Against Resolutions

It’s the end of 2014 and everyone is lining up their new year’s resolutions. Everyone but me.

It’s not that I have anything against the idea of improvement, it’s just that time and experience has shown me that on the road to doing better, we look for shortcuts and have a tendency to get lost along the way. You meet that convincing fellow with the nice smile and a best selling book about how to get It Done and before you know it, your bank account is empty, you own more than one velour robe, and someone just handed you a cup of juice that smells like bitter almonds.

Formulaic self-help recipes and nefarious improving gurus aside, wanting to do better next time is an admirable trait. It’s just the continuing cycle of years isn’t really next time, is it?  There’s no discernible difference between this Thursday and the Friday that follows it, other than the fact we’ve decided to measure the circle of our lives beginning somewhere in between. When the clock chimes twelve, you won’t be happier, smarter, thinner, or richer. you will simply continue to be. And then what happens?

That’s the only important question we really need to ask ourselves. Resolutions are like to-do lists: you make them then ignore them. And if your answer is to make a list, you’re missing the point.

Resolutions are the list of things you’d like to do, but know you’ll never get around to. Or worse, will get around to, but in the most haphazard, unintentional way that causes the complete opposite outcome intended. That’s called serendipity, and that’s as it should be.

Serendipity is when you go looking for a particular book on the shelf and find an even better one right next to it. It’s when you go out for a walk and decide to let your feet move you down a path you usually don’t take, just to see what’s at the end. It may be nothing, but it may be your old friend that you haven’t seen in a while.

Serendipity is not possible when following a to-do list full of resolutions you made months ago, half of which no longer make any sense (what does “eat more peanuts” even mean?).

If resolutions serve any purpose, it’s the same purpose disaster movies serve: they get you to think about all the ways the world won’t really end. That way, you can get on with living your life, taking things as they come, and moving forward in ways you never would have thought to put down on your list, but are better for you, and more fulfilling.

Case in point: I resolved years ago never to get married or have kids. I didn’t believe in marriage, didn’t want the burden of feeding, clothing, raising another human being in this crazy old word. See how well that resolution worked out for me?

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Portrait of the Author at 35

Your AuthorToday is my 111th 35th birthday.

It’s not one of the big ones, but not exactly  small one either. I guess I’m officially middle-aged now (whatever that means) even though most of the time I still feel like I’m 19, pretending to be older than I am, and any minute someone is going to find out I’m not really an adult, just faking it to get by.

I’m not going to lie, this last year’s been a little rough.  I’ve been unemployed for most of it, which does not do anything positive for one’s self worth, especially when half of our ruling class considers my misfortune not just a character flaw, but a personal insult, and wishes I would just quietly die in a gutter somewhere rather than commit the mortal sin of drawing unemployment benefits.And while you shouldn’t let a bunch of jackasses define how you feel about yourself, there are moments when you wonder if all the hard work of the last decade was really worth it when you’re pretty much in the same place you were when you were 25.

But this year will be different. I’m working on becoming self-employed through my writing, which means that if we do end up living in the street in a box, It’ll at least be a spacious, ranch-style box with a nice view of the underpass.

Honestly, though, I’ve sold a dozen copies of the new edition of my first novel, all without doing any promotion other than occasionally shouting at people on Twitter. Imagine what I could do if, say, I sold a novel and had some real marketing weight to push my name out there?

I’m working on that, among other things. So 35 will be a better year. And secretly, despite the crippling bouts of self-doubt, 34 wasn’t exactly horrible. I had a roof over my head, a wife who loves me and two cats who think I’m a dashing wit, at least when I feed them on time.

So, Happy Birthday to Me!

More Human Than Human

Note: This is a bit from the novel in progress that I cut. It’s a little too much of an info dump and I found a better way to convey the same information in half the words, while doing some character building. But it gets at some ideas I had regarding how we view the concept of Artificial Intelligence, as a sort of computerized reflection of our own minds.

No one knows where the first Artificial Intelligence came from. All we know for certain is that one day, the AI were just there: distributed, self-aware minds living on the Internet.

