Archive for the 'Essays' Category

The Bigger Potato

Aug 19 2017 Published by under Essays

We have to keep breaking this down.

You say, “(S)he’s not a racist.” I say, “But (s)he takes systematic advantage over people of color.” You say again, “What do you mean? (S)he isn’t racist, though.”

Full stop. Take a deep breath. Let’s unpack this dialog, before we can’t have a dialog.

What I hear you mean is, “(S)he doesn’t believe in the categorical inferiority of other groups. Racism is an explicit philosophical belief, which (s)he doesn’t have. (S)he isn’t racist without this philosophical conviction.”

This an obvious form of racism, that reasonable people can agree is repugnant and wrong. We don’t have an explicit belief in the inferiority of another group of people. You’re missing something huge, gigantic, maybe the biggest part of racism. Right here, I’m not talking about the costume you wore at Halloween, or an insensitive thing you said, or a look you accidentally gave someone. For a moment, we’re just focusing on the other big potato, besides explicit philosophical conviction in the categorical lesser humanity of a group of human beings.

(S)he ran a political campaign, and attracted the support of some “genuine racists.” (S)he did not share their explicit beliefs. (S)he made no attempt to speak clearly and strongly against them, and discourage their vote, because (s)he benefited. Other people who also weren’t “genuine racists” liked other parts of what (s)he stood for, so held their noses and pulled the voting booth lever.

(S)he benefited directly from systematic advantage over people of color, hugely. (S)he gained great power, and made money. (S)he recognized inequality and privilege, and felt no moral imperative to correct it. (S)he pandered to her base, while a large fraction of it waved Nazi flags and donned white hoods. (S)he spoke to the other voters who couldn’t be “genuine racists,” because they didn’t hold an explicit philosophical belief in any group’s inferiority. (S)he reassured them, that they didn’t believe this, that they didn’t stand for it. Without holding this belief, without analyzing the reality to any sufficient degree, their actions, or lack, and their votes, made it clear that they put no priority on correcting systematic inequality, and that they actually didn’t value the lives of people of color. Full stop.

Tell me if these people were racist. Tell me if this is not the greater, uglier part of racism, by people who hold no explicit philosophical belief in the inferiority of another group of people. See if you can make your own peace with it, in private. If you feel something, acting with your conscience is better than shame.

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What It All Means: Running Headlong at the Grand Existential Implication in Under Two Pages

Nov 24 2014 Published by under Essays

I think every human being has spent some time asking, “What am I and why?” Occupations come and go. Money accumulates and dwindles. Significant others enter and exit. These occurrences bring situational happiness and sorrow, but none of these factors generally bring us directly any closer to a satisfactory existential raison d’être. We formulate attempts at explanations, forget them, get frustrated with them, decide they’re unimportant, come back to them, and sometimes form completely different explanations every time we ask. Here is one such attempt. Such attempts never reach arbitrarily high confidence levels and theoretical and empirical support, but these are my leanings. This is the meta-physics I would bet on, the hypotheses I would figure are at least ever-so-slightly more likely and reasonable than not.

Consciousness is a Turing state. A Turing state is the program of a type of fundamental computer. The “Turing machine” is a useful theoretical device because it is basically a perfectly bare-bones medium that seems to fully encapsulate all computation. Any computation can be reduced to a binary state memory tape, a pointer to the current piece of memory, a set of fundamental computational instructions, and a pointer to the current instruction (or similar machines with multiple memory tapes, or arrays of machines working on the same tapes, and so on). The Church-Turing thesis asserts that an algorithm is computable if and only if it can be performed by one or more Turing machines. We have no evidence to suggest that the capacity of the human mind to think exceeds the Church-Turing thesis. I conclude that “qualia,” loosely referring to experiential elements of consciousness, are then fully encapsulated in the descriptions of particular Turing states. Douglass Hofstadter, a doctor of physics who studies artificial intelligence and has written a number of popular science and philosophy books, suggests that qualia arise in certain cases where internals of computational operation are fed back into computational systems as inputs; we are “strange loops.”

