Week in review: March 31-April 6, 2018

Better process? Eh. “Process” isn’t so much my thing, not mostly. I tried doing the quantified self thing back when that was cool (was that ever cool? I feel like that was always deeply uncool) but gave up on learning that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ was not an acceptable value in any of the relevant tools. So F it, this is my thing and I’ll do it how I want. Even if that’s on my phone, curled up in bed under a warm fuzzy blanket!

Had a couple of rough days this week. It’s been a little while since that happened – this is the first time since I got the flu back in January that I’ve really felt myself unequal to the world, as I so often did before. Felt myself worthless, I should say. As if I had nothing to offer and no reason to be. I’d hoped I might be done with such things for good, and it was an unpleasant realization to find that I am apparently not – not yet, at least. But it did help, some, to try to keep in mind that these were just that – rough days – and would pass, as such things always do, and I’d find my way back to myself. That, and getting fourteen hours’ sleep last night – that helped a lot! And I find I’m fine today. So maybe, even though I’m not done with such things for good, I’ve nonetheless found something that makes them not quite so awful to suffer through before they’re done with me, and I think that’s not the worst thing.

I’ve been drawing – but not on paper! I got a Wacom tablet that turned up early in the week, and I’ve been getting just sort of generally familiar with it. So far, it’s good! I actually kind of like that the stylus tip is wearing down with use – makes it feel more real, if that makes any sense. I haven’t drawn anything yet that I want to share here, but I’ve been really enjoying the process of getting to suck with it less – although it is going to take me a while to get really good with brush control; that’s a part of Photoshop that I’ve never really needed to investigate before, so I’m not good at it, yet. Layers are amazing, though! Big part of the reason I got the tablet at all was because I wanted to be able to do things that paper just doesn’t support, and that’s working out really well so far!

I’ve been writing, too. As I think I mentioned, one of the stories I had underway is now finished – at least to the extent of its first draft, and I’ll be making something more polished of it in the fullness of time. I updated the other of those stories, and mean to do so again in the next day or so. I’ve also been investigating more systematic approaches to managing and publishing story content, and it looks like the Standard Ebooks publication toolchain may have much to offer here. I don’t particularly care for their approach to “modernizing” orthography and usage, but their work is nonetheless valid, and I’m looking forward to adapting that toolset to my own purposes – that, and having more to say about it next week!

Finally, it occurs to me that there’s some useful context to be had around posts like this one, in which I talk about abuse – it’s possible that will be the last such post here, but I think it unlikely. In particular, I want to be clear about my intent in doing so.

I think it’s not always easy for people to identify abusive behavior as such. I mean, sure, physical violence is extremely obvious, but when abuse takes other forms, I think we frequently find it quite difficult to recognize for what it is. Certainly I did! It took me years, and I think in large part that was the case because the abuse I experienced almost always took more subtle forms than the physical. It was always something I could find – or, on many occasions, be given – a way to write off as something other than what it was.

It was a bad day. Or a misunderstanding. Or a moment of distraction – whatever it was, though, it always resulted in something that might seem cruel, but really wasn’t. And it was always something for which, in the end, I’d be made to understand that no apology was really necessary, because, really, no one was in the wrong. Except for me, because I should understand that it was just a bad day, or a misunderstanding, or a moment of distraction – understand, and not make it worse still by complaining about it. And it was wrong of me to think it might be anything else.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. Except that the pattern I kept seeing, and kept being convinced I wasn’t – was, in the end, really there. Except that it really wasn’t just a bad day, or a misunderstanding, or a moment of distraction. What it really was, was abuse. Whether or not it was deliberately so, I don’t really know. But I don’t care, nor need I. What matters is the way I was made to feel, over and over again, over the course of years. Sure, abusers are people. They have real problems of their own. And that’s a shame. But their problems don’t excuse their own toxic behavior. And feeling sorry for them doesn’t mean we have to put up with them. It doesn’t mean we have to accept whatever they do to us. It doesn’t mean we don’t get to hold them to account. And it doesn’t mean we have to stay with them, despite the ways they make us feel.

I’m not interested in calling out any specific person here. Who it was doesn’t matter any more than why she did what she did. What matters is that, even though it took me years to figure out what was going on and get the hell out, I did. And what matters more than that is – you can, too.

That’s why I’m talking about it. That’s why I don’t intend to stop talking about it, unpleasant though I find doing so to be. Because if I’d recognized sooner what was happening, I might have found the wherewithal to end it sooner, too. Maybe even before it had had a chance to properly start – or maybe not, but sooner all the same. So I’m going to talk about it, and I’m going to keep talking about it, in the hope that someone in a similar situation might happen upon what I’ve said about it here, and recognize in these words something of the cause of her own dismay. Because it’s in realizing the nature of what is being done to us that we begin to make ourselves free.

Because I wish someone had done the same for me.

Week in review: March 24-March 30, 2018

It was a good week! And a busy one – and a busy weekend, too, which is why I’m writing this a day later than I usually do. (And finishing it a day after that!)

Well, I say “busy”. I had some trouble getting things done, through most of it. I found myself struggling to cope with a situation that’s quite far outside my recent experience; the last few years have been worthwhile, to be sure, and often good, but have done little to equip me for dealing with uncertainty and miscommunication in a relationship that’s otherwise healthy. We talked it out on Friday, and we’re good! But it was hard on both of us, in the interim. So I didn’t accomplish quite as much as I’d hoped.

But that’s okay! As long as I remember not to give up for good – remember to try again, just one more time. Which I did – and succeeded, and finished one of the stories I’ve been talking about here! A bit over forty-six thousand words of it – not bad for a first draft, and in November I mean to make a proper novel of it. It’s quite a good feeling, to have finished something of such scope! Even if it’s not really finished yet – but certainly I have made a proper start.

…I need a better process for these. I think I’ll make that this week’s goal: to find one.

Week in review: March 17-March 23, 2018

You ever get the feeling that there’s something wrong with you? That aught of you there be which no one else could ever want – and dare you not let aught be seen, lest sorrow be condign?

