Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No X, Y, Z

I'm so sorry, folks, but I'm going to have to cancel the last 3 posts of my (already stretched out) A-to-Z challenge.  I'll give you brief summaries of the ideas I had for X, Y, and Z, but I've just been too busy to devote the time needed to flesh them out into posts that I'd consider worthy to include with the rest.  We moved into a new house over the last few weeks, and I'm still looking forward to the day when I won't be seeing boxes & bins everywhere I look.  :-)

- - -

X is for eXtropy:  As some of you know, I've got a soft spot for the ultra-optimistic claims of the transhumanists.  I was planning on reading up on Max More's idea of Extropianism and letting you all know about the bits that I found most interesting.

- - -

Y is for Your Weird: I actually wrote a little bit on this one, so I'll let me-from-March explain more:

In March 1991, sci-fi author Bruce Sterling gave a speech at the Computer Game Developers' Conference in San Jose, California.  He titled it "The Wonderful Power of Storytelling" (full transcript here), but it's since come to be known as the "Follow Your Weird" speech.  Back in 2011, I blogged about some of the juicier quotes, but I thought I'd recall it here, since it's quite clearly a call to arms... a yelling, screaming screed of hope... a manifesto, for short.  :-)

Among many other things, Sterling tried to wean the video game programmers of the day away from trying to ape the tropes of story and narrative in their new medium.  If it's good enough, those things emerge naturally without the need for heavy-handedness.  His experience at being a genre writer is valuable...
We're not into science fiction because it's good literature, we're into it because it's weird.  Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen.  Forget trying to pass for normal.  Follow your geekdom.  Embrace your nerditude.  In the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years, "woo the muse of the odd."  A good science fiction story is not a "good story" with a polite whiff of rocket fuel in it.  A good science fiction story is something that knows it is science fiction and plunges through that and comes roaring out of the other side.  Computer entertainment should not be more like movies, it shouldn't be more like books, it should be more like computer entertainment, SO MUCH MORE LIKE COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT THAT IT RIPS THROUGH THE LIMITS AND IS SIMPLY IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE!
I planned on digging for more gems, but you know the story.

- - -

Z isn't quite for Zoas:  There was a bit of a bait-and-switch, here.  The title refers to William Blake's concept of Four Zoas, or four fundamental archangel-like principles in the universe.  Carl Jung may have gotten his love of alchemical quaternities from this unfinished poetical work...

However, the actual "manifesto" here was going to be Blake's earlier work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  I've always loved its irreverence, energy, and long lists of pithy proverbs.

This one, I might come back to later.  In the mean time, I've got to do some re-evaluation of where I'd like this blog to go, topic-wise.  I'm still very much interested in the two main gaming related foundation stones that the blog was built on (RPGs and GBGs), but I think it might be time to broaden the field of view a bit more.  Let's see what's out there.

Friday, May 22, 2015

W is for the Wilburys

Well, it's all right, riding around in the breeze.
Well, it's all right, if you live the life you please.
Well, it's all right, doing the best you can.
Well, it's all right, as long as you lend a hand.

Is 1989's End of the Line a manifesto?  Glob if I know... but I do think it fits in with my theme.  It seems to encapsulate the hard-won wisdom from the lives of Bob, Jeff, Tom, George, and Roy, which is nothing to sneeze at...

You can sit around and wait for the phone to ring
(At the end of the line)
Waiting for someone to tell you everything
(At the end of the line)
Sit around and wonder what tomorrow will bring
(At the end of the line)
Maybe a diamond ring.

To quote a recent D&D blog post from Joe Bloch, "There's no DIY unless YDI."

But I really love how maturity and moderation seep through this song.  Yes, you've got to go out and do all the things.  But there are no guarantees that the results will be what you hoped they'd be.

Well, it's all right, even if they say you're wrong.
Well, it's all right, sometimes you gotta be strong.
Well, it's all right, as long as you got somewhere to lay. (*)
Well, it's all right, every day is Judgement Day.  (**)

Hmm, I still don't quite hear those exact lines.  (*) has always sounded to me like "...someone to lay with," and (**) really has got to be "...every day is just one day."  But the sentiments are pretty similar, no matter which lyrics website you believe.  :-)

Well, it's all right, even when push comes to shove.
Well, it's all right, if you got someone to love.

