One Year On

A year is a long time.

On the 16th of December last year, I was on Facebook. Nothing unusual about this (I spent and indeed, to a slightly lesser extent, still spend rather too much time with that little blue f in the top corner of my screen), especially given that it was the run up to Christmas and I was bored, and neither was the precise content of the bit of Facebook I was looking at- an argument. Such things are common in the weird world of social networking, although they surely shouldn’t be, and this was just another such time. Three or four people were posting long, eloquent, semi-researched and furiously defended messages over some point of ethics, politics or internet piracy, I know not which (it was probably one of those anyway, since that’s what most of them seem to be about among my friends list). Unfortunately, one of those people was me, and I was losing. Well, I say losing; I don’t think anybody could be said to be winning, but I was getting angry and upset all the same, made worse by the realisation that what I was doing was a COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME. I am not in any position whereby my Views are going to have a massive impact on the lives of everyone else, nobody wants to hear what they are, and there was no way in hell that I was going to convince anyone that my opinion was more ‘right’ than their strongly-held conviction- all I and my fellow arguees were achieving was getting very, very angry at one another, actively making us all more miserable. We could pretend that we were debating an important issue, but in reality were just another group of people screaming at one another via the interwebs.

A little under a week later, the night after the winter solstice (22nd of December, which you should notice was exactly 366 days ago), I was again to be found watching an argument unfold on Facebook. Thankfully this time I was not participating, merely looking on with horror as another group of four or five people made their evening miserable by pretending they could convince others that they were ‘wrong’. The provocativeness of the original post, spouting one set of Views as gospel truth over the web, the self-righteousness of the responses and the steadily increasing vitriol of the resulting argument, all struck me as a terrible waste of some wonderful brains. Those participating I knew to be good people, smart people, capable of using their brains for, if not betterment of the world around them, then perhaps a degree of self-betterment or at the very least something that was not making the world a more unhappy place. The moment was not a happy one.

However, one of the benefits of not competing in such an argument is that I didn’t have to be reminded of it or spend much time watching it unfold, so I turned back to my news feed and began scrolling down. As I did so, I came to another friend, putting a link up to his blog. This was a recent experiment for him, only a few posts old at the time, and he self-publicised it religiously every time a post went up. He has since discontinued his blogging adventures, to my disappointment, but they made fun reading whilst they lasted; short (mostly less than 300 words) and covering a wide range of random topics. He wasn’t afraid to just be himself online, and wasn’t concerned about being definitively right; if he offered an opinion, it was just something he thought, no more & no less, and there was no sense that it was ever combative. Certainly it was never the point of any post he made; each was just something he’d encountered in the real world or online that he felt would be relatively cool and interesting to comment on. His description described his posts as ‘musings’, and that was the right word for them; harmless, fun and nice. They made the internet and world in general, in some tiny little way, a nicer place to explore.

So, I read through his post. I smirked a little, smiled and closed the tab, returning once more to Facebook and the other distractions & delights the net had to offer. After about an hour or so, my thoughts once again turned to the argument, and I rashly flicked over to look at how it was progressing. It had got to over 100 comments and, as these things do, was gradually wandering off-topic to a more fundamental, but no less depressing, point of disagreement. I was once again filled with a sense that these people were wasting their lives, but this time my thoughts were both more decisive and introspective. I thought about myself; listless, counting down the last few empty days before Christmas, looking at the occasional video or blog, not doing much with myself. My schedule was relatively free, I had a lot of spare time, but I was wasting it. I thought of all the weird and wonderful thoughts that flew across my brain, all the ideas that would spring and fountain of their own accord, all of the things that I thought were interesting, amazing or just downright wonderful about our little mental, spinning ball of rock and water and its strange, pink, fleshy inhabitants that I never got to share. Worse, I never got to put them down anywhere, so after time all these thoughts would die in some forgotten corner of my brain, and the potential they had to remind me of themselves was lost. Once again, I was struck by a sense of waste, but also of resolve; I could try to remedy this situation. So, I opened up WordPress, I filled out a few boxes, and I had my own little blog. My fingers hovered over the keyboard, before falling to the keys. I began to write a little introduction to myself.