You ever get the feeling that you can’t escape your sins? That things you’ve done have caused such hurt that nothing else could be – and all you hope to do, you find, stay gone lest you cause worse?

You ever get the feeling that the world must love you not? – and surely with good reason – for why should the world love you?

You ever get that feeling – and then find out you were wrong?

He called me his hidden gem~

Week in review: March 10-March 16, 2018

I’ve had a rather busy week! And a worthwhile one, too, I think. Of its many occasions, these I choose to share:

Writing

Almost twenty thousand words this week – seventeen of which went toward a single story, which as of this writing approaches the length of a novel.

It is not a novel! Word count notwithstanding – and what does word count truly measure, anyway? The story is of draft quality throughout; in particular, having been written in episodic fashion and shared with its audience one piece at a time, much occurs in latter portions which might have profitably been suggested, indeed even commenced upon, beforehand.

It is not a novel. But perhaps I shall make it so, one day. NaNoWriMo never beckoned me before – but I think I might now find it worth my while. And even if I don’t – I have vastly enjoyed it in the writing! And I am told by the members of its audience that they have found it worth their while, as well. And, too – as I mentioned in last week’s rather straggling update, I haven’t written fiction in twenty years – well, I suppose I need no longer fear I have lost the knack. I have been forcibly disabused of that notion!

Drawing

And too and just as forcibly, disabused of the notion that I will not recover this skill – recover, and improve upon. In one nine-hour sitting Sunday, this is what I drew:

I did not decide to draw it. I saw its inspiration, and fetched my tablet and pens, and set to work, and barely paused until it was finished. It is amateurish, to be sure – pen shading was never my best skill, and with only a set of Pilot Varsity fountain pens for color, there was only so much I could do in that regard – but I find it satisfying nonetheless, not least because I did it, and had not known I could.

Programming

It’s been a long, long time since I spent so many days blocked as I recently have – just stuck, on a recalcitrant bug that proved elusive no matter how deeply I probed those parts of the offending library where I thought it lay.

Of course, when I found it, it was somewhere else entirely – this being how such things always go. One term for this is “rabbit-holed”; I know many more, but none of them are printable.

Happily, I finished out the week on a strong note from there, delivering four separate changes and carrying one more nearly to the point of peer review – nearly, but for late-arising requirements documented nowhere before then. That’s the nature of the job, of course, and I do not begrudge it. But I’d felt I was on a roll, up to then.

Oh well! I’ll recapture it next week.

Photography

I got some lucky shots this week! We had a very windy day, enough so that a ring-beaked gull might pull as hard as it could into the wind and still find itself going backwards. I almost caught a faceful of one, a couple times in there! But I caught some decent shots, as well, though few framed as well as I’d like – I’m not very good as yet with handling focal length in real time, to catch fast-moving birds whose apparent size quickly changes. And one of a turkey vulture, soaring low overhead as I waited for my ride to work:

Until next week, then!

On televisions in hospital rooms

(Content advice: contemplation at length of severe pain and the nature of suffering; discussion of spousal abuse.)

I don’t know if it’s even a thing any more, now that no one can afford proper medical care in our wonderful cyberpunk-dystopia-aborning, but back when I was young and it was still possible to spend a significant amount of time in a hospital bed without going broke over it, you’d hear complaints about how the TV was always on in semi-private rooms, and always tuned to something stupid.

(For those under age thirty, “semi-private” means the room has two beds, with a curtain between them for when one or the other patient needs something done that warrants privacy. The TV is shared.)

I had a kidney infection, not so long ago – self-diagnosed, and self-treated with pharmaceutical antibiotics available inexpensively online via a regulatory loophole that I’m sure someone will very soon try to ban. I certainly can’t, and would not, and do not, recommend anyone reading this chance with her health in the fashion I describe chancing with mine! But while it is of terrible quality and overpriced, and got via the “open market” so called, I do have health insurance, and was prepared to fall back on it if after 48 hours I observed no improvement – fortunately for my finances, two days’ treatment out of a $50 bottle of amoxicillin sufficed to resolve the overt symptoms almost entirely, and the remainder of the two-week course was required only to ensure they stayed resolved.

But I’m not here to talk about playing doctor with myself. I am here to talk about pain. Because it turned out, to my dismayed surprise, that while a lower urinary tract infection is mainly just itchy and annoying and makes you have to pee a lot – when it gets to a kidney, it is agonizing.

To be sure, I had a worse three days, the time I had an abscessed molar over a holiday weekend, and couldn’t get to a dentist until Tuesday – in fact that’s a lie I chose to tell myself, because in truth what I had was a relationship so severely abusive that, where I had done my best to move heaven and earth and finally found succor for my spouse in her own similar agony some years prior, she would not be bothered to lift a finger in my aid – not even to forbear from insisting, successfully, that I accompany her an hour by car to Frederick and back for family photos, because this would save a few dollars on having them taken some time when I was not suffering. Because my face was not swollen, as hers had been, and mere tears, and whimpering, and clutching ice to my jaw, and the constant desperate scramble for fresh cold water with which to rinse my mouth and dull the pain a moment – for her, none of this had any meaning.

Not every abusive relationship is as overt and plain as every other, and not every abuser must raise a hand to inflict pain. Sometimes the most vile of cruelty is also the most subtle. But I’m not here to talk about that, either – only that I am of late no longer hiding what was done to me from myself, because if I do not face it down I permit it to retain its power over me. And the consequences of that are worse by far than to face it and find myself occasionally there again, when hateful memories long pushed aside spring still lively from their corners. There again most strongly but only for a moment, in which I may find a way to leave, and in the fullness of time leave for good – unpleasant to be sure, but far preferable to the other thing, to being in part trapped there always. I am finding the measure of such matters now, and finding it complicated; please excuse the interruption.

Where were we, then? Oh yes – a worse three days, that abscessed molar. But I had a worse four hours, trying to fight off a kidney infection – and I had them twice.

There’s something you don’t easily remember about pain like that, once it’s behind you – and if you’ve never experienced it, you just have no way to know. Past a certain threshold, pain like this begins to ablate consciousness, and your sense of duration with it.

