Game designer at Naughty Dog, software engineer, Canadian abroad
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Reprint: In Memory of My Grandmother

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(I originally wrote this essay in 2016 for my old newsletter here, and made it public in 2019 after she passed away so some people may have seen it before. I’m including it here to keep it all in one place. The pandemic, tragically, had a lot of “debate” about the value of elderly life. My grandmother was very sober about aging—”when it’s my time, it’s my time”, she always said. But her last decade into her nineties was full of love and life, and I’m grateful for having the chance to share it with her.)

In Memory of my Grandmother: "Educate Your Girls, Cherish Your Good Memories"

by zeynep tufekci

My beloved grandmother passed away last night, peacefully in her sleep. She had a stroke a few years ago and spent the last three years happy, but without being able to form significant new memories. … She was a remarkable woman, and changed so many lives besides mine. I will always hold her memory in my heart, and her example as one to live up to. -zeynep 5/5/2019  

Lessons from my Grandmother: Educate Your Girls; Cherish Your Good Memories.

By Zeynep Tufekci written on 11/17/2016

I started writing this, my first newsletter, by my grandmother’s bedside, when I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey last week to visit her after she suffered from a stroke. She’s now 94, and she was born the very month the Republic of Turkey was declared, in 1923. Republic day (October 29th) is a national holiday in Turkey, as well as the day we celebrate my grandmother’s birthday since we don’t know the exact date.

This year feels like a turning point for both.

Turkey’s been in the news a lot lately. A bloody coup, barely averted. The state of journalism. Arrests. Internet shutdowns. Explosions. It’s also very difficult for me to truly follow and understand the news from Turkey in detail anymore—neither mass media nor social media seem reliable in conveying what’s truly going on.

I also cannot speak to my grandmother about her life stories anymore. The stroke in left temporal lobe has deeply affected her memory, and much is lost. She recognized me though, and immediately wanted to feed me—her deepest instinct, probably.

I told her that my forthcoming book—which includes parts of the story of her miraculous journey to get an education that I’m about to tell—was dedicated to her, and she was thrilled and emotional. She forgot about it in about five minutes. So I told her again, and she was just as thrilled and emotional.  Then she forgot about it again, and I told her again. You got it: she was thrilled.

So we had a few days together last week, her asking me if I had enough to eat every five minutes, and me telling her that I dedicated my book to her every five minutes. It was difficult, and it was full of grief for me. But it was also joyful. She was not sad at all.

My grandmother repeatedly prayed in gratitude to three people in her life: Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, her elementary school teacher who made her education possible, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. I recounted her semi-miraculous story in my (forthcoming) book on networked social movements:

When my grandmother was about 13 years old and living in a small town near Mediterranean coast in Turkey, she won a scholarship to the most prestigious boarding school in Istanbul. Just two years earlier she had been told her formal education was over, after completing fifth grade. As far as her family was concerned, that was more than enough education for a girl. It was time for marriage, not geometry or history.
 My grandmother didn’t know her exact birth date. Her mother had said she was born just as the grapes were being harvested and pressed into molasses in preparation for the upcoming winter, and just as word of the proclamation of the new Republic of Turkey reached her town. That would put her birthday in the fall of 1923, as the world struggled to emerge from the ruins of World War I. It was also a time of transition and change for Turkey, for her family, and for her. The new central government, born from the ashes of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, was intent on modernizing the country and emulating European systems. They made a push for spreading schools and standardized education. Teachers were appointed around the country, even to remote provinces. One of those teachers remembered a bright female pupil who had been yanked from school, and secretly entered her into a nation-wide scholarship exam to find and educate gifted girls.“And then, my name appeared in a newspaper,” my grandmother said. She told me the story often, tearing up each time.In a small miracle and a testament to the unsettled nature of the era, my grandmother’s teacher prevailed over her family, and she boarded a train to the faraway city of Istanbul to attend an elite school. [The teacher had also signed her documents, promising to pay all her educational costs were she to fail. In effect, the teacher had stepped up in lieu of a parent, at great financial risk to himself. My grandma’s family tried to prevent her from leaving, and her older brother almost blocked her path—an act he later apologized for many times. But the teacher persevered and succeeded—a dramatic act, changing someone’s life forever.]

My grandmother was joined by dozens of bright girls from around the country who had made similar, miraculous for the time, journeys. They all got a superb education. After she got her high school degree, my grandmother became a teacher: marrying a little too quickly as my grandfather pursued her aggressively, and she relented. She sometimes wondered what else she could have done. But she loved being an elementary school teacher.
My grandmother wasn’t just a great teacher in the formal classroom—her students always showed remarkable improvement in the years they had her—but she also basically became everyone’s teacher. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, let alone college. Practically every child, grandchild, nephew and niece after her ended up going to college and beyond, to a large degree because of her. She insisted that everyone go to school. She taught them how to navigate exams, how to pick majors, how to study, how to apply to schools and scholarships. When parents were reluctant to support their children in their education, my grandmother stepped in, using her authority as the elder of the family to overrule them. It was a delicious subversion of hierarchy—the youngest teaming up with the oldest to overrule the reluctant middle. If the parents wouldn’t pay for the children’s school, she would. If they needed a place to stay, she’d take them in.
This wasn’t limited to family. She informally “adopted” countless children—her own students, neighbors, distant relatives—and tutored them, guided them, paid for their tuition and school supplies. She convinced many parents to let girls continue on to high school or college.

When girls get married in Turkey, they are often gifted bracelets made of gold—to be used in emergencies or when savings are needed. My grandmother always said that education was the most important pair of “golden bracelets” that girls needed. “Get your golden bracelets” she would say all the girls she encountered, telling them that in a world dominated by men, women needed to make sure they could make a living if need be. To escape an abusive marriage. To support one’s own children. To deal with an illness. To be able to live a life on one’s own terms.

This is why educating girls is such strong leverage for social change: educated girls can grow into strong women who bring along and lead their families for generations, and can also shield and nurture their children and others as they can exercise choices. So my grandmother prayed to Ataturk and her teacher, the two people she believed made all this possible for her.

All three of her grandchildren moved abroad, something my grandmother greatly supported even as it caused her a lot of longing. She herself had worked for a telephone operator for a few years, and now the telephone became her most cherished possession, connecting her to us. She put her cellphone in a little pouch, and wore it as a necklace. In 2012, I had traveled to Kenya and visited some rural areas where I encountered elderly women with the same set-up: cell phones as necklaces. I asked one: “is this for your grandchildren?” She grinned. It was the same story: her grandchildren had migrated away searching a better life. She wanted them to go, but didn’t want to lose them. The telephone connected them.
 After most phone conversations—which we had often, even as her memory failed—my grandmother would say, “May [Alexander Graham] Bell rest in peace. May he be accepted to the best corner of heaven. May his soul be blessed”, and so on. At first, she hadn’t wanted to talk on the phone much, thinking it was expensive. I finally convinced her how cheap it had become, and she took to it, chatting with me at length. She was enormously grateful, and she had a name to thank for all this: so Bell got all the blessings.

 But we didn’t just talk on the phone, of course. In 2004, when I was finally graduating with my doctorate, I wanted to skip the ceremony—I had skipped every graduation ceremony before that. One friend said “this one is not for you; it’s for everyone who helped you along the way.” The phrase struck me hard it was the truest thing I had heard.  I arranged for her to attend my dissertation defense as well as the graduation. I was nervous that it would be hard for her. I met her at the plane’s gate. She walked out of the jet bridge, chatting—somehow, in her broken English—with the cabin crew. She had apparently invited all of them to dinner. After educating people, she most loved feeding them.

