Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Abstraction and Embodiment

Here’s an abstracted problem for you.

There is a group of widgets that always point west.  The reason they always point west is because they take a vote every so often and 51% of them agree that west is the right way to point. Over time, some number of new widgets are introduced.  Some of the new widgets agree that west is best. But some amount of them feel like east is better. At some point enough east-pointers have arrived and that it tips the balance of the vote enough that now west-pointers are in the minority, and so in the next vote every widget points east. Also, pointing east means no more democratic elections.  From now on, all widgets will point east, or else...  

If I was more clever I’d have an abstraction that didn’t involve voting so the imagery would be more abstract.  But this blog isn’t about me being clever; it’s about me trotting my inner workings into the light of day for interrogation and cross-examination.

I have a problem right now. My inclination when it comes to social issues is to abstract the problems into mental models that strip them of their humanity.  I disembody them, because my gut (ie: a lifetime of a specific cultural has influenced me) tells me that stripping the emotional ties that come with embodiment will allow a clearer view that enables better solutions for everyone.  But I want to be clear that this impulse is in no way cut and dried.  It’s not a binary.  Being human means that no matter how rational and dispassionate I think I am, my thoughts are still a chunky stew of emotion-based value propositions, anecdotes that inform my analysis, and other artifacts of meat-consciousness.  I also recognise the the entire endeavor of living as a social species means that any given social policy is predicated on an aggregate of human experience and anecdotes.  Those experiences and anecdotes feed into theories that become ossified as political philosophies.  There’s no “clean” way to step back and form a purely rational approach to social policy.  (By social policy I mean everything from institutions such as marriage and government, to cultural norms and moral concerns.)  

Now let’s go back to my un-clever widget example.  This is a thinly veiled attempt to grapple with a social-political issue of our times that I think is incredibly important and equally difficult to find a satisfactory solution to.  It’s about the immigration of large amounts of people who hold undemocratic ideals into democratic societies.  My understanding of math (which, admittedly, is poor) leads me to believe that there is a tipping-point at which democracy will be voted away.  And while I don’t think that democracy will be the final pinnacle of social organization, I do think it’s the best system we’ve cobbled together so far, and it’s also very closely tied to things that I’m much more passionate about.  Things that are very unnatural ideas, like equality for all people, protection of the weak from exploitation and compulsion, free expression, etc.  While democracy has not given us the solution to creating a utopia where all these things exist in perfection, it’s done a hell of a lot better job than undemocratic systems have historically.  And more importantly, it seems that democracy has created a platform from which social policy can be experimented with, which is necessary for the advancement of those values.

I have several friends who are anarchists or communists, but excluding them, I feel like everything I’ve said so far would be agreed upon by the vast majority of both my right and left leaning friends. And that’s where taking the issue from the mostly abstract (widgets) to the clearer (large scale political) down to the specific (Western nations dealing with middle-eastern immigration) things start falling apart.  This is the level at which emotionally charged specific political and cultural loyalties begin to emerge and opinions diverge.  I think the left and the right both have problems when it comes to dealing with this level of specificity.  On the right, there is some percent (I don’t think there’s any accurate way to ascertain what that number would be) of them who are literally racist and simply want a purely white nation.  There’s a larger percent who are less concerned with race, and more with culture.  They don’t care what part of the world you’re from, but they want to be neighbors with people who value democracy, freedom of expression, and all those other western liberal values. Sadly, the left sees these two blocks of conservatives as the same thing.  And that leads to the problem on the left.

The left is trying to figure out how to navigate two contradicting impulses.  They’ve convinced themselves that any criticism of any culture other than western culture is overtly racist (and can only be motivated BY racism).  Therefore they are compelled to run their immigration policy with as little concern for cultural differences as possible.  Which puts them in the very odd position of defending many people who would be happy to vote for the demise of liberals and liberal values.

Ok.  No matter what I say on this subject I know that many people will think I’m a racist.  But for the sake of clarity, and to assist any of my liberal friends who want some way out of the need to label me thus, here’s a landslide of caveats: The number of individual middle eastern immigrants who are Muslim is not 100%  The number of Muslim immigrants who are seriously religious is not 100%.  The number of seriously religious Muslim immigrants who are conservative is not 100%.  The number of seriously religious Muslim immigrants who are conservative and want to impose their brand of conservatism on the western nations they inhabit is not 100%.  All humans, no matter what they believe, should be treated with dignity and have basic rights.  No race is superior to another.  Racism is real and exists and influences institutions and cultures on all levels and should be resisted.