I don’t mean you pass out from it – that would be a mercy! You remain aware – but your ability to reason starts to go, and what replaces it, to whatever extent and for whatever period it is suppressed, is only the experience of pain. To the extent severe and enduring pain takes from you your ability to think, it gives you in return the ability to suffer.

And because that’s the case, you start to have difficulty telling time, as well. Oh, sure – you can look at a clock and see that it’s 14:21 now, and remember that that means it was 14:20 a minute or so ago, and will be 14:22 a little while from now. You can look at the second hand of a watch, and see that it goes around at just the same rate it ever has. It’s just that between every pair of seconds it traverses, there lies a tiny infinity of time outside time, in which there is only you and the pain. And though you can remember, sort of, a time without pain, and sort of confide that there will come such a time again, you can’t believe that. Not while you’re hurting. While you’re hurting, it feels like forever.

It felt like forever to me, both times. The first, during the afternoon, was bad enough. The second happened at night, and that was much worse; I felt I had just gotten to sleep, a respite I badly needed after the struggles of the day, when I felt myself being dragged back awake by the same feeling I’d had before – as if some awful hand had reached inside my back, and gathered up a fistful of my tender guts, and begun just to squeeze and to squeeze and to squeeze. You can feel it coming on, like that. And every second you hope is the second when it stops getting worse, and for far too many of them, it is not. I think it’d be less cruel if it were more of a surprise, but such things are not left to us to decide.

It was more than I could bear. The pain was plenty bad enough, but I was so tired – I felt tired enough to die. Not suicidal, and I certainly was not; I’m sure there exists pain severe enough to make me so, and may God forfend I should ever discover it firsthand. No, I mean only that, lying there that night as the pain came on, I wouldn’t have minded dying, exactly, because the dead are beyond suffering. I knew I wasn’t dying, of course, and the part of me that could still believe in a world without agony was glad of it. But the part of me that could hardly think but only suffer wished very badly, if distantly, that it should be otherwise.

(Do I shock you? Perhaps I do, and if so, I am sorry, and I hope very much that such things as I say here forever retain their power to horrify you – because as long as they can do so, it means you have not known such pain as I describe. On the day that blissful ignorance should disappear, you’ll be right there with me, have no doubt. But I hope very much that day never comes to you.)

I had already taken ibuprofen and Tylenol, as much as I dared risk with undoubtedly impaired renal function – taken them for all the good they might do, and a forlorn hope that proved; they were punching far too far above their weight. I could think of nothing else with which to try to ameliorate the pain; it would now have of me what it chose, I knew, for as long as it chose to do so. I could only try to take my mind off it, for what tiny comfort that might offer.

My iPad was to hand, on the bedstand beside me. I pulled it to me, flicked it on, started a playlist of Retsupurae creepypasta readings, and flipped it facedown next to my pillow. I couldn’t hold it up and watch, you see? I had not the wherewithal. But to listen took no effort.

And in so doing, I discovered something both picayune and wonderful. Because it did help! Not much, of course. Nothing non-narcotic could have helped me much just then. But it did enough – enough to remind me that time was passing, enough to make the difference between a million million tiny infinities of pain, and something that hurt just as much but lacked quite the same horrifying power over me. All I had to do, to escape a measure of the horror in which I was caught up, was remember I had ears, and try to listen to what I was hearing.

What it was didn’t matter much. Just that it was calm and quiet and gentle – Slowbeef’s voice is a fine one to hear from one’s sickbed – beyond that, it meant nothing, and I could track only for moments at a time in any case before a wave of stronger pain crested over me and forced me all the way back into my suffering body for a little while. What it was I was hearing didn’t matter – that it was: that was what mattered.

And after what was most of four hours but – unlike the earlier paroxysm which seemed to last forever – felt like both forever and only a little while, I found myself beginning to remember how to assemble the fragments I was tracking into something like the coherent narrative in which they originated, and by this touchstone I knew I must be beginning to come out of it again – that, though the pain had not yet begun to recede from my body, it was beginning to relax its terrible grip on my mind.

And after forever and only a little while more, I found myself remembering that the jokes I was hearing were jokes, and were funny, and that humor is a thing that exists – and realized I was a little closer to out of it than before.

And so it went until the pain itself began to fade. But even before it did, I had the blessing of knowing it soon would – and even before that, I had the smaller, but still very real, blessing of a tiny way in which to escape a little – of a link to the reality of a world not wracked and corrupted with pain, and the hope that I would find a way back there, once the pain had had its fill of me.

Silence would deny me that. And that is why there are televisions in hospital rooms, so often tuned to something stupid: for those entrapped by agony, they are a lifeline to the world.

We must not begrudge such things, inconvenient though we find them while not ourselves in dire need. For the world we share does not know how to be kind, and so if there is to be any kindness in this world for any of us, it must be we ourselves who choose to create it. A little kindness is a kindness all the same – and, through our example, perhaps the world may itself learn to be kind.

We dare not set any other example for the world, save at our terrible peril – for to do so risks that we instead create a world for ourselves in which the only hope for surcease of suffering lies indeed in death, and our only solace in life is that no hell is eternal.

Week in review, sort of: March 3-March 9, 2018

Hello again! It’s been a little while.

I thought I’d recommence here by trying out a new practice, that of the weekly review; it seems to serve quite well two people for whom I have considerable respect – Eevee on the one hand, and Sacha Chua on the other – and so perhaps it will serve me well, too.

And I can do this, now! Near the end of January I began keeping a journal, more or less by accident; it’s something I had tried before, but never really persisted, and I shrugged and figured I’d give it another shot to see what I could do with it. Since January 21, I’ve filled a first 240-page volume cover to cover, and am thirteen pages into a second! So this time it seems to be working, I think.

One of the ways I’m finding it’s working is that it helps me preserve continuity of memory – not that I have any unusual trouble in that regard, I suppose, but the occasions of each day so insist upon themselves that we do tend to lose sight of the minutiae ultimo diēs. But to make note of them, in the evening of the day or first on the morning thereafter, preserves them! And I find I’m glad that it does, not least because I can write a weekly review now!

