Monthly Archives: June 2012

Some Good News

If you haven’t read Wednesday’s post, read it now. Of course if you also haven’t read Monday’s post you should read that first. The posts this week all kind of flowed out of each other. I’m going to finish the topic up today (for the time being at least). My first post was kind of dark, and my second one was very strong, though it needed to be said. They were also both directed more at Christians than others. This post is applicable to all. Today we move on to the good news.

The good news is there is a lot of good we can do out there. And there’s a lot of good that’s already been done.

Believe it or not, the world is actually in a lot better shape than it was forty years ago, primarily due to the efforts of nonprofit humanitarian organizations (and thus, indirectly, by ordinary people like us donating our time and money). We are slowly winning the war on global poverty. We’re a long way away from the finish line but we have gotten closer to it. Starvation, injustice, poverty, disease, and exploitation are all challenges that can be solved and are being solved. Here are some vital stats (taken from the excellent book A Hole in Our Gospel by World Vision president Richard Stearns):

-Life expectancy in developing nations increased from 46 years in 1960 to 66.1 years in 2005.

-The under-five child mortality rate has been cut in half since 1970.

-Preventable child deaths have fallen 50 percent since 1960

-The percentage of the world’s population classified as hungry has been reduced from 33% to 18% in the last forty years.

-The percentage of people with access to clean water in developing countries went from 35% in 1975 to 80% in 2007.

-Polio has been almost eradicated from the globe.

-Adult literacy has risen from 43% to 77% since 1970.

This is pretty encouraging, right? But it doesn’t feel that way usually. We live in the information age, where all the world’s problems are piled on top of us and we feel helpless to accomplish anything at all. When you’re already feeling helpless it can feel like a personal attack when people start talking about our responsibility to those in need. “What? How can you expect me to solve the world’s problems? I’m not a millionaire, what can I do?” The answer is that you can do a lot, even with a little. Just five dollars can save a life, in the right hands. Even if you don’t have much money, you do have time, energy, and talent that can be used to help. Find a worthy cause and then start your own personal fundraiser. Ask friends and family to donate, or people at your work (note: if you do something like this, keep careful track of all donations and try to keep everything as transparent as possible. You don’t want anyone accusing you of pocketing the money. A good way to avoid all that is to have people write checks to the charity you’re raising money for, instead of just giving you cash). Can you play an instrument? Hold a mini-concert and raise money for people in need. Do you have artistic talent? Draw people’s portraits in exchange for donations. There are a lot of great ideas out there, and you’d be surprised by how much money you can raise. I once raised around $150 for tsunami victims just by asking around at my school (I’m sure I could have done better if I’d thought creatively about it). Now $150 doesn’t sound like much in the face of World Poverty, but you have to remember that it’s not up to you to solve all the world’s problems. It’s just up to you to try your best and save the people you can. $150 won’t save a village, but it will save people; real, flesh and blood people with hopes, dreams, and fears just like you and me. And though $150 isn’t much it is a lot more than I could have given on my own.

The final bit of good news is that giving is one of the most fulfilling and awe inspiring things we can do on this world. A $5 app can be a lot of fun, but you don’t get much else out of the experience; just fun, eventually followed by boredom and moving on to a new game. Giving $5 (or even $1!) to build wells for a thirsty village or to help poor children pay for an education gives you so much more than that. As surprising as it may sound it feels good to give. To know that because of your small sacrifice someone’s life, maybe many people’s lives, will be saved. To know that you’re helping make this world a little less dark, that’s the fulfilling part. What’s awe inspiring is the impact saving a single life can have. Your $5/$1 might end up providing the food needed to save a starving child. That child might then grow up to do great things; he might become a doctor, or an engineer. Even if he just becomes a farmer or a construction worker he’ll still have a great impact on those around him. He might get married and have children, children who never would have existed if it wasn’t for you. His children might achieve even more than he did, whether that means developing a cure for a disease or simply helping out their neighbors. The person you save (or his kids) might end up saving other people’s lives, and those people will go on to touch others and have their own children…it never ends. It boggles the mind how saving a single life might have such an impact on the future. What a heritage! What a blessing to the world! That’s the impact saving a life can have.

To sum it all up the world is getting better every day because of the actions of simple people like you and me. We can all make a difference no matter how big our paychecks are. The pain and suffering around us can paralyze us, and make us feel hopeless, but it shouldn’t. Instead we should remember that though the race to end world poverty will be a long and hard one, it is one we can win. Thank God we get the opportunity to be a part of it.

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Hands and Feet

On Monday I talked about my atheist friend’s challenge: how could a good and loving God allow children to suffer and die? For anyone familiar with real suffering this is an inevitable question, and I’m not going to try to answer it here. I am grossly under-qualified, and any answer that would do the question justice would fill a book. If you’re interested I’d recommend reading The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, or If God is Good by Randy Alcorn. Instead of trying to answer that hard question I want to touch on something very specific.

My friend’s challenge reminded me of a story I heard my Freshman year of college. My school, Northwest Christian University is a small one. We don’t have a large campus, a large student body, or a lot of money. So we were all extremely excited when we heard that Tony Campolo was coming to speak at our school. People from all over Eugene came to hear him speak. We had to host the event in our gym just to seat everyone. I’d never heard him speak before or read anything of his, but his name was familiar. I was interested to see if he would be worth all the fuss.

