Cigarette butts

There has recently been quite a bit of controversy in Portugal over a bill to fine people for throwing cigarette butts onto the pavement. This is a bill that recognizes cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products as pollutants and also prescribes new ways to dispose of the materials safely and recycle them. Some people in politics and in society at large contested that this bill should even be debated in Parliament, arguing that there are more pressing matters. This dismissal of the problem sparked many conversations between me and my friends and family. Whether it is cigarette butts or something else, there are some heuristics that we should apply to any problem we are faced with. That’s what this essay is about.

Are there bigger and more pressing issues? Yes, definitely. Can they be solved easily? No, they take a lot of effort, a lot of thinking, analysis and years of work over multiple administrations to figure out. Topics like education, the public health system, trade and so on present essentially permanent and timeless issues for governments. They are a balancing act – balancing development, maintenance and policies in such major sectors of society will, for the foreseeable future, be one of the major occupations of a nation’s government. So does that mean that government cannot, or should not, tackle any other issues? Obviously not.

In any significantly deep endeavour, we are faced with several issues to solve and these will naturally have different levels of importance. Importance is not the only metric to consider, though, as some tasks might be incredibly important but at the same time be completely out of your reach to solve. That is, an important task that you also don’t know how to solve should not be given much thought and you should move on to something you can actually contribute to.

This is where accessibility comes in, meaning how accessible or how easy it is to complete the task. If we give tasks an importance value as well as an accessibility score, we can order them by the sum of those two scores and that will be our priority list, with the highest scores being the tasks to be completed first.

This method maximizes tasks completed over time while also allowing one to tackle the more complex problems. The first tasks to be done will be the ones which are important and easy, whereas the last ones will be those which are very hard and unimportant. In the middle fall all the ones which are only slightly important and only slightly hard, as well as those which are very hard but also very important and those which are very easy but not as important. This is what I would call the low-hanging fruit method: go for the lowest-hanging fruit first, the tasks that yield the most “value” for the least time.

Going back to cigarette butts, the extra punishment for throwing them on to the pavement might be a solution or it might do nothing (this will be explored further ahead). In any case the task would fall somewhere in the middle of the priority list, since it is something that can be tackled immediately and has a high potential impact. Cigarette butts are a serious pollutant, with an estimated 12 billion butts being left on the ground every day. They not only add more plastic to the environment (they are essentially made out of plastic fibers), they also release all the toxic chemicals they filter out of the cigarette, like heavy metals lead-210 and polonium-210, carcinogenics such as nitrosamines and obviously nicotine, which have been shown to affect plant growth when cigarette butts are left on the soil.

Another issue I have with this whole controversy is that people seem to not understand the role that the state has – or should have. This is clearly shown by the position “I don’t mind cigarette butts on the street, thus I don’t think the government should care about it” or “this other thing is negatively affecting me, thus I think (or demand) the government should solve that instead.” These are narrow and egotistic views of the state’s role.

I am not politically active. I don’t care much for what this politician said or what that politician thinks about this or that. What I care about is that the whole of the state as an institution fulfills its mission: look after the best interest of the people, present and future. How they go about doing this is the matter of partisan discussions, left versus right, and heated Internet arguments, which I will not go into. I divided the state’s mission into two: looking after the present people and looking after the future people, and that’s very intentional. In our priority list, we could say that the importance score corresponds – or is at least strongly correlated – to the urgency of the task, meaning how far into the future the problem will be unavoidable. With time, certain tasks that might have begun with a low importance score, like decreasing carbon emissions, will go up in importance, simply due to the increasing effect that not addressing the issue has on the people and its “best interest.” So some issues become more important with time. Other issues become less important with time, as technological, economical and social progress makes them less relevant – this usually brings in new issues though.

There is also to consider the impact that each task has over time. Something like tackling carbon emissions might have a much bigger impact over time than adopting a new software in public hospitals. Hence, in a way, reducing carbon emissions is looking more after the interests of future people than new hospital software is.

Once more going back to cigarette butts, I think the fundamental mistake that many people have made when confronted with this issue is that they assume eliminating littering is a now task. “I don’t care about cigarette butts,” “I think something else is more important” and so on, instead of imagining a reality where their grandchildren will not literally step on trash everywhere they go.

With many of these small and seemingly insignificant issues it is often useful to ask oneself “what will this mean for my grandchildren?” That’s one exercise I propose.