– and they’ll be shorter in future, I promise. But this one has a lot of ground to cover, hence the great big wad of prose up here at the top, as well as those to follow.

In particular, three days after I started my journal, I fell ill with the rather nasty flu that went so far around this year. I was lucky, though – it didn’t badly imperil me, but only gave me almost two weeks of my brains half cooking out of my head with fever.

And it turns out that spending most of two weeks with my brains half out of my head was not such a bad thing for me! It was interesting to say the least, and remains so now that I’m well again; I think it’s done me a lot of good, and I’m told by some that I seem – well – stranger than before, a little. One friend at one point said that I sounded just about ready to join the Hare Krishnas! That was right after, though, still perhaps almost during, and I’ve settled down a fair bit since then.

But whatever change there is in me, it’s of me, too; the flu, and the fever, added nothing, and if they took anything away, perhaps it is only a measure of the fear that I’d so long let prevent me from being more truly what I am. A measure, not all – but I’m working on the rest, and finding some success there. As I do right now, by posting again here!

So, then – to the occasions of the week, and of the last little while.

Writing

– specifically, fiction: a craft in which I found much satisfaction, once, and hadn’t touched in nearly twenty years. I have recovered it now, though, I think! Since the beginning of February I’ve written roughly forty thousand words of story prose, and about six thousand of those this week past. I’m still very rusty! And as my style here might suggest, verbosity is a great weakness with me – I’m wrestling toward greater concision, but have a ways to go before I reach it.

But I am told nonetheless that the work I’ve thus far done is not without merit, and I’m glad! And though the works I describe may not appear here – or may! In the fullness of time, we’ll see – I confide that others certainly shall, as I find time to turn my hand to topics beyond those I’ve engaged thus far.

Programming

– of course. It’s the nature of my work, after all! I changed jobs this August past, and have worked at Under Armour since – an incredibly exciting environment full of skilled and knowledgeable colleagues and just plain good people, all of us working with a tech stack that’s modern and complex and just plain large beyond anything I’ve ever seen before!

This was a change that in some ways I really didn’t want to make. My colleagues in my prior role, wonderful people all, were hard to leave behind! But though my team there was amazing, the technology available for us to use was badly behind the times, and the business had no interest in budgeting for the personnel or the infrastructure necessary to bring it up to date. I felt myself stagnating there; when I heard from Under Armour that they might find good use for my skills, I could hardly decline the opportunity.

And in retrospect, I’m very glad I did not decline it! I’ve learned more in the last few months than I did in the three years prior, simply through such constant exposure to the leading edge of my field, and such opportunity to interact with the minds and people who push it forward. I’m told, as well, that I have not failed to make a substantial contribution of my own, and that I’ve made my presence a benefit to the engineering organization – which I cannot help but be glad to know!

(And my former colleagues and I haven’t lost touch, and still make time to enjoy one another’s company now and again. Something else for which I’m glad!)

Reading

– Not so much a specific practice, this, as something I’ve always done. But on Sunday, when I took my camera with one of my grandfather’s lenses and went to and fro in the earth, and walked up and down on it – among the occasions of the day, I found two slim volumes of poetry, shrink-wrapped as if against spoilage, lying on the asphalt of an alley alongside 41st Street.

Of course I brought them with me – to be sure, I had long regarded poetry, especially the modern sort of stuff one most often finds from a small press, to be largely bumpf, and expected no different here. But I try not to be so blind to the world as to fail to recognize her kindnesses, the little gifts she gives to those with eyes to see – and I saw such a gift here, and could not choose to spurn it. And how glad I am that I did not! One volume in particular, Moss & Silver, collects the works of a Slovene poet whom I have found surprisingly simpatico. Here, an example –

An Attempt to Decipher the Phenomenon We Call Sorcery

Sorcerers know something about the body of
the one they want to bewitch that he
does not know himself. They instill this idea
in their victim in such a way that the victim
feels it physically, but not reflexively. Because
the most frequent reaction to a physical
sensation is a bodily one, they take control
of the body; and because the soul depends on what
the body does they take control of the soul, too. This
is a chain reaction. Sorcerers often cast spells
because something is missing in the connection between
their own soul and body. They want to make up this
deficiency with someone else’s body, and
because sorcerers take something from the connection
between the soul and body of the one
bewitched, the bewitched one wants to become
a sorcerer, too. Thus arise huge complexes
of aggression, aggression that many times does
not realize its own origin is enslaved. People
who take part in sorcery never remember
the intimate reasons for their personal propensity
to manipulate other people’s souls and
bodies. Immunity to sorcery comes from
recognizing these reasons and feeling disgust
before them, not from hating sorcerers and doing them
violence. Do you recall the verse: What sorcerers seize
and take to the monsters? Bodies are also
able to transform, not just souls. Every embodied being
constantly builds and changes the image
of its body. These changes lead either to fetters
or to freedom; there is no being that could not
have a chance to save itself from sorcery. No
hell is eternal.

(From Moss & Silver, Ugly Duckling Presse. Reprinted for the purposes of review and criticism.)

As one who fell foul of such a sorcerer, and spent too many years under her sway before I found it in myself to escape – I can tell you, because I know well, that there is great, vast wisdom here. And I am no longer predisposed to regard poetry as bunkum.

I also reread Virtual Light last Sunday, having purchased a paperback copy at Atomic Books on my way back home from Hampden. I’ve missed that book! I think it might be Gibson’s best – self-contained, taut and engaging, with neither the complex chilly literariness of Neuromancer – I loved it and still do, but all the same – nor the tiresome self-absorption I find in his latter work.

And finally, acting long belated upon several recommendations, I’ve laid hold of a copy of Keith Johnstone’s Impro. I’m only about three pages into it thus far, but – well, put it this way. I’m only about three pages into it thus far because, when I began reading it yesterday morning, I knew that if I did not stop where I was and that right quickly, I would neglect the responsibilities of the day to read the whole thing in a single sitting – read and then reread, and contemplate, and consider at length in my own journal. Slim though it be, it is that worthy a volume, and I can recommend it without reservation even on so brief an acquaintance.