By the time a Ph.D. student is allowed to defend, it is mostly understood that she should be able to pass, but the “oral examination” part is not just a rubber-stamp. It is a multiple- hour process in which the committee members grill the student. My defense was also scheduled right at lunch time. I didn’t really need to read the research to know that leaving your interrogators hungry was not the best idea.

My grandmother, now staying with me in the United States, had been itching to be useful. I asked her to cook some Turkish finger-food for my committee to eat during the defense. Not only would they not be hungry as they listened to my presentation of my dissertation, they would be eating afterwards. More chewing, less questioning.

So my grandmother sat through my defense which lasted maybe three hours or so, the many types of food she cooked on the table. She didn’t understand anything I was saying--she spoke only a few words of English. But she didn’t seem bored at all. A lot had happened along the way for her and for me to get here.

If it sounds like I’m drawing a picture of an ideal family—a lovely grandmother, a granddaughter who gets an education—the truth is far from it. It’s exactly because things went so wrong that my grandmother’s “golden bracelets” were so important.

My mother had been a non-functional alcoholic, and my father abandoned me and my brother to our alcoholic mother when we were young teens. Consequently, I was borderline to actual homeless throughout much of my teen years. It was a complicated crisis, and to allow my mother to have a house to live, my grandmother left hers to my mother, and moved into an assisted living facility. Hence, I could not live with my grandmother anymore, nor could I really live with my mother. It was a tough time, and grandma helped me immensely as I managed to ground myself, finding a job as a computer programmer and going on from there. Without her ability to help me and my brother through, we may never have made it out. My mother eventually died from her alcoholism. To great trauma to my grandmother, she was the one who found her daughter’s lifeless body. “I would not wish this upon the worst person in the world”, she said of her pain.

Addiction is a curse from hell, and I still have not fully grasped what happened. Neither has my grandmother. We just say she was ill with a fever we don’t understand. My mother struggled; she quit multiple times but always succumbed again. We watched her spiral down, and then we lost her. My mother saw me start my PhD, but didn’t make it to see me graduate.

My grandmother sat through my defense with an intense look on her face, beaming when anyone ate any of their food. I got asked fairly few questions, which I credit to her food.

After a defense, the standard procedure is to invite the doctoral candidate to step out and for the committee members to confer among each other whether she passed or not. The candidate is then invited back in, and the decision is announced. So I concluded my defense, the questioning ended, and we all stepped out.
The chair of my committee called us back, smiling, nodding approvingly. I smiled, too, and braced myself to accept the congratulations. He indeed said “congratulations”, but not to me. The whole committee turned to my grandmother, first congratulating her, and then standing up and applauding her. I was stunned: I had not set this up. I wish I could have been so smart and thoughtful to set it up. I had mentioned her story to a few people. To their credit, my committee had recognized the hero in the room. My grandmother, too, was stunned but she grasped that she was being recognized. Everyone went and hugged her as she wept.

For the rest of her life, my grandmother told this story to pretty much everyone she met. When I visited her at the assisted living facility for the next decade—where she loved living as it gave her independence—even the janitors would greet me as the granddaughter who had gone to the United States to get a doctorate, and whose committee had applauded my grandmother. She told this story to people she sat next to in the ferry; she told this to anyone who asked her about her life. I never tired of it; it was the only context in which being called a “doctor” meant something personal. I never use the title otherwise, except to joke in planes when they ask if there is a doctor on board. (“Not unless you need a literature review in aisle three.”)

I didn’t know what I would find last week, after her stroke. It was not as bad as I had feared, but she had clearly lost a lot of her stories. She appeared to have forgotten my grandfather’s death. She’d ask where he was, and we’d say “oh, soccer match”—as my grandfather would often go to soccer matches—and she’d say “oh, okay.” It was sad, but it felt merciful.

I wasn’t as ready, though, when she asked where my mother was, apparently also forgotten her death. “She’s out shopping”, I stuttered. “Oh, okay”, my grandmother said, unperturbed.

She had forgotten the worst event of her life.

We chatted mostly about lighthearted topics, since her past was mostly gone. We chatted about her room, and how she liked her pillows. She wanted one more to be able to sit upright better, so I got her one. True to form, she worried when I left to fetch a pillow. She was always fine with me globetrotting, but if I were visiting her, she didn’t want me out of her sight. It was her quirk. We chatted about my brother, even arranged a video call with him, to my grandmother’s delight.

I brought up the story of my doctoral dissertation defense. I expected she would have forgotten it, too—if my mother’s death was forgotten, I assumed everything else must be gone, too.

Do you remember, I said, how you traveled to my defense, and how you cooked food, and how everyone loved eating it, and how everyone stood up and applauded you.

“And how I cried”, she responded, mimicking tears falling down her face with her fingers. She smiled at me, and said it had been wonderful. There was no mistaking it, somehow, that memory had survived.

Her room at the assisted living facility was just as I had seen it for the past few decades: pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, adorned the walls. There were also lots of pictures of her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. I saw her cell phone in its necklace pouch, hanging on the wall. 

I also found lots of notebooks in her room, and realized that she had been writing a lot notes to herself as her memory had gradually failed, long before the stroke. There would be a date and an entry “My son went on a trip to Italy; he will be back on Wednesday” it would say. I knew she wrote that so she wouldn’t worry if he didn’t call. She noted when my brother or I called or visited her. She also collected clippings of my articles or interviews with me.

I flipped through the pages of her notebooks and saw an entry that was repeated, again and again, with some variation. “Zeynep became a professor” one said. “Zeynep was promoted to a professor.” “Zeynep is in the United States and she is a professor.” So it went. It was on many pages. It was on loose pieces of paper. It seemed to infuse the room.

"Zeynep became a professor"

I looked at dates and pieced together what must have happened. I called her quite often, and it seemed like she often wrote this down to herself every time after we chatted on the phone. She had gotten an education—against all odds—and had leveraged it to make a life as best she could for everyone she loved, and that was her achievement in life. She wasn’t just proud of me; she was proud of herself. She had deserved that applause, and she knew she deserved it.

Her notes to herself made sense in of what had happened: she didn’t dwell on the tragedies, and she hadn’t reinforced the painful memories. Instead, she had focused on the positives: her own education, her grandchildren. After phone conversations, she wrote reminders to herself: things had turned out okay.

I left Istanbul, relieved she was not unhappy or in pain, but also with a deep sense of loss. For the past decade, she had been preparing me: telling me that she was content, and ready for whatever came next.
The republic that her life was so intertwined with, too, is now undergoing a transformation, and one that I am increasingly disconnected from. It’s not possible to avoid the sense of loss, both personal and political.

But there are lessons, too, also for both.

Educate the girls. Call your elderly loved ones. And write down your good memories.

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2 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Recommendations from Kottke's recommendations

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Blogger Jason Kottke recently announced he’d be taking a sabbatical, and in his farewell post recommended thirty-two “sites and newsletters to keep you busy while I’m gone.” On a whim, I decided I’d subscribe to every recommendation with an RSS feed and see how many stuck. After two weeks of pruning, these are the additions that remain:

Maybe you’ll find something in there you like! (If not, you can head back to Kottke’s post and check out the full list in one of the postscripts towards the bottom.)

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34 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Democrats Are Sleepwalking Toward Climate Disaster

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Sign up for The Weekly Planet, Robinson Meyer’s newsletter about living through climate change, here.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—On Monday night, I saw one of the most despair-inducing performances about the hope of climate action that I’ve witnessed in years.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, took the stage here at the Aspen Ideas: Climate festival to discuss what congressional Democrats are doing on climate change. Her remarks were more effective as a litany of missed opportunities. Susan Goldberg, recently the editor in chief of National Geographic, now a dean at Arizona State University, asked the speaker point-blank whether Democrats were going to pass climate legislation, and Pelosi all but shrugged. The House has already passed a roughly $2 trillion bill containing President Joe Biden’s climate priorities, she said. Now it was in the Senate’s hands. If it happened to get a bill back to her, the House would pass it.

