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Mostly musings.

There Are No Right Decisions

There’s a good Folklore story about intentionally making a mess in the video game Defender. Now, I’ve never played this game, but apparently it’s a side-scrolling shooter where you’re tasked to clear waves of enemies. The story tells us about members of the original Macintosh team who had a Defender arcade cabinet in the office and would play recreationally in-between working on the Mac, and about one guy in particular who had a, uh, slightly different approach to achieving a high score. I won’t spoil it for you, but the gist of it was about getting into precarious situations to gain experience.

I know what you’re thinking, that probably sounds like a pretty normal strategy. But remember, this was the early 80s. It was a time when video games were in their infancy, and where thinking outside the box to beat the game was practically unheard of. Intentionally getting into dire situations and intentionally putting yourself under that kind of pressure in “practice situations”, just so you could have some experience for when things went sideways for real was nothing short of creative, and maybe even more so because this was a video game. There’s some kind of take-home wisdom here, I’m sure.

At the start of the year, I picked up a couple of new t-shirts. Crazy, I know, but they were on sale, and I thought Make Mistakes was representative of a philosophy I believed in — enough to wear it printed on tri-blend heather on my chest, anyway. The idea was that if someone was to come up and ask about it, I’d tell them that I strongly believed in making mistakes. That’s not saying I believe in being incompetent on purpose, or going out of your way to screw up, but making genuine mistakes. The kind you accept, learn from, and move on. Some would call that character building, but I just call it making mistakes.

Which brings us back to making decisions. I’ve briefly touched on this before, but after thinking about it, I’ve started thinking: what if there are no right decisions?

I came across an interesting piece which cemented my thoughts on this. There is no right decision talks about how we all have to make choices, all of which have consequences, and then somehow, we get this idea that there’s always a “correct” decision. And you know what? Maybe there is. With one big caveat: I can absolutely see myself arriving at a particular decision based on all the information available to me at the time, optimising for a particular outcome. At that time, maybe I do tell myself I’ve made the right choice.

But choices and consequences aren’t paired off one-to-one, like doors in a game show bonus round, each hiding either a prize or a punishment. Every action sets off endlessly rippling consequences, a cascade of effects that are often both beneficial and detrimental, both short-term and long-term, both intended and unintended, both known and unknown.

Giving up on the idea of right decisions doesn’t mean giving up on using our best judgment. But it’s a tremendous relief to recognize that getting it right, in any meaningful sense, is an impossible goal.

Here’s the rub: none of us knows the future. Even if we think, today, that we’ve made the right call, maybe two weeks from now we’ll miss out on a fantastic opportunity because of it. You should absolutely read the whole thing, but the takeaway is that there are no right decisions. That’s not saying you can’t make good decisions, but getting it right every time is something that you can’t — shouldn’t — expect to do.

Which is a good thing, because sometimes things work out OK.

I think this is usually called “getting lucky”, but we’ve all been there. Maybe we missed out on getting a promotion that we really wanted, but a really great role came up in another team. Maybe we skipped meeting up with friends, but met someone new who would later become our closest confidant.

Sure, you’ll get unlucky as many times as you get lucky. You miss all the hooks you don’t throw, and all that. But just when we’re telling ourselves that we somehow attract failure, that we are somehow cursed with bad luck or something — what, you think you’re unique? — things work themselves out.

And if they don’t, well, you’d be surprised at what you can live with.

But that’s for another time.

You Think You’re Unique?

There’s a scene in The Unit — one of my favourite TV series of all time — where one of the unit members asks another: you think you’re unique?

In that scene, Jonas asks Bob about what’s been bothering him, after Bob makes a mistake that almost compromises a mission and forces them to take up alternate sniper positions. Bob replies that he’s been struggling with the difference between the pre-meditated killing as part of his role as a member of an elite special forces unit, and how that differs to murder carried out by an individual operating on his own.

There are differences, of course, as explained to Bob in an earlier scene where he visits a military chaplain and asks about the concept of “just war”. Bob questions when the taking of life is justified, or if it’s ever necessary, but the chaplain tells him that there are always justifications for taking a life. Bob claims there are some who say that the taking of life is never justified, and the chaplain’s response is that those people employ others to protect them so they will never have to face that choice.

