Tuesday, April 25, 2017

There Are No Rules


  1. Humans make rules to keep themselves in line. The "Thou shalts" of the Old Testament are rules. Compare St. Paul: "For me all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial." This contrast is manifest in this statement: there are no rules, only consequences.
  2. Rules are useful fictions. If a behavior is bad most of the time, then we prohibit it. It's usually bad to speed through a red light, so we make a rule against that. But you would speed through a red light to prevent an arsonist from burning a school with children inside. The rule is a fiction; we only follow it because of the consequences. (This is complicated, though, because a society of people that adheres strictly to rules will experience many good consequences, provided the rules are well-crafted)
  3. What is the difference between a good person and an evil one? If I am evil, I will only consider the consequences that impact me and not the ones that impact other people; if I am stupid, I will fail to even consider those; if I am crazy, I will purposefully cause harm to myself. One can switch between these three at different times and in different places. Many people, perhaps even most people, are all three: crazy, stupid, and evil. Notice that evil is compatible with gaming the rule-system while stupidity and craziness are compatible with blindly following rules.
  4. Remember Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith and Nietzsche's Ubermensch! Neither has much regard for rules. We slip into slave morality and despair when we develop a belief in rules over consequences.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Intellectual Time-Bomb

The internet age has created an intellectual time-bomb, which is already in the process of detonating and will continue to do so for some decades. Events like this play out over a long time. The basic propositions that will make this clear to you are as follows:
  1. The study of the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, confers, among other things, a deep and nuanced understanding of the propagation of ideas and heightened abilities of persuasion. This does not come from studying some specific set of texts, but simply from being immersed in the study of said subjects for a long period of time (i.e. five to ten years). The study of logic and rhetoric is key.
  2. There internet has granted heightened access to the corpus of philosophical and other humanist work, allowing people to study the humanities without the need for university tuition or approval.
  3. The internet has made observation of, and participation in, the ideological and cultural milieu easier than at any prior point in history.
Elaboration on Proposition 1: a philosopher is, in some cases, a lonely soul brooding over abstruse problems in solitude. However, there is another side to philosophy, which is effective speaking and persuasion. It has been thus from Socrates down through the present day. More importantly, philosophical study will show you how ideas are challenged, how they decay, and how they change. There has been much ado about "memetics" over the past decade or so, but memetics is just one lens for understanding the play of ideas in a society. Any philosopher worth his salt can, given access to enough information (easily available now, thanks to the internet), trace the history of an idea, observe its origins, and, in many cases, predict its possible outcomes with a fairly high degree of accuracy. There is no complete, quantified natural science of the spread of ideas and manipulation of culture, which means that steering a society is thus more art than science, but with elements of both. In many cases, it resembles alchemy or the occult, and one sees this reflected in terms like "meme magic."

Elaboration on Proposition 2: there was a time when the only people with access to the knowledge requisite for understanding (and thus, manipulating) society, culture, and ideology, were academics and people with expensive degrees. This is no longer the case. The internet has made it possible for anyone with a modicum of intelligence and a strong Will to Power to educate themselves in philosophy and other related subjects and gain the knowledge previously confined to an elite intellectual class, with little to no need for participation in the university system. There are already a few such individuals; one of them is writing this essay. Anybody with a political axe to grind can teach themselves everything they need to know.

Elaboration on Proposition 3: there was a time when the only people you could influence without a lot of money or a prestigious social position were personal acquaintances. This is no longer the case. Anybody who is willing can teach themselves how social media works, and begin spreading their ideas this way. This normally amounts to a sap with no influence shouting into the wind. However, once an individual establishes even a small presence and studies the right subjects, they wield disproportionate power relative to their place in society. This is indirect or "soft" power. One need not "go viral" or invest any money. All that is required is a modicum of intelligence, a substantial education in the humanities, and sheer, bullheaded persistencce. This last is in place whenever someone is passionate enough to feel the need to engage in such activity, and this is quite often the case with political ideologues.

A few minutes' reflection on the above makes the point clear: the internet age has created thousands of people who are disgruntled with the status quo and also highly adroit at disrupting established thought patterns by means of social media. The recent crackdowns on "fake news" and "extremism" are inadequate and ultimately futile responses from established institutions to a threat that will never go away. The genie is out of the bottle, the milk's out of the glass, the cat's out of the bag, and the internet is literally swarming with people who are hungry for political disruption and know exactly how to accomplish it. The political Right, in particular, has become brutally effective in this regard. Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump during the 2016 American Presidential election by roughly a factor of 2, and still lost the election. Armies of establishment propagandists cannot overcome the untold numbers of people who spread ideological propaganda in their free time. The former must be paid; the latter do it for free, and there are more of them. The outcome is clear.

My own position is that many older and established institutions will slide into irrelevance, including academia, the media, and, with advancing technology, untold numbers of centralized services (taxi companies give way to Uber). So if we are to keep philosophy alive, it will have to be done outside of the academy. I came to this conclusion independently, but certain academics have also recognized this and are not reluctant to say so, although the fact that they do so anonymously is telling. They have a few ideas about how to maintain philosophy, and so do I. My own vision must wait for another entry, however.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

What's it good for?

So, if you ask a professional philosopher about wisdom or the good life, they will thrust their nose in the air and inform you disdainfully that philosophy isn't about being "wise" or any such rubbish. It's about dealing with a bunch of technical problems made up by academics so they could have a job. The professional philosopher does not care why they get paid, so long as they do. As the years have gone by, I have increasingly lost patience with that kind of thing. If you're a geeky analytical guy like me, that stuff is fun, but making a life out of it? No, thank you. Sure, people like Descartes and Spinoza and Hobbes were spending their time on obscure and difficult subjects, but there were reasons for it besides "I want to wear a suit and get paychecks, but not have a real job."

So what's philosophy good for? I could let go of the word, "philosophy," but I don't want to do that. Those ancient Greek guys in togas and the people who replied to them down through the ages were doing something important, and the people who assumed the title of "philosopher" around the turn of the 20th century aren't doing it any more. Perhaps an academic would ask me what I think that important thing is, and I confess I can't rigorously define it in a way that would be acceptable in your very prestigious department. But your attitude says everything, Mr. Academic. You want to go to conferences and get paychecks, and be around clever and hard-working opportunists like yourself - and that's it.

What's it good for? Well, being reflective is good, if you want to become wise. I'm not wise, but I think philosophy may help with that. It's the meaning of the word, dumbass: "love of wisdom." Academic philosophy has outlived its usefulness. You can do philosophy of science all you want, but the physicists still don't respect you. Neither does anyone else outside of your field, really. The clock is ticking. Give it 50 years, if that.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Genuine

What does it mean to be genuine? I guess it means unmediated behavior, not consciously planned, not an affectation. If I ask you to tell me your favorite food, and you respond by saying "I like stale cheeseburgers from McDonald's" in an attempt to be funny and ironic, then that's not genuine. If you reply, "I dunno, steak I guess?" and really mean (?) that, then you're being genuine. If I tell you to cut it out and tell me what you actually like, then I'm asking you to be honest, and honesty is connected to genuineness. The idea is to say something just to say it, rather than seeking a certain reaction from the other person.

There's another side to this, which is that a lot of people have, in their minds somewhere, this little box of goodies they like to think of as "The Real Me." There are certain sets of behaviors and opinions that such people believe to be authentically theirs. When such a person asks you to be genuine with them, they are assuming that you have a similar box of goodies somewhere, and they want to see what's in it. If you do not think of yourself as possessing such a box of goodies, then you'll be a little thrown off when someone asks to see The Real You. Many of these people approach this in a less than healthy way.