Missing was any sense that this legislation is a make-or-break moment for the broader Democratic caucus. Gone was any suggestion that if Democrats fail to pass a bill this term, then America’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement will be out of reach, and worse heat waves, larger wildfires, and damaging famines across the country and around the world within the next decade and a half will be all but assured.

Pelosi did not seem to understand, really, why Congress needed to pass a climate law this session. (She seemed to blame the fossil-fuel industry for the current Congress’s inaction.) She repeatedly justified climate action by saying it was “for the children.” This became the rhetorical leitmotif of her remarks—Congress had to act “for the children.” Explaining why she wanted more women in Congress, she said that they had to learn to “throw a punch—for the children.” That line was how she closed.

Aside from the Helen Lovejoy–esque nature of this appeal, it is factually wrong. Climate action was “for the children” in the 1990s. “We’re not doing this for the children,” Kate Larsen, an energy analyst at the Rhodium Group, told me after the event. “We’re doing this for us!” Heat waves hot enough to cook human flesh are already happening this month; they will become more common over the coming decades, striking multiple times a year. Unbearable droughts, sea-level rise so high as to break levees, and unpredictable famines will characterize life. Most of the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will undergo bleaching every few years, meaning the water will be so hot that the coral will eject their symbiotic microorganisms into the water, starving themselves in the process.

The speech seemed to punctuate the collapse of climate politics over the past year. During the campaign, Biden described climate change as one of the country’s four major overlapping crises. Yet his administration seems to be sleepwalking toward inaction. Five months ago, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat of West Virginia, killed Biden’s Build Back Better bill after the White House repeatedly ignored his attempts to pare it down. Since then, Democrats have been stuck in limbo, with Manchin laying out some of his terms for a replacement bill, and Democrats neglecting to put together a new bill reflecting those terms. It now seems likely that Democrats will lose control of Congress with only a bipartisan infrastructure bill to show for their trouble.

Then they face overwhelming odds. Because of the geographic apportionment of their supporters, Democrats can win 51 percent of votes cast in the 2022 and 2024 elections and still lose eight Senate seats. I have heard estimates that the party must win eight points more than Republicans to pick up a Senate seat. Unless inflation abates, such an outcome will be so unlikely that it’s essentially impossible, consigning Democrats to minority status for years to come. Republicans, by contrast, have a plausible path to more than 60 seats, allowing them to pass legislation over that institution’s filibuster.

At the same time, the Biden administration could soon lose its ability to regulate climate change at all. The Supreme Court could restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases this term. It could also curtail Chevron deference, a legal doctrine that gives executive agencies more freedom to operate when the underlying law is unclear. In the past, both concepts have been central to Democratic climate-rule making. Both could be gone by 2023.

When reminded of this bleak outlook, climate progressives point to corporate action and the stock market, which both seemed to be moving in their direction. During the 2010s, most oil companies failed to turn a profit, validating activists’ demands that institutions should divest of fossil-fuel stock. But the markets have turned since the pandemic began. Oil-company stocks are some of the best performing of the past year. Funds that emphasize ESG, or “environmental, social, governance,” a vague category that covers such divergent topics as a company’s carbon footprint, how many women it has on its board, or how favorable it is to organized labor, have also underperformed in the recent market rout. At another conference here last month, the libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel attacked ESG as “a hate factory” and compared it to the “Chinese Communist Party.” This week, he backed a fund that would take intentionally anti-progressive stances.

Historically, progressives haven’t been too fond of ESG either, seeing it as a form of Wall Street greenwashing (or worse). But on climate, specifically, it has worked in their favor, allowing managers to take a less-than-direct approach to shareholder value and push forward loss-leading initiatives to reduce carbon pollution.

What all of this means is that, the next time a climate-skeptical president takes office, advocates will have fewer tools to constrain their behavior than last time. And they will have no future to point to: If Democrats couldn’t pass a climate bill in 2009 or 2022, why should anyone have any hope that they’ll try to do it again, or be able to?

Since 2017, a surge of global concern—much of it triggered by revulsion at President Donald Trump and by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 Celsius report—signaled a new era of climate action. That tide is ebbing. American climate advocates may have almost nothing to show for it.

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45 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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The kids are not ok. Today I went to give a climate talk at… | by Julia Steinberger | May, 2022

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Traduction française ici.

Today I went to give a climate talk at my old high school in Geneva — and was given a masterclass in our failings. This is the story of a day that shook me up.

I have given climate talks at high schools before. In 2019, I was invited by the first Geneva climate strikers to go around the high schools on the morning of their first strike. I went, with a friend, racing on our bikes from school to school to school, as many as we could reach during the morning. Back then, the mood was electric, excited, engaged. The students had taken control of the agenda: they were going to put the concerns and needs of their generation front and centre. They were going to get things moving. There were lots of questions on climate science, projections, impacts, actions. Everyone was excited to take part, to learn.

Fast forward three years (and a pandemic) later, and the mood could not have been more different. I sensed it as I was speaking, a general muttering in the auditorium full of 16–17-year-olds, that sometimes ebbed a bit, but never really went away. I thought the students might be bored by the specific aspects I was talking about. Sources of emissions, trends, specific impact probabilities, types of mitigation actions … I raced through the topics, hoping to reach one they would be interested in. And at the end, during the Q&A, it finally came out.

One girl took the mic and held on to it. Her questions came fast and clear, and were widely applauded by her peers. She was clearly channelling the zeitgeist of the room. This is my recollection of some of her questions.

  • “Why are you here talking to us? We can’t do anything. Only politicians, only business leaders, can make the big changes you are talking about. Why aren’t you talking to them?”
  • “Why do you talk to us about optimism [Note: I had not, actually, but perhaps my presentation had been announced as such. Who knows.], about possible actions, when we all know that none of that will happen?”
  • “All these people in power have known about this problem for so long. Yet the IPCC comes out with report after report explaining we have to act within just a few years — and nothing happens, nothing changes. Why do you think this talk of yours to us can do anything?”

I answered as best I could — not very well. I realised that times had shifted, and that the 16-year-olds of today were in a place far beyond where those of 2019 were. Their mood was one of deep, cold, frustration and betrayal. Pessimism, even despair, perhaps, but also disdain. I had failed them, for sure, but clearly so had the other grown-ups in their lives. I was shaken.

For the rest of the day, until now, I have being thinking through that experience, what the girl and others in the auditorium said, the feeling in the room. Here are my realisations.

First: I should have listened before I spoke.

I arrived with a classic, boilerplate climate presentation, full of IPCC figures and facts and quotes. They didn’t need that stuff. Instead, I should have made time and space for them to say what they needed to say, to express what they wanted to hear about. As an academic speaker, I am constantly afraid to be asked about topics outside my expertise, so I am naturally terrified of not having 200 powerpoint slides at my fingertips. But this is not about that. It’s not about my expertise. It’s about hearing what the students think and want. We grown-ups f***ed up: it’s their turn to have a chance to drive.

I decided to put the “listening first” into action that very afternoon with my university students. It was stupendous. An amazing experience. More on that in a bit …

Second: They needed to know about power and change.

The high-school students clearly felt powerless, and that real change-making was far beyond their reach. They knew about citizen action, voting, protests, but none of that had worked, and they didn’t see an arc of struggle they could learn from or push further.

I know a teeny bit about this, because I am trying to learn about it too, so I could have given them elements of my “how activism might work” talk. Still far from perfect, but a lot better than I what I did.

Third: what is betrayal made of?

This morning, at the high school, I didn’t have time to ask the students what was building up their frustration and betrayal, so this afternoon I asked my university students what they thought it might be. Below is the gist of their answers.