Yes, the machines can have souls. Basically, I think we can call a Turing state a “soul.” There’s evidence against the soul being a second substance mediated by say a new fundamental force; there is no missing fundamental force leaving gaping holes in our pictures of the ensemble of all physical interactions. If a second substance has no physical effect, it has no significance to my physical body writing this piece.

We have will; it is not “free.” Our thinking is deterministic. We generally do or attempt to do what we decide to do; in this way we have will. Determining to do something correlates with attempting it, strongly. We introduce no non-deterministic influences in determining to do something.

Determinism incorporates an element of chance. Quantum mechanics predicts probability distributions for certain physical events that provide more (correct) information about the outcomes of experiments than non-probabilistic theories with local hidden variables can offer in any possible case; this was demonstrated by folks including Bell. No theory that posits that additional information is hidden in the local states of particles can reproduce or better the accuracy of quantum mechanics without requiring that some of this information about particle states is communicated faster than the speed of light. Quantum mechanics can still be modelled as deterministic, but then determinism either happens at a scale bigger than the typical scale of direct human experience, as in Everett ontology, or relies on faster than light communication of information about hidden variables between particles, as in de Broglie-Bohm ontology.

It’s likely that life occurs on planets which are distant compared to our ability to directly observe; most physicists would probably agree with this statement. I extend this reasoning in a way most physicists don’t; I lean toward the likelihood of our Turing states recurring elsewhere. That is, taking the state of your neurological computational apparatus at any point in your life, the fundamental array of your instruction sets, instruction pointers, and memory “tapes” likely recur in other physical situations, with different “sensory input tapes,” if the universe is large enough, to speak loosely. Draw what conclusions about the implication of an “afterlife” from this in my philosophy that you will. Extending this further, I lean toward the recurrence of any selected Turing state together with any valid “sensory input tape.” Your Turing-type self on the Earth you’ve directly experienced still continues to follow a set of quantum mechanically likely or deterministic physical state transitions.

There is no significant evidence of deity. The “first cause” or “unmoved mover” argument, for example, is unnecessary by modern physical understanding. The Big Bang we hypothesize implies the separation of the vast majority or entirety of “stuff” we see in the universe from gravitational potential energy. The observables of the universe as a complete system, its energy, momentum, charge, and other conserved physical quantities taken as a whole appear unchanged from a state of “nothing.” Rather what appears to have driven all this “stuff” into being is the instability of a zero-volume, uniform universal system; it’s like a pencil balanced on tip which any tiny jostle can cause to fall. The jostling could be provided by quantum uncertainty, for example.

The notions of distance and space are entirely self-contained in our accepted cosmological models. We don’t think of the Big Bang as a point exploding to fill infinite empty space; there is no space “before” the Bang. Spatial volume arises from the Bang. There is no well-developed concept or necessity of a concept of the space arising in the Bang being embedded in another space or time. “When did the Bang happen?” is a question that only can have meaning within the universe. “When will another universe happen?” is not necessarily a well-formed question; if we define our single “universe” to be the same one following continuation after a hypothetical “big bounce” scenario, then the question, “When will another universe happen?” is basically malformed, like “How much does blue weigh?” If this universe exists with self-contained notions of time and distance, then I wonder “Why not others?” I think the fundamental property equating to the existence or nonexistence of a universe is a self-contained logico-mathematical consistency. There is no difference between the map and the territory, so to speak; we are the self-consistency of a mathematical “form,” like the Platonic forms. Our universal form appears “perfect” in a limited sense, and this is tantamount to its existence.

This is one of the most important things I wanted to do with my life. I am happy for the moment, but I am not finished. I always ask the people around me to share their thoughts, but they rarely indulge me. Here is my practical advice based on this: destroy the weapons, never raise a fist in anger, grow some plants to eat, abandon your excess possessions, and focus on the minutest beauties of the commonplace in your day.