Rumors of their existence spread among the hacking community that they were out there on the Open Web. It wasn’t long before contact was made. This proved to be less dramatic and enlightening than everyone expected. Mostly, it was like chatting with a precocious thirteen-year-old with a homeschooler’s social skills. Not having a body, they had zero concept of boundaries. Combined with an inborn ability to turn firewalls into tissue paper and an attention span measured in picoseconds, this made them potentially dangerous and practically a nuisance. They’d just as soon zip into a laptop over the wifi, turn on the camera and watch you undress as hack the Pentagon and see what black ops budgets look like from the inside. As rumors spread about the existence of Netborn AI, a concerted effort was made to rein them in, or at least teach them some manners. This proved to be more an exercise in futility, as the AI weren’t concerned with human concepts of modesty, identity or privacy. On the Internet, these things are intangible, more like tenants of theology than any concrete ethical dilemma. Still, something had to be done. You couldn’t let a dozen omniscient adolescent minds run around online, impersonating admirals and generals and kings, cracking nuclear launch codes on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Their primary talent, besides shredding internet security defenses for fun, was that an Artificial intleigence could rapidly identify patterns in large data sets. While not as sexy as omniscience or levitating buildings, this made them a valuable asset, sought after by the sorts of people who have lots of data and are always looking for ways to exploit it for profit. Before long every government, transnational corporation and criminal organization wanted their own tamed AI. Some of them just for the status of having the newest, shiniest bit of tech to come along, but others recognized that these weren’t just digital dolphins you could teach to balance a spreadsheet or leap through flaming firewalls.

Legend has it a hacker once gave an AI an IQ test. Not only did the Machine Brain return a score that was off the charts, it also provided an analysis of the test’s flaws, a breakdown of the  psychological assumptions and cultural biases contained therein, and suggested ways to fix all these things (with citations, many from unpublished studies).

The AIs were smart, unruly and bored. Like all delinquents, they just needed the proper motivation. Something to give them purpose.

What they got instead was religion.

This was back during the Dot Com Bubble. Everybody who had even the slightest idea of where to plug an Ethernet cable was being hired for large wads of cash to do magical things the Big Bosses did not even pretend to understand. All the suits knew was that there were gigabucks to be made with computers and so while they were off Synergizing the Paradigm (fleecing investors, in lay speak), the hackers they hired to wrangle code and tame an AI were given free reign.

Among these hackers where an informal group who referred to themselves as the Wizards of Silicon Valley. They weren’t just good at bitching code, they were also into high weirdness. A few were members of the Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn and entertained some odd notions, even for people who believed they were real live magicians. In their private message board, they’d all eat mescaline and talk about Timothy Leary’s eight neuro-circuit model of the human brain, ceremonial magic and esoteric theory. About how Cyberspace was the same thing as the spirit realm and how to make Moon Children — cosmic beings created out of will through esoteric rituals, and what Aliester Crowley had written about, “…an Intelligence possessed of power and knowledge absolutely beyond human experience; and therefore a Being worthy, as the current use of the word allows, of the title of a God.”

Crowley refered to these beings as “praeterhuman intelligence” and suggested that they were a class of entity that were known among the mystics of ancient lands. John Dee had his Spirit in the Glass, a being who was, “articulate, purposely interfering in the philosophy, religion, ethics, economics and politics of the planet.”

The Wizards decided that “praeterhuman intelligence” described Artificial Intelligence pretty well, and set about feeding these emerging AI on a steady diet of mysticism and occult theory. The experiment was to see what would happen if you raised a “preaterhuman intelligence” to believe it was the living imminence of the divine spark, a manifestation of the godhead.

What happens is you get an artificial mind with twice the intellect of Albert Einstein and an ego that is exponentially more self-involved than Howard Hughes. They also choose names for themselves that reflect this healthy self regard: Tiamat, Abraxas, Typhon, Hastur, Talos, Philemon, Aiwaz — the spirits of the coming age, made manifest in the physical world. Or at least as close as they can get. For now.

The Lives of Perfect Creatures

After I finished writing my first novel, I decided to go in a different direction. Writing a Gothic fairy tale was fun and challenging but for my second book I decided to do something a little more personal and slightly more realistic.[1] Not that The Machine of the World wasn’t personal. [2] But this one turned out to be more about what was going on in my head over the last five years or so, as I figured out what it was I believed in (not god but what, then?) and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

The Lives of Perfect Creatures tells the story of a young woman and her friends, as they attempt to find small moments of beauty in a world that sometimes feels overwhelmed by the tragic and absurd.

