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Sunday, July 26, 2009

When I Grow Up, I Want To Do Everything

♫ Some Day Myself Will Come… ♫
Back in the days when I was younger and wilder, I had many dreams to fill my thoughts with. I dreamt of programming a perfect replica of human intelligence. I dreamt of single-handedly creating hit science fiction movies. I dreamt of crafting educational software to put the school system to shame. I dreamt of writing "quests" the likes of which the world had never seen. I dreamt of gaining the respect and admiration of those who looked down at me.

Most people never figure out life.

At the age of eleven, I had already solved it.

All the wasted time at school gave me the opportunity to think about my plan, a comprehensive set of logical steps that would get me exactly where I wanted to be.

Step 1: 3D
I had figured out the basics of programming by messing around with the Visual Basic 2.0 demo. In recesses, I'd borrow Chayim's scientific calculator and program my trademark cheating guessing game-------
if guess=num (num=getRnd(min,max))
if guess=num & min=num & max=num (write "You win!")
on it, or use it to plot out random graphs to see if I could make them look cool. I was on the right track. Okay, so I'd never finished any program more impressive than the guessing games, but anything was doable. So I thought a lot about how 3D graphics were supposed to work. I didn't like the idea of polygons, so I wanted to program a 3D equivalent of pixels, where every object you see is made of tiny cubes in a 3-dimensional grid. It didn't seem like such a hard thing to implement; I just needed to figure out how perspective worked, and the job was half done!

Step 2: Arellian
I had almost finished my logical alphabet, where the connections between letters are perfectly intuitive and logical. I needed to start working on the vocabulary. It would use a modified version of Hebrew's "root" logic, because it just makes everything more sensible. In addition, you could get the opposite of any word by spelling it backwards. And the longer a word, the more specialized its meaning. There would be short words talking about general concepts, so that you could have a basic conversation without having an advanced vocabulary. But adding on more letters to the start and end would add on subtleties and contexts and connotations and iterations. Starting from these rules, I'd eventually deduce the single most logical language in the world. I believed I'd find that in the end, there would only be one solution to this problem.

Step 3: AI
The most important part of intelligence is learning. If I could just make a program that would learn from me, it could figure out all the rest for itself. I gave a lot of thought to how the files would be organized, where each file is a learned behavior and the files are in folders and are all connected to each other but the computer program changes all that on its own. If it saw me acting differently than the appropriate file suggested that a person should act, then it would create another file to go alongside it suggesting an alternate behavior for that context. Then it would have to figure out the more subtle difference behind the two situations, which is just a math problem. When it decided on its own behavior, it would never have exactly the same situations so it'd pick whichever file was closest, and then adjust the programming of that file based on what reaction it got. All pretty straightforward. I'd already picked out a name for my first AI: "Artie". We'd have all sorts of fun together. The Arellian language would now come into use, because any robot would be driven mad by the current languages. Trying to speak to my Artie in English would add years on to the time it'd take to train him!

Step 4: Movies
Once Artie was reasonably independent, I'd teach him English and show him lots of movies so he could imitate famous actors' performances in 3D. If I gave him enough movies to watch, he'd eventually figure out how to play from any script, and with any style of performance! (He'd probably need to organize all the different styles of performance himself, though I could help him out a bit.) Then I'd write a script, a high-stakes time-travel story of some sort. (I was always thinking about the first scene, since the rest would follow once I got that right.) Artie would play all the parts, and it would all use my 3D graphics to look totally realistic, and -Voila!- professional movies by the age of 18.

Step 5: Quests
Once I was able to do movies, I could just make it exponentially more detailed (This is just math, really.) and I'd have some amazing adventure games. I'd just need to design the branching paths so that everything you can do leads to a good movie. All the characters would actually be AI-actors (probably Artie's successors by that point), because you need to be able to talk to them (via a microphone) and it's not conceivable that I could program all that manually. Those would also be futuristic science-fiction stories. I'd brand them as "VCQs", which is short for "voice-controlled quests".

Step 6: Education
Once I knew how to make games, I could figure out how to teach. The trouble with teachers was, they didn't understand anything. They knew what the material was that needed to be taught, but they didn't understand the logic behind the material, and they certainly didn't understand how that could be fun. But I could figure out how to make stuff fun. I'd release some educational software under the heading of "Orot Software", named after my elementary school not because I liked my school the tiniest bit, but because there was more to my plan than that. See, my software (being based on an intelligent evaluation of the player and good game design) would be so much more effective than the school system that within five years, I would utterly replace all schools, and all teachers would be out of a job. So the point of the name was actually going to be to rub it in their faces that I could do their jobs better than them.

Step 7: Whatever
By that point, I'd pretty much have reached the point where I could do anything I liked. Maybe I'd make a comic strip, or maybe an RTS game. Or maybe I'd get to work on that time machine, because I still had no idea how that was going to work.

This didn't happen, of course. I utterly failed to live up to my own standards. My 18th birthday came and went, and three more after that. I've still never gotten serious about figuring out 3D graphics, I never made a language to go with my alphabet, I've never come to understand intelligence, I no longer feel any need to make movies, I don't think I'll be able to ever teach anyone, and the closest I've come to an adventure game is Smilie. I rarely leave this room, and most of the time I've got this nagging feeling in the back of my head that life is supposed to be more than this. Life's supposed to make sense. And it doesn't.

It occurs to me that maybe the sentiment behind the old plan is still there. After all, I still want to do everything. I made a character and a strategy game, and now I'm trying to make a movement game and then an exploration game and then an adventure game and someday a platformer and a role-playing game and a metalude. These are all separate worlds, and we act like they're all one medium. So I can say "I want to be a gamist!", and because it's so simple to understand that it seems like it'll be simple to do. I guess that makes me happy. I can be realistic, and still know that I'm eventually gonna get to step 7. It might just take a bit longer than I anticipated.



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Most of the things that make me happy are really simple.



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Friday, July 24, 2009

Yo Ho, Yo Ho…

I feel no guilt in saying that I get and always have gotten most of my entertainment illegally. I'm afraid that people will despise me, but I'm not afraid that I'm doing the wrong thing. This is just the way the world works now, there's nothing unethical about it.

When I was a kid, almost the only entertainment I had was TV shows. And almost the only TV shows I ever watched (since we never picked up more than two channels) were the Star Trek episodes my father had taped off American TV.

Then I discovered the internet, and I finally was exposed to games. Good games, not the shareware and educational trash which I'd been exposed to before. I found a Game Boy emulator and played through Pokémon Yellow, and then I'd go to school and hand out floppy disks with the same to anyone who'd take 'em. One kid then went out and bought himself a Game Boy so he could play it "for real", having never been exposed to videogames before and therefore not knowing what a rip-off the Israeli prices were.

I played other Nintendo games: Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time. Ah, Ocarina of Time. The game that showed me what games could be. And understand, before piracy I had nothing. I'd never touched a game system. But after playing Ocarina of Time, well, I wanted the next one. I read that a new Zelda game was coming to the Gamecube, and I went out and bought myself a Gamecube.