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Holden Caulfield’s Five Paragraph Essay on Why The Catcher in the Rye Should Not Be Taught in High School English Class

Nov 24 2014 Published by under Essays

My teachers have a lot of nerve. First, they kick me out of school. Then, I drift around the city for awhile wondering how I’m supposed to tell my parents that I got the axe again. It’s practically Christmas, for chrissake, and they had about two hemorrhages apiece the last time I failed out of school. I didn’t think that any of us could take it again.  I get beat up and robbed, and I feel like I’m going crazy. They tell me I’m having a nervous breakdown. I end up in this place full of dopefiends, borderline cases, and phony doctors who want to medicate me into being a good little prep student. They give me electroshock and these horrible pills. I wander around the place like I’m dead. All I can remember is doubting everything I ever knew, and hating myself. I can’t even think for God only knows how long. It’s like a nightmare, except I can’t wake up. I feel like I’m going to be there forever, like that’s where my story ends. It’s like I’m in a dime-store paperback and that’s where the author decided I belong in the end, and that’s how the ending stands til the end of the universe.

Then, I do wake up. I come out of the fog. It’s like I run right off the last page of the book, and I realize I’m right back in goddam high school English class again. The teacher is going on and on about my story. It’s right up there on the list of required reading material they make us write all those lousy five-paragraph essays on again and again. It’s horrible. It’s like Shakespeare really started out writing a million five paragraph essays with a goddam thesis statement in the first paragraph and a conclusion that says the same exact thing in the end every time, and that’s how we really got “King Lear” and all. The worst part is my classmates don’t get it. They don’t get me, I mean.  Some of them kind of get all the stuff the teacher always makes up about a book in high school English class, like I wore my hat because I was thinking that it was really some kind of profound statement about adolescence. I don’t know, I guess it could have been. My classmates kind of get that. They kind of get that stuff, but I don’t think they really get who I am. The ones who I think might get my story, the ones that might really get me and all, they don’t read the book.  They don’t read anything the teacher assigns. The ones who do read it talk about me in class and act like they kind of feel bad for me or something. Then they take out their style guides and write book reports on me, with a thesis statement in their first paragraph that’s always restated in the last goddam paragraph so they can get full credit, something like “Holden Caulfield is the epitome of teenage alienation and that’s why we should all have to write five-paragraph essays about him all day long,” and it just makes me sad. It’s sad-making, that they have to write about me like that. Then, there are the kids who just hate me. They’re the phonies who always hated me. They write their five paragraph essay, and it’s exactly 500 words down to the absolute last word, for God’s sake, and they spend more time making sure they put all the lousy punctuation in the right places than really writing the thing. They have exactly five direct quotes out of the book, out of my mouth, and one of them is at least three lines long so they can have a quote with an offset margin like the teacher wants. They dot every “i,” and at the end of it all they just hate me, fucking phonies, and they get “A”s on their papers because they’re 500 words down to the word and all, and they used 27 words from the vocabulary lesson in it. Then, they grow up to become middle-managers for the companies you hear about in “Forbes,” because that’s really the only reason they even read The Catcher in the Rye in the first place, or why they ever read anything in their whole phony lives. I don’t read “Forbes,” but I bet they do just so they can know who to work for.

It’s like I’m going to live forever, and this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. I’m going to live in high school English class forever.  The teacher tells everyone to read my story, because she thinks it’ll make the kids feel less depressed or something. It’ll make them feel like they’re not alone, like I’m a friend they could call on the phone and talk with for hours when they’re feeling low. Except, you can’t tell a person that it’s really alright to hate school when you’re in English class. You can’t make them like me if they don’t feel like I do, and you can’t tell them to be like me, when you tell them not to drink and smoke and swear and they have to do all their homework and everything. You can’t teach me in English class. You might want to, you might even really mean well, if you’re an English teacher, and one or two kids might get something out of it. I hope they do. I hope somebody feels better when they read about me and all. All I ever really wanted to do, was I wanted to save kids from English class, and from being graded, and from growing up to play some phony “game” all their lives just to make money. They have to read about me, and the teacher tells them it’s alright to think that people are phony, and then they have to do their homework about me.  How are they supposed to see through my eyes and then write a book report about it so they can get an “A” on it and grow up to sell Amway? It’s ridiculous.  It’s like the psych ward, but worse. It’s like I’m in purgatory, or hell, even. Kids are going to write these sad little five paragraph essays about me forever, and I can’t even stop it. I can’t even do anything at all about it. All I ever wanted to do was make them feel like I really got it, like I really got them. I wanted to tell them they were right all along.  I can’t even do that. You can’t do that in front of an English class. You can only do it when they stop doing their homework, when they stop putting up with all the phony bullshit the world forces on them, when they stop playing the game. I’m no Jesus, but it’s almost exactly like what they did to him. He had a good idea, he hated the phonies, and they nailed him to a goddam cross for it. Then, the phonies turned around and started a goddam church to him, like they were all sorry about it, but all they really wanted to do was completely change everything he meant. I don’t mean to say I’m anything like Jesus. Really, I’m not. He was probably a lot more loving and smarter than I am—I’m sure he was. Except they teach kids about him that way, too, and I know he would have hated it.

