Category Archives: blogging

Why I Haven’t Been Writing Lately

Hi guys,

I am really sorry I haven’t been writing at all in the last months. I am afraid this tendency is very likely to continue in the near future. There are several reasons for this. The first one is exhaustion: when I get home in the afternoons I am so tired I cannot start to write. However, the main reason I’ve been off blogging is that I have been otherwise occupied.

What comes now is somewhat technical so sorry if it makes no sense to you. Maybe this is just me clearing my thoughts.

During Christmas I had this idea concerning limits on information processing capacity. I instantly thought of black holes, as they impose a limit on storage capacity given by the surface of their event horizon. Then I realised that the limit on information storage is not given by the surface, but by 1/4th of the surface. That is, the information stored in a black hole is proportional to the are of the circle you would get if you flattened it out.

And this made me think. For some years now I have had this idea going around in my head: without interaction with the Higgs boson, most, if not all of elementary particles (therefore I am not counting protons and the like) would be massless. Zero mass means their speed is equal to the speed of light.

That is: in reality, all particles are really moving at the speed of light and none at less. This means that the “natural” way to look at the universe is from the point of view of a particle that is moving at the speed of light.

However, that cannot be done. When you try, you find out that every particle that is moving towards you has infinite mass and, well, things just break down. Which suggests that using Lorentz transforms straight with classical particles does not work. Well, it does not “suggest” it: it is a known fact that you are not allowed to do that. One thing you do find out, nevertheless, is that space flattens out: that is, one of the dimensions disappears. A black hole turns into a pancake.

Isn’t that curious? It seems like looking at things from the perspective of a photon gives us the right answer for the amount of information in a black hole: the area of its flattened surface.

So I decided to pursue this line of reasoning. But my theoretical physics is a little rusty, so I have had to refresh my QFT. Doing things in a rough, classical way proved to be hopeless, which is not surprising since:

a) QFT works and classical mechanics doesn’t.

b) QFT gives less nonsensical answers to looking at particles from a system that moves at the speed of light.

QFT is not my favourite theory in the world, but so far it’s the only one that works, so I have been forcing myself to re-learn it (it was a long while ago that I quit my PhD in high energy physics). So I’m basically spending all my afternoons going through the book that elkement recommended and doing the problems and so on. So far it’s been kind of fun. When I’m done I guess I’ll go into “QFT in a nutshell” and the other one I forgot and then I’ll review Kip Thorne’s Gravitation, which is a lot of fun. And then I’ll get started with string theory maybe.

I have also been working on finding an information-based treatment of space-time, so that I can get rid of scale invariance (space looks the same at all scales) and also re-write the equations of QFT in a format that only makes reference to information. Since everyone is pretty convinced space and time are not fundamental but arise from interactions, it stands to reason that a space-time-independent formulation of QFT will help to solve the issue.

So far I have been successful in going to dimension to information (with the drawback of having to choose a scale s, like in renormalization) and the next step is to reformulate differential calculus in an information-pure language so that I can then reformulate geometry and the basic equations of QFT and hopefully GR.

And that’s the memo.

In a nutshell: sorry guys, I’ll be gone for a while. Maybe six months, maybe more. However, it is possible that when I’m finally back I’ll have something really awesome to share. Though the probability is quite low (in general, the ratio of people who make a breakthrough to the people who merely try is pretty small. Also, the ratio of aficionados who make a breakthrough to aficionados who try is even smaller.)

Oh, one more thing: on the Hawking black hole thingy. Yes, there are black holes. All he’s saying is that, given enough time, they evaporate (which we already knew) and they leave no remnant (which is open to debate: Lubos Motl doesn’t agree, for example.) If they leave no remnant then eventually everything comes out, so nothing really stays in the black hole. Since the definition of black hole is that things cannot escape from it, in this sense there are no black holes. However, if you think of a black hole as something that will suck you in, turn you into pulp and only let you escape billions of years later as radiation mesh, then there are black holes.

