Monthly Archives: September 2013

Why Don’t You Want to Exist?

entering-the-void

I’ve never really understood why someone would intellectually prefer nonexistence to existence.

I understand why someone might emotionally wish to cease existing. I’ve experienced some emotional lows in my time, and I’ve heard enough from people who suffer from severe bouts of depression to understand why they would want to end it all (one of the better depictions of depression I’ve seen can be found in two parts, here and here, moderate foul language warning). I can also understand conceptionally why someone might physically wish to cease existing. If someone suffers from severe chronic pain, or is dying slowly and painfully of some terrible disease, I can understand completely why they might desire oblivion. That doesn’t mean that I believe suicide (assisted or non) is alright: but I can completely understand the motivation behind it.

What I can’t understand is an intellectual desire for non-existence. I don’t understand why people who are in good health (both mentally and physically) can decide philosophically that non-existence is superior to existence. That they would be better off if they had never been born. It’s something I can’t wrap my mind around. It seems completely alien. I’m reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’ biography. He wrote that a certain idea (namely that the mind was an illusion created from a series of cause and effect responses in the brain) “was, and is, unbelievable to me…I mean that the act of believing what the behaviorist believes is one that my mind simply will not perform. I cannot force my thought into that shape any more than I can scratch my ear with my big toe or pour wine out of a bottle into the cavity at the base of that same bottle. It is as final as a physical impossibility.” I feel the same way about people who intellectually seek nonexistence. Its a shape my mind seems incapable of taking.

What’s ironic is that for most of his early intellectual life C. S. Lewis (a great role model of mine) was such a person. He wrote that as a young man “I was also…one whose negative demands were more violent than his positive, far more eager to escape pain than to achieve happiness, and feeling it something of an outrage that I had been created without my own permission.” I find it horrifying to imagine that death might end in annihilation and nonexistence: Lewis found it a comfort. “Death ended all. And if ever finite disasters proved greater than one wished to bear, suicide would always be possible. The horror of the Christian Universe was that it had no door marked Exit.”

I feel very similar to Lewis in many ways, but this is not one of them. I love life. For me there is no colder or more horrible fate than nonexistence. I’d rather burn in hell than cease to exist altogether. I’d rather spend my life in a tiny cell then be utterly destroyed. I’d rather be blind and deaf than thrown into the blackest of all possible nights. The very thought of annihilation terrifies me.

Instead I find myself agreeing heartily with G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton had an immense love of life. He said “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” I am intellectually thankful for each day I am given. I say intellectually thankful because I’m not always emotionally or physically thankful. It’s hard to be thankful on the day that your grandfather died, and it’s hard to be thankful after a day of constant pain in a hospital bed. But if I reflect on things I am intellectually thankful that I still exist. That I can still see the trees, and smell the grass, that I can feel the air on my skin; even if it is too hot and sticky.

I love existing. I can’t understand why anyone would intellectually prefer oblivion to existence. Please comment below if you disagree: I’d love the opportunity to try and understand your point of view.

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Why Computers Will Never Be Better Than Humans

Kasparov-DeepBlue
I heard recently that they’re getting closer to building a computer that can beat master Go players (if you don’t know what Go is, you can learn about it here). I couldn’t find any articles out there confirming that rumor. But it got me thinking about the “conflict” between computers and human beings. I’ve heard people say (usually jokingly) that it won’t be long before computers are better at us than everything. Others more seriously believe that someday humans will become obsolete, made completely inferior to computers. Others retort that a computer will never be capable of creating art, or something similar. I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve come to an interesting conclusion. I don’t believe that computers will ever become “superior” to humans. Why? Because there is nothing a computer can do that a human can’t, given enough time.

Take Deep Blue, for example. Deep Blue was the supercomputer that made headlines by regularly beating chess grandmasters. By all apparent accounts it appears that computers are now better than humans at chess. But when Garry Kasparov faced off with Deep Blue he wasn’t really playing against a soulless machine. He was playing against the entire team of programmers who created Deep Blue, programmers that have been armed with immense processing power. To understand this better lets take a cursory look at how Deep Blue works. Deep Blue, like all computers, follows a huge and complicated set of rules. Deep Blue looks at the position of the pieces on the board and then begins calculating how many possible moves he could make. After calculating a possible move (lets say moving his queen) it then consults a long and complex set of rules that eventually gives Deep Blue a “score” for that position. High scoring positions are better than low scoring ones. After calculating every possible move it can make it then calculates every possible move its opponent could make. The opponents possible moves will then affect the average score of Deep Blue’s own moves. After calculating all that it chooses to use the move that has the highest final score. By always making the “best move” Deep Blue is capable of winning a high percentage of the time.