Now.  Where does that leave us?  It leaves us with some amount of Muslim immigrants who want to perform cliterectomies on their daughters, want to replace their local western democracy with sharia law (I will take further pains to point out that sharia is not a monolithic thing) and would be happy to push every homosexual off a building.  This is where my liberal instincts (and presumably most of my liberal friends) will object: that even saying these things is tantamount to racism, and will lead to more hatred and bigotry in the world.  The argument goes that such statements (whether factual or not) stoke the flames of racism in the conservatives of western nations, and cause them to make evil decisions that damage the social progress liberalism has made over the past couple hundred years.

I think that concern is valid, but I think it’s valid only for that very small portion of conservatives who are blatant racists.  Again, I believe a mistake enters the calculus from a misreading of the conservative motivation as being intrinsically racist.  The political capital this idea (conservatives are all motivated by secret racism) buys the left is so valuable that I don’t think they are capable of dropping it.  It’s such an effect tool for othering and creating faceless monsters that must be opposed at all costs.  But having come from a conservative background I think I have a better read of the nuances and differences between the various conservative strains and impulses.  While I have become convinced that latent and unconscious racism is an endemic property of human individuals and institutions, I’m also convinced that when it comes to embodied individuals, the percentage of conservatives who literally feel racist feelings is much lower than liberals think.  

So while I agree that it’s valid to express concern over articulating potentially incendiary truths, I can’t get behind the idea of demonizing those who do.  Of assuming that they have the worst possible motives.  (Despite the fact that some, indeed, DO have the worst possible motives.)

But this particular battleground of left vs right isn’t really what I wanted the point of this post to be.  Because I could be wrong about the reality of the potential danger to freedom from the immigration of people who don’t value freedom.  But my experience is that once this specific topic is brought up, it subsumes all others.  That’s Ok.  I don’t have a large enough readership for that to be a big problem.  So I’m going to blithely return to my point.  

What I’m pondering is both the practical and moral implications of abstracting an issue such as this.  Abstracting societies, politics and individual humans into numbers or widgets is necessarily dehumanizing.  It makes me think of the generals hovering over a battle map moving the little tokens around with their pushy-Mc Dealies, presumably not considering the lives of the individual troops that those movements will impact dramatically.  Depending on how you look at it, those generals can be seen as monsters or gods.  Or both, I suppose. Either way, my understanding is that in order to make the best decisions possible, they HAVE to divorce the empathy that would come from imagining the ramifications of their high-level strategy on individual lives.  

The same procedure probably happens in every policy decision that affects groups of individuals.  Taxes, speed limit laws, homeless camp relocations, and every other limitation we place on each other will have negative impacts on some people.  And some will literally be life and death impacts.  But it would be impossible to make ANY decision on any policy issue if we invited every negative ramification of it into our mind.  We’d be paralyzed into inaction because no matter what you do, some people will suffer.  To overcome this, there are a a couple maneuvers people employ.  One is to use some kind of utilitarian ethic to attempt to find policy that does the best for the most.  But these models all break down under intense scrutiny.  (Just google “problems with utilitarianism” if you’re curious about that.) Another move is to evoke some principle that is often seen as “higher”, usually embedded in a religious or cultural historical context.  But no matter what method is used, you’re forced to abstract the problem to some degree, to determine that someone’s suffering is worth the cost of the policy.  I think conservatives are more cognizant of this reality and ok with it.  I think liberals tend to be repulsed by it and attempt to deny it.  I’d love to hear from my liberal friends to see if I’m right about that.

I’d also love to hear if the whole framework of my thinking is wrong, bad or broken.  For example, I don’t know if there’s a way to conceptually approach policy decisions in a way that maintains the nitty gritty of the human dimension of personal experiences, while simultaneously making decisions that affect whole groups or societies.  I think a human brain can only do one or the other at a time.  The nitty gritty personal experiences absolutely SHOULD inform the abstractions we need to make in order to determine policy.  And anyone contemplating policy should make a practice of zooming in and out of the different levels of abstraction and embodiment.  But a brain can’t imagine the lives of every single individual that will be affected by any given policy at the same time.  Thus the abstraction.  So If I’m wrong about this I’d like to hear the alternative.