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Some Useful and Useless Advice on Getting an Audience for your Blog

I started a blog because I wanted to showcase my writing. You see, three years ago I wrote this really weird book that was half-way between a novel, a popularization book and a collection of interviews. I then gave it to an agent, who loved it. Then this agent gave it to a professional reader, who loved it. Just in case, they passed it on to a different reader, who also loved it. So we were all really excited.

It turns out my book still hasn’t been published, despite all the positive feedback. One of the reasons is that publishing anything in Spain is pretty much a suicide mission, since people don’t read. Another reason is that editors won’t risk their money on anything they don’t have a reasonable chance of monetizing. I am a John Doe and, as such, my book does not promote itself. The last and most fun of all reasons is that my book does not fit any category and, therefore, there’s no collection to publish it on.

See? You should strive for originality, but not too much.

So I decided to start a blog, thinking: maybe if I build an audience that is large enough, publishing houses won’t have a problem betting on me, since the advertisement will be done for them. I decided to write it in English because I was pretty confident the audience for the kind of stuff I’m interested in is next to inexistent in Spanish.

At the beginning I had no idea about how to build an audience, so I looked up stuff online. I found heaps of advice that bordered on the useless. For example: “get a Facebook page, so that your Facebook fans will visit your blog.” Funnily enough, if you looked for advice on getting Facebook fans, people would say: “get a blog, so that your readers visit your Facebook page.”

The whole thing seemed a little bit circular.

Then I found other brilliant suggestions, such as: “comment on other blogs.” But the thing is, if I go and comment on other blogs (whether I like them or not) so that people will comment on mine, this is a disaster from a time-investment point of view. Let’s say reading a blog post takes me 5 minutes, including commenting (which is a pretty low estimate). If I want 200 people to visit my blog each day, according to this strategy I’d have to spend 1,000 minutes (16 hours) commenting.

So my advice would be: comment on whatever blogs it is you like to read, but don’t do it as an investment. It just doesn’t pay off.

My favorite piece of advice, though, was this one: “write quality content.”

You don’t say.

First, I’d like to point out most bloggers in the planet, including the really crappy ones, believe they write quality content. Even the crazy people who leave 2-page long comments in my blog with their theory of life and death think they are writing quality content.

Secondly, writing quality content will get you nowhere. Writing shareable content, on the other hand, will. Images, quotes, short jokes. This has nothing to do with quality, but with virality. However, if you’re trying to set yourself up as a writer, this is a really poor strategy, since it does not serve to showcase your skill.

After almost a year in this blogging business and still not having a large audience by any measurable standards, I have arrived at several conclusions about what would actually work. Unfortunately, I do not possess the necessary personality traits to pull any of these strategies off. Anyway, here they go.

I’d say that, first, you need to be proactive in your social relationships. Try to befriend successful bloggers and get them to guest-post on your site or vice-versa. Shamelessly self-promote by going on twitter and asking others to retweet you. The basic idea is: act as if you were a door-to-door salesman, but online.

Of course, most people would feel extremely uncomfortable doing something like this. If you, like me, would rather set your arm on fire than attempt this kind of social engineering, your options are greatly reduced.

Another successful strategy is having a blog with a topic that people feel passionate about and thus will very likely share. Communities such as the atheist one are a perfect example, since they are extremely active and even have their own Reddit channel. Some of my most successful posts were about atheism.

Posts that go like “10 reasons you should…” are also really successful. The whole of cracked.com is based on those and boy do they have an audience. I am guilty of browsing that site myself more than I’d like to admit. I could have turned this post into one of those, but I decided it restricted what I wanted to say, so I went for a 2-pages long essay that few people will bother to read instead. That’s my PR brain right there.

What I have found the most useful personally is having posts that will attract people from search engines. My most successful post ever is “The future of porn: a disturbing possibility.” Why? Because lots (lots!) of people google “disturbing porn.” I am not making this up: this post has more visits than all my other ones combined. This, however, is not very good advice, since there is no a priori way of knowing what people will google and, even if there was, I wouldn’t bother to use it.

So what if you are the kind of person that, like me, wouldn’t be caught dead working as a salesman, tends towards shyness even online, is afraid of rejection and has no idea how to create memes that go viral?