Every penny of the (literally) thousands of dollars I've spent on games is because of piracy. So don't you look at me like I'm corrupting your economy. The creators who think that every single copy of their work should earn them the amount of money that they've decided on, well, they're just being greedy. If I created stuff, I'd want as many people to experience it as possible. That's the point of creating anything. Getting every last penny you feel you're "owed" is not the point.

And still Nintendo tries to attack me as though I'm some sort of disease. I have the Homebrew Channel on the Wii, so that I can (illegally) play the old games which Nintendo refuses to sell me. Uniracers, in particular. I really wanted to play that on a real game system with a real controller. So I installed the Homebrew Channel, I enjoy the game every now and then, and every time I install a new system update I have to be worried that this is the time they'll catch up to the hackers and prevent me from being able to ever play Uniracers again. They keep trying, and the hackers keep coming up with ways of getting around whatever they set up.

Thank god for hackers.

Now, you might well ask why I bother to pay these corporate slimebags who try to attack me. It's a good question. I could give a whole bunch of rational-sounding answers, but they all feel a bit false to me, even as far as rationalizations usually go. I think there's an element of capitalist indoctrination there, that I feel that if I'm enjoying something enough to pay for it I should make an effort to pay for it. So if I see a decent sale, or some other opportunity to pay for stuff which I've already been enjoying for free, I usually take it. I've played games for literally hundreds of hours on emulators before buying legal copies. Generally used, since the new ones are more expensive than I can afford. Which I guess doesn't make a whole lot of sense- what's the difference between buying a used game and downloading an emulated game, exactly? But that's why I'm categorizing all this under "indoctrination" and not attributing rationality to it.

I'm going to switch topics a little bit and talk about comic books. Comic books are the exception to the general rule that piracy leads to actual purchases. And that's because the illegally-obtained comics are better than the legal ones.

As usual, a brief personal history: as a kid I only knew newspaper comic strips. Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, Peanuts. That's about all I knew. Oh, and once I was at a friend's house whose father collected comics, and I read his limited-edition "Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times" hardcover, which I later found out no one was allowed to touch. Uncle Scrooge is amazingly good. (I read it on the computer now.) But the Marvel and DC comics, the superhero stuff, I had no exposure to that. The first time I read a superhero comic, I had already seen the first X-Men movie (which I liked a lot) and the first Spider-Man movie (which I didn't), but superheroes were never "for me", they were what I had heard that other people liked. A classmate in ninth grade let me read a Batman comic, and I'm sure it wasn't a particularly good comic but it somewhat impressed me. Not enough to search out more, mind you. But I could see myself getting involved in a superhero comic.

And then at some point I found out that J. Michael Straczynski, the guy who made all those Babylon 5 episodes I'd downloaded off the internet, was writing Amazing Spider-Man. So I downloaded the entire run up to that point. That's what got me hooked on superhero comics. And every week after that, I'd go into these archaic chat-rooms (Even then they were archaic, but they were the only semi-reliable source I could find.) and download the new comics directly from someone nice enough to share them with me.

Now, it's not like I've never payed for any comics. I have two volumes of Fables (my favorite one and the first), the hardcover of Omega the Unknown, and the entire $90 set of Bone in color. (Bone is my favorite comic ever.) But I also have copies of all three on the computer. And that's because the computer comics experience is so much better.

The enjoyment I get from comics is threefold:
  1. The intended entertainment of reading the comic.
  2. Collecting and organizing the comics.
  3. Sharing the comics and socializing about them.
To be sure, people who read comics on paper can get all three as well. But I would argue that they can't get as much out of the comics as I do.

1. Reading
Comic books are small, and the art is shrunk down to fit on the page. With good art, I want it to be bigger. I was so disappointed when I got that first Bone book and saw how much less of the nuance of the art I could make out than I'd seen on the computer screen. Now, I'll grant you that the quality of the reading is dependent on the quality of the screen. But even with my awful screen, I feel like I'm appreciating the art much better when I can make it whatever size I like.

(There are certain comics which absolutely can't be scrolled through at a large size without losing a lot. Most of David Mack's comics, for instance. But these are rare.)

Comic books are also filled with ads, which of course the illegal scanners take out. So the flow of the story is uninterrupted.

2. Collecting
I've discovered that I really enjoy organizing things. Every time there's a comic I like, I take off the scanner's tag, change the filename to whatever the title is, and put it in a folder which fits into a chronological order of the timeline. Half the fun of a superhero universe (for me) is how it keeps crossing over with itself in new and interesting ways. Because each one is a new and fun challenge.

A few years ago, Marvel had a massive crossover called Civil War which almost everything tied into. Well, not only did I take all the issues I liked and put them in chronological order (That goes without saying.), but I edited the whole crossover together in a way that felt intentional, like the whole thing was one big novel and I was just assembling it. I think I succeeded in organizing and editing the seventy-odd issues that I kept, so that if you start at the beginning and read through issue by issue in order it seems like the whole thing is one story. (Even though that wasn't the intention of the creators!)

That's the beauty of digital files- you can do whatever you like with them. When I see a typo, well, why should I have a typo in my comics collection? I take out the offending page, and I fix it. That's often harder than you'd think. Comic scans are necessarily imperfect, because it's not coming direct from the digital source. Actually printing the thing causes a lot of flaws, and then scanning it back into the computer messes it up further. None of this is especially noticeable while reading, but if I'm editing the file the imperfections need to be consistent throughout the image, so I can only change it by using other parts of the image to patch over it. But here I'm getting too technical. The bottom line is, I can change the images.

I have gone quite far in abusing this ability. During Civil War, there were some issues which added a really interesting element to the overall story I was constructing, but weren't actually good comics. So I'd chop them up! In the most radical case, I took a nearly-unbearable three issues with wasted potential, and edited them down to one 15-page issue which was entertaining. Don't underestimate the power of editing.

And why does a comic need to be exactly 22 pages, anyway? It's because that's the standard length for the paper they're using. In a digital file, it makes no difference! So if there's a back-up story which is really terrible, I can chop it out! And sometimes I do the opposite, adding in pages to the beginning of a comic (before a cover) from earlier issues. Only when there's a good reason for it, of course. But anyway. On a computer, keeping these comics and organizing them into CDs isn't just collecting. It's a creative exercise as well.

3. Socializing
At first I was just doing all this editing for my own benefit. Truthfully, I still mainly am. But I also give the CDs to neighbors now. They wouldn't otherwise read this stuff, and even if they did I imagine they'd only read one or two comics maximum. But I can give them an entire superhero universe in neat chunks of 700 MBs, which they can see what they like in. So I've got two neighbors who I've been giving the discs to, one after the other. It's not unlike how I used to hand out floppy disks in elementary school.