  1. “Teenagers look up to adults (really!), as responsible people who give them guidance and protect them. They see politicians as the adults of the adults. [Note: I am completely blown away by this expression. Just — wow.] Seeing politicians who know what is going on but not acting, and grown-ups around them the same, is deeply upsetting to them.”
  2. “International agreements, the COP meetings, succeed each other as big shows with big fanfare, but then are empty of substance and change. Then leaders and media turn around and shift blame onto individuals, as though we were the only ones who could do anything.”
  3. “Everyone knows, and no one is acting as though it matters. No one is taking it seriously. Every day, on Instagram, we see people we know taking flights just for the weekend. Everyone knows and no one cares. It’s just open hypocrisy.”
  4. “The reports are getting more and more desperate, the statements more and more urgent. It’s always ‘3 years to save the planet’ but then nothing changes.”
  5. “There is a shift, because when the climate strike movement started, it was fighting collective climate denial. No one was talking about the climate crisis. Now the climate crisis is much more prominent, but since no one is acting, it seems there is a deliberate collective choice to condemn many human beings to death.”
  6. “So many brands are jumping on the bandwagon, coming out with super statements that are just so much greenwashing. Same for political statements: big public speeches, but then no action.”
  7. “We have seen that covid and Russia’s war on Ukraine can really cause changes overnight — but for climate, which is supposed to be a real crisis too, nothing is done.”
  8. “The system is stuck, bogged down. No one knows how to shift it. In fact, grown-ups identify with the system more than they do with the reality of the climate crisis.”

Fourth: a tear in time.

So I learned a lot today. I learned that the youth who brought the climate crisis to the attention of the world don’t necessarily see that attention as a victory. Back then, when there was silence and denial, inaction could be explained by climate not being enough of a topic for anyone to care or act. In great part due to the climate strikes of 2018–2019, climate skyrocketed to the top of the agenda, on the surface at least.

And as a result, inaction is now perceived as a deliberate, inevitable choice. The grown-ups (and their grown-ups) know they are hurting and harming the youth and they are still doing it. The hurt and despair are immense. No wonder the high school students were muttering while I was pontificating to them about emissions and degrees of warming and impacts. None of that is seen to matter. It’s like coming to a Victorian school and pointing out to the students that sticks are used to beat them, and that beatings hurt. Like, duh. They know already. What they need to know is how to take the stick away from the adults. They need to know how to become a counter-power who can take away our ability to harm them.

And this is why I wish I had at least had the opportunity of discussing activism, and the arc of struggle with them. Because they do have at least a sliver of a chance of being able to be that counter-power, of taking the climate stick away from grown-ups (and our grown-ups). Yes, information alone is not enough. But there is so much more to do.

Epilogue: a good lesson.

So I learned something today, and I hope you did too. I wanted to write this out, not in an elegant way, but fast, because it was so important to me and I wanted to share what the day was like.

In the morning I failed, but in the afternoon, I applied my first lesson, and asked my university students what they wanted to think and hear about. They answered many things, but mainly that their teaching to date had been too problem-oriented, and that they wanted to learn how to work on solutions: what those would look like in various professional sectors. They wanted to figure out what levers to push on to effect change on intertwined political & economic systems. They wanted to know about legal and commercial aspects of systemic transformation. And they wanted more opportunities of discussing their education and its direction.

So … I threw away the powerpoint presentation I had prepared. Instead (drum roll), I went through the IPCC AR6 WG3 slides on sectoral solutions, and we discussed each in turn, to the extent of my competence. We also discussed state capture, industrial lobby groups, vested interests and barriers to change, new technologies and colonialism, and seeing one’s work as striving to achieve systemic change. It was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve ever had. There were smiles and enthusiasm and incredulity and frustrated groans, laughter and the whole gamut of human effort. Whatever it was, it didn’t feel like betrayal any more.

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45 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Control @ Things Of Interest

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Control is a 2019 third-person action shooter developed by Remedy Entertainment. The game takes inspiration from a variety of sources, but its most prominent and notable influence is the SCP project, which is very important to me, for obvious reasons. (I don't like to call it the "SCP wiki" these days... I think this gives people the false impression that individual SCPs don't have specific authors, when they absolutely do. The site has a chronic problem with attribution and this is part of that problem.)

This essay is, I guess, a review of Control. Specifically, it's a review from an SCP contributor's point of view. Technically there are some mild spoilers for Control down below, but if you read it anyway, and then just wait a few weeks, you'll forget all the important specifics. Probably.

Control is probably the closest thing to a AAA SCP game which is ever going to exist. It's the highest budget that anything SCP-related has ever had. It's definitely the best that the SCP project has ever looked. The graphics, the art direction and the "cinematography" of Control are all peerless. And it's a really, really good game too.

By which I mean, it's a very well-reviewed game. I mean, I enjoyed playing it.

Well, it's not that I enjoyed playing it, so much as I appreciated the game a lot. I got a lot out of it.

I didn't enjoy playing it.


Control is very derivative of the SCP project but the SCP project was always this huge melting pot of older influences and tropes. The project has been going for many years, and a lot of stuff has been stirred into that pot over the course of those years, but even from the earliest days you've got Men In Black in there, The X-Files, Hellboy, old Roswell and Area 51 conspiracy theories, real conspiratorial nightmares carried out by the real CIA, Warehouse 13, Fringe, Alias, H. P. Lovecraft, internet creepypasta and older schoolyard scary stories...

The idea that there are dangerous paranormal phenomena in the world goes back about as far as humans do. It's completely logical that, if these phenomena persisted to the modern day, there would be some kind of organisation which manages and/or studies them. A three-letter agency, say.

Once you've got that core concept, a lot of the next steps are intensely obvious too. Of course this agency's internal documentation would conform to a terse, humdrum, bureaucratic style — this would be completely in character for a principally American organisation, but it would also provide a neat contrast with the wildly inexplicable phenomena being described. Of course the agency would use heavy black marker redaction of the most sensitive and alarming specifics.

Of course this agency's offices would provide a similar interesting contrast. A stale, boring, dead location being infiltrated from beneath by gibbering madness — it just makes sense. What architectural style of office would provide the best contrast, then? What would be suitable and in-character for an agency which has existed since, say, the turn of the 20th Century? Neither Control nor the SCP project invented Brutalist architecture.

And then you start asking: What specific paranormal phenomena are there? What's a day in the life like, working at this place? What kind of person works here? Who runs the agency, at the highest levels? Who founded the agency? When, and specifically why? And all of these questions almost automatically have interesting answers.

This basic concept, the paranormal research agency, isn't a radical act of invention, honestly. That first question, "What paranormal phenomena are there?" is a textbook story spinner, something you can use to drive standalone issues of a comic book or episodes of a television show. From a storytelling perspective, this is like the shark: one of the old shapes which just works.

The SCP project

I'm now going to spend an unnecessary amount of words talking about the SCP project. Click here to skip ahead to when I finally get around to discussing Control.

Because the paranormal research agency is an old recipe which has been done many times over, when you hear that someone's doing it again, the question to ask is what, if anything, they're doing differently this time.

The SCP project does bring something legitimately new to the table, which is to turn the premise into a Web 2.0-style collaboration. The SCP project turns that story spinner question, "What paranormal phenomena are there?" into a formula, a constrained fiction writing format which we call the SCP.

An SCP is a document created by the in-universe agency, the Foundation in this case, detailing the Special Containment Procedures for a single anomaly. The format of the document is fairly rigid:

  • It starts by assigning the anomaly a unique reference number and one of three object classes: Safe (for safe anomalies), Euclid (for hazardous/questionable anomalies) and Keter (for actively dangerous anomalies). This part is extremely unimportant.
  • Next come the containment procedures, which typically artfully hint at the anomaly's true nature but do not actually specify what it is. This part serves as a hook.
  • Finally there is a full description of the anomaly itself, laid out in sterile, scientific language.