Here’s my honest advice: hire a professional.

Seriously. If you don’t, you are going to spend hours of your time promoting your blog, only to get meager results. You will spend time and energy that you could have used for writing in much less productive endeavors that will suck your soul. Professionals and advertisement will get you a much better return for your money/time in a much shorter period. It’s their job: they know how to do this. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Let the pros handle it.

It may seem a little weird that I’m telling people to hire a PR professional but don’t do this myself. However, the only reason I don’t is that I am aware that my content, lately, is not up to standard, be it because I’m tired or because I have no spare time. So it seems pointless to promote when I have nothing worth promoting.

I hope this was useful or, at least, refreshing. If you’re a regular, you’ll have gotten to know a little more about me and my vain aspirations. If you’re starting off, this may serve to shed a bit of light on the whole “15 great ways to get readers” articles that plague the Internet. And heck, I could be wrong. I am probably wrong. Maybe you know a great way to get an audience that involves no virality and self-promotion. But, if that was the case, you probably wouldn’t want to tell me!

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An Update and An Apology

This is not a new post from David Yerle. It is rather a short note to let my dear readers know that:

  1. I’m not dead.
  2. I haven’t given up on blogging.

It turns out that I had severely underestimated how much of my time it would take to adapt to my new living situation. (For those who don’t know: I just moved to Germany from China.) I had also underestimated the time it would take to get a decent Internet connection at home. For the moment, I’m using a pre-paid SIM card on an old phone that I use as a hotspot and I can’t even stream a youtube video. Not ideal.

So: I have plenty of things to write (some of them very, very cool) but I don’t have:

  1. Time.
  2. Bandwidth.
  3. Energy.

And yes, I could write a post once in a while and then just let it languish, but if I’m going to do this I want to do this right. When I’m back, I’ll be back. Every day. For all eternity.

Anyway: in theory, I get my Internet on the 20th of September and I’ll be able to start writing often, even though it is likely that it will take a little longer because my new job is sucking up all of my time. In the meanwhile, please be patient and remember: not dead.

Talk to you soon,

David

Blogging Hiatus

Five days from now, I will be flying back to good-old Europe. This means I will be extremely busy preparing documents, packing and learning German (such beautiful words as “aufenthaltstitel.” Seriously, make shorter words, guys). Once I’m in Europe I’ll have to look for a flat and will probably not have internet for an extended period of time, so it’s very unlikely that I will publish anything or read any blogs in the next month, though you never know.

Anyway, I thought I’d let you know I won’t be posting much (if at all) during the next month or two and that I probably won’t be reading much either. If you just started following me, though, there is plenty of stuff for you to enjoy: I suggest you start at the “read this first” section above. If you’ve been following me for a while, please be patient. I’ll be back.

Have a great summer everyone and hope t see you soon,

David.

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Unfollow the Leader

Imagine there’s a blog you love. Almost every day, the author comes up with an article that allows you to learn something. Then, all of the sudden, she publishes something you vehemently disagree with. What do you do?

  1. You keep reading and comment stating your disagreement.
  2. You don’t comment in that particular article.
  3. You unfollow the blog.

I usually do (1) or (2), depending on my mood. But to my surprise, I have found (3) to be often the case. Which is really hard for me to understand. Let me explain why.

Lubos Motl is a right-winged nut. By this I don’t mean that all right-wing people are nuts, but that he’s so far off the scale that it is almost comical. He is a global warming denialist and keeps calling Obama a communist. Some days ago he even wrote a post on how corruption is to be expected and is perfectly reasonable from a capitalistic point of view.

A triangular graphic representing a "hier...

A triangular graphic representing a “hierarchy of disagreement” from clear refutation to mere vituperation, based on the essay “How to Disagree” by Paul Graham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

However, I’ve been following his blog for more than 4 years and I don’t plan to stop. I don’t, because he writes about physics and a lot of what he says is extremely interesting. Even in physics we don’t see eye to eye: he considers multiple universe proponents like me little more than crackpots, so he insults me every ten articles or so. But I don’t care. I don’t care because I learn physics and also because I actually find his views refreshing. I don’t feel threatened by them: I like seeing how the mind of someone so opposite to me operates. And sometimes he does make good points. I would of course not follow his blog if he only posted right-wing rants. But the thing is, he posts a lot of interesting stuff, together with some right-wing rants. To me, having a disagreement once in a while is not a strong enough motive to unfollow him.

