Saturday, January 30, 2016

How to take over the world

I conquered the world yesterday.

If you didn't quite notice it, it could be due to either of two reasons. The first being that the control of the world we live in is so diffuse and indirect that any shift in its ownership or management structure would go largely unnoticed, allowing ordinary people to continue living their lives as if nothing had changed, since for their practical purposes nothing had.

The other reason being that "the world" was, in fact, not this world, but a fictional representation of our world. Specifically, that found in the alternate dimension computer game Europa Universalis IV.

This is an achievement I've worked to complete for some time. In both senses of the word "achievement", and in many senses of the word "worked". It is an achievement to accomplish it under normal circumstances, and there is an achievement for accomplishing it under some circumstances. This difference is technical, and technicality is the subject of the rest of this post.

To summarize EUIV, it is a game wherein you play as a nation, and compete against other nations. The game takes place between 1444 and 1821, and simulates the complex and complicated political nature of geopolitics during this era. The player can among others things start wars, colonize "empty" lands and monopolize trade. The other nations of the world will try to do the same thing, and conflicts will ensue.

The technical word for all of this is "imperialism". Much can be said about this, but this is not the blog post for that.

One feature of the game is that it does not have explicit win conditions. The goal of the game is whatever the player wants to accomplish. Taking over the world is one such goal, and it is technically possible to achieve it.

I say technically, as it is quite impossible to do it without careful planning and a high degree of technical mastery. The game consists of a large number of complex interacting systems, and a slight change in any one of them can cause unintended consequences in another. Those wanting to take over the world have to understand each system and what makes them tick, and how to exploit them in order to achieve the intended results. A casual player does not happen upon a world conquest - it takes far too much attention to detail, focused micromanagement and grand strategy for that.

Which is to say, the only reason I managed to do it was that I used a very specific exploit in a very specific version of the game, and then did it again, and again, and again. And then I used another exploit and repeated it as needed - and so on. You get the picture. This goes on for a while.

(The technical words being "reduced overseas coring costs", "strategically placed vassal states", "blob-based infinite manpower", "late-game 1.13.2 coalition breaking", "disable common sense" and "kebab". It makes sense in context. Promise.)

I find these kinds of deep but specialized knowledges fascinating. They take a thing - in this case, a computer game - and turn everything about them into a thing worth knowing. Every thing, every aspect. Turns it all into actionable understanding, and crafts elaborate strategies from this understanding. The whole being very much larger than the sum of its parts.

Thing is. These kinds of knowledges are all around you. Mathematics is all about these, for one. But you also encounter them in people who've seen (or soon will see) every episode of the X-Files, and in how they respond to the present reboot. The same goes for adamant fans of rock bands, too many to mention. Or those who know every in and out of the mass transit system of your local area. Or - yes, this too goes on for quite a while.

The key to taking over the world is not to master all aspects of every system in every configuration. (That is the key to taking over a world, to be sure, but the world of EUIV is a limited, represented one.) The world is too big to be known in full, and the attempt to do so will see you end before it. No, the key to taking over the world is to appreciate the vastness of it all.

Then pick a part that seems awesome, and science the shit out of it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Propagandistic interlude

Sometimes, people try to share propaganda pages at me. Actively, insistently. Often, this act is initiated by the person in question being moved to such an emotional state that they want others to share in this feel -in these particular cases, me.

This puts me in the rather awkward position of having to respond to this piece of propaganda that's just been shared at me. Worse, it's in a social media setting, which means that any engagement will be seen by others. Whether or not I want to, I'm about to become a cosharer.

To compound matters, initiating an argument about it will only serve to inflate the sharing potential of the situation. Emotions will flare (even more), people will drop in to see what the fuss is about, and the temptation to join in will lure both those who agree and disagree to add fuel to the fire. It's a bit of a bind.

My usual approach to these situations is to refuse to participate in any kind of argument whatsoever. It usually won't stop the other from attempting to get such an exchange rolling, but it becomes increasingly obvious to all attending that the argument is rather one-sided, as it were. Especially as the intensity increases.

When the situation is not attempting to escalate itself through the roof, I politely inform the sharer that the recently shared piece is a piece of propaganda, and that sharing it ought to give pause and be cause for reflection. The sharer is, after all, neither stupid nor of ill will, and it doesn't suit their character to share things of such nature, and they might want to take a moment to consider what they've done.

This sometimes leads to the rather awkward situation of trying to convince the other that they are indeed not stupid or in possession of ill intent. You'd think this would be an easy thing to persuade someone of. You'd think.

For the rest of the exchange, I keep pointing out the virtuous nature of the sharer and the contrast of this with regards to the shared. Where it goes from there depends on context and specifics, but my chief aim is to avoid direct confrontation to the fullest extent possible. Both because it's counterproductive to insist on someone's virtue whilst yelling at them, and because it's even more counterproductive to leave behind a public exchange where the propaganda in question is something fought about.

The key to fighting propaganda is not to engage the issues it espouses, but to engage the people it expounds. It is a subtle difference, and a topic to be returned to. -

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Scientific trollage

A few days ago, we held a farewell seminar for graduating hopeful newly minted teachers. Being the last academic thing to happen, it was not the most serious or highly ambitious of seminars. The formula was simple: take your impressions from this last semester and compress them into fifteen minutes of presentation.