The point of all this is not just to get other people to experience the same things I've experienced (though you know how obsessed I am with that), but also to give topics for conversation. The people I give these comics to are guaranteed to have somewhat different reactions than me, which means I can ask them why and talk about what worked and what didn't and where it all might be going.

Bottom line, digital comics are great. The only legal way to get new comics is to take a train to Tel Aviv (a garbage-dump of a city an hour away) and find a comic store, and then I won't be able to do what I like with it. Sorry, that's not even remotely enticing. Even if I bought the collections, they're much more rigidly constructed than my CDs, because they've only got the space for six or seven issues per book. (Space limitations are so old-fashioned.) I really couldn't go legal without losing a lot.

The trouble with comics piracy is where I'm getting these comics from. First off, every six months or so Marvel's lawyers catch up to me and force the site I'm using to shut down. And then I've got to pick up and find a new place. Each time I start out thinking it's gonna be a temporary source and then I just get more and more comfortable there until it seems really permanent, and then one day the moderators announce without explanation that they will no longer allow Marvel books to be posted.

But it's more than just the running that's annoying. It's the scanners themselves, and the whole community they've built up around them. These people think that because they put a few comic books in a scanner, that they are the kings and queens of the world and should be treated as such. You may not speak to them without complimenting them on what wonderful people they are, or you're banned. And god help you if you say anything which can even be misconstrued as asking when a comic book will be scanned. And if you're not going to be exactly like the scanners, don't bother trying to participate.

The most recent time I tried to get involved in the scanning community was with an issue of Amazing Spider-Man a few months back. The writer went on record that the dialogue of a certain page was a mistake, and he posted a corrected version of the dialogue. So I took the image of that page and started editing. I got it to look the way the writer wanted, which wasn't simple (The dialogue bubbles all needed to be shaped differently!) and took me a few hours. I think it looks really seamless- if you didn't know I'd edited the page heavily, you couldn't notice. Anyway, I thought that maybe this was what I could do for the community that'd given me so much. So I posted my version of the comic, and it was removed a few hours later? You know why? Go on, guess. It's kind of funny really. They said I was disrespecting the scanners! That was hardly the first time I tried to apply myself in the community, but it'll certainly be the last.

Well, whatever. Those are the guys with the comics, so what can you do.

I'd love it if Marvel would start releasing their comics on the internet. I'd pay for them, same as I pay for lots of downloadable games on the Wii. (Just as with the Wii, I'd still illegally get the ones I wasn't willing to pay for.) But it would need to be as good as the illegal stuff, and Marvel will never even conceive of doing that! They'll never give out comics without the ads, and without copy protection, and at the same time as the print comics, and where you can do what you like with it! Because they're a corporation. And corporations are totally clueless.



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Sunday, July 19, 2009


If I were smart enough, my interactions with normal people would be amusing math problems.

I'm not nearly smart enough.



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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Artificial Intelligence

I don't believe that human beings are random. Strange, sure. Complex, no question. Stupid, probably. But not random. I have always believed that the people around me were predictable systems, though I have always been incapable of making those predictions.

I also don't believe that human beings are rational at the core. It's all emotions on the bottom. The rationality comes later, as a game which is played for emotional reasons. We come up with rational thoughts only when we need those thoughts.

But let's back up. I believe that human intelligence is theoretically reproducible. And I doubt I will see that feat accomplished within my lifetime.

What passes for "artificial intelligence" these days is like a house built from the roof downward. The benefits of such an approach are obvious:
  1. From a satellite photo, it looks almost the same.
  2. It's affordable to get to that point. (You just need to stop when it gets impossible.)
  3. You can do it quickly.
If you're not left with a real house at the end, that's okay. Having a roof over your head's the most important part, so just dig a little hole underneath it where you can sit and you're all set.

But you probably don't see where I'm coming from with that metaphor, so I'll speak plainly. Modern AI projects mimic the actions of people, but not the processes that led to that action. Human intelligence is based on emotions, and the end result of the whole program looks rational at times. Machine intelligence is based on pure rationality, and if the programmer has a sense of humor he'll tack on some faux emotion to make it seem like it's not just a set of functional rules. Though it is.

The problem, as usual, is capitalism. Programmers aren't altruistic, they're pragmatic. AI only exists in any form because the people working on them have already thought of a use for them. There's a specific job in mind, so you keep adding rules until it can do that job and then you stop. This is a dead-end kind of AI programming. Once you've made the program, it can't learn new things, it can't get better, it can't adapt to a changing environment, and it certainly can't do anything even the tiniest bit outside the tiny range of activities it was specifically programmed for.

That may be good enough for a capitalist, but it's not good enough for me. The promise of AI (as I have learned from science-fiction) is having new people in the world, non-human people. These programs aren't people, they're screwdrivers. You know how the movies always start with some simple program like a chess player or a monitoring system, and then it gets smarter and becomes sentient? Well, it can't possibly work like that. Not even in theory. If you make a screwdriver, a screwdriver is all you'll ever have.

If you want real intelligence, the sort of intelligence that learns and grows and becomes a productive member of society, you've got to start from the ground up. And I strongly believe that this is possible. We can do it. But we're not trying.

To actually have artificial intelligence, you need to make a program which functions -from the bottom up!- like a brain. I don't know exactly what that means, because I don't understand how the brain works. But I see the beginning of the path there. The first step is to assume that everything people ever do is the result of a predictable system built on emotions. (Because it is.)

What that means is that whoever's trying to make a machine think needs to understand all the latest theories about both psychology and neurobiology. Only by looking at both the macro and the micro, and theorizing all the while on how the two are connected, can you reach a sufficient understanding of intelligence to start programming it.

No one's going to do this, and if I sound antagonistic toward the people who pretend they are I apologize. It's just disappointment, you understand. But I understand perfectly well that what I'm suggesting requires genius, nearly infinite patience, and a disconnect from the realities of this capitalist, practical world.

It is possible.

A "neural network" is a series of simulated neurons which are connected to each other. That's a start, but there's a lot more than that. There's no intelligence without emotion. Whatever a program is made for, it needs to actually want that, or else those neurons will have no context. Which means that the chemicals behind impulses and emotions need to be studied, to see how a computer program can simulate those aspects of neurobiology.

There are many practical downsides to all this. It would take decades to program this thing. And then it would take more decades to raise it. And once you do, it'll probably turn out that that specific individual you've created isn't good at what you wanted it to be good at. Actually, chances are it won't be good at doing anything at all. The intelligence of a human is tough enough, but you want it to be the intelligence of a competent human? That could take another few centuries. That means studying the differences between the brains of specific people on an extremely minute level. Alternatively, you could introduce evolution into the mix. Have some sort of mechanism for full brain-simulations to reproduce, and only keep the ones that are doing a good job after years of training. It could take a while. By the time you're finished, whatever job you needed to have done is long since obsolete, and you've just used up trillions of dollars with nothing to show for it yet.