As they discuss the issue, Jonas wonders how long Bob’s been thinking about it, then says Bob will just have to work it out, just like everybody else. Bob questions the “everybody else” part, to which Jonas replies: “you think you’re unique? Happens to everyone. What surprises me is what took you so long.”

You think you’re unique?

I think about that a lot.

I might not be in one of the world’s most elite military special forces, but I think about it a lot. Every time I have some reason to lament my own existence, whatever harrowing circumstance I find myself in, or question my recent decision making, I wonder how many other people have ever been in the same situation I am now.

I can’t be the only one, right?

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The Money, Dota 2, and Making Decisions Addendum

This is an addendum, of sorts, to Twenty Seven. While this will (hopefully) make plenty of sense without reading that first, I’d still recommend it.

Yours truly, back in February:

Or on a more personal note, maybe life’s too short not to travel the world. Too short to have to reconcile giving up what you enjoy doing for the faint promise of career progression. Too short to not go to The International every year, or not get to one esports event in a different country. Too short to not spend time with family and friends. Too short to not talk to that pretty girl you like. Suddenly, you’re not sure what you should be doing any more, and all because life’s too short.

You — where I, of course, really mean I — could probably cross a few things off that list without worrying about what happens next. It’s (mostly) just money, after all, and you only live once.

Unfortunately, like most people I wasn’t born into wealth, and like most people will have to earn every cent I want to spend. Which probably means picking and choosing what I want to do, the places I want to go, and perhaps most importantly, the experiences I want to have. Provided I stay gainfully employed there’s probably nothing stopping me from doing an overseas trip every few years, or having an interstate jaunt a couple of times per year.

A little while back I read about spending money on experiences, not things, and it’s the same wisdom I’ve attempted to impart on others. Being a technology enthusiast is particularly terrible in this regard, because there’s always a cool new toy to buy, but lately I’ve been doing OK about justifying the things I purchase, carefully weighing up their value versus the use I’ll get out of them and a myriad of other factors, including how much I want other, perhaps more expensive, things.

My iPad Pro? Probably on the wrong side of that scale, but by the same token, my original generation iPad mini was no longer supported by the latest version of iOS, and was a little long in the tooth. My iPhone X? I think this was an OK purchase, but it’ll be better when I sell my old iPhone 7 that I had picked up the year before. (I know, I know. Don’t tell me about it.)

So yeah, life’s too short to worry about money. By the time you think you have enough of it to live comfortably, you’re wondering where the years went. Before you know it, you’re too old and frail to really enjoy the places that you probably should have been when you were still young. So you get to choose between travelling as a broke youth, travelling comfortably during your twilight years, or whatever happy medium you decide to settle for.

Which brings us to… Dota 2.

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Twenty Seven

If I had to use one word to describe how I feel right now, and how I’ve felt for a little while now, that word would be conflicted.

I’m 27 now, and decisions need to be made. Not just “what am I wearing today?” or “what am I eating tonight?”, but real, substantial decisions that will all have a major impact on my life, whether that’s for the next few months, the next few years, or even 5-10 years from now.

It seems no matter how old you are, there will always be someone to give you advice. Life advice, in particular. The kinds of things adults tell you when you’re young, but you don’t listen because, well, you’re young. When you’re young, people tell you to study hard. Get a good job. Earn real money. Buy a house. Settle down. Grow up1. And all before you’re ready for any of it, or really understand what it all means.

Now that I’m a little older, I get a slightly different set of advice. People tell me to spend my money on experiences, not things. They say everyone’s a little weird; nobody’s perfect. Everyone has flaws, but that doesn’t matter because everyone is capable of greatness anyway. People say it’s better to love and have lost than to have never loved at all. They tell you to aim high, shoot for the stars, chase your dreams, dance like no one’s watching, forge your own path, live your best life, love freely, and remember that anything is possible. Maybe not all in the same breath, but it’s all been said before. None of this is particularly new.

And now that I am a little older, there’s one piece of advice that I hear more often than any other: life’s too short.

