Thursday, 29 April 2021

Make Reading Productive: a Practical Philosophy of Education.

[This was written in reply to an extremely flattering letter from a viewer: a young man who explained how his life had profoundly changed due to the influence of my youtube channel.  He had quit playing video games (having described himself as being, previously, "a video game addict"), and really devoted himself to the study of politics and philosophy, beginning from a very low level.  He wrote in asking broadly for advice, and quite possibly expecting "recommended reading" in reply.]



Hi _____,


Well, you are writing to me at an opportune time, as I'm in the process of trying to complete my book, "No More Manifestos".


Many chapters (not all) are already available within Patreon, and you can use the app's search function to hunt them down.


Here's the final text of chapter 1, for example:


patreon.com/posts/book-chapter-one-45227552


So, I will re-interpret your question as follows:


"What should I do, to develop my own acumen and abilities, within the constraints of being a university student (busy studying ______) in _______?"


Most people would tell you to devote yourself to "reading", and would then provide you with a reading list.  There are many, many reasons why this is not what I'm going to do (I'm a critic of "recommended reading", and I'm even a critic of reading itself, to a definite extent).


I think that for someone in your situation (and for most people with a full time job, etc.) the primary question is, instead, of "How can I make reading productive?", and then how that process of reading, researching, learning, doubting, discussion, questioning, etc., can be part-and-parcel of a meaningful life.


You know, there are people who live in a cave (i.e., alone, in the wilderness) and study Buddhist philosophy: they never learn what I've learned about Buddhism.  A great deal of what is recommended (both by academia, and "here" on youtube) is really just equivalent to encouraging people to seal themselves up in a cave, of one sort or another.


The people who give this advice rarely even reflect on their own process of learning, and the extent to which very non-cave-like aspects (and very non-textual aspects) of the learning process were important to them.  The importance is attributed to the book itself, as if it were a graven idol, that could impart wisdom to us, as a reward for our devotion to it.


Many, many people on the left wing do indeed study politics in much the same way as a Buddhist eremite in a cave "studies" Buddhism, and they emerge from their caves more disconnected from reality than ever before --but, of course, utterly devoted to the particular book (or guru) that they imagine to be the source of all wisdom (and all hope for a better society in the future).


(On the right wing, this is true of some of the libertarians, but I wouldn't say there's any directly comparable pattern among "moderate conservatives", who more commonly approach politics with the assumption that they've got nothing to learn.)


What is it that makes reading productive?


Instead of a huge pile of books (qua "input"), with no clear "output", I think it's important to divide the process into a series of projects, where you pick up and handle the information you're learning as an instrument.


Instead of studying Buddhism (as a whole, for example), imagine if someone took up a specific project looking at (i) prostitution, (ii) police corruption, and then (iii) what Buddhist leaders say about it (in an intensely Buddhist society like Thailand or Myanmar) and (iv) how Buddhists are actually involved in it.  The religiosity of corrupt police officers in Thailand, the relationship between pimp and prostitute and Buddhist temple, is a specific topic that could produce a specific article, essay or youtube video --and if someone took that up as their first task in the study of Buddhism, they would learn more than reading a tome of "philosophy" in a cave, precisely because (1) what they're learning is directly connected to problems in the real world and (2) because they're making the process of learning productive, by applying what they know to a kind of problem-solving mode of thought.


Imagine the difference between examining puzzles in an art gallery, fully assembled, and handling the puzzle pieces yourself.  Learning ("active research" leading to "an informed opinion") has more to do with the process of handling puzzle pieces than it has to do with staring at them.  Thus, I'm a critic of reading as such.


And, of course, there's the crucial problem of having someone let you know when you've assembled the puzzle pieces all wrong: we do not learn from making mistakes, but from noticing mistakes.  Sometimes we can notice our own mistakes, ourselves, but more often we need someone to discuss our research with --and even if they know less about it than we do, the discussion itself could draw our attention to errors we've made, contrary sources/perspectives we've overlooked, etc.


So, this is also part of the praxis of dividing up the near-infinite mountain of reading into a series of small, specific projects, that have definite "output": the output you create can be seen/heard/read by other people (even if it just a circle of five friends you've got, or friends you'll meet in the process) who can then point out to you mistakes you've made, or limitations and shortcomings of your approach.


Many people would tell you to build up a wall of books you've read, and then try to develop some sophistication toward the wall as a whole.  I am telling you, instead, that it's important to develop a sophisticated attitude toward each brick, one at a time, as it goes into the wall, and to regard the whole process of learning as part and parcel of a meaningful life.