I feel like this whole notion of separate spheres of mental activity is a prime candidate for being the artifact of very specific cultural proclivities.  And I’m definitely currently trapped in the mode of thinking those specific cultural proclivities has brought about. If it’s the case that this spectrum I’ve proposed from abstracted-to-embodied is a western construct that fails to to bring about the best policies, then that might bring some insight into the lib/con divide.  Perhaps my intuition that conservatives are “better at” moving into the abstract sphere of policy decision making, and liberals are “better at” informing their policy by embodied experiences, then that might point to a different framework for policy decision making that liberals have tapped into.  Conservatives, speaking from the believe that abstracted policy making is superior, would say that the liberal tendency to focus on individual stories is muddying the water.  Because one can cherry pick an individual or two and hammer on the heart-strings in such a way that can generate policy that makes some individuals happy, but ends up hurting many more people.  A reliance on embodied testimony can’t give you a big-enough-picture view.  A liberal will say that the conservative impulse to abstract is heartless and potentially fascistic, evoking the generals blithely moving pawns across a table while people with children and mothers are being blown up as a result.  

As always, my impulse is to try to find the sweet spot in the middle that honors both sides as important and necessary.  But what I want to avoid is creating that binary in the first place.  I want to be open to the idea that my constructed binary conception is based on faulty premises, and there’s a better way to conceptualize and implement policy.    

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why Do I Love The Darkness?

I just started listening to this awesome podcast called Final Games.

The format is this: He interviews a prominent game developer by asking them to choose 8 games that they can take to a deserted island.  The reasoning for why those 8 are chosen leads to great analysis and design insights.  Listening to this made me consider which games I’d take to last the rest of my life in seclusion.  And this lead me to a small quandry I want to explore now.  The problem is this: I really like dark, isolated, lonely-experience games.  Games where the world is uninviting, ugly, scary, weird, grim and dark.  Almost always dark.  

These are LAST kind of games you would want with you if you were never going to see another human again.  Granted, you can take the 8-game-island scenario more or less literally.  You could just list your favorite games.  But I like thinking more seriously about it, which makes the choices more challenging.  If you were never going to see another person again, you’d want games that could -in as meager a way as a computer simulation can do- replace what other people do for you.  Something that could fill that void of human interaction that we social animals have.  

But what this made my mind spin off to, was a deeply personal question.  Why do I love the darkness that pervades all of my favorite art?  The reason this puzzles me is, perhaps, predicated on a faulty notion that there’s a ‘type’ of person who like darkness in art.  And I don’t feel like I fit that profile at all.  The image that often gets projected through hollywood stereotypes, highschool cliques and musician’s lyrics, is that people who make and imbibe dark art are troubled.  

They were ‘broken’ by something in their childhood.  Absentee father, abusive mother, sexual molestation, substance abuse, etc.  This results in a personality profile of deeply troubled people.  People who can’t keep a relationship together.  Can’t stay away from harmful and self destructive actions.  Are never content with life.  Tend towards nihilism and depression.  The association seems to be that people who have dealt with extreme darkness in their lives go on to create or appreciate darkness in the art they love.  And… absolutely none of that applies to me.  Quite the opposite in fact.  I had a wonderful childhood, two loving parents who didn’t divorce, and with whom I still have a wonderful relationship.  I love life.  I’m at peace with myself and my place in the world.  I’ve never even tried drugs, and I’m not attracted to any of the typical self-destructive tendencies that those associated with dark media seem to have.  

Here’s a seed for a theory to explain this.  (Unless my perception of the ‘type’ of people who are attracted to darkness in art is just plain wrong, in which case this whole puzzle goes away.)  The thing I want to start with is the kind of music I grew up with.  The kind of dark and brooding music I enjoy the most, I discovered through a bizarre niche-of-a-niche market.  I like gothic metal a lot.  But in my formative years I limited myself to only music created by (ostensibly) Christians.  They used the dark aesthetic of the music, but wrapped around the substance of a Christian message.  

How dark or non-dark you find “the Christian message” depends on far too many things to interrogate here.  For ME, “the Christian message” is one of love and hope, healthy happy families and doing good for others. (Because that was mostly my experience with it.) So for the point of this exercise I’m considering it positive.  This created what is perhaps, a blindness to contradicting medium/message in me.  In fact, I comment on it in this video I created for a larger project that I haven’t finished yet.  But it makes the point I’m getting at here well.

Christian musicians will co-opt an aesthetic and -in my current opinion- often sloppily and lazily plaster it over a contradicting message.  It works great for Evangelical Christian teens in youth groups because Christian teens have been cultivated in their subculture to love crap.  

I guess that will happen in any subculture where they feel the need to make their own low budget knock-off copies of the broader culture’s media.  But I don’t know of any other sub-cultures that do that.  Evangelical Christians do it because they are convinced the world outside is controlled by Satan, and most of its media is created with the purpose of leading us astray.  So we make our own music, books, and sometimes even really really really bad video games and movies.  The result is almost a Weird Al level of parody; but instead of the messages being swapped out for silly stuff like food and television, they are swapped out for Bible stories and morality tales.  Usually with some kind of come-to-Jesus message in there.  To be fair, I’m reflecting mostly on 80’s and 90’s Evangelical Christian artistic output.  The subculture has been making improvements in both modifying the message to match the medium better, and being more aware of the general level of quality that they need to aspire to.