Now granted, all that I just said is an incredible simplification of what actually happens, and some of the exact details differ from the description I just laid out. Still it is essentially accurate. The important thing to note is that a human, given enough time, can do exactly what Deep Blue can do. If you give a human the entire long, complicated list of rules that makes up Deep Blue’s programming then that human can play just as well as deep blue.

Imagine the scenario now: on one side of the chess board is chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. On the other side is a short, balding accountant who has never played chess in his life. However the accountant has with him several filing cabinets filled with rules, as well as reams of notebooks and a barrel of pens. Garry makes his move. The accountant, who we’ll call Phil, opens up the first file folder and begins to read. He follows the rules the file lays down exactly. He writes down every possible move, one at a time, to the rules’ exact specification. Then he calculates (using the rules, of course) every possible move that Garry might make in return. He continues his calculations until he reaches the final file folder, performing the last step. He moves one of his pieces according to the result he reached by following the rules. Garry considers the move, then makes one in return. Phil wipes his brow, grabs a fresh pen, and opens up the first file folder again.

That is essentially what happened when Deep Blue beat Kasparov all those years ago. The only difference is that Deep Blue can do calculations faster than Phil can. Deep Blue can process 200,000,000 possible moves per second. Phil is much slower. But they’ll both come to the same answer in the end.

Kasparov was a man who has a deep understanding of chess, combined with intellect, wisdom, and experience. Deep Blue was a mindless computer that followed the rules it was given exactly, rules that were developed by a team of human programmers working for several years. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov it didn’t prove that computers were superior to humans. It only proved that it was possible to make a set of complicated rules that would almost guarantee victory at chess.

And that’s why I don’t worry about humans becoming obsolete.

What Happened to My Webcomic?

Long time readers will recall that I have a webcomic. I say “have” instead of “had” because the comic still technicially exists online. The comic hasn’t been updated in over a year. As far as any reader is concerned it’s effectively dead. It died before reaching it’s first plot point. Readers still don’t know who these characters are (other than their names), where they are, what they’re doing, or why they’re in the same comic. The comic stalled to a halt before it even got into gear.

So what happened? Well, it’s pretty simple. We only put out 11 pages, but each of those pages took a great deal of time and effort on the part of my artist friend. You can see for yourself that they’re pretty dang detailed, all drawn, inked, and lettered by hand. I’m not saying it’s the best artwork in the world, but hey, if the art looks this good at the start of the webcomic then it’s only going to go up from there. Just as an example, here is an archived strip, from its debut year, of PvP, an extremely successful webcomic that has been running continuously since 1998:

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And here is strip from 2013:

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As you can see the art has improved considerably. That’s the way webcomics work, and the fact that SLOPAN started out with such detailed visuals was a good sign, though I’ll be the first to admit that we have a lot to learn (particularly when it comes to panel transitions).

Unfortunately detailed artwork takes a long time to produce. The comic usually failed to update once a week, as promised. Eventually we both decided that my friend should build up a buffer of 10 or so comics, so that the site could keep updating even when sudden life events prevented my friend from drawing. Unfortunately sudden life events started piling up. A lot of stuff happened that I only half remember which it wouldn’t be right to tell you about anyway, but the long and short of it is that things got really crazy for us both. I had my senior year of college, getting married, etc, and my friend had his own stuff going on. We tabled it, and there it has remained for a full year.

So why bring it up now? Nostalgia mostly, as someone asked me recently what happened to it. Still I think you all deserve an update on why it hasn’t gone anywhere and whether it will in the future. I’ve talked to my friend and we both want to pick it up again. It’s just a matter of actually doing it. I’d get the ball rolling but I’m having a crises of faith right now. I’m not sure that SLOPAN is really all that good from a story point of view (which I can say because I’m writing the dang thing). I really like it, and my friend really likes it, but I don’t know why anyone else would want to read it. Also: pirates and ninjas? Really? Is it 2005? We missed that boat a long time ago. As a matter of fact, it was around 2005 that the story for SLOPAN was first conceived, though it was originally going to be a webseries. I’ve only turned it into a comic out of nostalgia and a desire to finally tell the story we spent so long working on. I’ve expanded it and rewritten it and added all kinds of little nerdy details that get me excited, but I don’t know if anyone else would really like it. I don’t think it would go anywhere.