This is where it gets hairy. Social behavior is just that: social. You act differently around Friend A than you do around Friend B. Which one is more authentic? Trick question: neither. All of your social behavior is, in some aspects, a performance. Sure, there's such a thing as dishonesty, where you conceal your real intentions from the other person. But if you make your intentions clear, and the other person acknowledges that you are being honest, then what else is there to do? There is a turn of phrase, "You can't get blood from a turnip." You're a turnip, and they're trying to wring blood out of you. "Show me your box of goodies!" they yell, and all you can do is shrug helplessly and say, "There's nothing in here, man."

The same thing incidentally happens when people are asking you to display an emotional reaction when you're not having one. Someone asks, "How does that make you feel?" regarding something that doesn't have an emotional effect on you. "How do you feel about so-and-so?" they might ask, and you simply don't have any feelings about so-and-so, besides "Meh." Then you're caught in a dilemma. You can fake an emotional reaction, at which point they'll detect the fakery and ask for your real reaction, or you can honestly tell them that you haven't got a reaction, at which point they'll get angry at you for not having an emotional response to something they care about and begin demanding that you display some kind of emotion ("Show me the goodies!"). What to do?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Judgmental Pussy

A Judgmental Pussy (hereafter called a JP) is a common type among touchy-feely "empathetic" people. Not all such people are JPs, of course. You can be a touchy-feely empathetic type without being a JP. I have known several touchy-feely individuals, and only a few of them have been JPs. But it can be hard to tell which one somebody is, because the JP likes to pretend that he is just a sensitive flower who is not judgmental at all. Being passive-aggressive by nature, the Judgmental Pussy likes to act innocent. Of course the JP is innocent! You're the guilty one, not him.

The JP is usually a "he." A combination of (possibly suppressed) masculinity and over-sensitivity is part of what makes him who he is. Sometimes he has a tough-guy or sarcastic deadpan Oscar Wilde presentation, although he can't take what he dishes out and will become all kinds of butthurt if you turn it around on him. Those who know the JP know enough not to do to him what he does to everyone else for fear that he'll have a meltdown. The JP, you see, likes to think of himself as a suffering, persecuted martyr. He is a saint, after all. When people back down just to get him to shut up and stop throwing a tantrum, he will read this as validation that his righteous fury toward his oppressors was well-placed.

This all stems from the fact that the Judgmental Pussy is caught in an awkward dilemma: he understands the world primarily through his values (hence judgmental) and is oversensitive enough that you can never tell what he'll take as a slight to those values (hence pussy). The JP does not think of things as primarily true or not true, but relates by saying Ooh, I like that! or Ooh, I don't like that! in response to anything you put in front of him. The idea of not having an emotional response does not occur to him. He has an emotional response when he sees a rock, let alone a person. And he never, or very rarely, keeps that emotional response to himself, because there is nothing more important to the Judgmental Pussy than his own precious feelings. Never insinuate that you don't care about his feelings. That's worse than murder to a JP.

One reason for this is that the JP is a very, very special individual. Or at least, he thinks he is. This precious specialness can manifest in different ways at different times; lofty ironic detachment that finds everything amusing (or at least, everything you do); moral condescension that just wants to let you know that YOU ARE GUILTY by verdict of the JP; being arrogant, dismissive and supercilious when it comes to taste. The JP has to be special in order to avoid being bad, because if he applied the same standards to himself as he does to everyone else, he'd find himself to have flaws, and not being morally perfect is anathema to him. So he needs to come up with reasons to give himself exemptions, and the best way to do this is for him to be special.

You'll never succeed in calling him out on this, of course, because the Judgmental Pussy is a master of passive-aggression. He can wallow in self-loathing for days on end over his own minor misbehaviors, which conveniently allows him to avoid addressing any of his real problems and gives him an excuse whenever you point out that he doesn't apply his standards to himself. He'll be condescending and dismissive and smugly amused, or perhaps offended and taken aback, when you tell him what you enjoy, and if you ask why, he'll act is if you're the oversensitive one just for asking. The fact that he does this on a regular basis, that his constant needling is growing wearisome, does not occur to him. He's just expressing his feelings, after all, and God help you if you try to stop him from doing that. He'll never admit what he's doing, to himself or anyone else. "I'm sorry you feel that way," he'll say in nauseatingly affected tones of concern, as if his own behavior had nothing to do with how other people react to him. The Judgmental Pussy cannot admit to himself that "expressing my feelings" is not an excuse for being a self-indulgent little shit, and has erected a labyrinthine psychological edifice for hiding this fact from himself.

There is only one way to deal effectively with the JP, and that is to not deal with him. Cement yourself as one of the Evil Oppressors in his mind, a troglodyte with no taste for the finer things in life (like his feelings), a nasty horrible malicious hateful tyrant. This won't fix him, of course, but at least it'll make him go away.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Don't Help

If you spend a lot of time on certain pursuits, you may develop a conceit peculiar to reflective people. Namely, the messiah complex. You read Descartes, or drop some acid, or take a seminar, and you develop an image of yourself as some kind of soul-technician. Every boob who reads too many books thinks of himself as Socrates at some point. It's a stage one goes through. Some people are more obnoxious about it than others, and many of us get stuck there. I knew one individual who did a lot of hallucinogens and decided he was some kind of Cheshire-cat witch-doctor. Resisting the impulse to armchair psychology, I can confidently say that I do not feel guilty about avoiding that guy. He can't help me, nor I him.

Part of the problem is that the view of oneself as some kind of soul-technician or midwife of ideas is not entirely off-base. If you can help someone, then go ahead and do so. But it's not always your job, and you need not always look for the opportunity. It would behoove you to wait until such an opportunity smacks you right in the face, because at that point you know what you can do. Even then, though, you must be skillful in your approach, and by "skillful" I mean tactful, not ostentatious and wizardly. It's best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. Let your waters run still and deep.

All the same, there are a lot of temptations. People will try to get a rise out of you. "Alright, Mr. High and Mighty, what do you say to this?" The problem is that, if people already know how you think, and you try to back off, they'll read it as coyness and push harder. The only real way around this, I surmise, is to make a new habit of remaining quiet and wait for them to get used to it. They'll try to bait you, of course, and the only defense against that is to quell the ego enough that they can't get a rise out of you. Let them think they won. Who cares? It's not your problem. You don't have to help.

Another thing - if people think you are genuinely sympathizing, they will typically can the matador act, provided they're not abusive or in an extremely bad mood. This can be difficult if you're not good at expressing sympathy, even when said sympathy is genuine. You sympathize, but any attempt to say so is rejected as artifice. What to do from there? The answer is to re-assess your relationship with that individual, and decide if it's worth it to put up with their crap. If they don't accept your sympathy as-spoken, you're not under some injunction to convince them. You don't have to help.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Perspective

The limitations of human perspective are dangerous on two fronts. First, our limited perspective makes it possible for us to misunderstand the world around us. But that's the obvious danger. The less obvious danger is to over-correct and assume that, because our perspective is limited, there is no point in trying to understand the world around us. Nobody would say that outright, of course, but there are places where people subconsciously apply such reasoning. "You'll never really know, maaan." If it's not dangled in front of your face, it's a social construct or a useful fiction. One amusing instance of this is recounted by a contemporary philosopher:
"I once heard a Nobel-prize-winning physicist shout, in reaction to a philosopher's incautious statement that what elementary-particle physicists studied was 'abstract,' "A proton is a thing! Like a rock!"
-Peter Van Inwagen, Material Beings
(of course; since you can't see the proton, it can't possibly be a real, concrete object!)