In the opening of his speech Campolo discussed a trip he took to Haiti (you can listen to the entire speech here, it’s well worth hearing). He was there to dedicate a new orphanage and school that would be able to take in local homeless children. When the building was complete they spread word around the city that any orphan boy or girl living on the streets should come to the central plaza at noon to be taken to the orphanage.  They estimated that there were around 35 or 40 homeless children in the city. When Campolo arrived at the plaza, however, there were almost 300 children waiting. Campolo explains what happened next:

“You know what I had to do. You know what I had to do. We only had room for 40. So I had to pick, out of those 300, 40 kids, knowing that the ones I didn’t choose would die on the streets. Because they die before the age of 12 if nobody takes care of them. We loaded those 40 kids onto the bus and got to the dormitory and little school that we had built; and as these kids tumbled off the bus there was a church choir there. And they were singing a gospel song that you may know, ‘God is so Good’. ‘God is so good, God is so good, God is so good to me, He loves me so’. And I got to tell you, I was angry. I was angry with God. And I was saying ‘God, you’re not good, and you don’t care. Because if you were good and cared they wouldn’t be dying on the streets, they wouldn’t be dying like that.’ And I sensed the Spirit within me say ‘They will die. But not because I’m not good. Not because I don’t care. But because the people who I have entrusted with the mission of carrying out my love and will in the world have become indifferent to their plight’.”

That’s what I want to talk about today.

It seems that, for some strange reason, God wants to work through people. I don’t know why, but He does. When the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt and cried out to God for salvation He could have caused their chains to disappear and the Egyptians to be swallowed up by the Earth. Instead he used an old man, Moses, to set them free. What’s more, God worked through Moses to do His miracles. I believe God is all powerful: I know that he did not need Moses to place his staff in the Nile to turn it to blood. And when the Israelites wandered in the desert and needed water God could have caused rivers and springs to appear from the rocks as soon as they arrived. Instead He had Moses strike the rock, and then water flowed forth.  For some reason God, who can do anything, wants to work through us. We imperfect, stumbling, and weak Christians are the very tools that God chooses to work his will in this world. I don’t understand it completely myself, but it’s true. God has entrusted us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, set the captive free, and teach the good news to all who haven’t heard it. These are all things God could do much more thoroughly and efficiently if he did them Himself, yet he leaves them in our hands. Why he does this is not my concern at the moment, just that we recognize that he has.

So when we see suffering in the world, when we see children starving to death by the thousands, when we hear about genocide and famine and poverty we must not ask first “Why has God allowed this to happen?” but instead “Why have I allowed this to happen?” And understand, you and I have indeed allowed this to happen. We did not cause these evils to occur but if we are capable of stopping them and do nothing then we are allowing evil to advance unchecked. And we are capable. Sixty years ago we did not know much about suffering overseas, and even if we did know there were few ways to really help. Today is different. Today organizations like World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion International, and hundreds of others (both religious and secular) have the infrastructure, the experience, and the capability to help thousands if we’ll give them the resources to do so. You can’t claim today that there is nothing we can do to help: there are opportunities to help all around us.

There are many agnostics and atheists out there who get this, and give generously to those in need. Peter Singer is not a man I admire. I find many of his views (specifically on abortion and euthanasia) abhorrent, if not downright evil. And yet even he, an atheist, seems to understand this concept better than many Christians I know.  He writes:

“To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

“I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

“Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.”

All around this world there are millions of “drowning children”; people whose lives we could save at only small inconvenience to ourselves. We cannot blame God for the suffering around us if we’re not willing to do anything about it ourselves. Imagine if we found such a child drowning in a pond and instead of diving in to save him began to pray “Oh God, please save this child! I know you are good, and wise, and I know you have the power to save him. Please help!” Imagine if we kept praying until the child finally succumbed to the water and died, and when all hope for resuscitation was gone we then cried out to God “Why, oh why do you allow such suffering in this world?” Or worse yet, said “It must have been part of God’s plan for this child to die, otherwise he would have been saved.” What we should be saying is obvious; “Why did I do nothing? Why did I let this happen?” We are God’s representatives, His hands and His feet to do His good will on this Earth. If we fail at the tasks that He has given us then there will be real life consequences; it is literally a matter of life and death for thousands.

James the brother of Jesus wrote about this. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:15-17).” How absurd such an example sounds! How could anyone turn a person in need away from their home and have the gall to tell them to “keep warm and well fed”? But that is exactly what we do when we pray for those who are suffering overseas and then expect God to take care of it. Out there are lives that will not be saved unless you act. Out there are people who you are meant to save. Your brothers and sisters are without clothes and food: will you wish them will, or will you take them in and help them?

I’d like to close with one final thought. It’s the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Luke records Jesus’s words:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.’” (Luke 16:19-25)

How many of us have heard this parable before and thought “This is justice. The rich man lived in luxury all his life, and every day he had to pass by Lazarus at the gate. He never stopped to help him, even though he had more than he needed. What a callous man.” Well I have some bad news for you: you’re not Lazarus. If you have the capability to read this than I’m afraid you’re the rich man. We live in a society of wealth and luxury that most people on Earth never get to experience. Over a third of the world scrapes by on $2 or less a day: the average in America is more like $150 a day. The world average income is around $7,000 a year: in America it’s around $40,000. Do you own a computer, a car, a cell phone, or a television? Then you’re richer than most. Do you have a roof over your head, food on the table, a warm place to sleep, and have the ability to read? Then you’re living in more luxury than most. And there are over two billion beggars on lying at your gate. Most of us walk right past them without looking. Some occasionally toss them a quarter or two. As Christians, as adopted children of God, we are called to do more than that. We are called to take them in, feed them, clothe them, and tell them about the God who loves them more than anything.