Another perhaps unseen consequence of the cigarette butt bill is that it educates people. This has actually been my main argument when discussing the issue with people. If the new law gets even a small percentage of people to stop littering, more than the arguably minute reduction in trash on the street, we will see clear benefits in education. The children of that small percentage of people will not have the example of a parent who throws trash on the pavement. They in turn will not do it. They might confront their friends in school who do litter, since for them it’s so unthinkable. They might change some minds. Their children will definitely grow up in a “littering-free” environment, and the effect spreads. Two generations from now, surrounded by non-litterers, a litterer will naturally feel embarrassed to litter and alter their behaviour. A person who values a clean street might also value clean air and clean water. They might more seriously evaluate their environmental impact and that of their relationships in the world (personal or impersonal). This might lead to other actions, however small, which will similarly cascade into bigger societal changes over time.

Small changes matter.

In looking after the best interests of the people. The state must ensure that not only the immediate needs are met, but also that future generations are better off than current generations. That means having the foresight to identify problems that can be quickly addressed and dealt with, and their long-lasting repercussions.

Eating

Eating. We do it every day. We have to. Our cells, tiny pods of boiling chemical soup that fundamentally constitute us need to be constantly renewed and refueled with new chemicals. That replenishing of the chemical soup is exactly what eating is. That’s what life is. And we do this all the time, gleefully pouring other bits chemical soups into our own chemical soup.

The act of eating has long fascinated and perplexed me. We take another living being (it’s hopefully dead by the time we do this) and turn it into ourselves! We are the combination of all the plants, animals, fungi and bacteria we shove, or allow to be shoved – whatever floats your boat – down our throats. Our bones are made of broccoli, our skin of freshly baked bread and the carbon in our tendons is whisked out of the atmosphere by plants – photosynthesis, another immensely fascinating food-related phenomenon.

So, eating is literally the act of creating oneself – on a molecular, atomic level. I am very conscious of this when I eat. I wonder whether the spoonful of chickpeas and rice I just ate will go into making some of the new knee cartilage I so desperately need. Or perhaps some of it will go to refill the glycogen in my muscles after a hard training session and another part will go to reestablishing chemical balance in my kidneys. I know the science doesn’t necessarily work out like that, but I think it’s fun to think of it this way. My mom always had this fantastic analogy for nutrients: proteins are like the bricks that make up the walls of your house. Carbohydrates are the gasoline that fuels your engine. I have since expanded on this analogy and went on to find all kinds of other analogies for body parts and bodily functions. The analogies are, however, incomplete and I will spare you their naïvety for now.

And as if you needed more arguments as to why eating is such a deeply meaningful activity, there’s one thing that leaves me even more baffled: we share this moment of deep introspection with other people. And we don’t do it by mere chance either – it’s in our blood. Breaking bread is one of the oldest signs of friendship. It has historically been and continues to be one of the fundamental ways we humans show love.
We share meals with people who are important to us, whether it is a cup of coffee on a first date, a grand family dinner or a snack with your buddies.
We need to do it, as the social apes we are, in order to establish deep interpersonal relationships. If you share a meal with a total stranger you immediately create trust and thus a social/emotional bond. And if having stronger social bonds leads to higher chances of survival in nature, it stands to reason that we would be hard-wired to bond to humans who feed us. It makes total sense from an evolutionary perspective.

I have recently experienced this a lot attending Joseph Bartz’s school, where we regularly cook and share meals together, often with total strangers. It’s wonderful how open people become during and after a meal. It’s no wonder any truly important relationship will revolve around the dinning table.

In eating we are exposed, like a machine that needs to be opened up for repairs. We willingly invite others to look into the wires and circuits inside of use, because that’s what food is.

The next time you eat, especially if you are with someone else, I encourage you to bring your attention to this moment of exposure and to reflect upon all the wonderful life taking place there.

The heart of the meaning

A few days ago I came across a very interesting discussion on Facebook (who would have thought?) that started with someone complimenting the original poster (OP) for being creative and having “invented” something. The OP then answers that he didn’t actually invent it, since people had been doing similar things for ages and that “the words ‘invention’ and ‘creation’ don’t belong here“. Another commenter chimed in and stated that too often words like “master” and “genius” are used out of context and that supporters/fans/followers/students often use words which are too big and exaggerated, showing both respect, and ignorance. 

This prompted a recurring question in my mind: what does a word mean? I’ve had this discussion with multiple people and it seems to me that a consensus is hard to reach. The purist (and in my opinion, narrow-minded) linguist will stand firmly by the “definition”: a word has a defined meaning, which must be preserved and rules are to be followed at all times. The practical linguist will argue that language is adaptable and that a word means whatever people want it to mean, that language changes over time and dialect. It should be obvious from my remarks which group I identify with.