All that background is to help me hash out the chemical soup that my aesthetic proclivities evolved from.  Another clue to help me suss this issue out is something I’ve recently discovered as I’ve been going back and listening to the ‘real version’ of all the Christian imitation bands I made myself listen too until fairly recently.  So I’ve been exploring the back catalog of musicians like Korn, Marilyn Manson, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Slipknott, and others.

And what I’ve found is that I can’t tolerate them for very long.  As a non-musician I can’t really tell if they are musically superior to the Christian knock-offs I know and love.  But I sure as hell can tell the difference in lyrical content.  And that’s what puts me off.  No, it’s not the swears.  I’ve built calluses to those over the past 20 years of working in the videogame industry, and they don’t really register with me any more.  It’s the generally self-destructive message that pervades these artists.  It doesn’t wear me out because I’m thinking “Those terrible people spreading their filth and making the kids do the bad things!”  (That’s the response I always heard from my Evangelical Christian Youth Group culture.)  No. I’m thinking “Those poor people are suffering so much and damaging themselves with such horrible self-talk and life choices and philosophies.”  It just makes me sad for them, and for anyone impressionable enough to be influenced by them.  I take some solace in the idea that a lot of the lyrics not direct descriptive utterances, but a lot of it is about projecting an image.  But that image is something that makes me sad.  And again, double sad when I consider all the impressionable young people who don’t make the distinction between image and aspirational lifestyle.  And so I can’t listen to these artists for prolonged stretches of time even though the musical wrapper is indistinguishable to me from the Christian knock-offs I love.

And so, I’m learning that I love the aesthetic of dark, but not the substance of it.  And that sounds incredibly shallow, and perhaps even pretentious.  And it’s ok if that’s what I am.  But being shallow and pretentious doesn't match my values, and so I’m looking for a way to address that discrepancy.  

But first, here’s a competing theory.  I MIGHT be a shallow pretentious person, OR, I might have stumbled onto an element of darkness that is not inexorably bound up with self-destructive nihilism.  This must needs get into some philosophy of art, and for that… I don’t apologize!  But to keep this as manageable as possible I’m not going to quote Kant, Burke or even Lord Shaftesbury on the subject.

I’ll just try to summarize my premises when it comes to creating and consuming art.  (A good exercise for any artist who wants to imbue their work with intentionality) ((Which is maybe the wrong way to do art… for all I know blind reflexivity is the only way to make good art.))  (((The reason I opt for intentionality is that I don’t value art over love.  I want my art to be done in service to love, which, perhaps inevitably, will devalue the status of the art itself, pushing it down the spectrum towards propaganda)))  ((((Ok, this is the last of the parenthetical asides.)))) (((((Oh wait, one more thing. I’m totally feeling my way through the following section, so it’s sure to be full of overlooked concepts and is also sure to evolve as I think more about it.)))))

I feel like art exists as a way for humans to communicate feelings to and from one another.  Feelings that non-artistic mediums fail to transfer adequately.   Ok, sorry… one quote….  Tolstoy said: “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”  This is the school of artistic definition I most closely align with.  Because implicitly, I assume along with those feels come values as well.   

Since each human is unique in their experience and physical/mind makeup they are receptive to particular frequencies of art, which I’m now arbitrarily calling aesthetics.  Some mediums excel at certain aesthetics, and are weaker in others.  Dance can do joy, and sorrow really well, but anger is not its strong suite…. At least that I’ve seen.  Video games are fantastic at power fantasy and agency, and not so good at the experience of character development.  Sculpture is great at majesty or contemplation but not super at movement-oriented experiences. (Except mobiles)  In general, the “best” art (by which I mean ‘most effective at communicating experiences/feelings’) is that which closely align the medium and the aesthetics.  Keeping in mind that the medium informs and influences the aesthetics.  A poem read aloud and a poem carved in stone produce different aesthetics even if the words are the same.

