Blame Capitalism!

Someone else has something I want. How can I get it?

Capitalism has received a great deal of criticism, from its invention to the present day. It has been blamed by one group or another for seemingly every human evil, real or imagined, including depression, imperialism, violence, hedonism, the decline of democracy, and the destruction of the environment. Especially for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the empathetic, the common refrain seems to be “blame capitalism!” Yet blindly criticizing a policy or view is not at all the same as thinking carefully about it. It’s easy to forget that governments, organizations and policies are tools just as much as hammers and plows, despite their larger scale–in fact, that very scale makes it important to pay extra attention, especially with policies as widespread and influential as capitalism. This means considering such tools’ benefits as well as their evils, while remembering that there is not likely to be a “magic bullet” solution. Poverty, depression, antagonism and the environment are all important problems–but is capitalism really responsible? Or is it possible that true capitalist practice might actually help solve some of these issues?

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Pascal’s Wager

There is a famous theological argument known as Pascal’s Wager which, rather than making the usual appeals to morality and intuition, instead tries to show that believing in God and the afterlife is the logical, rational thing to do. While Pascal admitted that it is not always possible to “make yourself” believe in God (the Christian God, that is–what, you thought we were talking about some other God?), you should at least act as though you do until you are convinced. The core argument frames the question of whether one should be religious as a “wager” that you can’t opt out of: even if God isn’t likely to actually exist, the possibility of an infinite win (eternity in Heaven) justifies the merely finite cost of devoting yourself to religion–even if that cost is a lifetime of self-denial and asceticism. (This was back in the 1600s, when most folks thought getting into Heaven was really difficult and unpleasant, but the argument applies equally to anything a religion requires you to do that costs you time, effort, or money.)  Sounds pretty impressive, huh? Let’s go over the argument in a bit more detail–this time, with a few superficial modifications.

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What You Really Want to Do

What do you want? It seems like a simple question, but it can be deceptively difficult to answer. Even when you do have an answer, “wanting” something doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that it’s possible, or if it is, that you’ll actually do it. How can you reconcile the things you want to do, and the things you are capable of doing, with the things that actually get done? There is no easy answer, but it can help to think of your wants as distinct from your wishes–and to realize that you can wish for making better choices, not just for having better choices available. Continue reading

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Power and Freedom: Individuals and Societies

The other day I saw the following quote on a bumper sticker:

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.”
Gerald R. Ford

It got me thinking about the relationship between power and freedom, and how that relationship applies not only to governments but also to businesses, authority figures, laws, programming languages, and even games. Continue reading

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Lisp, Smalltalk, and the Power of Symmetry

Like many hackers, my first real programming language love was Lisp. Paul Graham, who inspired my own explorations of the language, is a particular advocate and has written quite a bit about Lisp and what makes it different from other programming languages. So what does make Lisp different? Why does Lisp continue to be one of the most powerful, flexible, and concise programming languages in existence, despite the fact that it was invented in 1958–making it the second-oldest high-level programming language in the world? Continue reading

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The New Service Economy

As our transition from agriculture to manufacturing shifted the focus from food to material wealth (commodities), we are undergoing a similar shift now where material wealth is becoming as cheap as food became during the industrial revolution (introducing similar problems of overabundance). As material goods were the most valuable things before the industrial revolution, ideas and information are what’s most valuable now–in other words, service industries. This has implications across the economy not just concerning which businesses will make the most money, but how most of that money will be made. Continue reading

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We Have A New Puppy!

This Monday, July 7th, my fiance and I went to the airport and picked up this little guy:

A tiny baby pug sleeping in a travel crate

His name is Beetle and he is adorable.  Normally I think pugs are hideous (it was her idea), but Beetle is the sole exception.  Obviously. Continue reading

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Amber Smalltalk

How come nobody told me about this before?  Amber Smalltalk is a dialect of the Smalltalk programming language, which is what caught my attention.  I have been a fan of Smalltalk for years, but the image-based development environment proved a little too cumbersome and monolithic for my tastes.  Amber to the rescue!

Amber is a Smalltalk language for web development.  Now, as I understand it, there is already an excellent Smalltalk-based environment for web development called Seaside.  However, what sets Amber apart from other Smalltalk variants for the web is that it is client-based, and compiles directly to JavaScript.  This means, among other things, that you can go try Amber out right now using nothing but your browser!  It’s the perfect “gateway drug” for the wider Smalltalk world!  I find this especially appealing because it means I won’t have to learn JavaScript to do portable, client-based web programming!  Hurray!