Today, the role of my little corner of the interwebs has changed somewhat. Once, I would post poetry, lists, depressed trains of thought and last year’s ’round robin letter of Planet Earth’, which I still regard as one of the best concepts I ever put onto the net (although I don’t think I’ll do one this year- not as much major stuff has hit the news). Somewhere along the line, I realised that essays were more my kind of thing, so I’ve (mainly) stuck to them since; I enjoy the occasional foray into something else, but I find that I can’t produce as much regular stuff this was as otherwise. In any case, the essays have been good for me; I can type, research and get work done so much faster now, and it has paid dividends to my work rate and analytical ability in other fields. I have also found that in my efforts to add evidence to my comments, I end up doing a surprising amount of research that turns an exercise in writing down what I know into one of increasing the kind of stuff I know, learning all sorts of new and random stuff to pack into my brain. I have also violated my own rules about giving my Views on a couple of occasions (although I would hope that I haven’t been too obnoxious about it when I have), but broadly speaking the role of my blog has stayed true to those goals stated in my very first post; to be a place free from rants, to be somewhere to have a bit of a laugh and to be somewhere to rescue unwary travellers dredging the backwaters of the internet who might like what they’ve stumbled upon. But, really, this little blog is like a diary for me; a place that I don’t publicise on my Facebook feed, that I link to only rarely, and that I keep going because I find it comforting. It’s a place where there’s nobody to judge me, a place to house my mind and extend my memory. It’s stressful organising my posting time and coming up with ideas, but whilst blogging, the rest of the world can wait for a bit. It’s a calming place, a nice place, and over the last year it has changed me.

A year is a long time.

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Up one level

In my last post (well, last excepting Wednesday’s little topical deviation), I talked about the real nuts and bolts of a computer, detailing the function of the transistors that are so vital to the workings of a computer. Today, I’m going to take one step up and study a slightly broader picture, this time concerned with the integrated circuits that utilise such components to do the real grunt work of computing.

An integrated circuit is simply a circuit that is not comprised of multiple, separate, electronic components- in effect, whilst a standard circuit might consist of a few bits of metal and plastic connected to one another by wires, in an IC they are all stuck in the same place and all assembled as one. The main advantage of this is that since all the components don’t have to be manually stuck to one another, but are built in circuit form from the start, there is no worrying about the fiddliness of assembly and they can be mass-produced quickly and cheaply with components on a truly microscopic scale. They generally consist of several layers on top of the silicon itself, simply to allow space for all of the metal connecting tracks and insulating materials to run over one another (this pattern is usually, perhaps ironically, worked out on a computer), and the sheer detail required of their manufacture surely makes it one of the marvels of the engineering world.

But… how do they make a computer work? Well, let’s start by looking at a computer’s memory, which in all modern computers takes the form of semiconductor memory. Memory takes the form of millions upon millions of microscopically small circuits known as memory circuits, each of which consists of one or more transistors. Computers are electronic, meaning to only thing they understand is electricity- for the sake of simplicity and reliability, this takes the form of whether the current flowing in a given memory circuit is ‘on’ or ‘off’. If the switch is on, then the circuit is represented as a 1, or a 0 if it is switched off. These memory circuits are generally grouped together, and so each group will consist of an ordered pattern of ones and zeroes, of which there are many different permutations. This method of counting in ones and zeroes is known as binary arithmetic, and is sometimes thought of as the simplest form of counting. On a hard disk, patches of magnetically charged material represent binary information rather than memory circuits.

Each little memory circuit, with its simple on/off value, represents one bit of information. 8 bits grouped together forms a byte, and there may be billions of bytes in a computer’s memory. The key task of a computer programmer is, therefore, to ensure that all the data that a computer needs to process is written in binary form- but this pattern of 1s and 0s might be needed to represent any information from the content of an email to the colour of one pixel of a video. Clearly, memory on its own is not enough, and the computer needs some way of translating the information stored into the appropriate form.