So for the sake of clarity I’m removing the medium from the equation and focusing on aesthetic.  I want to talk about the intended experience/emotion.  An aesthetic is produced by a couple different factors.  Two of these are the technical aspect, and the emotive content.  For example, if you hit an E minor piano key, that produces a specific sound that is technically repeatable, recordable, reproducible.  Press it harder or softer and you modulate the emotive side of it.  Put it in various contexts, and you can modulate it like crazy.  Put a red dot on a blank canvass.  Now fill the canvas with red. Different emotion/experience.  Now put that canvass in an all-red room.  These are technical factors that anyone can do.  And the technical aspect informs the emotive aspect, adjusting the aesthetic.

I think this partially explains what happened in my brain to cause me to be so attracted to dark art.  My exposure to it was usually within the context of life-affirming narratives and presuppositions that the Christian artists placed them in... not the self-destructive ones that normal cultures pair with those aesthetics.  (Again, I know for many people Christianity has NOT been life-affirming, but associated with guilt, hypocrisy, abuse, manipulation, anti-intellectualism, etc.  I’m only speaking of MY internal associations with Christianity, not some impossible-to-ascertain “objective” view of it.)  It’s like taking that all-red canvass and putting in an all-white room rather than an all-red room.  The different context does something to the aesthetic.   

I think there may be something beautiful and life-affirming in dark aesthetics, but the artists that are generally drawn towards dark aesthetics tend to be hurting people who find in those aesthetics the closest match to their self-destructive tendencies.  In other words, I don’t think that ‘darkness’ (aesthetic darkness) is intrinsically evil, but through its repeated use by self-destructive people it has grown that association in the minds of most people in most cultures.  

One thing I’ve been doing here for the sake of … haha… brevity… is lump all dark aesthetics together in once conceptual bucket.  Now I want to blow that bucket up and look at the parts in more detail.  Here’s a good example of a breakdown of flavors in the “goth” world; the one-stop-shop for all things dark.

As you can see, the word ‘goth’, as it applies to modern aesthetics has all sorts of facets, meaning that all sorts of people can be attracted to “the style” for different reasons.  I just realized this can also be seen as a venn diagram of other style’s cultures overlapping with one common trait: eyeliner. For the record, I think there should be a law that everyone must wear eyeliner.  It makes everyone look better.  Even babies.  
But anyway, back to goth…. Some people like the horror aspects.  Some people say that horror isn’t even a part of goth.  I’m attracted most to the metal, victorian, romantic, steampunk, and fairy/fantasy aspects.  

There are things considered dark that I very much do not like such as the aforementioned song lyrics about destructive lifestyles.  For other examples, gory violence doesn’t bother me, art that focuses on death doesn't bother me, but neither holds any attraction for me.  Insanity is another theme that’s often in dark art that niether attracts or repels.  But depictions of torture -especially sexual torture- outright repel me.  Oh, and there’s that whole thing of deformities and disease that I guess some people are entertained by that I am not at all.

I guess that’s quite a lot of caveats, huh?  I wonder if most people who like dark art have as many elements that repel them?  But anyway, excluding those elements, I love a dark mood.  Feeling unsettled.  Sad.  Eery. Mysterious. Scary.  Most art that accomplishes those moods (without the previous list of themes that don’t resonate with me) I love.  Yet the context of my life is one of comfort, joy, peace, love, etc.  

Most people can tell you their favorite genre of music.  Rock, Jazz, Classical, Rap, etc.  I don’t have a favorite genre.  I simply love any music in any genre that’s in a minor key.  For instance, I don’t like Country, Classical or Christmas music.  Except the stuff that has that dark sound.  Here’s my favorite Christmas songs.

So there’s something resonating with me on a deep level, but it’s not connotations to destructive lifestyles or an attempt to promote myself as a brooding artist or anything like that.  But if my attraction is not those things, what is it?  Here’s my best guess...

Maturity, Wisdom and Real Love all require something in order to attaint them.  Pain.  Struggle.  Hardship.  Things we’d normally assign to the list of life’s ills, are, ironically, necessary for what is best in us to come out.  I recently (In old-person-time) found my “Calling”; my sense of purpose and set of goals that guide and direct my energy in life.  I made a Mission Statement for myself, and am using it for my future creative/business endeavors.  

“Make the world more loving with stories.” I think I’ll change that from ‘stories’ to ‘art’ more generally.

My understanding of life -which has come about through my own experiences and hearing about other’s- is that the process of becoming more loving requires pain, struggle, hardship, frustration, disappointment, sadness, confusion, and a lot of other elements that pervade dark art.  So in that way, darkness resonates with me as a necessary tool of enlightenment and growth.  And maybe that explains why I’m only attracted to darkness in a shallow or pretentious way.  I’ve never seen darkness as a destination, but as a means to an end. Or at least an opportunity for growth.

