Monday, July 28, 2014

Presence of Mind

James walked into the Owl Creek Bridge Research Center at the appointed time.  His stomach flip-flopped when the receptionist greeted him.  Must be nerves, he thought, smiling shyly.

She gave him his badge, and he walked back to prep, part of him lingering, wishing he had the presence of mind to say something to her.

Never mind, he told himself.

“It’s not too late, James,” the doc told him.  “You can back out up to the last moment, no obligations.”

“No, I’m ready,” said James.  He didn't understand the science behind what they were doing, but it sounded wonderful.  They would “trick” his mind into leaping into their matrix, and he would become the first immortal man.  Their immortal man, true, but he had always been meek enough to compromise.  It seemed worth the trade.

James lay back on the table.  Nothing would be done to his body.  A probe that wouldn't even penetrate his skin lowered into position next to his skull.

The smallest glint between the probe and James’s head…and he knew.

He saw everything.  It was beautiful; immense and small.  Everywhere at once and for all time, beginning leading from ending into beginning for eternity, and He was vast.  

It was not just size, infinitely large and infinitely small, but time!  And other planes and modes and scales, all infinite in their scope!

He cast out, and out… until he nearly swooned at the lack of limits.  He withdrew, zooming inward past the smallest smallness.  He became He, and He filled the universe.  Then the Universes.  Then the Omniverse.  

And in His immense Awe, it occurred to Him, you have to Be somewhere.

“Stop,” said James.  “Never mind.”

He left them speechless, and went to ask the receptionist to lunch.

------------


What did I just read?  Explanations and excuses can be found at this link.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Flash Back

As I explained in my last post, Of Guts and Ethics, I recently re-subscribed to the Escape Artists podcasts (links below) after about a 5-year hiatus.  That hiatus happened because of Life Reasons - suffice to say I was taking time away from more important things in my life which required 5 years of my undivided attention.

Back when I was a regular visitor, though, I got to participate in one of the most rewarding experiences I've had that I can talk about in public: the Flash Fiction Contest. 

For those who don't know, "Flash" fiction refers to very short stories; for the sake of the contest, submissions were limited to 300 words. Entries were posted in groups on the forums, and members voted up their favorites; winners advanced to semi-finals, and the top stories from the Final round won the honor of getting produced for the podcast (links to the 2013 winners are also below).

My 2007 contest entries didn't make it past the Semi-final round (I had one make it out of the first round, at least!), but I was pretty proud of them.  I'm sure I've posted them before, but apparently I never posted them on Tad's Happy Funtime, so I'm going to do so now.  To make it seem like I'm putting more effort into this than I actually am (and to tease any regular visitors I might have), I've scheduled these to post over the next three weeks. Maybe it will give you something to look forward to on Monday mornings?

This coming Monday, you can see Presence of Mind, the only one of my three stories to pass the 1st round. 

Next week, you'll get sent to Rehab - which, if I had it to do over again, might have stuck with 250 words. Your mileage (and your wattage) may vary.

And I saved my favorite of the three for last: Stage Fright.

If you're in the mood for a story NOW and haven't already read Silver, my only professionally published story (which can still be found on the Dunesteef audio fiction magazine!), that is always an option to tide you over.

Unfortunately, I re-joined the forums just AFTER the 2013 contest, and they don't run these every year because it is a voracious time consumer for the all-volunteer moderator force.  But you can bet I'm gathering ideas now, and plan to be ready when the opportunity knocks again!


The Escape Artists' podcasts are:
Escape Pod for science fiction; their most recent contest winners can be heard here.
Pseudopod for horror - Pseudopod wants you to hear its winners, as well.

You can find their forums at http://forum.escapeartists.net/ - if you hope to participate (either as a writer or a voter) in their Flash contests, you best sign up today!  

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Of Guts and Ethics

After a long couple of years going without, I started to miss the three Escape Artists podcasts I used to listen to regularly. So, I've been catching up - listening to new stories each week, and working my way backward through their archives.

