Back of the Fence

Perhaps it comes naturally with age, but I have continued to develop a deeper sense of appreciation for the refined quality of things in general. I am careful to distinguish this from “expensive” or just “excessive.” One of my favorite quotes highlights where I derive the most acute sense of appreciation:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

But along with that “refined simplification” of aesthetic form, I count myself among those who prefer quality over quantity in the sense of a general value preference. I’m hardly unique in that preference, but I am particularly drawn to the notion that quality can be inherent to a design even if it is invisible to others. The knowledge and self-satisfaction of building a well-constructed thing holds interest for me, as exemplified by the undue amount of time I spend building computers with just the right balance among components for a particular use case. Even when all that effort is concealed in a generic-looking PC case and abstracted away by an operating system. And I’m sure some of that influence comes from a pivotal tech titan:

On Steve Jobs’ father: 
One of the most important things he taught Steve was [that] it’s important to be a great craftsman, even for the parts unseen. When they were building a fence, he said, ‘You have to make the back of the fence that people won’t see look just as beautiful as the front, just like a great carpenter would make the back of a chest of drawers … Even though others won’t see it, you will know it’s there, and that will make you more proud of your design.’
Walter Isaacson interview on NPR Morning Edition

I didn’t just compare myself to Steve Jobs, did I? I certainly hope not. Either way, that drive for making something of high quality for the sake of quality isn’t something that makes a lot of sense prima facie. Until we look beyond the instrumental value of that thing. Beyond the materialism of our moden times and back to the times of the Ancient Greeks. Because of course, everything always goes back to Aristotle.

Although modern virtue ethics does not have to take a “neo-Aristotelian” or eudaimonist form[…], almost any modern version still shows that its roots are in ancient Greek philosophy by the employment of three concepts derived from it. These are arête (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) and eudaimonia (usually translated as happiness or flourishing). […] A virtue is an excellent trait of character. It is a disposition, well entrenched in its possessor—something that, as we say, goes all the way down[…]—to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways.
“Virtue Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In a synthesis that hopefully doesn’t leave any readers with a modicum of philosophy training reeling in horror, what Jobs’ father sought, more-or-less, was arête in fence-building and craftsmanship in general. And it is, as much as I can tell, a drive that I find myself drawn to in the creation of my own technological creations. Now, maybe I’m just flattering myself here, but I at least have the perception that I’m more-often-than-not slightly askew from the ‘economically rational’ point of view. I don’t just want a purely functional computer for people to use when I build a custom PC. I want them to have a computer that is a pleasure to use and serves as an enabling tool rather than a functional necessity.

And I guess that does make me sound a lot less like a practical Bill Gates and more like a Steve Jobs after all…

A man uses the machines you build to sit down and pay his taxes. A man uses the machines I build to listen to the Beatles while he relaxes.
Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates, Epic Rap Battles of History


Chess for Millennials

Let me be clear, Chess is still a great game all by itself. But for the millennial generation (of which I can count myself among the oldest in that cohort), there are some computer games that capture a glint of the timelessness of the game of Chess. The game that best captures that spirit, it can be argued, is Starcraft.

The original Starcraft game came out in 1998, almost 20 years ago. It became perhaps the first game to achieve the ‘eSport’ moniker due to its popularity in South Korea. The game was of the category “real-time strategy” and provided a fertile ground for the development of tactics, mind games, and fast-paced skill with a keyboard and mouse. (The “first-person shooter” category also requires dexterity and skill, but doesn’t have the level of, well, strategy and planning involved with a real-time strategy game.)

Two decades later, the original Starcraft game is being re-released with a graphics update. But what is notable is not how much has changed (as there are a number of recent games that are remakes of old games with entirely new graphics and gameplay). Instead, it is in how much has been preserved from the original game in this “remastered” release. Even down to the ‘quirks’ of the original game, it is almost functionally unchanged from 20 years ago.

Brian Sousa, senior artist on the remastered edition and veteran of the original StarCraft discusses getting the feel right for those who have been playing regularly over the last two decades. “In Korea, StarCraft is like chess. It’s timeless” he begins. “We’re not going to rewrite the rules of chess—we’re not going to change how the pieces move—we’re just going to make it look better.”

For like-minded millennials who played the original Starcraft when it first came out in 1998 and still are drawn to its gameplay mechanics all these years later, it is a classic game that has stood the test of time. That by itself is an accomplishment. But beyond the ‘timeless’ aspect of the game, it really does live up to the “Chess” description in another important way – it is a very complex game to master for humans. That makes it a target for Artificial Intelligence (AI) to master as well. After all, computers have already beaten humans at Chess and Go, so they need a new challenge: Starcraft II will be used to train artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.

So when SkyNet conquers humanity in the future-is-not-yet-written, it may be just as likely due to machines learning how to beat humans as StarCraft as it would be for Chess.

Better start constructing additional pylons now…

Throwing Shade on the Eclipse

I was thinking of observing stars to verify Einstein's theory of relativity again, but I gotta say, that thing is looking pretty solid at this point.