Plus there’s the fact that my artist friend and I aren’t very good at comics right now. We’re still learning a lot about how to pace things, how to transition, how to develop characters, etc. I know that this story will come out rough. It’ll have to, as the only way to get better at anything is to do it. So not only am I worried that nobody really wants to hear this story, but I’m also worried that it will come out all wrong either way! You can see why I’m hesitant to start it up again.

Still, right now I’m leaning toward doing it anyway. Will people want to hear the story? Beats me. But I do want to tell it. Will the story come out the way I envision it? Almost certainly not. But that’s okay to. You know why? Because the next comic will come out better. I want to become a master storyteller. Now is as good a time as any to learn the craft of telling stories through comics.

Don’t expect updates anytime soon though. I’ll let you know.

Mark at the Movies: Monsters University

Monsters-University-banner

Hey guys! It’s a been out for a while now but I finally managed to see Pixar’s recent flick Monsters University. When I first heard that Pixar was making a prequel to Monsters Incorporated I have to admit I was skeptical. Very skeptical. Ever since Cars 2 came out I’ve been worried that Pixar would start to lose its creative soul, that it would choose favor sequels (which are much less risky in terms of return on investment) over creating the kind of unique films we’ve seen them produce since their inception. Well I’m still worried about that (especially since I’ve heard they’re working on a sequel for Finding Nemo of all things). However if the sequels they produce are at the same level of quality as Monsters University then we’ll be in for a good time anyway. Monsters University is fun, creative, and well crafted.

One of the few benefits of working with a sequel (or prequel) is that the audience has already had time to become acquainted with the characters. Pixar uses this to full advantage, allowing the characters to drive the plot forward and fleshing out their backgrounds and motivations. The plot itself is a pretty straightforward college flick: losers mess up, losers enter big competition, losers learn to work together, losers become winners. However Pixar takes that generic college movie plot and expands on it, and even allows for a few surprises. The ending, in fact, is arguably a subversion of the classic formula and I found it very satisfying. Still even where the plot falls together as predictably as your average crime drama it works because the plot isn’t the main attraction. It’s the characters we came to see, and they certainly deliver.

The visuals were stunning, even by Pixar’s standards. Nobody does CGI like Pixar but they’ve really outdone themselves this time. Their opening short was so realistic that I had trouble believing it wasn’t real. I thought that they’d mixed the reels up and started the wrong movie. The short was so realistic, in fact, that when fantastical things began to happen it skirted the edge of the uncanny valley. Monsters University does not suffer from the same affliction, as the bright and colorful style of the monster world is different enough from our own to prevent creepiness. Still there is one scene involving the human world where again, just for a second, I could swear that it looked like actual footage of the outside. It is an impressive accomplishment that shows Pixar is still committed to pushing the technological and artistic envelope.

Altogether its a good movie and definitely worth a watch if you’re a Pixar fan.

The Heroes We Need: Amy Carmichael

Sorry it took so long for another episode to come out! I hope you enjoy it.

Let’s Look at a Book: Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton

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Today, I want to talk to you about books.

As far as book titles go, Orthodoxy is pretty intimidating. It sounds like a fat and dusty textbook kept on the shelf of a seminary somewhere, waiting to devour it’s next victim with the power of pure tedium.

Fortunately, it isn’t.

Orthodoxy is actually one of the many books created by G. K. Chesterton, a prolific writer and journalist from the late 19th early 20th century. He was well known and well loved during his lifetime, but it seems that his works have been largely forgotten by the popular culture of our day. Still those who do find his work often become fans. Individuals from as wide a range as C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, Philip Yancey, Fulton J. Sheen, Jorge Luis Borges, Marshall McLuhan (and for all you fellow Communication graduates out there, yes, it’s that Marshall McLuhan), and even Gandhi himself have all claimed that Chesterton’s writings had a deep impact on their life. In fact, it was only because of the joint recommendation of C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey (through their own writings, naturally) that I decided to give Orthodoxy a try. I’m very glad that I did.