On my commute this morning I was listening to Episode 414 - a story from September called Knowing, a post-apocalyptic religious adventure that features Templars, an infantile pope, and a foul-mouthed demon. Afterward, I was floored when the host, Alasdair Stuart, had this to say (starting around the 31:40 mark - emphases mine):
     "Religion and war, in the end, are both fundamentally about the same thing...Approached right, that can be a tremendously positive force in the world. After all, when you break them down to their component parts, most schools of thought in both those areas come down to 'to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield'. Three of those are admirable, and three of them (the striving, the seeking, and the not yielding) that's the Hero's Journey, right there. That's an ethical ladder that's open to everyone on the planet...
     "We like to search, we like to work, and we don't even pretend to know when to give up. The problem is finding, because that's also an ending, and there is nothing more final. You're definitively not the person you set out as, changed by your experiences, and now something infinitely richer and stranger the moment you find; the moment you discover. The moment you stop.
     "There are other stories, of course; there always, always are. But discovery always marks the end of that first story, and when that first story is one that means nothing and everything? When it's one that hundreds of thousands of people have waged war against each other for, for countless centuries? That has repercussions.
     "...The simple, almost mathematical destruction that the truth causes the moment you see it. The moment where the door slams shut, and all your pretty little lies, and you... know.  And all there is is you in the room with what you know. That process is never without destruction, however short term, and never without fear.
     "And it's not just religious folks, either. Atheism - TRUE atheism, as I understand it - is nothing but self-awareness - nothing but knowing as you build your ethical framework on your terms. Atheists are some of the gutsiest and frequently most ethical people on the planet as a result. But in the end, that doesn't matter.
     "Faith doesn't matter. Lack of faith doesn't matter. Nothing matters other than 'what you do, when you know'. Those moments define and unite us all, regardless of faith, intellectual system, gender, sexuality, body shape, or chosen sport ball team.
     "When the storm comes - and the storm always comes, believe me - what will you do?"
This struck me as the most resonant encapsulation of what atheism is, for me. 

I don't really know what Alasdair's beliefs are, but it really struck a chord for someone who I don't already recognize as a non-believer to get what I'm about. It's rare enough that I hear anyone besides other atheists say anything remotely complimentary about our morals. Usually comments run more along the lines of what a shame it is that I'm not the Christian I was raised to be, or how atheists just don't want believe because we "want to sin without consequences." (There are always consequences - even if you believe that the sins have been magicked away.)

Of course, I am of the opinion that it does, in fact, matter what you choose to put your faith in. I think that your faith (or lack) shapes you, whether you think a great deal about it or not. And it seems to me that you can't really trust your ethical framework - or any ethical framework - if you haven't built it yourself. That means either taking what someone else gave you, tearing it down, and rebuilding it like an old Volkswagon, or starting with nothing and forging the metal yourself... so when that storm comes, what you do will be a natural extension of everything you've prepared.

I always enjoy Alasdair's post-story essays, but this one really went above and beyond for me. I generally like the stories, but getting a few minutes of intellectual depth at the end? It's just one more thing I love about Escape Artists in general, and Alasdair in particular.

Whatsoever your beliefs may be, if you think you'd enjoy some short audio fiction, look for the free feeds  (Escape Pod for science fiction, Podcastle for fantasy, and Pseudopod for horror) and make sure their latest stories are getting to your podcatcher of choice.

Who knows? Maybe you'll end up deciding to subscribe with real money! Which is what I'm about to go do, because they give me way more than I can afford to give to them!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Tad's Happy Table of Malcontent

A few months ago, I posted a little joke about what a horrid sinner I am, and I got some hefty (for me) web traffic when The Slacktivist linked to it. That prompted me to organize things a bit, and create this handy link farm to my semi-auto-biographical re-imaginings of my life.

Growing Up:

The Air Force Years:


Ex Post Servicio:

Pater Familias:

Testing Adversarial Discourses:
 There - now you're caught up.  And what's next?  Let's go find out!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Always In My Way

I like to think I've outgrown a lot of bad habits. Poor reasoning, sloppy thinking, lazy shortcuts - I work on getting rid of these. But I'm like most of you; I'm not perfect, and humor is my weakness.

You have to be careful with humor. Even if you think you're "just kidding" you have to be careful that you're not hurting someone with it. Witness my earlier piece on my life in Korean school. That story is a prequel to the rest of this. Whether you read it or not, know this: I'm not a racist. I don't actually think poorly of Koreans - or Asians in general - and I don't tell these stories to disparage them. I tell them to teach about the danger of confirmation bias, and to make fun of myself.

So, when you read this and think, "Christ, what an asshole" - that's kind of my point.