“I was thinking of observing stars to verify Einstein’s theory of relativity again, but I gotta say, that thing is looking pretty solid at this point.”

The popularization of science has a peculiar balance to strike between developments of genuine scientific importance and events/discoveries that lend themselves to popularity with the general public. It’s difficult to not take full advantage of that general interest in events like a solar eclipse. And for science educators, I can’t blame them for taking a ‘golden’ opportunity to capture the imagination and interest of students with an event like this.

There are, of course, genuine scientific questions to be answered during a solar eclipse (see the XKCD comic’s caption re: Einstein’s theory of relativity). But mostly it’s just a cosmic coincidence where the Sun, Moon, and Earth all line up. The astrology hype-train goes into overdrive when this coincidence is extended to all of the planets being in alignment. It’s something that actually never happens since the planets do not all share the same orbital plane, but they’d more-or-less be in a line together.  Last time was 561 BC, and the next will be in 2854 – so, no need to mark that on your calendars, mere mortals.

Despite the doubt I have cast on the importance of the eclipse (ok, I’ll refrain from further shadow-related puns), there is a different important role for such events outside their current scientific value. It’s plausible that ancient and historical astronomers – the progenitors of our modern-day astronomers – were first drawn to studying the heavens by such events like the solar eclipse. In their quest to understanding the big events or observable phenomena in the sky, they began to uncover the deeper mechanics of the universe. It’s a path that we continue to follow to this day.

So while it is fair for scientists and those with a good general understanding of science to shrug off the eclipse for a lack of scientific importance, the educational opportunities provided and curiosity raised by such events are worth a second look. Just make sure to use a proper solar filter…


Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other people”

In somewhat of a twist from where I would normally go with the word “Ubuntu” (a distro of the open source Linux operating system), I’d like to reflect on the African philosophy of Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other people.” For those who know my inclination towards computers and technology, this is an unusual choice. But on a day that symbolizes a chronological milestone in one’s life (my birthday), I think it is important to pause and consider how much of ourselves that we celebrate on a birthday is not only attributable to those around us, but also might be central to finding meaning in life.

I want to distinguish the practice of being thankful to others for meaningful experiences (by itself a perfectly good thing to do) with the more radical idea that meaningfulness in life is an ’emergent’ quality of our social bonds with others. I attribute much credit to my family for being a very positive influence on my life (a realization that continues to sink in as time progresses). But even beyond attribution of influence/credit, the idea of ‘ubuntu’ is that the significance of who I am (influences and all) gains primary meaning through my relationships and interactions with others.

I can’t explain the idea very well because, well, it doesn’t (at least historically) exemplify my own self-image as a person very well. As an introspective, introverted person, I don’t tend to think of my sense of self in terms of relationships to others. Rather, I exist as an individual and build relationships to enrich the meaning in my life. A life alone would still have meaning, but just substantially less than one with an abundance of healthy relationships. And we’ve all been there before – losing touch or dropping out of contact with some friends or extended family. But beyond the regret of losing contact with them, perhaps we lose something else about ourselves in the process. At least that’s what ‘ubuntu’ brings to mind for me. But to let someone far more eloquent describe what ‘ubuntu’ means:

‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand […] in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations […]
—Eze, M. O. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa, pp. 190–191.

It’s that bolded text that I find to be the critical point of differentiation between my own self-perception and that proposed by the philosophy of ‘ubuntu.’ A life alone really wouldn’t be much of a life at all, according to that argument. And while I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment (if only due to belief perseverence or other ‘sticky’ ideas of the Western philosophical tradition lodged firmly in my head), it opens up a door to thinking about myself in terms of relationships outside my self. I know, that seems like such an obvious thing, right? Relationships matter. People matter. But if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think I derive my meaning as a human being through the lens of relationships with others. (Maybe I do in reality, but just don’t think of it in those terms.)

Martha Nussbaum’s idea of concentric circles is another avenue to a similar mode of thinking about those other than our own self, tribe, or nation-state. When we shift to seeing ourselves as belonging to ‘humanity’ as opposed to a particular sub-group, our thinking, actions, and ethical reasoning evolve to be inclusive of those all around us. It’s certainly not the default mode of thought for the majority of human-kind. But while Nussbaum urges us to advance our sense of community to be an ever-growing circle of ‘others’, she doesn’t arrive at the same conclusion of ‘ubuntu’ that derives primary sense of meaning from the ‘other.’ I almost wonder if the diagram of concentric circles would be inverted for ‘ubuntu’ in comparison to Nussbaum’s in terms of identity.

When anyone asked him where he came from, he said, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’
—Diogenes Laertius, Life of Diogenes the Cynic

So if there is a nugget of wisdom to summarize from this thread of thought to take with me, it would be that meaningfulness in life is more a function of relationships with others than I tend to realize or to which I give credit. My birthday provides a convenient annual reminder of the passage of time. And if the philosophy of ‘ubuntu’ can have any influence on how I think of myself and meaning in life, that passage of time is as much about the people I spend it with building meaning together as it is about who I am as an individual alone.