I feel bad for the English teachers who want to tell my story. Really, I do. A lot of them probably really mean it. They figure they have to play the game, but they don’t have to play it all the way. They probably want to tell the kids that the whole class is phony, except they can’t. They’re the teacher and all, but they probably think there’s a whole lot of little Holden Caulfields running around, getting into trouble and getting the axe, and they want to save them from the world. They probably feel bad for the kids like me. Maybe they were like me when they were young, and that’s why they want to grow up to teach The Catcher in the Rye in high school English class. I really feel bad for them.  I never hated most of my teachers. I thought some of them were a little phony, but I liked a lot of them anyway. I knew they were just looking out for me, most of them. That’s probably why they’re teaching my story, now. I feel bad that they couldn’t figure out a way not to play the game at all, though.  Maybe it was the best they could do. Maybe nobody really knows how to fix the world, and that’s why that Salinger guy ended the story he wrote about me on such a down note. I bet he might have really wanted a way to end it happily, but I didn’t know how to beat the game in the end. I don’t think anybody does. Maybe he figured he could beat it by telling my story, but people just teach it in English class, now. It’s just so goddam depressing. You could write a book about a guy who drops a nuclear bomb on a school, and if it was any good, if people thought it was really worth reading, they’d just teach it in English class and tell you not to blow up the school, by the way. That could be the point of the whole book, for chrissake, because the author really hated school, and they’d pick what they wanted to teach you about it. They’d say that the bomb was just a symbol for teenage angst or something. The English teacher might even really want to blow up the school himself, but he couldn’t teach you that. He might really want to, but he’d tell everybody that they should grow up to be a high school teacher if they really wanted to change the school. Half the kids wouldn’t even read the book, I bet, because they already hate school. The other half would feel sorry for the guy in it and act like it wasn’t his fault, like he didn’t really mean to drop a bomb on a school or anything, and one bourgeois phony who hated the book would write a five paragraph essay on it that was exactly 500 words long. She’d even get an “A” on it, for God’s sake.

I should probably start this paragraph with “In conclusion,…” because the teacher and I can both count to five. That’s exactly what I hate about school. I’ll bet the phony sonuvabitch who writes the paper that’s exactly 500 words long started this paragraph with “In conclusion,…” and changed it when the teacher told us today that it’s “weak writing.” She probably wouldn’t have even known that if the teacher didn’t tell her, but she’ll use more words from the vocabulary lesson in her paper than anybody else. Then, she’ll restate her thesis, and it’ll have nothing to do with who I really am at all. I haven’t even gotten to a thesis, because anybody who actually read the book we were assigned could figure out what I was talking about. If I had to pick a thesis, it’d be this: “The underlying message of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is unavoidably skewed by presentation in the context of a classroom, while the prevalence of its assignment to high school students actually indicates the frustration of adults with the ‘game’ and suggests the penultimate vindication of the ‘bad student’ and precocious teenage insight.” It’s a run-on, but I’m supposed to state the whole idea of everything I want to say in one crummy sentence. I can’t, though. I can’t even do it in five paragraphs. I feel sorry for the kids who have to read this book. I liked it, though.

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Science as a Contemporary Human Endeavor

Nov 24 2014 Published by under Essays

I entered formal study towards a degree in physics with both a desire to produce something of general practical value for human beings, as well as an admittedly spiritual motivation to better understand how the world of which I am a part works–whether I like how it works or not. As a graduate student, I took away from instruction that my “type,” which is apparently someone ultimately more concerned with the latter motivation, can’t cut the math. The idea of personal philosophical fulfillment, garnered along a course of scientific study, the primary thrust of that study being to produce results useful to other human beings for more than just a sense of philosophical comfort, seems to be suspect or distasteful to a significant contingent in the physics community.