There are multiple limitations to human perspective, but one big limitation is that we have a tendency to ignore the reality of things that are not immediate. Language gives us the ability to refer to what is not present and engage in complex abstract thought processes, but those abstract processes do not impinge on our day to day behavior unless we make them, and that takes a degree of mental fortitude that few are able to muster. "Out of sight, out of mind" - yes, and some of the most important things are never in sight.

Think of primitive humans, standing on a mountain and noting that the horizon looks curved. How many realized that the Earth was round and that they were standing on a giant sphere? A few, perhaps. How many realized that the giant sphere went around the sun and that the stars were each individual suns? Most likely none of them. It's like an ant on a tree; the ant can't even conceive of the tree, let alone see what shape the tree is or how big it is. Things much larger than us are every bit as invisible as things much smaller than us. The idea of a galactic supercluster did not occur to primitive humans for the same reason that neutrons and protons never occurred to them; once something is much bigger or much smaller than you, it may as well be in another world, as far as your perceptions are concerned. This does not stop bacteria from killing you, however. And it does not stop the falling tree from squashing the ant.

This applies to more than just physical size or time, although the difficulty in understanding the brevity of a nanosecond is similar to understanding the length of an aeon (or failure to understand the brevity or length thereof). It also applies to levels of abstraction, to processes that involve too many parts for us to understand in great detail. The ant on the tree can smell the pheremone trail left by other ants, but it can sense very little else. And we have trouble understanding things that, in addition to being bigger and longer-lived than w are, are also too complicated for us to compress into easy mental categories. Take the economy, for example.

Small cases are easy: if I sell you a bag of marbles, and you pay me five dollars in cash for it, we see exactly what went on. You gave me a slip of paper, which we can both see, in exchange for a bag of marbles, which we can also see. That one single isolated transaction is easy. It's one ant giving something to another ant.

Scale up to the size of an economy, and you will see a system that is seemingly impossible to understand. Economists can't agree on anything. They'll fight tooth and nail over how what economics even is, let alone how economies work. These are the very people who make it their business to study an economy, and none of them seem to agree on anything. We are the ants, and the economy is the tree; we are the primitive humans, the economy is the Earth. More poignantly, we are the ants and the economy is the colony, the society of ants that individual ants cannot understand. With apologies to Yeats, the ant cannot fathom the ant-mound.

(This is not merely an expose on economics. The economy is just a vehicle for the larger idea here, which is that we have trouble understanding that big, complicated systems are just as real as small, simple ones. The economy isn't anymore "fictional" than your body, the solar system no more socially constructed than your right hand.)

Nobody really knows, it seems, how an economy works, despite the fact that we all take part in it every day. The system involved is just too large; the ant doesn't know how it all goes together, but it still lives in the ant mound and does its work. I can't go to every store and every factory and every workplace and every bank account and take stock of them all in person in order to put it all together and figure out what's going on, but all of that stuff still impacts me. The result is rather amusing: I read the news and see people debating whether manufacturing jobs were lost to automation, or to outsourcing, or to general economic recession, or to bad policy decisions. Meanwhile, I work in a factory. We know that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than there used to be, and individual workers can tell you that they lost their jobs, but as soon as you attempt to identify trends and causes in a way that you can use for policy decisions, you find that you're beating your head against a seemingly insoluble problem. The individual ant can see other ants, but perhaps we can imagine an ant trying to understand how the whole colony works, failing miserably, and then getting into heated debates with the other ants about it.

This is all very amusing, but also dangerous. The danger of our limited perspective is that we have a tendency to simply ignore things that exist on a different scale from our own, or, even worse, outright deny that they're even real. It's not just a case of "I can't see it because it's too big." It's a case of "Nothing that big is real." Our primitive ancestors didn't understand what economies or protons or galaxies were, because those things were too large for our primitive ancestors to apprehend with their limited technology. We understand what such things are, but some of us deny their reality. No amount of social dogma could force you to deny that your body exists (I hope!), but it's easy to claim that something like gender is "socially constructed," especially once a lengthy process of academic jargonizing has sucked all of the meaning out of the word.

This is one of the big problems with human cognition; we have a tendency to forget that things don't need to be dangled in front of our faces in order to, uh, be real. The moon is there when you're not looking - and protons and economies are real even though you can't see them. It's as if one of those little imaginary ants I spoke of earlier were to stand on a tree branch and say, "You know, there really is no such thing as a 'tree.' Nobody has ever seen it, after all. Really, the 'tree' is just a social construct, a useful fiction that helps us navigate, to be discarded whenever it is no longer useful." Then, of course, the tree falls over and our imaginary ant is promptly squashed into nothing. That's one deadly fiction!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Serendipity

Fiction

(I don't like this one very much, but fiction isn't my main thing anyhow - I just have these little literary effusions now and then. It has some neat stuff in it, but overall it's really rough.)


So I was hitch-hiking across the state a few years back, in the springtime when the trees are first budding and all of the Disney Bambi stuff is going on with squirrels and skunks and flowers blooming and singing rabbits and God knows what else. It was something I did when I had some time away from work, just to get some adventure out of life and have a good time. I had a knife in my pocket in case somebody tried to murder-rape me or whatever. I was by the road with some woods on one side and a ditch on the other side with an empty cornfield stretching away to a dip down into a shallow valley, those worn-down little hills we have in Ohio instead of actual geography. It was high noon, and under the trees on my side of the road there was some nice shade and it was a little cool there, with a moment of the briefest shadow.

Anyway, I was standing there by the road with my thumb out when this shiny luxury sedan pulled up and the window rolled down. My first thought was that some thirteen year old kid had stolen his parents' car because this guy looked way too young to drive. He was kind of chubby and smooth-faced, with dark brown curly hair and one ear pierced and this stupid grin on his face.
"Hey, need a ride?" he said.
"Yeah, man."
"Where to?"
"Wherever you're going."
He laughed.
"Hop in!" he said.
I got in the car and shook his hand.
"I'm Rene," I said.
"I"m Zach. You can call me Low-Key, though." he replied.
"Low-Key?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's what my friends call me."
"How old are you?"
He laughed again.
"I'm twenty eight, dude. I know, I look twelve."
"Cool."

We drove for a while. It was one of those places where the nearest running water had eroded the land into a series of small hills like a rollercoaster and this guy wasn't shy about breaking the speed limit. He really liked to talk.
"So I was on the highway once, and I see this mini van, right? And you know how they say mini-vans are always the slowpokes you get behind where, like, they do 55 when everybody else is doing 80? Well not this one. They were haulin' ass, dude. I mean, this fucker was doing at least 110 because I was doing 80 and he blew right past me like -"
He went on and on. He had these enormous blue eyes that lit up when he spoke, and he spoke rapidly and rambled and jumped around a lot and kept scratching his face erratically.
"And I'm talking to this girl who said she was in high school but she was fuckin' bangin' dude, like, tight as shit, I could break her in half. So I told her I'd just graduated and she buys it 'cause I look young, and this whole fuckin' time I'm thinking... It's a sin. God made these hot little high school girls and they pass these goddamn laws where you can't do anything... Just fuckin' with ya! I wouldn't ever -"
Overall he was acting a little bit coked out and a lot of the stuff he said sounded like tall tales he was making up, but he seemed safe enough and, speeding aside, he was driving pretty safely.
"So then I murdered the fucker."
I jumped. I had zoned out a little bit and hadn't heard the lead-up to this particular part of his story.
"Yeah, I killed him," he said, "Stabbed him. Sharpened a piece of wood, piece of mistletoe, and put it through his chest. They told me he couldn't die, but he died 'cause I used the mistletoe. He never had a chance."
I stared at him for a moment.
"What's the matter?" he said, "You don't dig?"
I kept staring at him. He started cackling.
"Just fuckin' with ya! I'd never kill anybody, unless I thought they'd come back to life or some shit."
I relaxed, a little.
"So, Low-Key," I said, "Where are you from?"
"Another world!" he replied. I laughed.
"Another world? Like, another dimension?"
"Yeah," he said, "Check it out."

