Swimming in Ambiguity

without a trace
“For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril;–nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown.”
 ― Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852)

Generally, it seems that people don’t handle ambiguity well – a call, maybe, to the tunnel vision that we unconsciously cling to like straw.

The ambiguity of our reality is perilous. We build ships of ways to live – philosophies, religions, bureaucracies, traditions – to ride upon the ambiguity of our world. It leaks through, and society has those at the pumps to try to keep it on the outside of the ship. Sometimes they’re lawyers, sometimes they’re educators, sometimes they’re even politicians – holding onto a way of life, trying to keep everything together even when the shoals drive toward us with a strong wind behind.

We like our society. Some of us like it more, some of us like it less, the degree is unimportant: We all resist understanding the ambiguity below the hull of the ships we sail in. We wish to understand the hull, the structures that we can understand, the things that we are used to. It is the fool who looks to dismantle the ship with no plan for that ambiguity.

Mutinies – revolutions of a minor sort – rarely take this into consideration. A revolution with no plan of the aftermath isn’t as much a revolution as a harsh criticism with no constructive plan for progress.

Then there are the people who unwittingly fall into the ambiguity, somehow not meeting the requirements of being on board that ship. Maybe they were thrown off, discarded into the ambiguity. The souls of society we cannot understand – the criminals, the insane, the misfits, the artists…

And then there are the people who manage to swim in that ambiguity, boarding different ships – strangers aboard that somehow get past an intruder alert. They come aboard maybe to explore, maybe from a respite from the ambiguity of the world underneath the hulls of these ships. They see, they meet – maybe they meet their fate involuntarily going overboard, maybe they voluntarily take a swim, and maybe they even stay because of the comfort of the lack of ambiguity they find aboard.

This is really our last realm of exploration. How we deal with the ambiguities. As the world changes faster and faster, the ships falter, the storms push them too and fro, and so many are left to swim in ambiguity. Some drown.

Some don’t.

 

Simplification

Digital Abstract Oil PaintingIn the context of social networks, I have found myself feeling feeling it as repressive – thus I have left them behind other than for broadcasting, really, and even that is debatable.

I’ve always been a proponent of simply creating content and allowing people to find it; I’m not sure shouting in the bazaar is useful when you don’t actually own the bazaar. It certainly doesn’t add to the appeal of the bazaar unless you love being shouted at by random people.

The Internet is my bazaar, not their social network. Their social networks are algorithmically cathedrals disguised as bazaars.

So, to simplify that part of my life, I am withdrawing. Even email has a new layer of obfuscation to protect me from the constant drivel of marketers and their marketing, of conversations with those who don’t want to have conversations but to shout at you as if your ear is their bazaar.

There is a poetic symmetry in randomly popping up in someone else’s bazaar and whispering, “Hey. I wrote something new.”

I have retreated to the Internet, the bizarre bazaar, the foundation upon which cathedrals disguised as bazaars are built. 

Undistraction.

Blue Bottle ExperimentationIt’s been 24 hours since I walked away from Facebook – and there are a myriad of reasons for that, but the one I’ll write about now is distraction. With roughly 1,200 connections – ‘friends’, in what Facebook has branded such connections – it got to be too much.

One of the problems with social networking platforms is that, as a business model, they cater content and advertising based on what you have done or liked or interacted with. It’s in their financial interest, and their bedrock of advertising forms a fatal flaw in the experience that most users don’t know enough to understand, and probably don’t want to understand in an age where social connection is as diluted or strong as the algorithms behind it.

I’m a big fan of strong connections. Of thoughtful discourse. Of wide and broad knowledge shared by people with depth and breadth in a world that doesn’t reward broad experience and only specialization. When one reads things, for example, that Richard Feynman said or wrote, you encounter an original mind, specialized in Physics, who spent time thinking beyond his specialty and into the realms of how what he was specialized in affected other things – and vice versa. In essence, he was connected to the world and whether conscious or not, it was a choice. I just read that he spent the latter years in his life working with Hillis on some great stuff, too. Interesting man, Mr. Feynman.

In finding myself creating thoughtful comments on thoughtless posts and comments, trying to maintain a level of interaction, I found all too often that the lowest common denominator wasn’t static but dynamic – where someone who was thoughtful would be momentarily thoughtless without looking back. And then I wondered if I was as guilty. There’s a want to be right, of course – no one wants to be wrong. And yet, there are many right ways to look at the same thing and it’s the intersections of those ‘right way of looking at things that has a sweet spot. The sweet spots are not constant, they too move.

‘Right’ is built on a foundation of sand, and I found Facebook was a bunch of people trying to create sand castles on a foundation with sand while others, for no good reason, might come over and kick their castle. It’s like what happened when children stopped being raised by televisions and instead by networks that they could interact with – where they could easily hide what they shared with others from brick and mortar society.