It began on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1995. My lovely bride and I were just beginning our whirlwind romance, and we had stopped on a cliff side pull-out where there was a convenience store and a magnificent view of the ocean. We came back out to get in her Saturn and push on southward, but found that we were blocked in by a tour bus full of Asian tourists. There were several dozen of them standing as a group behind our car, with their bus (and the remarkable view) behind them. The driver was trying to take a picture of the group with each of their cameras. He must have had 30 or 40 cameras hanging on his arms, and he was working his way through all of them.

Just when we thought he was done, a few more cameras would be produced, and he would keep going - this happened more than once. We waited. We waited some more. Finally, Kate had a brilliant idea. She handed her own camera to the tour guide, and we stood next to the group and got our own photo out of the deal.

The group seemed confused... but did not take the hint.

Eventually they did disperse to go buy snacks, and we made our escape, laughing at the bemused expressions they gave us as we fled.

That might have been the end of it, but for the fact that I was still attending the Korean language school, and a day didn't pass without someone from Korea colliding with me in the hallway or driving by (usually in a Lexus, usually too close to me or my car). It sometimes seemed like they would aim for me - especially in the broad hallways of the school, where despite having plenty of room for four people to pass each other abreast I would find myself crowded against the wall by one of the teachers. Even when I flunked out of Korean school and started taking Russian, it seemed that everywhere I went, there were Asians in my way!

I commented on this to a few of my friends, and most of them laughed at me ("Christ, what an asshole!") ...but those closest to me noticed it, too. I'd be at the grocery store, and an oblivious Chinese woman would block me at every aisle with her shopping cart. I'd try to exit the freeway, and get cut off by a Korean in a minivan, and forced to take the next exit. It became a running joke - one that I tended to keep to myself, because, after all, I didn't want to seem racist.

But once you start seeing a pattern, you start looking for that pattern, and even my lovely bride started noticing.

Eventually, we left California and ended up in Maryland. One of our favorite things to do was to take our wee bairn out and push her around Washington DC in her stroller. On one particularly beautiful day, we headed for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to see if the baby girl would enjoy looking at dinosaurs.  (She did!)

I remember it being pretty crowded, but there was one family that seemed to dog our steps around every corner. We ran into them several times, and tried to slow down so they'd get ahead of us.  They slowed down, too.  We pushed through the clot of them, and sped up to get away from them, and they kept pace, pushing us from behind. It was maddening. But we figured we'd lose track of them when the baby needed to be fed & changed, and we set up camp in the family restroom.

When we were done, a good 15 minutes had passed, and I went out to retrieve our stroller - only to walk straight into the lens of our shadow family's video camera.

Because I had heard them speaking Korean (I sucked at it, but I could identify it like a champ), I tried saying "excuse me" - "shi-leh hamnida" - but that didn't work. No one made eye contact (they seemed to think that would be rude) and they just bunched up around the cameraman, and became intensely interested in the woolly mammoth he was filming. I tried to maneuver behind them, to avoid being rude myself by walking in front of the camera - but they were kind of milling around and there always seemed to be an elbow or knee wherever I was trying to slide by - and no amount of "excuse me" in any language seemed to work.

My Korean teachers had impressed upon us the importance that manners have in their culture. Being mostly uncouth youths fresh out of the Midwest, we pestered them to teach us "bad words," and they always demurred, claiming that the worst thing you could say to any Korean would be to address them with the wrong verb construction, indicating that you thought you had a higher status than the person you were speaking to. That hadn't stopped us from looking up words that (we hoped) would express some of the important phrases that we frequently used on each other.

So, I decided to be rude, and finally pushed my way in front of Mr. Cameraman.  Naturally, he pressed forward so I found myself mouth-to-microphone with his camera, and I said what the rude, angry American wanted to say right into that microphone: "Jaji mog-ko"... which was my best attempt at "Eat a dick."

Now, as poor as my language skill was (and is) it's possible that this would mean nothing to him or his audience, but I like to imagine that they took that tape home to Korea with them, and invited all of their neighbors and relatives to a big "trip to America" movie night.  I like to imagine them all gathered in front of the largest TV Samsung made in 1997, and seating their most ancient, honored grandmother right up front. I fantasize that Mr. Cameraman says, "Honored grandmother, behold the woolly mammoth I filmed for you at the Natural History Museum" ...just as the mammoth on screen rumbles "Eat a dick" in a good ol' U.S. accent.

