What A Strange World (1 of i)

BartMakeABetterWorldTo say that 2020 has been a strange year so far would be seen by most as the understatement of the year, and yet everything that has happened has been somewhat predictable. In fact, articles written in the 1990s coming forward predicted much of it, from the pandemics to the civil unrest world wide.

I could hunt for the articles online, but it’s too much trouble for a simple blog post. And, of course, we are rife with content created on predicting the future – most myopically of the near future because people want to feel comfortable about tomorrow when they are uncertain of today.

There were times I wanted to write things here about the present day, but there are more than sufficient monkeys with typewriters covering the spectrum of fear to fact. Instead, I began focusing on the background of a universe behind some of my writing that I hope to publish someday. As someone trying to do this, I will say it’s difficult to do better than what is actually happening, but at the core it’s pretty interesting so I’ll write a bit about that. After all, I haven’t published anything here for a while.

Imagining A World

mirror_universeThis is difficult for me, particularly since I measure what I’m trying to do by writing giants who have developed worlds that have become so long established that they are accepted as a backdrop to anything.

The modern elves and orcs owe much to the backdrop of J.R.R. Tolkien, as an example, and the amount of background he did was staggering. Granted, it might take him 3 pages to describe a wall, which made movies more palatable to people who can’t read anything longer than a tweet, but that level of details shows not just through his popular published works but into his less popular works – for example, the Silmarillion (Bonus: Silmarillion is free for the Kindle on Amazon at the time of this writing).

The trouble I have had with imagining this ‘new world’ has been hard for me because I’m inundated by information everyday, from the meaningless and trivial to global events no longer written as much by true journalists (just the facts) but by unrepentant opinionated writers or performers. We can argue that everything is biased, which is generally used as a binary argument (either/or), when in fact it points out that there is an issue of degree.

The trouble with the degree having increased is that the world becomes more and more narrow based on the narratives imposed across the global population – which sounds nefarious, but by itself isn’t since it is the way it has always been. Again, it’s a matter of increased degree.

And therefore, there is less space within which to imagine. So the answer is to stop watching what people choose to show us of the world and instead to seek out what we wish to see of the world. It sounds simple enough but when all the information you see is based on what is available where you are, what algorithms control it, and whether someone doesn’t want you to see it, things can get messy.

Factor in personal age, where you’re used to seeing the world in certain ways… it gets tough.

Having to throw all these things out is difficult, to say the least. To imagine a world is to re-imagine your world, and to re-imagine your world means throwing out everything so that you have the clear space for something.

And having thought through all of that, having written it, I cannot help but wonder if this should also be true of the world we know.

Fractured Systems

Berlin WallWith the pandemic of Covid-19 weaving it’s strains around the world, I had gotten to a level of introversion that I found deeply satisfying. I wrote a lot, published little, and enjoyed the government endorsed need to be by myself.

Then, in Minnesota, something happened. A man who was already restrained died under the weight of police officers, a spark among the fumes of gasoline that has soaked the United States for some time. Every day since then has been rife with disturbing news from my country of birth, the country I served, the country that I swore an Oath of Enlistment to.

And for me, it’s all very complicated because I have spent as much time in the United States as out. In some ways I envy those who have a relatively smaller view of the world deposited through flat screens within the United States, in some ways I am frustrated by them, but I always felt a certain kinship with all but the most ignorant who, sadly, I found I was meeting with increasing frequency. It’s possible it was the same frequency and that my tolerance was decreasing, I cannot know for sure. I never thought to keep statistics.

There’s a side of me that relishes the law and order of the United States, but then, I’ve found too that the law and order seems to run in the face of ethics. The banks that bet on bad mortgages, as an example, were never punished and that is something that I never could comprehend. To me, that seemed unAmerican, but then, it too seemed too American. With well spoken and written friends on either side of the political fences, I found myself negotiating away pieces of myself. I found myself at odds with a professor of African studies in Canada, a long time relationship, because his views left no room for oxygen in the room for me, and I found myself at odds with others in similar fashion.

At heart, I’m what Heinlein coined ‘a rational anarchist’ as Professor de La Paz in, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”:

“A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world . . . aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.”

I know that truth is not only relative, it has an expiration date – what is true today is not always true tomorrow from the same vantage and can only remain true tomorrow, forever, if that vantage orbits that truth… and if there were only one truth, that would be enough, but there are uncountable amounts of truths running into each other with the manic dismay of Brownian motion.