Finally we must remember that this world is not the end. The Rich Man’s luxury only lasted as long as he lived, and his life is but an instant in comparison to the eternity that follows. When we die will we regret giving to the poor? Will we regret feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick? I think instead we’ll regret all the chances we had to give that we ignored. What use are fast cars, beautiful houses, or the latest technology in heaven? We can’t take them with us; they will remain behind and turn to dust in the end. In the words of C.T. Studd. “Only one life, twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Use the money God gives you for His everlasting purposes, ones that will outlast our life on Earth and shine for all eternity. Why do you think God has blessed us with so much money and resources in America? Why do you think we live in one of the wealthiest societies Earth has ever seen, while at the same time most of the world lives in abject poverty? Do you think it’s so we can live in comfort, or so we can be God’s hands and feet to satisfy the needs of others who have less?

This has been my longest post on this blog so far. It’s also the post that I think was most worth writing. I’m sorry if my words seem harsh, or if they leave you without hope. I’ll be talking about hope on Friday.

Hard Pictures and Burning Hearts

A few days ago one of my friends on Facebook shared a disturbing picture. I won’t post it here, because of it’s graphic nature, but I do believe it’s an important picture to see. I’ll link to it here for any who want to see it. The picture depicts a small, starving African child. He has almost no muscle left on him. He crouches, curled up in a fetal position with arms and legs like a skeleton’s, skin stretched over bones without anything in between. I shuddered when I saw it. It was horrifying. Children should never become like this. Human beings should never be allowed to waste away to nothing like this. I was reminded of the graphic pictures shown at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. That was the only other place I’ve ever seen living humans in such an unnatural state.

At the bottom of the picture, in plain white letters, were the words “Smile, Jesus loves you.”

I should probably step back a bit and explain about my friend who posted the picture. In High School we knew each other fairly well. We made videos together in Video Tech, and we generally had fun when we were together. I haven’t seen him in years since graduation but I keep up with him somewhat through Facebook. He grew up in the Mormon Church, but a few years ago he became an atheist. I don’t think he’d be offended if I called him an “angry” atheist. He’s not the type who walks around quietly letting people know that “We’re all entitled to our own beliefs” or that “Religion has it’s place too, if you can believe in it.” He is the furious type, the kind who let people know bluntly that God is not real, and if he does exist he’s a monster. He posts pictures and status updates to that effect every now and then. I’ve never commented on them, but I’ve watched as others have. I think the internet is one of the worst places to have a civil discussion about religion (or just about anything, really). I try to stay out of it. Most of his “shocking” statuses are just bait to try and pull Christians into a fight, and I wasn’t going to take the bait. But this status made me pause.

Did I say pause? That’s not strong enough. The picture stopped me in my tracks. I stared it for almost a minute. The horror of such suffering isn’t easy to put away. Perhaps if I had only glanced at it I could have kept scrolling downwards until it disappeared; but once I started looking I couldn’t look away. It wouldn’t have been right.

Above the picture he had written his own little commentary: “Part of your ‘god’s’ plan?” They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case they’re right; he didn’t need to say anything else. His argument lay there, glowing on the monitor screen. It was plain as day. If God is good and has a plan for our lives, then why is this child dying a slow, agonizing death?

I wanted to say something. I wanted to explain what I knew, what I head read in my theological books. About how most suffering is caused by man and by sin, about free will and the consequences of it, about how we can’t see God’s plan from down here and we have to have faith…but as my cursor hovered over the comment button my mind went blank. I didn’t know what to say.

I want to note here that my faith in God was and is not shaken. I knew then what I still know now: that God is real, and that he is good. I did not feel doubt; but I did feel helpless. I don’t know the answer, and I knew what few answers I do have would not satisfy him.

Several people had commented already. Some just agreed, or joked around. But there were one or two who actually tried to answer his accusing question. One of them said that we can be at peace about suffering because we know that it is part of God’s plan, and will turn out for good. My friend didn’t take that garbage for a second, and fired back with a comment of his own.

“…why must such a being have a plan that would involve such terrible suffering? Where is the morality that the pious claim to love so much. Can anyone truly and honestly say that they think this is acceptable? Would anyone wish this upon another being? The answer should be a resounding “NO.” Yet it is okay when it is part of a plan set in motion by their diety? Why worship a being who requires such evil? I will never do it and I wish that the rest of humanity would see this way.”

Hard words, words that felt like lead weights on my heart. Again, I did not doubt; but I was burdened by the fact that I had no answer for him. I’m sure if I analyzed his words carefully I could come up with a logical and scripturally correct response that would satisfy myself. But I didn’t need to satisfy my own faith: I wanted to do something for his. Here is someone who, in his own way, is seeking after the truth. He sees the evil in the world around us and it burns in his heart. I didn’t want to win an argument; I wanted to speak to that burning heart.

A day later I realized how, perhaps, I could.