How unappealing.

And yet blogs remain, where people can be thoughtful or thoughtless – but blogs err on the side of thoughtful, in my experience, when compared to social networks.

Now I’ll have more time to write. “Oh no!”, some social media ‘expert’ might say, “no one will see your content!”. Well, shucks, it’s not like people saw it when I posted it on Facebook anyway – and those who liked it did not see fit to share it, even when cracked across the skull with blunt words.

Facebook is pretty fucking useless to me. Why spend time on it?

The Lost B Sides Of Our Lives

VINYLVinyl. Some audiophiles still say that it’s the best way to listen to music as they don their rubber gloves, pull their records out of the cardboard holders (plastic removed to avoid warping of the vinyl), carefully placing the record on the turntable, adjusting the speed for a 45 (single) or a 78 (album) post WW II, and 33 RPM later on for albums.

Today, the MP3 reigns supreme – a compressed version of the music where the frequencies are kept only to that which the average human ear hears. Yet there was a time before this, a time before the 8-track tapes and later cassettes and the then ubiquitous Walkman cassette players, before compact discs (CDs) (Hat tip to Valdis Krebs on his correction through LinkedIn).

In the house I grew up in, a Sansui amplifier and tuner was the core of the sound system – 2 Technics turntables, a reel-to-reel system, and a dual Technics cassette deck with Dolby recording and playback ability. When alone, the wooden floors vibrated as only speakers made in the 1970s would make them. Every Friday, Patrick and I would look over the Billboard Top 100 to watch the trends, and I would go off and buy some 45s at the local record store.

I learned early on that what I liked wasn’t always popular. With music slower to come by than it is today, I’d end up flipping the record over to hear the other single that came with the record. A great example of this was the B side of ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears: The Big Chair. A mixing dream, really.

I’d end up exploring the work of artists other than what was popular. Sometimes it was crap, something that the recording company chose out of their discography that didn’t even make it onto an album, and sometimes not.

We don’t do that anymore. I’m not even sure that many people did it in the first place, daring to spend the time to see if they liked the song, but I do know that at least some hit songs came from B-sides. You can read about some here, and some others here where you can listen to themThink songs like, “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) and “Revolution” (The Beatles).

In an odd sort of way, we were allowed to explore the music of artists through their detritus on the B-sides of albums – the stuff that publishers ‘threw away’, not wanting to give a free hit single away with another. And yet, some of their greatest mistakes are treasures – some popular, some not, the listener deciding what was good or not simply by flipping a record over and checking.

Fast forward to today.

The Internet brought us the ability to get music like never before. I’d like to think most of us legally buy music, I’m certain at least some of us download without paying some service or publishing company. Artists in some cases have bypassed the middlemen in this, allowing us to purchase directly from them through websites. Some even make their music available for free here and there.

But the services, just like yesteryear, are about maximizing profit. There are no more B-sides; we are bombarded with things that are algorithmically decided for us as we stream music. Just as on social networks our digital shadow – what we do online – is used to decide what we see, so it is with our music. Alternative – how can something be alternative when it becomes mainstream? – is even decided for us. We are less consumers now, maybe, than we were before the Internet in that there is no conversation (hat tip to the Cluetrain Manifesto), decisions about what we get are decided not even by other human beings but by statistical and heuristic analysis of our data. We are, in the eyes of algorithms, what we were, and not what we can be – never-mind what we should be.

Generations have passed having never flipped over a vinyl record, having never read something not decided for them…. we are become the algorithms of our algorithms, the ‘tools of our tools’ as Thoreau might write today.

Unless we find the B-sides of our lives.

Snippets

Another time variation3The light flickers and shifts around me as I change again, as things around me change, and the world is re-evaluated. It is why I haven’t written in so long; I was not ready. And so, snippets.

Influenza

I lay in bed, shivering with fever, unable to sleep and unable to get up. My mother died recently of the flu, her body found only through her having left hot water running and leaking from her apartment – I imagine under the door into the hallway. Mortality. I think about that too much perhaps because I thought of it too little, but I do not obsess. It’s just a snippet, a landmark with new meaning.

Mr.

It’s hard to say when people stopped using my first name and started referring to me as ‘Mr.’. It bothered me. It stopped bothering me recently, I’ve fallen into an unfamiliar role as people pay me respect I am uncertain how I have earned from them in a world where the default setting has always seemed otherwise. What has changed?

I suppose I have decided, finally, that I am worthy of that respect. And that leads me to wonder why I didn’t think I was before, why it made me uncomfortable enough to crawl out of my own skin.

It doesn’t matter, but that it did does. It speaks of things I do not speak of, wounds never tended, fractures never set. They call the resulting sculpture, “Mr.”