I don’t find this explanation completely satisfying, and I’ve worn myself out thinking about it for now.  So rather than having a nice conclusion, I’ll go full circle back to a list of Deserted Island games.   

But first, here’s a list of games I adore for the dark and lonely atmosphere they exude.  
Dark Souls/Bloodborne
Darkest Dungeon
Don’t Starve
Shadow of the Colossus
The Legend of Zelda

As much as I love those games, I can’t take them.  They would just exacerbate the loneliness.  (I’m leaving myself one exception as explained below.)

  1. Worms 2  
While it lacks some of the movement finesse  of Worms Armageddon, it’s far FAR superior weapon editor makes this the standout in the series.  Not only does the game auto generate random levels for you, but it lets you paint your own, leading to a very robust toolset for creatively prolonging the kinds of experiences you could have in this game.

2. Legend of Zelda  Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Ho boy, this was tough.  I started this blog post before BOTW came out, and had the original Legend of Zelda in this spot because even though it violates my point of not bringing lonely dark games, the fact that it is THE game that inspired and propelled me into my career of game development, and the nostalgia element was enough to warrant a place in my 8.  But since playing BOTW, I’ve found so many similar-but-superior elements in it, that it managed to bump the original in my heart.  

3. The Sims 2: (Characters carry over to XCom 2)

I’ve never played this game.  It’s absolutely insane to take a game you’ve never played.  But here me out.  I’ll be missing my family a lot.  And I can’t think of a better game for simulating my family than this one.  Plus, I’ve got this wacky meta-game idea.  I’ll make families for all the soldiers in the next game on my list.  So they will with have a full home-life, giving them even more impact in both games.

4. XCom 2   

Here’s a game of endless strategic depth, and a team of compatriots.  I love turn based tactics games, and so picking only one was difficult.  But I’m pretty happy with this choice.  Especially because I think it will be really easy to make my squad look just like the Simms that will play them in Sims 2.  

5. Spelunky  
I feel like there is nothing special about Spelunky.  Except for the fact that it’s perfect.  There’s no original system or mechanic that makes it stand out.  Back when it came out there was.  But even today, it’s just the incredibly perfectly tuned nature of every element that just makes it the best feeling game out there.  It’s like a distilled form of videogames in one magical drop.  It’s charming, funny, terrifying, enraging, joyus, dramatic, silly, rewarding, mesmerizing…  

6. Nuclear Throne

I’ve already said a lot about this game here.  That should explain why this one is coming with me.

7. MotorStorm: Pacific Rift

I generally am not drawn to racing games.  But there are definitely times where I’m in the mood.  And this game has almost everything I want in a racing game.  Huge variety of vehicles, gorgeous and creative environments, fun physics/crashes.  I haven’t played it in many years, but I just know I’ll regret it eventually if I don’t bring a racing game.

8. Civ V + Expansions  

I started Civ on number 3.  Throughout the years my ability to carve out the tremendous amount of time these games deserve has been harder and harder for me.  But I adore them SO much.  I still feel upset every time I think about how little let myself play them.  But, being on deserted island for the rest of my life means that won’t ever be a problem again!  The colorful fun visuals, infinite variety, and superb balance that later expansions brought to 5 make it my final pick.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Against Empathy

My grandfather died last week.  A couple days before that my aunt had a heart scare.  And on Friday morning my wife and I went to the sentencing of the man who sexually assaulted her.  None of these things made me cry.  Instead, I cry when I see characters do things that show great compassion for others in shows and books.  What is wrong with me?  Well, lots of things.  But I found this book to be very comforting when asking myself about my feelings concerning the way I react to the pain of those I love.  

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom
is a fascinating book.  I feel the need to apologize for the clickbait title, but the substance of the book actually mostly warrants it.   

The fundamental move Bloom is making is the disentanglement of empathy into two distinct concepts, and to remove both of those from the concept of compassion.  So, empathy can be cognitive.  That’s just the ability to ascertain another’s feelings.  And another form is affective or emotional empathy, which is the experience of feeling some version of what you think another is feeling.  It seems that those on the sociopathy spectrum can be quite adept at cognitive empathy.  They need to be in order to mirror and manipulate people.  And so the common assumption is that what a sociopath (and other selfish and bad people) lack is emotional empathy.  Bloom points to research that shows that’s not necessarily the case.  Instead, he argues that what evil people lack is compassion.  And he claims that compassion does not require emotional empathy.  In fact, he argues that emotional empathy leads to bad ends as often -or more- then it leads to good ends.