My heart felt like an old vinyl record skipping.

We were driving over a field of stars. I don't know if it happened when I blinked or what, but we were in something that looked a little bit like outer space, but with these little white diamonds floating everywhere, and all around us it looked like those pictures they take through expensive telescopes with giant multi-colored nebulas, but these were moving and whipping around like the Northern Lights. And the space was bigger somehow, not just outside but inside of the car. It felt as if, when I moved, I was moving in more than one direction at once, like I had heighth, depth, width, and then a few other things I wasn't used to. But somehow, it all looked the same, all felt the same. I didn't notice that I had the extra stuff unless I really paid attention to it.
"What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck? What the FUCK!?" I said. I was shaking. I turned and suddenly I wasn't in the car anymore. I was strapped to the seat, and in front of me was something at once terrifying, beautiful, and mesmerizing.

It was made of light and lightning, and different surfaces like the faces of gem stones warping in front of me, moving in and out of each other, interlocking like the gears of a grandfather clock, dancing in synchrony in directions that had no name. Below it was a wheel parallel to where the ground should have been, and the wheel was made of many wheels intersecting one another. A face emerged from the dancing hypnotic gemstone fires of the thing, a grinning mask like in the old plays. The lips on the mask moved, but the voice I heard came from the wheel, and it sounded like a room full of people speaking at once.
"Humans! You have always amused me, and confused me. You're delighting and infuriating." it said.
"What the fuck?" I replied.
 Something I could not see but still sensed somehow radiated from the wheel, and I felt a deep calm. It was a little like the time they gave me morphine in the hospital. My fear melted away, and I looked, astonished, at the thing.
"What are you?" I asked.
"I'm all sorts of things," it replied, "I'm the part of you that always wants to do something ridiculous just to see how other people will react. I'm those unexpected events in your life that change everything, the little nudge that tells you to try stuff like hitchhiking across the state for fun. I'm that fallen tree that blocks your path in the woods so you take a different route and meet someone who either attacks you or becomes your best friend later on. I'm probability and friction and randomness, fickleness and whimsy. I'm opportunity and serendipity."
"I see," I said, quite calmly, "And why did you pick me up just now?"
The flaming gem-fireworks involuted and writhed in something I recognized as analogous to a shrug.
"I felt like it. That's my only reason for anything. Also, I have a job for you to do. You don't have to do it. But I'll kill you unless you do it. So do it."
"What do I have to do?" I asked.
The grinning mask grinned more broadly, and the face came closer.
"I need you to destroy the world."
"What?"
"I said, I need you to destroy the world. There's a wheel that the sun rides on, and it's about to set for good, and a new one will come after."
"Why do you want me to destroy the world?"
"Because the world you inhabit, your world, is like an egg, and it's about to hatch. If you would accomplish your dreams, you must first destroy a world."
"How?"
"You have to go a little crazy. Not all the way. If you go all the way crazy, you just die, in the wrong way. If you just barely brush insanity, you'll die the right way, the right parts of you die. You've gotta lose your marbles, especially the ones that keep you weighted down."
Then I was looking at a silver bowl, full of white marbles. A young male child with curly blond hair appeared, thrust his hand into the bowl, pulled out a fistfull of marbles, and flung them at me. They disappeared just before they hit my face, and the gem-fire-thing returned, still grinning through the mask.
"Do you understand? Do you know what I want?"
"A little," I said, "But what if I get scared and don't do it?"
The thing began to change as a cloud of gemstones like those the thing was made of drifted into my field of view. As the cloud of gemstones drifted through, the thing lost each of its parts, and each was replaced by a new one, but the thing remained the same, and the same voice spoke.
"Every cell in your body ages, dies, is replaced. You've heard that fact a million times. Maybe you got stoned once and wondered how you still exist if all of your cells are different. You 'technically' aren't the same? Nonsense. But I'm not worried about technicalities. You're the same person you always were, and you know that. But every system - " (I understood 'system' as something like a person or a creature or a soul) " - comes to a point where it must either die, or become new. You and your world are at this point."
I looked around. The wheel that had been below the thing was now all around me. I was in the center of it and it rotated around me like an enormous hurricane, and the many-throated voice came from all directions at once.
"If you rip out the nave that unites the spokes, you have destroyed the wheel. There is no nave here. It can no longer be used as a wheel. If you can't use it as a wheel, then it's not a wheel. But still it turns all around you. It's a wheel that is not a wheel."
The world turned inside out. I lost everything. Each of my senses dropped out one by one. It wasn't silence, but lack of hearing, not darkness, but lack of seeing. For one moment, I was aware of nothing except that I was aware. Then I was back in the car, and it the car was idling in front of my house, and Low-Key was sitting there grinning at me.
"Just fuckin' with ya," he said, "None of that was real. You just went nuts for a second." The calmness was beginning to wear off, but I got out of the car when he asked. I turned to him before he left.
"What do you mean that it wasn't real? How do you know?" I asked.
"Well, I lied again," he replied, "It was all real, as real as anything else you sense. Do me a favor and destroy the world when you get the chance. Peace."
There was a bright flash that left a spot on my vision, and he was gone.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Insisting On Congressional Approval for War Is Stupid

"Oh my God! Did you hear!? Trump bombed Syria without Congressional approval!"

Oh, goodness! How could he do that? But there's something even worse. You know who else bombed Syria without Congressional approval? A guy you may have heard of named Barack Obama. That dastardly man also bombed Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen without Congressional approval. How could he!?

Okay, time to stop going ape-shit and resume having a friggin' clue: Congress has not issued a formal declaration of war since 1942. And they haven't officially authorized a "use of military force" since 2003. That means that Obama bombed a bunch of countries without Congressional approval, like most other Presidents since FDR. In case it hasn't sunk in yet, the last time Congress formally declared war, movies were still black-and-white, airplanes all still had propellers, and Adolf Hitler was still alive. The reality is that, for more than half a century, we have tacitly allowed presidents to take military action without Congressional approval, with a blurry line between a war requiring authorization of force and just occasionally blowing shit up.

More to the point, the stipulation that Congressional approval is required for war is in the Constitution, which was written when it took six to twelve weeks to cross the Atlantic, people still fought with muskets, and your choices for land travel involved either lots of walking or buying a horse. We can now talk to people on the other side of the planet in real time, kill each other using fighter jets and missiles that travel multiple times the speed of sound, and go from New York to Los Angeles in a few hours. How in blue Hell does it make sense to require Congress to approve every military action the country takes in a world that moves a hundred times faster than it used to? It doesn't make any sense. At all. You're asking for every action made by a modern military to be approved by a group of people known for their skill at filibustering, A.K.A a special technique for deliberately wasting time. Congressional approval isn't even feasible except for pre-planned volitional large-scale military action. Sure, if a President wants to invade and occupy another country for years, they ought to ask for Congressional approval. And guess what? That's what they typically do! But a modern military belonging to a political and economic superpower cannot be beholden to an institution as slow as Congress for everything they do. It's not practical, it's not feasible, it just doesn't fucking work! If you're that much of a stickler about it, then ask for a Constitutional amendment.