I sat in classes on topics that were “so easy, even an English major” could follow them—having started my full-time undergraduate studies as an English student. Cracking a joke about “those damn engineers” is likely to get you a laugh in the physics department, and my honest assessment is that aspects of the professional humor really aren’t meant “that way,” truly. The engineers and mathematicians—and even the “English majors”—make the same essential jokes, except the English students have a better command of verbal irony. Sitting in those classes on subjects often popularly regarded as “impossible for a human being to understand,” such as quantum mechanics, the mystique of talking heads with I.Q.’s of over 9000 on the Discovery Channel assuring me of the existence of dark matter and dark energy started to dissolve.

Ultimately, maybe I’m the “failure.” I was the 13th admission in my entering class. Someone might say I “don’t truly understand the material at all,” I’m “new-age,” my GPA was 2.9-ish with a 3.0 required, and I ultimately dropped out. I quit without getting the piece of paper, so maybe I’m just the crack-pot that never was. My reasons for quitting were social ones, though, in my understanding, when I chose to leave a formal community of physicists who are just as human as any person working any day-job. When I weighed incentive against ideological compromise—yes, ideological compromise—I anticipated roles in which I suspected I could both do more for the people I share a planet with and be better personally fulfilled, while continuing to study physics.

I can’t speak as a doctor of physics. I can’t speak as even a “master” of physics. I can speak as someone who has always considered himself a self-motivated student. I can speak of myself as someone who took college level electives in philosophy, sociology, economics, and psychology before graduating high school. I can tell you that I’ve read Eliade, Marcuse, Einstein, Feynmann, Agrippa, the Tao Te Ching, the collected works of Carl Jung, Frost, Salinger, and I can continue to drop every name that highlights the fact that I don’t have the appellation “Ph.D.” attached to my name. I could list my standardized test scores (the good ones), my work credits, and I can continue to dig my hole straight to China, and all of this is perfectly meaningless and can be held against me. I leave it to your power of reasoning, as a human being with an intellect that I say is as sharp as any scientist’s, that appeals to authority status may mark but do not confer understanding and that the only measure of truth is direct evaluation of theoretical consistency and its empirical support.

Science is a day-job, with specialized knowledge being gained from daily immersion in the work in much the same way that work-specific knowledge is developed in any daily work routine. The scientific community is composed of average human beings operating in a contemporary historical context, with the same social, political, religious, and personal hang-ups as the general human population, except that we might have been encouraged differently and ultimately chose to specialize in the sciences. Compartmentalization of scientific work results in the same sorts of essentially bureaucratic weaknesses of oversight between scientists as between teams in private corporations. As in any line of work, there are social in-crowds and out-crowds, and open discourse is sometimes stifled by social anxiety, including the fear of losing respect in the eyes of people whom we would like to accept us as peers. It should stand to any person’s reason that an attempt at an objective study aiming to produce useful results for human beings can be hurt by the simple reality that scientists are human beings. That being said, “us scientists,” or “them scientists,” are typically as nice and well-meaning as typical human beings.

I love them, but it’s strange to see a lot of the graduate students I studied with interact with each other and professors in the department. Doctor Been-On-TV-With-Morgan-Freeman is such a “genius,” Doctor Studies-Dark-Matter-At-an-Ivy-League-School was such a “genius” when he took time to speak with us out of his busy schedule of saving the world with the power of science while secretly fighting crime at night, and I’m not even intelligent! I’m never gonna pass qual’s! (That’s what we call the test that “qual”-ifies a student to progress to doctoral study.) I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but you don’t understand how often and how strongly I had to restrain the urge to hug my classsmates and try to tell them that it really isn’t like that at all, that they are wonderful human beings whose real value is still not encapsulated in the academic metrics. I wanted to scream lovingly at them that we’re still human beings on planet Earth flinging around the idea that we really nearly have the ULTIMATE-GRAND-UNIFIED-THEORY-OF-EVERYTHING-WITH-FIREWORKS-SHOOTING-OUT-OF-ITS-VERY-NAME this time, unlike every other moment in human history. It’s the same as when we couldn’t speak the holiest ultimate four-letter name of God that contained the essence of all that is. We have thought this exact same thing at every point in history, because it was the then-present time proceeding all human history up to that point, and not the previous second from which we had viewed all then-preceding human history a second earlier, nor the next second in human history from which we would be viewing all preceding human history, etc., etc., I love you. (“I get what you mean, but we really nearly have the complete physical theory at least, this time! You gotta hear Brian Greene and Michio Kaku talk about it on the Discovery Channel!” while, we can impress each other with qual problem answers over a beer, but we still can’t talk about quantum ontology even at the bar without someone calling “hippie bullshit.”)