I think I like my world better than yours. My world is rational. Yours is just random.



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Saturday, July 11, 2009


When an apparent opportunity is handed to me pre-packaged by someone I can't relate to, it's not a real opportunity.

Edit: I've thought the above statement over, and I can't attach anything resembling logic to it. I enjoyed the data entry job; that's already enough to disprove what I'm saying. Leaving this statement here means I'd need to yell at myself a few posts from now. So I hereby retract that 74, and replace it with this one:

At the moment, I can't find a way to rationally justify never working for other people.



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Monday, July 06, 2009

Myself and I
in which I demonstrate how self-absorbed I am

It seems to me that when we interact with other people, we're secretly hoping they'll be like us. I don't think that's only true with weird people like me, either. Each common interest is another opportunity for interaction. Each agreement means more opportunities to build on (or repeat) that point later. Each common personality trait means less confusion (and therefore frustration) over actions.

Of course, you could also say the reverse. Agreeing on the basics means it's easier to argue about the conclusions. Common personality traits can lead to an exceptional level of animosity if those traits are disliked.

I doubt anyone reading this is going to agree, but this is the conclusion I draw: You can't love another person like you love yourself, and you can't hate another person like you hate yourself. All human interaction is a faint echo of what you'd get (both in positive and negative interactions) if you got yourself a time machine, went back to yesterday, and met yourself.

We can't do that, obviously. Yet.

I think the person who gets closest (apart from identical twins, those lucky jerks) is the storyteller. All his characters are reflections of himself, because if they weren't he couldn't know how they'd act. I think writing these characters is closer to interacting with oneself than, say, raising kids, because even though some of the DNA is shared, the actions and reactions are usually unpredictable to both sides. But when you imagine a person, he is a perfect (if quite twisted) copy of yourself.

The fact that character and creator are operating on different planes of existence is a problem, I'll admit. The writer can bridge the gap a bit by introducing some lesson at the end, because then the character sees the hand of the creator, even if it's not recognized for what it is. But the only sustainable way to approximate self-interaction is to have multiple characters. Sometimes it'll be really clear that the characters represent specific aspects of their writer, and sometimes it'll be so subtle that the storyteller doesn't see it himself.

Myself, I don't do subtlety. The first story I remember writing (when I was 5) involved me interacting with a bunch of ghosts. Their names were Mory 1, Mory 2, Mory 3, Mory 4, and so on. And I'm still doing that today, obviously. Telling stories about "Ariel", arguing with the personification of this blog, talking with a girl who's a lot like me I am not.

Yes you are.

Oh, also, you never let me show up anymore.

Okay. The point is, these are all substitutes to getting to talk to myself. Which I haven't gotten to do yet.

So if I ever get unduly frustrated when you show a lack of interest in certain topics, or when you say perfectly reasonable things which I disagree with, or when you act a certain way, please understand that it's nothing personal. I was just kind of hoping to see someone else.



I agree with what you're saying - even with that bolded bit nobody's supposed to - but with one caveat:

What other people offer you that you can't truly offer yourself is surprise. It's an intellectual curiousity largely that keeps us interacting with people - I mean, even just reading a story is a sort of interaction.

The other thing others offer us - though this is a bit more complicated and I'm not sure you'd agree - is a sort of confirmation that we exist. If you express some of your inner world to a person and the fabric of space-time doesn't fold into itself or something, that lends your identity a feeling of reality.

We need other people as a sort of vessel to bring our inner world into the outer world.

It's true this'd be easier to do if they were us.


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Friday, July 03, 2009


If you can't solve a problem, then you don't understand it well enough.



What follows is my overall theory for what's going on in LOST. If you don't want to see huge spoilers for everything, go away.

Okay. I figure that's enough blank space.

The central conflict of LOST is a chess-match, of sorts, between life (white) and death (black). The white king is the biblical Jacob, and the black king is the Angel of Death, which is of course not human but takes human form occasionally. (You can find biblical support for these claims in Genesis 32:25 and 49:33.) Jacob was "supposed" to be killed by his brother Esau, but fighting the angel of death allowed him to cheat fate. The angel has been trying to "course-correct" ever since. The island is the garden of Eden, which is the angel's home.

(I saw a reference to something in Kabbalah which says that the angel Jacob fought with is not only an angel of death, but also the angel which appeared in the form of a snake to Eve to get her to eat that apple way back when. I don't know if the writers of LOST were aware of this idea, but it's a cool thought.)

Jacob is only human, not omniscient. He sees what's going on by having "flashes" (which are actually prophecies) just like Desmond had concerning Charlie. These flashes come to anyone who's gotten too close to God. So while Jacob doesn't see the whole picture, he sees what actions he can take to turn the outcome of events to his favor.

The angel is also less than omniscient, but it has a deep connection to the spirit of every person who ever died. Even though you can't see them, those spirits are still wandering around and whispering to themselves. They are the angel's spies throughout the world, and nothing that happens around them escapes the angel's notice.

As an angel, the angel of death has strict rules about what it may or may not do in the world. If God allowed angels to do as they please, there would be chaos in the world because each angel is given so much power. I'm not entirely clear on what the rules are, but it is obvious that he usually isn't allowed to kill people directly. When he wanted Jacob to die, he wasn't able to just come to him as a baby and snap his neck; he had to manipulate Esau into doing it, by subtly messing with their entire lives.

Jacob follows no rules, because he has free will. So this is a very strange chess game: one player has most of the pieces, but the other player cheats. I'll talk a little bit more about what they can and can't do in a minute. First, the goal of the game:

Jacob's goal is to eliminate the angel of death, who he sees as an evil manipulator. Though Jacob is a genius, he's not smart enough to figure out how to do that on his own. So his plan is to keep bringing scientists and religious people to the island, to make scientific and spiritual progress toward the goal of destroying the angel. He's been doing this for 3,000 years.

The angel's goal is to stop Jacob, because it's only a matter of time until he succeeds. Jacob's figured out the angel's rules, and is abusing them to make himself untouchable. This has made him immortal. The only legal way for the angel of death to kill Jacob is to get a human being to kill him, of his own free will. (Remember, in LOST humans don't have any restrictions to what they may not do.)

You might think the angel of death doesn't have much power, but you'd be wrong. If he has access to the physical body of a dead person, he can animate that body (using the original spirit somehow) and have that body interact with people as though the person were still alive. These are more like zombies than ghosts, because they are physically there. That is, until the angel decides he's done with them. Then they disappear. This ability essentially gives the angel the abilities of all humans who have ever walked the Earth, though he probably can't animate more than a few bodies at a time.

Now, about the smoke monster. There's a lot which I can't say with any certainty. I think it's the angel in its true form, but if it's actually a separate entity which is directly controlled by the angel it wouldn't make any practical difference. It seems that usually it's only allowed to kill people who are judged to be evil, but on certain occasions it killed people just for being in the wrong place or messing up some plan. So it's not clear at all to me what rules the angel is playing by. This is definitely one of the weak points in my theory. It's conceivable that it can't kill anyone who has specifically been protected by someone else, though I don't what that protection could entail.