You see my friend betrayed himself in that comment. His argument is that if there was a good and loving God then he would not allow such evil, such injustice, to happen on this Earth. But the argument itself is meaningless unless there is in fact a God. If there is no God then why is this child’s suffering evil? If there is no God then why is it unjust? Why does this picture make my friend so angry? Why does this kind of suffering upset him? From a purely naturalistic standpoint this is life as normal on Earth. People suffer, people die. From a cold Darwinian standpoint you might even say that if that child was fit to survive he would have. As a Christian I know why this picture upsets me; it upsets me because it’s wrong for children, made in the image of God, to starve alone in the streets when there is food enough to save him. This is sin, this is evil, and this is an outrage! It would still be wrong even if I didn’t feel that it was. But why does this picture upset my friend? By what grounds does he stand in judgment and say that this is “unacceptable”? He obviously believes in right and wrong; otherwise his objection would be meaningless. But how can we say that this child’s suffering is wrong unless there is an objective Right and Wrong that is outside of and apart from ourselves?

Trying to explain how suffering is not really suffering is folly. It is suffering! It is wrong! Perhaps in God’s plan there is a reason for this child to die, but I cannot see that reason, and until I have one I must stand by my angry atheist friend and say “This is EVIL, pure and simple!” But after we have stood together and proclaimed this I have to turn to him and ask: “I know why I think this is wrong, but why do you?” Perhaps this will make him think. Perhaps it will only make him angry. But I will ask.

As for all here who call themselves believers I have a different question to ask: “What are we going to do about this evil?” I’ll talk more about that on Wednesday.

First Submission, First Response

I mentioned in my first post that I started this blog because I was trying to get some of my work published and I couldn’t think of any reason why someone would be interested in me as a total unknown. Well I think it’s time to go into more detail about that.

There’s a certain online gaming magazine that I read regularly. I’d tell you the name, but I’m not sure whether it would be appropriate to share it at this time. What’s more important is that they accept pitches from the public for feature article submissions. There are not many magazines, online or not, who openly welcome submissions from random strangers. What’s more, I’d read the feature articles on this website and they were right up my alley. I’m not the most up to date or informed when it comes to gaming news (or games in general: being cheap I tend to wait until games go on sale before buying them), but their articles often dealt with games that were five, ten, twenty years old. The only requirement seemed to be that they be interesting, and have something new to say. It seemed like my best chance to get something published. I just needed an idea.

After a week or two I found one. I was playing my favorite browser game, Echo Bazaar when something happened that really touched me. The game inspired an emotion, and whenever something inspires a strong emotion in you it’s worth writing about. This was what I needed. I banged out a 1,500 word rough draft about it. I spent two days polishing it up, sending it to a couple of my friends whose opinions I valued and who happened to be on Facebook. They liked it, which was encouraging. I was ready to send it in.

It was at that point I found out that they don’t want people to send in complete articles. They want a pitch first, and only if they’re interested will they ask for something written up. I felt sheepish: I’d sweated over this article and there was a decent chance they wouldn’t even want to look at it. I started writing up a pitch explaining my article in detail, but I was (thankfully) distracted by dinner. I needed the break to think: I realized that I had to be just as careful about writing the pitch as I had been about writing the article. This would be the real test: if I sounded boring and insipid in my pitch they wouldn’t even be interested in reading the article. So I ended up spending a whole day working over my pitch to make sure it was perfect. With some trepidation I hit “send” and let it out of my hands. There was nothing I could do now but wait.

I took me two and a half weeks to get a reply. After the first week passed I began to worry. After the second I started to wonder if I’d sent it to the right address. In the last few days I’d practically given up on even receiving a rejection letter. But finally it came. The reply contained good news and bad news: they liked my article idea, but they’ve had too many features about Echo Bazaar recently and they really didn’t need another. Still, since I had already written it up, they were willing to take a look.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Immediately I reread my article, searching for any minor imperfection. I changed a few sentences, thinned out a paragraph that was too wordy, added some parentheses, and started to wish I had time for a complete rewrite. Despairing at my chances I reluctantly sent it in.

After I sent it I began to relax. It was out of my hands now. Besides, even if they rejected it they’ll have read some of my work. They might be more likely to accept a pitch from me in the future.

I had to wait over the weekend to get a response, which arrived Monday. It was the most optimistic rejection letter I’ve ever received (actually, it’s the only rejection letter I’ve ever received, so I guess it’s also the most pessimistic as well). They’d already written too many articles about Echo Bazaar and too many others with themes similar to my article, so they didn’t want mine. The good news was that they liked my writing and encouraged me to pitch again.

So. I’m not a published writer yet. But I just might be a little closer. As for the article in question, I’m going to look around some more to see if any other websites or print magazines might be interested. If I can’t find anything I’ll post it here for you all to gawk at. I never thought a rejection letter could make me feel so good.

Dreams and Videotape

Sorry for the second late post this week. I’ll try to put up Friday’s post as early as possible.

Since I started this week by confessing my Christianity, and I ended last week by letting you all know I have a webcomic, I figured I should come clean with another thing I’ve been working on.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve liked to make movies. I still remember my brothers and I digging out the family camcorder and running around the backyard on a summer afternoon making a movie about aliens. As time past my older brother lost interest, so I got my two best friends from church involved. We’d make all kinds of silly little films that I wish I still had copies of. As we got older we tried to become more serious about filmmaking with scripts, planning meetings, and actual editing software. In the end we spent more time talking about videos than making them, but we had fun.