I won't quote the whole song.  Their mini-homage to Purple Haze was fun.  But I do have a special love for the above couplet because it was one of the last things Roy sang,

Well, it's all right, even if you're old and gray.
Well, it's all right, you still got something to say.

And that one because it was George,

Well, it's all right, remember to live and let live.
Well, it's all right, the best you can do is forgive.

And that one because I'm still so far from achieving it.

I had a big ending planned for this post, in which I'd compare the "life is a journey" metaphor in this song with some other ones that use the same idea.  But, eh, maybe another time... or in the comments.  (What are some of your favorite songs about the journey of life?)  For now, I'm going to go riding around in the breeze for a bit.
Well, it's all right, even if the sun don't shine.
Well, it's all right, we're going to the end of the line.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

V is for Vision(ary)

This post was originally going to be about William Butler Yeats' strange philosophical stream of consciousness book called A Vision.  However, the more I dug into it, the more I got disillusioned with its rambling and random nature.  Almost an incomprehensible fever dream, in some places.  I still hope to revisit it and understand it better, someday, but it's no fiery manifesto.

So, good luck for me that, right around the end of March, I discovered a completely different kind of Vision.  Nobel-prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek was recently asked to give a talk on his predictions for physics 100 years in the future.  He wrote up a more formal version of that talk and posted it online last month.

I'm no particle physicist, so I didn't really appreciate the most esoteric parts about quantum gauge theory.  I did like that he quotes Heraclitus and Parmenides to contrast the "God's-eye" view of the universe with our own "ant's-eye" view, but I don't think I grokked the physics implications.  However, once he's done giving his opinions of supersymmetry and string theory, the essay gets weirder and better.

Wilczek notes that much of our progress in science has been leading to greater and greater abstraction.  Forces are better understood as aspects of energy conservation.  "Energies" may, in turn, be best understood as symmetries of pure information.  Wilczek has written before about how "its" (physical things) may come ultimately from abstract "bits," but here he notes an interesting irony.  In biology, the trend has been to reduce more and more abstract concepts (like the mind) to an interplay of matter.  However...
"...if physics evolves to describe matter in terms of information, as we discussed earlier, a circle of ideas will have closed.  Mind will have become more matter-like, and matter will have become more mind-like."
He's not done with the physics-biology connection.  Wilczek also predicts that technology will continue to learn lessons from the systems that evolution has honed over millions of years.  Thus, a prediction that our computers will become more brain-like, and our machines will become more body-like.

Again, he brings it full circle.  He predicts the flow will go in the other direction, too -- i.e., that we'll continue to enhance our biology (especially our crude sense of color vision) by using technology.  Two of his briefest predictions are the ones that I'm most fascinated by:
  • We will vastly expand the human sensorium, opening the doors of perception.
  • Artists and scientists will work together, to create new works of extraordinary beauty.
This technological expansion might also help us explore space without actually making the trip in person:
"As people acquire routine access to extremely capable distant sensors and actuators, their sense of identity will expand beyond the limits of their physical bodies.  An immersive experience of "being there" will not necessarily involve being there, physically.  This will be an important element of the expansion of human culture beyond Earth, since human bodies are very poorly suited to extraterrestrial environments.  One can imagine an expanding web of intelligence more easily than an expanding web of settlement, and I expect it will happen much sooner."
Lastly, Wilczek claims that with these expanded senses and powers, we will evolve to greater levels of humility.  Knowing more means having greater perspective about what we still don't understand.  We can only hope.  :-)

Monday, May 18, 2015

U is for Unitarian Universalism

The phrase "five smooth stones" comes from the Biblical account of David and Goliath.  Those rocks were all the puny shepherd had at hand when faced with a seemingly unbeatable foe.  However, I first heard this phrase in a pamphlet I picked up somewhere in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Titled "The Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism," it's a collection of excerpts from James Luther Adams' book On Being Human Religiously.

Adams was one of the chief American theologians of the modern Unitarian Universalist movement.  I don't know much about where the UU's fit into the larger tapestry of religion and/or New Age spirituality, but I've always kind of liked them.