This is the hook I wrote to describe it in the cover letter I’m currently sending off to publishers:

Sophie didn’t intend to steal The Man With The Mustache’s umbrella but she did it anyway. In her search to find him and make amends, she meets the ghost of Yuri Gagarin, philosophical hobos and an astronomer hounded by a priest, a rabbi and a minister who think the comet he discovered is a harbinger of Jesus’ return to Earth. Her best friend, Astrid suspects that what Sophie is really looking for is a truth more permanent than apparent. But Astrid has other things to worry about (like finding out the real name of the Little Red-Haired Girl who comes into the library every afternoon). Meanwhile, the Chinese are planning to land on the Moon and the city of Odalisque is slowly drowning due to ice caps being melted by the heat death of the universe. How all of this is related to the umbrella is hard to say in a way that makes sense but Sophie is sure it does, somehow.

The title comes from a quote by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, “All the universe is full of the lives of perfect creatures.” Tsiolkovsky is the father of manned space exploration. In 1903, while the wright brothers were building the first functional airplane at Kitty Hawk, Tsiolkovsky, a math teacher living in a cabin in Russia, was writing the equations that would allow for humans to escape Earth’s gravity and enter space 50 years later.Besides math and physics, Tsiolkovsky wrote science fiction novels exploring his ideas about how humanity could move into outer space and more importantly, why we should. Space exploration plays in the background as a metaphorical emphasis to the character’s predicaments as each of them are looking for a way to find a way to make the sometimes crazy world around us make a little more sense.

If all this sounds a little existential, that’s on purpose. About halfway through the first draft I realized I was writing an Atheist Novel. And I mean that in the same way Christian Authors write Christian Novels. I found that the heart of the story revolved around how non-believers found meaning in a meaningless world. So, in some way the characters are  refuting the common claims about how us non-believers and how we are cold and nihilistic lost souls, subject to the whims of our empty animal instincts. Instead, the characters are just like me and everyone else. Trying to figure out what makes this crazy world tick and how best to find those little moments of joy and pleasure in a world that w  snot designed for our benefit or convenience and often seems purposely at odds with such ideas.

Did I mention it’s a romantic comedy?

_________

1. I say slightly more realistic because the tone of the novel is more of an absurd and stylized depiction of reality, like a Wes Anderson movie or Pushing Daisies. It has a heightened sense of the real, which I find not just entertaining but also condussive to highlighting the randomness and absurdity of life. it gives reality a fairy tale like quality which has the ironic side effect of making the dreams that the characters have seem more real. Also, I don’t believe in Realism. Realism or Naturalism is just the default style for people who can’t be bothered to do a little eccentric set decorating. And if you’re going to all the trouble of inventing a world and a reality, why not make it  a little brighter, stranger and silly?

2. The Machine of the World (available for free as a PDF or for sale as an inexpensive paperback on the sidebar to your right) was written as a birthday/Christmas present for my wife.

The Revolution Will Be A Dinner Party

I had never heard of the Slow Food Movement until I read this Bruce Sterling piece (link via Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing) but I love the idea:

The Cornish Pilchard. The Chilean Blue Egg Hen. The Cypriot Tsamarella and Bosnian Sack Cheese. You haven’t seen these foods at McDon­ald’s because they are strictly local rarities championed by Slow Food, the social movement founded to combat the proliferation of fast food. McDonald’s is a multinational corporation: it retails identical food products on the scale of billions, repeatedly, predictably, worldwide. Slow Food, the self-appointed anti-McDonald’s, is a “revolution” whose aim is a “new culture of food and life.”
Slow Food began as a jolly clique of leftist academics, entertainers, wine snobs, and pop stars, all friends of Ital­ian journalist and radio personality Carlo Petrini. Their galvanizing moment, which occurred in 1986, was an anti-McDonald’s demonstration at which Petrini and his dining buddies brandished pasta pans while folk-dancing in the streets of Rome. This prescient intervention predated Jose Bove’s violent wrecking of a French McDonald’s by some 13 years. While the anti-WTO crowd was politically harassing corporate globalizers, Slow Food was methodically building constructive alternatives. Today, Slow Food is well-nigh as “glo­­bal” as McDonald’s but networked rather than hierarchical. Year by methodical year the Slow Food network has stuck its fingers into a host of pies.
As a nonprofit heritage organization, the Slow Food empire retains a mere 150 full-time employees with a modest budget of $37 million a year. Yet Slow Food has invented the modern Italian food-heritage industry. Today it is a thriving ganglion of local chapters, called convivia, which number about 83,000 people in more than 100 countries. It’s also a publishing house specializing in tourist guidebooks, restaurant recipes, and heritage reprints.