However, stances are hard to take for me. I often like to dig deeper into such matters. I ask not what is the meaning of a word, but what is the meaning of meaning itself? What does it mean to “mean”? Is meaning something that is inherent to the word and cannot be separated from it? Is meaning something that exists by itself and we attribute a word to it? We can easily dismiss the first definition simply by pointing out the existence of synonyms and homonyms. The latter definition, though, is tricky. Is the meaning equivalent to the object? Philosophy and psychology will tell us that no, they are separate, but that the meaning references the object and cannot exist without it. If you think about a meaning, then that meaning means something (it references an object, even the meaning itself can be an object), therefore that object does exist, even if only in your mind at that point in time. Therefore we could say that all meanings have an object, even if in a restricted scope of existence.

This brings us back to the meaning of meaning. Does the meaning in your head in that specific moment truly matter? It exists for you, but not for anyone else, which makes it useless in communication (but not entirely useless). Now, being useless in communication is somewhat of a problematic situation for a meaning to find itself in. How else are you going to communicate that meaning to someone else? We go back to language. Language is an attempt at communicating meaning. It is a translation that in the best of scenarios will be re-translated by the listener’s brain upon hearing it, and then re-translated into the meaning that exists in that person’s mind. That’s three translations, you might notice. So, you have a meaning, your listener has another meaning, and at best you hope that they are similar enough and that they reference the same object. You both heard the exact same word, but translated it to slightly different (or sometimes very different) meanings that reference slightly different objects (or, again, very different objects).

Now back to the initial question: what is the meaning of meaning? I do not presume to have the answer, but:

  • A meaning must reference an object. As soon as a meaning is created, it creates an object in one’s mind. The object might be the meaning itself (circular reference).
  • An object must be referenced by a meaning. As soon as you perceive an object, you create meaning.
  • A meaning does not depend on a word.
  • A word must have a meaning and can have more than one meaning at a time.

Is meaning then important? Yes, absolutely. Is the meaning of meaning important? Yes, as long as you want to have clear communication and understanding. Many-a fight could have been avoided had the people agreed on a common frame of reference for the meaning of meaning itself.

Words and language are tools created and shaped constantly by humans. They are an attempt at conveying meaning from one’s mind into someone else’s mind, and therefore understanding that the meaning in one’s mind is not necessarily the same as the meaning in someone else’s mind is crucial to communicate efficiently.

One step closer to paradise

Today I showed my game Of The Ruins (you can play it here) to a friend. At the beginning, he had some problems grasping the concept of the game. He didn’t get the controls right away, even after a huge prompt appeared on the screen. That was alright, I thought, as the game was meant to promote experimentation. I ended up telling him he had to hold the mouse button down. He then proceeded to solve the first puzzle and got to the second puzzle, where he spent some time trying to get a grasp of the mechanics. I spurred him on as he seemed to lose faith. I asked him if he understood how something in the game worked. He answered negatively. I told him to find out. And he did. After some experimentation, he solved the second puzzle. So far so good. When he got to the third puzzle, he again got stuck for a moment and then suddenly realized that there must be something somewhere with which he could solve it. And there was. I asked him to test for some bugs and fortunately they didn’t occur. I was relieved, more than happy. His experience with the game seemed frustrating, he seemed to get stuck, and even if the game was made during a game jam, I could not forgive myself for making such an impenetrable puzzle game.
And then he said it. He said the best thing anyone has ever said about any of my games. He said the one thing I least expected to hear in that moment. He asked me “Have you played The Witness?”
The game was made for the 36th Ludum Dare between August 26th and August 29th of 2016. The Witness came out earlier that year, on January 26th. After playing The Witness, shortly after it came out, I became totally and completely obsessed with everything pertaining to its design, Jonathan Blow’s design principles and Jonathan Blow himself as a game developer and as a person. The Witness was undoubtedly the biggest influence in my life as a game developer. Never had I been confronted with such seemingly unrelated ideas as Pottery and Quantum Physics so majestically woven together by the overall design of a game as in The Witness. I consider it one of the best games ever made, not to say the best and definitely the best use of solid game design principles through and through. I’ve always wanted to write something about it. It had such an impact on me that I could not, even if I tried with all my strength, resist ever formalizing my thoughts on it. But I didn’t hurry, for I knew the time would eventually come to write about The Witness. I’ve been thinking and writing in my mind, arranging thoughts into sentences, tinkering with ideas and pondering how to talks about it without bias.
But fuck bias. Someone just said that a little shitty game I made in 72 sleep-deprived hours reminded them of an object of praise that I have enshrined in my own personal Church as the holy fruit of the divine itself. Today I’m going to bed with a smile.