Around the same time my brother bought the extended editions of Lord of the Rings. We spent hours watching the special features, learning about Weta Workshop, costumes, makeup, casting, editing, “bigatures”, directing, finding locations, catering, everything having to do with making LotR. When I watched those featurettes I felt something grow inside me. I knew that I wanted, more than anything, to be able to make movies. I just didn’t know how to get there.

My friends and I tried to step up our game. Our youth pastor at church found out about our hobby and he asked us to make a video for youth group every other week. This was our most productive period: with actual deadlines to follow (and people to disappoint) we started to actually finish the projects we’d talk about. Everyone thought our videos were funny, which was all the encouragement we needed. You can find a couple of those videos here, along with some general silliness. (Sadly, the best videos we made can’t be uploaded to YouTube because they contain songs owned by the Warner Media Group. Which sucks.) Eventually we decided to make a feature length fantasy film to help make our mark in the filmmaking world.

The production was a disaster. I wrote the script, and I put in way too many speaking roles. We couldn’t find enough actors to fill said roles, and we started getting desperate. At the same time we kept coming up with more and more elaborate ideas that would be harder and harder to pull off on our (nonexistent) budget. Logistics became a nightmare: of what few actors we could find hardly any of them could film on the same day. In the end we only filmed two days, getting hardly 10% of the needed footage done. And what footage we had was subpar, with hammy acting, bad lighting, and crude special effects. We probably could have started over from scratch…but we were all tired of it by that point. We made plans for a different movie for the next summer, but it never got past a basic outline. Our moviemaking troupe was dead.

When I went off to college I put thoughts of moviemaking out of my head. I wanted to be realistic: there are thousands of talented men and women out there who dream of making movies. Why should I succeed when so many have failed? Besides I wanted to help people, to spread the word about the poor, unborn, etc. In a way pursuing moviemaking seemed too selfish. That’s what I told myself at least, but I also have to admit that I was afraid to try.

However some things have changed. I’ve been encouraged that I should at least try to pursue my dream. A few months ago I picked up the camera for the first time in ages, and I was reminded how much I enjoy making videos. I want to be a writer, but I also need a day job. I want that day job to involve video production, and if God is willing I’d like to make movies someday.

What is all this leading up to? I decided that if I want to make videos I should start now. As soon as I’m able I’m going to try to start a small video production business. It will be strictly local, with a focus on filming videos for use online. Right now our main selling point will be affordability: I’m willing to work for peanuts. From time to time I’ll talk about my progress here on the blog. I just wanted you all to have a heads up about that.

Unless I remember any other revelations to share there might be something interesting to read on Friday. Hopefully.

Blogging My Religion

If you’ve read my first post then you know why I decided to write this blog. It was to make myself a better writer and to get my name known out there. I wanted potential employers to be able to take a look at my writing firsthand, or stumble across me on the off chance somebody links here. I also originally planned for my blog to be featured on the Neefu Productions website, a small company a friend of mine started recently. He needed content and I needed a host for my blog so it seemed like a good fit, especially since he’s already hosting my webcomic SLOPAN. But then I ran into a problem. The problem being whether or not I should blog about my religion.

You see, I’m a Christian. God is extremely important to me. Jesus is at the center of my life. Though I want desperately to be a writer, there is something I want even more than that: to spend my life doing what pleases God. I want to help people. I want to share what insights God has given me. I want to be an advocate for the poor, the unborn, and the persecuted. I want to be able to share God’s love with those who have not known it.

On the other hand if I talk freely about God on my blog I’m going to limit my potential audience. There are a lot more people on the internet willing to read about rat brains and webcomics than Jesus. There are some people who, even if they enjoyed everything else I wrote about, would leave and never return after reading the second paragraph of this post. There are a lot of employers out there who might be turned off by religious posts as well. I certainly won’t be doing my career many favors.

Of course I could just let people know that I’m a Christian and not beat it over anyone’s heads. There are several bloggers I read and respect who went that route. I could do that. Maybe the occasional post about my love for C.S. Lewis, a “Happy Birthday Jesus” at Christmas, and not using any swear words would be enough. I don’t want to disparage anyone who chooses that. If a Christian journalist doesn’t put God into their column regularly nobody says he’s denying Christ. He’s just doing his job, knowing that most of his readers aren’t Christians and that he’s there to report the news, not evangelize. For some blogs it’s the same situation. Their blogs aren’t about God, they’re about videogames or books or programming.

But my blog isn’t about anything yet.

I had to decide whether I wanted God to be a part of this blog. You can already tell what choice I made. I’ll be very sad if talking about my faith means this blog won’t be successful. But I’d rather have an unsuccessful blog where I can talk honestly and freely then one with thousands of readers where I have to cut out the most important part of my life.

I’m not sure what I’ll be talking about on Wednesday, but just so you know God is not off the table. On the other hand neither are rat brains, so that’s not entirely helpful.

I Have a Webcomic

I love webcomics.

Correction: I love comics. Comic books, comic strips, manga, “graphic novels”, I eat em’ up. But I’m also incredibly cheap. I’m not the kind of guy who goes down to the local comic book shop and picks up the latest issues about his favorite superheroes. I’m the guy who goes to the local comic book shop and sits on the floor in the back aisle reading whatever comic caught my eye on the way in.