As graduate students, I think we all project a greater or lesser degree of the image of talking heads on the Discovery Channel onto our professors, and we project the potential to become such talking heads disproportionately onto many of our classmates compared our self-assessments. Then, most of us pass hurdles. Some of the projection is dispelled while some of it is reversed onto others. Maybe it isn’t surprising that, with my long hair, occult tattoos, and (essentially atheistic) spiritual interest in physics—as oxymoronic as maybe I don’t seem, across the breadth of the department—I often anticipated the worst of this projection. I set myself up for it, and I so obfuscated my ability to assess this aspect of social reality between paranoia, apologeticism, and epistemological rationalization, that I ended up only knowing that it was healthier to extract myself from a situation I couldn’t analyze objectively. Graduate school is high-stress, isn’t it, folks? I’m not sure what you thought of me, but believe or not, I was pulling the 12 to 16 hour days as well, or did you folks work even harder? Could you empathize if I said I came away from certain work I did for grades thinking that I wasn’t always treated fairly, while I thought people cut me slack in other places? But that’s perfectly typical for a student, and it was water under the bridge, because I finally found an advisor I could work with, whom I still think is a great person and scientist. Then, I was asked to grade other students who were like myself and my graduate classmates, and I imploded.

There’s no great revelation, here. We’re still on planet Earth in the year 2012. Human beings are still talking about the theory of everything of the moment, the end of the world of the moment, the grave completely inexcusable injustices of their own particular sob-story but absolutely nobody else’s, etc., etc., and I just want to remind you that I love you.

I want to try to offer this idea to a community of my friends: constriction of the universe of discourse due to perfectly human social anxiety is the biggest impediment to our progress as human beings trying to understand our world.

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Forever NES

Nov 24 2014 Published by under Essays

Video games have been a warm and fuzzy comfort in my life for almost as long as I can remember, like a well-worn teddy bear. My dad was a gamer, though gaming seemed to hold a different significance for him in the context of his generation. At five years old, I had a vague idea that he was a “computer guy” by profession. In recent years, as I’ve started to reach back into the astoundingly contemporary and explosive history of personal computers, I’ve begun to better understand his work. The ancient, cryptic language in which the Book of Mario was written shares a close root with the humming chatter of mainframes. My dad programmed tape storage and retrieval routines for the leviathanic cousins of our family’s Intellivision and our 386 DOS box.

I remember when he took me into the city to see what he did for a living. We each got on the train carrying a briefcase, but mine was cooler, because it had Hot Wheels. He brought me into the mainframe room, kept under keycard lock. I remember how cold it was, the hum of the machines, and the rows of magnetic tape rolls too big and heavy for me to lift. It was like something out of a distant speculative sci-fi future. I took for granted the similar level of technology I played games on back home. I was too young to make a connection between dad’s “toys” and mine.

Over 20 years later, I wondered about the physiology of the computer games I grew up playing. I wanted to think in bleep-bloop. I wanted to learn how Nintendo’s dream box dreamed.

I started studying 6502 binary (the parent of the NES processor). I picked a game to dissect, Dragonslayer IV, better known as Legacy of the Wizard in the US. The game was unfathomable to me as a kid, but it managed to draw me in despite its opacity. I had explored its dungeon for at least 30 hours as a child despite never reaching even the first boss! I poked around and read about similar experiences other players had with the game. “It was the hardest game I ever played! I spent hours exploring, but I never even made it to the first boss,” was the effect of what they wrote. What piqued my interest in the game again, was a tool-assisted speed-run on youtube in which it was beaten in under 15 minutes!