Let’s talk about Path of Exile

thefalloforiath_logo

I have long since been an unconditional fan of Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile, the small indie ARPG out of New Zealand that has been gathered a strong cult following since its inception. I’ve been playing on and off since Closed Beta and words cannot describe the joy I felt yesterday when, after much teasing, the studio announced that their 3.0 update would bring not one, but six new acts to the game.

If you’re unfamiliar with ARPGs, the currently accepted definition is mostly based on Diablo 2. Diablo 2 is divided in acts: each contains a town with NPCs and shops, a few zones with monsters to hunt, a handful of dungeons and of course, bosses. Being the godfather of the genre, many recent games have taken inspiration from Blizzard North’s masterpiece.

Usually, though, ARPGs tend to be complete packages (with the occasional expansion) and contain only a couple of acts. Diablo 2 had four acts plus the one in the expansion. At the time of this writing, Diablo 3 follows the same structure. The progression revolves around playing through these acts multiple times with increased difficulty to seek bigger challenges.

Until yesterday, Path Of Exile – a game heavily inspired by Diablo 1 and 2 – comprised four acts and three difficulty levels, before making it into the huge endgame portion of the game.

Grinding Gear Games CEO Chris Wilson had expressed the company’s desire to eventually reach ten acts in the game, which would make it feel fresh year after year with more content being released.

Well, Chris Wilson’s dream came true a bit sooner than expected as the studio announced not only the release of the previously confirmed act five, but also the inclusion of what they are calling “Part II”, which is a re-imagining of the first five acts for a whopping ten act, single-playthrough experience. Yes, Path of Exile is breaking away from the New Game+ formula and throwing the old Cruel and Merciless difficulties out the window.

You might have noticed, though, that Part II is stated to be a “re-imagining” of the game, but that doesn’t mean you replay the game. So far, the story in Path of Exile has the player exiled from civilization and sent to Wraeclast, a forsaken land overgrown with monsters and corruption. It’s sort of the dumping grounds of society. At the end of act four, the player defeats the big baddie who’s been causing all the trouble. So far, that was the end of the “Campaign”, from where the player gravitates towards endgame maps and expansion content (this is where the meat of the game is nowadays).

According to the development team, after the player beats the final boss in act four, they find a way to get back to civilization, from which they were exiled. Enter act five, where players must fight a corrupt government and even awakened gods to exert their revenge. After this the player must, for some reason, return to Wraeclast. But unlike previous iterations of the game where the content would be exactly the same, Part II continues the same timeline. After the events of the previous acts – including the taking down of the governing forces in act five – the land is changed. The zones, while familiar, are different. Some NPCs are gone while others have replaced them. Towns are deserted, the monsters the player relentlessly killed are replaced with tribes of refugees from the war in the mainland, previously used paths are blocked. And the player’s actions have awakened the gods, which are posed to be the big bosses of Part II.

This is, of course, in addition to a ton of new features, skills, items, quests and of course, a long due balance patch.

The studio had talked about bringing about changes that would set Path of Exile aside from other games in the genre by solving problems that the genre as a whole has been unable to solve. There’s no confirmation, but this is likely what they meant.

Besides, an Xbox One release of the game was announced last month and the company seems to be in no hurry to stop improving their flagship game. This might just be the push that Path of Exile needs to stop being a bit of a niche game to being a mainstream hit. Is that good? Maybe. The brutal difficulty of the game will still be present, I hope, but seeing great decisions being made gives me immense confidence for the future of one of my favourite games of all time.

So, to sum it up:

  • No more difficulty levels, no more replaying the same exact content.
  • New act five that finishes the main story of the game and contains none less than 24 bosses.
  • Part II, comprising five new-ish acts that take the player through the first five acts, but with vastly different content.
  • Balance patch.
  • Xbox One release.
  • Globe girls HYPE!

I remind you that Path of Exile is a free to play game in the purest sense of the term. The only thing you can pay for are cosmetics and it seems to be the fairest model around. The game is so good that people can’t stop throwing money at the screen. And the expansion, like all previous expansions, is free as well.

So yes, you should pay attention to Path of Exile in the upcoming months.