So considering that I am

a) a comics fanatic and

b) cheap

webcomics was just up my alley. If you’re not familiar with them the concept isn’t too complicated: they’re comic strips and pages put up on a website at regular intervals that you can read for free. I first discovered them back in high school with PvP, which I had read about in a magazine. It was funny, and I enjoyed being able to blow through the archives at my own pace. I gobbled up years of content in just a few days, and was hungry for more. Now I have about eleven separate webcomics that I check in on regularly, and who knows how many more I’ll discover before I die.

I was impressed by how much the internet had changed things. Just twenty years ago if you had a great comic idea you wanted to share with the world you had only one option: get picked up by a syndicate or a big name publisher like Marvel or DC. If they didn’t want your comic then the best you could do is draw your comic on bits of paper and hand them out on a street corner. If you had plenty of extra cash lying around you could self-publish, but that doesn’t guarantee that anyone would buy. A few people like Jeff Smith managed to beat the system and succeed, but it was a million to one shot.

Today if you have a great idea for a comic all you have to do is make it. Write the script, draw the panels, and get yourself a website to showcase it on. That’s it. That’s all you need to make your work available to millions of people worldwide. Now whether or not they’ll want to read it or not is a different story, but that seemingly impassable moneywall that was distribution has been breached. You don’t need to be a millionaire to self-publish anymore. You just need to have an internet connection.

Now we come to me. I love webcomics and I want to write professionally someday. My art skills are subpar but one of my best friends is a talented artist that currently has no creative outlet for his work. The only thing stopping me from making my own webcomic was myself. It’s fun to think about creating a webcomic but actually getting off your duff and writing one is hard work.

But I did it. Last November I sat down and pounded out a script for a long form, comic book style webcomic. I contacted my artist friend and he was more than willing to draw it for me. Delays followed: technical difficulties, personal problems, etc. Months went by with no progress. But now all that is over. Our comic, S.L.O.P.A.N. is online and updating once a week.  It’s not Shakespeare, I’ll tell you that much. But it’s mine. I have a webcomic. It may never be very popular or critically acclaimed, but it is something real that I have done.

So check the comic out if you can. I’ll probably post now and then about the comic, and go into more detail about the story behind it. For now just enjoy it, or ignore it, your choice.

Gamification is Manipulation

Alright, I had a different post ready for today but some things happened that I feel I should comment on in a timely matter.

Shamus Young recently made a post and wrote an article responding to a video by Chris Franklin about gamification. Since I just got done talking about gamification myself this timing seemed too good to pass up. (Note: if you watch the video there is some mild bad language near the end)

If you don’t have time to click through all those links, here’s the basic story. Chris Franklin is critical of gamification because it doesn’t actually make things more fun to do. He points out how certain websites and companies are using gamification techniques to get people to stay on their websites longer, watch more videos, click on more links, and post more in their forums. He (with good reason) points out these sites are just using gamification to manipulate people, and the people being manipulated are not getting any more enjoyment for their trouble. Shamus responded by saying in short that yes, gamification is manipulation but so is all marketing, ant the sites using it are putting content out for free and rely on page views for their income. Compared to other types of marketing, gamification could be called a step up. Besides, nobody is being hurt and some people are having fun.

Whether you agree with Chris or Shamus (they’re good friends, by the way) I think the greater point has been missed. Chris starts his video by saying “The general consensus seems to be that we’re on a path to making everything fun and rewarding, that games will make school and work fun and that the lines between boring, responsible stuff and cutting edge entertainment will be blurred away to nothing.” I think this starting point is where the real problem begins.

Gamification is not about making things fun. It’s about making us want to do them.

I don’t write three pages each day because it’s fun. Now granted it’s cathartic and fulfilling, but it’s not fun. It’s work, and I’d rather be playing Minecraft. By writing my three pages on 750words (which gives me badges and points) I’m not making writing any more enjoyable. I am tapping into that dopamine squirt I talked about yesterday which makes me actually want to write every day. It doesn’t, however, make it a single iota more pleasurable to write.

If you read yesterday’s post then you can probably see why people make this mistake frequently. We’re used to thinking of “desire” and “pleasure” (“fun” in this case) as going hand in hand. We desire things because they are pleasurable, right? But as we’re finding out more and more that is not the case. The rats that had their brains wiped of dopamine would have found the food very pleasurable, but they had no desire to eat it. The burnt out drug addict gets less and less pleasure from each dose of meth, but the desire for it is stronger than it ever was. Gamification works off desire, off the dopamine squirt that games have gotten good at providing for us. Maybe you’ll have more fun with gamified chores than normal ones but if you do that’s just extra. The point is tricking you into wanting to do them in the first place.

So when a website uses gamification to make you want to stay on their site, yeah, you might call that a little manipulative. But don’t say that gamification is a fraud because of it. Gamification is a tool. When it’s used to make you waste more of your time on useless things then it’s a tool working against us. But we can also use that tool to make us want to do things that will improve ourselves and our lives.

Just the other day I received the badge that I am most proud to have earned on 750words. It’s “The Flock” badge, which is awarded to users who have written more than 100,000 words. I never thought I could write that much. If it wasn’t for gamification I would have lost the motivation to keep up with it long ago. Gamification isn’t evil. It also isn’t a cure all. The important thing is to be aware of it, to recognize when it’s being used, and to understand when we’re using it and when it’s using us.

I’ll talk about something else on Friday, I promise.