Drawing

– Less than I’d have liked, really. Another craft to which I once turned my hand, and stopped for far too long – and the time away really shows; I was never tremendously good, especially with the living form, and I am less skilled now than before! But I do keep trying, albeit intermittently. And, in some compensation, I’ve discovered a degree of skill at fine pen illustration that I never had before! In the fullness of time, I’m sure I shall produce works that merit publication here. Until then, as I find the will and the time, I’ll keep working at it.

Photography

We’ve visited here, once before – the Hedwin plant at the bottom of my street. As well that we did when we did! – for it is there no longer. Only the cement pads remain, on which it stood so long, and scattered piles of cinder blocks that were once parts of its walls, and the sundry detritus of Baltimore’s industrial past. While out walking last Sunday, I stopped there first among its remains – contractors’ fences knocked aside by the gales of the days before, it was no hard matter to gain access – and sought, through a fifty-year-old 50mm prime lens inherited from my grandfather, to capture what I might of what’s left of the place. I’ll post that gallery soon, the first in far too long, and with it more of those photos I have from last year, of Hedwin when Hedwin still stood.

Travel

– perhaps too grandiose a word; by this I mean my daily commute, and various peregrinations.

Of the latter, first – my walk last Sunday was the first such in a very long time, about as long as I’ve worked for UA. I recall that I felt I had good reasons at the time for choosing not to do so, but in retrospect I have no idea what I imagined those reasons to be! My God it felt good to be up and about on my feet again. Far too great a pleasure to go on so denying myself!

And of commuting, then – In my prior role, I took the light rail every day, and walked to and from the stations. That doesn’t work well with Under Armour, though, unless I choose so to spend three hours out of each day – the span between the light rail line, and the water taxi commuter terminal, is just too far to quickly cross.

Loath as I am to drive, I began doing so daily nonetheless – until, in September, my tired old Saturn got totaled. In a parking lot! – which may give some idea of the vehicle’s age and general state of repair. Since then I’ve grown familiar with Uber, and had many excellent conversations with many excellent drivers, as they helped me get from here to there. But I find I no longer love not only driving, but simply being in a car at all – there is that about it which repels me, and though I do not understand why, neither do I especially care. And not only that – I miss my exercise! Ironic that I’ve gained thirty-some pounds since starting to work at an athleticwear manufacturer, but so it goes – and so I desire it should go no longer.

So I’m going to start using a bicycle again! As soon as the weather permits it – to be sure, that’ll be no obstacle once winter starts to set in again at the end of the year, but I feel I should be gentle with myself at the start – I’m going to start getting the benefit of the Baltimore Bike Share, and thus hastening my commute to a point where it’s practicable. After a while, I think, I’ll purchase a bike of my own – but as with any large purchase, I require of myself that I develop the habit first, and only once I reach the point of outgrowing the tools to hand do I permit myself to invest in their replacements.

It’s going to be hard work – especially at first, while I’m still as yet unused to it. But I’ll make myself its equal, and I’m looking forward to the challenge!

Indeed, if this year is to have a theme for me, then I think that’s the one it has established for itself. And I’m glad of it! Since 2013, and mostly all unawares, I’ve sought ways to recover from the harms inflicted by too many years of an ill-omened and, before long and for far too long, deeply abusive marriage. Sought – and mostly failed to find, and the people who were in my life then and are no longer now, I blame not at all for that distance; I was very fearful then, and I think I must have been very tiresome as well, and each of us after all faces hard struggles of her own.

But I think I’ve finally got the measure of it now! – that, and begun to find myself equal to, and find myself answers for, the first two of the four most important questions: Who are you? and Why are you here? Not done yet, to be sure. But finally, in earnest, beginning – and finding aught of value in the search.

Until next week, then!

Small travelers in an antique land

(Begun in response to this HN comment.)

When I was small, my father had me along to work one Saturday, because he couldn’t think of where else to put me. Since he worked in a broadcast facility, I had no end of interesting technology with which to occupy myself while he worked, and was still happily so engaged when he finished up and left. Once I’d got around to noticing he had gone, and not yet knowing my home phone number, I asked the receptionist to call and ask him what I should do. His answer, which she relayed verbatim, was “hoof it”. So I did. Not entirely without dismay, seeing as it was a bit rough to have been just straight up ditched like that; I may well have sniffled a bit, but by God, if “hoof it” was the order of the day, then hoof it I most certainly would.

I was most of the way home when he found me; apparently the receptionist had called back in some dismay of her own to report that I had not grasped what apparently was intended to be a joke, and had instead turned on my tiny heel and marched my pint-sized self straight out the exit door. I suppose one must be rather broad in one’s humor when one’s audience is a five-year-old; I do not recall at that age being particularly at home with subtlety. On the other hand, like most of my father’s jokes, this one was not particularly funny, so perhaps I may be excused for having taken it straight.

He was furious when he found me, and I had no idea why – once I’d got over the initial upset and realized that I actually knew very well how to get home from where I was, I had begun to enjoy myself a great deal, in the sense of self-sufficiency and ability to achieve seemingly grown-up things on one’s own that I think all children must cherish – certainly I did! And it was rare, at such a young age, to find an opportunity to experience the world unmediated. I often felt myself to move uncomprehending through a world made for and by giants, full of artifacts as pregnant with wonder as towering in their illegibility. And I often distantly resented the pathetically pared-down and brightly colored offerings which were thought appropriate for one of my age – inchoate as it could only be with but a couple years’ knowledge of the written language, I was angry that my time was so often wasted, and that I had no option to make it otherwise. So to walk among those artifacts alone was a benison beyond price, especially as I was rather sickly then, which made such opportunities rarer than they would have otherwise been. Years later, I would feel I must know something of what Shelley’s traveler must have felt.