I have a problem with “life’s too short”. Several problems, in fact, chief of which is it serves as a cop-out for the real problem: time is a cruel mistress. Youth is wasted on the young, and the advantages of being older don’t necessarily outweigh the negatives. Unless you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you’ll have to work like the rest of us, and unless you get lucky, a lot of the time, your dreams will remain just that2.

It’s enough to make anyone depressed.

“Life’s too short” makes me angry, too. Life’s too short… to what? To catch public transport? To wash your dishes by hand? To spend your days at a unfulfilling desk job, eating the same thing you had for lunch yesterday, doing the same thing you were doing a week, a month, a year ago? Perhaps, even, life’s too short to study hard. Life’s too short to get a good job. Life’s too short to earn real money, buy a house, or settle down.

Or on a more personal note, maybe life’s too short not to travel the world. Too short to have to reconcile giving up what you enjoy doing for the faint promise of career progression. Too short to not go to The International every year, or not get to one esports event in a different country. Too short to not spend time with family and friends. Too short to not talk to that pretty girl you like. Suddenly, you’re not sure what you should be doing any more, and all because life’s too short.

Congratulations, you’re now as conflicted as I am.

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Twenty Five

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Sometimes, when people ask me how old I am, I get a little confused. Especially when they combine it with questions like “so is that 23 turning 24, or 24 turning 25?” I don’t tend to think about how old I am all the time, so either I answer too quickly and get it wrong, or I think about it for longer than one might consider “normal”, get laughed at, and still get it wrong anyway.

It didn’t used to be this way, but over the past couple of years I’ve noticed it happening more and more. I’ve filled out enough online forms to know what my birth date is, so I should at least be able to calculate how old I am, but for some reason, deriving an answer to “how old are you” doesn’t come easily. Maybe I’m just over-thinking things, and I should add “I am 25 years old” to the list of things that I just know, like my (rough) height and weight. Maybe this is just what getting old is like.

Truth be told, I wasn’t planning on writing a birthday post this year. Or last year, for that matter. I had plenty of age and maturity-related thoughts when I was writing a birthday post from a few years ago, but when the time came to write about something last year, or something this year, none of the topics I had swirling around in my head wanted to coalesce into something of substance. No matter how long the bus or train ride was, nothing seemed pertinent enough to write about as the main topic of yet another birthday post.

Which is weird, because last year, more than any other, has been a pretty big year. Almost too big to write about, really, given that I accepted my first full-time job, which meant moving out of home and deciding what personal possessions I’d be bringing to another city in another state (computers, electronics, then everything else, in that order).

I made a trip to the US to watch The International, the biggest Dota 2 tournament in the world, as well as check out some west coast cities.

And so far, it’s been the first Christmas I’ve spent without any immediate family, the first New Year, and probably my first birthday. I can’t say for sure, obviously, but it certainly feels that way. Not that I mind about any of that. It was all going to happen eventually, and I’m glad it happened in at least somewhat positive circumstances.

If you’ve read any of my tweets from this year, you’ll know that growing up is, for the most part, pretty awful. No one’s talking about the freedom you get when you live alone, away from your immediately family, but when you work full time, people kind of know what you’re doing most of the time.

What they’re not telling you about is how awful it is having to do all of the washing up. Or needing to eat, but not wanting to do the washing up, and lacking the disposable incoming to eat out or get takeaway more than a few nights a week. Or how house inspections only happen four times per year, but even that feels too often. Or how having getting paid every fortnight feels great, at least until the bills and rent come in, at which point all your hard-earned leaves your bank account. The days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, and a lot of the time, it feels as though I’m living to work, instead of working to live.

People ask me if I’d go back to uni to study, and I usually answer that while the actual study part was pretty awful, the lifestyle was pretty great. Not having to wake up early to go to work, not having to spend the entire day at uni, and occasionally being able to have entire days to myself. Now that I work full time, the only time that I really get is from evenings and weekends.

What it comes down to is a lack of time. If I’m playing video games every evening, then I’m not cooking, or doing the washing up. If I’m on call on the weekend, then I have to squeeze in buying groceries into my “lunch break”, or go shopping after work during the week. Every time I decide to clean my tiny unit, do some ironing for the week, or whatever else needs doing that I didn’t get around to doing last week is another time I’m not playing games on the internet with friends, and as the old adage goes, all work and no play makes Benny a dull boy.