Yet another example. Most of my friends (real-life friends, not virtual ones) are Catalan independentists. I am not (though, at this point, I don’t really care either way). However, I don’t stop calling them. I don’t look for new friends. We don’t avoid the topic, either. We argue about it often, but it’s fine. We enjoy the discussion. We don’t feel attacked or demeaned as human beings. It is good to have friends one disagrees with, especially if they respect you as a person.

The same happens with almost every blogger I follow, no matter how close we may be in our way of looking at the world. For example, bloggingisaresponsibility and I have a very different outlook on the benefits of religion. So what? He has a point and so do I. His opinions on this matter don’t invalidate his opinions on the rest. My view of him as a human being has certainly not changed for the worse.

The thing is: you would be hard-pressed to find someone you agree with on absolutely everything. Disagreement is part of life and it is to be welcome, at least in small amounts. Of course I will not follow the blog of some religious nut who advocates for women to stay in their homes and cook. But I will follow a blog I find interesting, even if a substantial amount of what she says goes against my beliefs. If I can’t tolerate disagreement I should start a cult.

Daa-aaad

Just like whiny children (Photo credit: RichardAlan)

This tendency to unfollow people when we find a single article we don’t like is starting to infantilize us and to create an opinion bubble that cannot be healthy. It is childish to the extreme and reminds me of what I see every day at my school, with the difference that children don’t stay mad for more than ten minutes. We (well, some of us) have become like spoiled brats who cannot tolerate anything that doesn’t confirm our view of the world.

I wonder why this happens. Is it the fear of having one’s mind changed? Is it a way of punishing the author for being wrong? Since success in the Web is measured in page views, it seems like a plausible explanation. Maybe it’s just a visceral reaction without much thought behind it, one that is difficult to undo. So here are my questions:

  1. Have you ever unfollowed someone because of one article? If so, why?
  2. What’s your personal theory on why people do this?
  3. Do you routinely find disagreement on your blog or mostly people who agree with you?
  4. What do you do when you find a post you don’t agree with?

(On a completely unrelated note: went to see Man of Steel yesterday. Dumbest script ever. Boring as hell. Please don’t unfollow me if you disagree!)

 

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Monkeys, Ideas and Social Status

I’ve been recently analyzing my reaction to disagreements in my blog and I don’t like what I’ve seen. Now, my answers are usually quite measured and level-headed, even when I strongly disagree with the person. Does this mean I am a measured, level-headed man? Quite the opposite, in fact.

Some (though not all) criticisms cause in me something that can only be described as aggression. It is not a conscious reaction, but an instinctive, animalistic one. Whenever my ideas are challenged, especially when I hold them dear (and especially when the commenter uses a confrontational style), my body reacts with adrenaline and a metaphorical thirst for blood. I can almost feel the monkey inside, seething, wanting to beat up the stranger who has come to challenge my right to the territory.

It is not a pleasant feeling; it is also not a feeling I’m proud of.

But I don’t want to get into a morality play in which I digress about how evil we are all inside. I want to analyze what it is about disagreements that makes me (anyone else?) react as if there was a physical challenge happening from a rival male.

Here’s my theory, which I just made up five minutes ago, so it’s likely to be wrong. It’s also likely to be wrong because it only applies to males, but I’ve seen similar urges in women, so it can’t be the whole story. Any way, even if it’s only for your amusement, here it goes.

Common chimpanzee in the Leipzig Zoo.

Me, surveying my territory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the day, primates fought for territory. More territory meant more females, which in turn meant more offspring. Thus, males who were obsessed about protecting their territory and could use aggression to do so were more likely to have offspring, which would in turn be similarly inclined to protect and expand their land.