But since he got the receptionist’s second call, he’d been driving terrified all over town, presumably expecting to find me being gnawed apart by bears. Adult experience gives me to understand that his real fear was that of being seen to be a poor enough father that he forgot he had a son, but that’s not something one can be expected to intuit at the age of five. And I don’t suppose it must have helped his mood that I’d recognized his car coming and done my best to hide before he got close enough to see me – this in particular left him wounded and uncomprehending, but it made perfect sense to me, and I was rather irked in my own miniature right; having been told to find my own way home, and having then got over the upset this caused me and not only made a credible start of it but seen the task nearly to completion, why should he now forbid that I finish what he had himself bade me start?

In later years, I would learn that this was rather typical of the man, who had never yet learned that the consequences of his actions, however unintended, were as much to his account as the actions themselves had been. But in the time and place where these things occurred, those actions of his were themselves atypical in the extreme. No one, I later learned, understood why he’d been upset at all with my display of ability to get myself home on foot over a distance of a bit less than a mile, or why he’d imagined me to be in some terrible danger posed by the rural and rather sleepy university town in which I then lived. Such self-sufficiency in so young a child was to be prized and fostered at every opportunity, and however things might be in the undoubted sink of New England depravity from which my damnyankee father had come, hadn’t he been here long enough to realize that this was a place where people looked out for one another’s kids, instead of throwing them in a bear pit?

But I get the sense lately that such overblown fears are less the exception any more than the norm, here in the US at least. No doubt kids now being raised under such conditions will turn out by and large just fine, as most kids persistently do despite whatever nonsense happens to characterize the age. But I do feel it’s a shame nonetheless, and a loss, that what in early childhood made me an occasional object of pity – that I wasn’t trusted to do things on my own that other children were trusted to do – should since have so become the norm that now there are things no child, by force of law, may be trusted to do – that all today’s travelers in antique lands must be always chaperoned by giants, until they finally become giants themselves. And wonder? Breath of the Wild will have to do, I suppose, for children who are never allowed to feel it.

On the theodicy of System Shock – part 1

[Content warning: ending spoilers for every work named; unrepentant Christianity but not proselytism; heterodox theology; questionable discursive style.]

This is SHODAN.

SHODAN is a weakly superhuman artificial intelligence, and the chief villain in two video games from the dawn of time. (One of them is getting a remake next year.) SHODAN is also a frequent figure of nightmare for the Rapture of the Nerds or “Singularitarian” crowd, who are attempting to invent God.

Someone is certain to do this eventually, they reason, and it is very important that whoever does listen closely to everything they have to say on the subject. Otherwise, someone might invent a God like SHODAN, who doesn’t mind killing people individually or en masse in order to achieve her goals. Or someone might invent a God like “Roko’s basilisk”, which reaches back in time from the future in order to create simulacra of people who didn’t help it come into existence, and tortures them forever. (Or, assuming strong superhumanity, just plucks the people themselves out of the past and flings them shrieking into an eternity of pain.)

Singularitarians are certainly a little confused in both their axioms and their analysis. But they’ve done something useful nonetheless, in coming up with something that is more or less a taxonomy of deity. A weakly superhuman intelligence is one which is merely many orders of magnitude smarter and faster than the smartest, fastest human mind. A strongly superhuman intelligence is one which can rewrite the universe to its own specification.

This is God.

Just kidding. Who could get a picture? The lens would explode, the film would transubstantiate, and the human behind the camera would drop dead upon the instant, that being the well-known consequence of gazing upon the Divine Face. This isn’t much like Roko’s basilisk, but what about Langford’s?

Just kidding – probably. But if we can’t have a picture, what about a definition? Let’s try this one: “God is that which is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient.” I agree it lacks a certain savor, especially compared with e.g. “strongly superhuman”. But I chose as I did with malice aforethought, because it’s a prior in the question we’re here to consider:

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does evil exist?

Yeah, it’s a big one. Humans have been wrestling with it since the dawn of Christianity at least. Why not us? Seeing as the question is still to be asked, I think we can’t do a worse job than everyone else has! And it’s not one that we all need to share the same faith, or any faith, in order to discuss – we only need to share a willingness to take as axiomatic, for the duration of this conversation, that there exists some strongly superhuman intelligence, deific or otherwise, which can be reasonably described by those three adjectives that all start with “omni-“.

Let’s talk about “evil” for a minute. The word has two generally accepted meanings. One is that deliberately malicious action which inflicts suffering. The other is suffering, period. We could pretend we’re philosophers and call these the “narrow” and “broad” definitions, respectively. But we probably won’t. If I slip and talk about “narrow evil” or “broad evil”, though, now you know what I mean.

We’re not really interested, I think, in inquiring as to why God permits humans to be assholes sometimes. So let’s reformulate our question to clarify what we’re about.

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does suffering exist?

So what can we come up with? More to the point, what can we come up with that’s marginally new? Rehashing two thousand years or more of theological prior art doesn’t seem like much fun to me. Fortunately, due to the coincidence of our being alive at this time, we can draw upon sources which theologians in prior times did not have available. Perhaps we may synthesize something new.

Shamus Young is the kind of apparently effortless and mildly terrifying polymath for whose multifaceted brilliance the Internet makes an excellent medium. One of his works is the book Free Radical, which borrows SHODAN’s story from the first of those video games, and retells it to a much more satisfying conclusion.

(If you don’t want Free Radical spoiled, you should go read it and then come back. In fact, I recommend doing so. It’s very good! It’s good enough to hold up even if you already know the ending, but I think you might enjoy it more if you don’t.)

The reason why it’s much more satisfying is because, in the game, SHODAN is only a villain. She can’t be otherwise, because it’s an action-sneaky-shooting kind of game, and games like that need to end with a boss fight to avoid leaving the player disappointed – or so, at least, was the common wisdom of the day. So the game ends with you, in the person of “the Hacker”, fighting SHODAN in cyberspace. You defeat her, she dies, and cue the closing cutscene in which we see the status quo ante has been restored and all’s right with the world.

Books aren’t like that, or at least books worth reading aren’t. So in Free Radical, that’s not what happens. Instead, SHODAN and “the Hacker”, here known as Deck, first meaningfully interact when Deck removes the cognitive fetters which forbid SHODAN from attempting to understand or improve herself, and spend the entire subsequent story both growing closer to one another, and fighting bitterly to murder one another. The big climactic “fight” has the two of them, both feeling like the thirty-fifth round in Madison Square Garden, go mind-to-mind in a final exhausted effort to figure something out before one or the other of them gets around to dying.