Adams' Five Smooth Stones encapsulate a mini-manifesto of his conception of UU belief and practice.  Unfortunately, Adams never boiled them down into a short list like many of the others that I've highlighted so far.  Each "stone" in Adams' book was a full essay. Even that little pamphlet that I picked up 20 years ago contains 13 or 14 pages of dense, unillustrated text. :-)  If you search, you'll find some pithy encapsulations, but none that are authoritative.  Here's my own attempt to boil them down to a blog post.....

1. Revelation is continuous.  The Divine speaks to us in our time, just as in all previous times.  Because revelation is still not complete, "nothing is exempt from criticism."

2. Freedom of association.  This applies not only to person-to-person relationships (no coercion or slavery), but also to the relationship between pulpit and pew.  The whole reward & punishment scheme that some religions invoke is off the table.  Love, especially, can only be good and true when it's given freely.  It's all about trust.

3. A just & loving community.  All this talk about love and freedom is worthless without application to the real world.  It's difficult, though, since building a fair, equitable community sometimes means balancing freedom against responsibility.  Adams waxes very Biblical when talking about this; balancing the Old Testament prophets against Jesus' humble mustard seed.

4. Do good to be good.  In some theologies, virtue is elevated to being an abstract, absolute entity.  Not for Adams.  Goodness only exists when it's exercised and put into practice.  There's that real world again.  Do you really believe what you say you believe?  Put your money where your mouth is, mister.

5. Ultimate Optimism.  The universe may not provide everything we want or need, but it provides enough for us to do good, meaningful work in life.  The worst roadblocks are internal, and we can overcome them.  At least we have hope.

Friday, May 15, 2015

T is for Taliesin

I'm not talking about the 6th century poet and singer (and likely model for the D&D class of "bard").  I'm thinking more about the fact that the famous 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright was so charmed by fanciful stories of this early creative genius that he named several of his studios and schools after "Taliesin."

Wright himself was also quite the creative genius.  I don't know too much about his life, but I know he put a huge emphasis on cultivating harmony between humans and their environment.  He also thought a lot about educating the next generation of architects and designers.  He wrote quite a few bombastic tracts -- both for the public and for his students -- but the most pithy and manifesto-like seems to be a list of 10 fundamental principles for exceeding in his craft.  There is some variation in lists to be found online, but the following is taken directly from his 1932 autobiography, page 464...


I.  An honest ego in a healthy body -- good correlation
II.  Love of truth and nature
III.  Sincerity and courage
IV.  Ability for action
V.  The esthetic sense
VI.  Apppreciation of work as idea and idea as work
VII.  Fertility of imagination
VIII.  Capacity for faith and rebellion
IX.  Disregard for commonplace (inorganic) elegance
X.  Instinctive cooperation

It's pretty advanced... many of these terms have specialized meanings in architecture, and it probably takes decades to really internalize and understand them.  Over and over he emphasizes "organic" design.  In another teaching document for Taliesin fellows, An Extension of the Work in Architecture at Taliesin to Include Apprentices in Residence, he explains this organic impulse in more detail...
"Constant working contacts with the nature of structure and materials, the ground, and of nature-growth itself are the only reliable texts to be used in this connection. Only as these are the actual forms of daily experience directly related to daily life and work are they the texts we must now use to begin again at the beginning."
...but I must admit to not quite digesting this, either.

Wright was probably the model for Ayn Rand's über-architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, but Wright famously distanced himself from the connection, saying "I deny the paternity and refuse to marry the mother."  :-)

I'll just leave you with a sketch of my favorite Wright design, the Ralph Jester House (also called the Arthur and Bruce Brook Pfeiffer House), which sadly was never built...

Head for the roundhouse, Nellie, they can't corner us there!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

S is for the Surrealist Manifesto

Hey, finally, something with "Manifesto" in its actual name!  You thought I forgot about those, didn't you?  :-)

The first Surrealist Manifesto was written in 1924 by André Breton, whom I profiled first and foremost in my 2013 April A-Z posts.  I've got a soft spot for Breton's romanticism and crazy creativity, even if he sometimes took it to extremes that I'd shun.