This is tricky, and he spends the first couple chapters hashing this out because common parlance and colloquial usage often assumes that empathy is at the root of all morality.  So if you argue against empathy you must be arguing FOR selfishness, cruelty and all the other stuff that it is assumed empathy saves us from.  But that’s not the case.  Bloom wants people to be kind, loving and compassionate, and that leads him to explore the role that empathy plays in the application of our moral instincts.  

I’m not going to try to defend his thesis here.  If the premise sounds interesting or outrageous to you, that’s what reading the book is for.  But here’s some stuff he says that stood out to me:

“Empathy is limited... in that it focuses on specific individuals.  Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.”

“We are not capable of feeling a million times worse about the suffering of a million than about the suffering of one”  ← This is why it’s susceptable to moral illusions such as this one:

“Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” italics mine
And here’s a fascinating experience from a 9/11 responder:

“I have always felt that I am very empathetic, and that that has been both a blessing and a curse in my work.  I have struggled with burn-out for years… I have felt that I was being less than helpful to my patients if I shutdown my empathetic response to their pain.  This really got me into trouble when I was part of a disaster medical relief team sent to the World Trade Center site.  We were there at the beginning of November, so there were no living victims of the attacks to care for, only the crews that were digging up bodies… I not only opened myself up to trying to be there and feel the pain with the workers there, but I also tried to really take in my surroundings and feel the horror and the loss around me.  I felt it was somehow immoral not to.  One day I was way too successful at being empathetic in that way, and it was more than I could take.  My mind just couldn’t handle it.  It was like trying to drink from a firehouse, and I was drowning.”

End the end, I think the message of the book was that people with large amounts of emotional empathy are not bad, or that empathy leads to bad actions.  Only that it CAN, if not moderated by rational compassion.  It’s a powerful emotional tool, much like anger, that can be harnessed for good, but just as easily diverted to evil.

The practical application for me is an appreciation for the disposition that I have.  I WANT to help people.  Help society.  Fight for justice.  Learn to love more.  I want to live a life where I am a blessing to everyone I can be.  But I just don’t get sad when someone next to me is sad.  Instead, I want to take action, to figure out why the sadness occurs and create an action plan for minimizing it in the future. (which can be problematic for people on THIS end of the spectrum: )

One example of being action-oriented in action is my marriage.  My wife is in chronic pain.  Migraines every day, fibromyalgia, ankylosing spondylitis, and certainly at least one other major degenerative disease that we have yet to figure out.  The past decade has been one of increasing pain, and decreasing mobility, energy and options.  If I empathetically experienced her pain I would be an absolute wreck of a human.  And worse, I would not be able to DO the actions she requires to have the best life she can, given her circumstances.  Instead of feeling her pain I simply do what I can to mitigate or minimize her pain.  I do daily physical therapy for her.  I try to do any chores that require heavy physical movement.  I make no demands of her physical body.  She needed a husband who was wired like me.  Someone who does not have emotional empathy, but has compassion for her.  Someone who can be cheerful and happy when she’s feeling down.  Someone who feels RIGHT and GOOD about sacrificing certain things for her because it’s the right thing to do, and not get resentful about it.  I think if I felt more emotional empathy I could not be that husband.   

So my biggest takeaway from this book is a greater appreciation for the varied dispositions we all have that bring different and valuable insights into our lives if we are willing to listen patiently.  

What the hell?!  Why was this so short?  Did I suddenly get better at writing?!

Friday, January 06, 2017

My YouTube Channel Just Hit 5,000 Subs!

Several years ago I thought I might try doing some art tutorials on YouTube.  I made an opportunity for myself to get an audience by doing a cross promotional project with work.  I was leading a project on Guild Wars 2, and we were brainstorming with the PR team about stuff we could send to the press to get attention for the release.  Part of the game involved fighting giant monstrous worms, and the idea of gummy worms came up.  Then I thought how cool it would be to MAKE our own custom gummy worms based on the creatures from the game.  Everyone agreed that would be cool, and then I had the idea to record it all and make a tutorial that we could promote the release with in addition to the actual gummy worms we were sending out.  I hoped they would put the video on the official Guild Wars 2 page or something, but for whatever reason it worked out that they just had me put it on my own YouTube channel and they promoted it.  So it was a pretty lucky break for me, getting the marketing team of a AAA game studio to promote my channel.  I don’t think I could have built up my platform like I have without that initial kickstart.  

In the years since, I’ve done a couple more cross promotional videos.  One with a band, and another with ArenaNet AND a 3D printing company called Shapeways.  I’ve tried doing stuff related to other IP as well; a Fallout 4 Pipboy repaint and a The Last Guardian statue mod.  But mostly I’ve done sculpting and painting tutorials that are focused on teaching with my own stuff.