So I look at the United States now – there is no excuse for most of what everyone is angry about, but there is explanation here and there. The peaceful protests are for the best, the violent protest a political football that various teams spike as their own or strategically as their opposition.

The looting, I think, is a simple matter of self interest trumping the rules of society. A hungry man will earn bread where he can, beg for it if he must, and steal it if the other two do not suit him.

The means to earn in society, not just the United States, seems to have faltered, the begging comes at a cost, and so society already in disarray has members that go out and take regardless of society’s rules, opportunists operating outside the rules of society only because they cannot afford to change the rules of society to suit them as…for example… banks do.

Yet the underlying issues remain. It has echoed around the world with protests about it, and yet, there is more. There is more because this is a reaction to one part of a failed group of systems, there are others, and I wonder when the others will get similar reactions.

The Hedgehog’s Hot Summer.

hedge-hog-fight-768Many of we humans that litter the planet aren’t used to this concept of ‘social distancing’. It will be tough for many; for people like me it is amazingly easy as we have been doing it for some time, for varying individual reasons.

You know us. Barely.

At best, you know us as well as we want you to know us, at worst, you don’t know us well enough to allow us to associate with you. And now, here you are, at home, working from home… if you have others at home, the rest of this may not benefit you. Or maybe it will. I don’t know.

There’s this guy – Arthur Schopenhauer – he died in 1860, long before I could meet him. He wrote about the Hedgehog Dilemma:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another…

…By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

What has happened around the world is, because of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the quills have become longer. They have become longer much more quickly. People are scared, and when people are scared in a time when pitchforks and torches aren’t easily accessible, they apparently buy toilet paper and produce and share memes, and it’s hard to argue which of the two is more pragmatic. It’s always handy to have toilet paper, and it’s always good to laugh a bit when things aren’t as nice as we would like.

I could write something about mediation here, but this sentence should suffice for people who understand what mediation means.

That being said, as people adjust to the new normal, those who live by themselves will find themselves alone. For some, this is disconcerting.algorithmsfear

Being faced with the prospect of not having the usual suspects as distractions, new distractions will arrive. Algorithms tell social media that people want to read more and more about Covid-19, and the reality is that we do largely know what we need to know already and the constant barrage of updates will become tiresome – but the algorithms have to be taught that.

Algorithms cannot replace fear, but they most certainly enable it.

Step 1 to your new solitude is to understand that, and limit exposing yourself and the others connected to you to a bunch of stuff that will simply burn everyone out. Less social media.

But what will you do? Ahh, it is a scary world, solitude, but it is ripe for use with books, with in home projects you never quite seem to get around to – and with sleep, with music, with movies… and yourself, perhaps the scariest thing in the world for most people. No matter where you go, though, there you are, and you can do things like reflect. Exercise. Think. Perhaps write, perhaps whatever, but the void you might feel can be bearable.

We know. We not only survive, we thrive this way – but it’s alien and scary for others. Yet, over the course of the coming year, at least for some months, it will be the new norm. And it can be ok if you let it.

Mr. Bojangles

A Brazilian friend of mine told me that there is a saying there: “As long as there are people clapping the madman will dance”.

As simple as that is, it merits considering that even as we clap, we dance, and as we dance, we clap, as do the people around us, as do the people we agree with, as do the people we disagree with.

Mr. Bojangles suddenly gained new meaning to me.

Generations

For no good reason, I’ve been thinking about generations.

People have a tendency to communicate about generations a lot, which includes a lot of generalizations that rarely fit individuals I know. In the broad strokes, there is commonality among the ‘nurture’ aspect of generations, yet that commonality isn’t consistent at the individual level.

In essence, it’s a great way to express things that one doesn’t actually know too much about – something Millenials have been learning the hard way some time, something Generation X (my generation) learned long ago, and something that Generation Z will find out in time.

My generation was largely a disappointment to the previous generation – the Baby Boomers. And conversely, we found the Baby Boomers a bit disappointing ourselves because their judgements came from the world that they grew up in as opposed to the one that they created.

Like all generations, my generation wanted to change the world for what we thought was better – and we did some pretty amazing things given the tools we had pre-Internet.

The very idea that large numbers of people could coordinate around the world to bring their discontent with South African apartheid probably boggles the mind of post-Internet generations – but we didn’t do that alone by any stretch, despite what we may think. The truths related to this involved traditional big media, which was run by Baby Boomers. Was it giving the market what it wanted? Yes. Was it right? Yes. Was it something a few generations agreed on? Yes. Did Generation X take the credit for it? You bet we did, but we didn’t deserve as much as we thought.