And this meaningful life is something that reading must add to, not subtract from.  It can't be that you're imposing on yourself, and suffering to do the research because it is detracting from everything meaningful in your life: the strategy of making reading productive is, in effect, that the reading becomes a positive and rewarding part of your life --something you're positively motivated to do (even if it is only on the weekend, only in the limited spare time that your university classes (or job) allows you to have, etc.).


I talked to two different viewers recently who made the mistake of "being inspired by" my youtube channels in the following manner: they bought a copy of Aristotle's Ethics, and began reading it, from cover to cover.  (I believe only one of the two finished the book, before complaining to me.)


Now, firstly, I have never endorsed or suggested such a thing (although I've made many youtube videos about Aristotle).  Nor do I suggest, for example, that anyone should sit and read the Bible from cover to cover.


Now, as it happens, Aristotle's Ethics is a terrible book, with only a few pages that are worth reading, as it happens, and even then, the few (interesting) pages are only significant because they allow us to compare what he said in his books on Politics and Rhetoric to a different account.  However, if you want to really learn something from Aristotle's Ethics, you'd need some specific project, with some specific purpose, and some kind of "output" (an article, a youtube video, etc.).


You would need, in this way, to bring a problem-solving purpose to the book.


My method here can be discovered by any jejune person, spontaneously.  Suppose someone told you that they had been forced to read the Bible as a child, and found it utterly boring.  However, as an adult, the idea occurred to them that they would research the question of slavery in the Bible ("once and for all") to discover what exactly the Bible said on the topic, and how this fit into the history of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and misc. political movements to abolish slavery (and attempts to defend the institution of slavery, in response).  Now suppose this person wanted to write an article, or create a youtube video, summing up their conclusions --perhaps they'd discover a number of specific issues along the way that were unexpectedly interesting, and resulted in youtube videos just dealing with that specific topic.


Perhaps some of the issues were "parallel", rather than "intersecting", e.g., this researcher then might well wonder about the history of the abolition of slavery in China, Thailand and Japan (countries where Christianity and Islam were not factors at all in a "parallel" process).


Now, suddenly, the study of the Bible seems fascinating, and not because of anything inherent in the text: the book doesn't exist as an idol to enlighten us (as a reward for our devotion to it), but merely as an instrument that we take up in our own hands, in the process of solving a problem (or answering a series of questions) --and that will, indeed, involve challenging the book, and challenging our own assumptions, by consulting and comparing a variety of sources.


It is significant (and not merely a cultural curiosity, I think) that the easiest way for people to express how they've become sophisticated (politically, philosophically, etc.) is through a series of negations.  They can tell you a series of things they used to believe in, and how they challenged or overturned them, by learning something else.  They were Communist and became ex-Communist, or they were muslim and became ex-muslim, etc.


It is much more difficult to express the process positively: what was the combination of doubt and curiosity that demanded exercise, and how exactly did you exercise it?  I have tried, in this reply, to start explaining to you that process of exercise.


Someone like James Boswell was able, in his time, to publish every stray thought that entered his head in a newspaper: the most casual nonsense that he'd thought up (about politics, etc.) he could publish, from a very early age (certainly, long before his first hit book) and he was then able to surround himself with people who would "entertain" his opinions, and sometimes challenge him, in a salon of ideas.  I will admit my bias: from my perspective, Boswell was a very stupid man, and, also, morally evil.  However, in his manner of living, you can see how effortlessly he "made reading productive"; if he lifted a finger to research the Constitution of Corsica, he was rewarded with a tremendous amount of both publication and feedback.


Here, in Canada, Newspapers are dead.  The body of the book publishing industry is an emaciated shadow of what it formerly was.  Uploading to youtube is one way to approach the problem; having a circle of colleagues in a Facebook group (or equivalent) is another.


There is no point having "output" without "input": there's no point in having a book review channel, if you don't actually read books.  However, most educators are reluctant to say the opposite: there's no point in reading the book if you aren't motivated by some particular purpose --such as a book review, or such as researching some particular topic, to produce some kind of thesis, etc.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

[Autobiographical:] Economic incentives, authorship and cultural production.

One of the last attempts to glamorize the publishing industry, 1988's Bright Lights, Big City.

You ask whether or not I think these economic factors are invariable and unchanging.

No: I believe they have changed dramatically and profoundly within my lifetime.

We are not discussing the whole sphere of economics, but instead, more narrowly, the question of how economic motivations shape cultural production.

More narrowly still, we're talking about the contrasting instances of on-paper-publication and video game software development.