A computer’s tool for doing this is known as a logic gate, a simple electronic device consisting of (you guessed it) yet more transistor switches. This takes one or two inputs, either ‘on’ or ‘off’ binary ones, and translates them into another value. There are three basic types:  AND gates (if both inputs equal 1, output equals 1- otherwise, output equals 0), OR gates (if either input equals 1, output equals 1- if both inputs equal 0, output equals 0), and NOT gates (if input equals 1, output equals 0, if input equals 0, output equals 1). The NOT gate is the only one of these with a single input, and combinations of these gates can perform other functions too, such as NAND (not-and) or XOR (exclusive OR; if either input equals 1, output equals 1, but if both inputs equal 1 or 0, output equals 0) gates. A computer’s CPU (central processing unit) will contain hundreds of these, connected up in such a way as to link various parts of the computer together appropriately, translate the instructions of the memory into what function a given program should be performing, and thus cause the relevant bit (if you’ll pardon the pun) of information to translate into the correct process for the computer to perform.

For example, if you click on an icon on your desktop, your computer will put the position of your mouse and the input of the clicking action through an AND gate to determine that it should first highlight that icon. To do this, it orders the three different parts of each of the many pixels of that symbol to change their shade by a certain degree, and the the part of the computer responsible for the monitor’s colour sends a message to the Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU), the computer’s counting department, to ask what the numerical values of the old shades plus the highlighting is, to give it the new shades of colour for the various pictures. Oh, and the CPU should also open the program. To do this, its connections send a signal off to the memory to say that program X should open now. Another bit of the computer then searches through the memory to find program X, giving it the master ‘1’ signal that causes it to open. Now that it is open, this program routes a huge amount of data back through the CPU to tell it to change the pattern of pretty colours on the screen again, requiring another slue of data to go through the ALU, and that areas of the screen A, B and C are now all buttons, so if you click there then we’re going to have to go through this business all over again. Basically the CPU’s logical function consists of ‘IF this AND/OR this happens, which signal do I send off to ask the right part of the memory what to do next?’. And it will do all this in a miniscule fraction of a second. Computers are amazing.

Obviously, nobody in their right mind is going to go through the whole business of telling the computer exactly what to do with each individual piece of binary data manually, because if they did nothing would ever get done. For this purpose, therefore, programmers have invented programming languages to translate their wishes into binary, and for a little more detail about them, tune in to my final post on the subject…

Equality vs. Superiority

Has anyone here heard of Anita Sarkeesian? If not, I don’t blame you- I hadn’t either until this morning. She is a feminist activist and video blogger, who recently decided to start a video series entitled ‘Tropes vs Women in Videogames’, in an effort to discuss and address some of the clichés (tropes) that game developers continually use in their portrayal of female characters, the archetypal one being armour (such as that on World of Warcraft) that leaves very little to the imagination. To both fund (since this is one of her main sources of income) and publicise this project, she set up a Kickstarter page (asking for$6,000), and posted a YouTube video… and this is where the trouble started.

As I have said before, the internet (and YouTube in particular) has always attracted the loud, shouty and mind-blowingly offensive, but the response to this video really took the biscuit. I won’t bore you by listing all the comments here, but suffice it to say that the sheer outpouring of hate was quite something to behold. The sheer anger awoken at the merest mention of feminism is quite truly staggering, and it didn’t end there- her Wikipedia page was repeatedly vandalised with explicit sexual references, matching pictures and links to porn sites until it was taken down, at which point the ‘trolls’ started spamming her Kickstarter page to try and get the company to shut her down (although, to their credit, they left it up and her campaign has now received something like $50,000, so there are at least some generous people out there).

The thing that really struck me about the whole business though was the arguments being made against her. For a change, at least some YouTube commenters appeared to actually have a reason for their outrage, and were at least trying (between bouts of  CAPITAL LETTERS and overuse of the word ‘bullshit’) to say what it was.

One chief argument is the current most popular anti-feminist one, namely because it is the only argument with even an ounce of sanity behind it- the idea that nowadays feminism is not about promoting equality, but instead about promoting female supremacy. Now, I actually get where this argument is coming from, because it is actually an issue. Some of the points being raised included the lack of rights for divorced fathers (an area in which I am not especially knowledgeable but am aware there is room for improvement), and the increasing trend for feminists to blame everything bad men do to women on sexism and everything bad women do to men to either be ignored or dismissed as an enigma. This was often linked to another argument regularly championed, namely that complaining about representing women as sex objects in videogames was unjustified because 99% of male gaming characters are the kind of muscled hunks who represent male sex objects, which men never complain about and in any case sex appeal is a necessary selling point of many games. The other main argument centred around ‘why the hell is she asking for money for what she could do for free?’, but since this argument is 1) irrelevant and 2) not thought through (this is her job, so she could do with some cash for it- and more importantly there is no requirement for you to donate so if you dislike the idea then just don’t give her money), I’m just going to stick to the first two arguments for now.

