It’s also the case that, for example, four people can deliver 4x as many tranquilizing shots so chasing may not even be necessary for teams.)

A mechanic where you feed the awake dinosaur until it likes you would have been much better. This does actually exist with a few dinosaurs, but even here this has been screwed up so that it isn’t too easy, by which I really mean, too fun. There’s a dolphin-like marine reptile which likes to come up to survivors (what the players are called) and nuzzle them. You can give them meat and this tames them, except that once they realize you’re trying to tame them, they run away. This makes no sense, and is no fun. Apparently the most important game mechanic is that the player must struggle for everything.

Ultimately, ARK is an absolutely beautiful games which isn’t very much fun to play in single player mode because its central theme is being a tribal warfare simulator where it takes hundreds of hours to build up assets that get destroyed in a few minutes during a raid. The later stages of the games are even fought with automatic weapons and heavy artillery; the dinosaur seem almost out of place among auto-turrets and C4 bombs.

But the upshot is that the game really doesn’t work as a single player game. It really looks like it should work as a single player game. There should be an enormous amount to do all on one’s own. But it’s mostly ruined by inattention to the story. It’s not possible to suspend one’s disbelief long enough to enjoy it. Which is a great pity because the dinosaur models are gorgeous.