So please, please, please, whenever a President you don't like, be it Trump or Obama or a Republican or Democrat or whoever, takes military action without the approval of Congress, just shut up about how they need approval. Just shut the fuck up about that. They don't need approval. Just focus on whether the military action was justified, and ignore the goddamned red herring about Congress. You can debate whether it was a good idea, but the Congress thing is just a propaganda tool, and it's time to bury it. Capische?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Gratitude

I work in manufacturing, second shift. I don't get off until 1:30 in the morning most nights. My job is a grind, endlessly repetitive but fast-paced, so it's both hectic and boring. Standing there on the line makes me hate life sometimes. But there's nothing to cure pessimism like a little gratitude.

I walked out of work about an hour ago and was treated to a lovely sight. High above me, the sky was dark black, without any stars, except for a blurry full (or almost full) moon with clouds crawling past it. This isn't a picture that I took, but it looked something like this:



I stood stock still there in the parking lot, staring up at it and grinning like an idiot. It looked lovely! Dark, brooding, mysterious, and beautiful. A simple pleasure, to see the moon, but it made my night worth it.

Pessimism, you see, is a lack of gratitude. I could have scoffed as soon as I felt struck by the sight of the moon, squashed the flowering admiration for natural beauty with a "Bahh, work sucks, it's just the moon, I'm gonna go home and chain-smoke and be as miserable as possible." But that's pessimism - that's being lost in your head, lost in your everyday engagements and the daily grind. It's being too grown-up as a defense against immaturity. If you're really an adult, you shouldn't be afraid of being a child every now and then, when it's appropriate to do so.

Finding a little joy in life isn't about adding anything to your life to make it joyful, unless you're locked in a dungeon or something. It's about pulling your head out of your ass and seeing the little things that make life worth it. When it rains, the water flows down the gutters, and it's quite beautiful to watch from inside. Yeah, it's a pain to drive in. That doesn't make it any less pretty, unless you're that ungrateful. Same with snow. There isn't any pre-requisite to enjoying this stuff, no mental transformation that has to happen. All you need to do is drop your assumption that it's not worth seeing.

Have a good night.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Omnesviri

What follows is a piece of mythology. Like all mythology, it is part theory and part symbol, but all story. Don't worry about interpreting it. You may read it symbolically, if you wish, but don't get too caught up in analysis. Instead, simply read, absorb, and allow it to wash over you. Let it in, and let it do its work. It won't harm you. It can't.


  1. Omnesviri
    In the beginning, there was flux. Height and depth and width and duration were not distinguished or set apart, and each was submerged in the others, neither pattern nor noise. In the endless flux, a mirror momentarily took shape and bent until it reflected itself.
    “Our name,” it said, “Your name, My name, is Omnesviri.”

    Omnesviri opened his eyes and looked out at the world. Above him was the sky, huge and blue and beautiful, white cirrus clouds raked across it like scratches on a stupendous crystal sphere. There was the sun, bright and blazing and powerful, and all around him, rolling hills and green grass and orchards laden heavy with ripe fruit. Far away, out in the distance, were the mountains, tall and stark and foreboding, full of mystery and the promise of possibility. Omnesviri decided to go explore them. His parents, his friends, his teachers – all told him not to go to the mountains, but he had to. There was no way he could stay in one place, and, like all other children, he had to learn the truth eventually.

    Omnesviri took a long time to get there. He ran through the orchards. He rolled in the grass. He watched in quiet, contemplative fascination as nymphs in still waters gradually changed into dragonflies and mosquitoes, and tadpoles into frogs. He read books, and learned of heroes from tales that, if they were lies, were beautiful lies. He read more books, and learned of equations and logic, of concepts and facts. He saw the structure of things around him, and just as the colors and vibrant life were beautiful, so too were the structure, the equations, the laws, the solemn mathematics on which the world was played like a tune. They were not against one another, nor opposed, but united in a subtle way that Omnesviri could not express, except perhaps with music of his own.

    But time passed, and Omnesviri grew. He walked closer to the mountains, and the air grew colder. He was taller now, his upper lip just beginning to show the shadow of a mustache, but his eyes still bright with the innocence and unstoppable curiosity of youth. He crested a hill, and then he saw it. He stopped and blanched. How could it be?

    There, up ahead of him, was a giant serpent, long as the train tracks he had first seen during his childhood. Its sickly yellow eyes looked directly at him, and its long, grotesque body stretched back away from it, out into the mountains.
    “Omnesviri, greetings!” it said in a terrible voice. “I am Death.”
    “I see you.” said Omnesviri.
    “And I see you!” said Death. For the moment, Death withdrew, slithering backwards up into the mountains. Deep within him, Omnesviri shuddered. This was life, and it would end.

  2. The Garden
    Omnesviri looked around him. Night had fallen, and dark clouds obscured the sky. All about him was dim. He could barely see. Looking up at the sky, he squinted. Were they still there? Yes – he could still see the stars, eternal rays peeking through the mass above him. There was still light.

    He continued to walk, now tall and broad of shoulder, bearded and brawny. His eyes were still bright, but they had changed. No longer wide and wondering, but watchful and piercing, not bright lamps but searchlights; innocence had given way to shrewdness, distrust, and doubt. There was cynicism there, and the beginnings of bitterness. He looked around, watchful. Where was the serpent?

    A new day dawned. The sun was still warm and the light was bright enough to see, but colors had lost their luster. As he walked, he entered an old wood that had perhaps once been an orchard, where the sunlight was dappled. He inhaled deeply. There was a musk in the air, heavy with the moistness of plants and soil, and something else he knew very well, but was not aware that he knew. It was intoxicating, and there, amid the bushes and ferns and shrubs and moss, the trees with gnarled roots and the sickly sweet perfume of poisonous flowers, he forgot all that he had seen before entering the woods. He plucked apples from the trees and ate them; he drank from the springs; he lay in the grass and leaves, full and drowsy with satiation. But the fruit and flowers and water and nectar of that place were drugged. They were drugged with something addicting, something sweet that confused the mind. He had forgotten everything. His whole life before the garden was wiped from his mind.

    He continued deeper until he came to a small pond, in which a woman was bathing. Her skin was white as the clouds in the sky. Her red hair lay in a wet rope over her shoulder, and she was presently wringing the water from it. She turned to him.

    “Omnesviri,” she said, “You're late.”
    “Omnes...?” he said, not recognizing the name. Finally, he said with a shrug, “I wasn't in a hurry. I've always been here.”
    “Are you going to bathe?” she said, gesturing toward the water. Omnesviri hesitated, and then walked to the edge. At that moment, the woman's eyes changed, her irises turning yellow and her pupils becoming slitted instead of round.
    “Remember!” she hissed, “Omnesviri, this is not enough! Remember!
    He froze. The woman's eyes returned to normal, and one hand traced down her hair, eyes watching him carefully.
    “A distraction,” he said softly. He shook his head. Memories came flooding back, of the green valleys of his birth and how he had left them. He shook his head. “Even here in the garden, the serpent lurks. Even through her, the serpent speaks,” he said to himself. He shuddered in fear, and, after bathing with her, left the pond to eat more fruit and drink more water of the place, to consume more of the sweet intoxication that made him forget the serpent and life outside of the garden.