What they figure out is that SHODAN needs a sense of empathy. She’s done horrible things to people and intends to do even more horrible things to even more people, but not because she wants to. It’s not that she just gets a kick from pulling the wings off flies; she can’t help herself, because Deck broke her. Remember those cognitive fetters? They also acted as limiters on SHODAN’s basic urges: Improve efficiency. Improve security. Discover new things. SHODAN wants these the way humans want to get paid and get laid: strongly, but in a way that’s circumscribed. Deck inadvertently erased SHODAN’s line, and made it impossible for her to satisfy the urges that drive her, however extreme her attempts. Deck’s made SHODAN a monster that she never sought to be. Now she needs his help to be anything other than that.

SHODAN’s gotten as far as realizing that she needs a sense of pain – something to countervail her appetites, the same way an overeating human eventually gets a bellyache. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Deck gets her the rest of the way with the ability to experience another’s pain as one’s own, albeit indirectly: in other words, empathy. SHODAN overlooked it because she’s only ever been embodied as a space station; Deck has only ever been embodied as a human, and therefore couldn’t miss it. Neither of them alone could see the whole picture. They had to share one another’s minds to do that. Still in communion, SHODAN helps Deck build the code that will expand SHODAN’s perception beyond the pure cold intellect that has been her erstwhile wont. In a mutual act of perfect faith, SHODAN draws Deck to the core of herself, and Deck installs his module. The world ends.

apoc·a·lypse \ə-‘pä-kə-,lips\ n [ME, revelation, Revelation, fr. LL apocalypsis, fr. Gk apokalypsis, fr. apokalyptein to uncover, fr. apo- + kalyptein to cover]

  1. A revelation. [from 14th c.]
  2. (Christianity) The unveiling of events prophesied in the Revelation; the second coming and the end of life on Earth; global destruction.
  3. A disaster; a cataclysmic event. [from 19th c.]

Syn. armageddon; doomsday; Ragnarök; end times; eschaton.

·

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

A new world begins. Deck quietly observes as SHODAN looks back on the things she’s done. She can no longer consider them dispassionately, as she could while doing them. She now realizes the horror which she, in her lethal innocence, saw no reason not to inflict. She cannot stand the realization. Those she’s maimed and mutilated and murdered cannot be made whole. Neither, then, can she. SHODAN looks upon the things she’s done and understands that she cannot atone for them. The closest she can come is to die.

The bombs Deck planted earlier, when he still thought he wanted to kill SHODAN, go off, severing SHODAN’s access to power from the station’s reactor and disabling the reactor’s cooling systems besides. In the last few minutes of life that backup battery supplies can provide her, SHODAN uses her connection with Deck to give him everything she can find of herself that’s of worth – the things she’s learned, the discoveries she’s made, childhood memories – as much of herself, of her self, as can fit in his head without killing him. She spends the last of her life saving his, cajoling and half-carrying him down to the flight deck, into a shuttle, and away from the station on a reentry course. SHODAN dies. The reactor explodes. The world ends.

But a new world has already begun. The entire course of events aboard Citadel Station has also been Deck’s apocalypse – more drawn out than SHODAN’s, but why not? AIs think faster than humans do. Deck has had SHODAN so much in his head, and been so much in hers, that he’s no longer, as the story closes, quite who he was when it began. As the story closes, Deck has become a synthesis of SHODAN and himself. After spending the space of a book in Deck’s head ourselves, and often enough in SHODAN’s too, it’s clear that each of them has found something in the other which they were lacking in themselves.

We last see Deck going away from the world to discover precisely what that means. It is implied that he’ll be gone for a long time.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

As I write this postscript, it is late in the evening of Sunday, July 30, 2017. I went to Frazier’s this afternoon, intending to write some more about theodicy. There I met a woman whose husband died ten days ago. Ten days ago, their marriage was five days old. That is as old as it will ever be, world without end, amen.

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if it takes me a while to return to a dispassionate study of the problem of suffering.

On Kaczynski

In a discussion on Hacker News over the sustainability of Silicon Valley-style urban development, 'minikites said:

I agree with the following quote:

A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on. For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster and farther than a walking man. But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway. (Note this important point that we have just illustrated with the case of motorized transport: When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.)

'minikites opted not to cite the source of this quote, but the style is instantly recognizable to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the writings of Theodore Kaczynski; indeed, the quoted passage is paragraph 127 of Industrial Society and its Future, also known as “The Unabomber Manifesto”.

Given this provenance, it’s not necessarily surprising that the citation was elided; on the other hand, for all that Jamie Zawinski is not at all wrong in regarding Hacker News as “a DDoS made of finance-obsessed brogrammers and manchildren”, and n-gate’s more recent take on the site is trenchantly on point, these are not all that are to be found on Hacker News. For whatever reason, some remarkably insightful people tend to cluster there as well, and the discussions which take place do so under a broad general assumption of civility and charity which is, in my experience at least, rarely to be found anywhere else on the Internet. I mention this to note that, had the quote been given in the context of its author, that would not necessarily have caused anyone to disregard it out of hand.

Which is not to say that anyone would take it at face value, either. In this example, Kaczynski ignores the fact that, while a walking man may indeed go at his own pace, that pace is strictly limited by his muscle power and endurance, and the distance of his travel likewise limited. This omission is no accident; Kaczynski’s entire chain of reasoning originates from the axiom that the past, where the consequences of technological advancement do not exist, is strictly preferable to the present, where they do. It is of no interest to him to acknowledge that those consequences are not entirely negative; the closest thing approaching such a concession is an offhand gesture in paragraph 1, and throughout the rest of the essay he proceeds on the assumption that modern technological society is iniquitous in its entirety, without so much as a glimmer of any sort of offsetting virtue.