During my lifetime, the possibility of earning money from the publication of books, magazine articles and writing for newspapers has declined, to be almost zero. However, the cost of producing a book (or a magazine or a newspaper) has also declined, to be almost zero.

The situation with video games is worse: the cost of production has increased, whereas the prospect of earning money has withered away.

The most profitable video game ever made was Space Invaders in 1978. Every video game since then has earned less money (yes, even Pac Man).

There was a time when just one man would create a video game in just a few hours, and then small teams working for a few weeks. Now, the cost measured in "man hours" (i.e., labor) is astounding.

In 1986, The Legend of Zelda (for the N.E.S.) sold for $49.99 --now equivalent to $120 per cartridge. Of course, today, a game of that sort could be made by just one man (working alone) in a few months, or it could be made by a small team in a few weeks --but it could not possibly have a "ticket price" of $120 per copy (neither on cartridge nor as a digital download, etc.).

It also sold over 120 million copies. If we multiply those two numbers we're looking at a retail gross of over $14,400,000,000 (in 2021 US currency).

Now that's an industry. Not a hobby, but an industry.

Now, of course, lone programmers still exist, and once in a while they manage to make a few dollars out of it: "Cave Story" was (supposedly) the work of just one man, and now sells on the Nintendo Switch for $30 per box. However, to say that this is a one-in-a-million chance would be an insult to honest bookeeping: nobody could possibly finance a programming project with the expectation that they'd produce the next "Cave Story". This is about as improbable as a zero budget independent movie being the next "Clerks" ($3.2 million at the box office, BTW… compared to Zelda, that's positively losing money).

The price to produce a video game at current standards (not comparable to Cave Story, but comparable to Mario Odyssey) gets higher and higher, with the likely economic rewards getting lower and lower. The size of the market expanded, yes, but the vast majority of projects that are downloadable for $5.99 on Steam never break even for their creators (even the award winning examples don't break even, from what I've seen). So, the price per transaction declines, the price of production increases, and a tiny (tiny!) number of successful games make people into millionaires --but the vast majority of projects have to be undertaken on a charitable basis by all involved (thus the looming influence of Kickstarter, etc.).

This is not a simple situation in which the profit motive precludes cultural production: certain types of cultural production are encouraged, and others discouraged, by economic forces that have profoundly changed within my lifetime, and are likely to profoundly change again (for the worse, in my opinion, and from my perspective).

It has never been easier to publish. Conversely, it has never been more difficult to earn a living publishing.

I can effortlessly have my words "immortalized" by ashen ink and cloud-white tree pulp, but no effort in the world can possibly make it a profitable enterprise.

In a sense, I'm being paid to write the book right now, by donations from supporters on Patreon (all 135 of you!) but that is likely to be the only payment I'll get --so, I am myself an example of both the positive and negative motivation this economic situation brings.

If new video games are primarily paid for by Kickstarter (i.e., by donations, etc.) then we have a very different set of incentives and constraints than we had in the 1980s.

If new books (and new magazines, etc.) are written on a similar sort of "charitable" basis… imagine what a perverse effect that will have on authorship, on readership, on the whole strange cycle of cultural production… and, conversely, try to imagine what a perverse effect the profit motive had on the publishing industry (from the 1960s to the 1980s)… and how "un-perverse" we all must be (in myriad ways we cannot perceive ourselves) now that these motivating factors are gone.

I say this all as someone who has had to explain, again and again (even to my own father, when he was alive) that it was now quite impossible for me to earn a living from newspapers, magazines, or even editing books. Many older men insisted (on the basis of their understanding of the world circa 1960 to 1980) that it must be very easy for me to earn enough money to pay the rent in Cambodia (etc.) by simply offering my services to the nearest newspaper. Perhaps in 1965. The reality is that most of the people involved in those industries today are contributing their labor on some kind of "charitable" basis (nobody at the Huffington Post is paid a salary, etc.). And, of course, "charity" can resemble parasitism --i.e., with the publisher living parasitically on the authors (whereas, before, the authors were paid by the publisher, etc.).

So, yes, things change. Change is an objective fact. Improvement is a matter of ideology. From my nihilistic perspective, everything is getting worse, and will continue to get worse.

The cost of paper and ink and bookbinding has decreased --but it has not decreased as much as the money to be earned by publishing. What changes? Everything changes. The life of the author changes.

The cost of transmitting a video game has decreased (i.e., comparing the cost of a download to the cost of producing a cartridge) and yet, also, the potential money to be earned from publishing has decreased.