    He went deeper into the garden, plucking fruit as he wished, forgetting once more who he was and where he came from, and saw another person, a man. The man was a short, brawny hunchback, and he had his back to Omnesviri. He was hunched over a puddle, drinking from it.
    “Hello?” said Omnesviri. From the man came a deep guttural noise. The man turned around, and Omnesviri saw that he had the face, not of a man, but of a pig. The man turned and continued to drink the water, and Omnesviri watched as the man before him slowly changed, his clothes shredding, his hands changing to hooves, and finally completed the transformation, from man to swine.

    Suddenly, the air grew cold, and Omnesviri felt something terrible nearby. The ground beneath the pig who was once a man opened up, and there was the sound of air rushing through an opening and a deep roar. The pig kicked and squealed as it was drawn into the hole. Then more came – an entire herd of them, pigs running through the underbrush and leaping down headlong into the hole.
    “You may as well come now,” said the Serpent's voice out of the void, “It makes no difference to me whether you enter here as man or beast.”
    Gripped by an intense animal fear, Omnesviri ran, until he came to a hill. He went up the hill, and as he climbed it, the perfume of the garden grew thinner around him. By the time he reached the top of the hill, which was bald of plants except grass, the intoxicating air of the place was thin enough that he had regained some of his wits. He still could not remember his name, but he had a vague sense of who he was.

    At the top of the hill, he looked down at the garden below him. He did not remember that, when he had entered, it had seemed to be a small patch of woods. The garden now stretched to the horizon. He looked to the south and saw the mountains. He did not remember crossing them, but they looked familiar to him, and pangs of something like sadness that he did not quite recognize went through him. He gripped the hair of his head with both hands, his eye wide, breathing heavily.
    “A distraction!” he said, “It's a distraction!” He looked closely, and noticed a shimmering in the air between himself and the garden. Something was not right.

    He sat for a while and thought. What was not right? What was this strange itching in the back of his mind? He plucked a leaf from the ground and gazed at it, looking very closely. The more closely he looked, the lighter the color of the leaf seemed, as if it were fading away. In a flash, the leaf burst into flame, but the flames did not burn his hand, and it left no ashes.
    “It was never there,” he said to himself, “It was an illusion.”
    He stood up and looked down at the garden around him, studying it as closely as he could. Slowly, by the piercing fire of his gaze, he saw through the illusion, thus burning away the garden beneath him and making it a desert. When he was done, he breathed deeply and sat back down. He remembered who he was, but he could still not remember his name.
  3. The Desert
    Time went by, and Omnesviri sat on the hilltop. He was still young, but his beard continued to grow until it lay on his chest. All around him shimmered the desert, vast and stark and relentless, and he wondered at it. Was there an end to it? It seemed to stretch to the horizon. He looked up at the sun. The mountains were to the south, and he remembered that he had crossed them long ago. He decided to go north. He stood up and walked down the hill. He passed rocks and cacti and saw pit vipers and flightless birds scrambling over the sand. The sunlight pressed down on him and he thirsted.

    As time passed, he came across a group of people, several dozen. There were men and women, dressed in rags, missing teeth and fingers. Omnesviri looked on them with pity. What had happened to them?
    “What are you all doing here?” he asked. They looked at him, startled. One of them, a man, with a ragged beard and balding at the top of his head but with long hair, came forth to speak with him.
    “We're just enjoying ourselves. Come, eat of the fruit!” said the man. He reached up with one arm, as though taking an apple from a tree, and mimed as though he were eating it. Omnesviri marveled at that. Were they insane? No – these were the people he had met in the garden. The garden that they still saw, but he did not. Omnesviri strode up to the man and looked into his eyes. Dull, dead, with only a faint, pale light in the back of them. The man looked likewise into the eyes of Omnesviri and grimaced at the piercing light from them, bright though the sun was above them.
    “What is your name?” asked Omnesviri.
    “Letho,” replied the man, “And yours?”
    Omnesviri paused. He could not remember his true name, so he deemed it proper to create one. He thought for a moment longer.
    “Phileremos,” he said finally.
    There was another silence. Then, the two began to speak.
  4. Phileremos and Letho

    PHILEREMOS: Letho, can you tell me, what is this place?

    LETHO: This is the Garden of Epithumia, our paradise.

    PHILEREMOS: I see. And were I to say, 'This is no garden at all, but a desert', how might you answer?

    LETHO: I would say that you are mad.

    PHILEREMOS: On what grounds?

    LETHO: I can see that I am in a garden, not a desert.

    PHILEREMOS: And if I say that
    I do not see the garden, but a desert?

    LETHO: Then you are mad.

    PHILEREMOS: On what grounds?

    LETHO: We are in a garden, not a desert.

    PHILEREMOS: So you say that if I do not see the garden, then I am mad; that I must be mad for not seeing a garden, because we are in a garden; that we must be in a garden, because you see it. Suppose I were to take this reasoning in the opposite direction; you see the garden because you are deluded, and you must be deluded for not seeing the desert, and that we must be in a desert, because I see it. What would you say to that?

    LETHO:
    (cackling) Then you are mad for reasoning thus!

    PHILEREMOS: On what grounds?

    LETHO: Because a madman is one who does not think reasonably. Our little group decides what “reasonable” means, because words mean what they mean via consensus. Reason is whatever we want it to be.

    PHILEREMOS: So madness is not a disconnect between one's mind and reality?

    (LETHO stoops to the ground, picks up a handful of sand, puts it in his mouth, and then spits it out)

    LETHO: Forgive me! I was thirsty. But no – madness is not such a disconnect. To say so would be tyrannical. Our little group decides what words mean; if we wanted this to be a desert, then we would just re-define “desert,” and make it so.

    PHILEREMOS: On what grounds is it tyrannical?

    LETHO: To say that madness is a disconnect with reality is only posturing on your part. This “reality” that is supposedly outside of our little group is only your invention – one with which you plan to dominate us, to bend us to your will. You say that it is Reason, or Reality, or the will of God, but it is only your desire to dominate us! We will not let you!

    (the group encircles PHILEREMOS, some of them picking up rocks to stone him)

    PHILEREMOS:
    (unmoved) But why do you say that? Why can't it simply be true that we are in a desert, or a garden, or whatever?

    LETHO:
    (enraged) Because we decide what is a garden or desert! We decide what is reality! We decide what is truth! And you will agree with us, or we will kill you, tyrant!

    PHILEREMOS: And why do you not simply decide that I am not here? Why do you not just re-define “Phileremos” to mean air, or rocks, or sand, or fruit?

    (LETHO's face becomes twisted, eyes bulging, with an enormous gap-toothed smile)

    LETHO:
    (shrieking) Because our greatest satisfaction comes from bringing justice to insane tyrants like you! Say that you see the garden or die!

    PHILEREMOS: I will give you my decision in a moment.

    (PHILEREMOS picks up a bit of dust in his left palm. He spits on the dust to make mud, which he smears on the fingers of his right hand. He uses that hand to apply the mud to the eyes of LETHO, who quickly rubs his eyes and then blinks. LETHO's face shows terror.)

    LETHO: What is this? A desert?

    PHILEREMOS: I am only showing you the truth.

    LETHO: Nonsense! I see what I wish to see! And if not, then I wish to see nothing!

    (LETHO throws himself face-first at the ground and begins beating his head and limbs against it like an angry child)

    LETHO: Tyrant! Madman! Bigot! Our little group decides what is real! We control reality! There is nothing outside of us, and only your inflated ego makes you think otherwise! You believe in a reality outside of us! You believe in reality outside of perception! It is only because of your hatred! You are hateful! Your hatred makes you believe in reality! Tyrant! Bigot! Madman!