As a real-world contributor to the SCP project, your task is to create something interesting within this constrained format. You have to invent an imaginative new anomaly all of your own, and figure out a way to nail down its particulars in such a way that they make for a compelling read. Once you've done that, you submit it to the real-world SCP site, it gets put in the Most Recently Created stack, and people start voting on it. If you did a good job, maybe it'll get voted up. If you didn't, maybe it'll get voted down, and maybe deleted.

The end result is this vast database of thousands of SCPs written by thousands of different people. SCPs run a huge gamut of quality because the contributors run a huge gamut of writing ability, from people who are taking their very earliest creative steps to people who by rights should be writing professionally by now, or in some cases are in fact professional writers.

To a certain extent the SCP project serves as a kind of incubator for new writers. This is one of the things I like the most about the project. I was a new writer myself at one point, and old writings of mine from that era of my life are still floating around out there. People have to start somewhere, and I'm proud to be part of a project which is still serving the purpose of providing that starting point. The SCP project also, subjectively, seems like a pretty inclusive community. I would be much less inclined to stick around if that wasn't the case. That's nothing to do with the SCP format specifically, that's because of good community management.


Understanding the SCP format is easy enough if you just read a few existing SCPs. It's very accessible. Executing a good SCP in your own right is actually deceptively difficult, because the format is so backwards.

Firstly, by being a static document from the Foundation's database archives, an SCP necessarily has to capture all the known facts as they were at a single moment in time, which is usually a moment in time after everything interesting has happened. This instantaneity (yes, that's a word) makes it challenging to have any kind of arc or narrative. It's kind of like trying to tell a story with a single photograph. The format also doesn't allow a lot of room for the development of characters or the insertion of dialogue. In a lot of cases, SCPs simply make do without these things.

Secondly, the positioning of the containment procedures at the front of the entry is very inconvenient. If the containment procedures make the nature of the anomaly explicit, the description section can become entirely redundant. If they don't, they can end up being so evasive and unenlightening that they don't actually capture a real-world reader's interest, and it becomes difficult for a real-world reader to pretend that they would actually be useful to an in-universe reader. Hooks are difficult; a hook in the form of containment procedures is especially difficult.

So, it's a challenge. It's not as simple as inventing a new monster of the week. How do you pace an SCP? How do you have a twist ending to an SCP? It would be like a Wikipedia article having a twist ending. It's not unheard-of, but it's uncommon. It takes some dexterity.

You also have to think about the format. This is the Web, a primarily text-based format. (Plus whatever images, CSS styling and JavaScript interactivity you can come up with and which the wiki itself will support.) An anomaly which would work amazingly well as an episode of The X-Files or, say, a monster encounter in a tabletop RPG doesn't necessarily work in plain text.

There is a great tendency to bend the format a little to get around these limitations. Additional sections like "History" or "Acquisition", experiment logs and interview logs, multi-part SCPs which start with an initial version and then let the reader navigate to more recent iterations of the in-universe document... All of these techniques can serve as escape hatches, allowing the writer to go back to a more conventional narrative structure. I've done this kind of thing myself, a little... but I try not to, because I think it's kind of sidestepping the challenge.

There is, of course, an entire subgenre of SCPs which screw with the format in more serious ways. And there is an entire second half of the site made up of "Tales", which are not SCPs, but are instead relatively conventional narratives set in the Foundation universe.


There are a few important things which the SCP project intentionally doesn't have. These, also, I would characterise as novel takes on the paranormal research agency template.

One omission is a singular editorial voice. Contrast this with other shared universes like the DC and Marvel comics universes. These, too, are huge collaborative efforts assembled across many years by thousands of contributors working in very different styles. But they have an editor-in-chief, a sort of narrative CEO; someone who sets the overall direction and tone of those contributions and holds them to some kind of consistent standard. In the SCP project, by comparison, the barrier to entry is relatively low, and there are almost no editorial constraints at all. Although you're encouraged to follow a process which involves (among other things) getting your draft critiqued by more experienced contributors, you can, in theory, just "cold post", and you can, in theory, take the basic SCP concept in any direction.

The other thing the SCP project doesn't have is canon. Explicitly, there is no canon. In the earliest years of the project, when it was one-tenth of its current size, there were attempts to keep a consistent singular continuity across all SCPs. Those attempts fell apart, and looking back now it's easy to say in hindsight that they could never have worked. There are thousands upon thousands of SCPs now, far too many to practically reconcile in this way, especially without an active editorial board or EIC.

Each SCP implies different things about the capabilities of the Foundation as an organisation — its reach, its scope, its resources, its ability to keep secrets. Summing up what the Foundation is keeping contained, even across only the most basic SCPs, you get an organisation so absurdly large and powerful that it eclipses any real-world government or large treaty organisation. It becomes improbable, and then ludicrous. Due to power creep, some individual SCPs have gigantic, world-ending or universe-ending scope. These become incompatible with smaller, lower-level stories, which we still want to be able to tell. A lot of the "biggest" SCPs are simply mutually exclusive. Continuity is basically impossible in this scenario.

A singular canon would also have a terrible chilling effect on new contributors. "No, you can't write that, because it contradicts something someone else wrote six years ago," you would be told, over and over and over again, until you gave up.

So, SCPs are free to contradict one other, and seldom directly reference one another. This model encourages (but does not force) SCPs to be standalone, complete works, not requiring much context to read and get a positive experience out of. This in turn frees readers from needing to follow any kind of strict reading order, and enables them to dip into the database almost at random, or just browse. This makes the project highly accessible to readers as well as to writers, and is a huge component of the project's popularity and following.

Although there is no canon, there is a kind of shared lore. Some parts of that lore are essentially axiomatic, such as the existence of the Foundation, the fact that it is clandestine, the conventional structure of an SCP document and the basic object classes. It's usually assumed that the Foundation has secret Sites all over the world, and each Site has (underground?) containment units, and most anomalies are confined to a single containment unit. It's usually assumed that the Foundation is run by the shadowy O5 Council, made up of 13 people, and that these 13 people are in turn led by an even more mysterious Administrator. It's usually assumed that scientific research on anomalies is carried out using highly expendable D-class personnel, who are typically repurposed death row inmates.

I never liked that last part. I don't use it in my SCP writing. My personal vision of the Foundation doesn't involve systematic experimentation on prisoners. That always seemed too gross to me. And, as absurd as this will sound, implausible.

But opinions differ. There's no consensus on what moral orientation the Foundation has, or should have. I think a lot of contributors would call it "ambiguously evil" or "clinically amoral", but equally many wouldn't. Personally, I favour depictions of the Foundation as something which is actively changing, ethically, as years pass in real time. A centuries-old organisation, formerly a great evil in its own right, and now slowly coming to terms with its past, endeavouring to somehow turn that corner. Maybe failing. Maybe splitting apart as forces inside of the organisation come to conflict over this issue.

The SCP project does have a few dozen canons, smaller self-contained continuities with more internal consistency and fewer contributors. Antimemetics doesn't technically qualify as a canon, because the SCP project's definition of "canon" is actually a little more specific than this, but it's definitely in that area.

What the project also has is an organic feedback loop. If you write something popular, someone else might build on top of it. If something is read by a lot of different people, it can kind of insinuate itself into the background of other people's SCPs.

Control, then

I shared all of that with you partly because I wanted to get some idle thoughts about the SCP project down in writing. But also, this is where Control starts.

To sum all of that up: the paranormal research agency is an old and familiar setting, and the paranormal procedural is an old and familiar story spinner. The SCP project's unique additions to that old formula are a thriving collaborative web-based format and the deliberate absence of any singular editorial vision.