Squirts, Rat Brains, and World of Warcraft

On Friday I mentioned how most games tap into the reward centers of your brain. If you still haven’t watched the Extra Credits episode about it, then you should, but I wanted to talk about it a little more in depth. Specifically I want to discuss what some people call the “dopamine squirt”. But before I can talk about that I need to talk about electrocuted rat brains.

In the 1950s a pair of scientists, Dr. James Olds and Dr. Peter Milner, performed a series of experiments on rats. Specifically they shoved electrodes into rat brains to see what would happen. The electrode was connected to a bar inside a small box so that any time the bar was pressed an electric current would activate the electrode inside the rat’s brain. Olds and Milner let the rats loose and watched to see what would happen. They carefully recorded how often the rats pressed the bar and then after a few days of observation they would dissect it and see what part of their brain the electrode had been connected to anyway. They found that rats that had a current running through certain sections of the brain pushed the bar more. A lot more. One rat pressed the bar over 7,500 times over twelve hours. After their results were published many people believed that they had managed to discover the brain’s pleasure center. The general idea was that these rats were pressing the lever over and over because it just felt good. Further research found that “pleasure centers” like these released the chemical dopamine, which was soon dubbed the “pleasure chemical”. Dopamine is released during almost any pleasurably activity and several drugs (like meth) cause dopamine levels to spike. So it was pretty much a done deal. Dopamine makes you feel good. You eat delicious food, dopamine comes out, and dopamine makes the food pleasurable to eat.

However, we weren’t done messing with rats brains quite yet. In 2007 some more scientists used drugs to wipe out 99 percent of the dopamine present in rats brains. The treated rats showed an interesting behavior: they wouldn’t eat. They would sit inches away from delicious food, and just lie there. Presumably they would keep sitting there until they starved to death. They no longer had any desire to eat, despite how hungry they got. Interesting. What’s more interesting is what happened when the scientists started force feeding the rats. They found out that the rats still liked eating the food. In other words the food was still pleasurable to eat. They just couldn’t bring up the will to go over and eat it themselves.

This kind of result showed that there was a lot more to dopamine than people had thought. If the rats still got pleasure out of eating then why wouldn’t they eat? Further tests showed something similar. Mice that had been stripped of their ability to produce dopamine would starve within weeks despite plentiful food being available. If the mice were given injections of synthetic dopamine then they’d start eating again. But either way they enjoyed the food the same amount. Another study showed that mice born with a mutation that caused an overproduction of dopamine showed a much greater desire to eat than normal mice but, again, didn’t actually enjoy the food any more than normal mice.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that dopamine is less involved in pleasure and much more involved in desire, which can be a pleasure in and of itself. Haven’t you ever wanted something so bad that the wanting itself was almost pleasurable? The feeling you had as a little kid in the days before Christmas is a good example. As the blessed day comes closer and closer you practically begin to vibrate with anticipation. The night before it’s hard to sleep because you’re so excited! And when the day comes and you get to rip open those presents…it’s almost a letdown. Not really of course (unless you got some lousy presents as a kid) but actually having the presents isn’t nearly as exciting as wanting them.

Life is full of this kind of experience. You can’t wait for dinner to arrive, but it’s not that big a deal when it comes. I mean it was good food, but probably wasn’t worth getting that worked up over. You wait a year for a new installment of a favorite book or TV series, and you’re first in line to read/watch it. But after some time you come back and watch it again and wonder why you got so excited over it. The excitement was dopamine, and it inspires seeking behavior. This explains why some people just love shopping even if they experience buyer’s remorse almost immediately afterwards. It wasn’t about having things but about hunting them down. It wasn’t about the pleasure of owning, it was about the excitement of desiring.

This is how games can become so enthralling and addicting. Let’s look at how this applies to what is probably the most infamous game currently in existence when it comes to inspiring addiction: World of Warcraft. For those of you who aren’t gamers World of Warcraft (better known as WoW) is a roleplaying game, or RPG for short. What that basically means when it comes to video games (other games use the term a bit differently) is that you create a character who begins at level 1. Completing quests and slaying enemies will cause your character to gain “experience points”, and once you have a certain amount you go up a level. Each level takes a little longer to earn, so level 2 is easier to reach than level 3, which is easier to reach then level 4, etc. Right now the maximum level you can get to in WoW is level eighty-five, which takes an average player about 300 hours to reach. Every time you level up your character becomes stronger. On top of that there is equipment that can be earned or bought that also increases your power. Some equipment costs large amounts of in game money that would take hours of work to earn.

What does this all mean? Just that WoW is built to flip every seeking and desiring switch we have. The entire game is nothing but goals that you can achieve. And let me tell you, it is addicting. I’ve never played WoW but I have played many other RPGs and the desire to level up is just as powerful as any other. The game is constantly giving you rewards that get you closer to your goals. Kill a monster? You’re just a little closer to leveling up. Complete a quest? You get just a few more coins to save up for that plate armor you’ve had your eye on. What’s more, as soon as you reach a goal you’re immediately given another. Finally made it to level 52 after three hours of hard work? Good job, now try for level 53. This is necessary because without new goals to strive after you start to wonder why you wanted to be level 52 in the first place. The answer? Because we like to want things, and having goals gives us a dopamine squirt that reinforces the behavior.

Even if you’re not a gamer you can probably see the dopamine squirt at work in your own life. Do you constantly check your emails? Do you log on to Facebook all the time looking for new notifications? Simple things like having mail in your inbox or little red numbers on your notification tab trigger the dopamine squirt. When we actually read the email or click on the notifications we’re usually disappointed. It was just spam, or game requests, etc. And yet our failure to actually enjoy the email or notification doesn’t make us want to see them any less.