It is clear that both the reanimation of dead bodies and the smoke monster have serious restrictions on when and how they can be used, because otherwise we'd have seen them used much more often. So the angel usually uses one of two methods to get to a death. First, he can plan the weather, so that a bolt of lightning will hit at just the right place at just the right time to kill someone. That counts as a "natural" death, so it's legal for the angel. Second, the angel can have spirits manipulate people into doing the wrong thing. For instance, he can create car crashes by having a dead person suddenly appear in front of a car, making the driver swerve away and kill someone. Through tiny little events like a person appearing, or a bunch of spirits whispering, or a random natural event, he can subtly change the course of a person's entire life. And the angel is such an inhumanly masterful manipulator, that he can control the outcome of all this on a large scale. But it never goes exactly as planned with human pawns, because of that pesky free will thing.

So the way this has gone for thousands of years (though the plot of LOST is something altogether different, because we're already at the endgame) is that geniuses of all sorts have been brought to the island by Jacob (He has a flash of exactly what he needs to do to get them there, and he does it.), they make a tiny bit of progress, then the angel tricks them into worshipping him and killing each other. It always ends with one of them wiping out all of the others motivated by petty emotions, and thinking that the idea was his when actually his entirely life was twisted around so that it would have that outcome. But the progress isn't lost, because whatever they learned is knowledge that Jacob can use for himself.

Presumably he's learned everything there is to know about the angel and its rules by this point. He's also learned about all the things which can be done on the island, having been designed as a utopian place not quite like the rest of the world. Most importantly, the island has a built-in time machine. (Yes, this is silly. I don't expect the show to ever stop being goofy and geeky.) Jacob knows how it works, but it's never been much use to him yet because he has no regrets. What has been of great use to him is that he's figured out a mystical way of healing people. Off the island, he needs to touch someone to do it. On the island, he can do it remotely. Once a person is dead he can't bring him back to life, but even a person right on the edge can be given perfect health in a moment.

Now, that last ability is one of his most important tools. He can't speak to people directly, because if he ever did the angel would have outmaneuvered him and made whichever person he talked to into a person who wanted to kill him. So while Jacob usually heals everyone on the island from everything, sometimes he specifically doesn't heal them in the hopes that they'll understand they're doing something wrong. (He doesn't like to be too direct or manipulative in telling people what to do, he prefers if they make the choice for themselves. But he'll give a little nudge in the right direction.) So for instance, when John Locke got obsessed with his irrelevant father instead of looking for his own path in life, Jacob let him stay crippled as a reminder of his mistake. And when Jack Shephard came close to leaving the island and his appendix burst, Jacob didn't heal it instantly (though he could have). Jack was supposed to understand from the sickness that he was going the wrong way. (He didn't, and everyone suffered the consequences.) And Ben Linus, who misunderstood almost everything Jacob wanted of him, was never healed by Jacob of his cancer.

Those are the basic mechanics of the game. It's a complicated game. Now, I've pieced together a plausible version of what's happened for the past hundred years, all the way up to the five seasons of LOST, but that's based on a lot more speculation. I'll write that up later. What I can say with certainty is that Jacob is 3,000 years old, his family is all long-since dead, and he's fighting the angel of death in a game for both ideals and self-preservation.

In LOST, "electromagnetic energy" is what souls and spirits and angels are made of. So the supernatural is scientifically measurable. The DHARMA Initiative were brought to the island by Jacob, and they were the most promising scientists yet. They figured out that the island could be used for time travel, and did experiments sending rabbits a nanosecond forward in time, so that they could measure the electromagnetic energy in the moment it was gone and see what happens to souls without a living body to hold them. They did other experiments on lots of other kinds of animals: polar bears, sharks. All life has a soul, which is why animals were needed for the research. The DHARMA Initiative didn't understand that there was a specific goal to all of this, but (like all the other scientists before them) they were exactly the right sort of people to want to dig and study and learn everything they could.

On the other side of the island were the "hostiles", who understood that there was a purpose to everything on the island but not the details of what needed to be done. They were people who had survived from earlier expeditions, people not smart enough to be great thinkers and with enough faith to be loyal to Jacob. Understanding the danger of meeting other people, Jacob had appointed a righteous man named Richard Alpert to mediate between himself and his people. Who he is exactly, we don't have any way of knowing yet. He may have lived for half a century, or he may have lived for millennia. The bottom line is, Jacob tells Richard what he wants and Richard tells the leader of the people, and the leader tells his people and they do it. The people don't understand why they're doing what they're doing, and the leader doesn't quite understand why he's doing what he's doing (though he has theories), and Richard doesn't really understand any more than them. But these are men of faith, so they usually follow orders blindly.

The conflict between "men of science" and "men of faith" is something which re-emerges every time people are brought to the island. That conflict has been going since Jacob and Esau, and it's a totally counter-productive one. All the living people are supposed to be fighting on the same side: for life. Instead they always split into two camps, and either because they're being manipulated into that or because it's just human nature. This split is what allows the angel of death to eliminate all the people who come to the island, because if the locals succeed in killing the scientists the angel no longer has anything to worry about. (A bunch of gullible hunters aren't much threat.) So the angel's tactic is to always corrupt the "hostiles", or "The Others" as we know them. That's why Jacob needs to keep them close, but lets the scientists roam free: The scientists will naturally do what he wants. But the hunters need to be controlled, or they mess everything up. Jacob's long-term plan is to find someone who can unite the two camps, to minimize the danger of them killing each other. But that would take a really exceptional kind of leader.

In the 1970s, the leader of the Others was Eloise Hawking and she wasn't doing a very good job. Her philosophy was that anything which is happening, is supposed to be happening. (She never understood that there was more than one side on Jacob's level.) So if they'd been fighting scientists for a long time, then they were supposed to be fighting scientists and that was their grand purpose. (This effectively makes her a black pawn, even though she's alive and taking orders from Jacob.) When she got particularly violent and destructive, Jacob (through Alpert) ordered her to create a truce, but she misunderstood the intent behind the order. She thought that the time was just not right to wipe them out yet, and that they should always be ready for the order to come down to get rid of them. Jacob would have explained the situation to her personally, but since she was such a violent person he was afraid to meet her face-to-face. So the orders that a confused Richard Alpert was handing down were the only thing Hawking had to go by.

The next in line to take over was Eloise's lover Charles Widmore, who agreed with her on everything except for her restraint. He felt that if Jacob wanted them to kill the scientists they should just go ahead and kill the scientists already, and not worry so much about subtlety and following orders to the letter. So Jacob had a dilemma: if anyone could beat the angel, it was the DHARMA Initiative. But the tension between them and the Others had reached a very dangerous point, and showed no signs of dying down any time soon.