After my initial “project” (modifying the “counter” example to count only by primes), I’ve started working on a web-based game.  It won’t be the much-anticipated port of my game “Press A to Win” (my apologies to both of you who were hoping it would be), instead it will be a game about numbers!  A game about finding numbers’ unique prime factorizations, specifically.  What?  Why are you looking at me like that?  Of course it’ll be fun!

Anyway, you should go check Amber out.  It’s great.  I’ll have something more for you to look at next week.  Until then, stay curious!

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Why I’m Frustrated With 2D Boy’s Games

I’ve expressed unpopular opinions about nerd idols before, but this one is a little harder for me to talk about. My dislike of Terry Pratchett’s books is simple: I don’t like the deconstructionist genre. Easy enough; I can just stick my tongue in my cheek and go on a rant. But my reasons for disliking World of Goo and Little Inferno aren’t so straightforward. Continue reading

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“What Am I Getting Out of This?” Is the Wrong Question

As a procrastinator, and in particular a procrastinator who is easily addicted, I frequently find myself in the middle of some activity or experience of questionable value.  At that point, my usual response has been to ask myself “what am I getting out of this?”  It’s good to ask something: every second I spend doing one thing is an irretrievable second spent not doing something potentially more valuable.  However, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that “what am I getting out of this?” is the wrong question to be asking.

The problem with asking what you’re “getting” out of something is that it places the burden of responsibility on you.  By suggesting that if you only worked a little harder, you might be able to get more value out of something, it makes you culpable for wasted time.  It characterizes your relationship with media and experiences as exploitative, as though every time you read an article or attended a concert you were trudging down into some Experience mine in order to extract the raw Value ore therein and shape it into…something (swords?)  If you’re not getting enough out of some experience then you could find another, richer vein, sure–or you could just work harder to get more out of what you’ve already got.  This thrifty attitude is great for material possessions, or experiences you’ve already had or cannot avoid, but it’s entirely the wrong way to think about time and art.  There is a cost to getting better possessions–there’s no cost to finding something better to do with your time.

The other problem with asking what you’re getting out of a given experience is that it encourages the idea that you might be “missing out” on something if you stop.  It reinforces the mine fallacy by implying that there might be some hidden, gleaming gem of precious value buried under all that rock that will languish, forever hidden, if you don’t personally unearth it.  This idea is especially problematic for perfectionists like myself–it’s the same impulse that makes me want to 100% every videogame I play, or watch all the bonus content on DVDs, or spend hours on Wikipedia or TV Tropes accumulating mountains of useless trivia.  “Sure, the first half of this article was 98% crap, but there was that 2% I really liked!  What if there’s another 2% in the second half?  If I don’t finish it I’LL NEVER KNOW.”

Time for a reality check: you are always missing out on something.  You can only do one thing at a time, and there are an infinite number of things you could be doing at any given moment.  That’s just how time works: you are always, constantly, continually not doing something of potential value.  So to ask yourself what you’re “getting” out of whatever experience you choose at any given moment is to implicitly task yourself with getting the most possible value out of everything.  It can’t be done!  There are an infinite number of experiences that might be more valuable, any one of which you could be doing instead.  The task of creating value from an experience is not your responsibility–it is the responsibility of the experience.

Don’t ask “what am I getting out of this?”  Instead, ask “what is this giving to me?”–and if the answer is “nothing” or “not much,” then move on!  True, some experiences require an investment if you want to get their full value–a difficult book may be harder to read than a pulp novel, yet give you more to think about in return.  But this is true of all experiences, because if nothing else they at least require the investment of your time.  By focusing on the value the experience is giving to you, rather than the work you’re putting in to derive that value, you place the burden of responsibility back where it belongs: on the experience in which you have already invested.

Your job is to decide what art and experiences to spend your time on; once you’ve decided it is not your job to “make” those experiences work.  If it bothers you that you have to read through two dozen tweets on your timeline before you see one that’s interesting, unfollow some folks!  If you’re halfway through an article and you’re reluctant to read the second half, don’t!  And if you keep giving a videogame your time (and/or money) because you want something from it that it seems reluctant to give you (story, content, “fun,” whatever), then get rid of that sucker!  There are plenty of other experiences out there that will treat you with more respect–your time is valuable, and you should expect a high return for it.

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