It is possible that I may have killed an old Korean lady in 1997, and I would never know it.

But it gets better.

Naturally, I don't keep these little stories to myself, and I have told them many times to my best of friends. So when my flamingo had a visit from his German friend, I somehow got drawn into telling them to her. We had a few laughs, and I explained that I don't really harbor any lasting resentment, but that I always seem to find Asians in my way - and to watch out if she visited DC.

As it happened, they did. And when they were reading one of the quotes set into the paving stones of the World War II Memorial, an odd thing happened.

They were standing in a relatively open space, obviously reading something on the ground, and an elderly Asian man walked up to them and stood in front of them, placing his feet on the square they were reading. They looked up at him, and he began shaking some kind of wooden clacking device - CLACK-A-CLACK-A-CLACK-A - as he stared right back at them.

CLACK-A-CLACK-A-CLACK-A

"Excuse us, sir..."

CLACK-A-CLACK-A-CLACK-A

"We were reading that!"

And a crowd gathered - most likely a tour group - pressing the two would-be readers off to the side. Everyone kept staring at them, as if they were the ones in the way, and while no one intentionally shoved them, they were nudged further and further away, until they decided to give up and head for less crowded territory.

Naturally, they thought of me. When our German friend told me about this adventure, I had to laugh.  "It looks like I passed my curse on to you!" I told her. "Confirmation bias - it's a terrible, terrible thing!" We all laughed, then, and thought nothing more about it... until she landed in Munich on her return trip home, and they started showing up everywhere. Blocking her way off the train, nudging her away from the baggage claim...

Of course, now that I've told you all of this, you're bound to start noticing it, too. There are 1 billion people in China alone, which means you've got a better than 1-in-7 chance that anyone you meet on this planet would fit the definition of "Asian," and now every time you see one of them, you're going to register the experience in the back of your head.  Even though you're probably cut off in traffic a hundred times a day, you'll only notice the Asians. Even though you're more likely to get bumped in the grocery store by old white people, you'll notice the Asians.

Just remember that it isn't their fault - it's my fault, and my curse. And even though I know it's my brain following it's own confirmation bias, I will continue to find #AsiansInMyWay. And to them I can only (and will only) say, "Excuse me."

실례합니다.
对不起
ちょっと失礼します。
ขอโทษ
Xin lôi.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

We're All Tired So Now What?

You know this already:



So, are you sitting around the table figuring out that you're passively accepting too much?  What do you want to do about it?



Start thinking about Lesterland now, before the media really, truly ramps up the distraction machine. Start thinking about what you can do to make 2016 different.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Order Out of Chaos

I inherited my copy of James Glieck's Chaos in 2007, along with a box of other junk left behind by the Air Force staff sergeant I was replacing in my new office. He had left a bunch of cryptic notes stuffed in the book - mostly libertarian quotes and ideas combining his notions of chaos theory with Ayn Rand - and it took a while for me to decide to actually read the book because I thought he sounded a bit kooky.  I didn't know much about the topic beyond what most people remember from Jurassic Park, and the cover made me think of Deepak Chopra. So at a time in my life when I've been trying to avoid fringe-y, mystical thinking in favor of understanding real science, I almost missed out on this treat.

But when I finally cracked the book and read the stories about Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, and Lorenz's attempts to model weather, I found that it was less strictly a book about science and more a book about scientists. It attempted to describe the people and the problems they were grappling with, and showed how their ideas grew out of wildly different disciplines and, over time, eventually cross-pollinated and became something more than any of the individuals involved had thought possible.

I don't remember when I started, but it has taken me more than 3 years to get through it.  This is not the most difficult book I've tried to read - that honor goes to Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (which I've yet to finish - 20+ years and counting!).  But it is the kind of book that I can only absorb in small sips.  I will pick it up, and run through a couple of chapters, then flip back to previous chapters to make sure I understand what they're talking about - then put it down and think about it... sometimes for weeks or months.

At one point, I took it with me to my boys' Pinewood Derby, and one of the other dads noticed it on the table. "Oh, wow!" he said, "I read that in college!" He seemed excited, and I expected him to ask me about what I thought, or share some pearl of wisdom he had learned from it; but instead he said, "They disproved it  all a few years back, though.  Of course, I'm a creationist, so... you know." And he wandered off.