This drive for territory soon became more complex and turned into what we would now call “the drive for social status.”  Higher social status usually means attracting more females and the rest follows as before. That having social status attracts more females has been researched for a while (see here and here). And yes, I am perfectly aware that this is just a statistical result that does not imply that all women are attracted to social status. In fact, I’d never date one that was.

Social status is a hard thing to measure. Nowadays we can probably do it with money: the more money, the more status. However, that is not completely accurate. There are a lot of intangibles: influence, reputation. Bono may not have as much money as Bill Gates, but he’s probably more successful with the opposite sex. One could say that social status is related to image and that this image is tied to a number of intangibles, thus making status quite hard to define.

Bono and fans

Bono. He haz status. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This influence is of coursed measured, partly, by how much sway our opinions have over the rest of the world. As such, then, opinions are part of our “virtual territory”: just like our net worth (by the way, am I the only person who’s appalled by calling how much money a person has their “worth”?). And, just like it, we feel a need to protect it from intruders: opinions are our domains and, when a stranger comes and tries to take them down, we react just as if someone was trying to enter our house and burn it.

That is why changing your mind is so hard: in a way, it’s like letting the other person violate you. It’s admitting they have won; like giving them part of your territory. It’s not a question of ideas but a battle with winners or losers. Just like a war fought over a piece of land, each argument is a confrontation over a piece of mental landscape, over a piece of influence.

It takes a lot of self-control to override this instinct. In fact, most people are not capable of such feats and thus seem unable to change their minds, no matter how much evidence piles up against their views. It is remarkable, then, that a whole branch of human knowledge – science – has been built precisely on the willingness to be proven wrong. This speaks volumes of scientists, who must overcome these urges every day in the service of a greater goal, which is knowledge. It is also not surprising that some of them will succumb to their instincts and try to cover up results, disregard evidence or purposely misunderstand their colleagues’ research in order to keep their ideas intact.

Summarizing, behind the civilized appearance of my replies, there is a beast that just want to tear the commenters apart and let out a cry of victory. Thankfully for all of us, I (and most, if not all of the people who interact with me) am able to look at my instincts from above and see them for what they are: a vestige from a more animalistic past.

That said, I do think it would be fun if the next philosophical debate was settled with the philosophers just fighting for it.

It would not be fair if I didn’t finish this article by mentioning this one by bloggingisaresponsibility, which tackles a similar topic and offers a different answer that, I believe, is complementary to this one.

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How to Write a Good Spam Comment

Dear spam commenter,

I see you’re having some trouble coming up with spam comments that won’t be immediately trashed. You are probably wondering why: aren’t people interested in Louis Vuitton bags? Don’t they want their websites optimized for search engines? Don’t they need a loan? Fortunately for you, I am here to help you achieve excellence in the art of spam commenting, so that you may reach a higher percentage of blogs and finally manage to sell some rip-off bags. You’re welcome.

The first thing you should know is comments normally don’t have a title, especially not in bold. So, when I see something like: “<strong>Google…</strong>” at the beginning, I (and pretty much everyone else) get suspicious. You see, Google doesn’t leave comments, because Google is not a person. You can tell because it doesn’t have a surname: people have surnames. This may seem surprising to you, but is common knowledge among the folks that have a website.

Louis Vuitton portemonnee

Louis Vuitton portemonnee. Just gotta have it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another tell is your lack of spelling skills. You’d think that a company with the ability to spam thousands, if not millions of blogs, would have enough money for a spell-checker, mainly because those come for free. However, most of your messages display an appalling lack of knowledge of the English language. A well-written spam message would have much greater odds of being accepted.

Then there is punctuation. Or, more exactly, there is a lack of it. Here are some tips for your next batch of spam goodness:

  1. First letters in a paragraph have to be capitalized.
  2. long paragraphs which have no punctuation but seem to go on for long like this one are hard to read and barely make any sense especially if they have strings of seemingly pointless data and stuff nobody cares about I really don’t see the point on these comments please stop
  3. A string of never-ending commas doesn’t qualify as punctuation.

Oh, and “definately” is not a word.