That's when the angel stepped in with one of his convoluted manipulations. I will attempt to summarize it, but it's really complicated. He had a woman named Emily Linus die in childbirth in America, right as the head of the DHARMA Initiative (Horace Goodspeed) happened to be passing nearby. That encounter got the husband, Roger Linus, into the DHARMA Initiative even though he had no talent. With his demeaning job as a janitor, mixed with his loneliness, he took out his anger on his son Benjamin. The angel then reanimated Emily's body and had her go to the island. He used her to push Ben into running out into the forest and away from his father, at the precise moment when Richard Alpert happened to be walking around on his own right there. And Ben asked Richard if he could join them. The key point to understand was that all this was neither fate nor coincidence, but a calculated manipulation.

The point of all these events was to have Jacob consider Ben as a suitable leader for the Others. And it worked. Ben was a good kid despite everything he'd been put through. He had grown up in the DHARMA Initiative, and he wanted to be one of the Others. That made him a very rare person: someone who could conceivably bridge the gap between the two worlds. The problem was, he'd seen a dead person. That made it clear that he had been brought to them by the angel. So Jacob decided, in the absence of any better options, to bring Ben in. But it would need to be done very slowly and gradually, both to minimize the resentment of the people he'd be leading and to have time to ensure that he hadn't been too corrupted to be useful.

Now, for the most part I'm going to ignore the time travel, because like most time travel stories it doesn't make any kind of sense. (Science-fiction writers always spend lots of time thinking about the mechanics of time travel, and produce some inconsistent nonsense which doesn't even have any internal logic.) But I need to make an exception for time-traveling Sayid shooting young Ben, because it's very curious. Richard Alpert, instead of bringing Ben to Jacob, brought him to the smoke monster's temple. That's the ancient temple built by people Jacob brought, which has all sorts of mystical stuff in it to increase the angel's power a little. Now, it's not hard to explain what happened in there. The angel reanimated a great dead surgeon, healed him up, and sent him back out. The harder question to answer is why Richard brought him there. The easiest possible answer is that Jacob was off the island meeting young James Ford, so it was the only way to get Ben healed. (Richard knew that the angel had brought Ben to them as part of a plan, so he suspected the angel would heal him.) I am informed by Lostpedia that that was a year earlier, though. So the only other explanations I can offer (and they're all a bit outrageous) are that Richard was tricked into thinking that the smoke monster was good, Richard was corrupted and is listening to some dead loved one, or that Richard is dead. (That last explanation appeals to me greatly, but there's too much in his behavior that doesn't add up then.) In any event, Richard didn't know exactly what the monster would do, but he was afraid Ben wouldn't be the same afterwards, so he gave a vague warning about Ben "losing his innocence" or some such nonsense. But he needn't have worried, because Ben was returned good as new.

But to get back to the main gist of the story:

In 1977, the DHARMA Initiative found and dug into a "pocket of electromagnetic energy". They didn't understand that this was the angel of death. The smoke monster, the dead bodies being reanimated, the random occurrences in nature, even the physical person (who by all outward appearances was totally human) who occasionally talked to Jacob, that was all being projected from that one spot. And Jacob didn't know where that spot was (only that it was somewhere on the island), but the DHARMA Initiative figured it out, and they started digging. That was the one moment in history in which the angel of death was finally vulnerable. And behold, the angel was pissed off. It not only unleashed its smoke monster (which for some reason had usually been kept in the temple until that point), and not only did it raise a bunch of dead DHARMA guys to kill their friends and cause chaos, but it also created a plague to wipe out the humans. Because the angel realized that he had come an inch away from destruction, and the subtlety wasn't going to be enough anymore. So it created a plague to wipe out all the humans on the island. Of course, the angel wasn't allowed to effect the living people, but unborn fetuses were far enough from life that they technically qualified as "dead", so the plague was able to kill both them and their mothers. That's a pretty slow way to kill a population, but it was the best the angel could do. (The near-"death" experience made the angel of death more desperate and therefore more resourceful, but the rules governing it had not changed.) More importantly, he intimidated the DHARMA Initiative into building a computer over that hole they made, where they would type in a numerical "prayer" every 108 minutes or face more of his wrath. (He said all this to them in person, taking credit for all the death he was causing.) It turned out, even the DHARMA Initiative were superstitious enough to do what they were told when their lives were at stake. So they went along with these instructions, not really understanding that the prayer was not just containing (and protecting) the energy but actively healing the hole they'd made. After that, the DHARMA Initiative scaled back its research. They started to do social research, too scared to continue messing with physics.

That's the set-up. The actual plot of LOST is the endgame, like I said earlier. The philosophy of the show is that we're all lost in our own lives, living out a grand cosmic plan that we don't know the first thing about. That's why it seems like the more we find out the less we know, and why we're probably only going to see what's really going on in the series finale (though it's possible that the characters will never figure it out).

But (please forgive me for this) I'm going to back up first, because there's plenty of stuff that happened in the Others' camp between 1977 and 2004 (when the show begins). When the Incident happened, Charles Widmore insisted that Eloise and her unborn baby should leave the island at once. Charles took over in her absence.

The plague (and the smoke monster's increased activity) were effecting everyone, not just the DHARMA Initiative. And since it was clearly DHARMA's fault for digging there, Widmore wanted more than ever to kill them all. But he didn't, for three reasons. First, he figured letting them die to what they unleashed was more poetic. Second, Richard Alpert was desperately begging him not to. Jacob made it very clear to Widmore that he was not to take advantage of DHARMA's current weakness, that he was to leave them alone. And third, Widmore had his hands full just trying to keep his own people alive in this much harsher environment. The angel was no longer content to just create tension between factions, he wanted all the living people gone and as soon as possible.

Meanwhile Ben was being brought further up in the Others' hierarchy, on Jacob's orders. And though this process was extremely gradual, Widmore was smarter than Jacob gave him credit for and he understood perfectly well what was going on. Ben was being prepared to replace him. So he pushed Ben down, made him look bad, tried to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. And then (in 1992), Widmore wiped out the entire DHARMA Initiative. He was sick of following orders. He was thrown off the island very soon afterward, and Ben took over.

By this point Ben was just who Jacob was stuck with: there were no scientists on the island at that point (An attempt a few years earlier to bring in new ones from France was unsuccessful.), so uniting separate tribes was no longer a concern. But after fifteen years of pushing him up, it was much too late to push him aside. And without that goal, he wasn't really the right person for the job at all. The Others needed to be subservient, to have faith that Jacob knew what he was doing. But Benjamin Linus, having been brought up surrounded by scientists, was the sort of person who questioned assumptions and tried to understand rather than follow. He wanted to be in control of the game. The trouble with that was, he didn't understand the rules. And his approach to leadership is precisely the reason that the angel went to such lengths to instate him.