Seeing as this semester was all about scientifically producing a forty page monstrosity of a term paper, the general mood was one of elated exhaustion. The brunt work was done, and now the future awaited. Tired but happy, we all set out to give it our best thoughts, as our diminished levels of energy and mental acuity allowed.

Seeing that this was the last time to troll my fellow peers, I rose to the occasion and gave a rousing fifteen minutes of counterintuitive scientific method acting. That is to say, ways to (ab)use the scientific method in order to get things done that wouldn't get done otherwise.

For instance: instead of confronting the future bosses head on with demands for change and better conditions, approach them indirectly using the power of survey results. Conduct the survey, get the desired (and methodologically valid) results, and present the findings as a new objective factor that needs to be acted upon. It's not that the new chairs are uncomfortable; it's that they seem to have caused a thirty percent increase in sickdays and a corresponding loss of productivity since being installed. It's not so much a demand for their replacement as a very good scientific argument for replacing them.

Another example is to strategically do proper scientific investigations of things that have heretofore been left unaddressed. The point being not to get any particular result, but to force attention to focus on that very thing through the very act of investigating it. It wouldn't be investigated by these educated people if it wasn't important, after all. Science is never unimportant.

And so on and so forth in the same vein. It went on for a while. Fifteen minutes, to be exact.

This might seem a cruel thing to do to your peers, seeing as they'd just spent fifteen weeks extracting every ounce of science they could from their source material in order to finish their term papers. But it isn't, and it wasn't. My aim was to point out that the new scientific skillsets they'd acquired during these nervewrecking weeks had new and interesting uses, and that they could use them to troll their future peers in any number of interesting counterintuitive ways.

Just as I did them right there and then. Especially through the use of the phrase "if you want to troll [technical term] your future employers..."

I'm gonna miss 'em. Poor graduated buggers. Best course mates I ever had.

At least I got to send 'em off with a laugh.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Sometimes, big things happen. Things of the nature of big celebrities dying. These thing naturally generate a lot of attention, buzz and discussion - they wouldn't be big otherwise.

This sudden burst of activity tends to generate a secondary burst of activity. That is to say, comments on how there seems to be a lot of attention given to that big thing that's going on. Sometimes with a connotation that this is attention poorly spent, and that there are other things in the world to attend to.

This in turn spawns a tertiary burst of activity, noting that the secondary burst is if anything even worse than the first, as it gives those involved even more excuses to spend even more time and attention on the inciting incident. Which is the opposite of what they want.

As you might have already begun to suspect, this is an inherently iterative process, and has the potential to become a discursive perpetual motion machine.

The only winning move might be not to play.

Take note.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

This is useful information

Here are three useful phrases:

this is useful information
this is not the conversation you need to have right now
I appreciate your presence/input

They are all useful in cases where you need to reframe a situation. Which you will need at many points in your life. Especially in situations where things have objectively gone to shit, and the temptation to give in to despair looms large in the general ambiance of being. It might seem a small thing, but each of these phrases can help stave off the despair until there is ample and proper time to go through the process of feeling it.

Let's say something has a critical existence failure. It breaks down, and no amount of rebooting or replugging will unbreak it. It has gone to shit, and you find yourself in a situation where you have to keep moving forward without it. What to do?

It's tempting to think of all the things you suddenly cannot do, and heap all the negative consequences of this sudden inability onto a huge heap of despair. And then compound the matter by adding on the negative consequences of these negative consequences, fueling the despair and then just keep going.

It's tempting, but not very useful.

One way of staving of this temptation is to look upon the situation and state "this is useful information". Why is it useful information? Because it is brutally relevant to your lived experience, and you can use it to approach a solution. The car broke down - which is useful information, since you can now coordinate your thinking around the logistics of getting around without one. The computer fried - which is useful information, on the same general principle. Your inner monologue can refocus from general despair to goal-oriented problem solving.

The same goes when you're not alone in facing this sudden turn to shit. Social situations depend heavily on the moods of those involved in it, and you can reframe it by jumpstarting your problem solving skill. Especially if you materialize it in your communication, for instance by asking what would be needed to get past the immediate situation. You know what's wrong, and can both act on this knowledge and communicate the state of things to others.

That is useful information.

As to the next phrase, it applies in situations where someone is acting in a way that does not bring them closer to what they want or need. As in, say, someone picking a fight with someone that is not involved with the problem or feelings that caused them to pick a fight. Which is more common than one might think, and reminding the person in questions to pick better battles gives them the opportunity to back up, apologize and approach the situation in a more constructive manner.

Granted, given enough anger, being reminded that the conversation/argument they are attempting to initiate isn't the one they need to have will most likely make them even more angry. But you've at least given them the chance to opt out, and, more importantly, acted on the real issue rather than simply gotten into a fight for no reason.

The third phrase, then, is as general purpose as it gets. It has the useful effect of acknowledging the contribution of the other in an unequivocal, non-confrontational and direct manner. Especially in situations where you've received critique of some kind and want to avoid debating it. Just state that you appreciate the input, accept it as given and move on. The input is appreciated, and it has helped you further towards your goal.

That is useful information to convey.

The general usefulness of these phrases does not lie in their literal recitation in real situations. Rather, it lets you think about and reframe situations as they occur, and move forward with a better understanding of what's going on. Things turned to shit - that's useful information, let's act on it. Something turned to shit for someone else - that is useful information too, and lets you have a more appropriate conversation about it. Someone sticks around and helps you with the general shittiness of things - that is indeed an appreciated input.

Think about it. It will help you down the line.