Just as previous generations won’t deserve as much credit as they will think. It’s the way of it.

In this way, human society is a lot like rows of shark’s teeth: As they get worn out, broken, or lost, new teeth that have been waiting come to the front. We do not fear the teeth in the mouth of a shark, really – we fear the reputation of those that went before.

This all seems pretty important to think about and isn’t discussed much when we start talking about Millenials and Generation Z, and whatever comes next. We tend to write and speak of these generations as if they are isolated and lack the context of previous generations.

For better and worse, generations have the context of previous generations – and that needs to be mentioned just a little bit more.

Our Modern Intimacy

Modern intimacy. #tech #people #intimacyI’m guilty of going somewhere and interrogating my phone – who isn’t in this day and age? – yet it seems you see people going out together only to stop and get coffee somewhere so that they can sit closely, a faux intimacy, checking up on things and not interacting at all.

Worse, they may be using the infrastructure to share information with each other – bouncing off of servers, perhaps even internationally, so that they can share information.

Have we forgotten how to make eye contact, to talk?

And these are typically the same people who do not respond to messages in a timely manner. It makes one think they are studying articles on how not to communicate.

Yet I myself am guilty at times, when things have run their course and the person with me no longer holds interest for me. This is why I’m usually alone – people generally bore me quickly – but when I’m present, I am completely present.

Toilet Seat Exchanges?

Well, I feel better...Pictures hint at stories sometimes – such as this one.

Who on Earth would think that they could somehow return a toilet seat, or underwear, or other things that would share space with the waste areas of the human body?

And consider – it happens enough where people actually put signs up related to it.

Clearly, as much as we have dealt with literacy, we as a society are failing somehow.

Society Systems

Don't Panic.

This is about technology and society – which is really about society these days. Bear with me.

The universe we know is full of systems, we as a society increasingly understand them. There are rules to them – real rules – that we’ve begun exploring through science. That’s all very exciting, but society isn’t good at listening to scientists. What we are good at is making our own systems, and we expect them to be followed as if there is some natural order to things.

man wondering if he could pee between the pillars

Born here?
That’s how we define you.

Look a certain way? That’s how we define you.

Believe in some form of deity, or not?
That’s how we define you.

And so on, and so on.

We end up shadowy figures of the biases of others. In an increasingly digital world, where our data is analyzed, our shadows become more blurry yet that blur also defines us as it fits certain fuzzy categories we don’t know about.

This all worked out really well when everyone was born in the same place, looked a certain way and believed in some form of deity, among many other things. Anyone not like was from somewhere else, and was not to be trusted. The concept of immigration was a matter seen as invasion, more or less. Some people still think this way. That’s not the topic at hand. And no, it’s not about branding the systems as bad, either.

They are what they are.
The question is whether they should be what they are now.
That’s what people are largely upset about right now.
It’s largely what they will be upset about in the future.

second babel tower

These systems were seen as necessary at the time. I wasn’t there at the time, and it’s highly unlikely you were there at the time.

We learn about what was wrong with the systems and we have opinions, largely because how we view the world changes.

We disagree with many of the systems now – some more than others. Largely, though, we are victims of what our forebears thought was possible.

Change comes from tossing at least a part of this framework of possibility aside in a haphazard sort of way, plodding toward what we believe is progress – what we hope is progress – but we don’t really know. We like to think we know because it makes us feel grounded, like we somehow matter. Maybe we do. Is it so horrible if we didn’t? Human nature says, “Yes”.

The world is accelerating now in profound ways. Networks pump information, if we drill down into them we find the rhythms to be of a very human nature. When people wake up. When people get off work. It’s all a framework of our own creation.

It’s a framework built so that we can break out of the old frameworks – not purposefully, but it ended up that way. The truth is that no one really had an idea. There were some hopes.

There were also a few who thought it all a novelty. There still are.

Subtly, across generations, we have come a long way – and technology is now driving us to go further. At a societal level, people aspire to be driven by technology.

Who drives the technology?

The people who make the frameworks that people use.

What drives them? Are they trying to make the world a better place?
Who are they trying to make the world a better place for?

Who stymies the technology? The people who make the frameworks that people have used and have begun to feel trapped by.

And all the while, everyone is coloring in lines that someone else drew because society doesn’t like change to happen too fast.

And so, slowly, we build new systems in this evolving mechanism we call society.