The way I see it, good spamming has to look like an actual comment, so that the owner of the blog is fooled into publishing it. In this respect, I have seen some moderately clever attempts. For example:

“This is very interesting, You are a very skilled blogger. I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your excellent post. Also, I have shared your website in my social networks!”

Apart from the obvious lack of writing skill, your comment sounds unnatural and way to unspecific. Here’s a better take on the same idea:

“This was awesome! I just shared it on Facebook. My wife’s gonna love it.”

See? It sounds much more natural. One may actually believe it was written by a real person: the mention to the wife, for example, adds depth and realism.

A typical spam mail from summer 2011. A click ...

A typical spam mail from summer 2011. A click on the image in the mail would lead to an unsafe website or invoke the download of a computer virus. The image as such is harmless. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another way to get the blogger to think this is a real comment is to criticize. Criticizing, though, is quite a difficult enterprise if you don’t know what the post is about. So I have to give it to you for trying with things like:

“I’ll complain which you have copied materials from an additional source…”

The problem, again, is it sounds quite unnatural. Not only that: when you start your message with “payday loans” you kind of lose your credibility. A better take on the same would be:

“This is just a shameless rip-off from Wikipedia.”

See what I did? A lot of blog posts are actually shameless rip-offs from Wikipedia, so this is more than plausible. The word “shameless” suggests anger, which in turn suggests the presence of someone being angry, instead of some bot. With this you could go wrong in many places, but you can ensure a higher percentage of bloggers will actually publish your comment (certainly higher than whatever ridiculous percentage you’re getting now).

In my humble opinion (this is dedicated to Tongue Sandwich) the trick for getting your spam published is to say something absolutely generic that sounds tailored to that post in particular. A little like cold reading. One possibility would be to spam the whole “humor” section with something like:

“This was hilarious! I was laughing out loud from the first paragraph to the last.”

You can hardly go wrong with this one, except for those posts that only contain a picture. For the philosophy section, something like this would be applicable to 90% of the blogs:

“The fact that this is in the philosophy section is an insult to the name of philosophy.”

I’m sure you get the gist. Anyway, you probably are too busy spamming to take the time to create good comments, so I’ve decided to help you out and do your work for you. Yes, I’m that nice. Here’s a selection of possibilities, which I encourage you to copy and use at your discretion. I am sure my readers will contribute with more.

“That was bloody brilliant. Could you point me some further reading?” (Asking questions signals an engagement with the article)

“I hear ya bro.” (I’ve somehow always wanted to reply with this comment to long, wordy posts on Wittgenstein).

“This post reeks of dissatisfaction. It seeps through your words and impregnates your whole writing style like a slimy, unhappy tar. You could definitely use some Louis Vuitton bags.”

“Some piece of advice for you: never give up, stay positive, believe in yourself.” (Given the number of times I’ve seen this written by non-spammers, I would have no problem believing this came from a real person. You may look like an idiot, but a non-spamming one).

And the one that I really, truly wish you wrote:

“Hi, this is a spam message. I have no talents or skills and I am forced to make a living by selling SEO tools. So please download my plug-in so I can install a Trojan horse in your PC and steal all of your credit card passwords. Thanks.”

By the way, if you haven’t yet, check out this “spam poem” by Chasing Wild Geese.

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On the People Who Comment Here

I’ve wanted to write this post for a while. I recently talked to a friend of mine I haven’t seen in ages and she told me she loved my blog. She said she always reads it and, she emphasized, especially the comments section. She felt I’m quite lucky to have people who leave such interesting, well-written and measured comments.

This is not the first time I hear that. One of the things people praise more about my blog is precisely something I am not responsible for: the comments. Of course, I have always tried to promote a civilized debate instead of a screaming contest and the calling of names. And I have written about things I consider to be interesting so that precisely this kind of people will be inclined to comment. Furthermore, the blogs I actually visit are hosted by people who promote similar attitudes. Nevertheless, it’s still pretty impressive, especially if you take the time to visit the comment section of any major newspaper, for example.