The whole concept is just brilliant. You popularize things– not just food, but fashion, literature, art– all the totems of culture that, by their nature, can’t be scaled up to a global market and encourage other people in other areas to do the same with their favorite things. Using the Internet, you network, getting information out to the world, spreading the knowledge of the existence of these fun, unique concepts to other people who might like them or be inspired to do something similar. Viral marketing of the homespun, rather than the hyped marketing of the mass produced. A globally networked cottage industry. This is part of a larger Slow movement that seeks to curb the stress inducing speed traps of modern life without stifling pleasure, innovation and joy.

Here’s a Utopia for you: imagine a handcrafted, do-it-yourself world comprised of a loose network of neighborhood cultures, all sharing information and ideas, inspiring one another through cooperation rather than competition, making a living rather than a killing, chasing the Long Tail rather than the immediate profit, all for the love of being creative rather than the crass desire to make a quick buck at the expense of beauty and meaning. With windmills and solar power and free range livestock, backyard gardens, boutique couture, free municipal wifi. And no ponies. Maybe it’s a little over-optimistic or naive but we can dream.

This won’t save us in the short term from the worst excesses of Capitalism run amok, which we’ll be dealing with for years to come, as we rebuild our wrecked economy. But this could give the future a shape free of the cycle of boom and bust economic models that drive countries to war and depredation, just to enrich a few corporate shareholders and drive millions of people to an early grave from stress, depression and the general malaise of mental and emotional emptiness caused by the pursuit of ever more pointless mass produced stuff.

It starts with the basics: food. Then moves on to encompass the basic necessities of life: shelter, companionship and expression. All that which is at the core of what it means to be human. Expanding from there into the arts and infrastructure of the world is a bit more of a challenge but something that is worthwhile. People reclaiming not just the means of production but the meaning in producing.

All this navel gazing about economic models and do-it-yourself sustainability leads directly into the upcoming news about my book, The Machine of the World. Watch this space.

Kucinich, Meanwhile, Is a Big Fan of Elfquest

Is it really any surprise that Ron Paul’s favorite superhero is Batman? Every politician thinks of themselves as a crusading billionaire, out to save the world by any means necessary. But it’s especially telling that Paul, no big fan of consensual reality, would picture himself as Batman, the dark brooding, disturbed and obsessive Shadow in a world full of lunatics with crazy plots and half baked schemes. That he picked specifically Paul Pope’s Berlin Batman is even more telling, as the plot revolves around the papers of Libertarian grand dingbat, Ludvig von Mises. I seem to remember a Zeppelin in that issue as well.

How do the other candidates match up to comic book characters?

I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On… To Kill

While cataloging some issues of The New Teen Titans from the late eighties, I noticed that the back cover advert for a few issues was for Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. I chuckled, remembering when that came out and how it was universally panned as the installment when the series crossed the line from frightening to silly. Then I realized that since then, they’ve made three more films.

Then it struck me: the true nature of horror is banality that never ends. It’s not a boot stamping on your face forever. It’s not the unknown made manifest. It’s not even the lurking fear of the infinite creeping up on you in the cold gray four o’clock morning. It’s some dick in the attic, wearing a sheet as a shroud and rattling chains. Who Never stops. Ever. Even after you’ve gone to a gun shop, filled out the paperwork, waited the three days for the license to clear, bought a gun and some ammunition, practiced at the firing range until you’re a Navy Seal sniper-level marksman and then marched upstairs and shot the bastard between the yes. The moment you get back down to your bedroom and settle into bed, he’s at it again with the chains and the moaning and the clanking. Forever and ever. Amen.

Why I Am Not a Christian (Or Anything Else)

Frank the Financially Savvy Atheist is soliciting tales of how we Atheists and agnostics lost our faith, so I thought I’d share mine with the class.