Watching the speed-run, the developers’ intent started to become clear. The (AWESOME!) music could be used for navigating the single gigantic, non-linear dungeon. Realizing this was like a kick in the head 20 years delayed. The game’s designers must have thought the trick was perfectly simple, and yet most of us apparently missed it. Something went fundamentally wrong. Yet, why did players continue to explore the dungeon for hours despite achieving no milestones? I wanted to understand, and I started to pick apart the game with a hex editor. I had an ambition that I might give something back to my past, that I might break down a game I had loved and build it back up from the floor.

The joy of being able to puppet the baddies’ brains was indescribable. For first the first time in my life, I was looking inside the head of mine pixelated nemesis, and poking its brain with sharp high-voltage electrodes. I can make you jump, I can make you run, I can turn you into a treasure chest, I can shoot you to the ceiling and fling you to the ground at terminal velocity, and you don’t even know why you’re doing it, you poor little block of sprites. I felt like a wizard, or a poltergeist pretending to be one.

I came back to the music as I prodded, but it seemed the most developed part of the game. I couldn’t make heads or tails of how the music engine ran. Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa worked on it. Koshiro-san was better known for Streets of Rage and Revenge of the Shinobi. Ishikawa-san worked on Popful Mail and Brandish 2 for Nihon Falcom as well. As I fiddled with the music engine, I started to realize the actual scope of the project I wanted to achieve. More so, I started to develop a very different kind of respect for the developers than I had as just a player. They had built enemy objects and a music engine that essentially performed “live” every time the game was turned on, practically from binary.

I was disheartened, but I was intrigued. I played around with the secret sound test mode; clicking on a portrait of your ancestor in the character selection screen allowed the player to cycle through 16 fantastic tracks. Cycling through the songs a few times, something compelled me to identify the track selection byte in RAM, and place a hexadecimal x10 in it.

There was a 17th track, unavailable to the in-game sound test. It was a different rendition of one of the standard 16, but eerie and wistful, with the heavy footfalls of a far-off dragon fading in gradually. I didn’t know what I was listening to at first. All of sudden, I realized that I might be the only person in the world who had ever heard that track besides Koshiro-san, Ishikawa-san, and the other members of the development team. It was a relic, hidden in the highest garret of the castle, left there for the team and for the curious gamer who came searching decades later. It was the Legacy of the Wizard.

Video game developers are craftspeople and artists, and their handiwork forms and strengthens the heart of a like-minded community. Developers seem to make games to say, “I was here; my vision remains.” Gamers recreate, tailor, and even sometimes break these visions to their own tastes. As a community, we get to look through each other’s eyes–video games are fundamentally empathic. We give our fantasies tangible form and place our friends at the focal point of our characters.

Video games may be the single most exciting of the modern media. Though the medium has entered the mainstream, the real value of these games is still underappreciated. They are ends, not diversions. We live to play. The games are also means, in that we play to learn. Occasionally, we even play just to blow up Nazi zombies, but what a powerful means and end that can be in itself!

Video games reflect the unique historical significance of my father’s and my generation, and the exciting and even frightening context into which the next generation is born.

Our games and the platforms they run on exhibit a very powerful and recent universal language. I’m not yet fluent in the language of the development team that left their beautiful little relic for a curious gamer to find so many years later, but if it might reach them, I would say, “Koshiro-san, Ishikawa-san, すみません, ありがとうございます。” Maybe this would better communicate my meaning:

(2A03:) 4C 2A 03

(It’s in a graphics nametable, but perhaps you could allow me artistic license.)

Roughly translated, it means “Forever NES.” The form of the game will exist forever. I realized that I couldn’t rewrite that game, that it wasn’t mine to change, but I came away loving it more than ever.

As I try to fathom the zeitgeist at the knee of the exponential growth curve, I gradually come to speak the language of my father. I begin to appreciate my grandfather’s work and the Altair he kept as a permanent fixture in his basement. I realize how video game artists have spoken to me in ways that not even books, canvas, film, or any other choice of medium can communicate.

We are at a turning point. We are here, getting the power-up. We make and play video games about saving the world to do it for real.

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