But there’s more I’d like to say about the people who comment here. Lately I’ve been getting this weird feeling that I actually know them. Not as in “I know their names” but as in “I have a pretty clear picture of their quirks and personality.” And that is extremely weird, because I’ve never seen any of them. In fact, I sometimes feel like I’ve actually been out with this people and had a pint of lager or two. I find this exhilarating and disturbing at the same time, as if my brain couldn’t reconcile the feeling of familiarity with the lack of a physical meeting.

I sometimes think “(insert blogger) will love this” or “I wonder what (insert blogger) thinks about this.” Sometimes I find myself smiling at some comment and it’s not because of the comment itself, but because I think: “yes, that’s something you would say.” Whereas at the beginning blogging felt to me more like shouting in front of an audience, right now it feels more like going for a beer with a bunch of friends. I know all the regulars who comment here and the feeling is we’re just having a chat about whatever it is we’re thinking about that day. They pop in for a chat in my place; later I drop by theirs and say hi. It is a very strange feeling. Like the Cheers bar of blogging.

Anyway, I have to say I’m very happy with the way things are. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such an audience, but I think it’s worth mentioning: this blog seems to have attracted all the right kinds of people. People who are able to write interesting, polite, correctly-spelled comments. People who will listen and may even change their minds after an exchange, which is a very rare occurrence. People with whom I would actually love to hang out for a beer, a coffee or a glass of wine, if the opportunity ever presented itself.

I just want you guys to know that I appreciate it. And so do the rest of the readers.

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You Are Not as Poor as You Think

Today I’d like to speak about a new kind of wealth that the Internet has brought us. It is something we take for granted, maybe because it’s so ingrained in our lives that we barely even notice it.

Here I want to draw a distinction between wealth as the amount of money an individual has and wealth seen as the amount of services/goods an individual can purchase. While it is true that monetary wealth (at least for everyone but the top 10%) has decreased for almost anyone living in developed countries in the last 10 years, we have also seen an unparalleled increase in the amount of goods we have access to, thanks to a drop in the costs of cultural products.

As a side note, the rest of this article is not an endorsement of our current state of affairs: I am as irked as anyone else (probably more) by the constant loss of purchasing power of the middle class. I just want to add a drop of optimism to the otherwise pretty bleak landscape. Also, note that when I say “free” below I am not taking into account we still need to pay for an Internet connection and an Internet-capable device. I hope you’ll forgive that omission. So here we go.

Internet!

Internet! (Photo credit: LarsZi)

Seventy years ago, when you wanted entertainment you had to pay for it. Yes, you could play a game of checkers with a friend for free, but if you wanted to enjoy a novel or a movie, you had to go and give someone money. It made sense: someone had put a lot of time and effort in making them. It was only fair they got something in return.

When the radio, first, and then the TV appeared, things changed. You could be entertained for free, provided you bought your device and were willing to listen to a number of ads. The idea that content could be enjoyed without paying is quite revolutionary and, in fact, impregnates almost everything we do online today. You can actually see Google and Facebook as giant TV stations, where, again, you’re allowed to enjoy certain content in exchange for your willingness to view ads.

The amount of entertainment we can enjoy for free has grown exponentially in the last few years. For example, we can now stream virtually any song ever made either for free or for the ludicrous price of one third of the cost of a CD (yes, those shiny round things) every month. It’s like having every single record ever made in your house. Similarly, we now have access to pretty much every single book ever written (as long as that was more than 70 years ago) without having to pay a single cent for them. If you calculate the cost of having such a library, you’ll quickly see the increase in purchasing power.

Something else you may remember having in your parents’ house is an Encyclopedia. My parents still have one at their home, but I can’t recall the last time they opened it. Today, anyone with a laptop can have access to information that’s more detailed and up-to-date than any provided in a physical Encyclopedia. Free access to information is something we’ve gotten so used to it’s almost hard to remember how things were before that. I would say this is a great step towards equality: it gives everyone the opportunity and the means to learn. What people do with this opportunity is up to them, of course.