Culture

A culture of one, a culture of many. I watch as people who identify with cultures war with each other by simply not communicating, shouting at each other. Once I would try to get them to understand each other. No longer; they are happy at war. Everyone who disagrees is a barbarian. As a person grounded in technology before and after the Internet, the thought that this was not the future we wanted to build sticks in my mind. We carefully moved Humpty Dumpty up one level of bricks every evolution of Moore’s Law, hoping he wouldn’t fall simply because he had not fallen yet.

The omelettes have begun.

Life washes over me differently now. Less of what used to matter seems to matter. I watch children fighting over their toys and no longer step in. They have to figure it out. If they don’t, it won’t matter. If they do, it will.

Life goes on.

Broken Contracts

Break FreeThere are contracts between people, and there are contracts between lawyers – the latter existing because contracts between people are fragile.

One of the reasons  I haven’t been writing was because I was negotiating a contract – a business deal. It started with a handshake, as so many business deals do. This was a contract between people, between men – me having something someone else wanted, he wanting something I have. The deal was for a certain amount, the deal to be completed by lawyers the next day.

The next day never arrived – instead, I got another representative of the company and family. And, right before Carnival here in Trinidad and Tobago, I was given a downpayment for a price for roughly 70% of the original handshake. I smiled and laughed, knowing I wouldn’t accept that offer, and returned their downpayment after Carnival. I simply showed that I understand the value they placed in shaking hands by returning the favor. I think they got the point.

Now I know how they do business and I can say that they don’t really respect contracts between people – I won’t name them, there’s really no need to. It’s no more than an attempt at a reverse bait and switch maneuver, as basic as that – and what I found was that once I got past that, they had nothing. So I raised my price, and they said they wouldn’t buy – and called me the next day, still trying to get me below the price of our original handshake.

“Do you think you can get that price from anyone in Trinidad and Tobago right now?”, I was asked churlishly. I responded in a firm tone, “Do you think I care?” 

And I laughed, putting it in the hands of someone the next day to deal with. I’ve seen too many contracts broken over the years – more than most, less than a few – to really care that much about a broken contract. I put it in the hands of someone else; I have no patience for people with money saying that the price is too high. Clearly, the value is not – pay the price or move on. 

It’s as if they do not matter to others, as if one’s word doesn’t matter, as if a promise is so easily broken. Trust is not something understood – Honor and Commitment are Gordian knots to be sliced.

And it’s not just business.

Social Contracts

 

There was a time when social contracts were more valued – we find pockets here and there among the rubble of civilization where they are still valued, where a promise or a handshake means something. When someone’s word meant something, when they were careful what they promised.

Now, we gamble on people’s greed in things more and more – not just financially but otherwise, be it emotional or otherwise.

And one thing I have learned over the years is that a world where one’s word is worth something is becoming smaller every year. Marriages, divorces, political promises, government reality, and so on. And because of that we do not trust.

And a civilization where we do not trust is not really a civilization.

A person’s word should mean something. Should. But now, unless you get a witness and everyone signs, it’s empty – expended air lost to the atmosphere, needless noise. And even with lawyers…

We are surrounded by broken contracts.

The Honesty Of Land

Yeah, I earned any calories I could possibly eat today.Working on the land daily, there’s a brutal honesty to it. It doesn’t lie; it doesn’t need to. It speaks openly of what it does, there is no subterfuge. In the tropics, the wet season is about to shift into dry – the last of the rains come with vigor and the grass grows where I had cut.

So I cut it again.

The small crops I had been able to sew at the beginning of wet season are cleared of bush, have been cleared of bush for some time – with the exception of the period where we got the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Brett, when it would have been irksome and perhaps even dangerous to work with a spinning blade between them, and when I tried to keep spraying chemicals to a minimum.

My crops thrive when a cousin’s are buried in bush; an Uncle who helped and advised him wanders by the day before Christmas and tells me their cassava is no good. He sounds surprised and frustrated when they let the bush master their land, overgrowing their cassava. In fact, the man who plowed the land for them still hadn’t been fully paid by them – the follies of their world made photosynthetic, just as the crops would have. I cannot speak to such things, I have my own things to worry about.

The land is honest and unforgiving. It has no give unless you work it so. It has no mercy, it has no guile. It compounds the forces of nature to be something greater than the sum of it’s parts.

I have sweat, blood and yes, tears, in the land. It inflicts cuts, bites, punctures and bruises to defend itself and, pushing through that, I have fleeting conquests doomed to failures without due care and attention. Piece by piece, it becomes more manageable – but manage it I must, or it will manage me. This is the honesty of the land, a stark contrast to humans and society where the social construct of promises were once made by those who worked with the unforgiving land, where it meant something, where now promises are something to be broken.