At some point a couple months ago YouTube’s algorithm decided to start putting my videos in the ‘Related’ column that appears next to videos you are watching.  Meaning that anyone who searches for “Sculpting tutorial” can find my videos, or if they are watching someone else’s sculpting vids, they might see mine next to the one they're watching a click on it next.  What that did was shoot my subscriptions up from one or two a week to almost 10 a day.  

The tutorials I’ve been producing are pretty different than most of what I’ve seen on YouTube.  Most of the sculpting tutorials are fast-paced overviews that just show clips of the work with either text, or the artist’s voice over it explaining the process, but never in a very detailed way.  My videos are MUCH longer and every excruciating detail is shown and explained.  I’ve had two separate people now compare me to Bob Ross now.  Sadly, the analytics show that people only watch my videos for an average of 7-10 minutes.  That explains why all the other artists keep their videos so short.  There’s just no point in spending the amount of time and energy making longer stuff if so few people will watch it.  But… for me there IS!  I LIKE teaching.  I like providing something of value to people that doesn’t exist out there.  Well, it does, but it’s not free like mine.  Which brings up another issue.

I almost feel guilty for making art tutorials.  Because I’m not a really fantastic artist.  [Sidebar: This is NOT an attempt to fish for compliments or positive reinforcement.  I’m actually totally emotionally FINE with being simply an OK artist.  I do not base my self worth on how talented I am.  I know that I’m a GREAT artist compared to non-artists, so it’s easy for a non-artist to look at my art and think I’m amazing.  But I work with many many artists, and I can clearly see where I land on the spectrum of skill, and it’s not super high.]  Being a merely OK artist means that the quality of my teaching is going to be less than that of a master.  So in a way, I’m muddying the waters when it comes to disseminating great art education.  I know there are far more qualified individuals who should do what I’m doing.  But that’s the thing.  Those better artists are either not interested in teaching, or they do it for price.  And so I guess my discomfort stems from the fact that I’m producing lower quality education, and so people who don’t want to, or can’t afford to pay money for quality art education are getting my inferior product.  I guess that can be good or bad depending on how you look at it.  One way to look at it is the way Bob Ross did.  Seeing how people are making that connection anyway, I might as well lean into it.  Bob Ross was not a great artist either.  He knew a bunch of fun techniques that appear magical to non-artists, and so watching him work is kind of like watching a really happy, positive magic act.  He obviously took great joy from demonstrating these tricks and giving positive vibes to his fans.  

And that’s the thing that pushes me to keep doing this.  I’m seeing positive vibes from viewers in the comments of my tutorials.

Josh, absolutely loving the detail and depth you go into describing and explaining everything-- with the tips and tricks and all that... which is missing from all other videos. Absolutely fantastic video and series.. my favorite by far.

Kelly Porter4 months ago
Thank you for taking the time to film this! I am taking a 3D art class in college and this was EXACTLY what I needed to know.
I'm a noob about it but maaan you're unbelievable, nice, clear and really detailed !

thank you! I learned so much from you!

Hi Josh,  I just watched video #1.  I've been looking for exactly this.  So grateful that you are sharing your skills.
I've subscribed and will follow along with everything!  ❤
great idea for a series. was looking for something like that for quite some time now
man this is a good video , seriously thank u so much it helps a lot
This was really enjoyable to watch for some reason even though I'm not an artist! Great video looking forward to the next ones
thank you for making these videos. really inspiring and informational for a starting sculptor entrepreneur like me. keep up the amazing work you do :)
Josh, thanks for all your great sculpey videos. I've watched them all and they have transformed my sculpey work. You're my hero!
Thank you for sharing so many tips and techniques!
So impressive Josh. You are an inspiring artist. Thank you for another lesson.

leeeah2 hours agoHighlighted comment

This is by far the best tutorial I found on this subject! Thanks!!
Josh, sorry to hear about your technical difficulties. If possible, I'd like to donate a couple hundred bucks to your cause. Your video series has helped me more than any other I've found! I really appreciate all the time and commitment you've put into these videos and would love to help you out. Let me know the best way to contribute and I'll float a couple hundred your way brother.👍🏻
And so these kinds of comments (That’s just a tiny sample) lead me to believe that just because the average view time is less than 10 minutes, there are still plenty of people who DO appreciate the long format and detailed work I put in.  

Even though my long term plan is to shift the content on my channel to more disscusion around world building for my Tales From Talifar work, I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep making these tutorials every now and then because there are clearly plenty of people who’s lives are enriched by that work.  And that’s a great feeling.