The difference is that it is neither more nor less work to write a book now than it was before. The hours of labor needed to make a video game (and the number of specialized laborers required to contribute their skills, etc.) has increased.

Some books are written by lone wolves, like myself, and some are written by teams, others by whole armies. Look at a Chinese-English dictionary published in 1901: how many people contributed to creating it? An army. And all of them were paid.

The most recent dictionary of the Pali language (i.e., in English) is the creation of just one woman. And I have met her. And I have a very low opinion of her intellectual caliber. But we must admit that even if she were the most brilliant person imaginable, the work she's undertaken is simply not suited to one pair of hands alone: some tasks cannot be undertaken by men, but only by armies.

As an author, I am in the most privileged caste precisely because I have this youtube channel. Believe me, I have now seen several publishers' websites instructing prospective authors to do what I have done: build a presence on social media and communicate with the potential audience for the book (for years!) before publishing. Even if my audience consists of merely 1,000 people, the only reason why the book will reach that small number is because of the work I've put into the youtube channel (now well over 2,000 videos, BTW!).

However, I did not join youtube because I wanted to work alone: quite the contrary. I came here to build a movement, to be part of a community, or at least to work as a member of a team. In this, I am a failure --and the whole world of print media (books, magazines, etc.) is doomed to failure, for this whole generation (and the next, so far as I can see).

The same media that used to unite people (as creators) now divide them. Magazines and newspapers, also, are cobbled together by emails sent between people who've never met face-to-face, you know: editor, author and photographer no longer meet at a boardroom table (as per Perry White and J. Jonah Jameson, etc.). The reality is that the authors are more mutually isolated than ever before.

And in this, too, I am privileged, because I can work alone, without any teacher, without any students, without any salon, without any colleagues, contemporaries, adversaries or co-authors. I can, but that's not what I chose: that's not what I wanted from this "exchange" with the ether of the internet. I didn't sign up to be a lone wolf intellectual. To be blunt: I didn't learn Chinese to talk to myself.

With these incentives and disincentives, who will write a book, in the 21st century? A very different sort of person from those who wrote books in the 20th century. And a similar sort of prism will now influence cultural production in terms of software, educational software, and video games (with or without educational content).

On the Paucity of Educational Video Games (Language Learning Software Especially)

[Torn from the middle pages of a conversation with a Patreon supporter, i.e., this isn't the first message in the dialogue.] 

I come to this conversation "in the shadow of" decades of prior conversations.

This is not your fault, I do not blame you for it…

…but I just say, I write to you in a rather sad and hopeless manner because I've had this kind of conversation many, many times before (and nothing positive ever happened as a result).

When I was living in Cambodia, I spoke to people seriously about the possibility of creating educational video games [for those languages]. The first conversations of this kind I ever had were with a computer programmer in Toronto, before I left for Asia (probably in late 2001).

I had a number of serious conversations [along these lines] during my period of working on Cree-and-Ojibwe in Saskatchewan.

Nothing positive ever came from it. And there are reasons why.

I will jump straight to the point here ("last things first").

Re: "I don't think that what you criticize is an inherent part of the identify of video games…"

Economic considerations are extrinsic, not inherent.

Economic factors may not be inherent, and yet may be utterly overweening.

Both Instagram and Tikok are dominated by softcore pornography: there is nothing "inherently" pornographic about these websites, and yet economic factors "foretell" a very predictable pattern of what kind of content is seen --although IN THEORY one could find substantive book reviews about politics (etc.) on either one.

I do not say this because I'm morally opposed to pornography (long story short, I'm not opposed to pornography, although I've made nuanced videos dealing with the ethics and politics of the thing)… I say this because the absence of an "intrinsic" problem is not a pretext to overlook an extrinsic one.

And economics are extrinsic.

And economic forces can be very, very powerful, in determining the pattern of cultural development that ensues in any given technology or medium-for-expression.

Now tell me, why do you suppose I never managed to put together a project to make a video game like Pokemon in Cree/Ojibwe?

One of the most fundamental factors in language learning is simply repetition: a game like Pokemon that endlessly repeats simple sentences along the lines of "The bear attacks the giant otter, but the otter evades the attack…" could indeed be helpful for people trying to acquire / practice the language.

The reason why this never happens, and the reason why --GENERALLY-- there is absolutely zero software of any educational value whatsoever IS ECONOMIC.

Take a look at the history of the video game library for Nintendo DS, 3DS & 2DS: the total number of games produced for these platforms numbers in the thousands: over 2000 for the DS, perhaps another 2000 for the 3DS.