The end result is, in my opinion, very cool. Something important and valuable. A teeming mass of content, a kind of rapidly growing rainforest ecosystem of horror and fantasy and science fiction and weirdness.

Control takes the SCP concept and... gives it a singular unique vision. A single design, a very specific style. A consistent tone, well-realised characters, and a premise. A canon.

Enough is changed to make this qualify as an original creation. The Foundation, with its international scope and Sites on every continent, is now the United States Federal Bureau of Control. A three-letter agency, like I said. The FBC has one specific location: the Oldest House, a windowless, dimensionally confused, mysteriously difficult-to-pinpoint skyscraper in Manhattan, New York. The whole game takes place inside this sprawling building. The O5 Council is now the Board, an unseen and likely non-human extradimensional gestalt which communicates with our plane using distinctive cryptic cut-up semi-gibberish. And there's no longer an Administrator as such above the Board. There is, however, a human Director appointed by them, who serves as the public face of the Bureau.

There is a singular narrative. The player character is Jesse Faden, who arrives at the FBC headquarters in search of her brother Dylan, who was abducted by FBC agents during a paranormal event in their home town when they were children. As she arrives, she discovers that the building is under lockdown after being invaded from another dimension by a malevolent force which she dubs the Hiss. Jesse is semi-willingly chosen by the Board to replace the Bureau's recently deceased previous Director. She proceeds deeper into the Oldest House to rescue the surviving Bureau staff (her new subordinates), drive back the Hiss, recover her brother, and uncover the true events of their childhood. A lot of high-octane third-person shooting is involved.

In Control, SCPs are now Altered Items, singular iconic objects like a swan boat, a surf board or a decorative pink flamingo. Each Altered Item still has a reference number, and its own dedicated redaction-heavy documentation, and its own discrete containment unit in the Containment Sector, which is one of several major areas of the game. Altered Item documentation is one of several categories of collectibles which can be found scattered throughout the game.

There are also Altered World Events, which is what the Federal Bureau of Control calls it when there's a major "paranatural" outbreak somewhere in the world. These show up as collectible documentation too. They also show up as locations inside the Oldest House — sets, built in warehouses by the FBC for the purposes of study and analysis. Kind of a cheat, I think, but whatever.

But the collectible documentation is completely secondary. I mentioned earlier that an SCP needs to work as piece of writing, and that this constraint is different from working as an issue of a comic book or as an episode of a television show. But Control is a third-person shooter, so this constraint changes again. In a game context, an Altered Item needs to add something meaningful to the game.

Altered Items serve two in-game purposes. Some Altered Items are specifically Objects of Power. These can be bound to a specific human host, and confer supernatural abilities. Jesse gathers these Objects of Power progressively over the course of the game, slowly becoming more powerful in combat, and more mobile. An old-style 8" floppy disk confers telekinesis. A television confers flight. A gun... well, confers the ability to fire the gun. But it's the Service Weapon, the Platonic archetypal firearm. Jesse wields it throughout the game, and it can be upgraded to emulate many different classes of real weapon.

Other Altered Items are adapted to become one-off encounters and challenges for the player. A mirror becomes a major optional boss fight. A mannequin duplicates itself a hundred times and the player has to hunt among them for the real one. A set of traffic lights, escaped from Containment, becomes a literal game of Red Light Green Light which has to be won to recapture it. In fact, recapturing escaped Altered Items is one of the major classes of optional side quest in Control.

Written down as SCPs, most of Control's Altered Items would not actually be very good. That isn't a value judgement on the game, obviously. I'm just saying. Even accounting for their brevity (a typical SCP is 500 to 1,500 words, a typical document in Control is more like 100 to 200 words), very few of these documents would pass muster on the SCP site. Which is fine. Control's Altered Items work much better as game encounters.

Well. Some of them do.

Bear with me for a second.


Near the end of Control's main story there is a twist where Jesse herself becomes possessed by the Hiss. In her stupor, she hallucinates that she is a downtrodden, low-level assistant at the Federal Bureau of Control. She rushes back and forth across a washed-out, dismal version of the Bureau offices, gathering up dirty coffee cups and hand-delivering mail. The tasks are miserable and repetitious. The whole time, other Bureau workers are berating her to her face and disparaging her behind her back. Every time she finishes a job, it resets; the unwashed coffee cups respawn and she has to clean them all up again. It's a nightmare she can't escape from. It's tedious and thankless. It's Jesse's greyscale Hell.

One of the tasks is to photocopy documents. Dozens and dozens of copies of the same piece of paper. It's pointless busywork. You, the player, can tell that it's a trap, it's not real, because of how boring it is. You need to break out somehow. Right?

Back in the game world, after Jesse escapes, the AWE expansion has a side mission where you have to go after another escaped Altered Item, a chain letter. To complete the side mission, you have to photocopy it three times, and then mail each of the three copies individually. This is a real side mission and it is a slam-dunk self-own.

This isn't the only underwhelming Altered Item-related side mission. I mentioned the mannequin encounter, which is far too thin to even qualify as a puzzle. There is a rubber duck which, when you try to grab it, teleports away down the corridor, quacking ominously. You follow it eight or nine times and eventually you catch it. There's nothing special which happens when you eventually catch either of these Altered Items. There's no twist to either of them, no difficult one-off enemy encounter which results. You basically walk forward until you're done.

Another is the Moving Letters: letters which zip from desk to desk near the mail room, unpredictably, at high speed. You have to wait at one spot until the letter stops at that spot, then claim it. You do this three times. That's it.

Aside from Altered Items, "boring janitorial work" is actually an entire subcategory of side missions in the game. There are half a dozen of them, all part of a subplot where Jesse acts as assistant to Ahti, the Oldest House's janitor (and, possibly, the folk hero of Finnish myth). You have to tend plants, collect and burn trash, clean up mould... Later on, there are more janitorial missions which are... the same. You tend more plants, and clean up more mould, but in different places this time.

Maybe there is a lesson for us to learn here, a valid statement being made about the importance of boring jobs and the value of the people who do them, but... this is a game! And the game itself knows how boring it's being! It admitted as much during the main story!

These missions are not very exciting. I mean, I did them. So maybe I am the one who is owned. But the fact remains that a lot of the side missions and a lot of the SCP-like things in Control don't really amount to much in terms of actual entertainment.

And while I'm here, I'll also say that the Oceanview Motel puzzles are also only barely worthy of the word "puzzle". Noticing that the radio in one room is on the right, and then going to the next room and moving the radio to the right there too? That's weak, folks. That's tepid.


Other Altered Items do lead into more exciting content, but there I have a different nitpick, which is that a lot of them just don't make any sense. I mentioned the refrigerator, which is a portal to an optional boss fight against a monocular, tentacled monstrosity. The boss fight is a cool and freaky encounter. But it has nothing to do with the refrigerator! The boss arena isn't an icy wasteland, the boss doesn't resemble mouldy, expired food in any respect... I didn't catch any subtler thematic connection, either. It's a complete non-sequitur. This just seems like a weird choice to me.

Another optional boss fight is against a huge, mutating geometric sphere. This boss is a manifestation of an out-of-control, uncontained Altered Item, a boat anchor. What does this boss thing have to do with a boat anchor? Or shipping, say, or water? Nothing. This encounter happens in an area of the Oldest House which has been filled almost to the ceiling with millions of identical, replicated clocks. Not specifically replicas of a ship's clock, just someone's old clock which they had in their office. What do clocks have to do with boat anchors? Nothing. What do clocks have to do with the Anchor boss? Nothing. There's no strong timing element to the fight. The boss turns clockwise... at first. Then it moves more erratically. It belches more clocks at you. Why?