Kicking Television

Kicking Television (Photo credit: dhammza)

So music and books are now free or almost. How about movies? People still go to the cinema, but it’s getting rarer. I won’t get into piracy because that’s not technically “free” but stealing, though admittedly a much less harmful type of stealing than, say, robbing a convenience store. Having done both I know what I’m talking about. But services like Hulu and Netflix have made it possible to watch almost any TV show at any time we want, for very little or nothing. In this aspect, though, there hasn’t been much change from the TV days, except for the fact that we can now choose when we want to watch things instead of having to wait until the channel decides to broadcast it.

The Internet has also seen the birth of other cultural products that didn’t use to exist before. I’m talking about blogs, as well as the short opinions, photos and videos people share on Facebook. This is also entertainment, even though of a different nature from books. It comes in small, digestible pieces that can be easily shared; their authorship becomes diluted as they spread through the net and the source of the original meme (in the first sense of the word) is lost. Most of this content is created by people that expect nothing in return, except for a little appreciation, endorsement or debate. This is maybe the most revolutionary part: a new batch of creators is appearing which just wants to be heard, to be understood. Some want to help people; some want to become famous; some want to change the world. They pour their sweat into the Internet for the enrichment of humankind, but they don’t make a job out of it. This has never happened before and it has a socialist, almost anarchist ring to it. However, it is not orchestrated generosity; it is not state-driven collaboration, but the spontaneous effect of the need to reach out, to make connections, to fulfill an urge.

I think I’ve said enough: in fact, after I publish this, I’m going to go on Youtube and watch one of the tens of videos on how to make couscous which have been uploaded by an army of kind souls wanting to share something they do well. Then I will cook my couscous and let my wife believe that I am just such an amazing cook. And, when I do that, I will be enjoying a little more of this content I take for granted but which has changed my life in thousands of small but significant ways.

Many of my readers contribute to this huge collaborative project that is the Internet; this immense database of all human knowledge, hopes and feelings; this huge repository which, should it be the only thing left of us, will perfectly summarize who us humans were. To all of you who add your grain of sand to the mountain, be it on WordPress, Facebook, Youtube or wherever you do, giving your time and effort without getting a single cent for it: thank you. Heck, we don’t get paid. We could all use a little appreciation.

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The Anti-Week is Over

The Anti-Week is over. For those of you who don’t know about it, you may want to read this first.

It is time to reflect. Did I learn anything from it? Was it a complete waste of time? Did I realize I was wrong about some things?

Well, it wasn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, in some aspects it was enlightening.

For example, in my article about God: I found myself really wanting to believe it. Imagining myself dying and finding a God who said to me: “you’re the only one who got it right. Well done, man.”  The idea of Heaven is pretty neat. Yes, people say it would be boring to live in a paradise, but that’s because they don’t realize that boredom is a hormonal state that can be easily remedied by an all-powerful being. So there.

The article about morality was probably the one that made me doubt the most. In fact, this thought of morality being universal as a consequence of everyone being the same person seems pretty powerful. I’ve always thought the idea of a universal morality quite chimerical: in fact, I used to have long arguments with my dad about it. I remember he used to say: “the fact that nobody has found one doesn’t mean we should give up looking for it.” And he emphasized: “people confuse not being capable of figuring something out themselves with the impossibility of things being figured out altogether.” Maybe he was right! Maybe I am on the right track to build what he always hoped to see.

English: I can't vandalize... ...but I have go...

English: I can’t vandalize… …but I have got a sense of humor! Upper Bilson Street, Cinderford. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing about immortality was just fun. Especially making life sound that bleak. Maybe I just have a twisted sense of humor.

From the last two articles I learned that some things are extremely difficult to argue if you don’t believe in them. The existence of the self or of free will, for example. What’s funny is that, even though I was pretty disappointed by my defense of both, some people actually found my arguments compelling, while others thought they were rubbish. I guess it really depends on which side of the fence you’re in. My feeling was that I was just cheating: using word games and being deliberately confusing. Playing with semantics. Some people, however, disagreed. I found both reactions very interesting.

Anyway, I’m done with it. Now I can go back to being me and defend whatever I bloody please. It will be a welcome change.

Stay tuned for my new article on the benefits of faith healing.

OK, now I’m done.

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