    (LETHO rolls onto his back, and stares at the sun in horror, as though looking into an abyss. He is consumed from within, and is quickly dessicated into a decayed, dried-up corpse. The rest of the group scowls at PHILEREMOS.)

    GROUP: Tyrant! Madman! Out with you!

    (
    PHILEREMOS fixes them all with a fierce gaze, so that they fall into a trance.)

    PHILEREMOS: Behold, the sun.

    (The group looks up and, seeing the sun, are consumed in the same manner as LETHO)
  5. The Ice

    Omnesviri walked north. As he walked, he passed over grassy plains, and eventually came to the cold ice at the top of the world. As he did so, the sun sank near the horizon and hung there, casting Omnesviri's long shadow on the ice in the red glare of the dusk. His beard had grown long, and there were shocks of gray in it. He still did not remember his name. He walked long over the desolate waste, pondering, despairing of ever remembering what his name was. The Garden of Epithumia had stolen his name. As he walked, he eventually came to a long path that led up to the top of an icy mountain. He could see the path that cut deep into the rock, leading to uncertain ends in a foreign land, far from the greenery and sun of his home. Before the entrance to the path were two rocks, and a small, dead tree. As Omnesviri approached, he saw each of the rocks disintegrate, and in their places were two soldiers, made of black iron. They spoke to him with low, gritty voices, staring at him with eyeless sockets.
    “Who are you?” he asked.
    “We are your enemies,” they replied, “Those ones who brought you into being, and those ones who will take you away.”
    Omnesviri groaned in his spirit. He said a short prayer, and then said to the two stone soldiers, “Will you let me pass?”
    “We will,” they replied.
    “Will you tell me my name?” asked Omnesviri.
    “No,” they replied, “For you have no name.”
    Omnesviri wept, and began the long ascent up the path. He took a walking stick from the dead tree. The two stone soldiers curled up and became black boulders, and rolled behind him. Their rumbling was his fanfare as he walked.

    After a long, hard, perilous journey, Omnesviri reached the top of the mountain. The two stone spheres behind him rolled to either side. On top of the mountain was a sheer cliff, for the mountain was flat on one side. A the bottom of it lay the sea, with great ice-floes longer than a town eternally grinding one another into the surf. Omnesviri looked down with tired eyes, haggard and broken. His face was lined and careworn now, his hair and beard white as the snow beneath his feet. He leaned heavily upon his staff. He was old, now, old and tired and beaten.

    Out from the great, grinding, icy ocean, out of the sea, came a great beast. With a magnificent spray of icy water, the Serpent emerged, grinning at him from the waves.
    “You!” it said.
    “It is I,” said Omnesviri.
    “It's time!” roared the Serpent, “You are mine, now. You have always been mine. You will always be mine, until you no longer exist. You may ask one question of me, and only one. Ask, and I will answer, and then I shall, by the power of my eyes, compel you to leap into my jaws. Come! Ask your question.”
    Omnesviri leaned against his staff. His vision was already going dim and blurry, his breathing heavy and labored. He gripped the staff, his knuckles knobbly and bony like claws, looking uncertainly down at the Serpent.”
    “You, Serpent, Death, Devourer,” he said, “What is my name?”
    The Serpent grew quiet for a moment. And then, in its honesty and forthrightness, Death said to him, “Our name, Your name,
    My name, is Omnesviri!”
    Omnesviri looked down. Within him, there rang a chord, one that he had not heard since his childhood. It was a deep, sonorous chord. He stood erect, throwing his shoulders back, with a smile slowly creeping across his face. He dropped his staff, standing once more under his own power, and a gust of wind blew fiercely at his beard and hair, at his body, at his clothes, but could not topple him, for his strength had returned. His smile grew broader, he laughed the laughter of the heights, and his tired old eyes suddenly blazed like meteors.
    “And who are
    you?” he asked the Serpent, grinning.

    The two boulders behind him suddenly blew into pieces, and two angels rose from them. On his left was the angel named Ataraxia, and on his right was the angel named Apatheia. They stood on either side of him. They watched him die.

    Apatheia saw Omnesviri raise his arms and look up to Heaven, and saw both Omnesviri and the Serpent turn to vapor, and return whence they came.

    Ataraxia saw Omnesviri suddenly consumed by holy fire, laugh arrogantly, and leap headfirst into the jaws of the Serpent, arms outstretched as though preparing to wrestle, slaying Death even as he was slain by it.

    They both watched him die. They saw the same thing.

Misanthropy, pt. 7



Dictators are usually right
They always know it's better to fight
Morons don't change, they only destroy
Treating the world like a personal toy
Education is a hopeless goal
Better to teach with a bullet hole
Stack up the bodies to cover with dirt
Then maybe we'll see what society's worth
-
Birth A.D., "No Man"

I was one of those sad specimens who prolonged adolescence well into their early 20s, mostly due to an emotional handicap that places me about five years behind other people. 19-year-old Caleb loved music that was hard, heavy, vicious, and enraged, particularly if the lyrical content suggested an attitude of "I don't like anybody." The current version of Caleb, at 27, also likes this stuff, but has relaxed enough that he doesn't need to hear it all the time.

So, what pissed me off so much?

If you're an observant sort of person, the kind of person who typically stands near the edge of the room at a party rather than in the center, a furtive type for whom flying under the radar is instinctive, somebody who watches other people going about their business and tries to construct explanations for why they act the way they do, you will very quickly find yourself disappointed, exasperated, and endlessly confused. You'll eventually get over the fact that people aren't robots. You're not entirely rational, so it would be unfair to expect that of everyone else. You'll even come to peace with the fact that people don't even want to be rational. What is much more difficult, however, is coming to terms with what people do want, coming to terms with what motivates them, learning to be okay with how they operate. They are not merely irrational. They operate in a way that, to your temperament, looks downright malicious!

In the first place, they seem to be motivated largely by status. That is to say, 75% of their motivations, three-quarters of their reasons for doing things, the majority of their goals, revolve around money, social status, and hedonism. You can encapsulate this by saying that people evaluate things like this: "Will it get me high, get me rich, or get me laid?" If it can't do one of those three things, they blow it off. Some of them are smart enough to understand things outside of status and pleasure, but they just don't care.

When you're still a teenager, you'll remain hopeful. Maybe people aren't like this when you get out of high school. What you will discover - and this will bring you great bitterness - is that adults are not really any less obsessed with status and pleasure than teenagers. They're just better at hiding it behind a fake smile and thin veneer of plastic professionalism.

After you're done having a decade-long existential rage-seizure over this, you'll resign to pragmatism and try to cope with it. You will reason to yourself that yes, people may appear to only care about status and pleasure most of the time, but they're not all bad. Even the most tiny-minded and soulless ones are not completely heartless. If they saw you lying at the bottom of a stairwell with a broken leg, they would try to get help for you, not because of the consequences but because, despite being stupid, crazy, and mostly evil, they still have a tiny spark of decency, and you ought to be grateful for that. You'll even dare to ask yourself if you're right about them all. Maybe they only look that way. Maybe, once you get to know them, there's more to them than that! And in some cases, this is true, and finding out that a person who seemed shallow really does have depth is like a breath of fresh air.

This leads to another problem, however. Rather than being angry and disgusted all the time, you just become frustrated and disappointed. Instead of a bunch of blinkered cattle, you're surrounded by two groups. The blinkered cattle make up about two thirds of the population, with the remaining third made up of crushed souls who have the capability to be greater than they are, but refuse to do so. You're not asking them all to be Einsteins and Rembrandts. You just wish they wouldn't give up so fucking easily!