So. This post went a little longer than I expected. I’ll be talking about something else on Wednesday, something writing related in all probability. Hope to see you then.

Writing, 750 Words, and the Blog Schedule

A little while ago I heard about an interesting program from one of my professors. I forget the name of it now (and a few quick Google searches came up dry) but the basic idea was that you’d tell the program how many words you needed to write for an assignment and how long you wanted to take writing it. After that you went to work, and every time you paused for more than a minute or so the program would begin to yell at you. “Hey! Get back to work! You’ve only got twenty more minutes!” My professor thought it was interesting enough to share with the class and suggested that we try it out. I never did…but it got me thinking.

I’d recently watched an episode of Extra Credits (a fantastic show, by the way. If you like games and you like learning then it’s a must see) that was all about gamification (pronounced “game-if-ah-kay-shun”). If you’ve never heard of gamification before, then check out the video here. If you aren’t in a position to watch videos or you just don’t like clicking on hyperlinks then here’s the short version of it. Games tap into the reward centers of our brains. Certain games like World of Warcraft do this so effectively that some people are in danger of becoming addicted, but all games from poker to Dwarf Fortress do to some extent. I could write a whole post about how exactly this works (and I think I will, in the days to come) but the basic idea is that there is something about games that makes us keep playing them. Most of us would much rather play a game than do our homework, take out the trash, write a blog post, or go for a run. Gamification is about turning these things we’d rather not do into activities that tap into our reward centers in the same way games do. An excellent example of this is the game Chore Wars , which takes ordinary tasks like doing the dishes and turns them into quests that can be completed for experience points and loot. Why should we care about digital levels and imaginary loot? For the same reason we care about them while playing Skyrim, or League of Legends, or even Farmville! Arbitrary rewards like achievements, leveling up, high scores, and better equipment motivate us to keep playing, and can theoretically motivate us to keep cleaning as well.

The program my professor mentioned reminded me of all of that. Not because it was a game but because it was one programmer’s attempt to get people to sit down and write their assignments. The program itself sounded dubious in its effectiveness; it’s easy to ignore nagging, especially when you can just turn off the sound. Still, I began to wonder if anyone out there had tried to use gamification techniques to help people write. As I mentioned in my last post every published author I’ve ever heard of has said the same thing: if you want to become better at writing then you have to write as much as you can. Write often, every day if possible. I want to become a writer but I have incredible trouble motivating myself to actually sit down and write. Writing is difficult work and if nobody is making you do it then it’s easy to just let it slide. Occasionally I’d try to start a daily writing regimen, but it always ended in failure after a week or so. If someone out there had managed to make something like Chore Wars for writers then maybe that would be able to motivate me to actually write.

I started searching the internet and soon came across a website called 750 Words . The idea behind 750 Words is simple: every day you log on and write 750 words, roughly three pages. It can be about anything you like: journaling, random thoughts, short stories, cake recipes, whatever. You just write until you reach that mark, at which point a cheery green notice pops up and informs you of your success. The site then records everything you’ve written and assigns you a number of points for completing the day. Writing anything at all is worth a few points, while writing the full three pages is much more. On top of that it uses a bowling style scoring system where the more days complete in a row the higher your score becomes. At the end of the month your score is tallied and if you like you can compare yourself to other writers that month.

I started trying it out. It was fun to just write randomly, and I did feel a sense of satisfaction when I reached the 750 word goal. Pretty quickly I discovered that the points were just about meaningless. I rarely notice them anymore, and there are plenty of people who write every single day so there’s no chance of you getting the highest score. Instead the prime motivating factor is badges. When you write your first three pages you get an egg badge, which will forever sit on your statistics page. When you write three days in a row you earn the turkey badge, and when you write five days in a row you get the penguin badge. The badges increase in difficulty to earn from that point on. To earn an albatross you’ll have to keep your streak up for thirty days, and a pterodactyl will take a whopping 200 days to earn. The highest badge of all is the coveted space bird, which takes a 500 day writing streak to earn pages. Immediately I was in awe of the multiple space birds that would show up on the day’s leaderboard. A badge that takes almost two years of your life to earn? If you miss even a single day of writing you’ll have to start over from scratch. What dedication! Immediately I wanted to be a space bird. To have other writers look on me in awe, to have written over 1,500 pages of material.

From that point on I’ve been hooked on 750 Words. Oh it’s not perfect. It’s easy to cheat and just copy and paste a Wikipedia article in if you’re in a hurry and willing to cheat. After a while even the badges start to lose their luster. But I will say this: since starting 750 Words in September of 2011 I have written 97,985 words. That’s around 300 pages that I never would have written otherwise.

Why do I bring all this up? For two simple reasons. The first is to help explain the purpose of this blog. 750 Words is good practice, but I can write whatever I want there. Most of my entries are misspelled, feature terrible grammar, and often wander off down whatever rabbit trail I feel like exploring because nobody is going to read them anyway. I need to practice writing for an audience, which is why I’ve started this blog. The second reason is to explain what I hope will be my blog’s regular schedule. I have decided that on Sundays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays I’ll spend my 750 Words writing blog posts, which I will edit that evening. This means that you can expect new posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This is the schedule I will keep until I find good reason to change it.