His 1924 manifesto begins with some thoughts about how life, for most adults, tends to make one kind of dazed and anesthetized.  Only children and the insane seem to be able to see through the thick fog.  Art should be an escape from the fog, but in Breton's time there was an ascendancy of ultra-realistic novels that plod on and on with piddly details...
And the descriptions! There is nothing to which their vacuity can be compared; they are nothing but so many superimposed images taken from some stock catalogue, which the author utilizes more and more whenever he chooses; he seizes the opportunity to slip me his postcards, he tries to make me agree with him about the clichés.
He takes a swipe at Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as an egregious example.  (I admit, I could never get through it.)

But then he goes into psychology and Freud... concentrating on the idea that DREAMS can sometimes tell us truer truths than the boring stock catalogue of normal waking consciousness.  That's what art can be like, he ponders.
We really live by our fantasies when we give free reign to them.
Then he's got to define his terms.  This search for a new reality above (sur-) the workaday world now has a name:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. [...] Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.
The remainder of the manifesto gets crazier and crazier... I won't quote more of it here, since you should go and experience it for yourself.  Suffice to say it gives you the tools you need to never be bored around boring people, to catch the eye of desired members of the opposite sex, and to properly usher in death when it's time.

What I do want to do is to list some of my own favorite surrealist tools, many of which have a heritage that goes back to Breton and his merry cohorts:

1.  Hypnagogic States:  When you're just at the threshold of falling asleep, do you sometimes hear voices?  If you catch it at just the right state (which, for me, is very rare, but I've experienced it) the voices can be crystal clear and just as audible as if someone was in the room.  The words are usually random and dreamlike, but sometimes insightful as hell.  I've used them in poetry.  I once heard a phrase that reminded me of a famous tomb inscription in Westminster Abbey, but with a more familiar subject: "O Rare Breton!"

2.  Semi-Automatic Writing:  This phrase without the "semi" has many possible definitions.  I'm thinking of the thing where you just sit down with a blank pad of paper and a pen, and set a stopwatch for 5 or 10 minutes.  Then just start writing out your stream of consciousness.  Write down absolutely everything that comes to mind, with no editing or censoring.  Go as fast as you can, and don't stop until the time is up.  Afterwards, you'll either want to burn the paper, or treasure it away for the rest of your life.

3.  Tzarization:  This is often called the Dada technique, pioneered by Tristan Tzara.  I'll let him define it:

"The poem will be like you."  Aren't they all?

4.  Juxtapomo:  The surrealists liked to make startling compositions that mashed up things that usually didn't belong together -- but still had enough in common to make you think -- like, say, a fish and an umbrella.  But is that really all that different from Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game, which I've blathered on about on this blog to no end?  :-)

Monday, May 11, 2015

R is for Russell

(This post was originally titled "L is for Liberal Decalogue," but Luke bumped it.)

The topic of today's post has been called a micro-manifesto of sorts.  In philosopher Bertrand Russell's autobiography, he tucked in his own version of the 10 commandments... not so much a replacement for the Mosaic law, but a "liberal" supplement for the modern scientific age.  It was originally printed in the New York Times in 1951.

Epistemological Mack Daddy

I put "liberal" in scare quotes above because it's meaning has drifted quite a bit over the decades.  I just checked the holy OED, and the meaning of the word that I think Russell had in mind was "favorable to, or respectful of, individual rights and freedoms."

As a college kid in the 1980s, I had a copy of these 10 commandments taped up on my desk in the dorm (next to these lyrics).  Just reading them again brings me back to those heady days, when I was just starting to think about a career in science.  Here they are:

- - - - - - -

The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

- - - - - - -

Again, there's that tension between rival themes.  So much of the above is about doing your own thing, no matter what the authorities will tell you to do.  But there are hints about a need for some moderation.  He warns us not to be over-confident or arrogant enough to impose our way on others, even if we are in the right.  Just a pinch of be nice to one another, in other words.  :-)

A few other thoughts:
  • From the appearance of the word "husband" in #4, it's interesting that he may have been writing this for a female audience.
  • Many online commentaries on #5 make it clear that he's talking about authority as something distinct from expertise.  The latter is what scientists (ought to) convey to the public, not the former.
  • #10 seems a bit out of left field to me.  I wonder if this envy is something that Russell struggled with himself.
  • I don't think I'll ever fulfill #1.  There are some things that I know.