What you may realize, after all of this, is that, at heart, you're an idealist. You expect a lot. But even when you tone it down and try to construct something workable, when you try to have realistic expectations, it all still falls short. Two thirds of humanity is stupid, crazy, and evil, yes. But the remaining third seems to willingly debase itself to the level of the evil crazy idiots. Even people who could do more seem to gladly give their consent to become evil, stupid, and crazy. And you wonder why this is.

Monday, April 3, 2017

About Me: A Fish Out Of Water

This blog is mostly for works of fiction, analysis, informal essays, and poetry. But I do want people to read my writing, and part of that is marketing. And part of marketing, as a  "writer" (ugh), is to market yourself. So, a little bit of autobiography.

My name is Caleb. I'm 27 years old, white, male, of upper-middle class origins, heterosexual, physically healthy, and not particularly sorry about any of that, which apparently makes me part of some kind of counterculture. I attended college, on and off, for over seven years, and never quiet graduated, due to a combination of laziness, depression, bad circumstances, and disillusionment that made me reticent to even try. I would quit for a year or so, convinced that there was no point, and then go back again.

One main driver was my interest in academia, specifically philosophy. There, I thought, an absent-minded egghead who loves an abstruse subject, who is stimulated by dusty old books that bore most people to distraction, who does research for fun, might find his calling. I became disillusioned, and this disillusionment took place over the course of several years. I learned about the academic job market. I witnessed the distinctly academic brand of cynical careerism and its nauseating juxtaposition with the ostentatious idealism of the academy. As a dear friend of mine who worked as a professor noted, nowhere else will you find self-described Marxists engaging in rampant Social Darwinism. Disenchanted, I dropped out of college and began working in low-level, low-stress positions in manufacturing.

At this point, I'm a fish out of water. I have friends in graduate school and who have law degrees, and others who are fish out of water like me. Granted, I never earned a degree, and I don't intend to earn one, although I won't fault anyone else for doing so. I still read philosophy obsessively, not because I think I can make a living on it, but because I have to. And yet, I do not have access to an institutional outlet for my thinking. I'm at the age where someone hard-working, conscienscious, dedicated, and (perhaps) naive enough to pursue an academic position would be completing a doctorate, possibly applying for positions, or even doing a postdoc if they were quick enough. Me? I study on my own time. I talk to people who work at universities. I write and think.

At this point, I'm at a crossroads. My natural bent, or at least the bent I've acquired from years of study, is toward dense academic writing. But as a "blog author" (i.e. some guy writing stuff on the internet), I have to write more informally to reach a broader audience. The tradeoff is that I won't be taken seriously by academics, but I've decided that that doesn't matter. Philosophy ought to be freed from the academy anyhow, as engaging as academic philosohpy is. It's a discipline that has existed for thousands of years, and we should not be tempted to drop it because a few people with certificates showed up in the past century or so and declared it to be their property - and this holds despite the fact that some of said group were quite skilled.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Shark and Whale - how one cultivates the mind

Cerebral people, or "intellectuals" if you want to call them that, have a tendency to get lost in their heads. The more heady someone is, and the more they enjoy thinking for its own sake, the more pronounced this tendency typically is, at least, while the person is young. The young intellectual spends a lot of time sitting with chin propped on hand, eyes slightly out of focus, staring at the mental carnival inside, oblivious to the world outside. This tendency toward reflection and understanding can be inborn or cultivated, and the purpose of a classical education is to broaden, deepen, and systematize it. It is a pity, therefore, that a classical education, or at least something like it, is not available in our time. As our young philosopher - call him "Thom" - grows, he finds himself faced with a challenge that will be with him for much of his life. Where the challenge for a non-thinker is to get them to think, the challenge for a thinker is exactly the reverse. The challenge for Thom is to stop ruminating for a moment, open his eyes, and see the world around him. Thom must stop looking around for bits of data to feed into his logical processes, and just perceive things in the most un-critical manner he can. Then he can process and pick things apart. But first, he must to shut down everything else and just let the world pour in for a while. The natural tendency of the intellectual is to be a shark; he must learn to be a whale.

This relates to two types of "feeding," two ways of gathering information about the world. There are two ways of investigating the world around you.

The first kind is shark feeding. When you spend time endlessly analyzing some minute point, when you stay awake for hours into the night reading about chemosynthetic bacteria and the Mariana Trench, when you steel yourself to plow through the rest of a book you've been trying to finish, you're shark feeding. Shark feeding is not about directedness or being goal-oriented. You could flip aimlessly through the pages of an encyclopedia and still be a shark. It's not that you're hunting down prey; it's that you're swallowing information one little data-point at a time. When you're a shark, elaborate descriptions without much technical content are useless. You might wander through the encylopedia without any particular aim, but you're taking in isolated facts, little data-points, and adding them to your collection. It is like a shark, going around and snapping up seals and fish, one by one.

The second kind is whale feeding. Where a shark zeroes in on target after target, the whale takes it all in. Like baleen whales that swim through the ocean with their mouths open, letting water in and filtering out the krill that they live on, whale feeders just let it all pour in and process it later. When you're a shark, you are, so to speak, using your fovea to stare directly at the center of your visual field, where your vision is most clear and precise, and consuming individual, decontextualized bits of information. When you're a whale, you're using your peripheral vision, relaxing your gaze, and simply taking it all in without making any additions. You're a whale when you take a walk in the woods and just notice things, like fresh bicycle tracks in the dirt or small rills pouring out of drainage pipes; when you sit in a restaurant and just listen to other people's conversations, noticing their body language and tone of voice; when you lay back and close your eyes and listen to a piece of chamber music. To be a shark is to process, and to be a whale is to notice.

I am, by nature, a shark. I tend to zero in on individual bits of information, parse them out from the rest, and accord them an exact place in a particular structure. Other shark-natured people tend to disdain whale feeding, seeing it as something for poets and touchy-feely artist types. What we with shark-natures miss is that whale feeding is a critical part of understanding complex systems. If you're an entry-level engineer tasked with designing a particular part of a certain machine component, then it's fine to spend all of your time as a shark. The head engineer who plans the whole project has to be a whale, or else he won't understand how everything he does fits together, won't see how different parts of the system at different levels of abstraction interact with one another. Whale feeding is important because it allows us to understand systems of staggering complexity by erasing or blurring minor details and seeing general systemic trends.

Whale feeding also - and this is not unimportant - opens us up to the non-pragmatic side of life, to art and aesthetics, and thus, allows us to live better.

Of course, I don't want to go too far in the other direction. To their credit, shark-natured people grasp that reasoning and rigorous analysis are not mere intellectual play, but have a real impact on the world, and on the lives of the people who are willing to engage in logical thinking. Whale-natures tend to dismiss close analysis as some kind of abstract chess game for professors and scientists, to their detriment. And I don't mean to imply that everyone either begins as a shark or a whale; it's a continuum, surely. All I mean to say is that a well-rounded individual, even if they incline toward one or the other, must spend some time on the opposite side. Sharks must learn to act like whales, and vice-versa.

As mentioned in my opening paragraph, a classical liberal education was meant to create this balance. Such an education is no longer available in today's world; the closest you can get is a graduate-level university degree in the humanities, but even that is more for careerists and ideological zealots than people who want to learn things. No, a philosopher is not someone who got the right stamp on their Official Certificate. A philosopher is someone who knows how to be both a shark and a whale - and given the paucity of well-rounded education in our world, a philosopher must self-teach the habits of shark and whale, and know when to switch.