Let's go back to those Objects of Power. Jesse collects the optional shield ability by cleansing an Object of Power which is a safe. Fine. A floppy disk gives Jesse telekinesis powers, letting her launch objects at targets. It's explained that the disk contains nuclear launch codes. Fine, I guess. A little forced.

But why does the rapid dash ability come from a merry-go-round horse? Why does the flight ability come from an old, haunted CRT television? What do ashtrays have to do with mazes? It just seems arbitrary.

Is the arbitrariness the point? The illogic? Maybe. But also, no. Your point can't be that you don't have a point. That doesn't work. If these were SCPs, I would expect better.

But they aren't SCPs. And like I said, these are all nitpicks. It's all one nitpick, really. Flying, dashing and telekinesis are all fun. That is, actually, more important. The boss fights are fun. For the sake of balance, I should mention that the optional mirror boss fight absolutely succeeds on both levels.

Control's greatest strength is its atmosphere. This is what I loved the most about the game, and it's also what made playing it hard going for me. This is pretty subjective.

The whole game has this beautiful but grim, oppressive art direction. It is absolutely a game which earns its photo mode and its art book. It looks so good that it's spoiled me for other games. But that beauty in the screenshot is just so hostile to experience in gameplay. The whole atmosphere of the Oldest House made me not want to be there anymore. Even when seemingly natural light is pouring from the ceiling, it's this harsh, sterile white. Through the back half of the main story campaign, I couldn't help thinking to myself: "I really miss colours."

A severe lack of music also contributes to this hostile atmosphere, particularly during combat. One of the highlight sequences in the game is the Ashtray Maze set piece, an extended fight against many enemies in an environment of confusingly shifting walls, set to a heavy rock track called "Take Control", by in-universe band Old Gods of Asgard. This rock track is awesome, it's incredibly appropriate to the action, and it massively elevates the experience of the set piece. Many players of the game single this out as their favourite moment in the game.

But the combat during this sequence is just the same combat as in the rest of the game. They're the same enemies, at the same levels you're used to. The shifting walls make for a novel environment to fight in, but the only real difference is the soundtrack. This is the only fight in the entire base game which has music. Every other fight in the game is set to a war drum beat which rises and falls as the action ebbs and flows — with no tune. To put it bluntly, the Ashtray Maze sequence makes it painfully obvious that the rest of the game is in desperate need of listenable music.

(For my money, the best actual track in the game is "Constrain", by Byproduct. But do you get to play the game to this music? Nope. You just find a particular radio near the Central Executive Control Point, and stand there, and do nothing, and listen.)

Outside of combat, there's almost no score at all. Travelling through the Oldest House on foot, it is an empty, echoing, actively hateful place to be. It's so devoid of people and life and interactivity, so liminal, that it's functionally a desert. There's nothing around any corner but dusty files, vents, gantries and enemies.

In other words, fantastic job on capturing the SCP project's Foundation aesthetic! If your mental picture of a Foundation office is Control's Oldest House, then, you're not wrong. There's no canon, but you're not wrong. Fantastic job, up to and including the part where it's a universe that's fun to fool around with, but actually miserable to inhabit or linger in.

I didn't want to be playing the game anymore. It wasn't tense or scary in a fun way. I just wanted to go home.


What else?

I feel like it might have been nice if the enemy in the game, this violent antagonistic force, the Hiss, had some dialogue. Just... any dialogue at all. Motivation... An end goal...

I feel as if, in a videogame context, being made to sit still and watch full motion video can be a failure of storytelling. In-engine cutscenes are one thing, but... Control leant too hard on this, I think. This is a Remedy trademark, though, and asking Remedy not to be Remedy might be equivalent to asking them to stop making games, which no one wants.

I second-guessed the story pretty badly and I think this hurt my experience. That's on me. I couldn't stop myself. I was fully expecting Polaris to secretly be the Hiss, manipulating Jesse into releasing her/it from Hedron. When what actually happened happened, it confused the heck out of me. I was also expecting the Board to turn out to be the real antagonists, and to have to fight them in the finale.

I still think Polaris has some kind of agenda of her own, and the Board clearly being the diametric opposition to the Hiss doesn't make them a force for good. But these things have been intentionally left cryptic for now.

I was expecting some kind of boss fight in the finale. And that really did feel like a dropped ball. In fact, by my count, five out of seven boss fights in the base game are optional. (Control's first expansion, which is called Foundation as a nod to its influences, was an improvement in this regard.) What actually happens is just a huge fight against a huge number of conventional enemies. The enemies are massively stronger than anything you've faced up until that point, but the Board amplifies your weapons so that you're massively stronger too, so the net increase in challenge is essentially zero.

Lastly, I was let down by the highly open-ended resolution to the main plot, and the absolutely unending series of mopping-up side missions which spins off after that. Right after the credits, the game hits you with a very blunt message along the lines of: "This is not over. You still need to keep fighting the Hiss, forever." There's no way to actually evict all the Hiss from the Oldest House, and so the entertaining telekinetic shooty action becomes this Sisyphean chore.

Oh, and no New Game+? And not even a second save slot? No way at all to replay the main campaign without losing all progress? Come on!


I got a lot out of Control, and I appreciated it a great deal. I spent a shocking amount of time playing it considering how much I didn't enjoy playing it. I actually 100%ed it, for reasons I'm legitimately not able to fathom. Is that a thing which happens to other people? Was I secretly enjoying it? Was it just a need to do due diligence, or justify my purchase? What happened?

I appreciate Control's contribution to, if not the SCP project, then the same subgenre that the SCP project and other projects inhabit. I appreciated it so much that I even wrote crossover fan fiction, which I used as another way to examine the practical differences between the two universes as venues for storytelling.

I'm extremely interested to see where both projects go next. If Control 2 shows up then I'm absolutely in. It's claimed that there is a direct sequel in the works, but before that it seems like the plan is to produce a cooperative multiplayer spinoff, which... seems like an odd choice for a way to continue a hugely commercially and critically successful linear, story-focused single-player game?

And before that they're making Alan Wake II, which I don't care about at all.

In Control 2 I would like to see: more music, more radically inventive Altered Items, more colour and more closure.

As for the future of the SCP project... I don't think I can predict where that's going to go. I hope it's a blast, though. A strange one.

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70 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Reader Mailbag: Sustaining Motivation, Judging Experts and the Meanings of Life

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Last week, I asked readers to send me their questions about learning, life, or… anything really. I got over one hundred replies! Here are a few I’d like to share:

Gary asks:
“What are your morning and evening routines?”

I don’t have anything fancy in terms of routines.

My mornings, these days, usually start at seven. I have coffee, my wife and I get our son ready for daycare, and I go to the office. My evenings are usually dinner and family time until my son goes to bed, then I watch a television show with my wife and read a bit before going to sleep.

As a meta-point, I’m somewhat against the idea of focusing too much on routines. While good habits are important, they’re not a magic sauce for getting results. People with wildly different habits can reach similar levels of success. In contrast, others who have identical routines can have totally different outcomes.

Perhaps that isn’t the motivation behind your question. Still, it’s worth stating because sometimes people overanalyze things like routines and under analyze more direct contributors to someone’s outcomes (e.g. what projects they work on, what skills and assets they possess, etc.).

Michael asks:
“How do you balance growth with sustainability? I recently started a full time job, in addition to a rigorous virtual conservatory (16+ hours a week) in addition to part time work and an increasingly busy creative freelance career. After two months of near-burnout I left the virtual conservatory. Did I make the right choice?”

Burnout isn’t good. It sounds like you made the right choice to me.

Doing a ton of things and being hyper-busy is one of the most overrated ideas to infect productivity writing. If this is what “productivity” means, then I’m hardly the person to be offering advice. I take quite a bit of vacation time, and my working hours are pretty reasonable.