It’s an excellent book; not only because Chesterton is an accomplished and talented writer, but because it contains a perspective on reality that I never encountered before. Chesterton does not play his instrument to the tune that I am accustomed to hearing. Even though we are both orthodox Christians I find Chesterton saying the wildest and most outrageous things. The best example of this is a section of chapter four where he boldly states that

“When asked why egg turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’ clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a “law,” for we do nut understand it’s general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen…All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “Necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The shun shines because it is bewitched (pgs 57-58).”

When I first encountered that passage it made my head spin. It was so completely opposed to what I had been taught to value. I’m a romantic, and a lover of fantasy, but this seemed to much! Trees aren’t magic. The law of gravity isn’t magic! I felt offended. It was a good offense, because it made me realize concepts I hold that I’ve always taken for granted. Chesterton is doing this constantly. I’ve read many writers of apologetics but Chesterton is some other breed entirely. I can usually follow, and sometimes predict, what a writer is getting at. Chesterton surprises me almost continuously. His ideas seem fresh and unique because they are actually old and common: in other words, orthodoxy.

The book can be intimidating for many readers. It is an old book, and old books take care to read and understand. Still, Shakespeare does not lose its luster simply because its language is hard to penetrate. Age coats old works like layers of tarnish, obscuring their meaning: but if you’re willing to break through that tarnish you’ll find it shines as brightly as it ever did. The same is true of Orthodoxy, though you’ll certainly find it easier to read than Shakespeare. What the age of the book takes away from easy readability it adds in new perspective. There are things that we all take for granted because they are held in common at this point in time. In the past (and certainly in the future) people had different perspectives. Chesterton arguably had a unique perspective even compared with his own contemporaries. The funny thing is that Chesterton would insist that his perspective was not unique at all; that it was the common view held by the church for over a thousand years; orthodoxy. If it seems strange to us perhaps it is because we are more of a child of our own age than of all ages.

Long story short: it’s a great book, and you should read it if you get a chance.

Keeping Faith While Unemployed

There’s something about  being unemployed that takes it out of a man. The days drag on. You lose motivation to do the simplest chores. Inevitably you start to feel like a failure.

I remember reading about this phenomena before. About men becoming depressed and facing a crises of identity when unemployed. I always assumed that wouldn’t happen to me. People who get depressed about not having a job put too much of their importance and identity into what they do. I know that life is more than what you do for a living, and that we have purpose and value regardless of whether we’re working or not. Yet now I find myself unemployed and I’m feeling the same sadness, the same troublesome identity crises. I think I know why.

While I was working toward my degree I was confident I’d find a job quickly. Why? Because I’ve always trusted that God has a plan for my life. Sure the job market is tough these days, but somewhere out there is a position where God wants me to be. I figured that I’d look for a week or two and then find a job by an amazing act of providence. Some place would be looking for someone like me at just the right time and place. I was confident that it wouldn’t take long for God to put me to work.

Yet here I am, almost three months after my graduation, and still jobless.

That’s the reason I’m having a crises of identity. I always knew what I was: a servant of God, and a willing one. I’ve always been confident that God would find a place for me to be useful, a place where I could work hard and provide for my wife and for those in need. Now my faith is wavering. Was there ever really a plan? Did I do something wrong? Did I make some huge mistake somewhere and I’m on my own now? These are frightening thoughts.

I must remember to keep my faith. God has not abandoned me. Really it’s silly to have a crises of faith (even a minor one) over this. I have money in the bank that will keep us afloat for another month or two, and we have friends and family who can help us out if things get bad. When I think about all the people who have gone through far worse struggles, who have lost everything they had and kept their faith in God’s goodness regardless, I feel ashamed. If God wants me to be unemployed right now then this is the best place for me to be. If God wants me to be a pauper then I would not become a millionaire for anything. If God came down and told me that his plan for me was that I would lose everything (my money, my things, my wife, my family, my friends, and my health) then I would accept that plan as cheerfully as I could. God can see the whole picture of life; I can only see a tiny piece. I trust that his plan for my life if the best plan.

I’ll keep applying to jobs, and in the meantime I’ll try to write more and make more videos. That’s something useful I can do for him right now. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll get a job offer tomorrow. Perhaps I never will. Either way, I can take comfort in knowing that I am a servant of the most high God, and that he is a wise and caring master.