Then the human side – where people not getting paid to pick up rubbish cause people to dump rubbish on land they think isn’t managed – and so you manage that land, cleaning areas and keeping them clean. They no longer dump their rubbish there but somewhere else: People wring their hands in talking to me about it. I look at them now and say, “That is not my problem”, which is not true, but is a necessary answer for those who don’t maintain their lands – a truth that they need to wrestle with if they pay attention and act.

Opportunity: Missed by people because it comes disguised as hard work.

It’s like software engineering, except much more real.

The Human Contrast

The cousins who own nearby lands fumble through their own relationships with their siblings and try to cash in on the land; I make efforts to see some of them when they come to Trinidad to visit them – we grew up with each other – but they had no time for me, leaving me to sit alone outside. One even blocked me from going inside. I arched an eyebrow, having made the effort to go visit, and realizing that they did not want to see me. This was compounded by the one time during that period where I reached out, at a nearby restaurant with someone giving me advice on the land – out of all of them, one showed up, and he simply spoke with the one advising me.

Meanwhile, people come to me complaining of them, and I shrug. It is not for me to deal with, I am not one to do what they are doing and I am not one to do for them what they do not do for themselves.

Another is going abroad, asks me if I want anything – I did not ask – so I do mention a few things. He calls me from the airport to tell me where he’s going, where the gift he left for me is, and I ask him to let me know if he orders a particular item for me so I don’t try to source it locally. Meanwhile, the people who he promised to do something for see me on a daily basis and ask me for updates that I cannot give. I hear nothing from him other than part of a deluge of WhatsApp messages wishing me ‘Happy New Year’. He returns nearby, I still hear nothing from him. Well, ok then.

I am becoming more like the land every day, and since the land is alien to them, I grow alien to them.

One aunt spreads lies about everyone in the family, calling everyone greedy when she made sure her brother was isolated and left everything to her in the Will before he died. If you want to find the greed, find the one who has what they think everyone wants. She’ll choke on it eventually. I let her know that on my birthday after she asked to see me, after she spread lies about me, just as she asked me to help her manage her gains – ill-gotten in my opinion. A skeleton choking on a crust of bread.

Last year, another aunt went away and I checked in on her human project, an adolescent who came from a shattered home and less than pristine circumstance that she had taken in. He made promises, he broke promises, he is young – but he did not meet the social contracts that brought him there. In the end, he had to return to where he had come from but, for the duration and after I regularly checked in – not because it was important to me, but because it was important to her. She returns, it’s not spoken of. I make arrangements with her to visit her not once but twice; both times she goes out on recreational sojourns while her husband and I stare at each other. I had tried. Messages to her were rarely answered, if at all.

My time spent on all of this robs me of time to do what needs to be done. No more.

And I’m safe, because the odds of any of them reading this is pretty low.

Meanwhile, others see what I’m doing and help in their own ways – some plants here, some compost there, some business advice, planning advice and planting advice. I do the same. We build relationships like that of the land, not of society. A throwback, I think, to times when people worked the land.

The Human Contrast, Part II

I go to the towns now and then. I will sit and watch people drinking coffee and doing their best to impress each other at one local center, preening. I go get my haircut, I watch people in branded exercise outfits drive to the gym so they can be physically active – I’ve lost 3 inches off my waist in the last month alone (with more to go) over the last month. They pay to be members. What an odd way to live – and I used to live like that before I thought it through. A little before I ended up in the hospital. There’s a lesson there.

I watch the lowered cars pull in, screeching to a halt on the speed bumps or near potholes, impractical in a country that has a debilitating inability to build and maintain roads. Pickups with ‘4×4’ emblazoned on them sit on pretty wheels, nothing more than street cars that run on diesel. SUVs have been made too expensive for most by the government, and their last refuge are these pickups to give them a false sense of security when driving because they can look further ahead – but they can’t brake as well in a pickup. Taxis stop in the middle of the road to drop off their passengers rather than move to the side and allow traffic to pass.

On social media, I read someone’s whine about not being treated seriously in technology and it reminds me of how I had felt and what I had communicated over a decade ago – interesting since I’m not much older than the one complaining now. Without compunction, I wrote that we are not owed change, that whining doesn’t change anything, and that when he gets out of his selfish moat of self-pity he should get back to trying to change things – advice I had to give myself over a decade ago.

It’s a rat race, and the trouble with rat races is that they are full of rats.

I am becoming a misanthrope, some might think. Sometimes I think so. Yet when I reflect on it fully, I am simply becoming what I need to be in a world where people are busy trying to become what they are told they want to be.

And therein is the real contrast. Where someone’s word should be unbreakable, where relationships are valued and treated accordingly. I am becoming me, and this drives a wedge between myself and those who are busy trying to become what they are told they should want to be.

Be who you need to be. The trouble with the world is a lack of honesty to the self about the self which leaks into everything else.