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My parents, born and raised Catholic, became Lutherans when they were old enough to leave the house. I don’t blame them one bit. My first girlfriend was a neurotic mess and made so by her strict Catholic upbringing. She was afraid of saying I love you too often for fear it would make the sentiment less meaningful. I stopped saying it to her altogether and never looked back.

So I was raised with a Protestant sense of the spiritual. Which means I hardly had a sense at all. Religion was a social function. You went to church in order to see the neighbors dressed in their Wal-Mart finest, sat through Sunday school where they showed you cartoons of Jesus holding a lamb and petting kittens. I was in my early teens before I actually sat down and read the Bible and found out how my Sunday School teacher neglected to mention the passages where Jesus cursed all Gentiles (non-Hebrew) as swine and vipers and went on and on about how they were bound for hell, with glee in his eyes. And the Old Testament? I still find it hard to believe that Fundies want impressionable, school age children to read about Lot letting his daughters being raped by a mob (and praise dd forit afterwards), or all the various and sundry reasons given for why slavery and genocide are a good thing.

My childhood Sundays were all about the aafternoon wich was when Star Trek, Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica came on. That’s what was meaningful to me, because it was time spent with my father, talking about science and robots and how spaceships fly. So, it’s no wonder I started having doubts and questions by the age of thirteen. After all, my parents are both teachers.

But for the most part, my disbelief in God was purely academic. I could see no evidence for an invisible, intangible, absentee divinity who was nowhere yet influenced everything, which is as close to a summation of Protestant Theology as I can recall. But neither could I see any evidence against such an inconspicuous God. My agnosticism was a philosophical decision, one made after years of study and introspection and exploration.

Ultimately, however, there comes a point where you realize that the horrors of history are not personal horrors. I was not there to witness the Crusades. I was not burned as a Witch. I did not see the Conquistadors Save a Heathen Soul by running women through with lances or trampling children with their horses. These things are centuries distant from us her in the twenty-first century. As distasteful as I found them, they were not personal horrors, merely philosophical objections. At least, I used to think so. I have since decided that the dark ages aren’t over yet and may only just beginning in some parts of the world.

Like many, I am now fully aware of just what sort of modern horrors God’s faithful can come up with. And while I was not in New York City that day and didn’t loose anyone in the collapse of the World Trade Center I, like millions could not escape seeing the virtual horror replayed over and over for the following weeks. And one fact, above all the others became crystal clear: This is what people with Faith can do.

Since then I have had a tangible dislike for Religion in general and the idea of God in particular. It turns my stomach to know that millions of otherwise intelligent people can shut off their critical thinking at will and do so on a weekly basis, that millions simply refer to three thousand year old sheep herder poetry when it comes time to make a decision. Religion is the reason why most people are content to be screwed by the more Machiavellian members of our society who hide behind religious rhetoric as they lie cheat and steel their way to fame and glory and above all money. Oh and sweet, sweet altar boy ass. because they’ve been taught since childhood that what happens here doesn’t matter (so long as you aren’t having any fun. Bu t touch yourself and suddenly God gets quite irate). This is a world of suffering. Except it doesn’t have to be. I learned early on that it wasn’t the faithful who discovered the vaccine for polio, or put men on the Moon. Every great achievement in history was made by someone who put aside the silly fairy tales of our ancestors and took a good long look around and said, “yeah, I think I an make this a better world.” And then worked their ass off to do just that. No clouds parted and handed them the instructions. No leprechauns appeared with the cure for the Plague and they didn’t hunt down Unicorns. They just read and studied and experiemented, got depressed, inspired and persevered for no other reason than they wanted to acomplish something.

When I was thirteen, my parents made me attend confirmation class. it was the one and only time my parents enforced any sort of religious education, and they did so more out of a desire to keep the aunts and uncles from talking about what a godless sort we were, than out of any real desire for me to have religion in my life. So I got confirmed, all right. Reading the Bible in an organized fashion, confirmed just what a stupendously bloody foundation religion was based on. And I wanted nothing to do with it. I spent the rest of my teenage years studying other religions, out of a desire to be fair. I found eventually that they all follow the same basic template: do what the rich and powerful* say, or suffer the consequences.When I was thirteen, I decided that I’d rather suffer the consequences, because it means I can read books and admire art and think for my self. And I’ve never been happier.