Of course, the solution here might seem pretty simple: give up video games. But games have been such a huge part of my life that giving up video games would be like giving up a part of myself, like trading in my childhood for a shot at adulthood.

And that’s kind of what this is all about. My friends have been moving out, getting married, and settling down for years now. Some times I wish I experienced those things earlier, but I’m happy enough with how things have turned out so far.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the work that I’m doing. But there are times I wish it took up less of my time than it currently does. Some of the time, I wonder what it’d be like to be mostly-unemployed and have heaps of time, or what it would be like to have no time and be earning an amount to make it not matter. Perhaps there’s not much difference between the two, after all, but I guess that’s why they call it life.

Here’s to another year, whatever craziness it may bring.

2014: The Year Twitter Kind Of, Well, Sucked

If I remember one thing about 2014, it’s how the internet, and Twitter in particular, kind of sucked.

A little backstory: I’ve been on Twitter since 2009. The microblogging social network helped (or hindered, I’m not sure which is more accurate) me through university, and really started to drive home having the internet — or at least a small microcosm of it — around in my pocket all the time. For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed Twitter. It lets me hear the personal opinions and musings of people I admire and respect, both about topics that interest me and ones that don’t. By following the right people, I’ve had some smart opinions and eye-opening perspectives tweeted into my timeline. Most of my reading material comes from Twitter, and while I don’t watch the news or read a newspaper, Twitter keeps me informed about all the stuff I need to know about.

On a more personal level, I’ve averaged about 5000 tweets per year since I joined. I tweet about pretty boring crap, mostly, because that’s just the kind of person I am — one who’s also aware of his public profile and the fact his tweets may eventually be used against him in some way, and the less fuel for that fire, the better. I’ve typically followed anywhere around 600-800 people, which is enough to keep my timeline busy enough to keep me interested and have something new every time I refresh it and enough to not get completely overwhelmed by a deluge of tweets. I generally don’t care about how many people follow me, although I confess it is a nice ego boost to see a large number of people read my drivel.

Last year, though, was different. According to my app for Twitter statistics, this time last year I followed 842 people, had 889 followers, and tweeted 19,851 times. Compare that with the current numbers (605 following, 938 followers, and 21,187 tweets) and you’ll see that I unfollowed over 300 people and only tweeted over a thousand times, one fifth that of previous years. Interesting.

Chalk it up to the mainstreaming of Twitter or people being unfamiliar with a medium which allowed them to communicate with their social circle instantaneously, every moment of every day, but last year I found out Twitter had disadvantages as much as it had advantages.

At first, I realised it was probably unhealthy to be checking something as frequently as I checked Twitter, but at the same time, I didn’t want to miss anything from my carefully-curated list of people and brands/websites I followed. One re-evaluation of my priorities later, and I started the great unfollowing of 2014, culling around 300 people from my list and eliminating that noise from my life. With a less noisy timeline, I could focus on the people and things that really mattered.

But even that wasn’t enough. I started taking longer and longer breaks from the service. My weeks-long journey overseas made me realise I could do without reading Twitter for extended days at a time, and when I arrived back in the land of mobile internet and Wi-Fi, not having that constant connectivity meant I didn’t check the service as frequently as I used to. It was good, but at the same time, I felt like I was missing out, like I was out of touch with people I cared about.

I returned to Twitter just before the middle of the year. For a while, things were fine: my signal-to-noise ratio was good, and I didn’t feel compelled to read Twitter every waking minute.

Gamergate comic via NerfNow

Gamergate comic via NerfNow

Then Gamer Gate happened. Overnight, my timeline turned from updates from people I cared about to people retweeting toxic comments into my timeline, leveraging their high follower counts in order to get some kind of public retribution for the offender in question. Suddenly, pretty much every American I followed was obsessed about ethics in game journalism, social justice warriors, and feminism — the latter of which has always been an issue, but a topic I’ve mostly avoided on Twitter thanks to the firefight that usually follows1. Now, though, it was pretty much unavoidable.

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