I didn't say anything, because what I wanted to say would have been rude.  ("I have no idea what you're talking about, but I guess we have that in common.") That whole speech left me perplexed, though, and it colored the way I read the rest of the book.

Up to that point, I had just been enjoying the stories about the scientists, and how they were fumbling with math to try to figure out these perplexingly complex problems. It was neat to see the way their work overlapped, and how unconventional their approaches were.  It also happened that I had discovered Jonathan Coulton's song about Benoit Mandelbrot, whose famous work with fractals features heavily in the first third of the book, so I had something of a soundtrack to go with it.



Still, I was completely baffled when he said, "They disproved that." How do you "disprove" a whole field of study?  How do you "disprove" mathematical observations and modeling?  And what did being a creationist have to do with any of it? As a former evangelical christian myself, I get why creationists object to concepts like evolution, which they perceive as a threat to their worldview, but this was all math. How can you be threatened by math?

So whenever I picked the book up after that, I kept an eye out for something controversial. In retrospect, I'm surprised it took me so long to clue in, especially since Coulton's song spells it out in an instrumental break:
"He gave us order out of chaos
He gave us hope where there was none
His geometry succeeds where others fail"
As I get nearer to the end of the book, and I see the practical applications of this field of study in medicine, manufacturing, and economics, I'm struck again and again by the ways in which words betray us. The whole grand story arc of the book is about how scientists learned to pay attention to "noise" - the small, irritating factors that have always interfered with accurate measurements. Just paying attention to the tiny movements of air and molecules that can throw off sensitive devices, and the way turbulence in liquids can propagate led them to mathematical techniques that allow scientists today to simplify incredibly complex systems - like weather, or the human body.

But the words involved - "noise" and "disorder", "randomness", "linear" and "nonlinear" - all of these words carry baggage if you're not using them in the precise way that the scientists studying these things are using them.  And if your worldview is shaped by a belief that order cannot come from chaos, then any mathematical indication that it does - that, in fact, chaos itself has an implacable and unavoidable order to it - is going to make you very uncomfortable with the field of study.

It's really worth reconsidering what you think you know about all of those words.  When you really look at nature, and you see how deeply ordered things are - these amazing patterns - you begin to realize that things we perceive as random really aren't. If you look, you can see how (dare I say it) evolution of life becomes inevitable in the patterns of interaction between matter and energy. If you really want to see the world that way, you could almost be excused for seeing an intelligent hand involved in designing everything - because mathematically, it's really difficult to actually produce randomness, and our brains try to fit what we observe into patterns of cause and effect.  But at the same time, because randomness is so rare, you don't need an external, supernatural intelligence guiding anything to explain the patterns in the universe.

I think that is what made the guy at the Pinewood Derby say what he said.

Anyone who knows me, or reads this blog (or my Twitter feed) regularly knows how I get when I am confronted by ridiculous assumptions. It still bothers me that the guy said that and caught me off guard, and then left his assumptions hanging in the air behind him.  It bothers me any time people dismiss something they understand poorly because they think it contradicts something else they hold dear, and they are afraid to face the contradiction. It bothers me especially when people take it further and accuse scientist or atheists (two different groups that this particular kind of person thinks they need to lump together) of being cold and passionless, and devoid of curiosity.

If anything, this book is a fascinating refutation of that. It is a fine example of just how curious and passionate people can be about science and math; and while the proofs these people worked out could certainly call into question some fervently held notions about the likelihood of there being a god somewhere (probably dwelling in the infinitely dwindling gaps of a Mandelbrot Set), it's not as if they concocted the ideas out of spite just to give God the finger. They followed the evidence where it led them, and worked out the numbers they needed to get the answers they were looking for.  For all I know, any or all of the scientists working on any of this could be devoutly religious themselves.

The point is: it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that you can learn a lot from just observing the world around you. Some people can learn a lot more than you can, because they're smarter at numbers or better equipped. Those people sometimes learn and share amazing things, and other people just as smart can take that new knowledge and build on it. That's what science is.

In the 25+ years since this book came out, we've already come to take the benefits of chaos theory for granted. My parents and grandparents benefited from improvements in the science of cardiology. Air travel and automobiles have been made more efficient, thanks to better modeling of turbulence. We're all benefiting from advances in miniaturization, data compression, and other computer advances. And even the hapless field of meteorology has advanced to the point where we can at least track weather events, even if we can't reliably predict them.

Of course, I'm a realist, so... you know.