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.

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.