To me, the aim of productivity is to get bigger outcomes for fewer inputs, including time. Even when you need to pour tons of time into one pursuit, that’s often best handled by being able to drastically cut other kinds of competing work.

Ene asks:
“What’s in your opinion, the best theory so far on how to sustain motivation?”

I believe motivation is a (somewhat) rational signal about the value of your activity. To feel motivated, the project needs to be high value with high certainty.

On top of that there are experiential concerns. A project can be frustrating because there are problem-solving steps with large, unbounded problem spaces that don’t allow tractable progress. Emotional issues arising because of people you need to work with or the intrinsic interestingness (or lack thereof) of the subject can also affect the motivational “costs” of pursuing it.

This rationalistic perspective doesn’t suggest a simple “hack” you can do to improve your motivation. But I think it does help diagnose why motivation can succeed or fail. The answer is to design projects that have a high expected value, that you have confidence you can achieve, and design them to minimize the friction you experience when pursuing them.

When it comes to projects with low value, low confidence, and lots of friction, I’m not sure there’s a way to motivate yourself to pursue them. In part because without fixing those underlying problems, I’m not sure you should motivate yourself to do them.

Cort asks:
“I have a question for you. I am an older student (39 years old) and have encountered a lot of pushback when I tell people I want to get a PhD in quantum physics because I’m told math skills peak in one’s 20s. I know there’s evidence that the age of receiving the Fields Medal has increased, but is there any neuroscience or other evidence that you are aware of disproving this thesis?”

Fluid intelligence probably does peak a little younger, but I think the idea that there are massive declines in fluid intelligence is overstated. You’re probably roughly as intelligent as you were at 18 for most of your adult life. Fluid intelligence mostly seems to decline in very old age, and even then, there is considerable variability.

Put another way, I don’t think the difference in intelligence level between yourself at 20, and 39 even reaches the top ten factors that will influence your success in getting a Ph.D.

I suspect the skew to younger success in fields like math is less due to the advantage of young people, but their comparative lack of disadvantage. Math doesn’t need the huge knowledge base required in, say, history. Productivity probably declines after one’s youth for non-cognitive reasons. Ambition may be lower, you may have more family/admin responsibilities, etc.

If you have the energy to pursue a Ph.D., I wouldn’t let age stop you.

Michael asks:
“What are you most glad that you stopped doing?”

Social media, particularly Twitter. Every now and then, I get glimpses of it from links in blog posts. I forget how angry and toxic a place it is.

Parth asks:
“Are there any tips you have on how Ultralearning’s methodology can be applied at scale to an organization? I work at a software R&D centre.”

I think it’s up to organizations to give people the means to become better at their work. The major barriers to ultralearning are (a) a lack of good resources and (b) a lack of credible signals that these skills matter within the organization.

People want to invest in learning, but they often aren’t sure which skills are worth investing in, nor whether those investments will be recognized. Employers can solve both of those problems.

Adrian asks:
“How do you judge expertise? It seems like most fake news detection is done on a case-by-case basis. Is there an algorithm for evaluating experts?”

Expertise is a social phenomenon.

To be an expert means that other experts of the same “type” recognize you as such. This is a social mechanism that does pretty well because, relative to the standards of a discipline, other experts are much harder to bs than lay audiences. But it often fails because the standard itself isn’t tied to any objective result. Hence, you can have “experts” that make pretty bad predictions, like political pundits or many supposed foreign policy experts during the lead-up to the Iraq War.

I think it is useful to measure performance against some kind of real-world benchmark, but it seems clear to me that this isn’t what we generally mean when we say someone is an expert.

Sneha asks:
“I have 2 little kids- 3 and 7 years old. I want them to be good learners and develop a passion for learning from childhood. How do I get them to do that?”

My little one is only two, so I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience here.

My overall philosophy is that the best thing you can do is embody what you try to teach. It’s hard to encourage kids to be lifelong learners if you aren’t one yourself. So my focus would be on improving my own self-education and then trying to share that with my kids.

Calvin asks:
“I would like to know your opinion on when you should build a skill versus when you should delegate it and focus on someone else doing it.”

I don’t think there’s a general answer. My model of the situation is that whenever the skill you’re learning is highly integrated with the main value you provide through an activity, learning is better than delegation. However, delegation usually works better when the new skill is decoupled from your performance.

For me, research is an example of an integrated activity. I experimented with having a researcher help with essays. While he did a great job, the knowledge wasn’t my knowledge. I couldn’t assimilate it easily it to come up with new ideas or better advice.

This is additionally complicated by the opportunity cost of time investment and the level of expertise you need to acquire to recoup that cost. Learning everything myself made more sense when I started out because my effective wage rate was low. The opportunity cost of, say, learning programming to the $25/hour level of expertise was low. But if I wanted to get my skills to a $200/hour level, then the costs of difficulty and time needed to learn the skill become much steeper, and it’s less worthwhile.

All of this economic analysis omits the intrinsic dimension of things. I like learning Chinese, but it patently fails this cost-benefit calculation, so I’m forced to admit it’s just a hobby. The same is probably true of my doodling.

Jeremy asks:
“What are your thoughts about spirituality and the meaning of life?”

I tend to think there is no meaning of life, only meanings in life. I think the idea that you can stand outside of life and ask what it is “for” is a category error. Instead of a meaning for life, as a whole, there are meanings in life—good relationships, work that helps people, creative accomplishment, novel experiences and intellectual understandings.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making the claim that life is pointless or that there are no meanings greater than ourselves. I think it’s a mistake to imagine some vantage point that stands above our lives and evaluates them. But such a vantage point is not actually possible to experience. The most we can do is reflect back on our memories and assign them meaning, which isn’t exactly the same question.

Thus, I tend to think the “meaning of life” is a problematic philosophical question owing to this cognitive illusion. I think a better question is how you can have more plentiful meanings in your life. It may seem less profound because the answer tends to be less surprising: help people, have good relationships, fulfill creative and intellectual ambitions, be a good person, etc.

Sam asks:
“How has your relationship with productivity changed over time?”

Theoretically, I think I’m less interested in systems than I used to be. Part of this is simply because my work has shifted from checking off a lot of relatively easy tasks that nonetheless need to be done, to mostly working on really hard things (all the straightforward work got delegated away).

Kalpana asks:
“If you could design an education system, what would it look like?”

My thoughts on the education system have bounced around a lot.

I like academic topics. I think the world would be a better place if people knew more of them.

Yet I also think our current system is enormously wasteful. People invest enormous energy and cost into acquiring academic skills that have minimal relevance to their eventual work. They do so for the near-mandatory signals of intellectual ability and work ethic. This vocationalism also tends to undercut genuine interest as students grind through coursework to pass courses and exams that they don’t care about.

I think, in a perfect world, education would be nearly free. It would be delivered online and allow participation via voluntary communities of those interested in the subjects. Work skills would be mainly learned via apprenticeship processes. Necessary book learning could be provided through cheap testing/certification methods. In such a world, anyone could learn any skill they want to free of charge, only paying when they need tutoring or testing certification.

Yet I’m also pessimistic about such a world coming about. It’s not that this is economically or pedagogically impossible. It’s that we’ve gotten into a bad signaling equilibrium where doing well in a traditional, four-year academic program is considered the only way to get started professionally. Most professional licensing organizations exacerbate the problem by also requiring those credentials.

Given that my vision is somewhat utopian, I’m happy to settle for self-directed learning of the kind I espouse in Ultralearning for now. It’s harder than it should be due to a lack of institutional support. Still, it’s definitely doable for someone who actually cares about educating themselves.


Thanks to everyone who asked a question. Hopefully, we can do it again sometime!

The post Reader Mailbag: Sustaining Motivation, Judging Experts and the Meanings of Life appeared first on Scott H Young.

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70 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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