We are society.

Recoloring Society

Snowy Mountains
‘Snowy Mountain’, by Wasfi Ekab, 1992.

People do amazing things with simple items. Take crayons, for example.

The image at top was done with what we consider children’s tools. We send them off to color between the lines in the hope that they’ll be quiet. Maybe hoping that their hand-eye coordination improves as they grow older so that they can stay within the lines – and society likes things that stay in lines. That follows something someone else drew. Whose vision is limited to what is possible within those lines.

Crayon ProgressionIt keeps things safe. Predictable. Unambiguous.

Yet we celebrate those who can do things without lines that we can identify with – we like art we can identify with. With lines. With a framework. A framework we can identify.

Stray too far, and it makes people uncomfortable. Few people like uncomfortable.

People want order. Nice lines of what can be expected.

Everything in it’s place.

Everything explained, even if by a theory incomplete.

The trouble is that we just get the same things when we do the same things. There might be some variance, but it’s the accepted range of things.

Shots from Hottie's Coffee ShopThe only real moves forward humans have made have been when people color outside the lines.

When the crayons are outside of the box, the framework.

When they’re disorganized.

Mixed up.

When the canvas is clear of lines we thought we needed.

A mess of crayons and a blank page is how we let children play.

When did we lose that?

Or do we still have it?

Beyond The Puddle

PuddleWe humans collectively have a worldview of that of the sentient puddle that Douglas Adams describes. It’s a powerful metaphor for so many things.

There’s some discussion here and there as to whether we’re still in the Holocene epoch – a time where everything is supposed to be in the right balance to sustain the world we know.

There are some that suggest we’re no longer in the Holocene epoch, and that we’re in the Anthropocene epoch, a period where we humans have affected the world on many levels.

This is all about ‘climate change’. The main argument about climate change seems to revolve around whether we humans have been naughty or not during our stay on the planet.

The planet we call Earth is fine, barring a supernova of our sun or something we can’t predict. The Earth doesn’t really care too much whether we’re here or not. It’s happily spinning around the Sun, which in turn spins around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn doesn’t seem to orbit anything we have found… yet.

That’s the point, really. We’re pretty good at knowing what we do know, but as a society we’re awful at knowing what we don’t know. We’re so bad at this that we have specialized groups of people that try to figure out what questions to ask so that we can know more. We call them scientists, and we trot them out when their opinions and our opinions agree.

We accept Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on faith now, largely, but when it fell out of his head it was questioned. Of course, it didn’t affect the planet as much as the things surrounding the present discussions. To do that would require people to learn a new name.

Dr Clair Cameron Patterson
A rendition of Dr. Clair Cameron Patterson from the television series Cosmos. Originally aired on April 20th, 2014

Dr. Clair Cameron Patterson. This geochemist did something that most people don’t even think about. We used to have leaded gas, done to keep internal combustion engines from ‘knocking’.

Dr. Patterson started by trying to determine the age of the Earth, and being a scientist he noted enough discrepancies in his data that he began a campaign to remove lead from gasoline in 1965. In 1986, lead was no longer available in gasoline – and it took over 20 years from the beginning of his campaign to accomplish that. As a result, the lead in the blood of the average American is said to have dropped 80% by the 1990s.

In other words, by measuring one thing he found other things – he found the questions to ask and answer that ultimately affected the entire world and how livable it is.

That’s really the core of the climate change ‘debate’. About how livable the Earth is. And since the Holocene, our metaphorical puddle, is at least being discussed as ‘over’, we don’t need to think so much about the intentionality of things. We don’t need to debate how fast we can positively impact the environment. That’s too long and detailed for most people, and the choices for people are between convenience or not instead of whether we’re assuring that generations to come will have a livable planet.

We all know that the climate is changing simply by going outside. We can’t comprehend ‘global warming’ when our personal experience is that it’s colder outside, or ‘global cooling’ when it’s warming outside.

We can comprehend that our environment is becoming less livable.

Like it or not, the planet we call home is changing – maybe some of it is natural, maybe not, but that’s immaterial. If we want our species – we are a single species – to have a future on this planet, we need to accept that how we have existed during the Holocene Epoch prior to us finding questions and answering them… we need to accept that how we have lived is not the way we should live, and that we need to pay more attention.

All the rest is politics, and by definition, there is no agreement in politics. Self-interest for ourselves lasts only as long as we do, perhaps further in some cases.

Being interested in our species, on the other hand, is where we should start.