How many language education games were produced for them ever, in total?

I honestly believe I've seen them all. There are a few (VERY FEW) and they're of abysmally low quality (the developers were probably making a minimal effort, expecting minimal income).

Technologically, the 2DS / 3DS is an amazing device for language learning, or for educational software of any kind (from my perspective, it's an awful device for Sonic the Hedgehog, but the interface is much better for education, including the ability to write with a stylus ("light pen") on the screen, etc.).

What ever was done with this marvelous technology?  The same thing that is done with Instagram and Tiktok: WHATEVER WILL EARN MONEY, nothing more, and nothing less.

The Canadian government would stuff money in your pockets if you were willing to make an education game to help people learn French, and would stuff ten times more money into your pockets if you then proposed to adapt it to teach Cree and Ojibwe.  The level of government support (grant money) would be so vast that fundraising/donations would be unnecessary.

Is anyone ever going to do it? No, never.

Instead, the world is going to get another generation of the strange mix of sex and violence offered by DOA, KOF, SF, etc. etc. --and the endless myriad of simulations of one human being shooting another in the head ("FPS" games).

Re: "Anything is possible in a virtual world without the player being put in danger of physical harm."

No: this is as foolish as saying that anything is possible in a Hollywood movie.

What is possible in a Hollywood movie is,

(1) whatever you can convince investors (or donors) will make money,

and (2) whatever will actually receive funding to be made,

and (3) whatever is possible to stage/simulate within the limits of the funding provided.

It is just nonsense to say that anything is possible (in movies or in video games). I spoke to computer programmers and computational linguists for so many years, I spoke to people with different kinds of talent and experience linked to research, language education and the software side of the game, and nothing ever happened. And nothing ever will happen.

I defy you to sit down and start sketching out on the back of a napkin what you'd actually do if you wanted to get the budget together to make a 3DS game (even now, in 2021, as the platform is in its final years) that would really take advantage of the hardware to teach a language (any language). You will soon start to appreciate how suffocating are the constraints (and how difficult it would be for support from Kickstarter to overcome them).



Saturday, 23 January 2021

MEANWHILE…

The long term impacts of merchandizing. The t-shirts spun off by my youtube channel have an intellectual life of their own. 哈哈哈😄

Monday, 18 January 2021

On having political expertise: a polite reply to a puzzled viewer.

Thanks for taking the time to write in, _______.

HMU any time.

We live in a world where _some_ people have recognized expertise in diet ("dietetics" or "nutrition") and _some_ people have recognized expertise in architecture…

…my situation is that I'm the one person (hopefully not the only one?) who really does have expertise in politics within vegan youtube --and sometimes, frankly, it seems like I'm the only person with this kind of expertise in all of youtube, period.

If you were writing to me about architecture, I'd encourage you to reflect that PERHAPS you don't understand these things (technical issues within architecture) because you hadn't devoted your life (or any particular chunk of time) to gaining that kind of expertise.

As a culture, we need to recognize that there is such a thing as real expertise in politics. I've got it. You could have it, too --but it would entail a sacrifice of several years of hard work (just like gaining expertise in architecture).

And even then, not everyone has what it takes to be a great architect --nor even a good architect. 😄

Sunday, 3 January 2021

"We live our lives in the sunlight of assumptions about the future…" (Coronavirus Diaries)

One year ago (today) I was bedridden ill with Coronavirus. "We live our lives in the sunlight of assumptions about the future --even if dim-- and in the shadow of assumptions about the past that have proven false." (The assumption that I had already recovered from this cold (Coronavirus) stated at the top of the page also proved to be false: from this point, it got worse before it got better.).

Saturday, 2 January 2021

On the cultivation of (dubious) moral characteristics through video games.

A discussion (naturally much longer than the exceprts you see here) on the extremely limited educational value of video games --and on the "virtues" we might be cultivating by playing them. This transpired in my youtube channel's Discord forum (a link to join that forum is in the decsription for new videos uploaded to the channel).

A searchable index of my youtube videos (most of them, at least!)

Special thanks to Araia, who did all the hard work of creating the HTML code. This is a list of most of the videos (not all!) on à-bas-le-ciel (which is not my only youtube channel!). If you can't find what you're looking for by searching around here, you can join the discord (discussion forum) and ask (quite likely other viewers will know what you're looking for).

Link 1, a complete listing for (all of) the videos on à-bas-le-ciel: https://aryailia.github.io/a-bas-le-ciel/all.html

Link 2, playlists: https://aryailia.github.io/a-bas-le-ciel/playlists.html