Since so much has been offered championing these two ideas, I thought I would begin by offering the feminist counter-argument to them, so that people can understand the issue fully. Both arguments are, in actuality, perfectly valid and do have evidence to back them up- however, whilst they are entirely appropriate in some scenarios, trouble arises from when they are applied in the wrong place. For example- complaining that women are overly prejudiced against men if a female candidate is preferred over a better-qualified male candidate by a female selector (I will not mention the issue of quotas here, but may in another post) is completely valid. Complaining in this way when a man is given a 20-year sentence for sexual assault is, however, entirely inappropriate.Thus, in this case, the ‘male’ viewpoint thinks that it is entirely appropriate to claim that ‘feminism has gone too far’, because it thinks that the representation of men as muscular ‘perfect males’ means that both men and women are treated as sex objects equally in games. The ‘female’ argument however holds the opinion that T&A is used far more for pure sex appeal than the muscular build of male characters, and that this balance should be redressed by adding more realistic and deep female characters to the gaming world.

To all men reading this (I should probably remind everyone at this point that I am male), feminists have a reason for believing this- and it’s purely social. One bone of contention among feminists is that a sexually overactive male is championed as a ‘ladies’ man’, whilst a comparable woman is simply degraded as a ‘slut’. The old, and relatively true, unfortunately, argument to counter this is the old ‘locks and keys’ principle- the traditional roles of men and women in sex, throughout the animal kingdom in fact, is of the male actively seeking sex wherever it can get it and of the female ‘witholding herself’ until she has found a male she is willing to mate with. Thus, we have locks and keys- a key that can open a lot of locks is an impressive tool, a ladies’ man, whilst a lock that can be opened by a lot of keys is rather insecure and considered a bit rubbish, a slut (my apologies for the rather crude imagery here). The same kind of thing applies in the whole ‘sex objects’ thing- when a man looks at a particularly well-endowed female character, she is more likely to be immediately viewed as a potential sex object to be sought out, whereas if a woman looks at a strong, muscular, impressive guy then he is less likely to be viewed as a one until he ‘comes on’. Thus, one use of female sexual iconography is not ‘balanced out’ by even a large number of ‘ideal men’ unless the sexual link is made explicitly. This also does not take into account the fact that these ‘ideal men’ that people claim are sex symbols are never as provocatively dressed as their female counterparts, which only strengthens the focus on sex appeal portrayed by female characters and skews the balance in favour of the objectification of women.

This counter-argument is, in some ways, no more valid than it’s ‘male’ counterpart- both are opinions based on whether one thinks that sexual imagery within videogames is overly focused towards women or not. If this matter were debated below Sarkeesian’s video, then I actually think it would be beneficial towards all concerned. What I don’t think is right however, is the hideous attacks that have been made against her in that space.

Disagree with her opinion? Fine, make your voice heard. But to attack her personally, to label her “a fucking hypocrite slut”, a coward, to attack her as a Jew, call her a “feminazi” and then claim that her dubbing these people “sexist trolls” is just because ‘oh she has a different opinion to us, so we’re CLEARLY all dicks’ or, worse, ‘because she’s wrong’? That, people, is just being a bunch of idiotic, insensitive morons. Some of the posts just resort to abject rubbish, claiming that ‘women get everything for free’ and ‘why should I have to pay if we get a divorce?’ (quick legal detour- normally because you were her only source of income and she could probably do with a hand to make sure she and your kids don’t starve and have to live out on the streets), and other assorted rubbish. Not only that, but the men (predominantly) posting these are only giving her more ammo, letting her ‘show the world how sexist men still are’, when in reality most of us have got nothing against women being our equals.

I’m not entirely sure where to stand on modern feminism- I entirely agree with equal rights for both sexes, and agree that their representation is not yet equal, but am in places unsure whether they’re pushing a little too far or in the wrong direction. I’m also not sure where I stand on Anita Sarkeesian. But I don’t have to have any views to be appalled at the way she’s been attacked in this scenario, and to condemn the rank idiocy of what is, once again, a minority misrepresenting a huge slice of culture. I mean seriously guys- what the f*&£ are you on?