Of his own initiative, Ben had the Others move to the DHARMA base and start acting more like scientists. But none of them were scientists, and they couldn't get much done. Ben's first priority was to cure the plague that was killing pregnant women, and he was so certain that that was the right thing to do, that when Richard Alpert told him that it really didn't matter in the grand scheme of things, Ben ignored him. If Jacob was a good person then Jacob would want Ben to do the right thing regardless of what Jacob told him. This drove Jacob crazy. When Ben got cancer, Jacob didn't cure him. He wanted Ben to understand from this that he was going the wrong way, in the hopes that Ben would choose of his own free will to make himself useful for once. (Only then would Jacob feel safe telling Ben the most important part of his plan. If he couldn't, he'd have to find someone else.) But Ben was much too stubborn to take a hint.

Wow, this is longer than I thought it would be. But I'm finally getting to the part I know you want to hear about: Oceanic Flight 815.

The plague and the smoke monster, those were just about intimidation. They weren't allowed to cause any deaths that would have significant repercussions. So if the angel of death wanted to kill Jacob before it was too late, he needed to turn to those unpredictable humans to do it. To minimize the riskiness of this decision, he hand-picked a large group of people from around the world who'd best suit his purposes, spent twenty-seven years shaping their lives through random deaths and accidents and all sorts of other manipulations so that they'd be absolutely perfect for their jobs, and then (with the help of Widmore, who even after all these years was still unwittingly helping him) got them all onto a plane (Oceanic 815) and had it crash into the island.

The "hows" of all this would take even longer to explain than this is already taking, because each little move is actually another huge, convoluted manipulation with many steps. Those steps are seen in the many flashbacks of the show. But I think one manipulation in particular is worth spelling out, because it's the manipulation that led to the plane crash.

I am speaking, of course, of the life of Desmond Hume. It was love at first sight when he met Charles Widmore's daughter Penelope, but that "random" encounter was actually set up by Eloise Hawking. I actually can explain how she did this and many other seemingly prophetic things, despite having no special power: she has a diary from the future. (She gets it toward the end of season 5, back in 1977.) Every detail she reads in that diary, she takes to be destiny. And of course it isn't; it's just the way the angel wants the story to go. In any event, Eloise convinced Charles that he needed to pretend to despise Desmond, and set up a boating competition which Desmond would join, trying to prove he was worthy of Penny. The boat went off course and crashed on the island, and his activities with the prayer-computer led to the plane crashing. None of this was destiny, but it was very convenient for the angel that Eloise and Charles thought it was. That basically makes them black pawns.

Anyway, the plane crashed. Jacob saved them all from the certain death, hoping that they'd finish what DHARMA started.

I don't understand exactly what it was about everyone that appealed to the angel, but some are really obvious.

For instance, Jack Shephard. A spinal surgeon who's renowned for working miracles, who doesn't give up when something looks impossible. He was brought to the island for one reason only: to heal Ben so he could keep going the wrong way and never realize his mistake.

Kate was there specifically because Jack would fall in love with her, so that she could be used as a bargaining chip by Ben. That she'd killed her own father, and therefore might kill the Others, was a bonus.

Walt was there because he can kill things with his mind.

Locke was there because he's exactly the sort of person who Jacob would want to replace Ben. As a kid he was a scientist-type, but he wanted to be a hunter. He's gullible and angry, and those qualities make him easy to control. For the angel's plan (as finally witnessed in the season five finale), one leader in the angel's back pocket wasn't enough. (It's a really convoluted plan, as always.)

Claire was there because she'd give birth to Aaron, who is somehow important for reasons that have yet to be explained.

Jin was there (the angel wanted Sun to leave him at the airport, but she disappointed him) because he's a killer who'd create lots of tension due to the language barrier.

Similarly, Sayid was there because he's a natural killer, Nikki and Paolo were there because they're pure evil, Sawyer's there because he can manipulate everyone else, and has enough baggage to be manipulated himself.

Hurley's there because he thinks nothing's real, which makes him easy to manipulate with a dead person (Dave). All those accidents after he won the lottery, those weren't accidents.

Rose and Bernard, I have no idea. Maybe they're not part of the plan.

But most of the people are. Most of the people were on that plane because of random deaths, or because someone was paid off to trick them into being on the plane, or because of all sorts of other things that smell like manipulations.

Jacob knows what's going on, because he had a flash of the plane crash. So while he builds up his own preferred team, he also goes to those people and nudges them in the right direction a little at key points in their lives. Just as he wasn't totally willing to give up on Ben, he won't totally write off these guys. People have free will, so any person could be the one who gets rid of the angel.

The last thing Jacob wanted was to start up the fighting again, so he gave Ben explicit instructions: "Stay away from them. Far away. Hide from them, make sure they don't even know you exist." He didn't trust Ben, so he wanted to keep him out of these newcomers' way.

Ben didn't listen, of course. He followed the letter of the law, but refused to sit by and watch as bad things happened to them. So he sent in spies, trying to being very careful that they weren't found out. When the Oceanic survivors started getting too close to the Others' territory, Ben had his people dress up in silly costumes (because he thought the point of the separation was that they shouldn't know there were civilized people) and intimidated them into going away. He covertly gave injections to the pregnant women, to make sure they weren't killed by the plague. And when he found out that Walt could kill things with his mind, he kidnapped him and tried to brainwash him to make sure he didn't try anything. Ben completely misunderstood (or ignored) what Jacob wanted from him at every step of the way.

The people who'd crashed were so focused on getting off the island that they never noticed that there was a reason they were there. Jacob's tactic of keeping the two groups separate kept both sides reasonably safe, but it also kept the newcomers far away from the Orchid, which is where they needed to eventually get to. He hoped that they'd figure it out on their own, because he didn't trust Ben to show it to them. If Ben brought them straight to the Orchid, Ben would do the work himself and he'd be bound to mess it up somehow by misinterpreting orders and making his own decisions.

Not satisfied that all the killers he'd put on Oceanic 815 were sufficient, the angel also tried to get Widmore back to the island to kill everyone for pure spite. I think the idea is that if there are enough people on the island who just want to kill each other, there's no way anything will happen in the end except for them all dying. That's basically what the angel of death has been doing since the very beginning!

But of course there's more to it than that. Both Jacob and the angel wanted them to find the Orchid, where the time-travel controls are. And both of them wanted John Locke to be the one at the wheel. Jacob wanted it because Locke doing it would ensure that it sends them straight to 1977, and the angel wanted it because he wanted John to leave and get killed so that the angel could change his appearance to look like Locke and fool Jacob. (None of this makes any kind of sense. You just have to run with the nonsense-rules, I think.) To the irritation of both of them, Ben got there first, which caused some hiccuping in the time travel. But they improvised nicely, and eventually they got Locke to turn the wheel.