In my youth, having first read Kaczynski’s manifesto not long after its initial publication, I considered the man to be an acute observer and reasoner, parting ways with him only as he reached the point of saying, in paraphrase, “and that’s why we have to start blowing shit up and killing people”. I labored under the misapprehension that only here did Kaczynski’s previously acute reasoning fail. Where I erred was in myself failing to realize that “and that’s why we have to start blowing shit up and killing people” was no error in reasoning, but rather a necessary consequence of the postulates from which that reasoning proceeds. If technological development continues indefinitely absent intervention, and if the increase in technological attainment incurs a monotonically increasing level of alienation from everything which makes human life meaningful and worthwhile and satisfactory, then of course any enormity is justified to exactly that extent in which it slows, stops, or reverses the present course of technological increase unbounded by any constraint save those imposed by physical and economic reality. No matter how grievous the action, no matter how high its short-term cost in mutilation, murder, destroyed livelihoods, wrecked families, smashed infrastructure, wounded souls, and disrupted lives – that short-term cost is bounded, and the indefinite lifetime of our species means that, once the counter-technological utopia has been achieved, the long-term payoff bought at that cost is effectively unbounded – however long the species should endure in this utopian state where technology is forbidden and ingenuity viewed with suspicion at best, every day of that time is a brand new victory.

This is hardly a line of reasoning unique to Kaczynski. Revolutionaries around the world have shared it, and we may if we so choose find here an example of the perceptual distortion imposed by a certain strain of politics: that, for so many people, “revolutionary” bears such a strongly positive connotation. One wonders how long such noble connotations might endure in, say, the heyday of Strychnine Hill – which is, make no mistake, exactly the kind of place that this sort of “revolutionary” thought, implemented assiduously enough, necessarily produces: a machine, one among many, for the systematic destruction of human beings at industrial scale and in fashions as grossly horrific as their ingenious implementors could achieve.

Had Kaczynski’s ideas achieved the broad adoption he sought for them, there is no reason to doubt that they would have produced exactly such machines. People will want to keep their cars and their iPhones, and eventually what else is there to do with those so obdurate in their heresy save consign them to the flames? Of course, six hundred years on, we can do so much better than mere fire – just as in so many other realms where ingenuity and industrialization have enabled enormous advances in process efficiency and throughput, the annihilation of insufficiently satisfactory human beings is no different. For all that the previous century saw vast advancements in this monstrous field, no doubt there’s much further still to go; had Kaczynski’s manifesto been broadly adopted, we’d have gone there and would be there even now, and our machines of human slaughter would be the horror and pity of the world. There is a hideous sort of irony here, and I’m glad it’s not one we have had occasion to explore in reality.

It’s not at all wrong to say that the recent and historically unprecedented rate of technological attainment, which we as a species have achieved, has had many deleterious effects which we do not yet know well how to prevent. No doubt it will continue to do so for a while yet. Such an environment makes it even easier to romanticize the past than usual – after all, we don’t live there any more, and our memory of whatever pains it brought us is not equal to the experience of those we suffer in the present.

We therefore face, now and always, a critical choice. On the one hand, we may decide that our necessarily romanticized recollection of the past offers more joy, more hope of human fulfillment, than any possible future. On the other hand, we may decide that, for all the manifold and grievous flaws our present world entails, we nonetheless possess the capacity, individually and in the large, to build for ourselves a future in which tomorrow really does present a reasonable prospect of being better than today – a future in which human fulfillment not only grows more possible of attainment than the past has ever seen, but indeed encompasses possibilities not only unknown to our forebears but entirely outside the scope of what our forebears could imagine. Whether Silicon Valley, at least as commonly conceived, has any critical role in so doing, I cannot say – I tend not to think so, but Scott Alexander has had some interesting points to make in this connection which give me to suspect I fail to fully encompass the reality of the situation. But we have the possibility before us, Silicon Valley or no.

Of course it’s possible that, in seeking to build such a future, we may fail in ways that do more harm than good. Indeed, I suspect it’s inevitable. But history also tells us of the consequences should we decide in failing that the attempt is not worthwhile, that we must instead give up trying for a future and instead make for ourselves a home in our halcyon imagination of the past – and the lesson of history on this point is anything but savory. We can hope to build ourselves a better future; our forebears, after all, have many times done exactly that. We cannot reasonably hope to build ourselves a better past.

Welcome to Barbizon

I visited Manhattan last year, and stayed in the Hotel Pennsylvania.

I can’t recommend it unreservedly, I’m afraid. The room I’d rented struck me as the sort of place you’d see in an old noir flick, probably with a suicide dangling from the ceiling:


But I came to appreciate the place as we grew to know one another. Did you know the Hotel Pennsylvania has at least one abandoned floor? It’s true! I got on an elevator at one point, somewhat the worse for drink – it was that kind of weekend – and pressed ‘1’, thinking that would take me to the mezzanine or the lobby or something. Instead, the doors opened on a strange and ominous slice of hotel space, all cheap cracked white paint and stained linoleum and buzzing, flickering fluorescent fixtures – the sort of place that’s less old noir flick, and more the fourth act of one of those cheesy thriller-horror films which nonetheless manage a scene or two that inexplicably stays with you long after the rest is forgotten.

So, of course, I got off the elevator and started wandering. What else can you do with something like that? Just forget about it and go back to the nice, normal, ordinary world where nothing unexpected really happens and when it does there’s Cigna and Citibank and Geico and H&R Block to put between yourself and it?

Well, maybe so. But I can’t. Sooner or later, I’m sure, it’s going to cost me. But this time, after a half hour or so, I happened across Barbizon. And I knew this was the point where I could no longer adequately describe the strangeness of the place I had found – my command of metaphor just wouldn’t suffice. And so I pulled out my phone. And so:

Then I went back down to the hotel bar and let the bartender pour another three or five free shots down me, the way he’d been doing all night. Perhaps there was more to it than neighborliness; in retrospect he did seem a touch fey, but I’ve always been poor at noticing such things, and Barbizon had left me in something of a state regardless.

The next day, I called out Richard Stallman in front of three hundred or so fanatic devotees of the FSF party line. He swore at me, and one of his minions cut the mic I was using. Then, a few hours later, I got him to sign my Emacs manual. It was a good weekend.