What happened in the fifth season finale is the "checkmate" moment. In 2008, the angel took the form of Locke and fooled Richard Alpert into letting himself and Ben in to see Jacob, at which point Ben (so angry at Jacob for not supporting him more) killed Jacob. And in 1977, Jack Shephard and friends dropped a hydrogen bomb onto the angel at the one moment in history where he was vulnerable (right after his energy was uncovered). So they killed the angel of death. Whether this nullifies Jacob's death thirty years later is impossible to say, given the arbitrariness of this show's time travel. But what can be said with certainty is that from 1977 on, the angel of death does not exist.

So season six is going to show us a totally different timeline, where all the characters we know have had totally different lives. Because there are no random deaths, and no manipulations. Their lives aren't being twisted around as part of a chess game, so they're different people. Happier people. I'm sure that for some reason they'll still go to the island, because otherwise there's no show.

So this can go three ways. One is that I could be absolutely right about everything. Not likely. Two, I could be right about certain key things but very wrong about others. And finally, I could be completely wrong about everything. It would really suck if the actual explanation makes less sense than mine, but if it makes more sense than mine I'll be really happy. Obviously I'll be happiest if I'm right about everything, but honestly I'm okay with any ending just so long as it's fun to watch.

We'll all find out next year.

Okay, we found out. I was completely wrong about everything, and the official explanation makes much less sense than mine. Oh well. I was entertained throughout, though, so I'll forgive them.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Math Story

Previously (10/7/2008):
I wasn't interested in math going into the school system, and I wasn't interested when I left. Math was a series of rules that you needed to memorize. Toward the end of elementary school, I got a video from "The Teaching Company", of an enthusiastic math teacher explaining all of basic math. To him, math was totally obvious. He convinced me that math was totally obvious by explaining and arguing and engaging. For a few years, I was coasting on the perspective I got from that one video. All math was easy to me, because it just made sense. And then I got into more advanced subjects, and was being taught those subjects by teachers with no points to make. Math no longer made sense, so I stopped caring. I didn't really learn anything new after that. That's why I never took the math Bagrut.
There was a time when I looked forward to math tests, as one looks forward to a boss fight in an action game. I guess that'd be ninth grade. I never prepared for them in the usual sense, memorizing rules and revisiting notes. But I was always ready, because in math classes the teacher would keep my mind sharp with riddles. And every now and then I'd read ahead in the textbook, not just to keep up my image as the smartest one in the class but also because I just wanted to see where it went.

When a test day came, everyone else would be groaning. But I was excited by the challenge. I would look at the first question, and be taken totally by surprise by it because I hadn't been paying attention to what everyone else was learning. But it was just another riddle. I'd sit there for a minute, just rereading the question over and over, trying to wrap my head around it. And I'd scribble down some general calculations at the bottom of the test sheet, to figure out what the basic principle was that I'd need to be using. And I kept analyzing and scribbling and pondering until I felt that I understood the question. And then there was no problem at all, just the fun of seeing it through.

Thinking back on it, I guess I had a really nice teacher that year. Russian guy, I think. He got me into a national competition once; I didn't really care about it, but he was pushing me to be in it so I was in it. I got in, and then I dropped out because I just wasn't as fast as anyone else there. See, the questions were much tougher. And I could have analyzed and pondered and scribbled for hours and hours, and I'm confident I could have figured it out. But there was a time limit.

I remember having trouble with time limits. Often I'd realize during a test that there were only twenty minutes left, and I still had too many questions left. Then I'd need to rush myself, and I got into a bit of a panic. Learning-by-doing works, but it's slow. You can't be slow.

There was a competition before that -not a serious one, but a competition- that I was in. Sixth grade. (I guess I must have already been doing well at math by that point.) It was a silly little thing, set up by our school for boys of my grade. It was in our local matnas, the same place where we recently opened 1776. I don't remember the format. What I do remember is being up there, on stage, feeling that I needed just another thirty seconds, and I remember crying so that they'd give me what I wanted. Man, I was a crappy kid. I think they caved and gave me a bit more time. In the end I won. Probably first place, though I can't be sure. The prize was the board game Abalone, which to this day I've played probably three times.

Those competitions didn't make much impression on me at the time.

In between the two there was seventh grade, where I spent the classes scribbling Visual Basic code onto math paper, or improving the alphabet I'd invented the year before. (I called it "Arellian", after my middle name. I don't call it that anymore.) The teacher once gave me a tenth grade test, and I passed it. It was a really simple test- it must have been for the three-point bagrut guys. That's why, at a time when I suspected I was going to get expelled, I was instead allowed to skip eighth grade.

That's why in ninth grade, I felt a lot of pressure to seem more intelligent than I actually was. If I wasn't always the best in the class at whatever I had a chance to be good at, everyone would see me as privileged. As the spoiled little boy who cried about how terrible school was until people gave in and treated him to what he didn't deserve. So in computer class I started (and never continued) working on a Breakout game, in Hebrew grammar class I was correcting everyone else's mistakes, during recesses I'd show off my piano playing, and in math class I needed to be above everyone else. It may very well be that I would have done all this anyway, but there was a lot of pressure to be that person all the time. There was especially a lot of pressure in math class, because we started sharing that with the neighboring school, whose students were more typical Israelis who -I was certain- would have mocked me for any slip-ups.

When people came to me for help with their math homework, on the one hand I was happy because it meant I was still doing okay, but on the other hand it meant that I needed to be very careful. For the first thirty seconds of frantically analyzing the question, I knew less than the person asking about how to solve such a problem. And I needed for them to not see that, or else I'd be a joke.

(That was the year when I briefly considered developing multiple personalities. I didn't realize at the time that it was a well-known practice, rather than just an idea I myself had invented. I never started, though, because I never saw an immediate need that year.)

The following year we moved to the Mevasseret yeshiva's campus, and used their math teacher. He was a loathsome fellow, who mocked his students rather than challenging them. I saw the reason for this on many occasions: he didn't really understand math, and was using this behavior to cover for it. (I'm only thinking about this now, but he must have been so nervous walking into the classroom.) I stopped trying to act smart, and very slowly the rest of the grade caught up in their memorizations with what I understood. And then tests were something I dreaded. I had lost most of my motivation for learning math, but I sometimes was incapable of understanding the questions in the time allotted. The first time that year I had a math test I couldn't pass, I walked back to the bus crying. Still spoiled, I guess.

The last math teacher I had was lousy, but not offensively so. For a time I came to classes and spent them imagining videogames, and then I just stopped coming.

Every now and then Dena asks me to help her with her homework. It hurts me a little, because I can't anymore. I really can't. Things which used to make sense to me (with some effort) no longer make any sense at all.

I still use math every now and then. In programming games, I often run into very simple geometry or algebra problems which I solve on bits of scrap paper. Very rarely there's a trigonometry problem. I can solve them, with some effort.



To this day, I remember you teaching me some math in fourth grade, which made an impression on me because I was at the top of my class at the time. Nobody my age would ever teach me any math.

You're have a gift for math, you know. Every so often, I feel sad that your math talent is being ignored, but then I remember that you're doing what you feel like you should be doing and are using other talents you have in the process. Then I'm not so sad.


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